The tan surprised him, although it shouldn't have. So did the colonial cut of the suit, comfortable and capacious, exotic in the cool dappled autumn light of Oxford, making Loman stand out more than he would've done even otherwise. Perhaps it was especially striking because the last time he'd seen Loman, he’d been pale and wasted as he'd walked straight-backed away from the school that'd helped ruin him. There was nothing frail about the hand that clasped his, or the startling smile of white teeth in the browned skin, nothing feeble in the easy stance of the man in front of him or the almost startling affection in the look he cast upon Oliver. He felt warmed in the regard in that second, even as the cooler portion of his brain reminded him that it'd been almost five years since he'd seen the man, almost five years that'd been marked with letters only.
He remembered the first one - his mother had suggested it - he'd told her in only the vaguest of terms what had happened, reluctant to disturb her peace of mind with the details, needing only to explain that he had a friend, a friend in trouble, even if he'd never been much of a friend at all. "Write to him," she'd said, as she sealed her own correspondence, and wrote in neat mannered letters the direction of the letter. "Let him know he isn't forgotten." It was a wispy memory, his mother greying and alone, straight backed still, reaching out into the world only through her pen. So he'd written, bitten his pen so hard that the ink splashed over his mouth like a clumsy first former, scratched out a few words about cricket - national, not local - the weather, anything he could think of, anything that wasn't about the school, Wraysford, Stephen, a tiny pool of conversation that grew ever shallower as he reached the end, until eventually damp with relief he'd signed it Oliver , the lack of salutation stark and bare. Duty done, he'd sent it out into the world and never imagined he would hear back.
Only Loman had written back, words still halting and feeble - spider splashes of ink across the page, almost impossible to decipher, an aeon away from the confident brazen hand Oliver remembered. It'd been a wandering response, circumlocuting the circumstances of his disappearance with a fear that was almost wretched, a gap where the hurt lay that was almost palpable. Time and again it tailed off into unfinished sentences before it circled round again. It'd been harder to write a reply than it'd been to drag Loman through the storm. It was Stephen who'd helped him that time, bright and brisk, telling him casually to tell Loman that he'd heard Australia was full of bugs, and what was the biggest that he had found? The responding letter had enclosed a dried insect of indeterminable origin whose wingspan was the size of a hand and had made Stephen gasp with amazement before he seized it as a prize to shock and horrify his fellows.
It seemed hard to imagine the man in front of him catching insects, and equally hard to imagine him in a law office. Loman grinned as he seemed to catch the drift of his thoughts. "These are some togs, aren't they?" he said, and twitched the tan expanse of his waistcoat. "First thing father said was that he would take me to the tailor and have him put me straight. I'm afraid it's hard lines on him to have a son who could pass as a sheepwrangler."
Oliver couldn't help smiling back. "You wore them on purpose, didn't you?" he said. Mr Loman had been as neat and well-put-together as an advertisement on every occasion Oliver had ever met him, and it wasn't hard to imagine his blank astonishment at the sight of Loman's bags.
"Yes," Loman said unashamedly. "Can I buy you tea? It's been a very long time."
The teashop wasn't somewhere Oliver often visited, crowded as it was with undergraduates making six pence worth of tea, bread and butter last an age, waitresses squeezing through tables with only an inch to spare, and a roaring fire that not only crowded out the autumn air but felt like you'd accidentally squeezed into the back of a furnace. Without his hat, Loman seemed younger, closer to the boy Oliver had known, the same shadow still in his eyes that four years hadn't driven out. Loman waited until there was tea on the table and the waitress had edged away with the tray before he spoke again. "You know I need to say something."
Oliver looked desperately around the tea-shop, searching for an impossible exit. This was what he'd feared most about the meeting, not Loman, but the inevitable thank you. Couldn't Loman put that new blasted Australian plain speaking away for the space of a tea? "You don't need to say anything."
Loman sat back and stirred his tea. "If it'll make you feel better that I don't, I won't," he said. Another gleam of teeth. "But even if I hold my tongue on that for now, thank you for the letters. They were a lifeline when I didn't know I was drowning."
"Imagine drowning in Australia," Oliver said with a laugh. "You'd have to work hard at that."
"Much harder than I ever did at school," Loman agreed, and seemed to have decided that he'd drop the subject for now at least. "What are you up here for - term hasn't begun yet, surely?"
Back on solid, safe ground, Oliver was glad to take the proffered conversational branch, and that subject carried them safely through the rest of the tea and the walk afterwards, down the leaf-swept road, past the quietness of still-resting colleges, the remaining rays of the sun still lighting them to a sandstone gold, a proctor passing them with a suspicious glance as though ticking down the moments to curfew. "Are you at a hotel?" he asked, ready to redirect their steps before night came sweeping in.
"I am," Loman replied. "The mater and pater live in London, too far for a night's travel. Just the Old Black Horse, not a bad little place. Come in for dinner?"
Oliver hesitated for a fraction of a second. He had enough good sense, whatever Wraysford said about him, to know that they would have to talk about this at least once, if only to sweep the shadows away from them both. If they had to talk, better it be confidential, not in some bustling inn dining room with people all about. "Come back to my rooms," he said with decision, before he could second-guess the thought.
Loman looked at him slowly, tugged at the gloves that he hadn't taken off even in the tearoom. "Yes," he said.
Oliver was halfway through pouring a glass of sherry for them both when the thought arrested him of Loman's old weakness, the wretched way that drink had helped take hold of him and send him, if only temporarily, to the dogs. He hesitated for long enough that Loman noticed, and came by to take the half-filled glass. "One in company," he said steadily. "Nothing more. Not ever again." He took a sip, and settled back down into the less comfortable of the two armchairs by the window. The scout had straightened the books, but left the pipe balanced on the side of Oliver's chair, marking it clearly as his own despite his hospitable instincts.
The topic had been broached more painlessly than Oliver had feared, even if he would rather have never touched on it at all. "Not even in Australia?" he asked, with a wave of the hand to helplessly demonstrate the size of the outback.
"It's easier than you would think," Loman said briefly. "You're alone a lot of the time. Time to think, time to regret over and over again the mistakes you made. Sometimes you'd like to drown yourself back in the stuff just so you don't have to consider it anymore, but if it isn't there you can't touch it, and I took care that it shouldn't be there."
Oliver's never faced that temptation, but he knows what it is to hide. He looks down at the glass in his hands and tries not to think. "You don't have to say it," he said quietly.
Loman's breath was harsh, loud as he exhaled. "I can't," he said. "Say it, I mean. It'll come out drivellish, like Little by Little or some tosh like that. It'll make you writhe and me think I should just have stayed in Australia. But you must know that I think it."
Oliver already knew that. Every line of Loman's letters had breathed it, every one he'd ever received, like the faint ghost in the background of something unfinished. "That's why there's no need to say it." He closed his mouth on the rest of the words, how much he wanted to say how much Loman had changed, how hard it must have been. That he was a new man now. All of it true, all of it impossible to articulate. But there was one thing after all this time, the thing that even when they'd tentatively touched on school in their later letters, when Loman had been able to write out the worst of it, even if he could never say it, and Oliver had been able to read it without the frantic beating of his heart at how close it could've been to being him instead, if he hadn't had Wraysford, cricket, all the other outlets a boy could have, one thing that he'd never asked and Loman had never volunteered. "But why?" He knew all the reasons. Knew the loneliness, the fear, the desperation of a weak unformed character tried too early and too hard against temptations that he wasn't equipped to resist. But there was something else and there always had been.
Silence followed, filling up the spare space of the room between them, and Loman set aside his glass, and looked at the newly poked up fire instead. "I wasn't as straight as you," he said, and rubbed his hand over his mouth as if those words had stained it. "I never could've been. You don't know how I envied that. Pitiful, really. Watching you, always certain, like you belonged everywhere you went. And I could never be like that, still can't. There's something wrong in the way I'm formed. I fight against it, I still do. But it'll never be easy, because I'll never be right, not the way everyone else is. It was just easier back then, to pretend to be a man with rods, dogs, drink, cards, whatever I could find that would prop me up and make me feel like more than some empty reed."
Oliver could have laughed, but Loman was too near for that, too raw to take it for the self-derision it would've been. He swallowed it back. "It's rather funny," he said, as though even the sip of sherry had loosened his tongue. "That you saw that, I mean. I felt rather the opposite. Like I was this liar walking around all the time, trying to be good because it never came naturally. It was easier when the hand was against me sometimes, because I felt it should be." The old instinct of self-preservation stopped him from saying any more, though the sherry inside him found it savagely funny that for all Loman's sins, he'd never stumbled like this - in thought, if not in deed. An outward sinner, not an inward. There are no faded postcards of indiscreet acts seared in Loman's mind, guilty secrets worse because Oliver can't confess them or receive forgiveness.
"Did that make it easier to forgive?" Loman asked.
"Easier to understand," Oliver replied, mostly the truth, and moved forward to feed the fire a little. Felt the glance on the back of his neck as though prepared for it, but determinedly didn't turn round. "Welcome back to England."
The next time he sees Loman it's winter, the suit is conventional, the tan less pronounced, but the manner is the same - a foreign congeniality and openness, alien to the old Loman and peculiarly attractive. They're in Loman's father’s offices, a thriving mini-metropolis of clerks, papers and a gentle hum of noise. Loman's giving the Grand Tour, a little shy at being seen in his new element. The handshake was warm and solid and he met Oliver's eyes forthrightly as he turned to reintroduce him to his father, no stranger to Oliver.
"It was good of you to come by," he said once they were outside with Mr Loman's blessing, walking stick in his hand, and coat on. "I know it must seem awfully boring to you - the law, I mean."
"On the contrary, after years of long dead Greats, it's refreshing to see actual work, you know," Oliver said with a smile. "Do you enjoy it?"
It was Loman's turn to smile back. "If I said enjoy, I think there's probably several hundred long- dead barristers who would rise up to strangle me. You don't enjoy the law. You wrestle it and feel a sense of fulfilment when it's taken down."
"I felt about the same about Aristotle sometimes," Oliver replied.
"Well, wrestling is very Greek, I suppose," Loman returned.
Oliver laughed and looked at the road. "Where do you propose we go with your free time?"
"I'm afraid I'm not the best guide around London," Loman confessed with a shrug. "I don't know too many people, and those I do know tend to keep their noses to the grindstone which serves as a very good reminder to me, but they're not necessarily the most enjoyable company."
"I can supply the want," Oliver said briskly. "It's a little icy to walk far, but I propose we take a cab to Hyde Park, take tea to keep out the cold, then pay our respects to your mother when we inevitably migrate back to the warmth."
Walking with Loman through London was new, even odder than their companionship had been in Oxford. Loman was not an old friend; Oliver could hardly call him a friend at all except inasmuch as he's said more to Loman in ink and paper about sacred things than he'd said to almost any other living soul bar Wraysford. He wondered, as they walked, how much that could be real. Could you call a man reformed when you only knew him from what he'd written, from the slow change of years, the loneliness of exile? It seemed very hard, all of a sudden, to see the old desperate Loman, in the man beside him, alien now as though Loman had been given a branch to save him from drowning, had used it to swim on. He felt caught in a static old time, washed up on an ancient beach, St Dominics too near and too far away to make any sense of. It was, he supposed, very hard on Loman if Oliver thought on that past, but without it there was nothing between them.
"I miss it," Loman said suddenly, as though he'd been caught in thoughts of his own or by some uncanny trick had tracked Oliver's mind. "St Dominics, I mean. Stupid, isn't it? I wasn't there for very long, and what there was of it I made a mess of. But I sometimes think about it, what the old place is like. Too much of the desert and then of London makes you think of green places, I suppose."
Oliver rarely acted on impulse now, weighed and measured his actions from necessity, but bolstered by a half-memory of a cricket match, he cast caution to the side. "Come soon," he said with certainty, as though this was were a perfectly normal suggestion, as bizarre as it might seem. "We'll make a party of it. Stephen, of course, Wraysford for sure, one or two of the old kind."
Where there had been ease beside him, there was now tension. If Oliver had wished a minute before that he could see the Loman he knew through letters, he now retracted that wish. "I think it might be a little soon," Loman said, and the vitality had drained from his voice, leaving it colourless and blank.
Oliver was about to respond when a familiar voice broke in. "Greenfield!"
Hayton had always been too perfectly dressed, too neatly arranged, and this showed all too well an advantage in the cold - his coat immaculate, his shirt not subject to wilting, nor his gloves to damp. Now he was bearing down upon them at the worst possible moment. Oliver had gladly exchanged weaknesses with Loman, guided him through as much as he could, shared his experiences to help bring him back from the edge he'd tottered on for too long. This was the only thing he'd kept concealed. Who better to be an advocate for forgiving weakness than the man who could not help it in himself. He could only hope, with a miserable hope, that Hayton would behave with discretion, not cast up shared folly on the assumption that Loman was some new indiscretion. "Hayton," he responded with bright enthusiasm and shook hands warmly, imagined it was just a second too long, felt the miserable beginning of redness begin under his collar.
"What on earth are you doing in London?" Hayton demanded incredulously, swung round to Loman as though to include him within his surprise. "How did you get the most retiring man in Oxford to take a minute's rest?"
"I promised him a good lunch," Loman replied with gravity as he shook hands with Hayton.
"There's only so long you can spend with the books before your friends abandon you. Luckily, friends back from Australia have not yet been scared away," Oliver broke back in, conscious of Hayton's interested look.
"Abandon you? I write screeds of letters. I don't send them, but that is not my fault. I break too many pens in the pursuit of excellence," Hayton returned. "I shall have to try harder, I see, if other friends can tempt you down. If I weren't on my way back to the grind, I should insist on dinner with you and your friend?"
"Mr Loman," Oliver supplied, reluctant to do so.
"Mr Loman," Hayton repeated and held out a card. "Delighted to meet you, and in lieu of Oliver's company, I should be glad to see you anytime. Any friend of Oliver's is a friend of mine after all." A quick look at his pocket watch clearly persuaded him he was too short of time to linger, and after another round of pleasantries, he was gone, walking faster than his highly polished boots would've advertised.
Loman tucked the card slowly away. "Not a one-sherry man," he said.
"No," Oliver said, utterly uncertain of how much he had shown. Damn Hayton for that Oliver, for the over familiarness of his greeting, for the disagreeable memory of one indiscreet weakness that he would never be able to forget or crush. "Hayton's sound, but a little faster than the usual set."
"I think," Loman said. "That party you were speaking of. Perhaps in the spring." He hesitated a moment. "Will you write to me still?"
The day was completely, idyllically perfect, down to the frolicsome lambs in the bucolic fields, the April sun warm even through broadcloth and wool, the sense complete of moving back through time. Even as the train pulled into the station, Oliver felt himself being drawn helplessly back, stripped of years, seniority, convictions as though there he was slowly unspooling back into the component parts that had made up himself at sixteen, stubborn, terrified, determined to do what was right even when he didn't know how. He'd been back before - Old Boys cricket matches, tea with the Head, every time as one of a laughing, chattering crew who came up together and whose group reversion to younger years had been bound by common memory. Here, alone, there was only Oliver, only the inconstant memory of being tormented, held together only with the awareness that there were others worse off, hounded by blacker fears. They'd confirmed the times by telegram, all of them, a lazy Saturday outing to the old country and the old years. Only Oliver was here early. He greeted the station master and sat on the time-worn bench in the station, waiting for the next train, unsurprised when Loman stepped off, hat in his hand as though unsure, as though even now he might bolt.
"We'll walk up," he said, "only a mile," as though they were both new again, facing that first trudge to the unknown.
"Are the others here?" Loman said collectedly, as though the thought didn't disturb him.
"Not for hours yet," Oliver replied. "Thought we could take a look round the old place ourselves first."
He was not unaware that this was half punishment along with half pleasure, perhaps for them both, as they began the walk. It was too early for anyone else to be making their way to the school, and they were alone with their thoughts on the way until finally the school rose into full view. It was the spring half-term and the school was entirely empty bar those members of staff who made the place their home, and it seemed only half the school it was, without the vibrant hum of humanity. He'd already begged permission of the Head in a letter to come a little early, and make use of one of the school boats. It was once they were out on the river, away from the quietness of the school, that it felt like no time had passed at all. Oliver took charge of the rudder and Loman paddled slowly up the river, no conversation between them, merely the river's quiet sounds and the sharp call of birds overhead. Oliver had nearly forgotten where they were when Loman stopped paddling, pale under his tan, and Oliver realised how close they'd drifted to Cripps’ old place. Without a comment, he changed tack, drew the boat in close to the makeshift mooring post that some enterprising student had left wedged by the river.
"Might as well look round the woods," he said. "Do you remember how thick they used to seem?"
Loman's colour slowly returned as without regard for their shoes, reverted back to youth, they hopped the marshy bit of land at the edge of the river and walked on. "Thick enough to be a real wood then," he agreed. "You felt like you could get lost in it. Now it's barely big enough to call a decent walk. I wonder if the boys still go birdnesting here."
"Steevie says that it was beginning to die out amongst the younger set in his time," Oliver replied, squinted at the unmolested nest above him. "Probably for the best for the birds." When he looked back, Loman was there a little closer, thumb tucked in his pocket, looking at Oliver as Oliver looked at the birds, something still and quiet in his eyes.
"Why are we here?" he asked. There was nothing accusatory in his voice, just something lingering there that was hard to catch or understand.
"It's time to say goodbye," Oliver said slowly. "I don't pretend to know exactly how you felt about this place. But you're still asking for something, forgiveness, a letting go, I don't know what it is. But it's here. Put it to rest."
"Just me?" Loman asked.
Oliver was silent for a long minute. "No," he said eventually. St Dominics had been the genesis of the hard little core of corruption in him, that he'd plastered over with isolation that only the most determined could knock through. He couldn't blame that on the school, only on his internal nature that he could eternally beat no more than Loman could, only wrestle and defeat a match at a time. But it had been here that it had been engendered. He had tried not to look too closely at the reasons why he'd fought for Loman, not just through the storm, but afterwards in word and letter, helping him push back against nature as best as he could, lending what poor support he had to offer. As though if Loman could do it against all the odds, he could also.
Loman was closer now, and there was no space between them, as little space as there was between the tips of the branches and the edging of the sky. "Oliver," he said, and it sounded different now. "I still can't say thank you, you know. Not properly."
"Small mercies," Oliver said without thinking. He was aware, as he'd been so few times in his life, of how close he was to another human being, to the erosion of shared redemption.
"I've changed," Loman said, so quietly that Oliver only heard him because he was so close. "Not just the obvious, not just what Australia beat out and you instilled in. And you've changed as well." There was no judgement or alteration in his voice. "It's not easy to change, Oliver. It's not easy to tear up everything you are and call it worthless and look for new things to fill the empty hole where a person should be. I don't think this is the worst of anything a man can do."
It felt like giving in when Loman kissed him, but Oliver had already fallen, somewhere between the river and now, this just the token. He'd been kissed exactly once before, and it had been nothing like this. Then it had been from rage, from self-hatred, from the knowledge that he'd stumbled, a hideous explosion of self-pity and dogged drive to crawl to the bottom, if he couldn't bring his better nature to the top. The air is too clear here, too new and fresh and young to feel like that, the way Loman touched his hand too tender to throw it off and call it wrong. By instinct, he felt his hand touch the line of Loman's jaw, felt the shudder beneath his fingers, and the softness of skin, the sharp bristle of hair. Somewhere along the line his eyes had closed, shut out the green woods and the sincereness of Loman's eyes. Behind his back the trunk was solid and cool, grounding him as Loman pulled back and scanned his face as though for a reaction.
It'd been hard to write a letter. Hard to think of things to say. Hard to pretend to be a guide when stumbling in the dark. It was just as hard and just as worth it, to pull Loman back in, to fit their mouths together without fear of anything else, to feel the shared tremor that ran through them as though there was no gap between their bodies, nothing to separate them. A moment of peace now, whatever came later.