“Perhaps all our loves are merely hints and symbols; a hill of many invisible crests; doors that open as in a dream to reveal only a further stretch of carpet and another door; perhaps you and I are types and this sadness which sometimes falls between us springs from disappointment in our search, each straining through and beyond the other, snatching a glimpse now and then of the shadow which turns the corner always a pace or two ahead of us.”
—Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
It was in this place, at the age of 51, that Thomas Barrow first looked back on his complicated history. On this life that he had lived, that had seen so much change. He hadn’t even done so on that often unthinkable august day, nearly twenty years ago now, when he’d decided to take his own life. He had thought a lot about death, yes, had been doing do so a while. But not about life.
Yet here he could wander the halls, mostly alone, day after day, and remember everything.
There were soldiers, too, of course, who came and went, different regiments as the months passed, but they were often younger and posher, and they didn’t interest him. For the first time, he felt a master of his days.
He’d only ever known the taste of it during his venture into business, that little time after the end of the war, before he’d relinquished his freedom for another twenty years to go back into service. Even as butler, something he’d dreamt of eventually becoming since he was twenty, he didn’t find it again.
Ironically, it was those years of service that granted him the peace and freedom (and slight melancholy) that he faced now; It was because of Downton that he’d found Brideshead.
It was pure irony, how the whole thing had happened. In 1942 the age of conscription had been brought up to any man between 18 and 51; he was turning 50. He was immediately called up for service.
Of course, because of his age he wasn’t meant to join the combatant corps, home service was all. But that didn’t stop the old Lady Grantham, with whom he’d been in charge of Downton during the war, to throw a fit and go meddle somewhere, in all her naive snobbery, probably pissing off a load of generals in the way who didn’t recognise her inherent right to decide who did what based on her title. She probably remembered how she’d managed to get Barrow posted at Downton during the war, and thought she could do it again.
It had been a real mess, one Lady Mary had rolled her eyes at often, objecting that Barrow would be fine, having sneaked down to his office one night to make sure it actually would be. He’d invited her to a cup of tea and reassured her it would, but she never bought the reassuring Carson-act, so he’d eventually relented and damned the whole blasted thing and everyone involved, and she’d smirked and said some nasty things about the army men she’d encountered, in her life.
The true sad thing, and this everyone agreed, was that Downton had been welcoming children from London most of the time, who needed to escape it all, and Thomas had been the one making sure it all went well, really. He was the one who played with the children, who made sure to include them, who made sure they weren’t homesick and distracted them when they were.
From the tiny ones to the teenagers, they loved him all, and wandered in and out of his office constantly, and meddled in his business and almost stopped him doing his job a lot of the time, but slowly everyone seemed to accept that, for the duration of the war, minding the kids was his job.
This was after all the Abbey’s contribution to the war effort, and, secretly, something everyone enjoyed, seeing how good he was with children.
The Crawley kids were mostly grown up, now, but even they became a bit jealous of the ‘guests’, as they were often called. Especially George, who was turning 19 in 1940 and was off to Cambridge, and who made sure to come back often and gossip with Barrow and cause hijinks around the house, little devil that he’d become.
This was, of course, until he began to bring home one of his University friends, with whom he seemed quite in love (if Thomas could say so), and the two of them kept mostly to themselves, walking around the grounds or playing music in their rooms, when they did come to Downton.
The friend in question was called Simon, a middle class boy from Manchester attending Cambridge on a scholarship who had rather left-wing ideas and who seemed greatly intimidated by the Crawleys and found comfort in the fact that George was so close to someone who sounded like him, and perhaps was more similar to him than the rest of the family. Simon was rather quiet and didn’t say it to Thomas, ever, but he always brought a couple of copies of the Manchester Guardian with him the few times he came to Downton, and always somewhat fake-casually suggested he leave some for Thomas, and grinned widely when the latter accepted.
But, all the same, George always had a moment to spare to pop downstairs and steal some of the oranges that Barrow kept in his office for the kids. He also came to ask for news about Sybbie, who always wrote to Barrow now that she was off working as a nurse, and was one of the many people whose adresses George was terrible at keeping track of.
What a juxtaposition, between the man he’d once been, a scheming friendless footman, and the man he was now, a successful butler and surrounded by friends.
Who was this man, that he had become? Who was this man so surrounded by people, people who cared, people who wanted him around, and—who saw him as helpful, as a servant, as a good, tame man, an older and wiser man, a figure in the background, an ally—he bit his lip, now, thinking all these words. He almost bled.
Who was he? Why did he find himself, now, thinking back on his youth, and on all the wildness he had been? Why was he remembering those awful years of loneliness, of being alone in the world, before he became butler, before he made friends, before he found a lover? Was it being alone once more?
As he made his way around the rooms, men made their way around him. There was a new regiment that had just arrived—he didn’t care. Wouldn’t care about any of them. He was alone in the world once more. Contra Mundum. He was himself again.
It was awful and liberating.
He smiled, slightly wickedly, slightly fondly at himself now. There had been this—ah—lover, who had referred to himself that way once. Contra Mundum. Thomas had kept nothing of him, had nothing to keep, except for those words.
He had toyed with the idea of defining himself by them, once. Maybe if he’d heard them when he was twenty—he liked all of that stuff, back then, that pretentious stuff. But when he’d heard them in real life he was already in his early thirties, and had called himself Thomas Contra Mundum once, lying in bed, before tucking the idea away, dismissing it. Now, he took it back out.
When he’d arrived, the first time, early on a grey October morning, he’d felt slightly sick, and then, slightly relieved, too. For the place was beautiful.
He was to be the invariant, in this war; the man who stayed behind as different troups came and went, meant to be in charge, meant to help the transition. The fact that he’d done something like this counted for something, he supposed. He felt nervous. He’d smoked three packets that day.
The ground floor and half a dozen bedrooms were requisitioned by the army. The rest of the house was still private. Still, as the months passed, Thomas would find himself wandering around the crowded rooms upstairs, steering clear of below, where all the military activity took place. He only intervened when strictly necessary or highly entertaining.
There were a few members of staff, left behind. Only a few people. The type of people he’d learnt to get along with. But not too much, not to be genuinely fond of them. So he steered clear of them.
He had a feeling they didn’t much like army people taking over their space, and he was an army person, now, again.
And he liked to be on his own; there was something about abandonned places like these, even if they were only abandonned in soul, even as they were being used and ruined.
He liked, secretly, too, the air of mystery staying away gave him. He liked to wonder what the other men around thought of him, and what— what the people he’d loved, throughout his life, would think of him, now. And what his past self would think of himself, too.
Hard to tell.
It had felt completely empty of people, when he’d first arrived. He’d wandered around, looking at the place. Strange to think a family had lived here. Strange to think, especially, that people had worked here, everyday—for that was real life.
He went outside, looked at the empty fountains, at the large expanse of grass. He went back inside.
He’d not cared much, at first. He’d seen many beautiful places. Though he was a man who always admired the beautiful, and though the beauty here did reassure him, slightly, it didn’t impress him.
It wasn’t until he wandered into a room with a large mural painting that he truly got a small sense of the value of the place. He studied it pensively, and something about it moved him. It was pretty, it was well done. It was very damaged, because of whoever had been here before the army had decided someone really needed to look after the place.
And there was a figure on it, a man, young and blissful-looking. The image had etched himself inside his mind. He wandered back there, at one point, almost every day.
Today, he was quietly making his way out when he heard two of the new arrivals talking.
“I’m homeless, childless, middle-aged, loveless, Hooper,” one of them said, quite simply, and Thomas paused an instant, looked him up and down from where the man couldn’t see him, and continued on his way.
He had indeed looked middle-aged, Thomas thought. And tired. He hoped he didn’t look as weary as that. He was, after all, one of the oldest men there. Christ, how had that happened?
Yet he’d been told, by many more than just Richard, that he’d gotten more striking with age. And if the way he scared some of the officers by just looking at them, sometimes, or the way some of them seemed to form stupid admirations for him was anything to go by, then, maybe, it was true.
Either way, he did not feel middle-aged. Old, perhaps. He felt old. Old like someone who has lived very, very much. And he walked fast, head held high, glaring at the world, like someone ageless.
He often went outside, to smoke, and tried not to think about what he missed.
He tried not to think about how he and Richard couldn’t talk now, not truly, with the risk of censorship due to the war meaning someone could read their letters, though it was unlikely, but they took risks all the same, as they always had, Richard going on about how they needed to be careful and hardly ever doing it.
Still, they couldn’t be anything near as daring as they’d been, once or twice. And Richard was always busy these days and hadn’t time to write, and, damn it, they hadn’t seen each other in two years and they didn’t know when they’d next be able to see each other and the whole time, the whole time, Thomas thought of the last war and how his soul had barely survived that and how the only ray of light, the only one in those damned four years had been Edward Courtenay and—
He took a shakey breath around his cigarette. It wasn’t of any use getting upset. He wasn’t here for that.
But his mind had been filled with Edward, since this whole thing began. It was being in a place like this, maybe, that reminded Thomas of him. It was home service and being surrounded by men in brown and the realisation that time had truly passed since Edward had last been alive.
It was the first time he’d heard of someone being killed, in this bloody new war, that his mind had sprung back to that boy from all those years ago, and the memory hadn’t really left him since.
Thomas knew barely anything about the house’s previous tenants. Some of the staff tried to gossip with him about the family who had lived here, but then, Thomas really didn’t care enough about that to bear it any mind. He was done gossiping about rich people, at this point in his life.
He only ever learnt anything about them once. That was, when he was going around the upper floors, and wandered into a room. There, an old woman suddenly seemed to appear, and Thomas just stared at her, very surprised.
She greeted him, and he had to introduce himself.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “I know who you are. All of you. Occupying this house…”
“Uh, can I… help you? With something?”
“No, no. That’s alright.”
Thomas left then, but came back twenty minutes later to check on her. She was very old, and he didn’t quite know what she was doing in this house. He obtained from her eventually that she’d been the nanny, and had been left behind when the others left.
She then began to tell him stories about all the children, who were now grown up, it seemed. She told him about how the eldest daughter was a charmer and how sweet the youngest was, and had little to say about the eldest. But she openly admitted to him that her favourite, the youngest son, had run off, years ago, and she hadn’t seen him since.
That was all Thomas knew about the family.
Eventually, Thomas started hearing rumours that one of the officers knew the place already. A captain, in fact, it was said. Some of the men made fun of him, for he apparently went about looking nostalgically at the place, talking with some of the leftover staff.
It wasn’t hard for Thomas to pick up on gossip. Being stationed here so long allowed Thomas to take up… other activities. Mainly, he was good at finding alcohol, and selling it. It was on a small scale, nothing like in his youth, but it occupied him, when he was bored, and more than that, it was also slightly exciting. Slightly.
The people who came to him—Thomas never approached anyone about it, it was all word of mouth, at this point—just wanted some form of entertainment, mostly. So talking behind people’s backs was a good way to do it, as well as drinking. And Thomas was very good at getting people to talk. He knew almost everything he needed to know about the men who came and went, in this place. Even with so many of them, even from the distance he kept.
He enjoyed it. Knowing. And knowing they knew nothing about him.
One day, Thomas walked into the room with the mural, and there a man was, looking very disturbed. It was the same man who he’d overheard, a mere few weeks ago. He was staring at the painting. There was something… wet in his eye. Not quite a tear, but, well, nearly.
He knew who it was. His name was Captain Ryder, and so far, he was one of the few who hadn’t spoken a word to Thomas. Thomas stopped.
“Good morning, sir.”
The man turned towards him, all emotion on his face seeping out. He was left looking totally blank, and bland.
And yet his brows narrowed as they landed on Thomas, and his eyes raked over him. he looked interested, but, in a tired way. Thomas tried for his best piercing stare.
Nothing more was said.
“An art amateur, then?” Thomas asked.
“No. A painter,” he simply said after an instant.
“A painter in the army?”
The man sighed. He was middle-aged. “Yes, I am, aren’t I?”
Thomas shrugged. “You tell me. Sir.”
There was a silence. Thomas was weary of this man. The man certainly didn’t seem happy to be speaking to him. Should he…?
“I think they’re quite good,” Thomas said. “The paintings.”
That didn’t seem to make the man happier at all. “Yes. They are good.” Then he smiled fondly at himself.
Thomas frowned at him. He knew his opinion wouldn’t always be appreciated by men like Captain Ryder, who seemed proper posh. Men like that didn’t like hearing opinions, especially on art, from men with accents like Thomas’s. But Thomas was in charge here, and it gave him a kind of thrill to percevere.
“I’m more of a literature man, myself,” he commented.
Thomas nodded. “I feel in literature at least things can’t get away with being just pretty.”
The man’s head turned towards him. He nodded. “I’ve heard things like that before,” he admitted. “From a rather peculiar friend.”
Thomas then took leave, giving a tight smile, and leaving the man to look at the murals in peace.
The two men had things in common. They were both older than most of the other men there. They were both more familiar with the house than the others. They were both loners. And yet that was all; Thomas could hardly think of anything else they might have in common. Ryder seemed so… tame. Thomas couldn’t figure out whether to be interested in him or not.
Their paths didn’t cross much, and they rarely spoke. Yet, one time, when they were in the canteen, idling about, and Thomas had been looking through the window, having a smoke, he turned around to see Ryder’s eyes on him, and a paper and pencil in hand.
Ryder hesitated, then shifted slightly, so that he was more turned away from Thomas, and got back to his sketching. A few moments later, he looked up at Thomas again, who was still watching him.
Thomas got up, went across to his table. There were others there, but none of them were paying any close attention.
Thomas moved like he was going to leave the room, stopping near Ryder on his way. “Cigarette?” he offered.
Ryder covered his sketch slightly, so that Thomas couldn’t make it out, and looked up at him wearily. Thomas arched an eyebrow.
The man seemed to give in. “Oh, alright.”
Thomas gave him one.
“D’you have a light?” Ryder asked. He placed the thing between his lips.
Thomas took his lighter out of his pocket, and offered it to the captain. The latter looked pensive, eyes flickering between the object and Thomas’s face. Then he asked, “would you mind?”
Odd request, Thomas thought, but moved closer slightly to light Ryder’s cigarette. He stood over him this way for a moment, before pulling back.
“Thanks,” Ryder said, and then gave a tight smile, and wouldn’t meet Thomas’s eye again.
Thomas elected to think very little of it, not interested in the man enough to worry or hope, and left the room.
One day, as Thomas was coming down the stairs he came by one of the younger men. Thomas had noticed him for being particularly beautiful. He was currently cutting his hair, looking at a mirror balanced on top of a stack of clothes. He’d been reprimanded, earlier, for letting his hair grow too long, Thomas remembered.
Thomas met his eyes in the mirror, and the young soldier smiled. Thomas observed the short pieces of hair falling onto the ground. They were curly, he noticed, as he continued on through the hall.
That hair had looked like Edward’s, slightly. Brown, and curly. Thomas began to daydream about how he’d never loved anyone with curly hair, before Edward. Or after him.
He’d never loved anyone so broken, either. Someone he could take care of. Except for once, in 1924.
And he’d never been able to take care of either of those men, of those boys, both of them far too young to deserve the suffering they knew, and both far too mysterious.
Like there was a secret source to all the bad in them, to all their sadness, that only they could see. A secret that kept Thomas out.
Until he’d finally managed to become the same as them, to suffer too, to destroy himself too.
But he was past that, now. Past the self-destruction. It was a small point of pride, for him, even as he tried to recapture his aloof persona, that Thomas received letters more regular than most.
“You’ve got quite the penpal,” one of the officers, Miller, remarked, one day.
“Penpals, actually,” Thomas said, putting the letters away. Richard, Phyllis, George, Sibby, and Daisy, mostly.
"Well, lucky you are, then. Don’t know what we’d do, in war, without these bloody letters.” Miller left then, before Thomas could say “We’re not actually at war, idiot.”
But he reflected that he was right, all the same. Where would he be, without these letters?
He remembered all the letters he’d received from O’Brien, in the previous war, and from his valet friend, before his valet friend was killed.
He also remembered the time Edward Courtenay asked him to read the letters his family had sent to him.
(Nervous, because of reading aloud something so private, Thomas began to read the few letters that had piled up, since Courtenay had arrived. Edward had just listened quietly, seemingly unemotional.
Then, with a wavering voice, he’d asked if Thomas would let him dictate a letter, in reply. To his mother. Thomas accepted.
He came back a little while later, and Edward began.
He insisted he was alright, described everything around him, the hospital, and the people, and went into very little detail about his eyes.
Then, Edward said, “There is… uh, there is one man, in particular, to whom I’ve become very attached. He’s been helping me. He… he’s been incredibly kind. And interesting, he tells me stories all day. I’m very grateful to him.”
Thomas slowed down his writing, and looked at Edward, who appeared to be blushing. “I… I love him, really. It’s mad, how you can still love people during a war… I’m probably just a patient to him, but he means the world to me. What little world I’ve got left.”
Edward had stopped dictating then, and asked to resume later. Thomas hadn’t dared say anything, feeling like he’d never been so close to bursting with emotion, so he just left.
Edward hadn’t asked to resume the letter the following day, so it was left unfinished.
Then, a couple days later, when Edward was found dead in his bed, Thomas felt like bursting with an entirely different emotion.
And then he’d felt numb, for the next year or two.
He’d kept the letter, though. He’d hardly ever taken it out again, afterwards, except once, to show it to Richard. Richard had kept it, after that. For some reason, it was very dear to Richard.)
He and Ryder didn’t speak again until the man came to him one evening, and asked about getting a drink.
“Yeah, I can get you something. Sir,” Thomas confirmed, his hand in his pockets. “It isn’t free, though.”
“No, no, of course not,” Ryder said quickly. “Didn’t think it would be.”
They arranged to meet a bit later the same evening, and Ryder got his bottle, and Thomas got his cash, and nothing more was said. Ryder went off alone.
Thomas had never been to the chapel. Almost no one went, anyway. But Thomas suspected most of them would, if the situation were more dire, or if it were an anglican church and not a catholic one. Thomas didn’t think it made that much of a difference, but then, he wasn’t about to get into any argument about it, either.
He hadn’t believed in God since he’d been about twenty. Before that, he’d had a strange anxiousness about it, the idea of hellfire popping into his head as he did things he shouldn’t, without making him really change his behavior.
It just contributed to a shitty time. Or else, sometimes, it would egg him on, like a strange desire for self destruction.
He’d almost never prayed. He didn’t think he had much credit with God. Felt slightly guilty and sinful when he did pray. So he only made exceptions when his mom got ill, or one of his sisters. But even then, he kept it to a minimum. And then felt bad about it.
The one who had liberated him from all of that had been Philip. That was one of the only things he’d kept from their affair, aside from memories. Atheism.
Thomas had met Philip when the latter had been just discovering his own atheism, and the young duke went on about it with such enthusiasm and (what Thomas found most attractive) hidden anger, that Thomas found himself falling more and more under his spell every time they broached the subject, which had been a lot.
Philip revelled in being able to talk about it with anyone. And Thomas liked to thrill him with the blasphemous things he said.
And, quicker than not, Thomas lost all faith he had in a God, and even began to sneer at people who did believe. Like William, and Anna, and most of the Crawleys. It had been the only point in Bates’s favour, the fact fact that the man seemed not to believe.
Even O’Brien had made Thomas roll his eyes a few times, around the time of Cora’s miscarriage when she’d suddenly had a bout of religious fervor take over her.
Through the years, Thomas had cursed and thanked Philip for introducing him to the idea of there not being a God. There were times when he’d felt the world would be less lonely, if he knew there was something else out there. Other times he’d thanked the stars he didn’t believe in any of that, for he wasn’t sure he could handle something so great hating him, too.
The only times he’d ever been touched, upon hearing about someone’s faith, was when Edward had told him, little before his death, his voice subtly shaking, that he’d begun to pray much more, recently. Thomas’s throat had gotten tight.
Then, another time was when he’d asked a lover to tell him something about himself, anything (they’d only known each other a few days, would only ever know each other that much), and the lover had answered, “I’m a catholic.” Like it was one of the most important things about him.
Thomas had thought about it for hours, afterwards. How could this man be catholic? But then, Oh, because it’s that man.
So he thought it had to do more with love than anything else, his ability to be touched by someone else’s faith. It was only men he’d loved who’d had that effect on him.
Then, one day, someone told him Charles Ryder made his way to the chapel, and prayed, almost every day.
It completely changed the way he saw the man. Suddenly—suddenly… suddenly he seemed made of flesh and bone, in Thomas’s mind. He seemed more real than he had a second before.
Thomas found out, in that moment, that the man had a history, a life before coming to this place, just as Thomas had. He didn’t know how it didn’t occur to him before, even when he’d known the man knew this house, even when he’d known the man called himself a painter.
Nights later, Ryder came to see him. He asked for another bottle. Thomas found one for him, and the exchange was done, but, then, Ryder asked if Thomas would like to share it with him.
“Drinking by myself isn’t something I’ve gotten used to, yet,” he explained. Thomas just shrugged and accepted.
They sat in silence, outside. There was a camp where people were set up in tents, but it was late, and quiet, and cold.
The few people still up hurried around, barely looking at Barrow and Ryder, who warmed themselves around a fire and with bourbon. Thomas had somehow imagined the man would prefer wine, but Ryder had said he doubted the wine you could find in wartime would be any good, and he had long ago given up on drinking bad wine.
“So, I hear you knew this place, before,” Thomas said to break the silence.
Ryder nodded. “I did.”
He didn’t elaborate.
Thomas waited a moment.
Ryder spoke again. “I’ve been making a rule not to talk about it. It wouldn’t feel right.” He knocked back the rest of his glass and served himself some more.
“I know how you feel,” Thomas confided. “And I won’t go after your secrets.”
Ryder smiled, faintly. Thomas doubted he had it in him to give a full smile. He seemed like life had sucked everything out of him. Thomas had been the same, once.
“Is there anything else you’d like to share?” Thomas asked, smirking. Usually, he was fine sitting with someone in silence. But he felt like Ryder wanted to talk. He just didn’t know what about.
Ryder raised his eyebrows, staring into the fire. “There hasn’t really been much in my life, besides this house.”
“Really?” Thomas found that hard to believe. Even he had spent most of his life at Downton, and yet his life was so much more.
Ryder nodded. “I’ve got children, and an ex-wife, but… there isn’t very much to say, there.”
Thomas frowned, sipping his drink. Suddenly the man seemed even more opaque to him. Those were the kinds of remarks that Thomas couldn’t relate to, at all.
“What about you?”
“I worked as a butler, most of my life, at a house called Downton Abbey.”
Thomas’s heart pace quickened. He didn’t always hate that question, but he was drinking, and he could feel his cheeks flush, out there in the cold, and he was generally more affected by these kinds of things. “No.”
“Never? Ever come close?” Ryder’s eyes were meeting his, now. Thomas shook his head.
Ryder looked him up and down again, seeming to understand something (or was Thomas just imagining things?) and then he looked at the house, slightly panicked, slightly hesitant, and said, “I was in love with the woman who owns this house, once.”
Thomas was taken aback by the admission, slightly. So he is going to talk… “Aren’t you anymore?”
“I don’t know.” Ryder looked at the house again.
“I suppose this place reminds you of her, anyway?”
Thomas’s eyebrows shot up, and the man before him amended, “Not just of her.”
Ryder served himself again. He was drinking fast. Drinking to forget, Thomas thought.
“Did you ever properly love, Barrow? A long time ago, when you were young?” Ryder asked.
Thomas wondered where this line of questioning was going. “I did. I loved easily when I was young.”
Philip. Edward. Both men he’d given his heart to quickly and strongly, without doubt, though everything seemed to scream he should doubt. He’d been convinced he couldn’t love at all, until he’d met Philip, at nineteen years old, and had fallen fast for the first of many times. Philip had been the most charming, loving, exciting thing Thomas had ever experienced, and when he left Thomas, the memory of him still had that effect, despite all the anger.
And still, Thomas thought he’d been an exception, that he really didn’t love easily at all. And then he’d met Edward, and had fallen in love quickly, once again.
He loved easily when he was older, too. Jimmy. And of course, Richard. There was also that young man, who sprung to his mind, who Thomas had been ready to give so much to, but in the end had never known enough to know if it was love, and—
“I used to often think I lived a life with far too little love,” Ryder confessed. Thomas felt he must be starting to be drunk, that he wouldn’t be saying all of this if he weren’t. But he didn’t stop him. Everything he was saying, Thomas felt, too.
“Until the age of nineteen I never loved at all, you know,” Ryder continued. Me neither. “But, now, I realise… it wasn’t a life without love. I fell in love once, when I was too young. And it never left. That’s all.”
Listening, Thomas wondered if he’d ever fallen out of love with Philip, and Edward, and any of the men—
But he asked, instead, “Was it with…”, letting his sentence trail off, nudging his head towards the house.
“Yes,” Ryder said, then, “no. She was later. But she was part of it, I suppose. She was the mature love. The love that would have been of my life, if the other hadn’t come first.”
Ryder took a breath. “But they both broke my heart the same, though. The thing is, Julia broke my life.” His voice cracked, slightly. But he controlled himself. “But then again, she gave me one, too.”
Ryder’s eyes shot up, as he realised what he’d just said.
Thomas was staring at him, now, intensely.
Ryder began slowly, “it was her brother, the first one. You know, we were young. I was in love with him, in many ways, though I know that term is usually reserved for man and woman. We had a, what they called, a romantic friendship. Or at least one woman called it that. And it was. We were too young to know how to properly love, beyond friendship. Julia taught me to do that, much later. But Sebastian was such a child,” he said, with a small laugh and a great amount of affection and pain, “or at least obsessed with staying one. He gave me everything I am, but he just didn’t give it to me right. I think that’s where my life went wrong.”
Ryder was looking past Thomas, as he spoke, almost as if he wasn’t speaking to anyone, and he didn’t see the look on Thomas’s face when he’d spoken the word Sebastian.
It was like his blood had gone cold, or maybe hot. But Thomas told himself it probably wasn’t the same one.
Ryder began a long story, full of melancholy, of how he’d met Sebastian. He seemed to be pouring everything out, as if he’d been dying to say it for days, weeks, months.
His story began in Oxford, and he spoke of those days with a light in his eyes that Thomas could’ve never imagined he could possess. He punctuated it all with little anecdotes, of pranks they’d pulled, disasters they’d averted, and he went into detail into the story of their first day at Brideshead.
Thomas didn’t say anything, occasionally nodding to show he was still listening.
Ryder began to speak about the first summer, after their Oxford year.
He vaguely mentioned he’d gone to spend time with his father, and then explained how he’d been called to Brideshead under false pretenses—a false pretense that was entirely welcome—and he described the actual injury Sebastian had received, and the endless fun they had with his wheelchair and the long lawns of the house.
“That’s when I met Julia, the first day I got there,” Ryder interjected, slowing down his enthusiastic tirade. “But that summer was about Sebastian, for me.”
He continued on to their visit to Venice—a city Thomas couldn’t properly imagine, though he’d read about a lot and seen a few photographs—and Thomas once again was alerted, this time by the fact that Sebastian’s father lived there.
Ryder slowed as he began the story of the next term, immediately more sombre.
“You see… Sebastian eventually became an alcoholic, though I didn’t know at the time. He brought a lot of heartache to me and to his family because of it.”
“Was he alright, in the end?” Thomas asked, heart pounding.
“No, no. But I’ll come to that.”
He continued, and Thomas listened half-heartedly and yet extremely eagerly as he described Sebastian’s slow descent into Hell. Who is this boy, who is he really? was the question that circled around Thomas’s mind.
Ryder told the story of drunken accident after drunken accident and of his own growing sense of worry, and of the despicable Mr Samgrass and of the heartbreaking Easter, and it continued to get worse.
“After that, Sebastian was taken away. I left school to study art, and he was sent to his father in Venice, so we didn’t see each other that summer. Then in the Autumn he and Samgrass began their—“
“Wait, what year was this?” Thomas suddenly interrupted.
“I—1924, if I remember correctly… yes, 1924, that’s the year he left for the Levant. So, as I was saying…”
But Thomas stopped listening entirely. It was Sebastian, he thought, heart pounding.
It had been summer, 1924. The family was in London for the season, though it was a rather austere one.
Everyone knew the family had to make cuts, and probably wouldn’t be attending the season in the coming years. And Thomas thought, wildly, that this would be his last time in London for quite some time. So he waited until everyone was asleep, the way he had done many times in his youth, and went out.
It was dizzying, all that was going on around him. Thomas knew that, whether or not anything interesting happened that night, he wouldn’t be getting much sleep.
He was in one of those London bars that allowed men like him, after a certain hour. Not officially, not exclusively. But enough. He’d met many men in places like this one, and though they still had to be relatively discreet, all the excitement lay in that.
As Thomas made his way around the room with his characteristic godlike attitude, the one that had served him all through his 20s, catching the eye of many men, his gaze suddenly met that of a young blonde man, standing rather removed from the crowd. Staring, almost unblinking. Thomas stopped in his track.
The man was beautiful.
He looked different than all the men there. More noble, more innocent. His hair was messed up and he wasn’t dressed formerly, and somehow that was more attractive. He looked entirely like the master of himself. And completely unafraid. That was what struck Thomas about his stare, because men like him would never usually allow themselves, in a place like this, to just look at someone like that. It was an intense and almost private stare.
But Thomas began to walk again, looking back at the various men looking at him. He didn’t have the courage for a stare like that.
He kept looking back though, and he saw how the man was looking around, gazing coolly, slightly bored, and then how his eyes would land on Thomas again, and he’d look captivated. Thomas gave him one of his easy smiles, the ones he used to charm people, and my god, it worked.
The man broke out into a genuine grin, eyes lighting up, and took a large swig of his drink.
It was only a few minutes later that the man suddenly left the bar and rushed to the gent’s. Thomas saw him go, out of the corner of his eye. He knew how the game worked, of course, and, checking around him first, he followed the lad to the bathroom.
He opened the door carefully, checking behind him and making sure to close it—the room, which had several cubicles, looked entirely empty. And then he heard vomitting, and stopped.
Creasing his brows, Thomas made his way to the cubicle closest to him, and pushed open the door. There the man was, hunched over a toilet.
Thomas tried to come closer, but the man brushed him away. He was heaving into the toilet bowl, and flapping his arm behind him at Thomas. “Go away.”
“Are you alright?” Thomas asked, instinctively placing a soothing hand on the man’s back.
“I’m fine. Really, I—“ he protested, but then turned around, saw Thomas, and softened. “Oh, it’s you.”
Thomas laughed. “It’s me. Have too much to drink?”
“It’s the quality, not the quantity. Bad stuff. I’m used to better,” the man slurred. Thomas helped him sit back against the wall, and sat down against him, hand still around his back. What was he doing?
It wasn’t his responsibility, to take care of some drunken stranger. But he looked so young, Thomas thought, now that he got a closer look at him, could hardly be more than twenty.
What was he doing in a place like this? In a state like this? And with a voice of an aristocrat, and his young face, and his complete mess of a state, there was something in him that deeply reminded Thomas of the last time he’d seen Philip. It made his heart still.
(It was the London season. There was a ball; of course, wasn’t there always? And Thomas was there, skirting around the edges, serving drinks and trying not to care about anything too much.
He’d seen Philip, in the early evening, breezing past him with his characteristic charm and the girl he was supposedly supposed to marry. He’d tried not to think of him, after. He’d spent a lot of the time that past year trying not to think of him, of what a ridiculous dashed hope that had been.
He’d spent a lot of time trying to make things interesting, too, by provoking and drinking and flirting and scheming. Interesting like they had been when he’d had the idea of Philip in his life. But mostly he was just trying to survive; to survive a life that threatened to kill him with boredom, to rid him of everything that made him him, to make him into a serving statue.
Philip posed a direct threat to that survival. Philip was everything Thomas didn’t want and yet, for those few thundering years of youth before the war, everything Thomas did want.
So when he approached Thomas at the end of a night in July, 1913, all drunk and angry, Thomas’s breath caught in his throat and he couldn’t move, for an instant. And then he covered his face with his hands.
They were in a corner, nobody could see them, and yet Thomas was terrified that he would be caught, caught without his servant’s blank, caught caring.
Philip was completely sloshed and miserable, and it was tearing Thomas apart, to not know whether to hate him or reach out, touch him.
“Please don’t do this now,” Thomas asked, trying to remain unaffected. He turned away from Philip, facing the wall.
“How can you—“ Philip began, words slurred, stumbling closer, “how can you pretend like nothing is wrong, like nothing ever happened—“
“It’s what you do all the time, darling,” Thomas replied dryly, sarcastically, still not looking at him. The drunken figure crumpled to the ground. Thomas regretted what he’d said immediately. He turned around and knelt down to help him up, and Philip stared at him, broken.
So different from the carefree thing he’d been, all the times before.
“I wish you didn’t exist,”Philip admitted, as he let himself be dragged back onto his feet.
“I’m going to get someone to help you, Your Grace,” Thomas said, just wanting it all to end.
A feeling of death was creeping it’s way through him. If it was love, Thomas decided he’d never want it again (oh, how he was wrong, with that one).
“I act as if you don’t exist, you know. I never speak of you, to anyone, even when I want to. Did you know that? That I want to tell someone about the couple of weeks we spent together all the time, but the only person I can tell is you, and I can’t… I can’t… How can you go on, and act as if we haven’t ruined each other’s lives?” his voice broke as he said those last words.
Thomas looked at him, heart breaking so completely he felt numb. For an instant, he stopped feeling anything at all. It was all too much. And he knew what Philip was referring to.
He knew, even if Philip had never told him, that Philip had never been with a man before him, had never acted on that particular desire, though he’d felt it before. Philip’s time with Thomas had been a complete liberation, which was why Philip had been the most magical being, that summer: he was a man liberated to love, for the first time.
And then, when they were seperated, everything came back, all the barriers and guilt and shame, and he renounced it all, called it “a few weeks of madness”, nothing more, and probably had kept calling it that, to himself, until now.
Thomas was different—one of the only men like him that he knew of who’d always known about himself, it seemed, always acted like it. Yet he felt he’d never felt for any man as strongly as he was feeling now.
But it was just that, a feeling. He had a life to get on with. No point getting distracted by anything that wouldn’t get him where he wanted to go, in the end.
“My life isn’t ruined,” he said flatly, finally looking Philip in the eye. His voice broke a bit, but he kept on. “It… just because your’s is… don’t think you and I are the same.” And with those last words, he made to turn around and leave, then hesitated, turned back, cupped Philip’s face with his hands, an act he’d done many times—many happier times—and then hated himself for that sign of weakness and swiftly drew away, escaping down to the kitchens.)
“Who are you?” the man asked, speaking slowly. He looked as though he was trying to pull himself together.
“Thomas. Thomas Barrow. And you?”
“I am,” the man began to declare grandly, sitting up and immediately faltering back down against the wall, “a lost cause.”
Thomas got out a cigarette. “Aren’t we all?”
The man shook his head, but didn’t say anything.
“What’s your name?” Thomas asked.
This upset him. “No. No, you will not know my name! If you know my name, you will make me into a saint. And I am not a saint!” He declared this with such urgency in his eyes that Thomas could just nod, and try to soothe him.
“Alright, that’s fine. You don’t have to tell me your name. Just tell me, what are you doing here?”
“Yes, I know,” Thomas laughed. “But why are you here? At this time?”
The man began to blubber. “I—They’re sending me away. I need to—to go, tomorrow, and I don’t…”
Thomas moved him and held him against his chest. “Shh, it’s alright. You don’t need to tell me. Just tell me where you’re staying, tonight.”
“Nowhere,” came the muffled voice.
“I’ve run away.”
The man’s head shot up. “Don’t judge me, whatever you do—“
“I’m not judging you.”
The man looked at him sceptically.
“I’m not, I swear… I ran away once. Well, more than once. I understand.”
The young man looked him in the face, eyes still teary. “You do?”
The man swallowed. “That is the first time anyone’s told me that.”
Thomas knew what that felt like. He gave a tight smile.
“I suppose I must look like an awful bloody mess, to you.”
“No, not at all,” Thomas lied.
The man looked like he was about to say something more, but then, didn’t. There was a long silence, comfortable. Thomas took a drag from his fag, and the man tried to grab it, clumsily. Thomas moved his hand away, the cigarette between his finger’s, the other man still trying to reach it, and their fingers touched, and laced together, before seperating again.
Then, the man said, “can we stay here a bit?”
“Thank you. You have a lovely voice.”
Thomas chuckled quietly. They sat there for a while, the man lying against Thomas’s chest in silence, eyes closed. But the hour was growing late.
“We’d better go,” Thomas said. But the man didn’t move.
“Hey, you awake?” Thomas asked, nudging him.
The man moaned. “Tell me a joke.”
“Uh, alright.” Thomas tought for a second, then began to tell any joke he could think of, often silly, often dirty, and the man at his side seemed to cheer up, laughing tiredly.
Finally, Thomas, laughing himself, ran out of jokes, and checked his watch again. “We really should be going.”
There was a pause, and the man mumbled, “I’ve nowhere to go. Can you please—stay with me?”
Thomas nodded. “I’ll find you somewhere. Somewhere you can sleep, and have some water. Ok?”
He began to get up, dragging the other to his feet with him. The man was still drunk, and barely standing straight, but put up no resistance and let himself be escorted out.
Once outside, Thomas looked around, thinking. He knew a boarding house nearby where no one asked questions, and that wasn’t too expensive. He hadn’t been there for a long time, and wasn’t quite sure it was still there, but he had no other option. He could hardly bring his drunken friend back to Grantham House with him. And he couldn’t leave him.
Thankfully, the place was still there, and still operating under it’s strict no-questions, open-at-all-hours rules. Thomas payed the small fee and helped his friend up the stairs. He plopped the man onto the bed. There was water on the bedside table, and Thomas leant in front of the boy and made him drink.
“There, is that alright?”
The man nodded. “Thank you.”
“You should get some sleep.”
Thomas made to get up, and the man caught his hand softly, by the tip of the fingertips. Thomas lingered there, with that minimal contact, and looked down at the young man who was staring right up at him, face entirely open and beautiful.
That was the moment Thomas began to… to feel something for him, something quite big.
“Sleep with me?” the man asked.
Thomas gave the man’s hand a squeeze. “No.” At the man’s disappointed face, Thomas brought his hand up to his lips and kissed it.
The young man let his hand be kissed, and wouldn’t let go, even as Thomas lowered his hand. He felt the texture of Thomas’s glove. “What’s that?”
“Nothing. Do go to bed.”
Thomas waited for him to fall asleep, and then, as it was almost morning, ducked out and returned to Grantham House. He immediately went up to his room, forged a letter, placed it with the post, and got up the next morning with the rest of the family, pretending not to be tired.
At breakfast, Carson handed them all their letters, and Thomas opened the one he had just written, made a face, and asked to speak to Carson in private. There, he explained that his father was ill again, tried not to think about why he had told that particular lie last time and why he was telling it now. Carson looked skeptical, but it seemed Thomas was dispensable anyway, so Carson let him go.
Thomas rushed back to the boarding house, not even knowing why he was doing it, but knowing he felt an irrepressible urge to see the boy again.
His chest filled with a kind of joy, or excitement. The boy was just, even completely legless, much more charming than anyone Thomas had met recently. Even the one or two people he liked didn’t seem to compare.
On that brightening, sunkissed morning, he made his way back, and climbed the stairs in a hurry, and entered the room again.
He saw the young man sitting up in bed, shirtless, hair tousled up, and the man smiled at him. Thomas’s eyes widened slightly, grinning back.
There was sun pouring in through the window, and everything seemed light.
The man spoke softly. “I thought last night was a dream.” His eyes looked Thomas over. “I- I’m glad it isn’t.”
Thomas tossed a paper bag containing scones at him. “I got you some food.”
The man smiled, and caught it. He looked around the room again, in seeming wonder, and then at Thomas, who sat down on the bed next to him. Thomas couldn’t help look over the man’s body, and then caught the man’s eyes. He’d noticed.
“It’s nice of you, to have come back.”
“Felt like I had to.”
There was another silence, very different from any other silence there had been between them the night before, as the two men studied each other.
“You never told me your name.”
“Didn’t I? Well, I’m Sebastian. I’m afraid I forgot yours.”
“Very nice to meet you, Thomas.”
Sebastian man was looking at him with an unbelieving delight. Thomas looked at his chest again, then cleared his throat.
“Sorry, I should probably let you get dressed.”
“No, no. I woke up, and I felt too hot, so I tossed it all off. I was about to take the rest off, too, when you came in.”
There was a silence.
“Would you like me to?”
Thomas studied him quietly.
“You’re very young.”
The man sighed. “I don’t feel young, at all.”
“You look young.”
“I’m sorry to say, so do you.”
Thomas laughed. “I’m still older than you, I think.”
“Oh,” the young man said. “Is that a problem?”
“I don’t know,” Thomas answered, honestly. He knew of so many couples, of men like them, where one was significantly older than the other. He didn’t know how to feel about being the older man. Though, admittedly, not very much older, but it still was odd, to him.
Sebastian moved closer, suddenly, hand coming up to touch his face.
“If you feel like you need to thank me, or—“ Thomas began.
“That’s not it. It isn’t. You’re just… different, than most of the men I’ve met. And you’re handsome. And I like your voice,” Sebastian said, a beauiful smile gracing his lips. Then an idea seemed to occur to him, and he said, “but if you don’t want—”
“No, I do,” Thomas said, and he suddenly kissed him. They parted, after an instant, and Sebastian began to take off Thomas’s shirt, mumbling “it’s only fair.”
They stayed in that little room several days, occasionally going to take in the summer air, never going too far. Thomas had time to spare, anyway. Not much cash, but, who cares, in moments like these?
They spent a lot of time in bed, drifting between touches, and they spoke, too. Without telling each other too much about what they did, in life, they told each other about what mattered.
They both seemed slightly reserved about divulging too much about their actual identity, about their station, though Thomas could see he was posh, and Sebastian could see Thomas wasn’t.
It seemed there was a quiet agreement between them, to not share any of that.
Thomas felt odd, about doing this again. A London Season affair. He hadn’t revisited this since he broke up with Philip. He had thought it bound to his youth.
But his love affair with Philip had begun in the light, as light and bright as summer air, and ended, sunk down into nothing but darkness, forever. Maybe whatever he was to have with this boy could do the opposite; start in the dark and come out into daylight. Maybe it was doing it already.
Once, in the middle of the night, Thomas lay awake, smoking a cigarette, wondering about how he found himself there.
Sebastian turned around in bed, and looked at him.
“What?” Thomas asked lowly.
“I was just thinking… I can’t believe I’m here. I can’t believe I met you, after everything this year…”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“No. I don’t want to be part of that world anymore.”
“Good,” Thomas laughed.
“Did you ever have a lover before?” Thomas asked, on one of the afternoons. They were sat by the window, sharing a cigarette. Sebastian took it from Thomas’s hands, took a long and pensive drag.
He gave the cigarette back to Thomas.
“Do you want to tell me about him?”
“Did I say it was a he?”
Thomas raised an eyebrow at him, with a mocking smirk on his lips. They both laughed.
“He was one of my friends, at Cambridge,” Sebastian said. “He was more of a friend than everything else, really. But he was everything else, too.” He took a breath. “He… was my whole world, for a time. But not anymore. It’s over now, I think.”
“Do you miss him?”
“Not when I’m here,” Sebastian answered, wiggling his eyebrows.
“What was he like?”
“Nothing like you.”
“Is that a good thing?”
“Glad to hear it.”
“Am I like any of your other lovers?” Sebastian asked hesitantly. “I assume you’ve had other lovers.”
Thomas nodded. “Uh, I have. Not for a long time, though. And…” he looked Sebastian in the eye, and tried to answer the question for himself. Sebastian seemed like he contained in him every one of Thomas’s loves. Thomas looked at him and could see elements of all of them. And yet… “No.” He was entirely unique. He was… Sebastian. That word was enough to contain him, now, in Thomas’s mind.
Sebastian had said, on that first night, that if Thomas knew his name he would take him for a saint. And Thomas, who hadn’t believed in saints or any of that for years, could only now agree. Sebastian was a saint. A saint of Thomas’s kind. The only saint he’d ever known.
Occasionally, Thomas would catch Sebastian looking extremely sad. He looked incredibly beautiful, in those moments. Thomas fell more in love with him, then.
“Tell me what happened to your hand,” Sebastian said, one time when they had just had sex and were lying together.
Thomas looked at his gloved hand (he’d kept the glove on, even in bed). “Got shot,” he said simply, “in the war.”
“Can I look at it?” Sebastian asked, softly.
“It’s not very pretty.”
“That’s alright. I- I discovered quite recently that I like that.”
Thomas let Sebastian take off the glove for him, and watched as the younger man traced the scar with his fingertips. No one had ever touched it that way, and it made Thomas shiver.
Sebastian saw, and grinned up at him, amused, before looking at the scar again.
“I was too young, for the war,” he mused aloud.
“Don’t have to rub it in,” Thomas replied, taking his hand away.
Sebastian smiled. “I’m not sure how I would have dealt with it… but I guess I’ll never know.”
“I hope you won’t,” Thomas said, hoping at the same time that he wouldn’t have to go though it again.
Sebastian was quite chaotic, sometimes. One morning Thomas awoke, rather late, and saw Sebastian by the window, drinking something out of a flask.
“Morning,” Thomas said, and Sebastian turned towards him.
“Morning. Want some?” he tossed the flask to Thomas.
“Bit early,” Thomas said, taking a sip anyway. It was whisky.
“Yes, but we don’t care about that,” Sebastian answered, a sly smile on his lips.
“Clearly not.” Thomas took another gulp. “Where’d you get this?”
“Stole it next door.”
Thomas snorted. “What?”
“I was curious about what all the noise was about, so I snuck in, earlier. Once there I thought I ought to steal something, so I did.”
“Makes perfect sense.”
“Do you mind?” Sebastian asked earnestly.
Thomas couldn’t help the smile on his face. “Well, I’m not one to encourage juvenile theft, but… I think I like you more, now.”
Sebastian laughed, and got up from the window sill, collapsing back onto the bed. He lay beside Thomas. “Aloysius would think me very bad.”
“Ah. No one.”
“Won’t somebody come looking for you, eventually?”
“If they do, they won’t find me.”
“I’m supposed to be in Venice, you know.”
“My father lives there.”
The truth was, they kept very much to themselves, in those few days, each so much bound up in the other that they did not look elsewhere for excitement. Thomas had never known a love this close, where he felt he could not part from the other if he wanted to, and where he got not to part from him, for the length of a few days, at least.
But like all things, that came to an end, too. On the fourth day, Thomas knew he had to get back to Grantham House.
He told Sebastian he’d go back tomorrow morning, and Sebastian nodded and accepted it, but in the evening he snuck out.
Thomas found him half an hour later in a bar nearby, already a bit drunk.
As soon as Thomas went up to him, and sat next to him at the bar, Sebastian burst into tears, and left. Thomas followed him out, as Sebastian walked away. He eventually stopped by a wall, right as Thomas reached him, and let himself crumble into Thomas’s arms.
“I’m sorry,” he kept apologising.
“It’s fine, it’s fine,” Thomas assured him, not knowing what he was apologising for.
“I’m just depressed at the idea of you leaving. I don’t know what I’m going to do, now.”
Thomas didn’t know what to say, and he didn’t know if he’d manage to say anything, with a chest this tight, so he just held him, and escorted him back to their room.
Thomas had been left before, several times. But he’d never been the one doing the leaving. He’d never known how painful it could be.
As soon as they were inside, Thomas began to kiss every one of Sebastian’s tears.
“I’m so ashamed,” Sebastian said, “whenever I do this I’m so ashamed.”
“Don’t,” Thomas said, looking him straight in the eye. “Look, we live in a world of shame, okay? We’re made to feel shame about everything we do, and the worst is, we’re encouraged to do the things anyway. Do you know how much alcohol I’ve served in my life? To people who think it’s the worst crime there is to get drunk? Well, aside from… that’s another thing to never be ashamed of, Seabstian, alright? Especially not you.”
Sebastian listened to all of this, and started to calm down.
They didn’t sleep at all that night, because the truth was neither of them wanted it to end, and the next morning, as Thomas was ready to leave, he kissed every bit of Sebastian he could find, and gave him the adress to Grantham House.
“Just in case you need me. And if you want to write,” he said.
Sebastian stopped him, just as he was opening the door.
“Thomas, I… I wanted to thank you, for all you’ve done. I don’t think anyone’s ever been this kind to me. I truly hope some day I can take care of someone the way you’ve taken care of me.”
Thomas was touched, and instead of saying anything, he kissed him again, and hugged him, and left.
A day went by without news, Thomas thinking of Sebastian endlessly and telling everyone his father had recovered, again.
Then, on the following afternoon a hallboy came up to Thomas, and told him there was a drunk man, in the servant’s courtyard, asking for him. Thomas rushed outside.
He saw Sebastian about to leave, and, checking that no one was there, Thomas ran up to him.
“Sebastian, what’s wrong?”
Sebastian was completely sozzled, and turned around and looked Thomas up and down, a look of intense displeasure on his face.
“I- I hadn’t realized you were one of them,” he said. “One of that world.”
“Sebastian, what are you talking about?”
“I’m sorry,” Sebastian said, “I do… I do love you, very much, but I can’t—I can’t…”
He said many things, before leaving, that even at all these years’ distance Thomas couldn’t bear to remember. Few things had hurt as strongly as that, as that final sight.
And yet, years later, Thomas was glad to have met him at all.
Finally, Ryder’s story came to an end. There was a silence, as he finished off his drink, observing Thomas.
Thomas had been staring into the fire, not listening to anything. He suddenly realised Ryder had stopped talking, and looked up, heart beating.
“That felt rather like a confession,” Ryder said, jokingly. He was trying to clear the air.
Everything around them was silent.
Thomas felt he couldn’t think. He felt like he was floating above everything for having this knowlege, that he knew Sebastian, that he was part of his story, and that nobody else knew.
So he couldn’t say anything, and let the deafening silence reign.
“Are you alright?” Ryder asked.
“Yeah, I…” Thomas didn’t know what to say. “That Sebastian fellow… sounds rather amazing.”
Ryder nodded. “He was more heartbreaking.”
“That doesn’t change that he was beautiful,” Thomas said, a bit too fast.
Charles looked at him oddly. Thomas coughed, and added, “in theory.”
“No, you’re right, he was.”
The silence continued, and finally Ryder got up. “Right,” he said. “I’m…” he was hesitant, “going to the chapel. Could do with a prayer. I don’t suppose you’d come with me?”
Thomas shook his head, softly. “No, thank you. I think I’ll stay here.”
Ryder gave a curt nod, and went off.
Thomas looked up at the house, and, just as Ryder had told him he saw Sebastian, in every brick, in every crack, suddenly, Thomas saw Sebastian too.
He realised, slowly, sitting there until the fire went out, that he had known more love in his life than he’d ever realised, that his life had come into contact with so many other lives, no matter how brief… and that that had been his greatest accomplishment, the only thing worth doing.
And though he still didn’t believe in God, he felt a sense of the greatness and complexity and goodness of the World, that it allowed two paths to cross, two human lives like theirs.
But, mostly, he was amazed, at all that Sebastian had gone through. He looked at the house, and almost wanted to cry. He wondered how Sebastian, in all his kindness, his gentleness, could have been so… like him, in his general animosity towards everything, and his pain.
And he found himself wanting, more than he’d ever wanted anything in the world, to know what had happened to Sebastian, and, most of all, to know that Sebastian had been happy. He’d had loves that had met tragic ends (Edward), he’d had loves who’d found happiness (Philip, so Thomas had heard, from a mutual friend of theirs), and he had himself, who against all odds, had built himself something, in this world.
And now, he had Sebastian, a love who was a mystery.
Maybe, Thomas thought with no lack of excitement, after the war was over, he could go and solve it.
Between the brown hands of a server-lad
The silver cross was offered to be kissed.
The men came up, lugubrious, but not sad,
And knelt reluctantly, half-prejudiced.
(And kissing, kissed the emblem of a creed.)
Then mourning women knelt; meek mouths they had,
(And kissed the Body of the Christ indeed.)
Young children came, with eager lips and glad.
(These kissed a silver doll, immensely bright.)
Then I, too, knelt before that acolyte.
Above the crucifix I bent my head:
The Christ was thin, and cold, and very dead:
And yet I bowed, yea, kissed - my lips did cling.
(I kissed the warm live hand that held the thing.)
—“Maundy Thursday”, Wilfed Owen