"This isn't my-- well, I only want to say I'm not used to this sort of thing."
"It happens that I am," Andrew says, in that gentle, slightly throaty voice of his. "It has been my habit all my life."
"Oh," Frank says. "I didn't mean -- I'm very much interested, I just don't know the rhythm of things yet. I hope you can forgive me if I'm clumsy, it isn't anything to do with you. It isn't your fault."
This does not dismay him, but rather excites him -- he wants to know what men do together, what the two of them might do.
"Very well, then."
Andrew thaws a little after that, kissing him gravely and pressing a hand through his hair -- he has beautiful hands, broad and smooth and creased, and they are always so impossibly clean. Frank grabs at him, a little desperately, and with smooth electric joy the tip of Crocker-Harris' thumb runs down the folded blade of his ear -- such a small impossible touch, but so full of easy deliberation that it makes his throat burn.
What an odd situation he's gone and put himself in -- how odd and how unreal. They kiss and cleave to one another, with the clumsiness of two grown men -- the tip of Andrew's tongue darts into his mouth so neatly and suddenly that it draws a sound from his throat. The heat of desire has settled in the core of him. He squeezes Crocker-Harris' hand tightly and feels the fine bones of it shift to accept his grip.
His own arousal startles him when it cannot be ignored. Is this what men do together? Kiss and embrace, until one of them achieves an erection, and then squabble over it? They aren't schoolboys -- Frank breaks away, fumbling for his lighter in an absurd flutter of embarrassment.
"Feel free to smoke," Crocker-Harris says dryly. "Don't hold off on my behalf."
"No -- I'm sorry, I didn't think. I'll have one later, out in the courtyard or something."
Andrew watches him; his grave face is softened by something like affection, and it makes Frank ashamed. His heart brims with an uncertain passion.
"I hope I haven't frightened you."
"No, no, it's not that. Bloody my nose if this is a rotten thing to ask, but -- when did you know?"
"You want to know if I knew before I married my wife. Don't be embarrassed; it's a reasonable question. I myself have wondered just that. She wasn't always the woman you see now -- she was so clever, and she always knew just the thing to say for every situation."
"You say that as if she's dead and buried."
"I'd hardly recognize her now for the girl she was then if I didn't already know. No doubt she would say the same of me."
"We don't have to talk about this. I was only making conversation."
"I must have known since boyhood. I hadn't realized the condition was so permanent until only recently."
"I've known since '42," Frank says curtly. "I've known I could go either way. So you don't need to worry about that."
"How fortunate." He is not mocking him, he does not sting him with sarcasm -- he is merely acknowledging a better stroke of luck than he himself has experienced.
Crocker-Harris is smooth and gently sun-browned from the garden and smells of ink. He has great dark eyes in a long solemn face, and a small solemn mouth that does not speak of eros, or even hint of its existence. Frank kisses his hands and kisses his face.
During the war, there had on occasion been men who would have had him if he'd asked -- men on trains and men in shabby lodgings. Frank had felt for them the same animal obligation one feels for a woman, the relief and the pity. It wasn't so much that such men were womanish -- at least not to look at -- but that any crumb of tenderness on offer was to be fiercely devoured. Like fiddling while Rome burned -- with the world standing in ruins, there could be no harm in sex. A young man in uniform had nothing to lose from cheap certainty of release. But to think of carrying on like that after the war -- he would never have given it another thought, if not for the pure pathos of this man. He has never loved another fellow before this one; he does not know how it is done.
They come together quite naturally; Crocker-Harris' hands show him the way of it, his hips and his throat and his sad sober eyes. Making love with him, for it can only be making love and not some lesser copulation, is like a sudden discovery -- some secret talent, some hidden advantage, some forgotten cache of resources. Afterward, Frank does not smoke his cigarette. He curls up on his side, bare-legged in the sheets, and leans into the gentle raking of a hand through his hair.
"I could begin at the beginning," Andrew Crocker-Harris says from somewhere beyond Frank's shut eyelids, with quiet resignation.
"I think I'd like that."
Begin not at the beginning. Begin at the end of something -- a marriage, a holding pattern. Andrew Crocker-Harris takes the train to London, and passes the time until the sun is low in the sky -- there are still bookshops and cups of tea to fill the time until the men have come out to find one another and be found.
None of the places he used to go have escaped punishment -- some are still in ruins, all have suffered. Other men walk carrying newspapers or umbrellas or briefcases, but in their hearts, they are the same -- small, shabby, anonymous men with the same possessing desire for beauty.
At Speaker's Corner, there is a hard-faced young man of twenty-five with a thick waist and rough hands -- there are always such men, soldiers and bricklayers and uniformed policemen, and he catches them out with his eyes in the street. Andrew first glimpses him from behind, and he admires the slow rise from the backs of his strong thighs to the broad flat of his low back and the span of his shoulders beneath his jacket, but it is the back of the man's head that sparks the flame of lust in him. The back of his head is exquisite -- closely-barbered hair emphasizing the thickness of his neck, the flush of color in the tips of his close-laid ears.
Andrew lingers, watching him with anguished thirsting eyes -- this is a beautiful man, no doubt buyable, and in every respect normal. There have been a dozen such men at intervals, maybe more but hardly any less -- men who curse him under their breath, or who look away coolly when the deed is done, or who thank him nicely and accept a pound note for their trouble. The price is not so great for the sale of beauty -- or more than beauty, health and strength, a stroll through a common market where all things can be obtained.
Andrew takes the lead, stepping out of the drizzling rain and into the shabby public urinal with the mad hope in his heart that this man will follow him there. The damp scoured smell of the place reminds him of school, not the school at which he teaches but the school at which he was taught. Such a strange dreary association sends an electric bolt down to his groin. Cold tile and running water and the faint patina of urine, the rundown darkened atmosphere that is the opposite of sacramental -- the coming-together of mere bodies here has nothing to do with wisdom or intellect or love.
He can hear the soles of this man's shoes, feel the motion of him before he looks. When he turns the man is already staring into his face, frankly assessing. In the dark little else of him presents itself, only the broad shape of his body and the shining of those hard interrogating eyes.
"Have you got a cigarette?" The young man's voice has a perceptible Welsh turn.
Andrew glances circumspectly downward. "Oh, of course."
He hasn't smoked the damned things in a decade, he has given them up entirely, but the fresh packet weighs down his coat pocket like a hot coal. The man preempts him before the actual article can be produced, asking for a light in the same moment as he reaches for the front of his trousers.
Andrew looks him in the face helplessly and nods his head.
The man takes him by the arm then, half-following and half-leading. He feels a surge of exquisite excitement as the two of them draw in close. There is recognition in the sound of breathing, there in the dark.
Perhaps he reminds this man of someone he once knew. Not a schoolmaster, one hopes, but a friend. He is keenly aware of the pounding of his blood -- his erection already stirring with the tremendous excitation of being roughly handled, and of open contempt. Two bodies pressing and grappling together -- he is held in a clinch like a young wrestler's, and he grasps with his hands the sturdy plump breadth of that body, more a young Vulcan than an Apollo. The young man forces him to his knees in the murky damp -- the cold concrete makes his joints quake and his balls tighten so that he can scarcely breathe. He services him with a profaned mouth, full of sacramental devotion.
The man forces his head down by the hair with those brutal hands, pressing him against those steely thighs -- the smell of his body is clean and cutting.
When Crocker-Harris breaks away, all his body is crawling in a cold sweat. He almost calls out for help, but he doesn't dare -- all the world is fading away, there is only heat and pressure without sound or sight. He is lost in desire.
Andrew Crocker-Harris awakes flat on his back on the tile, with a balled-up jacket thrust under his head. The brutalizing pain is ebbing away from him; this must be how it is when the heretic recants; his inquisitors loosen the iron bands and put away the thumbscrews. Those coarse hands are doing up his fly with nurselike care.
"The feet," Crocker-Harris gasps. "You're meant to elevate the feet."
"Couldn't remember which one, sir," the young fellow says apologetically. He has a broad sturdy face, with muddy shadows beneath his cheekbones and great blue eyes beneath great black eyebrows, knitted. "They told us in the service, but I must have forgot."
So it is a soldier's face -- not a serviceman's face but a pagan's, dappled by ancient suns. At least it is not a policeman's face.
"And where did you serve?"
What patent absurdity, as though he is quizzing some fellow over tea and not lying prone in the mud and wet with the taste of spunk in his mouth. The young fellow furrows his brow still deeper, with a flicker of worry that makes his careless sex appeal dry up like water.
"You fainted, sir."
"Why do you call me that?"
He gives an indifferent shrug of his shoulders. "Do you think you can get up? A policeman is coming."
There is to be no mercy from Millie. She holds her handbag in front of her like a totem; her lacquered mouth is drawn into an utterly unreadable gash, a smile.
"I've just been speaking to your doctor."
"I'm glad to have you here, Millie." Andrew studies his hand against the white sheet. "You didn't have to come down from school to see me; you wouldn't have to wait long."
"Oh, I simply couldn't have stayed back. From the sound of it, you were lucky to have that young man's assistance."
"It's a shame. He went about his business before I could thank him properly."
"I'd like to have a few words of my own with that fellow." Millie opens her handbag, drawing out a compact mirror. "What were you doing in a public park? What on earth were you doing in a public toilet with a man like that?"
Andrew watches her with consideration.
"You talk as if you already have some idea."
"You're not even going to make something up, are you? In every other rotten marriage when the wife asks what her husband was doing in a Hyde Park toilet with another man, he'd have the decency to lie. You won't even lie to me -- for Christ's sake, I wish you would."
The inside of his mouth is cottony-dry, and the slow hitch of pain is rising in his chest. He must press it down. He must make himself unyielding as stone, the way he has little by little with every passing year, piece by piece. He must be as unfeeling as glass.
"Do you believe dishonesty has a place in marriage?"
"I knew something was broken in you when I married you. We women know what you men do in school -- and for ninety-nine men out of a hundred it never lasts, but you! I don't think you even try to be normal, and now -- it's as if you're proud of being defective."
"You knew," Andrew repeats. The cold sweat bathes him; his gaze is steady.
"There are aspects of my nature, you said to me, which I would prefer to spare you. Was I meant to understand that as a reference to the way you hold your knife, or leave your whiskers in the bathroom sink? You drive me mad every day with these things, and yet I make your dinner and polish your shaving mirror and sleep in your bed. How could you, Andrew? How could you make a fool of me like this?"
"If you've known what I am for nearly twenty years, Millie, then this business can come as no surprise to you."
"Just when I think I've seen you at your lowest, you amaze me."
The doctor has said as little as he can. Neither of them will acknowledge the same graceless fact-- that sick men may die, that such-and-such a patient may only have a few years' expectation, that there is a pain without a remedy. Crocker-Harris studies his hands.
There are to be no children. The war binds them up together like a bandage, and that is that. When he broaches the matter of his desire with a doctor, the man says you can't do anything about it, old chap, and sends him on his way.
Andrew Crocker-Harris is twenty-three years old when Sir William Bartop introduces him to his niece. Millie is twenty-three years old with a hard bright manner like a diamond, and it is not good for a man to be alone. Other men have married for passion or convenience, but he marries from the sincerest impulse of affection -- she is young and carefree, fiercely funny and fully inhabiting her sleek young body like an athlete. She knows what she likes and what she hates, and that has its own electric appeal
The worm of mediocrity already eats at him -- desires tightly under rein and of stifled passion unpursued. Too many men have told him that he holds promise, that he will achieve great things in an illustrious field -- and he itches in his skin because he must act soon or perish.
She pursues him, and he permits it. At his shabby scholar's lodgings, he shows her the garden he's made out of a bit of bare ground, explaining how he has tended such-and-such a planting or drawn up the lines for a garden path that has not yet been laid. In the shadow of a twisted larch, she throws her arms around his neck impulsively, and he kisses her.
Her clever smooth face is blushing like a rose. He holds the neat trim animal of her body in his arms and thinks, this is a friend. He does not think, one day affection will not be enough.
He is twenty years old at Oxford where brilliant young men of twenty have the world laid out at their feet -- only say the word, and pluck your choice from the bough of learning. Golden youths and sober old men, stern fathers and dour young girls -- they live in a half-world of Classical lyric, more Roman than it is Athenian. It is the season of wildest passion -- young men are always coupling and always quarreling, everything is always politics and religion. He loves a beautiful sunny-haired Russian fellow who is never happier than when he is climbing mountains somewhere or sailing or singing or some other impossibly appealing pursuit. Beside him, Andrew feels stammering and dull and straining to impress, yet he pursues.
Andrew translates The Seven Against Thebes into trim lines of verse, and they sit together turning the pages side by side on an old sofa with one broken leg -- marvel of marvels, the fellow loves him for it. He trails his golden beauty from the amateur dramatics club to the boating club to the chapel, and each prize he earns he wears with the mad pride of the young lover -- piling achievement upon achievement.
Andrew runs panting after him with scarcely-understood passion -- this is not his first attachment of this sort, but it is the first real occasion to chase after the object of his affection with any degree of freedom. What he does not comprehend is sex. The two of them kiss and embrace and bring each other off, but the act of copulation between two men is a mystery. When a merchant sailor at a party demonstrates the significance of the act it is almost disappointing, shorn of the mystique of worship. Just the same, it is a relief.
When his beauty loves another, Andrew is broken-hearted for a week or two, but in the end, he feels the loss of the translation bitterest. There is no second copy.
He is a boy of ten, and he stands apart -- he does not excel in sport, nor does he take part in the dark veiled guilty games boys play with one another after lights-out. The kindly phrase is that he lives chastely, but this does not endear him to rough and bitter boys -- not out of decency but out of fear, some fear that he will lose his scholarship and be damned to mediocrity for his dirtiness. Not infrequently he is beaten, and he blubs over it all night like a much younger boy, but what brings the bitter tears to his eyes is not pain but the indignity of boyhood. At his happiest, he is only a mind without a body -- an inky scribbler ranging wide in ancient forests of language, following the paths of sense and meaning where braver wiser men have laid the precedent. He is participating in a mystery that is older than Christ, deeper and more profound than the goings-on of masters and men.
But this is Andrew the man looking back, not Andrew the boy, who only looks forward.
Andrew the boy is happier than he later remembers. He is rougher, crueler, more jubilant in his mischief and less narrow in his joys -- if he is not the best player on the pitch, he is not the worst. He is not friendless, he is not sickly, he is young and clever and full of the promise of youth that will never be grasped again.
Andrew the boy will never know how happy he is, or how admired. He knows only his difference -- the thrill of waking up early to eavesdrop on the creaky-voiced sung services, or the pleasure of a hard and stable phrase in parallel translation. He knows that he is different before he ever knows why -- before his stern young teacher explains the paramount dangers of uncleanliness before he ever comes to love another boy.
At Bradford, Crocker-Harris dresses himself with solemn deliberation, buttoning a cuff. Frank studies the wallpaper with his head on the solitary pillow.
"You don't need to lie and tell me you like it here. I know it's beneath you. It's a rotten thing for a man like you."
"On the contrary, I have more time for my leisure. I have taken up writing for pleasure. Does that sound pompous? Not memoirs, only little commentaries. And they aren't all dull boys."
"I'm sure they can't all be." Frank stops himself, though he isn't certain why. "Dull, I mean. Not uniformly slow."
"One or two of them seem rather promising. The rest are teachable enough. They all poke fun, but that's the prerogative of schoolboys, and they are glad not to be beaten."
"I'll bet. They must have had plenty of that already."
Frank can hardly oppose corporal punishment on sheer principle, but he cannot imagine such a man as this delivering the customary discipline without a qualm -- not as Crocker-Harris is now, a wearier but gentler-looking man. No, not gentler, but easier now, as though the barriers surrounding him have begun to ease -- like a strange organism whose quaking wall melts away on the stained microscopic plate.
"The world is hard enough for those boys. The headmaster is a friend, and I've been allowed a little piece of ground."
A little piece of ground in this dreary post-Victorian spill that will one day be a garden.
"Do you want me to go? I can find a room in town, there's still plenty of time."
"I want you to stay. There's another bed. It would have belonged to my wife, of course, if things had gone differently."
"And now it's mine."
"For the night, you may have it," Andrew says. "If you'd like it." He is conservative in his hopes.
This must be the first time anyone's ever tried to hurry him out after lovemaking, for fear of asking too much. A dull ache of pity throbs in Frank's breast; he reaches over to touch Crocker-Harris on the shoulder. It begins as an awful, self-consciously bluff gesture, man-to-man, until it becomes a caress.
"And when I come back again?"
"Whenever you like."