The retreat is a fucking disaster.
They’re crawling into Portsmouth harbour, dead slow, and James can still smell it above the brine and the wet-dog smell of serge: burning horses, scuttled guns, men left unburied on the sand. It’s on his skin; caked beneath his fingernails.
England is a dream, emerging from the thinning mist; unreal.
England is on this limping frigate; one of the last to leave. Men in blankets, wrapped in tarps, the sweat of waking nightmares oily in their hair.
James keeps England in the pocket of his greatcoat, tucked against his heart.
“Well,” says Captain Crozier once they’re back on solid ground: a pier with a railway line, genteel Pullman coaches repurposed for the dirty, straggling troops. “That’s that.”
He looks like a ghost from a cinematic matinée, the weathered sea captain long-since drowned, hulking in his coat and roll-neck jersey, sea boots splattered with drying sand.
“You did well, Fitzjames.” Crozier puts a hand, briefly, on James’ arm.
James unsticks his tongue. “It’s not enough.”
The words lie heavy in his mouth; he’s been speaking mostly French these last few days, translating, telling the 1er Armée they have to stay where they are. But he knows the truth of what he says, at the pit of his gut. The war has merely changed its sphere, moved into another element: from land, to sea, to air.
Crozier is not England: he’s an Ulsterman from County Down, much as he tries to hide the brogue that lurks behind his vowels. He’s the Mountains of Mourne, the Battle of the Boyne, the red right hand.
But he narrows his eyes in a sort of smile, and says, “It will do for now.”
And James, for a fraction of a minute, chooses to believe.
James reports for duty and is given a promotion and a month of leave. He doesn’t want either.
“I lost my ship, sir,” he says, tight-lipped in protest.
“So did a great many officers, James. It does you no discredit.” Rear-Admiral Franklin is massive and implacable, immovable as a lump of rock.
James grinds his teeth. “I lost my men.”
They lie rotting at the bottom of the Channel, crew and casualties alike; a hundred sailors’ graves. James ought to be there with them.
“A sacrifice for the greater good of the nation,” Franklin is saying. “The operation was a great success. We have our army back — thatʼs what is needed now.”
“A few weeks in the countryside, thatʼs what you need. Or Brighton. I hear itʼs not much changed. Why donʼt you visit your brother?”
But William is stuck out in Wiltshire, leaving James a vagabond since the outbreak of the war: living in temporary digs, at hotels, on ships. So when Crozier — still a Captain, no promotion there — offers up a house in London, with no interfering landlady and no board to pay, James accepts, though without enthusiasm. A bed is a bed, and it’s better than lingering here.
“Belongs to a friend,” Crozier says, fighting with the mortice lock. “He’s doing something... well, hush-hush, but you didn’t hear it from me. Wife and children gone to Canada.”
They’re in Blackheath, which James hadn’t quite expected; a narrow end-of-terrace, with a view across the park. His allotted bedroom is on the second floor, wallpapered with a faded design of wisterias in bloom. Crozier gestures at the wardrobe, tells James to help himself. James has nothing but an attaché case, otherwise. He finds a pullover and a pair of Oxford bags, a little short, but more or less correct around the waist.
He looks in on Crozier, billeted next door; there’s a steamer trunk splayed open on the bed, articles of clothing everywhere. He gives James an appraising glance. “I thought theyʼd fit. You and Ross are of a width, if not a height.”
“Clark Ross?” James knows the name, of course, and certainly the reputation. But itʼs one thing to be aware of a man, and rather another to be wearing his cast-off clothes.
“Everything of mine is too big,” says Crozier. Heʼs barefoot, shrugging into a much-darned shirt that flaps like a pennant around his ribs. “Bloody mess rations — I’ve had to put new holes in my belt as it is.”
He does look thinner. Crozier used to be a fleshy, florid man, liked a drink; more than liked, was desperate for, all hours of the day. But he’s hollowed out, become raw-boned, though still broad. As James watches, he sweeps a hand through his golden hair, lifts it at the root.
“Tea,” he says. “Will you join me, James—may I call you James?”
James nods. “Of course.” He scrapes his memory for Crozierʼs Christian name. Why canʼt he remember it?
“Francis.” Crozier clasps his arm and smiles, as though theyʼre meeting for the first time.
Slowly, they settle in at Blackheath.
The first floor rooms are musty, shut up too long, and cluttered with the debris of hurriedly-abandoned lives. They confine themselves to the kitchen, which feels impersonal, utilitarian enough to commandeer. And it’s an unseasonably clammy June: better to be by the stove, with endless tea in easy reach.
Francis reads, does the crossword, potters; a confirmed potterer, this man, who at sea is so steady and exacting. He’s a tolerable cook — God knows where he learned it — and they pool their coupons, make the meat and butter stretch. Next he takes to digging up the garden, sinking vegetable beds around the Anderson shelter, planting beetroot and runner beans.
James doesn’t see the point. He can’t glimpse a future further than the summer’s end.
He takes up knitting, needing something to do with his hands; unable to smoke because the smell makes him sick. He canʼt sleep either, but sits up with the lights off and the curtains drawn, waiting for the end of the world.
It comes, in fits and starts.
By the end of June there are nuisance raids up and down the eastern coast, and before long bombers come to London, snaking up the moonlit Thames. James sees searchlights spiking up from the grounds of the naval college, the distant crump of ack-ack guns. The dots of German aircraft might be sandflies, small and innocuous, save for the spots of fire that spring up in their wake.
Even if this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle.
James sees himself at Halifax or Hobart, perhaps Madras.
More often, he sees himself surrendering in the street. He sees a final cigarette — an officer’s last courtesy — before a Wehrmacht bullet penetrates his head.
The first siren sounds just as theyʼre sitting down for dinner.
“Blast.” Francis wolfs a bite of pilchards: tinned, warmed through. “Nothing for it, come on.”
But barely has James set foot in the shelter before he’s fighting into open air again, stumbling on the fresh-turned ground.
“I can’t,” he chokes. “I’d rather be killed outright.” He aims a kick at the corrugated door. The damned thing is a coffin made of steel, with a smell of stagnant water, horribly like the belly of a ship.
“You certainly will be if you stand around out here.” Francis emerges from the gloom.
“I’m not being buried alive like a — a fucking sardine.” James spits the words, harsh in the humid air. A battery of guns goes off, close at hand, and he cowers, going almost to his knees again.
“You’re all right.” Francis puts a hand on his shoulder. “Those are our twin Vickers.”
A heavy aircraft glides overhead, so close that he can see the balkenkreuz on its tail. Itʼs almost silent, a giant airborne whale. Smoke is pouring from the fuselage, and thereʼs an orange glow in the perspex bubble of the cockpit. James feels a fierce, bitter triumph at the sight, and clambers to his feet.
“Theyʼve got him,” Francis says tonelessly.
“Burn, you fucking Jerry bastards,” mutters James under his breath. He can hear the Stuka sirens again, the dreadful rattle of their guns.
“Steady on,” murmurs Francis at his side.
Above them the bomber pitches, turns. “Heʼs coming down,” says James. “Making for the heath.”
“The river,” says Francis. “Heʼs ditching.”
James hopes they drown, the lot of them: pilot, navigator, gunners and sparks. What are five dead Germans? Nothing at all.
A piercing whistle breaks the soundless spell, then a second, and a third. There are crashes in the surrounding streets, the sound of splintering glass, the rush of flame.
“Jesus,” says Francis. “With me, James!”
The blackout is black no longer, but bloody, burning red. They find a house half-destroyed and spouting flames, a dazed and dirty ARP warden on the pavement: a ferrety little man with a black moustache.
“Oh God,” heʼs saying. “Oh Christ.” He grabs at Francisʼ outstretched arms. “Went up like bloody kindling — like kindling. Minutes, it took. Seconds. Oh, Christ.”
“Anyone inside?” Francis barks, a voice to carry above the roar of diesel and Atlantic storms.
“A woman and a little girl.”
“Keep him out of the way, James.” Francis takes off at a run, dragging his jumper up around his head.
“Francis!” But Francis has gone, leaving James with the gibbering warden. “Pull yourself together, man.” James shakes him viciously by the elbows. “You’re sure? A woman and a girl?”
“Saw them in the window — second floor.”
“Where are the fire brigade? Ambulances?”
“Coming from Lewisham. We werenʼt expecting it, not here.”
“Rang the bloody siren loud enough, didnʼt you?” James snaps, staring at the burning house. The fire is ferocious. Behind the sound of flames is something deeper and more dangerous: the groan of wood and metal giving way.
James feels the edges of his nerves begin to fray; an electric cord, rat-nibbled.
He can taste the smoke, nostrils flaring at the fumes, feels sea swell churning underfoot, the grit of sand beneath his shoes.
Minutes pass. Bells clamour in the distance, water arcs from a fire hose in the next street, a little knot of people gathers: women in housecoats, men in pajamas and thrown-on overcoats, wide-eyed, sleepy children. Why are there children here at all? Theyʼd been sent away, James thought, into the country, out of this sitting-duck city.
Francis is dead. He must be. Itʼs been too long.
James is surprised by how little grief he feels.
“Are you all right?” An ambulance driver, a young woman with the face of a Grecian goddess, peers up at him from under a scuffed tin hat. “You’re dreadfully pale — you ought to sit down.”
James wants to say heʼs fine; that she should have been here half an hour ago, that sheʼs half an hour too late. But his mouth feels entirely empty, as though heʼs never had a voice at all.
And then, in the gaping hole that used to be a front door: Francis.
He has something clutched to his chest. It looks like a bundle of rags, but it stirs, coughs. The ambulance crew goes rushing forwards, and a pathetic ripple of applause moves through the assembled crowd. James watches Francis brush away a warden, offering a blanket and a flask of tea, and unwinds the jumper from his head. The wool is scorched and pocked with holes.
“The motherʼs dead,” he says, with a rasping sigh. “The child wonʼt live.” Heʼs racked with a fit of coughing, and leans on James to stay upright. James seems to come alive under his hands, takes Francis by the shoulders, looks into his soot-streaked face.
“Are you hurt?”
Francis shakes his head, still coughing. “Letʼs go home.”
Francis is black from fingertip to elbow, from the top of his head to his collarbones. Thatʼs as much as James sees before he turns his back, busying himself with the bath towel: hunter green, the darkest he could find. Mrs Ross won’t thank them for staining her best linen, if she ever comes back from Canada to find it ruined.
Once Francis is submerged, James rolls up his sleeves and wets a bath sponge, wiping the soot from Francis’ face. He was half-blind with it, stumbling into the hatstand in the hall and the bookcase at the head of the stairs. James froths carbolic soap and makes another careful swipe, and Francis hisses and draws away.
“Sorry,” says James.
“Not your fault.” Francis’ hand comes up and touches his right eye. There’s a laceration on his eyelid, deep and raw. “A spark, I think,” he says. “Or a splinter of wood.”
“Christ. You could have lost an eye.”
“I’d get a patch.” Francis grimaces. “Be a proper sailor.”
“You’d be invalided out,” says James, sweeping the sponge across his face once more.
“No great loss.”
“I don’t agree.” James means the war effort: every man must play his part. But he would mourn the absence of that eye. No one looks at him in quite the same way Francis does. His gaze is inescapable, relentless, penetrating.
James puts his thumb to the wound, to the delicate, broken skin. Francis’ eye flutters shut, and James feels the eyeball shifting, the fertile roundness of it; so easy to damage or destroy. He wants to pin Francis here, hold him down by this wound, this eye, keep him away from the world and the war.
Francis’ other eye, slack-lidded, is regarding James. He withdraws his hand and turns away, searching the cabinet over the sink for a bottle of iodine.
“Why did you go in at all?” he says. “There was no need.”
Francis looks at him with a frown. “There was every need.”
James drops to his knees and splashes iodine onto a cotton ball. “You may be an officer of His Majesty’s Navy, Francis, but it doesn’t make you untouchable.” He dabs at the cut with more force than necessary, holding Francis by the scruff of his neck.
“It was worth the doing,” says Francis. “And I’m here, James. I’m alive.” His good eye has lost none of its power: James is pierced, transfixed, but angry all the same.
Why should Francis risk this body: the solid chest bisected by the water, the world-bearing breadth of shoulders, the archipelago of bony knees? Or this brain, which James cradles in his hand: this pure calculating engine that makes its owner a tactician, a peerless sailor, and a father to his men?
James tosses the cotton away and reaches for the sponge, scrubs at Francis’ neck and shoulders, rills of blackened water sliding down into his fur of auburn hair. Francis sits quiet, pliant, both eyes closed; one daubed with a smear of burnt-earth red. The iodine has trickled like a tear, giving Francis the look of an ancient, blinded god.
He leans obediently forward as James rubs soap into his hair, and tips his head back, when directed, for James to rinse it with clean water from a jug. The gold shows bright again, as though years of tarnish have been polished away. James soaps his chest, the small pink nipples, the freckled upper arms. He extends each hand and washes them, too; the sturdy wrists, the strong fingers, dirt lingering under the nails.
“Right, then. I can manage now.” There’s a queer, cagey look on Francis’ face; uncharacteristically evasive.
James knows that look. He’s lived among men long enough. A surge of reckless daring beats in his blood. “Stand up, Francis.”
James brushes the back of his fingers over Francis’ nipple. It goes taut and hard, and Francis moans, turns his face away.
“Stand up,” James says again.
Francis rises in a rush of water; Poseidon emerging from the sea. His prick is stiff and red below his stomach, jutting out at James.
“Give me a towel for Christ’s sake.”
James does so, rocking back on his heels to reach. Francis doesn’t attempt to cover himself, but he dries his face and hands, rubs the towel back and forth across his head. He steps out of the bath, and James steadies him with a hand on his hip, presses his forehead against the glistening skin. Francis’ fingers slide into James' hair.
There’s no going back from this.
With another sort of man it never would have got this far. With the wrong sort of man, James would have a bloody lip, or be laid out on the linoleum floor. But Francis lets out a ragged breath above him, and James dips his head and puts his mouth around the tip of Francis’ cock.
He can’t fail here, at any rate.
Francis tastes like blood and soap, the tang of carbolic acid. All scent of smoke is gone, though a trace of sweat lingers at Francis’ hip. James pulls back and rubs his temple there, slides his hands up Francis’ thighs and pulls him closer, feels answering hands rest heavy on his head.
He takes Francis into his mouth again, deeper, wishing Francis would fuck into him as though he’s worthless, like he’s nothing: one of the sly lads in Soho that give bankers the glad eye; a marine on leave who doesn’t care if he gets caught; a dolled-up dilly boy in a dark alley, a shilling for a quick suck.
James opens his throat, chokes on Francis’ thickness, hears Francis grunt. This is what James wanted: to be breathless, tears stinging in his eyes; to be silenced; to be put back in his place.
He doesn’t want to think. He doesn’t want to make decisions anymore.
He forces his head forward as far as it will go, breathing deep in Francis’ pubic hair. Francis twitches, his hips shudder, and warm brine floods the back of James’ desperate, gasping throat.
James swallows obediently, though no order has been given. He unsticks himself from Francis’ softening cock. Francis is breathing deeply, pink from belly to neck. He slumps onto the edge of the bath, cock wet against his thigh, and runs a hand through James’ hair. “James.”
James can’t speak. He rests his cheek on Francis’ knee and shuts his eyes. He wants this feeling to last, this pleasant emptiness, the lingering weight of Francis on his tongue. His own desire is distant, muffled; numb and subdued along with everything else.
He looks up at Francis: his earnest, pockmarked face, that protuberant upper lip, the uneven teeth, kind creases at the corners of his eyes. The iodine stain, the missing slice of skin.
A memory licks, flame-like, at the edges of James’ mind. “How do you know,” he asks, “that the girl will die?”
There’s a pause before Francis answers. “She was burned, James,” he says gently.
And suddenly James can smell it. Not on Francis, but on himself; on Ross’ jumper, and on the heap of Francis’ clothes, kicked into a corner. James lurches to the lavatory and vomits convulsively. He’s eaten nothing since breakfast, and can bring up only Francis’ come and some yellowish bile, filmy on the surface of the water.
Francis’ hand is on his shoulder, drawing a soothing line along his back. James shakes him off and sags against the tiled wall, wipes his mouth on his cuff. Francis is on his knees, down at James’ level, the towel around his waist. He does not reach for James again, except to briefly touch his knee.
“I’m sorry,” James says. “I’m all right.”
He’ll get up in a moment, flush the evidence away, drain the bathtub, rinse it clean. Strip his clothes and burn them — no, not burn. Boil wash in Sunlight soap and bleach.
“You’re not,” says Francis. He rises with a groan and puts a hand out, reaching down for James.
James considers it: this hand he washed, this hand that gripped his hair.
He wants to take it, but he can’t.
James comes down the next morning to find Francis in the hall, tearing open an envelope.
“Iʼm for the Admiralty,” he says, scanning the letter. “Best bib and tucker. Surprised you havenʼt got one too.”
“They donʼt know where I am,” says James.
Francis cocks his head at this, but says nothing.
“Your eye looks better.” James is on the lowest step, has a clear downward view. The iodine stain is the worst of it; a small scab half-hidden.
“Hm?” Francis puts his hand to his eyelid. “Oh, yes.”
James waits for the polite brush-off, some expression of remorse or regret, a threat of retaliatory violence, perhaps. The morning after is never pleasant.
But Francis merely gives him a long, steady look and says, “Shift yourself,” waving a hand towards the stairs. He gestures at his loamy-kneed trousers and untidy shirt. “Canʼt go like this, can I?”
At a loose end, James makes his way to Clerkenwell, wanting to look in on Edward Charlewood. Last James heard, he was commanding a destroyer in the Norwegian campaign; he ought to be home by now. The station at Angel is stuffy and unaired, like a sickroom. There are signs of habitation: apple cores and paperback novels discarded on the platform.
James finds the house, no easy job with all the street signs taken down, and raps briskly at the door. The brass knocker needs a good clean. There’s no answer. He backs onto the pavement and looks up: no windows open, but neither any shutters drawn. He darts up the steps and knocks again, with his fist this time, pounding on the door.
“He’s dead, dear.”
A woman in a headscarf is polishing windows in the area next door, newspaper and a spot of vinegar; James can smell it from here. “What?” he croaks.
“A month back. His missus got the telegram and hopped it with the kiddies.”
“Where—where did they go?” Sarah and the children — oh, God, the children. Alice so tiny and another on the way.
“I don’t know, love. Family, maybe.”
“Yes,” says James. Her people were from Hertfordshire — or Hampshire, he can’t remember.
“Nice fellow, Mr. Charlewood. Always very proper and polite.”
“Captain Charlewood.” Edward wrote to James, delighted. A bloody war and a sickly season, Jim — congratulate me. “He was a Captain.”
“That’s it,” she says. “Terrible shame.”
James leans against the wall beside the door. His legs don’t seem to work; won’t take him down the steps. There used to be railings here, wrought iron, and along the street, too. Where have all the bloody railings gone?
“You do look queer.” The woman climbs towards him. “Why don’t you come down for a cup of tea?”
James shakes his head. “I’ll be all right,” he says. “Thanks all the same.”
“Well, if you’re sure.” She rummages in her apron and pulls out a small brown bottle. “Here. For the shock.”
James takes it from her and gulps a mouthful down: neat gin, the cheapest sort, but fortifying. He thanks her and walks away, not back towards the Tube but in the direction of the park. At the corner there’s a great crater in the road, like something from the surface of the moon. A policeman is calmly directing traffic around it: an old boy with a Bismarck moustache, brought out of retirement to replace some brave, dead young man.
James’ hands are shaking. The day is colder than he thought.
It’s dark by the time he gets back. He fumbles with the latchkey, drops it, and lets out a fluent string of curses. The door opens: Francis, peering from behind the blackout curtain.
“Get inside, for Christ’s sake. Where have you been?”
James is shivering. He has been for a while, but the comparative warmth of the house has made it worse. “W-went to see a friend,” he says, letting Francis shepherd him down into the kitchen.
“Where does he live — Antarctica?” Francis sets the kettle on the stove with a clang. “You’re half frozen, James.”
“He doesn’t live anywhere.” James exhales sharply. The sound is almost like a laugh. “Not anymore.” Now he really is laughing, an awful mechanical sound, hysterical and high-pitched.
“Jesus.” Francis rifles through a corner cupboard and snatches up a mug from the drying rack. “Sit down.” He forces James, still laughing, into a chair; pours something pungent into the mug and lifts it to his teeth. “Drink,” he says, a firm hand at the nape of James’ neck.
It’s cooking sherry: not as bad as the gin, but enough to make James splutter and cough. Francis forces him to drink again, and he coughs harder still, tears starting in his eyes.
“You’re all right,” Francis says. “There’s a good chap.”
James stops coughing, but he still can’t breathe.
Edward, dead. Drowned inside a sinking ship, or burned, or blasted into bits.
It must be a mistake. The fucking Admiralty making a mess of things again, or the woman at the house was wrong, or lying, or mad. Perhaps James himself is mad. He certainly feels it; would run out into the blackout were it not for Francis on his knees before him, his face creased in concern.
But Francis dims and James is back on Erebus, amidships, helpless as a torpedo slices towards her through the waves. The sky is thick with enemy aircraft, the RAF nowhere to be fucking seen. Mortar shells throw the sand of Dunkirk beach into the air, scatter columns of soldiers, tear holes in the heaving pier. A hospital ship is going down with all hands, and they’ll be next — bullets coming down like hail. Gore drops onto the deck, blood pooling where he falls, draining out towards the scuppers.
Le Vesconte is shouting to the bridge, and then the whole ship shifts, turning almost on its side. The whoop of sirens, flashing amber lights, the smell of burning oil. A stretcher slides loose and James is knocked off his feet, sees Billy Orren fall.
He has a final glimpse of Henry’s white and staring face, before black water rises up and claims him.
James chokes, tasting salt water, and finds himself in a quiet kitchen, kettle singing on the stove. Something expands inexorably in his head, an awful pressure that grows and grows and breaks at last like a wave across a plunging bow.
“Francis, I—” he begins, and bursts into unruly tears.
Francis rises on his knees and puts his arms around him, and James cries like a child against his neck. It’s a long time before he can do anything but try to breathe. When he pulls away, Francis’ collar is soaked with spit. Francis’ face is very close to his, bright eyes wet with tears. James can’t understand it — what does Francis have to be sorry for?
Francis puts his palm to James’ forehead, pushing back a fallen strand of hair. “It’s all right,” he says again. “I’m here.”
James swallows. He leans down and presses his lips against Francis’ mouth. Francis goes very still, though his hand tightens in James’ hair. When James pulls back, Francis is smiling; but it’s a blandly civil smile, as one might give a stranger, or a child.
“Take me to bed,” says James, wanting to shock that quiet smile away.
“No, James.” Francis gets to his feet, but James clutches at his hips.
“Please — make me feel something. I donʼt want to feel like this any longer.” James is crying as he says it, snot and tears sliding into his open mouth.
Francis shakes his head, looking pained, but he gathers James in his arms and holds onto him, letting James sob against his chest, ashamed and overwrought. Once James is quieter and sniffing, Francis pats him on the shoulder, and offers up his handkerchief. James takes it automatically.
“Tea,” says Francis.
“I don’t want tea.” The words come wet and thick; James wipes his face with the back of his hand.
“A cup of tea,” says Francis firmly. “And a hot water bottle, and bed.”
James allows himself to be shepherded upstairs.
He’s never been so exhausted in his life, worse even than the first week back from Dunkirk, as though he’s been put through a scullery mangle. He shucks out of his clothes in the half-dark, too tired to be self-conscious, and pulls on a pair of ticking-striped pajamas.
Francis stows the hot water bottle underneath the sheets. “Do you want an aspirin, or a bromide?”
James shakes his head.
“Is your bed as miserably uncomfortable as mine?” Francis leans his weight on the mattress. “Can’t think what Ross is playing at.”
“I don’t know,” says James. “I’ve been sleeping in the chair.” Sleeping is a charitable word; he passes out each morning, just before dawn.
“Why, for heaven’s sake?”
James shrugs. He feels absurd, hesitating by the bed in his too-short pajamas, blotchy-faced, still sniffing.
“Get into bed.”
“It’s no good, Francis.”
“You don’t have to sleep, just — lie down.” Francis hitches up his trousers and sinks into the armchair. There’s nothing for James to do but slide under the sheets. The foot of the bed is beautifully warm, the ceiling shadowed, blank.
He thinks of his long walk home, the numbness in his hands and feet, the peculiar look a woman with a perambulator had given him, the private with a kitbag who’d openly stared. What had he looked like? A man escaping a disaster, staggering home with a bloodless face; or guilty, as though hunted for an unknown crime?
He twitches back from the memory, and turns on the pillow to make sure Francis is still there. He is, head bowed, hands folded on his chest. James dozes again, but jerks awake, seeking Francis in the dimness.
Francis straightens in his chair.
“Don’t go,” James blurts out.
“I’m not.” Francis is upright, tugging off his jersey. “Shift over. The bed’s too big.”
“I’ll wager you’ve not slept in a berth this wide since you were last on leave.”
“Some smart hotel, I don’t doubt. Move over, James.”
James shuffles over to let Francis sit on the edge of the mattress. He discards his shirt and leans down to untie his shoes.
“You’re not used to it,” he says, thumping the pillow into shape and stretching out with a groan. “Too long in bunks and barracks.”
James does feel better with Francis at his side. It’s warmer, companionable, like sharing a bed with Will when they were young. He lies quietly and tries to empty his mind.
“Go to sleep.” Francis’ voice rumbles like distant thunder through the mattress. “I’m going to turn out the light.” He reaches for the lamp cord and the room goes black.
James does weep again, just a little, in the dark. He balls the borrowed handkerchief into his fist and presses it against his mouth, trying to stifle the noise.
Francis turns over and rests a hand on James’ breastbone: heavy and very warm, making small, soothing movements with his thumb. James sobs a while longer, and then subsides.
He curls onto his side, towards Francis, and remembers nothing more.
James dreams of water and wakes breathless, gasping, but Francis is there. Asleep, but solid and real, a sea wall against the encroaching tide. James wraps himself in the sheet, and falls asleep again.
He wakes next in daylight, alone; feels at once like weeping, but pushes the instinct down.
Francisʼ tread sounds on the stairs and presently he appears, in shirt and trousers, bearing tea and toast. He lowers himself onto the counterpane and settles back against the pillows.
“In bed, Francis?” James protests sleepily, as Francis takes a bite of toast and marmalade.
“Worse things happen at sea. Sit up and drink this.”
James pulls himself upright and takes the cup. “Arenʼt you having any?”
“Bit early for me,” says Francis with a wry smile.
James takes a cautious sip: the tea is laced with sugar and sherry. “That’s vile.”
“It’s good for you. My mother’s cure — only she’d use whisky, and we havenʼt any.”
Francis extends a piece of toast and James takes it, chews without tasting, follows patterns on the wisteria-printed wallpaper. Odd to think of this house existing, empty, with everyone who loves it so far away. Ross ought to sell it and take a flat somewhere, but perhaps he’s attached to the place.
“This is queer, isnʼt it?” he says, at which Francis raises his eyebrows. “You know what I mean,” James sighs. The two of them, eating breakfast in James Clark Rossʼ second-best guest bedroom; in the bed itself, having slept there, side by side.
Francis gives him a sidelong smile. “How do you feel?”
James considers. “Tired,” he says. “Exhausted. My hands and feet are cold.”
“Youʼre still in shock,” says Francis, getting to his feet. “Here.” He tosses James a jumper. “You’ll be better off staying in bed.”
“Oh yes,” says James, “now youʼve filled it with crumbs.”
But he drags the jumper over his head all the same. It smells neither of himself nor of mothballs, but of Francis: soap and salt and sweat. James rolls down the cuffs and they cover his hands like mittens.
Francis settles in the armchair, having fetched a newspaper from the kitchen and a paperback novel from his own room. James lies on his back and stares at nothing, dozes for a while. When another wave of weeping comes, James gives into it, and Francis is there: rubbing circles into his back, pushing the hair out of his eyes.
“You must think me the most dreadful old woman,” says James blearily, looking at him through pointed lashes, wet with tears.
“I cried for a week after the Armistice,” says Francis. “On and off — but I didnʼt shed a tear when my father died. Thereʼs no logic to it, James. And thereʼs nothing wrong with you.”
“Thatʼs not true.” James glances at Francis’ mouth, the cut above his eye; feels his knees on the linoleum again, tastes Francis on his tongue.
Francis grips his shoulder. “Try to sleep.”
Francis comes to Jamesʼ bed that night as though itʼs a matter of course, without James even needing to ask.
“Itʼs more comfortable than mine,” he says, pulling back the counterpane and climbing in. “Even with you in it.”
James sleeps almost until midday.
His mind feels empty and very clean, like a shell polished by the sea. He slept heavily, without dreaming, and he’s not — not consciously, at any rate — thinking about Edward, or Henry, or the war. Itʼs not an absence of feeling, but a presence he can bear; can hold, gingerly, as one lifts an antique glass into the light.
There’s a comforting smell of bacon frying downstairs, and he decides to follow it, throwing on a dressing gown.
“Where the devil did you get that?” he says, sliding into a kitchen chair. They've had their piece of gammon already this week.
“Donʼt ask.” Francis sets a plate of bacon, scrambled eggs and grilled tomatoes before him, along with the toast rack, teapot, jam and margarine. “The eggs are powdered, before you get your hopes up.”
“You ought to keep chickens,” says James, through a mouth full of toast and jam. Heʼs ravenous, for the first time in what feels like weeks.
“No good,” says Francis ruefully. He taps an envelope that lies open on the table. “Iʼm back in harness. They want me up in Argyllshire in a fortnight.”
Argyll. There’s a combined ops base at the head of one of the lochs, a signal school. So Francis is staying ashore. James wonders if it’s a promotion or a punishment; though Francis has done nothing to be punished for, not like James. HMS Terror is still afloat, though badly holed and in a dry dock at Sheerness, needing to be patched together again.
“I’m sorry, Francis.”
Francis puts down his knife and fork. “What for?”
“You know what for.” James spits the words out like a broken tooth. “You could have me court-martialled for what happened in here alone.”
“They’d court-martial me, too,” says Francis. He has his elbows on the table, watching James over his interlaced hands. “In any case, it’s done now. No sense regretting it.”
“Do you? Regret it?”
Francis’ face softens. “No, James,” he says. “The circumstances, maybe, but not the act.”
“I wouldʼve let you do anything to me,” says James flatly, staring at the toast rack. “Here on the table. On the floor, even.”
“A year ago I might have done it.” Francis has dropped his hands into his lap, and dropped his gaze to follow. “A year ago you might have deserved it,” he adds, with the shadow of a smile. “But I’m a better man than I used to be — and you’re a better man than I considered you to be. You deserve kindness, James.”
James bites the corner of his mouth, shaking his head. Francis makes no attempt to argue, but takes up his knife and fork again. “Eat,” he says, “if only to get rid of the evidence.”
They finish their breakfasts in silence, save for the scrape of margarine on toast and the trickle of milk and tea into the cups as Francis pours. The bacon is the best thing James has eaten since the beginning of the war: not tinned, not ersatz, not one thing masquerading as another. It tastes real.
“Your man,” Francis says, as he takes the dishes and sets them in the sink. “Edward.” He leans against the countertop, arms folded, and turns to look at James. “Were you and he—?”
“No,” says James at once. Something swells in his throat. He feels like Peter denying Christ, but it’s true. “Like a brother,” he says, voice cracking over the word.
Francis nods. “I know,” he says. “Ross and I—” he waves a hand in the direction of the upstairs rooms.
James has seen the wedding photograph on the mantel in the front parlour: Clark Ross and a youngish, shyly smiling bride. Francis is at Ross’ side, the pair of them in uniform and grinning, a peacetime lightness in their eyes.
He thinks of Edward and Sarah’s wedding, almost a decade ago, and the children’s christenings: holding Alice at the font, yards of lace spilling over his lieutenant’s stripes. His own beleaguered surname bestowed upon that tiny girl, artifice made holy on a curate’s tongue. He blinks, and tears run down his face again.
Francis pushes off the counter and moves towards him. “James. Stand up for God’s sake — come here.”
James goes. He puts his forehead to Francis’ shoulder, bending into him like a swaying tree. Francis’ hands come up to stroke his back and James breathes shakily, not quite weeping but wanting comfort; the warmth of Francis’ body, the scent of Francis’ skin.
“Dance with me,” he says, straightening up and wiping his face with both palms.
“What?” Francis huffs.
“That’s what we’d do — in the normal way of things.”
Francis lifts an eyebrow. “Where do you go dancing?”
“There are places,” says James. Dark and secretive, underground; the kitchen is underground too, but with summer sunlight streaming through the high-set windows, a visible sliver of sky.
“I can’t dance in silence,” says Francis.
“Well, then put the wireless on.” James backs away, moving into the clear space beyond the table, pushing his chair out of the way.
Francis fiddles with the radio dial, cycling through the static until a big band playing something slow comes wavering into tune. “Will this do?”
“Perfectly.” James opens his arms and Francis slots between them, a hand at the small of James’ back. They turn awkwardly on the spot, knees knocking together; James is barefoot, trying to avoid the toes of Francis’ shoes.
“Is this what you had in mind?” Francis’ voice tickles against James’ neck.
“More or less,” says James. “We’ve rather done things backwards. I suppose we ought to finish by asking each other’s names.”
“I already know your name.”
“That’s not what I mean, Francis.”
“You certainly know mine — you’ve just proved it.”
“You’re being tediously literal.”
“What I mean is,” says Francis, “that it’s no good our going backwards any longer. I won’t be a stranger to you, James.”
“You’re not,” says James. He holds Francis tighter, so that their hips are flush, their legs intertwined. “You won’t ever be.”
Their faces brush together, temple to temple, and James feels a kiss pressed to the short-cropped hair above his ear.
“Those things you would’ve let me do,” says Francis, in an undertone. “Would you let me do them now?”
“Yes,” James breathes. Two days ago it would have been a penance, a sedative, a way to subdue his racing mind; it would have been miserable, and James would have felt it was all he deserved.
But he wants it now clear-headedly: wants Francis, has done for years. Only it was tangled up in their petty pre-war rivalry, their jostling for rank and reputation, that mutual animosity which fuelled and infuriated James by turns.
“No,” he says, drawing back to look Francis squarely in the eye. “Not here — or on the floor. Somewhere… comfortable. Our own bed.”
He means the one upstairs, the one they’ve shared already, and yet a distant, aching part of him longs for a cottage at the end of this interminable war: with its own plot of land, and trees, and a view of the sea.
“Somewhere comfortable,” says Francis. He nods, and folds James close to him again, and they quietly revolve, shuffling on the flagstone floor.
“Can I make a telephone call — long distance?”
They’ve had a long walk on the heath, safely away from the sight of any bombed-out houses. Francis is slightly sunburned, scowling at himself in the mirror on the bamboo hall stand.
“Of course you can,” he says. “Ross’ll get the bill.”
James runs upstairs to fetch a scrap of paper — damp but not disintegrated — from the pocket of his uniform jacket and returns to the hall. He dials for the operator and is put through.
A voice comes crackling over the line. “Chalcot 4262?”
“Will? It’s me.”
James sinks down onto a nearby chair. Will’s voice sounds like home.
“Are you still there? Lizzie, it’s James!”
“I’m here,” James croaks. “How are you, Will?”
“I’m fine! Fine.” Will is grinning; James can hear it in his voice. “How are you?”
“I’m… alive. Just about.”
“Such a remarkable thing,” Will says. “We devoured the papers. Did you read Churchill’s speech?”
James nods, stupidly, before saying, “Did you hear about—about Edward?”
“Yes,” says Will, sounding forlorn. “Isn’t it dreadful. But I wrote to you — how did you find out?”
“I’m staying with a friend. I went round.”
“Oh, Jamie. I wish you’d heard it from me.”
“What happened?” says James. “I thought he was on Hostile, I thought he was all right.” He checked the papers, had even asked Sir John. HMS Hostile had come home safe; he’d made sure of it.
“He transferred. He was on the Afridi.”
“Christ.” James’ hand shakes as he sweeps it through his hair. The Afridi was dive-bombed by Junkers Ju 87s: those foul, wasp-like things with their awful howling wail. Like Graham and Henry and the rest of them, it must have been the last thing Edward heard.
“James? We don’t know when the service will be. There’s no—well, he was lost at sea. Sarah’s desperate.”
“You must give me her address,” says James, rousing himself. “I ought to write, or visit.”
“Of course, I think Lizzie has it. Why don’t you speak to her a minute — I say, you’re not in a telephone box, are you? We aren’t costing you pounds and pounds?”
“No,” says James, smiling. Will may be two years younger, but he’s always treated James like a wayward foundling child. He supposes that’s more or less what he is.
Francis appears through the baize door and comes closer, rests one hand on James’ shoulder, the other in his hair. James leans his head against Francis’ chest, and closes his eyes. He’s given up using Brylcreem, and has never regretted it less; Francis’ fingers pass cleanly through the hair at his temples, smoothing it flat against his scalp.
Lizzie is voluble and full of news: what the children are doing, what village life is like, how Will’s getting on with his war work. All James has to do is make appropriate noises in the spaces where she stops for breath, and scribble Sarah’s details on a piece of paper as she reads them aloud. It was Hampshire, after all.
Will comes back on the line and says, “I think that’s all. You are all right, Jamie, aren’t you?”
“I’m fine. Honestly, Will.”
Will and Lizzie say their goodbyes together, and James pictures them cheek to cheek around the telephone. He hangs up the receiver.
“Your brother?” says Francis.
“How did you know?”
“He called you Jamie.” Francis is sitting at the bottom of the stairs, his chin in his hands.
James turns to look at him. “You were eavesdropping.”
“I couldn’t help it.”
“No one else ever calls me that. Not even our parents.”
“I like Jamie very much,” says Francis, an allusive glitter in his eye.
“I don’t,” says James. “I mean, I do. But… only with Will.”
Francis nods. “Very well then. James.”
“Are you hungry?”
“Not really. What time is it?” James’ watch stopped working at Dunkirk; engine oil rather than the water, still unforgivable for anything belonging to a sailor. He’s been putting it on each morning without thinking, surprised every time he checks it that it’s a quarter to seven again.
“Nearly five,” says Francis. “I’ve been thinking about our comfortable bed.”
“Have you?” James rises from his chair and goes to stand in the fork of Francis’ knees. “I have, too.”
He cups Francis’ face in both hands and tilts it upwards, kisses his forehead, his pitted cheek, his mouth: tentative in spite of everything that's gone before, half-expecting to be pushed away, even now. But Francis opens under him, surrenders, yields. James remembers the thickness of his prick in his mouth, feels it replicated by this invasion of his tongue. Francis presses into him — drinks from him — a moment longer before pulling away.
“Not here, James,” Francis says. “We agreed.” He’s charmingly out of breath, lips parted, showing the gap between his teeth.
“Come on then,” says James, pulling Francis to his feet. “Upstairs.”
But they’re only on the first floor landing when Francis gets James up against the panelling, biting at his neck, unbuttoning his collar to nose against the hollow of his throat. Francisʼ kisses have a desperate, deathʼs-door urgency; James’ blood is ringing in his ears. He wrestles Francis off and pushes him away.
“This isn’t just some desperate fuck,” he says, his clipped voice echoing up and down the stairs. It’s both a question and a statement. He wants to be sure.
Francis is panting, braced on the opposite bannister, frowning. “No, James.”
“One hears stories,” James says in a rush, babbling. “Men away from home, missing their wives and sweethearts—”
“May they never meet,” puts in Francis with a smile.
“—helping each other out but it means nothing. A favour between friends. Forgotten in the morning.”
“I won’t forget.” Francis comes to James again, rests a gentle hand along his face, brushes his thumb across the skin below his eye. “Not tomorrow, nor the next day. Not until the end of this bloody war — or beyond it, if I live that long.”
“You’ll live,” says James. He presses their foreheads together, wanting to push the words through that barrier of bone and skin: a prayer, an invocation, a certainty. “You will.” He kisses Francis softly, as if to seal a spell. “Don’t let’s talk any longer,” he says. “Take me to bed, Francis. Please.”
But the threat of it — of not living, of losing Francis — burns in James like a petrol fire. A perversity, perhaps, and yet he feels further from death’s grip with Francis clasped between his thighs; no longer numb and galvanised but uninsulated, entirely raw. The bombers will be back above the Thames tonight, and tomorrow, but he can’t care, not like this, not with Francis tearing open his borrowed shirt, sending Ross’ buttons skittering into the corners of the room.
The bed protests beneath their knotted weight: Jamesʼ hands clutch at Francisʼ back, his shoulders, his golden crown of hair. Francis kisses down his neck and lower, across his chest, towards his navel; bites the skin under his ribs, not-quite gently, which makes James rock upwards, dragging him into a proper kiss.
“Inside me,” he breathes. “I want to feel you properly.”
Francis rolls off him, frowning. “I haven’t,” he says. One hand encircles James’ ankle, thumb pressing into the sinew, the blade-sharp bone.
James props himself up on his elbows. “Ever?”
“With women, in the… ordinary way.” He won’t look James in the eye. “Men have been — upright. Quickly.”
That’s a shame, James thinks. Francis ought to have known the joy of it: sharing a bed with someone long and broad, stroking coarse hair at armpits and the tops of thighs, morning laziness, shared cigarettes. Though it’s a filthy habit when one comes to think of it. Buggery. A vice, a sin; the basest sort of crime.
“We don’t have to,” he says quietly.
“But it’s what you want, James.” Francis looks at him at last, his eyes crinkled, kind; but with a wolfish expression about his mouth that sends a spark through James’ unsteady guts.
“Come along, then,” he manages to say, before dragging Francis into another heated kiss.
James fairly has to fight Francis off in order to run across the room and find his sponge bag; the tin of petroleum jelly he keeps for chapped lips and skinned knuckles while at sea. He kicks off his trousers and his underwear quite unabashed, but looks up to see Francis staring, colour high in his ruddy cheeks.
“Eyes right, Captain.” James attempts a laugh. “Nothing you haven’t seen before.”
But Francis beckons, and James goes to him, feeling more self-conscious with every step, wanting to cover his burgeoning erection, the soft swing of testicles. Francis shuffles to the edge of the mattress, reaches out and holds him by his hips, kisses his stomach, thumbs across a nipple, brushes his hands across James’ arse and hooks his hands into the crease beneath it.
“You must let me… get ready,” says James, turning his head away. His cock is stirring, reddening, between them.
Francis plants a last kiss just above it, almost at the thickening root, and leans back, smiling. “All right.” He pushes James towards the bed and stands, unbuckling his belt.
James opens himself up perfunctorily, kneeling, one hand curled around the brass rail at the head of the bed. He can hear Francis undressing behind him: the rattle of change in pockets, the hushed sound of fabric falling to the floor, the mattress pitching as Francis crawls towards him, runs a hand from ribs to hip. James carefully withdraws his fingers and wipes them on the sheets, throwing the tin vaguely in Francis’ direction.
He spreads his knees and puts his head down, grips the bedstead, and waits, trying to find a comfortable spot to rest his head among the pillows.
Francis’ hands are on his hips again, and a shiver runs up James’ back. The curtains are open, afternoon light spilling from the scorched cerulean sky. There’s no chance of their being overlooked, but no chance of darkness either, to ameliorate what Francis sees: James, slick and loose and open for him, twitching at the mere thought of his stern, unmoving gaze.
“I never had a woman like this,” says Francis, and a coil of shame unwinds itself in James’ heart.
“It’s no different,” he says into the pillow. Though it must be — how could it not be? “You don’t have to,” he says again.
“I want to.” A blunt-ended finger nudges against James’ opening. “Only — let me look at you, James.”
Face burning, James turns onto his back, shoves a pillow under his hips; avoids looking up at Francis for as long as he can.
He’s only done it like this with one other man, when he was younger and more beautiful: narrower around the middle, unscarred. No one since has wanted to; he hasn’t wanted to, not for a long while. Better off on your knees or on your side, face turned away, vulnerable places unexposed.
When at last he looks up, Francis’ brow is knitted in curiosity, an analytical gleam in his eye, the same way he frowns down at a chart or a dial. He presses James’ thighs apart and passes the flat of his hand across his cock, which makes James jerk his hips and hiss.
“Alright, lad.” Francis scoops petroleum jelly and strokes himself, the noise obscene, the thick head of his prick vanishing and reappearing in the firm circle of his hand.
“Just… go slowly,” says James, and then he’s breached by something hard and hot and he reaches for the bedstead rails again.
Francis burns inside him, all breadth and stretch. This is what James longed for: flesh on flesh, hip against hip, Francis breathless and panting over James, his eyes screwed shut.
But it’s better like this, so much better: there’s no bitterness at the corners of James’ mouth, no urge to blot out grief and rage with a suppression of the self, with something too-akin to pain. James is here, and alive, and he feels it all — grief and rage and pleasure equally, rising up like water from a spring.
He pulls Francis down by the scruff of his neck, kisses him, tastes salt. “Francis?” The word is a Herculean effort; Francis is so deep inside him he can barely breathe.
“Christ, James. Oh, Jesus Christ.” Francis’ voice is strangely high-pitched, as a man in extremis, at the edge of death or sleep. “The feel of you.” His hands find James’ face, bracketing his jaw. “Are you all right? I’m not hurting you?”
“No, no.” James kisses him again, open-mouthed. “It’s wonderful. Perfect. You’re perfect.” Francis heaves a sob, rocking into James, and James whines, clutching at his back. “That’s it,” he sighs. “That’s right. Move, darling, please.”
Francis moves, and itʼs so much; too much.
James canʼt bear it, would split apart into his component atoms were it not for Francisʼ arms cradling his head, for Francisʼ teeth against his bottom lip. James exhales and it becomes a howl, unfurling through his chest and breaking open in his mouth. He pulls Francis closer with his knees, his heels; his cock crushed between their shifting bellies. There are hot tears on his face, but whether they belong to Francis or himself, he couldnʼt say.
Francis is making small, frantic noises in the back of his throat. “James,” he says. “James.”
“I know, my love. I know.” James sinks a hand into his hair, holds Francisʼ face against his neck, and they move together in a shuddering rhythm.
“James, I can’t—” Francis is shaking above him, arms trembling, and then he cries out and twitches into James, a stuttering pulse of sticky warmth.
“Donʼt move,” James says, “no—” but Francis has pulled out in a rush of slickness and James groans, a hollow, heartsick sound. “Please, Francis, your hand.”
Francis, lobster-pink and looking dazed, makes a fist round Jamesʼ cock.
“No—” James can barely speak. “Inside. Please.”
Francisʼ eyes go wide, but he obeys, sinking what feels like two fingers up to the hilt. James groans again and clenches around them, wet and dripping, his body open and slack around Francisʼ probing hand. James reaches for his cock, but Francisʼ other hand is already there, stroking briskly, teasing at the tight-drawn skin.
James drops his head onto the mattress, grabs at the brass bedstead again; helpless, speared open, pinned down under Francis’ working hands. A third finger fills him and he convulses, goes rigid, and then thereʼs nothing, a flare of light like shellfire, a glowing arc sent up in darkness.
He comes back to himself to find Francis bending over him. Theyʼre hip to hip again, and James folds his arms and legs around Francis, wanting the full weight of Francisʼ body spread out over his.
“James.” Francis swipes a thumb across his cheek. “Youʼre crying.”
“So were you,” says James. He kisses Francisʼ forehead; his frecked, sunburned nose.
“Iʼm all right now,” says Francis.
“So am I.”
At length, Francis peels himself away from James and retrieves a crumpled shirt from the floor to wipe James clean. He’s spent across his stomach and chest, right up to the corner of his jaw and hopes distantly itʼs not his own shirt; he has precious few to spare as it is. He inhales sharply as Francisʼ wrist brushes his tender prick, and again as Francis traces his entrance with a gentle fingertip.
James lifts himself on an elbow. “What are you doing?”
Francis has that investigative, scientific look on his face once more. “May I?”
James nods, all the breath gone from his body, though he whines as Francis pushes into him again, just up to the knuckle of one finger. The coiling shame returns, but itʼs lighter, bearable; mingled with the dispassionately curious light that shines from Francisʼ eyes. James feels like a butterfly impaled upon a card, or a specimen on the dissecting table: splayed open, defenceless, but a thing worth the study, a thing to be analysed, crucial findings to be noted down.
“You’re a wonder, James.”
“All quite normal, I assure you,” James retorts, somewhat breathless. “Anatomically speaking.”
Francis turns his finger, tracing Jamesʼ aching, swollen hole. James tries not to think about what’s leaking out of him and onto the pillow. Mingled semen and petroleum grease can hardly be a pretty sight. “You ought to try it some time,” he says.
“Perhaps I shall.” The finger withdraws and is replaced by something fatter: one of Francis’ thumbs. “How does that feel, James?”
“Peculiar,” James says. “Not unpleas—ah, Francis!” He clasps his fingers around Francis’ wrist, stills him, looks up into those incandescent eyes. This is more intimate than anything that’s gone before: Francis staring down at him, mouth open, cheeks inflamed, the thick tip of his thumb pressing into James, wet with what he’s already left inside.
James could come again like this, wrung out and wretched. It would hurt, but he could do it: if Francis wanted, if Francis made him. If James were reckless enough to let him try.
“Enough,” he says, squeezing the bones of Francis’ wrist.
Francis withdraws carefully; wipes his slippery hand, strokes the backs of James’ shaking thighs. He smiles at James, kisses his calf, his knee, his hip, before collapsing at his side. James curls up against him, rubs his forehead under Francis’ chin. He’s freckled, like a spaniel, across his collarbones and upper arms. James marks their pattern with his tongue; gets one of Francis’ nipples between his teeth and sucks it, making Francis groan.
“Peace, James. Let a man catch his breath.”
So James contents himself with a hand spread over Francis’ breast, pressed against his upper ribs, feeling for the beating of his heart.
The next morning after breakfast, James takes a pencil and a scrap of paper and tries to draft a letter to Sarah Charlewood. He hasn’t the first idea of what to say. He used to fancy himself good at writing, clever with his words.
Francis watches him for a moment, and says, “Why don’t you use the study?”
“On the floor above, at the back. It’s quiet — real pens and writing paper. Ross won’t mind.”
“If you’re sure,” says James.
Francis leans forward in his chair, his chair, the sturdier of the two: broad-backed, with solid arms. James occupies the slighter, belonging once to a housemaid, perhaps now a driver with the MTC, or in a factory making shells. Francis’ was surely reserved for the cook or housekeeper. James wonders what has happened to the middle-aged women of the world; to his mother, wherever she might be.
“Of course I’m sure.” Francis lifts James’ hand from the table, kisses the knuckles, rises. “I’m off — need to see a man about a dog.”
James narrows his eyes. “What on earth does that mean?”
“Careless talk,” says Francis, infuriating, tapping his nose.
He returns after an hour or so, knocks on the study door and comes in. James is sitting behind Ross’ leather-topped desk, surrounded by crumpled pieces of paper, his fingers stained with ink from the borrowed fountain pen. He’s produced a serviceable letter of condolence: formal but honest, avoiding well-worn words.
Francis touches his shoulder. “How are you getting on?”
“I’m finished, I think.”
“I thought the children might like this.” Francis sets a paper bag before him, and drops onto the sofa under the sash window.
James opens the bag: it contains a hard-backed children's book, with an illustration of a Bermuda-rigged cutter on the front. “Francis—”
“I saw it in a bookshop window. My sisters’ brats prefer the pirates on the Lakes, but there’s real sailing in this — night sailing, across the Channel.” A doubtful look passes over Francis’ face. “Though perhaps that’s not what they want at the moment.”
“It’s perfect,” says James. “They’ll be fighting over it.” He takes up his pen and inscribes the title page: from Uncle James, along with the date. He wants, fleetingly, to write Francis’ name too, but of course it’s impossible.
“Oh, and these.” Francis digs in his pocket and throws a small packet across to James. A pair of stockings, real silk, black. “I don’t know if it’s quite the done thing,” says Francis, “for the widow of one’s closest friend.”
James thinks it probably isn’t, but Sarah won’t care, and neither does he. “She’ll be very grateful,” he says. “I’m very grateful.” He frowns at Francis. “You don’t even know these people.”
Francis shrugs. “I’d want the same for Ann, if it came to it.”
“I don’t understand you,” says James, though what he really means is that he doesn’t understand himself. How can he have read Francis so wrong for so many years? James Fitzjames, the great discerner of personality and probable weaknesses, so used to telling lies himself that he can smell them on other people a mile away; undone by simple kindness, by goodness in the face of a pointlessly brutal world.
He goes to sit with Francis, close but not quite touching, one knee crooked up on the sofa cushions. The scent of summer comes through the open window, the morning clouds thinning, showing blue beneath. Francis is lighting a cigarette.
“Sorry,” he says, as he lifts it to his lips. “Do you mind?”
James shakes his head. The smell doesn’t seem as bad as it did before. He extends his hand for the packet, shakes one out and taps it on his knee. Francis leans towards him, and James lights the cigarette from the embers of Francis’ own; watching the way Francis’ mouth and fingers move, the reflection of glowing orange in his eyes.
The wound below his eyebrow is almost healed. James reaches out and puts a thumb to it, and Francis closes both his eyes.
As James pulls back, Francis says, “Last night you called me ‘darling’.”
James feels himself go red. He remembers, but he’s surprised Francis does. “Did I?” he says, feigning nonchalance.
“You did.” Francis leans back against the arm of the sofa, facing James.
“Well,” says James. “Did you mind?”
“Not in the slightest. I’d rather like you to do it again.”
“I wonder if it shouldnʼt be saved for special occasions,” says James. “Your birthday, for instance.”
“Not long now,” says Francis. “But longer than I’d like.”
James exhales smoke in a long plume. “I’ll see what I can do,” he says, and Francis’ eyes blaze at him, bluer even than the sky.
“Bloody fucking Hitler!”
Francis thumps his fist onto the mattress with such violence that the bed frame rattles against the wall. The air raid siren whoops around them, uncaring; searchlights streak up into the star-bright sky.
“I swear to Christ and all the saints, James, I’m going to swim to Germany and blow his fucking brains out.”
James is too amused to be annoyed, dragging his trousers back on and hunting for a jumper. But as they cross the garden a swell of dread returns.
Francis closes a hand around his arm. “Come on, James. It’ll be all right.”
And it is all right, mostly. James wraps himself in a blanket and sits on the lower bunk with his back against the corrugated wall. Francis hunches over the card-table doing the crossword, occasionally reading clues aloud. The siren has fallen silent, and James strains his ears for the sound of engines, of bombs, of ack-ack guns.
“‘A family found at the anvil’,” says Francis.
“What?” James blinks at him. A single candle flickers in on an enamelled plate between them.
“How about ‘this insect encourages the dance craze’?”
“No idea,” says James. There’s a thud somewhere in the distance and he flinches, draws the blanket closer around his shoulders.
Francis pours tea from the flask and comes to sit beside him, pushing a steaming cup into James’ hands. “Here,” he says, and reaches into his coat pocket, bringing out a bar of chocolate.
Real chocolate: Fry’s, in blue and gold paper and silver foil. James has seen nothing like it for a year.
“I don’t know where you’re getting all this,” he says slowly. “The bacon, and the stockings, and the chocolate — but I suppose you know it’s entirely against the law?”
Francis grins. “Do you remember Tom Blanky?”
“One of your Terrors, isn’t he?”
“He was,” says Francis. “Lost a leg our second month into the war—my fault,” he adds, with a small, bitter smile. “Now he’s out of the Navy he’s finding other ways to occupy his time.”
“You’re his most loyal customer, are you?” James looks sideways at Francis, intrigued and entertained in equal measure. “You’d better be careful.”
But he accepts a piece of chocolate, holds it in his mouth without chewing, savouring the taste for as long as he can. There’s another distant explosion and he flinches again; Francis shifts closer, so they’re connected from shoulder to knee.
“I could sing, if you like,” he says.
“I’d much rather you didn’t.”
“Then I shall tell you a story,” says Francis, unperturbed. He breaks off another row of chocolate and shares it with James. “I met a friend in town the other day, and your name came up.”
“Came up? In what sense?”
“She’s looking for someone who’s good with languages — I mentioned your French and Portuguese.”
“My French isn’t perfect,” says James. His Portuguese is better, but buried deep; a bulb gone dormant in the winter earth. “What does the woman want, a governess?”
Francis elbows him gently in the side. “It’s war work, James, what else?” He searches in his coat again, retrieves a calling card and hands it over.
James reads a telephone number, somewhere in Mayfair, and the words Cracroft — NID(Q) (Admiralty). So it’s the Navy, at least, though a department of which he’s never heard.
“There’s no office yet,” says Francis, “but they’re hoping to be in Baker Street by the end of the year.”
“Why on earth do they need a French speaker in Baker Street?” France has fallen, or as good as, and Portugal is a neutral power; no good to man nor beast.
“I can’t tell you,” says Francis. “I barely know myself. But if England is—were to be—invaded, would you give up?”
James has thought about this question on and off for a fortnight. He no longer sees himself in an act of surrender, hands raised above his head. Instead he sees Francis’ rust-stained eye and the freckles across his chest; Francis running into a burning house; the two of them fighting tooth and nail, side by side.
“No,” he says. “Not if I could help it.”
Francis nods. “I’d imagine the French feel much the same, and the Czechs, and the Poles, and the Norwegians — and plenty of Portuguese who’d rather not be neutral anymore. The British government wants to do something about it.
“Propaganda, you mean? Fat lot of good that’s going to do.”
“Not propaganda. Action — assistance. And you wouldn’t—” Francis finds James’ hand among the blanket and takes it, knits their fingers together “—you wouldn’t have to go back to sea, if you didn’t want to.”
“Not go back to sea?” James can barely imagine it.
The sea has been all he’s known for years. It’s tied up with his Englishness, or lack thereof; the facade of who he pretends to be. Graham, Henry, and Edward — and Erebus — they were his England. With them gone, it seems more arbitrary than ever. Like a song he used to know in childhood, only he’s forgotten how it goes.
A bomb goes off, perhaps two miles away, and the ground shudders underneath them. James knocks back his tea, wishing for the cooking sherry.
“I don’t know if I can stay in London, Francis,” he says shakily. “Not for the duration. I know that makes me a frightful coward, but—”
“You’re no coward, James.” Francis gets an arm around James’ back and pulls him closer.
“Wouldnʼt you rather be out there?” says James, looking upwards. “Helping people?”
“I shouldnʼt have done that,” says Francis into Jamesʼ hair. “Only getting in the way — making a spectacle of myself.”
James turns to squint at him. “You said it was worth the doing.”
“It was. Doesnʼt mean it wasnʼt bloody stupid, too. I wanted to do something. I was frightened, James.”
James tries to remember the night of the first raid: the minute he spent inside the shelter before breaking out into fresh air, Francisʼ hand on his shoulder, squinting into the fire-lit sky. If Francis was afraid, it hadnʼt shown. Perhaps fear is something one can put on like a garment, wear easily, and carry comfortably around.
An explosion shakes the earth again and James lets out a little whine of fear. “Kiss me,” he says. “Francis, please.”
Francis obliges, opening James’ mouth with an insistent tongue. He pushes James down onto the mattress, covers James’ body with his own and gets a hand between them, deftly unbuttoning his fly. The sound of falling bombs is blotted out, made distant; incidental to the press of Francis’ steadfast hand.
They emerge at dawn, as the all-clear sounds. Eliot Place still stands unscathed, though thereʼs a smell of smoke in the air, and something sinister in the pearl-grey, low hanging cloud.
James, not wanting to return immediately inside, sinks onto one of the stone benches that flanks a rusting sundial. Francis takes the other, and they watch each other blearily across the small circle of gravel.
“Iʼm surprised you havenʼt dug this up,” says James.
“I was going to.” Francis gives him a tired smile. “But with my going back—”
“Of course.” James has been trying not to think about it. Scotland is so far away.
“Which reminds me,” says Francis, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. “That job I mentioned — thereʼs a chance of it being in the Highlands. Theyʼve commandeered some country pile. You wouldnʼt be at sea, but you wouldnʼt be…” he glances towards the gaping mouth of the Anderson shelter, “here, either.”
James rubs his eye. “Tell me again,” he says. “Itʼs not field work, is it?”
As a younger man he might have made a decent spy. His bohemian friends had done their bit in Spain, cutting telephone wires, siphoning the petrol out of trucks and cars, boy scout stuff. James would have managed it easily: talking his way in and out of trouble, switching languages and mannerisms as easily as other men change their shirts. But these days heʼs too exhausted, too transparent, all artifice and deception burned away.
“More like teaching,” Francis says. “Languages, culture, customs — how to order a cup of coffee without immediately giving oneself away. I can ask Sophia, but youʼd be better off telephoning her yourself.”
James lifts an eyebrow. “Sophia?”
“Miss Cracroft. Though sheʼs probably a Rear Admiral by now.” Francisʼ eyes are pale as water in the early morning light, creases radiating from their corners like the rays of the sun. “And it wouldn’t be far,” he says.
“From what?” says James, perplexed.
The last days of their leave draw irresistibly closer. Time, tide, and the Admiralty wait for no man; not even James Fitzjames.
He telephones Francis’ friend in Mayfair and has a confounding but apparently productive conversation. The next day a letter comes from Navy headquarters confirming his secondment to NID(Q), and in the first week of July he and Francis go for dinner with Miss Cracroft at the Criterion.
She's a neat, unassuming woman in a blue suit that might almost be a WRNS uniform without the insignia, but James suspects it’s pre-war couture. There’s a quiet glitter in her eyes that reminds him of Francis, and a slight, well-controlled awkwardness between the two of them that speaks of some complex history into which James has no real desire to pry.
They talk about the war: the Italian internments and the Channel Island refugees, the bombs that fell on Cardiff the night before. All very civilised, the sort of conversation any three people might have over dinner, no suggestion that two of the party are imminently to be engaged in espionage and organised resistance.
As they say their goodbyes — Miss Cracroft stepping into a cab with shuttered headlights and James and Francis making for the Tube — she presses an envelope into James’ hand.
“I’m told you’re wanted back in Plymouth for a week or two,” she says. “But once they’ve finished with you, come to this address. We’ll get everything sorted out. Pleasure to meet you, Commander. Take care, Francis.”
“Well,” says Francis, as the taxi draws away.
“Well,” says James.
They must look a picture: two moderately senior naval officers standing on the pavement at Piccadilly Circus, epaulettes and service stripes agleam. In another life James might have made the most of it, played the war hero, wandered along to the Café de Paris and traded an embroidered story for a round of drinks.
But for now he only wants to take Francis home, and into their bed in the spare room in Blackheath.
The next night is their last in London.
They spend it in Ross’ sitting room, coming up from the kitchen as a mark of the solemnity of the occasion; windows thrown wide and the curtains drawn back, but no lights or fire, to keep the blackout. James sprawls out on the hearthrug, head resting against Francis’ knee. Francis is sitting in the armchair with his legs crossed, absent-mindedly stroking James’ hair.
They were talking quietly, but have lapsed into silence. James thinks about his journey in the morning: taking the Underground to Paddington, changing at Bristol, the trains overcrowded and packed with soldiers, the great reshuffling of the armed forces in preparation for what’s to come.
Francis is leaving from Euston, so they can cross the city together, at least.
“Will you write to me?” he asks, a foolish impulse.
Francis’ hand stills in his hair. “Would you like me to?”
“I think so.” James hopes he sounds off-hand, as though it hardly matters. “I suppose you’ll be allowed.”
“I don’t see why I wouldn’t,” says Francis. “Might even be able to visit.”
James says nothing. He knows that won’t be possible, not with the work he’ll be doing, and not if they want to maintain any sort of subtlety about proceedings. If anything does proceed, after this strange, liminal month of leave; this un-time, this odd unhappy holiday.
“We could meet in the middle,” Francis says above him. “The Isle of Mull, or Fort William.”
“I’d like that,” says James. He can’t quite imagine it, but he wants to; wants to hold the idea, like an amulet, against his heart.
Francis slides down onto the floor with a groan, puts his hand to James’ neck, swipes his thumb along his jaw. “This isn’t the last time,” he says. “I will see you again, James.”
James nods. He wants so badly to believe it. Francis’ face is open, guileless; a second moon in the silver moonlight. James leans towards him, smothers a rising sob by kissing Francis’ narrow lips, which part under his tongue. He mouths at Francis’ broad, feline cheeks, the corners of his eyes; mapping him like a foreign territory, learning the lines of his face, committing them to memory.
If this is the last time, he wants to remember it all: the ruddy skin revealed as he opens Francis’ shirt, his freckles, his furred chest, the curve of his belly. He gets Francis in his mouth again, and wants to keep this, too — the taste of him, the salt, the sweat — locked up in his chest, with all those things he prizes most.
When Francis slides into him at last, James cries out, tears spilling down his cheeks and onto the cushion under his head.
“Don’t stop,” he says. “Francis—Francis.”
Francis noses against his temple, kissing his tear-streaked skin.
“I love you,” James gasps. “Please—don’t leave.”
Francis hooks him closer, hands under his thighs. “I’m here, James. I’m here.”
Four years later
The bus stops at an empty moorland crossroad, gravel skittering under the tires. James steps down, sets his hat on his head, and looks up to see Francis smoking a cigarette, leaning against the driver’s side of a small convertible car.
“Good heavens,” says James, quirking his mouth to one side.
“It’s not mine,” Francis growls. “And if I’d known you wanted to meet me in the middle of bloody nowhere, I’d never have agreed to it. I’ve used my last petrol coupon on you, you know.”
“I’ve missed you dreadfully, too,” says James, and Francis’ face cracks into a smile.
The bus has vanished noisily over the horizon: there’s nothing left but the sky and the mountains, flowering heather, rusty ferns, and Francis. James closes the distance between them and cups a hand to Francis’ face.
James presses their foreheads together, grateful for the moment merely to breathe the same air: to be here, together, alive, the worst of the war behind them. Francis tips his head and kisses him, pulls James into an embrace.
When they break apart, James asks, “What do your lot think you’re doing?”
“Fishing,” says Francis, and James peers past him to see a tangle of rods and tackle protruding from the dickie seat. “And yours?”
“Sketching.” James has brought his drawing things, and means to use them; wants to make studies of the crags, the loch, of Francis. He rather hopes Francis doesn’t intend to fish. Eight days leave is hard enough to come by, even now.
They climb into the car and set off, heading north, the road winding between marshland and meadow. James navigates with a rumpled OS map, which flaps violently, as though threatening to take off. The narrow loch towards which they’re heading does have a name, but not one James thinks he can accurately pronounce.
He watches Francis’ profile as he drives: not so thin as last time, not so tired. Eating better. James hopes he’ll find some flesh on Francis’ ration-book bones.
Operation Neptune, to which Francis had alluded in the vaguest terms when last they met, has taken place at last, and seems to have been a remarkable success. To James it looks like the evacuation in reverse: those flat French beaches, the water clogged with ships, soldiers up to their knees in swell.
His own work is far from over. Normandy may be back in Allied hands — the fields ruined in the last war ravaged once again, a continuous line of destruction reaching back to Agincourt — but Europe lies on a knife edge: Florence liberated as Hungary is occupied, V-1 rockets punching holes in London, an uprising in Warsaw. His Polish is improving, but it’s not yet as good as it needs to be.
Francis stops the car at the crest of a ridge. Below them lies a narrow valley, lit yellow by the milky Scottish sun. The loch is like a scrap of silver paper, inconclusive, shimmering. At the farther shore sits a white cottage with a grey slate roof, tiny against the sweep of hills.
James looks sideways at Francis, and finds him grinning.
“Worth the petrol ration?” says James drily.
“Just about,” says Francis. He takes James’ hand, links their fingers, tightens his grip. “Are you happy, James?”
James leans across the car and kisses Francis, tastes him, feels the brush of Francisʼ much-debated beard against his skin.
James is newly forty-five, gratified and faintly bewildered at having lived so long. He imagined so many different deaths for himself at the beginning of the war; it seems a miracle to have survived them all. He knows he looks his years, and hopes the indifferent light is kind to him, that Francis doesnʼt mind the thinning of his hair, the new depth to the furrows that frame his mouth.
As though privy to the thought, Francis lifts his hand to Jamesʼ face and puts a proprietary thumb to the right-hand line, pressing fondly at the place where it terminates above Jamesʼ jaw.
“Yes,” says James, tilting his head into the warmth of Francisʼ hand. “Yes.”