Alec stayed awake with only one purpose: to watch Maurice sleep. This had become a habit after they had left Penge together and the urge had only grown stronger in the trenches. The knowledge that this could be the last time he would see Maurice often forced him to watch over his friend, drinking in every detail of his face.
They practically never touched here surrounded by others but still Alec had the feeling that they knew. Maurice was better at concealing his love than Alec was and he had often caught the others snickering. For awhile he had attempted to keep a distance but it had become unbearable. One or two remarks had been made by Sergeant Thomson but apart from him the others left them alone. Perhaps, Alec thought, a few of them were envious.
Warmth spread through his body emanating from his chest as he recollected what had happened a fortnight ago. He had been walking through the trenches careful where he set foot so he would not step on the men leaning against the walls sleeping. As he turned a corner warm hands had grabbed him and pushed him against the wall. A familiar voice whispered in a low murmur. Alec let his hand caress Maurice’s face, fingers lingering on his lips. He glanced down to see if anyone was watching. But they all seemed asleep. He pulled Maurice closer. “I know” Alec whispered smiling as he realised that the words were an echo from a night so long ago.
Maurice kissed him but it was without passion. He feared that if he went further he would not be capable of stopping. But Alec held him closer and kissed him passionately not caring if he could stop again. Maurice was the one to break off and rest his head on Alec’s shoulder. Slowly, unbuttoning Alec's uniform jacket, he let his hand slip inside.
The coarse fabric of the uniform scratched Alec’s neck but he barely noticed it. Palm pressed against Alec’s chest Maurice did not move his hand but the mere contact with his lover’s skin made him sigh. Those warm fingers awoke a longing in Alec he knew it would be impossible to satisfy. They stood like that, Maurice leaning against Alec, for a few more minutes and then Maurice turned away and left. Alec tried to catch his breath. Then he also turned to walk away only to notice that Jeffries was watching him.
But that seemed so long ago. Now he lay facing Maurice, listening to him breathing. Two hours earlier he had been walking back and forth. Continuously passing by one of the many shelves that had been dug into the walls. They would sleep in these small dug outs and Maurice was sleeping in this one. Alec wanted to kneel down and touch his friend, to feel Maurice’s skin against his fingers. He was ready to risk discovery, he felt that if he could not be with Maurice now he would lose his mind.
Just like Llewellyn who had been sent back to England to stay in an asylum. Llewellyn had been standing right next to another soldier when a grenade had blown the man’s head to pieces. Alec remembered the fear and loneliness in Llewellyn’s hazel brown eyes. This experience had frightened Alec. It had shaken the core of his being. It had brought him here tonight, brought him to Maurice.
Finally he had stopped pacing back and forth. He looked around. Looked at the other men sleeping most of them with their backs turned. He turned to look behind him and stopped, his eyes fixed on Jeffries’. Alec could not move and he felt his heart stop beating. Jeffries demonstratively turned his back on Alec and pulled his blanket further up so only his hair was visible.
“Clock’s ticking…be dawn soon” he heard Jeffries’ muffled voice say. Alec turned and climbed in next to Maurice.
When Alec had disappeared behind the blanket, which was hung over the front of the dug out, Jeffries turned around laying on his back. He looked up at the boards in the ceiling.
Sleeping in these small holes always made him think of coffins. And coffins always made him think of Peter. He had been appalled when his brother had confided in him. Seeking if not acceptance then at least a small amount of understanding. Peter had pleaded and begged him to listen but all Jeffries had done was yell.
“My own brother! Disgusting!” his blood had rushed through his body like fire.
He saw pain in the eyes of his little brother and memories of protecting Peter, of scuffed knees, of drying tears from his pale cheeks welled up in him but did not stop him. Instead society spoke through him, rejecting his brother.
Maurice let his hands explore. They were hampered by Alec’s uniform but where his hands could not go his memory completed the image of his lover, every muscle and every little scar. Alec moaned trying to find a more comfortable position but it was impossible. Maurice shifted to make room for Alec and bumped his head against the ceiling. He cursed but then caught the look of amusement and stifled laughter in Alec’s face. Maurice leaned forward and kissed him.
The shock of seeing Peter, pale, somehow smaller, lying on the bathroom floor. His green eyes blindly staring at the cracked ceiling as if contemplating repairing it. His usually impeccable white shirt covered in blood.
“Look at me” Alec touched Maurice’s face and he obeyed.
Maurice let his index finger trace the path of a drop of sweat on Alec’s cheek.
“Tell me” Alec whispered so quietly that it almost sounded like leaves rustling in autumn.
Maurice kissed Alec's neck and with his mouth pressed hard against his ear, oh god that scent of the woods again, he said: “I love you”.
Jeffries had stood there so frightened that the only thought that came to his bewildered mind was how difficult it would be for the maids to get the bloodstains out of Peter’s shirt. He took a few timid steps inside and walked very carefully towards Peter taking great care not to step in the blood. He kneeled down and his fingers closed the staring eyes.
He kissed Alec’s eyelids, his forehead and his lips always seeking that elusive peaceful cabin in the forest with its old fireplace, crooked roof and the pantry door that always seemed to get stuck. His body yearned for Alec. He belonged to him and would always belong. There was a burning intensity in every movement and every moment.
It was then realities dawned on him. Although he had not slit Peter’s wrists himself he had killed him all the same. He had broken his heart, ripped his soul to pieces and turned his back on him when he had needed him the most. All he had had to do was listen, to show understanding, but he had not. And through his neglect he had given Peter the last push over the brink and into the abyss. He had been Peter’s last chance and he had failed. Now Jeffries was alone and felt that to be too small a punishment for the crime he had committed.
They shifted continuously. And because of the restrictions of the space they occupied there were moments of profound awkwardness. They felt just as during their first night together. Maurice unsure what was expected of him; and therefore shy and gentle. Alec consumed of a need so strong that he took it upon himself to lead the way.
Now it was too late. No amount of remorse or regret would bring his brother back. And so he had lived in the shadows of his guilt. He had enlisted in a hurry deliberately seeking danger in the hope of death. But this need for self-destruction had ceased when he saw Alec and Maurice together. Recognizing in them his own salvation, his chance for forgiveness. And in the weeks after feeling greater and greater animosity towards Thomson for his disapproval and disgust. Perhaps even more so because he recognised himself in the sergeant. It really did not matter who you loved. But only that you loved. He had loved his brother but he had let society and upbringing cast a shadow over that love. And love should and could never be wrong or immoral. For to love was to live and with this epiphany Jeffries fell asleep.
Maurice’s breathing was shallow and strained as his lips found Alec’s.
“Alec. Alec” he repeated almost inaudibly.
His body began to tense up, every muscle straining, as if he was fighting to gain his self-control. Months of frustration and sorrow draining from his mind and body. He let his fingers bury themselves in Alec’s dark hair. He had once again relinquished control of his body and soul to his lover.
Morning came all too soon and Maurice woke up alone and for a few seconds he thought that it had all just been a dream. A cruel way to make him suffer. But he could trace Alec’s scent on his skin and Maurice closed his eyes and smiled.
In the following days Alec felt light-headed. His entire being seemed to have been brought to life by Maurice. If there was one thing he had learned here in the trenches it was that the loneliest place in this world could be with the one you loved…to see but not touch…to love but not show it. His caresses, his hands, his kisses…
”Sergeant wants you!” Booths said walking past Alec and in doing so deliberately knocked hard into him forcing Alec to lean against the man behind him who gave him a hard push forward.
“Move it!” Booths yelled over his shoulder.
Alec took a deep breath trying to steady himself and force his mind to focus on the task at hand. It had been raining steadily for two days and the trenches were beginning to fall apart. A few walls had caved in and the bottom of the trench Alec was standing in was beginning to be so muddy that his boots kept getting stuck.
He found Sergeant Thomson. He was giving Jeffries orders.
“Well, look who’s joining us!” he said in a mocking singsong voice “If it isn’t our very own daisy.”
Alec could feel his cheeks redden.
“Booths said yer had orders…sir” Alec had always hated having to show respect to those who hadn’t earned it.
“You and Jeffries are going down for supplies. Here’s the list. Be quick about it.”
As Alec walked to the supply storage with Jeffries he kept his eyes focused on the tip of his boots. What could he possibly say to him? He was thankful for Jeffries gesture, for Jeffries giving Maurice and him some time together. He felt a need to thank him but was also aware that Jeffries might not want to be reminded of it.
The awkward silence became too much and they both started saying something. “Bloody mud!” “Damn rain!”
They looked at each other and laughed. Jeffries laughter sounded relieved almost thankful for the distraction. Alec gave up pretending and said
Jeffries looked away biting his lower lip. Perhaps, Alec thought, I should have kept my mouth shut.
Then Jeffries turned to look at him and nodded.
“It’s bad enough here without us tormenting each other” he hesitated “Thomson’s a right bastard…you should keep as far away from him as you can.”
The rain continued making everything and everybody miserable. Maurice hated the way his uniform clung to his body especially his socks. He was sitting next to Alec their shoulders touching. Alec’s body heat radiating through the layers of coarse fabric. It was enough, just to sit there together eating.
“Not even fit for dogs.” Alec muttered chewing on a biscuit.
“At least the taste isn’t so bad” Maurice said in an attempt to cheer Alec up.
“What taste?” he responded giving Maurice one of those smiles that always made him think about warm embraces and lovemaking. Maurice chuckled.
“You remember that Sunday…” Alec voice trailed off becoming a whisper “It wor our first day off work. We stayed in bed all day…didn’t get much sleep though” he said with another of those smiles.
“‘course I remember” Maurice whispered back “think we had biscuits that day too…only with taste.”
Alec laughed sending flashes of warmth through Maurice’s spine.
“Aawwww the lovebirds are courting.” Sergeant Thomson said sarcastic.
Maurice clenched his fists. If he wanted he could probably break Thomson’s nose. And he did want to but he knew that it would only make their problems worse. He felt Alec’s body tense up.
“Don’t” he almost sighed and Alec looked down.
Jeffries interrupted by mentioning that they would have to dig out one of the trenches.
“It’s just collapsed, Sir” he said his eyes seeking Maurice’s for just a fraction of a second.
“Right! Take Hall and Scudder.”
It took them all day to dig out the trench, at least enough for it to be useful. Jeffries looked at Hall. He was a quiet man and he seemed always to be worried. Probably about Scudder. And young Alec seemed reluctant to let the other man out of his sight. Strange. One would have to be blind not to see the connection between them. And Thomson, who was constantly on the lookout for new victims to bully, had grabbed the chance to ridicule Alec, who had the hardest time concealing his emotions.
Maurice noticed that Alec looked pale and had to rest quite often. “Alec” he reached out to steady him with a firm grip on his arm. Alec looked up at him and said
“‘S just a headache no’ing more… be fine…really.”
Maurice felt a knot in the pit of his stomach. Alec didn’t just look pale; his eyes had a shine to them that he had never seen before, he seemed to have trouble focusing and his voice was slurred.
“What’s wrong?” Jeffries asked “Hell, you look sick, Scudder…Here better sit down.”
Maurice helped Alec sit down while Jeffries fetched some water. Alec tried to drink it but just shook his head.
“Not thirsty…really Maurice... I” his voice trailed off, then he continued “be fine just need to rest...”
Maurice looked at Jeffries. They both helped Alec up and half carried half dragged him back to the others. They almost tripped a few times when their feet got caught in the mud and every time Maurice saw how Alec would hold his breath and flinch. They sat Alec down on a crate; he leaned back and closed his eyes.
“I’ll go get the medic” Maurice whispered in Alec’s ear “you just sit and rest.”
Alec tried to answer but Maurice was already gone. Jeffries bent down and put his hands on Alec’s knees. A few of the others standing around looked surprised. Well they can all go to hell, Jeffries thought.
“Be good as new soon” he said.
“Jeffries!” That damn Thomson again. Jeffries patted Alec's hand, got up and walked towards the sergeant.
Alec felt as if he was drunk. Everything seemed to move slightly as if he was on a boat and his head felt as if it might just burst. Where was Maurice…he needed him…what was he suppose to do without him?
Alec got to his feet, his knees seemed to be made of pudding, but he couldn’t just sit there. He walked towards Jeffries and Sergeant Thomson. When he was almost there he lost his footing and slipped. Alec reached out for something to steady himself by and grabbed Thomson’s leg just above the knee.
He attempted to drag himself up but suddenly felt strong hands grabbing him by the collar. He was lifted into an upright position. Everything seemed a blur, his eyes hurt and his legs felt as if they weren’t attached to his body.
“Don’t you touch me! Don’t you bloody touch me!” Thomson screamed in Alec face, his nose inches from Alec’s.
Alec was pushed against the wall and felt it give in to the pressure. His hands filled with cold mud and he suddenly needed to concentrate on not passing out.
“Let him go!” Jeffries yelled “He’s sick, can’t you see?”
“Oh, he’s sick all right!” the sergeant hissed “shouldn’t let his sort live among honest soldiers.”
Thomson turned halfway around, still pushing Alec against the wall but now facing Jeffries.
“Looks like Hall and young Scudder here aren’t the only sick ones?”
A flash passed before Jeffries’ eyes. Peter’s blood soiled shirt, cracks in the ceiling, a voice pleading for understanding.
“And so what?” he yelled, anger running like fire up his spine. “Is it because this war has deprived you of your last shred of humanity… or” he said knowing that with these words he would either win the battle or lose it “Or are you jealous?”
The anger seemed to seep out of Thomson’s face. He had not expected this and because he was not a man, who was good at dealing with the unexpected he blinked, turned towards Alec again, his fingers still clutching the collar of Alec’s uniform jacket.
Then Maurice appeared at the edge of the small group of soldiers. He walked up next to Alec and leaned in between them.
“Let him go!” he said.
Had there been anger or fury in Maurice’s voice Thomson might have started a fight. But Maurice’s voice was quiet, yet insisting, strong, yet pleading. And Thomson simply let go, turned around and walked away. The others disappeared as well leaving only Alec, Maurice and Jeffries behind.
Maurice wished he could bear all of Alec’s pain. That he could take away his fever and cleanse his body of ailment. But he was so far away. When Alec had been diagnosed with Trench fever Maurice had at first feared for Alec’s life but then, realised that Alec would be sent back to England, feared for his own sanity.
The thought of being separated from him made his chest feel constricted and his hands tremble. When the ambulance came to transport the wounded to safety Maurice had thrown caution aside and kissed Alec. Alec had looked at him with astonishment, eyes bright with fever, and whispered “They’ll see us!”
It was not a protest for how could he protest love. “Let them” Maurice said hugging Alec and buried his lips in Alec’s curls. As Maurice stood there watching the ambulance drive away he felt as if his heart had been taken from him. Only one thought gave him peace of mind. Alec would be safe in England miles away from the mud and death in the trenches.
The shadows slowly moved over the walls and ceiling as daylight started seeping in through the small windows. It always seemed as if the sun only reluctantly wanted to grant them another day. They started moving, drowsy and aching. Alec watched as the nurses prepared for yet another long and uneventful day. Alec hated this. The women gingerly moving between the beds; making no noise; only soft footsteps breaking the perpetual silence and then the shrieking of small wheels in need of oil.
The nurses rolled in a small table with breakfast trays on it. Alec would each and every morning attempt to swallow his dollop as fast as possible. If he could finish before Mathers in the bed next to his started choking and throwing up he had a good chance of keeping his own breakfast down.
Mathers had a serious head injury and he did not have full control of his bodily functions. The throwing up Alec could deal with. It was the other things that troubled him: the bedwetting, the soiled bed and worst of all the screaming. Mathers would just start screaming. Not words, not really. He had lost his ability to put coherent words together, lost the gift of speech. So instead he screamed at the top of his lungs; his voice thin with despair and fear. His eyes would be confused or even worst begging. They said what his mouth could not. Please make it stop!
If Alec had had his rifle there with him he was quite sure he would have shot him. The screaming always ended in sobbing and nurses trying to calm Mathers down.
Alec felt stretched as if his very soul was hanging on by its fingernails. It did not help that his fever kept returning. Every time he thought he was recovering it would return with headaches that made his eyes hurt and his hands coil into fists.
His only pastime was writing letters to Maurice and Jeffries. He wrote to Maurice once a week, sometimes more. He could not write the things he wanted. He was forced to use words not suited to express his deep love and excruciating need. He could not tell Maurice about the nights where he would wake up with a wonderful warm sensation because he had dreamt of him, of the boathouse and of sharing.
All the letters were read and censured by officers to protect vital military information. Not that Alec had any information. Vital or otherwise. He was certain the Germans were less than interested in the fact that the dollop tasted like glue. But if one of the officers read the things Alec wanted to tell Maurice they could both end up in prison. So he wrote bland, boring letters which said nothing.
But sometimes, when Alec could no longer stand it, he would mention shared experiences in an attempt to convey his feelings. Do you remember the hotel or do you remember the boathouse, how the light would shine through the window and warm us. He had not yet received a single letter from Maurice but perhaps the mail had been delayed.
Alec had finally finished his dollop. He had always hated it, even as a child. As Alec swallowed the last spoonful Mathers started coughing and moving around in his bed and then he started gagging. Alec turned over on his side facing away from him and closed his eyes tightly as if not seeing Mathers would make the man disappear. Alec fell asleep dreaming of Maurice’s hands, always so warm.
A letter had arrived. Alec picked it up feeling his body tense. Maurice had finally written. He wasted no time looking at the envelope and ripped it open.
I hope that this letter finds you in better health than when I saw you last. Maurice has received all your letters. He reads them again and again. But he seems incapable of answering them. He worries so and his actions the day you were transported to England have had great consequences for his position here. He does not eat as much as he should. I try to keep him company but he misses you and I do believe he might be on the verge of doing something unfortunate.
Please keep writing. Your letters seem to be all that holds him together.
Alec felt his mouth go dry. Maurice needed him and all he could do was write letters. He knew how depressed and worried Maurice could be when he felt trapped in a situation he could not control. Alec pushed the letter aside and got up. It felt as if the room was shrinking around him slowly devouring him piece by piece. He turned around accidentally knocking against the small table standing next to the bed. A glass of water fell to the floor and shattered.
“Damn!” Alec yelled.
Mathers looked at him with wide eyes, mouth open and a drop of drool slowly running down his chin. And then he started to scream. Long shrieks of wordless anger and pain. The screams grew in intensity and the man started banging his head against the wall. Alec felt warm and cold all at once; angry and frightened. It had to stop. He walked around his bed and grabbed Mathers by the collar and screamed right back at him. Screamed and screamed.
“Shut up shut up shutupshutupshutup”.
And as if by a miracle he did. He just closed his mouth and looked at Alec. The nurses where there prying Alec’s fingers from the collar and forcing Mathers down.
Alec was given something “for his nerves” and fell asleep. More letters from Jeffries arrived in the next two weeks but then they stopped. Alec waited and waited. Jeffries was his only link to Maurice and as the days went by he started feeling desperate.
“Sorry perhaps you could help me?”
Alec looked up. A woman was standing by the door addressing one of the nurses.
“Yes?” she said looking up. “I’m looking for…”
The sentence was drowned out by someone dropping a tray. The nurse pointed in Alec direction. The woman nodded and thanked the nurse. She proceeded to walk towards him. She wore a dark purple dress and her dark brown hair was braided. She stopped in front of his bed and said
“Yes?” His answer sounded as if he wasn’t quite sure it was his name.
“Is that a question or a statement?” She smiled, warm, open and wide.
Alec hadn’t seen anyone smile like that in awhile. The nurses almost never smiled and the patients even less so. Alec smiled back.
“I..Well…We have a mutual friend.” she said.
Her smile disappeared; she looked around and failing to find a chair simply sat down on Alec’s bed.
“Jeffries” she said looking down. “He…wrote to me…told me about you being here” she said looking around the room “promised I would look in on you…tell him you were alright”
Alec was about to speak when she continued. “ But Jeffries he…” she handed him the newspaper she had brought with her. He looked at her; she leant in, her hair brushing against his cheek as she pointed to a column.
Alec’s felt sick. Fallen. He couldn’t look, just couldn’t.
Hall, Maurice? Hall, Maurice?
His eyes focusing, he saw. Jeffries, Alan!
And Alec felt a rush of gratitude and shame all at once; Maurice was not on the list. Jeffries was.
He looked up at the woman.
“I’m sorry, Miss…”
“Banner-Jones…but please call me Rebecca.”
“Was he…do you know how?” he asked.
Rebecca pinched the bridge of her nose, eyes closed as if in pain.
“No…but many were killed I know that much. And wounded.” Alec looked at the paper.
“Is there a column for the wounded?”
“Yes” she said “the other side.”
Again the agonising search but this time he did find it.
“Are you alright” she said with a worried look in her eyes.
“I…” Alec attempted “a friend…wounded.”
“Oh” she said took his hand and held it.
As they arrived at Brook Manor Alec leaned across Maurice so he could have a better view of the house. His hand rested lightly on Maurice’s thigh. Despite Maurice telling Alec again and again that his leg had healed Alec still fussed over it.
The car stopped and Maurice felt Alec hold his hand. He looked into his brown eyes and saw uncertainty there. Rebecca Banner-Jones had promised them a home and jobs but somehow it all still felt unreal, almost dreamlike. Maurice knew that Alec, although he would completely deny it, was still weak. He had gained some weight but occasionally he looked strained and tired.
Alec tensed beside him as they climbed out of the car. A woman walked out and stopped on the top of the stairs to the manor.
“Welcome!” she said trying to tie her hair back.
The soft, wild, red curls appeared to elude her pale fingers and the end result was that she gave up and simply let her hair hang unfastened.
“I’m so sorry” she said as she descended the stairs, “but Rebecca will not be joining us before dinner I’m afraid. Business in town you see” she shook hands with Alec and Maurice as they presented themselves.
“Your luggage will be driven to Forest Cottage” she said gesturing them to follow her up the stairs and into a sun showered living room.
“Forest Cottage?” Alec asked “Is that the village we saw on our way ‘ere?”
“No…no! Did she not tell you? She can be forgetful my…Miss Rebecca” she corrected herself. “No, Forest Cottage is the cottage you will be living in…Just on the outskirts of the forest.”
She looked at the two men. The younger smiled but not at her. He just smiled. And the other one, Maurice…Mr. Hall, looked a little uncertain.
“We will both live there?” he said.
“Yes.” A thought dawned on her.
“Where are my manners? I have completely forgotten to introduce myself. My name is Abigail Winters. I…well I help out wherever I can” she said appearing to be a little uncomfortable.
They spent the rest of the day being introduced to the rest of the staff and shown around the estate. And when dinnertime came Alec and Maurice were surprised to find that they were expected to dine with Miss Banner-Jones and Miss Winters instead of with the servants.
They were already seated when they heard a door slam and someone curse. Abigail smiled and looked over at one of the maids filling their plates with food.
“Seems Rebecca was not given what she wanted” she said and the maid giggled.
The door to the dining room opened and a dark haired, dark eyed woman with annoyance written all over her face marched in.
“I tell you, Abigail, that man will be the death of me. The prices he demands are well beyond…” she stopped talking and her expression changed.
“Alec” she said smiling “and Maurice” she walked over to greet them.
Alec and Maurice soon felt at home in Brook Manor. Every day they tended to the estate, Maurice would help Rebecca with the finances but just as often he worked with Alec tending to the game and keeping things in order. Their evenings and nights were spend together in Forest Cottage and they rediscovered each other and for the first time they felt welcome and wanted.
They had a standing invitation to have dinner with Rebecca and Abigail “Every evening if you wish” Abigail had said. But more often then not they ate together in the cottage except on Sundays where they would dine with the women.
Both Rebecca and Abigail were intelligent and entertaining. They both served in the Ambulance forces during the war and there they meet each other and became friends. What Abigail’s job on the estate was always seemed to elude Maurice and for some reason he did not think it polite to ask.
Rebecca had inherited the estate from her father; she was an only child and she took great pride in the estate. Both women were friendly and charitable towards the servants and always made sure that everyone had what they needed to be in good health.
“Now their happiness” Rebecca would say “they must see to themselves.”
The rising sun was shining through the window making Maurice’s hair seem liquid gold. Alec’s lips were the centre of his world and he made a muffled sound at the back of his throat, fingers uncoiling and body relaxing. He uttered a sound that was half a sigh, half a pleased moan. Alec moved slightly away from him so he could caress Maurice’s neck.
“So you enjoyed that?” Alec said. He leaned forward, his right hand resting on Maurice’s chest.
“Well? Did yer?” he said, his lips brushing against Maurice’s collarbone.
Maurice shivered, then smiled and in a hushed voice said “Who wouldn’t?”
Alec’s face split in a teasing smile and he rested his head on the warm skin of Maurice’s stomach taking in the scent of soap and suntanned skin. They would have to get up soon, Alec thought, as he embraced Maurice. But not just yet. All he wanted now was to listen to Maurice breathing calmly.
“Nice day for a picnic” Maurice said fingers drawing invisible circles on Alec’s shoulder.
“Mmm…looking forward to it?” Alec asked his breath tickling Maurice’s chest making the small hairs on his arms stand up.
“Well yes! Good food…good company.” His fingers gently pulled Alec’s hair.
Alec’s friendship with Rebecca Banner-Jones, their employer, had at first worried him. They had seemed to spend far too much time together.
Alec wasn’t quite sure how it had happened or exactly when but a friendship had grown between them, brought on more by necessity than recognition. Often Alec and Rebecca would walk together through the forest before sunset. Rebecca was good company and although they never really spoke much he always felt that they understood each other.
They never talked of the war or those lost in it just as Alec and Maurice never talked of Jeffries. On one such evening walk Alec was talking of problems with the fences when he was unexpectedly interrupted.
“Doesn’t it get cramped…” Rebecca quietly said “two grown men in a single bed?”
Shocked Alec stopped, blood rushing in his veins, his heart pounding. He could already see them packing and leaving.
“I” he started then stopped to calm his voice.
“You ought to push the beds together” she said “would be much more comfortable I’m sure.”
Her eyes sought Alec’s and the astonished surprise in them made her laugh.
“I … We…” Alec started.
“Are you happy?” she asked as if this was a completely ordinary question.
“Yes!” Alec blurted out without thinking.
“Well then…” she said never finishing the sentence.
“And you?” Alec said “are you happy?”
“Happy is not the right word, I think” Rebecca said turning away from Alec.
“No not the right word…Blessed” she said, again facing Alec. “I am blessed. Abigail…she…”
Rebecca looked at Alec as if needing support. Alec merely nodded and they continued their walk back to the house.
Then one evening Alec returned from one of their walks. He walked directly over to the two beds and started pushing them together. Alec and Maurice always slept together but were forced to leave the beds as they were, separated, in case someone would drop by. Maurice just looked on in dumbfounded surprise.
“Well aren’t yer gonna help then?” Alec said face flustered from the physical strain.
Maurice helped, the beds were heavy but after a few minutes they were side by side. Alec walked over and, to Maurice’s surprise, pushed him on to the bed. Straddling Maurice, their lips so close that it was scarcely speech,
Alec said “Not so cramped anymore.” And Maurice had let himself disappear in warmth.
Afterwards Alec recounted his evening stroll and conversation with a soft and careful voice. Not wanting Maurice to be frightened, Alec knew how much he had come to love their new home, he spoke slowly and explained his own surprise and chuckled at Maurice’s confused expression.
“She won’t tell” Alec reassured him.
“But how do you know…Can we know… for certain?”
“She’s like you an’ me” Alec said slipping closer.
“What?” Maurice said abruptly sitting straight up in bed, turning to look at Alec “What do you mean?”
“You never wonder why she and Abigail always sit so close like…” Alec said teasingly. “Holding ‘ands” he found Maurice’s warm hand and held it.
Maurice let himself fall back into Alec’s embrace. “Oh” he said.
After that Maurice became better acquainted with Rebecca. She had the great and rare gift of silence. They need not speak if he did not wish too. They would walk together with a deep sense of friendship and of mutual understanding.
Maurice had never felt this with anyone else but Alec. And she had invited them to join her and Abigail for a picnic. Good food, good company. It was an odd feeling not to have to hide his love for Alec.
The first time they had been for a walk with the two women Alec had stopped to let his hand run through Maurice’s hair and tuck a lock of golden behind his ear. Maurice’s body had frozen up, hands feeling cold and he had stopped breathing.
Alec saw the change and had only pointed to Rebecca and Abigail. Maurice had looked towards them half expecting to see the two women fainting with shock. Instead Rebecca stood with her back to them. Abigail had her arms around Rebecca’s waist, leaning into her warmth, her mouth whispering sweet words in the other woman’s ear. They laughed. The blood started to flow through his body again and he exhaled, having held his breath for too long.
“Would it not be time for tee?” Rebecca called to them smiling.
“Tee t’is then” Alec said not letting his eyes release Maurice’s.
“Well I suppose I must warn you” Rebecca said sitting on the blanket; eyes closed drinking in the sunshine.
“Warn us?” Alec said. He was leaning against a tree trunk.
“We have visitors coming…or rather a visitor. Miss Callow. My father’s cousin…sad little woman…very hmmm biblical.”
Maurice laughed “Biblical?”
“Yes! Every chance she gets she quotes the Bible. Josef said this, David did that”
“Now come, Rebecca, she can’t be that bad” Abigail said sitting down next to her putting her arms around Rebecca’s shoulders.
“Oh yes she is! She used to frighten me so when I was a little girl. All her stories of sin and punishment. My mother finally forbade her to speak to me.”
“How long will she stay?” Maurice asked taking another piece of cake from the basket.
“Four long, l-o-n-g weeks.”
“Four weeks of punishment and judgment. That’s no’ thin” Alec said looking at the others.
They all fell silent and Rebecca finally said “No” she reached out and caressed Abigail’s hand “four weeks is nothing.”
Alec felt his mind unravel, every coherent thought shattered to pieces. The only thing he could focus on was Maurice.
“Open your eyes” Maurice said.
He felt Maurice’s lips smile against his skin just where his leg joined his hip…And to think that Maurice had never…Not before Alec had climbed that ladder. He remembered their first night together. It was a thought he could latch on to…concentrate on. Alec had been surprised to find that he was Maurice’s first.
“Open your eyes, Alec” Maurice’s voice insisted.
They never used endearments. Perhaps because they had been forced to hide their love or, and this Alec believed to be the real reason, they did not need them. Maurice could say Alec’s name in such a way, with so much love, passion and need instilled in it, that it made everything else seem inadequate. Alec looked up at the ceiling.
“No” Maurice said, “Look at me.”
Alec propped himself up on his elbows looking down at Maurice. He smiled.
Maurice was all his, to kiss, to touch – the scar on his thigh just below the hipbone – all his. The way he walked, ate and slept – the nightmares had lessened lately – his smile, the scent of his body and Alec seemed somehow not to belong to himself anymore. Maurice was his but Alec was Maurice’s perhaps even more so.
“There you are” Maurice said teasingly.
Alec reached down and pulled Maurice up so he lay on top of Alec.
“I hadn’t finished” he whispered in Alec’s ear.
Miss Callow had arrived. Yes, she certainly had!
“Seek not after that which is easily gained, but strive after that which must be won with pain!”
Miss Callow always sounded as if she was a character speaking directly from the Bible. Her voice dry and sleep invoking. But sometimes her words made sense, though often not in the ways she meant them too.
To strive and win and gain. Maurice’s eyes sought out Alec. Handsome, charming, bored Alec. He was sitting opposite Maurice pushing a pea around on his plate. To strive, win and gain. “Be firm in the true faith for what can be mightier than that.” Miss Callow looked earnestly at them.
“Suffering can only serve to make us stronger” she finished.
Suffering? Had they not suffered enough? Maurice thought.
He looked at Abigail; her face was expressionless almost so much so as to seem vacant. Rebecca was clutching her knife so hard that her knuckles were white. And Alec?
Alec’s expression was the same as when Maurice would babble. He was waiting for Miss Callow to stop talking and was probably using the time to make a list of things that needed doing on the estate. Maurice had to look down at his plate and concentrate on the food so he wouldn’t start laughing. He put a piece of potato in his mouth and looked up.
He saw that Alec was studying him carefully. Maurice smiled and almost unnoticeably shook his head which in return made Alec grin and let his eyes roll back in his head, making Maurice choke on his food. He started to coughed and with watering eyes excused himself and left the table.
“Better go see if he’s in need of ‘elp” he heard Alec say.
Alec came out and joined Maurice in the hallway. He walked over to Maurice and pulled him close; his entire body was shaking with silent laughter. Alec hid his face in the nook of Maurice’s neck and made small choking noises. Maurice’s coughing turned into half smothered giggles and they just stood there, holding each other close, quietly laughing.
Strange, Maurice thought. He looked down at Alec fast asleep in his arms. How natural this felt, how right. That this, him and Alec, could be perceived as wrong always made him wonder. There had not been much joy or love in Maurice’s past.
Well, Clive…but those moments of love and friendship had been tainted by Clive’s indifference. Only Alec shone a bright light on his life. Maurice could only hope that he brought as much happiness to Alec’s life as Alec did to his. A strand of brown hair fell into Alec’s sleeping eyes and Maurice reached out letting his index finger stroke it away from his forehead.
“Sleep Maurice.” Alec murmured.
Maurice smiled and kissed Alec’s forehead. He shifted so he could rest his head just above Alec’s heart. Alec caressed Maurice’s back and his strong heartbeat lulled Maurice to sleep.
He was not sure yet but he thought that there had been poachers on the grounds and he wanted a word with Rebecca about it. So Alec walked through the hall and stopped in front of the door to the drawing room.
It was standing slightly ajar. He was about to knock when he saw the two women standing in the room silhouetted against the sunlight pouring through the windows. They were standing very close and Abigail was holding Rebecca’s wrist.
“She will be gone soon” Rebecca said.
“Not soon enough” Abigail sulked.
Her fingers moved from Rebecca’s wrist and it started caressing the soft skin between her thumb and the inside of her elbow.
“I’ve missed you” Rebecca exhaled with a sigh. Abigail stretched so she could whisper in Rebecca’s ear.
“You did?” her eyes sought Rebecca’s, smiled and continued caressing her arm.
“Three weeks…three long weeks” Rebecca’s shoulders slumped slightly.
“We could…” Abigail searched for the right words. “Tonight tell Miss Callow that you have business to attend to in…in…” she tried to come up with a plausible place for Rebecca to have business to attend to so late “…with Alec! Say that you have to speak to the gamekeeper about…about.”
“The game?” Rebecca suggested.
Abigail giggled like a schoolgirl. Alec smiled; he hadn’t moved an inch afraid to spoil this happy moment.
“Hell! Tell her what ever you like!” Rebecca seemed just as surprised as Alec to hear the beautiful woman curse.
“So you want me to lie so I can spend the night with you?” Rebecca seemed to be teasing. Abigail’s hands were now around Rebecca’s waist.
“Yes!” She kissed Rebecca. A careful kiss, then she looked into her eyes. Rebecca whispered.
“I am going to a special place in hell for this!” There was amusement in her voice.
“But it is worth it…Yes?” Abigail said as she craned her neck to look into Rebecca’s dark brown eyes.
“Yes” Rebecca answered with devotion. “Always.”
“Judge not, that ye be not judged” Miss Callow read from the Bible.
Rebecca leaned over to whisper in Maurice’s ear. “Well, there are those that do not judge, but have judgement passed on them all the same.”
Maurice had to fight the urge to smile. Alec had overheard the comment and grunted in agreement which Miss Callow took as applause of her reading and therefore continued.
The mud seeped through Maurice’s boots. The superior officers kept telling them to keep their feet clean and dry. But how was one to do that? Maurice lifted his left foot in an attempt to drag his feet out but just continued to sink deeper into the stinking mud. Jeffries, who was walking in front of him, wasn’t stuck.
“Damn! Jeffries, give me a hand” Maurice called.
Jeffries turned halfway around and stared at him.
“Come on!” The mud had reached his knees now.
Jeffries opened his mouth as if to speak but no words came out. Maurice was starting to panic. He had heard stories about soldiers drowning in mud and the thought of suffocating like this made his skin crawl.
“Say something” Maurice begged. Jeffries turned all the way around.
Maurice suddenly found it very hard to breath. Jeffries was missing half of his face. And now something did come out of his mouth, his lopsided strangely purple lips formed words but instead of sound they carried more mud. It flowed from Jeffries as if there was no end to it. Maurice screamed and fought with all his strength, attempting to get out of the horrifying mud as it started to push against his shoulders.
“Wake up! Maurice wake up! It’s alright…I’m ‘ere!”
Maurice found himself on the floor, had he fallen out of bed? Alec was hugging him tight.
“Jeffries” Maurice sobbed “he was …and I couldn’t stop it!”
“I know shhh I know”
Maurice and Rebecca had abandoned Abigail and Alec and left them in the merciless hands of Miss Callow. They walked through the forest. Neither had yet spoken when they stopped by the old oak. Rebecca sat down on one of the massive roots. Maurice bent down picking up a green leaf turning it over in his hand.
“Some say that what we do is a sin” Maurice said, letting the leaf fall to the ground. He turned to face her. She smiled and her eyes were filled with determination.
“Yes” she said “a lot of people do…I know.” She stood up stretching “But then the sin is on their own heads.”
“What matters” she said taking Maurice’s hand “is that love, whatever its nature or form, can never be a sin,” She turned to look at the old tree. “There is a question I have always wanted to ask Miss Callow” she said closing her eyes. “Why are only certain kinds of love acceptable to the religion of love?” she turned to face Maurice. ”Why were we created with feelings that the Creator himself apparently condemns?”
Maurice nodded. “What I feel for Alec…What he feels for me…”
Maurice could not find the right words. They began to walk again.
“Love” she said “it is like you were flying and all the time falling…” Her voice trailed off. “Or dying” she added quietly.
“I wanted to die” Maurice said. Rebecca looked down at her hands.
“In the trenches without Alec?” she asked. Maurice licked his lips as he looked up at the sky.
“Without Alec I would die. Jeffries told me…” Maurice stopped.
Jeffries had been Rebecca’s friend as well, even before the war; he did not want to hurt her with unpleasant memories.
“Jeffries gave you hope. Told you to remember your commitment to Alec. That there was a life beyond France, beyond the mud and death.” Rebecca put a hand on his shoulder. Maurice exhaled letting his lungs empty completely.
“Yes” he said.
As they returned to the house they were greeted by a very upset Miss Callow. She was waving her hands about and looked as if she could explode any second.
“You must send them away!” she screeched, her voice almost painfully loud.
“What?” Rebecca said looking confused.
“They were reading...” she was interrupted by Alec and Abigail who came out to join them.
“This!” she said thrusting a small red book in the direction of Rebecca and Maurice.
“A book” Rebecca said pointing out the obvious.
“A book! A book! No, Rebecca. This this is filth.” Rebecca looked more confused then ever and Maurice said
“What is wrong with the book?” Miss Callow point a shaking finger at the title.
“The intermediate sex” she fumed.
“Oh God!” Maurice said looking at Alec who in turn looked at Rebecca.
“Such things are sinful. Men with men, women with women. Disgusting and…and sinful.”
Miss Callow seemed to have used up all her word.
Abigail walked over to Rebecca, reached out and took her hand; Rebecca was still too stunned to respond. Abigail looked straight at the small woman clutching the book in her hands.
“Many give the things they don’t understand the label sin.” Abigail said, her eyes not leaving Miss Callow’s. “Rather unimaginative I would say.”
Miss Callow looked shocked as she stood there mouth open as if all the biblical quotes had decided to strangle her. She threw the book to the ground. Then she turned around and stomped back to the house.
Alec picked the book up dusting it off.
“Well, suppose she’ll be leaving now” he said looking at Rebecca and Maurice.
They lived quiet, but happy lives, combining love and work. And it seemed as if this tranquillity could go on into the forever after of fairytales. But life rarely is like those childhood legends where the hero goes through much hardship in order to earn happiness.
And reality had not forgotten the four but merely given them a reprieve. A letter arrived bringing sad news. Abigail’s sister had died leaving behind a son.
“Her husband is no good. A gambler. Violent.” Abigail said. “Of cause she loved him. She put him on a pedestal, and he kept falling off.”
Rebecca stood up “We have offered to let the boy live here.”
“His name is Morgan” Abigail said, her fingers continuously stroking the letter in her hands, smoothing out the edges.
Alec put his calloused hand on top of her restless fingers. She looked up, treacherous tears lingering in her eyes.
“How old is he?” Maurice asked.
“Six or seven perhaps…time goes by so fast.”
Morgan looked so small, so lonely as he stood there holding a small suitcase. He was pale and his blond hair curled over his ears. Abigail hugged him and took his hand leading him up to the house.
“Poor little creature” Rebecca said as she and Maurice watched the two climb the stairs.
Morgan pointed up “Look!” he yelled excited “such a BIG apple!”
Maurice and Alec looked up and saw that on one of the highest branches of the old apple tree there was indeed the biggest apple they had ever seen.
“Can we get it?” the boy asked looking at Maurice then Alec.
“Well…” Alec hesitated “‘S mighty high up” he looked at Morgan.
“Think I could climb up and get it?” Morgan was jumping up and down in pure anticipation.
Alec glanced at Maurice, who nodded.
“Yes!” Morgan smiled.
Alec and Maurice helped the boy up so he could reach the first branch.
Morgan looked down and his cheeks were red from the climb and the fresh autumn air. Maurice was glad to see that he was so happy and healthy. Morgan continued climbing and yelled
“Alec! If I fall will you catch me?”
Alec looked at Maurice; he was keeping an eye on the boy.
“Yes” Alec said with determination not moving his eyes from Maurice.
Maurice turned slightly and was now facing Alec.
“Yes! If you fall I will always catch you” Alec said.
They stood like that for a while; autumn leafs falling to the ground spreading a rich blanket of golden and a voice from the past whispered to Maurice: This is your friend.