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A drunkard trying to mend a watch

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“Afterwards. Alec told me. But I should have come, anyway. I should have had to come back." The words made Ralph sway on his feet, unsteady and flinching, and Laurie stepped forward, a hand reaching out towards Ralph. He felt, within himself, a little awe at the idea that he had done this to Ralph, that he was capable of wounding someone this deeply, and the beginnings of a dreadful responsibility settling on his shoulders. “I’ve got a pass,” he said, a little helplessly, searching for something to say. “Ralph, sit down, please.”

“Alright, Spuddy,” Ralph said, slowly, and sat down in one of the overstuffed armchairs. Laurie didn’t think he could perch on the arm, and felt that taking the other chair would seem hopelessly distant.

“Shall I make some tea?” he tried.

“Alright, Spuddy.”

But that would mean leaving the room, and Laurie was conscious of a strong reluctance to do that. It was as though Ralph’s previous invulnerability had dropped away from him, and Laurie was now looking at a man as fragile as any other. Who knew what might happen in the time it took the kettle to boil? “Actually,” he said. “I don’t really feel like tea. Shall we just -?” He fluttered for a moment, and then firmed his voice and his gaze. “I’m sorry, Ralph. I shouldn’t have said those beastly things, and I shouldn’t have needed Alec to tell me that it wasn’t you.”

“You were right, though,” Ralph said. “Too many Bunnies.” He was still speaking as though from underwater, his eyes restless. Laurie noticed them glancing at the wardrobe, and could easily see that someone as careful as Ralph would certainly not have left his gun out of its case, not even during an errand as small as fetching postage stamps. He could not help his own eyes flicking to the letters. “Oh,” Ralph said, a small sound, and he got to his feet like an old man, walking to the table and picking up the letters. There was something childish in the way he held them close to himself.

“It had my name on it,” Laurie said, shifting his weight a little.

“You read the whole thing?” Ralph glanced down at the letter in his hand. “I wasn’t... It would have come to you tomorrow, possibly the day after. The whole thing would have been done with.”

Laurie could feel that he was not controlling his face, and Ralph’s own fell a little. “Very neat. I see,” Laurie said, and knew that somewhere, far far off, behind the calming walls of compassion, there was a drumbeat of anger. It was moving somewhat closer, but it hadn’t reached him yet.

“One for you, one for my mother.” Ralph seemed to realise that he was beginning to crease the letters in his fist, and he put them down on the table again.

“Yes,” Laurie said, and took one or two steps, to bring himself close to Ralph. Ralph was held tight, military, blue eyes wide. “I think, perhaps, we should go to bed.” He was beginning to be too tired to think beyond the fact that Ralph would, probably, be safe for tonight.

“Okay, Spud,” Ralph agreed, nothing but calm in his voice.

They slept with their backs to each other, deep and uneasy. Laurie woke twice in the night, panicked like a man drowning, and could not settle again until he’d ascertained that Ralph was still breathing.

***

In the morning, Laurie woke to tea and toast, Ralph proffering him a tray with a carefully studied ease. “Morning, Spud,” he said. “Isn’t this going to cause a dreadful row? Your playing truant, I mean.”

“Yes,” Laurie said. “Can I use your telephone?” He didn’t want any breakfast, but he could see that Ralph very much needed him to accept the care, so he took the tray and laid it carefully across his lap. The anger was a little closer now.

“Shall I fix it?” Ralph said, but that was more than Laurie was willing to allow.

The telephone call was surprisingly pleasant. Alec evidently had a great many friends at the hospital, because when Laurie put down the receiver he found himself not only unscathed, but in possession of a whole day of leisure, since his appointment with Miss Haliburton was not till tomorrow, and Alec seemed to have laid on reports of his family emergency rather thick. He found that as soon as he turned to look at Ralph again, his fury threatened to rise up and overwhelm him, making the walls of the room feel close around him.

“Shall we go for a drive?” he said. Ralph was extremely quick to agree.

***

They pulled up in a sheltered grassy spot overlooking a river, after driving through ever-narrowing country lanes, and Laurie found that he wanted to speak, but wasn’t sure how. Ralph was unmoving, hands lying flat on his thighs and eyes facing ahead.

In the end, Ralph broke the silence. “You mustn’t take this on yourself, Spud,” he said. “Laurie, I mean. You read, in the letter, I never intended it as any kind of repartee, it’s to do with this wretched hand of mine,” the maligned appendage twitched, “more than anything else that happened last night.”

“Ralph,” Laurie said, and he meant ‘Be quiet’. Ralph stopped speaking. “It was a stupid thing to think of doing.”

Ralph didn’t respond for a moment, and then he said, “The problem was, Spud, I just didn’t see how I was to make out anymore. You can’t know...” He stopped suddenly. “I’m sorry, that was rather an asinine thing to say.”

“Yes,” Laurie said. He gazed at the river in front of them, green and placid. “Do you think you’d try it again?”

Ralph said nothing, just shook his head tightly.

“Has that changed just because I came back?” Laurie said, searching for some way to explain that now, in the true light of day, he didn’t think he could bear a burden as heavy as being solely responsible for a man’s life for the rest of his. At least the men he’d killed before had died quickly, not over years.

He was about to be a murderer again, and then Ralph said, slowly and intently, as though he was feeling his way forward through a jungle, “Do you know, I don’t believe so?” Laurie couldn’t quite help the disbelieving noise he made. “No, Spud, don’t be so quick. It’s only that... I was pretty low last night, of course, and couldn’t see that anything would ever change. And then it did change, purely because I was delayed by a few minutes, do you see? So I think I should never know, again, what might happen in a few minutes.” He glanced briefly at Laurie. “So I shouldn’t think you need worry, Spud, that you’ll get another letter in the post later. I’ll be fine.” He sounded like he believed it.

Laurie made a decision, sudden and only unexpected because he had spent so long not listening to himself think. “Right,” he said. “I think I can live with that, at least for a while.”

Nothing from the seat next to him, until Ralph managed a quiet, “Laurie?” Laurie couldn’t understand what he’d done to make Ralph sound so broken up, and he turned with concern. He saw on Ralph’s face the shadow of the things that had been said yesterday, that had been taken by Ralph as deserved, and understood.

“I wasn’t right,” he said. “I was dreadfully, dreadfully wrong. I suspect you know why, and I won’t apologise for that, but that’s only because... you haven’t met him, I can’t explain. At any rate, I know you still have it in you, and I think we both did things last night that make us look like,” he hesitated, “like cowards today.” He faced front, and felt rather than saw Ralph’s flinch. “So that’s why I say it, because I think we can make something of this, although it’s certainly a bloody rotten start.”

“Yes,” Ralph said, and after a second or two his hand, the ruined one, came to rest on Laurie’s leg. Laurie covered it with his own.