Seven Years Later
Usual warnings and disclaimers, plus one comment made by an upper-middle class Englishman at the expense of the French.
It was generally Ralph's habit to drop by the Post Office at least twice a week to collect their letters. Most of their mail arrived Poste Restante; at first they had been moving about between lodgings which had, for various reasons, proved unsuitable, and even once they had settled into the house they had been chary of giving out their address too widely.
The wind had risen again, and an unseasonable fine rain was being driven in brush-strokes across the streets. The Rock, it seemed, was determined to bid him a suitably damp farewell, but as he was due on board by mid-morning tomorrow this was equally not an errand he could put off to a more congenial occasion. Ralph turned up the collar of his light mackintosh and made the most of his long stride.
The small airmailed package with the French stamps and the spiky, foriegn handwriting was something of a mystery. He dropped it into his pocket for later consideration, having urgent business at a chandlers down by the docks, and forgot all about it for some hours.
He was reminded of it only when that evening he was rummaging through his raincoat pocket for his lighter (everyone else's having apparently gone missing) and found his hand hitting the unfamiliar shape. He pulled it out, looking puzzled, and, compelled by long habit, painstakingly undid the complex knots in the string which bound the parcel together.
When the slender calf-bound volume dropped into his hand Ralph felt a sudden shock; not precisely of surprise, but of recognition. He did not need to turn to the inscription (lovingly calligraphed in a spidery, archaic script) to know who had sent it or what it represented: the only possible gesture delicate enough for one gentleman to indicate inexpressible obligation to another in his own rank in life.
"'A commentary upon certain dialogues of Plato'? " Alec enquired, craning his head and translating the title without difficulty. "Have you decided to find consolations in philosophy in your old age?"
Laurie, his head bent over a newspaper on the other side of the room, brought his head up sharply.
"No. It's a present."
The repressiveness in Ralph's tone conveyed - he realised a split second too late - a defensiveness he had been far from intending. Conscious of perilous ambiguity he proffered the book, open at the autographed flyleaf for Alec's inspection; rather, he thought ruefully, with a touch of the same ostentatious parade of innocence with which the stage conjuror asks an audience member to verify that the billiard balls are solid, and the cups without false bottoms.
Alec's brows shot up.
"You do move in exalted circles. Don Miguel Muños Guittierez? I saw something about him in Le Monde when I was coming down through France. I gather the French intelligentsia were congratulating themselves mightily on having snatched him out of Spain an inch ahead of one of the Generalissimo's re-education squads. How did you come to earn his -"
Alec looked over the fine thin black ink of the inscription on the title-page again, and puzzled a little at the foreign phrasing.
Vividly, Ralph was reminded of exactly why the maximum time he and Alec could live harmoniously under one roof had been demonstrated - by actual experiment - to be three weeks. No-one could be kinder, or more perceptive than Alec, not even Laurie, who possessed the gift of a breathtaking insight at times. Equally, no-one could be less relied on than Alec to take a hint that a subject did not bear further worrying at if he did not choose to do so. Laurie, shielded by his paper, was already looking as though he had withdrawn himself deliberately from the dust and sweat of an uncongenial arena. Ralph cursed inwardly. Today of all days! And with that other matter still lying - an unspoken lead weight - between them. Ralph assumed his best bridge-officer's voice.
"If you want to know, he needed a lift in a hurry and I was - fortunately - in a position to offer one."
Alec's face changed: reacting more to the undisguised edge in his tone than to his words, no doubt. Laurie dropped his newspaper; he was dead white under his end-of-summer tan, which in the circumstances looked like an unclean scum resting uneasily on the surface of his features.
"You did what?"
There was pure, focussed rage in every syllable of his voice. Alec's head jerked up.
Taking a slow, deliberate breath, Ralph said,
"What would you have me do? You've already given me the benefit of your views on transporting 'tobacco and french letters'? What did you suppose the alternative was, if I was supposed to keep my self-respect?"
Every tendon and vein on Laurie's face and neck was standing out.
"And you told me the worst risk was that you might lose the launch! Tell me the truth for once: after all, it's the last time you'll have to make the effort for God knows how long. Once can hardly kill you. So: where were you? What the hell did take all that time?"
Even as part of his brain acknowledged the raw hurt behind Laurie's words - like a child crying to itself in a dark nursery from which the remote Olympians of its world have chosen to absent themselves, from somewhere outside Ralph's conscious mind or will a cool, dismissive tone imposed itself.
"Since you've finally chosen to ask, for your information I spent most of the time I was away nursing the boat's engine at less than five knots all the way home from Oran. After we'd dropped off Don Miguel we picked up some dodgy fuel, and the only way we could keep it from clogging the filters was by straining every drop through a couple of pairs of nylons Tómas had traded brandy and cigars for with a US boat, and which he was bringing back as a peace offering for Annunciata. It got a bit touch and go in spots but since we got home and no harm done it seemed better not to worry you with Might Have Beens. But then: when it comes to telling the truth, you've hardly been a shining example yourself, have you?"
Laurie's face spoke acknowledgement of the hit, even as his lips muttered, mechanically,
"I've got no idea what you can possibly be talking about."
"Excuse me," Alec said, his face a greenish-white, getting to his feet and barging through to the door, not heeding whose feet he tripped over in his haste to be gone. "I think I'll just go out for a walk; get a bit of fresh air."
The levanter was still blowing and the rain falling; it was the thinnest of excuses. They let him go without a word, though.
The check imposed by Alec's departure brought them to themselves a little. Laurie shook his head, like a swimmer trying to clear water from his ears, and started to murmur something vague, apologetic, palliative. But it had come to the point at last: Ralph knew that with the clear certainty with which in combat, sometimes, the right course of action had unrolled itself before him, complete and clear in all its details.
His voice was almost gentle.
"We've come too far to go back, don't you think, my dear? Tell me: what did bring you back to the flat that night in Bridstow?"
He traced the impact of his question across the familiar, beloved features; it was as if he could see the twinge of each nerve. Laurie's faint indrawn breath seemed imbued with that quality of resignation which courageous men bring to the moment when they are led into the courtyard, the blindfold tied around their eyes, and they hear the booted sounds of the firing squad entering. His voice was steady, devoid of all his earlier anger.
"Alec told me. He guessed, you see, when he heard about the row. He guessed what might happen."
Ralph bowed his head in acknowledgement. He had invited the blow himself; it would be a fool's trick to complain that the edge of the weapon hurt more than he could have dreamt possible.
"Yes," he murmured, and he heard as if it were from a stranger the remote bleakness in his tone. "In the circumstances you could say it was a topic on which Alec had acquired a tolerable level of expertise. It wasn't an education I meant to press on you, though."
For some obscure reason Laurie's face was now suddenly ablaze with red fury.
"If you seriously think anyone except a complete imbecile - which, last time I looked, neither Alec nor I was - would even think of making that particular comparison then you're past praying for."
Ralph shrugged. "I can't see it's such an invalid comparison. Similar techniques producing similar results, after all. I'd been wondering for months what kept you here when you were clearly wanting to be anywhere but here. I hadn't realised it was that I was blackmailing you into it."
Laurie exhaled, explosively.
"Now that is imbecilic. Since you now know I read your letter, assume I understood it too, yes? No patience with the people who do this sort of thing as a kind of repartee, remember?"
He hadn't, actually; he had only been conscious, while writing that letter long ago of trying to summon up the umabiguous clarity of expression he had aimed for at sea when leaving written orders to be opened in the event he was killed or put out of action. It made sense, of course, that Laurie should remember the actual words he had used so much more clearly than he.
"More fool me for deceiving myself. No-one does that sort of thing without half a thought for how many people will be weeping their eyes out at the funeral. And thoughts of that being a sort of revenge, I suppose. That most of all, I daresay."
"Revenge on your murderer?" Laurie's voice was so low one had to strain to hear.
"What? Don't be melodramatic, Spud, for God's sake. Not at a time like this."
"You've taken a long time to say it. I suppose I'm luckier than I deserve. But that's what you meant, isn't it? What I said that night on the staircase in the hospital -"
"Forget it, Spud. You weren't to blame for what you thought -"
Laurie shook his head, his face drawn.
"We both asked for honesty. Who are you to say where that stops? That night - I didn't apply the barest attempt at analysing what might really have happened. Less attempt to weigh the evidence than if I'd been told the charwoman was helping herself from the gin bottle. It was only later that I worked out why that was."
There was a bitter freight weighting his every word, and he avoided meeting Ralph's eyes.
"Part of me wanted it to be how I thought it had been. You'd showed me a part of myself I didn't want to know about it. I wanted to amputate that part, but as I'd had it rubbed into me that if there's a chance of saving a limb -"
His gesture took in his own shortened leg with its stiffened knee. Many years ago it seemed now he had in an agonised moment told Ralph that the doctors had been divided on whether the limb had been worth saving at all. Given the scale of the damage and the lightness and convenience of modern prosthetics no doubt there had been those who had argued that the effort put into saving the leg had been the merest sentimentality, and a waste of scarce resources, to boot.
"Well. I suppose I really wanted to be sure that part was gangrenous. And if that meant wanting to believe that of you, also -"
Laurie shrugged, the loathing for that earlier self (Ralph hoped, at least, not for his current self) twisting his face into a carven mask; something in which Agathon might have played Pentheus, in the final act of The Bacchae.
"I think - though I didn't know it at the time - I set out to kill that night on the staircase. And I almost succeeded. So there isn't, really, a lot to be said for me. So now you know everything."
Laurie's voice had dropped almost to nothing; he looked exhausted (more listless, even, in one sense than he had looked on the ship deck when Ralph had been called to determine whether he should be dropped overboard as a corpse).
He made his own voice very gentle.
"My dear, were you expecting that part to shock me?"
Laurie's head went back; he tried to suppress an inward rejoicing at the reaction. His tone was, in token, even more gentle than before.
"I did read your book, you know."
"But that isn't - that wasn't -" Laurie was flailing to get a grip on events, and, abruptly, achieved it.
"That wasn't about us, you know."
Ralph nodded. He had never been the kind of idiot (briefly, the shade of Longenhurst hovered) who assumed that all literature was, at bottom, roman à clef.
"I know. But it was about that. It doesn't matter how or where we each face it for the first time - or for the twentieth, for that matter. We've each of us stood where you stood that evening. And everyone born like us will end up standing there at one time or another. The difference is that since you wrote down how it feels hundreds - thousands - of people have realised that they aren't standing on their own."
He paused, conscious of a profound irony. "You know; it was only after reading your book I realised how unneccessary - how completely absurd - that whole evening was." Laurie looked up, his face alight with a hope and love that threatened to tear his heart from within his breast. A breath - a beat. But they were committed to telling the truth here, and if there were to be anything beyond he could not spare details for the sake of feelings. They had forever left the common dishonesty of coupledom.
"Of course, when I read that you have absolutely no idea how relieved I was to think that you'd never known how close I'd come to - well, you know."
Laurie's head had drooped again; that was to be expected. His voice was subdued.
"What do you plan to do now?"
Ralph had hardly thought. Something had happened, and it might be good or bad in the long run: it had certainly shaken him to the roots of his being.
"I can't say. I think better at sea, though. Something about the clarity with which you can see the stars. I'll let you know, of course. And you? Where will you go? Alec needs somewhere to stay while he makes up his mind what he's going to do, so don't worry about the house. And if Alec does find somewhere Tómas and Annunciata will keep an eye until I get back. So don't let any worries of that sort stop you."
Laurie acknowledged that with a movement of his head.
"You'll write while you're away?"
"Of course. Care of your agent; that'll be safest, won't it?"
"Yes. Yes I suppose so."
The storm had blown through, leaving only an inexpressible weariness in its wake. Too soon yet to start reckoning the damage; that would have to wait until the sun rose again, and they could see what the devastation had wrought, and assess their chances of ever rebuilding. He turned towards Laurie, but what he had been planning to say died on his lips. Whatever else had been swept away the bedrock of their shared years remained.
Tonight that rock was still something to which one might cling, in default of other habitation. He was already moving forwards as Laurie stretched out his arms, and it was hard to say which was supporting the other as they made their slow, silent way upstairs.