noorie (noorie) wrote in maryrenault,

REPOST: Besieged Fortress by A. J. Hall [post 2/2]

Explanation, disclaimer, and the first 4 chapters of act I can be found here.

Besieged Fortress: Act I

Chapter Five

Ralph half-helped, half-carried Alec the remainding dozen yards to his front door, fumbling awkwardly for his latchkey as he did so. Before he could produce it the door opened inwards. Laurie must have seen them from his study window. His voice was tight with anger and with what Ralph realised, with a swift stab of contrition, was pent-up worry.

"Where the hell have you been? You said three nights at the outside! I've had Annunciata weeping all over the kitchen and screeching that Franco must be torturing you and Tómas with his own bare hands since the day before yesterday."

"Oh, Christ! She isn't still here, is she?"

Laurie gave a sharp, negativing shake of his head. His mouth was opening to ask the next obvious question when Alec, who had been virtually comatose for the last yard or so, stirred against Ralph's shoulder, and turned his head up and towards Laurie.

Laurie's eyes widened as he recognised Alec.

"I didn't realise that was why you'd - Look, we'd better get indoors, hadn't we?"

Ralph nodded. Sorting out the misunderstanding about what his trip had really been about could wait. None of this - assuming he had read Alec's desperate, hunted expression correctly - was anything that it was sensible to discuss in the street.

Once they were in the living room Alec slumped in an attitude of exhaustion into the depths of the sofa. Ralph said,

"I expect you'd appreciate a bath, wouldn't you? I don't suppose the boiler's lit yet, but if we light it now there should be plenty of hot water by the time you've finished breakfast."

Alec half-raised his head.
"Save water, bath with a friend," he intoned dispassionately, in heavy, official tones. "Must go down in history as the only sensible advice any Government department ever gave."

Laurie looked affronted for a moment, and then he must have recognised in Alec's voice something of that defiant, bitter heroism that comes not from victory but from the kind of defeat that rings longer down the annals of history than victory ever should or will: Go tell the Spartans -

Instead of whatever he might have been inclined to retort, Laurie nodded gravely. "Never heard better myself. I'll put the kettle on while I'm sorting the boiler."

He vanished to put that into effect. Alec looked at Ralph with an air of exhausted apology.

"Sorry. My tact seems to have got itself left in England with the rest of my belongings. I shouldn't have forced myself on you. I should have realised it might be awkward in the circs."

His answer was automatic; he had uttered it even before being conscious of wondering what to say.

"Oh, don't be ridiculous, my dear. Where else could you think of coming but to me, if you're in any sort of jam?"

The resounding silence before Alec responded told him much, but when after a carefully judged pause Ralph looked up the doorway between the living room and hallway was empty.

Ralph exhaled. "Anyway, I'd better go and make up a bed for you."

By the time he had returned from putting fresh sheets on the bed in what for the benefit of Maria, who cleaned for them, was always carefully referred to as "Laurie's room" Alec had revived enough to decamp from the sofa through into the sunlit kitchen. Laurie and he were conversing with a kind of distant, brittle courtesy, like people who meet at a party and discover that they have either too much or too little in common to make for easy conversation.

The kettle, fortunately, was singing happily on the stove. Ralph took possession of it and brewed coffee with the practised efficiency that came of having done it at all sorts of angles and in frighteningly cramped conditions. He'd got a chance to see Alec properly in good light, and made his own assessment of that greyish skin, febrile manner and twitchy hands.

There was a crock of Atlas mountain honey in his duffle bag, black and thick as molasses and fragrant with the scent of the herbs that grew on the sparse soil of the uplands. Ralph pulled it out, and stirred a couple of dripping spoonfuls into the coffee jug, and followed it with a heavy slug from the bottle of coarse Spanish brandy which stood on a shelf next to the stove.

"Here," he said, pouring from the jug into a mug, and pushing it across to Alec. "Have a Carajillo. The Spanish workman's staple pick-me-up. One of the better contributions made by the Spanish to civilisation."

He had not underestimated its effectiveness as a reviver. After the first three gulps the colour started to return to Alec's face; he sat more upright, and there was a hint of the old sardonic humour about his narrow-featured face.

"Well," he said, "I suppose I owe you both an explanation."

Whatever the unresolved tensions of the morning, Laurie had not lost the absent, instinctive generosity of spirit which Ralph had seen and loved in him from the first. He shook his head.

"Not if you don't want to. It's entirely your choice. You're welcome to stay here as long as you like, of course."

Alec's expression changed, lightened, became more open. He turned a little towards Laurie.

"Well, that wouldn't be fair, either. I shouldn't think the Authorities would be minded to make that big an effort, you understand, but it is British territory, still, and it's only fair to let you two know what you might be letting yourselves in for."

"The Authorities?"

Alec shrugged. "Behind was dock and Dartmoor, ahead lay Callao. Or, to quote another great thinker, 'True patriots we, for be it understood, we left our country for our country's good' - Did you get the letter where I told you about Nurse Urquhart?"

Ralph nodded. "Only last week, though. I take it she was something of a trial."

There was something slightly grim about the set of Alec's lips, and his tone was clinically detached.

"A touch of hyperthyroidism and a strong streak of repressed nymphomania, manifesting itself as excessive religious fevour and unbalanced adolescent emotionalism."

Laurie winced, sympathetically, but Ralph noted with a touch of amusement that he also had the familiar faintly withdrawn expression that suggested he was hoping to remember the description until he could note it down for future reference.

"People drew conclusions from your avoiding her?" he suggested delicately.

Alec grinned. "I can assure you, if avoiding Nurse Urquhart's attentions were the test, every doctor in the hospital would have qualified as queer. No; my mistake was to underestimate just how persistent these demented females can get."

His hand sketched a gesture. "I'd fallen on my feet as far as digs went. God knows how, I'd found a couple of rooms in one of those big mid-nineteenth century terraced houses, all peeling stucco and impossible to heat, of course, but less than ten minutes from the hospital with a landlord who didn't care what one got up to provided the cops didn't call and you delivered your rent dead on the nail."

He took a swig of carajillo.

"Anyway, I'd got one or two irons in the fire - nothing serious. No drama - well, apart from the tear-stained little notes from Nurse Urquhart I kept finding in unexpected places."

Yes; the carajillo was definitely doing him good.

"Apart from anything else the switch to doing dopes had left me with a lot of reading to catch up on. And - what day is it again? Thursday? Well, a week yesterday, then, I was curled up under an eiderdown on the sofa doing precisely that when there was the most appalling commotion outside."

Ralph topped up the mug. Alec nodded gratefully.

"I guessed immediately that it was Phil. He's an actor - I doubt you'd know him. I'd come across him at this appalling play in a cellar somewhere - everyone was cooing over how wonderfully daring it was, and all I could think of was getting out and finding a drink to get the taste out of my mouth. Picture my surprise when the next man at the bar turned out to be the chap who'd played the lead, who'd apparently had the same idea. And that was Phil. Of course, you know actors. Good fun, but unbelievably indiscreet, so I wasn't best pleased about him kicking up a racket in the street outside my digs, especially since it was clear he was pretty well lit up. So I shoved up the window and told him to put a sock in it or I'd shut him up myself, and he looked up to see where I was. Which was when he tripped over his own feet and fell the best part of ten feet off the top step down into the area."

Laurie looked horrified.

"And that killed him?"

Alec raised his eyebrows. His expression was indecipherable, but his tone remained level.

"Well, no. The luck of drunks, madmen - and actors. Barring the odd bruise he was as right as rain. He'd been fairly relaxed in the first place, given the amount he'd had to drink, and he landed on something soft. And I suppose they teach them how to fall properly at drama school."

Ralph, whose imagination had taken the same leaps as Laurie's, and had seen the shadow of a noose over Alec's head, heaved a sigh of relief.

"Well, thank God for that!"

Alec coughed. "Well, not entirely. You see, the something soft he landed on happened to be Nurse Urquhart."


"She'd been lurking down in the area, for reasons best known to herself. Who knows what was going through what passed for her mind? Anyway, she bundled out of there shrieking blue murder in all directions, and I bolted down expecting to find Phil with a broken neck, but, as I say, he'd come out of it much better than he deserved to do. So I supplied arnica and the benefit of my opinion and - the evening ended pretty much as you might expect."

Though Alec's tone never lost its casual nonchalance his hands were gripped so tightly around his mug that the knuckles were white. With some vague notion of easing the tension Ralph started to unload the contents of his duffle onto the kitchen table. Alec's eyes widened.

"Good heavens," he observed with an air of cool detachment, "I don't think I've ever seen so many eggs together in one place since before the fall of Singapore. What are you proposing to do with them?"

"Make omelettes," Ralph said. "Goodness only knows when you last had a proper meal."

"You know, I'm not at all sure I can remember?" Alec frowned, slightly, as though trying to dredge up a not-particularly significant fact from the depths and then flipped his hand as though to signify, no matter. He continued,

"Anyway, that was that. Until two days later when I got called into the Senior Consultant's office. Apparently he'd had an anonymous letter."

Although he'd adapted, over the years, to the damage to his hand, Ralph suddenly found what should have been the simple task of transferring half a dozen of the eggs into a bowl trickier than he'd expected. It was a relief, in a way: it gave him a reason not to look up and see the expression on Alec's face. The faint break in his voice had told him too much. Ralph, too, could remember a summons from Higher Authority that had left his world in tatters.

"From her, I suppose?" Laurie's question hit exactly the right note of detatched concern. His hand reached out, checking an escaping egg just before it was about to roll off the table. "Should I take over on the omelette front?"

He surrendered the bowl and the eggs without comment, and looked up. Alec had recovered himself; his face was utterly non-committal.

"Well, who else? But that wasn't really the issue. Lyall-Owens was pretty decent about it. It wasn't the first case he'd seen of a nurse who'd thought she'd been jilted by some doctor or other trying to wreck his career through spite. And Lyall-Owens may be an Edwardian fossil, but there's a sort of old-fashioned decency that comes with that, too. He looked as if he wanted to put on surgical gloves and use forceps before he could bear to touch her letter. If it had been up to him, he'd have dropped it in the fire and I'd have heard nothing more about it."

The question was, after all, obvious. "And it wasn't up to him?"

Alec shrugged. "A carbon copy had been sent to the Matron, I gather. She wasn't going to stand for any breath of scandal about her nice clean hospital. I had to come up with a full, utterly innocent explanation or - "

The gesture with his side-on hand was unequivocal. Ralph felt a sick stab deep inside him. Knowing what he knew of Alec's stubborn integrity, there was only one place this could end.

"Even then, Lyall-Owens was giving me every opportunity not to tell him anything he didn't want to hear. But - well, you know how I feel about that sort of thing. I didn't think I could give him any form of assurance that would satisfy the hospital authorities and still find myself worth living with. And in the end I told him that."

"How did he take it?"

Alec shrugged. "He argued. Told me nothing in anyone's personal life was worth losing the opportunities medicine offered a young man with talent, especially not at this time. Told me that all I had to do was keep my nose clean, allow myself to be seen taking "some suitable gel" to the pictures on a couple of occasions and it could all blow over, and no harm to anyone's conscience. He ended up telling me to take a couple of days leave and not say a word to anyone about this business, and he'd go in to bat for me with the hospital authorities. He was being so damned decent the least I thought I could do was tell him I'd think it over."

Alec looked out of the kitchen window, but not as though he was seeing anything that anyone else could see.

"But then matters were taken out of Lyall-Owens's hands altogether."

Alec took a sip of his now cooling carajillo. His voice sounded as though it was coming from a very long way away.

"You see, next morning the laundry maid found Nurse Urquhart in the laundry closet when she came on duty." He exhaled, and there was a world of bitterness in the sound. "Though as neither the cord nor the light-fitting she'd chosen for the job were up to her weight, actually she survived the experience with nothing worse than concussion and a badly wrenched neck."

His expression was redolent with disgust and contempt; of course, her suicide attempt would have struck a peculiar resonance with him. Laurie, busy making omelettes, looked up.

"But surely no-one in their senses could have blamed you?"

Alec looked across at him directly. "You know, especially since the War, I'm really not at all sure any of us are in our senses any more. Take Hiroshima. When a whole city can be vapourised in an eye-blink, does it make sense for a surgical team to take several hours to operate on a middle-aged housewife for cancer, when in all probability we're prolonging - for five years at the utmost - a life of no global significance, no economic productivity, no relevance really to anyone except her immediate family?"

"But you still do it," Ralph said.

"Did it, in my particular case. Lyell-Owens got on the phone to me as soon as they found her - I said he'd been most extraordinarily decent about the whole thing. Let me know she'd left notes for everyone she could think of, in anticipation of a successful outcome. And that her parents were hot-footing it down from Litchfield at that very moment, to bring down the wrath of the Law on the evil pervert who drove their darling to the very brink of the abyss. Left it to me to use the information as I thought fit."

Alec shivered, though the morning was living up to its early promise of heat.

"God! Well, you can imagine how I felt. I don't have a much time for the sort of people who pull off stunts like that as a general rule, specially if they end up creating a bigger mess than the one they were running away from in the first place, but if I ever get driven in that direction, I hope at least I'll have the basic human decency to do the job properly without fuss first go, and not leave vast screeds of whining self-justification to poison the lives of everyone I ever claimed to have any affection for."

There was a faint sound, only perceptible on the very edge of hearing. Laurie, surprised by Ralph's sudden turn of the head in his direction, flushed red, and made something of a business of retrieving large quantities of shell which had suddenly slipped from his fingers into the egg bowl.

And in that split second Ralph felt an icy hand clench around his guts, as something which had been for years an evanescent suspicion on the edge of reason was made suddenly concrete.

He did read your letter before you got back to the flat that night. He knows exactly why you burnt your diaries. He's always known. And -he's never told you he knows .

That night - what had nearly been - had been a sore place in memory ever since, barely scabbed, too sensitive to go near, even now. Ralph's only comfort - until now - was that it was a shame known only to himself.

He had been wrong about that, it seemed.

He kept up a polite fiction of interest in the rest of Alec's account of grabbing what little ready money he could scrape together, throwing his things together, and making his way first to Charing Cross and the boat-train, and then slowly, tortuously, by train - cheapest seats which, more often than not, had meant standing in corridors or cramped on wood slats - down through France and Spain in the hope of finding refuge.

But behind it and the civil injections and questions manners demanded Ralph's mind raced, and he seemed to hear a mocking, high sound, like the first shifting of timber as the house built upon sand begins to flex and sway before the rising wind.

Chapter Six

Ralph thought it was an ironic genuflection of fate in his direction that his by now ritual visit to the shipping office should, on that morning of all mornings, have given him the news for which he had been hoping during the last nine months.

The clerk's overpowering enthusiasm about the successful placing of one R.R Lanyon in the position of first mate in a mixed cargo carrier registered out of Seattle would, in other circumstances, have been almost comic.

Despite his other concerns and the oppressive heat of the day Ralph managed to summon up a decent degree of enthusiasm for the efforts the clerk might have gone to in order to achieve this particular miracle.

Actually, once it came down to the technical detail of discussing the requirements of the berth, and the no less important but distinctly non-technical gossip about why, possibly, the previous first officer might have found his berth abruptly removed from beneath him, he found his feigned attention being replaced by genuine interest, and, imperceptibly, by enthusiasm. In fact, he found himself sufficiently absorbed to spend the best part of two hours in the drab little office, not even noticing the bluebottles, trapped and buzzing endlessly against the tiny, grimy window.

By the time he got back to the house he was well through the exercise of working out what he had that he could take, what would need to be replaced, what he needed by hook or by crook to obtain by the day after tomorrow, and what he would have to make shift to do without until they made landfall in some suitably accomodating port.

Which left him, fortunately, very little time in which he could fret about how matters might be left on shore during his absence (four months at best, and very likely six) given the morning's enlightenment.

He was not the sort of man to feel relief that he could, with all credit and little trouble to himself, effortlessly avoid all that sort of thing for an indefinite period. It would have to be faced before he left. One of the lessons he had absorbed from what at the time he had thought of as an inordinately silly play, only redeemed (personal issues aside) by its spectacular set pieces from an unconscionable amount of shilly-shallying, was that "Conscience doth make cowards of us all". It was not a philosophy he found that he was prepared to live with.

At least, not in the long or even the medium term. Nevertheless, when he got back to the house to find Alec and Laurie just roused from a long, deep siesta, and bumbling around in the drugged heat of late afternoon, he put the revelations of the morning squarely on one side, and proposed a swim.

A couple of hours later the launch was bobbing at anchor in one of the coves out towards Cabo Trafalgar, with an ingenious arrangement of trailed dinghy and swimming steps affording even Laurie full access in and out of the water.

Alec lay supine across the hot steel of the deck, drinking in the sun, a hand half-shading his eyes.

"Thanks. And sorry. You were right all along, you know. I was foolish to imagine things might be different."

There was little Ralph could say. "At least Lyall-Owens tried. I feel better for knowing that."

He retrieved one of the bottles of pilsner which had been chilling in a bucket of sea-water, and passed it across to Alec.

Alec half propped himself up on one elbow, "True. Of course. Do you know, he was still trying to propagate his own ideas of Edwardian decency to the last? He said, 'Deacon!' Like that, of course, as though it mattered, 'Deacon! There was, in my youth, a very good sort of man. The rumour was that they were women haters, and I daresay they were. Nevertheless, they did very well in theatre. No distractions, Deacon! Pity times have changed, great pity.'"

Ralph barked a laugh. "Any ideas what you might be going to do now?"

"You're very welcome to stay as long as you like, of course," Laurie added, slightly formally. Alec acknowleged the offer with a quick, charming smile, like the sun briefly appearing from behind clouds,

"Thanks. But truly I am only a bird of passage here; just until I can find something to do with the rest of my life. Tell me, what prospects do you see? I don't suppose your new ship has a berth for a ship's doctor, Ralph?"

"That, I'm afraid, would be already filled. By me," Ralph said. "Along with all the other lots in life that fall upon the poor bloody first officer. And don't look at me like that, Alec; we've had it out before, and in point of fact I agree with you. Every time one of the matelots came to me with collywobbles when I've been stuck with that job I found myself praying it wasn't appendicitis, and that I would guess near enough right not to end up having to wrap him in canvas and take the last stitch through his top lip. But I'm not responsible for where the owners choose to cut corners; at least, not as yet. Your best chance would be one of the lines that take passengers; they can't afford to take as many risks with them."

Alec took this in with a faint frown, as though, Ralph though suddenly, the sudden narrowing of his options had acquired a visceral rather than an academic reality. He felt a sudden spiking of anger at the sheer waste of things; all Alec's trained intelligence, his skill and dedication, his years of experience, accounted as nothing against the single psychological quirk which, in the other pan of the scales, weighed down so heavily under the pressing finger of the world's opinion.

Alec must have seen something of this in his face, or perhaps his own thoughts had taken him to the same place, because his voice had acquired a veneer of nonchalence over a bitter undertone.

"Of course, given that I've been criminalised already, perhaps I should embrace my destiny fully. After all, my skills could be very profitable in the right circles." He pitched his voice to a high parody of debutante tones. " 'My dear, you don't need to worry about a thing. I know of the most marvellous man - completely professional and discreet - the girls in our set completely swear by him. All the arrangements handled with the strictest confidence, no-one need suspect anything."

Laurie looked up, his face open in shock.

"You can't be serious. Surely you'd never really do it?"

Alec shrugged, the set of his mouth bitter.

"When you've seen what I've seen in theatre: us trying - and mostly failing - to repair the messes left by botched jobs perpetrated on desperate women perhaps it'd be more humane and moral to offer them cleanly and safely what they'll snatch from dirty needles in back alleys if we don't."

Abruptly, Laurie rolled over and scrambled somehow to his feet, moving stiffly and silently to the side of the boat and dropping into the water. Alec looked after him with surprise.

"Well. I have to say that I thought I was in about the last company where I'd have expected a comment along those lines to hit a raw nerve."

Ralph paused. "I take you didn't know about his mother?"

A questioning eyebrow signalled "Go on." About 20 yards away from the boat Ralph could see Laurie striking out as though determined to make it to Spain, slicing through the waves with the ugly but effective side-stroke which he had developed to compensate for his leg. He shook his head thoughtfully.

"It was a couple of years ago, I suppose. She started to miscarry late on - either they didn't appreciate what was happening in time, or they panicked - delays getting to hospital - no-one with petrol - amulances all elsewhere - you know the sort of thing. Died on the operating table. We never got the details straight. I was at sea, and they didn't manage to get a message through to Laurie - or at least, he couldn't get away from the Ministry - until after it was over."

"A miscarriage? But she must have been -"

"Forty-eight or so. Yes."

Alec whistled. "Bit of a shock for her to realise she was pregnant in the first place, I should imagine." He, too, looked thoughtfully out towards the sandy-dark head bobbing among the waves. His voice changed. "Bit of a shock for everyone, I imagine."

Ralph wasn't going to argue with that one. Certain phrases from Laurie's letters written in the fraught weeks which led up to the final tragedy were forever burnt upon his mind. Not that that sort of thing was anyone's business but their own. He made an impatient gesture.

"Well, that isn't the point. For some reason rumours started to run wildfire in the village - you know how poisonous these little places can get - to the effect that 'the Vicar's wife took something to bring it off and it killed her' -"

Alec snorted. "Oh, I can bet you anything you like where that one came from. Natural village bitchery aside, we've had this one time and again."

He reached for another bottle of pilsener..

"Understandable, I suppose. We're trained to use technical language, to describe conditions precisely. Unfortunately nine out of ten lay people will not grasp that "spontaneous abortion" is just medico-speak for a perfectly natural miscarriage. I've seen outraged husbands threaten to kill nurses for slandering their wives. These days, I always make a point of warning anyone who might come into contact with the relatives -"

He shut up, abruptly. Ralph, feeling as though he was speaking a slightly too fast to cover up a pause which had threatened to become prolonged, said,

"Well, however it arose it put the Rev. in an awkward spot. Desperate to cause a diversion at all costs, I suppose. And fortunately the Bishop of Bath and Wells had just given him a golden opportunity. Laurie's book had been out some time by then, of course, but the sensation didn't really start until the Bish decided to denounce it as 'more dangerous to the youth of today than the Atomic bomb.' Good for sales, of course."

Alec sat up. His dark eyes were narrow with a suppressed, intense emotion. "Good God. Where have these people been? So describing what a crisis of conscience feels like from the inside becomes too immoral to talk about, does it?"

There was nothing, really, to say about that. He had been frightened on first being given one of the proofs of Laurie's book that he might not be able to praise it, and that not only would insincere enthusiasm have stuck in his throat as a sin against the Good, but that Laurie would have known, instantly, that he was lying. But instead the inarticulacy of his response had come because he was afraid that any attempt to put into words how far certain passages had moved him would sound trite and fatuous. Rather belatedly, it occurred to him that he had perhaps taken it on trust that Laurie knew the difference, rather than made sure it was so. But certainly his anger at the wilful blindness of the imbecilic prelate had been something he'd been able to find words for; something, in fact, that a fifteen-year career at sea had uniquely shaped his vocabulary to express.

Alec made a sound of the profoundest disgust.

"I see. A godsend for the widower. So where did he take it?"

Ralph shrugged. "Where you'd expect, of course. I'm told the sermon was very moving. And unequivocal."

"God, what a bloody mess." Alec looked over towards the African shore, shimmering in the heat haze. "And you came out here not long after?"

Ralph nodded.

"As soon as I got demobbed. It turned out - one thing that Straike couldn't have banked on - that most of Laurie's mother's money came from a life-interest in her father's estate. On her death it reverted to her children - or child, as it turned out, of course. The income's enough for him to live on abroad, if not in England. Gives him the chance to write full-time, rather than in odd snatched minutes fitted around a day job, like the first one, after all."

"Mm. I see." Alec stared out to sea for a little longer, and then turned to face him, the ghost of his normal charming smile on his lips.

"You'll never guess who I met in the hospital, about six months ago. Remember Pinky Fordyce?"

Glad to have the chance to move onto less perilous ground, Ralph cast his mind back.

"No - oh, yes - of course! Part of Smithers's crowd, yes? Nice bloke. What was he in hospital for? Nothing serious, I hope." Some sort of shadow crossed Alec's face and, abruptly, Ralph recollected himself. "Oh, I forgot. Don't say if it's breaching any confidences."

Alec smiled. "Hardly. He wasn't one of my patients. I used to go over and chat to him - for all intents and purposes I was the only person in the place who talked his language."

Ralph nodded, trying to recreate Pinky's round, school-boy pink features in his head. They kept dissolving into a blur, vaguely topping an impression of battledress. He gestured to Alec to continue.

"He'd been captured by the Japs in Burma; had a rough time in a prison camp. Once they got him out he started having black-outs. After his last episode he woke up in hospital and found he'd punched his hand clean through a shop window. Officially, we were treating the mess he'd made of the arteries and tendons. Obviously, we were also rather interested in finding out what was behind it, in case he came round from his next black-out having used someone's face as the punching bag, not a window. Or worse. And Pinky didn't fancy fetching up in Broadmoor or the morgue, so he was quite happy to co-operate. So in between operations they were trooping him off to a succession of psychiatrists, which I think was leaving him rather bemused. 'You know,' he said to me once, 'those chaps are all the same. Once they find out a man's queer they think they've hit the answer to everything. I've told them that I was just as queer before I went to Burma, but I never had blackouts then. But will they listen?' But eventually they did find someone who was able to get beyond that, and Pinky was doing much better when I had to leave. Left me feeling a lot less lukewarm about the value of the discipline than I had before. Though I still don't doubt there's a lot of quackery in it. Did you ever think of pschoanalysis at all?"

"Who, me?" His face must have spoken volumes. Alec's mouth twisted wryly.

"Well, it's not that much of a strange question. Plenty of our fraternity have; specially if their parents find out about their being queer. Mostly, it's the parents who insist."

"God! It's clear you never met my mother. I don't know what she'd find more shaming; having a queer son or one who'd been treated for anything "mental". Anyway, what's the point? Most of the types who go in for it just want their pathetic little neuroses stroked and coddled. Look, can you picture me lying for hours on a couch talking tripe and being told that all my problems are because I wanted to murder my father and marry my mother, or is it the other way round?"

Alec laughed softly. "My dear, you know perfectly well that your uncouth merchant skipper pose doesn't wash with me. Save it for the jewels of the London literary scene - oh, yes; Laurie told me about Longenhurst. He told me quite a lot, actually. One way and another."

And he looked out again towards the dark speck of the head bobbing amid the waves, with, Ralph fancied, a faintly worried air. Alec, of course, always had been a worrier, even in cases like this where was quite plainly no need for it. Laurie had turned to swim back towards the launch now anyway, and, awkward as his leg made him appear, he was more than equal to coping with the deep water and unpredictable currents that he found himself in.

On to the next parts, previously posted here...
# Act I: chapter 7.
# Act II: chapter 1.
# Act II: chapter 2.
# Act II: chapter 3.
# Act II: chapter 4.
# Act II: chapter 5.
# Act II: chapter 6.
# Act II: chapter 7.
# Act II: chapter 8.
# Act II: chapter 9.
# Act II: epilogue.
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