Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Fleur de Lys Part 13


July 21st 1919 . Whitby , Yorkshire .
It was drizzling and growing dark when he left the station, dropped his ticket from numbed fingers in the street outside and walked past the barrel organ playing on the corner amidst the more up-town and fashionable shops.
‘You’ll never believe me’, a popular tune he remembered from clubs and bars and the very few dances he’d attended, followed him to the bridge. There he hesitated, confused. To the left stretched the harbour and the quay with its stalls and the last of the women packing the barrels of gutted fish from the fleet’s catch that morning. The boats were all in, moored in neat, hemmed lines, but that meant nothing to Deverel’s bewildered eyes. To the right led little, convoluted streets beneath the cliff, and a vague outline of stone, high on the cliff top in the mist.
‘And when I tell them how beautiful you are
They’ll never believe me,
They’ll never believe me…..’
“You all right mate?”
A little, twisted man in a heavy sweater. Deverel forced his thickened tongue to move, wincing at the slowness of the words.
“I’m looking for Alick Cowan.”
”Dan Cowan’s lad?” the man sucked his teeth and spat. “Throught market, up past steps, cottage ont corner. Try the Red Lion first. Dan’s crew drink up there whent boats are in.”
All Dev could do was nod his thanks. The man walked on, whistling.
“They’ll never believe me…”
The army had its own version of the song. Dev remembered weary, irritable voices singing it in a draughty railway station while men were lined up, numbered and marched off.
“And when they ask us how dangerous it was
We’ll never tell them, no we’ll never tell them
We spent our pay in some café, and fought wild women night and day
It was the cushiest job we’d ever known….”
Cobbles formed the path as he moved into the maze of narrow little streets on the other side of the river. Slippery under foot and hard. Dev dug his hands in his pockets and walked deeper into the shambles. The Red Lion shone light and noise out of an open door, a splash of warmth on the wet street, but Dev recoiled from it. Better to sit on a doorstep in the quiet than to brave that. It took him some minutes before he could walk past the stream of light and noise, past the inn to Church street where he hesitated at the foot of the donkey road, confused by the cottages crowded on either side of him.
You’re mad. Chances are he won’t see you. Chances are he’ll kill you. You of all people know the man’s temper.
Panic began to mix with hunger. Deverel gripped the cold wall and fumbled through his pockets for a cigarette. The barrel organ was still faintly audible across the river.
            “And when they ask us- and they’re certainly going to ask us-
              The reason why we didn’t win the Croix de Guerre….”
He struggled for the words, feeling the tune running out of control in his head.
For Christ’s sake stop it. Don’t give into it now. Stop it. STOP it.
In France it had worked, in London- Deverel resisted a mad urge to laugh.
I could go to India, I could go to the bloody moon and we’d still fall over each other.
He lifted his head with difficulty. The cigarette was pulled out of his fingers and a familiar hand gripped and felt his hands without reserve.
“Jesus Christ what are you doing here?”
It meant nothing. The silence and the cold was broken by the hand on his wrist, a strong pull. The barrel organ was still playing in the distance.

‘We’ll never tell them, no we’ll never tell them,
 There was a Front, but damned if we knew where.’

The embers of a fire were still burning in the cellar of the whitewashed building off the street. Alick shut the door, lit a lamp on the mantel and knelt on the stones to rake out and relight the hearth. He dropped the poker twice. His hands were trembling too hard to grip, and he was bitterly aware of the grime on the walls, the windows, the floor, the debris of old meals on the table, the broken pane of glass on the window that looked out on a level with the pavement to show the comings and goings of anonymous feet.
Deverel hadn’t moved from the doorway where Alick had let him go. Alick brushed off his hands and got up, his eyes still on the floor.
“Are you shocky?”
Straight to the point. Deverel shut his eyes, ashamed at just how much he’d missed the bluntness.
Alick looked up. One hard, practised look that covered him from head to foot.
“Yeah. You are.”
Deverel met his eyes. He saw the reaction there, covered as Alick turned away, his voice harsh.
“All I’ve got’s tea.”

Deverel drifted to look out of the cracked window at the limited view of the cobbles. Alick dumped the kettle out on the hearth and there was the rough slam of a tin lid shut hard, a kettle jammed onto a hook. Silence.
Then that harsh voice again, tired and choked.
“All right. All right. Come here lad, for Gods sakes.”
Alick’s hands closed on his shoulders and turned him around. Deverel gripped his wrists hard enough that he felt the bones shift under his fingers but Alick didn’t flinch. His eyes were fixed on Deverel’s face, dark, looking down at him from Alick’s greater height and breadth, those heavy hands gripping his shoulders still. Containing. Enclosing. Deverel was aware of his heart starting to thud in earnest and his breath beginning to catch in his throat.
“I came here looking for you. I didn’t want it to be in this state-“
”Where are you doing here?” Alick interrupted quietly. “Eh? What are you doing here Dev? I need to know.”
A long pause. Deverel stared at his face. Alick’s hands shook him, with the curious mixture of roughness and tenderness Deverel knew from long experience.
“Dev. Does Hayes know you’re here? Lindley?”
Deverel didn’t answer, still staring at him. Alick took a deep breath. And then the crushing grip on his shoulders released and Alick cupped his cheek with a calloused hand, a brief and deeply comforting touch.
“Aye, you’re in no state to be making sense. Get to the fire, get yourself warm.”
Deverel held on to him, his hands still clutching. Alick gave him a gentle push towards the tiny hearth, pulling his wrists free.
“Go on. Get yourself together first.”
It seemed like the habit of years to follow his orders. Gruff, to the point, with the expectation that they would be obeyed: he had been that way from the first day they met, when Alick pushed a tin cup of tea into his hands and commanded him to drink it. Deverel had once been outraged at his audacity- that seemed like centuries ago when he could summon up that emotion for anything- but it had never occurred to him to refuse. Crouched before the fire, Deverel watched Alick pour tea, a strong and black brew that reminded him strongly of the brew they’d most often drunk at the Front. Bitter and scalding, and rough comfort.
“Here.” Alick said, putting a mug down in his reach. “Hot and wet, it’s all you can say for it.”
”Why did you leave?” Deverel asked him. Alick hesitated, then put a hand down and sat on the stone hearth beside him, staring at the fire.
“You know very well why. Major Bloody Hayes paid me off.”

”Were you in the pay of Major Hayes?”
“If it comes to that I weren’t in your pay either.” Alick snapped. The memory of Edward’s face in that hallway still made his throat burn. Pale blue eyes, chilled with revulsion for what he was, what he’d done. The words had been polite enough but Hayes had made his meaning very clear.
I know what you’re doing to that boy.
“Then why the hell did a word from Edward send you off?” Deverel demanded bitterly. Alick looked down at his hands, trying to control his temper before it flared in earnest.
“Because he was the Major of my bloody battalion. And when the Major looks at you and tells you to sling yer hook, you do it.”
”Do you think I’d have let him send you off?”
“I don’t think it was for you to SEND me anywhere.” Alick shoved to his feet and walked away, resisting the urge to kick at the table. It was scarred enough from numerous other kicks, he’d only just managed to repair it the last time.
”Hayes told me I was doing you no good, he made it clear I wasn’t keeping my place and that he was the best judge of what you needed. And maybe he was right. He got you out of that room, he got you to eat with your family that night, that’s not MY world. That’s not something I can do with you. So maybe he was right.”
”Edward said to me you wouldn’t have gone if you didn’t want to.” Deverel said very quietly. Alick grunted.
“Then maybe he were right.”
A little more, Alick thought bitterly, and he’ll walk out of here and you really will never see him again.
Deverel gazed into the fire. His hands had steadied now, and so had his voice.
“Had you already planned to leave?”
“Hayes had planned for me to leave.” Alick said brusquely. “He had it very carefully worked out. Divide and conquer.”
”You mean I jump when he calls.” Dev said flatly.
“He’s got you and Lindley pretty well trained.” Alick leaned against the wall, folding his arms to stop the urge to reach out, to smash something. “He’s my bloody Major and he’s yours too, we all follow the same fucking orders. Where’s the point in this Dev? What are you doing here? You don’t belong here any more than I belong at that abbey of yours.”
”Edward said you’d seen-“ Deverel stopped and wiped his sleeve over his mouth. “How stupid it was to have brought you to Fyling. He said you were glad to escape.”

”Yeah well he lied. What could I do in a place like that with the brass standing over me? He made it bloody clear I had no choice, he made it clear too he knew I was with you in London when you shot yourself, you think I didn’t know what he was implying? For Christ’s sake Dev, we’re not all immune from three years hard labour for buggery!”
Deverel pushed to his feet and came to him. Alick shook his head, forcing his voice down.
“Maybe I was doing you more harm than good. What could I do for you there? I haven’t got the authority Hayes has got. I don’t fit into that way of life, I couldn’t even call a bloody doctor out to you without begging Winton for help.”
”That’s Hayes talking, not you.”
“Dev.” Alick started, helplessly. Deverel lifted his hands, ran them over his shoulders, watched his face. And Alick stooped, pulling Dev fiercely into his arms. He could feel the younger man’s energy burning into him, running out of control from his mind to his trembling muscles. Wild fire. He clenched his arms, gathered the lean, taut body into him, and as the energy was contained, the trembling died away. Alick rubbed his back, feeling warmth creep back into him, the heartbeat under his hand slow down and stabilise.
“And this is no good either.” Alick said aloud into Deverel’s ear. “This is all we’re bloody good for.”

Deverel was woken by knocking, and a minute later a draught and Alick’s voice at the door.
“Tell Dan not to wait. I’ll come by later.”
Deverel looked for his clothes and found them by the fireguard. The light was thin but enough to see by, and his watch showed the time as past four am . Alick locked the door and padded, naked in the gloom, back to their blankets on the stone floor.
“My uncle’s kid. The boats going out. They’ll do without me. I’m bloody perished, come here.”
Dev shivered at the touch of his chilled skin and burrowed against him. There was a mist visible on the cobbles through the cracked window, and the wind was sharp up from the harbour.
“Did you join a crew here?”
Alick’s chin was heavy on the top of his head as they settled together.
“I’ve filled in. Worked my dad’s coble with him when there’s nothing else. Odd days here and there for friends. A lot of families here have got men missing or damaged and can’t run their boats. I’ve been meaning to get into one of the big crews but they don’t give easy hours.” He shrugged, his voice becoming more off hand. “My sister lost her husband at Mons , my dad worked for all of them through the war, and when I turned up out of the blue he took me straight back onto his boat, no questions asked and a good share of what’s earned. I didn’t want to take a job where I couldn’t help out him or one of his mates when he asked.”
“So what do we do now?” Dev said softly. Alick’s arms tightened around him.
“You get out of here. You go back to that bloody great estate of yours and do what you were brought up to-“

”Balls Alick, I was brought up to run a company of men on the western bloody Front, that’s all I know how to do and it’s all I’m bloody good for.” Deverel pulled away and sat up, shivering slightly in the chill of the room. Alick’s hand ran down his spine.
“You shocky?”
Deverel silently lifted a hand. Steady. Alick reached to turn it over.
“How is it now?”
“Happens. Sometimes. Not as bad.”
”I’m glad.”
“I hate it.” Deverel said savagely. He shifted, freeing himself from the blankets, intending to get up and dress. Alick’s hand caught his before he reached his feet, and yanked, bringing him crashing down on Alick’s chest. Alick threaded a hand through his hair, pushing it back from his face.
“I know.”
Deverel dropped his head back on Alick’s chest and breathed him. Sweat. Tar. Salt from the sea last night, but it was the smell of men, the smell he associated with France , with action and with comfort. Alick’s heavy hand settled on his bare back and began to rub deep, slow circles. Dev silently turned his head and kissed the broad chest pillowing him. And lay still, letting the warmth of that rubbing hand sink into him.

Under the pier shelf the women were gutting and packing the fish from the crates delivered by the ships already back in the harbour. There were a few stalls where the catch was being sold to locals and the woman grinned at the sight of Alick.
“You overslept again my lad?”
Alick dug coins out of his pocket. “Give me a couple of the herrings Maggie love.”

”Who’s this then?” The woman smiled at Dev, a big, cheerful girl in her early twenties. Dev, confronted with that smile, froze.
“A friend.” He heard Alick say lightly. “Dev Standen.”
It sounded so easy. Deverel stifled the shudder that ran through him and trailed Alick towards the rocks at the deserted end of the beach. Alick shoved paper wrapped herrings in his pockets and nudged him at the rocks.
“Up there.”
The rocks led to a narrow path up the cliff. Deverel went where Alick steered him, aware of him walking close behind, and his arm where the path and his limp did not combine well, but the physical challenge helped. At the top, Deverel leaned his hands on his knees, panting on clean air, and Alick sat down on the grass.
“How’s the knee?”
“I’m out of condition, that’s all.” Deverel straightened and looked out over the sea spread below them. Alick watched him, outlined against the greyness of the water. He was wearing a tailored suit, but battered enough not to draw the attention it might have- tieless, he looked gaunt and untidy and painfully young.
“Hayes made threats.” Alick said, not sure whether Deverel could hear him over the wind lifting in from the sea. “When I refused to go. The police. He made it very clear I could get you into trouble and the only way to avoid it was to leave. And leave you to people who knew better and would take better care of you.”
There was a long silence. Then Deverel started to swear, horribly. Alick said nothing for a few minutes, then when he showed no sign of stopping, got up and went to him.
“Dev. I knew when Lindley came to the house, when you were starting to be yourself again. Once you were fit, what was I going to do? I’m not a servant. I’m too bloody common for the servants hall. If I saw you at all it’d be like it was in the bloody army, a quick fuck in the gunbays when we could catch each other alone.”
Deverel sat down on the grass, staring at the sea. The horrible cursing had stopped, but his teeth were still bared. Alick crouched beside him, watching him with very mixed emotions.
“What did Hayes do to you? What did that bastard tell you?”
“Nothing that matters.” Deverel said eventually, tonelessly. “You know I came here to tell you something, and I don’t know if I have the guts to do it.”
”What?” Alick sat down on the grass, acid starting to grip his stomach. If Hayes had done the damage it sounded like- Deverel tore roughly at the grass with one hand, pulling up moss and clover.
“I’ve cut my leash.”
“Run away I suppose. I’m not going back to Fyling.”
Alick stared at him blankly. Deverel glanced from him to the grass.
“I know. There isn’t anything you can say-“
“Things- happened. Made me think.”
”Things like what?”
“You leaving.”
 “Dev. This is sex, and that’s all, that isn’t a life-“ Alick swiped gently at the back of his head, voice strained. “It was all right while we were in that hell hole, we all did what we could to survive it-“
”All right?” Deverel lifted his head and to Alick’s shock, laughed. “We couldn’t have done anything LESS all right. Over there, the pride ofEngland , on duty-“
”It kept us going. And while you were ill you needed what you needed, you don’t have to feel bad about that. But not now. Not with a place like Fyling to think of. You’ll get married, you’ll have kids to keep that place going. You’ve got tenants and the farmers to think of and all the rest of it.”
”It’s Rob’s, not mine.” Deverel said simply.
“I don’t think your family’ll see it that way, nor Major Hayes.”
“I told you.” Deverel threw the clover over the cliff, scattering it into the wind. “The old houses are the dragons of England. They eat the old families alive, you just serve the houses. Well I served it. I went out to France, I did what was asked of me, Rob died over there. Fyling isn’t mine. It’s nothing to do with me.”
“Deverel, look at me.” Alick spread his hands, aware of the torn shirt, patched trousers, old boots. “Look at me, like this, living in filthy lodgings you should never set foot in. I went into the army because I had to eat. I didn’t give a damn who I was fighting, or what for, so long as I had a shirt on my back and wasn’t starving. This is what I am. Filth and ignorance. Your house wouldn’t take me as a groom. Your father let me stay because he was desperate, that’s all. Hayes is right. I’ve got no right being anywhere near you.“
”You were with me every minute. Every day.” Deverel said flatly. “When I was out of my head you were there. Where was Hayes then? You think he would have done for me what you did? You think he would have stayed with me? He knows nothing. And you tell me you’ve got no right to be near me-“

“You can’t live in a place like this.” Alick said angrily. Deverel gave him a look of grim satisfaction.
“I haven’t got a farthing on me Alick. You know what sort of shape I’m in, and I won’t go home.”
“Are you going to blackmail me?” Alick demanded.
Deverel shrugged. Alick shook his head.
“I always said what you needed was a damn good hiding- I might just as well contact Major Bloody Hayes, he’ll find you here in a few days anyway!”

”He won’t.” Deverel said with conviction. “And if he did I wouldn’t go with him. I’ve tried Alick. I’ve tried being a good boy like Edward, I’ve tried going back and I can’t. And if I try much longer I’m going to end up putting a bullet somewhere a lot more permanent than my knee.”
”You are such a kid it’s frightening!” Alick shoved to his feet, disbelief and anger combining. “This isn’t like your bloody books, you can’t just run away- you’ve got no idea what real life is like!”
”No, I haven’t.” Deverel stifled a laugh and lay back on the grass. “I’m pretty good at Latin grammar and English Literature, weapons and tactics and British Army Captaincy. Pretty much sod all else. They won’t have me back in the army, Alick. I’m going to have to learn somewhere what the hell I do with myself now.”
“And how long will that take?” Alick demanded. “With your education, your home, your background- do you think you’re going to be happy here like this for ever and ever amen?”
“Do you?” Deverel said bluntly.
Alick shook his head. “You’re bloody mental. You have no idea what you’re saying. It’d work maybe for a few weeks- a few months until you’re fit again, and then what?”
“Do you want me?” Deverel pitched the last piece of grass and got up, looking at him.
It was the one thing that could make him go, the one argument that would sway him. Alick, who knew Deverel’s nerves and his obstinacy, stared at him helplessly. Deverel gave him another, more twisted smile.
“Could we get into a crew? You said it pays well.”
”Don’t be daft!”
”You’ve told me it pays. And with two of us together, you could still help your family when you need to. Damnit Alick we were hauling guns barehanded last winter, fishing would be a song!”
Alick looked down at him, troubled. “Dev. You’ve been here two minutes. You can’t stay here, you don’t know what you’re getting into. You don’t belong here.”
”I don’t belong anywhere.” Deverel said matter of factly. “Except possibly the Western bloody Front, and that’s being taken down. They’re cleaning it up, bringing in the equipment, burying whoever’s left up there. They probably should have buried us too, but it’s too late now. It’s gone.”
“And you’ll move on. In time.”
”No, I won’t.” Deverel dug his hands in his pockets, looking at him levelly. Alick knew the expression. It was the one he had when he’d decided to take nearly three hundred men back over open ground in front of a line of advancing Germans.
“We couldn’t stay together in London . Or at Fyling. It’s me that has to find another way of life, not you. And there can’t be THAT much mystery to fishing. Could I do it? No, don’t argue. Could I do it?”
Alick shook his head, aware he was stepping himself into insanity.
“You’re strong enough I know that- and Christ knows you don’t talk much, chances no one would ask questions.”
”What if they did? I’m here just like you, looking for work.”
”With yer lah di dah voice and soft hands.”
”Would it keep us both?”
Alick shook his head. “You can’t live in lodgings Dev.”
Dev laughed. ”I’ve slept in ditches. I’ve slept in bloody graveyards, courtesy of the British bloody army, no one thought THAT wasn’t good enough for me!”
”You own that damn great house!”
“I don’t. I never did.” Deverel said simply. “It’s Rob’s, it always was Rob’s. Alick I was a kid at school when I joined up. The only people who know me now are you and Cam and Edward. My parents don’t know who I am, most of the friends I had before the war are dead, Rob’s dead. There is no way back. There’s no sense in looking. If I learned nothing else when you were gone, I learned that.”
Grey eyes looked at blue eyes. Deverel shrugged, painfully flippant.
“So I’m afraid, unless you tell me you don’t want me here, you’re stuck with me.”
Alick caught him on the second shout, pulled him up and hugged him, talking quietly, firmly, until he took the first deep breath and his eyes snapped clear.
He was freezing to the touch and his blued fingers bit into Alick’s biceps. Alick pulled him closer, wrapping the thin blankets around him, the words coming automatically and from his guts, even half in sleep.
“It’s all right. It’s all right honey, I’ve got you.”
”Christ, I HATE sleeping.” Deverel muttered into his neck. He was shaking all over, but his arms crept up around Alick’s neck and clenched there. Alick kissed the top of his head, holding him tightly.
“I’ve got you. I’ve got you. What was that about?”
“The usual.” Deverel squirmed away from him and sat up. Alick stroked his heaving back.
“You want to get up and go for a walk? Let’s go down to the beach.”
”It’s the middle of the night.”
Alick reached past him for their clothes.
Like everyone raised on the coast, he had a deeply ingrained belief in the healing power of the sea. It was the force that fed the town, employed them, paid them, starved them and bereft them: it had a life of its own. They walked through the silent alleys to the narrow shelf of beach on the old side of the harbour.
There was just enough moonlight to show the grey clouds and to turn the water silver. The tide was out and Alick picked his way over the mud flats, watching Deverel’s tense shoulders ahead of him. When he stopped, hands deep in his pockets, the outline of him against the sea showed him still trembling. Alick rested his hands on Deverel’s slighter shoulders, then sighed and wrapped both arms around him from behind, enclosing him. Beyond them, the tide muttered and crashed in a steady rhythm, and the wind stirred Deverel’s hair against his face. Deverel put his hands over Alick’s and clasped them tightly.
“If you want the old battalion I know where they are-“

He sounded faintly hysterical. Alick put his chin on Deverel’s narrow shoulder. They both knew the old song so well that it hypnotised Dev, he shut his eyes, hearing it again as they’d both heard it sung time after time by men whose faces had been as familiar as their own. Alick rocked them both, quietly.
“Do you know how many men we lost from the company in the time I commanded it?” Deverel said eventually.
“Shurrup.” Alick said very gently. “Let the poor bastards rest in peace.” 
Continue on to Part 14 of Fleur de Lys
Copyright Ranger 2010

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