Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Fleur de Lys Part 15


I have come to the borders of sleep,
The unfathomable deep
Forest where all must lose
Their way, however straight…..
Here love ends,
Despair, ambition ends,
All pleasure and all trouble,
Although most sweet or bitter.
Here ends in sleep that is sweeter
Than tasks most noble.
There is not any book
Or face of dearest look
That I would not turn from now…
That I may lose my way
And myself.
Edward Thomas

There was no handshake, no formality, just a slightly timid “Hello Alick.”
Alick grunted and turned up the hill towards the posher end of town. Cam meekly followed, hands in his jacket pockets, struggling to match Alick’s stride. In pit boots and knitted gansey the man was at home in his weight and size, and it was alarming: this wasn’t the comfortably familiar Alick of the trenches, always awkward as though there was more of him than he knew what to do with, or the stag at bay on the stairs at Fyling Abbey. Cam timidly raised his voice above the wind coming in from the sea.
“Where is he?”
“T’cottage. Asleep most likely, he had a lousy night. I didn’t tell him about your telegram.”
”Will he be all right alone?”
The snort was sharp and vicious. “Aye. He’s calm enough with me.”
The man’s accent had thickened since his return to the north. Cam caught at his arm, too desperate to be polite any longer.
“Alick. Alick, wait. I have to know. Has he- has he said- anything about Hayes?”
“No.” Alick glanced down, hard faced. “Except that the bastard’s upset him again. And I gathered that, he didn’t tell me.”
Cam took a deep breath, trying to get the words around the sting of the salt wind and the ache in his eyes, his lungs, and what he thought was probably his soul if there was anything left of it.
“Edward’s dead. A week ago. It was suicide Alick, he hung himself.”
Alick had stopped dead on the pavement. When he looked at Cam, Cam thought his eyes were angry. Dark, grim and bitterly angry. His voice was low and sharp.
“Does Dev know?”
Cam dropped his own eyes, unable to stand that look. After a minute Alick’s hand closed on his arm and pulled him across the road, into the shelter of an alleyway out of the wind. Cam coughed, grateful for an excuse for the tears in his eyes. Saying it here, to this man, made it far too real.
“I think so. He must know. Alick I’ve got an awful bloody suspicion-“
”You think Dev were the one that found him.” Alick said bluntly.
Cam nodded, relieved. “How did you guess? Yes, it crossed my mind. Someone had been there, but walked away, left him until the army sent someone up to see where he’d got to. Hung himself. Isn’t that so like Edward? You know all his bills were fully paid up, that flatmate of his away on leave, all his affairs neatly tied up-“
”The poor bastard.”
Cam ducked his head. They began to walk again, passing the church and then the crescent with it’s expanse of green. Half way across the lawns, Cam said abruptly,
“You know I never knew half of what he said to you at Fyling that night you left. Edward was a funny chap, he never said what he meant. And Dev just looked like a ghost, and – oh God, it was awful. Edward never had any idea about the two of you, you know. It simply wouldn’t have occurred to him.”
”Balls.” Alick said succinctly. “You knew, and you told him.”
”Alick, listen-“
”You saw what was happening, you got scared and you brought Hayes to stop it.” Alick said fiercely. “I knew exactly what you were doing and why. You’re as much of a hypocrite as Hayes is. Was.”
Cam stood still, very pale. “I suppose I deserved that.” He said at last. “I suppose I always half knew at Lys what was going on between you and Dev, you were always with him, but Dev was such a child and so blastedly innocent, one doesn’t like to think these things.”
”You nor Hayes didn’t.”
”No. But I think Dev was always what Edward wanted to be if the war hadn’t-“ Cam broke off as they began to walk again, shoulders hunched against the wind. “Did you know Edward played rugby? In a perfectly Edward-like way, all hard faced and with violent enthusiasm, and he hated it. He hated getting wet and cold and hurt, and – oh you couldn’t know about school. Always so blastedly rough and some bloody prefect cantering up and down shouting at you from the sidelines and walloping you if you didn’t pitch in hard enough. You have no idea what pressure it put men like Edward under. The poor old ass hated it, but he knew what was expected of him and he tried to live up to it. Dev never had to try. It just all came naturally to him, he just WAS what Edward and I and everyone else should have been. Dev was never afraid of anything, he never questioned any of it, he just believed and did. We were all frantically pretending, and hoping no one saw through us.”
“Your precious Edward was a sensitive as a bloody girl.” Alick said viciously. “He jumped at loud noises and he was sick every time he saw blood. I caught him at it once.”
”I know. Poor Edward, it was all a show.”
They crossed the road again to the railings over the sea, and Alick leaned on them. The tide was in and the water was crashing against the rocks below.
“Dev told me once. Humanity’s like a rat. It struggles to survive any way it can, it does whatever it takes.”
Cam leaned beside him. “That’s it exactly. We all warped, we all did things we’re not proud of, just to live through it. But Edward was stuffed full of all those wretched ideals of his and he could never forgive the rat. According to how we were brought up Alick, it should have been honourable, it should have been glorious, we should have been glad to serve our countries in the properly British way and either returned triumphantly victorious or nobly dead. No ‘real’ man should have come back feeling filthy, soiled, terrified, loathing the whole rotten business- none of that was ever in the plan.”
He broke off, silent for a moment, then said more quietly, “There was no note. No clue as to why. He executed himself Alick. A cold, judicial hanging. Poor Darling. The stupid, stupid fool, why couldn’t he have bent his stiff neck and told me? He must have known I’d have done anything I could for him-“
Alick heard the agony trail off and Cam’s breathing rasp, convulsively.
“Dev slept with you, didn’t he?” he said shortly when the rasping quietened. Cam whitened. Licked his lips.
“No. Not really. He was such a baby I never really thought he knew what he was doing. It was just comfort, and God knows he needed it. When he was crashing about in London – those weeks before he shot himself – and Edward found out that I’d seen him, he went berserk. He was so afraid I’d contaminate Dev. Get him into bad habits. He could never bear to see Dev tainted in any way. He blamed me for Dev blundering into that mess with Marsh.”
Alick grunted. “You ever shag Hayes?”
Cam laughed, rather nervously. “Not wanting my jaw broken, no. I didn’t suggest it. Not that I didn’t think it would do him good, but the man was straighter than a crucifix.”
Alick glared at the sea. “Every bloody time I ever spoke to him, or ended up alone with him, he couldn’t get his eyes off my crotch. Moustache twitching like a bloody rabbit.”
”Rubbish.” Cam said, scandalised.
“When he tried to pay me off I knew exactly what he was doing.” Alick snapped. “He knew damned well about me, and he wasn’t thinking about Dev’s moral fibre either. Part of it might have been wanting Dev to stay the pure bloody hero Edward wanted him to be, but a good part of it was making sure no other man got his hands where Hayes hadn’t.”
”He couldn’t!”
”He might never have done anything about it, but he wasn’t going to see you or me or anyone else do what he was too afraid to.”
”Oh.” Cam stared at his hands. “Oh Christ.”
”Never occurred to Dev, but I knew on the day young Blake were killed. Edward Hayes was as damn queer as the rest of us, and his views on Dev weren’t half as bloody pure as he thought they were.”
”Do you think Dev is-?“ Cam swallowed carefully. “That was why I always listened to Edward in the end. Dev came out to France straight from school, too young to know anything but that terribly – masculine? – way of life? And the army’s an extension of that. He learned awfully early to look to other men for everything.”
For compassion. Understanding. Friendship. Tenderness. That was what he’d been seeking in London with his need for adrenaline and for some kind of guidance out of control. With Cam too afraid to give it, and Edward desperate to keep Dev within the rigid limits he could tolerate, because it was better that Dev died than that he twisted.
“It’s a horrible thought that you took advantage of some kid who didn’t know any better.” Cam said unsteadily. “Or that you stopped him from learning more- normal? – ways.”
Or that you let a young boy that you loved shoot himself, rather than risk the terror of looking beyond the old, the believed and the clung to.
Alick gave him a long, grim and revolted look, straightening up.
“At least when Hayes talked bollocks he knew no bloody better. What’s your excuse? Was that what you came to say?”
Cam pulled himself together with an effort. “Partly. Dev vanished from Fyling without a word to anyone. His father contacted me, he’s fairly frantic.”
”If you’ve come to preach to me about making him go home, forget it.” Alick said shortly. “I never thought I owned him.”
”Touché.” Cam scraped a boot along the cobbles as they began to walk again, back towards the harbour. “I don’t know what I came for really. But you’ve seen the estate, haven’t you? Dev has more responsibilities than we can imagine- he’s still going to inherit the title.”
Alick strode down the causeway, oblivious to the steepness. A man from one of the boats below shouted, and he waved back, aware of Cam slithering behind him.
“Alick- you’re fooling yourself if you think he’ll walk away from all that. Edward used to say that it was inbred.”
“Yeah, and Hayes put a bloody rope around his neck.” Alick picked up the last coil of rope from the beam and flung it down to the sailor below. The man tipped his cap back, shouting above the wind.
“You two crewing tomorrow?”
“Dan’s boat.”
”Best of British luck mate!”
Alick grinned and raised two fingers, watching the boat tack towards the harbour mouth.
”Are you really working with a fleet?” Cam said curiously.
“Filling in on my uncle’s boat or my father’s.” Alick shrugged his shoulders. “Dev’s talking about us crewing one of the big boats.”
”Deverel wants to go with you?” Cam said in disbelief. Alick started to walk again, keeping an increasingly tight hold on his temper.
“He’s used to hard work. Heavy work. No one here’s going to wonder where he came from.”
”Deverel crewing a fishing boat.” Cam said in wonder. Alick bit with difficulty on an exasperated hiss.
“That’s just what he bloody needs. Clean, hard work, with good men, that gets him tired enough to sleep and gives him someone to be that he can live with. We’d work between us enough to pay the rent on decent lodgings and to keep us fed, and he understands that. He knows what’s worth getting out of bed for in the mornings. And he’ll be with someone who’ll take good bloody care of him too. There’s hundreds of men in this town who share rooms, crew together and drink together without anyone pointing fingers, we’ll have no trouble here.”
Cam stared down into the water for some time.
“Can you imagine,” he said at last, “What it’s like to live in a room six foot square with two other men, not just for a few days but for weeks- months at a time.”
”There were thirty in the main dugouts.”
”That’s not what I mean. There were just the three of us in the HQ dugout when we first were posted to Lys. Dev, me and Edward billeted in with us because there weren’t enough officers to run the company. You get to the point where you can recognise the way they breathe in the dark amongst a hundred men. Every little detail, no privacy. Maybe we got into the pattern more easily than the men did because it was so like school, I don’t know. I slept in the main dugouts at times and it was different- so many of you, even on the worst nights there was talking, there was no responsibility, you could carry on about me, or Edward or poor old Dickson. How much you hated it all and wanted to go home. There were just three of us, and we could never say that.”
”Dev bellowed it up and down the line for eighteen months how much he bloody hated it.”
”That’s not what I mean. I heard him tell Blake once, if you can’t hold yourself together you’ve got no right to expect the men to do any different. Three of us, knowing each other inside out. You knew if you lost your head, if you let yourself get down, or depressed or scared, you let the other two down as well because they’d know.”
”My heart’s bleeding.” Alick said caustically. Cam smiled. It was one of his colder expressions.
“Leads to the strangest kind of friendship.”
”If you call it friendship. You and Hayes spent as much time backstabbing as anything else.”
”There was a lot of jealousy in it.” Cam admitted. ”But it was always friendship. I know Edward was an ass, but he was an awfully sweet ass under it all, and I missed him and Dev like hell when the war ended. It was like a marriage.”
”Do you remember.” Alick said suddenly. “When we were in the line. One of the times we were really scared. Really bloody scared.”
“Most of the time darling.”
”I used to look at Dev then, and he’d be standing there, head back, hands in his pockets,”
”Helmet off.”
Alick grinned. “Not afraid of anything. Bellowing and shouting.”
”Like the whole thing was some kind of personal insult.” Cam’s smile had warmed. Alick nodded.
“When I could see him like that, I could have done anything. And it wasn’t just me that felt like that, it was everyone in the bloody company. I was just the only one who ever-“
”Propositioned him.”
”Yeah.” Alick gave him a brief and angry smile that was closer to the baring of teeth. “Are you coming up to see him?”
Cam took a deep breath. “What do you think’s best?”
Alick shrugged. Cam looked ahead into the maze of narrow streets.
“Will you ask him about Edward?”
“Cam? Cam’s here?”
Alick picked up a towel and lifted the heavy kettle off the hearth. Given the choice he’d have kept his mouth shut about the whole thing, but Deverel loved Cam. He’d loved Hayes.
“He was. Gone back to London.”
Deverel knocked his hand out of the way and got in front of him.
“What did he want?”
“Your father wanted to know where you were.”
”What does Cam want with us? It’s about Edward isn’t it?”
Did he know? Was he unsure? Alick put the kettle down and brushed his hands off, giving Deverel a quick, assessing look. It was possible. He’d seen far less horrifying triggers set off Deverel’s fugue states than finding a friend dead, there was no saying how he’d react to a severe shock. It was feasible he had adapted the corpse of Edward Hayes into one of his many nightmares and bloodier hallucinations. Or that he’d just erased the entire memory. Alick clasped his shoulders firmly, drawing him close enough to calm him and to contain the shakes before they could start. Grey eyes lifted to his, demanding and apprehensive. Alick spoke to them gently.
“Hayes was found dead, a few days ago.”
“Suicide. Cam thought we ought to know. No one’s sure why-“
”DAMN him!” Deverel tore out of his grasp. “Typical bloody Hayes, how could he?”
“How could he do what? The poor sod must have had his reasons.”
”No. He can’t have done, it can’t be Edward.”
“It was.”
It was loud, utterly dismissive. Alick watched him grimly, trying to fathom the tone in his voice.
“No what? Cam saw the body. Edward hung himself. Cam thinks he suffered some kind of nervous breakdown.”
“Edward wouldn’t.”
”You’ve struggled with your nerves and Hayes wasn’t half as tough as you are.”
Alick saw the colour flood from Dev’s face. Desperation in a split second to white, pinched distortion. Then the energy shaking him exploded outwards in a scream and a violent swing at the mantel.
The lamp smashed on the hearth. Deverel overturned the table and hurled whatever else came to hand, glass shattering against the wall and underfoot, forcing Alick to duck under the hail to catch him. He was rigid all over when Alick gripped his shoulders, caught his hands and forced them down. His stomach lurched at the sight of Deverel’s eyes. The pupils were huge, they looked pure black in the firelight.
Edward Hayes would have slapped him. Alick wrestled with him for a few horrendous seconds, dredged up all his strength and pulled Deverel against his chest, stumbling backwards until his shoulders hit the wall, and he slid down to sit, pulling Deverel down with him. It took all the muscle and weight he had, but he dragged Deverel against him, wrapped arms and legs tightly around him and held on, trying to keep his voice steady between his own pants for breath.
“It’s all right. It’s all right honey. I’ve got you.”

It was a long, long time before his shivering began to die down. The rag rug was the only thing in reach and Alick had long since wrapped that around him as he passed from rigidity to the limp, cold tremors of shock. He was lying still now, his eyes fixed on the fire. Alick looked over his head at the same shard of broken glass he’d been watching for an hour. He knew the shape intimately, the exact shine of the light through it, as though they’d been sitting here together in silence for all of him, his hands still locked over Deverel’s wrists and Deverel’s head heavy on his chest. Deverel finally stirred against him and Alick slackened his grip, let him sit up stiffly. He looked dazed, but his face was mobile and his pupils normal, bringing the grey back to his eyes. He looked shaken as he took in the wreckage of the room. Alick pushed a hand through his hair.
“Stand up.”
Deverel hauled himself unsteadily to his feet, taking in the damage. Splintered glass crunched underfoot, amongst overturned furniture. “Oh God.”
Alick pushed against the wall to regain his feet, standing on legs that had long since gone numb. At the sight of Deverel’s face he took his arm, pulled him firmly back and hugged him, hard, tightly, trapping Deverel’s head in his shoulder.
”I ought to shoot myself.” Deverel started to laugh. A hard, high, horrible sound. “Men like us shoot themselves. Or hang themselves.”
Alick made no answer other than to swat the buttock nearest to his hand, once and hard. “Get a gansey on and stop it. Move yerself.”
The other sweater hung on the back of the door, untouched, and Deverel shouldered into it with shaking hands. Alick pulled it straight, kept tight hold of Deverel’s arm and steered Dev ahead of him into the street, shutting the door behind them on the wreckage.

They turned left at the church steps and started the steep ascent, two sets of boots ringing on the wet stone. One of Alick’s earliest memories was of clutching the bar on these steps and sobbing with fear that they went on forever, up and down, until his father’s hands closed on him and lifted him to safety. Through lives, through France, whatever the insubstantial flesh men did around them, these stone stayed. Like the sea; unchanged, uncaring, unimpressed. Thousands of insignificant men climbed this cliff through age after age, and none left a trace behind of themselves. Only the rocks marked out the ruined abbey, decaying slowly on the cliff top itself.
It was a fairly clear night, despite a fine drizzle. Alick stood on the edge of the church yard and looked down to the harbour. Silver sand, grey water. A lone, small boat going out, turning towards Sandwick. A local lad going home.
“There’s more churches in this town than people.” Deverel muttered beside him. Alick turned his head to see the town beyond the harbour with steeple after steeple.
“Most of the men work out at sea. A lot to pray for.”
“The fleet’s out.”
”Low tide.”
Deverel sat down on the grass and fumbled in his pocket. Alick pulled a packet of cigarettes from his own shirt and dropped them into his hands. The tip glowed scarlet in the darkness. Alick looked down at him, sharply attracted to the flare of light and the outline behind it. Strong, heavy lines of muscle and bone. Light shining off his glistening hair, damp from the misting rain. Water and moonlight. Alick took the cigarette out of his fingers, breathing him and nicotine in equal amounts.
“Oh Dev…”
”What are we going to do?” Deverel gave him a look that was somewhere between angry and frightened. Alick crouched beside him.
“Pitch a bloody tent and sleep out here. You’re calm enough now.”
“I can breathe out here.”
Alick handed him the cigarette, watched him pull on it for a minute then took it back, took one last drag and threw the glowing butt over the cliff edge, sitting down beside Deverel on the grass.
“I love you.” Deverel said suddenly and desperately. Alick’s familiar grin flashed white teeth in the dark.
“Bloody hell. You’ll be on my lap next.”
He got punched in the ribs, hooked an arm around Deverel’s shoulders and yanked him close. Rough, wet gansey under his arm contained the wide and deceptively slim shoulders, the familiar body, the familiar breath and life. Here. Safe. Alick pressed his lips hard to the wet, dark head against his, deeply and bleakly thankful.
“You can’t blame Edward for not having the guts you’ve got. Lys ate men like him alive.”
”Am I a man like him?”
It was flat, matter of fact, inarguable. Deverel abruptly let go a breath it felt as if he’d held all his life, leaning his full weight into Alick’s solid grasp.
“He was a lot like Rob.”
”I missed Rob like hell.”
Even at this distance they could hear the wash as the tide began to turn. Deverel sounded a lot less certain in the dark.
“I’ve got to have something to do. Something real. I can manage if-“
“We’re going to be all right honey.” Alick said gently.
Deverel slipped out from under his arm and Alick followed him, slowly up the path towards the dark outlines of the ruined abbey.
The wind was stronger up there. Alick paused, and then deliberately climbed the rubble of the recently bombed wall. Eight hundred years this abbey wall had stood on a cliff, come gales, come rain, to be felled by a bomb from the sea. Deverel dug his hands deep into his pockets, some way ahead on the open grass between two pillars. Alick braced on the stone to watch him. Slowly Deverel’s hands lifted, then he pulled the gansey over his head, then the shirt. His skin was white in the mist. The rain was growing harder, starting to lash down now. Deverel stumbled out of his trousers and boots. He was too far away for Alick to see his eyes. Naked, he stood still for a moment, shivering, then he lifted his head back towards the sky. Alick stood on the heap of ancient stone and watched the man in the ruins of what had once been a chapel, arms outstretched to the rain.

It was a long time before Deverel came back to him. He lay now on his back on the grass, arms above his head. He was cold, where Alick’s hand lay on his bare hip his skin felt like ice, but Alick had grown up on fishing boats wet to the skin, and served four winters in French trenches. Long enough to know that cold didn’t kill nearly fast enough. Deverel stared at the sky, where there was nothing to see now but blue mist. The rain had stopped, and the total blackness of night was passing into the midnight blue that would eventually lead to morning. Alick lay with him, shoulders against the rough ground.
Something had pushed Edward Hayes over the brink. Something that finally broke his self control, and meant he could no longer pretend. Or it might have been simple exhaustion, the inability to cope any longer now that the world they’d known and occupied at Ypres had finally ended. Edward, unlike the rest of them, had gone back to that God forsaken place and shut it down. Put it away. Buried the final remnants. Alick shut his eyes for a moment.
There had been that football match at a rest camp- towards the end of the war. The shouts of men playing, jacketless, collars open, as if they hadn't been standing under shellfire all night, just five miles away.
As usual the four of them had managed to slip away and they had gathered under the trees, one by one. Edward Hayes, with the choir boy fair hair, the hard eyes and the nervous moustache. Cameron Lindley with his hair in his eyes and the slow, flirtatious smile he used to irritate Edward. Deverel. Elbows on his knees, watching the football with the intensity that meant he was only resisting the urge to join in because Edward was watching him. And Alick Cowan. With the give away, flat vowels and the uniform of a private. Who shouldn’t have been there at all, except that he had become an irrevocable part of the set and however much they disliked it they all knew: they belonged together. An unethically mixed friendship and a rocky one, formed under duress, kept very discreet, adhered to because-
Because none of them seriously thought they would live long enough for it to be a problem. Because at that time, in that place, the stupid little rituals of life had no meaning. Because none of them had thought beyond the next few hours, and the possibility seemed ridiculous that they would ever go back to a life not restricted to the military rituals, the death and the mud. At the time it had seemed like it would go on forever, they had all expected to be buried there. Coming home was like beginning again, in a totally foreign world.
Cam’s agonised voice from a few hours ago in the town came sharply back to mind.
“Poor darling. The stupid, stupid fool, why couldn’t he have bent his stiff neck and told me? He must have known, I’d have done anything I could for him.”
Any of them would. Except Edward would never, never have been able to ask.
Edward. You poor, stupid, helpless, stuck bastard.
He heard the stifled choke from Dev without knowing at first what it was. And then turned over on the grass with weary and overwhelming tenderness, running his hand over Deverel’s chilled face. Awkwardly, painfully, Deverel drew another breath where he lay on the grass, and began to cry. Alick waited, smoothing his wet hair, his chest, until Deverel turned towards him and buried his face in Alick’s wet gansey. Alick drew him in tight and lay down to hold him, trying to keep his own voice steady.
“They’re tears, they’re not going to kill you. You’ll live.”
Copyright Ranger 2010


Koe said...

Wonderful story. I'll keep a bookmark and visit this again, I think. Thank you.

Ranger said...

You're welcome, this story means a lot to me. Especially at this time of year.

Anonymous said...

That was an excellent story. I am impressed with the amount of research you must have done on WWI, and its aftermath.

Ranger said...

Thank you. The research was something I did through college, years ago, and it stayed with me. There are so many searing first hand accounts that are unforgettable.

youampme said...

Simply wow. Amazing. Heartbreaking.

Anonymous said...

This is absolutely beautiful...one of the most touching stories I have ever read. I only wish it was published (as it SHOULD be!) so that I could have a copy on my bookshelf.

Anonymous said...

I am currently in grad school to be a WWI Historian and you captured the essence of the fear and tragedy of the trench life during and after the war so beautifully. A truly stunning read in light of the upcoming centennial.

malfaou said...

Wonderful story, I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the dynamics of the unlikely quatuor. I am particularly impressed by the intensity of the feelings conveyed by actions rather than discussed in depth. I found it unusual and terribly effective! Thank you for the read!!

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