Some Chequered Affection, Part 5
Tuesday, 12 September 2017
This is the fifth part of a free short story which starts here.
Confused and grieving, Charles Morlad has run from his father's house after yet another quarrel, seeking solace in the night-time streets of Barchester.
Apologies for the lack of picture - this will be remedied asap.
Fulbeck had told him that such places existed - yes, even in places as provincial and conservative as Barchester – but he had not believed it. When he thought of these things, in the haze of an imagined life in London or Paris, he saw it as somewhere lust-drenched and dimly lit, full of alluring strangeness and temptations.
True, the lights were dim, but that was only because the dusk barely made it through the narrow windows, because the glass around the gas lamps was dirty. The sawdust on the floor was dark and sticky underneath his shoes, and the thick fug of cheap tobacco did not quite cover the lingering odours of unwashed bodies, stale beer, urine.
Nowhere were the androgynous men of elegance Morland had half expected from Fulbeck's tales – nowhere the costumes or painted faces, the witty repartee. Instead, labourers sat or leaned in small groups, punctuated occasionally by the odd man from the local foot regiment. Their talk was of changes at the works, trade unions, rising prices, whether or not there would be a war. Were it not for their accents, their rough clothes, and a certain point of view overlaying their commentary, he could have been listening to the tedious drone of the Colonel and his cronies as they smoked cigars before joining the ladies.
Even with all that, it could have been any one of a dozen public houses in the city's narrow streets, and rather lower than any of those he knew well. At the first, he had doubted whether this were the place, but as he looked about, details became apparent to him – tables in corners where men sat a little closer to one another, tall booths where, half-hidden, bodies touched and eyes spoke in a way that Morland knew so well: eager, cautious, devout.
He needed it, just that, what he and Henry had shared all summer. Mouth dry, he worked his teeth back and forth over his tongue. There must be some way to breach the wall between them and himself, some look or word that would let them see that he was like them, that he wanted only their presence around him, their sympathy.
But the patrons of the place refused even to glance up at his tailored tweeds, let their silence make clear the gulf between his voice and their own. There were no tables free, and when he had stood briefly at the bar, the other men had pushed away from him. It was not insult so much as withdrawal, a tacit placing of distance, an acknowledgement that there was a whole language at play here, of which he himself was ignorant.
Backed in to a corner, Morland skulked, sipping beer that was beginning to sour.
It had been a mistake to come.
Alone with his thoughts, the horror, the sheer loneliness of the day pierced his mind. The smell of Beechworth's room, the heavy, foul, butcher's shop stench of it, the weight and wetness of his body. The heat-sweat in Fulbeck's stifled, curtained parlour, the hands he had let master him, the voice he had allowed to speak over his own.
He was so weak.
The Colonel was right. He was no man, and he never would be one. In that moment, he almost hated them equally – the Colonel, Henry, Fulbeck.
As though he could hate Fulbeck. As though he had not once, lips shaking with his own boldness, confided that every night that week, he had dreamed of him. Julian had laughed, charmed.
But over every thought of that delicate, handsome face was the picture of Beechworth, flushed with rage and whisky, railing at him about corruption, about deception, about the way that before she had been killed, Felicity had grown so pettish and so lewd.
Several wild accusations.
“What's become of us?” Henry had shouted, “Don't you see it, what he's doing to us?”
Morland felt beer splash against his fingers, saw the way that his hand was trembling. Saw the way that Fulbeck had torn up the note, sweeping away every trace of those accusations. Every last trace, except the ones that lodged inside Morland's mind.
Seduced. Murdered. Violated. The last written with a hand so heavy that the nib of the pen had torn through the paper.
He could not think of this – not in the same thought as Fulbeck's thin, clever lips, not in that feeling of pure, sweet weakness that flooded through every part of him at the touch of those fingers, of those long, sharp nails.
After the slow torment that had been school, Fulbeck had opened him like a bean pod, revealing a self, a worth, a freedom that Morland had never suspected in himself. He had been so unguarded, so devoted, led astray by bliss.
But those beautiful weeks of the early summer were already tainted, tattered, ruined. What point was there in dwelling on those ugly words and defiling the memory even further?
Beechworth was dead. The note was gone.
In a booth a few feet away from him, an infantryman was engaged in some coy play of hands with the man across from him. He wore the insignia of the Old Tailors – the local regiment – and his face was clear and handsome. He laughed free and loud at the words of his companion, his flirtation was shrugging, shy.
Saliva flooded Morland's mouth with sheer hunger – not for touch nor taste, nothing so crude – but to be sat across from that young soldier, to be drinking in his smiles and his attention. Or to take his place – to be courted so, fêted and adored.
Morland's pint was half gone. He would not stay for another, could not humiliate himself further. So, then, it would be back to his drab room until the Colonel chose to release him, and no doubt the promise of a thrashing for having run out like this. He could see the days until he went up to Oxford stretch out before him.
Yet why fool himself? Even Oxford would be more of the same – surrounded by boys who had seen nothing of the world, all mad for the sport he had never been strong enough to play.
Perhaps Fulbeck would write while he was there. Perhaps he would...
It was painful, physically, to think of being apart from that smile, those wicked, hazel eyes, the tease of that voice. Painful to fear the calmness with which his friend would move on and move away, find another coterie of admirers to hang upon his every word.
“I have you,” he had said, “all will be well.”
It was all he could do not to run, uninvited, to Fulbeck's, to make a fool of himself, court all the scandal that was threatened.
Yet he would not, just as, earlier, in Beechworth's rooms, he had remembered himself. He would finish his drink, and he would return home to submit to the paternal judgment. And if Fulbeck were to look for him, then...
Morland drew in a deep breath, and bowed his head until he was sure that nothing showed upon his face. He had an entire life before him, and not all of it would be under the Colonel's hand. There was nothing to stop him seeking out his friend when he reached his majority, nothing at all.
He was just finishing his drink, when a flash of white caught his eye.
There, in the booth, the soldier was leaning back from something, laughing, swatting away something pale. Was it a handkerchief, a flash of pale cuff? A letter?
Morland wrapped his hands tight about his tankard, edging back in to the shadows. Why play the spy? Why torment himself? So the soldier and his admirer were having some horseplay, now? That was none of his concern. Why edge towards them in shamed half-steps, almost ripped apart with need to be there, among them?
For there it was again, that white thing. It moved slower this time, languid. A hand, paused in the commencement of a teasing caress. The soldier half shied from it, like a nervous horse that wanted to be reassured, tamed.
Thin, white fingers, broad palms, wrists with a tracery of blue veins that shone through like a pattern viewed from the wrong side of fine china. Nails that had been filed to blunt points.
There was no mistaking that hand.
Yes, he had taken off his rings, leaving his fingers bare and without ornament, yes, his cuff was not fastened with a link of diamond and gold, nor was the fabric itself white, pressed linen. All the same, Morland knew that hand.
In the shadows, he stood, that shameful yearning turned all about, made in to some dreadful chaos. He did not take another step towards them, did not want to see that head of shining hair, those dark-lashed eyes, or thin lips reaching forward for a kiss.
He began to fall back, feet retreating before his mind knew what he was doing. It was all a jumble in his mind – Beechworth slumped in his chair, that pale hand making its way across the soldier's lips, the stink of blood and urine and spilled beer, a rust mark on a bedroom wall, and the soldier, half coy, leaning in to the caress. He saw it all, saw it before him as he staggered backwards, out through the door and in to the still, close night.
And so ends the day of Beechworth's suicide.
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