If a man was to feel anything as irrational as love (love, that was to say, of a person or something else suspect, not king and country which was only proper), then that man could express that love in two ways.
He could undertake acts of forthright and dashing heroism.
He could ask the object of his affections for her hand in marriage.
So much Arthur Hastings had learned, by osmosis as much as by explicit conversation, during his years at the finest schools and universities in the country.
Later, in his travels, the things which could occur between two men had become in turn revealed to him. Those things made more sense, he’d found himself thinking at times, than a lot of what he’d been told, or taught or had whispered to him at school and by his university chums about sexual intercourse.
Those things – male things - did not have to do with love, of course. They could not, almost by definition.
How to proceed, then, when some years later he realised he was possessed of a love so deeply rooted in his heart that he fairly ached with it? And it was love; he could not believe it to be anything else. He had read the books and seen the films and this was the same love that made all those poets write such dreadful reams of stuff that schoolboys suffered through memorizing.
He knew himself to be in love with a stout, fussy, sweet Belgian man two years his senior who complained about the shape of eggs and the temperature of moustache wax and the ordering of his morning post by size and paper quality. Who was astoundingly clever and surprisingly brave and who cared about the world and the people in it, not just in words but also in deeds. In nights spent wakeful over a pot of coffee and two scraps of a suicide note, in long, gentle conversations with women in tears, in a fierce sense of moral duty that had undoubtedly lost him a fortune in commissions.
Declaring love had been impossible for several reasons. Arthur’s heroics almost always went wrong, and obviously he could not ask Hercule to marry him, and besides Hercule would be outraged, not so much because Arthur was a man as because Arthur was, well, Arthur. He liked to think he was fairly fit of fetlock, but what could he offer Hercule Poirot but an audience?
He’d tried to be that. Occasionally, he had feared he wandered more into comic relief. But at least Hercule smiled to see him. He and Hercule spent holidays together – spent ordinary days together, sitting Hercule’s flat or dining out in town. It was another entirely new thing in Arthur’s experience, and it had sometimes felt like enough.
Then the Brookgrove case had happened. Mavis Brookgrove, begging them to uncover the evidence that would spare her sister the gallows, and all that had come out after that, all the awful secrets the Brookgroves had between them.
Hercule had been so quiet, after he had presented the family with the solution. The true culprit had been arrested, Mavis ecstatic, racing to see her sister released, but Hercule had smiled only thinly. He had grown pale, over the two weeks they’d been in Hampshire, although Arthur had tried to ensure he was getting his omelettes as he liked them and had driven ten miles to locate some sirop de cassis.
“Is there anything else I can do?” Arthur had asked, when they were back at the flat. He’d insisted on driving them home that evening – call the flat ‘home’ for them both, it was as good as true even then. He’d wanted Hercule away from the Brookgrove house and the Brookgroves, and as soon as possible. He’d wanted to be away himself, but at least he’d not had to spend most of the last fortnight getting inside their minds.
“Ah, mon cher Hastings,” Hercule had sighed in response, and had run his fingers over his brow. Hercule used that endearment so easily – to everyone, not just Arthur, a continental trait no doubt – and sometimes it made Arthur feel frightfully sad.
“Anything, Poirot,” he’d said earnestly. He’d not been thinking about love, not really. He’d not been thinking about being a man, or that Hercule was one. It was just that Hercule had been so tired, and so evidently still troubled, and yes Arthur would have heroically placed his body between an oncoming train and Hercule if he could, and yes this impulse felt much the same, but he wasn’t thinking that through. Insight had never, perhaps, been his forte. “Anything I can do? Anything at all?”
“I wish so much to be clean of it,” Hercule had said, sighing again, almost talking to himself.
“Shall I start a bath running for you?” Not something Arthur would have said to any other friend, but it wasn’t as if Arthur wasn’t familiar with the plumbing at Hercule’s flat. You had to catch the boiler unawares in a very specific way.
“But you will be stiff from the drive, the cold, ton genou, your knee,” Hercule waved a hand. “You should not have driven, in any case. I told you this.”
“I wanted to. And I’m quite capable of waiting now, you can bathe first.”
“Hastings, I can see that you are pained. And I find I do not want to see any more pain today.”
“Well maybe I don’t either! And I don’t want to see you like this! I can’t bear the thought of you sat alone in here like this while I’m…”
Perhaps it had been the pain – his leg did play him up, after too many hours in the car. Arthur didn’t normally snap, and felt quite ashamed immediately after, face hot, mouth dry. Almost tearful. For a moment it had been awful.
And then Hercule had been, once again, extraordinary.
“Perhaps,” he had said. (He claimed later than he’d been afraid, speaking up, but it had barely shown, only the slightest quaver in his voice.)
“Perhaps, Hastings, you would allow me…”
Arthur would never forget how his face had been then. How dark his eyes had been.
“Perhaps you would allow me to look after you?”
Arthur’s breath had caught in his throat.
Hercule, ever the sybarite, had a copper bath which was freestanding in the centre of the flat’s generously apportioned bathroom. Filled with steaming water and scented oils, Arthur had been glad to slide into it. In a chair at the head of the bath, in his shirtsleeves no less and leaning over him, Hercule had washed Arthur’s hair. Slow, careful hands, working methodically and neatly across his scalp, making him shiver despite the heat.
Of course it would be soothing, Arthur had thought. Petting a dog was soothing. A companion you kept around to indulge. It didn’t necessarily mean…
Somehow, though, he’d kissed Hercule at the end of it. Turned around and surged up out of the bathwater and reached. There was only so much tenderness a man could take.
That was his act of forthright heroism, perhaps. Certainly he’d not ever risked so much.
Hercule, though, had made a sound like Arthur had never heard before. Hercule, wonderful, unique Hercule, had opened to him.
It was late in life, one could have said, to learn another lesson, but Arthur took to it easily. That love, even this sort of love, even by a man for a man, could be expressed in taking care. In washing, in dressing, in slow, smooth touches. In letting your beloved buy you geometrically patterned ties and insist that your pocket square was symmetrical and spoil you for anyone else’s tartiflette recipe. In knowing the taste of the inside of their thighs. In being allowed to comfort them. In allowing them to comfort you.
And yet he can’t mind the words either, Hercule murmuring them in the warm air between them, soft and safe. In French, yes, but Arthur’s getting to understand it.
More and more, he’s starting to feel he really does understand.