Ralph had taken on the room the week before. There was little in it to alleviate the dull austerity of it all, a wireless, a table by the window, two ill matched chairs, a thin strip of a kitchen and on the other side of the room, a narrow bed, but he always kept it simple anyway.
He’d only been back since the middle of August and already he was feeling the constrained impatience of a sailor on land for too long. And it wasn’t only that. They all knew what was coming. Ralph had completed his additional training, passed his medical and had an extra briefing in arms drill alone as he was already well versed in naval procedure, Semaphore and Morse and an old hand at naval jargon. He was primed and ready and therefore irritated by any delay. He’d been told to wait it out and he knew that the call would come soon.
It was evening in late August. The day before, the country had called for the enlistment of men age twenty and twenty-one. Outside each newsagent the headlines sang out the countdown to war. It was just a matter of time. Alone in the small room, he felt the usual urge to find something and drink it down quickly. Like most Navy men, he was used to drinking heavily although, he told himself, never irresponsibly. And he had become a somewhat introspective drunk, not given to high jinks or total incapacitation. It was not even that it was a particular release just a habit that flourished.
He made himself sit and pushed a hand through his hair. The room was close, and he felt the sweat pricking his scalp. He looked out of the window, threw it up and leant against the sill. Reaching for his case of cigarettes he called out, “Hi you! Theo! You know the door.”
A few moments later he heard the sound of shoes on the stairs and the door swung open. Theo entered rapidly, extracted his own cigarettes, and lit one crossly. “Well, I’ve just about had it. It’s hell, all bloody confusion.” He sat down heavily and kicked his legs out.
“I can see you’ve mastered the bedside manner.” Ralph sat opposite with his feet up on the window ledge, looking for his own lighter.
“Oh, you’re not sick! You know how I can lay it on if I have too.” He exhaled leaning forward out of the window.
“They’ve lowered the age, it’s 20 now.” Ralph said. “It was on the wireless this morning and all over the papers. Everyone has to sign up.”
“Well, thank Christ I’m otherwise engaged.”
“That’s a little unpatriotic of you,” Ralph leant back further on the chair, balancing on the back legs, “Shouldn’t you be waving flags and cheering us on?”
“Ugh, I’m not a fool. My mother drove an ambulance in the Great War. I know.”
“Ah, a Suffragette.” Ralph didn’t add more.
“Yes, you wouldn’t be so gung-ho, if you knew better.”
“I know better. There’s no other way.”
“What don’t you like about that?” Ralph said reasonably, “there’s right and there’s wrong.” He dropped his legs and rose, leaning against the window frame. “Look at them,” he gestured out of the window taking in the people going about their business on the street below. “Do you think they have time to go into the metaphysics of it all? They just want it to be over, but they know it won’t happen if we all sit back.”
“Metaphysics?” scoffed Theo. “I’m talking about the truth. The reality. People die. It’s not all chanting and braying.”
They stared at each other and for a moment, a faint hostility hung between them. But Theo broke it by widening his eyes and saying, “Oh but wait, hang on, I wanted to tell you something… put the kettle on, would you?”
“What? Let me guess? Matron’s had a little turn, corners not quite pi enough? Given the nurses a tongue lashing?”
“Ah you’ll thank me in a minute,” he grinned at him.
“Go on, I’m listening.” Ralph glanced towards the small cupboard which held a few bottles. He certainly wouldn’t drink tea, but that quick scotch? Perhaps.
“Well, you could sound more enthusiastic,” Theo gave him a reproachful look.
“Oh, spit it out, do.” He smiled, he would have the scotch, it was late enough after all.
“Well, my dear, I have someone whom you must meet. I’m bringing him round tonight, after my shift.”
Ralph poured out a generous measure, “Oh? Don’t tell me. He’s some dreary, self-righteous bore... or some stuffy old soak who’d give me leg up. Except I don’t want one.” He sat back at the table, one arm propped, the other nursing his glass, a little glumly.
“He’s marvellous. Wait and see.”
“Marvellous, eh? I’m not sure that doesn’t strike a chill into my heart.” Ralph extracted another cigarette and put it in his mouth. “He sounds dreadful already.” He kept the cigarette there, talking through it, “and as for the last chap you introduced me to.” He lit it finally and blew his smoke out nosily, “God help us.”
“Oh, ha ha, but you won’t be thinking that about this one.” Theo leant forward and stared intently at him, “He’s a bit like you.”
“How? Handsome, dashing, in the Navy?”
“No, charming, arrogant, a little too much for his own good.” He got up to take the kettle off the hob, “and really, I think, not very obvious.”
“You mean he’s not a screaming queen?”
“No, rather discreet.” He sat back down with the pot of tea and a mug. “Although he’s most certainly on the scene. You’ll like him,” Theo persisted, “He’d be a challenge for you. And we all know how you adore effort.” He chuckled and blew his smoke out in a thin stream.
Ralph raised an eyebrow, “Oh, come off it. I can have people whenever I like.” The cigarette crumpled in the ashtray under the force of his fingers. He looked down at it.
“I’m not talking about a quick one behind the Golden Lion.”
“Neither I,” said Ralph stiffly.
“Christ, oh well, no wonder you’re such a success.” Theo caught his eye and changed tack, “Well, 10 tonight. Don’t be out.” He gulped down the last of the tea and at the door said, “His name’s Alec,” and slammed it behind him.
Ralph downed the rest of the glass and looked about him. He felt somehow irritated and impatient. Alec, eh? Well.
“No grub I’m afraid, but I’ve got this.” Ralph waved an unopened gin bottle about and pulled a couple of toothmugs and a single glass out of the cupboard.
“Oh, who needs food,” Alec smiled and moved over to the table, sitting lightly on the chair. He pulled out his cigarette case and lit one with a smooth movement of his wrist. Ralph watched him from the tail of his eye. He was slender and lithe, dark eyed, with the sort of sallow, high cheek-boned look of a Mediterranean. He looked up at Ralph as he inhaled, “So Ralph,” he emphasised the short a, “tell me, how long have we got?”
“Days, I expect.” Ralph poured them a generous round and they drank to King and Country, Theo sarcastic, Ralph sombre and Alec thoughtful. Ralph leant back against the narrow window sill. It dug into his legs but he ignored it, there was nowhere else to go that would be near enough. Theo had commandeered the only other chair, so he stuck it out. “We’re all waiting, I should think you are too.”
“I’m alright,” Alec looked down, “I’m fine. They’ll need doctors.”
“You’re not officially one yet though, are you?” Theo nudged him.
“No, but I will be. What about you, Ralph?” He said turning towards him again. “What’s the plan? Being dispatched anywhere?”
“Oh, most likely! Ralph’s practically on the edge waiting for the call to arms,” Theo interrupted. “And Ralph’s been around a bit already,” he added, cigarette poised. “Yes, he’s much more worldly, than us!” He gave Alec a wink and Ralph a mischievous smile and settled back into the chair.
“Oh?” Alec inclined his head and looked interested, “how?”
“Oh, you know, With the merchant navy, trawlers. Been to Quebec, Bombay, Avonmouth.” Ralph caught his eye.
“Oh, you should see him in his blues,” Ralph had the irritating impression that he was being teased by Theo. “I’ll bet you can hardly wait to get back into them. It must be hell being forced into civvies.”
“We all have our penances.” Ralph gave him a look, threw back the toothmug quickly and smiled at Alec.
“Well, you told me, Ralph,” Theo was all encouragement now and at times like these Ralph wanted to hate him, but it was hard to hate Theo, “that’d you planned to go to Southampton. Once upon a time.” Theo twinkled at him, knowing by the set of Ralph’s shoulders and his equable expression that he was annoyed and trying to hide it.
“Ah,” said Alec, blowing smoke at him and smiling as he jerked his head away, “And did you?”
“Well, no.” said Ralph. “No, I didn’t.”
“So? What did you do?” Alec, sensing reticence, was onto him quickly.
“Oh, I knocked about a bit, London, the Docks.” Ralph was suddenly less than keen to elaborate on this particular part of his life. His eyes slid over to Theo again and he gave him a severe look.
Theo giggled, but Alec took a sip of his gin and placed the glass carefully on the table, “The Docks? Oh, tell us. It sounds exceptionally seedy.” He leaned an arm over Ralph’s knee, and looked up.
He was aware, Ralph thought quickly, that it made him look pretty and vulnerable, which sat oddly with his self-possessed manner. Well, his lashes were long, after all, and his black hair swept back from an elegant hairline. Ralph drew on his cigarette and let his hand fall, as if by accident, on Alec’s forearm. He caught Alec’s eye. “I spent a bit of time getting very well acquainted with the backstreets of Limehouse...”
“You were a tart?” Alec widened his eyes, but his expression was encouraging and humorous.
Theo snorted, it was a favourite story of his, not Ralph’s and Ralph’s undeniable slight awkwardness in the retelling made it all the more amusing each time.
But for once Ralph felt neither the urge to justify or obfuscate, “Yes, glory days.” He poured another measure of gin and smiled, “let me tell you.”
Around midnight Theo left. “You have to go too?” Ralph, intent on pouring more gin into his own mug, didn’t look at Alec. He finished and held the bottle aloft. “There’s not much but you could manage another glass, I’d say.”
“Thanks. I’ve got access to stronger stuff than that if I want to numb the pain.” Alec finished his glass and placed it on the table.
“It’s about keeping oneself on the level. Nothing to do with pain or otherwise,” said Ralph. “And besides, I saw my old man go down that route. I swore I’d never do it. It reminds me of him,” he flipped open his cigarette case and offered one to Alec, “too self-indulgent.”
“What’s wrong with a bit of self-indulgence,” Alec shook his head and gave him a wry look. “anyway, it’s late.”
“Yes.” Ralph finished the last of the bottle and watched him.
“I don’t fancy the slog back to my digs.” Alec rose. “But I suppose I ought to go.”
“Oh, go on, you can kip there.” Ralph nodded at the iron bed in the corner of the room. “I’ll take the floor, I’m used to it, in fact I count having a bed as an unheard-of luxury.” He rose and began to clear the bottles and mugs away to the kitchen counter.
“Ah, I’d imagine so.” Alec smiled at him. “No reason why we couldn’t both shack up, though. You’re not exceptionally large,” He looked at Ralph’s slight, spare form.
“It’s possible.” Ralph kept his expression non-committal.
“Well, I’m not keen on the floor even if you are,” said Alec, “And besides, I’m not going to do anything to you.” He pushed back his hair, “Or perhaps,” he smiled, “you’re worried that you won’t be able to stop yourself doing something to me?”
“I like you. I would be able to stop myself.” They stood watching each other.
“That’s a contradiction,” Alec’s eyes were a dark brown and heavy lidded. Occasionally, they made him look both easy and sardonic. It was an unsettling combination.
“Not in my book,” said Ralph. There was an indefinable tension in the air and words hung unsaid. But Ralph turned towards the window, bringing it down firmly, “I’ve a mat and a blanket. It’ll do well enough. Bathroom’s down one flight on the left.”
Alec caught his eye and nodded, “Fair enough, but don’t be a martyr.” He opened the door and disappeared along the corridor.
Ralph threw down the mat, stripped and folded up his clothes neatly. The room was oppressive and sticky, so he left the top of his pyjamas still folded. The dim light of the street light outside filtered through, catching the walls with a pale radiance. He lay on the mat, arms folded, blanket pushed down a little. It was hot after all.
“Well, this is fun. It’s like being back in the dorm.” A flash of light briefly illuminated Alec’s profile as he lit a cigarette. He leaned his head back against the headboard. “Minus these, of course. And secret visitors lurking on the floor.”
“You’re still awake?” Ralph tried to inject levity into his voice. “Don’t you doctors have to be on form? I wouldn’t like you coming near me with a scalpel, knowing you’d had a skin-full and little sleep the night before.”
“Who’s said I’d have little sleep?” Alec leaned over and looked towards Ralph. “Unless you have plans?”
“Only if they involve getting you to shut up. Possibly involving a gag of some sort.”
“Oh, you needn’t go out of your way to be so accommodating.” Alec blew his smoke upwards and Ralph laughed.
They lay in silence for a while, the only noise the odd shout and rumble from the street and the sound of Alec’s smoke being exhaled.
“Mind if I open the window again?” Alec rose and moved across the room. “It’s hideously clammy in here.” Ralph could see the shape of his back and the spread of his shoulders. He heaved the window upwards and Ralph was glad that it was too dark, as he turned, to be able to see each other properly. Alec stayed still for a moment and then came to stand over him. “Ralph?” He sat down next to him and watched him as he lay still. “I’d say I was cold, but it’s clearly not true.” He moved forward and touched Ralph’s jaw, following the line with his thumb.
For a moment Ralph saw, like an unwilling visionary, life falling away and there being nothing left behind it. He was probably lonely, and he didn’t get by on caring too much about it, but he pushed himself upright and moved towards Alec, putting his hand behind his head and bringing it towards him.
“I thought you’d never ask.” Alec kissed him firmly on the mouth.
Ralph pushed him backwards and leant over him, his fair hair falling over his face. He pressed his hands over his shoulders and looked down at the pale, finely muscled body beneath his. “Don’t talk,” he said and took hold of him with a hard grip, “or I’ll have to find that gag.”
Three days into September England declared war and Alec moved in.
It was easy to pacify the landlady. Who wouldn‘t like two well-spoken, handsome young men, who politely charmed her whenever her head poked out of her door as they passed? She counted herself lucky to have a superior quality of lodger. And everyone knew that the fair one, the naval officer, would be gone soon, fighting for the King. She’d seen him in his naval blues, in and out more than usual, brisk and busy, with a quicker more purposeful step on the staircase.
“How long?” Alec turned his head slightly and looked at Ralph.
“A couple of days.” Ralph put his hand through Alec’s hair and lay his chin against it. “It’s Torpoint and HMS Raleigh for me. Shame we couldn’t have met sooner.”
“Yes, it would have been wedding bells then of course, wouldn’t it?” For a moment Alec sounded unexpectedly bitter, but he schooled his expression into a neutral one.
“It wouldn’t have been anything. It’s no use pretending.” Ralph kissed the top of his head but moved away slightly.
“You’ll be back?” Alec lay back against the headboard.
“Yes, before you know it. Oh, look,” Ralph rose and took something from the floor. “I picked this up.” He held up a naively drawn pastel of a young sailor’s head. “To remember me by.” He smiled and handed it over to Alec offhandedly, but Alec placed it carefully on the bedside table.
“Oh, thanks.” He grinned at him, looking momentarily more boyish that usual.
“Well, it was either that or this,” Ralph held up an austere print of frigate.
“No, I like it.” Alec sat up. “So, you want me to remember you, do you?”
“Oh, I know I’m unforgettable, but…”
“Come here,” Alec gestured to the bed and Ralph sat back on the edge, “When you get back,” he moved forward and kissed him on the mouth, “I’ll be here.” Alec withdrew for a moment to inspect him. “Better. So how long have we got?”
Ralph’s kitbag lay open on the floorboards. Inside, he’d counted, I blue, 2 whites, 2 shirts, 2 collars, 1 silk, 2 caps, 2 tallies, 2 pair boots, 2 each of socks, blankets, 1 hammock, 1 greatcoat, 1 oilskin, 1 knife, 1 lanyard. As an afterthought he shoved in his journals. That was it. He had nothing else. He pulled it together firmly and hauled it over his shoulder.
It wasn’t the first time he’d been kicked into a peripatetic existence but there was something in it this time that mixed resignation with excitement. He stood in the other set of naval blues, placed his cap on his head and adjusted his spotless collar needlessly as it had sat perfectly well before. He repositioned the bag, but at the door he turned.
Alec was by the window, lighting a cigarette, “Don’t say goodbye,” he said.
“Yes, I know.” Ralph nodded, “I’ll be seeing you then,” he said and closed the door behind him.