Chapter 1: This bird flies backwards
For icicaille, or else your seasonal reminder that this is Liv's doing.
With further love to each and every denizen of Basilday hell, the coziest circle of The Inferno. This behemoth is for you.
This fic is more or less fully tagged with a few exceptions for spoilers. Those tags will appear as appropriate. Chapter warnings will be in the endnotes. Broadly, of course, the 50s weren't the most enlightened time in American history, and Faraday is still 87% toxic, so please be mindful and take good care. <3
And if you're looking for Man and Boy resources, as ever, they are here. Feel free to message me about the play, too.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
January, Faraday reflects, makes a man regret mornings.
He leans against the fire escape’s icy railing and exhales a long stream of smoke into the bitten air, his breath clouding after it almost as thickly. Although he’s buttoned his wool coat over his warmest flannel pajamas, the chill carves through him, through muscle and organ and bone, right into the medullary, like they’re insubstantial, nothing. It’s a deep, consuming kind of cold. Not so unlike winters back home, it’s true, although Faraday misses the snowy fields, the glittering trees, preferring them to these rimy alleys and sidewalks, blackened with slush. He takes another drag and shoves his hand back into his coat pocket, warming it. He’ll go in soon.
Basil has said he might smoke in the flat if he wishes—it’s freezing and no need to suffer so and I don’t mind it so much, truly—but he’s grown strangely accustomed to this ritual, how his days begin, at least the days he begins here. At the boarding house six blocks over, he smokes by the cracked window and studies the wall of the building opposite. Listens to his fellow lodgers shuffle awake in the rooms around his, to the pipes groaning, to the clatter of china and silver downstairs.
He meant to return there last night. Should have. It’s the sort of place he knows well: someone else’s furniture, an anonymous room, scuffed picture glass, like many others he’s called home, in Lidcote, Plymouth, Birmingham, at university. He ought to be used to it.
The view here is better. Even if the dawn hasn’t yet trudged, sluggish, through Greenwich Village, even though it will stay dark for some hours yet, another gloomy winter day, the streets shadowed by taller buildings, winter clouds, even so, he can see the progression of the morning’s affairs from here. The neighborhood’s already busy in a way he’s come to recognize and anticipate these past six months. He can nearly discern the time by the daily traffic below him, deliveries and shops raising their grates, today’s papers striking the concrete, and the sunny glow of the bakery on the corner. His watch confirms that it’s five after, practically late; he stubs out his cigarette and climbs back inside the flat, leaving the morning clamor behind.
The studio is hushed, still, in contrast. Basil’s not moved since Faraday crept out from under the covers, and then he had only sighed and rolled over, relinquishing his hold with a token, mumbled protest. He’s just visible under the heap of blankets now, one hand and the dark ruffle of his hair showing. Faraday treads carefully past the bed, not wanting to wake him. And he should, should stay at the boarding house more nights; it’s only proper. No matter how easy, how routine this has become, preparing his coffee and oatmeal in the little kitchenette, reading the rest of yesterday’s Times while he eats, shaving and dressing in the chilly washroom. But Basil hasn’t reclaimed the space in the wardrobe, the top drawer, the coat hooks. Has never suggested he move the rest of his things. Hasn’t.
Faraday shrugs into his suit jacket and straightens his tie. Looks back at the foggy mirror, that well-known face, soft-chinned and staid and ordinary. Determines there’s no trace of tear tracks, shiny, slick, raw. His mouth is un-bruised, no longer swollen or red from kissing. His hair lies flat, neatly parted, as though it had never been rumpled by his head tossing on the bed linens. As though he hadn’t cried out, moaned, begged for more, harder, yes, and locked his legs around Basil’s waist. As though he hadn’t lay panting in his arms afterward, too spent to put himself to rights and leave, although for decency’s sake, he should have done.
On his way out, his overcoat folded over one arm, he pauses by the bed, considering. He slept well, as he has most nights here, better than he does in his rented room, better, yes, than he can recall sleeping anywhere. But the shape of a dream persists, indistinct, or an aftertaste, caustic, drying his tongue, stinging the papillae. Like a bitter tonic. He can remember the trappings, he thinks, familiar, sitting at the long kitchen table at Hundreds. Or else he’d been in Mrs. Ayres’ room, with the tumult of clothes piled on the bed, bright colors and glittering beads. Betty in a borrowed dress. Or both somehow? What he does recall: Caroline standing nearby, as she so often is lately, accusing him.
He’s never been able to answer her, much as he tries.
The rest of the dream eludes him; he’d reached for Basil, or, no, Basil had reached for him, maybe hearing him whimper—or, maybe—and drawn him closer, his arm heavy over his waist, his nose tucked along his nape. They’d both quieted afterward, staying like that until Faraday woke some two hours ago, drowsy, warm, cradled against his chest. He lets his palm drift over the duvet now. Feels the now-commonplace, if needlessly sentimental, urge to kiss him goodbye. Settles, instead, for brushing his hand over his hair, liking, as he always does, the sensation of it running through his fingers.
He winces when Basil stirs at the touch, shifting under the blankets and turning to blink hazily at him. “Oh,” he says, unconcerned, when he sees his face. Smiles, mouth crooked. “Good morning.”
Something gives an arrhythmic twitch in Faraday’s chest; he swallows. “Good morning.”
“What time is it?”
“Not quite seven.”
“That’s appalling.” He yawns and props one arm behind his head, looking up at him, appraising. “Certain you don’t want to join the deviants and sleep ’til noon?”
“I’d make a poor revolutionary. And a worse musician.” He is, he realizes, still stroking his hair, absently. He flushes and clears his throat. “Sorry to disturb you.”
Basil catches his retreating fingers and chafes them, warming them against them own. “Not at all. I, ah. Like seeing you before you go. You’ve a busy week, haven’t you?”
“Yes, they’ve overbooked me again, I’m afraid.” Faraday shivers at the attention to his hand and again when Basil draws it up to his lips, blowing muggy air across his knuckles. “But I’ll see you Sunday evening, shall—shall I?” He has his personal agenda with all the relevant information in the pocket of his coat, Basil’s details recorded in the sparsest possible notation (B.A., dinner hour 6-9) at the bottom of each page, but it’s good, comfortable, to say and hear it, too.
“Hm? Yes. Rehearsal is in the afternoon, but after,” he agrees. “We can take a proper supper and everything.”
“I’ll look forward to it,” Faraday says, meaning it. He tries not to regret when Basil releases his hand at last. Can’t quite prevent himself from touching his cheek, sleep-rosy and raspy with stubble, in return. Reddens when Basil meets his gaze, tender-eyed, considering. “Er, yes. Sleep well, then.”
It’s only a light tug on his wrist, but Faraday goes as if subjected to a much stronger compulsion. He sinks into his arms easily, so easily, and returns his kiss, chaste and careful. Basil doesn’t muss or wrinkle him, doesn’t clutch at him, just steadies him, one hand braced under his ribs, the other cradling his neck. When it ends, after a few mere ticks of the second hand, he sits up as unwillingly as he’d crawled out from under the covers in the dark earlier. Mumbles his farewells. Barely hears Basil’s have a good week, Henry. Locks the door behind him, the key he gave him leaden in his palm before he pockets it.
Faraday takes the underground north, then east, then north again to 77th St., jostled by the swaying car and the skidding stops and the migrations of his fellow travelers. He can make his exchanges without much worry now, following what’s become a well-traveled route until he reemerges at street level and walks down the block to Lenox Hill. He takes, as he often does, a moment to regard the hospital’s brick-and-limestone face, set in this neighborhood of taller, grander structures than Greenwich Village possesses. One ward of this building is better outfitted than the entire facility in Warwickshire. Although here, as there, they are understaffed and over budget, those universal problems. Not as swamped, it’s true, as public institutions like Bellevue or the Women’s Infirmary, but he doesn’t want for patients. Or frustrations.
He works through the day, as he does most, at a steady pace, seeing a stream of scheduled appointments at the dispensary, where he writes scripts and makes diagnoses, recommendations. In the afternoon, he visits his patients in bedcare—he has three recovering from routine surgeries, two tonsillectomies and a graft, and another half a dozen admitted for various illnesses, mostly seasonal, those few they can treat, the rest sent off to sanitariums. They’ve spared him the accident room today, at least, which always puts him in mind of the hospital at Plymouth during the war. It isn’t the same, not at all, car- and work-related incidents mainly, a few household traumas, but he can’t but think of it: the odors, rank, ferric, and the men’s cries. His own tripping pulse. The cool retreat, necessary, as he focused only on keeping his hands steady, his voice level, his attention centered.
Then, the last time hadn’t been at Plymouth, but at Hundreds. How much blood there’d been.
Not that Faraday minds the work, not at all. He’s missed it, this sense of purpose, since he left England and was glad of the position when offered, just over a month ago since his licenses finally transferred. The logic of medicine has always appealed to him, piecing together symptoms, settling on a cause and an appropriate treatment. The use, too, of being able to help, to offer answers, at minimum, and relief when he can. Today, he has occasion to reassure a young mother that her son suffers neither from pneumonia nor pertussis, to give a referral to a radio operator with a nervous condition, and to deliver good news to his burn-victim, who’s healing well with minimal scarring.
All told, yes, it’s a good day, done in as he is by the end of it; he trades in his white coat for wool, says goodnight to the on-duty nurse, and heads back out into the cold. Yes, quite a good day, even if he only has the boarding house to look forward to tonight, supper with the other lodgers around the dining room table, muted conversation over the newspaper, and perhaps a smoke in the parlor after. By his watch, Basil will have left for work not long ago, may already be sitting down at the piano, coaxing the first tune from it. He’ll still be playing by the time Faraday goes up to his room, undresses for bed, and cocoons himself in every available blanket, struggling to get comfortable, warm. Failing. Fidgeting.
He’s vexed, that’s all, at the chilly room, the lumpy mattress. Basil’s bed isn’t any nicer than this. Has an identical metal frame, in fact.
And they had agreed it best that he get a room while he looked for work, another place where he might be reached, an address to receive mail and telephone calls that wouldn’t suggest anything untoward. David Granger had sent his belongings here, a trunk packed by the housekeeper, the rest placed in storage for the time being. He’ll have to return and attend to it all eventually, his car and other scant effects and what accounts require his signature, but for now, this will do, his clothes and a few books and photographs. There had been Granger’s note with it, too, declaring him, Dreadfully sorry to see you go, although Faraday doubts that’s so, after—well, everything.
He closes his eyes, determined to sleep, and listens to the radiator tick, the pipes thump. That had been the argument with Caroline in his dream, he recalls now, all at once, about the pipes in the cold, the noise from the heating. But his assertions hadn’t calmed her this time. That’s what you want me to think, she accused. Don’t tell me what to think, Faraday.
You want me to be tired.
He dreams about her less here. May be too restive. He shifts again and listens to the street outside. He’ll sleep soon. He will.
The days proceed much like that, one after another, drab and brisk, in a succession of work and communal meals and uneasy nights and the infrequent, yes, rare, in fact, impulse to return to a particular flat on E. 8th St. instead. On Thursday, he’s taking his cigarette break in the hall, when Lang, one of his new colleagues, greets him. Faraday doesn’t know them all yet, the other doctors, let alone all the nurses and attendants. They haven’t been unfriendly, but he doesn’t have the measure of most of them, nor they of him, and he keeps to himself most of the time. On the whole, it’s a much younger crowd than Warwickshire, far fewer Seeleys here, few even his own age, although Lang’s close to it, gray just starting to salt his dark hair. He did two stints overseas, if memory serves. Africa and Italy. “Afternoon, Faraday,” he says, leaning against the wall opposite. “Busy week?”
“Grueling. I’ve hardly had a moment to breathe,” he agrees, as he’s expected to. This, at least, is a language he speaks. “And you—how is it upstairs?” Meaning the children’s division on the eleventh floor. Meaning poliomyelitis. Infant paralysis.
“Pandemonium, as ever. I guess you’ve heard we’ve got more cases.”
“I did. Bloody shame.” Faraday lights a fresh cigarette and offers one to Lang. “I read the findings from Baltimore. Bodian, wasn’t it? Three strains. It’s a start.”
“That’s right. It’ll be a breakthrough for the vaccine, they’re saying. Not that one will do the kids here any good,” he replies, still morose.
“I expect not.” He lapses into silence, surveying the dingy linoleum between his feet. There is only so much one can ever do.
“Wickersham had a few deep-pocket types up there touring earlier,” Lang says, finally. “Part of the big fundraising push, but it made me feel like something of a spectacle.” And it’s no secret that the hospital’s president has been doing the rounds in the wealthier part of town since the war and its inevitable deficits, trying to scrounge up the money for a new facility. “There they are now.” He extinguishes his smoke, cramming it into an already-packed ashtray. “I’m going to make myself scarce. You may want to do the same.”
With this, Lang strides away, looking purposeful, intent, and not to be troubled; at the same time, the chief administrator turns the corner with a woman at his side. Faraday doesn’t have time to flee and return to his patients, not before his name is called, Ah, yes, Dr. Faraday, and he reluctantly approaches the pair to be introduced.
Wickersham is the same as the day Faraday met him, a quick-speaking and harried-faced man of his early fifties in a good suit with a crooked tie. The woman, the potential philanthropist, is—unexpected, although he couldn’t quite say what he would have imagined. Someone older. Not a blonde a few years his junior in a smart, dove gray coat dress and a fur wrap (mink? he has no eye for such things). “Dr. Faraday, may I present Mrs. Randolph-Smythe. She and her husband are long-time supporters of our work here at Lenox Hill.”
She smiles as she takes his hand, her red lips splitting in a wide smile, unmistakably American. “So lovely to meet you, Dr. Faraday. Do call me Evelyn, although Dr. Wickersham here refuses.” This last said pointedly, although the bright, crystalline chime of her voice doesn’t vary.
“The pleasure’s all mine, Mrs. Randolph-Smythe,” Faraday replies, taking her gloved hand. She’s wearing a simple string of pearls and earrings to match, glossy despite the harsh lighting, demurely suggesting their high quality. As, he supposes, does the rest of her, from her handbag to her shoes. But he’s staring. He drops her hand. Averts his eyes.
“Evelyn,” she repeats, with that same crescent flash of teeth. “But what is that charming accent?”
“Dr. Faraday’s a new addition,” Wickersham explains. “From England. He’s done rather a lot of work with trauma victims since the war. Published an important paper on the subject last year. We’re lucky to have him.”
Faraday struggles to remain expressionless at this inflation of his accomplishments, resisting the itch to correct him, to assert he is merely a country doctor, a family physician. He endeavors not to appear overly pleased at the declaration either.
“How remarkable,” Mrs. Randolph-Smythe says. “He sounds like an excellent candidate to speak to my club, wouldn't you say?” To Faraday, she explains, “Really, it’s not a big to-do. Just some friends I have over for drinks every now and again, but we do so like to hear about worthy causes in the hope we can be of help. Perhaps you might discuss your work at the hospital sometime, Dr. Faraday?”
His work, although he’s done no research here, nothing like his findings with Rod. He glances at Wickersham, seeing the prompting on his face. Please, do it. “I should—I should be delighted,” he agrees, haltingly.
“Wonderful!” She opens her handbag, fishing out a card. “The house is over on Park. I’ll have my secretary give you a call, shall I? And we can make arrangements.”
He accepts the crisp, linen-white square without speaking, frowning down at the embossed letters. It smells faintly of gardenias.
Mrs. Randolph-Smythe clears her throat. Delicately. “Do you have one?” she asks. “A card, I mean.”
“Oh,” Faraday startles. “Yes, of course.” He fishes one from his jacket pocket—he had them printed when he was searching for a post—and pauses, as he did then, to scribble the boarding house’s phone number on the back of the card. His writing crowded, slashing. “You can reach me here if I’m not available at the hospital.”
“Dr. S. Faraday,” she reads. “How mysterious. But I’m good at names. Let me guess. S for Sidney?”
A cramp seizes between his shoulders. “S for Simon,” he submits, unenthusiastic, resigned to surrendering it. Few people ask, even here, and he never offers. Simon, he wants to explain, was an unhappy child in borrowed clothes, much thwarted, too often staring at the park gates, wondering if he might ever be allowed in. Not the man he is now, not a doctor who may go where he chooses, make his own way, do as he likes. He isn’t Simon to anyone and hasn’t been for years.
And he’s not, he’s reasoned, not Henry either, not here, not publicly. The H following his first initial remains unwritten, unseen, un-offered, that empty space a soft exhalation. No, Henry belongs entirely to Basil Anthony, for him murmur in Faraday’s ear, or gasp against his skin, into his hair, or, on occasion, shout, voice hoarse. As he pleases.
Which leaves only this: “But I prefer Faraday.”
“They want you to what? Tell stories about sick children to a bunch of bored millionaires’ wives?” Basil asks, skepticism clear in his voice. He scrubs harder at a plate, suds foaming over his hands. “Seems a bit more than what you signed on for.”
They’ve passed a quiet evening together, dinner and conversation, a recounting of their respective weeks. Basil’s told him about rehearsal at his newest place of employment, the endless succession of clubs and restaurants opening and closing, this latest on Barrow St., an establishment called (inexplicably) “Lenny’s.” In return, Faraday related a few stories from his rounds, the ones he can, mostly the successes, but a few difficult cases, too, since he has a sympathetic ear, an attentive audience. He hasn’t mentioned the unquiet nights at the boarding house, how he wakes so easily at an unfamiliar sound or sometimes from his own shallow dreams. All of that unimportant, and nothing of Basil’s concern, certainly. He raised the peculiar matter of Mrs. Randolph-Smythe instead.
“It’s not unheard of in the American system, I think.” No push towards public medicine here; anything like the NHS stalled years ago. “I imagine I was simply unlucky; the others know better, of course,” Faraday says. He takes a wet dish from Basil, carefully towels it dry, and sets it on the rack. Then another. He disliked doing this once, always alone, another marker of lonely bachelorhood, but with help, with company, it goes easier. Is almost pleasant in its way, the two of them standing side-by-side. “I’m sure it’ll be relatively painless. And if it helps.”
“Fair enough, I suppose.” He shuts off the tap and leans against the sink, expression thoughtful. “The Randolph-Smythes, is it? Huh.”
He studies Basil: his hair fallen over his brow, his sleeves rolled and his collar open, the hollow of his throat exposed. The piano-player at home, if he were a Rockwell painting. Faraday wets his lips. “You don’t approve, I take it.”
“Should that matter?” he replies, blunt although not unkind. His mouth cants, lopsided, softening the question. “But it’s not just the politics of it. These aren’t the sorts of people you’re used to, Faraday. Not like your aristocrats. They haven’t nearly so many rules—that’s how they got where they are. By being ruthless and playing the system.”
Faraday tries to smile back, although it feels more like a flinch. “Bloodthirsty American capitalists, yes, I believe I’ve seen the literature around here somewhere.”
It’s such a profound relief, even after months of association, to hear him laugh, to know he hasn’t caused offense, hasn’t put him off at last. Nicer still to be touched—Basil reels him in, arm around his waist, and nudges at his cheek with his nose. Fondly, it may well be. “I won’t go on about it, I promise. But be careful, would you? Keep it in mind.” His voice, near, rumbling, low, sends a tremor through him.
“Yes, all right,” Faraday agrees. More preoccupied with being kissed at the moment, having sorely lacked that this past week. It’s been far too many days since this mouth’s opened readily to his, since this hand’s slid under his jaw, tilting it, since this thigh’s parted his legs, gently. He groans and curls both arms around Basil’s neck. Urges him nearer, conscious of the narrow kitchenette. Tastes the whiskey they had after dinner. Lingering.
“Care for a nightcap?” Basil asks in his ear, breath puffing humid. He kisses the shell of it, then behind, that so-particular spot that makes him moan.
“We, ah, had one, didn’t we?” He should leave soon, if he wants to make the evening curfew. His landlady, the most pragmatic war widow he’s ever encountered, and they a distinctly practical breed, tolerates his odd hours on account of his profession, but rules are rules, she’s said more than once, and she won’t change them, doctor or no. He doesn’t move away, however, crooking his fingers around his collar, in his hair. “Just now.”
Basil withdraws to look at him with amusement, yes, in those warm hazel eyes, but also wanting clear, unmistakable, and in his grip on him, the hand at the small of his back, holding him close, nothing uncertain in it. It’s so strange, even now, to have that desire, if only in this context, directed at him specifically, not generally, not indiscriminately. For him. Somehow.
“A different kind of nightcap, Henry.” He pauses, brow furrowing, and offers, conscientious as ever, “Although if you’d rather not—if you need—“
If you need to go, he’ll say, accommodating. And shouldn’t he? In the early days of their affair, Faraday would leave as soon as he could, and carried his shoes into the hall more than once, knowing he mustn’t linger, that one didn’t, doesn’t. But it’s all a muddle now, the time he’s spent living here confusing everything, and his clothes and suitcase right where they were, and he hadn’t thought when he chose to stay in New York what this would entail. How they might proceed (how does one proceed). And Basil hasn’t said—He should go, or else it’ll be another night here nestled together in his bed; he’d never turn him out in the cold, isn’t the type.
Faraday drags him in and kisses him firmly, or more than firmly. Bruising. Biting. Basil makes a startled, although not displeased, noise against his teeth, and tightens his arms around him. Walks them forward until Faraday’s back hits the countertop, the edge of the Formica digging into him, not that he minds, not at all. It’s too easy, really, to get lost in this, in kissing him as deeply as he can, in letting his hands wander down his back, feeling him, in the grind of his erection along his own, hot through his trousers. He can’t say how long they go on like that, unhurried, before he slides his hand lower, squeezing Basil’s arse. Groans when he thrusts against him in response.
“That’s, oh. That’s rather good,” Faraday gasps, rocking into him, too, opening his legs to better hold him between them.
It is good. That they haven’t done this before doesn’t seem to matter, nor that he might have thought once, mortified, how awkward it would look, this sort of public school antic, moving like this, hips twitching. No, that doesn’t matter, not with Basil pressing back against him, the bulk of him interposed between him and everything else, not with his hands on him like this, pulling his suspenders free, untucking his shirt, his touch sure, warm, practiced, gliding up over his belly and his ribs, and the uncomplicated enjoyment of it, being close to him like this, tasting him, hearing his mumbled praise, Fuck, Henry, you feel—Faraday encourages him with that hand on his arse, moaning aloud at the answering pressure on his cock, teasing, not quite enough, but, yes, very good indeed.
“Do you? What do you,” Basil asks, kissing down the side of his neck, messy, although gently, wetly, not leaving marks. Not that they haven’t before, mostly by accident. Only now, it’s. They shouldn’t.
Faraday relinquishes his hold on Basil to loosen his tie, unbutton his own shirt, his fingers fumbling, wanting, more than anything, his mouth on him. “Would you?” he asks, uncertain how to give voice to it.
Nonetheless, Basil seems to understand his meaning, as he so often does, remarkably, and lifts him up onto the narrow countertop, stepping between his splayed knees, returning his attention to his throat. Keeping him balanced with both hands on his waist as he does.
He knows he’s flushed down to his chest, that his nipples are hard, visible through the thin fabric of his undershirt, that he squirms, indecent, eager, against Basil when he kisses over the arch of one clavicle, pausing to lick at the suprasternal notch, that dip between the bone, before moving to the other side. But he can’t help it, any of it. Feels so sensitive to this, still or maybe more so for the days apart, his skin tingling at the attention. “More, please,” he begs, tightening his legs around Basil’s hips. And, “Yes, like that,” when he drags his teeth over his skin, nipping at him, leaving, no doubt, minor contusions, small, vivid traces.
They’ll be dark by tomorrow and still tender under his shirt, out of sight, yes, but there. Unquestionable. He keens when Basil bites down on the slight meat of his pectoral muscle, below the collarbone. Then kissing, sucking in the same place, lightly, then harder. Does so again, lower. On the right, leaving a matching set, stark on his skin.
“Want to touch you,” he says against Faraday’s chest when he’s done, tipping his chin up to look him in the eye. “May I?”
And there’s nothing unusual about that, more than considerate as he is, attentive, mindful, yes, Basil all of those things, but need jolts through him at the request. His cock throbs. “I. Yes,” he agrees, breathless, and reaches out to stroke his hair. “Please.”
Basil unfastens his trousers, slipping one hand inside to massage him through his shorts, and he arches into the contact. Whines when he draws his cock out, encircles it with those long, talented fingers, his fist all but dwarfing it, and strokes him, crown to base.
“Easy,” he murmurs when Faraday jerks forward, fucking into his grip, the movement automatic, reflexive. Basil braces him with his other hand, or, in truth, holds him in place as he pumps him, steadily, his fist working between them as he leans up to kiss him. His lips as swollen, as bitten, if not more so than Faraday’s. Despite the gentleness of it, or perhaps for that, it’s already verging on too much, the swipe of his tongue, his hands on him. Faraday opens to it anyway. To everything, ceding to Basil’s touch, his mouth—whatever pace he wants to set, whatever he wants, he can, yes—and he comes apart that way, not all in a rush, desperate, as he usually does, but gradually, a slow dissolution. He moans, his hips rolling as the sensation builds, cresting, until it finally, finally peaks and his cock spurts, hot, between them, over Basil’s fingers. When it ends, at last, Faraday slumps forward against him, sighing.
In the wake of it, he wants a half dozen things at once: to move off the counter and onto his knees, rub his face on Basil’s groin and feel his hands in his hair, blunt nails on his scalp; for him to raise his hand to his lips, let him lick his fingers clean, suck on them as he brings him off, too; for Basil to carry him to bed and fuck him this way, pliant, wrung out, sobbing. He swallows hard, staring, waiting. What can I do for you?
“Here,” he says and helps him down off the counter. Encourages him to turn. “If you’d. Like that, yes, Henry.”
He bends over as prompted, bracing himself, shivering as Basil tugs down his shorts and trousers. It surprises him when he doesn’t leave, no condom and K-Y on hand. He keeps near instead, erection nudging his arse. Closes both hands, one sticky with Faraday’s come, over his hips, drawing him back, like he would to—
“Don’t worry,” Basil assures him, voice low in his ear, and kisses the back of his neck. “Nothing like that.” And no, he wouldn’t, of course not. He slides his cock between his cheeks, not pushing into him, although the blunt head catches on his rim, making him gasp. His own cock twitches weakly.
He tilts his pelvis back, trying to give him a better angle, leaning into it as Basil thrusts again, seeking that friction. It’s nice to hear him, Faraday decides, to be wholly occupied with that for once, the raspy sound of his breathing, his quiet groans and exclamations, those noises so often lost in the moment. Noting, too, the way his grip flexes on him, fingers tightening on his hips as he increases his pace, not so patient now, giving into it, into this, cock moving slickly against his arse. What he likes best: how he presses his face to his shoulder when he’s close, as though overwhelmed. As though. And it’s tempting, it is, to urge him on, to murmur, go ahead, darling and I want you to, but he manages, he thinks, not to say that aloud, biting his tongue in the effort.
Yes, he’s nearly certain he doesn’t say it.
Basil comes as surely he has, however, spilling across his lower back, right above his sacrum, stifling a curse into his shirt.
Afterward, he curls one arm around Faraday’s waist, sagging against him briefly. It’s not entirely comfortable, not trapped against the kitchen counter, although he can’t say he objects, that he minds the thudding of his pulse between his shoulder blades, or the fabric of his trousers, worn, soft against his bare thighs, or that firm grip around his middle, holding him surprisingly tightly. Least of all the light kisses he plants below the scruff of his hair, between his atlas and axis vertebrae.
“Sorry,” Basil apologizes eventually, taking his weight off him.
“Not at all,” Faraday says. “I—“ It would be too much to admit that he enjoys it, being pinned, held like that. But: “It’s quite all right.” He straightens, moving to stand before he stops him.
“Hang on. Let me, ah. I’ve made a bit of a mess of you, I’m afraid.”
And he is, in fact, precisely that: his shirt rumpled and unbuttoned, shorts and trousers down around his knees, semen splattered on his back, smeared over his hip, his stomach. There’s no chance of putting his clothes in order now, of making himself presentable in time to return to his gloomy little room, six blocks away in the bleak night. The wind’s gusting down the streets, rattling the windows, whipping up the ice and salt and grit; the temperature’s well below zero. He can allow it, can’t he, in this instance, Basil’s tender attention to him, helping him get clean. Can turn and kiss him again, heedless of the state of them. Can suggest that they adjourn to the washroom together. He wouldn’t, after all, refuse a proper bath. And perhaps Basil wouldn’t either?
The wallpaper droops, water-stained, discolored, the flowers brown, pieces falling loose in long, warped strips. Caroline’s standing on a step ladder in her pale blue party dress and tearing it down. Or is she putting it up, pressing it back against the damp plaster? It’s the evening with the Baker-Hydes, yes, the matchmaking. The little girl’s behind the curtain with the dog, where she shouldn’t be, and she shouldn’t have been there in the house at all. It wasn’t a house for children. The dog’s snarling, growling, low in its throat, primal, a wild animal’s noise, not that of a placid, domesticated animal, a beloved family pet. It had died so quietly, that dog, no fight in it. The girl kicks and screams as it tears at her face. In a moment, Faraday will rush from the room with her in his arms, he will. But for now, Caroline is standing on the ladder, frowning down at him.
“It was never real, you know,” she tells him, her features violet in the light. The room is oddly dark for a party. There’s broken glass in the hall outside. He should, he should go pick it up. Help Betty. “None of it. It wasn’t real, Faraday.”
It was real enough to me, he wants to protest. He always wants to argue with her, at times like this. To levy her accusations back at her. Wasn’t she, after all, the one who jumped, and why would she go and do that? She’d won, hadn’t she, driven him off, taken it all from him. Humiliated him thoroughly. But he never manages to force the words past his lips. They’re lodged, stuck fast in his throat.
She peels down another strip of paper, letting it fall to the floor like a Mayday ribbon. There’s a pile around the stepladder, gathering. The paper falling and falling until it’s up to her ankles, her knees. (Her knee under his hand, the silk stocking—he hadn’t.) Her waist. More and more paper, and the wall’s rotted through behind.
Stop, he wants to say. Stop that this instant; you’re ripping it all to pieces. You’ll ruin it.
“You know it wasn’t real,” she repeats before she vanishes.
The dog lunges.
The child screams.
He wakes, shuddering, vision slowly adjusting in the dark flat. Basil’s flat. Basil’s bed. New York. America. Yes, of course. He’d been sleeping so soundly, and. That’s always when it happens, these past few months. He blinks rapidly, eyes burning, mouth dry. He had dreamed of her sometimes back in Lidcote, he thinks, but it was always indistinct, and she never spoke to him. These are clear, so clear. And he would say, were he his patient, that it’s grief. Guilt, perhaps, for not being there to take the call when it happened. He remembers that night, the banging on the door, the panic. Throwing his coat on over his pajamas. How he had fallen asleep, exhausted, in his car afterward. Had felt—no, but it wasn’t anything. None of this is anything. Merely the workings of his subconscious, dealing with a difficult time, a sort of trauma.
Faraday tries to settle down under the covers and find sleep again. The wind’s picked up outside. He shuffles toward Basil, lying on his side next to him, pressing against his back, simply, yes, to get warm.
He startles when he speaks, voice soft but clear.
“You can tell me,” he murmurs. “Whatever it is.”
True: it’s not like the dreams. He could speak. Could open his mouth, could whisper, as they did once, that night after he was finally well, those stories they shared, not mentioned since, Basil’s or his own. But what is there to say, beyond what he has? It’s nothing more than that, the aftereffects of tragedy. Bad memories. And nothing to do about it besides. No reason at all to burden him, when he has his own cares. When he lets him stay here, without question or protest, on these nights. When he looked after him—well, more than anyone has since he was a young child, and when he badly needed it. That’s sufficient. This is. He requires nothing more. Has gotten by with far less these many years.
“It’s nothing,” Faraday says, as he always does.
Some weeks pass before he finds himself staring up at the imposing wrought-iron gates in front of the Randolph-Smythe residence; the high fence encircling the grounds runs the better part of a half block. The place is, improbably, not the largest he’s seen in the neighborhood, grand mansions lining the street, in stone and brick. Possessed of turrets, sweeping arches, however incongruously, and one with gargoyles, grimacing down at the passersby. Mrs. Randolph-Smythe’s social secretary, a harried-sounding young woman with a clipped accent, directed him here this afternoon, a Saturday and nominally his day off, although he did an unscheduled shift in the accident room this morning. Lang bid him a sympathetic farewell when he departed, intoning, Ours is not to reason why, as he did.
Faraday’s standing out in the cold now, collar raised against the chill, and contemplating the gate. He doesn’t see a buzzer or a bell, and it is, by all appearances, locked. He’s lifting one hand to try it when a uniformed attendant, tall and broad-shouldered, appears on the other side. “May I help you, sir?” he asks, inclining his head. Taking the measure of him, yes, his coat and hat, hardly the newest fashions. Although well maintained, he thinks, defensive. Not threadbare.
“I’m Dr. Faraday,” he replies, keeping his chin level, his back straight. “Here for Mrs. Randolph-Smythe’s, ah, club?”
“Yes, very good, sir,” the man says and opens the gate—not a creak—and ushers him inside.
Towering sculpted topiary stand on either side of the short walk, which he follows to the front door, a not-unimpressive piece in walnut. It opens before he can lift the heavy, silver knocker, and he’s invited out of the gray afternoon light into a warm, bright interior. His coat taken promptly.
The house isn’t an old construction by his assessment, not even by New York standards, with the city’s ever-changing landscape, more of it torn down and built again every day. Less than thirty years at a guess, although designed in a classic style, intended, no doubt, to emulate a bygone age: a sweeping central staircase in the foyer, vaulted ceilings, and a multi-tiered, glittering chandelier, not missing a single crystal. And there are more antiques here, he thinks, than he’s seen in some minor museums, although they’re a clutter of periods and origins, everything together, indiscriminate. Vases from Ming Dynasty loaded with fresh-cut flowers and a massive Faberge egg and a gilt-framed coastal landscape taller than he is. All of it shiny, cleaned, well cared-for, not a speck of dust in evidence.
He’s heard of new money, of course, particularly in America, their upperclass still prosperous after the war, the great machine, but he’s never had occasion to see it up close.
Not like your aristocrats, Basil had warned him. He thinks of the slow ruin of Hundreds, the house crumbling around him. Caroline’s tatty, moth-eaten sweaters, her rough hands. Rod’s pile of smudged ledgers. The tarnished shillings he handed over, so reluctantly, as though that pained him more than his leg. My mother would rather die than bring any more shame upon this family. No, not like the Ayreses at all.
“Ah, Dr. Faraday! How wonderful to see you again,” Mrs. Randolph-Smythe calls, coming down the stairs, today in a rustling, full-skirted tea dress of deep purple. She takes his hand in hers. “I’m so pleased you could make it.”
“Thank you for having me,” Faraday replies, attempting a smile.
“The others will arrive shortly; we’ll be right through here,” she says, showing him through an adjoining door and keeping up a steady stream of pleasantries and declarations as they go.
It’s a vast salon—overstuffed couches, an enormous fireplace (primarily decorative, he gathers from its immaculate paint, and unlit), a standing radio in the corner, a sideboard with finger sandwiches, petit fours, sterling trays of thin-stemmed flutes with some effervescent aperitif. In the middle of it stands a young woman with a pair of horn-rimmed glasses on her nose, wearing a plainer, muted version of Mrs. Randolph-Smythe’s gown, directing staff. Next to her, causing a small ruckus in her immediate vicinity: a young girl spinning idly in a wheelchair, entirely unconcerned with the machinations around her. The adults navigate the scene with practiced ease, however, side-stepping the chair’s wheels and the child’s kicking legs as they finish preparations.
Mrs. Randolph-Smythe introduces Faraday to her secretary, who responds with a brusque, yes, how do you do, before resuming her work. They approach the girl next. “And this is my daughter, Barbara. Barbara, this is Dr. Faraday.”
The child regards him, judges him unimportant or else uninteresting, and, slumping down in the wheelchair, turns to her mother. “I’m bored.”
“That’s good, Barbi, because you’ll be going upstairs directly to work on your studies, understand? I’ll not hear of that television going on before your Latin’s satisfactory.” Her mother plants both white-gloved fists on her hips.
“I hate Latin,” comes the sulky reply. “I loathe it. And school. I wish I were ill. Marybeth Davis got the measles, and she was out of classes for weeks.”
“Listen to you,” Mrs. Randolph-Smythe admonishes. “What will the doctor think? All those sick children who would love to be in your shoes.”
“I don’t know,” Faraday says, mildly, smiling at the girl. “I imagine most children imagine they’d rather be in hospital than at school. But it isn’t awfully fun. No running and playing there either. And altogether too many needles.” He nods at the wheelchair. “Has someone been injured?”
“My brother, in a skiing accident last December,” Barbara volunteers. “Broke his leg in two places. Lucky.”
“Yes, and it isn’t a toy,” her mother scolds. “Now go on, shoo, and take that thing with you.”
The child wheels her way out of the room, her movement halting, exaggerated. She sends one last baleful look over her shoulder before she’s out of sight.
“Eleven’s a difficult year.” Mrs. Randolph-Smythe sighs. “Then, the ten before this weren’t exactly a kick.” She squeezes his arm and gestures widely at the room. “But do make yourself at home, Dr. Faraday, and help yourself. We’ll be ready shortly.”
Deprived of lunch as he was, he fills a plate. Takes coffee instead of a cocktail and wanders to the far end of the room, as out of the way as he can be, and admires the view from the front window, the blur of his own face blinking back at him and, through it, the bustle of the city beyond. It’s a quieter neighborhood here than the few blocks over to the hospital, although distinct, too, from the Village, which feels almost insular at times, like a world unto itself. It’s a shifting sort of place, this city, transforming at times within a block or two, let alone across the water, the other boroughs, islands. He doesn’t have the trick of it yet, understanding it, although more so than when he arrived.
Watching the street, Faraday has the faint impression of someone standing behind him, a tickle of air on the back of his neck. Sees, he thinks, a flicker of movement in the glass. He turns. Finds no one. Probably, it was only one of the staff moving behind him across the room, or the guests entering. The first few have arrived, women in bold colors, in stark defiance of the season, the crowd of them like so many hothouse flowers. Each stops to greet their hostess, sometimes with an embrace or a kiss on each cheek, their voices almost tinkling. Lively, as gatherings rarely were back home, winter dances excepted.
He returns to the center of the room when called; Mrs. Randolph-Smythe takes him from woman to woman, introducing them in succession. He won’t remember their names, as many as there are, although he recognizes some of them from the paper. The society pages. Business news. Bright, heavy baubles sparkle on more than one wrist, around more than one neck. And that, similarly, feels especially American—ostentatious, as all of this is. And a fraction of the wealth on display would have saved Hundreds, even, perhaps, in the hands of the Ayres family. Pocket-money to these women with their successful husbands and not-inconsiderable inheritances.
Nonetheless, he exchanges pleasantries, answers questions about himself, Lenox Hill. Hears the now-familiar remarks about his accent, about London, about the war. What there isn’t: the scrutiny of the way he talks, the slight variations he allows himself from time to time, mostly in his vowels; nor any dissection of his name, who his family is, his origins. No question that he belongs. He’s English, he’s a doctor, and Mrs. Randolph-Smythe asked him here. Anything beyond that doesn’t seem to matter.
When they’ve settled, small talk and refreshments dispensed with, Faraday dutifully goes to the front of the room and gives a brief description of the hospital, their work, and its needs as he understands them. Wickersham is better equipped for this, of course, but he’s been here already, no doubt, and he is, in this context, a novelty, if not a salesman. He speaks of their aspirations for cardiology and pediatric medicine, mentions the number of patients they see, the cost of operations, and the need for a new facility. He isn’t, he knows, an inspiring speaker. Has had most success in the academic or professional setting where theatrics are neither expected nor appreciated. Delivering his results in London had been straightforward by comparison, only the facts and his peers to contend with. This is a performance, one he's ill-suited to.
A time or two, while he’s talking, he sees—although it’s nothing, he’s certain—a shadow out of the corner of his eye. He stumbles, losing his train of thought before regaining it, struggling to cover the gaffe.
But his audience doesn’t seem unhappy with him, the women listening as they sip their drinks and nibble on their petit fours. They clap politely when he finishes, before the conversation trills back to life. The afternoon’s business now dispensed with, he goes to excuse himself.
“Oh no, do stay a little longer,” Mrs. Randolph-Smythe pleads. “I’m sure there are no few questions for you after your, ah, very informative presentation.”
There are questions for the better part of the next hour, although few about Lenox Hill; most of them concern him. Where did he serve? Was it very terrible? How long has he been in America? Does he like it here?
“And what part of our city are you calling home, Dr. Faraday?” one woman asks him, leaning in, her hand on his arm, the cloying scent of her perfume clouding around him. Mrs. Harris, if he recalls rightly.
“I’m renting a room in Greenwich Village,” he allows, after a moment’s pause. The same way he once said, I was thinking of my mother. She was a maid here before I was born. Anticipating his likely reception. It’s not quite a secret, although not widely known among his colleagues. He understands the associations with the neighborhood better now; when he’d taken a room there over the summer, he’d chosen it because it was inexpensive.
And if he hadn’t, he never would have wandered into The Pink Slipper one June night.
“The Village? Not with those godless radicals.” she clicks her tongue. “That won’t do at all. We’ll have to find you a smarter address. On the right side of Midtown. My agent can help.”
“That’s very kind, thank you, but I’m fine where I am,” Faraday demurs. He’s starting to feel queasy, maybe lightheaded. His jaw pulses; his hands twitch. “Please, excuse me.”
He steps out into the hall, pacing, sucking in a few shallow breaths, his chest tight. Whatever he imagined before, whatever suggestion of, whatever memory—surely that, simply a memory—it’s passed now. It’s only unfamiliar, this place, these people, the weight of their attention, their eyes on him. The feeling, too, of having his hand out, even on the hospital’s behalf. The indignity of that. Rules he never learned. How obvious it is that he doesn’t belong.
“Dr. Faraday?” Mrs. Randolph-Smythe asks, interrupting the riot of his thoughts. “Is everything all right?”
“Yes, very much so.” He tries to smile. May succeed in wincing. “I was admiring your lovely home. But I had better be going. Thank you for your hospitality, Mrs. Randolph-Smythe.”
“Evelyn,” she reminds him. “It was a great success, I think. Dr. Wickersham should be pleased.” She gestures through the open door, into the salon, where more than one woman has drawn out her checkbook.“We’ll have to have you at the next fundraiser. You’re our good luck charm, I’d say.” The light from the chandelier, those thousands of sparkling crystals, glints in her eyes.
“I should be honored.”
It’s not quite dark when he steps back onto the sidewalk, although the streetlights are starting to glow above him, dim against the twilight. He hasn’t anywhere in particular to go or anything to do, too early for dinner at the boarding house, too late to go elsewhere. He didn’t make plans to see Basil either; it’s rare to see him on a Saturday, except for a late breakfast, when he so often has to work. And no cause to trouble him, although he could, could make his way there, take these scant hours before he has to leave, tell him about the afternoon’s events. Basil would listen for as long as he could. Apologize when he had to go. Invite him to stay, rest, as long as he likes.
Faraday wanders toward the park instead. It’s calmer in the winter, nearly abandoned except for the usual itinerants, the summer crowds dispersed, and the wide expanse of grass muddy, brown, the trees bare. He lights a cigarette, idly following the path, uncaring where it takes him. Washington Square Park is tiny in comparison, a postage stamp to this broad canvas. Although he can’t forget, even here, that he’s in the center of a city, being of the countryside as he is. That solitude, that thorough isolation, is like a quality of the air, a weight.
Despite the encroaching development. Modernization. Progress. He huffs.
The smoke eases some of his disquiet, and he hums softly as he walks, part of a half-remembered melody. Something from the radio, he thinks, or else something Basil has played for him. He doesn’t have a good memory for music or any sense of pitch, but even those few wobbly notes are soothing, and he repeats them to himself, trying to piece together the rest and failing.
There had been a song his mother favored when he was a child. She used to sing it around the house, not aloud but under her breath as she did the washing and mending she took in, whatever work she could find, anything to earn money. Those late nights and early mornings, the stiffness in her back, her fingers, when she was much too young for it. All of it for him, and she never let him forget it. Not when he went off to school. Not even as she lay dying, before she had a chance to see him finish, take his title. She was proud of you, you know. She’s proud now, looking down, his father had assured him, a rare offering of comfort.
He refused it at the time, both of them in their funeral best. Shrugged off the hand—rough, calloused, the knuckles swollen—on his shoulder. That isn’t so.
What either of them would have made of the mansions on Park Avenue, he can’t say. He’s often wondered, just the same, what they would have thought of Hundreds, so neglected, in shambles, the great house his mother had spoken of with such fervor. If she would have shaken her head over the Ayres family, the sorry state of them. I was briefly engaged to Caroline Ayres, he might have told her. I owned Hundreds Hall, only for a few months, it’s true, but I did. She would never have believed it. Would have chastised him, perhaps, for reaching at all.
The plaster acorn had snapped off so easily in his hand, after that first tug. Tension, then give. Simple. Like he was meant to have it.
Faraday loses track of the time somewhere and ends up rushing to the underground later than he intends. It’s not busy this time of a day, just a few other passengers in the car with him, an elderly woman wrapped in a wool shawl, weary, her chin tucked to her chest, and a pair of grim-faced men speaking rapid-fire in a language he doesn’t recognize. The sight of a second woman startles him; he didn't see her, and there’s something familiar about her silhouette, her hat, the chestnut color of her hair. He almost calls out to her, bemused, before she turns her face. The profile is wrong, her nose more pronounced, jawline sharper, eyes a different shade.
It’s only a passing resemblance.
He doesn’t sleep that night.
“Cream, no sugar.” Basil hands him a teacup, chipped at the handle. The liquid inside sloshes gently, steaming.
“Thank you.” He’s perched on the threadbare sofa, still in his jacket. He arrived early, far earlier than planned, still out of sorts from the week, those leaden days following his visit to Park Avenue. A thank-you note and bottle of brandy appeared at the hospital promptly on Monday morning, and Wickersham congratulated him on a job well done, thumping him on the arm. He’s tried to shake it off, the sort of fugue that's persisted since that afternoon, but he’s had other, graver woes, a ghastly wreck that landed two young men on the operating table, one with a punctured lung and the other with a severe cranial injury. The former will recover, he believes. They did all they could for the latter.
You mustn’t take it so personally, Faraday, his teachers had often repeated.
He sips his tea. Basil settles next to him, not quite touching, although nearby, within reach. Neither of them speaks, listening to the hard patter of an icy February rain on the fire escape, against the windows. He should, he knows, apologize for disturbing him so early in the day, for presuming, for intruding. He should retrieve his things from the wardrobe, spare toothbrush from the bathroom. How does one proceed, he wants to ask. Won’t you tell me, please. But his eyelids are drooping, his tongue heavy. He sets his empty teacup on the end table; it rattles in its saucer.
He startles when Basil drapes an arm around his shoulders—and he hasn’t before, not like this, although he does hold him rather more than is necessary—and coaxes him to lean into him, to relax. Faraday goes with only token resistance, allowing him to arrange them as he likes, shifting little by little until they’re sprawled together, almost lying supine. It’s difficult, however, not to hold himself rigid in his embrace, and he’s suddenly self-conscious of his breathing, where to put his hands, whether he might be digging into him with an elbow. Recognizes the urge to squirm, to shift away. And all of this is far easier in bed, when he’s too lethargic and fucked-out to worry.
But there is, yes, a pleasant line of heat everywhere they’re touching, side and hip and a long stretch of thigh, their legs entangled. He nestles closer, wanting more of it, daring that, and tucks his head onto Basil’s shoulder, curls his fingers in his sweater, soft and gray, breathing in the smell of wool, soap, Basil. He sighs as something unidentifiable, some cramped muscle, lets go at last.
The radio crackles in its accustomed place on the windowsill, the music plaintive, wailing. Jazz, he thinks. It’s not as nice as Basil playing the piano, of course, but if he were doing that, he couldn’t be here, couldn’t rest his cheek on Faraday’s hair or stroke his back or tug the quilt over both of them.
“What do you need?” he asks, eventually, voice rumbling in his chest, under Faraday’s palm.
This is, he could say, more than sufficient, more than he needs, than he requires. Far beyond it, in fact. He hasn’t asked for it. Couldn't have. “Would you talk to me a while?” he manages to request instead.
Basil tenses under him. Maybe the beginning of a refusal—he can’t tell. He doesn’t say so, only lets out a breath, and nuzzles at him, wordless, before he speaks. “About anything in particular?”
He shakes his head. Not wanting to explain that he’s more interested in the sound, the sensation, than the content. Although he won’t mind the distraction either. “Whatever you like. Music. Your week. Even the downtrodden Proletariat, if you so desire.”
He chuckles, shaking them both, “All right.”
He doesn’t fall asleep as Basil talks, but he does doze, his eyes half-shut, his breathing slowing. Absorbed, yes, in the rich timbre of his voice, its specific resonance, felt as well as heard, although he does find himself listening, interested, as he relates a story from a club, years since he played it, about a popular singer who had performed there for a time. How they always had odd half-rehearsals with her, she incoherent in her dressing gown carrying a half-drained bottle of gin. How they’d all thought it would be a disaster come evening. How different she was night after night, crooning into the microphone, smiling, charming the audience effortlessly. The rumpled, tearstained woman from earlier in the day vanished every time. Transformed. “What happened to her?” Faraday manages to ask, voice muzzy, when he's finished.
“Drank herself to death in the end,” Basil says, after a silence. “That was the only way she knew how to manage, I think. Like so many.”
Needless, surely, to cup his cheek, to encourage him to turn his face, to kiss him softly, but he does. It’s not the sort of kiss that leads to anything, not a prelude. He tastes tea and sugar on Basil’s lips, before they part, before he resumes talking. He tells him about happier things after that, the neighborhood gossip, heard at the grocers. A new musical he favors. I’ll play you some later. The faint winter light coming through the windows fades, then darkens. Basil’s voice slows and eventually stops. His breathing deepens.
Faraday lies there for a time, tucked between him and the sofa, listening to the radio and the wind, not sleeping, although he could. He could shut his eyes and drift off this way easily, without consideration. He’s still so very tired, and it would be simple to stay, as it has been on all those other nights. Far simpler than extricating himself from the blanket and Basil’s arm, heavy now, around him. Although he does, he manages. Rearranges the quilt over him, not wanting him cold. Strokes his hair lightly, endeavoring not to wake him.
He’s as careful—so careful—when he closes the door behind him.
Chapter warnings: Faraday continues to be an idiot, and there are hearty helpings of his self-loathing, misogyny, and class resentments in this chapter (and indeed, throughout the fic). However, no slurs are used. The medical attitudes, likewise, are of the time. In this chapter, a non-disabled child is depicted playing with a wheelchair and wishing she were sick enough to be out of school. Her behavior isn't corrected by any of the adults in the vicinity. There is also passing mention of Caroline's apparent suicide and the mauling of a young girl in The Little Stranger. Neither is depicted in detail on the page. The sexual content includes non-penetrative sex, as well as fantasies/memories of anal and oral sex. (Faraday is hornt.)
Apologies to the ghost of Allen Ginsberg for the title (from his poem "My Sad Self") and to Diane di Prima for the chapter title (from her poem "The Window").
Thanks for reading! <3
Chapter 2: In a tight-drawn wire
Faraday sees Basil, visits a patient, and attends a party. What happens on the nights in between is of no consequence.
Chapter warnings are in the end notes. <3
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Ah, ah, fuck,” Faraday gasps. His voice sounds uncommonly loud in the flat, reverberating off the plaster and window glass, and he muffles his next cry with his palm as he sinks farther onto Basil’s cock, stretching himself still more open until he’s flush with his lap. A trickle of sweat winds its way along his hairline, itching, and then down the back of his neck. Basil licks it away with a warm, wet swipe of tongue.
“You feel good, Henry.” He’s holding him around the waist, one hand splayed over his stomach. “So good.”
Faraday moans into his hand. His thighs are trembling. He’ll move in a moment—they’ll move—but there’s this first, the initial fullness, breathing through it, slow, the two of them together, Basil’s broad chest expanding against his back, and the prickle of tears in his own eyes, and yes, he can, he can move soon. Will.
He had scarcely been able to wait today, to pause to talk or to kiss him as tenderly as he deserves. All but dragged Basil to bed the instant he was through the door, nipping at his lips and tugging at his hair, goading, demanding. Although he went easily enough—didn’t protest. Laughed when Faraday cursed at his buttons. I like it when you swear, he said against his lips, holding him still for a longer embrace before he let him continue. Faraday divested both of them of their clothes as quick as he could, untroubled now that his own are scattered over the floor or that his shorts are still caught around one ankle. It doesn’t matter.
Despite his hurry, it nonetheless was far too long before he opened to Basil’s slicked fingers moving in him, fucking him until he might have come from that alone, until he whimpered, pitifully so, that he needed more of him, please. He almost tore the condom along with the packet; his hands shook as he rolled it onto Basil’s flushed cock.
All of that excessive, immoderate to a humiliating degree, and his cheeks will burn from the memory of it later, and with it the resolution to be better, more temperate, less whinging. Next time, if there must be a next time (but there always is, inevitable, as dire as the last). Damn you, damn you, part of him would snarl, has done and would again, but for the way Basil nuzzles at the short hairs on his neck, for that careful hand on his middle. How he maneuvered them both so gently and helped Faraday straddle him like this, back to front, lowering him onto him and easy, yes, that’s it, Henry, and are you all right and you’re doing so well and—
He shifts beneath him, the smallest movement, cock thick inside him, and kisses him again, catching the side of his cheek this time. “Okay?”
“Y-yes. Yes.” Faraday squirms in his lap, seeking more, and lifts up, experimentally, onto his knees and then back down, not a full thrust, but Basil groans into his hair. Encouraged, he tries again, the motion unfamiliar, but the sensation known, desired, more than, that perfect slide of his cock in him and he rocks downward, punching the air and another breathy “fuck” from his own lungs. It’s better, he discovers after a few tries, if he leans forward and braces his hands on the mattress, finding leverage and the beginning of a rhythm.
He’s sweating more before long, feeling the exertion of this in his obliques, his quadriceps, even in the plantar fascia in the arches of his feet. Is unsure how long he’ll be able to keep at it, unpracticed, maladroit as he is. Too old for acrobatics. And there is, yes, undeniably, the exposure of it, being perched atop him like this. But then Basil grabs his hips and meets his thrust, striking him deeply, precisely as he does, sending a bright pulse through him, and he forgets it, the uncomfortable damp under his arms, the need to curl around himself, to cover his chest, his cock.
The windows are open to the city and the fine spring day outside, and there are Basil’s neighbors in the flats on either side to consider, some of them surely home on a weekend afternoon. Faraday bites his lower lip until he tastes iron, trying to stymie the string of curses that follows. But he doesn’t succeed at withholding them, at least not for long. He can’t keep back the begging either, mortifying, that shameful litany, for Basil to keep going, not to stop, please, please, please, to keep hitting that spot, the one that makes him quake and shudder like this. Even with his fist pressed against his teeth, scraping the knuckles, it escapes.
Just as the tears do, as ever, spilling down, dripping off the end of his nose, running over his fingers, the brackish taste of them on his lips. All the more so when Basil quickens his pace, when he’s fucking Faraday onto his cock, lifting him seemingly without effort and all but bouncing him in his lap. The mattress creaks under them.
“Good?” he asks, mouth hot on the back of his neck.
“V-very,” Faraday stammers, then wails when he snaps his hips. “Yes, yes, it’s good, so fucking good,” he sobs into the heel of his hand. Doesn’t say that it’s all he’s wanted the past week, how he needed to feel this, him. Not caring that he’ll be sore tomorrow, overexerted muscles and—wishing for precisely that, in truth, for the reminder, proof, if only for those few meager days before the feeling fades, as the bruises and bites always fade.
It’s beyond indecent to miss them.
“I like hearing you, you know,” Basil tells him, slowing for a moment. “You don’t have to—“
He shakes his head. “It isn’t. I don’t, ah. I don’t want to be too loud.” To be overheard.
He hums, the sound resonating in his chest, and leans to snatch something off the bed frame, holding Faraday steady as he does. “Will this do?”
It’s a necktie. One of Basil’s by the looks of it. He swallows thickly. Nods. Grabs his own cock and squeezes, this side of painful, to ground himself, as Basil brings the tie around and slips the fabric between his teeth. Winds it around twice more. Saliva wells up against it as he knots it gently behind his head, pulling it snug but not tight. “Does that feel all right?”
He nods a second time. Unable to account for the tremor than crawls down his spine when he moans into the fabric. Hearing the muted sound of it. He tries again. His eyelashes flutter. And more.
“Yes, go on,” Basil says, resuming his pace, fucking him faster now. Louder, too, that smack of skin on skin. He ghosts one hand along his belly, caressing, and brushes his fingers over Faraday’s, along his cock. Traces the corona with his thumb. “Go ahead, Henry.”
He groans, muffled, and begins to pump himself in time with their thrusts, with each soft grunt driven from him. He’s far rougher about it than Basil is when he touches him; Faraday possesses none of his reverence, his peculiar patience with this, his desire to make it last (as he does now, subjecting him to three long, aching thrusts in succession). The times he’s taken himself in hand at the boarding house have been quick, tight-jawed, and almost silent but for the harsh sound of his breathing.
Then, that is, of course, why he’s here, why he hurried through the spring sunshine, what he needed, has needed all the long week, nothing else for it. This building ache, this tension in him, and his cock slipping in his hand, pre-ejaculate and perspiration slicking his palm. His every limb shaking as he gets close, and he’s drooling against the gag, heavy on his tongue, and whining. He closes his eyes against the thought, yes, how he must look, back arched, hand shuffling, frantic, his tear- and sweat-stained face, his lover’s tie stuffed in his mouth and if anyone knew, if they did—
And then Basil’s voice is in his ear, his name cradled in his mouth, telling him he can let go now.
Faraday yelps and shudders, spilling over his own fist. Basil spasms beneath him, fucking him through his orgasm and then his own until he no longer can, and finally, finally, Faraday collapses into his arms, both of them winded and gasping.
“Hell,” Basil says mildly against his hair.
He very nearly laughs at the unuttered compliment in that single syllable, something close to giddy, to accomplished, however base—entirely base—an accomplishment it might be. Succeeds in refraining, although a thick, clipped noise still escapes him.
As though in response, Basil’s fingers fidget at the back of his head, quick, deft, to undo the tie and toss it aside. He helps him, too, as he moves off him, each tendon jelly weak and protesting, and Faraday hisses when he slides free of his softening cock. Even then, he can’t manage more than to turn and settle against Basil’s chest, suddenly dozy, the energy sapped from him.
He rests his cheek on his sternum. Rises and falls with each inhalation, exhalation. The motion of it, the sound of his lungs, his heart, working so steadily under him, all of it lulling him. His eyelids droop. He could, yes, he could fall asleep this way, with Basil’s arm curled around him and his hand stroking his hair, mussing it, and the breeze coming through the flat. He is so wretchedly tired; the restless weeks having become restless months with no end in sight, and he almost drifted off on the train the other day, head nodding. It is like that, he muses, like drifting. Still water, no current.
A door slams somewhere down the hall.
He twitches awake all at once, stepping away from the edge of something, hearing far-off whispers, and when he looks up, Basil is watching him. What may be concern in his eyes, how he’s looked at him before, although Faraday can’t say for certain. Doesn’t remember most of it, his brief convalescence here. Basil grazes his knuckles over his cheek, following the half-moons below his eyes, the curve of his nose. Across his mustache. Over his jaw. He smooths his fringe back for him, nails blunt on his scalp. “Could have a lie-in, if you like,” he suggests.
You look as though you need it, he doesn’t say. And they have nowhere to be, either of them, not for hours, not even with the boarding house curfew.
He’s not remarked on it: how Faraday arrives earlier in the day now, how he seldom stays the night anymore, how he has, on some occasions, startled from a contented drowse to hurry back to his rented room. Or all the times he’s left him here, fast asleep, and crept out the door. But then, naturally, Basil has no cause to protest. His days are no doubt simpler, easier this way, with their working hours and habits so mismatched. There’s no one to interrupt his rest far too early in the day or to disturb him with his troubled sleep, jerking free from nonsensical dreams in the middle of the night. And they still see each other once a week, or twice when they’re lucky. All of it perfectly satisfactory. More than.
Something flickers in his expression when Faraday sits up now, propping himself up on one hand. Yes, it must be worry in the pucker of his brow. He does. Worry. However needlessly. Has asked, more than once, if anything’s the matter. You work too hard, he remarked recently. Not quite censure in his voice, although Faraday knows he disapproves of his new contacts, other responsibilities, and those wealthier patients on Park Avenue.
He ought to get up and get clean. Dress. They both should. Pleasant a day as it is—a proper spring, at last—it’s still far too cool to lie here naked, even curled together like this, sharing heat. And immodest besides.
Before he can move, Basil raises his hand again to trace the lines of his throat, his bare chest, down his side, finding every bump of rib, and over his hip. There’s no ulterior motive in the gesture that he can discern, not to keep him where he is, given the light contact, his fingertips skimming over his skin. And not to rouse him either, to instigate anything more. They’re both useless in that regard for the foreseeable future, regardless, neither of them young men. If anything, it feels like a kind of cataloging, an odd sort of indulgence, if one he recognizes. But he doesn’t push him away. Allows him to draw him down for a lazy kiss, openmouthed, hungry, that broad hand cupping the back of his neck.
Afterward, Faraday sits on the edge of the bed and draws up his shorts. He goes that way, half-naked—shoving down the accompanying spike of self-consciousness, of being on display, skinny shoulders and pale thighs—to the washroom. Scrubs his hands, tacky with his own semen, and then his face, still flushed and fever-warm. Dabs at the sweat under his arms, at the small of his back, below his navel. Avoids the mirror.
“Should it be a quiet week, given the holiday?” he asks, coming back into the room. Basil’s not moved from the bed; he’s sprawled on his back, unabashedly nude, studying the ceiling. Faraday stoops to retrieve his trousers from the floor and steps into them. “Or do Americans attend nightclubs on Good Friday?”
He turns his head to quirk an eyebrow at him, as if to ask, And you’ll be headed directly to church, will you? Although he won’t either—a fellow nonbeliever. “Quiet enough, I suppose.” He pauses, returning his attention to the ceiling. “The Popescus invited me to dinner Sunday.”
The Popescu family runs the dry goods store at 6th and W. 13th. Faraday’s met them a time or two, including last fall, when he diagnosed their youngest with a virulent eye infection. Like Basil, they’re Romanian transplants from Bucharest. They’ve known him, he’s gathered, for the better part of a decade, or more, as many of the long-time residents here seem to; he has no few friends, does Basil, and not exclusively from the radical artistic set. The inevitable consequence of living in one place for so long, no doubt, and of being the sort of person he is. Genuine. Kind.
“That’s generous of them,” Faraday offers. Succeeds in keeping his tone level. They’ll see each other beforehand, and he’ll not have to worry about the hour or overstaying. Yes. He loosens his grip on his undershirt. Shakes out the wrinkles.
“It is. They have been often enough over the years. They imagine I must be homesick.” Basil smiles, mouth tilting, his voice soft, reticent in the way it gets when he refers to his family history. The famous father, dead years ago by suicide. The mother he didn’t know.
It’s not far back to the bed. He could, he could sit next to him and cradle his cheek. Run his fingers through his hair. He seems to—at least he doesn’t mind that, near as he can tell.
Faraday dips his chin, attending to his buttons.
“They ask after you, you know, since you helped Marina,” Basil continues when the moment has passed. “I’m, ah. I’m meant to invite you to Easter dinner, actually.”
“Invite me?” he repeats, startled. “Whatever for? They couldn’t possibly—“ No, they can’t know. That would be worse than reckless. Even for the Village, where their proclivities seem to be more common and, to a degree, expected. Someone might.
He frowns at him and shakes his head, emphatic. “They know you’re a friend of mine and that you’re still new to the city. That’s how it’s done in the neighborhood. You look after people. Whenever you can.” As I did for you, if you recall, he could say, not unfairly, but he never would. Rarely alludes to that week. Has shrugged off both his thanks and his attempts at recompense (rent, groceries, gifts) more than once. But it’s still there, the fact of it, if unacknowledged, that deficit between them. Everything Basil’s done for him.
But, he might answer, it isn’t really his, is it? This place, the neighborhood. Chance brought him here, but he can’t call it his own, any of it. Greenwich Village doesn’t belong to him, nor he to it. Never has done.
Basil watches him for a long moment, his scrutiny almost smarting. Searching his face for—what? Eventually, he sits up and swings his feet onto the floor, his head bowed, dark hair obscuring his face. “You needn’t, if you’d rather not. They’ll understand.”
Faraday shrugs his suspenders into place. His face warms when he catches sight of Basil’s necktie lying crumpled and ruined on the floor by the bed. He looks away. “Another time, perhaps.”
“Of course.” Basil is dressing now, too. There is something lamentable in the way those broad shoulders and long legs and that endlessly preoccupying scattering of moles disappear under a patched shirt and faded trousers, several years out of fashion. He bends to snag his sweater from beneath the piano bench. His voice is light, casual, when he asks, “What about today? Dinner out? The café?”
Could have a lie-in. They could have. He needn’t have slept, could have lay there with him, comfortable. Could have kissed him more, when, where he may.
But it is, yes, too fair an afternoon to spend it lolling about in bed when they might sit out and enjoy the evening together, watch the young couples strolling along the sidewalk, and listen to the students in the park, sometimes shouting poetry and sometimes slogans, or, most often lately, an indistinguishable muddle of the two. It’s perfectly ordinary for them to do just that, to have dinner and talk, as friends would. They know you’re a friend of mine. If someone were to see them, someone who might carry tales back to Lenox Hill and the Upper East Side, surely that would be innocuous enough: dinner with a friend. He could say, if ever pressed, that they’re mates from school.
Although, true, he hadn’t especially had any mates at school—or university—but no one need know that either.
“Yes, let’s,” Faraday agrees and goes hunting for his socks.
It is an enjoyable evening by most measures, of the sort they’ve had before: a simple meal and beer in brown bottles and no little talking. He’s well past his surprise that a musician-for-hire is as well versed in the day’s politics and current events as he is, citing economic trends and the unrest in Eastern Europe as easily he charms a tune from eighty-eight black-and-white keys. Those first few times, in the park, Faraday hadn’t expected it, but now it’s familiar, Basil’s quick rebuttals and the expressive way he gestures when he speaks—fork often still in hand—and how sharply he insists, every time, I’m not a Marxist. His horror both of Joseph Stalin and of Joseph McCarthy, growing more vocal every day. How he listens, attentive, thoughtful, when Faraday explains Labour’s stance on worker strikes after the war.
They don’t agree much; they never have. It doesn’t seem to matter. Basil doesn’t seem to expect them to, or to change Faraday’s mind, although he pushes back against his assertions. A union that can’t organize a strike isn’t much of a union, is it? They’ve taken their teeth.
Austerity is for the greater good.
That isn’t how the people will see it.
The neighborhood, for its part, also feels livelier, brought out of its winter stupor by the arrival of warmer weather and the first green shoots. The students are, indeed, shouting in Washington Square Park. But there are also conversations on front stoops, the ubiquitous chess and checkers and dominoes matches across these several blocks, and young families chattering together. None of it is at all affluent, the battered tables at the café and garden boxes overhanging the windows and lines of laundry and the unostentatious food. It’s recognizable, in its way, and isn’t so different from Lidcote, although busier. Always busier, louder. The sound of radios, the occasional television, passing cars.
Faraday takes his leave in time to make curfew, and they part company on the corner. He hasn’t touched him all night, even by accident, careful to keep to his side of the table, and doesn’t dare more than a brisk handshake and a nod now, although Basil squeezes his arm before he goes. “Get some rest, hm?” he reminds him, leaning in, as though to share a quick confidence. His voice, his smile after are as contrite as if he’d kissed his cheek.
It’s a quick walk back to the boarding house, owned by one Mrs. Hackley, who greets him on his way in. “We didn’t see you for supper, doctor,” she remarks blandly. Not in a way that demands an answer. She has asked, more than once when he’s paid her on Fridays, how much longer he intends to stay. Not, he understands, from any specific desire to see him go—he’s a good tenant, always on time, never makes a ruckus—but because it’s past time when one does leave such places, either to return home, bearing one’s lumps, or for a more permanent arrangement. Wherever that might be. He’s not given her an answer.
Faraday makes his way upstairs and takes his turn in the washroom before undressing for bed. He doesn’t, can’t crawl under the covers yet, however. If he does, it will be another wakeful night, lying in the dark, counting the minutes before dawn. Sometimes he gives up and reads in his chair, as he used to do in the flat above the surgery. Although that was before. Before Hundreds. Before Caroline.
The radiator hisses; it’s still cold, some nights. He ties his robe more securely.
The Veronal sits next to his book on the nightstand. It had been easy enough to get the script, a small word to Lang, who had clucked, sympathetic, trouble sleeping in the big city, eh, Faraday? It does take some getting used to. He’ll not be one of those doctors, the ones everyone knows about, prescribing his own medications and making liberal use of the ether, believing themselves clever and subtle. That’s the quickest way to becoming a laughingstock, and people love to gossip at hospitals. Who’s going around with which nurses, who’s had an affair with a patient, who’s too rough with his wife, who’ll be on leave for a botched surgery. True secrets are, in their way, rarer than miracle cures. No, he’ll give them nothing.
He goes over and picks up the small bottle of pills, still mostly full. He didn’t like it the first time he took it, not the groggy way he felt for the better part of the morning after nor the sense he had that he wouldn’t be able to properly wake if he wished. If he. His dreams had been murkier, vaguer when he was on it, but he had also felt something waiting. Breathing. As though behind a curtain. And he thought, felt almost sure he still heard her voice. Or else her mother’s. How innocent you are.
Without the Veronal, at least, he may wake, even if he doesn’t find sleep again, even if his rest is shallow, unsatisfying. No, he’d rather not use it, except on bad nights. There is, also, the bottle of whiskey stowed in his case, kept as a last resort, when he has no other recourse, when nothing else helps. Contraband, technically, but no one will look in his bag.
He takes the empties out the same way.
He sits up in bed for an hour after that, then two, contemplating both the pills and the smuggled bottle, and struggles to read, ignoring the phantom scent of burning paper, leather. Around one, he unscrews the cap on the Veronal and shakes a tablet out into his palm. He’ll need strong coffee in the morning. But, he reasons, he would need it regardless, if he didn’t sleep, to revive himself for the day ahead. And to ease the dull throb behind his eyes—omnipresent since February. A tension ache, familiar. Or else from the weather. All that rain.
It is, it’s a drab little room in a house of strangers, and there’s the noise from the street below to contend with as well. No surprise that he doesn’t sleep soundly here. If he had his own flat, in a nicer part of town perhaps, he would sleep better, wouldn’t jump so at shadows or raised voices or the sound of breaking glass. Would think less often of Hundreds, the smell of mold. The damp. Creaking floors. Cracking plaster. Faraday lets a breath out through his nose, shutting his eyes. Thinks instead of Basil’s flat, always saved, savored, for when he's about to fall asleep. The warm air coming through the windows, the regular cadence of his breathing, and his hand in his hair. The soft sound of the radio, the piano.
“Are you positive there aren’t any spots?" Barbara Randolph-Smythe asks for the second time. She’s sitting propped up on a dozen fluffy pillows in the largest fourposter Faraday’s ever seen, this single piece dwarfing the most luxurious furniture even the Ayreses had owned. But that seems to be a prerequisite in this house: everything not only lavish and costly and one-of-its-kind but also oversized. The suite itself, painted sky blue and overrun with neglected toys, is larger than his old flat above the surgery in its entirety. Basil’s studio would fit tidily in one corner. “I’m sure I felt one yesterday.”
Faraday shakes the thermometer, resettling the mercury, and returns it to his case. “You’ve a slight temperature,” he allows. "But no spots.”
The girl affects a pout. Or maybe it’s sincere, given her disappointment. “What about mumps?”
He makes a show of feeling her parotid glands, applying careful pressure along her jaw. “No mumps,” he reports.
“Stick out your tongue, please.”
She does. It’s pink and un-speckled. Not remotely swollen. He holds it down with a depressor. Healthy throat, healthy tonsils. “No scarlet fever,” he determines. “No streptococcal pharyngitis of any strain.” Usually, he would put it in simpler terms, but this particular patient seems to prefer the specifics.
He looks at her.
Barbara sighs and sags back against the down bedding. “Can’t there be something the matter with me, Dr. Faraday? Please?”
He shuts his case and puts it to the side. Resettles from the edge of the bed to a nearby chair. And there’s nothing at all of Betty in this young All-American girl with her bored, rosy face and frizzing blonde curls, but he thinks of her regardless—It’s like a burning pain with stabs in it? How she’d sounded at the inquest, so much older and terribly young all at once. “Surely there are just a few weeks of school left, Barbara.”
“Eight weeks, and after school, there’s camp,” she replies, her tone leaving no question of her opinion on the matter of cabins and pine trees and lakes.
“I should think a young person would enjoy getting some fresh air out of the city and making new friends.”
She pulls a face at the mention of fresh air and a worse one at friends. “Mother does it so she can travel wherever she likes in the summer. She needs to get me off her hands.”
“I’m sure that isn’t so.” His own mother had had one holiday in her adult life to his knowledge: a three-day trip to the coast for her honeymoon. “Your mother wants what’s best for you.”
She crosses her arms, her expression darkening, and looks away. From this, Faraday understands his services are no longer desired, and he is dismissed. He rises from her bedside with a murmured farewell and navigates the confusion of playthings strewn over the carpet.
There is no one waiting outside the door when he emerges, so unlike every other child’s sick room that he’s ever departed, with at least one parent or grandparent standing vigil. Mrs. Randolph-Smythe had sounded anxious enough on the phone when she called, reporting that Barbara was feeling poorly. Not the first time he’d heard from her in these past few months. There have been more fundraisers to attend, and other events, social ones he simply had to come to in order to meet the right people, and this as well, the occasional favor. Prescriptions written at their behest. “Emergency” visits. His professional opinion. If he had expected Wickersham to protest, to cite hospital policy, he was quite mistaken. That’s how it’s done, Faraday.
If he recalls correctly, the way out is right down the hall and then a left to get to the staircase leading down to that grand foyer. Yes, he’s almost sure, labyrinthine as this place can be, but he hears, he thinks, voices close behind him. Not Barbara’s—the door to her room is shut fast, blocking out any noise. This is farther away. Women’s voices. Perhaps Mrs. Randolph-Smythe or her secretary. Faraday follows them, turning the corner to find another hallway, April sunshine streaming through the windows and a series of paintings, mostly bright still lifes, stands of flowers and bowls of fruit, on the wall. And nothing else. He blinks at the empty space. One can’t predict how sound moves in these large houses. The acoustics are uncanny.
He turns to leave. Again, the sound of voices behind him. Laughter. He shakes his head, meaning to clear it. Hasn’t felt too poorly today, save for the pressure at his temples, a certain sandpaper quality to his mouth. He dozed for more than a few hours last night. Couldn’t say what he did or didn’t dream.
He doesn’t know all that’s up here. Other bedrooms, presumably, for guests and the rest of the family. He’s not seen Mr. Randolph-Smythe nor the son. The former, he gathers, often travels for work, and the latter is at school. It’s an immense space for four people, let alone two. The staff doesn’t live here, no cramped little rooms for the maids to share; they take the underground south or north or east at day’s end, as he does. He wanders on, letting his right hand brush the corner of one gilt picture frame, the crushed velvet of the gathered curtains, the smooth edge of the window. Yes, there it is a third time: the low murmur of women talking.
The house doesn’t compare at all to Hundreds. It can’t, much as houses like this aspire to that ageless grandeur. They’re imitations at best. It all is, as fine an imitation as it may be, that affected elegance. But he could drag a fingernail over the rosy paint and show the plain paste beneath.
The door at the very end of the hall stands open. There, of course, the sound must be coming from in there, louder now, a sort of lilting quality to it and he steps forward, mouth open to apologize for interrupting. But he finds only an empty room, a neatly made bed, a floor-length mirror in the corner opposite. He catches sight of himself in it, startling. His dark suit and tie, his hair in order. His face has that pallor. His eyes are redder, bloodshot, shadowed underneath. And there is, as there so often is, a flicker behind him, movement, like something peering over his shoulder. He has the sense, perhaps the conviction, that if he stepped through threshold, the door would close, stick fast, and—
“Dr. Faraday!” a voice says, quite close. Mrs. Randolph-Smythe raises both hands, placating, when he turns. She’s in ivory satin with hand-painted tulips today. “Oh heavens, I didn’t mean to sneak up on you. But I wasn’t sure where you’d gotten to.”
“I,” Faraday tries, pulse quick. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to, that is, there wasn’t anyone around, and—“
“It’s quite all right,” she assures him, smiling genially as ever. “It’s a big, silly house. I still get lost sometimes myself. But it’s this way.” She waves him on, and the two of them walk down the hall, the direction he intended to go. “So, how is the patient, doctor?”
“Spring fever, I’d say,” Faraday responds, mouth twitching. “Happens to the best of us.”
“Well, I might have known. That rascal.” She scoffs. “I’m terribly sorry to have troubled you.”
“Not at all.” He shrugs. Ignores the chill on the scruff of his neck, the inclination to turn his head, to look back once more. But if he does, he knows he’ll see nothing but the paintings on the wall. Persistent as these distractions are—shadows, whispers—there is nothing awry in this house. Or anywhere else in this city. “I rather miss house calls,” he confesses, as they descend the stairs together. And he does, after a fashion. He liked the familiarity of seeing his patients at home. Their photos on the mantel. The smell of a house: cooking and cedar and lemon. To be invited into that, however briefly, for as long as he could be useful. Even those lonely drives through the country appealed in their way; he was alone with his thoughts, yes, but at times he could feel no one had seen or would ever see as much of that green county as he had. Like it was his alone.
“I appreciate your tolerance of Barbi. Shame I can’t borrow it from time to time,” Mrs. Randolph-Smythe says when they reach the bottom of the staircase. Her checkbook appears in her hand, as though summoned, and she begins to write without inquiring about the fee. Typical, in his experience. How it’s done. “Will we see you at the spring gala for the medical association? Do say yes.”
“I expect everyone from Lenox Hill but the night shift will be there.” Indeed, it hadn’t seemed optional when they received their invitations, and Wickersham encouraged him personally. Faraday has dutifully had his tux cleaned and tracked down his cufflinks. Asked to borrow his landlady’s iron. Didn’t think of when he’d last worn his tux—either time.
“It ought to be a gas.” She beams and hands him the check. It’s far more than an appointment at the dispensary would bill and significantly more than anyone ever paid him in Warwickshire.
He slips it into his suit pocket, feeling, once again, the sensation of eyes on him. This time he does look back, checking up the stairs to see if there’s anyone there, Barbara or one of the staff. But there’s nothing. No one.
When he turns back to Mrs. Randolph-Smythe, she’s still smiling, unbothered by his inattention, although there’s the slightest furrow between her brows when she looks at him. She pats him on the hand. “I do hope you’re quite well, Dr. Faraday.”
I’m fine, thank you. It’s nothing. Just tired. Those now-rote answers.
Caroline is sitting on his bed.
You’re dreaming, Faraday tells himself sternly, and would do so aloud, if his tongue weren’t so heavy. This isn’t real.
“So this is the sort of place you lay your head,” she remarks, considering the small room, the tatty rug, his belongings all in their appointed places. “I must confess I often wondered. You always seemed to appear out of nowhere, as it were.”
He had tried, he had, to dispense with the Veronal tonight. Spent hours watching the minutes click by on the bedside clock. Turning this way and that. It was a long day; he was the assisting surgeon on an experimental heart surgery, and it had gone poorly too quickly for them to change course, and the patient was lost on the operating table. Not an uncommon outcome with any new method, and they had carefully explained the risks, but there was still the family to contend with afterward. A damnably long day. He should have been tired enough. Was tired. Bone-weary, in fact. Shouldn’t have needed the pill. Or the swallow of whiskey to wash it down, as is becoming habit. Necessity.
“A bit ghastly, isn’t it?” Caroline asks around her cigarette, cupping her hands to light it. She’s wearing the peach party dress tonight, the skirt rucked up over her legs, showing her white stockings.
What are you doing here, he wants to ask. She doesn’t usually—well, she’s never. He only ever sees her at Hundreds, only snatches of some fractured memory. But.
She grabs his hand and puts it on her knee, the nylon smooth under his palm. “I don’t want to go home yet,” she tells him. “I didn’t. Remember? It was icy.”
She’s sitting as near as she was in the car, inches from him, but she feels cool under his hand, as though she’s been outside in the brisk night. “I wanted to go for a walk and you, well, you—“
I thought you wanted to. He hadn’t especially, fumbling at her, awkward in the close quarters, but he’d tried. What do you want from me? Although she isn’t, she isn’t anything, merely a regret. Only a woman who jumped, or possibly fell in the dark. It had been dark that night, too; she had run off through the park while he shouted after her. But this creature on his bed is an afterimage, a figment.
“What tosh,” she says. Puts her fingers over his, over her knee. “I feel real enough, don’t I, Faraday? Go ahead, see for yourself, if you like.”
“No, I suppose you didn’t, even then.” She’s smiling at him in the dim room, not kindly, eyes hard and gleaming, not the way Caroline smiled at all, even that pained way she had—
He snatches his hand out from under hers, and her expression falters.
“We could have gone for that walk, you know.” Her voice sounds milder, sadder now. “Even in dancing shoes, even in the cold, we could have. I would have liked that.”
Faraday doesn’t wake with a jolt; his eyelids feel much too heavy, his limbs as ponderous. It takes an indeterminably long time for him to level himself upright, to plant his feet on the floor, the boards rough under them, until he shuffles into his slippers. He can’t summon the strength to lift his head. For all that, slow as everything else is, his pulse is quick, tripping, blood loud in his ears. He rubs his face, willing away that lingering haze. Startles when he finds his cheeks are wet, tear-stung. Don’t have to be all stiff-upper-lip all the time, Granger had told him at the funeral.
He means to go down the hall to the washroom to clean his face, rinse his eyes, but he takes the stairs down to the first floor instead. The whole place is as quiet as it ever is, the grandfather clock tocking in the corner of the dining room and the heat churning through the pipes. He hears the tread of another tenant overhead, but otherwise, he seems to be the only one awake.
The phone sits on a table in the front hall, a wingback chair next to it. Mrs. Hackley has given him particular use of it on account of his profession. Has dutifully summoned him in the middle of the night when he was called in for an emergency. It’s a fair trade, she told him, having a doctor in the house in the event of illness or injury. This isn’t what either of them intended with that agreement. According to the grandfather clock, it’s just after two. He ought to be home by now, but not yet asleep. Although there isn’t—there’s no cause to trouble him. They saw each other Sunday afternoon, and Faraday had been on his knees by the time the latch clicked.
No cause to trouble him. He gives the operator the number.
“Hullo?” Basil answers after the second ring. Voice clear, not sleep-muzzy, rough. Then: “Is anyone there?”
The words catch behind Faraday’s tonsils. “I—sorry.“
“Henry?” he asks. “Is everything all right?”
“It is,” he says. Why would he and at this time of night, if not, if there wasn’t. “Everything’s fine. Forgive me. I shouldn’t have disturbed you.”
“You didn’t disturb me,” Basil corrects him. “Shiftless musician, remember? It’s early hours for me. But you’re—are you certain you’re all right? Nothing’s happened?”
He traps a groan against his teeth, gritting them, no ready explanation available for the late call, when he’s never called him before, and anyone could come down and see, hear, and I couldn’t stand another moment in that dreary little room, or, more pathetically, I wanted to hear your voice, or, worst of all, I can’t sleep, when I try to sleep, it’s— “Nothing’s happened,” he repeats, firm, keeping his voice low. “I only. It was a difficult day, that’s all. I apologize.”
“You have more than your fair share of those, it seems.”
“Part of the job.” Faraday drags the back of his hand over his eyes. “Unavoidable.”
Basil makes a noncommittal noise. “Anything I can do? You could come by. If you wanted.”
“No, I shouldn’t wish to—“ trouble you. But he has already. He shakes his head, willing away the sticky cobwebs. No, he doesn't prefer to take the Veronal, if it can be avoided. “Thank you, but you needn’t worry.”
“Henry,” he says, and there’s a peculiar weight to it, not his usual emphasis. Wary, almost. Or warning. But he doesn’t continue. Simply his name.
“What were, er. What were you doing when I called?” He’s trying to picture it. Probably he’s still in his work clothes, jacket off, bowtie undone and hanging loose from his collar.
Faraday chuckles, leaning back against the wall and closing his eyes. Yes, it is unaccountably good to hear his voice, however pitiful it might be to require that, these paltry six blocks apart. “Didn’t get your fill of that at work?”
Basil laughs, too. “You doctor in your off-hours; I’ve seen it. Anyway, the mood struck.”
“Might I—if you don’t mind, ah, that is—may I listen?” he asks before he can think better of it.
The line crackles.
“Or, it’s. Never mind,” Faraday stumbles. “That’s foolish, I.” All of it’s foolish, asking to have a song played or begging to be talked to, held, like a child who’s afraid of the dark, like he needs that, like this is. They’re dreams, no more harmful for their subject matter than any other. He’s dreamed of the war before, and it didn’t—not like this. “I’ll leave you to it.”
“No, no, hang on,” Basil says. “I was trying to see if I could, yes, I think that could work.” There’s the sound of shuffling, the phone shifting, he thinks, in his grip. “There. Hear that?”
He can, although not as clearly as in person. You could come by. But in the middle of the night, and no, no, he couldn’t. Shouldn’t. This will do; it’s audible enough, the sequence of notes coming through the receiver, light, tripping, but plaintive somehow. He says as much. “Is that one of yours?” he asks when Basil pauses.
“It is,” he confirms, voice soft, nearly shy. Although he’s played for Faraday often enough, his own compositions, half-written songs. “But it isn’t finished yet. Like it?”
“Yes. Would you play me a little more?” Faraday sinks down in the chair next to the phone. Draws his legs up, folding them close, and cradles the headset against his ear. He imagines Basil doing the same, freeing his hands to play. “Please?”
His temples have already begun to throb, his jaw to pulse, by the time he reaches the St. Regis Hotel on 55th St. If he hadn’t promised, if it wasn’t expected, he would beg off. Should have offered to swap shifts with someone. Is in no mood for a party, let alone one of this size, the medical staff of nearly every hospital in the city and their benefactors. His collar feels stiff against his neck, his tuxedo overly warm for the May evening. He can’t account for the headache. Has felt, in fact, somewhat better of late since the month turned, more able to concentrate on his work, and lucky that, too, with the influx of more patients, always a few more than the dispensary can easily treat. It’s still crowded, still hectic most days, and he’s often worn down enough to sleep for a few hours a night at least. Whatever distress he’s felt—and perhaps, yes, understandable given the circumstances—it may have finally passed.
Likely it’s only a headache.
Faraday takes the elevator to the rooftop ballroom, one of the hotel’s more famous features, he’s gathered, and emerges into a cacophony of color and tinkling glasses and murmuring conversation. He blinks at the swarm of people, men in their coats and bowties and white-gloved women gowned in every conceivable shade, swirling in taffeta and silk and velvet. At the far end of the room, a swing band is playing on an elevated stage. He doesn’t have to look to see that the pianist isn’t Basil (he wouldn’t, nothing like this). Searches anyway for that dark hair, slicked back for work, and those broad shoulders. But no.
A waiter offers him a flute of champagne from a tray; he accepts it, draining half without a thought. His attention is on the room, seeking familiar faces, or, finding none, an unobtrusive place to stand. This is much more than the Warwickshire social hall ever could have borne, more people and more decadence, and there are no quaint country dances happening on the floor either. Something quick, trotting instead, too many steps to track. He’ll not even attempt it. I don’t dance, I’m afraid, he had told Basil, although they did then. Haven’t since. Or, Basil hasn’t asked, that whim apparently satisfied.
He wanders adrift in the crowd, his presence not in question, as it rarely seems to be in this city. But then, a doctor in a sea of doctors is hardly remarkable or cause for suspicion, even so intermingled with the names from the society pages. He spots Mrs. Randolph-Smythe holding court among a circle of hangers-on, her bright smile and sparkling diamond necklace visible from across the room. But Faraday shan’t brave that particular gauntlet just now. He downs the rest of his champagne. Finds a second drink, a tumbler of scotch, without difficulty. From the raucous laughter alone he gathers, much of the company is more than a bit tiddly already, as his father would have said. No self-brewed test-tube liquor here, either. No austerity measures of any kind.
There, on the edge of Mrs. Randolph-Smythe’s orbit, is a woman in a peach party dress. Not especially à la mode, certainly not here where the latest fashions are in constant rotation and discarded every season.
“Sort of profane, isn’t it?” Lang appears at his elbow, holding his own drink. “They’ll all be fleeing Manhattan for Europe or the Hamptons by next week, but any excuse for one last party.”
Faraday raises his glass in greeting. “But if it helps the patients.”
He treats him to a wry smile. “Ah, yes, for the patients. Not that these people give a damn at all.” He shakes his head, apologetic. “Forgive me. Drinking makes me more unbearably German than usual, my wife always says.”
“Not at all,” he replies. Turning back, he finds Mrs. Randolph-Smythe has not yet moved, still surrounded by her ilk, but the woman in the peach dress has vanished.
“She’s here if you’d care to meet her,” Lang is saying. “My wife, I mean. Sitting over there with the others. Shall we?”
Faraday inclines his head, indicating that he should lead the way. He spares one glance back at the gathered New York elite, the rest of the crowd. No, no one in peach.
Lang leads him to a table of their peers from Lenox Hill, including several of the younger doctors, and their guests. Wickersham had asked, of course, if he intended to bring someone himself and tsked when he answered in the negative. Young fellow like you? We ought to find you some more friends in the city. Faraday had thought, near hysterically, of the people he does know: his fellow lodgers at the boarding house, Mrs. Hackley herself, Basil’s socialist friends, the regulars at the Pink Slipper, the bar where they met. Or perhaps young Marina Popescu would do. Basil himself, in his secondhand shirts and sandals. (Though he suffers less in them than most would.) Had murmured instead, It is difficult to meet people.
The others from Lenox Hill offer their hellos and conduct a flurry of introductions, including Lang’s wife, Sarah, a dark-eyed woman with a quick wit who immediately puts him in mind of Anne Granger. The sort of doctor’s wife who has heard all of it and knows her opinions. Knows doctors as well, their habits, and way of talking. She doesn’t sigh in exasperation or excuse herself to the dance floor when the conversation inevitably turns to hospital dealings. Carries on, friendly, with Faraday, asking him about his home in England, the medicine he practiced during the war and since then. She pulls Lang into their conversation from time to time, but seems quite fine without him.
It isn’t, in its way, an unpleasant party, not with the lengthy talk about treatment methods or the paper one of the younger doctors (Dawes, he thinks, or Davies) plans to publish on the long-term treatment of war wounds, particularly shrapnel. “If you wouldn’t mind having a look,” he says to Faraday. “I know that’s something of your area.”
He demurs on the matter of his expertise but promises to help if he can. I'd be glad to. He knows this, he does. Has sure footing when he often has none, the matter of treatment, difficulty with patients, anticipated breakthroughs, setbacks. Eventually, the conversation does shift, turning to personal matters, to politics. He falls silent, sipping his scotch and listening as the others speculate about Soviet spies, about the claimed infiltration of the State Department by communist agents, the possibility of arrest, execution. Should round up all those Pinkos for the electric chair. Faraday allows his glass to be refilled, once and then a second—or is it a third time? The band plays louder, it seems, drowning out the talk. The chandelier crystals gleam brighter. Chime as they shudder. He struggles to light a cigarette; the flame sputters.
And there is again, on the other side of the room, a flash of peach, chestnut hair, that somehow more vivid among the brighter colors, the glitter of jewels (she’d had none to wear). Faraday turns his head, tracking the woman’s progress, her back to him as before. He almost moves to stand, to follow, to demand to know who she is, what she’s playing at, how she could know, why that dress.
“—given that you’re new in the city, I have some friends you might like to meet,” Sarah Lang is saying, leaning in, blocking his line of sight. “Two of them work at a women’s magazine, and the third heads up a charity. They’re awfully smart, all three of them. We were at Wellesley together.”
He returns his attention to her, startled, at the same time another of his colleagues (Thomas? Thompson?), seated across from them, interrupts, slurring, “It’s a pity, but I don’t believe Faraday really goes for career girls, Mrs. Lang.” He's one of the youngest physicians, blue-eyed and sharp-jawed. Fancies himself a Cary Grant aficionado, all oiled hair and tailored suits. “I hear he prefers more artistic types, you understand.” He winks.
Faraday freezes; the cigarette falls onto the tablecloth, still unlit.
He takes his time retrieving it, lifting the filter to his mouth again with only the slightest tremor in his hand, he notes with a curious sort of pride. Lights it smoothly this time, and inhales. Exhales a long stream of smoke. “P-pardon. What did you say, Thompkins?” he asks.
The other man is smiling at him, all of his square, white teeth showing; no one else is looking like there’s anything amiss. “Oh, come now, Faraday. We all know you’ve been calling the Village home. Heard it at the nurse’s station. I must say, didn’t peg you as the sort to favor the Bohemian set. But there are benefits to socializing with more liberated girls, I’d imagine.” His grin widens, suggestive. “No wonder you look dead on your feet half the time. I've got to say, I aspire to the same at your age.”
The air leaves Faraday’s lungs so rapidly he feels lightheaded. Liberated women. That’s what the hospital gossips think. Slacks and flowered blouses and salons. Poetry. Lasciviousness. He tries to loosen his jaw. “That isn't,” he protests, haltingly. “Not exactly.” His face is warm and not only from the liquor, the party. There’s a buzzing in his ears. He shakes his head and lifts his drink. “I say. That isn’t altogether. The company.” Out of the corner of his eye, he sees it a third time: that flash of peach tulle. Can’t, can’t.
“No reason to worry—your secret’s safe with us.” The others are looking at him with the same amusement, except the Langs, who may be only curious. Or else concerned. “May as well enjoy yourself, right? Life’s short and all that.”
He cannot account for what happens next. It begins with the sense, no, the certainty that something will happen, that Thompkins’ glass will shatter in his hand. Faraday can see it, clear as anything, clear as he sees the dancers twirling just beyond them: the burst of shards, sudden, lacerating the skin and the delicate pollicis muscles beneath. The stark red of his blood on the white of his cuffs, his shirt, the tablecloth. There will be the moment just before everyone reacts, that still moment, like this one, the before, and then it will be all motion, all action, a table full of doctors moving to deal with the wound. But Thompkins will be bleeding on the table, on the glass. Broken glass. Shouting. There is always shouting. He knows that from well-earned experience. Cannot say how he knows the rest, that conviction. That is how it happens.
Faraday startles when his own tumbler cracks in two in his shaking hand instead.
It’s a clean break, a neat split right down the middle, such that he doesn’t even scratch himself. Rather, only splashes his shirt and the table with scotch. They still jump back, the people on either side of him, still that breath of inaction, and then Lang is talking to him, asking if he’s cut his hand. “No, no, it’s fine,” he insists. “Just unlucky.” He dabs at his shirtfront and jacket with a napkin. “Ah, please excuse me.” More bemused than anything when he stands. Why had he thought—but it was nonsense—and then.
He shakes his head; the lights overhead swim, streak, falter. Someone’s calling his name, he thinks, although he cannot answer just now. He walks off, out of the ballroom, not stumbling. Quite. The band’s playing a song he halfway remembers from the radio. Nothin' on your mind.
There is no reason he should go to Basil’s flat instead of the boarding house. None whatsoever. Nothing, after all, has happened, not even an accusation, not even a proper apprehension of why he—He shouldn’t have stayed in Greenwich Village as long as he has, it’s true. People talk. People always talk, he knows. But nothing has happened. The glass was an accident. The peach dress a coincidence. The talk was only talk, already forgotten. He is tired. He sways on the train. Has, perhaps, had rather too much to drink. Thompkins was drunk; everyone knew. The throbbing in his ears is nothing, sounds like nothing.
Faraday knocks twice before he recalls that it’s too early for Basil to be at home. But he has his key in his jacket pocket. He is not often without that key. In case he ever has a need. In case.
It’s unremarkable, this flat—the little kitchenette, that hideously comfortable sofa, the piano with its softly shining keys, Basil’s bed behind its privacy screen—and small besides, far too small for two people, although his suitcase is still here. Some of his clothes. He ought to go hunting for them, pack them up, take them with him. He could say he was here for that, to do away with the nuisance of it for both of them, his lingering presence here. Thompkins didn’t know what he thought he knew. Liberated women. No one knows about this flat. And how could they? He’s been careful, so careful, hasn’t he? Keeps to the schedule. Doesn’t sleep here. Barely sees him.
He shouldn’t have stayed.
There is, he knows, a mostly full bottle of whiskey in the cupboard. Basil bought it at Christmas. He’s particular about it: when he drinks. Never has more than a glass at a time that Faraday’s seen and then only when he’s feeling well. Sometimes he does away with it altogether. It troubled him, he said, when he was younger. He’d rather it didn’t again.
Faraday pours himself a full measure and drinks it without ice, although it’s a warm enough night for ice. It’s better stuff than the whiskey he smuggles back to the boarding house in his bag; that's the cheapest he can find. He may be due for a new bottle. Hasn’t checked.
It isn’t so strange, perhaps, for a woman to be wearing the same peach dress. It may be a favorite of hers. Or else she was some doctor’s wife from one of the public institutions, thrifty, not going in for the new looks. They expect him to have a wife at his age, he knows. There is the truth or part of it: his fiancée died unexpectedly back in England. No one need know the rest, how she. I can’t be happy with you. No one need know anything at all. He pours himself another glass.
Why should his tumbler have broken? Why should either of them? No cause for that. No reason for any of it.
He ambles around the flat, leaning on the walls, the furniture, and traces the piano keys, the edge of the bureau, the kettle spout. It’s a tidy space, true, with little room for personal effects. A few pictures, people he hasn’t asked about. A woman with knowing eyes. Two shelves of books. He caresses the spines with one finger, studying them. Politics. Religion. No light reading. No novels or poetry. One would think a musician, even an affirmed socialist musician, would read novels. He’s out of whiskey. But that’s easily solved.
Full glass in hand, Faraday sinks down on the garish sofa, and Basil had sat here with him, not so long ago. Pulled him into his arms. He hadn’t asked—hadn’t needed that. But he’d done it all the same, unconcerned about it, as he always is. As though it’s simple. As though that’s what’s done.
There had been a time at school when he’d been caught in a compromising position with another boy. Not such an unusual occurrence, he understands now, but at the time, he’d been sure he was done for, doomed, and what would his mother say. Indeed, he had shaken so badly and gone so white that the headmaster had had mercy on him. We won’t worry about it this time, will we, young Faraday.
He’s been utterly scrupulous since then, but people do talk.
A key rattles in the lock; the door swings open.
Basil blinks at the sight of him sprawled over the couch cushions. “Henry. Were we meant to—a-are you quite well?”
Why must you always ask me that, part of him wants to snarl. Always bleating on about it as though that matters, and what business is it of anyone’s— But he swallows it down with the last gulp of his drink. Stands and waits while the world levels. “Fine, I’m fine,” he says instead, hurried, crossing the narrow room in a few steps. He catches himself on Basil’s jacket, the material coarse, cheap under his hands. Nevertheless. He tugs on it.
Basil reaches out to brace him, hands under his elbows, so careful with him, and Faraday presses closer into his arms, sighing, yes, yes, here, thank god, kissing him hard, biting at his lower lip, wanting, yes, still wanting that, much as he knows he ought not to, he comes back, every time, eager for it. Sniveling just for him to touch him. Just for this.
Basil reciprocates briefly, gloriously, mouth opening to his, grip tightening on him before he eases them apart, slow, finally holding Faraday at arm’s length to look at him. That distinctive face is screwed up, as it so often, too often is, with concern: brows furrowed, mouth downturned, eyes tender. And what has he to look so worried about? Faraday wants to demand. Isn’t he getting what he wants, too? Isn’t this? “You’ve been drinking.”
“There was a party,” he explains. “Wouldn’t have done not to.”
“You’re drunk,” he accuses. “What’s happened?”
“Nothing, it’s nothing,” Faraday insists, fighting to get close to him, reaching for him, for buttons and belt, and why must he waste their time with this? Why must he look at him like that, like he’s—There’s nothing amiss. “Why should something have happened?” He whines when Basil keeps him off again. “Can’t we?” I need it, but that would be far too much to admit. That this is all he has some days, the promise of it. That he feels most himself when they—and when he holds him. Pitifully, yes, when he holds him. No, that would be far too much to say, even here.
He shakes his head, gentle as he pushes him away. “Please, Henry. Won’t you just tell me what this is? It’s getting worse, isn’t it." Not asking. "Whatever it is. I know you've not been sleeping, and I know what it can be like, I do. But I—I want to help, all right?” He stands there at the end of it, everything in his face imploring: Just tell me what it is, please; we’ll figure it out together.
As though they could. He could.
“You can’t.” Faraday doesn’t mean it to come out that way, snappish, cold, but his head is aching and that murmur's loud in his ears and can’t he just let it alone? There isn’t, there’s nothing to be done for it, for him. And no need for it besides. “It’s none of your concern.”
“It isn’t?” Basil asks, startled. Faraday’s close enough to see the way his eyes widen, just perceptibly. The hurt there, yes, hurt it must be, clear. He laughs—or it isn’t a laugh, not really—and looks away. “I suppose it isn’t. Of course it isn’t.” He takes a step back and runs a hand through his hair, disordering it. “Right.”
“I’m sorry.” He tries to follow, stopping short when Basil puts up a hand to ward him off. Flinches from him. Faraday makes a low, despairing sound. Involuntary. “I didn’t mean that.“
“No. No, I think you must have.” He smiles, something tired in it. “Look, I’ll. I’ll go to a friend’s. You stay here and sleep it off. That’s best.”
“You needn’t,” he says, making for the door. “I—I’ll leave, if you want me to leave. I shan’t put you out.”
“But where would you go, Faraday?” Basil demands, his voice sharper than he’s heard it in nearly a year, not quite shouting. “You haven’t anywhere, and I won’t have you—not again—no." He sighs. "I’ll leave. Just stay here for the night, would you? Do me that favor.”
“Please,” Faraday says, reaching for him. Hating both the sound of his own voice and his surname, said like that.
Basil falters, standing at the threshold, still in his dinner jacket. “You must know that I care for you,” he says quietly, not meeting his eyes.
He can only look at him, the words trapped under his tongue. Where would he even begin. She was wearing a peach dress, he could say. I thought they knew, and I. I wanted it, I wanted the glass to break. I thought it would. But even then.
I keep dreaming of a dead woman. And if you go, I'll not sleep at all.
“Goodnight, Faraday,” Basil says.
He closes the door firmly after him.
Chapter warnings: This chapter deals with how closeted Faraday is; he's both paranoid and angry throughout, and an incident at the end sends him into a destructive spiral. He's self-medicating pretty heavily (alcohol and barbiturates) to deal with that and his visions of Caroline, hence the substance abuse/unhealthy coping mechanisms tag. Class, misogyny, and homophobia are all still prevalent. There is also anti-communist sentiment expressed by an unnamed character. Discomfort warning for allusions to the car scene in The Little Stranger. The sexual content includes anal sex and impromptu gagging. There's a brief reference to a very enthusiastic blow job. Faraday is aggressive and overly persistent with Basil at the end of the chapter, but that interaction does not escalate into dub- or non-con.
Chapter title comes from Sara Teasdale's "Nights Without Sleep."
Thanks for reading! <3
Chapter 3: with quartered shades
Faraday goes about his summer. Nothing is missing.
Firstly, thank you to Team Mustache for your patience these last few months. Life isn't always conducive to posting fic, and I'm so grateful you've stuck with Basil and Faraday despite that. <3
Since it's been a minute, have a quick summary of the story so far: After electing to stay in New York, Faraday has found work at Lenox Hill Hospital, where he's also encountered some of the New York elite, including the Randolph-Smythe family, who draw him further into that world. He sees Basil mainly on the weekends, while living in a boarding house in the Village. His dreams about Hundreds and Caroline have persisted—and worsened, to the point that he's self-medicating. At the end of the last chapter, he attended a medical society gala and was alarmed by his colleagues' gossip about his possible lifestyle in his more Bohemian neighborhood (however, they don't know the truth). He had a brief episode following this confrontation and returned to Basil's flat, where the two fought. Basil, hurt by Faraday's reticence, left for the night.
As always, there are chapter warnings in the end notes.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The ceiling is leaking.
The water falls with a steady patter, drops striking the wooden floor, staccato, and he should bring a bucket, Faraday thinks. There were buckets all over the house by June, the walls swollen, distended from the moisture, the wood warping, and the cloying green smell of mold in every room. A large, discolored stain, an unsightly shade of brown, had begun to spread across the ceiling. The pipes were cracking, too. Drip—drip—drip beats the water against the carpet, that steady tattoo, like tapping fingers, impatient, get on with it, and he ought to, yes, go find a bucket. Mustn’t let a puddle spread; it’ll get under the boards. Too much has already. Water hits the back of his neck, trickles under his collar, light as a lover’s touch. The state of the place. It’s a mess. It’s—
“Dr. Faraday?” his patient asks, uncertain.
He looks up, startled, at her and the exam room. The plaster’s free of water. No puddle on the floor, no dark patch on the ceiling. He blinks away the gray fringe at the corners of his vision. Steadies himself against the table, fighting off lightheadedness. Perhaps he should—no, of course, he’s fine. He straightens.
His patient is sitting with her back exposed, flowered blouse loose around her freckled shoulders, the wide strap of her brassiere visible. “My apologies, Mrs. Walsh. Let’s, uh.” Faraday blows on the bell of his stethoscope, warming the metal. Lifts the binaural and settles the earpieces in place, deliberate. “Yes, let’s have a listen. Inhale slowly, please? And exhale. One-two-three. Again, yes. Good, thank you.” He concentrates on the sound of it, that tidal rushing of the lungs, the regular, dull thump of heartbeat underneath. And there is, as he had guessed, something there, more than the recurrent bronchitis which had been her initial diagnosis. The problem is lower, deep in her lungs.
It was raining, he thought. Rain drumming on the skylight, high above him, glowing weakly in the raw weather. Water striking the glass. A flicker overhead, as he stared up at it, as he had so often done.
“Right,” Faraday says, once she’s refastened her buttons and is waiting, expectant, for him to deliver his verdict. He tries to smooth his expression. To speak as softly, as gently as he can. “I’m afraid you have fluid in your lungs, Mrs. Walsh.”
She flinches, not an uncommon reaction, and clutches the small, golden cross at the base of her throat, as though she might ward off the news. Or him. “Is it serious?”
“It may be,” Faraday allows. It doesn’t do to lie to patients, but he tries not to frighten them without cause. “There are a number of possible explanations. I’m going to recommend an X-ray, so we can confirm there isn’t a mass present.” Mass, never tumor, not until he’s sure. “We’ll know more after that.”
The rest of the conversation bleeds away, colorless, the same assurances he’s made countless times, that once they know what they’re dealing with, they can make plans for treatment. That they’re lucky to have caught it now. That she needn't worry. He barely registers her leaving. Sits with her chart in his lap for an indeterminable period after that. Not looking at the pages. Not making notes, although he ought to, ought to—the water on his skin is tepid, like a spring rain. He twitches his shoulders, shrugging off the sensation. Dr. Faraday, the nurse is saying then. Your next patient is here. The house groans around him, bone-weary. The skylight shines gray, muted by the clouds. He nods to the father and son in the doorway. “Yes. What seems to be the trouble?”
The day proceeds in that fashion, like so many others, like wallpaper pulling away, unfurling in the humidity, and Faraday’s trying to rub the drab from his eyes when Wickersham stops him in the hall at the end of his hours. “I’ve been meaning to speak with you,” he says, in his customary harried way. “The others have all taken theirs, so it’s your turn. I would have let you earlier, mind you, hard as you’ve been working.”
“Pardon me—for what?“ Faraday asks, bemused. The corridor is the same as always, pale walls, harsh light. No water. No swirl of a party dress, turning the far corner. Only the hospital director’s face, shiny with sweat.
“A vacation,” Wickersham explains. “If you want one.”
“A vacation?” he echoes.
“Or a holiday, I guess you call it on your side of the pond. Might do you some good to be out of the city for a spell. Escape this heat at least. I envy you that—doubt I’ll get away this year. The wife’s going to snap her cap when she realizes.” He rubs a hand over his broad, shiny forehead, up to his receding hairline. “What do you say?”
“I—I don’t. I’m not,” Faraday stammers. The last and only time he had taken leave, he ended up here, on this crowded island with its gleaming skyscrapers and swarming avenues. Debarked the steamer with his suitcase and the bag he wasn’t meant to need. Asked the cabbie for an economical place to stay. Set foot in Greenwich Village for the first time. There had been children shrieking—playing—and neighbors bickering on the doorstep next to his boarding house. A half-dozen motorcycles rumbled by, the sunlight snagging on the chrome. And he would, he had thought then, abide this. Endure. “I don’t know that I need one.”
Wickersham reaches out, as if to thump him on the arm, but falters. Drops his hand. “Think it over,” he suggests. “But don’t wait too long. Summer’ll be over before you know it.”
He doesn't say that the season already seems long to him, taffy-stretched, those plodding weeks between now and May, the night of the medical society gala, the last time he—Faraday shakes his head. Thanks Wickersham for his time.
The heat buffets him as soon as he departs the hospital, a wave of humid air and the sharp odor of the city hitting him. He isn’t used to the air conditioning yet—the practice in Lidcote certainly couldn’t afford it—the difference, although he misses it at the boarding house, the high temperatures unrelieved by the open window, the fan buzzing monotone in the corner, even in the middle of the night. Faraday lets his head droop on the trip home, closing his eyes, shutting out the car’s other occupants. Wishing he could do the same with the droning in his ears, the sound of falling water. His shirt’s clinging to him under his jacket by the time he climbs the steps of the 4th St. station, his legs leaden. Another long day.
He glances once in the direction of the park and, beyond it, E. 8th St. He hasn’t, no, not since he woke with his head pulsing, his stomach on the verge of mutiny, in that empty bed. How he reached, groped over the sheets for Basil’s arm or waist, meaning to hold on and shuffle back to sleep that way, tucked against him. But he had found only cold sheets, and the night before had returned to him, oozing, sluggish. Then all at once. You must know that I.
He returns to Mrs. Hackley’s to share supper with his fellow lodgers. They’re a different set than when he took his room this past winter, although of the same stripes: students, old bachelors, solitary professionals, all come to the city for its many opportunities, why so many do. The occasional family has taken rooms, often single mothers, war widows; Mrs. Hackley has a tender spot for them, perhaps her solitary tender spot. At the dinner table, there’s the usual talk about the news. The worry over Korea and what it might mean for the last boys finally home from the war. The construction projects in the East Village and the accompanying racket. How there have been arrests in the neighborhood recently, of seditious characters. Un-Americans.
The others adjourn, some to watch the new television, laughter crackling from the speakers, and a few of the younger people duck out in the damp night before curfew. Faraday retires upstairs. He washes away the day’s sweat, the reek of the city in June, and pats himself dry with a thin, gray towel.
It’s nearly like an exhalation, cool, on his nape, disturbing the hairs there. Yes, almost like that, like a breath.
He doesn’t turn.
He reads in his chair a while, or tries, the words blurring earlier than he would like, as though diluted, the ink running, and he trips over the same sentence ten times before he relents, snapping the covers shut. He scrubs his eyes. There’s little to do after that but smoke out the window. Laughter, talk and sometimes singing resound, brassy, off the walls in the alley below. A drop of water, or more likely perspiration, runs down his throat; he brushes it away. The heat lolls on the city, heavy, the weather unbroken for more than a week, the air thicker, more ponderous each day. It’ll not rain tonight, he decides. No, not properly, not as they need it to. No relief.
He’ll sleep soon. It was a long day; he should be able to, a few hours at least. He lights another cigarette. There’s no reason to look toward the park, east. It’s none of your concern.
But he hadn’t meant that.
He had lain there that morning, fingers curled in the sheets, breathing in the familiar smell of them (his) until he could surrender them, the bed. Finally staggered to the washroom to rinse his face. Gathered his tux, wrinkled and sweat-stiff, from the floor. Took his other belongings from around the flat. Left his key on the bedside table. He didn’t linger outside the door. Didn’t hope to catch him coming up the stairs. Best that he didn’t. The expression on his face, how he flinched from him—
Midnight has come and gone by the time Faraday relents and stubs out his last cigarette. The Veronal waits on the bedside table, and he swallows two tablets with the gin from his bag. Takes a second gulp, letting it burn, oily, down his throat. It’s too warm to wear anything more than his shorts and undershirt, and he stretches out on top of the sheets. Sleep, yes, he’ll sleep soon. He dips his hand below the waistband of his shorts, taking hold of his cock, squeezing it, ungentle. Thinks, vaguely, of getting fucked, filled, stretched, and of rough hands on him, impersonal, bruising, not kind, not remotely kind. The heel of someone’s palm digging into his neck, holding him flat, immobile. He pumps his fist down the shaft, his foreskin sliding over it. A light pinch to his frenulum, that’s it. He can manage this way, he can. Has before. It’s enough. He doesn’t require more.
And no need to think of that murmur in his ear, telling him he’s good, feels good. Or of being kissed to gasping, caught between him and the wall. No need at all to think of those many mornings in the flat, Basil’s arm heavy over him, drawing him flush to his chest, and the tickle of a sigh against his scalp. Those hands, slightly calloused, slipping under his pajamas, up his sides, down his hips, treating him so carefully, as though that, he, matters. Basil’s mouth under his jaw, where he likes it best, a hint of teeth dragging over stubble. The weight of him, held between his legs, pinning him.
Faraday whines, catching his lower lip between his incisors, and his cock twitches in his grip as he comes, unexpectedly quick, barely holding in a hoarse cry. He sprawls, panting, afterward, sweat stinging his eyes, fingers and belly sticky, messy. Fumbles as he swabs a tissue over his flushed skin, brusque. Doesn’t feel anything lacking afterward. Of course not. Not the chance to nestle together in the wake of it, drowse, have his hair, his back stroked. It would be unpleasant to sleep next to another person in this weather. This way, at least, he may steal a few hours’ sleep, if restless, if easily interrupted by a noise on the street, or a voice through the wall, or. But he will; he’ll sleep now, that urge satisfied.
Some nights, a very few since May, he’s crept down the stairs to the telephone. Paced beside it, not intending to, not meaning to give the number to the operator, although on occasion he does. On occasion, he has listened to it ring, has counted, expecting that Basil won’t answer this time, ask Hello? as he always does. (And he always does.) Last time, a week ago, or five days, he had added, his voice rough, “If it’s you, just say so, will you?” But Faraday didn’t, couldn’t speak, couldn’t explain, I wanted to hear you. Or more damning, I— He replaced the handset in its cradle. Sat in the dark after.
It’s a short six blocks. Six. He could go, even at this hour. But there’s nothing more to say.
Fabric rustles beside him on the bed. Tulle, Faraday thinks. Or crinoline. A party dress. A chilly touch trails over his bare arm, the fine hairs there raising in its wake. If he turns his face, he’ll see. But he shan’t.
You’re afraid. You can feel it.
“No,” Faraday says softly into the dark. Waiting for the next day to break, another hazy summer dawn. And another.
The long grass shivers as he and Caroline walk through it; she’s toying with a bit of chaff, breaking it apart in her fingers, dropping the hulls behind her. It’s almost a habit between them, these constitutionals, an excuse to enjoy the sunshine and each other’s company; he liked that from the beginning. Her company. She’s been cooped up too long, she says, in that awful, old house. It isn’t awful, he wants to protest, simply neglected. With a little care, it’ll be as grand as it ever was, the sort of place one could have a family even. He hasn’t suggested that to her, not yet, that they might. Doesn’t know if she would. But wouldn’t that cheer the place up? Wouldn’t it?
She’s getting ahead of him now, disappearing, the grass growing taller, and the first spatter of rain hits his cheek—
A dog barks nearby. A child squeals.
Faraday jerks upright, searching for the source of the scream, for blood and panic, grabbing for the bag that isn’t there, but he finds only a group of children playing, running after a ball. Two boys and a girl tumble through the grass in their summer clothes. No pink party dresses. No blonde ringlets. No blood. The dog stands, leashed, next to its owner; it’s wagging its tail, crouching, eager to join the game. It barks again, high, excited. Of course, nothing’s the matter; nothing’s happened. He shifts on his bench—sit up straight, for heaven’s sake, Simon—and dabs his brow with a handkerchief. Retrieves his newspaper from his lap. Shakes it open.
He’s put in for more weekend shifts, Sunday afternoons especially, but there are limits and the unavoidable bright, vacant hours on such days. It isn’t always the park; he’s attended a few lectures, visited some museums among the bustle of people, attended the cinema, although he had dozed there, too. One Saturday, he'd wandered through the great cavernous department stores on the avenues south of here. Not to buy anything. He didn’t know what he would want from such a place, and he had avoided the young women behind their counters, offering samples with their sterling smiles. Had traced a row of shirts, the new fabric butter-smooth. The dinner jackets had caught his eye; perhaps that wouldn’t be a bad gift, if.
The children continue their game, running over a knoll. He’s found some shade, at least, away from the thick of it, the congested ends around the carousel, the zoo. Washington Square Park is as busy this time of day. Games. And dogs. It makes no difference where he goes, one place or another—it’s no matter. There’s not a peaceful place on this island.
He tries to return to the news, to find the article he was reading before he nodded off, some mention of the King’s health, how things are faring at home, and he ought to write, inquire about the state of things. See how his old colleagues are finding it, the NHS and the rest. Before he can resume reading, he sees her over the edge of the paper: a woman strolling beyond the knoll where the children are playing. The sunlight catches the shades of red in her hair, chestnut brown, slightly frizzy. She’s wearing a green skirt, unfashionably long, and boxy shoes. She wanders away from him, over the grass. Something familiar about her gait, too, the sure, practical step of someone accustomed to walking through the woods.
Faraday doesn’t intend to follow, but he’s on his feet, trailing her. He rounds the children playing; the dog is still barking behind them. Or a different dog, larger, not quite black, its tongue lolling.
The woman quickens her pace ahead of him, ascending a gradual slope, toward the paved path on the other side of the green, where there are couples are strolling arm-in-arm. Caroline had run into the trees much the same, vanishing into the dark as he called after her that night. She has vanished countless times since then, around corners and on busy streets, in the underground and down the hall in the boarding house. The gala. Although it couldn’t be, can’t be, isn’t. Faraday hurries after her now. He’ll not lose her this time, not in the open.
The hill crests, and he looks down at the park and more people and the city clamoring beyond them, bounding in the trees with glass and steel, never entirely out of sight. The sky spans relentlessly blue overhead, not a cloud visible, and the sun’s hot on his face, his ears, the back of his neck. Another pitiless June day, and July crowding closer. Faraday shades his eyes, blinking away spots. Ahead, the woman walks faster, and so does he, gaining on her, his stride longer. If he had chased Caroline—if he had refused to go—if he had been home that night—
He almost stumbles in the grass, his shoe catching a clod. But he’s close enough to grab her arm and does, halting her progress, dragging her.
The slap catches him hard across the cheek, a burst of pain and the sharp crack he only hears a moment later, echoing—echoing— and he reels backward. “Let me go,” the woman demands loudly. And unnecessarily: Faraday’s already dropped her arm. He’s holding his face and huffing. Frightened brown eyes. A more pronounced nose. A rounder mouth, fuller lips. Her voice is higher, sharper: “Creep.”
“My apologies,” he stammers, raising both hands. “I've mistaken you for someone else.”
“Sure you did,” the woman says, glaring at him before hurrying away again. The people down the hill are watching them, he realizes. Watching him. Faraday ducks his head, retreats in the opposite direction as quickly as he can, the flush crawling, warm, down his neck and the ache under his eye pulsating.
“Rod was right,” Caroline tells him. Her voice coils, low and cool, in his ear. Her face quite close to his. She’s curled on her side in a white nightgown, hands pillowed under her head, as though she might sleep next to him. “Rod was right.”
No, Rod was ill, he wants to insist. His tongue lies thick, numb in the bottom of his mouth. Same as your mother. Same as—
“There was something in that house that hated us.”
Nonsense. It’s nonsense.
She sighs and shuffles closer on the pillow, as if to share a confidence. “I thought it would be enough, you know, to sell it. Leave it to Mama and Suki and the others. But it never would have been enough, would it, Faraday? Whatever it was, it would have always wanted more.”
I don’t understand what you mean. He would roll away from her if he could, but it’s difficult to move just now, even to turn his head. Please, leave me be.
She reaches out to brush his hair out of his eyes; her fingers are clammy, algid. “You mustn’t let this business get inside you,” she tells him, her voice terribly gentle. Almost kind.
“Wait,” Basil says, instead of Hello? Two months, since. “Don’t hang up. Please. Just a moment.”
The front hall is blue-violet at three a.m. Jaundiced light washes over the wallpaper, the shadows churning as a car passes by.
Faraday shivers as the sound of the piano crackles through the receiver, the notes halting at first, then growing steadier with his usual facility. He recognizes the song, he thinks, one Basil’s written—it has that somber quality—and he ought to hang up, go back to bed, take an extra dose if he requires it. It’s late.
He sits instead, his chin cradled in his palm, his breathing easing, and listens until the music stops.
Mornings without sleep have a particular nature, he’s found—the night goes on and on, dilating, until it simply doesn’t. Some mornings, the sun rouses him from a shallow, gluey-eyed doze. Some mornings, he watches the color creep through the window, as though the day is inching toward him. He doesn’t often need an alarm, is not prone to oversleeping, although he sets one anyway, as he’s nearly always done since he was a student. He hadn’t on the day after his father died, those monotone weeks before that weighing him down; he’d slept soundly through the afternoon until teatime, when a neighbor thought to check on him.
He’d not bothered with an alarm clock in Basil’s flat, not wanting to wake him so early.
There’s no sign of the night’s unrest, save the tangled sheets. No water stains on the ceiling. No indentation on the second pillow, nor the mattress, aside from his own—they are phantoms, only, all of it, he understands. Bad dreams. He’ll climb out of bed, ignore his stiff joints, ligaments, and go to the window, smoke. A spiderweb of cracks stretches over one corner of the glass; he ought to mention it to Mrs. Hackley. The sunlight fractures as it passes through. Lands, tessellated, filmy, on the floorboards.
It was raining; it rained for weeks, until the roads turned to mud puddles and he could scarcely make out the new houses interloping on the grounds. People have to live somewhere. The light outside going streaky as a watercolor, all runny greens and grays and browns. Something sheltering about that, like standing under a bough in the woods during a summer storm, the water falling from the leaves. Like there might be nothing else in the world but that tree, the smell of earth and fresh water. He didn’t mind it, the rain, not on principle. But the damp wouldn’t stay out. It crept into the walls and the wood, drowning it, the whole house.
It would have been like that the night she died. Gloomy. The drops beating the windows, the skylight above as she climbed the stairs—
Dr. Faraday, your next patient.
Mr. Lewis here to see you, Dr. Faraday.
Excuse me, Dr. Faraday. You’re needed upstairs.
“You’re run down, Faraday,” Lang says. They’re standing together in the break room.
“Just busy.” He shakes his head, trying to clear it, that underlining hum, the tackiness of his eyelashes, those gray spots in his peripheral vision. He’ll refill his coffee before he resumes his rounds. “There was some hullaballoo in the accident room earlier.”
There had been a young woman, a girl really, around Betty’s age, brought in after she fainted on the underground. They had thought it heatstroke, given her pallor and temperature, a common complaint lately, and were prepared to give her the usual course of fluids and salt tablets. Then, a nurse had noticed the bleeding, dark and clotted down the insides of her stockings. Faraday succeeded in stopping it and in mitigating the worst of the damage. But then came, inevitably, the questions he hadn’t wished to ask, when and who and what they had used, none of which she had answered. Instead, she turned her face, bloodless, her lips still shaking, to the wall. She would live; he could say that much. As for the rest—
He takes another long drag on his cigarette. Exhales through his nose. The world doesn’t dim especially. May waver briefly.
“I heard. Brutal business. You should take the rest of the day,” Lang suggests. “Get some air. No one would blame you.”
“I have rounds to do,” he protests. “Patients to see.”
“I can see to your patients.” The hand on his shoulder is kindly meant, he understands; Lang’s face is earnest, sincere. Not so unlike Granger’s, although usually more dour. The gesture startles him all the same.
He twitches away from the touch. It’s almost a buzz now, that rising murmur. He resists the urge to rub his ear. “That’s not necessary—“
"It’s not a problem. God knows you’ve taken more than your share of extra shifts.”
What does the hospital gossip have to say about that, he wonders. He’s not heard a word about Greenwich Village since May. No one’s said much at all about the medical society fête, and that for the best, of course. Lang had inquired after his hand. I’m amazed you didn’t cut yourself.
I must have been lucky.
“I’m fine,” Faraday insists, jamming the end of his cigarette into the ashtray. His jaw pops. Again, the sound of water drum the floorboards, the windows, the metal buckets. Again, comes the sensation of rain.
Lang gives him a glance that might be sympathy, may be pity. How he looked when Faraday asked for another script for the Veronal earlier this month. “Summers are hard here. There’s no shame in needing a break.”
“I said I’m fine, goddammit,” he says, more sharply than he intends, almost snarling. He clears his throat afterward, flushing when he sees Lang’s shock. Amends: “Thank you, I appreciate the offer, but I’d rather get on with it, if I may.”
If he says anything more, Faraday doesn’t hear it. He shoves past a surprised attendant and returns to his rounds.
On the underground, Caroline perches on the bench opposite his, her legs folded under her, beneath the pale blue party dress. Gyp’s lying at her feet. The fluorescent overheads blanch her further, fade the fabric to pearly gray. She doesn’t speak—she hardly blinks. Simply watches him, eyes bottomless, pitch dark, empty. Her skirt sways with the motion of the train.
“What’ll it be, doc?” the clerk at the liquor store asks, as he did three days ago.
“The whiskey, please,” Faraday replies, pointing at the usual bottle on the bottom shelf.
He retrieves it. Makes the same joke he always does: “It’s medicinal, right?”
“Are you all right?” Basil asks when he’s finished playing. “Tell me that at least, won’t you?” Three songs tonight, each gentler than the last, the third so calm and slow and easy that Faraday was dozing by the end it, his knees drawn up to his chest. He halfway dreamed he was at the flat once more, lying in bed and listening. Wished he would come and lie beside him. He snuffles awake at the sound of Basil’s voice, as soft as his playing.
You can’t. It’s none of your concern.
It isn’t? Ha, I suppose it isn’t. Of course it isn’t.
“I—I don’t know,” Faraday admits before he can think better of it, voice raw, frail in a way he can’t countenance, and hangs up.
“A broken leg, is it?” he asks, regarding his young patient. “And how did you manage that?”
Barbara Randolph-Smythe is reclining on a settee in her mother’s expansive sitting room, happier than he’s ever seen her, her leg stretched out over the damask cushions in a heavy plaster cast. Her crutches are leaned against the arm of the sofa, and the wheelchair’s parked nearby, too. No, she doesn’t lack for choices, but she also doesn’t seem inclined to move. Beams at him, pleased. The remains of a sunburn pink her cheeks and forehead, peeling slightly. “Horseback riding,” she explains. “I’m spectacularly bad at it. Turns out that horses hate me. I should have signed up ages ago. I’ll never get sent to camp again.”
The call from Mrs. Randolph-Smythe’s secretary had surprised him; he’s not heard from his patients in this circle for the better part of the summer and didn’t expect to, the elite dispersed to friendlier climates.
“I see,” Faraday says, noncommittal as he can, and turns the leg carefully, looking down at the scribble of signatures and well wishes. He doesn’t comment on them, doesn’t ask if she might have made a few friends after all. “Wiggle your toes, please.”
She complies, all five moving without impediment. Does it hurt, he inquires. No.
“Good. Very good.” He returns her leg to its place on the sofa. They’ve done a perfectly capable job at the hospital upstate; there’s not much need for him here. His bag sits unopened at his side. His skin prickles, chilled from the air conditioning, set higher here, even, than at Lenox Hill. He rubs the gooseflesh away absently and checks over his shoulder, finding no one. There’s a strange near-abandonment to the place, save for that quiet whirring of the air. “You’re not here all on your own, are you?” He’s only seen staff since he arrived, neither Mrs. Randolph-Smythe nor her elusive husband in evidence.
Barbara shakes her head. “My brother’s home for the summer. And Mother is on her way home from the Riviera. Shes’ going to be spitting mad.” She grins, showing the gap between her front teeth. “Tell me, am I going to walk ever again?”
“In no time at all. Six weeks. Eight at the outside. Just in time for school.” Faraday offers her a thin smile, earning a sour expression in return.
“Are you experiencing any other discomfort?” He’s already examined her knee, checking for swelling, signs of strain.
“It itches mainly.” Barbara scratches the side of her nose, as if to demonstrate. “And the crutches are lousy. I don’t like them. The chair’s a lot nicer.”
“The crutches are better for you in the long run,” he says. “The muscles in your leg will atrophy in the cast. Best to keep the rest of you as fit as possible, hm?”
She grumbles, as he’s grown accustomed to her doing, this child who’s never wanted for anything, but Faraday doesn’t quite hear her, that rushing in his ears. He has a flash—certain, so certain he nearly puts a hand out to catch her—of Barbara falling backward down that towering, grand central staircase in the front hall, of her losing her balance on the crutches. Catching one on the carpet, missing a step. And the same of the chair coming too close to the edge and tilting, unbalancing, overturning, the girl tossed free, falling, falling, all that long way, and fragile bones snapping. She’s lying, crumpled, unmoving at the bottom of the stairs in the foyer. He feels it again: that chill. The hairs on his arms rising. And something else, something pleased, viciously so.
He turns; as before, there’s nothing, no one there. There never is, never has been. Only that glee and the whisper of cool air over his skin. Only the girl, falling, crying out, and the empty house, no one to see or help. Faraday reaches for the handle of his bag, clutching it, trying to steady his hands. Although Barbara isn’t looking at him just now, but gazing out the window with all her usual ennui.
“But. But do be careful. With the crutches and the chair,” he warns. He succeeds, he thinks, in keeping his voice level. Professional, as he’s cultivated it, stern but not loud. Yes, steady enough. “They aren’t toys, and you could do yourself further injury.” He doesn’t—has never, not as an adult, absolutely not—want that. Not for a child to be hurt. He couldn’t. He’s a doctor for god’s sake. He wouldn’t. Wish that. Never. It had to have been—he is somewhat tired today, it’s true. Perhaps he ought to rest. Perhaps. She’s lying still, so still, staring upward, her eyes blank. “Do you understand? Barbara, look at me. Do you understand me?”
She does turn toward him at that, frowning at him, or at the tone of his voice. Not how he’s spoken to her in the past. “Yes, all right, Dr. Faraday,” she says, without argument. “I understand. I’ll be careful.”
“Good,” he says, meaning it. “Yes. Please give my best to your mother, and I’ll. I’ll check in soon.”
He distantly registers her farewell as he hurries out into the empty front hall. The chandelier glittering above, its lights reflected in the mirror, its crystals swaying, tinkling, moved, most likely, by the traffic outside. A vase of fresh lilies stands on the long table, the flowers motionless. Faraday studies the stairs, steep, carpeted, plush, a deep claret. A shriek echoes above him; a series of thuds drums down the steps, the sound dulled by the thick fabric. He glances into the parlor, to check; Barbara hasn’t moved. She’s flipping through a glossy magazine. They’ve given her a small silver bell to ring, and she does. The familiar sound of it tinkling, high and delicate and somehow imperious.
The cords were cut, don’t you remember?
Faraday’s almost grateful for the heat outside. He stuffs his fists in his pockets to warm them, still them.
Two blocks down, a pane of glass, what was meant to be a window installation in one of the mansions, lies shattered on the sidewalk. An accident, he gathers, the glass slipping its ropes, all of it undone in an instant. The workmen are calling for passersby to go around, to be careful, mind their steps. Some of the shards are as long as his forearm, the edges jagged, hungry-looking. They catch the late afternoon light, reflecting it skyward again, at turns bloody and golden, the effect as sun shining on water, refracting. Like picture glass, he thinks, or— He stands there, studying it longer than he means to, transfixed, lingering until someone stumbles into him, knocking him forward. Glass crunches under his shoes. A hand lands on his shoulder, bracing him. “Watch it, buddy.”
He mutters an apology. Hurries down the sidewalk.
It’s well after sunset by the time Faraday arrives at the boarding house. He’s sweat through his suit; his hair hangs limp over his brow. He didn’t intend to walk the entire way here, all thirty-five blocks, not in the July heat, but he continued past each underground station, each cab he saw. Could only lower his head and keep going, unable to shake the chill from the Randolph-Smythe house, despite the humidity, thick as cotton batting. He did pause—briefly—on the edge of Washington Square Park, considering, before turning toward the boarding house once more.
Once there, he gulps down a glass of ice water. A smear of red streaks over his hand when he wipes his mouth after; his lower lip stings. He doesn’t know when he’s bitten it. It’s too late for dinner, but no matter—he isn’t, couldn’t be hungry and waves off Mrs. Hackley when she offers him cold leftovers. He wants a bath and to sleep.
The former he manages simply enough, although he can’t settle on a proper temperature for the water, wanting it tepid and scalding at turns, and before long, he climbs out of the tub, dissatisfied, and retreats to his room.
He lies flat on the bed in the dark, smoking—and to hell with the house rules—waiting, he can’t say for what. For the phone to ring, for Mrs. Hackley to knock on his door, for the news that Barbara Randolph-Smythe has fallen down the front stairs and could he come, please, quick as he can. There’s been an accident. David Granger sounding as grave, as grim, as Faraday had ever heard him, all his typical irritating ease gone. It would have been instant. There’s nothing you could have done.
It was a passing fancy, that was all, an associative memory, triggered by some familiar detail. With everything on his mind lately, he might even have anticipated it, this. If he wasn’t so busy, he likely could have. His unconscious mind responding to his fatigue, his displacement, his disappointment, still, over Hundreds. He would say as much to any patient. He’ll sleep—no sense in staying up fretting over nothing. It was your imagination, Simon. Now go to bed. Not another word. They never did speak about them, any of his dreams, his occasional nightmares, the impressions he sometimes had, of being—Faraday turns on his side, hugging his knees close. Sleep, that’s all he needs.
He’ll call the Randolph-Smythes in the morning, just to be sure. A routine task for a doctor, to check on a patient, especially a child. That will suffice.
He turns over abruptly and buries his face in the pillow. Squeezes his eyes shut.
The neighborhood is oddly still for a Saturday night, stifled, even the students and the revolutionaries silenced by the weather. No laughter, shouting on the street outside. That unsatisfied promise of rain on the air. Faraday rolls flat onto his back, kicking away the sheets, and lights another cigarette. Inhales, taps the ashes into the saucer on the bedside table. The sky flashes, vivid as day for an instant. No rumble of thunder follows. Heat lightning. A bolt lances between the clouds, almost violet, illuminating the skyscrapers in Midtown. Faraday sits up, goes to the window to watch what he can see of it from here.
It had been pouring that night in Lidcote. He’d scarcely been able to hear the banging on the door over the sound of the rain, addled as he was. Dr. Faraday! Hadn’t known, couldn’t have known. He was called to help, so he did. Fell asleep in the park after, unaware that she was ascending the stairs, those stairs going endlessly upward, toward the skylight. Not knowing that she would. Sometimes, looking up at the top floor, during his walks around the house, replacing the buckets two-by-two, he thought he saw something there. A flicker. A smudge of white. But there was nothing. The house was vacant, save for him and the rain and the mice, and never mind what anyone said about dead daughters, ghosts. Ridiculous. The light came gray through the skylight.
The girl fell; he had seen it so clearly, like it had already happened. The conviction of it. He waits, again, for the phone to ring. For the tap on the door. There’s nothing to be done.
He retrieves the Veronal. Undoes the cap. Means to shake out his customary two pills. But there aren’t—nothing lands in his hand. He tilts the bottle a second time, but it’s light, he realizes, terribly light. He curls his fist around the glass, squeezing it. Empty. He’s misjudged how many were left, those occasional extra doses and now, tonight, there isn’t, he hasn’t any. He has nothing.
The bottle explodes when it hits the wall of the opposing building, fragments sticking to the brick, glittering. Faraday’s lungs heave in one damp breath, then another, as he stares at it. He scrambles for his bag, pulling out the half-drained bottle of whiskey. Little good it’s done him. Little good any of this has done him, and this place, this preposterous island with all its attendant confusions and endless bright lights and noise. The whiskey shatters more easily than the depleted bottle of pills, shards and liquor falling into the alley below. There’s shouting from someone next door then, knock it off, asshole; Faraday ducks away from the window, sinking down below it, his back to the wall as he gasps for air, and the room presses in close, crowding him.
This place. This austere cell with its drab walls and its bare, uncomfortable bed and the memories of how many other lodgers, lonely men, and, true, once he might not have minded it, the usual environs for a bachelor. Not so different from the rooms above the surgery, or the dormitories, or the medical barracks. The kind of place he would have expected to find himself, unmarried and courting forty, a practical sort of place, his basic needs satisfied. No reason it should suffer in comparison with a studio flat six blocks north and east. If it’s missing a piano, a patchwork quilt, a peculiarly high-minded musician, that shouldn’t matter. Doesn’t. Childish, too, to want to take the place apart, to drag the mattress from the frame, to tear into it, upend those half-empty drawers, scattering his paltry belongings, to push the basin onto the floor where it cracks in two, to gouge at the plaster and paper down to the drywall. To bellow at the shadows in the corners of the room, demand what they want of him, what they could possibly want of him—
Faraday curls on his side in the center of the disordered room. Slaps, ineffectual, at the floorboards, panting, his palms burning, his stomach clenching. A ragged noise dislodges itself from his throat, and again when Caroline’s hand slides down his arm, once slowly and then in repetition. “Shhh,” she says.
Sunlight warms his face—his side twinges—and Faraday blinks slowly awake, staring, incongruously, at the space under his bed, the frame standing at a crooked angle from the wall. His shirts lumped in a muted heap next to him, the bureau drawers hanging open. The ceramic basin lies in two pieces, the water spilled hours ago, soaked into the floor. He sits up, carefully, mindful of his sore right side, his hip and shoulder aching from the long night on the floor. Rubs his neck, then his face. Five faint scratches mar the wall opposite. The cracks in the window arc toward the center of the glass; likely he slammed it shut, although he doesn’t recall.
It’s getting worse, isn’t it.
When I’m alone, I can’t tell anymore.
He’s righted the bed and mattress and tidied most of his things when Mrs. Hackley knocks on the door, firm, brisk, unmistakably a landlady’s knock. Faraday startles, guilty, looking around at the remaining mess. There’s nothing to be done for the basin; he’ll offer to replace it. Easily could have bumped into it during the night. The scratches and dents aren’t so noticeable, not in a room this well-worn, this used. Maybe she won’t— He clears his throat, falling into a full cough before he can answer. “Yes, Mrs. Hackley? Good morning.”
But she sounds unconcerned, businesslike. “Someone here to see you, doctor. I think you’ve got a patient.”
He dresses, hurried, not bothering to shave, and grabs his case. Takes the stairs as quick as he can, stumbling into the parlor, expectant, it must be—
Young Marina Popescu is sitting in one of Mrs. Hackley’s floral wingback chairs, considering the dim television in the corner. She’s taller than he last saw her the previous autumn, her dark hair longer, and she’s wearing a hand-me-down summer dress, but it’s unmistakably the same child, the familiar hook of her nose and the way she looks at him, both eyes bright and clear now. She hops off the seat when he arrives.
“Marina?” Faraday asks. “Is something the matter?”
She grabs his sleeve by way of answer, and he goes, following her out onto the street. It’s already a bright, sweltering day, although the neighborhood is no less busy for it. He struggles to keep pace with the girl, who pulls ahead of him at times, leading him toward the park and, he assumes, her family’s store. She doesn’t answer any of his questions: whether anyone is hurt or ill, if it’s someone in her family, where they’re going. When he lags too much, she takes hold of his sleeve again, drawing him onward, once with an impatient huff and a muttered, “Come on.”
They arrive at the park, less bustling in the morning, although others are crossing it on their way to work, and the usual stands have opened on the corners, and a few vagrants are sleeping on the benches. He’s so preoccupied with following Marina, reaching the emergency, blood rushing in his ears, that he doesn’t seem him at first, standing in the path, his hands his pockets. Wearing a summer shirt and threadbare trousers and sandals. Waiting. Faraday stutters to a halt, jaw loosening, hands falling open. He nearly drops his case. Again when Marina Popescu dodges around them both, not stopping, exchanging a brief flurry of words in Romanian with Basil.
“Off to fill her pockets with penny candy, I expect,” he says, watching after her for a moment before he coughs, abashed. “Forgive the false pretenses. I didn’t know if you would come otherwise.”
Faraday doesn’t respond. Can’t. Too occupied with staring. His eyes smart. His throat works.
“It’s good to see you,” Basil continues. “It’s been a while.” There’s something almost diffident, hesitant, in his affect, his shoulders hunching, and the way he meets Faraday’s gaze, looking up through his lashes, his dark hair falling over his brow.
Faraday’s fingers spasm; he can’t, no, mustn’t tuck it back for him. Or cradle his face, tilt it upward, or—
“Coffee’s on upstairs,” Basil offers. “If you want.”
“Yes,” he blurts at last. “Yes, I’d like that. Very much.”
He follows him up to the flat in a daze, scarcely remembering to murmur thank you when Basil holds the door for him. Neither of them speaks otherwise. And Faraday hadn’t—he had thought, felt sure that this particular door would remain closed to him. Feels the compulsion to wander the flat, to make sure everything as it was, all in its proper place: the tea in the cupboard and Basil’s shoes under the bed and the stack of sheet music on top of the piano. He doesn’t. Manages to keep still, standing in the middle of the room, much as he did the first night he came here, more than a year ago. He stoops to set his bag at his feet. Curls his fists, not quite clenching them, holding them at his sides as Basil goes to the kitchen, retrieves saucers, cups, and spoons, his back to him.
“Is something—“ Faraday tries to ask, splitting the quiet, thinking of what he had assumed. Marina Popescu sent to fetch him. That he was needed. “Are you well?”
Basil turns to him, raising an eyebrow, not answering otherwise. That’s none of your concern. Or: What do you think.
He flushes. “You look well.” He does, in fact, with a fresh summer tan. There may be some weariness in the lines around his mouth, his eyes somewhat shadowed, but it’s an early day for him. Not yet midmorning.
“I was thinking I might find you in another gutter,” Basil says, approaching him before stopping short. “I’m glad I didn’t.”
The mention of last summer pricks at Faraday, as it always does, everything he doesn’t recall about it and, worse, everything he does. The nights he staggered back to this flat, drunk, belligerent, and pounded on the door, demanding to be let in. His bout of summer flu, what he must have said, muddled with fever and half-raving. What he did. He swallows, hard, uncertain how to respond.
“I hadn’t heard from you in a few weeks,” Basil goes on, as though untroubled by his silence. “And the last time you phoned, you sounded—”
Cool understanding washes through him. Yes, of course, the phone calls. It stands to reason, he wouldn’t want the disturbance. Faraday looks down at his shoes. “Ah, right. I apologize for the imposition.”
Basil scoffs, the noise uncharacteristically harsh. “That isn’t what I meant.“
He can’t raise his chin, speaking quickly and taking a step away, toward the door. He ought to leave him be. “Nonetheless. I shouldn’t have troubled you.”
“I shan’t anymore, I assure you,” he says. “You needn’t worry—“
“For god’s sake, Henry, enough,” Basil shouts.“You bloody-minded—fuck.” He drags both hands through his hair, lets out a shaky breath, pacing to the side, away from him before turning back, reaching toward him, as if in supplication. “I want you to trouble me if there’s trouble. And I will worry. After a damn year and all we’ve been through and you—” He stops, frowning, studying him more closely, no doubt catching his reaction, the look on his face. “What—what is it?”
Faraday hasn’t the time to school his expression, and it is, must be, too clear. Part of him would go, would retreat through the door and not return, even that, rather than this, than Basil is watching at him with concern and open frustration and—he doesn’t know. But he can’t go, realizing what little there is on the other side of that door and how much here. So he explains, “You, ah. You called me Henry.” Barely more than whispering, forcing the words out, past his clumsy tongue and clattering teeth and bitten lips.
Basil blinks. “I always call you Henry. I have done, since you said.”
He shakes his head. “No, not always.” He hugs his arms over his chest. And it isn’t cold, not in this flat, with the windows perennially open and the murmuration of the city outside. It was warm here last summer, too. Nonetheless. “That night,” he says. “You didn’t.”
But where would you go, Faraday?
He stares at him.
“Is that. Is it so important?” he asks finally, brow still wrinkled. Not dismissive—no, he wouldn’t be. Would try to understand, as he so often does. Hasn’t moved since his outburst. "What I call you?"
Faraday’s gaze flicks down to the floor, his bag at his feet and the scuffed boards, burnished blond in the sunlight. He manages to lever out that single syllable: “Yes.” To me, yes, it is.
There’s a pause, longer than Faraday would like, and he doesn’t know what to make of the comprehension coming over his face, what it means, whether it would be best to leave now, whether he— “Come here,” Basil says before he can decide; his voice has gone rough. “Just come here, would you, please.”
“I,” Faraday says, but he doesn’t refuse him. He crosses the few steps between them, that narrow space, halting, until he’s in front of him, well within reach. Although he can’t bring himself to—last time, he had flinched, retreating from his touch. His hand hovers between them, scant inches from Basil’s shirt, and he wouldn’t, he can’t bridge that space, not if he might recoil again. All the air leaves him when Basil grabs his wrist, gentle, and pulls him in, dragging him close, his arms winding around Faraday’s waist, as easily as though he’d held him yesterday, not with ten weeks lapsed between them.
Faraday can’t identify the sensation—it’s like turning onto an empty country lane, the whole of it his. Or releasing a held breath. Like the first notes on the piano after a silence. He makes a thick, choked noise, entirely reflexive, and brings his arms around Basil’s shoulders, hesitant, jerky, feeling the expansion of his lungs, the muscles working. He allows himself to press against him, tucking his face along his neck. Breathing in the smell of his collar, soap and sweat and him. It’s all he can do not to rub his face against the tender skin there. He shuts his eyes, sighing.
“Stubborn ass,” Basil murmurs into his hair, not without affection, and kisses his temple—hard—as though to underscore the point. He strokes one palm up his spine, circling between his shoulders, calming, and Faraday holds him back more tightly for that, unsure what to do except hang on for as long as he’ll let him. He doesn’t move, lest this end.
After they’ve stood there for longer than he can say, Basil adds, rumbling, barely audible: “I never said you had to leave, you know.”
Faraday leans into him, and it should be mortifying, this display, this shameless clinging, but he’s too tired, dizzy with it, and there’s no one to see, and he wants—he thought—just this once, he can, can’t he? “You might have.”
“I wouldn’t,” he insists. ”Despite your best efforts.”
He doesn’t lift his face. “Forgive me.”
Basil exhales, the sound heavy. “I’m not after an apology, Henry. But it’s harming you, isn’t it? Whatever’s happening.” Faraday tenses at the declaration, his fingers clenching in his shirt as Basil’s grip on him tightens, bracing him. “You needn’t say all of it. I understand having secrets,” he continues, very gently. “But I’ll not—don’t make me stand by and wonder. Tell me what’s wrong.”
“I wish to,” Faraday swears, the words escaping him without warning. He finds, unexpectedly, that he means it: he would, if he knew the words for this, for what happened to the Ayres family, for his dreams these past months and the glass cracking in two in his hand and what he dreads may happen, for Caroline’s voice in his ear, what any of it signifies, if anything, if it isn’t delusion, nonsense, exhaustion, overwork. (It is.) But if he could make sense of it, he would offer it all to Basil Anthony freely. Unburden himself. He shudders, yes, meaning that, that he wants to tell him. “But I don’t know. I don’t understand it. Any of it. I don’t—”
“All right,” Basil says, as though it’s simple. “Then we figure it out.”
And perhaps he can, if only for the moment, for this interval wrapped in his arms, believe that, that they may reason their way through this, that he isn’t— And he may have this, at least, in the interim. How sorely he’s lacked it these past months. Ceding to that earlier desire, he rubs his face against the side of Basil’s neck, under his ear. Earns his soft laugh in response.
“What do you need?” Basil asks. “This morning. Start there.”
He almost stammers something foolish. Just this. Just. Then, the percolator burbles on the other side of the room, and he feels almost sick at the smell of coffee, all he’s run on for months, it seems. He would like, if he could—“Might we lie down a while?” he asks. Gritting his teeth, briefly, at the brittle quality of his voice, nearly whinging, that plaintive question. “It needn’t be for long,” he hastens to add. “Only a few minutes. If you wouldn’t mind.”
Basil pulls back to study him, his eyes inscrutable, and Faraday almost whimpers at the loss. Would, if he didn’t cup his jaw, cradling his face, searching it. His thumb stroking under his eye. “I don’t mind.”
They disentangle themselves by unspoken agreement, although Faraday can’t give him up entirely, ghosting his knuckles along his side as they move toward the bed. Grateful when Basil snags his fingers, squeezes his hand, reassuring. And there is nothing special about this particular bed, its plain metal frame and cheap mattress and sun-faded sheets. Only a specific tangle of memories. He stands, studying it, for longer than he intends. Basil clears his throat.
“If, ah,” he says, cheeks pinking. “That is, if you’d be more comfortable.” He taps his own collar, as if to demonstrate. “However you like.”
“Oh.” And have they ever—how rarely, they must have, to climb into this bed, without— Faraday coughs. “Thank you.”
It isn’t precisely like undressing in front of a new lover, Faraday decides, sliding his buttons free, fumbling over the first few. That anxiety—certainty—of being found lacking in some respect. Too slight or too pale or the slight give of his middle. The stark red of his hair against his skin, under his arms, between his legs. No, Basil is, he knows, well enough acquainted with all that, as he is with him, every broad plane of him, that dark trail below his navel, the moles dotting his skin. Perhaps, it is the familiarity that makes it incongruous. He’s kissed his way down that chest, has clutched those biceps while Basil pushed into him, has felt his mouth on his inner thighs, his hands everywhere. But this.
They both strip down to shorts and undershirts, neatly setting aside their clothes, and he crawls into bed next to Basil, settling next to him with a sigh. Faraday doesn’t quite dare touch him yet, only the incidental way his arm grazes his, the bump of an elbow, an ankle. He turns his head. Admires his profile, distinctive nose and mouth, the line of his clavicle, the way his hand splays, low over his belly, rising and falling as he breathes. And there is, he can see now, faint traces of exhaustion on his face. Faraday shifts onto his side, reaching out to mark the smudgy edge of a shadow, the skin mallow, with a fingertip. “Forgive me,” he repeats, hoarse.
Basil moves, mirroring him. Bumps one knuckle across Faraday’s cheek. “You needn’t suffer for it, Henry,” he says, instead of answering.
His throat constricts; Basil’s features blur before his vision clears. Faraday indulges himself, tucking his hair behind his ear, tracing the shell of it as he does. “Could I—may I kiss you?” That isn’t what he’s asked for, and he may not, may refuse, but the question slips free in spite of him.
They’re near enough that he can see the hazel flecks in Basil’s irises. The slight dilation of his pupils. “Yes.”
Near enough that Faraday can lean in, fingers still curled around his ear, and brush his lips over Basil’s, letting his eyes drift shut. How he’s seldom kissed him this past year, not seeking anything more than this, the soft give of his mouth, warm, real, under his. Not a lengthy kiss, the span of a few seconds. He looks up at Basil afterward, uncertain of the expression on his face. Less so of how he slides one hand around his nape and draws him in again, kissing him soundly in return. And Faraday can’t—he can’t help the small sound he makes then, not a moan, more fragile than that, lips parting for him, the gentle way he deepens it, demanding nothing more of him.
It’s terribly, frighteningly easy to give himself over to this, to slow lingering kisses and Basil’s hand slipping down his shoulder, his ribcage, until it comes to rest on his hip. To allow whatever nonsense passes, mumbled, between them, mostly yes and it’s okay and here. Nothing heated in it yet—although wanting thrills through him when Basil finds bare skin, where his singlet’s bunched along his waist, the delicacy of his touch. No, it’s too drowsy to be anything more than this: slow, deliberate exploration. It’s something of a stocktaking, he thinks, feeling dozy as it goes on, finally resting his forehead against Basil’s, nudging his nose once with his own. His eyelids drooping, heavy.
“Right,” Basil says. “Sleep. Come on.”
Faraday goes, unresisting, resettling on his chest, fingers curled in his shirt, head pillowed on his shoulder. It’s warm with the two of them, perhaps overly so, but he finds he doesn’t mind. Lies there, feeling him breathe, the slow expansion of his lungs, the leisurely drift of his hand up and down his back. All of it lulling. He could, he should be able to sleep this way. Is as tired as he can remember being. He closes his eyes, opens them again. Shifts. Lets out a breath. “I don’t know that I—“ he confesses. “I’ve not slept well of late.”
Basil’s quiet, maybe considering this; his hand stills. Another moment passes, amorphous and long, before he resumes that constant touch. He begins to hum quietly.
He doesn’t sing when he plays, Faraday’s noticed, not as a rule. Sometimes hums along with the radio when he’s trying to learn a new tune. This isn’t that, isn’t anything he that recognizes, the song unfamiliar, not his or anything he plays for money. The sound of it more tentative than the way he strikes the keys most of the time. As though he’s trying to remember the sequence of notes, piece by piece. Once or twice, he stops and starts over. Continues, the sound vibrating in his throat and chest. His fingers move in Faraday’s hair.
He tries again to shut his eyes, to follow his exhaustion into sleep, real sleep, not the shallow half-dreams he’s had these past few months, no real rest in them, in any of it. Ignores the murmur of traffic below; the damp at the base of his spine, his undershirt clinging to him; that prickle of awareness between his scapulae, undiminished. Only the sound of Basil’s voice, soothing, low, eking out that simple melody, more surely now, repeating it. Faraday sinks into it, yielding. And there is, in the waiting dark, the sound of rain. The skylight glowing above. Hundreds.
He shivers, his pulse accelerating. “Basil,” he says, tightening his grip on his shirt, twisting his fingers in the fabric until they go numb.
He gathers him closer, his arm solid around his waist, his free hand curling over his wrist, an anchor. That touch, his presence, not chasing it away, what’s waiting for him, the underlying churn of accusations, half-recollected arguments, Caroline. It never has.
All the same: “Right here,” Basil says. “I’m right here.”
Chapter warnings: Faraday continues his route of self-medication, to the point of having hallucinations during the day. General warnings for potentially uncomfortable medical situations, including a physical exam of patient with lung disease, mention of the aftereffects of a pre-Roe abortion (implied) performed badly, and a child with a broken leg. Re: the ableism tag, the child in question lightheartedly asks if she'll walk again. Faraday has an encounter with a woman at the park, which from her perspective appears predatory, namely in that he follows her down a path. However, he does not harm her. There are references throughout to the eerie events of The Little Stranger. The sexual content includes some very sad masturbation. Faraday fantasizes about anonymous, somewhat violent sex, including being held down and handled roughly. His rampant intimacy issues continue.
Chapter title comes from Dylan Thomas' "Boys of Summer."
Thanks for reading! More soon! <3