Oxford isn’t quite what he expects.
Although when Don thinks on it, his ideas of Oxford were, perhaps, always rather hazy; vague notions which would drift into his mind on those rare moments he wasn’t worrying about God or homework or exams or Posner.
He certainly never expected to love it this much; perhaps he steeled himself for disappointment or disillusionment so many times that when it fails to materialise, it takes him by surprise.
On the other hand, if he ever thought he worked hard at school then he was a fool, as this is real work, endlessly reading far into the night, writing essay after essay and pushing the edges of his brain, always a little bit further than those edges want to go.
He and Posner defect to English Lit almost as soon as they arrive; in his heart he knows that he might never have applied for History if the school hadn’t been so keen. So here he is, here they both are, trying to find the meaning of life - or at least civilization - in The Great Tradition and The Anxiety of Influence.
Everyone else stays loyal to History although he hears that, over in Cambridge, Crowther has switched to PPE, of all things.
In Oxford it transpires that learning Anglo-Saxon might be a romantic idea but it is a fucking nightmare and he can’t believe he chose to take it when the previous generation of students went to so much trouble to make it optional. Posner mocks him whenever Don reaches the stage of banging his head against the desk; smug wanker had passed on another language, claiming that French was enough to last him a lifetime.
He reads Aurora Leigh and thinks of Miss Lintott while he discusses it with a dazzlingly clever girl called Amy from his tutorial group. They start meeting for bad coffee and book talk and soon she is piling him with authors he’s never read – not his fault, she says, but the God Damn Patriarchy’s – and is stunned to find how much he doesn’t know. Kathy Acker frightens him to death, mind, but Amy says that’s to be expected.
Don does make a few other friends but he’s hindered by the fact that he’s constantly being confused with a lad from one of his classes by the name of Aaron; they look nothing alike and it takes him about a week to realise it’s because they’re both from the North.
Because his tutor is obsessed, he studies Petrarch until he can recite the bastard backwards and quickly comes round to Amy’s way of thinking that the bloke was a menace to all women, everywhere.
He still goes to the college chapel every Sunday but rarely has time to attend services the rest of the week. And, of course, Dakin takes the piss because what would Dakin do if he wasn’t taking the piss?
Nonetheless, Don ignores all Dakin’s talk about fair-weather Anglicans and once a week Christians who are terrified of hell because, as usual, Dakin’s talking out his arse.
He still believes; still sees the shafts of light early in the morning or a beautiful line of poetry or Posner’s smile and thinks Thank you, God. Thank you for giving us this.
And the rest – trying to balance his life into a steady rhythm, managing the sacrifices (which are bloody worth it, no matter what Dakin says), waiting out all that fear and loneliness – well, that doesn’t seem much in comparison to what he has. Not to mention the fact that, in his heart of hearts, he’s not sure he really believes in Hell. He believes in Purgatory – how he could he not? Who could possibly be ready to meet God? – but Hell? He’s afraid of it, of course he is, but he isn’t sure he believes in it. When he’s sitting by the Cherwell (walking cliché that he is) he doesn’t know if the mind that could conceive of all this could also conceive of a Hell.
Of course, he isn’t always sure, because who could be?
A particularly dim-witted fundamentalist may have no doubts but more fool them.
After all, even trying to conceptualise the Divine may be a fool’s errand itself.
And who doesn’t watch the news and want to scream why, why, why?
So, when Don isn’t sure, which is often, because that’s what faith is, not being sure, he goes back to his books; back to the Psalms or the Song of Solomon. Back to The Mind of the Maker and Orthodoxy and I Choose the Cloister, which his Mum had bought him at a jumble sale when he was 13. He’d started going to church every week and she was, in her own way, trying to show she didn’t mind, didn’t mind that it was Dad’s world (insofar as he occasionally turned up to Sunday service), not hers. He’d sat up all night reading it, devouring the nun’s journey to God and feeling that yes, I understand, I’m like this too.
Hector would not have approved.
There’s a Methodist boy from Richmond in the same staircase as Don who mentions, casual as anything, that his Reverend is gay and out.
A minister who is gay and happy to tell his flock?
Don can’t quite imagine an Anglican priest in Sheffield being able to do that. He wonders if he would have found the gay thing easier if there was someone like that in his church. Not the priest, that would be a bit much to hope for, but a curate, perhaps? Or a church warden? But there wasn’t and so he stayed silent and hid behind his faith and he knows that was wrong.
But maybe it wouldn’t have made any difference at all. At school he had Posner, after all, and he’s never found the words to say to him: I know, I understand, I am too.
He nearly told Dakin, that day in the corridor. Nearly told him how much he admired Dakin’s bravery, his willingness to take that step, to actually do something, to actually try.
He thinks Dakin knows about him. But despite that, he‘d never had the courage to ask him: How do you do it? How are you not scared?
How can I be like you?
It’s clear to Don that Posner adores Oxford and he’s shaken a good deal of the melancholy that he carried in school.
Posner still has his dark days of course, perhaps he always will. There are days when he doesn’t want to do anything but stare into space or, worse, the days when his wit turns nasty and he lashes out at anyone in his path.
Those days break Don’s heart.
But they are few and far between; Posner is lighter than he was in Sheffield, he smiles more, he laughs and it feels as though his friend has finally grabbed life by the collar and demanded that it do something for him for a change.
Some of the change in Posner comes from him no longer worshipping at the altar of Dakin; Don’s never been so glad to be right about something in his life as the day he realised that Posner’s adoration for Dakin had shifted to something more platonic. It had probably begun ages before, maybe even that day of the crash, but when they go out for drinks on their first night and Posner is no looking at Deakin, Don feels something inside relax.
Boozing sessions aside, he often feels like they’re drunk on the place, drunk on debating Blake in their rooms, drunk on lectures and drunk on the library that Don catches himself staring around with a kind of delighted awe.
Sometimes he has to stop himself picking up a pen and filling pages with ecstasies of gratitude to all the teachers – even Irwin - who prodded them and pushed them to get here because he really doesn’t want them to remember him as a prat or a brownnoser.
Posner haunts the corridors of the Pitt-Rivers museum with him just because they can, Dakin drags him to a different pub every weekend, Rudge finds the best fry-ups and they discover the indoor market while Akthar is trying find an Eid present for his littlest siblings (on account of Akthar forgetting in 1984 and being determined to get ahead of the game for 1985).
Posner falls in with a set of rather wonderful gay boys, mostly reading Art History, who accept Don even though he is pretty sure that he occupies the dubious position of Straight Mascot.
They tolerate his Christianity fairly well and one of them, Simon, even goes to the college chapel too. Sometimes they talk about Christian Apologetics or at least they do until one of the others comes in, at which point the conversation will turn to something else. Foucault, this week, it seems.
On reflection, Dakin is definitely onto him.
They’re at the Eagle & Child, because Don likes being where the Inklings were and Dakin is trying to shag the barmaid, when Dakin looks over.
“Do you love him?”
He considers saying ‘Who?’ and watching as Dakin rolls his eyes but, try as he might, he’s never been much of a liar.
“Shouldn’t you do something about that? Before one of those Art History nancies sweeps him off his feet?”
“You’re a dickhead, you know that?”
“Never said I wasn’t and, I say again, shouldn’t you do something about the lad? You need to get your end away, if nothing else. It isn’t natural, all this celibacy. We’re all our bodies.”
“ ‘Man is neither pure spirit nor pure nature – if he were purely either he would have no history’. Go on then, who said that?”
“Auden. It’s always Auden. And don’t change the subject.”
“He isn’t interested in me.”
“Really. Now, are you going to ask her out, or are you just going to glower at the competition all night?"
That’s the other thing that surprises him about Oxford: pub with Dakin, watching Rudge play for his college (smug bastard didn’t even do his first match as a sub), arguing with Akthar about minor points of British and French history (keeps his hand in, if nothing else) and spending afternoons with Posner and his little posse of Art History boys.
They’re still friends.
Every book he’s ever read has issued dire warnings about friendships and new horizons: they fall to pieces, split asunder; bonds dissolve. Happens every time.
Except, it would seem, with them.
After the night at the Eagle & Child, Dakin leaves the topic of Posner alone but when they all meet up for tea and buns or a pint or a bottle of cheap plonk by the river Don catches him looking meaningfully at Posner as if to say ‘See?’.
Dakin is full of shit.
For all Don is loving it at Oxford, and he’s alarmed that the first year is nearly over already, it probably would be a good idea for him to… well, maybe not get his end away but for him to do something. Even if all he does is go to The Castle, drink half a pint of lager on his own and then shuffle off.
At least he’ll be trying.
He may not believe that this is the only life but it is the only one he’ll have here; with sunshine and beer and nice-looking lads who read the same books he does. Don knows he should probably speak to Posner – who might take the piss but is also unbearably kind and will be happy to show him the ropes - but he wants to do something on his own.
He wants to try on his own.
So, in the spirit of trying, he waits until the last of his prelims is done then puts his best shirt on and tries to remember everything Dakin has ever told him about flirting.
Time to start being gay.
“What the bloody hell happened to you?” asks Dakin.
Dakin had appeared from nowhere, as is his wont, nearly scaring the shit out of Don in the process.
He had desperately hoped that the library would be empty but judging by the pile of books Dakin just deposited in front of the librarian, he’s also returning the last of his loans.
At first, he had tried to go to church, had even walked all the way there, only to find he simply couldn’t step over the threshold.
He wouldn’t have come out at all except… except that if he had stayed in his room for even a single moment longer he would have run completely mad.
Still, at least in his room he wouldn’t have seen anyone.
And no one would have seen him.
“I were mugged,” he mutters, tugging his shirt sleeves down.
People get mugged all the time, even in Oxford.
“Mugged? You look like you’ve done nine rounds with Frank Bruno.”
“You know I’m crap at fighting.”
“Indeed, you are,” Dakin slings his arm round his shoulders and Don concentrates very, very hard on not moving away, “come on, we’re going to find the others and get a drink.”
There’s a strange carved indentation on the bar that Don never noticed before. Given how old the building is it could be anything from duelling Royalists to a punk rocker with a flick knife.
“Are you listening to me?”
He looks up at Posner, “Sorry?”
“Are you sure you didn’t hit your head last night? You’re away with the fairies.”
“I said, I thought you were going to France, with Simon? See the grand old temples of the decaying Christian faith? He says you’ve cancelled.”
He had done, at short notice with a mumbled excuse, which Simon took better than Don deserved.
“Money didn’t work out.”
Their drinks arrive and as they make their way back to the table, Posner looks back at him.
“For fuck’s sake, just let them have your wallet right off next time, you could have been killed.”
Posner is right, he could have been.
“Yeah,” he says, “I will.”
He goes home for the summer.
His father talks about jobs and not having a scholarship to fall back on and spending your time constructively but Don can’t be arsed to even pretend he’s looking for work.
Instead, he stays in his room and stares at the walls: he stares at the faded poster of Spandau Ballet, at the dent on the wall from Dakin falling off the desk in third year, at the photo of them all from the day at Fountains Abbey and he doesn’t feel a single bloody thing.
He tries to read but his concentration is just… gone. Occasionally he walks over to the old playing fields near the school and stares at the view. He tries to ignore the hollowness in his chest and he tries to remember how to be.
Don thinks on The Book of Common Prayer.
He thinks on, Prayer make the darken’d cloud withdraw.
He thinks on, We may ever dwell with thee.
He thinks on, We beseech thee, look down in pity and compassion upon this thy afflicted servant; he thinks on it all and he feels… nothing.
He dreams, sometimes, and wakes up sick and frightened with his heart banging out of his chest.
He stops drinking because the smell makes him nauseous and he’s glad that none of the lads are around to notice.
He hears a certain accent in town one day and he has some kind of attack in the alley by Gateway, clawing for breath and feeling as though he’ll die.
He stops going to church and what starts as gentle teasing about it ends up as a proper, drag down, fight with his Dad. They both say nasty things they don’t mean, bring up things they never thought they would and they both spend the rest of August being frighteningly polite to each other.
He’s fucking everything up, he’s breaking everyone he touches and he doesn’t know how to stop any of it.
He hears from the others.
Posner is on a University sponsored trip which seems to involve visiting every ruin in mainland Greece and drinking too much Retsina: he sends long, witty letters about his travelling companions; he asks repeatedly how Don is and if Don was in even half his right mind he would feel like a shit for not replying.
Simon sends him a postcard of the cathedral at Reims with a sweet little note saying he’s missed.
Dakin is supposed to be interrailing but instead appears to have been side-tracked into trying to shag every girl in France; he commemorates each conquest by sending Don a postcard of the Eiffel tower with the girl’s name on the back. He deviates only once with a postcard of Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin and a scrawl of ‘Louis’.
Once upon a time it would have been ‘Irwin’.
Crowther sends a postcard of the Chandos portrait from Stratford-upon-Avon, where he is allegedly on a summer course about ‘Performing Shakespeare’ but seems to be mostly sitting in beer gardens.
Poor old Lockwood is at Sandhurst for an ‘Officer Training Course’ that sounds like Don’s idea of a wasted time but he sounds happy enough in the occasional postcards he sends of Berkshire churches.
From Timms he receives an obscene card from his 18-30 jaunt on the Costa Brava that makes his Dad turn a deep shade of red. Judging by the scrawl on the back, Timms is trying to re-enact Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas on the Catalonian coast.
An airmail envelope from Akthar arrives containing a beautiful picture of the Badshahi Mosque along with a letter moaning about how crap his cousin’s wedding was and how much it’s raining.
He sends them nothing; he has nothing to say.
He can’t write and he can’t read. His journal is untouched. He tries to get on with his summer reading and when that fails, he turns to old favourites and even, in desperation, to his Dad’s PG Wodehouse collection.
Nothing works; he stares at the words and it takes him hours to finish a page. Part of him knows that his thoughts are becoming frantic; disordered; hard to track.
If he was himself he would think of Auden:
But now all these heavy books are no use to me any more, for
Where I go, words carry no weight;
But he isn’t, so he doesn’t.
The last time words deserted him he was 14 and his Mum had been dying, slowly and painfully, from cervical cancer.
The teachers noticed, of course, that he wasn’t handing in his homework and wasn’t doing the required reading but they also knew why and mostly left him alone about it.
Even then, when he couldn’t have the books he loved, he still had poetry because Posner sat in his bedroom at the weekends and recited Tennyson and Shakespeare and Dickinson to him.
When his Mum had finally died and his Dad had retreated away from him, he’d began to think he would be lost and scared forever. But the boys had rallied around, Dakin had nicked a bottle of his old man’s scotch, and they had all dragged him to the park so he could drink and cry and rant.
This time he is on his own and he is falling away and there is no one there to catch him.
Even back at Oxford, reading still eludes him. His eyes slide off the page and he finds himself staring into space.
He hasn’t finished a book since… since June.
Three weeks into term and Don’s only handed one essay in; his tutor is making noises about second year slumps.
He doesn’t go out and he avoids Posner and Simon. He stops hanging out with the other Sheffield lads and ignores Amy’s coffee invites until she stops asking.
If he had the energy he’d be offended by how easy it is to slip out of people’s lives. As it is, he’s just grateful.
The old masters really were right.
Dakin comes around a couple of times but he pretends he isn’t in.
Posner comes round to his room only once, all those unanswered letters must have sent the message, and Don sits in the dark and ignores the rapping on the door.
“I know you’re in there, Scripps,” says Posner through the door, “and I know you’re ignoring me. When you feel like explaining why you’re being such an arsehole, you know where I am.”
He knows he should get up, knows he should scramble off the floor and fly down the stairs after Posner. He knows he should apologise and start acting like a mate again.
He stops going to tutorials.
Then he stops going to lectures.
Everything is fading away and he finds it harder and harder to carry on.
So, one day in October, he simply stops.
Oddly enough, it’s Rudge who finds him. Odd because Rudge never comes to his room.
Rudge, who had wanted his advice on an essay about the Reformation but instead had barged into Don’s room and received the shock of his life.
Rudge who had stemmed the blood with his bare hands and had screamed to the porter for help.
Rudge who had pocketed the pill bottles for the ambulance men and had called Dakin from A&E.
Not that Don remembers any of this, of course, but Posner tells him later.
Posner tells him later that Dakin had cried in the waiting room.
He’s glad he didn’t see that.
Don doesn’t even remember the stomach pump, not really, although he has vague flashes of dimness and shouting, of panic and pain and something foul.
So, even though it shouldn’t have been, it was Rudge who found him. If Don still believed then he might start to think that God moved in mysterious ways or something of that ilk but he’s too fucking tired to do anything but stare at the ceiling of the Ratcliffe Infirmary when he wakes up, disgusting taste in his mouth and very much alive.
Alive but with so much pain; in his arms, his gut, his chest, his throat and every bit of his soul.
He’s told that Posner had got the shit task of calling his Dad and Don isn’t quite sure if he can ever forgive himself for putting either of them through that.
He lies in bed and stares at the ceiling for the first day, feeling exhausted and too sore to do anything. One of the nurses on the ward is some kind of born again Christian (he suspects her church would favour guitar-based music) and tells him that if had succeeded he would have burned in hell.
He sincerely hopes he has never in his life sounded anything like her.
They all want to know why. The doctor, the nurse, his Dad. He doesn’t have an answer for any of them. He doesn’t even really have an answer for himself.
“They say you won’t tell anyone why you did it,” says Dakin.
As soon as he was allowed visitors, the Oxford contingent of the Sheffield boys starts coming round. After a couple of days, he realizes that they must have worked out a rota amongst themselves and doesn’t know whether to be touched or annoyed.
He settles on feeling mildly irritated and pathetically grateful.
“I can’t explain it, that’s all.”
Don doesn’t like this version of Dakin. He never has. This version of Dakin is unsmiling and humming with anger.
The last time he saw him like this was when Hector had died and Irwin was in hospital.
“I just couldn’t… carry on, that’s all.”
“For fuck’s sake.”
“Oh, fuck off yourself,” he says tiredly.
Dakin stares at him for a minute.
Then, because this is how much Don’s fucked everything up and how far down the rabbit hole everything is, then Dakin reaches out and grips Don’s hand, tight, and whispers, “You scared the shit out of me.”
Don squeezes back because he knows he did, he knows. “I’m sorry.”
“I think everyone thought it would be me.”
In the end, because he’s articulate and sounds sincere - and because they’re short of beds - he’d only been kept at the hospital for two weeks. The college had noted his absence due to ‘illness’ and let him come back.
Don isn’t sure if being back at college is a good idea at all, truth be told but, as he’d rather stay in Oxford than go back to Sheffield and face his Dad’s worry and guilt and disappointment, he goes along with it.
He looks at Posner, “What do you mean?”
They’re walking along the river because it’s one of those cold, bright winter days that makes Oxford look like a bloody Christmas card and its sort of accepted that on days like that you go walking along the river even if you don’t really want to.
“Well, I’m the queer, we’re the ones who are supposed to try and top ourselves in the third act.”
“I am too.”
Posner frowns, “What?”
He stops and looks him in the eye, “I’m queer.”
To his astonishment Posner looks like he’s going to belt him one, “Are you fucking joking?”
“Is that what this is about?” Posner grabs his wrist and yanks his sleeve up. The scars are bad, he’d been very determined, after all, and the doctor at the hospital has said they won’t get much better.
He pulls his arm back, “What?”
“Did you try and top yourself because you were too high and mighty to bear being a poof?”
He doesn’t know what shocks him more; Posner’s furious expression, or hearing that lovely voice spit out the word poof with so much venom.
“No,” he says after a moment, “No, I swear, Pos, it wasn’t that. Really.”
“It better not be. Or weak wrists or no, I’ll break your bloody nose.”
“It wasn’t that.”
“Well, good,” says Posner huffily and turns back to the path.
In a spirit of outrageous cowardice, that suits neither the season nor the situation, he decides he’ll stay in Oxford over Christmas.
On the 22nd, however, Dakin and Posner show up at his room and tell him to start packing.
Not only do they sit in the room with him while he packs, all the while offering unsolicited advice on his technique, but they buy him a ticket for the same train as them and they both stay with him until he’s at his Dad’s front door, even though its ages out of their way.
How it got to the point where his friends have to escort him home, he doesn’t quite know.
Christmas at home is the worst one he’s had since the one after his Mum died. His Dad keeps knocking on the door if he goes to his bedroom so he takes to watching telly in the living room, in plain sight, and going for walks with Posner. He doesn’t dare leave the house alone in case his Dad thinks he’s gone to throw himself off the multi-storey car park.
Amy, who had visited him at the hospital even though he’d spent months blanking her, sends him a card and And Still I Rise. He winces at the title, fearing a self-help tome, but the author’s name rings a bell and he settles in to read while his Dad watches the afternoon film. It’s a short, and it takes longer to read than it should, but by midnight he’s at the last page and it’s the first book he’s finished since the summer.
Dakin drags them out to the pub on Christmas Eve and while he has a bit of a wobble when the place starts to get crowded, it doesn’t go too badly. Dakin, as usual, makes a prat of himself with the barmaid and Don laughs so hard he cries when she tips a pint of White Lightening over Dakin’s head.
He has tea at Akthar’s house one night and it’s all going fine until he slowly realises that Akthar’s Mum knows. She keeps patting him on the shoulder and trying to get him to eat more, two things she has never done in all the time he’s been coming round for tea.
Don tries to avoid looking her in the eye; he’s pretty sure that Islam isn’t any more tolerant to suicides than Christianity is, but after about an hour she firmly tells him she needs help carrying an empty tray back to the kitchen. This is such a painfully obvious move that he finds himself admiring her brazenness and meekly trotting out of the living room after her. In the kitchen she tells him they were all very worried and are glad he’s okay. He needs to take care of himself, she says, and that’s when he finds out that Akthar called their Iman and asked him to pray for Don the night he was admitted to the Radcliffe.
Things with his Dad are a little better by the time he goes back to Oxford but they’re still unsure around each other and his Dad still looks at him like Don is going to disappear at any moment.
In his heart he thought if he ever told anyone it would be Posner but the idea of saying it out loud to him makes him sick to his stomach. So, he tells the psychiatrist he has to see every week at outpatients and the bloke is such a monumental dick about it that he feels himself getting angry, really, really angry for the first time since it happened.
Don stands in the corridor after his appointment and decides he’d rather chew his own leg off than listen to what the likes of Dr Bloody Hayforth have to say.
So, instead of talking to the dickish psychiatrist, who’s a bigoted wanker aside from everything else, he calls the Samaritans or the Lesbian & Gay Switchboard most days and it… it helps, it actually helps; sometimes he gets an idiot but he just redials until he finds someone who doesn’t treat him like some sort of circus freak.
Slowly, he’s reading again, poetry at first, especially Tennyson, and then plays, novels and essays.
He feels like a prat even thinking it but Tennyson may have saved his life a little bit.
He finds he can concentrate again; for ten minutes, then twenty, then an hour and he can write in his journal, a bit, anyway. To the visible relief of his tutor he starts submitting his essays again.
Don and Posner are sprawled on the bed in Posner’s room, trying to get their heads around Baudrillard (who is such an utter arsehole about everything that he may kill the bloke if he ever meets him) when he realizes that he can tell someone he actually knows.
He also realizes that he wants to tell someone he actually knows. Someone he actually loves, someone he’s actually in love with (although that thought is safely stored under the ever-expansive banner of ‘terrible things to deal with later’).
“Do you remember when I were beaten up, last year?”
Posner carries on scrawling notes in the margins of Simulacra and Simulation, as though that is going to make the stupid thing any less opaque, “When you were mugged?”
Don could stop.
He could change the subject and leave it alone and keep pretending but, as that has worked out pretty fucking terribly for him so far, he decides to keep going.
Once more unto the breach and all that.
“I wasn’t mugged.”
Posner lowers his book, “You weren’t?”
“I’d been at The Castle, I spent an hour with a shandy trying to work up the nerve to… do something. Anything.”
“Did you? Do anything?”
“No. I finished my drink and slunk out. Then….”
It’s a sign of how patient Posner is being with him at the moment that he hasn’t told him to stop faffing and just spit it out.
“These two blokes started following me, calling me names and all that. Poof, shirt-lifter, you know.”
Posner properly puts his book down and looks at him, “Don, were you queer bashed?”
“No. Well, sort of. I was… I was raped.”
Posner sits up, “What?”
Don is aware that he’s staring ahead, not meeting Posner’s eyes, but he can’t seem to stop himself.
Coward, that’s him.
“They started chasing me and I ran down this alley, which was really stupid but I was a bit panicked and… they caught up with me and… well, you know.”
“Sodomised by queer bashers. I don’t think they quite saw the irony,” says Don.
Posner moves over and wraps his arms around Don, “I’m so fucking sorry.”
To his shame, he begins to cry and so he starts to… to get off the bed or leave the room or something but Posner just holds him tighter and lets him keep crying.
It’s two weeks since he cried all over Posner’s shoulder and they’re supposed to be going to see a Lauren Bacall double bill at the Phoenix.
He bounds up Pos’s staircase, raises his hand to knock and then pauses when he hears an angry voice.
“It’s so fucking unfair. He’s the best person I know and he’s had the worst thing happen to him.”
“I thought I was the best person you know,” says Dakin, but his heart clearly isn’t in it.
“This isn’t a joke, Dakin. For goodness sake, he was raped. He was raped and then he shoved us all away because he was hurt and scared and we let him.”
“I know, alright! I just… this is bloody awful.”
And, like it is in bad novels, he actually feels his blood run cold.
Dakin knows. Maybe everyone knows. Pos betrayed him. Anger flares up, thank God, and he pushes into the room.
“Does everyone know?” he demands, “Have you told everyone?”
Posner, who hasn’t looked so wide-eyed for years, seems struck dumb.
“No,” says Dakin firmly, “no, he’s only told me, mate, okay?”
“Well, he had no fucking right! Were you bored or something? Needed a scandalous topic of conversation?”
“No,” says Posner starts forward, to say something or touch him or reassure him, he doesn’t know which because he can’t do this and so he does what he does best.
He turns and runs.
Dakin catches up with him in the Grove because Don’s lungs are about to burst and he has to stop running.
Dakin grabs his arm, “Scripps-”
He shakes him off and shoves him away, “Fuck off!”
“Look, I know you’re pissed off and that’s fair enough but Pos needed someone to talk to about this, he was in pieces! So, don’t be a twat about it, eh?”
“Why, in the name of God, did it have to be you?”
He’s being so unfair and if he didn’t feel so frantic and angry and exposed, he’d be ashamed of himself; Dakin’s been his best friend since he was eleven and Don has no business treating him like this.
Dakin has been his best friend since he was eleven but… but he’s been his rival for Posner’s affections since he was seventeen and he couldn’t bear it if all this pushed them together.
What kind of friend does that make him?
What kind of man?
And there’s Auden again:
Because, suffering on your account the torments of sexual jealously, I have had a glimpse of the infinite vileness of masculine conceit;
Dakin looks offended, “Oi!”
He feels himself sneer, “I’m surprised you don’t have a line of dirty jokes ready – there must be something about the virgin getting buggered in the alley.”
And now he really feels like an utter shit because Dakin’s face has crumpled into something between horror and grief.
“Fucking hell, Scripps.”
“Don’t look at me like… I’m fucked up or something.”
“I’m not. And you’re not.”
“I tried to bin myself last term, if that isn’t fucked up I don’t know what is.”
“You were on your own; you’re not now. We will get you through this, alright? You’re my best mate and this doesn’t change that. Just like you doing a Sylvia Plath or being a bible freak or a queer or half gone on bloody Posner doesn’t change it either.”
Don stares at him for a moment, “I haven’t been to church since last year,” he says in the end.
Dakin looks surprised. “Given up on God, have you?”
“Well, maybe he gave up on me first, eh?”
“Christ,” says Dakin, “come here.”
He pulls Don into a tight hug and after a second, Don hugs him back.
It’s gradual but things with the boys shift back to something like what they were before he lost his grip and drifted away.
He and Dakin carry on working their way through the pubs of Oxford and if, as a rule, Don prefers to do this of an afternoon then Dakin is good enough not to comment.
Akthar spends afternoons by the Cherwell with him. Sometimes they walk, sometimes they sit and talk about Marat’s downfall or how queer Twelfth Night is or Jesus Christ as a prophet of Islam.
Rudge drags him out to impromptu football games and, as the weather grows warmer, to ramshackle cricket matches.
One day, Posner is waiting for him outside of his Wednesday tutorial.
“Come on,” he says, “I’ve found something.”
What he’s found are the music practice rooms in the basement of his college and they spend a blissful two hours there, revisiting Cole Porter and George Gershwin and Irving Berlin. Don mostly plays and Posner mostly sings.
The next Wednesday Posner is there again.
And all Don can think is how much he loves this lad.
Other times, all he thinks of is that he must be dragging them down; he isn’t always in the mood to talk or sing or play footie or drink but he doesn’t always know that until he’s already out with them. He worries away at the thought that he’s casting a shadow over their time here. Don confesses this to Posner, one day, when he’s feeling low and Posner very calmly tells him he’s being a prat and that in the log book of looking out for each other, Don still has a lot of credit to use up.
He doesn’t really believe it but he keeps his mouth shut after that.
He still has nightmares; he still doesn’t like walking alone at night; he still gets a bit panicky around men he doesn’t know.
But he feels awake now, feels present. And alive, to his constant surprise.
The oddest things help.
Long walks with Akthar or Posner or even by himself calm him down. He’s finding that watching Rudge kick the shit out of other Rugby players every Sunday morning is oddly cathartic.
Dakin nudging his shoulder when a beautiful bloke or girl walks by their table makes him feel like he might not be completely smashed up inside. Of course, he rolls his eyes every time but its Dakin, so that’s tradition.
He and Amy drink coffee and talk about her rubbish girlfriend and Elizabeth Barret Browning and about whether their tutor will ever admit that Oscar Wilde was queer as a three-pound note. She starts lending him books again and he falls in love with Kate Chopin, even if The Awakening does hit a little too close to home in parts.
He rereads Remembrance of Things Past and Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamazov and Mere Christianity.
He’s not okay, he might never be, but it isn’t like it was.
They’re picking apart Ulysses, because, really, what is Joyce for if not for picking apart on greyish Sunday afternoon, when Posner says something about Hector and for the first time, he doesn’t make a joke about it.
“I didn’t like him,” he says.
“Hector?” asks Posner in astonishment.
“Hector,” agrees Don mildly, “I liked his lessons and I liked being with you lot but I didn’t like him.
“Because…,” he begins tentatively, “because of the touching?”
“Yeah. I know I took the piss but I didn’t like it. I didn’t like how shit it made me feel about things… about meself, about… being queer and all that.”
“So, you made jokes?”
So, he made jokes and went to church and tried to pray away how he felt.
The things I do for Jesus.
“Yeah. I was sort of… pretending, I suppose,” he shrugs, “Pretending’s not that easy anymore. What happened last year… it was so… bad and I just… couldn’t.”
He looks up, “That doesn’t make what Hector did alright.”
“I know you thought… I don’t know, that you were missing out or left out or something, but you were lucky, being too young.”
Posner looks at him for a moment, “Yeah, I think maybe I was. I’m glad…”
“That it… that he didn’t put you off. I mean, you still like Auden and Brief Encounter and all that.”
“I don’t like Auden, I love him.”
“How could I not? I’m an Anglican nancie an’ all.”
Now that Posner and Dakin know he starts to think about telling the others; he doesn’t really think they would want to know, and he definitely doesn’t want to tell them but he’s conscious that Rudge literally kept the blood inside his fucking body with his bare hands and that Akthar had asked his Iman to pray for a Christian because of him and he feels like he owes them something and maybe that something is the truth.
He also hopes that, in a really fucked up way, it might reassure them; he catches them looking at him with wide eyes sometimes, fear lurking at the corners. Why did he do it? Is he depressed? What if he tries again?
He tells them and they get blind drunk on shitty vodka.
Or, to be more precise, they have a couple of drinks (because he loves both of them but it isn’t like with him and Pos so he needs the Dutch courage), and then he tells them and then they spend the rest of the evening getting blind drunk on the really terrible vodka that Rudge always keeps in his room.
They pretend they don’t notice his hands shaking while he tells them and in turn he pretends not to notice that Akthar goes to the toilet to be sick after he hears or that Rudge disappears into the corridor for five minutes and comes back with grazed knuckles.
Things carry on.
In a turnaround, Don is now worrying about Posner, who is seeming all… on edge and tense. In desperation he asks Dakin about it one night in the pub and Dakin rolls his eyes.
“He loves you, you twat, he just wants to protect you; if he could get away with it he’d wrap you in a blanket and store you in his room. He’s like a benign Bluebeard.”
“Stop making him sound like a psycho.”
“Then stop asking fucking stupid questions – he’ll calm down, you’ll see.”
It’s May and he’s sitting by the river with Posner when a butterfly settles on their picnic blanket – a small tortoiseshell, nothing special - and he thinks yes, there you are.
He rereads I Choose the Cloister and he… he remembers.
It’s May and he goes back to church and for the first time in nearly a year, he prays.
Rudge moans endlessly about losing him from the side lines but forgives Don when he compromises by turning up during half-time with a bag of orange pieces (this involves a hasty run from the college chapel and some odd looks at his bag of orange slices during the service but this seems a small price to pay).
It’s May and one afternoon he looks out of his bedroom window and feels something slot, ever so gently, back into place.
“So,” said Dakin, as they demolish fry-ups one Saturday in town, “You’ve not been abandoned by God, after all?”
Don shakes his head “No. I don’t think I was abandoned, I think I abandoned God, to be honest. I thought because I couldn’t feel anything, it meant He wasn’t there.”
“No one would have blamed you for that.”
“I do. A bit.”
“Stop being such a masochistic wanker about everything. For Christ’s sake.”
“You’re not half as funny as you think you are, my lad. Pass us the brown sauce, will you?”
Posner and his Art History boys go to London some weekends, to do the record shops and the gay pubs, which is a good thing as far as Don is concerned because it’s slowly dawned on him that Posner is avoiding The Castle on his account.
Then, one day, Simon turns and asks Don if he wants to come with them.
He doesn’t know when he went from being the straight mascot to the baby gay; the process was seamless and happened mostly when he wasn’t looking. He suspects Posner had a word.
At Simon’s invitation panic rises up for a moment and then he pulls himself together – it hadn’t been the gay pub that was the problem, after all – and he agrees.
He and Posner go up by an earlier train than the others and go to the National Gallery for the afternoon (Degas for Posner and Caravaggio for him).
Don spends the day gazing at Christ’s life and the evening trying not to look like a provincial twat in one gay pub after another. At one point they end up in a pub with an older crowd and a piano; they’re sufficiently tipsy that, on a dare, he ends up accompanying while Posner sings ‘Mad About the Boy’. He knows he is looking at Posner with a little too much adoration but he can’t be arsed to care.
They get the milk train home and he wakes up outside Didcot to find that Posner is asleep on his shoulder and he realizes he hasn’t thought about last June all day.
He knows they’ve excluded the Cambridge contingent from all this, knows this has become something they share, the five of them, and knows that this is unfair; an accident of geography and wrong place, wrong time.
Perhaps it was inevitable, this dividing into factions; perhaps that day when they were put into two different mini-buses cemented their future friendship groups.
Honestly, though, maybe who applied where had already been set in motion by who was friends with whom. Dakin, Posner, himself and Akthar had always been more of a set. Rudge was a bit of a surprise but since that day in October he and Don are closer and seem to share an odd kind of kinship.
Which is probably to be expected considering Rudge saved Don’s life when Don was lying in a pool of his own blood and shame.
So, there is now a Cambridge camp and an Oxford camp and a lot of that is down to him. He should feel worse about it than he does but Crowther, Lockwood and Timms feel so far away and it’s just easier to let them drift. Still, Don thinks that he’s being rather callous about it all and says so to Dakin.
Dakin throws a pillow at him and tells him to climb down off the fucking cross because someone else might want a go.
Posner is a little more kind, because he always is, and points out that Don has had rather a lot on his plate recently. He knows Posner is right; some days it still takes all his energy to drag himself out of bed or attend a lecture so he decides that, for once, Dakin might be right and tries to stop worrying about it.
Of course, just as he’s made his peace with it, the status quo takes a sharp right into No Man’s Land.
“They’re coming here?”
Posner nods and hands Don half of a badly made cheese and pickle sandwich, “Bank Holiday weekend. Lockwood’s idea. Thinks we’re all forgetting our roots.”
“That’s probably my doing,” he says sheepishly.
Dakin clips him round the back of the head, “Cross,” he says warningly, as he sits down and helps himself to Posner’s Monster Munch.
“Buy your own crisps, you thieving twat,” says Posner sternly. He turns back to Don, “Although he’s right. They went to the Other Place. Our gradual parting of the ways was inevitable as it was fitting.”
“Well, it seems our ways are no longer parted,” says Don before taking one of Posner’s crisps.
When it goes disastrously wrong, it’s just as he’s thinking that it’s not been that bad.
They’re in the beer garden at the Victoria Arms, because it’s pretty and by the river and that’s what you do of a Bank Holiday weekend when you have folk visiting.
The sun is out and after a couple of pints Don starts to relax.
He has a long sleeved shirt on, he always does these days, but he leans over the table to try and grab his change off of Dakin (the little bastard still thinks its funny to try and keep it) and realises his mistake when Timms stops laughing and stares at his wrist.
“Mate, what the fuck is that?”
And now Lockwood has followed Timms’ eye line and leans forward, grabbing his arm and shoving his sleeve up.
A couple at the next table are staring, as though Don and his arm are some sort of car crash they can’t tear themselves away from.
“What the hell?” says Lockwood, “Have you tried to off yourself?”
“Fuck off,” he says angrily, yanking his arm back.
“Leave him alone,” says Dakin.
Lockwood looks between them, “Oh, I suppose you lot all knew about this? That why you’ve been round him all night like he’s an injured fawn.”
That isn’t fair and Don suspects Lockwood knows it; the lads have got over their initial instinct to hover and coddle, helped in no small part by Don bellowing at them to pack it in, but they are still keeping an eye on him and he was stupid to think that the others wouldn’t notice it.
“Rudge was the poor sod who found me,” he says, the anger draining out of him, “So, yeah, they all know.”
“Jesus fucking Christ,” says Lockwood, “what is wrong with you? Why would you do that?”
“He doesn’t have to answer to you,” says Posner sharply, “so be a good lad, will you, and stop being quite such a dick about it.”
“Fuck off, you jumped up little fag-”
Now they’re all on their feet and part of Don’s brain (the unhelpful, vicious part of his brain) reminds him that last time a night out when wrong he nearly died.
He shoves his stupid brain aside and grabs Lockwood by his collar, “You’re not in the bloody barracks now, so you can pack that in, because Posner’s not the only queer at this table now, alright?”
“Look, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean-” Lockwood’s eyes narrows, “You too? That why you did it?”
“No, that isn’t why I did it. And no, I’m not going to talk about. It’s done, okay?”
“Fuck’s sake,” Lockwood shoves him away and stalks off to the river bank. Crowther pulls a face and follows him, squeezing Don’s shoulder as he goes.
They sit back down but he can feel Timms is looking at him in the silence that follows; Don sighs and looks up, meeting his eyes.
“I know he’s being a wanker but I think he’s just a bit shocked,” says Timms.
“Of course he is,” says Posner tartly, “he probably thought it would be me.”
“Load of fucking drama queens,” mutters Dakin.
Timms is now worrying away at his beermat.
“Some things happened,” Don says quietly, “and I didn’t cope with them very well.”
“Not your fault,” says Dakin.
Timms looks between them but doesn’t ask, “You’re alright now, though?”
“Yeah,” he says truthfully, “I’m alright now.”
Dakin, God bless his little heart, chooses that moment to have opinions on the relative merits of Cambridge versus Oxford and everyone piles in with counter arguments and name-calling.
Crowther comes and sits, pointing out that working-class lads have no business propping up Oxford instead of Cambridge, and Don looks over to where Lockwood is sitting on the grass by the river.
He stands and starts to make his way over to Lockwood.
A hand grabs his wrist and spins him round.
He’s face to face with Posner and, blimey, he is fucking beautiful.
“What you doing?”
Don blinks and realises he needs to pull himself together. He nods towards Lockwood on the riverside, “I’m going to go and have a word.”
Posner surprises him a lot these days, has done since they got off the train from Sheffield, but he doesn’t understand the anger on his face now, “I… Look, he’s my mate. I’ve got to, even if he is being a twat.”
“Even if he is being a twat?” repeats Posner, “You’re ridiculous, you know that? Always going on about what a coward you are and then going out of your way to do the right thing, the brave thing.”
“Leave it out, you’re the brave one, not me.”
“Well, I wouldn’t go and talk to him, I’d be licking my wounds but you…,” Posner laughs but it isn’t mean. “Do you know how impressive you are? You know, I think I was in love with you even when I was following Dakin around.”
Dear Lord in Heaven, please give him strength because he really can’t do this. He really can’t. It’s been a hell of an evening and he’s a little bit pissed, so all of his sense flies out of the window, “Don’t,” says Don.
“What?” Posner frowns, “Are you okay? Do you want to go?”
He closes his eyes and keeps them shut. Coward, that’s him.
“Please,” he says, “Everything is really fucked up tonight and I… I can’t pretend. I… I love you and… I know I shouldn’t and I know you’re too young and you can do better and-”
“Better? What do you mean? How can I?” Posner’s hand grabs his face and Don’s eyes fly open, “How could I do better than you? You’re lovely and you’re gorgeous and the idea that… Lockwood’s a twat but he’s also… what is wrong with you that you think that of yourself? You’re… what? Eleven months older than me – you’re not Hector. You’re Don and… and you’re mine, if you like."
If he likes.
He just needs to do something. He just needs to try.
The warm summer evening of the beer garden is still going on all around him and all he can see is Posner.
Don gently pulls Posner’s hand off his wrist then links their hands together like they’re sweethearts. “Are you sure?”
“Then, I do like… I’d like to be, you know...”
“Yours!” Dakin throws his hands in the air, “For Christ’s sake! Jesus fuck, Posner, stick your bloody tongue down his throat before the poor sod dies of celibacy.”
Don rolls his eyes, “You can’t die of-”
Posner kisses him.
Posner kisses him and it’s okay. He’s okay.
Thank you, God, for giving me this.
Posner’s kissing him and the bastards behind are shouting for all their worth.
He pulls back and looks at Pos. “Should I start calling you David?”
Some people are looking over with vague disgust and the couple who stared at his wrist get up, leaving their drinks behind, but he doesn’t care and he isn’t scared.
Posner raises his eyebrow, “Only my parents calls me David, so I’d rather you didn’t, if it’s all the same."
“Go on,” he says, nodding towards Lockwood, who’s seen the commotion but is pretending that he hasn’t, “go and sort it out with that prat. You’ll not be easy until you do.”
Don hugs him and whispers, “Thank you.”
He wasn’t lying to Timms that night. He is alright, sort of. Things aren’t always fantastic but some days are good. A lot of days are bad and some are really bad but some days… are good. He isn’t who he was and he might always be a bit wonky, as his Mum would have said, but there you have it.
Today is a good day.
Pos is stroking his hair and it’s okay. It’s better than okay, in fact, but the main point is that it isn’t bad.
“I’m sorry I grabbed your arm.”
Don frowns, “You what?”
“That day at the river, I grabbed your arm and pulled your sleeve up. I shouldn’t have done.”
“You were worried. It’s okay.”
“I was a prat. Just let me apologise, will you?”
“Okay,” he cranes his head to look up at Pos, “I love you,” he says quietly.
“I love you too, you daft sod.”