He is gentle. Like Alec was, but more bumbling. He treats me like a girl. I cannot keep from laughing, at times.
“I don’t break. I’ve done this before – hard, too. Don’t go easy on me; you’re a big boy. I like big boys.”
He gasps – I have surprised him. He speeds up, but I can feel him gripping onto control. I do not like that. I flip him over. He slips out of me and there is a moment of disappointment before I lower myself back down onto him. He moans. I reign down upon him – hard and fast and till it hurts.
“Sandy!” It is a breath – not even. “I’m gonna die.”
“Good,” I sigh. He comes a moment later – breathless and amazed. I take it all and bring myself off over his stomach.
“Thank you, Sandy. I – that was – thank you.”
I smile and steal a kiss. He doesn’t leave, and I am glad.
“It isn’t much,” I murmur, handing him a cup of bitter tea. “I have classes. I’ll be off soon.”
I’m not entirely sure why I tell him that. Perhaps to imply that he could stay for hours otherwise.
“You have… school?” he asks, suddenly alert. He takes the tea and holds it too tightly. I realise a second later.
“Medical school. Or, the hospital, rather. I’m going to be a doctor.” I smile at him. I have pretended to be young – too young – before for men. It is a fun game to play, until you realise you are not two opponents, but rather a hunter and prey; you are the game, and they are to feast on you. I always expected them to ask at the end of the evening, ‘Sandy, you aren’t really sixteen, are you?’ Sixteen or eighteen or whatever I tell them to make that guilty smile flourish. They never ask – I suspect they brag about it to someone else and they laugh in their face – ‘Sandy Reid, Sandy Reid – he’s over twenty.’ I hope they feel betrayed, but I doubt they care so much.
The man lets out a breath and smiles nervously. “I thought you looked young when I saw you, and I half wondered if you was a grammar school boy. I hoped not, but I should’ve asked.”
“Don’t worry – you’ve not corrupted my innocence.” I cannot help but grin; he’s a gentle giant. “If anything, I corrupted you. I knew when I saw you that I wanted you.”
“It didn’t feel like it. I felt as though I had to corner you, almost.”
“I knew you would fuck me,” I blurt out. He frowns. He has big hands and feet and a wide mouth full of big teeth. He’s bulky too – maybe a soldier, maybe manual labour, I cannot tell. “You didn’t corner me – you haven’t taken advantage, is all. If anything, I’m a bit – well, I’ve been around enough, I suppose.”
It is back to the way things were before Alec. I’ve not missed it. They think I am a silly creature. Worse still is that they remember both Sandys – the boy who was a terrible floosy, and the boy who played housewife to the esteemed Alec Deacon. Neither does me any favours; it’s all pity or disgust.
He does not know what to say to me, so he says, “Can I see you again, Sandy? If I come by this week, no one else will mind?”
He is hopeful. I think to crush him – ‘no one else will mind’ – and I almost ask him his name. He has not mentioned it, and I have not asked. How easily I could slice him in half with a barrier – here is where our relationship starts and finishes – but I do not.
“Yes,” I say, “I think that should be fine.”
“You used to be with – with Alec Deacon. Lanyon said so.”
I scowl. I do not like that he has befriended Ralph at the pub. I do not like that someone can say Alec’s name so easily when the syllables congest my throat.
“What’s your name?” I ask. I sneer, I think. “You never said.”
“Fuck.” He rolls over, and I imagine he sees me, naked, leaking his cum. I let him in without a thought, let him have me without knowing his name and he would ask me about Alec. “Jeremy Nicholson. Sandy, I’m sorry. I didn’t realise.”
His apology is sincere, and perhaps that is why I tell him what I do. “I was with Alec for just a little more than a year. He was too good for me. Very kind. But he was restless – that is to say, he had other men – and I didn’t like that. I didn’t like that everyone knew, and thought it was okay. I don’t do well in relationships, I don’t think.”
“Why’d he cheat?” Jeremy asks, as though it matters. As though he finds it unfathomable.
“I’m difficult. It was never going to last.” I sink into the pillow and close my eyes. I remember the shuddering feeling – like ice – I felt every time I thought that Alec so much as liked me. “But I adored him. I enjoyed the idea of him too much.”
He gives his peculiar silence at that. “Lanyon doesn’t like you at all.”
We share a smile.
“Sandy?” I gave him a key. I sobbed wretchedly the night I gave it to him – knew him only a matter of weeks, but wanted him to always be able to find me. “Sandy! Sandy, come out now!”
Ralph has told them all, of course. He’s told everyone that stupid, attention seeking Sandy got blind drunk and tried to get hit by a train. That heroic, perfect Ralph pushed him out of the way. Ralph hit me after. We tumbled to the ground together as the train went by and he yanked the scruff of my neck and served me up a black eye.
I do not make a sound, but neither do I hide. He finds me in the bathroom, and what surprises me when I see him is how red his eyes are. He has wept over me.
“Good afternoon,” I murmur. I reach for his bicep, to pull him toward me – to kiss him and make him forget. He remains rigid and I allow my arm to fall. “Remy, I’ll make you feel better. Remy, I know what you need.”
His breathing is loud. “You didn’t tell me something was wrong. All those days I’d come over and you were always fine. You should’ve said something.”
He’s angry – or perhaps, though I cannot be sure, hurt.
“Remy, I’ve had this talk before. I don’t need it again. I was wrong – Remy, I was dreadfully drunk.” I put my hand on his shoulder, but he is frozen. If the tension in the air could simply leave, we would all be fine, I think. “You’re perfect – you’re good to me. Let me be good for you.”
He turns away. His shoulders shake. He is mad and sad and he cries. Alec never cried.
“Damn it, Sandy,” he hisses. “You tried to die. I might’ve come over with this key. I might’ve expected a fuck and I’d’ve been in a dead man’s home. I might’ve left you a note and heard about it later on from Ralph Lanyon in his words.”
“I didn’t mean to,” I soothe.
“Yes you did, Sandy.” He wipes his eye and sighs. “It isn’t the first time. Lanyon told me you do this – that you try to hurt yourself when you’re upset. I didn’t know how upset you were. You should have told me.”
“Don’t play dumb, Sandy. You’re not stupid. I know you’re smarter than me. Maybe you’re smarter than Lanyon. You’re gonna be a doctor, but you play dumb for everyone. Why do you do that?” he asks.
Am I playing dumb? Perhaps. It’s easier to be dumb – to be deaf to the clashes and clangs of a chaotic world. It’s easier to pretend not to understand out of stupidity than admit that for all you know and all your mind contains, you understand nothing.
“Did Ralph tell you that it’s all an act, that I’m putting it on?” I say coldly. “Sandy and his theatrics?”
He stares at me as though I’ve spoken in Russian. “Is it?”
“Well I’ve never succeeded, have I?” I bite. “I don’t want to talk about it with you. I should not have run out in front of a train. Are you happy? I know it was a stupid thing to do. Rotten thing to do to Ralph and Alec.”
“Is this what it was with Alec? You’d do these things and then tell him you didn’t mean to? Fuck, Sandy.” He’s bigger than Alec. When he embraces me, I am surrounded by him. His is not gentle, though I know his tries; the bruises from where Ralph pushed me to the ground ache. “Talk to me, if you feel that way again. Don’t let me walk into a dead man’s house expecting sex, for God’s sake.”
He is nervous. He asks for tea and leaves without having what I usually give him.
“How old were you, the first time you was with a boy?” He has taken to asking me questions after we finish. Sometimes they are small, other times they are broad.
“Fifteen,” I murmur, humouring his peculiar pillow talk. “Boarding school. No huge shock there – I reek of it.”
“I was with girls, then.” He is just two years older than me. I wish I had have known him then. “I didn’t really consider – well this sort of thing – a possibility until I were twenty and found the right bars and got invited to the right parties.” He speaks so gently, like a bed time story. “It were only kissing and gropes till I was seventeen.”
It is a prompt, and I accept it. “People could read the way I am even then – for a while before, too, probably. People wouldn’t guess you or Ralph – they might suspect Alec; he’s cold towards women – but people always knew with me. Jenkins knew. He liked girls, but his cock wasn’t so particular.” He pulls a face at that. He has a pretty face. Sometimes it is grimy from work, and the sun darkens it, but his features are small, somehow betraying his muscles and rough speech. He tells me I am ‘real pretty, like a girl almost’, but if I am at all, it is cold. His brown hair and eyes and tanned skin and beautiful face – he is warm. He is the sun, and I cannot melt for when he is done he will find not a thawed out Sandy, but a puddle in my likeness. “I didn’t mind. I liked that someone I wanted could want me.”
“Did you love him?” he asks. These things fall so easily from his tongue.
“I thought I did, but I always knew he wouldn’t like me back. He hardly spoke to me outside of… we had an agreement. I didn’t mind,” I repeat.
“Like this,” says Jeremy. His face is blank. “This is an agreement. I come over, find you studying. You make me tea, finish the chapter and take me to bed.”
“When I was out of school, I found the bars. I knew to look for the strong, tall men who wore sneers and hated my guts – men like Ralph Lanyon, but without the heroism and good taste. They always took me like they had something to prove. They despised me. I enjoyed that. And then there was Alec.”
“Alec,” he mutters. There is something in his voice. Jealousy? I am not sure. I do not usually need to be with Jeremy. “Did he love you?”
I laugh and laugh. “Maybe,” I say when I sober. He does not understand why I find it so funny. “Alec pitied me, and I loved him. It’s difficult not to enjoy someone who thinks you’re a god, and I worshipped him. He liked the devotion, but couldn’t be devoted.”
“I don’t like Deacon so much,” he says. “He doesn’t seem as kind as you say.”
I shrug. Probably, he is not. I do not think the man who lives in my mind is the true Alec Deacon.
“You saw me and thought I was like them,” he says suddenly. “One of those big men who fuck you and hate you. That’s what you thought.”
“Yes.” I have hurt his feelings. “Oh Remy, I knew after two minutes of speaking to you that you weren’t really like them.”
He sighs as though I am terribly difficult. “Are you seeing anyone else?”
“No.” There is no need for another.
“Good. I like to have you all to myself.”
He does not offer terribly much, but it feels like plenty.
He knocks on the door and I know he is drunk. When I do not immediately come, he calls my name too loudly. I pretend I am not there.
“Sandy!” he calls again. I wince, trying to think of the body and bones and organs and all the things which can kill them.
I hear the sound of his key being fumbled into my lock and my heart drops. I don’t have time – there is no time in the world. I have so much to revise, so much I don’t know. My hands are shaking as it is. Alec always knew what to do when exams were approaching. He always told me I knew everything there was to know. I would raise my eyebrow. ‘Fine,’ he would say, ‘you know enough. You will pass, I promise.’
“Sandy,” he calls down the hall. “Sandy, you here?”
“Yes,” I call back weakly. “Jeremy, I’m very busy.” My voice cracks. He’s drunk, I am certain, so perhaps we could do something quickly and he will pass out. “Jeremy, I’m sorry, but I can’t tonight.”
I hear him stumble down the hall and to my room. When he arrives, he looks hurt. After glancing about the room, he frowns. “There’s no one else,” he slurs, voice thick.
“No.” Of course that concerned him. Of course, of course. I laugh. I’m not sure when it turns into sobbing. “There’s no one else.”
He’s barely upright. “Is something wrong, Sandy?”
“Yes. I have exams tomorrow – I don’t know… so much. There’s so much I don’t know.” He tries to understand, but I don’t think he can link the sobs and trembling fingers to something as tedious as exams. I must remember that he did not finish school, even. I must remember that he is not Alec. “It’s okay.” I smile a watery smile. Five or six minutes, I think. I can spare that. “I know why you’re here.”
Something isn’t clicking in his mind. He looks as though he is going to say something, when I sink to my knees.
It’s easy, I think absently. My body knows what to do, and my feverish mind leaves me until Jeremy falls asleep and I return to my books.
He knocks insistently upon the door. I know it is him because no one else arrives at my door step unexpectedly. I did not fail my exam. I answer the door.
“I don’t just come here for sex, Sandy.” I’ve hurt him again, and I don’t even know how. “I come here for you.”
“I’m sorry, dear. I’m a bit lost.”
“I was drunk – I know I was drunk. But I remember how we – you were crying, but you – we – we did that anyway and you didn’t… finish.”
How silly he is to mind. “I had to study; I just wanted to be quick. It was an important exam.”
“You were crying.” Is he mad at me? He is a blunt version of Ralph’s anger and Alec’s mess of logic and kindness.
“You finished,” I hiss. “I cried, yes, but you finished. Have you considered that? That you could have stopped but didn’t?”
“I was drunk and upset.” He colours red all the same. “But you could’ve said no, straight out, and you didn’t. That’s bad, Sandy. I said yes and you said fine and I woulda stopped, but I didn’t realise.”
He’s in a state and I can’t think of what he asks for. “I didn’t mind. Oh, Remy, you know how I am.”
“I like you. I properly like you, Sandy.” He says it in the strangest of ways, as though this is a turning point. Probably it is, but I cannot seem to decipher what and where and to what end.
I let the silence stretch a while. “Would you like some tea, Remy?”
“Do you really not understand, Sandy? Are you pretending?” he asks wearily. I stare blankly up at him. He releases a shuddering breath. “Thank you, Sandy. I’ll have tea.”
He drinks his tea in silence. When he’s finished, he stands up and takes my hand, pulling me down next to him on the couch and kisses me everywhere and takes me to bed.
“What do you think it is that we do, Sandy?” he breathes. It is more than that that he asks – I can see it in the lines on his face and the plea in his eyes. It is time to disappoint him.
“We fuck,” I whisper.
He blinks and nods. “Then that’s what we’ll do.”
It’s less personal than usual – he is not inattentive, but he does not hesitate as usually he does. It is better this way, I tell myself.
“What are you doing with him?” asks Alec. Alec and I speak well, considering. We still work at the hospital together, and share some links to the same friendship circles. Alec doesn’t know what to do with me – in his strange world of logic and method, somehow I remain. There shouldn’t be anything to keep us together, but we are stuck in a rhythm. The tune is not a long one – we work best not as friends, but as acquaintances always on the verge of spilling into friendship. Our interactions last for minutes or seconds and are like taking a break from the world; in the other is a venture explored and learned and abandoned – there is nowhere to advance, nothing to devour that has not already been spat out; it is simply an exchange of two lives. We understand that. We understand that and I still hate it.
“I don’t know,” I answer honestly.
“He’s your type.” Alec nods subtly back to the table where Jeremy sits with Laurie and Ralph and few from the set.
“He’s not like you.”
“I wasn’t your type.”
I laugh at that, and he offers me a grin. “No, you weren’t. He’s something else. I can’t say.”
“So you really don’t know what to do with him. Dangerous territory,” he remarks. “Do you have much in common? He works in a factory, you a hospital.”
“He listens, a lot. He lets me talk on and on, and he remembers what I say. I think he’s the gullible type – he trusts easily. He never worries I might be wrong or lying.”
“I often thought you were too generous with your trust,” Alec remarks with a terrible fondness. I often think Alec would have me again in bed, but no more than that. I think if he were forthright about it, I would let it happen. I am glad he is not forthcoming.
“Oh contraire,” I say airily. “I think I trust almost no one.”
Alec considers this, and places his hand over mine for just a moment. “I can see that, maybe.” Abruptly, he retracts his hand and looks over at Jeremy and gives a slight wave and smile – he had been watching us. “Oh, he hates me, doesn’t he? I actually quite like him.”
“Poor Remy,” I sigh.
“It is, of course, because he loves you.” I glance up at Alec – I try to mould my expression into one of surprise, but it just comes out guilty. Alec looks faintly amused. “But you knew that. Has he told you himself?”
“He ‘properly likes’ me.”
“Ah. Very dangerous.”
“He’s very good. You know, I don’t understand good people. I imagine their minds are filled with peculiar traps like in pyramids – all these places that morality prevents them from exploring. He’s not selfish – or if he is, which I think sometimes he might just be, his selfishness appears as kindness.”
“I think maybe you’ve lost your train of thought, Sandy,” Alec murmurs.
I shake my head. “All the time he asks if there is anyone else. It bothers him to think that I might have, even though we aren’t really – well. And maybe that’s selfish of him, but it’s also…” I shrug. “Well, I might enjoy that.”
“Poor Sandy,” he echoes. “Does he make you happy?”
The drinks are ready and waiting atop the bar counter. I glance down. That’s all we can wish for each other – that the other is happy with someone else. “I don’t know. I’m frightened I won’t get to be happy with anyone.” I hear the echoes of our old arguments begin to sound in my ears and close my eyes. “In fact, I am quite certain I can’t be.”
“I’m sorry they won’t marry you, Sandy.” Time and distance has eroded the debate into sympathy – a truce of sorts. “I’m sorry you can’t have what you want. I’m sorry I couldn’t give it to you, either.” He pats my arm and looks deliberately toward Jeremy, hiding a smile as Jeremy’s expression sours.
“What was you and Deacon talking about? When you got drinks.” If he was mad at me, he has since found forgiveness. He holds my hand in two of his and plays idly with it in bed. He only asks these sorts of things after we finish.
“Nothing, really,” I murmur.
He scowls. “It weren’t nothing.”
“About you,” I reply.
“Oh.” I’ve embarrassed him. “About me how?”
“About how lovely you are.” It isn’t truly a lie.
“Is that right?” There is dim light that streams in through the gaps in the curtain and he feels my scars – the one from Alec’s party, and the other from the incendiary. My Jeremy is naïve in some ways – to most, the healed gash down my wrist should have been self-explanatory, but he could not fathom it.
I did it myself, I had told him.
What – an accident?
No. On purpose, I’m afraid.
In a bathtub.
I gave no further elaboration, and he had been shaken by the understanding. That amuses me – that he is surprised by my cowardice more than my heroics. He touches that scar the most, as though the pressure of his thumb can smooth it over. I let him. “When you were gone and I were at the table, Lanyon asked me what’d kept me from enlisting for the war,” he says slowly, placing each word carefully without looking at me.
“Well – I felt bad telling him before you, but you never asked.”
I shrug. “I figured it was something medical, and that you shouldn’t have to tell me, if you didn’t want to. I’ll bet Alec had told Ralph as much. That’s probably why he asked while we were both away from the table. Silly boy.”
“What’d you think were wrong with me?” he asks, frowning.
“Not a clue, really. Probably something invisible – I’ve thoroughly inspected your body and find it to my satisfaction.” I smile. “Flat feet?”
He sits up a little and looks at me with his big brown eyes. His eyes do not carry around any sense of malice or calculation in them. “I fit. Since I was a kid. I shake for no reason –”
“Epilepsy,” I mutter. “I know what it is.” His hands rub mine nervously.
“I couldn’t enlist. I don’t – it isn’t often.” His grip on my hand tightens. “Sandy, it isn’t often. It hasn’t happened once with you – not ever with you. Are you mad at me? Please don’t – please don’t be mad.”
I would throw a tantrum, if he were Alec. I can’t think why, but I would have made a full production of it. As it is, I sink into the pillow, startled by how un-Alec he is; startled by how differently I act without Alec. “Why should I be mad?”
He stills. “Sandy, this isn’t nothing. Don’t pretend it’s nothing.”
I gaze at the ceiling. “I’m not angry at you for telling Ralph and Laurie before me – I’ll bet Ralph feels like an ass for asking at all. I’m not mad at you for having a condition – no one can help that. So it’s nothing, really.”
“People look down on it – it’s right embarrassing. It’s happened in public, too. They treat me different when they see. It’s not good.” He swallows, before speaking with a renewed sense of urgency. “I don’t come here as often as I would like because – because I’m real frightened of what you’ll say and think if you see me like that. But I would rather you saw me like that and I got to see more of you, Sandy. And I could teach you what to do when it happens, yeah? Or – or if you’d prefer, just leave the room and it’ll finish in its own time so you wouldn’t have to see.”
“Do you know I think you’re extremely handsome?” What am I doing with him? What is he doing with me?
“I saw you in the bar and my mind kept wandering back to you. I noticed your appearance and then your kindness and I saw a challenge.”
“A challenge?” he chokes.
“You smiled and didn’t sneer and laughed and didn’t snicker. You looked like them – my wonderful men who hate me – but there was no hatred in you. Not even disinterest, not even pity, not even judgement. I hoped I could foster it. I hoped you would loathe me. I had the frames in my mind of what would happen; I would push you too far and finally you would hit me, spit on me, slam the door.” He shakes his head from side to side. “But I knew you wouldn’t, so I gave you the key instead and I don’t know why. You’re not them and you’re not Alec, and I don’t know what to do.” I can’t look at him. “Just in case you were entertaining the notion of being the most messed up person in the room.”
“I would never – not ever. Sandy, I wouldn’t do any of those things.” His voice cracks. What does he want? What could I give him? Tea and sex is our routine, and he wants more and I’m sure I can’t give it.
“No, I know you won’t, darling. I just – you know there were men in the Middle Ages who thought if they whipped themselves often enough, the black plague would disappear? As though punishing themselves would lead to their being saved.” I turn that over in my mind. When I look at him, he looks frightened and ill. I smile lamely, and decide not to finish the thought.
He’s anxious, as he enters the flat. I heard his keys rattling around and let him in before he could unlock the door.
He nods mechanically as I start preparing it and he slumps down on the sofa. “I’m – I think I’m going to fit soon.” His voice is tight and I almost burn myself on the pot.
“I get a feeling, sometimes. I’ve had the feeling for an hour. I don’t always get this much warning. I were just gonna go home to my aunt, but your flat is closer and I thought it might be…” He stares at his hands. “I thought it might be better if you saw, especially when I can give you a bit of warning before you see it.”
“How soon?” I ask.
“Any time now.”
I don’t pour his tea and instead take his hand and lead him to bed. When he sees where I’m taking him, he stops. “Not the bed. Not your bed. I piss myself,” he says, flushing. “Sometimes.”
We sit together on the floor. “Do you feel tired, after?” I ask simply, like a proper doctor.
“Yeah. Yeah, tired and confused – don’t know left from right.” He fiddles with his hands and looks at me sadly. “My folks didn’t like it – it’s like the Devil’s in me.”
“It’s medical,” I murmur. “I’m to be a doctor, I understand.”
He shakes his head. “That’s why I live with my aunt – not because they’re dead, though my mum is, now. Not just for the work neither.”
“Oh. Oh Remy, I’m sorry.”
He smiles a little and picks up my hand. “The Devil’s in me one way or another, I suppose,” he says, and he looks at me as though I am his most sacred sin. Suddenly he cringes. “Auntie says sometimes I choke. Gotta be put on my side, if I can’t breathe.”
“I will,” I promise. “I’ll make sure you’re safe.”
We are silent, until it comes. He tenses and falls to his side, his eyes open but empty. He moans as if in pain, until the convulsing begins, and it hurts to watch him. I’ve often thought some maladies resemble the occult – Tourette’s like a cruel hex, schizophrenia the murmurings of saints or demons, epilepsy as possession by the Devil. But they aren’t – the body and mind are chemicals and atoms and I have to believe in science, for otherwise we are cursed the two of us; me with my poisoned mind, and my Jeremy on the floor. Eventually the convulsions cease, though he isn’t lucid for almost an hour, and is beyond exhaustion when he comes around.
He must call sick, the next day, and though I have to be at the hospital, it warms something in me to think of him spending the day in my bed.
“You talk different with other people,” murmurs Jeremy tentatively. I’m exhausted – the hospital was short staffed – and when I came home I immediately settled myself on the ground between Remy’s legs as he sat upon the couch. I’d gotten out later than expected, and there he had been, waiting for me. He fiddles occasionally with my hair all the while.
“Hmm?” He’s right, of course, but I want to hear him explain it.
“Yeah. With other people who aren’t in – in our set, you use this ‘Doctor Voice’. You talk a bit like Deacon.” He grazes his thumb against my neck and I slide my fingers along the top of his feet.
“Alec has a good, steady, professional voice. When he talks, don’t you just want to put your life in his hands?”
He pauses a moment – even if it was his fault, he doesn’t much like it when I talk about Alec – before continuing. “But with us queers, you speak like – well, almost like a girl. You know the voice? A few others talk the same way.”
“Like this, darling?” I drawl. Ralph hates it. Laurie despises it too. It’s worse because they both know I can switch it on and off like a light bulb.
“Yeah. That one.” He gestures for me to get up onto the couch with him. I lay down and let my legs fold over his lap. “On purpose?”
“Assimilation,” I reply. When he frowns – sometimes he doesn’t know the words I use – I quickly explain. “When I started going to the bars, a lot of boys talked like that – especially the ones like me. As a kid I had it a little bit already. So when I’m around our lot I use that voice. Like, I once had a Scottish friend who spoke with an English accent to his English friends, and the thickest Scottish accent to his Scottish family.”
He nods. “You spoke like that with me, when we met. And then – then when sometimes you’d try to get me to fuck you, you’d talk like that. Now, mostly, you speak normal with me. Not like a doctor or – or like that.”
“I’m less pretend with you.”
“Sandy,” Remy whispers, leaning into my ear. Around us is the sound of music and cheer, and the familiar groan of barstools being dragged across the floor. Not a birthday or any real celebration, it’s more of a meet up. I’ve been invited out of courtesy, more than anything. Remy, I’m sure, is more welcome here than I – in fact, I’m sure I’ve been invited so as not to offend him. “Sandy, you’ve had a lot.”
“No… no, my dear. I think I’m only a little drunk, and I think I’m allowed to be a little drunk, if I like.” I glance down and I count drinks. Something in my brain whispers that there are quite a lot of empty glasses in front of me. “Only drunk three more than you, Remy. Not that much more, and you’re quite okay.”
“I’m bigger than you, Sandy. And older and more used to it.” I look around the table at all their faces, but I keep losing focus – the world is in photographs flickering across my vision, like an old film. There’s Laurie and Ralph and Alec and my Remy. I catch Ralph lean across to Alec.
“Get him to stop, would you? You remember last time,” he whispers. He’s trying to be the hero again, but he’s a bit drunk too, I think, because his whispering isn’t very quiet at all.
“I don’t need your saving, Ralph,” I say, and I think my voice might be a touch louder than intended too.
“You did last time,” he mutters.
“If you hadn’t saved me, I wouldn’t have known the difference. Would’ve been quick, and it would’ve been just fine by me.” I feel light and far away, like I might float off into unconsciousness. I think I might never wake up, that I might just drift away, and I don’t think that would be so bad. I’m terribly tired, and that doesn’t at all seem like a bad idea. Perhaps that’s why I find myself stealing Remy’s tequila shot and drinking it.
“Sandy,” Remy begs, but I shake my head and laugh because he’s so sweet and tequila tastes disgusting.
“Sandy.” Alec’s voice – his doctor’s voice – slices through my thoughts, and I think I startle. They sat me next to him – or did I do this to myself? Why would I do this to myself? “Sandy, you aren’t a child.”
“No, I’m not, Alec, so how about you not treat me like I am?” But I feel it, then. There’s the dizziness in my head, but now also a queasy feeling in my stomach. “I think I might just go to the bathroom, maybe,” I murmur. Ralph rolls his eyes. I make to stand up, but suddenly the journey seems very perilous, and I plonk back into my seat. Remy looks at me worriedly, so I assemble a smile. “I’m fine, I’m just fine.” I stand back up and wobble, but manage a few steps. I stop, and I’m not sure how many seconds slip by before a shoulder nudges beneath my arm and a hand steadies my waist. It smells like home. “I feel a bit unwell, actually,” I admit.
“Let’s get you outside.” His voice is a song I know so intimately that I feel I could dance to it even now. My Alec.
A chair scrapes back. I close my eyes and groan. “I can… I’ll help,” says Remy.
“No,” I whimper. I clutch Alec. “Please no. Don’t let him see…”
Alec sighs a deep sigh and pats my shoulder. “No, Jeremy, I think it’d be better if I handled this one. Just for now.” I’ve buried my face in Alec’s shoulder, but Remy must look upset or move forward or something, for Alec continues. “I’ve seen him like this and I’ve seen him much worse. If he remembers this at all, he won’t wish to remember you being there to see.”
With that we flee to the gutter behind the bar and I throw up everything and, as always, say too much.
When I wake, Jeremy is there in his underwear, sitting atop a chest in the corner of my bedroom. It takes him a moment to realise I have woken, and when he does, he sits up terribly straight.
I frown. “You can come in,” I whisper. My throat hurts and my stomach still squirms, but it’s nice beneath the covers, so I pat them invitingly.
“You didn’t want me to, last night,” he says slowly. “You didn’t want me in your flat at all.”
“Oh?” I ask, but I’m not surprised.
“But Alec made me promise to watch you, and I wanted to besides,” he replies. He stands up and hesitantly approaches the bed. “You cried. It were bad, seeing you cry.”
My heart drops. “Why?”
He sits, but there is distance between us. I notice his eyes are a little red; I was not the only one crying last night. “You said you wanted to die, Sand.”
I swallow. “Don’t believe a word I say. Alec should have stayed with me. He knows better – ”
“I begged him to let me stay with you – promised I wouldn’t take advantage or nothing, and he said that that weren’t the problem. Just that I’d have to watch you all night – every minute – and that I’d see why.”
“Did I…” I run my fingers along the underside of my wrists. “Did I do anything?”
“What can you remember?” he asks. He pulls his knees to his chest.
I close my eyes and hold my breath, casting my mind back. I sigh when I find very little. “I remember fragments from when Alec was helping me out the back of the pub.” I feel the ghost of his fingers rubbing comforting circles in my back, and the tingles that ran up my arms when his nails touched the nape of my neck. “That’s all, I think.”
“We were driven back. Alec offered to stay with you – ”
“You should have let him,” I groan.
“And then you just kept on crying and I didn’t know why,” he mumbles to his hands. “So I kept asking and you told me you wished it would just go away – that everything would go away, because you don’t understand anything at all.”
“Should’ve let Alec stay. He knows what to do when I get stupid like that.” I glance over and see him rub his eyes. “Oh Remy, that’s just how I get. That’s why they can’t stand me getting drunk – it ruins the moods of parties, and they know it’ll happen. Bet Ralph was furious – really it just happens.”
He shakes his head. He’s too good for me – this big, tall man curled in on himself in my bed. “I want to see you every day. All the time, I just want to see you. I like your eyes and the way your hair is and I like that you’re all pale because you’re always hauled up inside studying or in the hospital. I like it that you offer me tea every time I come in. I like it that you’re smaller than me. I like it when you open the door for me because you can hear me taking too long with the keys. I like it when you bite me during sex. I like it when you talk about the hospital. I like it when you complain about Lanyon. And I want to see you all the time and touch you all the time, but I – I hate it that you won’t talk about what Alec means to you, and why things are different now than they was before. Because everyone talks about the way it was with Alec real different to how it is with me.”
I feel something strange – faint and fluttery.
But then I feel something much more familiar and consuming. I only just make it to the toilet in time. Remy follows behind me. Between wretches, I find myself apologising. Each time he forgives me.
“Alec liked me, is what was different about Alec,” I begin from behind the counter, drying the last of the dishes. I think – if only fleetingly – to smash everything. I scrub harder. “I have sisters – all sisters – and I thought I might get to be like them. Men treat them well because there are set rituals laid out for how a man courts a woman, and if they blunder, they’re ousted and another’ll take their place. And I’ve watched two of my three sisters go through it, always the same, always ending with marriage. That was what I thought of, when I was with Thomas Jenkins – I thought that my sisters weren’t getting on their knees to feel wanted the way I was. They were going on dates and dancing to get that feeling.” I’m not sure I’m making sense, but when I look up, Remy has put his teacup down on the coffee table and nods. “I found it upsetting. I don’t want to be a woman – I know there are men out there who wish for all the world to be women, and I’m not one. But there aren’t rules for us – there’s no path for us.”
“But you thought you had one with Alec.”
I place the last of the dishes on the drying rack and go to him Cautiously, I sit at the other end of the couch and curl up as small as I can. “We had a rhythm. We moved in together and we loved each other. And I was still me, I was still… whatever’s wrong with me was wrong back then too. I’d do stupid things or get upset and he’d love me anyway. And then he cheated and I found out and it couldn’t be quite the same and he left and I didn’t want to feel how I felt with him again.” I remember the first weeks after he left – going to the hospital and then home, seeing and speaking to no one. I remember after that, finding the sort of men I used to find before – men who were nothing like Alec. “I forgot what it felt like before – the uncertainty. The not knowing if you’ll ever have someone as your own again. And I know I overthink it, and I should be more mature – more like Alec – about this, but I’m not. And especially when I drink too much, I wish it could just disappear. I wish that I could just disappear.”
“And I’m not like Alec.”
“No. You’re you. And I don’t know what I’m doing with you. I don’t know what you’re doing with me. I think…” I feel tired and stupid, but he deserves this. “I think I’m afraid, Remy.”
“I do love you, Sandy.” He slowly pulls himself up from the couch and kneels in front of me. “You know that, don’t you Sandy? You know that I properly love you not for just – not for just playing around. I… last night you apologised for not being ‘normal’ – but I’m not asking you to be. I just want you.”
“My beautiful Remy. You’re far too good for me.” I stroke his cheek, and smile when his stubble scrapes my hand.
“You said that a whole lot last night, too.”
“It often crosses my mind.”
I sip my tea and don’t tell him I love him. Not because I don’t – the truth is that I do; dreadfully and painfully. No. I don’t tell him because my love is worse than worthless. My love is degrading, corrosive and far too easily acquired.
It was bound to happen eventually. I can feel it coming on, but I can’t stop it. I don’t want to. It’s like Alec all over again.
“If you want to pay bits of rent and bills, you can move in,” I snap, when Jeremy places the crumpled bills on the counter. It is a fight we have danced around several times, taking turns at capitulating, falling into each other’s arms, easy.
“Sandy, don’t be difficult. I sleep here half the week. It ain’t right I pay nothing.” He turns to leave the money on my kitchen bench, and I feel it – the frustration, the irritation.
“No. Get out. You are my guest, or you share digs, but it’s not like this.” I pick the notes up and try to place them in his hand. “Take them back,” I hiss. He clenches his fists. “Take them with you when you leave.” I drop them on the floor and turn to go. I am not five paces away when I turn back around. “You’re here half the week, but none of your things are here. And you’re on about not just coming for sex, but you come and we fuck and you were going to pay me for it. If you actually cared for me…”
“Sandy, you know it’s not that,” he says, like I am a child.
“Just go,” I whisper.
“JUST GO!” I cry. It consumes me. He’s never seen me like this. He doesn’t recognise me.
“The fuck is wrong with you, Sand?” he asks. More than hurt, he is indignant. He loves me. He’s told me so.
He doesn’t know me.
“Don’t move in because I don’t want you here. So take the bloody money and get out.”
Angrily, he picks up the bills. “You’re being a prick, Sandy.”
“Then find someone else,” I snarl. He leaves, on that note, slamming the door.
I consider ending it that night. I can’t tell you why I don’t make an attempt – even a feeble one. I think maybe that if Jeremy is mad at me, he might not drop by the flat for days or weeks or at all. I don’t like the thought of rotting.
And then I think that Alec would find me. The hospital staff would notice my absence first of all and would task Alec with looking into it. And then Alec would check in with Jeremy, find out about our fight, and he’d know. He’d go to find me himself rather than calling the police, and he’d bring Ralph with him and they would find me rotting.
I find myself in the kitchen on the ground, crying, beating my forearm against the sharp corner of the kitchen cabinet. The very worst of what Lanyon says is true – I’m manipulative, cowardly and dull. And the things Alec once reassured me of – my kindness, my intellect – are lies. I’m stupid. I can’t do anything. I destroy everything, and still I let myself survive, a testament of my own failure.
“Have you and Jeremy had a row?” asks Alec during lunch. We’ve not made a habit of eating together – often we don’t get a lunch break at all. Today, it is coincidence or Alec that brought us together. I can’t tell you why he asks – perhaps he has seen Jeremy out and about. Perhaps he has fucked my Jeremy. More likely, though, he can see my tiredness and red eyes and misery.
I sigh. “You of all people know, Alec.” What it’s like. What I’m like.
“Do you think he’ll likely come back?” asks Alec, perhaps recalling the tantrums I threw when we lived together. When I don’t answer, he skips to the next question. “How bad?”
“Just yelling. No drinking, no pills, no razors, no trains. Tame, if you think about it.”
“Do you want him back?” he asks. Poor Alec for caring.
“I do it when I love them.”
“Do you want him back?” Alec asks again, with just a smidge of sternness.
“Of course I do,” I snap. “But with how I am – I can’t have him, Alec. I can’t have any of them. It’s knowing that I shouldn’t, and then wanting it more than anything else that’s the problem.”
He looks at me strangely. “If you don’t want to be alone tonight, I could come over.”
It should almost sound like a proposition, and I could persuade him, I think. He means to be my carer, keep an eye on me, but Alec can be tempted. “No. Thank you.”
I feel his eyes linger on my back as I walk away.
I race to the door when I hear the key in the lock and feel myself release a long breath. He’s back, he’s come back, I’m not alone –
And then I see his face and I falter. He looks unhappy in the strangest way.
“Would you like tea?” I ask, giving him my best smile.
Jeremy can’t look at me. “Sandy…”
Don’t say it. Don’t tell me. You love me – you said so. Say it again. Say that. Don’t tell me…
“I’m sorry about the other day,” I soothe. “I didn’t mean it a bit.”
He doesn’t move from the doorway, but I won’t give in. I walk quickly to the stove to boil water, and when I turn around, the door is closed and he’s leaning against the back of the sofa.
“You know yesterday at the hospital – well, the most peculiar thing happened. An old man – older than my father – with the most fantastic beard was having troubles with his liver. I promise you, he looked just like some sort of fisherman. All he needed was a pipe.” Remy’s got his face in his hands, his eyebrows scrunched up, so I begin to speak more quickly. “Well, he said to me ‘Do you know Toto Phelps?’ It’s always that way, isn’t it? With us queers. ‘Do you know Charles?’, ‘Do you know Toto Phelps?’. I bet some people ask ‘Do you know Sandy Reid?’. Of course, you wouldn’t use some queers as a test. Ask ‘Do you know Ralph Lanyon?’ you’ll just hear war stories, I’d bet. I told him I did and gave him a smile. Goodness, he was the funniest thing. Terrible liver, though. Not got Lanyon’s-”
“I had it on with someone else, Sandy. Like you told me to. That ain’t an excuse – I know you said it because you was upset – but I got upset too and did it ‘cause I were mad. I’m sorry.” He says it all to the floor, but eventually glances up at me. The kettle is whistling and his eyes widen. Before I can make up a pot, he’s turned the stove off and abandoned the kettle to the sink. He thought I was going to burn myself to get back at him. Maybe I was. Maybe he’s been talking to Alec. “Sandy, I wanted to talk to you.”
“You don’t want tea, then?” I ask. I bite the tip of my tongue till the pain spreads, satisfying and warm. “Then phase two, I suppose.”
I take his jaw in my hands and savour the roughness of his stubble. I kiss him, and he lets me. I rub my hand over the front of his trousers and he pushes me away. It isn’t fair.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers.
“For what?” I snap. Would I have burnt myself?
“For – for doing what I did. I did it because I wanted to hurt you. But then… I shouldn’t’ve.”
I feel the tears begin and I want to burn myself. I want to hurt myself too. I want them to see how much it hurts. And my Remy – he doesn’t know at all what to do. He looks like a fourteen year old schoolboy who’s been hauled in front of the class.
He decides on a course of action – he approaches me carefully and pulls me to his chest.
“I hate you,” I moan. He tightens his grip. “I knew you couldn’t – I knew you couldn’t love me like… I knew you wouldn’t marry me.” I think of my sisters’ husbands. Maybe they fuck other women, but they’d never ever tell them.
“I’m sorry, Sandy.”
I pull away from him and stare. Violently, I try to undo his trousers. I think of Thomas Jenkins and his silence but for gasps and that seems altogether preferable. He pushes me away again. I’m not good for anything.
“Go away,” I beg.
He shakes his head sadly. “You know I can’t leave you tonight, Sandy.”
“Please, Remy. I’ll just sleep. I just want to sleep.” I’m shaking. I sink to the floor.
He shakes his head and pulls me up, leading me to bed. Once there he lays me on one side, while he sits up on the other. I howl into my pillow and he stares at the ceiling.
“Don’t ever come back,” I manage through tears.
He nods. “Alright.”
He is gone when I wake up.
Alec’s set isn’t at the pub tonight, and I’m glad. Alec’s set – Ralph, Laurie and anyone Ralph doesn’t despise. I don’t feel I have so much of a set anymore. I have Alec, occasionally, because I’m worrisome and Alec can’t help it and truly I’m taking advantage. Every time he speaks to me, I think of Ralph rolling his eyes.
Sandy and his dramatics.
I spot who I’m looking for. He’s a Sergeant now, but he’s been coming here since before then – before the navy, even. Named Richard, but some people call him Dick, others Dickie. I call him Duckie, because it makes him a little furious and he’ll smirk and that’s what I want.
“Duckie!” I say, and he peers down at me with eyes the strangest shade of grey – not the steely light blue colour, but charcoal, almost black. He’s taller than Ralph, taller than Remy. He looks at me, distaste evident in those funny eyes. I find myself slipping into my campest voice. “Duckie, my dear, I was hoping to see you, you know.”
He shifts. He remembers last time. “That right?”
“You know, with everything with Alec over, I’ve been… reminiscing.”
He sneers. “About what?”
He wants me to beg him for it.
I feign embarrassment. “My dear, you must know.” I think of what he had been like – rough and selfish. He hated me and loved to hate me and told me so. He couldn’t have possibly realised he was a dream come true. “Your cock,” I croon. His lips part. “I miss it.”
He smiles terribly. “Same old Sandy, then.”
Same old Sandy.
The Ralph in my mind rolls his eyes and Duckie takes me to his car.
Duckie peels my clothes off layer by layer in the living-room. I watch him take me in – my skinniness where he should rather strength, my paleness. My marks. He looks at them, observes them. He traces the burn.
“Incendiary,” I murmur, and he nods. He has burns himself from the navy. But he thumbs over my other scar, meets my eyes, and smiles wryly when I offer no explanation. He finds my bruises, presses them.
“Do you like that?” he growls, and I think he won’t mind if I say yes or no. I don’t know if I like it. It makes me feel bad, but I want to feel bad. Or, I want to feel nothing. When I keep my silence, he presses a little harder and I groan.
“Please,” I whisper, and I take him to my room.
I’m in Duckie’s arms when I hear the lock turn, and I know who it is – it couldn’t be anyone else. I don’t want to wake Duckie up (he cuddles in his sleep – he can’t seem to help it). He must know I’m with someone – my clothes all over the living room as they are. I know I should stop him from coming in, but I don’t. He opens my bedroom door and I see the look on his face as he spots Duckie.
This is who you were supposed to be. Why’d you have to be nice? It ruined everything.
He leaves without a word.
There’s a knock on the door, and it could be anyone. It could be anyone at all, but it’s fucking Ralph Lanyon and I curse myself for automatically offering tea.
“You’ve been drinking,” he murmurs. He can either smell it, or I’m more off than I initially thought. “You shouldn’t drink alone.”
“Yes. I don’t have ‘Lanyon’s Liver’ – you know that’s a saying? People from our set who’ve heard about you use it on people who are drinking beyond their abilities. I don’t have Lanyon’s Liver. Bet you do, though. Bet you drank on your own. But then, you lost a few fingers and were kicked out of school once, so I suppose that explains why you’re allowed and I’m not.” I come up for a breath. “Alec sent you?”
“Yes and no. You’ve been worrying him. Like you used to. I was just wondering if it was on purpose this time.” He eyes me warily. I am so tiresome.
I put on my best smile. “No, Ralph. I’m not trying to woo Alec back by feigning injury. I’m about an inch above that.”
“So what?” asks Ralph. When I can’t decipher the question, he sighs. “What’s got Alec all worked up if you’re not doing it on purpose? What’s wrong with you?”
“Why my dear; nothing. I’ve not lost fingers, and I was never kicked out of school – I was terribly discreet. I suppose I don’t have a thing to complain about.” He doesn’t dignify me with a response – no, he’s very much better than that. “I can’t have Alec. Alec is perfect, and I can’t have him – because of him, and because of me too. I didn’t want Remy; Remy popped up. And then I needed Remy and I had Remy and then I couldn’t have Remy either. Because of me. You’re so in control, Ralph. I suppose love must feel wonderful, for you. Truly. When you’re so in control and something like love comes along. It must feel like sunshine in winter. The one thing you can’t control is your love, my dear. You can’t help that you’re queer, and you can’t help loving Laurie. Love and rage – men need not have control over the two; they are the fuel of poets. My feelings are hardly poetic, and I can’t get a grasp on any of them. I can’t help how unhappy I am. I can feel myself getting jealous and unpleasant, but by the time I realise, all I want to do is be perfectly jealous and unpleasant.”
He doesn’t respond to this either, and I feel terribly tired.
“It’s all theatrics,” I mutter. “Isn’t it? All Sandy being dramatic. I have no one to perform to. I’m drinking, as the best of them do when they’re feeling under the weather. I’m not even on call, tonight.”
He frowns at me. There’s no train to throw me out from in front of, no bathtub to pluck me from. I have no use for Ralph Lanyon.
“Ralph, I don’t want Alec back. In fact, I’d rather he left me alone.” When did that become true? I couldn’t tell you. “I’m not bothering anyone but Duckie Collins –”
Ralph chokes on his tea and tries to muster enough grace to swallow it without dribbling. To his credit, he succeeds. “Richard Collins. Sergeant Richard Collins? You’re going ‘round with him?”
“You’re just fucking around, then,” he settles. “He’s a complete arse. A sadist to the men he works with, and he talks rubbish about the men he fucks.”
I shrug. “Free advertising.”
Something flickers in his expression. “What happened to Jeremy Nicholson?”
“Jeremy Nicholson met me is what happened. I scared him away. And he came back and told me ‘Sorry, but I fucked someone else and didn’t mean it at all’. And I felt as though he’d speared my gut and started stirring my organs around like a cauldron. Which is why I’ll have Duckie, and whoever comes after Duckie. And whoever’s between. And my drinks, with all ten fingers.”
I’m not sure if I’m getting to him, but he stands up. “Thank you for the tea, Sandy. I know you won’t make Alec worry. I’m sure you won’t do anything.”
He makes towards the door, and I think to do it tonight – but then, Ralph would be the very last person I ever spoke to, and that seems worse than dying. Worse than living.
It’s Alec’s birthday again. I don’t know why I go. I think I won’t, but then Duckie was invited too and he offers to drive me, and I forget why I don’t want to go right up until I get there.
I greet them all. Some I know, others I ‘haven’t seen in a thousand years!’. My mouth seems to remember what is required – I say all the usual things. Duckie thinks I’m stupid. He’s told me so – he doesn’t know how I’m meant to be a doctor with how stupid I am. I can hear his short, sharp exhalations. Like a laugh, or a bull puffing.
Alec greets me with a smile and kisses me on the cheek.
“Happy Birthday, Alec,” I say, and hand him his gifts. He takes them and promptly unwraps the paper. “It’s not really very exciting, I’m afraid.”
“You get cold, and I knew your size and all. Sorry, dear, it’s not one for the ages.”
He smiles all the same – Alec is good about gifts. He doesn’t mind so much what they are, he just enjoys the feeling of getting them. “No, very practical and perfect colours. Thank you, old dear.”
The party goes on. A few men dance, others saunter or lounge about the flat. It’s a party, but also a market place. At one point, I think, we were all boys gazing wide eyed at our peers, feeling privileged to suck Thomas Jenkins’ cock. Now we look about at all the men we might have or know or touch.
Duckie introduces himself to some other soldiers, gives a curt nod to Ralph. Ralph gives the slightest of grins in salutation. Ralph and Laurie both look at me with the same funny expression. I resolve to never speak to them again. I drink to that and drink a little more and I hope Alec is watching to see how well behaved I am. Really I am only a little drunk and I won’t kill myself even a bit.
I almost give up on the idea of Remy coming – which might have been my reason for attending – when suddenly there he is. Looking lost and nervous and at me. As he approaches, I startle on the sofa as Duckie plonks down beside me, his hand finding its way to the base of my neck. The party is boring, and long, and full of tiresome queers, apparently.
“Sandy…” Remy begins. He recognises Duckie – I know he must. He swallows. “I’m glad to see you.”
Duckie glares at him coolly. “Sandy,” he says, my name an insult, “won’t you introduce us?”
I smile big as I can. “Jeremy, this is Duckie. Duckie, this is a friend, Jeremy.”
“Fucking Sandy,” he jokes, but Remy doesn’t get it. “Richard Collins, in fact. Duckie is what Sandy calls me. Please don’t take the habit.” Duckie stands up to shake Jeremy’s hand, and I wonder if he’s jealous. But how could he be jealous? He couldn’t possibly be jealous of Jeremy. Duckie hates me. I want to tell Remy – it’s okay. We fuck and it doesn’t mean a thing either. He hates me. I think to say all that out loud, but I catch myself; I don’t have Lanyon’s Liver.
“What’s funny?” snaps Duckie, glaring down at me. Maybe he said something and I wasn’t meant to laugh. I can’t say. And I might mention Lanyon’s Liver, but Ralph is only a few feet away, really. It’s Alec’s birthday. I sink into the sofa and close my eyes and mumble, “Nothing.”
“Is he okay?” comes the sound of Remy. He’s so sweet. Too sweet. My face feels hot and flushed and ugly pink from the alcohol, but also from how sweet Remy can be.
“You know what he’s like.”
Same old Sandy.
Remy stiffens. Alcohol makes me drowsy. It makes me drowsy and stupid when I’ve had enough, and violently ill when I’ve had too much. Ralph is probably right, when he says I shouldn’t drink alone. It’s a waste, if all I do is sleep, and it’s even worse if I throw it all back up.
“Do you want a drink?” asks Remy, softly.
I giggle, but if I open my eyes and see his face, it will be real. “I’ll cry. I’ll cry and cry if you let me get worse.”
“Of water,” he whispers. “Water is all I meant.
“It’s okay, actually,” says Duckie. I irritate him on some sort of base level, I’ve decided. I work on it too. He doesn’t like the way I pout, he hates it when I speak effeminately and he abhors my fidgeting. Needless to say, I always make sure to fill in my quota for each. “I was going to take Sandy home. This party is boring, and we don’t want drunk little Sandy ruining another of Alec’s birthdays. Such terrible timing, last year. Truly, Sandy.”
“We’ll go. I’m up, we’ll go.” I sit up. It bothers me that he knows because I didn’t tell him and Ralph didn’t tell him (because Ralph just wouldn’t) and Alec wouldn’t have told, and everyone thought I was just ill. I think of Bunny, maybe. I think of a faceless naval medic talking about his suture kit being borrowed in the dead of night because someone tried to off themselves. And at a party, would you believe?
I told Remy I’d tried to end it. I didn’t tell him I did it at Alec’s birthday party. It shouldn’t make a difference, but it does.
“You can stay. Lanyon has a car, doesn’t he? Catch a ride later,” calls Alec, easily, looking curiously between the three of us. “Ralph, you would drive Sandy, wouldn’t you?”
“Happy to,” he obliges, and you must admire his manners.
“Sandy gets rather stupid on the drink, though. Don’t you, Sandy?” says Duckie, one hand wrapped around my wrist, the other on my back.
“Yes,” I whisper. The party feels quieter, and I’m afraid that a frightful number of ears have pricked up to hear.
“But that’s everyone,” Remy soothes. I can’t look at him. I can’t look at Duckie. I gaze at the floor as it swirls and shifts. My face is on fire. I want water just to put it out. “Everyone gets stupid after a few. I’ll get you some water –”
“Not like Sandy here. Sandy here runs baths. Last year he ran himself a bath at Alec’s birthday.” He pulls my arm up. I’m wearing long sleeves, but Remy knows what’s under them. And I can see he understands what Duckie’s doing.
“I’m up,” I beg. “Duckie, my darling, I’m up. Please let’s go. I’m okay to go. I know what I’m like, really I know.”
And then I hear it – a loud thunk as Jeremy’s fist connects with Duckie’s jaw. I feel my heart drop as Ralph is up in a second to grab hold of Duckie, who, upon snapping out of a momentary daze, looks ready to kill Remy or Ralph or me. Remy looks terribly confused.
There’s nearly a commotion. Everyone looks up for a few seconds, before pretending they saw nothing. It’s a marvellous effort. Remy disappears and we’re edging toward the door. Duckie is too embarrassed to look like an arse in front of Alec (Alec has that effect), and somehow he gets him to the door. Before I can join him, Ralph grabs my arm.
“Don’t go with him.”
I stare at him and smile. “My dear –”
“No, Sandy. Don’t go with him. I’ll drive you.” He makes to pull me back – back to the party, the sofa, a world full of Ralphs and Alecs and Jeremys.
I tear myself away. “I have to go. Really.”
The journey is a silent one. It makes me uneasy. He can’t find the words to dress me or Remy down, and he’s humiliated, I think. He’s humiliated himself over me, and I doubt he can think of anything at all worse. I make myself small – I keep anticipating he will find the words somewhere and shout them big and loud in my face, shove me against the chair, smack my head against the window. When he pulls up at my block of flats, I grin at him, and he gets out of the car. I think, I’m not in the mood, but if it’ll cheer him up, I suppose we can muster one round. I stumble from the car and try to take his hand.
His fist comes at my eye and somehow, I don’t expect it – stupidly, I recall how Ralph had expected it. The second hit comes not a moment later at my lip and nose. It’s carefully done. His silence in the car – this was what he was imagining, over and over. I fall to the ground and he kicks my ribs one, two, three times.
I roll over and throw up in the gutter. Through the haze, I hope it is from the drink and fear and not a concussion. Pathetically, I want to pass out on the street, but sleep doesn’t come and I wind up half crawling to my apartment.
It’s Laurie. I know because by the time I register the knocking, he’s already calling out in frustration.
“Sandy. Sandy, open the door. Sandy, you know if you don’t, I’ll have to bust the locks, and that’ll take a lot of effort on my part –” I swing the door open too forcefully, forgetting every one of my manners. “Oh.”
I haven’t cleaned up from last night, I think dully. There will be blood on my face still. My clothes are disgusting. “I’m alive, Laurie.”
“Ralph figured maybe –”
“Ralph was right,” I snap. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Maybe you should see Alec,” he suggests. Ralph has asked him to come, I can tell. Laurie is here because he cares for Ralph, who minds about Alec, who worries about me.
“Do you know, Laurie, that I study medicine too? Goodness knows Alec will be a better doctor, but I should hope I could deal with this by myself.”
“Concussion?” he asks.
I shrug. “If it is, it isn’t severe. It’s tricky, because I was drunk at the time, so the symptoms get all mixed up. I was dreadful tired last night, so I didn’t grab any, but all I need is ice and pain killers.” He nods, frowning, and I think I know what’s bothering him. “Did you know that queers punch each other up too? I never really thought about it till I did. I thought it was a thing men did to women, but then a man said to me once, ‘When it’s two men, it always gets physical.’ Well, I don’t think always, but certainly it makes sense. I knew Duckie was exactly the type who would –”
“Then why? We were all uneasy about it – why did you go with him?” he bursts. His frustration, I think, stems not from my being beaten, but from my being stupid enough to be beaten when it was the logical outcome.
“My dear, if I recall correctly, it was your beau who gave me my last black eye, and really, it’s too early to be speaking so loudly. I… I went because I thought he would yell at me and push me around a bit, the dreadful brute,” I reply honestly. “And I would have smoothed it over best I could. But he was silent the entire ride home and he hopped out of the car I didn’t have much time to think about a lot. This may be difficult to believe, but getting biffed in the head wasn’t actually part of my master plan. Remy’s the problem.”
“Jeremy was worried about you.” He says it as an accusation. I don’t deserve the worry of all these big strong men is what Laurie thinks, though he’s far too reasonable to say it. A part of him – and of Alec and Ralph – wishes I would be put out of my misery. It’s embarrassing to watch, I suspect. I collapse on the sofa and look at the ceiling. Laurie sighs. “I told him last night that I’d drop by this morning and check on you. He’ll ask. What would you have me tell him?”
“Tell him that he’s very kind, but that he shouldn’t go punching men at parties, especially when they’re bigger than him, and by far bigger than me.”
“You know I have to tell Alec what happened,” he says bluntly.
“You really, really don’t.” I smile weakly. “I’m quite afraid I’ll have to do it myself.”
I see Alec at the hospital – when he spots me, he looks impossibly tired and not at all surprised. I think he’s given up on me, when he pulls me aside only for a cluster of seconds.
“I’m coming over tonight. What’s the story?”
The story – what I’ll tell everyone. “I was mugged. Didn’t even have anything on me.”
He nods. “Just the face?”
“Ribs too,” I murmur.
The offer of tea is halfway out of my mouth when I see Alec brought him.
“Oh Alec. How could you?” I make a dash for my bedroom, and Alec expected me to be exactly this childish, for he’s after me in a second.
“Stay. Don’t go,” he calls over his shoulder, when all the poor boy need do is run and never look back. He finds me biting my hands and arm on my bed and his face softens. “Sandy.”
When we were together I used to slam my body into the walls, hit myself until it stung and bite. He had once told me that of all of it, he worried the least about the biting. The marks go away, and I’m unlikely to break anything, this way.
“Alec, go away. I don’t want you around. You’re free.” He’s right about biting, I think. I bite as hard as I can bring myself to, and it doesn’t break the skin.
“I can’t be free,” he mutters. He lies on the other side of the bed and closes his eyes. “The world is unfair, Sandy Reid. It’s unfair to you. I agree with you. I’m not Ralph. To hell with biology. Damn civilisation. It’s unfair. I find it – frustrating. Sometimes I think about it for an hour or two – or on and off for a day.” He rolls over and sighs when he sees the rows of fresh bites up my arm. It frustrates me that they are already fading. “Stop, Sandy. Keep still, close your eyes and listen. I know it’s different for you. I know everything’s different for you, and if it helps, I don’t think it’s all your fault. It’s the brain and nature and it’s very unfair. It’s unfair for Richard Collins too, you know.”
I look at him. “I’m sorry about Duckie.”
“He has problems. With anger – he sees someone about it. He approached Ralph, you know. He was worried he had killed you.” Alec shifts and I pretend not to notice. The bites are fading, but if I press down on them, they still hurt. “Life isn’t fair for Jeremy Nicholson either. I don’t just mean because he’s sick. He works very hard for very little. You gave him a key, didn’t you, Sandy? To your flat?”
I don’t reply. I can’t.
“When I met up with him, he asked if I was there to take back his key. He told me he’d left it at home, but he’s been playing with it all the way here. It’s his favourite thing in the world, I think. You meant something, giving it to him.” Alec rolls me over by my shoulder till I face him. “I’m going to leave you with him. I trust him with you – I wouldn’t leave you tonight if I didn’t. Right, Sandy?”
“Yeah,” I mumble. “Okay.”
I hear him leave and then Remy is outside my door but he doesn’t come in.
“Are you sure people don’t come here?” I asked. Light streamed into the shed through cracks in the ceiling. Jenkins left the door slightly ajar so I could see. I’d thought him considerate.
“I’ve checked. The groundskeeper’s off today. Don’t you believe me?” He wore a badge – a sports award, I think, for cricket or football, or whatever else he played. His blazer was embellished with stripes and colours and I felt impossibly lucky. He was the first of my gods. “Reid… what was your Christian name again?”
I swallowed. “Alexander,” I squeaked. It made me uncomfortable that he didn’t know. I knew everything about him, even before he approached me.
He smiled. He had a few spots, but you could tell even then he was going to be handsome when they cleared. I couldn’t believe he had wanted me. “You don’t seem like an Alexander to me.”
“No. No, it makes you think of the Great one – Alexander the Great, that is. I’m not him, quite.” Everything I said sounded stupid. I knew why I was there – it wasn’t to talk.
“Hmm. Shorten it. Alex? Alec? Xander?” He frowned at that last one, and I laughed self-consciously. He was going to have sex with me. He had said so, almost. We didn’t go to a shed to talk, I kept thinking. Please just do it. “Sandy. I like that. Your family ever give you Sandy?”
“My sisters have tried it on. Mother and Father don’t like it,” I rambled. Oh God, he was going to hate me.
“Do you like Sandy?” he asked. I was anxious – as if it mattered about my first name. Everyone called me ‘Reid’ anyway.
“Yes. Yes, Sandy’s good. Sandy’s fine.” Please, please just tell me what you want.
He nodded. Apparently, that had satisfied him.
“You like boys, don’t you Sandy?” he asked. He leaned against the wooden workbench and I was glad for the dark. Otherwise I should have felt horribly exposed.
“You won’t tell anyone, will you?”
“No. No, it shouldn’t do me any good. Sandy, I don’t really like boys.” He stopped and smiled again. He was two years older than me, and I think he liked how frightened I looked. “But I don’t mind them. I don’t mind the idea of them. Why would I? Anatomically, what’s the difference between your mouth and a girl’s when it’s on my prick? You understand, don’t you Sandy?”
Had it been so dark out when we left the school building? I wished someone would come looking for us. I wished someone would knock against the rusty walls and send us scurrying.
“Sandy, you like boys. Do you like cocks?” I couldn’t look at him, and I remember how funny he found it. I nodded. “Do you think you could like my cock?” I thought I was going to cry. Maybe if he kissed me it would be better. I covered my mouth with my hand. He sensed he’d spooked me. “Sandy, Sandy,” he murmured. Was that my name now? “How about this. If you suck my prick, I’ll let you kiss me.”
“Are you sure – a-after…?”
“I’ll be so grateful, I won’t be able to help it,” he assured me. “That’s what you want, isn’t it? You want a boy to kiss you?” I nodded. He could tell everyone, if he wanted to. He could beat me up, and if he told the teachers it was because I wanted to kiss him, because I was queer, I bet they would’ve turned a blind eye. “Well, you can kiss me if you suck me till I finish. I promise.” He took my hand and placed it on the front of his trousers. I felt that he was bigger than me, and that he was hard.
He pulled his cock out and told me what he wanted. No teeth. Suck. Tongue is good – and use your hands too. I didn’t have to swallow, but he’d be proud of me if I did. So proud that he’d kiss me anyway.
I tried my best. He instructed me during – it was helpful, I suppose. Sometimes I needed correction. When I knew he was going to spill, I decided to swallow. I didn’t think I’d done very well, and I wanted him to be proud of me.
“Thank you, Sandy,” he breathed. He gave my cheek a gentle slap. “Really good. Very well done.”
I frantically wiped my mouth and tried to swallow till the taste went away. “Can I…?”
“Kiss me?” he laughed, and I truly thought he would leave. I wished he’d stop laughing at me. “Yes, if you must.” I felt my face fall and his expression turned to one of faint amusement and pity. “No, you deserve it. Come on, then.”
I wanted it to be romantic – more passionate than kisses in the pictures. When I had to approach Jenkins in the shed, I felt myself blush furiously. I almost told him to forget about it – it didn’t matter. I put my hands on his shoulders because I didn’t know where else to put them, and pressed my lips feather light against his own. It was over as soon as it began.
He laughed and laughed at me.
The next time (there was a next time, and on) I managed to bring myself to kiss him a little longer. Eventually (months? Did it take months?) he stopped laughing at his silly soppy Sandy.
Sometimes my mind wasn’t all there. My brain would leave – logic and thoughts and me would leave my body, and I would be just a body that knew how to please Thomas Jenkins. My memory would get spotty – I couldn’t remember days and times and when he was there and wasn’t. He would talk about a time, but time was all the time and never. When I imagined dying in those days, it was because I thought maybe I was already halfway dead, caught in some strange twilight of alive and not.
“Sandy,” he would say, and it felt like playing piano – an old song you’ve learned through, your fingers knowing what to do, though your brain hardly remembers the tune. I didn’t know what I was doing, or if I liked it, but my body knew what to do and I watched, played beautifully for Thomas Jenkins.
By the time I was sixteen, I could kiss him long and slow and sensually till his cock swelled again and he would beg me for another round. During his last semester, he took me to his room and fucked me between my legs. After that, it had been him who had kissed me, and I had almost cried.
I didn’t mind that he didn’t love me. It made it better. I’d earnt it.
When he left me – graduated, we had fun, didn’t we, Sandy? – I cried and cried. My mind was good for maths and science and nothing. My body was good for nothing. I used to hit myself – punch myself or throw my useless body against the walls. It made me feel as though I was crying because I hurt the way a normal person ought to hurt. A better pain.
I almost tell Remy to leave, but I’m terribly afraid that he will, so I don’t. In the end he enters without my doing or saying a thing.
He looks at me, mostly, and I notice his breaths are long and measured. He stares at my face, the left of which is swollen and blue and ugly. He looks at my arm, which is artfully decorated by bites (which fade too quick, too quick).
Now is the time to run.
“I didn’t know he’d do that to you, Sandy,” he says, instead of running. There’s still time, but I’ve lost the will to push him away. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” I mutter. I forget myself. I try to remember. “Tea, my dear?”
He doesn’t dignify me with any response but to sit on the other side of the bed – where Alec had sat just moments ago.
“I’m sorry about everything.” He’s going to cry. Alec’s told him too much, I think. Alec needs to get a life. “I knew better, but I was mad.”
My Remy is beautiful, and beautiful things don’t understand. What a terrible, terrible thing for Alec to do – sacrificing such a beautiful thing.
“When I was fifteen,” I begin – just as I imagined a thousand times – not looking at him or the room or the world, “one of the older boys took me to a shed because he could tell I liked boys, and asked me to suck him. I was frightened. Of boys, of cocks. He promised he’d kiss me after.” I shake my head and scrunch up my eyes. “No, that wasn’t it. I got to kiss him. So that’s what we did. I’d do him favours, and he’d let me kiss him at the end. For two years, maybe twice a week, I don’t remember.”
“I’m sorry, Sandy,” whispers Remy. He’s too good.
“I just wanted to tell you.” I just wanted to tell someone. I almost told Alec a hundred times, but the words always caught. Alec’s instinct to defend the weak and pitiful – I would have had him ensnared, I think. If I told him how I hadn’t wanted Jenkins but was too afraid to say, he might have been trapped. It wouldn’t have stopped the affairs or his eternal weariness, but I might have kept him longer. “I’m stupid for mentioning it. Probably just want attention. Fuck.” You fish-bellied, blackmailing little crap. I had a dog once that had a tumour in its brain and used to bash its head over and over against the pavement. Papa said it made it feel better. I was young – I couldn’t imagine how more pain could make anyone feel better. Papa had put it down in the end. I told him I hated him – he killed my dog – and Mama struck my cheek and I cried even more. I know better now. “I don’t think that’s why I am how I am, even.”
“No. Alec said that was your brain.”
Something flares within me, but I let it die down. “I’m not a happy ending, Remy. I don’t come good and I don’t get fixed. I almost thought mentioning Jenkins would lift some sort of spell, but it didn’t. I feel the same as ever. Truth is I’m just sick, and there’s no reasoning with that.”
“Do you ever believe me when I tell you I care for you?” he asks.
“You feel sorry for me,” I whisper. Like Alec felt sorry for me. Jenkins never felt sorry for me. Or at least, that wasn’t why he was with me. I chose Duckie because he didn’t feel bad for me a bit.
“Maybe,” he murmurs. He huffs a sigh. “Yeah, maybe I feel sorry for you Sandy. Is that bad?”
A sob goes through me and I try feebly to disguise it as a cough.
“But that isn’t all it is Sandy. What’s the good word for when you feel bad for someone?” he asks, and I laugh.
“You mean ‘sympathy’?”
“Yeah. It’s like that. It’s not a bad thing. And it’s not the only thing. I think you’re beautiful. I like to watch you do things – like make tea, or when you study and I know that there’s real complicated stuff going into your head.” He falls silent and maybe I’m meant to say something. “Do I make you happy? Do I make you more happy than sad?”
“I don’t know,” I say. You make me miserable. Thoughts of not having you, thoughts of you with other men, thoughts of a million ‘if’s suffocate me. The only thing worse is when you leave.
“Do you want your key back?”
I should take it. If I ever do it – if I ever succeed – I don’t want him to find me. I don’t want him to see me rot or decay. I should take it, and then when he comes knocking, I could pretend not to be home and he would stop coming and I would never come home and collapse into his arms and it would be easier – so, so much easier. I should never have given it to him.
“No,” I whisper, the word torn from me. “There’s no one else.”
He rolls onto my side of the bed and pulls me into his warmth. He makes promises he shouldn’t – ‘I’ll look after you, I’ll care for you, it’ll be okay’ – and Alec’s done a horrible thing, bringing him here.
We walk for a few blocks in silence. I can’t look at him. I can’t stand it. I keep my head down and my hands in my pockets and I keep remembering the way Remy had looked when he realised that Thomas Jenkins is terribly real. Alec would have saved me. If I had ever told him and if he saw Thomas Jenkins ask me on a walk, he would have interjected easy as anything with an excuse. He would have shot me a look that told me agreeing would be a very silly thing to do.
At some point, he stops walking, and I realise I was listening to his gait, for I’ve stopped too. There’s a bench a few feet away and he gestures for me to sit. When we are both seated, he looks at me in the strangest way.
“Alexander, I think we should –”
“Sandy,” I mumble. “You know it’s Sandy.”
He nods and takes a few breaths. He’s nervous. Maybe he’s as nervous as I am. “Sandy. I need to tell you that I’m sorry for what I did, and I’m sorry for how things have ended up.” He takes another long, deep breath. “If I could have seen all about Kitty back then, I wouldn’t have… things would have been different. I would have done things differently.”
It doesn’t click. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”
He laughs at that, and I always hated how often he laughed. “No, Sandy, I did. I chose you for a reason, and I shouldn’t have done that.”
I was right about him being handsome when he grew up. No more spots and the loveliest of lips. “You knew I liked boys. And cocks. And you weren’t wrong.”
“You were young, Sandy, and shy and I’d seen you looking at me a bit.” I can feel his eyes on me. I’m a child – I scrunch my eyes shut and imagine I’m back in my flat with Remy, and Mummy and Kitty and Thomas Jenkins have disappeared. “Sandy, you aren’t fifteen anymore. You ought to look at me. I want you to.”
I do. I am not fifteen. I feel the shed walls closing in around me.
“I’m taking responsibility. For what I did. For what happened when we announced our engagement. I wasn’t good about it, and I don’t think I was being fair. What I did wasn’t fair. None of it, but I can’t help it about Kitty. I love her, Sandy.”
“Why’d you do it? Why’d you ask me to…?” I should be able to say it, at least.
He presses his hands to his eyes and considers the question. “You need me to say it? We were at a boys’ school.”
“You apologised for picking me. You picked me, even though you knew it was wrong. Why?”
His silence is interrupted only by the stirring of trees shimmying their leaves over our heads. “It sounds awful even in my head.” He pauses, as though hoping I will interrupt. I do not. “I wasn’t going to have anything to do with you. Not after school. And you didn’t have many friends, and the lot you had weren’t close. And I thought even back then how I wasn’t being terribly fair. But you were the only one who knew what I was doing, and I tricked myself into thinking you were happy about it –”
“I never said ‘no’,” I mutter. “I must have wanted to, really. I never said ‘no’.”
“When you – when you did what you did at the dinner and told me I’d been unfair, I wasn’t at a loss for what you meant, Sandy. No matter what I pretended.” He touches my shoulder and I shiver. I keep trying to figure out whether, should he proposition me here and now, I would fall to my knees for him as easily as I used to. I think maybe I won’t have a choice in the matter – my treacherous body knows the tune too well. “Kitty misses you. You don’t visit, and she doesn’t know why and I can never tell her. Please come by. If you need it, I’ll make an excuse not to be there.”
“I might,” I whisper. I twirl it around in my head. “You’re actually, truly sorry?”
“Yes. Yes, I think I am. Everyone thought I was quite good, but it’s just like in sport, really. Players will be on their best behaviour until the referee isn’t looking. If they think they can get a scrap in, they will. I saw you and no one was looking.”
He seems sincere, but the idea floats into my head, and I know and understand and am certain. “You’re afraid I’ll tell. You’re afraid I’ll tell Mummy and Kitty.”
His face drops. “Sandy…”
“I won’t.” I feel terribly angry, and I almost want to run back to the flat and tell them, but I couldn’t. I could never do that to Kitty. “Jeremy knows.”
“The man back in the flat?”
“Yes. He knows.”
“He wouldn’t –”
“No, I’m sure he wouldn’t. He’s far too nice.” I wouldn’t. Suck him, that is. I think it would make Jeremy very sad.
“I still regret what I did,” he mumbles.
“Maybe. It’s just hard to tell, sometimes, if regret is the same as being sorry.”
“Alexander!” cries Mummy as we return. She and Kitty sit on the sofa, Remy on the armchair looking shellshocked. “I was just asking Mr Nicholson here if he was your friend like Mr Deacon was.”
I glance at Remy and see he’s awfully flustered. “Yes. We’re friends like it was with Alec.”
Kitty frowns. We look similar – I get a special sort of joy imagining Jenkins’s mind absorbing our relation, as well as our likeness. On a girl, of course, it is much more becoming – the blondeness, the perpetual blush. “You go to university together?”
No one makes any attempt at an answer, and eventually her face smooths out.
“You went to school with Sandy, didn’t you?” asks Remy. I feel a smile creep onto my face and Jenkins’ eyes widen a fraction. I remember Remy punching Duckie in the face and I almost wish for a repeat performance.
“Yes. I was a couple of years ahead, though. I didn’t know Alexander very well, I’m afraid.” He looks ill. “Then I happened to meet Kitty. Such a coincidence that I already knew Alexander. I didn’t know they were related for the longest time.”
“Must’ve been surprising,” Remy mumbles. “What luck, that you were already acquainted with your brother-in-law.”
Mummy’s eyes flutter between Remy, Jenkins and me. She knows more than she would ever say.
“I was just saying to Alexander that we don’t see enough of him,” Jenkins says, and poor Kitty looks horribly sad.
“Yes, Sandy-Bear – you must visit once in a while. Didn’t we used to be the very best of friends?” She turns to Jeremy and dazzles him with her charming excitableness which looks so insipid on me. “We used to dress up the two of us in Mummy’s clothes. Lizzy and Ada never joined in our fun. Then Sandy went off to miserable boarding school and every break came back a spot less fun. Now I don’t see Sandy, and Ada’s to be a nurse, and Lizzy has her children. I miss you horribly.”
“I’ll come down and model your wardrobe for you. Didn’t you used to complain, Mummy, that had I been a girl, we might have been a perfect set?” I ask. “I should dress up as you, Kitty, and we should do a family portrait.”
Mummy looks despondent. “Be careful what you wish for.”
Jenkins coughs. “What was it about your arm? Kitty said you wrote – something about an incendiary.”
“Don’t get excited. People act like I did an awful good thing because I got burned, but really I was doing the ordinary thing rather poorly.” I am careful to roll up the correct sleeve to show them my healing burn. They wince. “Ugly, I know. You should have seen it when it was weeping pus.”
“Goodness,” Mummy breathes, but I think she is a little proud. She has something to tell people about her son. Not a cover up for my oddness, not a general statement about my being almost a doctor. In a time of war, her son had saved lives like a man and not just like a doctor.
“I dare say I’ll have more sympathy for burns patients,” I say dully, and they teeter appropriately.
“They mostly call you Alexander,” Remy says as the door closes behind them. I wonder how long it’s been playing on his mind.
“Is it just our lot that do that? Call you ‘Sandy’, I mean. I’d already said ‘Sandy’ a dozen times before I thought you mightn’t want me to.” He ducks his head almost shyly.
“Mummy named me after an ‘Alexander’ who actually read like an ‘Alexander’. A big, strong-willed, moral man with a bushy moustache. She won’t call me anything but Alexander.” I put the kettle on to boil and lean against the bench. “Kitty switches between the two. And Jenkins – well, Jenkins was the one who started on calling me Sandy, but he’s got to keep up appearances.”
“Oh. Do you want me not to call you that, then?” At some point I began to understand the tones of his voice. He has one in particular that I’ve grown very fond of – this strange, practiced, measured way of speaking that feigns offhandedness. It’s adorable, especially when his face scrunches involuntarily.
“No. He was right about the naming. I’m glad he did it.” I pick up the cups and saucers and carry them across the room to the coffee table. He makes to help me, but I walk with purpose, and he capitulates, seating himself beside me on the sofa. Tea cups look very funny in his hands, I’ve always felt.
“You didn’t tell me they would be here. I wasn’t expecting it, Sandy.” Jeremy is terribly mild with his reprimands.
“I didn’t think you would come, if I said anything. I wanted you here.” I hope that might soothe him. I lie across the sofa, my head on his lap. Sometimes I can get him excited from here. Talk just the right way, or through carefully placed touches. I wish for it now.
“You didn’t tell me about him proper,” he mumbles.
“I did tell you an awful lot, though,” I remind him. “Things that I haven’t told anyone else.”
“You told me those things, but you didn’t tell me he’d married your sister, or that he was coming ‘round.” All he wants is a simple ‘sorry’. I’ll end up giving it to him, eventually. I always do. I can’t tell you why I play these games.
“No one told me he was coming. Mummy doesn’t like me being around him, usually.”
I look up. I want to see his expression. “She knows that the day they announced their engagement ended similarly to Alec’s birthday last year. I changed my mind halfway through, at any rate. I ruin special occasions.”
He’s suitably horrified, and makes me sit up. “Where? How old?”
“Eighteen. I started university in a cast.” He’s so worried about me, and I feast on it. “We told everyone it was an accident – which it more or less looked like, in the end. I jumped over the balcony – it was only on the first floor.” I give my wrist a good, sharp bite. He winces, but says nothing. Not for the first time, I wonder if he’s been having words with Alec. “He actually loves her. He’s smitten by her. When you watch them together – it’s nice. Really, really nice. It makes me so furious.”
“I love you,” he murmurs. “Actually, properly.”
I smile so he can see it. “And it’s really, really nice. And it makes everyone in the world furious.” A pause. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”
It’s Sunday and he doesn’t need to leave at dawn. It’s nine o’clock and neither of us need move – simply I lie still beneath the covers and let the morning sun touch my skin. It feels as though the world is plunged into water – not icy like the sea or so scolding as a bath, but like a clear lake on the hottest day of summer, and there are people and they laugh and play and I feel like maybe they like me, maybe I’m loved. And I can breathe in the water – yes, I think. Yes, for once I can breathe, and maybe everyone else is always this happy.
What a thought.
I have never been so happy. Not in my entire life. Not when Jenkins kissed me and told me I was ‘amazing’. Not even with Alec.
I’ll never feel this happy again.
The realisation crashes into me – a wave in my still lake – and I feel the breath stolen from my lungs.
I’ll never feel this happy again.
I can never explain it right. I remember describing it to Alec, and the way he looked at me, he might as well have had a pen and note pad to jot down symptoms. We never got far – I worried if I got it right, he would make me have treatment.
I feel like I did when I was fifteen. I’ve had the feeling other times – with Alec, but also before, and also after. It feels like I am still in my lake, but everyone else has left. There’s a chill, and it’s only me, and my body and mind are performing the tune of living in the real world, but I’m somewhere else, watching from my cold depths with sluggish eyes and a pruney heart.
The worst thing is that Jeremy is so dear to me. He can tell something isn’t right, but I’m not how I usually am when I go wrong – I don’t climb the walls or weep that I hate him or hurt myself for attention. He asks if I’m okay, and I assure him I am. I think maybe we had sex, I don’t remember. I think I use it to distract him.
I should get out of the water. I should leave – everyone else has. But instead I drift farther and farther from the shore, and when I look around me, I am floating not to another bank, but out to sea.
I imagine Lanyon on a boat plucking stupid Sandy from the depths, saving me with his marvellous heroics. I laugh at the thought. In the real world, Jeremy looks at my puppet body beside him in bed with concern. “You sure you’re alright, Sand?”
“My darling, of course,” I hear myself say. The cold water makes everything numb, and I want to sleep. I don’t think I can breathe under the water. Don’t they call it a seabed? Yes. Yes, I will sleep on the seabed where Lanyon and Duckie won’t find me, whether or not I can breathe.
“You crying, Sandy?” Remy asks.
“Am I?” My cheeks are wet. “I didn’t notice. Must have an allergy.”
Remy looks at me a long time. “I love you, Sandy.”
I think the muscles in my face pull into a smile in reply, and then I must sleep.
It’s my beautiful Remy come in the door, though through the haze I can’t quite make him out.
“Sandy? What you doin’?”
“You’re meant to…” The thought slips out of my grasp. “Your aunt’s?”
“You drunk, Sandy?” There’s something in his voice. I try to open my eyes, but it’s terribly tricky.
“Yes,” I say. “Darling, you said you’d – you wanted to take dinner with your aunt. You should go.”
I feel his hands on me – he’s unexpectedly rough. “You don’t smell like drink. What’d you take? What’ve you taken, Sandy?”
I feel on the edge of unconsciousness. He wasn’t meant to be here. No one was meant to be here. “It’s nothing. Go home, Remy. Go home.”
He spots the pill bottle on the bench. I hear his footsteps. I hear him make to rattle it only to realise it is empty. I hear him, distantly, pick up my phone and place a call.
“No, my dear, there’s no need. Please don’t – please don’t, he’ll be so mad.”
“Alec. Alec, he’s done it. He’s doing it. The bottle’s empty. What do I do? What do I do?”
“Not Alec,” I groan. “Please. I’m so happy. I’m so… so happy I could die. Remy, don’t call Alec.”
“He’s not thrown up.” Silence. Then, “I wasn’t meant to be here. I was meant to be with my aunt, but she were busy, so I came ‘round and – and I wasn’t meant to be here.” I can hear him breathing. I can hear me breathing. Neither of us is doing it right at all. “I didn’t do anything, I promise. I didn’t do anything, I thought everything was fine. I thought he was happy, I didn’t –” He’s silent for a while. “Please. Yes. Yes, thank you. An ambulance – that’s good. Thank you.”
I feel myself slip out of consciousness, and I wish Remy wasn’t so far away.
I wake up. In a bed. Remy isn’t there. Alec is.
“I’m glad you’re okay,” he says flatly, in a way that tells me that his head is full of thoughts. He sits with his legs crossed, newspaper on his lap.
“I didn’t mean for… he said he’d be out.” It seems important that he knows.
“I told him the night I brought him to your flat that you were sick. I told him you did this. He just nodded along like it wasn’t real. I did too. I forgot what it felt like when it happened.” He sighs a long, tired doctor’s sigh. “Why, Sandy?”
“I felt so happy. Just – just so comfortable. And the moment I realised – the moment I gave it a thought – I lost it. The feeling.” I blink. “What’ve you told them?”
He smiles just a fraction. “You had a secret fiancée back home who passed away. Childhood sweetheart.”
“I figured if they thought it was spur of the moment and situational, they wouldn’t investigate too much.” I see his eyes flick to my wrist, the most telling of my previous attempts. “The very last thing we need is for them to institutionalise you.” He leans back. He thinks of everything.
“Maybe I ought to be institutionalised,” I mutter.
“That would go well. Just how long before you’d let slip that you’re queer?”
I let that sink in and groan.
“Where is he?”
“I wasn’t testing him or anything. I didn’t mean for him to find me.”
“Is that supposed to be very comforting, Sandy?” he asks, clearly irritated.
“It might’ve been a nice change.” That doesn’t seem to help. I try again. “Did he find my note?”
“You left a note?”
“I think so.”
“Christ, Sandy.” I watch him glance about the ward before leaning closer. “Sandy, it was – it was easier because I was studying medicine. I could figure out what was wrong, stitch you up if I needed. He can’t. He’s helpless. Think about what you’re doing to him.”
“Do you want to live forever, Alec?”
“Don’t let’s –”
“No, I don’t,” he snaps.
“So you want to die.”
“Not today. Not doing it myself.” He runs his hand through his hair and sighs. “I can see where you’re going with this. Well done, but it’s not the same.”
“You want to die eventually because you know your body will give out. You’ll be in a world that seems odd and strange and unfamiliar. Well I’m twenty-two years old and my mind’s given out. The world is already odd and strange and unfamiliar.”
“I’m going to see if I can’t get something for you to take.”
I close my eyes. I’ve seen mental cases. Alec has too. It’s why he doesn’t let them keep me – aside from the obvious. “You can’t ever let them treat me, Alec. You mustn’t let them use the electricity on me.”
“I won’t let them touch you unless I think they understand what’s going on better than I do,” he warns. He must be very frightened, I think, to say a thing like that.
He’s not going to forgive me – not this time. That’s why he didn’t visit. That’s why he doesn’t so much as spare me a glance as I enter the flat.
I will never be so happy again.
“I’m sorry, Jeremy.” I use my most serious voice.
“No,” he mutters. “You aren’t.”
“I feel badly,” I insist.
“About what?” He waits, but I give him nothing. “About which part, Sandy?”
“All of it. I shouldn’t have done it. I was happy.” I sit myself down on the coffee table opposite him.
“How do you expect me to believe that?” He’s angry – or frustrated. And I have absolutely no defence.
“I just don’t want you to be upset.”
“I thought you was going to die. And I’d’ve been able to do nothing. I thought I was too late.”
“You weren’t meant to be –”
“Do you think that makes things easier, Sandy?” He shakes his head. “Had I not been there…” He pulls an envelope from his pocket and I cringe. “Money and ‘I love you’s. That’s what you was gonna leave me with.”
He opens the letter, wordlessly tugging a cheque from its folds. He tears it in half.
“You can’t blame me for wanting you to have it.”
“You’re twenty-two years old. You’re too old and too young for this.” He’s tiring of me. I’m tiresome. “If nothing else, couldn’t you just be mine?”
“My darling,” I whisper. “It absolutely doesn’t work that way.” I watch him – I’m certain I’m searching for something in his face, but I can’t think of what it is. “You don’t have to put up with it, you know.”
“If I hadn’t been there…”
“I’m not your responsibility.”
He sinks into the sofa and groans. I’m tiresome. I slide off the coffee table to kneel in front of him. I kiss the outline of his cock through his trousers.
“… you sure?” I make to speak, but I lose my words. I want to tell him that I just need him to not dislike me. “Get up, Sandy.”
I haul myself onto the sofa beside him.
“You’re so much trouble, Sandy. You’re more trouble than anyone I ever known.” He shakes his head. “I once had a friend who talked about animals – the nice coloured ones are the ones which’ll kill you, you know. You’re like them. You’re pretty, but you’re so difficult. No one’s like you. I never met no one like you.”
“I’m not your responsibility.” I take off my jacket and unbutton my sleeves. What am I saying to him? I lean in to touch him, soothe him, make him forget all about it. I want Ralph to talk some sense into him – Ralph would know exactly what to say. I imagine Ralph’s look of disgust at hearing Jeremy speak about me the way he does.
“You say that, but that don’t matter when I feel responsible.”
“I wish you wouldn’t.” But I don’t, do I? I need him.
“I can’t help it. I don’t want to.” He can’t look at me. He looks everywhere but at me. “You weren’t right the last few days. Auntie didn’t cancel – I did. Had a feeling. Thought I was being stupid, but worst case, I thought, was Auntie being short with me for not making dinner. I was still almost too late. And I couldn’t even stay with you at the hospital – not with Deacon there. Deacon’s better than me about everything – all of this. He would’ve seen whatever’s been wrong with you.”
I grasp him, hold him tight, press myself into him till he surrounds me, floods me.
“Can’t tonight,” he mutters. It could happen, if I put my mind to it. I know which buttons to press to make him crave it. But he wants to be in control – needs it, tonight – and I want him to feel sane even if that means depriving him of pleasure.
“Okay,” I sigh. I kiss his jaw and sit myself down beside him. I think we will sit in silence a while. I think he might take my hand and press my fingers to his lips. I think maybe he will lead me to bed after all.
I do not think he will cry. I do not expect it to be so like a child when he does – the gasps, the redness in his face, the sweat mixed with tears as his chin scrunches and lips pull down, emitting soft moans. I have seen him cry, but never like this. Never like I cry – terrible and ugly. I hold his head against my chest and he clings to me. I feel the tremors run through his body.
“I was so – so scared,” he croaks. “Of losing you. I don’t want to lose you.”
I remember Alec’s words: He’s helpless. Think about what you’re doing to him. It strikes me, then, that it is possible that Remy needs me. I have never been needed.
“I love you, Remy,” I say. I wrote it in my note, but I have never said it aloud to him.
“Don’t. Don’t, please don’t again,” he begs.
“I’m sorry,” I say again. “I was happy, and I can’t…”
It’s all still jumbled. Everything is jumbled. I’m happy and I’m miserable and I wish he would leave and I love him and I’m glad I’m holding him and I don’t want to die but I want to be dead and I wish I hadn’t failed. I’m to be a doctor but no, I’m stupid, stupid, can’t keep myself together, can’t arrange the thoughts in my head to make sense.
“It’s alright, love,” I whisper. "I will be alright." I stroke his hair with my fingers. “I’m here.”
The way he looks at me. He needs me, and it makes me feel sick and pleased in my stupid jumbled heart.
He has difficulties leaving me alone, afterwards. He moves in, which I am positive Ralph believes I rigged with my attempt. Some evenings he waits outside the hospital a little way for me to finish up.
“I’m always late,” I tell him, as an apology, an excuse and a warning in one. “I don’t like you waiting out when you could be in the flat.”
It’s a stubbornness. It’s control. He can’t save me, but he can walk with me, ferry me home.
He shrugs uncomfortably. “Not a bad walk.”
“You don’t trust me.”
Another shrug. “I trust you about everything except this.” I can tell he has more to say, so I wait out the silence to get it. “Do you trust you, about it?”
I smile weakly and gently knock my shoulder into his. “Maybe not.” I want badly to take his hand. I cannot, though, so instead I rest my palm on his elbow. “This is a lot, though. This is why Alec left. Or one of the reasons. All the worrying.”
“I’m not Alec.”
But he is human. I am the root of not simply worry, but also self-doubt, fear, anxiety, sadness. And at some point, these things will disintegrate the love he feels for me, and he will have to abandon me.
But he hasn’t. He is here. He walks you home.
That word – ‘abandon’. I try not to think it, so of course, it is all I can think about, most of the time.
“I saw Collins today.”
I’ve noticed Remy never speaks across a room to me. It’s a funny thing. I’ll shout out to him from across the flat, and always he comes to stand no more than a metre or two from me, and respond, even to the simplest things. He is making a study of my face, I think. My gut instinct is to attribute this to Alec, but it is perfectly possible that Remy himself has thought this through. This isn’t medical, really, and he is no worse with people than Alec.
“He did, or you?”
“Him. Or – well, he did, and I said that really he should apologise to you because… and he said he had already, so I gave him one as well for punching him. You didn’t mention it. Or was he lying?”
“He did. A week ago.”
“You didn’t mention it,” he repeats.
“No.” I remember determining that no one needed to know Duckie had spoken with me. I had come up with reasons that sounded normal and sane, but truly it was mostly due to some misplaced guilt about the entire event of Duckie. “He came by the building. Or rather, he waited up by the flat, but he’s not got a key, so he just sat outside. He said sorry, drank some tea, then left.”
“I don’t know why you didn’t mention –”
“I wasn’t fucking him,” I snap. “If that’s what you’re so worried about.”
He frowns – I can see him retracing his steps, trying to map out our conversation, find where it turned. “I didn’t say –”
“Well, you didn’t have to. I wouldn’t do that.” I don’t feel right. I feel my throat tighten, my heart dancing too fast. Suddenly I’m furious and miserable and I hate him. “I wouldn’t do that to you,” I whisper dreadfully. “Not like you did to me.”
I turn violently away and I feel it. Why aren’t I better, why can’t I be normal? Why do I want to hurt Remy?
“No one else, there’s no one else,” I say frantically – pacing, agitated. “Just you and me, then you and some boy, then me and Duckie and we’re back again, unless you had Alec –”
“’course I haven’t –”
“Then you and me. And no one else, in my flat because you don’t trust me not to…”
I don’t even know where the tears come from, but they do come.
Remy takes a few long breaths. “I live here because I love you, Sandy. I want you to be happy and alive and with me because I love you and love having you.”
I love everyone. Or I hate everyone. I love or hate and need everyone to like me and nobody does – not Remy, he’s mistaken, he’ll realise. When they don’t love me, I know why they stay, I knew why Jenkins and Duckie stayed, and that was easy till it wasn’t. Alec and Remy – I can’t, I can’t, I don’t understand.
“Jenkins won’t leave my sister, but you’ll leave me,” I moan. “Why wouldn’t you?”
“Because I don’t want to,” Remy says firmly.
I feel too warm, I’m sweating, I can’t breathe properly, but I am breathing, I’m fine, but I’m on the kitchen floor sobbing and blubbering over nothing at all. I’m bothering Remy about nothing at all, except that one day he’ll leave me alone, and my loneliness will be worse now because it knows the shape of him.
He takes me by the hand and pulls me to my feet. “You’re having a bad night. Why not let’s get you to bed?”
“I didn’t sleep with Duckie after…”
“No. No, Sandy, I didn’t think you had.” He pulls me into a half embrace, my wet, hot face pushed into his shoulder. “He hurt you. I dunno. Someone like him – I’d worry. I worried.”
He takes me to bed. I keep crying. At some point, I’m crying because I can’t stop crying and he holds my hand.
This is what a good bad night looks like. They aren’t all like this – contained, gentle. Remy is a good man, but his patience is finite. Sometimes I jab at just the right buttons and he bites back at me and we shout back and forth until he crumbles, head in hands on the sofa – frustrated and miserable, now he’ll leave me, he was always going to leave me. Sometimes he can’t stop me from hurting myself, the evening ending with his strained whispers – Why, Sandy? Why you gotta do this? Why do you do this? This is a good bad night, but there are still bad bad nights.
Alec is very good at not alarming me. I imagine he practiced it awhile in his head on the way over before delivering his lines.
“Jeremy is fine,” he says to me quietly as I’m on my rounds.
For a second I wonder if Alec forgot an inflection, if it is a question. “Yes. Is he waiting out already? He doesn’t like to be late, but it’d be silly to come early.”
Alec shakes his head and leans into me a little. There’s a seriousness about him that makes me stop what I’m doing. “Jeremy is fine, Sandy. He’s fine. But he’s been injured at the factory.”
My whole body tenses, but I am grateful for Alec’s rehearsed delivery. Had he opened with that, I would have dissolved into a puddle. Factory injuries – one’s mind rushes to terrible conclusions. “What… what?”
“Broken bones, maybe. Nothing crippling.”
“Thank you for telling me,” I say. “Where is he?”
Alec leads me through the hospital, saying this and that about swapping our shifts so he might cover my rotation if I need, but I am not able to give anything but vague hums in response until I see Remy laid up, looking miserable, but alive and whole.
“How are you feeling?” I croon. He avoids my gaze. I make a show of acknowledging that there are others around – doctors and nurses and patients – before shrugging. I cannot join him in bed in front of company, but our acquaintance isn’t a crime.
“Didn’t even see Alec, he got you so fast.” Jeremy stares at the roof, grimacing. “It’s nothing.”
“Broken ankle, they think.” My Remy has never looked at me with such frustration. “You fell?”
“You know what,” he growls, and suddenly I understand the frustration. I recognise his tiredness, his agitation. “It’s broken? You reckon it is?”
I grimace. “Yeah. Did anyone see?”
“My manager,” he whispers. “He saw. I’ll get laid off. I saw their faces after I was done. Frightened ‘em.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
He laughs. “Don’t worry?”
“That is to say,” I hurry, “that you won’t have to worry about some things. It’s no bother about the rent. I only don’t want you to worry.”
Jeremy looks for a moment as if he will give into his anger and snap at me. He wants to be normal and not prone to fits and not injured and not out of a job. He wants to pay rent and look after me and keep me safe – we are back to that first devastating fight.
Jenkins is like that with Kitty. She isn’t mad the way I am, but she’s naïve and excitable. He makes all the money working at the bank, and they live in a nice enough house, and she dotes on him, runs to the door when she hears his key in the lock and leaps into his arms.
I think Jeremy would like that – he would like to fight off the world for me, keep me like a happy young wife. It is a terrible thing, perhaps, that it isn’t to be.
“I’m sorry,” I say in earnest. I touch his shoulder with too much tenderness – I think such a touch might be illegal – and I see him strike a fatal blow at his anger, exhaling one great breath.
“I’m alright, really,” he mumbles. “Hopefully I’ll be able to walk out of here, eh?”
But at the end of my shift, I call us a cab, and help him load his crutches into the boot.
He is listless about the apartment – he is tired and embarrassed. It is frustrating to me – that he feels embarrassed about something like this; a broken bone on account of a fall. Ralph Lanyon once hauled my slippery, bloodsoaked naked body from a bathtub and watched me puke and moan. I tell him, but it does very little to ease things.
“That’s different,” he determines. What he means, I think, is that it is to be expected of me. But there is more. “’ve got you caring for me. Money’s close to dry, not got the hide to call the boss…”
“It’s no trouble,” I assure him. “Really, it isn’t. You’ve always taken care of me – I’m happy to return the favour.”
He rolls his eyes. “It’s always you making tea and fussing over me. All I do is show up, really.”
“I know that takes a lot,” I offer.
I do take pleasure in fussing over him a little more than usual, and he’s dreadful good about letting me. I feed him, and help him wash. Often I suck him off on the sofa. I find having him in such a state as this makes me less anxious about my work and study – I carve out a few hours here and there to read textbooks and learn anatomy, and devote the rest of my time to him. I read to him. I learn he enjoys being read to – he lies back on the sofa and closes his eyes and smiles. It is after an evening of care – of sucking and cleaning and reading – that he envelopes me in his arms.
“No one would take such good care of me as you,” he whispers. “Not even my aunt.”
“Well, I do things I hope an aunt wouldn’t do.” I grin at him and run my thumb over his jaw. “Anyone else would probably feel I’ve suffocated them,” I say truthfully.
This is what I imagine Remy sees, Saturday evening at the Bear’s Talon.
I lean against the bar to wait for drinks. I catch his eye every so often, grin my stupid meek smile at him periodically as Laurie explains the very most basic aspects of Greek mythology. Ralph, who has looked even more in a moral quandary than usual all evening, eventually excuses himself.
“I’ll give him a hand, shall I?” he might have said. Of course, I couldn’t hear him where I was. Remy makes to stand, but Ralph has a knack for dismissing people. He probably says something about the leg, which is rich when you consider his hand, but I digress.
Laurie goes on about gods and mortals and what’s between. Maybe he talks about the queer ones – those tragic fellows who had it on with Apollo; one turned into a flower, the other clouted by a discus. Or Achilles and his piece. I can tell you Remy is distracted.
He sees Ralph catch me before I can pick up the drinks.
Just a second, Sandy. There was something I wanted to speak to you about.
Again, Remy doesn’t hear that, but he sees Ralph pin me down with his gaze. He speaks not unsympathetically to me, but I squirm – Remy knows whatever he’s saying is bad news. He sees my face fall, my heart break, Ralph’s demeanour harden – really, Sandy, for Christ’s sake, don’t make a scene about it. But Ralph doesn’t know me. I want to go home need to go home how dare he bring me here and tell me –
Remy doesn’t hear, but perhaps he does know me, for his mouth has fallen open and Laurie is stopped even trying to carry a conversation. Of course, Laurie knows already.
Remy sees me pick up our two drinks, and Ralph take his and Laurie’s back to our table.
“I feel unwell,” I announce. Not the kind of unwell where your tummy aches or head pounds or blood seeps from wounds – not the kind of unwell Ralph or Laurie would care about. I feel the sort of unwell where I begin to wish Ralph had taken me out the back and beaten me to death, the sort of sick where my mind weaponizes the bar – what a broken glass could do about my wrist, how I might beat myself against the heavy wood of the table till the dull pain of the bruising might make me feel better. “I’m afraid you pick up everything working at a hospital.”
I wonder if Remy understands. He at least doesn’t find it disgusting.
“Come on, now,” Ralph mutters. “You have, too, Sandy.”
What a cryptic thing to say in front of poor Remy.
I look at Remy miserably. Alec would have seen a problem which required overcoming – a quiet word aside would have been in order, the round finished, the conversation drawn to a natural conclusion. Remy isn’t Alec.
“Shame about the drinks,” Remy murmurs as he stands. “Drink them, maybe. We’ll have to be getting on.”
When we’re out on the street, I wait for his questions, but they don’t come. Maybe he doesn’t want to make a scene. Maybe he knows what it takes out of me, to make a scene. Either way, the walk home is silent, and it is only once we are in the living room that he asks me, “You aren’t… you’ve not got flu or nothing?”
I shake my head and sit myself on the sofa, knees to my chest.
“Do you think you might hurt yourself?” he asks.
I consider that and find myself saying, “No. Not with you here.” I feel totally empty. I don’t have the energy to muster a tantrum, nor the momentum for my theatrics.
“If I weren’t here?”
“Probably not even then.”
“Okay.” He picks up my hand and holds it in his lap. “Lanyon said something to upset you.”
He waits. And waits. Then, “Sandy…”
“Alec’s moved in with someone,” I croak. I hate the way my voice strains. “Ralph thought it best he let me know while I’m surrounded, can’t… can’t kick up a fuss.”
“Oh.” Whatever he read in the bar, I’ve not followed the script. “That upset you?”
“Stupid, I know.”
We sit in silence a long time. He can’t think of what to say, and I’ve no justification.
“You said you loved me,” he whispers, an accusation.
“But Alec and someone else – do you still want Alec, then?” I like that Remy is no good at masking his emotions. He is devastated at the thought.
“I don’t think so. No.” I hesitate. I try to fill the emptiness with something, reason with it. What is it that has gutted me? “He found someone better.”
Remy flinches as though scolded. “Unlike you, who just landed in with me, yeah?”
I shake my head. “And Jenkins found someone better. And you’ll… They leave, and then they… I loved him so long, even after he… and I’m still like this, I’m not better, I’m still…”
“It hurts,” I whisper. I feel some of the nervous energy consume me – I begin to itch at my hands, clench and unclench my fingers. I take it as a good thing, but it does not feel good. It feels like always. “Even though I love you. Even though I don’t love him like I love you, it hurts.”
This soothes him and I see his body loosen up. He curses, shakes his head a while. “You wouldn’t go back to him?”
“No. No, I wouldn’t.” I laugh. I say it so easily, but I don’t even know the words to be true until I’ve said them. I take a deep breath, in, out, unclench my fists. It still hurts, but this isn’t the mortal wound it should once have seemed. “Ralph seems like a terrible gossip, doesn’t he? Really, though, he got it into his head that Bunny or someone would corner me alone to fill me in, or that Alec should let it slip on shift and I should be distracted or… or do something. In fact he was up to his usual heroics. Don’t let him fool you, either. He’s actually impressed with how I’ve handled the whole thing. I’ve exceeded his extraordinarily low expectations of me.” Another breath. “I’m sorry for making you feel second fiddle to Alec. Not just now, but all the time. You aren’t.”
After the attempt, I was not surprised at the ‘offer’ to assign me to a more rural hospital – though none but Alec know the extent of it, it’s no secret that Sandy Reid is a neurotic of some sort. It was a matter of time, and Grenville, the village they propose, is rough, but not the worst of them.
I feel like a vulture, asking while he’s debilitated. Jeremy worked in the factory, and I don’t suppose there will be one in Grenville, though the want of men may work it his favour. Nonetheless, I am decidedly anxious as we sit down for dinner together in the flat. He mumbles grace, although we live in utmost sin. I wait until he is finished to speak.
“I’ve an offer,” I begin as he shovels up beans into his mouth. “Another hospital. With families moving from big cities from the bombing, there’s a demand in rural areas more than usual, and they’re proposing me for Grenville.”
He stops dead. “Do you want to leave?”
I feel myself smile bitterly. “I misspoke when I said ‘offer’ – a euphemism. The hospital wants me and my problems elsewhere, and Grenville might be desperate enough to take me on.”
“So you have to.”
“I’ll be treading dangerously if I don’t. You don’t have to come if you don’t want,” I say somewhat sulkily.
Remy sighs his long suffering sigh and sets down his cutlery. “Do you want me to come?”
“Of course I do. But you have a life here.” I don’t know why I pretend to be understanding about it; we both know that were he to agree with me – that he has something worth staying here in my absence – I would lose my mind and dissolve into nonsense. But he pretends to consider it, before shrugging.
“Not so much, really. I can write and phone Auntie, and anyone else. I’d sooner come, if you’ll have me.” He reaches across the table and squeezes my hand.
“We’ll have to live as cousins, maybe. A place like that, a two bedroom flat should be cheap enough to rent…” The details swarm my mind. The police have better things to do than round up fruits, but there’s always the worry that I’ll get myself into trouble. We’ve blended, in Bridstow – I don’t know that we will in Grenville.
“We don’t talk the same way – don’t look alike neither. Might as well be friends, eh?” he says. “I grew up in a village, I shouldn’t mind the move none. It’s quieter, and I like the quiet.”
“All alone with me and some cows,” I murmur, and I feel a little sick. “Alone with me…”
I’ll be unbearable. Alec needed reprieves. Alec needed them. I crave reprieves from myself. All the terrible things I do shall be magnified because we will be so far away and so alone with each other and he will see me. He will see how I really am, and he’ll leave me, he’ll leave, he’ll leave me alone.
“I like cows,” he says gently, and maybe my eyes are frantic. I’ve been rubbing at my knuckles under the table without realising, holding my breath. “It’ll be alright, I reckon.”
“I can’t promise cows,” I say.
“I don’t really mind, Sandy.” He eats his food, plays at being normal, but I see the way he watches me – it reminds me of a parent shadowing a stumbling infant, ready to catch them at a moment’s notice.
“I’ll try to be better,” I whisper.
“Don’t need better,” Jeremy says easily. “You not eating?”
“You mind if I…?”
I almost break down, shout every one of my insecurities so he might bat them away, as he does by instinct –
You’ll hate me.
You’ll tire of me.
You’ll resent me.
But it occurs to me that Jeremy doesn’t have a resentful bone in his body, and it would be a terrible thing to accuse him only to ease my mind.
I nudge my plate to him, and watch him eat.
“It’ll be okay,” I say.
“I know,” he says mid-mouthful.
We throw a party in the flat, before we are to leave. It is smaller than Alec’s have been – the flat would not accommodate the whole brothel – but there is food and drink and music.
Remy watches me, as I dance with Alec, and I don’t begrudge him his frown. I remember how it physically hurt to watch Alec speaking with Laurie that night. I felt the echo of that feeling seeing Alec with his new ‘friend’, who flirted and played about just as he did.
“Do you think you shall manage, old dear?” Alec asks lightly. He still smells like home – like safety and kindness and love.
“I don’t know. Maybe. Remy’s good to me, but he doesn’t handle me the way you did. You handled me, Alec.” Like a master handles a dog, like a nanny handles a child, Alec handled me. He set boundaries and urged me to be better. It isn’t in Remy to punish me the way Alec did – like a school master. Remy gives in too much.
“I know,” is all Alec says. “I’ll miss you.” He says it from courtesy, I think, but it means something that he is courteous to me. My wretched heart skips a beat.
“I miss you,” I whisper, but I don’t beg for him back. I miss the god I made of him in my mind, is the truth. I don’t miss the evenings he spent with others. I don’t miss hating him and loving him at once – perhaps I’m a poor multi-tasker, for it always saw me hate myself and love him and need him all the more.
“You aren’t what you pretend, Sandy. You’re smart and brave and kind. I’ve seen it. Sometimes you are foolish and afraid and cruel, but not often, and the best of you is not extinguished for it.”
I draw away a little and look at him. I will feel better, when I am back by Remy’s side, I think. “You won’t let anyone hurt me, will you, Alec?” I ask him a little frantically. “You won’t let them use the electricity? You won’t let them touch my frontal lobe?”
“No. No, Sandy, not if I have a say. I won’t let them hurt a smart, brave, kind man.”
My Remy has read the situation wrong, and I see he has come to my rescue. I have held off drinking, and he has indulged a touch, and does a terrible job at hiding his resentment of Alec. I think as he reaches us, he realises I am in no trouble, but he does not turn around.
“Can I have this one?” he asks, though we are part way through a song. Alec raises an eyebrow.
“Yes. Of course, Remy,” I laugh, and Alec bows out like a gentleman, and, like old times, takes a plate of refreshments from the counter and offers them to Lanyon and Laurie, who sit tolerantly on the sofa.
“No one else calls me ‘Remy’ you know,” Remy says to the shell of my ear.
“Mm,” he hums. “Auntie calls me ‘Jemmy’ or ‘Jem’. Parents only called me ‘Jeremy’ – parents are like that.”
Remy smells like the flat and like tea and like me, I think. He smells like someone who loves me. Alec might always smell like home, but Remy smells like my home. “I can call you ‘Jemmy’ if you like.”
“No. I like it. I like it from you. Alexander,” he slurs, and I feel a thrill down my spine. “My great Alexander James Reid.”
“No, no, my darling,” I sigh.
“Alexander James Nicholson,” he murmurs, and he’ll never know how it affects me. “I’ll call you ‘Sandy’ if you like it, but I like ‘Alexander’ too. Sometimes I think you’re ‘Alexander’ more than ‘Sandy’.”
“If you like,” I say. “No one else will.”
“Goin’ some place new – folks’ll call you what you ask.”
I consider that. What a thought.
Duckie is on the stairs two days before I’m due to leave. I wonder how long he has been standing there, before I came for the mail. I startle at the sight of him, and he grimaces wearily.
“I ought to have invited you to the get together –”
He waves it away. He either doesn’t care or considers it obvious that he should have been excluded. He looks at the ground, hunched over, fists in his pockets like a guilty child. “I just… It’s nothing to do with me, is it?”
“No. No, not at all. I accepted your apology.”
Duckie nods, can’t look at me. “I been in fights and that. I know that’s no good, but guys get in fights and it’s not so bad. When I hurt you, I felt like a man hurting his girl. Knew you couldn’t fight back – you were drunk, and you’re not the brawling kind.”
I try to ease him. “I pressed at you on purpose. I wasn’t a saint.”
“Doesn’t that just sound like my Ma?” he laughs bitterly. “Your Nicholson – it’s not the same way?”
I feel myself smile at that. Duckie’s introspection – I’d be an idiot to think he’s suddenly enlightened, settled down, but it’s something to think that if I told him Remy hurt me like he did, Duckie would probably beat the tar out of him.
“I’ve only ever seen him punch you, I’m afraid.”
“’s good.” He glances at me, and he looks sorry. If I didn’t have Remy, I would take him back and it would be a terrible mistake. “I worry I’ll do it again to someone who doesn’t hit back,” he confesses. “Could’ve killed you. Worried I’d killed you. I get so… I’m rotten.”
“I wish I knew how to fix it,” I tell him honestly. “Jeremy hurt his leg, and I tended him in the hospital – I was scared and all, but also chuffed to do some good. I don’t know what to do about our terrible minds.”
He is uncomfortable. Perhaps it is the idea that we are kin. I often think Ralph Lanyon sees something ugly in himself magnified in me. His listlessness, his risk taking, his ambivalence for death before Laurie came along still alive – he wanted to throw it in. I disgust him because he kept himself from making a spectacle and I do not. No one wants to think themselves like me. Not Ralph, not Duckie.
“I don’t want to,” Duckie says. “I don’t want to do that again.”
“I hope you don’t,” I offer. Someone like me who conjures to his mind a battered girlfriend who can’t fight back – perhaps he will again. They often do. But just as likely he’ll fall in with some chap tough like himself, and he’ll hurt him because he can fight back.
I am certain he does it because I’m leaving, but he rolls up his sleeve to reveal the burns up his arms. Jeremy has odd nicks and burns from working in the factory which he promised were only accidents and not to worry over. I never questioned why Duckie was so marked up, but it’s suddenly apparent.
“When I was on the vessels, pipes and coils were always overheating. I’d… on purpose. I get angry at myself, even.” There’s a newer burn up his arm. “Miss it. Did that one in my kitchen. Felt like an idiot.”
“Well,” I say simply, “you’ve seen mine.”
He nods, his mouth crooked between cheer and misery. “Here’s to me not killing someone, and you not killing yourself, I guess.”
“Here’s to that,” I agree.
Remy’s leg is still healing, but he takes on the lion’s share of moving nonetheless. More than a two bedroom flat, we can afford rent on a small cottage with a little unkempt garden, and Remy delights in it.
“We can grow things,” he beams. It occurs to me then, and is solidified in the coming months, that Remy thrives outdoors. He at once begins planning a garden, and I am surprised by all the flowers he knows. I have to get him to explain which ones are which. More than that, he plants a garden full of vegetables for us, and I think maybe he is happy here.
The people are decent enough. Remy was right that they would call me what I told them. I am Alexander Reid, to most. Dr Reid, though I beg them I’m not a doctor yet.
The people here are not so tactful as in Bridstow, and are quick to question Jeremy. “What’s a strapping fella like you doin’ on the home front, then?”
Remy, oddly, tells the truth. “I get fits. Epilepsy.”
Many recoil. They think I must be his carer, consider illness comes in droves – that he must hear voices and be violent and strange – but they come around, for the most part. Our neighbours are an elderly widow on one side, and a young family on the other. Remy is quick to offer the widow help in the garden and to run errands, and I am glad to be able to assist the young family when their youngest has croup.
Such fine young men, they say of us. The widow, it turns out, has a son who can get him some work doing maintenance – fixing this or that around the public buildings, more gardening. There isn’t a lot to do, so a few days a week he comes to the hospital as an orderly – they’re short boys for the heavy lifting. They’re less pedantic here, and only ask I make sure my ‘friend’ is up to scratch about first aid, as they know we share digs. There are those who watch him, as though at any moment he might drop everything and fit in front of them, but Remy is without guile, and easy on the eyes, and he is quickly trusted.
“Which job do you prefer?” I ask him one night.
“Tricky. I like seeing you, Sand, so I like the hospital, but if you weren’t there, it’d be the maintenance.” He calls me ‘Sand’ sometimes. Sometimes ‘Sandy’ still. I get ‘Alexander’ from him too, though usually when he’s being sweet with me. “You’re not minding the hospital?”
“It’s not too bad,” I say. “I miss having people like us.”
Of course, there are queers here too – I’m sure I’ve spotted a few, though I fear they’re in hiding. For all I floundered with our set in Bridstow, there was something relieving about being able to be open about the whole thing, even if just in a flat for a party or at the pub.
“Maybe we’ll go back when it’s all done with,” he offers up. He would follow me, I think, wherever I went. I clutched at Alec, knew he would leave for a surgical residency or the army or any opportunity that caught his fancy. Remy left his friends and aunt and work at the factory to come here, where he likes the way of life, and would go back on a whim.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I say, and I don’t.
We are not long settled in Grenville when I find the pill bottle at the bottom of one of Remy's drawers.
“These are… emetics.” It is almost a question, but I know the bottle by sight - Alec used to keep some around. I know he understands, but I elaborate. “An emetic makes you throw up.”
Jeremy nods. “Yeah.”
“Yes. For in case.” He shifts uncomfortably. “You know why, Sandy.”
“Yes. I know.” I feel myself constricting, curling in on myself, my stomach, my throat – tightening, tensing.
“Don’t – don’t feel bad,” he says blandly and immediately cringes. “What I mean is – it ain’t because I think – think you’re no good or nothing like that. It’s because I don’t wanna lose you, if I can help it – and I wanna be able to help it, you know?”
I want to break. I want to scream. I think to shove him, holler and howl for everything, everything, all I can’t control can’t be can’t do can’t think. But I do not break that night.
“’m sorry, Sandy,” he mumbles. He makes to touch me, and I jerk away – I love him, I won’t cry, but I can’t stand it, can’t stand my skin, and his on mine, the thought, I can’t stand remembering I am flesh and blood and alive. “Everything’s been good for us here, I don’t mean to… to doubt nothing.”
I want him to beat me, hurt me. I want to hurt my body like my head hurts. But I do not break.
“No, I know,” I say weakly.
“I’ll throw them out?” he asks, reaching for the bottle like a child. I almost laugh at him.
“No. You have them for a reason.”
He shakes his head. “No. No, Alexander, it’s fine, here. We’ll be alright here.”
He is embarrassed, to call me my full name. He looks down, and frowns as though he’s done it wrong.
But we won’t. I know we won’t be fine. We can’t be, because I am not fine, and tonight I do not break; tonight this place is unsoiled, paradise, Eden. But I will break.
“Keep them,” I say.
You will need them.
I will bend and break and snap and snarl and bite and tear at flesh, yours or mine, mine or yours, mine, mine, mine, but don’t go don’t let me go.
He is here, with me. I can’t tell you if he will be here in a week, a month, a year. I can’t tell you that one day I won’t fly off the handle and he’ll leave me to self destruct. I can’t say that some day I won’t wake up with my head on backwards and try to shoot it straight.
I can tell you for certain that although I do not break that night, I will eventually; again, and again, and again.
But I might be alright. We might be.