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With His Brief Hours And Weeks

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Laurie wasn’t quite sure what he intended to do with himself once he had finished his degree. He would have to do something, of course, he was quite firmly resolved to, something into which he could pour his energy and feel that what he was doing was significant. The resolve no longer had quite the same urgency that it had had before Ralph had received notice of his new assignment, when Laurie had felt that he would very badly need to create a space in which he could be completely independent. It had now, however, a different kind of urgency, in that it seemed intolerable to think of living, even part-time, with a Ralph who had a purpose and a real career while he himself simply pottered around doing whatever kind of job had happened to be available. A mental image of himself behind the counter of a department store rose in his mind, and he shrugged it off with a slight shudder and a chuckle.

When it had been directly relevant, he had never really put much thought into the fact that he’d been drafted, had simply gone with it and felt vaguely, secretly half-relieved that the choice had not been his to make. Despite the crushing boredom and crawling horror of his war, curtailed so abruptly and with such finality, he found himself wondering sometimes where he might be had he come back from Dunkirk relatively unscathed. So many were fighting and being injured and dying to defend their homelands and what Ralph had once referred to as “all human decency,” when Laurie’s war had ended before it had even really begun. Being unable to participate in this defense anymore, he had a feeling that if he was somehow contributing to society in a meaningful way, it would soothe the frustration he was beginning to experience when he read the paper. It did not occur to Laurie that this frustration, this desire to contribute, had been partly picked up from Ralph, whose own need to be necessary and to perform what he considered his moral duty occasionally approached the pathological. He only knew that he disliked his current state of inaction in the circumstances, as well as the lingering sense that he had not yet entirely reintegrated himself into the everyday world.

Laurie wondered what Andrew would think of this mindset. Laurie thought of Andrew rather seldom these days, primarily when he was considering a question of ethics or philosophy and it crossed his mind to wish they could discuss it together. Perhaps, he thought, he wouldn’t entirely approve of it. On the other hand, he was and is doing something valuable, and risking his safety in the bargain, and not just because he’s being made to, either, he felt that it was something he ought to do. So perhaps he would understand.

During his ruminations about what if I were still in the army, Laurie sometimes found himself thinking of the men who had been in the EMS hospital with him. He had not spoken to any of them after he had left it, though he had, to his surprise, returned to Oxford after the Christmas vacation to find himself the recipient of a Christmas card from Reg and Madge. He had managed to dig up a card of his own in a shop that had not quite finished taking down its holiday displays and had belatedly sent it off with a short, awkward note explaining the delay and hoping that they had had a happy Christmas. To his even greater surprise, especially since he could not fathom how the address had been obtained, he had a couple of months later gotten a wedding announcement from Neames and the girl he had met the previous summer. He had replied to this with another short note offering congratulations and best wishes. There had been no communication with either of them since. Laurie was not entirely sure how he felt about this, though he did now and then think with moderate regret of Reg and of the way their friendship had ended. When he had seen the card (it had borne both of their signatures, though the rather appallingly sentimental inscription had been written in a florid, feminine hand), his first reaction had been a surprisingly strong stab of emotion at the memories Reg’s name called up, and his second to wonder if they would still be sending out joint cards next Christmas.

When he had entered the army, he had had only a year to go at Oxford before completing his degree. Now he was nearly finished, and would be completely so at the end of next Hilary term if all went well. With less than a week left before Trinity term was due to begin, Laurie was trying hastily to catch up on all of the reading he hadn’t done over the summer. Ralph seemed to find this amusing; he would return from his Station in the evening and inquire of Laurie whether he had moved at all that day, or what conditions were like in the state of Denmark. Laurie put up with this patiently, though he sometimes felt as if Ralph was about a hair away from dropping into old school habits and quizzing him on his study materials.

At the moment, Ralph was refraining from comment. He was sitting in an armchair, looking over some papers relating to the first assignment he would be undertaking in his new command. He was not due to ship out until after Laurie returned to college, but he was leaping onto every preparation with the eagerness of long deprivation. Laurie was slumped on the sofa, trying to speed his way through the second section of The Faerie Queene and finding it heavier going than he would have preferred. He was unaware that he was frowning until Ralph, looking up from his own work, said, “Here, Spud, why don’t you take a break? You’ve been plugging away at that all evening and you look like it’s starting to annoy you.”

“Not annoy me, exactly.” Laurie let the book fall facedown on his lap and rubbed his forehead. “It’s a lot to get through in a short amount of time, that’s all.”

Ralph craned his neck to get a look at the cover. “I don’t believe I’ve ever read that,” he said. “or if I did, I don’t remember it offhand. What’s it all about?” Laurie embarked on an explanation of the story, becoming increasingly animated as he described its underlying allegorical meanings. He broke off suddenly, realizing that Ralph was watching him with a smile, and said, “What?”

“You do really like it, don’t you,” Ralph said affectionately. “You’re having a marvelous time just telling me about it. I can only imagine how much you’re enjoying your studies when you’re actively engaged in them.”

Laurie felt caught up short by this. He had not really thought what it might be like for Ralph to see him up to Oxford every term, knowing that he never had and never would take his own place at college. He recalled, ages ago now it seemed, that Ralph had said that he would have studied geography, or something along those lines, had he actually made it to Cambridge. He had thought at the time what a career Ralph would have had after college, and remembered how sharply it had bitten him to know that that had been placed out of reach for Ralph. He wasn’t sure what to say now.

In a mildly incredulous voice, Ralph said, “Spuddy, you aren’t feeling sorry for me on that account, are you? I won’t have it, you know. There’s no point to it at all.”

“Well,” said Laurie, awkwardly. “I mean, I didn’t want to be rubbing it in, so to speak.”

Ralph’s eyebrows twitched together briefly. “My dear, there’s nothing to rub in. Of course I should have liked to go up to Cambridge, but I had intended all along to have exactly the career I’ve had and am having. When I came back from Iceland that summer, I already knew what I wanted to do with my life. I don’t say that certain things wouldn’t have been easier—much easier, even, perhaps—with that to start on, but I like to think I’ve done reasonably well for myself. College would only have been a means to an end for me, really, not an end in itself.” He looked thoughtful. “I wonder if you ought to go into teaching after graduation. You like the books and so forth and I seem to recall that you weren’t so bad with the twirps and whatnot at school, though of course you weren’t in any particular position of authority when I was in a place to witness it.”

Laurie wasn’t sure how much of the reassurance to believe, but his feelings performed an abrupt shift at this last, subject-changing statement. He had, in his what-shall-I-do-after-graduation musings, sometimes considered trying his hand at teaching, but he did not especially relish being told he should do it. He said noncommittally, “I might think about it, I suppose, if I can’t come up with anything I like the idea of better.”

“I think it’d be good for you,” Ralph said. “Some boys’ school or other, they’re bound to be short of teachers, what with conscription and everything. You’d be good at it, and I’m sure you’d quite like it, too.” He would be wanting to start looking out names of schools in a minute, Laurie thought with sudden irritation. He sat up straighter, feeling that the boneless contortion of his previous position was not conducive to asserting himself. “Ralph,” he said, “don’t do that, please.”

“Do what, Spuddy?” Ralph tilted his head slightly sideways.

He probably doesn’t actually realize he’s doing it, Laurie thought with a faint weariness. It simply comes naturally to him, like breathing. “Don’t try to arrange my life for me. We’ve talked about this before, haven’t we?”

“I’m not trying to arrange your life,” Ralph said in a reasonable tone. “I simply made a suggestion, that’s all. You know it would be something good to look into, at the least.”

“Well,” Laurie said, nettled, “that’s my business to think about, isn’t it?” He leveraged himself off the sofa and leaned over Ralph slightly, one hand resting on the chair-arm to take the strain off his bad knee. “It’s my life. Perhaps I’ll end up teaching and perhaps I won’t, but it’s my life and my decision to make. You know I’ll ask your advice if I feel I need it, but let me make up my own mind on things. I don’t like it when people try to make my decisions for me. You know that, I’ve told you so before. Don’t.” He stopped because he was out of breath.

Ralph, who had learned by now that a Laurie who felt he was being managed was a tetchy Laurie, and that a tetchy Laurie tended to be difficult to live with, gazed up at him mildly. “All right, Spud,” he said, in a voice equally mild. “If that’s how you feel about it, I’ll let you get on with things and won’t shove my oar in.”

Laurie, unaware that Ralph had figured this out about him, was slightly thrown off balance by this easy acquiescence. He had expected further attempts to convince him to do as advised; he hoped this unexpectedly compliant attitude would hold. He nodded defiantly, concealing his surprise. “Think about your ship, or something,” he ordered.

Ralph half smiled, and a fondness crept over his face. “All right, Spud,” he said again. “Why don’t you sit here—” he indicated the chair-arm—“and help me with these supply lists?” Laurie didn’t see what help he was likely to be with the supply lists, but he settled himself down, carefully arranging the leg, glad that Ralph seemed not to intend to be difficult about it. “I mean it,” he warned anyway. “I expect to not get a list of boys’ schools in the mail, after I’ve got back to college. Or anything like that.”

“Boys’ schools tend to be difficult to find when one’s on the sea,” Ralph replied drily. “And to send letters about. But don’t worry, Spuddy. I told you I wouldn’t shove my oar in and I meant it.” He shuffled his papers around a little.

It turned out that what Ralph meant by “help me” was “listen to me read off the lists, with running commentary, and occasionally agree with me on some point or other regarding a particular item.” Laurie, soon returned to a better humor in spite of himself, decided that what Ralph had really wanted was his attention. He reflected with a slight twinge of guilt that Ralph hadn’t gotten much of it in the past few days, and that they were soon to part for several months. They would see each other again around the new year, true, when Ralph got back from his voyage and Laurie was in his Christmas vacation, but, as Ralph had just pointed out, it was rather unlikely that they would be able to write back and forth much in the meantime. Laurie studied Ralph’s fine, clean profile, in sharp relief against the lamp, and suddenly wished that he had a photograph of him, more recent than the one from their school days that he, or rather Aunt Olive, had found again last autumn. He had stuck it in a book later and it occurred to him now that he didn’t remember which book it had been. Perhaps, he thought consideringly, I should buy a camera.

“Don’t you think so, Spuddy?” said Ralph, glancing up at him.

Laurie realized that he had stopped paying attention at some point, and had absolutely no idea what he was being asked about. “Yes?” he ventured.

“You haven’t been listening, have you?” Ralph didn’t seem especially upset by this. “I suppose you’re a bit tired from all the studying. Never mind, you needn’t keep on forcing yourself if you’re worn out.”

“I’m not worn out,” Laurie said. He ran his hand affectionately over Ralph’s hair. “Can’t the lists wait until tomorrow? I’m only here a little longer.”

As it turned out, the lists could very well wait until tomorrow.