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Within His Bending Sickle's Compass Come

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It had been a long and tiring day, and Alec had about had it. His feet were killing him, joined by a headache which had evidently decided that being late to the party was no reason why it shouldn’t have as thorough a time as possible. He toyed with the idea of simply collapsing into one of the spare beds the hospital kept for staff who were working night or extended shifts. Tomorrow was his day off, and he supposed he ought to want to wake up in his own bed and spend the day doing anything unrelated to work, especially as Sandy was only working a half-day and would be home all the afternoon, but he felt depressed thinking about it. Lately he had found himself dragging his feet on his way home, and disinclined to spend his leisure time there if he had other options available. He had always been something of a homebody, so it was rather a change in habit.

Sandy, he knew, was made uneasy by this, and was probably meditating on possible explanations which painted Alec in a less-than-flattering light. He had been rather quiet about it, though, and had been somewhat unsettlingly willing to give Alec his space; during the past six months or so, he had seemed to be making a real effort to control himself and be sensible. Alec supposed he ought to be delighted that Sandy appeared to be growing up at last, but at best he could only feel relieved about it. He had not, in fact, been doing anything of the sort he knew Sandy worried about him doing; he couldn’t summon up the energy lately anyway. He knew it probably ought to bother him that they hadn’t had any real together-time in weeks, but when he thought about the fact that they probably would have the chance tomorrow his headache worsened. He decided to have a nice cup of tea and an aspirin before heading out.

On his way to the kitchen, he saw approaching, far down the corridor, a nurse with whom he had had a disagreement the previous day, and although he knew her to be a relatively sensible person who was not in the habit of continuing arguments after their initial end, Alec suddenly felt that he was not up to interacting with her just then, or with the unknown doctor with whom she was conversing. There was a linen cupboard nearby; he opened the door and stepped inside, shutting the door but holding the knob so as not to allow it to latch, and hoping that they hadn’t seen him.  

Two sets of footsteps paced slowly closer to the cupboard. Alec could hear them talking now. “…shame,” the doctor was saying, “not but that we need plenty of hands here, but in London they’re getting it hot and heavy and there’s worse need there.”

“They’ll have to find someone else to go,” Nurse Trevelyan said. “Probably won’t be too difficult. There was a whole batch of med students just officially graduated not too long back and I know several of them are still around. I don’t doubt one or another of them would be willing to go, once word gets around about Perrin.”

The footsteps and voices receded. When he was quite sure that they had gone round the corner and would not see him, Alec stepped back out of the linen cupboard and continued on his way. He knew Richard Perrin, slightly, as a youngish doctor not many years out of medical school who was more or less liked among the staff and who had a particular habit of clearing his throat several times when he had to give someone a bad prognosis that he didn’t want to deliver. He wondered briefly what had happened.

He was sitting at the battered table in the ward kitchen with half a cup of tea left, waiting for the aspirin to begin working, when Carl Jenkins came in. Carl was an acquaintance of Alec’s who had been part of the same just-graduated class as he. He was an energetic fellow and had always been fond of gossip, and Alec hoped he wouldn’t want to sit and chat. He drew his cup towards him and stirred it intently, hoping to seem too deep in thought to be an attractive conversational partner.

“Did you hear about Perrin?” Carl inquired, digging industriously in the cupboard and extracting a cracker packet.

“No,” Alec answered dully.

“Oh, well,” said Carl, tearing open the cracker packet, “he’s only gone and broken his leg, and he was supposed to transfer up to some hospital in London next week. He can’t do it now, of course, bad break, he’s not supposed to even walk on it for ages, so they’re all a-scramble trying to find someone to take his place. Of course no one’s volunteered so far to have his life upended on such short notice. I certainly can’t do it, what with Mum relying on me as she does - they’re paying a decent amount, but the bombing’s the worst there and what she’d do if one got me I’m sure I don’t know. But the higher-ups are abuzz, anyway.” Evidently this concluded the news bulletin, for he fell abruptly silent, rapidly ate a number of crackers, then put the packet back in the cupboard and left the room with a cheery “See you around.”

London, Alec thought. He wondered for a moment what would happen if he got on the train to London tonight and didn’t come back until his next shift. He hadn’t enough money on him to make it possible, unless he wanted to sleep in the station for two nights, but the thought of escaping to London for a little while was somehow the cheeriest thought he had had all day.

Escaping, he thought. Escaping what?

Escaping whatever I’ve been trying to escape when I’m not here.

With a sudden sharp ache of certainty, Alec realized the truth he had been shutting out of his mind because he could not bear to fully face up to it. He couldn’t hide it from himself anymore. He was fond of Sandy, terribly fond, would always be fond. But he wasn’t in love with him anymore, and he didn’t want to be with him anymore. That was what he had been trying to escape, that and the knowledge of it. Well, the latter had finally caught up to him.

What to do now, he thought wearily. He and Sandy lived together, worked together, socialized together. Except for financially, their lives were completely tied up in each other; they had shared expenses, but either would be capable of maintaining himself should the need arise. In all other aspects, they were joined at the hip. How to begin disentangling himself from Sandy was a knotty question. How to avoid being reminded of their relationship every second step of his day, should he manage to disentangle himself, and how to avoid as well any public scenes after the fact, were two others.

His head still ached despite the aspirin. He could not stay with Sandy now that he understood this, not any longer than he had to, but what could he do?

London, he thought. If I could escape to London.

He drained his teacup, rinsed it in the sink, and left the room with a newly determined step.

Sandy was already asleep when Alec arrived at the flat, and he shucked off his clothes and slid into bed with a feeling of thankfulness that at least the conversation could wait until he had had a good night’s rest and a morning’s respite. He slept like a rock and woke to find the flat empty and the clock reading 9:47. This gave him a bit less than three hours until Sandy could be expected back. He dressed slowly, then tried to eat some toast, but gave up and put it in the bin. After that he paced for a little while, then tried to read a book, but found himself unable to concentrate. Visions of Sandy’s potential reactions danced in his head. They were not appealing.

The time passed like sandpaper grating on Alec’s nerves. He moved from seat to seat in the living room, unable to sit still, finding himself too frayed to focus on anything that might be a distraction. He was sitting in his favorite chair, contemplating an attempt at some kind of meal or snack, when Sandy returned from work.

“Hullo, my dear,” he said cheerily, unwrapping his scarf. It was pale blue and had been a birthday present from Alec himself last year. Alec pushed away the memory of giving it to him and how pleasant the evening had been. “Hullo,” he responded quietly.

“It’s been a while since we had a free day at the same time, hasn’t it?” said Sandy, dropping his scarf on the divan nearest Alec’s chair. He unbuttoned his coat neatly and rapidly, putting it down atop the scarf, then flopped himself down next to it. “I was thinking, perhaps we could go for a few drinks, or maybe have dinner out later. What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know,” Alec said. His stomach felt as though it were tying itself in knots. “Do we have to do anything?” He knew he had sounded too surly by the look of hurt surprise on Sandy’s face.

Sandy said, slightly hesitantly, “Are you still tired? I know you were working late last night. We don’t have to go out, if you don’t want to. As a matter of fact, maybe it would be rather nice to stay in. We haven’t gotten much time together lately—could spend the afternoon catching up.” He reached out and lightly ran his hand along Alec’s arm.

Alec knew the moment could not be put off any longer, or he would lose his nerve. He got up from his chair, took a few steps towards the window, turned resolutely and faced Sandy. “I’m going to be transferred to a hospital in London. They’re short of doctors and I can do the most good there.” He hesitated, then went on, “I’m moving out there next week.” He found it difficult to breathe, watching Sandy, waiting for him to understand.

Sandy looked rather blank. “I wish you’d told me sooner,” he said, slowly and with evident confusion. “I can try to get whatever day it is off, to help you get settled in, but I’ve no idea how often I’ll be able to get the time to come up and see you.”

Oh hell, Alec thought miserably, I’m going to have to spell it out, aren’t I. He could not prevent some of his feelings showing on his face. Sandy, observing this, sat up straighter and said apprehensively, “Alec?”

Alec felt a sort of panic rising in him, which manifested itself in a need to be moving, or smoking, or doing something with his hands. He walked rather jerkily over to the fireplace and began fiddling with the bric-a-brac on the mantle. “I think,” he forced out, “I think that when I go, we…we probably should stop seeing each other.” The bomb having been dropped, he held his breath and waited for the explosion. His hands were shaking. He shoved them violently into his pockets, feeling like a wire strung out tightly enough to cut. But all he heard behind him was silence, which dragged out agonizingly for several moments until, unable to bear the tension, he spun around and burst out, “Say something, won’t you, damn it.”

There was a sense of pausing, then Sandy said in a very small voice, “What do you want me to say?”

“I don’t know,” Alec admitted wretchedly. He folded his arms across his chest, hunching his shoulders defensively. Sandy was exhibiting none of the wild outbursts or hysteria that he had been expecting. Instead he was sitting extremely still, except for the convulsive way he was twisting his hands together. His face bore the expression of someone who has been dealt a blow which he is just beginning to realize was a mortal one. Alec had had practice dealing with a Sandy who was wailing and flailing. He had no idea how to handle a Sandy who simply sat there looking like that. He felt a brief stab of the irrational anger which sometimes accompanies the knowledge that one is obliged to badly hurt a person one cares for. In a tight voice, he said, “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry. I just don’t think we can keep on together anymore. It’s not good for either of us, really.”

Sandy watched him with enormous pained eyes and said nothing. Alec floundered on, “But I do hope…someday, perhaps…we can be friends at least. I do want you to be happy, if you can, you know. I just don’t honestly think either of us will be, if we stay together.”

“Oh, God,” said Sandy, in a horrible, quiet, choking voice. “Oh, God. I love you.” His mouth trembled and he finally began to cry, not loudly or histrionically but a soft, hopeless weeping.

Alec felt suddenly that he could not be in the flat. To stay there any longer would suffocate him. He moved blindly to the bedroom, shoved keys, money, handkerchiefs, whatever small items happened to be on top of the bureau, into his pockets, threw on his coat, and stumbled out the door and down the stairs.

He was halfway down the street before he realized that he had absolutely no idea where to go. In his current emotional state, the thought of seeing most of the people who knew the truth of his and Sandy’s relationship was unbearable. They would fuss and commiserate, when what he wanted was to retreat from the world and wrestle with his anguish until he had got it contained enough to be able to face the human race again. They would gossip, too; in the all-too-necessarily-confined circles in which he ran, any bit of social news was spread as quickly and to as many people as the hearer deemed worthwhile. They loved to whisper and gasp behind their hands to each other; treating the dustups and pairings-off as serious and worthy of discussion allowed them the illusion of existing in real society, rather than a kind of forced parallel world from which law and social mores prevented them stepping forth. Ordinarily Alec had no real problem with this behavior. He had found the grapevine highly useful himself at times. However, just at this moment he felt he could not bear being exposed to public chatter.

There was one person, he thought, who would understand exactly what he needed. The problem was that he didn’t know whether Ralph would actually be at home. As far as Alec knew, he was currently on shore leave after his first, somewhat brief, re-assignment at sea, but they hadn’t seen each other in some time and he wasn’t sure, come to think of it, what the exact date was that Ralph was meant to be shipping out again. Nonetheless he could not think of any other place to which he could possibly flee.

There was a bus which let off a couple of city blocks from Ralph’s building. Alec dug in his pockets, found the correct change, and caught it. It was mostly empty, for which he was deeply thankful. It allowed him to sit by himself at the back, where no one would be looking at him.

A young woman was coming out of the building as Alec approached; he held the door for her and she said “Thanks,” over her shoulder as she set off down the pavement. He was glad of this encounter, as it meant he need not ring the bell or do anything attention-drawing to get inside.

Ralph’s flat was on the first floor. Alec stood in front of the door, suddenly irresolute. It was occurring to him now that Ralph might not necessarily be the sympathetic ear he had been hoping for; he had always thought Sandy rather a dippy little flibbertigibbet and would probably respond to the news along the lines of “Took you long enough.” Well, he was here now anyway, and whatever Ralph might say it would be better than wandering the streets with only his own unhappy thoughts for company.

Alec raised his hand and knocked on the door, which was opened a few seconds later not by Ralph but by Laurie Odell. Alec stared blankly at him, then realized belatedly that Oxford’s Christmas vacation was still on for another week and that he really should have expected this.

“Hullo, Alec,” Laurie said. “Come in, won’t you? Ralph’s stepped out to drop a letter in the postbox but he oughtn’t be gone more than a few minutes.” As Alec stepped through the doorway and into the light Laurie took a better look at him and frowned. “Are you all right?” he said. Alec responded only with a helpless shrug. He liked Laurie and knew him to be generally capable in a crisis, but he wasn’t sure he was up to explaining the situation twice. Laurie steered him to an armchair and offered him a cigarette, which he took gratefully; Laurie perched on the sofa nearby, but let him smoke without asking questions.

Alec had got a bit more than halfway down the cigarette when Ralph arrived. “Alec,” he said, with mild surprise but evident pleasure, then took a second look just as Laurie had and said, “What’s he done this time?”

“Ralph,” Laurie remonstrated. Ralph ignored this and only said, “Come on, out with it.”

Sandy’s done nothing,” Alec told them both. “It was me.” He took a deep drag on the cigarette, now nearly gone. It did very little for his nerves. “I ended things with him.” He braced himself for Ralph’s told-you-so, in whatever form it might take, but Ralph only stood looking at him kindly and said, “Difficult, was it? Did he take it badly?”

“No, he didn’t.” The cigarette was burnt out. Alec stubbed it into a nearby ashtray. “Not in front of me anyway. It was obvious he wasn’t happy about it, but he was very contained. I’ve never seen anything like it, from him. But I didn’t stick around after I’d laid out the facts, I got out of the flat pretty quickly.”

Ralph and Laurie traded a swift glance. “I see,” Ralph said. He looked contemplative for a moment. “How long ago was that?”

“I took the bus here.” Alec considered. “Forty minutes, perhaps.”

Ralph nodded. “I won’t bother taking off my coat,” he said. “I can get up there quicker in the car than you did coming on the bus. Spud, you’ll stay here and look after Alec, won’t you?”

“Of course,” Laurie replied. He rose to his feet, not with grace but less awkwardly than he used to do. “I’ll put some tea on.”

“Tea, hell,” Ralph said. “What he wants is something stronger than that.” He pulled open a cabinet door and extracted a bottle and a glass. Laurie looked faintly annoyed.

“I don’t care,” Alec said to the room at large. “Tea, gin, whatever you want to hand me, I’ll drink the lot.” Laurie looked less annoyed at that. Alec remembered that he had been a bit concerned about Ralph’s previously much heavier drinking habits; he was probably not enthused about the concept of drinking away one’s problems, in general. Ralph put the bottle and glass on the end table by Alec’s hand and said “Help yourself, I’m going. I’ll tell you everything, whatever there is to tell, when I get back.” The door clicked behind him as he left the flat.

Alec regarded the bottle next to him with a jaundiced eye. The label read “whisky,” not “gin,” as he had expected. It bore a Scottish distillery’s label. This made him think of Sandy again. He pushed the bottle away from him. Laurie, who had been hovering, looked mildly relieved. “I’ll put the kettle on,” he said.

During the time it took to make the tea, they were relatively quiet. Alec did not feel much like talking, and Laurie seemed to sense this; he made a couple of small commonplace remarks, but did not try to force conversation out of Alec. The tea was very hot when it came, but Alec didn’t care. He took small sips, wincing, wishing he could drink it faster but not wanting to scald himself. Laurie watched him, a little solicitously, over his own cup. Alec wondered if he looked as much like hell as he felt. He wished Ralph would return; on the bus he had been too busy being miserable to think about what Sandy might be doing, but now in the softly-lit peace of the flat he had ample time to consider the possibilities. Most of them seemed rather unpleasant.

Presently Ralph did return, looking thoughtful. “Well,” he said, in response to the anxious expression Alec turned on him, “that was interesting.”

“Interesting how?” Alec asked. He was tired and jumpy and not in the mood for long lead-ins. Ralph sat down on the sofa, still looking thoughtful.

“First I took a quick look in the bathroom,” he said, “just in case, but it was empty. So I went upstairs, didn’t bother knocking as I didn’t know what I might find. He was just sitting there, staring into space, looking like death. He was startled to see me come in, I think, but he got over that quickly and said ‘I suppose you’ve come to make sure I haven’t stabbed myself or anything like that.’”

Alec flinched. Ralph’s mouth twitched sympathetically before he continued, “So I said to him, ‘Obviously,’ and he said, ‘Well, you needn’t bother yourself, I haven’t and I’m not going to. And you needn’t tell me that I brought it on myself either, I already know that. And I know you’ve never thought much of me’—which is true enough and he knows quite well why—'but I’m not stupid, I know how you knew to come here, so will you please tell Alec I won’t make things difficult for him and I’m sorry.’ Which was frankly unsettling coming from him, I’d expected to find him carrying on like the Bride of Lammermoor or something and instead here he comes out with this coherent and rather sensible speech. I wouldn’t have thought he had it in him to behave like that, and I said as much to him. He seemed to take it as a compliment, in a very downhearted way, and said, ‘Well, apparently I do.’ I couldn’t see a reason to linger, so I told him I’d pass the message along to you and came away.”

Alec was already leaning his elbows on his knees; he lowered his head and pressed his palms against his eyes. The thought of Sandy quietly and calmly accepting his suffering, holding himself responsible for everything, was somehow much more horrible than the thought of Sandy shrieking and weeping and blaming him. There would have been something to push back against, mentally, in that case. With what was evidently actually happening, it felt rather like having struck a defenseless kitten, though intellectually he knew that the comparison was ridiculous; Sandy was a grown man with a good bit of snap to him, even if he did require looking-after sometimes, and a demonstration of maturity like this was hardly a sign of helplessness, surprising (and therefore disarming) though it was.

The rest of the afternoon and evening passed in a blur. There was some sort of dinner, which Ralph half reasoned, half bullied Alec into eating at least a bit of. Afterwards he tried and mostly failed to read a magazine while Ralph and Laurie engaged in the kind of imitation-cheerful, superficial conversation suited to the sick-room of a person who will be, but is not yet, convalescent. Both of them kept glancing at him, and periodically one or the other addressed a remark to him, which he answered as briefly as common politeness permitted. Alec had thought his jangled nerves would never settle; presently, however, he found himself nodding over his magazine. He jerked back upright with a start; Ralph looked over at him, then got up and disappeared momentarily, returning with an armful of bedding.

“You’re done in,” he said, gesturing with the blankets for Laurie to get off the sofa, which he began rapidly making up with them. “You can borrow some of my pyjamas - top left bureau drawer. Tomorrow we can go and collect some of your things - you can stay here till you’ve found new digs.” As he headed for the bedroom, Alec couldn’t help darting a glance at Laurie to see how he was taking all of this, but Laurie appeared serenely unconcerned.

Alec selected the plainest pyjamas in the prescribed bureau drawer, and changed as quickly as he could. He folded his clothes and tucked them under his arm as he headed back down the hall, trying not to step on the hems of the pyjama pants, which were rather long for him. “I’m going to London,” he said to the living room at large. “Next week. Taking a place at a hospital there.”

“We’ll be sorry to lose you,” Laurie said. If he was relieved at the news that his boy friend’s newly single old flame wouldn’t be underfoot for too long, he didn’t show it. Ralph had finished making up the sofa, and now he straightened from smoothing out the blankets. “We’ll iron out the details tomorrow,” he said. “I won’t tell you sleep well, because I’ve a feeling you aren’t going to. Try and get some sleep, at any rate, though, won’t you?”

“I hope so,” said Alec. “I have to work tomorrow. I can take the bus from here no problem, though,” he added quickly to forestall any offers of a ride.

“All right,” said Ralph, mildly skeptical but evidently choosing not to dispute it. “Afterwards we’ll go and get your things. Is Sandy likely to be there?”

Alec tried not to flinch at the sound of Sandy’s name. He shook his head.

“All right,” said Ralph again. “Good night then.”

“Good night,” echoed Laurie, smiling tentatively in what was probably meant to be a reassuring way.

“Night,” Alec said. The other two disappeared into the bedroom. If they were conversing after the door shut, he couldn’t hear it. He stared at the made-up sofa for a moment, then carefully got into it and pulled the chain of the lamp at his head. He lay there in the dark for a while, staring sightlessly at the ceiling, feeling rootless, until eventually he descended into the deep black sleep of the emotionally exhausted.

The next week passed in a blur. Alec threw himself into his work and the preparations for London like a madman, so as not to allow himself to dwell, though it was difficult. He and Sandy had very seldom seen each other at work, and he was deeply thankful that this continued the case. He lived out of the suitcases and boxes piled in a corner of Ralph and Laurie’s living room, and slept on their sofa at night, feeling both that the day of his removal would never come and that it was approaching far too quickly, without allowing him sufficient time to prepare. Nonetheless, he had all of his t’s crossed and i’s dotted by the time the day came around. Laurie had gone back up to Oxford the day previously, so it was Ralph alone who drove Alec to the station early in the morning, helped him transfer his luggage into the correct hands, and stood on the platform in the few minutes before the train was due to leave, regarding him with what Alec felt was rather an unnecessarily mother-hennish expression.

“Well,” Alec said. He couldn’t think of anything else in particular to say that didn’t sound awkward, so he cleared his throat and looked around the platform. At this hour, there weren’t many others at the station, and certainly no one in earshot; the windows of the train were shut against the cold, as well. Still, it didn’t do to be too careless. “Well,” he said again.

“If there’s anything you need,” said Ralph.

“Nothing at all.”

“I’m shipping out myself, next week,” said Ralph, “but you can always write at the direction I gave you, or write to Laurie if it’s more urgent – he’s agreed –“

“Worry about your own problems,” said Alec, torn between the urge to burst out laughing and the urge to shake Ralph. “You know perfectly well I can look after myself.”

“Even so –“

“Even so, nothing.” Alec thought with a wry amusement, this is why we never would have worked out together. “I’m starting a new phase of my life and I don’t need you fussing over me like a nurse over an invalid child. Go and fuss over Sandy, if fuss you must.” He enjoyed Ralph’s appalled expression for a moment, then took another quick survey of the platform and stepped forward to hug him. “You’ve got the address of my new digs,” he said over Ralph’s shoulder. “Look me up if you’re ever near London.”

“Of course.”

They stepped apart again.

Ralph checked his watch. “You’d better get on,” he said, “don’t want them starting without you.” By the station clock Alec thought he probably had a few minutes, but he supposed it would be a good idea to get himself settled. “All right,” he said. “Good luck on your voyage.”

“Good luck in London.” Ralph clasped Alec’s hand for a moment, then released it. “Godspeed, my dear.”

“Godspeed,” Alec echoed, mounting the coach’s steps. As the train pulled out of the station, he stared out the window and thought about the last time he had taken a train to begin a new life, at the outset of his student days. In a way, he supposed that train had taken him to Sandy. Now a different train was taking him away from Sandy and everything that Sandy had meant. An era of his life, closed. Alec briefly wondered if segmenting one’s life was a sign of impending old age, then shook himself and began concentrating on the possibilities ahead. By the time London came into view, he was very nearly approaching something like happiness. It wasn’t quite all the way there, but, for the moment, it was enough.