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The Escape Artist

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Summer, 1961.

James is thirteen (and so is John) when he first realizes. He is touring the V&A with his parents, trying very hard not to fidget as they walk past what must be the seventy-eighth plaster cast of some ancient piece of sculpture; he knows that he is supposed to be grave and dignified in the presence of Art, but the whole place smells of dust and plaster and death. It's high summer on a rare, sunny day, and he feels sticky all over. His mum's exclaiming over puttees or something (putti, his dad corrects her gently), and James lets his eyes wander.

He would like to say that he sees the boy's face first, his eerie, vacant eyes somewhere between pleasure and betrayal; he'd like to say that he recognizes the contra-posture thing that his dad's been telling them about the whole time they've been touring the Renaissance casts. (Contrapposto, his dad would correct him.)

The first two fingers of the boy's plaster hand rest at the fold of his hip, his robe falling from his shoulders as a soft fur tunic dips between his legs. James finds that his mouth has gone very dry; he can't stop staring at that hand, so casually posed, the fingers just about to--

"Found one you like, have you?" James nearly jumps at the voice, turning to look up his father. He's sure his face is red, he's sure his dad will see--he swallows. "It's all right," he answers thickly, with what he hopes will pass for indifference.

"Hmm." His mum bends over to read the placard. "St John the Baptist. By Benedetto da Maiano--oh, darling, John would have loved to see this! It's his namesake and everything."

James feels a sudden spike of jealousy. He's glad that John's not here to see this; he's glad that John's refused to come so that he can practice for his recital. For a moment, he has the mad, absurd sense that his brother will look at the statue and see what he's seen, and James feels ashamed at how little he wants to share.

*

Autumn, 1964.

John will always say, later, that he didn't realize he was gay; it wasn't, he will put it, a religious conversion. He didn't see the light and accept Judy Garland into his heart. (He will mostly say this to needle Buzz, who will sniff and say that any true believer knows that Ethel Merman is the One, True Savior.)

It's not that he realizes that he's gay, that autumn term in 1964, with a day pass that lets him roam the town at will. James is going to a grammar school, staying with their parents in Battersea, but John has a music scholarship that's paid his way into a rather expensive boarding school--one that he's learned not to brag about, or even to name in the wrong sort of company.

His father's coach business means that he's often in the wrong sort of company, when he's home over the holidays, so it's better if he doesn't name it at all.

James was very happy for him, of course. When their mum had read out the letter, he'd caught John up in one of those awkward, too-tight hugs that he'd never quite grown out of, and John had pried off his arms and said something stupid about sentiment and pity. It's a pity you're so sentimental, or Your sentiment looks like pity; something stiff and callous like that. Something to make James let go.

He doesn't know why he's thinking of James.

John likes to lurk at the edge of alleys and village greens, watching boys play football with a rough, heedless disregard for each other's bodies. They foul their friends shamelessly and clap each other on the back like men who've done a good day's work; their faces are streaked with grime and blood, all split lips and crooked noses and slick sweat. John sometimes wonders what would happen if he stripped off his jacket and ran in among them--whether they'd take him in, if he got his face dirty and his knees grubby and trampled across the grass with them.

They never invite him in to play, but when they're taking a break or trying to walk off a pulled muscle, they'll take his offer of cigarettes. Sometimes, a few boys will lean against the fence or the wall of a shop with him, smoking quietly, watching the game go on without them.

John likes that. It's almost like they're friends.

As the early evening turns the sky a high, fitful sort of grey, the boys get collected by their girlfriends, one by one. Together, they retreat to the town's run-down milk bar, where they share milkshakes and ice lollies and kisses and secrets. John went once, tagging along after them, and he'd half expected it to be like something out of A Clockwork Orange, because he'd just read it and the whole world had peeled back around him to reveal something dark and ugly and bruised.

The reality was almost sickeningly mundane. There were posters of American starlets on the walls, Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe, with Audrey Hepburn representing Queen and Country in a black-and-white glamour shot. The leather on the seats had been cracked and worn on the edges, and in the dim lighting, every girl's precocious cosmetics showed up in ghastly shades.

He doesn't follow them to the milk bar any longer; he only watches them go and doesn't say anything. Then he finishes his last cigarette, hoping to make the day out last just a little longer. He wishes he could put his arm around a girl's shoulders and laugh with his mates on those faded leather seats, just like everyone else does. Maybe, when it gets late and the girls had to go home, the harder boys will go to the pub and convince the men there that they're not fourteen, fifteen--not likely; in a place like this, everyone's bound to know them. Their dads probably drink there, too, after a shift at the factory or the warehouse or the mine (where do men work, here? He is suddenly ashamed to realize that he doesn't know). They probably don't care that their boys are drinking with working men, since these boys are going to be working men in a matter of years. Maybe they like it better that way. Maybe they think that their sons are safe in that kind of company.

He imagines walking into one of those working-class pubs, with his school uniform on and his hair brushed just so--but it's no good. John steps on his last fag-end and discards the empty pack, turning around to trudge back to school.

If he were one of them, though--if he could go in with his fingernails still smeared with grease and sweat plastering his hair to his brow, then maybe they'd share that raucous laughter with him and play football with him on the green, and put their arms around his shoulders and share secrets and kisses--

For a second, his blood runs cold, and then he begins to laugh. It's a relief so chilling that it's damn near painful, because for the first time he really understands that he wants to be wanted, and if he doesn't laugh he's going to curl in on himself and cry.

He begs his way into the music room when he returns, tracing arpeggios until he has his shaking fingers under control. Then, slowly, he begins to pick out a new melody; he weaves together familiar chords and cadences, searching for the combination that will play the new song welling in him. It will be something grand, something triumphant, pure and clean and--

In half an hour, the song is gone, and he's curled up in the dark in the music room, his head against the cool wood that hides the keys.

*

Summer, 1966.

James chooses to break the news over dinner, when his father's halfway through his roast and his mother's spooning a second helping of potatoes onto her plate. John is reading at the table, although their dad's told him a dozen times that it's disrespectful to the family; when John had started to skip meals instead, there had been a fight about John's books and his cigarettes and his bad company.

He doesn't know what John said to their dad, but the next day he had been reading calmly at their table, looking up only when he wanted another bite of peas. Their mum had winced a little at every scrape of his fork on the china.

That was at the beginning of the summer holidays; the summer is well-advanced, now, and their meals are very quiet.

"Mum, Dad," he starts, then takes a sip of water to fortify himself. John looks up first, as though startled by a gunshot. "I thought ... I thought I should tell you."

"Tell us what, duck?" his mum asks, leaning forward with a concerned expression. James meets her eyes, and he couldn't say how, exactly, but he knows that she knows what he's about to say. Her lips are drawn tight together, a few last traces of lipstick lingering at the edges and the corners faintly lined even though she isn't smiling. He's never really looked at his mother's lips, he thinks.

"I--I'm gay," he says, with an embarrassed sort of cough. "And it's probably not going to change. I'm terribly sorry."

"Plenty of good men were gay," his father says tersely, not looking at him. "Good artists, good writers."

"Like Oscar Wilde," says John, with a kind of cutting lightness of tone. "Andre Gide. Rudolph Valentino."

"Wash out your mouth, young man," their mum snaps at once. "It simply couldn't--Rudolph Valentino; I never--"

"I heard it, too," James puts in, and he's not sure whether he's saying it to defend John or because he desperately wants it to be true. "I heard his wife was a lesbian."

"A beard, is the technical term. Or perhaps they were mutual beards." John is smirking over his book--Ubu Roi, which (if James recalls correctly) begins with a very rude term and stays more or less equally rude throughout.

"I won't have you discussing such things at this table, young man--"

"What, beards?" asks John innocently, as though there aren't layers of meaning to the word that he's dying to make his father unpack at the table.

Their dad makes an irate sort of noise and returns to his roast. "Read your damned book."

And that's all that they say about it; they treat him differently, though, now that they know. His father only asks John when he's going to find a girl and settle down, and never asks James; when James asks his mother if she minds letting him borrow her sewing machine for costuming, she gives him a soft look of comprehension that she wouldn't have given him before.

It makes sense for James to be gay, or maybe it's that James's being gay helps his family to make sense of him.

Only John treats him as though nothing has changed.

*

Late summer, 1967.

The sky is overcast, with a smell in the air like approaching rain. John longs for that rain; it would slice cleanly through the oppressive humidity of the air, lancing cool and fresh to strike his face and his bare shoulders. He is lounging against the wall of the garage, watching the coaches being washed.

Padraic Boyle bends down to be sure the underside's clear, and John wonders (not for the first time) if he's just doing it to flash John his workingman's smile. The elder Boyle does the windows on the next coach over, hosing them off and then polishing each with a stepstool and practiced efficiency.

Even in the low light, the coaches gleam wetly. They're smooth, sleek beasts, powerfully built of glass and steel; they are industry embodied, John often thinks, and Padraic Boyle is as strong and as simple and as brutal as they.

He remembers leather around his wrists, and breath whispering against his cheek as Padraic said in that soft Irish lilt, I've doused this place with petrol. I'm lighting a match. You have three minutes to get out alive.

John shivers. No, he thinks; strong, and brutal, but never simple.

Padraic has never wanted to play with him again, although John has caught him looking more than once. He's never sure how to read that look, the raise of brows and the slight quirk of lips at one corner; it could be resentment or pity as easily as interest.

He thinks that he could stand resentment and pity, so long as there's interest mingled with them.

When Padraic straightens, tilting his head to one side and then the other to make his neck crack, he catches sight of something--John's reflection, perhaps, on the smooth hull of the coach--and turns. With slow deliberation, he raises his massive arms over his head and stretches, letting the blue veins bulge on his straining muscles, as though he is a Renaissance sculpture of Hercules.

Or an Irish boy who left school as soon as law said he could, and who came to wash coaches with his father in London; who wrestled in garages and lifted heavy boxes every day, who'd seen his skin scored by rugby cleats and women's fingernails. There are no good statues to working-class Irish boys.

John turns away, lighting a cigarette as he goes. He doesn't know why Padraic posed for him like a goddamn Tom of Finland drawing, but he can remember that it happened, and that will be enough. It will get him through work and to the morning.

He's found summer work playing at rehearsals for a production of Flower Drum Song, with a mostly Indian and Pakistani cast; it is, the director feels, a good time for a political statement, even if the political statement (as far as John can tell) is that Asians are minorities interchangeable in both their expression and their oppression. The music isn't terrible, and the cast takes him out for curry afterward; Farooq sings "I Enjoy Being a Girl" at the top of his lungs when he's had a little to drink, and the girls all laugh at him as they can't when Ambika sings the number in performance.

John has seen the way Farooq looks at him, when they're backstage and John is pretending that he's concentrating on the score. It's not the same look that Padraic gives him; it's not a knowing look. Rather, it's a look that seems to want to know.

No one has ever wanted to know John, and so he doesn't look up. He is terrified that, in looking up, he will break the spell--reveal too much, or learn too much, and lose that illusion of connection.

One day, Farooq doesn't turn up to rehearsal, and the director informs them that he will not be returning to the cast. His understudy steps into the role of Frankie Wing, but for the first few days, he's too upset to sing a note. No one blames him.

They call it "Paki-bashing" in the news, and they don't show either Farooq's face or the faces of those who jumped him. Everyone knows the type, though; the working boys with the short-cropped hair and the high boots, the short trousers and the dead-eyed smirk.

John avoids the coach garage, after that. It isn't that he thinks Padraic is the type--it isn't even that he couldn't bear knowing that he is, if he were.

Why not me instead? he asks himself, as his hands press heavy on the chords. Onstage, Ambika is singing brightly, "I'm strictly a female female, / And my future I hope will be / In the home of a brave and free male--"

The melody will work its way into his musicals, into scores for Baron von Steuben (tenor) and Harry Houdini (baritone); when the Village Voice writes disparagingly about Jeckyll's dependence on Rogers and Hammerstein, he'll simply set the thing alight and drop it neatly into a rubbish bin on the streets of New York City.

He hears Ambika's voice swelling, something clear and brassy and alive in it that drowns out his mechanical late-fifties chord progressions. He remembers the way her voice rang out in the alley as she'd laughed, her fingers stained yellow with turmeric; he remembers Farooq with his head thrown back and his song echoing to the clouds above.

Why not me? he asks as he plays the closing notes, willing his hands steady. I'm not innocent.

*

When John tells his parents that he's gay, his father doesn't tell him about writers and artists, and his mother doesn't give him that sympathetic look that she had ready for James.

"Thank you for telling us," she manages, with a smile that even she must know looks false. "We're glad that you can trust us with that."

Later that night, he hears his father muttering something about another goddamn poofter in my family; his mother shushes her husband at once, saying those are our sons you're talking about.

He leans against the wall outside of their room, feeling the cold, slick wallpaper against his brow. His heart aches.

James comes up the stairs with a cup of tea in his hand (he squirrels them away to his room, and there's always a nest of cups and saucers on the windowsills and the shelves). When he catches sight of John with his arms folded and his head against the wall, he asks softly, "Do you want to talk?"

"No," answers John at once. James looks as though he is about to say something, but finally, he shakes his head and presses his free hand to John's shoulder.

"It will be all right," he says. John detests him for it.

He goes outside, into the garden and the cool night air. Rain has been threatening for days, but in Battersea, none has fallen.

John is nineteen years old (and so is James)--and he has already had enough of London.

He tilts up his face, and he waits for rain.