‘What are you doing, A. J.?’ I hissed as Raffles, eyes bright with that mischievous glitter I knew only too well, slipped his arm from mine, shrugged off his coat, and tossed it into a nearby bush.
Raffles nodded toward the illuminated doorway across the otherwise quiet Chelsea street, around which various fashionable folk were clustering. ‘Looks like an art exhibition' he said to me in a low, excited voice, 'and an exclusive one, at that, if the chap on the door and the jewellery on the people loitering around are any measures. Exclusive probably means good, and at the very least it means good free champagne. I haven’t been to a decent exhibition in ages! Come on, Bunny!’
‘We are supposed to be going to the theatre...’ I complained, even as I nevertheless trailed in his wake.
'My dear chap, the theatre will be there tomorrow, and the next day, and every day after that; this won't. Stop worrying, Bunny; it’ll be fun!’
‘I'm not worrying, I just don't–'
‘Shut up and play along,’ Raffles murmured, pinching the back of my hand before striding with purpose up the few steps of the grand looking building. He paused at the door and offered a sheepish smile to the previously bored looking doorman, who brightened considerably after looking Raffles up and down. The man returned A.J.’s smile a little too warmly for my liking.
‘Hello again,’ said Raffles to the doorman, affecting a rueful tone and gesturing demurely toward me. ‘I did find my pal, in the end. I guessed right; he’d gotten lost. Had the wrong street, didn’t you, Bunny?’
‘What? Oh, yes,’ I said, trying simultaneously to both avoid stumbling over my words and keep from throttling Raffles. ‘I’m terrible with directions.’
‘Lucky I found him; it’s a devilishly cold night,’ Raffles said, rubbing his hands together and turning back to the doorman with a theatrical shiver. ‘I certainly don’t envy you your job, my dear fellow! And you were right; certainly not a night to be without one’s coat! I should have listened to you, and not left mine in the cloakroom!’
‘Sorry, sir?’ the doorman replied. ‘Have we met before?'
‘Haven’t forgotten me already, have you? I’ve half a mind to be insulted by that! Not half an hour ago I told you I had to nip out to find my pal, as I wanted to check with you first that I’d be allowed back in again! You assured me that would be perfectly all right. That advice I received happily, but unfortunately I was fool enough to brush off your subsequent advice to take my coat with me. I’m about half frozen!’
‘Oh,’ the doorman said with a chuckle, which I felt was rather familiar and unprofessional, regardless of how relentlessly ingratiating Raffles was being. ‘I see what's happened. I only came onto this shift about quarter of’n hour ago — they’ve got us swapping out a lot, on account of the cold. You must've spoken with Tom. He looks just like me!’
'Ah! That must be it,’ Raffles said with his most charming smile. ‘Well,’ he added, slipping two coins into the man’s hand, 'in that case, here’s something for your colleague as apology for not taking his excellent advice, and something for you for – well, for looking like "Tom" and having to listen to me carry on as though you and I were old friends rather than complete strangers. Don’t worry, I’ll stop bothering you now, and leave you to your duty.'
'You can bother me whenever you want, sir,' the man replied, indecorously coy. I wanted to hit him. 'It's my job to assist, after all.'
'And I am sure you are very good at it. Come along, Bunny; we've art to view!'
And just as easy as that, we were in.
Raffles was right, it was an art exhibition; and it was an even more exclusive one than even he had anticipated. If I were with anyone but Raffles I would have been surprised that we’d managed to get in, but I was certain Raffles could talk his way into dinner at Balmoral if he set his mind to it. Exceptionally well-dressed people drifted around in small, exclusive little groups, murmuring together in front of paintings, sipping champagne and dripping with gold, silver, and diamond jewellery which glittered under the softly lit electric lights. I felt desperately out of place and uncomfortably underdressed, but Raffles, of course, glided through the exhibition rooms as though he owned the place, making light conversation with various strangers as though he’d known them for years, passing educated comments upon the artwork to no one in particular and everyone in general, garnering interest from many an appreciative nearby ear, whilst I stood, mute and glowering, at his side.
I’ve never cared too much for art; not, at least, in comparison to Raffles. I appreciate a beautiful painting as much as the next man, of course, and have opinions enough to know that I prefer Rossetti to Renoir, but there my critical consideration ended. Raffles had tried to educate me, and I had tried to learn, but I had neither his passion nor talent for visual artistry. Under other circumstances I might have made more of an effort, and would have been happily content to be carried along by Raffles' infectious enthusiasm; but as it was, I was in no mood whatsoever to be either generous or gregarious. I had been looking forward to going to the theatre. Though Raffles had promised in silken tones to take me to as many stage performances as I could stand to make up for him dashing our plans that evening, I hadn’t yet forgiven him. And so, leaving him to the inevitable gang of admirers which was gathering around him, I disappeared off alone in search of something to drink.
I wandered through several dimly lit rooms, each littered with similar groups of indistinguishable pseudo-Bohemian socialites, smiling blandly at those who greeted me whilst internally cursing them, and this exhibition, and Raffles himself above all else for dragging me there, for not noticing when I left him, for not stopping me, for not apologising and leaving with me then and there. Alone with my thoughts I began to imagine that he was glad I had left him alone, for why would anyone want to enjoy an art exhibition with me as a companion? I knew nothing. He was most likely happy to be shot of me, and I had little doubt that someone beautiful and artistically minded now occupied my space at his side. The thought of this did little to improve my mood.
Before long I stumbled upon a waiter with a tray of champagne. I had determined to drink as much of the stuff as I could whilst remaining still standing. If I had to remain at this deuced exhibition, I was at least going to get something out of it; and the champagne tasted expensive. I was nearing the end of my second glass (feeling a little better for it) and standing before a rather beautiful, if somewhat racy, painting of Sappho (this exhibition was evidently exclusive with good reason) by one Mme. Amelie de Montalivet according to the label, when an Australian-lilted voice to my right stole my attention clean away from the poetess and her nymph pals.
‘Harry? Harry Manders? Is that you, old man? By the devil, it is you!’
As I turned, my gaze fell upon a young man around my age, quite short — only a little taller than me — and impeccably, if not particularly fashionably, dressed. He sported a tidy, heavy moustache, and his dark hair was arranged with fastidious neatness. His smile was lively and bright, and perched atop a delicate nose he wore small, silver spectacles which drew attention to a pair of soft, warm, spirited brown eyes that I should have recognised after even a hundred year absence, let alone a mere ten.
'William Rosering?' I cried as I all but leapt forward to gladly shake his outstretched hand. ‘When did you– How are you— What are you doing back in England? Good God, is it really you?'
'It was really me the last time I checked,' my dear old friend replied with that familiar old chuckle I had missed for so long. 'But my memory never was the best, except when it comes to cricket stats! Strewth though Harry, are you sure you're really you, and not some apparition? Don't you age? Good Lord, that must be, what, coming up to ten years, now? I don’t feel old enough for it to have been as long as all that; and you certainly don’t look it! I suppose you always did look younger than you were, even when we were boys.’
'Yes,' I laughed, still gripping the man's hand in both of mine, 'that always irritated me to no end at school. I admit, the older I get, the less I resent it! And my dear fellow, you hardly look different either — though that splendid moustache is new. Oh, but it is good to see you, Dodo!'
'That's a nickname I haven't heard in a while!' Dodo laughed.
'Sorry,' I apologised, still smiling, the usual embarrassment I would feel over the social misstep of calling a chap by a long dead nickname dissipating beneath the merriness of the man’s smile, still so very like the boy’s I once knew.
'Not a bit of it,’ Dodo replied with warmth. ‘Does me more good than I can say to hear it again. Dash it all, Harry Manders... I can't quite believe it!’
For a moment we stood simply staring at one another as though the other were part of the exhibition, our hands still clasped together, silently taking in the sheer serendipity of our unexpected reunion. A haughty woman then jostled past us pointedly, muttering irritable words not quite beneath her breath about the manners of gentlemen today, and inconsiderate young men blocking the way with no thought to anyone else. Dodo and I both muttered sheepish apologies as we stepped aside, and then, catching one another's eye, descended into a fit of schoolboy giggles as though we were fourteen once more and pulling faces at the schoolmasters behind their backs.
‘Come on,’ Dodo said, taking my elbow, ‘Let’s go get a proper drink, old man, without dragons breathing fire at us!’
I let my old friend lead me through the maze-like exhibition rooms until, at length, we came to a small, exclusive looking bar. A man was stationed at the door and eyed us critically as we approached, but Dodo flashed a piece of paper at him and the guard promptly stepped aside to let us through.
‘What was that about?’ I whispered.
‘Press access,’ Dodo replied, as though he were ashamed of it. ‘That makes me sound important — I’m actually only a cricket correspondent for a paper out in Sydney, and even then only sporadically. Still, they don’t have to know that here, do they? The paper barely pays me, anyway, so I have to get my perks somewhere…’
‘Absolutely,’ I grinned. ‘I’ll have to try that myself sometime.’
‘You’re a journalist? Oh, well I’m not at all surprised about that! You always were the best writer at the old school, I’m nothing as good as all that! For me it's little more than a hobby to indulge in when I'm not actually working. But I figured if I can’t play cricket, I’m at least going to write about it; and if I can make a few extra shillings in the process, the more the better!'
We both ordered a whiskey each at the bar – inclusive of our ticket price, of course – and set about talking. I was more keen to hear about him than speak of myself, for I had little to tell. Or, more accurately, I had a great deal to tell, but little I was either willing or able to share. But luckily for me Dodo had a great many adventures which he was happy to recount, and I was eager to listen. He had, so I discovered, thrived in Australia, the climate suiting his health a great deal better than the cold and damp of England. After finishing school with reasonable success, he had gone into business with his adopted father, and was now helping him to run his various enterprises internationally, and with great success. From there I learned, too, that Dodo was sadly not back in England to stay, but was over in this hemisphere on business. He was making a brief stop over in his old homeland for Christmas before heading across to Paris, Berlin, Barcelona, and plenty of other places whilst making his steady way back to Australia. He complained a great deal about missing over a year’s worth of cricket; he had wanted to come down here for the summer season, and return to Australia in time for their season to begin, but as it was, and much to his chagrin, he would miss play in both hemispheres.
I had hoped that Dodo would be staying in London for the next few weeks, but alas, that was not to be. His plans were to be on the road to Scotland within two days time at the very outside, in order that he and his wife might spend Christmas with her family north of the border. And that was happy tidings to my ears: Dodo, my dear old Dodo, was married! At my eager insistence he recounted to me how he and his wife had met some four years ago in Sydney, and married a year after that. When they had met she had been a governess out in the colonies, but since their marriage had gone in full-time working as a writer, as she had always wished to do. At present she worked both as a journalist for a prominent Sydney newspaper when they were at home in the country, and as a freelancer for any magazines and papers which would pay her whilst they travelled. Dodo had no qualms in waxing lyrical over the lady's flair for “finding the story”, and her ability to write well in not only English, but Portuguese, Spanish, and French too, not to mention enthusiastically telling me all about the hundred other things for which he was was in awe of his lady wife. From the way he spoke of her, it was crystal clear to me that their marriage was an immensely happy one. I was glad. Dodo was a good-hearted, delicate-minded man, quick as a whip, steadfast as a soldier, and gentle as a lamb. He deserved a partner whom he could adore and be adored by in turn.
'She sounds like a magnificent creature,' I said with a sincere smile as Dodo ended his panegyric. 'I wish I could meet her.'
‘But you can!' Dodo exclaimed. 'She's here! You don't think I'd be at an art exhibition under my own steam, old man? No, I'm here with Patience! She’s very much into her art; planning on writing up this evening into an article and selling it off to the highest bidder. I wouldn’t be surprised if The Times itself took it off of her. My Patience is an awf’lly clever lass, Harry; far too clever for me. And far too pretty, too. I am forever waiting on the day she realises all that, and runs off with someone better.' Dodo looked me up and down. '...Actually, on second thoughts, perhaps I won’t take you to meet her: A fellow writer, and proper one at that, who writes about more than just endless cricket; who’s retaining his boyish good looks so well that I’m half-convinced he’s made a deal with the Devil for them; and who has the personality and brains to back up the face? Risky business, introducing your wife to a fellow like that,’ he teased.
'I see you haven’t lost your tendency toward exaggeration!' said I, shaking my head and wondering at the rose-coloured glasses childhood friendship could put upon a man. 'Even if all the rest were true, I'm by no means a proper writer, Dodo,’ I confessed with a grimace. ‘A few articles in the baser papers hardly constitutes proper writing… I don’t want you labouring under the misapprehension that I’m anything more than a nobody writing nothing at all for a handful of sovereigns a year. I don’t doubt that you have certainly had more in print than me, old boy!’
‘Oh, well, in that case I’ll introduce you, then,’ he answered back with a mischievous smirk. Then he hesitated, tilting his head and shooting a laughably unsubtle glance at my left hand. '...On the topic of wives, Harry, what about you?’
‘What about me?’
Dodo sighed with justified exasperation at my deliberately provocative denseness. ‘What do you think, you old ass; are you married, yet!'
'Oh. ...No, I’m not married.'
'Not engaged either.’
'...Involved in some scandalous secret love affair that you can't openly admit to? Tap your glass three times for "yes" if you can’t admit it aloud.’
I couldn’t keep from bursting out laughing. 'Dodo!'
'I'm only asking!' he grinned. 'Don't want to be presumptuous, do I? I’ll be rather disappointed, if you’re not. Scandalous affairs are all the fashion abroad, you know.’
‘Not in England,’ I chuckled, ‘even if this exhibition might seem to suggest otherwise.’
‘Strewth, some of it is a bit on the risque side, isn’t it? I found myself actually blushing at some of the pieces, whilst my dear, delicate flower of a wife stood at my side with a cool and critical eye and exchanged hearty opinions with other critics on the artist’s use of colour. I kept wondering whether they and I must have been looking at different things entirely! I tell you straight, Harry, I felt half induced to stop their conversation at one point to say, “ Sorry, chaps, but are we or are we not looking at a painting of Zeus doing rather graphic things to a pleasant looking, if rather too willing, young lady?” I’m no puritan, don’t get me wrong — I don’t think anyone can spend as much time in Paris as I have and retain the uniquely English capacity for being scandalised, even if Australia hadn’t long since driven that out of me — but still! Then again, I suppose if its Gods, Greeks, or Italians, the usual English moral outrage ceases to apply. Especially if there’s an urn in there somewhere. Bung in an urn or a plinth, and anything becomes acceptable as high art.’
I giggled, the model of maturity, and pulled a face at his genial and unintentional offensiveness to art and England alike. I should have loved to see how Raffles would have responded to such comments; no doubt with good humour, informed opinion, and sharp wit in equal measure. I, on the other hand, heathen that I was, merely nodded my agreement
‘Are you here on your own then, Harry, and of your own volition, if you have no wife pulling you by the leash?’ my old friend continued. ‘...Oh, God, please don't tell me you are here for the exhibition for its own sake, Harry. If you’ve grown up to be a connoisseur of the art world and I've just been making a complete ass of myself—’
‘Far from that,’ I said, cutting him off with a laugh. ‘I know as much about art as you do; honestly I’d rather be at a music hall than here! No, I'm hardly here by choice, old chap. I came with–’ I stopped.
Dodo tilted his head, eyebrows raised, grin mischievous. ‘With who?' he asked, my continued equivocation only fueling his interest. 'Is it someone you oughtn’t be with? A married woman, perhaps? A German spy? Or is it someone very famous here in disguise!'
‘No, nothing like that,' I answered with a snicker, before pausing and rethinking that reply. 'Well, actually…I sort of am, I suppose. Not the secret part, or the— But he is rather famous. That is to say — Dodo, do you remember Raffles?’
‘Raffles! ’ Dodo all but exploded in an enthusiastic cry. ‘You mean the great A. J. Raffles? Most celebrated Captain of the First XI at our old school, now one of the most celebrated amateurs in England, arguably one of the best all-rounders in the cricketing world? Do I remember him?! Do I ever, by Jove! You’re not here with him?’
I have to reluctantly admit to feeling just the smallest bit annoyed that yet again A.J. was eclipsing me, even with my schoolboy best friend. And yet any minor irritation which unworthily pricked at me was vastly overshadowed by the deeply rooted pride and deeply felt joy I always felt whenever anyone levelled deserving praise at A.J. At my A.J. That was better than people praising me .
‘The one and only,’ I smiled. ‘I take it you’re an admirer, then?’
'An emphatic yes to that, old man!' Dodo replied. 'Anyone who cares even a jot for cricket is honour-bound to admire A.J. Raffles! I’ve always carried a little burst of old school pride whenever I hear his name mentioned: “ Oh, A.J. Raffles, did you say? I went to school with him, you know. He once helped me with my bowling… ”’ Dodo shook his head at himself and chuckled before his merriment gave way to a wry smile and a soft look in my direction. ‘So, you are here with A.J. Raffles, Harry. How did that come about? Have you been in contact ever since school? You used to write, didn’t you, when he went off to university?’
‘For a while,’ I said, ‘but then we fell out of contact. These things happen.’ I cleared my throat, skirting around the uncomfortable fact that Dodo and I had eventually fallen out of contact, too. ‘But then I — well, I moved up to London at the end of 1890, and he was here too, and I suppose we moved in the same circles enough that before very long we were thrown together again.’
‘And it was just like old times again right away, what?’
I bit down on an affectionate smile and stared into my glass, hoping that I wasn’t blushing. ‘It was, rather.’
Dodo reached across the table to clap me on the shoulder. ‘I'm dashed pleased to hear it, old man, I really am. From what I remember of Raffles he was always a thoroughly decent sort of a chap, the sort of fellow everyone fell over themselves to be friends with, and rightly so. I don't recall him ever speaking a harsh word to you — or to anyone who didn't bloody well deserve it, come to mention it! And you always were so keen on him, I am glad for you, Harry. And for him. I always thought he seemed ever so fond of you, too.'
I bit my tongue just before excitedly clamouring, "Oh! Do you really think so?" as though I were a lovestruck teenager once again, and replied with a laugh instead. 'Raffles certainly is a good chap, you’re right there — he’s the best fellow in the world, Dodo. I’m pleased you remember him — him , and not just a name in the Sport's pages or an illustration on cigarette cards, as he is to everyone else. He’ll be glad when I tell him that. Oh!’ I cried suddenly. ‘But of course, he’s here! I’ll have to re-introduce you to him, Dodo! Old Raffles will be happy to see you. He always liked school a lot better than I did; any reminder of it puts a smile on his face. And he'll be pleased to see you for your own sake, too,' I added, quickly. 'And I'm sure he'll remember you. A.J. always remembers everyone.'
'I remember the old boy being full of the old school spirit,' Dodo said with a nostalgic tone to his words. 'Balanced out how little of it you had. So A.J. Raffles is the one who dragged you to this exhibition, Harry... But of course, didn't he take art at Oxford, or something? First-class cricketer, artistic genius, handsome devil — some men get all the luck!’
'Cambridge,' I corrected. 'Though he did start at Oxford, before transferring. He won his Blue up there — at Cambridge, that is — and he did marvellously well on the Art Tripos. His sketches are still marvellous, Dodo; I wish I had some to show you. Raffles could just as easily have been an artist as a cricketer, you know. And what he doesn’t know about poetry really isn’t worth knowing; though he insists that he can’t write it himself. He’s deucedly encouraging of me, though — it was on his urging that I went back into writing, you know!’
'I don't doubt any of it,’ Dodo replied with a twinkle dancing in his bright eyes. ‘I say, we should introduce your Raffles to my Patience; I bet they’ll get along like a house on fire — though that would further lessen the likelihood of either of us getting away from this place before midnight, I suppose, if they get to chatting…’
'We can make the most of the free bar whilst they talk art,’ I laughed. ‘But I say, Dodo, if you were worried about introducing your wife to me , I'm surprised you'll take the risk in introducing her to Raffles…' I was unable to resist an easy opportunity to fawn just a little over Raffles, underneath the socially acceptable cover of teasing my friend. 'A.J. really is every bit as charming as the rumours peg him for, you know, and much cleverer. Just about everyone falls in love with him, Dodo — don’t say I didn’t give you due warning! And he is much better looking than the illustrations of him in the papers. They never do him any justice at all, I don't know what they're thinking. It vexes me to no end. Raffles could sketch better himself, and he claims to be no portrait artist!’
‘Perhaps they’re jealous?' Dodo grinned. 'Still, in spite of your glowing warning away from your friend, I reckon I’ll risk introducing him and you both to my dear old wife; I expect I’ll be safe from him stealing her away from me if he’s here with you…’
‘Shall we push off and see whether we can find them, then?’ I asked Dodo, making to stand.
‘Let’s! Honestly, I'm not sure whether I'm more eager to introduce you to my Patience or for you to introduce me to your A.J.! Or to introduce them to one another — I don’t think Patience has ever met any of my old English school friends before tonight; now she’s going to be inundated with them!’
‘I’m not sure two constitute an inundation, Dodo,’ I laughed as we wandered back into the gallery rooms. He tilted his head, wearing an inquiring expression, and was about to speak when I cut him off. ‘Oh, there’s Raffles, over there!’ I cried. ‘I’ll go and grab him before he falls into another conversation and disappears again!'
Raffles saw me as I approached, and the relief and affection which twinkled in his eye as his met mine sent a warm thrill through me which made my knees quite weak. ‘There you are, Bunny,’ he said as I reached him. ‘Where on earth did you scamper off to? I’ve been looking for you everywhere.'
‘Not everywhere, or you'd have found me,' I quipped, earning myself an exasperated chuckle from Raffles.
‘If you've quite finished being clever,' he said, taking my elbow and leaning in close, 'I’ve something to tell you: I think an old face might be here that you’ll no doubt remember. And it'll probably be best if we clear out before—’
‘Oh!’ I cried excitedly before he could finish. ‘I already know! That’s where I’ve been — with him! We ran across one another in one of the exhibition rooms, and headed off to the bar to talk without getting in anyone’s way. I’ve just spent the past hour chatting with the dear old chap! And he’s deucedly eager to say hello to you, Raffles. I promised I’d introduce you before we left, I hope that's all right. And his wife’s here too; he's going to introduce me. Both of us, if you like!'
‘ What? ’
Had I been in less ebullient a mood, I might have noted the mixture of alarm, annoyance, and disbelief which coloured Raffles’ expression and tone, but as it was I was riding too high on the joy of reconnecting with my old friend, and, I am ashamed to admit, on the anticipation I felt to show off my friendship with, as Dodo quite rightly put it, the great A.J.
I knew, and felt keenly in that moment, that on occasion I had a tendency to take Raffles for granted. Or — no, not for granted, precisely; more that I had in some ways become accustomed to being his friend. I sometimes forgot just how inexpressibly grateful I truly was to even know the man, let alone be loved by him. All too often I allowed my temper and my stubbornness and my incessant over-thinking to get in the way of simply being happy . I had done so that evening, wandering off and sulking alone, resenting Raffles’ impulsiveness instead of revelling in it. Revelling in the fact I was the one he was impulsive with; basking in the warmth of his affection; rejoicing in being the person with whom he wanted to share his thoughts, his opinions, his humour, his enthusiasm, his life. That was what I should have been doing that very evening, and yet just because our plans had altered I had instead chosen to be alone and away from the man whom I loved; the man I had always loved more than anything in the universe, and who for some unknown reason loved me. I hadn’t even been particularly keen on going to the theatre in the first place.
Meeting so unexpectedly with Dodo made me realise just how happy — the word seems woefully inadequate — my fourteen-, fifteen-, sixteen-year-old self would have been if he could see me now. If only that lonely, longing boy could see the life I now had, could see the life I now shared with the boy that he — that is to say my younger self — had so completely adored! The man whom I still completely adored, and adored more and more each day that I knew him. With that realisation came the recognition of just how self-defeating and stupid I had been that evening. I didn’t want to spend a moment away from Raffles if I could help it! He could drag me wherever he wanted whenever he wanted: to an unexpected art exhibition; to the scene of any crime; to Hell on a whim or to Heaven on a dare; anywhere Raffles chose, I’d be there at his side like a shadow. There could be nowhere else I would rather be.
‘Come on,’ I said, tugging at Raffles’ sleeve, trying to get him to hurry up as I dragged him over to where I had left my friend. ‘He’s waiting over there to be introduced to you. Or re-introduced to you, I suppose. I have to say, A.J., I’m rather impressed you even recognised him! You didn’t know him half as well as I did, and not for nearly as long, and even then, knowing a boy is never a guarantee of recognising the man, especially not when he's sporting a moustache as fine as Dodo is.'
‘Yes, Dodo, who else? Oh, see, there he is, now. Come on.'
Dodo and I once again came together, having successfully navigated against the tide of art lovers, myself now with Raffles in tow. I grinned and affected a formal tone which made Dodo bite down on a grin.
‘Mr. Raffles, may I re-introduce you to Dodo— that is, to Mr. William Rosering. And Mr. Rosering, this is Mr A.J. Raffles.'
'Hello, Raffles, old boy,' Dodo greeted A.J. with a warm smile, extending a hand which Raffles duly shook. ‘Awfully good to see you. Harry’s been catching me up on you — though I’ve followed your cricket myself ever since you left the old school. I wasn’t half surprised to see Harry here, though things soon fell into place when I realised he was here with you . I suppose you’re here at old Kitty's invitation, as well. I am deucedly glad you are, and that you brought Harry along with you. I can't say how good it does me to see you all again, especially seeing you both look so well!'
‘Kitty ?’ I couldn’t keep from gasping beneath my breath. I shot a glance at Raffles, but his usual equanimity bore no indication that anything was amiss. Perhaps I had misheard.
'It is an unexpected pleasure to meet you here, too, Mr. Rosering,' Raffles said with grace. ‘How did Australia treat you?’
‘Oh, brilliantly; I’m still out there! Not right now, obviously, but that’s where my wife and I still call home. The climate is leagues better than England for my asthma, but even besides that its a deucedly good place to live. But of course, you must know about that; didn’t you play over there back in — 1882, 1883, something like that?’
‘Yes,’ Raffles smiled. ‘In Melbourne. So you’re married, Mr. Rosering? Congratulations.’
‘Thanks, old chap,’ Dodo beamed back. ‘My wife is here, somewhere; quite the art lover, I really can’t keep up with her. I’m here with her rather like Harry is tagging along with you — I hope I’ll get chance to introduce her to you, old boy? Harry and I rather think you’ll get along like a house on fire, don’t we, Harry?’
‘Hm?’ I said. ‘Oh, yes. I’m eager to meet her, myself.’
‘I should be glad to make her acquaintance,’ said Raffles.
'On the topic of wives,’ Dodo said, ‘have you met Mrs Hopkins, yet?’
‘I haven’t had the pleasure,’ Raffles replied coolly.
I hadn’t misheard. Kitty Hopkins, Raffles’ boyhood best friend and sweetheart, was there at the exhibition. Kitty Hopkins, the boy who had betrayed Raffles and broken his young heart — a circumstance which I’d had the misfortune to watch first hand. Here. With us. The thought unsettled me. I watched Raffles closely.
‘I’ve only been introduced quickly — they are both so busy, as you might have guessed — but good God, the lady is a force to be reckoned with!’ exclaimed Dodo, before quieting his voice and leaning in conspiratorially. My friend had grown quite the gossip since his time in Australia. I found myself trying to remember whether he had always been like that. Perhaps he had, and I hadn’t noticed. Or perhaps it was only concerning Hopkins that his interest spilled over into the excessive. He had always been fascinated by the boy at school. Everyone had. Kitty Hopkins was fascinating. ‘You know, it’s Kitty’s name listed as the organiser for the exhibition tonight, but she’s really the one behind it all. Or so I’ve heard. But I can easily believe it; Kitty was always a great many great things, but organised?’ Dodo raised his eyebrows sceptically, and to my chagrin, Raffles chuckled.
‘Yes, organised isn’t quite the word I would have used for him, myself.’
‘Exactly,’ Dodo nodded. ‘Luckily for him, his good lady seems to have almost militaristic organisation skills, as well as being an artist. You’d never think it to look at her, but I’ve heard. I’m quite champing at the bit to talk with her properly and find out just who Hopkins threw in his hat with. But by Jove , as far as looks and manner go, I don't think I have ever met a lady who more embodies Paris; she could be the city's patron Goddess incarnate! Her and Kit side by side look more like a faery King and Queen than mere mortals like the rest of us — though of course I hesitate to speak of "mere mortals" whilst in the presence of a cricketing legend,' Dodo added with an admiring grin. 'Strewth, and on that note, I’ve got to congratulate you on your playing in the Test Match this past season, Raffles! Awf’lly good show, old man. I didn't have the privilege of watching, being in the wrong hemisphere, and all, but I read about your successes in the papers; you blew all comers out of the water! I suppose having Harry there to cheer you on makes all the difference, eh what?’
By this point Dodo’s words had become a mere wash of background noise to the whirlpool of thoughts swirling through my head. Had Raffles known that Hopkins was the organiser of this event? Had he known he was here? Was that why he so keenly wanted to come, why he had scrapped our plans to bring me here instead? But in that case, why had he not confided in me? Why had he yet again kept me in the dark? Didn’t he trust me? Or perhaps he didn’t trust himself; perhaps the thought of seeing Hopkins again had stirred up pleasant feelings within him, rather than traumatic! Was that the reason he hadn’t sought me out when I’d left him? Was he glad to have gotten shot of me, so he might speak with the boy — the man he had once loved, alone? In the space of time it took Raffles and Dodo to share a civil few words, I had managed to work myself into a tangle of anxious anticipation.
'You’re still as keen on cricket, as ever, Mr Rosering?' I heard Raffles ask.
‘I should say! Still an absolute duffer at it myself, even after your longsuffering attempts at training me back at school! But I'd challenge anyone to know more of their Wisden and Lillywhite than I do. Well, except for real players, like yourself,’ Dodo added deferentially. ‘I must admit, aside from being deucedly happy at running into the lot of you, this little reunion is making me feel a dashed bit unsuccessful. Between Harry Manders, journalist, A. J. Raffles the cricketing legend and Christopher Hopkins the chap shaking up the art world, my little business ventures seem like small fry! I’ll have to find some way to measure up before we meet again!’
‘Hopkins is doing rather well for himself, isn’t he?’ Raffles said, thoughtfully, and so I thought, admiringly. It took all of my strength not to glare at him. ‘I was viewing one of his portraits just before Bunny came to fetch me over. I suppose he’s here this evening? Hopkins, that is.’
‘Yes, of course! Have you not seen him yet? He’s looking as Bohemian as ever he did, though that’s to be expected. I can’t quite imagine dear old Hopkins all straight-laced and with cropped hair, can you? It’d be like looking at a butterfly in a three piece suit; against nature and completely perplexing.’
‘Marriage has done worse things to men than cut their hair,’ Raffles quipped. ‘And better.’
‘Lucky for him that his wife is no Delilah, then,’ Dodo grinned. ‘We really must keep an eye out for him — all four of us back together again? That’s an opportunity not to be missed! It’ll be just like being back at school!’
‘I hated school...’ I muttered beneath my breath.
No one heard me. For at that very moment Dodo had spotted Christopher Hopkins from across the room and called out to him, dashing over and corralling the unsuspecting man and hauling him over to us. I shot a glance at Raffles, but he merely stared blandly, determinedly, at the ceiling. And then in a shimmer Hopkins was there in front of us, smiling nervously and twisting at a loose thread on his jacket cuff. For a moment, silence reigned. I bit down on an open grimace as I waited for someone to speak first, dreading the thought that it might have to be me. I glanced between the three other men swept up alongside me in this curious eddy in the river of time. Dodo simply smiled, though I thought I caught a glimpse of that sharper mind of his, which so often hid behind his simpler exterior, going to work, interrogating with good-natured curiosity the palpable tension beginning to bubble up through the silence. Hopkins for his part looked as though he’d seen a ghost whom he wasn’t certain would be friendly, and was desperately trying to figure out how to best escape unscathed.
And Raffles… Raffles. For the briefest of moments, a mere split second, if that, I saw the darkness beneath the sparkle, the depths beneath the calm. In Raffles jaw, I saw disquiet; on his brow I read discontent; in the corners of his mouth lingered distress. In short, I saw Raffles waver. I hate to admit, and even in the moment felt conflicted over my reaction, but seeing him unsettled and not particularly happy at this reunion heartened me. Raffles’ response to seeing Kit was not one of a man overjoyed to see another, and certainly not one filled with yearning for a lost love; he looked, if anything, unpleasantly surprised, as though he’d come home to find a Scotland Yard policeman snooping through his rooms. Worse, in fact, for a glitter of anticipated mischief would at least have been present in that eventuality. Here I saw only dull resignation and dread.
Of course, I doubt anyone else caught any of that, for almost immediately those microscopic hints at his apprehension were replaced by the glamour and charm everyone always expected and demanded of A.J. Raffles, and which he almost always delivered. When he smiled that dazzling smile at Dodo and Kit in turn, the momentary awkwardness dissolved like frost beneath the morning sun.
‘By Jove,’ Raffles said, breaking the silence in a bright, to my ears brittle, tone. ‘William Rosering, Christopher Hopkins, Bunny Manders, and Arthur Raffles all together in one room once again! Quite the reunion! How the devil are you, Hopkins? It’s been years and years since I saw you last; you seem to be doing very well for yourself?’
Hopkins hesitated, dare I say he flinched. Now that my own incipient jealousy had been extinguished by Raffles evident discomfort, I almost felt sorry for Hopkins. From the look on his face it was painfully clear that whatever he had been expecting from this evening, this most clearly was not it.
'Raffles?’ he said, uncertainly. ‘I— What are you— That is to say, I'm — I am quite well, thank you,’ the man blinked. ‘And — you? Are you? Well, I mean. Are you well? You look well. You seem well, I mean. That is, I suppose you have to be quite well in order to play such good cricket. Not that I follow it, but everyone knows who you are, and how, well, how well you are doing. At cricket, that is. And — well, not that you aren’t doing well at anything else, but— Are you? Doing well?’
'Yes, quite well, thank you,' Raffles replied smoothly, as though Hopkins’ nervous babbling hadn’t been bordering upon the incomprehensible. 'And I can see that you are; I hear that you’re the mastermind behind this exhibition, as well as a contributor to it! I was just looking at one of your paintings. I recognised your hand before seeing your name on the label beneath. You’ve improved leaps and bounds since school, but you’ve still retained that je ne sais quoi which marks your work as your own. I was just about to point out your work to Bunny, in fact, when he dragged me away,’ Raffles added with a sharply pointed look at me.
Hopkins smiled nervously. ‘Oh, I— thank you. That’s terribly kind of you to say.’
‘I must congratulate you, too, for putting on such an excellent exhibition, my dear chap!’ Raffles barrelled on. In tight spots, Raffles always had a tendency to talk until a solution or an escape presented itself; often I doubted he had any idea how his sentences would end when he started them, but they always without fail ended well. This was a skill and a habit of his which always impressed and terrified me in equal measure. ‘It is so easy to get these things wrong. But if you’ll forgive the premature conclusion, this exhibition looks to be a perfect triumph. I notice bills of sale on several paintings and portraits already? Good show!’
‘Thank you. Yes, we’re doing rather well, though of course financial gain isn’t the primary aim. But it does help,’ Hopkins replied, just about managing not to stumble over his words this time, though the effort of doing so was apparent. ‘But I really can’t take credit for the event, that’s all my — my wife. She's the organised one, I just — paint, show up, and — But still, thank you. But I must ask— Or, rather, that is, I didn’t know that you — that were you on the guest list, Arth— Mr. Raffles. Not that I’m not glad you’re here — it is always a boon to have a celebrity turn up to these things. Not that that's the only reason I'd be glad to see you, of course that’s not what I mean, only— that is— Because it is lovely to see you, all of you. Surprising and, uh, unexpected, but not the bad kind of unexpected, more like — like when one receives a Christmas present that one never expected to get. Not bad at all. Of course, of course not. It really is good to see you, Raffles, after all these years, and to see you looking so well, and so— that is, I—’
Hopkins swallowed nervously as he clambered to find an acceptable end to that sentence. Evidently he gave up, for instead he turned to me with the bright smile a hen might give to a dog upon finding a fox in the coop.
'And little Bunny Manders!’ Hopkins exclaimed with warmth and no small measure of relief. ‘Good Lord, how lovely to see you, you dear little thing — you’ve barely changed a bit! Still that same innocent look about you. Oh, gosh, but I was so sorry to hear about your parents, you dear boy, such a tragedy, so young. But how are you? How have you been keeping? How has this stormy journey we call life treated you thus far, otherwise? Are you quite well?’
In spite of myself, I found that when I replied to Hopkins, I did so with sincere warmth. I wanted to be angry at the man, not only for having hurt Raffles, but also for having once been loved by him. Jealousy and righteous indignation had flared up in my heart at the very mention of the boy’s name; it always had done, ever since that day back at school. Ever since that day when I had inadvertently witnessed him crush that spark of innocent love in my beloved young A.J.’s soul. Hopkins had become in my mind some sort of fairytale villain; an elf king, beautiful and cruel and inhuman; the object of my childish, unadulterated, judicious fury.
Though I’d barely thought of him since I’d left school — since he had left school, in fact — I had carried that image of the boy in the back of my mind. Being faced with him again, I couldn’t help but realise how false that image was. I realised how I’d wanted Kit to be the villain. A world of villains and heroes, of good and bad, of simple rights and wrongs was far easier to deal with than the complicated mess that real life had proven to be. You didn’t have to sympathise with a villain; far less empathise; far less understand, or pity, or admire. The villain was there to be despised, condemned, a scapegoat upon which all of your ills might be foisted, deserving or not, and in whom any saving grace might be justifiably ignored. It was easier, that way.
Easier, but far from right.
I found now that I did sympathise with Christopher Hopkins. I still couldn’t empathise with the decision he had made when he’d thrown Raffles over — for nothing on this earth could have induce d me to give up A.J. Raffles for good — but I found that I did understand why he had done it. I found that I had in fact always understood. I found, as I stood in a room populated with so many married couples arm in arm; a room littered with men and women smiling, flirting, whispering, simple; a room where I was compelled to be ever aware of keeping my distance, of avoiding those tell-tale shows of affection which could prove so dangerous, of watching my words, of introducing Raffles as my friend, that I understood Kit’s choice now more than ever. In giving up Raffles he had, in my opinion, made the wrong choice — but it had been the easier one. I couldn’t resent him that, and I knew that Raffles never had, generous and selfless as he was even as a boy. And after all, Hopkins’ loss had been my gain. How could I stay angry at him for that? In truth, how could I stay angry at him at all — being angry at Christopher Hopkins was like being angry at a kitten.
‘I’ve kept well, thank you, Mr Hopkins.’
‘Please, call me Christopher,’ he smiled.
Christopher,’ I corrected myself. ‘And thank you for your condolences, it’s very kind of you. I appreciate it. But I’m — I’m well, thank you. More than well, I’m—’ I glanced at Raffles in spite of myself, and the small, reassuring smile which tugged at the corner of his mouth bolstered my spirit. ‘I’m happy,’ I said, looking back at Hopkins with a sincere smile of my own. ‘Now, I know that everyone else has already been on at you about how well you’ve been doing; so without piling on repetitive compliments that I’m sure you are sick of, let me just say that I quite agree with everything Dodo and A.J. have already said. This is a splendid exhibition.’
‘Thank you, Bunny. It’s terribly kind of you to say so, and it really does mean so much more coming from you. From all three of you,’ he said, looking between Raffles, Dodo, and me. A puckish smile stole onto his face, and he took a step close to us all, lowering his voice. ‘I must confess, I quite detest all of this. Not the art, of course, but the — people. Not that I hate them as individuals, of course, nothing of the sort! But the self-promotion, the endless, tedious, repetition; the same conversations over and again with people I don’t know; the same small talk; fielding the same never-ending questions about my work — questions I don’t even know how to answer! Arthur, you know how bad I used to be at explaining my art — I’ve not gotten any better at it! And yet the more success I have, the more the world seems to demand it! It’s awfully exhausting, you know. I’ve half a mind to bolt.’
‘I suppose I must sound unforgivably ungrateful,’ Hopkins continued, his words tripping one after the other in an avalanche, ‘complaining like this. I’m not ungrateful at all, far from it; but every silver lining has its cloud… I do understand why this sort of thing matters; Amelie — that is, my wife — is always pressing upon me the importance of promoting one’s art, integrating within the artistic community, coming together to share our vision with the world… She’s right, of course, and I positively adore her for being so level-headed and sensible where I’d rather dash off and hide, but still…’ Hopkins cut himself off with an incipient blush, dropping his gaze and looking back up at us through his pale eyelashes, distractingly endearing. ‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I clearly haven’t grown out of my tendency to babble. You know, I think you three fellows were the only chaps at school never to — upbraid me, for that.’
‘I can’t think what there would be in it to upbraid, Christopher,’ said Raffles, gently.
I expected a flash of that old jealousy to flare up in me at hearing Raffles’ affectionate words, and at seeing the warmth in his eyes and the softness of his smile as he spoke them; but that jealousy never came. Instead I felt nothing but admiration for the unimpeded, unselfish kindness Raffles was showing to a man who had once wounded him so deeply. For all of his glamour, for all of his charm, this was the true power A.J. Raffles held over everyone he met: It was the irresistible and undeniable allure of a truly good heart.
‘I’m with old Raffles, on that!’ Dodo piped up in agreement. 'You always were full of interesting things to say, Kit, old man; I don’t see why you should keep them to yourself simply because they come in teams instead of single file. Personally, I can’t stand people who watch their words like a hawk; it’s much nicer to be around people who talk away like a waterfall, or a bubbling brook. Much more organic and honest, if you ask me. And I always feel that people who watch their own words must be watching mine just as closely, and nothing stamps out interesting conversation so much as knowing that someone is really listening to you. I much prefer people who are happy to talk and talk and talk, Kitty, and always impressed with people who manage to do it whilst remaining interesting!’
Kitty positively beamed at this praise, and from thereon out, the conversation between us four flowed as easily as wine. The tension had been ridden out by Raffles’ charm and goodwill and Dodo’s relentless optimism; laughter came easily and often, and reminiscences, though cautiously selected, were far from painful, even for me. There were more happy memories from my schooldays than I had been wont to remember; though admittedly the majority came from that one glorious year I spent there with Raffles. Recollecting those times, in that place, with those companions, proved far from unpleasant, and I soon found myself chatting and laughing as enthusiastically as the rest of them.
At length, when we had monopolised Hopkins’ attentions for far too long, his wife materialised at his elbow in a shimmer, wearing an indulgent smile and a mischievous sparkle in her large, blue eyes. She greeted us all in a rich French accent, and apologised for having to steal her husband away when he was so clearly enjoying our company. I noted with a strange warmth the way Christopher Hopkins gazed down with unabashed admiration and affection at his wife; at how the moment that she appeared his focus was solely and completely consumed by her; at how when she looked up at him with an impish grin and her hand upon his arm, he bit his lip and flashed his eyes in some untranslatable silent, secret language between the two of them and no one else, and how the twist of her mouth and the tilt of her head seemed to give him all the reply he required.
I looked over at Raffles. He looked back at me with an almost imperceptible flicker of his eyebrows and a twinkle in his clear, bright eyes as he surreptitiously pressed an eloquent pinch to the back of my elbow, and I couldn’t help but chuckle quietly to myself. For all of his cynicism, Raffles was a romantic at heart, and seeing lovers sincerely in love always affected him. He squeezed my arm whilst no one was looking, then reluctantly let his hand fall away. When I tore my gaze away from A.J.'s, I found Dodo watching us as closely as I had been watching Kit and Amelie. When my eye met his, a beaming smile broke out over Dodo's face, and I have no doubt that had it not been impossibly unsubtle, he would have winked.
‘I say, chaps,’ Dodo said, looking away from me around the rest of our small group and causing all four of us to turn our attentions to him, ‘I’m feeling rather the fifth wheel, here! Can you wait a moment whilst I fetch my dear lady? She’ll be thrilled to meet you all, and I’ll be thrilled to show her off! Fair’s fair, you know!’
Dodo’s wife was every bit as brilliant as he’d made her out to be, and, indeed, she and Raffles got on tremendously well. We all ended up talking in various configurations for well over two hours, with Christopher and his wife intermittently disappearing off to field questions about the exhibitions and arrange sales of pieces, but always inevitably returning to our strange little group, an island of the past in an ocean of the present.
At length the evening drew to an close, as evenings are wont to do. Dodo and his wife left first, under the apologetic plea of leaving early the next day to travel to Scotland. With their departure, the rest of us slowly dispersed, too. We all bade our farewells, filled with well-meant though ultimately empty promises to keep in touch. Thankfully, an admiring potential art buyer approached the Hopkins’ pair in time to tide over what was beginning to become an uncomfortably protracted and awkward parting of ways, and beneath the distraction Raffles’ and I nodded our goodbyes and quietly left.
But whilst Raffles left me in the chill vestibule whilst he went to collect my coat, Kit Hopkins’ golden head peeked around a corner. I groaned inwardly; the evening had been nowhere near as unpleasant as it might have been, but that didn’t mean it was without considerable effort on my part, and I was exhausted. I kept my eyes firmly in the opposite direction, hoping that he either didn’t see me, or that he was out here for some other reason than to say yet another goodbye to Raffles. He was always clingy as a boy.
I closed my eyes and bit down on a sigh. ‘Christopher?’ I smiled wanly as I forced myself to turn around. ‘Everything all right? Come to say another goodbye to A.J.?’
‘What? Oh, no — we’ve said quite enough of those between the pair of us,’ he said with a sad laugh. ‘No, it was — it’s you I wanted to catch. Is Arthur fetching your coat?’
‘Yes,’ I said, suspiciously.
‘Good,’ he said, stepping close to me and laying a hand on my arm. I stared at it, and then up at him. He opened his mouth to speak and then closed it, then opened it again, and sighed.
‘What?’ I half-snapped. ‘What is it, Kit?’
He smiled down at me, though the hesitation remained in his eyes. Evidently he overcome it, however, as he took a breath, and spoke: ‘I just wanted to say that — that you’re a good man, Bunny Manders. You were always a good fellow at school, and I think you’re even better now.’
I frowned, uncertain as to where this was going. ‘Thank you?’
‘I know I don’t know you, really, either of you, and I’ve no right to say any of this, so if I’m speaking out of turn — well, I definitely am, speaking out of turn but I rarely seem to do anything else. It’s just — You’re so good for him, Bunny.’ Hopkins bit his pink lip anxiously, and laughed his silvery little nervous laugh. ‘I can see it. I can tell. You know, I felt so guilty, for so long, after— after what happened. I’m sure you know about it?’ he said, the barest, lightest inflection in his tone indicating a slight lack of certainty. I nodded, cautiously, and he exhaled. ‘Yes. Yes, I thought you would. Well, that is, what I mean is that I don’t — I don’t feel guilty, anymore. And that’s thanks to you.’
‘Yes,’ he said, pointedly. ‘I always thought he deserved better than me, and now — now he has better. I can’t begin to express how glad I was when I saw that you and he were here together. When I saw how much you both—’ Hopkins glanced in the direction of the cloakroom. ‘You always were so loyal to him, Bunny. More loyal than I was, even when I had so much more cause to be. And you always understood him like so few people did, even though you were so small. And you never put up with his nonsense like other people did. It always used to make me laugh to hear you sassing him and biting back at his cockiness. It made him laugh, too. You were such a bright little thing, quick as a whip, and so boundlessly great-hearted, Bunny. Talking to you tonight, I can see that you still are. Still, I remember asking Arthur once, before I got to know you better to see it for myself, why he had gone to so much trouble to have you switched from being the Nipper’s fag to his. Do you know what he told me?
I shook my head. I didn’t even know he had requested me; I thought I’d been assigned.
‘He said that you were the bravest boy he’d ever met. That you were brave enough not to hide from him when he found you crying that first night; that you were afraid, and unhappy, and angry, and so defiant in your vulnerability, and that he would sooner get himself expelled than stand by and see the Nipper beating that courage out of you.’
I swallowed. ‘I — didn’t know that.’
‘He wanted to protect you, Bunny, and he did, but — but now I don’t wonder if in fact you are the one who has protected him.’
‘What do you mean?’ I asked, but even as I spoke, Hopkins’ eyes had darted back down the corridor and a statuesque and static smile drew over his exquisite features. I looked back and saw Raffles returning, my coat in his arms, a puzzled expression lurking in his eyes behind his civil smile.
‘Look after him,’ Kitty Hopkins whispered to me quickly, giving my arm a final squeeze before pulling back. ‘He loves you so much; it radiates from him every time he looks at you. It always has, I think. Love him back with everything you’ve got. I know I've no right to say it, and I am sure you already do, but...But look after him, Bunny.’
‘I will,’ was all I managed to haltingly reply before Raffles drew near. Kit nodded to him and gave a frilly little wave before shimmering away into the misty crowds in the rooms beyond, gone for good.
I turned to A.J. as his hand fell upon my arm. ‘What was that about?’ he asked with a smile that didn’t hide his concern.
‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘I don’t know. Nothing.’
We made our way out of the grand old building and into the moonlit street. The night was calm but cold, and frost was just beginning to blossom over the stubborn evergreens and perennials which hedged the street. Raffles muttered a mild curse as fished his coat off of one of them and found it icy and soaked with dew.
‘It didn’t look like nothing,’ he pressed as we made our way toward the main street in hopes of hailing a midnight cab.
‘Well, it was,’ I replied. ‘He was just saying goodbye.’
‘You know what he’s like.’
‘Not really,’ Raffles huffed, a touch irritably. ‘I haven’t seen him in over a decade.’
‘People don’t change that much,’ I said, scuffing my shoe as I kicked at a stone. ‘They only... develop. A.J.?’ I said, pausing beneath a streetlight, catching hold of his arm.
‘What?’ he replied, letting me stop him, turning to look down at me. The lamp was behind and above him, and it’s light shone through his black curls like a halo, keeping his silhouette from melting into the endless blackness of the cold night sky.
‘I love you,’ I said, quietly. ‘You do know that, don’t you?’
‘Of course I do,’ he answered, tilting his head, his incisive clear eyes piercing my very soul. He was welcome there. ‘Bunny, what’s brought this on?’
‘Nothing. I don’t know. I just — I don’t ever want to take you for granted. You’re the best thing that ever happened to me, Raffles. I don’t know what I would have done if I’d never met you; I’m not sure I’d even be alive. Thank you. Thank you for — for being you . You’re perfect.’
‘I’m far from that,’ he scoffed, though his tone was soft and his eyes softer as they sparkled in the starlight.
‘You are. You are to me, A.J. Completely perfect.’
‘You rabbit,’ he murmured, his fingers cold as they brushed against my face, tilting my chin gently upward. The light which beamed all around him seemed less dazzling to me than the light which shone from his eyes, and the chill of the night seemed to melt away beneath the warmth of his quiet smile. His lips parted and I wanted nothing more than to kiss him right there in the street, right there in the stark lamplight for all the world — or, at least for all the world of that particular road — to see. A.J. must have read as much in my eyes, for his smile quirked wickedly and he laughed, moving his hand to the nape of my neck, whereupon he slipped beneath the collar of my coat to press his freezing cold fingers against my skin.
‘What the hell was that for!’ I yelped, shaking him off of me, and he laughed.
‘Come on,’ he said, ‘let’s go home. It’s freezing.’
‘You’re a damned nightmare, A.J. Raffles,’ I growled, pulling my scarf more tightly around my neck where his icy touch still sent shivers down my back, jamming my hands into my pockets.
‘I thought I was perfect?’ he teased, slinging his arm around my shoulders, ruffling my hair as he used to when I was fourteen.
‘A perfect nuisance!’ I complained, biting the insides of my cheeks to keep from returning his boyish grin as he recklessly pressed a kiss to the side of my head. ‘I don’t know how I put up with you.’
‘Neither do I,’ replied Raffles. ‘And yet you have, for all these years. You must have the patience of a Saint, Bunny.’
‘I’m not sure there’s anything particularly saintly about it…’
‘Everything about you is saintly. Saint Bunny, Patron of Nuisances, Nightmares, and Inveterate Sinners. It has a certain ring to it, you must admit.’
‘I’d rather be the Patron Saint of A.J. Raffles in particular.’
‘Isn’t that what I said?’ he joked.
‘No quite,’ I answered, resting my head on his shoulder. It was a foolish move out in public, but anyone who saw us would doubtless assume we were drunk and leaning on one another to stay upright. ‘To be the Patron Saint of A.J. Raffles in Particular, as well as nuisances, nightmares, inveterate sinners, I should have to be the Saint in charge of selflessness, and bravery, and audacity; kindness, softness, playfulness, and generosity; wit, and poetry, and landscape sketches; not to mention slow bowling, bold batting, bright eyes, and the best, biggest, most beautiful heart that’s ever existed. Then I might be the Saint of A.J. Raffles in particular,’ I said.
‘You think far too much of me, Bunny,’ Raffles said quietly after a moment’s thought. His hand slipped into my coat pocket, our fingers meeting and intertwining.
‘No,’ I replied, ‘you think too little of yourself.’
‘That’s not a criticism many people would level at me,’ he laughed.
‘Not many people know you like I do,’ I replied.
For a while after that we walked on in silence. We had missed the turning out onto the main thoroughfare where cabs might be found, instead continuing to walk in parallel to it along quieter backstreets. I was cold even with my coat on; Raffles must have been freezing, but he didn’t show it, and showed no inclination yet of seeking a faster, warmer route back to the Albany.
‘It wasn’t a complete disaster,’ he said out of the blue.
‘This evening. Seeing Rosering and Hopkins. They’ve done well for themselves.’
‘It was pleasant to see them,’ I agreed. ‘But I was ready to leave about an hour before we did.’
‘Such an antisocial little rabbit,’ Raffles chuckled. ‘Though I can’t deny I felt rather the same way.’
‘...I’m sorry,’ I said, quietly.
‘For not listening to you when you wanted to tell me you’d seen Kit.’
Raffles waved away my apology. ‘An easy misunderstanding, Bunny. It wasn’t your fault. And it all turned out all right in the end, didn’t it?’
I looked up at him as we walked through the darkness, hand in hand, side by side. I looked up at the sharp profile I knew so well, the same sharp profile I had spent surreptitious hours memorising in my youth, not altered by age, only developed; only matured like expensive whiskey in the oaken barrel of life and hardship and love. I looked up at A.J. Raffles; the great A.J. Raffles ; the famous A.J. Raffles; the sad, the joyful, the complicated, the beautiful A.J. Raffles. The A.J. Raffles of my most fanciful fantasies and of every one of my wildest dreams. The A.J. Raffles I had come so close to losing for ten agonising years; the A.J. Raffles I had found once more; the A.J. Raffles of my past, my present, and, for as long as I could have him, my future.
And as I looked up at that man I so loved, I found my smile returned by the A.J. Raffles who loved me back.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘It all turned out perfectly.’