The School Certificate play was, in accordance with tradition, a bloody joke. Ralph was beginning to regret his choice of seating near the stage, in the second row, where signs of boredom could not be easily obscured. He wasn't quite sure why he'd taken it—he had told himself afterwards it was likely in the spirit of house solidarity or some rot, as several boys in his house featured prominently among the cast. In any case, he had coolly informed the other prefects he was mostly there to see that the actors didn't humiliate him and Hugh overmuch with the fencing.
Despite his resolve to set a disciplined example as the new Head of the School, he found his mind wandering through much of the earlier acts, instead idly mulling over strategies for the upcoming inter-school cricket match (having also been made captain of the eleven that term, a post whose obligations and distinction arguably outweighed even that of the Head in their school) and trying his best to ignore the other sixth-formers in the audience who were snickering and keeping up a running commentary on the various absurdities onstage. Hugh, who was sitting next to him, would visibly wince every time one of the actors forgot his lines or delivered them with an especially overwrought intonation and all the wrong emphases. Ralph pinched the bridge of his nose, already feeling the pulsations of a brewing headache at his temples.
Hazell had made his entrance as Ophelia and was listening, with affected wide-eyed innocence, to her brother's lecturing on the "steep and thorny way to heaven." Based on prior conversations Ralph knew Hazell to in fact have lofty theatrical ambitions, though whatever amount of genuine talent he might have had was hampered by his persistent efforts to catch Ralph's eye from the stage. The idiot, Ralph thought with an inward sigh, pointedly directing his gaze elsewhere—and settling, inadvertently, onto the actor playing across from him.
Odell, objectively speaking, was no better a performer than the rest and played Laertes with an inexplicably buoyant presence, but he did look strikingly attractive clad in an old-fashioned tunic and well-fitted tights. Ralph couldn't deny he enjoyed the rare chance to look upon Odell openly and admire his beauty, without fear of being caught out. He and Hazell made for a rather physically appealing set of siblings, which Ralph suspected subtly factored into their casting, and yet the overall effect was entirely unconvincing—for never, he supposed, was there a Laertes and Ophelia pair who so clearly detested each other.
At least the lighting, Ralph thought wryly, nobody could surely find fault with.
Ralph's attention continued to meander for the rest of the play, which was as excruciatingly tedious as the early scenes. Hugh nudged him awake again in time for the duel. Hamlet and Laertes were squaring off across the stage, fencing foils drawn at the ready. For a split second Odell wavered in his stance and looked out anxiously into the crowd, over the gleaming steel of his blade; his eyes locked with Ralph's almost instantly.
Odell seemed to straighten and gather confidence after this, and the ensuing duel, Ralph was relieved to find, was quite competently enacted. Odell appeared to have taken the training to heart and maneuvered about the stage with a nimble, athletic grace, energetically lunging and parrying in the precise manner that Ralph had taught him. As Ralph watched him fence, blow after blow slicing through the air, his memories of their practice session all of a sudden came flooding back with intense, sharpening clarity.
He remembered how brightly Odell would flush after every error that Ralph impatiently pointed out, how his guard would slip precariously whenever Ralph came near him, leaving him markedly exposed and vulnerable. It was evident early on that he became too easily distracted, either from nerves or perhaps the presence of the head prefect, which had turned him uncharacteristically clumsy. Once he had stumbled during an advance and nearly planted face-first onto the ground; Ralph had caught him by the arm just in time, and Odell had stared back at him with a look of reverent awe and gratitude, face tilted up towards Ralph's own, like a flower to the sun. Up as breathlessly close as they were, Ralph could see that Odell had very fine eyelashes and a faint speckling of brown freckles over his nose and cheeks; his mouth looked soft, red, and eminently kissable. Ralph found himself quite enraptured, before coming to his senses and pushing Odell away with a terse admonition.
"Not half bad," Hugh murmured, lifting his eyebrows. "Well done on turning Odell around. You were always good with lost causes."
"Shut up." Ralph was conscious of a warm inner swelling of pride, despite himself. Odell had after all proven to be a bright and enthusiastic learner after his initial missteps, undaunted by how beastly Ralph had been to him, and he had adapted remarkably well to Ralph's brisk instruction and criticism. Though Odell's fencing ability was nothing exceptional by the end of it, Ralph had nonetheless enjoyed their bouts—he had somehow felt more exhilarated and alive coaching Odell than he had fencing with more experienced partners. He had even caught himself briefly contemplating what other things Odell might be up to learning, a thought that he quickly tamped down with reflexive self-irritation. Yet he had been undoubtedly disappointed when Hugh recovered from his bronchitis to resume the rest of the fencing practice.
Laertes was dying now, as bafflingly polite in the throes of death as he had been in life, as if the fact of his poisoning was only a mildly distressing inconvenience. Odell's shining copper-red hair stood out vividly in contrast to the white of his fencing jacket. The maudlin portrayal of the confession scene at first drew a bubbling chorus of laughter from the audience, Odell by then seeming to intentionally lean into the ridiculousness. But quite suddenly the tone shifted.
"Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet," Odell-as-Laertes said plaintively, reaching out towards the ill-fated prince of Denmark while drawing his last breaths; he looked sweet and utterly tragic, with his hair falling into his eyes. This time there were no laughs. "Mine and my father's death come not upon thee, nor thine on me."
Ralph gripped the arm of his seat, so tightly he was certain his knuckles must be whitening, and realized belatedly that he was shaking. He couldn't understand why the sight of Odell dying, even in this ludicrous fictional setting, should affect him so profoundly—why it should stir some undefinable sentiment within him, deeper than sympathy or even protectiveness. And then—in a flash of high illumination—there came the shock of recognition.
His attraction to Odell he had long known before, almost as long as he had been aware of the nature of his own weakness for his sex. Odell was easily the best looking of the fifth-form boys, with a trim, lithe physique that served him very well in swimming, and with the type of looks and coloring that particularly appealed to Ralph. Among the School he was generally well-liked and considered an exceedingly capable, dependable sort of fellow, with affable manners, who was always kind to the twirps. Yet underneath that veneer of well-bred decorum laid a fiercely independent and audacious streak that fascinated Ralph whenever it flared up from time to time, that tendency for shockingly bold statements and intimations, several of which might have been verging on flirtation if Ralph had thought he possessed the self-awareness. He would be quite devastating in a few years, with some confidence and time to grow into his looks. If Ralph's gaze lingered a little too long on Odell after prayers, or if he guiltily fantasized about Odell a little too often at night, while engaging in his usual solitary method of stress relief, he had always managed to dismiss it of any importance. He had dispassionately been attracted by many before—had had his fair share of furtive experimentation with other schoolboys and various obliging encounters with men in the lower decks at sea—and it had never meant anything.
Now, the image of the fallen Odell transformed into a rather more romantic vision, the fragments of a nearly forgotten dream, in which he saw himself kneeling and tending to Odell's wounds, like a Spartan soldier, stroking his face, pressing a kiss to his lips. He imagined them on a battlefield fighting side by side, brave and glorious—imagined their ashes being buried together, like Achilles and Patroclus, inseparable even in death. This all caught him vividly in his mind's eye, like the afterimage of a previous life.
It was the vague representation of Odell he'd been dreaming of whenever he read the Phaedrus, though it hadn't struck him at the time.
Ralph abruptly felt color rising in his face; he held up a hand to cover it, and was thankful for the relative darkness of the theatre. God, no wonder I was such a bastard to him.
He must never know.
It was clear that despite Odell's tendency for alarmingly uninhibited banter he was curiously innocent to that sort of thing in practice. Ralph, in the interest of self-preservation and his own burgeoning anxiety neurosis about the matter, had begun listening even more closely to the off-color jokes and whisperings of others around the School; he never once heard Odell's name circulated in gossip about alleged homosexual exploits and romantic friendships among the younger boys, or Jeepers' paranoid rants about whom he suspected of engaging in deviant activities. Whether this omission should inspire relief or disappointment, he could never decide. He believed Odell truly liked him, even worshipped him (he recalled countless occasions of spotting Odell among a congregation of admiring onlookers at one of his games), with a touching devotion that far surpassed his other school attachments, but the nature of that infatuation was still uncertain—whether it signified his belonging to the same illicit company as Ralph and Hazell, or whether it would naturally ebb once he grew older and, like many of Ralph's age cohort, discovered the allure of women. Ralph had his suspicions based on Odell's previous behaviors towards him, but they were only suspicions still, and it would not do to interfere with his development and scare him off the whole idea. He must remain content with watching and loving Odell from a distance, going on as he always had, alone.
Ralph was too distracted by this revelation to pay much attention to the play's denouement (which apparently included, among other things, Horatio tripping over his own feet as he rushed to Hamlet's side and bowling over a courtier).
"Well, at least the duel saved it from being a total embarrassment," Hugh sighed as the house lights turned on. Indeed, the fencing seemed to be the only thing spared from the jubilant mockery of the other schoolboys in the audience. Ralph made a noise of absent agreement, but already he was looking for the exit.
Backstage, Odell was gathered with a small group of friends, good-naturedly enduring their jokes and laughing, still in partial costume.
"Oh, Odell, about the fencing." Odell jumped and turned around. "Good show," Ralph said, deploying one of his rare, casually charming smiles.
Odell blushed with deep, startled pleasure and smiled back, radiant; Ralph stored in his memory the image of it, like a private trophy, for safekeeping. "I rather have you to thank for that, Lanyon. That move you taught me was jolly good..."
For several minutes they talked about the technical bits of the fencing and became quite absorbed, Odell reenacting a pass with the foil for Ralph's benefit. Odell fairly bloomed with the attention, leaning towards Ralph with rapt and barely contained delight, looking more beautiful than ever. Ralph steadily became aware of an adrenaline-filled, airy feeling of lightness expanding within him, which he soon recognized as happiness, an emotion that did not come readily to him.
He thought calmly, with a sudden clearness of mind, I would do anything for him. He saw it as not a promise or a prediction, only a statement of absolute, inexorable fact.
Hugh eventually came up to them and reminded Ralph it was nearly tea-time; he and a few other prefects were planning to head off to the village pub for drinks before the crowd. The awkward consciousness of the hierarchical difference between their years returned, along with the stiff ritual observances of propriety.
It was only when he turned to leave that he dimly realized he had forgotten all about Hazell, who was looking at Odell with an expression of pure venom.
But the only thing Ralph could focus on was Odell's eyes following him as he walked away.