[Upper North West England, November 1916]
Snow crunched beneath Thomas’s shoes as he headed for the cathedral, carefully avoiding eye contact in case someone stopped him to demand what he was doing on the streets during school hours. It didn’t seem to be necessary; most people Thomas saw were either hurrying someplace warmer, or crowding around the newsstands where headlines and the paper-boy were shouting about the latest German air-raid on Britain’s south. In this group Thomas caught a glimpse of girls handing out white feathers, and he pulled his cap down to hide his grimace. At seventeen years, Thomas Williams wasn’t of conscription age; he’d heard a lot of the white feather brigade didn’t bother about technicalities when bestowing their tokens of contempt, however, and it was better to avoid trouble entirely. Besides, his watch was pointing to 10:20am – matins would be ending soon.
“Do you like singing?”
“Then what are you doing here?”
“Because apparently I can sing, and if I can sing I get to attend this school for free. People like me don’t usually come to places like this, you know.”
“What kind of person are you?”
“The kind of person whose father runs a butcher’s shop. What about you?”
“My father’s an attorney.”
“Must be proud of him.”
“Not really. He’s not much of a father.”
“That so? Sounds like mine, though I bet yours doesn’t drink and push mum around.”
“I don’t have a mum.”
“It’s all right, I don’t remember her. Father does, though, but he doesn’t tell me much about what she was like. Actually, he doesn’t tell me much about anything.”
“Still better than mine. Mine had half an arm chopped off in an accident so he expects me to help out and take over the shop when I’m old enough, which is just awful.”
“Why is it awful?”
“I don’t want to be a butcher. I want to do something with money that people look up to, maybe an engineer or something. Takes a lot of school, but it’d be worth it. What about you, what do you want to do?”
“I … want to see Africa.”
“Really?! That’s brilliant! Tell you what – you and me, we’ll work hard and when we’re old enough to do what we want and have some money, we’ll go to Africa together, me as a doctor and you as whatever you want to be. Sound good?”
“It’s a promise then. I’m Tom, by the way, Tom Williams. What’s your name?”
“Nice to meet you, Elijah Baker. Hey, if we’re going to be next to each other in choir, mind if I call you Eli?”
For Whom Do You Sing
[Upper North West England, November 1916]
Snow crunched beneath Thomas’s shoes as he headed for the cathedral, carefully avoiding eye contact in case someone stopped him to demand what he was doing on the streets during school hours. It didn’t seem to be necessary; most people Thomas saw were either hurrying someplace warmer, or crowding around the newsstands where headlines and the paper-boy were shouting about the latest German air-raid on Britain’s south. In this group Thomas caught a glimpse of girls handing out white feathers, and he pulled his cap down to hide his grimace. At seventeen years, Thomas Williams wasn’t of conscription age; he’d heard a lot of the white feather brigade didn’t bother about technicalities when bestowing their tokens of contempt, however, and it was better to avoid trouble entirely. Besides, his watch was pointing to 10:20am – matins would be ending soon.
Picking up his pace, Thomas jogged into the cathedral’s shadow to pause beneath the looming stained-glass window and listen. From here the choir was clearly audible, the purity of boys’ soprano soaring above the deeper voices, and Thomas’s face wryly twisted as he recognised the Mozart piece. Once upon a time it had been him in there singing, and he remembered all too well what it had been like. Endless rehearsals, twice-daily church services with three on Sundays, music lessons and concerts… it was a demanding life for a young boy for whom schoolwork was already enough trouble. Throw in the fact that choristers had to sing in services all year round, giving up most of their holidays, and Thomas celebrated the day his voice broke as the day he escaped. It would have been even better if his friend had escaped as well, but that hadn’t happened yet, hence why Thomas had come here today. Not that he minded – chorister years had left him with an appreciation for good music – but he did wonder when he could stop.
There was an echoing rumble as the congregation stood for the final hymn. Thomas grimaced at the off-key entrance and circled around to the south entrance to wait, amusing himself by thinking up silly names for the gargoyles glaring at him from their stone perches, and doing his best to ignore the messy warbling from inside. It seemed an age, but eventually the cathedral was thundering with footsteps, and the doors opened to let out a tumble of choirboys in white surplices. Thomas spotted a familiar black-haired head and waved. “Hey, Eli!” he yelled. “Over here!”
The person who owned this name turned with a startled expression, and Thomas grinned as eyes as blue as the winter sky widened in surprise. “Tom!” exclaimed Elijah. “What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be in class?”
“It’s recess, dolt.” Dodging a gaggle of younger choristers, Thomas walked over and draped an arm about the slighter boy’s shoulders. “Besides, French translation was easy, so I talked the school-master into letting me out early, which, by the way, is good for you since this—” here Thomas pulled an exercise book from his bag, “—is the history homework you left in my room last night and just happens to be due this afternoon.”
“I was wondering where that was, thank you!” Relieved, Elijah took the book and flicked through it, frowning as he got to the recent pages. “I thought I only got up to question six? Did you finish the rest for me?”
“‘Course I did, just copied off my own. Got to make sure you get to Africa, and payment of chocolate is always welcome.” The gratitude on Elijah’s face was almost glowing, and uncomfortably Thomas pulled his arm back changing the subject. “How was matins, anyone mess up?”
“Not unless you count White getting bored and chucking stones during psalms. Mr. Darlington caught him at it, though, so White’s staying back for three strokes.”
“Only three? Is the slave driver sick or something?”
The expression Elijah gave him was pained. “Please don’t call him that. Mr. Darlington’s a wonderful choirmaster.”
Thomas snorted derisively. “You say that because you’re soloist and he’s never caned you before whereas half the pranksters in school have a bruised backside that says otherwise. The bastard gives out so many floggings Lord Derby could probably send him to whip Germans from the front. But enough of that,” Thomas added quickly, seeing Elijah’s lips thinning. “We’ve got what, fifteen minutes before history? Race you back to the school-house?”
“I can’t, I have a singing lesson.”
“In the cathedral? What’s wrong with the school’s music-room?”
“It’s the acoustics; Mr. Darlington wants me to work on voice projection.”
Thomas scowled. “Voice projection. You do realise finals are in a week, right? How do you expect to pass anything if you keep missing class for choir? Bad enough we had to do it in prep-school, but we’re secondary now and the only reason you’re even managing is because I tutor you. I know your voice hasn’t broken yet but if you spoke to—”
“No. I love singing, I’m not quitting until I have to—” here Thomas’s scowl deepened in exasperation and Elijah shrank into his surplice. “Are you mad at me?” he asked in a small voice.
Silently Thomas kicked himself; there was a reason some boys jeered Elijah as a sissy and while Thomas preferred to think of his friend as ‘sensitive’ the other students had a point. “No, I’m not. Singing’s your thing, I know, I should stop pushing you to quit. Next time I do give me a punch.” Elijah couldn’t help but smile at this – to him – ridiculous idea and Thomas forced a grin, ruffling the other boy’s dark hair. “All right, I’ll cover you for class again but I expect chocolate in return, you hear? Chocolate.”
Elijah blinked as Thomas began walking backwards down the path. “Just how do you expect me to get chocolate with a war shortage?”
“No idea!” Thomas spread empty hands. “But you’re the one with the chorister’s stipend so I’m sure you’ll manage something! See you in class!”
He gave a cheeky salute before turning to join the tail of the crowd filtering out the gate. Elijah was watching him, he knew, but with back turned Thomas could let his grin disappear. Sixteen and still Elijah wanted to sing despite the cost to his schoolwork … Thomas was seriously beginning to wonder if Elijah cared about their promise anymore, and the only reason he hadn’t given up completely was because Elijah’s voice had to break eventually. When that happened, his friend would have no choice but to quit.
Thomas just had to be patient.
Ten-forty. History would be starting soon. Grim-faced, Thomas began to run.
Quietly Elijah watched Thomas leave, the snug fit of the navy blazer over his shoulders and the way he wove through the crowd with the confidence of a bright student who gets away with more than he should. It was a confidence Elijah loved, but while he knew his friend loved him back it wasn’t in the same way. Elijah had long accepted and was trying to move past this; it was just whenever Thomas did things for him … the last of the crowd was disappearing now, leaving Elijah alone beneath the grey cathedral surrounded by trampled snow. Despite the surplice and thick cassock, Elijah shivered.
A bang from the heavy door behind him made him jump. Startled, Elijah turned to find another white-robed figure fleeing down the steps, tear-streaked eyes almost as red as his hair and sniffling. In such a state it wasn’t surprising that Colin White didn’t see Elijah immediately, but when he did he drew up short and glared. “What’re you looking at, Baker,” he snarled.
Elijah wisely didn’t rise to his rival’s bait. “Nothing,” he said politely.
“Damn right it was nothing!” Colin snapped. Then he spotted the book in Elijah’s arms. “What’s that?”
“Your husband do your homework for you again, is it?” Elijah immediately coloured and Colin smirked, striding forward with head held high in a manner that almost negated the way he had been clutching his backside earlier. “Out of my way, faggot.”
Quickly Elijah stepped aside before the other chorister could slam a shoulder into him, keeping his head down just in case his rival had any more stones. Only when Colin had passed and gone well down the path to the gates did Elijah finally feel safe. “Three strokes and crying like a girl,” he muttered. “Wimp.”
Something prickled Elijah’s chest at the sound of that voice, rich with a baritone’s training. Briefly he took a deep breath to compose himself before turning to face the speaker with a smile Thomas would not have recognised. “Mr. Darlington. Are we to start now?”
“We can start, yes.” Dressed in a sombre brown suit that reflected his eyes and hair the thirty-year-old choirmaster looked especially critical as he glanced over Elijah. “You shouldn’t be outside like this – how would you sing if you caught a cold?”
“I was waiting for you, and I’m fine, really,” Elijah reassured, stepping up to join the other in the shelter of the door’s archway. Already he felt warmer, and when the choirmaster reached up to touch the back of his head he forgot the snow entirely.
“Does it hurt?” the man asked gently.
“Not really. White isn’t that good a shot.” Which was a lie, but Mr. Darlington didn’t need to know that. Neither did Thomas, for that matter, and besides, the fingers in his hair were too wonderful to interrupt. Already they were drifting, hesitantly stroking his neck just above the surplice’s ruffled collar, and Elijah closed his eyes, wondering if this time, finally, something more would happen.
It didn’t. As if bitten the touch abruptly pulled away – disappointed, Elijah opened his eyes to find Mr. Darlington wrestling with the door-handle. “You should already be warmed up, so we’ll just do a few scales to start,” he was saying, the words clipped like a toneless staccato sequence. Noticeably he was avoiding looking at Elijah’s face. “Once that’s done we’ll work on upper register support – I refuse to add the Allegri to the repertoire until you have those top Cs perfect. Understood?”
Silently Elijah gave a little sigh. “Yes sir,” he said. Scales and upper register. Removed from any melodic context they were some of the most unexciting things ever, right down there with breathing exercises, but if Mr. Darlington wanted to work on those then work Elijah would, patiently and without complaint. Mostly. He could probably get away with a bit of complaining.
The door creaked open. Mr. Darlington stood to one side, waiting for Elijah to enter. Obediently Elijah stepped past, sneaking a glance at the choirmaster as he did so. Interestingly enough the man was still refusing to look at him directly, and Elijah bit his lip against the skip in his pulse wondering – again – if he was just imagining things. It had been a long time since his fascination with the unsmiling choirmaster had turned into something more, and while that certainly made lessons more interesting it was also making his life rather complicated. Thomas would be scandalised if he knew, but truth was that nowadays if Elijah wasn’t singing he was imagining the choirmaster’s fingers pressing down not on cold ivory but skin playing music of a far different kind.
Daydreams like that could get him into trouble. In many ways, they already had. Just not with Mr. Darlington.
Elijah wondered if he should do anything about that.
Boarding school dinners were never quiet, it being one of the few times of the day all students singing and not gathered together, but with European battlefields demanding and devouring soldiers by the thousands the dining hall nowadays was noticeably filled with the hollow absence of students and staff who had either been infected with patriotism or shamed into joining the war effort. Thomas for his part wanted nothing to do with the war – two years of fighting and casualty lists with no end in sight was dampening everyone’s enthusiasm – and did his best to go about life as normal, which right now meant preparing for finals. He had his evening planned out: after dinner he would return to his room, finish off that last bit of geometry, then spend the rest of the night revising algebra with Elijah. Well, more like he’d spend the rest of the night teaching algebra to Elijah since his friend had missed so many classes in the hope he’d prevent Elijah from failing completely. Whatever, Thomas had his evening planned, which made it all the more exasperating at dinner when a junior student passed him an unexpected message:
“Mr. Darlington wants to see you.”
Thomas looked up from his pudding, not sure if he had heard right. Seated beside him Elijah was also looking confused. “What’d you say?” Thomas asked the junior.
“Darlington. Asked to see you. His chambers, now.”
Thomas and Elijah looked at each other. “What does Mr. Darlington want to see you for?” whispered Elijah, blue eyes wide.
Thomas shrugged. “No idea. I was out of choir long before he got here, I didn’t even think Darlington knew my face. Guess I’ll find out.” He got up, wiping his mouth and dusting off his blazer. “Shouldn’t take long, I’ll see you in my room afterwards, all right, Eli?”
“Right,” said Elijah, face unreadable, and then Thomas was weaving through chairs and hungry boys towards the door. He passed Colin White on the way, sitting at a corner table with friends, and received an unfriendly look as he passed. It was easily ignored – he’d beaten Colin up once for picking on Elijah and never let the red-head forget it – and then Thomas was in the hall heading towards the teachers’ quarters where students never went without a summons. Summonses were usually for a flogging, but Thomas hadn’t done anything that warranted one as of late, or at least he didn’t think he had.
The choirmaster’s rooms were on the third and top floor. Of course, the door was closed. Thomas took a deep breath then knocked.
Here we go. Back straight Thomas opened the door and went in. He found himself in a good-sized space that apparently was a dining-room, sitting-room and study all in one. There was small table to Thomas’s left, a desk beneath the window, another door that presumably led to a bedroom, and to his right a pair of worn lounge chairs before the crackling fireplace. Standing in front of the fireplace with a glass of wine was the choirmaster. “Mr. Williams,” Darlington said calmly. “Good evening.”
“Evening, sir,” replied Thomas, trying to be polite and not really managing. Warily he watched the figure before the fire; he’d never liked Mr. Darlington, who despite only being appointed some seven months ago after the old choirmaster’s retirement had quickly established a reputation around school as an unsociable, unfriendly sort who was far more eloquent with a cane than words. Apparently Darlington had been choirmaster at an Oxford college, but why he would give up such a position to come to a small school in England’s far north no one knew, though schoolyard gossip had gone through all sorts of reasons none of which Thomas liked. “You asked to see me?”
“I did, yes. Don’t hover by the door, come over here.” Darlington waited until Thomas stood beside one of the lounge chairs. “You used to be a chorister, yes?”
“Yes sir, from when I was nearly ten until when my voice broke three years ago.”
“And you had a stint as soloist?”
“Yes sir.” How did Darlington know about this? “It was only for a few months, though.”
“Why is that?”
Thomas hesitated for a moment, mentally debating whether to be blunt or diplomatic, but considering his opinion of the choirmaster he couldn’t be bothered with diplomacy. “I kept missing singing lessons so I got dumped. I didn’t really care, and besides, Eli deserved the position more than me.”
“By ‘Eli’ I’m going to presume you mean Elijah Baker,” said Darlington, apparently finding something of great interest in the fireplace. The flames cast flickering shadows on his face. “And you’re correct, Mr. Williams – Elijah is a wonderful soloist and a pleasure to teach, though it’s a pity his father isn’t more appreciative of his talent.”
Thomas blinked. “Why do you say that, sir?”
“I suggested that Elijah invite his father to the Christmas concert. Elijah told it would be pointless because his father wouldn’t be interested and has too much work anyway.” Thomas didn’t reply to this, not liking the idea that Elijah had been talking so much about himself to the choirmaster. Darlington placed his now-empty wine-glass on the fireplace’s mantle; there was a small blue vase there, one that held a handful of white feathers rather than flowers. “But enough of that. The reason why I’ve asked to speak to you is because I have a request. I would like you to join the choir again.”
There were several things Thomas could say to this, over half of which would get him flogged, so he cleared his throat with something polite. “Ah, with all due respect, sir, I left the choir because my voice broke, it’s impossible for me to sing soprano any more.”
“Who said anything about soprano? I need tenors and basses to replace the ones who ran off to the Continent wrapped up in all that idiocy about fighting for king and country. Even if you’ve never trained with your older voice, Williams, I know you can sing, I hear you every Sunday at church.”
“I stand up the back.”
Thomas wasn’t sure what to say to this, that or the choirmaster’s earnestness that was making things difficult. “What voice would I be?” he asked suspiciously.
“From what I’ve heard? Tenor, most likely.”
“Would it be just for the Christmas concert?”
“The Christmas concert, any other concert, even matins and evensong. You were a chorister for over four years so most of the music will be known to you, it’d just be a matter of learning a new voice-part. Besides,” added Mr. Darlington, off-handedly though there was something strange about how he again preferred to look at the fire. “Elijah would like to perform with you again.”
That was a low blow, and unsettling because until now Thomas had had no idea the choirmaster knew so much about him. He drew himself upright. “I’ll think about it,” he said curtly. One concert he could have lived with but regular church services? Absolutely not. “If you please, sir, I’m due to tutor someone this evening, may I be excused?”
If Darlington was disappointed he wasn’t showing it. “Yes, you may go. But I’ll expect an answer after finals.”
“Yes sir,” said Thomas, bowing perhaps a little mockingly before turning to go. Finals, now those were something to worry about. Darlington and his proposal? Not even worth considering, though he wouldn’t say so immediately. Let the choirmaster wait and wonder for a little while, he had no authority over Thomas and right now all Thomas wanted to do was get back and ask Elijah just what he had been talking about with Darlington in music lessons, and why. Particularly the why part. Possibly before algebra study.
Darlington was looking into the fire again. Thomas left him to it; all teachers had their eccentricities and students learned quickly to ignore them. Whatever Darlington’s eccentricity was, Thomas wasn’t interested. It wouldn’t have anything to do with him anyway.
Elijah had intended to follow Thomas after dinner and wait for him outside Mr. Darlington’s rooms, if nothing else than to reassure the inexplicable prick of jealousy that had come up when Thomas had been summoned by the choirmaster, but he didn’t get any further than the hallway before Colin White and two of his crew accosted him and pulled him into an empty study room.
“Fancy meeting you here, Baker,” said Colin, putting on a show of surprise as if he hadn’t just shoved Elijah down into a chair. He pulled up another chair for his friend, an alto chorister named Peter; the other student Andrew who like Thomas was an ex-chorister sat between Elijah and the door. Colin remained standing. “So where were you heading, hm? Off to hide from us in Williams’s bed again?”
Peter and Andrew laughed rudely at this, their faces spread in too big a grin for Elijah’s comfort. Elijah told himself to remain calm. “What do you want, White,” he asked, trying to sound bored.
“A little faggot like you wouldn’t know, but us three are still hungry and we know you made a trip to the tuck-shop on your way back from matins and got some chocolate. You’re soloist, you shouldn’t be eating the stuff, bad for your throat and all, so why don’t you hand it over to those who can actually enjoy it?”
Colin had put a hand on Elijah’s shoulder during this, and that hand had been squeezing down with every word. The red-head had grown a lot in the past two months, and no doubt his voice would be changing soon which was probably the reason why he was so desperate to get at least one solo before he lost his singing voice. Unfortunately for him Elijah was a much better singer and not one to share. “If you want to negotiate something why don’t you sit down,” Elijah said loudly. “Or is your bum still sore from the flogging this morning? You know, the one that had you crying like a girl?”
The hand on his shoulder clamped down as Peter and Andrew glanced quizzically at each other. “Shut up!” Colin hissed, but Elijah wasn’t listening.
“Only three strokes and blubbering, I mean really even prep boys can take at least five or six before—”
The chair was kicked out from under him. Elijah went sprawling and whacked his head on the floor. “Watch it, princess,” said Andrew casually. “Your knight in shining armour isn’t around, so keep your mouth shut.”
“Looky here.” Elijah twitched as Peter stuck nosy hands into his blazer pockets and came up with a block of chocolate. “Here, Col, catch.”
The chocolate went flying; too late, Elijah tried to snatch it back. Colin caught it easily and took a look. “Mm, Cadbury, brilliant choice, Baker. Thanks!”
“Give that back!” snapped Elijah, trying to scramble to his feet only to find the blurry ceiling as Andrew knocked him down again. When the fog cleared he was alone in the classroom. All that was left of the chocolate he’d bought for Thomas was a scattering of silver and purple paper. Wincing at the new bruise on the back of his head Elijah crawled over to clean it up before leaving – knowing Colin he’d find some way to get Elijah flogged for littering – promising that next concert when he was singing solo and Colin was seething in the choir-ranks he was going to turn around and give him the finger. And then find something painful to do to him. Maybe. Physical violence wasn’t really Elijah’s thing; the problem was that Colin knew it.
The halls were quiet after dinner, and Elijah made it to the top floor of the student quarters unmolested. Unlike the lower years in dormitories the seniors got their own rooms, and Thomas’s was particularly nice as it was on a corner and had two windows instead of one. Thomas had given him the spare key, but it wasn’t needed tonight because Thomas was already back and at his desk. “Hey,” he said, smiling at his friend. “What took you so long?”
“I … had to clean up,” Elijah replied neutrally as he shut the door. Once last year after locking Colin in a cupboard for a few hours Colin had warned that if Elijah ever told Thomas about the bullying Colin would tell Thomas about the time he caught Elijah in bed after lights-out with hand between his legs and Thomas’s name on his lips. Nowadays whenever Elijah did that he was usually thinking about Mr. Darlington, but since that was his secret alone Colin’s threat still stood and the last thing Elijah wanted was to spoil what he had with Thomas. “I couldn’t find any chocolate today, sorry, so we don’t have study rations. What did Mr. Darlington want to see you about?”
“You’ll never guess.” Thomas, Elijah noticed, had already changed into pajamas and dressing-gown, and in the light his hair was burnished gold. “Darlington asked if I was interested in joining the choir again. As a tenor, he says it’s because he needs replacements since so many have enlisted for the war.”
“Oh.” Relieved, Elijah sat down in the spare chair beside Thomas and leaned against his friend. Thomas absently put an arm around his shoulders. “Well, we have lost quite a few of the lower voices so it’s not surprising Mr. Darlington is looking for people to join. So what did you say, are you going to sing?”
“Probably not. No offence, Eli, but you remember how little I liked the chorister timetable and besides this is my final year, I need to concentrate on getting into a university. Hey,” added Thomas, looking down at Elijah as if he’d just thought of something, “do you talk to Darlington much? Actual talking I mean, not just about music lessons.”
Elijah wondered what Thomas was going on about. He tried, he really did try to talk to Mr. Darlington but given the choirmaster’s taciturn nature and the narrow scope of conversation in music lessons his efforts rarely went anywhere. “A little. He knows you and I are best friends, and I mentioned you used to be in choir, if that’s what you’re asking. ”
“Did you say anything about your father?”
Elijah blinked up into hazel eyes. “I might have? I think it came up when we were talking about the Christmas concert. Why do you ask?”
“Darlington said something about how it was a pity your father didn’t come to hear you in any concerts. I was surprised because I didn’t think you talked about your father with anyone except me.” Thomas shrugged. “Bit of a weird conversation, though Darlington did say that you were a wonderful soloist and a pleasure to teach.”
Something warm crept up Elijah’s spine and bloomed in his cheeks. “Really?”
“Uh huh. Anyway, that’s all Darlington wanted to see me about, so how ’bout we get on with algebra?”
“All right.” Algebra was a subject Elijah disliked intensely, but since Thomas was spending time and effort to make sure he passed he would at least try even if the whole night would go by before Thomas was satisfied with his progress. He’d have to make sure to return to his own bed tonight, though; the urges that took him in the darkest hours of the night were coming more often as of late, and even if the face he imagined was no longer Thomas’s the last thing he wanted was for his closest friend to see that other side of himself.
Thomas shifted in his seat, pulling Elijah closer to look at the book, body heat shared against the chill. Elijah sighed a little, taking pleasure from it, but then he caught sight of the black-and-white photo of a herd of elephants in a grassy savannah Thomas had tacked above the desk, and inwardly winced. It had been a long time since Elijah had thought of elephants, or lions for that matter. That childhood dream had long been forgotten, outgrown like a favourite toy, but Elijah hadn’t dared to tell Thomas yet.
Elijah probably never would.
December’s onset brought with it all the usual ills: snowed-out sporting activities, students laid up with colds, term finals, and for the choristers, extra rehearsals for the Christmas concert which of course ate into study time. Thomas tried his best to prepare Elijah for the tests but most of the time he was simply helping Elijah catch up and obviously every night Elijah spent in his room for tutoring was a night of his own revision sacrificed. He wouldn’t have minded so much if his efforts had been worthwhile, however as things turned out Elijah not only did badly but apologised to Thomas for it, as if the only reason he was even trying was to keep his friend happy. In a way the apology upset Thomas even more than his friend’s poor performance – he himself had only managed to stay on at the school by earning a scholarship even his father couldn’t argue with – and the thought that his friend was not only failing but not caring was a painful disappointment. He kept it to himself though, not wanting to spoil things when he left to go home at the end of term.
“Will you be safe?” asked Elijah worriedly. They were in Thomas’s room, and Elijah was helping him pack. “Apparently the Germans are starting to use planes now, not just airships.”
“Sure I will. The Germans aren’t going to bomb tiny Kelmscott when London’s just a few miles away.” Thomas threw a shoe into his trunk. “Really, Eli, I’m less worried about a bomb falling on my head than I am about my father coming home from the pub drunk and doing something to poor mum. Hand me those shirts, will you?”
Elijah passed over the pile of shirts he had folded. “You definitely can’t stay for the Christmas concert, then.”
“Given that how my mum’s letters have been gushing over how much she’s looking forward to seeing me again, no. Much as I’d like to hear your solo that’s the way it is.” The pile of shirts was sticking out of the trunk preventing it from closing. Thomas glared at it for a moment before turning to give Elijah an encouraging smile. “You’ll be fine without me. You sing good enough to knock everyone’s socks off.”
“… I suppose.”
Thomas looked at his friend, the way the weak sunlight fell on his face. Elijah’s lips had thinned in the manner they always did when he wasn’t happy about something, and was folding Thomas’s pants with far too much concentration. “You know,” said Thomas carefully, “if you wanted, when the concert is over you could always come down to stay with me for the holidays. The teachers won’t care, and you don’t have to tell your dad, he can just think you’re staying at school for Christmas like always.”
Elijah shook his head. “It’s fine, Tom, I don’t want to trouble your family. Besides, I remember last time I went – your father doesn’t exactly approve of me.”
To this Thomas could only grimace. Didn’t approve was an understatement; the first and only time Elijah had spent the holidays with him his father had – admittedly in a drunken fit – yelled at Thomas that he shouldn’t be consorting with pansy fairy boys, and in front of Elijah himself no less. “Point. Still, I feel bad about you spending hols here by yourself.” He sighed, finally deciding on halving the shirt pile and stowing the extras in his wardrobe – he’d be back in three weeks anyway. “You have the spare key to my room, so feel free to hide here whenever you want while I’m away. I told White that if I catch even a whiff of him in here when I get back I’ll break his legs so he shouldn’t dare bother you. If he does do anything to you while I’m away you tell me, all right?”
“Sure,” said Elijah, though there was something forced about his answer. Thomas put it down to disappointment over him not going to the concert but as he’d said, there was nothing he could do about it. Elijah would just to have to accept it.
They packed in silence for a little while, Elijah folding clothes, Thomas trying to make everything in the trunk fit. The lack of conversation felt hollow, and for the first time Thomas wondered at the distance that had grown between them. That, and how long it had been there. “Hey, Eli,” he said lightly, trying to restart some sort of communication, “I heard Darlington’s the teacher that stays here over Christmas. You think he’s going to be better or worse to live with than school-master Davies?”
“What?” As if jerked Elijah’s head shot up to stare at him. “Mr. Darlington is going to be looking after m— the students not going home for Christmas?”
“Uh, yes.” Why were Elijah’s eyes so wide at this news? “Apparently he didn’t even pull a straw for it, he just volunteered. Something about not having a family to spend Christmas with, so he’d might as well stay and let Davies see his grandchildren. Better watch out – Darlington may be a conchie with all those white feathers, but he packs a hard whipping hand and I’m sure he’ll be a stickler for house rules even on holidays. No talking after lights-out, no running in the halls and such. Yet another reason for you to hide up here, right?”
Elijah went back to folding pants, a small smile on his face. It made Thomas frown, wondering why Elijah seemed mighty happy about this latest piece of news, but he didn’t question it. Although Elijah’s marks had slipped in all his subjects his skill and enthusiasm for singing proportionally increased and it was only natural that of all the teaching staff Mr. Darlington was the one Elijah got along well with. A bit too well, actually. On the other hand, if it meant that Elijah had someone else to look after him and shield him from the likes of Colin White, then what could Thomas do other than approve?
A neatly folded pile of uniform pants was placed in the trunk. “That’s the last of it,” said Elijah. “Don’t close the lid yet, there’s something I want to give you.”
Thomas blinked as Elijah knelt and reached under his bed. “You didn’t—” Elijah stood up with a huge grin and a medium-sized box wrapped in coloured paper, and Thomas shook his head in disbelief. “Oh, Eli, you didn’t have to.”
“Sure I do. It’s not my fault your birthday falls after Christmas when you’ve gone home for the holidays. Ahem.” Closing his eyes Elijah cleared his throat, then began to sing. “Happy birthday to you …”
Like spun crystal Elijah’s voice floated on the air, delicate and clear that for a moment seemed to transform Thomas’s small room into a cathedral. Touched beyond words Thomas could only smile, even blush a little – disappointed as he was with Elijah’s marks there was a reason his best friend was principal soloist and this was it: his ability to sing pure music of extraordinary brilliance that made anyone and everyone sit up and listen in awe. And right now he was performing for Thomas alone.
The song finished. Thomas let out a breath he didn’t even know he had been holding. “Well,” he said finally, and then he had to stop because he didn’t know what to say. “Um. That was … great. Fantastic, I mean, ah – damn.” He took a breath, tried again, this time looking straight into Elijah’s face. “You were wonderful. Thank you, Eli.”
Elijah bowed extravagantly. “You’re welcome. Now, you’re not allowed to open this present until it’s your actual birthday, so how ’bout I put it in your trunk before you close it up, hm?”
Elijah put the present on top of the clothes, and together they tried to close the trunk only to slip and fail, and when they tried again they managed to get it to shut for all of two seconds before the lid popped open again. Only when Thomas had exasperatedly pounded his clothes flat and Elijah was sitting on the lid did they finally get the catches to close, and then they could cheer their success over chocolate and some brandy swiped from the kitchen. The brandy made Elijah’s blue eyes sparkle, and laughing into them Thomas found himself wondering what it would be like if he said to hell with going back to his maudlin mother and drunkard father and simply stayed here with Elijah, just the two of them, perhaps studying or singing together, or maybe feeding each other chocolate in bed.
Thomas blamed such thoughts on the brandy. He went home the next day.
Christmas Eve. Although every chorister worth his surplice knew the Messiah off by heart under Mr. Darlington they had been mercilessly rehearsing for the concert until even Elijah with his love of music wished he could for once fall asleep without endless semiquavers in his head. His music lessons had been even worse; the solo carol Mr. Darlington picked out for him looked simple on paper but had enough high sustained notes to be troublesome and so Mr. Darlington made him practice over and over again until he felt faint. The only thing that made lessons worthwhile were the moments when Mr. Darlington, in trying to get Elijah to open his mouth fully, would place his hands on Elijah’s throat or chin to physically show him what to do. Once he even put his fingers in Elijah’s mouth, and Elijah had been so startled the first and only thing he could do was blush and freeze, which immediately made Mr. Darlington pull away. The choirmaster had looked at nothing but music and piano keys for the rest of the lesson.
(That night Elijah had guiltily taken advantage of the privacy of Thomas’s room and physically imagined Mr. Darlington taking the fingers-in-mouth moment with him down to the music-room floor until he gasped into his friend’s pillow. He had to wash the sheets after that, but it wasn’t the first time.)
In the end, but, all the hard work paid off. The cathedral was packed, the town orchestra enthusiastic, and even though the voice balance had been slightly tipped towards the upper voices despite the last-minute tenors and basses drummed up from town the Messiah performance wonderful. Elijah’s solo had been particularly good, exhilarating even, for he loved the electric thrill of standing alone with all eyes and ears fixed on him as his voice soared beneath the vaulted ceiling, and when he had finished Mr. Darlington looked almost euphoric and Colin looked like he had swallowed a frog. That, in Elijah’s opinion, made everything worth it – along with the thunderous applause, of course.
When the choir and orchestra gathered in the cathedral crypt afterwards for congratulations, Elijah was still giddy.
“Good work, everyone,” said Mr. Darlington, already out of his choir robes which were folded neatly on a bench. The crypt, despite the stories that were told to frighten juniors, was large with good lights and in any case the novelty of centuries-dead priests quickly wore off the choristers who regularly used the crypt as a back-stage space, to the point that the tombs were treated as all-purpose tables. The stone walls and ceiling also amplified the buzz of relieved and happy students making Darlington raise his voice. “Quiet, please.” The chatter died down. “I’ve had some wonderful feedback from members of the audience, all praising your performance so you can take that home to your parents. I’d like to particularly thank those gentlemen who responded to my request to fill the lower voice ranks—” here there was a round of applause and cheers, “—and also the orchestra—” More cheers. “—and of course, finally, to all of you boys. You can be proud of what you’ve worked here tonight, and go home tomorrow morning for a well-deserved holiday. Merry Christmas.”
The cheers that followed this could have woken the dead. Sitting at the back Elijah was quiet, savouring the headiness of the moment, and watching the choirmaster. Tonight the man in shirtsleeves seemed a stranger from the stern and suited teacher of the music room: Mr. Darlington was animated, smiling even, and his dark eyes still seemed filled with the cathedral’s lights as the choristers for once dropped their usual respect to shake his hand and wish him merry Christmas. All of them would be gone tomorrow to start their short holiday, and Elijah couldn’t wait. Still, however, he made himself be patient, and eventually the mass of musicians began to make their way up the stairs back into the cathedral to head back to the school-house until, finally, the last was gone. Elijah was alone with Mr. Darlington.
Mr. Darlington looked at him as if only just realising he was there. Elijah looked back; the adrenalin of performance was still beating in his veins. Then he smiled, stepped forward thinking to hell with this, I’m going to do it as he ran over and caught the teacher in a heady embrace. For a heartbeat Mr. Darlington hesitated, but then he too was wrapping arms around Elijah, clutching him with the violence of absolute joy. “You were brilliant, absolutely brilliant,” he whispered into Elijah’s ear. “Never have I heard anyone sing so beautifully, you were perfect, Elijah, just perfect—”
Elijah kissed him. Mr. Darlington shut up. It lasted a delirious heartbeat only, and when Elijah pulled away the choirmaster’s eyes were wide in shock. “You—” He broke off, caught his breath, tried again. “What are you doing?”
The choirmaster’s voice sounded so flat, so mechanical, and stabbed Elijah in the gut. What had he done? Had he been mistaken like he had with Thomas, had he been imagining all this time that there had been something in Mr. Darlington’s gaze when he looked at him? Elijah found his mouth dry. “I just – I mean, sir, I—”
“I’m not talking about what you just did, I’m talking about you. I thought you loved your friend. Thomas Williams.”
For a moment Elijah could do nothing but stare, replaying those words in his head. Mr. Darlington was looking down at him, dark brown hair already damp from the exertion of conducting, and although his expression was confused there was also … longing? Plus his hands were still tangled in Elijah’s surplice. “Tom is my best friend, but nothing more,” Elijah found himself saying, face flushed. “He’s not like me.”
Slowly, ever so slowly, Mr. Darlington reached up to touch his face. “And how did you know I am?” he whispered.
“I don’t know.” Hand on his cheek, his throat, just like all those times in music lessons but now feeling so different. Burning. “I just did.”
The hand travelled to brush his lips, hesitant as if Darlington couldn’t quite believe this was happening. Elijah shared that opinion, but unlike the choirmaster thought little about consequences. His lips parted, once more taking the choirmaster’s fingers into his mouth, and that seemed to make up Darlington’s mind; he pulled his hand away and replaced it with a fierce kiss that craved as much as it gave. Triumphantly, Elijah met him.
What happened afterwards passed in a blur to Elijah. He vaguely recalled his choir-robes falling away in a drape of maroon and white, vaguely recalled Mr. Darlington spreading them out so that when they sank to the floor he lay on cloth instead of cold stone, and vaguely recalled Mr. Darlington eagerly stripping off his shirt and bundling it beneath his head, but they were practical details and irrelevant considering that was kissed and touched all the way down in a way that spoke little of thoughtfulness, only starvation. Elijah had never kissed before but it was easy to learn, especially beneath a teacher who paid as much lip-service to his neck and chest as his mouth until he felt almost feverish with need. Soon there was a hand pushing between his thighs, a strong, pianist’s hand, and Elijah shivered as Mr. Darlington began to stroke him there, far more satisfying than what he had ever done to himself, only to squeak in startlement as the choirmaster bent his head to hungrily take him into his mouth. Sensation took him then, almost frightening in its intensity, and then Elijah could do nothing more but buck and moan, trying to push himself further into the man’s hot mouth to be sucked only to be forced down, fingers scrabbling for purchase in his own surplice. Elijah heard himself begging. “Please, sir, oh god—”
It ended then, loudly and messily. Elijah gulped for air, eyes wide as the trembles in his body crested through him, and for the first time realised there were stars carved into the crypt’s ceiling. The hands on his hips were heavy; there was sweat-soaked hair on the inside of his legs. “Are you all right?” Mr. Darlington asked.
Elijah closed his eyes as his toes uncurled, indulging the blissful looseness of his body. He could feel warm breath on his softened cock. “Yes.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” Cold air as the choirmaster stood up, and after a bit of effort Elijah managed to raise himself up on his elbows to look at him. The choirmaster still had his pants on, but it seemed that fact was about to drastically change. “Because unless you say something now, I’m going to keep going.”
Elijah blinked as the belt came off. “Wh-what?”
“You noticed yourself, I’m like you.” The pants came down, were stepped out of, and then Elijah could only stare at the erection that was presented to him. “There is, however, a significant difference: I know what I’m doing.”
Elijah swallowed as the choirmaster licked his hand and rubbed himself before kneeling beside him; he had an idea of what was coming, and while he’d be lying if he said he didn’t want it, he would also be lying if he said he wasn’t a little scared. “Will it hurt?”
A small, unexpected smile. “Not if you relax. Turn over.”
Slipping a little on the white cloth, Elijah did so. Once again there were hands on his hips, this time pulling him up onto his knees, and Elijah couldn’t help but make a small tense sound. “Shh,” said Mr. Darlington, fingers stroking the soft inside of his thighs, forcing him to unclench. “I’ll take it slow, I don’t have any oil and I don’t want you to hurt anymore than you do, never have.”
The stroking was moving higher, deeper. Elijah’s eyes rolled in pleasure as he was spread. “But how long have you wanted me?” he murmured hazily, almost dreaming.
Hard heat against his entrance. “Since your first music lesson,” was the answer, and then Mr. Darlington pushed in.
Elijah gasped, arching his head back with the thrust – it hurt, despite Mr. Darlington’s assurance, really did, but then there was another push, slower, more languid as if Mr. Darlington was trying to draw things out, and Elijah moaned brokenly as the invasion overwhelmed him. One arm wrapped around his chest to clutch him, pull him in as he moved again … he could hear Mr. Darlington’s harsh breathing in his ear now, even a name once or twice, and he found himself pushing back against the choirmaster trying to meet and take him further. That, if anything, undid what little control Mr. Darlington was exercising and soon the thrusts came faster, striking hard and deep until Elijah gave up trying to anticipate them and simply squeezed his eyes shut, riding the pain as it inexorably rounded out to something incredibly intimate that throbbed and gloried in the way the choirmaster filled him—
He felt Mr. Darlington buck against his back, the man expelling a hoarse cry – Jon – as he came warm in Elijah’s body. Elijah shuddered with it, his cock spasming despite himself, and then, just like that, it was over.
Elijah was somewhat disappointed.
Heartbeats against his spine, then, a little awkwardly, the choirmaster withdrew leaving him empty. Suddenly Elijah realised how cold the air was in the crypt. He was too limp to want to do anything about it, but, other than collapse and curl up on his now crumpled and damp choir-robes and take in what had just happened. Painful though some of it had been – still was, actually – it had been terribly thrilling, and he knew that from here there would be no going back.
Sweat-cooled skin pulling up alongside his. Mr. Darlington’s hand was touching his face again, and looking up at him Elijah could only luxuriate in how dark his eyes were. “Did you get what you wanted?” the man asked softly.
“… Almost.” Elijah caught the hand in his own. “I want more.”
They met every night, sometimes every afternoon, usually in Mr. Darlington’s bed but occasionally in the music-room, and once, to Elijah’s mischievous delight, the library. There was only the two of them at school, after all, and they had almost a fortnight before the first students arrived back for spring term. Every time Elijah learnt more, took more, and even though he was worked just as hard in music lessons there was a new intimacy to the choirmaster’s admonitions, one that encouraged Elijah to sing louder and higher.
“Your voice is at its strongest now,” Mr. Darlington said one lesson. “Presuming it isn’t going to break any time soon there’s a new piece I plan on having the choir perform next term, and it has a solo that’s perfect for you.”
Elijah grinned; he was singing with his shirt off, ostensibly so they could do some diaphragm work but really they both knew how the lesson was going to finish. “Is it long?” he asked.
“The piece is a requiem, and you get the whole Pie Jesu to yourself.” The choirmaster gave him a small smile from the piano. “Does that satisfy you?”
“Hm.” Elijah straddled Mr. Darlington’s lap and kissed him deeply. “Let’s see after the lesson, all right?”
It wasn’t all just fun and singing, though. Sometimes the two of them walk in the school grounds and talk about songs they liked, performances they had done, and also themselves. For Elijah who hadn’t been able to talk to Thomas properly for what felt like years this was a wonderful release, and he found himself telling Mr. Darlington about his schoolwork, the bullying, even his father who other than an impersonal package of sweets and clothes was not heard from at all. In return Mr. Darlington told him about Oxford, the choir tradition that had taught him, and also, the reason why he left.
“There was a chorister there, one of the tenors, his name was Jonathan. Seventeen years old, dark-haired like you but with green eyes and a voice like honey. He shared my feelings, and at night would sneak up to my rooms for love or I’d sentence him to a flogging for some reason for another and we would meet in secret that way. He liked strawberries, which of course you can’t get in winter; I remember spending half my stipend getting some in from the continent when he was sick once, though of course they were frozen when they arrived.”
“What happened to him?” asked Elijah; they were in Mr. Darlington’s fire-warmed rooms, drinking in the New Year with wine.
“We were caught. By the college dean. Someone had found out about us, and I was turned out in disgrace. Jonathan was taken home by his parents. Last I heard he’d been one of the first to sign up for the war and his name was on one of the lists of dead from Ypres.”
“… I’m sorry.”
Mr. Darlington lifted his wine-glass in a silent salute to a ghost then drained it. When the glass was put down he was smiling again, albeit forcedly. “It’s all right. It’s past, and besides, I have you now.”
Elijah didn’t say anything to this. “Tom said you were a conchie,” he replied instead, nodding at the bouquet of white feathers on the mantle. “Is that why you’re not over there fighting?”
“I don’t want to go, simple as that. Also thus far I’ve been lucky enough not to get a conscription notice.” Mr. Darlington poured himself another glass. “Though speaking of your friend Thomas, he never gave me an answer about the choir. Do you know why?”
Elijah laughed. “Tom wants to get into university, not skip classes for church singing and music rehearsals. He probably didn’t bother to give you an answer because as far as he’s concerned you’ve got nothing to do with him and he has better things to worry about.”
“I see.” Mr. Darlington didn’t seem at all offended by this. “I asked him for you, you know.”
It took a second for that to hit Elijah. “What?”
“I asked your friend to sing not just because I need the tenors – which I do – but because I thought you would like to sing with him again, even if it was just once. You love him, right?”
Elijah didn’t know if it was the wine that was making his cheeks heat or irritation. “I told you, Tom’s not like me,” he retorted. “Can we not talk about Tom, please? He’s not going to sing in choir again, you can take my answer as his, and besides, it’s holidays, he’s not here. I am.”
“All right, all right,” Mr. Darlington soothed. Elijah sighed with relief, watching the choirmaster draw near, and then he was being kissed, pushed down into the worn lounge chair and fondled until eventually his pants were around his ankles and Mr. Darlington was shoved between his legs. The choirmaster could be less gentle now, and made Elijah twist and spread with the teasing until Elijah pleaded to be taken only to cry out when he came. Delightful, naughty stuff, really, but Elijah was under no illusions – while Elijah felt certainly something for the choirmaster it wasn’t what he treasured for his best friend. He was hoping, however, that if he tried hard enough somehow between now and next term one feeling would replace the other, and as Thomas’s spare key lay forgotten in Elijah’s shirt pocket and Elijah’s shirt regularly lay on Mr. Darlington’s floor, Elijah thought that short space would be enough.
Then, in the first week of January, term started again, and Thomas came back to school.
Thomas glared at the page of French before him. Last time he’d looked the words had made perfect sense in his head, but this morning they were refusing to behave and Thomas was considering chucking the book out the first-floor window. Which was unfair to the book, since it wasn’t its fault Thomas was in a sour mood. Between his father drinking away shop troubles, his mother ineffectually trying to keep order and the odd German zeppelin terrifying the countryside Thomas’s Christmas holiday hadn’t been much of a holiday at all, and the only bright spot had been opening Elijah’s present after Boxing Day to find a mix of chocolates and toffees covering a book about trains and ships. Inside the cover had been written, For Tom, happy 18th birthday and thank you for everything, love Eli, which had been wonderful and warm until it hit Thomas that being eighteen meant he was now liable for conscription. That had been the proverbial rotten cherry on top of his non-holiday, and it had hung over his head through his return to the relative sanctuary of school where he’d been hoping to settle back into a normal routine of class, residency, and Elijah.
Except that hadn’t happened. For some reason, Elijah was now avoiding him.
The French was starting to blur now, along with the school-master’s droning. With an exasperated sigh under his breath Thomas pushed the book away and looked to stare out the classroom window. Elijah would be having a music lesson right now, his second in three days, so once again he wasn’t in class. Thomas had invited him to his room last night to finish off last year’s brandy, but Elijah had turned him down saying something about a concert rehearsal. Last night had been a Wednesday night. Concert rehearsals were on Fridays. What’s more, that had been the third invitation Elijah had declined since the beginning of spring term.
Something wasn’t making sense.
Across the courtyard, one level down, were the windows of the music room. If Thomas cocked his head right and the clouds behaved, he could look right through them. Since the wind was sweeping the cloudy sky and French currently nonsensical, he did.
It was difficult to see past the window bars, but there seemed to be a scuffle going on in the music room. One figure in dark brown who could only be the choirmaster had a smaller figure in the school’s navy uniform pinned against the piano and wrists clasped between his hands. The smaller figure seemed to be struggling to break free, but succeeded only in making the larger figure press closer. The smaller figure froze.
Thomas stared. Then the clouds came back.
The rest of morning classes passed in a haze as Thomas tried to watch both the music-room windows and the clock at the same time. When class was finally let out for lunch he nearly flew out the door and ran to the dining hall where he found Elijah carrying two trays. “Tom!” said Elijah in delight. “They’ve given us chicken soup today; guess they’re trying to make sure none of us fall sick. Here.”
Before Thomas could say anything Elijah handed him a tray with a large bowl of soup and a roll of bread. Thomas almost spilled it as Elijah led them through the other students to a free table. “I wish they’d put a bit more variety into meals,” Elijah was saying. “I know the war’s caused shortages but this is the second time this week we’ve had—”
“Did you have a music lesson just then?” demanded Thomas as they sat down.
“Uh huh. We started on my solo for the February concert.” Elijah broke off a piece of bread and dipped it into his bowl. “The sustained notes are going to be a killer; I have to sing them with practically no backing other than organ chords—”
“Did Darlington do anything to you?”
“Unless you count making me sing top Cs until my head hurt, no.” Dip, drip, chew, swallow. “Why do you ask?”
“You—” Thomas broke off. Elijah was focused on his lunch, carefully lifting bread out of his soup bowl so as to not make a mess. His wrists were unmarked. More than that, Elijah didn’t seem to be in any kind of distress at all, far from it. In fact, it seemed to Thomas that his friend’s face was almost … glowing?
Blue eyes blinked innocently at him. “Tom? Is something wrong?”
It took a moment for Thomas to speak. “No. Nothing’s wrong.” He picked up his bread and began to eat. Pretended not to see the way Elijah did the same as if he hadn’t just told a bald-faced lie to his best friend.
That afternoon, right before Evensong, Thomas excused himself from class, strode over to the music-room and, completely ignoring the scales being sung inside, shoved the door open. “Excuse me, sir,” he said crisply.
Mr. Darlington looked up from the piano his face black with irritation. His interrupted student – Colin White, part of Thomas’s brain noted – stared at Thomas in astonishment. For a moment it seemed that the choirmaster would yell, but then he realised who it was. “What is it, Williams?” Darlington asked, mostly civil though there was a definite underlay of severe impatience.
Thomas refused to be intimidated. “I just realised, sir, that I never gave you an answer last year. About the choir, I mean.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’ll sing.” He met the other’s startled gaze, daring a reaction – I’m watching you, bastard. “Next concert, I’ll sing in your choir.”
“Are you sure you should be coming here still?”
“Mm, it’s long past lights-out, everyone’s asleep. If someone did me leave they’d probably just presume I’ve gone to Tom’s room like I used to.”
“What does Thomas think?”
“Tom thinks I’m asleep.”
“You’re playing a dangerous game. How do you know your friend isn’t watching you every night the way he watches in rehearsal?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, sir, he hasn’t found anything out—”
“But he suspects. Your friend is worried about you, Elijah, and he already knows something is up — why else would he suddenly change his mind about the choir? Welcome as his voice is it does make things complicated and I’ve already been turned out of one school in disgrace; a second time and I might as well enlist in the army for all the future I’ll have.”
“…are you telling me to leave?”
“I’m telling you the reality of the situation, and that if we want this to continue we’re going to have to be careful. That means no falling asleep in my bed anymore like you were about to do.”
“Would you have woken me up?”
“How would you do that?”
“With a kiss, though whether or not it would go on your lips is yet to be decided.”
“Mm, that sounds exciting. What are my other options—ah!”
“Let me show you.”
Warm-up. The stones of the cathedral’s crypt were buzzing as choristers picked notes at random making them swell from whispers to fortissimo and back again. Standing with the tenors in cassock and surplice (had the ruffled collar always been this itchy?) Thomas looked over to where the sopranos were clustered practicing high notes. Elijah stood in the middle of this group, and he seemed to be leading the whole exercise. He was not looking at Thomas.
Thomas’s lips thinned. Although Elijah had been delighted last month when he found out about Thomas rejoining the choir that delight had quickly turned into something approximating irritation as Thomas, unable to get the image of the choirmaster pinning his friend over the piano out of his head, spent the entirety of singing rehearsals watching either Elijah or Mr. Darlington trying to find confirmation of his suspicions. Of course he never saw anything, but then again he never saw anything to dissuade his suspicions either, especially considering that every time he tried to ask Elijah about what happened in the music-room Elijah either changed the subject or ignored his questions entirely. Already it had led to a couple of quarrels, quarrels after which it was usually Thomas to make the first move to making up. Elijah always accepted, but it never stopped them from having another fight.
Something had – was, happening with Elijah. Thomas was sure it was all that bastard Darlington’s fault, and once this concert was over he was going to do his damned best to find out exactly what.
Once this concert was over …
Thomas hadn’t sung in a concert for over three years.
Heavy steps from the stair-well. The crypt-full of choristers fell quiet as Mr. Darlington appeared in the doorway. “Line up,” he ordered, unsmiling and critical. “We’re on.”
Stepping onto the cathedral dais Elijah scanned the nave as he always did before a concert trying to judge how full it was. From the looks of things over half the town had paid to see the best choral singers this end of England – that, or they all wanted a distraction from the increasingly despondent news from the continent. Whether or not they would get that Elijah wasn’t sure, as tonight’s performance was a requiem in honour of all the young men who had gone off to war and never come back. Young men like Mr. Darlington’s Jonathan.
The small town orchestra stood up, and the audience broke out into polite applause as Mr. Darlington came out onto the floor. He bowed, and Elijah felt a surge of pride: the choirmaster was resplendent in white and had all eyes upon him, but Elijah was the only one who knew what the robes concealed. Maybe after the concert he could indulge himself in taking those robes off – presuming he could slip away from Thomas, that is. It wasn’t that Elijah minded his friend suddenly joining the choir with him, in fact it made him happy; it was just that it made things awkward. Make that very awkward, and in more ways than one, but there was no time to think about that now because Mr. Darlington was lifting the conductor’s baton to bring in the orchestra … and from then on there was nothing but music in Elijah’s head.
Three years between performances is a long time, and in Thomas’s case his three year break was starting to negate whatever concert experience he had gained as a chorister. Suddenly all his concerns and suspicions over Elijah and Mr. Darlington seemed puny in comparison to the fact that he was standing in front of what seemed to be a thousand people wearing a white dress with a ruffled collar, and even though there were other singers around him the harmonies in this piece were such that should any mistake it would be instantly apparent and magnified by the cathedral’s arched ceiling. Given how long it had been since his last concert, Thomas couldn’t help but dread that that ‘anyone’ would be him.
Something of this panic must have shown in his face. Mr. Darlington caught his eye from the conductor’s podium, and Thomas blinked as he realised the choirmaster was giving him a reassuring smile. Then he brought them in.
The Introit surfaced above the orchestra’s chord like the first hint of winter sunrise. Thomas felt his head ringing with the resonance and briefly wondered where his voice was before the old choirmaster’s adage was thought: if you can’t distinguish your voice from your companions you have all created music. Already old habits thought forgotten were asserting themselves – back straight, rounded mouth, eyes out of the score – and Thomas fixed his gaze on Darlington’s hands as they pulled the choir into a crescendo, settling into the music like a warm bed so that by the time the Offetoire came around he was actually enjoying himself. Now that they were actually performing instead of picking the music to soulless pieces in rehearsal Thomas could finally hear how beautiful this requiem was; it was peaceful, almost like a lullaby, and as it moved into the Sanctus with its water-like strings and floating soprano-and-tenor exchanges Thomas couldn’t help but think that if there were any ghostly soldiers listening in they ought to be pretty content at their send off. No wonder Elijah still wanted to sing if he was getting music like this all the time.
The Sanctus grew softer, drawing to its close. Elijah’s solo was next, and Thomas couldn’t wait.
The first few rows of the audience, Elijah noticed as he stepped forward, looked as if they were being carried on a particularly peaceful dream, and there was no small amount of people with handkerchiefs to their faces for whom the music was particularly poignant. No doubt these were the ones who had lost relatives to the monster that was the war on the continent, and it would be to those that Elijah had to particularly sing. His task, so Mr. Darlington had whispered in the dark last night, was to be the angel who asked the lord to lay their loved ones to rest. Pie Jesu Domine, the man had said, Merciful Lord Jesus, grant them eternal rest. You’re imploring for those who have lost their lives to be given peace. Sing that to them.
All right, I will, Elijah had replied. For you.
He remembered the choirmaster smiling at that.
Elijah took his place beside the conductor’s podium. Met Mr. Darlington’s eye and nodded. Somewhere behind him Colin White was glaring and Thomas was also watching. Then the organ started, and it was his turn to sing.
Pie Jesu Domine
Dona eis requiem
It was hard, supporting the long phrases and keeping them sounding as languid as possible. On the other hand it was absolutely gorgeous music, a pleasure to sing, and he threw himself into it, drawing out the crescendos and diminuendos as much as he dared in such a simple melody, determined by the end of it to have at least someone weep. It went perfectly until he turned to the final page and realised he didn’t have it.
Wildly Elijah looked down at his music, singing the next bar by memory – he’d practiced this enough times by now – as he tried to figure out if he’d turned two pages at once or done something else. He hadn’t, because his next page just wasn’t there. What was there, however, was a scribbled and graffitied piece of paper that was haphazardly filled with insults Elijah had so often heard from Colin and his mates, and also some lewdly creative sketches of characters who apparently were Elijah and Thomas with ridiculously sized body parts fucking each other into the paper. Scrawled beside it was the caption, Sleepovers in the senior’s quarters!
Elijah was shocked. Elijah stopped singing.
The orchestra trailed off, allowing silence to fall upon the cathedral like a bomb. Too late Elijah realised what had happened, that it was just him alone standing there in front of everyone staring at him wondering what had gone wrong and he wasn’t sure if he was blushing or the blood was draining from his face because he had been through enough concerts to know that if something went wrong in a performance that would be the only thing the audience remembered and to hell with the music. Desperately he cast a glance at Mr. Darlington; the choirmaster’s expression was unreadable but he caught Elijah’s look and quickly summoned the orchestra to give a bar’s lead-in at the point Elijah had stopped. Elijah would have preferred to fall through the floor, but he made himself sing from that point from memory trying his best to pretend that nothing had gone wrong. He sang to the end, but compared to the heavenly purity he had started with the end was tense and flat. Never had Elijah been so relieved to get off the dais and return to the relative safety of numbers in the soprano ranks, though they did give him questioning sympathetic smiles. Colin and Peter, they just ignored him. He couldn’t see Thomas.
On the conductor’s podium, Mr. Darlington’s jaw was set in a manner that promised a later explosion when not in public, but still he lifted his baton for the next movement, the Agnus Dei. From here on to the end of the concert it would be just the choir and a short baritone solo sung by a local professional, meaning Elijah was safe. He dreaded to think what would happen when the concert was over and they were all back-stage, though.
When finally the concert finished the applause was thunderous, the praise effusive, but the one thing everyone was heard to mention as they exited and began to go home was pity about that poor boy who forgot his music; the music would have been perfect otherwise.
And then, the cathedral was empty, and the choir gathered in the crypt.
“I can’t, sir.”
“You can’t? Why not!”
“I just can’t, sir.”
“May I remind you, Mr. Baker, that I do not appreciate it when my hard work of whipping this choir together and individually teaching its members in order to maintain its standard is upended like a box of potatoes just because one person makes an unexplainable cock-up! All that time I spent drilling and training you and what? You forgot the words? You got distracted? You are the principal soloist, you should be above careless mistakes like that farce tonight—”
Standing offside with the rest of the morbidly fascinated choir, Thomas could only wince with every word as he forced himself to watch Mr. Darlington dress down his friend. Elijah stood in the middle of the crypt, head bowed and hands folded, looking for all the world like a condemned man before a noose as the furious choirmaster raged over him. Unfortunately it sounded as if Mr. Darlington was just getting warmed up.
“—even if you do make a mistake you do not, repeat, do not simply stop the music entirely and make it obvious to everyone you’ve made a mess of things! You completely spoiled the concert, you whom I expected far more from—”
Thomas couldn’t take it any longer. “Ah, sir?” he said, trying to interrupt. “Isn’t that going a bit far, I mean, it was just one mistake—”
“QUIET!” Thomas immediately shut up as the choirmaster turned on him with a face like thunder. “You, Mr. Williams, despite having acquitted yourself tonight, have no part in this so remember your place and shut up.”
Ears burning, Thomas did as he was told. Elijah was refusing to look at anything other than his toes, and as Mr. Darlington continued to rant and vent seemed to grow smaller and smaller. There were, however, some who seemed to be enjoying the show for at the far end of the crypt Colin and Peter were watching Elijah’s ordeal with barely concealed grins. “Flog him, sir!” said Colin suddenly.
The choirmaster whipped his head around to look at him. “What did you say?”
Colin balked at the man’s expression but kept his ground. Thomas wanted to kill him. “Baker should be flogged, sir,” said the red-head. “You’ve flogged others for less, and Baker messed up big time.”
“Yeah, he spoiled the concert we all worked so hard for,” Peter chipped in. “He should get punished for it, right boys?”
Peter had aimed this last at the rest of the choir, and much to Thomas’s horror over half a dozen “ayes” were heard, even a whisper behind his head about “’bout time teacher’s pet got something!” that completely undid the illusion of unity from the concert. He had always been aware that Elijah wasn’t popular but to see such stark evidence of it … Thomas got to his feet. “No,” he said loudly.
Every eye in the crypt turned to him. Thomas ignored them and looked only at Elijah and the choirmaster. “I said no,” he said calmly. “I vote against flogging Elijah.”
“Vote, is it?” said Colin archly. He turned and swept an arm to take in the white-clad mob. “Well, if it’s as Williams says, a vote, then how many say ‘aye’ to punishing Baker?” The response was emphatic. Colin smirked. “There we go.”
Thomas seethed, but he was obviously fighting a losing battle. However, the final decision wasn’t Colin’s, or the choir’s, and as one everyone looked expectantly towards the choirmaster.
Darlington looked back. Met Thomas’s eyes briefly, and for a moment Thomas saw something stricken there that gave him hope. Then the choirmaster turned back to Elijah. “Six strokes back at the school,” he said shortly. “My rooms.”
The approval from the mob of choristers rumbled through the stones. Deflated, Thomas could only look at Elijah; his best friend was still standing statue-still refusing to look up. He remained standing even as Darlington, refusing to look or speak to anyone, stormed up the stairs and left, followed by the chattering choir. A few boys aimed grins and ridiculous “ooooohs” at Elijah as they passed only to cut themselves off as Thomas pushed through them to his friend’s side. “Eli,” Thomas whispered urgently. “Eli.”
Elijah didn’t look up. Biting his lip Thomas attempted to put an arm around his shoulders, only to step back, startled, as Elijah almost violently pulled away and ran for the stairs. He disappeared with catcalls at his back. Thomas’s first instinct was to follow, but then he caught sight of Colin, the instigator of all this. “Hey, Williams,” the red-head taunted, “when Baker comes running to you crying you’d better get the cold-cream and towels out cause I bet Darlington’ll make him bleed. Or maybe you prefer something else, maybe you’ll just kiss his bum better?”
It was three steps to get to Colin, four if he counted the last step to shove the red-head into the wall. Peter did try to protect his friend but the advantage of being a butcher’s son was that Thomas had a rather fine punching arm. “Listen here, White,” hissed Thomas into the terrified red-head’s face. “I know you had something to do with what happened to Eli tonight, and I know you know that if I find out what it is I’m going to make sure you’re singing soprano permanently, got that?” Colin whimpered, and Thomas twisted his surplice collar even more. “Got that?”
Colin didn’t answer, cowering instead into his robes. Disgusted Thomas loosened his grip; there would be no point beating the other boy up right now, not when the real injury being done to Elijah was by someone else. He did, however, give Colin a shove that threw him onto the floor next to his bloody-nosed friend. Only then did Thomas run off, up the stairs and through the now-empty and dimmed cathedral in search of Elijah.
Of course, Elijah was nowhere to be found.
Elijah stood in front of Mr. Darlington’s door. Like so many other times when he had come here he was in pajamas – choir-robes were difficult to clean, and having spent half a morning scrubbing them after his encounter with Mr. Darlington in the crypt he didn’t want to mess his robes again – but this time was different. This time, instead of furtively knocking on the door in anticipation he would be rapping clearly and sharply, and in dread. Hopefully the dread wasn’t necessary, but it was there all the same. He knocked.
Apprehensively Elijah opened the door and went in. As usual Darlington was standing by the glowing fireplace. The choirmaster’s face was unreadable. “So,” he said quietly. “You came.”
“You ordered me to.” The door shut behind him, heavy and final as the catch fell to lock it. Elijah took a deep breath – he had been caned only once in his school life, years ago by the old choirmaster, but he’d never forgotten it or the rituals that were expected. “For my actions this evening, I have come to face the consequences.”
“For your actions this evening I would prefer an explanation,” said Darlington tightly, a complete contrast to his fury of earlier. “What went wrong?”
To this Elijah could only bite his lip. What Colin had sketched, what he had implied to be the case between Elijah and Thomas wasn’t in itself so shocking to Elijah given his relations with the choirmaster, but there was no way he would have revealed it in front of everyone – and especially not in front of Thomas. Thomas was his oldest friend, his best friend, but more than that Thomas was good, a student who saw and worked towards a bright future, who protected and taught Elijah, and for whom love was not something sweaty and throbbing but something pure. Innocent. It was the way Thomas was, and Elijah wanted to keep it that way. “I can’t say,” he said again.
“Why, is it something to do with Thomas?”
Elijah stared. “How did you know?”
“Over the past few weeks you’ve told me so much about yourself, but whenever your best friend comes up you immediately shut down. So, once again, I’ll ask – is it something to do with Thomas?”
Darlington sighed. “I won’t ask anymore, however I will insist on you answering my next question: what shall I do with this?”
He brought out a cane from the shadow of his leg, holding it in the firelight. The very sight of it made Elijah’s muscles clench, though he refused to show it. “The dilemma that faces me now,” said Darlington, very quietly, “is that I really would prefer not to use this on you, but given the public circumstances of your sentence it will be quickly obvious if I do not. I have a reputation and leadership role to maintain, Elijah, so I put it to you: what should I do?”
Elijah swallowed thickly. “You’re going to have to flog me, sir. You said yourself, if we want to continue like this we have to be careful, and we both know that when I go back to that dormitory people are going to want to see the damage. If there’s nothing to see …”
Long silence. Elijah could hear his heart thudding in his ears as he looked at the cane, and for his part Darlington seemed torn. In the end, but, he tapped the end of the cane on the ground before him. “Come here,” he said softly.
Elijah’s feet felt like wooden blocks, but after what he had said he could do nothing but obey. He stood on the spot Darlington had indicated, feeling cold despite the fire’s heat. Darlington, he noticed, was refusing to meet his eyes. “Bend over.”
Slowly, ever so slowly, Elijah obeyed, spreading his legs until he could touch the floor with his fingertips. “Do I at least get an option?” he asked nervously.
“Six with it on or five with it off.”
The choirmaster’s voice sounded so flat, so businesslike. Elijah supposed it made it easier. “Five with it off, then,” he said. Get it over and done with quicker.
Cool hands on his hips, pulling his pants down and off and making his skin tingle. Somewhere behind him he heard the choirmaster sigh, and had this been any other night Elijah would have closed his eyes. Briefly he felt something cool and thin being placed against his bare ass as Darlington got the measure of his aim, but then it was pulled away leaving Elijah to clench in anticipation – and then the first blow came down with a thwack.
Elijah fell forward, catching himself on his fingertips as he let out a breath he didn’t even know he had been holding. His ass felt numb, but then after a few seconds he could feel a burning line stretching across just above his thighs like a red-hot wire, and Elijah grimaced in agony – don’t cry out, don’t cry out. “One,” he said through gritted teeth.
His only reply to this was a thin whistle as the cane came down, ending with a second sharp thwack almost right on top of the first mark. Instinctively Elijah clenched up as the pain, quicker this time, stabbed through his flesh and he couldn’t help but whimper as it beat up his spine, through his groin … he squeezed his eyes shut trying to anticipate the next. “Two—”
A third blow. Elijah’s legs were beginning to tremble and the blood was rushing to his head like wine, but before he could say “three” the fourth struck. By now it felt as if his entire backside was enflamed around a series of sharp lines laid straight across his skin, and despite himself Elijah was moaning, wanting as the pain pulsed through his cock bringing him half-erect—
The fifth and last came down, hard as thunder. Elijah couldn’t help but scream.
There was a clatter as something fell to the floor. Dizzily Elijah stood up, wiping saliva from his lip and stumbling a little to find Darlington collapsed in one of the worn lounge chairs, face shining with sweat and hair in disarray. His very expression seemed pained, as if it had been him beneath the cane instead of Elijah. “I’m sorry,” he was saying, “I’m so sorry, Elijah, but I had to—”
Elijah sank onto him, catching the choirmaster in a fierce kiss. Darlington stiffened but immediately returned it, hungry and desperate. A knee pressed between Elijah’s thighs, and moaning Elijah ground against it, making the bruises on his backside burn all the more and trying to find his release. Blindly he tangled his hands in the choirmaster’s shirt looking for buttons only to be pulled down to fumble at the closure of Darlington’s pants instead. Darlington was breathing hard. “Help me,” he said, low and urgent. “I need this, need you forgiving me—”
“Yes,” breathed Elijah, and then there it was, hard and hot in his hand. Experimentally Elijah stroked it, marvelling at the way Darlington’s face changed, before sinking to his knees. He could feel Darlington’s eyes upon him as he pulled the pants down further, eventually stripping them off entirely so that Elijah could kneel between the man’s legs. For a moment Elijah stared, feeling his pulse pounding along the perfectly aligned bruises on his backside, but then he heard a hiss of breath above him – do it now – and before he knew it he was opening his mouth and taking Darlington in.
Heartbeats in his ears. Elijah shuddered, teeth scraping against the man’s erection and felt it twitch against his tongue. Too difficult to do like this, so he reached up and clasped fingers around the base, massaging the way Darlington often did to him. The reaction was immediate, a low growl somewhere above his head, and Elijah felt his own groin clench in response as he sucked. An insane thought struck him – what if he tried to sing the way he did in lessons when Darlington would put fingers in his mouth to make him open? – and before he knew it Elijah found himself humming scales, exercises, anything as he tasted Darlington sliding towards his throat thick and sweet. It must have pleased the choirmaster immensely, for now there were fingers tangling in his hair urging him on, urging him to take more until it was impossible for Elijah to make any sound louder than a whimper and Darlington was groaning and writhing in his chair.
A sharp jerk, and then warmth spilling thickly down his throat. Elijah choked, more from the unexpectedness of it, and, squeezing his eyes shut, forced himself to swallow as Darlington softened in his mouth. Only when he was sure he wasn’t going to gag did he pull away and release the choirmaster. His lips were tingling, still aroused, and shivering Elijah reached down to touch himself—
“Here. Let me.”
—he was pulled up, gathered into the chair and onto Darlington’s lap, hissing a little as the bruises on his backside were stretched. Darlington hushed him, pushing his legs apart and grasping his cock in his own larger hand and beginning to stroke. Soon Elijah was panting, little broken cries spilling from his mouth as the pain from his flogged backside mixed with the arousal into something incredibly acute, helpless thrusting until finally he buried his face in the choirmaster’s neck and bucked wetly into his hand.
Shallow breaths, slowing and deepening. Vaguely Elijah opened his eyes to find the choirmaster looking at him in concern. “Are you all right?” he asked quietly.
“…Mm.” A non-answer, since although his body felt wondrously loose his backside was still throbbing along the lines where the cane had landed. It would be at least a week before he could sit down… Elijah sighed, curling up against the choirmaster’s chest. “I’ll be all right.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” Darlington gave a sigh, stroking Elijah’s hair. “You should go. Floggings aren’t supposed to take this long.”
Easier said than done, for Darlington’s lap was warm and comfortable making standing up in cold air all the more unpleasant. Still, however, Elijah forced himself to do so, and snagged his pants to pull them back on. Darlington also stood and retrieved his own pants, putting them on and tucking his shirt back in. That done, he walked Elijah to the door and gave him a long kiss. “Thank you,” said the choirmaster quietly.
Elijah smiled. Then he unlocked the door, pulled it open to leave – and stopped dead.
Thomas looked back at him from the corridor. He had Elijah’s dressing-gown draped over one arm, and a tube of cold cream in the other. As he stared at Elijah and Mr. Darlington standing together in the doorway, his face was unreadable.
Elijah felt the blood drain from his face. Behind him, Mr. Darlington might have been a statue. No one dared to speak.
Thomas’s lips tightened. Then, he dropped the cold-cream on the floor, dropped the dressing-gown, and began to storm hurriedly away. The lines of his back were visibly trembling in anger, and dismay uncurled in Elijah’s gut like snakes. “Tom!” he cried out, making as if to go after his friend, “Tom—”
A hand clamped down on his shoulder. Wildly Elijah turned to find Mr. Darlington looking down at him. The choirmaster’s eyes were tense, and said only one thing.
“Let him go.”
“Hey, have you heard?”
“What is it?”
“Apparently the knight and his princess aren’t speaking to each other. At all.”
“Really? Since when?”
“Since the night Baker stuffed up the concert, that’s when. No one knows why, but the two of them, they no longer sit together at meal times and Andrew on the top floor says he hasn’t seen Baker go to Williams’s room even once in the past few days …”
Thomas stared gloomily at the photograph. There were six elephants in it, he had counted them long ago, all of them frozen mid-stride as they crossed the photographer’s field of view though given the age of the photo some of their legs and trunks were broken by creases. He had found this picture back in his third year at the school when doing a project on other countries and kept it for Elijah. At the time he had believed that it was Elijah’s fondest dream to travel and see such exotic animals. Until four days ago he had still believed it.
Grim-faced, Thomas looked away. It had been four days since the ill-fated concert, four days since Elijah’s flogging and Thomas’s eavesdropping from the corridor. He hadn’t meant to do it, all he had wanted was to wait for his friend and help make sure he was all right after the flogging, but the sounds that come from Mr. Darlington’s rooms after the familiar thwacks had been strange and intriguing, calling Thomas to try and listen closer. He immediately wished he hadn’t. Those moans and soft cries, he’d never heard anything like that before but he knew what they meant, and to hear them coming from Elijah and Darlington together hadn’t just been a shock, it had been disgusting. And then the way Elijah had opened the door smiling at Darlington like that … Thomas’s disgust had twisted at the right of it, morphing into something else. Something resentful.
Darlington and Elijah. Darlington spending time with Elijah, Darlington talking and singing with Elijah. Darlington touching Elijah. Kissing Elijah. Fuckin—
A knock on his door jerked Thomas out of his growing rage. “What!” he shouted.
The door opened and Andrew, Colin’s friend, stuck his head in. “Mail day, Williams,” he said, looking bored as he held out a yellow envelope. “Looks like it’s your lucky day.”
He flicked the envelope onto the floor. Thomas reached out with a toe to snag and pull it over. “Thanks,” he said curtly. Andrew shrugged and shut the door. Glowering a little, Thomas picked up the envelope which had no return address. Apparently has originally been sent to his home in Kelmscott but someone – his mother, judging by the hand – had crossed out that type-written address and put his school address in neat cursive. Certainly it didn’t seem to be very thick. Curious, Thomas opened it and unfolded the yellow paper inside.
ARMY FORM W.3236
NOTICE PAPER to be sent to men who belong to the Army Reserve under the provisions of the Military Service Acts, 1916.
CHRISTIAN NAME: _______Thomas________________
ADDRESS: _xxxxxxxx_ Kelmscott, Gloucestershire
YOU are hereby warned that you will be required to join for Service with the Colours on the 1 MARCH 1917. You should therefore present yourself at the RECRUITING OFFICE, GLOUCESTERSHIRE on the aforementioned date not later than 9:00am bringing this paper with you.
A Railway Warrant is enclosed herewith.
DATE: 17 February 1917
Thomas let the paper fall from his hands to the floor. Stared at is as it were a poisonous snake.
Oh no. Oh, no.
Ever since the incident in the crypt Elijah kept his head down in the dining room hoping not to attract attention. It was a ploy that worked but sometimes; since word had gotten out that he no longer guarded by his knight protector he was now particularly vulnerable to the odd bone or food-scrap being lobbed across the room at his head. Elijah ignored them mostly, they were irritants at best, especially compared to his current torment of being not only avoided but in disgrace with his best friend. No matter what reassurances and distractions Mr. Darlington used Elijah was sure Thomas now either hated him or at best wanted nothing more to do with him, which made it all the more unexpected when after getting dinner Elijah turned around and found Thomas standing before him.
Elijah blinked. “…Tom?” he asked hesitantly.
Thomas didn’t answer. He didn’t look as if he was still mad or disgusted with Elijah, far from it in fact: the face beneath his golden hair was ashen. Immediately Elijah tensed – something was wrong, terribly wrong. “Tom, what is it?”
Slowly Thomas raised his hand. There was a crumpled piece of yellow paper in it. “It’s a notice,” he said, and even his voice sounded dull.
“A call up notice.” Elijah’s face froze. Thomas looked distressed. “I’ve been called up to go to fight.”
Whatever ill-feeling or despair they had been feeling over the past four days was forgotten. Quickly Elijah put down his tray and, putting an arm around Thomas’s shoulder, guided him out of the dining hall and the curious stares into an empty study room. He snagged a chair and sat Thomas down in it, kneeling before him. “When did you get this?” asked Elijah urgently.
“This afternoon. I have to report at Gloucestershire recruiting office by the first of March.”
“First of—” Elijah broke off. Counted the days. “That’s next week! And travelling to Gloucestershire you’d have to leave by Monday—”
Thomas didn’t seem to hear him. “I don’t want to go, Eli, I don’t want to fight, I read the papers, I read about the Somme and Ypres and Gallipoli and I don’t want to go to those places, I just don’t—”
His shoulders were shaking; desperately Elijah put an arm around him and pulled him close. “Could – could you just not turn up?”
“And get hauled up before a tribunal? They sentence you to prison if you refuse to answer a call-up notice, and in any case do you have any idea what would happen if word got out to people that I ran away? I’m not like Darlington, I can’t sit in my room with a bouquet of white feathers, I just can’t—”
Thomas broke off, buried his head in his hands. If he was crying he wasn’t going to show it – he had never cried in front of Elijah, ever. Elijah felt his eyes stinging. “So what are you going to do?” he asked in a small voice.
For a long time there was no answer. Then, finally, Thomas raised his head and looked up at him. His hazel eyes were red, yet somehow he was smiling painfully. “Guess I don’t have a choice. I’m going to have to go.”
“So he will be going?”
“Monday morning. First train out.”
“…Are you crying?”
“He shouldn’t have to go. He’s no coward, sir, but he’s terrified, and – and it’s Tom. Tom should be going to university, he should be making himself an engineer like he’s always wanted, not a soldier and going off to war—”
“Shh, it’s all right, he’ll be all right, let me kiss those away—”
“—he wanted to take me to Africa, you know, he thought it would be brilliant if after school we could travel together, or he did until he found out how horrible I am—”
“You’re not horrible. Don’t ever think that. No matter what others or the world may tell you, what you and I did, what you and I are is perfectly natural, and you should never be ashamed of it as long as you do it with love. You do love me, right?”
“…I’m sorry, sir.”
“I thought I could. I tried to, I really did, but now that you’ve asked me … all I can think about is Tom. Are – are you mad at me?”
“No. Just … disappointed.”
“Don’t be. You can’t help it. But now that you say this, what are you going to do about Thomas?”
“I … want to do something for him. He’s always looked after me ever since we first met in choir all those years ago, always done so many things for me without asking for much back. I never gave him much back, and now that he’s leaving … I don’t know what I can do.”
“You’re his best friend. You love him. And you can sing.”
“…Can I pick the anthem for this Sunday’s service?”
“Thank you …”
Sunday church. Elijah stood on the dais, white surplice almost glowing in the light that came through the magnificent stained glass window. Before him the nave was full, every seat filled with the faithful and less faithful, but Elijah wasn’t seeing them. Seated in at the aisle-end of the second row was Thomas, his blond head bowed. He had been walking like that for days.
Elijah wanted to make him smile.
The organ sounded, making the broken chord crescendo as it introduced him. Off-side, Mr. Darlington was watching with anticipation. Elijah caught his eye, smiled ruefully, and then it was time to start.
Hear my prayer, O God incline Thine ear
Thyself from my petition do not hide
A Mendelssohn hymn, one for which a soloist needed nerves of steel and one of Elijah’s favourite solos. It was also, he knew, one of Thomas’s favourites and one of the few things he had truly enjoyed singing back when he had been a chorister. Immediately Thomas stiffened, sat up with wide hazel eyes, and Elijah met them. Held them as he sang.
The enemy shouteth, the godless come fast
The chorus came in then, replying to Elijah’s soaring calls under Darlington’s guidance. The choirmaster had promised to let him sing how he saw fit, and would conduct the choir accordingly. For this Elijah had nothing but gratitude, and maybe had they met in other circumstances, had Elijah not had a best friend he wouldn’t have had to say I’m sorry. As it was, Elijah was singing for Thomas alone.
My heart is solely pained within my breast
My soul with deathly terror is oppressed
The chorus behind him was pleading for release, filling the cathedral with tension through which Elijah’s ethereal voice could soar, like first sunlight after a storm. A reminder, that no matter what the darkness of despair there was always hope. Some weary souls in audience might have been moved by this, but as far as Elijah was concerned as long as he brought some peace to Thomas, that was all that mattered. The final would do that.
O, for the wings of a dove
Far away would I roam
In the wilderness build me a nest
And remain there forever at rest ..
The last note died away leaving behind a reverent silence. Elijah realised his heart was in his throat – had it been good? had he done well? he had lost himself in the music, in Thomas and completely forgotten everything else … the audience was getting to its feet now, applauding not with the usual politeness of a Sunday congregation but the roaring enthusiasm of a concert-hall, and then Elijah sighed, almost wept with relief. He would have given anything to see what Darlington’s reaction was – anything, that is, except Thomas’s face.
He looked down at his best friend. Thomas was still seated, gazing up at him with nothing but intimate gratitude. There were tears in his eyes, but at least he was smiling.
“Come on, Eli, have some more—”
“Aha, I think I’ve had enough—”
Thomas slammed down his glass and gave his friend a bleary glare. “Eli,” he said seriously, “I’m leaving tomorrow. This brandy was already left over from Christmas, and I’m not going to leave it here for some other student’s benefit when he takes over my room. Have another.”
“All right, all right,” said Elijah reassuringly, picking up the bottle. He shared the contents out into a pair of chipped mugs, Elijah’s second and Thomas’s – fourth? fifth? – of the night. The two of them were sitting on Thomas’s bed and pretending not to see the small suitcase packed and waiting behind the door, something which was becoming easier to do with every drink. “Here.”
Thomas snagged his mug and swigged half of it down. “You know, it’s kinda funny – we haven’t done anything like this together since last year, and now that we are it’s only because once again, I’m leaving. Did we ever do this for the sheer hell of it?”
“We ate a tonne of chocolate on my fifteenth birthday. Oh, and there was the time we stole a bottle of wine and tried that out behind the cathedral and ended up singing really, really badly at evensong.”
“Oh yeah.” Thomas hiccupped. “Didn’t we get flogged for that?”
Elijah grinned. “Oh yes. Three strokes each, I remember, and afterwards we spent the rest of the night rubbing cold-cream into each other’s battered bums.”
The memory this brought back made Thomas giggle. It also brought a more recent one that made him stop. “Hey Eli,” he said, “before I go tomorrow, can you tell me something?”
Blue eyes found his, let him in. “Anything.”
“Do you … love Darlington?”
“No.” The answer was calm, final. “I don’t.”
“Then why …?”
“Because I thought if I tried hard enough, if I did it enough with him, I would. I thought I could make myself love him because unlike the person I do love Mr. Darlington was like me. Also he wanted me.”
“…Oh.” Thomas thought about this, tried to get angry, and realised he couldn’t. Probably it was the brandy, but more likely it was the fact that he was leaving tomorrow and he did not, would not leave angry with his best friend. “So if you’re not in love with Darlington, then who?”
Thomas digested this, swallowed it into his heart. “Oh.” Then he thought about it. “Um. I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right.” Elijah smiled, an expression tinged with sadness. “You care for me, I know, it’s just not quite in the same way as I do for you. I’m fine with that.”
“Same way—” Thomas broke off. Thought back to the night had heard Elijah in Darlington’s rooms, the sounds of pleasure he had made and immediately blushed. “You love me in that way? The way you did with Darlington?”
“Well, yes.” Elijah’s fair face was flushed with embarrassment. “But I know you never thought of me like that, so I never brought it up.”
The room was far too warm now. Thomas licked his lips. “You know,” he said nervously, “now that you have brought it up, and well, since I’m leaving tomorrow probably to end up in a trench and possibly never come back, maybe we could … um … try?”
Blue eyes stared at him. “Are you serious?”
“I guess so?” Thomas attempted a grin but it came out lopsided. “I do love you, it’s just that … hell, I never thought about it that way ever and while the brandy’s probably helping the fact is that I might not ever see you again and—”
Elijah kissed him. Thomas squeaked a little in astonishment, but then felt his best friend moving against his lips, soft and gentle, breathing against his skin, and shivered. Elijah pulled away. “How was that?” he whispered.
Thomas’s mouth was tingling. His first kiss. “Um …” He took a deep breath. “Pretty good. Try again?”
The delight in Elijah’s face was almost shining. Before Thomas could say anything his best friend climbed over his legs, straddling him before bending down for a second kiss. This time Thomas met it, hesitant but willing, only to melt as Elijah moved into his mouth, strengthening the kiss. Strange, but certainly far from unpleasant, especially with this person, this person whom he knew so well and yet in some ways not at all … Thomas reached up, grasping Elijah close enough to feel his heartbeat only to tilt his head back as his friend began to kiss down his throat. Already there were hands fumbling in his shirt, and Thomas let them, content to be guided. Obviously Elijah knew what he was doing.
His shirt opened, was slid off. Thomas trembled as Elijah placed a line of kisses down his chest, warm breath against his skin. Already he could feel himself shaking, shuddering as Elijah moved lower making his groin tighten in a way he’d never really thought about before, and when Elijah reached into his pants to grasp him there Thomas could only moan. “Eli …”
“This is where you take your pants off.” Blue eyes, gleaming up at him with mischief. “I’m going to need your help here.”
“Um, yeah.” Feverish, Thomas fumbled at his waist, opening the close of his pants and pushing them down. Elijah did the rest of the stripping, and despite the fact they had seen each other in the buff before there was something obviously very different this time and Thomas couldn’t help but redden with embarrassment. That, and arousal.
He shrugged off his shirt, let it fall to the floor. Elijah for his part was slipping out of his clothes in a way that indicated a lot of practice with – no. Thomas wasn’t going to think about it. Elijah was with him now, and that was all that mattered. Though he would have liked to take his friend’s clothes off himself.
Hand on his shoulder, pushing him gently against the pillows. Elijah’s eyes were shadowed as lay down beside him. “I must say this isn’t quite how I imagined things to be with us,” he said, far too evenly. “I imagined you on top.”
Thomas licked his lips; the erection his friend was pushing against his stomach was hot and hard, much like his own. He slid his hands up Elijah’s waist. “How often did you imagine?” he asked.
“You don’t want to know.” A rueful grin, then Elijah reached up to clasp the back of his head. “Close your eyes.”
Without even needing to think about it Thomas obeyed. Felt Elijah trailing fingers up his leg, coming up to grasp him tightly, and Thomas gasped from the pleasure of it, like noting he had ever felt before as Elijah stroked him, rubbing him from tip to root leading him jerk and moan that made the hand in his hair clench. There were kisses on his chest, his neck, a leg twining with his as Elijah’s hand picked up pace, so much sensation, so much touching and it was all Thomas could do not to cry out as he thrust helplessly into his friend’s hand— “Eli!”
Whiteness in his head, like a high note held too long. Thomas wondered if he was falling.
A slim hand took his, slick and wet. Thomas opened his eyes to find Elijah smiling at him. “That face you make,” he whispered, “do you have any idea how beautiful it is?”
Thomas swallowed, embarrassed by the looseness of his body. “No.”
“Well, now you can see it.” Slowly, inexorably, Elijah drew Thomas’s hand down and closed it around his own cock. Thomas’s eyes widened. “Touch me, Tom,” Elijah breathed.
It was warm, hard and thick in his hand. Face burning Thomas did as his friend ordered, a little clumsily and nowhere near as smoothly as what he had just received, but with a little imagination it was enough. Soon Elijah was moaning, his blue eyes rolled back into his head as writhed against Thomas’s hand, urging Thomas on – more like that, yes, please. Thomas felt delirious, he worked his friend’s cock as if to break it, watching watched Elijah’s face with something like awe – Tom, Tom – wondering why the hell they had never done this before now, why it was only when he was leaving that they found out about this side of each other, desperately squeezing until Elijah froze and climaxed wetly against his palm with a bone-deep shudder and Tom’s name on his lips. Thomas could have wept.
They talked afterwards, Elijah playing pillow and Thomas the blanket, remembering little things, mischief gotten up to, lessons they had had, music they had sung. It soothed Thomas, that and the feel of Elijah lying naked against his skin, and he never wanted it to end.
Of course, it did.
Carefully, oh so carefully, Elijah extracted himself from Thomas and climbed soundlessly over him onto the floor. Found his clothes and pulled them on, not caring about the stickiness of his skin as he dressed himself properly just as if he was going to class. He kept a close eye on the sleeping Thomas throughout this, watching the way his friend’s bare chest rose and fell with his slight snores – Thomas always was a sound sleeper – then gingerly reached under the bed to pull out a small bag, a pair of shoes and a hat. The bag was slung over his shoulder, the hat went on his head. The shoes could wait until he was further away.
The yellow form was on Thomas’s desk. Elijah folded it up and put it in his pocket. Still Thomas did not stir, and, very gently, Elijah bent down and placed a light kiss on his lip. “You’re going to be mad, but let me do this for you,” he murmured, eyes stinging. “I love you, Tom.”
His sleeping friend did not wake. Given how much brandy Elijah had encouraged him to drink hopefully that wasn’t going to change for a long while. Casting one more look over his shoulder, Elijah took a deep breath and began to walk.
The door opened, shut. Elijah didn’t look back.
Outside, the sky was dark, but the eastern end was starting to grey. Elijah let out a deep breath, straightened his shoulders, and began to walk towards the school gate. There was someone waiting for him there. “Is there anything I can do to stop you?” asked Mr. Darlington quietly as Elijah approached.
Elijah shook his head. “Forgive me, sir, but no. This is my choice.”
“You love him that much then.”
“Yes. Always have, actually.”
Darlington sighed, a soft, forlorn sound in the pre-dawn dark. “So that’s it, then. I meant nothing to you at all.”
“You did mean something,” said Elijah firmly. “You meant a lot. But not in the same way. Think, sir, do I mean the same to you as your Jonathan?”
“No.” The dark eyes shifted, met his accusingly. “But my Jonathan is dead.”
There was nothing Elijah could say to this, so he didn’t. Instead, he stepped forward, went up on his toes and kissed the choirmaster gently on the lips. Darlington did not respond, but that didn’t matter. Then Elijah stepped back, straightened his hat, and, without looking back at the choirmaster who stared reproachfully after him, walked through the gate down the road that would take him to the train station, to the recruitment office where he would introduce himself as Thomas Williams, and then to war.
He never returned.
Church bells ringing. Sebastian Darlington, teacher, convicted war objector and choirmaster, stood like a guard dog to the side of the cathedral’s south door and critically watched the choristers file through for matins. His hand rested on a cane, a souvenir of two years incarceration, but otherwise he gathered little attention, not even from the choristers who had long dismissed the strange, silent teacher as old and boring and were chattering as they passed him. The only time he was taken notice of was in rehearsals and lessons, and while it was respectful none invited further friendship, let alone intimacy. Certainly there was no Elijah in this choir.
Darlington was rather glad of that.
The last chorister passed, leaping through the door with a whoop as if over an invisible hurdle. Two years ago Darlington would have flogged the boy for such mischief, but he had little care or taste for such things now, and let it go. Whatever the characters, mischief, and differences these boys had, all that mattered now was that they lift their voices together as dictated by the score and his conducting and for a few minutes come together not as a collection of individuals, but a choir in the splendour of music. As long as they could do that, and well, it would be all Darlington would ask of them, and no more. No more furtive glances, no caresses or trysts in the deepest hours of the night, nothing but music from his singers, he had been hurt too much for that—
A shadow fell upon the south stairs. “Mr. Darlington?”
Darlington stopped. Turned carefully on the top step to face the speaker. The young man before him gazed back with haunted hazel eyes. “Mr. Darlington,” said Thomas Williams, voice rasping like autumn leaves. “So you came back here as well.”
“Eventually.” Thomas, Darlington noticed, was wearing a worn jacket and the hands that hung beneath the frayed sleeves were rough and scarred. Certainly they weren’t the hands that had railed and fought against him in horror after discovering what Elijah had done two years ago. “What happened to you?”
“Ended up quarrying granite in a work camp. You?”
“Conscription caught up with me not long after you ran off; when I objected the tribunal threw me in a cell. Came down with a bout of tuberculosis there, hence the walking assistant.”
“…I see.” Awkward silence. Thomas took a deep breath. “Sir, I’ve come here because I have something for you. A letter. I was asked to let you read it.”
Darlington stared at him for a moment, feeling as if the stone step had shifted beneath his feet. Thomas looked back at him, his hazel eyes filled with obvious pain. No need to ask, then, who this letter was from. Darlington found his voice again. “What does it say,” he asked mechanically.
In response, Thomas pulled a crumpled envelope out of his pocket. It was yellowed and stained, and looked as if it had been opened in haste. Silently Thomas handed it over.
Darlington took it. Wondered that it didn’t burn his hand. As Thomas watched he pulled out the letter – also yellowed, also stained, with spots that could be either dirt or blood – and, unfolding it, began to read.
Above them, the bells had fallen silent.
Darlington put the letter down. Gave it and its attendant envelope back to Thomas, who seemed to cradle it before placing it in his breast pocket. For a moment the two of them stood there, not speaking, each feeling in their own way the acute absence of the one who was gone, until at last Darlington was forced to speak. “The service will be starting soon,” he said quietly. “We’re singing Bach today, the Jesu bleibet meine Freude. Elijah said it was one of your favourites, will you stay?”
It seemed for a moment that he’d be turned down. Then, unexpectedly, Thomas smiled, small and sorrowful but a smile all the same. “Yes,” he replied softly, and in that word Darlington knew then that somehow, everything would be all right. “Yes, I think I will.”
16 October 1917, Mahiwa, East Africa
My dearest Tom,
If you’re reading this, then it seems the worst has happened. Don’t be afraid for me, even if you are still mad about what I did, this was my choice and mine alone. You deserve so much better in life than what fate would have had you do.
That one night, our last night, it sustains me here in the sand and smoke. Even the shells that pass over my head sometimes, those can be endured because I have that memory of you. My only regret is that we found out about each other too late, otherwise the things I would have done to you and made you do to me … well, I’ll let you imagine. As things are, know that if I go, my last thoughts will be of you.
Give this letter to Mr. Darlington, if you can. I treated him horrendously, and while I would never have taken back a single moment I do regret. Let him know that I did love him, loved what he did to me and in a way he’s the reason why I had the courage to do what I did despite knowing the pain that would await. If he can find it in his heart to forgive me I’m sure I’ll rest all the easier.
I wish the both of you well. Just don’t weep for me.
P.S. Almost forgot – my voice broke last month. Am now forever out of the choir.