Serenade for a Soldier

by Yūdoku Fukuronezumi (有毒 袋鼠)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/260549.html)

I was waiting under a street lamp on the corner outside the Grand Theatre, where I had said I would be waiting. Above people’s heads, I could see most of the poster advertising tonight’s concert hanging in a frame by the doors. Big, elegant letters spelled the name of the choir and a list of compositions the choir was going to sing. The concert itself made me excited, but I was rather conflicted about everything that was supposed to happen next.

I took out a packet of cigarettes and lit one. A faint cloud of smoke coiled lazily in the air.

I was waiting for my companion. Or, to put it more bluntly, a whore. A male whore.

As the cigarette smoke filled my lungs, I felt a little calmer. I wondered how I was going to recognise him. The agency had been discreet to the point of secretiveness. They had asked me a few questions but in the end wouldn’t even tell me whom to expect. I didn’t know where they were situated either; I had found their telephone number in a newspaper advertisement. It guaranteed excellent service for people of all preferences and complete confidentiality. In this town of incorrigible gossips that was promising much.

I was surprised by how few people had come to the theatre tonight. A few couples and small groups were still standing on the pavement, chatting happily. Through the wide glass doors, some could be seen in the theatre hall, programmes in hands, leaving thin spring coats in the cloakroom or already heading to find their seats. Stately middle-aged men and their wives. Smiling girls in funny little hats, clinging to the arms of their male companions – some of them in army uniforms, I was a little upset to notice. Here and there the odd solitary person, like myself or the impatient-looking black-haired youth in oxford bags, or the tall lady smoking a cigarette by the main entrance. Perhaps they were also waiting for someone.

But all those people could barely fill half of the theatre. Unless a big group arrived at the last minute, I thought, good luck to whomever the agency had sent with keeping ‘complete confidentiality’. I just hoped I didn’t meet any friends now.

‘Dafydd ap Neirin!’ I heard suddenly, and my hopes shattered. I turned around.

A group of three people approached me: a young woman in a blue flowery dress with two men at her sides. One of them wore a grey suit, the other, the navy uniform.

‘Angharad ap Rhys.’ I tipped my hat and bowed slightly, a little surprised at the sight of an old acquaintance. ‘I thought you were up in Alba.’

She beamed at me. ‘I was, but I came to visit my little brother. You remember Owain?’ She took the younger man by the elbow. He extended his hand to me and I shook it. ‘He just graduated from the army school last summer,’ she added, probably to justify his wearing a uniform. ‘And at a right time he did, I say. He’s going to make us all proud, defending his country.’

Owain straightened himself up, as if to assure that yes, he will make everybody proud, in fact he intended to win the whole war single-handedly. Then he smiled to me and winked. Of course I remembered Owain. I had been in love with Owain, for goodness’ sake, while we were still in school. But Owain quite obviously preferred girls, and girls quite obviously preferred Owain to pretty much any other boy, and so Owain was always busy attending dance parties and funfairs and cinemas, and my affection remained unrequited and distant. I was over it now, but like with all my old loves, the memory of him had remained a warm sparkle tucked safely away somewhere deep inside me, and I couldn’t help smiling back at him, despite his uniform and his cocky attitude, with all the warmth that memory lent me.

‘And this is Cai ap Peredur, a friend from Alba,’ Angharad introduced her other companion, and we shook hands, too. He murmured, ‘Nice meeting you,’ with a soft, singsong accent typical for people from the north. ‘Well, not exactly from Alba,’ Angharad continued happily, ‘his parents are from Dyfed originally, but we met when I was at the university in Dun Eidin, where he’s been living practically all his life, and we– ah, but what am I doing, babbling the story of my life to you in the street!’ She laughed. ‘Are you going to the theatre?’ she asked and looked around, searching for the information on what was being played. I nodded towards the poster by the entrance.

‘To the concert, yes. I’m waiting for a– friend,’ I said, trying to sound casual.

‘Oh! That’s so nice to hear!’ She looked actually pleased. ‘You’ve always seemed such a recluse, Dafydd, I’ve been wondering if you had someone to–‘

‘Come on, sister, you’re being rude,’ Owain grabbed her arm and pulled gently. ‘And we’re almost late to the pictures, too. It’s been good seeing you, man. We need to meet again sometime soon,’ he grinned and saluted playfully and the three of them moved along the pavement, turning their heads as they said their goodbyes to me, and then they had to pay attention not to bump into other people in the street, and they were gone.

‘Have a nice evening,’ I called after them, but I doubted if they could hear me. I thought how unlikely it was going to be, meeting them again anytime soon – or possibly ever again.

I exhaled slowly and stubbed out the remains of my cigarette. I glanced at my watch. It was ten to; still a little time left. I stuck my hands in my pockets and looked at the dark sky.

‘Excuse me.’ A low, sensuous male voice came from behind my back. I turned around. In front of me I saw the tall woman that I had noticed leaning against the wall by the main entrance before, and I took my hat off automatically. She was almost as tall as I. She wore a sleek dress of a rich, deep green colour, with a matching capelet rimmed with white fur, and white elbow-high gloves. Her hat, a little old-fashioned, was shaped like a bell and successfully covered both her hair and the upper part of her face, so that all I could see of it were her intensely red lips, a thin nose and a pair of glistening eyes with which she looked at me with polite interest from under the rim.

Except apparently she was not a she.

‘Dafydd ap Neirin, am I correct?’

It was odd to hear an obviously male voice coming out of the lips of a person who by all standards looked perfectly like a woman. I nodded.

‘I believe I am your companion for tonight. I’m from the agency,’ the person explained. ‘My name is Alexandre.’

I stared.

‘…That’s not a British name,’ I said after a moment, unable to think of any appropriate response.

‘No, it is not,’ the whore admitted. ‘The agency is concerned with maintaining the high standard of our services – providing our clients with a touch of luxury, of exoticism if you like – which, I am sure you will agree, is no job for an ordinary Mair or Gwen–‘ The blood-red lips curved in a catty little smile. ‘–while also keeping the private identities of its employees private. Now will you please kiss my hand or at least bow? I believe that is the socially accepted procedure upon meeting a lady on an evening out.’

I blinked. I took the proffered hand and touched it with my lips.

‘Now,’ the whore continued, ‘before we can proceed to the more pleasant part of the evening, may I collect my payment?’

‘Oh. Um. Certainly.’ Still rather overwhelmed, I fumbled in the pocket of my trousers and produced a roll of banknotes (‘A wallet would be too obvious,’ the agency lady had instructed me on the telephone), trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. Alexandre took it with a certain nonchalant grace – he must have been very much used to doing it – and put it in a little purse he carried in his hand.

I realised I was acting exceptionally awkward.

‘I do apologise,’ I said when I had collected myself. ‘I didn’t mean to be rude. I just– I thought– I–‘

‘Expected a man?’

‘…Yes. Yes, I did.’

‘Oh, I am a man, as you are presently going to find out,’ Alexandre smiled in a more friendly way. ‘Still, the society is what it is and the agency does not want to cause its clients any trouble. Shall we come in?’

‘Yes. Yes, we shall. Certainly.’ I felt rather dumb, being ordered about by a whore, but he was right. I was forgetting my manners, and now I had almost forgotten what I had come here for. I offered Alexandre my arm and we walked in.

Once in our seats, I took a glance around the theatre. Just as I had thought before, only about half of the audience was full, perhaps not even that, and most people were sitting at the bottom level. In the first balcony, where we sat, most of the seats were free. I spotted the impatient black-haired student I had seen in the street before, sitting across from us with two girl friends. (One of the girls couldn’t stop giggling.) The gods seemed completely deserted.

‘May I ask you a question?’ Alexandre said quietly.

‘Yes, please.’

‘Why a concert? People your age tend to be more keen on cinemas and dance parties. And it is easier to sneak out in the middle of the night or to find a cozy spot for two at a party than in a theatre…’ His eyes gleamed suggestively in the dim light; he hadn’t taken off his hat.

I looked at him for a bit, thinking how to answer.

‘It’s calmer here,’ I said slowly. ‘I’m not very fond of parties. Or pictures. Never have been. They’re too hectic. Besides, I really love this choir; they are terrific. Absolutely terrific.’ I paused. ‘And… I didn’t really expect to be sneaking out anywhere. I just wanted to spend my last night somewhere I liked, and not alone.’

‘Last night before what?’

‘The war.’

‘The war?‘ He let out a short, quiet, incredulous laugh. ‘There’s no war coming up yet. Not tomorrow, anyway.’

I leaned forward, resting my elbows on my knees, and looked at the stage over the edge of the balustrade. The lights had dimmed further until only the crimson folds of the curtain could be made out in the faint gleam of the footlights.

‘It’ll have begun by the time the Training ends,’ I said flatly.

‘Oh, you’re joining the Military Training programme?’

‘Tomorrow morning. Every man under thirty is; it’s obligatory.’

Alexandre seemed to consider it for a moment. I felt he observed me carefully in the dark.

‘You don’t seem very eager about it.’

‘I have nothing to say. It’s the law.’

‘Laws have loopholes,’ he said. ‘You could say you’re a conscientious objector.’

I shook my head.

‘But I’m not. If the– When the war breaks, I want to be able to protect my home; to help my people. I want to be useful, even if it means that I’ll have to fight or kill… Or be killed,’ I added quietly.

Alexandre was silent for a moment. Then he said, ‘I think you’re very brav–‘

‘I’m scared,’ I blurted out, turning back to him.

But my words drowned in a boom of sound, because at that very moment the curtain was raised and the first powerful note rising from five dozen throats of the five dozen men on stage filled the air. I jumped a little, eyes wide. Alexandre reached for my hand and held it – a firm, reassuring grip. Then he pulled it towards his lips and gently kissed my fingers.

A wave of heat swept over me; my lungs seemed to have collapsed. I was so painfully inexperienced. I sat back in my chair. I closed my eyes. I felt Alexandre’s gloved fingers brushing mine and the sweet, lyrical harmonies of the serenade gliding towards me from the stage and reverberating through my entire body. I heard myself speak.

‘My father,’ I said in a voice that was hardly audible even to myself, ‘was a poet. But when the Great War came, he, too, was made to join the army. He survived, but he came home a broken man, blinded by gas, with his head full of the horrors he’d seen. I was barely four then. I remember him lying in his bed, with the curtains drawn, and my mother writing down the poems that he dictated to her. Every day. The door of his room would be slightly ajar and I would watch them from the hallway… That’s the only memory of my father that’s actually mine. Everything else is my mother’s stories.’

I lifted my eyelids a little. Alexandre had shifted, probably the better to hear what I was saying: he was leaning towards me, his head low; I couldn’t see his eyes.

Why was I saying all this to a stranger, and a whore at that? I didn’t know. Perhaps because he was a stranger, and a whore. Because I didn’t need to see him ever again. Because I paid for his time and his affection. I could pour my heart out and pretend I have a lover who cares; he could pretend to listen and then go home with my money and forget about me. It suited me.

I took a deep breath.

‘He died soon afterwards,’ I continued. ‘I had no idea what it was that he had been dictating until much later. When my mother fell ill, she asked me to publish the poems, and before I did, I’d read them. They were elegies. Tens of elegies, each dedicated to a different man my father had known and seen die on the battlefield, or in the trenches, or in a hospital bed. They were not pretty poems. They reeked of blood and fear, of shattered skulls and rotting flesh. They told of men being shot, crushed and suffocated. I wasn’t quite ready for that.’ I swallowed with some difficulty. ‘Then again, neither were those men.’

Alexandre’s grip had tightened around my clenching hand. He looked up at me.

‘Wait,’ he said. ‘You’re Dafydd ap Neirin. The son of that Neirin?’

‘Neirin the poet, yes.’

‘I know those poems,’ he said slowly, carefully, and examined my face for a while. ‘I’m… astonished that you still want to go to war.’

I shook my head.

‘I don’t want to. I’m terrified. But it’s the right thing to do.’

He reached out his hand and stroked my cheek. Then he rose quickly and leaned out against the balustrade, looking intently up.

‘Do you think there’s anybody up there?’ he said.

I shook my head. When there was such small turnout as tonight, the theatre would allow people who had bought seats in the second balcony to come sit in the first one. But even here there were only the two of us, the black-haired youth with his two girl friends, and an elderly couple. I was quite positive the gods were empty.

Alexandre turned back to me and grabbed my hand, pulling me up.

‘What are you doing?’ I asked, confused.

‘Come with me.’

‘What– Where? Now?

‘Just come!’

I snatched my hat and followed him out of the door. We skipped up the stairs and ended up facing the second balcony door. Alexandre grabbed the knob and pulled.

‘Excuse me!’ a voice boomed at us and we saw a theatre clerk at the other end of the corridor. ‘The second balcony is closed.’

‘No, it’s not,’ said Alexandre, immediately assuming a very convincing falsetto, and pointed at the now open door.

‘It is closed for the audience,’ the clerk insisted, coming in our direction. ‘Please, I must ask you to return to your seats.’

Alexandre pouted.

‘But I wanted to see the theatre from above,’ he complained disappointedly; the tone of his voice made him sound like a spoilt little girl. ‘I was just saying to Ianto,’ he added, grabbing my elbow and I understood that that was my name now, and that I might have to testify to any story he might be coming up with, ‘I was saying, I have never been in this theatre before, I wonder what it looks like from the gods, and he said, it is very beautiful up there, and I said, well I want to see it myself, and he said alright, if we were very very quiet he can take me and I can have a little peek, and–‘

‘Alexandre.’ The clerk, who had just caught up to us, folded his arms and frowned. ‘You little fibber.’

Alexandre froze, his mouth open. He tilted his head. The clerk snorted and grinned.

‘Ifan ap Gruffudd!’ Alexandre finally exclaimed, this time in his own voice. He pushed the rim of his hat up a bit and shifted his stance, so that, with his legs wide apart and his hands on his hips, for the first time he didn’t look like a woman, but like a man in drag. ‘I haven’t recognised you without the beard– And you’ve never told me you worked in the theatre!’

‘I’ve just begun. It’s only my second day here, actually.’

‘Well, am I not a lucky devil, then, to meet you here tonight…’ He moved sensuously towards the clerk. ‘So… I do not suppose you could perhaps let us in the balcony after all, could you? I promise we will not disturb the concert.’

‘Perhaps I could,’ the clerk murmured, lifting Alexandre’s head by the chin. Alexandre smiled.

‘And I do not suppose you could perhaps keep an eye on the door in case some unfortunate creatures lose their way up here and need to be directed back, could you?’ he continued, touching the clerk on the chest with his purse.

I was watching them as if from afar, not sure what to make of it, my mind strangely numb.

‘Perhaps I could…’ said the clerk with a sigh.

‘Excellent!’ Alexandre turned on his heel and walked back to me. He opened the balcony door again and ushered me in, pushing me delicately on the back. ‘I’m seeing you next Thursday, aren’t I?’ he called quietly to the clerk before coming in himself, and then, in response to something I hadn’t heard, ‘Excellent.’ He blew the man a kiss and closed the door.

It was even darker here than in the first balcony, but the music could be heard just as loud and clear as down there. The theatre had fantastic acoustics. I walked towards the balustrade and looked down.

‘So that’s why they call it “the gods”,’ I heard behind me.

Alexandre had removed his hat and was ruffling his hair absent-mindedly as he peered up at the ceiling, where some mythological scene – indeed involving the ancient gods – was painted. I stepped back a little. He placed his purse on a seat and produced a pocket mirror and a handkerchief, which he used to wipe off his lipstick. Next, he kicked off his shoes, pulled off his capelet through his head with a little groan, and removed his gloves.

He extended his hand and I took it, and he pulled me towards himself.

‘So, Dafydd,’ he said softly, smiling at me. He stood on one of the little steps which ran down along the seats, so his head was level with mine. His hair was wavy and dark, possibly the colour of chestnut; I could just distinguish its muffled reddish tones in the weak reflected gleam of the stage light. His face was rather androgynous, diamond-shaped, with a small chin and high cheekbones; the outer corners of his eyes drooped a little, giving him a soft, understanding air. My head felt very light.

‘That man…?’ I mumbled, but he put his finger on my mouth.

‘Just a customer, no-one important,’ he said quickly and neglectfully and suddenly was serious. ‘You are important, Dafydd.’ He paused, looking me in the eyes. Then he looked at his fingers on my mouth and smiled, and leaned closer. His thumb brushed my lips. I was a bit dazed by the closeness of his body, the warmth of his skin against mine. I felt the stir of a budding erection in my trousers. I had no idea what to do.

He must have noticed that. His hands ran down my arms, clasping my hands; he kissed my cheek, the corner of my mouth, my lower lip; he put my hands on his waist and pushed his hips forward, against mine. He let out a happy, lascivious murmur when I pulled him closer and returned the kiss.

Never stopping to kiss me, now on the jawbone, now on the neck, he began to loosen my tie, then slid off my jacket, unbuttoned my shirt and pulled my vest off; I helped him shrug off the upper part of his dress and we stood half naked in the dark, hot and breathing heavily. Alexandre pushed me towards one of the chairs. His fingers ran down my torso until they stopped at my erection, brushing it softly through the fabric of my trousers. I gasped. He smiled. He slid his hand inside my underwear and I gasped again as he began to stroke my penis.

‘Do you give or take?’ Alexandre murmured into the hollow of my neck after a while. There was a silence before the choir began their next song.

‘How do you mean?’ I asked, distracted by the caress.

‘I mean,’ his other hand was suddenly on my butt, a finger sliding down between the cheeks, ‘do you give or take?’

‘Oh.’ I looked down, embarrassed. ‘I– I don’t know. I’ve, um. Never been with– I mean.’ I sighed. ‘But I’ve tried some, uh… So I think— I think I’d like to take.’

‘Good. Just let me take care of this, then,’ he said, helping me out of my trousers and underwear. ‘Sit down. It should be easier on you this way, if you’ve um never been with I mean. Besides, you’re already dripping.’ He was openly mocking me now, but at the same time he was so reassuring and gentle and helpful and patient with my obvious lack of experience that I didn’t mind at all. I laughed apologetically and sat on the chair.

Alexandre crouched on the floor in front of me, squeezing himself between two rows of chairs. A new song began with a gentle hum that quickly grew louder and separated into a rich, intricate harmony and I felt Alexandre’s breath on my cock, and then the soft warmth of his mouth. I closed my eyes and drifted.

I came quite fast. Embarrassingly fast, in fact. Alexandre caught my come into a handkerchief which he produced just in time from his purse.

‘We wouldn’t want to make a mess in a theatre, would we,’ he whispered as he put the bundled handkerchief away.

Through the slowly subsiding haze of pleasure I felt him kiss my stomach and chest and neck, his lithe frame bending over my body. He looked at me from under the hair that fell on his forehead, his pupils wide, his lips ever so slightly apart, curved into an alluring half-smile. I felt a new rush of blood. I sat up and pulled him closer, cupping his buttocks with my hands. I kissed his neck. He kissed my mouth.

He extracted himself from between the chairs and walked up a couple of steps towards the back of the balcony, where it was darker, beckoning me to follow. He had grabbed his purse and produced a little bottle of oil, which he then put away on an arm of a chair as he began to take off his dress. I was rather surprised to see that he also wore female underwear.

‘Sit down,’ he suggested as he slid out of it. I crouched one step up from where he stood and found myself nearly face to face with his loins. His now half-erect penis wasn’t particularly large (to my relief), but it was very pretty. Or at least it seemed really pretty to me, pink and smooth, almost like a sweet. I wanted to touch it. I moved closer.

‘May I…?’ I ventured, gesturing vaguely. Alexandre stopped looking around to see where he had left the little bottle and glanced down to see what I meant.

‘Sure,’ he smiled.

I shifted to my knees and slowly took his pretty cock in my hand and into my mouth.

‘Careful with the teeth,’ he said quietly.

‘Oh,’ I said, quickly moving away. ‘I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have…’

‘No, no, it was fine.’ He laid his hand on my head and gently stroked my hair. ‘It was fine. I’ll tell you what to do.’

‘Dafydd?’ I heard Alexandre’s breathy voice above me. ‘This is enough. Don’t take me too far just yet.’

I looked up. He was leaning heavily on a chair arm, mouth open, one hand still on my head. When I let go of his cock, he slumped to his knees with a little moan. He kissed me hotly, then reached out with his long, slender arm and grabbed the little bottle that sat on the arm of the next chair. He poured some oil onto his hand and pulled me close; once again his fingers slid down between my butt cheeks.

‘I have prepared,’ I suddenly felt compelled to assure him. ‘I mean, the way the agency lady told me…’

‘I’ve never doubted that,’ he whispered softly and kissed my collarbone. ‘Please, try to relax.’

A warm slippery finger touched my butthole and began to lightly trace little circles around it and I felt my muscles there gradually growing less tight. The finger rubbed around and around and across until I felt it slip ever so slightly in. I exhaled loudly; I liked that feeling. After a moment I realised I was pushing down against the finger. Alexandre kissed my collarbone again and slid the finger out. He shifted position until he was behind me, then resumed the caress, but now he went deeper and deeper with every slide, first with one finger, then two. Then he hit the spot that made me grab onto the nearest chair and moan. He moved closer.

‘Tell me when you’re ready for me,’ he whispered and kissed my shoulder, stroking my chest with his other hand, brushing against my nipples and down my stomach, tantalisingly close to where I was just getting another erection.

A song has ended. There was a brief silence during which I had to bite myself in order not to moan out loud, because Alexandre didn’t for a moment stop teasing me with his fingers. Then another song began, an old folk love song with simple, honest words and one of the most beautiful melodies I knew.

‘I am ready,’ I gasped as soon as the first notes soared towards the ceiling.

The teasing fingers disappeared and I felt more oil being poured on my butt, then there was a pause and then something rather larger than a finger rested its tip against my butthole. It shifted a bit, as if testing ground, then very, very slowly pushed into me.

‘Is this fine?’ I heard Alexandre’s voice over my shoulder. I nodded. Carefully, he pushed further in, then pulled back, applied more oil and pushed in again, always asking if it was all right, if I was fine with it.

I was more than fine with it. I was delighted. I was also increasingly impatient and I began to move with him, to thrust into his thrusts. Initially I put my hand on his hip, the better to feel his movements, my other hand still clenched on the arm of the chair in front of me, but as we gained pace and I grew hotter, I couldn’t ignore my own cock any longer and began frantically stroking myself. Alexandre grabbed my hips; his movements got more intense. I felt a climax coming, the strongest I’d ever had, as if I was going to fall apart from sheer pleasure, and in some remainder of a conscious mind I was grateful that the song hasn’t ended yet.

I tried stuffing my hand into my mouth, but it was no good. I moaned loudly.

‘Oh my g… Damn, Aluh… Alexan–ahh… Alec–‘

‘Gwyn,’ he said so quietly that I barely heard him between my own heavy breathing and the surging melody of the song coming from the scene below us.

‘Pah-aaardon?’ I managed between gasps.

‘Gwyn,’ he repeated. ‘My name’s actually Gwyn. You can use it. It’s shorter.’

‘Gwyn,’ I panted. ‘Gwyn. Good.’

Then a powerful explosion of immense, mind-shattering, wildfire-like pleasure shook my entire body and I blacked out.

When I came to, I realised that I was lying on the stairs and that they were dirty.

‘I did make a mess in the theatre after all,’ I muttered in no particular direction.

‘Nothing that can’t be remedied,’ I heard a voice above me and a slender hand appeared within my view, handing me a handkerchief. I heaved myself up. The whore was sitting next to me and smiling. I took the handkerchief and began to wipe my mess from the steps in front of me and when I was finished he took the handkerchief back and put it away. Then he moved closer and wrapped his arm around me. I realised it was very quiet.

‘Is the concert over?’

‘No. They’re just having a short break before the last song. You’re cold, do you want to get dressed?’

I didn’t know what I wanted.

‘You told me your name.’

‘I did.’

‘I thought you said names were confidential.’

‘They are. But they are not unspeakable. We are allowed to tell people our names if we want to.’

‘Clients, too?’

‘Well– Most clients don’t really care one way or another.’

‘Then why…?’

‘You were honest with me. That’s rare. I thought you may appreciate honesty in return.’

I sat for a while in silence, trying to organise my thoughts. I barely registered the melody that had just began to seep from the stage below. Gwyn looked at me with a warm, open smile. He reached up and touched my cheek.

‘I like you, Dai,’ he murmured, his breath warm against my shoulder, the diminutive nobody had ever used with me surprisingly soft and affectionate. ‘Does anybody call you Dai?’ he whispered even more quietly. ‘I’m going to call you Dai.’

‘You’re never even going to see me again,’ I blurted out bitterly before I could stop myself.

‘Oh, I am going to see you again.’ Gwyn’s surprisingly strong fingers were holding my jaw, my face in front of his, making it impossible to turn away.

‘But… I’m joining the army tomorrow and I’m going to be–‘

‘Brave,’ he interrupted, his eyes fixed earnestly on mine. ‘And dashing in your uniform, too.’

‘No, I meant I’m going to become a soldier and go to war and… people die in wars.’

‘You’re not going to die, Dafydd.’

‘Even so! You are… You’re a–‘

‘Whore?’

‘–and I don’t normally do this. I don’t visit–‘ I stammered. I hated the word “brothels”. ‘–agencies.’

‘I understand it, Dai. I do,’ he said softly and loosened his grip on my chin. ‘But if you didn’t want to, you wouldn’t have to go to an agency and you wouldn’t have to pay for a whore.’

I frowned, failing to understand what he meant.

‘You wouldn’t have to be my client,’ he continued, his touch featherlike on my cheek, his drooping eyes warm and patient and all but tender. ‘I do have a private life.’

He smiled and rested his head on my shoulder as his hand searched for mine in the dark. We sat on the little stairs in silence, while the last notes of the last song rolled above our heads.

My mind was confused. My heart was a gory shred.

On the one hand, I reasoned, Alexandre was a whore, ordered and paid for his service, and after all, a one-night-only pretend-lover with no strings attached was precisely what I had wanted. Or I had thought it was. I wasn’t quite so sure now.

Because, on the other hand, this wasn’t Alexandre, this wasn’t the exquisite, haughty, luxurious prostitute who had been bossing me around not two hours ago. This was Gwyn, a private person, who at this very moment was sitting by my side with his head on my shoulder and absent-mindedly caressing my fingers, as if we were a pair of teenagers in love. It was something new to me, and I had to admit I liked it.

On the third hand, though, I argued desperately, self-tormentingly, how could I know that “Gwyn” wasn’t just another alias of his, just like “Alexandre” had been? I couldn’t. He had told me that this was his name and I could naïvely hope that he was being honest, but perhaps he was just a really excellent actor. I could find no hint or proof, and above all I could find nothing about myself that might have persuaded him to suddenly drop all pretence.

I was torn and bewildered and it didn’t help at all that I was having this argument with myself against the nagging background of the horrible, persistent misgivings I had about my part in the imminent war. Because on the fourth hand, I was about to leave and in all probability never again see either this city which I had never liked, or this person whom I had only met, which meant I really shouldn’t have been so painfully confused and shaken. But I was. I realised I was crying.

Gwyn looked up at me, but he didn’t say anything. He got up and went down the stairs and collected my clothes. Down in the audience people were clapping their hands furiously. The concert had ended. So did my last night out. I wiped my eyes.

Gwyn put my clothes down beside me, then crouched and hugged my shoulders.

‘Come, Dai,’ he said softly. ‘We need to get out of here before people start leaving the theatre if we don’t want to attract attention.’

So we dressed ourselves quickly and ran down the theatre stairs just as the doors of the bottom level opened and the audience began to pour out into the hall.

I noticed Ifan ap Gruffudd, the clerk who had let us onto the second balcony, standing by the exit doors when we were going out of the theatre among the rather modest crowd. I must have been looking miserable, because I heard him remark something about ‘Alexandre losing his skill’, at which Gwyn snapped brusquely at him something I didn’t catch. He squeezed my arm tighter with his gloved, feminine hand and we walked out into the night street.

‘Where to now?’ he asked. ‘Do you want me to see you home?’

‘I don’t. I mean, not yet.’

‘Shall we have a walk then?’

We went to the park and along the river. We didn’t talk much. I asked if it shouldn’t be me seeing him off rather than the other way round, considering that the hour was late and he was wearing woman’s clothes, but he said he knew his ways around town and I needn’t have worried. He said it was a pity that he wouldn’t see me in a uniform – ‘Little Dai the soldier,’ he said, ‘like in that childhood song’ – and I tried to smile.

He stopped and took me by the hands, his eyes glistening from under the rim of his bell-shaped hat in the unreal electric light that flooded the boulevard. He looked like a woman again and again I was feeling uneasy, as if I didn’t know what he really was. He hadn’t reapplied his lipstick, however, so at least his lips looked somewhat familiar, their taste and touch still fresh in my memory.

As if on cue, he lifted one of my hands and kissed my fingers.

‘You said, if the war breaks, you want to defend your home and your people,’ he began carefully, ‘but I understand you haven’t really got anyone in this town, or you wouldn’t be spending your last night with a whore.’

I was silent, waiting for him to go on.

‘So I was thinking,’ he continued, ‘perhaps it would be easier for you to leave if you knew you had a place to come back to. Or a person. Perhaps it would no longer feel like you’re leaving forever.’

‘But…’ I looked down. ‘What if I am?’

‘But what if you aren’t?’

‘Gwyn–‘

Dai.’

He leaned closer and peered into my face.

‘Here’s my proposition,’ he said slowly but firmly, ‘you will write letters to me and I will write you back. You can write to Alexandre, care of the agency – we get all our letters at poste restante, so you won’t have to remember my address. I’ll reach you via military mail. This way there will be a connection between you and this place even if you end up in a faraway land. Perhaps it will help you remember what that home is which you want to protect so much.’

I considered.

‘I’m aware that I’m not exactly the type of person you’d imagine a young soldier writing Christmas cards to, but I thought… Maybe it’ll keep up your spirit. Maybe you won’t feel alone.’

‘Maybe… Maybe you’re right?’ I looked up. ‘I could try.’

He smiled and pulled me by my neck and kissed me. I hugged his slender waist and buried my face in his shoulder and we stood for a long time in a deep, comfortable silence, embracing like a pair of people who don’t only share a memory of one evening.

‘I should be going home,’ I said at length.

‘Do you want me to walk with you?’

‘No, if you don’t mind, I don’t. I need to calm down a bit and think.’

‘I understand. Goodnight then, Dafydd.’

‘Goodnight, Gwyn.’

He stood on his toes and kissed my cheek. Then he turned on his heel and walked away, never once looking over his shoulder, until he disappeared into a backstreet.

I tucked my cold hands into the pockets of my jacket and slowly headed towards home.

***

In a light, early-autumn drizzle, a young man in a flat cap and a grey suit was rushing down a half-demolished street. He took a quick glance around and slipped inside a smallish, inconspicuous house, so inconspicuous that even the enemy pilots had forgotten to bomb it. He took off his now damp cap and ruffled his short chestnut hair.

‘Alexandre!’ an irate, high-pitched female voice came from the front room. ‘You’re almost late!’

‘No, I’m not. I walk fast. Where am I supposed to meet with the client?’

The woman reached over the desk behind which she was sitting and handed him a slip of paper.

‘Here’s the address. You’d better hurry or you’ll make her wait.’

‘I walk fast,’ he repeated. ‘Is there anything else?’

‘You’ve got a letter.’ She held it up with two fingers. ‘Again. Are you aware that you’re our only employee who insists on having their post delivered to the agency?’

‘Well,’ he said, picking the letter up and turning to walk away, ‘what with the recent air-raids I haven’t exactly got an address…’

‘But this has been going on since before the war began! Honestly, can’t you keep your private–‘

‘It’s from a client.’

The woman blinked.

‘A client? Alexandre, aren’t you familiarising with your clients too much?’

He shrugged. ‘I like to keep them happy.’

‘Well, are they paying you for it? Because if they aren’t–‘

‘For goodness’ sake, Sioned! There’s a war out there, the whole country is mobilised, food is being rationed, it’s a miracle the agency’s even running anymore, and you mind that I familiarise with my clients? I’m one of your best paying employees, if not the best one, why do you think that is? We are supposed to be a luxury, a breath of exoticism, but we also need to keep our clients and both of those things can be pretty challenging at a time like this. So could you please let me treat my clients whatever way I see fit. Your business won’t suffer from it, I promise.’

He glanced at a clock mounted on the wall behind the woman’s desk.

‘… And now I almost certainly will be late,’ he sighed, putting his cap back on. ‘Good day to you, Sioned.’

He stormed out of the house, but slowed down as soon as he passed the nearest corner. He looked at the letter he was holding in his hand. He tore the edge impatiently and unfolded the sheet of paper. The letter was short as always, but there was some infirmity in the handwriting, as if the author’s hands had been shaking.

He stopped and began to read.

Dear Gwyn,

Thank you for your last letter. Thank you for all your letters. You were right – they did help. It’s the middle of the night now and tomorrow morning we’re making a move. I have a bad feeling. I’m giving this letter to my friend the army cook to send to you in case I don’t make it back to send it myself. I hope it won’t ever reach you, but if it does, it means my bad feeling came true. I’m sorry to burden you with this news, but perhaps this is better than if you waited for my reply in vain and never knew what had happened. I also want to thank you for that evening at the theatre. I’ve realised I never have.

D.

He stood for a long while and looked at the paper in silence.

Then he crumpled it into a ball, threw it among the rubble piling up in the street, and walked on.

***

illustrated by n_th_green

Author’s Notes

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