by Shikkoku no Suzu (漆黒のスズ)
illustrated by pixiepunch
And have we done with War at last?
Well, we’ve been lucky devils both,
And there’s no need of pledge or oath
To bind our lovely friendship fast,
By firmer stuff
Close bound enough.
Robert Graves, 1917
The heat was stifling. Captain Harry Bridgeman… no, he wasn’t a captain anymore. He was a civilian, enrolled in teacher’s college. He had been demobilised for almost a year. Mr Harry Bridgeman of Milton tried not to get mud on his shiny new Oxfords as he walked up Queen Street towards the river. The sun found him, even under the shop eaves; he had forgotten how the humidity did that. It felt as if he were immersed in hot, dirty washing water, circling the plug hole in the big old shed next to the privy in his parents’ back yard.
He would go to the bank and deposit this cheque, and then he would go home and hide in the house until nighttime, studying his course materials. His father would want help with the lawn, and his mother would be looking for his laundry. They would have dinner, then sit down in the living room for a few hours, and he would go to bed without thinking once of the war.
He was immersed in these thoughts when his distracted gaze settled upon a face he recognised. A cluster of young men leaned up against a bench, heads close together. They were all in their shirtsleeves, collars undone, cigarettes clasped loosely between index and middle fingers. Harry froze, leg outstretched in the act of walking, A moment later, his foot landed and he hurried on. Heart pounding, he thought, Merciful God, let him not have seen me.
“Captain Bridgeman,” called one of the men.
Damn and blast him. Harry turned, face politely blank. “Yes?”
The man who detached himself from his friends was tall and broad shouldered, with long limbs and a long face with high cheekbones. Harry had a flash of him in a khaki tunic, a corporal’s chevron on his shoulder and his tin hat askew. The man’s generous lips were curled into a mocking grin as he transferred his cigarette into his mouth and held out his hand. Reluctantly, Harry took it. “I gather we were in the war together,” he said.
“Mm.” The man looked amused at this opening sally, but there was a hard undertone to his voice as he said, “Sam Jackson. You had me discharged from the AIF for buggery. Sir.”
“Ah yes,” said Harry, attempting to simulate an expression of revulsion and contempt. He cleared his throat and tried to push aside the sharp, clear memory of moonlight sliding over Sam’s hipbone. “I recall. Well, I see the devil hasn’t caught up with you yet, Jackson. Good day.”
Jackson wouldn’t take the hint. He fell in beside Harry, easily matching their strides. “I guess I should thank you, sir,” he said.
“Don’t call me sir,” said Harry. “The war is over. It’s forgotten. We’re the same now.”
“Well, I appreciate that, Harry,” said Jackson. “As I was saying, I guess I should thank you that you just dealt me a bit of field punishment and a discharge instead of a court-martial.”
“Don’t mention it.” Harry felt his face heating up with mortification. “I couldn’t spare time for the hassle, not to mention bringing the company into disrepute. Now I really must say good day to you, Jackson.”
“All right,” said Jackson, stopping where he stood. As Harry hurried away, he called out, “You should call me Sam then.”
Harry brushed his hand across his mouth and didn’t look back.
* * *
When Harry looked back on the war, he didn’t think he had played a particularly big or impressive part. An injury at Gallipoli had taken him out of the fight early, and he had been in Malta when the battalion was withdrawn and sent to France. He caught up with them in early 1916 and been commissioned as a second lieutenant after a spot of heavy fighting on the Somme, then a couple of long stints in Étaples and Blighty as a trainer, not to mention another injury, meant he had seen perhaps four months in total in the front lines in Flanders and France, and perhaps ten in support. Still, for most of 1918 he had proudly commanded a company and it was then that Sam Jackson had come under his command.
Harry shook his head and hung onto the rail as the tram rattled down Roma Street. That time was best left in the past. The rest of Australia had forgotten; Harry would too. He only hoped Sam Jackson would follow this admirable example, for Harry’s peace of mind if nothing else.
His mother sat on the bench seat looking up at him. They had the same slightly wavy honey-brown hair, but Harry’s square jaw was more like his father’s, and his green eyes could apparently be attributed to a long-dead grandmother.
They got off the tram at the bottom of Turbot Street and walked up the road. Harry saw him a moment before Sam called out, “Mr Bridgeman.”
His mother turned around. “Do you know that young man?” she said.
Harry sighed. “He was in my company in the war.”
“Oh really?” said Mrs Bridgeman. They stood on the footpath while Sam crossed the road and jogged over to them. He was wearing a blue cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up and camel-coloured pants.
“Mum, this is Samuel Jackson, late of the 9th Battalion, AIF. Jackson, this is my mother.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Mrs Bridgeman,” said Sam, taking her hand. “Listen, would you and your husband like to come to dinner some time?”
“I don’t think—” said Harry.
“Please, ever since we met the other day I’ve been cursing my rudeness at not asking. My sister gave me such a dressing-down for robbing her of the chance to meet old Captain Bridgeman whom I’ve told her so much about.”
“How lovely,” said Harry’s mother. “We would love to.”
Even after Sam had moved on and he had to listen to mother musing what a nice boy he seemed, Harry couldn’t bring himself to speak. The merest hint of what had occurred in Flanders would put an end to this charade of civility, but Harry didn’t say anything. He had done enough damage to Sam Jackson’s life.
The appointed day arrived and Harry went to college in a welter of apprehension, thinking of facing Sam and the sister who had “heard so much” about Harry. The day went slowly. He expected it to go quickly, as time tended to when there was something to dread at the other end, but instead he found himself staring at the second hand as it ticked around the clock face.
Of course that didn’t change the fact that when classes ended and he left the college to meet his parents he felt like he hadn’t had enough time. His parents chatted the whole way about the news, the shop, the rising price of everything. Although Harry was superfluous to this exercise, if he stopped nodding or shaking his head on cue, his mother asked him if he was all right.
So passed the tram ride and the short walk down a steep road to Sam’s house. Mrs Bridgeman knocked on the door and after a moment a woman who was perhaps six years older than Harry answered.
“Hullo, you must be the Bridgemans,” she said. “I’m Sally Jackson. Come in.” The wholesome smell of roasting meat wafted out onto the porch.
“I’m Mary and this is my husband Henry, and my son. He’s Henry too, but we call him Harry.”
Sally Jackson had the same hair and eyes as her brother. She fixed her gaze on Harry. “A pleasure to meet you.” She beckoned them into the house and Harry followed his parents into a long hall with whitewashed wooden walls and a threadbare Turkish runner carpet on the wooden floor.
“Just straight through to the kitchen,” said Sally, pulling the front door shut.
Harry saw his mother and father exchange glances as they made their way towards the back of the house.
“Mind the join, there,” called Sally, and his mother looked down and stepped over the rounded plank of wood which marked the threshold between the hallway and the kitchen. As Harry was walking past it, a brown-painted door opened and Sam stepped out, concentrating on fastening his cuffs and almost walking straight into Harry. Harry ducked to the side and Sam looked up, his lips splitting into a fascinating white grin. “Blimey, sorry about almost bowling you over,” he said. “Oh.” The smile faded and Sam gestured wordlessly for Harry to precede him.
“Hello, Jackson,” said Harry.
Sam cocked his head. “Thought you were going to call me Sam.”
The kitchen was plain and tidy, organised around a wooden table with six chairs, with benches and storage around the wall. The windows were all pulled up, and the back door was open to let in the night air.
Harry went over to it and looked out at the back yard. It was small and square, with a clothes line picked out in the light thrown from the doorway, and the dark shapes of the outhouse and a shed in the bottom corner.
When he turned around, Sam was standing behind him, looking over his shoulder. “Good day, then?”
“Can’t complain,” said Harry. “You?”
Sam shrugged and didn’t seem inclined to answer. He leaned one hand against the doorjamb and Harry realised abruptly that he was being encircled by Sam’s arms. He cleared his throat and pointed.
Sam blinked and lowered his arm, and Harry retreated across the room to where his parents were sitting at one corner of the table watching Sally take plates from a drawer.
Harry’s parents held up the conversation over dinner, going over the same topics they had rehearsed on the tram. Just as Sally was about to clear the covers, the lights flickered and dimmed to half-power. Mrs Bridgeman tutted and said, “Another brown-out.”
In the semi-darkness, Harry saw Sally smile. “Every evening as scheduled,” she said. “Sam?”
Sam’s chair scraped against wood as he stood up. “I’ll go grab the candles.”
Harry smothered a yawn and excused himself to go “for a walk”.
“Collect a candle from Sam on your way, dear,” said Sally. “There are some matches down there.”
“Thank you,” said Harry. He intercepted Sam on his way back from the shed and took one of the thick cream-coloured candles. The outhouse had a little shelf above the loo; feeling around he found the matches and lit the candle. It provided just enough light for him to complete his business.
Returning to the house, he found Sam sitting on the back steps, elbows on his knees, resting his chin on his fists. He saw Harry coming and leaned back, splaying his legs down the steps in a post of deliberate nonchalance.
“Your parents and my sister seem to have hit it off,” he said.
Harry sat down a couple of steps below Sam. “Mm,” he said. They sat in silence, staring out into the darkness and the dulled lights of the house behind theirs for a while. Harry broke the silence. “I am truly sorry for what happened,” he said. “I didn’t want to discharge you.”
“Guess you didn’t want to give me Field Punishment Number 1 for two weeks first either.”
Harry bit his lip. “Did you expect me to overlook the offence? I came upon you sodomising a private in your section. It was an… an intolerable violation of the Military Code.” He swallowed. His throat seemed somehow obstructed.
“No,” said Sam, “you did your duty, and had more understanding than a lot of COs. I’m used to the way your kind views someone like me.”
His kind? The hopelessness in Sam’s voice made Harry’s chest ache. “Whatever happened to Carter?” he said.
“Shipped home to Australia like me,” said Sam. “Re-enlisted under a false name and died of diphtheria on his way back to the front.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.” Harry looked down at his hands, pale outlines in the murky darkness. “And you? You seem to be getting on all right.” It was easier to talk like this with them both facing out into the yard.
“I had a spot in a factory, but then the war ended and the original owner of the job came back with three stripes and a Military Cross.” Sam’s voice came out of the darkness, smooth and steady, pitched at a level that seemed to hum into Harry’s ear. “Since then I’ve had some odd jobs, but there’s nothing much around. Sally takes in some laundry and does some baking, and I have my pay from the war, so we scrape by. Anyway, we’d better go back inside.”
Harry nodded and stood up, turning to follow Sam inside. His gaze was drawn to the nape of Sam’s neck, the soft hair curling there, and the tendon standing in relief against his collarbone as he turned his head.
“We need a shop assistant,” he said. “My parents keep saying they need someone to mind the shop since my sister got married and moved to Innisfail.”
Sam turned around. “Really?”
Nodding, Harry said, “Well, need to check with mother, but I can’t see why not.”
“That’s bloody decent,” said Sam. “Thank you.”
“It’s nothing.” Harry ducked his head. Despite what he’d said, discharging Jackson and Carter had haunted him. Carter was gone beyond his help, but he could make amends to Sam. And, he admitted to himself, despite everything, he didn’t want this to be the last time he saw him.
“No really, I mean it. With what you know about me, most fellows would be spitting at my feet, not trying to help out.”
Harry nodded, feeling a twinge of guilt. Sam wouldn’t be so grateful if he knew about Harry.
When they got back inside, they found the others sitting in an oasis of candlelight. Mrs Bridgeman hailed them over. “There you are,” she said. “We’ve just been talking to Sally, and we’ve settled it that Sam is going to come and work in the shop. What do you think of that?”
Sam glanced back over his shoulder at Harry and quirked a secret smile that made Harry’s heart try to climb into his throat. He said, “I would love to. Thank you so much, Mr and Mrs Bridgeman. This means a lot to us.”
* * *
His parents’ little general store was on Baroona Road opposite the park, with an apartment above and behind it. Harry had lived in the back bedroom since he was a child. He had longed for its printed, hand-sewn curtains when he was in France. The lumpy mattress on its sagging wire frame had seemed fit for Zeus on Olympus, and the noise of carriages rattling down the road had seemed music compared to the rat-tat-tat of the guns and the various unique whoosh-booms made by the different artillery shells.
He had walked up the street, knapsack over one shoulder, flanked by his parents and sisters. It had been winter, but a winter he scarcely recognised as such after the stinging northern cold. The sun had been warm on his back and there had been beads of sweat gathering down his spine.
Seeing the store, he had forced his tired legs into a steady walk, not the stumbling run they twitched for. He had walked through the door, smelled paper and nutmeg and known he was home and the war was over.
And now, there was Sam. He arrived in the morning before Harry left for class, and often when he came home he found Sam sitting on the back step smoking and yarning with Mr Bridgeman, or helping Mrs Bridgeman lay out food for dinner.
His mother was smitten with Sam, called him “the dear boy”. On a Sunday about a fortnight after Sam had started to work at the shop, she brought him a cup of tea on the low veranda behind the shop and said, “Harry, I’m worried about the dear boy.”
“Really?” said Harry.
“Yes, he has some rough friends. They hang about the shop a little, and on Thursday he came in late and looking very much the worse for wear. I think he might be involved in sinful doings.”
Harry thought back to the cronies Sam had been lounging around with the first day they’d met on Queen Street.
“Mum, you’re doing the best thing you can, giving him a job here.” He rested one ankle on the other knee and leaned back. “He told me he was picking up some odd jobs to get him and his sister from month to month. But that’s behind him now.”
“Do you think ‘odd jobs’ might have been… crime?” said Mrs Bridgeman.
“Probably a bit of black market trading,” said Harry with a shrug. “Seems a lot of the old soldiers have got mixed up in that.”
Mrs Bridgeman raised her eyebrows and stuck out her bottom lip thoughtfully.
“Mum,” said Harry, “don’t get any ideas.”
Mrs Bridgeman sighed. “You’re probably right. Even if the wholesalers do keep putting up their prices, and I can’t pass it on to the customers, not with the economy the way it is.”
“Anyway,” said Harry, giving her a narrow look, “the best thing you can do for Sam is give him a purpose and an income.”
“You’re probably right, dear,” said Mrs Bridgeman. “But perhaps… he looks up to you, Harry. You were his captain. You should try to be a good influence.”
A good influence. Harry snorted. Two days later he pushed through the shop door, setting the little bell ringing, and surprised Sam leaning against the counter, one sleeve rolled up, examining a nasty bruise that ran across the top of his forearm. Sam rolled his sleeve down as Harry approached. He was wearing an apron over his clothes and his hair was shiny with Brilliantine. “Where’d you get that?” said Harry as he crossed between the shelves.
“What?” said Sam, looking down at the counter.
Harry caught his wrist with one hand and pushed back the sleeve with the other, holding the bruise up to the pale yellow sunlight coming through the window. He could feel the warmth of Sam’s skin, the little bones of his wrist pressing against Harry’s fingers. Sam pulled his hand away and rolled his sleeve down. “Banged it on a bureau at home,” he said.
“Really,” said Harry, sticking his hands in his pockets.
“Yup. How was your day?”
Harry turned away, shoulders hunched, pressing his hands down deep into his pockets, and examined the display stand on the counter. “I want to help you, you know,” he said. “If you’re mixed up in something bad, I can help you get out of it.”
“Will you find me a nice girl to marry who won’t mind my perverted libido too?” said Sam bitterly. “I got some good advice from the Military Policeman while I was tied to that post. Just kill yourself, Jackson. It’s the only thing for perverts like you. Then he said he wished we were in the line because he’d heard sometimes the pommies did F.P. Number 1 within shell range and let the Jerries take care of it.”
Harry looked at his feet. “You were Carter’s corporal. Aside from anything else, that fact merited the punishment.”
“While the buggery was worth the sack?”
“If you like.” Harry withdrew his hands from his pockets and crossed them, turning to face Sam. Sam’s eyes were bright, and his jaw was set. Harry felt his heart give a stutter in his chest. Jesus Christ.
An hour later, Mrs Bridgeman came to find Harry, seated at his little desk staring out the window, a book neglected by his elbow. “Sam’s been called away,” she said. “Do you think you could stand in the shop for an hour? I’m halfway through the inventory.”
“Where did Sam go?” said Harry, swivelling in his chair.
“I don’t know, dear.”
Harry could feel the corners of his lips drawing down. He closed his eyes and smoothed his hand across his brow. “I’ll watch the shop, mum. Don’t worry.”
As he stood straightening rows of merchandise, the woman who lived next door stuck her head in and said, “There’s rioting on North Quay! My Edward just came home from work and he said they’re protesting the Bolshies again.”
“I thought that was all over last year,” said Mrs Bridgeman, coming out into the shop.
“It’s never over, is it? Not while those Russians are all sitting pretty in Merivale Street, plotting to overthrow the government, for all we know.”
Mrs Bridgeman farewelled their neighbour, then as she turned to go back out the back she stopped and said to Harry, “You don’t think…?”
“May I be excused?” said Harry.
Mrs Bridgeman nodded, then after a pause said, “Yes. Bring him back here, if you can’t get him to go home.”
“Thanks, mum,” said Harry, snatching his coat and hat and jogging out of the store.
He stood at the tram stop, hopping with impatience, and wound up walking halfway down Milton Road before he caught a tram as it overtook him. At the top of the city, the tram got caught in a press of carriages and motorcars and Harry hopped off and wove through the traffic until he found the crowd of perhaps one hundred men who were causing the traffic jam.
He wove through the crowd, milling malevolently at the foot of the Victoria Bridge. They were evidently trying to buck up and cross the bridge to the Russian Quarter. Harry searched the faces of the men, pushing them aside and getting a few irritated jeers in return.
He saw a flash of sleek brown hair here, a broad, well-muscled shoulder there. He heard a laugh which sounded familiar, but found its owner was a watery-eyed blond stevedore. Then, someone said, “Captain?” incredulously right by his ear and he spun around.
“Sam, what are you doing here?”
Sam gestured expansively. “Less than two years since it all ended, and the reds are trying to take down Australia from the inside. Fucking cowards. Fucking coward Communist bastards. Well.”
“You’re drunk,” said Harry. “Come on.”
Sam pulled his arm from Harry’s grasp. His shirt was undone at the neck, revealing the flushed V of his torso, and untucked. He was a little taller than Harry, a little broader. He used that advantage now, spinning Harry and propelling him away. “Fuck off, skipper.”
The crowd swelled and pushed against them. Harry heard whistles, and through the shifting gaps between heads, Harry saw a line of mounted police, bayonets at the ready, advancing on them. He turned around and saw another row coming up the road the other way. “Shit,” he muttered. He grabbed Sam by the forearm, and Sam winced. “Corporal Jackson,” Harry snapped. “You will come with me right now. I will tolerate no disobedience, do you hear?”
“Yes, sir.” Sam attempted to salute, and let Harry drag him away from the advancing police line. Away from his cronies, the energy seemed to seep from him and he became docile, allowing Harry to haul him onto a tram and then off again outside the shop.
It had got dark while they were riding home, and the shop was locked up. Harry unlocked the front door carefully, reaching up between door and jamb to stifle the bell as he stepped inside. Sam followed him, his footfalls thudding on the polished wood.
“Shh,” said Harry. Sam stopped and then raised and lowered his feet with comic care.
“Why?” Sam whispered loudly.
“I don’t want mum to see you drunk,” said Harry.
“Are you going to keep me in the store until I sober up, then?” Sam leaned against a wooden shelf and raised his eyebrows at Harry. Harry stared at his muscular forearms, the ugly bruise Harry was sure had been made by a police truncheon a blot on the pale, muscled flesh.
Harry’s blood seemed to pound through his veins. He was high on the relief of getting Sam safely away, and fascinated by Sam’s lidded eyes and mussed hair. He knew he shouldn’t, but no-one had ever tried his self-control like Sam Jackson. He stepped forward and Sam pushed away from the shelf and stepped back. Harry stepped forward again and Sam’s eyes widened. His mouth was slightly parted. Harry pushed him backwards towards the counter, grabbed the undone V of his shirt, and pulled Sam’s face down to his. Sam stumbled, his hands on Harry’s shoulders, half pushing away, half pulling close. Harry drew in one shuddering breath, tilted his head and closed his eyes, pressing his lips to Sam’s.
Sam’s lips were soft and wet. His breath smelled of beer. Clumsily, Harry dragged Sam’s bottom lip between his teeth, then pressed their lips together again. He heard Sam make a little noise and opened his eyes.
What he saw froze him. Sam’s eyes were wide open, staring at him with confusion that was fast turning into anger. Harry leaned away and Sam pushed him aside, swiping his arm across his mouth.
The look Sam gave Harry as he lurched out of the shop into the night was not just of anger or disgust: it was betrayal. It cut Harry to the quick and by the time he dashed outside to chase him, Sam was halfway down the street towards the city.
Harry caught up with him at a jog. “Sam, stop.”
“What the fuck was that?” said Sam, not looking at him. “Jesus, you fucking… what.”
Harry looked down at his feet. “I…”
“Just curious? Just wanted to try it and see? Why not try it on with the queer? He’s already been kicked out of the army; he has no honour to lose. Why not have a turn, eh?”
“And he owes you, too. How bloody convenient for you. Take it out in trade; he needs the job.”
“Go home, Captain Bridgeman. Get out of my sight.”
Harry pressed his lips together and drew a deep breath. It’s not like that. Let me explain. “Go to hell, Jackson,” he said, and stalked away.
“Did you find him?” said Mrs Bridgeman when Sam stomped back into the shop.
“Yes, mum. He’s gone home,” said Harry curtly, taking the stairs two at a time and shutting himself in his room.
* * *
Harry’d had his commission for just over a year. He had been in command of the company for a few months, promoted after the CO had been killed on the Menin Road and he had a stint in the base hospital at Étaples.
He remembered the day he had been shown by a guide into the line where the 9th Battalion was stationed. At the first sentry point, a corporal with glossy brown hair and a gleaming white smile had shaken his hand and said, “G’day, you must be the new skipper.”
Harry, used to thinking of himself as a tall man, had had to look up to meet this man’s startling blue eyes.
Sam Jackson had, from the first, been impossible to ignore. When they went over the top, Harry had found Sam beside him, chivvying his section on, keeping them in a neat line. They had found themselves cowering in the same shell hole, and Harry had seen for a moment Sam’s unflappable calm slip, the light of his smile dim, before he said, “She’ll be right, you’ll see.”
Moments later, the German guns went quiet and they were able to sneak forward to the objective. That was the day Harry’s heart had started skittering whenever he saw Sam.
When Harry had been thirteen, Harry had gone behind the school building with another boy. He had been caught, caned, and taught an important lesson. He was one of that pitiable class of men who had a perverted passion for others of his sex. Like a desire to steal or murder, it must be resisted.
Harry had hesitated to join up, frightened that the army would prove too great a temptation for his treacherous libido, but as with so many other things, it was a matter of self-control. No matter his pain when he had been hit by a shell blast, he had seen his wounded men safely back to the Regimental Aid Post before he sank onto a stretcher. No matter how terrified he had been at the thought of being the first over the parapet and into the face of the German guns, he had gone. And however fascinated he might be by the soft curve of Sam Jackson’s lip or the strength of muscle beneath his uniform, he would not give his passion rein. Passion, like fear and pain, must be controlled if Harry was to survive this war.
It had been a dark night. They had been billeted in a town behind Ypres. Harry and one of the second lieutenants had been taking a final turn around the barn where his company was sleeping when he had heard the muffled sounds of a scuffle. Creeping around the barn he discovered they were coming from a small shed off to the right of the farm house.
Jogging forward, he had pushed open the door. There was only the dim moonlight to illuminate the scene, which had gone still when discovered. As Harry’s eyes adjusted, two figures were discernible in the shadows. They were fused together at the hips, and the moonlight lingered lovingly on the slivers of bare flesh revealed by undone, rucked up uniforms. Harry found a face in the darkness, and recognised the strong jaw and sleek brown hair.
The second lieutenant pushed past him and said, “You there, what are you doing?”
Harry scrunched his eyes shut and wished the lieutenant to the devil. “I’ll handle this,” he said. “Men, you had better stand up and put yourselves in order.”
“Captain…” said Sam, trailing off uncertainly.
Biting his lip, Harry said, “I will send the Company Sergeant Major around to collect you in the morning, Jackson. And… Carter, is it?”
“Yes, sir,” said the boy in a tone of mortification.
Gesturing to the lieutenant to accompany him, Harry fled the scene. He passed a sleepless night. Sam had been lying on his side, the curving lines of hipbone and buttock exposed to the moonlight’s loving caress. Harry called them to mind without difficulty, the way Sam’s arm had wrapped around Carter, drawing him close, the twisting, thrusting movements of Sam’s hips in the moment before he had frozen. The faint flush on his cheeks, against the whites of his eyes and his teeth. His hair had been mussed, like Carter had run his hands through it. Harry easily imagined their passion. It tortured him.
Again, he wished the second lieutenant to the devil. Sam was a good corporal. In other circumstances, perhaps Harry could have let the incident slide. In other circumstances, perhaps this new knowledge about Sam which filled Harry with rock-heavy dread would have been fascinating, tempting, intriguing. He’s like me, Harry would have crowed to himself. He’s like me, I’m not alone.
Instead, he lay awake, trying to think how on earth he could discipline Jackson, and feeling like a hypocrite.
The lieutenant wasn’t idle: by the morning, the whole company knew what had transpired. Harry weighed his options. A court-martial was prescribed in the Military Code. Discharge, reason not specified, was, he thought, the accepted practice. But Jackson was a good corporal and if discharged might forfeit his medals and pay. He put them both in the custody of the Military Police for a fortnight of F. P. Number 1 and hard labour and submitted the paperwork to have them transferred to different battalions. The rejection came back with a hand-written note from the Colonel: get rid of the buggers.
At night he thought of Jackson submitting to field punishment, tied spreadeagled to a post, helpless, his strong limbs restrained by wood and hemp. His stomach churned with shame and something else that made his joints quiver and his cheeks hot. At 2am, he got up, found an oil lamp, and sat down to write out discharge papers for Jackson and Carter. He fell asleep at his desk and woke up with an imprint of ink on his cheek.
* * *
The morning after the riot, Sally Jackson appeared with a note to say that Sam was ill and confined to bed. Mrs Bridgeman sent back some cake for the invalid, and tutted to Mr Bridgeman about the wages of sin. To himself, Harry wondered whether Sam would come back to work at all. Harry’s holidays started in a few weeks, so he supposed his parents could get along managing the store until then. Putting his satchel over his shoulder, he went to class, and afterwards met up with some old friends for a drink. It was well into the evening when he eventually tromped up Baroona Road, jacket over one shoulder, trailing his satchel. He was bone-tired and yawning, his mind already skipping ahead to the pile of reading he ought to do before bed.
There was a figure sitting on the front step of the shop. Harry knew who it was before features were discernible in the darkness. He stopped a few paces away and watched Sam stand and step towards him. “What do you want?” he said.
“I don’t get it,” said Sam. “Prejudice I’m bloody used to, and pity. But… are you like me?” He paused and bit his lip. “I mean, are you an invert?”
Harry couldn’t make himself say it.
“You are,” said Sam, running his hand through his hair. “Then why didn’t you just transfer us? You know life is a… hard slog for someone like us, and I know others who were just transferred when they were rumbled. But you had me humiliated and discharged. Why?”
“I was under orders,” said Harry. It was bad form to say it, but he felt an almost physical compulsion to confess. “I should have fought for you, but I didn’t, because I was too frightened of my own feelings.” He laughed self-mockingly. “I didn’t want to get tarred with the same brush.”
Sam’s arms uncrossed and hung limp at his sides. “Oh, I see,” he said. “You fucking self-hating hypocrite.”
Even though Harry knew he deserved it, it stung. “Does Sally know about you? Do your friends?”
“Some of them,” said Sam.
“Only some? Why not all? If you are so proud and I am such a self-hating hypocrite, why doesn’t your sister know that you like to fuck men?”
Sam was silent, and Harry let him be. “Good night, Jackson,” he said, stepping around Sam. “I hope you’ll come to work tomorrow. My parents have been jolly decent to you.”
“I’ll be there,” said Sam. “Good night, sir.”
* * *
The next morning, Harry’s mother woke him early. “There’s somebody on the phone for you, dear,” she said.
Harry groaned and rolled out of bed, padding downstairs in his nightshirt and socks. He picked up the earpiece, scratching his scalp, one eye closed.
“Harry Bridgeman speaking.”
“Harry, it’s Sam. I’m at the police station in town. Any chance you could bail me out?”
“Bloody hell,” said Harry. “It’s six in the morning.”
“I could have called you at four,” said Sam. “Can you bail me out or not?”
“I guess so.” Harry set down the phone and went to get dressed.
“Who was it?” said Mrs Bridgeman. “Where are you going?”
“A friend needs a favour,” said Harry, jogging out the door.
He reached the police station and said he was there for Sam Jackson.
“Are you going to pay his fine?” said the officer.
“His fine? Isn’t he under arrest?”
“No,” said the officer, curling his top lip. “We just kept him in to straighten him out a bit. The pervert.”
“I see,” said Harry. “Yes, I’ll pay his fine. What is it for?”
“Loitering,” said the policeman, his tone conveying a bounty of contempt.
As they left the station, Sam said, “Thanks, mate. I owe you.”
“Why the hell would you call me?”
“Didn’t want to bother my sister,” said Sam, shrugging on his jacket.
“Yes, and if you must know, the pigs caught me hanging around the Wickham Park trying to pick up. I didn’t want her exposed to the their comments. She doesn’t know why I was discharged, or about my… tastes. And even if she did, I couldn’t make her listen to what those bastards were saying about me.” He ducked his head. “Yet apparently I’m the pervert.”
“Well, that makes a bit more sense, at any rate,” said Harry. “Why would you call me and not one of your friends?”
Sam scratched the back of is neck and ducked his head. “You’re the only person who knows,” he said. “Since the war.”
“Hah,” said Harry, too tired to crow. “Go home.”
Sam hesitated, then took Harry’s hand. The firm grip sent a spark of tension down Harry’s spine.
“I will see you tonight, after work,” said Sam, then he was off, jogging away down Roma Street. Harry stared after him, running his hand through his sleep-mussed hair.
When Harry came home from class, he found his mother out in the shop, and his heart sank. “Where’s Sam?” he said. “Sick again?”
“He’s on the veranda with your father,” said Mrs Bridgeman.
Harry hurried through the house and out the back door, where he found Sam leaning against the railing, a cigarette dangling between two fingers, while his father sat on the step.
“Welcome home,” said Mr Bridgeman, turning around.
“Yes, welcome back, Harry,” said Sam, with secretive amusement.”D’you have a tic? I’d like to speak with you.”
Mr Bridgeman got up, groaning like a creaky hinge. “I’ll leave you to it,” he said.
“Thanks again for this morning,” said Sam.
“Well, if I’d known you were working the beat, I might not have come to get you,” said Harry.
Sam bounced down the stairs into the yard and Harry followed. “I was trying to get you out of my system,” said Sam.
“I’ve been in love with you since the first moment you stomped into my trench.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, you can’t be,” said Harry, shutting his mouth with a snap.
“You underrate yourself,” said Sam with an ironic smile.
“No, I mean—Carter. And everything else.”
Sam looked up at the house then tugged Harry back behind the shed where they couldn’t be seen from the windows. He put his hand under Harry’s chin and tilted it up. “Do you think people like us recognise each other instinctively?” he said.
Harry shivered. Sam’s hand was still on his chin; the promise of a kiss hung in the air. He heard but barely understood what Sam was saying.
“Because the moment I saw you, I felt it in my gut,” said Sam. “I swear there hasn’t been a night since that I haven’t thought of you. Even in that military prison, I fell asleep cursing you and woke up wanting you so badly I could scream.”
The heat of Sam’s body seemed to radiate towards him. Over in France, this had seemed impossible because of the shame it would bring; since he had met Sam in Queen Street it had seemed impossible because Sam would never forgive him for what he did. Now, it seemed as if both those impossibilities had melted away in the face of the one pure fact that they were alive, and here, and together.
Harry took a deep breath and leaned forwards, pressing their lips together. Sam made a small, startled noise. His hand dropped from Harry’s chin, and moved instead to the nape of his neck. Harry wrapped his arms around Sam’s waist. Lips touched, hot and wet and soft. Teeth brushed and then opened, and then Sam’s tongue was probing his.
His legs went weak, and suddenly he was propped between Sam’s hips and the corrugated iron of the shed.
Sam broke the kiss, throwing his head back. “Jesus fucking Christ, Harry,” he groaned. Harry stared at his Adam’s apple, working up and down his throat as he swallowed. “I want you so badly.”
Harry pressed his lips against the hollow of Sam’s throat and pulled Sam’s hips close together. The friction of fabric against his prick made him gasp. Dimly he heard Sam echo it. His trousers felt too tight. His skin felt too tight. He wanted to step out of himself and merge with Sam.
Then, suddenly, there was cold air where there had been heat. He whined.
“Harry, listen. We can’t do this here. We could get caught. Your parents would have kittens.”
“I don’t care,” said Harry, nuzzling his nose against Sam’s neck and inhaling deeply.
“Jesus, stop it,” moaned Sam. “You don’t care now. You will if your mum comes walking down the back yard to use the privy, believe me.”
Harry pressed the heel of his hand into his forehead and closed his eyes, trying to master his breathing. “You’re right,” he said. “Oh God.”
“Tomorrow’s Saturday,” said Sam. “My sister will be out all day. Will you,” he hesitated, bit his lip, “come over?”
Wordlessly, Harry nodded. Sam’s face lit up with a smile that made Harry’s heart struggle to burst out of his chest.
Sam said, “I had better go. I’ll see you tomorrow. At noon?”
“See you then,” said Harry, and watched Sam walk back up to the house, silhouetted in light from the windows.
* * *
It wasn’t to be expected that Harry would sleep that night, and he didn’t. His stomach churned with a cocktail of lust, excitement and anxiety. When the sun rose, he threw aside his tangled sheets and went downstairs. His parents found him hauling around crates in the store room a couple of hours later.
He climbed into the bath, shaved himself carefully, splashed on some cologne, and slicked his hair back. He stood in front of his wardrobe for a while trying to choose a shirt, and then it was 11.30, and he was putting on his jacket, snatching a hat from the rack and saying goodbye to his parents.
“Will you be home for dinner?” asked Mrs Bridgeman.
“I don’t know, mum,” said Harry as he strode through the shop and onto the street.
He stood at the tram stop for what seemed like forever, glancing at his watch constantly. After about fifteen minutes, someone walked past and said, “You know the tram drivers are on strike, don’t you?”
“No, I didn’t,” said Harry. “Thank you for letting me know.” He broke into a run, keeping up a stream of swearing under his breath. When he couldn’t run any more, he jogged, then walked. It was at least an hour’s walk to Sam’s house. The sun was scaldingly hot, and the humidity was rising off the river and crawling down his collar. He took off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves, but it barely helped.
By the time he reached the river, he was sweaty, dishevelled and panting. He had given up on swearing because it used too much energy. According to his watch, he was ten minutes late already.
Taking a quick break in the shade of an old Eucalyptus tree, he pressed on. He couldn’t shake the image of Sam sitting at his kitchen table waiting for Harry to arrive, watching the second hands tick around the clock face. Wondering if Harry had had second thoughts.
“I’m on my way,” he wanted to shout.
He crossed the bridge into the leafy shade of South Brisbane. The heat followed hm. There was no breeze. His shirt was soaked at the collar and under the arms. All his careful grooming was gone to waste. He knew he probably stank; sweat would have overpowered the cologne.
As he walked, he untucked his shirt and fanned it up and down, scandalising some people walking along the other side of the road. 12.30pm, and he recognised the spot where they had got off the tram when his parents and he had gone to the Jacksons’ for dinner.
The realisation gave him a second wind, and he jogged along the street and then up another. Finally, he turned onto Sam’s street and stopped, panting, to tuck in his shirt, don his jacket, and attempt to straighten out his hair.
Then he walked down the steep hill to Sam’s gate, opened it, climbed the steps to his front door, and knocked.
Sam opened it a moment later. “Jesus, Harry, I thought you weren’t coming,” he said, his voice trembling slightly.
“Tram strike,” Harry panted.
“Bloody hell, come in.” Sam stepped aside and Harry slipped past him into the cool darkness of the hallway.
Sam was watching him with amusement. “You must be knackered. Did you walk here?”
Breathing slowly, Harry nodded.
“I’ll get you some water.” Sam went past him into the kitchen, and filled a glass from the tap, setting it on the table. Harry flopped down, for the moment solely interested in resting and cooling off.
Sam set a basin and towel in front of him. “Here, you must be dripping.”
“I am,” Harry admitted ruefully. He drained the glass of water then stood up to shuck his jacket. “You don’t mind, do you?”
Sam’s smile was warm. “Not at all,” he said softly. “In fact, let me help.” Stepping around the table, he reached up and began to unbutton Harry’s shirt. Harry let his hands fall limp to his sides, his gaze fixed on Sam’s face as Sam’s eyes tracked down each button he unfastened.
As Harry’s shirt fell open to reveal the deep V of his chest, then his stomach, Sam’s eyes became hooded, and that secretive smile began to play around the corner of his lips. He reached up and pushed the shirt off Harry’s shoulders. It fell to the chair behind him.
Sam took the towel and dipped it in the water before pressing it to Harry’s chest. Harry shuddered at the feeling of the cool, dampness against his skin as Sam dragged the towel across his chest and arms, then draped it around the back of his neck.
“That is glorious, thank you,” said Harry, opening his eyes.
Sam’s look made him hot all over again. “My pleasure, Captain, believe me.”
“Come on.” Harry took Sam’s hand and tugged him back down the hallway. Sam pushed open the door of his room and they both stepped inside. Harry heard Sam turn the key in the lock and put the key on the dresser, then Sam was behind him, hips pressed to Harry’s buttocks, arms wrapped around Harry’s waist. He leaned back against the hard, planes of Sam’s chest, the damp towel sending rivulets of heated water between their bodies.
When he pulled away, it felt cold. Sam stepped back too, and began unbuttoning his shirt. Harry let his gaze drift over the broad chest and narrow waist, the strong muscles of Sam’s abdomen. The scattering of hair between his nipples, swooping down around his navel and beyond the waistline of his trousers. Feeling a blush suffuse his chest and neck, Harry stepped out of his trousers. The warm air swirled around his nakedness. Sam’s eyes drifted lower and his breath hitched.
Wordlessly, Sam undid his trousers and pushed them down, along with his underwear. The muted light through the curtains picked out his half-hard prick, rising from its bed of dark brown hair.
Sam stepped close to Harry and put his hands on Harry’s naked buttocks, bringing their hips together. As Harry’s cock brushed Sam’s, he moaned and curled his back, digging his chin into Sam’s shoulder.
“Oh Jesus,” mumbled Sam. “This is going to be over quickly.”
He shuffled Harry backwards. When Harry’s knees hit the bedspread, he toppled over, finding himself sprawled out on the counterpane. Sam leaning over him, braced on one elbow.
When Sam did nothing but stare at him, his gaze roving up and down Harry’s body in a way that was almost physical, Harry ground out, “Quickly is fine this time, Sam.”
With a chuckle, Sam dropped his hips and reached between them, encircling both his and Harry’s cocks with one hand. “Thrust,” he said.
“What?” said Harry.
“Just bloody let yourself go, you uptight bastard.” Sam’s tone was fond, and his words had no sting.
After a moment more’s hesitation, Harry arched his back slightly, pushing his cock into the circle of Sam’s hand. The effect was immediate: a bolt of tension shot from his groin up his spine, robbing his lungs of air and his brain of all conscious thought.
He thrust again, and was rewarded by a guttural groan from Sam as he began to move. They fell into a rhythm. Sam timed his thrusts with Harry’s and met each with downward pressure from his hand. The circle of his fingers was tight and rough, and Harry shuddered at the sensation of his cock pressing against the hard warmth of Sam’s.
His hands twitched restlessly. He put one on Sam’s nape and used it as leverage, pulling down on Sam’s neck to increase the force of his thrusts. Sam’s head bowed over and he pressed his nose against Harry’s collarbone, hot breaths gusting against Harry’s skin.
The world narrowed to the sensations of warmed and tension, of the slick slide of flesh on flesh and the friction of his cock against Sam’s hand. Sam’s bitten-off moans seemed to go straight to his prick, building the tension pushing against his spine, underneath his ribcage.
Finally he gasped, arched off the bed and climaxed. His vision went black and his body gave over to shudders which became tremors. When they finally subsided, he discovered that Sam had collapsed against his chest, panting as if he had run a marathon.
“Jesus Christ,” said Sam, his lips moving against Harry’s shoulders.
Harry could only mumble his agreement.
* * *
After an hour or so, Harry roused from his sated doze. Sam had flopped aside and lay sprawled out on the bed, so Harry rolled over him, crouching above him, legs on either side of Sam’s hips. Sam opened his eyes and blinked up at Harry, a sleepy smile curling one corner of his lips. “Hullo,” he said.
“Don’t mind me,” said Harry, crouching back on his haunches. He felt wrung out; his prick barely twitched when it came to rest on Sam’s thigh. Now that they were past the obvious, urgent part, Harry let his eyes rove along the planes of Sam’s chest. Bracing himself on one hand, he smoothed the other across Sam’s belly, pausing as he brushed a healed bullet wound on Sam’s side. He had a similar hole in his right shoulder. He followed his hands with his mouth, tasting the sweat-slick skin around Sam’s nipple, then brushing the nipple itself with his tongue.
Sam groaned and Harry looked up to find those light blue eyes fixed on him, lazy and unfocused. “Whatcha doing?” Sam said, his voice a low purr.
“This might be commonplace to you, but to me, it’s an entirely new adventure,” said Harry.
“Righto.” Arching his head against the pillow, Sam opened up his neck for Harry’s inspection. Harry kissed the long tendon running up the side, and buried his face in the soft hair behind Sam’s ear. Then he dove lower, shuffling backwards so he could run his tongue down the groove between Sam’s abdominal muscles, past his navel.
The evidence of their pleasure was smeared over Sam’s stomach as it was Harry’s. Curiously, Harry ducked his tongue out to lick it. It tasted like salt and musk, and the texture was strange and gluey. Raising his head, he located the damp towel and rolled half-off the bed to retrieve it from where it had fallen. He swiped the towel across Sam’s belly and around his quiescent prick, then reached between his own legs to clean himself up.
Rolling to the side, he put his arms on Sam’s hip and thigh and studied his cock. Well, he had to own his perversion: the length of flesh and muscle lying curled and harmless on Sam’s belly fascinated him. He wanted to wrap his hands around it. He wanted to press his cheek against it and inhale deeply the messy scent of Sam. He wanted to explore it as he had explored Sam’s neck and chest and stomach.
“Touch it, if you like,” said Sam, and Harry looked up. Sam gazed down at him with hooded eyes. “You’re on an adventure, remember?”
Harry reached out and rested his palm against the base, the side of his hand brushing Sam’s balls. As he curled his thumb around underneath, he felt Sam start to stir.
“Oh, fuck,” Sam mumbled. “Didn’t think I had it in me.”
Harry worked his hand slowly up and down the length, and watched it respond to his attention. He leaned forward and pressed his lips against the base, and heard Sam gasp.
“You can—oh Jesus, Harry.”
Harry turned his head, brushing his cheek against Sam’s prick, and said, “What?”
“You can take it in your mouth. Please.”
“Oh.” Thoughtfully, Harry shuffled around a bit until his head was hovering over Sam’s groin. With the hand still wrapped around Sam’s half-hard cock, he raised it and pressed the head to his lips. After a moment, he opened his mouth and sank as low as he could onto Sam’s prick. Sam gasped and arched his hips, pushing his cock deeper into Harry’s mouth. Harry pulled back, coughing.
“Fuck, fuck, sorry,” said Sam. “Put your hands on my hips. It will give you more control.”
Harry pressed one forearm against Sam’s hips, and placed the other on his upper thigh, and then ducked his head down to take Sam in his mouth. He heard Sam’s laboured breathing and guttural sounds as they vibrated through Sam’s body. His prick was fully hard, and Harry could feel his own body responding to the sounds of Sam’s desperate desire. He savoured the heavy taste of Sam’s prick on his tongue, as he felt Sam’s muscles start to spasm. “Harry, oh bloody–fuck, Harry. I’m…” Harry pulled his head away just as Sam began to spill gluey white seed. He ran his hands soothingly up Sam’s trembling side, as if he were calming a startled horse. Sam thrashed his head from side to side, his eyes scrunched shut, and Harry felt a strange lump begin to rise in his throat. Crawling up Sam’s body, he put his hand on Sam’s flushed cheek and tugged so that they lay face to face. The taste of Sam’s prick was on his tongue, and the feeling of Sam’s rough, gentle hands still haunted his body. He was half-hard, and it felt as if his lungs were full and his heart might burst out of his chest. He pressed a closed-lipped kiss against Sam’s mouth.
“I can return the favour,” Sam said, his voice thready. “And there’s other things we can do.”
“We’ve got all day,” said Harry, and Sam’s slow smile was like the sun coming out.
* * *
Towards evening, they climbed in the bath and then got dressed.
“Should I leave before your sister comes home?” said Harry.
Sam grabbed his wrist and shook his head, leaning forward to dig his chin into Harry’s shoulder. They went out to sit at the kitchen table, each nursing a warm beer.
“When I get my teaching registration, I’ll probably get sent out of Brisbane,” said Harry.
Sam took a long pull of his beer. Harry watched his lips curl around the neck of the bottle. “How soon’s that?”
“Another year.” Harry paused, then said casually, “But perhaps you might come with me. Nobody would think twice about two blokes sharing a house if they were both out-of-towners who knew each other from Brisbane.” And that would take Sam away from his friends who liked to shoplift and disrupt the traffic, which to Harry’s mind could only be an advantage.
“Yeah,” said Sam, smiling, “maybe. If my sister’s settled, and your folks don’t need me anymore.”
Harry nodded. “Good.”
When Sally got home, she greeted Harry with mild surprise and asked him whether he would like to stay for dinner.
Harry looked across the table at Sam, thinking of that first night in a trench in Belgium, of Sam’s moonlit skin in the shed, of his image in shirtsleeves and an apron, examining the bruise on his arm, of the look of betrayal in Sam’s eyes when Harry kissed him, and his rage as he told him to fuck off. He thought of Sam’s defiance and his sheepishness, and the slow smile that dawned across his face when he opened the door that afternoon and saw Harry. He thought of everything since. “Yes, please,” he said. “I would love to stay for dinner.”
Author’s Note: Thank you to restless_jedi for the beta and pixie_punch for the gorgeous art! Bad Characters: Sex, Crime, Mutiny and Murder in the Australian Imperial Force by Peter Stanley was both inspiration and key reference for this story.
Ouf, I loved this! I really felt the tension and desire between those two.