by Shikagawa Hebiko (鹿皮へび子)
Summer school at St P___’s always felt like a bad idea; lazy and yellowed and made forlorn by too much sunlight at ten in the morning, the echoes of the emptier corridors, the sound of other people having fun punting down the river at the end of the football field. By the end of June Ioain was left with three distinct groups in student halls: the other handful of students who were staying to train with the new music teacher, the slightly larger handful of students who did not, for their own reasons, wish to go home for summer, and the space between them. There was no turf war or name-calling or even a gentle sort of ragging, nothing like they were used to during the proper terms. Sometimes the music students tripped over muddy football spikes left out in the dorm corridors, and that was all. In the evenings the other group appeared on the lawns for rough muddy sessions of football or rugger and some of the music students would come down to the edge of the lawn to watch them, silently, from the shade of the chestnut trees all along the driveway. Sometimes Ioain saw the new music teacher cycling past and looking at them as he freewheeled down the gentle slope, gravel clattering behind him. Sometimes the new teacher said, “There’s only so much I can teach you in one summer,” and Ioain would hear the wind in the trees, the low grumbling curses and short rude laughter of the boys playing ball, shift restlessly in his seat and wish for a wide open space he could cross.
After the second week of class they stopped calling the new teacher the new teacher and started calling him ‘Mr Mori’ instead. He was different from the special prep tutors they had had before. Much younger, with a full head of fine dark hair cut in layers of tender downward-pointing spikes; softer, unconcerned about the way they sat or held their heads or bent their elbows as they played. Suggested corrections rather than enforced them, and showed his students, in short sudden bursts of joy at the keyboard, what you could do if you mastered this, what it would sound like if you thought to treat it like that. He closed his eyes when he played because he said if he didn’t it was like trying to talk to your wife while looking out of the window at the rain. He was very recently divorced; Ioain found this out in the school clinic, waiting for his turn beyond a not-fully-shut door and listening to the doctor and one of the teaching locums gossiping. His music collection, when Ioain peeked into his living room on a mission to beg some rare sheet music off him, housed the Dire Straits’ and Beatles’ LPs on either side of Chopin’s, and if you were practising late into the night you might finish playing and step outside only to hear a piano going crazy with ‘Sultans of Swing’.
Ioain liked to practise late at night. Once, when he was done, he turned the lights off in the room, pushed the door open, took off his shoes and crept down the dark corridor to the other end, to a slice of light in the outline of a door; Solo Room 4, the one with the slightly gammy piano that nobody liked to be stuck with. Mr Mori always played in there; you could tell because no schoolboy prepping for his entrance exam into music college the following year would dare to play ‘Hey Jude’ in his school’s shared music center, even in dizzyingly complicated pentatonic arpeggios near midnight with the lights all off and no one around. Too much pre-occupational pride. The sound was thin because the walls were all well-muffled, but the doors had not been perfectly stoppered and music leaked from the spaces between sill and frame and hinge and out the keyhole and through the grain of the wood like the torrents of spring joyfully pounding an old dam. As Ioain came closer he slowed down and soon had to walk with one hand pressed against the wall, a staccato pounding the bones of his skull as though Mr Mori’s fingers were striking his head instead of the keys. He could not follow the song any more; he was sure there was one more chorus to sing, and then the beautiful wordless ending theme of the song, but Mr Mori’s vision of it seemed to have shifted, to have become a song about something else. Not quite a new song yet but getting there, as though while considering what song to play next Mr Mori’s fingers could not stop, had to play the sound of the journey as well. A song between songs, Ioain thought. Then he realized that he was still hearing ‘Hey Jude’, not from the music room but from just outside of it. The rhythm that was beating through his head was still being tapped out by someone, not on piano keys but on the carpeted floor and the wallpapered softboard of the walls.
He looked at the illuminated outline of the door and saw that it was not a closed rectangle as he had imagined it to be, that there were two perfectly identical interruptions along one line where it sat on its hinges. On the other edge of the door there was a subtly shifting shadow, so that there seemed to be two lines on that side – stalactite and stalagmite, forever moving, trying to touch, never suceeding. Ioain stared at the space between them until he could make out the cuff of a jacket, the frayed ends of a scarf, the sharp wing-shapes of lapels and a smudge of metallic shine high up, as though off the edge of an earring. None of the music students would dare to have piercings; of the other boys, not many would bother. Ioain held his breath, and then it struck him that Mr Mori’s playing from the other room seemed to be losing its power the longer he stared at the mysterious person by the door. Was Mr Mori playing for this person and this person only, and did he sense an unwelcome listener nearby? What special power did Mr Mori’s music have for the man who stood just outside the door? But Ioain had too much respect for Mr Mori’s sense of hearing, and zero experience of holding his nerve in lightless places. He looked back the other way, down the length of the corridor to the door leading out. There was another door, a fire exit that opened into a stairwell, he remembered seeing it many times and thinking how, in a fire, he would be more frightened of the unknown that lay beyond the door than of the smoke and fire on his side of it. Mr Mori’s playing was slowing down, the passages simply repeating themselves, no longer alive as they had been; Ioain padded quietly backwards a few steps, and then turned and ran.
He threw himself at the fire exit, below the faint green glow of the lamp above it; it creaked, grudgingly, and he managed to squeeze himself through the narrow gap he’d made. He was halfway down the stairs when they shook beneath his feet as overhead the door collided with amazing force against the wall. It felt like an explosion. From the impact something heavy came smashing straight down the stairs, and Ioain panicked and ran down the rest of the way with his heart in his throat and panic like fire under his feet.
He burst out into the courtyard, a long stone-cobbled corridor walled in on three sides. The moonlight was very bright high up on the broad ivy leaves tangled like a second layer over the stone walls; the cobbles underfoot were surprisingly cold and bit at his feet through his thin socks. He hugged his bag to his chest and ran over to the wall, feeling its shadow pass over him like a shroud. There were benches all along the wall and he fit underneath one without much of a fuss; he lay absolutely still with his heart and lungs hammering like drums into the grass beneath him, staring at the door which was still swinging back and forth slowly to a stop. Then it exploded outward too, making the same noise as the first door, and a man ran out through the doorway, straight for the wall. Ioain flinched and buried his face in his arms. The bench shook above him; he turned his head, peeked up, saw through the slats of wood in the bench seat the soles of the man’s shoes disappearing upward, over the wall.
The door shuddered shut; faraway, as though through a wall of clouds, he thought he could hear the door of Solo Room 4 creaking open, Mr Mori’s bewildered silence peering through.
The next day, Shail came over and sat down diagonally opposite to him at breakfast. The hall was large and echoing and cold if you came down before nine and sat in the north end, away from the windows that faced the rising sun. Ioain knew Shail mostly by reputation, once from being in the same group that had gone to town on a half-day and sneaked back to the dorm after curfew. He had never talked to Shail, and Shail had only ever said, “Quietly,” to him, once, giving him a leg-up over the back gate. In the dark Shail had smelt of leather and dried sweat, and Ioain thought he had seen the glint of an earring in Shail’s left ear. In class Shail’s hair fell straight and dark over his ears and neck and Shail’s face was always turned aside, never looking at you. Ioain didn’t look up when Shail sat down and Shail didn’t say anything either; sat hunched over his coffee, crumbling dry toast between dusky fingers into a bowl of white-and-yellow soft-boiled eggs. Ioain had never seen anyone eat eggs that way.
“Bloody stupid to be awake this early,” Shail said. “You got classes?”
“What d’you do before that?”
“Ioain,” Mr Mori said, without warning, from the doorway that led into the corridor outside, and Ioain went out and Mr Mori gave him a large paper bag with some funny German name on the side, one of the less memorable clothing shops on the high street in town. Ioain knew what was inside. Through the wall he thought could feel someone listening to them, watching them, knowing what was inside the bag too.
“Don’t push yourself too hard,” Mr Mori said, kindly. Shail came walking out of the canteen, and Ioain dropped the bag and his shoes came tumbling out of it. Shail passed by on the opposite side of the corridor as Mr Mori stooped to help him pick the shoes up again, and it was a wide corridor with a high panelled ceiling and tall elegant windows set in its walls but all the world seemed to Ioain to shrink and condense into that one brittle second when he could see Shail’s eyes on him, before Shail passed out of his sight.
Hodges passed him a note in English Lit. “You’re in for it,” he had written, on the folded-over part of the note; Ioain recognized Hodges’ rather wobbly handwriting and knew him to be a fairly sympathetic boy, so he unfolded the bit of paper only when he was alone, later, in his room with the door locked and away from the window. There was only one legible phrase written on the inside of the paper and that was printed in careless black letters, 11 PM SOLO ROOM 4. Ioain thought about it for a while, swinging his feet up and down lying flat on his stomach across the foot of his bed; then he went out down the corridor to find Hodges, who was reading in the common room but got up and went over when he saw Ioain walking in.
“What on earth have you been up to,” Hodges said, rhetorically.
“Who was it?”
“Who d’you think?”
“Fuck,” Ioain said. “What did he say?”
“Actually I heard he’s not half bad,” Hodges said, “it’s just, when he came over he didn’t look too happy. And it’s the room with the gammy piano, so it’s not like he wants to hear you play–”
“I’m going to kill you,” Ioain said.
“Well, Mr Mori’s always around,” Hodges said, reasonably, “you could always yell. You’re pretty fast so you could yell for quite a bit before he gets you. Long enough for Mr Mori to hear.”
“What d’you think Mr Mori’s going to do against a great big bloke like him?”
“Mr Mori’s a teacher,” Hodges said, speaking slowly, soothingly, as though Ioain was suddenly as retarded as he was doomed. “Of course he’s going to be able to help. Some way. If you’re really lucky. Look, there’s no sense getting all upset about it. You could always not go. It’s not like he knows where to find you.”
“He knows where to find you?”
“Well — rather. He knows where to find Chester. I reckon if he twisted Chester’s balls hard enough Chester’d tell him where to find me.”
“D’you reckon you might end up telling him where to find me, then?”
“Suppose so. D’you think you ought to go tonight, then?”
Shail was waiting in the room. There was an extra chair beside the piano stool, possibly for an examiner or accompanying cellist, and when Ioain opened the door he saw Shail in the chair looking directly at him. Shail said, “Shut it,” and Ioain kicked the door shut behind him. The echo of the wood hitting the doorjamb rattled in his ears, dry as dust.
“D’you play?” he asked. Shail looked at him and for a minute he thought he was really going to get hit and he was immensely, shamefully relieved to know that, it was wonderful actually knowing what was definitely going to happen to him, and then Shail said, “No,” and Ioain wanted to hit him back, screaming what the hell did you pause like that for if you weren’t going to have it over with. But of course he didn’t because the universe didn’t work that way, you didn’t magically get out of trouble by hitting someone twice your size with scars all down the backs of his hands the entire school reckoned was from bare-knuckle fighting. Some of the older boys in Shail’s year said they had seen him going at it, once, that was where he got his pocket money from. Ioain touched the old piano’s lid, setting it up and stroking the ivory keys beneat it without pushing them down. Shail said, “D’you play?” and he said, “Sure,” and looked up, hearing the chair scraping against the floor. Shail was standing by the door, one hand on the handle that opened the door. Ioain waited for him to turn it and leave; he turned it without pulling on the handle, so that it simply twisted in place, and then he reached below it and turned the knob below it and the lock snapped shut.
“That’s not funny,” Ioain said.
“Could you play something?” Shail asked. “I’m not choosy. Play anything. Something good.”
He didn’t know why he said that. Shail nodded. The air in the room was stuffy; no windows and a lot of extra material underneath the whitewash, padding the walls to take out the echoes and round out the sound.
“Mr Mori plays in here,” Ioain said. “There’s another room. He’s always here this time of the night.”
“How d’you know?”
“I’m here sometimes.”
“Never seen you,” Shail said, and then he looked away and Ioain thought this time Shail would definitely hit him (it’s not always what you say, sometimes it’s just what other people say to you that you weren’t supposed to hear) but instead Shail said, “Sounded like the front door,” looking up and out as though he could see all the way down the long corridor and around its two twisty bends; Ioain grabbed his bag, twisted the lock open and ran out. Shail followed; Ioain could feel that, Shail’s footfalls shocking the same carpet he ran across, a false prickling sensation as of Shail’s hot breath on his back. He found the door to one of the practice rooms and shoved that open to let himself in; it was dark but he knew where everything was, he spent all his time here. In the slice of light showing from the corridor Shail was a shadow sneaking up to the doorway, the door curving slowly shut on him; Mr Mori’s voice said, “What are you doing here?” and the shadow stopped moving, the door continued to shut, the walls breathed, sound-dead, down Ioain’s neck. He had his back to the wall and he walked slowly along it, to the door, barely open more than a few inches now. Mr Mori said, “Are you waiting for someone?” and Shail didn’t answer; Ioain remembered seeing him playing ruggers on the long field, in the evening, remembered the fierce frightened power that had torn through the heavy exit doors last night. And Mr Mori sounded so much softer in the acoustically adjusted halls. Ioain pushed through the door before it shut completely and said, “Shail, over here,” and then, looking at Shail, “It’s this room,” and to Mr Mori, “Sorry, he’s with me.”
“It’s very late,” Mr Mori said. He was wearing a faded workman’s jacket over a hooded sweater; he looked like someone’s older brother, visiting for the weekend. There were white burrs all over his dark khakis up to the knees and he smelt of wet grass and cigarettes; his hair stuck up in unexpected places and blew wild over his eyes. You could imagine him crashing your room, trying to sleep in the chair at your desk, clicking quietly through the porn stash on your computer while waiting for you to wash up. Shail wouldn’t look at him, just aside, out of the windows, or at the doors, or at Ioain’s shoulder.
“We won’t stay too late,” Ioain said. He saw Mr Mori looking indirectly at Shail, facing him but with such a closed expression on that soft calm face he knew Mr Mori was wondering about Shail. “Sorry to bother you,” he added. That always worked. Mr Mori said, “No, it’s not a bother at all. Don’t stay too late,” and then he was walking past them, to Solo Room 4, and Shail and Ioain were alone in the corridor when he went in and shut the door.
“Come on,” Ioain said to Shail, not unkindly. He opened the door into the room he had made a run for and walked in, stopped just inside the room still holding the door open while feeling around the walls for the light switch. Shail said, “Don’t,” and he turned, felt the door handle turn under his fingers, saw Shail pushing the door shut. The window in the wall beside the upright piano faced the courtyard and its long row of butter-yellow lamps hanging high on scarecrow black-iron posts, there was enough light for him to see Shail walking over to him. He found the piano bench and sat down. “I can’t see to play,” he said.
“Don’t,” Shail said again, sitting down beside him. He turned half away from Shail, automatically; couldn’t stop his left foot from beating a sort of half-hearted waltz out on the battered carpet. Slowly, idly, he leaned back, and Shail shifted on the bench, taking his weight on one wide shoulder. Close up, there was a kind of rumbling feeling to Shail’s voice, although he thought that was also because he could feel Shail’s ribs against his back. “Think you can be quiet?” Shail asked. Ioain said, “Sure,” and Shail said, “A’ight,” and he breathed in, wondering what song Mr Mori was playing. Usually he never heard anyone else playing when he was in a piano room, but usually when he was in a piano room it was too full of his own music for him to wonder about anyone else’s. Shail’s hands wandered like a lost melody across his shoulders, feeling their way up his throat to the back of his neck, a thumb stroking up his cheek, and then Shail sort of rolled him over until they were facing each other, arms locked at strange angles and hips aching where they twisted, and Shail kissed him. Shail had a nice mouth, warm and inexplicably tender for all the fierce feral curls at the corners of its lips, and he knew how to use it and when he did you forgot what exactly you were doing and who you were doing it with and just tried to communicate to him not to stop, pull his head close and let him put his hands there and there and way down there and try to catch his tongue with yours to keep it where it was so it would never go away. It was very still in the room, cool as an electric fan, silent as Mr Mori between songs. Beyond the door, he thought he could hear that silence of Mr Mori’s walking down the long corridor, listening to them.
Shail said, “Shut up,” and he said, “I didn’t say anything,” suddenly wanting Mr Mori to knock on the door and ask if everything was all right. He imagined opening the door and seeing Mr Mori standing there, holding his shoes. Shail had an earring in his left ear; Ioain felt it brushing cold against his lower lip when Shail’s mouth moved sloppily down the side of his chin and along his throat, teeth burning bites into his skin. Shail knelt over him, fingers pulling at his belt and trousers; he pushed himself up on his elbows and looked at the glint of light in Shail’s left earlobe, the long lush fall of Shail’s hair exactly over one eye. Every time he looked at Shail he only remembered seeing one eye staring back at him, like an omen.
“Wait up,” Shail said. Ioain listened to him searching carelessly through his pockets, knowing what he was looking for, wondering if Shail had brought it just because of him or – he didn’t want to think about that. Tried to think instead of Shail standing outside his door, listening to him play. Sometimes you play for just one person, he thought, but he couldn’t say it, knew it was impossible for Shail to understand. Shail’s hands on his throat and hips and sliding down the insides of his thighs were too clever, knew where in the dark to reach and how exactly to stretch and tease and shock; hands that were too used to doing things to other people, many of the same things to many different people. Ioain put his arms around Shail’s neck and kissed him, soft on the sharp high edge of his cheek and Shail stopped moving for a minute, Ioain’s legs tangled like awkward vines around his waist, breathing on each other. Ioain was thinking about Mr Mori sitting in Solo Room 4, silent, hands on the keyboard but not moving. Above him Shail seemed to have stopped breathing. He didn’t know what Shail was thinking about.
“Shut up,” Shail said again, and this time Ioain said, “You shut up,” but Shail didn’t answer, just pushed inside him. It was different from the senior who’d coaxed him into bed three times a week over the last Christmas holidays, and it was different from the captain of the visiting cricket team who had kept coming back to try and sign him on to the county team, an elegant tanned boy whom he had allowed to fuck him in the gym showers after St P___’s lost in the finals. The senior had graduated at the end of June and he had left cricket for good the day after and none of it had been unpleasant, he felt he had come away triumphant despite always being the seduced and not the seducer. There was something he felt both those other boys surrendered to him when they came up to him and looked at him and he knew what they wanted from him, what they were willing to risk just to have him. And some of it was the same with Shail – the strength and the elegance and the cool superior feel of the long muscled body crouched over him, moving inside him, the hand holding both his wrists down over his head, the voice low in his ear telling him it wanted to hear him beg to be fucked, harder, growing deeper and hungrier the more he obeyed. But before it had always been about him and the person who wanted him and it had been very straightforward and he knew exactly what both of them would get out of it, what it did for both of them. In this lightless piano room behind a door he knew was not locked it was Shail fucking him hard and deep and relentlessly and it was also Mr Mori sitting at the old piano in Solo Room 4, at once silent and full of song; Shail’s smooth fingertips tracing vein-lines down his thighs and the backs of his knees, broad warm palms sliding under his ass and lifting his legs higher, pressing inside him close and tight and tender to a rhythm he kept thinking of as the beat of Mr Mori’s songs. A silence as constant as a deep river.
Hodges didn’t ask, when he came back alive; he couldn’t help limping and he winced every time he sat down for a few days after, so perhaps that was all the answer Hodges needed. The only time anyone ever said Shail’s name to him again was a week later, when he was watching the regular ruggers match by himself at the lower edge of the field. The sky was turning a sharper and brighter and more unforgiving blue, as though bracing itself before time for autumn, and the trees at the lower edge of the field were all dark whispering firs looming high overhead, secrets crowding their branches. Ioain had lost track of the score long ago, could barely have said which boy was on which team; he had found a spot underneath one of the trees where the trunk curved just right to let you lean your back and shoulders and head against it, drop your eyes half-shut to see the world in panoramic movie view. Against the jewelled green and yellow of the lawn and the sunlight nibbling on the edges of low-hanging leaves, Shail’s distant silhouette moved across his field of vision like a shadow over the sun.
Mr Mori was looking down at him, head bent to the side. On the field, he saw Shail breaking easily away from the pack, long dark legs taking great hungry strides down the field to where the white bars of the goal loomed out of the trees like bones in a forest.
“He’s going to score,” Ioain said to Mr Mori.
“Who? Oh, your friend Shail. Are you all right? You haven’t been looking too well these past few days.”
“I’m fine,” Ioain said.
“Ah, that’s good. It’s just, you seem to have something on your mind quite a bit, lately.”
“Maybe I’ll need to come to you when the time’s right.”
Mr Mori inclined his head slightly while looking down at his feet, the way he did when you said something to him which he could not possibly reply to. At the other end of the field Shail had crossed the line and thrown the ball down and was turning in a circuit to join the others who were just beginning to catch up with him.
“Look at him go,” Ioain said. “So bloody fast.”
“He looks fast,” Mr Mori said. “Very sure of what he’s doing.”
“Sure,” Ioain said. “He’s all right.”
Far away, across the field, Ioain saw Shail shoving his mates away, pushing his long damp hair out of his eyes, looking straight across the field to where Ioain and Mr Mori stood.