The fire is down to embers by the time Harry is satisfied with the alphabet page in his notebook, but the heat is still radiating through the one-room flat, curling like a cat around their ankles, seeping into the floor and the quilt thrown over John’s bed.
He gets up from the table with the book in his hands, and John looks over, turning his face back from the window where he has been watching raindrops race since the meager sun went down. It’s pouring, and now thunder has crept into the sky overhead, and lightning is flashing somewhere west.
“Let’s see, then,” he says, as Harry crouches down beside his chair and hands the book to him, watching John’s face expectantly.
“Be honest with me, now,” he says.
In precise bunches of four, Harry has copied out the alphabet, all down the page, in his cramped and hesitant handwriting; two capitals, two lowercase, here and there a scribbled matching word shoved up into an empty space: b is for boat, g is for glad. The pencil is smudged where he paused or let his fingers rest, but every shape is in its place, like a tidy battalion of soldiers cascading down the page.
“Here,” John says, pointing to the word scratched underneath the third set of letters. “You’ve written cea. Sea is spelled with an s.”
Harry furrows his brow. “It sounds the same.”
“It does. But c can be hard or soft—you hear?” He demonstrates. Cat. Ice. “And s is only soft. It’s an old word, sea.”
“Otherwise,” says John, “well done, Harry. Very well done.”
John shuts the book and hands it back to him, and Harry smiles, looking properly pleased with himself, as well he should.
It’s autumn, and Harry’s beard is back, sitting full and sweetly on his cheeks and chin. At sea he had always been clean-shaven—too hot to wear a beard in the tropics—but they have both been ashore for months now, and he has let it grow back in. John thinks that it suits him—makes him look youthful, somehow. Brings out the glow in his cheeks and the glint in his eye. He has said as much, and seen Harry’s color rise.
When Harry found him—knocked on his door, two years older but with a smile just as bright, exclaiming how happy he was to have finally found John’s address—they had picked up almost directly from the point at which they had left off, though things were, of course, different than they’d been on the Beagle, in the far Pacific. Rose, he knew, was dead, had passed while they were together at sea with Darwin; but Harry had gotten on alright, and had been looking for John for a month now, trying to post him a letter or send him a book, and only now had he pinned him down.
He wanted to talk, like old times. Transform John’s slum flat into the steward’s cabin of the Beagle where he’d picked his way through the Greek alphabet for the first time. John could see something lonely in his face, something Harry seemed to be denying to himself, something not quite right.
Of course they could talk. And they talked for hours.
Hardly a day had gone by since then that they hadn’t seen one another; John’s shore leave stretched before him like an empty field and Harry was only too happy to fill it while he waited for orders from the Wanderer to take him back out to sea. In the mornings he’d arrive with bread from the bakery, and in the afternoons they’d bandy philosophy or read in silence, or Harry would practice his script—still confused, still spidered and rough—in the notebook John had given him. And in the evening Harry would leave again, bound for the half hour’s walk through the alleys and streets to his own house, tucked between a hundred others on a street that barely mattered, where there was no company anymore but himself and Rose’s ghost.
Now he is putting on his shoes and his coat, and John listens to the distant roll of thunder, the slashing of the rain on the window. He stands up, feeling the ache of the storm in his knees. Older now, every day.
“Later than usual, isn’t it?”
“Will you at least get a hackney?” John says, watching him tuck his notebook carefully in his pocket, safe beneath his long coat. The coat is full of holes at the seams.
Harry shakes his head. “Haven’t the money.”
“You’ll drown,” John says, with humor. “It’s the Second Flood out there.”
“It’s only a short walk.”
“Might you stay? Until the weather clears.”
“I couldn’t impose,” Harry says, laughing.
John scoffs. “Couldn’t impose. I insist on it.” He crosses to the boiler, lights it; it’s practically midnight, but there is never a bad moment, particularly in a storm like this, for a cup of tea. “Come, have a cup at least before you go out into that torrent.”
Harry stands there at the door, his hat in one hand, his coat half-buttoned, for a moment.
“Are you sure?”
John hears something there—something he is used to—because everyone knows the kind of man John Bridgens is, and the kind of company he keeps late at night.
Won’t the neighbors talk?
What might they think?
It has long since ceased to bother him, but he is not surprised that it might bother Harry. He doesn’t care what John is, John knows, and is grateful for it. But he is young, and still has a reputation, however vague, to uphold.
“We were lost in discussion,” John says, “weren’t we?”
“Never fear,” says Harry, hesitantly.
“Come sit. Unless you are afraid of an old man.”
Harry grins, sets his hat back on the hook by the door, shrugs off his coat again.
“You’re not old yet,” he says, sinking comfortably back into his chair, watching John busy himself at the boiler.
John scoffs. “Old enough to be your father and then some.”
“My father was never so smart or kind,” Harry says. John glimpses the fondness of his smile out the corner of his eye. It’s nearly as warm as the hearth itself. “Never so patient with me.”
“But he was a good father?”
“A good man,” says Harry. “I don’t know about a good father.”
“You’ve come up alright, haven’t you.”
“If ever I am boring you—” John begins.
Harry laughs. “Boring?”
“You’re a young man.” He watches the steam begin to rise from the kettle. “Wiling away your leave with someone of my age.”
“A friend,” Harry says, with insistence. “Besides, who else have I got?”
They don’t look at one another, but John feels the air grow sober. He thinks for a moment of Harry’s empty house—he has only seen it but once—full of pale light and deep shadows, untouched furniture, bric-a-brac filmed with dust. As if man passed through it only like a breath, disturbing nothing.
No, he thinks. There might very well be no one else.
He says it without thinking it through: “Might you stay the night?”
Harry blinks at him. The fire is dying, pulling in the dark around it, softly. “What?”
He knows it sounds like a proposition, but he also knows that Harry is smart enough to tell the difference. He gestures to the window. “Hardly likely to find a hackney at this hour anyway. I would sleep easier knowing you were safe and warm here than turned around in the dark and cold out there.”
Harry laughs. “John,” he says, “you know I know my own way home.”
“And when you catch cold and spend the next week shivering in bed, I’ll have no one to bring me bread in the morning,” John says, sliding a cup of piping tea cross the table to Harry, who catches it with a grin. “And then where will I be?”
“Oh, destitute.” Harry’s face softens, the edges carved away by his smile. “Miserable.”
“I’ll not take your bed, though, John.”
“The chair will do for me.”
They match eyes across the table, and John already knows that Harry will say yes, can see it in the laugh-lines that crease his cheeks, and Harry sighs, as if defeated; looks past him to the window where lightning comes in sheets, illuminating in stark instants the falling rain.
“Well,” he says, “I thank you for it.”
The matter is settled, and before long Harry’s coat is forgotten, his cup refilled, and they have stumbled sideways into Latin conjugation; Harry is soldiering on through the conversation past the dying warmth of the fire, past the yawns that roll up out of his mouth, until John pauses, smiles softly, taps his knuckles a few times on the table.
“Usually abed by now, aren’t you?”
“Usually.” Harry smiles at him wearily and rubs his eyes with two fingers. “If you’re going to insist I take that bed—”
“Go on then. I’ll have my pipe and turn in.”
Harry watches him stand, unbutton his waistcoat and his shirt cuffs, and slouch down in the one upholstered chair, near the window, where the draft is cool and the rain is loud.
It’s a goodnight, and John doesn’t stare or even look while Harry untucks his shirt and removes his own waistcoat, sitting down unsteadily on the mattress of John’s narrow bed. He smokes his pipe, ankles in their stockings crossed, and only rises once more to blow out the candles on the table, drop the room into semi-darkness.
“If you need anything, Harry,” he says, settling back down, the chair creaking beneath his weight. He hears Harry lie down, stretch out across the covers, too self-conscious or too proper to get underneath them.
“Thank you, John.”
Then, the quiet rain; the storm rolling south.
Something is wrong, though Harry’s smile and his voice are as bright as ever, and they’ve returned from the chophouse that neither of them can afford with full stomachs and the smell of good wine about them, and John can’t place it. Harry, he has learned, is an emotional man; what he chooses to show, he shows with enthusiasm—what he chooses to hide is tucked carefully away, like a package to be opened at some later, quieter date.
The hour is already late when they return to John’s flat, and he expects Harry to gather up his things and be on his way as usual, but instead Harry sits back down at John’s table and opens up his Greek again and asks, as if their lesson had not been interrupted at all, if John could explain the grammar here.
John pauses, hanging his coat up beside Harry’s near the door, and comes to sit next to him, to peer over his shoulder at what is puzzling him.
Something about gender, the word for the ocean. He can tell that Harry is listening as he explains, but he himself is distracted, searching the young man’s face for hints as to what is troubling him. If he finds any, he’ll be surprised.
And he doesn’t; Harry’s face is carefully blank, and John knows that he is listening with every nerve in him, focusing on every word John is saying, every line printed in his book.
“I think I understand.”
“None of it is intuitive, I’m afraid.”
“I’ll learn it sooner or later.” He lifts his smile to John, but it lasts only a fraction of its usual breadth, and he knows he’s been caught out because he drops his head again just as quickly.
John touches his arm, very gently, with only his fingertips.
“What’s troubling you, Harry?”
Harry is quiet for a moment. He slowly closes his book, lets his hand rest delicately on its cover, as if afraid to put pressure on it, to feel it underneath his palm.
“I have—a difficult time,” he says, carefully, “in the spring.”
John nods, once, quietly.
“Have you been to see her?” he asks, soft.
“Not since last year.” Harry’s shoulders curve in a little, his hand slipping down to rest between his thighs, where it might fidget without being seen. “Don’t really feel right, doing it.”
John doesn’t say anything. Harry’s face is flushed, and he is boring holes into his Greek book with his eyes, as if any motion side to side might snap him in half.
He bites out, eventually,“I did love her.”
“Of course,” John says.
Harry had talked about Rose with the fondness of a giddy schoolboy crush, all those years ago at sea, though there was always a sadness there, the knowledge that they could never marry, that she could never give him children; she had been beautiful, and he had loved her. Whatever that had amounted to in their short time together still clung to him, like a cobweb, like dust. He couldn’t shake her.
She had died in the spring, a year before they’d landed back in England. John remembers the letter arriving, near the southern tip of the Americas. All the light had gone out of him in an instant. All the joy.
He remembers thinking, as they’d bid their farewells on the docks with an embrace and a promise to write, that if Harry vanished into the fog and never emerged, he wouldn’t have been surprised—sad, of course, horribly sad, to lose a friend. But grief was willful. It had a way of taking hostages.
Rose isn’t something they talk about. The rent Harry pays on the house they’d been meant to share, the particulars of the time John spends alone, families, loves—it isn’t something they talk about; where they meet is a stretch of golden hours where higher things come into play, where Harry can parse religion and philosophy that he doesn’t understand, and John can ask him questions that provoke him, confuse him, illuminate him. Always with the understanding, of course, that those things could be talked about—that John’s room was a place of safety—and he wonders how long Harry has been waiting to say something that had nothing to do with grammar or handwriting, to let some secret part of himself out for John to see.
“I don’t like that house,” Harry says. His voice is rough but not quite breaking. “Never liked it much when she was alive, either. If I had the money for a new one I’d sell it. Rent it. Move closer to the docks. Or down this street. I don’t know.” He gives John a brave, if watery, smile. “I like being here. I don’t have to think about it.”
John doesn’t know what to say, so he says nothing. He sits quietly with Harry until the redness in his face has passed and his leg has stopped jittering under the table and his breath is even again. Harry doesn’t cry. He blinks whatever tears were in his eyes away and straightens slowly, glancing up at the descending night out the single window.
“I wonder if I loved her as much as I think I did,” he says, managing laughter, though it’s weak. “I wonder if that isn’t the grief.”
“I could see that you did,” John says.
“Yes.” Harry looks at him. His eyes are bright and liquid. “I did, but I don’t anymore. Or not as much. It fades. Is that terrible? Terrible of me?”
“Natural, I should think.”
Harry keeps his eyes on John’s face, even when John looks away, back to the space between their seated bodies.
After a moment, he turns his head slowly back to the closed book on the table, and opens it again, pressing out the pages with his fingers.
John’s hand still rests on his arm, and he doesn’t move it, and Harry doesn’t move out from under it, either.
He falls asleep there, a few hours later, halfway through the final chapter of the text he has been reading aloud, his words slipping sideways and his head nodding slowly down onto his chest, and John supposes it would be unkind to wake him.
He gets up, takes the blanket from the back of his upholstered chair. It drapes around Harry’s thin shoulders, faded tartan, and John lets his hand rest briefly on the crown of Harry’s skull, sliding the book out from under him and easing his head down onto the table.
Let him sleep. A great deal has been said tonight, without much being said at all.
To think of Harry alone in the vast darkness of that empty house seems an unbearable cruelty to John Bridgens.
John knows they will not speak of Rose again, and it seems that Harry has let out a breath held for months.
His stays in John’s flat grow longer, and more and more he nods off into his crossed arms on the tabletop, or with his head tipped back over the ridge of the kitchen chair. John is unbothered by this. For the first time that he can remember, his little room feels bigger and colder when he is alone in it, in the brief hours of nighttime during which Harry is not there, and opening the door in the morning to his pleasant knock is like inviting the sun inside, even when the day has broken grey and wet.
If the neighbors talk, Harry has ceased to care—has even had the boldness to greet John’s landlady in the hall.
He likes to be read to—it just so happens that John likes to read aloud. He has recently found a secondhand copy of an account of Ross’ voyage through Lancaster Sound, and Harry listens spellbound, the only movement of his face the occasional flicker of his eyelashes, as if he is somewhere far away, deep in the cold and dark.
In the margins of Harry’s notebook John sees sketches, idle and tiny, of waves, of miniature ships tossed topsy-turvy, of the shadows of mountains and trees. When philosophy grows too dull or the chapters too long they will talk about the sea, about the Beagle, the warm Galapagos sands, the heady, overwhelming smell of the jungles, the bleak and beating sun. John remembers him, in a rare spare moment, holding Herodotus very close to his face, as if by seeing the letters up close they might mean more—the high light coming thick through the cabin window, spilling over him like honey. His eyes glancing up. Seeing him, and smiling.
“Oh death, where is thy sting.”
John’s eyes are closed; on the hob, water is boiling. Harry is perched on the end of his bed, his Bible loose in his hand, concentrating.
“Oh grave, where is thy—vic—victory.”
“The sting of death is sin—and the st—the—the st—Christ.”
“Spell it out.”
He can hear Harry’s breath ruffling the paper in frustration, but he does, slows down, begins again.
“The sting of death is sin, and the str—the str—en—g—th. Strength. The strength of sin is the law.”
John opens his eyes to the scream of the kettle and Harry grinning at him broadly, in triumph.
“There,” John says, with a smile, easing himself up out of his bed to fetch the kettle, “you got there in the end.”
His knees are aching desperately, and he has been propped up in bed all day, ignoring as best he can Harry’s attemps to bustle around, to do things for him. He is growing old, he knows—is reminded of it by the unblemished youth in Harry’s face every day—but not so old that a friend must fetch his tea for him.
Harry lets his Bible fall shut, and sits patiently while John makes their cups, his stocking feet dangling an inch above the dusty floor. When John hands him the cup and saucer he takes it carefully, and John sits down in the chair opposite, leans back to let his legs rest again.
“I’ve been thinking I’ll see a doctor,” Harry says, waiting for the steam to rise from his tea, “about my eyes.”
“Not getting any worse, are they?”
“No—but it must be my eyes, don’t you think? I can’t ever seem to make them stay in place—the letters in things.” He lifts his cup at the same time that John does, and as if in ritual synchrony they take the quiet moment to drink together, and then he says, “If there are spectacles for it, I wouldn’t mind that. Only for reading. I wouldn’t need them to work.”
“Those would be remarkable spectacles.”
“Expensive, I reckon,” Harry says ruefully. “I might wait—until next leave.”
Neither of them have any idea when that will be—no idea when the Wanderer will put to sea again, taking Harry with her. Nor has John any idea how long until his uninterrupted stretch of time will come to an end—what ship he’ll next set foot on, what clime he’ll be destined for. They have mused, idly, on the idea of sailing together, by some luck, to the West Indies, or back around Cape Horn, to China or India—in their minds an impossible voyage, of the two of them miraculously alone, free to waste their days as they pleased, free to think and speak or not speak at all.
It could be tomorrow that Harry packs his things and heads for the docks. It could be a month. The Wanderer could be sold, his position changed, a better job offered. Or perhaps it will be John next, at the end of this summer week, plucked out of the fog and damp to button a new captain’s cuffs and serve a new captain’s meals.
It is a reality, and not one that either of them like to entertain. It will mean the end of this, at least for a little while, with only letters sent from far places to bridge the gap, and no guarantee that it will be as easy to find one another again as it was this first time.
“Yes,” says John, softly, “you might wait.”
Harry’s Bible is resting on his thighs, and he picks it up and puts it aside in a whorl of John’s quilt, where its faded gilt letters catch the lowering sun.
“John,” Harry says, as if to begin a sentence or a question, “I.” But nothing follows it.
He sets his saucer down with utmost caution on the flat, precarious cover of his Bible, where his tea splashes dangerously but does not spill. His hand, curled, hovers there for a moment, as if arrested in a gesture; then it uncurls, smoothes the legs of Harry’s trousers on his thighs. He leans forward, rests one hand on John’s knee to brace himself. He kisses him, haltingly and uncertainly, for a fraction of a second—leans back, as if he has startled himself—seems to gather his courage and kisses him again, as soft and as gentle a kiss as John Bridgens has ever known, his body angled over the cup John still holds in his lap.
If he had the talent for words, for conjuring them, he thinks, he might take it down, to remember precisely and exactly:
Harry’s easy smile—Harry’s hand interlacing his—Harry’s clothes falling silent to the floor, dropped like shadows, his body soft and lovely, the white light of the rain coming again, gently now; his head on John’s shoulder, like a weary partner in the dance; his eyelashes long, his body pressed close, folding himself in as if to find absolute safety, as if to be certain no one could prise him out; his body lean, the long planes of his body, and the curves and edges of his shoulders, his throat, his back, the freckles and moles dusted like sand across him, the smell of smoke and salt in his hair, in his beard, in the sigh against John’s neck and the soft shudder of his hands; the look, of trust, of affection and conviction, the bitten lip, the murmur of yes, please, John, if you like. If you would, John—John. And the touch of his lips, the tremble of his muscles, the slow and easy motion, gentle, gentle—his arms wrapped around John’s neck the while, wound tight, and his eyes closed, his brilliant, laughing eyes, and his breath—his quiet voice, his hitching breath, swallowed moans and laughter, John’s name dancing on his mouth, his name full to bursting with love. His body full with love.
John will have his pipe, and then turn in.
He thumbs the pages of Harry’s notebook—impossible to read in the dark, though his eyes deceive him into imagining the words he knows are there. B is for boat. G is for glad. J is for John. C is for cea. Scribbled out, but not replaced. C is for—
In his narrow bed Harry is asleep, curled up like a child beneath the quilted covers, and at the window is the rain, quiet now, and kind.
Let him sleep.
His house somewhere is standing empty, and the room is warm, warm and free of ghosts. Full of words instead, that hang like lights: circling slowly, like curious birds, to be plucked down, occasionally—learned, and said.