James closes his novel and marks his place with a tattered piece of ribbon, once a seal fob in his more foppish days. “Strawberries, Francis.”
Francis, half-asleep on the pillow beside him, opens a single bleary eye. “What?”
“Where do they grow?”
“In a field, no doubt.”
“Yes, but which?”
“How the devil should I know?” Francis wrestles himself upright, hair charmingly disarranged. “What's come over you?”
James taps his index finger against the book in his lap. “They’re picking strawberries. It sounds nice.”
He feels foolish saying it out loud. A part of him has never ceased longing for the countryside: the solidity of a well-grown garden, the comforting arm of encircling hills. London is a joy — a bright and lustrous jewel, miraculous after the barren, ghastly north — but James is tired of the city in summer, defiantly dissatisfied despite Dr. Johnson’s oft-regurgitated point of view. James has never tired of life itself, not even at the lowest, dirtiest ebb of its fickle tide; but he would like a change of scene.
“Will you have a broad-brimmed bonnet into the bargain?” asks Francis, now entirely awake and grinning. “And a basket hanging on your arm?”
James stares at him. “You’ve been reading my book, you sly dog.”
“I’ve glanced at it,” says Francis, the skin crinkling around his eyes.
“When? It’s barely been out of my hands.”
“You do sleep, dear heart. And snore, from time to time.”
“Retract that remark at once.”
“I will not,” says Francis with a hearty laugh. “Miss Austen and I have kept each other company while you drone.”
“Like a bagpipe — and a Scottish one at that, by far the inferior kind.”
“How dare you,” hisses James. He jabs at Francis with a bony knee, and Francis catches him by the crook of it, drawing him closer under the counterpane.
“Irish, then,” he says to James’ suprasternal notch, “if you prefer.”
“Both are dreadful, in equal measure,” says James, abandoning his book and turning on his side, enfolding Francis with possessive legs and arms. “You are dreadful,” he says, kissing Francis fervently.
“Incorrigible,” says Francis, as soon as he has breath to do so. He snakes a hand between them, finding where James aches for him, palming and pressing until James is twitching in his grasp.
“Wretched,” says James, setting his teeth into Francis’ shoulder. “Insufferable.”
“Hush,” says Francis, and he rolls James onto his back and kisses him again, solid and intractable between James’ cradling legs. James rocks up against him, flushed with love and pleasure; thinking, distantly, of strawberries.
“This is intolerable, James.”
“If you wore your hat it would be less so,” says James mildly, straightening and stretching out his back. “You’ve gone the colour of a Royal Marine.”
“I wasn’t made for sunshine,” says Francis, scowling from the shade of an upheld hand. “Not so much of it, at any rate.”
Francis is truly pink now, not just ruddy from the summer heat, but lobster-red across his forehead and between the open collar of his shirt. The scattered freckles at his nose and neck have deepened from copper to mahogany; he looks sweaty, and dejected, and absolutely charming.
They’ve taken a country cottage for a fortnight — in Surrey, no less, closer to Box Hill than Emma Woodhouse could have wished — and there are strawberries. James will never know how Francis did it, suspecting Ross’ involvement or, more likely, Lady Ann’s. Francis is perfectly capable and domesticated, but James feels the presence of a third, benevolent hand. How else to explain their discovery in the garden of a straw-strewn strawberry patch, fruit red and ripening on the vine?
James is in his element: scorching heat and open fields, a broad horizon in a thousand shades of green, the sound of birds at dawn and in the lingering midsummer evenings. No more rattling carriages or the ringing chime of hooves, no lamp-lighters or knocker-uppers or barrow boys or petty thieves. He can’t remember the last time he wore a hat, or a coat, or a pair of boots. Even the sun is smiling on him: where Francis is shrimp-pink and miserable, James has turned a burnished shade of gold, almost as dark as he was in the South China Sea. He hardly knows himself in the glass each morning when he shaves. His eyes look lighter, more green than brown, as though the sun has changed their colour, too.
He stands among the strawberries — no bonnet on his head or pink-beribboned basket on his arm — but in dusty trousers and his loosest shirt, sleeves rolled up and collar in sweat-soaked disarray.
“You’re forty years a sailor, Francis,” he says, wiping his forehead on the back of his hand, “one might expect you to be rather better seasoned by now.”
“Leathery, you mean? Rough and rugged to the last degree?”
“You’re quoting something,” says James, narrowing his eyes.
“I am,” says Francis. “And I’m tired, James. I’m going to sit under that tree.” He stumps away with his hard-won fruit, a picture of overheated discontent.
James works to the end of the row and back again, enjoying the tickle of the plants’ tiny hairs under his fingers, the thrill of a swollen berry peeking from beneath concealing leaves, even the stooping of which Mrs Elton had so eloquently complained. He’s missed honest labour of this kind, has grown slack and idle in retirement, craves — more than he ever thought he would — the crush and scramble of a life at sea, the endless climbing, dodging, even walking up and down, which on a ship in open water is an exertion in itself.
No sooner has this crossed his mind than his back begins to ache — and his knees to click as he bends, and the twice-knit scars in his arm and side to give their characteristic twinge — and he chides himself for being such a sentimental fool. He has reached a well-upholstered middle age, and should be grateful for it, not wish himself at sea once more. He stands up and arcs his stiffened spine, looks briefly over his shoulder at Francis, who’s still ensconced beneath the tree, and goes across the verdant lawn towards the cottage door.
Once inside, he fetches cream from the dairy, sugar from the larder, a jug of ginger beer and a pair of tumblers, assembling everything on a tray. The woman who comes to cook for them each morning has left a dish of small spiced shortbreads, and he brings them too, pausing briefly as he leaves to put his head under the scullery pump, gasping as the water discharges in an icy rush.
“You look positively dissipated,” says Francis, as James arrives with the tray balanced on one hand, the basket of strawberries in the other, and his hair lank and dripping into his eyes.
“I feel it, I assure you,” says James, setting the tray down carefully and sprawling on the grass at Francis’ side. The shade is blissful; he lies flat on his back with his head on Francis’ thigh. Francis puts a hot hand into his sodden hair, rakes the lank strands off his forehead, strokes it flat against his skull.
“Have you had your fill of strawberries?” says Francis above him.
“Of picking them, certainly.”
“And eating? How many got as far as the basket?”
“Plenty,” says James, though in truth he has eaten roughly one in every ten.
“Here.” Something brushes James’ lips and he parts them, tasting sweetness on his tongue. He bites down and liquid fills his mouth before he swallows.
The hand in James’ hair now merely rests there, anchoring his head, holding him in place. Another berry comes to his mouth, this time wet with cream. James bites it to the stem and sighs.
At some point, he must have closed his eyes, for he opens them again to see a shifting canopy of leaves, cut through with glassy sunlight. Closer to is Francis, flushed from his golden hair to the arrow of his open shirt; a glowing harvest moon, upside down and smiling.
“Cheered up a little, have you?” says James. “You’re like the cat that got the cream.”
Francis says nothing, but brings his thumb to James’ lips, coated in that very substance; James opens his mouth and licks it clean. Next a biscuit, which melts like butter on his tongue. Another strawberry, then sugar alone, glittering on Francis’ fingertip.
“You’re beautiful like this,” says Francis, his thumb lingering on James’ jaw.
James shoots him a scathing glance: difficult, while supine, but he does his best. “Flat on my back?” he says. “Quiet — tired?”
“Relaxed,” says Francis. “Happy.”
He smooths a hand along James’ unguarded throat. James shivers, from the convergence of sensation and smothered memory, though nowhere could be further from that shattered island than this warm and hopeful place, so full of growing things.
James turns his head on Francis’ lap, nuzzling at his belly, at the seam where chest meets hip. He smells of woodsmoke, grass and honey; his skin still heated through the linen of his shirt. James kisses him there, dampening the fabric, moves lower, but can’t get close enough. “Lie back,” he says.
Francis scrubs a hand across his face. “I’m too old for this, James.”
“I shall desist, if you prefer.”
But Francis only gives him a mildly disapproving look and leans against the tree roots, which enclose him like a stiff armchair. James unbuttons Francis’ fly, having briefly considered using his teeth, and tugs out the crumpled folds of shirt. Francis’ cock is pink against his thigh, soft but stirring, like something waked from sleep. James lifts it tenderly between finger and thumb and puts his mouth around it, holding its weight upon his tongue.
Slowly, James begins to suckle, summoning saliva, tonguing at the wrinkled furl of foreskin, feeling Francis swell with blood and heat. At full sail, his cock is stocky and choleric — not unlike the man himself — and this thought sets James smiling, even as he takes it deep into his mouth. Above him, Francis groans, a lovely sound; James looks up to see his head tipped back, chest and belly heaving, berry-red at neck and ears.
James caresses him with mouth and teasing hands, nosing at his stones, which are plump and furred as figs, tensing against the thickness in his throat, an arm thrown over twitching hips. Francis’ fingers graze his cheek, then knot together in his hair; neither guiding nor peremptory, only overwhelmed. At the height of crisis, Francis shouts into the open sky, spilling thick and urgent on James’ tongue. James swallows, tasting brine and copper: bloody flesh and open sea. He pulls off with exaggerated care, cruelly solicitous, until Francis hisses like a cat and pushes him away.
James flops back on Francis’ thigh, immensely smug and satisfied. His own desire burns lazily, an unstoked fire. Francis pats him vaguely on the shoulder, and for a while they merely lie together, sated and still warm, despite the shade. At length, James hauls himself upright and pulls Francis closer for a kiss, hands soft against his sunburned skin.
“You taste abominable,” says Francis.
“I taste of you.”
“And strawberries. The combination is obscene.”
James smirks and kisses him again. When they break apart, Francis reaches for a strawberry and bites it, spitting out the stem. James dips a biscuit in the cream and brings it, dripping, to his mouth. “We ought to go to Box Hill,” he says, as he licks his fingers clean.
“And commit a mortifying social sin?” Francis has a sleepy eyebrow raised.
“You’d manage it with alacrity, I’m sure,” says James, thinking of Frank Churchill’s recklessness and Emma’s incivility.
“Oh, indeed.” Francis settles back against the tree again, bringing James with him, an arm about his waist. “But in a day or so, perhaps, for the sake of my face.”
“If you would only wear—”
“I’m not wearing the damned hat, James. It makes me look like a gardener.”
“What have we been doing today, if not gardening?”
Francis laughs, a low chuckle. “I’ve heard it called many things in my time—”
“You know I mean the strawberries,” says James. He leans back in Francis’ arms, closing his eyes against the brightness of the sky.
“Your hair is almost dry,” says Francis. His mouth is close to James’ ear, the words buzzing there like bees.
James feels a kiss against his temple, then the apex of his cheek. The air is full of sweetness and above them, in the tree, a finch begins to sing.