Many thanks to Hanarobi for beta reading services above and beyond the call of duty, and for being willing to discuss this in great detail. And thanks to Oleander9999 for early encouragement when this was being outlined for the madness that is November and NaNoWriMo.
Long Ago and Far Away
by Laura Mason
Prologue - Moonlight Serenade
He woke when he realized it was thunder; he'd thought he was under fire.
Not on the beach; not at home, either. Ralph, half-asleep beside him, sensed Laurie's distress and murmured reassuring nonsense. A deep breath, then another, and Laurie relaxed fractionally. He was years away from the hellish scene in his dream. He closed his eyes and waited, but sleep was gone. Outside he could hear the rain; when there was a flash of lightning he counted until the rumble followed.
He turned to the nightstand and reached for Ralph's watch, trusting that even in a strange room, he would have left it precisely in the center of the tabletop as always. He had, and Laurie peered at the timepiece with bleary eyes. Only three, not even the usual visiting time for nightmares full of pain and despair.
Dunkirk woke him tonight, but that wasn't his worst dream anymore. It was more disturbing to dream of finding Ralph with his head blown off in a Bridstow alley, or of Andrew slowly bleeding to death in the bombed-out shell of that London apartment. And even those didn't compare to the horror when he dreamt of his mother. He always woke with tears on his face when she visited his sleep, pale and wasted as she'd been that last day, asking in her most loving voice why he'd buried her when it was all a silly mistake and she wasn't dead.
"Spud." Ralph's sleepy growl promised distraction, but that wasn't all they offered each other. Or so Laurie justified it as he rolled into the warm arms and hungrily devoured Ralph's mouth. He impatiently pushed at the bed clothes and wrestled with Ralph's pajamas and his own until bare skin was pressed together and Laurie could buck into Ralph's hard flesh.
But the angle was wrong, and Laurie pulled Ralph on top so he could drive against him and hold him close and keep their mouths locked together. Ralph pulled away at the last, a sharp cry escaping him, but then Laurie had sucked in enough air to return to the muffling kiss as he kept frantically thrusting, nothing in his mind except reaching that peak.
Ralph's body remained tense and locked as Laurie needed it, instead of going boneless after his release. Laurie should have been used to Ralph's generosity in their lovemaking, but somehow tonight it broke his single-minded pursuit of pleasure and all his feelings came rushing back. He was in tears when he climaxed, a long groan escaping as he turned his head into the pillow, gasping for breath and feeling Ralph doing the same.
"I'm too heavy for you to keep holding this way, love." He hadn't realized he was still clutching Ralph so desperately. Laurie squeezed him one more time before releasing Ralph to let him move back to his usual side of their bed. Instead Ralph got up and moved to the in-suite bathroom. Laurie heard water running, and a few moments later Ralph was back with a damp cloth and towels.
"Just relax, Spud, let me do this for you." Ralph began gently washing him.
"I let you do too much," Laurie protested, even as another part of him was admiring the way the spill of light highlighted Ralph's nude body.
"After that, my dear, I believe you might need some rest and care," Ralph retorted, dropping a kiss on Laurie's stomach when he finished drying it. "You take my breath away, you know."
"Yes, very butch of me, wasn't it?" Laurie joked, Ralph's laugh a lovely reward as he left the room again. This intimacy still felt new, despite the years since they'd met up again. Between school and Ralph's naval duties, they'd hardly spent enough nights together to be past what normal couples called their honey-moon.
From where Laurie lay, he could hear the noise of New York. It wasn't just the storm, either -- voices and traffic sounds clearly drifted up to him despite the hour. It was also shockingly bright, even here on the 10th floor. He wondered if anyone could see in the window they'd opened, and whether they should have left the curtains tightly closed.
He knew they should both go back to sleep as soon as possible to be ready for the long train ride tomorrow. That was probably why Ralph had instigated sex, to put him back to sleep. It usually worked, Laurie realized, and wondered if the air in America was just too different. He felt wide awake, ready to go down to the hotel bar or head out to walk the streets with the rest of the sleepless humanity he could hear so clearly.
Then the bed dipped and Ralph was a sweet warmth along his right side, alive and whole ... Laurie let his hand find Ralph's, tucked between them as if to hide it. He held on and listened as Ralph's breathing slowed. One deep breath, then another. They were as whole as they'd been left by the War, and they were together. It was more than Laurie used to believe he could ever have, but that thought brought back the memory of Andrew. As he remembered how it felt to love so purely, transcending the physical, what he and Ralph shared seemed lessened.
1. - Sentimental Journey
The early morning rush to the train station was accomplished with all of Ralph's usual skill in organizing people and things. As Laurie dressed, Ralph finished his packing and disarranged the second bed to look slept in. Then Laurie packed his day-bag, an old valise he'd had since public school, and tucked a newspaper inside for Ralph to share with him. By the time he finished, everything else was already arranged at the door, waiting for the bellman.
If Damson hadn't written to him, where would they be this day? Laurie tried to picture it but his imagination failed. Ralph's discharge and the lack of jobs had left them more adrift than he'd felt ... well, since just after Dunkirk. No wonder he'd dreamt of the beach again last night.
"Come on, Spud, let's go."
He picked up his walking-stick and followed Ralph. Now the future begins, he thought, and he let himself be led to the elevator, through the crowded lobby, and into a waiting taxicab. The train station was even more crowded, but that was probably to Laurie's advantage, as it slowed the porter Ralph had engaged to handle their luggage. They followed him through the mass of humanity, past news-stands and sweet shops to the correct platform.
Finally they were settled in their seats, the day-bags stored overhead and Laurie's book and newspaper at hand. But the excitement was too distracting, so instead of reading Laurie watched out the window where porters were crossing back and forth like partners in an odd dance, bringing more groups of travelers headed to Montreal or, like Laurie, to points between. There were many uniforms in the crowd, even now.
"I thought you'd be exhausted, but it seems just the opposite."
"You're more used to travel than I am, Ralph," Laurie admitted, feeling a little foolish until he turned and saw understanding in Ralph's face.
In a lower voice Ralph said, "Once we're underway I'll take you to the club car for a bit, we can have a drink. Or some coffee if you'd prefer." Ralph's smile still had that vulnerability Laurie couldn't quite banish. "Just promise me you'll be careful walking."
"Of course." Laurie turned back to the window, a little amused as well as annoyed with Ralph, and uncomfortable with his resentment. Outside a man in a suit embraced a woman and kissed her. When he turned and disappeared from Laurie's view, she remained on the platform, gazing after him.
Ralph picked up the newspaper. "Would you like a piece of this, Laurie?" It was his public voice, and Laurie knew for the remainder of their travel Ralph would be very correct. Their shoulders would touch, seated together as they were, but that would be their only contact. The woman on the platform smiled suddenly and waved a gloved hand, and Laurie's heart lurched at the false gaiety, so at odds with the bleakness in her eyes. He turned his attention back to the man at his side.
"No thank you, Ralph. I've got my book."
"All right then." But Laurie caught Ralph's eye and gave him a smile, and for just a moment there was his private Ralph, the one who'd been with him in bed last night, sitting beside him and just as excited -- and anxious -- about their adventure.
The train gave a lurch and their journey continued. Laurie didn't bother to look out at the platform again. He knew the woman was still standing there, still waving, and would remain on the platform long after the train was out of sight.
Nearly nine hours later Laurie woke from a brief, restless nap. Ralph was gone, no doubt stretching his legs again. That was probably what had woken him, though Laurie thought that his subconscious knew he was closer to their destination and was demanding that he think about things he'd been avoiding until now.
Damson's letter was in his pocket, but Laurie didn't need to pull it out. He knew exactly what it said by now. I hope you'll consider the offer. Merrimac is a fine school and I think you could have a good life in Wrightsville. Laurie looked out the window, overwhelmed by the absurdity of it all. He wanted to teach. A simple thing, yet it had proven impossible at home. He'd finished his degrees, but the best job offer he'd had was to remain at Oxford as an assistant to the department.
So Damson's offer had come at the perfect time, with Laurie and Ralph both at loose ends since Ralph's discharge had finally come through. Nothing remained to hold them in England. Laurie still owned his house, of course, but he'd just signed a renewal of the Trevors' lease. His mother would have been a reason to stay... That loss was a pain nothing could heal, though he'd really lost her six years before her death. Now she was buried in the graveyard of Straike's current parish, and Laurie knew that man would remain for only a few more years before moving on, leaving her.
"Watch yourself, Spud." He moved over to make room for Ralph, who sat down beside him. "I'm glad you're awake, if I'm remembering the timetable correctly we're nearly there now."
"Good, I'll be happy to get off this train." Ralph smiled agreement and began gathering up their possessions. Laurie had wanted to teach at a university badly enough to cross an ocean, leaving behind everything familiar -- except the man sitting beside him as their train rattled north through the verdant countryside.
Laurie didn't know what Damson thought of Ralph accompanying him for the interview, but he'd refused to travel alone. Ralph hadn't argued for long, just told him they were asking for trouble. Perhaps he was right and it would have been better for Laurie to arrive alone and settle into his new job. Then it might have seemed logical when Ralph arrived and moved in, needing a place to stay. As it was, traveling together, it would be apparent that they were looking for a house to share.
The conductor walked through the car, announcing their station, and Ralph rose to gather the bags and store everything they'd pulled out during the trip.
Laurie knew the need for discretion would always exist, but he wasn't willing to make this decision alone. He needed to know Ralph would be making his own choices for their life together, not simply accepting whatever Laurie wanted.
Laurie could feel the train gradually slowing, and began his own maneuvers to stretch out his leg, slide over in the seat, and get up.
"Don't rush, Spud, I'll come back for you. This should be a longer stop."
"No worries," he replied with a grim smile. His leg had been in one position too long, but it would be fine once he could walk freely. He rose, avoiding the stares of the other passengers as he gathered his valise and walking stick. Then he had to drop both and hold on to the seat back as the train lurched to a complete stop, wrenching his leg. Ralph was at his side a moment later, not touching him but giving him a bit of privacy, blocking everyone else's view as he picked up the items and handed them back to Laurie.
Laurie nodded and they moved to the end of the car, met by a rush of warmer air from the open door. Ralph ran down the steps quickly and caught up to the porter dealing with their bags while Laurie climbed down more carefully, stubbornly holding his bag and stick in one hand and leaning on the rail. The conductor stood back discreetly, making Laurie feel slightly better. No doubt many veterans rode these trains home. He really must stop feeling so very self-conscious, as if he were the only one marked by the War. Ralph was waiting in the afternoon sunlight, smiling at him, and Laurie returned the smile while sternly reminding himself to focus on his blessings. He moved beside Ralph and looked with dismay at their luggage. It was only what they'd needed for the trip, but it made quite an impressive stack when piled together in this manner.
"Well, here we are."
Ralph's response was a grunt of assent as he began organizing their gear.
Laurie took a moment to look around at the crowd of people, greetings and farewells, each cluster a story waiting to be read by an interested observer. Some other day, Laurie might be the one watching and recording his impressions, anonymous and unnoticed on a lazy, hot afternoon, but today his eyes quickly moved away to the landscape around them.
The station was a red brick building just like so many others they'd passed on this journey. Across the street was a diner, and opposite that stood a garage beside what looked like a blacksmith shop. Past those structures, to the south, the buildings swiftly gave way to farm land, fields lush and looking nearly ready for harvest though it was midsummer.
Directly ahead of Laurie, the downtown could be glimpsed, taller buildings and shops, up a wide cobblestone street that ended at the station. That part of town seemed to climb toward the Mahoganies squatting in the distance, while to Laurie's right the streets were more cramped, twisting past faded frame houses. Further away factory chimneys poured out black smoke. Damson's family business would be one of these industries employing the citizens of Wrightsville.
It was oddly familiar -- and refreshing, after the crowds and noise of New York. Laurie breathed deeply, aware of a feeling of freedom. It was almost as if he were once again a young boy, the future laid out before him with no limits. He smiled happily at Ralph, feeling even more uplifted when he saw how Ralph's eyes glowed, too.
"We've made it."
But hearing his feelings articulated felt disloyal, so Laurie replied "It's not home."
"Home's not home. At least we're no longer under siege conditions."
Laurie nodded, thinking he should be over any surprise at Ralph's ability to read his thoughts. They'd only been in the States for three days but the abundance of food, fuel, money and optimism was striking. The endless shortages back home weren't the reason they were uprooting themselves, but they certainly made staying less attractive. He thought the idea of leaving might have felt unpatriotic at one time, but now it seemed as if the ability to make a life for themselves elsewhere was part of the reason they'd all fought, and so many had died.
Wrightsville glowed with the promise of a fresh start for both of them.
"Is Robert meeting us, Spud?"
"No, he wrote that we've rooms at the Hollis, just up Whistling Street. He said we can walk to the hotel."
"I'm sure. Here's a taxi." Ralph picked up two of the bags he'd so neatly stacked and moved toward a balding man who leaned against an elderly sedan. Laurie grimaced in minor annoyance -- he should be used to Ralph knowing when his knee ached, too. But he'd never get used to Ralph's high-handed manner at such times. Then Laurie smiled, a rather wicked smile. He'd make Ralph pay, later. Even if he had to launder their sheets by himself in the hotel room's sink.
The cabbie woke up enough to come and take the rest of the bags. As he stowed them in the boot, Ralph made a wry comment about the weight of the case holding Laurie's books. There were quite a few, but after all, they'd both needed something to read while on the boat. Ship, Laurie reminded himself -- if Ralph heard him call it a boat...
The cabbie looked back at them and asked, "You gents from out of town?"
"Yes," Ralph replied. "The Hollis Hotel, please." It was clear that Ralph did not intimidate this local; he seemed to move more slowly in response to the unspoken but plain "get on with it, man" in Ralph's tone.
"Sure," the cabbie grunted before climbing into his seat, leaving them standing.
Laurie sent a delighted look at Ralph, who rolled his eyes and opened the car door. Once Laurie was settled, Ralph quickly crossed and climbed into his own seat.
The hotel was a very short drive away. A small fare, Laurie realized -- which probably had more to do with the driver's attitude than Ralph's accent or manner. The driver carried their bags to the bell stand and accepted Ralph's money, which included a generous tip. Then he looked them both up and down, pausing briefly at the glove on Ralph's left hand, incongruous in the July heat, and again at the stick Laurie was leaning on. Laurie fought the flush he felt rising on his face.
"Welcome to Wrightsville," the driver said. "We don't see many foreigners here, but we do know about soldiers. Good luck to you both."
Ralph nodded back at him solemnly, but when the man had walked out of earshot he leaned close to Laurie and murmured, "I suppose we can thank Mrs. Miniver for that." Laurie had to fight a smile.
"Behave yourself, please. I don't have the job yet and you're already trying to get us run out of town on a rail."
"It's my adventurous streak, Spud, simply can't be helped." Laurie shook his head, secretly delighted at Ralph's playful behavior. It was as if he was reclaiming his too-brief youth.
They received a claim check for their luggage and moved across the crowded lobby to the desk, where a stooped, nervous-looking man clutched at the register book.
"Checking in? But we have no rooms available, the town's even busier now than during the War. And the east wing roof was damaged in the fire three days -- well, three nights ago I should say..."
When Laurie could get a word in, he said, "Robert Damson made our reservations. Odell and Lanyon."
The clerk was unimpressed with this information. "No, there's a note here to call. Mr. Brooks, our manager, should have called Mr. Damson by now, and he should have told you there are no..."
"We've been traveling," Ralph broke in smoothly. "We just arrived on the train, and we're very tired. Is there even one room available?"
"Nothing, sir. I am sorry."
Laurie wondered for a moment if they should have bought new clothes in New York, something smarter. Their civilian clothes were decidedly out of style, though they were as neat and clean as they could be after hours on a train. But, no, American behavior was different. He shouldn't assume this rudeness meant that they looked incapable of paying for the hotel. After all, Robert had made the reservation, and he must be known in the town. "Could you call Mr. Damson, then, and see if he's made other arrangements for us?"
The clerk fussed a bit but eventually left to make the call. Another clerk took his place, a younger man with a blank, uncaring stare.
Laurie let Ralph install him in a chair on the far side of the lobby. He sent a boy to bring them coffee from the restaurant, though they both might have preferred a whiskey. Evidently Wrightsville's hotels didn't have lobby bars -- at least, The Hollis did not. Perhaps it was just as well, Laurie thought, wearily settling back in the chair. One drink and he'd be asleep. He closed his eyes, knowing Ralph was on watch for them both, and feeling acutely how homesick he'd be if Ralph weren't here.
Being with Ralph, that was home more than any one place. Still, a good cup of tea and some familiar accents would be welcome right now. And Laurie had only been traveling for a few weeks. How had Ralph managed for so many years, far from everything familiar?
"Gentlemen, I reached Mr. Damson and he's asked me to tell you he's on his way here."
Laurie opened his mouth to protest such an inconvenience for their friend, but realized it was already too late and instead simply said, "Thank you."
The nervous clerk moved away, looking relieved to be washing his hands of them, though he probably wouldn't actually smile until they'd vacated his lobby, too. Laurie turned back to his coffee and half of The Wrightsville Record.
"Suppose we can get newspapers sent here, Laurie?" Ralph asked, folding back a full page of crop forecasts and news about a ploughing competition.
"I'm sure we can get the New York or Boston papers sent on the train," Laurie replied. "But if you want the Times, I'm afraid we'll have to get used to month-old news."
Ralph nodded and appeared more determined to enjoy his section of the Record. Laurie looked away, fiercely glad Ralph shared his feelings -- both the homesickness and the desire to make a new life here.
Laurie couldn't concentrate enough to read, so he simply stared at the people passing through and though about Damson's letter. He'd recommended Laurie when Merrimac University wanted to hire an assistant professor of Classics and was specifically seeking a younger man who might be able to step up as their current faculty members retired.
It might seem foolish to accept the recommendation of someone who knows nothing about your area of expertise. But I merely told them I'd met an intelligent and thoughtful Classics scholar while stationed in England, and your professors and colleagues must have done the rest -- along with your transcripts and thesis, of course. Your military record probably didn't hurt your chances, either. I'm honestly not sure why we don't have American veterans lined up for the job. Is your area of specialization rare? Perhaps it's simply that Wrightsville is too tame for our young men after their adventures in the War. Certainly my son would agree; he's anxious to leave home and find his own way in the world. Only his promise to Mother keeps him here...
They'd been sitting silently for about half an hour, Ralph reading and Laurie lost in his thoughts, when a familiar voice spoke.
"Laurie, Ralph old man -- how good it is to see you." Damson was red-faced and breathless, but he looked genuinely pleased.
Damson, like Ralph, had never been free to discuss his war work, but Laurie had spent many weekends with them in Bletchley talking about everything else. Though Damson was 20 years older than Laurie, those evenings had had the same feeling as the bull sessions he'd once indulged in with his classmates at school. So he'd known all about Damson's civilian job as chair of the mathematics department at Merrimac.
"Robert." After shaking hands and thumping each other's backs they moved to claim the luggage. Laurie tried to stop Robert when he instructed the bellman to load the bags into his car.
"Thanks so much for coming into town, Robert, we do appreciate it. But you needn't bother driving us, just point out the correct hotel," Laurie protested.
"I'm afraid all our local hotels are booked up. Boom times in Wrightsville. You'll have to be my guests for the time being."
"No, we can't put you out like that." Laurie was genuinely distressed; it was nearly a week until his interview.
"It's no bother, honestly. Helen is happy to have you. You can rest up for your interview on Monday and, if things go as smoothly as I hope they will, after that we'll find you a house to rent near the campus. They're building new places closer to town, but I know you'd prefer one of the older neighborhoods, one with some trees. Most of the new developments were farms last year, there's not a bit of shade for miles."
While he spoke, Robert carefully pulled through the congested traffic around the hotel. He pointed out that the hotel was on the Square (though the street curved around a central monument of Founder Wright, Laurie noted) and kept noting landmarks until they eventually pulled out of the business district and onto a wide street lined with frame bungalows. While Ralph kept up their end of the conversation, Laurie took a moment to notice what a luxurious vehicle Robert drove. It was somewhat larger than the taxi they'd been in earlier. Laurie knew that Robert was well-off, of course, but somehow the automobile brought that home more vividly. Their wartime comradeship, where age and social position hadn't mattered, was only two years in the past but seemed as ancient as school days.
As they continued to turn and wind through the town, climbing the road labeled Hill Drive, the houses grew larger and the lawns were wider. Robert's wealth did lessen Laurie's guilt about barging in to his home. He truly hoped the family wouldn't be disrupted as much as he feared by entertaining two house guests.
Laurie turned back to the conversation again, hoping to catch up without revealing his earlier inattention.
"So you've lived here all your life."
"Yes, except during college -- and the war. Wrightsville isn't ... exciting, but it's home. And Mother needs me. Us. Father died while I was at school, you see, and I worried about leaving her alone here after graduation. Even with the help, it's a big house to manage, and of course she was getting on in years..." He laughed softly. "Mother was younger then than I am now. Imagine, I thought she was old.
"Fortunately the dean at school was a friend of the family, he offered me a position so I could stay close to home. It was just to be temporary, but the work is very exciting -- my teaching load has never been so heavy as to prevent me from working on theoretical ideas. And then I met Helen, and Mother insisted we move in to the family home with her... Well, that's nearly 28 years ago now." Robert smile rather sheepishly, and Laurie thought he seemed less confident here at home. Ralph had once called Robert a genius, but it seemed his gifts might be limited to his field. And his talents might not be something the society in Wrightsville could appreciate, either.
"So we'll owe flowers to two hostesses, then," Ralph observed.
"Oh -- Mother -- well, of course, she's ... Mother keeps to herself, I wouldn't be surprised if she doesn't socialize very much..." Robert seemed very flustered, and Laurie tried to imagine what the problem could be. Perhaps his mother was an invalid now? That wasn't his impression, but she had to be elderly and it certainly was possible.
The topic was dropped before Laurie could think of a tactful inquiry as they pulled up to an enormous red brick house, three .. no, four stories high. There was a deeply shaded porch across the entire front of the house filled with wicker furniture.
The three of them carried the luggage inside, and Helen Damson came to greet them and be introduced. She was a petite woman with an hourglass figure, with pale eyes and grey-brown hair pulled back off her face.
"It's good to meet you both, Mr. Odell, Mr. Lanyon. Robert has told me how kind you were while he was abroad." Her manners were very correct, though Laurie thought she made Robert's war service sound like a pleasure tour.
Ralph was probably equally annoyed by that, but he turned on his charm and said, "Please, you must call me Ralph and imagine we're all old friends, Mrs. Damson."
Her smile was very nice. Laurie thought she looked much younger with a blush turning her cheeks pink.
"Already on a first-name basis? It took me a year to be 'Robert' instead of 'Damson'." They all laughed and there was so much affection in Helen's face as she looked at her husband that Laurie's opinion of her warmed. "Now, if you'll stop trying to steal my wife, gentlemen, I'll show you your rooms."
Ralph knew enough to let Laurie bring up the rear -- with the lightest of the bags -- and Robert followed his example. They waited at the top of the landing, chatting about the house, so Laurie heard that it was built during the American Civil War boom and was one of the oldest places so far from the center of town. When Laurie joined them, Robert led them to the far end of the hall, past a service stairway that was much less impressive than the one they'd used. The corridor ended in three doors, and Robert opened the one on the front of the house as he spoke.
"I'm sorry about the stairs, but Mother's suite of rooms is on the first floor. We couldn't ask her to move."
"Of course not," Laurie said.
"This part of the house was modernized just before the war. You'll have more privacy here, though you'll have to share this bath." As he spoke Robert opened the middle door to show them the bath-room, then opened the final door to a second bedroom that faced the rear. "I think you'll be comfortable in here, Ralph. Right now you can both unpack and relax for a few hours. Dinner is at eight, so there's time for a shower or a nap, if you need it."
While Robert spoke, Ralph had been putting their suitcases into the two rooms. "Thank you, Robert," Laurie said.
"Please, make yourselves at home."
"We will. It's much nicer than the hotel, I'm sure. Thanks so much."
"I'll see you downstairs later." Robert left and Laurie followed Ralph into the room where his suitcases were laid on the bed.
Seeing the room made the reality of their situation clear. Laurie had known New York would be their last truly private night for some time; one couldn't carry on in a small town hotel as freely as in a large, anonymous city. But the hotel would have been better than this. Laurie was sure his expression as he met Ralph's eyes was almost comically dismayed.
"It's just for the week. Two at most," he managed.
"You can have the first shower if you'd like, Spud. Then we can rest until dinner. All your things should be in here." With one final look, Ralph was gone, closing the door behind him.
Laurie unpacked, hanging up his best suit and hoping it wasn't too wrinkled. He'd brought it thinking of the interview, but of course he'd need to wear it for dinner tonight. The only good thing to be said for it was that it was slightly closer to current fashion than Ralph's. Ralph had remained in uniform so long that he hardly had any decent civilian clothes. They'd have to find a reasonable tailor shop in town... Laurie realized he was thinking as if he already had the job.
He pulled off his jacket and tie, took up his robe, and braved the unfamiliar shower, telling himself it was very American of him.
2. - Night and Day
At half past seven they were downstairs again, at a bit of a loss.
"The house isn't that large," Laurie began.
"We can't wander around opening doors," Ralph protested. "Did Damson tell us where to meet him? I might have missed it..."
"You were right beside him, Ralph. If you didn't hear, how could I?"
The absurdity of it struck them both, and Ralph shook his head. "Wait here. I'll find someone." He moved toward the rear of the house with a determined attitude.
Laurie looked around. There were some photographs on a long table across from the stair. He moved closer to look at them. One was of an older woman, another of a slightly younger couple. He didn't recognize any of the people in these formal portraits, but the next two were immediately recognizable, though he'd only seen much younger school portraits of the girl who resembled Helen and the young man in an Army uniform.
"Hello." Laurie started and looked up into the face of the girl from the photograph.
"Hello. I'm Laurie Odell, one of your father's guests."
"I'm Susan Damson, Mr. Odell. It's nice to meet you."
"The pleasure's all mine, particularly as now I can ask you to tell me where the dining room is located."
Susan began to laugh, but stopped herself with a hand to her mouth. "I'm sorry, that was rude of me. Is that why you're here looking at the family gallery? I wish I could say father sent me to meet you, but I'm sure he simply forgot that you've never been in this house and don't know your way around it as we do."
Ralph returned, looking bemused. "I see you've had better luck finding a guide than I did."
"Miss Damson, this is Ralph Lanyon. Ralph, Susan." Laurie watched as they shook hands and exchanged greetings, and then Susan took their arms with a charming smile and led them to the front of the house, past a number of doorways.
"Back in the old days they just added rooms on the house whenever it got too crowded, so it is a bit confusing here on the first floor. It's easier if you can remember which direction is the front of the house. Then you bear left for food, right for socializing. The kitchen and dining room are on the northeast side of the house."
The room she brought them to was full of overstuffed chairs and divans, and looked very comfortable. Floor length windows were thrown open to catch the breeze, and outside Laurie glimpsed a small garden bathed in the dusky twilight.
Robert saw them as soon as they entered. He rose, excused himself to the serious-looking man he'd been speaking with, and came to them with a smile.
"I see you've met my daughter."
"Yes, she's just as lovely as you always said, Robert," Laurie said, adding, "Your father has told us a lot about you over the years."
She smiled easily. "We missed him terribly, too. I had to rescue them, Daddy. They were lost in our crazy house." She kissed her father on the cheek, and with a smile at Laurie and Ralph went to join the other young people.
"I do apologize," Robert began.
"Don't think of it," Ralph insisted. "Your daughter is charming and she's given us the lay of the land now."
Robert took them across the room and introduced the man he'd been speaking with as Ken Tinker, Susan's fiancé and assistant manager of the family business. Tinker was a burly bear of a man who appeared to be in his mid-thirties, but Laurie thought he might actually be younger. He dressed very conservatively and his manner, too, was older. They inquired politely, if vaguely, about business conditions and he answered, but his eyes kept moving to the corner where Susan sat.
After some small talk about Laurie's interview, Robert offered to get them drinks and they moved to the other group in the room. Laurie recognized Robert's son, Henry, slumped next to Susan on the sofa. He was introduced to him and to his friend Jack Fowler, a stunningly handsome young man with dark, faraway eyes.
"Jack's from Wrightsville, but he and Henry never met until they were sent overseas," Susan explained with a bright smile and a fond glance at Jack that explained Tinker's worried looks. "Jack's been staying with us since they came home."
Robert brought over two whiskies and then excused himself, leaving Susan the task of entertaining them. Tinker was abstracted, Henry remained slumped, surly and silent, and Jack seemed too shy to speak much. Neither Jack nor Henry had shaken hands with Laurie or Ralph when presented to them, and Susan's attempts to be cheerful and cover for them only highlighted their lapse. Laurie saw, with gratitude, that Ralph was prepared to hold a conversation with Susan about Wrightsville and the nearby mountains, leaving him free to sip his drink and observe the other men.
Ken Tinker might hold an important job, but he was definitely not from the same class as Susan. He looked uncomfortable in this setting and unsure of himself. Laurie wondered how he'd come to be in the Damsons' social circle enough to court Susan. Robert didn't seem to be the type of person who would coldly arrange his daughter's life to suit his business. Robert didn't seem that interested in the family business, either.
Susan was talking about the history of Wrightsville, something about the statue of the Founder coming to life one night a year and walking the streets in search of .. well, Laurie had missed that. He watched her audience and found that Jack was the interesting one. He looked to be about 23 or 24, like Henry, and had an air that reminded Laurie of someone... It struck him that Jack was much like Andrew Raynes had been when they first met. Older, certainly, but with the same innocence. He certainly seemed unconscious of his own attractiveness.
Laurie tuned back in and realized Ralph had taken over the conversation and moved into storyteller mode. Susan was hanging on every word. Even Henry and Jack were looking interested, though Tinker continued to gaze miserably at Susan.
"The ship came in with the storm, hard to see at first but then clearer as the fog around it lifted. None of us on board -- no one still alive had seen such a vessel before. They've all been gone for centuries, even those that avoided taking their crew to the bottom of the sea. On it came, sails full of fog, carrying thunder and lightning in its wake. Finally it was so close that the Captain sounded the alarm to turn about, and we scrambled to obey, knowing it was too late. But a moment later, just before impact, the old merchantman vanished into thin air. Then we knew it was the Flying Dutchman, and we knew someone on board would die that night."
Laurie smiled into his drink at Susan's little gasp of horror and returned to his observations. Jack was wearing a proper suit, but it wasn't correctly fitted to him. A glance at Henry showed who the clothing belonged to; Jack was living with him and evidently borrowing from his wardrobe. Laurie had always heard that American soldiers were well-paid, but it seemed likely, somehow, that Jack was nearly destitute.
There was a disturbance behind them, and the whole atmosphere of the room changed. At the door a white-haired woman stood leaning on a cane with both hands. A stocky woman was at her side, dressed plainly enough that Laurie knew at once she was the regal old woman's nurse. The woman with the cane was attired in a silvery-grey dress embroidered with sparkling thread, and she wore large pearls at her neck and wrist. Robert crossed to her as Laurie and the rest of them watched in utter silence.
"Mother. How lovely to have you join us tonight."
Helen, who'd just arrived from the kitchen and was still pushing back her damp hair, was just behind him. "Here, Mother Enid, come sit in your chair." The chair she indicated was the smallest in the room, yet managed to look like a throne. It was upholstered in a tapestry fabric of purple and maroon and had a high wing-back. It was angled to face the fireplace and still command the entire room.
Mrs. Damson progressed regally through the room, one diamond-encrusted hand on her son's arm, the other wielding her cane as her nurse stomped along behind her. Susan dutifully went over as she settled in the chair to give her cheek a kiss and softly greet her. Tinker followed her and performed his own ritual, something more than a greeting and less than a prostration.
Then Ralph caught Laurie's eye and nodded at Robert, who was gesturing to them both. They made their way across the room, Henry following them. It seemed only Jack was exempt from attending on the matriarch of the house.
"Mother, these are my friends from England, Laurie Odell and Ralph Lanyon. I worked with Ralph during the War." She nodded at them both, then gave them a sharp-eyed head-to-toe look as Henry bobbed in to kiss her cheek. She grabbed on to the boy's hand and held him there beside her.
"More misfits, I see. Just like the slacker hiding over in the corner. Well, Henry is his father's son, sadly."
Robert and Henry both flushed bright red at her words, but only Henry protested. "Grandmother, you mustn't say such things. Jack served... unlike some others." He shot a venomous glare at Tinker, who managed to look sheepish and defiant at the same time.
She cut him off. "This is my house, you miserable sissy boy. I'll say what I please and if the cripples don't like it, they can leave and go to hell for all I care."
Laurie gripped his stick tighter and held his tongue. Ralph, however, immediately said, "Quite so. But is that merely a charming suggestion, Mrs. Damson, or are you asking us to leave your house?" His voice was smooth as silk, which Laurie knew meant he was angry.
"Did I say that?" she said querulously. "Nonsense. Helen, when is dinner going to be ready? You know I don't believe in these fashionably late meals." She was off on a new topic, haranguing Robert's poor flustered wife, still clutching Henry's hand and keeping him at her side. The nurse hovered as the old lady rose and moved into the dining room.
Laurie and Ralph stood back, waiting, but Robert seemed to fear they would leave. "Please, let's go in. Jack, Susan, come along." He looked embarrassed but offered no apologies, not that Laurie expected any. Mrs. Damson ruled this roost. Now Robert's desire to keep her away from them made perfect sense. Laurie thought she probably took perverse delight in dressing up and coming down to dinner when no one else in the family really wanted her there. No doubt if they'd carefully planned an evening just for her, she'd take a tray in her rooms and avoid coming out.
Helen directed them to chairs which left Ralph directly across from Laurie, with the nurse at the foot of the table. Mrs. Damson had Robert and Henry on either side of her seat at the head, with Helen and Susan next to them, Jack next to Ralph and Tinker beside Laurie. It wasn't the happiest arrangement, for the nurse barely spoke, even when Ralph, recovering his temper, applied himself to be charming. Tinker was monosyllabic, and Jack was withdrawn into himself. Laurie's choice was to toss remarks down the table over their heads or remain silent.
The dinner was simple but more varied than Laurie's experience of family meals. The cook carried in platters which they passed, serving themselves. As he ate, listening to Robert and his son being questioned by the old lady, Laurie wondered at the nurse joining them for the meal. It seemed odd to him, but possibly Mrs. Damson wanted her close at hand. Perhaps she was so foul-tempered and overbearing because she lived in constant fear of death.
He glanced at the old woman and then back at Ralph, who was once again smiling as he made a remark to the plain middle-aged woman beside him. Poor Robert, and poor Ralph. Neither of them had been blessed with a mother as loving and giving as his. That thought brought melancholy and a touch of homesickness, too. Laurie wondered how many years it would be before he'd see his house again if he succeeded in obtaining the position here.
Of course that was what he wanted, to teach and make a life here in the States. They'd spent most of their savings traveling; if he failed now Laurie wasn't sure what he would do. He couldn't let Ralph down, not when he'd been so accommodating and ... well, generous was the only word. Ralph was always giving to Laurie, one way or the other. He looked back at Ralph, trying to keep his face neutral, but the way Ralph's eyes changed showed that he saw Laurie's feelings.
"Mr. Odell. Laurie. Mother was asking where you were educated, and Robert's no help..."
Laurie turned his attention back to the disagreeable old lady at the end of the table, feeling certain there was a malicious gleam in her eyes.
It wasn't until Enid Damson left the room, her nurse trailing after her, that Laurie realized he'd never been introduced to the nurse -- he honestly couldn't even describe her, except as square and plain. He'd have to ask Ralph what her name was, later. Then he remembered the separate rooms upstairs with a tiny pang of disappointment. There wouldn't be private time later for them, not during their stay in Robert's home.
He was seated with Helen and Robert, listening to her description of the women's club she chaired. Robert seemed quite proud of his wife's involvement in Wrightsville society, though Laurie couldn't see him being involved in such organizations. Robert was interested in puzzles and played chess very well, and that seemed to be his only relaxation. When they'd first met, Ralph and Robert had been spending their evening hours reading and discussing mystery novels. Once they ran through what was available to them, Laurie had become their supplier, bringing volumes from the university library on Saturday and returning Monday mornings with the books he'd given them the previous week.
"Linda Fox has been a godsend for the Guild, Mr. Odell. She's a changed woman since her husband came home and his father ... er, arrived." Laurie didn't know why she stumbled and blushed, but before he could think of a way to inquire, Robert spoke.
"Oh, I beg your pardon, Helen, but that reminds me, Odell. You and Ralph don't know that Wrightsville has a famous detective who's practically an honorary citizen here." Robert looked over to where Ralph was chatting with ... Jack? Laurie, who'd followed the gaze, was a bit surprised at that. Of course, Ralph always made an effort with people...
"Lanyon, excuse me. Come over here for a moment, will you?" Ralph did, the others following him. Henry had that surly, almost hostile look back on his face. He seemed to resent his father, though Laurie knew Robert was a good man, and he certainly appeared to be a proud and loving father. "I just thought of something I wanted to tell you. I'm not sure if you've read any... Well, I know you love a mystery."
"Father, you're being so mysterious you're not making sense," Susan said, settling comfortably on the arm of his chair.
Robert laughed and admitted, "You're right. I'll just come out with it, then. Ellery Queen, the mystery novelist, has come to Wrightsville several times. He first came here to work on a book, and since then he's -- don't worry, dear, I won't rehash every detail of that ancient history." The last was in response to Helen's tug at his sleeve and a shake of her head.
"Queen? I've read a few of his books," Ralph replied. "Have you met him, Robert?"
"No, sadly not. I'd like the chance to tell him how much I enjoy his challenges to the reader."
"That's Queen?" Laurie asked. "I've read one of those, years ago." Laurie only vaguely remembered the story; it must have been one of the books he'd been given during his convalescence.
"Yes. He came here to write, as I was saying, and became involved in some nastiness we had in town, back before the war. Man murdered his wife. Very sad."
"Among the Wrights," Helen added in a shocked whisper. Laurie didn't understand, but then he remembered the statue outside the hotel. The founding family was still a presence in town, it seemed.
"Then he came back to town, while father was in England," Susan said. "Remember, mom? Linda Fox asked him to investigate--"
"Yes, he couldn't refuse the Foxes, Davy is a hero, you know," Helen said, cutting her off. "He walked through enemy territory carrying a wounded man."
"Some hero," Tinker grumbled. "I heard Fox was discharged for being crazy."
"I suppose if you'd been through that, Ken, you'd just shake it off," Henry said, his voice a little strident. "Just get on with life like nothing happened. As if you didn't mow down men and watch their faces as they died--"
"Well, whatever Davy did," Robert said loudly, with a kindly look at his breathless son, "he needed Queen's help. And now the rumor is that he's back in town, staying with the Bradfords and working on another book."
"It's lovely country here," Ralph said. "I can see why he likes it."
"Can you?" Henry said bitterly. "Even when you see how it is here, how much gossip goes on every day and night about every single soul in town?"
Ralph smiled at Henry and nodded. "I do see that. But I also see your family being very tactful and discreet about things that are none of my business."
"Yes. Well. Father is a diplomat, isn't he? I mean, that's how he managed to sit out the war in that chateau, safely away from the bombs and the guns."
The remark was aimed like a blow, but it seemed to hit his mother more than Robert, who merely looked resigned as he said, "I've tried to explain, Henry, but you refuse to listen."
"I... I think it's time for me to retire, Robert." Helen rose and attempted to smile. "Good night, Ralph. Laurie. Ken." Robert stood and kissed her cheek as she went past him, then returned to his chair and pulled Susan close.
Jack, who was leaning against the back of a sofa next to Henry, looked longingly at them, completely oblivious to the fond look Henry was giving him. Laurie saw it all clearly, and realized he'd been correct in his first impression. Jack was an innocent, exactly as Andrew had been all those years ago. Laurie wished in vain for a way he could speak openly to Henry and help him. It couldn't be done without revealing too much of secrets that were not his alone. Besides, Laurie was his father's friend and it was becoming apparent that, to Henry, his father was the enemy.
The conversation remained very general for another half-hour, and then Tinker took his leave with one last worried frown at Susan, who was still curled beside her father. A few minutes later she retired, and Robert excused himself with a reminder that they should help themselves if they wanted anything from the bar.
The party was breaking up, and Laurie would have been ready to go upstairs, but Ralph had poured another drink and was once again speaking with Jack in low tones. Henry stood nearby, looking torn. Susan was the only one in his family who seemed to give Jack any attention. Henry must feel their neglect as a slight, even if Jack did not. But watching Ralph draw out Jack and elicit his shy smile was causing jealousy, though Laurie wasn't sure Henry recognized the emotion.
For the first time, he understood how Dave must have felt, back at the E.M.S. hospital when he'd thought Laurie was as innocent as Andrew, and he'd avoided meddling for fear of worsening the situation. Laurie was just as immobilized in this situation, though possibly with more at stake personally. He couldn't afford to alienate Robert, and even at the university level deviants were not acceptable teachers. He'd come here with Ralph, expecting that everyone would accept their closeness as friendship, and he couldn't do anything to jeopardize that.
At a look and a quiet question from Ralph, Henry joined their conversation, sitting down across from Ralph, close to Jack. Laurie moved closer, in time to hear Henry say, "Your hand ... you were in the Royal Navy, you must've seen action. You know what we've been through. Father doesn't understand, not after spending the war the way he did."
"I saw very limited action, Henry. I lost my ship at Dunkirk; that's where the war ended for Laurie, too." Ralph looked up at him and Laurie quirked a tiny smile back. "In fact, my duty station was the same as your father's -- they wouldn't let me have another ship. I was retrained as a liaison officer, that's all I can tell you or anyone about my work. Your father probably had to agree to even more limitations."
"He says that, but I don't believe him."
"Which is why he accuses you of being deliberately obtuse, Henry." Jack smiled to soften his words. "Your father wouldn't have left all of you here alone for all those years unless it was important."
"It was crucial work he did, Henry, I can vouch for that. Your father saved more lives than you can imagine."
"And I know he missed all of you terribly," Laurie added. "He spoke about you constantly and carried your mother's letters with him."
"He was very proud when you enlisted," Ralph added.
"I... I'm glad to hear that," Henry admitted. "Mother was very unhappy, and Grandmother... She didn't make such a fuss when Dad left."
Jack, who was leaning forward in his chair, eyes on his clasped hands, raised his head and looked up at Henry. "You sold your soul to that old woman in order to enlist."
"Jack," Henry protested.
"You did and you know it." Jack turned to Ralph, his eyes burning. "He promised her he'd come home, live here in Wrightsville, and run her awful foundry."
"A fate worse than death, I'm sure," Ralph said dryly, and Jack looked almost hurt until Ralph smiled at him and added, "From the little I've seen tonight, and from what you've just told me about Henry, I'm positive he's faced tougher challenges than changing his grandmother's mind. Surely he can work out some compromise."
"Perhaps," Jack admitted.
"It's just that I hate Wrightsville," Henry burst out. "There's a whole world out there that's never heard of any of these self-important, narrow people. Yet they behave as if this place and their opinions are all that matters. Even the War didn't change them one bit."
Ralph opened his cigarette case and offered it to Henry, then Jack. "It sounds to me like you're confusing your grandmother with the entire town."
"You can't know," Henry replied.
"The town changed enough that no one questions why someone from Low Village is allowed to live here," Jack said softly. "The War changed things enough that we can be friends, even though I don't have your education or any money."
"Jack," Henry said again, pain in his voice.
"We are Wrightsville, Henry, just like your grandmother. We carry this place with us wherever we go. But the man I met in France wasn't narrow or self-important. If that did describe you, once, then you've changed. And unless we stay here and work to change Wrightsville even more, how can it ever get better?" He was impassioned and unselfconscious as he spoke, lit up in a way that was truly beautiful.
Laurie wasn't sure he understood Jack's place in Wrightsville's society, but he was more impressed with Henry than he'd been all evening. Henry might be angry and unhappy, even immature at times, but he had good taste in friends. And if Henry wished Jack were more than a friend, well, it seemed he was ready to take what he could have and not demand more. That was a maturity many of Laurie's acquaintances had never managed.
Laurie wasn't sure if Henry realized Jack was in love with his sister. If Jack ever got his feet under him financially and was free to speak to her, Laurie knew the "engagement" to Tinker would be over. That would hurt Henry, but it would also secure him a friend and brother he could openly love. Not the happiest of all possible endings, perhaps, but Laurie was thirty now and he knew that life rarely gave anyone unadulterated joy.
The four of them remained in the room, drinking and talking about the Soviets, until it grew very late. When they finally retired, Laurie was too tired to feel more than a brief pang when Ralph went into his separate room and closed the door. But it took him a very long time to find sleep.
3. - So Nice to Come Home To
Laurie suspected they'd passed whatever test Enid Damson's dinner appearance was intended to administer, as she wasn't seen at a meal for the next three days. Robert went in to his office for long hours every day, and they didn't see Helen except at dinner. But their acquaintance with the younger people in the house continued to flourish.
Susan had offered to show them around town, and the boys joined their excursions. Jack and Henry had both warmed to Ralph, and they adopted Ralph's attitude and treated Laurie as if he were younger and needed looking-after. Laurie probably should have been more annoyed, but he told himself it was only for a short time. Besides, he sometimes enjoyed being petted and taken care of, if he were being honest about it.
This afternoon they were riding in Robert's big sedan, which was comfortable for all five of them. Susan had dropped her father at school earlier that morning, as she'd done all week, so they could have the car.
"Mother is using my roadster to get to her meetings and lunches," she announced as they drove through the crooked streets of Low Village, the name of the poorer part of town close to the industrial area, where the train tracks ran close beside rickety wooden structures. It was difficult, now, to imagine Jack living in these surroundings.
"You should have told us; we don't want to inconvenience her," Laurie protested.
"Oh, no, she borrows it quite often, since Grandmother sold her car a few months ago. Honestly, at the time I made quite a fuss about having to share my car, but Grandmother insisted. She said that her driver was ready to retire, and she didn't want the bother of getting accustomed to a new person."
"She doesn't have the energy to break them anymore," Henry muttered.
"I actually thought she'd insist that I take the job to earn my keep," Jack said with a smile. "Not that I've ever learned to drive. Closest I got to a car was hanging around at Homer Findlay's, helping him. He taught me how to change oil, stuff like that."
"Well, it's time you got behind the wheel. Henry and I can teach you."
Henry looked about to protest, but Jack said, "I'd like that." Henry's mouth closed and his eyebrows went up. "I .. I think it's time I made some changes, Henry. Others have been dealt worse situations and managed to make something of themselves."
Laurie didn't think he was imagining the way both Jack and Henry avoided looking at Ralph at that moment. They couldn't even meet Laurie's eyes; they were both twisted away and looking down or out the window.
"I think that's wonderful, Jack." Susan looked near tears, actually, but only Laurie could see that from his place beside her in the front seat, and she quickly shook off the emotion. "Here, this is the foundry, what Grandmother now calls 'Henry's business.' Which it will be, of course, if he ever starts going to work more than once a week."
"I promised I'd learn how to run the place, but I didn't promise to do it quickly."
"Or to like it," Jack said softly.
"I don't want to be here. If I hadn't promised her, I'd probably be in Paris right now, writing my book."
They'd heard about Henry's book before, but Laurie had the impression that he wasn't actually writing anything despite having a large desk in his private rooms and his own typewriter. He thought about Ralph sitting at the kitchen table in their flat, spending a free half-hour writing in his diary, and knew that he must have done that for years, stealing time whenever he could and finding private corners on board ships or in hospital to sit, book on his knee, filling page after page. If Henry truly wanted to be writing, what could stop him? Certainly not his job. Not when it left him enough freedom to be with them on this warm, sunny afternoon.
"That must be the original building," Ralph said, pointing out a smaller brick structure that had been expanded in both directions.
"Yes, it is. Our great-grandfather made a fortune here during the Civil War. They were the only place that made some kind of gun... what was it, Henry?"
"The 12-pound field howitzer," he said automatically.
"The train line must date back that far, then," Ralph said.
"I think so," Susan said. "I'm actually a terrible guide to Wrightsville, you know."
"Not at all," Laurie said. "We very much appreciate you taking the time to show us your town, and help us get oriented here."
"Yes. I'm thinking of getting a car for myself," Ralph added. "Is there an automobile dealer here, or do I need to take the train to Connhaven?"
"You'll need to go out of town unless you just mean to rent," Henry answered.
Jack added, "Homer Findlay leases cars by the week, he's just across from the train station."
"Yes, I remember that name," Laurie said. "Next to the diner."
The children of Low Village, playing in the streets, stopped to stare at the majestic car as it drove by. Some of the older boys chased them for a while, shouting insults. It was no different from the way children behaved in the poorer sections of London, Laurie supposed, although those ragamuffins had lived through the Blitz. Still, he could see how very thin some of the shirtless boys were, their ribs standing out. Jack saw him staring at the children.
"In the summer they all run wild. It's very different when school's in session."
"For those who can stay in school," Susan said softly. "Many of them go to work instead, to help their families."
Laurie didn't wish to make Jack uncomfortable, but Ralph plunged into a conversation about the school system and how it differed from the one back home. He didn't allow Jack to retreat into himself, asking him directly how the school in Low Village was run, then asking Henry about the school he'd attended. It seemed there was only one 'high school' in town, and all three had attended it, though in separate classes because of their age differences.
"Ah, we're putting Spud to sleep, I think," Ralph said suddenly. "How about finding a good place for lunch?"
"Sally's has the best home-cooking anywhere," Jack said. "It's not fancy--"
"Neither are we, today, though we're in borrowed finery with this car. Let's try it, shall we?" Ralph had a great ability to carry everyone along with his ideas. They invaded the tiny diner and ate meatloaf, corn and mashed potatoes. Sally herself came out of the kitchen to talk to Jack and meet his friends, commenting on Ralph and Laurie's accent to the room at large with a promise that if they kept eating good Wrightsville foods they'd learn the "right way" to talk. Ralph laughed at her jokes and flirted so shamelessly that Sally brought his slice of blueberry pie herself. It was twice the size of the other servings, and had ice cream on top.
Friday night was band concert night in Memorial Park. Robert and Helen were planning to attend, but Susan insisted that the rest of them should go early to secure a good place on the lawn to set up their blankets and chairs. They helped her load the big car, leaving the other for Robert's use, and wandered around the bandstand with their arms loaded ... except for Laurie, who felt very useless for a few minutes. Then he saw the "Our Boys" memorial, with the long list of those killed in the Great War. There was a new list, even longer, rows of names embedded in bronze that was so new it had not yet been stained by the weather. Laurie had to look away for a moment.
There were a large number of people already at the park, some eating from hampers and others just enjoying the evening. Wooden chairs had been set up on the lawn for viewing the concert, but Susan said they never sat there. She vetoed the shaded areas leading downhill as having too many bugs. The area she finally approved was lovely, Laurie had to admit, and it was very nice to sit on one of the comfortable folding chairs Henry had carried while the other men sprawled on the blanket and opened the ice chest for chilled bottles of soda.
"Ah, now I see why it was worth lugging that heavy thing," Ralph said with a smile. He was only making conversation; Laurie knew he had no use for the sweet soft drinks they'd brought.
"It's quite lovely here," Laurie said. "We used to have concerts at home, before the war." Then he laughed. "I suppose they have them again, now. I haven't been home in years..."
"The high school students played our concerts during the war years," Susan said. "It was very different then... old men, children, and women. Women were working in the mills and the factories..."
"Except the foundry," Henry said. "Ken was there, and he wrangled a deferment for himself and most of his employees."
"If they were producing weapons, Henry, then it was a necessary industry," Ralph said.
"One of the older men could have taken over as foreman," he replied. "Ken might have accepted women workers for some of the easy jobs, too. That's what other factory owners did... but Grandmother didn't care. She just wanted the place running four shifts a day, making more money for her."
"For all of us," Susan said. "We can't pretend it's her money when we're all supported by the business."
"If you defend that man..."
"I won't. Ken ... he isn't the man I thought he was, I know that. I don't know what I was thinking..." Jack's face lit up with such transparent joy at her words that Laurie felt compelled to say something and give him a moment to compose himself.
"You're very young to be thinking of marrying, Susan."
She laughed at that. "I wish Grandmother could hear you. She thinks I'm an old maid because I'm nineteen and have been out of school for more than a year." She shook her head and took a drink from her soda bottle. "Many of my friends are married already, it's not just Grandmother who believes that's a girl's first duty. There aren't many jobs for young women, not with all the veterans coming home and needing work. Only a few of the brightest girls manage to attend Merrimac -- the School of Education, mostly."
"It's a shame," Henry said. "But there's no reason for you to rush into marriage, Sue, the family isn't burdened by having you at home."
She smiled at her brother. "Don't say that when mother's around. You know she'd like to have me respectably settled, too."
"With Ken? Don't make me laugh. Grandmother may think he's good enough for you, but no one else does."
Musicians were approaching, all in white shirts and dark slacks, carrying their instrument cases. The sound of instruments being tuned carried to them, and hanging lanterns strung among the trees came on, brightening the stage and the seating area, which was filling with spectators. Laurie and Ralph were introduced to several people who stopped to say hello to the Damsons as they searched for their own seats for the evening's entertainment.
"I thought you'd be right here," Robert said, walking up with Helen leaning on his arm, carrying a cardigan sweater. Henry and Jack jumped up to help open their chairs, and soon they were all settled, Helen leaning into Robert, who had his arm around her shoulder. "Lovely night, isn't it?"
"Perfect," Laurie replied. The sun was low in the western sky, and above the trees there were ribbons of pink and gold. It reminded Laurie of his Sunday-school imagination of heaven, and for a moment he tried to imagine his mother seeing this night from the other side of the sunset, watching over him still. When he opened his eyes, Ralph was smiling up at him in the dimming light, and he felt his face warm. If she was watching him now, she knew what he'd never been able to tell her. Perhaps death gave true understanding, so she wouldn't be heartbroken over the knowledge that Ralph's easy smile made her son's heart race.
The concert began with a prayer by one of Wrightsville's ministers. Everyone rose for that, and remained standing for the band's rendition of the American national anthem. Laurie thought about home and the King, which led to another wave of homesickness. If he was accepted for the position, he'd have to get used to this song, and to the American holidays... The song seemed very long.
The remaining days preceding Laurie's interview passed quickly. On Saturday Henry and Jack took Ralph for a drive in the mountains, while Laurie went to town with Susan and bought himself a smart new tie at Gowdy's for his Monday appointment. He also ordered several new shirts for himself and for Ralph, feeling slightly extravagant but knowing it was easier to get such things here and that it was important to look respectable. Ralph had shirts that were nearly ten years old. Of course, they hadn't been used while he was in uniform.
When they finished at the men's shop, Susan introduced him to J.C. Pettigrew, a realtor who assured them he knew of many nice houses for rent "up by the college." Laurie took his business card with a promise to schedule an appointment when he had definite word on his job.
He treated Susan to lunch in town before she drove him up to the school. The campus was quiet at this time of year, so they explored it thoroughly, if slowly, on foot before returning to the car for a drive around the nearby neighborhoods. By the time it was late enough that Robert was ready to be picked up and driven home, Laurie knew which building housed the administrative offices where his interview would take place and where the Classics Department lecture halls were situated. The campus library was centrally located, which was nicely convenient.
He also felt confident that he'd seen enough of the area surrounding the campus to ensure that he wouldn't accidentally rent next door to a fraternity house. There were a handful of them, and all of them seemed to be big old places that had been converted into student housing. Fortunately there were plenty of smaller houses just a little further from the school grounds, many of them on spacious lots that would give him privacy and peace. These places were within walking distance, though Laurie wasn't sure how well he'd manage that in winter weather. Well, Ralph was talking about keeping an automobile, so perhaps it would be fine.
Among the things Laurie missed were apartment flats. Susan explained that there wasn't much call for such housing, as students were required to live in the dormitories on campus until their senior year, unless they pledged a fraternity.
It was all familiar and strange at the same time. Laurie realized that for him, the oddest change was to be thinking of himself as one of the faculty instead of as a student. The other differences seemed minor compared to that.
Susan drove her father home, but she and Laurie simply dropped him and headed to Route 16 to meet with the others for dinner. The Roadside Tavern wasn't much like any pub Laurie had frequented back home, but it was comfortable and Susan assured him the food was inexpensive and hearty.
The five of them sat on a padded bench that wrapped around the table, making their knees knock together. As they waited for their hamburgers with "the works," they discussed their day, frequently interrupted by greetings from friends of Susan's who were entering or leaving. Laurie was glad to see that all of them spoke to Jack as well as Henry. He wasn't invisible among the younger generation, no matter his background. It seemed Jack had been correct when he said Wrightsville was changing for the better.
One girl with shoulder-length red curls caught Laurie's attention. Her blush as she approached the table, twisting her hands together, matched Henry's face. He wasn't looking at her, instead seeming fascinated by his glass of beer. But when she spoke, Henry looked up at last to reply.
"Hello, Amy. How have you been?"
"I'm well, thank you. I hope your family are well, too?"
"Yes, fine. Thanks."
"We missed you at the bonfire last week." She seemed to expect a response but Henry merely looked foolish. "Oh, I wanted to let you know I'm going to be out of town for a few weeks. I'm going to New York with my cousins."
"Well, that's very nice," Susan said. "What are your plans? Are you attending the theater?"
"Maybe. We plan to do a lot of shopping, of course. And to see a few museums. It's exciting." She looked to Henry, who was once again ignoring her, and her spirits dampened. "I know it probably seems like nothing to you, Henry, after the European cities you've seen."
Jack looked away, wincing, and Henry said, "At least in New York you'll be away from here."
Amy's face reddened and Susan reproved Henry with a sharp look as the waiter interrupted the conversation with the platter of their food.
"Well, I don't want to interrupt your dinner," Amy managed. "Nice meeting you," she added to Laurie and Ralph before fleeing the table.
"Have a nice trip," Susan called, then she turned on Henry and hissed, "You could try to be nicer."
"I didn't mean it the way that sounded. But I can't pretend I'm the boy she knew in high school," he replied.
"She's not that girl any longer, either," Susan said.
"But she's still a child. She thinks Jack and I did a grand tour of France and Brussels, visiting museums and seeing the sights. She can't imagine living in muddy ditches, sharing your rations with starving children until you're sent to kill again."
"Henry, it's not her fault she doesn't understand," Jack said. "No one does, unless they were there. And we don't wish that for anyone," he added, looking at Susan's face.
"None of it matters. What do I offer her, or any girl? I'm not going to be content staying here and playing house, pretending that Wrightsville is the entire world."
"And of course you know that's what Amy wants," Susan said sarcastically. "Because you're such close friends."
"She's like all those giggling, thoughtless girls in her set."
"She may be. Or she may have dreams you can't imagine. She may even long to leave Wrightsville and see more of the world. But you'd rather assume the opposite. I don't ... it's as if you're punishing her for liking you."
The silence that fell on the table was terribly uncomfortable. Jack turned to Ralph and said, "Well, this is truly all-American food, cheeseburgers and slaw. What do you think so far?"
Ralph gracefully picked up the idea, and soon he was telling stories about galley cooks on his ships and the foods he'd eaten in remote ports. Susan and Henry gradually relaxed, and no one else came over while they were occupied with their meals.
As their table was cleared, Susan excused herself for a moment. Ralph said, "I wish you'd been with us, Spud, to see how beautiful it is in the foothills area. It's not that long a drive. An hour from here it feels like you're in another world."
"If things go well, perhaps we can spend a week exploring before the term begins," Laurie replied. Jack, he noticed, had turned to watch Susan as she stood dropping coins into the glowing jukebox.
"I'd like that." Ralph smiled and added, "When I get a car we'll be able to get away whenever you need a break."
Susan came back as a slightly familiar ballad began to play. She smiled at them and said, "Will anyone dance with me? Not you, Henry, I'm not 12 anymore."
Jack seemed frozen with indecision, but Ralph rose and easily led her out to the tiny cleared space that served as a dance floor. He looked supremely unconcerned that they were the only ones dancing at the moment, though there would no doubt be more couples as the evening wore on.
"You should ask her next, Jack," Laurie said. "I can't manage it with my knee." Jack blushed but didn't say anything. "Henry, Jack, I wanted your advice. Susan introduced me to a realtor today, and he seemed to assume that I'd be hiring a housekeeper. Is that something a landlord here will require?"
"I don't imagine they'd make it a condition of your lease, but it would probably reassure them that you'll be a good tenant and keep up the property." Henry replied.
Jack added, "There are lots of people who need the work. It won't cost much."
Henry nodded agreement. "A woman from Low Village can come out days, do your marketing and cooking if you'd like. That's what we had at home until the war. Once father was gone and mother began to run every woman's club in town, she hired a live-in cook. She had to, because Grandmother was complaining so much about late, inadequate dinners. I think Grandmother bullied her doctor until he told mother that hiring the cook was a medical necessity."
"Your grandmother couldn't have her nurse prepare her meals?"
"Miss Galliard is a relatively new addition to the household, she's been here just a little over six months now. Grandmother hired her just after Jack and I came home."
Ralph returned to the table with a radiant Susan, and Jack managed to stumble to his feet and take her hand for the next song, looking mesmerized. Ralph said, "Shove over, please," to Laurie and slid onto the bench beside him, dabbing at his brow with a handkerchief. "I think, Spud, I've lost the knack for such rollicking evenings. Though you, Henry, are young and strong and can give some of the other ladies a dance if you wish."
Henry laughed shortly. "Young ladies don't come here unescorted, Ralph. If they did, their reputations would be ruined in Wrightsville."
"I suppose then their lives would be over."
"They'd think so, yes." Henry fidgeted in his chair. "You won't see it, not until you've lived here yourselves. Susan's showing you the town and it all seems charming and quaint, but it can be cruel. You don't understand, neither of you crave your neighbors' approval. But most people aren't content with being on the outside, looking in."
Laurie nodded. He liked this town, and the people he'd met. But he was an outsider, and he would remain one because of his choices. But he wasn't alone here. He hadn't felt alone for years, now. He glanced quickly at Ralph, who looked thoughtful.
"Henry, if you don't think he'd mind, can you explain to us why someone as intelligent and capable as Jack is penniless and living with you?"
Henry paused for a moment, but then he said, "Jack doesn't make any secret of it, so I suppose it's all right for me to tell you. When he came back from the war, he found his mother had remarried without telling him. He'd been sending her his paycheck for three years, thinking that was all she had to live on, and they'd squandered his money on ... well, on booze. The husband wouldn't let him in the door; they'd sold or thrown away his clothes and books. Jack had his discharge money and nothing else. He stayed in a boarding house for a week before I tracked him down and made him come home with me instead."
"Tough break," Ralph said. "But surely he could find a job."
"You've only seen him as he is now, so of course you don't understand. Jack wasn't healthy enough to work when he was discharged. He was in the hospital so long that I made it home first."
"I didn't realize," Laurie said. "He was wounded?"
"No, he was captured at the Bulge. God knows what he looked like when the camp was liberated; he was still skin and bones when he came home. And he has constant nightmares, about bombings -- he was held near an area that was fire-bombed -- but not just about the war, either. His little sister ran away from home, we've never been able to find out where she landed. His mother has two more children now, a four-year-old and a baby." The way his mouth twisted on the word "mother" spoke volumes. "It's taken a long time for him to recover," Henry finished with a yearning look at the dance floor.
A new song began, something slower, but Jack and Susan stayed on the floor. The three men at the table watched them in silence. Laurie looked away, feeling exhausted. He wanted to go home, really home, not back to the Damson house or some strange new house. But that couldn't happen. He looked up and saw that Henry's eyes were locked on Jack. Henry's patience and care had probably saved Jack's sanity, if not his life. That would be his only comfort, but Laurie thought it was certainly better than having only brought pain and confusion to the one you loved.
When Laurie turned away Ralph was looking right at him, not at the dancers or Henry. His eyes were half closed in the neon dimness. He looked relaxed and drowsy -- no, Ralph looked content, Laurie realized. Somehow he hadn't expected that Ralph might adjust to this change even better than he could. Some part of him had felt certain Ralph would miss home, or miss the sea. They'd had so little time together, really, and Laurie had honestly thought that it might always be that way; that he'd only be with Ralph for a few weeks out of each year.
And he thought, too, that Ralph might prefer it that way. He'd been with so many men and women, compared to Laurie. Laurie wasn't sure he'd ever be enough to keep Ralph satisfied.
Now, he saw how well Ralph fit in here, how much he enjoyed the challenge of a new place and new people -- and it was disconcerting. Had Laurie been expecting that their relationship would end? He thought back on it and wondered if that was why he'd insisted on bringing Ralph along, some part of him believing that there was a final, irrevocable goodbye waiting at the end of their journey.
"Ready to go, Spud?" Henry turned at Ralph's voice, looking confused. "We have two cars here, and I think I can find the way if you'll loan me Susan's keys."
"Yes, of course," Henry answered. "Here's my house key, too. Unless you'd prefer that I drive you, it's no trouble..."
"No, please stay and enjoy yourself." Ralph was on his feet already. Laurie slid over and struggled up. He'd been sitting too long and the knee had grown stiff. Henry put the keys in Ralph's hand, his eyes already back on the dance floor. Ralph said, "Please tell Susan and Jack good night for us, won't you?" He didn't wait for an answer; it was obvious Henry was no longer listening.
They slowly walked out to the car. The night was beautiful, warm and clear. Laurie breathed deeply, glad to be out of the artificial chill and cigarette smoke. Once they'd pulled away from the lights of the parking lot and onto the dark highway, the stars were brilliant and seemed very close.
Laurie let his head loll back and enjoyed the breeze in the window. Ralph didn't seem confused by the American model car with the wheel on the wrong side, but Laurie was relieved that there wasn't much traffic at this late hour. They'd get used to it all; they'd have to if they wanted to stay. He wondered if he was deluded, thinking they had a place here. Wrightsville wasn't large or impersonal. Laurie didn't want to live somewhere that was those things, but could this truly work?
The car turned down a lane that was even darker, and Laurie sat up straighter and looked around. "Ralph? This isn't the way to town..."
They drove for at least ten minutes without passing any houses, until they were among thick trees and the night seemed darker. When Ralph finally pulled to a stop and doused the headlights, they were off the road, sheltered from the view of other drivers by trees and undergrowth that sprang back after they passed. Wrightsville was below them, mostly dark, but there was a glow that must be the downtown area, and a few outlying areas that were brightly lit. One of those must be the tavern they'd just left.
"Ralph--" He turned just in time to meet Ralph's lips. It felt as if it had been years since they kissed, almost as if they'd never kissed before. And yet he knew how their mouths would fit together, move together, and what would make Ralph lose control... Laurie felt a tension he hadn't recognized dissolve and leave him at last. He'd missed it so much...
He lost track of time as they kissed in the darkness, Ralph's arm over his shoulders and his damaged hand toying with his hair, then stroking his face. Ralph's beard was coming in, the stubble scratched a bit but Laurie didn't care. Their mouths moved together, tongues tangling and then separating so they could nibble on each other's lips. Ralph pulled back for a moment and whispered, "I just had to be alone with you, I couldn't watch and wait any longer..." He pressed forward again, his kisses growing more frantic, and Laurie put both hands in Ralph's moon-kissed hair and gave as good as he got.
Then Ralph moved, and before Laurie understood what he was trying to do he'd somehow climbed around the gear stick and was sinking down to the floorboards, on his knees before Laurie. Ralph began to work open Laurie's trousers, and Laurie moaned and opened his legs wider. Then he threw his head back against the seat and fell into the bliss as Ralph nuzzled at his groin, then took him inside his mouth and sucked him. Ralph was talented and wholeheartedly enthusiastic with this kind of lovemaking, and Laurie never could hold out very long. Ralph's head moved up and down, his tongue busy, and Laurie thrust weakly. The angle wasn't perfect but it was still bliss. Had it been only five days since they'd done this?
Then he was shooting and Ralph was swallowing it all greedily, his mouth still working until Laurie whimpered, though he wanted to scream. He felt motion from Ralph and knew he was touching himself, too. The pleasure-fog clouding Laurie's mind parted for a momentary thought of Susan's car, but he relaxed and trusted Ralph to take care of it. Laurie caressed Ralph's face and rode out the last aftershocks of pleasure as the other man pulled off him at last, groaning his climax, muscles frozen by passionate release.
They remained in this awkward position longer than they should. Such rash behavior was completely out of character for them both. But they were warm and drowsy, and Laurie was too comfortable to make Ralph lift his head from where it rested heavily against his good leg.
"Spuddy." Ralph often said his name like that, and it always made Laurie feel as if his heart stopped for just a moment. How could he live up to that? Hadn't he just been doubting? But then Ralph moved, climbing out of the passenger door to stretch, do up his trousers and move back to the driver's seat. The moment was past and Laurie's thoughts moved on as he quickly re-fastened and straightened his clothing. They took turns using the mirror and Ralph's pocket-comb to arrange their hair, and then Ralph started the engine and drove them back to Damson's.
When they pulled in to the garage, Laurie saw the sedan still was missing. Good, there'd be no need to lie about where they'd detoured tonight.
Ralph came around to help Laurie out of his seat, and in the darkness he softly said, "I believe we're now part of a great American tradition involving automobiles." Laurie lightly punched his shoulder and Ralph smiled. Then he stretched and said, "Good thing we did it now, I'm getting too old for much more of that."
"You keep speaking about your greatly-advanced age while behaving as if you're nineteen again," Laurie scolded laughingly.
"Ah, just an old married man now, you know."
They silently entered the house, grey ghosts in the half-light spilling in the windows. Thankfully there was a night-lamp on the stairs, just bright enough for them to find their way. At the end of the hall where their rooms were, the corridor was very dark, so Laurie paused momentarily to take Ralph's hand and briefly squeeze it. Ralph returned the pressure, then turned and went into his room, alone. Laurie breathed deeply. A few more days, he told himself, and he wouldn't spend his nights alone. They'd had months, even years of separation during the war, but soon they would be free.
His window was wide open, just as he'd left it, and the night air felt cool as Laurie undressed. He stood for a moment, then set aside his pajamas and climbed between the sheets naked. It felt wonderful, and he thought of Ralph's hands on him until he slept.
4. - Dancing in the Dark
They attended church with the family on Sunday, relieved that Enid wasn't attending this morning. Ralph was on his best behavior despite a whisper about lightning bolts just before they crossed the threshold. He'd never attended services with Laurie very often, but he rose, sang, and bowed his head as instructed. Laurie tried to imagine them doing this every week, having a regular pew like the Damsons did. Susan had told him there were chapel services at the school; perhaps that would be their regular house of worship.
Robert took them all to the Hollis Hotel's Gold Gardens for Sunday "brunch," a term Laurie hadn't heard in years. It was another example of the differences that jarred them both. He caught Ralph staring at a mountainous torte being wheeled past as they waited in line to help themselves to pancakes, eggs, and an assortment of meats that could have fed the entire town for a day.
The waiters' only purpose was to refill the chafing dishes in the line and to pour champagne, which they did with such diligence that Helen was giggling and Laurie began to have a headache. The next time a waiter passed he asked him to remove the wine glass and bring water, and Laurie stuck to that for the rest of the long meal.
It was a very happy group that arrived home in two cars for an afternoon on the shady front verandah, sipping lemonade and reading the Sunday newspapers. Robert snored in a high-backed wicker lounge. Ralph and Jack talked quietly, Susan hovering nearby but politely entertaining Ken Tinker, who'd shown up shortly after their return. Helen was knitting something warm-looking for her charity's annual holiday bazaar, not held until mid-December. She told Laurie the story of learning to knit stockings and sweaters for the troops in between the news stories Henry read aloud to them both.
Then Enid and Miss Galliard arrived, and all peacefulness was over. She woke Robert, calling him a thoughtless host. She rousted Helen off her comfortable chair and chased her into the kitchen to supervise her cook, telling her that charity work was fine in its place but she wasn't supposed to let her house fall down around their ears in disorder.
The senior members of the family gone, Enid then insisted that Henry and Tinker sit with her and talk about the business. Susan moved to sit by Jack, but her grandmother called her to join them. Miss Galliard loomed over Enid's chair, stolidly expressionless and lumpishly clumsy. She nearly spilled the old woman's lemonade at one point, and Laurie thought Enid would send her away. But there were no sharp words or reprimands; the old lady ignored her completely.
He and Ralph rose to take a short walk through the neighborhood, and Jack joined them, looking relieved to be away from Enid. Once they reached the privacy of the sidewalk, Ralph opened his cigarette case and offered them around. All three of them lit up as they strolled and chatted quietly about Laurie's interview the following morning. Robert had invited Laurie to drive in with him, and then wait in the library until Susan or Henry could pick him up.
"I'll come 'round for you, Spud. Jack's going to introduce me to the 'drive yourself' garage in town. He thinks they might even agree to sell me one of their older models if I find one I like."
"Not many people buy those cars because they have such high mileage. But Mr. Findlay does the maintenance on them himself, and he's amazingly faithful about it all. So they're in very good shape for a used car." Jack expanded when he was away from the Damson house. It was as if he felt unworthy and ill while he was there, but when he was clear of it he remembered that he was young and alive.
"That's very kind of you, Jack, to let us know," Laurie said. "We'd be wise to economize any way we can; I don't suppose a teacher's salary is any higher here than back home."
"See, Jack, I told you he's as bad as Henry." Ralph turned to Laurie and continued, "We're not going to be solely depending on your income, you know. I am capable of doing a job, though it's been a long while since I had to shovel coal or holystone a deck."
Laurie blushed. "I didn't mean to imply that, Ralph..."
"I know, we just enjoy razzing you." He and Jack had matching smiles, Jack taller and dark compared to Ralph's lean build and fair coloring. Laurie thought the contrast between them just made them both look more attractive. "Jack, what do you say we find a job together, both of us? Show Laurie and Henry what we can do if we put our minds to it."
"A job?" Jack seemed to hesitate, then asked breathlessly, "What kind of work are you looking for, Ralph?" Laurie saw hope in the boy's eyes, and realized that his lack of independence was hurting him, as Ralph obviously suspected. After all, without a career or money, he had no chance of winning Susan. Neither Enid nor Tinker would agree to hire him into a responsible position in the family business, no matter what Henry might think he could do for him. Not that Henry was showing any interest in the family's business, either.
"Nothing in an office for me, at least not every day. I've had enough of that. Henry said the lumber and paper companies are the big employers, other than the factories in town."
"Yes, I suppose they are. We should look at the newspaper when we head back, and see if anyone's advertising. I've heard that some of the mills are expanding, and Jimmy Truslow's home now, he's opening a store in Bannock to sell cedar furniture. His father owns the lumber yard in town."
"Are you interested in carpentry?" Ralph asked, and Jack shook his head.
"I'm more interested in what sells, where, and why. Bannock is close to the railroad and on the road to the resorts in the mountains. Jimmy's sharp, he's thinking he can get tourists and locals both to buy." Jack's face sharpened as he spoke. "But I'm not sure about the people who live here year 'round; I think they want sophisticated things that look like they came from New York, not the rough-hewn chairs and tables people put in their cabins and lodges."
"So you'd have both?"
"I'd open different stores for the different lines. Keep the one folksy for the visitors, and then go all out with something right in town, aimed at Wrightsville's upper class."
"Of course you're talking about twice the investment, then."
Jack jumped in, explaining his theory about risk and sales patterns, it sounded like letting one business pay for another as tastes changed. It seemed odd that someone who appeared to be a dreamer had such a good head for business. Jack's sharp intelligence was clearly revealed as he and Ralph spoke. But Laurie stopped listening to them, lost in the past. Andrew, of course, had been the same. He seemed too young, too pure for the wartime world. Yet he'd been capable of such clear-sighted, hard logic...
They'd come around to the Damson house again, and Jack eagerly went ahead of them to find the newspaper while Ralph led Laurie to a bench in the side yard, still a good ways from the house itself. He was glad to rest his leg, but he couldn't resist teasing Ralph.
"Are you sure you don't want to run ahead and play with the other children?"
"Spud, as I've told you before, I'm an old married man."
"Ah, then perhaps you're just enjoying leading on a beautiful youngster?" Laurie said with a twinkle.
"Said by the man who can't stop looking at Jack."
Laurie was taken aback for a moment, but realized it was true. What was odd, actually, was his surprise at Ralph noticing it. Of course Ralph would observe his interest in the boy.
Ralph wasn't waiting for a response to his comment, however. "He's a good man. I think Henry means well, but it's killing Jack to stay here, totally dependent on him and brooding about what he's seen and done. To be truly healthy again, Jack needs to be using his brain and his body."
"Much as you do," Laurie admitted.
"We'll make out, Spud. I'll find something I'm qualified to do, no matter how low I need to start."
"I never doubted that," Laurie said. "Though I had wondered if you'd miss the sea, being landlocked here in Wrightsville."
"I've missed it for years, but I can do without. The Navy never let me back on a ship except as a passenger, you know that."
"Yes. Do you suppose Henry..." Laurie cut himself off when he realized Jack was headed back to them, happily smiling.
"Here, Ralph, let's look and see what we can schedule. Perhaps all three of us will have jobs after tomorrow."
Laurie let the conversation turn back, telling himself neither of them should be meddling with these boys. They'd been soldiers, after all, and Jack had been through more than Laurie could imagine. They would have to find their own way.
It didn't work out precisely as Jack had so enthusiastically predicted, but in less than two week's time Laurie was the new assistant professor of Merrimac University's Classics department and had a lease on a tiny, furnished two-bedroom house. He'd hired a housekeeper, a Low Village woman Jack had highly recommended, and she was to begin work at the beginning of the following week.
They'd been incredibly busy during the time since his interview. Ralph had settled on a used car from Findlay's garage and was planning a weekend trip to the mountains before the fall semester began. He'd inquired at a few places about a job, but hadn't found anything that suited him, so instead he'd helped Laurie give all the rooms in the house a fresh coat of paint, and arranged for the rest of their books and clothing to be shipped to them.
Henry and Susan had dropped by once to see their progress, and promised to help them on Saturday, their official move-in day. Jack had been absent because he'd found a job at Brooks and Roberts, an accounting and auditing firm. Jack had a good head for mathematics and Mr. Brooks, whose real name was Broskowski and was himself a former resident of the poorest section of Low Village, offered a starting position as junior clerk in the accounting section. He'd obviously taken an interest in helping Jack, who reciprocated by singing Mr. Brooks' praises almost every night at dinner -- as long as Enid wasn't present.
On Saturday morning they drove their luggage to the house and sat in the car a moment, taking it in.
"I suppose we should leave the bags here for now."
"Yes, Susan threatened to toss them out the window if we cluttered up the house before it's clean." Laurie and Ralph exchanged a smile; the house was perfectly clean already.
But then Susan arrived with Henry and Jack, a huge apron and several rolls of shelving paper. She went directly to the kitchen, where she approved the newly-painted walls but shook her head over the icebox.
"You're twenty years behind the times here, but so is half of Wrightsville. Have you arranged ice delivery?"
"Yes, in fact we have refreshments chilling right now," Ralph informed her.
"Not until this place is shipshape," she declared, pulling a bright bandana over her hair and tying it at her nape. "Laurie, you're with me in the pantry. Bring paper and a pencil, please. Jack, Henry, you remove every item from these drawers and the cupboard. Every plate, utensil, and pot. I want it all washed, starting with the inside of the drawers. When those are clean, line them with this." She handed over one roll of her paper.
"What's my assignment, Admiral?" Ralph asked.
"You're on the pantry, too. We're emptying all these shelves and cleaning. Laurie's going to make the list of food you need to have in a proper American kitchen."
"You should have been running the war, Susan, we'd have beaten the Nazis in a month," Laurie commented, and for the rest of the afternoon they all saluted her whenever she spoke.
It was tedious work but lively company made it lighter. Ralph admitted that the pantry was dirtier than he'd realized as he cheerfully scrubbed, cut the new liner papers with his pocket-knife and obeyed Susan's directives for which shelf should hold each item she declared worthy of keeping.
Laurie protested at one point that it would take all five of them to carry the long list of items she'd dictated, all 'necessities.' Susan laughed at him. "You have a telephone. Call the market and have them send their delivery truck. Remember, you're a big important professor now, not an impoverished student."
"Actually, he's an impoverished professor," Ralph said, and they all laughed, tired enough to be silly.
When the kitchen was finally acceptable, they moved on. Fortunately, the rest of the house passed muster with a few changes. Susan insisted that they pull the old radio out of the closet where they'd stashed it. She set it up in the living room and then fussed for a bit about the lighting around Laurie's desk. "I'll find one of our old student lamps to bring here for you." Next she proceeded upstairs, where she approved the two bedrooms and the bathtub Ralph had thoroughly scoured.
Finally they were ready to bring in their luggage. Very transparently, Ralph had Susan distract Laurie so he wouldn't attempt to carry anything. Henry and Jack went up the stairs twice, as did Ralph, while Susan explained the way their storm windows and screens were fitted to the frames. Once she decided it was safe, they moved upstairs and joined the others in filling drawers and closets.
When they were finally done they sat downstairs on the old, comfortable furniture and drank root beer. Ralph was treating their helpers to dinner at the roadhouse a little later, after they had a chance to clean up, but it was very pleasant to rest and enjoy how their hard work had improved the house.
"Jack, you've been very quiet today. Tired?"
He started at being addressed by Ralph, but then settled back. "I'm sorry, I'm thinking about something I heard." When he didn't continue, Ralph shot Laurie a puzzled look, but let it go.
"So, Susan, is our kitchen proper enough that our housekeeper won't faint?"
"Very proper indeed. She'll be appalled at how little you have in the way of space in that ice-box, though. You should ask the owner to get you something newer."
"There's just the two of us," Laurie protested. "We're not going to have dinner parties here."
"You don't know that. Besides, you strike me as the kind of professor who'll always have students hanging about and eating your food, particularly if you think they don't have much money."
"I think she has you pegged, Spud," Ralph said, which led to Henry asking about the nickname. Laurie decided, after his attempt to explain, that perhaps there were things it was impossible to translate to American English. It made him wonder how badly their Latin and Greek translations were mangling the true meaning of things, and he was quite distracted for some time. However, it wasn't long before they split up for showers and a change, agreeing to meet at Gus Olesen's at seven.
At dinner Jack was still silent, and he wasn't paying his usual attention to Susan. She'd been angling for an invitation to dance, but only Ralph noticed. He took her out on the floor for a number, and then she was claimed by a friend. When that number ended, she came back to the table.
"Henry, I just saw the Archers over in the corner. You should come with me to say hello."
Henry didn't seem enthused but he agreed and went with her. Jack watched them walk away, then said, "The Archers lost their son, Rusty, at Pearl Harbor."
"Ah, filthy business," Ralph said. Laurie took a cigarette from Ralph's case and lit it.
Jack's eyes had a far-away glaze. "They say most of those who were killed were still in their bunks, asleep. It was Sunday morning... I can remember it very clearly, though it's nearly six years ago now. I was too young to enlist, but on my next birthday I signed up." He moved impatiently in his seat. "I don't regret it, of course. But I can't honestly remember if I was thinking about fighting Nazis and Japs, or if I was thinking that it was a steady job and they must feed soldiers."
"Don't be so hard on yourself, Jack," Ralph said. "We all have mixed motives in the things we do. If you remember the attack on your country so clearly, protecting your loved ones had to have been on your mind."
"Yes, I was, but I didn't realize..." Jack's voice trailed off, and then he leaned forward and breathlessly said, "Ralph, you don't have to answer this if you'd rather not, but ... While you were in the service, did you ever kill a man? Up close, I mean, not shelling another ship."
Ralph looked down, then once again pulled out his cigarette case. "Not during the war, no. Not like that."
"No?" Jack looked confused, and Ralph was staring at his hands. "But... I thought..."
Laurie had heard the story years ago, but he knew Ralph still had difficulty speaking of the incident.
Ralph sighed. "It happened on a voyage to South America, before the war. I tried to break up a fight, and one of the men pulled a knife. In the struggle to get it away from him..." He tapped a cigarette against his case, then held it to his lighter and took a moment to inhale and then exhale the smoke. "I didn't intend for it to happen, but he died by my hand. I saw his eyes..."
"I don't mean to pry," Jack said.
"It's odd how our minds work. How we rationalize... I didn't call it murder when I was shooting down Germans, but his death... Yet he wasn't as young as the boys flying those planes I targeted."
Laurie had to speak. "If you hadn't acted, that man would have killed both of you. You had a duty to protect your crewman. And yourself."
"So you were protecting someone, but not under orders," Jack said very earnestly. "Was it really murder?"
Laurie had no answer, and it seemed Ralph felt much the same. He looked away, and Laurie knew Ralph considered what he'd done murder and felt it would be wrong to attempt to justify himself. But they both could see how tortured Jack felt, too, and Laurie knew Ralph didn't want to add to the boy's self-condemnation.
"If you believe in God," Laurie began, and Ralph turned back to the table and took up the idea.
"An omniscient God must know what's in your heart. Surely the reason you've done ... whatever you've done, even killing a man ... that's what matters."
Laurie saw the immediate relief in Jack's eyes. He hadn't heard what Ralph left unsaid.
Susan and Henry were headed back toward the table, and Laurie gave Jack a nudge. "Shouldn't you give Susan a dance now?" Jack rose, smiling, and Susan lit up. Henry handed her over to his friend, looking only a little wistful as he came back to their table.
"Those are friends of the family, great people. It's very sad, though, their son died in the war," Henry said, pulling out his own cigarettes, not knowing that he was re-telling what they'd just heard, nor noticing how Ralph's mood had changed. Laurie did all the talking until Susan and Jack finally re-joined them.
About an hour later, Ralph went to get another round of drinks for them. Henry and Susan were telling a long, complicated story that Laurie hadn't really been following. He was lost in thoughts of his job. Surely he'd get along well with the other professors in the department -- they couldn't be narrow, ignorant, Straike-like people. He'd find out soon enough -- he'd been assigned an office on campus and would be moving in this week. Ralph had already dropped two boxes there for him.
He realized Ralph had been away too long and looked around the room. He was standing at the bar, talking with a man who looked a bit shabby. A waiter brought over the tray of drinks Ralph had ordered, and Susan finished her story as Henry protested that he'd always intended that result.
"Excuse me one moment," Laurie said, and he pulled himself up as they continued to chatter, Jack loudly taking Susan's side against Henry. He walked through several groups of people and finally came up to where Ralph stood and moved beside him.
"... need to be enclosed, with doors on each floor. They're like a chimney, see? The smoke and flames go up."
"Of course." Ralph turned, pulling Laurie into the conversation. "Here, Spud, this is Pete. He worked at The Hollis, the hotel where we were supposed to stay, remember?"
Laurie didn't recognize the man, but he smiled and introduced himself. Another of Ralph's strays, it seemed, Pete had been on the maintenance staff at the hotel. He'd been discharged after the fire that took place just before their arrival in Wrightsville.
"They wanted a scapegoat," Pete said bitterly. "They don't fire the ones who run things, though. Just blame a guy like me instead."
"So you're saying the hotel still isn't safe?" Ralph asked.
"Nothing's changed except I'm not there. That's not a good thing for them or me," Pete declared.
"Something should be done," Ralph said. "If people knew--"
"No one listens. They think I'm just making trouble."
"But there must be evidence. Surely if someone researched fires in other public buildings, they'd find evidence to support what you're saying."
"Maybe." Pete looked unconvinced as he drank from the glass in front of him.
"Ralph, we should get back to the others," Laurie said.
"Of course. Pete, very nice to meet you."
As Ralph shook his hand, Pete said, "I'm sorry I said what I did, Ralph. You're okay, I see now. Not at all like I thought."
"No worries. Pete, if I need to speak to you again, where can I find you?" He wrote down the information the man gave him and then he and Laurie made their way back to the table.
"What started that?" Laurie had to ask.
"I pushed in beside him to get the barkeep's attention, and he called me a -- hmm, let's see if I can remember it all. A "toffee-nosed jackass who sounds like a butler in some stupid movie."
Laurie laughed so loudly that Henry asked what on earth was going on.
"Just met a man with a story to tell, that's all," Ralph answered. "He was discharged after that fire at The Hollis which left us living in your house all those weeks."
"Unlucky for him, but very fortunate for us," Susan said, and Laurie bowed to her.
"You're very gracious. A true diplomat."
"She's something, all right," Henry said with a wry twist to his mouth.
"She's ... going to dance again, aren't you?" Jack asked, holding out a hand. Susan took it with a radiant smile and they joined the crowd on the dance floor.
"Ralph, I thought Pete had improved your mood, but now you're brooding again," Laurie said.
"Pondering, not brooding," Ralph said. "I'm thinking through an idea which will probably amount to nothing." He picked up the drink that had been waiting for him and smiled at Laurie, then began quizzing Henry about the differences between the town's library and the one on campus.
On Sunday they relaxed and rested until it was time for dinner at the Damson house. Robert had invited them, saying that until they had their housekeeper they'd probably only fix themselves cold sandwiches. Since that or eating at the Grill in town had indeed been their plan, they accepted his invitation.
When they arrived at the Damson house, Jack was on the shady front porch with Henry, avoiding the hot afternoon sunlight. He jumped up when he saw them, a delighted look on his face. Mr. Brooks had stopped by after church to see him. He told Jack he was doing a very good job and encouraged him to think about taking a business course, one of the night classes offered at the high school. Jack had a budget planned out and was now trying to work in the enrollment fee.
"It will cost me time and money now, but if I can advance more quickly at the firm, then I'll be repaid."
Laurie and Ralph were both delighted to see how happy and talkative Jack was being, and Henry looked proud and fond as Jack rapidly shared all his news. They stayed there, chattering as if they hadn't seen each other in weeks, until Susan came out to call the four of them in to dinner.
When they arrived in the dining room, Ken Tinker was holding a chair for Susan, and Enid was at the head of the table, her nurse standing beside her. Laurie resigned himself to a much less enjoyable evening than he'd originally been anticipating.
Enid seemed even more disagreeable than she'd been when he first met her. She repeatedly belittled Jack, even mocking his insistence on giving Robert a portion of his salary for his room and board. The confident, happy person who'd met them on the porch seemed to vanish as Jack pulled in on himself, and Susan looked close to tears. Only the nurse and Tinker managed to keep eating and ignore the tension.
When Enid had completed her criticisms of Jack she moved on to Henry, haranguing him to spend more time at the foundry and less time "playing house with the damned Limey cripples." Helen's housekeeping and Robert's career came in for their share of ridicule, too. No one seemed to breathe freely for the next two hours, and the tension didn't lessen until Miss Galliard finally put down her napkin and assisted Enid from the room.
Tinker excused himself almost immediately, saying he had an early morning meeting with a potential client at the foundry. Susan barely replied to his strangled "good night." She was talking quietly with Jack, trying to bring him out of the silence Enid had caused. Laurie watched Tinker cross out of the room and saw him turn at the door for one last angry look.
Ralph, too, noticed and he and Laurie exchanged a look. Jack had an enemy, and neither of them were sure that he knew it.
Fortunately, the rest of the night was far more pleasant. Helen wanted to hear about Laurie's new house, the younger people shook off the earlier unpleasantness and joined in the cheerful, civil conversation that was such a change from dinner. Laurie thought he detected a definite thawing in Henry toward his father, and Robert certainly seemed happy. At one point Susan put on the big radio in the corner to a program of dance music, and when she asked if anyone wanted to dance, Robert stood up and held out his hand to Helen.
The rest of the men took turns dancing Susan and Helen around the room, until both women were breathless and overheated. They decided to have a final drink out on the porch, where it was cooler, and when it grew late, Laurie and Ralph took their leave. Ralph's "new" car was nearly ten years out of style, but it started immediately and smoothly took them out of town, toward the university and home.
"I hope Damson doesn't feel obligated to have us to dinner very often, Laurie," Ralph said when they were well away. "Light me one, won't you?"
Laurie leaned forward, fumbling a bit in Ralph's pocket until he found the lighter. "He's been very kind to think of us, but I could happily pass a year without seeing his dear mother again." He lit two cigarettes and handed one to Ralph, blowing the smoke out his window.
"Robert's very different here at home than when we met him. I didn't understand it at first."
"Yes. The thing to remember is that she must be very unhappy, as Jack said."
"Jack is too forgiving, just like you."
"Actually, he's just like ... someone I used to know," Laurie finished weakly, hoping Ralph couldn't see how warm his face was in the darkness. No matter how Laurie promised himself he would leave the past behind, he couldn't seem to keep Andrew and the love they'd shared out of his thoughts, even now. And he wasn't adept at hiding such thoughts, which he knew hurt Ralph.
"Well, if you two are right, Enid is proof positive of the old adage about misery loving company. She has quite a knack for spreading unhappiness."
Laurie tried to change the subject, but conversation fizzled out and they drove the rest of the way in silence. When Ralph pulled into the drive of their little house and shut off the car, neither of them moved until they finished their cigarettes. Then Laurie led the way, opening the side door with his key, and locking it again behind Ralph.
They shut off lights and retired upstairs, going into their separate rooms to change, taking turns in the bath, calling good night to each other. Only then, in total darkness and silence, did Ralph come back to Laurie's room and climb beside him in the wide bed.
Laurie almost flinched when Ralph leaned over to kiss him. He could have left it at that, just whispered good-night and rolled over to sleep, but the impulse made him feel guilty. Instead he instigated more contact, rolling closer to kiss Ralph and awkwardly reaching down to fondle his member. Fortunately, Ralph seemed to enjoy this. Even more happily, he took charge after a few minutes and pushed Laurie back into his pillow, kissing his neck as he carefully opened the buttons down the front of Laurie's pajama shirt.
Laurie closed his eyes and tried to relax, but he was overwrought and uncomfortable. Ralph knew his body and how to touch him, but nothing was working right tonight. Ralph was aroused, Laurie could feel that familiar hardness pushing against him. But his mind was too busy for his body to react to the strong hands touching him so tenderly. He kept thinking of Andrew, remembering days that were long gone and feeling as if he were betraying both his younger self and Ralph.
Ralph seemed to notice, pulling away with a questioning look. Laurie used the space to roll over.
"Spud?" Ralph sounded surprised, but pleased, too. They didn't often join this way.
There was a pause before the bed dipped and Ralph began rummaging in the dresser drawer. Laurie lay with his face to the window, breathing deeply and trying to relax. Then Ralph was back beside him and a warm hand stroked his back and buttocks, rubbing gently, relaxing him. He closed his eyes and finally the image of Andrew began to fade in the pleasure of the slow, easy massage.
By the time a slick finger breached his body, Laurie was boneless. He moaned just a bit, and Ralph kissed his shoulder and whispered, "Let me in, Spuddy. Give it to me." The finger twisted and pushed, opening him, left him and then came back again. Soon Laurie was twisting the sheets in his fists, his body pushing up and back, wanting more.
Ralph gave it to him, pulling out the fingers and turning Laurie to his side to allow his thick cock to find the loosened opening. Despite all their preparation, Ralph's body was shaking with the relentless pressure necessary to enter Laurie. Ralph's hand kept rubbing and squeezing Laurie's shoulder, and he whispered nonsense that cut off with a moan when he finally slid past all resistance and was fully joined with Laurie.
They lay that way, unmoving, for what seemed an eternity. Ralph was pressed close, damp with sweat despite the night breeze from the window. His arm wrapped around Laurie's chest, caressing and holding him immobile. Laurie felt too full, yet there was no pain, just a sense that he needed more.
As if he'd spoken, Ralph began to move. Slowly he pulled back, then pressed in again, and Laurie moaned and closed his eyes against the sparks of pleasure as Ralph began to move faster and harder. Laurie felt overwhelmed, as he did each time this happened, and amazed at how good it was. Surely this should feel wrong, should be unnatural.
Ralph changed the angle of his movement and white-hot pleasure shot through Laurie. He cried out, his body immediately on the edge of release. Ralph's mouth was on his neck but he felt the huff of air, like laughter, and then Ralph did it again, his hand covering Laurie's mouth as Laurie's body convulsed and his cock released. He sobbed his pleasure into the salt-taste of Ralph's damp palm, and behind him Ralph began to whisper, "yes, yes, yes" as his driving movements sped up.
Ralph's hand moved to Laurie's hip to hold him steady against the thrusting and he relaxed into it, feeling possessed and beloved. All thought was wiped out in the afterglow of pleasure and in the thrill of knowing he was the one making Ralph shudder and groan and lose control.
"Love you, love... oh, God, yes." Ralph tensed, his arms shaking and his breath stuttering as his hips kept thrusting, rhythm lost in spasms of pleasure. Then he collapsed, but he remained pressed tightly to Laurie's back, still inside him and holding on tightly. There was only the sound of their breathing, gradually slowing from harsh panting into the deep, regular sleep noise that was familiar. Laurie felt their bodies separate when Ralph fell asleep.
Laurie stared out the window, contemplating the various shades of grey that might easily be lumped together and called darkness.
5. - Here's that Rainy Day
Ralph dropped Laurie at the school early the next morning and headed to town on an errand. Laurie had dozens of files awaiting his attention, all designed to help him familiarize himself with the department's curriculum and the courses he'd be teaching in a month's time. He plugged in his new hot plate and opened his tea tin, noting with dismay how his supply was dwindling. He wished he'd thought to have Ralph arrange to have more sent from home along with the boxes they were expecting in a few weeks. He spooned leaves into the small clay pot he'd carried in his suitcase, the same one he'd used all through university, and arranged his desk while waiting for the water to heat.
When he settled into his chair with the first file that came to hand and his cup, Laurie lost himself in the excitement of his work. He made notes, thought about ways to modernize the department and wondered if he could discuss such ideas with Robert to work them out fully before bringing them to his chairman's attention. He was excited by the classes he'd been assigned. Two were freshman-level requirements, but he'd been given an elective course on Greek literature. He was also to be the advisor for a student-produced periodical for the Latin and Greek scholars.
His morning had a few interruptions, mostly other staff stopping by to introduce themselves and welcome him to the faculty. Each visit and each piece of information he assimilated made his situation more real to him, and Laurie glowed with pride. He'd done it, he'd come to a new land and managed to get what he'd always wanted. In a month or so, there would be students stopping by the office to discuss their goals and learn from him. The empty shelves surrounding his desk would fill with his books from home and new ones he'd purchase. He would make new friends, people with fine minds who were interested in discussing higher ideas. He would learn and teach others, not stagnate in some narrow job he thoroughly disliked.
Laurie was so uplifted by these thoughts that it surprised him to have his next thought be of the Damsons. Robert had such a vocation, but Henry did not. Laurie began to understand the nature of Henry's misery, and to feel truly sorry for him.
When there was another knock on his door a few hours later, he thought Ralph had finally come back to join him for lunch. He smiled and called out "come in, old man," but when the door opened a stranger stood there, a man in an unfamiliar uniform. Laurie stood, quickly composing his face, and asked "Can I help you?"
"Mr. Odell?" At his nod, the man continued, "Sorry to bust in on you like this. My name's Dakin, I'm the Chief of Police in Wrightsville."
"It's good to meet you, Chief Dakin. Please, have a seat." He gestured to the student chair across from him and watched the man sit, carefully, one hand on the gun he wore at his waist.
"I'd like to ask you some questions, Mr. Odell. We can do that here, or at the police station if you'd prefer." Laurie was thoroughly puzzled and not sure how to answer. The Chief seemed to sense this and he continued, "You were at the Damsons' for dinner yesterday?"
"Yes." That, at least, was a simple question.
"With your friend, Ralph Lanyon?"
"Among others, yes."
"This Lanyon, he shares the house you're renting?"
"Yes, sir. We're new to this area." Laurie's stomach dropped and he felt himself tensing, as if for a blow.
"They tell me he has a car," Dakin continued.
"Yes, he just bought a used vehicle." The concern about Ralph's car wasn't what he'd been dreading, and it seemed odd, unless ... Ralph wasn't licensed here yet, was he? Laurie felt great relief; this would be quickly straightened out. "I'm not sure where he is this morning... er, afternoon, now. But I do expect him to stop by later, and I can give Ralph any message you'd like."
"That won't be necessary, I'll be questioning him myself. How long have you known the Damsons?"
"I..." He wondered why in the world that mattered to the police chief, but sensed that he wasn't supposed to ask questions, only to answer them. "I met Robert in England, during the war, and we became acquainted. I've only known his family a few weeks."
"By his family, you mean...?"
"Those who live in his house, his wife, children and his mother, too. And Jack Fowler."
"You don't mention Emily Galliard, Mrs. Damson's nurse."
"I've seen her, of course, but I don't believe she's ever spoken to me. She's usually been quite occupied with attending to Mrs. Damson."
Dakin nodded and made notes on a small pad of paper. Then he looked up and Laurie was struck by the coolness in his light grey eyes. "Miss Galliard died last night."
Laurie stammered, "Oh, I'm sorry to hear that."
"I'm sure," Dakin replied.
"Mrs. Damson must be very distressed."
"Yes, she is. You see, Miss Galliard was murdered in the room right next door to her."
That information left him speechless, and his mind seemed incapable of processing the Chief's words as truth. Murder? That was something that ancient rulers orchestrated, or that happened in mystery novels like those Robert loved to read. Murder... He didn't know why this seemed so much worse than German gunners trying to end his life, or Ralph acting in self-defense. But the concept of murder simply didn't fit in that gracious old house in this quiet town. And killing a woman...
He couldn't even remember her face. That seemed wrong.
"You don't seem very curious about this, Mr. Odell."
"I'm afraid I can't understand ... I don't seem capable of taking this in at all. You're certain there's no mistake? Some accident?"
"There's no mistake about it." Dakin's eyes were still on him, and Laurie didn't know what he was expected to say or do. "I take it you didn't see anything suspicious last night? Hear anything?"
"No. We ate with the family, and we stayed after to talk. And the others danced a bit. There wasn't anything out of the ordinary, as far as I know." Laurie wondered if Dakin really meant to imply that the murder had happened at the same time they were all there, just a few rooms away?
"I hear you have a job here now, and a house nearby?"
"Write down your address for me, if you don't mind. I'll probably have more questions for you later. And I'll need to speak to Lanyon, too."
Laurie did as requested and with a nod, the Chief stood to leave. Trying to be courteous, Laurie rose, too, and walked to open the office door for him. Dakin seemed taken aback, though Laurie wasn't sure why. Perhaps most people who'd just been questioned by the police didn't bother with niceties.
He watched Dakin slowly walk away, wishing Ralph would come back so they could discuss it all. He tried to return to his work, but he couldn't concentrate. He could only imagine police investigators at Damson's house, and Chief Dakin questioning Jack, Susan and Henry as he'd just questioned Laurie.
He put two files in his portfolio, made certain his hot plate was unplugged, and locked up the office without even rinsing his teacup. Then Laurie walked outside and just sat on a bench he'd seen that commanded a view of the walkway to his office. Being outside where he could breathe and hear the trees rustling helped him relax, though the distress was still there, just under the surface.
When Ralph did show up, about an hour later, he was full of his own news.
"Laurie, I'm so glad you're enjoying this beautiful afternoon. Are you ready to head home? I'll have you know you're looking at an honest man. I've got a bit of a job, Spud. Not permanent, just a trial run. But I think it might work out."
"That's wonderful, Ralph. But I have some news for you..."
"News? Did you hear, then? How on earth... It's enough to make me believe Henry's theory about gossip in small towns."
"You're not making any sense, Ralph. Sit down, please, and let me speak. No, wait, not here. Let's go inside where it's more private."
Ralph looked bemused but he gave Laurie his arm to help him rise, then followed him back to his office. He was still exuberant and practically bounced into the chair -- the same chair where Dakin had recently sat. That realization made it necessary for Laurie to take a few more moments to gather his thoughts.
"Ralph, I had a visitor earlier today. No, let me finish. It was the chief of police, a man named Dakin."
Ralph was immediately sober, his face creased with worry. "Are you all right?"
"Yes, he was very polite. But he was asking questions..."
"I'll move out, Spud. We can clear your name, no one... I'll take a flat in town. They can't prove a thing..."
"Ralph, no. It's not that." Laurie took a deep breath and plunged ahead. "There was a... a murder... last night; Miss Galliard was killed at Damson's house."
"What?" Ralph looked just as stunned as Laurie still felt. His alarm flowed out of him, leaving only confusion.
"I know, it's... like something unreal, I can't wrap my head around it."
"No, of course not. Murder, Spud? Not just some horrible accident?"
"He said she was deliberately killed, Ralph. He's going to want to question you, about dinner last night and such."
"I suppose that's only logical. We're strangers in this town, even if we hadn't been at Damson's we might be under some suspicion." Ralph's hand was shaking a bit as he reached in his jacket for his cigarette case. "May I smoke in here, Laurie, or would you rather leave?"
"Let's go home, Ralph." He gathered his portfolio again and rose. Ralph waited patiently while he locked up the office again, and didn't light his cigarette until they were on the lawn, headed for the parking area.
"It'll work out, Spud. We've nothing to hide -- at least, not as far as this affair is concerned. There must be some very logical explanation for the whole thing, and it will be cleared up in a day or so."
"I hope so."
Laurie began to relax as they drove back to their house, but there was a police car parked out front. Ralph pulled into the drive, frowning, and parked outside the garage. When he climbed out of the car, a figure moved out of the shadow of the doorway. Dakin.
"Mr. Odell." He nodded, and Dakin continued, "I take it this is Mr. Lanyon? I'd like to ask you some questions, Mr. Lanyon, about last night."
"Why don't you come inside, Chief," Laurie interrupted, not wanting any more of this discussion to happen where a neighbor might overhear. He held the door and the two men moved past him, Dakin intently watching Ralph despite a seemingly casual attitude. "Here, sit down. Can I get you something to drink, Chief? I'm afraid we don't have coffee..."
"Just a glass of water would be fine, Mr. Odell. Thank you." He sat on the chair Laurie had indicated, and the notepad and pen came out of Dakin's pocket. Then he looked up at Ralph, who was standing, blank-faced, at the front window. "Mr. Lanyon, I understand you had dinner with Robert Damson and his family last night."
Laurie made his way to the kitchen and chipped at the ice block in the freezer until he had enough for three glasses. Water for Dakin, something stronger for Ralph and himself, and then he looked at the glasses lined up on the table and wondered why he'd refused to buy a serving tray as Susan had suggested. He really couldn't manage more than one glass with his stick. With a sigh, he picked up the water glass and carried it back to the living room.
"... met Miss Galliard?"
"Yes." Ralph's answer was clipped and he wasn't volunteering any information.
"Talk to her much?"
Ralph hesitated, then said "No," but he seemed less assured.
"I see." Dakin accepted the water from Laurie without comment, his eyes on Ralph.
"I was seated beside her at dinner our first night in town. I attempted to make conversation with her, just to be polite, but she barely opened her mouth." Ralph seemed to feel he'd been tricked into speaking so much.
"Ah." Laurie was making his way back to the kitchen, so he missed more of the questioning. When he came back with Ralph's drink, both men were silent. He handed off the glass, trying to look at Ralph, but Ralph avoided his gaze. Dakin was looking at his pad, avoiding Laurie's eyes, too.
He left the room and remained in the kitchen, rummaging through the cupboards and icebox. He began preparing food for their dinner, aware of the voices in the other room but not able to discern the words. He thought Ralph was monosyllabic again; certainly Dakin was speaking more. The policeman continued asking questions for a long time.
When he heard the door, Laurie stayed at the range, stirring the tinned soup he was heating. A minute later he heard Dakin's car engine start up, and not long after that Ralph came in the kitchen, two empty glasses in his hands.
"I'm sorry I stuck you with kitchen duty, Spud. You've been working all day; you should have a little rest."
"It's just soup and sandwiches, nothing fancy."
"Yes." Ralph went to the cupboard and refilled his glass. He checked Laurie's drink, too, but he'd barely touched it.
"I'm sure all this nonsense is just the normal police routine in such matters."
"No doubt. It's just... Sorry, Spud. I'll shape up. I'd be happy never seeing Dakin again, though, even if he is owed an apology."
"He's just doing his job -- and don't tell me that was the bloody Nazis' excuse."
Ralph laughed and said, "You know me too well. Here, let me do that. Have a seat and finish up this mess, will you?"
Laurie let the topic drop, and they did a good job of distracting each other from the murder at their friend's home. They grumbled familiarly about the need to do marketing, and Ralph told Laurie he'd found a butcher shop that was more convenient than the one Helen had recommended. When they finally began eating, Laurie started to tell Ralph about his ideas for the department. Gradually the pleasant intimacy of sitting at the kitchen table together eased their anxiety, and they both did justice to their simple supper.
Ralph was stirring the dregs of his soup when his head came up and he smiled brilliantly at Laurie. "I almost forgot -- I didn't manage to tell you my news. I went in today and met with the editor of the Record, you know, the town's newspaper. He's an ex-Marine, name of Duncan. I spoke to him about that man we met, Pete, and suggested that he do an investigation of fire codes and building regulations in cities like Boston and New York."
"Really. Was he interested?"
"Intrigued, I think, but not wiling to commit anyone on his staff to research and write such a story."
"Oh, too bad."
"Well -- it seems he thinks I could do it."
"We talked for a good while and got into our backgrounds. He used to work on the big fishing boats in Bangor, Maine. We were comparing stories, tall tales mostly. The upshot is, he's asked me to brush off some of my travel experiences, those stories you like to hear when you're half asleep."
Laurie opened his mouth to protest but Ralph laughed and continued, "Duncan said he might run such tales on the weekends, when the news is slow. And if he likes my work, he'll put me on as a freelance reporter. I can find my own stories, like the fire code investigation."
"That sounds quite challenging, Ralph, but I've no doubt you'll succeed." The whole idea made Laurie vaguely uneasy, but he dragged up a smile. "You're a born storyteller."
"No, it doesn't come naturally. But I can do it, if I work hard enough at it. This job won't keep me cooped up in an office all day, I'll be out and about, searching for stories. Yet I can be home when you've got free time, so there'll be no more conflicts of duty causing separations." Ralph's joy was clear to see. Laurie wished he were as certain that they could live in each other's pockets day after day without getting on each other's nerves.
"When are you going to get started?"
"My old diaries are in the crates we're expecting, but I don't really need to refer to them immediately. I can pull something together and check my facts later. My first mission is to find an old typewriter somewhere."
"But you don't know how to type-write, do you?"
"I've used one at the base for reports and such, when I could. It's more professional than my scratchy handwriting, and if I practice it should be faster, too. I've seen men really speeding along, just using two fingers."
Laurie rose and began to clear their plates to the sink, and Ralph jumped up to assist him. "I wonder where you can find a machine, then."
"Spud, I'm insisting that you let me do the clean-up tonight. Go sit in the living room in that big old horror of a chair. And take your drink -- no, wait. That's all water now, the ice has melted. Here, go along and I'll bring you a fresh one in a bit."
At the door Laurie turned and said, "Perhaps Henry knows where you can buy a used typewriter."
"I shouldn't like to bother him right now. No matter; my options are fairly limited as Dakin informs me I'm not to leave town under any circumstances."
"What?" Laurie took a step back into the room and examined Ralph's face, certain that he must be joking. But Ralph met his eyes and nodded.
"Dakin told me I'm a suspect in this killing and that I'm not to leave Wrightsville. I believe that includes shopping excursions, so I'll just have to find a second-hand store in town. Or write longhand for a while."
"But... Dakin didn't say anything of the sort to me, Ralph. Are you certain you understood him?"
"Quite. It seems you're no longer a suspect, Spud. As you might expect, Dakin didn't go into details, but when I pressed him he told me that your knee has put you in the clear."
click here to continue to chapters 6-10