“I’ve killed one man every year since I was sixteen years old,” said Tanner. He was nineteen years old at the time.
It was the sort of rot he often came out with, as if finding something sufficiently shocking to say would make him look less like an angel who had a sideline as a choirboy at weekends.
“Yes, you’re the villain of the piece, all right,” I told him. “I can see you now, standing knee-deep in blood with a knife in your hand.”
“He’s talking about the little death,” said Fortescue. “Let him boast.”
I felt my cheeks colour, even though we were lying all but naked in the garden’s mazy shade, and I could feel a streak of Tanner’s - of his emission, tacky on my chest. Fortescue was still wearing one of his flashy cream brogues, the heel a little streaked and blotched with green.
We’d had an arrangement, ever since Tanner was sixteen, free from school for the summer hols. Fortescue and I had been in our first year at Trinity, down for the summer at his godfather’s house, admiring the fine gardens. The young son. Together, we had unwrapped him like a gift. He’d come to us, behind the boathouse, with his shirt undone.
“You’re both of you simply beastly,” said Tanner now, rolling over onto his stomach. The scuff of the grass under the trees had left a faint red gauffering on the pale curve of his behind. “I meant exactly what I said. I bury them here, under the flower beds.”
“No wonder they bloom so lavishly,” said Fortescue. He was looking Tanner up and down as he said it. Up and down.
For a moment, I felt jealousy slide up like a thick green gel and lodge behind my heart. Fortescue had looked at me like that, once.
I cupped my hand over the back of Tanner’s neck. “Flowers grow best over graves,” I agreed. “Think of the skull inside the pot of basil.”
Tanner blinked up at me, licking his bitten lips. He looked like he’d been singing psalms. “That’s more like it,” he murmured. “You’re wasted on the City, Arthur, you know.”
“He should be writing ghastly detective stories,” said Fortescue. “You could give him the plots.”
“I wouldn’t want just anyone to know my methods,” said Tanner. He lifted himself up on his elbows, so that my hand slipped down the warm line of his spine. “It’s our secret.”
“Partners in crime.” Fortescue’s faint smile made him look like a plaster cast of some archaic Greek . A Kouros statue, stepping forwards stiffly and forever. Smiling. Sly.
“Mm. First it was Burns, the Latin Master. Then it was a man who sold bottles. This year it was a kitchen boy. But not one of ours, of course. I’m careful.”
“So careful,” I said. I moved my hand lower.
“I’ve been saving the pair of you up for simply ages,” said Tanner. He spread his legs a little more. “Oh, yes. That’s lovely.”
“Look at you both,” Fortescue said. “The country gent and his swain. One wouldn’t think Arthur here was about to go back to wearing a bowler hat and saving up for a nice red brick house with a nice red-faced wife, would you?”
I moved my fingers over Tanner’s hole, still soft. Still wet. The sun was coming down through a crack in the leaves onto my leg, rather hot.
“Oh, I would,” said Tanner.
I crooked my finger, in revenge, and he stretched out like a cat.
“That’s why I’ll have to make my mind up sooner rather than later.” He shot Fortescue a look over one shoulder. “Get over here, there’s a good chap."
“Make up your mind about what?” I asked. I didn’t look at Fortescue, even when I could feel his breath on my shoulder, soft and close.
“About which of you to kill first,” said Tanner blithely.
But then I leaned over him, and he didn’t elaborate further.
He came back to it, though, when we were walking back to the house.
“Whoever picks me the most flowers, maybe?” He nodded towards the flower beds by the south wall.
They were extraordinary, I had to admit. Excessive. Rampant. Extravagant, Mother would say.
“We’ll do it that way.”
“I liked it better when you were saying you were the secret son of the duke of Devonshire,” said Fortescue.
The lengthening shadows spooled out under our feet, dark green. Woodpigeons cooed and rustled in the trees. Ilex and larch and good old English oak. The grainy, heavy green of highest summer, hanging overhead.
“For all you know,” said Tanner, “I could be.” He set off up the lawn, looking back over his shoulder. “Come on,” he said. “There’s no need to be scared. You haven’t picked a single flower yet.”
“Augustus Burns,” said Fortescue, the next morning.
We were both standing in front of the flower beds, dew dappling our shoes.
“Burns. The Latin Master.” Fortescue shook his head. “I always forget. You went to some awful hole on the south coast, didn’t you?”
“And to think,” I said, “I missed you in your charming schooldays. What a shame.” As a matter of fact, Mother had tried to get my name down. She hadn’t managed it, though. Once, going through her desk, I’d seen the letter. Begging. Laying out my pedigree like a prize dog.
Not prize enough, of course.
“The point is,” said Fortescue, “Bates died three years ago. A boating accident, they said.”
I stared at him. “You’re not seriously suggesting Tanner was telling the truth?”
“Of course not.” Fortescue kicked at the turf. “Not seriously.”
“Oh? Just in jest?” I stepped forwards and snapped off a spray of hollyhocks, blush-pink. “I suppose you can both of you afford to live in dreamland, after all.”
Fortescue stepped closer, up behind me. “I didn’t mean it,” he said. “I mean, I didn’t mean it yesterday. About the red brick. And the wife.”
“I don’t see why not,” I said. I plucked another stem. Lupins, this time. “It’s true.”
“There’s a girl?”
“There should be.”
“But there isn’t. You’re not a red brick sort of chap, Arthur.” Fortescue’s hand clasped my shoulder, solid and slow.
I didn’t shrug him off. That would have looked strange, seen from the house.
“You’re my sort of chap,” he said.
“Just like Tanner?”
“Just like Tanner.” Fortescue pinched off a head of Sweet William, between finger and thumb. “If we’re picking him flowers,” he said, “we’d better be careful not to win. We don’t want to end up like poor old Burns.”
“You’re ridiculous, both of you,” I told him.
Still, I stood beside him, and we picked flowers, armfuls of them, streaking our cloths with pollen and fresh dew.
And, when we went back to the house, I let him heap both our collections together into one great slump of blooms.
“I’m afraid I couldn’t say who picked the most,” he told Tanner, gentling them into his arms. “If you want to take one of us, you’ll have to take both of us.”
“I see,” said Tanner. And he stroked the flowers, and he smiled.