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Under the Waves

Chapter Text

They woke to the sound of birds singing and quarreling in the fir trees that lined the southern edge of the pond. Dawn was breaking. It was the end of the third night they had spent together. The first one had been in a guest room in the big house on this estate, the second one in a grubby hotel in London.

The younger man was twenty-two and had deliberately missed the boat from Southampton to Buenos Aires the day before. He had told the older man, who was twenty-four, that he wanted to stay with him.

They were still together now, lying on dusty sofa cushions and under coarse horse blankets in a side room of the boathouse on Mr. Durham’s estate.

Mr. Durham had been friends with the older man, more than that in fact, since their days as students at Cambridge. The younger one had been in Mr. Durham’s service as a gamekeeper for a year. The squire had recently married.

‘Don’t go,’ Alec whispered when Maurice carefully crawled up from under the blankets.

‘I’m not going anywhere,’ Maurice said, bending over to kiss him. ‘It’s just that I have some work to do now.’

From the makeshift bed Alec watched his lover rake the fire and fill a kettle with water from a jug.

A little later, they were sitting on the blankets, wearing undershirts and drawers, sharing an enamel mug of weak tea and discussing their plans. ‘Of course we’ll be on the train by noon,’ Maurice said to Alec. ‘No need to hurry yet. It’s Sunday morning and it’s a quarter to seven now...Would you lend me your shaving gear?’

Alec got soap and a razor from a suitcase that he had meant to take with him to the Argentine. Then he held up a large shard from an old mirror while Maurice removed his black moustache with swift, hard jabs, mumbling that no one would recognize him on their journey.

‘Done!’ he smiled a little later, wiping the remaining soap off his face and looking at Alec with midnight-blue eyes. ‘How do you like me now?’

‘You’re beautiful,’ Alec said.

***

The morning fog still lay over the pond like a bride’s veil when they stepped out onto the deck in their underclothes to smoke and to get some fresh air. All was quiet but for the distant singing of sparrows, occasionally interrupted by a blackbird.

‘That one’s always around,’ Alec said to Maurice. ‘I come here every morning to feed it breadcrumbs and such.’ He rushed back in and returned with a neatly tied packet of biscuits his mother had made him to take on the ship. He untied the string, crushed a sweet, golden disc between his strong fingers and dropped the bits onto the planks. Presently the bird flew down, landed at the men’s feet and started pecking, making grateful sounds.

‘It’s saying ‘thank you’,’ Maurice whispered. Then he put his arms around his lover and looked into his warm, brown eyes. ‘It’ll miss you when you’re gone,’ he said. Alec nodded. ‘I suppose so…I’d better feed it more later.’

When the little creature soared into the sky, twittering merrily, the two men watched it until it took its usual place on the slate roof of the boathouse. It sang now, telling the other birds that this was his turf.

Maurice and Alec listened, smoking, scratching their feet on the planks, silent.

When Maurice finally spoke softly, it sounded like thunder. ‘You know,’ he smiled. ‘I just got an idea.’

Alec looked at him, shocked at first, then relaxing when his lover pulled his undershirt over his head and stepped out of his drawers.

Maurice walked to the end of the pier. He stopped and turned around. ‘Do you reckon it’s deep enough?’ he asked Alec. ‘It is,’ Alec said. ‘The garden boys and me dug out quite some mud a couple of weeks ago so if would be safe enough for the gentlemen to bathe between innings during that boring cricket match. But none of them would.’

Maurice, naked and powerfully built and earthy in the hesitant sunlight, beckoned him. ‘Are you coming too?’ he asked sweetly.

‘They say all gentlemen learn to dive,’ Alec remarked, muffled because he was struggling out of his undershirt. ‘I never learned to…It seems more natural not to let your head get under the water.’

Maurice’s mirthful laughter rang across the pond. ‘You’ve said so before, my love…I shall no longer be a gentleman as of now, as my current state of dress, or rather undress, aptly proves…Watch me dive, then. It’s quite easy. You might give it a try, too.’

Now Alec laughed. ‘No, I won’t. I’ll watch you, though, from the right angle.’

He was still wearing his drawers when he tiptoed past Maurice, sat down on the edge of the pier and carefully slid into the water, feet first. He rather paddled than swam a few yards, turned around and started bobbing. ‘Yes, it’s deep enough,’ he called out to Maurice. ‘Are you coming?’

Maurice stretched, held his arms over his head for a while, fingers locked, studied the cool surface and then dived in. There was barely a splash. His body undulated under the water as he swam towards his lover with powerful strokes. When he came up for air, he uttered a soft cry and took Alec in his arms.

‘You’re not a good swimmer,’ he laughed. Alec nodded and kissed him.

Maurice moved onto his back and held Alec as he slowly rowed them further onto the pond with his legs. ‘Don’t worry,’ he whispered. ‘Hold on to me and you won’t drown.’

Alec looked into his dark-blue eyes under the long, black lashes that glistened with droplets. ‘Your skin feels cool and warm at the same time, Maurice,’ he said. ‘Wonderfully smooth, almost better than when we make love in bed.’

Maurice threw back his head and uttered a high-pitched, smoky laugh. ‘Oh Alec, my beauty, you’re right…Can you imagine anything more blissful than this?’

He supported Alec like a lifejacket as they slowly drifted on, their chests touching. The blackberry bushes on the edge rustled and then a sweet, tinkling sound could be heard. ‘A wren,’ Alec murmured. ‘I know it well. It always hides there to watch over anyone rowing or swimming.’

Maurice tightened his muscular embrace until Alec’s head was against his neck. ‘Oh, listen,’ he murmured. ‘It’s singing to us...’ Then he gently lifted Alec’s chin and looked him in the eyes with sudden sadness.

‘I feel guilty for taking you away from this paradise this afternoon,’ he whispered. ‘Are you sure you want to come with me, my love?’

Alec did not answer. His lover’s body was around him like a shell. ‘You didn’t get your hair wet,’ Maurice chuckled. ‘Shall I…?’ Alec shook his head and took in the other man's smiling face, so smooth now that the moustache was gone, and covered in tiny pearls of water.

‘Oh, no,’ Alec grinned. ‘I’m not scared or nothing…It’s just that…’ Maurice’s expression grew understanding. ‘It’s just that…’ Alec went on. ‘You know…We’re not in a bathtub, but in a pond. Fish live here…They never clean up after themselves. They have their dinner in the water and then they go to the lavatory in it. Disgusting. I don’t want their mess in my hair, you see.’

Now Maurice was shaking helplessly with laughter, nearly letting go of Alec. ‘Give over with your silly remarks or we’ll both drown,’ he panted.

Then they found one another again, straddling their legs under the water, kissing and talking softly.

The morning fog had cleared now and the sun’s warmth was growing. Maurice closed his eyes and let the benign light caress his face. Alec listened to his lover’s calm breathing and the lapping of the waves and nearly drifted off to sleep until a flock of starlings fled from the treetops screeching and he felt muscles tighten against his own.

Maurice’s eyes were open now and looking into the distance. ‘Oh, blast,’ he snapped. He let go of Alec with a jolt and all grew unrelentingly cold.