Alec swam back to the jetty and stopped at a fair distance, but close enough to be heard. ‘Good morning, sir,’ he said. ‘It’s good to see you. Did you have a pleasant journey?’
‘I’m sorry, Clive, but neither Alec or I are decent,’ Maurice said matter-of-factly. He was bobbing next to Alec now.
The squire squatted down. ‘I don’t mind,’ he smiled. ‘You don’t need to get out if you don’t want to. Good heavens, Scudder, it’s been twenty-five years since you quit my service. And look at you now…You’re thriving in the Highland air.’ ‘Thank you, sir,’ Alec mumbled.
The squire pointed to the patch of sand behind him. ‘I brought some drinks and refreshments. Please join me for breakfast later. Take your time.’
Maurice laughed. ‘Don’t tell me you drove all night to get here. The roads in this district are hell in the dark.’ The squire then explained that he had arrived at Brenton’s estate late in the evening. The charming hostess had told him that Maurice would spend the night elsewhere. ‘I would have loved to have a nightcap with you before the fireplace,’ he said. ‘But I understood. I spent the night in a lovely guest room and I set out before breakfast. The map you drew me in London was very accurate. I found Scudder’s cottage and the car park outside the woods and this place just now…A paradise indeed. No one ever comes here, I suppose…I say, it’s getting a bit stuffy.’
The sun was warmer now, reflected in a million shards on the waves of the pond. He got up and took off his jacket. Then his boots. His waistcoat. His shirt. He wore no singlet under it. His trousers. His socks. He put his glasses on the picknick basket. Then he stepped out of his drawers.
‘Sir, perhaps…’ Alec stammered. ‘It’s all right,’ Maurice whispered.
A man with neatly combed walnut-brown hair and a lean, matte-ivory-tinted body and pale-pink nipples was now standing on the edge of the jetty. ‘Be careful, Clive,’ Maurice said. ‘It’s perhaps only two yards deep and they never dredge here.’
The man caught the sunlight with his body, bending over backwards, holding his arms over his head, fingers locked, eyes closed. Then he dived in, cautiously and noiselessly.
He came up for air a few yards away from the jetty, his hair plastered to his forehead, and crawled towards Maurice and Alec. He shook hands with his former gamekeeper and gave him a look with a pair of crystal-blue eyes. Then he drifted into Maurice’s arms. They kissed and whispered.
‘Sir, perhaps…’ Alec stammered. Clive looked at him again. ‘Oh please, give over with your ‘sir’,’ he laughed. ‘Do call me Clive. I shall call you Alec. We’re equal and times have changed.’
‘Alec never liked his first name,’ Maurice said. ‘But I love it. It’s music to my ears. His parents used to call him Licky, but that would be too childish.’
Mr. Durham chortled. ‘Very well. Then I shall call you Scuddie. A nice wee Scottish name. Yer forty-seven and nae longer a Wiltshire lad...Come to me, won’t you give your old master a hug?’
Alec swam to him and stopped when he felt the other man’s arms around him. ‘Hold on to me,’ Mr. Durham whispered. ‘Maurice told me you’re a good swimmer, but you might feel safer with me for a buoy.’
Alec looked into the crystal-blue eyes that bore happiness and a trace of pain. ‘May I ask, sir,’ he began hesitantly. ‘How is Mrs. Durham, and how is Miss Durham?’ ‘My name is Clive, dear,’ the other man said. ‘Mrs. Durham is well. She’s currently staying with her parents in Turnbridge Wells. My daughter is well, too…She returned from an internship at a hospital in Milan two weeks ago. Would you believe it – she drove all the way there. And on her way back, she had a puncture on the Simplon Pass. She stood in the snow by the side of the road for hours, with only a cardigan and a macintosh over her dress to keep her warm, until someone turned up who could change the tire…So brave...remarkable, isn’t it?’
Alec looked at Maurice, who merely smiled and gave him something that must be a wink.
‘It certainly is,’ Alec said. ‘You must be very proud of her.’
Clive lovingly brushed a stray curl from Alec’s brow. ‘Your hair is getting grey,’ he whispered. ‘No, it’s more like silver. You look stunning.’
The rays of the sun were burning now. Alec counted the droplets on Clive’s shoulders. Then he ran his fingers over a pink patch that was stretched over a collarbone. ‘What’s that?’ he asked.
‘Gunshot wound,’ Clive answered. ‘Cambrai, 1916.’
Now Alec softly kissed the spot. Clive drew him closer to him and folded his legs around him.
A little later, Alec felt Maurice’s warm body against his back. He relaxed and the two other men sensed it and held him. The trees rustled softly, a very distant train whistle howled, a V-shaped flock of geese sailed through the air. They were starting their trek for the south very early, a sure sign that winter would be harsh. Alec shivered. ‘Let’s get out before we shrivel up,’ Maurice said sweetly and hoarsely, his voice sounding like thunder in the silence.
They were on the tartan plaid, naked, with the picknick basket in front of them. Clive and Alec were sharing a mug of tea and a cigarette. Maurice was lying on his back, dozing.
‘You’re beautiful, Alec,’ Clive said. ‘And so resilient. Roughing it in the woods, so to speak. But I can tell you’re happy.’ ‘I am,’ Alec smiled. ‘Whenever that one over there is around, I feel like a king. He’s grand.’
‘I agree,’ Clive said. ‘I never got to tell him so until it was almost too late. But I did.’
Alec gave him a look, from his face down to his waist.
‘You still don’t trust me, do you?’ Clive muttered.
Alec grinned now. ‘I do, Clive, never you worry. Why else would the three of us sit here stark naked while there’s a good chance that the local deputy of the Forestry Department will see us?’
Clive burst into delicious peals of laughter. Maurice woke up. ‘What’s the matter?’ he groaned. ‘Any more tea going? I’m thirsty.’
They filled the mug and shared it, rubbing shoulders and whispering and warming up in the sunlight.
There was lemonade after that. Maurice took sips and alternately fed Alec and Clive from his mouth.
They chortled and coughed.
Around noon, they lined up on the jetty and pissed in the water. Then they washed their hands and returned to the plaid. Alec wriggled until he was lying against Clive’s chest, his back and buttocks covered by Maurice’s heavy body. They dozed until hunger woke them at two.
After they put on their drawers, they laid out all their treasures on the blanket. Alec had hard-boiled eggs from his own hens and some apples. Clive contributed slices of cured ham from a butcher in Kensington and lemon marmalade. Maurice took a loaf of bread, tomatoes and some tins of olives and a box of Turkish delight from his hunting bag. They agreed that this meal was better than those at any snotty restaurant near Grosvenor Square.
When all was cleared away, the sun disappeared behind a veil of clouds. They put on their shirts and huddled together. Plans were made.
‘We’re in for another war,’ Clive said. ‘And since our nation will never condone Hitler taking even one inch of land that belongs to others, we will be facing terror again.’
‘With more modern warfare than in 1914,’ Maurice added. ‘Holland and Belgium are easy to conquer. They’ll reach the Channel before we know…Alec will be quite safe here, but I’ve got a business in London I can’t leave. And the enemy will attack port cities first…If the threat grows worse, Clive, please, return to your estate. You’ll come to no harm there. Take Anne and Josie with you.’
‘Josie won’t want to leave London,’ Clive said sadly. ‘She lives for her studies only. I’ve tried to telephone her in the evenings over the past few days, but only her cousins answered. She must be amusing herself. I don’t want to take that away from her, she works hard and she deserves some distraction.’
He mused, lit a cigarette and stared at the pond. ‘But still,’ he went on, ‘we ought to remain together, no matter what…I’ll talk to Anne and Josie yet, but since the two of you are here with me now, I am telling you this: please feel very welcome to seek shelter on my estate. My door is always open.’
Maurice embraced Clive behind Alec’s back. ‘Thank you, my love, thank you very much.’
Alec drank the last of the lemonade and turned around. ‘Will the two of you have tea at my cottage tonight?’ he asked. ‘Early, of course, you can’t drive back to Brenton’s manor in the dark.’
Clive ran his fingers through Alec’s hair and kissed him. ‘That sounds lovely. We should be together whenever your work schedule and Maurice’s and my hunting duties allow it…This is the only place where we can be completely secluded from the world, and we deserve it.’
Maurice got up, rummaged through his hunting bag and then triumphantly held up a bottle.
‘Whisky, my dear men…’ he said with sparkling eyes. ‘Let’s drink while we still can…Let’s drink to peace, and to happiness, and to love.’