The isles of Greece! The isles of Greece
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace,
Where Delos rose, and Phoebus sprung!
Eternal summer gilds them yet,
But all, except their sun, is set.
Let us not dog their footsteps nor describe every wonder they saw. The guidebooks tell it all. Let us not dwell on Quentin’s Herculean labours as, Paul ever at his elbow, he limped and panted gamely round the sites. Let us not commiserate with Paul as he dedicated his dinner to the sea-god during a sharp Aegean squall. Rather let us eavesdrop on their growing togetherness and the final meeting of their minds. They found their souls permeated with poetry, sparked in the daytime by the scenery and the history and the works of art, fostered at night by the ambience as the ship pottered to its next port of call; for it is by night that Greek waters hold a special magic.
They visited Delos, birthplace of Phoebus Apollo, the god of youth and of male beauty, where Paul took advantage of the chance for a quick swim. That evening they were sitting in a secluded corner on deck, as far from the ship’s lights as they could find. They had talked the sun down and the sky was fully dark, darker by far than the background glow of Ruston ever allowed. Paul was gazing up at the myriad pinpricks above. Quentin was watching Paul, silhouetted against the pale phosphorescence of the sea. Paul turned to him with a wordless and barely visible smile.
Astēr emos, whispered Quentin’s soul, admitting at last what it had not dared to admit before. Oh gods, this boy was a young Apollo, as lovely in body as he was in mind. Two and a half thousand years ago Plato had seen the self-same vision.
Asteras eisathreis, astēr emos. Eithe genoimēn
Ouranos, hōs pollois ommasin eis se blepō.
You gaze at the stars, my star. Would that I were the heaven, to gaze at you with so many eyes.
But his soul did not permit his tongue to utter it. He could only smile in return.
Next evening, immediately after dinner, they were back on deck, Quentin with a glass of Mavrodaphne at his side, Paul with a lemonade. The blood-red sun was nibbling into the horizon and, above, bands of incandescent yellow and orange and crimson merged into purple and deep azure. A dark rocky island loomed distantly astern. Small wonder that such seascapes, like the rugged landscapes ashore, had generated so much that was beautiful. Paul was watching the sunset. Quentin was again watching Paul. The thoughts of last night were still swirling, still unspoken, in his head.
Numphai epochthidiai, Nērēidea, eidete Daphnin
Chthizon, epachnidian hōs apelousi konin,
Humeterais libadessin hot’ enthore seiriokautos,
Ērema phoinichtheis mala parēidia.
Eipate moi, kalos ēn? Ē egō tragos ouk ara knaman
Mounon eguiōthēn, all’ eti kai kradian?
You Nereids, nymphs of the shore, you saw Daphnis yesterday as he washed off the dust that lay down-like upon him; when, the apples of his cheeks aglow from the sun, he rushed into your waters. Tell me, was he beautiful? Or am I a goat, lame not only in my leg but in my heart as well?
No, it was only in his leg that he was lame. His heart was back in working order.
“I’ve never been so happy.” Paul turned with a smile so radiant that Quentin’s heart ached. “I never dreamt I’d see things like this.” He put a hand on the old man’s. “Let alone with someone like you.” The smile vanished. “Q! … You’re crying! … Why?”
“Because …” Quentin wiped away tears and confusedly considered what to say. “Because I’m happy too … because you’re happy … happy and beautiful … I feel just like Keats when he heard his nightingale …
“My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
’Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness.
“I’m too happy in your happiness … You might call this my nightingale.”
Paul smiled again, but tentatively.
“Well, good. But you’re always happy to see me happy. Why so happy now? So happy that it makes you cry?”
Quentin braced himself. The time had come to tear the mask off, to reveal what lay beneath.
“You have to know this, P. It’s because I love you.”
“Well, yes. But I’ve always known that, ever since we met.”
“You mean you’ve known that I love you as a father might? Yes, I do. And as a scholar I love your mind. But as we were discussing a couple of weeks ago, there are other sorts of love as well.”
Something flickered in Paul’s eyes, not objection but understanding. His face lit up again.
“Oh! Wonderful! So you’re gay too!”
“I was once. Long ago. Then it all seemed to fade away into irrelevance. But these last few days I’ve discovered that it hasn’t gone after all.”
“And that’s why you haven’t told me before! It was me who brought it back!” There was wonder in Paul’s voice.
“Yes, it was you. But don’t worry. You’re safe from me.”
Paul looked shocked. “I know I’m safe with you. But safe from you?” He paused and swallowed hard. “That makes it sound as if you might want to hurt me. Or steal something I didn’t want to give. I know you’d never do that. But if you asked me to … well, you know, do things with you, then I’d say yes, like a shot. I’d give you anything. After all, you’ve given me so much. And I love you too.”
Quentin was deeply moved by the generosity. But he had to reject it, gently and firmly.
“You mean you love me as you might a parent? Good. But wanting to repay a debt, you know, isn’t the same as love. And you can hardly love me in the sense we’re talking about. In any case, anything like that would be wrong for us. And not only wrong, but impossible.”
“Why? I want to make you happy too. Why?”
“For all sorts of reasons. The law, for a start. The other week we were talking about boys — let’s put it bluntly — having sex with boys their own age, or a few years older as in The Last of the Wine. As we saw, it’s illegal now, and these days it’s dangerous. But it isn’t wrong, not as we see it. We agreed on that. Well, now we’ve got to look at the wider picture. It’s also illegal for grown men to have sex with grown men. In that respect, as I see it, the law is equally misconceived; and in practice, if such men are caught, they’re likely to be punished harder. Then we get on to grown men having sex with boys. That’s not only illegal too, of course, but it’s generally considered the worst of the lot, and therefore it’s punished more heavily still.”
“Next, rather different from the law,” Quentin went on, “there are the standards of society. In this case it’s easier in a way, because I wouldn’t be surprised if half the population was willing for the law to be changed. But, and it’s a very big but, there’s the strongest of taboos against parents — and that includes guardians — having sex with their children. Personally I would never break that taboo.
“Then again, your Dad was worried I might abuse you. Sexually, that is — any sort of sexual contact. I promised I wouldn’t.
“And finally …”
But Paul interrupted.
“All right. I understand.” He sounded downcast. “But it’s pretty hard on you, wanting to but not being allowed to.”
“Not as hard as you might imagine. After all, one can admire boys in different ways.
“The fragrance and freshness of youth are theirs,
While for me — and thank God it's so! —
It's strictly forbidden to pick the flowers,
But it's jolly to watch them grow!”
Quentin could see Paul’s mind processing it. The sun was now fully down and night was descending fast, but the boy was transparent. First he absorbed the meaning. Then he grappled with the implications, and his eyes widened. Finally he shaped his questions. The order he asked them in was unexpected.
“That isn’t from the Anthology, is it?”
“No, though it almost could be. It’s by someone who called himself Philebus …”
“So it is Greek!”
“No again. Philebus — which of course means ‘lover of youth’ — was the pseudonym of one of the Uranian poets, just after the First War.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. The word probably isn’t heard much these days. The Uranians were a loose grouping of writers and academics who were infatuated with adolescent boys, between about 1850 and 1930. People like Edward Carpenter who was a pioneering advocate of sexual freedom, and Oscar Wilde, and even William Johnson Cory of Heraclitus fame. They used the term in the sense of ‘celestial,’ with special reference to Aphrodite and love, as in the Symposium. Though I’m sure,” Quentin chuckled dryly, “they didn’t overlook the pun on Uranus. They wrote about their wish to be allowed to love, and about the boys they admired. What they wrote wasn’t usually explicit, but it was awash with homoeroticism. Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray is the best known.”
“Oh. I see.” Paul cogitated before moving on to his next question. “So you’re strictly forbidden to pick my flower, but it's jolly to watch me grow?” Now he sounded almost cynical.
“Jolly isn’t the word I’d have used myself. Rewarding, yes. But the point is, you don’t have to pick buds to admire their sheer physical beauty. You can admire them while they grow unpicked.”
“Physical beauty? Well, maybe I’m fairly, um, attractive now. But we only met a month or so ago, so you haven’t seen me growing yet. And I do look at other boys in the showers, so I know what’s coming. What happens when I get hair on my face and legs and bum and lose my beauty? Like in all those poems in the Anthology, where a boy gets dropped by his lover because he’s grown hair? You know —
“All’ ouk oiden isōs, ek kaumatos hōs kalon anthos,
Houtō tēn hōrēn ek trichos hollumenēn.
Perhaps he doesn’t know that, just as a lovely flower is killed by heat, so is beauty killed by hair.
“Anyway, you haven’t even seen those bits of me. Well, my face of course. And my legs.” He patted a thigh, exposed below his shorts, and it was as smooth as his face. “But you haven’t seen my bum or, er, anything else down there.”
Quentin sighed. “P, forget about losing your beauty. Remember that those poems only reflect an ideal that was fashionable in Greece. It isn’t mine. To me, flowers don’t lose their beauty when they reach maturity. Even some of the Greeks recognised that. What about this one of Strato’s?
“Ei kai soi trichophoitos epeskirtēsen ioulos,
Kai trupherai krotaphōn xanthophueis helikes,
Oud’ houtō pheugō ton erōmenon; alla to kallos
Toutou, kan pōgōn, kan triches, hēmeteron.
Although pubescent fluff may invade you and soft blond curls spread over your face, that does not make me shun my loved one. His beauty is mine, even if he has a beard and hairs.
“I’d go along with that. It’s only when flowers finally wither that they lose their beauty. And even then you can admire them for what they’ve been.”
“Mmm.” For several minutes Paul cogitated again. “But you said you were gay once, long ago. Did you pick flowers then?”
“Yes, I did, a little.” Quentin’s memory went back. “There was a boy at school. His name was Wallis. He wasn’t exactly beautiful, any more than I was, but we were attracted to each other. We moved on together to Cambridge, and it was only there that we did anything about it. But after that, everything went haywire.”
“The war came. The First War. There was no chance of picking flowers in the trenches, and no inclination. And after I caught this shrapnel in my leg I spent six months in hospital, where there was still no chance and no inclination. On top of that, Wallis had been killed in action. Then back to the Front, where I got a dose of mustard gas. It burnt my face, which is why I grew this beard to disguise the scars. It got to my lungs, which is why I’m short of breath. And somehow …” Quentin paused, working out how to say what he had not yet been able to say. “Somehow it affected my private parts. The doctors’ best guess was that the gas damaged the relevant bit of my brain. I haven’t had any inclination since. And that’s why it’s impossible — not just wrong but physically impossible — for me to do anything like that with you.”
But the message was still incomplete, still in need of underlining, brutally if it had to be. In for a penny, in for a pound. He took the plunge.
“As usual, the Anthology says it all.
“Ēdē moi poliai men epi krotaphoisin etheirai,
Kai peos en mērois argon apokrematai;
Orcheis d’ aprēktoi, chalepon de me gēras hikanei.
Ōmoi; pugizein oida, kai ou dunamai.”
The hair on my head is hoary now and my cock hangs slack between my thighs. My balls are useless, and tough old age is upon me. Oh dear! I know how to bugger, and I can’t.
“So you could get into bed with me, just as beautiful young Alcibiades did with ugly old Socrates in that story in the Symposium. But nothing would happen, any more than it did in the story. Partly, I hope, because I’d have as much strength of will as Socrates. Mainly because nothing could happen. I’m impotent. But even if things don’t work down there, I do still have the use of my eyes. I can still enjoy what I see.”
There. He had metaphorically bared his all.
Paul had been listening horror-struck. He squeezed the old man’s hand.
“So ever since the First War you haven’t even been able to …”
He tailed off, but Quentin knew exactly what would be in an adolescent’s mind.
“No, not even that.”
“Oh, Q! I’m sorry! I can’t imagine how …”
He tailed off again into mournful silence. After a while he leant over and kissed Quentin on the cheek.
“Thank you, Q, for telling me all that. I understand much better now. About you. And about me too.”
For maybe an hour they sat on in silent togetherness, each deep in his thoughts, as the ship thrummed its slow way through the placid sea and the stars watched disinterested above. Paul’s eyes were on the ship’s wake, the turbulent band of dancing wavelets that sparkled in the starlight until lost to the distant darkness.
“White horses!” he muttered to himself, but Quentin barely noticed.
After a time the air began to grow chilly, as it does even on the Aegean, even in summer.
“Let’s go in,” Paul said suddenly, as if making up his mind. “Mustn’t let your leg get cold.”
Thanks to the depth of Quentin’s pocket and the generosity of his colleagues, their cabin was relatively palatial. It was easily accessible from deck, and it had its own bathroom where they also changed in decent privacy. With a groan Quentin lowered himself onto the bottom bunk, which was naturally the one he slept in. Paul, taking a chair, faced him with a curious mixture of earnestness and confidence he had never shown before. Whatever next? Quentin wondered. And when it came he was bowled over.
“Listen, Q. Everything you’ve done for me you’ve done for love. Everything I’m going to do for you I’ll do for love. I love you more than I’ve ever loved anyone except Mama, and we talk about anything and everything. But in some ways we’re still, um, shy with each other. Mama never saw me undressed, of course, not since I was little. But Dad did. Obviously I saw him in the bath, and sometimes I’d get into his bathwater after he’d got out, to save on hot water, and he’d stay till I finished. That didn’t bother me. I wasn’t embarrassed like I always am in the showers at school. It didn’t seem unnatural for a father and a son to see each other.
“And now you’re my guardian. You’ve stepped into his shoes. I don’t in the least mind if you see me undressed. And you want to watch me grow. I can understand that now. All right, then. I’m still a bit sweaty and I’m going to have a bath. Hadn’t you better come and see? And while you’re at it, would you scrub my back for me? Nobody’s scrubbed it for years.”
Not a word of that could Quentin contest. He thought, and nodded.
“Thank you, P. I will.”
They went to the bathroom, where Quentin sat on the toilet while Paul turned on the water and threw off his few clothes. He was beautiful, all over. No doubt the Nereids of Delos had seen Apollo fully naked, but not even they had enjoyed so complete a picture of this boy.
Paul stood looking down at his slender body. “Here you are then, Q,” he said. His hand cradled his genitals. “Most of the boys at school are bigger.” His finger stirred his sparse and silken pubic hair. “This is all I’ve got.” He opened his arms, posing not provocatively but as if for Quentin to photograph the image in his mind. “If you’re going to watch me grow, this is where we start from.”
Quentin was in a state of shock. And it was only as Paul climbed into the bath that it dawned on him what was inevitably coming next. He hoped he was keeping his expression to himself. He too would have to strip, and bath, and be pitied. For his scars, which were not a pretty sight. For his skin, not youthfully firm and smooth but loose and wrinkled with age. For his John Thomas, which for years had been slowly shrivelling. For his pubic hair, which resembled pathetic wisps of dried seaweed. But it would be a small price to pay for this vision.
Paul finished soaping himself and leant forward to present his back for scrubbing. He held out his flannel and the soap to Quentin, who eased himself to his knees and went to work, gently because of the sunburn. Paul squirmed with delight.
“Oh, that was lovely. Thanks.”
As he lay back in the water to rinse off, he revealed an erection. He made no attempt to hide it. Quentin was now entranced. Paul looked up at him with a face that verged on mischief.
“Here you are again, Q. I’d be embarrassed as hell if that had happened in the showers at school. Or in front of Dad. But you’re different, because you understand. You’ve taken me on, and you need to know what you’ve taken on, whatever state it’s in. I hope you don’t mind.”
Quentin at last found a voice of a sort. “I certainly don’t mind.” He could only be honest. “It’s a sight for sore eyes.”
Paul giggled wildly, as if he had been drinking Mavrodaphne rather than lemonade.
“Hah!” he said.
“Echthes louomenos Diocles anenēnoke sauran:
Ek tēs embaseōs tēn Anaduomenēn.”
Yesterday in the bath Diocles poked up a lizard — Aphrodite rising from the waves.
“There’s a pun for you. They often called this a saura, didn’t they?” He flicked his penis. “A lizard. So is it a sight for sore eyes or for saurai?” He giggled again. “Right, that’s me done.”
He climbed out and grabbed a towel. His erection was already subsiding. Had it been deliberate or accidental?
“Would you like me to do your back now?” he asked. “I bet it hasn’t been scrubbed for far longer than mine.”
“It hasn’t.” The next move was unavoidable, but Quentin found he no longer dreaded it. “Please.”
“Then let’s give you new water. No need to skimp here. You’ve forked out so much you deserve your money’s worth.”
As Paul emptied the bath and refilled it, Quentin undressed, which took time. Only when he and the bath were ready did Paul look him over, head to foot.
“Q! That’s nothing to be ashamed of! You were afraid I’d think you were as ugly as Socrates, weren’t you? But you aren’t! Old trees are just as beautiful as young ones. Even more beautiful. Even the scars where storms have damaged them.”
He squatted down to finger the shiny white patches on the leg. “Where’s the pain? In these muscles here?” He prodded. “Look, Q. When I’ve dealt with your back, would you like me to massage them? I used to massage Dad. Mama showed me how, after he came home, and he said I was better at it than her. It was about the only thing I ever did that didn’t make him complain.”
Quentin, again struggling for words, got into the bath with Paul’s assistance. His back was duly scrubbed, which gave him much pleasure.
“Oh look!” said Paul, putting a finger on his shoulder blade. “Well, you can’t look. But you’ve got a big blackhead here. Shall I get rid of it?”
A grunted “please” was all he could muster.
Paul squeezed. “Right, that’s out of the way.”
Quentin was reeling from new experiences. Never had his blackheads been squeezed. Never had his back been scrubbed. Never — not even with Wallis — had his eyes been so feasted. Never had he known such togetherness. And now, when he was out and dried, Paul laid him flat on the bathmat and for five minutes kneaded the bad leg. The ache was noticeably soothed.
Having helped him to his feet, Paul crossed to the toilet where he unashamedly peed.
“I’ll get my pyjamas,” said Quentin dazedly. “And bring yours too.”
“Don’t bother, thanks. I don’t wear them at home. And from now on I won’t here.”
“Oh. In that case I won’t either.”
So Quentin unashamedly peed as well, and both of them brushed their teeth. Back in the cabin Paul hugged him skin to skin, not passionately but warmly, and gave him a kiss, not seductively on the lips but affectionately on the cheek.
Once more Quentin was at a loss for words. Not only did the boy observe the limits beyond which he should not step, but he had brought an intimacy into the relationship — a loving intimacy, but a chaste one. And in taking the lead, in taking control, he had taken a new role. Responsibility for someone he did not love had been lifted from his grateful shoulders. In its place he was assuming responsibility for someone he did love. No more was he the pupil or the protégé. Here at last was the long-desired companion.
Paul saw the old man safely into his bunk.
“Thank you, Q. You’re a marvel. Good night!”
“Sleep well, P. And thank you.” He took a deep breath. “Because
we’ve just heard another nightingale, haven’t we?”
Paul climbed into the top bunk and switched off the light. Quentin lay mulling over the last extraordinary couple of hours. In the course of them, as suddenly as a chrysalis changes into a butterfly, Paul had transformed himself from a boy into an adult … almost into a god. Granted, he had always brimmed with intelligence and insight. But, as someone in The Charioteer so truly pointed out, ‘It’s not what one is, it’s what one does with it,’ and now Paul had learned what to do with what he was. Why so suddenly? And where had he conjured up his new persona? From his father? Emphatically not. From school? Hardly. From his mother? Just possibly. But, when he thought back, Quentin could piece together the answer, for he had heard the clue with his own ears. Paul had been inspired by Plato.
On hearing Quentin’s revelations he had fallen into a reverie. Out of the blue he had muttered ‘white horses!’ The idea had no doubt been put in his head by the waves of the ship’s wake. But by association it had led him on to the abiding image of love described in The Charioteer and the Phaedrus, where the chariot of love is pulled by the unruly black horse of passion and the obedient white horse of purity. He had seen that, where his love for Quentin was concerned, his black horse was in danger of upsetting the chariot. He had therefore unharnessed it and replaced it with a second white horse. No longer, therefore, did his chariot represent ordinary mortal love. Plato made it clear that a chariot with two white horses can belong only to a god.
Quentin thought he heard a muffled sob from the bunk above. He did not enquire, because he was crying himself. A little later he thought he heard a rhythmic but subdued creaking. He could not follow suit. But he did not regret it, because he had already found all the fulfilment he needed.