A Time

by Mihangel

1. Recognition

'To every thing there is a season,

and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die;

a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal;

a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;

a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose;

a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew;

a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate;

a time of war, and a time of peace'."

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8


This is another story set at Yarborough School. While it has resonances with The Scholar's Tale (with which it shares a couple of characters) the main action takes place a little earlier, in 1953-4. If the protagonists seem to be over the top, they are very deliberately painted that way because, in my view, the out-of-the-ordinary deserves exploring just as much as the ordinary. And if the characters are fictional, the background is fact. So too, distressingly, is the mental damage inflicted by war, especially the damage now (but not then) known as post-traumatic stress disorder. The war in this case was the Second World War; but it is not unfitting that the writing of this tale was completed on the ninetieth anniversary of the ending of the First. Adrian's exploit at Kirkby is based loosely on that of the fourteen-year-old Geoffrey Riley GC.

My best thanks to Hilary, Pryderi, Ben, Anthony and Paul for commenting on drafts, and to Jonathan for looking over my shoulder.

On 7 December 1941, as everyone knows, the Japanese attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. It is not so well known that eight hours later they invaded the British crown colony of Hong Kong. They rapidly overran the New Territories and Kowloon. Hong Kong Island held out until Christmas Day, when it surrendered. Hundreds were massacred and an estimated ten thousand raped. The survivors of the defending garrison became prisoners of war and the 2,400 non-Chinese civilians were herded into internment camps. During the Japanese occupation, which lasted for three years and eight months, mass deportations and deaths from malnutrition and disease reduced Hong Kong's vast population to little more than a third of its former level.

His memories of that harsh time were, for a youngster, unusually sharp and complete. But from his earlier years his mind retained nothing: nothing to comfort him, nothing to pain him, nothing but a blank. An impenetrable curtain had descended, that dark Christmas, to shut off his past.

*

It was the peaceful hour before lunch when staff and boys alike recovered from the rigours of the morning's classes. For mid-October the air was mild, and in a corner of the quad the Headmaster and Wally MacNair stood in comradely togetherness. To all appearances they were discussing some knotty academic business, but in reality they were discreetly watching Adrian Longley as he leant against a pillar in the colonnade. They knew that, while he was under no obligation to be there, he felt it his duty as captain of the school to make himself accessible to his flock. And, short though he was in stature and youthful in appearance, there was no mistaking the air of authority that he wore.

They watched him in conference with the director of music, who left with a satisfied nod. They watched him admonish a boy for sloppy dressing, at which the youngster grinned as he tightened his tie. They watched him check something on a list with the school porter. They watched him throw a cheery greeting to the uniformed and limping NCO in charge of the school armoury, who replied with a broad smile and a mock-salute.

"Now that," the Headmaster observed, "is a reassuring sight - a smile on Sergeant Standedge's face."

They watched Adrian discuss some technical matter with a member of the maintenance staff, which involved much gesticulation. They watched him commiserate with a large member of the rugby team whose arm was in plaster. They watched as he mended the broken strap around a bundle of books over which a small boy was losing control.

"What a marvel!" the Headmaster declared. "Dedicated, efficient, considerate, genial. He brings out the best in everybody. Under his captaincy the school runs more smoothly than it ever has. Is there nothing on which he can be faulted?"

"Nothing," replied Wally, who was Adrian's housemaster, "that I've ever spotted."

"Heaven knows, we have competent boys aplenty. But how often do we have an out-and-out paragon? He seems too good to be true. So good that it makes me uneasy."

Wally understood him perfectly. He often felt the same. "I know. I wish I knew what makes him tick. His career here has been impeccable. He was captain of his prep school too, and his career there was impeccable. More than impeccable - think of that episode which he doesn't allow us to mention."

"Ah, yes."

"I don't know about his earlier years. He never talks about them. But deep inside him there's something dark... a solitude... demons, almost. His mother died, I gather, a long time ago. As for his father, well... if Adrian's a paragon, it's despite him, not because of him. I've met him only once - he's in the colonial service in British Honduras and comes home once in a blue moon - but he's an undeniable oddity. Socially inept. Painfully stand-offish. Brusque and ungracious, even to his son. Adrian's the only child, and as you'd expect he's a dutiful one. But in that department I can't help feeling he's had a rough ride."

"Yet he himself is so outgoing," the Headmaster remarked. "So immensely generous. So composed. So... what can one call it?... such a fount of goodness."

"But not, thank heaven, one of those offensively prissy do-gooders. He simply loves everybody, and everybody loves him. I'd dearly like to know where it all comes from."

"But if it is a choice between nature and nurture, you would plump, I take it, for nature?"

"Yes. Oh yes, I most definitely would."

Adrian, unaware of the watchers and their speculations, finished mending the book-strap and sent its owner on his way with a clap on the shoulder. The quad was by now almost empty, and he wandered over to join Tom Wardle, a new boy in his own house, who was leaning on the low wall around the lawn. Tom looked up with a smile, and for a minute they chatted, apparently discussing a seagull which was eying them beadily from the grass. Then Adrian jerked abruptly upright, and Tom followed suit. A few urgent sentences, and they were in each other's arms.

It was an unprecedented sight. At Yarborough, boys simply did not hug one another. Wally and the Headmaster trusted Adrian too deeply to suspect anything in the least reprehensible; but even broad-minded schoolmasters, even those who do not snoop officiously into their pupils' private lives, are prey to everyday human curiosity. Exchanging a look of amused puzzlement, they strolled across.

*

Adrian Longley and Tom Wardle, having known each other for barely a month, did not know each other well. Ordinarily they would hardly have known each other at all, for prefects do not ordinarily fraternise with boys four years their junior. But ordinary was the last thing that Adrian was. Tom, who as a new boy had expected to be ignored if not tyrannised, found to his astonishment that the godlike captain of his house and of the school was actually the friendliest of human beings and the complete opposite of a tyrant. He felt an immediate affinity with him, as if he had known him for years; and being a perceptive lad he sensed that Adrian, while showing no favouritism whatever, felt the same in return.

Tom might be young. But he knew what was what, or thought he did. Behind this mutual affinity, he reckoned, lay a mutual physical desire. In his own case he suspected that the urgent lusts of his new-found puberty had something to do with it. Yet it was more than that, he told himself firmly, more than just hero-worship or a passing adolescent crush. It was a considered love. But while he could hardly mistake his own feelings, he was not so sure of Adrian's. If there was a lead to be taken, he couldn't take it himself. And so, when Adrian appeared beside him and leant on the wall overlooking the lawn, he looked up with a welcoming smile.

"You don't often see them this far inland," Adrian remarked, nodding at the seagull. "Are you into birds, then? Sorry, not very well phrased. But you know what I mean."

Could this be an overture? Tom answered readily and honestly.

"Oh, I'm not into birds, Longley. Of either sort."

Adrian ignored the unsafe half of the answer.

"So why are you communing with this gull?"

"Well, it sounds silly, but I was wondering if it tasted as bad as they used to."

"Tasted? You've eaten seagulls, then?"

"Oh yes. During the war. And rats too."

Most boys would have replied with a yuk! and pulled a disgusted face. But Adrian looked at Tom with interest.

"Where?"

"Hong Kong." Tom had not so far mentioned this phase of his life to anyone at Yarborough, but he had no hesitation now. "We weren't well fed. We were, um, guests of the Japanese."

Adrian was staring open-mouthed at him, as if glimpsing a revelation beyond belief. "At Stanley?" he asked tentatively.

"No. A smaller camp in the New Territories, called Tai Po. How do... ?"

He broke off, astonished. Adrian had jerked upright and grabbed him by the arm. The gull, startled, flapped away.

"Tom!" Adrian was losing control of his voice. "Oh, Christ almighty!... So was I!"

Tom was bewildered. "But you can't have been. It was all old fogeys at Tai Po, apart from Mum and Dad and me. And Kim."

"But that's me!" Adrian was now openly sobbing "I'm Kim!"

"You're Kim?" Tom goggled in turn. "Oh my God!"

Spontaneously they hugged, Adrian's tears dripping on to Tom's hair. It was a while before they pulled themselves together enough to break their hug and search each other's face. Tom was now grinning and almost bouncing with excitement; and so intent were they that neither noticed the Headmaster and Wally approach.

"I've always thought there was something about you," said Adrian in a high and strangled voice, still holding Tom by the shoulders. "Not your name - I'd never heard your surname, and Tom's as common as mud. Yet somehow you rang a bell. But it never crossed my mind it was you." He forced himself to calm down, and his voice dropped to its usual deep level. "Not surprising, I suppose. I've often thought of you, but it's eight years ago, and my memory of your face was blurred. Anyway, one changes out of all recognition between - what? - five and thirteen."

"Same here! I felt I ought to know you, but I never recognised you either. And one changes just as much between, um, nine and seventeen. Though your eyebrows - come to think of it, there is something familiar about them."

"One's higher than the other. But how much do you remember of Tai Po?"

"Quite a lot, actually." Tom was still grinning. "Not so much about the old bods and biddies. But lots about you. How you killed Major Hashimoto..."

"He blew himself up."

"But only because you stabbed him in the arse."

"Well, all right."

Wally and the Headmaster, still unseen, were agape.

"...and how you saved all our lives when we had dysentery. How you were always nicking things. How you caught gulls and rats. And specially how you played with me - remember how you used to hug and tickle me? Remember telling me stories? Teaching me noughts and crosses? Kicking a football around? You were the only other boy there. My only real friend. Apart from Mum and Dad, of course."

"And they were my Mum and Dad too, for all practical purposes. I loved them far more than I've ever loved my real father." Adrian was still too emotional to be discreet. "Are they all right?"

"Oh yes, they're fine."

"Oh God, I feel guilty about them. That I never had a chance to thank them. Or say goodbye. Or find them since."

"They searched high and low for you, you know. And they're always talking about you."

"Are they really?" Adrian was red in the face. "I've got to meet them. Where do you live? London, isn't it?"

"Yes. But they're coming up to see me at the weekend. The day after tomorrow. They're staying with Wally."

"Good God!" Adrian, having absorbed this news, became formal. "Look, Tom... the last thing I want to do is butt in on your family gathering... but could I have a word with them some time?"

"Course you can! More than a word. They'd be furious if you didn't. They'll be all over you. You're part of the family too. After all, you're their foster son, sort of."

"And you don't mind if I steal your time with them?"

"Course I don't! Anyway, you're not stealing it. You're my big brother, aren't you? Sort of. And I can call you Kim now, can't I? When we're by ourselves?"

Junior boys were expected to address older ones by their surname, but this was different. And it was already dawning on Tom, now the first shockwave of recognition had passed, that things might be different in that other sphere too. The boy who had once been at the core of his life, the boy he had once loved as a best friend, turned out to be the boy he now loved in another sense. He wished he knew about Kim's desires. His own were stronger than ever. He felt himself going hard.

"Of course you can." Adrian relaxed at last and grinned. "God, it's good to find you again, brother!" He hugged Tom once more. "We really were brothers, weren't we? As close as brothers, anyway. You won't remember, but I helped teach you to walk and read and write. And I don't know how many times I changed your nappies..."

Tom found that a titillating thought, which only added to his hardness.

"...and what were you saying about tickling?"

Without warning, Adrian's fingers got busy on Tom's ribs, and Tom collapsed, squealing like a five-year-old and trying to disguise his thirteen-year-old's response to contact with someone he lusted for. Both were rolling on the ground and hooting with laughter when they became aware of Wally and the Headmaster.

"Sorry, sir," said Adrian, climbing to his feet and effortlessly retrieving his dignity, while Tom took his time. "I didn't see you were here. Excuse our antics."

"Not at all." The Headmaster was gracious. "Excuse us for intruding. We could not help hearing much of what you said. And we congratulate you upon your reunion."

"And as for meeting Tom's parents on Saturday," Wally added, "there's no problem. They're arriving about two. Come round to the private side then, both of you, and talk to your heart's content. If you want me out of the way, I'll make myself scarce."

"No need for that, sir," said Adrian. "After all, you're their host."

"Well, thank you. If you get down to reminiscing, I confess I'll be intrigued to hear of your wartime escapades. I do admit to my fair share of curiosity."

"And so do I," the Headmaster added. "Maybe more than my fair share. Would it be too much to ask if I might sit in too? I would dearly love to know more about my captain's noble history of saving lives, and his possibly more dubious history of stealing and of stabbing Japanese officers in the, ah, posterior."

Adrian grinned. "By all means, sir. If it's all right by Doctor John and Sister Mary... I mean Tom's parents... then it's all right by me. And don't worry, sir. Your captain isn't an inveterate thief. Only at Tai Po, for the common good. And he isn't a serial killer either." His eyes clouded. "Once was more than enough for a lifetime."

"That I can well believe. But, for the present, do you know that it is nearly time for lunch?"

He headed for School House, and the other three for MacNair's. Tom was enthusiastically bringing Adrian up to date about his parents: how his father was now a consultant at St Thomas's and his mother a senior nurse there, and how they lived in a spiffing house in Blackheath. Wally took the opportunity to study the boys, covertly, in the light of his new understanding.

Tom Wardle, small for thirteen but with an air of thoughtfulness and worldly wisdom unexpected at his age; the product, no doubt, of early years of hardship and of support from strong parents. He was maturing fast, and in the throes of becoming a strong character himself. His face, with its firm mouth and nose and brow capped by fair curls, was already part-way to strength. Wally sensed hidden depths in him.

Adrian Longley, four years older but, now that Wally had a few clues to work on, in some respects rather similar. Also short in stature, and worldly wise with a vengeance. Enigmatic, but the strongest character Wally had ever encountered in a boy. A face, too, under that straight dark hair, of emphatic strength, enlivened by a mobile mouth and those quirky eyebrows. And the sombreness which had lurked behind the apparently all-seeing eyes seemed lighter now. The face could only be inherited, but the character might have been instilled by the Wardles. Perhaps, after all, it was nurture rather than nature. Wally looked forward to observing the three of them - the four of them - together.

They reached MacNair's. As the boys turned in to their entrance and Wally continued towards his front door he heard Adrian say, "Tom. Please don't broadcast this round the school. Not yet, anyway."

"All right. So long as you keep quiet about changing my nappies!"

Wally smiled widely to himself. Unlike many of his calling, he remembered that he too had once been young.

*

The next two days dragged by. Outwardly, Adrian remained as composed as ever, but Tom was visibly excited. That evening he was in his study, pretending to read but fidgeting restlessly and casting frequent glances outside. He had moved his desk, a week or two before, so that from it he could see across the yard to Kim's study; and now he was intermittently watching him as he sat framed in his window, chin on hand and staring, it seemed, into infinity. Tom would have given a month's pocket money to know what was in his thoughts. Tai Po? Mum and Dad? Or me? Kim suddenly lifted his head and looked straight at him. Tom turned hastily away.

"For Christ's sake, Tom!" squeaked Graham Holmfirth, who shared his study. "What's up with you? Got ants in your pants? And what's so interesting out there?"

He tilted his chair dangerously far back to follow Tom's line of sight.

"Longley? You're gawping at Longley? Got a crush on him, then? Oh, of course!" Tom could almost hear the penny drop in what Graham was pleased to call his mind. "That's why you shifted your desk! So you can gawp at him! I get it now. But why Longley, of all people? Great bloke, but far too virtuous. Fat chance of him sucking you off or shoving his prick up your arse, if that's what you're after."

Tom winced and did not deign to reply. He was annoyed that Graham had seen through him, and offended by his language. Graham wasn't a bad chap. But although his body was still a child's, without a single pubic hair to its credit, his mind was precociously one-tracked and his vocabulary coarse. He was too young and too uncouth to understand what love meant. Tom was neither an innocent nor a prude, and in the ordinary course of events he had no objection to calling a spade a spade. Nor could he deny, especially to himself, that his hopes did include blowjobs and buggery. But it needn't be put quite so demeaningly, need it? His love was on an altogether higher plane.

In any event, Tom was in no mood to chatter. A new responsibility had come his way. His head was seething with the day's revelation and he felt he was in a position of importance; but he knew it was a private importance, not a public one. It was partly a family thing and partly a personal thing. He had nobly refrained from pestering Kim, but he had already asked Wally not to spill the beans to his parents in advance. He wanted to spring Kim on them out of the blue, just as Kim had come back to him out of the blue. And their response, he was sure, would be the same as his own.

He tried to visualise them as Kim would see them. Eight years older now, of course, forty-one but hardly looking it, Mum a brown-eyed dark-haired beauty, Dad blue-eyed and curly-fair, a larger and maturer version of Tom himself. Both of them wore that indefinable air of competence so often borne by medical people and tempered, in their case, by a deep humanity. It was going to be a reunion of love. Because Tom loved them deeply, he well understood why Kim had loved them as surrogate parents. They too, he knew, loved Kim as a surrogate son. He himself loved Kim, not only as a surrogate brother but as something as yet unmentionable.

Something as yet unmentionable... Even if in the unpredictable future his hopes were fulfilled, at school it would remain unmentionable for ever. Here, while dirty-minded Grahams might talk lightly of the theory, he had heard of no cases of the practice. But mentioning it to Mum and Dad... that was a different matter.

Saturday finally arrived. Adrian ate his lunch mechanically and silently. Tom was on mental tiptoe, his ear open for the crunch of gravel on the drive which would announce his parents' arrival. When it came, he forced himself to leave a decent interval for Wally's welcome and the inevitable small-talk. Then he collected Adrian from his study and almost dragged him to the private side. For once he was in the lead. He could now say things to his house captain which a few days ago he would not have dreamed of saying; and, having more than an inkling of what was at stake, he said them with sympathy and, though he hardly recognised it, with a new authority.

"If you burst into floods of tears, Kim, it doesn't matter. What does matter is making contact again. I know what you're feeling. Or I think I do. And I know what they'll be feeling too."

He left him in the hall.

"Wait here. I'll only be a minute."

He knocked at Wally's sitting room door and went in, leaving it ajar. Joyful cries of welcome emerged, muffled by hugs. Enquiries about how he was. The deep tones of Wally and the Headmaster. Then Tom's voice, broken but still light.

"Mum, Dad. I've got a surprise for you. Hang on a moment."

He poked his head out and beckoned Adrian in.

"Mum, Dad. This is Adrian Longley, the captain of the school."

Adrian came through the doorway, and stopped, and gazed. His mouth was quivering, his whole frame atremble, and he uttered not a word.

Tom hovered in expectation. "You've met him before," he added helpfully.

"Have we?" asked John Wardle, puzzled but polite, stepping forward with arm outstretched. "Forgive me, but I'm afraid I don't remember where."

But his wife's hands had flown to her mouth, and her eyes were wide.

"John! Wait!"

She ran past him to look closely at Adrian.

"Are you Kim?" she whispered.

He still uttered not a word, but he flung his arms around her, and he wept.

"Oh, my dear!" she cried, hugging him back, in tears herself.

"Kim?" John gasped. "Is it really Kim?" He glanced at Tom, who nodded, beaming. "Oh, thank God! At last! And here, of all places!"

He breathed several deep breaths, inspecting Adrian's crumpled face which rested on Mary's shoulder. Then he clapped his son on the back.

"You called it a surprise, Tom, and you couldn't have surprised us more! When did you find out? And how?"

"Two days ago." Tom was on top of the world. "By pure chance. We were talking about eating seagulls, and suddenly everything fell into place."

"Everything?"

"Well, who we were. And memories of how we used to play. But we haven't gone into detail. Anyway, you'll remember far more than I do."

"Yes. There's any amount to talk about..."

But Mary was disengaging herself. Adrian, still sobbing, ignored John's hand which was outstretched again, and flung his arms around him too.

"Oh, goodness!" said Mary, mopping her face and hugging Tom instead. "Oh, Tom! After eight years!"

Remembering the Headmaster and Wally, she turned to them.

"Sorry about this display. But Kim... Adrian... was with us throughout the war, in Hong Kong. He was effectively our son, effectively Tom's brother. And at liberation he vanished, and we couldn't find hide nor hair of him. We were in despair... But," she added, seeing their expressions, "you know all about this, don't you? You're in on this too!"

"We are," Wally admitted cheerfully. "We happened to be present when Adrian and Tom discovered each other. But we don't know all about it. No more than the barest outline, and we're agog to hear more. Yet we don't want to intrude. If you'd rather be alone, you must say so."

"Oh, please stay. You're in loco parentis, after all. You've an interest too. He's doing all right here, then? Oh, silly of me. Of course he is, if he's captain of the school."

"He is the most extraordinary boy we have ever had," said the Headmaster simply.

"That fits. Yes, that fits." Mary looked across at Adrian. "You know, this is the first time I've ever seen him in tears. All the way through the war, whatever was thrown at him - and a lot of it was very nasty - he never cried once. Not that we saw, anyway. Young though he was, he never gave in. He had an incredible strength. I often thought it was unnatural. Even unhealthy."

But Adrian was through with his huggings. With a visible effort he pulled himself together and wiped his face. Taking both Wardles by the hand, he spoke to them for the first time, although his voice was thick.

"Sister Mary, Doctor John..."

"Oh, Kim! Call us John and Mary now!"

"Well, all right... but that's how I think of you... The first thing I want to say is how sorry I am that I left you so suddenly, without any goodbye or thank you..."

"But what did happen? We were sure it must have been something dreadful."

"Dreadful? Well... I don't know. It's a long story..."

"Then let's all sit down and hear it."

The three Wardles commandeered the big sofa. Wally drew up three chairs, one central for Adrian and two, a tactful distance away, for himself and the Headmaster.

"Thank you, sir," said Adrian, "but I'd rather be informal, if you don't mind."

He methodically took off his jacket and shoes, and sat himself cross-legged on the carpet facing the sofa.

"Kim! That's just how you used to sit at Tai Po!" cried Mary, delighted. "Except that you were in shorts, and barefoot."

"And it's how I'm comfortable." Adrian smiled at them at last, a wondering smile as if he hardly trusted his eyes.

"Oh Lord, where do we begin?" he asked. "One thing flowed on from another. Things, towards the end, that you didn't always know about."

"Then why don't we begin at the beginning?" she suggested. "From when we first encountered each other. And follow the story through from there, each telling our own bit. That'll put Mr MacNair and the Headmaster in the picture. Shall we set the ball rolling with the background?"

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