The Tarses of Sodom

A fourth indelicate frivolity
By Mihangel

Segment 1

While Hambledon is a figment of my imagination, Christ's College is a fact. So I must stress that in this story its current inhabitants are wholly fictitious, though its earlier alumni were real enough.

I owe my usual debt to Hilary, Pryderi, Alan, Anthony and Jonathan, and another debt to Richard and Will for prodding me into writing this further bit of fun. It will make a great deal more sense if you have read the previous frivolities first.

For the benefit of non-Brits, a political note. Britain is currently ruled by the Conservative or Tory Party, which is roughly the equivalent of America's GOP. David Cameron is prime minister. Labour is in opposition. The LibDems . . . well, let's not go into that.

February 2011

Rob inspected Hugo's monumental member without much enthusiasm. "Nice size," he admitted. "But it isn't stiff, is it? I don't call it an erection till it's at least horizontal. Preferably higher."

Hugo looked down at himself. "Oh dear," he sighed. "I did hope it would be stiffer than that."

"Well . . ." Rob tried to be more positive. "I might be able to help. Mind if I feel you up?"

The subject of this conversation wasn't quite what you think. To find out what it really was, you'll have to read on. But if you do, blushful reader, you'll be exposed to what has been called, with good reason, the filthiest play ever written. It may be no more to your taste than it is to mine. Be warned.

*

Hambledon's repeat production -- 'Gammer on tour', we called it -- proved a resounding success. Prufrock kept in touch by email, and in the Easter holidays the four of us went up to Cambridge for the day to spy out the land. All our expenses were being paid, and we went by train. Hugo, who as usual was staying at Bumley, travelled up with Alex, and Rob and I joined them at King's Cross.

Most of the journey we spent talking about Christ's College. Rob and I, having been there briefly for our interviews in November, were regarded as experts. It was right in the centre of the town, we explained. Like almost all Cambridge colleges it was co-ed, with nearly 400 undergraduates and almost 100 graduates. It had been founded in 1437 as God's House, but re-founded in 1505 as Christ's.

"Who went there," asked Alex, "who's famous? Apart from William, of course."

"John Milton," I replied at once, before Rob could get his word in. "There's a mulberry tree he used to sit under. So they say. Planted in 1608. It still bears fruit."

"Charles Darwin," said Rob, unimpressed. "He went up in 1828. They've refurnished his room as it was in his day."

"The Archbish of Canterbury," I added, "Rowan Williams."

"Umm . . . Sacha Baron Cohen," Rob offered. Then, after a pause, "Tony Lewis."

"Who's he?"

"Cricketer. Captained England."

"Oh . . . Do you think that girl knows we can see her?"

The train had mysteriously stopped between stations, as trains do, and we were abreast of the first floor of an anonymous terrace house. A young lady, totally naked, was standing lasciviously at the window.

"I'm sure she does."

"How silly!" said Alex austerely. The train moved on.

We took a taxi to Christ's, where Prufrock greeted us warmly, his leers as lecherous as ever. "Some changes of plan, I fear," he boomed. "Irritating, highly irritating, but ineluctable. I failed to persuade the Governing Body to allow you to stage Gammer in Hall. It feared you would hammer nails into the panelling. As if the panelling were the original which Stevenson knew! That was torn out in 1876 by George Gilbert Scott, a pox upon his head. Barbaric, quite barbaric. But no matter, no matter. For that reason the play would not have been authentic in Hall. Indeed there is nowhere that is wholly authentic. Instead, you will be performing in the theatre which, by contrast, is wholly modern. It wants no item of equipment."

The college theatre, it turned out, was the base of the Christ's Amateur Dramatic Society, or CADS for short. But, because it was the middle of vacation, no undergraduates were around and Prufrock himself acted as our guide. It was indeed well-appointed, but the stage was rather small. Rob, having prowled with a tape measure, announced that our set would fit in, just. But because the stage was shallow from front to back, the street would be narrow. "The house-front will have to be here," he said, pointing with his toe.

"Not enough room for the hens, then," Hugo observed. "But still room for Piglet."

"No Piglet," said Alex.

"No Piglet! Why not?"

"Hadn't you noticed?" Alex asked callously. "For the last week we've been having him for breakfast." He giggled at Hugo's horrified face. "There are some new piglets, but it'd be a pain to transport one all that way, and how could we train him? No animals this time."

Myself, I wasn't too disappointed. And Alex was evidently leaving childish things behind.

We talked about other preparations. Christ's had already commissioned its own replicas of the inglecock and William's portrait and high-quality facsimiles of the manuscript. For the advance education of the audience -- which had proved so important at Hambledon -- these would be displayed in the foyer for all to see. Then we would need not only a large van to cart our set and props and costumes and instruments from Hambledon, but also the services of a CADS technician who knew the ropes here. Prufrock, having promised to organise both, disappeared. We checked that the drops were what we wanted. We did a brief dummy run to test the acoustics. Rob tinkered with the lighting console. Everything, in short, seemed to be in order.

Satisfied, we stood on the stage. Thinking we were alone, Rob and I had a little hug and kiss. So did Hugo and Alex. Somebody clapped. Without us noticing, Prufrock had re-materialised in the back row. Oops. But no great surprise, and no harm done. He was now not only leering but beaming, as if he had been proved right.

*

The team's visit to Cambridge in June deserves chronicling at greater length; not so much because of the production of Gammer, but because what transpired then was destined to affect our future. At Hambledon we loaded the scenery and our clobber into the van which Prufrock had sent down. We loaded ourselves into two of the school's minibuses and drove to Christ's. University term had just ended and some undergraduates had already left, but most were still in residence. Again we were welcomed, not only by Prufrock who was bouncing with excitement like a small boy at his birthday party, but by all the members of CADS. We picked up our bags and our hosts showed us our rooms, vacated by those who had already gone down. Prufrock took personal charge of Rob and me.

From the porters' lodge he led us, twittering as he went, through First Court, along the passage beneath Hall, and into Second Court. Ahead lay the stately Fellows' Building, erected in the 1640s as one of the earliest examples of neo-classical architecture in Cambridge. He headed for the right-hand entrance. We were astonished that we were being housed in such elegant quarters. Up a flight of stairs, and he flung open a door labelled B4 and waved us in. The room was huge, the full width of the building, with windows at each end. One looked over Second Court towards the back of Hall, the other over the Fellows' Garden with Milton's mulberry tree at the far end. It was oak-panelled throughout and sported two large seventeenth-century portraits. It was furnished, if not in period style, in good taste, and from it led two further doors. One opened into an en-suite shower and loo, blatantly not original. The other led to a sizeable bedroom in which was a double bed.

We were flabbergasted. And when Prufrock dropped his bombshell we were more flabbergasted still.

"When you join us in the autumn," he said, "these will be your rooms for the next three years. For longer, perchance, should you stay on."

"But," I protested, "we couldn't possibly afford it."

Here I must explain about accommodation. At Christ's -- unusually for Cambridge -- you got a room in college for all your time, rather than having to go into digs for your second year. But rooms, as we knew from the prospectus, varied hugely in size and desirability, from little more than glorified broom-cupboards to the palatial. The rent you paid varied accordingly. Freshers were randomly allocated bog-standard ones, mostly in the concrete modernity in New Court which was understandably known as the Typewriter. In your second and third years you could apply for the price-range or even the particular room you wanted, and the allocation was by ballot. The system sounded pretty fair.

On top of that, almost all rooms were single. The very few double rooms were pricey and were never, we thought, given to freshers. Rob and I, having shared our Hambledon room for five years, were resigned to being apart. There'd be nothing against us visiting each other, even by night, but it wasn't the same thing. For our second and third years, being impecunious, we expected nothing much better. But this!. . . Breathtaking though the prospect was, there was an obvious snag. It must be about the most expensive room in college.

So I protested, "But we couldn't possibly afford it."

"You will be charged," Prufrock said firmly and, for him, simply, "on the lowest rent-band."

"But why? How?"

"Them that asks no questions isn't told a lie." It was strange to hear Kipling from the lips of so renaissance a man. "Almost the first occupants of this room," he added quickly as if to forestall further questions, "were John Finch and Thomas Baines, both later knighted." He waved at the two portraits. "Remember the names. Finch and Baines. Their history will repay your study. Ask the Librarian about them. And visit Chapel. But not now, not now. More urgent matters await. Deposit your baggages, and follow me."

All we could do was exchange a bewildered look, deposit our baggages, and follow him. He took us to the car park where the others were beginning to unload the van. We joined in and, with much help from CADS, got everything into the theatre. Once the set was installed and the sliding house-front was sliding to our satisfaction, it was time to return to our rooms to wash and change into something more respectable; for we had a date. We reassembled in the SCR -- the Senior Combination Room -- where we were greeted by the Master himself. Charlotte was also there, having driven herself up from Bumley to stay in the Master's Lodge.

The Master welcomed us with sherry and a gracious little speech. He singled out Alex as the first Stevenson to set foot in Christ's, as far as was known, since William left in 1561. "And I almost feel," he added with a puzzled glance around, "as if William Stevenson himself were with us." How right he was. William was with us. Once again he had hitched a lift in the Volvo. And as well as Alex, the Master singled out Hugo Spencer, Rob Nethercleft and Sam Furbelow as the co-discoverers and re-creators of the real Gammer. "If Hambledon is in your debt," he said, "so is Christ's. Stevenson is ours as well as yours. We honour our sons as you honour your father." He thereupon added a special welcome to Rob and me as imminent members of the college, and to Hugo and Alex as, he hoped, future ones. What a civilised place this was!

Hugo, who as producer was nominally in charge of our gang, replied with another gracious little speech. With his background, he was good at that sort of thing. Then we trooped into Hall for dinner. They gave us the works. We sat at High Table, along with the current president and secretary of CADS, a few literary Fellows, and the Librarian. The table sparkled with silverware and candles. The meal far outdid our ordinary fare at Hambledon. "Mind you, it isn't always like this," I heard the secretary of CADS mutter to her neighbour. Then back to the SCR for coffee and port. By the time that was over it was late, we were weary, and a busy day beckoned tomorrow.

"Where've they put you up?" I asked Hugo and Alex as we emerged into Second Court.

"Over there." Hugo pointed to the right. "Staircase E. Pretty good. And a double room. OK, twin beds, but still a double room. Dunno how they knew."

"I can guess," said Rob. "It's Prufrock. He saw you snogging at Easter, remember? It's the same with us. But we've got a double bed. And it's ours for three years. Come and see."

We took them to B4. "Blimey!" Alex exclaimed. "It's ginormous! But won't it cost a fortune?" He knew we weren't exactly rolling.

"No. Lowest rate-band. For some reason." But I was beginning to suspect why.

"And who are these guys?" Alex was looking at the portraits. "Oh, it says. Sir John Finch and Sir Thomas Baines. What did they do?"

"No idea. Got to find out tomorrow, if there's time. But Prufrock said they were almost the first people to live in these rooms. 1640s, that must have been."

"Baines isn't very cheerful, though. Disapproving, almost. Was he a Puritan?"

Sir John Finch         Sir Thomas Baines

"Could be." Alex was right. Baines was a far cry from the portrait of sweet young William. "Still, I expect we'll get used to them."

Hugo and Alex retired to their twin beds and we to our double. Next morning it was up early, a quick self-service breakfast, and into rehearsal. First we ran through the appropriate parts of Gammer to make sure the technology worked, and then did a full dress rehearsal. No serious problems at all, and we unexpectedly found ourselves free for the afternoon. Rob called on Dr Mulligatawny, his future director of studies, for a chat about his first-year course.

But I was summoned by the library. Last night the Librarian had plied me with learned questions over port in the SCR -- God, it seemed grand to talk in those terms! She had, she said, a further query about the watermarks in William's manuscript. Should I have a moment, she would be honoured if could I drop round. God, it was good to be here, no longer a solitary geek but a scholar among scholars!

I dropped round. The Librarian was grey-haired, staid of appearance, and delightful. We had our technical chat, and she showed me some of the treasures in her charge. Then I remembered Prufrock's command and asked her about Finch and Baines, adding that their rooms were now ours.

"Are they indeed?" was her reply. "Interesting. In that case you'd better borrow this." She went to a shelf and pulled out a book. "You aren't quite a member of college yet, but rules are there to be broken. And you haven't a card yet, so I'll sign it out in my name. Bring it back next term." No silly exhortation about taking care of it. Just scholarly trust. God, what a place!

The title page read 'Finch and Baines, a seventeenth century friendship, by Archibald Malloch, Cambridge 1917.' I flipped a few pages and was confronted by a photo of our room. It suddenly became important to delve deeper. I thanked her profusely and fled with Malloch to B4.

The book wasn't long, only eighty-odd pages. As I surfaced an hour later, Rob came back from Mulligatawny, and I filled him in. John Finch, it appeared, was a man of standing. His father was Speaker of the House of Commons and his elder brother later became Earl of Nottingham. He went first to Balliol, but when Oxford got nastily snarled up in the Civil War he moved to Cambridge. "This'll interest you," I said. "He was related to William Harvey."

"Oh, right! The bloke who discovered the circulation of the blood."

Thomas Baines was a few years older, and a man of the people. He was already at Christ's when Finch arrived, and for six years they shared our room. I showed Rob the photo. Edwardian furniture apart, it was exactly as now. Having taken their MAs together in 1649, the year Charles I lost his head, they left for Italy. Together they went to Padua University where they qualified as doctors. Then Finch was appointed professor of anatomy at Pisa University, and Baines stayed with him. Their reputation as medical men blossomed.

In 1661 they returned to England where Finch was knighted. Together they became Fellows of the Royal College of Physicians, Doctors of Physics at Cambridge, and Fellows of the Royal Society. But Finch was more than a doctor. He became a diplomat. He was sent back to Italy as ambassador to the Grand Duke of Tuscany at Florence, and Baines went with him. After another brief spell in England when Baines too was knighted, Finch was made ambassador to the Turkish sultan inConstantinople, where Baines served as his secretary and physician to the embassy.

But Baines had long suffered from gout and from appalling kidney stones, and in 1681 he died. Finch was inconsolable. He buried Baines's innards under a memorial which referred to their 'wonderful, devoted friendship' and their 'beautiful and unbroken marriage of souls and inseparable companionship of thirty-six whole years.' The rest of his body he embalmed, brought back to England, and buried here at Christ's. Next year Finch too died and was buried beside him. He left the college £4,000, which was then one hell of a lot of money.

"That's extraordinary," said Rob. "Do you think they were actually . . . ?"

"The sources don't say. You'd hardly expect them to, not in those days. This book implies they were just damn good friends. David and Jonathan, sort of. OK, some people like to see David and Jonathan as sexual partners, though the evidence is vanishingly thin. But these guys here met up when they were, um, nineteen and twenty-three, and they stayed together till they died. They were literally never parted. It does make one wonder. But I doubt we'll ever know for sure."

"'Marriage of souls'," Rob quoted thoughtfully. "They can't have been married literally."

"Oh no. That must be metaphorical. But they must've been liberal types. They spent the Commonwealth out of the country and came back at the Restoration. That's too much of a coincidence. They can't have been Puritans."

"Was Christ's Puritan?"

"Not by their time. Not for a good twenty years. Take Milton, who came up in 1625. He was as Puritan as any, and didn't fit in." I laughed. "He saw a comedy put on by the undergraduates in Hall -- it could even have been a revival of Gammer, come to think of it -- and his verdict was, 'they thought themselves gallant men, and I thought them fools.' And they called him the Lady of Christ's, because he looked girlish and wore his hair long."

We glanced briefly out of the window at Milton's mulberry tree, but returned to gaze long at the portraits. Both of them were youngish. But, now that you knew about it, couldn't you already see suffering written in Baines's face?

"Are they why Prufrock had us put in here?" asked Rob, marvelling.

To that there was no answer.

"Time we started for the theatre," I said, looking at my watch. "But let's drop in to Chapel on the way."

Finch and Baines MemorialFinch and Baines were easy to find: a large white marble memorial on the wall between the organ and the altar. There were two portraits in relief -- recognisably the same faces as in B4 -- draped in garlands which were tied together in a marriage knot. On the plinths below was an inscription in Latin which I translated for Rob. It is really too long to inflict the whole of it on the impatient reader. But it started off by commemorating 'two dearest friends, whose heart was one and whose soul was one.' It ended 'so that they who in life had united their interests, fortunes, deliberations, and indeed their souls, might likewise in death at last unite their ashes.' Rob found my hand and squeezed it.

The show went well. The house was full. The audience -- which included William and, so Prufrock told us, many literary dons from other colleges -- reacted exactly as it should. Livestock apart, the only difference from the Hambledon production was the curtain call. After taking our bows we moved to either side of the stage, and onto a plain drop were projected side-by-side photos of the portrait and the first page of the manuscript. The applause redoubled, and I swear that William not only smiled but nodded modestly in acknowledgment.

As we were unwinding, Prufrock came backstage demanding Alex. I thought he was after another inspection of his scantily-clad body, which may indeed have been the case. But he also had an interesting suggestion. He first established that Hugo was still hoping to come to Christ's the year after Rob and me, that Alex was hoping to come the year after that, and that Alex was taking his A-levels the coming summer.

"Why then," he asked him, "do you not apply at the same time as Mr Spencer? Should you both be successful, you will come up together. You will not be separated for twelve months as you otherwise would. What age will you have attained in October of next year?"

"Seventeen and a half. But isn't that too young?"

"No impediment, no impediment at all, provided the candidate is of sufficient quality and promise. Think on it, think on it. But now I am commanded to surrender you all to our thespians. It has been a magnificent and historic occasion which will long be remembered. The college is your debtor. I shall see you tomorrow." And off he stumped.

"God, if that works!" said Alex, turning excitedly to Hugo, who was equally chuffed. He paused, his head on one side, perhaps communing with William. "Yes! I'll go for it!"

The senior members having entertained us last night, it was now the turn of the CADS. In high delight at our performance, they bore us away to the college bar and plied us with alcohol, despite the fact that several of us were under-age and Matt, whose voice had still not broken, was seriously so. I found myself next to the secretary, a sweetie called Emma Gotobed, who was brimming with questions about Gammer. When they had been satisfactorily dealt with, she swept an eye over her guests. It rested speculatively on Hugo and Alex.

"Hodge and Cock," she said quietly to me. "They're gay, aren't they? Boyfriends?"

"That's right." I decided to test her powers of observation further. "Any other boyfriends visible in our lot?"

She looked round again. "Can't see any."

I chuckled. "You're sitting right next to one."

"Oh." She sounded disappointed. "You and . . . ?"

"Rob, over there." This was a good opportunity to probe for information. "You probably heard the Master say we're coming up next year."

"Oh, that was you, was it? I hadn't got your names in my head then. Great! But you'll be in separate rooms, won't you?"

"No, thank God. We'll be in B4."

"The Finch and Baines room! You must be well-off!"

"No way. Paupers, almost. But Prufrock says we can have it at the lowest rate."

"Really? Yes, he's done that before, so I've heard. He must like you!"

"What do you mean?"

"He's subsidising you. Paying the difference. Out of his own pocket."

It was as I suspected, and I wasn't sure I liked it. For two reasons. "Is there a price attached?"

Emma looked at me, working it out. "Oh, I see. No, no price. Prufrock's as gay as a coot, but I'd be pretty sure he's never had it off with anyone. He may be a voyeur, but he isn't a predator. He's just a lonely old man who likes to be kind. Specially to people he identifies with."

That was a relief. I did not want to climb into Prufrock's bed. "How can we thank him?"

"Not to his face. Definitely not. He wouldn't like it. Just be kind to him. Just humour him. Chances are he'll ask you round for sherry, quite often. If you can, go. Don't look for excuses. He'll enjoy it, even if you don't. That's your best way of repaying him."

"Right. Thanks for the tip. But there's something else bugging me. If we're in B4 on the cheap, aren't we doing somebody out of it who really wants to be there? Who could pay?"

"Probably not. That room's so expensive there are often no takers. It's been empty all this year. So don't worry about that."

That was another relief. But it was getting late, and Matt was already a little over-merry. I caught Hugo's eye, he gracefully thanked our hosts and gathered his flock, and we went to bed. Next morning we unbuttoned the stage, reloaded our clobber, bade a fond farewell to Prufrock, CADS and Christ's, and drove back to school. And there, in the final days of our term, we bade a fond farewell to each other and to Hambledon.

I spent the holidays in my usual solitude. Alex and Hugo had gadded off with Hugo's parents to somewhere exotic. I saw Rob occasionally and briefly. But to recharge the coffers I had to get a job, and was mainly to be found stacking shelves at Sainsbury's. In my limited spare time I gave a polish to my critical edition of Gammer and counted down the days to the beginning of term.

Talk about this story on our forum

Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]

* Some browsers may require a right click instead