by Rafael Henry

Chapter 42

A little ambiguity.

I knew Roger would make sure Wulff got the part of Miles, the boy in The Turn of the Screw, Britten's opera based on Henry James' ghost story. I didn't know that one of the other principals in the show would be performed by a man well known to Roger.

'Wulff's perfect Jon. Just fabulous in that part. He's made for it. That lovely voice, as clear as a bell. But he can't be far off voice change Jon. I'm terrified he will suddenly go croaky on us and we'll be totally stuffed.'

'He has a little way to go yet Roger. Don't worry. Anyway, what makes you think he;s that close?'

'Paul said he was.'

'Who's Paul?'

'Paul Third. He plays the character Peter Quint, the old devil.'

How would he know the ins and outs of the boy's development for goodness sake?'

'The changing facilities at the theatre Jon. Wulff has to change into scruffy old short pyjama trousers, and no pants underneath because they show through which you can't have. Very obviously modern. He needs a thong or something like that, you know, a sports supporter, if you can get one small enough that doesn't show anything around his bottom. He just mentioned it to me, that's all.'

'Well he shouldn't have.'

'They have a dresser Jon. Paul would have noticed the boy.'

'Is that normal for him then?'

'I've no idea.'

'So how well do you know this bloke Roger?'

'Oh, I've known him for a long time now, on and off.'

'Not in the Biblical sense I hope?'

'Actually, yes. All over ages ago, but yes. Paul plays the character Quint, and as Britten has it in his piece, Quint takes an unhealthy interested in Miles, at least that's what's implied, if you want to see it that way. The librettist, Myfanwy Piper, altered the words Britten wanted because she said people would talk. The words he wanted strongly suggested that Quint seduces a willing Miles. All very ambiguous. It ties in with the real Miles, that's to say, David Hemmings who Britten groomed to play the part of Miles. The boy was resident at his Britten's house in Suffolk for quite a long time. Apparently the parents of the boy, in case you were wondering, were reasonably happy for the boy to stay in an overtly gay man's house alone with him day and night. In the rehearsals, Quint has to be very close to the boy, physically. What he does with the boy is implied; not actually seen by the audience. Ambiguous. He has to kiss the boy but he has his back to us. He doesn't actually kiss him, at least he's not supposed to.'

'I'm not sure I like that idea Roger. So he doesn't actually do that?'

'Well, talk to Wulff about it, but for heaven's sake do not put him off the whole idea. We're committed to him now. I will talk to Paul and tell him to be very careful with the boy, like you are?' He says, raising an eyebrow.

'I rather resent that Roger. That's entirely unfair as you well know.'

'So he's never slept in your bed?'

'He has.'

'Well then. So the boy never touches……anything? What would you do if he started to play with himself in your bed, as they do?'

'It hasn't happened so far. May I remind you that we're responsible for him?'

'But if he started something like that, would you stop him? That's my question.'

Yes I would. I'd tell him to go back to his own bed if he needed to do that kind of thing.'

'But if he thought it ok? Surely you might turn your back to him and let him get on with it?'

'Are you suggesting that's what Britten did?'

'He wouldn't have turned his back on any of those boys he slept with. I'm not talking fiction here Jon. It happened.'

Yes it did.

I spoke to Wulffy that evening after the rehearsal about this Mr Third who plays the part of Peter Quint. He's tired and needs a good wash.

'Quint fancies me Jon.'

'Why do you think that Wulff?'

'I can tell.'

'Is it upsetting you?'

'No, because I have you and Otta. I know you love me. You wouldn't be like you are if you didn't. You make me cry at night because you've made me so happy. I'm going to live with you forever. I love you. You won't make me leave will you? Ever?'

It was Peter Third that brought on that sudden outpouring. Wulff was sitting on the edge of my bed. I don't know if he'd practised that speech or what, but it hit the spot with me, bigtime. There were tears in both our eyes as you might imagine. He's in his bathrobe Otta bought him, the belt not tied at the front.

'No Wulffy, you are here now with us for as long as you need to be. I'm going to talk to Peter up at Holland House tomorrow. See if we can't get a few things organized for the future.'

'My future?'

'Yes, yours darling. Of course we love you. I've run your bath water. Are you ready?'

He nods a 'yes', stands and marches off to the bathroom, robe flowing free. When he gets to the door he sees me sitting on the bed still recovering from his speech.'

'Will you come in? So we can talk? I love being Miles.'

In the production, Miles has to play the piano. Again, he's just right for that part too. The Mozart piano sonata in C major was the obvious choice to use, the second 'slow' movement, another piece he's got rather good at. And a few others now. Six nights a week Otta makes him practice for two hours, Sundays off. He never resents it, knowing that through that experience, he is absorbing quite another form of love.

He likes a deep bath, his body immersed, his hair, perhaps a little too long now, waving like weed in a chalk stream, his little boy bits doing likewise going this way and that. I'm sitting on the edge of the bath, not for the first time since he's been in residence. Yes, I make sure our boy is clean, and properly dried when he gets out dripping, then hair sorted, finger and toe nails cut if needed, teeth brushed, always needed, and into a warm bed. Either Otta, when he's here and not up at Holland House, or I will read to him, and stay with him until he feels sleepy. I will not leave him with any doubts in his mind. There's been enough doubt in his life already.

Tonight he asks if he might sleep in our bed. He's feeling vulnerable as he often tells us. I tell him he can. Just this once. The ghostly Quint can't get him there. And he has Lael, smiling from his corner, to protect him throughout the long night.

Not for the first time have I said that to our Apollo. Just this once . He smiles at those words knowing I could never really mean it. Never.

'Who is Lael?' the boy asks, quite out of the blue, his face sunk into his pillow, eyes closing, tiredness about to overwhelm.

'Oh him. He's just an old friend.'

'Have I ever met him?'

'No darling, but he knows you .'

It was six thirty when I woke the next morning. Wulff is far too heavy to pick up and put him down into his own bed, so once he's gained a toehold in ours, there he tends to stay. In the bath with his head resting one end, his feet will touch the other. He must have grown three inches in the last six months.

I made my first mug of tea and went back to join Wulff, now spread out across the bed on his tummy, more horizontal than vertically inclined. I moved the sheet off the limp body intending to move it. No, let him be. There's still room for me.

I run my fingers through his hair, long and fine and shining in the muted morning light piecing the curtains. How soft it feels. I trace the contours of his arm. I touch the firm shoulders. One day you'll be a man my son.

'I'm sorry, did I wake you?'

The boy smiles through sleepy eyes.

'No, not really. I was having a weird dream.'

'Oh gosh. Nothing scary I hope?'

'No, a nice one.'

I pull the covers back over him.

'I don't need the covers over me. I'm too hot.'

He's got a little colour now from the trips to Point Cottage and the beach there, not only on his face but his gorgeous body too. The paler shadow of a boy's swimming briefs is there, in contrast.

'It was a lovely bath last night.' He says, rubbing his eyes.

'Good. Was that in your dream?'

'I dreamt I had a brother. I was playing with him. That was the last bit.'

'Brothers will always want to play.'

'Like that?'

'Would you like to talk about it?'

He nods, his right hand firmly planted. He's not allowed in our bed naked, and nor are we when Wulff is with us.

'Can I then?'

'Of course. But go back to your own bed please?'

'Why? Just this once?'

Just this once. How many times have I said that, and how many times will I say it?

His forehead feels cool and slightly damp. I need to get his hair washed again before tonight's dress rehearsal, sort out this ambiguity with this irksome Peter Third character, alias Peter Quint, and I agree with Roger that he should wear something under those shorts. They've set the opera in modern times as opposed to the original Victorian era, so it would be fine I would have thought. Most of the show Miles is just in those pyjama shorts and no top. Wulff cuts an attractive figure, not to be wasted it would appear. I agree, but last night I thought how he was to be presented to the audience, if they had been there, was not acceptable. At the end of the rehearsal they practiced the cast in line for the final bow, all holding hands, Wulff in just those shorts. Standing very upright and as proud as punch with his head back, he was showing way too much. No, that's not acceptable. Not to me. He's being used. On the other hand, he's a star of the show. I should sit back and be proud.

I had finished my tea and put the mug to one side so I could get an arm around our boy. I'm assuming he's done what he wanted to do now. That curse again.

Otta had bought him some pale green pants, ones he had seen on his shopping trip in Canterbury after a RADA workshop. Not my choice, but Otta's in charge of his wardrobe. Kneeling between his legs, I slip them down and off his feet. There's a wry smile on the boy's face as he looks up at me, knees raised high and wide, his perineal raphe looking like he's been stitched together like a teddy bear.

'Don't look at me like that Wulff. I'm not looking.'

A whiter shade of pale, as the song goes, or in this case and darker shade of green. I stretch the waistband wider still.

His smile shows me his lovely rows of teeth.

'Sorry. Did you mind?' He replies, the smile draining away.

I should have minded, but I didn't. I lean over our boy and plant a kiss on his forehead. It feels hot to the touch.

'That's what Quint asks me…….in the play.'

'Does he now? I hope you told him?'

'Yes, but I haven't told you he did.'

'Well tell him!'

'Yes. I will.'

The smile slowly returns. They become exhibitionists in their funny way, and enjoy the company of a bystander. The little smile, a kiss perhaps, a head turned away at the last, and love persists. Thank you to the one who made us all. We thank you for this one.

The dress rehearsal went as well as could be expected, although Wulff seemed nervous and unsure of some of his sung lines. I think the prospect of a decent sized live audience got to him a bit. No wonder. Both Otta and I are in awe of how far this boy has come in such a short time. So the big test is tomorrow, the dreaded First Night.

When it came to the curtain call, Wulff stands with his head held high and brightly, and shows us what he's made of. It's obvious that Quint has had his way. I'm sure that Britten himself would have thought Wulff and admirable substitute for his beloved David.

'He's all boy isn't he Jon?' My gentle lover comments, quietly, sitting in the seat beside me. It's the beginning of the end of course, close to the end of that phase of a boy's life, but not just yet please.

Informal drinks were served on the stage. Roger and I held our glasses of Merlot, stage left, looking at Peter Third with his arm on Wulff's shoulder, something I'm not liking.

'I wish he wouldn't do that Roger. I don't like that man. He'd creepy.'

'And from Aldeburgh. Like me.'

'Bloody hell. I didn't know you two were from Suffolk?'

'Oh yes. Peter and I were at primary school there. Peter was in the year below me, but we were best friends.'

'That must have been when Britten was there?'

'Oh yes. He'd bought Crag House by then. He recruited boys and girls from our school for his latest opera, Noye's Fludde. We got bussed to the show in a big church in Orford. Peter was the good looking one, and I mean a very good looking kid. I was head over heels about him. Need I say more?'

'So, without begging the question?'

'Peter's father was a fisherman. He and Peter were always down on the beach at Aldeburgh very early in the morning, every day, as was Ben Britten. He's go swimming virtually all the year round, and he'd buy fish from Peter's dad, Joseph. Joseph also did boat trips for paying customers in the summer. Ben noticed Peter when he bought fish, and he got quite friendly with Joseph. That's when he recruited Peter for his new opera, Noye's Fludde. There were lots of kids in it from our school. I just got roped into the chorus, but Peter was given a proper singing part. Peter had talent. He could sing, act, dance a bit too. I'd go to his house and sleep over most weekends when he wasn't at Ben's house. Obviously we experimented. I loved him. He'd let me do things for him, and to him. It was just wonderful. It all came completely naturally. Then Ben suggested to his dad that Peter should have some intensive coaching and learn to play an instrument. He had the talent for it. Ben had a knack of spotting talented kids, and encouraging them. All parents were flattered with the attention their boys were getting and just went along with it. As you probably know, several stayed with Ben for extended periods at his house. Ben suggested to Joseph that it would be very much in Peter's interests, his future possibly, if he stayed with him. So he did. Being Peter's best mate, I got lots and lots of information from him about his days, and nights, spent in Ben's company. He said there was just the one bed in the house, a double, and not very wide. There was a lot of contact. I have a nice photo of Peter's dad, and the others, and my bare legs, all in the boat. Ben has his arm around Peter's back, and as I recall, his right hand down the back of Peter's shorts. I'm not going to tell you any more because that wouldn't be right or fair to anyone now. It's all history, and a lot has been said already. Put it this way, there's nothing to be gained by speculating, only the loss of reputations some years after Ben's demise. But feel free to exercise your imagination Jon, if you wish to. I won't argue to the contrary. Anyway, you've had some wonderful friendships Jon?'

'Yes I have. I've been lucky.'

'And one very special one?'

'Yes, but I would never put them in any order Roger. They've been different experiences, but yes, you can't forget that first real love affair can you?'

'No. There are some things you don't want to forget; can't forget.'

Peter at the helm, his father Joseph in charge, Ben Britten enjoying his morning out with his boys

Peter at the helm, his father Joseph in charge, Ben Britten enjoying his morning out with his boys.

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