by Rafael Henry

Chapter 43

Latin buried treasures.

That last night, the theatre had become fearsomely hot, so at the curtain call, Wulff's bare pale bronzed torso shone with perspiration. When he stepped forward he got the loudest applause of the lot, and several Wulff whistles. Sorry about that one. I think he was totally overwhelmed, his face streaming with tears. To taste such adulation was something entirely new to him. How excited he must have felt. He wasn't the only one affected in that way. I didn't dare look at Otta, and hoped he wouldn't look at me. Anyway, he knows what I'm like.

There were drinks afterwards on the stage with the performers and other lofty types, one or two in what looked like Dior silk scarves. You know the type, arty and theatrical. Roger came over, beaming, and marched me off to be introduced to one of the distinguished visitors, a silver haired tall man, very slim, with piecing blue eyes. We shook hands, his grip light, so I adjusted mine to match.

'So you're in charge of the boy? We thought he has potential.'

'Yes, temporarily in charge, until we can get him permanently settled.'

'I thought he did well. Interesting. Is he available?'

'To speak to?'

'No. Available to work?'

'Err, not really, if that means being away for any length of time. He's rather in need of some basic education.'

'Why? He can barely sing, but he plays the piano tolerably well and with nice feeling, and he can pretend to act a part. That puts him on a par with the average professional in my opinion. I'd like to talk to him somewhere quieter. Is that possible?'

I found Wulff backstage with Paul Third, aka Peter Quin, and led him away from the lion's mouth with some determination.

'Just be yourself Wulff. He's just another person. And call him sir. I think he's something important in the theatre.'

Roger showed the two of them into the theatre office and shut the door.

'I enjoyed your performance Wulff. Did you?'


'Not overawed by the crowd then?'

'No sir.'

'And how do feel; when you're on a stage singing and showing off with your piano playing?'

'Excited sir.'

'In what way?'

'I don't know. Like……..I'm flying, in a dream or something. None of it seemed real; I was sort of flying along in a dream. I knew I could do it well. I wanted the people watching me to love it. It was just like flying sir. Sometimes I couldn't feel the ground.'

'How interesting. So what do you think you're going to do with your life, now this show is over?'

'It's not over is it sir?'

'Well, what then?'

'I can't think of anything else. Something to love. Like tonight sir. Just something to love doing.'

'Alright. Good. That's enough for now. You've done well Wulff. You must come up and see us sometime. I understand you have no parents. Is that right?'

'I have, but I never see them.'

'Now, I need to see your guardian again. Have a little chat with him. Of you run. Well done.'

I've been doing a little research into the Screw. As a teacher of English, and a Latinist in my youth as well, I am aware of the Henry James novella, but not of the operatic interpretation which appears to diverge from the original. Myfanwy Piper wrote the libretto for Britten, and some of the oldest passages are the Latin bits - the most cryptic parts of what is a rather mysterious work. The doubt and mystery are the very essence of this Jamesian venture into issues of child corruption, and they are central to Britten's version of it, so much so that Britten beefed up the mysteriousness by adding in the Latin sections, and never translated them into English. Hardly surprising when you understand what they mean. Sorry to get a little technical here. There are three main chunks of Latin in the libretto: the children's Latin lesson, given by the governess; Miles's singing of a Latin rhyme called Malo, and a weird sort of blessing or thanksgiving in a form I can assure you, not known in the Anglican Church's prayer book.

During his Latin lesson Miles sings a rhyming clutch of masculine Latin nouns; amnis, axis, caulis, collis, clunis, crinis, fascis, follis, fustis, ignis, orbis, ensis, panis, piscis, postis, mensis, torris, unguis and canalis, vectis, vermis, and natalis... sanguis, pulvis, cucumis, lapis, cassis, manis, and glis. These are some of the memory-aiding verses that helped me learn the gender of Latin nouns, from the back of Kennedy's standard Victorian schoolbook, the Shorter Latin Primer.

The Primer liberally translates these nouns of masculine gender into English: river, axle, stalk, hill, hind-leg, etc. But hind-leg for clunis? Clunis in Latin means anus, its plural, clunes, means buttocks. Caulis (cabbage stalk) was Latin slang for a penis, follis (bellows, punchbag) slang for scrotum, vectis (crowbar) another term for penis, cucumis (cucumber) another jokily penile term. And the list goes on: fascis (bunch of sticks), fustis (knobbed stick), ensis (sword), torris (firebrand), canalis (waterpipe). The diminutive of vermis (worm) was vermiculus, a little worm, another slang term for the prebubescent boy's cock. Rather a nice way to put it.

Britten gave his librettist Myfanwy Piper these words from the copy of Kennedy he had borrowed from a friend, in the know. So why does he want Miles to use them?

Miles sings: 'O amnis, axis, caulis, collis, clunis, crinis, fascis, follis, bless ye the Lord. Praise him and magnify him for ever.' Or, translated means 'O arsehole, scrotum, penis, bless ye the Lord. Praise him and magnify him for ever.'

It becomes a gay Christian male's earnest claim for a kind of sanctity of the gay male body, perhaps?

O arsehole, scrotum, penis, bless ye the Lord. All those things God has given us to enjoy, is what Miles is singing. In Britten's mind and cryptically messaged to an 'in the know' audience, Britten is telling us, or those that recognize and solve the obvious puzzle, that Quint and Miles, in the opera, have had consensual sex. Miles enjoyed the experience judging by his joyful celebration.

In 1954, Lord Montagu and other prominent gay men had recently gone to jail for indecency. Hence the need to resort to Latin. And it would seem that only the trusties, Britten's classics educated friends, had ears to hear the hidden message. Britten, meanwhile, kept his marked-up copy of his Latin Primer nearby. It has been in the Britten-Pears Library collection all this time. Unread.

The ceremony of innocence is drowned. Miles walks in like a choirboy, singing. O ye rivers and seas and lakes, Bless ye the Lord. O amnis, axis, caulis, collis, clunis, crinis, fascis, follis; Bless ye the Lord. Praise him and magnify him for ever.

Otta carried an exhausted Wulff into his bedroom and laid him down on his bed, slipped off the night shorts he wore in the Second Act of the show, and covered him up. We headed for our bed. It's Sunday tomorrow. When Wulff wakes, he'll come in with us. He'll be rid of Quint now. He has us, and the brother he dreams of. Wulff told me about him. He has white blond hair and a pretty face. He met him on the beach near Point Cottage.

I had my meeting with Peter up at Holland House. He's getting various papers together for the Local Authority and Childrens Services. In a couple of months it will be official. Wulff will be ours to keep, and another boy will be in Wulff's bed with hope in his heart.

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