"To absent friends."
The words of the toast echoed throughout the lavish study as the small group of twelve took up the call.
Each lifted a glass of well-aged whiskey as they spoke, then knocked it back. This was what remained of the Class of 1917 of the University of New Brunswick's Engineering Department, brought together for a 10 year reunion. It was early October. The leaves were changing quickly, getting ready to welcome the dark, lonely evenings that were already arriving at a gallop.
Locksley Somerville, of the Evesham Somervilles, if you please (and as his parents had always been quick to remind others), was standing off from the group, contemplating their class photo. His eyes kept returning to one face in particular. Twelve in the room, when they should have been thirteen. He swallowed the remaining dregs of the whiskey glass and set it down on the lace tablecloth.
Locksley sensed a presence next to him, and didn't have to turn to know who stood there, now also staring at the picture in its ornate metal frame. Burnaby Lovelace spoke softly, gently. "Thinking about him, eh?"
Locksley nodded. A heavy feeling had formed just behind his eyes, keeping count of the whiskeys he had swallowed earlier.
"I wish he was here too, Lock. But you mustn't blame yourself, and Heavens knows that he wouldn't want you to, either," said Burnaby, putting a tentative hand on Locksley's shoulder.
Locksley tensed, but allowed the hand to rest there for an instant before shrugging it off. "Platitudes. I'll be on my way, Lovelace."
He turned to the room and announced, perhaps a tad loudly, because he was a tad drunk, "Well, it's been a lovely reunion, but I think I'll be turning in, gents."
He approached the table one last time and signed the guestbook. Then, he took a large, detailed enamel pin with the University of New Brunswick coat of arms on its face, and shoved it into his pocket. The coat of arms shield featured two beavers, sejant-rampant, holding a book which read 'Sapere Aude', on a red field, with the lower part of the shield painted yellow, a triangular chevron line separating it from the red, emblazoned with a black viking boat, sideview. A cleanly-excised version of Canadian maritime history, all neatly wrapped up on a pin, with none of the messier parts visible.
Had it been anyone but Burnaby Lovelace who mentioned Sawyer to Locksley in that moment, he might have socked them in the jaw.
Alone in a hotel room overlooking the St. John River, Locksley Somerville dug through his overnight bag and took out a packet of unsent letters, some yellowing with age, along with a sheaf of fresh paper, a fountain pen and a small jar of ink. As Lock placed the sheaf on the desk, a small photograph, no more than an inch and a half wide by two inches, with a scalloped edge, slid out. A smiling young man, well-groomed, but with a mischievous aspect, stared out of the photograph. Pausing, Lock leaned the photo against the stack of papers. He then sat at the cramped hotel writing desk and dipped his pen in the ink. He wrote the date — October 10th, 1927, and paused, lost in thought.
It was 1915.
As men enlisted to help the war effort, both University of New Brunswick and the City of Fredericton seemed to empty out. Even the St. John River seemed to flow more slowly. There was tension, of course there was tension, what with the War to end War happening. Sometimes supplies were also shipped through the Saint John Harbour, just a short afternoon train ride away. But there was also the sensation that the normal pace of life was, for the moment, interrupted.
With no dormitories, most students found rooms in boarding houses in Fredericton proper. That wouldn't do for Locksley Somerville — Somervilles did not board with the common rabble, or so his mother had informed him when passing over the keys to a small cottage that she had rented for him in what she had decided was the nice part of town. At the weekend, Locksley often took the train to his parents' private cove estate near Saint John. It overlooked the Atlantic Ocean from high atop its hill, which looked gradual but terminated in a treacherous pile of black rocks and a short cliff face, some twenty feet above the beach. It was doubly-dangerous in the fog that so often rolled in on the water, no matter the season.
Though Lock was somewhat disappointed not to have the opportunity to get to know his fellows better by living amongst them, he did appreciate the privacy and luxury of not sharing his small cottage with anyone. Every weekday, he rode his bicycle along the road nearest the river, past the many fields and the dense trees on Forest Hill, so long as the weather held. It was on just such a September day that he met Sawyer Mulholland as he walked his bicycle to the wrought-iron fence where he made a habit of locking it, carrying the chain wrapped about his waist whilst he rode.
Sawyer Mulholland, Lock mused those many years later in that hotel room, had the kind of smile that radiated through the attitude of his whole body and asked others to answer in kind. The first time that Sawyer turned that smile on Lock, the young man hadn't been sure whether he wanted to befriend him or be him.
This is how it happened.
As Locksley approached the fence at the side of the university, he heard rustling in the garden bushes and figured it was a bird or a squirrel, some small creature that he had surprised with his arrival. Locksley didn't think anything of it until he heard hushed, murmuring voices and even a soft laugh. Unthinkingly, he leaned his bike up against the fence and peered through the bushes.
Two young men were facing each other, standing close together. They were just about a foot apart, which Lock found a bit unusual. One of them broke away and picked up a pile of books while the other tucked his shirt into his almost-too-fashionable jodhpurs, and buttoned his waistcoat. He noticed their coats hanging over a nearby apple-tree bough, low enough to act as a coat rack. Locksley thought then that they must have been studying together. Feeling self-conscious about watching them, he let the bushes close, which made some noise. He saw one of them glance over just then, and quickly made an about-face, focusing on locking his bike.
The bushes rustled behind him, and one of the young men stepped out, all smiles. It was the one Locksley had seen adjusting his clothing.
"Well, good morning! Lovely weather we've been having, isn't it? Just perfect for a morning constitutional — or a bicycle ride. Old Lovelace and I were just having ourselves an excellent morning chat."
Locksley finished locking his bike and turned toward the man. They seemed to be of an age. The man had a narrow face with a slightly upturned nose and prominent cheekbones, chestnut-coloured hair, sun-bleached, and blue eyes. He was carrying his coat over his arm and his books sandwiched next to his body beside that. Like a model from the Sears and Roebuck catalogue. As for whoever this young man was and whoever Lovelace was, what did Locksley care about their — ah, naïvety! — conversations? He found the situation rather confounding, and hid beneath the veneer of etiquette.
"How nice for you," Lock said, flatly polite.
The young man seemed to be confirming something for himself, searching Locksley's face. What he was expecting or hoping to find, Locksley had no idea. He proffered a hand, grinning broadly. "Well, all right then! My name's Sawyer Mulholland — engineering major. Architectural, to be precise."
Locksley's eyebrows raised in mild surprise, and took Sawyer's hand in his own, applying enough pressure to not be thought effete without crushing the other man's hand. "Locksley Somerville. Also studying architectural engineering."
"Well, I'm sure we'll see more of each other around then, Somerville," said Sawyer, smiling in that way that seemed to touch his whole body. He pulled out a sort of golf-style cap from his inner jacket pocket, and put it on. Locksley thought it gave him a rather boyish appearance. "See you in the lecture halls."
Locksley's pen quivered over the page, and a few minute inkspots soaked into the paper immediately. Resolutely, he applied pen to paper, scratching out the words that had grown from seeds planted long ago. It was a bitter harvest.
'My friend, though I will always mourn you, I must make some peace with your absence. These many long years, I have written to you, and have not released you to your eternal rest. In my mind, I wait for you. I hold your spirit near at hand, and it gives neither of us any peace. Tonight, I will sublimate these words in ritual fire, and bury the ashes at the place you loved best. I hope you will not view this as a betrayal. Were you here, could you speak to me, I believe in my heart that you would agree that ten years is long enough, and that it is past time that I say goodbye. I am sorry for my part in your end, and I wish I had not been such a coward could have loved you as you deserved when you were still with me in the flesh.'
Locksley signed with an absent-minded flourish and folded the letter, unmindful of smearing the wet ink. He placed it on top of the pile of other papers, and rose to his feet. He pulled on a pair of galoshes over his dress shoes. He had not packed anything rougher, being that he had come to Fredericton to attend his class reunion. Shoving a box of matches and a broad candle into his jacket pocket, he pulled on the jacket and picked up the decade's worth of letters that he had brought with him from the Somerville Estate, placing the bundle under his arm.
With that, Locksley ventured out into the light of the full moon, and departed for Forest Hill at the edge of the St. John River.
The moon made the trees strange under its light. Locksley's feet carried him to a particular spot on the riverbank. It was much changed in the decade since he had last been, but there was a sense of rightness when he saw the handsome trees, still so familiar despite their thicker trunks and new growth, and despite the dark. Gathering stones from the riverbank, Locksley then left these in a pile, removing one large flat one upon which to place his candle.
Lighting the candle, he wordlessly unbundled the letters and began to feed them to the flames, one at a time, beginning with the oldest. When he closed his eyes, he could see Sawyer's face in the after-image of the candle flame.
Sawyer, trying to catch his attention during their lectures to tell Lock some nonsense story and try to make him laugh right in the middle of an explanation.
Sawyer, arriving to the lecture hall with a bushel of apples to pass around that he claimed he had been given by an old farmer woman who liked the look of him.
Sawyer, inviting Lock to take long walks along the riverbank, just the two of them, with a portable fishing rod and an aluminium tacklebox no bigger than a tin of sardines.
No matter how much chilly distance Lock tried to put between himself and Sawyer, it seemed to have no impact on the friendly young man. Back then, Lock had not yet had much occasion to examine his own... proclivities... his own needs. He was practically an ascetic. If anything, this only seemed to encourage Sawyer to try and help Lock come out of his shell, or whatever nonsense (or so Lock had thought at the time) Sawyer thought he was doing. Sawyer Mulholland knew that Lock was... was that way ... long before Lock came to that conclusion himself.
It was this uncertainty and fear that had Locksley Somerville trying to keep Sawyer at arm's length, as if a part of his brain knew that there were things about himself that he would not be able to unsee if he spent more time with the gregarious fellow.
As it turned out, there were also parts of Sawyer that he was not able to unsee.
Riding his bicycle along Forest Hill by the riverside, Locksley heard a cry of either pain or surprise. It was hard to tell at that distance. The sound persisted almost rhythmically, and it seemed to be coming from a nearby copse of trees. Worried that someone might be in trouble, Locksley leapt from his bicycle toward the source of the sound. His eyes widened as he recognized Burnaby Lovelace, bare-bottomed, leaning against a tree, as Sawyer gave him two more solid, enthusiastic thwacks, whispering in his ear. Sawyer's other arm was curled around Lovelace's waist, and his forearm moved slowly up and down.
Locksley remembered how his thoughts had seemed to seize up then. A levee broke inside of his mind, and thoughts tumbled forth, colliding and connecting, sending his mind careening in all directions, like pool balls after a well-placed shot.
His face flushed, he backed away from the trees.
He stumbled backward, catching his foot on his bicycle handlebars.
'They were both... Then, that day, that first day...Oh.'
Still tripping backward with a cry of surprise, he stepped into an empty void at the edge of the embankment. Locksley tumbled down the embankment. He instinctively tucked in his chin and limbs. He heard a distinctive crunch as his right arm hit what must have been a rock.
He kept going, unable to slow himself. He plunged into the water.
The cold water shocked the air from his lungs, and he sank deeper below the surface of the river. His lungs reflexively inhaled silt and water. His nasal cavities and chest burned with it. Locksley felt sure that he was dying. He kicked toward the surface, but seemed to be stuck in some kind of riptide at the river's edge. The river was tugging at him, pulling him along in the current.
Locksley's thoughts were incoherent from the moment that the water had penetrated his lungs. Later, and now, twelve years on from that day, only dim shadows and impressions remained. His body remembered the rush of fear and adrenaline, along with the pain that came later. He did not believe that he was conscious through most of the rescue, but he came alive again to the sound of Sawyer's worried voice.
"...I'll borrow Lock's bike and dash off to the doctor's...You stay here, Lovelace. He ought to be all right now that he's sicked up most of that water. Keep an eye on his breathing, would you? There's a good fellow...it'll all just be duck soup, don't you worry."
Lock gave a rasping cough and unstuck his eyelids, blinking blearily in the mid-morning light. Sawyer was kneeling beside him, putting on a brave face. His clothes and hair were soaking wet. His shoes were untied and looked a little more dry, but water was already beginning to sink into the surface of the leather. Sawyer's skin was shiny and damp, his brown hair plastered haphazardly to his forehead in clumps. His attitude remained cheerful.
"Well, there he is! Welcome back to the land of the living, Lock! I know I'm worth a gander, but did you have to literally fall head over heels for me? How are you feeling?"
Lock groaned, unsure how he felt about that joking comment, and even less certain how a Somerville was expected to respond in such a situation. Lovelace was standing about in nervous attitude, his hand massaging the back of his neck rather self-consciously. Remembering what he had seen just before landing in the river, Locksley found this unsurprising. Not only was Lovelace an... an invert, he was also the one on the receiving end, so to speak. No doubt he was worried that Locksley would talk. But who would Locksley talk to? Sawyer was the only one who seemed to take a real interest in him, of all their peers.
"Lock — Lock, are you with me, Lock?"
Locksley saw that Sawyer's eyebrows were raised in concern, but not for himself, he judged. Not like Lovelace. Locksley tried to prop himself up on his elbows, his lungs aching fiercely. He hollered in pain rather hoarsely as he tried to put weight on his right arm. He fell back heavily and coughed again.
"Well, that didn't sound good, did it? You must have hit something when you took that tumble," said Sawyer, frowning and leaning back on his heels. "We'll get you to a doctor right away, Lock, and it'll all be right as rain soon. Lovelace, you push along Lock's bike, and I'll help him up the slope."
Locksley's mind was fixated on what he had seen before falling. He was confused, but it did not seem like an opportune time to alienate the pair of them. He did not think that he could climb back up the embankment himself, and the nearest more gradual path upwards was a good distance away. His body was not yet convinced that he was not still in danger of dying.
Sawyer seemed to sense that something more than his injuries was amiss. "Anything else that needs discussing, Lock, I figure that it can wait until we've had your arm seen to. We can talk about whatever you like after that."
Locksley had nodded slowly then, still in turmoil, and Sawyer had moved in to help him to his feet.
The doctor declared the arm broken — a clean break, luckily, though severe enough — and Locksley himself lucky to be alive after his roll down the embankment and subsequent near-drowning. He commended Sawyer on his quick action and bravery. With his throat too raw to do much advocating for himself, Locksley was glad to have Sawyer take charge of the situation and see him through. Even when Sawyer immediately volunteered to be his note-taker and essay-writer for class until the arm was healed, which would take at least a good eight weeks according to the doctor's estimate, Locksley found himself feeling mostly gratitude toward the other young man, who had jumped into a freezing river to save him.
The other part of what Locksley found himself feeling was a combination of guilty fascination and total confusion about what he had seen Sawyer doing to Lovelace. That night, alone in his rented cottage, he dreamt of Sawyer doing the same to him. In his dreams, the meaty smacks resounded through the forest, and Locksley's cries reached all the way to Saint John, to the Somerville Estate there, echoing along the coast line and out into the ocean. The whales and porpoises answered his calls with their own.
Locksley awoke feeling unsettled to a knock at the cottage door. It was Lovelace, carrying a market basket filled to the brim with fresh bread, jam jars, apples, and other sundries. Locksley thought about not answering, but he had not closed the curtains the night before, too distracted by the pain as he awaited the moment that he could take his next dose of prescription laudanum. He paused a moment, staring at Burnaby Lovelace through the glass.
Locksley opened the door, and Burnaby gestured to the basket. "Hello, Somerville. I didn't know if you had any victuals hanging about after yesterday, so I thought that I would come by with some breakfast. Fresh bread, creamy butter, and plenty of jam to go with."
Locksley nodded and croaked out a "thank you". He slid his arm back into the sling that the doctor had given him to use when he was up and about with some difficulty, and approached the fireplace to put on a pot of water for tea. He clumsily clutched a jug of water to his chest with his wrist as he worked the cork out with his left hand. Lovelace looked on, seeming at a loss and unsure if he should offer any help. He placed the basket of food on the table.
After managing to put the water to boil, Lock turned back to Lovelace. He spoke with some effort, his throat still raw. "Burnaby, I can see that you're worried. But it isn't any concern of mine...what you and Sawyer do to each other in the woods."
Burnaby flushed crimson, then looked almost pityingly at Locksley. "You can't even name it, can you, Locksley? But it's plain that you're interested in what we were doing out in the woods. Fucking. That's twice that you've watched us."
Locksley's nostrils flared. "I thought you might be an injured animal, the way that you were howling when he—"
"An awful lot you know about it!" Burnaby said, smiling contemptuously. "You don't know anything, Somerville. You won't let yourself know."
Locksley wondered briefly what Burnaby could mean by that, but he was awfully steamed up. His expression turned cold and detached. "I am so grateful for the gift basket, Lovelace, but I will have to ask you to leave without that cup of tea. I'm afraid I'm still feeling under the weather."
Burnaby's eyes widened and then his brows narrowed. "Well, I do hope you'll feel better, old chum. Maybe well enough for another swim later on today."
With that, Burnaby Lovelace was on his feet and out the door.
As soon as Lock let his self-appointed caretaker into the cottage later that morning, Sawyer was rummaging through the basket that Lovelace had so kindly dropped off earlier for a nice, crisp apple. He rubbed it against his coat as he turned toward Lock and smiled.
"Lovely place you have here, Somerville. And all to yourself, eh? Much roomier than the boarding houses that us run-of-the-mill university students make do with."
Lock was surprised to find a smile on his own face. "Yes, well, my mother insisted upon it. She didn't want me to be distracted by a floor full of rowdy boys whilst I tried to study. Not to mention that she has something against the widows that seem to run such places. Says they ought to remarry and not invite strange men into their homes."
"Oops — you're already going against her advice. You've already had two very strange men in your house today, not including yourself," said Sawyer with a quirk of his eyebrows.
"About yesterday, Mulholland..."
"Call me 'Sawyer', Lock. Or at the very least, don't use my last name to throw up a distance between us. I'd like to think of us as friends. I'd like us to be good friends, in fact."
"Is that because you feel responsible in some way for what happened?"
For once, Sawyer stopped smiling, looking at Locksley with grave sincerity. "Well, yes. I oughtn't, I know, but somehow I can't help but feel a little responsible for giving you such a shock! The woods on the riverbank are usually quiet at that time of morning. I wasn't expecting anybody to happen by and trip over his own bicycle."
Sawyer tossed the apple from palm to palm. "But that isn't why I'd like to be your friend, Lock. I think you could use a friend, is all."
Locksley found that he could not meet Sawyer's gaze. His upbringing and wealth had created distance between himself and his peers. "You aren't worried that I'll tell everyone that you're a pervert?"
Sawyer shrugged. "The way I see it, either you will or you won't, but there's no use worrying about it until you do. Old Lovelace and I can claim that the fall addled your brain, I suppose. But I've never been one for hiding and I don't think love between two men is perverted. Do you know the story of Alexander and Hephaestion? Achilles and Patroclus? Ganymede and half of Mount Olympus?"
Locksley moved to cross his arms and felt a twinge of pain. He returned his left arm to his side, his right arm still hanging in the sling. "Do you remember Leda and the Swan? The Greeks and their mythological beings were prone to all sorts of excess and other untoward sexual behaviours."
Sawyer's expression softened. "They were very human, weren't they? With very human flaws. Not that I'm condoning those things, but... Lock, damn it, people like us have always existed. It's not like we learn to be this way."
Locksley took a half-step back. "Like us?"
Sawyer's kind expression never faltered. "Oh, like Lovelace and I, Lock. I'm not calling you names."
The tension in Locksley's frame settled and he found himself putting the pot back on to boil. Sawyer placed the apple that he had been toying with in his pocket and approached.
"Let me handle the tea, Lock. You should avoid straining that arm of yours, if you can help it."
So Locksley had done, and reaffirmed his decision to keep Sawyer and Lovelace's secret.
One by one, the letters curled and turned to ash in the candle flame. Locksley felt a tightness in his chest and dampness on his cheeks. He tried to welcome this — there were those who said that such catharsis was good for one's health. He nevertheless found himself re-reading certain letters before consigning them to the flame. It was tempting to keep some, but that was the problem, really.
Tonight was about release. He had come out under the light of the full moon to release Sawyer's hold over him, to finish with this long mourning period, and to release Sawyer to the peace of the grave. Locksley was not arrogant enough to think that he had any real hold over Sawyer or his ability to go to his eternal rest. Nevertheless, if Locksley's thoughts could have kept Sawyer on this earth, Lock had surely devoted enough time to thinking about his friend throughout the years to anchor him to this plane of existence permanently.
He had written these letters because there had been no one to talk to about what Sawyer had meant to him. He could not face Burnaby Lovelace, and he could not tell anyone else. His father, the Late Lord Somerville (taken by the Spanish Flu, which he contracted during a visit to the front lines, as he was friends with the Field Marshall, Lord Haig), had already almost sent him off to be "cured" on that fateful night in 1917. The Lady Somerville had convinced his father that it was a one-time event, though she had known better. With the tragedy so close at hand, his mother had reasoned, they were likely to draw more attention to themselves and people would talk, if it ever came to light that their Locksley was in a sanitorium. They would begin to draw conclusions, she had said. His father had relented. Locksley loved and hated her for that. So, he had kept quiet and mourned Sawyer as best he could in private. Even after his father's death, with his mother traveling to and from England, he most often found himself alone.
Out of respect, his family had erected a monument on their property where it happened. Sitting there by the ocean was where Lock had written many of these letters, which were now nothing more than cooling ash. Locksley could scarcely bring himself to think about what had happened, and yet his mind turned to it often, unbidden and in his dreams. What a miserable night.
The letters burned, much of them carried away on the wind, and the rest littering the rock on which Lock had set his candle. Lock glanced up at the moon. He took a deep breath and swept the ashes and paper fragments into the mud. Though the night was clear, there had been autumn rains in spades, and the ground was moist and muddy. He mixed the ash and the mud with his bare hands, and fashioned a burial mound of sorts, digging deep into the soft, cold earth. The grime and grit of dirt and ash between his fingers felt good — it brought him back to the present.
One by one, Locksley placed the stones that he had gathered upon the burial mound, building a small cairn. He wiped his hands in the grass afterwards. Ash and dirt still clung to his nail beds and under his fingernails. Staring uncertainly at the cairn, Locksley removed a flask from his inner jacket pocket and splashed whiskey on the stones. He took a shaky sip and then secured the top. His mind was numb and blank, and he felt very little. Had it worked? Was this what catharsis was meant to feel like? Had he let go?
Standing under the moonlight in the middle of that clearing, Locksley suddenly felt foolish. With that feeling of foolishness came embarrassment and anger. It was time to go back to the hotel. Locksley trudged through the mud and wondered what it had all been for, only paying half-attention to where his feet carried him. Though the incline back toward the town center was not so steep at Locksley's chosen ritual spot, the mud was treacherous. A patch of grass gave way beneath Locksley's galosh. He pitched forward into one of the fine old trees that he had been admiring earlier. His forehead contacted the rough bark, and he pitched backward, still unable to find his footing in the slippery mud. He threw out his right arm to absorb the impact of his fall, turning his head to look. This move caused him to slam his temple into an exposed tree root. Locksley slid down into the mud, and for a time, knew no more.