other people's battles

Unsurprisingly, things changed very quickly at Glen College. Shut down for weeks to make way for boards of enquiry, meetings of governors, police questioning of teachers, pupils, staff; and when it reopened it was, unsurprisingly, a very different school. The new headmaster was a middle-aged Oxford philosopher, plump and avuncular and determined; the new French master led classes on Voltaire, Balzac, Collette, instead of setting imaginative pieces of prose composition on Cressy and Agincourt; and the new Classics master’s first essay was on ‘The Emotion of Pity in Thucydides, with particular reference to the Mytilinean Debate’. The assault course was dismantled, cross-country runs curtailed, and the food, though still not an epicure’s delight, did become much more plentiful. Even the dormitory windows were glazed.

Many of the boys didn’t return, of course. Some parents wanted to distance themselves from the scandal; some were horrified at the conditions which the enquiries revealed. Some were in prison on charges of international terrorism; and, as McLelland said, that was bound to make it difficult to keep up with the school fees.

Very few people understood why McLelland was allowed to stay on – or indeed why he would want to; but McLelland kept his head bent over his Latin prep., and pretended he didn’t hear them whispering.

And because Glen College was a very different kind of school now, nobody attempted to thrash this kind of nonsense out of them when they woke their dorm in the small hours two or three nights a week with screams and sobs. For the first week or so the house master treated them with gentle understanding; after the third or fourth he gently and understandingly asked whether they would like to talk to him about the nightmares, or perhaps to a specialist in Edinburgh if they preferred.

McLelland had smiled with that twisted, slightly condescending smile of his (though noticeably less condescending now than it had been a few months ago; that smile had gone the same way as the swagger stick and the constant tormenting of junior boys), and replied that no, he didn’t think he wanted to talk about the nightmares.

“After all, they’re only dreams, sir,” he pointed out, a little patronisingly. “Just silly dreams. I barely remember them when I wake up. Isn’t that right, Fraser?”

“Oh – definitely,” said Paul, quietly. “I’m awfully sorry we’re causing all this trouble for the others, sir.”

And because Paul Fraser had a sweet, honest face, their house master smiled, comfortingly, and reassured them that of course they weren’t causing trouble – that no one would blame them for having bad dreams – that he was sure it’d all get straightened out soon.

“Silly old fool,” said McLelland under his breath as they left the study.

“He’s only trying to help.”

“Well, he can’t help. Can he.”

It was probably because of the night-terrors that McLelland and Fraser seemed to spend so much time together, other boys reasoned. After all, there seemed to be little other explanation for it. McLelland had spent most of the last couple of years making Glen College as unpleasant as possible for Fraser and the other boys in his dorm; and Fraser, in turn, had tended to look at McLelland with the sort of terrified devotion usually reserved for suppliants dealing with a particularly fickle god. McLelland was athletic, ambitious, domineering, dorm captain and prefect, grandson and son of great soldiers; Fraser was decidedly not.

After six weeks or so the rules were bent sufficiently to give them a double set – two cupboard-sized bedrooms opening off a larger study, looking out over the glen – a privilege usually reserved for sixth-formers.

“It should keep them from disturbing the other boys, at any rate,” the house master had sighed over dinner at high table one evening. “And if they’re in separate rooms, perhaps they’ll be able to avoid waking each other up too.”

“Doubt it,” grunted the junior master who slept in the same corridor as the boys’ dormitory. “You haven’t heard the amount of noise they can generate between them. It’s been like the third circle of hell in there ever since they came back.”

The English master leaned over. “I thought the third circle involved lying in freezing slush? Seventh or eighth would probably be a bit more vocal.”

“Though of course hypothermia isn’t a particularly pleasant way to go, either,” the house master (a biologist by calling) pointed out, gesturing with his fork. “I read an article on the affects of frost-bite the other day that would make your hair curl – “

Conversation drifted away from the awkward subject, as it always did. No one ever mentioned the words ‘Doomsday Men’, of course. It would have been in very poor taste, quite apart from sounding so ridiculous. Better far for the poor boys who had been brainwashed into joining them if they were just allowed to forget all about it.

It might have been a noise that woke him, though he couldn’t have said what. He tended to sleep with the curtains open, because that meant he could see the lighted windows on the other side of the quad the moment he opened his eyes; and it meant that the sun fell full on his face as it rose, woke him gently, slowly, instead of the sudden shock of the alarm clock or the school bell. It seldom got more than half dark in his room, even though they were so far from the nearest town that the night skies stayed ink-black.

“Douglas?”

The shadow near the door shifted, separated, stepped forward.

“No point in asking if you’re awake then.”

His voice was cracked, a mixture of sleep-thickening and stress-harshening, and a little uneven. Paul sat up, bedclothes bunched around his waist. His hair was fluffed in all directions, but he didn’t trouble to tidy it.

“Was it a bad one?”

Douglas didn’t say anything; but Paul could hear him breathing, each indrawn breath caught in his throat; could hear his attempts to conceal it. He swallowed, hard.

“Silly ass,” he said, gruffly. “What were you going to do, just stand in the doorway all night until you froze to death?”

“Something like that.”

“You ought to have woken me,” Paul insisted. “If you take to not waking me up when you need me, I’ll feel so guilty I’ll take to not waking you up when I need you. And then I’ll lose my mind entirely within the week, and it’ll all be your fault.”

McLelland made a noise that hovered between a laugh and a hiccough.

Paul shifted over in the narrow bed, and lifted up the edge of the bedclothes.

“Your feet are freezing,” he complained, as Douglas slipped in beside him. There wasn’t enough space for two – there was barely enough space for one, when that one was a boy with legs that seemed to get longer every day and more elbows and knees than he knew what to do with – but they managed. They always managed. It was so much better than the alternative.

He was losing weight again, Paul noticed. He could make a ring of his thumb and little finger and join them about Douglas’ wrist now; could feel the press of sharp hip-bones and collar-bones through the thin cotton pyjamas.

“I mean it,” he said, softly. “How many times do I have to tell you? If it’s so bad you can’t cope with it alone, you damn well wake me up.”

He could distantly remember a time when he had hated McLelland, every time McLelland had made his cheeks burn with shame at some caustic jibe, every time McLelland had flicked his shins with his cane, or made him grovel on his knees scrubbing his section of the dorm floor; a time when he prayed every night, guiltily, secretly, that McLelland would go to the San with ‘flu for a week; that he’d break his leg out running; that he’d just for once treat him kindly –

He could remember it; but it was so difficult to connect his feelings now with his feelings then. The way the thread of emotion had been broken – so violently, so totally – he couldn’t even begin to imagine that strength of hatred any more.

He almost thought he could feel Douglas’ wild heart-beat through the translucent skin.

“They were…in the ground. All around me.”

Douglas’ voice was quiet, uneven, uncertain. During the day he could still sound so sure, ‘McLelland – the supine stem of ‘confiteor’?’, ‘McLelland – the volume of sphere J?’, each answer coming back prompt and certain and a little dismissive, as though insulted at being tested on such nonsense.

“And I was – I had to walk through them. And I – I tried to put my feet down carefully, but – the ground kept giving, and I knew – I knew it was because underneath the mud – “

Paul stroked a feather of dark hair away from his cheek, felt the hot breath scatter against his face in interrupted patterns.

“You don’t have to,” he whispered. “I know.”

Douglas shuddered, squeezed his eyes closed, pressed his head into the pillow as if trying to push the thoughts out of it. “I know you know,” he said indistinctly.

None of the other boys would understand; none of the masters, either; wouldn’t understand how vital it was to wrap their arms around each other, to tangle their legs together, warm feet against cold, no matter the discomfort of small beds and long limbs and sharp bones. They wouldn’t understand that this proximity – this touch – was more important than the whispers in the darkness, more important than awkward kisses and scared fumblings.

“It isn’t fair.”

Douglas’ eyes caught the faint light from the window, a glistening of moisture in the dimness. “No. We deserved it.” The gleam blinked out. “Or I did, anyway.”

“How could anyone deserve – “

“You know how.”

Paul wanted to get up, to stamp, to scream. He let his fingers travel over Douglas’ cold skin, imagining lines of warmth trailing after them. “We were wrong. And – and we had to learn how wrong we were. I know that. But – there must have been another way.”

“You know we wouldn’t have believed anything else.”

When he closed his eyes, he could see them. Lines of men marching away to die – men in scarlet, blue, khaki, olive drab – lines of pale, young faces, each different, each the same. He could see seas of mud, studded with limbs like twisted tree-roots; shreds of flesh left by canon-fire, shell-fire, grenade and mortar and machine-gun; things that had been men.

“We thought that war was beautiful,” said Douglas, voice a thousand miles away though his skin was under Paul’s hand. “Honourable. Glorious. We thought that the search for peace was – ignoble. We thought we had the right to stop it. We had to see the truth. Had to be made to see it.”

“But not like that,” Paul insisted. “A thousand years of war, forced into our minds – “

“We deserved it.”

“We didn’t!” Paul hissed. “Don’t – please, don’t just keep saying that as if it – as if it excuses anything they did!” His fingers were clenched tight into Douglas’ cotton-clothed arm. Tight enough to leave marks, but neither of them minded bruises; bruises helped to quieten the parts of their minds which constantly reminded them that they didn’t know what suffering was; that they could never speak of the glory of war because they had never felt true pain or fear in their lives. But they could be shown that pain and fear...

“There must have been other ways!” he went on. “They call themselves the Tomorrow People – act as though they’re so much better and wiser than us – so why couldn’t they have found a better way?”

“I don’t want to argue,” said Douglas, tiredly. “You know it doesn’t do any good.”

“Do I know that? Or is just something they told me I knew?”

He was glad for the dimness; glad that Douglas could surely make out no more detail of his expression than he could make of the other boy’s. But there was only so much pleading he could keep from his voice.

“How can we be sure about anything about ourselves any more?” he whispered. “How can I know – how can I know what I’m thinking is really me?”

“You can’t.”

Paul bit down an edge of hysterical laughter. “You’re very comforting.”

“We were wrong. It’s right that we’re punished for it. It’s no good trying to be comforting when I don’t have any comfort to offer.”

“Isn’t it enough for them to be changing the world? Couldn’t they have left us to change ourselves?”

Douglas lifted his hand; ran a finger over Paul’s temple, traced the thin skin under the eye, skated over the fullness of the cheek, lingered over the swell of the lips. “Oh brave new world, to have such people in it,” he said with a softness that was only half mocking.

“Don’t tease,” said Paul, flatly.

“I can’t.” Douglas’ voice was almost light, it was so simple, straightforward. “Not any more. Not you.”

And really, that was all that could be said. No need to say that the pictures in their minds woke them screaming with other people’s pain, that so many nights ended like this; no need to say that they were afraid, that they would have hated the world for its complacency and lack of understanding if it wasn’t for the fact that they were afraid of hatred more than anything; certainly no need to say that without the other they would be utterly lost.

Douglas’ lips were always hot, urgent, slightly rough; his fingers always caught in Paul’s hair, tugging slightly, as if needing always to anchor himself there and then. Paul’s hands always sought out cool, pale skin, trying to join so closely, bury himself so deeply, trying to chase away the chill from the cold clay. And he prayed – guiltily, secretly, because he knew it was selfish, and he wished with all his heart that he was able to pray for Douglas to regain his peace of mind – and thanked God that Douglas McLelland was trapped in this hell beside him.