Hiding in Adam’s pantry, Paul remembered how he was once forced to eat marmalade at school, a whole pot of marmalade, Jenkins twisting his arms up his back as Nichols held his nose and clattered the spoon past his teeth. He stared at the jar on Adam’s shelf. Its contents were all but finished; only a dark orange residue speckled with toast crumbs and marbled with butter remained. He unscrewed the lid, wondering if marmalade could taste as bad as he remembered. The scent of bitter oranges assaulted him as outside the pantry door his father’s voice rose a little, as close to anger as he ever came.
‘He’s not well enough to be out on his own.’
‘Doctor Harris, I swear I didn’t even know he was home.’
‘He writes to you.’
‘He wrote occasionally.’
Paul placed the marmalade back on the shelf, listening more carefully. That pinch of truth would help the lie down – that “occasionally” held the right note of disappointment. His father might almost believe his letters to Adam were infrequent.
George sighed. ‘If you do see him…’
‘I’ll bring him straight home.’
Paul listened as Adam showed George out, waiting until he felt sure his father had gone before pushing the pantry door open. In a stage whisper he asked, ‘All clear?’
Adam sat down at the kitchen table. Taking off his glasses he ground the heels of his hands into his eyes.
‘Jesus, Paul. He knew you were in the pantry. He bloody knew.’ He looked up. ‘He didn’t speak to me. He spoke to the bloody pantry door.’
Sitting opposite him Paul reached across the table and took his hand. ‘At least you didn’t give us away.’
Adam drew his hand back. ‘He could smell your cigarette smoke.’
‘Maybe he thought you’d taken up smoking. Maybe you should.’ Paul shoved his cigarette case towards him. ‘Calm your nerves.’
‘You know I hate it.’
Lighting up, Paul blew smoke down his nose. ‘Hate what? Lying, smoking or having a one-eyed lunatic hiding in your cupboards?’
‘Smoking.’ Adam sighed. ‘No point hating the rest of it, is there?’
Adam polished his glasses on the corner of his shirt. Hooking the wire frames over his ears he smiled at Paul. ‘Cup of tea?’
‘I should go. He’s had enough worry, lately.’
‘Haven’t we all.’
‘I’d better go.’
‘Yes. Of course. Better go.’
Neither moved. Paul’s bare toes curled against the cold lino. The kitchen of Adam’s terrace house was always cold, always smelt of yesterday’s frying, always made him want to take boiling, soapy water and a scrubbing brush to the sink and stove and floor. He thought of the stale-biscuit smell in the pantry, the damp in the corners, the nagging suggestion of mice. He shuddered and wiped imaginary marmalade stickiness from his fingers.
That morning he had turned up on Adam’s doorstep, leaving his father to his breakfast, using up another lie about needing fresh air. He had seen Adam only yesterday, his first day home, and all he could think about was seeing him again, of lying down in his bed and breathing in the fug of sweat and come and cigarettes as he slept. Adam would work downstairs, marking his piles of ink-smudged essays. Later he would slip under the covers beside him, warming himself against his body. As the room darkened they would make love whilst in the street children called to one another and dogs barked and church bells closed the day. There would be none of yesterday’s fast, furious fucking, the sex that came from relief and awkwardness and lust. Adam would make love to him and he would be loose-limbed and lazy. Afterwards he would sleep again. He would sleep all night in Adam’s bed, Adam’s legs entwined with his, Adam’s breath warm on his face. He had wanted this day and night for years.
Adam, however, had wanted to feed him – eggs and bacon and thick slices of bread, cups of sweet tea, a rice pudding he’d made especially for him. He was an invalid to be fattened; he was too thin by far, a bag of neglected bones. Quick with embarrassment Adam had fussed between sink and stove and table. Later they had fucked routinely and Paul had left his eye patch on although he had planned to take it off. Taking off the patch would have been a kind of unveiling. Such theatrics had seemed inappropriate after the ordinariness of rice pudding.
Paul stubbed his cigarette out, crushing it into a saucer so that it all but disintegrated and Adam ducked his head to smile into his face.
‘Paul? You’ve gone silent again.’
‘I’m fine.’ He smiled back. Like George, Adam needed constant reassurance. ‘I’ve left my shoes and socks upstairs.’
Adam laughed. ‘You know, I half expected to see you in uniform. I almost didn’t recognise you, standing there in civilian clothes.’
‘No, of course not.’
‘You said once I suited the uniform.’
‘Did I? You suited the cap, I think.’
‘I’ll keep it. Wear it in bed.’
‘I’m glad you’re back.’ Adam laughed again. ‘Glad. Christ, what kind of word is that, eh? Glad. Bloody glad.’
‘I’m glad to be back.’ Paul stood up. ‘I’ll go and get my shoes.’
As he went past Adam caught his hand. ‘I love you.’
‘I know. I love you too.’
Paul took a shortcut home through the park that separated Thorp’s long rows of back-to-back terraces, its steel works and factories from the small, middle-class ghetto of Victorian gothic villas where his father lived. He sat down on the graveyard wall opposite his house and lit a cigarette, imagining his father in the kitchen toasting cheese, his usual supper. Cheese on toast then cake made by a grateful patient, then tea, strong, just a little milk, no sugar. George was a man of habit. Paul looked at his watch; it was later than he’d thought – the tea would be drunk, the cup and saucer and plate washed and dried and put away. His father would be reading the Telegraph in front of the kitchen fire. InFrance, and later during his months in St Steven’s, he had remembered his father’s rituals and almost wept with homesickness. Now, as the cold from the wall seeped into his bones, he wanted to walk away from the smallness of them, back to one of the pubs he had passed along the back streets. At the Stag’s Head or the Crown & Anchor he would order beer and share a joke with the hard men of Thorp. Paul smiled to himself. He would get his head beaten in along a dark alley, called a fucking little queer as boots smashed his ribs. He had only to look at one of them in the wrong way. Best if the fucking little queer went home and faced his father’s disappointment. Tossing the half-smoked cigarette down he crossed the road towards the unlit windows and locked door of his father’s house.
Margot said, ‘He’s home.’
‘Who, dear?’ Her mother looked up from her knitting, rows of grey stitches that were beginning to take the shape of a mitten. Mitten production hadn’t stopped just because the war had. There were orphans’ hands to keep warm now. Absently she repeated, ‘Who’s home?’
‘Robbie’s brother. Paul.’
‘Oh?’ Iris Whittaker laid the knitting down on her lap. ‘That poor boy. He was so handsome, wasn’t he? I remember how handsome he looked at your birthday party. Such a beautiful face. It must be quite dreadful for him.’
‘It would be dreadful for any one. Even an ugly man.’
‘Yes, of course, but worse, somehow, for such a good-looking boy. Such a courteous boy, too. So charming. Poor George. I thank God every night you were born a girl. If we’d had boys like poor Doctor Harris…’
They would be dead, Margot thought, and considered saying it aloud. Dead as dodos. Dead as doornails. Stone, cold, dead. No one said the word dead in this house, although whichever of the vicarage windows you looked from you could see the weeping angels and floral tributes that marked out dead territory. Dead was such a stark word when death was so close, so her father, when he’d told her of Robbie’s death, had cleared his throat and said, ‘That boy’s been taken from us.’
She knew, of course, exactly who and what he meant. That boy: Robbie. Dead.
Her mother picked up her knitting. ‘He’ll have a glass eye, of course. It might look real, from a distance.’
‘Look but not see,’ Margot said quietly.
‘Didn’t you think he was horribly vain?’
‘Vain?’ The wool was held taught and crossed over the needles. ‘All men are vain, dear. At least he had the right to be.’
Margot closed her eyes. Robbie had said, ‘It’s amazing that Paul and I have leave together.’ He’d grinned. ‘I can show you off to him – introduce you as my fiancée.’
‘I thought we weren’t going to tell anyone.’
‘We can tell Paul. He’s so self-centred he’ll have forgotten by tomorrow.’
Margot remembered how Robbie had pulled her into his arms, holding her tightly so that her cheek felt the scratchiness of his uniform. Khaki smelt of dry hessian, of sweat and metal polish that she imagined was the stink of gunpowder. Beneath the khaki his body felt hard and spare. She tried to remember how she had responded, if she had drawn away a little or pressed herself closer. She remembered he groaned. Perhaps she had encouraged him.
‘I think I’ll go to bed.’ Margot closed the book she’d been pretending to read and stood up.
Iris glanced at her. ‘Say goodnight to your father.’ The knitting needles picked up speed. ‘Tell him if that sermon isn’t finished by now it’s too long.’
26th September 2012 10:51AM
I just loved this book. Once I started it I couldn't put it down. I felt that it realistically portrayed how hard life must have been for gay people living in this time. I found all the characters three dimensional and felt that the writer wrote them all with compassion. I couldn't help but be drawn into their world.
There were no bad guys here for me. It was a complicated story and I couldn't guess how it would end. I felt so much for Paul who was trying so hard to do the right thing and grew to love the character of Patrick. I so wanted every one of them to be happy in the end, but the book was just too realistic for that.
All in all, Marion Husband created a world I didn't want to leave. So I was very glad when I found out that these characters also appear in Marion's 'Paper Moon' and I went on to read that. I loved finding out what had happened to them down the years.
15th June 2012 8:04AM
The Boy I Love is at once a stunning portrayal of life, love, and reality post-WWI and a rather depressing read. I'm torn because I think this story is technically an absolute masterpiece, well written with heart breaking characters and never afraid to depict poor conditions and disfigured men. While the men and action are unbelievably compelling, keeping you glued to the story page after page, it's also very dark and no one gets a happy ending. That's not a bad thing necessarily and normally I never personally mind but the emotional investment is high and the payoff will vary for readers. I can easily and whole heartedly recommend this story based on it's technically brilliance but whether you'll enjoy reading the story is going to vary reader to reader.
The summary is rather inadequate to describe the story (as you no doubt guessed). There is a rather large cast but they all revolve around the main character of Paul Harris. Paul is recently released after a lengthy recovery at an asylum after the war. Losing his left eye in the war compounds the mental and emotional anguish Paul experiences following the atrocities he saw and committed. Paul happens to run into his dead brother's girlfriend and realizes she's pregnant with Robbie's child. Deciding to marry Margot, Paul seems at peace but his decision affects everyone differently. From Paul's lover Adam who he continues to see even after marriage to Patrick, an old military friend with a crush on Paul, the men and women orbiting around Paul all depict different perspectives and goals as they try to etch out lives for themselves.
The story is told in differing third person point of views and is gripping from the very beginning. Husband weaves a slight mystery and question of exactly what Paul did during the war that causes him such anguish into the story so the reader wonders throughout until the answer is revealed at the very end. Besides this question, the rest of the story is character driven with a fully realized, incredibly complicated cast. While every single person included has depth and purpose, a feat in itself, many remain a mystery for the duration. Adam, Patrick, and Margot are all Paul's lovers at one point or another, and at one point he's sleeping with all three individually. They each offer something completely different and complex and show individuals trying incredibly hard to create small happiness where they can find it.
Paul is clearly the main character and all others revolve around him either directly or on the periphery but he remains an enigma. His journey is occasionally heart breaking to read as you watch him begin each relationship with excitement and purpose, only to grow restless and distant. Ultimately turning what was a loving encounter into a chore and duty. Paul is perhaps the most damaged of the cast, above and beyond the injured Mick missing both legs. His inability to be happy and deep emotional scaring create a fascinating character but one that is very hard to read. I found myself rooting for Paul to find happiness with any one of his lovers but realized that he never truly could be happy with anyone, but that won't stop him from trying with person after person. This started to wear on me and I can't necessarily fault the story or the author but I felt bad for all the characters involved.
Part of this is that the story is so gripping and engaging, I couldn't put it down. I read it in one sitting, staying up very late to finish and ultimately never got that pay off that I put into the story. Mick gets a happy ending of sorts and I was gratified to see how that worked out but his story is very peripheral. I wanted Adam or Patrick to find something for themselves. Adam especially ends up a sad character with his damp house and resentment while Patrick's final resolution almost brought me to tears. I felt wrung out with the intensity of the story, honesty of the time period and characters, yet given little hope that any of them would be happy. Content maybe, but not happy so this is ultimately a reader choice that is likely to vary from reader to reader.
The Boy I Love is an ambitious novel that does have a few stumbles, the most notably in that the characters remain mysterious even after close to 300 pages. Yet for that the stunning writing and inspired prose lend well to the honest characters laid open honestly with their flaws and strengths. On the one hand it's incredibly easy to read and sucks you in to the story immediately, yet the resolutions simply can't be easy. The book is better for never taking the easy route and keeping each character brutally honest, yet I would have preferred even the hint of hope. I easily and enthusiastically recommend this story to everyone but be careful and read this when you're in the mood for something intense and moving.
15th June 2012 8:03AM
What an impressive story this was. And basically not one story, since there are so many twists and turns in this book with the multiple story lines. A great accomplishment from this author.
Before I talk about the book, I wanted to indicate that I have recommended this book to one of my friends, who is involved with queer and transgender counselling. As he maintains a library of books on the subject, he might want to read and add this publication. Although the story played long ago, some of the issues identified and described within the story lines are still relevant and are seen everywhere.
The author uses different techniques to tell the story, one of them being flashbacks. Part of the story plays in WWI, and very detailed explanations are provided about what the main character Paul Harris had to go through, being a homosexual soldier at war. It is a story about life, decision making, challenges, as well as love and deceit to self. Whereas many gay people tend to hide in hetero sexual relationships, the same is for the main character who is struck by having to make a decision to look after this deceased brother\'s pregnant wife, or keep up with a relationship with a man and long friend. Issues I have seen play amongst my own friends as well, where one of my friends had to make the same choice within his own life.
This is a fantastic book, very impressive writing style. I was amazed about the fact that I had never come across this book before, as I explore the genre quite often. The story feels like a psychological drama, and has left a lasting impression. I really think you should read it yourself, and therefore I do not want to reveal too much of the story lines, as that could influence your thoughts about the story as well as the characters. I would not be surprised if this book would come out as a film.