THE SUN-BURNED HAND WITH THE FRECKLES and the clean, closely-cut nails moved across the chess-board. “Check,” the general murmured. He was sitting bolt upright in a plain wooden chair.
The boy opposite him stirred lazily in the recesses of the sofa, pushed the hair away from his eyes, and glanced at the game. “Oh, but you’ve exposed your king,” he exclaimed, massaging one thin blue-veined wrist against the fingers of his other hand. He was slight, with a stoop, and when he gave his faintly malicious smile, as he did now, one corner of his mouth twitched oddly upwards, almost in the snarl of a cornered animal. “Don’t you see?” he asked. “You can’t do that.”
The general scraped his chair backward and rose to his feet, his face moving out of the shadows in which they had been playing and striking a transverse beam of sunshine from the open window. It was a fine but rather terrible face, one cheek covered with scars, and the whole divided by a few resolute lines. “I give you the game,” he said. “You’re too good for me. I’m becoming rusty.”
At the words the boy again gave him curious smile, more to himself than to his opponent. His eyes, surrounded by dark rings, glittered. He yawned.
The general, who had gone to the window to see if it had stopped raining, stood there for many minutes looking out to the garden, now steaming in the late evening sunshine. The syringas were dripping water onto the narrow paths. The eaves of the dark Victorian house were dripping also; there was a sound like invisible kissing whenever the water plopped into the butt. The general turned: “Shall we go out now? It’s rather pleasant in the summer-house.”
The boy nodded, but there was an unwillingness in all his movements as he made for the door. He was twenty but looked sixteen, with his smooth chin, his oddly immature voice, and almost girlish features. When he walked, he balanced on his toes: but the impression this gave was not one of sprightliness, but rather of an excessive, almost elderly caution. The general found himself far ahead of the boy, and had purposely to adapt his strides to that bird-like stepping. There was something ludicrous in this. He was a man whom one could not imagine acting lethargically, for whatever he did was done quickly, almost brusquely, as though that sinewy, much-tried body was incapable of indecision.
The boy looked about him, at the rose-beds, where each bush had been pruned to only a foot or so from the ground, then to the distant pond where ducks waddled and quacked, with many of its windows boarded up and once lace curtain billowing outwards from an upstairs room. As he made this scrutiny, he had a sensation of decay and scrupulous order, the two oddly compounded in the dilapidated house and its tidy garden. It was a paradox which teased and puzzled him.
On reaching the summer-house, with its trellis of tea-roses and creaking weather-vane, the general began to put up a deck-chair and then motioned the boy into it. “Sit down,” he said, “as though he were giving a command. This was a habit of his. The boy sank into the place offered to him so peremptorily, again with that privately malicious smile on his face. The general took a cane chair.
At that moment an aeroplane tipped dangerously over the house and roared upwards. The boy shaded his forehead with both his hands and looked disapprovingly at it, his eye-lids flickering incessantly at the white dazzle: but the general stared fiercely without screwing his eyes together, until it had passed far into the distance. Then he turned away with a shrug of his broad shoulders: “Things are different,” he murmured. “Ever since my day.” Although he was only sixty-six, he always talked as though he were a relic of a far-distant age.
The boy made some remark, in an effort to conceal his boredom, and the general, imagining that he was interested, began to talk of all the changes that had taken place in warfare. He spoke shyly at first, but later found the words that he was looking for. All the time he sat erect, his face turned from the boy, his eyes still fixed on the gap of blue between their chairs and the house. The trees spattered the summer-house at sudden intervals; the afternoon sun caught the study windows and made them flash angrily; birds moved precisely across the lawn or tapped snails on the floor of the terrace to break their shells. The boy made sympathetic noises.
Flushing a little under his tan, sweating even, but never moving or changing his position, the general became eloquent. The ravaged face glowed as those there were a flame beneath it. The voice ceased to be brusque. Slowly, by degrees, he passed form the general topics of warfare to talk of his own part in the Great War, the terrible but undeserved disgrace, and compulsory retirement. This was the first time that he had spoken of the matter for several years, but his voice steady, almost conversational. He was not a man to show his feelings. All that puzzled him was that he should be making this confession to the boy: this he could not understand.
At last it was over; the fierce eyes fell to the ground. He felt ashamed, said nothing, did not look at the boy. He waited for some question or remark, the inevitable sympathy. But when the silence stretched out between them and grew big, and still nothing came, when the patter from the trees had begun to oppress him, and he could feel the perspiration breaking again on his forehead, as though he were suffering from one of his old attacks of malaria, he turned his head slowly.
The boy was asleep.
The general watched him for many minutes: still maintaining that rigid pose in the cane chair while his dark face continued to trickle with sweat. The boy lay with his head turned sideways, the fingers of on hand lightly touching his cheek, and his collar creased. He was still smiling to himself.
Then he awoke, gradually, gracefully, without confusion, opening his eyes on the mass of tea-roses and the frothing syringas as though he had just been called, in bed. “Oh dear, I am sorry, sir. You must forgive me. The truth is I’ve been sleeping badly–and my exams…” He massaged his leg and then stamped; he had pins-and-needles. “I don’t think I’ve slept as well as that for ages. But it was very rude of me. You were just going to tell me about the differences–between now and then…”
The general nodded. Then he helped the boy to his feet and took him in to dinner, propelling him by the elbow as though he were an invalid.
After dinner, when the only servant had said goodnight and left for her cottage in the village, the general and the boy sat uneasily together in the dining-room, the boy sipping a vintage port. The general did not drink. They talked in fits and starts of the only topic they had in common–the boy’s dead father, the general’s friend. The general would ask abrupt questions which the boy would answer a little tremulously, almost impertinently, turning his glass in his hands or looking up from under veiled lashes. They had both eaten sparingly, the general because he was naturally ascetic, the boy because he was tired.
Eventually the general rose to his feet: “Shall we go into the study? I have some maps that might interest a scholar like you.”
The boy put a hand to his forehead in a gesture of fatigue. “If you don’t mind–I really think I should go to bed. I feel so desperately tired. I might go to sleep again in your study. And if I have to be off again tomorrow…”
“Yes, yes, of course.” The general turned on the hall-light for him and watched him mount the stairs, one hand trailing lightly along the banisters, the other in his pocket. Disappointed, angry even, he went into the study and sat down at the desk, covered with the articles which he now wrote for the papers–”If Kitchener had Lived”, “The Twelve Decisive Battles of the World”, “The Six Greatest Generals”. “If Marlborough had Lost Malplaquet”. They were never published. But tonight he could not concentrate on the hypotheses which usually filled his solitude. He fidgeted round the study, lit a cigarette, though he never smoked, puffed at it, and then put it out. He crackled The Times and filled in a corner of the crossword.
Then he walked hurriedly into the hall and went upstairs.
“Come in!” His sharp knock was followed by a preoccupied murmur, as though the boy were doing something else and did not wish to be bothered: and when the general opened the door, it was to discover him before the window, in his pyjamas, a hypodermic syringe in his hand.
“I–I’m sorry,” the general stammered. “I came up to see if you had everything that you wanted.”
“Yes, thank you.” The boy still did not look up. “I’ve got to give myself one of these wretched injections.”
“Yes. My mother usually does them.”
“Shall I do it for you?”
“If you like.” The boy was off-hand. The general took the syringe, and drew back the boy’s pyjamas sleeve, revealing a thin yellow arm, who skin was oddly soft. His firm, competent fingers felt that brittle bone. “About here?” he asked. The boy nodded and turned away.
As the needle plunged into the tender flesh, there was a sharp “Oh!”
“Sorry. Did that hurt?” The general put down the syringe, and patted the boy’s shoulder. He still spoke abruptly.
“When you offered to do it, I thought you knew how. It’s a matter of finding the right spot.” The boy was sulky with the pain.
“Perhaps I should have let you do it yourself.”
“I don’t like doing it. But I know the place.” The boy climbed into bed, still rubbing his arm, curled up, and turned to the wall.
“Good night,” the general muttered. “Sleep as late as you like.”
Meditatively, the general walked to his own room, the attic in which of all the rooms in the house he chose to sleep. In one corner there was a plain deal chest of drawers, and in another a hard bed with one blanket. There were no ornaments, no pictures but for the photograph of a young woman, dressed in the fashions of the Edwardian age, with oblique, rather stupid eyes and pouting lips. She was his wife who had died childless after they had been married for two years–after his disgrace. He looked at her face for a long time, almost in perplexity, as though he were expecting those lips to cease pouting and tell him something. The he crossed to the chest of drawers and opened it. Slowly, caressively, he fingered a faded snapshot with one end torn from it and the surface gone blotchy. It was a young man in a subaltern’s uniform, his weak face divided horizontally by a moustache.
He, too, was dead.
The general was up at six o’clock, his usual hour, the following morning. First, he did exercises for fifteen minutes before his open window, taking an oddly sensual delight in the co-ordination of a still athletic body. Then he had his cold bath: and again it pleased him that he should not yet have become flabby. He ran a hand down his side, staring at his body with its many wounds as though it were not his own.
Then he dressed and tip-toed downstairs to get the breakfast. He began by laying the table for them both, but later changed his mind and put the boy’s things on to a tray. He was extraordinary meticulous, taking out a clean tray-cloth and putting the marmalade and sugar into special little pots. Then he fired an egg and bacon, and made the toast. He moved swiftly, competently, with obvious experience in all these things.
At last the tray was ready and he began to carry it upstairs. But then an after-though came to him. Flushing a little with that same glow under his tanned skin, he went into the garden and cut some white roses. These he arranged in a vase and put on the tray. He tip-toed upstairs.
But the boy met him on the landing, fully dressed. He must have been watching him as he climbed the stairs, so careful not to make the slightest noise. “Oh, goodness!” he exclaimed. “You really shouldn’t have done this, sir. I’ve been up for ages, packing.”
“I thought you’d like your breakfast in bed,” the general said rather foolishly. He walked into the boy’s room, the boy following. “I’d hoped you’d sleep on. You seemed so tired…”
“As a matter of fact there’s nothing I loathe quite so much. I can never balance a tray on my knees and crumbs always get into my pyjamas. But as you have brought it up, I might as well eat it here. Have you had yours?”
The general nodded. He never had more than a cup of tea and a biscuit. “I’ll leave you then.” As he closed the door, the scars on his cheek gleamed oddly as though dragged downward by the two sagging lines of the mouth.
The general walked down the corridor to his attic room. Slowly he stretched out on the hard bed and buried his face in the pillow. One hand twisted the blanket in a soundless anguish.
Francis Henry King, CBE (1923-2011) was a British novelist and short story writer, as well as a poet. He came out in the 1970s after his partner died of AIDS, and in 1978 he published E.M. Forster and His World, a biography. His short story collection, The Japanese Umbrella and Other Short Stories, can be found here.