Et in Arcadia ego (I am also in Arcadia)
The classroom of St Lucy’s preparatory was small dark and cold. The brickwork was in some cases medieval and in others covered with a plaster painted in drab pastel that the years were turning to grey. The teacher stood at the blackboard writing out equations with a stub of yellow chalk and the boys picked at their nails and pretended to look interested. In the corner the icon of St Lucy stood with a quill in one hand, and with the other she held out a plate bearing a pair of human eyes. Nevertheless she managed a state of grace that the others envied. Her eyes were turned to Heaven.
The same could not be said of the students in her shadow. There were ten of them, boys on the cusp of manhood, each with his own history and future. Each sat sombre in the scratchy, starchy uniform of St Lucy’s prep, their shirts dishevelled, their blazers undone and the white thread picked from the Latin motto in their ties leaving a black and white chequered design that varied from boy to boy.
One boy sat openly reading a magazine. Another was using his protractor to carve a phallus on his desktop. Edward Ashburnham stared out of the window and wished for the day to end.
Outside in the courtyard the japonica glistened like coral, waving in the trees like a blowsy invitation. It showed its blossom for all to see, waving it in the breeze like call to war. Mendicant bees flitted from heavy white blossoms to tight blossoms that looked like wounds on the tree, their petals the colour of old blood with golden sparkling stamen. The dark green leaves swayed and the rose bushes curled around the garden seat. There was peace there, amongst the japonica, amongst the uneasy teenage fumbling of the bees and the soothing caresses of the branches, worn heavy with their beauty. Behind them stood the cherry tree- the headmaster’s pride and joy, the blossoms long gone and the tree rich with the fruit the students picked later in the year. But when it bloomed, the flowers were a dark cerise.
“Do you know what makes the blossoms so dark?” Alexis has asked with the comfortable smugness of someone who did know and only asked for the simple pleasure of telling someone something they didn’t. He hadn’t known so he had turned to Alexis for he answer. “They bury a human body underneath them, when the tree is young, a murderer usually, and the tree weeps and bleeds with his pain, and the blossoms turn dark with the tree’s sorrow and rage.” Edward hadn’t believed him.
“Mr Ashburnham.” The teacher slammed his book down on the desk in front of him. “Could you at least pretend to pay attention?” His voice was a short bark and Edward turned his head back to the mathematical formulae on the board, cast his eyes over the integers and primes and equations the teacher was expounding, the useless maths he didn’t need. “Children these days,” the teacher snarled returning to his lesson. But outside the window, in the small-enclosed cloister that led to the vegetable gardens the camellia japonica was in bloom and the cherry tree offered shelter amongst its roots.
“So now I have your attention,” the teacher sarcastically drawled. He was a small man with a thick moustache and heavy glasses. He had no time for the students in his care beyond teaching them what he thought they needed to know, “perhaps you can tell me the answer.” It sounded sarcastic, he knew Edward wouldn’t know the answer and didn’t really care. He wanted to show him up, to embarrass him in front of his peers, but outside the japonica was in bloom.
Edward answered “Et in Arcadia Ego.” He stood up, his chair making a heavy squeal across the tiled floor of the classroom as the other boys suddenly challenged his daring with a mix of awe and amusement.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
He answered him succinctly. “Home.” He covered the steps to the door with a few confident strides from legs that were yet to find their adult length. The artificial sterile lights gave his lights a buttery glow that resembled the halo of the saint in the corner.
“Get back here!”
“Or what?” Edward asked from the door, “you’ll tell my parents?” It was suitably scorning. The passion in his voice was someone else’s though, and outside the window the japonica was in bloom, waving their scented blossoms and the roots of the cherry tree offered him a sanctuary from this petty man with his petty calculations.
“Ashburnham!” the teacher shouted again. Edward didn’t linger long enough to hear him, and left the man’s ire to the heavy wooden door that separated them. The man would never understand how little use he had for the mechanics of the world he lived in, how little control he had over anything but where his gaze lingered, and outside the classroom window the japonica was in bloom.
He called Eoin from the payphone in the lobby. It wasn’t really for student use but such things never bothered him. He undid the dark blue tie and left it so it hung open around his neck. Behind the desk where the receptionist was meant to sit, but never did – usually being ensconced in the teacher’s lounge with a coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other talking about how awful boys were in this day and age, St Lucy looked at him from her plinth. She wore gold with dark red about her shoulders. There was no halo on this statue, and instead of a quill she held the knife that had been used to cut out her eyes. She was smiling. No matter how many times he saw her, and in how many incarnations, Edward found himself drawn to the image of the saint, the patron of writers, prostitutes and the blind. He wondered, how he always did when he looked at her, how she had found comfort in her faith when he could not.
Eoin answered the phone on the third ring.
He never answered the phone with hello, or even a grunt. It merely stopped ringing and the silence was invitation enough. Edward knew that well, but he also knew that the instant that he broke the silence what sanctuary he had at St Lucy’s would be over for the day. “I need a lift,” he said.
“Again?” Eoin never wasted syllables, he never scolded as a parent might, as Alexis did. He stated fact. “That will be the third time this month. I thought we agreed that you would try to finish a whole week.” Eoin was practical and amenable, and Edward knew that even as he spoke he was gathering together his car keys and walking to the garage to start his journey. “Alexis will not be best pleased with you.”
“It’s irrelevant,” Edward replied, “there is no point to him sending me to this school except that it’s already paid for. Come and get me, let Alexis stew over his decision to send me here.”
“Ash,” Eoin said quietly, using his other name, the name he used when he wasn’t in school, the name that said that this would be his last choice. He could return to his classroom now and no one would speak of this. That was his nighttime name, the name that they used in school he barely remembered to answer to, Ash was the name he gave other people, and deep within him he had a name he kept for himself. “What lesson was it, at least?”
“Maths,” he answered, “they were trying to teach me simultaneous equations.”
Eoin gave a short bark of laughter down the phone. “I’m on my way, until they find a practical application for that crap I’ll vouch for you, but tell me, Ash, what was the real reason?”
Ash sighed and looked at St Lucy, implacable on her plinth, stood over a school of layabouts and wastrels deposited here by uncaring parents, how golden her hair was in the light and how sad her expression. “It was a beautiful day,” he answered telling only half the truth, he never lied to Eoin, he never needed to, but he didn’t need to know about everything that went through his head, about the offered sanctuary of the shadow of the cherry tree. Ash made the mental note to ask Eoin that when he died to plant a cherry tree on his grave, or at least in his memory. That Eoin would outlive him Ash had little doubt of. It was only a matter of when.
“And too beautiful to waste on simultaneous equations?” Eoin sounded amused.
“Exactly,” Ash said. The rest went unspoken, that the japonica waved its arms like a cheap hooker calling out for custom from the lazy drunken bees; how the roses clawed for the sun; how the lavender swayed, almost hidden from view; and how the cherry stood sentinel over it all, like a guardian angel offering shelter in between its roots. “Want me to meet you at the gate?”
“If you would,” Eoin answered and behind him Ash could hear the slam of a car door, “you know Alexis won’t be happy about this.”
Ash didn’t answer him; he never did when they spoke of Alexis.
The car ride was silent, even the radio kept its peace in its hole in the dash, its green light flickering on and off as it alerted them of the time in thirty second intervals. Ash sat at the window of the back seat, watching pastoral England pass him by at the side of the motorway, the trees and steeples of a life he would never have. He was split between the archaic splendour of St Lucy’s and the modern world of the Butterfly club, two different people jammed awkwardly into the same body. In Sussex amongst his peers he was Edward. In London, in the shadow of Alexis, he was Ash. He didn’t even know which one was him anymore. He wasn’t even sure that he cared.
Eoin would know.
Eoin knew better than anyone.
In many ways Eoin knew Ash better than Ash knew himself.
Eoin was his constant. Eoin never changed. Eoin was his shadow, the large dark figure that kept him safe and held his hair back when he was sick; that wiped away his tears when he cried. It was Eoin in the silent hours when sleep was absent that sat beside his bed, never Alexis, never his parents wherever they were- it was Eoin. And at the last it was Eoin that remembered that he was a child as much as a man, who brought him frivolous gifts to make him remember that. It was Eoin who made him feel human. It was Eoin who bathed him after. It was Eoin who soothed cream into his hurts. It was Eoin who lifted his face and told him he was beautiful. It was Eoin who loved him.
The Butterfly Club looked different from day to day, and different again night to night. Alexis, however, always looked the same. He sat like some kind of ancient god in his perfectly tailored charcoal suit, his legs crossed, the heavy red wine in a crystal glass on the table in front of him. The VIP area was cordoned off with a heavy velvet rope and behind it Ash sat in front of where Eoin stood, how he always sat – at the edge of the bench with his legs stretched out in front. He laid his forearms along his thighs, his hands between his knees. His head was cast down. He stared at the floor. Even now he didn’t look at Alexis, or Eoin, or any of the others – always away; at the floor, the walls the windows of the faceless club, a club where he had spent most of his life.
Heinrich Krige was an important businessman. He had connections Alexis wanted, and like all his important clients he had been invited into the inner circle of the Butterfly Club, a place very few ever saw.
He was a small man, in late middle age, with a paunch that sat on his knees and thick glasses; he had an odd habit of licking his lips almost constantly, as if trying to recapture the taste of something lost. He rubbed his hands over and over on a square of linen cloth. His eyes, enlarged by his thick lenses, lingered on the way Ash sat.
Ash had been dressed for the occasion. His long blonde hair had been pulled up in a tight knot held in place with a pair of ebony wands. He wore a silk cheongsam decorated with camellias and a pair of tiny silk slippers. His mouth was a red gash, painted with thick red lipstick. Swathes of pink covered his lids and a dark red camellia was tucked behind his ear. Eoin stood over him like a guard and he looked like a Chinese prostitute. He knew why Alexis had had him dress like this. He knew what Alexis wanted from him. He knew better than to argue.
It had been a long time since Ash argued with Alexis at all.
“You know what I want,” Alexis said to Krige, “and you know what I can offer in exchange,” he crossed his long, strong legs, showing an expanse of black wool sock.
“How can you question my loyalty?” Krige asked bluntly, wiping his hands and licking his lips, “a deal has been made and it will be honoured.”
“Then our arrangement will be mutually beneficial,” Alexis answered calmly. Even if it had fallen by the way he would never have appeared flustered or stressed. There was no difference in him whether working out a multi-million pound merger or ordering a drink from the bar. “Ash, will you accompany Herr Krige to his hotel?”
Ash stood up, his eyes were dead and numb. “At your wish,” Ash answered calmly, “is Eoin to accompany me?”
“No,” Alexis answered calmly, “he will collect you at dawn.” Ash took the three steps around the table and leant down and kissed Alexis on the mouth before he turned around, straightening out the embroidered silk over the back of his thighs, “I will see you in the morning.”
“At your wish,” Ash answered but there was no emotion in his voice, he deadpanned and his eyes were cold and dead.
His face slips and slides against the mattress, hands holding him at his hips as the shadowy figure thrusts and squirms and pushes into him. He tries to find purchase at the sheets but they are tucked to tightly. The bedsprings squeal a protest as Ash turns his face to the wall and starts counting the flowers on the wallpaper. He still slips and slides on the sheet, back and forth in time to the body piston into him. He doesn’t bother to think what he has bought for Alexis this time. It doesn’t matter, not really.
Eoin turned to see Ash standing in the doorway and damned his heart for leaping at the sight of him. He really was beautiful, for all the beauty that cruelty engendered. He had teeth marks showing just at the neck of the shirt that hung open on his pigeon chest. There was a long thin scratch on his cheekbone. His hair was dishevelled and he was pale, paler than Eoin liked.
“Did,” Eoin stopped, “Did he hurt you?”
Ash stared at him for a moment as if daring him to back down or questioning the legitimacy of such a question. Then his eyes trailed to the tiny bloodstains on the sheet, something he knew where there.
Ash eventually shrugged, “it’s nothing new,” he said finally and went to pull on the sweat pants Eoin had brought him.
He cut Ash off with a glare, hands clenched into tight cruel fists. “Did. He. Hurt. You?”
Ash defied him for a moment, “a little, it’s nothing.”
“I’ll run the bath,” Eoin stepped forward, fingers grasping his wrist and pushed him to the bed. It was strange, with the other men, the strangers, that was the easy part.
“I’m fine,” Ash protested, he was proud; it was pretty much the only thing Alexis’ love had left him. “I’ll do it when we get back.”
Eoin was firm, his hands like slabs of meat against slender shoulders. “No,” he said quietly against Ash’s cheek, “it’s the least I can do.”
Then Ash heard the water running in the tub and Eoin’s soft humming. Ash listened for a moment and wondered if he should undress, but his hands shook as he raised them to his collar.
It was Eoin that stopped him.
He all but carried him into the bathroom and sat him on the edge of the tub like he had when he had been a very small child. The air was close with steam and the smell of lilacs from the hotel’s generic brand soap. Ash blushed as he pulled away to remove his sweats and his open shirt. His skin was peppered with scratches and he knew that his thighs were sticky and that the stranger’s semen leaked from him.
Ash knew Eoin would say nothing as he helped him into the water. He sat him in the tub as if he would shatter. His callused hands were cautious as they sponged over his body, caressing away the dirt and the stranger’s touch with a steady, calming pressure. “Lean forward,” Ash opened his eyes, unaware that he had even closed them and looked at his guardian confused. “I’m going to wash your hair, lean forward so I can use the showerhead.”
Ash nodded dumbly, scooting forward with his hands braced at the edge of the tub. He wanted to escape, to flee. It took so much effort to just sit there, exhaustion for days of poor sleep catching him unawares in Eoin’s hands. Eoin’s hands were gentle, fingering the lilac scented soap into his hair, pulling gently and rubbing his fingertips against Ash’s scalp. It was a lovely sensation but it didn’t last nearly long enough, all to quickly he used the showerhead and washed away his touch.
Ash felt cleaner and healthier than he had in months as Eoin lifted him free of the tub. A warm towel was fetched and wrapped about his skin and briskly dried him off. The towel was rough against his shoulders and arms before Eoin knelt to dry his legs and stomach. Special care was taken around his ass and thighs, a delicate patting of the towel that made him feel unclean again.
“Eoin,” he said quietly, his voice low and almost breathy. Eoin leaned in to hear what Ash had to say. “Is it true about Adam?” he asked, looking in that instant very young and fragile indeed.
“Yes,” Eoin answered because Eoin never lied to him. “They found him in the river last night,” he swept back the length of hair from his forehead, from the chill cool skin, “we’ll say our goodbyes when it’s time,” he lifted the towel, rubbing it through the find blonde hair. The artificial light made it look green.
“Any chance it was suicide?” Ash asked, almost avariciously, although he knew the answer. Bright effervescent Adam wasn’t like him, he would never kill himself – someone had done that for him.
“They cut out his eyes,” Eoin answered calmly, “before wrapping his face in electrical tape, there was no way it was suicide.” His tone was calm and emotionless. It was dead. He did not care to talk of suicide with Ash; the scars on the boy’s wrists were proof of that. “Come on, I’ll change the sheets and you can sleep. We’ll say our goodbyes to Adam when it’s time.”
“Eoin,” Ash began.
“Yes,” Eoin answered, turning.