Polari & Write Queer London
In January, Polari published an interview with the two women behind the Write Queer London project, Babs Guthrie and Kate Smith. The rules of the competition stated that the story must be about London and should be tied in with the Write Queer London festival, which toured places and museums in London to talk about hidden LGBT history. In the British Museum there is a drinking cup, a red-figured kylix, circa 480BC, that depicts a drinking party in which young, clean-shaven men are serving older, beared ones. This provided me with a starting point, and I began to write a story about a young man who is about to go to war in 1942. I wanted the main character to have an encounter with another man, and as 2012 is Alan Turing year, I decided it should be him. Initially I planned to have them meet in the British Museum, but because of the blitz the Museum’s artefacts had been moved the underground stations and country mansions. And so I had to find a way around this.
I want to thank Babs and Kate, first for the wonderful Write Queer London festival, which was fascinating and captivating, and second for selecting this last-minute story as a runner-up.
The Kylix, by Christopher Bryant
The first time that Charlie saw the red-figured kylix it was on his thirteenth birthday. His father was pacing around the statue of the Roman emperor Septimus Severus, and sounding off about how strong leadership would be needed now that Germany had broken the military clauses in the Treaty of Versailles. Charlie stole from his mother’s side, and walked over to a display of drinking cups, far away enough that he no longer had to listen. He blinked when he first saw the kylix. There were naked, clean-shaven youths serving drinks to reclining, bearded men. The description read, “This kylix, or drinking cup, shows an all-male party known as a symposion, which is Greek for ‘drinking together’.” He could not stop staring, and so did not notice that a young man was watching him until a voice sounded in his ear, “Quite something, isn’t it?”
Charlie jolted. The young man smiled, warmly, put a gentle hand on his shoulder, and added, “They’re lovers. It was the done thing for an older man to take a younger one under his wing and teach him the ways of love.” The man nudged Charlie, who was embarrassed yet unable to turn away. “There was nothing wrong with it back then, rather unlike the beastly world we live in now.” Before Charlie could respond his mother was at his side. She looked from the young man to the figures on the cup, then grabbed Charlie by the arm and frogmarched him out. That brought the trip to an abrupt end. “I want to see the Marbles,” Charlie said firmly as they walked onto Great Russell Street, the halls of the British Museum diminishing behind them. His mother replied, firmly, “No. I think not.” His father nodded assent, and that was the end of it.
Charlie thought back to that day as he stood looking up at the great pillars of the colonnade at the Museum’s south entrance. It was closed up now. Most of its antiquities were in the abandoned tunnels of the underground. Only three days before incendiaries had hit the southwest corner. In some ways, Charlie thought, the Museum was lucky. The Chamber of the House of Commons had been destroyed. That was on his eighteenth birthday. The morning after Charlie decided that, now he was old enough, he would enlist. It was as if, in that one air raid, all the possibilities that had opened up to him the day he turned thirteen had been obliterated. Now he had come to take his final leave before heading to war.
As Charlie leaned his head on the railings, a tear formed, and dropped to the dusty ground. He sniffed, then shook himself. As he turned he saw a man watching him. He was stocky, somewhat handsome, and his dark hair was Brylcreemed to his head so even in the wind it did not move. Approaching Charlie cautiously, he asked, “Are you alright?” Charlie nodded assent. “You don’t look alright.”
“I’m just … ” Charlie faltered. “I’m here to say goodbye, I think.”
“Goodbye to what?”
“This place.” He gestured with his head toward the Museum. “It’s just that …” Charlie trailed off, unsure of how he should continue. “I never saw the Elgin Marbles. I was here on my thirteenth birthday.” He shook his head. “Something happened. We left, and now I’m …” Charlie stopped, abruptly, and his chin dropped to his chest.
“And now you’re off to the war?”
The man smiled, and Charlie noticed that he was fidgeting on the spot, shifting from one foot to the other as if he was trying to contain his excitement. Just at that point his arm jerked upward, as if involuntarily, and he said, “Aldwych station. 6 o’clock tonight. Don’t be late … What’s your name?”
“Charlie. My name’s Charlie.” He held out his hand, which the other shook, quickly; just one shake before he pulled his hand back.
“What’s at Aldwych?”
“That which you desire to see.” Alan then turned, and stode off, shouting over his shoulder, “Don’t be late. I’m a busy man, you know.” Again his hand jerked into the air. “Very busy.”
Charlie watched as Alan unchained his bicycle from the fence. He squinted, and saw that a mug was also chained to the same fence. Alan pocketed the mug, leapt onto the bicycle and rode off. Charlie laughed to himself, but he was nonetheless intrigued, and he determined to keep the appointment.
It was five minutes to six as Charlie stood at the entrance to the station. He’d killed time in Covent Garden, then walked to Holborn and around the corner to Aldwych, which was sandwiched tight between two run down buildings. He ran his hand over the chains that locked the blackened grates. As he peered inside he heard a whistle. “Over here!” Alan was fastening his bicycle to a fence. Charlie, amused, looked for him to pull out the mug, but instead Alan produced a set of keys and proceeded to unlock the station’s chains.
“How did you come to have the keys?” Charlie asked.
Alan tapped the side of his nose, and winked conspiratorially. “Privilege, young man, privilege.” He jerked his head, and then twisted his upper body awkwardly. “And I work for His Majesty.” With that he disappeared inside.
Charlie shrugged, unsure of what to make of this strange man, and followed. Once inside, Alan threw him the keys. “Lock it up, would you?”
Charlie walked behind Alan, who was fumbling with a torch, down the winding staircase. “Exciting, isn’t it?” Alan howled. Charlie decided the statement was rhetorical and kept silent. When they reached platform level Alan vaulted ahead, and Charlie scurried to catch up.
“You’re fast,” he said.
“I run,” Alan returned. “Long distance.” And with that he reached for a switch and pushed it upwards. The previously dark tunnels were illuminated. Alan jumped from the platform down on to the railway tracks. “This way.” He pointed toward the tunnels.
Charlie clambered carefully down, and once inside the tunnel he realised that for as far as he could see there were sandbags protecting wooden casings. “What’s in here?” he asked, with a building sense of excitement.
Alan beckoned him over. He pulled back the dustsheet that covered one of the crates, and pushed the sandbag to the side. It was then that Charlie saw the carved figure of a centaur, and beside him the body a naked, headless man.
Alan twisted his shoulders, and leaned forward. It was as if he was trying to hold the words in. He clearly found this too difficult, and so they came tumbling out, ten to the dozen, as Charlie’s mother would say. “It’s the Elgin bloody Marbles.”
Charlie stood back, stunned. “The Elgin Marbles?”
Alan nodded. “The whole lot.”
“Relocated here in ’39, before the bombs started.”
Charlie walked forward, and ran his hand over the chest of the headless man. The body was beautiful, and the experience of being in front of it so much greater than that of the kylix. He held the hand of the man, which in turn touched the upper body of the centaur. And for a moment he was lost in that touch, as if the three became one. He heard Alan breathe deeply, and the spell was broken.
“It’s hard to believe that the two were at war,” Alan whispered.
“It is.” Charlie took a deep breath, and he stood back. Alan was still, remarkably so, and for a brief second their gaze locked.
“You said that something happened that day,” Alan began. “Your birthday. You didn’t get to see the Marbles. Tell me.”
“I’m not sure I can.”
Alan nodded, repetitively, as if his head were on a spring, and then he stopped abruptly. He reached out and held Charlie’s hand in his own. “I think you can.”
Charlie looked down, and squeezed Alan’s hand in return. Then he told the story. The kylix. The young man. How he felt. Everything.
“And you never saw him again?” Alan asked.
“Never, but I’ve thought about him every day since.”
“It’s not that …” Charlie began, but he stammered over his thoughts. “I’ve been out of place, out of joint, ever since that day, ever since I saw that look in my mother’s eye when she wrenched me out of there. She was so angry. And she wouldn’t talk about it. She demanded that I kept away from beastly men like that. But I didn’t want to. I wanted to get on a train back in London every day, and wait by that display for something to happen. But I didn’t have the nerve, I …”
Charlie stopped, shrugged, and looked back toward the carved figures. “This is my time,” he said, pointing. “It’s that war I should have been in. Not this one. I should have lived out my life back then.”
“That’s easy enough to say when you don’t have to live then.” Alan looked squarely at Charlie, and with a donnish nod he whispered, “It wouldn’t have been all wonton orgies and what not. But no doubt you’d have been snapped up by a bearded soldier, and he’d have trained you by day … and bedded you by night.”
Charlie smirked, and with an abandon he had not experienced before replied, “That doesn’t sound too awful.” He then looked Alan directly in the eye. “How old are you?”
“I’m 29,” Alan answered, awkwardly, and again his upper body jerked, as if involuntarily. “Clearly far too young for you.”
Charlie smiled, climbed to his feet, and pulled the covering off the Marble closest to him. It was a centaur and a man, each figure complete, locked in a fight. The man was punching the centaur, and the centaur held the man by the throat. The man’s body was perfect, Charlie thought, his face beautiful; and as he ran his hands down the body Alan stood to the side and watched.
“It’s only an object,” Alan observed, as if annoyed. “It has no meaning on it’s own.” He looked down the tunnel toward the covered Marbles. “It’s rock. It has no real meaning separate from the other rocks.” His breath quickened, and he grabbed Charlie’s shoulders, and looked hard into his eyes. “If you break down the past into objects it loses all of its meaning until you put the objects back together again. But how do you know that meaning is the meaning unless you have a cipher to make sense of it all?” He reached out toward the centaur. “Meaning is relative. It’s not constant. How do you know which is the right side? Is it the centaur, or is it the man?” He looked hard at Charlie. “Well? Which one is it?”
Charlie was startled, and stood back. “The man,” he answered, unsure of himself. “It has to be the man?”
“No. It has to be nothing of the sort.” Alan turned away, and pulled at his hair angrily. “This object means nothing until you are told what it means. What makes you think you aren’t the centaur? When you come back from this war, when it’s over, you won’t be the man, you idiot. You’ll be the centaur.”
“But I don’t want to come back,” Charlie shouted, in a rage. “There’s nothing to come back to. If I fight in this war, if I die in this war, at least my life will’ve meant something, and I would’ve done something. Otherwise, I don’t mean anything, and I’ll have been on the money, that I’m not in the right time, that – ”
Alan leaned in and kissed Charlie before he could go on. Charlie pulled back abruptly, but Alan held on to his hands, and through his tears Charlie kissed back, then pulled Alan to the ground and tore at his clothes. Charlie ran his hands over Alan’s chest, and at that moment became aware of the marble figures above. He had, he realised, dreamed all these years not of touching a man, but of touching an idea. Alan was that idea made flesh and instead of feeling wrong, as he always thought it would be, it felt right. And at that point he lost himself to the man, and at the same time became one.
At the station entrance Charlie shook Alan’s hand; not formally, but with warmth, with gratitude. “I feel different,” he said, and smiled. “Thank you.”
“Are you still planning to go to war?”
Charlie nodded. “I am. But I plan to come back.”
Alan looked at the ground, and was awkward once more.
“And you?” Charlie asked.
“I’ve been fighting the war from the day it broke out.” And with that he clambered onto his bicycle, and rode off into the half-light.