THE FIRST OF THE MONTH BY ALAN EDWARD
This is a short story written by the Scottish novelist Alan Edward. It was published in the third issue, November 1979, pp. 8-12, of Pan, a magazine about boy-love, published by Spartacus in Amsterdam.
The four photos apart from the cover image, immediately followed the original article.
When the Head Chorister wears his regulation grey shorts, the smaller choirboys have something to look up to.
The Bishop’s Eye in the nave, infinitely distant, blinked and began to dim; clouds and the night ghosted across the clerestory windows and they grew grey; then all the cathedral was soaked in darkness.
It’s not the cassock or the surplice that counts; it’s what’s inside.
Cochrane switched on the organ and fumbled with the console light; at once the loft was brightly illuminated, rows of stops and manuals picked out in brilliant black and white against the old carved oak. Somewhere recessed in the west transept the motor whirred, a diapason groaned, and wind began to flood into the vast instrument. Over the loft rail, down where the intricately carved heads of the choir stalls cast dim, cardboard shadows, he could see the grey line of tombs and monuments with the names of the dead, young and old, carved in pale stone. He averted his eyes. Dies irae, Dies illa . . .
Remember, boys, when you feel like doing something that might, disgrace your choir uniform, take it off first.
On the console a red light winked. Cochrane pulled out some stops. “Page sixteen,” he said. “The Stanford; your solo begins after the fifth bar of the introduction.” Will you turn over for me, dear boy? No, I mean during, not after. ‘You come in one beat following that series of arpeggios. Have some breath ready, count three and . . .”
“Oh, Lord,” the boy recited from memory, “though we are many we are one body, because we all share in one be . . .”
“Bread,” Cochrane corrected. “And can we have an end to these awful choir school jokes? Please concentrate. The Stanford is down for Evensong tomorrow.”
“You are very severe,” said the boy sadly.
“That’s true. Now.” He started to play the notes; they ebbed back from the tall pipes crowded in the nooks and crannies of the vaults all around them. The boy moved backwards slightly out of Cochrane’s view; with perfect timing he took his entry. They went all the way through the anthem without stopping; after the last chords Cochrane hesitated for a moment, then reached forward and pressed the button that switched the organ off.
“Wasn’t it okay?” asked the boy.
Cochrane swallowed. There was a constriction behind his third waistcoat button that he couldn’t account for - it definitely wasn’t his after-dinner brandy.
“It was okay,” he said simply. But he wouldn’t hear it again. If he did that superb, sensuous voice, moving cool and limpid above the organ part, would haunt him through the night like an unhallowed Siren - and a man needed his sleep.
Puzzled, intrigued, he turned to look at the boy. “You haven’t been in the choir long, have you?”
“For a while,” said the boy lightly, fingering his music. He picked up a pencil and marked the first few bars.
“Odd I haven’t noticed you.”
“Should you have?” The boy met his gaze enquiringly for a moment, then looked down. “I’ll count three here. I’ll need a deep breath before that top G.”
Cochrane didn’t respond. Perhaps it was the angle of the lamp, or the unusual half-light reflected from the ivory manuals, that gave, deceptively perhaps, an impression of breathtaking beauty that, somehow, he must have time and again ignored in the more mundane setting of the choir school. Or perhaps it was the brandy after all. The boy had missed at least one regulation haircut. His light blond locks were rather too long: they lay in a smooth curve across his forehead, falling on both sides to meet the ruff at his neck and curling outward slightly at the ends, so that stray locks nestled among the starched linen folds. A pair of dreamy blue eyes set Cochrane’s heart off on a rapid arabesque. My God, Cochrane, you must control yourself. He swallowed.
“Your singing is - remarkably good,” he said evenly. “How old are you?”
“Thirteen. Treize ans. Last Monday. An ’orrible teenager, Matron says. She altered my cassock a bit. What do you think?”
He stood away from the console, into the loft, and spun round once, turning back to face Cochrane. Cochrane was unable to say what he thought. Matron knew her job: a perfect fit, the hem just breaking on his polished black shoes; trim at the waist, with an occasional glimpse of grey choir-school socks and bare knees wherever the cassock spread a little. The boy was reluctant to abandon the subject of his cassock. “See, she took it in at the waist. Don’t you think it’s a bit tight here, just sort of around my bum?”
Unexpectedly he came across, picked up one of Cochrane’s hands and placed it where he claimed the tightness was. “How does it feel to you?’ he asked. Cochrane’s heart was beginning to do somersaults inside his chest. He allowed his hand to slide over the material and the tight, rounded form beneath it. But then something odd about the ease with which the material slid over the young body made him catch his breath. He dropped his hand and looked the boy full in the face.
“Just exactly what are you wearing under that thing?” he asked sharply.
“Well . . . shoes, my school socks and . . . well, just my shoes and socks.”
“I thought so! Good heavens, boy, if the Dean were to . . . What’s the idea, anyhow?”
The boy continued looking down. He blushed a little.
“Did the other boys put you up to this?” Cochrane asked.
The youngster nodded. “It was . . . a kind of a dare. They said that, well, every boy in the choir had to go at least once into the Cathedral with his cassock on but ... quite bare underneath.”
Cochrane knew most of the small-boy machismo games; this particular rite was usually carried out at choral Evensong - and in summer. It was not, in fact, particularly risky, with the nearest observers a good fifty yards distant, and the cassock buttons at decent two-inch intervals.
“But why now?” Cochrane asked. “I mean, it probably doesn’t even count, without a congregation.”
The boy toyed with the music. His colour deepened a bit, then he said, “It’s . . . well, it wasn’t only that. My friend told me . . .” He hesitated and bit his lip. “Well, he said that you liked some boys rather . . . rather a lot, and I wanted you to . . . well, you’ve never noticed me much, so . . .” Thoroughly confused, the boy broke off.
Cochrane sat up straight and coloured. “That’s . . . impertinent!” he said. God, what these choir boys knew! Were such innocenti capable of - of what, for heaven’s sake? Jealousy?
The boy’s eyes were filling. I’m . . . I’m sorry,” he stammered. “I didn’t think you’d mind. I didn’t think you’d be so angry, really I didn’t.”
You hurtful bastard, Cochrane thought suddenly. He extended an arm and said softly, “Come here.”
He couldn’t see whether the brimming eyes spilled, but when the boy threw himself into a hug, the cheek pressed hard against his own was definitely damp. He moved his hand gently to and fro, up and down, over the boy’s smooth body, tormented almost beyond endurance by the thought of the peach-blossom complexion of the boy’s face and neck extending unbroken inside the cassock just a fraction of a millimetre from his touch. Since the forty days in the wilderness, was ever mortal man so tempted, so provoked? Cochrane’s fingers found a button, undid it, sought another . . .
“You really aren’t wearing anything beneath?” Cochrane said, feigning disbelief while his hand continued to explore, to open the sky-blue material. The boy persisted in his hug, remaining motionless except for a few pleasurable wriggles.
“Best take my cassock right off,” said the boy. “That would be better still.”
“Good heavens, not out here!”
“I’d like you to.”
Suddenly in the nave something creaked. Cochrane dropped his hand and sat rigid. “Don’t tell me this silly joke is still going on,” he said sharply. “Is that one of your friends lurking down there?”
“Of course not!” The boy flushed indignantly. “What do you think of me?”
“Perhaps we’d better go back to the allegro ma non troppo.’
But the boy was suddenly in high spirits. He skipped round the organ loft, flinging his arms about. “I say, on Sunday at Evensong, I’llcome in wearing just my cassock, exactly as I am now — I’ll sing the Stanford perfectly and then I’ll come out and do a handstand in the aisle. Several handstands, I’m good at them. Look — I’ll show you.”
“No . . . for heaven’s sake!” Cochrane grabbed the boy’s arm. His own excitement had become near-uncontainable. One handstand, only one, would be the point of no return. And that mustn’t be now - not so soon. And not here!
The boy gave him a look of understanding, then came and perched on the edge of the organ stool, refastening his cassock buttons.
“Can I stay for a while if we just talk, then?”
“I would raise no objection to that,” Cochrane said drily. His heart rate and blood pressure dropped a little. He began to fold up his music.
For a little while the boy sat silently beside him, swinging his legs. “I know a great deal about the Cathedral,” he said at length rather mysteriously.
“I don’t doubt it. Choir school gossip has a lot to answer for.”
The boy shook his head gently and half-smiled. He pointed over the loft-rail, down to where the white tombs were just perceptible in the shadows.
“Oh, that!” Cochrane laughed. “Well, don’t let the older kids scare you with it. We’ve had the ghost hunters on and off for years – tape recorders, the lot. Nothing’s ever been seen, of course. What is it they say? Every year on the anniversary of the tragedy, isn’t it? Or has the story changed now?”
The boy smiled again. “I’m not scared.” He moved over to the corner of the loft, raised himself on his hand a little and perched on the edge of the rail. “The inscription reads: Sacred to the memory of Nicholas Blair. Born 1869, died 1882. Beloved chorister. It was from exactly here that he fell, you know.”
Cochrane sprang up and clutched at a cossack sleeve. “Get off that edge! Are you insane?”
“It’s okay.” The boy eluded him nimbly and moved to the other end of the loft, just outside the circle of lamplight.
“How do you come to know so much?” Cochrane demanded. “You can’t have been here all that long.”
“Long enough,” the boy said carelessly.
Cochrane tried to read his expression but the boy’s face was too much in shadow. He blinked a little. “What’s your name, anyway?”
“Nicky. Short for Nicholas. What’s yours?”
Cochrane started. “What do you mean, what’s mine? I’m . . . I’m your . . .” At once something rose and exploded inside him: realisation, shock, disbelief or simply the trace of some nameless, primitive terror. It took the power from his limbs and he sat down abruptly on the stool, his music sliding to the floor.
Then he asked very quietly, “Nicky . . . Nicholas who?”
The boy answered equally quietly, almost in a whisper, “Guess.”
Cochrane didn’t. He couldn’t. It was crazy . . . The boy’s long hair, styled, slightly out of fashion, the occasional archaic turn of phrase, even the uncanny, ethereal nature of his beauty, the fact that Cochrane had never even noticed the boy before . . .
“You can’t,” Cochrane began. “You can’t be . . . Him? There aren’t such things!”
“If you say so. Sir.” The boy came out of the deeper shadows, into the lamp’s penumbra where a stray lock or two glowed like molten silver. Cochrane looked at him for a long time, then slowly bent and picked up his scattered music. Real or unreal, ghost or cherub, a thing that looked like that could never be evil, could never hurt. And yet . . .
“Ghosts don’t have grubby fingers,” he said suddenly. “And, what’s more, I actually touched you.”
“I’ve come a long way,” said the boy enigmatically. “And you didn’t touch me, you know. You just thought you did.” He smiled faintly. “That was all.”
“That can’t be true. Come here.” Cochrane rose and moved towards him, but the boy circled in the half-darkness and slipped away, a reflection, an image in glass. Now he was on the other side of the loft, almost in the full light, where Cochrane had seen him first - blond locks drooping across his gentle features and touching the clean white ruff, one hand resting on the edge of the loft-rail and other carefully holding his leather-bound copy of the Stanford Evensong.
“I can’t,” the boy said softly. “Please don’t try to make me. It’s all different now.”
Cochrane sat down abruptly. “It’s not fair,” he burst out.
The boy shrugged. “Why worry? You didn’t notice me before tonight, so you won’t miss me now, will you? I have to go soon, you know.”
“It’s just not fair,” Cochrane repeated. “And I have known you before tonight - oh, for many lonely years - ever since I was a boy. But I might have expected you wouldn’t be real. You’re just another dream,”
“I’m not quite a dream,” the boy said with a hint of hurt feelings. “Ghosts come into a slightly different category.”
“Oh, please don’t lecture me! Tease me, torment me if you must, but don’t give me a bloody seminar!”
The boy shimmered. Cochrane blinked and the image re-adjusted itself. He held an arm out and said, 'Stay with me - for a little while, at any rate. I won’t try to come near you. I promise.”
The boy shook his head. “I can’t. You don’t understand. I must go.”
“Will you come back? Soon? Please, Nicky!”
“No. Not soon - maybe never.”
Could a ghost cry? Cochrane was uncertain whether the brightness he saw on the boy’s cheek was no more than a trick of the light.
“But are you quite powerless?” pleaded Cochrane. “Have you, whatever you are, no choice, no freewill?”
“I can do one thing. I will write a message for you to read when I am gone; that’s all.”
“I don’t want a damned message; I want you!”
“Put a paper and pencil on the edge of the stool, then move away against the loft rail and don’t come any closer.”
Cochrane did as he was told; the boy took the pencil and paper and retreated again. Cochrane picked the music off the floor and started mechanically marking bar after bar until he found he could no longer see what he was doing, and then he realised he was shaking with harsh, wet sobs, crying for all the years of loneliness, for one more loss, one more never-to-be far greater than all the others. He heard a pencil drop on the stool, the rustle of a cassock and unexpectedly - or was it his imagination again - felt two delicate lips pressed for an instant against his cheek. But he didn’t look up, knowing that the loft would be empty. At last his tears stopped and his fingers found the boy’s note. He had at least that, if, indeed, it wasn’t just another cruel joke. He picked it up and smoothed it out on the music desk under the light and read what was written in a round, boyish hand: