The night sky arrived, as quietly as usual, so Tom lay back and looked at it. The effects of stargazing were always the same: calming, perspective-lending, and slightly giddy-making. It helped that he was lying on a slope after a hard day with the first pulsings of an erection.
This was his first time. There were eight of them on the hill, having gathered over the previous hour. Tom, at 23, was one of the youngest. He had walked over with Rupert, one of the eldest at 55. Rupert must've known this was a forlorn trudge, though his spirits were reasonably afloat.
The others were spread evenly through the age range between 20 and 60. Tom nodded to some, wasn't over-friendly with others. He'd heard in the past there were occasionally fights, but tonight the atmosphere was placid: most of them had been working 18 hour days in the fields for weeks now. Tom was a shepherd, and had covered what felt like half the country in the last week alone.
Someone whistled a short, fast, lilting tune, and one or two others joined in, though it was a new one on Tom. Someone else groaned and slipped out his penis, which looked to be sniffing the air and relishing what it detected. Some of them laughed at the sight, others - the older ones, like Rupert - were reflexively offended at the sight. No one told him to put it away, but he soon did himself anyway. Most, like Tom, tried to relax. He didn't know exactly why, but he felt happy more than anything else. It might've been the blind confidence of youth, but he was firmly of the opinion that this was a good time to be alive.
It was one of Rupert's foibles that he was of the opposite opinion, yet talked about the harshness of his young life, in the time before, with an almost tearful nostalgia. Tom only saw Rupert a few times a year, so he didn't mind hearing it too much. Some of the others, though, were seen to be inching their backsides out of earshot.
"Used to be a lot different," Rupert began, as he normally did.
"Mmm," nodded Tom, a sound of assumed agreement that was usually taken as a sign of unnecessary encouragement.
"We used to go to clubs," Rupert said. "Open half the night. Overpriced alcohol. Music that shook your bones till they came loose. Some fights sometimes."
Tom had heard this before, and been expecting it that night, but it tended to catch his imagination, this one. He pictured these places as dark barns (he couldn't quite get the lights Rupert sometimes described) full of serious people going through jerky dancing motions as part of an unnatural ritual with no certain outcome. Rupert seemed to be saying, in his torturous way, that a good time could be had in these places. It was virtually impossible to put yourself back in those times, but Tom tried it whenever Rupert mentioned these clubs (or the football stadiums), and he couldn't see how he could enjoy himself. A lot of that, of course, had to do with the women.
"They were always in packs back then," Rupert said. He shook his head. "You were shit-scared."
Tom had heard that women back then painted their faces in some kind of warrior fashion, accentuating the eyes and the lips, and then walked round with only scraps of clothing on, accentuating the legs and the breasts, and sometimes even the pudenda. While in theory this sounded quite pleasurable, Tom knew that a few seconds of the reality would have his testicles retreating into his body.
"That's why club owners made so much profit from drink," Rupert said. "You had to empty half the liquid in the place just to get some nerve up."
This was where Tom knew he would've struggled: he would've kept putting off the approach, taking one more drink, until he was beyond functioning. That would've been, probably, worse than the rejection. For rejection, by all accounts, was unavoidable.
"They didn't all laugh at you," Rupert conceded. "Some genuinely didn't want to be with anyone, not just you. It was just a place to go for a night out with their friends. Some others would have boyfriends - long term people. Then again, some did just take one look at you and think, who's this ugly fucker?"
Tom laughed, though he was distracted. He was wondering how he would have fared, had he managed to imbibe the right, emboldening amount. He knew he wasn't ugly. His physique was as good as anyone's, though back then there wasn't the work to develop it and most people had been flabby. His conversation, admittedly, wasn't great, since he spent most of his working hours talking to the dogs, but if he'd had a job that required it, he was sure he would manage. If the music had been as loud as Rupert claimed, what good would conversation have been anyway?
"It was walking across to them," Rupert said. "That was the killer. Never known fear like it. Walking back, by yourself, wasn't even as bad, funnily enough. It worked out for some people, have to admit. They paired off. But as a percentage... not very good odds. Still, we were there, usually twice a week."
Tom always laughed at that part. For him, once a month would've been more than enough.
It was almost time now, so Rupert quieted down. The others weren't talking much either, were sitting up straighter, staring down at the house and calling on their willpower and their superstitions. Each of them had a scrap of paper with a number on it, and though it was long-memorised, most of them shot nervy looks at it when they weren't watching the house.
Tom was number 7. He also couldn't stop from looking at it, just to check, to confirm. It was also the time now to glance hotly at the other men: none of them had better blue eyes than he did, none of them had a more shapely backside, none of them looked as good as he did, sitting there.
A yellow light came on in one of the windows, and a ripple of attention passed through them. No one even tried to appear nonchalant. A couple of men whistled their upbeat melodies again, as if the night air would carry them that far. Maybe it would. The one who'd taken out his penis earlier did so again, though it wasn't such a proud showing this time, and probably a bad idea anyway; there were always one or two men who did things to deliberately disqualify themselves, and these would be the ones complaining the loudest afterwards.
The light started to flash, very slowly. It was only a piece of card held in front of a lantern, but that was all it needed to be. It wasn't considered manly to count along with it, and it couldn't quite be done satirically. Each new flash got rid of someone, and they all took it differently. Some sighed, some swore viciously, some pounded back home immediately; some were relieved.
Some hardly reacted at all and stayed serenely where they were, waiting to see who it would be. Rupert was one of these. His number was 4, and when the 5th flash came, he nodded, shrugged, absorbed it. He looked across to Tom, and winked a good luck wink.
At the 6th flash, someone kicked up his legs, rolling onto his back up the hill, before gravity slammed his legs back down and he cursed good-naturedly.
The 7th flash came, and Tom was breathing in tiny ripples. He was almost wincing, almost squinting. There was no regular interval between the flashes, so it was doubly impossible for the one concerned to judge them, but everyone else seemed aware of the moment when the next flash was going to come, or not.
"Could be it," someone said.
"Looks like it," said Rupert, through a smile.
Most of them got to their feet, Rupert included. Tom stayed sitting for a while, blinking and dazed, blushing and smiling, feeling younger than was good for him. The ribald comments started to come out now, so he stood up, not wanting too many of them to sully the occasion. They shook his hand. Rupert clapped him on the back without saying anything, as though moved. Tom started on his way down the hill.
There were rumours, idiotic ones for the most part, about the perils of the walk to the house. Some said there were monsters, distorted hybrids left over from the time before; others, slightly more credible, said that the rejected men, the broken-hearted, had let their sadness spill over into bitterness and transform them into little better than merciless brigands who would horribly mutilate anyone skipping lightly down there.
Tom believed none of this, but there were two types of nervousness on his walk, and the one to do with bodily harm, rather than bodily shame, predominated for a little while. He even had visions of himself falling and breaking a leg, and being too embarrassed to call for help in either direction.
There was a stream at the bottom of the hill, and it was said you had to negotiate it as carefully as possible, since wet feet trailing into the house were frowned upon. There'd been mild rain earlier in the day, and while Tom couldn't see very well, he could hear, and the stream seemed to be gurgling merrily rather than frothing at the mouth. They said it was jumpable if in a becalmed state, but they would say that. Tom decided to risk it, but slipped out of his footwear first. He made it easily, and accepted this as a good omen.
Within a few feet, there was enough light coming from the house for him to check that his hands were clean. He patted his self-cut hair and ran a hand over his cheeks and around his mouth - the bristles were just long enough to be soft. Rupert had told him that this was a popular look from the time before; one of the few traits from back then that Tom thought well of.
There was the urge, when he reached the house, to walk round it a few times, taking deep breaths, but he expected he was being watched and judged on things like that. "Faint heart never won fair maiden" didn't count for much anymore, but even so. He knocked three times on the door, trying to make them sound firm, but not authoritative.
There was a pause, best characterised as elegant, before it opened. She was still doing things to her hair, had a mouthful of pins, so just nodded at him to come in. He remembered to wipe his feet.
It put him at ease, at least a little. He said his name, and held out a hand. She was amused by that, and busy with her hair, but she took it, briefly. She didn't tell him her name. He thought she was maybe five years older than him, wearing a silver slip and a red shawl over her shoulders. She had brown hair and brown eyes and pale skin.
She nodded to a table in the middle of the room, where there was a glass of wine waiting for him, as well as two sheets of paper and a pencil. One sheet was a list of household expenses he was supposed to tot up, and the other was full of jumbled sentences he was supposed to rearrange into something that made sense.
She bustled round while he did so, having a glass of wine herself. The reckoning up he had no difficulty with, since he'd always had a head for figures, but the sentences grew more complex as he worked his through them, and the final two, frankly, he guessed at.
"Okay," he said when he'd finished, putting the pencil down, pushing the sheets away, and only now taking up the glass of wine.
She was sitting watching him by this time, and she pushed herself up and came over lazily. She didn't bother to pick the papers up, just angled her neck and looked down at them on the table. "Good," she said quietly over the sums. With the sentences, she pointed out reasonably where he'd gone wrong. She told him not to worry. "You've done much better than most do," she said. She smiled for the first time.
"Thank you," he said.
"Come through," she told him.
They came for him the next day, when he was in the fields, still daydreaming and smiling to himself. Her name was Kerry, she'd told him before he'd left the night before. A couple of others were with her. They told him he'd won through; he could come with them, to the cities. He sank to his haunches and almost cried. When he asked if he could take the dogs, and they said yes, he did cry.
He knew it had gone well. Afterwards, they had even had a joke or two, and she had laughed beautifully. It was an endless span of time since he'd heard a woman laugh like that. His performance, he was assured, after some minute direction, had been a lot better than adequate, not even close to disappointing. It boded well, though she had stopped short of saying that.
That might well have been enough to get him through, but what clinched it, they said, was how he comported himself after he left the house. He'd only been there an hour, and was meant to head back to the tavern, where the men would be, expectant. He had to admit, he'd been looking forward to that part of it. He was, not unnaturally, full of himself. Drinks would be bought for him. They'd see in the dawn.
When he got to the tavern, he almost didn't go in; he paused with his hand on the door. Something was leaving him, like a handkerchief pulled from a pocket. He could hear them and smell them, and all at once, and with considerable weight, it seemed a disappointing way to cap the evening. He did go in, eventually, since to miss it would be tantamount to an insult, but his mind was made up on other points.
He took the drinks as long as they were being bought for him, which turned out not to be long. It was practically unheard of for the chosen ones not to splurge every anatomical detail they could remember or invent, but at least half of the men present saw the look on his face and knew that he would be different.
He used only soft words like "beautiful" when they asked how it had been, and "delicate" when they asked what her touch had been like. Eyes had bugged out at him, waiting for the punchline, which should've been a torrent of gynecology, and then the eyes started to harden. They asked explicitly - because by now it was clear it wasn't going to come out - what she had been like between her legs. He only said, "Heavenly."
Tom didn't care. They had imaginations, they could use them. Rupert was there, and while he kept out of the questioning and the hostility it gave rise to, he didn't look overjoyed by Tom's tactics either: he wasn't averse to hearing some of the gory details, as he put it. Tom found there was no hardship in letting Rupert down. Tom was the first to leave, to a silence broken only by an insult before the door had closed properly behind him.
The next evening, he sought out Rupert to tell him he was leaving. Rupert was brief with him, wouldn't look him in the eye; he shook his hand and made a token gesture at communicating his good wishes for the future. Tom was bewildered, but then found he would probably have to get used to it. It wasn't too bad, having people feel that way about you, for that reason.
All the way there, Kerry held his hand.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Barrie Darke. All rights reserved.