Chapter two: Many meetings
"Come in," she called, when he knocked at her door. "It's unlocked."
Bran turned the handle. Jane was already rising to greet him. "It is you." She came towards him, flapping her hands awkwardly. "I never know what to do with my hands. Shaking hands seems so stupidly grown-up, but hugging… I wasn't brought up to do that. But you have to do something, don't you?"
"Say hello?" Bran offered. "Say it's good to see you?"
"Yes." Jane gestured to the second chair in her room. "Sit down, if you like. Do you want coffee?"
Bran settled down in the chair. It was not quite as uncomfortable as the one in his room. "Yes, please."
Jane went to the sink to fill the kettle. "It's strange, isn't it?" she said. "I've never had to do this hostess thing. Mum always did that. But suddenly we're out in the big, wide world. We have to do all the polite things that our parents always used to do."
Bran smiled. "No need to be polite with me."
Jane picked up a mug, and peered into it. Wrinkling her nose, she went back to the sink to wash it. "You know, I've never drunk so much coffee in my life," she said, over the noise of running water and the steadily-growing rumble of the kettle. "I don't even like it much. I think it must be standard student getting-to-know-you ritual. 'Do you want to come round for coffee?' I think coffee must be coming out of my ears by now."
"And red wine, the cheapest in the shop" Bran added. "Have you had that yet?"
"And the milk." Jane opened her window and grabbed the half-empty carton of milk that was perching precariously on her windowsill. "Everyone does it," she admitted sheepishly. "I don't really know why. It keeps it cold in the winter, I suppose, but it's still quite warm, and I get full afternoon sun on my windowsill." She giggled. "I wonder if anyone's milk has ever fallen off and landed on someone's head."
"Jane," Bran said, when she had handed him the steaming mug of coffee. "Jane," he said again, when she had settled herself down in her chair, "you don't have to be nervous of me."
She looked at him seriously. "But I do. This is the first time I've really met you, after all. All those letters…"
"All those letters were me," Bran said. "All those letters were you. There's no reason why it should be any different, now we're face to face."
"But there is." Jane picked up her mug in both hands, and blew over the top of the liquid. "I'm better in writing than in real life. I don't find all this easy."
"No-one does," Bran said. "And you're doing yourself a disservice, Jane. Remember all those boys who were queuing up to go out with you at school? All those friends? Head girl, no less. Now why on earth would you think I wouldn't want to spend time with you?"
They had learnt honesty through the long years of their correspondence. At first, there had been Will, and Jane had just been someone Bran occasionally wrote letters to, but after Will had left, there had only been Jane. Bran had talked to her about almost everything. Only one thing had he kept a secret.
"I'm just nervous," Jane admitted. "Your letters have meant so much to me. I was terrified that we wouldn't get on in real life, and it would ruin everything."
Bran couldn't remember quite why he and Jane had started to exchange letters. It had come out of that Welsh holiday six years ago, when he had spent a few days with her family, and with Will. Bran had thought her pretty, he remembered that. She had listened to him seriously when he had started to talk about things he did not normally talk about, and they had exchanged addresses.
For a few years, it was just occasional notes at Christmas and on birthdays, but the letters had grown longer the year they were fifteen. Jane had just started going out with her first boyfriend, and she wrote rather tentatively to Bran, as if she feared he would be jealous. Bran had considered things very briefly, and realised that he was not jealous at all, and it had grown from there. Jane, he thought, liked having a safe male friend she could confide in. As for him, writing to Jane went some way towards filling the gap in his life after Will stopped visiting. Everyone needed someone to confide in, after all.
"I know what you mean," he admitted. Perhaps he would even have been nervous himself, had he not met Will earlier in the day. With Will he was terrified and giddy, excited and calm. With Jane, it felt like taking up quietly with an old friend, and slotting in, knowing that nothing could go wrong.
Jane took a sip of her coffee, and laid it down with a grimace. "See what I mean? I never liked coffee. But I have to practice if I'm to be a proper student."
"No need," Bran said. "If you want to drink orange squash and Horlicks, just do it. People try too hard to fit in. If other people don't like what you do, then that's their problem."
"I was joking." Jane pushed her hair back, smirking. "I just wanted to know if you were like that in real life, too – taking things too seriously, I mean."
"I'm not," Bran protested. That was Will. Will was the one who be desperately earnest even in the face of the funniest joke in the world. Bran wasn't…
"And that's the face!" Jane cried triumphantly. "That's the face I always imagined you doing, when I teased you in my letters."
Bran wondered if he should sulk. He was not used to being teased.
"I'm sorry." Jane looked a little contrite, but a smile was still trying to escape from the sides of her mouth. "I'll do the polite hostess things again. How are you settling into Oxford?"
"Fine so far," Bran said. He looked down into his coffee, at the fractured refection staring back at him. He looked at his pale hands on the mug, and then at the worn carpet at his feet. "Do you remember Will?" he blurted out. "Will Stanton? He used to visit his uncle, and he was there when you… when we…"
"Of course I remember Will." Jane smiled. "A quiet boy. Simon never liked him, but I rather did. We bumped into him in Cornwall once, too, and then in Wales, with you. It was one of those strange coincidence things."
Bran's coffee started to quiver. He put it down carefully on the scraped coffee table. "He's here. At Merton. I saw him today."
"Really?" Jane said. "That's nice. I'd like to meet him one day, for old times' sake."
"Yes," Bran echoed. "For old times' sake."
He had never told Jane about Will; that was his secret. In all their letters, he had never breathed a word. He had no idea why. When Will had gone home for the very last time, Bran had several times almost written to Jane about him, but every time had thrown the letter away, unsent. Perhaps he had thought that Jane would be jealous. Perhaps, at first, he had kept silent because he was jealous, afraid that Jane would prefer Will to him. Maybe it was because he did not care. Maybe it was because he cared too much. He did not know, but now he spoke.
"We met a few times," he said tentatively, "over the years, but not for a while now. This was the first time we’ve met for three years."
But Jane was already moving on. "So, is anyone at your College particularly handsome?" She rolled the words, and rolled her eyes. "Anyone you'd like to introduce to us poor souls in our all-girl College?"
"You said you'd chosen St Hilda's deliberately," Bran reminded her. "What was it you said? Something about far too long spent sharing a house with two teenage boys, and having to endure their Neanderthal friends following you around with their tongues hanging out."
"Yes," Jane conceded, "but I'm not asking for myself, but for my friends, the poor things.
"I'll keep an eye open, then," Bran promised, with a laugh, and they settled down to talk through the night.
He was supposed to be writing an essay, but his pen had been poised for minutes, lost somewhere between a 'however' and a phrase. He was gazing out of the window, at things beyond the blurred veil of a day's rain. Everything was distorted. Life shattered, and the shards melted into nothingness, all one grey.
The knock at his door made him raise his head. He tried to speak, but his lips shaped no sound. He cleared his throat, and tried again. "Come in."
The door opened. It was Bran. Will's pen drew a shaky line on the paper. He placed it down carefully, and smiled. "How did you find me?"
"I asked someone." Bran shut the door, and leant against it, hands behind his back. "A girl scurrying earnestly off to the library. She asked me if I wanted to join the History Society."
"Ah. Emily." Will grimaced. "Did you say yes?"
"I said I'd think about it. I said that to everyone. There's so many things you can join – rooms and rooms of stalls at Freshers' Fair. How on earth do you decide?" Bran seemed to hesitate just for a moment, before asking, "Are you in any of them?"
Rain smeared the window, a curtain against the world. Nothing existed but the two of them, in this little room. Bran's hair was dry, as if he had stepped in from another world, and the reality outside the window had nothing to do with him.
"No," Will said. "I didn't join anything." He swallowed, and gestured to the solitary comfortable chair in the room. "Do you want to sit down?"
Bran did so. A brown leaf was stuck to the side of his shoe. Dark puddles had splashed the hems of his trousers, and his hands looked pale and cold. "I don't want to do drama," Bran said. "I can't sing. Maybe I should start protesting against something, and go on marches. That's what students are supposed to do, isn't it? But I feel like joining something really silly, like the Monty Python Society, or something."
Will raised his eyebrow. "Dead parrots?"
"King Arthur and the Knights Who Say Ni," Bran chuckled, and Will had to look away, because it hurt, to hear Bran so casually speak the name of the man who was his father. Bran had lost so much, and would never know it.
"But I'm interrupting you," Bran said. His voice was different now, flatter. "You're trying to work."
"It can wait," Will assured him. Things unseen called to him from the grey beyond the veil of rain. He turned his back on them, to focus on the here, on the now, on Bran. "Henry VII," he explained. "I've been day-dreaming. I haven't written a word for a good ten minutes." He stood up, and went to sit on the bed. "So, how are you settling in?"
"It's a bit overwhelming," Bran admitted. "I had my first tutorial. Now that wasn't what I was expecting. We debated for an hour, before deciding that I knew nothing whatsoever about the Anglo-Saxons. Then he gave me an essay title that I didn't understand, and a terrifying book list, and that's it. I've got to read the books, write the essay, and report back in a week, when he can reveal that I now know a little bit more about the Anglo-Saxons, but nothing at all about the Vikings."
"And the libraries," Bran exclaimed. "I've spent half the week working out where all the libraries are and getting tickets. There's my College library – that's easy enough. Then the History Faculty library, and the Bodleian… Before they let me in, they made me swear a solemn oath not to kindle flame in the library, and in Latin, too."
"Not in Latin, Bran," Will said, with a smile. "Remember I went through all this only a year ago, not a century ago."
"Well, it may as well have been Latin," Bran said. "And there's all these words to learn. Sub-fusc. Battels. Why don't they just call them accounts, like normal people?"
"I don't know, Bran." Will was still smiling.
Bran let out a breath. "Will…" He closed his eyes, opened them again. Will had been moving his hand, bringing it up to rub his brow, but he froze. Very slowly, the hand lowered again, and he sat very still, hardly daring to breathe. "People say boys aren't supposed to talk about… well, about… about things. Feelings. Friendships. But that seems silly, don't you think? What's wrong with talking about things that are real? Why blunder on in confusion just because we're scared that people will laugh at us?"
"I…" Will moistened his lips. "I don't know what…"
"You stopped visiting three years ago." Bran's voice was low and quiet, but he was staring at the floor. "You said… You told me you wouldn't be coming any more, that you were going to get a job in the holidays and wouldn't have any more free time."
Will remembered to breathe. He could feel the greyness outside the window, dark and heavy, and a huge world outside, but this, within.
"Maybe it was true," Bran said. "I didn't know. I thought… Perhaps, I thought, you just didn't like me any more. Maybe you didn't want us to be friends any more, but didn't know how to tell me. Maybe you didn't dare tell me the truth, or maybe you wanted to protect me from it. For your sake, or for mine? I don't know."
No, Will thought. Oh no. Don't think that. Oh, please, don't think that. I wanted…
"But I decided something." Bran looked at Will for the first time. Will wondered what he was seeing. Someone mired in lies, who could not speak. Someone encased in greyness, caught in its encroaching grip. "I decided to believe you. I could have felt angry, I could have felt hurt, but I decided not to. I would act as if you had meant nothing more than you said – that you couldn't come and visit for a few years, because you had no time."
Will felt pinned in place. Oh, Bran, you deserved far better than me as a friend. I will never be worthy of you.
"And then I saw you," Bran said. His voice was almost bright. "I stood there and watched you for ages, that day we met in the garden. Oh, I know I pretended that I hadn't recognised you, but of course I had. I saw you, and…" His composure trembled, and he brought his hands to his face, exhaling into them, then lowered them again. "No-one likes to push themselves forward when they're not wanted. I almost turned and left. But I didn't."
Everything hung suspended on this moment. "Why not?" It was not even a sound, just a shape made with his lips.
"Because I wanted to believe that you told the truth," Bran said, looking straight at him. "And so I approached you, and talked to you. I came to see you today. But I won't do it again."
Will felt he was drowning; the fingers of rain reaching in and smothering him, locking him in the place where that distant voice called to him, and challenged him, and claimed him.
"I need the truth, Will," Bran said. "If you never want to see me again, you need to tell me. If you walk away a second time, I won't come back. I just need to know."
"What?" Still a breath without a sound.
"When you left last time, was it because you didn't want us to be friends any more?" Bran had been so brave, but now his voice trembled and he looked like the boy he had once been, desperate for a father's love. "Was it because you didn't like me?"
"No." Will found his voice. "It was never that, Bran – never that."
Bran let out a shuddering breath. "I won't talk about it again. I won't ask… why. It's enough." He passed his hand over his face, and shook himself. "There! Now, shall we go and have a drink, or what?"
Will nodded without even hearing what he was agreeing to. He rose in a daze, and headed out from the greyness, into a dusk that smelled of leaves and flowers.
"Beer?" Bran asked, reaching for his wallet. "Or something else?"
"Um… Beer, I think." Will looked a bit dazed. "I'll get it."
"No, no," Bran assured him. "It's my round. You can get the next one."
The drinks came, and they took them to their seats. Bran took a long swig, and sat back with a sigh. It had been far harder than he had expected, saying the things he had said in Will's room. It had been hard enough to visit him in the first place, although he had pretended that it was easy. Perhaps that was why he had chosen to call around unannounced. He had half-expected Will to be out. Perhaps he had even hoped it, a little.
Will sipped his beer almost tentatively. Bran watched him glance around the bar, nodding at a few people, and smiling at others. No-one wandered up to chat, but they seemed friendly enough.
Did he have a particular friend, Bran wondered suddenly. He took another swig of beer, to hide the reaction on his face. It had never occurred to him to wonder before now. But Will had been here for a year. He was not a newcomer, like Bran, with his life a blank canvas to be filled in any way he wished. He had a life. He had friends, with claims on him. Perhaps he even had a girlfriend.
Bran put his pint down. From the juke-box, a song started playing, something about loss and loneliness. It was a song for the end of a maudlin night, when the drink tore tears from the eyes of even the most cheerful.
"How…?" He did not know how to ask it. He had already asked far too much today. He had started every conversation, made every approach. Will had said that he wanted… Will had said…
"Have you had dinner?" Will asked.
"A snack," Bran said. "It was all I wanted. I've not done this formal dinner thing yet. It looks… strange. Not something for us humble Welsh boys from the mountains."
"The food's good here." Will stared into his pint. His hair was tousled from the breeze, and his cheeks were flushed. "Perhaps you'd like to come. Early supper, or formal… Or not."
"I'd like that." Bran smiled. The smile did not want to fade, so he took another drink to hide it.
"I didn't feel like going out," Will said. "I had toast. My Mum would hate to hear it. She was particularly concerned that I wasn't going to eat properly, and have three properly balanced meals, like a good boy."
The song swelled louder. The singer sounded as if his voice was cracking with tears, and violins joined the minor guitar. Bran tried not to think about the fact that he had no mother. He tried to forget that his father had sent him off with a few mumbled words, and nothing more. There was love there, he knew that, but it was never said. It was so different from how Bran had become. He liked to say those things that mattered, and to hear them said.
"How's your family?" Bran asked.
"You really want to hear a list?" Will smiled. "They're all well. They're out doing things. Studying, jobs, settling down. I think it hit Mum and Dad hard when James and I both left in the same year, but we all go back at Christmas, and I was there all summer. They'll never really be alone."
There was sadness there in his voice; Bran saw it. He saw it despite the smile that covered it. I wonder if anyone else would, he thought, unexpectedly.
The song ended. Someone else put on a lively song, with a chorus that demanded to be sung. "Thank God!" someone shouted. Bran saw toes tapping, but no-one joined in. It was too early in the evening. People were drinking, but not drunk. There were empty seats, though people were coming in all the time.
They spoke about history for a while, Will giving Bran hints and suggestions to help him settle in to the Oxford system. This led to story-telling, and soon they were reminiscing about the past. "Do you remember…?" Bran said often, and Will always nodded quietly, and said that he did. "And then I said… And then you said…," and sometimes Will smiled, and sometimes he shook his head indulgently, and said, "I never did, Bran", but Bran said that it was only a story, and pretended to sulk.
Will bought them both a second drink. The bar was full now, and they had to speak loudly to hear each other over the crowds and the music. Smoke hung thickly against the ceiling, and the windows were thick with steam. Empty glasses got taken away, and fresh ones were fetched. Still no-one came up to talk to Will, but several people nodded to him.
"Shall we go somewhere else?" Bran said impulsively, waggling his almost-empty pint. "Somewhere quieter – less studenty." He wrinkled his nose. "I bet it's going to be smoky here soon, too."
"If you like." Will drained his glass. When he stood up, he staggered a little. "Where?"
"I don't know." Bran held the door open for Will. It was no longer raining outside, although the ground was still covered with puddles, and muddy leaves were piled in wet drifts at the edges of the quad. "You're the one who's been here a year," Bran reminded him. "You should know the good places to drink."
Will took a few steps out of the sheltering arch, and stopped. He looked up at the sky, and Bran looked, too, the two of them standing side by side, gazing up. Clear patches floated in the grey cloud, dark blue and speckled with stars. "I really should learn their names one day," Bran murmured. "The stars, I mean. I saw enough of them in Wales. I knew them by shape, enough to get home by them, but I never knew their names."
"I know them," Will said quietly. "It doesn't help." The last was a whisper, almost too quiet to hear. Then he turned to Bran almost fiercely. "I don't know any good pubs," he said. "I've never been to any. That was my first time in the bar, too."
"Your first time?" Bran raised his eyebrows.
"You forget I was a year younger than everyone else." Will looked down at the ground. "I was too young to drink."
"Not that anyone would have known," Bran said. "A student, hanging out with students… No landlord in Oxford would refuse to serve you. And, besides, your birthday's in December. You were properly legal and above-board for two terms last year."
"But you need…" Will sighed, and started walking a little unsteadily in the wrong direction, away from the lodge.
"Have you ever had a drink before?" Bran asked, struck with a sudden thought.
"Not often," Will admitted. "A bit of wine at family parties. James took me out to the pub at New Year. He said it was the celebrate me being legal at last – a proper man. But that was with his friends from school. I only had a pint."
"Such an innocent." Bran nudged Will with his elbow. "I think I'm going to have to corrupt you to my debauched ways." Will did not laugh, and Bran felt himself blush, hidden in the darkness. "Not that there were many chances to drink back in the wilds of Wales, and my Da… I talked him into letting me do certain things, but he's still strict Chapel. I don't want you to get the wrong idea, Will. I was only teasing."
"I know." Will smiled, but he looked tired, distracted. "I don't mind. In fact, I…" He stopped. He was walking away from the lights and the people, towards the garden. He looked distracted – as if he was following someone's call, Bran thought, without really knowing it.
"Will…" Bran tried to grab Will's arm. At the same time, Will almost stumbled, and their shoulders collided, and their hands brushed. It burnt like fire; it froze like ice. Bran drew his hand away, as the stars looked down from the sky, trembling.
"I'm sorry." Will brought his hand to his brow. Bran watched the movement, watched the hand, watched the brown hair brushing the fingers. "I think I'm drunk. Two pints. A lightweight, I know, but I'm not used to it. I… shouldn't be." He lowered his hand. Bran watched that, too. "I can't be."
"Do you want to sit down quietly in the garden?" Bran asked gently. "The fresh air will help. Or we can go to your room. Let's forget about the pub, shall we?"
Will was quiet for a very long time. He's listening to something, Bran thought. Listening to something I can't hear. He shook his head. Maybe he, too, was more affected by the drink than he had thought. "I do need to go to the garden," Will murmured, "although I…"
He set off again, but this time his step was steady, with no sign of drink. Bran followed him. At one side of the garden, the path was well-lit, leading to a new block of student accommodation, but Will led him to the darker side, where the ancient wall overlooked the huge expanse of darkness that was the Meadow. They were completely alone. With every step, they sank deeper into the darkness, and Bran blinked, unable to see Will, unable to see even himself.
He did not like it. He was used to darkness in the mountain, but that was a safe darkness, where the hills held no terrors. This was darkness in a city of light. This was being alone in a place full of strangers.
"Will?" he said, his voice small. He had no idea where this fear had come from.
"I'm here." Will's voice was closer than Bran had expected. He imagined that he could feel Will's warmth. A shiver started at the nape of his neck, and thrilled deliciously down his spine. In the darkness, all alone…
"Jane's here," he blurted out, because he was afraid. He heard Will take a step away from him. Shapes were coming into view, and he saw the figure that was Will turn towards the wall, leaning forward, his hands pressed against the stone. He saw feathering at the edge of the figure, and knew that it was Will's hair, flapping in the breeze, longer than was fashionable. But like a statue, he thought, if it wasn't for that movement.
"You remember Jane?" Bran swallowed, clenched his fists at his side, unclenched them again. "She remembers you."
"I remember Jane." Will's voice seemed to come from a long way away. Perhaps the wind wanted to take it and carry it across the meadow, to anywhere but Bran.
"We've been writing to each other all these years," Bran said. "She's at St Hilda's." Not far over the meadow, beyond the gardens and the river. Her room overlooked the grass. If she leant out of her window, perhaps there would be no living things between her and Will, as he stood staring out into the night as if he was waiting for something, or for someone.
"We met up last Saturday," Bran said, "after I met you. Rob… I told you about Rob? He don't think he was pleased. I spent the night with her instead of going to the bar with him. We've not really spoken much since. He's finding other friends, which is good, really." He took a deep breath, closed his eyes. I'm prattling. He unclenched his hands, clenched them again. "But she'd like to meet you – Jane, I mean."
"That's good." Will turned round suddenly, his back to the wall. His face was a blank, hidden in the darkness. His voice was just words, with the soft mildness that, with Will, was a kind of mask, revealing nothing. "I'd like to see her, too, but now I want to go back. I've got a headache, but there's work to be done."
He started to walk back to the light, where voices and laughter sounded as students passed on their way with friends.
"But I enjoyed tonight." Will paused after a few steps. Bran still had not moved. Walking away… He saw Will shaded against the distant lights, and he was back in the darkness, left alone. "We'll do it again?"
"Of course." Bran followed him back to the point where their paths diverged. When they reached the light, he made sure that he was smiling.
End of chapter two
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