The original of this has gone missing too, so…
Ring in the New
“Wind’s getting up.” Jonty called, as he looked out of the sun lounge—or was it snow lounge?—window at scudding clouds, hounding the winter sun from the sky. “I never thought I’d find a place colder than Cambridge, short of the North Pole, but this is it.” He unraveled the cord to pull down the blinds.
“No, leave it, if you will. I like to see the snow over the water.” Orlando had to shout as well, to be heard over the wind and at a room’s remove. The house on the river belonged to Rex Prefontaine’s mother—she’d come here as a child for long hot summers spent on the waters or down at the beach. She let her family have the use of it, but people rarely came between Thanksgiving and the spring equinox. Only visitors from foreign shores, who’d find a Massachusetts winter a novelty, dared to set out for a sojourn over New Year.
“It’s fine for you to say ‘leave it’. You’re not standing in here, in a draught—you’re cosied up by the fire.” Still, Jonty left the blinds up. It had been a wonderful view out into the sunset, the last remnants of which still lingered on the horizon.
“Then put on a thicker jumper or a scarf or something.” Orlando got up from his chair and came over. As soon as he opened the internal door, the cold hit him afresh. “Ruddy Norah, it feels like the arctic in here. Come back into the lounge like a sensible boy. Look at the snow from there.”
Jonty, for once, obeyed his lover without a fight. “Do you think we’ll get a fresh fall today?”
“I think it likely, given the colour of that sky. We could be stranded.” Orlando didn’t seem too worried. “We have fuel and, so long as the well’s accessible, water. You might run out of chocolate, though.”
“I thought you said we’d always be able to get along the road to the general store. I quite enjoyed trudging up there this morning. So long as they’ve got chocolate I’ll be happy.” Jonty rubbed his hands before the fire’s glow. “And a telegraph, so we can keep home informed. Sorry, Mama, see you in April…”
“You seriously don’t think we’ll be here all winter, do you? I have lectures to give. As it is we’ll be cutting it fine with the liner getting in so close to term starting.” Orlando was starting to worry now.
“We should be fine. Should be. Mrs Prefontaine did say there was one winter when she was smaller when they’d had to resort to going out and shooting game to survive. Even great swathes of the river froze over and that’s tidal. The sea itself iced up at Scituate.”
“I think you’re making that up to frighten me.” Orlando poked the fire, arranging the logs more neatly and efficiently for burning. “And I was so looking forward to seeing in the New Year here. Just the two of us and not a bagpipe within earshot. Romantic.”
“I wonder how Mama and Papa are coping with Hogmanay without me?” Jonty sighed. This wasn’t just idle chat—he was clearly concerned that any Stewart New Year celebration without the youngest son present to enliven proceedings would be a dull and listless affair.
“Having a whale of a time. You mother will have less to worry over this year, without the constant anxiety that you’ve whipped your underwear off beneath your kilt.” Orlando stretched out, delighted with his fire construction skills. Not too fiercely hot or too timidly cool—just the right quantity of heat being emitted.
“I insist we sing Auld Lang Syne when the hour hand tips past the twelve.”
“I’ll grant you that. Although maybe we should sing it now?” It was just gone five o’clock, and the New Year would already have hit Sussex.
“No. Let’s lengthen the festivities—Papa would appreciate the idea of a Stewart representative extending the celebration over the global time zones. The sun never sets on Hogmanay and all that. Even though the sun seems to have given up here and it’s getting as black as your grandfather’s moustache outside.” Jonty snuggled down at his lover’s side. “I bet there’s not a person abroad out there now. Anyone with any sense is tucked up at home.”
“You don’t regret not staying on at Rex’s?” A pang of guilt clutched at Orlando’s heart—it had been his yearning to come out here to the cottage, once they’d been offered the chance. They could still change their minds and somehow make their way back the ten miles north to the Prefontaines’ palatial house, if Jonty felt so inclined.
“No. I had a lovely Christmas, even if the lack of mince pies—or anything else of a dried fruit nature—rather took the gilt off the gingerbread. Not that there was any of that, either. But I could do with some peace and quiet before we have to see the dunderheads again and I can’t imagine we’ll get that on board ship. Besides,” Jonty ran his fingers along his lover’s thigh, “we couldn’t have abused our host and hostess’s hospitality by flitting between rooms, could we? I’ve missed sleeping with you.”
Orlando brought his lover’s hand to his lips, tenderly kissing then stroking it. They’d not been able to do this at the Prefontaines’, even though the youngest son of the house would have been happy to let them indulge the love they enjoyed. They weren’t sure if his parents knew the real extent of the relationship—personal as well as business—Rex enjoyed with Matthew Ainslie.
And if they did know, and silently tolerated things, Jonty and Orlando wouldn’t have insulted their generous welcome with brazenly open displays of affection.
Even at the Stewarts’ home, where Orlando was welcomed as a son-in-law in everything but legality and where they’d been assigned an incredibly discreet valet who’d ignore shirts left in the ‘wrong’ bedroom, they wouldn’t be so insensitive as to wander along holding hands or snogging under the mistletoe.
It had even become a standing joke for Mr. Stewart to offer Orlando a sprig of the stuff to chase the kitchen maids with, even though he knew damn well that the opportunity would never be taken. At the very least it maintained the illusion for any other guests present.
But now no such deceptions or proprieties had to be observed. If they wanted to kiss or hold hands or anything else in front of the fire—sprawling on the floor as they’d done the very first time they’d had anything like sex—then they were free to do so, so long as they pulled down the blinds and left everything as they had found it. No evidence of their love except fond memories they’d keep forever and inane grins they’d wear for the next day.
“Come on!” Jonty suddenly leaped to his feet, sending Orlando sprawling and scattering his thoughts. “We can lounge here later. I want to make the most of the snow. While it’s crisp and even. Under the moon.” His voice had a wistful tone to it, so Orlando knew there’d be no protesting, even if he wanted to. The thought of donning layers of clothes and being out throwing snowballs, or just walking in the enchanting silvery light was too tempting to resist. And of course there’d be coming back afterwards, noses and ears raw with cold, and disrobing and having to warm up frozen appendages and… “Well, don’t take forever about it.”
“Sorry.” Orlando didn’t add, “I was just thinking”. He’d used that line too often before and been met with a barrage of abuse about his overthinking everything. Jonty could always find enough fuel for his sarcastic fires without heaping it up and handing it to him on a plate.
“It’s just so warm, being settled down here.” Orlando lifted his hand, for Jonty to take it and give him a tug. “Much obliged. Now, where’s my scarf?”
They resembled less two fellows of a fairly distinguished Cambridge college than two strange ursine or maybe apelike creatures, oversized and overfurred, cutting great swathes through the snow in boots padded with four pairs of socks.
“Sh.” Jonty lifted his hand, making Orlando stop in his tracks. They stood, listening to the unfamiliar sounds of winter wildlife west side of the Atlantic.
“What is it I’m supposed to be hearing?” Orlando had always had less instinctual appreciation for the wild, not least because he’d not been brought up in a family where hunting and fishing and nights spent out in gardens under the stars seemed de rigeur.
“Don’t use your ears. Use your eyes.” Jonty tipped his head towards a copse of trees, the bare branches stretched against the sky, silver and glittering with moonlight and rime. “Can you see it?”
Orlando focused on the top of a great tree, one of indeterminate species now that winter had robbed it of its leaves, the only way he knew of putting a name to these things. “I don’t…Ah…”
They stood transfixed, watching the great silvery brown shape resettle itself on a branch. An owl, the biggest specimen of the kind Orlando had ever seen, although perhaps exaggerated in size by the optically illusory effects of half light and his awe at such an unexpected sight.
“I wonder if he’s been hunting? Although what he can find in this weather beats me.” Jonty’s voice was barely above a whisper. “Surely any self respecting small animal would be hibernating? Or at least tucked up warm for the night?”
“Maybe he’ll have to live off short commons. Do they scavenge from dustbins or feed on carrion?”
“I have no idea. We need Dr. Panesar here, or some other person equally expert on the ways of the animal kingdom. I’m sure he makes his way through to spring. The owl, not Maurice Panesar. Sh!” Jonty grabbed his lover’s arm, encouraging him to become quiet, although—as usual—it wasn’t Orlando who was making any noise. The owl had launched himself, great wings spread against the pearly, moonlit clouds, soaring over them as big—in appearance if not in reality—as some great primeval pteranosaur.
“I feel truly honoured.” Orlando didn’t say more, nor did he expect an answer from his lover. They both knew how great the privilege had been to see such a sight. They walked on, not needing to hold hands or link arms to maintain a contact of mind and spirit, closer than many a courting couple who walked the lane arm in arm.
“We’re bloody lucky,” Jonty said at last, bestowing Orlando a glorious smile then walking on again, crunching the snow and supremely happy.
Of course they were lucky. Notwithstanding close encounters with murderers who seemed determined to include them in their killing sprees—or malicious letters or who knew what else—the last few years had been magnificent. Especially for Orlando. Poor, lonely, shy Orlando whose life had been greyer than the wintry skies—and just as cold and bleak—before the glorious sunshine of this son of Sussex had broken through, stealing his chair and his heart in the process.
His reverie was broken as the first snowball of the night flew through the air and caught him square between the shoulder blades. Missiles and insults rained for the next ten minutes until a truce was declared and peace broke out among laughter and a brief tentative hug, one that might have passed for bolstering up someone sliding on ice, should anyone have been passing by.
“Back to the cottage?” Jonty whispered. He didn’t need to elaborate on what the bland statement actually meant. Carnal activities in front of that fire, drinking in the New Year with champagne on stomachs full of contentment, hearts full of love and appetites for “anything else” satiated. Orlando picked up his pace, keen to be back indoors before the magic of the moment was lost.
They laid a couple of rugs on the wooden floor, banked down the fire to reduce the risks of stray sparks hitting anyone’s backside, shut all the blinds, got out the salve. Usual preparations mixed with novel, both of them keen to make the most of what might be a once in a lifetime chance—conditions at once brazen and secluded, novel and strangely familiar (echoes of that first time). Warm yet with snow piled at the door and the elements outside determined to spoil the party. No light but firelight. No warmth but burning logs and the ardour of two passions. No music but the wind buffeting the eaves. No power but a joint affection, shared and synergistic. And in the end, the glorious climax, no words more than a simple “I love you,” “I love you too,” more eloquent and apt than any sonnet.
“We’re late with our toast.” Jonty made to get up, but a restraining hand pulled him back into Orlando’s embrace.
“Compared to Sussex we’re already behind. It can wait a while longer.” The warmth of two bodies against each other wasn’t to be discarded so lightly. “Anyway, champagne will make me muzzy headed.”
“Then we should toast the New Year with cocoa and leave the champers for tomorrow. Or as a thank you for Mrs. Prefontaine.” Jonty laid his head on his lover’s chest, seeming now in no great hurry to move. “Happy New Year.”
“Happy New Year. I have a feeling it’ll be a good one.” Orlando caressed Jonty’s firelit hair.
“All our years together have been good ones.”
“You are too soppy for words.” Still, Orlando smiled, holding his lover close for as long as possible. Eventually Jonty wouldn’t be restrained any more. He rose, still in nothing more than the suit his maker had created, poured them each a tot of port, shivering and hopping against the cold, and brought the glasses back to the fire’s glow and the comfort of a blanket.
“We have to do this, or Mama will have our guts for garters. She’ll know. She always knows.” Jonty raised his glass to complete the proper observances. “To the year ahead.”
“Indeed.” Orlando raised his glass. “To 1914.”