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Soft Hands and No Bloody Trade

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Soft Hands and No Bloody Trade
by kel
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THANKS TO: Rie as always for beta, patience and the common sense I lack; and my James-Bolam-mad Mum for letting me stay up and watch Boat even though it was for grown-ups. *sigh* She�ll never forgive me for this .

NOTES: Although Billy states in "Roubles for the Promised Land" that (had he been of age) he would have gone to prison as a Conscientious Objector rather than serve with the RAMC, he qualifies it with "if I knew then what I know now". His views are explicitly linked to his time at university. As Billy changes considerably between "Fish" (1921) and "Roubles" (1924) Jack�s understanding of Billy�s position here is not necessarily erroneous.

DISCLAIMER: Not mine, no money made. Wouldn�t be fun if we got paid for it, now would it? Jack and Billy belong to the Beeb and the estate of the wonderful James Mitchell.

 

"The truth? All right, Mr Seaton. Him and his mate were just about blown to bits. When we dug them out -- what was left of them -- they had their arms around each other. Maybe they�d been kissing -- it was too late to tell for sure. If you ask me, that wouldn�t be a bad way to die."
-- Jack Ford, //A Land Fit for Heroes and Idiots//

 

Jack Ford had a long list of things he�d done right in his life, and another of times he�d done the right thing. And every now and then they�d converge.

Funny what it came down to, in the end. Fleeting decisions, instants in the making; not the sort of thing you remembered at all. Except the more he thought about it, the more Jack did remember. Every sense had its say in the matter; the taste of second-strength Tetleys, the white of artlessly rolled handmedown shirtsleeves against the fresh-scrubbed pine of the Seatons� kitchen table. Precious fifth-hand books, their cracked leather spines a beautiful weight in the hand, reveling in human dysfunction. Sandsoap and Mepo, the olfactory shout that starving we may be, but by God we have our pride.

A place for everything, and everything in its place, and pride of place for the unconsciously beautiful smile of a big shambling boy who�d never been to war. A boy who believed things could get better.

Jessie had left them alone, but it was Jack�s idea to ask Billy hiking. And Billy�s smile had stopped him wondering where the question came from.

Long day, that one. Nearly a week with no cloud, and in them days clear skies meant no money to spare. No beer for Bella, and no little extras to tide over the cost of her youngest home. But things would come right, they always did. Jack was optimistic. Top of the world, friendly and expansive. He could afford to be. Why not keep the lad amused, out from under his mother�s feet for a day? It�d stop him worrying about his exams.

Or anything else.

They�d only met a few times since Tom�s wedding, holidays here and there, but Jessie and Bella talked about Billy incessantly. Jack was family now; he couldn�t help but feel involved with their budding doctor, even without the creeping awareness of the affinity between them. For Billy was a college boy, scholarship boy, a miner�s lad kept by his working sister somewhere people like him weren�t wanted. With dreams, such dreams, of working for love somewhere he no longer belonged.

Stood to reason Billy was clouded round with things they didn�t see, things you�d expect to strike home and strike hard, but he never said a word. Jack wasn�t daft. Any fool could see the boy had problems he kept to himself. Not big problems, not like the miners. And mebbes not all that unique, either, but problems for all that. Doing what Billy did took a special kind of strength, right enough. Jack�s kind.

They�d both grown out of Gallowshield.

They�d not be short of things to talk about, he�d told himself. And he might as well have company on the recce. Company was cover.

Billy was an easy companion. When God was sanding down the Seaton kids, he gave the bookends the brains. Poor Tom, he�d never be nothing when it came right down to it. Boss fodder, feeding and breeding, that was his lot, and only a fool would waste time expecting more. But Jessie and Billy were something else. They�d change the world, see if they didn�t. Whether it liked it or not.

Tom had inherited the family looks by way of compensation, not that that got you far in Gallowshield. They weren�t inconsiderable. Bella had been bonny in her day; you had to look to see it now, but once you knew it was there, it shone. And thirty years down-by had etched her husband with a hard, graven beauty all his own; laid it over a deep and private sensuality he thought only Bella ever saw. Handsome to start with, age and privation rendered him magnetic. Tom, with his curls and smiles and pitman�s arms, would probably expect to go the same way. Jack thought it unlikely. Tom hadn�t the forgiveness or the backbone to age well. He�d spoil himself with impotent, ineffectual dissatisfaction. Go to seed, go slack; no fire in him. Not like his da.

And fire made the others shine. Jessie would never be beautiful. Striking, yes; alive, intense, went without saying. But without that conviction, she�d pass for pretty at best. You had to listen to see her properly. But once you had, you�d not forget.

And Billy, well, Billy had fire too. And thick dark hair, like his sister�s; as rebellious and dissenting as its owner, a crazed, warm contrast to the sensible vests that kept him Bella�s little boy. The same dark and long-lashed eyes, the same deep earnestness that made you want to keep him safe and kick sense into him all at once. Jessie�s looks, her brains, and her politics too. Crusading and heartfelt; peas in a pod.

But Billy had Bella�s smile, and that made all the difference.

=== * ===

�It was a boss gave me them glasses. On the Somme, that was. Hit by shrapnel. Ten minutes later, he died in my arms.�
-- Jack Ford, //Fish in Woolly Jumpers//

 

They settled after some hours� walk at the top of a raised clearing, looking out over pastureland and a fast, untidy river. Billy, a little more out of breath than he�d have liked, collapsed gratefully against a fallen tree, laughing wryly at himself. Fully, amicably aware he was being reminded there were other forms of clever; Jack could see it in his eyes.

Sheltered from the breeze by weathered granite boulders, they talked for a while. Skirting politics and loyalties, as usual; Jack half-listening, watching rich men�s flocks in the distance and hoping Billy didn�t notice. He needn�t have worried. If, when, then: the boy was far too wrapped up in setting the world to rights. Jack found his enthusiasm, his absolute refusal to countenance the fact that it wasn�t in the nature of the world to change, as much a tonic as the walk itself.

Charming and frustrating. He�ll learn, thought Jack, as he did every time they talked; knowing he never would. Mentally marking out the fattest sheep, he wondered idly whether Billy realised that his parents prayed he�d turn his back and become a doctor to the bosses, somewhere clean and wealthy. Whether it kept him awake nights. Whether he�d give in.

The conversation turned, as it always did, to Jack�s place in the world; to his responsibilities as Billy saw them. It was flattering, in a way, hearing himself characterised, *recognised*, as intelligent, independent and organised, someone people wanted to be led by. Socialism, unions, what have you; all a bloody pipe dream. From each according to his abilities is fine by me, thought Jack; it�s the bit about me needs I have trouble with. I�ll tell you how much is enough, thank you, not no bugger else.

Sometimes he despaired of Jessie and her brother; limiting themselves wilfully and blindly, never thinking it through. Imagine never realising you could *join* the boss class. Imagine never *wanting* to.

He cut Billy short, eventually, for his own good; distracting him with sandwiches made from the booty of the last night raid. Perfect place for them, eaten in the fresh air amid the targets of the next. Better than Billy�d been fed in a while, he�d wager, the mutton all the sweeter for the unshared joke. They ate in companionable silence, Billy finishing first, and shyly taking up Jack�s field-glasses, turning the case over and over, tracing the embossed letters bright against the leather.

-- P J B Manners... What�s it stand for?

-- Never knew. Jack did his best to sound unconvincing. �- He were just plain Captain to me.

Smart boy, Billy Seaton; got the message and smiled.

-- Tom�s Mary�s Joe died on the Somme. Like your ...Captain.
-- Aye. Same shellburst.
-- Got Harry Flynn an�all, didn�t it?

It wasn�t the question Jack was expecting. Wasn�t the question the words said it was, come to that. Jack kept watching the sheep, kept his voice even.

-- There�s precious few didn�t serve with him know that name round here.

Good lad, Harry; Joe Routledge�s fancy man. Durham boy, son of a clerk and clerk to be, died screaming at twenty in a Flanders field. From the corner of his eye he saw Billy look up, look hard at him.

-- He wrote to me. Joe, I mean.
-- Friend of yours?

It took Billy a long time to answer. Just like Jessie, never learned to lie.

-- Yes and no. We knocked around together for a while, but he was more Tom�s age than mine.
-- Sounds like an excuse to me.

Billy didn�t meet his eyes.

-- Da didn�t reckon him for much.
-- Not college material?
-- Something like that. You know.
-- Can�t say as I do.
-- He said... Joe said Harry was good to him.

And by, but there was a question after all. Funny how Billy�s �r�s softened when he was angry, or sorrowful. Funny the way he got tight-shouldered, like Tom when he talked about Mary�s TB.

-- They died kissin�, bonny lad.
-- Good.

And Billy rolled onto his back, and stared up into the fleeting blue between the wisps that passed for an English summer sky.

-- You don�t mean that the way your Tom would.
-- I don�t mean much the way our Tom would.
-- Aye, well, there�s Toms on every corner from here to Huddersfield.

Happen you can have too much of a good thing.

And Jack smiled, held Billy�s eye a little longer than he needed to.

-- Everybody always asks two things about Joe Routledge. No, I tell a lie. Three.
-- Let me guess. Were it quick, was he queer, did he die well...

The sheer contempt in Billy�s voice shocked him, briefly.

-- Fascinating, isn�t it? Between your da, your Tom and your Jessie, I got the full set.
-- Jess? Billy rolled to face Jack, raised himself on one elbow.

-- She never told me she�d been asking.
-- She never liked the answer. Holes like pint pots in his guts, legs five feet away under a ton of Froggie mud.

And Jack got out his flask, the last of the week�s precious stash, and passed it over, wondering which of them was more surprised at his lack of bitterness.

-- He was a good lad. Popular, in his way. They called him Josie behind his back.
-- He�d have hated that.
-- He did. But Harry called him Joe. You remember that. Sup up.

Jack got up carefully, wandered easily over to a fallen tree and unzipped with a show of relief. Give the boy a minute, he thought. Poor bastard; of the two of them it was Billy who looked as if he were making do. Treading water, marking time, and him with the world at his feet.

Billy hadn�t been to war, hadn�t been shot at or blown up, hadn�t struggled not to cry himself to sleep with the stench of friends� innards on the wind. Hadn�t seen men he knew torn to pieces, rotting on wires, buried alive. Hadn�t sent men to hell, and sent more after.

Funny thing to envy someone, all that death.

Billy would never forgive himself for missing the chance to be out there, helping the poor bastards mined and gunned and gassed in the bosses� war. Even though -- perhaps especially because -- he didn�t believe in what they were fighting for.

Jack didn�t know anyone who had, though he�d never seen the point in saying.

He took back the flask and sat down again, laughing as he felt the unchanged weight.

-- By God, he�s done a good job on you, your Da. It�s only brandy.
-- Jessie gave me the impression you plied everyone with port.
-- Tart�s drink. I don�t like it. And you like it too much to risk it on your own, with me.
-- Observant of you.
-- Army life, son.
-- Teaches you about the booze, does it?
-- Teaches you to keep your eyes open. It�s that or end up with your guts for tinsel.
-- Like Joe.
-- Joe.

Jack raised the flask in a wry toast, and offered it again in a way that made it churlish not to take it, to echo the gesture. And Billy did, with visible reluctance.

-- Don�t like soldiers, do you?
-- Joe was a soldier.
-- Aye, lad. And a good one, nance or not. And you can take that look off your face, I�ve known plenty. Nothing you or anyone could have done for him. All the medical skill in the world counts for nowt when you�re keks down under a coal-box.
-- But still...
-- But nothing. He had a bloody rough time of it, and he was a fitter, one of the lads. You wouldn�t have lasted a week out there, Billy Seaton. And if you had, you�d be fit for nothing now. Have the grace to be grateful, son. Your sister is.
-- I don�t understand how you could fight for--
-- What I fought for? Why don�t you tell me, then we�ll both know.
-- I�m just saying it�s unfair--
-- I�ll tell you about unfair. Unfair is getting your head kicked in �cos you go with men, and clapped on the back if you go with someone who goes with men. But I know where I�d rather be standing.
-- And where exactly is that, Jack?

Two questions in one; and Billy was eyeing him off, knowingly, so Jack leant across and grabbed himself a handful of that poxy white knit, yanking Billy into a kiss. Hard. Same as he had with Jessie that first night, dancing in the Seatons� front room; only Billy was less surprised, and better at it, and didn�t fight him off.

Quite the opposite, in fact; Jack found himself pulled closer, embraced with rib-cracking intensity. Billy had a miner�s frame all right under the softness, and the clumsy strength to match. And all the hunger his sister never let go. Brandy and mint on Billy�s breath, and the softest stubble, hardly worthy of the word, against Jack�s neck. And breathing like he�d run the four-minute mile.

-- Easy, lad. Breakages must be paid for.

He pushed Billy away, gently, smiling freely at the change in Billy�s appearance; flushed, on fire, alive. Liking the change, he let Billy pull him back, harder; used the momentum to tip him back against the wet grass and sheepshit, kept him there, invaded and claimed. Eventually he pulled back, leant on one elbow and let one hand rest on the waistband of Billy�s trousers; a question in itself.

-- Tell me you didn�t want that the minute you laid eyes on me, at your Tom�s wedding.
-- Wasn�t sure you were interested.
-- Who says I am? I�m marrying your sister, remember.

And Billy looked so ashamed, Jack had to laugh.

-- Not like you, footloose and fancy-free. Or don�t you get enough of that away at college?
-- Don�t be daft.

Billy reddened further, genial embarrassment on desire. Sensing agreement, Jack lay back, one arm behind his head, one hand high on Billy�s leg. Not stroking, just resting. Proprietorially. He closed his eyes and waited; sure enough, he could feel Billy�s fingers, working on his waistcoat buttons.

-- I�m not. By, man... hundreds of miles from home. On your own, no eye-spy. First thing I�d do is find meself a fancy man.
-- Only one?
-- To start with. I�d work me way up. Don�t tell me you haven�t.
-- Not exactly.
-- Liar. You never learnt to kiss like that round here.
-- All right, was it?
-- You could teach your Jessie a thing or two.

He regretted it instantly. Billy had inherited his father�s puritan streak, all right. Jack only made it worse by not laughing.

-- Sorry.

And Billy�s smile returned, broad and inviting, although without quite reaching his eyes. Jack leant back, half-closed his eyes in the way he knew drove Dolly crazy. Let the back of his hand rest almost accidentally against Billy�s half-hard cock.

-- Come on, Seaton. Spill.
-- There�s nothing to say. I�m too busy for all that, Jack.
-- If you say so.
-- You think this is a small town. In some ways it�s worse up there, man. Bad enough being a Geordie. Bad enough... It�s a closed world, Jack.

Jack laughed, flicked off Billy�s braces, started undoing the buttons on Billy�s fly. And Billy just leant back and let him, pulling Jack�s scarf slowly from around his neck.

-- I�m listening.
-- You haven�t a bloody clue, have you? What do you think it costs to live up there? Books and digs, food, extra tuition...
-- You�ve Jessie for that.
-- A few bob, once a month? She does her best, Jack, but it�s not exactly copious.
-- By, you Seatons and your schoolteacher words.
-- I�m not ungrateful.
-- I�m not the one you should be telling.

Billy took hold of Jack�s hand, gently but firmly, stopping it in its tracks.

-- I�ve had to earn it myself, Jack. Make ends meet.
-- There�s jobs in Edinburgh?
-- Aye, hundreds. Specially for students with soft hands and no bloody trade. What do you think?
-- Meaning?
-- Meaning I�m stuck with four shirts in a town full of... of
overprivileged clerks who speak better than me, live better than me, get along with the natives better than me.
-- Ah. Jack moved closer, understanding. -- They kiss better than you, and all?
-- Can�t afford to let them, can I.

Said defiantly, steadily, Billy looking hard at him to make certain he was understood. Definitely his father�s son, thought Jack; nothing I can say to make it all right. Nothing he�d let me, anyway. He settled for sliding his hand free, under Billy�s shirt, then down. Slowly, tenderly, muscles tensing under his fingers and Billy biting his lip in a way that set Jack�s pulse soaring.

-- We all do what we have to, bonny lad.
-- The others don�t.
-- How would you know? Enjoy it?

Daft question, the way he�d grown in Jack�s hand.

-- Sometimes.

And Billy leant forward, taking the initiative and kissing Jack hard, his free hand curving around the back of Jack�s neck. The kiss lasted a long time, Billy rolling onto his back, pulling Jack on top of him, kneeing his legs apart.

-- Only for money?
-- So far.
-- There�s a waste. Still, you�ve always said all work is prostitution.

The word hung between them, gently; Billy brushing his hair from his eyes sharply, as if to bat it away. Jack resisted the urge to kiss him, or pull him close; kept one hand closed tight around him, stroking.

-- Why tell me?
-- I�ve never told anyone before.
-- You should. Could be dangerous, bonny lad.
-- I can manage.

Aye, right up until you can�t, thought Jack, but let it pass. Not his business.

-- So what�s the deal?
-- I don�t understand.
-- You willing, or...?

It took Billy a minute to work out what Jack meant, and the look on his face; bless him.

-- God�s sake, Jack. I don�t want your money.
-- I�ll not offer twice.
-- Suits me.
-- More than that jumper does, said Jack. -- Get it off.
-- Now? Billy sounded outraged, but he was grinning. -- You sure?
-- As good a time as any.

Billy laughed, nodding over Jack�s shoulder. � Audience costs extra.

A party of motor-cars was passing on the road below, the drivers laughing and shouting to each other. Jack could see more, half a mile back. Some sort of rally, maybe. Or rich idiots, picnicking. One, a new model Crossley, had pulled up near the paddock gate; as they watched, its occupants spilled out, their laughter faint on the breeze.

Jack rolled away and straightened his clothes, cursing his lack of concentration. Getting soft, Ford, he thought; some Sergeant you are. Should have heard them coming. He sat up, refastening his shirt and braces, keeping an eye on the party. Young men with bottles, girls in hats, well dressed and well away by the sound of it. They started up the hill, laughing and horsing about. A second car, a Lambert, Jack thought, pulled in beside the other one.

-- Think we should move on, bonny lad.
-- Just as well. Can just see Mam�s face at bath, me with grass stains up me back. Behind Jack, Billy laughed. -- Happen she wouldn�t let me out to play again.
-- Now that would be a shame.

He turned back to hurry Billy up, only to find him lying back on one elbow, ostensibly studying a notebook he�d pulled from somewhere. Cool, unruffled, perfectly dressed.

You�ve certainly had practice, thought Jack, gathering up the flask and sandwich wrappers. Billy smiled without looking up.

-- I�m used to interruptions. You get to like it after a while.
-- I can see that. Jack sat back, thoughtfully. -- I�d rather there weren�t any more.
-- Me an�all.

They both nodded pleasantly at the youngsters as they passed, and were pointedly ignored. Bosses� sons, thought Jack, getting to his feet unhurriedly; bottle in hand and all the adoring companionship they can ask. That�s the life, right enough.

He turned to find Billy watching him with a quiet smile. Not for the first time, he had the uncomfortable feeling he knew exactly what he was thinking.

-- Meeting adjourned, Brother Ford?
-- Not for long. Jack extended his hand, helped Billy to his feet and brushed him down, gently, letting his hand rest on the small of Billy�s back.
-- Why, you seeing our Jessie tonight?
-- No. Got a bit� business to see to. But I�ll see you at mine, tomorrow. After seven.
-- Will you now? Billy�s eyes shone with mischief.
-- One thing you need to know about me, kidder, said Jack, steel in his voice. -- I don�t like teases.
-- Well, that�s all right. I�m not in the habit.
-- You should be, you�ve the eyes for it.

Feeling reckless, Jack swung a proprietorial hand up to Billy�s face, kissed him in full view of the intruders starting up the hill. They were mostly looking at the ground, though; he remembered to check first.

-- And the mouth. Lovely bloody mouth, Billy Seaton.
-- I suppose I should use it to say thank you?
-- I�ve better ideas. Tomorrow.

Jack held up a hand, closing the discussion, and started off down the hill, Manners� glasses slung carelessly over his shoulder, and his open waistcoat flapping in the breeze. Shabby but straightbacked, someone to follow. And follow Billy did, as Jack knew he would.

=== * ===

Jack got through the rest of that day happily enough; let himself think long and hard on it once he�d got to Dolly Hedley�s, once he was in her arms, her bed. Made the waiting all the sweeter, somehow; he hadn�t been with a man since Murmansk.

Best not to make it a habit; but he�d said that about Dolly, too, and look at them. Smoking quietly and working out shares of the haul to come, he reflected that whatever happened it was good to be clear at last about the lad. And a big fat bonus that he knew what he was doing. It couldn�t have worked out better. Little Billy a whore, and all for school... By, it was fit for the papers. Last man you�d expect to have the guts, or the enterprise.

Must be something in the water here, he thought idly. Joe Routledge had sold it too, in the trenches before Harry arrived; Jack knew half a dozen men who�d had him for Woodbines, him and Matt among them. Nobody cared, out there. You did what you had to, same as here.

Good for the boy. Billy�d know enough to be clean. And it had to be better than thieving.

Seeing the fire in Billy on the way home, his deftly sharp handling of the Hexham copper who�d taken them for vagrants, had settled Jack�s mind about Tom�s daft blackmail attempt. Guts and enterprise; likely it ran in the family, and Tom had a knack of finding things out. Dolly was one thing, Jack could have ridden that out in the end. But once Billy was in his bed...

He could always forget all about it, of course.

Like hell.

He shook Dolly awake, then swung himself out of bed and started to dress. Thinking: that�s that. One more raid, and a big one, with the elder Seaton on board; take four sheep if they could and go out with a bang.

And tomorrow?

Aye, well. He�d always loved the smell of burning bridges.

 

=== © arjuna 2003 ===