Author's Note: Written for Artemis_sparks and originally posted at the Archive of Our Own for Yuletide, 2010! Thanks to Lim for beta!
I never expected to paint again. It seemed to me a hopeless indulgence in the new England of ration books and second-hand clothes, and besides, Anthony Blanche had long ago absolved me of my artistic sins. We know, you and I, that this is all t-t-terrible t-t-tripe. It was true: I had known. I supposed I ought to have been ashamed, but in truth, I was relieved; Anthony might as well have touched a daub of chrism to my forehead: G-g-go then, my dear b-b-booby, and p-p-paint no more.
But that was before Tunis. I hadn't particularly thought of going, but - honourably discharged and at a loose end - I had stopped at a pub near my father's house and run into a fellow from sixth form who now flew cargo runs to an airstrip outside the medina. After several rounds it seemed reasonable to take him up his offer, and five days after that, strapped into a seat with ruptured upholstery, I slept soundly through a turbulent descent over the Mediterranean.
I was disorientated when we landed, and I didn't get my bearings until the old bus juddered to a stop and dropped me on the roadside outside Sidi Salah. A cloud of gray exhaust blew around me, eddying and tumbling the dust. I slung my kit bag over my shoulder and found myself looking up at the bluest sky I'd ever seen. The sun glinted off the white stone walls, dazzling my eyes. Birds soared overhead. I saw the bell tower in the distance, and reached the cloister after twenty minutes' walk.
I'd come to Carthage as a mourner. So many had died - two hundred thousand in the North Africa campaigns alone - that I felt certain Sebastian had not survived. I had imagined finding the humble grave marker tucked away in a corner of the monastery cemetery, beneath a fig tree perhaps, or against a crumbling wall. No name on the stone; perhaps there would not even be a stone. Still, I would find the grave and grieve there: for Sebastian, for everyone, myself most of all. In this far-off corner of the world I would grieve for everything I had lost, starting with Sebastian and ending with Sebastian. World without end, amen.
Then I would go to a café and get drunk, really drunk, for the first time in ages. Do this in memory of me, I thought, and laughed.
So vividly had I imagined all this that, at first, I could not comprehend that Sebastian was not dead; that, far from it, he was alive and wrestling a sheep amidst a rowdy throng of boys. The monks had listened to my sombre inquiry as to the last resting place of my friend, and then given me a much more specific address than I had expected, directing me a further quarter mile along the seafront to the Orphanage St. Monique. Once there, I espied Sebastian almost immediately, except I refused to believe that it was Sebastian. So I presented myself to the friars who ran the place and was politely escorted back out to the sheep pen by a broad-faced, smiling brother with a limp.
Sebastian had made wretched progress; the sheep was still writhing and twisting in his arms. "All right. Here goes!" Sebastian shouted, and, tucking the animal between his knees, he began trying to cut its wool. Instantly, the children burst into a cacophony of contradictory directions: "Wait!" "La, la!" "De l'autre coté - " Sebastian seemed to be listening intently to each of them, and modifying his actions based on their suggestions - and then the sheep somehow twisted around, ducked its head between Sebastian's legs, and took off at a gallop.
The children shrieked with laughter. Sebastian stumbled around, caught sight of me, and yelled, "Charles! Catch him!" I lunged, thrusting my hands into its rough coat, and hung on; the sheep dragged me first onto one knee and then down into the dust, but at the last I brought the beast down.
A moment later Sebastian was there, as were the children, two of which took what seemed to me like expert possession of the animal. Groaning, I managed to sit up. "Boys, say hello to Mr. Ryder," Sebastian said rather automatically, and the children mumbled hello in their various languages. "I must say, Charles, you've turned up at a frightfully convenient time. We haven't so many sheep that we could have afforded to lose one through my negligence. " He offered me his hand, and I took it. It was rough and callused, but so was my own.
"I won't ask what brings you here," Sebastian said, shading his eyes with a hand as we walked back to the pen, "but I hope you'll stay a while." He was wearing a homespun shirt and a pair of loose trousers that evoked nothing so much as the pyjamas he used to wear at Oxford: all day long when certain moods took him.
"I thought you were dead," I told him.
"Did you? So many are, I suppose." Sebastian paused at the wooden railing enclosing the pasture and watched as one of the children, a tall boy, tugged the sheep onto his lap and gracefully pulled its foreleg to the side. "They used to practice child sacrifice here, you know," Sebastian told me. "I'll take you to the Tophet if you like: it's a terrible place, but magnificent, too. Two thousand years later the friars established this orphanage. It was intended for Catholic children, but of course, since the war…" He nodded toward the children; the tall boy was now expertly shearing wool from the sheep's round belly. "Most of them are named Mohammad," Sebastian added, "which I must admit is a great convenience to me."
"I should imagine," I replied. I had been drawn into the rhythmic motion of the sheep shearing. Clumps of wool drifted to the ground. I tore my eyes away. "Weren't you teaching them how to do this?"
My breath caught as Sebastian smiled. He ducked his head, eyes crinkling, and he looked sincerely amused for the first time since - since before we left Oxford, certainly. It was sunlight after years of torrential rain.
"Oh no," Sebastian said, biting his lip. "They're teaching me, Charles. That's my job here: to let the children teach me things. I'm quite good at it, actually," he added, suddenly serious. "I can apparently learn things over and over again without them ever quite sinking in. You will stay for a while, won't you?"
On my previous visit, I had put up at a tourist hotel in the medina, but this time I accepted Sebastian's offer to lodge with him at St. Monique's. He had a set of small rooms off one of the secondary courtyards, above the kitchens. As in Morocco - as at Oxford - he had successfully imposed his personality on the place. The furniture was old, it had once been good, and there were rugs and bright silk tapestries thrown about. A table in the corner was covered with shells and carved figurines, windmills and spinning tops. It was both strange and familiar until I remembered that I had once seen a similar collection of little presents in Nanny Hawkins's rooms at Brideshead.
Beneath a window, lodged in the thick stone, was a plain shelf doing duty as a sideboard; it was crammed with stoppered bottles, a decanter, and two exquisite Lalique glasses. I immediately averted my eyes from these accoutrements and pretended to gaze from the window. Then I did gaze from the window, which, framed by palm trees, gave out on the impossibly blue waters of the Mediterranean. Boats bobbed, fishermen shouted as they hauled in their nets. Beyond them, far off in the distance, I saw the faint purple ridges of mountains.
"I tried to paint once," Sebastian murmured, coming up behind me. "Do you remember I told you about that person of Mummy's who said you could only appreciate the beauty of the world by trying to paint it? Well, there came a time recently when I needed to remind myself of the world's beauty. So I sent for supplies. And do you know, it worked?" I turned to him in surprise. "Oh yes: I found the world so infinitely more beautiful than my hideous representations. I threw them on the fire and got the most wonderful paroxysms of joy thereafter simply by looking out the window. But I expect the paints are still around somewhere. Can I offer you some wine?" He reached for the decanter. "This part of the world has been making wines since the days of Bacchus, who can still been seen cavorting shamefully in mosaics all over town. Join me in a glass, won't you?"
He handed me a green-tinted glass as finely shaped as a living tulip. I took it.
My first drawings, done on Moulinde de Larroque handmade rag paper that I had not thought myself entitled to use until after my first professional show but that Sebastian's lawyers apparently thought standard supply, were poor. This was perhaps because they were of England; I had thought to show Sebastian how it was now, but my bitterness had corrupted every page. I threw them away.
My next attempts were rather more successful. I began by making some solid but dull architectural sketches: the orphanage's Moorish arches, its minaret lined with arabesques. Thus emboldened, I began to take up more dynamic subjects: the palm trees waving in the breeze along the seafront; the Arabs sipping coffee in the café, smoke wreathing their turbans; the wonderfully mobile faces of the orphanage boys. Sebastian took me to the ancient ruins, and together we wandered through the broken remains of ancient columns and through the densely packed stele of the Tophet, eating dates and sipping vins gris out of an ancient wineskin.
One evening, after slowly paging through my sketches and studying each quite seriously in turn, Sebastian selected one - to me, a very rough drawing of the Antonine Baths, the sea visible beyond - and tacked it to the wall beside the window. I prepared a canvas. I remembered how once before Sebastian had set me to paint, and I had created for him a summer scene of white cloud and blue distances, with an ivy clad ruin in the foreground and a receding parkland beyond. Such scenes now surrounded us daily, augmented by the beauty of the sea, and I worked steadily at the painting over the following days while Sebastian carried on with his duties around the orphanage.
It wasn't until we were sitting out one cool night, eating dates and quietly soaking in Vieux Magon, that I realized that Sebastian had - in that casually miraculously way in which he seemed to do everything - recaptured the lost languor of our youth. I had thought that this relaxation of the spirit had been exclusive to Brideshead, that it had risen like a dryad out of its orchards, its hothouses full of exotic blossoms, the rich depths of its wine cellars. Now I saw that my soul's peace was not captive in that enchanted palace, that there were other sacred places: here, now, with him. Sebastian, born and bred within that house, had understood that, and had tried to tell me that happiness could not be imprisoned within the walls of any castle.
Here were not the fresh strawberries and peaches of Brideshead's kitchen gardens, nor the endless variety of its vintages, but groves of olive trees and wines made from older and infinitely wiser grapes. Here not the fresh air of the lakes, but a headier perfume of ambergris and honey, freshly ground spices and donkey manure. Here, on this ancient shore that Dido conquered with cleverness and lost in despair, Sebastian and I perhaps had a chance to recreate the perfect happiness of our past.
Spellbound, I leaned forward in the cool night air to press my mouth to his. We had kissed often during that brief, glorious summer many years ago, and now the wine-warmed touch of his lips transported me back in time, reminding me of long, hot afternoons sunbathing on the roof of the portico. I remembered the many long evenings we'd spent, surrounded by bottles. I remembered how we drank out of each other's glasses, and let the wine run in and out of each other's mouths.
I hesitated, we were no longer young, but he opened his mouth to me as he had only on our most sensual days, when we had been gripped by grave temptations. I clutched his shoulders and kissed him. One of his hands slid over my ribs and knotted in my jacket; the other gently smoothed over my hair.
We had never been as bad as Anthony Blanche, though I rather thought now that perhaps Sebastian had been, at least in his heart. For my own part, I now wanted to be as bad as Blanche, for I could see that Antoine had been the one truly honest person I had ever known.
Later, after we'd fled the cool darkness for the intimacy of our shared bedchamber and an hour of the most exquisite passions and extravagances of sexuality, we lay back in the rumpled linens and smoked. My mind returned to Antoine. I had always respected his opinions on art, but I had not appreciated his astute evaluations of character and his profound understanding of the vagaries of human nature.
I said this to Sebastian, who said, "Oh, dear Antoine. He comes to see me regularly."
I sat up. "Does he?"
"Oh yes," Sebastian replied; there were fine wrinkles around his eyes. "He comes to Tangier for the atmosphere and also stops to visit me. He's such a good man. Still, he can't understand why I don't leave St. Monique's and join him in Morocco. He can't understand that I have a vocation here, that I am half-heathen - but only half." He tilted his head and regarded me through a cloud of smoke. "But you have come to understand all this, haven't you, Charles? You have traveled many of the same roads I have, I think."
"Yes," I said, and felt the years wash over me.
"I knew you would come," Sebastian said, but then he laughed, eyes flashing with childlike naughtiness. "Oh, that's a lie," he said, quickly stubbing out his cigarette before he set the bedclothes on fire. "I didn't know - I despaired of you, actually - but what matters is that you have come. All has been restored to me; I knew it would if I prayed hard enough. And I have prayed, Charles, vehemently, to anyone who would listen: St. Anthony, the angel Gabriel, Pan. But now paradise has been regained - Yea, and our own eyes beheld Pan, god of Arcady - and the gates can be closed behind us."
"Et in Arcadia Ego," I murmured, and was at peace for the first time in years.