Seven Summer Nights
It’s 1946, and the dust of World War Two has just begun to settle. When famous archaeologist Rufus Denby returns to London, his life and reputation are as devastated as the city around him.
He’s used to the most glamorous of excavations, but can’t turn down the offer of a job in rural Sussex. It’s a refuge, and the only means left to him of scraping a living. With nothing but his satchel and a mongrel dog he’s rescued from a bomb site, he sets out to investigate an ancient church in the sleepy village of Droyton Parva.
It’s an ordinary task, but Droyton is in the hands of a most extraordinary vicar. The Reverend Archie Thorne has tasted action too, as a motorcycle-riding army chaplain, and is struggling to readjust to the little world around him. He’s a lonely man, and Rufus’s arrival soon sparks off in him a lifetime of repressed desires.
Rufus is a combat case, amnesiac and shellshocked. As he and Archie begin to unfold the archaeological mystery of Droyton, their growing friendship makes Rufus believe he might one day recapture his lost memories of the war, and find his way back from the edge of insanity to love.
It’s summer on the South Downs, the air full of sunshine and enchantment. And Rufus and Archie’s seven summer nights have just begun...
Rufus lay down flat and read as he'd used to do in childhood, the book poised just off the tip of his nose, his toes clenched on the footboard as if he would otherwise float off into deep space or Victorian England. The Reverend Thorne's house held him like a hammock, like a chrysalis, like a deep embrace from strong male arms. Night came down, and at some point of shimmering non-darkness from the summer skies, a careful hand lifted the open book off his face.
He woke in the trenches, his enemy near him. This time the hallucination didn't eat him whole: the awareness was left to him, dim and distant, that his body remained in a beautiful place, guarded and cared for and safe. Utter misery seized him. No matter where he went, he would end up here. No matter who he reached for in friendship and love, the shadow would fall. A bull in a labyrinth, a faceless Minotaur, groaning and snorting in the dark, a demon with the power to take a firelit room and fill it with mud, blood and horror.
Rufus tore the bedclothes back and lurched onto his knees. He would kill the bastard this time, that was all. He flattened his hands to the mattress and let loose a long, raw howl of desolation. It was too bloody grim that every beauty he found, every safety and sweetness, could be ruined and torn down to shit. He burst into racking sobs.
The bedroom door flew open. Rufus seized his chance. He couldn't see, but that didn't matter – who else would dare find him here in the firelit trench but his enemy? “Charles,” he roared, scrambling off the end of the bed and into the bullet-pocked hell of the earthworks behind Fort Vaux. “Stop, damn you! I won’t let you do it this time!”
He collided with flesh and bone. The devil of it was that he recognised Archie straight off, by scent and warmth and the well-restrained power that cushioned and held him even as it fended him off. “Rufus,” Archie gasped in his ear, but it was no use. The logic of flashback ate both of them whole.
They crashed together onto the bedroom floor. Rufus made a grab for the gun at Charles's belt, but the coward had hidden it somewhere, ready for the atrocious scene that always followed on from this fight. “Give it to me,” he grunted, rolling Charles over, and cried out as a huge strength lifted and rolled him in his turn, dumping him hard against the base of the wardrobe, whose scrolled and clawed feet Rufus couldn't account for here, unless the Minotaur had learned how to dance.
He lashed out wildly. The blow connected, sending a pang of exhilaration through him. He could taste his enemy's blood. Connections formed hotly in his mind: Charles was the enemy, the monster he'd been seeking through the mud-lined tunnels of his dreams since his return from the Front. Charles, his commanding officer. His brother-in-law, the sweet-natured boy he and Rosie had run with through childhood's meadows... “Charles, stop,” he begged, aiming another knockout blow at the once-beloved face. “Stop. Please.”
“I will if you will.”
He couldn't. Wherever he travelled, no matter how far he ran, this dream would compel him to hunt down the nearest likeness of the beast, the greatest threat. He twisted out from under the beast's weight – so warm, this beast, smelling of love, not death – and struggled onto his feet. The beast stood too. “Rufus, stop,” it commanded, and this time it stopped his fist in mid-air. “You're looking for the strongest man? You've found him. You've found him.
Rufus woke up. The mud and blood dried to thin, brittle shells on his skin and fell away. The trench burst wide open to dawn light. Archie was holding him, not Charles – Archie in rumpled dressing gown and brightly patterned pyjamas, staring down at him, such a blaze of passion and pity that Rufus would have fallen in love with him right then, if he hadn't already dropped and dived and lost that battle somewhere among the Droyton lanes. “Archie,” he whispered, lifting a shaking hand to caress the face he'd bruised. “Archie!”
“Yes. You have to stop this now.”
Rufus couldn't. He slipped a hand around his nape, pulled him down and kissed him – brief, hard, full on the mouth. Let him go immediately and stumbled back, almost thrusting him away. Easier to do that than be pushed, than to see shock gathering, rejection, distaste... But Archie only frowned. He touched his lip wonderingly, as if remembering. Then he shot out a hand and seized Rufus by the front of his nightshirt. “Come here.”
“Come here, man. For God's sake.”
Rufus stumbled back to him. Archie didn't relinquish his grip: used it to haul him up and in, at the last instant catching him tenderly with his free hand, cupping his jaw. He dipped his head. A faint sound escaped him, a muffled sob of yearning. He closed his eyes and pressed his mouth to Rufus's in return.
Clumsy, awkward. He must have got at least one punch in – pain popped like a flashbulb on Rufus's lip, delicious and wild. He kissed like a man who'd been tied hand and foot while other people fucked and danced and loved all around him, inches away, untouchable. Christ, Rufus knew how that felt. He threw his arms around him, left off trying to keep his rising erection a secret. Archie groaned and pushed back at him, knocking him off-balance. They crashed against the wardrobe. “Dear Archie. At least let me take you to bed.”
“I can't. I... Oh, yes.”
“Make sure the door's shut.”
“You'd better close the window. Pull the curtains too.” Rufus clutched his shoulders, hardly able to bear the answering stiffness behind the absurd pyjama trousers. Elspeth would have bought those, he was willing to bet, a pocket-money present for her borrowed father, and Archie would faithfully wear them to show her he valued her gift. “Do the windows have shutters?”
“Er... yes, but – ”
“Better close them.”
“Rufus, this is my house. We're up on the attic floor. I won't shut us away in the dark.”
“You have to. You don't understand. You could be jailed and disgraced for what you just did to me, let alone...” Rufus caught his breath. “Let alone what I'm about to do to you.”
“Only the birds will see us. The moths and the bats flying home.”