The Butterfly Catchers – Chapter One

Sunday the 22nd of February, 1931

It was cold out there in the early hours, and the front step grew harder and harder as the chill of it worked its way through the bones of his pelvis. He hung onto that. The step was a real thing, which had existed before he had and would go on existing after he was gone.

He spent a while imagining old men and women who, having sighed out their hold on life in the ancient four-poster upstairs, were carried out of the house in weighty, ornate coffins. And then he tried to think of the new; of the young couple taking over from the old, new life starting again in the sandy bricks. But his mind kept following those old men and women along the road to the churchyard and into the ground.

He started shivering somewhere towards dawn. For a moment, his mind having drifted, he wondered why he was so cold, and held out his arm to examine it. He saw where the thin shirt was soaked through and sticking to him, making his skin look scarlet underneath. It stopped his breathing for a moment. He tried not to move, but the step tilted beneath him and a cracking noise sounded as the flower-bed to his side opened up its frost-hardened soil on a great gaping blackness.

His eyes darted up to the horizon, and caught at the tiny lift of daylight. He held onto it with his gaze, watching it furiously until everything else faded away, blotted out by grainy brown patterns.

It was around then that an elderly woman flickered into his vision as she walked her dog past the gate and he knew he wouldn’t sit there for much longer. For a moment it looked as though she might walk straight on without seeing, but of course the dog, a highland terrier which looked grey in the half-light, stopped to sniff at the gatepost and then manoeuvred to raise its hind leg against it. The action left his mistress time to glance around her.

She gave a small start when she saw him, and then nodded. But quickly afterwards she frowned and he saw her eyes strain to see what was half wrapped around him and lying in his lap. And then her reactions played out the way he had already imagined, her eyes widening and her legs starting to move all of a stumble. The dog hung back for a moment and was dragged along sideways for a moment before he began trotting to keep up.

He knew where she was going but couldn’t hang onto that. He only wished she hadn’t made the horror which lay in his lap into a real thing.

He couldn’t help but look then, and feel the cold skin on his hands. His heartbeat became a long-dying creature inside him, spasming and juddering and yet somehow still continuing onto the next convulsion. He tried to stare hard enough at the blue-white face that the brown patterns would return and block it out, but before it could happen a soft breeze rose up, and he saw flesh and skin rise and fall, opening to reveal an achingly vivid red, only to be covered once again. In his mind it was a butterfly, revealing and hiding its beauty only to him, and so gorgeous in its flirtation that he leaned down and pressed his lips to it.

  Thursday, October 5th, 1925

                The whole room smelled of old varnish and chalk dust, and it was so like being back in school again that he instinctively looked around for the Master of Discipline before he chose a seat. But of course there was nobody to look out for discipline, so he slid along a bench towards the back to sit midway between the end and a towering six-foot-something lad in a Harrow blazer. He felt the flannel of his trousers catch twice on the uneven surface, and suspected that his glorious new suit would not remain so very glorious for long.

It didn’t matter. They were all beyond him, with their soft silk and Egyptian cotton; their blazers and ties from places which were expensive enough and famous enough that the very act of being there let you set yourself on a level with every other human being who had walked their halls, no matter how august; their wool coats and their extraordinarily glossy and equally flimsy shoes which surely had been soaked through four times already this morning and yet continued to look perfect.

And they all knew each other; had played cricket with each other or dined together at the house of a relative of one (or both) parties; or had met on their Grand Tour – if they were old-fashioned enough still to take one whilst being modern enough to take one before coming up to Cambridge. For them, the wait for their first lecture seemed to be one endless string of happy reunions, the bawling and back-slapping and raucous laughter so very targeted in its inclusion that it shut him out absolutely.

For a moment he wondered, with a queasy feeling, whether this had been a wrong step. It was distant from his life until now by three hundred miles and unending layers of social distinction. How had he devoted six years to coming here, where he felt like a servant who had stumbled upstairs by mischance?

But Robert, he remembered – Robert thought he belonged. He fixed his memory on the fallen-angel features and illuminated them like an icon in his mind’s eye. He could trace them in detail, after only four days in his company. Perhaps in part because he was trying to set them in stone, in case his sudden friend disappeared out of his life as quickly as he had entered it.

Robert had already caught him memorising, on the third of the four days, while they sat in his rooms after a dinner far too rich for the country-boy. He had drunk a little too much, which was probably why he hadn’t felt ashamed at staring so openly. And Robert had been looking away into the air, lost in the coiling shapes of the smoke from his cigarillo and apparently unaware.

But after some minutes of this scrutiny – maybe as many as five – he had cut his eyes across and the country-boy had found himself pinned by an ironic gaze in return. “I’m not going to waft away, you know. I may as well be a statue, I’m that firmly set on this earth. Chiselled out of the very rocks of it, Joel.” A half laugh, and a glance at nothing whilst he appreciated his own words. “Chiselled.”

Joel knew that he blushed, but also that Robert was miraculously lacking in the cruelty that made him point it out or even appear to notice. It kept surprising him, that kindness. It didn’t seem to sit with his vigour or his ranting condemnation of various people and groups of people.

“Statues move a little less, I think,” he answered, considering, and Robert laughed gently.

“Yes, they do, but by God they endure.” His eyes lost in the smoke again. “Maybe I should have myself cast in stone now, as I am. Or just set myself up on a pedestal and let them all come to me.”

“You’d go stark mad within the first half hour,” Joel told him and felt flushed with his own courage, as he so often felt around Robert. “Your feet are never still for two moments together.”

“Oh, I could grow in indolence, Cornish.” The gaze flicked his way, testing, assessing. It was like this every time he called him that. He liked to baptise everyone with his own names, it seemed, but then looked to see that no offence was being taken. Joel, the one who had always gone unnoticed, had never had a nickname and was nothing short of delighted by it. The craven truth was that Robert could have called him whatever he wanted and it would have made him feel worth something.

A small silence grew, while Joel remembered that only a day stood between him and the terror of his Law Degree. The large blank that was his student existence to come defied all of his efforts at filling it in. He tried to envisage supervisions and essays and reading law books in the library, but it was all too alien and his childhood imaginings of himself in a gown and a mortar-board were so laughably naive that he couldn’t take sanctuary in them.

“What are you thinking on behind your eyes, Cornish?” Robert asked him after a while.

“Nothing much.” He remembered as he said it how much Robert hated being fobbed off, and how much he seemed to want to know the innermost workings of his newest friend’s thoughts, and quickly added, “Just about this whole – place. I keep trying to imagine how it will be to live as a student, and to apply myself to learning the law, but I just don’t know. I’m worryingly ignorant about it all.”

“You shouldn’t waste your mind growing anxious about knowing,” Robert told him with all the wisdom of his four additional months in the world. “They always say it’s who you know here, but actually, it’s who you don’t know that helps you. Failing to recollect an awkward story you’d heard about someone, or happening not to know someone you encountered in a corner with your father’s maidservant. Those things are quite the most important things and ignorance is your friend.”

“But what about the course?” Joel persisted, giving voice to a fear he hadn’t shared with anyone. “What if I simply don’t understand it?”

“You will,” Robert said firmly, with absolute faith, and instead of resenting his certainty Joel was buoyed up by it. “No bloody question. Do you have any idea how stupid most of these boys are? How tramlined in their thinking? The opinions they hold now are the same opinions their fathers held in nine out of ten cases, and they will hang onto those opinions with their little eyes squeezed shut because thinking about anything else is too terrifying and too hard for their tiny heads.”

A warm bubble of laughter made its way up from Joel’s throat, and he leaned back into the chair with the vision arming him.

“You know, I used to worry like that,” Robert went on, musing. “If something unknown came up, I’d make myself sick with anxiety trying to envisage how it would be, and whether my life would change. And then I eventually realised that it was the trying to guess which gave me all the anxiety. When it comes to it, you have no idea how a new thing is going to be and there’s no point exhausting yourself trying to imagine. Just mark it down as something new and stop thinking about it, that’s my advice.” He gave a small smile. “And if you do, then it turns out that most things tend to fit themselves around you instead of the other way around.”

“I think that experience may be unique to you.”

Robert turned and fixed him with a gaze which was earnest and intent enough to make Joel feel uncomfortable. “It’s unique to anyone who is worth more than the rest of the rabble. A little self-belief please, Joel. You’re going to make a dent in this world large enough that nobody will be able to fill it in. I wouldn’t be sitting here with you if you weren’t.”

It made him smile, that faith of Robert’s, at the same time as giving him a pang of anxiety. If the days and weeks unrolled and Joel failed to make some kind of mark, did it mean (as he suspected it might) that Robert would find someone more worthy to pass his time with? Or would he just grow more and more disappointed in this friend of his and change his way of speaking?

Joel was inwardly terrified of losing this new friend of his and had to fight hourly an urge to cling onto him and never let him out of his sight. He had never known anyone else like him, and was unshakeably certain that he would never meet another. But he also knew instinctively that Robert liked to feel that he was drawing Joel out of a diffident or preoccupied world and firmly into Robert’s own, ideally with some reluctance so that he felt it was something of a challenge. Once in that world, Joel was free to choose his reaction, but his recently-acquired social tour-guide liked it best when he mocked it and shook his head at the collection of oddities who populated it.

It was easy to look beyond everyone’s carefully worn mask when he was with Robert. Easy to feel the mood of enlightenment which let him make witty observations instead of feeling unworthy.

He looked back over the lecture hall and chose to look at it through Robert’s eyes. It was strangely easy.

“Stags, Joel,” Robert would say, laughing at them, his mouth drawn into a curl of – what? Not jeering, and not mischief. Absurdity, perhaps, and gentle mockery, certainly. Whatever the mood, it was impossible not to laugh when he spoke like that. “A load of stags clashing their terribly well-polished horns to show their prowess, only with more braying. And look at the irony of it – mating season, and not a female in sight.”

It was impossible to feel threatened by them with this voice ringing in his ears. It made Joel smile to the point where he had to suppress laughter, and it was this controlled mirth which was possessing him when a quite definitely female voice said near to his ear, “Quite marvellous, aren’t they?”

She slid onto the bench next to him and brought with her a scent that reminded him of countries he’d never seen. “They remind me of peacocks.”

She was removing her coat as she spoke, and despite the unlikely elegance of the action her dress – an absurdly gauzy blue thing unfit for the cold outside – brushed his arm and left the hairs all standing up after it.

It took him a moment to say, “Stags, I thought, but I imagine for similar reasons.”

She smiled, at him and then at the room in front of her. “Do you think they’ll get to actual fighting soon? I might stay to the end if they do.”

“Were you not planning on staying anyway?” he asked her, half his mind still on that touch.

“Oh, I’m not planning on staying in any lectures which aren’t riveting. In fact, I’m only considering the subject of Law tentatively, and will immediately retract my interest if the first few lectures are as dull as drizzle   . Call this something of a taster.”

“So you don’t…” he hesitated, realising that he was on uncertain ground. He had no idea whether women were or weren’t part of the university. Certainly he’d never heard of there being female scholars, but that, he thought, was just the sort of thing none of the men who ran or attended the university would be loathe to talk about. “You don’t have to go to any?”

“Of course not,” she said, a little surprised, and then leaned towards him a little, which made him aware that several rows around them had become a good deal quieter now that she was there. It also made him aware of exactly how slight she was and how pale and sheer her skin was, making him think that it might flake away if he touched her too suddenly, like a moth’s wings. “We’re here on sufferance, don’t you know, and since we aren’t really wanted at these things, nobody minds if we’re not where they think we’ll be. I like to think of it as using my rights appropriately. I have the right to be here, but given that I won’t have any recognition of being here in the form of a degree or suchlike, I also have the right not to be here.”

For a moment he was lost for something to say, and then it came to him that Robert would know what to say, and so he replied, “It must be liberating. Confining oneself to listen to one person for an hour at a time, given that the person concerned may have an acute inability to speak comprehensible English, is a fair old waste of a morning if you ask me.”

She shrugged lightly, laughter in little hints and creases around her mouth. “I quite agree, but I don’t see that it’s any more liberating than your position. You are, after all, free to leave at any time by virtue of being a gentleman who is unlikely to be thrown out when you are paying good money to be here.”

There was an awkward moment when he could feel a hint of a blush on his face, but he covered it by nodding towards the dais, where a don with a suit which bagged off him at the shoulders and stretched tight over his abdomen had approached the lectern. As she turned to look, he murmured, “Actually, I’m not paying any money at all.”

“Really?” she asked, with only a swift glance at him and he could tell that she thought this a game. “You must tell me how you work that. Mama would be delighted not to waste funds on an unfortunate education.”

“It’s all about who you don’t know,” he told her, and tried as hard as he could to imitate Robert’s breezy certainty.

The lecture was beginning, but she still gave a soft laugh and whispered, “And I suppose you can’t share with me the details of who you don’t know or what you don’t know about them, given that you don’t know?”


“Well, if you’re not paying to be here and you don’t know some terribly important people, perhaps you aren’t a gentleman after all.” He could feel her breath on his cheek as she whispered. “In which case you’ll have no qualms about doing exactly what you want when you want without worrying what everyone else thinks.”

“I haven’t decided whether or not to be a gentleman yet,”  he whispered in response, a little loudly because he couldn’t quite bring himself to lean any further towards her.

The lecturer raised his voice a little and looked in their direction. Joel felt like a child again as he suppressed a smile, and saw from the corner of his eye that she was doing the same. They both dutifully took out a notebook and his degree in the Law commenced with a great deal less ceremony and a great deal more distraction than he would have thought possible.

It should have been fascinating: the foundation of the precedent-based legal system. It was what he was here for, what he wanted to know about. Without her there, he would have heard all of it despite the dry and uninteresting delivery. But the contrast between her heart-speeding vitality and the honourable Professor Cairlingen’s… littleness, he supposed was what he would call it, made the monotone voice impossible to take hold of. He kept shooting little glances at her, watching the slim fingers (which were bare of any rings, which relieved him more than it should have done) or the blonde hair falling over her face as she took a few notes in handwriting he couldn’t begin to read.

Thirteen minutes in, she sat back, watching Cairlingen speak, and then leaned over to Joel and muttered, “I think we’ve given him ample time. He’s now been erased from my timetable and I’m in the mood for coffee.”

He turned to her then and saw the enquiring eyes, a strange mixture of teasing, challenging and pleading. And he looked back at the dais, where there was only a sad little man in a suit worse than Joel’s own.

But there he hung for a moment, caught and balanced between two draws of equal strength. There was that life he saw mapped out for himself, the start of a career in the law and the successful firm and the increasing income which meant that he would never have to be beholden again; and more importantly, never have to go without. It was what he had been working towards for 6 years, and to have grasped it and thrown it away was almost incomprehensible.

And yet here, dragging at him, was a want he had never even known existed in him. It was like the desire to keep Robert’s friendship close, yet he could see all its differences. It was a softer, more invidious, more luscious want.

She waited, and he could see that her expression was already changing. She was beginning to be disappointed, and to put a mask in place to hide it. And it with a tearing feeling the life of scholarly study seemed to release him from its hold and he was rising to his feet, lighter and giddier than he could remember being in his life.

As the two of them climbed the stairs and slid out of the doors which let on to Free School Lane, there was a murmur amongst the students around them, and a good number of eyes followed them out, but Professor Cairlingen was deep in his notes and noticed nothing but a whispering he felt it time to quieten with a call to order.

Read Chapter Two

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