The light from the open door spilled
across the pavement; and Ralph had parked at the curb immediately in front of the building. Andrew
thus got a good look at the car. It was not, he thought, the latest pre-war style: not with that
thick leather strap around the bonnet and the dim low gleam of copper pipes. Still, it was
doubtless its owner’s pride and joy: not everyone could afford to run a car of any description,
least of all with petrol rationing. Doubtless Ralph got the tank filled wherever he was stationed;
but, even so, Andrew found the situation to be awkward: the lift had been offered; but nowadays
it was a real favour, and from a man he could hardly say he knew.
Despite the chill, the hood was still folded down. “It’s a bit on the cold side,” Laurie
pointed out; and Ralph got out to raise it. However, it was obviously rickety in some way: he
struggled with it for a time, the damaged hand doubtless making it more difficult. For a while
Andrew stood silently waiting, not quite catching Laurie’s eye, having nothing to say that
would not start a conversation too long for the time. Finally, Laurie attempted to help; but
then an air-raid warden shouted about the black-out, and he had to return to the house and shut
the door. There was nothing for it: there was no fixing the hood in the dark. The others had
to scramble in and set off.
The moon was a sliver, the streets unlit, and the windows of all the buildings they passed
were veiled thickly with blackout curtains. Ralph had driven Laurie back to the hospital more
than once before the transfer to Bridstow General Hospital; still, it astonished Andrew that
anyone could negotiate the maze of the old city in the dark—the more so since signs had been
removed from every corner to foil invasion.
Andrew’s head was bare to the crisp night air. Walking along in the twilight, he had not noticed;
but the air had cooled with the setting of the sun, and it was not long before his ears tingled
in the breeze of the car’s passage. Ruefully, he thought that the whiskey he had drunk did not
seem to be warming him at all. It stank in his mouth and sat in a liquid lump in his stomach,
doing no good at all. He should never have drunk it.
They were passing through suburbs. Soon, they would be out of the city entirely. I am at a
disadvantage here, in so many ways, Andrew thought. Not just in ignorance; but in the simple
fact that I am in Ralph’s car, beholden for the lift. And—he became suddenly rather
aware—it was getting distinctly colder as the night settled deeper. Ralph, of course,
was in his naval greatcoat and probably sitting quite in comfort. Andrew was not dressed in
soldier’s kit: his overcoat was civilian. He shivered a little (imperceptibly, he hoped,
in the dark), and rather resented it.
Laurie had neither been given a lift to the hospital nor set off to walk back. This had not struck
Andrew at the time. It was only as the car turned south along the broad road leading out of the
city that he began to work through the implications. They had, after all been at Ralph’s digs. Laurie
had gone back upstairs. It followed that he intended to be there when Ralph returned from taking
Andrew to the E.M.S. hospital, would greet him, would—
(It was not, after all, as though he had denied anything.)
Andrew shrank from the details of what would presumably follow. He could not help recall school
gossip, never more rife than after the expulsion of that bully who had made the little boys do
what he wanted. (There had been much speculation on precisely what he had wanted.) Unwillingly,
Andrew speculated now, and became uncomfortably aware that he sat only inches away from Ralph.
He cast a sideways glance at the dim profile beside him. Ralph was intent on the road (and
needed to be); he did not turn or speak to his passenger.
I should have just left from the hospital, Andrew thought. I should have said good-bye as I
intended, and gone to the bus—early, but so be it—and returned with everyone
else. Then I wouldn’t need a lift from this stranger who is not strange to Laurie. I
could simply pack my suitcase and catch the bus to the train to London. I should have just
done that. I shouldn’t have gone to Bridstow: I shouldn’t have met Ralph: I
I’m rambling, Andrew realized; and it occurred to him that he must be slightly drunk. (If there
was one thing he definitely ought not have done, it was empty that glass!) He leaned
sideways against the door of the car, hoping that the stiffer breeze swirling in around the
windscreen would sober him up. Instead, as it cut through his coat, he shuddered suddenly.
He felt, rather than saw, a movement. Then Ralph said, “You all right?”
He turned his head. There was just sufficient natural light to see Ralph look his way. The car
slowed, and pulled slightly off the road—there was scarcely a shoulder—to
park with one wheel in a ditch.
“There’s a rug in the back,” said Ralph. “You must be freezing.” He
got out, without a glance for non-existent traffic, and began to reach blindly until he felt
the hairy texture of the fabric. He flipped it over the seat to drop it more or less on Andrew’s lap.
“Thanks.” As Ralph fumbled for the door and got in, Andrew sorted out the folds as best he could,
laid the rug over his knees in the approved manner, and then—thinking that warmth trumped
dignity—wrapped the whole thing round his shoulders, Injun-style.
The motor coughed as it turned over; but the delay had been too short for it to cool, and it
started quickly. The car jerked slightly as it was set in gear and the clutch let in; and there
was a whirr from the off-balance wheel. Then it found traction; and the car pulled up straight
on the road and drove on. Ralph did not speak again.
Well, what, thought Andrew, was there to say?
It came to him, as the hedgerows passed too close in the dark, that there was history here that
Laurie had told him already, if he had had the wit to read between the lines. It had always been
clear that it had to have been Ralph who had been sacked from Laurie’s school, to whose defence Laurie
had wanted to come, but who was guilty after all. “Ralph Ross Lanyon”, the Head Boy who had given
Laurie the Phaedrus, whose name was on the flyleaf, which Andrew had seen.
The jigsaw pieces were fitting, the picture clear. (Under the comfort of the rug, Andrew shuddered
as he saw it.) He had thought it odd that a Head Boy should give such a present to someone years
younger. “Given it to him when he was leaving,” indeed! Leaving because he was sacked! But then,
why had he been sacked? The elder had been blamed, of course: the age difference was damning. So
Laurie was permitted to stay, as Andrew’s own school had not expelled the little boys victimized by
the bully. It spared Ralph no guilt: Head Boy to junior as they were.
So what was going on between them now was not new, but old. Oh, severed by Ralph’s expulsion: that,
at least, Andrew did not doubt. Laurie had said that he had not seen Ralph from that day until they
met again—at Dunkirk (unwittingly) and in Bridstow (so significantly, to pick up again where they
had left off so many years before). This much Andrew believed: Laurie would not flat out lie to
him: he had not seen Ralph for years.
Now they had met again. Under that trim uniform beside him in the car was a body with which Laurie
had done the unimaginable—then, and now, and … soon once more.
The car drove on, not with great speed given the winding road and the dark night. Ralph remained
focused on the task at hand. Andrew did not break his silence: he could think of nothing to say,
anyway. The truth was clear, and did not need confirmation beyond what he had already heard from
Laurie. Still less did he want to hear it from this man he didn’t know but Laurie did, in a most
When the car finally pulled up outside the gates of the hospital, Andrew got out with no more
than a quiet thank-you for the lift. Ralph did not switch off; and the motor continued to rumble
quietly as Andrew unwound the rug from his shoulders, and began to fold it.
“Did you give Laurie your address in London?” asked Ralph abruptly. “Do you know it yet?”
“Yes, of course,” said Andrew. “I’ve been getting letters from Dave ever since he went up
there. I wrote him last week asking for the transfer.”
“Yes,” said Ralph patiently, “but did you tell Laurie?”
Andrew strove to remember those last few minutes in the flat: he had promised to write, hadn’t
he? And he knew the address of Bridstow General: that was no problem. But no, he hadn’t (he was
sure he hadn’t) made a copy of the address in London for Laurie to write to him.
Getting no answer, Ralph sighed, very faintly, and reached into his pocket for a notebook. He
uncapped his fountain pen and handed it over. “Write it down,” he said.
With the rug over his arm, Andrew took the notebook, a faint pale rectangle, and fumbled the pen
from Ralph’s hand. He could not see the words as he wrote them, had to feel for the edge of the
page lest he run out of paper at the end of the line, and could only hope that the ink was flowing
properly and did not blot.
He handed the notebook back with some reluctance.
“Don’t worry,” said Ralph, leaning out to take it. “I’ll see he writes.”
Wordlessly, Andrew laid the folded rug in the back of the car.
“Right then,” said Ralph briskly. He set the car in gear, swung it in a tight circle, and drove
off. In the distance, Andrew could hear another motor, coming closer: the bus, he thought. He
waited until Ralph’s car disappeared round a curve, but then turned to go in the gates to report
his return. If he was quick, he could be into the grounds before everyone else arrived back from
Bridstow. Right now, he could not bear to join their happy chat about their afternoon.
Later, as he packed his suitcase in the orderlies’ hut, he thought: shall I write? Is there
Later yet, in the fires of the Blitz, it all seemed far away. The E.M.S. hospital was a quiet
memory; and the sirens and stretchers too close and too real, shared only with the brotherhood
of the Friends at The Beeches.
Then the letter came from Laurie, with the small packet that contained the book; and, in all
courtesy, he had to reply.
“Long is the way and hard” is the third in a series begun in “A
Fork in the Road to London” and continued in “Corkscrew”.
It was written as a gift for toujours_nigel in Yuletide 2015, and was posted to the
Yuletide AO3 collection
community on 24 December 2015.
Although Mary Renault ostensibly set The Charioteer in and around the
fictional city of “Bridstow”, she was, in fact, drawing on her experience during World War II as a
nurse at an Emergency Medical Services Hospital outside Bristol; and her descriptions are based on that city.
Fan Fiction based on Mary Renault”s Novels
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