The lovely M/M Romance Group over on Goodreads have started up some threads for writing prompts in the few months. I wrote this one back in November 2013. The challenge was to write a story to suit the title ‘Come Upon These Greener Pastures.’ I like writing in the pastoral mode, so my brain promptly went into overdrive. Despite already having the prompt title, I feel like this story really ought to be called ‘Strange Meeting’ because the allusion fits, so it can be a story with two titles. There’s lots of deliberate references to the poetry of the era in this. Reposting it here, so I can archive it with all the other stuff 🙂
WW1 setting, with some explicit scenes.
Come Upon These Greener Pastures: Strange Meeting
Midway through the afternoon, the train stopped.
It was late June, and the sun sloped lazily through the compartment window. It made it hard for the officer to focus on his newspaper, the print dancing before his eyes. After a moment, when it was clear that they weren’t about to move again, he folded it up and looked around the compartment to see if anyone else was concerned about their lack of progress.
There were two other men in here with him, and had been since the start of the journey, as far as he could remember. Opposite him sat a brother officer, his back straight and face stiff, perusing a small leather-backed book. In the other corner, by the door into the corridor, was a young private, fair-haired and freckled. He was fidgeting in his seat, as if he couldn’t bear to sit still, and the officer hid a smile behind his hand. Some of these boys straight out from Blighty looked like they’d been sewn into their uniforms against their will and wanted nothing more to shrug off their boots, unbutton their collars and start chewing easily on a stem of grass.
This private was the type who’d look better in his shirtsleeves than in a suit, the officer thought idly. He could just imagine how the private’s skin was brown below his uniform. He would be muscled and confident, likely the type who would stand on the back of a cart and shovel the hay all day without complaint, laughing when he lost his hat and the sun kissed more freckles across his cheeks. He’d tip water over his head to cool his face, laughing at his friends’ mockery, and it would soak his loose shirt and trickle down his strong chest. The drips would trace their way across his tanned throat and down, making him shiver as they brushed his nipple—
The officer shook himself, embarrassed. He prized himself on his honor, and it was not the done thing to think like that about the common soldiers. Bad enough that he had that poisonous tendency himself. It wouldn’t do to go corrupting the men.
He brought his gaze back to his side of the compartment, and saw the other officer had closed his book and was looking at him. “Should one of us contact the guard and see what the delay is?”
“It’s only been a few minutes,” the officer said.
“Nonetheless, we all have places to be. Time is of the essence.”
“Yes,” the officer said uneasily. “Going far?”
“To the end of the line, of course. You?”
The officer thought about it. He wasn’t at all sure where his ultimate destination was, or which station he should alight at. God knew that last shell had shaken his brain up a bit, but it was embarrassing to forget something this simple. He could look at his ticket, he supposed, if he rummaged through his pockets to find it. He didn’t fancy admitting weakness in front of the other officer, though, so he just stood up. “I’ll go looking for the guard.”
The private cleared his throat. “I don’t think there is a guard, sir. Not seen him go by in all these hours we’ve been on this train.” He had a pleasant voice, country rich.
“Of course there’s a guard,” the other officer snapped. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“He isn’t wrong,” the officer said, and stared out into the corridor. He’d seen a few other soldiers passing by their compartment as the train wheezed its way steadily along the track, but no one in any railway uniform that he knew. “I’ll walk up the train and see what I can find out.”
“Much appreciated,” the other officer said, picking up his book again.
The private was fidgeting again, staring at the officer. He had blue eyes, wide and a little protuberant, and sandy brows that were currently arched in surprise. “Don’t, sir!”
“Why the devil not?” the other officer demanded, putting his book down again.
“I’ve been watching the chaps go by, sir, and I couldn’t help but notice that they’ve only been going one way, and ain’t none of them come back.”
“Obviously they’re moving up to alight at a short platform. What nonsense is this?”
“Saving we haven’t stopped at a station yet, sir.”
“We haven’t, have we?” the officer said, startled. “You’re right. It’s been hours since we left London.”
“Manchester,” the other officer corrected sharply, even as the private said, “Dover.”
For a moment, they all stared at each other. Then the other officer picked up his book, and said sharply, “Clearly you are both the victims of nervous shock. I hope the doctors can see to you, but I will not partake of this nonsense any longer.”
The officer stared across the compartment at the private, biting his lip. “Shouldn’t we investigate?”
“Can if you like, sir, but I don’t much like this train. Thought I might just get off here.”
“Looks like nice country.”
The officer hadn’t glanced out the window as the train pulled along, but now he walked over to roll up the blind and look out. The glass was a little grubby, but he could still see the fields beyond, stretching out in a long green curve to where a river ran, willows hanging low over the dancing water. Beyond the river, the hills rose in slow soft rolls, their curves so comfortable he almost felt he could reach out and press his palm against them.
“I’d like to get these boots off and soak these feet of mine in that stream,” the private said, close beside his ear. He stretched out his arm to pull the window down, his shoulder brushing the officer’s. This close, he smelt like sweat and dirt and something sweet and elusive that could have been sunshine. Every hair on the officer’s arm stood on end when their hands brushed, and he took a quick breath.
Then, as the fresh air curled in on a warm wind, he breathed deeper. The air itself tasted sweet with flowers, and the meadow outside seemed to be singing, birdsong rising in a bright cascade, insects humming, the wind rustling through the grass. It smelt like summer should, not like blood and gangrene and the sweet-pepper stink of gas. Strange, how in the despairing hours when he had imagined England so fiercely it hurt, he had never remembered exactly how she smelt.
“You staying or coming with me?” the private asked. “Sir.”
There was no real decision to be made. With a quiet relief, he reached out the window and opened the door.
“You’re not seriously going through with this?” the other officer snapped behind them. “We have places to be. It’s desertion.”
The officer ignored him and scrambled out of the train. It was a longer drop than he’d expected, without a station platform to catch him, and he went skidding down the bank when he did land, the ballast slipping away beneath his feet. He caught his balance at the bottom of the slope, throwing his arms out to steady himself. A moment later the private cannoned into him with a gust of laughter, throwing sturdy arms around the officer’s waist to catch himself.
Before the officer could force himself to protest, the private had pulled off him and was pelting across the meadow towards the river, laughing brightly. The officer followed more slowly, following a rabbit track through the long grass. The seed heads brushed softly against his hands, and the thronging flowers left smudges of pollen on his khaki trousers, little smears of bold yellow. A butterfly fluttered past him, alighting for a moment in his path, and he stopped , staring at it.
It was small, its wings a soft blue. Chalkhill Blue, he remembered, out of the distances of childhood, when he had roamed the South Downs with the inept enthusiasm of a junior naturalist. He had planned to be a famous explorer then, discovering new species in yet unexplored jungles.
The butterfly flittered away and he continued towards the river, smiling a little at the memory.
When he arrived there, the private was already in the water, his boots and jackets discarded and his trousers rolled up to his knees. He grinned and laughed as the officer approached. “Come on! Water’s lovely.”
“Looks cold to me,” the officer replied, but bent down to remove his own boots.
“Warm as a baby’s bottle,” the private called, his grin so wide it was obvious he was lying.
It was freezing, but the bottom was lined with fat pebbles, pleasant underfoot. Despite the cold, it felt good flowing over his feet, after weeks reluctantly pulling on the same increasingly fetid boots. His sore and blistered toes stung for a moment, but then it was such a relief.
“See, lovely, I told you.”
The officer reached down and splashed him, smiling more freely than he had for months. That, inevitably, led to more, and they went ducking and diving across the river, scooping up great shining armfuls of water, as sunlight shimmered through the trees, until they were both soaked and laughing so hard they could barely keep their feet. When the officer’s foot slipped on a weed-slick rock, he sat down hard, up to his waist in water, and still couldn’t stop laughing.
The private hauled him to his feet, his hand firm and strong, grinning all the while. “Say you’ve lost!”
“Never,” the officer managed through his laughter and pulled the private down with him, and they went rolling through the knee-deep water, half-wrestling and half just tangled in each other. They were both drenched by the time they sat up, too weak to fight anymore, and the private choked out between his chuckles, “Hey, I’m shivering. Let’s get out to the sun.”
They gathered up their discarded clothes and crossed the river. On the other bank the trees grew densely, alders dipping low over their swampy roots, but there was a clear path through, and soon they were climbing up the sun-washed hillside. Once they were high enough to see over the trees to the valley below, they stopped. The private stripped down to his buttoned shorts without a hint of self-consciousness and then went about spreading his wet clothes across the hillside to dry. The officer imitated him, blushing a little and trying not to stare. The private looked everything he had imagined and more, with a farmer’s tan and freckled shoulders, and enough hair on his chest and running down his belly that the officer wanted to touch it to see if it was as soft as it looked.
He looked away quickly and sat down, hoping that his reaction wasn’t too obvious. From here he could see the whole valley, with the downs rising on the other side and rolling away beyond in endless blue curves, soft against the sky. There were a few clouds, fat and white, but the sky around them was blue and the sun was a warm caress against his skin. Lying back, he settled against short grass and eyed the flowers growing by his head, a cluster of yellow tormentil and sturdy little scarlet pimpernels.
“Sheep country,” the private commented sleepily, and a moment later his hand landed on the officer’s belly, splaying out lazily.
He should have pushed the hand off, but instead the officer sighed contentedly and covered it with his own. “Doesn’t smell like sheep.”
The private chuckled, his fingers closing warmly around the officer’s.
For a while they lay like that, easy and comfortable. Then, just as the officer’s eyes were beginning to drift shut, the private sat up, leaning over him. “Reckon anyone else is going to leave that train?”
“It’s just you and me,” the officer murmured.
“More fools them,” the private said and leaned down to kiss him.
The officer opened his mouth to the kiss, sliding his hand up to tangle in sun-gold hair. It was a good kiss, warm and slow and he sighed into it, his whole body going soft and languid as their tongues tangled.
They were only roused by the sound of the train’s whistle.
The private sat up, staring down the hillside. Below them, the train was still sitting on the track, but there was new steam rising from its engine, as if it was about to move.
“If you run, you could still catch it,” the officer said.
“I could, at that. I mean, my old dad’s working the farm on his own without me. My brother’s no help. Too eager to join up himself, even though I’ve warned him against it, and so dad’s got to get the harvest in himself and his back’s bad these days. It’s not right to leave him to do it alone.”
“Go, then,” the officer said, his heart clenching sadly. He had no one waiting for him.
But the private did not move. “Thing is, I don’t reckon I’d ever get home, even if I did get back on that train. It’s not that sort of journey, is it?”
“I’m almost certain it isn’t.”
“I said Dover, didn’t I, but I don’t actually remember it. Just seems a place where it’s natural to start a trip. And you said London—”
“I used to catch the train home from school every term.”
“—and that other chap, likely he catches trains from Manchester now and then. Don’t think any of us really remembered getting on that train. Honest to god, sir, last thing I do remember is the mine going up at Wicked Corner. Just the bang and the blast and the fire in the air, and then I’m sat on that train, with not a scratch on me, and now I’ve not even got the blisters on my feet or the ache in my gut or even an itch from the bloody fleas. So no, sir, I don’t think that train would take me home.”
The officer closed his eyes and remembered the strange watery hue of the light, the silence shuddering in his ears after the shell landed, and looking up to see the green-grey gas come over the edge of the trench like water, turning every breath to fire as he groped, too late, for his mask, guttering, choking, drowning.
“And if it’s not home to the farm, I don’t want to go, sir. I’d rather stay here. Looks like good country, this.”
“In groves we live,” the officer said slowly, recollecting his Virgil, “and lie on mossy beds, by crystal streams, that murmur through the meadows.”
“About right, that. Sounds good. Better than Ypres, at any rate, eh, sir?”
The officer looked up at him, bright country boy that he was, and wanted more. “Don’t call me sir. I don’t think this is the kind of country where they have officers.”
“What’s your name then?”
He was about to offer his surname, as he would have done at school or to a stranger. Then, reconsidering, he said, “I’m George.”
His hand was seized firmly. “Going to slay a dragon or two?”
“I’m tired of dragons,” George said.
“Don’t blame you. Can’t say I fancy meeting a giant right now, even if I’ve got the name for it. Which is to say, I’m Jack.”
“Jack,” George said slowly, tasting the name on his tongue. “Delighted to make your acquaintance.”
Jack laughed and leaned forward to kiss him, a quick chaste brush. “So posh and old-fashioned. You’re not much older than me, Georgie boy.”
“And how old are you?” George demanded, leaning forward to follow the kiss.
“Nineteen, this May gone.”
“Older than you look,” George murmured and tucked his hand around Jack’s nape, pulling him in for a kiss. “I’ve got three years on you.”
“Oh, you’re an old man then,” Jack said and slid his hand down to stroke George through his shorts. “This feels young and eager enough.”
George groaned, pushing up into the touch, shock quickly dissolving into desire.
The train whistle sounded again, making them both jump. They both turned their heads, their cheeks pressing together, and Jack’s hand fell to rest on George’s bare thigh. They watched silently as the train pulled out, chugging down the center of the valley as swiftly as a snake, the light gleaming on its blank windows. When it vanished around the curve of the valley, George took a slow breath.
“And so here we are,” he said.
“So we are,” Jack agreed and nudged the buttons on George’s shorts open. “Take these off.”
“Out here?!” George protested, faintly scandalized, but then Jack’s hand closed warmly around his stiff cock and he groaned.
“No one to see us.” Jack pulled George’s shorts the rest of the way off and then discarded his own, kneeling over George with a sunny smile. “If this is a country without officers, I reckon it’s also a country where chaps like you and me can love each other.”
He was beautiful, George thought hazily, and not just because his hand felt so good. Jack was all sturdy muscle and golden curls. His cock was as broad and solid as the rest of him, standing out from his body, stiff and flushed. He had never dared imagine that he’d be free to look at another man like this, let alone by sunlight, spread across sweet-smelling grass. Tentatively, he reached out to touch Jack’s cock, running his finger across the soft skin and savoring the hardness below.
“More,” Jack begged, his own hand trembling a little.
George took a proper grip, copying Jack’s rhythm, and suddenly they were moving together, thrusting against each other to the same rough beat, hard in each others’ hands, panting together as Jack lunged forward clumsily to kiss him, their mouths wet and clumsy as they strained against each other. George could feel every blade of grass crushed against his back, every brush of the wind against his bare and curling toes, every place where his skin touched Jack’s, his whole body aflame, this time with pleasure.
When that pleasure suddenly gathered, spearing out of his balls to rush over him, he cried out into Jack’s mouth, his hand tightening. It was so good it blinded him, and for a moment he couldn’t see the sun or the green hills or Jack’s flushed and lovely face. He could hear Jack, though, the sudden sharpening of his gasps, and he felt it when Jack’s slick hand slipped away from George’s cock to work at his own, his hand moving over George’s, wet and warm.
When Jack spilled over him, George groaned again and managed to throw an arm up to lock around Jack’s waist, holding him close.
For a while, they lay like that, shaking against each other. Eventually, though, George’s vision cleared and the lax weight of Jack’s body on his became a bit too much. He rolled Jack off him and sat up to look down at him.
Jack grinned up at him, his cheeks flushed, his lips red from kisses, and his hair tousled. “Told you this was a good country.”
“No argument here,” George said and reached over to snag one of his puttees to wipe them clean. He wasn’t planning on wearing them again, but they would do very well for this purpose.
“You know what it makes me think of?” Jack asked, his voice slow and contented. “When I was very young, my mother had this old book of fairy tales. I was never much for reading, but it had all these pictures in, all soft colors and blue hills. Jack the Giant Killer’s country, that was the one I liked. All hills and trees and no towns. I wanted to live there.”
“Something like that. I asked my ma, right, where that country was, seeing as I knew there were no giants and dragons around about our village, and she told me it wasn’t a place you could get to anymore. Back in the day, she said, the land of fairy tales and our country overlapped in places, and you could just walk from one to another by accident. I reckon that’s where we are. You can’t get there by walking these days, but it makes sense there’s a train. The trains get everywhere nowadays.”
“I was thinking of the Ancient Greeks,” George said.
“Ooh,” Jack said, waggling his eyebrows. “We all know about them.”
George shook his head, amused. “And we’ll have some more of the Greek vice, when you’re ready, but that wasn’t what I was thinking. They said that the underworld was full of fields of asphodel, and you got there by ferry. Perhaps today it’s a train.”
“What’s asphodel when it’s at home?”
“They’re meadow flowers, in Greece. White flowers.”
“Oh, in Greece,” Jack said knowingly and sat up a little, propping himself up on his elbows. “Well, I see rampion and pimpernels, and there’s poppies down in the valley. Reckon there would be daffadowndillies up here in the spring. That’s proper English meadow flowers, you see. None of this Greek nonsense.”
George laughed and stole another kiss.
After a while, they gathered up their clothes and got dressed again. Then, looking out over the valley, they argued amicably over whether they should go back down to the river or not.
“Do you think,” George asked, as the thought occurred to him, “that we’re really the only ones here?”
Jack shrugged. “Nah. I reckon there’s always a few people who are willing to get off the train. Not many, but some.”
“Perhaps we should find them.”
“One day,” Jack said easily, and reached for his hand. “There’s no rush, is there?”
And so they went on up the hill, hands linked, following the path across the flowery meadow until it rose towards the peak of the downs, and the blue, blue sky beyond.
Copyright Amy Rae Durreson 2013