‘And even as he, who, with distressful breath,
Forth issued from the sea upon the shore,
Turns to the water perilous and gazes;
So did my soul, that still was fleeing onward,
Turn itself back to re-behold the pass
Which never yet a living person left.’
Inferno, Canto I, Dante Alighieri
Richard scanned the parade ground and felt quietly elated: his final ceremony. The officers stood a few feet slightly apart, hands clasped behind their backs, thumbs interlocking. He admired the stoic faces, beads of sweat rippling down their cheeks. He knew they would be wriggling their toes frantically by now, thumping under the weight of their felt trousers. Richard had always liked the symmetry of a parade, the months of training that went into it, the learned precision, the sheer endurance, the bodily restraint. On days like this, he found the sense of occasion pleasurable, he admired the careful placement of insignia, and the simple, strict execution of pedestrian movement.
At first, during his early years of service, he disliked the pomp, the feeling of unquestioned subjugation, but the new Second Sea Lord Richard Peterson had slowly learned to listen, to push down any rising doubt or fear. As Richard looped through the rows of men, silently acknowledging his command, he felt the hard impact of a change in the wind. The audience buttoned their coats and readjusted their scarves in the way that crowds do—a barometer of the shared mood. Even after a few years, he was still not accustomed to the burning presence of the gaze of others. Before all of this, the promotion, the tours, the ascendance of hierarchy, he had liked the safety he found in his division: the banal sameness of a shared rank. He looked at the men before him, holding themselves tight, firm, perfectly still. He felt the familiar itch of not being able to register invisible suffering and he admired their growing ability to keep it bolted deep down below the surface as if threaded into the very starch of their uniforms. This won’t have come naturally, he thought, as he slowly brought his eye to that of a man with his hand held tight to his forehead, chest puffed, lips trembling in silent concentration.
When Richard had first returned to England, he missed the time he had spent with other men. Active duty provided a thrilling asceticism, the monotonous regulation of daily life. Back at home, as he became accustomed to his new desk job on the base, he found this hard to maintain. He tried to instil a routine, but he desperately wanted to feel something or distract himself from the waking nightmares, from the limbs behind his eyelids that would fall and drop to the bottom of a computer screen like Tetris blocks. It was difficult, and felt indulgent, to be lonely.
At first, he scoured message boards for other gay vets. As ClassifiedBear05, Richard downloaded apps, named like the sounds that animals make, swiping past switchy blond twinks, on the hunt for hairy beefcakes, tattoos, piercings, glimpses of strapped leather, a sense of showmanship. After a while, he found The Black Dog. There was a group of four or five men who he began to consider regular company there. They told him that they were in a similar place to him, ‘ex-military, lonely, sentient men’. You don’t have to earn the right to a uniform by holding a gun, they laughed. They met once a week, in the tiny, rented rooms above The Black Dog. Initially, it seemed to Richard that it might be foolish to place his trust in the hands of a group of men he didn’t know, but he desired the intimacy and the urgency of being with other men more.
Richard slowly began to visit the pub, sometimes two, three times a week. He enjoyed offering his week a sense of structure, where desire was secret and private. He had thought that these men would be disaffected, burly, but they seemed quiet—earnest even—and he liked the way an evening could pan out: a drink, the delicate management of expectations, the open brutality of sweat and exchange, the tight pull of a belt and the hard knot in his stomach as he looked around the room to his friends, hard and wanting. He liked the earthiness of fluids and the tenderness of the showers after. That felt so good, he would think. He desperately wanted to say something particular to his friends; it feels as if, it feels as though… Richard stuttered night upon night, fumbling for words, and failing. In the car home, he would reason with himself that it didn’t matter if he couldn’t find the right expression, he liked the impermanence of it all, he liked that he had found others whose bodies were as exempt, as lonely, and as free as his.
Each year, Richard took pride in giving the commencement address, and this year was the last. An important, hard-fought decision he had explained to his superior, one that took great courage to come to. This year, his speech would reflect his retirement. He wanted to focus on strategy and geopolitics, and the importance of vigilance and honour in a time of political upheaval and civil unrest. Before the training and the parades and becoming an officer and slowly rising through the ranks, during his undergraduate degree at Oxford, he read somewhere, in a thick book in the library, that the silence of the body in pain lends material reality to the endeavour of war—that its structural logic needs bodies to substantiate itself, that one is forced the endure pain because denying it is so easily instrumentalised. At the time, he made a note. Now, he remembers—and passionately preaches during spates of targeted recruitment—that theory does not always meet practice. The military, he would conclude, is theory in and through practice: a brotherhood of strategic command.
At home, he had practiced his speech in the mirror, pausing meaningfully during the gaps in his speech where he would look at the audience with an implied sense of shared understanding. He would talk proudly of violence and the growing insularity of nation-states, offering pertinent reflections on the progress they had made since the War on Terror.
Your investment of time is important, bound to your duty and commitment. There is nothing that makes me prouder of our country, of what we stand for in this world, or what we can achieve. You are defending freedom on land and sea. Enjoy this momentous day, it is indeed very special and there will never be another quite like it.
His voice rang out across the parade ground and as he concluded his speech so too did a rapturous round of applause. Richard had always thought of himself as a man of fragments. He longed for a cohesive narrative arc to tie his multiple desires together but as he gesticulated confidently and received the soft chuckling of an audience desperate to laugh, he felt the discontinuous break of these differences quite sharply. All the things he wanted to shout into this microphone, the curved imprint of fingernails in his back, the tentative erotics of the glory hole, the wounds, the broken bones, he wanted it to sound out through the echoing globe of the microphone and for his words to spread feverishly across the crowd.
After, on the quarterdeck, everyone moved with intention: a place for dignified men in uniforms. Richard acknowledged a young woman sipping a glass of champagne listlessly and alone in the far corner of the room. He acknowledged the newly engraved swords, embossed with lineages in ouroboros patterns. The patter of silver cutlery on porcelain saucers echoed around the wardroom as mothers, fathers, sisters, and cousins beamed at one another. Fresh coffee and dust-laced sun tracks covered the tables and young officers waltzed across the dense, maroon carpet, shoes shining at the very tip, as warmth finally flooded their muscles.
After his initial rounds of hellos and congratulations, Richard departed quickly. At the door to The Black Dog, Richard found himself stripping off his tight jacket, popping and unplucking the double-breasted buttons with a renewed sense of enthusiasm, ensuring the Service Cross sat firmly around his neck. As he stared at the door, he tried to avoid the question of what his life would look like without years of service, of where he might be now or what it might have meant to live in proximity to someone that he really loved. Instead, he committed himself to his second life. As with all adjustments, he knew he wouldn’t necessarily take easily to change, but that—like most things he tried—he would go about it with a steady and reliable pace. He weaved his way through the crowd, clutching hips, nodding silently in acknowledgement, to find a small unoccupied patch of the bar. The ecstasy of whiskey on his throat was smooth like milk. Now, he desired the relief of private ceremony; he wanted to feel exceptional. His leathery arms, as they held the stout glass, felt useful and strong.
He closed his eyes and imagined himself on a slim Estuary in a small rowing boat where the lull of the waves sucked the bow of the boat like affectionate guppy fish. Away from the parade ground, it was easier, nicer even, to acknowledge that it was his time. He reminisced back to the beginning. Dreams of sinking ships. Essays about the Cold War. Learning how to iron a union jack fastidiously into a pillowcase. The dizzying early mornings spent wanting to scream out, to snort, insouciantly, in the face of leadership. The melancholy days spent wanting to bring all of this to the ground. In the boat, he gazed into the endless, cloud-bruised water. Below him, the slow rippling of broken water carefully refracted Richard’s reflection.
Then, at the bar, Richard felt the warm, familiar presence of a hand sliding up his thigh, towards the thick of his crotch. He knew the invitation, the promise of affection, the contortion of sinewed muscle, the stillness, and the hunger afterwards.
Bryony White is a writer and academic based in London, UK.
The body, proximity, and place can be far-reaching and boundless—this series intends to question these complex questions through different experiments with language, art, cultural phenomena, and writing as practice, and is led by editor-in-residence Hatty Nestor.