L.P. Hartley’s excellent 1953 novel The Go-Between deals with a secret affair between a manor-dwelling girl of good family and a young tenant farmer in Norfolk during the summer of 1900. We see it through the eyes of a visiting 12-y-o boy who takes messages between them without understanding what sort of “business” the couple has together.
Sex is very much visible and understood in the surface text here: the plot hinges entirely on these two young people carrying on across the class boundary. But let’s look at the sub-text in the remarkable ch. XV. The author is a 60ish closeted gay man writing in an early-1950s literary climate where homosexuality is not discussed frankly. It seems pretty clear what reading demographic he’s addressing so knowingly here.
At a prior visit, farmer Ted has alluded to a pregnant horse and the link between its pregnancy and “spooning”. This shocks young Leo who has no clear idea of what spooning is about, except that it is a silly laughable thing that grown-ups do. Ted offers to explain more fully about spooning at a later date, but Leo is not sure he wants to know. Now the boy has come to deliver yet another secret message from Ted’s girl up at the manor.
He was sitting on a chair behind the table with a gun between his knees, so absorbed that he didn’t hear me. The muzzle was just below his mouth, the barrel was pressed against his naked chest, and he was peering down it. He heard me and jumped up.
‘Why,’ he said, ‘it’s the postman!’
He stood the gun against the table and came across to me, with a swish of the brown corduroy trousers that he wore in the hottest weather. Seeing the hesitations and reservations in my face he said, ‘I oughtn’t to be like this when callers come, but I was that hot. Do you mind? Shall I put a shirt on? There are no ladies present.’
‘Well, would you like to come out and see me shoot something?’ he suggested, as if my salvation lay in shooting. ‘There’s some old rooks round here that could do with a peppering.’
‘Do you ever miss?’ I asked.
‘Good Lord, yes, but I’m a pretty good shot, though I say it. Now, would you like to see me clean the gun?’
No one is quite the same after a loud bang as before it: I went back into the kitchen a different person. My grief had changed to sulkiness and self-pity, a sure sign of recovery. The deed of blood had somehow sealed a covenant between us, drawn us together by some ancient, sacrificial rite.
‘Now you take this cleaning-rod’ he said, ‘and this bit of four-by-two’ — picking up a piece of frayed, white, oily rag — ‘and you thread it through the eye of this cleaning-rod, same as you would a needle.’ Screwing his eyes up, for the kitchen was not well lighted, he suited the action to the word. The slightest movement brought into play the muscles of his forearms; they moved in ridges and hollows from a knot above his elbow, like pistons working from a cylinder. ‘And then you press it down the breech, like this, and you’ll be surprised how dirty it comes out.’ He pushed the wire rod up and down several times. ‘There, didn’t I say it would be dirty?’ he exclaimed, triumphantly showing me the rag, which was filthy enough to satisfy one’s extremest expectations.
‘Now I’ll just clean the other barrel’ he said, ‘and then I’ll make you a nice cup of tea.’
Should I accept his offer? Tea would be waiting for me at Brandham Hall. I saw his cricket bat standing in a corner, and to gain time I said: ‘You ought to oil your bat, too.’ It was rather pleasant to give instructions after receiving so many.
“Thank for reminding me. I shall want it again on Saturday.’
‘May I oil it for you?’ I asked.
I handled the bat as reverently as if it had been the bow of Ulysses … I poured a little oil on to the middle of the bat and began to work it in gently with my fingers; the wood seemed to drink it thirstily and gratefully as if it too was suffering from the drought. The rhythmic rubbing half soothed and half excited me: it seemed to have a ritual significance, as if I was rubbing out my own bruises, as if the new strength I was putting into the bat would pass into its owner.