and the sensation in my stomach of falling in love or falling to damnation or both things at once, was a throwaway moment of carefree indulgence that I had not meant or especially liked. I was glad of the cool evening air on my face; I felt sure that the flush of embarrassment in my cheeks would light me up like a lantern without it.
"He sees it as a business opportunity," I managed, and Archie beside me said nothing, just carried on walking by my side through the darkening park. "He knows a gent whose tastes are–" There was no way to say it that didn't make me feel like running away. I sorted through every possible description I could think of, and in a weak voice I finished with, " particular ."
"Boys play-acting as girls."
"And he asked if you and I...?"
Even in the twilight I could see how pale Archie had turned. "You did say no, didn't you?"
"Of course I said no, how could you think I wouldn't?"
Something about his shoulders seemed to relax slightly at that; there was even an unamused, breathless sort of laugh in his words when he spoke again. "If you'd said yes without telling me first I would have knocked all your teeth out." Then after a moment he gave me a curious sideways look and asked quietly, "Would you have said yes if I'd said yes?"
The question startled me. It was something I had never considered; I had assumed Archie would be as horrified with the idea as I was. "That's a useless question, because you've said no."
"But if ?"
"I wouldn't want people watching." Once those first words were out, that first blundering confession, the rest seemed easier, as though my sense of shame had buckled and snapped beneath the weight this last night and day had heaped upon it. "I don't know what I feel about the things that happened except that I'm not sorry about any of it, not a bit, only that Mr Everett saw. I don't want that awful old man looking at you in photographs, or at me for that matter. I wouldn't do it for all the money in England."
Beside me, Archie's arm bumped gently against mine as we walked, then he widened the gap between us to make sure it wouldn't happen again. "It was the gin, wasn't it?" he said, as though he hadn't heard me.
"I suppose it was."
"Gin and... being tired from working all day and that far into the night. And taking those photographs of the others together." The excuses piled up like bricks in a building, and I nodded my agreement with all of them and waited for this dreadful feeling of nausea to go away. "Being, um. Overwhelmed by things, lots of things all at once, and acting in ways you normally wouldn't."
"Like the strange things you say out loud in a fever dream."
"Yes." We had come to another path by now, although the only people we could see on it were a man and woman walking arm in arm far ahead of us so it was still safe to talk as long as we were careful to keep our voices low enough not to carry. "I'm not sorry either, you know," Archie said softly, though he wouldn't look at me when he did.
"I'm glad." It appeared this was the cause of my nausea, this idea that the happenings of the night before would be enough to end the fledgling friendship that had already come to mean so much to me, for I began to feel better then.
"But we probably shouldn't drink gin together no more."
Archie arrived late to the studio the following Monday, unusually for him, and all morning he seemed quiet and distracted. I felt compelled many times to ask whether something was wrong – that is, something other than the obvious – but each time I took a breath to speak I changed my mind and left the words where they were, trapped and silent on my tongue. Our friendship, since that stilted conversation in the park, had become hesitant and strained as though we had travelled back in time to become near-strangers again, who spoke formally and never made jokes and certainly never touched. My hands wanted