When I Was Thirteen

by Denton Welch
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 822

The narrator recalls that, when he was thirteen, he went on a skiing trip to Switzerland with an older brother, spent an enjoyable day skiing with an older youth, and, for no reason he could understand, was accused of scandalous behavior of a kind unfamiliar to him. Staying at the same lodge as the narrator and his brother, a student at Oxford University, is Archer, also a student at Oxford. The brother does not like Archer. The narrator, however, is very impressed by Archer’s physique and bearing when, for example, he sees him skiing bare-chested in a cavalier, robust fashion.

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He is of the impression that Archer takes little interest in him until the two meet on a sun terrace, where the narrator has gone to read a book, drink hot chocolate, and eat “delicious rhumbabas and little tarts filled with worm-castles of chestnut puree topped with caps of whipped cream.” That afternoon tea illustrates the sensibility of the narrator—although he is only thirteen, he is a devotee of the luxurious.

The book the young man is reading is one by Leo Tolstoy. He is puzzled by Tolstoy’s description of one of the characters as an illegitimate child. After Archer initiates conversation, the younger youth ventures to ask what the term means, but in his profound innocence he cannot believe the explanation that Archer gives him—that an illegitimate child is one born out of wedlock. The books Archer says he likes to read indicate that he is rather more worldly than the young narrator. One, he says, was entitled Flaming Sex; it “was by a French woman who married an English knight and then went back to France to shoot a French doctor.” He calls such a book a “real life” story, but it, like others he describes, appears worldly to the point of being slightly sordid and risque.

Archer is, then, similar to the narrator in that both gravitate toward the hedonistic. He invites his new young friend to ski with him the next day. The next morning, the narrator’s infatuation with Archer is apparent; he recalls that when Archer slung their skis across his shoulders, “he looked like a very tough Jesus carrying two crosses.” During the outing, Archer provides for his less robust companion with food and physical support. He also initiates him into some common luxuries of adulthood: hot black coffee, a glass of sweetened rum, and cheap Swiss cigarettes. The younger boy takes readily to the role of the initiate; when Archer hands him pieces of a tangerine on his outstretched palm, he has to restrain himself from licking them up as a horse would do. While skiing, Archer urges the young narrator to unusual boldness; when the narrator falls, Archer “hauled me out of the snow and stood me on my feet, beating me all over to get off the snow.”

That paternal but curious physical intimacy continues after the two return to Archer’s rooms, which are in an annex some distance from the chalet, and take baths, scrubbing each other’s backs. The younger youth massages Archer’s legs, which are cramped after the day’s skiing. The narrator apprehends no threat from the older youth, and it transpires that he need fear none. It is clear, however, that his infatuation with Archer makes him willing to try anything that Archer recommends. The element of physical attraction that has been developed gradually and unobtrusively by Denton Welch has blossomed. The narrator remarks, for example, that Archer’s “thigh, swelling out, amazed me.”

The meal the two youths then eat in a restaurant is, like everything else they have eaten, almost decadently luxurious. By the end of it, the younger youth has drunk a mixture of lemonade, lager, and creme de menthe and is tipsy. After he and Archer have returned to Archer’s room—Archer sings “Silent Night” in German along the way—he is quite drunk and falls asleep, grateful that Archer has thoughtfully taken off his shoes, undone his tie, and loosened the braces holding up his pants.

The next morning, the two go to the chalet for breakfast. They meet the narrator’s brother, who has unexpectedly returned early from his own extended skiing expedition. Archer clearly is aware that the older brother will have cause to suspect that inappropriate activities have taken place and tries to provide an explanation for his and his friend’s arrival at the chalet so early in the morning. The older brother swallows neither his nor the narrator’s explanation. After the narrator returns to his room with his brother, he vomits as a result of what he had drunk the night before. His older brother beats him with a slipper and shouts at him. The narrator, who has been recalling the incidents several years later, remembers that the violent outburst made him think that his brother had gone mad.

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