53 Years Later
Harry stared through his own faint reflection and out at the countryside rushing by them. He rested one side of his forehead against the window and let the vibrations shake through his skull, causing a single strand of his fringe – his bangs, his American colleagues called it – to fall down from its swept back position.
He was experiencing a moment of pure, unadulterated nothingness. His mind was concentrating only on the harsh shaking of the window, his eyes – crystal blue according to his official biography, although ‘dull grey’ would have been Harry’s response if anyone had ever bothered to ask him – could see nothing in the darkness of this cold December night.
This was the first time in months where Harry wasn’t on an unchangeable itinerary and his imagination could come up with no original thought of its own. It was as if the controlled madness of his life had killed Harry’s last remaining brain cells.
He could feel them searching for something to think about, an opinion to express, and before they found it, Harry knew the single thought that they would alight on. The thought that had always been there since it the first time it had formed. It never dominated, it lingered in the background, often remaining quiet for hours on end, but always appearing in the quietest of moments.
Harry thought of his brother. Of the promise that he had made him. To live his life for him. And then Harry thought of his own life. The things he had given up. The people he had given up. The secrets he kept.
“Excuse me?” He turned to find Frederick sitting bolt upright in his seat, clearly having woken from his slumber at some point during Harry’s thoughts of nothingness.
Frederick glanced at the taxi driver watching them in his rear-view mirror and lowered his voice.
“Have you got any?”
“Err, no, all out I think.”
“Shit. What are we going to do?”
He looks genuinely concerned, Harry thought, like it’s the end of the world that we won’t be able to fuck for a couple of days.
Frederick turned away from him, flashing the smooth lines of his cheekbones as he did. His question was rhetorical, he wasn’t expecting Harry to provide the answer – solving problems, answering questions, neither of these was in any schedule of Harry’s that either of them had ever seen. Frederick never expected Harry to provide the answer to anything.
Instead, he rubbed the dark stubble on his square chin, as if it were a lamp that a genie might spring out of. Harry watched him hypnotised for a moment – his last few brain cells still working their way back to life – before reaching out with his hand. The index finger on his left hand reached for the smoothness of Frederick’s plump lower lip and gently turned his face.
“You’ll just have to find another way to get rid of your tension.”
“Speaking of tension,” Frederick took his lover’s hand in his, lowered it from his face, and looked at Harry’s other hand, curled in a fist by his side, so tightly that his knuckles were turning white, “what’s up with you?”
Harry checked the time on his wrist-watch. “I just don’t want anything to go wrong.”
“We’re ten minutes late, Harry, it’s hardly the biggest crime of the century.”
“I know, I know,” Harry sighed, looking out of the car window, now able to distinguish some of the scenery flying past. He thought that the bare branches of the trees looked like arms reaching for him out of the darkness. “It’s just, I don’t want to create a bad impression with them, that’s all”
Frederick leant over and put his hand on Harry’s. “It’s only my family, they’re hardly royalty. No matter what they might try and tell you.”
“I used to work for Cromley’s, remember? Your grandfather has a reputation of being a touch… difficult.”
“Don’t be so silly, that’s just a front. Granted, he’s forthright, but you haven’t got anything to worry about. He can be a bit of an old bastard but he’s not a snob or anything.”
“The man’s got servants!”
“They’re not servants,” Frederick rolled his eyes, “Pat and Ella have been with us for so long, they’re practically family.”
Harry groaned inwardly, Frederick’s family was large enough. Including himself and Frederick, there would be twelve of them spending Christmas at ‘Cromwell Manor’. Fourteen if you included the servants. “Talk about throwing me to the lions.”
“Don’t worry you won’t be the only one,” Frederick put his hand on Harry’s knee, “Mum’s bringing her new boyfriend. I’m not sure what his name is.”
Harry raised an eyebrow, every time Frederick talked about his mother, the words ‘new boyfriend’ were generally not far behind. “I thought you said she’d sworn off men?”
“For about a week, apparently.”
“And you’re ok with that?”
“Of course. She’s going to introduce her new boyfriend and I’m going to introduce mine. It’s only fair.” He grinned and gripped Harry’s hand as if to confirm just who his boyfriend was.
Harry forced a weak smile, but Frederick had already turned to look out of the window on the opposite side of the car, failing to see the severe lack of enthusiasm radiating from Harry’s body. He had promised his agent, Tricia, that he and Frederick would pretend to be friends and nothing more during their trip away. He hadn’t told Frederick yet, and was running out of time to do so.
“There it is, Cromwell Manor.”
The taxi had turned a corner onto a long driveway, a large, almost majestic house stood at the end.
Wow, thought Harry. It was big. Very big. And it was close, and getting closer. “Stop the car.”
“Excuse me?” The driver asked, but continued to drive.
“Just stop the car.” Harry repeated
The driver slowed and pulled over to the side of the long driveway and Frederick turned to face Harry.
“What is it?”
“I can’t do this.”
“Harry, we talked about this, you said you wanted to meet my family. I want them to meet my boyfriend.”
“Well, they can’t.”
“Unless you’re expecting me to bring you a plate of turkey breast out to the taxi tomorrow, there’s going to have to be some sort of introduction.”
“No, I get that, that’s not what I meant.”
Frederick frowned, before turning to the taxi driver. “Could you give us a moment?”
“Take as long as you like,” the driver said, “I’m leaving the meter on.”
“We won’t be long.”
“Sorry.” Harry murmured quietly, a wave of guilt washing over him for kicking the poor man out of his own car.
“Ah, it’s not big deal, I could do with a fag – err, I mean a smoke.”
Harry smirked and Frederick rolled his eyes as the driver heaved himself out of the car and sparked up a cigarette. Frederick unbuckled his seatbelt and shifted in his seat.
“What’s going on, Harry? They’re going to realise we’re sleeping together.”
“You planning on doing it in front of them?”
Frederick sighed loudly. “Look, I know you don’t want the general public knowing and I suppose I can understand that – for now – but those people in that house over there, they’re my family, they’re hardly going to sell your story to the tabloids.”
“They don’t have to. Look, I’m not judging your family or anything here, but I just don’t know them. One wrong word from one of them and my whole career could be ruined.”
“So? You can’t live your life in lies and secrets, Harry. People are going to find out about you sooner or later, it would be much better if it came from you rather than from some drunken screw in a motorway service station toilet.”
“You know I would never do that. I’m a film star, Freddie, I can’t be taken seriously as a romantic lead if the audience all know that I’m gay.”
“You sound an awful lot like Tricia, right now.” Frederick sighed, Harry knew that Frederick and Tricia didn’t exactly get on. He was hoping to keep her name out of it. “It’s called acting, Harry, pretending to be something you’re not. Which by the way you’re not being paid to do at the moment, so you can drop the straight act.”
“You’re just a writer, you wouldn’t understand.”
“I love you, Harry.” Frederick grabbed hold of Harry’s face, the smooth skin of his hand contrasting against the rough stubble on Harry’s cheek. “Even if you don’t have a job, we can be together, isn’t that enough for you?”
“I love you too.” Harry smiled, but pulled away sharply when Frederick leant in to kiss him. “What are you doing?”
“I’m kissing my boyfriend.” He smiled a fixed grin.
“Not here.” Harry pointed out of the window to the taxi driver, who was sitting on a fence post opposite, looking in at them. The glowing red embers at the end of his cigarette cast his face in a sinister glow.
“I think he’s already guessed.”
“But we don’t have to kiss it up in front of his security camera, do we?”
Frederick pulled away and re-buckled his seatbelt. “I hate this.”
The driver pulled open the door and sat back in the driving seat. “Have you girls finished your squabble yet? I’m freezing my nuts off out there.”
“Yeah, I think we’re done here.” Frederick almost spat at Harry.
The three of them sat in silence for a moment as the driver started up the engine again.
Finally, as they approached the house, Frederick spoke.
“So, what’s the story then? What do I tell them when they ask who you are, why I’ve brought you home for Christmas?”
“Tell them the truth.”
“The one where you and I met in a British theme pub in LA and became friends. The one where you invited me to spend Christmas with your family because you knew I didn’t have anywhere else to go. You know, the version that actually happened.”
“Just leave out the bit where I shove my cock up your arse, right?”
The car jerked forward suddenly as the driver stalled the engine. “We’re here.” He muttered quietly.
“I would hope you might just leave that little bit out of most general conversations, actually.”
Frederick stared at Harry for a moment before opening the car door and climbing out
“Freddie!” A plain young woman ran down the steps and wrapped her arms around him as he climbed out of the taxi. She had short, brown hair, almost bland in its limpness, just above her shoulders. She wore nearly all black apart from the white apron, frilled at the sides to make it look like a doily on straps. “How are you? How’s Hollywood?”
“I’m good, Ella, it’s good. We’re all good.”
“Good, good,” Ella said with a big grin on her face, turning to Harry as he pulled himself out of the car, “and I know who you are, Mr Harry Hicks.”
“Yeah, that’s Harry, he’s my – ”
“Colleague.” Harry interrupted earning a vicious look in the process.
“Friend.” Frederick finished.
“We’re working on the same film together, and I had nowhere to go for Christmas this year.” The smile on Ella’s face faded as she shook Harry’s hand.
“Colleague? But Freddie told me that you were – ”
“Yeah, I know what I said, Ella, but I got it wrong, you know what I’m like. Harry’s as straight as anything, we’re just… friends.”
“Err, Mr Hicks?” The driver cleared his throat as he dropped a suitcase at the top of the steps. “Will that be all, Sir?”
“Oh, yes, err, thank you, umm…”
“Dave.” The driver gave his name as he and Harry walked over to the car.
“Right, thank you Dave.” Harry muttered in a state of distraction, his eyes trained on Frederick whispering frantically to Ella as they started carrying the cases inside the house.
“You’re welcome, Mr Hicks.” Dave’s eyes lit up as Harry pulled out a small roll of notes. “Oh, and I’ve got something for you two,” he said, “call it an early Christmas present.”
Harry pulled his gaze away from the large house as Frederick disappeared inside and found Dave fumbling around in his wallet, before handing over two sealed condoms.
“You won’t need these?” Harry asked, a little surprised.
He stared at Harry in despair. “No. The wife’s decided we need another baby.”
“Well, err, thanks, Dave”
“And don’t worry, discretion is assured.”
As Harry tucked the condoms into his inside jacket pocket, he caught his eye, and suddenly realised that Dave’s ‘discretion’ would come at a price. “Let me assure you, Dave, that there is nothing to be discreet about.”
“Of course not, Sir.” Dave took the notes that were offered to him and climbed back into the car. Harry caught his smirk and realised that he’d not convinced him of anything. He would have to pay up. Harry peeled off another few notes and offered it to him through the window.
“Have a good Christmas, Dave.
“Yes, Sir, thank you, Sir.”
Before Harry could put his wallet back in his pocket, Dave had restarted the engine and roared off back down the driveway.
“Harry!” Frederick appeared out from behind the two large doors at the top of the steps. “Are you coming in or not?”
Without waiting for a response, Frederick went back inside, leaving the door wide open. Harry took a deep breath and slowly walked toward it before slipping quietly through and joining Frederick inside. The entrance hall was much bigger than he had imagined. A few antiques skirted the walls of the room, including a rather intrusive suit of armour, which was set up immediately to the left of the door, as if to guard the house from unwanted visitors. By far the biggest thing in the room was the large staircase immediately opposite the entrance.
The dark red of the carpet that ran down the centre of the stairs matched the earthy tones of the wood panelling on the walls which stretched up to the ceiling three floors above them. The stairs themselves rose sharply before branching off into two, snaking around both side walls. At the top of the first flight was a large painting of a sour looking man, it was positioned in such a way that any visitors had no choice but to look up at him as they walked through the door.
At the bottom of the stairs, stood next to Ella, was the same man. So realistic was the painting, that he looked like he’d walked straight out of it. He was studying Harry intently, with a scowl on his face, a scowl that fit so easily, it looked as though it had come first and the man had been built around it.
He was short, plump, though not fat, but somehow managed to be incredibly imposing. He had grey hair, but not much of it, spread across the top of his head. Not quite a combover, but certainly destined to become one.
“Grandpa, this is my friend, Harry.” Frederick said waving his hand towards him with a flourish as if he were performing a magic trick and Harry was the rabbit he’d just pulled from his hat.
“Mr Cromwell.” Harry stepped forward and warily shook the hand that the old man had stretched out. “It’s so nice to meet you.”
“You’re not one of his funny friends are you?” The old man’s voice was gruff and accusatory. Harry disliked him immediately.
“Excuse me?” The old man held firm onto his hand, almost as if he refused to let go until Harry had answered him.
“You know the type I mean, all pina coladas and pink feather boas.”
A quick glance at Frederick told Harry that he was staring straight past him, at a spot on the wall. There was no emotion displayed on his face, but the message was clear. It’s up to you.
“Well, I’m usually a Guinness man and my feather boas are only pink because I washed them with a red sock.”
The old man stared at him silently for a minute, both Frederick and Ella watching tensely. After a moment he laughed huskily. He placed an arm around Harry and clamped down a withered hand onto his shoulder. “You can forget this Mr Cromwell crap, call me Ernest.”
“Yes, Mr… Ernest. I’ll do that.”
“You know, Frederick needs more friends like you. I’m hoping it’s just a phase he’s going through, this whole bisexual thing.” Harry looked at Frederick, but he simply shrugged. Looks like I’m not the only one who’s not being completely honest, Harry thought. “With more people around like me and you, son, maybe we can tempt him over to the normal way of doing things.”
Frederick opened his mouth to speak, but Ernest waved him away before he could start.
“Spare me the ‘I’m normal’ speech.” He growled at Frederick. “The only reason I let you stay in this house is because you haven’t been turned all the way. There’s still hope for you, boy, don’t you agree, Harry?”
Ernest stared at him and for a moment, Harry could feel an anger rising within him. He wanted to tell the bigoted old man just exactly where to go, but something stalled inside his throat and he remained silent.
“Yes, Harry,” Frederick smirked, “do you think I can be saved from eternal damnation with the rest of the faggots?”
Harry bit down on his lip and scowled across at his boyfriend, as he carefully chose his words. “I don’t think that you’ll be going to hell, if that’s the question you’re asking me.”
“There we go,” Ernest said with what was clearly an uncharacteristic grin, “Hollywood hasn’t managed to turn this one, why shouldn’t it be the same for you, Frederick?”
“There’s my Hollywood Superstar!” A tall, blonde woman came sweeping down the staircase and launched herself past Harry, Ernest and Ella and hugged Frederick. She wore nothing but a red silk dressing gown, and a good half an inch of make-up. She was clearly in the middle of her preparations for the evening. She had large, coloured-from-a-bottle hair, which surrounded her head in an almost perfect circle and made her head look far too large for her body. But she wasn’t unattractive, in fact, in her face, Harry could see the ghosts of the qualities that most attracted him to Frederick.
“Of course, it might not have been Hollywood that turned him.” Ernest muttered out the side of his mouth and Harry couldn’t quite stop himself from smiling.
“Your grandfather’s not bullying you, is he?”
“Nothing more than I can handle, mum,” he replied returning the hug, “besides, it’s not me that’s the Hollywood Superstar. Harry’s the actor, I’m just a writer.”
Frederick sent a pointed stare to Harry that might as well have been a set of steak knives as Harry moved towards his mother.
“Good evening Mrs Cromwell, nice to meet you – ”
“Oh nonsense, we’re practically family.” She batted away Harry’s outstretched hand and wrapped her arms around him with as much vigour as she had her son. For a moment Harry thought he would choke on the strong smell of her perfume, but as quickly as she’d pulled him into the hug, she planted two quick kisses on each cheek and pulled away. “Call me Elizabeth. Call me mum!”
“Mother, you misunderstand,” Frederick said stepping forward, “Harry’s not my boyfriend. He’s straight.”
“He is?” Elizabeth asked, the disappointment sketched into every corner of her face. “That’s such a shame, he’s so cute. He’d make a perfect son-in-law. Oh, maybe I should introduce him to Victoria?” She turned back to face Harry. “Victoria’s my daughter, now she has got a son, but what man doesn’t want a ready-made family?”
With Ernest standing on one side, Elizabeth on the other and Frederick still glaring like a Rottweiler in a bad mood, Harry turned to the safest face in the room. “Ella, perhaps I should go and get ready for dinner?”
“Oh, absolutely,” she said picking up Frederick’s bag, leaving Harry to his own, “the only thing is, I’ve… I’ve put you and Frederick in the same room, I guess I just assumed that you were… you know.”
“That’s ok, I’m sure we’ll manage.”
“Do you mean we’ll have to share a double bed?” Frederick asked with mock horror. “Whatever shall we do? I guess, one of us will have to sleep on the floor.”
“It’s only two nights,” Harry smiled not breaking eye contact with Frederick and earning a small smirk in return, “I’m sure we can cope with sharing a bed for two nights.”
“Ooh, honey,” Elizabeth cooed, grabbing hold of Frederick’s shoulders, “do you hear that? You might be able to turn him yet.”
“You’d better bloody not.” Ernest’s voice was back to a growl again.
“I’ll show you where your room is.”
Harry began to follow Ella up the large staircase in front of him, chancing a backwards glance at Freddie as they went. For a moment, their eyes locked, but then he lowered them, choosing to continue his conversation with his mother and grandfather.
“Where do those stairs go?” Harry asked, gesturing to a set of stairs in the far corner of the entrance hall. They were a lot less grand than ones they were climbing, and Harry wouldn’t have even noticed them had he not been looking down at Frederick.
“Oh, down to the kitchen – and the servants quarters.”
“Servants quarters?” Harry let out a small nervous laugh. “He doesn’t actually make you sleep down there?”
“Well, it’s very nice,” Ella said, a look of complete seriousness on her face, “it’s been completely renovated, not at all how it would have been a hundred years ago.”
“Still… it’s a basement. What about windows? You can’t ever see daylight – sunshine.”
“Daylight and sunshine?” Ella smirked at Harry, a twinkle in her eye. “You haven’t been back to England for a long time, have you?”
“It’s been a while.” Harry murmured, trying to pretend that he hadn’t lost his breath.
They had reached the top of the first flight, and already Harry had begun to regret packing so much. He set his case down under the pretence of taking a closer look at the large portrait of Ernest in front of him, but quickly turned away, grimacing at the rather too perfect likeness of the old man’s ugly face. His eyes settled on the woven tapestry underneath it.
Ernest’s name had been carefully stitched in gold at the top, there were no names above his, no parents, as if he had just appeared by himself, already at the top of the tree. Which, Harry reminded himself, was probably how Ernest had always viewed the world – a world just waiting for him to arrive.
A small, thin line connected his name to ‘Doreen Cromwell (1922-1966)’, and then descended downwards before splintering into three strands that led to ‘Michael Cromwell’, ‘Elizabeth Cromwell’ and ‘Gary Cromwell’. The brackets underneath the eldest, Michael, had already been filled in. He’d only died three months before.
“What about Raymond?” Harry asked, suddenly remembering something from several years before.
“Raymond?” Ella halfway up the next flight, dropped Frederick’s bag and turned to look at Harry. “Who – who’s Raymond?
“I thought Ernest had a son called Raymond?”
Ella shook her head. “No, no, just Gary and… and Michael.”
“Huh. The old man lied to me.” Harry muttered to himself, but continued when he saw the confused frown adorning Ella’s forehead. “I used to work for Cromley’s a few years back. Before… well, when I was younger. One of the customers, Raymond, he called himself, said his father owned the business.”
Ella laughed. “Some people will say anything to appear important – probably trying to get a free cappuccino from you, or something.”
Harry smiled and for a moment, they both stared at the family tree. Harry’s eye traced the golden line down through Elizabeth to Frederick’s name. “The stitching is beautiful.”
Ella smiled and nodded, before turning to Harry and giggling. “You’ve, err, you’ve got some…” She rubbed the side of her face, and Harry pressed two fingers to his own sticky cheek. A neon red paint had come off onto them and he frowned at it, baffled.
“Lick.” Ella held a crumpled white handkerchief up to Harry’s mouth. Before even properly registering her bizarre request, Harry poked his tongue out and Ella dabbed the cloth onto the end, before rubbing it gently on his cheek. “Elizabeth’s lipstick,” she said, noting Harry’s continued furrowed brow, “it gets everywhere. I’ve even found it on the banisters before – don’t ask me how it got there.”
Harry smiled as she pulled away. “All gone?”
“All gone.” He asked, warmly reminded of his mother
“Thanks.” He picked up his case again and looked up the stairs before him. “Let’s get going then.”
“Sorry about the long trek.” Ella smiled apologetically, as he heaved the case up the steep ascension in front of him, marvelling at the ease with which she carried Frederick’s. He shrugged nonchalantly as he finally managed to pull the case onto the flat of the hallway, though he silently thanked a higher power that there were no more steps. “With the cases, it was the only way we could come.”
“There’s another way of getting upstairs?’”
“Yeah,” Ella nodded, gesturing down the hallway, “the second panel in from the right is a door. There’s a set of stairs behind it, takes you right down to the entrance hall. It’s too narrow for cases though, it was designed for us scurrying cleaning girls.”
“A secret passageway?”
“Not exactly secret, more hidden, but yeah, the place is full of them, Ernest loves them. Though, actually, he’s a little too large to use most of them, these days.” She glanced guiltily over her shoulder to check he wasn’t following, and then smirked before opening a door and showing Harry into a large bedroom.
“Is this Frederick’s usual room?” He asked.
“Yeah. A little somewhere that he can call home whenever he’s back from America. He decorated it himself.”
Harry smirked, the room seemed almost identical to Frederick’s apartment back in LA. A large piano took up one corner of the room, which Harry knew for a fact was purely for decorative terms since Frederick didn’t know how to play. On top of it was a small pile of books, all of them looking as though they’d been started once, and then never finished.
He’d always had a habit of starting a book and then never put it away or passed it on until it was finished. He felt that was giving up, admitting defeat, and that was something he never liked to do. Out of habit, Harry picked up the half dozen books, carried them over to the bookcase on the wall by the door and started to file them back into place. He let out a small laugh as he discovered a complete set of Charles Dickens novels that had never been read.
“Are you alright?” Ella asked, she had laid Frederick’s case on the large double bed and started to unpack.
“Yeah,” Harry smiled, “Freddie’s got almost exactly the same library on both sides of the Atlantic, and it doesn’t look like he’s read any of them.”
Ella gave a knowing smile as she refolded a pair of Frederick’s jeans. “Well, you know Freddie, perception is everything. As long as people believe he’s read all those books, he’ll never have to. It’s disturbing at times just how like his grandfather he is.”
An involuntary cold chill shuddered through Harry. Disturbing was indeed the only word that could describe the vision he had in his head at that moment. Thankfully for Harry, a knock on the door temporarily removed the image from his mind, though it soon returned as he opened the bedroom door to find Ernest grinning back at him.
“Ah, good, good, settling in? Just wanted to make sure you were ok?”
“Oh, yeah, I’m fine. This place is… amazing.”
“Yes, it is rather, isn’t it? Listen, about that,” Ernest said gesturing to the large double bed in the centre of the room, “if you like I can get Ella to make up another room, you know if you don’t want to sleep in with another man. I don’t know what she was thinking of in the first place. Like I’d let that sort of thing go on in my house.”
“No, really, it’s… it’s alright, it’s not like we’ll be getting much sleep anyway.”
Ernest’s face fell. “Excuse me?”
“Well, it’s Christmas, isn’t it? Late nights drinking wine, early mornings opening presents, that sort of thing.”
“Right, right, of course. Well… if you change your mind, just let me know.”
“I will.” Harry nodded and went to close the door
“It’s quite a large bed, so you won’t have to get too close to him.”
Harry paused, unsure of how to respond. “I’ll be fine, thank you, Ernest.”
“I’m sure Ella can provide you with one of her rape alarms if you’d like?” Ernest looked across at Harry, smirking, clearly enjoying his own joke. Harry’s face, however, remained stony. “Mr Cromwell, I may not share the same lifestyle as your grandson – your grandson! – but he is my friend, and frankly what you have just said is not only offensive to him, but also to me.”
“Yes, that’s why I’m here, not because I don’t have anywhere else to go, or that he’s going to write me a part in one of his scripts, but because he’s my friend. In fact, he may be the closest friend I have, and if I must I will defend him to the death from bigoted old fools like you.”
For a moment Ernest said nothing, but then he stood up to his full height – a few inches shorter than Harry – and bore his eyes right into him. “Young man, let me tell you something. I’m going to walk away and pretend that you didn’t just talk to me like that. The next time I see you downstairs at the dinner table, I shall smile at you and I shall offer you food and drink. Tomorrow is Christmas Day, and again I shall be the perfect host, and I shall smile and talk to you pleasantly throughout the presents, the meal and the inevitable game of Charades in the evening. The day after that, I shall sit at the same table as you for breakfast and I shall smile. And then you will leave, and I shall smile at you as you go, and then you will never come back to this house again. And you will never talk to me like that again.”
“And if I do?” Harry felt his hackles rise.
“I shall destroy you,” Ernest grinned, flashing a row of teeth like a crocodile, “absolutely, one hundred per cent. Nobody – nobody – talks to me like that.”
“Or me.” Harry glanced carefully over his shoulder at Ella, who was putting some of Frederick’s clothes away, and apparently couldn’t hear them. Harry lowered his voice anyway, Let me tell you something, old man, I’m not frightened by anything or anyone. Now, you’re going to leave this room, and you’re going to remember every word I’m about to say to you. My name is Harry Hicks, my brother’s name was Vincent Fisher. He was murdered by drug dealing scum and I found that dealer, I tied him up in my basement and I kept him there for a week. On that first day, I carved a letter into his back. And then on each day after that, I carved another letter and another letter into, until by the end of the week my brother’s name was spelled out in bloody scabs across his skin. On that final day, I took my knife and I slit open his chest. I ripped out his heart with my bare hands, just like he’d ripped out mine, and for a moment, for one split second he saw me holding up his heart.”
Ernest’s eyes boggled, his face turning purple with anger, but Harry continued. “I dumped the body in the woods, it was never found, and I was never caught. I imagine you wouldn’t want to piss me off.”
“You’re not in Hollywood anymore, boy,” Ernest sneered back, although there was a slight quiver in his voice, “this is the real world and your threats don’t frighten me.”
“Maybe the threats don’t frighten you, but you can tell that I’m not afraid of you… and that scares you shitless.”
Ernest glared for a moment, before turning on his heel and stalking off down the corridor. Harry grinned to himself, shut the door and turned around to discover Ella, staring at him, her mouth agape.
“Ella, listen, I – ”
“You totally just ripped off your own movie!” Her face broke into a broad grin. “That whole speech – almost word for word from that film!”
Harry laughed, he couldn’t help it, Ella seemed to have a mischievous twinkle in her eye. “Well, he needed taking down a peg or two, arrogant old sod.”
“You’ve only known him ten minutes, can you imagine how everyone else feels?” They laughed together for a moment, as Ella returned to unpacking Frederick’s case. “So, that was from ‘Street Beater’ right? The one you got the Oscar for?”
“It was only a nomination,” Harry smiled weakly, “and that little speech didn’t seem so… cheesy when I said it for the film.”
“Well, you’re a very good actor. Despite what he said, I think Mr Cromwell believed you.” She moved over to the far wall which was taken up with six large doors, opened one of them and started hanging up Frederick’s shirts.
Harry watched her for a moment, but they didn’t really see her. He was thinking about Vincent, his brother. Harry might not have ripped out anyone’s heart for his brother, but he had done something nearly as bad.
“How many clothes does he have here?” He asked, snapping out of his daze.
“Oh, only four of them are closets – the middle two take you through to the en suite.”
“I don’t get it,” Harry said, flicking through the clothes that had already been hanging in there, “why would anyone need so much closet space?”
“You tell me.” She smiled softly slipping a pale shirt onto a coat hanger.
Harry bowed his head. “Look, I don’t know what Frederick told you, but I’m not…”
He trailed off, but Ella finished his sentence for him. “You’re not gay. I know, I know, you keep saying it. Except… I haven’t actually heard you say it yet.”
“I’m not!” Harry wanted to be angry with her for pushing it, for not letting it go, but he already knew that he was angrier with himself than he ever would be with Ella or with Frederick.
“But you’re still not saying it.”
Harry rolled his eyes and sat in a chair near a desk opposite the piano. Ella came over and looked down at him.
“I’m not gay.” He mumbled softly, but they both knew that neither of them believed it.
“You know,” she said, “I was the first person Frederick told, did he ever tell you that? For six months after that moment, I stood by and listened as he continued to tell the rest of the world ‘I’m not gay’. I knew what he was, I knew he was lying, but even then I was more convinced by his lies than yours.”
“Well,” Harry stood up and patted his pockets, “remind me not to take up acting. If you’ll excuse me, I think Freddie may still have my mobile.”
“Odd, don’t you think?”
“If he’s just a friend, why does he have your mobile?”
“It doesn’t mean anything, I guess I’m just paranoid about radiation. Excuse me.”
Harry left Ella in the room continuing to unpack Frederick’s case and braced himself against the windowsill at the far end of the corridor. It had started to rain outside. Sheets of rain flew down so hard that Harry could see nothing but his own sorry reflection. Is Ella right? He asked himself.
He had made Vincent a promise, to live the life that his brother had always wanted. That meant listening to Tricia, doing what she said. Turning up to parties with attractive young women on his arm. What if they all know?
He glanced around and ran his hand across the wall, searching for the join in the wood panelling that betrayed the hidden staircase. He pushed randomly for a moment before finding himself in a tight, steep staircase. He carefully made his way down the steps and as he reached the bottom, he heard the sound of the front door opening.
Harry stepped into a dark corner of the entrance hall, just behind the suit of armour, in time to see Elizabeth – still in her dressing gown – ushering a man into the house. He was covered from head to toe in drops of water, the rain had pasted a few curls of dark brown hair to his forehead. None of them had seen him enter, and Harry took the opportunity to watch Frederick. Harry often found himself staring at him when he was sleeping, or when he thought he was alone, and lost himself in thought, transfixed by his beauty.
She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. He’s nothing like that bitter old man.
“Blimey, that rain came from nowhere,” the man said, “one minute I was driving along down one of those clear country lanes and the next thing I know, I’m practically swimming.”
“Oh, it’s been like it all week,” Elizabeth fussed over him, “I told you, you ought to bring an umbrella. Now come here, let’s get you out of that wet coat.”
The man peeled off his raincoat and shook the loose strands of his dark hair to get rid of some of the spray. Harry felt a flush of anger course through him as Frederick looked him up and down, but soon forgave him. The man was gorgeous. Harry felt a stirring in his trousers as he watched him kiss Elizabeth, and for a moment, the flush of anger was replaced with a spasm of jealous. Harry was quite certain in that moment, that, if he’d asked, he would have left the country with him right there and then.
“Robert, this is my son, Frederick. Frederick, this is my new partner – ”
“Robert Forrester.” Frederick said breathlessly. “Yeah, I remember.”
“You remember?” Elizabeth frowned and Harry silently joined her, after all, Frederick had told him that he didn’t know this new guy’s name. None of them had seen him yet, and Harry slipped back up a step to continue watching them unseen. “Remember from what?”
“Oh, well, I, umm,” Frederick stumbled, “well, you told me didn’t you? Last week, when I rang you, remember?”
“I did?” Elizabeth frowned again and so did Harry. He was certain Frederick had said he didn’t know the man’s name.
“Well, I guess, I did.” Elizabeth sighed.
Robert stepped forward and shook hands with Frederick. “Nice to meet you, Frederick.”
“You too, Robert.”
They stepped back from each other and there was silence for a moment. Something wasn’t right.
“How did you two meet?” Frederick asked.
“Oh, Robert works for your grandfather, he’s a financial advisor, he took over your uncle’s job when he fell ill. Now, I think I’m going to go and finish off getting ready for dinner.” Elizabeth smiled, it seemed she couldn’t sense the tension in the room. Harry, however, certainly could. “Are you coming, Robert?”
“Err, no,” Robert said and Harry noticed him staring at Frederick as much as Frederick was staring at Robert, “I’m going to wait for the rain to ease off a little and then get my bags from the car.”
“Ok, well don’t spend too long out there, I don’t want you catching cold. Freddie, give him a hand, darling.”
Elizabeth took hold of both of their hands, squeezed gently, smiled and swept up the large staircase.
Frederick pulled Robert off to one side. “We need to talk.”
Harry stepped forward out of the corner of the room and coughed a little to make his presence known. “What do you need to talk to him about?”
Read the next chapter here