A small lump formed in Harry’s throat as Ernest held a gold handled carving knife right in front of his face, the sharp end pointing towards Robert. “Would you like to carve, or should I?”
“You sit at the head of the table, Ernest.” Robert smiled back.
“Quite right.” Ernest said, settling back into his chair at the end of the table. “I just wanted to show off the new carving set I bought last week. The gold inlay cost me an awful lot and I’d hate for it to go unappreciated.”
A small wave of laughter went around the room, although Harry didn’t laugh, too concerned with the thought of what Ernest might do if he found out what he suspected. He glanced from Victoria to Robert, both avoiding each other’s gaze. Were they two ex-lovers trying to keep their past a secret, or was it just the awkward ambivalence shared between two strangers?
“Move your new toys out of the way and let me put this damn goose down, will you?” Pat placed the hot silver platter down on the table in front of Ernest.
“One would think it was you who employed me, Pat, not the other way round.”
Pat mumbled under her breath, but Harry didn’t quite catch what she said.
“I’m bloody hungry,” Harry heard Reece grumble at the other end of the table as Ernest start to carve, “I wish the old git would hurry it up.”
“How many potatoes do you want, Reece?” Ella asked, approaching him with a dish.
“Just keep piling them on, darling, I’ll let you know when I’ve got enough.”
“Reece,” Fiona frowned at the lascivious look he was giving Ella as she stood close by to him, “how’s university?”
“What?” Reece snapped out of his daze. “Oh, yeah, it’s fine. Everything’s great.”
“What is it you’re studying?” Harry asked, reaching for a tray of vegetables.
“That’s the course you wanted me to do, wasn’t it Grandpa?” Frederick asked.
“Oh, Freddie, you should have taken the old man up on his offer,” Reece smiled, “it’s wall to wall girls and parties.”
“So, you’re still pissing my bloody money up the wall, then?” Ernest said, as he moved the platter of goose meat down to the middle of the table, setting it in front of Robert.
“He’s not pissing anyone’s money up the wall,” Nicola started to defend Reece, “he’s doing his degree in business studies. Something which you know is only going to benefit you once he comes to work with you.”
“Rubbish. I didn’t need to take any course to get where I am today, if you haven’t got it in you, you haven’t got it in you.”
“Well, we can’t all be as talented as you, Grandpa.” Reece said leaning over to take some of the meat.
“Well, I suppose that’s true.” Ernest agreed with him as he moved back to his own seat.
Reece passed two slices of meat onto Fiona’s plate. “Thanks,” she smiled at him. Harry noticed she could barely keep her eyes off her cousin. “Have you made any new friends in Bristol?”
“Well, yeah, of course I have, I’m not a hermit, and I’m certainly not one of those freaks who goes out on his own to drink.” He looked at his father and a sly smile crept across his face.
“What about girlfriends?” The girl was fishing, but trying to appear casual. Apparently, Harry thought, I’m the only one who notices she’s hot for him. “Have you met anyone up there?”
Reece gave a small, dirty laugh. “I’ve, err, I’ve had one or two girls, no one serious though.”
Harry reached down to the end of the table for a small plate of stuffing and as he did, he heard Jennifer whisper to her daughter. “Do you see what I mean? He’s nothing short of a whore.”
“Mum! Just leave it.” Fiona hissed back. “Maybe I want a whore.”
Fiona turned away from her mother and Jennifer saw that Harry had heard and smiled gently at him. “I don’t know where she gets this behaviour from. I think her father’s death hit her harder than I thought it would.” Harry sat back down in his seat, raising his eyebrows slightly, and as he did he saw Gary staring across the table at Jennifer. Jennifer clearly saw him too. “What?”
“I’m just trying to figure out what exactly my brother saw in you.” He said this loudly so that the whole table could hear, as he downed the last of his drink.
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Well, he wasn’t stupid,” Gary reasoned, “he must have known that you’re a gold-digging bitch, but he stayed with you. I’m just trying to figure out why.”
“I loved him Gary, and he loved me, that’s why we stayed together. And, In case you hadn’t noticed, I also happen to be the mother of his child.”
“If she is his child.”
“Gary.” Ernest gave him a steely, warning look.
“Yeah, whatever.” Gary lowered his eyes down to his dinner and everyone returned to their own conversations. Harry couldn’t help but feel it wasn’t over and he watched Gary for a moment. As the buzz of conversation filled the room again, he looked back up at Jennifer and spoke in a low whisper. “You’re a whore and he knew it.”
“Why don’t we get down to what’s really going on here, Gary?” Jennifer lowered her own voice to match Gary’s. Harry, his curiosity piqued, turned his head slightly so he could hear better without appearing too obvious. “When Michael became too ill to work, your father needed to replace him with someone he trusted. You can’t handle the fact, that rather than promote a worthless piece of alcohol soaked filth like you, he hired Robert and asked me to take over Michael’s seat on the board.”
“My father does trust me. He does.”
“That’s right, he trusts you to make an arse of yourself, to cock things up time and time again.”
“What do you know?”
“I know he’s just changed his will,” Jennifer smirked triumphantly at her brother-in-law, “he’s leaving everything to just one person, I heard him talking about it with Lloyd.”
Gary looked up in alarm. “Who?”
“I don’t know. But I’ve made damn sure that me and Fiona are in the running.”
“Mum!” Matthew exclaimed causing not only Harry, but Jennifer and Gary as well, to jump. He followed Matthew’s gaze past Gary towards Reece, sat at the end of the table. “Would you look at him?”
“What is it now, honey?” Nicola sighed, not really paying any attention to either of her two sons, rather more interested in picking out some roast parsnips from the dish in front of her. “What’s he doing wrong?”
“Can’t you hear him? He’s talking about all the girls he’s been screwing and all the wild parties he’s been going to.”
“So? He is nineteen years old, he’s just been having fun, like he’s supposed to.”
“But he’s bragging about it – to Fiona! She’s only fourteen! It’s like he’s got no morals at all!”
“Your brother has morals,” Nicola said, pushing a forkful of potato into her mouth and shrugging, “they’re just not as conservative as yours.”
“I am not conservative! I just… I just think there are some things you talk about at the dinner table and there are some things you don’t. And what he’s talking about shouldn’t be talked about. By anyone to anyone at anytime.”
Nicola rolled her eyes. “You’re just jealous, Matthew.”
“Jealous? Jealous of what?”
“Oh, come on, he’s intelligent, handsome – ”
“And I’m not?” Matthew frowned.
“Of course you are! It’s just, he has fun with it, he goes out, meets people, he has girlfriends. When was the last time you had some friends over? When was the last time you went out with a girl?”
“Mum, I’m… I’m not jealous. I’m just worried that he’s wasting his life, that’s all.”
“Matthew, you should be worrying about spots, and having sex for the first time, not your brother having too much fun. Don’t you agree, Harry?”
Nicola looked over at him to support her claim and Matthew’s face flushed red as he realised that people had been listening in. Harry, feeling embarrassed looked away from the pair of them. “I don’t think I’m really the person to ask, Nicola. I often think that I should have worried about my brother more than I did.”
Matthew nodded to him in recognition of the support, just as Joshua laughed loudly next to him.
“Show me another one!”
“Are you all right, Joshy?” Matthew asked him.
“Robert’s been showing him some magic tricks.” Elizabeth smiled at them all.
“Magic tricks?” Nicola asked dubiously. “Let us see one then. And a real one, no card tricks.”
“All of my magic is real, no tricks about them.” Robert winked at Joshua. “I can make something disappear for you, if you like.”
“Joshua’s father did that once.” Victoria said quietly and Robert seemed thrown for a moment.
“Make something disappear!” Joshua demanded.
“Err, ok.” Robert looked around, and then picked up his fork, a piece of meat still on the end. “Now, watch closely, I can only do this if everyone’s concentrating. On the count of three, without touching the meat with my hands, I will make it disappear. One… two… three!” Robert quickly wrapped his mouth around the end of the fork and swallowed the goose. Matthew, Victoria and Nicola all rolled their eyes while Elizabeth and Harry both laughed a little. Joshua just frowned.
“That’s cheating! Do it properly! Make the fork disappear!”
“This little thing?” Robert asked holding the fork up. “Easy. Give me something harder.” Harry heard Frederick laugh a little next to him and they both shared a smile, picking up on the unintended innuendo.
“How about the knife?” Victoria asked pointing to the large carving knife still lying on the goose platter in front of Robert. “I’d like to see you swallow that.”
“I’m sure you would.” Robert said, but picked up the carving knife anyway, covering it with a cloth napkin. “Ok, I’ll need a magic word. Anyone know any?”
“Please?” Joshua suggested and Robert laughed.
“No, no, a different kind of magic word, something like alakazam or – ”
“That’s it, exactly!” Robert tugged on the side of his jacket, holding up the napkin in front of him. “Now, if you shout abracadabra on the count of three, we’ll be able to make the knife disappear. One… two… three!”
“Abracadabra!” Joshua shouted at the top of his voice, causing everyone at the table to turn and look. Robert let go of the napkin, and it floated down onto the table, the knife gone. Everyone politely applauded Robert as Joshua stared in disbelief.
Frederick rolled his eyes and turned to Ernest and Harry. “Can you believe this guy?” He asked as the various conversations around the table resumed.
“What’s the matter?” Harry asked.
“He’s just an idiot, but all you lot seem so infatuated with him.”
“Freddie,” Harry said and Ernest frowned at the familiarity of it as he did, “I think you’re just a little jealous that a new man has come into your mother’s life. And that Joshua prefers him to you.”
“Jealous? I’m not jealous. But, you’ve hit the nail on the head, there. What does he have, that I don’t? I mean, Joshua’s never met this guy before today and all of a sudden they’re best friends. What’s that about?”
“Well, he’s a charmer, isn’t he?” Ernest shrugged. “He could talk the skin off a donkey.”
“Hind legs.” Frederick corrected him.
“It’s talk the hind legs off a donkey.”
“Does it matter?”
“No, I guess not.”
“So, are you saying that Joshua shouldn’t like him, simply because he’s never met him before?” Harry asked. “By that theory, he shouldn’t like me either.”
“I’m not saying he shouldn’t like Robert, or you, just that he should be more excited about seeing me, I’m his favourite uncle.”
“You’re his only uncle, Freddie.” Ernest pointed out. “And he hasn’t seen you for nearly a year.”
“Well, I never had the chance to come back, did I?.”
“What about your Uncle’s funeral? Why didn’t you come back for that?”
“I was busy working, I couldn’t get out of it.”
“You’re a writer! You can write anywhere!” Ernest shoved half a yorkshire pudding in his mouth.
“I’d finally found someone who would fund my movie, they were shooting it and they needed me on the set to do some rewrites. If I had left, they would have scrapped the whole idea and used the same cast on someone else’s script!”
“Hmm. Well.” Ernest stumbled for something to say in return. “Just hurry up and eat, will you? I’ve got an announcement to make.”
“What sort of announcement?”
“The kind you’ll hear when you’ve finished your bloody dinner!”
* * *
“So, what’s this big news then?” Frederick asked as Ella and Pat cleared away the last of the plates.
Ernest stood up. “Yes, I wanted to speak to you all, tell you all while we were all together, my family.” He looked down at Harry and smiled weakly as both Ella and Pat left the room. “I’ve decided to retire.”
“Who do you think he’s going to leave in charge then?” Jennifer whispered across the table to Gary.
“As a result,” Ernest continued, “I find myself in need of a successor. An heir, someone in whom I can place my entire trust, my entire faith. I look around this table, at you all, and I see not the one person who should be here. Michael, my eldest son, the one who I would have had take over, is dead, so I look to the others in my family for a replacement.”
“Does he always talk like this?” Harry whispered across to Frederick
“Sounds like he’s been practicing.” He shrugged.
“I look around this table today, and find myself, perhaps with my kin, the ones I love dearly, but also with what can only be described as the very dregs of society. Three of them, perhaps too young to deserve the label, but the rest are drunks, gold-diggers, murderers, faggots and whores.”
“Now, wait just one minute!” Gary stood up, enraged. “I hope none of those were aimed at my family!”
“Look around you, Gary,” Jennifer snorted, “there are eight empty bottles of wine on the table, three of them drunk between you and your son.”
Joshua tugged on his mother’s sleeve. “Mummy, what’s a faggot?”
“I believe that would be me, Joshy, Uncle Faggot.” Frederick said, sipping on his own glass of wine in an extremely camp way. Whether it was intentional or not, Harry couldn’t deduce.
“I think perhaps its time that Joshua went to bed.” Victoria said quietly.
“That’s right,” Ernest said, “can’t let him hear the truth, he’s far too precious for that. Can’t let him live in the real world. Can’t let him hear the truth about his mother, about her father.”
“Don’t you dare!” Victoria glared at her grandfather. “Joshua, please go to your room.”
“No. I want to stay.”
“Come on, Josh,” Matthew stood up and picked Joshua up, “let’s go read you a story, huh? I know a real good one about a lion and a mouse.”
Matthew quickly carried Joshua out as Victoria approached her grandfather. As soon as the boys had gone, Victoria pulled back her hand and gave Ernest a hard slap across the face.
“You little bitch!” He snarled and grabbed hold of her arm.
“I don’t think you want to get me angry, do you?”
For a moment, Ernest held her wrist and her gaze in a steely deadlock. He let go of her and she moved away from him.
“Harry, Fiona,” Robert said standing up, “I don’t think any of this really involves us. Perhaps we should leave.”
“Actually, this has got everything to do with you.” Ernest said.
“What?” Robert asked.
“What?” Gary looked at his father incredulously. “What has any of this got to do with him?”
“I met this man, nine months ago,” Ernest said, “I was ready to let him go, walk out the door, when somebody persuaded me to change my mind. I gave him a job and the very next day… The very next day, Michael took to his bed. Since then, the man has been a rock, he is the only person who has kept this company going.”
“I’m sorry,” Jennifer frowned, “am I hearing this right? Are you actually telling me that… that you choose this stranger over me? I could run that company single handed, and you know it. You always said I would do a much better job than most!”
“And suppose I did give it to you?” Ernest suggested. “What exactly would you do with it, hmm? Build up a tidy business, and then sell it off, bit by bit to the highest bidder? No! This business is a family business, it always has been and will always remain so!”
“What about me?” Gary asked. “I am family, I’m your son! Do I not deserve the chance to prove myself?”
“Prove yourself as what? You’d drink us dry within a month! I said I want it in the family, but that doesn’t mean running it into the ground!”
“Family? I suppose he is family, is he?” Nicola asked pointing to Robert. “You’re a fool, by giving it to him, you’re taking it away from the very family you’ve tried so hard to keep it in!”
“He is my daughter’s partner, that makes him family in my book.”
“You haven’t even known him a year!” Nicola scoffed. “How can you know that you can trust him?”
“He has been more family to me in nine months, than you have been in twenty years!”
“That’s because you’re a curse! You’re a curse on this whole family! You’re not content on ruining our lives, but you take the future away from my two boys!”
“Your boys?” Ernest laughed loudly. “One of them is a hermit, spending nearly all his time alone in his bedroom getting up to god knows what and the other –“
“And the other, Grandfather? Just what exactly is the other?” Reece asked. “No, let me guess, the other is a good for nothing lager lout who is pissing your money up the wall, by learning how to follow in your footsteps.”
“I couldn’t have put it better myself!” Ernest cried. “You are a good for nothing lager lout, all you seem to do is drink and go out having ‘fun’!”
“I’m nineteen years old! What do you expect me to be doing?”
“I’ll tell you, lad, when I was nineteen – ”
“Oh, here we go,” Gary rolled his eyes, “the famous, ‘when I was your age’ speech! Tell me, o wise one did you ever have any fun? From the sounds of it, you were always so busy running the shops and being so bloody sensible all the time, it’s a wonder you and mother had any children at all, let alone four!”
Ernest’s eyes widened and Gary grinned at him, revelling in his big revelation.
“Four?” Elizabeth asked.
“You heard me, Lizzy. We’ve got an older brother out there somewhere, Michael told me, just before he died!”
“Daddy?” Elizabeth looked up at her father. Ernest didn’t tear his gaze from Gary.
“No. All this is the second hand ramblings of a dying man, relayed to you by a raging alcoholic. I have no son!”
“You’ve had three!” Gary shouted. “Have you never wondered Lizzie why mum and dad got married so quickly? Why as soon as it was legal they were marched down to the nearest church? Have you never wondered who that little boy is that Granddad’s holding? He gestured over to a collection of photos on the sideboard. In one of them, a wedding photo, Harry could see an older man standing next to a much younger Ernest. The older man was holding a fat pudgy toddler.
“Raymond.” Harry muttered to himself and both Ernest and Frederick looked at him curiously.
“I’d be quiet if I were you, boy, keep your nose out of things you know nothing about!” Ernest spat at him, before turning back to his son. “Do you want to hear something about your own precious son, Gary?”
Ernest walked around the table and clapped a hand down on to Reece’s shoulder.
“When I was first thinking of all this, I thought about Reece, I needed to know whether he was up to the job. God help me, I even considered training him up myself! That is, until I rang his tutor, a little more than a month ago.”
“Now, apparently, our young Reece, at the time hadn’t been seen much in class. A temporary blip, we’d both agreed due to the death of his uncle. Now, this tutor of yours, she expected to see you back in class the next day, in fact you’d scheduled a meeting with her, hadn’t you, Reece?”
“Grandpa,” Fiona interjected, “I’m sure Reece has done nothing – ”
“Why don’t you just shut up? Meddling in things that don’t concern you, I can see you turning into as big a whore as your mother!”
“Dad!” Elizabeth gasped, putting down her parent’s wedding picture, not quite believing what she’d heard Ernest accuse her fourteen year old niece of being.
“Now, as I was saying,” Ernest continued, ignoring the shocked looks on the faces of all those around him, “young Reece had a meeting with his tutor the following day, one that he actually turned up for. Now, as I’d requested from her, she rang me once it was over. Turns out our boy here had returned all his text books to her, and told her that he would not be attending her course anymore.”
“Grandpa, I – ”
“I waited for the phone call, Reece, I waited for your father to come and tell me, but when I noticed that that same day, you had cashed a cheque I’d sent you to fund you through the next month of college, I had you followed. Imagine my surprise, when just one short week later, my private detective returns to me with video evidence of you blind drunk and literally pissing my money up a wall!”
“And you’re taking everything away from him on the basis of a few mad months?” Nicola started. “Michael’s death was hard on him, he and Reece were very close and, he was always round there during his illness – ”
“Mum! I don’t need you sticking up for me.”
“At least your mother does stick up for you.” Frederick muttered.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Elizabeth asked.
“Exactly as it sounded, mother. Uncle Gary, Nicola, Jennifer, Vicky, all sticking up for their children, but where do you stand? Next to your new boyfriend! You couldn’t give a crap about me!” Frederick accused her.
“I love you, Frederick, but clearly, your grandfather’s judgement in this is right. Robert really is the best man for the job.”
“Yeah, ask him why he gave Robert a job, ask him why he didn’t let him walk out of the door.”
“Dad?” Elizabeth asked, turning to her father.
“I already told you, somebody persuaded me to change my mind. Robert and I were due to go out for a dinner, one that I only granted Robert out of courtesy, I was never going to change my mind, but then – ”
“Then I told you,” Frederick interrupted, “I convinced you that he had some good ideas, ideas that were worth listening to. Go on, tell us why you listened to me, tell them all what we have both known for a long time.”
Ernest smiled a little. “The boy here, has got the greatest, most innovative business mind, I have ever known, many of our greatest strategies, our biggest profits achieved from passing comments made by him. He’s probably better than me.”
“You’ve hardly shouted it from the rooftops.”
Elizabeth frowned with confusion. “I don’t understand, why are you… why are you making Robert your heir? Why not Freddie?”
Ernest remained quiet for a moment and Harry could feel an anger rising in front of him. Frederick glanced at him and then looked back over at his grandfather.
“If I was to tell you,” Frederick mused, “that I was to be married, married to the most beautiful woman in the world, a gloriously intelligent and gorgeous woman, one who cared for me and carried my child. If I were to tell you that – ”
“If you were to tell me that,” Ernest repeated, “then there would be no question about who would be by my side at this time. Even if Michael were still alive, it would be you.”
“And if – ” Frederick began, but Harry stepped forward and interrupted him.
“If he were to tell you,” he said, slipping his hand into Frederick’s, “that he was in a loving committed relationship with a beautiful, gloriously intelligent film star, who just happened to be a man?”
Ernest stared at them both, his jaw clenched, breathing deeply through the small gaps in his teeth as Victoria stepped up behind Harry, and gently, reassuringly squeezed his shoulder. A silence filled the room again.
“At least my son’s no faggot.” Nicola said, sitting herself down on a chair and crossing her fat, stumpy legs at the ankles.
“And if he were?” A voice came from the side of the room, and the whole group turned to see Matthew standing in the open doorway.
“Matthew, how’s Josh?”
“He’s fine, he fell asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. I think he’s tired.
“I know how he feels,” Harry said as Frederick squeezed his hand, “it’s been an eventful evening.”
“So, are you going to answer my question, or what?” Matthew turned back to his mum.
“What question was that?”
“If your son was a faggot?”
Reece frowned. “It doesn’t matter, Matthew, I’m not gay. It’s neither here nor there, is it?”
“You’re not her only son, Reece!” Matthew’s voice suddenly overflowed with a hateful venom, one that spilled out with every syllable.
“What are you saying, boy?” Ernest asked.
“I’m gay.” Matthew shrugged as he stepped up to face his grandfather. “I. Am. Gay. Gay, gay, gay. Just one more gay grandson to add to your collection!”
Ernest raised his arm high in the air, as if to hit Matthew, but Frederick grabbed hold of it. “No.”
“And just who exactly is going to stop me?”
“You don’t think I’ll fight you, old man?” Matthew asked. “You think I would stand here and take a beating simply because you cannot accept me for who I am?”
“You will do as you’re told.”
“No, I don’t think he will.” Frederick said. “And if it’s a fight you want, I’ll be more than willing to join in. On Matthew’s side, you understand.”
Harry circled around Ernest to stand in front of him, on the opposite side to Frederick. “And they won’t be alone.”
The old man looked from Harry on his left, to Frederick on his right and then to Matthew, stood directly in front of him.
“I… I’m surrounded.” He pushed past the three of them and stalked towards the door.
“Grandpa,” Victoria asked, “where are you going?”
Ernest paused and turned to look at them all. “Mr Lloyd is on his way here now, to finalise all the legal technicalities. And to change my will.”
“Now?” Jennifer asked. “It’s Christmas Eve!”
“Let’s just say, I’m not feeling all that festive.”
“Ernest,” Robert approached him as he headed out, “perhaps we should talk about this, maybe you want to think about it a little more before you make a decision.”
“I most certainly do not want to talk about it.” He strode towards the door, just as Pat entered carrying a small silver tray.
“Did anyone want some coffees?”
“Not now, Pat!” Ernest pushed his way past her, knocking her to the floor, causing her to drop the tray, spilling the hot liquid down Robert’s front.
As Victoria went over to help her up, Ernest slammed the door to the dining room behind him.
“Robert! Come here, let’s get that jacket off you quickly.” Elizabeth started fussing over her boyfriend and the large dark stain on his dinner jacket.
Harry smiled at Matthew and Frederick squeezed his shoulder.
“That didn’t go too badly.” Matthew muttered. “I hear that coming out to your family can be quite distressing at times.”
“I only came in to give some coffees.” Pat muttered, taking a seat on a stool in front of the fireplace and rubbing her ankle.
“I can think of ones that went worse.” Frederick said, looking over at Victoria and Elizabeth.
Pat moaned in pain as she removed her shoe. “He can be such an old bastard at times.”
Fiona, Jennifer, Gary, Nicola, Reece, Robert, Elizabeth, Victoria, Frederick and Harry all looked at Matthew as he stepped forward toward the door.
“And so say all of us.”
Read the next chapter here