Cromwell Family Home, London
Gary ran up to his father as he struggled to get through the door with his briefcase. “Daddy’s home! Daddy’s home!” He screamed with delight.
Ernest cracked a big grin, dropped his briefcase by the door and scooped his youngest son up in his arms. “There’s my little soldier! Have you been a good boy for mummy today?”
“I’m always a good boy,” Gary giggled, and then added conspiratorially, “Michael and Lizzybet are the naughty ones.”
“Oh, I see. Where’s – ”
“Ray!” Gary screamed in his father’s ear, causing Ernest to flinch, as Raymond followed his father through the door. Gary squirmed in his father’s arms until Ernest put him down, and then ran over to his older brother and hugged his legs. “Is Ray staying for dinner, daddy?”
“Better than that! We’re all going out for dinner!”
Gary grinned as his mother stepped through the door from the dining room. “Oh, we are, are we?” She asked. “Well, I guess it’s a good job that I’ve not started anything yet.”
“Sorry, love, I didn’t think.” He smiled, giving Doreen a kiss on the cheek.
“Hmm, would have been nice for a phone call.”
“Sorry, mum,” Raymond flashed a toothy grin at her, “that was kind of my fault, I insisted on dragging dad down the pub for a drink, I guess it fogged our minds a little.”
“You’ve been drinking?” Doreen frowned. “And you’ve driven home? How many times do I have to tell you, I don’t want you driving when you’ve had a drink, it’s not safe.”
“You and your not safes. These modern cars are built so well, it’s nearly impossible to crash in them.”
“Well, how do you explain the Thompson’s write-off down the road, then?”
“Well… if you’re going to drive like he does, of course you’re going to have an accident.”
“So, where are we going then?” Doreen changed the subject.
“New Italian in town,” Raymond smiled, “my treat.”
“What have we done to deserve that?”
Ernest looked at Raymond and smiled. “Why don’t you get the other two? I want to tell the whole family.”
“Well, then you’re going to have to come in here,” Doreen motioned to the dining room, “Lizzy and Michael are in the middle of a very tense Snakes and Ladders tournament.”
She led the three boys into the dining room and they sat themselves down around Elizabeth and Michael. Elizabeth said nothing as her father kissed her on the cheek, she was too busy rolling the die.
“Ok then, listen up, I’ve got something important to tell you all – ”
“No!” Michael shouted and Elizabeth giggled as she moved her piece up a long ladder to the top row, just two spaces before the end. Michael quickly rolled and moved his piece to one space behind Elizabeth’s. Until then, he had been certain he was going to win.
“Let’s just wait until the game’s over, hey, honey?” Doreen smiled, placing a hand on her husband’s. Elizabeth and Michael both grinned as Elizabeth rolled a three.
“I won!” Elizabeth shouted.
“No, you didn’t.” Michael pouted. “You have to roll the ‘zact number.”
“That’s not the rules!” Elizabeth scrunched up her face. “I won and I beat you!”
“Dad! Tell her! Tell her she has to be ‘zact!”
“Michael, it’s only a game.” Doreen said with the lazy comfort of a tired parent. Raymond, on the other hand, placed an arm around his brother’s shoulder.
“Look at it this way, little man, you haven’t been beaten, you haven’t lost. You’ve come second and there’s no shame in that.”
“Err, honey,” Doreen interrupted, “he didn’t come second. Gary already won.”
“You mean this fight is all about second place?” Ernest picked up the board game and started to put it away. “Come on, help me clear it up, daddy’s got some news.”
“What is it then? This news? Careful with your elbows.” Doreen groaned as Gary climbed awkwardly onto her lap.
“And I’ve been promoted.” Raymond gave his mother a big grin.
Doreen looked between them surprised, while the children just stared at them, unsure of what it meant. “You hear that kids? Daddy’s going to be at home more, he’ll be able to spend more time with us, isn’t that great?”
The children gave big grins at the thought of being able to play games with their father all day long.
“I knew you’d be happy for us.” Ernest smiled.
“Well, are you sure, Ernest?” Doreen asked.
“Of course, I’m sure, I’ve put a lot of thought into this.” He frowned.
“Then how come this is the first I’ve heard of it?”
Sensing something brewing, Raymond picked Elizabeth up in his arms. “I’ll go get the guys ready for dinner, can’t go out not looking our best can we?”
Gary and Michael followed their older brother out of the room and Ernest sat in a chair opposite Doreen.
“I didn’t want to get your hopes up. I didn’t know if Ray would want to do it, and I’m not letting someone who’s not part of this family take control of the business.”
“You think he’s ready?”
“Of course he’s ready, he’s a young man, he’s going to want to start a family soon. He needs some money behind him, some experience. And I’ll still be around if he needs any help.”
“But otherwise you’re hands off?” Doreen asked tentatively.
“Absolutely.” Ernest smiled and briefly kissed her on the lips. “You know what this means of course?”
“We can finally get that place in the country you’re always on about, nice big sweeping drive, too many rooms to count – ”
“Too many to clean.” Doreen smiled.
“And a cleaner, absolutely! We can just spend our days together, with our children. We can read to them, play with them. Then when they’re off at school, we can – I don’t know, learn to play croquet or go on holidays in France or Spain!”
“Oh, Ernest!” Doreen smiled broadly and hugged her husband, she’d been wanting to get out of the city for an age. “When?”
“It’s my last day tomorrow. We start house hunting on Saturday.”
Doreen grinned and passionately kissed her husband.
Cromwell Manor, Wiltshire
“Stop eating so quickly, you’ll give yourself indigestion.” Doreen cautioned Ernest as he wolfed down the sausages and creamy mash she’d prepared earlier in the day.
“I told you,” he said taking a gulp of milk, “I’ve got that new lawyer coming to visit me today, Lloyd Gregory.”
“Well, I don’t get why he’s coming to see you, you’re not anything to do with that business anymore.”
“Maybe it’s Gregory Lloyd… you know, I really wish people wouldn’t use Christian names as surnames, it all gets very confusing.”
“Are you listening to me?” Doreen asked as she cut up the sausages on Gary’s plate.
“Of course I am, honey. And he’s not coming to talk to me about the business. Well, not directly. We’ve just bought this place,” he gestured to the house around them with his fork, “and we’re just checking where we are with my accounts and all that.”
“This Lloyd fellow, an accountant as well as a lawyer, is he?”
“Of course he’s not,” Ernest rolled his eyes, “I just find all that stuff incredibly boring, so I sent him to sort it all out and then just report back to me.”
“So what happened to that other lawyer, that Jones fellow?”
“Oh, he’s still doing all the business stuff, but I told him I’d take on this protégée of his to do all my personal dealings, give him some experience.”
“Well, if he’s seen all the accounts,” Doreen began as the doorbell rang, “ask him if we can afford that cleaner you’ve been promising me.”
“I will, I will.” Ernest smiled as he got up from the table.
“I mean it Ernest,” Doreen shouted after him, “even with your help, I can’t look after these three and clean this house.”
Ernest looked back at the table and smiled at his young family, before slipping out and pulling open the front door.
“Ah! Gregory, isn’t it?” Ernest shook his hand. “Good to meet you. You found us all right, then?”
“Oh, yes, the directions were perfect. Mr Cromwell, have you – ”
“Oh, please! Call me Ernest.”
“Right.” Gregory smiled. He’d always been taught to call his clients by their last name, and since he’d started each one of them had insisted he call them by their first. “Ernest, have you got anywhere where we can go over some of this stuff? I’ve got something important to bring to your attention.”
“Oh?” Ernest seemed unconcerned as he shut the door behind Gregory and then led him down the corridor towards his office. “Actually, Gregory, there was something I wanted to ask you.”
“Of course.” Gregory smiled as he settled into the chair that Ernest had indicated.
“The wife’s been nagging about getting a cleaner in, apparently the house is too big for her to clean by herself.” He chuckled. “So, I was wondering, you’ve seen my most recent accounts after all, would it be financially feasible for me to hire a cleaner, perhaps a live-in maid? I’m not even sure how much that would cost.”
“Actually, Mr – Ernest, it was the accounts that I wanted to talk to you about.”
“Well, if there’s not enough money, I’ll just take a bigger cut from Cromley’s. That’s what it’s there for after all, isn’t it?”
“When I was checking your accounts I noticed that a few times the payment from Cromley’s into your personal account has been a little… unusual.”
“How do you mean unusual?” Ernest asked with a frown.
“Well, if you’ll look here,” Gregory pulled out some papers, “the payment at the beginning of October was four days late. November’s payment was staggered, half on the first, the rest almost a week later. And December’s payment still hasn’t appeared.”
“What are you suggesting?”
“Well, I wanted to come prepared, I wanted to know everything before I came to see you, so I looked into the company accounts and it appears that there’s a… deficiency.”
“A deficiency? You mean Cromley’s isn’t making a profit?”
“Oh, Cromley’s is making a healthy profit, it just seems there’s a hole in them.”
“A canyon, really.” Gregory said.
“How come no one’s noticed before?”
“It’s very well covered, I mean, the only reason I found it was because I was looking for it. If they hadn’t been paying you so oddly, it might never have been discovered.”
“So, where’s it gone?”
“Someone has been making some very dubious investments, buying shares in companies that are almost bankrupt then getting rid of them for half as much as they were bought.”
“Who is someone?” Ernest asked, already filled with dread at the thought of the answer.
“Rubbish!” Ernest cried. “He would never, he couldn’t – ”
“It’s all right here, Ernest.” Gregory slid the papers across the desk to him.
Ernest slid into his chair and held his head in his hands. “How big is this hole? I mean, how much are we talking here?”
Gregory unfolded a small slip of paper and handed it to Ernest, and then watched in amazement as his face got redder and redder with every digit he counted.
A loud crack of thunder rumbled across the sky as the corridor filled with a bright light. Doreen chuckled as she heard a small squeal from Elizabeth’s room, just down the corridor from her. She shut Michael’s door behind her and headed downstairs where Pat was sitting on a couch in the lounge.
“That’s Michael off to sleep, we can relax now.”
“As relaxed as you can be in this weather.”
“Come now,” Doreen smiled as she poured two drinks, “don’t tell me you’re scared of thunder and lightning as well?”
“No, of course not.” Pat smiled. “It just puts me on edge, I always think bad things are going to happen.”
“Trust me, nothing bad is going to happen, it’s just the two of us, having a quiet drink.”
“You know, Mrs Cromwell –” Pat started as she refilled their wine glasses.
“Right. I just wanted to say thank you, you know, for everything that you’ve done for me, the job and –”
“Don’t be silly. The moment Ernest started talking about hiring someone I thought of you. You were always very good with the kids, they love you. It’s just a shame things didn’t work out with you and Raymond.”
“Yeah,” Pat smiled uncomfortably, fingering the top of her wine glass, “that’s something else I wanted to talk about.”
“Oh?” Doreen gave Pat a hopeful grin.
“I don’t know what you thought might happen between me and him when I came to work here, but I feel like I ought to tell you. I’m seeing somebody else.”
“In fact, we’re engaged, just last night.” She stretched out her hand and showed Doreen her engagement ring.
“Oh, well, that’s great,” Doreen plastered a smile onto her face, a false sweetness in her voice, “really, that’s fantastic news. How come we’ve never met him?”
“I always felt a little uncomfortable, you know, because of Raymond. Beside Campbell is –“
“He’s American. He’s a little younger than me.”
“How much younger?”
“Three years?” Doreen laughed. “Honey, that’s nothing, Ernie’s four years younger than me. If anyone says anything, you send them to me, I’ll sort them out.”
“Four years?” Pat smiled, slightly comforted, but stopped as she remembered something Raymond had told her years previously. “Raymond said you were nineteen when you had him.”
Doreen swallowed the last of her drink. “I was.”
“Oh, so Ernest’s not Ray’s father? Or – ” She tailed off as Doreen quietly poured them each another drink. “Oh.”
“It was a different time, there – ”
“Honestly, Doreen, you don’t have to explain yourself to me.”
“No, no, it’s alright. I want to.” Doreen took a deep breath. “Like I said, it was a different time, the height of the war. All the boys that I’d gone to school with were either at war or dead or in trouble with the police. We lived on the edge of a small village, there was no one my age for me to talk to and my dad was pressuring me to find a husband. And then there was Ernest. Well, you’ve met him, he’s a handsome man.”
“But he was just a boy.”
“He was fifteen. And like I said, there was no one my age to talk to, and he just… he seemed so grown up. He’d been through a lot, his mum had died and his dad was at war, he was all alone. We both were.”
Pat shifted uncomfortably. “Still, I don’t know if I could…”
“He was very tall for his age.”
They looked at each other, before they both burst into laughter.
“Oh, Doreen,” Pat wiped the tears of laughter from her eyes, “I’m so glad I’m here.”
“So am I. Stuck out here in the middle of nowhere, with no one else to talk to – lucky there aren’t any fourteen year old boys around!”
They both cackled with laughter again, nearly spilling their wine. A loud scream burst through the house as another clap of thunder surrounded them. “Perhaps I ought to go and check on Elizabeth.”
“I’ll come with you,” Pat smiled as she set down her drink, “it’ll help me catch my breath back.”
Doreen led Pat up the stairs, just as Elizabeth came running from her room.
“Mummy! Mummy!” Elizabeth cried, launching herself at her mother.
“Is she ever going to shut up?” Michael asked, rubbing his eyes as he came from his bedroom. “I’m never going to get any sleep.”
“Shut up!” Elizabeth shouted, glaring at her brother.
“It is a scream that could wake the dead, isn’t it?” Pat agreed with Michael.
Doreen frowned. “It didn’t wake Gary though. I think I’d better check he’s ok.”
“Oh, I’ll do it, you get these two back to bed.” Pat smiled at Doreen and slipped through the door to Gary’s bedroom.
Michael moved back to his own bedroom and Doreen led Elizabeth into hers. “There you go, honey, the thunder’s not going to hurt you.”
“Mummy, what is it?”
“What’s what, sweetheart?”
“Thunder? Is God angry?”
“No, no,” Doreen said, laughing, “of course not! You remember when daddy’s hungry? And his stomach growls?” Elizabeth nodded. “Well, that’s what thunder is. It’s just the noise God makes when he’s hungry. It’s nothing to be scared of, ok?”
“Ok.” Elizabeth smiled back.
“So, just remember that when you hear thunder – ”
“Doreen! Doreen! Get in here!” Pat’s panicked cries came from down the hall.
“Wait here, honey.” Doreen rushed out of Elizabeth’s room and into Gary’s, where Pat was stood over him. He was jerking uncontrollably.
“It’s Gary,” Pat stuttered, “he was just lying there and then he started… I don’t know he started juddering and I can’t get him to stop.”
Doreen stooped down and picked up her son. “He’s gone blue, what is it?”
“I don’t know.” Pat cried. “I’ll ring an ambulance.”
“No?” Pat couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
“We’re in the middle of nowhere, Pat, I’ve lived here three and a half months and I still get lost. An ambulance driver in the middle of night, in this weather is just going to be hopeless.”
“So what? We just let him spasm?”
“No, no,” Doreen headed quickly to the door carrying Gary, and Pat followed her, “you stay here and look after the other two, I’ll drive him into town to the hospital.”
“What?” Pat followed Doreen down the stairs. “You’ve been drinking.”
“I’ve only had a small one,” Doreen said as she quickly picked up her jacket, “besides, you can’t drive.”
“Doreen, what about Ernest?”
“Ring him, let him know that we’re all fine, but that he needs to meet me down the hospital. As soon as possible.”
“Doreen, you can’t – ”
“Pat,” Doreen manoeuvred herself out of the door into the rain, “we’ll be fine. I promise.”
Ernest quietly shut the door to his study behind him. It was exactly as he’d left it just two weeks previously. That morning he had been running late, so he’d quickly grabbed some toast from the kitchen and thrown on a little marmalade as he prepared his briefcase. On the side of the desk was a small plate, holding the stale crust that he had left behind.
The bright afternoon sunlight shone through the window onto the small pile of papers that he’d forgotten to take with him. It doesn’t matter, he’d told himself when he realised on his drive to work. He would be able to come home at lunchtime and pick them up. They weren’t urgent. Of course, he’d been distracted when he’d needed to call an emergency meeting and hadn’t made it home.
He looked at his diary on the desk, open on 20th January, he hadn’t had time to even turn the page that morning. That was how late he was, that’s how quickly he needed to be out of the house. No time to turn the page on a diary, no time to gently wake his wife and wish her a good day.
No time to say goodbye.
Ernest sat at the desk and lazily turned the pages of the diary, two full weeks passing in a flicker of a second. If only he’d been able to do that with the last fortnight, if only he could have somehow withdrawn from it all and come back when the pain had gone.
He’d been just about to leave the office when Pat had rung him to tell him what was happening. Doreen’s driving? In this weather? He’d asked, painfully aware that even when both she and the weather were calm, Doreen wasn’t the most confident of drivers.
He had dashed to his car, and a short ten minutes later he was less than half a mile out of the car park. Everyone had slowed down because of the torrential rainfall, and Ernest was crawling down the hill, unable to do anything but watch the rain speed along a hell of a lot faster than him.
The traffic report on the radio warned people off driving in general, but if they absolutely had to drive anywhere, it was suggested they avoid the main dual carriageway due to an accident that had congested up the eastbound lanes and all the surrounding area. Although nowhere near any of the effected roads, Ernest preferred to blame the accident for slowing him up, rather than the flooded road ahead, it was much easier to blame a person than it was a force of nature.
“Idiot drivers.” He’d muttered to himself, and then thought no more of the crash.
Once he had managed to get past the roundabout at the bottom of the hill, it hadn’t taken him much longer to reach the hospital. He’d sprinted through the car park, through the downpour and skidded to a halt at the reception desk, all the time keeping an eye out for Doreen.
The queue was almost as long as the queue coming down the hill, and the ten minutes it took to reach the front felt like an eternity to the already anxious Ernest.
He made himself feel better by berating the woman on the desk for all the failings of the NHS before learning from her that no child by the name of Gary Cromwell had been brought in.
“In fact,” the receptionist had added, “no children have been checked in since this afternoon, and they’ve all made it home safely now.”
He started to berate her again. Of course Doreen and Gary would be here by now, there weren’t any other hospitals nearby, and none of the roads she would have taken would have been blocked, in fact, she’d have been lucky to even meet another car. Unless…
In the two seconds between his sentence suddenly trailing off and the emergency department doors being smashed open, Ernest had remembered teasing his wife about her driving anxieties.
“You’ve never driven on the fast road?”
“Never,” she’d smiled, “they’re far too dangerous.”
“But they make driving so much quicker.”
“They make driving so much more dangerous.”
“What if you were late for a hair appointment in town? Would you use it then?”
“No, I would use the back roads and be late.”
“What if you were late meeting me?” Ernest had smirked.
“I would feel worse for keeping the stylist waiting.” Doreen had laughed and given him a quick peck on the lips.
“What if it was an emergency? What if you needed to get one of the kids to hospital?”
Doreen had paused for a moment, and then looked her husband in the eye. “If it was that urgent, then I guess, yes, I would use them.”
He swivelled around as the doors burst open and two paramedics wheeled a gurney in. They shouted all sorts of statistics to the accompanying doctor, but the only detail Ernest had noticed, was the dry trickle of blood running down his lover’s face.
That was the moment his world had changed, that was the moment his insides had twisted and torn and melted down into nothingness.
Ernest sighed, removed his glasses and buried his head in his hands. A moment later there was a small tap on the door and he leant back in his chair and stared at it. He knew who was on the other side, he had been expecting it. He was ready for it.
He said nothing, but the door slowly opened anyway and Raymond gingerly made his way into the room.
“Dad, I… how are you coping?”
“How do you think?”
“I would think that you’re concerned about your ill young son. Grieving for the woman you loved. Scared about how you’re going to raise three children on your own. I would think all of that if you’d actually spoken to any of us, if you’d bothered to let us in. As it is, I don’t know how you’re feeling.”
“I buried my wife today, Raymond. I should have been celebrating her birthday with her in a fancy restaurant, slowly pickling ourselves on red wine. Instead, I’m alone and she’s… dead!” Ernest spat out the last word in disgust.
“It’s been hard for all of us, Dad, none of us were expecting it.”
“I keep looking for someone to blame.” Ernest stood up and looked out of his window onto the lawn outside. “I keep looking for some… get out clause. Bring her back.”
“That’s only natural.”
“I keep asking myself, what if I hadn’t stayed late at the office? What if I hadn’t moved us out to this damn house in the middle of nowhere? What if Gary hadn’t been ill?”
“How is Gary? What did the doctors say?”
Ernest shrugged. “They’re not sure what’s wrong with him. They don’t think it’s serious, told us to go back if he shows any unusual symptoms. In the meantime they’re performing some tests, they’ll get in touch with us when they know something.”
“That’s good, isn’t it? They don’t think it’s serious.”
There was a long pause in which Raymond watched the back of his father, tensed at the window. “Dad, if you want to talk…”
“Talk…” Ernest repeated quietly. “I keep looking for someone to blame, you know.”
“Really?” He turned to face his son. “You found anyone yet?”
Raymond shrugged. “Of course not, it was just a tragic accident. There’s no one to blame.”
“I found someone.”
“Like I said, I kept thinking what if Gary hadn’t been ill?”
Raymond looked at his father in disbelief. “You can’t blame him, dad, he’s just a kid.”
“Well, I know that. He can’t help being ill. But I can’t help but think what would have happened had I been there to drive him to the hospital.”
“It’s not your fault either, Dad.”
“I know it’s not my fault, you idiot!” Ernest shouted so loudly that the window panes shook a little. “I had retired, I’d left all that behind until some idiot, some stupid idiot started playing the stock market like it was a weekend game of Monopoly!”
“You can’t be blaming me? It’s not my fault mum died!”
“It is!” Ernest raised a pointed finger at his son. “You were the one who forced me out of retirement, you were the one who needed his hand holding, you were the reason I wasn’t there for my family, when I should have been, simply because you can’t add up!”
“It’s an addiction.”
“An addiction to what? To losing money? To being a waste of space?”
“To gambling! Some people do it down the pub for a penny a trick, others on the horses. Just because I did it on the stock market, doesn’t mean it’s not an illness!”
“Illness! Illness? Don’t give me that! It’s not a disease! You just need to learn to have a little self control!”
“Dad, will – ”
“Don’t call me that.”
“I’m not your dad. I refuse to believe that any son of mine could have acted the way you have.”
Raymond stared at him. “You can’t be serious… You can deny a lot of things, dad, but you can’t deny you’re my father…”
“Oh, can’t I? Your mother’s not around any more, is she? Nobody to say otherwise.”
“But… my birth certificate…”
“Is blank. I was fifteen when your mother had you, if she’d put me down on the birth certificate as the father, she’d have been arrested. Go and ask your grandfather who your dad is, as far as he’s concerned, I stepped in and married his daughter after some randy farmhand got her pregnant. There is nothing in this world that can prove I’m your father apart from my word. And my word is that you’re not my son.”
Raymond marched back to the door. “I can’t talk to you when you’re like this. I’ll see you in the office on Monday.”
“No, you won’t.”
“I won’t be seeing you on Monday.”
“What do you mean? You told Pat just this morning that you were going back to work on Monday.”
“I will be, but I won’t be seeing you there.”
“Dad, me and you run the business together, you’ll have to see me.”
Ernest marched over to him and looked his son square in the face. “Not any more. God, I was a fool to give you your job back!”
“What are you saying?”
“You’re fired!” Ernest cried. “You must be kidding if you think I would leave you in charge of my business. Not now. Not ever!” He shoved Raymond hard in the chest and slammed the door shut in his face.
Read the next chapter here