Cromwell Manor, Wiltshire
Frederick caught himself looking at the tightness of Graham’s trousers across his bottom as he followed him into the house, he tore his eyes away and looked up to see a young woman going through a cupboard at the far end of the room.
“What are you doing in the closet?” He asked.
“It’s no use, honey,” Graham smiled as he entered with some carrier bags, “I don’t think anyone’s ever going to be able to drag him out of there.”
“Oh, you’re hilarious.” Frederick felt his face flush but shot him the best death stare he could muster before turning back to the woman. “Who are you?”
“Oh! I’m… I’m Ella. I’m the maid.”
“No, you’re not.” Frederick frowned. “Pat’s the maid.”
“No, she’s not.” Pat said matter-of-factly as she came through the door from the kitchen. “Pat’s the Head Maid. Ella’s the new maid.”
“Grandpa’s actually paying two wages? Or are you having to share one?”
“Of course he’s paying two wages. I convinced him that I needed some more help around here.”
“I’d be careful, if I were you, Pat, he might just be getting you to train her up before he gets rid of you.”
“Oh, your grandfather would never fire me, I have far too much dirt on him.” She winked at Frederick before pulling him into a motherly hug. “What are you two doing here anyway?”
“Me, Frederick and the girls are having a pizza and video night.”
“Grandpa said we could use this place since he’s not here this weekend. It’s bigger than anything we’ve got… quieter too.”
Pat smiled at him sympathetically and Frederick knew she was thinking of his parents. He hoped she wouldn’t say anything in front of Graham and luckily, her attention was arrested by the carrier bags that Graham was setting down in front of him.
“What’s in there?” She asked suspiciously.
“Err, well, I’ve got a couple of films, some games in case the films are as boring as I fear they might be and some drinks.” Graham flashed her one of his charming smiles and she smiled back.
“Let me see.”
“Pat,” Frederick began, “we haven’t got any alcohol – ”
“Let me see.”
Graham and Frederick both stepped away from the bags and Pat quickly sifted through them.
“Good, I’d hate to think that you’d turned into a liar since I saw you last. But since your grandfather is away, I’m the responsible adult in the house. And it wouldn’t matter how many secrets I’ve got over Mr Cromwell, if you end up in hospital on my watch, I’m gone.”
There was a small cough from behind them as Ella moved her way next to Pat and smiled. “Umm… Mrs Curtis?”
“Oh, err, yes. Frederick, Graham, this is Ella French. Ella, this is Mr Cromwell’s grandson, Frederick, and this is Graham, one of Frederick’s friends.”
“It’s really nice to meet you both, I’ve heard so much about you.” Ella shook both of their hands and smiled a large broad smile.
“You have?” Frederick’s face creased in bemusement.
“Easy now, girl,” Pat frowned at her, “you’re not in one of those nightclubs now. Frederick’s taken and Graham’s gay, so for god’s sakes put your tongue away.”
Ella turned a deep crimson colour and moved back over to the closet as both Graham and Frederick smiled uncomfortably.
“We’re just going to take these through to the other room.”
“Ok, boys.” Pat smiled and watched them as they moved through the doorway into the billiard room. She quietly shut the door behind them and, as she did, Ella rushed over to her, an angry look on her face.
“What did you go and say that for? Making out like I’m some sort of… slapper!”
“Now, I’ve told you before and I’ll tell you once more, and for your own sake, it had better be the last time I have to.” Pat waved a disciplinary finger in Ella’s face. “Ernest trusted me to find a new maid, if he found out that I always intended you to have the job, I’d be in serious trouble. We both would be. Now, it’ll be hard, but I am going to be saying some nasty things about you to them. And I fully expect you to say some nasty things about me in return. That way, no one will suspect anything.”
“Right.” Ella nodded.
“Now,” Pat fished around in the pocket of her apron and pulled out some keys, “I want you to take these. I’m going to have to go upstairs, I’m coming down with one of my migraines.”
“What are all these for?” Ella asked, looking at the varied assortment of keys on the ring.
“There’s a key on there for nearly every lock in the house, I want you to look around the place this weekend, find out where everything is, what’s in each room and where each room is. Open every drawer, unlock every door, and lift every rug.”
“Isn’t that an invasion of privacy? Won’t I get in trouble with… Mr Cromwell?”
“Don’t be silly, a man doesn’t protect his secrets from his servants. His servants protect his secrets for him. In order to do that, you’ll need to know them.”
“It’s 2001, I don’t think we’re called servants anymore. We’re his employees.”
“Oh no, dear, when you’re working for Ernest, you’re definitely a servant. Now, get going, I’ll come down and check on you soon – and while I think of it stop calling me Mrs Curtis – I haven’t been called that in a long time. It’s Pat.”
“Yes, M – Pat.”
Pat climbed down the iron spiral staircase towards her bedroom and Ella looked around the entrance hall, smiling. She waited until the clanging of Pat’s footsteps had faded away, before following the two boys through the doorway.
She found them either end of the billiard table attempting to lift it.
“Ah, Emma – “
“Ella, that’s right,” Frederick grinned at her, “you’re just in time to give us a hand, help us shove this over here.”
Ella stood at the side of the table, and between the three of them, they managed to lift it off the ground enough to move it a few centimetres back.
“Well, that’ll have to do.” Graham sighed as both he and Frederick set to rearranging the chairs.
“So, then… Ella.” Frederick smiled “How long have you worked here?”
“Started today. I’m slowly getting to know the place.”
“It’s not so hard to pick up, it’s big enough to hide in, but it’s not big enough to get lost in. The best bits are the secret passages – there’s one right outside mum’s old bedroom on the first floor, leads right down to the kitchen. I swear that’s the only reason she ever had that room.”
“Right, well, I’ll keep an eye out for that one, then.” Ella smiled. “Listen, what my… what Pat said before… I’m not really like that. She’s, err, a bit of a miserable old cow.”
“She’s not that bad.”
“Maybe not,” Ella conceded with a small nod, “but I don’t think it was her choice to hire some help. I think she sees it as a comment on her abilities.”
“I guess so.” Frederick smiled as they watched Graham rearranging a footstool on the floor.
“What are you doing?”
“We’re going to bring the TV into here,” Graham gestured to the space he had created in front of the couch, “that way, while the loved up couple are watching films about straight people falling love, Victoria and I can have a manly game of Billiards.” He twirled an invisible moustache and mimicked the voice of a nineteenth century aristocrat as he did.
“Right, now that’s’ done, I’m off to college.”
“Right, ok. Thanks for the lift, mate.”
“You’re in college?” Ella asked Graham.
“Yeah, Psychology and Law. But not this afternoon, I’m just picking the girls up from their lecture to bring them back here.”
“Are you also in college, Frederick?”
“No, I decided not to go. I don’t believe you can really teach what I do.”
“Really? What’s that?”
“He can spout self-important claptrap at the drop of a hat.” Graham flashed her an almost sparkling smile.
“I’m a writer.” Frederick said through gritted teeth in an attempt to ignore Graham.
“A writer? Wow, what do you write?”
“It’s mostly just post-it notes at the moment, isn’t it, Freddie?” Graham smiled slyly.
“I thought you were leaving?”
“I am, I am. Ella, it was lovely to meet you.” Graham clasped Ella’s hand and kissed her lightly on the cheek before turning and dashing out of the door, calling behind him as he went. “See you later!”
Ella frowned at Frederick as Graham left the room. “What did he mean by that?”
“I’m working at the local newspaper at the moment, answering phones, that sort of thing. It’s just resume fodder until I can get into the serious writing thing. Are those Pat’s?”
Ella looked down at the key ring she was fiddling with. “Oh, yes, yes. I’m supposed to be getting to know the place.”
“Well, before you do, I don’t suppose I could borrow them, could I? The last time I was here, I left a book in my grandfather’s study, and I need it back as soon as possible.”
“I don’t see why not,” Ella handed him the keys, “you have more right than I do.”
“Thanks, that’s great. I’ll bring them to you in the kitchen, when I’m done.”
“Oh, ok, then.” Feeling as though she’d been dismissed, Ella made her way out of the hall. Frederick smiled to himself and headed straight for his grandfather’s locked drinks cabinet.
* * *
The screen darkened and the credits started to roll.
“That bloke with the thing at the end… he was gorgeous!” Graham sighed.
“He was ok.” Victoria smiled back at him.
“I thought he looked a little bit like Robert.”
Frederick looked down at his girlfriend, her head in his lap. “Who’s Robert?”
“One of our tutors at college. He’s really nice.”
“Do you think he’s gorgeous?”
“I think it’s time for you to pour us another drink.” Rebecca pulled herself up into a sitting position and looked down at the empty wine bottles on the floor. “Woah. I think somebody’s had too much to drink already.”
“What do you mean?”
“There’s four empty bottles down here. I’ve only had two glasses.”
“Well, don’t look at me,” Graham defended himself, “I’ve only had three. I’m not a big wine drinker.”
“Vicky?” Rebecca asked.
“Hmm? Oh, I’m still on my first.” She motioned to her untouched glass of wine. They all slowly turned to face Frederick, who was slumped at the side of the couch.
“Frederick!” Victoria frowned. “You’ve had three bottles of wine in under two hours!”
“So?” He pulled himself up so he could see her across the room. “I only had one slice of pizza! You’ve eaten a whole cheese and ham, plus half of the ham and pineapple!”
“Well… I was hungry.”
“And I was thirsty.” He fell back into the cushion of the chair and began to giggle. The others rolled their eyes. “You know… it’s funny isn’t it… I’ve had all that… wine! And I don’t feel drunk at all. Maybe a bit merry, but what have I got to be un-merry about?”
“Un-merry isn’t a word. I thought you were supposed to be a writer?”
“I am a writer, Graham. Sod off. Writers are allowed to make up words. Like hillbilly or scrumptious!”
“Frederick, you didn’t make those up. I think maybe we ought to get you to bed.” Rebecca began to pull him up in his chair.
“It’s only taken four months!”
“Five months, and no, not like that.”
Frederick mumbled to himself and batted Rebecca away from helping him when suddenly he sat upright and exclaimed “Hey!”
“Hey what?” Rebecca asked.
“My sister…” He pointed at Victoria and trailed off.
“Yes?” She asked.
“My sister, is quite famously known for drinking lots and lots and lots and lots of wine, and tonight, she’s barely had any and she… and with the… because…” Graham laughed and Frederick narrowed his eyes pointing accusingly at him. “I may be drunk, but at least I’m not upside down!”
“He’s not upside down, honey, come on, let’s get you upstairs before you’re sick.”
“I’m not the one that’s sick, that’s what I’m trying to tell you!” He pulled himself away from Rebecca again and belly flopped down onto the couch again, so that his head was at the end nearest Victoria. “I may be drunk, but at least I’m not pregnant.”
Frederick gasped loudly at his own accusation and then laughed as Victoria pushed him in the forehead. “I’m not pregnant dumbass.”
“Yes, you are. You’re not drinking alcohol, that’s one of the symptoms. And you’re eating a lot. A lot of… pizza! You can ask any doctor.”
“Frederick, you’re always eating lots of pizza. And there’s plenty of times when you don’t drink. How many times have you been pregnant?”
“Twice.” He laughed again. “And Graham’s the father?”
Rebecca raised her fists in a mock fighting stance and faced Graham. “Am I going to have to fight you for my man and his kids?”
“Pfft, you can keep them. At least while he’s in this state.”
“No, I’m not, Frederick.”
“You were throwing up on Saturday when you came around.”
“Well, I had a hangover, didn’t I?” Victoria started to go a little red in the face.
Rebecca frowned. “But you didn’t have anything to drink on Friday night. You drove us.”
“Oh my God!” Frederick jumped up on to his feet, before falling back down again. “I didn’t believe it until just then!”
“Freddie, shut up.”
“But you’re pregnant!”
“Freddie, just leave it.”
“Who’s the father?”
Victoria stood up and angrily faced her brother. “Frederick! I told you to leave it, so for once, why don’t you just do as you’re told and leave it!”
She turned and fled the room and for a moment, Frederick wobbled on his feet, stunned.
“Shit.” He finally said as he collapsed onto the floor. “I’m going to be an uncle.”
Rebecca looked from the doorway that her best friend had just run through, to the floor where her boyfriend was lying, only semi-conscious. Graham stood up from his armchair.
“Look, you go after her, I’ll take care of this one.”
“Sure?” Rebecca asked.
“Of course. We’re both as good as each other at looking after the drunks, but you’re much better at the whole girl talk stuff. Besides, she would never tell me anything, she’s got it into her head that I’m a gossip. You go after her, I’ll find a bath tub somewhere he can sleep it off in.
“Thanks.” Rebecca smiled, and left the room, as Graham started to pull Frederick up to his feet.
“I don’t want to have a bath. Not with you.”
“Ok, that’s good. How about we just try standing up for now. Can you do that?”
“Can I have another drink?”
“No, no you can’t. Come on.” Graham finally managed to pull Frederick onto his feet, and he wrapped the younger man’s arm around his own neck to help support him.
As Graham guided him towards the door, Frederick suddenly turned around causing Graham to lose his balance. The smaller man buckled over the drunken weight and they both fell to the floor, Frederick landing on top of Graham.
“Ouch.” Frederick giggled madly.
“Ow, get off me!”
“No, I want to stay here.”
“You can’t stay here, you’re far too heavy.”
Frederick smiled and stroked Graham’s cheek with his hand. “Aww, you’re not heavy.”
“No, I know I’m not. You’re the one who’s been stocking up for hibernation.”
“See, that’s why I love you, you go straight to the point.”
Graham frowned. “What did you say?”
“I said you go straight to the point.”
“I love you.”
“You do know who I am, right? It’s me, Graham. You… love Becky.”
Frederick used one of his arms to hold himself up, so that he could look Graham right in the eyes. “I love you. Graham.”
“Frederick, you really need to get up now.”
“No.” Frederick lowered his head and kissed Graham gently on the lips. He smiled and rested his head next to Graham and for a moment the only sound that filled the room was the sound of the two men breathing. Until Frederick started to snore loudly.
Graham shifted uncomfortably underneath him. “Fuck.”
* * *
Frederick stared out of the window at the large green landscape surrounding his grandfather’s mansion. His stomach was churning and his head was thumping, yet the view from this window always seemed to make him feel safe and comfortable.
“You drank a lot last night.”
Frederick felt his face turn a deep crimson as Graham sat down next to him. “Yeah… well. I’ve never been able to hold my drink, it’s not a state secret.”
“Just as well, really. The state you were in last night, nobody’s secrets were safe.”
“Why hello, Mr Pot!” Frederick stretched out his hand to Graham. “I’m a kettle. Did you just call me black?”
“Ok, I’m sorry.” Graham apologised.
“At least I’m only like it when I’m drunk.”
“Touche…” The pair of them sat in silence for a moment before Frederick turned to Graham.
“Look, about what happened last night – ”
“Yeah, I remember. Unfortunately.”
“I’m not that bad a kisser.”
Frederick ignored him. “The thing is… I’m not gay.”
“I used to say that.”
“I was just confused.”
“I used to say that too.”
“Graham – ”
“Are you only like that when you’re drunk as well?” Graham asked.
“No. Yes. I mean… I don’t know what I mean.”
“I would say that much was obvious.” Graham stood up and started to wander around the room. “Listen, you need to go away and think about what you really want. I don’t care if it’s men, women or a mixture of both, it doesn’t matter what you decide, but you need to decide. I’ve been where you are, and I’m not talking about being gay – I’m talking about discovering yourself. If you ever need to talk to me, then I’m here. I’m not just a pretty face, I can be a pretty good friend too. And if you do decide that you like men, and that you like me, then I’m more than happy with that.
“But let me be clear on one thing. If you hurt Rebecca in any way, I will kill you.” Graham looked around the room, at the pizza boxes and the wine bottles on the floor. “I’d better go get a rubbish bag, start clearing up this mess.”
Frederick watched as Graham left the room and then dropped his head into his hands. How did I get into this mess? He’d always known deep down, that he found certain men attractive, but that was normal, right? Just because you were comfortable enough to recognise that another man is attractive, doesn’t necessarily mean that you are attracted, does it?
“What’s the matter with you?”
Frederick looked up to see Ella standing in the doorway. “How do people keep managing to sneak up on me when I’m in here?”
“Well, it looked like you were in your own little world. Are you ok?”
“Just a bit of a headache, that’s all.”
“Perhaps you need to take more vitamins.” Her eyes drifted to the bottles on the floor and then to the open drinks cabinet by the wall. “Or less alcohol. You didn’t leave a book in your grandfather’s study, did you?”
Frederick raised his hands. “Guilty.”
Ella quickly trotted over to the drinks cabinet and locked it. “Oh, I’m going to be in so much trouble when your grandfather gets back.”
“No, no you’re not. Look, leave that.” Ella had started to tidy up the mess on the floor. “Leave it, leave it. I want to ask you a question.”
“How well do you know me, Ella?”
“Well…” Ella frowned. “We only met yesterday, so I would say not very well at all.”
“Good. That’s good.”
“Was that the question?”
“No. No, no, that was just a precursor to the question. The question is… based on first impressions would you say I was gay?”
Ella laughed. “I may not know you very well, Frederick, but I know you’ve got a girlfriend.”
“Forget about Rebecca for a moment. Pretend that we met in a club somewhere – do you make a pass at me, or do you ring your gay best friend and tell him that you’ve met someone who would be perfect for him.”
“Well, since we’ve only just met, I’m going to forgive you for assuming that I would make a pass at strange men that I meet in clubs.”
“Thank you. So?”
“Frederick. You’re handsome, intelligent and you seem to know how to dress yourself. Based on all the traditional stereotypes, I would have to say… homo.”
Frederick nodded and closed his eyes. “Right.”
“But you’re going out with Rebecca right?”
“Right.” He nodded.
Ella watched him sit sadly for a moment. “What’s the matter?”
Frederick sighed. “Last night… I… I kind of… I kissed Graham.”
“I told him I loved him, kissed him on the lips and then passed out on top of him.”
“Ok.” Ella sat down next to him. “That doesn’t mean anything though. I’m sure that’s happened to lots of guys.”
“Perhaps. But I enjoyed it.”
“Well of course you did. It was friction, warmth.”
“It’s more than that, Ella. I’ve always been curious, I’ve always told myself that it’s ok, as long as I never act on it. Nobody needed to know.”
“So… you are gay?”
“No. I’m just….”
“Attracted to men?”
“And you’re a man?”
“Last time I looked.”
“So, you’re gay then?”
Frederick laughed. “No. I like women. I think… I think Rebecca’s gorgeous.”
“Have you slept together?”
“No.” Frederick sighed. “I just… I can’t bring myself to go near… that area.”
“It doesn’t really do a lot for me, I guess.”
“Oh.” Ella nodded sagely and smiled. “So, you’re gay then?”
Frederick sighed. “I guess so.”
“What about Rebecca?”
“I don’t know.” Frederick shrugged. “Graham said he’d kill me if I hurt her.”
“You think he would?”
“He wasn’t serious, it was one of those heat of the moment things.”
“I don’t know,” Ella said, “people are capable of anything if the feelings are strong enough. Perhaps he meant it.”
“You know, not really helping.”
“I’m sorry.” Ella apologised, a slight smirk on her face.
“Hey, it’s not funny, you know.” Frederick couldn’t help smiling at her as he said it.
“No, no, of course it isn’t.”
They both laughed a little as Ella sat down next to Frederick and stared out of the window with him. “You know… I don’t have a gay best friend.”
“You want one?” Frederick smiled at her.
“So, you’re admitting it now, are you?” Ella jumped as Graham came back into the room carrying two black bin liners.
“Jesus Christ!” She exclaimed. “I see what you mean about people sneaking up on you.”
“Graham, leave it, please, now’s not the time.”
“I think now is the time. You’ve just admitted that you’re gay and your girlfriend is on her way down to help me clean up. You just need to go for it. Open your mouth and let the words come out.”
“Go for what?” Rebecca asked as she and Victoria entered the room.
Frederick closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Rebecca, I…”
“Go on.” Graham urged him as Ella patted him on the shoulder.
“I want…” he hesitated again, “I want you to marry me.”
Everyone in the room looked directly at him. “What?”
“I haven’t got a ring or anything, and I know it’s kind of rushing into things, but I look at you and it feels right.”
“Freddie, we’ve only been going out for five months. We ought to wait a while.”
“Rebecca, I love you with all my heart, and right now there’s nothing I want more than to spend the rest of my life with you.”
“I love you too.” Rebecca moved closer to him. “But we’re so young, we have no money and neither of us has a proper job. I just think we should wait.”
“Ok.” Frederick nodded slowly and pulled her into a hug, he could see Graham glaring at him from across the room.
As he held Rebecca tightly, she whispered into his ear. “Ask me again in a few years. I promise I’ll say yes.”
The next chapter will be published on Sunday 3rd April