Cromwell Manor, Wiltshire
Ernest was slumped over the desk at an awkward angle as Gary entered the study. For a moment, he stared at his father, unsure of what to do.
“Dad?” Michael asked, following his younger brother inside, and shutting the door. The resulting bang of wood upon wood caused Ernest to wake and sit up suddenly. “Where have you been? We were supposed to meet at the office an hour ago.”
“Oh.” Ernest frowned and checked his watch, massaging his shoulder as he did. “I’m sorry, boys, I guess I nodded off.”
“Right.” Michael nodded, frowning as he did.
“Don’t worry, it’s nothing to be concerned about. When you get to my age, you start needing to take an afternoon nap or two.”
“Well, perhaps,” Gary started as he and Michael sat down in front of their father’s desk, “it’s time that you started to take things a little easier.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, like you say, you’re not getting any younger and yet… you seem to be putting more and more time in at work. Perhaps it’s time you thought about retirement.”
“Actually,” Ernest said as he straightened out the papers on his desk, “that’s why I wanted to meet with the two of you. I have been thinking about retiring, for a long time now.”
“You have?” Michael asked.
“Oh, come on, Michael, you can’t pretend that you haven’t noticed. For the last few years, I’ve been giving you more and more of my responsibilities.”
“You want Michael to take over the business?”
Ernest looked across at his youngest son. “I would absolutely love for Michael to take over the business.”
“Dad – ”
“But,” Ernest interrupted Michael, “we all know that unfortunately, due to circumstances out of our control – ”
“They are not circumstances out of our control, Dad!” Michael shouted. “It’s a disease. I’m ill!”
A muscle in Ernest’s cheek twitched as he looked away from Michael and focused on Gary. “As your brother has just reminded us, he’s not really in a position to head up a company, let alone take one over full time. It’s time for us to shift our gaze from past disappointments and wasted potential to the future.”
Gary sat up straighter in his chair. “So, what have you decided then, Dad?”
“As you both know this is a family business and I want to keep it in the family. Obviously, there are only so many people in one family and so my choices are a little limited. But I believe that Frederick has the potential.”
“Well, of course,” Ernest frowned, “who did you think we were talking about?”
“He is the most logical choice,” Michael agreed, “he’s dynamic, creative, intelligent.”
“Ok, I see, I see.” Gary conceded. “If Frederick’s the next logical choice, then why am I sat here?”
“Well, the qualities that would make Frederick the ideal man to take over the business are also the same sort of qualities that could mean he wouldn’t take the job. He’s unpredictable, we need a back-up plan.”
“And I’m the back-up plan?” Gary asked.
“What? No. I’m talking about Reece. I want to send him to university, he doesn’t quite have the raw talent that Frederick does.”
“Well, I guess it makes sense, it would keep the business in the family, after all.” Michael agreed.
“Excuse me? Aren’t we forgetting someone?”
“Well,” Michael nodded, “of course Matthew would be considered as well, but at the end of the day, he is only thirteen.”
“I’m not talking about either of my fucking children!” Gary stood up. “I’m talking about me!”
“You?” Ernest laughed as Michael buried his head in his hands. “You want to run this business?”
“Why is that funny?”
“Look, perhaps I’d better leave, this is between the two of you.” Michael stood up.
“Yeah, perhaps that would be a good idea. I’m always going to look like second best while you’re in the room.”
“Listen,” Michael spat at Gary, “I’m not to blame for your failings, and I’m certainly never going to play down my own successes in order to make you feel good. But let’s just get one thing straight. You are not second best, we’ve already established that Frederick, Reece and Matthew all come before you!”
Gary frowned at Michael as he left the room. He turned back to face his father and Ernest began to laugh again.
“What the hell are you laughing at?”
“You!” Ernest grinned. “Your delusions that you could ever be a successful businessman! You’re barely even a successful man!”
Gary’s face turned red. “You really are a monster, you know that?”
“Is that right?”
“Yeah! You don’t know the first thing about me!”
“Well, I know that for four weekends running, you’ve been hungover whenever I’ve come around!”
“Rubbish?” Ernest asked. “When was the last time you were drunk?”
Gary laughed. “Ok, ok, you got lucky. Just because I was out drinking last night with some buddies, doesn’t mean that I’m not suitable to run Cromley’s!”
“And what were you doing the night before? And on Monday night?”
“You’ve never given me a chance to be anything but a failure!”
“You were always a failure, before I even started treating you like one.”
“I’m a failure? Look at you!”
“Look at me?” Ernest cried. “What’s that supposed to mean? I’m a multi-millionaire! I took one measly little shop that my father owned and duplicated it and multiplied it a million times over! I married a beautiful woman, had four children – ”
“That’s exactly your problem! Yeah, you’ve got a successful business, but you’ve got three children not four! That beautiful woman you married? She died nearly forty years ago! You’ve never got over that, you’ve never been with anyone since! All you did was fool some poor deluded woman into screwing you sixty odd years ago!”
“Leave your mother out of this!”
“No, really, she was lucky she died when she did, she wouldn’t have had to live with you for the past forty years!”
“Luck had nothing to do with your mother’s death. Your mother died, because she thought you were ill!”
“I was ill! I could have died!”
“And you couldn’t even do that properly could you!”
“Is that what my whole life has been about? You’ve blamed me for mum’s death?” Gary smiled slyly. “Well, I’ve got news for you, if you hadn’t been so wrapped up in making your millions and millions of pounds and actually been home with us that night where you should have been, mum never would have died. It’s your fault she’s dead!”
A stony silence filled the room between the two of them until Ernest’s curled fist smashed into Gary’s jaw.
Ernest looked down at Gary, crumpled on the floor. “You think I don’t know that? I’ve relived that night in my head a million times over, if I’d just been at home, if I hadn’t gone to work, if I’d just retired when I’d wanted to… get out.”
“So, what?” Frederick asked as his grandfather pocketed a red ball and bent over the table to take his next shot. “You want me to run your business?”
“I want you to consider coming to work for me. You’re a talented young man, Freddie, with the right training, perhaps a little bit of education and guidance, I think that you could really do something with Cromley’s.”
“But I assume that you’re not going to just hand over the keys to the company Rolls Royce, put my name down on the executive parking list, hand me the password to your laptop and let me go at it.”
“Well, quite. You have potential, Frederick, and no matter how much potential anyone has, it needs to be tapped.”
“Look, Grandpa,” Frederick smiled as his grandfather’s red ball kissed the cushion near the corner pocket, wobbled a little, but remained on the table, “I appreciate the offer and everything, but I really don’t think I want to… you know, become an office worker, right now.”
“Just take your turn, Freddie.” Ernest sat on the couch with a glass of scotch and watched as Frederick sank a yellow ball at the opposite end of the table.
“So we are,” Ernest raised an eyebrow, “look, I’m not supposed to say this, but out of all my grandchildren, heck, out of all my children, you’re my favourite. You’re the only one who’s never disappointed me.”
“Well, you have my word that I won’t tell anyone. Unless of course, I’m trying to rub Vicky’s nose in it.”
“Of course you won’t tell anyone, you might not be able to back it up. You’re starting to disappoint me more and more each day. You’re twenty two years old and you’re still working for that Pathetic little newspaper.”
“So, you want me to quit that and come work for you?”
“All I’m saying is give it a go. While you’re waiting for your true vocation in life to find you, give this a go, you might find that this is what you want to do for the rest of your life.”
“I already know what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
“Ah, yes,” Ernest smiled, “you’re going to be a writer! You know, this might surprise you, but to be a writer, you actually need to do some writing sometime.”
“You’re unbelievable, you know that?” Frederick frowned. “Just because you don’t see me write, doesn’t mean I don’t write.”
“Well, you never talk about it.”
“My writing’s kind of private. When it’s ready, I’ll share it with the world, but until then, it’s kind of a personal thing.”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying. Until you’re ready to share it with the world, why not try this?”
“Listen, Grandpa,” Frederick sighed as he tried to line up his shot, “I’ve got a new job. I start in two weeks time.”
“A new job? Doing what?”
“My agent sent out a few spec scripts to some film producers, one of them really liked some of my stuff.” The yellow ball he was aiming for, rebounded off a cushion and stopped in the middle of the table, while the cue ball wobbled precariously on the edge of the middle pocket.
“And? They’re going to get you to write their films for them.”
“No. They’re putting me on a training program for junior writers. Eventually it’ll lead to co-writing credits, and then who knows.”
“And this training program, it’s full time?” He gently hit the cue ball and Frederick watched as it softly rolled to the end of the table, and gently knocked in the red ball hovering on the corner.
“Not exactly. When I’m not on the training program, I’ll be working with one of their top writers, an assistant.”
“Oh, Freddie! Forget about being an assistant!” Ernest cried. “Stay on the training program, whatever, but while you’re doing that, work for me. Not some snobby writer you’ve never met before!”
“Well, I could probably just about manage the workload, but the commute would be one hell of a bitch.” Ernest hit another red, but it bounced off one of Frederick’s yellows and came to a rest halfway up the table.
“What do you mean?”
“The job’s in Hollywood.”
“Hollywood?” Ernest asked.
“Well, of course, I’m hardly going to work in the British Film Industry, there’s no money in it.”
“But Hollywood? I mean, the only kind of men you find there are drug addicts and queers!”
“Well,” Frederick laughed as he pocketed a yellow, “you’ll be pleased to know that I’m not a drug addict.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Oh, no, nothing, it was a joke.”
“No, it wasn’t, you tell me what you mean.”
“Look, I think… I…” Frederick spluttered as a small knock on the door interrupted him.
“Is this a bad time?” Nicola poked her head around the door, and Frederick lowered his gaze back to the table. He nervously hit the cue-ball straight past a yellow ball and into a corner pocket.
“Well, actually, Nicola, it is.” Ernest smiled at her. “Perhaps – ”
“Well, tough.” Nicola entered the room and dropped a small suitcase on the floor. “We’re moving in.”
“You’re what?” He asked, retrieving the white ball from the opening at the end of the table.
“Me, Gary and the kids, we’re moving in.”
“Perhaps, I should go,” Frederick stood up and moved towards the door, “you two clearly have stuff to talk about.”
“No!” Ernest stood up. “You just wait right there, we’ve got things to talk about – and a game to finish.”
“Look,” Nicola smiled sweetly, “I don’t want to interrupt the two of you, so if you just tell me which rooms we can have, I’ll start moving us in.”
“No, you can just wait as well.” Ernest turned to Frederick. “Just what did you mean by that little quip?”
“What little quip?” Nicola asked.
“I was just making a joke, that’s all.”
“You implied you were gay!”
“Oh, is that what this is about?” Nicola shrugged, and sat down on one of the chairs, crossing her legs. “Little Freddie finally plucked up the courage to tell his grandfather he’s gay.”
“I’m not gay!”
“You knew?” Ernest’s head looked as if it were about to start boiling.
“Well, of course.” Nicola smiled as she selected a stick of chewing gum from her purse. “We all knew. What did you think all that stuff was about his father’s death?”
“The man was drunk,” Ernest frowned, “he attacked Freddie for being out late, Elizabeth and Victoria stepped in to help and he attacked them as well. He was killed in self defence!”
“I’m not arguing that,” Nicola said, casually smacking her lips as she spoke, “all I’m saying is that he wasn’t angry because Frederick had stayed out late, he attacked him because he’d stayed out late with his boyfriend.”
Ernest scowled up at his grandson, the shot he was all prepared to take, forgotten about.
“I’m not gay!” There was a long silence. “I’m… I’m bisexual.”
Ernest unconsciously pushed his cue forward without even looking at it. The white ball smacked into the black ball and then careened into a side pocket.
“I win.” Frederick muttered to himself.
“You’re a what?”
“Oh, it means that he likes to sleep with both men and women. You know, he pockets both the yellows and the reds, if you like. A lot of people do it nowadays, it’s quite en vogue.”
“Listen, Nicola, stay out of this.” Ernest glared at her.
“Actually, I’d rather not. I’ve got a manicure booked, so I’d like to move all my stuff in before that.”
“Yeah, and I’ve got to go home. I’m going to tell mum about my new job.”
“Nicola, if you could just give us a moment – ”
“Actually, I really couldn’t, have you seen the state of my nails lately?” Nicola grabbed hold of Ernest’s forearm.
“I’ll see you later.” Frederick slipped out of the door as Nicola pushed her father-in-law into an armchair.
“Nicola, just what is going on? Why are you so keen on moving in? What’s happened to the apartment complex.”
“Oh, that, we were kicked out. The resident’s committee voted in an overwhelming majority that we were no longer welcome.”
“Oh, Gary arrived home yesterday morning, a little worse for wear.”
“He was drunk again?”
“Just a little.”
“And how is that my problem, Nicola?”
“Because, Ernest,” Nicola sat down opposite him, “if it hadn’t been for you, he wouldn’t have been drinking.”
“What did he do?” Ernest asked.
“I’d rather not say. All I will say is that the communal pool is going to be out of action for the next couple of weeks while it’s cleaned.” She picked up her bag and slid out of the room.
Ernest stood up and braced himself against the pool table. He picked up the cue ball and stared at it, just able to make out his own distorted silhouette in the shine of it. Then, with a loud, anguished roar, he sent it smashing through the window.
“He did what?” Jennifer almost choked on her latte.
“He rolled in to the complex at about seven in the morning, threw up and then took a – and I’m using his words here not mine – a slash in the pool.”
“Well, what did the attendant do? Didn’t he try to stop him?”
“Oh, he tried,” Nicola took a bite of her biscotti, “but Gary assaulted him, quite viciously by all accounts.”
“Well, I’m not quite sure, I never saw the… wounds, but the blood, my god, it looked like an explosion in a pizza factory.”
“Is he being charged? I mean, he assaulted that poor man.”
“Oh, no,” Nicola waved her hand dismissively, “our lawyer managed to convince him and the committee that involving the police wasn’t necessary. However, one of the conditions made to us by the committee was that we leave immediately.”
“I still can’t believe that Gary would do that, he seems so… gentle.”
“Well, I’ve still got some friends back at the complex, one of them is going to ship over a copy of the CCTV tape, it should make for interesting viewing.”
“Well, I don’t mean to seem insensitive,” Jennifer smiled, “but… was he drunk?”
“Of course he was bloody drunk!” Nicola frowned at her sister-in-law. “When isn’t he?”
“But he’s been doing so well, what happened?”
“Who do you think?”
“Oh,” Jennifer sighed, “what did he say?”
“I’m not exactly too clear on that, Gary wasn’t really in a condition to say, and when I asked Ernest about it, he was a little preoccupied.”
“Oh, you mean, you didn’t hear?” Nicola asked, signalling the waiter.
“Well, Frederick was there, and Ernie had just found out that Frederick was, you know…”
“No! How did he find out?”
“Well, from what I gather, Freddie was telling him about how he’s moving to Hollywood, and he made some sort of quip. Well, that’s when I walked in and… confirmed it all for him.”
“Oh, Nicola. You do manage to put your foot in it sometimes, don’t you?”
“What can I say?” Nicola smiled broadly, pulling some money from her purse and slipping it onto the small saucer in front of her. “I’m going back to mansion, I’m going by your place, do you want a lift?”
“Oh, no, it’s ok, I’m meeting Michael here in a few minutes.”
Nicola stretched across the table and grasped hold of Jennifer’s hand. “How is Michael holding up?”
“Oh, not good.” Jennifer rested her head between her thumb and forefinger. “He’s pretending he’s ok, but the stress is taking it’s toll. I think he’s going to have to stop working soon, and you know how much he enjoys his job. The minute he has to stay at home all day, is the minute his life ends.”
“But what about you and Fi?”
“Oh, sure, we’re important, but it’s his job that’s his baby, that company is his life.”
“Oh, here he is now! Michael!” Nicola waved across the cafe to Michael as he entered.
Michael smiled and hobbled across to them, leaning on a walking stick.
“Nicola, you look gorgeous as ever.”
“Oh, thank you, Michael, you’re looking dashing of course.” Nicola and Michael air kissed each other. “Look, I’ve got to go. But it was lovely seeing you, both.”
Michael took a seat as Nicola slipped out of the door onto the busy street outside.
“She’s managing quite well under the stress of it all, don’t you think? I mean, after what happened with Gary, and having to move in with your father, it could be difficult.”
“Well, of course she’s handling it well, now that Frederick’s out of the picture she’s going to be sorted well into her retirement.”
“What do you mean?” Jennifer frowned.
“Well, you know, dad was planning on training Frederick up as his apprentice, don’t you? Now that Frederick’s moving to Hollywood, that’s no longer an option, especially considering his condition.”
“It’s not a condition, Michael, what you have is a condition. Frederick has… a preference.”
“Right, whatever, that’s not the point. Now that Frederick’s all but disinherited himself, somebody’s got to step up to the plate. Daddy’s looking to Reece, possibly Matthew to do that. So, even if Gary completely cocks things up and doesn’t manage to get in dad’s good books, Nicola’s got two back-ups.”
“But what about me? What about Fiona? We’re family too, and we’re from the good side. Neither of us are drunks, neither of us are gay, and Fiona’s certainly not going to end up pregnant, not if I have anything to do with it.”
“Perhaps, but you’re both women. Daddy’s from that old school of thought, women don’t belong in business and men don’t belong in other men’s beds. If you were to even suggest to him that you might be the one to take over the business, he’d treat you in exactly the same way he’s treated Frederick. He only just tolerates you as his PA.”
“But… how am I supposed to provide for Fiona, once… once you’re…”
“Listen, honey, dad’s not going to cut you off. He’ll make sure you’re provided for.”
“And what happens when he dies? I mean, he’s not terminal like you, but he’s probably not got much longer.”
“Well, I guess, you’ll just have to get Reece onside. You’re going to have to be the best aunt ever.”
“How do I do that?”
“I’m sure we’ll think of something.” Michael smirked.
The Bulldog, Los Angeles
Frederick took a deep breath, straightened his suit, smiled at the bouncers and walked out of the balmy night air into the coolness of the bar. He glanced around the room, but saw no one familiar and so found a stool at the bar.
“Hey, Freddie! What are you having?” The bartender smiled across at him.
“Good evening, Bryan. I’ll have a double vodka and coke, and anything you want as well.”
“Honey, you know what I want, but you keep saying no.”
“Yet you keep trying night after night.”
“And you keep coming in here night after night, tempting me, teasing me.”
“Bryan, look, I’m sorry, I’m not in the mood to be hit on tonight.”
“Why?” Bryan asked as he mixed Frederick’s drink for him. “What’s happened?”
“You remember that family I told you about, back in England?”
“Yeah, they’re all like lords and ladies, aren’t they?”
“Well, not exactly.”
“So, what’s the problem?”
Frederick looked up at the young black man. “My uncle, he… he’s dying. He has, like… cancer or something, I don’t know.”
“How long has he got?”
“A year, a week, a day, I don’t know. I just… he got taken into hospital last night. He’s not getting better.”
“You think perhaps you should go back?” Bryan asked, as he wiped down the top of the bar with a small towel.
“Maybe, I don’t know. If I go back, my grandfather’s going to lay a huge guilt trip on me and within a month I’ll be married, with three kids and in charge of a huge national corporation. If I don’t go back, I’ll be officially the black sheep of the family, and when I do eventually go back, he’ll lay an even bigger guilt trip on me.”
“I guess, you’re screwed whichever way you go. If I were you…” Bryan trailed off as a man approached the bar. “Hey, Harry, what can I get you?”
“Coldest beer you’ve got, please.” Frederick looked up as he heard the southern English tones coming from the young man.
“Hi.” Frederick smiled at him.
“Hey.” Harry smiled back politely and took the bottle from Bryan. “I’ll settle up with you later, Bryan?”
“Sure, whatever.” He nodded to Harry and then turned back to Frederick. “Ok, so like I was saying, if I were you – ”
“Was that Harry Hicks?” Frederick asked as he watched the young man take a seat at a small table in the corner.
“What? Oh, yeah. At least twice a week he comes in here and just sits there on his own. I think it’s God’s own special way of torturing me.”
“Listen, Bryan, thanks for listening to me whine, but just… save that thought.”
“What are you doing?”
Frederick smiled blankly. “I’m going over to talk to him, obviously.”
“I thought you said you weren’t in the mood to be hit on?”
“I’m not. But it’s Harry Hicks, man! There are some people in this world, you just have to go for when you get the chance. Who knows when I’m ever going to this kind of opportunity again? Quick, get me another one of those beers, you just gave him.”
“You know, I don’t think he bats for our team, Freddie.”
“Bryan, it’s Hollywood,” Frederick smiled as he took the bottle and put some money on the bar, “our team is the only team.”
He laughed to himself as he made his way over to the small round table, and placed the bottle down in front of Harry.
“Hey, I got you a drink.”
“Thanks, but… I already got one.” Harry raised the small bottle and took a swig from it.
“Yeah, I know. But I figured if I got you another one all lined up then we wouldn’t be interrupted by Bryan over there bringing you another one.”
“Right.” Frederick smiled and remained standing at the side of the table. “Err, you want to – ”
“Thanks.” Frederick sat down opposite him. “So, what’s a great big Hollywood superstar like you doing in a dingy little pub like this?”
Harry shrugged. “Reminds me of home, I guess. You know how outside, it looks so warm and cosy and then you get in here and there’s no one else around. It’s just like one of those old village pubs back in England.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean.” Frederick smiled. “You know, Bryan said you come in here a lot, but I’ve got to say, I think I would remember seeing you here before.”
“Ah, you see, that’s the beauty of this corner, you can see out, but you can’t see in. You’ve never seen me here because you’ve never looked for me here. I’ve seen you, though.”
“Oh, yeah, you hardly keep yourself hidden. You’re always up there, laughing and joking around. Anyone would think you were the actor and I was the writer.”
“You know who I am?”
“Everybody’s heard about you, Frederick Cromwell.”
Harry smiled. “Mostly.”
“So… what are you up to at the moment?”
“I guess, you could say I’m between projects. Me and my agent are looking through some scripts. You?”
“Well, actually, I’m in the middle of submitting a few scripts to some producers myself. Maybe you could do one of mine, we’d be a great double act. We could get Kate Winslet to play your love interest, it’d be like the English taking over the entire town!”
“So… what have you been writing about then?”
“Well, I don’t really want to talk about it here, you can never know who’s listening.”
Harry leaned in to Frederick and smiled. “Frederick, there’s hardly anybody in here.”
“Yeah, but Bryan’s been looking really shifty lately.”
“Ah, well of course, I never did trust him.” Harry laughed. “How about we go somewhere a little more private? Maybe we could go back to your place and I could look over some of your… pages.”
Frederick quickly downed the rest of his drink. “Let’s go.”
“I tell you what, you go and get a taxi, I’ve got to settle up with Bryan.”
“Right, two minutes.” Frederick grinned and bolted out of the door as Harry moved up to the bar.
“Sorry, Bryan, I’m cutting it short tonight. How much do I owe you?”
“Forget about it, it’s on me.”
“Thanks. See you later.”
“You know,” Bryan started as Harry turned to go, “I’m doing my best to keep it a secret, just like you asked.”
“And I appreciate that.”
“Perhaps, but you’re not exactly making it easy, leaving here with Frederick. Everyone knows he’s gay.”
“It’s business. He’s got a script he wants me to see.”
“Right, of course.” Bryan shrugged. “I’m just trying to keep an eye on you.”
“Yeah, well,” Harry smiled weakly, “it’s a shame you didn’t do the same for my brother.”
Frederick appeared at the door and looked across at them both.
Bryan reached across the bar and took hold of Harry’s hand. “Just be careful, won’t you?”
Queen Mary’s Royal Hospital, Wiltshire
Michael opened his eyes as he felt someone’s hand take his. He saw the clinical, dull white of the hospital ceiling above him. God how he wished death would come, if only to escape staring at that ceiling for another day. To his left was a bank of hospital machines, all busily confirming the ongoing nature of his existence, slowly aggravating him to death. The heart monitor especially, was the bane of his days, as it emitted a small bleep each time his heart gave a beat. Again, it would be worth death, just to escape the bleep.
He’d told this to a nurse who had just clucked over him, plumped his pillow and then bustled out of the room, returning five minutes later with a second nurse. Between themselves, they pressed a few buttons and the bleeping quietened, though grew more high-pitched. They beamed at him and he didn’t dare tell them that it was, perhaps, worse – who knew what fresh new torture they would dream up for him.
To his right sat his daughter.
“Fi.” He croaked.
“Dad,” she smiled and leaned over to hug him, “I didn’t mean to wake you.
“It’s all right.” Bleep. “I was having a horrible dream that I was dying of cancer.”
He smiled weakly at his own joke, but the smile on his daughter’s face faded quickly.
“Where’s your mother?” Bleep.
“She says she’s gone to grandpa’s, she keeps talking about us moving in.”
“Ah, I see.”
“I think mum’s having an affair.”
“My kingdom,” Michael said pulling himself up into a sitting position, now staring at the dull white wall, “my kingdom for a mute button.”
“Dad, did you hear me?”
“I heard you.”
He gazed at her for a moment, and decided that she needed to be told the truth, she needed to know what was going on. She needed to understand and support her mother, not turn against her.
So he told her, he told her how they had decided between them that Jennifer would seduce her nephew – it was ok, they’d told themselves, there was no blood relation – so that when Ernest handed the business down, Jennifer – and Fiona – would still be in a position of privilege.
He asked her to remain quiet, to not say anything to anyone, and to help her mother keep the affair secret.
“It needs doing, Fi. It’s a necessity.”
Fiona was inwardly appalled – her father was so cold, so logical in his thoughts that she wondered if he had always been this way, but then she remembered the way he’d been before his illness. How loving he had been, how fiercely protective of his family.
It seemed he would do anything for her.
“You’ll do it? You’ll help your mother out?”
Fiona nodded, she would do anything for him as well. She left the room, feigning the need to use the bathroom and Michael was left alone with the slow beeping of the monitor next to him.
He felt bad at seeing Fiona’s face like that.
But he felt fantastic at the same time, being honest like that had lifted something from him, as if everything would be ok.
He wondered how many bleeps were left.
His time was coming, he knew that much, but how many? Ten? A hundred? A thousand?
One thousand was a nice round number. He smiled and started to count.
Bleep. Nine hundred and ninety nine.
“Not dead yet?”
Michael looked up at his brother in the doorway “I’ll die when you dry out. How many hours clean are you?”
Gary checked his watch. “Twenty-three.”
“A personal best.” Nine hundred and eighty five.
Gary sat in the chair next to the bed and they sat in silence. Michael counted all the way down to nine hundred before he made his decision.
“Do you remember Raymond?”
“You know, that bloke that came to Lizzy’s wedding, the one that dad had a huge argument with.”
“Said he was an old friend, he’d heard about Elizabeth and wanted to stop by and catch up with us all.”
“What about him?”
Michael thought for a moment (eight hundred and seventy three). “He’s our brother.”
“I heard him and dad arguing.”
Bleeps eight hundred and seventy through to three hundred and twelve consisted of Michael telling Gary everything he’d found out since then about their older brother. They discussed it in detail, but both of them agreed they couldn’t remember him, despite having vivid, clear memories of their mother, who had left them at the same time.
“But then dad did fight so hard to keep her memory alive. Perhaps they’re not our memories at all, but his.”
“Is he still alive? Where is he?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’ll ask dad.”
“I dare you.” Michael smiled at his younger brother and they both managed a small laugh.
Fiona returned to the room, claiming to have gone for a walk, and the three of them sat and talked about nothing. Michael continued to count all the while and as he reached a hundred, Fiona stood up.
“I, err, I want to see mum.”
“You’ll stay a few minutes more, won’t you?” Michael asked. Ninety seven.
Fiona sat back down, but no one could think of anything more to say and Gary and Fiona started to gather up their things to leave.
“Goodnight, dad.” Fifteen.
“Fiona, please, wait.”
“You’ll ring your mother won’t you? You’ll let her know you’re on your way back?” Twelve.
“Gary. Fi. Please.”
“What?” Gary asked bemused as Fiona watched from the doorway.
They both came over to the bed and took one of Michael’s hands each.
“Just five more.”
“Five more what, dad?”
Cromwell Manor, Wiltshire
Jennifer rested her head against the soft skin of Reece’s chest. It was about the only thing she liked about him. She definitely didn’t like the post-coital fingering of her hair that he always indulged in, but she supposed she had no choice. What Reece wanted was the priority, she and Michael had decided that right at the beginning and right now, Reece wanted to snuggle.
As Reece rambled on in her ear, she stared at the wall at the far end of the room, at the poster of some glamour model pasted up. She looked vulnerable, weak, one finger hooked in the waistband of her short shorts, a finger on the other hand resting on her pouting lower lip and her nipples protruding through the wet cotton of the tight white t-shirt she was wearing.
But Jennifer saw something in her eyes, a small glint of something that she herself had had years before. The survival instinct. This girl wasn’t weak or vulnerable, she was strong and manipulative. She knew her strengths and she was playing them in order to survive. And according to the tabloid newspapers, this was one girl who was surviving.
Jennifer had been like that, once, a long time ago, before she’d married Michael and had Fiona. She’d started at Cromley’s as a PA, as Ernest’s PA, when she was fresh out of school, a position she’d held ever since, in fact.
She quickly clocked Michael as the richest candidate most likely to fall for her seductions and he had. Though he was a little older than her, she dated him for nearly two years before ‘accidentally’ falling pregnant and pulling him into a hasty marriage.
She hadn’t counted on actually falling in love with him, but she had, and ever since then she’d let him protect her, she’d let her survival instinct subside and placed all her faith in him.
But now he was dying and she was having to resurrect her survival skills, not only for herself, but for her young daughter as well.
She had convinced Reece that her marriage to Michael was over, that it would never be the same again, especially not now he was dying. That was the hardest part about it all, pretending that her relationship with her husband meant nothing. Even at his funeral, when he did die, she wouldn’t be allowed to grieve properly. Reece would be there, and he would think he knew how she really felt, and she would have to pretend that he was right, that burying Michael meant nothing to her, but the opportunity to spend more time with Reece.
University first, she had told him. Once you get university out of the way, once you’ve left, that’s when we’ll tell anyone. Michael would have been long dead by then, and Reece would be in a good position to settle down.
Jennifer’s mobile rang and Reece jumped up suddenly.
“Is that Fiona? Are they on their way?”
He started pulling on his clothes as Jennifer answered the phone.
“Fiona?” She smirked as she reached out for Reece, stopping him from pulling his jeans up, by reaching her hand into his boxers through the flap on the front. He sat down and grinned, collapsing backwards onto the bed. She grinned as she got the reaction from him she’d been hoping for. ‘Hello, darling!”
Reece braced himself against the bed as Jennifer stopped her rhythmic movement, though her hand kept her grip of him. “Just calm down, and tell me again. He what? Right, err. I’ll be there as soon as I’m finished up here.”
“What was that about?” Reece asked as Jennifer hung up.
She stared at the phone for a second and dropped it on the side. She looked down her arm, at her nephew’s hard cock throbbing in her hand and almost threw up. But then she caught sight of the glamour model on the wall, took a deep breath and plastered a broad grin onto her face.
“It was Fiona.” She said, resuming her stimulation of the young man. “Looks like we’ve finally got something to celebrate!”
“It’s Michael.” She said leaning down to kiss him.
“What about him?”
Though her heart felt like it had shattered into a million pieces inside her, Jennifer gave a small giggle.
Read the next chapter here