Cromwell Manor, Wiltshire
Christmas Eve, 2010
“Dickhead.” Reece muttered to himself, though he wasn’t sure whether he was cursing Harry, his grandfather or himself.
Both Harry and Ernest had accused him of trying to rape Ella, and he didn’t know why. Reece thought that he and Ella had always got on well, and when he’d found her in the wash room, bent over the side, scrubbing at that jacket, he had realised just how attractive she was.
He’d flirted with her a little bit, and then after receiving all the right signals, he’d made his move. She had screamed, he admitted, but in surprise. In pleasure. She obviously hadn’t expected him to take her there and then. Ernest and Harry had both misinterpreted it completely and ripped into him.
His Granddad had dismissed him with a look of disgust, but Harry on the other hand had come onto him, tried to rape him.
“It’s because you’re so attractive,” he looked at his own reflection and nodded sagely, “and gorgeous. He couldn’t help it… he was overcome.”
Reece laughed and took a swig from the bottle of vodka he’d smuggled from his downstairs. He carefully sat down on the edge of the bath in the en-suite. After his brief interlude with Ella, and despite both the encounter with Harry and the copious amounts of alcohol swimming in his bloodstream, Reece was horny.
That was one thing that Reece had always been proud of. No matter how much he drank, he was always ready for action, and had never failed to disappoint – or so he thought. One drunken night in the Student Union bar a few weeks before, Reece had tried using it as a chat-up line. Since it had earned him a fairly severe slap from his roommate’s girlfriend, he’d decided not to use it again.
“It’s probably more of a second date admission.” He told the mirror, and then laughed loudly at the thought of ever going on a second date with anyone.
At that moment, he heard a noise from the bedroom. Reece shushed his reflection, and then leant against the door with a loud thump in an attempt to listen to the new arrival.
“Hello?” Her voice asked, uncertain of what she had heard, and indeed even if she had heard it.
Reece jumped back from the door and looked at himself in the full length mirror. His eyes had started to go a little bloodshot from his contact lenses – he should have taken them out two hours before – but other than that, his face was as handsome as ever. The stubble that had formed during the day since his last shave, only added to his attractiveness, he told himself. Made him look like a bad boy.
At that thought, he laughed again.
He looked down at his smooth bare chest, lightly defined to made it appear natural, though it took several trips to a beauty parlour to wax the stubble from him. He had a cream towel knotted at his waist, his proudest asset hanging loose underneath so as to cause a bulge, enough of one to catch the eye, but not one that revealed too much.
Reece knew seduction. He knew how to talk to a girl, he knew how to walk, how to stand so as to make himself appear more attractive. He knew which was his good side and always arranged for any potential mates to see that side as much as possible. Whenever his numerous charms failed it was because the girl was a lesbian, and when they succeeded, well, it was… sheer animal magnetism.
Or so he thought. What he had never realised was that more often than not, it was him that was seduced. His best side was whichever side of his trousers his wallet happened to be, and the girls that weren’t after his money, were simply curious.
One night, while he had still been in school, Reece had realised the ‘advantage’ he had over other men, and had hit on a plan to press it. He arranged for all of the boys in his class to come over for a party one night, and in the small hours of the morning, once the dozen or so boys had fallen asleep, he had left his bedroom, carefully making sure that he trod on the fingers of Taylor Jeffries on the way out.
Taylor was not usually one of his friends, he was openly gay and fairly camp, but he got on well enough with everyone in the group for it not to seem too odd that he’d received an invite. Taylor had woken when he felt the pain in his fingers, just in time to see someone disappear round the door.
He heard noises coming from down the hall, and after ten minutes or so, when the figure hadn’t returned, Taylor suspected that someone had smuggled in some more alcohol and wasn’t sharing it with the group. He made his way along the hall to where the light spilt out through the open doorway of the bathroom.
Once the wide-eyed Taylor had reluctantly returned to the bedroom, Reece had finished the job, pulled up his boxer shorts and returned his father’s Lesbian Lust magazine back to its usual hiding spot.
At 9am on the following Monday, Taylor started whispering to his girlfriends. At 4:02pm on Wednesday, a group of female teachers were talking about what Taylor had seen. And at 7:18 pm on Friday evening, Reece had rolled off of Vanessa Daniels, no longer a virgin.
The door to the en suite opened, and Jennifer entered, just dressed in her underwear. She jumped back in surprise as she saw Reece stood before her, a vodka bottle, hanging almost forgotten, from his left hand.
“What are you doing in here?” She asked as she grabbed a towel to cover herself up.
“I thought maybe we could swap some knitting patterns,” Reece smirked, “maybe play a hand or two of Bridge. What do you think?”
“I think that maybe you’re deluding yourself. Out.”
“Oh, come on, I know you’re upset, it’s understandable, you haven’t seen me for three months. But we can make up for that now.”
“Reece, listen to me,” Jennifer said as she started to adjust her make-up in the mirror above the sink, “I don’t want you, I haven’t missed you, and we won’t be making up for anything.”
Reece stared at her for a moment, until an expression of realisation spread across his face. “Oh…” he said with a smile, “you’ve forgotten.”
“This.” Reece let the towel around his waist drop to the floor.
Jennifer stopped applying her mascara long enough to roll her eyes before continuing. “Good Lord, spare me men with big dicks.”
“Some men think that just because they turn up with the equipment, that they can be excused from the game. Your uncle was just the same.”
“I didn’t need to know that.” Reece gave a small smile as he pressed himself up against Jennifer. “Are you telling me you haven’t missed this?”
“Missed it? It was like sitting on a piston, you didn’t do anything, Reece.”
“If it was that bad, if there was nothing there, then how come you kept coming back for more?”
Jennifer laughed as she moved out of the en suite into her bedroom. “Are you telling me you’re that naïve?” She asked as she slipped a brightly coloured dress over her head. “Zip me up.”
Reece stepped forward, still nude and fingered her zip carefully for a moment before pulling it up to her neck. “Oh come on, you enjoyed it.”
“Reece, I slept with you for one reason and one reason only.” She stepped over to her dresser and fished through a small wooden jewellery box. She glanced in the mirror to see Reece gripping his groin and grinning.
“I told you, you’d missed it.”
“I thought that your grandfather might make you his heir,” Jennifer said plainly as she clipped a small earring on to each ear, “I needed to make sure I was going to be on your good side. I think you’ll agree with me, when I say that after tonight, it’s clear that sleeping with you is going to get me nothing more than a mild case of the clap.”
“You were using me?”
“Of course I was using you. Every woman you’ve ever slept with was using you, Reece, just to see what it’s like. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a date.”
“Well, not exactly, a date. But like I said earlier, I need to be on the good side of Ernest’s heir.” Jennifer moved to leave her bedroom, but paused at the door and glanced down at Reece’s crotch. “And, by the way… I’ve had bigger.”
* * *
“Just put it away.”
Gary stared across at his wife and with a defiant cock of his left eyebrow, unscrewed the lid from the top of the vodka bottle and took a swig.
“I don’t have to do anything you tell me.” He said, foregoing the theatrical grimace he usually reserved to suggest he wasn’t used to the drink. “You never do anything I tell you to do.”
Nicola was sat up in bed, filling in the answers to a crossword in her magazine. “Rubbish.”
“No, it’s true. I keep telling you to defend me against my father, but you never do.”
“I do!” Nicola argued, without tearing her eyes away from twenty three across.
“You defend the other two, those sons of yours, but never me!”
“They’re your sons too, Gary. God, you’re not jealous of them?”
Gary frowned and said nothing before sighing loudly and sitting himself down on the end of the bed. Nicola put her magazine down and crawled over to him. As she spoke, she gently rubbed his shoulders.
“Listen to me, you have nothing to be jealous about, ok? I love you, just as much as I love them. More.”
“But you always defend them,” Gary moaned, “he picks on them, you take up arms, he picks on me, you sit back and watch him.”
“I just… I don’t want to upset him, Gary, we’ve got nowhere else to go. He’s the only person putting a roof over our heads at the moment.”
“It’s because you agree with him, isn’t it?”
“You think I’m inadequate… that I’m less than a man. That I can’t provide for my family. We can leave!” Gary jumped up with a sudden enthusiasm.
“What? We can’t leave, it’s Christmas Eve.”
“No, we can leave, get a place of our own.”
Nicola’s shoulders dropped in despair. “Gary, we had a place of our own, they kicked us out.”
“I wondered how long it would take you to bring that up.”
“Bring it up? It’s not as if it’s entirely irrelevant! The only reason we’re here is because you got absolutely smashed out of your brain and beat up the pool boy!”
“No, the reason we’re here, is because you found an opportunity to kick me when I was down. It wasn’t enough that, I was up on assault charges, no, you grabbed the opportunity to come running to my father, to remind him of just what a miserable wreck I am, and give him the chance to save the day again!”
“Now, just wait one second! The only reason I did that was because the pool boy agreed to drop the charges if we moved out! If it wasn’t for me running to your father, you’d be rotting in a jail somewhere right now, being used as somebody’s bitch!”
“You didn’t have to go running to him! We could have gone somewhere else, gotten another apartment somewhere!”
“No we couldn’t, Gary!” Nicola screamed, climbing out of bed. “We didn’t have any money coming in, we were four months behind with the payments on that place as it was! And yeah, before you ask, your father paid those bills off. You don’t have a job!
“Fine.” Gary took another swig. “That’s fine. I’ll get a job. You want me to get job, I’ll get a job, that’s what I’ll do.”
“You’re a violent alcoholic with next to no work experience, nobody’s going to employ you, Gary.”
“I can stop drinking anytime I like, I’ll stop. And… you’re forgetting I was in that job for nearly twenty years. That’s not nothing, it counts for something.”
“It was the only job you’ve ever had, and you were fired from it by your own father! Nobody’s going to employ you, Gary!”
“He will.” Gary marched over toward the door.
“Where are you going?” Nicola pushed shut the door as he opened it.
“I’ve got a job interview.”
“Not at this time of night, and not the state you’re in! You’ll probably get us all thrown out on the streets on Christmas Day! Some provider you are!”
“Let me go!” He pushed her away from him, yanked open the door and started to march down the corridor.
“Gary! Gary, if you don’t come back in here now, you can forget about coming back at all!”
Gary stopped and slowly turned to face his wife. She was glowering angrily at him, but behind her, on the dresser he could see his half consumed bottle of vodka. He wanted to go back for it, but she would think she had won and shut him in. He turned away from her and continued to walk, as he did, he heard the door slam behind him.
* * *
Although he wasn’t sure why, Gary instinctively hid himself as he saw his father step out of his office. He said something that Gary couldn’t hear to his lawyer, and the pair of them moved up the corridor towards the kitchen.
He waited for a moment to make sure they were out of the way and then slipped across the corridor and entered the study. He poured himself a drink and sat in a small armchair in the corner of the room, in front of a tall bookcase.
Since his father had not turned the lights off, or locked the door, Gary was sure that he would be returning. He would simply wait here until he did, and then they’d be able to have a civil conversation about Gary returning to work.
He downed the remainder of his drink and moved to pour some more from the bottle, only to discover it was empty. Gary frowned and looked around the room. Ernest had left two whiskey glasses out, one of which was now in Gary’s hand, but there weren’t any bottles around anywhere.
He wandered over to the desk and sat himself down in the black leather chair behind it. He tried a few drawers, but they were locked. As he bent down to try the bottom drawer, he noticed a bottle, completely full, set against the side of the desk. He grinned triumphantly and set both his glass and the bottle on the table.
Not taking the time to either read the label or pour into the glass, Gary took a large swig, straight from the bottle.
“Ah, Scotch!” He licked his lips, not feeling the fluid burn his throat on its way down, and set the bottle back on the table. As he did, he noticed the papers in front of him, and started to read. He was just beginning to decipher the legal jargon when he heard some noises outside in the corridor.
Again, not completely sure why, but acting on drunken instinct, Gary grabbed the bottle of Scotch and darted across the room. As he shut himself in Ernest’s large walk in closet, and settled himself down between the suits hung up inside, he heard a small group enter the office.
“I still don’t get why I had to be here. It’s nothing to do with me.” Gary didn’t recognise the voice of the man speaking.
“I don’t like it much either, Harry, but I already told you, I don’t have an awful lot of choice.” Ah, the poof, Gary told himself, before quietly remembering his son was now one of them. He quietly shifted himself so that he could through the gap where the two doors of the closet met. He could see his father sit in the chair behind his desk, both Harry and the lawyer were there as well as Pat, who was slowly hobbling over to the armchair in the corner.
“I needed two people to sign as witnesses to my will,” Ernest continued, “I wanted Pat and Ella, but since you were there and Ella wasn’t, you’ll have to do.”
“Can’t it wait?” Pat asked. “I mean, if you want Ella that much, she’s only having a shower, she won’t be long.”
“No, best leave her alone.” Ernest sighed loudly. “I just want to get it out of the way, my head’s had enough for tonight, I just want to settle down with a good book, a nice glass of scotch and settle down to a long night’s sleep. Gregory, if you will.”
“Ah, right of course,” Gregory gathered up some of the papers that were spread across the desk, “if I could just get you both to sign at the bottom of each of the two copies here, that’s it.”
Gary saw Pat quickly sign both piece of paper and then lean back in her chair and put her foot up on the small table in front of her. Gregory handed the pieces of paper to Harry.
“Come on, what are you waiting for, boy?”
“Well, you’ve got to give me to time to read it.”
“You don’t need to read it, just sign it.”
“I’ve got to read it, Ernest, if I’m going to be witness to it,” Gary could hear a playful lilt in Harry’s voice as he moved back from the door long enough to take another swig from the bottle, “I mean, that’s the whole point of a witness, isn’t it, Mr Lloyd?”
“Well, I guess you could put it like that.” The lawyer rubbed his eyes, red from exhaustion. “Although, in this case, you don’t need to – ”
“Of course I need to.” Harry looked across at Ernest. “I’m just looking out for your best interests. I mean, I’d look pretty silly if I signed this piece of paper and your lawyer here had conned you into leaving everything to him.”
“Don’t be daft, I’m not leaving anything to him.”
There was silence for a moment as Ernest studied Harry intently. “Frederick.”
“What?” Pat sat up suddenly. “I thought you were leaving everything to that Robert fellow?”
“You didn’t hear, Pat?” Harry asked. “Robert –”
“And I had a falling out. And now I’ve changed my mind and leaving it all to Frederick, so will you just sign the damn paper and get out of my office?”
Gary heard the slight scratch of a fountain pen on paper and then saw Harry pass the papers over to Gregory.
“Is that everything?” Pat rasped. “Can we go now?”
“Make my day.” Ernest gestured to the door and Pat climbed out of her chair.
“I’m going to make my way up to bed as well.” Gregory opened the door to the office for Pat. “Are you sure you don’t mind me staying the night?”
“Oh, no, of course not, Gregory, you’ve done a big favour for me tonight, coming all the way out here, at his hour as well.”
Gregory nodded to Ernest and to Harry and left the room. Harry made his way over to the door, but rather than leave, he simply closed the door, and turned back to face Ernest.
“What made you change your mind?”
“Your will.” Harry said, as he dropped into the seat opposite the desk. “What made you change your mind?”
“You heard what that man’s been doing to my family. What he did to Victoria… what he did with Freddie.”
“Not about Robert. Why did you decide to leave it all to Freddie?” Harry asked, and Gary could just about see him pick up a letter opener from the desk and start to fiddle with it. “I mean, he’s gay, and he was there with Robert. In your office. On your desk.”
“Frederick’s bisexual. And he doesn’t pretend to be anything but. Frederick… enjoys sleeping with men, he doesn’t think he’s doing anything wrong. It repulses Robert, but he still does it, just to get ahead.”
“So you went for the lesser of two evils?”
“Frederick is a good businessman. If he could just forget about this whole writing thing and…”
“And stop fucking men?”
“Then there’d be no question in my mind.”
“Look, you might be able to stop him from being a writer, by leaving him the business, but you can’t stop him from being who he is.”
“Maybe not, but I can help steer him in the right direction.”
“How do you mean?”
Gary saw a familiar, triumphant smile spread across his father’s face. “Frederick only gets the business if he gets married. To a woman, before you start mentioning any of those hokey ‘blessings’”
“I wouldn’t dream of it. But, any man can get married to any woman, that’s not really going to turn him straight.”
“That’s why he has to remain married for at least two years and father at least one child.”
Harry said nothing as the old man grinned wickedly at him.
“Why do you hate us so much?” Harry asked finally.
“Gays. Homosexuals. We don’t negatively affect your way of life, in fact, we practically run your shops for you.”
“It’s more than that. Come on, what is it? You get chased by one as a child?”
“I’m not afraid of gay people.”
“Of course you are, that’s what homophobia is, Ern. Why do you hate us so much?”
“Because you destroy people’s families!” Ernest shook suddenly and gripped the edge of the desk for support. Gary stared at him through the crack in the door as he turned to face the window.
“How do you figure that?”
Ernest turned back to face Harry for a moment, before moving over towards the closet. Gary held his breath as he heard his father remove a picture from the wall to the left of his hiding place. He let out a small sigh as he heard the steel safe being opened. He watched Ernest empty the contents of a box onto the desk. He saw his father’s gun fall out, as well, as a smaller, gold object. Ernest picked up the smaller item and handed it to Harry.
“A broken watch?” Harry asked. “So what?”
“It’s my father’s watch. Look at the time.”
“Twenty past four. I don’t get it.”
“I threw that watch at the wall, at the exact moment my baby brother died in my arms.”
Gary paused, the bottle of scotch halfway to his lips, his father had never mentioned having a brother before.
Harry put the watch down on the desk. “Mr Cromwell, I’m sorry, I…”
“It was sixty years ago, you don’t need to be sorry.”
“So you’re not looking for sympathy, fine, I won’t give it. But why bring it up? Killed by a knife wielding poof, was he?”
“He died in my arms.” Gary watched his father’s bottom lip quiver as he avoided eye contact with Harry and simply stared at he pocket watch. “A bomb flattened our neighbour’s house. There weren’t many houses still standing, but ours was. Anyway, I didn’t wake up when the air sirens went, I never did, for some reason, I slept through them. My mother would go and get the baby, and then came in to my room and woke me up. That night, she didn’t.”
“She was already dead. She’d been next door, having sex with… with that woman.” Ernest glanced across at Harry, but Harry kept his head bowed. “If she hadn’t been… what she was, she would have lived. If she had been at home instead of with her, she would have woken me up, they’d both have lived. But she didn’t, and he died, in that dingy, wet little shelter”
Silence filled the room and lingered in the air for a few minutes. “I think that perhaps you ought to leave, Harry. I’d like to be on my own.”
Harry dropped the letter opener on the desk, pulled himself up and moved over to the door. He paused with his hand on the doorknob. “You know, Ernest, I do feel sorry for you really, I do. But you can’t blame what happened on your mum being gay. And you certainly can’t punish Frederick and Matthew for it either. It makes no difference whether your mum was with a woman or a man that night. You’re just a bigot, you can’t just drag up traumatic childhood experiences to justify your prejudices. The sooner you realise that, the sooner you’ll be able to get over it.”
Gary heard the door open, and then softly close as Harry left the room. Ernest sat in his chair for a moment before turning and looking directly at the closet door. “You can come out now, Gary.”
Gary pulled himself to his feet and bashfully stepped out of the closet. “How did you – ”
“You’re not a quiet drunk, Gary. Besides, you’re the only other person in this house that drinks Scotch.” Ernest snatched the bottle away from his son.
“You had a brother?”
“That’s none of your business.” Ernest snapped, as he liberally poured the drink into a glass.
“I think it is.” Gary moved over to the desk and looked down at the broken pocket watch, lying next to the gold-plated letter opener.
“What do you want, Gary?”
Ernest started to laugh loudly, only pausing to take a gulp of his drink. Gary picked up the letter opener and swivelled it on it’s point on the desk as Ernest’s laughter trailed off. “Oh, thank you for that son, it was just what I needed. Now… get out.”
* * *
Reece had woken with a start as Pat’s scream rang throughout the house. He’d quickly pulled on some clothes and run downstairs to find Pat, Harry, Matthew, Victoria and his mother all gathered around outside the door to his grandfather’s office.
“Where’s your father?”
“I don’t know, I thought he was in with you. What’s going on?”
“Oh, honey,” Pat whispered, holding her hand to her mouth, “I’m so sorry, there’s been an accident.”
“What kind of accident?”
Reece turned around to find Ella had entered the corridor, wearing a dressing gown and towelling her hair.
“Oh, Ella, darling,” Nicola pounced on her, “have you seen Gary?”
“Umm, no, sorry. I just got out the shower.”
“I wouldn’t exactly call it an accident, Pat.” Matthew said, and Reece noticed for the first time just how pale his younger brother looked.
“Will someone just tell me what’s going on?”
Harry folded his arms. “It’s Ernest. He’s been killed.”
“Reece, honey,” Nicola rubbed her son’s arm, “will you please go and find your dad, he should be here.”
“Right.” Reece nodded, and he quickly turned and ran down the corridor, nearly barrelling straight into Elizabeth and Robert as they hurried into the corridor. As he reached the lobby, he realised he had no idea where his father might be.
“Dad!” He shouted. “Dad! Where are you?”
No answer came and Reece resigned himself to looking in every room in the house. He quickly pulled open the door to the drinks room, but it was empty, as was the lounge opposite it. He dived into the dining room so quickly, that he almost missed his father slumped, snoring, against the wall.
“Dad! Dad, wake up, it’s – ” He stopped as he noticed the small gold knife in his father’s left hand. He remembered the way his father had been stumbling around drunk, a few hours before, drunker even than Reece had been. Could he have murdered his own father? No, he wouldn’t do that. But then Reece remembered the drunken arguments and the various threats that Gary had levelled his father ever since they’d moved in with him.
Reece slowly slid the knife from his father’s grasp and dropped it into the fish tank on the cabinet next to them. As the knife slowly sank to the bottom, and the fish darted out of it’s way, Reece shook his father awake.
“Dad… dad, I’ve got some bad news.”
The next chapter of Memories of a Murder will be published on Sunday 1st May