A(nother) Rambling: A New String to My Bow

Taking a break from reviewing a book this week – to talk about my favourite topic outside of books.
I did something new yesterday, something a little bit nerve-wracking, but ultimately fun. It’s also what stopped me from reading, at least stopped me from reading anything new – hence no review.
(I do like the word hence. Makes me feel posh)
At WHSmith, we’ve been working on erasing stigma around mental health. The company has done shitloads (that’s the technical word) to raise awareness within the company, as well as this year doing huge amounts of fundraising for – along with Cancer Research – Mind.
As part of our activities, last year Bryony Gordon came to Swindon for a Q&A session – hosted by publicity goddess George Moore.
It went down so well, we arranged another one for Matt Haig – to coincide with the launch of his new book (How To Stop Time – read it!) and to get a male perspective on the challenges faced by those who suffer from poor mental health.
I know what you’re thinking – How come he’s not talking about himself yet?! Give the people what they want!
Ok, ok!
Well, guess what mug offered to step in and host the thing – with absolutely no prior experience of having done something like that?
You guessed it. This guy.
I spent the last week reminding myself of the events of How To Stop Time, I re-read Reasons to Stay Alive, and I monitored Matt’s tweets closely to see if they would raise any questions I wanted to ask.
Then. I got up on the stage, sat opposite Matt – and introduced us both to what felt like an enormous crowd, but was in reality closer to 30.
How to stop time indeed.
Matt had the hard job – he had to talk for twenty seven out of the thirty minutes – I just had to sit there and listen to him, and make sure I didn’t ask a question he’d just answered.
But boy was it hard – I didn’t know where to look. Did I look at the audience like a loon? Matt was (NOT like a loon, I hasten to add), but then he was talking to them. I would just be grinning inanely at them.
Should I instead just ignore them? But that felt rude, and besides if I didn’t look, how did I know if they were still awake – or even there?
At least I know why Graham Norton drinks now.
In the end, it went ok. Neither myself or Matt said anything stupid, I had some positive feedback from people afterwards (not that I believed them of course), and we all learnt a little bit more about mental health (and turtles) as well as hearing about a great book!
What’s the point of me telling you all this? I have a new skill! I can interview people – so let me tell you now, Graham had better watch out.
He’s ahead in the interviewer-skills race (for now) – but I can match him drink for drink.


A(nother) Review: Yesterday by Felicia Yap

“…all my troubles seemed so far away, now it looks as though they’re here to stay…”


The problem with naming anything after such a famous song is that you’re always going to associate it with that song.


It took me a while to read Yesterday simply because I kept bursting into song every time I picked it up.


But when I did pick it up I found a really intriguing set-up. Let’s see if I can explain in a few short sentences…


We are in an alternative universe, where everything is identical, except for one key difference: nobody can remember anything that happened more than two days ago. Around two thirds of the population can only remember the past twenty-four hours, while a special third can remember forty-eight – it’s a bit like the old adage ‘In the Kingdom of the Blind, the one eyed-man is King’.


Here’s the thing, though… while they might not be able to remember, they can learn. Each night they write down the events of their day and they are able to retain certain facts. Think of a photo of yourself as a baby, on a day out at the beach. You don’t remember being there, but the fact that you were is something you know.


It’s a tricky concept to get your head round, but in two paragraphs, I hope I have been to explain it.


In the book, it took seven chapters before it clicked into place for me. The writer doesn’t try to explain this world to the reader, it is simply presented as ‘this is the way it is’ and it’s very confusing.


For instance, the main character is a novelist. A successful novelist.


How on that earth could a novelist be successful. There are very few of us that can read a novel in two days – especially if we were to spend the evening writing an update in our diaries.


Once the concept is explained, perhaps a little too late for the casual reader, we are left with a novel – at heart, that now classic domestic noir genre – with a strong central mystery.


It rumbles along at a decent pace and where this novel is unique is that the characters are as oblivious, or nearly as oblivious to the true events as we are.


At a deeper level, it raises some intriguing questions about the nature of memory, about whether we truly are better off not knowing, or if full photographic memory is a better way to live our lives.


What it doesn’t do is explore the notion of how our memories make us. The characters all have distinct personalities, which suggests their behaviours are learned, routine, but it doesn’t investigate this at all.


Can a person still be a moral person if they do not remember their morals? Are they still funny if they have no memory of ever being that person? Can you and should you be held responsible for something you don’t remember?


What the book does do, is collapse under it’s own weight. It’s a tricky concept, and combining it with a convoluted, almost Sunset Beach style revenge plot means that there are many things not clear.


The writer herself seems to realise this, by including a chapter at the end of the novel wherein the antagonist gives a blow by blow account of what they did and how they did it.


It ties the novel up neatly and leaves no questions, but a good book shouldn’t have that much exposition. It’s a bit like when a comedian has to tell you why a joke is funny.


Yesterday has a shaky start, a strong middle, but a dodgy ending that leaves a bad taste. It is an ambitious novel with a smart concept, it’s just perhaps a little too ambitious.


Yesterday is published by Wildfire on 10th August 2017

A(nother) Rambling: Fear by Dirk Kurbjuweit #GrippedByFear

Never judge a book by it’s cover.


I’ve probably started a blog post with that phrase before. Over the last couple of years, I feel I’ve covered every last literary cliché in the book (that there might have been the last one), but bear with me. After all, like books, you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover.


Having said that, in my job you do have to judge a book by it’s cover, sometimes that’s all there’s time for. I personally get around 200 books pass across my desk a year that pique my interest. At the rate of one a week, I can only actually read a quarter of those.


I have to use something to tell them apart. Often, it is the recommendation of someone I trust, someone who knows my reading style.


Sometimes, it’s the cover.


In the case of Fear by Dirk Kurbjuweit, it was a little of both.


Posted by a colleague (who reads this blog and will get a kick out of seeing her name, therefore I won’t mention it… let’s just call her “Ginger Spice”), the back cover which simply promises ‘Become an accessory to murder’ – pulled me in, coupled with, what is a striking, unique cover.


Ginger Spice usually has the same taste in books as me, so I went with it and managed to get hold of a copy.


Sitting down to read it, and it wasn’t what I thought it would be. I was expecting a pacy thriller, maybe a psychological thriller that became commonplace after Girl on the Train was released.


At the very beginning we know that our ‘hero’ has assisted in the murder of his neighbour. His father shot him. We even know the motive.


This is something Ginger Spice pointed out to me – there seems to be no mystery, no reason to read on, and yet… we do. This book is compelling. The hashtag the publicists are using is #GrippedByFear


I agree with the first part, gripped. As we explore Randolph’s history with his father, his family… with Dieter, their downstairs neighbour. There’s something here pulling us on. Just what was it that finally pushed Randolph over the edge to contract his father to kill.


I’m not sure ‘Fear’ is the right word, though. The book is translated from German, and I can’t help but wonder if it was originally one of those German words that doesn’t have a direct English translation.


Sure, there is an element of fear that Randolph experiences, both as a young boy in the presence of his father, and for his young family. But it’s not something the reader experiences.


The bad guy is dead at the beginning of the book, there’s no fear that he will win, because we know that he doesn’t. Whatever he does do, it doesn’t lead to the total destruction of Randolph’s life.


So, what is the feeling the reader is left with?


That famous German word for which there’s no direct translation – Schadenfreude – the feeling of pleasure when some misfortune befalls someone else, it’s not that. But maybe it’s something similar?


Some kind of pre-schadenfreude. The anticipation of something bad happening to someone else? The idea that Dieter is going to earn his comeuppance that we’ve been promised in the opening pages.


As I said at the beginning, you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover – or it’s title, or even it’s hashtag – sometimes it delivers more than it promises. Having said that Fear is a better title than Pre-schadenfreude.


Fear will be published by Orion in January 2018 (Sorry – perk of the job… look out for it then, it will make a wonderful January read!)

Miles to Go

It’s been a busy few months.


Right back at the beginning of the summer my sister started giving me one-word prompts to encourage me to write more blog posts. I lasted a week before she gave me ‘milestones’ and I stalled.


Ironically, when I would have normally been writing a blog post, I was actually out on a training walk for my Three Peaks climb, literally passing milestones.


The reason I failed, though, wasn’t through lack of inspiration, it was just through being ridiculously busy, that all my blog writing fell by the wayside – apart from a quick book review a couple of weeks ago.


Throughout the whole time I was thinking on and off about the topic of milestones, part of my brain vaguely aware that I needed to write this post.


The way I see it, there are three types of milestones:


  1. Future milestones – These are the ones we all look forward to. Looking forward to the day that we get married; all the things we want to do before we’re thirty; getting that promotion at work.


  1. Unseen milestones – The ones that we weren’t expecting that we only notice when we look back on our lives. The first time that we met our best friend, that decision we made that shaped the course of the rest of our lives, the night out that turned into The. Best. Night. Ever. ™


  1. Historic milestones – The ones that everyone knew where they were. Kennedy’s assassination; Diana’s death; Rachel getting off the plane.


A lot of people focus on the first set, the future milestones. For me, these are the ones that mean the least. Nothing actually happens when we hit thirty, and those moments of your promotion or your wedding day – they’re merely the transition of one thing to another thing. The moment of change, not the moment of achievement.


The concept of a bucket list is something I used to subscribe to. I used to say before I’m thirty, I’m going to run the marathon. I’m going to go to Australia.


Until I realised that there’s one future milestone that’s going to happen to all of us, rending that bucket list pointless.


The bucket list is a list of things we all want to do before we die? Well, instead of sitting there writing your list, get out there and do them, because you might die tomorrow. That’s the philosophy I live by.


I’ve been to Australia, I’ve run the marathon. This year I went to Los Angeles and I climbed the Three Peaks. I even had a go on the Crystal Maze.


2016 has not been the greatest of years. It will likely go down in history as one of those years we all remember. 2016 will become the new 1997, the answer to every guess the year question in pub quizzes.


Bowie. Wood. Brexit. Trump. These are just some of the things that will make 2016 a historic milestone. We’ll all know what we were doing in 2016 – but maybe, just maybe we’re passing through some unseen milestones. There’s nothing we can do about the events that have already passed – but maybe we can turn them into something – anything – positive.


Maybe this is the year we hit rock bottom and humanity changes for the better. Maybe historians of the future will look back on 2016 as a turning point. Maybe they won’t.


But maybe you will. Maybe what you’re doing right now, is going to change your life. You never know.


The historic milestones are going to happen, our future milestones will be what they will be, but the unseen milestones, these are the moments we can shape ourselves, shape our futures.


Stop worrying about what’s going to happen when you hit thirty, or when you’re going to get married.


Go out there and make a milestone.


Me? I’m going to sit on my sofa and read a book. Like I said, it’s been a busy few months.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Half Blood Prince & The Deathly Hallows

I haven’t done much reading lately. I started reading a book while I was in Los Angeles in May and I wasn’t enjoying it.


After getting home, by the time I finally got around to starting to read again, it was three weeks later. I just wanted to read something that wasn’t going to test me, something that I knew I would enjoy.


So, I settled down to read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Last summer I started re-reading the series, ready for my trip to see the stage-play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in October this year, and I have been periodically dipping into it since last June.


When I read Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire I wrote that it was the book in the series that really opened up the wider wizarding world. I also spoke about how annoying Harry was as he started to go through puberty.


In Phoenix, Harry is still kind of annoying, but his anger here doesn’t feel out of place. He went through a lot during Goblet and so it feels completely justified. His arrogance is still present, particularly in his refusal to fully embrace the Occlumency levels, but equally Dumbledore is frustrating, in his absence, in his reluctance to share things with Harry.


The beginning of the book, as you might imagine following the events at the end of the previous book, is pretty bleak, and Rowling seems to know it. There’s a line about a third of the way through where Hermione is looking out of the window and says ‘here’s something that should cheer you up. Hagrid’s back’.


And though not my favourite character, my heart did lift at that moment. And I remember my heart lifting the first time I read it as well. Perhaps because of the absence of Dumbledore and the in-fighting between Harry, Hermione and Ron anything familiar is a welcoming sight.


Books 1 to 5 of the Harry Potter series are probably some of the books I am most familiar with. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows less so, mostly because I was eighteen and twenty respectfully when they came out. There was simply less opportunity for me to re-read the books when I became an ‘adult’.


So, reaching the end of Phoenix, I had to go into Prince and Hallows straight away to find out not what happened, but to remind myself how it happened. I read all three across the space of three weeks and it felt so good to be reading books that I enjoyed again, looking forward to picking up my book at the end of the day and not wanting to put it down.


I even woke up in the middle of the night worrying about Harry and Hermione while I was reading Deathly Hallows.


The last three books work so well together, like one huge book rather than just three big ones. They flow into each other well and Harry matures nicely into a character that you actually like, a great achievement for a character that comes close to being the worst character in the series during book four and five.


The last book neatly sews up pretty much every loose thread that had been left dangling from the previous six, even ones you didn’t know were loose. Every minor character gets a moment to shine, a shining example being Hermione saving Lavender Brown from Fenrir Greyback.


It’s a small moment, but the previous year, their relationship had been left frosty after Lavender went out with Ron, and Rowling doesn’t forget, she tidies it up, even with a small as interaction like that.


And yes… I cried at the end. It’s impossible not to.


For those wondering:


Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix scores 4.1 out of 5 (same as Goblet of Fire)

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince scores 4.5 out of 5

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows scores 4.6 out of 5


What lets Deathly Hallows down? It’s *not* quite as funny as the previous books, and if I’m completely honest the epilogue set nineteen years later… I could do without. Nearly ten years after first reading it, I feel slightly better about it as a precursor to The Cursed Child but it still feels like a bit of a mis-step to me.

Minority Report

I can’t stop thinking about what happened in Orlando over the weekend. It’s brought up a lot of different thoughts and issues for me. Where I thought I knew my mind, I’m now unsure. This is my attempt to reconcile those thoughts.


Pulse is a nightclub in Orlando, Florida. On Saturday night it was the location of the worst gun massacre in US history.


We’re not talking about Swindon or England or United Kingdom, we’re talking about the United States of America.


According to the Gun Violence Archive (http://www.gunviolencearchive.org/reports/mass-shooting) this is the 136th mass shooting in the United States this year alone – that’s one every 29 hours.


On the 11th June the website reports that there were five mass shootings, a day later, there was just one. But it was the worst one they’d ever had. That’s why you’re hearing about it, that’s why it’s everywhere, because even somewhere like America, this was an exceptional event.


The shooter went into Pulse – self-styled as the hottest gay club in Orlando, and ranked second most popular according to the users of gaycities.com (http://orlando.gaycities.com/bars/) as of 13th June – and killed forty nine people, injuring many more. The death of the shooter himself takes the number of dead to a round 50.


Why did he do it?


Short of finding a signed confession, we may never be a hundred per cent certain for the reasons behind the massacre, the gunman himself has a violent history, as well as suspected links with IS. Islamic State themselves have already claimed responsibility, but there is no substantial evidence that they had any direct involvement.


We do know that his father has already confirmed that the gunman became “very angry” after recently seeing two men kissing.


If there are so many mass shootings in America, why is it this one that has upset me?


The reason I can’t stop thinking about it, is because it was aimed at me. At my friends. This wasn’t done for religious reasons, or race reasons, or even because of a relationship gone wrong.


This was beyond race, beyond religion – but not beyond love. It was love the gunman objected to. Love between men, love between women, and any variation thereof.


I’ve never felt like a minority before.


Minorities in the we talk about them are people who need protection, people who are vulnerable. I’m lucky enough to have grown up in a time and a place where I’ve never felt that.


I’m a white, English-speaking man, I’m by no means rich but nor do I struggle. I live in one of the most forward thinking countries of the world and I can criticise the people who lead my country without fear of retribution.


I’m also gay.


In the past, I’ve been critical of Gay Pride events in their current form. I’ve always said that I understood why Pride marches were needed, but that I felt they weren’t needed anymore.


Pride marches in the UK have become over-sexualised, commercial parties. When straight families are taking their children and grandchildren to Pride events, when music acts are queuing up to take part and when the event itself is part-funded by government of the day, I can’t help but feel we’ve achieved what we set out to achieve.


For me, the focus should shift away from standing apart and more to integration. Being gay doesn’t define me, it is just part of who I am. I don’t need a special bar or a special nightclub or a special march. I’m proud of who I am wherever I am, whatever day of the year.


I’ve never begrudged those who did. I’ve always understood their reasoning. A safe place to go up to a guy and ask him out, being able to be who we really are without having to worry – but the truth is, most of us feel ok to do that most of the time these days.


Until now.


Someone invaded one of those safe places and started slaughtering us. That could have been me. I’ve not been to Pulse in Orlando, but a couple of weeks ago I was enjoying drinks in gay bars in Los Angeles.


They’re 2,500 miles away from each other, they’re not exactly close (the distance between them is only marginally shorter than the distance between London and Syria) but the in LA are the same as they are in Florida.


Someone could have taken offence at me mincing through Beverly Hills and done exactly the same thing.


It could have been any of us.


The whole incident brings up lots of different issues and already has from gun control to, bizarrely, whether the UK should leave Europe (we shouldn’t, if anything this teaches us that a tolerant world with closer links to other cultures is more important than it ever was).


But for me, the issue is more personal… it goes to the heart of who I am. To who we are as a society.


We talked about what happened in Paris, we talked about what happened in Brussels. At the office today, no one talked about Orlando.


It’s not an attack on the United States or the Western world. It’s an attack on a community, on my community.


I’m not going to forget what happened in Pulse, Orlando, and I’m not going to let it scare me into hiding away. Short of breaking out into a show-stopping performance of ‘I Am Who I Am’ complete with John Barrowman-esque jazz hands, I’m going to be the gayest gay I can.


I’m not going to feel like a minority anymore.

How do you read yours?

I got in trouble last week with some of my colleagues. I gave up on a book before I reached the end.


That’s tantamount to finishing your Sunday dinner before you’ve eaten all the roast potatoes. It’s definitely not something I like doing, but what made it worse was that everyone else really enjoyed the book.


A bad reading experience can really put you off reading for a while. Last week I didn’t finish a book which was why I published no review. This week, I simply haven’t read anything to tell you about. Although, I have just started something new which I have high hopes for.


But why did I stop reading? Was it a bad book? Not particularly – a lot of people have really enjoyed it, so much so that I’m not going to tell you what it is because I’m starting to wonder if I’ve been a bit unfair to it.


Asking me to read an historical romance was always going to be a long shot, but it showed a lot of promise, so I gave it a go. It didn’t grab my attention, and it took a long time for me to get through the first hundred pages.


When I came to dipping back into the book on my second night, I got through about a page and a half before throwing it down, officially giving up. I was in a bad mood, and there was something about that page and a half that annoyed me. It didn’t take much.


Do I have a point? Maybe I don’t, but I do have a question. What makes a great book great?


There are books I have loved that others haven’t, and vice versa, like this one. Is a great book universal, or do we have to accept that no book can be good for everyone?


Are the things that are objective about a book what makes it great, or is it the subjective “


One of my favourite books is The Island by Victoria Hislop, and I know that is in part because I read it on the stone steps of a small village in Crete where the book is set. Was it my subjective experience of reading the book what made me like it, or was the writing simply that good that I could have enjoyed it anywhere?


Can even a technically perfect book be enjoyed by someone in a bad mood, or is our own environment part of the experience?


I can read anywhere, I sometimes proudly exclaim – but should I? Should I find some where that helps me enjoy the books I’m reading?  And is it the same place for each book?


I enjoy reading – but am I doing it wrong?

Memories of a Murder – Chapter 8

Start at the beginning here or read the last chapter here


Harry and Frederick reached the top of the stairs to find Nicola banging on the door to the room that Harry had been caught in earlier. “Matthew? Matthew, darling, come out!”

“That’s Matthew’s room?” Harry asked.

“Yeah.” Nicola stopped knocking and leant against the door. “He’s locked himself in, he won’t come out.”

Frederick moved over to the door. “Matthew, it’s Freddie. Are you going to let us in? Harry and I would like to talk to you.”

Frederick looked at the other two as they all waited for an answer, but there was none.

“I think I should try and handle it myself. The last thing he probably wants right now is a barrage of people trying to help.”

Harry smiled gently at Nicola. “I know that feeling. Come on, Freddie.”

He took hold of Frederick’s arm as he turned to his aunt. “Listen,” he said, “it might seem bad, but it could have gone worse. At least nobody died.”

“Yet.” Nicola growled out of the corner of her mouth, before pausing and staring at them.

Harry could tell she was referring to Ernest. Despite her previous dismissal of her youngest son, he had seen her visibly seething when Ernest had threatened to hit him.

“If you need us,” Frederick said after a moment, “we’ll be downstairs.”

Nicola nodded and returned to knocking on the door as Frederick and Harry made their way back downstairs.

“What a night, huh?”

After Ernest had stormed out of the dining room, the family had immediately started arguing again. Jennifer and Gary had briefly put aside their differences and turned on Robert, Elizabeth his only defence. Frederick had gotten involved with the argument as well while Nicola had stated bombarding her youngest son with questions. Matthew had turned and fled from the room, and as soon as Harry had managed to pull Frederick away from the edge of a fist fight with Reece, they had followed Nicola upstairs.

“Yeah,” Frederick agreed, “you know, sometimes I forget the reason why I left.”

“Who needs Hollywood when you’ve got this much drama going on at home?”


“It was brave of the kid, though, don’t you think? Announcing to everyone, just like that, that he was gay?”

“You’re telling me,” Frederick sighed as they reached the bottom of the stairs, “I found it difficult enough just telling one person. To tell a whole room of people like he did. Like you did. That was brave.”

“Not really,” Frederick started to lead him down a corridor in the opposite direction of the dining room, “most of the people in that room knew I was gay. Victoria knew. Your mum knew.”

“Pat knew as well, I told her when you were taking our bags up.”

“See, I wasn’t being brave, I wasn’t thinking, I was just… I was just sticking up for my boyfriend.”

Frederick pushed Harry up against the wall of the corridor and gently kissed him.

“So, you think this might mean you’re ready to tell the world about me and you?”

Harry kissed him back. “Well, if you can get the entire world into one room and get your grandfather to pick on you again, then, yeah, I’ll tell them.

Frederick pulled away from him. “Harry, I – ”

“Look, we need to talk, Freddie. Not here.”

Frederick sighed, took hold of his wrist and led him through the door to Harry’s left. They were in a small lounge room, bookcases lined the wall and two thirds of the room were taken up with soft couches. In the last part of the room was a large drinks cabinet, which at that moment was being tended to by Gary.

“Hi, boys,” he smiled, “can I fix you kids a little drink?”

“No, we’re alright thanks.” Frederick smiled over at him and he and Harry sat down on one of the couches.

“Freddie,” Harry lowered his voice so that Gary wouldn’t hear, “I know you’ve been lying to me.”

“What?” Frederick frowned. “I haven’t been lying to you.”

“Yes, you have. For a start you promised me that you wouldn’t tell anyone that I was your boyfriend. I leave you alone for two minutes and you’re telling people.”

“I was upset, I needed to talk to someone.”

“Yeah, well, aside from that, you told me you’d never met your mum’s boyfriend.”

“I haven’t, I hadn’t.”

“You have!” Harry sighed, more than a little exasperated.

“You boys ok, over there?” Gary asked. “You’re sure you don’t want any drinks?”

“We’re sure, Uncle Gary, could you leave us alone for a second?”

“But I’ve already poured them, I was hoping you’d join me.” Gary motioned to three glass tumblers on the side. “I’ll just have to drink them myself, can’t leave them sitting out, can we?”

“Uncle – ”

“I’ll be quiet, you won’t even know I’m here.”

Harry held his head in his hands as Gary started to work on the three glasses of scotch he’d poured.

“Your grandfather told us all that the only reason he even hired Robert was because of your advice. You told him to hire him, how could you do that if you’d never even met him?”

Frederick stared for a moment and Harry could see in his eyes the conflict in his mind. Continue the lie or come clean?

“You remember when I came back home that time, to help my grandfather with that interview? I met him then, that was him. I didn’t know until tonight that he was going out with my mum.”

“So why didn’t you tell her that you’d met him before? Earlier tonight, you just said that, that you remembered his name. You said it was nice to meet him! I don’t understand what’s happening Freddie.”

“I didn’t tell my mum that I’d met him, because I hadn’t told her that I’d come back. I didn’t go and see her while I was here and she would have been mightily pissed off if she’d found out. I guess Robert just took my lead.”

“Right.” Harry nodded but he was still uneasy. Everything that Frederick said sounded plausible, but he could tell he still wasn’t telling the whole truth.

“Look, Harry, I…” Frederick leant over and picked up one of the Scotch glasses from in front of Gary, who had just been nodding sagely. “I don’t see what the big deal is about me lying. What about you?”

“What about me?”

“You’re lying to the whole world! Every day that you hide your relationship with me, you’re lying!”

“Frederick, you said it yourself, Matthew was brave in that room tonight. I just have to work up a little more courage, but I think I’m ready.”

Frederick smiled at him and pulled Harry into an embrace. At that moment, the door opened and Ernest entered.

“Haven’t you two left yet?” Ernest picked up the remaining glass of Scotch and drank from it.

“Grandpa, I – ” Before Frederick could say anything, Gary interrupted, taking the empty glass from Ernest as he did.

“Dad, I think you should leave them alone.”

“You what?”

“Well…” He pulled a bottle of vodka from the cabinet, “my son is one of them now. I… I’m an honourary gay!”

“You’re a what?” Ernest looked as though the top of his head was about to blow off as he looked over at Harry and Frederick incredulously.

“Don’t look at me,” Frederick stuttered, “I… I don’t know what that is.”

“But it’s good that he’s embracing it, don’t you think?” Harry asked, enjoying watching Ernest get madder and madder.

Ernest pushed Gary out of the way and moved into the drinks cabinet. “You make me feel sick.”

“You’re not exactly settling my stomach either, Ern.” Harry smirked.

“Maybe you should go see a doctor, dad? If you’re not feeling well.”

Ernest glared at his son as Jennifer entered the room. “Ernest, I want to make you an appointment.”

“Oh, God, not you as well? Why can’t the two of you just leave me alone?”

“Because, you’re mistaking a make, Dad!” Gary slurred.

“Yes, well done,” Ernest patted his son on the shoulder, “you’ve just proved that there’s absolutely no point in me listening to you. Not until you sober up anyway, at least, and certainly not until you stop making up twaddle about having another brother.”

“Dad, Raymond – ”

“Listen, Ernie,” Jennifer smiled sweetly, “it’s been a tough few months on all of us, not least of all you. I’m – and I’m sure Gary is too – just worried that perhaps things are starting to get to you.”

“Things? What things?”

“Well, there’s Michael’s death. That wasn’t easy on any of us, especially… little Fiona. You know, she was saying to me, just yesterday, that the only reason she’s been able to cope with losing her father, is because she’s got you around, and you… you’re something of a father figure to her now.”

“What’s your point, Jenny?”

“My point, Ernest, is that your little outburst, earlier, after dinner, I don’t think you really meant everything you said.”

“Is that so?” Ernest raised an eyebrow.

“Which is why,” Jennifer smiled cautiously, “I think that perhaps you may need to see a professional. A medical professional.”

Ernest stared at her for a moment, as if he was waiting for the punch-line, before laughing a little. “Well, that’s very… considerate of you. Yes, perhaps, I will. My fillings have been giving me terrible gyp this last week.”

“Good,” Jennifer smiled widely, as if talking to a small child, “but… I was thinking… you know. Less dental, more… mental.”

“A psychologist?”

“It may be beneficial.”

“Listen to me, my girl,” he pointed a finger at Jennifer, menacingly, “the only professional I need to see is my lawyer! And the sooner he gets here, the sooner I can cut you out of my will.”

It was plain to all of them in the room that Jennifer was seething inside, and there was no doubt that Ernest could see it as well, but she continued on with a pained smile. “This is exactly what I mean, Ernie,” she said, stroking his shoulder gently, “you’re lashing out at the people who love you most. I really think you should see someone before… before leaving everything you own to a complete stranger.”

Ernest nodded. “Ok.”

“Ok?” Jennifer recoiled in surprise.

“Ok. I will see your psychologist before I change my will.”

“Fantastic! We’ll book you an appointment – ”

“But, only if you can get your doctor here within twenty minutes.” Ernest smirked as Jennifer’s face fell. “As I said before, Gregory Lloyd is on his way here to help me change my will, and I’m not having him waste a journey, not on Christmas Eve. Now, that would be crazy.”

“So, you’re just going to ignore everything we say?”

“We?” Ernest asked. “Who’s we?”

“Well, Gary agrees with me. Don’t you, Gary?”

“Agree with you.” Gary muttered emotionlessly.


Ernest rolled his eyes. “He’s so drunk you could tell him he was made out of paper-mache and he’d agree with you!”

“So, you’re just going to leave everything to Robert, then? The business, your money, this house?”


Jennifer stared at him. “Fine. Fine. See if I care.” She turned and stalked out of the room, brushing past Nicola as she entered.

“You’re not really giving all the money to Robert are you?” Gary frowned.

“I’m not giving him anything. I’m making him my heir, and as you may have noticed, I’m not dead yet.”

“Not dead yet.” Gary agreed.

“What’s up with Jenny?” Nicola asked Gary, looking straight through Ernest.

Gary shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“She’s upset with me,” Ernest smiled, “because I’m making sure that she doesn’t have two pennies to rub together, and she’s worried that for once in her life, she might have to actually work for a living.”

“Why is she upset with you over that? There are so many better reasons for her to be pissed off at you.”

“Well, between you and me, Nicky, she’s not that bright, and with girls like her, it’s all about money.”

“Well, to some of us, there are more important things than money.” Nicola said, looking at Ernest coldly.

“Oh, pray tell,” Ernest said, waving his glass around, “why is the famous Nicola Nash so upset with me?”

“Oh, I don’t know, maybe it’s because you humiliated and embarrassed my son, right in front of his entire family. You insulted him for no good reason and then – ”

“Now, listen to me, that boy had it coming. Reece has been lying to us all.”

“I’m not talking about Reece! I’m talking about Matthew!” Nicola shrieked.

“Oh.” Ernest curled his lip in disgust. “That one.”

“How is Matthew?” Nicola turned around and looked at Harry, as if she’d just noticed he was there.

“He’s not good. He’s still not coming out.” A brief smile splashed across Nicola’s face. “Well, he already came out, and now that he’s out… he’s not coming out.”

“Good. I don’t want to have to look at the filthy little faggot again.”

Suddenly, Frederick stood up, and, without saying a word, punched his grandfather across the cheek. “Why don’t you say that again?”

“Why don’t you get out of my house?” Ernest sneered at his grandson, a red welt appearing across his face. “You didn’t even make me bleed. Faggot.”

“Just sit down, Freddie.” Harry led Frederick back over towards the couch and Gary followed his father back towards the drinks cabinet. Nicola sat down with the boys on the sofa.

“He’s still not letting you in?” Frederick asked.

“No.” Nicola buried her head in her hands. “Oh, I don’t know what to do. I’ve tried telling him that I don’t care what he is, that I love him anyway, but he just keeps telling me to go away.”

“He’s taken a big step.” Harry smiled at her trying to comfort her. “Coming out to his family, all of them, like that, it takes guts. I mean, it was amazing. Sometimes, you’re just not ready straight away to listen to people’s reactions.”

“But my reaction is good!” Nicola cried. “I love him no matter what, why can’t he understand that?”

“The way Matthew came out, it was a surprise not just to all of us, but to him as well. When I told my family, when Freddie told his, we had time to prepare ourselves for their reactions. Matthew just isn’t ready yet to face the reality of what he said.”

“He’s probably imagined it a thousand times,” Frederick continued for Harry, “he’s probably imagined a thousand different outcomes, and he needs to make sure he’s prepared for the worst one. He’ll come to you when he’s ready.”

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely.” Frederick nodded. “But I think, perhaps I should go try and talk to him again. It might be easier for one of us to speak to him first, you know, we’ve been through it too.”

“Would you?”

“Yeah, sure.” Frederick stood up and Nicola took his hand and smiled at him.


Harry watched Frederick leave and then turned back to Nicola “You know, when I told my mum I was gay, she just smiled at me, told me that she already knew and then carried on doing her crossword.”

“What’s your point?” Nicola asked.

“The point is that she didn’t make a fuss over it, she just accepted what I said and carried on with life. She didn’t make a big deal, she didn’t cry and say it was the worst thing in the world, she didn’t whoop with joy and drag me out to the nearest gay bar, hunting for guys. She just carried on being my mum.

“So, you’re saying that we should just ignore it?” Nicola asked.

“No, I’m not saying ignore it, embrace it, totally, but let Matthew decide what he’s comfortable with, let him set the boundaries. If he wants to talk to you about it, he’ll talk to you about it. If he doesn’t talk about it, then don’t talk about it, but make sure you’re open enough for him to feel comfortable talking about it.”

“Yeah, well, it’s alright for your mum, she knew already, I had no idea.”

“Really?” Harry asked, with a slight disbelief. “You had no idea at all?”

“No. Why, did you?”

“One step inside his bedroom ought to have told you.”

“Why what’s in there?”

“You’ve never been in there?”

“No, he never lets anyone in, always keeps it locked.”

“It’s, err,” Harry was lost, trying to find the right words, “I guess, you might call it kind of a shrine.”

“To what?” Nicola looked alarmed.

“To me.”

“Gary! Just leave me alone will you?” Ernest rubbed his temples and sat down on a couch in the opposite corner to the rest of them.

“You’re socialising with us now?” Nicola raised an eyebrow.

“I’m socialising near you.”

“Still, after what you said about us all tonight, I would have thought you’d stay in your office until we’ve all gone. You hate us.”

“I don’t hate you, Nicola, I just don’t like you all that much. Besides, there aren’t many people left in this house who haven’t hit me.”

“There’s still time.” Harry muttered.

“Are you ever going to leave?”

“Dad!” Gary threw himself down next to his father, placed an arm around his shoulder and belched loudly.


“Dad, a… a chance. S’all I’m asking for.”

“A chance at what?” Ernest asked with a frown.

“You’re tired, dad, take… take a week off. Let me…”

“Let you what? Spit it out, boy.”

“Crumbleys! Let me run Crumbley’s for you!”

Pat entered the room just as Ernest stared at his son in disbelief. “You’re nothing but a waste of space, Gary, I wouldn’t leave you in charge of a cactus, let alone a business!”

“Ern – Err, Mr Cromwell.” Pat smiled, leaning slightly on the sideboard. “Mr Lloyd’s just arrived, here to see you, he says.”

“Excuse me, Gary, I’ve got business to deal with.”

“Mr Cromwell!” Harry jumped up from the couch as he headed for the door. “Could I have a word before you go?”

Ernest sighed loudly and looked over to Pat. “Tell Gregory I’ll be there in a moment, send him into the dining room and fix him up a meal, he’s been driving for four hours.”

Pat mumbled to herself as she limped out of the door. Although he couldn’t quite hear what she had to say, Harry could tell a few choice words were shot in Ernest’s direction.

“So, what is it then, boy? What do you want?”

“Could we, err, talk alone?” Harry followed Pat into the hall and watched as she slowly made her way down the corridor. Ernest reluctantly followed him. “Mr Cromwell, I wanted to talk to you about Frederick. About me and Frederick.”

“I don’t think I want to know anything about you and Frederick, thank you very much. It’s bad enough that the two of you do it, I don’t want you describing it to me.”

“I’m not going to talk about our sex life, Mr Cromwell.” Ernest recoiled slightly at Harry’s use of the word ‘sex’. “I just wanted to know if it’s true. Is Frederick really the brightest business mind you know?”

“I wouldn’t have said it if it wasn’t true.”

“So, why not leave Cromley’s to him, then? What has he done wrong?”

“What has he done?” Ernest looked at Harry with a genuine look of horror and bewilderment on his face. “In a word? You! You are what he’s done wrong! You’re a man! And he’s a man! It’s not natural. It’s disgusting, it’s –”

“It’s love!” Harry shouted loudly and Ernest quickly shut the door to the drinks room. “Me and Frederick met, in a bar. I was at a bad point in my life, my brother was not long dead, and he’d just moved out to LA, neither of us had anyone!”

“So, you… what? Missed England so much that you just jumped into bed with the first Englishman you met?”

Harry rolled his eyes. “We became friends. Pretty soon, I was telling him everything. I’d see something funny on the pavement and I’d ring him up to tell him, because I hated the fact that he wasn’t there to share it with me. I’m still the same. He’s my best friend, and I want to share my life with him, he has the most beautiful soul you could ever want in a partner and most of all, he loves me. He loves me for who I am and I don’t have to pretend to be anything or anyone else when I’m with him. Have you ever been in love, ever truly been in love?”

Ernest was taken aback slightly, his eyes bulging in shock. “Yes.”

“Then you know.” Harry said simply. “You know what it’s like. My love for Frederick, his love for me. It’s no different to the love between you and your wife.”

“Don’t you dare compare the depraved acts you and your boyfriend get up to with me and my wife! What you do is disgusting, what me and Doreen had – ”

“What you and Doreen had was disgusting!” Harry spat back at him venomously, changing tone so suddenly that both of them seemed surprised. “I… I’ll bet that’s what they said when you and her got together. A woman of that age, with a boy so young! And have you heard the whispers? She’s pregnant, and they’re not married. Ooh, it’s a depraved act that she’s committed, whispers one woman to the next, and the next agrees. Rape, she cries, that’s what it was, that poor boy, that poor defenceless boy, taken advantage of by that sick, sick woman.”

“Doreen was not – ”

“Soft in the head! That’s what the men were saying while their wives were gossiping about Doreen. The boy must be soft in the head! To let a woman take advantage of him like that! It’s disgusting!”

Ernest glared at him and stalked off down the corridor. “I’ve got things to do, leave me alone.”

“Is that what you said to Raymond?”

Ernest stopped suddenly and slowly swivelled around to face Harry. “How the hell do you know about Raymond?”

Harry smiled as he walked up to him. “You can fool your own family, Ernie, they’re not expecting you to lie, not about something as big as that. Besides, they’d remember, wouldn’t they?”

“What are you talking about?”

“I met him.” Ernest stared at him for a moment. “A few years back now, I had a little Saturday job in Cromley’s, one of those ones that pretends to be a corner shop. I wasn’t there for long, I had to move away, but I was there long enough to get a few extra late shifts every now and then. One night, this guy came into the shop and he hid himself away. I found him when I was closing up, hiding under a table, gripping hard onto this little lighter.

“I thought he was going to burn it down or something, but then he said he was your son. His father owned the shop. I was trying to calm him down, trying to get him to change his mind, and then suddenly he ran out and I never saw him again. I thought it was an insurance scam, but now… I’ve met you. I think he was looking for you. I think he was hoping you were in that shop. I think he wanted to kill you.”

Ernest’s face filled with a dark red colour and he looked like he was about to burst, just as Jennifer and Fiona came from down the corridor that led to his office.

“Ernest!” Jennifer jumped, not having seen them. “Fiona and I… we were just…”

“Getting my top from the wash room.” Fiona finished for her mother. “I spilt some water down it, and I wanted to get it dried before I went to bed.”

Ernest looked from Harry to Fiona and then to Jennifer. “I… I don’t care. Just go away.”

Fiona and Jennifer scuttled off towards the stairs as Harry watched Ernest move over to the door to the dining room where a middle-aged man was standing outside.

“Gregory,” Ernest smiled nervously, running a hand through his hair, “what are you doing out here?”

“Well, I… I didn’t want to interrupt them.”

“Interrupt who? Come on, don’t be so silly, let’s get you something to eat.” Ernest pushed open the door to the dining room.

“I’m not finished with you, yet.” Harry shouted, following him over to the dining room. “How can you treat your own flesh and blood the way you’ve treated Frederick and Matthew?”

“Yes! Yes, I fucked him!” Harry stopped as he heard the shouting from inside the dining room. Ernest stood next to him, the lawyer named Gregory stood on the other side of the doorway. All three of them remained silent as they looked over at Robert, Frederick and Victoria on the other side of the room. Robert continued his rant. “And yes, I fucked her!”

“Robert – ” Victoria began, as she caught sight of their audience.

“No, no, the two of you are absolutely right! I screwed around with a young college girl, just because I could, and she wasn’t the first, and she certainly wasn’t the last! And so what if I got her pregnant? Who cares? Who wants to look after some fat, spotty kid, anyway? Speaking of fat and spotty.” Robert moved his gaze to Frederick.

“I am not fat or spotty!” Frederick protested, he still hadn’t seen any of them watching.

“Not all of you, but that fat, spotty arse of yours that I fucked, makes me feel sick, every time I think of it, you filthy little whore. You let me do that to you, and then you convinced your grandfather to hire me and for what? I screwed you, and then I screwed you over! You’re pathetic. And now,” Robert laughed, “the two of you are whining, not because I fucked you, but because I stopped, and neither of you can handle the fact that now I’m screwing both your mother and your grandfather! And you know what? There’s nothing you can do about it!”

“Maybe we can’t.” Victoria said, not breaking eye contact with her grandfather. “But he can.”

Ernest’s face had turned from a deep crimson right through to a dark purple and his whole body shook as he managed, just about, to squeeze out a few words. “Gregory. Office. Now.”

Ernest and Gregory turned and left the room, and for a moment Robert did nothing, but stare at the empty space in the doorway, before turning and running after them, brushing past me on his way out.

Harry just stared across the room at Frederick who was looking at Victoria and smirking, seemingly happy to have gotten one up on Robert. Victoria nudged him and he finally noticed his boyfriend in the doorway. The colour drained from his face.

“Harry, I – ”

“You… you let him… do that to you?”

Frederick said nothing, he just bowed his head, and Harry turned and walked quickly from the room. Frederick ran ahead of him and blocked his path down the corridor.

“Harry, I – ”

“Just don’t say anything.” Harry turned away from him, not knowing where he was going, just moving away from Frederick. He passed Robert banging loudly on a door and slipped through the opposite door into a small bathroom. He slid the lock across and slumped against the door.

“Ernie! Ernie, open up!” Robert’s shouts drifted through the locked door.

Harry heard the office door flew open, from the sound of it, the force used could have easily pulled it off its hinges with the full force of Ernest’s rage. “I suggest you leave before I do something I regret.”

“But, we’ve got business to discuss, the – ”

“You’re fired!” Ernest practically screamed. “You must be kidding if you think I would leave you in charge of my business. Not now. Not ever!” Harry heard two thuds in quick succession as Ernest shoved Robert away, against the door to the bathroom, and then slammed his own door shut.


Read the next chapter here

Memories of a Murder – Chapter 2

Start at the beginning here or read the last chapter here


53 Years Later


Harry stared through his own faint reflection and out at the countryside rushing by them. He rested one side of his forehead against the window and let the vibrations shake through his skull, causing a single strand of his fringe – his bangs, his American colleagues called it – to fall down from its swept back position.

He was experiencing a moment of pure, unadulterated nothingness. His mind was concentrating only on the harsh shaking of the window, his eyes – crystal blue according to his official biography, although ‘dull grey’ would have been Harry’s response if anyone had ever bothered to ask him – could see nothing in the darkness of this cold December night.

This was the first time in months where Harry wasn’t on an unchangeable itinerary and his imagination could come up with no original thought of its own. It was as if the controlled madness of his life had killed Harry’s last remaining brain cells.

He could feel them searching for something to think about, an opinion to express, and before they found it, Harry knew the single thought that they would alight on. The thought that had always been there since it the first time it had formed. It never dominated, it lingered in the background, often remaining quiet for hours on end, but always appearing in the quietest of moments.

Harry thought of his brother. Of the promise that he had made him. To live his life for him. And then Harry thought of his own life. The things he had given up. The people he had given up. The secrets he kept.


“Excuse me?” He turned to find Frederick sitting bolt upright in his seat, clearly having woken from his slumber at some point during Harry’s thoughts of nothingness.

Frederick glanced at the taxi driver watching them in his rear-view mirror and lowered his voice.

“Have you got any?”

“Err, no, all out I think.”

“Shit. What are we going to do?”

He looks genuinely concerned, Harry thought, like it’s the end of the world that we won’t be able to fuck for a couple of days.

Frederick turned away from him, flashing the smooth lines of his cheekbones as he did. His question was rhetorical, he wasn’t expecting Harry to provide the answer – solving problems, answering questions, neither of these was in any schedule of Harry’s that either of them had ever seen. Frederick never expected Harry to provide the answer to anything.

Instead, he rubbed the dark stubble on his square chin, as if it were a lamp that a genie might spring out of. Harry watched him hypnotised for a moment – his last few brain cells still working their way back to life – before reaching out with his hand. The index finger on his left hand reached for the smoothness of Frederick’s plump lower lip and gently turned his face.

“You’ll just have to find another way to get rid of your tension.”

“Speaking of tension,” Frederick took his lover’s hand in his, lowered it from his face, and looked at Harry’s other hand, curled in a fist by his side, so tightly that his knuckles were turning white, “what’s up with you?”

Harry checked the time on his wrist-watch. “I just don’t want anything to go wrong.”

“We’re ten minutes late, Harry, it’s hardly the biggest crime of the century.”

“I know, I know,” Harry sighed, looking out of the car window, now able to distinguish some of the scenery flying past. He thought that the bare branches of the trees looked like arms reaching for him out of the darkness. “It’s just, I don’t want to create a bad impression with them, that’s all”

Frederick leant over and put his hand on Harry’s. “It’s only my family, they’re hardly royalty. No matter what they might try and tell you.”

“I used to work for Cromley’s, remember? Your grandfather has a reputation of being a touch… difficult.”

“Don’t be so silly, that’s just a front. Granted, he’s forthright, but you haven’t got anything to worry about. He can be a bit of an old bastard but he’s not a snob or anything.”

“The man’s got servants!”

“They’re not servants,” Frederick rolled his eyes, “Pat and Ella have been with us for so long, they’re practically family.”

Harry groaned inwardly, Frederick’s family was large enough. Including himself and Frederick, there would be twelve of them spending Christmas at ‘Cromwell Manor’. Fourteen if you included the servants. “Talk about throwing me to the lions.”

“Don’t worry you won’t be the only one,” Frederick put his hand on Harry’s knee, “Mum’s bringing her new boyfriend. I’m not sure what his name is.”

Harry raised an eyebrow, every time Frederick talked about his mother, the words ‘new boyfriend’ were generally not far behind. “I thought you said she’d sworn off men?”

“For about a week, apparently.”

“And you’re ok with that?”

“Of course. She’s going to introduce her new boyfriend and I’m going to introduce mine. It’s only fair.” He grinned and gripped Harry’s hand as if to confirm just who his boyfriend was.

Harry forced a weak smile, but Frederick had already turned to look out of the window on the opposite side of the car, failing to see the severe lack of enthusiasm radiating from Harry’s body. He had promised his agent, Tricia, that he and Frederick would pretend to be friends and nothing more during their trip away. He hadn’t told Frederick yet, and was running out of time to do so.

“There it is, Cromwell Manor.”

The taxi had turned a corner onto a long driveway, a large, almost majestic house stood at the end.

Wow, thought Harry. It was big. Very big. And it was close, and getting closer. “Stop the car.”

“Excuse me?” The driver asked, but continued to drive.

“Just stop the car.” Harry repeated

The driver slowed and pulled over to the side of the long driveway and Frederick turned to face Harry.

“What is it?”

“I can’t do this.”

“Harry, we talked about this, you said you wanted to meet my family. I want them to meet my boyfriend.”

“Well, they can’t.”

“Unless you’re expecting me to bring you a plate of turkey breast out to the taxi tomorrow, there’s going to have to be some sort of introduction.”

“No, I get that, that’s not what I meant.”

Frederick frowned, before turning to the taxi driver. “Could you give us a moment?”

“Take as long as you like,” the driver said, “I’m leaving the meter on.”

“We won’t be long.”

“Sorry.” Harry murmured quietly, a wave of guilt washing over him for kicking the poor man out of his own car.

“Ah, it’s not big deal, I could do with a fag – err, I mean a smoke.”

Harry smirked and Frederick rolled his eyes as the driver heaved himself out of the car and sparked up a cigarette. Frederick unbuckled his seatbelt and shifted in his seat.

“What’s going on, Harry? They’re going to realise we’re sleeping together.”

“You planning on doing it in front of them?”

Frederick sighed loudly. “Look, I know you don’t want the general public knowing and I suppose I can understand that – for now – but those people in that house over there, they’re my family, they’re hardly going to sell your story to the tabloids.”

“They don’t have to. Look, I’m not judging your family or anything here, but I just don’t know them. One wrong word from one of them and my whole career could be ruined.”

“So? You can’t live your life in lies and secrets, Harry. People are going to find out about you sooner or later, it would be much better if it came from you rather than from some drunken screw in a motorway service station toilet.”

“You know I would never do that. I’m a film star, Freddie, I can’t be taken seriously as a romantic lead if the audience all know that I’m gay.”

“You sound an awful lot like Tricia, right now.” Frederick sighed, Harry knew that Frederick and Tricia didn’t exactly get on. He was hoping to keep her name out of it. “It’s called acting, Harry, pretending to be something you’re not. Which by the way you’re not being paid to do at the moment, so you can drop the straight act.”

“You’re just a writer, you wouldn’t understand.”

“I love you, Harry.” Frederick grabbed hold of Harry’s face, the smooth skin of his hand contrasting against the rough stubble on Harry’s cheek. “Even if you don’t have a job, we can be together, isn’t that enough for you?”

“I love you too.” Harry smiled, but pulled away sharply when Frederick leant in to kiss him. “What are you doing?”

“I’m kissing my boyfriend.” He smiled a fixed grin.

“Not here.” Harry pointed out of the window to the taxi driver, who was sitting on a fence post opposite, looking in at them. The glowing red embers at the end of his cigarette cast his face in a sinister glow.

“I think he’s already guessed.”

“But we don’t have to kiss it up in front of his security camera, do we?”

Frederick pulled away and re-buckled his seatbelt. “I hate this.”

“I know.”

The driver pulled open the door and sat back in the driving seat. “Have you girls finished your squabble yet? I’m freezing my nuts off out there.”

“Yeah, I think we’re done here.” Frederick almost spat at Harry.

The three of them sat in silence for a moment as the driver started up the engine again.

Finally, as they approached the house, Frederick spoke.

“So, what’s the story then? What do I tell them when they ask who you are, why I’ve brought you home for Christmas?”

“Tell them the truth.”

“Whose version?”

“The one where you and I met in a British theme pub in LA and became friends. The one where you invited me to spend Christmas with your family because you knew I didn’t have anywhere else to go. You know, the version that actually happened.”

“Just leave out the bit where I shove my cock up your arse, right?”

The car jerked forward suddenly as the driver stalled the engine. “We’re here.” He muttered quietly.

“I would hope you might just leave that little bit out of most general conversations, actually.”

Frederick stared at Harry for a moment before opening the car door and climbing out

“Freddie!” A plain young woman ran down the steps and wrapped her arms around him as he climbed out of the taxi. She had short, brown hair, almost bland in its limpness, just above her shoulders. She wore nearly all black apart from the white apron, frilled at the sides to make it look like a doily on straps. “How are you? How’s Hollywood?”

“I’m good, Ella, it’s good. We’re all good.”

“Good, good,” Ella said with a big grin on her face, turning to Harry as he pulled himself out of the car, “and I know who you are, Mr Harry Hicks.”

“Yeah, that’s Harry, he’s my – ”

“Colleague.” Harry interrupted earning a vicious look in the process.

“Friend.” Frederick finished.

“We’re working on the same film together, and I had nowhere to go for Christmas this year.” The smile on Ella’s face faded as she shook Harry’s hand.

“Colleague? But Freddie told me that you were – ”

“Yeah, I know what I said, Ella, but I got it wrong, you know what I’m like. Harry’s as straight as anything, we’re just… friends.”

“Err, Mr Hicks?” The driver cleared his throat as he dropped a suitcase at the top of the steps. “Will that be all, Sir?”

“Oh, yes, err, thank you, umm…”

“Dave.” The driver gave his name as he and Harry walked over to the car.

“Right, thank you Dave.” Harry muttered in a state of distraction, his eyes trained on Frederick whispering frantically to Ella as they started carrying the cases inside the house.

“You’re welcome, Mr Hicks.” Dave’s eyes lit up as Harry pulled out a small roll of notes. “Oh, and I’ve got something for you two,” he said, “call it an early Christmas present.”

Harry pulled his gaze away from the large house as Frederick disappeared inside and found Dave fumbling around in his wallet, before handing over two sealed condoms.

“You won’t need these?” Harry asked, a little surprised.

He stared at Harry in despair. “No. The wife’s decided we need another baby.”

“Well, err, thanks, Dave”

“And don’t worry, discretion is assured.”

As Harry tucked the condoms into his inside jacket pocket, he caught his eye, and suddenly realised that Dave’s ‘discretion’ would come at a price. “Let me assure you, Dave, that there is nothing to be discreet about.”

“Of course not, Sir.” Dave took the notes that were offered to him and climbed back into the car. Harry caught his smirk and realised that he’d not convinced him of anything. He would have to pay up. Harry peeled off another few notes and offered it to him through the window.

“Have a good Christmas, Dave.

“Yes, Sir, thank you, Sir.”

Before Harry could put his wallet back in his pocket, Dave had restarted the engine and roared off back down the driveway.

“Harry!” Frederick appeared out from behind the two large doors at the top of the steps. “Are you coming in or not?”

Without waiting for a response, Frederick went back inside, leaving the door wide open. Harry took a deep breath and slowly walked toward it before slipping quietly through and joining Frederick inside. The entrance hall was much bigger than he had imagined. A few antiques skirted the walls of the room, including a rather intrusive suit of armour, which was set up immediately to the left of the door, as if to guard the house from unwanted visitors. By far the biggest thing in the room was the large staircase immediately opposite the entrance.

The dark red of the carpet that ran down the centre of the stairs matched the earthy tones of the wood panelling on the walls which stretched up to the ceiling three floors above them. The stairs themselves rose sharply before branching off into two, snaking around both side walls. At the top of the first flight was a large painting of a sour looking man, it was positioned in such a way that any visitors had no choice but to look up at him as they walked through the door.

At the bottom of the stairs, stood next to Ella, was the same man. So realistic was the painting, that he looked like he’d walked straight out of it. He was studying Harry intently, with a scowl on his face, a scowl that fit so easily, it looked as though it had come first and the man had been built around it.

He was short, plump, though not fat, but somehow managed to be incredibly imposing. He had grey hair, but not much of it, spread across the top of his head. Not quite a combover, but certainly destined to become one.

“Grandpa, this is my friend, Harry.” Frederick said waving his hand towards him with a flourish as if he were performing a magic trick and Harry was the rabbit he’d just pulled from his hat.

“Mr Cromwell.” Harry stepped forward and warily shook the hand that the old man had stretched out. “It’s so nice to meet you.”

“You’re not one of his funny friends are you?” The old man’s voice was gruff and accusatory. Harry disliked him immediately.

“Excuse me?” The old man held firm onto his hand, almost as if he refused to let go until Harry had answered him.

“You know the type I mean, all pina coladas and pink feather boas.”

A quick glance at Frederick told Harry that he was staring straight past him, at a spot on the wall. There was no emotion displayed on his face, but the message was clear. It’s up to you.

“Well, I’m usually a Guinness man and my feather boas are only pink because I washed them with a red sock.”

The old man stared at him silently for a minute, both Frederick and Ella watching tensely. After a moment he laughed huskily. He placed an arm around Harry and clamped down a withered hand onto his shoulder. “You can forget this Mr Cromwell crap, call me Ernest.”

“Yes, Mr… Ernest. I’ll do that.”

“You know, Frederick needs more friends like you. I’m hoping it’s just a phase he’s going through, this whole bisexual thing.” Harry looked at Frederick, but he simply shrugged. Looks like I’m not the only one who’s not being completely honest, Harry thought. “With more people around like me and you, son, maybe we can tempt him over to the normal way of doing things.”

Frederick opened his mouth to speak, but Ernest waved him away before he could start.

“Spare me the ‘I’m normal’ speech.” He growled at Frederick. “The only reason I let you stay in this house is because you haven’t been turned all the way. There’s still hope for you, boy, don’t you agree, Harry?”

Ernest stared at him and for a moment, Harry could feel an anger rising within him. He wanted to tell the bigoted old man just exactly where to go, but something stalled inside his throat and he remained silent.

“Yes, Harry,” Frederick smirked, “do you think I can be saved from eternal damnation with the rest of the faggots?”

Harry bit down on his lip and scowled across at his boyfriend, as he carefully chose his words. “I don’t think that you’ll be going to hell, if that’s the question you’re asking me.”

“There we go,” Ernest said with what was clearly an uncharacteristic grin, “Hollywood hasn’t managed to turn this one, why shouldn’t it be the same for you, Frederick?”

“There’s my Hollywood Superstar!” A tall, blonde woman came sweeping down the staircase and launched herself past Harry, Ernest and Ella and hugged Frederick. She wore nothing but a red silk dressing gown, and a good half an inch of make-up. She was clearly in the middle of her preparations for the evening. She had large, coloured-from-a-bottle hair, which surrounded her head in an almost perfect circle and made her head look far too large for her body. But she wasn’t unattractive, in fact, in her face, Harry could see the ghosts of the qualities that most attracted him to Frederick.

“Of course, it might not have been Hollywood that turned him.” Ernest muttered out the side of his mouth and Harry couldn’t quite stop himself from smiling.

“Your grandfather’s not bullying you, is he?”

“Nothing more than I can handle, mum,” he replied returning the hug, “besides, it’s not me that’s the Hollywood Superstar. Harry’s the actor, I’m just a writer.”

Frederick sent a pointed stare to Harry that might as well have been a set of steak knives as Harry moved towards his mother.

“Good evening Mrs Cromwell, nice to meet you – ”

“Oh nonsense, we’re practically family.” She batted away Harry’s outstretched hand and wrapped her arms around him with as much vigour as she had her son. For a moment Harry thought he would choke on the strong smell of her perfume, but as quickly as she’d pulled him into the hug, she planted two quick kisses on each cheek and pulled away. “Call me Elizabeth. Call me mum!”

“Mother, you misunderstand,” Frederick said stepping forward, “Harry’s not my boyfriend. He’s straight.”

“He is?” Elizabeth asked, the disappointment sketched into every corner of her face. “That’s such a shame, he’s so cute. He’d make a perfect son-in-law. Oh, maybe I should introduce him to Victoria?” She turned back to face Harry. “Victoria’s my daughter, now she has got a son, but what man doesn’t want a ready-made family?”

With Ernest standing on one side, Elizabeth on the other and Frederick still glaring like a Rottweiler in a bad mood, Harry turned to the safest face in the room. “Ella, perhaps I should go and get ready for dinner?”

“Oh, absolutely,” she said picking up Frederick’s bag, leaving Harry to his own, “the only thing is, I’ve… I’ve put you and Frederick in the same room, I guess I just assumed that you were… you know.”

“That’s ok, I’m sure we’ll manage.”

“Do you mean we’ll have to share a double bed?” Frederick asked with mock horror. “Whatever shall we do? I guess, one of us will have to sleep on the floor.”

“It’s only two nights,” Harry smiled not breaking eye contact with Frederick and earning a small smirk in return, “I’m sure we can cope with sharing a bed for two nights.”

“Ooh, honey,” Elizabeth cooed, grabbing hold of Frederick’s shoulders, “do you hear that? You might be able to turn him yet.”

“You’d better bloody not.” Ernest’s voice was back to a growl again.

“I’ll show you where your room is.”

Harry began to follow Ella up the large staircase in front of him, chancing a backwards glance at Freddie as they went. For a moment, their eyes locked, but then he lowered them, choosing to continue his conversation with his mother and grandfather.

“Where do those stairs go?” Harry asked, gesturing to a set of stairs in the far corner of the entrance hall. They were a lot less grand than ones they were climbing, and Harry wouldn’t have even noticed them had he not been looking down at Frederick.

“Oh, down to the kitchen – and the servants quarters.”

“Servants quarters?” Harry let out a small nervous laugh. “He doesn’t actually make you sleep down there?”

“Well, it’s very nice,” Ella said, a look of complete seriousness on her face, “it’s been completely renovated, not at all how it would have been a hundred years ago.”

“Still… it’s a basement. What about windows? You can’t ever see daylight – sunshine.”

“Daylight and sunshine?” Ella smirked at Harry, a twinkle in her eye. “You haven’t been back to England for a long time, have you?”

“It’s been a while.” Harry murmured, trying to pretend that he hadn’t lost his breath.

They had reached the top of the first flight, and already Harry had begun to regret packing so much. He set his case down under the pretence of taking a closer look at the large portrait of Ernest in front of him, but quickly turned away, grimacing at the rather too perfect likeness of the old man’s ugly face. His eyes settled on the woven tapestry underneath it.

Ernest’s name had been carefully stitched in gold at the top, there were no names above his, no parents, as if he had just appeared by himself, already at the top of the tree. Which, Harry reminded himself, was probably how Ernest had always viewed the world – a world just waiting for him to arrive.

A small, thin line connected his name to ‘Doreen Cromwell (1922-1966)’, and then descended downwards before splintering into three strands that led to ‘Michael Cromwell’, ‘Elizabeth Cromwell’ and ‘Gary Cromwell’. The brackets underneath the eldest, Michael, had already been filled in. He’d only died three months before.

“What about Raymond?” Harry asked, suddenly remembering something from several years before.

“Raymond?” Ella halfway up the next flight, dropped Frederick’s bag and turned to look at Harry. “Who – who’s Raymond?

“I thought Ernest had a son called Raymond?”

Ella shook her head. “No, no, just Gary and… and Michael.”

“Huh. The old man lied to me.” Harry muttered to himself, but continued when he saw the confused frown adorning Ella’s forehead. “I used to work for Cromley’s a few years back. Before… well, when I was younger. One of the customers, Raymond, he called himself, said his father owned the business.”

Ella laughed. “Some people will say anything to appear important – probably trying to get a free cappuccino from you, or something.”

Harry smiled and for a moment, they both stared at the family tree. Harry’s eye traced the golden line down through Elizabeth to Frederick’s name. “The stitching is beautiful.”

Ella smiled and nodded, before turning to Harry and giggling. “You’ve, err, you’ve got some…” She rubbed the side of her face, and Harry pressed two fingers to his own sticky cheek. A neon red paint had come off onto them and he frowned at it, baffled.


“Lick.” Ella held a crumpled white handkerchief up to Harry’s mouth. Before even properly registering her bizarre request, Harry poked his tongue out and Ella dabbed the cloth onto the end, before rubbing it gently on his cheek. “Elizabeth’s lipstick,” she said, noting Harry’s continued furrowed brow, “it gets everywhere. I’ve even found it on the banisters before – don’t ask me how it got there.”

Harry smiled as she pulled away. “All gone?”

“All gone.” He asked, warmly reminded of his mother

“Thanks.” He picked up his case again and looked up the stairs before him. “Let’s get going then.”

“Sorry about the long trek.” Ella smiled apologetically, as he heaved the case up the steep ascension in front of him, marvelling at the ease with which she carried Frederick’s. He shrugged nonchalantly as he finally managed to pull the case onto the flat of the hallway, though he silently thanked a higher power that there were no more steps. “With the cases, it was the only way we could come.”

“There’s another way of getting upstairs?’”

“Yeah,” Ella nodded, gesturing down the hallway, “the second panel in from the right is a door. There’s a set of stairs behind it, takes you right down to the entrance hall. It’s too narrow for cases though, it was designed for us scurrying cleaning girls.”

“A secret passageway?”

“Not exactly secret, more hidden, but yeah, the place is full of them, Ernest loves them. Though, actually, he’s a little too large to use most of them, these days.” She glanced guiltily over her shoulder to check he wasn’t following, and then smirked before opening a door and showing Harry into a large bedroom.

“Is this Frederick’s usual room?” He asked.

“Yeah. A little somewhere that he can call home whenever he’s back from America. He decorated it himself.”

Harry smirked, the room seemed almost identical to Frederick’s apartment back in LA. A large piano took up one corner of the room, which Harry knew for a fact was purely for decorative terms since Frederick didn’t know how to play. On top of it was a small pile of books, all of them looking as though they’d been started once, and then never finished.

He’d always had a habit of starting a book and then never put it away or passed it on until it was finished. He felt that was giving up, admitting defeat, and that was something he never liked to do. Out of habit, Harry picked up the half dozen books, carried them over to the bookcase on the wall by the door and started to file them back into place. He let out a small laugh as he discovered a complete set of Charles Dickens novels that had never been read.

“Are you alright?” Ella asked, she had laid Frederick’s case on the large double bed and started to unpack.

“Yeah,” Harry smiled, “Freddie’s got almost exactly the same library on both sides of the Atlantic, and it doesn’t look like he’s read any of them.”

Ella gave a knowing smile as she refolded a pair of Frederick’s jeans. “Well, you know Freddie, perception is everything. As long as people believe he’s read all those books, he’ll never have to. It’s disturbing at times just how like his grandfather he is.”

An involuntary cold chill shuddered through Harry. Disturbing was indeed the only word that could describe the vision he had in his head at that moment. Thankfully for Harry, a knock on the door temporarily removed the image from his mind, though it soon returned as he opened the bedroom door to find Ernest grinning back at him.

“Ah, good, good, settling in? Just wanted to make sure you were ok?”

“Oh, yeah, I’m fine. This place is… amazing.”

“Yes, it is rather, isn’t it? Listen, about that,” Ernest said gesturing to the large double bed in the centre of the room, “if you like I can get Ella to make up another room, you know if you don’t want to sleep in with another man. I don’t know what she was thinking of in the first place. Like I’d let that sort of thing go on in my house.”

“No, really, it’s… it’s alright, it’s not like we’ll be getting much sleep anyway.”

Ernest’s face fell. “Excuse me?”

“Well, it’s Christmas, isn’t it? Late nights drinking wine, early mornings opening presents, that sort of thing.”

“Right, right, of course. Well… if you change your mind, just let me know.”

“I will.” Harry nodded and went to close the door

“It’s quite a large bed, so you won’t have to get too close to him.”

Harry paused, unsure of how to respond. “I’ll be fine, thank you, Ernest.”

“I’m sure Ella can provide you with one of her rape alarms if you’d like?” Ernest looked across at Harry, smirking, clearly enjoying his own joke. Harry’s face, however, remained stony. “Mr Cromwell, I may not share the same lifestyle as your grandson – your grandson! – but he is my friend, and frankly what you have just said is not only offensive to him, but also to me.”

“Your friend?”

“Yes, that’s why I’m here, not because I don’t have anywhere else to go, or that he’s going to write me a part in one of his scripts, but because he’s my friend. In fact, he may be the closest friend I have, and if I must I will defend him to the death from bigoted old fools like you.”

For a moment Ernest said nothing, but then he stood up to his full height – a few inches shorter than Harry – and bore his eyes right into him. “Young man, let me tell you something. I’m going to walk away and pretend that you didn’t just talk to me like that. The next time I see you downstairs at the dinner table, I shall smile at you and I shall offer you food and drink. Tomorrow is Christmas Day, and again I shall be the perfect host, and I shall smile and talk to you pleasantly throughout the presents, the meal and the inevitable game of Charades in the evening. The day after that, I shall sit at the same table as you for breakfast and I shall smile. And then you will leave, and I shall smile at you as you go, and then you will never come back to this house again. And you will never talk to me like that again.”

“And if I do?” Harry felt his hackles rise.

“I shall destroy you,” Ernest grinned, flashing a row of teeth like a crocodile, “absolutely, one hundred per cent. Nobody – nobody – talks to me like that.”

“Or me.” Harry glanced carefully over his shoulder at Ella, who was putting some of Frederick’s clothes away, and apparently couldn’t hear them. Harry lowered his voice anyway, Let me tell you something, old man, I’m not frightened by anything or anyone. Now, you’re going to leave this room, and you’re going to remember every word I’m about to say to you. My name is Harry Hicks, my brother’s name was Vincent Fisher. He was murdered by drug dealing scum and I found that dealer, I tied him up in my basement and I kept him there for a week. On that first day, I carved a letter into his back. And then on each day after that, I carved another letter and another letter into, until by the end of the week my brother’s name was spelled out in bloody scabs across his skin. On that final day, I took my knife and I slit open his chest. I ripped out his heart with my bare hands, just like he’d ripped out mine, and for a moment, for one split second he saw me holding up his heart.”

Ernest’s eyes boggled, his face turning purple with anger, but Harry continued. “I dumped the body in the woods, it was never found, and I was never caught. I imagine you wouldn’t want to piss me off.”

“You’re not in Hollywood anymore, boy,” Ernest sneered back, although there was a slight quiver in his voice, “this is the real world and your threats don’t frighten me.”

“Maybe the threats don’t frighten you, but you can tell that I’m not afraid of you… and that scares you shitless.”

Ernest glared for a moment, before turning on his heel and stalking off down the corridor. Harry grinned to himself, shut the door and turned around to discover Ella, staring at him, her mouth agape.

“Ella, listen, I – ”

“You totally just ripped off your own movie!” Her face broke into a broad grin. “That whole speech – almost word for word from that film!”

Harry laughed, he couldn’t help it, Ella seemed to have a mischievous twinkle in her eye. “Well, he needed taking down a peg or two, arrogant old sod.”

“You’ve only known him ten minutes, can you imagine how everyone else feels?” They laughed together for a moment, as Ella returned to unpacking Frederick’s case. “So, that was from ‘Street Beater’ right? The one you got the Oscar for?”

“It was only a nomination,” Harry smiled weakly, “and that little speech didn’t seem so… cheesy when I said it for the film.”

“Well, you’re a very good actor. Despite what he said, I think Mr Cromwell believed you.” She moved over to the far wall which was taken up with six large doors, opened one of them and started hanging up Frederick’s shirts.

Harry watched her for a moment, but they didn’t really see her. He was thinking about Vincent, his brother. Harry might not have ripped out anyone’s heart for his brother, but he had done something nearly as bad.

“How many clothes does he have here?” He asked, snapping out of his daze.

“Oh, only four of them are closets – the middle two take you through to the en suite.”

“I don’t get it,” Harry said, flicking through the clothes that had already been hanging in there, “why would anyone need so much closet space?”

“You tell me.” She smiled softly slipping a pale shirt onto a coat hanger.

Harry bowed his head. “Look, I don’t know what Frederick told you, but I’m not…”

He trailed off, but Ella finished his sentence for him. “You’re not gay. I know, I know, you keep saying it. Except… I haven’t actually heard you say it yet.”

“I’m not!” Harry wanted to be angry with her for pushing it, for not letting it go, but he already knew that he was angrier with himself than he ever would be with Ella or with Frederick.

“But you’re still not saying it.”

Harry rolled his eyes and sat in a chair near a desk opposite the piano. Ella came over and looked down at him.

“I’m not gay.” He mumbled softly, but they both knew that neither of them believed it.

“You know,” she said, “I was the first person Frederick told, did he ever tell you that? For six months after that moment, I stood by and listened as he continued to tell the rest of the world ‘I’m not gay’. I knew what he was, I knew he was lying, but even then I was more convinced by his lies than yours.”

“Well,” Harry stood up and patted his pockets, “remind me not to take up acting. If you’ll excuse me, I think Freddie may still have my mobile.”

“Odd, don’t you think?”

“What’s that?”

“If he’s just a friend, why does he have your mobile?”

“It doesn’t mean anything, I guess I’m just paranoid about radiation. Excuse me.”

Harry left Ella in the room continuing to unpack Frederick’s case and braced himself against the windowsill at the far end of the corridor. It had started to rain outside. Sheets of rain flew down so hard that Harry could see nothing but his own sorry reflection. Is Ella right? He asked himself.

He had made Vincent a promise, to live the life that his brother had always wanted. That meant listening to Tricia, doing what she said. Turning up to parties with attractive young women on his arm. What if they all know?

He glanced around and ran his hand across the wall, searching for the join in the wood panelling that betrayed the hidden staircase. He pushed randomly for a moment before finding himself in a tight, steep staircase. He carefully made his way down the steps and as he reached the bottom, he heard the sound of the front door opening.

Harry stepped into a dark corner of the entrance hall, just behind the suit of armour, in time to see Elizabeth – still in her dressing gown – ushering a man into the house. He was covered from head to toe in drops of water, the rain had pasted a few curls of dark brown hair to his forehead. None of them had seen him enter, and Harry took the opportunity to watch Frederick. Harry often found himself staring at him when he was sleeping, or when he thought he was alone, and lost himself in thought, transfixed by his beauty.

She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. He’s nothing like that bitter old man.

“Blimey, that rain came from nowhere,” the man said, “one minute I was driving along down one of those clear country lanes and the next thing I know, I’m practically swimming.”

“Oh, it’s been like it all week,” Elizabeth fussed over him, “I told you, you ought to bring an umbrella. Now come here, let’s get you out of that wet coat.”

The man peeled off his raincoat and shook the loose strands of his dark hair to get rid of some of the spray. Harry felt a flush of anger course through him as Frederick looked him up and down, but soon forgave him. The man was gorgeous. Harry felt a stirring in his trousers as he watched him kiss Elizabeth, and for a moment, the flush of anger was replaced with a spasm of jealous. Harry was quite certain in that moment, that, if he’d asked, he would have left the country with him right there and then.

“Robert, this is my son, Frederick. Frederick, this is my new partner – ”

“Robert Forrester.” Frederick said breathlessly. “Yeah, I remember.”

“You remember?” Elizabeth frowned and Harry silently joined her, after all, Frederick had told him that he didn’t know this new guy’s name. None of them had seen him yet, and Harry slipped back up a step to continue watching them unseen. “Remember from what?”

“Oh, well, I, umm,” Frederick stumbled, “well, you told me didn’t you? Last week, when I rang you, remember?”

“I did?” Elizabeth frowned again and so did Harry. He was certain Frederick had said he didn’t know the man’s name.

“Well, I guess, I did.” Elizabeth sighed.

Robert stepped forward and shook hands with Frederick. “Nice to meet you, Frederick.”

“You too, Robert.”

They stepped back from each other and there was silence for a moment. Something wasn’t right.

“How did you two meet?” Frederick asked.

“Oh, Robert works for your grandfather, he’s a financial advisor, he took over your uncle’s job when he fell ill. Now, I think I’m going to go and finish off getting ready for dinner.” Elizabeth smiled, it seemed she couldn’t sense the tension in the room. Harry, however, certainly could. “Are you coming, Robert?”

“Err, no,” Robert said and Harry noticed him staring at Frederick as much as Frederick was staring at Robert, “I’m going to wait for the rain to ease off a little and then get my bags from the car.”

“Ok, well don’t spend too long out there, I don’t want you catching cold. Freddie, give him a hand, darling.”

“Of course.”

Elizabeth took hold of both of their hands, squeezed gently, smiled and swept up the large staircase.

Frederick pulled Robert off to one side. “We need to talk.”

Harry stepped forward out of the corner of the room and coughed a little to make his presence known. “What do you need to talk to him about?”



Read the next chapter here

In a Land of Paper Gods by Rebecca Mackenzie

I did something I don’t normally do with books. I folded down a corner of a page because I wanted to come back to something.


“Nurse Margaret had not heard what I was really saying, which is what kindness there is in the things our mothers do.”


Our main character Etta thought this at the age of eleven, back in 1941.


I had intended to come back to it for this blog to talk about how some of the language of the book doesn’t match the age of the character.


I can well believe that an old lady, someone born in 1930 would speak like that at the age of 80, but I find it hard to believe that such an eloquence of language exists in an eleven year old, no matter what year they were born.


However towards the end of the book, we learn that the story is being written by Etta as a slightly older character, one who has been through more than you imagine at the beginning of the book. Coming back to this sentence, once I’d finished the book, the choice of language makes more sense.


The language is not distracting at all, and this was my only real quibble with the book. It was a nicely written tale of a group of schoolgirls at a boarding school in China during World War 2.


The girls grow up like any normal girls, forming groups, shunning outcasts, measuring breasts. I imagine that last bit is normal, I wouldn’t know, and frankly, I don’t really want to know.


Their lives change dramatically when they end up in a Prisoner of War camp, but this occurs nearly two thirds of the way through the book, and from there we race through from age eleven up to the age of fifteen when Etta is on her way back to England, to a home she has never known before.


It’s enjoyable and inoffensive, but there wasn’t anything in this that particularly stood out to me. But I can imagine to some, people with similar backgrounds, young women, there is much about this book that will resonate.


The novel’s sense of place could be stronger. Although not an alien world to Etta having spent her entire life in China, we are presented with a small boarding school nestled in the mountains. There is a sense of isolation, and nearly no sense of being in a stranger’s land. There is little interaction with the native Chinese.


I’m struggling to form my feelings on the book – it’s a solid story, and I don’t regret reading it, but perhaps the reason I’m struggling to reconcile my feelings, is that it didn’t really invoke any.