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Love from A to Z

by Charles Lacey

Chapter 1

Ash woke up, opened one eye and closed it again. The sun was streaming through a chink in the curtains. He was going to have to get up. He knew he couldn't hold out much longer. He slid out from under the covers, picked up his dressing gown from the back of the door and went into the bathroom. No-one else was around. He went downstairs and put the kettle on.

It was a Saturday. That meant no school, which was a definite plus, but he knew if he didn't get himself out of the house good and early, Dad would grab him to help in the garden. Or something. Ash put on clean jeans and a fresh T-shirt. He looked at himself in the mirror. Medium height, slim with long legs. He turned half around so as to see more. Yes, a nice little arse, well defined. Smooth, quite muscular arms, a nice clean chest with well defined pectoral muscles. Ash thought to himself, if I was another boy I wouldn't half fancy you.

But he wasn't another boy, and he didn't know any other boys who preferred boys to girls. It wasn't fair. He was very careful, in the changing room at school, not to look too openly at the other boys when they were showering or changing, in case they got the wrong idea. Or rather, the right idea. He even had a girl-friend. Well, sort of. The trouble was, Louise was starting to make signs that she wanted more than just to be taken out. And Ash didn't like that idea at all. He thought about all that floppy flesh, and felt faintly queasy. Yes, he'd have to dump her.

Ash was a very kind-hearted boy. It had got him into trouble before. He hated to hurt anyone's feelings. But it would have to be done. Could he shunt her onto another boy? Trouble was, she was a bit plump. Well, actually she was definitely overweight. And rather plain, and a bit spotty into the bargain. Perhaps the answer was to get an evening job, so that he'd have an excuse not to take her out.

The more Ash thought about this idea, the more he liked it. He went out of the house, down the road, and into the paper shop on the corner. There were always postcards up there with offers of part time or casual work. But when he looked, there was nothing that seemed remotely suitable. There must be someone, he thought, who wanted an intelligent fifteen-year-old for three or four evenings a week.

He put the problem to Mr Patel, who ran the shop. He couldn't think of anything. But just as Ash was about to leave the shop, a man spoke to him. "Excuse me, young man," he said. He was a middle-aged, nondescript sort of person. "I know someone who is looking for some part time help in the garden, at least in the summer time. Might that be of interest?"

"Sure," said Ash. "Whereabouts is it?"

"It's in Mountjoy Lane".

Wow, thought Ash, Millionaires' Row. He'd cycled along there many times and wondered what sort of people lived in those houses. Apart from very rich ones, of course.

"About two-thirds of the way along from this end, on the right," continued the man. "The house is called Penn House. There's a big hedge in front of it, and a couple of old-fashioned street lamps either side of the gate. Go along now, if you're interested, there will probably be someone in."

Well, thought Ash, it sounds possible. He thanked the stranger and went back home for his bike. Ten minutes later he rang the doorbell of Penn House. It was answered by a middle-aged woman wearing a grey dress with an apron over it. Ash explained why he was there.

"Yes," said the woman, "Mrs Neville does want some help in the garden. Come in and wait here, I will see if she is ready to see anyone yet."

Ash stepped into the hallway. It was like no other hallway he had ever been in. It was bigger than the sitting room in his own house, deeply carpeted and decorated with deep red and gold wallpaper. A big carved oak cupboard was against one wall, and several pictures hung on the wall facing it. Five doors led in different directions.

The middle-aged woman went out, and Ash heard voices. Then she returned. "Come through to the Morning Room. Mrs Neville will see you now."

Ash followed her into a room at the front of the house. It contained the kind of furniture Ash had only ever seen on television, mostly on programmes about the National Trust. Another woman got up from a chair. She was tall, slender, immaculately groomed. "Mrs Perrin tells me you are willing to do some garden work for us," she said. "We do have a gardener who comes three days a week, but he can't give us any more time. We need someone who will just help to keep everything tidy. Can you swim?"

Ash was startled. "Yes, I'm a good swimmer – in fact, I'm in my school swimming team."

"That's splendid," said Mrs Neville. "When can you start? I suggest you do three days a week, from six until nine. Mrs Perrin or Rodgers, the gardener, will give you your instructions. I can pay you five pounds an hour."

On the Monday, Ash turned up at six o'clock on the dot. Mrs Perrin told him to come round to the kitchen door in future, but for now to sweep up the dead leaves from around the house and then to clean all of the greenhouse windows. This took some time as the greenhouses were extensive – as, indeed, was the garden. In front of the house was an immaculately manicured lawn, with borders of bedding plants. Behind the house were a tennis court, an outdoor swimming pool, an enclosed rose garden, more lawns and, behind a dense hedge, the kitchen garden. Ash was not surprised that the gardener needed some help. But he was happy to give it, as it meant that he was earning money which he meant to save up for a motorbike as soon as he was old enough. And it also meant that he had a good reason not to take Louise out. And of course, on the nights that he wasn't working, he had to catch up with school work... yes, it was all quite satisfactory.

On the Wednesday evening he arrived at the kitchen door as instructed, and Mrs Perrin told him that his first task would be to mow the rear lawn. She showed him where the electric mower was, and watched him at his task for a few minutes, until she could feel reasonably confident that he would do the job properly. By the time he had finished this, and emptied all the grass clippings onto the compost heap, and put the tools away, there were only a few minutes left.

The funny thing was that Ash had had the feeling that he was being watched. He'd not seen Mrs Neville again, and he had no idea who else lived in this great house. But he half thought he'd seen a face at a window once or twice. Or perhaps it was just a reflection of the setting sun. Or something.

On the Friday, Ash was given the task of cleaning around the swimming pool. There was quite a bit of scum and dead leaves on the surface, which he skimmed off as best he could with a kind of fine net on a long pole. Next, he went around the perimeter with a sponge and a bucket of clean water, wiping the accumulated soil and scum from the edge of the pool. In order to avoid getting his T-shirt dirty, he took it off and put it carefully on a chair. Again he had the idea that someone was looking at him from the house. Well, he thought, let them look. They are probably only checking that I'm working, not sitting around. At the end of the evening, Mrs Perrin called him into the kitchen and gave him £45 for the week, plus a very welcome glass of home made lemonade. He went home, pleased with his week's work and the wages he had earned.

The next week, the weather was a good bit hotter. Global warming starting to show, thought Ash. He wore skimpy blue shorts and a white T-shirt. He rather liked himself in the shorts; they showed off his legs, making them look longer. Mrs Perrin told him to sweep up all the dead leaves and rubbish from around the garden, put them into the incinerator and burn them. Again, so as not to get his T-shirt dirty, he took it off and worked clad only in shorts and sandals. Even so, by the end of the evening he felt quite grubby and was glad to get home and have a shower.

The following evening, Louise telephoned. She said that if he, Ashley Farrar, was too busy to take her out, then she'd find someone else. Ash said that he was sorry, but he had school work to catch up with, but perhaps they could go out at the weekend? They'd better, she rejoined, rather sharply, and rang off.

On the Wednesday, Ash had the job of mowing the front lawn. Mrs Perrin, who seemed to run the household, had evidently been quite impressed with the care he had taken over the rear lawn, and was prepared to let him loose in front. He steered the mower carefully in parallel stripes, pausing at the end of each couple of rows to empty the clippings into the wheelbarrow. It was still very hot, so he was wearing shorts, but as this wasn't a mucky job, he kept his T-shirt on.

The house faced east, and so the sun was setting behind it. Ash looked up at it from time to time, wondering what rooms might lie behind all those windows. And yes, there was definitely someone looking at him; he could see the pale oval of a face at a first floor window. As he looked up, the face drew back into the shadows.

Well, no matter, thought Ash as he mowed his way up and down, if someone wants to check up on me, they'll see me working. When he finished work and called in at the kitchen door, Mrs Perrin told him that on Friday he'd be wanted to clean the swimming pool, so he would need to bring swimming kit and a towel.

So on the Friday he arrived, swimming kit on under his jeans, with a towel and spare clothes in a bag. It was, if anything, even hotter than the earlier part of the week, and Ash was very happy to think he would be in the water. So he jumped in and started working his way round the walls with the mop he had been given, when to his surprise a young man emerged from the bushes, wearing nothing but shorts and sandals. The young man walked over to the pool, and Ash saw that he was really a boy, about his own age. He was of medium height, a little overweight and slightly ungainly. His skin looked pale and he had a few spots on his shoulders. But he had fair hair, worn quite long, and an attractive face with cornflower blue eyes.

The boy waved, rather uncertainly, to Ash, and said, "Hello. Do you mind if I get in? It's too hot for anything else."

"Be my guest," said Ash, and then thought this might have been the wrong thing to say. The boy had an upper-class voice, which made Ash rather aware of his own Midlands accent. But he didn't seem to be worried, and climbed down the ladder into the pool, swimming a couple of lengths and ending up holding onto the rail, not far from where Ash was working.

"Hello," he said again, "you must be Ashley."

"Yes, but most people call me Ash."

"Oh. Okay. My name's Zak. Well, it's Zacharias really, but I hate that, so most people call me Zak."

"Hello, Zak. Do you live here?"

"Yes, this is my parents' house. You've met my mother. Mrs Neville."

Ash nodded. There didn't seem to be much else to say, and he kept going, cleaning the walls of the pool with the mop. Zak swam up and down a few times and then climbed out and sat cross-legged on a rug on the grass. But he kept watching Ash, seemingly fascinated with what he was doing.

"Do you go to school locally? Or have you left school?" asked Zak.

"I go to St Aidan's Comprehensive." replied Ash.

"Oh. Do you like it?"

"It's alright. Not much different from any other, I guess."

"I go to a boarding school. It's called Embleton."

There didn't seem to be much answer to this. By this time Ash had worked his way round to where he had started. He climbed out of the pool and stood opposite Zak. "Where can I change?" he asked.

"There's a little hut in the bushes. I'll show you."

Zak got to his feet and led the way into the bushes. There was a little shelter there, just a roof and a wooden panel screening it from the pool area. Zak didn't seem to want to go, though, and it seemed rude to ask him to leave when it was his parents' property, so in the end Ash just turned away from Zak, stripped off his swimming trunks, dried himself and put on his normal clothes.

When he turned back Zak looked slightly flushed, though perhaps that was just the heat. But there was definitely a small bulge in his shorts that hadn't been there before. Well, thought Ash, maybe he likes the look of me. And I wouldn't push him out of bed on a cold night. Hmm...

"Was it you looking at me the other day?" he asked, "from the window?"

Zak shuffled his feet and looked slightly embarrassed.

"Yes," he answered. "I was wondering what you were doing."

"Mowing the grass?"

"Yes. Well... I just thought... well, I just thought you looked... rather nice."

There didn't seem to be much Ash could say to this, so he just looked at Zak and smiled.

"Well... I have to go in now" said Zak.

"OK. Good night. I'll be off home soon."

All of this gave Ash rather a puzzle. Was the boy gay, or was he just being polite? He wasn't that attractive, a bit pasty and unhealthy looking, but his face was rather sweet, especially with that long hair. Well, thought Ash, I'll just have to wait and see.

The following evening he took Louise out as promised, to the cinema. His mind was more on Zak than on Louise, and she seemed rather cross and distant. At the end of the film, he walked her home, and instead of giving him a goodnight kiss as she usually did, she stood on the doorstep facing him and said, "I don't think we will be going out again. I don't know if you've found someone else, but you don't seem interested in me any more."

"Don't say that," said Ash, rather uncertainly. "I... "

But Louise had gone inside and closed the door with a little more force than was really needed. Ash breathed a sigh of relief. It had gone more easily than he had feared it might. At least she hadn't either made a row, or what would have been worse, become all clinging. And he was rather looking forward to next week.

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