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Love from A to Z

by Charles Lacey

Chapter 8

Mrs Perrin answered the door of Penn House.

"Oh, Mr Zak... how lovely to see you. You've heard about your mother?"

"No – what has happened?"

"Oh, Mr Zak, I don't know how to tell you this. You'd better sit down."

"She's in hospital. She had a stroke two days ago. I thought that was why you were here."

"No, I've not heard anything. But I've left my father's company and come to live with Ash Farrar – you'll remember him."

"Indeed I do, Mr Zak, and I'm not surprised. I always thought you and he had a bit of a thing going together.

"Where is Mother? I'd better go and see her."

"She's in Heartlands Hospital, Ward 17. Do you want to go there straight away, or would you like something to eat and drink first?"

"Perhaps just a cup of tea and a sandwich, please, if that's possible."

Zak drank the tea and ate the sandwich, and then walked along to the bus stop at the end of the road. He needed two buses to get to the hospital. When he arrived there he presented himself at the reception desk, and was told how to get to the ward.

His mother was lying on a bed, unconscious, festooned with tubes and wires. A screen over her head monitored her heart beat and breathing. The nurse asked him to wait while she fetched the doctor. He arrived shortly, a pleasant, middle aged Indian with a shrewd face. Zak explained that he was Mrs Neville's son. The doctor led him to a side room, and sat him down.

"You must understand, Mr Neville, that your mother is gravely ill. I will be frank with you: you must expect a poor outcome. We are doing the very best we can for her, but she is going downhill."

"Dr Chandra, do you mean that she will probably die soon?"

"Frankly, Mr Neville, I think it likely. Is there anyone else you want to contact? Another family member?"

"No. I have no brothers or sisters, and my parents divorced years ago. I will just contact my aunt, Mother's sister. Otherwise I am all the family she has."

"You can talk to her if you would like to. She may still be able to hear you."

"Thank you, doctor. I'll do that."

"Mother, can you hear me?"

Zak spoke quietly but distinctly, his mouth near to his mother's ear. She lay still, breathing shallowly but making no sign of consciousness.

"I don't know if you can hear me, but I need to talk to you. I called at ... at your house this morning and Mrs Perrin told me you were here.

"Mother, I have to tell you that I have met Ash Farrar again, and we are going to live together. As lovers, that is."

There was a pause. Had she moved slightly, or the rhythm of her breathing changed? No, the monitor showed no difference in the traces.

"Mother, I hope you will get better, but if not I want you to know that I love you."

There was a further pause.

"I'll let Auntie Helen know that you are here. I'm not living with Dad any more. For now I will be staying at Ash's parents' house, but we will be looking for a flat together when he has qualified and found a job."

Another pause. The sick woman's breathing speeded slightly, then settled back again. A nurse came over and injected some clear fluid into the sick woman's wrist.

"I'd better go now, Mother, but I will come back tomorrow. Good bye for now..."

Zak left Ash's parents' telephone number with the nurse, and made his way down to the bus stop and back to Penn House. Mrs Perrin made him welcome as before, and brought him tea and biscuits. He went to his mother's desk, and looked out her address book. Yes, there was Auntie Helen's number. He rang and left a message for her. Then he noticed a long brown envelope with the superscription "Last Will and Testament of Maria Elizabeth Neville, and the name and address of a Birmingham solicitor. He put the envelope back, but made a mental note of where it was. He closed the desk, and went down to the kitchen.

"Mrs P.," he began, "I've been at the hospital, and they don't think Mother will recover. I don't know what will happen."

"That's all right, Mr Zak. I'm sure everything will work out."

Zak looked at Mrs Perrin's lined, kindly face and reflected that she, not his birth mother, had been, along with his grandmother, the real maternal influence in his childhood. Moved by an unaccustomed rush of affection, he put his hands on Mrs Perrin's shoulders and kissed her cheek.

"Well I never, Mr Zak..."

"I'll be on my may now, Mrs P. I'll go back to the hospital tomorrow morning. But I'll let you know straight away if there's any change."

That evening, as Zak sat with Ash and his parents watching television, the telephone rang. It was the hospital.

"We think you should come now, Mr Neville. Your mother's condition is giving us some concern."

Ash's father looked up as Zak came back into the room. "Is everything all right?"

"Well, no, they are worried about her."

"I'll drive you over there now."

As they drove through the darkening streets of the city Zak thought about Mr and Mrs Farrar. They had accepted him as their son's choice of lover. Despite initial misgivings they had welcomed him into their home. He tried to imagine either of his parents doing the same. But he realized that t/here was no way either of them would have done so.

As he came into the ward, Dr Chandra met him. "I don't think it will be long, Mr Neville. Please take all the time you need to sit with her."

Zak sat down by his mother's bedside, holding her hand in his. It was strange, he thought, that he couldn't remember her ever having held his hand. The rhythm of her breathing was changing all the time, now quick, and then with long pauses between breaths. He looked at the traces on the screen. They meant nothing to him.

As he watched, one of the traces went suddenly into great jagged sawteeth, then settled into a straight line. A nurse came over. "I'm so sorry, Mr Neville," she said, "your Mum has gone."

Zak didn't feel anything in particular. But he thought, she'd have hated being referred to as my Mum.

He went down to the reception area to find a telephone to ring Mrs Perrin. But Ash was there, and Zak went over to him. Ash's arms went round Zak's shoulders. For a moment, Zak was too overcome to speak.

Then he said, "She's gone. I'll need to let Mrs Perrin know."

"I'll drive you round there now. Dad's lent me his car."

They drove to Penn House, and Zak led Ash into the hallway. Mrs Perrin came out at the sound of the door opening, and Zak looked at her. "I'm sorry, Mrs P. Mother died this evening. I don't quite know what to do next, but I'll go round to her solicitors tomorrow. "

Zak went to his mother's desk, and took out the envelope with the will. There were also some bank books, and a large envelope inscribed "Investments".

The office suite where Mr Carstairs worked was well furnished and imposing, occupying two floors of a large and beautiful Georgian house. Clearly they were a substantial firm. He was shown in to Mr Carstairs' office by a smartly dressed receptionist.

Jason Carstairs was a pleasant, good-looking youngish man. He asked Zak to take a seat, then looked inquiringly at him. Zak explained that his mother had died and handed over the items from her desk. Carstairs excused himself and opened the envelopes.

"It's very straightforward," he said, after a pause. "There's a bequest of a thousand pounds to a Mrs Perrin, and some small sums to charities, but the house and the rest of the estate is all left to you. Am I right in thinking that you have no brothers or sisters? And that your parents were either separated or divorced?"

"Yes. I've no other family I know of except an aunt and a couple of distant cousins, and my parents separated some years ago."

Zak forced himself to concentrate on what Mr Carstairs was saying and to ask him to deal with the funeral.

"Mr Carstairs, is this all absolutely certain?"

"Yes. My senior partner, Bernard Cramphorn, drew up the will himself. He told me that your mother was determined that your father should, as she put it, 'not get a penny more from me'. Did your father have money from her in the past?"

"Yes, quite a lot, I think. He used it to buy a partnership in Hargreaves and Neville."

"Ah. That explains it. Well, Mr Neville, you are going to be quite well off. The estate, after the other bequests have been paid, will be worth about two hundred and fifty thousand pounds, and I imagine the house is probably worth as much again. There will be some death duties, of course. But if you would like this firm to act for you, we will be very happy to do so."

"Yes, please, I'd like that."

Mr Carstairs explained the process of Probate, and that it would probably take a few weeks before the house could be put on the market and the estate settled.

After he left the office, Zak took a taxi to Penn House. He rang the bell, and as he expected it was answered by Mrs Perrin.

"Why, Mr Zak, how wonderful to see you again."

"It's wonderful to see you again, Mrs P."

"Can I get you a cup of coffee or some lunch, Mr Zak?"

"Thank you, a cup of coffee and a biscuit or something would be welcome. And please bring one for yourself."

Mrs Perrin bustled out and returned with a tray of coffee and biscuits. Zak asked her to sit in one of the chairs by the fireplace, and said, "Mrs P., I have just been to see Mother's solicitors. The house and estate have been left to me. I'll be putting the house on the market as soon as I can, but when it's sold, unless you have other plans, I'll buy a flat or a bungalow for you to live in..."

"Why, Mr Zak..."

"...but until then, I hope you will stay on here to look after the place and show possible buyers around. I'll continue your salary, of course."

"Oh, thank you so much, Mr Zak, that's so very kind of you. I was worried about what I was going to do, I admit. Of course I'll stay on, for as long as you like."

"Splendid! I'll speak to Mr Carstairs - he's the solicitor - and he will let you know when the house goes on the market. But I know I will be leaving the house in safe hands."

"Oh, Mr Zak, I don't know how to thank you..."

"Don't thank me, Mrs P. It's no more than you deserve. You were always kind to me - far more than either of my parents. I can never repay what I owe you, but at least I can make sure you always have somewhere comfortable to live. Now, could you get me something for lunch? Some soup or something? I've another call to make this afternoon."

Zak called at the office where Ash's father worked, and asked to have a private interview with him.

"I haven't much time to spare today," said Mr Farrar, "but I am glad to have the chance of a private word with you. No, don't speak yet; hear me out.

"In the first place, my wife and I have no problem with Ash's being gay. I admit we'd have liked a couple more grandchildren, but Ash's sister Rosemary has given us two already and there are signs of another one on the way. But we would never want Ash to feel that he need do anything just to please us. He's an adult now, and we are proud of him.

"But of course we also want him to be happy and fulfilled. If that means a lifelong relationship with you, well that's alright. As long as it is a loving, mutually supportive relationship..."

There was a silence, while Zak thought about this, and its implications. Eventually he spoke.

"Mr Farrar - Sir - thank you for being frank with me. Let me say in the first place that I care deeply for Ash, and would never do anything to hurt him. I will support him through whatever life throws at us.

"But there is something else, which is why I asked to see you privately today. Please don't tell Ash this, I need to think about it and find the right time, and the right way, to tell him.

"When my mother died, she'd not altered her will, and it means that I will be inheriting her house and probably a fair bit of money as well. When we set up home together I will be in a position to buy a house, though when I do so of course it will be in our joint names.

I'm also hoping to go to University; either that, or get a part time job and study part time. But I need to get Mother's estate settled first."

"Who are your solicitors?"

"Cramphorn and Carstairs."

"Ah. You couldn't have a better firm."

"So I thought. Do you think I should tell Ash yet?"

"Perhaps not just now when he is working towards his finals. I know he hopes to get into journalism. He did work experience at our local paper, and I think they were quite impressed with him.

"Now I'm sorry, but I will have to go. I have a sales meeting in five minutes' time. I'll think over what you have said and perhaps we can talk again in a few days."

Zak sat in his mother's sitting room. The weather was becoming more wintry, and the room felt chilly. Suddenly he remembered the last time he had been in this room with his mother, when she had thrown the vase at him before turning him out of the house. Well, he thought, the tables have been well and truly turned now. The old bat's dead, and this is all mine. Not that I want it, but it will give us some capital, and we can buy a house. Funny that she didn't change her will after she threw me out. Perhaps she thought she'd live for ever. I wonder what Ash will say.

He decided not to say anything to Ash for a few days, as he was about to take his final examinations for his degree. While this was going on, Zak spent some time at Penn House, sorting out his mother's personal things, with Mrs Perrin's help, and made several visits to Jason Carstairs in order to sign papers and keep things moving. His mother's clothing went to charity shops; the jewellery and other valuables went for probate valuation and eventual sale to an auction house recommended by Mr Carstairs, in which his partner Drew Robson held quite a senior post.

The hardest task for Zak was going through the things in what had been his own bedroom. His mother had discarded most of his personal things when he had gone, but there were still some items which he remembered from his childhood. He decided to keep them all for the time being, and packed them away carefully in an old suitcase.

Ash's exams finished, and there was nothing to do now but wait for the results. Zak had never seen him so much on edge. They went for long, brisk walks together, sometimes holding hands. For the first time in their relationship, Ash seemed to be in need of support. Zak thought, all I can do is be here for him. I'm sure he will have got good marks, but there's no point in giving him empty reassurances, he'll see through that in no time.

After one long walk, they returned home (interesting, thought Zak, that Ash's parents' house is already more my home than either of my parents' houses) to find a letter on the hall table with the University crest on it. They went through to the sitting room and sat down. Ash borrowed his father's penknife, opened it and read the contents through two or three times. Then he jumped up.

"I've got a First!" he cried, "I've got first class honours!"

Zak was too overcome to speak, but he leapt to his feet and flung his arms around Ash, holding him in a close embrace. Ash's father went out of the room, and came back with a bottle and four glasses. "I knew you'd do well, but I think this calls for a celebration."

Ash and Zak, arms wrapped around each other, waltzed around the room. "Well done, well done my love. I knew you would do it" cried Zak. "I tell you what, let's go out to dinner to celebrate. My treat."

The next morning, Ash applied himself to the telephone. He made contact with three local newspapers. Two were non-committal, but the third, based to the south-west of Birmingham, invited him to an interview. Wearing his best suit, he went off to the newspaper's office in Solihull. Two days later, they telephoned Ash, offering him a post as a junior reporter. Ash spent a long time talking to them. At dinner that evening, Ash said, "Well, the Solihull Mercury has made me a definite job offer, and it would be a good start on a well-respected paper. But I don't know where we could live. It's too far to commute from here, and it's an expensive area."

There was a pause, and then Zak put in, rather hesitantly, "I think I might be able to help there." Everyone looked at him. He blushed deeply but went on. "Ash, I didn't want to say anything about this yet as I didn't want anything to steal your thunder. I mean, your degree, and now getting offered this job. But I inherited Mother's house, and some money. I'm selling the house, though I have said I will buy somewhere for Mrs Perrin. She has been so good to me all my life that I really owe it to her. But that will leave a good bit over, probably enough for a little house of our own. My only condition is that we own it jointly."

Ash looked at Zak, then at his parents, then back at Zak. His father nodded and said, "Well, Zak, that's a very generous offer. But have you really thought it out?"

"Well, yes, I have. And I've talked it over with Jason Carstairs. Incidentally he's gay too. Last time I was at his office I met his partner, Drew Robson. He's an auctioneer. Jason will be happy to do all the legal stuff for us. So I think we'd better take ourselves off to Solihull tomorrow and go round the estate agents. When do you start the new job?"

"As soon as I can find somewhere to live. Oh, Zak, my love, thank you. I thought I was going to have to turn this job down."

"Oh, this is only a stage on your journey. Before you're done you will be Editor of The Times. And I will be your chief legal adviser."

"What do you mean?"

"I've had some very interesting conversations with Jason Carstairs. He's a nice man. I want to go to university to study law, and hopefully become a solicitor, or even a barrister. Birmingham University offers law, though I'd have to get some preliminary qualifications first. Or I could start by doing a basic degree with the Open University which I'm sure they would accept instead of A-levels. But I can start finding out about that when we're settled in our new home."

House-hunting was an unexpectedly interesting occupation. Houses came in every shape, size, location and state of repair. Eventually they settled upon a small detached house in a cul-de-sac located in a pleasant suburb, with reasonably good access to the railway. As a temporary measure they took a room in a commercial hotel for four nights of each week. Ash found his new job very exciting. Each day there were new places to visit, people to interview, facts to discover (Zak spent a couple of days each week in Birmingham library just gathering information for Ash) and reports to write. On the day that the first report appeared in the paper with "by Ashley Farrar" they went out to dinner at Nice as Pie to celebrate. Before long, the house was ready. They spent a day in Birmingham ordering basic furniture. Mrs Perrin took them to some of her favourite shops to buy everything from cutlery and crockery to coat hangers and carpets.

Eventually they were ready to move in. They held a housewarming party, inviting Ash's family, Jason Carstairs and his partner, some of Ash's colleagues from work, and Mrs Perrin. Zak sent an invitation to his father, but there was no reply.

Ash and Zak found they enjoyed being domesticated. Zak applied to Birmingham University for a place to study Law, and in the meantime worked to get their garden as neat as possible. He bought a small car and took driving lessons and often acted as Ash's chauffeur.

The University responded helpfully. As he had no A-levels, he would have to do a preliminary year, but as long as his end of year examination results were satisfactory they guaranteed him a place in the Law School.

Zak surveyed his finances. Buying a house for Mrs Perrin, plus their own house and a car had depleted his capital by quite a large amount. When he had paid the University fees for four years there wouldn't be much left. But Ash was working, there was no mortgage on the house and once he had finished his degree Zak would also be working, so there was no cause for anxiety there. What a pity, he thought, that we wouldn't be able to adopt a child or two. It would have been fun. But as long as I've got Ash that's all I need. I doubt if I'll come in for anything when the old man goes. There's no way he'd leave any money to me. Well, I don't care. If he wouldn't even come to our housewarming I don't want anything to do with the old bugger.

But for now there was plenty to be done. The garden was sadly neglected and would take quite a bit of time to get into good shape. There was decorating to do indoors in wet weather, and all sorts of things to track down and buy. Mrs Perrin was a huge help. She came over once or twice each week and advised "Mr Zak" (she could never bring herself to use just his first name, though she was happy to address Ash by his) on all domestic matters on which, after all, she was very knowledgeable. Her gratitude to him knew no bounds, the more so as he steadily refused to accept any rent from her. Once a week she cooked dinner for Ash and Zak, though they insisted that she eat with them.

Time passed quickly, and Zak began his preliminary year at the University. He found this stimulating. He had been well taught at Embleton and much of the work was familiar, though by now he was rather rusty. As the year went on, it became more challenging, but he stuck to his books and made good progress. He found that he didn't need to go in every day, but could work at home, in the small downstairs room that they called their Study. Ash's work took him all over the West Midlands, though most of it was local. He, too, liked to work at home when it was possible.

Then came their first Christmas at their own home. They invited Ash's parents, and Mrs Perrin, though she accepted only on condition that she cooked the Christmas dinner. They were happy to let her do so, knowing that the results would be infinitely better than anything either of them could manage. Ash's sister Margaret was there, too; she had recently broken up with her long-term boyfriend and was feeling rather fragile.

The meal ended, they sat down together to watch the Queen's Christmas message on television, and then Ash and Zak, together with Margaret, trooped out to the kitchen to wash the dishes and tidy up. When they got back to the sitting room, the three older members of the party were all fast asleep while a dreadful old film was playing on the television.

Zak looked around, and suddenly felt rather sad. Ash had such a lovely family, close and loving. Even his grandparents had more or less accepted Zak, though it must have been difficult for them. But the only family he had was Mrs Perrin, to whom he was not actually related at all. He sat next to Ash on the settee, and his hand sought Ash's. For a moment – but only for a moment – he wished he had married Emily and had children. But it would never have worked, he thought, and if we'd had children they would be with her, and I'd be on my own. No, Zak Neville, he told himself firmly, you've got Ash and he's kind and loving and beautiful and sexy, and we've got a lovely home and great friends, so be content with that.

Spring came, and summer, and Zak passed his preliminary year and embarked upon legal studies. It was fascinating stuff, though hard work was needed to keep up. It was amazing how far back many of our legal institutions went – in some aspects even back to Roman law. And the astonishing structure of case law, much of it not codified but established by precedent: a particular decision made by a particular judge and jury about a particular case, and then used as the basis for further judgements.

Ash was busy, too. One of the older reporters had taken early retirement on account of ill health, and he had moved up a notch in consequence. Tension was building up. Ash loved his job, and his Editor had made it clear that he was doing it well, but there were unexpected stresses, especially constantly driving somewhere, doing an interview, then driving to another place to do another interview, then the same again, and somehow finding time to compile and send in his reports while the news was still fresh.

Things came to a head one night. They had eaten a hastily prepared and rather unsatisfactory meal. Zak was explaining something about a point of law that he had come across, when he realised that Ash was asleep in his chair.

"Bloody hell!" he shouted. "You might at least stay awake when I'm talking to you, even if you don't take any interest in what I do."

Ash woke up abruptly and shouted back, "you don't take any interest in what I do, so why should I?"

They went at it hammer and tongs, until Ash suddenly got up and slammed out of the house. Zak heard his car start up and drive away. He sat still, suddenly rather ashamed of himself. Well, he thought, Ash will be back soon and we can make it up.

But Ash was not back the next day. Zak telephoned his office but was told that he was out, and not expected back for some time. That night, Ash did not appear and Zak, now very worried, telephoned Ash's parents. No, he was not there either and they didn't know where he was.

The following day Zak had to go in to the University, but he found it impossible to concentrate. By now he was seriously worried. That evening he made a sandwich for himself, as he couldn't bring himself to cook. Suddenly, he heard a car draw up and Ash came in. He glared at Zak, saying, "Oh you're here, are you? Well, you needn't trouble yourself because I've only come to collect some clothes." He went out of the room. Zak followed him, but Ash went into their bedroom and slammed the door. Ten minutes later, he came out, suitcase in hand, marched through the front door and drove away again.

Oh God, thought Zak, what do I do now? That night he hardly slept. Early the next morning, the doorbell rang. It was a young woman he did not recognize. "Are you Zak?" she asked. "My name's Sally Whittaker. If you don't want to lose Ash you'd better come with me now. He's been staying at my house." She led the way to her car, a bright blue Mazda, and drove briskly to a house in the suburbs. Zak saw Ash's car outside. As they drew up Ash came out, saw Zak with Sally and stopped short. "Ash," said Zak, desperately, "I'm sorry. I love you. Please come home."

"Funny way you have of showing it," replied Ash, crossly.

"I'm sorry I shouted at you."

Ash just shrugged his shoulders.

"Come on, you two," said Sally, "I need to get off to work."

Ash walked towards his car, and opened the door. He stopped, irresolutely, and looked back at Zak, who was standing, uncertain what to do next.

"Oh, get in the bloody car," said Ash. Thankful that at least this was not another outright rejection, Zak opened the passenger's door and climbed in. Ash drove away briskly, but suddenly pulled up. "This is where you get out," he said, "you can get the train from here. I'll come home tonight, and we can see if we can work something out."

Suddenly Zak knew what he must do. He went home, stopping at some shops on the way. Ash arrived that evening at around his usual time, to find the sitting room prepared, a fire lit, candles on an elaborately decorated dining table and the smell of a good meal wafting from the kitchen. He came in and stopped short, seeing all this, and Zak wearing his best suit and tie. "Is this for me?" he asked, at length.

"Yes..." began Zak, but suddenly Ash was in his arms, trembling and kissing him. "Oh God, Zak, I've missed you so much."

"I've missed you too."

"I'm sorry..." began both of them, simultaneously.

"Come and sit down," said Zak, "the dinner will spoil."

Ash sat down, and Zak brought in the first course. Nothing more was said until the meal was finished, and then Zak said, "Bother the washing up, I'll do it in the morning. It's bedtime now, we're both tired."

They undressed and got into bed. They looked at each other, and then Ash said, with that sexy smile that always drove Zak distracted, "Who says I'm tired?"

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