For a couple of weeks, ever since we got the invitation to the afternoon buffet at the Lord Lieutenant's home at Briddon Castle I've been plotting and scheming to make things better for Michael and me. I've also been working my wiles on Father and Mother and Mr Bourne, and now we're finally at Briddon Castle, if I get half a chance I'll be working them on Sir Clarence again.
The marquee is huge, although not many people are in it because it's too hot in there, and because it is most of the guests are sitting on the lawn or inside the castle. Father and Mother and I are sitting on the grass by the lake, which has a number of swans and ducks pedalling around on it. But I'm not looking at them... my eyes are on the car park and I'm waiting for Mr Bourne's car to appear. I can see a part of the drive, and I feel like yelling out loud when I see the blue and silver car appear around the rhododendron bushes and it pulls up alongside a Rolls Royce of 1930's vintage. But instead, I get to my feet, point at it and say to my parents, "They made it then. They've arrived!"
Mother and Father get up and we make our way over to the car. Mr and Mrs Bourne and Alex and Michael have seen where we are and begin to walk towards us. I'm grinning before we get to them. The reason for my amusement is that, although he's quite smart in his attire, Alex's sleeves are rolled up to the elbows, displaying his well muscled, working class forearms, and he's got his silly grin on his face and he's giving me a thumbs-up with both hands. He may just be a miner from a poor family, but apart from Michael, even though he's acting the clown as usual, he's definitely the most handsome man here today.
We all shake hands and Mother and Mrs Bourne get the customary pecks on the cheeks. I grin when Alex comes to me and wraps a brawny arm around my shoulders and winks at me, and I speak softly out of the side of my mouth and tell him, "Behave yourself, you!"
Alex hugs my shoulder tightly and winks at me again, and then he whispers, "I'll be the best behaved posh collier in town today, Lover Boy. How's that little pinkler of yours doing? Introduce me to the Lord's daughter as soon as you can. My little pinkler is beginning to think it's neglected."
Michael knows what's going on and he pulls a stern face at Alex and then points a finger at him. "I've told you. Behave!"
Alex grins and holds up his hands. "I'm on my best behaviour, aren't I Stuart? Go on... tell him your Alex is being a good boy!"
Before anything else can be said, we're saved by the butler. Well, one of them. He comes marching across the lawns to us and bows slightly before saying, "Ladies and Gentlemen; Sir Clarence has seen you arrive and he's asked me to accompany you to the drawing room. Would you come with me, please?"
The butler doesn't walk slowly, and we try to keep up with him. Not Alex though. When I look back, he's sauntering across the lawns with his hands in his trousers pockets and he's nodding to everyone, and when we reach the stone steps leading up to the entrance to the castle, we have to wait for him. When he does arrive, Michael looks daggers at him, but I can't stop giggling. God knows what's going to happen when he meets Sir Clarence!
We're escorted through the hall with its suits of armour and paintings of Sir Clarence's ancestors hanging on the walls, and then into the drawing room. Sir Clarence is with other guests, but as soon as he sees us, he excuses himself and comes directly to us. Introductions are made, and all is polite... until Alex says, "You've got a grand place here Boss! I would hold a few balls here if I owned it."
I'm shuddering with amusement at Alex's comment and lack of formality, and desperately trying not to burst out laughing, but Sir Clarence releases me from my predicament when he roars with laughter and says, "Indeed! My God! It's a long time since I've heard such wit. Probably back in Burma with men like your father. I really am honoured to meet the two sons of Johnson."
I look at Michael. His face is like beetroot, but Alex is all grins and gives me another one of his naughty winks when he sees that I'm trying not to laugh at him. Then Alex behaves himself while we chat for about fifteen minutes, and then Sir Clarence says he has to go and see to the other guests, and we part when he says he'll catch up with us later.
Out in the gardens, we make our way to the marquee, select food and drink from the amazing variety, and then all go down to the same place where Mother and father and I were sitting earlier. It's peaceful here, and somewhere far off the lou-lou call of a peacock echoes across the castle grounds. Alex asks what it is
Father answers him. "It's a peacock, Alex. I don't suppose you hear many of those down the coal mines."
Alex is eating a turkey and stuffing sandwich. He chews for a while, and I can see from the twinkle in his beautiful eyes that an amusing quip is about to come from his mouth when he's finished, and I stifle a giggle before it does. He swallows his mouthful, and I wait. Eventually, keeping a straight face, he says, "No we don't. But I did have a peacock a long time ago. It was dead though. I swapped it for two rabbits and a trout off Billy Wooldridge. I was only sixteen at the time. Dada went mad with me because I spent a whole Sunday morning cooking it, and when I served it up with some taters and carrots and Brussels sprouts, it was like a piece of meat the cowboys chew on when they're hungry out on the range. Apparently, because they're a dry bird, they need to be cooked slowly and wrapped up with plenty of fat around them." He looks at Michael, and sniggers. "Do you remember that, Kiddo?"
Michael is doing his best to stifle his laughter, but he manages to gurgle a reply. "Yes. Dada was so angry that he scraped all our dinners onto one plate and then went and threw them down the backyard for the dog. Then he stood there stomping his wooden leg and cursing while he watched Judy eat just the potatoes and the carrots and the sprouts. Even the dog wouldn't eat it." Michael grins at Alex. "Do you remember what happened afterwards?"
Alex bursts into laughter, and when he's sort of quietened down, he says, "I daren't say, Kiddo. It's probably too rude for the company."
It's father who says, "Well you can't leave us in suspense, Alex, so we may as well hear the rest of it."
"Well, ok then," says Alex, "Judy always slept with Dada, and when we got up the next morning, he was in a foul mood and he was cursing me like nobody's business. I asked him what the problem was. Apparently, the Brussels sprouts had 'worked' on Judy, and Dada had to sleep with the window open all night because the smell was too much for him. Me and Kiddo couldn't get to sleep for a couple of nights after because either he would or I'd bring it up when we went to bed. Dada could hear us giggling and he kept yelling that he'd give us both the belt if we didn't stop laughing. That made us worse and it ended up with Dada hopping into the bedroom and threatening us with his belt. So that set Judy off because she wasn't used to that sort of stuff and she was barking her head off. It was like Bedlam for a while."
Now we're all laughing, and Mother is reduced to tears. So am I. Then Mr Bourne asks, "So how did it end up?"
Michael takes up the tale. "Dada saw the funny side of it and we all ended up laughing." Then Michael drops his head and is silent for a while.
We all know what's up with him, but it's Alex who deals with the situation when he puts a hand on Michael's shoulder and says, "I'm going to get some more of them sausage rolls, Kiddo. They're delicious. Do you want any?"
Michael looks up at him and says, "Yes, I think I will Alex, I'll come with you."
When they've gone I'm almost in tears. I didn't miss seeing that Michael's beautiful eyes were misted over. I want to go to him and hug him and love him to take away his hurt. I'm not the only one who understands the situation. Father says, "It will take a while for Michael to get over his father's death. It's memories like that one that will bring it all back to him. The good times. They're the most difficult ones to deal with."
But when Michael and Alex come back to us, the smile on Michael's face tells me that he's okay now. But I'm not. Inside I'm really upset at what has happened.
We finish eating and Alex gets up and gathers all the plates in his arms. Then he grins again. "If you'll excuse me, Ladies and Gentlemen, I'll take these away and have a stroll around and see if I can find myself a pretty young lady to talk to." He looks directly at me. "You did say the Lord's daughter was a good catch, Stuart. Can you see her?"
I look around and spot her sitting at a table behind the low turreted wall of the veranda. I point to her. "The one with the pretty blue dress and the dark hair."
Alex winks at me. "I knew I could trust you Stuart. I'll catch you folks later. Don't do anything I wouldn't do."
And he's gone, strolling and nodding his way towards the castle with a load of plates in his arms. A member of the catering staff goes to him and takes the plates off him, and Alex gives him a low bow.
"He's quite a character, your brother, Michael," says Father.
Michael looks at Father, and grins. "My apologies for his behaviour, Sir. I can't take him anywhere."
Mother is smiling at Michael. She looks at Mr and Mrs Bourne. "Leslie; Angela; did either of you have the good fortune to have him in one of your classes?"
Mrs Bourne laughs. "Unfortunately not. I wish I had. He has a wonderful sense of humour. But I suspect behind that façade, there's a lot more to him than a comedian. Am I right, Michael?"
Michael nods. "Oh yes. He's as brave as a lion and as hard working as they come. And that's what worries me."
I place my hand on Michael's arm. "Why?"
Michael shrugs his shoulders. "He works in a dangerous environment. Three years ago he was buried when the roof caved in. He was lucky. He may not always be so lucky."
Father breaks the melancholy that has descended over our group. "Why don't you two chaps go for a walk or something? There are plenty of young ladies to introduce yourselves to. Anne and I will take Leslie and Angela and do the rounds. Go on, off you go and we'll catch you later.
So we separate, and when Michael and I are alone, I ask him, "Are you okay now? I know you were upset."
He half smiles and nods. "I'm okay now. It happens sometimes when we talk about Dada. It was a bit embarrassing because we're in company. Shall we go for a walk?"
I try to smile back at him. "Yes, let's walk right around the lake so we can get away from everyone for a bit. I can have you to myself then." So we stroll around the lake, and on the other side, when we're out of sight of anyone, I take hold of Michael's hand. His grip on mine tells me I've done the right thing. Almost opposite where we were sitting is an ancient, gigantic Scots Pine tree. I grip Michael's hand a bit harder and steer him towards it, and when we get to it I lead us to the other side where we're hidden from everyone, and then I push Michael against the trunk of the tree and wrap my arms around him. Automatically, he wraps his arms around me and holds me tightly. That's when I can hold it in no longer and burst into tears.
I feel his lips on the top of my head as he kisses my hair and then I hear his soothing words, "Shhh! It's okay now. I'm over it. I'll be okay. Shhhh! Don't cry."
After a while and I've managed to stem the emotions, I look up at Michael and tell him, "I can't help it. I hate it when anything hurts you. I love you so much Michael."
Michael looks down at me and kisses my wet cheeks. Then he strokes my hair back and stares into my eyes. A large smile and then he kisses me softly on the lips. "I know you do. But you can't protect me from everything. Just be there for me if I need you. Like now. Being here alone with you has helped me. I'm okay. Now shall we carry on? I really am fine now."
So we do carry on and it takes us a good half hour to walk around the lake, and when we get back to where we were, I look at Michael and grin. "Now what? Shall we go to the woods behind the castle?"
He grins back at me. "To the woods? Why on earth should we go to the woods?"
I laugh at him. "You know damned well why we should go to the woods. Those damned sausage rolls have affected me."
He cocks his head to one side and pretends to be puzzled. "How can sausage rolls affect you? I could understand it if we'd been eating pig's trotters... but sausage rolls! That's a new one on me, even coming from you, you sexy little sod."
I wink at him. "That's me... your sexy little sod. And nothing gets to me more than sausage rolls and being with the sexiest person alive. Now shut up and do as you're told! To the woods! I'm desperate!"
Michael chuckles and then nods. "Okay. To the woods and we'll really find out what those sausage rolls have done to you."
Alexander Johnson: Collier, meets Sir Clarence Reeves-Jenkins: Knight Commander The most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George; Military Medal, with Bar; Military Cross, with bar; Lord–Lieutenant of the County.
I've no intentions of wooing the ladies today, although I have been tempted by a few of the skirted ones that have taken my fancy. I have more important business on my mind than fancy ladies, and very probably this is going to be the only chance I get, so I wander up the stone steps and into the reception hall with the suits of armour and ancestors hanging on the walls. Because I've not seen him in the grounds, I reckon Sir Clarence will be around somewhere. My reckoning is right... he's in the same room he was before, sitting in a green-leather chair that must be at least three hundred years old, and he's chatting away to some high-and-mighties, who are sitting around him. A waiter spots that I haven't got a drink and comes to me. "Can I get you something, Sir?"
I grin at him. "No thank you. Thanks for asking."
He seems genuinely surprised at my civility, and then smiles and wanders off to serve the real Nobility. It doesn't take long for Sir Clarence to spot me, and when he does, he immediately gets up and comes to me. "Ah, Johnson! I was just thinking about you and Michael. You do realise that this lot is in your honour, do you?"
I'm genuinely surprised. "No Boss, I didn't. And why is that, Boss?"
Sir Clarence laughs. "It was that young Begbie boy. He's a scheming little fellow. We were having dinner at the Begbie's and he brought up your father's name. He was genuinely surprised that I knew about your father. When he knew I did, he didn't miss the opportunity to promote your brother in your father's name."
I laugh. "Yes, I know what you mean. He's been to our home a few times and I can see his mind working overtime when he's with us. If he worked down the pit, it would only take him five minutes to become a manager. But I like him. He's a lovely young kid."
"I agree. Anyway, was this a chance meeting, or have you been scheming too?"
I look surprised. "Certainly not, Boss! I was just wandering... having a look at how the other half live. Dada spoke a lot about you."
Sir Clarence laughs. "Now I know you're scheming. Come on, let's get away from this lot and have a quiet drink together."
Arm on my shoulder, he leads me out of the large room, along the hallway and into a smaller room: an office or a study. There are more easy chairs in here; maroon, leather ones, and he points to one. "What's your fancy, Alex?"
I sit back in the comfy chair and tell him, "I'll have a brandy, please Boss."
"Good. I'll join you."
He pours the drinks, hands one to me, and sits in the chair next to me. We're sort of half facing one another. He takes a nibble from the Brandy in his glass and looks directly at me. "Your father was a very special man, Alex. Did you know that he was in my Company?"
"Yes Boss, of course I did. And thank you for arranging the Guard of Honour. As a matter of fact... and this is not scheming, or bullshit, Dada had a very high regard for you. He often spoke about you. Actually, he said you were one of the few Officers who made him realise that not all toffs are arseholes."
Sir Clarence takes another sip of his drink, and smiles. "That's good to know. Did you know that I was the Officer who recommended him for his Victoria Cross?"
"Yes, I knew that. He never forgave you for it."
Now, Sir Clarence is giggling. Then he shrugs his shoulders and looks around the room, sort of absent-mindedly, and I know his mind is far away. "We all have a burden to bear. Damn! He deserved it. A lot of others did too, there, but many great acts of heroism went unnoticed. I just happened to be in a forward position on that horrible day, and as we pushed forward it was Major Jenkinson who told me about it. Of course, I went to see your father. Well, what was left of him that is. I honestly didn't think he'd got a cat in Hell's chance of surviving. But he did, and he raised two fine sons. Perhaps that's his greatest achievement?"
I stare at him. "I think so, considering the shit my mother left him in. I've worked with some good men down the pit: men of steel; hard men; courageous men, but none of them match my Dada for his dedication and courage to drag us up. He did his best, but his best isn't good enough."
"And that's why you're here?"
I look at him, right into his eyes when I say, "Yes, that's why I'm here. I need your help."
He takes another sip of his drink. "For Michael?"
"Yes Boss. I can look after myself. Kiddo can, too, but without help he won't reach his potential. He's too stubborn and proud."
Sir Clarence is serious now. "Us Toffs are all arseholes?"
"That's pretty much it, Boss. Some of those teachers at school didn't bloody help. He had poor clothes and they treated him like dirt. Not Mr Bourne though. He's a good guy. You're one of the good guys. I wouldn't be speaking to you now if you weren't. I don't bow to any man unless they've earned my respect."
"And I have?"
"If you're good enough to have Dada's respect, then that's good enough for me."
"And how can I help?"
"I haven't got a clue Boss. I really haven't. I don't live in your world. If you lived in mine and you needed and deserved a leg-up, then you'd get it. All I'm asking is that you use your influence to help Kiddo reach his full potential, and I'm asking you as the son of a fellow comrade-at-arms. There was a massive gulf in class between you and Dada, but the mortar shell that got Dada could just as easily have got you. Dada understood that. I understand that, but now we need to make Kiddo understand that. He won't get anywhere until he does."
Sir Clarence tips his glass up, and drains it. He looks at me. I tip mine up, and nod. He goes to the decanter and does the business, and then returns, gives me my drink and sits down again. "I'll do my best, but we might have a small problem."
I grin. "We might have a lot of big problems."
He laughs. "I was referring to the fact that the best university for him will not be in the city. He'll need to move away."
I shake my head. "He won't do that."
Sir Clarence is silent for a while, and then he takes a drink from his glass before continuing. "Young Begbie?"
I look him straight in the eyes, and I know he knows. I nod.
"Alex..." he takes another, absent-minded sip of his brandy, "...I went to a public school. An all-boys public school, and I've seen it all before. It will fizzle out in time. They all do."
I shake my head. "Not this one. This one will last, so it's not just a case of looking after one. In fact, I've just doubled your workload. Where one will go, the other will have to follow."
Sir Clarence grins. "Do we have a bet on it lasting?"
I grin back at him. "I'll bet my house against yours."
Loud guffaws now, from the old soldier, and then he says, "Done! It's a deal, and I hope I lose. Will you call the debt in if you win?"
I shake my head. "No. I couldn't afford the coal bill. Just one thing though; if anyone, deliberately, tries to come between them, then I'll huff and I'll damned well puff and I'll blow their damned house down."
Sir Clarence nods slowly. "Good man. I'll give you my word of honour that it won't be me. Is that good enough?"
I finish my drink, stand up, and look directly into his blue eyes. "Yes Boss. Your word is good enough for me. I reckon you'd better get mixing with your hoity-toity guests. They'll miss drooling over you. Besides, Stuart says you've got a lovely daughter and that she'll love my black pit-eyes. I need to introduce myself."
Sir Clarence gets up, grins, swallows the remainder of his drink, and then puts a hand on my shoulder. "I doubt your black pit-eyes will win her heart. Do we have a bet on it?"
I grin back at him. "No Boss. I only bet on certainties."
We're walking back together now, and Sir Clarence still has his hand on my shoulder. We reach the big room where all the posh folk are, and he stops. "Would you like me introduce you to some of my guests?"
I shake my head. "No thank you Boss. I like to choose my friends carefully."
He holds out a hand for me to shake, and I take it. Then he asks, "Am I one of your friends?"
I squeeze his hand. "Oh yes. I can see what Dada saw in you now. Right, I'll be off. I'll see you later before we leave?"
"You most certainly will. I'll need to catch up with Michael too. And that young rogue Begbie." Then he winks at me. "If I was as old as Michael, I think I might have become smitten with him, too. He's a gorgeous young man!"
We laugh as we part, and I wander out into the warmth of the day. My task is over and now I can do nothing but wait, but I have a feeling in my bones that some life-changing events are in the offing.
End of meeting.
We're walking along the edge of the lake towards the thick woods at the end of it, idly throwing some food scraps that we gathered before we set out, at the ducks that are paddling along beside us, and Stuart asks, "Did you bring any Vaseline?"
I shake my head. "No. Did you?"
Stuart screws his nose up in frustration, something he often does; something I adore seeing him doing. "No. Damn and blast! I thought you would bring some." He looks at me with a scowl on his face. "You're a waste of space, Johnson! You know very well that I would want to. Are you going off me?"
I grin at him. "No. I thought it was a garden party, not a sex party. I didn't think we'd get the chance. You'll just have to settle for the other things we do, and then do it yourself tonight."
Stuart snorts. "No chance! I want the complete works! You're not getting away that easy!"
His comment makes me laugh, and my reward is a snarling, glaring stare. Then I see his face change, and he changes direction and pulls me with him, and I have to ask. "Where are we going?"
I receive a mischievous grin. "I'm hungry."
"But we've just eaten. You can't be hungry!"
Stuart doesn't answer me, and like a lapdog I follow him to the marquee. He fills a paper plate with turkey and ham-and-pickle bread rolls and four pats of butter that have been kept cool in a crystal glass bowl of water, picks up a handful of paper serviettes, and leads us out of the marquee. Now I know what he's up to.
As we're walking towards the side of the castle and the wooded area, away from the people sitting on the lawn, I can't stop giggling. "You're not serious, are you?!"
He gives me his naughtiest smile. "Of course I am. You can have me with a bit of pickle if you like. All we need to do is find one of our secluded places, and you're all mine and I get the complete works."
By the time we've found a secluded spot, well away from the castle, in some woodland behind a mock temple, the butter is almost melted. Stuart strips and folds his clothes carefully, and orders me to do the same, and when he's lying on his back with his legs in the right position, we share the most beautiful, loving, funny and wonderful buttery coupling that ends up with us both needing to use the paper serviettes. Then I kiss him and tell him that he's a genius.
He winks at me. "When it comes to doing that, then I'm like Einstein. This is my own Theory of Relativity... my bum has its own gravitational pull where that thing of yours is concerned. It's simple physics. I could write a thesis on the attraction between my bum and your big pinkler. The old genius would have been proud of me."
I grin at him. "Make sure you explain how a few pats of butter come into the equation. I'll get Alex to order extra from the Co-op."
We're both fully dressed again and I'm lying on the grass, and Stuart, sitting beside me is giggling when he looks at me and grins. "Two rabbits and a trout. Alex is so funny. I wonder if he's managed to woo Eileen? I was half expecting them to join us in our secluded place."
I laugh. "He likes his comforts, does Alex. He'll have taken her to the master bedroom."
And we're still chuckling as we meet up with Stuart's parents and Mr and Mrs Bourne. They tell us that Sir Clarence wants to meet us, and we all go into the castle.
An hour later, after Alex has joined us, boasting that he's had numerous advances but he's had to turn them down because he's on the noon shift next week; and after an interesting time with Sir Clarence, we walk down to the car park to take our leave. I shake hands with Stuart's father, give his Mother a peck on the cheek, and then shake Stuart's hand. His eyes speak what I know he wants to say, and mine do the same. Just one glance is enough to say how much we love each other. Our parting is helped by Alex's last actions before we got to the car park.
He diverted to the marquee and came out carrying two bulging paper bags filled to overflowing. And when I asked him what he was doing, he said, "No waste, no want. There's a ton of stuff in there that's left over. This'll do for our dinner tonight and the rest will keep me in snappin' down the pit for a few days, and I've got some lovely chicken legs for Judy."
I giggled and said, "No Brussels sprouts I hope!"
And we all burst out laughing.
On the journey home, rather than joining in the conversation, I sit back in the comfortable leather seats and watch the world go by. My thoughts are on my wonderful lover who has been beneath me today and his whispered words after our buttery coupling: "I love you Michael. I love you. I love you with all my heart and soul."
I love you too, Stuart, and I wish I was travelling home with you now and we could be together like a proper couple. It will happen one day, of that I'm certain. It's gone well today, Alex told me in a quiet moment that it had gone very well indeed. I'm still puzzled by his words, because there was air of mystery in the way he said it.
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