I drove down into the valley and then followed the road around the lake that formed the boundary of the estate and turned off onto the private road signposted 'Manston'. A couple of hundred yards beyond the turnoff was a fork in the road. The right-hand fork was signposted: 'Manston Visitors and Guests'; I took the left fork.
"Dad," Johnny called out, "we should have gone right there." He had just finished when I turned the corner to be faced with a massive set of wrought-iron gates. To the left of the entrance was a notice, 'Strictly Private, No Access.' On the right-hand side of the road, a post stood, positioned to be accessible from the driver's side of a car, upon which was a keypad. I wound down my window, leaned out and entered the six-digit code that Ben had given me when they first put the security system in. Slowly the gates started to open.
"Corr!" exclaimed Colin, "You must be special to have the gate codes for Manston…" He paused, thinking of something, then it clicked with him. "Wait a moment, Johnny; your surname's the same as Ben Carlton. Are you related?"
"He's my uncle," Johnny replied as I started to drive through the gates.
"So, you know Matthew Lewis?"
"Yes, he's also my uncle."
"Oh, yes, he's in a civil partnership with Ben Carlton, so I guess that makes him your uncle."
"No, Colin, he is also my uncle because he is my mother's brother. Uncle Ben is my dad's brother. Dad met my mother through them — says it's the one thing he'll never forgive them for."
"I didn't say that, did I?" I queried from the front seat.
"Yes, you did, Dad, the day Phil and Ben came down to meet me."
"Who's Phil?" Colin asked.
"Oh, my Uncle Phillip Smith; that's Matthew Lewis's real name."
The driveway took us around the side of the lake and then up to the front of the house. Ben's Maserati was parked out front, so I pulled up next to it. As I did so, the main doors opened and Mrs M came out. Whether or not there was a Mr M, I do not know; what I do know is that as long as I have known Manston, Mrs M, has been in charge. She was here before Phil and Ben bought the place, and she is still here running it. The fact that she looked like anybody's idea of a favourite grandmother was totally misleading. She had the organisational qualities and steel determination of a Waffen SS officer, a trait Mrs M probably needed given that she was running what was effectively a five-star hotel most of the time.
"Mr. Michael," she greeted me as we climbed out of the car, "welcome back, and to you, Mrs. James, I hear congratulations are in order." She shook hands with both of us then turned to the boys. "And one of you must be Master Johnny; I guess it must be you." She extended her hand to Johnny. "You look so like your grandfather."
"My grandfather? You know my grandfather?" Johnny stammered.
"Of course, Master Johnny; your grandparents are often guests here, and they will be arriving on Thursday to stay again." This was news to me. I know Phil had said something about them coming down, but I had expected them on Saturday. Thinking about it, I was not surprised. My ex might have no time for her parents, finding them an embarrassment, but I knew Phil was quite close to them and would want them to spend time with their grandson. I had met them several times and found them to be kind, down-to-earth people.
Mrs M turned to Anne and me. "Mr. Phillip and Mr. Ben are down at the Dowager House. Mr. Ben asked me to tell you that they will be joining us for dinner at seven. We still have some guests in residence, but they are due to leave in a couple of hours. Also, I have placed the boys in the Coach House Annex. I understand another is joining the party tomorrow so I thought they might like some room of their own." There was, of course, no discussion as to whether or not such an arrangement was suitable; Mrs M had decided and put it into effect. "Leave your bags; I'll get them taken to your rooms. I am sure you could do with some refreshments." At that point, two of the house staff trundled a trolley around from the side of the house and proceeded to put our baggage on it, whilst we followed Mrs M into the house.
Gerald, the house manager, was waiting for us inside. Once I had introduced him to Johnny and Colin, he told us that Anne and I were in the Rose Room, and he would show the boys the way to the Coach House. After advising us that there would be tea and cakes in the Conservatory in half an hour, he took the boys off to the Coach House while Anne and I followed Mrs M up the stairs to the Rose Room. Once she had shown us to our room, Mrs M departed, and we looked around what is one of the most elegant rooms or, to be more precise, set of rooms, that I have ever been in.
"Mike," Anne asked, "how long have we been coming here together?"
I had to think. "We've been together for just over ten years. I think the first time I brought you up here was the Christmas after we got together, so probably nine-and-a-half years."
"Yes, you're right. You do realise that we have visited here probably four or five times a year, but this is the first time Mrs M has placed us in the same room." When I thought about it, I had to laugh. Anne was right; every other time we had stayed, Mrs M had always placed us in adjoining rooms, either with a Jack and Jill bathroom or a connecting door, but never in the same room.
"I think it is a matter of what is proper, dear. Probably goes back to the times of Edward, Prince of Wales; so long as you were my mistress you could not be seen as sharing my room but had to be conveniently available. Now that I am making a respectable woman of you, you can be known to share my bed." Anne picked up one of the cushions from the bed and threw it at me.
Twenty minutes later, we came down and passed through the entrance hall on our way to the Conservatory. Just as we started to walk into the west wing past a sign saying, 'Closed for a Private Function', a voice with an American or Canadian accent — I couldn't quite place it — announced, "They've closed that area off; they've got someone important coming."
We turned to face the source of the comment: a large man with an equally large woman on his arm who were just entering the hall from the library. "Yes," Anne informed them, "me." At that moment Johnny ran into the entrance hall followed by Colin.
"Dad," he shouted, "you've got to see what Uncle Ben has left in the Coach House for us."
"Not now. I need a cup of tea, and one does not keep Mrs M waiting. We will have a look later."
Mrs M was waiting in the Conservatory for us. This part of Manston was never open to the general public. Only the staff, family members and special guests, such as those like Bernard — who were regarded as family — ever saw the inside of the Conservatory. Actually, I am not sure anybody else saw the outside of it, either, as it was on the side of the West Wing jutting out into an area of the private gardens.
There was a scattering of tables amongst the ferns and orchids which occupied the Conservatory. When Phil and Ben had turned this place into an events venue, they had installed a spa and gym in the basement, which had meant the loss of the servants' dining room. Nowadays, the Conservatory served that purpose and also as an informal tearoom for their private guests.
Mrs M was waiting for us by one of the tables, which were just being laid with a variety of sandwiches and cakes. I noted that the table was set for five, so invited Mrs M to join us, an invitation she accepted. After a few minutes general chatting over tea and sandwiches — cola for the boys — things turned to the one topic Mrs M loved to talk about: the history of Manston.
It was interesting to see how the boys reacted to the story of the house.
"It had been built by an Earl who wanted to woo Elizabeth the First and, to do so, built an extravagant house where he hoped to entertain her," Mrs M related. "Elizabeth, in fact, never visited the house or even set eyes on it. The Earl, though, had spent most of his fortune in building the house and had borrowed money to complete it. With no patronage from Elizabeth, he was seen as being out of favour, and he ended up broke and forced to sell the house to pay his debts.
"It had been bought by one John Murray, a prosperous wool merchant for a price that was said to be less than half what it had cost to build. His grandson, also a John Murray, had sided with the Parliamentarians during the English Civil War but after the death of Cromwell had been part of the group who brought about the Restoration. As a result, the Murrays had prospered under both Cromwell and Charles the Second and along the line gained a Baronetcy. The present Baronet is a farmer in New South Wales, because in 1850 the younger son of 8th Baronet was spared the gallows following an incident over a gambling debt which left two gentlemen with somewhat questionable reputations dead in Pall Mall. He did get transported for life. At the time, that was considered by many a fate worse than death. When his family finally managed to get him pardoned, he decided he rather liked the life in Australia and did not bother to return to the motherland.
"The Murrays appeared to have a penchant for killing people — or, at least, trying to. Unfortunately, except for the one transported, the rest were less successful and usually managed to get themselves killed in one war or another. By 1918, when the son of the 9th Baronet got himself shot a couple of hours before the start of the armistice, the direct-male line of succession ceased, and the title passed to an Irish branch. Then, the title passed to the Antipodes on the death of the 10th Baronet in 1944, an event which caused distress to one Captain of Engineers, who found that he now had to address a lowly corporal, and colonial at that, as 'Sir'. Fortunately, Herr Hitler managed to unravel that dilemma by sending a flying bomb that, while injuring the Captain, obliterated the corporal, sending the title to his four-year-old son safely located in Australia. On the death of the 10th Baronet, the estate, not being entailed, went to his daughter Miss Daisy, who upon inheriting it in 1944 found herself with a rather large and expensive house then being used as an RAF hospital and a rather small fortune. For the next fifty-five years, she spent her time fighting off suitors and selling off her estate bit by bit to pay for the upkeep of the place. She died in 1996, a week after her lifelong companion, a Miss Bruce, had died at the age of one hundred and one. That is when Mr. Ben and Mr. Phillip acquired the property."
Having given a history of the house, Mrs M asked if there were any questions. "Yes," piped up Colin, "why are you called Mrs M and not Mrs. whatever your surname is?" I was shocked. It was a something I had always wondered about, so, to my knowledge did Phil and Ben, but so far as I knew, nobody had ever asked.
"It's actually an honorific name for the housekeeper here at Manston," Mrs M replied. "It started in 1863 when a certain Henry Murray became head gardener here. That created a bit of a problem, as the name Mr. Murray was the name of the future Baronet. So, to avoid confusion, the head gardener was called Mr M. When he married the housekeeper, she became Mrs M. Their daughter went on to become the next housekeeper. Although she was unmarried, she was always known as Mrs M. In most country houses the housekeeper and cook are known as Mrs. no matter what their marital status. The next housekeeper was married, and her name was Mrs. McIntyre, so the staff called her Mrs M. After that it just became the custom of the house to call the housekeeper Mrs M. I'm not married. My surname is Guttenstein. You have to admit that Mrs M is a lot easier to say than Mrs. Guttenstein. When I retire, which is a date not so far away, Mrs. Parkins will no doubt take over and become the next Mrs M."
"Now, Gelda," a rather plumpish woman who had just entered stated, "don't yu talk 'bout retiring just yet, y'u've got a good few 'ears on you yet. I bin older than thee, and I an't about to retire."
"I should hope not, Rosemary."
It clicked with me who this woman was; it was Mrs. Dwight, the cook. "You've got to train up a replacement yet. I've got to find one. Now, what can I do for you?"
"It's the Canadian party. The travel agent just phoned through to say their flight was delayed. They want to 'now if they can've dinner before they leave for the airport; they will not be leaving now till gone eight."
"So, what's the problem; I presume we have food, given the size of the grocery bill this week."
"Food's not the problem. The question where ar' they going to eat? The main dining room is set up for the family."
Mrs M gave a small nod, then stood and apologised for leaving us and went off with Mrs. Dwight. Once they had left, the boys did quick work of demolishing the last few cakes, then insisted we had to look at what my brother had left them. Anne said she needed to sort some things out before dinner and went up to our room while I followed the boys through to the Coach House.
The Coach House and stable complex had originally stood separate from the main house. However, sometime in the eighteenth century, an orangery had been built, which now connected the house to what had been the stable yard. The Coach House consisted of a three-story building comprising the north side of the stable yard. The ground floor, which had once housed the coaches, had now been turned into a row of seven garages. The two upper floors, which had once been the hayloft and the accommodation for the grooms, was now split into three apartments. Anne and I had stayed in one of them a couple of times when we had visited.
I had expected the boys to lead me up to one of the apartments, but they took me instead to the end garage. Johnny pulled a door control fob out of his pocket and pressed the button on it, upon which the garage door slowly swung up. Peering into the gloom of the unlit garage, I could make out the shape of three quad bikes. Mentally I started to curse my brother. What was he thinking by encouraging the boys to go off roaring round the estate on such powerful beasts? Just then, Johnny stepped into the garage and switched on the lights.
For a second or two, I was dazzled as the lights came on, but then I saw that the three quad bikes were connected by cables to a charging board at the back of the garage. They were electric! I breathed a sigh of relief; I remembered Ben telling me about these bikes about a year ago. The bikes had a top speed of just over twenty kilometres per hour; more importantly, they were quiet. On the seat of each bike was a crash helmet with a note attached, 'Wear this or else'; the else was not specified.
"You found them, then," Ben's voice came from behind me. I turned to see Ben and Phil striding into the stable yard. Colin's face was a picture as he looked at Phil.
"Hi," Phil said, nodding his head in my direction; then he turned to Colin. "So, you must be my nephew's schoolmate Matterson?"
"Yes sir, … I, uh, I'm Colin Matterson."
"Right, Colin. Now Johnny come here and listen. While you and your friends are here, you can use the bikes on the estate, but a couple of rules. First, you must always wear a helmet when you are on the bikes. Second, you must never go out on them alone; there must always be at least two of you. Third, if you do go out on them, make sure you have your phones with you. Fourth, don't go off the estate; they are only legal for use on the estate."
"That's four things, not two," quipped Johnny. Phil gave him a playful smack to the back of his head. "Ouch, that hurt!"
"You should have ducked," Ben commented. "Mike, Phil and me are just heading into Rugby. Is it OK if we take this pair along?" He indicated the boys, and I said it was alright, guessing what he was up to.
"So," Phil asked the boys, "do you want to come into Rugby with Ben and me?"
"Yes!" they chorused in unison.
"OK, then you'd better get ready," Ben told them as he pressed the button on a door fob he had pulled from his pocket. The door of the garage two from us started to open. I was right; I knew what they kept in that one. "First, you each need to get one of those helmets." He pointed to the helmets sitting on the seats of the quad bikes.
The boys went and got the helmets, looking a bit puzzled, then followed Phil and Ben down the row of garages until they got to the one that had just opened. Then they gasped. I knew they were looking at a pair of Honda Goldwing motorcycles. Once the boys had got over the shock of what their transport would be, I suggested to Johnny that maybe he should close the garage with the quad bikes in it. He did, then Phil found the boys some leathers to put on. Ben and Phil kept a rack of leathers at the back of the garage for when they gave lifts to friends. They even managed to find some boots that fitted the boys.
Once they were all kitted up, Phil and Ben pushed the Goldwings out of the garage, and Ben pressed the button to close the doors. "Look, Mike, can you tell Mrs M that we will be a bit late for dinner and could she move it to seven-thirty?" Ben said as he mounted his bike; then, looking at the boys, asked, "Who's riding with me?"
"I am!" shouted Johnny, who then looked at Colin and added, "Well, he is my uncle."
"They're both your uncle," Colin replied, though he did not look upset as he climbed up behind Phil.
I watched them set off down the drive with a feeling of uneasiness in my stomach. There was, I knew, no reason to worry; both Phil and Ben are excellent bikers, and the Goldwing is one of the safest bikes around for pillion, but there was still something about seeing your son going off on the back of a motorbike that made one feel unsure. I walked back to the main house via the long route, taking the path around the walled garden and then across the formal garden and entering the house by the Conservatory.
Anne was sitting at one of the tables with Mrs M, looking at a large album. As I entered from the garden, she looked up and beckoned me over. "Any idea," she asked, "how many guests we will have at the wedding?"
"Not really, Anne, I had not even thought about it. I suppose there is your family and my family, what little there is of it; then, there are our friends from Lynnhaven. Why?"
"We need to decide pretty quickly, as Mrs M needs to know if we will be using the facilities in the house or need a marquee in the garden." I looked down at the album and could see it was photos of different marquees and how they could be set out.
"How many can we accommodate in the house?" I asked.
It was Mrs M who replied. "If you have the reception in the long gallery, about one twenty; if it is in the ballroom, about two hundred, but that would mean clearing the ballroom before any dancing could take place."
"Then, I think we should keep the numbers down to one twenty," I responded, "I don't want Phil and Ben going to the cost of a marquee." Mrs M laughed. I looked at her questioningly.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Michael, but Mr. Phillip has been waiting for you two to get married for so long I don't think he is interested in saving money. The budget he's given me is well over what any of our normal weddings cost; then Mr Benjamin doubled it." I looked at her aghast, I knew a 'normal wedding' at Manston was in the tens of thousands; how much were my brother and his partner dishing out. "They've been talking about this since they made Manston an event centre, and they've been planning it for at least three years." She picked up a lever-arch folder that was clearly bursting at its seams. It had Anne and my names on the spine. "This has been taken out and reviewed nearly every time they have been in residence, and they add something each time."
"But I only asked Anne to marry me a couple of weeks ago; how could they have been planning for so long?"
"Yes, Mr. Michael, but it was so clear that you and Mrs. James were such a suited couple we all agreed it was only a matter of time before one of you popped the question; the only issue was which one. I am glad to say I won the bet."
"I bet Mr. Phillip and Mr. Benjamin that it would be you asking Mrs. James this year; they thought she would do the asking in 2012. That's the next leap year."
"I was going to," Anne confirmed, "if he had not asked me before. I'm just glad Johnny gave him a push."
"More like a shove, I suspect," commented Mrs M, closing the album and picking up her files. "If you will excuse me, I'd better go and see how the Canadians are getting along. I would like them to be gone before dinner."
I remembered and gave her Phil's message before she left. I sat down at the table with Anne.
"Where are the boys?" she asked.
"Phil and Ben have taken them into Rugby."
"Not on—" I nodded before she could finish. "They'll be talking about it for the next week, no doubt."
"I doubt it. I don't suppose either of the boys has seen the film. They would have been, what, five when it came out, and it was rated eighteen."
"And since then, Mike, it has become a cult classic. Even if it is not shown on TV due to those scenes, I bet the boys have seen it." In that, she was right.
The boys got back just after seven. Colin kept going on about how he was going to tell all his mates at school about riding on one of the bikes that had jumped the gap in Tower Bridge as it was opening. I did not have the heart to tell him that while they had ridden on the bikes that Phil and Ben had used in the film, they were not the ones used for the jump. Those had been specially prepared stunt versions, and even then, their suspension had not survived, and the two stuntmen did not come off all that well, either; luckily, the crew had got it shot the first time.
Dinner was reasonably quiet — except for the boys going on about their motorcycle ride. Mrs M had joined us, and I asked her what had happened to the Canadian couple? "Seeing that they had some time to spare, I suggested they should have a look at a couple of interesting historical sites. I arranged for them to have a meal at a rather nice country pub — a complete fabrication — but it will fit their image of England, then Bains will take them to the airport for their flight."
"What were they here for?" Anne asked.
"It was their daughter's wedding. A very nice girl doing a PhD at Aston. She had hoped that by insisting on getting married in England, she could keep her parents out of the wedding. Unfortunately, daddy's daughter was fated to have the best wedding money could buy. They have been over six times in six months, making sure of the arrangements. The wedding is still a year away! The business is useful, but there are some customers you could do without."
"By the sound of it," Anne commented, "the parents are a bit obnoxious, which is surprising. I've always found Canadians quite friendly."
"Yes," Mrs M responded, "but these Canadians live if Las Vegas." I noticed nobody commented.
Sometime during the general conversation over dinner, Phil had elicited from the boys that they played pool. He, therefore, took it upon himself to teach them to play billiards, a course of action which required us to retire to the billiard room. Anne, Ben and I seated ourselves in some of the high-backed leather armchairs at the end of the room. Ben serving us each with a more-than-decent brandy. Phil proceeded to instruct the boys about the rules of billiards.
"I didn't know Phil played," I commented to Ben.
"He didn't until the start of the year. He's due to play the part of an English aristocrat in a film about India. It's set at the outbreak of the First World War. A lot of the scenes take place in the billiard room of Barnes Court in Shimla. They are supposed to be discussing matters of state while playing billiards, so Phil decided he'd better learn how to play; now he's hooked on the game."
"Well, let's see if he can get the boys hooked. If he does, it will keep them busy."
"I had thought," Ben replied, "of taking them fishing in the morning; thought it would give you and Anne some free time." This drew a comment from Anne that she thought this was the closed season. Ben informed her that as they were fishing for trout in a private lake, they could fish all year round.
"That's fine, then. It'll give Mike and me a chance to talk to Mrs M about the arrangements for the wedding." I pointed out that I had to pick up Joseph from Kettering station some time tomorrow, praying that he would be on an early train. It would take me about forty minutes to get to Kettering, so I really had to leave at least an hour before the train. Then, no doubt, Joseph would be hungry; boys that age always are, so I could take him to a McDonald's; that would take at least another hour. Maybe I should show him a bit of the countryside before I came back; I could use a good hour and a half doing that. With a bit of planning, I could make picking up Joseph into a three- to four-hour exercise. Hopefully, that would mean missing most of the wedding planning.
Ben was looking at me, questioningly. "I'm sorry, Ben, but I promised Bernie that I would pick Joseph up. It seems plans did not work out the way they were expected to."
"I know about picking Joseph up, but you also seem to be jumping at the chance to avoid discussing the wedding," he noted. Anne nodded knowingly.
"Look, my idea of arranging a wedding is sorting out a taxi to get us to the registrar's office on time, grabbing a couple of witnesses off the pavement just before we go in. It seems that Anne, Phil and you have a different idea, so I'll just go along with it."
"Actually, Mike," Ben stated, "neither Phil or myself have any idea how to arrange a wedding; that's what Mrs M does, so we told her sixty-grand max and handed it all to her."
"Sixty-grand? You're joking. There is no way we can let you spend that much on our wedding."
"It's actually not all that much," my brother responded. "The average full-on wedding these days costs just under forty-thousand. Don't worry, though; knowing Mrs M and her ability to bargain, I think you will find you get a hundred-grand wedding at about a third of the price." That piece of news did not make me feel any happier. It must have shown on my face. "Don't worry, Mike, all you have to do is be here and play your part; everything else will be organised for you.
"The same goes for you, Anne. There is no need to get involved in the details if you don't want to. Let Mrs M sort them out; she'll love organising it, especially as there are no busybody parents trying to 'make sure it's alright' to worry about."
I cannot say that left me feeling all that happy. In fact, it was bloody worrying. What happens if I mess up this wedding? Anne would be annoyed; Ben and Phil would probably never forgive me, and Mrs M no doubt would murder me. I picked up my glass and took a good swig, leaned back in my chair and looked across at the billiard table.
Colin and Johnny had stepped back from the table, watching as Phil took a shot. It appeared Phil was demonstrating something. The thing was, Johnny had his arm draped across Colin's shoulder. That started me thinking. I had not asked Johnny about relationships, but thinking about it, the chances that he had a relationship at school was quite high, and given that Colin was his friend, the chances were that Colin was his boyfriend. That was something I would need to speak to Johnny about.
I got my chance the following morning; Johnny came into the Conservatory for breakfast without Colin. Anne had just left saying she needed to catch Mrs M before she got busy, so we were the only ones in the Conservatory. Not knowing quite how to broach the subject, I decided to jump in and ask him outright. He laughed.
"What's so funny?" I enquired.
"That you should think Colin might be my boyfriend."
"Why, you had your arm over his shoulders last night."
"Dad, we're mates, bloody-good mates; we often hang off one another, but that is as far as it goes. Colin is straight, so bloody straight you could use him to draw lines. Unfortunately."
"If he was gay, it would be perfect. He's my best mate; we think alike; he has a great body and a wonderful sense of humour. I would have liked to be his boyfriend, but he's made it clear that is not his scene."
"Oh, you asked, did you?"
"More than bloody asked; he pushed me out of bed."
"You're lucky he did not do more."
"I knew he wouldn't. I just hoped he might be tempted."
"So," I inquired, "what's the situation with Arthur?"
"Shit. He's tempted, I know he wants it, but he won't make a move. Any time I get close to getting there, he finds some excuse and leaves."
"So, you want it then."
"Fucking yes. I really fancy Arthur, and he's a nice person; just wish he would just relax a bit and take it as it comes, but he's too serious."
Just then my phone rang. It was Joseph calling to tell me he was on his way to St. Pancras and would be at Kettering just before eleven. I told him that I would be there waiting for him. Remembering that Ben had offered to take Colin and Johnny fishing, I asked Johnny if he was still going, or would they like to go into Kettering with me to pick up Joseph? Johnny informed me they were still going fishing, but he wanted to know what time I would be back so he could be back in the house when Joseph arrived. Given that I wanted to do a bit of shopping while in Kettering, I told him to expect us back about one-thirty. I then set off to find Anne and Mrs M to let them know I was going in to pick up Joseph.
Shortly after I had set off for Kettering, my phone beeped, telling me that I had a text. It would have to wait; I had forgotten to switch on Bluetooth, so my phone had not connected with the SatNav, and I was not going to stop to get my phone out to read the message. It had to wait till got to the station.
By the time I had arrived in Kettering and parked the car, I had forgotten all about the message until my phone beeped again. This was my alarm telling me to meet Joseph. I then checked the earlier text; it was from Joseph. He had missed his train and would be on the next. I checked the arrivals board for the next train from London and decided I had time to do the shopping I needed before the train arrived.
Joseph's train, or at least the train he had managed to catch, arrived on time. At first, I could not see Joseph in the crowd coming off the train but then spotted him lagging behind. There was something wrong; he seemed quite dejected, which for Joseph was worryingly unusual. Worse still, he was not looking around for me; it was as if he was trying to avoid seeing me.
As he came through the barriers, I walked up to him. It was not until I was almost on top of him that he glanced up and saw me. "Hi, Uncle Mike." Something was definitely wrong.
"Ok, kid, what's wrong?" Joseph looked up at me with a puzzled expression on his face. "And don't try to say that nothing is wrong because something clearly is." I put my arm around his shoulder for a moment and then found myself with a fourteen-year-old crying his eyes out on my shoulder while a lot of strangers looked on wondering what was going on. "Come on, Joseph, let's get you to the car; then we can find a nice quiet place where you can tell me all about it."
"You'll hate me if I do."
"I doubt it. I may express some disapproval. I can't imagine that I would ever hate you; you're my favourite nephew and my godson. So, unless you have joined the British National Party, the National Front or, worse still, UKIP, I doubt if I will hate you." There was a slight glimmer of a smile on his face. It was followed by a sudden dropping of his shoulders. Once again, the look of near despair appeared upon his face.
"Come on, Joseph, let's get you to the car. Then we will find somewhere quiet where we can talk, and you can tell me what all this is about." The somewhere quiet was a lay-by on the A14, which conveniently had a burger van parked in it. After getting us both a burger, a coke for Joseph and a somewhat questionable coffee for me, we sat in the front of my Santa Fe and talked, or at least I talked, trying to get a response out of Joseph, who just grunted in response. I finally got to the point where I had to force the issue. "Look, Joseph, either you tell me what is going on, or we are going to be stuck here for the next couple of days, and to be honest, I do not fancy surviving on burgers."
Joseph looked at me, clearly on the horns of a dilemma. "Look, Joseph, I don't care what you have done; I'm not going to hate you. As I said before, I may disapprove, I may say you need to be punished, but I'm not going to hate you, so cough up, what's wrong?"
He looked at me, a plethora of emotions showing in his face. "If I tell you, you won't tell anybody else, will you?"
"That, Joseph, depends on what you tell me. If it does not pose a danger to anyone else or to yourself, then I will not say anything to anybody, though I might try to persuade you to say something. If on the other hand what you say makes me believe that there is a danger for somebody, and that includes you, then I have to say something." Joseph looked at me with a look of absolute despair on his face. Tears were welling up in his eyes. "Look, whatever is the matter, it is clear you are upset, and we need to do something, The first thing you can do is tell me what the problem is, and then we can see what we can do to sort it out." His lip trembled as he hunched up his shoulders. For a moment I thought he was about to start crying again. Then he murmured something so quietly I missed what he was saying. "Can you repeat that a bit louder; I didn't catch it."
"I'm fucking gay," he shouted, "a fucking pervert, and I am going to go to prison." He then looked at me aghast, fearing what my reaction would be.
"So, you're gay. Why did you think I would hate you? Also, why do you think you are going to prison? Best you answer that a bit at a time. First, why did you think I would hate you?"
"Because I'm gay."
"Do you think I hate your Uncle Ben?"
"No, you're great mates."
"And what about your Uncle Phil?"
"No, you like him, maybe not as much as Uncle Ben, but you still like him."
"So, if I don't hate them, why should I hate you?"
"But they're …" There was a moment's silence as the penny started to roll, then in dropped. A touch of relief showed in Joseph's face.
"Yes, Joseph, they are gay." He looked at me almost as if he could not believe it, but he knew it was true. "I've known that my brother was gay since I was twelve; actually, I knew before that but did not have a word to put to it. I just knew that he was different. That did not stop me loving him or stop me thinking of him as the best brother in the world."
"That's OK; he's your brother; I bet it would be different if it was Johnny." That hit me, it was clear Joseph did not know that Johnny was gay. Now what was I to do? I had no right to tell Joseph that Johnny was gay; that was for Johnny to do. Thinking about it, Johnny probably had presumed that Joseph knew. After all, he had told Bernie and probably thought Bernie would have told his family. However, Bernie would never give away personal information; too many of his clients had secrets that they would like to keep. If you got started talking about any person's private life casually, you could find yourself slipping up and inadvertently talking about the wrong person's private life. It was a rule Bernie was quite strict about — only allowing one exception: my ex.
"Look, Joseph, I don't care if Johnny is straight, gay, bi or transgender. I might complain if he was transvestite, only because I would have to fork out to keep him in two fashionable wardrobes rather than the one he needs now. Fifteen-year-olds coming on sixteen I find are expensive when it comes to clothes." Joseph looked at me to see if I was serious and guessed I must be joking, at least about the transvestite question, as I never could keep a straight face. "The thing is that whatever Johnny is, he is first and foremost my son, and I love him.
"Now what is this about you going to jail?"
"Saul and his mother went out on Sunday; they came back early and caught me and Saul's brother having sex." This was getting a bit complicated.
"What were you doing?" He blushed but did not say anything. "Come on, Joseph, you might as well tell me all."
"I was… I … I WAS FUCKING HIM!" Now that could be complicated. I needed to get a couple of things sorted out.
"So, what did Saul's mother do?"
She told me to get dressed and get out of the house and that I was never to see Saul or his brother again. As I was leaving, she said she would report me to the police."
"This happened on Sunday?" He nodded. "Where have you been since then?"
"I went to the townhouse. I've been waiting there for the police to come, but they never did. Thought it was because of the bank holiday. Thought I might as well come up here as arranged as it will take them longer to find me."
"Is this the first time you've had sex with Saul's brother, what's his name?"
"Benjamin. No, we've been having sex since I was eleven, but this is the first time I fucked him. Usually he fucked me; it started when he took me and Saul camping." Something clicked; Benjamin had taken Saul and Joseph camping?
"Joseph, how old is Benjamin, and what does he do?"
"He's eighteen, he's on a gap year before going to uni. Why?"
"I think you can safely say that the police will not be coming to arrest you. Actually, I doubt if Saul's mother has spoken to them, and if she has, I think she will be distraught at the outcome."
"Because if anyone is in trouble, it is Benjamin."
"But I was the one fucking him."
"That does not really matter; you're underage, and Benjamin is an adult. He's breaking the law.
"Now, if Benjamin had been younger than you, it would have been a different matter, but even then, unless there was a significant difference in ages, I doubt if the police would have done anything. They would have written it off as what boys do: sexual exploration.
"Now cheer up. The best thing you can do now is to keep quiet about this and let me sort a few things out. Now, I need to make a phone call, and we have missed lunch, so why don't you go and get another couple of burgers and two colas while I apologise for being late back."
"Could I have a hotdog instead?"
"Good idea, make that two hotdogs instead of burgers." I gave him a tenner, and he jumped out of the car and ran over to join the queue at the burger van.
Fortunately, I had the telephone number of the family Joseph had been staying with on my phone. Bernie had given it to me in case there were any problems arranging to pick Joseph up. A woman answered, confirmed that she was Saul's mother and informed me that she was in a hurry as they were leaving for the airport, so I'd better make whatever this call was about quick. So, I made it quick and straightforward. Basically, I told her I knew what had happened and if any word of events got out, I would ensure that her elder son was done for sexual assault on a child. She passionately insisted that Joseph had been caught sodomizing her son, to which comment I pointed out that her son had been sodomizing Joseph since he was eleven. I then pointed out that meant her son had been sodomizing a child under the age of thirteen when he was over the age of sixteen. That point got a total change in her attitude. However, she was still trying to put the blame on Joseph, stating that he must have seduced Benjamin.
Glancing up, I noticed Joseph had got to the front of the queue, so I suggested she think about matters while in Florida and contact me when she got back. Once I was sure that she had made a note of my number, I rang off.
For the next twenty minutes, Joseph and I sat in the car, eating our hotdogs and talking about Joseph's sex life. It turned out that Saul and Joseph had been playing around since they were ten — nothing sexual but dare games and card games which had resulted in them getting naked. When they were eleven, they had gone camping with Benjamin, and a game of Strip Jack Naked had gone on to forfeits, and Benjamin had introduced them to oral sex. Over the next couple of years, the sexual games involving the three of them had developed until they had got into anal sex. Joseph was totally at ease with the sex, but over the last six months, Saul had stopped wanting to play around. However, he had no problem with Joseph and Benjamin doing what they wanted to do.
It was clear to me that I needed to have a long talk with Joseph about sex. This, though, was definitely not the right time, so when we had finished our hotdogs and cola, we started off back to Manston. It was well after two when we got there, and Ben was standing on the steps as we pulled up.
"I thought you were going to be back at one-thirty?" he stated as we got out of the car.
"Some unexpected issues came up which had to be dealt with." I glanced towards Joseph. Ben took the hint.
"Well we've had lunch, but I am sure we can rustle up some sandwiches."
"No need. We stopped for a bite on the way," I replied, going into the house. Joseph followed carrying his bag. "Any idea where the boys are?" I asked Ben, who had followed us in.
"They're just finishing off some ice cream in the Conservatory." Having got that information, I led Joseph through to the Conservatory. Colin and Johnny were sitting at one of the tables, each demolishing a couple of extra-large coupes de glace, a sure sign there were on the right side of Mrs M. As we walked in Johnny looked up.
"Hi, Joe, you're a bit late," he commented, ignoring me. Joseph looked a bit flustered for a moment then clearly remembered what I had said to Ben.
"Something came up, and we got delayed."
"Bad luck. Now you're here, we can take the bikes out."
"What bikes?" My son started to explain about the quad bikes. I interrupted and suggested they should take Joseph to the Coach House, show him his room and then they could show him the bikes. It would be a lot simpler and a lot quicker.
"Can we finish these first?" Johnny asked.
"Of course." I responded, then turned to Ben. "Where's Phil?"
"Oh, he's gone to Stoke; should be back about six." I looked at him quizzically; he caught my meaning and indicated I needed to hold off a moment. The boys finished their ice creams and then dragged Joseph off to show him his room and the bikes. I sat and chatted with Ben, confirming what I had guessed; Phil had gone to collect his parents.
"They weren't due to come down till Thursday, but seeing how things have turned out, we thought it would be a good idea if they got here a couple of days early. Anyway, Phil does not see why they should have to come down by train when he can easily go and pick them up," Ben commented.
"And I guess there was no way Jack and Flora would allow Phil just to send a car for them."
"You're dead right there. We did that a couple of years ago, only because a shoot had overrun, and Phil was not back in the country till the early hours of the morning and I was already committed to some fight choreography at Elstree. They hit the roof over it, saying it was a total waste and if we had phoned, they could have got the bus. Can you imagine it at their age, getting into Stoke, then a bus to Birmingham, changing and then getting one to Rugby; from there they would have had to get two locals to get here, and they only run a couple of times of the day?
"The idea of trying to get here by bus is totally out of the question, but we did not hear the end of the waste of money. What it cost was less than we can spend on a meal in London, though I did suggest to Phil if we have to do it again that we use a local taxi rather than a limousine service." I started to laugh and kept on laughing. The concept of Jack and Flora in a limousine was just too much — him with his flat cap and her with a neatly tied headscarf sitting in the back of a luxury car.
"What's so bloody funny?" my brother enquired. I explained the image to him, and by the time I had finished, he was laughing as well. While we were both laughing our heads off, I noticed the boys setting off towards the woods on the quad bikes. I mentioned this to Ben. "Oh, they're off to the hides. I told the boys about them this morning, and they said they would go up this afternoon. I've told them to be back before five, though; they'd better bloody well be on time."
"Hides?" I queried.
"Yes, forgot you have not been here since Christmas. We had a nature trail set out over the winter and a series of hides built. Colin was on about deer this morning; said he had seen one from his window. Apparently, he wants to study zoology and work in conservation. I told him that if they go to the hide overlooking the glade and keep quiet, there is a good chance they will see some."
"Is that likely?"
"Well, if they are there before three, they will see Perkins putting some feed out for the deer. They usually come to the glade shortly after he has put the food out."
Just then Anne and Mrs M came into the Conservatory, clearly looking for us. The rest of the afternoon was spent going over wedding plans. I wondered what had happened to my idea of a quick trip to the local registry office. That clearly was not going to happen.
It was just after five when we got through the discussion about the wedding plans. Why I needed to be involved, I had no idea, as it seemed to me everything had been worked out and decided. The only real issue for me was who to ask to be my best man; it was a tossup between Ben or Bernie. However, Ben settled the matter for me, informing me that I'd better ask Bernie to be my best man as there was no way he was going to dress up in a morning suit if he was not being paid for it.
We had just finished and moved through to the main hall when the boys came running through from the Stable House. They had obviously got back later than five and had dashed through without bothering to clean up. I was faced with three slightly mud-spattered boys who were all in need of a good shower. At that moment the main door opened, and Phil held it open for his mother and father.
"Now," Flora announced, "which uf 'ou is mi grandson?" At which point she walked straight up to Johnny and threw her arms about him. "Kid, yo're just like yu're grandfather when he wer' yur age."