Keith coloured. He cast a quick look at Lucasta. She smiled back benignly.
“Sao ya had a nanny, did ya?” Keith dug at Jason, annoyed at being embarrassed in front of Lucasta whom he rather admired.
“Yeah. And I learnt French from her. Dialect. When I go and stay with her they think I’m a local.”
“Oi never had the chance to learn French,” said Keith mutinously.
“I’m teaching him,” said Esmé, linking her arm through his.
“You learnt something better,” said Jason, “you learnt to survive and yet keep your compassion and love of mankind.” Ignoring Keith’s discomfited glower, he went on, talking to the others, “You should see him when we get trouble in the bar. It’s never—hardly ever—bad trouble, but somebody gets a bit overactive sometimes and then Keith gets them back in line. Amazing. Just with words. And a little sarcasm. Well, sometimes quite a lot of sarcasm. He hardly ever has to bring out the cricket bat.”
“Oi’ll bring out the cricket bat on you, sunshoin!” said Keith, embarrassed but smiling, too.
“Promises, promises.” Jason leered at him.
“You must ignore these reprobates, Graeme,” said Esmé. “They’re just showing off!”
Graeme wondered Esmé fitted in. Although Jason hadn’t mentioned it, it did rather look as if he were bisexual. In fact, there was a sexual charge between all three of them: Jason, Esmé and Keith. Jason and Keith were clearly lovers. They had the body language. Comfortable in each other’s space. But Keith and Esmé were also obviously connected, too. Graeme thought back to his own six years of marriage and wondered how these three would sort things out among themselves. Some of the older people he mixed with were always saying that the young were stuffy and conservative, but these three seemed to be free spirits, unfazed by society’s strictures and diktats.
And the two old ladies! What an amazing pair. So placidly revolutionary. What was it Dorothy Sayers said in one of her novels? He grinned, remembering.
“Why are you smiling?” asked Eleanor, unable to stop her own lips quirking up.
“Oh, I was thinking of what Dorothy Sayers said. ‘You can tame an advanced young woman, but an advanced old woman is uncontrollable.’ Something like that. It’s from ‘Clouds of Witness” I think.”
“Oh, I think women often change over their life, you know. Because when we are young we are constrained. We must behave, don’t you know. But as we get older, all those strictures and customs come to seem merely silly. Sayers also said:
‘As I grow older and older,
And totter toward the tomb,
I find that I care less and less,
Who goes to bed with whom.’”
“It’s easy to remember,” Eleanor said, smiling too, “because it rhymes.”
Lucasta sat down in one of the armchairs near the fire.
“My legs won’t let me stand too long my knees you know so creaky and old I sometimes wonder at the Divinity letting us go through all this decay and falling off quite horrid sometimes really though I don’t know whether Canon Green would approve of my sentiments dear man.”
Esmé sat cross-legged on the floor on her right, Keith followed suit on her left. Graeme and Eleanor took the sofa and Jason leant negligently against the mantelpiece.
“Will you go for a while to live in France after you’ve graduated, my dear?” Lucasta’s glance at Esmé was direct.
“I’d love to. It always seemed magical to me. That’s why I studied French.”
“Oh my dear so different and so elegant but they treat cats badly poor things all these starving creatures slinking about with all their ribs showing I used to feel so sorry for them when I went there but such a beautiful country and somehow so much grander than England the countryside I mean though not Scotland which is very impressive and almost wild sometimes which I always loved when I used to go and visit Lillibet at …” She stopped, and cast a look of mute apology to Jason.
“Lillibet?” asked Esmé, puzzled, feeling that she ought to know who all these people were, and feeling inadequate as she often did.
“Yes well the Queen you know whom I’ve known for years.” There was no boastfulness about it; on the contrary, almost a shamed regret that she had to mention it. And a lack of blether which was quite revealing. Jason was staring at his grandmother, his brow creased.
When she went through later to wee, Eleanor went into her study and took down the worn, very old red volume of Who’s Who. She opened it at the index and ran her finger down the names.
“So that’s it. I thought so,” she said under her breath. “Well, their secret is safe with me. I suppose they want to be anonymous, but … would it matter to any of us?”
She went back into the sitting room and poured herself another glass of champagne.
Well, well, Kitty Maloona, she thought serenely, as she sipped it. How interesting!
“We can’t stay too long,” Keith said in a low voice to Jason. “I really should get back to work. You know haow it gets busy after ten.”
“I’m glad you came,” said Jason. “It’s always good to see you.”
“And I got to mait Endeavour Lambano! My hero.”
“Who? Me or him?”
Keith just grinned.
“What’re are you doing after?” asked Jason, hopefully.
“I’ll bay with Esmé.” He shrugged apologetically.
“It’s all right,” Jason reassured him. When Keith looked doubtful, he smiled, and added, “I envy you.”
“Whoi?” Jason was puzzled.
“You’re settled. In a way. You have someone you love.”
“And you don’t?” Keith looked a little hurt. You have me, he thought.
“Brent was … and I screwed up. I … don’t know if I can love like that again. But, Key, you … you’re my friend and … well …. you’re sexy and you’re a good man, and …. I hope you will always … C’m’ere!” He pulled Keith into his arms, suspecting that words were pushing them apart and that their bodies spoke more truly of their real feelings.
He looked over Keith’s shoulder and saw that Esmé was watching, her face schooled to blankness. He took Keith’s hand and crossed the short distance to her side. He took one of her hands in his free hand and nodded to Keith to take the other.
“Circle of friends,” he said. “One for all and all for one. Always.”
That’s all very well, thought Esmé, but how can I trust you? Both of you? Either of you?
All right, Keith was bi. And maybe if he hadn’t had to live on the streets he would never have found out about his gay side. And maybe not. Maybe he was always going to find out he was attracted to men. She knew he loved her, well, for some meaning of ‘love’. She was very mistrustful of the glittery shimmering artefact which everybody proclaimed as romantic love. White wedding dresses and soppy romantic kissing and lurve. But at the same time, she needed it, desperately, because it somehow showed her that her own life was worth something, that she was worth something. As for Jason—he was lovely. He had a kind smile, and a beaut hunky muscular body, and his eyes were alive and interesting. Does he love Keith? she thought. Really and truly? Will he just fuck off later when he’s sick of us all and leave us in the lurch? Part of her rejoiced at this intriguing prospect, but then she squashed it mercilessly. Keith would be terribly hurt if Jason went away. Keith loved him. And though Jason loved Brent, he was obviously fond—very fond—of Keith.
And yet, they were also friends. Could you have friends if you were also having sex with them? Keith had taught her how to make love without pain. He was kind, like Jason was kind, and that was worth something. Anyway, what did it matter? She was in love with Keith and that was a simple fact and spending some time with him was far better than not having him in her life at all. It was enough for now. She must be glad and not greedy. She was happier now than she’d been for years.
Jason smiled a little uncertainly at her, and asked, “Are you all right?” His expression was kind and worried and, she would have sworn, entirely genuine and real.
She realised she had become introspective, and that perhaps her face had shown her thoughts. “I was far away, there,” she replied. “Sorry.”
“Oh well, that’s all right then. I didn’t …. I don’t … Keith is your friend too.” His expression was sincere, real.
“Friend?” she said wryly.
“And more,” he said with a slow, warm grin which made his eyes shine with humour and liking. All at once she was filled with affection for him.
She smiled back and for that moment it seemed as if there were just the two of them in the room.
My parents had a typical marriage, she thought, with a bitter burn in her heart. Fat lot of use it did them. Or me. Maybe doing things differently would be better. Maybe having Keith and Jason in her life was better than what her parents had. She wondered whether her mother had loved her father when they first married, or whether it had just seemed the thing to do, to get married and ‘settled’. He could be very charming. Like so many psychopaths.
Later that night, as she lay in bed, with Keith next to her, asleep and snoring a little in a way which she found endearing and adorable instead of irritating, she thought about the two of them. It seemed to her that friendship was a better guide to people and to your heart than love was. You could fall in love with totally the wrong person. But affection and friendship only worked with someone likable. Not that she could help being in love with Keith. It was simple. She loved him. She was in love with him. And she didn’t want to share him. But it seemed she had to, because he needed men in his life. Well, not men in general, but Jason. And Tom. And Luigi. She twitched her mouth ironically. Even if she stayed with Keith, she thought she was as likely to have as happy a life as her mother, who had married a monster.
For the first time she felt a pang of sorrow for her mother. Truly, she was and had been a coward, and she should have protected Esmé from her father. But it must have been hell for her too. Does mum miss me? she wondered. Sometimes they’d had happy times, when she’d been little, when her father hadn’t been there. Making cakes. Playing dollies in the back yard under the fig-tree. Going to the zoo, just the two of them, and having ice-creams on a park bench. Feminine outings, which were always spoiled when they went out with her father, turning into edgy exercises in placation and pretence. Always afraid to offend him, to cross him. Afraid of the icy silences, the rage, the ever-present potential for violence. And it struck her that her mother had also lived in fear. Why had she never left him? It couldn’t have been the money. The answer, when it came to her, was grim: her mother feared for her life.
She turned over and snuggled up to Keith’s warm body. Keith might be gay-shaded, but he was kind as well as strong. She would never feel afraid of him. However much their love didn’t fit into any prepackaged convenient cliché, it was still love, and it was vastly better than what her mother had. And so much better than nothing.
She drifted into sleep, happy.
Alone in his bedroom, Jason took up Bart’s diary again. He hadn’t looked at it for a couple of weeks. He flipped it open towards the end.
Monday. Saw ____ again at footy. I love him. He’s so cute and handsome. But I haven’t told him. I wish I had the courage to tell him. l
Tuesday. _____ accused me of being a homo in front of a whole group of his friends. I feel so ashamed. I wish I wasn’t gay. After school some of them waited for me and taunted me as I walked home. It was only just outside the door that they stopped. I know mum saw it but she didn’t say anything.
Wednesday. More of the same. In class I felt that even Father McAlister knew, from the way he was looking at me. When I sat down at my desk I could smell dogshit. Someone had put some in my desk. When I opened the lid there were chortles from half the boys in my class. Father McAlister didn’t stop them, though he’s normally so strict. He just watched me with his eyes so hard, his mouth a thin line. I wish I was dead.
Jason couldn’t bear to read any more. He was filled with rage at the bullies, at the judgments and prejudice. It didn’t seem that it had happened twenty years ago. It felt immediate, real. He wondered if any of them had ever regretted what they had done. Did they lie abed awake, staring at the ceiling? Did they try and make amends now? Or had they just gone blithely along with the rest of their lives, forgetting the young man they had driven to his death? Did they ever look at a gay guy now, and think about Bart?
Then he remembered that he himself had done wrong; that Brent too had killed himself, not because he was gay but because—in the end—because he had been ashamed of being poor, and had stolen money to try and keep up with Jason. And Jason hadn’t been there for him. Knuckling tears from his eyes, Jason wept for himself and Brent and Bart. He wept for humanity.
I could do something about prejudice, Jason thought at last. I have the money. My own money. So much money. I wouldn’t be using it for myself. It would be something for Bart and Brent. Why didn’t I think of that before? I’ll start a foundation. Something for homeless gay kids. I saw a news report about that. More than half of all kids on the streets have been thrown out by their parents.
Comforted by this resolve, he slipped into sleep and when he dreamt it was a happy dream, one where he and Brent were together, picnicking next to an English river in the rare perfection of a beautiful English summer’s day.
A blunder, thought Lucasta to herself. So stupid of me I do rattle on and then I say silly things becoming quite senile really though I remember Elaine at school being quite sharp with me when I said something silly whatever happened to her and why should I remember her after all these years good grief. I’d better talk it over with Jason tomorrow and see whether I’ve done too much damage it’s like coming out I suppose and finding that people look at you differently well in the end perhaps there is nothing you can do about that because in the end you can’t control other people’s perceptions of you because you just are what you are and that’s that. Poor lamb he can’t deny what he is, and I think it’s been easier for him to tell people that’s he’s gay though the way he was looking at the dear girl Esmé was quite ungay come to think of it I wonder what’s going on there well at least she’s not a fortune hunter because she doesn’t know about his money and she looked so sad I wonder what that’s about so much suffering was there less when we were young?
She fretted into a dream-filled sleep, in which she wandered empty castles filled with presences which weren’t quite ghosts but were also un-benign.
Cody lay in Luigi’s arms listening to him breathe. What was true? he wondered. He’d been unfaithful to his wife, and he loved her, deeply. Yet he had sneaked out to pick up men, he had had sex with men. And sex was so intimate. Worse, he had shared his soul with Philippa, and she with him, and now, maybe they would never meet again. Would he ever see his children? He loved Luigi, but he loved Philippa too. Luigi had been forgiving and patient, but he’d seen the occasional flashes of irritation in Luigi’s eyes at his grief and doubts. Without Luigi he had nothing. Nothing. But what did he have with Luigi? Did Luigi still love him? What if Luigi stopped loving him? He had, if nothing else, Luigi’s friends, yet even there, they were Luigi’s champions not his. Jason had made it plain that if Cody ever hurt Luigi he would have him to answer too. But he wouldn’t hurt Luigi. Would he? What if Philippa said she would have him back? Would he go back? Could he promise he would never again have sex—fall in love—with another man? And if Luigi had fallen out of love with him, what then?
Like Lucasta Ellesmere, he fell into a disturbed sleep, but his dreams were about running through a forest in the dark in despair, trying to escape a killer.
The Killer was tortured by dreams about sex. Sex with beautiful boys and handsome young men. Sex with Father McAlister. Approval. Love. Belonging. Even when it hurt, he had someone to love, with Father. Until the end.
I’m not gay, he screamed in his dreams. I’m not. But what he dreamed about was love with men, of being held safe and warm in a man’s arms. Of a man inside him stroking him to ecstasy. Of the more sinister but much sharper pleasure of killing. Sluts. They deserved to die. God was with him. But in his dreams he was in vast echoing rooms and God’s voice was Father McAlister’s, and there was no approval or love in it. And he was utterly, utterly alone.
When Jason woke in the morning, the first thought that came into his head was his plan to set up a trust to help gay kids who’d been made homeless by homophobic parents. He lay in bed, the warmth welcome on this chilly late autumn morning. I want to stay here, he thought. In Australia. This is where my heart is. England will always be about Brent, about how I and all my arrogant “friends” drove him to kill himself. This country, this city is my home now. I feel at home now in just a few months. People have made me welcome. Eleanor, Keith, Luigi, Graeme, Esmé. People have taken me into their hearts. I want to stay. Which means I need to extend my visa. Do I have to tell them about me? Can’t I keep it a secret?
He lay for a while staring at the ceiling, his thoughts far away.
His grandmother was in the kitchen, making toast to fill the toast rack. The kitchen smelled warm and homely. The kettle was starting its hum as the water in it heated up. He went over to her and kissed her. She had a slightly stuffy sour close old-woman smell, but he didn’t mind.
“Morning Jason dear such a lovely morning but getting chilly now one always forgets that the seasons are back to front here but I love autumn it’s my favourite season like champagne or maybe sauterne and all the leaves.”
He smiled at her, filled with love, and finding even her disjointed chatter wonderful.
“I’m sorry about that blunder last night.” She was unusually direct.
He shook his head.
“Not to worry. I think I’m going to tell them. I trust them, and they trust me.” He smiled at her. “So it’s all right.”
“Yes but still sometimes I do ramble on and then I let things slip and I was enjoying myself so much.”
“It’s lovely to have you here. Don’t worry. It’s not something I’m ashamed of.” Jason kissed her again.
“I’m going to do something with my money, grandam.” He looked away, absently wiping crumbs from the counter. “I’m going to set up a trust for children or teenagers who’re thrown out of their home by their parents for being gay or effeminate or just different.”
She knew at once what he was telling her. “I wondered whether you’d be coming back to England,” she said.
“Not to live.” He shook his head. “That’s why I’ve decided to tell them. They’re—I don’t want any lies. And I want to do something good in the world. Make a difference. I don’t just want to be a drone, a parasite. You see, with Brent I … scr—failed.” He was silent for a few heartbeats. “It won’t be just my money. I’ll register a charity and raise funds. Use my money—and my name—to raise more money. Make a splash.”
“Do they know about Brent?”
“Yes, I’ve told them. But it’s not just Brent. Eleanor’s son too, Bart. Wait here a minute. Let me bring you something.”
He was back in a moment with Bart’s diary. “I haven’t finished it, grand, but I’d like you to read it. Have some tissues ready. It’ll make you cry.” His own voice was a bit ragged. “You see, I never realised how privileged we were. I mean I knew about everything but it was only when I met Brent and then Key and Luigi and Eleanor that I saw how much I had. Brent especially. I don’t need it all. So I want to do good with it. Make the world a better place.”
Lucasta felt tears coming.
“What’s wrong, grandam?”
“Nothing. Just. Oh Jason…..”
“I’ll come and see you often in England,” he said. “And we can email every day.”
“It’s not that, it’s just, oh I am such a silly old woman!”
“No you aren’t. Silly!”
They laughed together.
“It’s just I know you’ll never forget Brent how could you because love is so strong and survives so much but I’m so glad you’re happier now Jason dear and so if that’s because of Australia I’m glad you’re here so wonderful but I do hope you’ll come and visit often.”
“I will, grandam. Often. I promise.”
“I know lots of people, you know,” Jason said, “like my friends before, or Mark’s friends, they did nothing. They had money but they gave nothing back to the world. And I don’t think that’s how we should live. Think about how I ended up here. With Brent, and everything.” He stared out of the window at the tiny back garden, his expression troubled. “Why do we only learn the hard way, grand?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know. As long as we do learn, I suppose.”
“But Brent paid the price, not me.”
“Yes. When your grandfather was having an affair with his secretary …”
“ …Yes,” she continued placidly, “such a pretty girl and your grandad was always partial to pretty girls and a real polygamist if that’s the right word which is why he married me because there were others you know whom he found more attractive such a funny word like magnets and iron filings I did enjoy science at school but in the end he stayed with me I did love him but there were times when I could have strangled him and after the affair I could have frozen him out some women do you know but then she or the affair at least would have won and I couldn’t bear that. So I turned a blind eye and forgave him.”
“I didn’t know.”
“One doesn’t talk in front of the children. But he did love me and I him and in that case the mistake could be fixed though not in Brent’s but I think perhaps even if we don’t mean it we hurt each other and who’s to know what happens inside a marriage like ours or like yours and Brent’s.”
It was like a marriage, thought Jason. And I should have been more forgiving and understanding. And I wasn’t. And Brent is dead because of it.
By this time the toast was made and table set. Eleanor came in and wished them both a good day.
While they were eating, Jason avoided any deep topics. They talked of simple things, until when they were finished, just crumbs on the tablecloth and dregs in the teacups, he said, “Eleanor, I have to tell you something.”
She cocked her head at him, her iron-grey hair already coming loose from its grips. Bolt whined a little at Jason’s feet, wanting another morsel of buttered toast.
“Well, I haven’t been honest with you.”
She raised her eyebrows, her eyes intelligent and kind and a little amused.
“My real name isn’t Jason Wellbury. You remember I told you that was my name when I first came here?”
“Yes, I remember.”
“It’s … well, it’s a bit more complicated than that. A lot more complicated. Unfortunately. My father is the Duke of Coniston. Wellbury was my mother’s maiden name. My real surname is Armstrong-Beaufort. But it is such a mouthful and anyway I also have a title, Viscount Saint-James. I didn’t want any fuss. I wanted to get away from England, from the whole situation there and …”
“I know.” Eleanor placidly sipped her tea.
“You do? How?”
She smiled at Jason’s surprise.
“I guessed last night after Lucasta talked about the Queen. I looked it up in my very old Who’s Who. Of course, you weren’t in it, but you,” she turned to Lucasta, “were.” She smiled slightly.
“Oh. Right.” Jason and his grandmother exchanged glances. “You see, Eleanor, I’ve decided to stay in Australia, and to set up a place, a kind of hostel where gay or bisexual children who’ve been thrown out of their homes can stay.”
“When I came here, after Brent …. killed himself, I decided not to use my money, because in the end it was money and fussing about money that killed Brent. And my selfishness. So I decided to work for my living and not use any of my inheritance. But money is like any other weapon—or tool. It can be used for good. And if you have money and … um … high birth you have power, power to do good. And I thought, you know, there’s Keith who was thrown out of home because he was gay, or bi, anyway, and Bart who was driven to his death”—his voice faltered for a moment—“and then Brent, who wasn’t driven out of his home by his parents and was accepted by all the blokes in the cricket club but wasn’t accepted by my … by who I used to think were my friends. So I’m going to make a difference. Something to change the world, something to help gay and bisexual and lesbian and trans young people so that they can come to terms with themselves and be happy.”
 “Time and trouble will tame an advanced young woman, but an advanced old woman is uncontrollable by any earthly force.”