“Will you have enough money for that?”
Jason smiled suddenly. “Yes. Much more than enough.”
“You’ll be getting mine when I die, darling,” said Lucasta.
“That could be a hundred years away, grandam!” joked Jason. “You’re indestructible. Seriously, grandam, I hope it is.” He reached across the table and took her hand. “I love you. And you too, Eleanor. My honorary grandmother. I’m so glad I came here to this house the first day I arrived. You made me feel welcome and at home. Australia made me feel wanted and liked and accepted, despite being a toff and speaking with a funny accent.” He swallowed the lump in his throat. “I just hope my news doesn’t change my friendships with Keith and Esmé and Lou. Because the money I have won’t be for me—except for airfares to visit you, grand—but for the home. So I won’t actually be any richer. Not really.”
“They won’t change,” asserted Eleanor with complete assurance. “They’re your friends and they love you for you. As I do. What’s more, I can help you.”
Jason raised his eyebrows.
“You can have one of the houses in the terrace.”
“That wouldn’t be fair on you.” Jason had no idea she owned more than the house they were in.
“I’ll do it in memory of Bart. And for you. And anyway, I own the whole terrace. This was the first house I owned, but when I’d paid off a lot of the mortgage, I bought the others one by one and used the rent to pay off the loans, and now I have more than enough. I’d like to help.”
Jason just nodded. He was quite unable to speak.
“And now to tell the others.” Jason sighed. “It’s going to be hard. Like coming out. Because I’ve been lying to them.”
“No you haven’t!” Eleanor was indignant. “You don’t have to tell people everything about yourself! You’re entitled to private things. And if you set aside your money because you wanted it to not be significant in your life, then, why should you tell them about it?”
“Well, I did say, when I told them about Brent, that I was rich and that was part of what … so they do know that. But the title … and all that family history, going back nine hundred years. It’s … too much.”
“Well, I’ve always thought that business of assessing a family just by its male members was silly. What about all the ordinary women who married into the family? There must have been some. I mean, when you go back far enough, all of us have hundreds of ancestors. You’ve probably got a few peasants in your ancestry! But don’t ignore the power of a title in Australia. You will be newsworthy. And some people will be hostile, just because you have a title. You should be able to use it to get publicity, to persuade people to give your home money. Anyway, I don’t think they’ll care. It’s …” she coloured slightly and looked away, ‘it’s not as if they don’t know you, um, intimately.”
It was Jason’s turn to blush. He cleared his throat.
Lucasta said, “Well, my dear, certainly I have some quite ordinary people in my family tree like the wife of my grandfather who was a dancer from Paris so useful to be able to dance I loved it with your grandfather and that was partly why I learned French you know which I love and I remember her quite well such a pretty elegant woman with a charming accent she used to call me darleeeng when I was little and tell me fairy tales in French but I think there were many who cut her and grandfather because of who she was so cruel and stupid really. And here I am your grandmother and so proud of you my dear.”
As soon as breakfast was over, Jason rang Luigi.
“Lou, hey, do you want to meet for coffee later?”
“Lemme just check with Cody. I’ll ring you back. He’s at work now. Let’s say at 5.30 at the Café Novio on Brunswick?”
“Yep. I’ve got something to tell you.”
“Good? I hope.”
“Good and bad. Maybe.”
“You’re going back to England?” Luigi’s tone betrayed his dismay.
“Nah. The opposite, actually.”
“So what is it?”
“Heh. You’ll have to wait and see, gayboy. Give you something to think about. See you later, sexy.”
Luigi ended the call a little perplexed and worried.
He told Cody about the phone call when Cody got home. “You’re a bit worried. What is it?” asked Cody.
“Jason wants to meet us. He says he’s got something to tell us.”
“D’you think it’ll be something bad?”
“He says not, but, well … he’s a friend. I’d miss him if he left.”
Cody felt the familiar twinges of jealousy and guilt.
Luigi saw it in his face. “He’ll be your friend too, you know. He’s a top bloke. He’s kind. He’s been through pain and loss himself, and it’s made him … better. I think before Brent killed himself, he was maybe a little arrogant.” Perhaps, he thought to himself, it was that trace of arrogance which first drew me to him. My need to be humiliated by a straight manly bloke. Well, he thought with determination, I’m putting that behind me. I’m going to make a success of my relationship with Cody. I am.
Cody didn’t answer. He knew Luigi was right. Despite that, it seemed to him, somewhere in is darkest imaginings, that he was alone, that Philippa had left him, and that Luigi’s heart, whatever he said, was given to another. I’ve totally screwed up my life, he thought bitterly. A fuck up. A failure.
Luigi reached out brushed a finger across Cody’s lips, softly and gently. His dark olive black eyes were warm and loving. He didn’t speak, but all the same, Cody felt better.
“Yo.” Keith answered Jason’s call at once, from which Jason deduced that things were quiet at The Lord Grey.
“Yeah, sexy bum.”
“Too loite, too loite! Oi’ve got religion. Never darken moi doorstep again. From naow on, I’m as chaste as the driven snaow.”
“Well, that’s a pity. ‘Cos I was going to invite you to a meeting this evening at 5.30 at the Café Novio on Brunswick Street.”
“Ooh! Romance!” His voice took on the fruity cadences of an old-fashioned TV or film announcer. “Two laonely gays mayt for the first time over coffee. One thing layds to another and before ya knaow it ….”
“I’m ending this call right now,” said Jason, choking back a laugh. “5.30, at the Novio, OK? I’ve got something important to tell you, you idiot.”
“Goodbye, my sweet, light of my life, heart of my heart’s desiring.”
As Jason ended the called he could have sworn he heard Keith say “Demented” in a weary tone at the other end. He grinned to himself. He felt, all at once, ridiculously happy.
Esmé didn’t answer her phone, so Jason left her a message. She’s probly in a lecture, he thought. He sent her a text message as well. He wanted all his friends to be together when he told them.
Esmé was old-fashioned about using her smart-phone in lectures. She turned it to silent when she was in one. So she only saw the message when she went to get lunch in one of the uni cafés. She had a prac until 5, but she could walk from the uni to Brunswick Street and get to the café by 5.30. She texted back her acceptance.
She wondered what he wanted to tell her. He was special. She was in love with Keith but Jason was kind and he had a lovely smile and he treated her as a real person. Keith and Jason and their friends might not be perfect, but they were incomparably better than her father—and her mother, too. But she thought more charitably of her mother now. Even though she was still angry at her mother for not protecting her when she’d been abused, she understood intellectually, if not in her heart, how afraid her mother must have been. She thought back to an article she’d read in the newspaper, about battered women and how they often went back to their husbands because they had no alternative, financially, or stayed with them because they were afraid. The article said that nearly a hundred women a year died in domestic violence. She could believe it.
“The thing is,” Jason said when they all had coffees in front of them, “I’ve got something to tell you. I didn’t want to say anything before, because I was … I was ashamed. Because of my money, because of my arrogance I didn’t help Brent until too late. It was my fault he died. And I blamed my money for making me arrogant. So what I decided was that I would do without my money, it could rot, as far as I was concerned. And so could my so-called friends in England. They always despised Brent, not because—not just because he was gay—but even more because he was working class. And I did nothing about it. He was worth ten of them.” He stopped and stared away. When he looked back at them he had tears in his eyes. He swallowed, and produced an unconvincing grin. “Anyway, I’ve decided to stay here in Australia. I’m going to found a home for gay kids who’ve been thrown out of their homes by their parent. So they won’t have to go on the streets. Like you had to, Keith.”
“Cool!”—“Genius!”—“Wonderful!” His three friends were enthusiastic. Cody didn’t speak, but he nodded, unwilling to be a wowser.
Jason held up his hand. “Wait. The thing is”—he looked away as he said this—“the thing is that I haven’t been honest with you all. Nobody knows this. It’s … kind of embarrassing
The others watched him. “We won’t judge you, said Esmé gently. “We’re your friends.”
“Well, wait till you hear what I have to tell you!”
Esmé just smiled.
“Thing is, I’m not just rich, but I’m also … a lord.”
“Wai would never have guessed,” said Keith drily. “All those airs and grices. Oi mayn, just so top drawer, ya knaow.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. But I’m serious. I’m the son of a duke and I have a title of my own. And when I came to Oz I wanted to put all that behind me. Like I said. But I just want to say, just because I’m an in-bred toff doesn’t mean it will change anything between us.” This confident assertion was spoiled by him immediately saying, nervously, “Will it?” Before anyone could answer, Jason added, “I didn’t want to tell you, well, because of Brent and the money thing, and because, well, you know, maybe you would see me differently.” He looked away and swallowed. “I wanted you to be my friends. And I … well, I know you might feel strange with me being a lord and rich and stuff.”
“Meh,” shrugged Keith. “I’d guessed ya were a toff anyway. Mikes nao diff to me.”
“It’s just,” explained Jason eagerly, “that when I start this new home, I’ll want as much publicity as possible to get donations. And you know with a title, and a poncey accent I can maybe make this home a success.”
“Doesn’t matter to me,” said Luigi. He smiled fondly at Jason. “You’re not special because you’re a fucking lord, mate.”
“Talkin’ of fuckin’ …” said Keith with a wicked grin on his face, “haow come ya don’t go in for high hayls and fishnet stockin’s, like all those Eton types?”
“Try anything once,” said Jason with a relieved grin. “Even you, you idiot!”
“Everybody here, in Oz I mean, comes from somewhere else,” said Esmé slowly. “My parents were Yugoslav and Italian, and yet, I’m neither. And not just because they … because of what happened to me, but because this is a country which lets you be what you want to be.”
“And?” invited Keith.
“And that means you can be a lord all you want—“
“—I don’t want—“
“—but here in Oz, you’re just Jason.” She turned sideways and kissed him on his cheek.
He kissed her back. “I’m so glad I met you all,” he said, his voice wobbling a little. “When I got here I was so … things were so bad. I was grieving and … I just wanted to hide, like a wounded animal. And then I met you all, and Eleanor and Graeme, and now I feel happier. I’ll never forget Brent or how I could have saved him if I’d been a better person.” He looked away, his eyes dark and his face drawn. He drew a deep breath. “You guys made me welcome. You helped me heal. So. I’m going to make a difference. A difference in my new country.”
“This calls for champagne”, exclaimed Keith. He waved the waiter over. “A bottle of Yellow, please.” There was a little space of quietness while they waited for the waiter to bring the bottle and some champagne flutes.
“To us!” said Keith after the waiter had poured. “We’re the tops.”
“Only some of us,” said Luigi drily.
Keith just smirked at him, unrepentantly.
“So is your name really Jason?” asked Luigi, sipping his champagne, his eyes watchful.
“Yeah. That’s my real name. My surname is Armstrong-Beaufort. And I have an honorary title, Viscount Saint-James. And one day I will inherit my dad’s title and will become the 18th Duke of Coniston. And yeah, I went to Eton and everything they say about it is true. My first sex was with a guy called Stewart, a sixth-former. And he was a toff too. Met him in the City afterwards, a few years later, and he’d joined some investment bank and was oh so proper. Tool.” He added, dispassionately.
“But won’t there be pressure for you to have an heir? Isn’t it like royalty? I mean, are you like a crown prince or something?” Esmé was resting her head on one hand, watching him with interest.
“That would be ghastly! Imagine being royal—you could never do what I’m going to. Or be gay. Nah. There’s my brother Mark. He can inherit the title and the estates. He doesn’t much like the fact that I’m gay. He didn’t like Brent. So fuck him, I say.”
Keith looked at Jason through narrowed eyes. “Is he as good-looking as you?” he asked, with a sly smile.
Jason stared at him coldly. “For that, peasant, it’s the fishnet stockings and the whip when we’re alone later. You can wear the high heels. I’m not going to: they can’t be comfortable.”
“They’re not,” stated Esmé. “Horrid uncomfortable things. But they do make you feel very glamorous.”
“I definitely naid that,” said Keith with a grin.
“For sure,” said Luigi. “You could start by dumping those Target jeans. So daggy.” His sparkling eyes belied his words and his tone.
Cody hadn’t said anything through all this. Jason looked over at him sitting next to Luigi and said, “Enough about me. How’re you, Cody?”
Cody was startled out of his thoughts. He’d been far away, worrying again about Philippa and Luigi and their relationships. He ducked his head, shy with Jason, who seemed to him to have everything: a beaut body; a handsome face; wealth; confidence; charm; and now, to crown it all, a title. What he really felt was anger and jealousy, and it didn’t help that he found Jason attractive or that Luigi had had sex with him.
“Oh. OK.” Cody thought that if he said this strongly enough, they would believe him. But the truth was, he was far from all right.
Jason looked at him and gave him a smile of great sweetness and Cody felt ashamed of his hostility but also paradoxically, even angrier. How dare Jason also be charming! On top of everything! It was so fucking unfair. What made it worse was that he couldn’t get up and walk out. He had nowhere to go. Luigi was friends with Jason, but he himself had no home to go to. On top of that, he might yet lose his job. And then where would he live, without money, without a job? And always, there was the fear that the killer would find him again and this time, finish the job.
“I don’t like him!” Cody said bitterly to Luigi later.
“Jason? Why?” Luigi was astonished.
“He has everything. He’s rich and handsome and even has a fucking title.”
“Things will get better, love. It’s still early days. And you have me!” addressing what he rightly suspected was the true cause of Cody’s anger. He waved his arms around then bowed. “Luigi diPietro at your service”
Cody wanted to laugh but grumped instead, “Huh. It’s all very well, but …”
Luigi looked at him, his eyes dark and solemn. “He lost the guy he loved most in the world, through his own selfishness and arrogance. How do you think that feels?”
“I was nearly killed. How do you think that feels?”
“I . . . . I can’t imagine, truly. I never will really understand it. But … Cody …. Your life has started again. You have to think of it like that. Through luck or the Virgin Mary . . . . my nonna thinks God has no time for us, because he’s too busy running the universe, but Mary has time for all of us. And frankly, I don’t like God much, making me what I am. He can get fucked.”
“Lou!” Cody was shocked.
“Yeah, well, he can. I had an utterly miserable childhood and teens. Fucking horrible. Day after day. Being beaten up. And in the end, being beaten by my dad, so badly it took me days to recover. And you know fucking what?” He was shouting by now.
Cody shook his head, mute, startled at Luigi’s vehemence.
“I went through fucking hell. I was incredibly depressed and to tell the truth … suicidal.” He went on in a quieter tone, “My nonna was very worried about me. And then one day, I decided to—someone talked to me—I decided to live again, that the rest of my life was ahead of me and I could either waste it or I could make an effort to live again, to be—well, happy may be too strong … well, the wrong word. Content. ‘Today is the first day of the rest of your life.’”
“That is so seventies!” gulped Cody, his eyes brimming.
“I’ve always wanted to wear bell-bottoms and platform shoes,” said Luigi, enfolding him in his arms. “But seriously, love, Jason is a lovely bloke. And you saw how embarrassed he is with his title. You saw it. He was afraid we wouldn’t be his friends any longer.”
“You’d look ace in bellbottoms. The kind which are skintight over your bum and cock, and flare from the knees.” Cody was trying hard. But he still felt resentment towards Jason. Even though he knew in his heart that he was being unreasonable.
“The new fashion is skintight all the way down. So tight, your arse squeaks when you walk.” Luigi grinned at him. “Or meggings.”
“Meggings?” Cody was quite at sea.
“Men’s leggings. Like tights for everyday. I have to tell you, everything is visible. I prefer to hint and tease, not have all the shop’s goods in the shop window.”
“I dunno. You’d look good in tights. And this—“ Cody squeezed the other man’s package “—these are very satisfactory shop goods.”
“And at your service!” Luigi smiled and kissed Cody, his arms still around the other man.
“That’s the ticket!” said Cody, his mouth smiling but his eyes haunted.
In the end, they watched the rest of the Star Wars DVD and had hot chocolate before bed, and then slept spooned up against each other, at peace, for now.
After Cody and Luigi had left them, Keith and Esmé and Jason had ordered another bottle of champagne and proceeded to get tipsy.
Jason looked at the other two and then kissed them each on the cheek, Esmé first and Keith afterwards, leaning across the table to reach him. With a catch in his voice, he said, “Thank you for being you, you two. I’m so glad I met you.”
“I’m glad you walked in through that door all those months ago.” Keith was a little teary too, the news that Jason was going to stay combined with the champagne, making him emotional. In his life he’d encountered so many arseholes, so many selfish, narcissistic, cruel people, men who’d hurt him during sex and had thought it their right to do so. They’d paid for it, hadn’t they? And here was Jason, a wealthy lord, the son of a fucking duke for Chrissake, who loved him for him. For him. Not because he was handsome, or rich, or sexy. Just because. He knew that Jason wasn’t in love with him, but that didn’t matter. He was a true friend. Somebody he knew he could rely on. Somebody who wouldn’t judge him or betray him.
Esmé felt again how likable Jason was, and how fond she had become of him since she had met him that first day. Some dam of sorrow broke in her, and she felt its waters flow out of her into the ether, leaving her feeling oddly drained but happy, not weighed down by the past, by her father’s rapes and her mother’s cowardice and fear. She was she; she had friends, and they were here. It didn’t matter that she was in love with Keith and that he didn’t feel the same love for her. What mattered was that they were as fond of her as she was of them.
She took Jason’s hand in hers. His hands were big and strong, with nice proportions and (she was glad to note) clean fingernails. Keith wasn’t exactly grubby—well, just a bit—but his fingernails weren’t always pristine. Jason started to stroke her hand with his, and she felt the connection between them spark a current which seemed to run straight from her heart to her fingers and back again.
“Have you got to work tonight?” he asked her, his finger tracing lines across her palm, again and again, in a rhythm which hypnotized her with a dreamy mixture of lust and affection.
“Yes. Well, I should. I have essays due. And stuff.”
He squeezed her hand then let it go. “Pity.” His grin was like that of a naughty boy, caught out in some prank; his blue eyes mischievous, electric, and alive.
She smiled at him. Keith was watching this interaction, his brown eyes knowing but kindly and warm, a small smile tickling his lips. He’d been through too much to judge, or mock. He was willing to share. She lay her head on Jason’s shoulder, and sighed, and he slipped his arm round her. “Tous pour un, un pour tous,” he said. “For ever.”
“D’accord!” replied Esmé.
“Will you miss him a lot?” asked Eleanor.
“Yes, such a dear little boy he was, his voice piping and so intelligent and always seeing things he shouldn’t quite Continental really but so endearing I always did wonder what would happen to him so different so much more sensitive than his father though I loved him too but somehow it’s different with grandchildren you’ve learnt how to be a better parent if you know what I mean sometimes I do get muddled.”
“Quite. I mean, not that you get muddled but that you learn. After Bart killed himself, I wondered whether I would keep going. I wanted to kill myself too, you know.”
“Oh, my dear!” For once Lucasta was brief, her eyes fixed on the other woman’s face.
“Yes, it would have been such a waste. But for a long time, I was so depressed. And grieving. And then your dear boy came to my door, quite by chance, if these things are by chance—I gave up on God after Bart died—but now … well, I wonder.”
“Oh, my dear, God is such a comfort to me I believe I will see Harold again though I haven’t worked out quite how the secretary and there was an actress too how they’ll fit in in Heaven you know. When I asked Canon Green he was quite startled poor dear man and upset too like thingummy in the Bible my dear my mind just isn’t what it was but I do believe in God who watches us all the time and loves us.”
“I wish he’d warned me about Brent. No, that’s unfair. He speaks in our hearts and I knew and I should have done something and I didn’t and now … ah well.”
“But this plan of Jason’s! Such a good idea. I can try to make amends. To do something for youngsters like Bart. To make the world a slightly less unhappy place.” Eleanor was upbeat, feeling once again purpose and meaning in her life.
“One can’t do more my dear for one fights against human nature and it’s so hard to be sensible and kind and not feel hurt and worry and do GOOD THINGS.” She paused for a little. “He did love Brent so much you know and I was so glad for him for true love is hard to find the kind that lasts forever and gives you a partner in life and it makes the difference between a hard life and a full one.”
“Yes, my husband died at 30. He got cancer and there wasn’t much they could do, though they tried everything. I wish they hadn’t, in a way. He suffered so much. And then I was a single mother. Maybe that was part of why I failed Bart.”
“My dear, so hard all these things and life and all you can do is try because we only get one chance at it unless you believe the Hindus with their reincarnation though I don’t remember any of my previous lives if I had them so one can only do one’s best. Now I think we both need cheering up and the best thing for that is a nice cup of tea makes one feel so much better.”
“Quite. I agree, completely. A nice cuppa does make one feel better, doesn’t it?”
The Killer watched the two old ladies through the kitchen window as they prepared and drank their tea. It felt very odd to watch this homely ritual performed by two grey-haired old ladies, knowing in his heart that they countenanced the evils performed by the young men who stayed there. But they would pay, in time. In his head he heard Father McAlister’s burr “Well done lad. You’ll be a true Christian yet.” Or perhaps it was God. He couldn’t tell the difference any more. There were so many voices now. And anyway, Father McAlister had always been a God. Even as Father fucked him or beat him, the Killer had known that it was really God who was doing it, and that he deserved it, because he was a sinner. Because he enjoyed it, despite the pain, despite the humiliation. Because what they did was against God’s laws, and Father McAlister had told him again and again that it was his own fault: that he tempted the older man; that he wasn’t manly enough; that God despised him for his evil, but that Father McAlister would rid him of it.
He was asleep when he heard the pounding at the front door. Instantly awake, he switched on the video camera trained on the door. He was proud of the security system he’d installed. He’d had to learn how to do most of it himself. Just as he’d learnt to do plumbing and electrical work and carpentry. He couldn’t allow tradesmen into his house.
There were armed police, and two paddy wagons blocking the street. He pulled on trackpants and top and running shoes, grabbed his wallet and mobile and car keys and ran to the hidden door at the back of the kitchen cupboard. He opened the door, which looked exactly like a plastered wall, visible only if you knew it was there. He’d been proud of that too. He’d learnt so much at St Joseph’s. He reached past the hidden door and pulled the cupboard door closed. Just as he was closing the hidden door, he heard the front door burst open and the sound of booted feet thumping up the stairs.
Four quick steps under the trellis across the back garden and then he was inside the garage. He locked the door. Like the secret door out of the kitchen it wasn’t made of particle board with a skinny fascia, but of solid oak. It would hold.
The garage faced onto the laneway. The Kombi was there, facing outwards. He always reversed it into the garage to make sure he was ready to go whenever he needed to. He paused to think for a minute. There was no point taking the Kombi. First, it was so slow, especially up hills. And second, it had St Joseph’s name painted on its side. If the police knew about him, they’d surely know about the van too. He had to assume they’d know everything. The Toyota was much more anonymous. They might have the number, but they wouldn’t get the roadblocks up in time. He’d be at Mt Macedon before them.
He shifted some planks and boxes off a locked box, unlocked it with a key from his ring, and took out a pistol. He slid the pistol into a green shopping bag, and went out to the Toyota parked in the street.
Driving cautiously, just below the speed limit, he made his way through the empty streets to the twink’s flat.
Luigi looked at the clock-radio next to the bed. It was 4.55. Still dark outside, as dark as it ever got in this part of the city, with its street lights and the lights on every house porch, every block of flats’ walkway. He needed to wee, but it was warm in bed, snugged up against Cody’s body. He yawned sleepily. If he got up now he might get back to sleep again afterwards. He might even get another couple of hours’ sleep before the day began. But if he didn’t, he would drift in and out of a restless sleep. Might as well get it over with. Carefully, he slipped out from under the bedclothes and lumbered clumsily, still drugged with sleep, through to the loo. He was just turning round to go back to bed when he heard stealthy footsteps on the walkway. Some instinct warned him that something was amiss. Later he couldn’t have said what it was. Some primitive part of his brain, the part which in an animal warns that a predator was watching, the part, perhaps, which makes you look up from your book when you feel someone’s eyes on you.
The kitchen windows faced onto the walkway. They were frosted, but the walkway was well lit. Against the windows a shadow moved, shifty, subtly feral. For a moment he paused, thinking. Should he wake Cody or not? Cody was so tired. He needed his sleep. Let him sleep. Maybe this was nothing. Most probably it was nothing. People came and went from the flats along his level, at all hours of the night. He must not let himself get paranoid.