Monday, 26 October 2020

EPISODE EIGHT

 

The Digital Age

 James Sanders inherited Number Seven in 1990. He was a busy man and it took him a while to take stock of what his cousin's partner had purloined. He didn't bother tracing Jasper as the Southampton show had closed by now and he had no idea where Jasper had gone.

The early 1990s saw Nelson Mandela released from prison, the onset of the Gulf War and outrage at genocide in Bosnia. The cloning of Dolly the Sheep in 1996 caused controversy and in 1997 there was an outpouring of grief throughout the nation on the news of Princess Diana's tragic death.

 James decided to let Number Seven rather than sell it. By doing so, he didn't have the bother of disposing of furniture although he put a classified in Friday-Ad advertising Anthony's collection of suits - all too large for him since James was a much slimmer version of his cousin. When he found a box of Jasper's theatrical costumes and masks - presumably left behind by mistake - he locked it away in the attic box room intending to get rid of it later. The Sanders Menswear Shop was put on the market as a going concern but failed to find a buyer. This was largely due to its old-fashioned sartorial stock and the fact that business had dropped off, the majority of its regular clientele having dwindled due to the passing of the years.

At the start of the school term, four students from the local college moved in. Simon and Max arrived first, claiming a bedroom each. Holly and Mel came two days later, agreeing to share the largest room. The girls already knew one another as they were second year students but for the boys this was their first time away from home.

'I hope you realise you've got to muck in with the chores,' announced Mel.

'Of course…' Simon winked at Max.

'We're not going to let you off because it's your first year. Your mothers may have done everything for you at home but me and Holly aren't going to step into their shoes.'

Holly looked a bit uncomfortable as she listened to Mel laying down the law although, having three brothers herself, she knew how easy it would be for the boys to get away with not pulling their weight.

Thus with four young residents Number Seven took on a new lease of life.

 

 

 

 

TWENTY-FIVE

 

 

As friends go, Mel and Holly were miss-matched. Mel was the only child of divorced parents and it hadn't taken her long to learn how to manipulate them. She only had to ask for something and one or other would provide it. Holly, on the other hand, had been brought up in a large family and was used to mucking in and doing her bit.

'Look Mel, the garden's lovely!' Holly exclaimed after they had unpacked and found time to go and inspect outside. 'The landlord must have got a gardener in to tidy it up before we arrived.'

'It says in the contract that we can help ourselves to all the fruit and vegetables but we've got to mow the lawn and do a bit of weeding. The boys can do that.'

'I don't mind doing it,' said Holly. 'I like gardening. We're lucky, the house has been spring-cleaned; it's much better than the place I rented last year.'

'Mine too,' agreed Mel, 'and we've got to keep it like this; we've got to start off on the right foot with the boys.'

However, her good intentions came to nothing. Both Simon and Max left unwashed plates and dishes on the worktops and forgot to clean the hob after they had used it. They hogged the television and left coffee stained mugs on every available surface. It became clear that neither of them had ever used a Hoover and Max had to ask Holly how to work the washing machine. Tempers erupted when Mel came home one day to find Simon's bike in pieces on the dining room floor.

'What the hell's going on?' she demanded.

Simon looked up from his kneeling position. 'I'm mending a puncture.'

'Well this isn't the place to do it.

'Don't fuss, I'll be finished soon.'

'I'm not fussing. You should mend your bike outside in the garden.'

'I couldn't, it started to rain.'

'That's your problem. I dread to think what the landlord would say if he could see you. Don't splash that water and make sure you don't get grease on the carpet. We don't want to forego our deposit.'

Simon lost his cool. 'I've spread newspaper over the precious carpet so it won't get damaged. What more do you want?'

'I would just like to know where we're supposed to eat this evening?'

'Off our laps?'

'You can but me and Holly are civilized and we want to eat at the table.'

'Stop going on, Mel, you're worse than my mum.'

'Well, I'm not your mum and as we all have to share this house, you've got no right to bring your bike indoors. Trouble is with you Si, you've been mollycoddled.'

Simon stood up and waved his spanner at her. 'Shut your face!'

'Don't threaten me!'

Simon took a step forwards, obliging Mel to back away.

'What's going on?' Holly stood in the doorway. Looking from one to the other, she repeated her question.

'Simon and I were having a little altercation,' said Mel, her tone rife with sarcasm. She gave a sniff of disdain as Simon sank to his knees again.

Holly dropped her rucksack and pointed at the dismantled bike. 'What's that doing in here?' As she spoke, she realised her words were the echo of her mother's on the day she had come home from shopping to find one of Holly's brothers cleaning the engine of his motorbike on the kitchen worktop.

'You may well ask,' replied Mel.

Simon opened his mouth to explain when Max turned up. Looking over Holly's shoulder he raised an enquiring eyebrow.

Mel lost patience. 'Get that fucking thing out of here a.s.a.p. and don't bring it in again.' She stamped her foot, reminding Holly of a naughty toddler. 'Never again, got it?'

'I could hear you shouting halfway down the road,' said Max.

Simon stood up and pointing at Mel, said, 'That bossy bitch is laying down the law again.'

'Well, if she's objecting to bike parts being spread out in here, she does have a point.'

'Okay, okay,' said Simon realising that he wasn't going to get support from Max. Sinking down onto his haunches, he spread out his hands, palms upwards. 'I'll clear it up and finish off outside.'

For the time being, the squabble was over but as the weeks passed tension between Simon and Mel developed into outright warfare. The other two kept their distance although occasionally they found themselves drawn into the arguments. Quite often Holly or Max would go the extra mile and tidy up after Simon in a bid to avoid yet another confrontation.

By Christmas the atmosphere was so tense that they were all relieved to go home to their families for the festivities.

 

After the Christmas break, Holly returned to Number Seven with mixed feelings. During the vacation she described the situation to her mother, who advised her to take a softly-softly approach.

'I expect it will blow over,' said her mother, 'but of course if you're not happy staying there then find other digs.'

'I don't want to move out,' explained Holly, 'I like the house and I like the other students most of the time. Actually, I like Max all of the time and I'm prepared to put up with Simon's couldn't care less attitude so long as the arguments stop. Maybe I ought to have a word with Mel.'

'Well dear,' said her mother, 'just don't get too involved.'

But Holly was determined to sort things out and the opportunity arose that evening when Mel arrived home ahead of Simon and Max.

'Can you go easy on the boys, Mel, especially Simon…' she said after they had exchanged their news.

'He's a bloody troublemaker, that one,' sniffed Mel.

'He's all right as long as you don't rub him up the wrong way.'

'He rubs me up the wrong way, you mean.'

'Whatever. But we've all got to live together and it doesn't help if you and Simon are at loggerheads.'

'I can't bear the way he takes advantage, he's lazy, he's rude…'

'He's been better lately.'

'I'm simply sticking up for our rights as sharing tenants; there's nothing wrong with that. Sorry, Holly, I won't let him get away with it.'

Holly gave a shrug, knowing there was no way she could change Mel's attitude. She decided to have a word with Max but it was tricky trying to catch him on his own. As luck would have it, she bumped into him in the corridor at college the next day.

'Hi, Max, have you got a moment?'

He grinned at her and she warmed to his friendly smile.

'What's up?'

She briefly explained her worries about Mel's obdurate standpoint.

'Yeah, I know what you mean but what can we do about it?'

'Erm, I was wondering whether you could talk to Simon, get him to ease off a bit; you know, fall in with Mel's rules whenever possible. Actually, her rota system is pretty fair.'

Max nodded. 'I'll have a word.'

Over the Spring Term things improved and Holly could only imagine that Max had worked his magic on Simon. She never got around to asking him because the explanation was unexpectedly revealed. One night she woke up feeling thirsty and decided to go downstairs to get a glass of water. Without switching on the light, she crept past Mel's bed so as not to wake her. On her way back, on hearing voices as she passed Simon's door, Holly paused to listen. They had all agreed that there would be no overnight visits from girl or boyfriends. She heard giggles followed by a high-pitched 'shhh' then the unmistakable sound of noisy bedsprings. With a gasp, she hurried along the landing to her own room. It seemed that once again Simon was breaking the rules.

In her haste, she accidentally knocked her leg on the end of Mel's bed. 'Sorry,' she whispered, hoping she hadn't woken her room-mate. There was no response.

Climbing into bed, she drew the duvet up to her chin and glanced towards the other bed squinting as her eyes became accustomed to the darkness. The bed was empty. Suspicions arose: had Mel and Simon become more than flatmates?

 

For the next few days, Holly kept her suspicions to herself. She didn't want to admit it but she felt jealous of Mel, who seemed to have everything: long blond hair, large grey eyes, a figure to die for added to which she seemed to sail through her course work without any trouble. Now she had gained the attention of Simon who oozed charm despite his argumentative nature. He was tall and athletic with fair wavy hair and had the good looking square-jawed features of a Hollywood star. It didn't seem fair.

Holly studied herself in the wardrobe mirror and grimaced at her sleek black hair and well-defined eyebrows. Her skin colouring was quite dark, a throwback to her Sri Lankan grandfather. Her mother, who was light-skinned, assured her that she was lucky because she didn't get sunburnt but Holly didn't see this as a great consolation.

She kept her suspicions about Simon and Mel's relationship to herself, surprised that their friends hadn't spotted it. One day after college, a group of students decided to meet for a BBQ on the beach. It was a pleasant evening and the tide was out. As the light began to fade, Holly noticed that Simon and Mel were no longer in the midst of the gathering. This was unusual since Simon was nearly always the life and soul of any party. All at once, she saw them running towards the pier, hand-in-hand. Unable to contain her curiosity, she slipped away unnoticed and followed them. On reaching the pier instead of heading for the entrance, they sneaked underneath it and, although by then the sun had set and it was quite dark, Holly couldn't miss seeing Mel leaning against one of the stanchions with Simon pressed close to her. His hands pushed up her skirt and then he lifted Mel off the ground so that she could wrap her legs around him. Holly gave a little gasp: she had seen enough. Turning on her heel, she raced back along the beach to rejoin the others.

Holly continued to behave normally towards Simon and Mel. It was easy with Simon because he seemed so besotted by Mel that he didn't seem to notice her anyway. As for Mel, Holly deliberately avoided girlie chats with her, claiming that she needed to study. At college they went their separate ways since Mel was doing geography and biology and Holly, English literature. Then one day Mel cornered her.

'Do you fancy changing rooms, Holly?'

'What d'you mean?'

'Well, you must have gathered that Simon and I are an item.'

'So?'

'We thought…'

'We…?' Holly wasn't going to make it easy for her.

'Me and Simon thought you would like to have a room to yourself. I mean to say, you'd have more privacy and you wouldn't have to worry about me chattering on all the time.' She gave a laugh. 'You know how you like to get your nose into those books of yours.'

Holly took time to reply. Obviously it would be more convenient to have a room to herself. 'I'll have to think about it,' she said. She was taken by surprise when Mel rushed over and gave her a hug. 'I haven't said yes,' she muttered, pulling away.

'No but you said you'd think about it, and that's great.'

Of course, in the end Holly agreed to change rooms and the swap went without a hitch except that Max looked a bit surprised when he came home and found everything different.

'I didn't know they were together,' he said to Holly. 'Why didn't you tell me?'

'It's up to you to notice things for yourself,' she retorted, then felt guilty when she saw the hurt look on his face.

Everything continued smoothly until the middle of the Summer Term when Mel came home from college with a furious look on her face.

'What's up with you?' asked Holly, backing away as Mel strode though the dining room into the kitchen.

'You'd better ask that bastard Si,' she stormed.

'Why, what's he done?'

'The two-timing moron is chasing after that ginger-haired Scotch bitch…'

'Scottish,' corrected Holly automatically.

'…whatever, that airhead in Biology.'

'Who? Tamsin Kennedy? She seems nice to me.'

Mel grimaced. 'She's sugary sweet, behaves as if butter wouldn't melt in her mouth but underneath she's a bitch.'

'Are you sure they're seeing one another?'

'Of course I'm sure.'

'What are you going to do?'

'I'm going to have it out with him. He's in deep shit I can tell you.'

Mel flounced out of the room and stomped upstairs.

Holly got on with cooking her omelette but she couldn't help flinching when Simon came in.

'What's up?' he asked, seeing the expression on her face.

'You'd better ask Mel?'

'Oh shit, she's seen me and Tamsin. What mood is she in?'

'A not very good one,' replied Holly, adding grated cheese to her omelette.

They both jumped when they heard a thump from upstairs.

'What was that?' said Simon.

Holly checked her oven chips. 'I think you'd better go and find out,' she said, switching the oven off.

Simon dashed through the dining-room bumping into Max on the way. 'What's going on?' he demanded.

Holly rolled her eyes. 'Mel's having a tantrum.'

'It sounds more like a revolution.'

'That too!'

By now they could hear the fighting pair's shouts and more thumps on the landing.

'I think she's chucking him out of her bedroom,' said Max, 'it looks like you might have to move back in with her so that Si can have his room back.'

Shovelling her omelette and chips onto a plate, Holly snapped, 'She can't do that.'

'She will.'

'No way, I'll not stand for it.' She tossed her head. 'I like being on my own, why should I jump to Mel's command?'

'I agree with you,' Max said with a grin. 'Look, if it comes to that, I mean if they don't patch things up, I'll back you all the way, Holly.'

'Thanks Max,' she said impulsively planting a kiss on his cheek.

For a moment he looked surprised. Then he grinned and took off his glasses to give them a wipe and, as he walked away, Holly couldn't help thinking that without them, Max was a good looking boy.


 

 

 

 

 

 

TWENTY-SIX

 

 

The next morning things turned out differently to the way Holly expected.

'You'd better hurry up, Mel or you'll be late for college,' she said when Mel trundled downstairs still wearing her pyjamas.

'I'm not going in,' she said.

'Why not, don't you feel well?'

Mel shrugged. 'What's the point I'm not interested in either geography or biology. I only stuck it out because of Simon. Honestly, I never wanted to do further education, my dad made me.'

This surprised Holly. Perhaps when his daughter reached the age of eighteen, Mel's indulgent parents had decided to put their foot down and force her to take her studies more seriously.

Holly tried to cheer her up. 'You're just feeling low. Why don't you come to college with me and later on today, maybe you and Si will make it up.'

Mel glowered. 'Not likely, yesterday he made it perfectly clear that we're finished. And do you know what…' She jutted her chin. 'I'm glad because now I can leave college with no regrets.'

'But surely he was only flirting with Tamsin. You're far prettier and more fun than she is, Mel. He won't last long with her.'

This wasn't quite true because Tamsin Kennedy was a very attractive red-head with green eyes and pale freckles across her nose. She was quietly spoken with an Edinburgh accent.

Mel shrugged. 'I'm not interested in Si any more. He's history...' She paused, '…but out of curiosity, where did he sleep last night?'

Holly wasn't sure about Simon being history. Mel's interest in where he slept last night didn't seem like idle curiosity, but she kept her opinion to herself. 'He kipped down on the floor of Max's room. Anyway, get dressed and come to college with me. You'll feel better later on.'

But Mel couldn't be persuaded, so Holly went off on her own.

At four o'clock she went home hoping Mel would have changed her mind but once inside Number Seven, the house seemed unusually quiet.

'Hello Mel,' she called up the stairs but there was no answering greeting.

She went out to the garden but although there was an open Danielle Steel novel on the grass beside a garden chair, Mel was not there. Going back indoors she went upstairs and knocked on the bedroom door. No reply. Tentatively, Holly opened the door and peered inside. The room was empty and it didn't take her long to realise that all Mel's possessions had gone. Rushing back downstairs, she found a note on the dining room table, which said: Dear Holly, can't hack it, gone home, now you can have your old room back, love Mel.

Holly sat down at the table with the note in her hand. She hadn't taken Mel seriously enough. She had been confident that Simon and Mel would soon be back together again. They were an ill-assorted couple but they had seemed genuinely fond of one another. She wondered how Simon would react when he heard the news.

In the event, both Simon and Max were shocked to learn that Mel had left.

'Why on earth does she want to give up now when she's nearly finished her course?' said Max.

'She told me she doesn't want to do either geography or biology,' said Holly.

'She wanted to do a beauty and hairdressing course but her father wouldn't let her. She dreamt of opening a beauty salon one day,' mumbled Simon. 'She told me she hated what she was doing and the people on the course.'

'But why wait until now to leave?' asked Max.

Simon lowered his head into his hands. 'This is all my fault.'

Holly cast him a searching look. 'Don't be dramatic, Si, how is it your fault?'

'I let her down. The Tamsin incident didn't mean anything. I told her that but she wouldn't believe me. She might have stuck it out if I hadn't messed around.'

Holly shook her head. 'No, Si, it would have come to a head eventually. She's never been happy here. Look how she bossed us around when we first moved in; it was because she didn't want to be here. It's got nothing to do with your relationship.'

But Simon wouldn't be convinced.  Shaking his head, he said, 'No, I'm responsible.' He went to the door then stopped and said, 'If you want to move back into the big room, Holly, it's all right with me.'

 

There was a strained atmosphere in Number Seven during the last few weeks of term. To cheer them up, Max suggested throwing a party before they left to go their separate ways and it was arranged for the following Saturday.

Thirty students descended on Number Seven, filling the rooms and overflowing into the garden. The music which started at a reasonable level soon reached untenable decibels and it wasn't long before the neighbours started to complain. Holly did her best to pacify them. But worse was to come. Vodka and lager flowed like water and when one or two of the students were seen sprawled on the lawn out of their heads she got really worried.

'It's time you left,' she shouted above the din but nobody heard her.

Max joined her. 'This wasn't a very good idea was it?' he said. 'I didn’t count on so many gatecrashers.'

'Yeah, head bangers too! Where's Simon?'

Max looked at her with soul-full eyes. 'He's upstairs with Tamsin.'

'Oh God, thank goodness Mel isn't here.'

She spoke too soon.

'Hi…hi every…everybody.' Mel stood in the kitchen doorway with a bottle of Vodka in one hand; the other was planted on the wall to steady herself. 'I heard you were having an end-of-term shindig so I thought I'd come along.'

'She's well tanked up,' Max whispered to Holly, who hurried over to the latecomer.

'It's lovely to see you, Mel,' said Holly. Taking her arm, she led her to the patio and sat her down on one of the garden chairs.

'Where's Simon?'

'I don't know.' Holly looked pleadingly at Max, hoping he would take the hint and warn Simon.

It was too late. At that moment, Simon and Tamsin came into the garden. His arm was draped around her neck and she was giggling, her head leant on his shoulder. They were clearly drunk.

Mel stood up. 'You bitch,' she shouted at Tamsin, who looked back at her with a vacant expression on her face. But Simon was not so far gone and he quickly ushered Tamsin back into the house. Mel picked up her bottle of Vodka and stumbled after them.

'Stop her, Max!' cried Holly.

Max reacted quickly and ran after her but he was stopped when she slammed the kitchen door in his face. He wrestled with the door handle but Mel's back was pressed against it and through the window, Holly saw Mel smash the Vodka bottle against the worktop. What followed was like a slow motion scene from a movie. Simon stationed himself in front of Tamsin to protect her and because of this he took the full force of the broken bottle as Mel brandished it in the air and brought it down on the side of his head.

He fell to the floor, blood pouring from a wound on his forehead while Tamsin screamed hysterically. Shocked by what she had done, Mel dropped to her knees beside Simon, whimpering, 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry…'

Max pushed the door open and he and Holly rushed inside. Taking out his mobile, he called for an ambulance while Holly ran upstairs to fetch a supply of towels in order to staunch the blood. All the while, the music gained momentum and the other students continued to drink, smoke and chatter, oblivious to the drama unfolding in their midst.

While waiting for the ambulance, Max took charge. Switching off the stereo he told the party-goers to leave. Some of them were so far gone that it was up to the more sober amongst them to organise their departure.

By the time the ambulance arrived there were only half a dozen people left. The paramedics carried Simon out. The police came too, wanting to question Mel but she seemed unable to comprehend that she wasn't allowed to go in the ambulance with Simon and it took a long time for a WPC to calm her down. They took her away in a police car leaving another policeman to talk to Holly and Max.

'Do you know what motivated the young lady to do this?'

'It was an accident,' said Holly, casting a sideways glance at Max.

He backed her up. 'Yes, the bottle got broken and Mel, being a bit the worse for wear, picked it up and dropped it accidentally hitting Simon on the head.'

'I doubt that she actually dropped it,' said the policeman.

Yes, thought Holly, Simon's six foot two and Mel is only five foot six so she could hardly have dropped it on his head.

Max tried to explain. 'Well, she kind of flourished it but she didn't mean to hurt him.'

The questions went on and on but at last the policeman left.

'Do you think they believed us?' asked Holly. 'I mean, that it was an accident.'

'Time will tell,' replied Max.

'We'll be off now,' said one of the lingering partygoers and the others followed him out.

'Let's ring the hospital,' said Holly. 'God, I hope Simon's all right.'

Their enquiry revealed that Simon had a slight concussion and needed stitches to the wound on his forehead

'Phone again tomorrow and we'll know more,' the nurse advised.

'Have his parents been told?' asked Holly.

'Yes, they're by his bedside. I expect they'll want to have a word with you tomorrow.'

Holly's heart sank. Suppose Simon's parents blamed them for what had happened! She looked around at the chaos left since the departure of the students and then gasped, 'What happened to Tamsin?'

'I haven't seen her,' said Max.

'You look in the garden, I'll look upstairs,' said Holly.

She found her curled up asleep on one of the beds in the front bedroom and even though she shook her several times, it was clear that Tamsin would have to stay there until she woke up the next morning.

Neither Holly nor Max was able to sleep that night. At two o'clock Holly went downstairs to find Max nursing a cup of tea.

'So you couldn't sleep either,' he said, 'the kettle has only just boiled if you want one.'

'Thanks.'

'I would never have believed Mel could do something like that,' said Max.

'I know; it was an awful shock.'

'You've known her a while, was she always hot-tempered?'

Holly shook her head. 'To tell you the truth I hardly knew her at all. We were casual friends at college last year but we weren't in shared digs. I suppose you only really get to know someone when you live under the same roof as them.'

'I suppose so.'

'Well,' said Holly, finishing her tea, 'we'd better go back to bed. I hope Tamsin doesn't wake up too early tomorrow morning.'

'So do I.'

'I keep wondering what the repercussions are going to be,' said Holly.

 

They found out the next day when Simon's parents came to call on them. Graham Bellingham was a daunting figure. He was a mature version of his son but several stones heavier, his hair which must once have been fair was grey where it existed for it encircled his pate like Friar Tuck's. His wife, Marjorie, was a small mouse-like woman who remained mute throughout most of the encounter, content to let her husband do the talking.

'Simon tells me it was your idea to have a party, young man,' Graham Bellingham said, addressing Max.

'Everybody agreed to it,' replied Max defensively.

Mr Bellingham looked around the room, taking note of the chaos from the night before. 'It looks more like a pub brawl than an end-of-term party,'

'It's still early and we haven't had time to clear up,' protested Holly.

'I don't think your landlord is going to like the mess you've made of his premises.'

This thought had occurred to Holly too but she didn't want to face that problem yet.

'How is Simon?' she asked.

Graham Bellingham's frown deepened. 'He's recovering but he'll have a permanent scar on his left temple.'

Holly clapped a hand to her mouth. 'Oh dear, I'm so sorry; poor Simon!' She rushed on, 'Please give him our love…'

Max nodded in agreement but Mr Bellingham cut them short. 'I hope you realise this situation could bring your studies to a short, sharp end. The Head won't like students causing mayhem; it brings the College into disrepute. I'd like to know what possessed you to ask so many louts to your party.'

'We didn't,' said Max, 'they were gatecrashers.'

'You should have been more careful about the people you let in,' thundered Mr Bellingham.

Holly shivered as his voice reverberated around the room.

'Can I get you a cup of tea?' she asked in an endeavour to calm the situation.

'Yes please.' Marjorie Bellingham spoke for the first time. When Holly started towards the kitchen she found her close on her heels.

'Can I give you a hand?'

She was about to refuse the offer of help then realised that Simon's mother wanted to speak to her on her own. From the other room, her husband was still grilling Max, who surprised Holly by patiently standing his ground. She felt sorry for him and nervous too and she had to make a conscious effort to stop her hand from shaking as she filled the kettle.

'His bark is worse than his bite,' said Marjorie in a soft voice. 'You see, Simon is our only child and he's the apple of his father's eye.'

Holly lit the gas then said, 'You know, Mrs Bellingham, we had no idea that Mel was delusional and we didn't expect her to turn up at the party.'

'Yes, I've heard the police are referring her for psychiatric treatment. Poor girl, I'm sure she didn't mean to injure Simon. Did she show any signs of her condition when she was living here with you?'

'None at all,' replied Holly although several scenarios where Mel had seemed somewhat unbalanced flitted through her mind. 'But she was a bit possessive of Simon.'

When the kettle boiled, Holly made the tea and went back into the dining-room, followed by Mrs Bellingham. Both Mr Bellingham and Max were sitting down now and although the former still looked annoyed, the atmosphere seemed to have cooled. Over a cup of tea, things improved even more and by the time the couple left, Graham Bellingham's expression was less disgruntled. He strode off without a backward glance but Marjorie Bellingham hesitated. Taking Holly's hand she addressed them both, saying, 'Despite what my husband told you, I don't think Simon's scar will be permanent.'

After they had gone, Holly and Max looked at one another with relief.

'We'd better start clearing up,' said Holly, 'and I think Mr Bellingham is right, our landlord is not going to take kindly to the damage…' She glanced around at the stains on the walls and the scratches on the table. 'We'll lose our deposit.'

 

Several days later, the landlord, James Sanders, came to inspect the damage.

'Of course, you'll lose your deposit,' he said, 'but I realise what happened wasn't your fault. The police have kept me informed and from what they've told me, you two tried to keep order. I gather that the young lady who made the attack was of unsound mind. It's lucky she didn't cause more harm to your friend.'

'She didn't know what she was doing,' said Holly. 'We're really sorry about the mess. We've cleaned up as best we could.'

'I can see that,' said James. He smiled. 'As a matter of fact, I have teenage children of my own so…'

'Thank you for being so understanding, sir,' said Max.

'Just the same, young man,' replied James, resuming a more serious expression, 'you will have to forego your deposit.' His gaze went to the suitcases standing in the corner of the room. 'Are you leaving today?'

'I am,' said Max, 'but Holly's dad is picking her up tomorrow.'

'Well, you're welcome to stay until Monday; that's when your lease runs out.'

'Thank you,' said Holly and Max together.

After James Sanders had left, the pair looked at one another and burst out laughing. 'Well, that wasn't too bad, considering…' said Max.

'I thought he was very reasonable,' said Holly. 'What time is your train?'

Max hesitated before replying. 'It's at six o'clock but I don't have to leave today. I could stay and we could spend our last weekend together.'

'God, Max, you make it sound like a final farewell, who knows we might bump into one another again some time.'

Max looked doleful. 'I doubt it, after all, you've graduated and you'll soon be busy job-hunting.'

'You're coming back next year, aren't you?'

'Yes, my final year.'

'I don't live all that far from here, Max and my dad's promised to buy me a car now that I've passed all my exams; I could drive down to see you sometimes.'

'I'd like that.'

'Will you rent a room here in Number Seven again?'

'Oh, I don't think I'd want to, Holly, it wouldn't be the same without you and Simon.'

'I know.' Holly did a mini-pirouette, swinging her arms. 'I've loved living here despite the ups and downs.'

'So have I.'

Max went to pick up his suitcase but Holly stopped him. 'Please stay. You're right, we could have a lovely weekend together just to wind up the college year. I'll ring my dad and tell him not to come until Monday.'

 

*****

Next up: ‘The New Millennium’


Tuesday, 13 October 2020

 

EPISODE SEVEN

 

The Iron Lady

 

In December 1980, the world was shocked by the assassination of John Lennon and 1984 brought news of the murder of Indira Gandhi. In 1981 the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer was televised live and in 1982 Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' video exploded onto our TV screens. In 1984 Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union and the decade drew to a close with the Berlin Wall being torn down. By this time, Margaret Thatcher, Britain's first woman prime minister had been in power for ten years.

Closer to home, during the 1984 Conservative Party Conference, the IRA bombed Brighton's Grand Hotel killing several people and injuring many more but, on a happier note, the emergence of language schools in the town brought an influx of foreign students throughout the summer months.

Anthony Sanders and Jasper Cole moved in during a heat-wave. Anthony suffered from the heat but he was a conventional man of some forty-eight years and insisted on never being seen in public without a jacket and tie. This was partly because he was the proprietor of The Sanders Menswear Shop, which called for a smart appearance. He was a large gentleman, several stone overweight and addicted to cigars. He also liked to indulge in a tot or two of Whisky each evening.

His companion, Jasper Cole was slight in build and sometimes had a nervous twitch over one eye. Where Anthony was even-tempered and slow of speech, Jasper was constantly on the move and words tumbled out of his mouth uncontrolled. Jasper was an aspiring actor-cum-song writer some twenty years younger than Anthony. The older man bought Number Seven so they could set up home together after they had got to know one another on a protest sit-in staged to save the local theatre from closure. Anthony brought home the money, Jasper provided the entertainment although, occasionally, when stage work was really scarce, he would lower his sights and take on a temporary job as a call centre operator.

'We'll have to change everything, Ant,' declared Jasper looking round at Sandra and Mark's decorations. 'That'll have to go.' He pointed at Daisy's cupboard.

'Let's wait until we've settled in,' said Anthony, running a hand over the wall to test the smoothness of the plaster. 'The house has been well looked after.'

'Their choice of d├ęcor's terribly unimaginative, darling.' Jasper went to look out of the window. 'The garden will have to be completely re-landscaped.'

I resented that. Sandra had made a good job of my garden and I didn't want her well-tended lawn and carefully planned flowerbeds dug up. But there was nothing I could do about it: Anthony and Jasper were here to stay.

 

 

'You know, Ant, this is my very first real home,' said Jasper as they closed the door on the removal men. 'I was brought up in a children's home, did I tell you?'

'Yes, many times,' replied Anthony with an indulgent smile.

This didn't deter Jasper, who went on, 'I don't remember my mother although I'm told she was very beautiful, and she came from a good family. She couldn't look after me you see. She was only sixteen when I was born.' He giggled. 'It isn't true, you know, that old adage isn't true; I mean about girls being sweet sixteen and never been kissed. They've all been kissed by the time they're sixteen.'

'I dare say they have,' agreed Anthony. 'We'd better start unpacking.'

'We'll need to buy more furniture. We could go to Brighton on your next day off and pick up a few things. We'll need a larger table and, of course, a king-size bed to replace that old one of yours.'

'Let's see how everything fits in first. There's no rush.'

'Well, I'll start upstairs,' said Jasper, picking up a box and heaving it towards the stairs. You do the lighter stuff; after all I'm younger than you.'

'No need to remind me,' laughed Anthony.

He sometimes wondered how it was going to work out with Jasper. During his forty-eight years he had had several affairs but he had never taken that extra step and asked anyone to move in with him. Much as he loved and trusted his chosen companion, being cautious by nature he had taken the house out in his sole name. Better to be safe than sorry.

His doubts were dispelled during the evening when, surrounded by boxes they sat side by side on the sofa watching television. Jasper never ceased to amuse him by mimicking the actors or comedians they were watching. He really was a talented impersonator. Anthony hoped that one day he would be spotted by an agent; he knew Jasper had his sights set on a serious acting career but he wasn't sure that was right for him.

Jasper was an innovative chef. He could turn simple everyday ingredients into something special. Prior to meeting him, Anthony had lived on takeaways and ready meals, a habit which had contributed to his substantial girth. At times, Jasper fancied becoming a vegetarian or a vegan but this seldom lasted more than a week or two because there would always be a cookery programme on the television which would tempt him back into being a meat eater.

At the end of the first month, during which there were a good few arguments about how to decorate the house, Anthony gave in and left Jasper to make these decisions.

'But don't go overboard with the cost, Jasper,' he warned. 'I draw the line at anything too expensive; I know what you're like.'

'What on earth do you mean, darling?' Jasper let his bottom lip droop and regarded his companion with lidded eyes.

'I mean you're prone to change your mind and might want to alter things.'

'Spoilsport!' Jasper feigned annoyance and flapped his wrist.

The ill-matched pair spent a lot of time going to the theatre and cinema. Jasper loved horror films although Anthony could never understand why since he always covered his eyes at the sight of blood and ghost stories sent him into hysterics.

Anthony liked classical music and opera, which bored his companion so if he was in the mood for something more serious than Top of the Pops, he would retire to the attic box room to listen to Tosca or Wagner on his Bang and Olufsen stereo system.

'Oh duckie you're not going to sneak away to your hidey hole again this evening, are you?' moaned Jasper, his tone wheedling. 'I was hoping we could have a quiet evening in together, share a bottle of wine and have a game of cards.' He winked, 'Strip poker or something…'

Anthony laughed and patted his portly belly. 'Not likely, I'm too old for those games. Anyway, you'll have to watch telly on your own this evening because they're playing some Beethoven on Radio Three and I particularly want to listen to it.'

Jasper frowned and said in a petulant voice, 'Why tune into that stuff? It's fucking boring. Can't you move with the times, Ant?'

'Don't swear, you know I don't like it. And I'm afraid you'll have to spend the evening on your own. I need a dose of culture once in a while.'

'A dose of culture!' Jasper clamped a hand to his forehead in exaggerated dismay. 'You make it sound like you've got some terrible disease, cancer or something…'

'Don't talk nonsense.'

'Take a bloody aspirin instead of filling the house with all that noise. Why don't you get yourself some earphones?' grumbled Jasper.

'Because it doesn't sound the same through earphones,' snapped Anthony beginning to get riled, 'and I don't want to end up deaf like half the youth of today.'

'Suit yourself, but don't throw a wobbly if I play my guitar into the night.'

'Throw a wobbly, me!' Anthony burst out laughing. 'I thought that was your prerogative.'

They went their separate ways for the evening but Anthony knew that his highly-strung partner would have forgotten their disagreement by bedtime. Friction between them was part of their daily routine but it was always short-lived, the argument resolved with a hug and a promise to be more tolerant in the future.

 

The Sanders Menswear Shop didn't make Anthony a fortune but it had kept him comfortably off for more than ten years. He employed a couple of part-timers, allowing him to take the occasional day off. Like Anthony himself, the products he sold were conservative, intended for the older man. He didn't sell jeans, trainers or anoraks; he went in for the tailored suit complete with matching waistcoat, his tweed jacket and shoe ranges were limited to the Windsor classic and the country brogue.

He was aware that the young men who ran the shop when he was absent made fun of him behind his back, but this didn't worry him. They had proved to be honest and that was all that mattered.

Once in a while he took time off without telling Jasper because much as he loved having him around, his partner's constant chatter could be tiresome. On one such day, he decided to take a trip to Brighton, partly to chase up one of his tailoring suppliers who seemed to be taking too long over an order and partly for a change of scene.

'I won't be in this afternoon, Mike,' he informed the part-timer, 'will you be able to manage without me?'

'Sure thing, Anthony, I don't foresee a rush of customers today.'

It irked Anthony that his employees addressed him by his Christian name but he knew it wouldn't go down well to correct them.

Rather than go home to collect his car, he took the bus to Brighton, enjoying the ride along by the seashore. It was a beautiful day with the sun glistening off the mirror-like water. There were plenty of people about: mothers playing with toddlers on the beach prior to fetching older children from school; old age pensioners taking a stroll; ice cream sellers pitching their wares. The bus ride gave him the opportunity to reflect on his own life. An only child, he had been a loner at school. During the holidays his parents would pack him off to stay with his Aunt Florrie in Eastbourne. She in turn, would pack him and his cousin Jamie off to the Downs for the day, armed with a picnic lunch. Jamie had been a bit of a daredevil and had goaded him into doing things he would never have done on his own. He recalled being coerced into stealing apples from a tree in someone's garden. When the owner had come out ranting and waving his arms in the air, Jamie had taken flight, leaving him to take the blame. And there was that time when he had been persuaded to climb down a chalk pit and slipped, ending up with a sprained ankle. Somehow, with his cousin's help, he had limped all the way home, only to be castigated by his furious aunt when she saw that he had torn a hole in his trousers.

The bus pulled up near Brighton Pier and he got off. This was the summer of 1977 and although not as hot as the year before, it was hot enough to cause Anthony to wipe a handkerchief across his forehead. The height of the season had drawn day trippers to the resort; the promenade was busy. He decided to walk along the pier for a bit of fresh air.

A street photographer waved a camera in front of his face. 'Photo, gov'ner?'

'No thank you.'

He walked on, sometimes peering down between the wooden floorboards at the lapping waves beneath, sometimes looking towards the Seven Sisters cliffs, clearly visible in the distance. From the end of the pier he stared back at the shore to watch people moving in every direction, like ants.

A hurdy-gurdy started playing and next to it, a performer set up a Punch and Judy kiosk in readiness for his eager after-school audience. He bypassed the fruit machines; Jasper liked those and would waste money on one-armed bandits.

Returning to the promenade, he looked up at the big wheel thinking that it was the perfect day for a ride, but resisted the temptation. Volk's Electric Railway chugged by as he made his way into town to choose a place for lunch. After tucking into a plate of plaice and chips and a pint of bitter, he paid the bill and strolled past the Royal Pavilion into Regent Street. The tailor he was planning to visit had premises nearby.

Then he saw him. At first he couldn't believe his eyes: ahead of him Jasper was walking arm-in-arm with a flame-haired youth. They were absorbed in one another. Anthony froze. Should he catch up with them and challenge Jasper or should he wait until they both got home? Should he ignore the incident and assume it meant nothing - maybe the youth was an old friend or a relative? No, Jasper had told him he didn't have any relatives.

Turning on his heel, Anthony almost ran back down the hill to the bus stop. All he wanted was to get away from Brighton. His day out had been ruined.

 

Unaware that they had been spotted, Jasper and his companion continued on their way. If Anthony had confronted him, Jasper would have been devastated. Toby, as his companion was called, was merely a diversion for apart from Anthony supporting him when he was resting, he was genuinely fond of his conformist partner and did not want to hurt him.

The pair arrived at a corner pub and went inside where loud music drowned out conversation. Jasper ordered two beers and they sat down at a small table. He tore open a large packet of crisps for them to share, taking time to study the youth. He was certainly striking with his dyed red hair and a good deal of body piercing. Jasper looked at his fingernails. They were short and clean. Jasper was fastidious about cleanliness and couldn't be enticed by anyone the least bit grubby.

'Have you got someone regular?' Toby asked him.

'Nah.' Jasper's conscience plagued him when he lied but he managed to hide it.

'Nor me.'

'What, a good-looking boy like you! I thought they'd be falling all over you.' Jasper knew how to flatter.

They chatted for half an hour with Jasper impressing the youth by exaggerating his stage roles. Finally, he came to the point. 'Where do you live?' he asked, hoping he wasn't one of those down-and-outs moving from hostel to hostel but judging by his appearance, he guessed the boy had some kind of permanent residence.

'Not far from here.'

Jasper's innocent blue eyes met those of the boy. 'Well, what's keeping us,' he said, reaching across the table to stroke his hand.

'Got any weed?'

Jasper pulled a face. 'Nah, what d'you think I am?' Then he laughed and patted his top pocket. 'Only teasing…'

 

Unlike on the journey to Brighton, Anthony barely noticed the scene from the bus on the way home. He ignored people getting on and off as the vehicle progressed westwards, gazing fixedly up at the clear blue sky. He made the short walk home from the bus stop in record time and once inside Number Seven, he slumped down onto a chair and lowered his head into his hands.

'How could you do this to me, Jasper?' he wailed aloud, his shoulders rocking as sobs overtook him.

He remained seated there until, an hour and a half later, Jasper came home. The younger man gave a start when he saw his partner's tear-stained face.

'What's up?' he asked, a concerned look in his eyes.

'How can you ask that?'

'What's happened? Has someone died?' Jasper said carelessly.

Anthony's next words shocked him. 'Why are you double-timing me?'

Me! Double-timing you?' Jasper knew he had been tumbled but he instinctively tried to bluff it out. 'Whatever gave you that idea, lover boy? As a matter of fact I went to Horsham to see about a role. The local rep are auditioning.'

'Oh yes…' Anthony's tone was heavy with sarcasm, 'and what play are they doing?'

Jasper thought quickly. 'It's a Pinter play,' he said but he couldn't control the irritating twitch over his left eye.

Anthony stood up. He was half a head taller than Jasper and twice as heavy and, momentarily, Jasper experienced a tremor of trepidation, knowing that if his partner turned nasty, he wouldn't stand a chance against him even though he was years younger.

'You didn't go to Horsham, you went to Brighton,' said Anthony, the certainty in his voice convincing Jasper that he should come clean.

'I told a fib; I did go to Brighton and I was going to tell you, honestly I was.'

'When were you going to tell me?'

'When I got home, of course...' Again his eye twitched.

'Then why did you mention Horsham at all?'

'I got confused.'

'Confused eh!'

'How did you know?'

'I know because I saw you with my own eyes.'

'Where?'

'In the street...'

Jasper's hopes began to rise. Maybe it was before he picked up Toby. Maybe this was Anthony being overly possessive. It happened sometimes. 'You can't expect me to give you an account of everywhere I go, Ant,' he said, belligerence creeping into his voice.

Anthony almost snarled as he said, 'Who was your young friend?'

The cat was out of the bag, or was it? Jasper held his breath, praying that Anthony hadn't followed them to the pub. 'He's an old mate I bumped into.'

'It didn't look like an old mates' meeting to me. It looked more like a new friendship; have you been…?' Anthony couldn't bring himself to say the word unfaithful.

His brown eyes bored into Jasper, who reached for his hand and using all his acting skills, murmured contritely, 'Oh love, I'm terribly sorry, believe me it didn't mean anything.'

Anthony shook him off. 'Get out of my sight.'

Jasper's eyes filled with tears. 'But Ant darling, you have to forgive me. I promise I'll never do anything like that again.'

Anthony fought down the urge to take him in his arms. Focusing on a picture of the Taj Mahal hanging on the wall behind Jasper's head, he snapped, 'It'll take more than a hollow promise to convince me.'

Realising that he'd lost the battle Jasper shambled out of the room.

'You can sleep in the spare room tonight,' Anthony shouted after him.

 

 

 

 

TWENTY-THREE

 

 

For the next few days they didn't speak to one another. Anthony walked around the house with a haughty expression on his face while Jasper vacillated from slavish docility to childish impudence.

The impasse was broken when Jasper received the offer of the part of Albin in La Cage aux Folles in Eastbourne. Rehearsals were to start almost immediately.

'Yippee!' He replaced the receiver when the call ended and forgetting all about their disagreement, he raced up the road to the Sanders Menswear Shop to find Anthony.

At the entrance, he caught sight of his reflection in the window and stopped to pull up his joggers and zip up his sweatshirt. Anthony was showing a customer some Harris Tweed swatches and didn't look pleased to see him. Jasper waited impatiently while the white-haired client wavered between an Orkney and a Coniston. At last he left the shop having placed an order for one of each.

'They'll be here in a week's time, sir,' said Anthony, shaking hands with the customer. 'Good afternoon to you.'

Thankfully no one else came in.

'What brings you here, Jasper?' he demanded as he carefully returned the swatches to their place in a drawer.

'I've never seen you at work before,' tittered Jasper, tweaking the end of the tape measure which was hanging round Anthony's neck.

'What do you want?'

'Listen, sweetie, I've had the most wonderful news and I just have to share it with you.' He took a step closer to Anthony and assumed a persuasive tone. 'Please let's be friends again. I can't bear it when you're cross with me.'

Anthony did his best to assume a serious expression. 'This isn't the time or the place to discuss our relationship. I suggest you go home.' He turned to go into the storeroom at the back of the shop. Jasper followed him.

'Don't be like that, Ant. Don't you want to hear my news?'

Anthony took a corduroy jacket from a rail and proceeded to give it a brush. 'What news?'

'I've got a job. It's fantastic. I've got a big part in a musical in Eastbourne. It could run for months.'

'That's a long way to travel every day.'

'Oh, I'd have to go into digs for the duration but I'd come home every Sunday and on my days off.'

Anthony frowned. 'I see.'

'Aren't you pleased for me, darling?'

Jasper's enthusiasm won his partner over. 'Of course I am,' he said, giving Jasper a peck on the cheek.

'Don't I deserve a hug?'

When he heard a customer come in, Anthony glanced past Jasper through the beaded curtain dividing the storeroom from the shop. 'Not now. Look, go out the back way and I'll see you at home.'

'Are we friends again?'

'Of course we are.'

 

And so the episode with Toby blew over and the couple were as loving as ever. But Anthony was not happy about Jasper staying over in Eastbourne and he voiced his misgivings. 'How can I trust you after what happened in Brighton?'

'I'd never deceive you, darling, never again.'

'But you'll be mixing with lots of showbiz people and I know what they're like.'

Jasper gave a shrug. 'They're mostly women.' He was on safe ground because he was pretty sure Anthony knew nothing about the show. Secretly he was pleased when his partner showed signs of jealousy. 'You will come and see it, won't you?'

'Wild horses wouldn't keep me away.'

Because he wasn't needed for every rehearsal, Jasper travelled to Eastbourne on a daily basis. He came home complaining that he was dog tired but exhaustion didn't blunt his enthusiasm and he regaled Anthony with all the trivia the day had provided. Anthony tried to calm him down by talking about his own mundane existence, sometimes envying his partner's exciting lifestyle. Still, he told himself, it's just as well one of us has got his feet firmly planted on the ground.

He went to the opening night and waited for Jasper after the performance so they could have a drink in the bar afterwards.

'You were wonderful as the drag artist,' said Anthony, 'my goodness, I almost didn't recognise you.'

'Make-up had their work cut out making me look older,' said Jasper, casting a sneaky glance at his reflection in the mirror behind the bar.

After a pause, Anthony asked, 'The guy who plays the part of Renato, is he gay?'

Jasper guffawed. 'No worries there, Ant, he's married to one of the chorus girls.'

But Anthony couldn't let go of the idea that Jasper would hook up with somebody else while he was in Eastbourne. He knew from his experience of sitting in to save the local theatre how flirtatious some of the actors could be. He had observed both girls and boys switch from one partner to another without batting an eyelid and he knew how easily Jasper could be carried away by flattery. Indeed, hadn't he tried it out himself when he was courting his partner? Jasper placed great store on looks and Anthony was well aware that it was not his good looks that had won him over. He knew that, although most of the time Jasper enjoyed his company, the draw was the stability their partnership afforded him. He knew also that sometimes Jasper found him too conformist.

He shuddered at the memory of the barb in Jasper's tone when he once joked, 'If I didn't know better I'd take you for a straight guy.'

On several occasions during the rehearsal period, Jasper had stayed out all night, claiming on his return that he had missed the last train home and had been obliged to spend the night in a B&B. Once when Anthony was loading the washing machines he found a pair of boxer shorts he knew didn't belong to Jasper. Disgusted, he took them out into the garden and set light to them, watching as they turned to ashes. He wanted to challenge Jasper but fear of losing him was even greater than his jealousy, so he said nothing.

And despite the heartache living with this unpredictable bundle of energy brought him, Anthony knew there was a kind side to Jasper. He had, on one occasion, brought home a waif he came across in a shop doorway. It was a cold evening and he begged Anthony to let her stay with them.

'It's only for one night, Ant, just look at her, she's freezing. There's a gale blowing out there tonight.'

'We're not a hostel for down-and-outs,' protested Anthony.

'At least let her have bath and a meal,' insisted Jasper.

'All right but then she must go.'

The unfortunate girl didn't utter a word during this exchange but she willingly accepted the offer of a bath and a meal and while she was safely in the bathroom, Anthony made further protestations.

'She can't stay here, Jasper.'

'Why not, we've got a spare room and it's only for one night. We can send her off home tomorrow.'

'Send her back on the streets no doubt so that she can beg shelter from some other sucker tomorrow night,' said Anthony bitterly.

Jasper got angry. 'No, I can tell she's from a decent family. Besides, she didn't beg, I offered.'

'You had no right to bring her here,' snapped Anthony. 'If she's a run-away her parents must be worried sick. As soon as she's finished in the bath, we must get her to ring home.'

After giving her a meal, Jasper made up the bed in the spare room for her. It transpired over a bedtime cup of cocoa that she was barely sixteen and had run away after a row with her parents. With gentle understanding, Jasper persuaded her to ring her parents to let them know she was safe and, in the morning, he borrowed money from Anthony so that she could get the train home.

Then there was the time, he brought home a stray dog. It was a small scruffy-looking mongrel but it had a pathetic look about it.

'Where did that come from?' demanded Anthony, 'we haven't got room for animals here.'

Jasper untied the piece of string he'd threaded through the dog's collar and let it lick his face. When it turned to Anthony, he leapt away.

'I don't want it licking my face. You don't know where it's been.'

'I'll take it to that dog rescue place in Shoreham tomorrow,' promised Jasper.

'Take it right now.'

'It's too late, they're closed.'

Anthony pointed to the dog's collar. 'Have you looked to see if the owner's telephone number is on it?'

'It isn't but it says the dog's name is Buster.'

Anthony took a deep breath. 'It can sleep in the shed until someone comes to pick it up.'

'It will be lonely.'

'Lonely, my foot! It must have been on its own when you found it.'

'It was wandering around sniffing all the garden gates. If we take it to the rescue place they will probably be able to trace its owners, or they might ring up and ask if it's been handed in.'

'Whatever,' sniffed Anthony, 'it sleeps in the shed.'

 

Soon after they moved in, Anthony arranged for the local newspaper to be delivered every week. He claimed he had a social conscience and that it was their duty to keep up with local events. He took to writing letters to the editor complaining about cyclists riding along the promenade, people letting their dogs run free on the beach and the outlandish parking charges in the town centre.

Jasper scanned the paper for forthcoming attractions or titbits of scandal.  One day he came across a piece of news about a woman who had walked into the local police station to make a confession.

'Here Ant, listen to this,' he said.

Anthony put down the book he was reading and took off his glasses. 'What is it?'

Jasper paraphrased the article. 'An eighty-four year old local woman claims she murdered her mother in her bed some twenty-six years ago…'

'What made her confess after all this time?'

'It seems that there were no unusual circumstances surrounding the mother's death at the time, so no one suspected anything. The Death Certificate said she died from natural causes.'

'Who is this woman, she must be loco?'

'They say there could be some truth in her story.'

'What's her name?'

'Thelma Stokes.'

'That name rings a bell.' All at once, Anthony got up and hurried from the room.

'Where are you going?' called Jasper.

'I won't be a minute.'

A puzzled frown creased Jasper's brow. It was unusual for his partner to move so rapidly; normally Anthony was as measured of movement as he was of speech.

After five minutes, Anthony returned with a bundle of documents under his arm.

'What have you got there?'

'The House Deeds...' He picked up his glasses, exasperating Jasper by taking time to polish the lens before placing them on his nose.

'What for…?'

'Wait a minute and I'll tell you…' Anthony thumbed through the pages then looked up triumphantly. 'I knew I was right.'

'Right about what…?' said Jasper, his tone rife with irritation.

Anthony pressed his index finger on a line on one of the pages. 'We bought the house…'

'You bought the house,' corrected Jasper, pernickety as ever.

'I bought the house from a Mr and Mrs Toplin who in turn bought it from a Miss Thelma Stokes.'

'What are you saying?'

'I'm saying that if what the old lady says is true, she supposedly murdered her mother in this very house.'

'Ooh!' Jasper flung the newspaper at Anthony and leapt to his feet. Clasping his hands to his cheeks, he cried, 'Does it say where the crime was committed? I mean, was it in the front bedroom…' his voice rose, '…the room where we sleep?'

'It doesn't say.'

Jasper paced the floor, gesticulating wildly. 'We can't stay here. It's a crime scene,' he shrieked.

Anthony burst out laughing. 'Don't be so melodramatic, Jasper, this Stokes woman is probably round the bend.' He scrutinised the rest of the article. 'It says she's been sailing around the world for the past couple of decades with a male companion. Apparently he died recently.' He quoted: overwhelmed with grief at losing her beloved Leslie, Thelma Stokes decided to return to her roots and confess to the crime which had been weighing on her conscience over the years. Anthony folded up the newspaper and let it drop to the floor. 'There didn't I tell you, the woman's clearly beside herself with grief?' He gave a chuckle. 'But it would make a lovely talking point at a dinner party.'

'How can you treat this so lightly, Ant? What if the police take her seriously and decide to come and investigate?'

'I don't think it will come to that.'

'What if it does?'

Anthony got impatient. 'It's just a silly story the newspaper has latched onto, Jasper.'

'I hope you're right,' Jasper slumped back into the chair he had vacated and wrinkled his nose. 'Just the same, I think I'll sleep in the spare room tonight.'

The production of La Cage aux Folles went very well. It was originally scheduled for a three-month run but due to its success this was extended for another two months. Although proud of his young partner and pleased by his success, Anthony couldn't help wishing the show would end. But worse was to come. After a short break it was announced that La Cage aux Folles would be moving on to the Mayflower in Southampton, which of course meant that Jasper would be away from home for even longer. Jasper was lucky because some of the cast had been let go, including his counterpart, Renato, whose replacement hadn't yet been decided.

'Let's make the most of your three-week break,' said Anthony, 'we could to go on holiday, maybe take a trip to Italy or the South of France.'

Jasper yawned. 'I don't know about that,' he said, 'all I can think about now is having a lovely lie-in each morning after a relaxing evening in front of the TV with you.'

Anthony knew he should be glad that all Jasper wanted was a quiet break at home but he couldn't help wishing he could whisk him away to a place where nobody knew them, to a place where they could be themselves for despite the easing of attitudes during the eighties, he had noticed the aloofness of some of their neighbours and he knew by the behaviour of one or two of his regular customers the word had got around that he was gay. Much as he loved his partner's flaunting conduct, he sometimes felt the urge to rein him in.

In the end, they stayed at home in Number Seven with the occasional day out when weather permitted. They took a trip to London to visit an Andy Warhol Exhibition at the Tate Modern. This wasn't to Anthony's taste but he was anxious to please Jasper. However, it seemed that pleasing his partner was well nigh impossible because the young man soon lost interest in the exhibition.

'This is getting boring,' moaned Jasper slumping down on one of the couches in the centre of the exhibition hall.

'You're the one who wanted to come here.'

'I know, but if you've seen one you've seen the lot. Let's go and have a drink; I know a nice place not far from here.'

Anthony felt uncomfortable when Jasper led the way to a gay bar. Never having been overtly gay, he was sensitive to remarks made by so-called straight people, especially men. He was inherently gentle both in speech and manner. As a twenty-year-old he had been unwilling to acknowledge his sexual proclivity and had played the macho man. At six foot two and with a heavy build this had been relatively easy. He would not admit, even to himself, that being called a queen or a fag could cause him as much pain as a physical blow.

He looked at his companion who took pride in being gay, envying his ability to cast aside prejudice with a flick of the wrist. Anthony had not officially come out and he wasn't sure whether even his cousin James, with whom he had spent much of his childhood, knew he was gay.

Jasper noticed his discomfort and said with a laugh, 'Cheer up, Ant, they serve good coffee here if you don't want a beer.' When Anthony didn't reply, he added, 'What's the matter? Oh, I see, it's not upmarket enough for you.'

'It's not that.'

Jasper wrinkled his brow in comprehension. Rolling his eyes, he said, 'I'm not ashamed of what I am even if you are.'

'I'm not ashamed,' protested Anthony, 'I prefer to be discreet that's all.'

The door to the bar was pushed open and a couple of men emerged, walking away arm-in-arm. Jasper disappeared inside but Anthony hesitated on the threshold, unable to stop himself from glancing back over his shoulder to see if anybody was looking at them. He caught the eye of a delivery man who was carrying a bulky parcel into a nearby shop. When the man winked at him, he felt his cheeks redden and hurriedly followed Jasper into the bar.

'Not all of us want to be stuck in a time warp,' sniffed Jasper continuing the conversation they had started outside. Luckily, the loud music precluded further argument.

The day didn't turn out the way Anthony would have liked. After only a few moments inside he noticed that many eyes were turned on Jasper, who cut an attractive figure with his slim physique and classical bone structure. His piercing violet blue eyes were his best feature and had he been born a woman he would undoubtedly have been proclaimed beautiful. Anthony knew that Jasper was beginning to get concerned that his sandy hair was thinning and he took great pains to comb it across his head and to add a little gel to keep it in place. To make matters worse, Anthony himself had a head of thick dark hair. Jasper didn't cope easily with envy and frequently moaned that it wasn't fair that his much older partner should be so blessed.

Against his natural inclination, Anthony put his arm possessively around Jasper's waist. Generally, he kept demonstrations of affection strictly private but he felt the need to lay claim to the young man by his side. After leaving the bar, Anthony couldn't keep a lid on his jealousy.

'You didn't have to flirt with that good-looking black guy by the counter,' he said.

Jasper took delight in deliberately misunderstanding him. 'Why, because he's black? I didn't know you were racist, Ant.'

'Don't be a fool! You know what I mean. We're a couple and you shouldn't play around like that.'

'Ooh, do I see traces of the little green god?'

'You're behaving like a child,' grumbled Anthony, ignoring the fact that it was he, not Jasper, who was unwilling to acknowledge his sexuality.

They travelled home in silence, sitting as far apart on the train seat as possible.

 

 

 

 

TWENTY-FOUR

 

 

Jasper felt peeved about the incident in the coffee bar. All he'd done was flirt with a good-looking guy. Anthony didn't own him. It wasn't as if they had gone through a civil ceremony tying them together. Anthony had hinted at it once, saying that if they were legally bound, he would arrange for Number Seven to be held in joint ownership. Jasper was aware that Anthony had a nice little nest egg stowed away in a building society. If their relationship were legalised, he would have claim to that too. But for the moment, he couldn't rid his mind of his irritation when Anthony behaved so covertly. Why was he ashamed of his sexual predilection? He, Jasper, was proud of it.

 

The atmosphere during the remaining days of the three weeks was strained. Anthony wanted to put things right but didn't know how to and Jasper seemed to take delight in winding him up with caustic comments about his old-fashioned attitude. They slept in the same bed but their relationship had changed and their goodbyes on the day Jasper departed for Southampton seemed to Anthony almost like a final farewell. For the rest of that day, he moped about the house, leaving the care of the shop to his part-time assistants.

As promised, Jasper phoned him on his arrival, assuring him that his digs were fine and that he would begin rehearsals the next day.

'It's going to be great here. It's a pity you won't be able to see the show with its new cast.'

Anthony had never suggested that he wouldn't travel to Southampton to see the show and felt slighted that Jasper assumed he wouldn't make the journey. As the weeks went by, he sank into depression, feeling ill both mentally and physically. He had always suffered from indigestion but now the pain he suffered in the evening was getting worse. Unwilling to admit that he might be ill he put off visiting the doctor.

The heart attack hit him during the night. He struggled from his bed and was able to phone for an ambulance but in an attempt to get downstairs to open the door, he fell headlong in the hallway. His last thoughts were uncharacteristically dramatic: so close to help but yet so far.

When the paramedics couldn't gain entry to Number Seven they knocked at Number Five but Anthony had never entrusted anyone except Jasper with a house key. The woman next door hastened to explain that Anthony's partner was away - she had seen him depart with a suitcase - but she didn't know where he was.

The police broke the front door down but had difficulty pushing it open as Anthony's body was in the way. Eventually, a slim WPC managed to squeeze her way in and ascertain that he was dead.

'What's his partner's name?' the Police Sergeant asked the neighbour but all she knew was that he was called Jasper.

'No surname?'

'I'm afraid not but I think he's an actor.'

'Is he in a show now?'

'Possibly; maybe he was going to a rehearsal when I saw him with a suitcase.'

This new clue soon brought to light Jasper's whereabouts. He took time off from rehearsals and rushed home, arriving later the same day.

'Oh my God, oh my God!' he kept repeating while the patient Police Sergeant tried to question him.

'Do you know if Mr Sanders had any relatives, Mr Cole?'

'How would I know?'

The Police Sergeant exchanged an exasperated glance with the WPC who speaking very quietly, said, 'We do need to know whether Anthony has any family.'

Jasper started to calm down at last but he wasn't able to furnish them with much information. 'I believe there's a cousin somewhere in East Sussex,' he said, 'but I don't know whether his surname is Sanders. He could be a cousin on Ant's mother's side.'

'Please try and remember the cousin's name,' insisted the WPC.

'I can't, I can't,' howled Jasper, 'why can't you leave me alone, I'm so upset.'

The Police Sergeant lost patience. 'Get him out of here,' he grunted.

Jasper scurried out of the room accompanied by the WPC. In the corridor she spoke to him again. 'Don't take offence, Mr Cole, it's just that we need a lead to help us contact Mr Sanders' next of kin.'

Her kindness sobered Jasper. 'I know,' he muttered, 'and if I think of anything I'll let you know.'

That night, Jasper slept in the spare room. The very idea of sleeping in the bed they had shared appalled him. I'll never be able to set foot in that bedroom again, he told himself. He tossed and turned all night as the repercussions of Anthony's demise sank in. La Cage aux Folles was expected to run for at least six weeks at the Mayflower but there were rumours that when it came off the director intended to put on a different play and he had no idea as to whether he would be included in the cast.

While acting he earned a reasonable salary but he was quick to spend it, never bothering to put any money aside for a rainy day. Why should he? There was always Anthony to fall back on. Now the future looked uncertain.

He remembered Toby and his thoughts flew back to pre-Anthony when he had almost become a down-and-out himself. On one occasion he had even sunk to prostituting himself because he was skint. He had meant it when he'd told Anthony that Number Seven was his first real home; the likelihood of losing it was too awful to bear. Then he brightened. Ant had once mentioned adding a codicil to his will. Was it possible that his name had been added? He ran a hand over his balding head reminded that he'd been going to ask Anthony for the £500 needed for a hair transplant. Perhaps it was still possible. Reassured by this hope, he at last fell asleep. Never once did he reflect on Anthony's suffering.

The police questioned him again the next day, at the Police Station this time. Although they offered him a cup of tea and a cigarette, he felt like a criminal. Nothing would convince them that he had no knowledge of Anthony's cousin. However, to his relief, during the interview the WPC came in to say they had located James Sanders.

'You may go now, Mr Cole,' said the Police Sergeant, 'but please leave your address and telephone number in Southampton at the desk when you go out.'

Jasper made his escape, sloping off down the steps of the Police Station as if he had something to hide. He departed for Southampton the following day, anxious to make the acquaintance of the new Renato.

He was pleasantly surprised when he met Robin Ballantyne-Smith who turned out to be a distinguished-looking man in his early forties. He spoke with an educated accent, letting the company know soon after he was introduced, that he was a Cambridge graduate. He had studied law but had discovered, after practising the profession for a couple of years that he was more suited to entertaining a theatre audience than convincing a courtroom jury.

Jasper and Robin hit it off right away. The director was delighted that they worked well together, feeding off one another's cues so that there was never the slightest moment of hesitation in their performance.

After a week of rehearsals Jasper received notification of Anthony's funeral. It came in the form of a letter from James Sanders' solicitor and it also demanded the return of the house keys to Number Seven. The director agreed to Jasper taking a couple of days off and since this made rehearsing the Renato part difficult, Robin was also granted free time.

'How about I come with you,' he suggested to Jasper, who although taken by surprise, readily agreed.

Wistfully he explained that Anthony's demise made him virtually homeless.

'You can come and stay at my pile any time you like,' said Robin. 'There's plenty of room…' He laughed, '…I've got twelve bedrooms.'

'Twelve?'

'Well, there are only six available given that the west wing has been closed up for years.'

The following day when they arrived at Number Seven, Jasper was horrified to discover that repairing the broken front door had necessitated a new lock being installed so that his key didn't fit.

'This is embarrassing,' he moaned, before remembering that he also had a key to the back door.

Fortunately this hadn't been changed, so they were able to let themselves in.

'Oh my word, what a dinky little house!' gushed Robin going from room to room, opening cupboards and peering into drawers.

'Will you mind staying here tonight?' asked Jasper, feeling anxious that Number Seven wasn't up to Robin's standard; maybe he would opt to book a room in a hotel.

'Duckie, I love it.'

'There's a choice of bedrooms,' explained Jasper, 'you can take one of the spares or…' He looked coyly at Robin, '…we could share.'

'Sharing would be much cosier,' replied Robin.

When they went to inspect the damage to the inside of the front door, Jasper discovered a pile of newspapers. Robin picked up the top one. 'This must be the local rag…' he said, 'maybe there's an obituary about your former lover.'

Jasper snatched the paper from him thumbing through the pages until he came to the right one. Here it is…' He stabbed a finger at the heading. 'What a load of waffle? You would think James and Ant had been best buddies over the years…' He shook his head in disbelief, 'when in fact they hardly ever saw one another.' He went to fling the newspaper aside but another heading stopped him. 'Wait a minute…what's this?' Beneath the name of Anthony Sanders was that of Thelma Stokes. It announced that Thelma had died in a mental institution still asserting that she had murdered her mother. So Anthony had been right! Thelma Stokes was nothing more than a nutcase.

 

 

Robin turned out to be as much a chatterbox as Jasper so they spent half the night exchanging anecdotes. Jasper talked in depth about his childhood experiences, revealing things he had never revealed to Anthony, who had always drawn the line at discussing emotional angst. When Robin's turn came to describe his growing-up years it seemed at first that they were worlds apart but Jasper began to realise that Robin's misery during his public school years had been parallel to his own suffering at the children's home.

'I shall never forgive my father for the torment he forced me to undergo,' said Robin. 'He used to tell me to stick up for myself. Your brothers came out unscathed, he'd say, so why can't you? Then he would draw comparisons…'

'Comparisons…' repeated Jasper.

'Yes, comparisons with my brothers; Douglas is a successful lawyer and Henry, the eldest, is a colonel in the Guards.'

'So he doesn't approve of your pursuing a stage career?'

Robin threw back his head and gave a caustic laugh. 'The old boy nearly had an apoplectic fit when I said I wanted to be an actor. Acting is for nancy boys, he said. He was going to disinherit me. I've got Douglas to thank for stepping in and talking sense into him.' He heaved a sigh. 'Yes, Douglas is a good sort.'

Jasper wanted to question him further: was his mother still alive, did he have any sisters? But a twinge of envy held him back. It seemed that everybody had family, even Anthony. His death had brought a cousin out of the woodwork. A feeling of abject self-pity swept over him. If he died, who would care? Who would bother to come to his funeral?

 

Anthony's funeral took place at the local Crematorium. Jasper and Robin took a taxi there, arranging for the driver to pick them up an hour later. Jasper was surprised to see a big crowd standing outside the chapel but soon realised they were attending another funeral. Anthony's funeral was sparsely attended. He recognised James Sanders quite easily because of his resemblance to Anthony. He was with his wife and two sons and an older woman, presumably Anthony's Aunt Florrie.

James left his family and approached Jasper and Robin. Shaking hands with obvious reluctance, he gave Robin a questioning look.

'This is a friend of mine, Robin Ballantyne-Smith,' said Jasper, hoping Robin's double-barrelled name would impress him.

James wasted no time in making it clear that neither of them was welcome, especially Robin and once the undertaker gave the signal for the mourners to go into the Chapel of Rest, he went back to his waiting family.

Jasper and Robin sat in the row behind them, joined by Anthony's two assistants from The Sanders Menswear Shop as well as Mavis Shuttleby from the jewellers and old Geoff Norton from the newsagent, both of whom had worked on the parade of shops for over twenty years and knew everybody. There was a reading from what, according to the vicar, had been one of Anthony's favourite scriptures and a eulogy from James, who described exploits he and Anthony had got up to in their youth. Jasper felt irritated when James insisted on referring to his erstwhile lover as Tony. During the time he'd known him everybody had called him Anthony. He of course had called him Ant.

The service took twenty minutes. Afterwards, the mourners gathered outside to inspect the wreaths which were laid out along the wall. Jasper's was predominant. Even in this sad moment he couldn't refrain from flamboyance. His was larger and more colourful than all the others. Jasper and Robin were obliged to wait a further fifteen minutes for their taxi. James came over to see them again.

'Don't wait around for us,' he said pointedly. Clearly the family intended to go on somewhere to drink a toast to their departed relation. 'Can I have the keys please?'

Jasper raised his eyebrows. 'Later, I've got to collect my things from the house.'

'I would appreciate it if you would do that as soon as possible as I want to put the house on the market.'

'Hadn't you better wait until after the reading of Ant's will?' Jasper sneered.

'That won't be necessary, I'm the legal heir.'

'Are you sure?'

'James!' Anthony's cousin turned when his wife called him.

'Coming, darling.'

Turning back to face Jasper, he scowled and said, 'Just make sure you're out of the house by tomorrow. Leave the keys on the kitchen table.'

 

The taxi took them back to Number Seven and after ordering a take-away, Jasper and Robin settled down to watch television. They smoked weed and drank several cans of lager before going to bed.

'I suppose I'd better sort out my things,' said Jasper the next morning. He gave a yawn. 'I've got a thumping headache. Now, where did Ant put that packet of paracetamol?'

He found it and took two capsules, feeling slightly annoyed that Robin seemed not to suffer any ill effects from their evening of indulgence.

'I'll help you sort things out,' said Robin. 'There's no point in leaving anything of value for James to confiscate. I wonder whether the will is going to change things.

Jasper shook his head, causing a rush of nausea to join his headache symptoms. 'I don't think so.'

'Well…' The other man gave a sly grin. 'What's stopping you from helping yourself to whatever you want? Some of this furniture is antique.'

'We can't remove furniture,' protested Jasper. In any case, he had no use for furniture antique or otherwise. The only item he coveted was Anthony's Bang and Olufsen stereo system, and that was too large to steal.

Robin pinched the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. 'Well, there are plenty of smaller items we can help ourselves to, things that bigoted cousin won't miss. After all, as Ant's partner, you're entitled to them.'

They spent the rest of the day searching through Anthony's personal belongings and, to Jasper's surprise, finding two pair of expensive gold cuff-links, a Rolex watch, and a state of the art camera. There was also a copy of his will, which clearly stated that everything was going to James Sanders.

Jasper flew into a rage, bellowing, 'You can't do this to me, Ant you fucking bastard, not after all I've done for you. I've given you the best eight years of my life, caring for you, filling your pathetic empty life with love. Before we met you were a sorry soul, lonely, miserable…'

'Calm down, Jasper.' Robin put a restraining hand on Jasper's arm but he shook it off.

With the copy of the will screwed up in one hand, he paced the floor, the clenched fist of the other hand pounding his forehead, reawakening the earlier headache and causing his left eye to twitch.

Robin tried manfully to pacify him until gradually outrage was replaced by a determination to take what he could from Anthony. Together the pair set about filling several large suitcases with anything of value and, by four o'clock, satisfied with their trophies, they ordered a taxi to take them to the station.

'You've got a lot of luggage,' grumbled the taxi driver, 'I should charge extra for that. I don't know how I'm going to fit it all into the boot.'

But they managed it and Robin climbed into the cab, holding the door open for Jasper.

'Just a minute…' Jasper remembered that he had agreed to leave the keys in the house when he left. Going back inside, he stood for a few moments looking around and as he felt his anger seep away, a tear rolled down his cheek. There had been so many happy moments: the evening he'd clowned around making Anthony laugh until he'd cried; the occasion when Ant had eased his disappointment with kind words after he'd been by-passed for a role he passionately wanted; the sunny day on which they'd strolled, arm-in-arm, to the end of the pier to watch the wind-surfers skull across the water.

He put his hand in his pocket and drew out the gold St Christopher his partner always wore round his neck. Ant had died during the night; he must have removed the necklace and put it on the dressing table when changing into his pyjamas, never doubting that he would fasten it round his neck again the next morning. Fingering it lovingly, Jasper fastened it round his own neck and with a lump in his throat he went out to join Robin in the taxi.

 

*****

 Next up: ‘The Digital Age’