Count the Shells (A Porthkennack novel)
This title is part of the Porthkennack universe.
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Michael Gray returned from World War One injured, but at least he returned. Others were not so fortunate, including his first and greatest love, Thomas Carter-Clemence, with whom Michael had parted bitterly before the conflict began.
Broch, the Carter-Clemence home in Porthkennack, was an integral part of pre-war holidays for the Grays, the two families drawn together in the wake of their sons’ friendship. Returning to the once-beloved Cornish coast for a break with his sister and her family, Michael has to find the courage to face old memories . . . and dare new relationships.
When Thomas’s brother Harry makes an unexpected appearance, Michael is surprised to find himself deeply attracted to Harry for his own sake. But as their relationship heats up, it unearths startling revelations and bitter truths. Michael must decide whether Harry is the answer to his prayers or the last straw to break an old soldier’s back.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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“Count the shells, please, Uncle Michael.”
“As you’ve asked so nicely, Richard, I will. Un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq.” Michael Gray smiled indulgently at his nephew as he laid down each limpet shell in turn. He picked them up to lay them down again, one by one. “Uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco.”
Richard Cavendish scooped them into a pile, dropping them into Michael’s hands with a plea for him to count again. Nothing changed; children throughout time must have enjoyed repetition of their favourite things. Michael tipped his hat forward, shading his eyes against a sun that was beating fiercely down on the beach and performing dazzling dances on the sea. He’d always loved the beaches on the Porthkennack headland, since he could first remember coming here as no more than a toddler. This area had always been a place of refuge, of comfort, of hope.
“Uncle?” Richard tapped his arm.
“Sorry, old man. I was woolgathering. Where was I? Yan, tan, tethera, pethera, pimp.” He laid the last shell down with a flourish of his hand, like a conjuror performing a trick.
Richard burst into giggles. He always liked the sheep-counting style best of all the ones Michael used. “Again, please.”
“Yan, tan, tethera, pethera, pimp.” Michael, stifling a yawn, spoke the words slowly and pompously this time, lining up the shells like a colonel inspecting his troops. The mewing of gulls, the susurration of the waves—he’d almost forgotten how soporific sounds of the seaside could be.
“Are you tired, Uncle Michael? Is it your leg?” Richard was the only one in the family who referred casually to his wound, with a child’s typical candour.
“No, the leg’s fine.” He’d come out of things a lot better off than many of his comrades. The thing functioned pretty well, despite being pockmarked where they’d taken all the shrapnel out, although his foot looked a mess where the little toe had gone. He couldn’t—and wouldn’t—complain. “Simply the effect of the local beer I had last night, making me a bit sluggish. Don’t tell your mother.”
“I promise I won’t.” Richard put his hand on his heart while making the vow. “Will you do the ‘Einz vie’ one?”
“Eins, zwei,” Michael replied, automatically. He’d known this was going to happen, and he couldn’t refuse the request, not without having to tell a lie about why it upset him. Just saying he couldn’t use the language of his once-enemy wasn’t enough; it wasn’t true, anyway. The words had acquired new connotations in his mind, over the years, connotations Richard might never understand.
Michael collected all the shells, took a deep breath, then began to lay them down one by one.
Number one was Thomas. Thomas Carter-Clemence. Eins. One. The first. Never to be forgotten, even after they’d parted in such a dramatic fashion, with the mother of all rows, the spring of 1909.
That would be Laurence; Laurie, as Michael had preferred to call him, especially in the heat of passion, when “Laurence” seemed so ridiculously formal. Simple remembrance of those times brought a prickle to the back of Michael’s neck.
Jimmy. No, not him; Jimmy hadn’t been the third. Michael had forgotten Freddie.
Freddie was third. Or maybe third and fifth, because he’d been an extra station on the line of romance when Michael and Laurence had suffered a temporary estrangement. A station which had been passed through and left behind when Michael and Laurence had made things up again, then revisited when their paths had crossed years later. He had no idea where Freddie was now, couldn’t begin to say whether he was alive or dead, or whether he remembered that fleeting, if chilly, night by the river at Maidenhead or the equally fleeting, if warmer, encounter in Brighton.
Time to lay down another shell, before Richard became suspicious of the silence. He might be still a child, but he possessed a startling maturity of awareness and an unnerving habit of speaking his mind.
The fourth one was Jimmy: bright, lively, and first seen pulling pints. Michael had been on a couple of days leave in London and gone for a drink in . . . What had that pub been called? Frustrating that he couldn’t remember, even though he recalled every minute of the night they’d spent together.
Little Wilfred. They’d met in Scarborough, fleetingly, in a stationer’s of all places. Shared a joke, shared a glance, shared an appreciation of a particularly fine pen. Shared a bed, sort of, briefly.
“There isn’t another shell, Uncle.” Richard shook his head indulgently, as though he were dealing with Lily, his three-year-old sister.
Michael jolted. He’d been far away, among lovers, mud, and metal shells.
“Sorry about that, old man. Got carried away. Discount sechs.” Lucky that Richard was too young to get the play on words. No sixth shell and no sixth bloke as of yet. Discount sex indeed, at least for the time being. It would happen when it happened, although how long he’d be prepared to wait was a moot point. Freddie had been an act of desperation, as had Wilfred. Always a dangerous game to play when you weren’t sure of the ground you were playing on.
“Can we paddle?” Richard tugged at Michael’s sleeve.
“Of course we can.” Barefoot already, so they could enjoy the sensation of sand between their toes, they scampered down to the sea as spontaneous as a pair of children, to splash among the shallows.
“Do you like the seaside or the city best?” Richard posed the question as solemnly as a bishop might when addressing confirmation candidates.
“Seaside, naturally. Much more freedom here.” The hustle and bustle of crowded streets no longer appealed. Not like the lapping of the waves at his feet and the mewing of gulls overhead. “What about you?”
“What a silly question. Here!” Richard flicked water with his toes as they walked along the waterline. “I wish I could be on holiday every day, rather than going to school to learn algebra and grammar.”
“It’s a burden that has to be borne, old man. Same for me when I was your age.”
“But why has it got to be learned about? Do you ever use algebra?”
“Can’t say I do, much. But I couldn’t do without grammar. I say. What’s that?” Michael stopped by a mound of rocks, where little pools of trapped water promised boyish delights. He reached beneath the surface of one to draw out something green and glistening.
“A bottle of course.” Richard shook his head at such dim-wittedness.
“Ah, but is it an ordinary bottle or a magic one? If we rub it will a genie come out and grant us three wishes? And how would we divide them if he did?”
Richard frowned; clearly neither algebra nor grammar held the answer to that. “One each and one for mother,” he stated, at last, and with a conviction that could brook no argument. “None for Lily because she’s too young to use them sensibly.”
“You’re probably right.” Would Richard ever regard his sister as being old enough to act sensibly? “I like that way of dividing them. What would you wish for? All the sweets in the shop?”
Richard giggled, looking exactly like his mother when she was the same age. “That’s the kind of thing Lily would want. I’d wish an end to algebra or grammar lessons for any boys forever. What about you?”
“I’m not sure. You’ve taken care of the school stuff, already.”
“I know what mother would wish for,” Richard said, suddenly serious.
“And what’s that?” Michael asked, attention only half on his nephew, the other half considering what he would do if really presented with the opportunity to make that wish. To have such power—the responsibility would be overwhelming.
“She’d wish for all the soldiers who were hurt in the war to be whole again.”
“Oh.” Michael, unable to say anything further, kept his gaze straight out at sea. Maybe if he concentrated extremely hard, he could keep at bay the tears that threatened to unman him.
“Yes, and she’d wish for the dead to come home too.”
The only safe reply was a simple nod. Michael thought of the shells he’d just counted, the parade of names. How could he trust himself not to break down, to blurt out that roll call, then have to provide a backstory to each of them? Richard had the knack of making all his defences too relaxed to work effectively.
“Don’t you think that’s a good idea?”
Michael forced a reply. “I think it’s excellent. What a shame it’s only an empty bottle with nothing in it.”
“Yes. Fairy tales never come true, I suppose.”
“No. That’s one of the sad things you learn in life, alongside the algebra.”
Richard made a disdaining face, although whether that was at the algebra or the fairy tales, Michael couldn’t tell. “It is sad. Otherwise we could have wished home your friend Thomas.”
“Thomas?” Having just recovered his composure, Michael felt unmanned again, the waves beating more violently about him than they’d done previously—or was that simply the rushing of blood in his ears? He steadied himself with a hand on his nephew’s shoulder.
“Are you feeling ill, Uncle? Come on, back up the beach.” Richard took his hand, leading him like a small child.
“It’s only a touch of something. Made me feel odd for a moment. Dizzy.” He managed a smile. “Probably that beer last night.”
“Mother says people shouldn’t drink too much. So does Father.”
“They’re right.” Eric would be giving his professional point of view, being a medical man. “And last night I was a good boy and only had one pint. I probably had a dirty glass.”
“I won’t snitch.”
“Good man.” They’d reached the place where they’d made their little camp of towels, shoes and shells; Michael settled himself on a flat rock, then took a deep, steadying breath. Caroline never discussed the war in his presence, or those who’d been lost in it, but she must be ready to discuss it with her family when he wasn’t there. And mention quite freely those people she never spoke to him about.
“You’ve got a better colour now. You were as white as if you’d seen a ghost.”
“Not quite.” Not seen, merely thought of one. “Thanks for playing nurse. We should get ourselves home or we’ll be in trouble.”
By the time they’d dried their feet and got their shoes and socks back on, Michael had pulled himself together enough to ask, “How did you know about Thomas? Has your mother been talking about the time he yanked her pigtail?”
“No. Did he really?” Richard’s eyes widened. “He must have been very brave to do that.”
“I suspect it was a case of foolhardy rather than brave. He regretted it afterwards.” Michael could just about smile again in remembrance of those fond, silly adventures from that summer of emerging manhood, when Thomas had first come to visit the Gray family and left a never-to-be-erased mark on everyone’s hearts.
“Mother has a picture of you and him, at home. Did he always have funny hair?”
“He certainly did. I never knew anybody who looked more like the scullery maid had upended him and used him for a mop.” Especially after they’d been playing tennis. Or in the morning, after a night in which it had been tousled by passion.
“Was he a good friend? Do you miss him?” Richard was wearing his serious face again, his ever-changing thoughts and emotions plainly displayed.
“Yes and yes.” Michael concentrated on sorting out a nonexistent knot in his laces. “He was my very best friend at school. Like that rascal George you hang around with.”
Richard giggled. “George isn’t so bad. He has three older sisters, poor thing.”
“Then he deserves a medal.”
George was supposed to be with them, but a mysterious rash had struck his family and he’d been quarantined along with his sisters. Once the all clear was given, he’d be allowed to travel down, and until then, Michael was doing his avuncular duty to the best of his ability.
He held out his hand. “Come on. Home. Or we’ll be court-martialled.”
* * * * * * *
At the top of the trail which led up in a zigzag from the bay, a small gate gave onto a path cutting through shrubs and borders to High Top, the house the Gray family had taken for the summer ever since Michael could remember. The views across the bay were stunning, the beach close by, if a bit of a scramble, and the lawns smooth enough for croquet or tennis. There were maturer pleasures close at hand too: the twin delights of dances or dinners down in Porthkennack or Padstow, although Michael had always preferred the simpler things. Nobody could try to pair him up with an eligible girl when he was out on the rocks, sketching.
A party of females emerged from the French windows as Michael and Richard came across the lawn. Caroline, Michael’s sister, holding hands with Lily, and Alice, the nursery maid, close behind.
“I was about to send out a search party, although I suppose they’d never risk missing luncheon, would they, Lily?” Caroline said, as her men folk approached.
“Not in a million years.” Michael winked at his nephew. “Especially as we’ve spent the morning wrestling with giant squids and fending off vicious mermen. It’s hungry work.”
Caroline rolled her eyes. “I guess there’s no chance you’ll ever grow up.”
“I’m afraid not. Beyond hope.” Michael ruffled Richard’s hair. “Let’s hope this youngster turns out more to your approval. Go on, Richard. Hands to wash.”
Richard surrendered to the ministrations of Alice, who whisked him and his sister off to get Lily ready to take her meal and to make her brother presentable for appearing at the table with the adults.
“I’ve never disapproved of you, Michael,” Caroline said, once her son was out of earshot. “I wish you wouldn’t say that in front of the boy.”
Michael slipped his arm through his sister’s. “It was in jest. Richard’s used to my ways, and he knows what’s meant seriously and what’s just fun.”
“He’s only a boy.”
“That’s as may be, but he’s a lot smarter than either of you give him credit for. He notices what goes on. He understands it.”
“Does he? Then he’s taking after his uncle.” Caroline patted his arm. “He thinks the world of you. You’d never disappoint him, would you?”
“I’ll always try my best never to let him down. He’s too important to me. Nearest thing I’m likely to have to a son.” Michael steered his sister towards the flower bed, which lay in full bloom by the steps up to the house, then stopped. “He mentioned Thomas.”
Caroline frowned. “Did he?”
“I wouldn’t have said if he hadn’t, would I? Sorry,” he stroked her hand, “shouldn’t have snapped at you. He did. He said he was highly amused by the state of Thomas’s hair in a photograph you must have of the both of us. I didn’t realise you’d kept one.”
Caroline, blushing, kept her gaze on the petunias. “Oh, it’s an old one. I have it at home. Remembrance of when we were much younger. You and me here, Thomas at Broch, Eric at— Whatever was his uncle’s house called?”
“Cataclews.” It had been a ghastly gothic pile, on its last legs when Eric’s family had used it for holidays. “The only good thing about it was being the vehicle to his meeting us.”
“So he says, as well.” Caroline smiled. “Anyway, that picture kept me going all those long days when the family waited for the next letter from you.”
Michael nodded. Many a photograph must have kept families, wives, and sweethearts comforted over the years. “Not just me, I suspect. You always had a soft spot for Thomas, didn’t you?”
“He was rather handsome. We all liked him.”
Did she know how far Michael’s liking had gone? It wasn’t something they could ever have freely discussed, but Caroline was far from stupid. She must have noticed exchanges of glances, overheard whispers or mysterious laughter, wondered why Michael wasn’t quite the same with Thomas as he was with other friends. Or had she simply assumed that was how men were when they had close friendships? Many people lived in blissful ignorance of what really went on between some couples of the same gender who shared a house or habitually holidayed together.
“Michael?” Caroline nudged him. “Are you feeling all right?”
“Yes. Just lost in memories. I can almost see him here, now. Running along this very lawn with that wretched kite.”
“The one he couldn’t get to fly?” Caroline snorted.
“That’s the one.” They’d have been fifteen, the family holidaying here and Michael introducing Thomas to them for the first time. He’d lived not far away, at a house called Broch, which was apparently some type of ancient Scottish dwelling and had been the brainchild of a previous, Celtic, owner of the property. Thomas had dropped in on the Grays on an almost daily basis, although nobody had complained at the intrusion. As Caroline had pointed out, he had been universally liked. It had been a glorious summer of warmth and light, the two boys teetering on the brink of understanding that their camaraderie was not like that of their schoolmates. “I was glad when that kite broke. I always felt he’d get so enthralled he wouldn’t realise where he was running and he’d go down the path and right over the cliff with it.”
Caroline, sly smile creeping over her face, patted his hand. “I have a terrible confession to make, although I won’t do it until you swear you won’t tell Richard.”
“I swear,” Michael promised, intrigued.
“I was the one who broke that kite. I had exactly the same concern as you did—he was so terribly reckless, so . . .” She shrugged. “I’ve lived with it on my conscience, but it had to be done.”
“And it was well done. I was tempted to do the same, but never had the courage. I wonder if he ever suspected?” Although given that Thomas had such an open, trusting mind, that was unlikely.
“I always feel it’s a shame I couldn’t have taken up all those guns in France and broken them. Such a waste, but you don’t need that particular sermon.” Caroline shook herself. “Come on, luncheon.”
As usual, any mention of the war had been forestalled, although she’d revealed more about herself in these last few minutes than she had in the year. Michael was going to have to reassess his view of his sister.
As Michael finished tidying himself up, the gong announced that lunch was imminent; he entered the dining room to find himself the last to arrive.
“Sorry to keep you. Too much sand to get off me,” he said, with a self-deprecating smile.
“You’re forgiven.” Caroline unfolded her napkin as a sign to begin, the wonderful aroma of freshly cooked fish pervading the air as it waited to be served. New potatoes and peas gently steamed in their bowls, reminding Michael of days when he’d eagerly awaited every meal, desperate for permission to get stuck in. School days, army days, so often things had revolved around filling one’s stomach.
Eric said a short grace—most likely for his son’s benefit—then the maid dished out the trout. At nine, Richard was granted the privilege of taking his luncheon with the grown-ups, an honour his sister was some years short of. The Grays had never believed in children being seen and not heard, and he took his full part in the conversation. It was clear he’d already learned to moderate his talk in accord with the situation, his carefree chatter of the morning made less happy-go-lucky. He asked his father if there had been any interesting stories in the newspaper and was either genuinely interested in the response, or managed to feign a genuine interest, just as impressive a skill.
Eric gave a brief account of what might be of relevance to a nine-year-old boy, finishing his résumé with, “I saw that one of your teachers has got himself wedded.”
“Mr. Grimshaw?” Richard nodded. “We thought that, although we weren’t supposed to know. Not officially.”
“So how do you find these things out?” Caroline gave her son a helping of peas likely far in excess of what he’d have taken for himself.
“Somebody’s mother saw the announcement of his engagement. Word soon spread. Thank you.” Richard gave his mother one of his dazzling smiles.
“You’re like a bunch of old women for gossiping.” Caroline helped herself, then passed the bowl to Michael.
The next few minutes were taken up with little in the way of chat, everybody properly appreciative of what was on their plates, albeit it wasn’t there for long. The trout had tasted as good as the aroma had promised.
After the maid had cleared their plates and before pudding arrived, Richard turned to Michael and, as innocently as if asking whether they’d be fishing later, enquired, “Why have you never married, Uncle? Is it because you don’t like girls?”
Michael, taken unawares by the question, was grateful for having raised his glass for a mouthful of water, and so had time to gather his thoughts. And to pray that his sister wouldn’t leap in and make some comment which made matters even more awkward.
Rescue came, unexpectedly, from Eric. “Just because you’re not keen on the female of the species, don’t tar everyone with the same brush, young man. For all you know, your uncle has left a trail of broken hearts behind him.”
“Sorry, Father.” Richard sounded—and appeared—suitably abashed.
“He’s under the influence of his pal George, apparently.” Michael managed a grin. “George has three sisters.”
“And doesn’t think much of them, or so we’ve been told. His—” Caroline was interrupted by the arrival of the fruit salad. Once the maid had departed again, she continued. “His mother despairs of him at times. Says he’ll end up as a woman hater.”
“I don’t hate women.” Michael could say that with complete candour. “How could I have grown up with an elder sister such as you and not admire the fairer sex?”
“Oh, tush,” Caroline said, with a not-hidden-soon-enough grin. “Don’t swell my head.”
“See, Richard?” Michael winked at his nephew. “Ladies simply require careful handling.”
“Behave. That’s enough about ladies or we’ll turn on you.” Caroline wagged her finger. “Now, tomorrow. If Lily’s tooth is through and she’s not as grizzly, how about a picnic on the beach for all the family?”
And with that skilfully imposed change of subject, talk turned to what were the best provisions to avoid the peril of sand with everything. Sometimes domestic talk was the only safe talk.
Richard wasn’t too old to be whisked off to the nursery for a postprandial rest, even if he was excused an afternoon nap and allowed to spend the time reading or an equally sedentary occupation. He was likely to be the only one of the family who didn’t slip into the arms of Morpheus, given that Lily still enjoyed her sleep—especially when she was teething—and the adults had reached the stage where it felt like a slightly wayward, and daringly continental, indulgence to take a siesta.
Eric and Caroline headed for the sofas in the drawing room, while Michael sought the harbour of the old orchard, where a capacious and surprisingly comfortable hammock was slung between a pair of gnarled old apple trees. He’d brought a novel, in case he couldn’t get off to sleep; occasionally his leg gave him some jip, particularly if there were storms in the offing or out at sea. The book, a murder mystery, was well written, engaging, and required the minimum of intellectual concentration. He read page after page, but sleep wouldn’t come, the slight twinge which had developed around his knee on the way up from the beach a touch too persistent. He wriggled, turned, wriggled again, but comfort eluded him.
Eventually, he laid down the novel and swung gently, watching the rustle of the leaves, thinking of all the times he’d lain in this spot and the wonderful afternoon when he’d shared this hammock with Thomas. They’d done nothing other than swing and chat and laugh—given the proximity of the rest of the family—but the closeness of their bodies had been intoxicating.
Thomas had stayed with them on and off that holiday, taking the other bed in Michael’s room, but once he’d sneaked across when the rest of the household were tucked up. Then the young men had put into action what they’d only dared dream of that afternoon. Not their first time—that had been in the boathouse on Thomas’s estate, the previous year—although every encounter had been memorable back then.
Michael’s body began to react to the memories, a horribly noticeable reaction should anybody come along at this point. He turned on his side, trying to think of something that might cool his ardour, but his brain kept veering back to well-worn tracks, that list of lovers he’d run down as he’d counted those shells for Richard, and the lack of anybody to warm his bed now. He’d have to admit that he’d not met anybody since his discharge who could hold a candle to the least of those five men. Surely every truly decent man couldn’t have gone the way of all flesh?
How could they have been so naïve as to think it would all be over by the first Christmas of the war? Although Thomas would have welcomed seeing that season, in France or at home; he hadn’t made it through to All Souls’ Day. But, then, he’d been a career soldier, giving up his studies and taking the king’s shilling four years before war had been declared. He’d gone over with the British Expeditionary Force and, like so many of them, claimed a small corner of a foreign field to hold forever for England.
Michael wondered if he’d approached death with the same cheery smile he’d seemed to wear every day, the smile which had lit up Michael’s school years and carried on shining through the university vacs when they’d met up. Either in Sussex or—more usually—Cornwall. Thomas’s family had lived not far from High Top, so the summers had always featured him, with the Grays and the Carter-Clemences forming a friendship that had been rooted and grounded in the two boys’ friendship. Michael vividly remembered the first conversation he and Thomas had had about Porthkennack, and the envy he’d felt that Thomas could live in such a wonderful place all the time. Thomas, naturally, had envied the Grays’ life so close to the delights of London. The grass was always greener on the other side.
Like it had touched so much else, the war seemed to have loosened the bonds between the families, death casting a wide shadow, although the rot had set in earlier, with the terrible row he and Thomas had suffered not long before their last year at university. Without their intense relationship at the heart of the family friendship, the rest of the connection had always been at risk of withering. The others must have known that something had gone badly wrong, but they’d let it pass without comment, far too English in their reserve to make a fuss, and Michael had been up at university for weeks on end. Even Caroline had restrained her normally inquisitive nature when he’d been home; perhaps his pain had been written large on his face.
It had felt like hell—although Michael had gained an increasingly accurate impression of hell during his time in France—and now those feelings were reawakening to torment him. He’d managed to put Thomas to the back of his mind for so long, but Richard’s carefree comment had brought him back in all his golden glory, brown eyes flashing in Michael’s memory like dark stars. He’d never loved anyone so much, nor—he believed—would he ever love so intensely again. Lightning couldn’t strike twice.
Michael opened his book and tried to read, but the dappled light through the trees played on the pages, bringing him to that comfortably drowsy stage at last. Forty winks were called for, although he felt like he’d managed less than half a dozen before Richard’s voice cut into his slumbers.
“Uncle Michael, do you really think girls require . . . what was it?”
“Sorry? Can you say that again, please, old man? I was having a bit of shut-eye.”
“Oh, sorry. Should I go?”
“No, I’m awake now.” He consulted his watch, to find that he’d managed considerably more sleep than he’d realised. “Just as well you roused me. I could have been here until morning.”
“You’d have got all wet with dew.” Richard plonked himself down on the grass. “Girls. At lunch you said they required something.”
“‘Careful handling,’ I think.” Michael tried to stir up his sleep-addled wits.
“Oh yes, that was it.”
It was time to cut off this particular discussion. “Talking of females, have you been let out of jail for the rest of the day?”
“The nursery. I know those bars on the window are there to stop you falling out, but they do make me think of incarceration. I guess you’ve been let out on parole for good behaviour?”
Richard chuckled. “Only until teatime. And only if I promise not to go down to the beach. Alice says there’s a running sea and it wouldn’t be safe.”
“Then we must heed her warning and stick to dry and sandless land.” Michael grinned. “We can find plenty of mischief to get up to elsewhere.”
Richard put his hand to his mouth. “I’d better not tell her you said that. Her reaction might need ‘careful handling.’”
“No ‘might’ about it. I’d be in big trouble.”
Richard nodded, then lay back, letting the sunlight play on his face. The ability to sit in—occasional—companionable silence was one of the qualities Michael found most admirable in his nephew.
“This ‘careful handling’ thing,” the boy continued, eventually. “I wondered if that was why you hadn’t bothered to marry. Because it would be too much hard work dealing with girls all the time.”
Back there again. Well, Michael supposed he couldn’t keep putting off the conversation; Richard was bright, as determined as a dog with a bone, and deserved an answer.
“There’s probably some truth in your theory.” It would have been hard work to force himself to go with a woman, but he could have done it if the circumstances demanded. Plenty of men did, hiding themselves in semi-platonic marriages or the like. Better to tell Richard as much of the truth as possible, despite the fact it couldn’t be the whole truth at this point. Maybe it could never be the whole truth. “I have to admit I find females rather daunting.”
“Maybe you’ll get used to them one day. You’re still quite young.”
Michael grinned at the quite. When he’d been Richard’s age, a man of thirty would have seemed almost ancient. “Maybe.” He could just about conceive of a situation where he might take a wife to give him appropriate cover. At the very least doing so would prevent an interrogation such as he was experiencing.
“I won’t ever get married. Not even to please Mother.” Richard flipped onto his stomach, the better to idly pick blades of grass, then split them lengthwise. “Girls are so silly. Fancy having to put up with that all day.”
“Are you basing your opinion of all females on your little sister? Every three-year-old, girl or boy, can seem slightly daft when you’re five years older than they are, but most of them grow out of it. You did,” Michael added, with a grin.
“I was never daft.” Richard looked up, clearly offended. “Was I?”
“A little bit. You’ve matured remarkably well.” Not that Michael had seen much of him back then; he’d felt rather an intruder in the days when his nephew was small, especially as Caroline and Eric had been so besotted with him. Surely every firstborn was regarded by his parents as the pinnacle of God’s creation? “One day you might find that girls are the best things in the world.”
Richard made a face, showing he didn’t believe a word of it. “Is it five o’clock yet?”
Michael consulted his wristwatch. “Only twenty to. Why?”
“I have to go in then to get ready for tea. Alice says the cook’s making some rather nice sandwiches for Lily and me.”
“Is she? Then we’ll keep an eye on the time—don’t want them to spoil and go curly at the edges.” Michael began to rock the hammock again.
“Doesn’t that make you feel sick, Uncle?”
“Not really. Does it you?”
“Not when I’m watching. When I get in, it’s like I’m in a boat.” Richard chuckled. “I don’t mind a swing, going back and forth, but side to side . . .” He grimaced as though he were about to be sick.
“Don’t let your mother see you wearing that expression. She’ll say it’s not the sort of thing a young gentleman should do in polite company.”
“That’s sounds like what Alice would say.” Richard rolled his eyes. The fact both he and Lily were still under the control of a nursery maid clearly stuck in the boy’s unusually mature craw.
“You should listen to her. And to your parents. Listen and remember.” Michael peered over the hammock, to face his nephew directly. “You’ll have plenty of time to make your own judgements about what’s fitting for a gentleman when you’re older.”
“You never tell me what to do and what not to do.”
“Not my place.” Michael swung the hammock again. “I hope your sandwiches are as good as the fish was at lunch. That was trout par excellence. As good as you’d get at the Savoy. Better, probably, and I speak from experience.”
“I’ve heard Father mention the Savoy.” Richard wriggled on the grass. “Is it posh?”
“Extremely. I’m not certain it’s entirely my cup of tea. Hall in college was better—at least you’re among pals there and don’t have to be completely on your best behaviour.”
“I like the sound of that.” Richard sighed. “I have to be on my very best behaviour at tea.”
“I’m sure there’s a lot of latitude in that ‘best behaviour.’” Michael chuckled. “Maybe Alice will let me come and keep you and Lily company this afternoon.”
Richard sat up beaming, no doubt at the prospect of further time to be spent in male company. “She will if you ask nicely. She likes you.”
“Does she?” Michael had only passed a few words with the girl. “How on earth do you know these things?”
“Oh, I’ve seen the way she looks at you. The same way that Lily looks at a plate of rice pudding.”
The remark left Michael speechless. Richard was going to be an extremely dangerous quantity one day, so long as he learned when to share, and when not to share, the profits of his formidable powers of observation.
“You continue to astound me,” Michael remarked, eventually, valuing that comfortable bond in which constant conversation wasn’t required. He swung his legs over the side of the hammock. “Time to report for duty soon.”
“Yes, sir.” Richard leaped to attention, giving a mock salute.
A sudden, piercing memory of lads seemingly no older than his nephew standing to attention on parade grounds made Michael shiver.
“Are you all right? Is it that beer in the dirty glass playing up again?”
“No. Just someone walking over my grave, I think. Come on.” Michael took the boy’s hand. “We seem to spend all our time dashing off to report to the ladies.”
“It’s part of that ‘careful handling,’ Uncle.” Richard giggled.
“I could grow tired of that phrase.” Michael laughed, then composed himself for his visit to the nursery. Did Alice really look at him like that? And why couldn’t she have a nice brother who’d want to consume him like a rice pudding?
This deeply felt work is sure to please fans of historical romance.