by Andrew Foote
We walked from the house, my heart thumping in my chest.
"I'm sorry Sir George. My outburst back there was unforgiveable."
Sir George placed his hand on my shoulder and steered me round in front of a very high, dense hedge, effectively shielding us from the house.
Pointing to a wooden bench, he answered me.
"Sit with me a moment Alex.
What makes you believe your performance back there was unforgiveable?"
"I'm a thirteen year-old boy and Mr Armstrong is an adult. I shouldn't have been so cheeky."
"You're right on two counts, you are indeed a youngster and he an adult but cheeky you were not!
He is a very clever orator, used to being able to brow-beat other people into accepting or bending to his will, I mean that's what diplomats do for heaven's sake.
I am actually very proud of you Alex! My God! You had him on the back foot in a way that more powerful and influential people would've been envious of my boy!"
Don't you see he was trying to belittle you? To make you appear silly and child-like? Ideally he would have been pleased to see you burst into tears and run from the room, a battle won, an enemy chastened and humbled into submission but like the bravest of soldiers, you stood your ground and returned from the field of conflict relatively unscathed.
Mark my words Alex, he will think twice before he tries those tactics on you again. Oh, and I especially liked 'looking him in the eye'! He had no answer. The only thing he could come up with was to lose his temper and to a diplomat, that is a cardinal sin."
"Thank you Sir but still, Mum and Dad will be furious with me. They warned me about being too cock-sure and if you think I wasn't cheeky, then I'm sure I was that."
"Nonsense lad! You had the courage of your convictions which you voiced clearly and politely and you're not to go worrying about your parent's reaction, I will have a chat with them. If I were fortunate enough to have you as my son, I would be immensely proud of you!
Now run along my boy. I have a Gin and Tonic getting warm in there and we can't have that now, can we!"
I didn't see Jus for the rest of the day. In a few day's it would be September and already the evenings were drawing in so it was hardly surprising that coupled with the fact that his parents were there, he had either elected to stay at the house or had been asked not to go out.
My hope was that he hadn't or wasn't going to be subjected to the same treatment I'd received. It would be different for him, it was his future well-being that was riding on the outcome and I had few doubts that it would be easier for him to lose control of his emotions than it had been for me.
Ah well. Tomorrow it was back to a normal routine of schooling in the morning and I prayed that he'd be allowed down to participate.
A knock on the stern hatch followed by my Mum's voice.
"Alexis? Do you want to come and eat with us?"
"To be honest Mum, I'm not feeling very hungry."
"Okay, let me rephrase that. Please will you come on to 'Casio' and you will have something to eat even if it means I have to get Dad to force-feed you!"
The food smelt good which made my tummy grumble.
Dad looked up from his newspaper.
"See? I knew you'd be hungry. Sit yourself down. We need to talk."
"Look Dad, I'm sorry!"
"Sorry? Sorry for what? You don't even know what it is I want to talk about."
"I can guess. My spat with Mr Armstrong."
"Ah. So you see it as a spat then?"
"Yes Dad, I do."
"Well that is definitely not how Sir George saw it. He told us that you were treated shamefully by that arsehole Armstrong but despite that, your conduct was exemplary and what's more, he was incredibly proud of you not only by the manner in which you deported yourself but also by the way you handled his questioning of you. He told us you actually had him lost for words."
"That's just it though, isn't it? Smart-arse answers won't go very far to help Jus, will they?"
"Well……that is something else we have to talk about but first I want you to get some food inside you. Food is the fuel that gives us all energy and I don't need your tank running dry on us son of mine."
We ate in silence, a silence that to me was deafening. It spoke to me of serious problems to come but I persevered, managing to clear my plate.
I stood up from the table, cleared the dishes and went to run some hot water for the washing up but Mum stopped me.
"Leave that Alexis. I'll do it later now come and sit down."
Neither Mum nor Dad so much as smiled at me although Dad did put his arm around me indicating it wasn't me who was in trouble."
"Listen to me Alexis and think carefully before you comment.
After you left the house and your chat with Sir George, there was one hell of an argument up there.
I have no reason to believe that you were in anyway responsible for it but we have to consider the fact that you did manage to ruffle a few feathers back there, quite a few actually but you must never hold yourself responsible for what happened. The dye had already been cast. Like a hangman's noose, with Armstrong, the tighter you pull, the more you fight it, the more difficult to escape it.
You know Sir George and Lady Eleanor, their attitude and views and you've managed to get Julia Armstrong onside but I'm afraid to say that wasn't enough.
There was however, one concession. Julia absolutely insisted that the legal guardian agreement remains unchanged, Armstrong wanted it altered in favour of his brother who by all accounts is an even bigger shit than he is but……………. I'm so sorry son, Justin must return to Down House at the beginning of next term. There is nothing that can be done. No room for negotiation, Armstrong will not budge."
I briefly wondered why I wasn't in tears but instead I was stunned, almost without emotion.
"Dad that's inhuman?
Surely understanding everything Jus has been through, they have to be a bit more compassionate?"
"Look it isn't Julia. It's him.
He isn't used to his authority being questioned, his decisions overturned.
In some ways it's good to have people like him. He's based in Tripoli, a hotbed of unrest and we need to have a strong influence in places such as that but he can't seem to separate his work from his family commitments.
Please don't be too worried. None of us will let Justin be on his own for any longer than is absolutely essential.
We have to work with the tools given to us and meagre they might be, if nothing else, it's an opportunity to be innovative."
"Do you think he's been told Dad?"
"I would suspect so by now mate but hey! One little bit on the positive side? I've been asked to drive them to the airport in the morning, something about him being recalled urgently so you will have Justin back by lunchtime at the very latest but I caution you. He's going to be very fragile and so remember, treat him accordingly."
My Mum having adopted the back seat up until that point, stood up and gave me a half bottle of wine.
"You know I don't normally encourage you to drink by yourself but tonight I'm making an exception.
They are all coming here in about an hour where we expect to get the third degree, well from Mr Armstrong at least so I need you to scoot, enjoy the wine and hit the sack.
I'll make sure you're not disturbed by telling everybody you've decided to have an early night.
Alexis? Please don't ever be embarrassed to show your emotions but equally, I want, need you to rediscover the strength you found this afternoon. We both of us love you. Never forget that no matter what.
Now go before I lose it!!"
Nice though it was, I hardly had one glass of the wine before sleep overtook me. I heard no conversation from 'Casio' but then our boats were very well insulated but in any event, I didn't wake until 6.30am in time for my morning swim.
I decided to wear a pair of 'speedo's', not that in those days they were seen as anything else other than 'swimwear' but they did provide for a degree of modesty!
I slipped silently into the water, the late summer sun not being able to maintain a temperature above 'chilly' sending a shiver down my spine.
I kicked off with my feet away from the hull only to be grabbed by my ankle, dragging me back to the boat.
"Alex it's me you idiot! I managed to get the hell out as I knew you'd be swimming! Did you miss me?"
I turned to see Jus treading water in front of me. I reached out for him with both arms, holding him close.
The current had sent us slightly down stream and so now Jus was hanging on to 'Casio's' gunwales causing her to rock.
My Mums voice broke the early morning silence.
"Might I suggest you two boys head back to bed for a while? It's really early for heaven's sake?"
For some odd reason my body craved exercise, Jus was there and I NEEDED to swim!
"Come on, what are you waiting for?! The opposite bank! Go for it!!"
With a power I'd never before experienced, I flew though the water to the Reading side of the river, Jus trailing behind me.
"What's come into you Alex? Where did you learn to swim so bloody fast?"
"Jus I don't know! I'm just so relieved to see you it was like an adrenalin hit! Are you alright?"
"I've been better but then I was gearing myself up for this. I couldn't allow myself, no matter how positive everyone else felt, to believe things would change. I know my father well enough to realise that once he's set his mind to something, nothing anyone says will deter him. If Down House it has to be, then so be it. Been there, survived it before."
"But it isn't right?"
"Shut it Alex.
C'mon, let's swim back and you can get me some breakfast."
I hauled myself out of the water, leant over and grabbed Jus's hand and helped him on to the back of the boat.
"You really are observant this morning Alex! My cozzy is here on the boat and I wanted to surprise you, not wake you by ferreting around trying to find it."
"Well I recon you better get below pronto before you surprise half the population of Berkshire! I'll get your clothes."
We crawled under the bed covers and cuddled up and although we had both chubbed up, we neither of us made moves on each other. It was like some exquisite torture just resting in each other's arms but being very aware of our heightened state of arousal but we couldn't stay in bed all day so I broke the spell.
"How were you last night, I mean once you knew you had to go back to 'Down'?"
"Okay to begin with. Like I told you, I'd been like mentally preparing myself for that outcome but then later on after they'd left to come down to 'Casio', I did kinda lose it a bit.
When were you told?"
"After I'd been interviewed by your Father, I came back to 'Spook' feeling a bit shell-shocked and although I didn't feel hungry, I had the royal summons to go aboard 'Casio' for supper. Dad told me then."
"How did you take it?"
"I just felt numb. Your Father had pretty much kicked the crap out of me metaphorically speaking so I think, like you, I knew what was coming."
"Yeah, look I'm sorry about the way he treated you. That was pretty low even by his standards. Hey but Grandfather thought you were a star and from what he told me, you really did shove his head down the pan! My old man was furious! I've never seen him so angry!"
"I guess that didn't do you any favours either."
"Oh forget it. I don't believe he had any intention of listening to any arguments in the first place. He knew what he was going to say even before he left Tripoli. He won't forget you in a hurry though!"
"For all the wrong reasons though Jus. I'd much have preferred him to like me, to remember me that way. I never wanted to make an enemy of him?"
"Well I wouldn't go losing any sleep over it.
Did he ask you…………you know, if we'd…….."
"No but your Mother knows. She's lovely. I really like her!"
"Oh so I've got competition in the shape of my own mother now!"
"Ha-ha! I think I'm too young to be her toy-boy and besides, I said I liked her, not loved her you dim-wit!"
"That's alright then. Just checking."
We were brought down from our silly conversation by my Mum banging on the roof.
"Are you two up yet?"
Jus lifted the bed sheet and looked down at his now-flaccid penis.
"No, not yet!" to which we both burst out laughing!
Mum obviously caught on to the double entendre as I heard her giggling as well.
"Well might I suggest you both, umm, get dressed now? Your Father's cooking breakfast Alexis. Don't keep him waiting around, remember he has to drive Justin's parents to the airport."
"Alright Mum. Five minutes."
Breakfast was a jovial affair with both Jus and I making light of things, Mum noticed our mood.
"Would appear you two have bounced back up?"
My Dad fairly creased up with laughter, Mum put her head in her hands in mock exasperation.
"Stop dragging me down into your gutter, all three of you! Honestly though, it's so nice to see you happy again, especially so you Justin."
"Little point in being anything else Kaz. It's like I said to Alex. I think I knew all along I'd be going back to Down House so I've just got to make the most of it and definitely make the most of what's left of the holiday."
"Ah yes. Holiday.
I'm calling today a holiday. Tim has the drive to London and Justin, you will probably like to spend a little time with your folks before they leave so we might just as well can it for today.
I was also meaning to say to you Justin, as things didn't go our way, there's no need for you to continue studying with Alexis if you'd prefer not to?"
"If you don't mind Kaz, I want to continue. I really do enjoy it you know?"
"Mind? God no, I don't mind in the slightest! Actually I'm really pleased you want to."
"And when I'm back, you know, for weekends or holidays? Would it be okay then too?"
"Justin, you don't even have to ask! You're as close to being a second son as we're ever likely to get so please, just try to remember, whatever we do as a family, you're included if that's what you want to do."
"Do you really mean that?"
Dad turned from the stove holding up a spatula in a mock Nazi salute.
"Never question her mate! Of course she means it! I TOLD HER TO SAY IT AND SHE ALWAYS OBAYS MY EVERY COMMAND UPON PAIN OF DEATH!!"
Mum took a sideways glance at my Dad and giggled.
"Talking of arseholes………"
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