by Andrew Foote
We drove for the best part of an hour and once the town limits were well behind us, Sir George turned off the main road taking us deep into the countryside.
"Ah this is better! It's good to smell clean country air for a change don't you think?"
"It is very pretty Sir but where exactly are we going?"
"Well first of all we're going to a little village called Cold Ash. There's a delightful pub there called The Castle Inn which is owned by my ex Sargent-Major. A perfectly splendid fellow, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in the last war and I thought we could go and pay him a visit."
"Wow! What did he do to earn that?"
"To be truthful Alex, I don't know. Y'see I didn't serve during that time, I was already pensioned out of the army by then but like so many other brave men, they don't talk about their heroics. I think that is what sets them apart from us mere mortals.
Ah, here we are!"
The 'Castle' was the sort of pub that looked as if it should be on the lid of a biscuit tin.
A black and white half-timbered building which seemed to list uneasily to one side, its thatched roof completed the picture of a quintessential English village hostelry.
Leaning up against the wall were two or three bicycles, on the car park, two cars and a delivery van.
Once inside, the interior paid further testimony to its age which Mr Gooch or 'Rolly' to his friends later told me it actually dated back to the 15th century. Sir George wasted no time in pacing his order even though it appeared there was no one serving behind the bar.
"Sargent-Major! A pint of your finest IPA and a half of beer shandy and be quick about it!"
From somewhere in another room I heard someone roar with laughter. Behind the bar, a door was thrown open through which emerged a very portly red faced man.
"Well I'll be damned! Sir George! How the devil are you! This is indeed a very welcome surprise! To what do I owe the pleasure of your company then!"
"Well y'see, I'd just run young Alexis here into Reading so he could conclude a spot of business and we were thirsty so what better excuse to take a drive out and visit an old friend and comrade. You're looking very well? How's Nellie?"
Rolly finished drawing the drinks and set them on the bar.
"Yes, we're both very well thanks. I'm putting on a little bit of weight but that goes with the territory."
He winked at me.
"I have to continually check to make sure the beer's drinkable you see!"
He finished pulling a pint for himself and downed a third of it in two gulps.
"Oh yes! Not too bad at all!
I trust Eleanor is fit and well?"
"Oh yes. She's in splendid form. We both are come to that.
So old boy, how's business……….."
And so the conversation continued.
I started be get bored.
I know that might sound as if I didn't appreciate Sir George's company, I did but that didn't stop me wondering why he'd driven for the best part of one-and-a-half hours just for a beer and see an old friend.
I asked if I might go for a walk around the village and Sir George told me maybe that was a good idea as he had something he needed to discuss with Rolly anyway but to be sure I was back in thirty minutes.
I finished my drink and went outside.
Yes. The village was very pretty but I later learned that the conversation between the two men was far more interesting, some of which I will now précis.
"I'm pleased Alexis has chosen to go for a walk, please don't misunderstand me? He's a wonderful boy and I would venture to say, if I were to have a son, he would be my ideal but I need to ask you for a favour and it's best he knows nothing of what I'm about to say."
"Oh please George, you didn't have to come all the way from Reading to ask me for a favour? You know full well I'd be of assistance if I could? All you needed to do was lift the damned telephone man?"
"I know Rolly but this is so very important. I had to ask you in person.
Here's the thing.
You are aware that my Grandson attends Down House, are you not?"
Without waiting for an answer, Sir George continued.
"Look. He's not having an easy passage there and I'm very worried about him.
He's bright academically, no problem there but he is being subjected to, let us say, unwanted and needless attention if you get my drift."
"If I am to understand you correctly, you mean he's being bullied. Am I right?"
The problem is Rolly, it isn't just physical, it's mental as well and it is because of that, he built something of a wall between himself and everyone else, alienating himself from everyone, including us, Gerald and Julia, that was, until Alexis who you have just met appeared on the scene.
Justin has been transformed from a little shit to a lovely young boy again and all due to his friendship with young Alexis.
We made representations to Gerald and Julia in an attempt to have him removed from Down House, moved to another school where he could make a fresh start or ideally, be home tutored like Alexis and whilst I believe Julia was in favour, Gerald being Gerald would hear none of it. Justin is to return to Down House in a few weeks and to be perfectly frank Rolly, I'm very concerned."
"Very understandable but how do I fit in to all of this George?"
"That school is what, two miles from here?"
"Less as the crow flies."
"The thing is, what I needed to ask you was if things get too much for him, I wondered if you and Nellie would be prepared to 'rescue' him, put him up here until we could get over?"
"Yes of course we would. It really is that serious, is it?"
"I hope not. Perhaps I'm being over melodramatic but I feel I must explore all avenues to ensure Justin's wellbeing."
"Well you have no need to worry. Our house is open to him day or night. He only has to telephone us and I'll go and collect him. I trust the school will release him into our care if the situation were to occur?"
"I will inform the Head Master of our arrangement and if he won't play ball, I will unilaterally remove Justin from that hateful place permanently despite whatever Gerald has to say on the matter.
You're a good friend Rolly. You have no idea just how much I appreciate this."
It was at about this point in the conversation that I walked back in to the pub. Sir George smiled at me then looked at his watch.
"Time we went I think Alex. There's just one more thing I want to show you before we ought to get back to Mapledurham."
We said our good-bye's and drove on out of the village.
The road we were taking was different to the way we'd come in and within a few minutes we were passing through what appeared to be moorland, dense scrubland and just a smattering of trees.
Sir George spoke.
"This is Buckleberry Common Alex.
You see these concrete tracks? They are the roads built here at the beginning of the war for the Army and Air force bases and if you were to follow some of them, you would come across the old runways used by the fighter planes and bombers that were stationed hereabouts but this is where I wanted to bring you. Down House is just a bit further up this road and I thought you should have an idea as to where Justin has to return to."
We rounded a bend in the road then swung left down a tree-lined avenue with beautifully manicured lawns on either side. The road then took us over a bridge that spanned a small lake and there, in the distance was Down House.
I had seen stately homes before and I thought this had to be amongst one of the most imposing I'd ever laid eyes on.
Turning left in front of the house, Sir George followed the road around the side revealing some modern buildings which later Justin explained were the science blocks, gymnasium and swimming pool, all the rest of the school was inside the house.
"We won't stop Alex, I'm not sure we should even be here outside of term-time but it serves to give you an insight."
We drove out of the school grounds in silence, once back on the main road I looked across at Sir George and noticed tears running down his face.
"Why don't you pull over Sir? You look terrible." He didn't answer me but just stared into space but finding a lay-by, parked up.
"I'm sorry Alex. I'll be alright in a minute or two, it's just that I suddenly thought how Justin would feel the next time he travelled up that avenue, that's all. Come on. We better be getting back."
By the time the others returned from the airport I was sitting out on the back of 'Spook' with a mug of tea. I saw Jus running down the lawn and as he stepped on board, I stood up and gave him a hug.
"What kept you? I thought you'd be back ages ago."
"Their flight was delayed. Any more tea in the pot?"
We went below decks where Jus poured himself a drink and I topped myself up as well.
"How were they? I guess they got away alright eventually then?"
"Oh yeah, eventually! I got the impression my Mother didn't want to leave and my Father? Well he was his usual stuffy self, you know, irritatingly formal!"
"Did they say anything about…….anything?"
"Nah! Mother wouldn't go saying much in front of Father and as far as he's concerned, the matter's closed. Mother really likes you though! She told me to give you a big cuddle when I got back so put your tea down!"
Jus took me in his arms, pulled me into him and gave me deep, passionate kiss.
"Oh God Jus? I love it when you do that!"
"Good job! I've got a warehouse full of kisses especially for you.
Do you want to go back outside?"
"I'd much prefer you took me to bed but it is a touch early! Yeah. Let's go back outside. In a month or so it'll be too cold so we might as well make the most of it. Oh one bit of news? The engine's ready to be refitted. Your Grandfather took me down to Thorneycroft to arrange things."
"Hey that's great! That would explain why the Morris was on the drive.
When's it going to be fitted?"
"Dunno exactly. Soon though. The chap at Thorneycroft's going to telephone the house either later today or on Monday with a date. We went for a drive after we left there."
"Granddad likes driving that car! Where did you go?"
"We went for a drink and to see a friend of his."
"Ha-ha! Now let me see! The Castle Inn at Cold Ash. You met my Uncle Rolly then?"
"Go to the top of the class! How did you guess?"
"Nice day, Granddad likes his beer and Uncle Rolly is one of his greatest friends and a publican so it all adds up! You're lucky you're not still there. They've been known to get as drunk as skunks to the point where they can't hardly stand and Granddad has to stay the night!"
"Really? I can't imagine your Granddad pissed!"
"No well he's always on his best behaviour when grandmother's about but set him and Uncle Rolly lose together? That's a totally different proposition!"
"Well not today. He wanted to take me somewhere else on the way back. Want to have a stab at where that might've been?"
"He took you to Down House. What did you think of it?"
"That's one way to describe it I suppose although not one I'd use."
"Understandable I guess but I am pleased I've seen it. I've now got a picture of it in my mind for when you go back. I'll feel closer to you now."
"That's a beautiful thing to say Alex. Thank you!"
Later that afternoon, my Dad informed us that as he and Jus and Sir George and I had been out most of the day together with the fact that my Mum and Lady Eleanor had been too busy talking to prepare an evening meal, he was going into Caversham to get us all fish and chips for supper and we would be eating up at the house. No need for me to change into anything smart as it wasn't going to be a formal affair.
Actually supper was fun! Everyone seemed very relaxed as we sat around the kitchen table eating.
Sir George and my Dad were busily downing glasses of beer and Lady Eleanor fetched a bottle of wine from their cellar, standing it in front of Sir George together with a cork screw.
"Get to it George? Us ladies need a drink too?"
He opened the bottle with a look of mock distain on his face then looked at Jus and I and then the two glasses.
"TWO glasses only?"
"You men are drinking beer so no wine for you two!"
"What about the boys? Are they not allowed to participate woman?"
Lady Eleanor looked at us and smiled.
"Very well George, I bow to your better judgement as long as it's alright with you Kaz?"
"Oh I'm sure they'll be fine. Just one glass mind. Back to normality in the morning. Study time and there's a new subject on the curriculum."
My Dad spluttered into his drink.
"What's that? The art of responsible drinking?"
"Honestly Tim! Do you never listen to me? Let's call it 'domestic science'. If these two boys are taking 'Spook' out on their own, I want them to eat sensibly and healthily, not just live on fry-ups and biscuits! You might benefit from attending as well, you never know!"
It was late by the time we four of us wandered back to the boats.
Sir George had surreptitiously half-filled our glasses again while my Mum was elsewhere, but something that Dad, Sir George and Lady Eleanor did notice.
Dad just cautioned us to take it slowly as the chill of the early autumn evenings would exacerbate the effects of alcohol and Mum would have a fit if we fell over or misbehaved.
Once back on board we did down the remaining wine that Dad had given me a few days previously, went to bed and cuddled up in each other's arms.
"Do you think you are 'queer' like me?"
"I hate that term 'queer' Jus!
Look, if being in love with you, missing you every moment you're out of my sight, wanting you to touch me, to be naked with you all the while is 'queer' then I must be but I don't feel guilty therefore it isn't 'queer', it's normal for me."
"That's how I feel too but you're fortunate in as much as you're surrounded by people who care and understand. I've got to go back to school, to a place where no one has any understanding let alone sympathises."
"Look nobody here is going to allow you to be on your own there for any longer than necessary than for you to attend classes.
You will be back here every weekend, high days and holidays and I know it's easy for me to say, but keep your head down, keep focused on Friday afternoons."
"You are very much like your Dad, did you know that? He is a very comforting man to be around and you take after him. I do really love you Alex?" and with that, Jus started to drift off to sleep. I didn't attempt to stop him in spite of my raging erection!
He'd had a stressful day and I could wait for him. I loved him after all!
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