The following day, I went round to Tony's house with our study timetables and found that he was back to his usual cheerful self. Neither of us mentioned his words at the end of our last meeting, but after we'd fine-tuned the timetables he lounged back on his bed and stared at the ceiling. He seemed to be deep in thought, so I remained silent, sitting on his bedside chair and scribbling absent-minded doodles around the edges of my timetable.
"You're definitely going, aren't you?" he said eventually, more as a statement than a question, keeping his gaze fixed on the ceiling.
"Probably. I can't see any alternative."
"So you're not considering my suggestion of staying here. I could tell yesterday you didn't take it seriously."
He was trying to keep his voice emotionless, but I knew him well enough to detect his disappointment.
"Of course I took it seriously!" I protested. "I just doubt my dad will allow it. And, well, I wonder if it's really practical."
"Practical?" he asked, sitting up and looking at me. "What d'ya mean?"
"Well, I've been thinking," I said then paused, struggling to find the right words. "Well, we'd be living together, going to school together, sometimes sharing a room. Don't you think that could put a bit of a strain on our friendship?"
"Maybe for you," he said with a frown. "Anyway, won't living a couple of hundred miles away be more of a strain?"
Unable to answer, I just shrugged my shoulders. He fell back and resumed his inspection of the ceiling. Normally, we could be together in comfortable silence, but as this particular silence lengthened, I became increasingly uncomfortable.
"We can still get together on school holidays, and maybe some weekends," I said lamely. "Nothing will stop us being friends."
He rolled over onto his side and propped himself up on his elbow to look at me. "You will stay in touch, won't you, when you move? Not just drift away?"
"Of course I will! I'll phone you, and we'll still see one another. And I may even write," I quipped.
A week later, having had enough pricing quotes for work on Prospect House, Dad calculated that buying it was financially viable. I thought he might be pushing his luck a bit when he put in an offer almost ten percent below the asking price, but his offer was quickly accepted. The long and tedious details of house purchasing in England meant that it was expected to take about eight to ten weeks before purchase would be complete, and only then could work begin on new bathrooms, decorating, and other work we'd decided was essential.
During breakfast, just a couple of days after Dad's offer was accepted, he told me to make sure my bedroom and bathroom were 'clean and presentable', because that evening some potential buyers were coming to look around our house. Then I found out that he'd put the house on the market even before we went up to Northumberland. Knowing how organised and efficient Dad was, that didn't really surprise me, but until that morning it hadn't really hit home to me that I would soon be moving out of the place that had been 'home' for as long as I could remember. I was not happy.
Dad and I were both surprised when he received an acceptable offer on our house less than two weeks after the first people came to see it. He was, of course, jubilant, but my own reaction was very different. On hearing the news, I tried to hide my frown and fled to my room with the excuse that I needed to study.
The time up to and during the exams went by quickly and without any memorable events. Nothing unexpected had come up in the exam questions, and I was reasonably confident that I'd done well in all my subjects. To tell the truth, unlike Tony and other boys I knew, I liked doing exams. To me it was an exciting challenge and a chance to show off what I could do. Also, when I did well it gave me the chance to be noticed and maybe even praised by my dad.
Soon after Tony and I had become close friends, I'd tried to explain this to him. He'd looked at me with a mixture of disbelief and disgust, as if I'd told him that I enjoyed the flavour of raw sewage.
"How can you possibly enjoy exams?" he'd asked.
"I just do," I'd replied, trying to think of a way to explain. "Ya know, like you enjoy playing video games."
"But if I mess up a game, it doesn't really matter. If you mess up an exam, well, it's a bit more serious."
"That just makes it even more exciting," I said with a grin. Unable to resist the temptation to show off, I'd added, "Anyway, I may not do as well as I'd like but I've never actually messed up."
"You're weird," he'd said, effectively ending that topic of conversation.
In the weeks since Dad had accepted the offer on our house, my unhappiness at the idea of leaving my home had gradually faded to a dull ache, and the anticipation of the move had even become a little exciting. The fact that I was beginning to look forward to it made me feel guilty, especially when I saw Tony's normally happy expression cloud over whenever the move was mentioned.
The completion date both on the purchase of Prospect House and on the sale of our house had been agreed to be the first Friday in July, the same week that Dad was due to start work at Stellar Pharmaceuticals. By then we had to be moved out of our house, but there would be at least four weeks after that before the work on the Prospect House was complete. Stellar had agreed to pay for Dad to stay in a nearby hotel until he could move into the house, and they'd even offered to pay for me as well. However, the thought of being stuck in a hotel for a month while Dad was at work was unappealing, to say the least.
Of course, Elaine offered to let me stay with her, but I felt uncomfortable with the idea of imposing on her for a whole month. Then Dad suggested that Tony might want to keep me company by staying at the hotel with me. When I suggested this to Tony, he was very keen, because it would give him a chance to see where I'd be living. However, his parents were unhappy with the suggestion that he be away from home for four weeks without much adult supervision.
Eventually, after much discussion, we reached a series of compromises. Tony would spend the first week with me in the hotel then I'd spend three weeks staying with Tony while his sister was on holiday in the USA. If Prospect House wasn't ready to move into when Sarah returned, or if things didn't work out with me staying with Tony's family, then I could stay with Elaine. Somehow I felt like the parcel in a game of 'pass the parcel', but I liked the idea of being able to spend so much time with Tony.
My last day at the school came and went almost without me noticing, and contrary to my expectations it wasn't accompanied by any particular emotions. Because there were no classes during or after the exams, the school year just fizzled out, so that leaving the school became an anticlimax. My final departure from the home I'd grown up in was, however, extremely emotional. That Friday morning, as the last box was carried out to storage and I put my personal luggage into Dad's car, I was closer to tears than I'd been for many years, but still I couldn't cry.
That night and the following day, we stayed at Elaine's house, where the atmosphere was very subdued, though we all tried to maintain an outward cheerfulness. On the Saturday, Elaine made us a wonderful farewell dinner, though Dad pointed out that we'd be back often and that I would in fact be away for only a week. Mid-morning on Sunday, we picked Tony up from his house and drove up North. For the first part of the journey I was very quiet, and Tony and Dad did most of the talking. As usual, though, Tony's cheerful personality and happy chatter made me feel much better, and by the time we got to Northumberland I was joining in the conversation.
Dad had booked a twin room for Tony and me to share, a situation that made me both happy and nervous. Despite our long and close friendship, we'd never had any 'sleepovers' together, so I quickly found out more about him. For example, he wore briefs during the day but slept in just boxer shorts. Normally, I went to bed naked, but as I knew I'd be sharing a room, I'd brought along some pyjama bottoms. Also, I quickly discovered that he seemed to have no inhibitions about undressing in front of me. After our hot and sticky drive, we decided to shower before dinner, and I suggested that he go first. Thus, for the first time ever, I saw him naked.
I tried not to stare as I sat on my bed and did my best to at least appear as if I was watching TV. However, he was chatting to me, so I did have a reasonable excuse for looking at him. Of course, I'd seen him without a shirt before, so I already knew he had well-defined abdominal and pectoral muscles. As he stripped off before going to the shower, I saw that he had a thick bush of black pubic hair and that he, like me, was uncircumcised.
He took only a few seconds to undress and disappear into the bathroom, but it was enough time for me to get an erection that was bent painfully in my jeans. When he returned a few minutes later with a towel around his waist, I resisted the temptation to watch him dress. Instead, I quickly grabbed some clean clothes and went into the bathroom to undress, shower, and dress again. As I closed the bathroom door behind me, Tony gave me a strange look.
That night, and every night that we shared a room, Tony would strip and put on his boxers whether I was in the room or not. On the other hand, I always changed when I went to the bathroom to brush my teeth before bed. The first night I was so aroused that as soon as I thought Tony was asleep I wanked myself off. However, the bed squeaked a little and I had to get rid of the tissue that I cleaned up with, so from then on such activities were confined to the bathroom.
Presumably Tony, being a typical teenage boy, must have relieved his sexual tensions several times during our week in the hotel, but I never had any indication as to when he did it. Throughout the week Tony, as usual, occasionally brought up sexual topics, for example commenting on particularly attractive women he saw. Again as usual, I made what I thought were appropriate remarks and then sidestepped these topics as quickly as I could without seeming too strange or prudish. After knowing me for so long, I'm sure that Tony had grown accustomed to the way I responded to sexual chat. To him that was probably just one of my many weird characteristics.
On our first full day in Northumberland, Dad had to go in to his new job for the whole day, although he seemed confident that later in the week he'd be able to work some half-days and that he would be able to spend some time with us.
"Have you boys decided what you're doing today?" Dad asked over breakfast.
"Well, I'd like to see your new house," Tony answered before I could say anything.
"Okay," Dad said. He paused briefly to consider before continuing, "As it's not much out of my way, I could take you there on my way to work. But I doubt that you'll want to stay there all day, so you might have to get a bus back here."
"No problem," Tony said brightly. "Mark told me the house isn't too far from the hotel."
"Depends what you mean by far," Dad said, looking at me. "It's probably well over ten miles. We can check at the reception desk, but I'd bet that we'd find at you'd need to take at least two buses. And don't forget, this is the countryside, not the city, so buses won't be so frequent."
"I'm sure we'll manage, Dad. Anyway, apart from the house and grounds to explore, there's the village and countryside, so we may even spend all day in the area..."
"We could have a pub lunch," Tony interrupted with a big grin.
"Don't even think about trying to buy alcohol!" Dad warned, frowning at both of us.
"Of course not!" Tony protested, smiling at me.
Dad's warning about alcohol applied to public drinking. However, he was quite happy for me to drink alcohol in moderation when I was with him at home, especially at meal times. In fact, at dinner the previous night Dad had let Tony and me share his bottle of wine. Anyway, I was quite happy to heed Dad's warning; apart from anything else, I looked even younger than my almost-sixteen years and had no chance of being served alcohol in a pub. On the other hand, Tony could easily pass for eighteen, and I know he'd be adventurous enough to try.
"No, of course we won't," I added, then quickly changed the subject. "What time do you think you might be finished work?"
"Between five and six."
"Okay, then," I said, "if we're still not back here by five, I'll phone you on your mobile and tell you where we are so you can pick us up."
"Good idea," Dad replied, nodding his approval.
Before we left the hotel, Dad gave me a set of house keys, admonishing me to make sure I didn't lose them as the only other sets had been left with the workmen so that they could get access to the house. He also told me that if I saw Mrs Crawford I should ask her to phone him and let him know if she was still considering becoming our housekeeper.
Because he was running a bit short of time, Dad dropped us off at the end of the drive instead of driving right up to the house. There was no sign of any activity at the gatehouse as we walked past, but I did notice that a relatively new dark blue Volvo was parked outside. When we emerged from the shielding trees Tony stopped dead in his tracks and let out a low whistle.
"Wow!" he said. "I know you told me it was big, and I've seen the photos, but I didn't realise it was this big."
"Nice, isn't it?" I replied, trying not to sound too full of pride.
"Looks like you've got visitors already," he said, nodding his head toward the house.
A large blue van and a smaller white van were parked on the gravel, and workmen were unloading both vans while other men were carrying boxes and plastic sheeting into the house. Ideally, there would also have been people to fit double gazing, but that was beyond Dad's current budget because it would require many new windows that would have to be specially designed.
"Must be the builders and decorators," I said. "I'm glad to see they've made an early start."
When we reached the steps leading up to the front door we were approached by a chunky dark-haired man who appeared to be in charge. In a barely understandable thick Northumberland accent he asked who we were. When I identified myself as the owner's son he became much more friendly but no more intelligible.
"You never said you'd need to take language lessons to live here," Tony whispered as soon as we were indoors and out of earshot of the workmen.
"I'm sure I'll pick it up quickly," I replied, grinning.
We spent more than an hour exploring the house, and when he entered what was to be my bedroom I watched him closely, but he showed no particular reaction. However, when I followed him into the room I felt a slight disorientation, although it was not unpleasant. In fact, it seemed almost welcoming, as if I was going into a familiar room that had been redecorated but still had all my old furniture.
By the end of our tour Tony was even more impressed and was especially enthusiastic about the basement.
"You could have some great parties down here," he commented.
"You know I'm not really a party person," I replied.
"Yeah, but I am!"
"Anyway," I said, returning his grin, "I don't think Dad would approve of you having teenage drunken orgies down here."
"Orgies? I never mentioned orgies, but now you bring up the subject, I think that's a great idea!"
Laughing, we went outside to explore the rear of the house, and for the next few minutes my mind was flooded with images of Tony at an orgy.
We walked down to the stream, which at its widest point was only about ten feet across, and nowhere was it deeper than about two feet. After trying unsuccessfully to skip some stones across the slowly moving water, we decided to cross over and make a foray into the woodland. We quickly found a shallow area where rocks and large stones made the crossing easy, and as we entered among the trees I saw a faint path. I felt a strong urge to see where it might lead, but Tony was not enthusiastic.
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" he said dubiously, hanging back as I started walking. "Are you sure this is your land? And we don't want to get lost, do we?"
He tried to make it sound as like a joke, but I could tell he was at least half-serious.
"Yes, it's ours, and it's not big enough to get lost in," I smiled back at him as I continued walking.
He followed, and it occurred to me that this was a complete reversal of our usual roles. He was always the adventurous one, and I was the one who always hung back, reluctant to take risks. As we proceeded along the path, I felt increasing elation and excitement, and suddenly I remembered the unusual 'mini-vision' I'd had as I fell asleep the first night after seeing Prospect House.
The path approached a thick clump of trees and bushes then swung away, at which point, without knowing why, I left the path and approached the dense vegetation.
"Whoa!" Tony said, halting and remaining on the path. "Where are you going now? You can't get through there. Just look at all those brambles. They'll tear you to shreds."
I stopped and looked at him, feeling a little confused and unsure what to say. His concerned frown deepened when he saw the dazed expression on my face. How could I tell him that although I'd never been there before in my life, I knew beyond any shadow of doubt that there was indeed a way through.
"Come on," I said pleadingly. "It's okay."
Turning away from him, I continued toward a couple of trees just to the left of the densest part of the brambles. When I reached the two trees, I could see that between them was a narrow gap that was almost free of undergrowth, and as I squeezed through the gap I entered a small clearing, which was totally secluded and probably invisible from outside.
I was puzzled by the fact that the place seemed very familiar, but before I could follow up that train of thought, I had a feeling of disorientation similar to the one I'd experienced when I first entered what was to become my bedroom in Prospect House. A brief wave of dizziness caused me to hold onto the nearest tree in order to avoid falling over, and although it was a warm and sunny day, I felt a brief chill that made me shiver. Given the fact that none of those strange feelings were remotely erotic, I was surprised to find that I had a strong erection.
The disturbing effects that the clearing had on me, together with the feelings I'd previously experienced in my prospective bedroom, made me wonder if there was something wrong with me or if there was something wrong with Prospect House. It occurred to me that maybe it had been a mistake for me to encourage Dad to buy this place. However, I consoled myself with the thought that the effects the room had on me seemed to be decreasing each time I went into it.
"Where are you?" Tony called out, sounding concerned.
Breaking out of my reverie, I remembered to check that my erection wasn't too obvious before I retraced my steps and saw that he was still on the path.
"Here," I said. "Come and see what I found."
His worried expression gave way to one of relief and annoyance. "Bloody hell, Mark, I never thought you were into exploring jungles."
"It's not a jungle," I laughed. "Anyway, I thought you were supposed to be the adventurous one."
"Adventurous I may be," he said, his mood becoming lighter, "but you know I'm a city boy. All this green stuff can be a bit too much for us city boys."
He followed me into the clearing and looked around then frowned at me and added, "You should've told me you'd been here before, then I wouldn't have been so worried."
"I've not been here before."
"You must have," he said, giving me a strange look. "From the path there's no way you could've seen the way in, and someone must have been here before or this clearing wouldn't be so, erm, clear."
He smiled at his own cleverness, and as I looked around it occurred to me he was right; someone must have been keeping the clearing from becoming overgrown.
"Really," I protested. "I promise I've never been here before."
"Then someone must have told you about it."
"No one told me about it," I said, a little upset that he might feel that I'd tricked him. "Finding this place was just a lucky fluke."
For a moment he seemed to doubt me, then he shrugged and apparently accepted my words at face value. He grinned and said, "Okay, I believe you. And this is a nice little hide-away. Just the sort place you could bring your girlfriend for a bit of privacy."
"Trust you to think of that," I commented.
"Anyway," he said with a grin, "I don't know about you, but I'm getting hungry. Let's go see about some food!"
While we were making our way up the hill and back toward the house, I saw Brian walking across the rear lawn. As soon as he spotted us, he waved and started coming toward us. This was the first time I'd seen him in daylight, and as we drew closer I took the opportunity to get a good look at him. Automatically, I began to compare him with Tony, who was my idea of perfection and therefore the yardstick by which I measured anyone I found potentially attractive.
Although Brian and Tony were equally tall, Brian was much bulkier, and I could tell from his tight black-and-white striped soccer shirt that the extra bulk was all solid muscle. Brian, who'd turned seventeen in May, was almost a year older than Tony, and his face was noticeably more rugged and adult. Their hair was equally short, but Brian's was dark brown and straight, whereas Tony's was black and curly. The major difference that struck me, however, was that Brian deep brown eyes, though attractive, could not compare with the strikingly beautiful blue of Tony's eyes. We were about half way between the house and the stream when we reached Brian, who came to a halt about six feet from us.
"Hi, erm, Mark," Brian said.
Having spoken to me before, even though on only the one occasion, he almost certainly knew that I was indeed Mark, and yet he seemed to be hesitant and almost embarrassed. He cast a glance in Tony's direction before looking back at me. Perhaps he was a little put out by the way Tony appeared to be assessing him, or maybe he was just waiting to be introduced. This latter possibility was made more likely by the fact that they were both standing in awkward silence and obviously waiting for me to speak.
"Hi, Brian, this is my friend Tony. I'm just showing him around," I said then turned to Tony. "Brian's family owns the house at the end of the drive."
As soon as the two of them had exchanged greetings, Brian, apparently a little more at ease, spoke again. "Mum saw you going past our house earlier and told me to come and see if you wanted to join us for lunch."
Not being a particularly sociable person, and feeling somewhat uncomfortable with Brian, my first reaction was to politely decline. However, his family were going to be my closest neighbours for the foreseeable future, so I was also thinking that maybe I should accept. Before I had time to decide, Tony took the matter out of my hands.
"Yes, we'd love to. What time?" he said, then added with one of his most charming and disarming smiles, "I don't want to seem too eager, but I'm starving!"
"Well, now, really," Brian responded with a grin. "Or at least as soon as I can go and get my brother. He's doing some gardening. Want to come with me?"
"Okay," I agreed quickly, not wishing to leave all the decisions to Tony.
At first there was silence as Brian led the way back up the hill and toward the east side of the house, but after walking a few yards Tony spoke to Brian. "Does all that woodland really belong to the house?"
"Yes," Brian replied, slowing his pace and looking back at Tony. "All the woods as far as the road."
"Road?" Tony said. "I didn't see a road."
"You can't see the road unless you get to the top of the hill," Brian said, coming to a halt and pointing to the wooded slope on the other side of the stream. "And even from the top you can only see it if you find a gap in the trees."
"Wow!" Tony said, clearly impressed. "Mark never told me the estate was so big."
"A hundred years ago it was much bigger," Brian responded. "Now it's still almost everything you can see from the house."
"So what can you see from the house that doesn't belong to it?" Tony asked thoughtfully as we resumed walking."
"The land my granddad bought off Miss Victoria," Brian replied with a hint of pride. "From the gatehouse, along the east side of the drive, up to the kitchen garden and then across to the east boundary wall. My family have lived in the gatehouse for over a hundred years."
Judging from the way he glanced in my direction as he made that last remark, I guessed that it was aimed at me. There was a brief silence until we reached the stone-paved path that went around the east side of the house. Across the path from the house was a rectangular area of rough grass, which caught Tony's attention.
"That would make a great soccer pitch," he said. "Do you play soccer, Brian?"
"I love soccer, but I usually play rugby at school," Brian replied, then added proudly, "I'm in the college team."
"I play soccer for my school," Tony said, clearly not wishing to be outdone.
As we walked along the path, the two of them began an enthusiastic discussion about soccer and the Premiership teams they supported. As usual when Tony talked about soccer, I tried to show more interest than I really felt. Although I was relieved that the earlier strained atmosphere had gone, I also felt a bit excluded and a little jealous that they were getting on so well
The paved path went toward the front of the house, but as we approached a clump of trees on our left, Brian directed us along a smaller dirt path, which branched off and went round behind the trees. A few yards down the path was a cobbled area, on one side of which I saw an ivy-covered wall with a door. We followed Brian through the door into a large rectangular garden surrounded on all four sides by a tall brick wall. Only about half the garden seemed to be in use for growing vegetables and fruit, but even the unused part hadn't been allowed to become overgrown.
"What, no flowers?" Tony joked.
"No," Brian grinned back. "This is the kitchen garden. Mum's flower garden is behind our house. Anyway, my brother's not here, so he's probably putting stuff away in the stables."
"Stables?" Tony exclaimed. "You have horses?"
"No. There's not been any horses since my granddad was a boy. The stables are just used for storage now."
He led us out of the garden and along to the southeast corner of the wall, which we rounded to find a cobbled area, on the other side of which, about a dozen yards away, stood the large red-brick stables. A boy was bending over and washing his hands at a tap on a water pipe attached to the outer wall of the stables.
"Hey!" Brian called out the boy. "Mum says lunch will be ready soon."
The boy, dressed in a grubby old rugby shirt and jeans, stood up and seemed to be surprised when he saw that Brian was not alone. Although Brian made no attempt to introduce us, I presumed that this was his brother, the 'Tommy' mentioned by Mrs Crawford when Dad and I had tea and cake with her. However, the tension I sensed between them seemed far removed from 'brotherly love'.
There appeared to be no family resemblance between the two brothers. Tommy was about my height and build, and so considerably shorter and slimmer than his brother. His hair, so short that it stuck up, could be described as either dark blond or pale brown, depending on how the light struck it. Despite the distance between us, the thing that made the biggest impression on me was the colour of his large, wide-set eyes. It was the sort of blue-gray that seemed to glow with an inner light.
The lengthening silence and the fact that I was obviously staring at him made me feel very uncomfortable, so I felt compelled to speak.
"Hi, I'm Mark and this is Tony," I blurted out. "I guess you must be Tommy?"
Far from having the soothing effect I intended, the only response from Tommy was a frown at me and an annoyed glare at his brother. Then he walked off in the direction of the gatehouse. Wondering what I could have done to upset him, I cast a questioning look at Brian, who was smirking and looking quite pleased with what had happened.
"He hates being called 'Tommy', and I bet he thinks I put you up to it," Brian responded to my unspoken question.
"But your mum called him Tommy," I said, feeling a little foolish.
"She's the only one who can get away with it. He doesn't seem to mind so much with her, and he couldn't do anything about it if he did."
"Anyway, what's so bad about calling him 'Tommy'?" I asked, still confused.
"No idea," Brian answered, shrugging his shoulders. "Until about four years ago we all called him that, and he didn't mind at all. Then one day he said he didn't like that name and everyone had to call him 'Tom' or 'Thomas'. After that he just got even more weird."
"Weird?" Tony and I echoed, almost in unison.
"Oh, never mind about our Tom," Brian said impatiently and with a hint of irritation. "Let's go and get some lunch."
Tom must have rushed home, because when we entered the hallway he was just coming down the stairs, having already changed into clean shirt and jeans. His mother came bustling out of the kitchen to greet us, and I introduced her to Tony.
"Lunch will be ready in a few minutes," she said. Then looking from me to Tony and back, she added, "Maybe you'll want to have a wash and freshen up a bit. Brian can show you where the bathroom is."
Her words made me realise that not only was I hot and sweaty but that Tony and I were both showing signs of our walk through the undergrowth. Tony must have noticed the same thing because he looked at me and grinned before speaking to Mrs Crawford.
"Afraid we're in a bit of a mess, aren't we?" he said apologetically. Then he grinned at me and added, "Of course, it's all Mark's fault cos he insisted on exploring the woods. Anyway, I promise we'll get cleaned up before we eat."
Mrs Crawford, having two sons and living in the countryside, obviously had a lot of experience with messy boys. She nodded her understanding before returning to the kitchen. As Brian led us upstairs to the bathroom, I noticed that Tom, who'd been holding himself in the background while we talked, was now frowning at me yet again. It seemed as if I wasn't making a good impression on at least one of my new neighbours.
Mr Crawford was at work so it was just the five of us for lunch, but there was no doubt at all that Mrs Crawford was quite capable of controlling four teenage boys. Without any obvious interrogation, she also managed to extract a lot of information about Tony and me. Of course, during lunch I also found out a few things. For example, I discovered that Tony seemed to share many of Brian's interests and points of view. I was surprised by the strength of my feelings of jealousy produced by that discovery.
I also found out that although Brian was a year ahead of me in his schooling and Tom was a year behind me, I was much closer in age to Tom because of the timing of our birthdays and the school years. Brian had already turned seventeen in May, but Tom and I were both still fifteen, his birthday being just four months after mine. However, nothing I heard explained the tension between the two brothers. They didn't speak to one another unless absolutely necessary, and when they did exchange words they made little effort to hide their animosity. Their mother must have been aware of this tension, but she gave no indication of that awareness.
Tom said very little during the meal and he hardly ever looked up from his plate. Whenever he did look up, however, there always appeared to be a different balance between the blue and gray in his eyes, which occasionally seemed almost luminous. Several times I caught myself staring at him, and I hoped that no one else had noticed my fascination. However, from the glances she sometimes cast in my direction, I suspected that Mrs Crawford might have seen the way I was looking at her younger son. When I was stuffed full, and while Brian and Tony were still devouring their second huge piece of strawberry cheesecake, Mrs Crawford turned her attention to me.
"So, Mark, you've been exploring the woods already," she said in a joking tone. "I was wondering how a city boy would settle in the countryside, but I suspect you'll be okay."
"Oh, yes, Mrs C," Tony chipped in, "our adventure this morning showed me that I'm definitely a city boy, but Mark seems to have taken to the countryside as if he was born here. In fact, he managed to find this little clearing in the woods that I bet even lots of local people don't know about."
As I expected as soon as I heard him say it, Mrs Crawford didn't like being addressed as 'Mrs C'. However, although she frowned her disapproval, she didn't say anything. What I hadn't expected was the effect that Tony's little speech would have on Tom, who all during the meal had been keeping apart from the conversation, giving me the impression that he'd rather be elsewhere. His face went white, his expression of boredom became one of shock, and he looked at me as if I'd slapped him across the face. Then he stood up, almost knocking his chair over, and left the room. A couple of seconds later I heard the front door bang shut.
For several seconds there was an embarrassed silence around the table. Mrs Crawford looked worried, Tony looked puzzled, Brian looked bemused and amused, and I felt confused and concerned. The quiet was broken when Brian whispered something to Tony, who was sitting next to him. I couldn't hear what he whispered, but Mrs Crawford, who was sitting between Brian and me, may have done so because she gave him a disapproving look.
"Why don't you two clear the table and then amuse yourselves for a bit," she said to them. "I want to have a chat with Mark."
The way that the two of them, especially Brian, complied with her request gave me the impression she was accustomed to getting her own way. They quickly cleared the table and went upstairs, presumably to Brian's room. Apprehensive that she might blame me for upsetting Tom, I followed her into the living room, where she sat on an armchair and directed me to sit on the sofa.
"Please don't let yourself be influenced too much by what anyone, even Brian, might say about Tommy," she said as soon as I sat down. "I hope you'll get to know him and form your own opinions."
Her words and serious tone took me completely by surprise, and for several seconds I had no idea how to respond. I wondered what people might say about Tom and why she should care what I might think about him. Not knowing how to respond, I remained silent.
"He's an unusual boy," she said then paused for thought, as if trying to decide how to continue.
Although the silence only lasted a very few seconds, the way she seemed to be assessing me was making me uncomfortable. Anxious to break the silence, I said the first thing that came into my head.
"His eyes are certainly unusual."
"Yes, everyone notices that," she said, and smiled a little as if grateful for the diversion. "That's why he's called Tommy."
The ensuing expression of confusion on my face made her smile broaden, and she went on to explain. "When he was born, his great-grandfather, Andrew's grandfather, was still alive, and as soon as he saw the baby's eyes he insisted we call him Thomas. Andrew and I told the old man that we intended to name the baby James, but then he got very upset. He told us that his older brother, Tommy, who'd died in the First World War, had had eyes just like our new baby. Anyway, as it was it was obviously so important to the old man, we eventually agreed."
Her little story touched me much more than I would have expected and impressed upon me the fact that this house had been a home to the Crawford family for several generations. I closed my eyes for a moment and imagined I could feel all those lives of all those people passing through this place. Perhaps Mrs Crawford thought I was bored and falling asleep, because her next words were spoken in a more business-like tone.
"As I mentioned," she said, "he's an unusual boy, but he's kind, gentle and honest. Though he doesn't have many friends, he's very loyal to the few he has. But I must admit that he can be a bit sensitive, as you probably noticed just now."
"And he seemed to get annoyed at me just because I called him 'Tommy'!" I added with a wry smile.
"Yes," she smiled back. "Until he was eleven everyone called him 'Tommy', and it didn't bother him. Then it seemed like overnight he decided he didn't like it. But to me he's still my little Tommy."
"Do you know what upset him just now?" I asked.
"To be honest, I'm not really sure. As I said, he doesn't have many friends and prefers to be out in the countryside alone rather than being sociable with other people. Maybe he didn't like the idea of others exploring the woods. But now they're your dad's woods, so there's not much Tommy can do about it."
"Erm, I don't want to seem rude," I said hesitantly, raising a question that had been on my mind since the start of our conversation, "but why should you or Tommy care what opinion I have of him?"
She looked at me with her head tilted slightly to the left, as if she were studying me.
"Well," she said eventually, "you're going to be the nearest neighbour of his own age, and I think that if you give him a chance you could be a good friend to him. The few friends he has now can be a little, erm, strange. So it would be good for him to have a nice, normal friend."
The idea that I might be a 'nice, normal friend' struck me as being very amusing in an ironic sort of way. She wouldn't be saying these things to me if she knew how unsociable I was, or if she knew about my strange experiences in the house and the clearing. And I was sure she'd not be thinking of me as nice and normal if she knew that most of my frequent sexual fantasies involved Tony.
"Maybe Tommy," I began, and then corrected myself, "Maybe Tom won't want to be friends with me."
"We'll just have to see," she replied.
After that she didn't speak for several seconds, and I found the long silence was making me nervous and so uncomfortable that I had to say something.
"Dad was wondering if you'd decided about being housekeeper," I blurted out, speaking much too quickly, "and if you have, please can you phone him to let him know when he can come over and talk to you about it."
At first she looked blankly at me, and I realised that I'd interrupted a completely different train of thought. Then, as her mind shifted direction and she grasped what I'd said, she smiled gently.
"Well," she said thoughtfully, "I think we could have a trial period and see how we all get on. We hardly know one another yet."
"I already know I love your cooking, and I'm sure we'll get on," I said with a genuine enthusiasm that made her smile.
"That's very kind of you, but we'll have to see what your dad has to say about it."
"He'll agree if I ask him to," I said confidently. "Within reason he'll let me decide most things about the house."
Her expression indicated an amused doubt, and I wondered if she regarded me as just a boastful teenager. Perhaps I felt a need to justify and explain myself, but I found myself pouring out the story of my compromise and agreement with Dad about the move. Somehow, blended into that story, I even told her how much I was going to miss Elaine.
Toward the end of my tale I heard the boys coming downstairs, and I paused so that they wouldn't overhear me. Brian stood in the doorway and, lifting up a soccer ball he was carrying, he asked if I wanted to have a 'kick-about' with him and Tony.
"We're talking just now," Mrs Crawford answered for me. "He'll be out in a couple of minutes."
Brian shrugged, and possibly thinking that his mum was interrogating me, he gave me a sympathetic smile before going outside with Tony. After a little encouragement from Mrs Crawford, I finished explaining why my dad took so much notice of my opinions regarding the house. When I finished, she looked at me thoughtfully before speaking.
"Miss Victoria and Tommy were very close friends" she said, "and she knew how much he loved nature, so she let him go anywhere he wanted on the estate. Maybe one reason he's a bit sensitive around you is that he's afraid he won't be allowed to wander round now your dad owns the land. Perhaps you could use your influence to persuade your dad..."
"I don't need to use any influence!" I interrupted. Then I continued in a mock-formal tone, "I officially invite Tom to be my guest on the estate and carry on as he's always done."
The combination of my words and my playful tone made her face light up in a smile that made her look ten years younger.
"In that case, young Mr Kenny," she replied, echoing my mock formality, "I officially invite you here for tea and cake whenever you want to stop by."
A couple of minutes later, I went outside and met up with Tony and Brian, who were kicking the ball about on the grassy area between the gatehouse and the driveway. When they saw me, Brian picked up the ball and spoke to me.
"You spent ages chatting with Mum," he said with an irritated frown. "What could you find to talk about for such so long?"
"Quite a bit," I responded a little defensively. "She's very easy to talk to."
He continued to give me a questioning look, and there was a brief silence while he waited for me to expand on my answer. When it became clear that I wasn't going to volunteer any additional information, he spoke gain.
"I bet she was talking about Nature Boy," Brian said dismissively.
"Nature Boy?" Tony asked.
"Yeah, my little brother. He prefers plants to people. And he's a total weirdo."
"Just cos someone likes gardening and the countryside doesn't make them weird," I protested.
"Isn't it weird when an eleven-year-old kid calls a ninety-year-old woman his best friend?" Brian retorted. "And there's other weirdo stuff."
"Like what?" I asked, partly as a challenge and partly out of genuine curiosity.
"Oh, never mind," Brian said with a shrug. "I'm fed up of talking about him."
He began bouncing the ball on the ground, and there was a tense silence until Tony decided to try and lighten the mood.
"Tell yer what, Brian," he said cheerfully, "why don't you show us round the village? It's always a good thing to know where the nearest pub is!"
For the rest of the afternoon until it was time to arrange for Dad to pick us up, the three of us wandered round the village and local area. Brian's sullen mood quickly disappeared, and we all had an enjoyable time together. When we got back to our hotel room, Tony looked at me thoughtfully.
"Ya know," he said, "this place is better than I expected, but there aren't many people our age about. I think Brian would make a good friend, and as you're a stranger up here it would be a good idea to try and make some new friends."
"Yeah, maybe," I said non-committally. His words reminded me that in just a few weeks my best friend and I would be living a couple of hundred miles apart.
That night I dreamt about the clearing in the wood. I was standing there and hugging someone I loved a great deal, but I didn't know who he was and couldn't see his face. Although we did nothing more intimate than the hugging, the emotional and sexual charge kept building up until I had an orgasm. I awoke in the early dawn light with a big wet patch in the front of my pyjama bottoms.
That took me by surprise because I'd not had a wet dream for a couple of years, and certainly not since masturbation had become a daily practice. As I'd already relieved my sexual tensions, I couldn't understand why I'd ejaculated in my sleep. Fortunately, I had spare pyjama bottoms in my suitcase, so I decided to get them and change in the bathroom. That was not only for my physical comfort but also so that Tony wouldn't notice the stain in the morning.
A little of the light from the lampposts outside the hotel filtered through the partially closed window blinds, so I looked over to Tony's bed to check that he wouldn't see me. However, he was lying with his back to me so I couldn't tell if he was asleep. He was still, apart from small regular breathing movements, so I got out of bed and crossed the room to my suitcase. Unfortunately, I banged the side of the wardrobe as I opened the case, and as I lifted out the clean pyjamas I heard Tony move.
When I turned around, I found him sitting up in bed a looking at me blearily. Praying that he hadn't noticed the huge wet patch, I quickly covered my crotch with the clean pyjamas. However, my prayers went unanswered, and I was mortified when I saw him grinning and looking at my crotch area.
"Had a little accident?" he asked. "You should try draining it more often!"
Blushing and almost dying with embarrassment, I didn't reply, but instead fled to the bathroom. After washing myself, I delayed my exit from the bathroom as long as I could, and when I eventually emerged, Tony appeared to be asleep so I quickly slipped into my bed. It took some time for me to get back to sleep because I kept thinking about the strange events of the day. I wondered if there was something strange about Prospect House and the Crawfords or if I was the one who was weird.
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