The great house looked rather empty, like an echoing museum after the past three weeks of being filled with guests. It was one of the last and original millionaires’ mansions on this cliff top overlooking the sea, a lonely remaining monument to the luxury and opulence of the nineteen twenties, when so many of the others had long since been turned into hotels and schools or left to decay where they stood.
The house owner, a distinguished looking man in his late seventies, wearing a red silk smoking jacket over shockingly sheer pyjamas, came down the great stone staircase to find Paul handing over the last of the suitcases to the man in livery uniform loading the limousine outside, and standing back on the drive to wave as the driver pulled away. The car swept out of sight, leaving the immaculate, curving driveway deserted, and Paul ran up the steps into the front door and softly closed the two ornate front doors. They were alone in the house now, even the decorations had been taken down and put away.
“I can make you coffee if you want it, Charles?” Paul offered, heading back into the kitchen. The man followed him, still replete from the breakfast trays Paul had brought up to the bedrooms two hours ago, with the same ease and energy with which he did everything.
“Darling, there’s not a thing I need. I won’t ask you if everything’s done, I have learned to know better and it simply will be. Paul, I am devastated I can’t find enough for you to do to keep you on, you will be the most shattering loss.”
“I don’t think there’ll be a lot of room for a housekeeper where you’re planning to spend Christmas.” Paul pointed out. The last couple of boxes were stacked in the marble floored kitchen where meals for eighteen people had been cooked daily, and Paul went on putting them away into the deep cupboards until the kitchen was emptied. It was scrubbed and gleaming and bereft; the house, having completed its pre-Christmas parties, was being shut up and what was left of the furniture being shrouded in white covers, and the house would not be entered again before summer when the vast swimming pool at the back of the house, and the extensive gardens, would once more be useable.
“There won’t.” Charles said regretfully. “I do so enjoy the annual pre Christmas orgy – well yes, I know you feel that orgy is a rather a strong term, perhaps it wasn’t quite that bad, but I like thinking I’m still young enough to have an orgy so there you go. I’m still stunned we didn’t manage to shock you, it’s most disappointing. But I travel far too much to justify keeping this old place running now except on special occasions.”
His voice was affectionate; this was the house he’d been born in, and for the lifestyle Charles most thoroughly enjoyed living, a lonely house with multiple rooms well away from prying eyes was precisely right for him. His search for servants who had no problem with the multiple beautiful and for the most part partially dressed young man of several nationalities who had enjoyed disporting themselves in this house at Charles’ expense and for his amusement for the past three weeks, had led to Paul receiving his first offer of employment through a very select, discreet and unusual domestic service agency in New York.
“Your car comes at three,” Paul said, putting the last of the boxes away, “Would you prefer to lock up yourself, or would you like me to stay and do it before I leave?”
“Where exactly are you going?” Charles cocked his silvering head at Paul and smiled before Paul could reply, “Yes, I’m perfectly well aware you have no plans, so you needn’t bother telling your naughty little lies to me.”
He saw Paul smile back and carry on efficiently with the boxes, completely unmoved, just flicking his longish dark hair back out of his face as he stooped to the cupboard. The boy was slim, long legged and dressed in elderly flared blue jeans which cupped in all the right places. Somehow Paul had the knack of being tastefully dressed even in jeans and a sweater, and the guests had most definitely appreciated him. For a boy his age he was quite staggeringly competent. Nothing rattled him, Charles had yet to see anything dent his temper, and he produced large, ornate and surprisingly complicated meals as serenely as he ensured the house was immaculate and he managed the needs of multiple demanding guests, although it was quite difficult to see beyond the friendly smile and the easy sense of humour and have any real idea of what the boy was actually thinking, or to establish anything but the broadest personal details. Although he spoke of weekends in a town called Augusta in clubs and bars that had made him apparently immune to what he’d seen and heard around him in this house, and take it perfectly calmly as normal. Here was a boy who had read and seen and experienced, and was perfectly at home in his own body; enjoyed the scene, but apparently preferred to be left alone in the kitchen to cook and to put away boxes if given the choice. It was almost criminal in a boy with such pretty eyes.
“You know what I’m going to do, we’ve talked about it.” Paul said easily, packing another cupboard. “I’m going to keep on asking the agency for interesting jobs in interesting place with interesting people, just like you, and enjoy myself free lance housekeeping. After Maine, it’s nice to see a bit of life.”
Charles watched him, saying it gently and tactfully, “Paul will you listen to a business suggestion? Even from a very silly old man.”
“A very cute, silly old man.” Paul corrected.
Charles fluttered his eyelashes.
“Ah, I could listen to your flattery all day. My dear, I’ve been speaking to an old friend of mine for you, and while he isn’t agency approved, he’d like to offer you a short term job.”
Paul leaned against the counter, giving him a quizzical look, and Charles took a slip of paper from his pocket.
“I gave you a glowing reference and pointed out in detail how perfect you would be – Philip is a dear, he would certainly be a good employer, and it would give you time to find another position and to put some more money behind you. It would be much the kind of work you’ve done here, cooking and supervising the cleaning, but they’ve had a bit of a crisis in the household and Philip needs someone now, today, really quite urgently.”
He saw Paul’s eyes soften with ready sympathy and Charles smiled at him, seeing his interest go up. Challenge. He suspected Paul thrived on challenge, and he’d told Philip so.
“I love Philip and I intend for you to be my Christmas gift to him this year. I can’t think of anything better I could possibly give him.”
Paul accepted the slip of paper, looking at the name. “Philip Winthrop, Falls Chance Ranch – ranch? Wyoming. Charles, are you seriously turning me into a Christmas gift to a ranch?”
“Well I promise not to tie a bow anywhere vulgar.” Charles told him sweetly. “Philip runs a household not quite as large as this, although a large enough house, and it’s always a busy one whenever I’ve visited. Definitely lively. I don’t think you’d be bored and they’d love to have you for a few weeks until they’re on a more even keel. Paul, you will give it a try won’t you?”
“Well for a few weeks, yes certainly, thank you.” Paul said cheerfully. “I’m available.”
He wasn’t going to lack for work. Charles, who knew the private circuits of social life Paul would move in, knew how fast gossip travelled in it, and that once the word got out that Paul was extremely capable and unshockable and pretty much ideal, it wouldn’t take long for him to be able to take his pick of good offers through the agency and the kind of varied, independent career he was seeking. But he had no job to go to today for the agency, and there was something particular to Paul. Charles saw it, and it was the kind of thing he’d quietly pointed out to Philip before in other young men whom Philip had then taken in hand. Besides, it was not possible to think of this beautiful boy spending Christmas alone.
“Excellent. It will be a household in which you’re comfortable, they won’t go alarming you with any straight nonsense, they’re all quite respectable. Philip has lived there for the best part of forty years with his partner, David – he’s far more straight laced than I am dear, he and David have been an archetypal old married couple.”
“On a ranch?” Paul said, a little wryly. Charles smiled.
“Oh they’re not hiding out there the way I hide out here, just for an isolated house in the middle of nowhere. They actually do the ranching. Properly, with cows and everything. But David’s been ill and I don’t think he’s been recovering well, and it takes a lot of pairs of hands to run the ranch. They could use a competent pair of hands at home to take care of the house, and I know how good you are at it.”
Paul lifted his eyebrows, reflecting on this, and couldn’t help a smile at the thought it.
“So I guess I’d better brush up on how to cook beans and bacon, this should be interesting. You’re serious, this is a household of cowboys?”
“Well they’re very pretty cowboys.” Charles said encouragingly. “In a butchly muddy kind of way. Philip is actually expecting you this evening-“ slightly apologetically he produced a plane ticket and held it out. “I have a car due to drop you at the airport.”
“This is a bit of a fait accompli, isn’t it?” Amused, Paul looked at the ticket, which described an extremely good seat. Definitely more than Paul would ever have paid himself for a plane trip. Charles put an arm around him and kissed his cheek.
“This is the Old Boys network taking you in hand. My dear, if you go making yourself indispensable to older men with money, you are likely to find yourself very well taken care of. I would love for you to go and sort Philip out, he needs it. However if you don’t choose to take the job with Philip, or if you decide to move on, let me know. I’ll always be able to find someone else who will appreciate a pretty thing like you properly.”
It was a seven hour flight, travelling distance and over states Paul had never visited in his life having never left Maine until a month ago. He made a brief change of plane in Chicago, and read and looked out of the window with interest through the second leg of the flight which ended in a town called Jackson shortly after four pm. Unlike New York, it was snowy. He’d seen the snow from the plane and it was fascinating to see; miles and miles of it, laying thickly on the endless wilderness below, and as he walked down the plane steps carrying the one big, heavy bag he’d fitted most of his stuff in when he left Maine, preparing himself for what he confidently expected to from here on be a peripatetic life, it was a shock to be confronted so powerfully with mountains. Snowy mountains, sharp white peaks rising up behind the airport and the town, and they were huge. They dominated the grey skyline.
It took a few minutes to get through the airport where Christmas music was blaring out of the loud speakers and decorations were hanging around the counters, and he was surprised again to find his name on a card held up by a man muffled in a thick jacket with an insignia that looked suspiciously like a policeman’s. He nodded at Paul from under his hat – an actual cowboy hat, many men in the airport were wearing them- as Paul came towards him, offering a hand.
“Paul? Philip asked if I’d drop you in at the ranch on my way home. John Hammond, I’m the Sheriff.”
“Paul Benoit.” Paul accepted the offered hand and the man waved him towards the door.
“I’ve got one of the few trucks still safe to drive in this weather, but the road through the park was clear when I came into town two hours since.”
“Is it far to the ranch?”
The police truck had chains on the wheels and it was snowing outside, gently but persistently. Red tinsel was wound around the rear view mirror inside, in a gesture to the season. The Sheriff climbed into the driver’s seat and gunned the engine with a heavy booted foot on the accelerator, forcing it to warm up while the wipers fought with the snow on the windshield.
“Couple of hours. Maybe a little bit more in this weather, we’ll see what the roads are like.”
Paul slung his bag into the back seat and belted up in the passenger seat as the Sheriff turned the truck towards the snowy streets of town, which were hung with Christmas lights. In the middle of the town, which seemed to be busy and carrying on much as normal despite the snow, stood a wooden square over the road beside a gateway into a park area made out of what appeared to be antlers. Snow covered pine trees filled the park.
“Pretty, ain’t it?” the Sheriff said genially, seeing Paul looking. “Been to Wyoming before?”
“Never. I come from Maine.” Paul said easily. “This is all adventure to me.”
“Well this is the touristy stuff here in Jackson.” The Sheriff waved to someone on the sidewalk and took a corner, sliding slightly on the ice. “The real pretty stuff is out on the other side of the park, you’ll see it. We’ll be there before dark.”
The road stayed snow covered, although the marks of the snow ploughs were clear. Several feet of snow stood in sharp banks on either side of the road as they wound slowly uphill where the pine trees grew thicker, until they were driving through forest, the only car on the road. The Sheriff took it slowly, running the truck gently over the brown and snow covered tracks and Paul watched the snow falling, the white banks on either side between the pines, and occasionally a deer wandered out onto the road, blinked at the headlights and darted back again towards the safety of the forest.
The truck was drafty and cold, although the heater kept noisily blasting warm air. At intervals the Sheriff responded to his crackling radio – the calls were surprisingly domestic, mostly about blocked roads and power lines, and the progress of the snow ploughs, and occasionally the Sheriff gave instructions very politely to someone called Doris, who Paul guessed to be running the Sheriff’s switchboard and appeared to be holding the power of life and death over the county inhabitants and thoroughly enjoying it. At other times, hypnotised by the pines and the snow after a day that had started at five am, Paul dozed, his head against the window, and the road stayed very much the same- forest, and more snowy forest. Eventually he stirred in response to the Sheriff’s genial,
“Here’s the ranch sign.”
The forest had disappeared. Instead they were on an open highway with open ground on either side of them as far as the eye could see. Fences and steeply piled up snow lined the roadside, marking the edges of the pasture, and the mountains cupped the horizon behind them and to the right of them, against a darkening grey sky. The break in the fence was indicated by a wide drive way, and a wooden bar over it with the wooden plate carved with the name Falls Chance Ranch.
The Sheriff turned into the driveway, the truck getting distinctly more jolted as he drove carefully over impacted snow. The snowplough hadn’t been down here but something had; enough to flatten the snow down and make it accessible, and snow covered ground sloped away to the left in gradually rolling hills that grew higher in the distance, and open ground towards the mountains to their right. The drive was perhaps over a mile long; long enough that Paul saw wooden fences start to appear, lining paddocks, where two horses stood side by side under heavy coats, their chins on the snowy fence to watch with interest as the truck passed by, and through the line of paddocks eventually the driveway opened out into what looked like a yard surrounded by a massive barn, numerous smaller outbuildings, and a large ranch house with a wooden porch surrounding it. Smoke was coming steadily from the chimney and fanning out in the sky, the windows were lit, it was surprisingly big and sprawling – Paul saw windows indicating at least two storeys with skylights in the roof that suggested possibly a third. A huge figure, bundled in coat, scarf, gloves and also an actual cowboy hat, and these were the first ones Paul had ever seen outside of a cowboy film, was hauling a sack over his shoulder almost as big as he was. He waved to the sheriff and stomped on through the snow towards a crowd of horses clustered and waiting behind a gate. The Sheriff stopped the truck as near to the foot of the porch steps as possible and Paul got out, pulling the collar of his coat up and getting his bag from the back of the truck. The Sheriff jogged up the scraped and salted steps, didn’t bother to knock and opened the glass windowed door, walking directly into the house. Paul followed him, looking around him at the yard, most of which was hidden under snow, and was hit by a blast of warmth as he stepped into a large kitchen.
It was a heavily Victorian kitchen, like something left over from another age, although it was warm and welcoming in an untidily homely way. The floor was stone tiled in a warm orange, and a large, pine table occupied the middle of the floor with a number of chairs stood around it. The counters – which Paul always noticed, having been raised to know what was important in a kitchen – were wide and extensive around the edge of the room, although cluttered with stacks of clean china and pots and pans, and several walls held wooden dresser shelves and wooden plate racks, almost to ceiling height, with plates dotted about in between the spaces. More clean pots and plates stood on the table, among papers, a newspaper, several cups and several dry but badly ironed shirts draped over chair backs. The stove was a great iron range, broad and tall and obviously red hot from the heat it was pumping out. It was stained and dusty and the rack above it held only the occasional ladle hanging, but it was a thing of real beauty. Wooden drawers and cupboards lined the kitchen below the counter top with several doors leading off the kitchen. The floor just inside the door was wet and muddy, a pile of wet boots lay heaped together behind the door, and footprints tracked the floor most of the way around the table. The Sheriff, apparently completely at home here, shut the kitchen door behind them and shouted a hello loud enough to penetrate the depths of the house.
It drew a slightly built young man from a doorway off the kitchen, naked except for a towel around his waist, drawn up to his full height, which still put him a good head smaller than the Sheriff, dripping wet and looking openly hostile as he laid eyes on Paul. Paul, pinned in the full beam of that glare, mentally raised his eyebrows and returned a friendly smile as the Sheriff nodded.
“Hey Gerry. This is Paul, is Philip around?”
“Somewhere.” Gerry gave Paul a level look that could not have explained I Don’t Like You any more clearly than it did, and Paul, amused, held out a hand that after a moment the man reluctantly grasped in his wet one as briefly as possible.
Even with that single word, there was an angle to the hand and to his head, a cant to his hips and a tone to his voice that gave it all away; Cecil B de Mille would have loved this guy. Somehow one didn’t imagine cowboys as being camp or bitchy; it was quite reassuring to know that there were some in the world who were.
“It’s very nice to meet you.” Paul said warmly enough to really annoy someone enjoying a seriously good sulk, and glanced up as another man, a much taller and much older man stomped in through one of the interior doorways with the aid of a walking stick. He was thin. Alarmingly thin, the bones of his wrist stood out as he leaned on the stick although his shoulders were wide and in his youth he must have been powerfully built. His white hair was wild, he stood a good six foot tall and probably a little more, and crackling, shockingly bright blue eyes blazed at Paul from under that shock of hair. The brightness of his colouring was spellbinding. Paul, who noticed this kind of thing, took him in with deep appreciation for the crispness of the blue and the white together, the vitality of it, and this man’s glower was nothing like the sulky boy expression of the man in the towel; this was a glare with real steel behind it. His accent, when he spoke, was English.
“Who the hell are you?”
“I’m the house keeper Philip requested. My name’s Paul.” It was impossible not to enjoy this farce. Paul held out a friendly hand to him too, waiting with interest to see what the man would do next and keeping it there long enough to ensure the man was forced to do something about it; either fully reject it or give in. It took a moment and the man was staring at him with those brows drawn together, but finally the man changed his stick to the other hand and gave Paul’s hand a brief and very brusque downward tug with surprising strength for a man so visibly frail. His age was extremely difficult to see: Charles’ age, perhaps older, but this man had weathered well and had the bone structure in his face to go on weathering well; he might have been any age at all from mid fifties onwards.
A third man, this one looking in his early twenties with thick glasses on the end of his nose wandered in after the man on the stick, a book in his hands, and without looking at Paul or the Sheriff or taking the faintest notice of the stand-off going on in the room, heeled a chair out with one foot and sat down to go on reading. Seriously close to laughing, Paul looked round as the kitchen door to the yard opened and the big man from the yard came in, stomping his boots on the kitchen floor which left a pile of muddy snow and dripping water behind, and unwound his scarf and hat as he shut the door behind him. He was black. About Paul’s own age too; Paul, watching with fascination as an angelically beautiful face appeared underneath the scarf, would have put him at about his own age, nineteen or twenty, with rounded cheeks and flawless, gleaming skin, and huge, soft brown eyes that looked at him with the guilelessness of a child. The baby face was on a body so colossal it was startling; massive shoulders and a bull like neck were exposed as the man pulled his coat off, the muscles in his upper arms bulged. He was well over six feet tall and the hands that unbuttoned his coat did so with great care as the buttons were tiny in his enormous fingers. He gave a wide eyed stare of consternation towards the man on the stick, inquiring in a rich, and unbelievably deep bass voice,
“He thinks he’s going to be the house keeper.” The man on the stick said shortly. “John, you can take him away again.”
“No I can’t, you’re stuck with him. No one’s going to be able to drive through the park again until the snowploughs have been through.” The Sheriff said calmly, apparently unsurprised. “The road was blocking up again behind us as we drove, Doris says there’s another ten inches of snow forecast for tonight.”
“That’s just a dusting, we’ve got near enough five feet in the drifts on the top.” The Englishman said shortly. The Sheriff grinned, turning up his collar.
“Yeah, well it’s enough to annoy Doris, and I need to head home. Where’s Philip?”
“Here, I’m sorry to keep you waiting.”
It was an American accent but a Boston accent, so discreetly American that he might have passed for British himself. A man a head smaller than the Englishman, with steel grey hair and much deeper set, dark grey eyes, put a hand on the Englishman’s waist and stood beside him, holding out a hand to Paul with a straight look and a smile that Paul felt go straight through him. There was something intensely warm in that quiet smile, something in the way his eyes focused on you, and his voice, while soft, seemed to take over the kitchen in a calm kind of way. The atmosphere changed instantly.
“Paul, how very nice to meet you. I’m Philip, I see you’ve met David.”
“Oh I’ve certainly met David.” Paul agreed warmly. Philip looked to the Sheriff as if this was a pleasant dinner party instead of a standoff.
“John, thank you for coming out of your way, I appreciate it.”
“No problem, any time.” The Sheriff tipped his hat at Paul, giving him a quick smile. “Good luck. Goodnight all.”
“Safe journey.” Philip came to hold the door for him, and as Philip closed and locked it, they heard the Sheriff’s engine start up outside.
“This is not going to happen,” the Englishman said sharply, and Philip, shutting the bolts, said just as mildly,
“Bear, boots are taken off on the doorstep so snow doesn’t get walked into the house, and Gerry, it would probably be a good idea to put some clothes on. Paul, welcome to the ranch. Is this all your luggage?”
“Yes, thank you.” Paul put the bag down on the floor beside him, looking with experienced eyes at the floors. Having lived in a boarding house all his life with numerous elderly fishermen, muddy boots, wet floors and the management of both, was something he had long experience of. “Perhaps I can give a hand with the floor?”
“I think we’d be very grateful if you have time this evening.” Philip resumed his place beside the Englishman, one hand on the man’s alarmingly thin waist as if it belonged there. “I’ll show you to your room, and we can talk about the work involved, that is if you’re prepared to stay with us more than one night since as you can see, our manners are truly horrible.”
“I don’t care how dishy he is, he’s not staying.” The Englishman said hotly, and Philip patted his hip.
“Why don’t you go back to the fire? Roger, I’ll take that book please. You three, the kitchen should not look like this; would you be kind enough to sort it out?”
He said it in a perfectly friendly and conversational tone of voice, but all four men moved on the word. The man in glasses reluctantly surrendered his book to Philip who took Paul’s bag from him, giving him a very serene smile.
“Do come this way, Paul.”
The room beyond the kitchen was large. Visibility was restricted at times by the brick pillars, but the room was more or less L shaped, and Paul saw large, dark leather couches and armchairs, most of them grouped around a roaring fire in a large, stone inglenook hearth. It was beautiful in an indefinably masculine way; quietly and discreetly decorated and comfortable. The cream carpeted stairs led up to a wide landing, and Philip opened a door among the row of doors ahead of them.
“This is your room, and the bathroom is directly across the hall. You must have had quite a tiring journey today.”
“Not at all really, I enjoy travelling and especially flying, it’s a novelty to me.” Paul said easily, putting his bag down. The room was large and comfortable; a brightly coloured patch comforter covered the bed and the large window looked out over snowy pasture. The carpet was thick and the room was surprisingly warm considering this was a ranch house, obviously isolated in the middle of nowhere in a snowstorm. A large wardrobe and dresser and a book shelf occupied one wall, the bookshelf holding four or five battered paperbacks. Philip pushed the door quietly to behind them and leaned on the edge of the dressing table, Roger’s book in his hand.
“I apologise for the rather rough welcome you received downstairs, it’s not meant as it sounds.”
“I found it quite entertaining.” Paul said apologetically, sitting down on the end of the bed. Philip raised an eyebrow, an interested inquiry, and Paul smiled, leaning his elbows on his knees.
“My family ran a boarding house full of fishermen. Blazing rows, sulking, slammed doors, I grew up with it; it all seems very homely to me.”
Philip nodded slowly, turning the smile. “Charles said you were an unusual man. I’m glad they didn’t succeed in alarming you. We’ve had a disturbed few weeks.”
That made sense and Paul answered with ready sympathy, a lot of it based around the fragile man on a walking stick downstairs. “Charles explained you’d had a crisis. I can see David hasn’t been well.”
“David collapsed, down by the river, about a month ago.” Philip said it calmly but Paul, watching his face, could read in his eyes and hear in his tone everything that underpinned his words. “The doctor believes he’d been building up to an event like this for some time, and it was unfortunately in the first heavy snow, it was likely that it was struggling through the snow that exhausted him, and he had pneumonia as a result. He has been very unwell, we nearly lost him. This is mostly why we so appreciate Charles recommending you. It takes all of us to keep the ranch going in this weather, we run cattle and horses and we’ve always relied on David being the most experienced and the hardiest of us to lead the work. I’m a rather poor substitute for him, truth be told, but I do my best. But while I’m out of the house, it really is imperative that David be warm, that he eat properly, and that he have company, and while he wouldn’t like to hear me say so, he’s not yet ready to be in the house alone. What I would like you to base your time on, is cooking for the household-”
He was saying it so politely that Paul chipped in, gently, saying what he’d already surmised and taking a firmer grasp on what the job here would entail. There was really no need to be tactful; hard work was not something he was afraid of.
“So you’ll need at least three hot, good quality meals a day. David needs it in himself, but if you four are working out in this weather you’ll need it just as much. That’s no effort at all, I love to cook. If you’d like to plan meals with me-”
“If you feel able to handle it, I would be glad just to hand you a free rein and say please feel free to shop for and cook whatever you’d like to.” Philip said frankly. Paul nodded, his interest increasing. That kind of freedom was extremely rare in any household, and it was autonomy he would enjoy, not to mention having the freedom of that incredible kitchen.
“Thank you. And I’m going to assume you’re going to need me to handle the cleaning, laundry – I’m sure here you get through no shortage of laundry, especially in this weather – and making sure that David is comfortable.”
“If you can supervise the cleaning and laundry I’d be delighted, I most certainly don’t expect you to do it all.” Philip said with a firmness that surprised Paul slightly. “Everyone does their share of chores in this household, it’s something I insist on, although the quality can certainly vary from person to person and sometimes a chore needs doing more than once before it is done properly. But making David comfortable – yes, I’d be extremely grateful for anything at all you can do there.”
“Then I’ll get started on an evening meal.” Paul got up, digging in his bag for a clean sweater as seven hours on a plane did not leave one feeling fresh. Philip got up too, giving him a nod that held approval and something else Paul couldn’t read. Not used to not being able to read faces easily, it piqued his interest a little further. This was an remarkable man; both his soft voice, those warm grey and twinkling eyes and his manner, which was gentle and yet which held an authority that the four men in the kitchen appeared to take for granted.
“Do feel free to take a shower first and make yourself comfortable, Paul. I’ll have a little word with the rest of the family about how we greet guests.”
The bathroom was large and well equipped, and the water, considering this was a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, was extremely hot and there was plenty of it. Although on reflection, there were likely to be a lot of men requiring showers at the end of the day. Pulling on fresh jeans and a clean sweater, Paul reflected on the rooms leading off the landing which, glimpsed through the open doorways, all looked more domestic and comfortable than one tended to associate with cowboys. It was likely that they wouldn’t expect anything dressier from a housekeeper than jeans – or at least Paul hoped not, he’d been relieved that Charles appeared perfectly happy for him to perform his duties wearing anything he pleased, which in Charles’ house was often considerably more than everyone else was wearing. .
The Englishman, David, was sitting in a chair next to the fire as Paul came downstairs. He didn’t appear to be occupying himself with a book; in fact the chair directly faced the hearth. The back of his head and his shoulders radiated a desire not to be spoken to. There was no sign of the others, but there was the sound in the kitchen of another shower running nearby.
The heap of boots had been lined up in pairs by the back door to the porch, and the floor had been roughly wiped down. The table had also been cleared, although the heaps of clean pots and dishes had simply been added to the counters. Paul walked slowly around the kitchen, opening cupboards and drawers and familiarising himself with their contents, with growing awe. The entire place was a cook’s wet dream. There was a refrigerator not far from the back door, and on the same wall was a latched wooden door which led into a walk-in pantry most cooks could only dream of, large and with stone walls and stone shelves. It was cold in there; easily cold enough for the bread and ham and the few stone bottles on the shelves. Large enough to store far more than the dusty shelves currently held. Much of the china looked to be over fifty years old, if not older. Victorian dinner services were mixed up with cheap mugs, which were probably the ones they used outside. And the stove – Paul paused in front of the stove with real admiration for a beautiful beast left over from another age. His grandmother would have loved the stove, as much if not more than the pantry. It was red hot and had several doors which Paul explored once he found a cloth to protect his hand. The main oven was large and powerful, and to one side was a separate door to a warming oven – not hot enough to cook anything, just a separate box near enough to the fire that it held heat – and a large, extensive stove top of iron, with room for multiple pots, kettles, pans. It was a fantastic thing, although the only true test of an oven was to bake a cake in it.
Tearing himself away from it with some effort, Paul explored the pantry again, and then the refrigerator, trying to establish what there was to eat in the house.
“There is a freezer in the garage,” the man with glasses said, drifting past with a book in his hand. He hadn’t really looked up; Paul watched him sit down at the table without losing his place on the page. “And there’s vegetables out there too, it’s not quite as bad as it looks. We’ve mostly been taking it in turns to cook.”
Paul shut the fridge, reassured he wasn’t going to be limited to making omelettes tonight. “Where is the garage? You’re Roger, aren’t you?”
“Yes.” The man looked up briefly to give him a smile that was as placid as it was friendly. Apparently this was a member of the household who hadn’t declared war on housekeepers. “It’s through the hall there, just open the door.”
The door across the hall where the coat stand stood, led to a short flight of stairs disappearing up to some anonymous room, and an entrance into the brick garage, which was large and accommodated a stolid looking truck. A chest freezer stood against the wall beside a rack of vegetables, and Paul, after a moment of poking through the freezer, took down an empty basket from one of the shelves and made a rapid selection with a meal in mind for six people, four of whom had had a hard day of physical labour. He made a few selections with tomorrow’s meals in mind too, took the frozen meat with him into the kitchen and set it to thaw, and found a chopping board and knife. Roger, peacefully reading at the table, took no notice of him and was quiet company while Paul chopped onions and potatoes, diced still semi frozen bacon and dug a tin of corn out of the cupboard to work on a chowder. It wouldn’t be as good without fish but it would still be good.
He was half way through frying off the vegetables and bacon when the massive individual Philip called, rather aptly, ‘Bear’, emerged from the bathroom with a towel around his waist. Semi naked he was even bigger. He gave Paul a very shy smile, ran a hand over his shaved scalp and disappeared towards the stairs. Paul put bread on the warming oven to defrost with a mild wince at its quality – shop bought bread was terrible stuff - but he’d been raised in a household that cooked daily for men who spent the night cold and wet to the bone, who did daily hard, physical labour and needed calories, carbohydrates and heat desperately when they came home, and needed filling up, and bread wasn’t an optional extra. It couldn’t be much different here. Looking out of the kitchen window at the thick snow on the pasture, the men must have been climbing through it for some way to get to their stock.
“How much stock do you have here?” he asked Roger, who made a rather absent hmmm sound as he looked up from his book.
“Oh. Cattle, about four hundred head we’re wintering. And thirty or so horses, not counting the ones here in the paddocks.”
Four hundred was not a small number.
“And there’s four of you?” Paul asked, dismayed, and Roger gave him a calm nod.
“At the moment. Often there’s more, but Miguel went out to Italy to teach in October and David’s not been well.”
“You don’t have to tell him everything.” The one called Gerry said sourly from the doorway.
Paul gave him a look, taking in a man who looked perhaps in his early to mid twenties, who would have been attractive if he hadn’t been looking daggers. He was dressed now in jeans and a sweater, carefully posed in the doorway with his hip out, his arms folded, slim, his soft brown hair was drying in waves and his eyes were angry. Philip came into the doorway behind him and Paul didn’t see exactly what happened but there was a soft sound like a cushion being thumped and Gerry jumped and straightened up off the doorframe quickly and gave Philip a quick, sidelong glance that was half reproach, half scowl. Philip took no notice.
“Would you set the table please, Gerry? Paul, did you find everything you needed?”
“I think so.” Paul nodded at Gerry who had gone to lay the table. “Bowls and plates would be good, spoons rather than knives and forks. I’m going to need to shop tomorrow if that’s ok.”
“It’s no problem, Roger or Bear can take you into Jackson in the morning.”
“I can take him to Jackson.” Gerry said sharply. Philip, lifting plates down from the rack, handed them to him.
“Set those out please.”
“I’m as competent driving as anyone else is, you never let me go anywhere interesting.”
“It sounds like you’re struggling to spare anyone from the cattle. I can probably find my way back to Jackson. I have a driving licence.” Paul offered. He saw Philip run a hand down Gerry’s back as he passed him, a surprisingly gentle and intimate gesture from a much older man to a younger, and very different to the lowered eyelashes and other gestures he’d seen between Charles’ guests. Gerry scowled but he put the plates out in silence.
The meal was a very strange experience.
Paul would cheerfully have waited to eat later, a housekeeper didn’t usually sit down with the family, but there appeared to be no such ceremony on a ranch. Philip simply set a place for him at the table with the rest of them and they sat and ate together. The chowder was thick, he’d made a lot of it and used plenty of the potatoes and bacon, and the four who had worked outside all day ate quietly and heartily, even Gerry. Paul watched with amusement as Gerry suspiciously poked at the contents of his bowl, then still more cautiously tasted it, and gave him a nod as Gerry tried a second spoonful.
“It’s good. I promise you.”
I was well trained.
He never thought of his grandmother without a rush of warmth, of deep affection that was a good deal stronger than sadness. He’d grown up in the kitchen with her, his joining in with her cooking had gone back so far he didn’t remember a time he hadn’t helped her, or been able to fillet fish or chop vegetables. There had been nothing she made that wasn’t good, she had magic in her hands, and he’d spent all his life watching her. She would have thoroughly enjoyed hearing about this little bunch of cowboys.
David, who Paul thought looked exhausted, ate little, although he did eat, leaving the vegetables and bread, but drinking the liquid from the chowder. By the end of the meal they’d cleared the tureen on the table. Philip nodded to Bear, starting to gather the plates together.
“Bear, could you and Roger take your turn with the dishes please?”
“I’ll do them.” Paul got up, taking the plates to the big steel sink. “It’s what you’re employing me for, and you’ve all been out in the snow all day, I’ve just been sitting on a plane. I’m quite happy cleaning up.”
They let him. It was more comfortable to have the kitchen to himself, a territory that Paul felt more secure in with a day of travel and transition behind him. In a strange household, full of strangers, in a strange state and on lonely land, it was time to stand at the sink and watch the white snowy yard in the dark, and get his bearings.
Music began quietly in the room next door; the sound quality was magnificent. A choir, singing softly, Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Paul listened to it as he wiped the dishes dry and set them in a stack on the table. Putting away would have to wait; tonight he was tired; but a kitchen as magnificent as this deserved better than it was currently getting. It still wasn’t possible to leave the floor looking like this though. He found and filled a bucket, located a mop, and washed the floor thoroughly, raising the colour and the gleam of the beautiful tiles. When he turned out the lights in the kitchen and went softly through the family room on his way to his room, Bear was laying on the hearth on his stomach, his chin on one enormous arm, playing chess with David. Philip was reading, as was Roger, curled up in one of the big armchairs. Gerry lay asleep on the couch, his head against Philip’s hip. A silver record player was playing the carol. It was a surprisingly peaceful scene. Philip glanced up as Paul passed him and said nothing, but he smiled.
The house was very quiet at night. After three weeks of sleeping to the sound of partying going on into the early hours, Paul closed his door and slept surprisingly well. The room was warm, the bed was comfortable. The upstairs could use a good, hard dusting and vacuuming, but the bedding was fresh and very good quality, and the furniture was old. Classic, Victorian and wood carved, and not what you would expect in a ranch house in the middle of nowhere. He woke as he’d always woken in the boarding house, shortly before five, when the house was quiet and the dining room could be cleaned, set for breakfast and breakfast started. It was a time of day when things could be done without interruption, and Paul dressed quietly, made his bed and went softly downstairs. He saw Bear on his way past, deeply asleep in the room next to his, face down on his bed, feet sticking out from under the covers, and snoring gently. There was something extremely appealing about the massive man with the big eyes and the soft bass voice.
Paul shut the kitchen door to avoid disturbing anyone upstairs and a little poking about in the doors leading off the kitchen led to discovering a laundry room, which was piled with clothes in various stages of needing washing, having been washed and desperately needing ironing. The room next to it was a bathroom with a shower, also in need of tidying and cleaning. Paul dug until he found cleaning materials and a mop and set to work on the bathroom first. Then he rolled up his sleeves and with real interest, he set about the kitchen.
When Philip came downstairs shortly before seven, he walked into the kitchen and involuntarily stopped dead. The kitchen had never in its lifetime looked like this. The stove had been polished until its black iron gleamed. The wooden racks held plates, all the plates, in rows and groups of size. The rack above the stove held a line of gleaming pans in sized order. The counters were empty, scrubbed and gleaming, as was the table and the floor. There was the smell of bacon and Paul, in jeans and a navy sweater with the sleeves rolled to his elbows, glanced up from the stove where he was briskly frying tomatoes.
“Good morning. I’ll start the eggs if people are ready to eat.”
“We are.” Philip walked slowly along the length of the rack of plates. They hadn’t just been put away. They were arranged by someone who appreciated the display, who knew what Victorian china had been designed for and loved it for more than just its colour and pattern. The kitchen didn’t look merely clean and tidy, it looked like something out of a catalogue. “We’re up a little later than usual at the moment. We’ve been needing to go out through the night to put out fresh water for the stock, in this weather it freezes within a couple of hours.”
“You all go?” Paul said in concern. Philip shook his head.
“We take it in turns.”
“You do most of it since I’m bloody useless.” David, stumping in with the walking stick, stopped in the doorway, casting a suspicious eye around the walls. “What the hell’s been going on in here?”
“I tidied up.” Paul took plates out of the warming oven, starting to set the table. “You have these beautiful china services, it’s a shame not to appreciate them. The stove is fantastic, I need to try a cake in it. I need to shop today and I’ll get the stuff to make cake and bread, the stuff you have in the freezer is revolting.”
“He makes cakes.” Philip said to David, raising an eyebrow. David snorted, sitting down stiffly at the table.
“Where do you come from to go making cake?”
He made it sound like a particularly reprehensible habit.
“Maine.” Paul cracked eggs into a skillet, mentally calculating for six. “Little fishing village.”
“Fishing?” David said shortly. There was an abrupt note of interest behind the grimness; it was the first lift Paul had yet heard in his tone and he gave the man a brief look from the skillet.
“Yes. I’m most used to lobsters, crabs and clams but I doubt you have many of those here,”
David grunted. “Trout’s good from the river.”
“It’s not a fish I know anything about, but I’d love to try cooking it any time you like.” Paul flipped eggs over, checking on the bread warming in the oven. “I grew up in a boarding house, my mother and grandmother ran it. All fishermen and retired sailors, so two thirds of what came out of our kitchen was fish and those guys knew fish.”
He slid eggs into a dish, took a dish of bacon from the oven, added the fried tomatoes and put them on the table.
“What do you drink? Coffee?”
“Tea.” David stumped towards a tea pot that Paul had polished, checking on the kettle. “I’ll make it. No one else ever bloody does it properly.”
Bear and Roger, arriving together, collided in the kitchen doorway as Roger stopped short, and Bear’s eyes were wide and his mouth open at the sight of the kitchen. Despite his intimidating size, emotion showed as easily in his face as a child’s. Gerry behind them, looked first shocked and then angry as he took in the racks. Bear and Roger came to sit down, Bear sniffing appreciatively at the dishes of tomatoes and bacon as he eased himself into one of the wooden chairs at the table, his open necked shirt showing the breadth of his neck and shoulders. Roger straightened his glasses on his nose below rumpled hair that may or may not have seen a brush this morning, it was hard to tell. He gave Paul a quick smile as he sat down, still looking around him. Gerry stalked past them both towards the kitchen door, grabbing his boots from the neat line.
“Ger, just sit down and have some breakfast,” David said irritably from where he was filling the tea pot. Gerry shouldered into a coat and grabbed a hat and scarf.
He let the door bang behind him as he left; Paul resisted the urge to award him marks out of ten for style. Philip got up, resting a hand on David’s shoulder to keep him where he was.
“Is there enough milk left, Paul?”
“About enough for one round of coffee, and we’re short on butter too.” Paul said, bringing the bread to the table. “I have no idea where the milkman calls around here?”
“He doesn’t, but I can introduce you to Mildred.” Roger said, grinning. Philip put his boots on, taking a jacket down.
“Mildred is our cow, Paul. Gerry and I will bring back milk, and I’m sure Gerry will see to the butter for us too.”
He went outside, shutting the door quietly, and Bear and Roger, serving themselves from the dishes with what Paul thought were surprisingly delicate table manners, dug in with enthusiasm to their breakfast. David, taking a seat beside Bear and pouring milk into a mug, added tea from the teapot and banged it down, giving Paul a boding look.
“That is a proper cup of tea.”
“May I have one?” Paul took a seat at the table and held out his own cup. “I’ll go into Jackson this morning, I’m fairly sure I can find my way – it was all one road if I remember.”
David poured tea for him, and Paul could see him intentionally, with an effort, not looking towards the doorway where Philip and Gerry had gone. There was something of the caged tiger in this man; his restlessness was tangible, as was the energy pent up inside him. On impulse, Paul said casually,
“David, would you come with me and show me the way?”
He saw the look of frank alarm from Bear, and Roger, finishing a mouthful of bacon, gave David an anxious look.
“I’m not sure Philip would think that’s a great idea.”
Yes, and you’re all driving him insane by cooping him up, I can see that.
“I can drive, and I only need to get groceries, I can promise to take good care of him.” The tea the way David drank it, strong and with milk, was surprisingly good. Paul served himself from the dishes and started to eat, hungry after several hours of work, and David, sipping tea, gave him a look under the sharp white eyebrows.
“I’ll come with you.”
In this weather David couldn’t have been out of the yard since he became ill, and in this household, living in this kind of space and freedom, that had to drive a man crazy. Paul, who had known elderly fishermen who physically starved for the sea and the boats they could no longer handle, had watched enough of them standing on the harbour wall for hours at a time with that restlessness in their eyes to recognise it. Several of them had been old men he’d loved, who’d taken time to talk to him and teach him to fish, and who’d spent their last years in the boarding house on the harbour and died there, in their own beds, within the sound of the sea. It had been something Paul had learned young not to be afraid of. Prepared to assure Philip any way necessary that he would see to it that David would be warm and not overstretched – and from his grandmother and from those loved old men, familiar with managing a frail and elder person with more ambition and personality than strength – he had been ready to defend his offer, wanting to make it happen for this elderly cowboy, but Philip, returning a few minutes later, without Gerry but with a large jug of milk which to Paul’s fascination was still warm, only nodded calmly and with far less anxiety than Roger and Bear.
“Good idea. I’ve put housekeeping money in the hall for you, please get whatever you think we need and David can advise you on anything you’re not sure of.”
“It’s freezing up there,” Roger pointed out, putting a little too much effort into to sounding detached to pull it off successfully, and Philip only nodded, finishing his coffee.
“The snow ploughs will have cleared the road by now. I’d be happier about you driving, Paul, with David there to keep an eye on you.”
He, Bear and Roger dressed warmly to go out, including the scarves and the gloves which weren’t optional extras or fashion accessories out here anymore than they were on a fishing sloop. Paul picked up a couple of packets he’d made up from bacon and bread, holding them out as Bear opened the door.
“I made some sandwiches if you want them, I don’t know what you usually take out with you but these are well wrapped. Will you come back for lunch?”
“Not likely, right now we work right through the daylight we’ve got since the light’s gone so early.” Philip took his offered packet with appreciation. “Thank you.”
“I’m going to guess you don’t get into Jackson that often at that distance and in this weather,” Paul said rather tactfully, “So I’m guessing this might be the time too for me to plan for Christmas and anything you’ll be needing then?”
“Yes, that would be a excellent idea.” Philip said calmly, and David snorted from where he was sitting in grim isolation at the table among the empty dishes.
“He means none of us have thought that far ahead yet. It’s been hard enough keeping the stock from freezing in the fields, there’s been no time to do or think about anything else.”
And I’m no bloody use.
He didn’t have to say it.
“We have managed perfectly well, we’re none of us going cold or hungry.” Philip rested his hands on David’s shoulder and David glanced up at him with a softening of his sharp blue eyes. It was subtle but Paul saw it and understood it with a touch of tenderness that made him say, cheerfully,
“This is what I’m for. I’ll plan from scratch then.”
“The rest of the family will start gathering, usually from about the twenty third onwards,” Philip said evenly. “There’s rather a lot of us, I would guess about fifteen by Christmas day and most will stay a couple of days. I probably should have warned you your experience with house parties would be put to use, Paul.”
“It’s no problem, this is exactly what I enjoy doing.” Paul said frankly, “Are they all family?”
In this household they seemed to interpret the word rather – openly. Philip stooped to kiss David, an unhurried and gentle kiss that held no wariness at all of the scowl on David’s face, and headed for the door, pulling his gloves on.
“I’ll let David explain. David?”
David glanced up at him and Philip paused by the door, his voice mild,
“If you can’t be good, please be careful?”
It won him a kind of wry, twisted smile from David. Philip closed the door behind him and Paul, starting to collect dishes together, watched David finish his tea, his eyebrows knitted on his forehead, his wide shoulders hunched. One half of a couple clearly very much in love.
“It can’t be easy to see them head out like that. How long have you been working this ranch?”
“More than fifty years.” David said shortly.
Leaving the kitchen immaculate and the stove well stocked up, Paul watched David shrug into a jacket and took a scarf down and handed it to him.
“That, and a hat. I’m not taking you out to freeze.”It was the same brisk, mildly provocative tone that always worked on scowling, elderly fishermen and it apparently worked on cowboys too. Wrapped up, David stumped out to the car with him, and Paul, taking a minute to figure out the truck – which was new and taking into account he knew virtually nothing about cars looked fairly high spec – took it gently out onto the snowy, deep covered trail towards the road. The chains on the wheels were a necessity out here, but the road was deserted and where the snowplough had been, the road was passable with care. David, hands in his pockets, slumped down in his seat with one knee against the dashboard, had his chin tucked down behind his scarf.
“They’re all ours.” He said abruptly after about forty minutes, having said nothing so far except curt instructions to drive further into the middle of the road, or take corners more slowly. He knew his business. Once he reached swiftly over to grasp the wheel and help Paul handle a minor slide, and the grasp was strong, efficient and spoke of deep experience.
“They’re all men who’ve lived on the ranch at some point. Some of them are couples, some aren’t, they’re different ages, they come home at important times.”
The word ‘ours’ implied something different. There was something protective about it, something with a private note of pride that defied him to ask questions. Whoever these men were they mattered.
“Aren’t any of them able to come and help while things are difficult?” Paul said lightly, warned by that tone that criticism would not go down well. He got a brief, hard look from those sharply bright blue eyes.
“Wade and Charlie work for the police. This is their roughest time of year, it’s difficult enough to for them get leave to come home at all. Niall’s got court to deal with. Miguel’s in another country, so’s Lito and Colm. It’s pretty much the same for the others too.”
There was another few minutes silence and Paul, aware that listening was going to get him further than talking, kept his eyes on the road. Finally David said shortly,
“If we’d needed them, they would have come. We talked about it and we’re all right. It’s hard, but we’re all right, and it’s only a few days until Christmas, there’ll be plenty of hands then. I’ll be bloody fit again by January.”
Understanding Philip’s expression this morning, the gentleness of his grasp on David’s shoulders, Paul kept quiet with deep sympathy. Philip who might have been any age, but was fit, the energy was visible in him, he was clearly the younger of the two.
“You’d better tell me,” he said as they climbed another hill in the park, “What you all like to eat for Christmas dinner in your family.”
David directed him to a row of shops in Jackson, and the roads there were gritted and the sidewalks shovelled clean of snow. The atmosphere of Christmas was strong in town; a band was playing in the park area, and the decorations stood out in contrast to the completely undecorated ranch they’d left that morning. They parked and Paul walked at David’s pace to the green grocers and then the butchers where he mentally ran through the contents of the freezer he’d checked this morning before they left and picked up what he needed, and then to the small supermarket where he bought generous amounts of flour, baking goods, sugar, yeast, planning for some weeks to come if the weather grew worse. With David’s direction they picked up a huge turkey, which deserved the fantastic oven in the ranch kitchen, an equally large ham, all of which involved several trips back to the truck which Paul made without reference to David, avoiding giving him anything to carry, and on the last trip they paused beside the fish counter, Paul looking with David at what was laid out.
“Does the rest of your household eat fish?”
“They eat trout.” David said laconically. Paul slipped an arm through his, aware he was looking very tired, and nodded at the sea bass and the mackerel laid out on the ice.
“No, I meant proper fish.”
A lot of people in the town and in the shops knew David. He wasn’t chatty; mostly when people smiled and called or waved, he gave them a laconic nod, but he was obviously well known and well liked here. The truck full of groceries, Paul took the road gently and slowly home, an eye on the elderly man who quickly fell asleep in the seat beside him. Not, Paul thought, through conscious choice.
It took over two hours to reach the ranch; thankfully no more snow fell. The sky was bright blue overhead, an azure colour very different to the colour Paul was used to above the harbour at home, and it reflected brightly and crisply off the snow. It was bitterly cold in the garage. Paul woke David gently, taking his arm to help him out of the truck, and hung on when David would have shrugged him off.
“You can stop that. Where do you nap most comfortably? Couch or chair?”
David declined to comment, stumping ahead of him with a scowl that said Paul was making a nuisance of himself, and Paul helped him to the armchair nearest the fire, built up the fire beside him and helped him off with his coat once he was sitting down. He brought him a mug of tea, imitating carefully what he’d seen David do this morning, but David was asleep again when Paul brought the mug back to him. Taking a rug from the couch and putting it gently over his lap without waking him, Paul quietly unpacked the truck and put away groceries, a job that took well over an hour, and which left the larder and garage considerably better stocked and organised. He was peeling vegetables a while later when he heard David’s stick tap on the floor, and David appeared in the kitchen doorway, still looking tired and extremely grouchy.
“You should have bloody woken me.”
“What for? I’m being paid to do the grocery work.” Paul dropped another handful of garlic and onion into the pan. “You’d be warmer next door by the fire.”
“Nothing to do in there.”
No one to talk to either. Aware that a good part of his job was to keep this sharp witted and frustrated man company which was going to mean distracting him, Paul gave the pan a stir and pulled a chair out for him at the table.
“Sit down then and I’ll make you some more tea.”
“No American makes proper tea.” David sat down stiffly and Paul, spooning soup into the smallest dish he’d been able to find in the kitchen and adding two small but thick cubes of bread still warm from the oven to a plate, put both on the table in front of him. Small amounts. That was the secret with a poor appetite, he’d learned that in the kitchen at home long ago where his mother and grandmother had coaxed and nursed through some of their most elderly boarders. Little and often, but amounts that didn’t overwhelm, that looked easy to manage. David sniffed suspiciously at the soup and Paul handed him a spoon.
“Suck it and see.”
David gave him a acerbic look but dipped the spoon.
At home in the boarding house, the daily soup generally held whatever they had heads of, tails of, leftovers of, the ends of vegetables, the beauty of fish stock was that it needed so very little but its natural self to taste at its most wonderful. If you knew fish, you knew that stock. David tasted it cautiously and Paul grinned at his reluctantly prompt second spoonful.
“You see? I get the concept. We used to have a pot of that on the fire all the time. Where do you know fish from? You’ve lived around a harbour, haven’t you?”
“Grew up on one.” David said briefly, dropping a cube of bread into the soup. “And sailed in the merchant navy among other things. Bit of time with a Halifax crew on a schooner before I came in land.”
He finished the soup and one piece of the bread, it was barely more than a cupful, but he’d finished it and it was good stuff; there was real nutrition in proper stock, and there was real comfort in the familiar foods of your childhood when you didn’t want to eat much. Paul made a fish pie and several batches of muffins to explore the possibilities of the oven that afternoon while David sat at the table, saying little but responding with grunts to Paul’s chatter which Paul figured out needed to be about nothing in particular, gentle and not needing more than to be there. Left in silence, David visibly sank back inside himself, but with something to listen to, the grimness faded back from his face. Mid afternoon, served with half a muffin cut into small slices, David ate some of that too, and when the kitchen was tidy, Paul wiped his hands and said briskly,
“I’m going to do some of that ironing next door by the fire for a break.”
David followed him. Paul set up the ironing board in front of the fire in the big family room – probably not at all where the ironing usually took place, but he worked briskly through a pile of shirts no different to the pile of shirts he’d helped with at home for years, and David, sitting in the armchair near him, very quickly dropped his head and fell asleep. Paul didn’t disturb him, working on until he had a neat pile of shirts which he sorted mostly by size. Bear’s were easily identifiable, as were Gerry’s from the slightness of him. Philip, Roger’s and David’s were harder to separate, and Paul finally put them on hangers and left them in the laundry room for their owners to identify.
The light was starting to go outside when he heard the voices and looked out of the kitchen door onto the porch. Three of them were in sight, swathed in scarves since the wind was getting bitter as the sun was gone, two leading horses towards the barn, another hauling buckets. They must be freezing. Paul, having noticed who at breakfast chose coffee and who left coffee alone for milk or water, searched the cupboard and brewed coffee for Philip and Gerry and hot chocolate for Roger and Bear. He filled the old mugs and took them out onto the snowy porch, setting them on the porch rail and calling across to the men wrapping horses in heavy coats for the night,
“There’s drinks here and they’re hot, don’t let them stand.”
Bear glanced over at him with surprise, then gently settled the blanket on his horse and waded through the snow to take a mug, and his big face lightened at the sight of the chocolate. Paul, hugging himself against the cold wind, saw the stiffness of Bear’s fingers around the mug, and Roger was struggling to wade through the snow with a heavy pace that said he was exhausted. Their faces were numbed under the brim of the hats, Roger looked pale, and Paul, going back inside, opened the door of the stove to blast the heat from the fire into the kitchen, opened the bathroom door to let the heat inside, and put the muffins and rest of the hot chocolate and coffee on the table.
Bear and Roger came in quickly, shedding boots and coats and hats that dripped, and Paul spread newspaper over the floor, which seemed to make them aware they needed to be careful. It had always worked at home too.
It was unsettling just how constantly home was on his mind here. It shouldn’t have been, and it hadn’t been at all in the three weeks with Charles.
Boots were lined up, coats were hung up, they were too cold to talk but they fell on the muffins and the jugs of hot drinks and by the time Philip came in and closed the kitchen door with Gerry trailing him, they were looking warmer. Philip re filled Gerry’s mug and handed it to him, breaking a muffin in half to take a piece and hand another piece to Gerry, who took it without looking at Paul.
It was difficult to look at Gerry and not see sulky boy. He kept his eyes on the floor, his sipping of the coffee was grudging, but David, stumping into the kitchen on his stick, paused by Gerry and Paul was slightly surprised to see the arm he put around Gerry’s shoulders, and Gerry leaned against him without hesitation.
The system was clearly that people came in, showered, and then they ate. Properly, for the first time since breakfast. They ate fish pie, thick with potato and with plenty of the fresh vegetables and the new bread Paul filled the table with, and they were hungry. Probably too hungry at first to really taste much, although David, who Paul presented with a very small portion of the fish pie, heavy on the fish and light on the potato which was the stodgiest part of it, ate too, and worked his way through most of a slice of bread.
The exception was Gerry, who picked and stirred until David said rather irritably,
“Ger you’re bloody starving and we know you are, stop posing.”
“I’m not hungry.” Gerry said shortly to David who grunted.
Philip cleared his throat quietly. Bear and Roger, both of whom were keeping their heads down to eat, were avoiding everyone’s eye and Gerry gave them both a look as angry as the one he shot David.
“You none of you care! He waltzes in here and makes everything different and you just leave it to me to say anything,”
“You’re not saying anything, you’re whingeing.” David cut in. “It’s all hurt looks and waiting for someone to ask you what the matter is, you’re the queen of bloody passive aggression,”
Philip, saying a polite “would you excuse me?” to Paul, quietly got up and left the room. Paul was surprised he’d simply walked out of the building tension, but there was a sudden silence around the table, a distinct air of increased tension, and a moment later Philip came back to the table just as calmly as he’d left it and Paul’s stomach jumped as Philip took a seat, laying down on the table in front of him a wooden paddle.
An actual, wooden paddle. It was small, a fairly discreet thing, but it was unmistakeable.
With no idea what this implied or what on earth was going on, Paul looked from the paddle to Philip, who picked up his knife and fork and calmly went on eating. There was a few seconds more silence around the table, then Gerry said quite quickly and in a placating tone to David,
“I’m sorry for snapping and you’re quite right I am being passive aggressive. Paul, I’m sorry about the bad manners. I don’t find new people easy and...”
“Particularly not at the moment.” Roger, who’d been eating with his head down, stepped in as Gerry trailed off. “It’s been a rough few weeks. We’ve been worried about David,”
“Who is fine,” David interjected sourly,
“You’re not fine.” Roger said gently but matter of factly. “I know you’re not fine, who do you think you’re kidding? We might as well be honest about it.”
There was another few seconds silence. ‘It’s ok’ was not going to be an appropriate answer to give them here, Paul sensed it from the sincerity of the apology. Not used to receiving apologies this sincere or graceful, Paul hesitated as to what to say, then said sincerely,
“Thank you. It can’t be easy having a stranger come in and move your home around. What I want to do is make it more comfortable, not different. I’m very happy to do things the way you want them done if you tell me.”
“And we need to say, not pout about it.” Gerry said it mostly to Philip, rather anxiously, although Philip was continuing to mildly eat his meal with every sign of enjoying it. “Bear.”
Not sure what the hiss was in aid of, Paul looked towards the huge young man beside Gerry, who just looked frankly alarmed. His eyes were large, which made him look still more innocent, and he kept his mouth firmly shut. With no real idea of what was going on here – save that the paddle did not appear to be an idle threat from the high motivation of the men around the table to apologise to each other, Paul waited to see what Philip would say, but Philip simply went on with his meal, and so did the rest of the group around the table.
When all of them were finished – and Gerry ate, initially with his head down, clearly embarrassed, but after the first few mouthfuls, it was clear he was starving – Philip put his chair back, got up and picked up the paddle, and quite simply put a hand on Gerry’s shoulder, Gerry sitting nearest to him. Gerry winced, but without a word got up and put his hands on the table, bending forward, and Philip, without the slightest fuss or sign of annoyance in his face, cracked the paddle soundly across the seat of his jeans. Paul was slightly surprised at how firmly he did it; it was not by any means a token gesture, and Gerry’s high yelp suggested it didn’t feel at all token. Still without comment, Philip moved on to Roger next to him, who also rather unhappily got up and leaned on the table just as Gerry had done, Paul saw him brace himself, and an identical, hard swat was landed on the seat of his jeans. They were doing this as matter of factly as they’d passed around the vegetables. Stunned, Paul watched Philip circle the table to Bear, who got up promptly, but slowly, and as he bent forward, his big hands braced on the table, he screwed his face up, his eyes squidged tightly shut in a way comical enough to make Paul swallow on a smile, despite what was taking place. Philip calmly applied three, hard whacks to Bear’s extremely broad backside, one on each cheek and one dead centre, and Bear, in a falsetto wail that was an astounding contrast to his usual bass rumble, let loose three shrill and unreserved howls in response, almost cartoonlike in sound, but obviously not meant as any kind of joke. David, grim faced, got up before Philip reached him, almost defiantly leaning forward on the table, although Paul saw him jump when Philip cracked the paddle across the seat of his jeans, every bit as soundly as he had to the other three.
He said something politely to David that sounded like “Take a seat on the stairs,”
And David glared, but took up his stick and stumped towards the family room. Philip laid down the paddle in the middle of the table and gave the three remaining men around the table a friendly look.
“As Paul and I have both had a less than peaceful meal while you’ve worked out your differences, I’ll ask you to restore some of our energy now. Gerry I would appreciate your giving the landing, everyone’s rooms and the stairs a thorough vacuuming please, and you can then do the butter for me as we agreed this morning. Roger, you may wash and put away the dishes where Paul would like them put, and sweep the family room and the kitchen. Bear, you may wash the windows, upstairs and down. I suggest you don’t get in each other’s way. Paul, what tasks may they do for you?”
He clearly expected an answer, and so did the three clearly subdued men around the table, and Bear was sniffling, his large eyes reminding Paul of a particularly tragic basset hound puppy.
“The wood box in the family room needs re filling,” Paul said carefully after a few seconds thought, “The floors in the laundry room and the downstairs bathroom need mopping, and the downstairs and upstairs bathrooms need cleaning.”
“Let me know when you are done please, gentlemen.” Philip said courteously to the group around the table, who silently – and surprisingly quickly – dispersed. Roger began to collect dishes, and Philip, signalling to Paul, took him into the laundry room, his voice low.
“What has David eaten today? Did you notice?”
“Soup at lunchtime – and proper stuff, not canned – a little bread, and about half a muffin mid afternoon.” Paul said it gently, with understanding for his concern. “I’ve been working on little and often, he did actually finish the soup, and he’s had plenty to drink.”
“And all of what you gave him this evening and a little breakfast too.” Philip said thoughtfully. “I’d like you to realise Paul, this is easily the most I’ve seen him eat since he’s been ill. I appreciate your taking him into Jackson today, he doesn’t enjoy being cooped up at all and no one has had time to take him anywhere.”
“He was very tired afterwards, but he slept on and off a lot of the day.”
“I’ll help him to bed now, I doubt he will appreciate the additional sleep but it will certainly help. I’m encouraged by the bickering too, a row is much more normal outlet in this house than the hush we’ve been having lately.” Philip touched Paul’s shoulder as he passed him. “Thank you. I can see the benefit to David already since you came.”
It took the three of them most of the next hour to do the chores they’d been given. Paul, starting to make bread to leave it to rise overnight – another long ingrained habit – had half an eye on Roger as he put the plates and dishes away, returning them to their slots in the wooden rack. He looked subdued, quiet behind his glasses, and Paul watched him while he kneaded the bread, turning it over on the table. When Roger passed him to get the bucket and mop from the cleaning cupboard, he gave Paul a brief and slightly shamefaced glance that said he’d felt Paul’s eyes on him.
“We’re brat-heavy at the moment. It never goes too well.”
That made very little sense. Still chewing on what he’d seen around the table, Paul asked it lightly enough for Roger to ignore if he wanted to,
“Why did Bear get into-”
“Twice the trouble we did when he didn’t say a word?” Roger filled the bucket, giving Paul a sombre look. “Because he’s black. And we think he might be gay.”
There was a sound from the family room front windows like a deep, bass hee hee hee. It was extremely cute. Paul, who for a second had been horrified by Roger’s quiet, serious tone, looked at Roger and laughed, and Roger grinned at him.
“All right, I’m messing with you. Or trying to. Bear and I shut up and said and did nothing while Gerry was getting into it with David, which isn’t too nice when someone’s heading for the wall, and it was mostly because we were fed up with Gerry getting dramatic. He gets dramatic, I love him but he could win an Oscar when he’s in the mood. Bear still wouldn’t say anything when Philip told us to.”
Paul didn’t remember Philip saying anything at all, but the word ‘wouldn’t’ was interesting. Bear’s wide eyes and horrified expression had indicated frozen in distress and there was something about those round, liquid eyes that summoned up a great amount of sympathy.
Roger, sloshing the mop around the legs of the chairs without moving them, which left patches missed and untouched by water beneath the table, slopped the mop back in the bucket and released another wave of water across the floor, and unable to stand it, Paul brushed off his hands, stepping back before his feet got wet.
“Whoa. You’re going to need to move those chairs, and you need less than half the water you’re putting down.”
Roger, pausing to stand in the water on the floor, gave him a confused looked and Paul nodded him at the bucket.
“Wring the mop out. That’s it. Now soak up that flood. Then move the chairs out and mop all the way under the table.”
“I said anyone who tidies kitchens like that has to be a Top.” Roger said rather cryptically, sighing, but he wrung out the mop.
There was total mayhem going on over the table when Philip finished his telephone call and left the study to come to breakfast in the morning. It appeared to consist of several people yelling at once, loudly and without care for who heard them, and it became apparent when he reached the kitchen that it consisted mostly of David and Gerry. Paul, looking wry rather than alarmed, was continuing to work at the stove and was glancing back to them occasionally; if Philip had to guess, it was with an effort not to step in; Paul did not appear to be the observer type. More an efficient sorter outer. Philip walked unhurriedly to his place at the table and stood there, watching the fracas with interest, and the room went abruptly quiet.
Roger, sitting towards the far end of the table, was reading a book with his shoulders hunched and his arms folded, which let his shoulders cover a lot of his ears, radiating I’m not here. Bear was standing, large and sober faced, physically between Gerry and David, and covering David as he always did in a crisis. David, leaning on the table with both hands, looked livid. Gerry, with a movement he would have indignantly denied was a flounce, spun on his heel and stomped out on to the porch, letting the door slam behind him. Stomping out was a frequent flier in their home at present. Letting him go, Philip took a seat at the table, taking note of the fact that a very different breakfast was laid out to yesterday, that the table was immaculately set, and that it looked homely and organised and comfortable. Which did not reflect the inner workings of several of the men around the table, at least one of whom would feel the need to try to make his outer surroundings as chaotic as he felt internally.
“That’s more like it.” Philip said mildly, aloud. “Anyone want to explain that ruckus?”
Bear's eyes grew even wider in response to Philip looking at him. Roger didn't look up from his book, and if Philip was any judge, he hadn’t yet realised the argument had stopped. David swallowed the rest of the tea he was drinking, saying it quietly but distinctly,
“I'd take that as a no if I were you.”
Paul, putting a dish of sausages on the table, gave David a fleeting look of amusement. Philip held out a hand to Roger, leaning on the table.
Roger made a hmm sound of response to his name without looking up. Philip waited, and a moment later the silence reached Roger’s brain and he glanced up. Roger was highly skilled at tuning out the chaos when he wanted to, his eyes were somewhere else, probably wherever the book was set, and Philip went on holding out his hand.
“Your book, please. Not during meal times.”
Roger rather guiltily closed the book and surrendered it. Philip put it down beside him, starting to serve himself from the dishes on the table and passing them down to Roger.
“Bear? Who was doing all the yelling?”
Bear looked back at him, massive and with scared and innocent eyes that were clearly gaining Paul’s sympathy; that expression invariably worked well on anyone not used to Bear.
“I’m asking you,” Philip said mildly, patting the table beside him. “Sit down and tell me please.”
Bear didn’t move, his deep voice sliding back into the semi literate phrasing he resorted to whenever he didn’t want to answer a question. “I dunno, it wasn’t bad much.”
“It was me and Gerry,” David said irritably, buttering toast. “It usually is me and Gerry and it was my fault, so leave him alone”
“Thank you, but I'm talking to Bear at the moment.” Philip said mildly. “Bear, I'd like an answer, please.”
Bear still hadn’t moved, and he had his full rabbit in the headlights expression now. Philip lowered his fork, giving him a thoughtful look.
“Would you like some time in the corner to think?”
That cracked the I just an ol’ country redneck, I don’ get dese rich folks act. Bear winced and rumbled it, fast.
“No sir.” Philip said mildly. Bear’s voice dropped to a still deeper note but he echoed it promptly and with clear articulation and a good deal less of the deep southern drawl, losing much of the thunderstruck and distraught choir boy expression.
“I didn't think you would.” Philip said wryly. “Who was arguing?”
“David and Gerry, a bit.” Bear said reluctantly.
Philip nodded, patting the place beside him again, not commenting on the fact that ‘a bit’ had been rattling the windows.
“Thank you. Sit down and have your breakfast.”
Bear sat down, and David, getting stiffly to his feet, would have added to the stomp out if Philip hadn’t said mildly, getting up,
“David, I want your company on the porch, please.”
He left Roger and Bear eating at the table, alongside the dark, graceful housekeeper of Charles’ with the amused and soft eyes, who had his legs curled under his chair.
Philip took three jackets from the door, handing one to David as they stepped out onto the snowy boards of the porch. Gerry was visible at the very far end of the yard, leaning on the gate out into the home pastures, coatless, hatless, since it was much easier to be dramatic without proper clothes on in the snow, and which translated in Philip’s mind to
Would someone please pay attention and consequence me for this?
“Gerry, come here.”
“I'm not talking to him.” Gerry said without turning. “He called me a screaming queen.”
“Come and talk to me.”
“You were screaming,” David said shortly. “You can't scream like that and deny it.”
Philip put a gentle hand on his shoulder before David could navigate the snowy steps and stalk away, turned him to stand facing the wall, and left him there, walking down the steps towards the gate where Gerry was standing.
It was apparent once he was there, that Gerry was in tears but determined he was not going to let David see it. Philip hung the jacket around his shoulders and leaned on the gate beside him, looking out at the snow covered pastures.
“That was not very nice of David.”
That got a wince. It always did. Gerry and David were capable of incendiary, flaming arguments but Gerry hated to hear anyone else criticise David at all.
“..... I wasn't very nice either”
Gerry didn’t answer, but he slid over along the gate and buried himself in Philip’s arms. Philip leaned against the gate and held him, rubbing his back and watching the mountains above and beyond the woods. Their breath steamed in front of them and Gerry clung, his arms wrapped tightly around Philip’s waist, shivering partly from the cold and partly from other things Philip understood. He rubbed Gerry’s back and the back of his hair for a long time, not hurrying him, and felt a few more tears that Gerry wouldn’t have admitted to David or to the new housekeeper, which had a lot less to do with being mad at David or at a stranger in the house than to do with the stress of everything being wrong and David being angry and miserable and fragile, and the strain that they’d all been living under for some weeks now, and having that brought sharply into contrast by the calm and orderliness in the kitchen. They’d been working too hard over the past few weeks to have had the time Philip knew they needed for them to talk about David’s collapse together and to process it. Even in the days when David had been so ill, the stock had still had to be fed, the water kept from freezing, the horses cared for. And Gerry would be acutely sensitive to just how painful David would find it to hear any conversation that even hinted at their being afraid for him.
“It was my fault, I made him mad.” Gerry said eventually without looking up. Philip nodded slowly, long experienced in untangling this kind of conversation.
“How did you make him mad?”
“I was nagging at Rog”
“Who was buried in his book and not paying anyone any attention.”
Gerry’s nod was reluctant and explained that while he did not like not having Roger’s full attention when he wanted it, he preferred not to admit to it either.
“He shouldn't have had the book at the table, should he?” Philip said mildly. “Did you try asking for him to put it away?”
“...............I probably wasn't very nice about it.” Gerry said unwillingly. “And David said to shut up.”
Following which, diplomatic relations had immediately broken down and hostilities had commenced. David and Gerry had that pinned down as a well practised script.
“I know David doesn't mean it, I know he doesn't, it's only noise.” Gerry said after a while, rather defeatedly. “He just says a lot of stuff that’s..... mostly true if I’m honest, and it isn't always nice to hear “
Particularly when they’d come so close to losing David. Gerry was intensely perceptive; he knew it well, he knew them well, and at present he was taking anything David said or did as far more significant than usual.
“Look at me.” Philip said gently, turning his face up.
Gerry looked up, eyes still wet, and Philip ran a hand over his forehead, pushing his hair back.
“We both know he doesn't mean it but that does not make it true.”
Gerry didn’t answer, and Philip drew Gerry’s head over against his, dropping a firm kiss on familiar, chilled and slightly snowy hair before he let him go.
“Why don't we go back to the porch and apologise to David, get it off your chest so you'll feel better.”
Gerry walked with him through the snow to the porch, and Philip kept his arm through Gerry’s.
David turned from the wall. He wasn’t shivering. David was usually hardy to the point of being impervious to weather, and he hadn’t troubled to fasten the coat. Gerry gave him a look that said his nerve was going fast, opened and closed his mouth a few times and David glanced skywards and irritably hung on to the porch rail to get down to the steps and hug him, hard, near to growling.
“You’re a bloody pest. That’s all.”
Gerry hung on to him, Philip watched him do it, and watched David wrap him, his head fiercely against Gerry’s, his arms very tight. David’s temper was hot; it could be volcanic when it was really roused, although he would never have shown or directed it to one of their brats, but he often needed time to burn himself out when his temper rose, and his tolerance for Gerry in one of his more Vivien Leigh moods was low. But he understood Gerry as well as Philip did, and sometimes, Philip thought better.
“Go and make it up with Rog and have some breakfast.” Philip said, putting a hand on Gerry’s shoulder, and Gerry went inside, closing the door behind him.
Left alone on the porch with David, Philip leaned against the porch rail and folded his arms.
“Would you like to estimate when a point will come where you decide not to bicker with Ger?”
“When he stops acting like a screaming queen.” David said shortly. He took a few steps to the swing and sat down. Not to avoid the conversation; but because his legs were close to giving out. Philip, aware of it and knowing to comment on it would be the least helpful thing he could do, instead sat down beside him, looking with him at the snow covered paddocks stretching out towards the woods and the mountains. He’d learned a very long time ago to pick his battles with David and to locate what mattered.
“Gerry adores you. When you use words like that they go deep for him and they hurt.”
“He's heard far worse than that.” David said shortly.
“And that gives you the right to heap on more?” Philip said mildly. David didn’t answer, but he grimaced. Philip went on watching the paddock, speaking quietly but definitely.
“It's the fact that we know he has heard worse that should soften your tongue when speaking to him. I don't expect things to be calm and easy all the time, I understand this is not easy and you’re angry with everything right now. I do understand. But that’s enough, David.”
They’d spent enough of their lives together enough for David to know intimately the note of finality of in his voice and what it meant, and after a moment, David gave him a faint and slightly shamefaced nod that said Philip was telling him nothing he hadn’t already told himself. Philip dropped a hand on his knee, getting up.
“An apology for those specific words would go a long way. Shall we have breakfast before Paul becomes completely convinced he’s joined a mad house?”
Breakfast appeared to be progressing relatively normally, save for Roger, who was reading as he ate, the book open beside his plate. It was the equivalent of holding up a large sign of protest. The last member of their set, making quite sure, in a discreet and understated kind of way, that he wasn’t overlooked and that he wasn’t any happier than the rest of them.
Pulling out David’s chair for him, Philip said calmly,
“Roger, a word please? Do bring your book.”
Roger looked up rather guiltily, although not guiltily enough. Philip led the way out of the kitchen and into the study where he closed the door and extended a hand for the book.
“Didn't I already take this once today?”
Roger sounded sheepish and he surrendered the book without complaint. “Yes sir.”
“I'm going to hold onto it until tomorrow.” Philip laid it down on his desk “Did you realise that your book started the argument at the table?”
“..........yes sir. Gerry didn't like that I was reading at the table.”
“He had a point then, and you realised it but didn't put it down?”
Roger gave him a rather lame look that expressed a good deal of things more pertinent than not wanting to put down a book, including, Philip suspected, that refusing to put a book down was a guaranteed way to express to Gerry you were fed up with him bossing you about. Very few members of the brat side of their family articulated out loud what they thought or felt, but they communicated it clearly in their own particular ways if you paid attention, and they were extremely good at communicating to each other.
“It's a good book?”
“Worth shutting the rest of us out for?” Philip inquired. Roger shook his head, as this was a conversation they’d had many times.
“...no, it was just a good place and it was hard to stop”
“Anything you’d like to talk to me about?” Philip invited. Roger didn’t answer. He was a very different person to Gerry, needing in many ways a much firmer hand, and after a moment Philip indicated the couch.
“Have a seat. I think you need to consider your priorities this morning. When you want to talk to me, come and tell me.”
He left the book on the desk, and Roger, sitting hugging his knees in a corner of the couch, looking at the hardback as if it was a snake.
Gerry churned butter like he was declaring war on it. Paul had watched him several times, turning the little barrel handle over and over with gritted teeth that said he hated this chore – the butter had been produced and was perfect, and it was delicious – far better than store bought stuff – but rather than being made with love, it was made with seething resentment, and indignation.
Bear had taught him how to milk Mildred, the cow, a large and gentle eyed creature with a red hide that appeared to be particularly attached to Bear. It was a novel experience to sit out in a stable at Christmas, taking war milk for breakfast directly from the cow, and after his first lesson, Paul went out to do it every morning, early on waking. Mildred appeared placidly pleased to see him, and spent a lot of time with her head twisted around, watching him with what appeared to be gentle reproach at the mess he was making of milking her, but she was patient with him figuring it out. Bear, whose hands dwarfed her teats and seemed almost too big to be able to do it, hunched down on the stool with an effort to get his big body low enough to see under her, and he milked with almost imperceptible, delicate movements of those massive fingers, his shaven head resting directly on Mildred’s side. He was a quiet but patient teacher and he put his hands directly over Paul’s to guide them until Paul caught the knack of it, still saying nothing but giving him a smile with real pleasure in it when Paul succeeded. Having watched him simply get tools without comment and very skilfully fix a broken shelf in the pantry when he saw it, cutting, sanding and fixing wood with his huge hands moving as adroitly as he milked Mildred, Paul was rapidly coming to realise the innocent eyes and the incoherent staring when asked a question he didn’t like was only one facet to this man.
It was a remarkable gift to be given that fantastic kitchen and an entirely free hand to do whatever he wanted to do with it. Philip watched David sit at the table on Paul’s second day, then went into the family room and without comment and simply brought an armchair into the kitchen. There was plenty of room for it. After that, David sat in the armchair and watched, and Paul chattered about very little, mostly narrating what he was doing, and experimented with several different types of cake and a beef wellington, all of which appeared to go down well at dinner time, and while David napped, as he often did without intending to, Paul cleaned the house, kept the laundry up to date and in the little spare time he had, pulled out one of his old notebooks and scribbled ideas and bits of dialogue down at the table, sitting with David while he slept, or in bed at night while he listened to Philip and Bear go out just before midnight to put out unfrozen water for the stock.
The hard work these men did every day was astounding. Paul watched them take out horses from the corral, saddle up and ride out at the start of every day, and from David’s brusque explanation, the horses were their only means of transport able to cope with the frequent sharp slopes, woodlands, creeks and rivers and tributaries that filled their land, easily able to travel places no vehicle could have traversed. Early in the morning when they worked in the yard, Paul watched them clean out the stables and the massive covered shelter beyond the garage where a band of horses had shelter and warmth and clustered together to eat from the feed bins. Other horses in their thick coats, ate hay from the ground and oats from the bin, and watched with curiosity anyone coming and going in the yard. Paul put on a coat and his tennis shoes several times and walked out across the yard for the experience of doing it, which meant in the less compacted areas of the yard, stepping in snow to above his knees. At times when David was dozing and the others were out wherever they went to work the cattle, he walked through the total quiet of the snowy yard, looking around him at the immense space, the mountains, the snow covered hills that stretched out to one side, gradually rising in the distance, and the long, low, open pastures to the other side. In the bright, crisp sunlight at mid morning, several massive horses in one of the end paddocks sometimes produced remarkable gambols for their size, briefly galloping together from one end to the other, apparently for the fun of seeing the snow fly up from their great, shaggy forefeet. The friendship between the group was remarkable to watch; Paul who knew very little about horses, found himself fascinated by how one would begin to play and the others would come to join in, racing together across the paddock with snow flying in all directions.
Mildred, not interested in leaving the warmth of her stall and her hay net, sometimes looked serenely over the opened half door of the stables, watching the horses, but more often she lay down in the hay and chewed the cud and benignly ignored Paul if he went to talk to her over the stable door. Every day, Paul saw Gerry or Roger drive the great tractor out of the barn, and take one of the huge wheels of hay on the spikes at the front, down into the open pasture where the cattle clustered around it to eat. Their deep voices lowing and huffing sent steam into the air above them, they stood close together and it was like listening to singing that echoed in the frosty space of the open pasture. Used all his life to the scream of the gulls over the harbour, a sound he’d loved, Paul found the deeper voices surprisingly melodic and peaceful.
David was restless and cantankerous all afternoon on the fourth day. Paul, draining parboiled potatoes while oil heated in an open tin on the stove top, watched him sit with his eyes on the window, fiddling with the slice of banana bread he’d been given, his face distant.
“Want some tea to go with that?” Paul asked him, and David grunted.
“You don’t make proper tea. No American can make decent tea.”
It sounded rougher than it meant; tact was not David’s strong point and Paul was starting to understand, as apparently the rest of the family did, that what David said in the heat of the moment and what he actually meant were often not the same thing.
“Yes well I’m used to brewing coffee more than tea.” he said easily, “Coffee’s mostly what they brew on the fishing boats and what they wanted when they got home.”
“What do you know about fishing?” David said gruffly. It had at least gotten his eyes off the window. Paul shook the potatoes hard, holding the lid over the pan to break them up.
“Well one of our boarders told me once, he was hauling fish pots out at sea in a 26 footer craft and the sharks always followed the pots up. He hung over the side to swing a pot over the gunwale, the boat tipped and threw him over the side. Ben landed on the pot, jumped up and leapt from it back onto the deck.”
“He said no one else in the boat could believe he’d done it,” Paul went on, tipping the potatoes into the hot fat where they sizzled loudly. “He was back before they’d fully realised he was gone, but he said the sharks were so big he’d moved fast enough that his cigarettes in his pocket hadn’t even had the time to get wet.”
Another snort and a rougher one. Then David said,
“I was sailing out off the Orkneys coast, and we’d got a couple of loads, only one of which anyone was supposed to know about. We were three miles out when the engines got into trouble, and if we signalled for help, we’d get questions about what the hell we were doing there in the first place, not to mention awkward questions about our cargo. We were sitting there like dead ducks, trying to fix the engine when the water started bubbling around us, and the next thing we know, our boat’s lifted up out of the water. Minute later we’re face to face with the most embarrassed skipper of a US submarine I’ve ever seen. Anyway, we talked a bit, and agreed we wouldn’t mention to his base or CO he was surfacing without paying attention and tipping over the local fishing fleet, and he wouldn’t ask questions about what the hell we were doing out there at night, and their engineer fixed our engine and we all went on our way minding our own business.”
“Old Joe Torey used to tell me, they lost their engine out in a swell one night and the waves were getting so high they were afraid they’d be capsized and visibility was down to a few feet, when the first mate saw a couple of basking sharks, and they always hang close to shore and around tributaries, they’d stay near land and they’re placid and slow moving, safe enough.” Paul turned the potatoes over several times in the hot fat before he put them in the oven, well aware of how this game was played, one tall tale after another without a pause, he’d listened to it for years, “So they used the chain winch and with a bit of baiting from the fish they had on board, and hanging over the side to handle them despite all the spray and churned up water, they managed to get chains and ropes around both sharks, taut enough to stop them diving, and the sharks must have panicked because they swam like hell and towed them right out of the storm. They went miles in an hour, couldn’t believe the speed, they hadn’t realised a basking shark could move like that when it was scared enough. When things began to calm they saw they were still in sight of the coast and they saw lights of another boat and hailed it, and as the boat came up alongside they let the chains slip and the sharks swam away. The skipper of the other boat was white as a sheet and said to them, what the hell do you think you’re doing with that pair of great whites?”
David gave a shout of laughter and Paul grinned at him, putting the kettle and the tea pot down on the table.
“All right. Show me how to make proper tea.”
They were drinking the third test cup, which David agreed was now of passable standard, when he glanced up at the window and the twitchiness Paul had seen in him all morning abruptly turned to a darkness in his face and he got straight to his feet, abandoning his stick and heading straight out onto the porch. A bell hung there, a gleaming brass one with a rope hanging from the clapper, and David took the rope knocking it sharply to ring the bell, a rapid and steady tolling he kept up for some seconds. The word ‘Sussex’ and the date ‘1929’ was engraved on the bell and its chime was clear and loud and carrying; Paul could hear it echoing out into the pastures. The sky was looking grey and heavy, the wind had picked up, and Paul, standing behind him on the porch, saw David lean on the rail, looking down towards the pasture where white snow was interrupted only when it rose up into the white covered woods.
“Weather’s turned. That’s a blizzard coming.”
He paced for the next five minutes. It was painful to watch. Paul, understanding that it was taking all he had not to walk off the porch, left him alone and kept his mouth shut on comments about coats and cold, and waited with him. They saw two figures on horseback emerge first, riding down through the deep snow from the hills that they called ‘the tops’. The horses were plunging in the snow, herding a group of nine or ten unsaddled horses ahead of them, and in the loose snow on the slopes as they came closer, it was like watching them burst down a waterfall. It was one of the most amazing sights Paul had ever seen. They leapt and slid down through the snow like dolphins, at times seeming neck deep in it, long legs flashing as they bounded from one footfall to the next, and as Gerry rounded his horse to turn them towards the yard, with a skill that was breathtaking to watch, a black horse far larger than the others, heavy necked and with a blaze down his nose plunged out of the snow driving the other horses ahead. It seemed to be working in conjunction with Gerry and Roger, as Roger rode ahead and flung back the gate, Gerry and the horse with the blaze together herded the horses into the yard, and Roger shut the gate after them. David, limping as far as the back door to get his boots on, went down the steps and into the yard, and Gerry slid down from his horse and came to take the large feed sack from him, ripping it open as he walked and leading the way towards the corral. The horses followed him, and Gerry emptied the sack into several of the feed bins, coming out and latching the gate behind a quietly grazing herd.
“This is Pirate.” Roger called to Paul, indicating the horse with the blaze. Very definitely a stallion. there was little doubt of it, and from Roger’s tone he was definitely someone special on the ranch; Paul nodded with some admiration, breath still stolen from seeing that ballet downhill and the skill of the two men who’d handled it. Neither of whom he would have expected it from, and neither of whom seemed to think it was anything unusual.
“Stud stallion.” David climbed the steps again and rang the bell, harder. Gerry and Roger, without hurry which made the horses move just as calmly around them, took halters into the open sheltered pen by the garage where the riding horses spent the night, and led them, two at a time across the yard towards the stables. Pulling his tennis shoes on, Paul went to help them, with no idea what to do with halters but willingly taking the two horses already wearing them from Roger, who smiled peaceably at him and nodded towards Gerry.
“Just follow him.”
The horses walked quite willingly after their stable mates and Paul handed them over to Gerry who was rapidly turning them into the big, well kept loose boxes that lined the stables. As soon as the last two were gone, Roger went back with a bucket of oats to the big stallion, showed him and coaxed, and Pirate paced with him towards the shelter, his mares calmly trailing him. Roger hung the bucket on a gate post for Pirate to eat his fill and shut the gate, leaving the herd grazing peacefully from the hay nets.
David had done several things in the yard, including open gates: Paul saw him tie them back, swiftly and hard as if expecting they were going to need to be tied down, and he often looked out towards the open pasture. It was a few minutes more before they saw the horse making its way out of the snow and mist towards them. The wind was getting higher, it was harder to see. Paul, helping Roger and Gerry fill the water buckets for the horses in the loose boxes, paused and saw David breathe out as he recognised Bear walking beside his horse, and go to meet him.
Bear was in the yard before Paul fully saw what was draped over his saddle. It was huge, struggling feebly and Bear lifted it bodily and gently down from the horse, laying it down on the ground with great care. David stooped over it, and Paul came to look. The bullock was large, and the wound in its throat was gaping. Shocking. Bear started towards the house, purposefully as though to go and get something, and Paul, seeing his face, saw to his alarm that it was streaming with tears. It was a shattering sight; sad beyond tragic, the gentle face soaked and the huge man sobbing quietly and as honestly as a child as he walked. David, turning the bullock’s head between his hands to see the wound better, with a lot of strength and a lot of gentleness, took another closer look and got up, putting Paul aside.
“Bear, I’ve got it. I’ll handle it.”
Bear leaned against the doorframe mechanically to kick off his boots. David edged around him and went inside, and Paul followed Bear in concern, pulling out a chair at the kitchen table for him.
“Bear? Are you all right? What happened?”
“Got by something. Probably a bear or a wolf. It happens and it’s no one’s fault.” David reappeared from the hallway, pocketing keys and loading shells efficiently into a heavy rifle, far heavier than the ones they carried on their saddles when they rode out, passed them and went outside. Bear sat down heavily in the chair and put his head down on his arms. His shoulders were shaking all over. Paul rubbed them, watching him with some anxiety. There was a few seconds of silence outside and then one deafening shot. It seemed to echo around the yard. Then David’s voice again, brisker.
“Rog, bring the tractor out, we’ll drag it around the side of the house and get it under a tarp.”
Gerry came inside a moment later, white faced and looking distraught at the sight of Bear. He came straight to lean on the table on Bear’s other side, hugging one of Bear’s arms as best he could. Paul, seeing his anguish in addition to Bear’s, heeled out a chair and sat down, instinctively putting an arm around Bear’s mountainous shoulders and pulling, and giving way to exactly what he’d been wanting to do and to say for the last five minutes.
“All right, come here. Come on honey, it’s ok.”
How you held a man this size he had no real idea, but the tone was all that was needed: Bear twisted straight around to him and clung as open heartedly as if he’d known Paul all his life, and with a rush of warmth and a lot of liking for this man, Paul hugged him back, as much of the massive body as he could. Gerry, who looked near tears himself, gave Paul the most anxious and open look Paul had yet seen from him, his hands still rubbing at Bear’s shoulders.
“He’s ok. He can’t stand it when there’s nothing he can do like that and they’re distressed, he’ll be ok in a minute.”
He was pretty much explaining exactly what he needed to hear, Paul knew what he was asking and said it gently and firmly.
“It’s all right, Gerry, he’ll be fine.”
Holding a sobbing cowboy was a very new experience. And not at all an unpleasant one. Paul glanced up at Gerry, aware this felt very natural. Easy. And that Gerry’s often scowling face was extremely vulnerable when it relaxed and showed what was underneath it, and it that raised the same deep rush of tenderness in him that Bear did.
“Put the kettle on, love. You could all do with a hot drink, you must be frozen. Where’s Philip, do you know?”
“In the yard, he’s helping David with the tarp, he told me to come in.” Gerry was still stroking Bear’s massive head with a gentleness that was as sincerely anxious as it was desperate to comfort, “It’s a blizzard coming down. Sometimes when the weather starts to really get bad a bear or a wolf pack will pick off a beast that’s gotten too far from the rest, not often but I’ve seen it happen before.”
“You’ve been here a long time?” Paul said gently. Gerry gave him a rather preoccupied nod.
“Yes. I know I look barely a day over eighteen, it’s just really good genes darling,”
The swishing was rather forlorn and token, and Gerry added more quietly,
“I’m actually thirty.”
“Don’t even get him started on the nervous breakdown he had over that.” Roger said from the doorway, heeling his boots off. “His birthday was like a Greek tragedy. Everything’s under cover, you can see the wall of snow coming down from the tops.”
“Who made the call to bring the herd down?”
“Pirate did.” Gerry glanced up to see Philip as he and David followed Roger inside. “We met him on his way down and helped, he obviously knew what was coming, we just speeded him up when we heard David ring the bell.”
“Very well done, both of you.” Philip drew out a chair beside Bear. Gerry made room for him, going to stand with Roger and Paul saw Roger wrap an arm around him. Bear relinquished his grip on Paul, slid down to his knees on the floor and buried his face in Philip’s midriff. Philip hugged him, one hand cradling the huge black scalp as if this was a manoeuvre he and Bear had practiced many times before, and Paul got up to put cups on the table and fill the tea pot, well aware of how cold they all were.
“We really need to get you some proper boots, Paul.” Philip said, looking at Paul’s soaked tennis shoes and jeans from the knees down.
“I still say we ought to joint that steer and make use of it.” David said grimly, sitting down next to Philip and Bear.
“You are not butchering anything in a blizzard.”
“It’s a waste of good meat.”
Philip glanced up, chin on the top of Bear’s head, and Paul caught the swift, private smile he gave David. “I really don’t think we’re going to starve, darling.”
The snow blew hard down against the house windows for several hours through the evening. Bear, Roger, Philip and Gerry took it in turns to go out with lanterns, checking on the stock, and came back scarlet faced and freezing. They were matter of fact about it; this was life out here and it was normality, nothing strange, although David visibly had to force himself not to go with them and he remained grim all evening. It took time for Bear to be himself, and longer still for Gerry, and they both stuck close both to Philip and to David as they settled around the first. Roger read, and Paul, watching him, thought there was a quiet defensiveness in it. These weren’t happy guys, and most of it had to do with David; it was clear all three of them adored him, they watched him a great deal of the time with an anxiety Paul thought was likely to grate on David more than help.
“Paul, do stop looking like you’re a butler and come and sit down with us.” Philip said firmly when Paul brought them a tray of coffee. “It’s too cold in the kitchen.”
“The stove’s warm and I’ve got bread rising.” Paul said easily, and Bear, leaning across to pour coffee into a cup with a surprisingly deft hand, passed it to him, grabbed his free hand and simply hauled until Paul sat down on the couch near him. He and David were playing chess again, close to the fire and mostly in silence.
Paul sipped coffee, looking again at Roger who was curled in a chair, and looking to all intents and purposes miles away.
“What are you reading? It must be something good.”
“I like pretty much anything, but this is a bit of an old favourite.” Roger turned the cover for him to see, and Paul saw the title, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”.
“He likes his ghost stories.” Gerry said, helping himself to coffee. “He and Miguel used to spend hours telling each other every gory whatsit they knew,”
“Gothic,” Roger said peaceably. “Gothic novels. Miguel’s a professor of Literature, that’s what he got his doctorate in.”
“You said he’d gone to teach?” Paul asked, and Roger gave him a nod.
“He took a post at an Italian university this fall, we’re very proud of him.”
“Except that he insisted on leaving to go and do it.” Gerry, taking his coffee cup with him, went to Philip and Philip shifted over to take Gerry into his lap, where Gerry curled up without the faintest inhibition as if it was the most normal thing in the world. “I’m never going anywhere and I don’t have to.”
“No.” Philip wrapped both arms around him comfortably. “You belong to David and me, we’re never letting you go.”
Bear moved a piece on the chess board, confiscated a piece of David’s, and responded to David’s glare with that deep, comfortable, hee hee hee..... David grabbed up a cushion and tossed it at him, and Bear caught it neatly with one hand, tossing it in turn at Roger, who was reading again, didn’t see it coming and took it full in the face. Paul instinctively grabbed for it as Roger got up, cushion in hand to retaliate, defending the coffee with his other hand.
“Hey, you’ll knock the pot over, and if you do, you’re cleaning it up.”
It was not a very housekeeperly thing to say and it slipped out without him quite intending it, but Roger, surrendering the cushion, helped himself to a cup of coffee, dipped his fingers in it as he straightened up and flicked them at Bear. Bear laughed and wiped coffee from his head, and Paul, pulling out a handkerchief, got up to mop the remaining drops from the table, mildly batting Roger’s shoulder to get him out of the way.
“Do you two know how badly coffee stains?”
“Do feel free to give them Bear’s shirt and let them find out.” Philip invited. “And if I were you, Paul, I would aim about two feet lower and a lot harder.”
Shortly after ten, when they’d gone to bed, and they turned in early in this house with the physical labour of working out in the snow, Paul saw the stillness outside through the back door window, and on impulse, put his shoes on, took down a jacket and stepped out into it.
Moonlight on fresh snow was beautiful. It was crisp and still outside. The footprints in the yard had filled in again, the snow was heavy on the stable and barn roofs, but the sky had cleared and as well as a bright, gibbous moon, there were stars, like bright eyes, marking the dark navy blue of the sky. It was still odd to go out at night and not hear the wash of the sea or the cry of the gulls, smell the salt and the old fishing nets tangled with the broken lobster pots and bits of boat under repair, or fall asleep to the toll of the bells that sounded even in the darkest hours of the night from the boats out in the harbour. Bt this place was beautiful and it was incredibly peaceful.
It was a few minutes before the kitchen door shut softly and Philip joined him at the porch rail, leaning on his elbows to look out at the mountains.
“It’s so beautiful here.” Paul said impulsively. Philip nodded, giving him a quiet smile.
“Yes. It is. Although you must get homesick, this is very different to the sea.”
“Not really.” Paul said honestly. “I knew for a few years it would be nice while it lasted and then it would end. I couldn’t run the boarding house on my own and I wouldn’t want to. I made my plans and I found ways to get in touch with people like Charles. Work where I wouldn’t have to watch my back. Be around people I didn’t have to be careful with.”
Like Bear and like Gerry, who gave themselves away within a few words or movements. Neither of them could have hidden in a straight world successfully as David or Roger easily could. Slightly annoyed with himself for blurting out something so personal and not sure why he’d shared it, Paul straightened up.
“Is there anything you need? I can make you some coffee if you’d like?”
“When did you lose your grandmother?” Philip asked gently.
“A while ago.” Paul said in a cheerful tone that made it clear this wasn’t ground they were discussing. Philip inclined his head.
“I can see she’s in your mind all the time when you’re working.”
“Cowboys and fishermen.” Paul said wryly. “I think they have more in common than I’d realised.”
The tone made it clear Philip would have been happy to hear more. Paul glanced at his watch for something to do to avoid looking at him, abruptly very uncomfortable, and stepped back.
“If there’s nothing I can do for you, I think I’ll turn in.”
“I wanted to let you know the meltdown this afternoon wasn’t entirely par for the course,” Philip brushed snow off his gloves, his voice quiet. “The last time Bear found someone down in the snow, it was David. It rings a few rather painful bells for us.”
And Roger when things were rough, hid inside a book and blocked everything out. Gerry scowled and insulted and looked down his nose, because then you didn’t see the sensitivity that lay underneath it, and Bear looked as helpless as he possibly could in the hope that you’d give up and move on. And David fought. With teeth and all his strength, and all his practicality because that was the kind of man he was. And Philip carried on, quietly and calmly, despite the fact he was tired, and the weariness, the anxiety was there and very apparent to anyone with eyes to see. He was a good man. They were all of them good working men like the men he'd been raised with.
With no idea why all this was so strongly on his mind, angry with himself and with the sheer strength of emotion it raised in him, Paul looked out at the yard and looked for something to say. Philip was inviting him in; Paul knew it. He was offering, sincerely, to talk about this family openly with him, with trust and with confidence, and if you spent a day or two with these guys you figured out that it was important to them. And yet he said, kindly,
“Yes, very understandable. I’m sorry it’s been such a difficult time, it’s good to see David feeling better. Goodnight Philip, sweet dreams.”
Philip returned the nod and smile and let him go, waiting tactfully for Paul to have escaped upstairs before he came inside. David, laying awake in their bed, watched Philip sit down to take his watch off, and shifted over as Philip lay back beside him.
“No. He’s far too wary of me.” Philip leaned back against the pillows and folded an arm around David, closing his eyes with a sigh. “I think you’re going to have to handle this one, love.”
There was no justifiable reason to be writing to the agency at 3am.
Paul made himself a mug of coffee and sat at the kitchen table in front of the radiating heat of the stove, and tried to focus on the letter. In a week or two, when the rest of the family had been and gone and David was better, he would need a new job to move on to; that was all.
Except the kitchen was a very comfortable and a very calm place to be, and his thoughts kept drifting off in all kinds of directions. Eventually, giving up on the few lines he’d written, Paul sat back and sipped coffee, feet against the warm kitchen tiles.
“Trouble sleeping?” David said from the doorway. He was leaning there, watching. Lanky, arms folded, white hair wild, and dressed. Jeans, socks, sweater, and no walking stick. He was getting stronger. Paul straightened up, refusing to acknowledge the satisfaction that brought him, because it didn’t help.
“There’s coffee if you’d like it – you’re not going out to do the water run are you?”
“You needn’t use that tone, no. I’m not.” David walked past him and opened what looked like a cupboard door, but led to a narrow flight of stairs. A little cupboard was tucked to the side of the stairs and David stooped to open it, pulling forward what Paul recognised as a sea chest. Many of the residents at the boarding house had owned them; polished wood boxes with rope handles, slightly wider at the base than the top to prevent them tipping over with the movement of a boat. David took a small, white box from this one, put the lid back on the chest and brought the box to the table.
“I can’t sleep either. Look at these.” He opened the box, delicately unwrapping something from elderly tissue paper. It was a blown glass ornament, claret red and clear glass, fragile and graceful. David dangled it gently from his fingers, turning it in the light.
“On Christmas Eve, we’ll bring a tree in and we’ll decorate it in the evening with these. We do every year. They’re Philip’s. They were his great grandmother’s, she was given them as a Christmas present in Boston. They’ve been used every Christmas in his family for over a hundred years, I love looking at them. Her family, her daughter’s and her daughter’s until they came to Philip and now we put them on our tree every year and admire them just the same way she did.”
“That’s lovely.” Paul said softly, watching the intense care with which David held it. David’s voice was quiet, the least gruff Paul had ever heard it.
“These bits of glass have seen the same things every year. Nothing much has changed for them, it makes me think of the layers they carry of what’s been around them every Christmas, they must have soaked up all the best days of the years for centuries. I touch them and it makes me feel those layers.”
Boats were just the same; sailors believed in it. The wood of the craft had a life beyond being a mere hull and frame; it held a spirit touched by the layers of all the people who touched it and lived on it, held and was shaped by the memory of who they were, and there were boats which were loved and trusted through many owners, and looked on as a friends, partners and guardians in rough waters, and there were others that no one would touch however low the price.
David gently wrapped the ornament again, looking at the writing pad on the table.
“Looking for another job?”
“You’ll only be needing me another week or so until the Christmas gathering is over.” Paul said lightly. David sat back in his chair, studying him with bright blue eyes. Then shook his head.
“Isn’t that rather like running away?”No. Of course it wasn’t. And Paul was aware that no matter how casually he tried to reply he still sounded slightly defensive.
“Rubbish, I’m just here to work.”
David shook his head. “Ger and Bear and I can tell you, and believe me we know. It’s not better on your own. That’s something you talk yourself into to get by when you’ve got no choice about it.”
“I left Maine in the first place because I wanted to see some life and variety. Have some fun.” Paul said firmly. “I’m not going anywhere today, I just need to make plans for what happens when I’m not needed here. And you made enough fuss about me coming in the first place, I thought you didn’t need a housekeeper?”
“You can’t care about people the way you do and stay hands off, and still be happy, Paul. It won’t work,” David said bluntly. “I’ve known plenty of people with the same instincts you’ve got. You’re not a hands off person, you’re never going to be. You might as well be yourself.”
Shaken, Paul put his coffee mug down, and David leaned on the table, closer to him, speaking quietly.
“Philip said he thought we reminded you too much of home. If ‘reminding you of home’ means it was dull and you hated it and you wanted out, then fair enough. But if it means it hurts, then there’s things that you’re missing that you’re seeing here in us. I see how you are with Bear and the others. You don’t have to get ready to move on. Sometimes we see someone passing by and we think yes, we know you. You’re very welcome here.”
“This from the official Falls Chance welcome committee?” Paul teased him. David put a hand out, very gently touching his face, which made Paul’s eyes sting.
“Give us a try, don’t run off yet.”
He let go before Paul lost it, for which Paul was very grateful, and instead ran his fingers gently over the box of glass baubles again.
“In the kitchen at home,” Paul said, not really sure why he was saying it, since there was a lump at the back of his throat for the first time when he thought of it, but knowing exactly what David meant, “There were pans and kettles my grandmother had kept from her grandmother. She felt just that way about them. The same traditions, the same things all the family had used before us, her mother was in them and her grandmother. Huge, Victorian, beautiful things but to be used, not looked at. She loved them.”
“They’re still there?”
“In the boarding house, right on the harbour. Keeper’s Yard it’s called in the village, the whole of that little end of the harbour, because of Keeper’s boatyard at the very end by the beach. All working craft, none of the tourist stuff, but the fishing boats go out every day and they crate the fish up on the harbour.”
The smell of it, the clatter of crates, the daily routine of walking down to chat with the men back from their night’s work and to buy and wrap still wet fish only an hour or two out of the water –
It was one of the strongest waves of homesickness he’d felt since he’d left.
“Anyway, the pots are enormous.” He said more lightly. “I couldn’t exactly travel with them, and unless you’re running a large kitchen they’re far too big to store and you’d never use them. I left them there, someone else might get use from them.”
And you had to move on. Embrace what you couldn’t change, and move on and make the best of it.
“I’m sorry.” David said gently. Paul didn’t answer, and after a moment David put a hand over his, got up and kissed his cheek, a both rough and very gentle gesture that brought tears directly back to Paul’s eyes, and Paul heard him stump back towards the stairs, leaving the glass baubles there on the table.
He made mince pies for David.
It was an English recipe that David knew about, and which Paul experimented with since David had mentioned them to him as something he remembered from his childhood, and he ended up making several batches as the rest of the household enjoyed them as much as David did, and Paul found that he thoroughly enjoyed making mincemeat. The smell of the spices permeated the house for days, sweet with cinnamon. They also enjoyed the soups Paul spent time making and sending out with them daily in thermos flasks, that meant that Roger, Gerry, Bear and Philip had a hot drink and something with some sustenance to it with their semi frozen sandwiches for lunch.
The preparations of rooms and food took several days before men started to arrive. They turned up together crowded into shared cars with conversations about mustering at airports, they appeared wearing suits and wearing police uniforms and disappeared upstairs with total familiarity with the house, and reappeared in shirts and jeans and battered boots that had seen hard use. They met Philip and David and the others with delight, the greetings were noisy and very physical and Gerry and Bear both shrieked like schoolgirls at the sight of most of them, and they chattered to each other constantly, casual information about cars and towns and people that apparently all of them knew about, and they clustered in groups to talk wherever they happened to be, on the porch rail, on the stairs, by the fire, in people’s rooms. They cheerfully went out to do the water runs at night and they rode out to help with stock work during the day, all of them as practically competent as Gerry and the others were, and they surrounded the table which needed additional leaves added to seat them all, and clustered around the fire in the family room at night, talking noisily and in groups that Gerry, Roger and Bear blended into with apparently a great deal of pleasure. There was a good deal of laughing and messing about, horseplay in the yard with snow and several minor physical battles Paul saw in the house, but even with this number of men – something more different from Charles’ house party would have been difficult to imagine. Bear, Roger and Gerry were infinitely happier with them here; from the day they began to arrive Paul saw the difference. David’s mood lifted too, he was livelier, more talkative, and Paul, watching him eat each mealtime with far more interest than he had a week ago, thought he looked stronger. Philip was always relaxed and cheerful, he was as quiet in his own way as Roger was, but there were some men in the group who always seemed to be around him in the way that a couple of them were always discreetly near David whenever he walked outside in the snowy yard or climbed the stairs, and who sat up later in the evening with Philip: a tall man by the name of James, the Professor Miguel, one of the policemen who was lively and as talkative as his partner but was clearly a good friend of Philip’s, and under their influence the stretched look in Philip’s eyes seemed to Paul to ease away.
It was impossible to be around this noisy, good natured, friendly crowd who seemed so joyful to be here together, without feeling the energy in the house and enjoying it. Paul entertained himself with David during the day by creating buffets, which was the easiest way to feed this many men together, and which allowed all sorts of interesting recipes that ordinarily one never got the chance to play with, and found himself never short of willing hands to do the dishes. They kept up with the laundry too, the housework got done, they all seemed perfectly competent to vacuum the stairs as they did to ride a horse, and they just did whatever they saw that needed doing. This appeared to be their home, they none of them saw themselves as guests in it.
They brought a tree down on Christmas Eve. Actually a small crowd of them went up the hill, wading through the snow which they seemed to thoroughly enjoy, and Bear stationed the massive tree they brought back in a bucket of rocks to keep it steady on the hearth. The record player played in the evenings, they often sang along to it – there were several songs that sounded distinctly like sea shanties that they appeared to be able to keep up with and knew all the words to – but it was the carols record on tonight, one Philip seemed particularly fond of, and they were singing along with the carols while they decorated the tree. Or several of them decorated the tree and others ate mince pies – which seemed to go down as well with them as with Bear and Roger – and cheerfully criticised and watched. Paul was putting away dried dishes, alone in the kitchen as it was nice to have somewhere to be to have a bit of space and time to think about breakfast and to set new bread to rise, when he heard the sound of an engine and wheels spinning in the yard.
Someone – Paul was still learning names but knew it was one of the policemen, who were two of the most energetic of the group – came to open the kitchen door, and Paul put shoes on to follow him. A mail delivery truck was in the yard, slipping on the ice, and the driver stopped gunning the engine, turned it off and got out, holding out a clipboard to Paul and flinching at being shin deep in snow.
“I’m never going to get out of this yard, I got stuck twice on the drive. Sign here?”
The policeman grinned at Paul, jogged up the porch steps and Paul signed the clipboard, hearing the policemen yell into the kitchen,
“Bear! Charlie! Little help out here?”
About eight of them came. Paul helped the driver put two massive boxes down on the porch and helped the crowd of men who put their shoulders to the truck and cheerfully pushed it free and saw it safely out of the yard, and someone got the keys to the tractor, and with several of the men hanging on to the tractor frame for the ride, followed the truck down towards the main road to see it got there safely.
Philip and David, on the porch where Philip was fairly discreetly keeping hold of David, were looking at the boxes, and Paul jogged up the steps to join them.
“We might do better to unpack them out here than try to heave the full boxes about.”
“Well that’s going to be more or less up to you.” Philip said mildly. “I really hope you don’t mind about this, Paul.”
“What?” Paul stepped back as David pulled a knife from his pocket and cut the tape on the box. The contents were very well wrapped, the box stuffed with balled up paper, but David felt in the stuffing and gently drew out a polished, copper kettle, something Paul recognised on sight and which took the breath straight out of his lungs.
“There’s enough of us here that you’d have reason to use them. If you’d like to use them. If not, then there’s no shortage of room here to store them as long as you want them stored. At least they’re safe and they still belong to you and they’re here whenever you do have a place for them.”
“We truly hope you don’t mind our interfering, Paul.” Philip said gently. “They can be returned at once if you want them returned to Maine. We just couldn’t bear to think of you having to walk away from something important to you if you didn’t want to, or have to.”
They were hers. From the kitchen in Maine, the ones that had belonged in households belonging to the family for years. Paul touched the kettle, the familiar dent and the line of the lid, something he’d known all his life.
A snowy porch was a truly ridiculous place to burst into tears.
Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015