The boys take another trip down to Wales and meet the landscaper.
Wednesday afternoon, Adrian sat in his regular spot on the sofa with his bare feet up on his coffee table. For a change, the television remained switched off as it had been all week. After an early morning jog around the town followed by his indoor workout, and in between skimming an old, well-thumbed John Grisham thriller, he used his time to rough out some ideas for the renovation.
On the tabletop, he had a large sketchpad with a roughly scaled design of the house in Wales, and some suggested changes, based on some of their conversation on the way back from Disserth. Something he had always been proud of was his ability to draw things from memory, almost exactly to scale. At his mother’s insistence, he had framed a couple of the pictures he’d penned of famous landmarks and put them up on his living room wall. Three frames held drawings of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton with its Indian architectural influence; others of the Tower of London and the Royal Observatory in Greenwich.
This morning alone, he had knocked up two different designs for the bathroom in Wales to add to his ones for the kitchen and the bedrooms. Although he had snapped a rough copy of one for the kitchen on his phone and sent the photo to Lenny that morning, he looked forward to showing everything to him in person on Thursday morning when they met up.
He couldn’t believe how much he had enjoyed the previous weekend away and how much he looked forward to heading back with him on Friday. New projects always motivated him, fired him up and filled him with energy. Getting items from his notepad list kept his spirits raised, and the daily text message exchanges with Lenny to remind him of things he needed to bring or buy always ended with him smiling.
And that small change didn’t escape his notice either. Even seeing Lenny’s name appear on his phone sent a thrill buzzing through him. On Monday morning, his waking dream had Lenny leaning against the bathroom doorframe of the hotel, but this time with the bathrobe falling open. Waking rock hard and pumped full of lust required him to fist an instant release, spilling onto his stomach and chest, not an unpleasant experience but one that caused a trickle of guilty repercussions.
Each time he thought back to the vision, he had to talk himself down to earth, remind himself that even though Lenny had admitted to being gay, the man was way out of his league. He had lived with a university professor, a respected member of the faculty, for goodness’ sake. Why on earth would Lenny Day want anything more than friendship with him? Besides, Lenny also had his own life and successful businesses to take care of back in London, so had no time for anything more, which was why he had returned first thing Monday morning, to check in with his office team.
And yet small gestures, throwaway comments, had Adrian thinking something more lay beneath the surface. On the way back from Wales, they had agreed he would return on Thursday morning instead of Friday, to check in with his mother and get her to sign some legal forms. At the same time, they would also to pick up mattresses and buy other items from the furniture store in Norwich and store them in the back of Adrian’s truck, ready for their trip down on Friday morning.
Even with Lenny being busy in London—despite assurances to the contrary, he’d had a mound of work to catch up with—he still managed to check in with Adrian each day. As Adrian put the finishing touches to the third kitchen design, and as though reading his mind, his phone pinged with a message.
Lenny: Shopping tomorrow. Hope you made a list.
Adrian: And checked it twice. Gonna give your credit card a good workout. What time shall I pick you up?
Lenny: Ten too early?
Adrian: See you then. Text me your address.
Lenny: Sounds like a date.
Adrian: Well we are picking out bedding together.
The phone went quiet for a while, and Adrian worried if he had gone too far, but he could see Lenny was typing. Eventually, another text pinged through.
Lenny: Always the funny guy. Thanks again for agreeing to do this, Ade. Make sure you give me invoices for everything this time around.
Adrian: Look forward to seeing you tomorrow.
Had he overstepped the mark? Maybe he should dial the chumminess down a notch or two. He didn’t want to give Lenny the wrong idea and scare him away.
* * *
“Is your mother okay?”
They had been shopping in the large department store in the centre of Norwich like an old married couple. Lenny turned up dressed casually, in a long-sleeved, old fashioned rugby shirt in purple and yellow stripes, the style they don’t seem to wear on the field anymore, and a pair of well-worn jeans and trainers that only made him look hotter. As soon as they set off from his mother’s house, he told Adrian he had ordered the king-sized mattresses earlier in the week, and they sat in the store’s loading bay ready to be thrown onto the back of Adrian’s truck. Both had the same idea when it came to bedding; something modest but comfortable. Four pillows—two for each bed—two king-sized quilts and covers in ivory for one room, navy blue for the other, together with matching sheets. Not particularly imaginative, but neutral enough so that whatever decor Lenny decided upon, they might still be useable.
“I usually don’t see her more than twice a year, so it’s been a bit overwhelming for her lately. And when I do turn up to get her to sign important documents, she reciprocates by handing me a list of things she needs doing. So when I declined and told her I’m only here to pick you up and drive to Wales, she got a little antsy. As you saw.”
“So that explains the warm welcome.”
“Sorry about that. If it’s any consolation, my mother tends to be somewhat frosty with anyone she doesn’t know. At least she offered you a cup of tea. And I have to say again, Ade, those sketches are amazing, even though I only glanced over them. Maybe you can talk me through them tonight over dinner without my mother hovering over us. To be honest, I could do with someone like you on my team, to give clients some quick, imaginative visuals of how something could look. Professional architects and even interior designers are exacting and take so damned long to produce anything, as well as being expensive. You’ve got a hidden talent going on there. You even managed to get a hum of approval from my mum.”
Every time Lenny praised him about anything, a ripple of pleasure ran through Adrian. And Adrian had noticed, too, the way Lenny’s mother glanced at them with something bordering lukewarm interest as she handed him a mug of tea—even though he had asked for coffee.
“She probably gets lonely now your dad’s not around.”
“Yeah, I did think that. So when I got back to London this week, I phoned her every day, like a dutiful son. On Wednesday, she asked me to stop calling so often. But I know she sees a lot of Aunt Marcie. She lives across the street, and they seem to get on well.”
“Maybe I should introduce her to my mum?”
Lenny shook his head decisively.
“Incompatible. As soon as your mother mentioned anything about the church or religion, my mother would call a cab.”
Each of them pushed a shopping cart, as they wandered into the electrical section, while Adrian checked his prepared list.
“But all joking aside, Lenny. If she needed anything doing like moving furniture or lifting boxes, manual kind of stuff, you could give her my number. She’s met me now.”
Lenny seemed to mull the idea over, but after a while smiled and nodded his head.
“I’ll let her know. That’s a nice gesture, Ade.”
They walked on again in comfortable silence. Lenny steered them in the direction of the electrical equipment.
“So how has your week been?” asked Adrian absently.
“Pretty good. Everything seemed to run fine without me being there. Mainly spent my time running through contracts and meeting new clients. Isabelle had a couple of problems while I was away, but used her common sense to sort them out. Maybe not what I would have done, but everything got resolved. Sometimes I wonder if they need me there at all.”
“Nah, that there’s the sign of a good manager. They know you’re at the end of a phone in case they need you, but they also know you’re not breathing down their necks expecting them to do everything your way.”
Partway down the aisle, they stopped at the lighting section while Adrian pulled out a selection of bulbs of varying wattage including spares.
“Kettle,” said Lenny. “We mustn’t forget to buy a kettle.”
“I’ve already packed mugs, tea bags, a jar of coffee, milk and sugar,” said Adrian. “So, yes. An electric kettle is a necessity. I’m not sure I trust that gas stove.”
After picking out a mid-priced kettle and a couple of long power extensions, they made their way to the towelling section. Adrian was determined to make sure the boiler and the shower above the bath worked, so insisted they needed to have at least a new towel each. He had even shopped for a new shower head, a large container of shower gel, shampoo, and a couple of packs of soap. Other bathroom accessories could wait until they’d finished renovating the bathroom. While Adrian picked towels out, Lenny began to fill him in on other developments.
“So I managed to get the number of a gardening company suggested by Mrs Llewellyn. That woman seems to know absolutely everyone in the area. One of their people went along to spec the place out, and they gave me a rough quote on clearing the front and back gardens and making the whole thing look a lot more respectable. Very reasonable, actually, so one of their representatives is going to pop along and see us while we’re there this weekend.”
Adrian grinned then and noticed Lenny giving him a quizzical look.
“I thought I was the one fired up about this, sketching ideas of improvements, but seems like you’ve been doing a heap of things behind the scenes.”
“Just to clarify, Mr Lamperton. This is my house.”
Adrian laughed at the mock-serious tone.
“I know, I know. But you have a hundred and one other things on your plate at the moment, what with your businesses. While I’m sitting at home twiddling my thumbs, wishing for the weekend to come.”
“Yes, well. Turns out I’m truly getting into this personal project. There’s something motivating and empowering about being able to do things the way I want them, instead of having to please a client. Especially when they come up with ludicrous ideas.”
“I hear you there, brother.”
“Right, come on,” said Lenny. “Let’s head for the checkout and then load the mattresses into your truck. I’m afraid I have to have dinner with my mother tonight, so I’ll see you first thing in the morning. Don’t be late.”
“Six o’clock sharp.”
* * *
Agreeing to set off early in the morning on Friday had been an excellent plan. Beating much of the rush hour traffic, Leonard drove his vehicle and led the way. With clear weather and lighter traffic than the weekend before, they arrived at the house just before midday, even after a brief stop for a late breakfast. This time Leonard found the home quickly, partly because Adrian had cut away the flora covering the signage for Bryn Bach on their previous visit, and left the gate open, but also because a large metal rubbish skip sat on the lane outside the property.
As he turned into the driveway, he noticed Leonard had driven past the front of the house and pulled up beneath a low hanging tree. Apart from his red brake lights beaming, his car was almost hidden from view, leaving Adrian room to park right outside the front door. Turning the engine off, he smiled to himself with approval. At work, he liked his site managers to be smart, proactive and practical. Lenny certainly was, arranging mattresses, landscaping contractors, and now a rubbish skip. Adrian clambered out of his truck and strode beneath the cover of the portico, just as Lenny joined him. Before Lenny fished out his door keys, they both stretched their stiff limbs.
“Now what are you smiling at?” asked Lenny, eyeing Adrian while sorting through the keyring.
“Nothing.” Adrian nodded towards the front gate. “See you ordered a skip. You’re pretty good at getting things organised.”
“If I weren’t, I wouldn’t be in business.” Lenny unlocked and pushed open the front door. “Come on, let’s get the back of your truck unloaded.”
They set to work straight away, unloading mattresses, boxes, toolkits, and other items into the front corridor, ready for use.
After thoroughly cleaning the fridge and making sure the appliance still worked—which, thankfully, it did—they agreed to clean the upstairs first of all to make the bedrooms habitable. However, that weekend, they decided to concentrate on renovating downstairs, ripping out kitchen units and stripping flooring and walls. Only if they made good progress, would they consider tackling any of the upstairs rooms.
Adrian found himself enjoying working alongside Lenny, chatting occasionally but never slacking, someone who seemed to be on the same wavelength. He even felt a pang of pleasure at Leonard’s impressed surprise when he dragged the industrial vacuum cleaner he had brought and started cleaning the floors in the front bedroom. As he worked, Leonard wiped down the bed frame and began removing the plastic packing from the first of the mattresses.
“What?” Adrian asked as he switched off the machine.
“And you call me organised. You certainly come prepared.”
“You pay top dollar; you get only the best.”
“So I see. Here, give me a hand with this.”
Adrian went over and helped Lenny haul the mattress onto the bed. Although snug, they had measured correctly and the mattress fitted nicely. Even with the stark decor—peeling beige paint, faded floral wallpaper, and drab dirty white curtains—the room had a comfortable feel, and overlooked the short driveway below, although trees blocked any view of the lane beyond.
“Do you want this room tonight?” asked Lenny. “Or the one at the back?”
“This one is fine.”
“You don’t want the one with the view?”
“I’ll leave that to the master of the house. Come on, let’s get the sheets and duvet on the bed. Then we can use the plastic sheeting from the mattress to drape over. Even with the door closed, there’s bound to be dust from downstairs.”
Just after they finally finished the back bedroom, fitting the navy bedding in place, and stood back to admire their handiwork, a female voice sounded from below stairs.
“Hello? Is anybody there?”
Adrian met Lenny’s curious gaze. The voice had a very distinctive Welsh accent.
“Did you leave the front door open?” asked Adrian, walking over to the door to peer down the stairs.
“Of course. Why wouldn’t I?”
“Well, it sounds as though you have a visitor. Word certainly gets round in these parts,” said Adrian, grinning, before shouting out. “We’re upstairs. Give us a minute.”
“It’s probably the gardening contractor. They’re a little early, which in my book is always a good sign.”
Adrian finished securing the plastic packing from the mattress over the bed and descended the stairs behind Lenny to see a woman standing by the front door, her face frozen in shock.
“Uh, no. I’m Leonard. Leonard Day. And you are?”
Somehow, maybe hearing the timbre of Lenny’s voice or seeing Adrian standing behind, but something appeared to break the spell, and the woman’s face relaxed. She had a tanned complexion and ruddy cheeks, and wore her grey hair tied back severely from her face. Lending to the outdoorsy look, she sported a green Barbour jacket over an oatmeal jumper, with jeans tucked into green Wellington boots. If Adrian had to hazard a guess—he was usually hopeless at guessing the ages of women—he would place her in her early fifties.
“I am so sorry. I’m Philippa Redfern. One of the owners of Redfern Landscaping. For a moment there, you reminded me of someone I used to know. Or, at least, how he would look now—“
“Luke Darlington?” asked Lenny.
“Yes, actually.” The woman stopped again and stared at Lenny. “Thought I’d seen his ghost for a moment. You knew him?”
“I never met him, but Luke is—was—my cousin. So there might be a family resemblance,” said Lenny, before stepping down into the hallway and allowing Adrian to join them. “This is my—uh—friend, Adrian.”
Even though he thought of them the same way, Adrian enjoyed hearing Lenny refer to him as a friend. The woman, Philippa, smiled then, and shook hands with each of them in turn, before placing a hand over her heart.
“I am so sorry, but honestly, in this dim light, you looked the image of him. Older, of course, than the last time I saw him. But even the way you moved, the way you hopped down those stairs. Gave me quite the start, you did.”
“In which case, I’m sorry, too. Let’s go through to the living room. It’s a bit of a mess, I’m afraid. Thanks for being punctual, by the way.” While Lenny led the way in, Adrian pulled open three of the folding chairs around the small collapsible table he’d been wise enough to bring, and they all sat down. But they didn’t get straight down to business, Lenny curious to know more. “In case you were wondering, I inherited this home from my father. Hence the renovations we’re doing right now. I thought you might have had trouble finding the place.”
“Ah, well, I’ve been here before,” said the woman. “Many times, actually.”
“Really? Is that how you knew Luke?” asked Lenny.
“Yes. We were good friends. Years ago, of course. I’d have been Pippa White back then before I married. Used to hang out with Luke and the Williams twins, Freya and Howie.”
“Philippa. Yes, Mrs Llewellyn at the Manor Inn pub in Newbridge mentioned you. Thick as thieves, she said.”
The woman laughed at the comment, while clutching the sizeable flat valise to her chest.
“Not much ever got past Megan or her mother. But yes, we were great friends. And please call me Pippa.”
Adrian liked her; she had a nice, open laugh. But he felt uncomfortable sitting, listening as they talked about something personal to Lenny’s family.
“Can I make us some tea or coffee?” he asked, standing. “Tea with milk, no sugar, Lenny?”
Lenny grinned and nodded in response. Philippa opted for the same. Adrian headed to the kitchen where he’d placed the kettle and box of refreshments. While he wiped down one of the surfaces and set about making mugs of tea and coffee, he could still overhear their conversation.
“I suppose you know all about what happened to Luke. Were you here at the time?” came Lenny’s voice.
“No, I was away in Durham, at university. I can’t even begin to tell you the shock I felt. His sister, Mary, phoned me. Told me how Luke had accidentally slipped from a step ladder while working on a light switch in the bedroom. I know it sounds odd now, but I believed her. Luke loved doing handiwork around this place on his own. But to happen to someone so talented. Tragic. I moved Heaven and Earth to get to the funeral, but I could tell they were hiding something. It was only at the gathering afterwards that his father confided in me what had truly happened. Which, honestly, made even less sense. I suppose you know that Mr Darlington was the one who found Luke. He walked out on them not long afterwards. I’ve always wondered if the suicide had something to do with that. Of course, the wife could also be difficult.”
“Have you met her?”
“Only once, recently. At my father’s funeral. She came across as quite—um—opinionated.”
“You could say that. Luke wanted to study photography. In the upper sixth form, he applied to the RCA in London for a degree in arts and humanities specialising in photography. He got accepted, too, and while his father didn’t mind—the father was pretty chilled about everything the few times we met him—Luke’s mother refused, insisted he study something more respectable like law or politics or economics. If you’d ever met Luke, you would know how much he despised those subjects. Art defined him. He could sketch proficiently, and even with his instant polaroid camera—this was back in the eighties, remember—he took some incredible shots. Some people instinctively understand light, shade and composition, and how to capture a scene. Luke was one of those.”
“So he didn’t start his studies?”
“He planned to. But I don’t know why he didn’t. I know his mother threatened that if he did, they wouldn’t pay a penny towards the fees. But I got the impression they didn’t have much to contribute anyway. Luke didn’t care. He hated the idea of a student loan, so he planned to defer, to spend a couple of years working hard and saving as much money as he could and then take the smallest loan possible, if at all. The people at the RCA were understanding and said they would keep a place open for him. I remember him telling us that after the summer he had lined up a couple of casual jobs, working weekends as an assistant to a wedding photographer, and during the week as a labourer on a building site.”
“And what happened?”
“That’s all I know. The next thing I heard was that he’d died. If you get a chance, you should have a chat with Freya. I think she still lives around here.”
“And her brother?”
“Howie?” Something about the way she said his name made Adrian feel that she had been fond of him. “Heaven knows where he is. Timbuktu, probably. Couldn’t wait to get away from Newbridge. Well, from the UK. Born with wanderlust in his veins, according to his dad. For as long as I knew him, he talked about travelling the world on a shoestring.”
“But Luke was happy here?”
“He loved the area, and especially this house. Often came here earlier than the rest of the family. He’d usually rope us and others into getting the place tidy, or helping get the garden looking presentable. Even did a bit of decorating in some of the rooms.”
As he grabbed the three mugs to bring in to the main room, Adrian grinned, realising now why the decorating seemed to have been performed with more enthusiasm than any real skill.
“Did you know his grandfather was going to leave the place to him, to Luke?” asked Philippa.
“No,” said Lenny. “I didn’t. He left it to my father.”
Adrian wondered if Lenny’s aunt wanted the place so badly because she knew about that promise, but decided not to share those thoughts. Instead, he placed the three mugs on the table, before sliding one over to Lenny and then absently squeezing his shoulder.
“I imagine that’s because your grandfather outlived Luke.” Before taking the mug, she placed her flat case by the side of her chair. “Ah, tea, thank you, Adrian. Can I ask a personal question?”
After Adrian had moved a mug to her side of the table, he found her looking at him. The question had been meant for him.
“Of course,” he answered, taking his seat.
“Are you two a couple?” she said, plainly, before blowing on the surface of her tea mug.
Lenny choked on his tea, while Adrian could not help but chuckle.
“No. I’m the hired help for the long weekend. Lenny needed some muscle to assist with the manual work.”
“But you’re friends?”
Adrian peered over at Lenny. For some strange reason, his cheeks had flushed noticeably.
“Are we?” he asked Lenny.
“Of course we are. Used to go to the same school back in Norwich. So what proposals do you have for me, for the gardens?”
Getting things back on track seemed to get Philippa motivated and Lenny back on an even keel. From her case, she pulled a small booklet with computer-generated plans of the gardens, front and back, which appeared very professional, some designs shown in three dimensions.
“This is your copy. I have to be honest,” said Pippa. “The design is not that different from the original layout, but I’ve added easy-to-maintain shrubs to the back garden, in case you’re not here that often. In my opinion, the most important thing is to make sure we don’t block that amazing view. I’ve included replacing the patio with new material—your choice, really—but maintaining the same design. But you’ll see in one, I’ve added a small gazebo at the far end of the garden on the right. Something else that might be of interest is that there are a couple of local gardeners we use, so one of them can come in for maintenance purposes from time to time. Make sure the garden doesn’t end upon in the same state ever again.”
Once they had briefly gone over everything, Philippa left the plans with Lenny for him to mull over. He agreed to give her a call over the weekend, to get the ball rolling as soon as possible. As Adrian cleared their mugs away, Philippa stood and shook hands with Lenny.
“I’m glad you’re renovating the place,” she said once they had finished. “My good friend would tell you this place has amazing Feng Shui, a real sense of peace and harmony if you know anything about the Chinese practice. Do you know anything about the origins of the house?”
“No,” said Lenny. “But I had wondered.”
“Luke was doing some digging. I know he found out the house was originally commissioned in the 1880s. That’s about all I remember.”
“How did it end up in our family?”
“That’s what Luke spent ages trying to find out. We’re talking about the early eighties here, so you couldn’t just search online like you can today. Luke loved a mystery. Maybe that’s why he warmed to the house so much.”
“I’m beginning to know how he felt,” said Lenny, and even Adrian understood. “There’s something incredibly peaceful about this place. Hey, Philippa. If you’re around over the weekend, why don’t you pop into the Manor Inn one evening and have a drink with us? Bring your husband, if you want.”
“Sounds like a nice idea. Let me check his schedule, and I’ll drop you a line.”
Both Adrian and Lenny walked her to the front door before stopping in the hallway.
“Before you go, can I ask you something?” said Lenny. “About Luke?”
“Of course. Anything.”
“Do you think—uh—do you know if Luke might have been different?”
Philippa smiled and gazed away, shook her head very briefly, before looking back at him.
“Are you asking me if Luke was gay? Because he told us in the strictest confidence. Didn’t want anything to get out to his family. But the simple answer is, yes, he was.”
Lenny seemed happy with this answer, but Adrian had to know something else.
“And do you think that’s why he killed himself?”
“No. Absolutely not. Although I didn’t see him the two or three years leading to his death, studying at the RCA was going to be his liberation. He knew that. He often mused about living in London and becoming the next Robert Mapplethorpe.”
“You see,” said Adrian. “That’s what I don’t understand. What you’re telling us is he had everything to live for.”
“I know. We struggled, too. You really ought to speak to Freya. She was here the whole time and probably knew him better than any of us. She might have answers for you.”
Thanks again for reading.
Behind the scenes, the rest of the story is shaping up well.