Throughout the afternoon, Leonard did his best to match the strength and energy Adrian put into the work. But anyone could tell—had anyone been watching—that Adrian had years of experience on his side. At Adrian’s insistence, they both wore goggles, masks, and thick gloves and used mainly manual tools—crowbars, hammers and knives—and sheer brute strength to tear out most of the kitchen cabinets before breaking them down to maximise the space in the dumpster. Leonard found the exertion energising and cathartic. Once they had finished only the sink, the fridge and the gas stove remained standing. Before removing one of the lower cupboards, Adrian had fished out a large red bucket full of old, damp sand.
“There you go,” he said to Leonard. “Shows how old this place is. These days we’d recommend appropriate fire extinguishers for kitchens. Sand must be what your family used in case of fires, although it looks as though it’s never been used.”
“Nice. I’d hate to clean up after using that lot. Shall I dump it in the skip?”
“No, leave it by the fireplace for now. We can get rid of the sand later, but that old bucket looks in pretty good nick. Might come in handy.”
“What do you think we should we do about the pantry?”
A narrow door at the end of the kitchen opened into a large walk-in cupboard with a few steps down to the floor. Empty shelving covered all three walls, and picture frame-sized window sat high up near the ceiling.
“That’s your call, Lenny. Personally, I love the period feature. Notice how naturally cooler it is in there, which is why in the past they’d have stored fresh goods in there; meat, butter, milk. But, of course, these days we have fridges for that. Come on, give me hand with this.”
Once they finished clearing debris away, they worked separately in the living area. Adrian effortlessly tore up the linoleum from the floor and then ripped off the plywood boards from one side of the fireplace. Leonard tried to keep up but was no match. Adrian worked quickly and efficiently, leaving Leonard huffing and puffing and swearing quietly to himself. But then, he told himself, this was what Adrian did for a living.
“Are you okay over there?” asked Adrian.
Leonard had been trying to lever the plywood away on the left side of the chimney stack, but the broad panel had been fixed in place securely, and trying to pull out the long nails with the hammer claw was proving tedious but also a challenge. Not only that, but there seemed to be something substantial behind the boarding, maybe loose bricks or debris. Concentrating carefully, he plugged away, attacking each side of the panel in turn, working from the top downwards.
When he glanced over, Adrian had not only cleared the whole floor—with a pile of old linoleum broken into smaller pieces and the rest taken out to the skip—but already had the other boarding at the side of the fireplace removed. Just as he had guessed, they had uncovered a small nook of age-yellowed wallpaper with pretty faded red flowers, hiding a stack of old but sturdy planks of wood.
“You’re making me look like a rank amateur over here,” said Leonard. Adrian stopped what he was doing and studied the wall Leonard’s side.
“Why is the panelling bulging and tipping out like that, Lenny? Careful, it looks as though it’s moving. There must be something—“
Barely had the words left his mouth when, with a series of cracking and popping sounds, the whole wooden panel began to come away from the wall. Leonard, taken by surprise, put his arms out and braced the front of his body against the flat panel, to try and stop the wall falling. But whatever had been squashed in and hidden, weighed a ton.
For a moment, he found himself struggling, staggered back a step, and feared the whole weight might fall on top of him.
Suddenly, Adrian stood right behind him, with his solid body pressed flush up against Leonard’s, his strong arms reaching out to stop the falling wall.
They remained frozen that way for a few moments, Leonard because he was unsure what to do next. Until his mind stilled and his body began to betray him. Adrian’s chest and groin pressed up hard and tight against him, his head over Leonard’s left shoulder and his heavy breath brushing Leonard’s ear. Not surprisingly, strange things started to flutter through Leonard’s stomach, and he began to feel his cock hardening.
“Is it me, or is this a little awkward?” he said, trying to diffuse the situation and tame his body’s auto-response.
Even Adrian’s chuckle and rumble in his chest only made matters worse for Leonard.
“I’m not saying I’m not enjoying this, but maybe we should think of a plan of action before this lot comes tumbling down on top of us both.”
Once again, Adrian’s laughter came, and this time Leonard felt sure something clicked in Adrian because he tried to pull his noticeably hardened groin away from Leonard’s backside.
“Okay, listen,” said Adrian, becoming serious again. “I’ve got this. When I say so, we push together to get the panel back up. Then I’ll give you space so you can let go. While I hold everything in place, get a couple of those planks over there and hammer them across the top. That should shore this temporarily until we find a better solution.”
“Can’t we both just step away and let the thing fall?”
“We could. But I’m worried one of us might not get out of the way in time. Safety first, Lenny. It’s drummed into us on every site we work. Let’s do the sensible thing, shall we?”
As they pushed together, Leonard felt as though he had done very little, Adrian’s strength shifting the weighty structure effortlessly. Once they had the panel pushed back against the wall, Adrian kept his hands planted on the wall but stepped back a little to make space for Leonard to move. Instead of getting out of the way, Leonard rotated until he had his back braced against the wall, facing Adrian.
“Well, will you look at this? I have you in my complete control right now. I could have my evil way with you, and there’s not a damn thing you could do—“
Leonard jumped into action. He dipped out, grabbed the nearest thick plank of wood and placed it within easy reach. Adrian had left the toolbox open nearby, so Leonard picked up the hammer and some fresh nails. Once he had hammered in one side just above Adrian’s right hand, Adrian moved his hand up to hold the board and the wall. When Leonard moved behind Adrian, his eyes could not help drifting over the muscled torso from behind; the thick-set shoulders and massive back, the muscled thighs and backside, the way his friend effortlessly supported the wall. Minutes later, he had the first plank in place, and Adrian let go.
Adrian took over then, hammering more nails into the first plank before fixing the second far more securely and professionally. Eventually, they both stood and surveyed their handiwork.
“That should hold for now,” said Adrian. “We’re going to have to deal with it at some point, but I suggest we get some dust sheets, maybe one of those old mattresses to cover the floor beneath, so we’re ready when we let the damn thing go. Don’t want to damage any of these fantastic floorboards.”
Before anything, they went into the hallway where they had propped both mattresses against a wall. Once they had one in place beneath the panel, Adrian began tidying up the room and vacuuming the floor.
“I wonder what the hell is behind there?” said Leonard, from across the room, hands on hips staring suspiciously at the panel.
“Could be anything. But if the bodge job is anything to go by, it’s probably bricks or rubble, or any other kind of rubbish they couldn’t be bothered to toss out.”
“Do people do that kind of thing?”
“You’d be surprised. One of my mates found an upright piano behind a wall once.”
“Owner probably wasn’t a music lover. I’m just hoping it’s not a dead body?”
“Wouldn’t be that heavy. Besides, I think we would know already if it had been a dead body. Rumour has it they give off a smell worse than your kitchen fridge when they’re decaying.”
“Heavens, you are a mine of wonderful information. At least I’ll sleep better tonight, knowing nobody got buried alive behind a wall.”
“Talking of which, do you think we should call it a day?”
Leonard checked his watch. Almost five-thirty. His eyes opened wide.
“Where did the time go?” Adrian smirked at him, the rank amateur. “So what do you fancy doing for dinner? We could drive into Llandrindod Wells, if you want. They’ve got a bigger selection of local restaurants, even a chippy, if that’s what you fancy?”
“How about we go to the pub again? We know the beer’s good, and it’s a nice evening, a bit cool, but not too cold to sit outside.”
“Good plan, Ade. Shower first, or shall we go as we are?”
“I fixed the shower, by the way. Not only is your old boiler working fine, but the new shower attachment works like a dream. So let’s just wash up, and then head out. We can shower later before bed. And if we sit in the garden, Mrs Llewellyn surely won’t mind us wearing our work clothes.”
* * *
Adrian’s suggestion turned out to be a good one. In direct contrast to the previous week, the evening felt warm, and although the sun had begun to fade, enough light remained for them to sit out on a bench, enjoy a pint and hot dinner. Being Friday night, a few other people—probably locals—had decided to do the same.
Leonard had not been lying when he told Adrian about his talent for sketching. His drawings not only demonstrated a clear understanding of space and design, at least from Leonard’s limited knowledge but also showed an incredible sense of creativity. He would be proud to have any of them framed and hanging on the wall of his home. As he turned again to the third of the bathroom layouts and nodded his approval, he looked up to find Adrian smiling at him. When he grinned back, another little quiver went through him, at peeling away another layer of this incredible but humble man.
“Of course, this one might need some work.” Adrian narrated each design to explain what he had set out to achieve. “For instance, you would need to make sure you’ve got the right sized appliances to fit into the gaps between the fitted units.”
Amazingly—bearing in mind Leonard could be very particular where design was concerned—they both agreed on the same layout choice for all rooms. Another small piece of a puzzle, of a picture Leonard could not quite visualise as yet, fell into place.
When Leonard returned from getting them a couple more pints, ones they decided would be their last because of the quickly fading light, Leonard dared to ask something he had avoided.
“What happened to you that last year of school, Ade? My cousin said you disappeared off the face of the planet.” Leonard leant forward and put his hand on Adrian’s forearm. “But if you don’t want to talk about it, then that’s fine. Tell me to mind my own business.”
Adrian’s gaze veered away across the village green, and Leonard saw a slight sheen of sadness fill his eyes. Eventually, with his head still looking away, he spoke.
“Honestly Lenny, I don’t tell many people because I’m not proud of that period in my life. When some people come out to the people they love, they have a rough time. Others are accepted, some unconditionally. My coming out fell into the first category. Not sure if you remember, but my best friend at the time was Stephan Harrington.”
Leonard remembered him. A well-built charismatic player, blond hair and blue eyes, not as good-looking as Adrian but almost as popular. Where Adrian had looked puzzled at Lenny every time they passed each other, to Stephan, Lenny might as well have been invisible. He and Adrian made for an eye-catching duo among their clump of less remarkable followers.
“So, at fifteen, I was spotted by a talent scout for Leeds rugby league club. That much everyone seems to know. I heard from them two days after we broke from school for the summer and remember being on such a high that day. No idea why, looking back, but at the same time, I came out to Stephan and told him I really liked him. You know, liked liked. Stupid, looking back, but I felt invincible. Anyway, at first, he thought I was joking. After a while, though, I didn’t get quite the reaction I’d expected. I remember the disgust on his face and the words “You? You’re a fucking queer boy?” coming out of his mouth. And the funny thing is that I was more shocked because, in all the time I’d known him, I’d never once heard him swear. Anyway, before I had a chance to think what to say, or to tell him to keep it to himself, he backed away and ran off, leaving me there, feeling shame, and guilt, and self-disgust. It’s only looking back now I realise I’d bottled those feelings up for years. But at that moment, all I wanted was for the world to rewind by an hour so I could keep my mouth shut and leave those words unspoken.”
Adrian let out a deep sigh and took a sip of beer before continuing.
“Later, after walking around the town, I calmed down a bit but got home to find my father waiting to confront me. Stephan’s father had phoned him, told him what happened, and how I’d tried to seduce his son. My mother stood by watching, pale and drawn, tears in her eyes, and while my dad lectured me, she didn’t say a word.”
“When he asked me if it was true, I suppose I should have denied the accusation, told them Stephan had made a mistake. Because the truth was, I hadn’t tried to corrupt him. But honestly, I thought they would just send me to my room, maybe make me go to confession with my mum, or ground me for a week.”
“Instead, my father picked up the phone and dialled a number. Honestly, I thought he was going to call the police. But when he put the phone down, he told me the next morning someone would come from God’s Path to pick me up and take me to a summer camp to help boys like me. Then he told me to go up to my room and pack a bag. Of course, I knew about the place. I’d heard him talk about it before when he thought I wasn’t listening, heard horror stories about kids who had been sent there to be fixed.”
“Conversion therapy?” asked Leonard.
“Yeah. I didn’t know it was called that, but I knew what they did. When I tried to argue, he told me things I will never forget. Said that if I didn’t get cured, I would never be accepted as a man let alone a rugby player, because I would get laughed off the pitch. Worst of all, he said I would catch AIDS and die, and go straight to hell. I didn’t argue back, but went upstairs to pack my rucksack, and dig out all the money I’d saved and my passport. I could hear them talking downstairs. Felt like forever while I pretended to sleep in my bed in the dark until they’d gone to sleep.”
“Fifteen years old, I remember standing outside that house, my home, at one in the morning, staring up at what until seconds before had been the window to my bedroom. My first impulse was to give in, head back and do as he asked. But I stopped with my hand on the garden gate. Even back then, I knew who I was, knew that was never going to change, and now I knew how he felt about me and people like me. Some things once said can’t be taken back. I slept on a park bench that night.”
“Didn’t you have anyone you could go to, any aunts or uncles?” asked Leonard.
“I did think about that. My Uncle Pat—my mother’s younger brother—lived in London. They didn’t have kids, and whenever they visited, we got on well. I never met any of my dad’s family. And everyone else I knew was either connected to school or the church. And honestly, I wasn’t thinking straight. If it hadn’t been the school holidays, I might have gone to see the school counsellor in the morning. But I was hurting, Lenny, and all I could think about was getting far away from Drayton, from everyone and everything, and never coming back.”
“What did you do?”
“The next morning, I caught the first train to London. Naive really, but I thought I might be able to find where my uncle lived. No phone number, no address. We’d driven there a few times, but I never paid attention, had slept most of the way. As you probably guessed, I wasn’t the brightest of students, because I’d pinned all my hopes on being a professional rugby player. All I remembered was the town they lived in had the word green in it somewhere. So the first place I went to was Green Park, in the heart of London. But I didn’t recognise anything.”
“Christ, Ade. What happened then?”
“I ended up living on the streets. This would have been back in the early nineties, so I fell in with other homeless kids. A huge issue back then. A group of them turned tricks to survive, which was dangerous but put food in their mouths. Not sure if you remember, but that was back when Colin Ireland, the serial killer, was on the loose, killing gay men he picked up from The Coleherne leather bar. Makes me shiver when I think about it, because that place was one of our haunts. They warned me some clients could get a bit rough, but I had size and muscle on my side, so nobody tried to mess with me. I didn’t drink alcohol or take any of the drugs they offered, either, so always kept a clear head. Honestly, Lenny, I’m not proud of some of the things I did, but I had to live somehow. Not just that, but doing what we did was illegal—the age of consent was still twenty-one back then—so any clients were also committing a crime.”
Leonard stared horrified at Adrian, trying to imagine a scared fifteen-year-old version, desperately trying to survive on the city streets. He took a mouthful of beer, but the liquid tasted sour on his tongue. If only they had been friends at school, if only he had made an effort to say hello.
“Eventually, this old guy, Felippe, asked me to move in with him. There used to be this traditional pub called The City of Quebec behind Marble Arch—not sure if it’s still there—where elderly gays would hang out at the weekends. A friend introduced me. He called the place the elephant’s graveyard. Young boys like me could make fast cash, often for very little work. For some reason, Felippe took a shine to me. The few times I went home with him, all I ever did was pour him drinks, listen to him tell stories about his life during the war—he served in the Royal Navy—sponge him down in the bath and sleep next to him for the night. Not once did we do anything sexual. He lived in the heart of Marylebone, a beautiful studio apartment. I’ve no idea exactly how old he was, but I guess he must have been in his early eighties. Anyway, the four or five times he invited me back, I suppose he was trying to gauge whether he could trust me. One Sunday, he asked me to be his full-time houseboy; buying food, keeping the apartment tidy for him—he had an old Irish woman who came in and cooked and cleaned every other day. His eyesight wasn’t good, so I’d read newspaper articles, books, and sometimes letters aloud to him—he’d help me with words I didn’t know, and explain what they meant, so we both benefited. I also made sure he took his medication, bathed and dried him. Sometimes, he had dinner parties at home with these other old gay men—got professional cooks in for that—and I used to act as a waiter wearing only tight shorts and a tight vest. The old boys loved that. I even had a front door key, new clothes to wear, and an allowance.”
“How old were you?”
“When I started there? Sixteen. Seventeen, maybe. I stayed with him for about four years. One of his nieces came round from time to time to look in on him. She clearly came from money and always turned her nose up at me as though I’d dropped off the bottom of her shoe. And then I came home from the shops one day to find Felippe in his favourite leather chair by the fire. Thought he’d fallen asleep but when I touched his hand, he was as cold as stone. I phoned the niece, who called her doctor friend, and they confirmed he’d died. Peacefully enough. After that, other people came in and took over, and I was tossed back out on the street with the black plastic rubbish sacks.”
“Bloody hell, Ade.”
“All in the past. But by then I’d lost touch with my street mates. Found out many were either in hospital or had died. One West Indian friend, Tommy, got me into this gay escort agency at night as well as selling the street magazine for homeless people, The Big Issue. Those were some of my darkest days. I was doing exactly that on Christmas Eve, freezing my arse off outside St Martin-in-the-Fields when a man stopped across the pavement and called my name. Uncle Pat. You know you asked me if I was religious and I told you I’d had some special moments? Well, that day, a miracle happened. Yeah, maybe it was just coincidence, but there he was. Said he recognised me from my hair, even though I was a lot older and had lost a lot of weight by then. Told me he’d heard from my mother what happened and she asked him to keep an eye out, in case I’d made my way to London. We went for a coffee, and he insisted I come home with him, and stay with him and Aunt Penny for Christmas. Turns out they lived in Hither Green. Got me an apprenticeship with his building company and that’s how I started in the building trade. I stayed with them until they retired, then rented my own flat locally. And that’s where I remained until I got the call from my mother, to tell me dad had been diagnosed with dementia. At first, I told her to stick him in a home—I still hated the man—but my aunt talked me round. She’d been a nurse before retiring, and I remember her words to this day. She said, “there is no cure for dementia, Adrian. I know he turned his back on you once, but you are a better man than that. In his time of need, don’t be the same man as your father. Go and help your mother.” So I came back to the town I hoped never to see again, and between the two of us, my mother and I took care of him until he passed away.”
Thankful for the fading light, Leonard felt tears welling in his eyes. He always considered the way Kris’ family had treated him to be unjust and unfair, but compared to Adrian’s life, he had been living in a warm and comfortable cocoon.
“Your aunt was right, Ade. You are an extraordinary man, a better man than anyone I know, and I’m not just saying that because you’re helping me. I wish I’d gotten to know you at school, wish we’d been friends then, and maybe all those dreadful things might never have happened. But then I might not be sitting in front of the same Adrian.”
At those words, a smile curled Adrian’s lips.
“No, maybe you’d be sitting in front of an ex-England international rugby star. Begging for my autograph.”
Leonard laughed aloud. Despite everything, Adrian could still crack jokes. The simple act of surviving what he had been through would have crushed most men.
“Yeah, okay. You just keep telling yourself that. Do you ever go back to your uncle’s place?”
“Of course. I get back as often as I can. They’ve retired now and live in a bungalow in Hastings on the south coast. Honestly, Lenny, they showed me more love and understanding than my parents ever did. Uncle Pat wanted me to get back into rugby, but that ship had sailed. Wow, it’s getting a bit nippy now. Do you want to go inside? Or shall we head back?”
“Do you mind if we head back?” said Leonard, pressing his fingers into a sore spot on his left shoulder. “My muscles are starting to ache. I think I’m ready for a long, hot shower and a good night’s sleep. Do you mind taking the empties back in, while I bring the car around?”
Leonard studied Adrian as he headed towards the pub door, the way he moved, so carefully for such a big guy, before he disappeared inside.
All this time and he had thought of Adrian as a homophobic bully. Before his father’s funeral, if anyone had asked him if he’d ever known Adrian Lamperton, he would probably have dismissed him as a dimwitted sports jock he went to school with, who probably ended up having everything handed to him on a plate as a professional rugby player.
How wrong could he have been?
But somehow their lives had collided, and Leonard had grown not only to admire Adrian but to feel an undeniable attraction to him. Maybe Adrian had been right about fate. Both were approaching fifty, both having resigned themselves to what they have, they had also given up hope on finding anything—or anyone—lasting in their lives. Although Leonard was rarely given to such whimsical notions, he had to wonder if their various meetings—at the local pub, by his father’s broken down car—had not been chance at all. Maybe they were both being given a second chance.
His friend, businessman Kennedy Grey, once mused to a group of friends that opportunities alone are merely choices that happen to fall into our laps. It’s whether we have the balls to act on them, and what we decide to do with them that changes the course of our lives.
Leonard had not been fooled. Everyone thought he had been talking about business, but Leonard knew full well Kennedy meant every word about how he had managed to snag his prize husband, Kieran.
After standing and dragging out his car keys, Leonard took a bracing breath of cold air and headed for the car.
Time to take a chance.
A midweek chapter to keep everyone keen. Hope you like this one.