Adrian laid back into the corner of his sofa, bare feet up on the coffee table, drumming the fingers of one hand on the armrest, the remote in his other hand, flicking mindlessly from one television channel to the next. Nothing caught his imagination. Repeats of old shows aired on the major networks, and sports he didn’t really follow ran on the cable channels.
With no work on the horizon, and all the grocery shopping he needed already done, he had stayed indoors all day, trying to find things to keep him busy. After a morning run followed by an hour’s workout with the multi-functional weight machine in his spare bedroom, he tackled his domestic chores. Right now, the apartment shone spotless, each room scrubbed clean, bedding changed, washing and ironing done, the open kitchen sparkling once again after afrozen microwave dinner of spaghetti carbonara and grilled garlic bread.
Being alone with his own thoughts made him cagey, threatened to unsettle and unnerve him, like an itch he couldn’t quite pinpoint and scratch. He needed distractions. Exactly this kind of sullen mood had first led him to Chappies in town and to his chance meeting with Nick. And that would never happen again. Had it been any other day than Wednesday, he might have considered going to see his mother—however painful on the ear that might be. But on Wednesdays, she had her church group meeting which normally entailed a day trip out somewhere in their minibus. Honestly, his mother had a better social life than he had ever enjoyed.
During the good times, punishing manual work provided the perfect antidote. Getting on site early, working hard all day in the open air, pushing himself to get things finished even if that meant working late, then getting in exhausted when all he craved was fast food, a hot shower, and sleep.
Most of his work onsite meant grafting alone. During tea breaks or after they had all clocked off for the day, he would often end up somewhere with their group of workers, most of them familiar, in a pub or cafe, grumbling about this or that, making one inappropriate joke after another, about race, religion, gender, sex or sexuality. Nothing became taboo in this far less male dominated environment, political correctness cannon fodder for their funnies. Some knew about Adrian’s sexuality but nobody cared, treating him as they did everyone else. As communities went, he found the camaraderie comforting and supportive—and strangely liberating.
Today, all day long, his phone had remained silent. If only he felt more confident, he might have dialled any one of his builder buddies and dragged them out for a brew. But social connection had never been a strong point and he usually waited for one of them to call him. In a fit of irritation, he threw the remote down on the sofa just as the phone on the arm of the chair pinged with an incoming message.
With desperate expectation, he grabbed for the device.
Amazed at how reading a name could instantly put him in a better mood, he shifted his feet onto the floor and read the text.
Lenny: Fancy a pint at the Lion? I have a favour to ask.
Adrian grinned broadly as his thumbs flashed over the display keyboard with a response.
Adrian: Oh, yes? Should I be concerned?
Lenny: It’s a job, actually. Only if you’re interested. I’d rather explain in person than over the phone.
Lenny: Plus my mother’s driving me up the wall and I need an excuse to get out of this house before I get put away for matricide.
Adrian laughed at the phone.
Adrian: Matricide? Is that something to do with beds?
Lenny: Funny man. So is that a yes?
Adrian: OK, you’ve got me intrigued. What time shall I meet you?
Lenny: It’s 6:30pm. See you there in an hour?
Adrian: Done. And I’ll have a pint of my usual as you’re offering to buy.
Lenny: Did I mention anything about buying?
Adrian: I listen a lot better when someone else is paying.
Lenny: ;0) See you there.
His mood brightened, Adrian threw the phone on the couch before peering down at his clothes. Grimy grey tee, baggy sweats and flip flops. He jumped to his feet and headed to his bathroom. With the Lion only ten minutes’ walk away, he had time for a long shower and also to decide on something decent to wear. When he heard the voice in his head, he told himself to calm down. This was not a date, simply a new pal meeting up for a drink.
Still, no harm in looking good.
* * *
Traditionally, except for diehard locals who had nothing else to do with their time, punters avoided the pub until later in the week. When he opened the door, he realised this particular evening was no exception. Adrian found Lenny sitting at the same table they had bagged on Saturday, facing the pub door and with two pints of ale already sitting on the table. Lenny had clearly been anticipating him, because his gaze raised from his phone towards the doorway and the smile that transformed his face had Adrian beaming instantly back, a tingle in his stomach.
“Evening, Adrian. You’re looking sharp.”
Adrian had picked out a pair of denims he filled out nicely, with a tight, long-sleeved burgundy tee—knowing the pub interior would be warm—and his wool lined black hoodie hanging open. Lenny’s reaction stalled him for a moment, the way his gaze travelled slowly up and down Adrian’s body, until their eyes met again. Only then did Lenny’s smile falter and his eyes flutter to his drink, as though he had been caught openly checking him out.
Lenny recovered quickly, looking up and maintaining eye contact this time.
“Under Armour? The tee? I’ve got the same one in my wardrobe. Something we have in common.”
With a twinge of disappointment, Adrian looked down at his burgundy shirt, realising perhaps Lenny had not been checking him out after all.
“Oh, yeah. I like their designs. Got the same style in three different colours.”
“Looks better on you. Anyway, thanks for coming. Pint of beer, as ordered. Sorry to drag your arse out on a Wednesday night. What have you been up to?”
After waving a greeting to the pub landlord, Adrian thumped down on the booth bench opposite. While sitting, he twisted out of his hoodie and once again found Lenny either checking out his chest and biceps, or maybe the design of his tee. With a resigned sigh, he realised he was losing his touch, used to be able to interpret the signs of attraction a lot better when he was younger.
“Me? Not a lot. Stuck indoors all day. My flat has never been so clean. I think I must have scrubbed the kitchen at least three times. My mum would be proud.”
Lenny grinned and Adrian met his gaze, also smiling. Up close, he realised not only how nice his eyes were, a kind of slate grey, but how his greying goatee betrayed dimples whenever he smiled or laughed.
“Shame,” said Lenny.
“Because I’ve been stuck inside the house, too. I should have called you. We could have done something together.”
Adrian took a sip of beer and studied Lenny’s face. A complete mystery, the man bore no resemblance to the angry boy he’d known from high school. If they got to know each other better, he vowed to find out why he had been so antagonistic when they were younger.
“I thought you were sorting out your dad’s estate, or something. Doing all the legal stuff?”
“Done. We were in the solicitor’s office for barely an hour. Pretty straightforward, actually. Well, most of it. Ted phoned me about the car this morning, by the way.”
“It’s exactly what you said. New alternator and battery. But he says he’ll also need to do some work on the brakes, steam clean the interior, and patch up some of the bodywork, so he’s offering me fifteen hundred cash.”
“Bollocks. He’s trying it on—“
“It’s fine, Adrian. If it means the damn thing is no longer gathering dust outside the house, then everyone’s happy. Mum doesn’t want the car or need the money. Their mortgage is already paid off, and dad’s pension and his life assurance payouts will take care of her even if she lives long enough to get a telegram from the Queen.”
Adrian nodded, but felt irritated. Ted would make over three and a half thousand pounds on the secondhand Astra, probably nearer four. What rankled was the idea of a nice guy like Lenny being taken for a ride by an old crook like Ted. Oddly enough, Lenny sensed Adrian’s annoyance.
“Let it go, Adrian. Remember I deal with the buying and selling of cars all the time. Not bulk standard ones, like the Astra. But don’t you think I haggle when I get called out to visit the owners of old jalopies, usually left to rot in their garages? One guy wanted to sell off an old Daimler as spare parts and scrap metal. Honestly, we’ve made tens of thousands on some of the cars we’ve bought and renovated. And in my book, as long as you can settle on a good price that keeps the owner happy, then it’s a win-win all round.”
“Yeah, I suppose.”
“Anyway, change of topic. Any work on the horizon?”
“Sod all. Not even a sniff.”
Lenny stopped then, took a long gulp of beer, and settled back against the back of the bench.
“Well, on that note, the reason I asked you down here tonight, apart from my mother annoying me to hell, is because I seem to have inherited a holiday home from my father. And before I decide what to do with it, I thought I’d go down there and see what kind of state the place is in. But I could really use a professional eye and a second opinion. So I wondered if you might be interested in being hired as my—not even sure what it’s called—structural consultant?”
“That’s what they said. I’ve never been there, but my father’s family used the place as a holiday home when they were kids. It’s not a caravan, in case that’s what you’re thinking. It’s a farmhouse in the Welsh countryside.”
Adrian had worked on a number of cottage style houses in and around the area, so had no reservations about whether he could be of any help.
“How many bedrooms?”
“Is it a one or two storey structure?”
Lenny laughed and shook his head.
“Honestly, Adrian. It’s all a mystery. Until the reading of the will, I had no idea the place even existed. All I know for sure is it’s a holiday home, a farmhouse called Bryn Bach in a tiny Welsh village called Disserth. Although he promised to email a photograph to me, the solicitor gave me no blueprints or floor-plan, which is why I want to go for a look-see myself. According to an online map application, it’s in the Welsh countryside about forty minutes from the English border. My aunt mentioned the nearest main town being Newbridge. So I thought maybe I could book us into a local pub or a bed and breakfast for a couple of nights, and we can go and see exactly what kind of state the place is in.”
“So you’re in?”
“Got bugger all else to do, have I?”
“When would be good for you?”
“How about after we finish these drinks?”
Lenny laughed, a sound Adrian had already begun to enjoy, as well as the way his eyes crinkled in the corners.
“I think we might both want to pack a bag first. So how does tomorrow sound?”
“Perfect. I assume we’ll be driving there?”
“Yes, I’ll take my SUV. I promised to drop my mother off in Norwich town centre at nine, but we could leave straight after. It’s around five and a half hours cross country, depending on traffic.”
Adrian already found himself getting excited about the road trip, about getting out of Drayton for a couple of days. And the fact that a little mystery surrounded the building made this even more of an adventure.
“So that means if we set off at ten with an hour’s break for lunch, we should be there around five. Yeah, that would work. You know, if we took my truck I could bring some ladders and equipment, so we could do a proper check of the roof and guttering, assess the plumbing, and check out any structural issues. But if we don’t arrive until after five, it’ll probably be too dark to do a full inspection until morning. Although I’ve got some floodlights we could use, ones I’ve employed on site before. Does the place have utilities like electricity and running water—”
While Adrian talked, Lenny had been tapping something into his phone, but had started chuckling even before he looked up.
“Slow down a bit, Adrian. Loving the enthusiasm, but we’re only going down to have a quick inspection of the interior and exterior. I wasn’t planning on us going up ladders or knocking down walls. But maybe a small toolkit would be a good idea. As far as utilities are concerned, I have no idea. Sounds like it’s been left empty for a number of years, so my guess is no. Also, you’re right. By the time we get there, it’ll already be getting dark, so I suggest we drive straight to the accommodation and head to the house first thing Friday. This morning, I checked and found a pub hotel in Newbridge that provides accommodation, so I’ve just booked us rooms. Hope that’s okay?”
Right at that moment, Adrian’s phone buzzed repeatedly in his jeans pocket with an incoming call. When he squeezed the device out and saw the name on the display, he let out a soft, irritated sigh.
If he didn’t take the call, he knew Nick would leave messages and pester him with more calls all night. With a quick apologetic glance at Lenny, to pressed accept.
“Ade, how’s it going?”
At least Nick sounded sober this time.
“Fine. What do you want?”
“I’m here at the hospital with Janice. She’s most likely going to have a caesarian Friday morning, a planned one, something to do with the baby being turned the wrong way. It’s usually straightforward enough, they say, but they want to keep an eye on her, because her blood pressure’s been a bit up and down.”
“Sorry to hear that. What can I do to help?”
“So, what with me working, her mum and dad are looking after Todd until Janice gets back from the hospital, so I wondered if tomorrow night you might be free to—“
“Let me stop you right there, Nick. I’m going to be out of town until—“ Adrian stopped and checked with Lenny, who mouthed the word ‘Sunday’. For a change, he had a legitimate excuse to push Nick away. “Until Sunday. So I’m not going to be around. Sorry I can’t help, but I hope everything turns out okay. Give my love to Janice.”
“Yeah, thanks a fucking bunch, pal.”
Adrian thumbed off the call and breathed out a sigh, slamming the phone down on the table.
When Adrian met Lenny’s eyes, he grimaced and shook his head.
“Nothing important. Someone pestering me for a favour I’m not in a position to give.”
“Talking of which, how much do you charge?”
About to take a mouthful of beer from his glass, Adrian’s hand froze midway, Lenny’s words confusing him.
“How much do I charge?”
“For your professional consulting services?”
Finally he caught on, and, after a brief chuckle, immediately put the glass down.
“Don’t even think about it. I am not taking your money just to go and look at an old building.”
“Come on. I can’t ask you to give up your time and provide a professional assessment without—“
“Transport, food and accommodation. That’s all I need. And a promise that if you do decide the place is worth keeping, and you need a decent builder—that’s me, by the way—then you’ll give me first dibs at quoting for the job.”
Instead of answering straight away, Lenny appeared puzzled, staring down at his drink, the smile still on his face but his head shaking gently from side to side. When his eyes finally raised to meet Adrian’s, he appeared ready to say something, but then hesitated.
Instead, what came out was a simple thank you.
* * *
“Then who’s going to pick me up? Look at this weather.”
Leonard’s mother sat unmoving in the front passenger seat after they had parked under shelter in the municipal parking block in Norwich town centre. Adrian heard Lenny breathe out a second soft sigh of irritation. Sat quietly in the back, pretending not to hear the exchange, Adrian stared out of the rain spattered window, wishing he could be anywhere else.
“We talked about this last night, mum. You have your umbrella. So get a bus. You keep telling me you don’t use your bus pass enough. Or if you’ve got a lot of shopping, call a taxi.”
“Taxis are expensive. I don’t see why you can’t wait until I’ve finished. Your father would have. I’m only going to be a couple of hours, at the most.”
“Mum, we have a five or six hour journey ahead of us. And we need to set off now if we’re going to get there before dark. We’ll be back Sunday afternoon.”
“Sunday? I thought you were going to finish the back garden Saturday.”
“Like I said, I’ll do that next week if the weather improves.”
“If? It’s always if with you.”
Adrian noted a distinct change in Lenny’s tone then. Before answering, Lenny pushed the button to start up the engine.
“I’m driving away now. So you either get out of the car this minute, or you’ll be coming to Wales with us. Your choice.”
After a moment, his mother yanked on the door handle, got out, and made a point of slamming the door behind her. Without turning around, she headed for the carpark lift which would take her directly to the mall. Adrian sat in the back saying nothing, observing poor Lenny’s stiff posture as he watched his mother step through the elevator doors.
“Not a patch on my mother,” said Adrian, quietly, after sitting there for a moment.
“Your mum’s performance. Some of the wobblies my mum threw when I was a kid were worthy of an Academy Award. Your mum doesn’t even swear.”
Lenny laughed and turned in his seat.
“Come and sit up front. We need to get moving.”
Once Adrian sat next to him, securing his seat belt in place, and as soon as they had begun navigating their way out of the carpark, Lenny let his frustrations out.
“Honestly, Ade. She drives me crazy. Do this, do that. I’m going to have to sit her down and have a serious chat about the future. I’m forty-bloody-seven and I’ve got a business to run. I can’t be here permanently at her beck and call. Does your mother treat you the same way?”
“No. She’s busier than the queen. I try to see her once a week. But she has so many friends, I usually have to book an appointment weeks in advance.”
Lenny laughed again, and Adrian sensed some of the tension leave him. After a few moments of quiet, as they waited to join the mainstream traffic, he turned to Adrian.
“Thanks for agreeing to do this, Ade.”
It hadn’t escaped Adrian’s notice, had warmed him, that Lenny already had a shortened name for him, even if it was the same one Nick used.
“No problem. Who doesn’t love a road trip? Hey, do you want me to take a turn at driving at some point? I’m cool, either way.”
Lenny waited until the car had stopped at a set of traffic lights before answering.
“Let’s see how I get on when we stop for a break. I enjoy driving long distances—do it all the time—so it shouldn’t be a problem. But if you could be principal navigator, temperature controller, and music selection director, then I’ll be very happy.”
“Now we’re talking. But first things first. Stay on this road and follow signs for the A11. Secondly, how about some 80s music? Let’s start with bands. Pop quiz. Which would you choose out of the following? Tears for Fears, Fine Young Cannibals, Fleetwood Mac, or New Order. And let me just say, the answer to this question is vital if we are going to get along over the next couple of days.”
In answer, a grin blossomed on Lenny’s face. After taking one hand from the steering wheel and tapping his forefinger against his lips a couple of times, he nodded once.
“No competition. All of the above.”
“Congratulations, Mr Day. That is the correct answer.”
Heavy downpours hampered their progress. Motorway traffic frequently came to a standstill due to the relentless deluge. Adrian noticed Lenny adhering strictly to speed limits and slowing often when sudden heavy torrents hit, rendering his windscreen wipers almost useless.
To keep the mood light, he chose a channel with random songs from their youth and challenged Lenny to ‘beat the intro’, by guessing the song title from the opening bars. Lenny seemed to enjoy the game, his competitive streak shining through. Occasionally, he would also sing along to a song, not particularly in tune, and often using unintelligible lyrics. A couple of times he caught Adrian smirking at his effort, and laughed good-naturedly, too. Lenny even told stories of his life at the time when one particularly memorable song climbed the music charts. Adrian had nothing to reciprocate. His few good memories of the early eighties were eclipsed by those towards the end.
Around one o’clock, rather than stopping at one of the generic motorway service stations, Lenny took them off a slip road and found a small cafe in Bedford, one he had frequented before. Once again, Lenny made a great choice, ordering them both mugs of hot tea and the lunchtime special of steaming beef and ale pie with mashed potatoes and garden vegetables.
Before leaving the cafe and darting back through the rain to the car, Adrian offered to take a turn at driving, but Lenny wanted to keep going. Adrian understood, noticing him content behind the steering wheel, negotiating roads and bends, and safely overtaking slower vehicles.
* * *
Slowing to a stop, the SUV headlights illuminated silvery shards of rain as they pulled up in front of the brightly lit Manor Inn pub in Newbridge. Once Lenny killed the engine, they grabbed their holdalls from the back seat and made a dash through the chilly weather to the front door.
With only one entrance, they were brought straight into the toasty warm bar, which appeared empty. Carpeted throughout and with dark oak framed furniture and a blazing open fire, the place felt homely enough. Lenny spotted a bored looking girl cleaning glasses behind the bar. After a quick exchange of words, she called out to someone through a doorway, and then told them to take a seat.
Five minutes later, an older woman with a large black bound ledger came out from a back room and waddled over to them. Caked in far too much makeup, she wore pink framed glasses on a chain, and a long grey cardigan which had seen better days and which sat over a pale pink dress.
“Hello, my loves,” she said, taking a seat. “Megan Llewellyn, landlady. My husband, Roger, normally deals with bookings, but he’s in Aberystwyth tonight at the national brewery convention, see? So you got me instead. Which of you’s Mr Day?”
“That’s me. I know the booking was last minute, but please tell me everything is okay? We don’t relish the thought of driving back to Norwich in this weather.”
“Know just what you mean. Raining knives and forks out there, it is. No, well, we got your booking okay. Only, there is a slight problem.”
Lenny looked to Adrian who shrugged and waited for Mrs Llewellyn to continue.
“One of the two rooms you booked, The Burton Room, named after Richard Burton—all our rooms are named after famous Welsh people, see? Anyway, this one has the king size bed, and is situated at the front of the pub, overlooking the village green. Best room in the place, my Roger says, usually the most popular during the summer months when we’re at our busiest and—“
“Mam, get on with it, will you?”
The whiny voice came from the young girl behind the bar, who had put the towel over one shoulder and now leant on one of the beer hand pumps.
“You get on with cleaning them glasses,” she called back, before meeting the eyes of Adrian and Lenny. “Honestly, kids today think they know it all. Now, where were I?”
“The Burton Room.”
“Oh, yes. So. We had a down-pipe burst overnight which is right outside the bedroom window and rainwater came in through the frames and the ceiling. Weather’s been like this all week, see? Whole room got flooded and damp. Only found out when I went to get the room ready a couple of hours ago. Even the carpet will need replacing which means the room’s not habitable. I try to contact you via the email you used—the telephone number gave me an unobtainable signal—but I imagine you were driving at the time. We have a single room in the attic, but we’re in the middle of redecorating that one. So we only have the one available room, The Dylan Thomas, which has twin beds and an ensuite bathroom. Now is that going to be okay for you? Obviously, I’ll only charge you for the one room.”
“What telephone number did you use?”
“The one on the online booking form, love. Here.”
When Lenny checked the form, he closed his eyes briefly and shook his head.
“I miskeyed the last digit. Should be a six not a five. I’m really sorry, Ade. I messed up. Are you okay to share? Personally, I have no issue.”
Adrian hesitated. He couldn’t remember the last time he had shared a room with another man where sex had not been on the menu. He felt Lenny and Mrs Llewellyn’s eyes on him.
“Look, my loves. Why don’t I give you the key, and you can go and see the room first,” said Mrs Llewellyn, probably sensing the hesitation. “See what do you think?”
Adrian nodded. Checking the room might give him time to think of something, if necessary an excuse to stay somewhere else.
“Sounds like a plan.”
The boys have arrived, but they haven't seen the derelict pile of rubble yet.