Adrian comes clean but Leonard has a moment of doubt.
Located on the first floor, the Dylan Thomas room smelled faintly of fresh decoration and solvent from newly installed fitments. With grey carpet and walls of spearmint paint, the latter adorned with colourful abstract art in stark reds, greens and whites—the colours of the Welsh national flag—the space felt modern. Even the quality white duvet covers, sheets and pillowcases with the forest green runners on the two double beds seemed more appropriate for a business class of hotel. Leonard glanced at Adrian, who looked at the layout and furnishings with trepidation. Did he not like the room, or did he have a problem sharing? Had Leonard messed up? Undeterred, Leonard dropped his bag onto the bed nearest the window and went into the bathroom. Modern chrome fittings, new fixtures and fittings, with pristine white tiles on the walls and floor lent the space a clinical cleanliness. Not only did the room have a free-standing tub, but also a large shower cubicle. Leonard had stayed in a lot worse. He hadn’t realised Adrian’s presence until a voice sounded from over his shoulder.
“How much did this lot set you back?”
“It’s low season, so the rooms are reasonable. Besides, you don’t need to worry. This is on my account, remember? But I reckon this will do nicely. Are you hungry?”
“I’m always hungry.”
“Dump your bag, and we’ll go down and get something to eat before the kitchen closes.”
After a slight hesitation, Adrian did as asked and headed straight out to the central stairway leading to the bar. Leonard stayed back to lock the door and then stopped to check his phone for messages. He read a couple of updates from Isabelle but found nothing urgent, so hopefully no dramas. When he reached the saloon, Adrian already propped up the bar, his long legs crossed at the ankles, a pint in front of him. The landlady stood behind the counter, pulling one of the beer pumps to fill another glass, while also checking the glasses her daughter had cleaned and occasionally tutting. As soon as Leonard appeared, she smiled a welcome.
“Room to your liking?”
“Very much so, thank you.”
“Lovely.” She set the full pint of beer in front of him. Leonard smiled at Adrian, who had chosen which beer he would drink. “Let’s have your credit card to check against the booking, and then you’re all set to go. Breakfast’s from seven until nine in the dining room around the corner of the bar. We get a selection of dailies in, too, if you like to read while you breakfast. Do you need dinner tonight?”
“We do, actually,” said Leonard, handing over his business credit card. “Ade? Have you chosen?”
They ordered food, this time Adrian opting for local fish with chunky chips with Leonard going for the house special of lamb hotpot. Once they placed their order, Mrs Jones called out something in Welsh down the corridor. Within seconds a big bear of a man wearing a white chef’s apron appeared. Blind to Leonard, he gave Adrian a lingering once-over, smiled and nodded once. Leonard felt a pang of annoyance and drained a good third of his pint. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the landlady pointing a finger between Leonard and Adrian, before reciting something in Welsh which he assumed to be their order. After she made eye contact with him and nodded out into the saloon area, Leonard got the message and led them over to seats at a table near the open fire. Before sitting, Adrian put his drink on the table and quickly excused himself to use the restroom, a move which had Leonard feeling another stab of irritation. Was he going to chat up the chef? But he returned too swiftly. Leonard sensed a tension in Adrian but had no idea how to ask. Fortunately, the food arrived, generous portions that had Adrian’s eyes widening. After silently swapping condiments and sauces, they both fell to enjoying their meal. Finally, Adrian spoke.
“Do you think we should have checked other options? Other hotels?”
Leonard stopped eating and gave him his full attention, before replying.
“Doubt there are any, Ade. Not this late in the day. Look, I know the one-room situation isn’t perfect, but this place is otherwise ideal. We’re about ten to fifteen miles from the house. We won’t find anywhere closer. Or do you have a problem sharing?”
“No, it’s not that. I—I just don’t want you to be uncomfortable. And if we’re going to share a room, then there are a few things you ought to know about me.” Adrian had also stopped eating; his eyes fixed firmly onto his plate of food as he spoke.
“For starters, I snore.”
“Yes, well. Join the club. Luckily, I have earplugs.”
Kris had snored. At first, the sound used to keep Leonard awake. Even with earplugs, he could still hear the droning. Ironically, when Kris passed away, Leonard couldn’t sleep due to the absence of snoring. A friend once likened the situation to people who complain about living near busy roads or motorways, who then find sleeping difficult when they stay in quiet places, like the suburbs or the countryside.
“I—I’m also gay.”
The comment caught Leonard off guard, and he almost laughed but could see by Adrian’s troubled face, the difficulty at expressing the fact. Leonard answered softly.
Adrian looked up at him.
“And I thought you ought to know. I don’t normally tell people outright, although I don’t hide the fact, either. But then I don’t usually share hotel rooms with friends. Straight friends, I mean—”
Adrian appeared to be struggling over something Leonard already knew. But to tell him he knew might give the impression he listened to idle gossip. Instead, he leant forward, placing his elbows on the table. To lighten the mood, he reached over, stole a chip from Adrian’s plate and popped the whole thing in his mouth.
“Seriously? That’s what’s worrying you?”
“Some guys can get funny when I tell them. And I didn’t want to make things awkward between us.”
“Do you take me for one of those narrow-minded idiots, Ade? It’s cool. Look, unless you’re about to confess to having a psychological condition that involves you sleepwalking and murdering roommates in their sleep, then we’re good.”
Adrian smiled with relief before narrowing his eyes at Leonard’s hand.
“Fair warning, though. You pinch any more chips off my plate, and you might want to consider sleeping with one eye open tonight. Just saying.”
Leonard laughed aloud. Seeing the tension drain from Adrian’s shoulders, he almost let on about his own orientation. Surely that would be for the best all round so they could loosen up around each other? Then again, maybe coming clean might make sharing the room even more uncomfortable. Adrian had, after all, called him a straight friend, so he had no idea about Leonard being gay. What also didn’t help was the intense attraction he had developed for Adrian. Even if he hadn’t shown anything knowingly, Adrian would surely guess by the little tells he couldn’t help making, staring at Adrian’s chest, or freckles, or his thick muscular arms and thighs. If he came clean, all that might change and make this situation more awkward, especially if he wasn’t Adrian’s type. More importantly, he had invited Adrian along in his professional capacity, to survey the farmhouse and give him an expert opinion, not to be his bedmate.
Besides, if anything between them were to happen, it would be doomed from the start. Adrian lived and worked in Drayton, Leonard in London. Maybe the physical distance didn’t matter, but Leonard knew himself well enough to know he could never survive on a diet of daily telephone calls and text messages, and the occasional weekend hook-up. Moreover, Leonard had never been a casual, one-night-stand guy. Kris had been his first and only lover. If he decided to jump, he did so with both feet the whole way and expected a partner to do the same—no half measures.
“Are you okay, Lenny? I thought I’d lost you there for a moment. Having second thoughts?”
Leonard, who hadn’t realised he’d checked out, lost in thought, stared up into Adrian’s eyes.
“No, but… Have I just been a complete knobhead? Did you want your own room because you’re looking to get lucky over the next few days? I was, and still am, totally fine with sharing, but I didn’t even consult you when I said yes, which is wrong of me. I hate to think I’ve just pissed on your—“
This time Adrian burst into laughter.
“What?” asked Leonard.
“You haven’t pissed on anything. Genuinely, Lenny, my concern was for you. But if you’re fine then let’s leave it there. You can use your earplugs, and I promise I won’t murder you as long as you let me finish my chips. Are we okay?”
“We are. But remind me to consult you in future. I tend to travel on my own, so I usually jump in and make snap decisions on things. Okay, so back to business. Can I suggest an early start tomorrow? Are you okay to get up at seven-thirty?”
“Not a problem. And I’m happy to navigate again if you want. Do you have that picture of the place we’re trying to find?”
Leonard pulled the envelope given to him by Mr Dawson from his jacket where he had placed a copy of the photograph he had dowloaded and printed.
“Any idea if the place is marked on GPS? Or are we playing this by ear?”
Right then, the landlady came to their table to collect their plates and Leonard used the opportunity to talk to her.
“Mrs Llewellyn. We’re going to take the room. But can we have a quick word? Just need some information about the local area.”
“Of course, dear. Be my pleasure. Not exactly rushed off our feet tonight. And you can call me Megan, if you prefer. Whenever I hear someone calling for Mrs Llewellyn, I expect to see the in-laws coming around the corner to scold me.”
Leonard pulled out a chair for her to sit. With the dirty plates still in her hands, she peered quizzically at the chair. With a quick nod, she turned, headed to the bar, and dropped them off, before returning.
“So a quick question,” said Leonard, as she took a seat. “How well do you know the area?”
“How well do I—?” she began, with a chuckle. “Better than most alive, I’d say. I’ve lived here in this pub with my folks all my life, at least up until I married. Twenty-five I was. Went to live with Roger’s folks in Vancouver running his family’s hotel until they sold up. Then we decided to come back and take over this place because my mum and dad wanted to retire. Been running the place ever since. So yes, I know the area very well, and most of the people who live here. What do you need to know?”
“I’ve inherited a house down this way. A farmhouse called Bryn Bach in—“
Leonard noticed the slight surprise in Mrs Llewellyn’s eyes as she finished his sentence.
“Bryn Bach in Disserth? Yes, I know the place well. The owners—previous owners now, I suppose—used to come up from Bristol every summer. Sometimes at Easter, too. Mike and Millicent Darlington. Had three young-uns, one older boy, and a twin boy and girl. How come you inherited the place?”
“Mrs Darlington is my aunt, my late father’s sister. After my grandfather died—he was the rightful owner—he left the house to my father, and Dad left it to me. We’re going to look the place over tomorrow, so if you can help point us in the right direction, that would be really helpful.”
Mrs Llewellyn got up, waddled to the bar, and brought back a small tourist map.
“Good job you asked. The place is a nuisance to find unless you know what you’re looking for.”
“We’ve got GPS,” said Adrian, holding up his phone. Mrs Llewellyn glanced at the phone and snorted.
“Good luck with that, dear. You’ll be lucky to get a phone signal down that way, let alone directions. Look, I’ll write you out the route with landmarks. That should get you close enough. It’s the only house on the lane so once you find that, you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding the house.”
As she wrote on the map and marked a few prominent spots along the way, she also talked about the Darlingtons.
“Loved this part of the world, they did. If not for the husband’s sales job back in Bristol—they often came here without him because he was so busy—I think they might have thought about settling here. Every Sunday, they’d go to church and end up in here in the pub afterwards for a roast lunch. Her eldest came here a couple of times on his own. Loved the place, he did. Such a shame what happened to him.”
“What did happen?”
“You don’t know? Maybe it’s not my place—“
“My mother said he took his own life, but she didn’t know any details. Mainly because my father and his sister—my aunt—didn’t get along. So I know very little about any of my cousins. I only met her and my cousin Matthew for the first time at the funeral for my father.”
“Did you know your grandfather?”
“Grandpa George? Yes, I met him when we were kids. Not often, because we lived so far away. I think Dad felt guilty after Grandma passed away. So we’d go see him at least a couple of times a year.”
“George and Rene Day. Yes, they used to own the house in Disserth. My mum used to talk about them. So your dad would have been Colin?”
Leonard realised Mrs Llewellyn, rather than being curious, was testing him, to make sure she had the right person.
“Your cousin, Luke, hanged himself. His father and brother Matthew found him. Terrible business. Twenty something years old, bright as a new star, and everything to live for. Came as a huge shock to all of them, as you can imagine. Not much happens around here, so this tragedy touched everyone.”
An oddly detached grief rippled through Leonard. Luke, his own flesh and blood, would probably have been less than ten years older than him. And something had driven him to take his own life. As a child, he had always believed he came from an unremarkable family. Yet something terrible had happened to his cousin to make him end his life. While he grappled with the notion, he barely heard Adrian ask a question.
“Did he leave a note or anything?”
“Of sorts, according to his father. A piece of paper with a few words written in Luke’s hand. Taken from the Bible, we think. They who love the greater love lay down their life; they do not hate. Funny the things you remember, isn’t it?”
Leonard felt a deep sadness. Clearly, the words had meant something to Luke.
“It’s not from the Bible,” said Adrian, surprising Leonard. “But I can understand how you might think so. The line was penned by Wilfred Owen, one of the war poets, a poem called At a Calvary Near the Ancre, in which he likens the battlefields of the Great War to the crucifixion of Christ. The last verse reads: The scribes on all the people shove, and bawl allegiance to the state, but they who love the greater love, lay down their life; they do not hate.”
“You’re a religious man?” asked Mrs Llewellyn, an eyebrow raised at Adrian.
“Not so much. But my father was a minister, and I had an old friend I used to read to, who loved the war poets. And even though I wouldn’t call myself a religious person, there are certain passages from the Bible that resonate. The one I believe Owen is referencing is John, chapter 15, verses 12 to 13. This is my commandment, that ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
“But why?” Leonard heard himself say.
Mrs Llewellyn’s attention returned to Leonard, and she appeared genuinely moved.
“Nobody seemed to know. The whole thing’s still a mystery. Last time I saw them all was the year before I got married and moved abroad, and everyone seemed in good spirits, especially Luke, who would have been around fifteen. Of them all, he was the most friendly and charming. And a handsome lad, too. Whenever they came into town, many a young girl in the village only had eyes for him.”
“Did he have friends here? Or did he mainly stick with the family?”
“He had a couple of really close friends. Gang of four, they called themselves. Good kids, too. Freya and Howie Williams, the same age, and Pippa White, the oldest of the group. I got the impression Luke enjoyed time away from his family. Don’t get me wrong. His sister was fine—quiet, but polite—but the twin brother was an odd sort. Looking back, I think he probably suffered from an undiagnosed form of autism. And his mother could be overbearing if you know what I mean? The younger son stuck to her apron strings like a leech and rarely ever smiled.”
To Leonard, that sounded exactly like the Matthew he had met at the church.
“Anyway, after the tragedy,” continued Mrs Llewellyn, “they rarely came back to the house. Understandable. Who would want to relive seeing their eldest hanging lifeless from a bedroom light fitting.”
“He killed himself in the house?” asked Leonard aghast. That part of the story had not registered.
“Yes, dear. Didn’t I say? They hadn’t heard from him for two or three weeks, contacted everyone he knew locally and searched the places he used to visit out in Clifton. Eventually, the father and brother came down here and found him in one of the bedrooms. Had to deal with the whole aftermath with the police and emergency services. Millicent drove down later, to be with him and help out. But as for the father. Mum said she’d never seen a man so utterly lost and defeated in her whole life. After that, we never saw them. Well, sometimes the brother would come, but only to check the place over, as I heard it.”
Leonard began to understand why his aunt might want to keep the place, rather than have strangers living in the house where her firstborn killed himself. How on earth did a mother manage to console herself after such a dreadful tragedy?
“Anyway, I’d better start clearing up,” said Mrs Llewellyn. “What time do think you’ll have breakfast in the morning?”
“We’re planning an early start,” said Leonard. “How does eight o’clock sound?”
“Perfect,” said Mrs Llewellyn. “And as you’re our only guests, I’ll cook breakfast to order tomorrow.”
“Thanks for your help, Mrs Llewell—er, Megan,” said Leonard. “I know it’s early, but I’m ready to turn in after that long drive. How about you, Ade?”
“Yeah, me too. But you go on up, while I sign for our food and drinks.”
“Don’t pay for anything,” said Leonard. “Just put everything on the room bill. Remember, you’re doing me a favour here, so I’m paying for all your expenses. And I don’t want any arguments.”
“Whatever you say, Lenny. Just make sure you leave the room door unlocked for me.”
Leonard felt sure Adrian was being a gentleman, wanting to give him time to change and get into bed without worrying about Adrian being in the room. At some point, he needed to clear the air with his new friend. But not tonight. After the long drive and with a couple of pints of ale inside him, he already felt exhausted. He used the bathroom without showering, just a quick face wash before climbing into bed and checking his phone.
He had no idea when he fell asleep or what time Adrian returned, but woke the next morning with the mobile phone still sitting next to his pillow and Adrian in the bed across from him, his broad back on view.
A slightly earlier chapter because I've had some time over the past week to write a couple more chapters.
And here, for all you who have been following the story, is taste of what's coming up:
“Come on, then,” came Leonard’s voice. “Tell me what you think?”
“Nice.” Adrian strolled to the far end of the building, following the line where the slate roof met the guttering. Large sash windows each composed of twelve square panes sat either side of the front door, while three smaller ones ran above, along the upper floor. “Very nice indeed.”
“So not some pile of old rubble, as my cousin Matthew called it?”