Over dinner together, Leonard talks about his life.
During their assessment of each room, and with a new resolve, Leonard felt a growing connection to the house. Adrian’s continued enthusiasm and ideas for improvement helped. But knowing Leonard’s father had holidayed there during his childhood, had probably spent happy, innocent days playing in the garden and going for local hikes, he felt an affinity to the place. Even with the knowledge that a cousin had taken his life in one of the bedrooms did not deter him, only made him more curious about a relative he had never met. According to Mrs Llewellyn, Luke had been at his happiest in Wales, at the house. And even though Leonard mentioned nothing to Adrian, the suicide note left something of a mystery, one he wanted to solve.
Back downstairs, Adrian stood inside the arched door to the kitchen, his big hands on the hips of his blue overalls, surveying the walls and decor. Leonard admired his solid frame and quiet strength; the way he had effortlessly ripped up part of the linoleum before gently smoothing the palm of his bare hand along the surface to check the state of the floorboards; how he quickly and singlehandedly hefted the kingsized mattress from the bed in the back bedroom before carefully positioning the stained mess against the wall. Strength and grace, something Leonard found incredibly attractive.
“Let me just say right now that if for some batshit crazy reason you decide to keep this kitchen as is, in another decade or two the design might—just might—come back into fashion.”
Leonard snorted quietly and watched as Adrian went over and gently tugged open one of the lower cupboard doors which instantly came away in his hand, the hinges rusted and broken.
“Or maybe not.”
“Careful, cowboy. That’s my kitchen you’re destroying.”
“And here’s me thinking you had taste. It’s only the top hinge. I can soon fix that back in place.”
Adrian’s humour had kept him grounded. Admittedly, though, the kitchen had probably been left untouched for decades. Dull teal units with their stubborn doors, grease speckled orange and brown kitchen tiles, and sticky linoleum flooring of lemon and lime diamonds might have been tasteful for somebody once—but not anymore, and not for Leonard. He swore he felt a migraine coming on every time they stepped into the room.
“No, leave the door. And jot this down on your list. The whole kitchen needs ripping out. I’m thinking maybe we even take this wall down and open up the kitchen into the main living area. Lose the corridor altogether and put in a countertop island. What do you think?”
“I’d need to see the original floor plans to check if we’re affecting any load bearing walls,” said Adrian, “But I don’t think that would be a problem. And then you could put four-panel full height sliding doors where the French doors are right now, open up the whole of the back of the house onto the patio, make the most of the view. You could brick up the back door from the kitchen into the garden then, use the space for kitchen units. There will be plenty more light coming into the house.”
“Exactly what I’m thinking.”
Strange really, but Adrian came up with ideas almost the instant a similar thought entered Leonard’s head. They were most definitely on the same page.
“And promise me you’re going to remove this plywood panelling either side of the fireplace,” said Adrian. “Get the place back to its original setting. Every time I look, the eyesore makes me cringe. I’ll bet money behind the gloss white paint, the chimney breast is either red brick or local flint that’s been plastered over.”
Adrian pointed out a spot by the fireplace, beside the picture rail, where panelling had split from the wall.
“And it looks as though the plywood is coming away already up there. Want me to pull that off now?”
“No. Let’s wait until we have all the right tools. I imagine when we come back next time, there’ll be plenty of mess to clear away. Let’s not make any just yet. Hey, listen. In case I didn’t make it clear, I want us to work on this project together on my spare weekends. I’d love to be able to clear a few weeks straight so we could plough on though, but I’ve been away from the business far too long already. And I’m going to need your guidance on what I can and can’t do structurally, but other than that we work alongside each other. Of course, I’ll pay you, but I wanted to check you’re okay with that?”
“You don’t need me to come down and keep things going during the week?”
“Not unless there are things I can’t help with. I want to be here to see the place transform with my own eyes, and know I’ve been a part of the change. Does that make sense?”
“As I said before, you’re the boss, so you call the shots. There are a couple of things I’m going to need professional help with, such as taking down the wall between the living room and the kitchen, and checking over the electrical wiring. Maybe I could do that on a weekday?”
“Absolutely. Just give me a heads-up. I’ll get you a spare set of keys cut. And I need to come back to Drayton to tie up a few things with my mother next weekend, so maybe we can meet up again and drive here together. Now what about the staircase? Does that need repairing or replacing?”
“Are you kidding? That staircase is a work of art. Let’s go check it out again.”
On the way back to the stairs to the upper floor, Adrian pointed out the low rise and how stable the staircase was, no noticeable creaks or wobbly bannisters. Adrian had called it right. The essential structure of the place, at least, had been built by artisans, built to last.
“Beautiful piece of craftsmanship,” said Adrian, once again verbalising Leonard’s thoughts. “All we need is to sand off the paint, take everything back to the original wood and either treat the surface or maybe use a light varnish. And definitely get rid of that threadbare stair carpet.”
Upstairs, at the back of the house, the bedroom overlooking the overgrown garden also had a fantastic view of the countryside beyond, and, being on a slope, the scene through the large sash window, even on a bleak and stormy day, took Leonard’s breath away. Like the rest of the house, the room needed redecorating and furnishing, had a simple mat on the floor and cast-iron double bed frame.
“I can’t believe there’s no bedroom furniture. Do you really think your relatives put things into storage?”
“As I said, I have no idea. I might phone my mother, get her to ask my aunt. The way things are at the moment, I don’t want to talk to her unless I really need to. But I’m guessing they either didn’t have any furniture—they only ever came here for short holidays—or gave what they had away if nobody was using the place. Based on the kitchen and bathroom, I’m not sure I’d want to keep anything they had.”
At some point, Leonard would need to buy furniture—or maybe choose from his online antique store—and perhaps arrange to have some sympathetic built-in storage included in the renovation. The same story applied to the two other bedrooms, the large one at the front and the small box room, another conversation he and Adrian would need to have.
“Can I suggest that when we come back next weekend, we stay here in the house,” said Adrian, out of the blue. “Get a feel for the place. If you’re coming to Drayton anyway, maybe you could buy a couple of new mattresses online from the big department store in Norwich between now and then. Then I suggest I bring my truck, chuck them in the back for the drive down and sleep in the house. I know it’s not exactly five star, but the bathroom works fine, the electricity’s running—although we’ll need to bring a couple of bulbs to replace those not working in the bathroom and the hallway. We’ll also need some sheets and bedding. Downstairs is going to be a mess if we start down there—which would be my recommendation—so I suggest we bring the bare minimum. What do you think?”
“Sounds like you’ve got it all under control.”
Adrian insisted they drag all three old mattresses downstairs near the front door, ready to put them in his truck for when they returned and dump them wherever local folk were allowed to dispose of unwanted items. Mrs Llewellyn at the pub would know.
While Leonard tested the water pressure in the bathroom and kitchen, Adrian managed to find a wooden stepladder in the old shed in the back garden and insisted on checking out the loft space for leaks in the roof and the condition of the joists and rafters. Happily reporting back with good news, they continued the exploration of the house until the afternoon sun began to wane.
“Right,” said Leonard, finding Adrian on his back on the floor of the kitchen, inspecting the water pipes. The man loved to get down and dirty. “We’re done here. I suggest we head back to the hotel and shower. And then I’m going to buy you dinner at a steakhouse in town, one I found on my phone, and a short walk from the hotel. As a way of saying thank you.”
Oddly enough, Adrian seemed almost disappointed at having to stop working. Leonard noticed how animated and immersed he became when engaged in one task or another, a man in his element.
* * *
As they sat in the Italian steakhouse—a recently opened place with a bunch of young and inexperienced waiting staff, but fortunately with a top-class chef—Leonard treated them both to dinner with a nice bottle of Italian red. Adrian started with his usual pint of local beer but seemed to enjoy the wine, especially when Leonard impressed him with his knowledge of the wine region. Abruzzo sat on the east coast of Italy, the red being a bottle of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. The taste of blackberries and earthiness complimented the food. Whenever Leonard wasn’t talking, Adrian continued to enthuse about the house, the improvements Lenny should make to the property, and frankly, Leonard enjoyed listening to him.
“Honestly, Lenny, I’m with you all the way. Open up the kitchen into the main living area by taking out the corridor and make the whole place more communal. And that bathroom is big. You’ve got enough space to install a decent sized bath and a separate shower. I can almost visualise it now.”
By the time they finished the wine and Leonard had been brought a plain coffee—Adrian preferring another bottle of beer—and their cheesecakes came, Leonard felt nicely relaxed. He noticed Adrian leaning back in his chair, sated, curiously eyeing Leonard.
“So come on. What’s your story, Lenny? Married? Kids?”
Leonard stopped attacking the dessert and placed his fork down next to his plate, to give Adrian his full attention.
“Do you know, you’re the only person in the world who calls me Lenny.”
Adrian’s good-natured grin dissolved when no humour showed in Leonard’s face.
“You don’t like it? Why didn’t you say?”
“It’s not that I don’t like it, so much. That particular version of my name brings back bad memories, that’s all. Especially coming from you.”
Leonard watched as Adrian drank from his pint, his confused gaze still peering inquisitively over the rim. Leonard decided the time had come to confront him.
“When we were at school, do you remember calling me Gay Lenny? During my first week? You made all the other kids around you laugh.”
Adrian appeared baffled, clearly taken by surprise, his eyes darting away, trying to remember. Eventually, he brought his gaze back to Leonard and shook his head.
“I don’t remember. That was a long time ago. Are you sure about this?”
Leonard nodded. Some things in childhood you never forget.
“During my first ever assembly. When the teachers were calling out names from the register. Mr Jennings called—“
“No, wait. Yes, I do remember. The first time I ever saw you. Teachers used to call the names in reverse order, yes? So instead of Leonard Day, he called you Day, Leonard. And I thought he’d just called you Gay Leonard, so I frowned at him and said ‘Gay Leonard?’ I honestly thought he’d made a mistake. But of course, the idiots I used to hang around with thought I was cracking a joke. Jennings immediately told us to be quiet. Was that why you gave me the stink eye every time I walked past you?”
“All of those friends of yours called me Gay Lenny for the whole of the first term—“
“I don’t remember—“
“Never when you were around, now I come to think of it. But even boys in my year, ones I didn’t know called me the same thing. It became a standing joke the way kids pick up on stupid things like that.”
“Oh, my god, Lenny—uh Leonard. I had no idea. If I had known, I would have told them to shut their mouths.”
Instinctively, Leonard knew the truth of his words. The Adrian he had grown to know could never be inherently nasty or vindictive. Being so was simply not in his nature. Throughout the years, he had thought Adrian to be the culprit, the ringleader. In reality, he had simply misheard what one of the teachers had said—an interesting lesson in how a simple misunderstanding in youth can form a lifelong perception.
“Yeah, I know you would. And it’s okay. You still get to call me Lenny. I’ve grown to like hearing the sound of it. And to be honest, after that first term, I used to ignore the boys at school. Kept myself very much to myself.”
“And you’ve been holding that in all these years? I always thought you didn’t like me because of me being part West Indian.”
“What?” Now Leonard’s face transformed with shock. “No, of course not. I’m not like that.”
“You say that, but you never can tell—”
“Ade! I’m really not. It’s because you labelled me at school. Unwittingly, it seems. And honestly, I should have let it go by now, but seeing you in the pub when I first arrived in Drayton brought everything back.”
“Well, if it’s any help, I apologise for being a dick.”
“No need. Anyway, they called me out correctly on one thing.”
“What do you mean?”
“I am gay.”
Adrian pulled his glass away from his lip to stare at Leonard. After a few moments, a huge smile lit his face.
“Ah, well, mate. The joke’s on me, now. Why didn’t you say something earlier? When I came out to you?”
“Funnily enough, I thought about it. Especially when you struggled to explain about sharing the hotel room in your diplomatic way. But I worried that if you knew I was gay too, sharing a room would be even more awkward and—hey, what?”
Opposite him, as Leonard had been speaking, Adrian tipped his head back and began laughing aloud.
“Couple of bloody idiots, the pair of us. My mother called it right. Men get worse at communicating as they get older.”
Leonard grinned and shook his head. Adrian’s mother was spot on. Throughout his life, the straight men he knew fell over themselves to avoid talking about his sexuality. Feeling as though they had grown closer through their confessions and also taking advantage of their laughter, Leonard decided to take the conversation in a more personal direction.
“Did you ever have anyone special, Ade?”
“No,” said Adrian, his humour gone, his tone flat and short. Leonard heard the hint of sadness in his voice. “Plenty of—um—encounters, especially in my twenties and thirties, but no keepers, if you know what I mean.”
“I’m not just saying this to be nice, but honestly, Ade, I really find that hard to believe. How old are you now?”
“And you’re still a catch. You’re such a nice guy, a warm personality and a great sense of humour. Oh, hang on a minute. Is this because you’re fussy? Because I heard your taste in music on the way down here. I mean, do you have some kind of particular type or fetish? Must be over seven feet tall, Kenyan-Icelandic mix, Olympic stature, natural blond, ear and nose piercings, must have a sex swing—“
“Yeah, alright, Lenny. If this is you getting your own back on me for the Gay Lenny thing, then—“
“No, I’m serious. You’re a handsome bloke. I’m just stunned nobody else saw that in you, enough to want to keep you around.”
At least Adrian’s shy grin had returned at Leonard’s words. But then, as his eyes seemed to lose their focus and he looked away, his smile slipped again.
“Let’s just say I had some very dark days during my late teens and early twenties. And after that, I just wanted things to be normal, learn to like myself again before I even attempted to be with someone else for any length of time. And then, as time went on, I kind of got to like my own company. How about you? Did you have any relationships?”
Adrian didn’t want to go into any more detail. That much was clear. Something had happened during those early years. Leonard vowed to himself that when they knew each other better, he would ask again. But right now, he felt ready to talk about Kris, welcoming the notion. Adrian might be one of the few who would understand.
He explained how Kris—Krishna Goswami, both of his parents originally from New Delhi—had been an economics professor at his university in Bournemouth, twenty years his senior, and how they had clicked almost instantly. At first, things had been innocent, but clandestine—meetings in coffee shops to talk over study materials, but mostly to be in each other’s company. Leonard had been the one to take things to the next level, pleasing Kris but also worrying him, knowing he had his position at the college to consider. They only lived together after Leonard had graduated.
“We were together for fourteen years and lived under the same roof for ten of those. Until his death. He succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of only fifty-six. Everything happened so quickly. The cancer had already spread by the time he was diagnosed. His family knew nothing about us, so as soon as they did, they froze me out, didn’t want anything to do with me. I honestly believe they thought I’d somehow given him the cancer.”
Leonard remembered the conversation, with him watching helplessly as Kris tried to argue with his father, but not having the strength, standing stunned as Kris agreed for them to come and fetch him, but promising to call Leonard as soon as he managed to get himself settled. Leonard had argued with both parents and the sister in their hallway, but he could see what they thought of him.
“Apart from everything else, I think they saw me as a parasite, riding his relative prestige in academic circles, living off him and his money. If anyone had bothered checking, they’d have found I had my own independent wealth, through my start-up companies. But instead, they simply shut the door on me.”
Despite numerous calls to the family home, and even to the hospital where Kris had initially been diagnosed, the family essentially took Kris off the grid. Leonard only met the sister and her husband one other time, four weeks later, when they turned up one Saturday morning to pick up all of Kris’ clothes and personal belongings. The sister had the same stubborn streak he had often seen in Kris and told him nothing. In retrospect, he could have shut the door in their faces—was completely within his rights to do so—but one thing they had in common was Kris’ wellbeing. When she left to rifle through Kris’ things, Leonard had simply let her. The husband stayed behind with Leonard, embarrassed, and appeared genuinely sorry for him. Poor guy, he had tried to help but knew very little, that the family physician had taken over and they had quarantined Kris, locked him away in a part of the family home.
“I only found out a year later they had taken his cremated remains back to India, to be scattered in the Ganges river, but had commissioned a plaque in a garden of remembrance near their home in London. Fortunately, when we bought the house, Kris insisted the deeds should be in my sole name, said he already owned his own and his sister’s house. Maybe that was true, or perhaps he wanted to give me some insurance because of our age difference—it never became a topic of conversation—but whatever, that was the one thing the family couldn’t take away from me when he died.”
“I’m sorry, Lenny.”
“Thanks. Feels good talking about it. I don’t have a lot of close friends, but when we do get together, the last thing I want to do is burden them with this. It was also more than ten years ago—“
“Yeah, but some things stay with you for life.”
Leonard almost crumbled under the honesty of Adrian’s sympathetic gaze. No doubt about it, he had his own story to tell.
“They do. And you never really get over things like that, they become a part of you. But since Kris, there’s never been anyone serious for me.”
“No seven-foot-five African-Scandinavian Olympic weightlifters take your fancy?”
Leonard chuckled along with Adrian, before reaching to take a sip of his coffee and then cradle the cup in his hands.
“You know, that first year in high school, I used to come along to all the home games. I stood on the sidelines usually hiding behind the other kids. Although I would never have told you so at the time, you were bloody incredible on the field.”
By the widening of his eyes, Leonard could tell Adrian was genuinely surprised, but his grin betrayed pleasure knowing he’d once had the attention. All Leonard could remember was the Herculean and, frankly, sexy figure of Lamperton either wrestling another boy to the ground or standing stock still, ready to convert a try and put the team comfortably in the lead. And all the time, he thought this legend didn’t like him, that he thought of Leonard as an insignificant gay kid.
“Most of those games that season were played in the rain.”
“They were,” said Leonard. “I viewed most from beneath someone else’s umbrella. But man, Ade, you were amazing, the way you ploughed through the opponents. All the kids in my year thought you would go on to play professionally.”
Once again, Adrian’s smile slipped, and he looked down at the rim of his beer bottle.
“Yeah, well. Some things are not meant to be,” he said cryptically.
Leonard wanted to ask more but felt they had already shared enough that night.
“So, tomorrow,” said Leonard, bringing things back down to earth. “Depending on the weather and the traffic, we have a good five- to six-hour trip back. I suggest we head off around midday. How does that sound?”
“You’re the boss.”
“Not yet. But I will be next weekend, once you’re on the clock. So let’s head to the house tomorrow morning, take one last look around. You can tell me what equipment or materials you think we might need, so I can either buy or hire—.”
“I think it’s probably best if I do that. Then I’ll invoice you later.”
“Well, if you think that works better. And as long as you’re not out of pocket.”
“Trade discount. And let me put together a plan of work during the week. We’re not going to get everything done in a weekend, but we can make a good start.”
Leonard finished his coffee and paid the bill, while Adrian slipped away to use the restroom. When he returned, Leonard already wore his coat, ready for the short walk back to the hotel. Adrian pulled his own from the back of the chair and slipped the garment around his shoulders.
“And if I haven’t said so already, Ade. Thanks for everything. For agreeing to accompany me, for your excellent observations and most importantly, for your enthusiasm. I know this is probably like any other job for you, but I’ve really enjoyed this weekend, really enjoyed your company.”
Despite feeling a little awkward, Leonard felt the words needed saying. If he had come to see the house on his own in the pouring rain, he would probably have had one quick look around and ended up selling the place to his aunt. Right now, he felt an excited optimism about the site, and also felt as though he had made a new friend.
“Don’t thank me yet,” said Adrian, as they stepped out into a rain-free evening and stopped on the pavement.
“You haven’t heard the playlist I’ve picked out for the journey home yet.”
Leonard stood and laughed, but then became serious when Adrian’s face didn’t return the humour.
“Should I be worried?” asked Leonard.
Adrian walked on ahead, but then stopped, spun around and folded his arms.
“How do you feel about Abba?”
I hope you're enjoying the story. More to come at the weekend.