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Stroking the Flame - 7. Christmas Shopping

Colin meets up with Juliette Clanniston and then with his sister for some Christmas shopping.

For a change, my school day is free this particular Thursday. Phil Willoughby, our dramatic arts teacher, has taken my form room boys to the National Theatre to watch a matinee performance of a modern version of Romeo and Juliet, something on their GCSE curriculum. If the poster is anything to go by, actor’s costumes including leather, crash helmets, chains and black plastic sacks, which honestly makes me shudder. Initially, I offered to go with them, but they had enough teacher and parent volunteers, so I decided to step out and use the time to catch up on marking homework. In the past, I might have sought the company of Martin, our previous geology teacher, but after he retired last summer, there are few I feel as close to.

On the upside, the free time gives me the perfect opportunity to call Juliette Clanniston and unburden myself of one of Denny’s more interesting boxes of goodies. Anticipating this, I carefully cradled the box across my handlebars on the way to school on this beautiful but fresh morning. The deed reminded me that I still have two other boxes; one of old paintings and one of Denny’s suits to take to a local charity shop, something I had promised Tania, his cousin. Maybe a chore for the weekend. Clanniston answers after one ring. I enjoy hearing her voice, professional but always upbeat, fearless, and with a caustic wit.

“Would taking you out for coffee in town constitute truancy?” she asks. “Or does that form of absenteeism only apply to the middle-class entitled centennial brats you educate?”

Clanniston filters what she says for nobody, and I am a little nervous about my next suggestion, in case we bump into Dorothy in the school corridor.

“We have several teachers away today, so I need to stay on the premises. But we have a brand new, state of the art, Italian coffee machine in the common room which makes the best coffee in Croxburgh—or so I am told by my fellow teachers. I’m a diehard Earl Grey drinker during the daytime. How about you come here, and I treat you?”

“Good to hear those extortionate school fees are being spent wisely. See you around ten-thirty. I’ll message you when I arrive.”

Even though the staffroom is strictly off-limits to pupils and parents—teachers treat the place as their personal, private sanctuary—Croxburgh has a common room set aside with an array of donated leather settees and coffee tables, to entertain guests to the school. After texting me her coffee order, Juliette turns up looking fresh and alert. Her long dark hair tied back, she wears a black woollen coat over a hugging black pants suit, a turquoise scarf and matching dangly earrings. At our last meeting, she told me of her mixed parentage, something her dark eyes and beautiful eyebrows give away; her father being Iranian and her mother Scottish. She is undoubtedly a good looking woman working in a very tough profession, although, having known her only a short time, I doubt the fact has ever disadvantaged her.

“How’s Alex?”

Alexander Clanniston is her husband and also a regular reporter for the Times.

“Working hard. Unlike me.” She shucks off her coat and scarf, and elegantly lowers herself next to me. “The only upside is I get to use our car while he’s in the office up in The City. How are you holding up?”

Every time we meet, she asks me the same thing. What she means is am I still having sleepless nights about the evening Morgan’s henchman held me at gunpoint. Compared to the events of later in the evening, my brief abduction by Morgan turned out to be entirely innocuous. But Ben has warned me off talking to anyone else—especially Juliette—about Carter Schwartz trying to snuff me out later that night, once everyone else had gone to bed. Juliette and her husband had been at the event Jeremy Winterbourne held the night before everything went down, but had already driven home when the fun started. I am sure they both kick themselves now for not having taken Jeremy’s offer to stay the night, which would have undoubtedly meant them getting a scoop on the story of the year. Unfortunately for them, when they jumped in their car to head home, the final scene had yet to be played out.

“I’m fine. Looking forward to a break at the end of the year. Christmas with Janine and her family, and then skiing in Europe over the New Year. Just what the doctor ordered.”

“Very nice too. We’re seeing Alex’s family this year up in Barnsley. Bloody arctic. Would not have been my first choice, but his mother’s getting on a bit and I’m playing the dutiful wife. So what have you got for me?”

I nod to the box on the coffee table in front of me.

“Might turn out to be a pile of old junk, in which case, please feel free to toss the lot. When we were cleaning out Denny’s place, we found this in the attic with a couple of boxes of junk. And we found letters and old photos hidden in a fake book. Thought you might want to have a trawl through for your article, see if you can use anything.”

I untuck the tides of the box for her, and she immediately goes for the sizeable leather-bound photo album. When she opens the cover, the binding creaks a complaint, and I notice many of the polaroids on the first page appear blanched with age. But on another, preserved behind a transparent film of plastic, many of the monochrome or professionally developed pictures are still vivid and vibrant.

“Do you have any idea who these people might be?”

“Not a clue. Denny and I were never close. Even Derek and Hugh, who knew him and Archie much better than us, only knew them both later in life.”

While I am talking, she carefully peels back the transparent film on one page which houses a large monochrome photograph of a group of young boys and a couple of adults; either teachers or carers. Outside the front of a large Victorian house, boys grin happily at the camera and sit on or behind a hand-built go-kart. Fortunately, she manages to unstick the cover without ruining the photo, and I wonder for a moment what she is doing. But then she slips one of her manicured fingernails beneath the photograph, traces this all the way around the edge and then lifts out the picture. When she turns the print around, the places, names and date are recorded in shaky but clearly legible handwriting.

“My great grandmother used to do the same thing in all our family photo albums. In Persian or Farsi, if you prefer, but each photo’s information gave details of what the photo contained,” she says, by way of explanation.

“When was that one taken?”

“May 1969,” she says, and then looks up interested. “Was Denny an orphan?”

“Funny you should ask. When I spoke to his cousin recently, she talked about his parents. But according to Derek, they weren’t his birth parents. So, yes, I suppose he was an orphan. Derek says that’s where he met Archie. To be honest, he never talked about it. Not to me, anyway.”

“It says here Colbrook House. Back row Jim, Pete, Plum and Den, and in front Georgie, Rich, and Jock. The others listed—Mr S, Mr P and Mrs K—must be the adults.”

“So no Archie?”

“Not unless his nickname was Plum. Was Archie West Indian?”

“No, Archie was Caucasian. So is this useful?”

She looks up and gives me a bright smile.

“Of course. There’s already a fantastic angle in this one photo. And I love unravelling a mystery or two, don’t you? Is this Denny?”

She taps her fingernail at the boy at the end of the back row with the trademark waspish smile. Thin and wiry, with ash brown hair, he could definitely be Denny. One of the men whose face is indistinguishable, because he is looking away from the camera, has a hand on the boy’s shoulder.

“Could be. I guess he’d have been in his early teens back then.”

“Easy enough to check.”

“Is it?”

“Of course. I’ll start with old records about the orphanage and go from there. Bound to be something in the local newspaper archives.”

“You might also want to check out the fake book containing love letters.”

“Love letters?”

“Well, I think so. They seem quite affectionate enough. We’ve only looked at a couple, but there are polaroids inside, too.”

“To his partner? That would be sweet.”

“Not sure. But I don’t think so.”

“I’ll take a look, anyway. Thanks, Colin. And I promise to keep you updated with anything I find,” she says, thrusting the photo album back in the box, and apparently done with the topic. “So how’s Janine?”

Apparently, every professional woman in London knows my sister—at least that how it seems. When Juliette worked for the Chronicle, Janine was her go-to person at the Met, and they became close friends. I tell her about my plan to meet up with Janine that night to do some Christmas shopping and promise to send on her regards. Once we finish talking about my sister, Mark and the kids, almost an hour has passed, and I need to head back to the classroom. Even though I know she could manage perfectly well, I offer to carry the box to her car, which she gratefully accepts.

The Clannistons drive a very humble and rather old silver Mazda. When she leads me to the back of the vehicle, she explains that this is where her filing system is housed, which intrigues me until she prods a key to open the boot. Inside, a network of other boxes and box files fills the space, and she has to move a couple of them around to fit in Denny’s treasures. As she drives away, I stand and wave her off, pleased to have ticked off one of the chores I had set myself.


When my sister shops for Christmas presents, she does so with military precision. Milton would be proud. Not surprising really, when she has an exhaustive list of people to buy for; not only her own family but those of her kids’ friends and her husband’s family members. A stickler for buying things throughout the year, I already have all the family presents sorted; wrapped and ready to go. Only Ben remains. When we meet again as arranged at the payment counter of the department store, she already has two baskets filled with an assortment of items and a gift list which is almost as ticked off as I am.

My basket remains empty.

“Just get him a nice watch. Nothing embarrassingly expensive.”

We talked about me buying Ben a timepiece, among other things, but I am still struggling with intimacy and whether the gesture might be seen as too much. Janine thinks not, but as usual, I am the one dithering. This is the first time he will have received a gift from me, the first time he has had a relationship, however undefined, with another male. So the choice has to be careful.

Vaughan had been easy to buy for. Silver cufflinks, branded silk ties, tie pins, woollen sweaters; the kind of items a lawyer would put to good use in and out of the office. But when I think back now, I gave him nothing particularly personal. The nearest I got was an engagement ring which proved too little, too late. Was that a conscious or subconscious choice? I know precisely what he would say. While Janine pays up, I lean against the counter and rack my brains.

“Come on,” she says, seeing my hesitation. “Let’s grab a coffee. Maybe you’ll get some caffeinated inspiration.”

Which is what we do. Janine grabs a table while I buy and collect the drinks; a pot of Earl Grey for one and a cafe macchiato for her. When I place the tray down on the table, I can see her wheels are already turning.

“So, come on. What does your man like?”

Quite a few answers pop up into my head at the question, but none of them decent and certainly not fit for open discussion in a family mall. I blow on the surface of my tea and peer above the rim, my eyebrows raised.

“What does your man like?”

At least she gets the joke and shakes her head at me while chuckling.

“Mark? Lucky for me, he likes time with the kids. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here right now. But if you’re asking me what I’m getting him for Christmas—to provide some inspiration—then I’m no help. Not sure how Ben would feel if you gave him thermal underwear.”

“You’re giving your husband thermals for Christmas?”

“The good stuff,” she says, affronted, as if to justify herself. “It’s what Mark asked for. Not that you teachers would understand, but it can be bloody cold out there on the streets in the middle of winter.”

I tap a fingertip against my bottom lip and stare away in thought, gently nodding my head. A cup clunks down into the saucer opposite me.

“You are not buying Ben Whitehead thermal underwear, his first-ever Christmas present from you. Talk about passion killer. Mark and I have been together for over fifteen years and married for eleven of those. Twelve! We’ve done all the lovey-dovey stuff. You haven’t. So guess the hell again, little bro!”

“Calm down. I wasn’t thinking about getting underwear for him.” And even though other kinds of underwear spring to mind, I am not sure we are at that stage yet, either. “But the way things are going, I might have to resort to a gift voucher.”

“Cop out,” says Janine. If our mother hammered one thing into us as children, it was that the thought behind a gift is as critical as the gift itself. “You need to try harder. Forget about what he likes, what does he need?”

And just like that, she hands me the perfect opportunity.

“Right now? I think he needs nappies, talcum powder, and baby wipes.”

“He needs what?”

From her expression, I can see she has no idea about the latest developments in Ben’s life.

“Did you know that Anna, his ex-wife, recently had a baby boy?”

Janine has the same eyes as my mother, not the only trait they share—although she would never let anyone dare tell her so. The way she stares at me now bring back memories of the way my mother did the same when she put two and two together and realised I was gay, synapses sparking behind calculating eyes. Intelligence, coupled with a relatively liberal understanding of the weaknesses of humankind, a minute with my sister is more effective than an hour or two with a lie detector or a secret service interrogator.

“Ben?” she asks, impassively. “Ben is Peter’s father?”

We know each other well enough that she has no need for my response.

“Should I be worried?”

Letting the news sink in, she takes a sip of her coffee.

“After their marriage broke down, I was one of the few she confided in—about the real reason behind the split, about Ben’s sexuality. She purposely kept things low key because she didn’t want to damage his career any more than he’d already done himself—if that helps you understand the kind of woman she is. When you and Ben got together, I knew about Anna’s pregnancy. But she kept the name of the father to herself. Now you’re telling me it’s Ben.”

“She dropped the bombshell last Sunday. Apparently, they spent last Christmas together.”

“And Peter is definitely…” She turns away then and sighs. “Actually, if Anna says he is, then he is. She wouldn’t fabricate something like that.”

“Yes, but where does that leave me?”

“If you’re worried about Anna needing Ben back, then don’t. She’s a strong woman and perfectly capable of bringing up a child on her own.”

“It’s not Anna I’m worried about.”

“Well, there, my dear brother, I can’t help you. I’m not sure there’s anyone in the world right now who understands Ben Whitehead better than you.”

“Which, in itself, is a scary thought.”

As always, Janine levels her innate empathetic gaze at her little brother, her mind working away, and once again, I feel uncomfortable under her scrutiny. Eventually, she speaks.

“Have you talked to him about this?”

“A little. Honestly, I think he’s still trying to process what it means.”


“And what?”

“What are you going to do?”

After a fortifying sip of Earl Grey, a satisfactory solution comes to me.

“I’m going to buy him a watch.”

Thanks all for reading.

All likes, comments and suggestions gratefully received.

Stroking the Flame Discussion Thread

Copyright © 2017 lomax61; All Rights Reserved.
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OMG OMG OMG, haven’t read it yet but O- M-G!!!!!!!!!!😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱

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Is it too much to say I loath this Anna person? ‘cause I do! Why now? Why hide the pregnancy in the first place?! Aghhhhh!!!!


I’m ok now...😔

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HURRRAAAAYYY!!!! I’m so glad you’ve returned to this story! I really like the characters.

It’s interesting what Colin HASN’T thought about: does HE want kids? And does he want kids with Ben?

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I love your stories!  Kiss the dragon is so good!  Please finish this story because I am in deep.  Then a follow up from the Naked Calendar??  Thank you for such great stories!!

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