The Victorian Kitchen Gardener
Bluebell woods. If there was one thing that Raymond Doyle considered to be the very essence of his country of birth, it was bluebell woods. You could keep your Royal Family with Queen Victoria refusing to come out of mourning, your stately homes full of upper class twits taking tea on the croquet lawn. This was what it was all about as far as he was concerned. Bluebell woods. In May. To have the time to stroll like this through a sea of blue with the subtle perfume invading his senses was pure bliss, to listen to the birds sing and feel the breeze gently ruffle his curls was to feel a part of nature itself. He was blissfully unaware that he himself fitted well into the picture, his long wayward hair and elfin eyes mixing with an obvious sensuality to form a vision that was breathtakingly beautiful. If anyone belonged here in the woods it was he.
This, his first outing in several weeks, was everything he had dreamed about while lying in bed, as sick as he had ever been in his entire life. The pneumonia had struck suddenly and almost fatally; his sister had nursed him, her husband had prayed over him and Doyle had pulled through, due more, he thought, to his own strength of will and determination to live, but it was no mission of his to deny a vicar his successes. He grinned inwardly; he loved his sister Frances dearly but that dolt she was married to, Percival (the name somehow suited him well), defied belief at times. A prattling ninny, too fond of the sound of his own voice, who regularly sent even the most devout of his flock to sleep on a Sunday. Ray had been spared because of his illness but was heart sinkingly aware that tomorrow there would be no escape. Perhaps a slight relapse might appeal to his sister's maternal instincts, she was, after all, at 47, 15 years senior to her much younger brother. Her own children having long since flown the nest, she now concentrated all her efforts into sharing her husband's workload, and for the past few weeks nursing her ailing brother back to health. He was not there yet, it would take many more weeks before he would be able to resume his duties with the police force in Birmingham. Ray had the oddest feeling that his very determined sister would not allow him to return until she was fully satisfied that he was fit.
The path took a downward turn, and the flowers brushed Doyle's legs as he walked. He was reminded of the poetry that their school mistress - all prim manners and collars up to her nostrils - had read to them years ago, full of woodland grottos and nymphs. He had been bored rigid, but with the passing of years could now find it within himself to feel sorry for the woman... The sound of knocking on wood suddenly intruded upon his thoughts; he'd been dimly aware of it for a while, but had been too deeply immersed in thought for it to register. Someone, somewhere was felling a tree perhaps? This might bear investigation.
Throwing his jacket over his shoulder and digging his other hand deep into his trouser pocket he slowed his pace and walked quietly forward. The noise became louder and as he reached an ancient oak - its girth so large that it would have made ten of the skinny Doyle - and peered around the side of it, he came to the source of the noise.
A man was at work, chopping down a small tree. As he'd apparently not been heard approaching and the oak affording excellent cover, Doyle watched in secret, taking voyeuristic pleasure in the picture presented to him. He guessed the man was about his age, bigger, though not much taller; firm muscles and weathered hands confirmed his outdoor existence. Short dark hair wet with sweat framed his head. Dark eyes, very dark eyes, and the kind of pouting mouth any debutante would have been proud to own completed the picture. The man had discarded his shirt, presumably thinking himself too far from the big house to be observed by females of the swooning variety.
Doyle watched, an elbow braced against the tree, eyes narrowed, one thumb rubbing absentmindedly over his lips. Moistening them he unconsciously slipped the thumb into his mouth and allowed his tongue a few seconds play.
Ray's eyes did a thorough reconnaissance job on the figure in front of him. The man was quite beautiful, muscles rippling as he worked, his swing betraying the fact that this was a task he had performed many times before. The exertion had made him sweat a great deal and after a while he stopped and moved to a bottle standing nearby, full of what Doyle presumed to be water. It was almost empty, so that what happened next should not have been a surprise; a full bladder in need of relief does not like to be ignored... but Doyle's heart still skipped a beat when he realised what was about to happen.
Returning to his place while at the same time undoing fly-buttons, the man exposed his manhood to the fresh air. Doyle was transfixed as a gush of amber fluid hit the tree that was being felled, splashing noisily onto the ground below. Something snapped inside Doyle. His trousers were suddenly unbearably tight and his hand went to the place, rubbing himself frantically, with the outcome inevitable. He gasped audibly several times, his head falling against the bark of the tree as he pumped semen into his trousers, unable to control the intense waves of pleasure that washed over him. Ray could hardly breathe and as his knees collapsed he had to kneel, gasping for air and leaning against the tree for support. Reality was slow to return and with it came the realisation of what he had just done. Dear God. His escape was rapid, but hardly noiseless; Doyle was very fast on his feet when required, but was slowed on this occasion by his body's reaction to sexual release. Nevertheless he was sure, with the confidence of the guilty, that he had got away with his indiscretion.
Doyle was pushing his food around his plate. This was nothing new, his family were all well aware that he came into the "eat to live" category rather than the "live to eat". Frances was busy telling her husband about the latest additions to their flock, twins apparently, while Percival was striving to look interested in the patronising manner only he was capable of. Consequently neither of them were aware of their relative's agony. Emotions in turmoil, Doyle could eventually stand it no longer, and, rising, he began to excuse himself. His sister, bless her, beat him to it.
"Raymond you look quite worn out, how far did you go today, for heaven's sake? "
Too far Doyle thought grimly, but answered honestly " I think I probably overdid it a bit, first time out and all that. Thought perhaps I'd get an early night, hope you don't mind?"
"No, of course not, dear. It's probably quite a good idea in fact. Have a good night's sleep then you'll be nice and fresh for church in the morning." His sister smiled fondly at him.
Doyle's heart sank. There was obviously to be no escape. "Yes," he replied, giving them what he hoped was an enthusiastic smile. " See you in the morning then? G'night. "
Sleep? What kind of a joke was that? He sat in a huddle on his bed, the events of the afternoon going round and round in his head. What had he done? What kind of a person was he? Very sick in the head apparently!
Deep within his subconscious he had known that he was not quite the same as his friends at school. Once past a certain age their obsession with girls had left him cold, but also confused. Why didn't he want to join them in dark alleys fumbling and groping with the few girls who were willing? The idea appalled him. Sickened him if he was honest about it, but that was the most difficult thing of all: being honest with himself. So he shut that side away, filing it behind a closed door marked "Do not enter" and devoted himself instead to the job of keeping public order. It required immense dedication, but Doyle had no argument with that. Being always occupied, always tired, meant no time to think and no opportunity to find trouble.
Unfortunately, he had not considered the possibility of trouble finding him. A major slip-up, he realised. He'd thought himself invulnerable, had not the faintest idea that he was even remotely susceptible to beautiful dark blue eyes, long eye lashes, pouting lips, male pouting lips, or that the simple act of a beautiful man relieving himself should have such a catastrophic effect on him. He could hardly bear to think about it, was consumed with shame. Sleep eventually put a temporary end to his misery, but his dreams disturbed him even more, consisting as they did of images of blue eyes, the boyish smile that went with them and the intense impression of strong arms soothing away a lifetime of unfulfilled need for something he was unable to name.
The church was almost full. Seated beside his sister in their pew, Ray imagined other churches throughout Victorian England, full this morning, as always, and wondered if it would always be so. If the faithful and the "not so faithful but afraid for their salvation" would always fill the pews like this. Would the population always believe what they were told by sundry vicars, priests and so forth, or would people eventually learn to think for themselves, be free to come to church if that was their preference but also free not to? Staring into the future Doyle was unaware that the side pews directly opposite theirs were filling with the occupants and staff of the big house, until his arm was nudged by his sister who was waving to her crony, Sarah Hobbs, a stately woman who held the position of Housekeeper up at the house.
"Sarah has been very concerned about you," she whispered into Ray's ear.
"Why? I've never even met her!!" he replied, dumbfounded.
"Raymond! It is not necessary to be intimately acquainted with someone in order to be concerned for their welfare," Frances preached.
Doyle sighed. His sister had been married far too long to that prosy vicar. Another elbow in the ribs and he was forced to dig up one of his beatific smiles for the benefit of a woman he suspected had never harboured a kindly thought towards mankind in her life. Her reaction surprised him somewhat though, as she visibly melted and smiled right back at him.
Bemused, he turned to see who else was seated on that side of the church and his own eyes met....a pair of the deepest blue. The shock pierced his body like a knife. Emotions once again in a turmoil, Doyle berated himself for his stupidity. What kind of a policeman failed to consider all the possibilities? Of course the unknown gardener would be here in this church this morning, everyone was! Only the newborn, the sick and the crazy were excused and even that could be borderline. Doyle had frequently questioned the sanity of one or two ministers of his acquaintance.
He forced himself to breathe normally, then proceeded to surprise his sister by taking an unprecedented interest in her friend Miss Hobbs. His effort was laudable. Unfortunately the magnetic force of being observed is rarely escapable. Eventually Doyle had to look away from his sister to observe a very gentle mocking smile. His stomach lurched violently, his heart could surely be heard in the next parish and all the while his sister rattled on about Miss Hobbs and how she was a martyr to her feet. Luckily he saw the funny side; his lips twitched and he glanced sideways at her, wondering what she would think if she actually knew what was going on inside the head of the brother beside her. One thing was certain, the man across the aisle knew, he was wearing what could only be described as a knowing look. Doyle cringed and was certain that he'd been recognised. How? It wasn't possible. Was it? Suddenly the congregation stood. The majestic Percival had arrived and "The Lord is my Shepherd" filled the church.
"Lust" seemed to be the order of the day today. Percival's sermon was, as always, interminable; children fidgeted throughout the church and Doyle wished the subject wasn't quite so appropriate. He also wished that he could manage more successfully to keep his eyes away from the pew opposite. They seemed to have developed a mind of their own and slid in that direction whenever he failed to concentrate hard enough, which in the circumstances was often. He noted with interest though that each time it happened the object of his fascination was always staring right back at him. Meaning what, he wondered.
Percival's diatribe was all at once interrupted by a loud snort. Surprised laughter echoed around the church, everyone looking in one direction and Doyle followed suit. It appeared that old Edwin, one of the retired gardeners and ninety, if he was a day, had dropped off, his head falling onto the shoulder of the dark eyed man beside him. Doyle made a mental note to at least discover his name today. There it had remained until Percival had informed the entire congregation that unless they repented now, they would burn in the fires of HELL, whereupon Edwin had woken with that rather undignified snort.
The congregation was completely unsettled as Percival attempted to restore order, but Doyle was watching the scene opposite. Poor Edwin was very red in the face and the man sitting beside him had his hand on the old man's shoulder, eyes full of compassion. Doyle saw him mouth the words "Don't worry", then watched as he leaned forward, picked up one of the kneelers and put it behind Edwin's back, thereby making him more comfortable. Another pat on the arm...
Percival was once more in command, which was where he liked to be, and the drama was over. Looking back at events, months later, Doyle was to realise that his love for this man had begun with this simple act of compassion.
The congregation was milling about outside the church, friends greeting each other, exchanging gossip or admiring new babies. Sunday was a major meeting day for the whole area, the reason why most of them came, Doyle thought cynically - it couldn't be Percy's magnetic personality.
Ray strolled aimlessly amongst the gravestones, appreciating the timeless quality of the stonework. The entire history of a village was here; ancient retainers, young mothers who had died in childbirth, children who'd perished from one illness or another - the mortality rate was still high among the very young.
He touched the stone, fascinated by the texture and the myriad colours of the lichens that grew over the older graves. Would make a beautiful painting... he stopped himself right there. Memories came flooding back, atwelve-year-old Raymond Doyle all legs, eyes wide with trepidation, standing in front of his formidable father, who was in the process of destroying the boy's sketchbook. Ray had six adoring older sisters who, knowing his love of drawing, kept him amply supplied with the materials he needed to do just that. But drawing was for cissies, his father had informed him, he was twelve now and only upper-class women with nothing better to do and men of a certain inclination painted. The young boy had no idea what he meant, but knew with inevitable certainty that his drawing days were over.
It still hurt and not wanting to think about it he turned back towards the church to search out his sister. She was, as he expected, standing near the entrance with Miss Hobbs and her feet. People were still there exchanging gossip in their Sunday best; it was necessary to speak to everyone you knew or you might give offence. Doyle approached warily.
"Raymond, do come and meet my good friend Miss Hobbs," Frances chirped merrily.
Ray stepped forward and shook the good lady's hand. "How do you do? "
"Oh, I'm very well thank you. My poor feet have been better of course, but there, I mustn't complain, we all have our crosses to bear. "
Ray tried what he thought was a good impression of a sympathetic smile.
"Do you like roses, Mr. Doyle?"
"Roses?" Ray looked blank.
"Yes. I was just saying to Frances how wonderful it would be if you could join us for afternoon tea tomorrow. Of course our parish talk will be tedious for you, but if you have an interest in roses then I'm sure I can persuade Mr. Bodie here to show you the collection of roses in the walled garden. Its quite famous you know, known throughout the country!"
"Mr. Bodie?" Ray inquired, still lost.
"Yes." A man was standing with his back to them and she tapped him on the shoulder. He bade someone goodbye, turned, and Doyle once again, came face to face with those eyes and that smile.
"This is Raymond Doyle, Mr. Bodie, my dear friend Frances' younger brother. I was telling you about him some days ago. He's been so ill, but the Good Lord has seen fit in his wisdom to preserve him for us, so we must take good care of him until he's properly recovered. Mr. Bodie, " she continued, catching hold of Doyle's arm, presumably in case he had a relapse, "is one of our best gardeners..." Doyle uncharitably thought she sounded like she owned the place.... "and after Hastings retires, is widely expected to take the post of head gardener. He will be missed of course, but Mr. Bodie will be completely splendid I'm sure." Ray, who would normally have been bored rigid by this type of prattling, was fascinated. A potted history without even having to ask - his luck was in for once.
His gaze shifted to Mr. Bodie. So that was his name. Why didn't he look thrilled at the prospect of becoming head gardener? Surely it was what every gardener of a large house aspired to but seldom achieved - he should be delirious. He was not. On the contrary he looked distracted and was frowning when he replied.
"It's not a foregone conclusion, Miss Hobbs. The position is to be advertised, I believe, and I hear there is to be a test of some kind."
"Really? How bizarre! Well, no matter, we all have great faith in you and know you will be successful. After all we don't want a stranger here, do we?"
That frown again. Doyle was consumed with curiosity. This was a worried man. Why? Bodie's eyes left the ground at last and came up to meet Doyle's. Each, it seemed, knew what the other was thinking, the bond was already in place. Ray tried to convey to the other man that he understood, though the problem was not known to him. He felt sure he would be able to help, if he could gain the other man's confidence.
Frances was busy accepting the invitation. Doyle who knew nothing about roses was to be given a tour of the famous rose garden. It was difficult not to laugh. The closest he'd ever come to horticulture was the Desk Sergeant's aspidistra. This was going to be interesting.
They bid goodbye. Frances moved to her husband's side and Doyle remained where he was, watching Bodie walk away. He held his breath as he watched and waited... Bodie approached the churchyard gate, paused, turned his head and smiled at Ray, who raised his hand in farewell and returned the smile.
Doyle leaned back in his seat, closed his eyes and let the bright sunshine caress his face. Beside him Frances and Miss Hobbs were discussing the various ways of relieving aching feet. A mint footbath seemed to be most favoured. He failed to notice as silence gradually descended, revelling instead in the spring birdsong, the soft sunlight and the breeze blowing through his tousled curls.
Frances was regarding her brother with a mixture of affection and wonder. He was a complete enigma to her. Unmarried, and, as far she could fathom, never likely to be for all the interest he took in the subject, but as warm and compassionate a human being as any she had ever known. She loved him fiercely. He inspired devotion just by being and she knew he touched everyone he came into contact with in the same way. Sarah was no exception; seated opposite her, she was rapt, her attention completely occupied by the man beside them. Frances cleared her throat and Sarah jumped.
"Where was I? Oh yes, well, as I was saying. I sat in front of the nurse who was looking at my corns... she pulled out what can only be described as an instrument of torture and proceeded to poke at them until they bled. Well! I almost fainted my dear..."
As did Doyle! He came out of his reverie with a start, his face turning a peculiar shade of puce. He was saved by his sister.
"Ray, why don't you go and inspect the rose garden as we suggested?"
Ray was only too happy to oblige.
"Yes! Good idea, which way?"
"Oh just follow your nose," Miss Hobbs interjected. "Go straight ahead and then bear to the right, you can't miss it."
Doyle was less than confident, but set off rapidly in the general direction anyway. The gardens were in good order; even he, a horticultural imbecile could see that. Well tended and fully stocked, it was early in the gardening year yet, but he formed the opinion that given not too many weeks the whole place would be a riot of colour and perfume. Someone had their finger on the pulse here. Hastings, the head gardener? It was common knowledge that he was not a well man, had not been well enough, in fact, to perform his duties as he would have liked. So who? Bodie? Perhaps. If that was the case it was no wonder people were assuming the clamber for the position of head gardener was a one-horse race! Rounding a corner Doyle at last found someone to point him in the right direction. A motley band of workers were standing in one of the flower beds. They observed him warily as he approached.
Doyle greeted them. "Afternoon!"
Only one of them greeted him back. Perhaps they weren't used to strangers here.
"Lots to do eh? " Doyle persevered. "... just looking for the rose garden. Mr. Bodie is there I think?"
"That way" the same man volunteered "Through the gate there, along the path and through the gate at the end, can't miss it. "
Doyle had been told that one before. He left them to it, it seemed to him that the job they were doing had been completed and they were not clear what to do next. As he passed through the first gate he noticed that the bed to his right was in need of a good weeding. Possibly the pile of horse manure sitting nearby was intended for it, but perhaps the average gardener was not encouraged to think for himself.
At last Ray found what he had been looking for. The rose garden, while not yet in bloom, was still beautiful, surrounded as it was by a weathered, red brick wall. Wide beds lined the interior. A path ran inside that, and in the middle, huge rose beds containing what he presumed were many, many varieties of the flower. To his untrained eyes they looked incredibly healthy, just coming into bud. He assumed that in a few weeks this place would be a blaze of glory.
He looked around for Bodie, discovering him near the bottom of the garden, busy tying in a rambler that had blown loose in last night's high winds. He looked up as Doyle approached, his welcoming smile reaching his eyes as well as his mouth. Doyle took a steadying breath, and seated himself on the steps beside the bed where Bodie worked.
"Driven away by the corns, eh? " Bodie asked, his gaze still resting on Ray.
"Yes, found I didn't have the stomach for foot surgery after all!"
Bodie grinned broadly. "Her heart's in the right place..."
"Mmmmmm, not so sure about my lunch though." Doyle looked speculatively at the dark-haired gardener. "She seems to like you. I thought housekeepers were notoriously difficult to get on with?"
"First rule of survival in a big house like this, make sure you get in, and keep in, with the cook. Then if you can possibly manage it, the housekeeper. The cook? With my appetite? Easy! They like watching working men tuck into platefuls of food they've slaved over." He snorted. "She'd see you as a challenge though, better not take you within a mile of her kitchen or she'll pin you to a chair with those beefy arms of hers and force rice pudd'n down your throat, to fatten you up! And don't think your police training would help you either. Grown men think twice about confronting her, I can tell you! Don't you eat much?"
Doyle was laughing at the picture presented by Bodie.
"I'll bear that in mind! No, I'm a bit picky with food I suppose. Been ill too, don't forget. What about Miss Hobbs?"
"Her? Yes, well, she's nice enough already, just listened to a few foot woes, sympathised - "
"Smiled at her, batted your eyelids," Doyle interjected.
Bodie did at least have the decency to look slightly ashamed, but not for long.
"Think I might be good at that, do you?" he grinned.
"Just a wild guess, but yes, I think you'd use your charms to wrap some poor defenceless woman around your little finger." Ray was also grinning from ear to ear.
"Defenceless!! Oh now come on, you've seen her, you can't call that defenceless!!"
"I think anybody could be if you chose to make it so."
The smile had faded and Doyle directed an intense look at the gardener. Bodie's grin also disappeared and a brief moment of understanding passed silently between them. Was it Doyle's imagination or did the world stand still for several interminable seconds? This was rotting his brain!
"Did you pass a group of men clearing out a couple of flower beds on the way here?" Bodie broke the spell.
"The Three Musketeers? Yes...one of them eventually managed to point me in your direction."
"Which one was that? Think he needs promoting! What were they doing?" Bodie inquired.
"Standing round really. Looked like they'd finished and didn't know what to do next."
"And the bed by the gate? Done or not done, or didn't you notice?"
"Definitely not done," Doyle replied.
Bodie sighed, rose, smiled at Doyle and said, "Don't go away." Raising his eyebrows and twitching his lips in what Doyle thought to be rather a suggestive manner, he started off up the path.
"Better hurry," Doyle sniggered "One looked like he was dying for a pee, he might be tempted to water the roses unless you're there to tell him otherwise."
Too late. The words were out before he realised their implication. Hoping Bodie would not pick up on it was a lost cause. Doyle looked up as Bodie turned, eyes innocently wide.
"Yes, and there's no handy tree up there for him to do it against, is there? Probably just as well, wouldn't want anyone to catch him at it, would we?" and he actually winked!
With that he sauntered off. Doyle watched him go, mortification mixed with admiration. The man exuded authority. The set of his shoulders as he walked, the confident stride; he was in a different class to the others. If he did not actually want the head gardener's position then he was going to have an interesting time explaining himself. He was patently made for it, Ray simply couldn't imagine any reason for his reticence. It was perplexing.
He was still deep in thought when Bodie returned, the mischief still present in his eyes.
"Penny for 'em?" Bodie smiled
"I think you know. Don't you?" Doyle replied. "Not sure how though."
Doyle was having a hard time keeping a straight face with that rakish grin mocking him.
"Policeman aren't you?" He was still grinning.
"Should follow your own advice then."
"Which is?" Doyle felt he was permanently two steps behind this bewitching man.
The potting shed was situated in a quiet part of the garden, deserted on this warm, balmy day, presumably because other gardeners were out about their business or because it was off limits to them. The tying up finished, tools gathered, the inspection of the roses over, they headed off companionably in the direction of the shed. Walking side by side the pair looked as though they had always been together and always would...
Bodie unlocked the door, ushered Doyle in and set about restoring his tools to their rightful place. Doyle leaned against an old wooden cabinet and watched silently, taking in the scene. A man in his working clothes, but no less impressive for that; shirt stretched over a muscular frame, with the sleeves rolled up to reveal strong forearms. Doyle allowed his gaze to sweep down towards forbidden territory. The material of the trousers fitted snugly over a nicely shaped, "touchable" arse, accentuated even more as Bodie bent, one knee on the floor, to put something away in a cupboard. The bulge behind his fly buttons was nicely visible and Doyle's fingers itched as a stirring began in his groin.
"Like what you see?"
Doyle snapped out of it. Caught again. Was there no end to this?
"Sorry." There. It was out. Practically an admission that he was lusting after the other man, no point in denying it was there? He was acting like a love struck school-boy.
"No need to be, happens to us all. Why should you be immune?" Bodie's voice was like silk. That smile was back on his face again, along with a hint of danger lurking behind those eyelashes. Ray's heart was suddenly pounding very hard, within his chest, as Bodie moved towards him.
Doyle swallowed, hard, and just for the briefest of moments considered making a run for it. He actually glanced towards the door, but as he did so the other man stepped forward and roughly pulled him into his arms.
"Oh no you don't. Think you're going to make a run for it do you?" He held Doyle, challenging him provocatively
"Bodie! Someone might come!"
"Mmmmmm. Both of us with any luck." Bodie murmured, eyeing Ray's mouth.
"Oh very funny. Hey, what are you do..." Bodie silenced him with a finger on his lips, as he removed Doyle's tie one-handed.
"Be quiet, Ray," and he replaced the finger with his own lips.
Romantic literature always holds that the first kiss is by far the sweetest and Ray discovered to his amazement that this was utterly true. He floated away on a sea of sensation as Bodie's mouth covered his and then proceeded to suck, taste and probe until he opened his mouth and let the invader in. A shock travelled the entire length of Ray's body as their tongues met. Doyle clasped his arms around the gardener's waist to pull him still closer, needing the connection of groin against groin and groaning deep within his throat as contact was made. Their tongues played cat and mouse, sucking, chasing, stroking, until Bodie withdrew and bestowed soft kisses and nips on Doyle's chin and neck, undoing shirt buttons as he went, kissing a trail to first one nipple, suckling that and then on to the next. Ray was on fire, breathless and almost out of control, he grabbed a marauding hand and guided it towards his groin, desperate for release.
"Please..." he gasped, finding Bodie's mouth once more, and plundering it with his own tongue. "Need it..."
"Not yet. Wait."
"Yes, you can."
Bodie reached into a drawer beside them. Doyle was vaguely aware of some kind of jar, of his own and the other man's fly buttons opening as if by magic. He was turned around and as reality penetrated the fog, he was suddenly afraid and tensed.
"It's all right, I'm not going to do that. I promise I won't hurt you, ever. You know that,"
Bodie whispered reassuringly into his ear.
Ray breathed again, and relaxed against Bodie, watching as he put some of the cream onto his hand, liberally oiling his hands and his penis. Those lips were suddenly on the back of his neck, nibbling among his curls and driving him wild once again. Hands were on his arse separating his cheeks and a finger began probing. One hand reached around and began to stroke his cock, the oil creating unbelievable sensations. Just as he thought it could get no better, Bodie slid his penis between Doyle's cheeks and a slick finger, playing at the entrance to his anus, was pushed inside. He clenched his muscles to accept and encourage the interloper. Loving the slightly painful, sinful feeling of forbidden pleasure, he concentrated on the finger, on its smooth, erotic, rhythm as it thrust in and out.
The sensation of Bodie's cock sliding between his cheeks, the oiled, slippery hand pumping his cock and that finger probing deeper and deeper sent him over the edge in seconds. He shouted his release as semen spurted like a fountain from his cock, cascading over the hand that held it. Seconds later Bodie arrived at the same place. Doyle felt the finger leave his arse and a stiff, slick cock replace it, nudging at his anus. The eruption was almost instantaneous; hot milky semen spilled into the entrance until it could take no more, leaking over his cheeks and the hand of his seducer. Doyle shuddered sensually as he felt Bodie wipe the head of his penis on his backside, leaving an erotic trail of ejaculation snaking across his tingling skin.
Both men slumped, dead to the world, against the cabinet, completely exhausted and sated. When he eventually surfaced Doyle realised with amusement that Bodie was asleep and snoring gently in his ear.
"Wake up! Hey! You're squashing me!"
"Mmm? Oh, sorry." A sigh. "You forgot again."
Bodie was chuckling. "To come quietly!!!"
Bodie straightened up with difficulty, and inspected his new lover. Raymond Doyle leant, with his head back against the wood, his laughter spilling over, until he was helpless. He was leaning against the cabinet, his clothes in complete disarray. Shirt open to the waist, he had at least managed to pull his trousers up, but they remained open with his limp penis on display, as though he was somehow proud of what he had just achieved and did not yet want to hide the evidence. He looked a complete wanton, a free spirit, something that inhabited the woods that Bodie loved so much. It was frightening. This imp would have the power of life and death over him. He knew it with complete certainty and was momentarily terrified until the free spirit put out his hand, touched his cheek and whispered...
"I think love you."
The path through the woods was muddy and Ray watched his footing as he walked. The rain that had fallen all day yesterday had left the entire countryside sparkling. The fresh, clean air filled his lungs and it felt good to be alive. He'd strained at the leash a little yesterday, not wanting to be in the vicarage at all, but the day was abysmal and his sister had insisted, that he stay at home. He'd helped her with the parish newsletter, and decided, ironically, that he actually had quite a talent for it. He wondered what the men at the police station would have made of his colourful description of the Flower Arrangers meeting that he'd never, mercifully, attended. Looking up at the sky through the trees, it looked like a shower was about to descend. He quickened his pace and then began to run, telling himself that he hated to get wet but knowing all the while that he would get to Bodie quicker if he ran. Some minutes later he was approaching the kitchen garden, just ahead of the rain, feeling as though he had run three miles, not several hundred yards. His lungs were bursting and he put a hand against the wall to steady himself, his face grey with the effort. If he could just have a few moments to recover he would be all right, but a shadow blocked out the sun, a steadying arm was placed around his waist and a concerned voice was speaking to him.
"Lean on me, come on."
Bodie. He didn't need to be asked twice and allowed himself to be led along the path to the kitchen door. The arm felt wonderful, safe and comforting; he pressed his head into Bodie's neck as they entered the porch. Bodie reached for the latch and bestowed the very gentlest of kisses against Ray's forehead.
They entered the kitchen and Cook immediately began to cluck, rushing for an old crocheted blanket and filling a teapot from the ever boiling kettle on the range. Hot sweet tea was placed in front of him. Cocooned in the multi-coloured blanket, he at long last began to warm up, and cook looked much happier.
"Thanks." Ray smiled gratefully at her.
"That's all right lovely. After all, we can't go breaking the eleventh commandment now can we?"
Doyle looked at her, frowning.
She enlightened him. "Thou shalt not die in my kitchen!"
The two men grinned stupidly at each other as cook went off to make some pastry.
The grin on Bodie's face disappeared as she left and was replaced by a worried frown.
"What the hell do you think you're playing at, Ray?"
"What do you think you're doing? Do you know how ill you've been? You almost died, y'know, and here you are gallivanting around the countryside in the rain like you're on holiday!"
Large eyes stared back at him. "I just wanted to see you, I would have come yesterday but Frances put her foot down!"
Bodie practically exploded. "I should bloody well think so too! Are you mad?"
"You should be pleased I wanted to see you!" Doyle replied defensively.
"Yeah and a lot of good you'll be to me dead!" Bodie struggled to keep his temper.
Doyle's breathing began to labour again, coming in gasps and Bodie backed off.
He put his hand into the auburn curls and caressed Ray's head which subsequently settled onto his shoulder.
"Sorry," Doyle apologised.
"It's all right."
"No, it was stupid."
Bodie glanced towards Cook to check that she wasn't paying attention. She stood with her back to them, up to her elbows in flour and deep into the second verse of Abide With Me. He pulled Ray gently into his arms and held him close, drinking in the his very essence. He closed his eyes momentarily, but shook himself as he suddenly realised Cook had reached the final verse. Putting Doyle from him, he looked up as she waddled to the scullery to fetch some water, sincerely hoping that smile on her face was not a knowing one.
The shower had been brief, but heavy, and in the warm sun the kitchen garden was steaming. Cook had asked Bodie to pick her some rhubarb for the evening meal and she'd nudged Doyle conspiratorially while Bodie was taking the cups to the skivvy.
"Pays to look after the head gardener, you know, Mr. Doyle. I cook an excellent fruit cake and he knows it, " she winked. "That way I get his best efforts in the garden. Grows a beautiful bit of rhubarb, does Mr. Bodie"
Another one assuming the new head gardener was already among them. Bodie returned and they headed up towards the rhubarb patch. Doyle was ordered to sit, so he perched himself on a low wall and watched as the other man skilfully began to pull the sticks without snapping them in half. Fine healthy stuff. Cook was right, he knew how to grow rhubarb. Doyle had no idea whether it was difficult or easy but he felt stupidly proud anyway. But there was something he needed to know. Nothing ventured...
"You don't think you'll get this job then?"
Bodie's head came up and Doyle watched as a wariness settled about him. Curious.
"Why's that?" Doyle persevered.
Bodie had discarded his jacket in the warm, steamy heat.
"Wonder how much of this she wants. Did she say how many she was feeding?" he asked, continuing to tug at the defiant sticks.
Doyle shook his head, "No. I said why's that? "
"I heard what you said."
"So are you going to answer me?" Doyle was struggling, manfully, to contain his irritation.
"Look. I've got my reasons, they're nothing to do with you and I'd rather not talk about it." The rhubarb was now on the receiving end of some rather severe punishment.
"End of subject?"
Doyle was not intending to let it go without a fight.
"Well aren't you at least going to try? You're going to give the job away, is that it? For God's sake Bodie!!"
The shutters had come down. Bodie was wearing an expression he hadn't seen before, mutely defiant, stubborn, but Doyle was also an expert at stubborn.
"Will you talk to me?" He let out an exasperated sigh. "I might be able to help you. No problem is insoluble!"
Bodie was now standing over the compost heap, twisting off the large green leaves of the rhubarb, plainly angry, judging by the treatment he was giving it. To Doyle, who had only minutes before been in the man's arms, he seemed suddenly a stranger.
He moved to Bodie's side..
"Bodie," softly. He put his hand gently on the man's shoulder. "If you can't tell me who can you tell?"
"I don't actually want to discuss it with anyone, Ray. Now if you'll kindly excuse me, some of us have to work for a living." Doyle's hand was thrust roughly to one side and Bodie began to walk away.
"Have you been in prison?" It stopped the gardener in his tracks.
"WHAT?!!" He turned to face Doyle.
"Is that what you think?" Bodie's expression was suddenly very, very hard. Doyle realised he'd overstepped the mark.
"How can I know what to think if you won't talk to me?"
Bodie retraced his steps to where Doyle stood.
"It's nice to know you have such unswerving faith in my character, Ray."
His voice was ominously quiet. The two men faced each other for several seconds before Bodie turned on his heels and strode away.
Well, that went well, Doyle mused as he made his way home. Their fledgling, precarious relationship was in tatters already. So this was love? He thought love was about sharing, and that meant troubles as well as the good things. If Bodie loved him he would confide, which meant... He realised with a start that the man had not actually said the words. They'd shared total intimacy two days ago. For Doyle it was an expression of his very new found love, but for Bodie? It was obvious he was far more experienced than Doyle in that department. Would he do such things without emotional involvement? Doyle simply did not know. He was sure he'd read affection in those eyes but he was not experienced enough to be sure and the way things stood at the moment it was possible he might never know. The realisation made him ache inside. There had to be an answer to this. Should he go back now and sort it out? He stopped and looked back along the path, in two minds. Eventually he came to the conclusion that it might be better to let the dust settle and return tomorrow.
Events of course intervened. The following day, as Ray sat in the Vicarage conservatory, supposedly reading but in fact staring out of the window deep in thought, his sister entered.
"Bad news, Ray."
He sat up instantly alarmed.
"Mr. Hastings, the head gardener, had a massive stroke last night, I'm afraid he didn't survive it."
Doyle was ashamed to be relieved. His first thought was that something had happened to Bodie. Garden accidents were hardly uncommon.
He nodded at Frances. "I'm sorry to hear that. What will happen now?"
"The funeral will be in a few days, I presume. The garden will continue to be run by Mr. Bodie until the new man is appointed."
Ray acknowledged her with another nod, and as Frances left the room returned once again to his cogitations.
He stood in the yard outside the potting shed watching Bodie working inside. His heart in his mouth, he eventually approached the door and knocked. It was opened and the two men regarded each other warily. Bodie stepped aside as Doyle entered.
"I just came to say I'm sorry," Doyle began.
The question completely flummoxed Ray.
"Uh... I didn't want to leave it like that...I mean..." He was struggling to find the words, so many things he wanted to ask and couldn't. Do you love me? How could he ask that of this cold hard man standing before him, a stranger. He wished he hadn't come. That ache was there again, a lump in his throat keeping it company.
"Look, I'm busy. What do you want, Doyle?"
Hope died. Loved? How could he be loved? This man was making his contempt very plain. How could he have made such a mistake, been so completely and utterly wrong about someone? He had no answer.
"I heard that Hastings had died." One more try. "I thought... wondered...what you were going to do."
"Not that it's any business of yours, but I haven't decided." Bodie's face wore a closed expression.
"Not my business? After what we did, here in this shed? Or did I dream that? Did I, Bodie, or were you really here with me?"
"What, that? " The smile was cold, cynical. "Oh come on, you're not getting hysterical over a quick fumble now are you? Admittedly, it was pleasant enough, but to tell the truth I'm used to a bit more experience." He cleared his throat. "If you understand me?"
Ray had no idea that anyone could inflict such pain until that moment. Unable to think of anything to say he stared wordlessly at Bodie for several moments and then began to back towards the door. He stumbled over something, landed on the floor, got blindly to his feet and bolted.
Bodie waited until Ray had disappeared from sight, walked out of the door to the waste area at the back of the shed, and emptied the entire contents of his stomach onto the ground.
Doyle lay once more in a huddle on his bed. This was fast becoming a habit. The humiliation of the scene in the potting shed was too much to bear. He had thought, stupidly, that his innocence in matters of the flesh would be of no consequence, possibly even part of his charm! To discover that his lover had not been satisfied had been like a physical blow; his inadequacy had been thrown back in his face in a manner which made it plain to Doyle that Bodie had been playing with him. No emotions had been involved on his part, he'd merely been passing the time, and Ray had provided instant gratification at a convenient moment. Doyle did not think it was possible to feel more miserable. On returning home, after wandering for many hours in the woods, distraught, he'd been relieved to hear from Cook that Frances and Percy were dining with friends that evening and he had a cold supper waiting for him. She was looking at him oddly and offered to have the maid run a bath. Doyle refused, telling her that he was just tired and needed an early night. He had no idea what she was thinking, and, quite frankly, was past caring.
Undressing and getting into bed, Doyle had pulled the bedclothes over his head and proceeded to wallow in his own distress. After several hours he had no tears left. Mentally bruised and wounded and in need of comfort, his hand went to his penis. The warmth of his palm around his shaft was reassuring. He stroked himself gently, then more urgently as he remembered the sensations aroused by a probing finger, the feel of a wet tongue invading his mouth, dark brooding eyes.... Whimpering gently, his release was suddenly upon him, milky fluid spurted into his hand. Gasping he massaged it into the head of his cock and collapsed into the pillow, his last lucid thought being that pleasuring himself in this way was never again going to be quite enough.
Frances was eating breakfast when her brother joined her the next morning. She was shocked to see his condition. Arriving home last night to discover that Cook had waited up to report her concern for him was no preparation for the reality. Ray's face was drawn, he had deep bags under his eyes, but it was the look in those eyes which disturbed her the most. She'd been sure that Cook had exaggerated when she described it as "wild" but now realised she had not. What had happened? He'd gone up to the big house, that much she knew. Discovering the truth was not going to be easy. You had to be clever to extract information which he did not necessarily want you to have.
"Good morning, Raymond."
"Help yourself to food, there's bacon, eggs, sausages, tomatoes, mushrooms, all on the sideboard there."
She saw his face pale, and wondered guiltily if it was possible that she said these things on purpose.
"No thanks, I'll just have some tea," he told her.
Frances sighed loudly, looked him boldly in the eye, and gave him a stern lecture on the perils of not eating breakfast. The diatribe over, he capitulated and reached for a piece of toast. She watched as he ate, clearly forcing it down. Something was obviously very much the matter.
"Did you go up to the house yesterday? I meant to give you a book to take up for Sarah. Mrs. Luscombe's latest gothic romance, better even than her last one I do believe!"
Her brother was looking at her in mock horror, his mouth full of toast but his eyes losing the awful dead look at last.
"You don't read that trash do you? I hope Percy doesn't find out!"
"My reading material is no business of my husband's, Ray, or yours for that matter!"
He grinned at her, his chipped tooth on display, the result of a childhood accident. It was odd how it somehow added to his charm now that he was an adult.
"Nice to see Percy doesn't get it all his own way!"
Frances gave him an admonishing glare and then continued.
"Will you be going up again today? "
The smile faded.
This was proving more difficult than she had anticipated.
"Won't Mr. Bodie miss your chats?"
Her brother looked strangely at her. She had the oddest feeling she was missing something hugely important and that it was within her grasp if she could only ask the right question.
"I thought you had become rather good friends?" she persevered.
"So did I. But it seems I was mistaken." His flat tone spoke volumes.
She reached across the table and laid her hand on his. "Tell me."
The hopelessness was in his eyes again.
"He... well... it's just that... he's given up all hope of getting this head gardener's position before he's even tried. And I don't understand." He shook his head, his brow wrinkled in frustration. "I've tried asking him but he just clams up. It's like trying to get blood out of a stone."
His distress was clear for all to see, and Frances knew then she was indeed missing a vital piece of information. He was not giving her the full picture. Should she push? Gentle persuasion was called for, she decided.
"Yes, I've noticed on several occasions that he has corrected Sarah when she's assumed he will get the position. Have you any idea at all, Ray, why he should feel this way? I gather that, despite his lack of years - head gardeners do tend to be over 45 - he is a most excellent worker. Able to take responsibility - and I'm sure you know how hard it is to get people to do that - willing to experiment with new ideas and certainly not workshy. Why on earth should he be so lacking in confidence? He's the obvious person for the job, even the estate manager thinks so!"
"Then what the hell is all this 'testing' rubbish about?"
"Language, Raymond. His Lordship..."
"Oh yes, I might have known it was down to His High and Mighty Lordship!" Doyle spat out before she had time to continue.
"What's the matter with them? Not happy owning all the land in the country, they have to own the people too! Makes me sick..."
"Sorry. But you know how I feel." His face was mutinous.
"Yes I do. And to a certain extent I agree, but only up to a point. It has to be said that the big houses of this country employ thousands of people, Ray, who otherwise would have scant opportunity to earn enough to live."
"It's exploitation of the poorly educated and you know it!"
They looked daggers at each other across the table. It was pointless arguing. It wouldn't change anything - something catastrophic would be needed for that and then, and only then, would things be different.
She looked at him across the table from her, arms folded, face full of indignation because the world was not perfect, and wished with all her heart it could be otherwise to make him happy.
"Bodie," she said. The information she required was not yet in her possession.
"Mr. Bodie. Why is he your problem Ray? Is this merely a policeman's interest in a mystery? I know how you'll always have to know everything." Her face became intent. "Or is this something else?"
He stared at her, wide-eyed with confusion and fear, yes, fear. She continued to look at him for several very long seconds until he dropped his eyes and looked away, his face flushed. Frances stood at last and went to stand behind her brother. She put a hand on each shoulder and leant down to place a gentle kiss in his curls.
Sighing inwardly, she wondered if life was this complicated for everyone. Why had God not seen fit to provide her with the ability to view the world only as black or white? Had he given her tolerance and understanding for a reason? She was hopeful of finding the answer one day. In the meantime she was a woman with a mission.
She walked across the room to pick up a book from the table.
"I'm going to stroll up to the house to give this to Sarah. Would you like to come with me, Ray?"
Staring into the distance, her brother silently shook his head.
Frances was striding out purposefully towards the long greenhouse situated behind the kitchen garden. Her talk first with Sarah and then Cook had been fruitful. She'd subsequently asked Sarah if she could have a rummage in the big box of books that had been collected for the Church Fete later in the summer. Amongst them she had found what she was looking for. Sheer luck - or perhaps Percy was indeed correct when he pontificated about small miracles when you least expected them. She was clutching it now and looking for someone in particular. She found him in the greenhouse, dark head lowered, pricking out seedlings.
She coughed and he looked up, smiling as he recognised her. Frances found herself looking at him with completely new eyes. Traditionally dark and - yes - very handsome, but there was something else. His eyes mirrored his soul. It was like looking into the deepest depths of the ocean and she had no trouble understanding her brother's bruised heart.
"Mrs. Thomas. How nice to see you. How are you today?"
His smile was quite charming. She had no idea why she had not noticed it before. "I'm exceedingly well, thank you, how are you?"
He blinked at her and she saw something reflected in his eyes. Pain?
"Never better," he replied. "Is there something I can do for you?"
"Well, yes... no, not exactly. It's just that I was having a quick look at the box of books Miss Hobbs has so kindly collected for me -for the church fete you know - and I came across this little gem. Far too nice to be bought for a pittance at the fete and I rather thought you might be interested in it. It's 'Roses of the British Isles'." The title was emblazoned across the front cover in gold letters. "Of course I do realise that you probably have very little to learn about roses from a book like this, an expert like you, but the illustrations are so very beautiful," she continued, "I thought you would give it a good home," and she handed Bodie the book.
His reaction touched her. He appeared genuinely delighted, staring at the book as though he had been handed the crown jewels. He rewarded her with the most dazzling of smiles, thanking her with gratitude which she knew instinctively was sincere. She smiled back at him and took her leave.
Walking back along the path, she reflected idly on the talent a few individuals seemed to possess of cheering up one's day with just a smile. It seemed churlish to wish that her life's partner possessed this gift. She was lucky, thousands would envy her her life. Hankering after a nice smile was unworthy of her and she berated herself.
Such a beautiful smile.
At dinner that night Ray was again picking at his food. Over the years Frances had eventually managed to control her exasperation with him, but it was hard. She remembered their mother being at her wit's end, but Frances had observed that Ray's sparrow's diet seemed to affect his ability to function not one jot. In fact he was speedier across the ground than most and never lacked energy. So she ignored it as best she could and instead told him about her afternoon.
"I went up to see Sarah today, Ray."
He looked up. "Is she well?"
"Oh yes, very, thank you. Her feet seem to be having a quiet period." She winked at him. "I also saw Mr. Bodie."
He gave her a sharp look. "Really?"
"Mmmmm yes. I found a book I thought he would especially like in Sarah's Fete box and took it along to the greenhouse to give to him."
Doyle was regarding her with a look of amused affection.
"A book? I'm not sure that he reads books."
"Good grief, Raymond." Percy, who had been silent, was suddenly taking notice of their conversation. "Everybody reads books these days!"
"Is that so, Percy?" his wife replied, her eyebrows raised, questioning him.
Frances turned her gaze towards Ray, awaiting the moment of revelation. It was not long in coming. He was staring open-mouthed at Percy. He blinked and turned large stunned eyes towards his sister.
"What was the book called?"
"'A Collection of English Roses'."
"What did you tell him it was called?"
"'Roses of the British Isles'."
Doyle was silent for a long moment. Then: "Perhaps he was just being polite, didn't like to correct you?"
Frances shook her head. "No, Ray, he didn't know the difference."
Her brother sat back in his chair, speechless. He looked at her, hope in his eyes, she had none to offer.
"The days when a head gardener could cope without having to read and write are long gone. They have to keep journals, be able to account for expenditure. Do you know what the latest thing is? A company has set up business selling packets of seeds. They say it's bound to catch on. If he can't read the packets he's lost. And he knows it. I'm so sorry Ray."
He pushed his plate away, most of the food still left on the plate. It took very little to rob Ray of his appetite, and Frances, realising the importance of her news to him, was not surprised when he did not touch another bite.
Doyle lay in bed thinking long into the night. It was pointless ranting and railing about the injustices of the world. The facts were before him, indisputable, the question was could he do something about it? The first obstacle was Bodie's pride. Doyle did not intend to underestimate that, it was huge barrier and he would need to be treated with kid gloves. The second question was, could Raymond Doyle teach someone to read and write? He had absolutely no idea. It was, of course, too late for this occasion, but if he could persuade Bodie to remain employed here, as a gardener, not to go off and lick his wounds, then he was hopeful of ensuring this would never happen again.
He rose early the next day and left a message with Cook that he would probably be quite late returning that night. Frances would understand. She'd know he was on a crusade. The hatchet needed burying and the onus was on him. He now knew the facts. Almost certainly the man he loved had attempted to alienate him, probably out of shame, assuming that when Doyle discovered his new lover was illiterate - had to sign his name with a mark for goodness sake - he would be repelled. Wrong. He didn't know Raymond Doyle! He strode through the early morning mist that enveloped the trees, too lost in thought to notice the beauty around him. On his face was a grim, determined look, that only Frances, among his closest relatives, would have been willing to confront.
He slowed as he neared the house. Thinking more clearly, he calmed himself; this would need careful handling. His fist course of action was get Bodie back, slowly. The man had to know that Doyle, shocked though he was at his previous treatment, was not going to be put off as easily as that.
Where to find him? The main activity in mid-May was probably among the vegetables so Doyle headed off towards the kitchen garden. He was correct in his assumption. He leaned against the entrance, slightly hidden from view. Bodie and another man were constructing some kind of wigwam affair from what looked like thin branches of tree. A whole row of them. Presumably something was going to be planted to grow up the canes, but it seemed bizarre to Ray.
Doyle started, taken by surprise.
"John Perkins," the man held out his hand.
Doyle regarded a tall, jolly looking man with an open countenance of about middle-age - he liked him immediately. Ray took the proffered hand and shook it warmly, smiling.
"Raymond Doyle. I'm Reverend Thomas's brother-in-law. I hope you don't mind me intruding, I seem to have developed an interest in your superb garden here." Well it was half true. He thought it prudent not to add that he was finding the gardener more fascinating than the garden.
"Ahhhhhh, I thought you must be he! No no, goodness no, you're always welcome to come and see what we're up to here, we do some quite interesting things you know!" Wagging his finger at Ray. "His Lordship is quite forward thinking as regards horticulture. Do come up and see what we're up to up here, I think you already know Mr. Bodie?"
Doyle slid an amused sideways look at the estate manager. He was curious to know how the man knew that.
"As a matter of fact yes." Ray gave him a quizzical look.
"Cook," Perkins explained grinning. " In charge of the jungle drums y'know," grinning even wider. "Your health is improving?"
"Yes, but it's slow. The Doctor thinks it'll be a couple of months yet before I can go back to my job. I'm a policeman."
"Hmmmm yes....if at all, I would have thought."
Doyle looked at him sharply.
"Why do you say that?"
"Bad attack you had. Not exactly good for the lungs, old chap. Need to be fit for what you do, eh?"
"Yes." It was the first intimation Doyle had heard that there could be any doubt he would return and it came as quite a shock. Lost in thought he followed the estate manager up the slope to where the two men were working.
"Brought a friend up for you, Mr. Bodie," Perkins proclaimed loudly. Doyle wondered if the man was ever anything other than cheerful.
Bodie was on his knees with his back to them, planting what Ray assumed were the beans. He looked up his eyes registering shock at seeing Doyle.
Recovering quickly, he greeted them both. "Good morning!"
Doyle nodded. "Hello. Nice to see you again"
"I didn't expect to see you again... so soon." He was looking pointedly at Ray.
They were conversing in code.
"Yes, well, I'm quite difficult to shake off once I get my teeth into something." He was looking intently at the Bodie. Perkins and the other gardener were seemingly oblivious.
"I see. Well, I'll have to bear that in mind next time I have work to do in the potting shed, eh?"
There was amusement in the voice and Doyle's lips twitched. The ice had been broken; there was laughter in Bodie's eyes and Doyle was exultant. It was only the first step but it was a start.
Next thing he knew, Perkins was taking him on a tour of the kitchen garden, telling him far more than he ever wanted to know about compost heaps, cabbage root fly and the perils of late frosts. Talking was obviously a major preoccupation with the estate manager and Doyle was actually proud of his attempt to look fascinated.
They returned to where the two men were working, now poking huge twigs into the soil.
"Peas," said Perkins as though he were unveiling the secrets of the universe.
Doyle was having a hard time keeping a straight face. Perkins went off to attend to something and Doyle perched himself on plank stretched across two piles of bricks and contentedly took in the scene around him. The garden was obviously productive, full to bursting with every imaginable fruit and vegetable and alive with insects and birds.
His gaze rested on Bodie, his head bent, intent on his task. As he watched, Doyle saw the man's hand steal slowly into his waistcoat pocket. Riveted, he saw it emerge; then Bodie stretched his arm out full length, the hand flat, and stayed motionless. For a few moments nothing happened. Suddenly a small robin actually landed on the tips of his fingers and began to peck at what were presumably breadcrumbs. Doyle was astonished and watched, entranced as the robin finished the crumbs and returned to the ground to search for worms in the newly tilled soil. Bodie glanced at Doyle as he returned to the task in hand, the look slightly shy, embarrassed. Doyle smiled to himself. This man was not capable of hating anyone. Hurt, confusion, fear? Yes. Hate? No.
Ray was being shaken awake. He came to groggily not knowing where he was. When he realised he'd dropped off in the sunshine he was embarrassed.
He blinked, rubbing his eyes. Bodie's hand was shaking his shoulder.
"C'mon Ray, lunchtime!!"
"Oh...uh...I didn't bring any. You go on, I'm not bothered."
He was ignored and found himself being hoisted to his feet and little short of marched down the garden to the entrance to the kitchen. Giving Bodie what he thought was one of his best intimidating looks and receiving Bodie's innocent smile in return, he resigned himself to his fate. A seat opposite Bodie was found for him and Doyle looked around. Sundry staff were present: maids, footmen, a few unwed gardeners with no wives to cook a midday meal for them. The place at the head of the table was taken by a sandy-haired Scot, who Doyle decided was probably the butler; he believed that was the place of honour traditionally reserved for the head of the indoor staff.
Roused from his deliberations Doyle suddenly found a very large plate of food placed in front of him. He stared at it, horrified. A meat pie of some description, potatoes and at least four vegetables. Excellent fare, but his heart sank at the idea that he would have to finish all of it. All around him hungry mouths were tucking in. Doyle resolved to do his best.
The meal was delicious. "Beef and Ale Pie," he was informed by the man next to him, but halfway through he began to stagger. Cook, to his dismay, seemed to have picked him to cluck over, encouraging him to eat up as there was more where that came from! Doyle visibly paled. He looked at Bodie, his eyes pleading for help. Bodie glanced at Cook who was busy clearing up, reached over and grabbed Doyle's plate. He scraped some onto his own plate, some onto the strapping lad's seated next to him, and, leaving just enough not to arouse suspicion, gave it back. Ray gratefully cleared the few scraps and mercifully the plate was removed by one of the kitchen helpers.
He realised though that the ordeal was not yet over - pudding was surely to follow? His luck was in. Instead of the imagined huge sponge pudding or fruit pie, a dish of bananas and custard was duly placed in front of him. It slipped down, though it was a close thing, and he finished the biggest meal he had ever eaten with a huge sigh of relief. People began to drift away, dishes were cleared, until eventually Bodie and Doyle were the only ones left and mugs of tea were placed in front of them.
"Thanks, Twirly," Bodie smiled at the kitchen maid. She grinned provocatively at both men and Doyle wondered if she knew she wasting her time. Evidently, because she soon left them to it. The place was deserted except for them, Cook having gone off to see Miss Hobbs to arrange the next days menus.
"Twirly? I bet the vicar thought that was unusual when he wet her head," Doyle observed wryly.
"Haven't been here long enough to know what her proper name is. Most people think its because she does beautiful twirls in the village hall when they have country dances," Bodie explained.
"Mmmmmmmm." Bodie was barely concealing his amusement.
"Come on then, tell me."
Bodie was grinning broadly now. "Farm lads'll tell you that she's got this habit of 'Comin' too early' in the height of passion up in the hay loft. Get it?"
He was laughing outright by now and Doyle joined in, their laughter filling the entire kitchen. Consumed with the giggles they took a while to stop but on doing so found themselves staring into each other's eyes. Doyle's heart skipped a beat and panicking slightly he quickly picked up the cups and took them through to the small deserted scullery at the rear of the kitchen. He heard the scrape of the chair behind him and knew he would be followed. Placing the cups on the draining board he found Bodie in front of him when he turned around.
"I suppose we ought to get back or the Perkins will be looking for you?"
"No, he always has a half hour nap after his lunch, and the lads all have their jobs for the afternoon."
Bodie was very close now, eyes focussed on Doyle's mouth. The kiss when it came was delicious in its sensuality. He opened his mouth to his lover's insistent probing, revelling in the eroticism of the exchange as they almost devoured each other. When Bodie began to nip at his neck, bite his ear lobe and thrust his tongue in and out of his ear, Doyle lost it. The disappointment he felt when proceedings were suddenly brought to a halt by Bodie, almost shattered him.
"Wait, wait, wait!" Bodie gasped, grasping hold of Ray's shirt.
"What!?" Ray pleaded, "why are you stopping? It's good." Breathlessly, "I want some more!"
Bodie leered at him. "Fine, you can have as much as you want, but not here, it's not safe."
His words eventually penetrated the fog of Ray's brain. He didn't resist as Bodie grabbed his arm, propelled him out of the scullery, through the kitchen and out into the yard. They dashed like schoolboys through the garden, eventually reaching the potting shed. Bodie lunged at the door, all fingers and thumbs as he tried to get it unlocked. After what seemed like an eternity they gained entrance, slamming the door behind them and bolting it from inside.
"Now, where were we?" Bodie was leering once again.
Doyle was filled with delicious anticipation. He slipped his hand inside Bodie's shirt and squeezed each nipple in turn.
"Here I think." His tongue teased each one to a peak. "And here."
He trailed his tongue down Bodie's chest to his navel and circled it before thrusting it in and out. Bodie let out a gasp and grabbing Ray by the shoulders, brought him upright, claiming his mouth once more. Deep, plundering kisses sent them out of control, until eventually, whimpering and breathless, open flies revealed straining erections.
Doyle tried frantically to reach for Bodie's cock, but was stopped. Eyes questioning, he watched as the other man knelt, realising what he intended to do. His shock hardly had time to register before ecstasy washed over him like a tidal wave; the sensation of a wet, wayward tongue tasting and licking his most sensitive part was like nothing he had ever felt in his life. He grasped Bodie's head, raking his hands through the dark hair and moaning as the man let saliva fall from his mouth onto the knob of Ray's penis. With his tongue he proceeded to spread it in a circular motion, it was too much. As his manhood disappeared in front of him into a wet accommodating mouth, Doyle spurted hot fluid, gush after gush hitting the back of his lover's throat, until, spent, his knees gave way and he was on the floor with Bodie, in his arms, being cradled like a baby. Several minutes later he surfaced to find blue eyes watching him.
"You all right?" Bodie sounded concerned.
"Yeah, lost control completely."
A stunning grin was Bodie's reply to this revelation.
"That's the idea." He placed a kiss on Ray's lips.
"Oh really, I won't hold back like that next time, then," sniggered Doyle when he was, at last, released.
He pressed an experimental kiss against Bodie's chest, licked, and tasted his skin and nibbled at the man's nipples which elicited a groan from deep within him. This was almost as nice as receiving it. He continued on, kissing down to Bodie's navel once again, and, using his tongue as before, began to probe. His partner whimpered and began to lose his control. Pleased at his success Ray moved down further to the beautiful proud cock, erect and ready...
"You don't have to do that if you don't want to," Bodie told him.
He was breathing heavily, very aroused. Doyle smiled devilishly, poked his tongue out at him and then let it snake from the base of Bodie's penis to the head. Bodie gasped audibly. A very wet open kiss caressed the knob. Doyle found it to be like silk on his tongue. His own penis even twitched in response. Bodie's eyes were completely glazed. Sucking, tasting, exploring the rim with his tongue, Ray cupped the man's balls with his hand and squeezed gently, caressing them. Bodie was out of control; thrusting into the willing mouth he put his head back and yelled, releasing his semen like a fountain deep into Doyle who was swallowing until he could swallow no more. The last drops ran down his chin, and he wiped them onto his finger, sucking them to savour the taste. Bodie grinned weakly at him.
Doyle grinned at him lecherously.
"Think I must be, I like this far too much. Was it..." He didn't know how to ask "I mean.... did you enjoy it? I know that I'm more than a bit virginal." He looked away still searching for the right words. "But I'm willing to learn, Bodie, just want it to be as good for you as you make it for me. Tell me what you like and I'll do -"
His words were cut short as he was snatched into a pair of strong arms. He was rocked back and forth, the air practically squeezed out of him. Untangling himself he took Bodie by the shoulders and looked deep into those very blue eyes.
"What? What have I said?"
"God, Ray if could take it back I would, but I can't, I didn't mean it, I swear it!"
Bodie was sniffing loudly and obviously trying to restore some of his lost dignity. Kneeling in front of him Doyle thought that he'd never loved him more. There was one more question to be answered. He took a deep breath.
"Do you love me?"
Was it his imagination or were Bodie's eyes looking decidedly watery?
"Do you trust me, Bodie?"
"Then everything's going to be all right."
The two men emerged, blinking into the sunlight, the shade of potting shed giving way to the heat of the early afternoon sun. Walking together along the garden path, their closeness was apparent to anyone who cared to observe them closely enough. Laughing together as they shared a joke, touching briefly, as one stood aside to let the other enter the kitchen garden first, the signs were there. The estate manager was waiting for them by the newly erected bean supports.
Bodie apparently had more seeds to sow. "Peas!" Perkins gleefully announced, Doyle decided it must be really wonderful to love your work, and turned away to hide a smile. Bodie was about to move off when Perkins spoke again.
"I was wondering if you would care to stroll up to the stables with me. Our horses are particularly fine but we also have some fascinating new machinery I thought you might like to take a look at?"
Bodie's head snapped around and he butted in quickly before Doyle had a chance answer.
"Ray doesn't really have much of an interest in horses, do you, Ray?"
Ray was astonished at the statement, and shrugged.
Perkins wasn't giving up easily. "No but the new machinery is wonderful, you must come and see, Doyle."
Neither was Bodie apparently. "Didn't you say something about popping in to see Miss Hobbs this afternoon? An errand for your sister?"
It was the first Doyle had heard of it! Plainly Bodie did not want him anywhere near the stables, which of course meant that Doyle was determined to go.
"I can do that later. Yes, I would like to see the stables. I don't know much about horses or machinery but I'm always willing to learn."
"That's the spirit!!" Perkins enthused, heading off.
"Ray..." Bodie put his hand on Doyle's arm.
"Look. What kind of trouble can I get into with a load of horse manure? Anyway, I'm probably safer with him than with you; he doesn't walk around with his pockets full of breadcrumbs!" He grinned and raised his eyebrows.
Bodie sheepishly returned the grin.
"Stay with him, will you, Ray? Don't wander away."
Doyle frowned at his lover, but before he could ask what he meant, Perkins was back to see where his charge had got to, and they set off.
The first thing Doyle noticed was the smell, which reminded him why he was not keen on horses. He had been known to ride on occasions, but would never describe himself as a confident rider.
The second thing that struck him was the atmosphere in the stables. It seemed uneasy, the people wary. Perkins was talking to a man a few yards away and several minutes later brought him over for an introduction. This turned out to be Kemp, the head groom, a man slightly smaller than Doyle with the kind of piercing eyes that looked right through you. Doyle, used to making snap judgements about people, took a very instant dislike, in fact it was no exaggeration to say that his skin crawled. Perkins left him to speak to one of the grooms. Doyle wandered towards one of the stallions, a majestic, beautiful animal that Doyle believed was called a "grey". He was suddenly no longer alone; Kemp had come up behind him. Ray made to move away but the man started to speak.
"Have you ever seen anything like that?" Looking at the stallion. "Got a cock longer than your arm. Would fuck mares all day if you let him."
Doyle squirmed; this was not a conversation he wished to have. He gave a non-committal reply and moved away quickly. Kemp was repulsive and he had the feeling that the man had actually enjoyed Doyle's discomfort. He spotted a harmless looking old mare in one box and stopped to stroke her, bumping into a young lad. The boy almost jumped out of his skin and moved away as fast as he could. This really was one of the oddest places he had ever set foot in. He would not be sorry to leave. Perkins appeared as if by magic, a smile in place, as always. The atmosphere here did not seem to affect him, and thankfully they moved off to inspect the new machinery which the man had been so keen for him to see.
As he strolled back towards the kitchen garden Doyle reflected on a strange afternoon. The machinery had been interesting enough, if you liked that sort of thing, but those stables! Doyle made a mental note to keep as far away from the place as he possibly could. He found Bodie waiting for him alone, by the greenhouse, the day's work over. He looked anxious. Keeping his tone light and thickening his Midlands accent, Ray joked.
"See! I survived my visit to the stables, worst that 'appened to me was getting licked by some old mare. I 'ave to say, she was not as good with 'er tongue as you are...!" He laughed earthily, giving Bodie a conspiratorial nudge with his elbow and wiggling his eyebrows up and down.
Bodie grinned but the disquiet was still present in his eyes. "What did you think of the place?"
"Bloody peculiar. I'm not going back. Now, can we go somewhere nice and quiet? I feel an urge to be ravished!"
Bodie's mood seem to lift and he guffawed loudly Pushing Doyle behind a bush he kissed him senseless, shamelessly grinding their groins together and then mischievously dashing off like a small boy playing "it". Doyle chased after him laughing. Perhaps love was not so bad after all.
They lay together in Bodie's small bedroom, listening to the sounds of the late evening. Bodie lay partly on top of his lover, his head resting on the pillow beside him, an arm slung lazily across Ray's chest. A blackbird was seeing off a rival, squawking and disturbing the atmosphere of peace and contentment. Doyle laughed quietly.
"Would you fight for me like that?"
Bodie, eyes closed as though it were too much effort to keep them open, was nevertheless smiling the smile of the replete. "I might. Doubt if I'd have the energy though, after being molested by the fastest learner I've ever come across. You sure you were a virgin?"
Doyle put on his best injured expression. "What! I was pure and innocent until I was corrupted by you. My mother would turn in her grave!"
"Oh really? Strikes me I didn't have to try very hard, leering at me across the church, oughta be ashamed of yourself you did..."
Doyle was helpless with laughter but managed eventually to defend his honour.
"I was not leering at you. Mortified I was, could see just by looking at you that you knew what I'd been up to."
"Get on! Winkin' at me and battin' your eyelids, didn't stand a chance I didn't.... ouch!!"
Doyle had slapped his backside and the two rolled over and over in a tangle of limbs and bedclothes, laughing, tickling, tussling, until exhausted at last they fell asleep.
That bloody blackbird again! Doyle woke with a start as the screeching invaded his consciousness. It was light, he'd been here all night and he had not really intended to be. He took a deep, contented breath, turning his head to watch his sleeping lover and, moving closer, he laid his head close to Bodie's, kissed his cheek and ran his finger along those beautiful lips. The man stirred, half awake, half asleep still, and murmured something unintelligible as Doyle reached down and very gently stroked his penis. Taking his own in his other hand, he rubbed them gently together, floating on the sensation of heat against heat, skin against skin. Pre-come oozed from both and Doyle used his thumb to massage it in, hearing the intake of breath from his sleepy partner. In his dreamlike state Doyle felt himself close to orgasm and sensed from his breathing that Bodie was also. He increased the pressure and felt the man next to him tense. Seconds later semen erupted over his hand, he watched as the milky fluid dripped from his hand onto his own still erect penis and the sensation sent him too, over the edge, spurting his very essence onto his lover's skin. Sleep reclaimed him. As he drifted off he felt a light kiss on his cheek and heard something whispered, but was too close to oblivion for the significance of the words to penetrate his consciousness.
Downstairs a couple of hours later in Bodie's modest little cottage they drank tea together before starting the day. Doyle took in his surroundings. The room was Spartan, but comfortable. A table, a couple of chairs, a sideboard and an easy chair beside the fireplace were all the furniture the gardener seemed to require. Like most homes inhabited by solitary men, it lacked a woman's touch. Very little of the fripperies that females seem to require to make life bearable were apparent, but Bodie did not look as though he had suffered unduly because of this.
"It's no palace, I'm afraid." Bodie interrupted Doyle's mental observations.
"You should see where I live, makes this place look like Windsor Castle. It's home, that's what's important," Ray reassured him.
Bodie smiled lightly, scepticism in his eyes. Doyle noticed the rose book on the sideboard.
"Yes, it's the one your sister gave me, didn't she tell you?" Bodie picked it up. "'Roses of the British Isles'."
Doyle watched his partner's eyes light up as he handled the book, turning the pages and looking at the prints illustrating it. He ought to have told him there and then, he knew that. He didn't understand why he failed to; compassion, fear, disinclination to burst this bubble of happiness, it could have been any one of those, but most likely all three. Perhaps his lover was experiencing the same dilemma because his next words took Ray by surprise.
"The interview and test is next week."
Ray's heart sank. Searching for something to say he asked, "Do you know who the other two applicants are?"
Bodie closed the book with a sigh. "There's a chap from Wiltshire, don't know who he is, Salisbury area I think. Other bloke's called Pender, assistant head gardener at Lanhydrock near Bodmin, he should walk it. Not sure how the lads here will take to a teetotal Methodist though, bit of a stickler for rules from what I hear. Everything has to be done his way or else."
"Just the three of you then?" Ray inquired.
Bodie stood, stretched and put on his coat ready to start the day.
"You, Pender and the other bloke..."
Bodie nodded. "Yes."
Doyle wished with all his heart that he could do something to remove the forlorn look from his lover's face. "It will be all right, Bodie."
"No. It won't," Bodie replied, his face impenetrable.
They emerged into the cool of the early morning and Doyle walked with Bodie as far as the rose garden, where they made their farewells before Ray headed home to the Vicarage.
The week passed for Doyle in an idyllic blur. Days spent watching Bodie work, and nights which became the closest to heaven he ever expected to experience, affected his whole demeanour and he began to look healthier at long last. There was only one cloud on the horizon. Doyle had still not told Bodie that he was aware of his illiteracy, and each day the dreaded test drew nearer. He knew he couldn't leave it, but equally knew that telling him and bruising the man's pride, possibly irreparably, would be the hardest thing he ever had to do.
When the day of the test finally arrived and Doyle had still not spoken up, the sense of impending doom was almost overwhelming. To avoid any unnecessary comment he'd slept at the Vicarage the previous night. He had not slept well, missing the warmth and physical intimacy and worrying. The next morning he found it impossible to shake his depression. Even the usually invigorating walk to the house, this time accompanied by Frances, failed to penetrate his gloomy mood.
Sarah Hobbs was drinking tea with Cook in the kitchen; even the butler was there, his cheerful Scots brogue keeping up morale. As the morning progressed one of the lads popped in with news, the interviews - basically a chat with his Lordship to get some idea of character and motivation - were over. They had moved on to the actual garden for practical tests. Doyle had no fear of Bodie's ability to complete these; his worry was centred on the questions that would surely arise about the account books, journals.
Eventually, unable to stand it any longer, he left the oppressive atmosphere of the kitchen and went outside. He sat for a while admiring the evidence of his partner's practical ability to make things grow. This, the beginning of June, saw the flower beds planted with bedding, herbaceous borders springing into life, roses almost in flower. The place was alive with bees, butterflies, all kinds of insects in fact, a small piece of paradise, Doyle thought, if only... He got up and made his way to the kitchen garden. He would have to keep his distance, but he had to see. Standing at the entrance, it appeared that the practical was over, the men were moving off. Doyle spotted one of the other gardeners standing close by and collared him to find out where they were going.
"Off to the estate manager's office, I think," he replied. "More to do inside. Tell you what, can't say's I fancy the idea of that Pender chap getting the job, reading the Bible he was while he waited! Get 'nuff of that on Sundays!!"
Doyle could not help grinning. "What about the other one?"
"Well, all right I suppose, but not what you would call impressive, " he stated dismissively.
The man moved off to join his friends and Doyle was left to wait in agony. He walked down as close as he thought decent to the office, and sat waiting, hidden from view. He did not have long to sit, the slamming of the door made him jump to his feet and he was almost knocked sideways as Bodie came careering around the side of the building.
Bodie's face registered shock as he came face to face with Doyle. When he kept walking without a word Doyle went after him.
Ray tried to catch hold of his arm. "Bodie! Wait! What the hell?"
"Not now, Ray, please." His distress was very apparent.
Ray caught him and stood in front of him, holding onto his arms with both hands.
"Listen to me, Bodie! Listen! This is not the end of the world, we can fix it, there'll be another chance!" Doyle was desperate to get through to his partner.
"No, there won't, Ray, you don't know!"
"Yes, there will be, trust me..."
"For God's sake, Ray!" He was shouting now, his voice catching with emotion. "I can't read, I can't BLOODY READ, what the hell is the great Raymond Doyle going to do about that, eh? Wave a magic wand and hey presto the accounts and journals will write themselves? I can't even sign my bloody name, Ray! How do you think it feels, trying to be at the end of the pay queue every week so the whole damn household doesn't hold you up to ridicule?" He stopped shouting and added quietly... "Even the kitchen skivvy can write her name. The man who shares your bed is stupid, Ray, ignorant, simple.... how's it feel?"
"Don't say that - " Doyle stopped. Bodie was staring at him, confusion spreading across his face.
"You don't seem surprised. Why is that?" The question was asked quietly, too quietly for Doyle's liking. He looked Bodie straight in the eyes.
"Because I already knew." He looked away, unable to face the hurt he knew would soon be visible.
Doyle still could not meet his eyes.
"The book. The rose book."
"What about it?"
Doyle exhaled. "It's not called 'Roses of the British Isles'."
"What is it called?" Quietly.
A knife was twisting in Doyle's gut. "'A Collection of English Roses'."
Bodie nodded his head. "I see."
"That must have given you and your sister quite a laugh? Your private little joke, eh? Poor old Bodie, can't even read a book about his chosen occupation. Must have been very funny for you, did the Vicar have a giggle too? Must have been hysterical seeing me looking at the pictures like a little child and knowing I couldn't read the bloody thing."
"NO! It wasn't like that!" Ray was shouting, panic setting in. "You've got it wrong! I can teach you, you idiot!"
It was the wrong thing to say. Bodie had started to walk away, but the word must have been one insult too many on a terrible day. He snapped around and his fist landed in Doyle's stomach, hard. Ray staggered from the impact, reeling with pain. His collar was grabbed and he was shaken violently before another punch sent him crashing to the ground. His head connected with something solid, and he was momentarily stunned.
He hadn't been aware of Bodie leaving, but lying there in a heap he was sure the man had gone. He took his time to get up, there hardly seemed any point in hurrying, and anyway getting up was going to be painful. It was. He started with one leg, only to have it buckle beneath him and he hit the ground once more. The next attempt was more successful, but for some odd reason the world seemed to be spinning. He leaned an arm against the wall to steady himself and took a couple of deep breaths. Clutching his stomach, he used the wall as a prop, stopping every minute or so for the world to correct itself. Reaching some steps he slumped down onto them, glad of the secluded spot to rest and gather his wits. He sat for half an hour or more, his mind quite numb with shock at the unexpected attack. Eventually, realising he would be missed, he got up once again, that was better, the world had ceased to spin and he could almost walk normally.
Taking it slowly, he made it back to the kitchen at last. Entering, he found his sister at the table, along with Miss Hobbs and the butler. Cook was making tea and one of the gardeners was still there. The butler got quickly to his feet on seeing Doyle's condition.
"Are you all right, laddie?"
"Ray, what's happened!?" Frances's hand went to her mouth and she stood, alarm registering on her face.
"I'm fine, don't fuss, I just fell over."
Not one of them appeared to believe it, but for once Doyle was grateful for traditional British reserve. A cup of sweet tea appeared from nowhere. Grimly, Ray wondered if the Devil materialised in the middle of the kitchen someone would give him a cup of tea and a piece of cake. It was nevertheless welcome and he sipped at it noisily.
"You heard anythin' then?" the stray gardener inquired.
Doyle regarded him sympathetically. "Well, let's just put it this way shall we? Hope you're up on your Bible reading and hymn singing because I think you're going to need 'em..."
It never failed to amaze Bodie how the day after a trauma could be so normal. The sun still rose and the birds still sang, despite the fact that his life was in ruins. He sat outside his cottage, awaiting the summons that would surely come, watching a group of wood pigeons fly over and vaguely wondering if they were heading for his sprout plants. Only they probably wouldn't be his for very much longer, so there seemed very little point in worrying. In fact, nothing seemed worth worrying about any more. Having lost the man he cared most about in the whole world, a few sprout plants could wither and die, for all he cared.
He heard footsteps and turned to see Twirly approaching. Trying it on as always, she gave him her usual provocative smile and told him that Mr. Perkins wanted to see him. So this was it. He got up and walked back with her to the house, exchanging pleasantries, and still wondering why everything was just as it always was, while he was numb.
He knocked on the door of the office and was cheerily invited in. Perkins was there, with his usual big smile. He didn't seem particularly depressed, but then he had no reason to be, he'd no doubt acquired a first class new head gardener!
"Ah, Bodie, my good man, do sit down."
"Hmmm. Bit of a problem, one way and another..."
Bodie stopped him before he could continue. "Uh no, there won't be sir, you don't have to worry. I quite understand. When will the new man be starting? I'm sure I can find another position beforehand, if you would be willing to supply me with a reference?"
Perkins was regarding Bodie intently.
"Ah. May I ask if you actually wish to leave us, Bodie?"
Bodie was silent for a moment.
"Well, no. But I think I would an embarrassment, and anyway I'm sure Mr. Pender will have his own way of doing things."
"You don't consider then, that you could work with him?"
Bodie had observed for himself the man's sharp intellect. How long before this inflexible, religious zealot discovered Bodie's sexual leanings were not what the church demanded?
"No. I don't think flexibility is his strong point." At this point Bodie didn't think it mattered much what he said.
"Nor me. What about the other man?"
"What about him? Are you thinking of taking him on? Might as well give the garden to Twirly!" Bodie was now past caring completely.
Perkins laughed heartily. "No, no...to tell you the truth, Bodie, I'm very much hoping that you will take the job."
Bodie was sure he had misheard. "I'm sorry? I thought you said.... has Pender turned it down?"
"Not exactly no. I didn't offer it to him. Have to take into account the happiness of my staff, y'know. One area of the estate where I've never had problems is the garden. Like to keep it that way."
Bodie was stunned. "You are aware, sir, of my... that I can't... well..."
"Read and write? Yes. My fault, knew that, didn't I? Completely forgot. Mrs. Perkins gave me quite a tongue wagging over it, don't know where my mind is sometimes. Too much to think about."
"Nevertheless it is going to be a problem," Bodie reminded him.
"Really? Do you think so? "
"Well yes, accounts, journals and so on."
Perkins considered for a moment. "Think I can persuade Mrs. Perkins to do it, got a bit of a soft spot for you. Might not be a bad idea for you to learn though, everyone should be literate, government policy now, you know, an educated population is a progressive population. Know anyone who might teach you?"
"I'm not sure. It's possible. To tell the truth I'm not sure I'm capable."
"Illiterate is not another word for stupid you know, old chap, just means you didn't get the chance to learn. Soon put that right. What about your friend Doyle? Seemed like a nice chap, got time on his hands while he convalesces. Perhaps he'd help?"
But I knocked him senseless.
"I don't know, he'll probably be returning to his job soon."
"Hmmmm, that's what he thinks, got my doubts personally, illness like that, takes your stamina away, but we'll see eh? In the meantime have a word with him, see if he can get you reading. Let me know how you get on. I take it I can inform his Lordship that we have a new head gardener?"
He stood and held out his hand to Bodie. The two men shook hands.
"Yes sir, you can."
It was a funny old world, Bodie decided, standing in the yard outside the kitchen. One minute you thought that ending it all was probably your best bet, the next someone handed you everything you ever wanted.
Almost. Hopelessness washed over him again as he thought about Ray. None of this would mean a thing to him if Ray were not here to share it, and after the events of yesterday it seemed unlikely. Still, he'd thought the head gardener's position lost and gone forever and had been quite wrong. Was it possible he could put this right somehow?
He turned to look at the kitchen door, wondering if he could charm tea and a piece of fruit cake out of Cook. Very little upset Bodie's appetite completely. He opened the door and strolled into her domain. The best smells in the world were to be found here and today was no exception. A very large saucepan was simmering on the range and Bodie lifted the lid and stuck his nose into it, sniffing appreciatively. Pea and ham soup, if he wasn't mistaken. He made a mental note to be present for lunch.
"Well well, if it isn't our new head gardener?" Cook was standing behind him, hands on hips, looking very pleased.
"How did you know that?!" Bodie was astonished, his mouth gaping idiotically.
"Ahhhh," she replied tapping her nose. "There's not much gets past me!"
The hoped-for tea was in her hand. Bodie gave her his best "feed me" look and she went to the pantry, returning with a very large cake tin. A hefty wedge of her incomparable fruit cake was cut, placed on a plate and handed to him. Her reward was one of his beatific smiles.
Taking a seat, Bodie proceeded to tuck in and fill her in on the details.
"So that's it then?" she answered, when he'd finished telling her. "Only one fly in the ointment?"
"Yes, got to learn to read somehow."
"Didn't mean that."
Bodie gave her a measured look, eventually averting his eyes.
"Hit him, didn't you?"
A moment's awkward silence passed. Eventually he admitted his crime.
"Yes. Lost my temper. Me and my stupid pride. Could just picture them all over at the Vicarage laughing at my shortcomings."
"Not the way it was, was it?" She smiled at him sympathetically.
"No. All he really wanted to do was help, I can see that now."
"Think you can make it better?"
Bodie sat staring bleakly into his empty cup. "No. Too late. Should think he's taken about all he can take from me."
"Worth a try I would have thought. T'ain't worth 'aving if it ain't worth fighting for, my old dad used to say."
Bodie looked up at her and was glad he'd stopped to talk. She was right, if you wanted something badly enough you had to be prepared to fight.
Fortified by Cook's pea and ham soup and looking a little more decent in a shirt and tie, Bodie made his way through the woods to the village. This was far worse than his interview this morning with Perkins. He was, quite frankly, terrified. As he approached the Vicarage he thought seriously about turning back, but Cook's words kept going round and round in his head. If there was even the remotest chance of healing the wound, he had to try.
The parlour maid opened the door. When he told her his business he was admitted and asked to wait in the hall, while she went to deliver the message. She came back and asked him to follow her, Doyle was at least willing to see him, perhaps that meant there was still hope.
Ray was in the conservatory when the parlour maid ushered Bodie in. Ever the gardener, Ray saw him eyeing the unusual and healthy-looking plants. The maid left them and Doyle put down the book he was reading. Looking up, he frowned.
"Where the hell are you going done up like a dog's dinner? Not Sunday, is it?" and he snorted.
He watched as his stupid comment hit home, wounding mentally as much as he himself had been wounded physically the previous day. His reaction was a conflicting mixture of guilt and sadistic pleasure.
"I shouldn't have come..." Bodie took a step back, averting his eyes.
"What did you come for?" Doyle kept his expression deliberately hard.
"To apologise." Bodie was staring intently at the floor.
"Think that'll make it all right again do you?" Doyle kept his eyes on the man in front of him. His eyes were concentrating on a spot somewhat in front of Doyle's feet.
"What are you doing here then?" Doyle was relentless.
Bodie swallowed hard. "I need help."
"Tellin' me you do."
Bodie noticeably flinched.
Doyle was pleased his sarcasm was having its intended effect. "What do you want Bodie?"
"I got the position, I'm the new head gardener, but I have to learn to read. You said you could help, I don't know who else to ask. I know I shouldn't be here at all, not after what I did, but..." he trailed off.
Doyle got up and moved to stare out of the window at the garden. A few moments passed before he spoke, still staring out of the window.
"All right. I'll teach you how to read and write, as best I can anyway. But our relationship will be strictly that of teacher and pupil. You won't talk to me unnecessarily, touch me or in any way treat me as a friend. Is that understood?"
Silence. Doyle waited; if his conditions were accepted the man must be desperate indeed.
Doyle turned to face Bodie, flinching inwardly at the bleakness in the man's eyes. "Who's doing the books in the meantime?"
"Mrs. Perkins. I'll probably have to watch, see what she does, when I can understand enough."
Doyle nodded. "Make sure you don't hit her if she says something you don't approve of."
His cruelty took even him by surprise, Bodie looked as though he had been struck. Turning on his heel he was out of the room and as Doyle heard the front door slam, he wondered to what further sadistic depths he was going sink in his quest for revenge.
Four weeks later Doyle decided he was extremely pleased with the progress of his pupil. He was already reading simple text, writing short sentences, and Doyle had also introduced him to the joys of mathematics. He learnt quickly, due in part to his eagerness - Ray was not sure if this was because he was keen to learn or keen to please his teacher - but also to intensive teaching. They spent every evening studying and Saturday afternoons were also reserved for this purpose.
Aside from the success of the project it was actually four weeks of hell for both men. Doyle stuck to his resolve to keep Bodie at arm's length but it was not easy.
One episode, two weeks into their lessons, had underlined this. He had arrived one evening to be greeted by a sweet, fruity aroma pervading the downstairs rooms of Bodie's cottage. Full of curiosity, he nevertheless seated himself and waited to discover the source of the odour. Several minutes later Bodie appeared carrying a large bowl. Not many food smells excited Doyle, but this had instantly made his mouth water. This was going to be hard. The dish was placed on the table where they would be working. Doyle steeled himself.
"Can you move that, it's going to be in the way?" he asked, deliberately adopting a disinterested tone and paying attention, instead, to a text book.
"It's pineapple. I just picked it from the pineapple house, we've got a lot at the moment, shame to waste it, so I thought you might like to try it. Didn't know if you'd ever had it before. Its not as unusual as it used to be, but we grow them well here. Quite clever really, get your compost brewing away nicely under the boards, the heat goes into the hollow walls, from there into the house itself and before you know it - pineapples!" Bodie's boyish enthusiasm was touching, it was plain that he had not missed his vocation.
"Very interesting." Doyle wondered if it was possible to inject more boredom into his voice.
"Try some. It's beautiful, really ripe."
"No thanks. Now can we get on, we've a lot to do tonight?"
The answering silence tore at his insides. What was he doing? What did he want from Bodie? Blood? He was on the verge of relenting, looked up, in fact, to apologise, but too late. The bowl had been silently removed and he heard the bang as it was thumped onto the table in the kitchen. His pupil returned, stony-faced, and that evening's lesson was one of the starkest Ray could remember. He'd looked up several times to check on Bodie's progress and found an impenetrable mask in place. He was not fooled, he had inflicted immeasurable hurt. He knew the signs, had seem them on previous occasions when he had not guarded his tongue well enough. You merely had to look into his eyes. At that moment Doyle truly hated himself.
From Bodie's perspective things could not have been worse. True, his journey towards literacy had begun and it was a great relief, but being with Ray every day and being subjected to the most extreme indifference was almost too much to bear. He endured it because he had to, the estate manager had put his faith in Bodie and he had no intention of letting him down. In his heart of hearts he also hoped that eventually Ray's attitude towards him would soften. The pineapple episode told him otherwise. It had been worth a try, but the humiliation he'd experienced had been past bearing. He had thrown the offending fruit onto his compost heap, unable to contemplate eating any of it, choked with emotion.
Despite all this, or perhaps because of it, he still continued to look for and treasure any small sign. Some days he had to be content with the knowledge that he done well in his studies and Ray seemed pleased. It was precious little to live on, a smile, an unconscious gesture, looking up occasionally to find those beautiful eyes watching him, sometimes he felt like man dying of starvation, but he had made his bed and was now forced to lie on it.
At home at the Vicarage one afternoon, Ray was sitting in the garden with Frances, staring into infinity. Frances was absorbed in some needlework, but her brother's distraction was also occupying her attention.
"Have you forgiven him yet?" She was, as always, straight to the point.
"Don't you think it's time you did?"
"Perhaps." He turned to look at her at last.
"How much longer do you intend to make him suffer?"
"Frances, do you know what Bodie and I are? Were." He corrected. "If Percy knew you were playing Cupid for us he'd probably have you committed! No, not probably, definitely!"
Aware, of course, that he was indeed correct, she nevertheless had no intention of admitting it.
"Feeling guilty, Ray? You always resort to Percy when you know you haven't got a leg to stand on!"
Ray looked astonished. "I do not!"
She stared back at him, silent, tight lipped and continued stitching. Ray too was silent for several seconds.
"He deserves it."
"Oh well, that's all right then, I take it all back!" He really was infuriating at times. Frances felt she could cheerfully have shaken him.
"He beat the living daylights out of me!"
"Yes, well.... the notion has occurred to me on more than one occasion."
"Very amusing, I'm sure! You're my sister, you're supposed to be on my side."
"As your sister, it is surely far better for me to point out the error of your ways when you're being more pigheaded than usual!"
Ray was staring at her, his astonishment clearly written on his face.
"So you think it's all right for him to just hit me whenever he feels like it?"
"No, of course not. And it was very wrong of him. But he is plainly filled with remorse, Ray, and everyone deserves a second chance."
"I'll remind you of that next time I turn up on your doorstep with a black eye."
She glared at him.
"Suddenly forgotten how to defend yourself, have you Raymond? Or unable to contemplate the idea of hitting him?"
"Well he certainly seems to have no qualms about it!" her brother informed her indignantly.
"There are times when circumstances are so far beyond our control that we do something totally against our nature."
Ray suddenly seemed to have left her.
"What's the matter?" she inquired.
"Nothing. Just remembering a robin."
"A robin? Ray, this is not a time to be thinking about your ornithological pursuits - and at what point did you develop an interest in birds anyway! I'm trying to have a serious discussion here, in case you've failed to notice! You really are the limit sometimes!"
Infuriatingly he seemed to find her outburst funny, she was at a loss to know why, but was nevertheless relieved when he conceded.
"All right, all right, I know. You win, I'll put a stop to it. Give me away at the wedding, will you?" and he snorted very loudly.
The tension had evaporated and she began to giggle.
"What?" he asked.
"I'm just trying to picture Percy conducting the marriage ceremony."
Doyle laughed so much that he actually fell off his seat.
Doyle left the Vicarage that evening realising that he was later than usual. He'd got into a heated discussion with Percy on religious teaching in schools; Ray actually knew little about it but for some reason he always felt obliged to argue with the man. Consequently it was almost eight when he set off and past the hour when he arrived. He knocked on the door of Bodie's small cottage, waited a minute or so and then knocked again. He decided to go in, feeling the owner would have no objection. He was obviously not there even though Doyle was expected.
It was quiet and very tidy inside. Several slates and some chalk were on the table, ready for the lesson. One had the homework from last night on it; he gathered that Bodie did this first thing in the morning before going off to work. Spellings were apparently repeated over to himself as he worked among the flowers or vegetables. Doyle smiled to himself, his dedication was admirable. He vaguely wondered where the last slate was. Looking around he couldn't see any sign of it though there weren't that many places it could be. The sideboard perhaps? He probably shouldn't look, it was intrusion of the worst kind. He walked over to the drawer, fingered the handle and, after another brief argument with himself, pulled it open. Nothing. He did the same with the one next to it and discovered what he was looking for, pushed towards the back. Bodie had been practising on that too, four lines bearing the same statement, but all spelt differently. He hadn't been able to decide whether love should have an e at the end, or if you had two o's or just one. It seemed they still had a long way to go, but the I was at least correct and the one word written below these was quite perfect too. "Ray". He closed his eyes, screwing them up tight. Frances was right, his revenge had now become cruelty and it was time to stop. He put the slate back where he'd found it, closing the drawer, and sat to wait for Bodie to arrive.
An hour later he was still waiting and it was beginning to get dark. Soon it would hardly be worth doing anything, though Doyle was not overly perturbed; his pupil's progress had been good enough for him not to be worried about one missed night of study. He was however becoming concerned at his absence. Where was he? As darkness descended he went to the door to see if there was any sign, there wasn't, and, slipping his jacket back on he decided to walk a little way to meet him. Surely he couldn't be far?
Bodie was standing in the garden outside his cottage, wondering where Ray had got to. Admittedly he was late, very late; he had been detained by Perkins, who wanted to discuss plans for the garden. It was not like Doyle to give up and go home. The books for the lessons were still there anyway, so it was obvious he not done so. Where could he have gone? He was beginning to feel uneasy.
As he stood there, unsure of whether to go in search of his missing teacher, he suddenly heard footsteps, and they were in a hurry! Doyle? No, a stable lad. The boy's approach and the panic he was in alarmed Bodie completely.
"What's wrong!? Calm down... get your breath back. Have you seen Mr. Doyle?"
The boy was coughing and wheezing, struggling to get his breath. He decided that one word was sufficient.
The words were barely out of the boy's mouth before Bodie was away.
He did not actually consider himself to be a natural runner, that accolade fell to Ray. He moved like a cat across the ground and Bodie had admired this on more than one occasion. Tonight however his speed would not have disgraced Doyle and he covered the ground between his cottage and the stables in what was for him record time.
Ignoring his exhaustion he burst into the stables and all was suddenly chaos and confusion. A group of men had Ray on the floor, half naked, surrounding him like pack of hyenas. They whirled around as the door burst open, but too late, Bodie was on them, roaring his fury like a man possessed. Struggling to his feet and pulling up his trousers, Doyle ploughed in to help. Kemp and the others were useful with their fists but Doyle had been police trained and Bodie was very strong.
As they gained the upper hand, the door crashed open and a group men from the house rushed in. The stable lad had apparently had the presence of mind to go for help. A scuffle ensued but it wasn't long before Kemp and his cohorts were overpowered and led off into the night.
"You all right?" Bodie was stunned by what had happened. He could hardly bring himself to think about the consequences, had he failed to get there in time.
"I think so." Doyle looked a physical wreck.
"What the hell happened?"
"I went looking for you when you didn't turn up," Ray started to explain.
"And you thought I might be up here?" Bodie was having difficulty hiding his anger.
"You could have been anywhere!" Doyle began to raise his voice also.
"Not up here!" Bodie replied curtly.
"Why not?" Doyle voice had quietened ominously. "Can you guess what happened to me, Bodie? Did you know what was going on up here? They were raping young boys, did you know that? Stable lads. One was getting the 'full treatment' when I crept in here. Not exactly for the faint hearted. Think I was actually rather on the elderly side for their tastes, but, well, fresh meat is fresh meat eh? Did you know?" His voice was now practically whisper.
"Did they do anything to you?" Bodie was almost afraid to ask.
"No." Doyle put him out of his misery. "You arrived before the pack had time to get their teeth into me. I asked you if you knew?"
Bodie answered him reluctantly. "Not exactly. I just knew that Kemp and his cronies were up to no good here. Heard one or two rumours, knew the young lads hated working in the stables."
"And you never thought to find out why!?" Doyle was back to shouting.
"None of my business. You're the bloody policeman, not me! Start rocking the boat, next thing you know you're out on your ear!" Bodie answered him defensively.
"Rocking the boat? Is that what you call ignoring a crime, Bodie? Your job is more important to you than young boys being sexually assaulted and raped?"
"I didn't know that, did I? This is my life here, Doyle! I've lived in more places than you've had hot dinners. Always had to move on, when all I ever really wanted was a place to settle! What would you know about that, eh? A steady job, a family who love you, what the hell would you know about not belonging anywhere, about not being needed by anyone? Yes, I knew things weren't right here. But I wanted to stay, and in this day and age you have to keep your mouth shut, or you're out the door, because there's always some other bastard waiting to take your place!" Bodie felt as though he was fighting for his life somehow.
"Oh poor Bodie." Doyle mocked. "You make me sick! You could have helped these lads and you did nothing... NOTHING! How can you live with yourself?"
Without waiting for an answer, he turned on his heel and walked away. The police had arrived and were with the estate manager. Doyle made his way towards Perkins's office, realising wearily, that it was going to be a very long night.
It was the first week of October and Frances was packing her valise. Autumn had well and truly arrived; a certain crispness in the air, that rich golden light so prevalent in the late afternoons, heavy morning dews. She loved this time of year, probably more than any other. Her trip to the city was, thankfully, to be brief. She'd long ago realised that city living was not for her and spent as little time there as possible. But this trip was long overdue. It was time to bring her brother home.
He'd bolted, there was no other word for it, the day after the horrendous events in the stables. She had not been able to blame him, he had never coped well with injustice, even as a child, and these were particularly horrifying circumstances. But two months was long enough to recover. She hesitated to use the word "sulk", even though she felt it was partly justified. As always he had chosen to hurt the people he loved the most.
Well, she for one had had enough of sitting in church on Sundays, observing a man whose world appeared to have come to an end. The air of hopelessness about him was disturbing her more and more. He seemed as though he had given up and was merely existing. It was painful to see and the time had come for her to take measures to bring it to an end.
She arrived unannounced in the middle of the afternoon, unsure as to whether her brother would be at home or not. Luckily she had a key to the rooms, which were situated above a grocer's, in a rundown part of the city. She was glad to get inside, the area was not exactly salubrious. As usual, Ray's place looked like a hurricane had swept through, so she set about tidying up while the kettle boiled. Just as she was about to move what looked like a drawing book she heard the key in the lock and turned to find her brother regarding her, with some surprise, from the doorway.
"What on earth are you doing here?"
"Well, that's not much of a welcome for your favourite sister." She looked him up and down critically. He looked well. Thin, but then he always was. His eyes betrayed him though. That same hopeless look she had been watching across the aisle was present here as well.
Doyle put down the box he was carrying and walked over to sweep her into an all-enveloping embrace.
"Well, what are you doing here?!" he exclaimed, putting her down.
"Can't a sister visit her favourite brother without a reason?" she smiled innocently.
"You've only got one brother."
"Yes, sadly, so I have to make the best of the him, sorry individual that he is!"
They burst out laughing in unison and Frances kissed him lightly on the cheek. Signalling, albeit unnecessarily, that she did not mean it.
"What's this?" she pointed at the sketchbook.. "Can I look?"
Doyle stepped forward, his manner hesitant, but he didn't answer, so she took it as an affirmative.
"You haven't sketched in years, have you?" she asked, picking it up.
"No, not since Father..." He trailed off.
Knowing only too well what had happened she did not force him to continue, but looked at him with sympathy in her eyes. Opening it she let out a quiet gasp.
"I didn't know if I could still do it." Ray tried to explain.
Frances was staring transfixed at a beautiful pencil drawing of Bodie. She turned the pages one by one.... Bodie frowning, Bodie smiling, Bodie intent on his writing, Bodie sleeping, Bodie... feeding a bird? Ray had drawn him in all his moods. As she went to turn the last page he took it from her.
"I'd rather you didn't see the last one..." and returned it to the sideboard.
"They're beautiful, not quite a replacement for the real thing though. Do you miss him? He looks like death warmed up. The light went out of his life two months ago you see - "
"All right, Frances! All right. Would you like some tea?"
"Mmmm, yes please, I boiled the kettle..."
He left her to make the tea in his small kitchen. She knew she should have left the book alone but her curiosity got the better of her. Sidling over to it and praying he wouldn't return, she turned the pages quickly to the last sketch. It took her breath away. Her brother's lover was stretched out on the bed completely naked, limbs in all directions, but it was the look on his face that fascinated her. He looked up at the artist from under those long, long eyelashes with eyes that were completely sated and so full of love that it hurt her to look. She closed it, put the book back where she'd found it and quickly sat down.
Ray arrived with the tea at last. She poured it for them and they sat companionably until it was plain her brother could stand it no longer.
"Come on then, tell me."
"Tell you what?" she said innocently.
"What you've come for!"
"What do you think I've come for?"
"Frances!" He was sounding exasperated. "We can play this game all day if you like, but wouldn't it be better to come to the point?"
She smiled at him. "How are things at work, Ray?"
Doyle stared implacably at her, then looked away.
"Is the filing fascinating?" she asked. "Dealing with lost property must be riveting. I daresay people leave the most amazing things in the strangest places! Someone left a stuffed fox in the church once, quite a snarl on its face too! None of us could work out how the owner had got it past the verger, although his sight being what it is, he probably thought it was a new parishioner and gave it a hymn book - "
Doyle was silent, staring at her tight-lipped. Frances was suddenly sorry for her levity.
"I wondered if you might prefer to do something more worthwhile?" she asked him softly.
He frowned at her.
"Miss Hoskins, remember her?"
Ray snorted. "The schoolmarm? What about her?"
"Well, nothing really, but she retired at the end of last term."
"So? I thought there was that other woman to replace her?"
"Yes, that's true, but the school governors have decided, in their wisdom, " and she slid Ray a knowing look. "that the class size is far too big and it's time our school became a proper village school. We are to have two classes, and thus, two teachers. We need another full-time teacher Ray."
Ray, not normally slow on the uptake, was certainly being so today. "And where do I fit into this? I'm a policeman."
"Mmmmm yes, but one who can, apparently, teach a grown man to read and write without so much as a by-your-leave!"
"You must have someone better than me to take this on?" His doubt and amazement was written all over his face.
"No. The village wants you. I've been sent to bring you home."
Ray sat in the chair staring at his sister, obviously completely at a loss.
At last: "I don't think I can do it, Frances."
She smiled a very familiar smile. "We'll leave tomorrow. Sort out what you need to take for the time being and send for the rest of it in due course. It's time to go home, Ray."
Doyle was almost touched at the rapturous reception he received from Percy. He had to hide his amusement but by and large he thought he did well in his attempt to treat the man seriously.
The maid asked if they would like tea and Frances replied, "I would, yes, but my brother has a visit to make so he won't be joining us."
Ray was outraged.
"Don't I even get a drink?"
She stared stubbornly back at him in reply. After eyeing each other for several seconds he finally capitulated. Sighing deeply but looking at her indulgently he replied, "I'll see you later then."
He had missed this. The woods were incredibly beautiful at this time of year. Doyle enjoyed and revelled in every second of the walk there, crunching through dead leaves and throwing sycamore seeds into the air to watch them spin to the ground. The very air was invigorating.
As he strolled through the garden he was greeted by a couple of men working in the flower beds. "Nice to see you 'gain, Mr. Doyle!"
He grinned and waved, wondering how he had ever managed to stay away from this place. He passed the estate manager's office, gaining a wave from him also. He was tempted to stop and say hello to Cook but realised that she would immediately foist tea and fruit cake upon him and he had a mission to fulfil first.
He found the object of his desire, eventually, after several false trails, in the potting shed. He realised, ruefully, that he should have known. His dark head was bent low over some writing, a slightly protruding tongue underlining his concentration. Ray leaned against the open door and observed for a while, guilt mixed with love. He had deserted this man when he most needed him. Unforgivable.
Trying to lighten his own mood he spoke at last. "Oi Mister! Got'ny jobs f'ra broight lad?"
The man stopped writing, leaned his head on his hand and replied. "I've only got one thing to say to you..."
Doyle's heart stopped beating.
"How the bloody hell do you spell chrysanthemum?"
Doyle guffawed loudly. He crossed the space between them instantly and put his arms around Bodie's neck, hugging him from behind. He placed a huge wet kiss on his cheek, squeezing him as hard as he could in a bear hug.
"Oi... you're stranglin' me. I take it you haven't come all this way just to go to my funeral?" Bodie protested indignantly.
Doyle was still hanging on, a very stupid, idiotic smile on his face. "Mmmmm you smell wonderful!"
"Yeah, there's no beating a good pile of horse manure for perfume, better than anything you'd pay a fortune for in Paris! Le'go!"
Doyle did as he was told, watching Bodie get up out of his seat. He'd lost weight, not possible for him surely, with his appetite, but Ray was sure he had. What had he done to this man?
"I think it might have been better for you if we'd never met."
Bodie's eyes widened as he apparently digested this.
"I can see why you might think so but I've never regretted it for a moment."
"Yes well, you're not the one riddled with guilt." Doyle regarded him steadily.
Bodie smiled gently.
"Oh, I wouldn't say that. There are a few things I should have done and didn't, plus a few things I did do that I shouldn't have!" he confessed.
"Goes for both of us," Doyle agreed. "I'm not easy to live with, terrible tantrums, only one that knows what to do with me is Frances."
"Think I can get her to give me some lessons?" Bodie was grinning.
"As a matter of fact it's me who's going to be giving the lessons," Ray admitted looking a trifle embarrassed.
"Eh?" He had lost Bodie it seemed.
"Fancy being a schoolmarm's floozy do you? Reckon I'll look all right in the frilly blouse buttoned right up to my ears.... not sure about the bustle though!"
"You?" Bodie was laughing gleefully.
"Hadn't you heard?" Doyle was surprised, it was hard to keep secrets in such a small village.
"No, I've been a bit preoccupied lately I suppose." Bodie's grin faded and he stared down at his hands.
Doyle moved forward, he needed to get closer, much closer...
Whispering "I'm sorry," he put his hand up to touch Bodie's mouth, ran his finger along the length of it and then placed the most gentle of kisses on the soft lips. His nerve endings were suddenly screaming. On fire, the kissing became hungry and he thrust his tongue in and out of Bodie's equally desperate mouth. Hot, wet kisses turned into a frantic, frenzied dash for release. They tumbled onto the floor, hands ripping at buttons and then touching, feeling and caressing the tender skin revealed. They bit, sucked, nipped at each other's lips, necks, nipples, and the frenzy built to a crescendo as aroused beyond control they each groped for the other's straining erection. It didn't last long. Three months of abstinence told as, growling deep within his throat, Bodie spilled gush after gush of semen onto them both. Doyle was only moments behind, shouting his release into his lover's neck as his seed mingled with his lover's essence, holding on to Bodie as though he hoped never to have to let him go.
They lay together for a long time, their need for comfort supplied by the afterglow of their lovemaking, bestowing soft kisses upon each other, and cuddling gently.
Eventually. "Miss me?" It was important to Doyle that he know.
"What do you think?"
"I already know what I think. I need to know what's in your head, Bodie."
Bodie propped himself up on one elbow and stared down into Doyle's eyes. "I'm not very good at flowery speeches or poetic declarations of love, Ray." He touched a soft curl and wound it around his finger. "I just know I can't be happy without you any more. If you can't guess from that that I love you, then I don't know what else to say."
Doubt and confusion were written plainly in his eyes. Doyle knew he had to remove them. He wound his arms around his lover, held him as tightly as he could and felt the tension leave the taut body.
"I'm sorry. I just needed to hear you say it. It's important to me. What we're doing here is not legal. I had to know that your feelings are as strong as mine; that the risk is worthwhile," he explained.
"And what conclusion have you come to?" Bodie's reply was almost a challenge. " Am I worth the risk, do you think?" His eyes glittering, his face a mask, Doyle was instantly alarmed.
"I didn't mean... it's just that you've never said the words. Was it so difficult to tell me what I needed to hear? Of course you're worth the risk, damn you! I don't know what the hell I would do if you told me you didn't want me anymore, and after the way I've treated you I wouldn't blame you in the slightest!" Doyle felt tears pricking at his eyes.
Relief washed over Ray as he, in turn, was held tight in strong arms and with an effort he regained his composure. He sniffed loudly and Bodie laughed in his ear.
"We're both very new at this. I think there are going to be a few fireworks before we finally settle into old age together."
"Together?" Ray gave one last sniff.
A long, lingering, sweet kiss sealed the bargain and they held each other close again for a long moment.
Eventually the hard floor did its worst and Doyle, underneath, had to move.
"Why do I always end up being the one squashed underneath?"
"Dunno, just lucky I suppose," Bodie smirked.
"Think we'll use the bed next time, gettin' too old for all this thrashin' about on the floor."
"You complaining again?"
Doyle broadened his accent and winked lewdly at Bodie. "Nah, got to let my lover 'ave his way from time to time, keep the peace and all that, we all 'ave to make sacrifices, lie back and think of England... Owwwwww!!"
His backside had been well and truly pinched and they proceeded to roll over and over, laughing and giggling, tickling each other and revelling in the sheer exhilaration of being in love. They collapsed at last, quiet again.
Bodie breathed deeply and said, "There's something I have to ask you."
Doyle ran his finger over Bodie's delicious pout. It was captured and sucked, Bodie's tongue playing with it seductively. Doyle withdrew the finger, poked his tongue, teasingly, in and out, between the soft lips and let the finger loose to explore. It ran down the crack of Bodie's arse, searching for the entrance to his anus, and pushed gently inside. Bodie moaned softly. Ray continued his investigation, probing deeper, wondering how it would feel to have his cock thrusting deep into this tight, responsive hole. He desperately wanted to experience orgasm deep inside his lover's body, but there was time yet. He looked forward to the many years of exploration ahead of them.
"Yes. I do love you." Ray smiled.
"Eh? Oh, I know that," slightly breathlessly...
Doyle smirked at the visible evidence that he learned quickly.
"What then?" he questioned.
Bodie eyes were closed and he appeared to have floated off....
"Mmmmmm? Oh yeah, sorry can't think with you up my arse." Bodie shook his head as though trying to clear his mind, his eyes still glazed.
"D'you reckon Cook's got any fruit cake? I'm bloody starving..."
-- THE END --
Originally published in Whatever We Are, You Made Us, IDP Press, 1999