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A Lovely Day for a Picnic

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He hadn’t been able to resist the hamper when he’d seen it in the Fortnum & Mason catalogue. It had looked just like one Sebastian Flyte would have taken with him on a picnic, and although Ralph doesn’t watch Brideshead Revisited quite as often as he did when he was a boy (he always stopped the tape before it all went so tragically wrong), the golden haired Sebastian still holds a special place in his heart.

The weather is unseasonably warm and forecast to stay that way for the next few days. It’s the perfect opportunity to go for a long walk along the river. He’s brought a book and a bottle of wine. He’ll make an afternoon of it. After all, he’s no reason to hurry back, no one’s expecting him at home, not even—

Well, no point in thinking about him. He’s gone away on holiday, hasn’t he? He’d mentioned going up to London to visit his sons when Ralph had asked him about his Christmas plans. It had cut one off at the knees, rather, as he’d been leading up to inviting Ted up to the house for Christmas lunch. He probably shouldn’t have bought such a large turkey before he’d invited him. Never mind, he’ll slice it up and freeze it; it’ll do for sandwiches later.

The hamper bangs against his leg again. He’ll have bruises later. He hadn’t considered the logistics of actually carrying the blasted thing. It’s obviously not designed for a person to carry alone. He’d imagined Sebastian and Charles lifting it out of the back of the Morris-Cowley together. (A fine car for the time. Ralph had flirted with the idea of purchasing one when he’d first got his licence, but his father wouldn’t hear of it.) He’d pictured them carrying it down to the grassy riverbank together, the two of them dressed in white cotton trousers and open-necked shirts, carefree and gay.

Ralph used to dream about sharing such an experience with a special friend. Once, away at Agricultural College, he’d even believed it might be possible. Alistair was in his experimental theatre group. He had sparkling hazel eyes and dark silky curls that fell over his forehead and made Ralph long to run his fingers through them. Alistair liked Forster and Waugh and quoted poems by Lord Byron that Ralph didn’t understand, but spoken in Alistair’s rich, deep voice, made Ralph quiver in ways new and thrilling.

They’d been good chums. He’d have done anything for Alistair, and he’d thought, foolishly, that Alistair felt the same. He’s still not clear what went wrong. Ralph had confided in him about his distant father, his lonely childhood, about how the only person who cared about him was Ted and about how Ted had always been there for him. Then Alistair had said something dismissive, even cruel, about Ted, and there’d been quite an awful row. Ralph doesn’t remember much else until he’d woken up in the mental hospital with Ted sitting by his bedside.

The hamper really is quite heavy. Perhaps he shouldn’t have included the bottles of stout (he’s not sure what possessed him) or Mrs Thomson’s dark Christmas cake. Quite dense, Mrs Thomson’s dark Christmas cake; one could almost use it as a doorstop. A bit rich for Ralph’s taste really, but one does need to support one’s local WI.

His leg is getting quite sore now. He’d tried swapping the hamper to his other hand for a while, but that had been even more awkward, and he’d nearly dropped it twice. Were the banks of the river always this boggy? And with so many exposed tree roots waiting to trip one up? It’s not that he’s unaccustomed to his shoes being ruined from his trips to the lower field, but he quite likes this pair and it really is quite disagreeable, squelching along when there doesn’t seem to be a good spot to put down one’s blanket.

He rounds the bend of the river and, beyond the trees, standing in shallows, in familiar green waders….

His heart leaps in his chest and starts pounding away madly. “Ted!” he calls out, wincing at the note of joy in his tone. He really must try not to embarrass the chap. It’s only when he sees the violent start the man gives, nearly dropping his fishing rod, that Ralph remembers that Ted is supposed to be away.

Ted had told Ralph he was going away.

His stomach drops and he feels like he might be ill. Ted’s looking in his direction now. It’s too far away to see his expression though, but it doesn’t matter. He shouldn’t be here. Ralph is imposing upon him. He understands that now. He takes a step back and then another, nearly stumbling as his foot sinks unexpectedly deeply into the mud. The hamper feels like it’s full of lead now, and Ralph would like nothing more than to drop it, to leave it where it lands.

But he can’t do that. Ted would probably feel obliged to come after him to return it. If not now, then later and Ralph just can’t face him. He’s been a fool. He’s always known, hasn’t he? Known that Ted can’t love him back, not really. All those times Ralph’s thought… he’s thought that he’s seen a hint that Ted might return his feelings… he’s been fooling himself.

Oh God. Ralph turns and runs as fast as he can. Which isn’t very fast at all. He’s sinking into mud, squelching in his ruined, stupid shoes, his trousers muddy to the knees. He’s presenting an absurd figure, he knows that, even more than that time angry bees had stolen his clothes. What had he been thinking, going to Ted like that? Naked and ridiculous. Had that been one more subconscious attempt to get Ted’s attention?

“Sor!”

Ted’s voice is close. Too close. He’s come after Ralph after all. Ralph could keep running, pretend he doesn’t hear him, but that would no doubt just make the whole situation worse so he stops, wheezing, taking deep breaths to try to ease the tightness in his chest. He really does need to take some form of exercise other than trips from the house to the lower field.

“Sor!” Ted is close now. He sounds insistent, concerned even.

Ha. Concerned about the Young Master, no doubt. That’s what Ted used to call him, before he went off to school. Maybe that’s how Ted still thinks of him. All those moments Ralph had believed—he’d hoped—that there’d been something between them… Conceivably, what he’d seen was merely affection for the lonely child who had hero-worshipped him, followed him about eagerly soaking up his worldly wisdom (until Ralph’s father had found out and put an end to it).

Perhaps he’d been making Ted uncomfortable with his attentions and Ted hadn’t been able to come out and say so because Ralph is his employer, the source of his livelihood.

It’s obvious to him now. That’s why had Ted told him he was going away. So he could go fishing and not have to worry about Ralph descending on him, invading his privacy, importuning him with his advances. Not have find excuses to turn down Ralph’s offer to join him for Christmas Dinner, because Ralph wouldn’t be satisfied with a simple “I don’t think so, sor,” would he?

“I’m sorry, Ted,” Ralph says, helplessly as Ted strides up to him. The afternoon sunlight seems to form a halo behind him. He looks like the noble hero out of a Victorian bodice ripper, and even now Ralph can’t help but drink in the sight of him, his pulse quickening, even though there’ll be no sweeping up of the swooning heroine into his manly arms, no ripping of bodices and laying down amongst the leaves and the greenery to make sweet lov—

“Sor?”

Ralph clears his throat, blinking away that hopeless vision. “I won’t bother you anymore, Ted,” he says, proud of himself that his voice doesn’t tremble. “I understand now. The scales have, as they say, fallen from my eyes.”

“I don’t understand, sor. What scales?”

“You don’t have to spare my feelings anymore, Ted. You’ve been very kind. Too kind, perhaps. Although, I’m sure you only meant it for the best, but I’m afraid it’s led me to believe—no, I can’t blame you, of course, you’ve done nothing wrong. You’ve only ever been kind to me—all my life in fact—and in return I’ve made you uncomfortable, Ted. I’ve forced you to resort to subterfuge in order to, well, no point belabouring the point. This must be very unpleasant for you. I’m sorry.”

There are tears in his eyes, but he does his best to blink them away before Ted sees them. Not that Ted is looking at him. Ted never looks at him. Ralph had hoped that his reason for avoiding eye contact had simply been due to shyness. He’d naively believed it was something they had in common.

“If you’d like, Ted, I can recommend you to my friend Lord Ashby. He has extensive grounds. You’d be an asset to his ground staff. I’ll provide you with a glowing reference of course—do everything I can to make your transition as seamless as possible.”

Ted is saying something, but he’s staring at the ground, his head bent so that even when Ralph darts a look at him, all he can see is the top of Ted’s tweed cap.

“What was that, Ted?”

“I said, have I done something to offend you?”

“What? No, not at all. I just feel, well, I believe you would be happier somewhere else. With another employer.”

“You want me to leave?” Ted sounds dismayed, but that can’t be right. Ralph must be hearing what he wants to hear. Wishful thinking. It’s not the first time he’s been guilty of that, is it? He tries not to think about Alistair. That way madness lies, and all that.

He should be strong. For Ted’s sake. He opens his mouth to say something but he can’t force the words out. He can’t lie. His mouth is flapping uselessly, like a stranded fish. He stares mutely at the top of Ted’s cap. It looks familiar, like one he’d bought Ted for his birthday once, years ago. It can’t be the same one though, he’s never seen Ted wearing that around the estate. He’s always assumed it was gathering dust in a cupboard somewhere or had been donated to a church jumble sale.

Ted is shuffling forward. He leans closer, and Ralph’s brain just stops. Is he… what is he… but then a warm hand closes over his and then the hamper he’d forgotten he was holding is taken from him and Ted is crouching down, opening the lid. Ted is picking up one of the bottles of beer. “My favourite kind,” he says.

“Is it?” Ralph can hear the crack in his voice.

Ted’s staring at the bottle. “You don’t drink stout.”

No, he doesn’t. He’d packed them out of habit hoping he’d run into Ted, forgetting for the moment that Ted had gone away.

Ted puts down the bottle and straightens up slowly, a hand to his back.

“What’s going on, sor?” he asks, his tone soothing, the way it used to be when Ralph was a boy, when Ralph had gone to him seeking comfort after one his father’s cold rages.

“You told me you were going away, Ted.”

“Yes, sor?”

“But you haven’t gone away, Ted. You’re here. You’re here.”

“No, sor. I mean, yes, sor. My son had to work this weekend, so we put it off till next month.”

“Oh! Oh, right. Well, that’s all right then.”

Is it though? What was that saying, about how once the something or other had been let out of the box, the knowledge couldn’t be put back? And Ted might not have deliberately told him he was going away when he wasn’t, but he hadn’t told Ralph his plans had changed, had he? They don’t have that sort of relationship, and they never will. Ralph will just have to learn to accept it.

Ted appears to be waiting. He must have asked him something while Ralph was busy having his revelation “Sorry, Ted, I’m afraid I was wool gathering. What did you say?”

“You don’t really want me to go, do you?” Ted says gently.

He’s no defences against that tone. “No, God no!” he says, clasping his hands together in front of him to stop himself doing something reckless, like trying to hold Ted’s hand. “It’s the last thing I want. I want you to stay with me,” he confesses. It’s as if a burden has been lifted from his shoulders at finally saying the words out loud and damn the consequences. “I want you to join me for turkey with all the trimmings: stuffing and potatoes and turnips, even though no one likes turnips, do they, Ted? Cranberry sauce and Yorkshire pudding. I want you to drink eggnog with me till we’re merry, just like that time I convinced you to come in out of the snowstorm.”

Ted looks up at that, but his eyes shift away immediately when he realises Ralph is looking at him. “It wasn’t really a snowstorm.”

“You were soaked through, remember, Ted? You took off your… you took off your… your jacket, remember?” It’s Ralph’s most treasured memory, but now he remembers how he’d insisted. He’d put his foot down, and Ted had agreed only reluctantly. It’s tainted now, that memory, now that he knows that Ted hadn’t wanted to be there, that he’d practically forced him to come. A sob escapes him before he can swallow it and he closes his eyes.

“Sor,” Ted says.

Ralph shakes his head.

“Sor,” Ted says, more insistently. And then, “Ralph.”

He must be imagining it, because Ted has never—would never—call his name, even after all those times Ralph had begged him to. But then there’s the warm feel of Ted’s hand closing over his again, except this time there’s no hamper between them. Just the feel of Ted’s work-roughened skin against his own soft, pampered flesh. Ralph opens his eyes reluctantly. He’s genuinely afraid that this is a dream, that he’ll open his eyes and wake up to find himself back in that mental hospital—that he’s had another breakdown.

Ted’s looking at him. Ralph doesn’t look away this time, because if it is dream, he’s determined to savour it. Ted doesn’t look away either and a moment they just stare at each other and then Ted is shuffling forward, almost as if he’s going to give Ralph a hug. But that can’t be right. Ted hasn’t hugged Ralph since the day Ralph left for prep school, when Ralph had thrown his arms around Ted, pressing his face into the rough fabric of the man’s jacket to hide his tears.

But he’s still holding Ralph’s hand. He’s still leaning closer. Ralph can’t look away from him, afraid that Ted will somehow disappear if he does. And then he feels the touch of Ted’s lips against his own.

Ted is kissing him! Ralph’s eyes flutter closed despite himself. He’s aware of nothing else except the feel of Ted’s lips against his, Ted’s fingers clasping his and if this is a dream, he hopes he never wakes up.