They were sitting on the tartan plaid, wearing outdoor clothes. The sun was pleasantly warm. Bees were humming in the bramble bushes. Jays were singing and quarreling in the firs and the birches that lined the pond.
‘How lovely,’ Maurice said, drawing Alec closer to him. ‘It’s September but this feels like a full-blown summer.’
Alec pointed at the distant Glen Coe peaks that were streaked with white. ‘There’s snow on the tops already,’ he remarked. ‘We might be in for a rough winter.’
Maurice kissed him. ‘Never mind that, my love,’ he whispered. ‘You’ll be with me in London then.’
Alec nodded and beamed.
Maurice pulled a dented case out of his hunting bag and offered him a cigarette. They both lit up and stared over the pond where dragonflies danced. A fish darted up from the water, caught one and disappeared. ‘Did you see that?’ Alec asked in amazement.
‘Mmm-hmm,’ Maurice answered. ‘Listen, dear, we’ve got to talk. It's about what I wrote to you some time ago.’
Maurice then delivered a long list. Alec was under no circumstances to mention to the squire what he knew now: the fact that he and his wife lived all but separated and had done so for years, that there was only one daughter and that he spent many days, even weeks in his London flat. The girl was wrapped up in her studies and barely had time to see him. ‘He’s very lonely,’ Maurice concluded.
‘I understand,’ Alec said. ‘But don’t expect me to be nice to him or anything. When I was in his service before the war, I was the doormat he could wipe his feet on. Scudder-do-this and Scudder-do-that. Young Mrs. Durham was grand, though. She would always smile at me and the other servants and she would often leave dishes of scones or crumpets in the kitchen for us…She must have chucked him for a reason. I don’t blame her. Your Clive Durham Squire Snot can rot in Hell for all I care.’
He took another cigarette from Maurice’s case without asking first, got up and walked to the jetty. There he turned around and looked at his lover with piercing eyes. ‘And of course no law forces me to smile and go about my work like nothing bloody happened – you and him. He kicked you off the estate as far as I can remember.’
‘You and I kicked ourselves out,’ Maurice said patiently. ‘And it was all for the best. There were enough rumours after we left and Mr. Durham could not prevent them. He never told on us. He wishes you all the best and he said more than once that you were a good gamekeeper. He means no harm.’
‘Still no reason for you to drag him to bed in bloody France,’ Alec growled, spitting on the ground. ‘But I suppose it’s only natural. Two gentlemen with too much time and money and booze on their hands getting bored out of their bollocks under the palm trees…I could have my pick of young farm workers here, because more than one of them is like us. And still I won’t. I have my standards, you know.’
‘So have I,’ Maurice said calmly. ‘And that’s why I have seen to it that you would never want for anything ever since you came to live here. I even bought you a cottage.’
‘Yeah, that’s nice,’ Alec agreed. ‘Except that the roof is leaking and that there’s no power and that I have to draw water from a well. But apart from that, it’s grand. It’s just very sad that my servants are lazy and that I can barely stand on my feet after a round of golf or croquet or a drive in my exquisite motor car.’
Maurice’s laughter rang across the pond. ‘I say, dear, you’re the best.’
‘Don’t ‘dear’ me,’ Alec hissed. ‘I’m clearing out before the wave of shite from London hits this place. I’m going to Watford by train tomorrow to see my sister and I expect you to pay for the return ticket. Second class. I’m not greedy, so I would never take first, but I’m too much of a respectable man to settle for third. You can afford it, you have a business in Silvertown. We can meet again at Christmas and have a pint in a pub in London, but that will be all.’
Maurice took off his glasses, polished them with a handkerchief and put them back on. ‘It’s no trouble at all,’ he smiled. ‘I’ll drive you to the station tomorrow and I’ll get you a first-class ticket, and enough money to have meals on the way and to buy gifts for your sister and her family…And if you should like to visit London in my absence, you’re always welcome to stay in my flat. You’ve still got the key, haven’t you? You can order up meals and have them charged to my account. Or you can use my kitchen. Just don’t blow up the gas range, that’s all I ask of you.’
Alec was shivering now. His eyes were blurred with tears. ‘Damn you, Maurice…’ Then his face turned into a stern mask. ‘Or rather…Fuck you, Maurice…You’ll be doing that from now on, because Alec Scudder won’t be at your service anymore. Nor will Clive Rotten Durham. I’m going to see him and then I’ll tell on him. He’ll like that, and so will all of Wiltshire.’
‘I see,’ Maurice said earnestly. ‘Then I shall give you enough money to travel to the estate and to stay at a boarding house in the village. I’ll even pay for new clothes. You have to look the bit when you go for an interview with the squire. You’ll be a great success, my dear.’
‘Forget it,’ Alec snapped. Then he walked along the shore to a track that led away from the pond and disappeared in the woods.
The sun was setting over the treetops. There were no sounds but for the rustling of the leaves, the whirring of gnats and the distant wailing of a train whistle.
They were on the blanket, wearing overcoats and scarves now, sipping whisky.
‘That was brilliant,’ Alec said. ‘Imagine me doing all those things…I would never want to hurt anybody, but the whole idea is good for a film or a book. People would love it and you and I would be rolling in money from the royalties.’
‘Oh yes,’ Maurice giggled. ‘I believe we’ve got a solid plan now. Great minds think alike.’
They toasted and kissed. An owl hooted. A small creature dashed from one clump of bushes to the other.
‘A weasel,’ Alec said. ‘It’s always around. I sometimes feed it bits from my brawn sandwiches. I can never find it in my heart to trap the little bugger, even though I ought to. It’s part of a mob that robs the eggs on Lord Benton’s estate.’
They laughed. Then there was some silence as they kissed slowly and languidly. ‘Let’s go to bed,’ Maurice whispered. ‘We shall continue our lessons. I wrote to you how the squire learned me a thing or two about lovemaking. You really enjoyed it last night, didn’t you?’
Alec drew Maurice closer to him. His cheeks were flushed with whisky and bliss. ‘Oh yes, I adore it,’ he murmured. ‘But isn’t Lord Brenton expecting you back for a night cap?’
‘He knows I’m staying elsewhere again tonight,’ Maurice said. ‘He doesn’t mind. He’s a really nice squire, isn’t he?’
The mists on the pond were slowly lifting. They were in the water, wearing no swimming trunks, bobbing and occasionally going under to see what was happening. Alec held on to Maurice, relaxed in his arms, with their cheeks touching.
‘We needed a wash anyway,’ Maurice then said. ‘We were covered in stains when we woke up…But last night was delicious…I love you, Alec.’
They floated on, trying to catch dragonflies or feeling fish dart past their legs. The sun grew warmer. Alec dozed off against Maurice’s chest. He woke with a start when he felt muscles tighten. ‘I say, that’s a surprise,’ Maurice said. ‘Alec…Alec! Come back! Have you gone mad?’
But Alec was already crawling towards the far side of the pond where a clump of accessible rocks led directly into the woods. ‘Come back!’ Maurice yelled.
Alec turned around, started treading water and looked at the man standing on the jetty, dressed in a hunting jacket, flannel trousers and a cap, wearing glasses and carrying a leather bag and a picknick basket.
‘Well, you’re early,’ Maurice said to the stranger. ‘But it’s lovely to see you.’
‘Hullo, Maurice, old chap,’ the squire said. Then he looked across the pond and his eyes caught Alec’s.
‘Scudder, my good man, how are you?' he called out. 'Please come back so that you and I can shake hands.’