by Shikkoku no Suzu (漆黒のスズ)
Illustration by cerine
Bow, bow, ye lower middle classes!
Bow, bow, ye tradesmen, bow, ye masses!
Blow the trumpets, bang the brasses!
Tantantara! Tzing! Boom!
— Iolanthe, Act I
There were three windows open on Freddie’s computer screen. He would classify them as unsatisfactory, terrifying, and baffling, respectively. The first was the spreadsheet where he recorded all the finances of the Woodcross Gilbert and Sullivan Society. The second was an email from his father’s colleague Dudley Baxter, which he had flagged and banished to the depths of his email inbox some days previous. The third was another email, from the Honourable Robin Lionel Coffrey Montgomery-Wells, asking if there was a time when Freddie would be free to have lunch.
Robin Montgomery-Wells. It had been a long time since that name had popped up in his inbox. He clicked the window and dragged it around the screen before dropping it back roughly where it started. The email had been sent to the generic inbox Freddie used for matters relating to the Woodcross Gilbert and Sullivan Society. Well, it had been six years since they last spoke. How was Robin to know Freddie still checked his old Hotmail account?
Biting his lip, he typed a three-line response saying he was free the next Tuesday and, after a moment’s hesitation, added his mobile phone number. Email dealt with, he deleted it and returned to the email from Dudley Baxter, whose little red flag had finally called him to account.
He clasped his hands in front of him and looked down at the keyboard, trying to mentally compose a response. Baxter had been an old friend of his father’s from the D’Oyly Carte days and now worked in New York. Freddie got up and made himself a cup of tea, then came back to the email. He wrote a quick reply thanking Baxter for his offer and promising to consider it. He read it over once for any glaring errors, and sent.
That done, he felt he deserved a reward, so he shut down the deeply unsatisfying spreadsheet and went out into the little back garden of his narrow terrace cottage. He settled down with his tea in a black ironwork chair, pushed his heavy-framed glasses up his nose, and retrieved the libretto of Iolanthe from under his arm. They had performed Iolanthe before, several years ago. The cast wouldn’t change very much—he would have to find a new Lord Mountararat since Nigel had moved to Newcastle, but other than that the cast would all know their roles. The chorus would have to be shrunk; it had become increasingly difficult to find twenty lovesick maids; cousins, sisters and aunts; or fairies, and even more difficult to swell the ranks of sailors, gentlemen of Japan or lords to their requisite number. He flipped through “Tripping hither” to the beginning of the dialogue and scribbled a note in the margin. The audience hadn’t changed very much either; there was a stable core of people who always came to WGSS performances. They had just finished performing H.M.S. Pinafore and as that unsatisfactory spreadsheet told him, the core had shrunk too: to roughly twelve people.
Freddie leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. Somehow he doubted their enthusiasm for Iolanthe would exceed their enthusiasm for Pinafore. WGSS would have to do something different to draw people in. He shook his head. He couldn’t afford new costumes or sets, which reduced his options. Perhaps they should do The Mikado instead: it always drew in the biggest audience. But they had done it a year ago. Rubbing his hand across his forehead, he mentally went through the staging of “Tripping hither” The fairies dancing onto stage one by one. The formations. The beginning of the song. The audience laughter (if they were listening properly). Robin saying, I can’t do it, Freddie.
Freddie opened his eyes and reached for his tea. “Sod off, Robin,” he muttered. “I’m busy.”
But Robin proved determined to keep invading Freddie’s thoughts, in stark contrast to the real Robin, who had given up without any fight at all. When one was the son and heir of a baron, Freddie understood, there were certain conventions that one had to adhere to. Like Keeping daddy happy and Not being disinherited. Flipping through to the entrance of the peers, he hummed the tune.
We are peers of highest station,
Paragons of legislation,
Pillars of the British nation,
Tantantara! Tzing! Boom!
The peers’ costumes were suits and coronets. He had seen productions that put them in the full velvet and fur ensemble, but that was well beyond his budget. Perhaps Robin would be willing to lend his father’s robe. Perhaps he would also be willing to give the actors some advice on how a pillar of the British nation should conduct himself.
* * *
Sitting in a coffee shop across the road from the High Wycombe travel agent where he worked, Freddie stared out the window at the rain. Iolanthe sat open under his hand, but he was absorbed in tracking raindrops down the window. A black coffee was cooling at his elbow. He only had an hour lunch break, and Robin was already fifteen minutes late. He looked down at the script. He’s a fairy down to the waist – but his legs are mortal, he read.
“Dear me,” Freddie murmured.
I have no reason to suppose that I am more curious than other people, but I confess I should like to see a person who is a fairy down to the waist, but whose legs are mortal.
Well, Martin might say what he wished—and he had, at great length—but Freddie liked Iolanthe best out of the operettas. Half the cast were fairies, and the other half lords. Messrs Gilbert and Sullivan could not have anticipated the relevance to Freddie’s own life of that arrangement. And speaking of…
Freddie looked up as the door to the coffee shop opened. Robin stepped in from the rain, collapsing his umbrella and looking around as he put it in the stand. His eyes fixed on Robin’s almost immediately and he half raised a hand to wave before dropping it.
Freddie picked up his cup and sipped the lukewarm coffee, just to have something to do as Robin made his way over. Ridiculous bastard. He was much as Freddie remembered: somewhere over six feet tall, with a middling build and straw-coloured hair ineffectually tamed with gel. Very handsome—in a pallid way, Freddie reminded himself. Their fathers had been friends, and although they had gone to different schools, they had both gone on to Cambridge, where Robin had played polo and socialised with people who had as many names as he did. Then, in the still dark of the evening he had tapped on Freddie’s door and crawled into his bed. Freddie’s fingers still remembered the soft skin over lean muscles, soft hair and the hint of patchy stubble.
“Hello,” said Robin as he sat down. “Thank you for meeting me. Beastly weather, isn’t it?”
Freddie looked outside. “I suppose it is,” he said.
There was an awkward silence. “How are you, old chap?” said Robin. “It’s been too long.”
“I’m fine, thank you,” said Freddie. “You?”
“Good, good. I’m working for Banque Français in the city.”
“What are you doing in High Wycombe, then?” Freddie played with the handle of his cup.
“Well, coming to see you, obviously.” Robin gave him a toothy grin. “But aside from that, staying with father at Seventrees for the week. I needed to look over some paperwork he had at the estate.”
“What have you been up to?”
“I work at the travel agent.” Freddie looked down at the tablecloth. “The society takes up a lot of my time.”
“Yes, I heard. What about Arcadee?”
“Claudia and her husband run it as a bed and breakfast and lease it for weddings. It’s cheaper for me to live in Woodcross.”
“Oh yes, how is your sister?”
“Please remember me to her when you see her,” said Robin. He turned and hailed a waitress. “Are you eating?” he said to Freddie.
Freddie nodded. They ordered, and the waitress walked away toward the kitchen. “Why did you want to see me?” Freddie folded up Iolanthe and put it in his bag. Robin’s eyes followed the movement.
“We can talk about it after lunch,” said Robin, not meeting his eyes.
“I only have another forty minutes.”
“Yes, I do apologise for being late. Tree down on the B road, and then I couldn’t find anywhere to park.”
“It’s all right.”
They drifted into another awkward silence which reigned until their food arrived. Between bites of his sandwich, Robin chatted about his father and various mutual acquaintances from Cambridge. Then he finished his sandwich and looked at his watch. His face assumed a serious aspect. “Listen, Freddie. For various reasons to do with the share market and the estate, there’s a shortfall between funds available and funds required to sustain Seventrees. To keep the estate afloat we will have to cut back in several areas. I know my father contributes funds to the society, in honour of his long friendship with your father.”
“And because of the value of the WGSS to Woodcross,” added Freddie, frowning.
“Yes, that too,” said Robin. “Well—not to put a gloss on it—we are not going to be able to contribute funding anymore.”
“What?” Freddie set down his fork. “But—surely—Lord Wells knows that without that money we can’t afford to book the hall. I will have to shut down the society.”
“I know, and I am very sorry. But I have been looking at the charitable donations coming out of the estate, and frankly, there are others that are doing more good for the village. I can’t cut the school breakfasts program or the park beautification project.”
“But what will we do?”
“Well, you could convene in someone’s lounge room twice a year,” said Robin with a smile, “and even fit your audience in, I daresay.” His smile faded as he took in Freddie’s stricken look. “I’m really sorry, Freddie. I wanted to tell you myself because I know how much the Society means to you.”
Taking off his black-framed glasses, Freddie cleaned the rims with the hem of his polo shirt. “When is this effective from?”
“First quarter of next year. Please let me know if there’s anything I can do to help you out.”
Freddie put his glasses back on. “I have to get back to work.”
“I’ll send you an email with some particulars,” said Robin. “Do you have a personal email address?”
“Care of the society is fine,” said Freddie, standing, “at least for another four months.”
As he stood on the footpath watching the cars beetling down the cobbled street, he thought of Dudley Baxter’s email. Maybe the demise of the society was a good thing. Baxter had asked him to come to New York to work with him on a stage adaptation of Topsy Turvy, the 1999 film about Gilbert and Sullivan and the making of The Mikado. Perhaps this was the universe telling him it was time to stop flogging a dead horse and do something with his life.
* * *
Freddie picked up the phone and put it back down again. He wanted to call his sister Claudia, but he wasn’t quite ready to tell her what Robin had said. In the end, he sat down at his kitchen table, read through Iolanthe twice, scribbled all over it, and sent an email to the WGSS distribution list saying that auditions for chorus and available leads would be that weekend. Then he opened his finances spreadsheet and deleted the line that had Lord Wells’ contribution in it. The totals dipped to even more dispiriting lows. At least they had enough to put on Iolanthe. It might be the last show the society ever put on. What a sad end for a company founded by the legendary Richard Green, who had been lead tenor for the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company for eleven years.
His phone rang, and he let it go to voicemail. He got up and took out the sausages he had been defrosting. While he was heating the pan, his phone rang again. He didn’t want to talk to anyone. After dinner, he watched the television for a few hours without seeing it, and went to bed.
Freddie didn’t check his phone messages until he was on his way to work the next morning. By this time, there were four missed calls, all from a number Freddie knew was Robin’s. He listened to the messages with his phone on speaker in his lap.
Hi Freddie. It was good to see you today. It’s been too long. Anyway, I’m really sorry about the society and the dreadful way I broke the news to you. Should have sent father’s agent instead, I guess. I meant it when I said I would do anything to help. Let me know if there’s anything. Really.
Freddie deleted the message and rolled on to the next one.
Freddie, Robin again. I’ve been doing up some calculations. What is the shortfall in the Society budget? Maybe we can raise funds some other way.
Ping. Deleted that one as well. As if he hadn’t looked at other ways of fundraising.
Hi Freddie. Do you target publicity beyond Woodcross and High Wycombe? You’re on the London commuter fringe. People could come out for the evening – you could pitch it as An Evening in the Country with Patience or something like that. Maybe you could broaden your base that way. I had another thought too. Call me to discuss. A pause. If you want to.
He didn’t. The next message was short.
Why doesn’t the society ever put on The Pirates of Penzance?
Freddie stabbed his finger against the touch screen to delete that message and threw his phone onto the passenger seat.
As he was turning his car into a spot in the lot behind the travel agent, his phone rang. He jumped and hit the barrier a little harder than he intended. “Damn it, if this is Robin again…”
It wasn’t; it was Claudia.
“Little brother,” she said when he answered. “How are you?”
“All right,” said Freddie, scrunching down in the driver’s seat and pulling the key from the ignition.
There was a pause. “Is there anything you want to tell me?”
Freddie’s first thought was that Claudia had somehow heard about Dudley Baxter’s offer to bring him to New York. Then he remembered Robin’s news and scowled. “Did you talk to Robin?”
“No, about you and Patrick—wait, Robin Wells?”
“Montgomery-Wells. And yes, Pat and I broke up. He’s gone back to Dublin. Who told you?”
“Sybil, of course.”
“Why did you think I’d spoken to Robin? Has he been in touch?”
Freddie sighed and looked down at his shoes. “Yes. To tell me that Lord Wells won’t be supporting the Society anymore.”
“Oh, Freddie. I’m so sorry. How many seats did we fill for Pinafore?”
“Thirty per cent most nights. Forty on Saturday.”
“And how many would we need to fill to cover costs without Lord Wells’ support?”
“Seventy or eighty per cent at the current ticket prices.”
There was a silence at the other end of the phone. Claudia was his elder by two years, and he had had thirty years to learn to interpret her silences. “Say it.”
“If you didn’t always use dad’s staging… if you did something different…”
“I can’t improve on it,” said Freddie.
“Or if we changed the lyrics on the songs—added Afghanistan into ‘When Britain really ruled the waves’, or something about David Cameron into ‘the Nightmare Song’. People love that.”
“Dad hated it.”
“Dad isn’t here.”
Pursing his lips, Freddie didn’t reply.
With a sigh, Claudia said, “Are you still coming for dinner tomorrow night?”
“Yep. See you then. Auditions are on Saturday.”
“I saw the email. Am I to audition for Iolanthe?” He could hear the amusement in her voice.
“No, but you’re coming along, right?”
“We’ll all be there,” said Claudia. “We want to see who’s going to be the new Nigel. Have you thought about Isaac?”
“He’ll have to audition. I’ve got to get to work, bye.” Hanging up, Freddie climbed out of the car. He pressed his hands against the back of his neck and hung his head. “Argh.”
* * *
Robin Montgomery-Wells propped his chin on his hand and looked out the window while his parents argued across him and reflected on the irony that Banque Français classified this as holiday leave. He couldn’t think of anything less like a holiday than trying to get his parents to practice some economy. Especially as whenever he suggested that they might consider opening the house to tours sometimes, or stopping their support for the Woodcross community Christmas social, his father was pleased to remind him that it was the reckless spending of organisations like Banque Français that had pushed the markets into crisis, forced the Government to bail them out, and taken a chunk out of the Baronial share portfolio.
Now they were arguing over whether they should keep supporting the local model train club (father’s preference) or the pony club’s annual spectacle (mother’s). As far as Robin was concerned, they should both be scrapped. Woodcross had a good sort of neighbourhood group; if noblesse oblige compelled Lord and Lady Wells into throwing money at the folk of Woodcross, they should provide a lump sum to the neighbourhood group and let them give it to the pony club or the model train club, or the Christmas social, or whatever else took their fancy.
But no, being a Wells of Woodcross meant something, and it meant subsidising a bevy of pointless and unnecessary clubs that had a maximum of seven members and mostly met to drink wine and complain about the neighbours, sometimes in the vicinity of model trains or ponies.
“Excuse me,” said Robin, and wandered out of the room, ignoring his father’s strictures on his manners.
The trains, ponies, socials and neighbourhood group together didn’t add up to the money Lord Wells provided the Gilbert and Sullivan Society; discontinuing that would immediately ease the Baron’s financial situation. The decision was clear-cut, but ever since he’d seen Freddie, Robin had had a strange, unsettled feeling in his gut. He remembered Freddie’s hurt look, those heavy-lashed brown eyes and dark eyebrows tilting downwards as Robin jokingly suggested they could meet in someone’s living room.
Callous berk, he told himself. Now Freddie was ignoring his phone calls. Robin wandered out onto the terrace and fished his phone out of his pocket. There was a message from Louise. He didn’t want to think about Louise. He put the phone away and went back inside. Up in his room, he pulled out his laptop and plugged in “Woodcross Gilbert & Sullivan Society”.
Bloody hell, their website was awful. He frowned and hovered the cursor for a moment before clicking. Slowly, a smile dawned on his face. “Gotcha, Freddie Green,” he murmured and flopped back against the pillows.
* * *
For duty, duty must be done;
The rule applies to every one,
And painful though that duty be,
To shirk the task were fiddle-de-dee!
— Ruddigore, Act I
Freddie looked at the people standing on the little stage at the Woodcross Community Hall. “How many people do you think the chorus absolutely needs?” he muttered to Claudia.
His sister shifted in her seat. “I’ve seen Pirates done with only three of General Stanley’s daughters.” she said. Freddie looked at her. Like him, she had dark, ashy brown hair with a slight curl and brown eyes. They were almost the same height (he had the advantage of two inches) and almost the same size, which made her, relatively, a commanding presence, and him a rather slender man. In the face, though, they were quite different. She had their mother’s round face and button nose, whereas he, like their father, ran to the patrician. Her hair was cropped to chin length, where it curled and caressed her cheeks. She was married, but her husband was very unmusical.
“Three,” he said, looking back at the stage. “I wonder if there’s three there who can actually sing. Would you?”
“Yep.” She levered out of her seat and went up onto the stage. “We’re going to do Leila’s solo from ‘Tripping hither’.” She demonstrated it and then the ten or so women on the stage separated into groups and sang it once alone, and then once in harmony.
“How are auditions going?” said someone behind Freddie. He started and craned his head.
“Robin. What are you doing here?”
“You’re very jumpy,” said Robin. “I don’t remember that.” He sat down in the row behind Freddie.
“These are closed auditions.” Freddie turned back to the stage.
“Nonsense. Anyone could walk in.”
Claudia gestured to the women on stage to wait a moment, and came down the steps into the auditorium. “Hello,” she said.
“Claudia, good to see you again.” Robin stood and leaned across the back of the seats to kiss her cheek. This put his hip level with Freddie’s eye line. Freddie scrunched up his face.
“Are you here to audition?” said Claudia with stifled amusement. “We’ve already seen the male chorus. Soloists are this afternoon.”
“If you’re not auditioning, you should leave,” said Freddie again. He looked up in time to see Robin looking between the two of them.
“All right; I’ll audition, then.”
“We’re only casting one male soloist,” said Claudia. “Lord Mountararat. Um…” she dug in the folio of papers on the seat. “Here is the audition piece. Audition is at one thirty.”
Robin took it and grimaced, then set it down. He leaned back, put his feet up on the seat back, and crossed his arms. “I’ll just stay here until then, shall I?”
“You might want to practice.” Claudia put her hand up to her face to hide her smile.
Robin waved away her suggestion. “I’ll be fine, thank you.”
Making the universal gesture for it’s your funeral, Claudia went back up onto the stage.
“Do you even know the song?” said Freddie, concentrating on the stage.
“No.” Freddie heard the rustle as Robin shifted his position. “I’m not really a musicals person.”
“Musicals,” said Freddie. He clenched and released his fist and called, “Claudia, can we add blocking?” After that, he ignored Robin determinedly until lunchtime, when he and Claudia went backstage to discuss the chorus auditions. When he came back out, most of the rest of the company were there, standing in a cluster chatting with Robin. There were also three nervous-looking men on the stage looking at their papers. Freddie stomped over. “All right, everybody sit down.” He jerked his chin at Robin. “You should be up on stage.”
“My apologies, Mr Director,” he said, grinning, and jogged up the aisle.
“He’s charming,” said Sybil, an accountant in her late thirties with a sweet soprano voice.
“Yes, isn’t he?” muttered Freddie sourly.
“Let’s start with you, Robin,” said Freddie. He deeply enjoyed the way Robin’s face dropped when he said that. He suspected Robin had placed himself one from the right in the hope he would be able to hear someone else singing first.
“We’ll hear the solos first, then you’ll sing ‘If you go in,’ with Martin and Gurshan. When you’re ready.”
Robin stepped forward, grimaced and rubbed his hand across his forehead. He had the lyrics in his hand. Freddie nodded to the pianist, who started the introduction. The first time, Robin missed his cue.
“The introduction is twelve counts,” said Freddie kindly. “Please start again.”
Robin shot him a pained look and nodded. This time he managed to come in on time, but it was clear he had no idea of the tune. “When Britain really ruled the waves / (In good Queen Bess’s time) / The House of Peers made no pretence / To intellectual eminence / Or scholarship sublime Freddie, can I stop now, please?”
Freddie steepled his fingers. “You can skip to the last verse.” He nodded to the pianist.
Assuming an air of Christ on the cross, Robin sang:
“And while the House of Peers withholds
Its legislative hand,
And noble statesmen do not itch
To interfere with matters which
They do not understand,
As bright will shine Great Britain’s rays
As in King George’s glorious days!
As bright will shine Great Britain’s rays
As in King George’s glorious days!”
There was a silence, then Sybil said, “Oh dear, the poor boy really cannot sing.”
Freddie snorted. “Yes, thank you Robin. We won’t make you do the trio.”
Robin ran his hand across his hair and escaped down the stairs to the aisle. As Freddie watched with alarm, he sidled along the row and planted him in the seat next to Freddie. “You bastard,” he said, his English skin glowing red.
“Yes, you can go, if you like. We’ll be in touch.”
Sticking out his chin, Robin said, “Just try to shift me, Freddie.”
Freddie bit his lip to keep from smiling. “Who would like to go next?”
A middle-aged man with a neat beard stepped forward. He looked at the lyrics one more time, then put them on the stage in front of him, assumed a pose with his chest thrown out and one hand on his hip. The pianist played the introduction, and he began. Beside Freddie, Robin leaned forward. “So that’s how it goes,” he said, rather loudly. Behind him, Freddie heard Sybil and Claudia’s stifled laughter.
When the auditions were finished, Robin hovered nearby as Freddie was packing up his notes.
“Do you ever sing?” said Robin.
Freddie gripped the spine of the binder. “No,” he said calmly. “My father was the performer. I’m happier backstage. Why are you here?”
Robin shifted from foot to foot. “I wanted to talk to you, and you won’t answer your phone.”
“What is there to talk about?”
“I’ve been doing some research. You can save the society.”
“I wouldn’t need saving in the first place if you hadn’t stuck in your oar.” He turned towards the aisle.
“Freddie.” Robin put his hand on Freddie’s elbow. “I didn’t have a choice. I had to find some way of keeping father afloat. Maybe in a few years when the economy improves we could…”
“In a few years, right. Excuse me.”
“No, stop. You’ve been bloody unpleasant about this. What if it was your dad who was in a fix?”
Freddie shrugged off his hand. “Yes, I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to still have both your parents. Now, I need to go and tell the cast this will be their last show.”
* * *
As he did every Thursday night, Freddie went to Arcadee to have dinner with Claudia and her husband. When he wandered into the parlour, he found Robin standing near fire, browsing the bookshelf.
“What are you doing here?” said Freddie. Robin turned and smiled. Freddie’s treacherous heart stuttered.
“Claudia invited me.”
“Did she, now?” Freddie turned as Claudia came in.
“So what if I did?” said Claudia. “It’s my house.”
“You should listen to him. He has ideas about the society.”
“So I’ve heard.” Freddie threw himself down on a chaise longue and gestured. “Tell me, have you done your ill deed for the day, Sir Ruthven?”
Robin looked at Claudia blankly.
“It’s from Ruddigore.” She leaned over and smacked Freddie on the arm. “Be polite.”
Sitting, Robin said, “I can see I’m going to have to swot up if I’m to get through a conversation with you.”
“Would you like a drink? Wine, beer, hard liquor?” Claudia shot a glare at Freddie.
“Thank you, a beer would be lovely. Whatever you have is fine.”
“Same for me,” he said, then added when Claudia raised her eyebrows, “please.”
“Well, you have me captive,” said Freddie when Claudia had left. “What are these suggestions?”
Robin leaned forward. “Have you considered corporate sponsorship?”
“Of course I have. Nobody is interested.”
“That’s because at the moment you don’t have the profile to attract any really significant sponsorship. But you have a chance to turn that around with this production.”
Freddie laughed bitterly. “What makes you think I can turn this one around when I haven’t managed it with any of the others?”
“Because this time you’ll have my help, if you’re willing to accept it.”
“And what do you know about staging a show?”
“Nothing whatsoever.” Robin leaned back in his chair and opened his hands. “But I know a lot about publicity. Which, if I’m not mistaken, is something you sorely need.”
Claudia returned with the beers. “Has Robin told you his idea yet?”
“I… don’t think so,” said Freddie. “At least, if he has, I missed it.”
Robin rolled his eyes and took a long pull of the beer. “Perfect, thank you,” he said to Claudia, who shot Freddie a look that clearly said, See, this is what real manners are. “You have a lot going for you. You’re the son of one of the most famous Gilbert and Sullivan tenors in history. You have the house he lived in. You have a core of reasonably talented performers and some good ideas. But you’re squandering it treading the boards in that little community hall. Do you even advertise further afield than High Wycombe?”
“No,” said Freddie. “Who’d come further than that?”
“Plenty of people, with the right inducement. Have you heard of Gilbert and Sullivan in the park?”
“Is it what it sounds like?”
“Er, essentially. Well, what about Gilbert and Sullivan in Arcadee?”
Claudia burst in: “We could use the ballroom, Freddie. And people could come down from London and stay the night in the B&B.”
“You could play up the connection to your father. I bet I could get you some radio interviews and newspaper spots. And if you create enough interest with this production, I bet you’ll be able to get enough sponsorship to do it again. Even without my father’s money.”
Freddie frowned. “I can see… I’d have to think about it.”
“Thank you for hearing me out,” said Robin. “There’s one more thing. Have you thought about whether Iolanthe is the best production? I’ve been doing some research, and there are others that might generate more interest.”
“You think The Mikado?” said Freddie. “I was wondering about that myself, but we did it last year.”
“No, I was thinking—”
“We can talk about that later,” Claudia interrupted. She directed a speaking look at Robin, who tilted his head in confusion.
“We don’t do The Pirates of Penzance,” said Freddie. “Absolutely not.”
“I know you’ve not done it since your father’s time.” Robin leaned forward. “That’s why it’s the ideal production. It’ll be fresh, and it’s much more popular than Iolanthe.”
“No,” said Freddie. He looked at his hands to avoid Claudia’s pitying look.
“Claudia told me about your father,” said Robin.
“What about him?” Freddie snapped. “That he was the D’Oyly Carte lead tenor for eleven years? That all the reviewers said he was the best Frederic since Goulding? That he once sang ‘Oh, is there not one maiden breast?’ for the Queen?”
Claudia brushed her hair back from her eyes. “Freddie, I know why you don’t want to do Pirates, but you have to let it go. It was high school.”
“Easy for you to say; you never let father down.”
His sister made a frustrated gesture. Robin looked between them as if he wanted to say something, but he held his tongue.
* * *
Two days later, Claudia and Sybil appeared outside Freddie’s house as he was leaving to walk to the hall for the first rehearsal of Iolanthe. Claudia shamelessly pretended it was a coincidence they had happened to be walking past his house just as he was leaving.
Claudia said, “We think the society should be allowed to hear Robin’s idea.”
“It’s my decision.”
“That isn’t really fair, Freddie,” said Sybil. “Whether the society survives affects all of us.”
“And do all of you want to do the Pirates of Penzance as the next production? We would have to restage it, make costumes and sets, redo auditions…”
“Oh, Robin has some ideas about auditions, too. He thinks we should advertise them more widely; see if we can’t get some new blood into the Society.”
“Robin is just full of ideas.”
“He wants to help,” Claudia said significantly.
“Fine, we can talk to the society today. I’m sure they’ll love the idea of having to audition again for a completely different show.”
They reached the theatre and walked in. Most of the cast was already assembled, and Robin was sitting on the stage swinging his legs and chatting to Martin and Anil. “What are you doing here?” said Freddie. “Shouldn’t you be back in London by now?”
“As I keep telling you, Freddie, it isn’t far to come.”
Freddie stomped up onto the stage. “Welcome, everyone, and especially to our new faces. This was intended to be the first rehearsal of Iolanthe, but we just have some housekeeping business to attend to. As most of you will be aware, as a result of some changes to the financing of WGSS,” He slid a sideways look at Robin, “it may be that we can’t afford to operate after this production. This is Robin Montgomery-Wells. He has an interest in the society, and some suggestions that he would like us to consider. As WGSS is a democracy, apparently, I would like you to hear them and then we can have a vote on how to proceed. Robin?”
Giving him a taunting look, Robin tucked his feet under himself and stood up. “Hello, everyone. I see a few faces I recognise out there. First, a little bit about me.”
Freddie hopped down from the stage and stood in the first row, arms crossed, frowning as Robin took command of the stage and delivered, almost as if he had rehearsed it, a pitch for Gilbert and Sullivan in Arcadee.
The result of the vote was not surprising. Freddie attempted to be gracious as he said, “All right, well, you might as well go home, then. We’ll be in touch regarding auditions for The Pirates of Penzance. We will also be looking for crew to help with logistics, so if you have any friends and family who are looking for something to do…”
“One more thing before everyone goes,” said Claudia. “I nominate Robin as producer for WGSS.”
“Seconded,” said Sybil instantly.
Through gritted teeth, Freddie said, “Vote concerning the nomination of Robin Montgomery-Wells to the office of producer for the Woodcross Gilbert and Sullivan society. Those in favour?” There was a chorus of ayes. “Those against?” A couple of nays. “The ayes have it.”
Claudia chased him as he stomped out of the hall. “Sorry for ambushing you, little brother.”
“It’s fine,” said Freddie. “Let Robin run the WGSS since he’s got so many good ideas. I’ll probably go to America after this show anyway.”
Grabbing his arm, Claudia forced him to stop in the shadows at the back of the hall. “America?”
“You remember Dudley Baxter?”
Claudia squinted. “The name rings a bell. From D’Oyly Carte?”
Freddie crossed his arms. He hadn’t meant to tell Claudia, yet. It made the offer too real. “He’s asked me to come across to New York to work on a Topsy Turvy stage production.”
There was a split second pause before Claudia said, “Freddie, that’s wonderful. When?”
“Whenever I’m ready. I had thought I’d go after Iolanthe closes. The society’s closing just gave me the push I needed.”
“But we might not have to close,” said Claudia quietly.
Freddie shrugged. “Don’t tell anyone,” he said. “I don’t want to distract them from the show.”
* * *
Gentle sir, my heart is frolicsome and free—
(Hey, but he’s doleful, willow willow waly!)
Nobody I care for comes a-courting me—
Hey willow waly O!
Nobody I care for
Comes a-courting — therefore,
Hey willow waly O!
— Patience, Act I
“Freddie, wait,” Robin puffed as Freddie stalked of the theatre.
He stopped and turned. “Mr Producer.”
“Mr Director,” said Robin, tilting his head. “I suppose we’re going to have to work together quite closely.”
“Oh joy, oh rapture unforeseen,” said Freddie. “Did you plan this?”
“Claudia warned me, but it wasn’t my idea. But if you’re not comfortable with it…”
Freddie sighed and pushed his glasses up his nose. “The society has spoken.”
“Are you going home now?”
Freddie gave him a suspicious look. “Why?”
“Well, I know you’re free for the afternoon, since the rehearsal was cancelled.”
“Not really. I’m going to have to go out to Arcadee and dig up the libretti and scores for Pirates.”
“Can I come with you? We could look over the space as well. When were you thinking of opening?”
The space. Freddie pushed out his bottom lip. Who called a room a space? “Surely that’s your call, Mr Producer.”
“Freddie, I’m serious. Can you work with me, or not? Because if you can’t, I’ll resign and leave you alone.”
The silence dragged out between them. Then Freddie said, “And leave me to clean up the mess you’ve made?” He winced. “I suppose—I should say thank you. I do appreciate it.”
“You’re welcome,” said Robin in a small voice. Freddie looked at him, saw the dark shadows under his eyes. Biting his lip, Freddie wondered what demon was driving Robin. He shook his head. No doubt the many cares of the Honourable Robin Lionel Coffrey Montgomery-Wells were far above the touch of ordinary mortals.
“All right, are you coming?”
Robin perked up like a Labrador puppy. “We can take my car.”
Robin drove an Aston Martin sports car. Freddie wondered whether Robin had considered selling it to make up the shortfall caused by the financial markets. He suspected its value could fully finance the Woodcross Gilbert and Sullivan Society for a year. Zooming along country B roads with high hedges on either side, they reached Arcadee in the midafternoon. Freddie had called Claudia to let her know they were going to be raiding the attics, and she had said she was staying in town for a few more hours and would be back for dinner, if they cared to stay. Freddie thanked her, and privately vowed to be long gone by then. No matter how he might try, Robin was not becoming a member of the family.
“This place is beautiful,” said Robin as they pulled up into the driveway. “I haven’t been here in daylight for years.”
It was a sprawling manor house from the 1860s, with a ballroom, five drawing rooms and twenty bedrooms. Claudia had converted most of it into a bed and breakfast, with some of the rooms open periodically to the public, for tax purposes. The ballroom was on the ground floor, with long arched windows leading out onto the lawn and mirrors along the opposite wall. As he stood in the middle of it, Freddie was distressingly able to imagine a stage being set up at one end with curtains between it and the seating to form a backstage area.
“We’ll have to bring in a lighting rig,” said Robin, hands on hips, looking at the ceiling. “And the heritage people will probably be breathing down our necks about preserving the plasterwork.”
“I’m so glad that isn’t my problem anymore.”
“Hey.” Robin hit him on the arm.
Freddie grinned. “I’ll leave you to take measurements, shall I? I need to go and pull out some old boxes in the attic.”
* * *
Robin found him in the attic around five, by which time the light was starting to go.
“Have you found them?” he said.
Freddie nodded. He was sitting on the floor, cross-legged, half-buried under a pile of musty old costumes. He pointed behind him to where he had left a pile of yellowish loose papers. “There are some costumes that might work as well.” He took off his glasses and cleaned them with the hem of his shirt, wiping his eyes before he put them on again.
“Hey, what’s wrong?” said Robin.
“Nothing.” Freddie felt the vibrations as Robin crossed the room and crouched down behind him, putting his hand on Freddie’s shoulder. He leaned back, and that was all the invitation Robin needed to sit down beside him, his arm around Freddie’s shoulders.
“It’s really difficult for you to face this show, isn’t it?” said Robin quietly. “Why?”
Freddie sucked in a long breath. “It’s stupid. High school stuff, like Claudia said.”
“We hold on to the things we feel as teenagers, even after we know we should be able to let them go.” Freddie felt Robin’s shrug.
“You let us go.”
“No I didn’t,” said Robin. Freddie could feel Robin’s breath against his ear. He looked down at the striped shirt and vest lying in his lap and saw himself wearing them, standing on stage in the school auditorium, searching out his father among the dim faces of the audience as he sang, “Oh false one, you have deceived me.”
He pushed the costume off his lap. It would be too small for Martin anyway.
“I always regretted what happened between us,” Robin was saying. “I know it was my fault.”
Freddie turned his upper body so he could look at Robin. Robin’s words died in his throat. He put his hand up to Freddie’s cheek, tilted his head, and pressed their lips together. Freddie leaned in and opened his lips, then found he had twisted onto his side and was half in Robin’s lap. Robin’s hands were cupping his jaw, and Freddie’s glasses were becoming an impediment.
He broke the kiss and crawled away, wiping the back of his hand over his mouth. “Are we really doing this again? Has anything actually changed?” Robin gave him a glazed look. Freddie groaned and levered himself to his feet. “We should be getting back.”
They drove back to Woodcross in silence. Robin had his right hand propped up on the window, thumb resting at the corner of his mouth. Freddie looked out the passenger-side window—most of the time. Robin pulled up outside his house without needing directions. “Hold on a minute,” he said when Freddie went to get out of the car.
Freddie released the door handle and twisted his torso so he could look at Robin. He raised his eyebrows.
“I don’t want to say goodnight.” Robin’s gaze was fixed out the windshield at the empty street. “What you said earlier. Things have changed.”
“What’s changed? Does Lord Wells know you’re gay?”
Sucking the corner of his lip into his mouth, Robin said, “I’m not gay per se…”
“Really? Because if I let you come into my house, we’re going to do things that most impartial commentators would agree fall toward that end of the spectrum.”
“But so what if it’s just between us?”
Freddie spat out a laugh. “You know, I think those are the exact words you used to me ten years ago.”
“I can’t do it, Freddie.”
“How do you know Lord Wells would react badly, anyway?”
“Because he has dedicated his entire existence to the preservation of Wells of Woodcross and Seventrees, and if I don’t have children, the barony goes extinct.”
“Shall I start at the beginning or the end of everything that’s wrong with that statement?” said Freddie. “I’m going to bed.” He climbed out of the car and slammed the door. Robin stayed at the curb until he was inside the house.
Freddie lay awake in bed until finally he got up, turned on his computer, and wrote another email to Baxter, asking to hear more about the Topsy Turvy project.
* * *
Cursing, Robin watched the door slam and pulled his car away from the curb. He knew the drive from Woodcross to London so well he was able to dedicate most of his concentration to the lashing he had just received. It didn’t help that Freddie was right; in fact, it gave Robin a pervasive sense of ill-use. Freddie was bloody cold, still holding a grudge over some four-month thing in university.
Robin clicked his indicator on. The street lights slashed past in an increasing rhythm as he accelerated. If Freddie’s hostility weren’t so discouraging, it would be making Robin hopeful that there might still be something between them. He felt it, but if Freddie did, it was buried deep down beneath layers of resentment.
And all right, maybe it wasn’t just their abortive relationship that Freddie was smarting about; Robin had re-entered Freddie’s life by threatening to take away the one thing he seemed to care about, then taken over it and changed everything . One might even call that behaviour high-handed.
Now convinced he was the lowliest worm ever to crawl the earth, Robin turned the radio on. All three pre-programmed channels were playing advertisements, so he turned it off again.
Well, if Freddie didn’t like what Robin was doing, he should have said so. Rather like one might tell a steamroller pointed at one’s person that one preferred not to become two dimensional, thank you.
Robin snorted. He was a terrible person. But he could be reformed. He was not a hardened reprobate! He was, in fact, generally considered to be charming. Yes, Freddie Green had proven resistant, but he had surrendered to Robin’s charms once; it could happen again. Robin straightened in his seat and nodded as he took the turn off.
He encountered some road works and a diversion, and made it back to his apartment at around 8pm. The Aston was kept in a locked parking garage around the corner, so he deposited the car in its parking spot and strolled along the street. At the door to the terrace house, he stopped and looked up. There were lights on. Louise was home. Robin sighed. It seemed he rarely felt like dealing with Louise these days.
He unlocked the door and stepped into the narrow entrance hall.
“Hello darling,” Louise called. “How was your day?”
“It was fine, thanks,” said Robin, thinking of kissing Freddie, of the costumes strewn on the floor and the dust motes dancing in the slanted sunlight.
Louise came down the stairs wearing a pair of tracksuit pants that had probably set her back a few hundred pounds. Her nails were painted purple, and her thick dark hair was pinned on the top of her head. Robin had really loved her once. That made everything harder. If it had only been men—only been Freddie—who made his blood race downstairs, he might have had to face up to it. But before and after Freddie, there had been women. And he had loved them, and made love to them. So Robin had comfortably thought of Freddie as his college experiment, and pushed to the back of his mind the fascination of Freddie’s wiry frame, the way Freddie’s cock hardening in the circle of Robin’s fist had made him feel things he’d never felt with any of his girlfriends.
“I thought we might go out for dinner,” said Louise, “and Emma and Charlie are going to be at the Savoy if you felt like it.”
“Sounds nice,” said Robin, rolling his shoulders.
“I’ll just pop upstairs and change, then.”
Robin followed her up the stairs and swapped his polo shirt and jeans for a lounge suit. They walked down the street and hailed a cab. As the driver turned towards the city, Louise said, “I had lunch with Violet today. She asked if we’d set a date yet. I told her not to be silly, of course.”
“Mm,” said Robin, examining how the brake-lights from the car in front limned the interior of the taxi with red light.
Louise faded into silence and looked out the window.
* * *
I hear the soft note of the echoing voice
Of an old, old love, long dead –
It whispers my sorrowing heart “rejoice” –
For the last sad tear is shed –
The pain that is all but a pleasure will change
For the pleasure that’s all but pain,
And never, oh never, this heart will range
From that old, old love again!
— Patience, Act I
“About auditions,” said Robin, “I want to run something by you, but you’re not going to like it.” They were sitting in Woodcross’ one coffee shop, because Robin had insisted on meeting to discuss promotion and Freddie had refused to offer his house as the venue.
“How do you do that?” Freddie pushed his glasses up his nose.
Robin blinked. “Do what?”
“Compartmentalise. I couldn’t do it. I look at you and all I can think about is that you propositioned me last time we saw each other.”
Rubbing his hand across his mouth, Robin winced. “I…”
“No, don’t worry about it. I suppose it’s a necessary skill for you. What about auditions?”
Frowning, Robin hesitated, then let the matter slide. “I think we should audition all roles.”
Freddie looked at the flyer Robin had pressed into his hand. Gilbert & Sullivan in Arcadee presents an exciting new production of The Pirates of Penzance. It had a blurb about Richard Green and Arcadee, a space for audition dates, and a couple of the Bab sketches by W. S. Gilbert himself. It looked good. “All right, but you have to tell Claudia and the rest.”
“What? That’s it?”
He shrugged. “They liked your vision last time.”
Robin sucked in air through his teeth. He took a sip of his water. “But you’re with me?”
“If the usual people show up to audition, I don’t anticipate many changes to the cast.”
Looking up, Freddie surprised a smug expression on Robin’s face. “I think there’ll be a few new faces.”
“Well, Claudia and Sybil seem to think the sun shines out of your arse, and where they go so go Martin, Anil and Gurshan, so I’m sure you’ll be fine.” And if the society objected to open auditions, Freddie wasn’t averse to seeing Robin’s shine scuffed a little.
“Do you like the poster, then?” said Robin.
Freddie blinked and set it down on the table. “I do,” he said. “It makes us look like a proper professional outfit.”
“That was my intention. I’m going to do flyer drops around Buckinghamshire and Berkshire.” Robin gathered up the flyer. “I might see if I can get places in the local papers as well.”
“Will the treasury stretch to that?” said Freddie, clasping his hands in front of him.
“Anil tells me he can set aside a little of the budget for advertising.”
“Good. Please don’t let yourself be out of pocket. I know how strained the baronial purse strings are at the moment.”
Robin’s lips pressed into a thin smile. “Was that worth it?” he said.
“It made me feel a little better, yes,” said Freddie.
Making a gesture of resignation, Robin moved on to the topic of taxation and government support for the arts. When he saw that Freddie was doodling on the edge of the tablecloth with his pen, he stopped. “You’re not much for the business side of things, are you?”
Freddie looked up. “I just want to present shows,” he said. “I want to do Iolanthe, and when Iolanthe is finished I want to do Ruddigore, the Mikado, Pinafore and the rest. Why can’t I just do that?”
Giving him a fond smile, Robin didn’t reply.
“What?” Freddie propped his chin on his hand and frowned across the table.
“I was just thinking that I’m not actually that good at compartmentalising.”
Freddie straightened up and leaned back. “What?”
“All I can think about right now is how good it felt kissing you.”
“Goodness gracious,” said Freddie. He looked over Robin’s shoulder. There were a few other people in the coffee shop. He knew them all, as well as the staff, by name. Narrowing his eyes, Freddie said, “All right, then. Kiss me.”
Robin’s eyes went wide. “Here?” he looked around. Suddenly he didn’t look remotely amorous.
“That’s what I thought,” said Freddie.
“Why are you so determined to push me out of the closet?”
“I’m not,” said Freddie. “It is your choice how you live your life, but I want to hold hands and kiss in public. I want to have his family over for dinner. One day, I want to get married and maybe even adopt children. And your choices mean that it will never be like that with us. I deserve better than to be your kept man.”
Robin looked down at his hands on the table. “You’re absolutely right,” he said in a stifled voice. “I’m sorry.”
* * *
The Banque Français building was in the heart of the City, frowning suspiciously across the road at Deutche Bank, the old European rivalries played out on either side of London Wall. Robin’s office was on the seventh floor and looked out over the City, not at the Thames, not at St Paul’s, and not at any other recognisable London landmarks. The tinted windows made each hour melt into the next and Robin had become accustomed to looking up from his computer screen and discovering the sun had gone down and the office was empty.
At whatever point he was able to extract himself from client portfolios and market reports he usually plodded down the seven flights of stairs and out of the building. However, he stayed at his computer frowning at the WGSS website, which looked like it had been made by a first-year IT student using FrontPage. Robin rolled up his metaphorical sleeves and set about learning how to set up a blog. Once he had a serviceable sort of webpage available, with some information, a photo gallery and a “Next Production” page, he searched out all the audition and musical theatre websites he could find and posted a short spiel about WGSS, Arcadee, Richard Green and anything else he thought could draw people to audition for a community production of a show like Pirates of Penzance.
By this time it was the wee hours of the morning, so he shrugged into his coat, shut down his computer and left his office, trying not to think about the fact he had to be back there in less than seven hours. The trip down the echoing staircase was his resetting ritual of an evening, and he walked out of the Banque Français building and into the street. Usually, his mind was filled with the resounding silence of one who has given everything they have to their job, but on this particular night Robin’s mind was buzzing with plans and ideas for WGSS. As he waited to hail a taxi, he took out his phone and typed a one-handed text message to Freddie: I overhauled the website. See what you think.
Sitting in the taxi as it made its way through the quiet streets of midweek, night-time London. His phone pinged. How long did that take you?
Not too long. Like it? Nothing from Freddie for a few minutes, so Robin texted again, I backed up the old site if you liked it better. He put his phone in his pocket and looked out the window.
He felt the vibration and snatched it out again. Freddie’s reply read, It looks great. You did that?
Robin’s relief was almost comical as he texted, Yep. What are you doing up at this hour?
Forgot to put my phone on silent, Freddie replied.
Oh, sorry. I’ll let you get back to sleep, then. He hesitated, then added, Sweet dreams.
Don’t worry about it. Sleep well.
Robin smiled as he put his phone away. The taxi pulled up outside his house and he paid the driver and climbed out. He tiptoed up the stairs, brushed his teeth using a new toothbrush in the spare bathroom, tiptoed across the hall and climbed into bed. Louise stirred and mumbled, “Working late?”
“Yeah, I think there’s going to be a few late nights,” Robin replied, turning onto his side and pulling the blankets up over his shoulder. Despite his exhaustion, it took almost an hour for him to fall asleep.
* * *
A few new faces turned out to be an underestimation. Sometime between the coffee shop conversation and auditions, Robin had got hold of the login details for the website and completely overhauled it. He had thrown around terms like audience, value proposition and SEO, and Freddie had just nodded and left him to it. Whatever he had done had drawn almost two hundred people to sign up via the form to audition for the chorus or the solos. They kept arriving in convoys, and Robin was kept busy ferrying people to and from Woodcross. Claudia was treating this as an advertising opportunity for Arcadee, and had turned several of the guestrooms into green rooms for the soloists. She had also put on a decent luncheon spread.
They were using the ballroom for auditions. The stage hadn’t been set up, because there was a wedding in the ballroom the next weekend, but they had marked out a stage area in duct tape. Freddie sat on a solitary chair in the middle of the room as a parade of ladies and pirates worked their way across the room. All the auditionees provided a resume of their theatre experience and a head shot—another Robin innovation—for which Freddie was grateful because he could never have kept them all straight. At the end of the day, he flopped down on the parquetry floor surrounded by paper, and groaned. Robin and Claudia walked in and stopped. “Good heavens,” said Claudia. She stepped through the maze of photographs and sat down next to him. “Listen, Freddie,” she said, “please don’t cast me as Edith. You’re going to need me behind the scenes.”
Freddie let out a puff of breath. “I’m so glad to hear you say that. If course the role if yours if you want it, but I shudder to think how we will get everything set up and running smoothly without you backstage.”
Claudia nodded. “I thought she was rather good, didn’t you?” she said, pointing to a photograph of a woman with long brown hair.
“Mm,” said Freddie, picking up her resume.
“And as for me, I was thinking… Stage Manager.”
“All right,” said Freddie, “as long as ‘stage’ is understood to mean the entire building.”
Robin snorted, causing them both to look up. “Well?” he said.
“Brilliant!” said Claudia. “I can’t wait to get the cast together.”
Robin looked at Freddie, who said grudgingly, “There were some really talented people in there, but I’m sick of ‘Poor wand’ring one’ already.”
Getting up, Claudia said, “I should clear away the food. I’ll leave you two to discuss casting.”
There was an arrested look in Robin’s eyes as he met Freddie’s. Freddie straightened his shoulders and beckoned. “Let’s talk about Mabel first.” Robin crossed the room and stood next to Freddie, who climbed to his feet and turned full-circle once to take in all the faces. “Ah, there are the Mabels I thought rated call-backs this afternoon. Which ones did you see?”
In the end, they got a good mix of the old society and new additions. As they were packing up the papers, Robin said, “By the way, I’ve started a blog on the website.”
“Jesus Christ,” said Freddie, not looking up. “Don’t you have a full-time job?”
“I do, but I think a blog will help us build a profile, and I really don’t mind. It’s a nice distraction from financial markets and share portfolios. Anyway, I thought the best way to start would be an interview with you. When it comes to promoting the show, your connection with Richard Green and Arcadee will be what gets us media spots, trust me.”
Freddie took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “Wonderful, talking about my father. When?”
“Some evening this week would be good. Care to nominate a restaurant?”
“It’d be useful to be near a computer, wouldn’t it?” Freddie paused. “If you promise to be a gentleman, we can do the interview at my place.”
Robin ducked his head and rubbed his nape with one hand. “On my honour,” he said.
“Well, you are the Honourable Robin Lionel Coffrey Montgomery-Wells,” Freddie mocked, “so I suppose I shall have to trust you.”
“Wednesday night, then? I’ll give you a call when I’m leaving London.”
Freddie nodded. His face felt hot, and he turned away from Robin in case he was blushing.
* * *
So, In spite of all temptation,
Such a theme I’ll not discuss,
And on no consideration
Will I kiss you fondly thus –
Will I kiss you fondly thus –
Let me make it clear to you,
This is what I’ll never do!
This, oh, this,
Oh, this, –
This is what I’ll never, never do!
— The Mikado, Act I
When Robin’s knock finally came, sometime after 9.30pm, Freddie had been perched on the edge of an armchair letting his tea go cold for the best part of half an hour. He leaped up like a scalded cat and went to the door.
“Yes, come in,” he said.
Robin ducked his head as he walked in the door.
“Would you like some tea?”
“Yes, thank you. Milk, no sugar.”
Freddie followed him through the living room to the little kitchen, biting his lip. As he walked, Robin was shucking the jacket of his charcoal suit. “Would you like me to take that?”
Robin stopped and turned. “Oh—thank you,” he said. He was wearing a white shirt with a faint herringbone pattern and a thin dark green tie. Freddie took his jacket and hung it on a hook in the entranceway. He hit his forehead with the heel of his hand and said sternly to himself, “Stop it.”
When he returned to the living room, Robin had claimed a chair and was rolling up his sleeves and loosening his tie.
“Jesus Christ,” mumbled Freddie and fled to the kitchen.
“How has your day been?” called Robin.
“Yes, fine,” said Freddie. “Not too much to say.” The kettle bubbled then clicked off. “You?”
“Beastly,” said Robin with a sigh Freddie heard from the kitchen.
He dropped two tea bags into a pot, hooked two cups with his fingers and left the kitchen. “Why do you say that?”
“I’m just so tired of the whole thing. I—work is a struggle. I don’t know what I’m doing.” Robin sat with his elbows on his knees, head hanging between his shoulders. He looked exhausted. And picturesque. A GQ model tired out by hours of posing handsomely.
“Could you leave?” One more trip to the kitchen and Freddie returned with milk and sugar.
Robin looked up at him and then away. “No,” he said. “I don’t think that’s the answer to the problem. Anyway, not much about for investment bankers at the minute.”
Freddie frowned. “All right.” He sat down opposite and poured tea into the two mugs.
Rubbing his hands together, Robin said, “Shall we get started, then?”
“Have you had dinner?”
Robin’s expression was half-smile, half-wince. “I had a biscuit around 3pm.”
“Would you like some toast or something? I don’t have much in the house.”
“Actually, toast with jam would be wonderful.”
When Freddie got up, Robin followed, scooping up their mugs and half the tea paraphernalia. He set the teapot down on the bench and jumped on it himself, swinging his legs. Now he looked like a schoolboy at Speech Night. Freddie puffed out a breath and gave himself a stern talking-to as he fished two slices of bread out of the freezer.
“So, why don’t you start by telling me about your father?”
“Blackcurrant or strawberry jam?”
“Strawberry. Did you ever see him perform at the Adelphi?”
“A few times. I was very young when he stopped working with D’Oyly Carte. Butter?”
“Yes, thank you. I can do that.” Robin hopped down from the bench and came to stand beside Freddie. “Why did he retire?”
“He smoked enough that he lost his upper register and couldn’t sing the parts properly. So, as a ‘bugger you,’ he started the Woodcross G & S Society and kept singing them. And smoking.”
Robin took the knife and scraped some butter onto the toast. He said, “Your father was a great man, and he left a great legacy.”
“Which doesn’t even merit your charity anymore.” Freddie brushed his hair back from his forehead.
“When did he buy Arcadee?” said Robin, not rising to the bait. He balanced his plate and mug in one hand and followed Freddie through to the living room.
“In 1995. It was a run-down old pile, but he really loved the place. Sunk all his money and a mortgage into it. Claudia and I only paid off the bank last year.”
“Did he name it?” Robin sat down and gulped down his toast, following it with a long pull of tea.
“It’s a reference to Iolanthe,” Freddie replied. “They play on the rhyme between Arcady and I, and Arcadee and he. It doesn’t really work these days, but it tickled my father’s sense of humour. He liked an in-joke.” He jerked his chin towards the empty plate. “You really were hungry.”
“My stomach was in the process of devouring itself.” Robin paused. “Tell me about The Pirates of Penzance.”
“It premiered officially in 1879 in New York. It was Gilbert and Sullivan’s fourth collaboration for D’Oyly Carte and is arguably their second most popular operetta after The Mikado.”
“Yes, thank for you the Wikipedia summary,” said Robin. “This show had a special significance to your father, didn’t it?”
“Frederic was the role he was most famous for,” said Freddie, “and the last role he ever performed for D’Oyly Carte. Princess Diana once came backstage to congratulate him on his performance. He asked her for a signed picture, and she asked for one right back.”
“And you’re named after the character.”
Freddie sighed. “Yes. I was supposed to be James, but I was born on February 29th, the same as the character. It’s a major part of the plot that although he has lived twenty-one years, going by birthdays he is ‘a little boy of five’. Dad and his in-jokes again. You know all this, Robin.”
Robin shrugged, “It’s good to hear it from you. Make sure I’ve got the story right.” He had been scribbling in a spiral notebook and he set it aside. He unrolled his sleeves and pulled them down. Examining his cuff, he said, “Did your father know you were gay?”
Freddie tilted his head.”Is this for the blog?”
“I’ve just been thinking about what you said.”
“No, he didn’t. He died before I came out to my family. My mother knows, though, as do all my friends.”
“Yes, well, your friends are theatre folk,” Robin muttered. “Mine are investment bankers.”
“So too busy snorting cocaine off strippers bought with taxpayers’ money to notice what you’re doing in your personal life, then?” said Freddie sharply.
Robin winced. “Touché. All right.” He picked up his notebook again. “What ideas do you have for the production? What’s going to be different about Pirates of Penzance in Arcadee?”
“You should ask my producer that.” Freddie raised his eyebrows.
“Fine.” Freddie waved his hand. “Um… the history, I guess. And the setting—in the ballroom and such. And people can stay at Arcadee if they like and make a night of it.”
“We are going to have to work on your interview manner,” said Robin, shutting the notebook.
“Can’t you do the interviews?” said Freddie plaintively.
“You’re one of the selling points, don’t you understand?” Robin got up and crouched beside Freddie’s chair. “People will want to talk to you about your father and your connection to the show. They couldn’t give a tinker’s damn about me.”
Freddie didn’t reply.
“You know,” said Robin softly, “I looked up Sir Ruthven from Ruddigore. Not a very flattering comparison. Your father wasn’t the only one who likes in-jokes.” His hand slithered up the chair until his littlest finger was brushing Freddie’s forearm.
“I thought you were going to be a gentleman,” said Freddie, but he didn’t want Robin to be gentlemanly. It was a combination of the suit, the toast, the defeated slump of Robin’s shoulders in that one moment when he seemed like a human being and not a posh British Ken Doll. It was something else to think about other than his father and the ache in his chest that came whenever he thought about You don’t have the range to pull it off, son.
“A gentleman.” Robin’s sandy lashes dropped down to shield his eyes. “Mr Green, may I apply to your sister to court you?”
“Bugger that.” Freddie leaned down and pressed their lips together. Robin tasted like strawberry jam. He wrapped his arms around Freddie’s shoulders and pulled him down onto the floor. His hip was pressed against Robin’s crotch, the metal buckle of Robin’s belt pressing into his stomach. Robin’s hands found their way underneath his shirt and slid against bare skin. His fingertips were soft and when he curved his hands Freddie felt the barest scrape of fingernail. He rolled onto his side, wedged between the chair and the coffee table, Robin lying almost nose-to-nose with him.
Down here, in the shadow of the chair, with nothing but heated air between them, it seemed as if everything else didn’t matter. Freddie’s view on the desirability of Robin as a life partner hadn’t changed; as far as he knew, Robin’s view about the appeal of life as an out, gay man hadn’t changed either. But there were certain primal realities that had superseded Freddie’s sensible plans for the situation.
He reached for Robin’s belt. It was a solid metal buckle with some kind of mechanism behind it. “How the hell does this thing work?” he murmured against Robin’s lips. He felt Robin grimace, then roll onto his back and lever himself upright. Freddie sat up too.
“I think I have to be a gentleman,” Robin said, almost as if he didn’t believe it himself.
Freddie stood and went to the window, smoothing down his rumpled hair. He took off his glasses, which were badly smudged, and cleaned them with the hem of his shirt.
“Could… could I stay here tonight? I am so exhausted I’d rather not risk the drive to Seventrees.”
There was that hint of humanity again. Freddie turned around. “Are you sure you couldn’t find a job elsewhere?”
Robin was seated with his legs out in front of him, leaning against the chair like a rag doll. He gave Freddie a tired smile.
“I don’t have a spare bed.”
Robin looked around the room. “That couch looks fine. Just bring me a blanket. Actually, I’m willing to negotiate on the blanket.”
Freddie hovered uncertainly then went to get a blanket and pillow, then hovered again. Robin stripped off his shirt, shoes and trousers and lay down on the couch in his singlet and boxers. He pulled the blanket up and let out a long sigh like an air mattress deflating.
“Are you comfortable?” said Freddie.
Eyes closed, Robin nodded. He turned on his side, facing the couch cushions. “Thank you, Freddie.”
After a moment, Freddie said, “What happened with us? Didn’t you like me?”
“I liked you.” Robin’s voice was muffled by a cushion. “I more than liked you. But when you said you wanted us to be boyfriends… I imagined how my father and all my friends would react. I was scared.” He rolled over and looked at the ceiling. “I’m still scared. You were right—nothing’s changed.”
Freddie nodded. “I do understand how unbearable it is to disappoint your father.” Without waiting for a response, he said, “Well, see you in the morning, then,” and went to the door. As he was reaching over to turn off the light, he said, “I like you better like this, Robin.”
* * *
Spurn not the nobly born
With love affected,
Nor treat with virtuous scorn
High rank involves no shame –
We boast an equal claim
With him of humble name
To be respected!
— Iolanthe, Act I
The next morning Robin rushed off early, citing traffic and morning meetings. He accepted more toast and strawberry jam from Freddie and successfully begged the honour of Freddie’s company for dinner that Friday. His parting words had been that there was something he needed to tell Freddie, and he wouldn’t feel right until he had. Leaving Freddie to scratch his head over that one, he zoomed away in his Aston Martin. Freddie shrugged and went inside to have a shower.
As usual, the next night Freddie went over to Arcadee for dinner. Claudia was full of ideas for the show. “Since Sybil’s going to be in the chorus this time, she will be able to help me with the backstage stuff. She should be assistant stage manager,” Claudia added casually, dissecting a lamb chop.
Freddie rolled his eyes. “Am I going to have to bribe you all with new titles?”
“It would certainly help,” said Claudia.
“Might I remind you, it was you and Sybil who got Robin nominated as producer. Are you finding the bed you made uncomfortable?” To emphasise this sally, he speared a bean with his fork.
“Are you?” Claudia fired back, lightning fast.
“What do you mean?”
“You and Robin, of course. How is keeping him at arm’s length going?”
“Good days and bad days,” said Freddie with a so-so gesture.
“I see.” Claudia set down her knife and fork, crossed her arms and gave him the side-eye. “So you know he’s practically engaged, right?”
Freddie’s hands froze in the act of shovelling mashed potato into his fork. Deliberately, he continued the gesture. “I didn’t,” he said, very calm, “but that does explain rather a lot.”
“He hasn’t been using you ill, has he?” said Claudia, clearly ready to climb on her horse and ride to Freddie’s defence.
“I am not absolutely sure what that term encompasses, but no. You can demobilise. What’s her name?”
“Louise Chiodelli,” said Claudia. “She’s a lawyer, apparently, and her mother is a Barclay.”
“I bet she plays polo,” Freddie said. He looked at the pile of mashed potato and carrot he’d been loading onto his fork and sighed.
The next day was Friday, and they were meeting at a restaurant in High Wycombe, which was near Freddie’s work and more convenient from London than Woodcross. After work, Freddie went to the Eden Shopping Centre and browsed through HMV and Waterstones, then went to a cafe with a book. Soon enough, he looked at his watch and realised it was past 7pm so he hurried to the restaurant, mentally composing what he was going to say to Robin. He had no doubt that the existence of a secret fiancée was what Robin’s guilt had finally prodded him to confess. The thought gave Freddie a sad, heavy feeling in his stomach. He had thought… but he was wrong, and there was no point blaming Robin for his nature. Freddie must be cool and professional. No more late night meetings; they would confine themselves to daytime meetings on weekends, and once the bloody Pirates of Penzance in Arcadee was over, Robin would resign his post as producer for the society and they would part ways forever. And good riddance.
Stepping into the restaurant, he saw Robin before Robin saw him. Robin looked pale and nervous, his hair sticking out in every direction and his tie loosened. He was sitting at a round table, scanning the room. Freddie frowned. There was a woman sitting with him. He could see her in profile; she had dark hair and eyes, and was wearing a neat blazer. Well, thought Freddie. Well. Not only was Robin planning to break the news of his affianced state, he intended to introduce his future bride at the same time. Freddie straightened his shoulders and sailed over to the table. “Robin, so sorry I’m late,” he drawled. “Is this Louise? It must be.”
He paused and the woman smiled. “Hello,” she said. “You must be Robin’s friend Freddie.”
“Indeed, I am,” said Freddie. “How lovely to meet you. Robin has told me so much about you.”
Robin gave him a wide-eyed look. “Er, wine?” he said.
“Yes, order a bottle, darling,” said Louise. “Red or white, Freddie?”
“Oh, white,” said Freddie, sitting down.
“Robin’s been telling me about your society. I have to admit, I was a bit startled when he told me he was producing a musical; he wouldn’t even go and see Les Misérables with me last year.”
Freddie blinked to stop himself from rolling his eyes. Robin looked down at the table. “It’s not really a musical,” he said in a stifled tone.
Somehow, Robin’s mortification made it easier for Freddie to get control of himself. “The technical term is ‘operetta’,” he said kindly. “Or, ‘comic opera’. Excuse me.” He stood and headed in the direction of the men’s’ room.
“Ah, I might use the facilities too, before the wine arrives,” he heard Robin say behind him.
“She seems nice,” Freddie said when Robin caught up to him at the urinal.
“I really didn’t intend this to happen.”
“Your plan was that we would both continue on in blissful ignorance of each other?”
“No, I was going to tell you about Louise. But when I told her I was coming down to have dinner with a friend, she insisted on being invited.”
Freddie went to the basin. “Well, as your fiancée, she does have a right to know where you are.”
“She isn’t my fiancée…” said Robin. “Well, not really. My father would like us to marry.”
“Do you sleep together?”
Robin followed him to the basin and ran his hands under the water. “On occasion,” he said unhappily.
“Do you live together?”
Wordlessly, Robin nodded.
“Bloody hell,” said Freddie. “You really do want to set me up in a cottage out of the way and visit me when your wife thinks you’re working late or at a conference. You are unbelievable.”
“Well, I didn’t sleep with you the other night, did I? I acted like a gentleman.”
“No, you didn’t act like a bastard.” Freddie held his hands under the dryer and went to the door. “There’s a big difference. And you don’t get points because you decided you should tell me about your girlfriend before trying to fuck me.” He stalked back out to the table and sat down. Louise had poured him a glass of wine, so he thanked her and took a sip. “You’re a lawyer?” he said.
“I am, yes. With Sooner and Chain.”
“That’s nice,” said Freddie, although Louise clearly expected more of a reaction to the name of her firm.
“And how did you and Robin meet?”
“At a polo match; my team was playing, and Robin was there with his father.”
“How lovely.” Freddie ignored Robin’s return to the table. “How do you find our Robin? Is he a beast?”
“He works too hard,” said Louise, putting her hand on Robin’s arm.
“You’re just as bad,” said Robin, shifting uncomfortably.
“And how do you two know each other?” said Louise. There was something intent in her eyes as she looked at Freddie.
“Our fathers were friends,” said Freddie blandly.
“Oh yes, Robin told me your father was an opera tenor.”
“Something like that. He bought an old house quite near Woodcross about twenty years ago.”
“And so Robin heard about your production, and…”
“Didn’t you tell her the story?” said Freddie with exaggerated shock. “Lord Wells was a long-time supporter of our society, but with times being what they are, Robin decided the estate couldn’t afford to donate anymore. He came down to Woodcross to tell me that, and then stayed out of the goodness of his heart to help turn the society around. Isn’t that right?”
“Something like that,” Robin mumbled, echoing Freddie’s earlier words.
It would not go down in Freddie’s mind as one of the more successful dinners he had been to. As soon as the main courses had been cleared Robin gestured for the bill and it being paid, they went their separate ways. “I’ll see you tomorrow?” said Robin.
“At rehearsal, yes, where there will be many other people,” said Freddie. “It was nice to meet you, Louise.”
“You too.” She gave him an apologetic smile. “Drive safely.”
* * *
“All right, everyone, gather on stage,” said Freddie. They were in the Woodcross community hall, and it was the first rehearsal of The Pirates of Penzance. Freddie stood about ten rows back in the auditorium, having deliberately chosen to stand two rows behind Robin. He surveyed the assembled group. Martin stood with his hips cocked as if he suspected he might be on a reality television show. Anil stood beside him, reading over his script. Anne Hamilton was leaning against the wings fanning herself with her hand. They had a new Mabel, a new Edith, a new Sergeant and a new Major General. Sybil was happy enough in the chorus; Gurshan had chosen not to join the production. Claudia, Freddie suspected, was enjoying herself more as stage manager than she ever had performing.
“Hello, welcome to the Pirates of Penzance, and congratulations on being here. The audition process was very competitive, and you’re here because you really impressed us. I’m Freddie, the director, and this is Robin and Claudia, producer and stage manager respectively. I’m not one for speeches, so I’ll hand over to Robin.”
Robin gave him a narrow look and turned to the stage. Freddie half-listened as he went on about privileges and opportunities, and making history.
“All right,” Freddie said when Robin had received the applause his oration deserved. “General Stanley’s daughters, you’re with Claudia. Pirates, you’re with Ewan. Soloists, here on stage with me. We’re going to talk through the dialogue sections today to give you another week to learn your songs.”
He leaned back in his seat and read out the stage directions. “Song, ‘Pour, oh pour the pirate sherry’. Anil, your line.” They got through the opening dialogue, skipped Ruth’s song, and more dialogue.
Martin read, “Individually, I love you all with affection unspeakable; but, collectively, I look upon you with a disgust that amounts to absolute detestation. Oh! pity me, my beloved friends, for such is my sense of duty that, once out of my indentures, I shall feel myself bound to devote myself heart and soul to your extermination!”
“Poor lad – poor lad!” said Freddie, standing in for the pirates.
They read on. Anil jumped onto a box and launched enthusiastically into the pirate king’s song, until Freddie waved him down with a laughing, “Just the dialogue, Anil.”
“How’s it going?” said Robin, stepping into his field of vision.
Freddie sat up. “What do you want?”
Robin raised his eyebrows. “To know how the read-through is going. Was my question ambiguous?”
“You are ambiguous. You are a large bundle of ambiguity, ambivalence and double entendre.”
Robin considered this and shrugged. He held up his phone. “I’m taking pictures.”
“Argh,” said Freddie.
Martin stood opposite Anne and read, “Ruth, I will be quite candid with you. You are very dear to me, as you know, but I must be circumspect. You see, you are considerably older than I. A lad of twenty-one usually looks for a wife of seventeen.”
Anne put one hand on her heart and said earnestly, “A wife of seventeen! You will find me a wife of a thousand!”
“No, but I shall find you a wife of forty-seven, and that is quite enough.”
“Martin, don’t say the line as if you know it’s supposed to be funny. Like this,” Freddie demonstrated. Martin frowned and repeated it. “Yes, that’s about right. You and I know this scene is ridiculous, but Frederic is completely serious.”
Robin snorted and Freddie scowled at him. When they reached the interval, they broke for lunch. Freddie flopped back in his seat, torn between the impulse to laugh and a sob that was pushing its way up his throat. He could hear every line echoing in his mind. His father’s intonation, the cadence of the lines. He wanted to get up there and demonstrate the proper way to say each line, but he knew he could never do them justice. Richard Green himself had told Freddie so.
Resting his head against the rim of the seat, he looked up at the undeniably fifties decor of the auditorium, the mint green ceiling and the white plasterwork covered in cobwebs and dust. He could feel the hard wooden frame of the chair through the worn leather and thin padding.
“Let’s get into Act II,” he said, and read from the script: “The scene: a ruined chapel by moonlight. Ruined Gothic windows at back. Major-General Stanley discovered seated pensively, surrounded by his daughters. Song. Isabel, your line.”
“Mind if I sit here?” said Robin.
“Yes,” said Freddie.
Robin sat in the chair two away from Freddie and held up his phone. “For the blog,” he said.
Freddie ignored him. He heard the iPhone shutter sound, and Robin said, “I shall call it, ‘Director at work’.”
“Fit for the National Portrait Gallery,” said Freddie. “Right next to my dad.”
“You are just a bundle of daddy issues,” said Robin, putting his phone away.
“And you aren’t?” said Freddie, eyes flashing.
“Shh, I’m trying to listen to the rehearsal.” Robin settled down in his seat, showing Freddie a smug profile.
Laurence, who was playing the Major-General, was saying, “Why do I sit here? To escape from the pirates’ clutches, I described myself as an orphan; and, heaven help me, I am no orphan! I come here to humble myself before the tombs of my ancestors, and to implore their pardon for having brought dishonour on the family escutcheon.”
“But you forget, sir, you only bought the property a year ago, and the stucco on your baronial castle is scarcely dry,” said Martin.
“Frederic, in this chapel are ancestors: you cannot deny that. With the estate, I bought the chapel and its contents. I don’t know whose ancestors they were, but I know whose ancestors they are, and I shudder to think that their descendant by purchase (if I may so describe myself) should have brought disgrace upon what, I have no doubt, was an unstained escutcheon,” replied Laurence in dire accents.
“What’s an escutcheon?” stage-whispered Robin.
“It’s a heraldic shield,” snapped Freddie. “Didn’t they teach you that at Eton?”
“No, but apparently you learned all about it at Stanworth,” Robin flashed back, lightning quick.
Freddie hissed at him, then said, “Good, Laurence, can we try again with a bit of offended pride?”
“Yes, Laurence, can we?” Robin mimicked in an undertone.
Freddie turned the top half of his body towards Robin. “Are you just going to sit there and bait me like a five-year-old?”
“Are you going to stay angry with me forever?”
Freddie turned back to the stage. “Now isn’t the time.”
“Are you, though?”
“I’m not even angry with you. As well be angry at the sky for being blue.”
“What does that mean?” Robin’s pitch rose.
He banged the back of his head against the top of the seat and said, “Excuse us for a moment.” He stood and gestured for Robin to precede him out of the row, then led the way into a little office to the side of the stage. “What is going on? I say I’m not angry, and you get angry at me.”
“Because you said it in the most offensive way possible,” said Robin, looking like a frustrated schoolboy.
“And you have a fiancée,” said Freddie. He pushed his glasses up his nose. “Look, we have to work together for another three months. I am trying very hard to be professional. You are not making it easy.”
“That’s because there’s something between us,” said Robin, pressing close.
Freddie backed up against the desk. “Sure there is,” he said. “Come back to me when you’re single and I will be happy to explore that something with you.”
“Is that a promise?” Robin’s eyes glittered.
“No,” said Freddie.
Robin pushed away. “You don’t play fair.”
“You have a fiancée. I need to get back to the auditorium.”
“Freddie… I know you hate what my family stands for.”
Shaking his head, Freddie said, “I envy you that you know the place you will step into in the world, and that the suit actually fits you.”
“Why do you think I am some other species?” said Robin. “You treat me as if everything bad I do is part of my nature, and everything good a disruption to your world.”
“Hearts just as pure and fair may beat in Belgrave Square ,” Freddie sang, looking away from Robin.
“And you shield yourself from the world using the ridiculous lyrics of a couple of troubled men from one hundred and thirty years ago. You have to live in the real world sometime.”
“I should get back to the auditorium,” Freddie said again. He left Robin leaning against a cupboard, looking out the window.
* * *
My nature is love and light —
My freedom from all defect —
—Is insignificant quite,
—Compared with his daughter-in-law elect!
—Bow — Bow —
—To his daughter-in-law elect!
—The Mikado, Act II
Freddie stared at his phone. The SMS screen read, Why has your father summoned me to dinner? He pressed send.
A moment later, the notification noise went off, and Robin’s reply came, Because he wants to have you over for dinner.
Sighing, Freddie put his phone away. He contemplated declining, but his phone buzzed again, and this time it was Claudia. Don’t even think of pretending you’re sick. We’re going.
“Fine,” Freddie said, pulling a face at his phone. That Saturday, after rehearsal, Robin offered them a lift to Seventrees, and Freddie said quickly, “Thanks, but I’ll drive. I wouldn’t want you to have to drop us back into town.”
The drive to Seventrees was slightly longer than that to Arcadee, in the opposite direction out of Woodcross. It was a typical old gentry home, with the remnants of a 16th century manor taken over by Georgian extensions and the installation of modern conveniences. The eponymous seven trees had died long ago, but once when Freddie had visited as a child, Lord Wells had pointed to an oak tree near the front entrance and said, “That is Son of Seven Trees. It’s a very old tree, grown from an acorn of one of the original seven trees.”
Freddie looked at Son of Seven Trees. In the fading light he could make out the leaves of the old oak, turning from green to yellow.
Lionel Montgomery-Wells (middle names to be discovered upon reference to Debrett’s Peerage), Baron Wells of Woodcross, met them on the big stone stairs leading to the front door. “Welcome, Greens,” he said grandly. “It has been too long.” Robin roared up the gravel driveway.
“My son,” said Lord Wells, “making a racket in his Aston again. Does he do this all around Woodcross?”
“The neighbourhood committee would never let him, Lord Wells,” said Freddie.
“Lionel, please,” said Lord Wells. “I’ve known you since you were knee-high to a grasshopper. Claudia, how are you, love?”
“Very well, thank you,” said Claudia, kissing Lord Wells on the cheek.
Robin slammed the car door and skipped up the steps. “Hello, daddy,” he said. “It’s chilly out here. Let’s go inside.”
They all trooped in the big oak doors into one of the newer parts of the house, a grand marble entrance hall. Leading off from it was a staircase and a passageway through to the formal receiving rooms. They walked through the house to the 16th century part. Freddie had always liked this part of the house better. It felt to Freddie like a house someone might live in, rather than a National Trust property. It was cosier, and the timber wainscoting had been retained, along with the obligatory portraits of past kings of England. In a very even-handed and pragmatic way, James II hung on one side of the fireplace, and George I on the other.
Perhaps if he had ever lived at Arcadee, he would be more used to that the marble and plaster, but he had gone from his mother’s home to Cambridge, and then to live in London, and hadn’t come back to Woodcross until after his father’s death from lung cancer.
When they reached the little family parlour, two women stood to greet them. Louise kissed Robin’s cheek, and ducked her head at Freddie. She was introduced to Claudia, and the two women sized each other up. Meanwhile, Lady Wells greeted everyone in her understated way. She had the same sandy hair as Robin, although he got his broad shoulders and long legs from his father.
They all sat down, and Lord Wells led a wide-ranging conversation on the economy, modern politicians, the European Union, the latest literary sensations and the environment, all of which he had very decided opinions on. Eventually he circled around to what Freddie sensed had been his object all along: “Dear boy so sorry to have to pull funding from WGSS. I know it was your father’s pet project.”
“I understand,” said Freddie. “This economy has been tough on everyone.”
Lord Wells nodded dolefully. “Oh, yes, yes,” he said, “but Robin tells me he’s been helping you try and turn WGSS into a profitable venture. Secure some other funding?”
“He has,” said Freddie blandly.
“Never seen him so much at Woodcross,” said Lord Wells, leaning back and putting one ankle on the other knee. “Usually I don’t hear from him for months at a time.”
“That isn’t fair,” protested Robin.
“It’s completely fair.” Lord Wells waggled a finger at him. “If Louise didn’t call every now and then to reassure me you’re alive, I’d have got my lawyers onto finding whatever happened to that boy of Cousin Henry’s. Can’t have the barony going extinct because my son died and nobody remembered to tell his old man.”
“Dad,” said Robin in a faint voice. “Really?”
Lord Wells shrugged. “Is it so much to ask for a phone call every week or so? How often do you kids talk to your mother?”
“Oh, once a week without fail,” Claudia said blandly.
“There you go.” Lord Wells rested his case.
“His polo team has started a pool to guess where he’s vanished to,” put in Louise. “I’m told that a monastery in Tibet currently has the shortest odds.”
“Really?” said Lord Wells. “When did you last play, boy?”
“I haven’t played this year.”
“Why not? Good to keep fit.”
“I’ve had other things on my mind,” Robin said through his teeth. “I’ll play next year.”
“If they’ll have you,” said Louise. “You’ll be so out of shape.”
A silence fell over the group. Freddie looked over and caught Louise studying him closely. He smiled at her and she looked away. Frowning, Freddie slid his glance to Robin, who was looking down at his hands, his hair flopping into his eyes.
“And how is your mother?” said Lord Wells, gamely filling the silence.
“She is fine, thank you. She lives in Cornwall with her husband.”
“Cornwall, lovely place. Nice in summer.”
“Yes, it is,” said Claudia.
“And how’s business?”
“Oh, booming. Robin’s idea to stage a show at Arcadee was inspired. We’re already taking bookings for those weekends.”
“Yes, well,” said Lord Wells, “Robin has to be careful not to tire himself out. And poor Louise tells me she’s barely seen him. He’s been down here every weekend and some weeknights. You’ll burn yourself out, boy.”
“I’ll be fine,” said Robin. “When’s dinner?”
“Oh, we could go through, I expect,” said Lord Wells, levering himself to his feet. “You come through with me, dear,” he said to Claudia, “and Robin can take Louise and Freddie will take Lady Wells, won’t you, my boy?”
Freddie waved his hand. “I wouldn’t separate Robin from Louise for the world,” he said.
“That’s the ticket.”
Robin stood and looked back at Freddie for a moment before he turned to walk into the dining room. Freddie made a face at his retreating back. He found himself seated beside Claudia, with Louise and Robin on the other side, Lord Wells at the head, and Lady Wells at the foot of the table. In the way of such old houses, they had walked back into the Georgian part of the house and they were surrounded by more marble pillars, with portraits of the ancestors glaring down at them in a way that put Freddie decidedly in mind of Ruddigore. “Painted emblems of a race, all accurst in days of yore, each from his accustomed place steps into the world once more,” he murmured.
Lord Wells lamented the necessity of maintaining a baronial estate with two staff while Robin scowled into his soup. Freddie inferred this had been another necessary economy Robin had imposed on his father. Apparently it was driving Clarice to exhaustion and John to the drink. Dinner comprised three courses with multiple plates for each, so it was unsurprising Clarice was on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
After dinner, Lady Wells led the women back to the parlour, while Lord Wells found the whiskey and poured them each some. Freddie protested and was told it was a mere constitutional. Robin drank his in one gulp and said, “Can we go through, please?”
As they walked in, Louise patted the sofa next to her and Robin trailed over like a dog called to heel. Claudia gave Freddie a speaking glance, and Freddie went to sit in an armchair. Freddie watched Robin, who sat up straight with his hand on Louise’s lap, twined with hers. Occasionally, Robin darted a look at Freddie, then away.
When they were in car driving back to Woodcross, Claudia said, “That is a different world.”
“I know, I feel like we travelled back in time for the evening. Was it like that when we were kids?”
“Do you remember taking dinner in the kitchen while dad sat in the dining room with Lord and Lady Wells?” said Claudia.
Freddie blinked. He had a brief image of him, Claudia and Robin sitting around a little table eating sausages and mash.
When he got home, there was a message on his phone. It was from Robin. Freddie flicked the unlock screen and read the message. It said, I hate the way I look through your eyes.
Freddie put his phone on the nightstand and didn’t reply to the message.
* * *
The next day, Louise drove them back to London. Robin stared out the passenger-side window. I hate the way I look through your eyes.
“We need to break up,” he said.
“What?” Louise looked at him and back at the road. “What are you talking about?”
“I haven’t been happy for a while. You haven’t either. You’ve been trying to make it work, for which I thank you, but I’ve been a lousy partner to you. You deserve better.”
“Can we talk about this later?” said Louise, gritting her teeth.
“Sure,” Robin looked back out the window, “but we’re breaking up.”
Through stony silence, Louise managed to postpone the argument until they were inside their house. Robin looked around regretfully. He was going to miss this place. “Why?” Louise said.
“Like I said, neither of us is happy. We don’t suit at all. I don’t know why it took me so long to realise it.”
“Is there someone else?”
Robin shrugged. “That’s irrelevant.”
“Are you cheating on me?”
“If I were, even more reason for us to break up,” said Robin.
Louise turned away. “You’re such a bastard.”
“I’ll pack a bag,” said Robin, “and we can make some arrangement for me to get the rest of my things.”
He was halfway up the stairs when Louise said, “You’ve changed, Robin.”
Robin stopped and considered. “I was recently told the opposite. But I think it’s time I did.”
The door shutting behind him seemed very final. He had a suitcase full of clothes (mostly suits) and books, a laptop case, his phone and his wallet. He dug out his phone and scrolled down, stopping at the entry marked Freddie Green. Sighing, he scrolled on. His friend Graeme answered on the third ring. “I need a place to stay,” said Robin without preamble.
“Robbie boy, what is it?”
“Louise and I broke up. Can I stay with you?”
“Of course. What happened? Actually, tell me when you get here. Come right over. Need me to pick you up?”
Robin bit his lip. “I might catch the Tube. See you soon. Thank you.”
“No problem. Keep safe.” When he hung up the phone, Robin realised he was shaking.
It was less than half an hour later when Robin emerged from the Tube station. Immediately, his phone began to ring, as if someone had been trying repeatedly to reach him while he was underground and out of reception. He looked at the caller ID. It was Lord Wells. He declined the call. Too much to hope his father was just calling to discuss the football.
Settled in Graeme’s guest bedroom, Robin flopped onto his stomach and played listlessly with his phone. He deleted a handful of photos of Louise, found he couldn’t make himself delete them all, and indulged in a fit of self-pity. Then he found the picture of Freddie scowling down at his notes, glasses fallen halfway down his nose, thick brown hair flopping into his face, a pen resting on his lip. He sat up and emailed the picture to himself, then booted up his laptop. “The Director at work,” he said, smiling to himself, then uploaded it to the WGSS website.
Leaning back against the headboard, he pulled his computer onto his lap and began to put together a list of local radio and newspaper contacts.
* * *
Ah, leave me not to pine
Alone and desolate
No fate seemed fair as mine
No happiness so great
— The Pirates of Penzance, Act II
“Have you seen Robin?” said Claudia as she came to stand next to Freddie in the aisle. They were putting together the Act I finale, and the stage was full of daughters and pirates. In the last few years, they had had to make compromises with the size of the chorus, and Freddie couldn’t remember when he had last seen the stage so full.
“No,” he said. It had been a month since he had last spoke to Robin and told him to come back when he didn’t have a fiancée. Since then he had seen neither hide nor hair of Robin, although that ‘Director at Work’ picture had appeared on the blog.
“Did you two have a fight?”
“You think Robin is nursing a broken heart? If he is, I didn’t break it.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that.”
“Yes, he loves me so much he has a fiancée and has wedged himself so deep into the closet he’s practically in Narnia.”
“He might be bisexual, Freddie. It’s a thing that exists.”
“Irrelevant,” said Freddie. He stomped up the aisle and began bodily rearranging people until they formed a semi-circle around the Major-General and the Pirate King, with Frederic and Mabel at downstage left. “All right, pirates, clutch your ladies.” There was a great deal of laughter and bawdy banter as the men’s chorus complied.
Freddie jumped off the stage. “Laurence, ‘Oh men of dark and dismal fate’.”
Laurence nodded, stroking the beginnings of the handlebar moustache he was cultivating.
“If he gets a moustache, I should have a sword,” said Anil. “I can’t get in character without it.”
“Can you grow one?” said Laurence.
Anil made an eloquent gesture with his hips.
“Use that, then,” said Laurence with dignity, and turned towards the auditorium. “Oh men of dark and dismal fate, forego your cruel employ,” he sang with great drama.
“It’s shaping up well,” said Claudia when Freddie returned to stand by her side.
“Father would be proud.”
Freddie nodded again, absently. He checked his phone: no messages or emails to let him know Robin wouldn’t be coming to the rehearsal. Well, they had always done without a producer—badly, his mind reminded him and he brushed this thought aside—they could do so again. Claudia could get Arcadee ready for the show, but Robin’s disappearance really had left them in the lurch. “He turned out to be quite unreliable,” he said.
“Given your so-far extremely slow progress through the stages of grief, I am going to assume you mean Robin,” Claudia said dryly.
Freddie looked at her blankly. “Who else would I mean? Well, I’m glad for his ideas, so I don’t blame you for going around me and installing him as producer.”
“Magnanimous of you, brother.” Claudia’s voice got even dryer.
“But don’t worry,” Freddie continued, “we can do this without him.”
“Look who is suddenly so glib with the rah-rah speeches,” said Claudia. They watched the stage for a while, and then she said, “If this show is a success, will you still go to New York?”
“I think so,” said Freddie. “I have given seven years of my life to this society, and it has given me nothing back. I need to do something else for a while.”
“Do you really think WGSS has given you nothing?” Claudia frowned. “What about me, and Sybil and Martin and Anil? Do you understand how much it has meant to us to have WGSS?”
“Run it yourselves, then,” said Freddie. “Do Pirates of Penzance every second show, and let Robin do all the marketing.”
Claudia’s silence in return was angry and unhappy.
“I’m sorry,” said Freddie. “It’s just…”
“I understand how this must feel,” said Claudia. “You didn’t want to do this show, G&S in Arcadee wasn’t your idea, there’re all those new faces onstage, and your ex-boyfriend is running the show. But you have to understand, we’re all trying to save something we love.” She paused and looked thoughtfully at Freddie. “Even Robin.”
Freddie didn’t reply.
It was almost dark when they finally finished rehearsal. Freddie and Claudia stayed behind to tidy up the hall, and walked out together. Claudia was telling Freddie about a phone conversation she had had with their mother, when she stopped mid-sentence. “Hello Robin, we missed you at rehearsal.”
Robin pushed away from the brick wall of the community hall. He nodded at Claudia and looked intently at Freddie.
“Where have you been?” said Freddie.
“Can we talk?” said Robin.
Freddie shrugged. “If you like.”
He said goodbye to Claudia, and turned to walk with Robin along the street. “I broke up with Louise,” said Robin.
“I see.” Freddie stuck his hands in his jeans pockets. “When?”
“The day after you and Claudia came to Seventrees for dinner.”
“Well, I guess that explains your disappearance from rehearsals.”
“I wanted to come to you, but I knew you wouldn’t like it.”
“Fresh from his fiancée’s doorstep, he comes to his secret male lover? The Daily Mail would love it. Where did you go?”
Robin shrugged. “I stayed with a friend.”
Freddie bit his lip, pushing aside the pang of jealousy at this unknown friend. Robin was right: Freddie would have hated it if Robin had appeared, newly single, as if Freddie owed him something because Robin had ended a relationship anyone could see he didn’t want to be in in the first place. “Are you all right?” he said.
“Dad is furious. Louise is heartbroken. I’m homeless. All in all, not really.” Robin ran a hand through his hair. “Louise told dad what happened before I even could. I had this awful phone conversation with him where he questioned my judgment, accused me of cruelty, and listed off Louise’s many virtues. I told him if he liked her so much he should marry her, and he hung up on me. No doubt lamenting the march of progress that he couldn’t slam the receiver down.”
“Claudia can give you a room at Arcadee if you need a place to stay when you’re down here.”
Robin gave him a weak smile. “That would be good, thank you.”
Pulling out his phone, Freddie texted his sister. She replied a moment later: Done. Freddie showed Robin the screen and his shoulders relaxed a little. “It’s been a rough few weeks.”
“It’s for the best,” said Freddie, impulsively reaching out and pulling Robin into a hug. Robin pressed his nose into Freddie’s neck, his arms hanging loose by his sides.
“I know,” he said, lips moving against Freddie’s collar.
“Do you want a cup of tea?” said Freddie, and felt Robin’s nod. He disentangled himself from the hug and they walked down the street to Freddie’s house.
“I still can’t get you out of my mind,” said Robin when they were both fortified with tea and sitting in Freddie’s lounge room.
A smile was stuck on Freddie’s face. He hid it with his hand. “How pitiful his tale, how rare his beauty,” he said, looking away.
Freddie dropped his hand. “Have you even seen The Pirates of Penzance?”
“I was planning on seeing it in a couple of months,” said Robin. “At a nice old house near here, actually.”
“I can’t believe you’ve never picked up a copy, “said Freddie with exaggerated outrage.”There are four or five versions easily available.”
“All right,” said Robin, leaning back and giving Freddie a toothy smile. “Let’s watch it now.”
Freddie stopped. “What?”
“Surely you have a copy, Frederic.”
“I don’t. It isn’t my favourite show.”
“I hadn’t noticed,” said Robin, rubbing his chin. “Ah well—to the internet!”
Freddie looked at him blankly.
“Go and get your laptop,” said Robin, gesturing royally.
Grumbling, Freddie complied, setting it on the coffee table. Robin leaned forward and brought up YouTube. “There, see? ‘Pirates of Penzance, 1983 film, Part 1’. Shall we?”
“Oh goodness,” said Freddie, drawing out the O. “That film is terrible.”
“Shall we watch it?” Robin’s finger hovered over the touchpad.
He looked quickly at Freddie, who leaned back on the couch and said casually, “Why not?”
Robin looked like he might say something, but instead he clicked and maximised the screen.
The strains of the overture piped out of the laptop speakers. Freddie could feel the couch cushion slanting down towards Robin and shuffled away a bit.
“What on earth is this?” said Robin, staring at the screen as the first view of the Oz-like Penzance set came on screen.
“I told you it was terrible,” said Freddie with an air of vindication.
“Oh,” Robin said a bit later. “Who’s that?”
“That’s Rex Smith, playing Frederic.”
“He looks good in those brown trousers.” Robin leaned forward and squinted at the screen. “I can make out individual muscles.”
“Actually,” said Freddie, tilting his head. “He looks a bit like you.”
“No,” said Robin. He sat back.
“Yes, he does. Same cheekbones, same jaw, same ridiculous facial expressions.”
“Hey.” Robin put his arm across the back of the couch, and Freddie realised that somehow they were sitting almost side-to-side. He could feel Robin’s body heat. When Robin laughed at the Pirate King’s antics, the couch shook. “He’s the best role, isn’t he? I wouldn’t mind being ravished by him.”
“Bit of a thing for Kevin Kline?” said Freddie.
“Not previously,” Robin replied. “And is everyone in this show supposed to be completely insane?”
“It makes a lot more sense if you accept that premise,” said Freddie.
As they went through, Freddie couldn’t resist making the occasional observation about the fact that Linda Ronstadt was singing Mabel more like a pop role than opera, or the fact that they dropped a song from Ruddigore in the middle of the second act. Robin absorbed this commentary with interest. At one point, Freddie leaned forward to close an advertisement on the bottom of the screen, and when he leaned back he found he fit perfectly against Robin’s side.
Linda Ronstadt ran out onto the terrace, crying for Frederic to stay. In her ridiculous white nightcap, she sang, “Ah, leave me not to pine alone and desolate.”
Freddie felt the hum and realised Robin was singing along. He twisted to look up at him. “You know this song?”
“Have you ever seen the movie Wilde?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Jude Law plays Bosie Douglas, and he sings this song to Stephen Fry, who is playing Oscar Wilde, of course.”
“I see,” said Freddie. “Do you like that film?”
“Yes, I did,” said Robin austerely, as if he knew what Freddie was thinking.
Rex Smith stepped forward and sang, “Ah, must I leave thee here, in endless night to dream?”
“I didn’t know there was a second verse,” said Robin quietly.
Frederic finished, “He loves thee, he is gone. Fa, la la la.”
When Freddie looked up, he discovered such a sad expression on Robin’s face that he impulsively reached out and put his hand on Robin’s. Robin didn’t seem to notice, and the expression washed away a moment later.
Robin said, “I see what you were saying to Martin. Part of what makes Frederic so funny is that he says all these absurd lines and does all these ridiculous things completely earnestly.” He paused. “Why are those cows multi-coloured?”
Freddie laughed. “I do not know.”
“Whoa, what the fuck is going on now?”
“I think they got bored and stopped trying.”
“I think so. They have now crashed a performance of H. M. S. Pinafore.” Robin laughed. “Yes, Linda, sing us out. And someone call the fire brigade to see to this train crash.”
Snorting, Freddie leaned forward and closed the YouTube window.
“That was amazing,” said Robin.
“You enjoyed it?”
“I did, thoroughly.” He smiled, and Freddie realised that he had too. For the first time in almost fifteen years, he had watched The Pirates of Penzance from start to finish and hadn’t thought about his father’s stinging words once. Impulsively, he leaned forward and pressed his lips to Robin’s. Robin froze for a moment, then rested his hand on Freddie’s shoulder. Not pushing away or pulling closer. Freddie broke away and kissed Robin on the cheek. “Are you tired?”
Robin rubbed his eyes and nodded. “It’s been a long couple of weeks. But this was wonderful, Freddie, thank you.”
“I’ll come out to Arcadee tomorrow and see how you’re going.”
Saying goodbye at the door, Robin leaned in and kissed Freddie. Freddie angled his head and closed his eyes. His heart stuttered in his chest. After he had shut the door, he leaned against it and muttered, “Oh, fucking hell.”
* * *
The next morning, Freddie found Claudia and Robin hanging curtains in the ballroom. Robin gave Freddie a complicated look when he walked in. Claudia said, “Good morning, little brother. Here.” She handed him a curtain rod and gave him a speaking look.
“How did you go last night?” said Freddie.
“Claudia has been a wonderful host,” said Robin, smiling at her. “I’m ever so grateful.”
This tribute made Claudia look guiltier than ever.
“That’s good,” said Freddie, frowning at them. “What can I do to help?”
“Hand that here,” said Robin, taking the curtain rod and climbing onto a stepladder. Freddie stood back and surveyed the progress. The stage was installed, a red valance hanging to the floor and hiding the structure. It was a little bigger than the stage at the hall, and from this angle he could see stairs leading down on their side to the side stage area, as well as a set leading down to where the audience would sit. Rows of wooden chairs with red velvet squabs were stacked at the side of the room. The sets were still being built, but he could imagine where the trees and rocks of the first act would sit, and where the painted backdrops would fall from.
Freddie stepped up onto the stage and jumped a few times. The stage felt very sturdy , although the movement made the curtains shake and Robin said, “Stop that, please,” and leaned forward to hang the rod on the hook dangling from the ceiling.
Claudia cleared her throat. Robin climbed off the step ladder and said, “Freddie, could we talk?”
Freddie blinked. “Certainly,” he said, and trailed Robin to the back of the ballroom.
“Claudia told me about Topsy Turvy.”
“Ah.” That explained his sister’s guilty look.
“So you’re moving to America?”
Freddie crossed his arms. “I might.”
“Is it because of me?”
“It’s because of everything.” Freddie gestured. “You, the Society, father, Woodcross, everything. The project sounds interesting. I could work on Broadway, and finally do something my father never did. It’s so dark in his shadow sometimes.”
Robin looked at him intently. Then he sighed. “It sounds like a great opportunity.”
There was a hollow feeling in Freddie’s stomach as Robin turned away. He wanted to shout after him that Freddie was far from certain that New York was a good idea, that standing there imagining the scenery he had started to see that G&S in Arcadee could be something really amazing. Instead, he said, “When is the lighting rig going in?”
Walking back to the sage, Robin said, “The morning of the first performance. After the backdrops are in.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
Freddie cocked his head. “About New York? Why would I?”
“Because I’m the producer and I might need to know that I would have to find a new director?”
“You’d stay on after Pirates?”
Robin shrugged. “Under the right circumstances. By the way, I’ve lined up interviews for you with morning radio in High Wycombe and Oxford the week of the first show. And you’ve got some newspaper stuff coming up too.”
“Can’t you do them?” Freddie whined.
“Again, no. And yes, they will want to talk about your dad.”
Freddie sighed. “All right,” he said.
“A thank-you would be nice.”
“What if I’m not grateful?” Freddie put one hand on his hip and raised his eyebrows.
Robin ‘s head snapped up to glare at him, then saw Freddie’s expression and the expression morphed into a smile. “You pest,” he said.
Freddie laughed. “Thank you,” he said to Robin’s retreating back.
In a contemplative fashion,
And a tranquil frame of mind,
Free from every kind of passion,
Some solution let us find.
Let us grasp the situation,
Solve the complicated plot —
Quiet, calm deliberation
Disentangles every knot.
—The Gondoliers, Act II
It was two weeks before they were due to open. Robin propped his chin on the chair in front and struggled to keep his eyes open. What with trying to get the sets in, keeping up with promotion and ticket sales and the show itself, all on top of a full time job in an industry not famed for its work-life balance (current economic doldrums notwithstanding), he was composed more of coffee than blood at the moment.
Freddie, on the other hand, could apparently draw sustenance from snappy lyrics, because he strode with frankly exhausting vigour between the chairs and the stage, yelling instructions. They were at Arcadee, in the middle of what Robin gathered was known as the technical rehearsal. Stage crew were running around behind the scenes pushing props on and off, the band (orchestra being too generous a term) sat off to one side tuning their instruments, and the cast were assembled on stage in a motley of costumes and props.
“Are we all ready?” called Freddie. “Yes? Then get off the stage!”
When the stage was empty, he nodded to the conductor.
Without lifting his chin from the chair, Robin held his hand up and took a photo of the conductor and another of Freddie. Well, his backside. Robin closed one eye and looked at the photo with the other. He should make it his phone background. Freddie had a great arse.
He shifted in the chair, then slouched backwards, legs splayed in front of him. Freddie called a stage direction to Martin, who frowned at him and said, “I was already doing that.”
“Do it more,” replied Freddie promptly and gestured that they should continue. A few lines later, Martin said, “Hark! Surely I hear voices! Who has ventured to approach our all but inaccessible lair?” He stopped and said, “Is that all right, Freddie?”
Freddie shrugged. “We can work on it later.”
Gritting his teeth, Martin said, “Certainly.”
So it went on. When they broke for the interval, Robin beckoned Freddie over. “It’s going well,” he said.
Freddie shrugged. “I suppose.”
“You’re going a little hard on Martin.”
“He’s off his game.”
“Is he? He sounds fine to me.”
“He was pitchy in ‘How beautifully blue the sky’.”
Robin drew down the corners of his mouth. “You’re the expert.”
Still, it came as very little surprise to him when Martin, halfway through Act II, jumped off the stage and said, “You’re a fucking psycho. I quit.”
“What?” said Freddie.
“I quit. You’re obviously not going to lay off me, and I don’t have to put up with this. My understudy seems a nice man, and he doesn’t deserve this either, so do everyone a favour and play Frederic yourself.” Then he stomped out of the ballroom. Claudia, Robin and Sybil jogged over. Freddie turned slowly. “What just happened?”
“Congratulations,” said Claudia dryly, “you found the end of Martin’s rope. I admit he lasted longer than I expected.”
“Where’s the understudy?” said Freddie.
A nice-looking man stepped forward. He was wearing a bandana and a black bicorn with a skull and crossbones on it. “I am,” he said, “but I think I agree with Martin.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Freddie, looking mildly panicked. “I don’t sing.”
“You’ve got a lovely voice,” said Claudia.
“Seconded,” piped up Robin. Freddie looked at him with an expression of almost comical betrayal. “Yes, yes, et tu, I know. But it’s true. And I think you should play Frederic.” He added in an undertone, “Just think of the promotional potential.”
“Fuck,” said Freddie. “Everyone, take a break.” He fled the ballroom. Claudia and Robin looked at each other, then Claudia tilted her head. “He’s not going to want to talk to me,” she said.
“I doubt he wants to talk to me either,” said Robin.
Claudia gave him a push on the shoulder. “Just go.”
“I—all right,” said Robin. He jogged out of the room and caught sight of Freddie on the stairs. He caught up to him on the stairs to the attic. “What’s wrong?” he said. “You played Frederic in high school. You can’t be worried that you don’t know the role.”
Freddie opened the attic door and slipped through it. “I told you, my father was the singer. All I want to do is direct.”
“That’s fine, if that’s really what you want,” said Robin. He sat down next to Freddie on the floor and put his arm around Freddie’s shoulders. Freddie drew his knees up to his chest.
“I was so proud to be cast as Frederic,” he said. “It was just a school production, but I really wanted to prove myself. Dad refused to come along to it. He was too busy, he was working on The Gondoliers for WGSS and didn’t want to get out of that play. I loved being on stage so much.”
He wrapped his arms around his knees and hunched over. “Claudia convinced him to come to closing night. I saw him in the audience as I was taking my bows. I watched him get up and leave the auditorium. Afterwards, he told me I had no sense of the character and I lacked the vocal tone and range to carry it off. He said he hoped I wasn’t considering opera as a career.” From somewhere, Freddie found a smile, but it slipped away a moment after it appeared. “I was, of course, which was the stupidest part.”
“You know why your father said that, don’t you?” said Robin gently.
“Yeah.” Freddie rolled his chin on his knee, “but it was also true. I could never do Frederic justice. The bar is set too high for me.”
“Well, I think that’s bullshit,” said Robin. “I think you’re just scared to be that vulnerable again. Performing’s all about vulnerability, isn’t it? You open yourself up to people’s judgement. And they may hate you, but that doesn’t mean you failed, or you’re a bad person.”
“Pretty fucking rich from the guy who won’t tell his father he fancies men,” said Freddie without heat.
Robin winced. “You’re right,” he said. He bit his lip. “I’ll make you a deal. If you agree to play Frederic, I’ll tell dad that I’m madly in love with you and that I want to civil union you and have your adoptive babies.”
“Isn’t that rather putting the cart before the horse?” said Freddie with a weak smile.
“Let me tell you about the horse,” said Robin. He kissed Freddie’s cheek, and when Freddie turned his head, his lips. Freddie released a long breath against Robin’s lips, tilted his head, and opened his mouth. They sank down together on the dusty floor, Robin lying half on top of Freddie, propped up on his elbows.
“You’re taking advantage of me,” Freddie noted.
“Am I?” Robin pressed a kiss to the corner of Freddie’s mouth. “Oh good. You’re a difficult man to take advantage of.”
He undid the button of Freddie’s jeans with a practiced gesture and slid his hand between Freddie’s briefs and his skin, following the trail of coarse hair down to Freddie’s hardening cock. Freddie grabbed his bicep with one hand and Robin ducked down for another kiss, trying to wrap his hand around Freddie’s cock. Growling in frustration, he withdrew his hand—the grip on his bicep tightened—and unzipped Freddie’s jeans, scooping his cock out of jeans and briefs and into the air.
Freddie drew one knee up and tilted his hips towards Robin. He smiled up at him and wrapped his arms around Robin’s shoulders, then Robin took his cock and began to pump it, and watched as all sentience slid out of Freddie’s eyes. He bucked up against Robin’s hand, and his arms spasmed around Robin’s shoulders. He reared up and captured Robin’s lips for a kiss, then sank back to the ground.
Robin, entranced, followed him, and their tongues met and parted in time with the movements of Robin’s hand. Then Freddie let out a strangled moan and came all over Robin’s hand.
Robin, breathing heavily and in significant discomfort from his groin, flopped flat on the floor beside Freddie. He could hear Freddie’s rasping breaths almost in time with his own. Freddie pulled up his briefs and zipped his jeans, then rolled onto his side and put his hand on Robin’s chest. He gave Robin a sideways kiss, then climbed to his feet on legs Robin could see were a bit wobbly.
“Hey,” said Robin, putting one hand behind his head. He lifted his hips off the floor suggestively.
Freddie looked at him, then leaned down and picked up an old rag, aiming it so it landed on Robin’s chest. “Deal,” he said. “Now come on, I have a show to rehearse for.” The look he gave Robin mixed amusement and fear.
At Robin’s plaintive, “Heeeeeey,” the fear disappeared, and Freddie laughed out loud. Robin found it a profoundly evil sound.
When they reappeared downstairs, Claudia took in their rumpled state and mussed hair and said, “Frolicking in the attic, were we?”
* * *
Nothing venture, nothing win
Blood is thick, but water’s thin
In for a penny, in for a pound
It’s Love that makes the world go round!
— Iolanthe, Act II
It was midmorning the day of the opening performance. Robin could tell Freddie hadn’t gotten any sleep the night before. He turned as Robin came in and said, “Good morning,” then went back to moving chairs around.
“Hey,” said Robin, daring a kiss on the cheek. “You’re the talent. You should go and get some rest.”
Shrugging, Freddie said, “Oh, I can’t sleep anyway.”
“Quelle surprise,” said Robin under his breath. “Still, sitting down somewhere quiet must surely be better than running around exhausting yourself.”
“If I sit down, I’ll think, and if I think, I’ll panic,” said Freddie with steely determination. He nudged the leg of the chair with his foot to draw it into line. “I only have to get through three more hours. How does the lighting rig look?”
“Fine to me,” said Robin. He paused. “How if we sit down and I give you some good news?”
Freddie gave him a narrow look.
“It is physically impossible for these chairs to be more perfectly aligned than they are. The Act I sets are all in, the lighting appears to be working—” As if to punctuate his point, someone flicked a switch and the stage was flooded with green. “—and Claudia and Sybil no doubt have checked and double-checked that all the props and costumes are where they should be.” He took Freddie’s arm and tugged him down the row of chairs, through the double doors along one side of the ballroom, and into the main entranceway of Arcadee. Like Seventrees (though less grand, Freddie mentally amended), it was a two-storey marble entrance way. The front desk stood in front of the grand staircase. It was hung with a banner that said, Welcome – Pirates of Penzance in Arcadee.
“Check in starts in half an hour,” said Robin. “Has Claudia told you how bookings are looking?”
Freddie tilted his head. He thought she might have, but he couldn’t reach back through the haze of terror and singing that had been the last two weeks of his life. “No,” he said.
“Booked solid. A few people came down last night; the rest are coming tonight. And guess what capacity the show is at?”
“Tell me.” Freddie braced himself.
“98 per cent.” Robin’s grin split his face, which blurred as Freddie’s head spun. He reached for the wall.
“I need to sit down.”
“Your interviews did the trick,” said Robin. “Especially in Oxford. The dons fucking loved the idea.” He paused. “Of course they did: middle-class wankers.”
“Sounds like middle-class wankers are going to keep WGSS afloat,” said Freddie, closing his eyes. His heart was pounding. “Jesus Christ. How many people is 98% capacity?”
“The ballroom seats about three hundred.”
“Jesus fucking Christ.”
He felt Robin’s hand on his elbow. “Are you all right?”
“I thought you were going to take my mind off panic, not induce a full-blown attack.”
Robin’s mobile face drew down into a puzzled frown—a Labrador denied a treat. “You’ve saved WGSS, Freddie.”
There was a lump in Freddie’s throat. “Yeah, and I’m playing Frederic to two hundred and ninety-four people in my father’s ballroom,” he ground out. “I am grateful, I really am, but… actually, fuck that. I’m not grateful, you bastard. I’ll be grateful tomorrow. Right now I’m wishing this whole idea was an abject failure and we had to scratch the show.” He buried his face in his hands.
“You don’t mean that,” said Robin.
Freddie nodded miserably. “I miss my moral high ground,” he said, the words lost in his hands.
Robin laughed and rubbed his back. “You idiot,” he said fondly. “You’re going to be amazing.”
Still hiding his face, Freddie shook his head. Robin took his wrists and pulled his hands away from his face. Freddie looked up at him through his lashes. “Is there a room for me at Arcadee if the place is booked?”
“Nope,” said Robin, lying mercilessly.
“Oh no,” said Freddie without heat.
Robin’s smile widened. “You can share my room.”
Clinging to him, Freddie said, “I need to lie down.”
“Oof.” Robin put his arm across Freddie’s shoulders. “You were made for the stage.”
He got a pained groan in response as they went up the grand stairs and down a hallway. Robin found his key and turned the old-fashioned crystal door knob. His room had a patterned carpet and a old four-poster bed with a floral counterpane that matched the curtains. Freddie looked around. “Still messy, I see,” he said.
Robin shrugged. “Better things to do than tidy.”
Flopping into an armchair, Freddie said, “What did I do to deserve this suffering?”
“I have an idea to take your mind off things,” said Robin, sitting down on the bed. Freddie opened one eye. “Does it involve playing backgammon?”
“No—don’t you like backgammon?”
“Loathe it,” said Freddie. He bit his lip. “Robin…”
Robin nodded. “You don’t want to get mixed up with a closeted, self-hating homosexual. I think those were your words.”
Freddie tilted his head. “I don’t think they were.”
“Well, the gist of your words.” Robin shook his head.
Freddie was about to make good on his side of their deal, but the thought of fulfilling his side and telling his parents the truth still made Robin’s blood turn cold. The thought of their disappointment. The thought that they might imagine him with another man, might ask him questions about his sex life. He shuddered. He had never wanted to be defined by who he fucked. That was why he had liked Louise so much. They were such an obvious pair that when they started going out it was barely an adjustment. People didn’t wonder what they found to like in each other or find their sex life in any way curious. But Freddie was the opposite of that. He was an adjustment so big that making him part of Robin’s family and social circle would turn Robin’s world around entirely.
He shook his head and pushed the thought away. By a liberal interpretation of their deal he had until the end of the run, so another three weeks. He would work up to it. Robin fixed a smile onto his face. “Come on, you’ve been so good. I’ve been so good.”
Freddie blushed so brightly Robin could see it across the room. “I should get back downstairs,” he mumbled.
Making a frustrated gesture, Robin got off the bed, stalking his prey. Freddie put his hands on the armrests and watched him warily. When Robin dropped to his knees in front of him, Freddie’s eyelids lowered and his arms relaxed. He opened his knees to allow Robin access. “I see how it is,” said Robin, smiling. “Doth protest too much?”
Freddie ran his hand through his hair, rumpling the thick dark curls in a way that made Robin’s gut twist around itself. He pushed up Freddie’s shirt and pulled down the waistband of his jeans, finding the top of the trail of hair that started at Freddie’s navel and worked down. As he worked at Freddie’s buttons, he pressed his open mouth against Freddie’s stomach and teased the soft flesh with his tongue. He could feel Freddie’s cock starting to stir as he opened Freddie’s fly.
“Lift your hips,” he said, and Freddie obeyed so Robin could slide his jeans down around his ankles. Serviceable black boxer-briefs presented the next obstacle and were disposed of the same way. Freddie’s cock was free, curling against his hip, the tip blushing the same pink as the mottled heat rising up Freddie’s neck.
Robin let out a shuddering sigh. “Fuck,” he mumbled.
Jesus Christ, he had missed this. Women were fine. He liked their breasts and the soft curves of their bodies, and the warmth between their legs. But. Wrapping his hand around the base of Freddie’s cock, pressing his other palm to the sharp plane of Freddie’s hip and opening his mouth to take the head was something different. The heavy, musky taste of him. The hardness under satiny smooth skin. The heat. Robin opened his mouth and relaxed his throat. He was a bit out of practice at sucking cock so he gave his attention to the head, meeting each sucking descent towards Freddie’s hips with a rising pump of his fisted hand. He pressed his tongue against the vein along the underside of Freddie’s prick.
There was a strange rising feeling in his chest, some emotion filling his lungs and making it difficult to breath. Down lower, his erection was beginning to feel uncomfortably constrained. He shifted about and concentrated on Freddie’s dick, on the guttural, strained noises pushing past Freddie’s gritted teeth. He could tell from the fine trembling that Freddie was near the edge. He sunk his mouth as low as he could take it on Freddie’s slender cock, feeling the head nudge the back of his soft palate, and hummed. Freddie’s eyes shot open and he arched out of the chair, gasping.
Staring down at Robin as if he had just pulled a gun, Freddie rasped, “Do that again.”
It only took a little more and Freddie abandoned himself, writhing, hands fisting in Robin’s hair as he emptied himself down Robin’s throat. Robin took his semen and swallowed it. He let Freddie’s softening cock slip from his mouth and rested his cheek against Freddie’s belly, smiling a secretive smile. The salty, manly taste lay heavy on his tongue.
Freddie was carding his fingers through Robin’s hair. “I do feel very relaxed,” he said, his voice raw and lazy. Robin allowed himself a moment of smugness; apparently there were some skills you never forgot, no matter how infrequently you practiced them.
* * *
Robin’s head was resting on his thigh. Freddie gradually became aware of Robin’s ragged breathing and put his hand on Robin’s head. “And you?” he said.
“I’m fine,” said Robin through gritted teeth.
“That’s hardly fair.” Freddie stood up, half-dressed, trousers around his ankles.
“Freddie, it’s fine. You should get back downstairs.”
Ignoring Robin’s protests, Freddie reached down, took Robin’s sticky, semen-smeared hand and tugged him upright.
“Seriously, it’s not quid-pro-quo. I wanted to, but you don’t have to return the favour.”
Freddie put his other hand flat against Robin’s bulging trousers. Robin sucked in breath and stumbled backwards until his back hit the wall. Freddie followed him, fiddling with button and zip until he could lift Robin’s cock out of his briefs. Robin’s head hit the plaster with a hollow thud. As Freddie’s fingers wrapped around his cock, slick with Freddie’s own come, his legs gave way and they slid down the wall to land in a pile on the floor.
Robin’s protests degenerated into mumbled, incoherent sounds. Freddie kept up his caresses, circling his wrist as he moved his first up and down Robin’s shaft. He pressed his lips to Robin’s neck, nipping and kissing while Robin writhed this way and that. Small, pained noises slipped past his lips, his hips circling in time with Freddie’s touch.
“Yes, God, Freddie,” Robin ground out. He grabbed Freddie’s other hand, the one not occupied in driving him to ecstasy, and sucked the fingers into his mouth. Despite himself, Freddie felt his gut quiver, and he tilted his hips, pressing his quiescent cock against Robin’s inner thigh. He felt the vibrations of Robin’s orgasms through the muscles of his abdomen, the Robin gasped out a strangled oath, arched, and splashed semen over Freddie’s hand. He managed to catch most of it in his hand and while Robin lay trembling and coming down from his climax, Freddie conscientiously checked Robin’s clothes for stray come, then used his clean hand to tuck Robin back into his boxers. Then he got up and redid his own pants before going into the bathroom and washing the sticky mixture of his and Robin’s semen from his fingers. His hand shook as he watched the water flow over it. He was a little shocked by the force of his emotion, of his possessiveness. Even of the strength of the orgasm he had wrung from Robin.
Eventually, he went back into the room. Robin still lay like a marionette, legs splayed in front of him. Freddie stood and looked at him for a moment, then with a mental shrug dropped to his knees and crawled forward so he could lie between Robin’s legs, his cheek against Robin’s chest. He felt Robin’s heart beat, fast and strong, slowly returning to its normal rhythm. Robin’s hand drifted up to wrap around Freddie’s shoulders. “I…” Robin muttered. “Jesus.”
* * *
Some time later, Robin stirred and Freddie leaned back to let him get up. Robin looked down at fully clothed and neatly presented crotch and then up at Freddie. “You are a very tidy person, aren’t you?”
Freddie essayed a dismissive snort and stood up. “That was…”
Robin nodded. “It was.”
Giving Robin a shy, difficult smile, Freddie said, “Thank you for taking my mind off tonight.”
All I can think of is tonight, Robin thought. The picture of Freddie naked, splayed out across his bed obligingly presented itself.
He shook his head as if to shake the image and followed Freddie out of the room. He could still feel the imprint of Freddie’s hand on his crotch, Freddie’s lips on his neck. He had intended that blowjob to be his gift to Freddie before he ruined everything with his cowardice, but he hadn’t been able to resist Freddie’s persuasion. A saint would have had trouble resisting that.
As if he’d read Robin’s mind, Freddie said, “Are Lord and Lady Wells coming tonight?”
Robin nodded. “They are. Is there anything I can do to help get ready?”
Freddie ignored this diversionary tactic. “Then you can tell them tonight.”
“Yeah.” Robin stopped. “Listen, Freddie… I was thinking. It’s opening night. I don’t want to ruin it by having a screaming row with my parents. I might do the whole thing another night.”
Freddie leaned against the banister. “Sure,” he said.
Robin followed him. “You’re not angry?”
“Why bother?” said Freddie with a tired shrug. “You have no intention of telling them about us. Nothing’s really changed, has it? You’re still not willing to give up your safe, privileged life and I’m still so pathetic that I’ll let you fuck me on the sly because…” He stopped. “Forget it. I have other things to worry about.”
As Freddie stomped down the stairs, Robin shouted, “Why should I tell them when you’re just going to leave anyway?”
Freddie gave him a withering look and kept stomping, down the stairs and into the ballroom, leaving Robin standing at the top of the staircase. After a moment. Robin mumbled, “Fuck,” and went back into his room, which seemed full of the smell of Freddie’s cologne.
An hour before the performance was due to start, he went downstairs and offered himself as a dogsbody to Claudia. He was immediately put to work counting props, and didn’t see Freddie until just before the show was to start.
“Are you all right?” he heard Isabel say to Freddie.
Freddie looked at Isabel, hollowed eyes shining out of a face that was a caricature of itself, covered in greasepaint, eye liner and rouge. His hair was slicked into a deep side part, and he was wearing a black shirt, red vest, red breeches and big black boots. He’d swapped glasses for contact lenses. “I have run out of emotion,” he said, like a man about to be led to the guillotine.
Claudia hurried forward, herding the pirates like a flock of geese before her. “You should get to your seat,” she said to Robin. “Be a dear and check the conductor is ready to go, too.”
Ducking through the curtain, Robin received and fulfilled a commission for a glass of water, did a lap around the auditorium to make sure everyone was finding their seats, and sat down a few rows from the front.
“Robin,” said a female voice behind him. Robin turned and saw Lord and Lady Wells, and Louise. It was his mother who had spoken.
“Oh, hello,” he said, ingrained politeness preventing him from saying, what are you doing here?
“Hello Robin,” said Louise quietly. She didn’t look particularly comfortable. “Are those seats taken?”
Robin looked around him. “No,” he said, aware that he sounded ungracious. Louise sat down next to him, with his parents on her other side. Robin scrunched down into the seat feeling more like a bastard than he usually did.
* * *
So this was what a mental breakdown felt like. Freddie sucked in a deep breath and forced himself to hum out a few warm up scales. He felt a warm hand on his arm: somewhere underneath the gold, dreadlocks and scarves was Anil, checking if he was all right. Freddie shrugged and said, “The show must go on, right?” Pirates of Penzance, WGSS, his entire fucking life. All of it must go on.
“You could bow out and let Tim do it,” said Anil.
Freddie looked over Anil’s shoulder to where his understudy stood warming up with the other pirates. He could hear the crowd noise as people moved to their seats. “No,” he said. “I’ll be fine.” And screw you, dad.
Smiling, Anil clapped him on the shoulder. “You’ll be better than fine,” he said. “You should have got out in front of the audience years ago.”
Freddie’s answering smile slipped into a grimace as he heard the musicians strike up. It was like a physical shock, a shiver down his spine, as if his stomach had turned into a ball of rubber bands and his skin was trying to divorce itself from his muscles.
Wasn’t the Overture meant to be longer? he thought, and had a moment to develop a theory on why the musicians might have conspired to force him onstage early, then Claudia (who had opportunistically positioned herself behind him) gave him a shove between the shoulder blades. He stumbled forward, then gathered himself and stepped into the lights.
As Samuel sang the opening lines, Freddie ducked over the plywood risers that had pretensions to being a pirate ship, seized a bottle of rum, and pretended to be pouring it. He plopped himself down on a boulder and snuck a look out into the audience. Immediately, he saw Robin sitting a few rows back, hair askew. Robin looked unhappy about something—maybe their conversation earlier. Good. Then the song was over, and Anil bounded to the front of the stage and summoned Freddie forward. There was Anne, wearing a dress and smock, and there were the pirate band, arrayed around the three of them.
“Yes, Frederic, from to-day you rank as a full-blown member of our band,” said Anil, gesturing expansively and setting the metal beads wound into his wig clinking.
The audience laughed. Freddie pulled his face into a mockery of the way he remembered his father looking. He faded into the background while the pirates exited the stage, and thought, A fifty-four year old man playing a lad of twenty-one. Pretty fucking ridiculous. And that was what Robin had meant when he implied that dad might have had his own reasons for belittling Freddie’s performance in the Stanworth school production.
He felt his shoulders straighten and it seemed as if he could finally get a full breath of air into his lungs. Anne had her satchel and was looking at him imploringly. He was Frederic, the slave of duty. He stepped to the front of the stage and said, “Ruth, I will be quite candid with you. You are very dear to me, as you know, but I must be circumspect.”
Then he had banished Ruth from the stage and he was hiding behind a boulder watching as the daughters tripped across the stage. Across in the other wing he could see Isabel waiting to step onstage and deliver her show stopping number. But first… he leapt back onstage and bellowed, “Stop ladies pray! I had intended not to intrude myself upon your notice in this effective, but alarming costume! But under these peculiar circumstances it is my bounden duty to inform you that your proceedings will not be unwitnessed.”
He knew the show so well. There was never a fear that he would forget his line or miss his cue. There had only been the fear that he would not be good enough, that he would fail to live up to some yardstick he had driven into the sand. And now he was free of fear. Two hundred and ninety-four people had come to see him perform. Perhaps they would compare him to Richard Green; perhaps they would find him wanting. But he didn’t care.
“If you will cast your eyes on me, however plain you be, I love you,” he sang, addressing the swelling crescendo to the audience, and particularly to one ridiculous bastard a few rows back. He froze, recognising who sat beside Robin. It was only a moment, then he recovered his line. He wanted desperately to get offstage, out of the glaring lights and the stare of the audience.
Then Isabel was there, and scaling comfortably to High C, and their voices were blending into a beautiful, pitch-perfect harmony. He remembered standing in the ballroom listening to Martin and Isabel rehearse this song, marvelling at how the slightly curved roof and plasterwork seemed to reflect and intensify their voices. Now it was him filling the room with rich tenor notes. Fuck Robin. Maybe he couldn’t face his father, but Freddie was damn well going to face his.
The pirates arrived, and then Major-General Stanley. Laurence delivered the Major-General’s Song to riotous applause, and returned with a new verse about social media that was greeted with even more laughter. From there, it seemed like only moments before the audience was clapping, the curtain was coming down, and it was interval.
Claudia’s husband, who was looking after Arcadee, had set out trays of food in an adjacent parlour for those guests who were staying at the house. The rest, Freddie supposed, would spill into the main hall. He jogged off stage, gasping with exhilaration. People were laughing and clapping each other on the back, fidgeting with scarves and wigs and diving for bottles of water. It was organised mayhem, and it was impossible for Freddie to think about anything, which was exactly how he liked it.
As he was shucking the pirate outfit for white trousers, a white shirt, and a blue waistcoat, he saw Robin duck through the curtain and he shouted, “Claudia.” When his sister hurried over, he pointed at Robin and said, “Get him out of here. I can’t deal with him right now.” Claudia gave him an understanding look and he wondered if she had seen Louise in the audience too. Then she was ushering Robin away. Their eyes met for a moment before Freddie looked down at his water bottle and took a long drink.
As the high tide of the first act ebbed away, Freddie thought of Dudley Baxter and his offer. Before Robin’s shouted challenge, he’d barely thought of the man in weeks, but now he found himself thinking again, I have got to get out of here. Where there had been triumph there was now hollowness.
Robin pushed his way into Freddie’s mind. Why should I, when you’ll just leave anyway? Robin and Louise. Charming couple. Her mother was a Barclay. They would have an aesthetically pleasing, well-behaved son who would, in his time, ascend to the honours and titles of Wells of Woodcross.
The entr’acte played and the curtain went up. Freddie pushed Robin out of his mind and waited for his cue. He noticed in a distant sort of way that there was now an empty seat beside Louise and thought, Well, good. Robin should slink off in shame. Then it was time for the policemen, and Frederic’s dutiful return to the pirate band. He stood stoically staring off over the audience as Isabel entered. Mabel learned of Frederic’s predicament and begged him to stay. Frederic averred the importance of doing one’s duty.
Then something odd happened. Isabel ran offstage, just as she was supposed to start the imploring, ‘Ah, leave me not to pine’, the song he and Robin had laughed over when they watched that absurd film adaptation a month ago.
As Freddie frowned in the direction that she had exited, there was a murmur from the audience.
“Ah, leave me not to pine, alone and desolate,” sang a tentative voice, searching for the notes. Not supporting his voice properly, Freddie thought nonsensically, and found Robin crossing the stage towards him. “No fate seemed fair as mine, no happiness so great.”
Freddie frowned. “What are you…” he said and darted a look out into the audience.
“And nature, day by day, has sung in accents clear this joyous roundelay, ‘He loves thee – he is here. Fal, la, la, la, Fal, la, la, la’.” Robin hesitated, then stepped forwards, enveloping Freddie in an embrace. Freddie looked wide-eyed up at him, feeling the hum through Robin’s chest as he repeated the last two lines.
He blinked, his mind a blank. Should he just keep going? What was his cue? His heart pounded in his chest as he stepped out of Robin’s arms and turned away. He heard a stifled, pleading, “Freddie…” behind him.
“Ah, must I leave thee here, in endless night to dream. Where joy is dark and drear and sorrow all supreme.” Freddie bit his lip and turned again to meet Robin’s eyes. “Where nature, day by day, will sing, in altered tone, this weary roundelay, ‘He loves thee – he is gone. Fal, la, la, la, Fal, la, la, la.” Robin’s eyes were bright with emotion. Freddie held out his hand. Robin pulled him close, and Freddie sang again, “He loves thee – he is gone.” Robin joined him for the final, “Fal, la, la, Fal, la.”
The music fell silent and the audience clapped. Freddie dimly registered some cheering. He was lost in Robin’s eyes, looking down at him, shining. “I’m so sorry for what I put you through,” said Robin, and kissed him. Lips met and parted, tongues brushed. The world faded away. The heat of the lights merged with the heat of their bodies pressed together.
For a moment Freddie was lost, then he recalled himself, opened his eyes and stepped away from Robin. The audience was still clapping. Some people were on their feet. Lord Wells looked gobsmacked; Freddie guiltily avoided his eyes.
Robin put his hand up to his neck and said sheepishly to the audience, “I don’t know the rest, sorry.” He sidled off stage and Isabel ran out again, grinning so widely Freddie could have counted all her teeth. He gave her a speaking look, and she winked.
Freddie wiped his hand across his forehead and tried to calm his breathing. “Where were we?” he said.
“In 1940 I of age shall be,” whispered someone. Freddie looked over into the wings and saw a very smug Claudia. She mouthed his line again, and he made a face at her. She winked.
“In 1940—” Freddie cleared his throat. “In 1940 I of age shall be. I’ll then return and claim you – I declare it!”
The rest of the show passed in a blur. Freddie sought and found Robin standing in the shadows to one side of the ballroom, looking rather like Freddie felt. Certifiable fucking lunatic, Freddie thought, fighting to keep the daft smile from his face.
* * *
Never mind the why and wherefore,
Love can level ranks, and therefore
I admit the jurisdiction;
Ably have you played your part;
You have carried firm conviction
To my hesitating heart.
— H.M.S. Pinafore, Act I
Robin leaned against the wall and tried to breathe. He could feel a persistent, silly smile on his face that even the feeling of his impending doom could not erase. Up on the stage, Freddie had recovered admirably, but kept throwing him wary glances, as if worried that Robin were about to lose control and leap back onstage. He couldn’t even answer himself on why he had done it—seeing his father and Louise, Freddie’s cold words and the words he had written to Freddie after the visit to Seventrees, that had looped through his mind ever since: I hate who I am through your eyes.
He was the Honourable Robin Lionel Coffrey Montgomery-Wells, of Eton and Cambridge, heir to Baron Wells of Woodcross. Society playboy, occasional entrant in the Times gossip column. Destined for a stylish, well-born wife, a seat in Parliament, children who would in turn go to the family schools and the family colleges, and a house in Kent where he might secrete a string of accommodating young men who would never meet his parents, or his children. He had railed against this proposition, but had gradually come to accept that that was the path he was on.
His breaking up with Louise had been the first step, but not enough. He had clung to what Louise meant to his life. She would have been replaced by another soon enough. A Spencer or a Churchill instead of a Barclay, parental approval all-but guaranteed.
Then his parents had brought Louise to Arcadee. And he had realised the only way to stay off that path was to veer away from it. So without even really thinking about it, he had slipped backstage and found Claudia. Claudia had spoken to Isabel, and then, too quickly for him to really consider what was happening, Claudia was pushing him onstage and he was making a hash of singing the one song he actually knew from The Pirates of Penzance. And Freddie’s face when he turned around had been worth everything that had gone before, and everything—Robin had no doubt—was about to come.
He was aware of the curious glances being occasionally cast in his direction, but he couldn’t go back to his seat, next to Louise, next to his parents… so he stood at the side and watched Freddie, and used his years of practice to seem nonchalant about the fact that he had changed path so dramatically he might as well be off-road entirely.
Freddie cast him another glance as the pirates crept onstage singing loudly about how stealthy they were. Another irony of the musical that Robin would never have appreciated if Freddie hadn’t told pointed it out to him. He liked the way he looked in Freddie’s eyes now: Freddie looked at him as if Robin had suddenly revealed himself to be a dangerous unknown, requiring close supervision.
Very close, thought Robin hopefully, and shifted his weight from one foot to the other.
None of that infuriating dismissiveness, as if Freddie had had Robin catalogued and filed, was there anymore. Those dark eyes were searching, questioning.
Robin’s thoughts drifted and he found himself admiring Freddie’s arse in those tight white sailor trousers, the way the striped shirt pulled against his lean torso as he raised his hand or twisted to look around him. His hair was starting to escape the wax, and Robin could detect the first stubborn curls around Freddie’s ears and nape.
Very close, he promised himself.
The show was over too quickly. The finale was sung, the characters paired off, and the audience applauded. The chorus bowed, then the other principals. Then Mabel, then Freddie. Robin felt the eyes of the audience on him and tried to maintain a dignified level of clapping. Anil jogged out and received riotous applause. Then the orchestra, then the sound crew, then Claudia was onstage, bowing and beckoning him up.
Robin froze. He shook his head. Freddie’s eyes were on him, challenging.
Well, he might as well take a bow. Robin ran over and jumped onto the stage. Holding his hands out and plastering a rueful smile on his face, he bowed. He heard laughter and cheering in equal measure. As he stepped back beside Freddie, he heard him whisper, “Don’t know why they’re cheering; your singing was atrocious.”
“They’re cheering this, you fool,” said Robin and bent Freddie back for another kiss.
Freddie tugged on his arm. “Time to leave the stage.” Robin stumbled into the backstage area and Freddie punched him hard in the arm.”You are fucking insane.”
“I came out to my dad,” said Robin.
“Yes, and the entire audience.” But Freddie was smiling.
“I am very thorough.”
“We should cast you as Patience,” said Claudia on her way past.
“I knew Lord Mountararat wasn’t the right role for me,” Robin retorted. He leaned close to Freddie’s ear. “Can we go somewhere?”
Freddie leaned against him and Robin felt him take a shuddering breath. “Yes,” he said. “Don’t you need to face your parents, though?”
“Do I have to?”
“Yep,” said Freddie, straightening up. “You’ve stuck the knife in; let’s go and twist it.”
“Gulp,” said Robin. He felt Freddie’s hand slip into his and squeezed it. They ducked through the curtain and out into the ballroom. Lord Wells was waiting near the stage. Robin sidled over feeling like the boy who hit a cricket ball through the stained-glass window. He kept tight hold of Freddie’s hand.
“Robin.” His father did not look pleased.
“Hello dad.” Robin put his arm around Freddie. “We need to talk.”
“I gathered that,” replied Lord Wells. “Hello, Freddie.”
“Now, I think you really had better call me Lionel.”
“Dad, this is my… well, I’d like to introduce him as my boyfriend, but I haven’t asked him yet if that’s all right, so maybe not tonight. But in the near future.”
Freddie felt himself blush and leaned against Robin’s side. “Tonight is fine,” he mumbled. Robin squeezed his shoulder.
“And how long have you been… carrying on?”
“Oh, on and off since Cambridge,” said Robin blithely. “I understand this is a bit of a shock, and I really am very sorry for my method of breaking the news. But I felt like a grand gesture was needed. Where’re mum and Louise?”
“They’re waiting in the hall,” said Lord Wells. “You could go out and see them.”
Robin winced. “Can I just come to Seventrees tomorrow?”
“Yes, that will be fine.”
“I promise to be serious about it and what it means for Wells of Woodcross tomorrow. Tonight I just want to be happy. Would that be all right?”
“Son, I want for you to be happy too.” Lord Wells made a gesture of resignation. “Besides, there’s always surrogacy, and perhaps we could have the letter patent amended to allow an adopted or illegitimate child to inherit. I have hope for Wells of Woodcross yet. Excellent show, Freddie.”
“Er, thank you,” said Freddie.
“We’ll talk later,” said Lord Wells. “I have to… think about things.”
Robin nodded. “Can you tell Louise I’m sorry?”
There was an unaccustomed shrewdness in Lord Wells’ eyes. “For what, Robin?”
After a moment’s hesitation, Robin answered, “I don’t know.”
“Then I might leave it. When you know what you’re sorry for, perhaps you can tell her yourself.”
Robin nodded. Lord Wells held out his hand; Robin had to release Freddie to shake it.
“Until tomorrow, son.”
Robin nodded. “Thank you for coming.”
“Hm.” Lord Wells walked past them and out of the ballroom.
“That was horrid,” said Robin.
“Well, you were horrid first.” Freddie tugged him towards the back of the ballroom.
“Horrid?” said Robin, wounded.
Freddie leaned close and kissed him on the cheek. “Horrid and delightful.”
* * *
After the show, when the audience were gone and the guests had all tucked themselves up in their antique beds, when the after-party had petered out and those of the cast who weren’t staying at Arcadee had gone home, Freddie and Claudia sat in the private parlour working their way through a decent bottle of red wine. Robin had stepped out, and when he returned, Freddie held out his hand and Robin came and sat beside him on the couch, leaning over until his head was resting in the crook of Freddie’s arm. Freddie stroked his fingers up and down Robin’s bicep and Robin sighed liked a happy cat.
Freddie looked up and caught Claudia smiling at them. “What?” he said. Robin turned his head and looked at Claudia. Freddie could see the tips of his contented smile.
“You two look like you’re ready for bed,” she said.
Robin looked up at Freddie. “I am pretty tired,” he said.
“I’ve made up your bed down here, Freddie.” Claudia’s face was fixed in a blank expression.
“Thanks.” As Claudia stood, Freddie added, “And thanks for everything, Claud.”
“You’re welcome, little brother.” She leaned down and ruffled his hair, sending flakes of dried hair wax flying. “Ugh. Make sure you have a shower before you—go to bed.” The merest hesitation gave her away, and she stifled a giggle as she fled the room.
“I feel rather like a hot-water bottle,” said Robin. “All warm and floppy and fluid.”
“Are you really tired?” Freddie resumed stroking his fingers up and down Robin’s arm.
Robin sat up and put his hand on Freddie’s chest. “Not a bit,” he said, eyes bright.
“Good,” said Freddie decidedly. “Let’s go to bed, then.”
“Yours or mine?”
“From personal experience, your bed is bigger and nicer,” said Freddie. Robin leaped up from the couch and pulled Freddie with him. They tumbled out of the room and up the stairs, hushing each other as they bumped into end tables and columns in the darkness. Robin fumbled with the lock while Freddie crowded up behind him, then they were in the room and Robin was flicking the light on.
“Ugh, Robin, you didn’t clean up?” said Freddie.
Robin shrugged. “Didn’t really think I’d be bringing you back here,” he said frankly.
Freddie reached up and ruffled his hair. “You really surprised yourself tonight, didn’t you?” he said.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to be that brave again,” said Robin. “You’ll have to help me with the rest. With… telling my friends and the like.”
Freddie gave a wry smile. “Somehow I think the audience, the reviewers and Louise will make that unnecessary.”
Robin tilted his head. “I guess I’m glad it’s out of my hands.” He pulled Freddie close, and they flopped down on the bed. “You are wearing so much eyeliner,” he said.
Attempting a seductive leer, Freddie said, “Do you like it, baby?”
Robin smeared this eye makeup with his thumb. “You look very exotic.”
“I’m supposed to be a dangerous pirate.”
“Right.” Robin’s eyes crinkled with amusement.
Freddie leaned up and kissed him, then stood up. “I’m going to take Claudia’s advice and have a shower,” said Freddie. “Why don’t you… I don’t know… tidy up?”
Robin made a face. Freddie ducked into the en suite bathroom and shut the door. He relieved himself, took out his contact lenses and shucked his clothes, then climbed into the shower, grimacing at the sticky mess of his hair. When the water ran hot enough he ducked under the spray, closing his eyes, then turned around. It took several minutes of concentrated scrubbing and shampooing for his hair to start resembling itself again. Then he went over himself once with the soap and stepped out of the bathtub, wrapping himself in a towel. When he left the bathroom, he found Robin sitting angelically on the bed in the middle of a pristine room.
“Did you just kick everything under the bed?” said Freddie.
Robin’s eyes travelled up and down his body, and Freddie suddenly felt very conscious of his wet, naked torso. Even though they’d been playing this game for months now, and had even brought each other off, they had not been naked together since the college experiment, and even then it had mostly been drunk, in the dark. Freddie (he ruefully acknowledged to himself) hadn’t really filled out very much since then, but there was a smattering of dark hair on his chest that hadn’t been there, and some arm and chest definition. Self-consciously, he tried to flex his biceps while still looking casual.
Robin’s gaze shuttered. “Come here,” he said, the command softened by a slight interrogative lift, as if he still wasn’t quite sure that Freddie was really there and willing. Wordlessly, Freddie crossed the room and put himself between Robin’s legs, his hands on Robin’s shoulders. Robin’s hands came up to rest on Freddie’s hips and he pulled Freddie close, pressing his cheek against the ridge of Freddie’s hipbone. Freddie could feel the towel beginning to loosen and a part of him wanted to step back and fasten it because Robin was still fully dressed, and Freddie felt vulnerable in a way he couldn’t remember feeling before.
But this was a new Robin, who wanted to bring their relationship into the light. Who had made a frightening step into vulnerability himself for Freddie’s sake. The rules they had set for the game had been changed and the game suddenly seemed much more serious.
Robin’s hands tightening on his hips was all the warning Freddie had before Robin flipped him onto his back on the bed, his legs hanging off the side. Robin lay half-above, half-beside him, looking down. With his free hand, he untucked the towel and lifted it away like the wrapping of a gift. Freddie thought dimly that he should be cold, but he was still damp from the shower and the heat seemed to be radiating off him, creating a pocket of warm air. His wet hair was stuck to his forehead and neck and there were drops of water on the inside of his glasses making it difficult for him to see. Robin solved this by removing them and placing them on the nightstand. He looked down Freddie’s body, then his hand followed his gaze along Freddie’s flank, over his hipbone, up across his thickening cock, around his navel and along the thin line of hair between his pectorals, until Robin’s hand rested on his chin, in just the right place to turn Freddie’s head for a kiss.
The feeling of vulnerability increased, and with it the feeling of warmth. His hands were up near his hand, fingers curling loosely towards the palm. He looked passively up at Robin. Freddie felt a bit like a model in the back of one of those renaissance paintings, as if his only purpose was to lie, febrile and sated, on display to be admired.
Robin made a guttural sound and ducked toward him, kissing the corner of his mouth, then his jaw, then his neck. The kisses became bites, and Robin left a trail of neat red tooth marks down Freddie’s chest. When he reached a nipple, Robin stopped and pressed his tongue against it, flicking the nub and pinching it between his teeth. His hand played with the other nipple, and Freddie felt his body flick from sensual contentment to something more alert, more hungry. The first stifled sound escaped his lips, and he crooked one foot up on the bedspread to draw Robin closer.
Robin crouched on the floor, his chest pressed against Freddie’s groin. He could feel Robin’s shirt buttons against the underside of Robin’s cock, a counterpoint to Robin’s attention to his nipples.
“Robin,” he said softly. When the sandy head did not its circling movements he said again, “Robin.”
Now Robin looked up, frowning as if he had been drawn away from a favourite book. His eyebrows tilted interrogatively.
“You’re wearing too many clothes.”
Now the distracted look faded. Robin stood, and the loss of his body warmth was a physical pain. His eyes drinking in Freddie’s form, propped up on his elbows, one leg still lazily crooked, Robin fumbled with buttons, dragging his shirt over his head so quickly it caught on his ears. Shoes and socks were toed off, the belt was pulled out and discarded, and the fly was unzipped. Higgledy-piggledy, Robin revealed his body to Freddie’s lidded gaze. Then Robin pulled down his briefs and kicked his way out of them, his semi-erect cock springing forward. Freddie felt his grin split his face in two. He sat up and pulled Robin sharply to him; they fell onto the bed a tangle of elbows and knees and flesh sliding against flesh. Freddie shuffled back towards the headboard and said, “I want you to fuck me, Robin.”
Robin’s gaze shuttered and he sucked in a struggling breath. “Really?” he said, like a child being told that school has been cancelled.
“Do you have the wherewithal?”
Wordlessly, Robin nodded. He reached for the bedside table and pulled out a condom and lube. Freddie rolled onto his stomach, presenting his arse.
“Very businesslike,” said Robin, a touch of laughter in his voice.
“I thought you said I had no head for business,” said Freddie.
There was a silence, and Freddie heard the sound of a cap being unscrewed. A moment later, Robin’s weight was on him, Robin’s slick fingers feeling out the ring of his anus. “There’s a joke in there somewhere,” said Robin, breath hot against his ear, “but fucked if I can think of it right now.” He nipped Freddie’s earlobe at the same time as his first finger pushed into Freddie’s arse. Freddie tilted his hips to allow better access. The friction of his cock against the embroidered counterpane brought his breath up short.
“Jesus Christ,” muttered Robin. His lips were resting, hot and wet against the back of Freddie’s neck and he wanted to lean back against that feeling, but Robin’s weight was pushing him forward, pushing him into the pillows.
“Robin, for fuck’s sake. I’m not a blushing virgin, so just get your cock in me.”
Robin chuckled. “I remember you as a blushing virgin,” he said. “I wonder if you still make the same sounds as you come.”
Goaded, Freddie turned over in the circle of Robin’s arms and tucked his knees up near his shoulders. “About fucking time you found out,” he said.
Robin nodded. He broke the seal on the condom packet and rolled it on, then used the last of the lube on his fingers to coat his shaft. Then he positioned himself, one hand next to Freddie’s shoulder. Freddie felt the blunt head of Robin’s cock against his anus, then the stretching pressure as Robin slid in. He angled his hips and pressed his clenched hands into the blankets. He closed his eyes for a moment, not in pain but overwhelmed by the pushing, filling sensation, subtly different from the feeling of sex with Patrick or any of his other exes had been, but etched into his muscle memory, a call and answer that he had learned and then forgotten.
When Freddie opened his eyes, Robin was looking down at him, and his expression was so full of love and wonder that it was as if a physical link had bound them together, and was tugging at them both from the same place behind their ribcages.
Freddie felt Robin’s hips come to rest against his own, and Robin let out a deep sigh. Supporting himself on one elbow, he reached down and wrapped his hand around Freddie’s cock. Freddie arched against him as he began to move his hand in counterpoint to his shellow thrusts. He seemed to sense when Freddie was beyond the point of feeling anything but pleasure and he deepened his thrusts. With each touch on his cock, Freddie’s world narrowed, like a blind being drawing slowly shut until he couldn’t see, only feel. His brain had yielded control of his body to his baser instincts.
Then Robin’s movements slowed. Freddie forced his eyes open again, interrogative. “I don’t want this to be over,” he said.
Freddie reached up and pulled Robin’s face down to his. “You goose.” He pushed his hips up into a thrust and felt Robin’s teeth grit. Robin took the hint. His thrusts became fast and deep, and his hand on Freddie’s cock merciless. Freddie came, gasping, and Robin followed a moment later and flopped down on top of him. Freddie let out a long sigh as the tremors subsided.
* * *
For in spite of all temptations
To belong to other nations,
He remains an Englishman!
He remains an Englishman!
— H.M.S. Pinafore, Act II
Freddie heard the door open and close as Robin let himself in.
“How did it go?” he said, looking up from the laptop.
Robin gave a visible full-body shudder and sat down next to Freddie. Settling himself in the crook of Freddie’s arm, Robin said, “What were you doing?”
“I wrote an email to Baxter,” he said. “I thought it was time I replied properly to his offer, and it seems like G&S in Arcadee could really be something big. I owe it to myself, and dad, and you, to be there for that.”
Robin’s silence had the feeling of waiting, of a breath being held.
Freddie tilted his head and rested his chin on Robin’s temple. “I thanked him for his offer and suggested that if, in twelve months or so, he was ready to bring Topsy Turvy to the West End, I would love to work with him. I’d like to go to New York for a few months next year either way.” He stroked his fingers up and down Robin’s arm. “You could come with me.”
“I do like New York,” he said, “and I have so much leave time saved, you wouldn’t believe it.” Robin turned on his side and fished in his pocket. “Here.” He handed Freddie a flash drive.
Freddie put it in the computer and a folder popped up with a spreadsheet in it. Freddie clicked on it and scrolled wordlessly through. “Are these the numbers from last night?”
“Yep,” said Robin happily. “Based on current ticket sales, I project 95 to 100% capacity for the rest of the run. With these numbers, we could make a case for more Arts Council funding, local council funding, and probably even corporate sponsorship. But we don’t need any of them.”
“Jesus,” said Freddie.
Robin leaned over and typed something one-handed into the browser window. “And look at this.” He clicked on a web link. Freddie skimmed the text, reading out, “Sensitive interpretation…brings out the humour of Gilbert’s libretto and the panache of Sullivan’s music… fitting surrounds of Richard Green’s 1860s manor house Arcadee… a highlight is Anil Desai, borrowing from Jack Sparrow as the flamboyant Pirate King…” He stopped.
Robin kept reading, “Frederic Green lights up the stage in the role he was almost born to play. With a confident command of the character and a rich tenor, we are surprised we haven’t seen more of Richard Green’s only son on the stages of England.”
Freddie felt goose bumps shiver up his arms. He kept reading. The opening night was livened up with some real life romance, and a cameo from the Hon Robin Montgomery-Wells, son of Baron Wells, who took a brief turn as Mabel in the second act and swept Frederic off his feet with a sincere, if atonal, rendition of ‘Ah, leave me not to pine’. My colleagues on the society desk tell me that Montgomery-Wells has been linked for the last few years to the daughter of hotelier Carlo Chiodelli and Eleanor Barclay, but it is difficult not to take his brief turn on the stage as a statement of relationship intent. No word on whether Montgomery-Wells will be reprising the role of Mabel, but I can assure you the show is worth seeing either way, and Isabel Langley will leave nobody disappointed with her ‘Poor wand’ring one’.
Freddie snorted. “I think your friends might already know your news,” he said.
He felt Robin’s puffed out sigh. “But you do love me, don’t you?” he said.
“Madly, hopelessly, despairingly!” replied Freddie instantly. “You’ve been swotting up on Patience.”
Robin nodded. “Isn’t that next on the list?”
“Jesus, let’s just survive Pirates first, and then I think I would prefer not to so much as mention the names Gilbert and Sullivan for at least a few months.” He paused and smiled. “I’ve been thinking of developing an interest in polo.”
“Do you know the rules?” said Robin, levering himself up so he could look Freddie in the eyes. Freddie pushed the laptop shut and leaned back against the arm of the chair. With a bit of manoeuvring and a few bumped elbows, Robin settled himself between Freddie’s legs, his chin digging into Freddie’s sternum.
“No,” said Freddie, reaching down to cup Robin’s cheek with one hand, “but I know someone who could teach me.”
Author’s Note: First, many thanks to cerine for the gor-ge-ous artwork. I am so lucky! *_*
This story is extremely silly. Robin and Freddie are both intentional parodies; I don’t actually think all sons of barons, or directors of amateur theatrical societies, are like this. My inner history nerd compels me to disclose that I had to play a bit with the history of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company to fit Freddie’s father in, and my research on how to put together a stage production in a historical home was cursory at best. Apologies if anyone is put off by this.
If this story has whetted your appetite for, or reminded you of your love for, Gilbert and Sullivan (which I sincerely hope it has!) I’ve a bit more information about that here.