We take our food onto the terrace to eat, washing it down with a steady flow of beer. After we’ve demolished a tub of Rocky Road ice cream, Theo heads indoors and reappears with a bottle of Bourbon and two glasses. I lose all sense of time passing. Only the sky, darkening as the sun slips below the treetops and a velvety night closes around us, bears witness to how long we sit there.
And we talk. We talk about anything and everything and nothing at all. We debate England’s performance in the Six Nations, the arguments for legalising cannabis, and whether Sam or Aragorn is the true hero of The Lord of the Rings. Once we start, we can’t stop. We throw subjects back and forth, exchanging smiles of comradeship when our views coincide, challenging one another when they don’t. And all the while I’m conscious of being on the edge of something, something new, unknown.
Theo reaches for the bottle to refill our glasses. “Any idea what you want to do? After school, I mean.”
“Not really.” The whisky trails a fiery path down my throat to my stomach. When I lean back in my chair, the stars twinkle down at me, fuzzy around the edges. “I’ve been wondering about sports journalism. How about you?”
“That’s easy. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to run my own gallery, discover the next Hockney or Constable. Wouldn’t that be a legacy to leave behind?”
“Yeah, I suppose it would.” I smile at him. Art means about as much to me as Chinese, but his passion touches me.
“Of course,” he adds, “I’ve always known it would never happen.”
“Why not, if that’s what you want?”
“Because I’m expected to take over running our estate, as well as the family business. My dad breeds and trains racehorses, owns one of the top yards in the country, and it’ll be mine one day.”
I mull this over. Many people, most even, would envy Theo his life, his wealth and privilege, but I doubt any of them would stop to consider the sense of duty and responsibility that goes along with it. Despite everything, I feel lucky.
“Mind you,” Theo’s tone is thoughtful, “that may not be the case anymore.”
He stares into the contents of his glass. “You asked me the other night whether I’d be going home over the holidays. Well, I’d like to. The problem is, my dad doesn’t want to see me, not now he knows about me being gay.”
“Shit.” There doesn’t seem to be anything else to say to that.
“Yeah.” Theo glances at me, then away again. “I told him last summer, a couple of weeks before I left for Oxford. Now I wish I’d done it earlier, when Mum was alive. Maybe it would have been easier on Dad. It just never felt like the right moment. It isn’t exactly something you bring up over dinner, is it? Or maybe it is. Maybe that’s what I should’ve done, got it out of the way years ago, put an end to their hopes for me before they took root. I don’t know.” He pushes the hair out of his eyes. “Anyway, I finally plucked up the courage. I had to. Dad kept going on about all the great opportunities for meeting ‘nice young ladies’ and I couldn’t take any more. I couldn’t face the idea of going away under false pretences. So I sat him down after lunch one day and told him.”
“And he took it badly?”
“That’s one way of putting it. At first, he tried to brazen it out. ‘It’s just a phase,’ he said. ‘You’ll grow out of it.’ Then, when I explained this is how I am, how I always will be, he shut down. He said he’d speak to me once I came to my senses and decided to be a real man.” Theo winces. “I’ve called home a few times, just to check he’s OK, but after establishing I haven’t abandoned ‘this gay nonsense’ he hangs up.”
“He’ll come round,” I say. “In time.”
“I hope so.” The look he flashes me is part gratitude, part sadness. “I’m just not sure he’ll ever forgive me.”
“What do you mean, forgive you? You haven’t done anything wrong here.”
“To Dad, I have. Rowanleigh has been in the Scott-Palmer family for generations. It’s vital to him that the line continues, and now I’ve told him this isn’t going to happen. At least, not in the way he wants.”
“There’s still your sister, right?”
“Yeah, there’s still Clemmy, and if Dad can’t learn to accept me, she’ll have to take over. She’s more than capable, better with the horses. Still, there’s no getting away from the fact that, regardless of whether she marries or not, the family name will die out. That’s a massive blow for my dad. As far as he’s concerned, I’ve failed him as a son.”
I set down my empty glass and rest an elbow on the table, propping my chin on my hand. I suppose I can see why Theo’s Dad might be gutted, but that doesn’t give him the right to basically disown him. Theo’s already lost his Mum; now it must feel like he’s lost his dad, too. “So, you haven’t been home since you told him?”
“Nope. I spent Christmas with my aunt and uncle, Zara’s parents, and over Easter I stayed at the flat in Oxford. It’s easier that way, for both of us.”
I hesitate, wanting to ask, unsure whether it’s off limits. “So, your dad never met… He didn’t know about…” I realise I don’t know the guy’s name.
“Francis?” Theo averts his gaze. “No, he didn’t.”
Immediately, I wish I’d kept my mouth shut. Theo sort of hunches in on himself, his body language the equivalent of a ‘no trespassing’ sign.
“Look,” I fiddle with my glass, “I’m sorry. None of my business.”
At once, Theo turns back to me. “No, Luke, I’m sorry. You must think I’m pathetic, the poor little rich boy, complaining because his bed of roses turned out to have a few thorns in it.”
“No.” I meet his eyes. “No, I don’t think that.”
“Thanks, that means a lot.” Theo rests his elbows on the table, studying me. “Things can’t have been easy for you, though, not having your dad around.”
I shrug, conscious of Theo’s forearm mere inches from mine. “I haven’t had it bad. Mum’s the one working fourteen-hour shifts to feed me and keep a roof over our heads.”
“And there’s never been anyone else? No stepfather?”
“Honestly, I don’t think Mum’s ever got over losing my dad, although she claims she’s just too busy to meet anyone. She works so hard to make sure I have everything I need, but I know she feels it isn’t enough.”
“You don’t see it like that, though,” Theo says, “I can tell.”
I shake my head. “Mum’s never been able to buy me the latest iPhone or whatever, but she’s always there. Even when she comes in after being on her feet all day, she’s never too tired to listen to what I have to say. That means more than whether my clothes come from Pardo’s or Jack Wills.”
“Your mum sounds great.”
“She is. I’m lucky to have her, I guess.”
“And I bet she’d say the same about you.”
I contemplate my empty glass. It isn’t that I think Mum regrets having me; I know she doesn’t. All the same, if she’d done what her parents wanted and got rid of me, her life would have been very different. She might have gone to university, had a career, been free of the daily grind of stock-takes and money worries.
“Trust me,” Theo says. His eyes, when I glance up at him, are warm and full of something I don’t dare put a name to. I meet his gaze. For an instant, it’s as if I’m riding the crest of a wave, suspended in that halfway state, where time simultaneously stands still and stretches into eternity. The darkness closes in around us, settling like a fleecy blanket over our shoulders.