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The darkness of the rather gloomy winter’s night and the back-lighting from the streetlamps behind me no doubt aided in giving my silhouette a more imposing outline than my age of just seventeen probably warranted. On the other hand I’m a fairly hefty six foot two with what Mum calls ‘a deep brown voice’, so it was probably a combination of the lot which caused the scrabbling gang of youths to suddenly cease milling about when I yelled out. Strangely enough I can’t remember what it was that I yelled, but it undoubtedly saved their victim from an even worse bashing than he’d already received. He was still cowering against the wall of the alley when I ran up, the last of his three attackers having quickly vanished into the dimly-lit road beyond, leaving only fading echoes of their defiant cat-calls.

‘You all right?’ I crouched beside him on the still-damp cobbles, the hairs on my neck slowly settling down for the second time that night, having already had a good dose of exercise from the creepy thriller I’d just sat through at the local cinema.

‘Me ’ead ’urts.’ His rather high-pitched moan trembled as he took his hand away from his hair to peer at it. ‘I fink I’m bleedin’.’

‘Can you walk?’

He nodded and then winced, plainly wishing he hadn’t. A hand under the armpit was enough to get him to his feet however and though he tended to stagger a little, he made it back to the main street mostly under his own steam.

Once beneath the reassuring brilliance of the high-street lights, I realized his injuries were more serious than just a cut to the head. His left eye was already almost squeezed closed by rapidly developing puffiness and his hands and knuckles were raw and bleeding from where he’d tried to defend himself. He plainly needed attention, if only from the injuries I could see, but he seemed reluctant when I suggested I take him to the hospital.

‘Nah … s’all right … I’ll be okay.’ He tried to fend off my helping hand with his own and promptly confounded his recent assertions by crumpling to the pavement. I caught him before his head received yet another smacking and pre-empted any more protests with a firm arm under the shoulders as I half-carried him towards the town square.

Predictably, although there was some traffic, no empty taxi came past until we’d almost reached the outpatients building and by then, we were too close to bother hailing it. I helped my charge through the door and sat him rather unsteadily on one of the chairs in the reception area. There was only one triage nurse on duty, a large, matronly woman who took one look at my lolling armful and shot him to the top of the list. There were a few disgruntled murmurs from the dozen or so patients already there, but she ignored them completely as she helped the two of us into a small examining cubicle.

Somewhat perversely, the next few minutes were spent worming information out of the bashee, during which I found out that his name was Eric Walters and like me, he was seventeen years old. As the nurse continued to fill out the usual personal and medical details, I sat quietly by the bed, trying to figure out what Eric would look like if he hadn’t been walloped.

He was as small as I was large; no more than five one or two. I’d already suspected he was a Londoner from his broad Cockney-sounding accent, but his appearance put him smack in the middle of the ‘urchin’ category.  The spiky red hair and bright blue eyes … or eye, at the moment … added to the illusion as did his clothes, which were worn and obviously quite old. I’d started to muse off, wondering what the rest of his family was like when I was jolted back to earth by a question from the looming Ms Nightingale.

‘Are you a relative?’

‘Er … no. I just …’

 I was firmly interrupted. ‘Then I’ll have to ask you to wait outside.’ She brooked no argument, the blue plastic curtain already drawn aside for my exit. I glanced back at Eric to see if he wanted me to wait, but he was lying down and not looking at all good. The curtain swished shut behind me like the sudden ending to a theatrical scene.

I suffered a second round of disapproving looks from the patients who’d been bumped, finally settling on an interesting pattern in the peeling ceiling-paint to look at. I’d been studying it for a couple of minutes before it occurred to me to ring home and let them know what’d happened. I always take my mobile with me when I go out, because we’re both threatened with dire consequences if we don’t, so it wasn’t long before I was regaling my parents with the news.

‘We were just starting to get a bit worried.’ The tone in Dad’s voice suggested I might have thought to ring a little earlier, but he soon became more concerned about my new acquaintance. ‘Is he going to be all right?’

‘I’m not sure, actually. He didn’t look too bad while we were getting here …’

‘Why didn’t you call an ambulance, dear?’ My ever-practical mother, butting in.

‘Oh …’ To tell the truth, it hadn’t even occurred to me … or calling the police for that matter. ‘I … I don’t know … I should have I suppose.’

‘Well … let’s hope you didn’t do him any more damage …’

‘Oh thanks, Dad … just what I need right now …’

‘Sorry, son. Look … you probably did the right thing … I expect it would’ve taken that long for an ambulance to get there anyway.’

‘Probably; it was only two hundred metres or so.’

‘Oh … well then …’

There was an awkward silence, long enough for me to start envisioning the possible catastrophic consequences of my thoughtlessness before Mum chimed in again.

‘Are you all right dear? You didn’t get involved, I hope?’

‘No, Mum – they ran off when I yelled out.’

‘Ah … good. Look, we’ll send Freddie down with some sandwiches or something … you are going to stay there, are you?’

‘Well … I thought I’d better … just in case.’

‘All right, dear; that’s probably for the best. Where are you, exactly?’

I was in the middle of giving directions when a small commotion around Eric’s cubicle resulted in him being whisked off somewhere on a trolley, leaving me wondering if he was going to be all right after all. I hurriedly told Mum I had to go and when the nurse returned to her desk, risked being physically attacked by the remaining sufferers to ask her what was going on.

‘We’re going to admit him, but that’s all I can tell you I’m afraid. You should probably contact the police; they’ll almost certainly need you as a witness.’

‘Ah … okay.’

She promptly forgot I existed and turned to deal with the next irate customer, so I went back to my chair to wait for Freddie.

 

I was well into worrying about what the sudden flurry of activity might have meant vis-à-vis Eric’s welfare, when a hulking shadow accompanied by a nudging knee made me look up with a start.

‘Hi …’ Freddie’s gangly body folded itself into the chair next to mine as a brown paper bag got dropped into my lap. ‘You don’t look so hot … you sure you’re okay?’

‘Yeah … I’m fine.’ I opened the bag to examine the goodies he’d brought me. ‘Not so sure about Eric though.’

‘Do you know him then?’

‘Eh? Oh, no … the nurse managed to get his name out of him before he collapsed.’ Great – cheese and tomato; I took a half and started munching. ‘They carted him off somewhere, rather quick-smartish.’

‘What’s he like?’ Freddie stuck out his long legs and crossed his ankles, only to quickly reel them in again under the disapproving scowl of a dressing-gown clad old woman in a walking-frame, whose agonizingly slow progress had been abruptly baulked by my brother’s lanky limbs.

‘Small and thin …’ Despite my admittedly rather forced smile, I got favored with a similarly censorious glower as the ancient toddled past. ‘… He talks like he came straight out of the cast of ‘Oliver’, a real Cockney.’

‘Wonder what he’s doing here, then.’

He had a point. The town wasn’t that large and was miles from London. Family history had it that the place only existed because great-something-grandfather had built a cotton-mill here and the town, or village as it was then, had grown up around it. The mill itself was long gone, but my industrious ancestors had converted its profits into all manner of local businesses, not to mention a fair swag of the surrounding countryside. We didn’t own that much of it nowadays of course, but the estate up on the hill was still ours and the ever-booming distillery kept the wolves from the door quite handsomely. Our multi-great granddad had been made a Baron sometime in the early eighteen hundreds, so Dad now rejoiced in the title of ‘The Lord Eglington’. Technically it made Freddie and me ‘The Honorable etc, etc’, but we’d have been razzed stupid if we’d ever mentioned it at school, so we never did. Not that either of us was still at school – I was going away to Sussex Uni in three months time and Freddie was already gainfully employed as an articled clerk in a local firm of solicitors.

‘Hey-ho – fuzz at three o’clock …’ I received another of Freddie’s nudges, this time with an elbow that almost made me drop the last sandwich, following his gaze to the doors which had just swung closed behind two helmeted constables. My immediate assumption that they were looking for me was well founded when they turned in response to the triage nurse’s accusatory finger and headed straight for me. I hurriedly swallowed the last of the cheese and tomato and stood up rather hesitantly as they approached.

The hospital staff had contacted them they said and spent the next twenty minutes questioning me about every step I’d taken since leaving the cinema. They seemed rather skeptical when I couldn’t give them a decent description of even one of Eric’s assailants and it wasn’t until Freddie rather clumsily dropped Dad’s name into the proceedings that their attitude changed. They hastily pointed out that it wasn’t exactly unknown for guys to get into a fight and then invent a gang of muggers to explain the resulting carnage. Finally, I apparently managed to convince them I was a fairly decent individual and they headed back towards the nurses’ desk, presumably to obtain Eric’s details.

‘Look … there’s not much point in us waiting any longer, don’t you think?’

I nodded and mumbled an ‘ah-hah’, but still dithered too much for Freddie’s liking.

‘Come on, then! Crikey … it’ll be midnight before we get home at this rate!’

I followed him to the door, still wondering whether I should try and find out what was happening with Eric but the nurse was now dealing with two unhappy customers at once so I did the sensible thing and trotted out into the freezing winter’s night after my big brother.

 

I heard nothing more about Eric over the following two days, the whole incident having resulted in little more than a few breakfast remarks the next morning. By the time I decided I really should make an effort to find out what’d happened to my rescuee, I think the rest of the family had forgotten all about him.

I hadn’t though – far from it … and even as I lay in my warm bed on a frosty dawn and thought about him yet again, the thing I was afraid would happen, did. After just a few seconds of struggle, I gave in to the urgent signals from my groin and pulled myself stupid. I was getting used to the undeniable fact that I was gay, though as yet, I hadn’t had the guts to tell anyone else – anyone else in the family, I mean. There were those who knew of course – the two guys I’d already had sex with for instance and I wasn’t a virgin in either sense. It’d all been rather sordidly furtive to date though – headily exciting of course, but it always managed to leave me with the feeling that what I’d just done was really quite grubby, particularly since one of them had been a distant cousin of some sort.

I finished the clean-up still thinking about Eric, the chilling realization that gay revelation crunch-time couldn’t be more than a few days off already giving me butterflies in the stomach. By the time I made it into the shower I was getting so agitated, my legs felt like rubber. God – was it that close? Like … was I going to do it today?

I concentrated on scrubbing or tried to, only waking up to the fact that I was still thinking dangerous thoughts when I found myself shampooing for the second time. Oh hell – waste not, want not and my black curls ended up probably cleaner than they’d been for weeks.

After convincing myself I needed a shave and removing what was in truth nothing more than a slight greyish fuzz, I chose the warmest clothes I could find. A few hot breaths and a bit of rubbing on my frost-encrusted bedroom window had revealed the fact that not only was it snowing, but that it was already at least ankle deep.

My third breakfast since meeting Eric was solitary, Mum and Dad having finished theirs ages ago with Freddie still probably fast asleep, knowing him.

‘Ah … good morning, Master David.’ Higgins swept towards me, beaming as usual. If they had a beaming contest, I’d back Higgie to win hands down. ‘I trust you slept well?’

‘I did, Higgie. You too, I hope.’ I sat in my customary dining chair as our ancient, but still sprightly butler thrust it into precisely the correct position behind my knees.

‘As a baby, Master David; as a baby.’ The greeting ritual over, I grabbed for the serviette as Higgie whisked it into my lap. ‘And what would we like this morning?’

I grinned up at him, another ritual in train. ‘What have we got?’

‘Porridge, of course and Cook made semolina.’ He turned to the sideboard and lifted a tureen-lid to peer inside. ‘I believe your brother has left enough for a full serving.’

‘Freddie’s out already?’ My eyebrows rose of their own accord as I absorbed the shocking news. ‘Good lord! Was there a fire or something?’

A twitch of a lip was as much of a smile as Higgie would allow himself while on duty but I knew he was amused nonetheless.

‘An early morning assignation with Miss Marilyn, I believe …’

‘Ah …’ I nodded in response to his querying gesture towards the semolina pot, watching as he ladled it glutinously into a bowl. ‘Another gymkhana somewhere, then?’

‘So I believe, Master David.’ A white-gloved hand slid the bowl before me and nudged the honey-pot an inch closer. ‘Should I reheat the kidneys, or there is an artichoke omelet if you’d prefer?’

‘Yuk. Make it the kidneys.’ Two globs of honey joined the milk in my bowl. ‘Any tomatoes?’

‘Of course, sir – with or without the cheese?’ Now it was my turn to smile at yet another little ritual – I always had cheese.

‘With, please.’

I duly received three devilled kidneys on toast with a similar number of grilled tomato-halves, coated with parmesan and liberally sprinkled with chives. Higgie knows how I like my tomatoes.

‘Tea or coffee this morning?’

‘Coffee, please. Is Mum around?’

‘I believe Milady has a book signing in Milchester, Master David.’ Just the right amount of milk got stirred into my mug. ‘She left in the Daimler not thirty minutes ago.’

Great. All geared up for massive revelations and half the family was going to be out all day. I waved away Higgie’s offer of further aid, whereupon he made his usual excuses of pressing household duties and hurried off.

I finished my breakfast in a hush broken only by the sonorous ticking of the long-case clock in the parlour. For some reason the sound got to me this morning, like a countdown to doom, and when the darn thing decided to chime the quarter-hour I nearly spilt my coffee.

 

As I had on the evening I met Eric, I decided to walk the short distance into town rather than take my bicycle; it’s not actually that far as the town now surrounds the hill our estate commands. Besides, I enjoyed the exercise and the thought of having to ride my bike back up again through the snow wasn’t at all appealing. I hope I’m only a few weeks away from getting my driving license, thanks to Freddie’s lessons, and Dad’s promised I can have the old Volkswagen once I’ve got my P’s. For now though, I’m limited to foot-power.

The closer I got to the hospital, the more I wondered whether I should. For all I knew, Eric might have left the very next day and by now, forgotten about me completely. Ums and ahs continued until I found myself walking through the main lobby towards the reception desk and by that time … well; there was no harm in asking at least.

 

~

 

So … who is this Eric Walters and just how interested is David going to become? The Cockney boy has a secret, one which will involve both of them in mystery and intrigue as they try to unravel the effects of the revenge Eric has taken upon those who have hurt him in some way … and save the future while they are doing it.

 

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