“Isn’t it time you made an honest woman out of Mr Mayhew, Ted?”
“Piss off,” Ted mutters, and drains his beer. “Another round?” he asks, and gets to his feet. A drunken chorus of ayes follow him to the bar.
They don’t mean anything by it. They’ve been taking the piss out of Ralph's feelings for him for years. If only he wasn’t so painfully obvious. But that was his nature, a kind and honest man, generally held to be not too bright. Ted knew better. He’d watched the boy grow up, watched his father crush every ounce of initiative, of self-esteem from him. Ted hadn’t been surprised the lad had ended up in a mental hospital. He’d been so proud of the young master for standing up to his father and refusing to go back to that college. If only the alternative hadn’t of been coming back to the estate. Of course Ted knew why he came back, when the smart thing to do would have to been to get far, far away. Ted hadn’t really been surprised to find himself the subject of Ralph’s first crush, as the only person in his life who’d ever been kind to him.
Ted had ignored it, pretended he didn’t see the way Ralph’s eyes would light up when he saw Ted, the way those blue eyes fixed on him as though there were no one else in the world, the way Ralph would reach out as if to touch him and then hesitate, his hand falling hopelessly to his side, the light going out of his eyes. It made him strangely uncomfortable. He developed a habit of avoiding Ralph’s eyes completely. It was ridiculous to have such devotion directed towards him, when all he’d ever done was show a little human kindness towards a neglected child.
A hint of movement in the corner of his eye and he knows without looking that Ralph is hurrying towards him. As always his heart beats faster.
“You look hot, Ted. Would you…do you think you might like to come up the house and have a drink…with me?”
“I don’t think so, sir.”
“No, of course not. I’m sorry.”
It was easier when Esther was alive. She was a good woman and they’d had a good life together, raised two children who’d gone off to London to make something of themselves, dutiful children who never failed to call on their birthdays and at Christmas, and who regularly invited them to visit them in their swanky flats.
He’d loved Esther and he’d never given her any reason to doubt it. It wasn’t any fault of hers that he’d fallen hopelessly in love with another.
Young Master Ralph, newly home from school, hurrying into the stable, calling ‘Ted! Ted! Ted!” his voice shrill with excitement. Ted had stepped out of a stall and Ralph had been standing there, fidgeting, his face alight with excitement and hope and before Ted could react Ralph had hugged him, awkward and too tightly.
It had been like a bolt out of the blue, the rush of excitement, the way his skin tingled when their cheeks brushed, the way his heart turned over in his chest. He’d frozen, stunned by his body’s betrayal, horrified that he was reacting like that to Ralph, of all people. The boy was only 18, for Christ’s sake! He’d known him since he was in short trousers!
Ralph, of course, conditioned by a lifetime of coldness from those who should have loved him, interpreted his stillness as rejection, and stepped back, fumbling an apology, unable to meet his eyes.
“You can’t be alone at Christmas, Dad. Come and stay with us. Stay for as long as you want, in fact.”
He won’t be alone, though. Ralph will stop by, with a too-expensive present, and a card with an inappropriate message, a poorly disguised love note.
Ted opens the cupboard where he keeps the gifts Ralph has given him over the years, next to the ones he’s bought for Ralph and never found the courage to give him. He takes out the card with the poem again. It’s a bit worn around the edges now.
All these years, Ralph has never stopped loving him. He’s an honourable man. He would never have said anything, would never have presumed. After Esther died, after a decent amount of time, Ted had wondered if…had expected, really…that Ralph would finally declare himself, would finally force it into the open…that thing they never talked about.
But things remain the same, and it finally dawns on Ted that for Ralph, nothing has changed. Because Ted has never given Ralph reason to believe his feelings are returned. But there will never be anyone else for either one of them. He accepts that now. Suddenly all the reasons why Ted keeps Ralph at arm’s length don’t seem to matter anymore.
“I was wondering if you might wish to join me up at the house for a glass of eggnog, Ted. Now I know that it’s not something that you normally…but I thought perhaps…this year…since…since…
“I’d love to, sor.”
“No, of course not, I’ll just…sorry Ted, what did you say?”
Ted summons up all of his courage and raises his eyes. “I said, I’d love to, sor.”
Ted automatically glances away, stares at the ground, then slowly, slowly looks up again. Their eyes meet and hold.
Ted’s heart feels like it will beat its way out of his chest. He leans forward.
Ralph’s eyes widen. “Ted?”
Their lips meet, and it’s everything those brief, heated touches over the years had promised it would be.
Ralph clings to him as they lie together, naked, the sweat cooling from their bodies. Ted’s first time with a man, first time with anyone other than Esther, but it hadn’t felt weird. It had felt like coming home. And it had been Ralph’s first time with anyone, overwhelmed that his dreams were coming true at last, touching Ted with such reverence, with such joy, that it makes Ted wish he really were the man Ralph sees when he looks at him. A better man, younger, more exciting.
All he can do is try to make up for the lost years, to make sure Ralph never has cause to be unhappy again.
“Oi, mate. Haven’t seen you in a while. Where have you been hiding yourself?”
“Oh, Mr Mayhew. Didn’t see you there behind Ted.”
“What’ll you have?” Ted asks, one hand possessively on Ralph’s shoulder. There’s a love bite on Ralph’s neck, clearly visible.
He sees the gobsmacked look on his mates’ faces, slowly replaced by knowing smiles.
Another chair is dragged to the table. Room is made.
He sees Ralph realise the significance of this. Of the welcoming smiles. His disbelief, then his gratitude and Ted’s heart breaks just a little. No one is ever going to hurt Ralph again if Ted has anything to do with it.