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Sing My Heart

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Chapter One

The man was magnificent. Insane, but magnificent.

Ray Doyle remained where he was, frozen into position by the angry shout of the man now confronting him. Good God, he was every wet dream he’d ever had rolled into one stunning package. Tall, around six feet, broad shoulders, dark hair, corduroy trousers encasing long legs, a tight, V-neck, short sleeved T shirt showing off muscular arms.

“Stay right where you are!” The deep masculine voice echoed around what had appeared to be an almost empty room. “What the hell are you doing here?” the voice snapped. “Who are you? What do you want?”

Ray remained frozen in place just inside the French windows, which he’d entered moments before, following the stupid mutt after it had slipped the lead. He was in a beautifully proportioned room, which was obviously in the process of renovation, given the newly plastered walls above re-varnished wood panelling. It was a total contrast to the outside of the building, which appeared to be a total wreck. The man stopped in front of him and glared, demanding an answer.

“I’m looking for my dog.” Finding his voice, Ray had no reason to lie.

“You ... what ... are you having me on? Dog? What dog?”

“He’s here somewhere ... he came in through the window ...”

“The only thing that came through the window was you. What did you expect to find? Something to steal... ha!” he gestured to encompass the space around him, “As you can see, there’s nothing here worth stealing.”

“I’m no thief!” He could feel his temper beginning to rise in response to the aggression aimed at him.

“Oh, and what does breaking into a man’s home make you?” The sarcasm dripped.

“I didn’t break in! There was no breaking involved! I told you ... I came through that open window,” Ray gestured behind him. “I followed the dog ... if I could just ...” He started forward only to be halted as the dark man also moved forward, his manner still threatening.

“Don’t move! Don’t you bloody move!”

“All right ... all right ... I’m staying put. But I’m not lying.”

Now so much closer, Ray could see the man’s incredibly blue eyes, fringed with dark, curling lashes. “Look,” said Doyle. “If I could just look for the stupid mutt. He couldn’t have got out of this room. The door was closed until you came in ... Ah!” He stared in dismay over the man’s shoulder. The man swung round, seeing the now fully open door, which he’d flung back as he entered. “... Well, he might have gone a bit further than this room. If you’d just let me ...” He made to move towards the door, only to be stopped by a hard, muscular hand gripping his bicep.

“I said, don’t move. I haven’t seen a dog. And you’ve yet to convince me you’re not a thief. Sneaking in here as you did.”

“I didn’t sneak. I’ve already told you the window was open. What can I say to convince you?” snapped Ray. “If you’d just let me find the dog, I could prove why I’m in here.” He couldn’t believe he was in this situation. Doing a favour for his mother, who’d twisted her ankle the day before his visit, shouldn’t have led to this bizarre confrontation. He was going to kill the stupid animal if he ever found it.

He became aware that his upper arm was still being gripped tightly. He could see a sheen of sweat on the man’s upper lip, see how his eyes narrowed as he realised where his hand still lay, see the look of contempt, as he released Ray.

“Convince me? I’d say it was more a case of you convincing the police.”

As the dark haired man started to move towards the door, there was a low growl. He changed direction and headed for a white shrouded object sitting in the bay window to his right. Pulling the sheet off, he peered between the legs of a beautiful Bechstein piano, an incongruous sight in this wreckage of a house. There, crouched, with ears back and a snarl that clearly said “Back off!” was the cause of the current problem.

Ray watched as the man crouched and reached under the piano. He flinched in sympathy as the man snatched his hand back before the sharp teeth could make contact. The Papillon slithered back even further under the piano.

“Get the damn animal out of there!”

“How? He ran away from me in the first place. I don’t think I’m on his list of favourite people.”

“I don’t care how. You brought it here. I want you both out of here before I have you charged with trespass. I’m sick and tired of chasing you people off my property.”

“You people? Who are ‘you people’? I was just walking my mother’s dog? And I’ve been insulted, threatened ...”

“There’ll be more than just threats if you don’t just take the dog and get out.”

“Okay, okay, give me some room.” He pushed the obnoxious individual to one side. Never slow to anger, he could feel his temper simmering and, whilst acknowledging to himself that he had been in the wrong in entering the property, the way he’d been treated made him long to retaliate. But he bit back the angry words and dropped to his knees.

“Misty. Come on out you stupid ...” he muttered. He too was greeted with a snarl. Realising that the dog wasn’t going to come to him, he went to his knees under the piano. He was able to fit quite easily but was very conscious of the wriggles he had to make as he slowly, cautiously, moved forward and stretched out a hand, allowing the dog to test his familiar scent.

The little dog whined as he recognised Ray and crept towards the outstretched hand, allowing the long fingers to get a grip on his collar.

“Gotcha!” Ray worked his way back out, pulling his still reluctant prize after him. Clearing the piano, he stood, bringing the dog up to his chest to keep a firm hold on it.

His host was still glaring at him though why this should be, Ray had no idea. He’d proved that he hadn’t lied and now had the recalcitrant pooch safe and sound. Before he could speak though, he was waved towards the French doors, “Get out and don’t come back.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t,” he snapped and marched out of the house, head held high.

Halfway across the overgrown lawn, he looked over his shoulder to see the man staring after him. But as soon as he saw Ray turn, he slammed the doors shut.

Good riddance to you too he thought as he swung round and headed towards his mother’s house.

*****

Acorn Cottage was set back off the main road through Buckleigh Village overlooking the green and the cricket pitch. Although appearing to be an eighteenth century building, it had actually been built in the early 1970s so had none of the inconveniences associated with those earlier structures. The Doyles had purchased the property when Raymond Doyle Snr had taken early retirement from the police. Although Ray Doyle Jnr no longer lived at home, he had taken to visiting his mother on a regular basis after the death of his father some twelve months earlier.

“Hello! I’m back,” Ray called out from the front hall whilst toeing off his boots. He kicked them under the stairs as he stepped fully into the hall.

Misty danced round him as he bent to release the lead and then disappeared down the passage to the back of the house as a voice answered. “I’m in the kitchen.”

“What are you doing back here? You know the doctor said to rest your ankle ... What?” As he turned into the kitchen, he came to a sudden halt as he registered the look of horror on his mother’s face.

“Ray! What have you been doing?”

“Taking the dog for a walk ... what’s the matter? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Balancing precariously against a work surface to avoid putting more weight than necessary on her injured ankle, Ray’s mother pointed towards him. “Take a look at yourself. You’re covered in some kind of dust.”

Glancing down at himself, Ray realised his mother was right. His sweatshirt and jeans were white but, as they were supposed to be navy blue, this was not a good thing. He brushed his hands down the front of his jeans. Dust flew in all directions causing him to cough.

“Don’t do that. I’ve only just cleaned the floor in here. Out the back and strip off.” Making shooing motions with her hands, Mrs Doyle indicated the back porch where boots and coats were kept.

Stepping carefully across the still damp kitchen floor tiles, Ray started to pull off his sweatshirt.

“Not in here. It’s going everywhere.”

As he entered the porch, he turned and grinned at his mother. Then he frowned, “And what were you doing mopping this floor? You’re supposed to be resting.”

“Oh, stuff and nonsense. I’ve only twisted my ankle. As long as I keep it elevated, it will be fine.”

“Yeah and hobbling round the kitchen is keeping it elevated.”

“I’ll rest it shortly. What are you doing with those clothes?” Ray was coming back into the kitchen with a bundle in his arms.

“Putting them straight into the machine so I don’t make any more mess. Now go and sit down. I’ll get dressed and then I’ll make you a cup of tea.”

“That sounds like a good idea. And you can tell me how you ended up looking like a snowman!”

*****

Fifteen minutes later, he walked into the lounge with a tea tray to find his mother ensconced in her favourite armchair, her left leg propped on the old pouffe.

As he handed her a mug and offered a biscuit from the selection he’d dumped on a chipped china plate, she tutted. “I do have whole plates, Ray.”

“Just grabbed the first one in the cupboard. Anyway it’s just us so no need to fuss.”

He settled himself at one end of the leather sofa and took a slurp from his mug. “It’s all the fault of that dim dog of yours. Whatever possessed you to get a Papillon, I’ll never know. There isn’t a brain in his head. He slipped the lead ...”

“I told you to tighten it. He likes to run free.”

“It felt tight enough to me. Anyway, he took off through Buckleigh Wood, found a gap in an old stone wall and shot off across what might have been a lawn at some point but now bears a distinct resemblance to a grass jungle. I didn’t think the Buckleigh Residents’ Association allowed overgrown gardens ... Anyway, by the time I’d managed to get across the wall, Misty was disappearing through open French windows into the old Manor.”

“Oh dear ... he is such an impetuous creature at times.”

“Yeah ... tell me about it. So I followed and was accosted by this very aggressive man. Do you know who he is? We didn’t get to the niceties of actually introducing ourselves. He thought I was a thief.”

“What did he look like?”

“Tall, dark haired, blue eyes ...”

“That man!”

“So you do know him.”

“Well ... I’ve never actually met him but Mrs Roberts at the Post Office says that he’s some bigwig down from London and he’s going to turn the Manor into a nightclub. Imagine that! It’s not the kind of thing we want in Buckleigh and I believe Mrs Kent at The Squirrel asked him about it and he was very curt. Said something about just coming into the pub for a quiet drink and not wanting his business broadcast around the village. And Major Buckleigh called on him at the Manor. After all it used to belong to the Major’s family and he says that there’s all kinds of building materials stacked in the courtyard and stables – though how he’d know that unless he went round the back, I’m sure I don’t know. And he says the man ...”

“Do you know his name, Mum?”

“Oh ... yes ... Brody. William Brody is what Mrs Roberts says and she would know as her boy, Ted, delivers the post and the papers. Anyway, the Major says ...”

As her voice drifted on with the village tales about the mysterious Mr Brody, Ray’s mind wandered back to his own encounter and a pair of dark blue eyes.

 

Chapter Two

“Mr Doyle ... telephone!”

Mrs Barker’s voice floated up from the ground floor and woke Ray from his reverie. Ever since his return to London, he’d found himself drifting into a daydream where the encounter with William Brody took on quite a different aspect.

“Coming,” he shouted back as he left his first floor bed-sit and hurried downstairs to take the call. Maybe it was his agent with some work. It had been a while since he’d had a gig and the office agency work he used as a stopgap was not how he wanted to fill his days.

Taking the receiver from Mrs Barker, he waited as she retreated to the front sitting room. She was a treasure as a landlady but inclined to nosiness though Ray knew it was because she liked him and cared what happened in his life.

“Doyle.”

“Hi, Ray. It’s Doreen here from Aspen Accountancy. How are you?”

“I’m fine, thanks. And you?”

“Equally fine. And I have a booking for you, starting tomorrow, of indefinite length.”

“Doing what?”

“The usual. They need help sorting out their accounts as their last clerk left in somewhat of a hurry.”

“Okay. Where is it?”

“The company’s called Layton-Bentley. They’re a theatrical production company so, you never know, there might be some good contacts to be made. They’re based in Holborn so just a Central Line journey for you.”

“Thanks, Doreen. And do they know I might need time off at short notice if I get any auditions?”

“Yes, I mentioned it. As they’re in the business, they seemed quite comfortable with it. But they need someone urgently and you are one of the best at this kind of tidy up so I think they’ll be flexible. Worth a double check though when you get there. A chap called Henry Evans is expecting you at 9.30 tomorrow morning though the normal hours will be 8.30 to 6.”

“That’s fine, Doreen. Thanks for the call.”

“Anytime, Ray. And don’t forget to get your invoices in on time.”

“I won’t! Thank you again. Bye.”

Climbing back up the stairs to the first floor, Ray started to run through all he would need to get sorted if he had a long term, albeit temporary, assignment, starting the next day.

Turning left off the landing; he entered his kitchen and glanced round. A trip to the launderette was definitely called for. Much as he hated shirts and ties, he would need to make sure he had enough clean ones available. Very few office environments appreciated the jeans and T-shirt look he generally favoured. He emptied the laundry basket into a couple of plastic carriers and put them to one side whilst he checked the contents of the fridge and store cupboard. A stock up was definitely required. Making a mental note of what he needed to buy, Ray left the kitchen, turning to his immediate left into his bed-sitting room.

This was a large, bright room occupying the front of the large Victorian terrace house. Owned by Mrs Barker’s family since it was built, she and her husband had been forced by economic realities to convert the top two floors. The couple now occupied the basement and ground floor with Ray on the first and Sally on the second floor. However, they had only done a partial conversion and all the occupants shared the toilet and shower on the ground floor. They each had their own bell on the front door, which saved Mrs Barker from being a full time concierge, but the only telephone was in the entrance hall on the ground floor. Officially belonging to the Barkers, they let their tenants use it for incoming calls.

Whistling softly to himself, Ray quickly tidied the bed, picked up some more dirty washing, dumping it by the door to be added to the launderette run, then gathered up a series of musical scores scattered across the armchair and floor and tidied them away into the old bedding box he’d acquired for extra storage.

The assignment didn’t sound particularly exciting but it would bring in some additional funds. He knew that he was lucky to have been able to pursue his dream so far though his parents had persuaded him to get some practical training. Now he could make a living regardless of how well his singing career was going. Having qualified as an accountant, he had spent two boring years in practice before going freelance so that he would be able to devote more time to his singing. Having built up a reputation as a ‘forensic’ accountant, he was able to fit the office work around the gigs. The bed-sit in Shepherd’s Bush was relatively cheap for London so he was generally able to cope without borrowing from his mother, which always left a bad taste in his mouth. He knew the time was coming when he would have to make a commitment to either accountancy or singing as he was getting older and his dream seemed to be no nearer fulfilment. But he’d promised himself another six months, to the end of the year, to see whether or not he could make a career as a singer. He knew he had the talent but success in show business so often relied upon luck.

*****

Next morning Ray strode out of Holborn underground station and wended his way through a number of narrow back streets until he reached his destination. Finsbury House was typical of this area of London. A nineteenth century office block with five floors leased to a number of small to medium companies.

Checking the signage on the outside of the building, Ray found that Layton-Bentley occupied the second floor. As there appeared to be no lift, he found the stairs and started to climb.

Off the landing was a small reception area and a pretty young lady took his name, politely asking him to wait whilst she informed Mr Evans that he’d arrived. Knowing he was about ten minutes early, Ray took a seat expecting to be kept waiting and studied his surroundings.

The reception area was clean and bright with modern furnishings. The walls held posters advertising Layton-Bentley productions. There was a pile of magazines on the coffee table so Ray selected The Economist, surprised to find it was the latest edition.

He glanced up some twenty-five minutes later when the door from the main offices opened and a very flustered middle-aged man came through.

“Mr Doyle? So sorry to have kept you waiting. I was on the ‘phone when you arrived. Do please come through. We’ll have a chat about the job first and then I’ll show you around and introduce you to everybody. We’re not a very big organisation and I think you’ll find it a friendly environment in which to work.”

Not having had a chance to respond other than to shake Henry Evans’ hand, Ray followed him back through the door, down a short corridor and into a small, cluttered office. Papers overflowed from the desk onto the floor and chairs. Evans whisked a pile of files off one of the chairs and indicated that Ray should sit.

“You come highly recommended, Mr Doyle ...”

“Please call me Ray.”

“Ah, good. We’re quite informal here. Did the agency say why we needed assistance?”

“Not in any great detail. I prefer not to get too much background information. It tends to get in the way of my investigation.”

“That’s right. Our previous accountant left without notice. Right in the middle of the run-up to opening our next show. Most mysterious and very inconvenient. Apart from the obvious day to day help needed with the accounts, we need your ... ah ... forensic skills to ensure that there is nothing untoward in the books. With Mr Bodie away in the States and a production due to open in the New Year and several others running in theatres worldwide, we cannot afford for there to be anything wrong with the finances. You will report directly to me should you discover anything.”

“Of course.”

“Okay. Let me get you settled in. I’ll introduce you to the rest of the staff. There’s not many. We’re not a large organisation. Well, at least not in employee terms. They think you’re a temporary replacement for Graham so it would be appreciated if you didn’t disabuse them of that notion.”

“That’s fine, Mr Evans ....”

“Call me Henry.”

“I’m used to these situations and I can assure you of the utmost discretion.”

“Right, then, if you’d come with me.” As he spoke, Henry rose and ushered Ray out of the office into the corridor and pointed out the various doors.

“You’ll be in here with Sandra, the accounts clerk. Next door is Mr Bodie’s PA, Betty. He’s away in the States at the moment so if you need anything I’m sure Betty will be able to help. She’s the only other person in the office who knows why you’re really here. However, at the moment Mr Bodie is unaware of the problem I suspect you’ll find when you examine the books.”

Henry Evans continued to describe the office layout and its inhabitants as he showed Ray the facilities available. Although small, the offices were bright and well equipped. There was even a small kitchen and lounge area, with a VIP Lounge sign on the door, so that staff could help themselves to tea and coffee during the day and had somewhere to eat lunch away from their desks.

In quick succession, Henry introduced Ray to the staff that were in the office. Ray gathered that several were in the States with the boss as one of their productions was due to open on Broadway and others were out and about dealing with the myriad mysteries of putting on a West End musical. All those in the office were open and friendly, greeting Ray as the temporary accountant he was supposed to be.

After being introduced to Betty Hepburn, Henry was called away to take another urgent telephone call from the States and it was whilst he was chatting to the PA that there was a commotion, a babble of voices, in the reception area, with one voice predominating. The door between the reception and the offices slammed open. The dominant voice grew louder.

“I’m going through to Bodie’s office.”

Betty glanced towards her office door, a pained look fleeting across her face, quickly replaced by a professional mien as a statuesque blonde entered.

“Ah, Betty. So glad you’re here. I left something in Bodie’s office and that stupid girl on reception seemed to think that I had no right to fetch it. I’ll just go straight through ... oh, and who are you?”

Ray found himself under a pale blue-eyed scrutiny as he was quickly assessed. A well-manicured hand was proffered.

“I’m Veronica Randolph.”

“Ray Doyle.”

“And you do what ... exactly?”

“Accounts.”

“Oh.”

The lovely face reflected her total disinterest in his job though she continued to grip Ray’s hand.

“Well I’m sure that’s very exciting. You can’t have been here very long as I haven’t seen you before.” There was an intimation that she should have been told of his presence.

Betty stepped forward, drawing the other woman’s attention. “If you tell me what you’ve left in Bodie’s office, Miss Randolph, I’ll get it for you.”

“Oh no, there’s no need. I know exactly where I left it.” She released Ray’s hand reluctantly and, brushing past Betty, entered the inner office. She was back, not a minute later, clearly not having found what she was looking for.

“I was so sure I’d left it in there. Maybe it’s in his car ...” she muttered as she came out of the office.

“Let me show you out, Miss Randolph,” said Betty but Veronica’s gaze was once more fixed on Ray. He was used to being appraised by the people he met and knew his own attractions well, but he’d never before been made to feel so much like a slab of meat on a butcher’s block. The pale blue eyes travelled from the top of his curly hair to his well-polished shoes and clearly liked what they saw. He expected her to lick her lips.

“Well, I’m sure we’ll meet again, Mr ... er ... may I call you Ray?”

Once again she offered her hand and, as Ray took it, she continued, “I often pop in to see Bodie so I’m sure I’ll be seeing you again. And do call me Ronnie.” She smiled winningly at him, nodded to Betty and disappeared through the office door.

Betty turned to Ray as she heard the reception door slam once more. “I’m sorry about that, Ray. She can be a little ... overpowering.”

“Who is she?”

“As she said, Veronica Randolph. Mr Bodie’s latest girlfriend. Just because her father’s invested in a couple of our shows, she thinks she owns the company ... and Bodie.” Realising that she was in danger of gossiping to someone she had only just met; she quickly turned the conversation back to office matters.

Shortly afterwards, Henry returned to collect Ray and continued the office tour. Eventually Henry ran out of steam and showed Ray to his desk in another small, crowded office. A young woman already seated in the office smiled as she saw Ray.

“Right then, I’ll leave you to settle in. I’m sure Sandra will be able to show you where everything is and if you have any questions, I’m just next door.”

Sitting down at the desk indicated as his, Ray could feel the rising excitement that the start of any case brought. Although this had originally seemed like a fairly routine assignment, he could sense already that it could prove to be really challenging. Even though his heart was in his singing, his brain relished the challenge of an investigation.

He got to work.

 

Chapter Three

Three weeks of hard work later, Ray was sitting at his office desk putting the final touches to the report he was due to present to Henry Evans later in the day. He was pleased that his efforts had proven fruitful though he wasn’t hopeful that the company would be able to prosecute the culprit. He had, however, listed a number of recommendations that should improve their data security and, if carried out, prevent the same thing happening again.

He sighed as he stopped typing. He’d enjoyed this short assignment. The work had not been too onerous but challenging enough to keep his interest. The offices were pleasant and an easy commute from his Shepherd’s Bush bed-sit. The staff were friendly, welcoming him as the temporary accountant he purported to be and he’d developed a comfortable working relationship with Henry Evans who, whilst checking on his progress from time to time, clearly recognised that he needed freedom to achieve the goals set. He’d also found Betty to be an efficient aide and a good companion, having enjoyed several lunchtime chats with her. They’d even gone for a drink together one evening after both had worked late.

*****

“There you go, love.” Carefully balancing two glasses and a couple of bags of crisps, Ray returned to the table and set his burdens down.

“Thanks, Ray,” said Betty. “This is nice. Have you been here before?” She indicated the surrounding lounge of The King’s Head public house.

“No, this is my first time.” He grinned then took a gulp of his pint.

Betty returned his smile. “You’ve a rotten sense of humour. I would never had thought so when we first met.”

“First impressions are important.” For just a second, Ray’s mind flipped back to his encounter with Mr Brody at Buckleigh Manor. “And anyway people don’t expect humour from an accountant. So I reserve it for more appropriate occasions.”

“And this is a more appropriate occasion.”

“Well, it is more relaxed that the office, no matter how friendly.”

There was a slight pause before Betty queried. “I hope you don’t mind me asking this but why do you do what you do?”

“What? The accountancy?”

“Yes. You’ve already told me about your singing and ambitions in that direction. I was just wondering why accountancy?” Betty asked.

“I’ve always been good with figures so it seemed a logical way of making a living while trying to establish a singing career. Mum and Dad were really supportive, helping me through college. That’s pretty much it. Not very exciting at all.”

“And what you’re doing now?”

“You mean the forensic accounting?”

“Yes. How on earth did you decide to do that?”

“I think I told you my Dad was in the Met.” Betty nodded. “Well, for a long time, I played around with the idea of joining the Force myself but knew that it would be a commitment that would mean I had to give up all hope of becoming a professional singer. Oh, I could continue to sing but the dream of a West End show would be gone.” Ray paused as he collected his thoughts. Betty waited patiently for him to continue. “Then an acquaintance from college asked me to do a job for him. He said it was a little different from the run of the mill work I’d been doing but he thought it might be something I’d be good at.”

“And what was it?” Betty prompted.

“A fairly straightforward accounting fraud. Some double and triple entry bookkeeping. Easy enough to spot if you know what to look for. But it made me realise that I had a knack for ferreting out from the figures information that wasn’t immediately obvious. Gradually I took on more and more of that type of job, built up a reputation, becoming known for my successes and here I am.”

“So what makes it so different from normal accountancy?”

“I suppose it expands on the standard skills. You need to be curious, nosy I guess and be able to spot the unusual. Tenacity is another useful trait. The jobs are not always straightforward and you have to have patience and the determination to keep going. You have to be prepared to dig into every detail but, at the same time, you mustn’t lose sight of the big picture. So, in the end, it’s almost like working for the police.”

“And how are you getting on with the Layton-Bentley books? Oh … don’t answer that as I know it’s confidential.”

“That’s okay. Henry told me that you were in the know. But it’s early days yet. I’m getting there but it will take a little while longer. I hope to have a fuller idea of the problem in the next week.”

“I am pleased to hear that. Bodie doesn’t need to add to his financial worries.” And with that Betty went on to talk about the latest production and what it was like working for one of the most successful impresarios in musical theatre.

He listened in amazement to her stories of life in show business. With his own desire to make a success of singing, he drank in the trials and tribulations, successes and triumphs of a theatrical production company. Although he had enjoyed his own successes in small local productions along with the session singing for advertisements and backing tracks, he longed for the opportunity to prove himself to a wider audience but it was difficult to stand out at the ‘cattle call’ open auditions and, though his agent was trying to get him noticed, there were a lot of others just as talented and, to date, a lot luckier. And it seemed that his luck was not improving with Layton-Bentley either as they had finished casting their latest production, with opening night due in the New Year.

Betty had worked with Bodie from the very beginning and seemed to have an excellent working relationship with her boss though she did let slip that he could be ‘difficult’ at times. Not having met the man Ray had, nevertheless, formed an impression of the impresario. It seemed he was demanding of the highest standards and a great deal of hard work from his staff, but was equally as demanding of himself. Like Betty, most of the production staff had been with Layton-Bentley from its humble beginnings in a small office in Camden and they clearly enjoyed their work. The office generally had a good ‘buzz’ as staff chatted about their personal lives as well as about more professional matters. Everyone seemed to get on together.

The only fly in the ointment was Veronica, who popped into the office, seemingly at random, giving the impression that she was checking up on everyone whilst Bodie was away. The staff seemed to tolerate this but Ray noted that her reception, whilst professional, was somewhat cool. And he’d overheard the office junior complaining about ‘that woman’ shortly after Veronica had berated the youngster for an error the girl had made when typing a personal letter for her.

Every time Veronica had come into the office, she had made a point of seeking out Ray, sitting on the edge of his desk, swinging her long, shapely legs, whilst making inane conversation and flirting outrageously. Ray found this behaviour amusing but, whilst recognising that she was a very attractive young woman, she did not appeal to him in the slightest. In fact, his daydreams, and sometimes his night dreams, still centred on a pair of dark blue eyes, a head of thick, black hair, muscular arms and an appalling temper.

*****

Turning back to the computer, Ray was about to start typing again when he heard voices raised in greeting. Someone had obviously come through from reception but, even though he could hear a male voice he didn’t recognise, he couldn’t hear what was being said. Deciding that it was nothing to do with him, Ray started to type once more but had only achieved a half page before Sandra returned to the office, all smiles.

“Isn’t it great, Ray? Bodie’s back from the States.”

“That’s earlier than expected, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is. Apparently everything went so well in New York, he was able to get away a few days early and, with the new production hotting up, he decided he needed to be back in London.”

Sandra was clearly excited that the boss was now back in the London office, but she quickly settled down at her desk to deal with the end of month invoices she’d started processing earlier in the day. Ray had enjoyed sharing the office with the young woman who, whilst a lively soul, loving to share the office gossip, also knew how to put her head down and get on with her work and she had shown herself to be sensitive to Ray’s moods when he was obviously engrossed.

*****

The last page of Ray’s report was just coming off the printer when Betty popped her head into the office. “Where’s Sandra?”

“Just popped out for a sandwich. Can I help?”

“Oh, would you, Ray? Bodie and Henry would like some lunch and they’ve got me embroiled in putting a report together so I was going to ask Sandra to get them something.”

“It’s no problem. I was about to go out anyway. What would they like?”

“Well, Bodie will eat anything but Henry is vegetarian so, if it’s not too much trouble, would you pop into Brownie’s up by the tube station? You can get a selection from there.”

“That’s fine. I’ll go now. Be back in no time.”

“You’re a lifesaver, Ray. Here’s some cash. It should cover it.”

“Right. I’ll see you shortly.”

*****

Half an hour later, Ray returned to the office and took his purchases through to the small kitchen. He knew Betty liked to present lunches nicely using the china set aside for visitors so he quickly arranged the food on the plates, put them onto a tray, then refilled the coffee percolator. From the amount of mugs in the sink, it looked as if Betty had not had time to do more than make further drinks so, whilst waiting for the coffee, he quickly washed and dried the crockery and put it away. With most offices changing to automatic drinks vending machines, it made a nice change to make ‘real’ coffee and fresh tea even if it did mean having to deal with the washing up.

As the percolator gurgled to a halt, he heard raised voices. It would seem that having Bodie back made for a great deal more noise on the premises.

Adding the milk jug and sugar bowl, spoons, two mugs and the coffee pot to the tray, Ray hefted it up and walked carefully towards Betty’s office. As he entered, the voices became much clearer as the connecting door was ajar so that he could now hear what was being discussed.

“I don’t care what your reasons were, Henry. This is my business and if there’s a problem, I need to know about it ...”

“Now, Bodie, there wasn’t anything you could do and, until I get the complete report, I don’t even know if there is anything to be done.” Henry’s tone, whilst placatory, was firm.

Ray nudged the door with his foot and entered. Betty, seeing how loaded the tray was, stood and came to assist in clearing a space on the conference table. Henry smiled a greeting. The other man in the room, obviously Bodie, was standing by the window with his back to the room.

The china rattled as the tray was put down and Bodie turned.

“Ah, Ray,” said Henry. “Thank you. I’d like you to ...”

“What’s he doing here?”

Ray was looking at Henry but he recognised that voice. He’d heard it over and over in his dreams and now here was his fantasy, once more in the same room. He could feel an embarrassed blush rising since his mind had gone straight to his latest daydream.

“Who let that man into this office?” Bodie demanded as he took up a commanding position behind his desk.

Betty and Henry looked at him in amazement and then back at Ray, who had frozen in the act of putting the tray on the table.

Leaning forward, with his hands on his desk, Bodie became even more aggressive on getting no response from his astounded employees.

“What’s the matter with you? I asked what he was doing here?”

Ray carefully released his grip on the tray, his knuckles white with tension, and straightened up. His mind was racing through possible answers and coming up with nothing that could deal with the fact that this was the man he’d been fantasising about for weeks. He needed to explain his presence but could think of no way to deflect the waves of anger he could feel pouring across the desk. It was like his first meeting all over again. No chance to explain, just facing the anger. And it would appear that Mrs Roberts had it all wrong – William Brody was, in fact, William Bodie. A coincidence Ray would happily have done without.

“For God’s sake, has the cat got your tongues?”

Both Betty and Henry started to speak at once, making absolutely no sense, as they tried to deal with a situation of which they had no prior knowledge. Glancing at Ray, they took in his flush of embarrassment and the frozen stance and floundered to a halt, not knowing what to say.

Ray took a deep breath, deciding that, at the moment, retreat was the best course of action. He tore his eyes away from Bodie’s furious face and spoke to Henry.

“Henry, I ...”

“Get out!” It seemed that Bodie was no longer seeking an explanation. His fury spilled over into action as he flung out an arm and indicated the door. “And stay out!”

“I’ll go.”

Ray turned and left the room, feeling as though he was pulling the tattered remains of his dignity around him like a cloak. He was still in shock at suddenly meeting Brody – no, Bodie – in this way. Behind him, he heard Henry start to speak but he didn’t want to stay around to listen. He couldn’t believe the absolute gall of the man. Once again, he’d been given no opportunity to explain. Just judged and found guilty.

*****

He slammed through the office door, making Sandra jump.

“Ray! What’s the matter?”

After pushing his few personal belongings into his briefcase, he slapped the report down on Sandra’s desk.

“Here. Give this to Henry when he comes out of Bodie’s office. Tell him ... no ... don’t tell him anything other than the agency will invoice for the work.”

“But, Ray, what’s going on?”

“I can’t tell you. I’m sorry, Sandra. It’s been a pleasure to work with you.”

With that, he managed to grab his coat and left the premises of Layton-Bentley for the last time.

 

Chapter Four

Geoff Anson leant back in his swivel chair, gesturing expansively with both arms. As usual, he seemed very satisfied with himself and with life in general. He liked to propound, at length, on the vagaries of show business, emphasising his points with a stabbing motion, scattering ashes from the ever present cigar, so that his suit trousers appeared more grey than navy. Today he was in full flow regarding the efforts he’d been making on Ray’s behalf.

“... and I’ve spoken to Charlie Fraser at Fulsome Events again. He is keen to use you but just needs to find the right event to showcase you. And I’ve confirmed the booking at The Seven Stars. Managed to get a bit more on the fee as well as an extra gig so that will be four Saturdays.”

“Anything special for the set?” asked Ray. He’d enjoyed the couple of gigs he’d done previously at the pub. Reg Blake liked to offer his punters something a little bit more ‘up market’ than the usual stripper, or magician, or Cockney songbird and Ray found the atmosphere welcoming.

“Nah, Reg is happy with whatever you decide. Just let Larry have the music a couple of days in advance so he can put the backing track together. Oh ... and I followed up on the Layton-Bentley production you mentioned.”

Ray felt his heart thump unexpectedly hard at the mention of Bodie’s company. It seemed wherever he’d been over the last few weeks, people were talking about the new musical and how successful the Layton-Bentley company was proving.

“Geoff, there’s no need to pursue that particular lead ... You know what happened at the end of my assignment with them.”

“That’s beside the point. A lead’s a lead and, in this business, you can’t afford not to follow up every one. But there’s no need to worry yourself. This one petered out. Seems they’ve finished casting. Rehearsals start in three weeks with opening in the New Year.”

“Okay. Anything else on the horizon?”

“Actually, yes ... I had a call from Phil Corrigan over at Western Star Music. He’s working on an advertising campaign and thinks your voice would work well for the sound he wants. It’ll be a couple of days in the studio, probably early next week.”

“Well, I guess it’s better than nothing but it’s not exactly getting me noticed. Just another anonymous voice behind an ad. And it doesn’t even pay as much as a voiceover!”

Ray’s complaint was well known to Anson and he shrugged it off.

“Ray, Ray ... you know how this business works. You never know when that big break is gonna come. It could be just around the corner for you, my boy.”

“I know, I know. But just around the corner might be too late for me. You know I’ve decided to stop fooling myself that I’m ever going to achieve the big time and do what my father wanted and ‘get a proper job’.”

“Don’t give up yet, Ray! You’ve got talent and there are people out there who believe in you. I’ll keep grafting for you ...”

“ ... and for your ten per cent.”

Geoff grinned and agreed. “And for my ten per cent.”

“You’re right, of course, Geoff. There’s still time and, even if I go down the accounting route full-time, I can still do the pub and club gigs at weekends so I’ll still be singing.”

“That’s the spirit. No need to get downhearted about it at all.” Geoff beamed at him. He didn’t like to be at odds with any of his ‘talent’ and he was particularly fond of Ray, whom he’d discovered working with a rock band in an East End pub whilst studying accountancy during the day. He’d recognised his vocal skills and had persuaded him to sign on with the agency much to Ray Doyle Snr’s concern. But Ray’s mother had encouraged him to follow his dream. However, ten years later, Geoff could see the frustration of not seeming to achieve that dream eating away at Ray’s confidence. He would continue to do the best he could for him but no one knew better than he how fickle fate was in his world.

“Evelyn has all the details on the Corrigan job. Pick them up from her on the way out. Now tell me what else you’ve been up to.”

*****

Forty minutes later, Ray finally escaped from Anson’s office, but as he was leaving the small reception area, after collecting the advertisement job details from Evelyn, the door to the other office opened and a tall, lanky and all too familiar figure exited.

“Ray!”

“Hello, Tony.”

“Been in to see ol’ Geoff? Still finding you work, is he?”

Tony Murphy ambled across the small reception area, hands in hip pockets, pulling the denim tight. But as he reached Ray, he stretched out both arms in greeting, taking it for granted that they would hug.

Ray hesitated for a brief instant, then stepped into Tony’s arms and returned the hug. Instead of answering Tony’s questions, as it was obvious where he had been and why, he asked, “What are you doing here? Last I heard you were still with David Marks.”

“Nah. We had a slight difference of opinion.”

“You mean you had a blazing row and walked out on him! How many agencies is that now? You soon won’t find one to take you on, with your rep.”

“No problem. Marianne’s happy to have me on her books. Been after me for a while now.”

As he was talking, Tony gently steered Ray out of the main door and started down the stairs to the street.

“Anyway, I’m really pleased to see you, mate. You can come and help me celebrate.”

“Celebrate what?”

“Not here. Let’s go and get a drink. I’ll tell you all about it.”

*****

The Black Bull was a traditional London pub, tucked away in a small alley off Wardour Street, and only a few minutes walk from the Anson Agency. Whilst Ray found a table in the snug, Tony went to the bar. Once ensconced on the leather bench, Ray was free to observe his long time friend and, now ex, lover.

Tony Murphy, at 28, was a vision in tight denim jeans and even tighter, if that was at all possible, T-shirt. He was leaning against the pub bar; resting one leg on the brass pole that ran the length of the bar about six inches up from the somewhat sticky floor. The barman said something to him as he handed Tony his change and he laughed, throwing his head back unrestrainedly. Ray wondered what had inspired that laugh. He’d always loved to hear Tony laugh. It was one of the things that had attracted him in the first place.

But it was his interminable flirting and blatant unfaithfulness that had led to the breakdown of their relationship. Now, two years later, they had regained an easygoing friendship but they didn’t seek out each other’s company too often.

Watching Tony wend his way back from the bar, Ray couldn’t help but admire his friend’s easy grace. He moved with a suppleness that told of years of hard work, toning his body, honing the skills that made him a dancer. Though, like Ray, he had not yet found the success his talent deserved.

“Get that down you.” A full pint was plonked on the table in front of Ray, slopping over the brim onto the polished wood table.

“Watch what you’re doing, you mucky pup!” Ray manoeuvred a couple of beer mats to mop up the worst of the spill as Tony slithered his lanky limbs onto the bench. “Well, go on then. I can tell you’re dying to tell me your news.” Ray nudged his elbow into his companion’s ribs.

“Too right, mate. And it’s the greatest.”

Knowing his friend’s enthusiasms of old, Ray wasn’t going to hold his breath waiting to hear about this one. “Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard it all before, Tony.”

“I told you Marianne was keen to get me on the books – and it wasn’t just to get in me knickers – she’s really come through for me, Ray. That’s why I was in there today. To sign the contract. You’re looking at the second lead in William Bodie’s new musical, ‘Involvement’.”

Ray felt his heart thud. There was that name again. He couldn’t seem to get away from the man! Making a concerted effort, he schooled his features to a polite mask so that Tony would not see his concern. “I thought it was fully cast weeks ago.”

“So did I. But the beauteous Marianne is an old friend of the director and she persuaded him to see me. Closed audition and all.”

“What? Not even a cattle call?”

“Nope. Just me, him and Bodie himself. Over in that rehearsal rooms off Shaftesbury Avenue. This is my chance, Ray. I just know it. Rehearsals start in a couple of weeks.”

Watching his friend rattle on about how marvellous it was to get this opportunity; how complimentary the director had been; what a pleasant chap William Bodie was (here Ray almost choked as he’d just taken a gulp of his pint). Ray realised that the clawing sensation in his gut wasn’t just a visceral reaction to hearing Bodie’s name but a full blown dose of jealousy. He was genuinely pleased that Tony had landed the part. The man was talented and deserved the opportunity. But a little voice was whispering, “Why not me?”

Somehow he managed to listen to Tony, finish his pint and dredge up an excuse so that he could get out of the cloying atmosphere in what had been a pleasant drinking environment on previous visits, but he now felt as if he were drowning in the noisy crowd and he couldn’t get away from Tony’s enthusiasm.

******

On arriving at his bed-sit, Ray threw his jacket onto the bed and kicked off his trainers. The journey back to Shepherd’s Bush had been a blur as his brain tried to process all that Tony had told him, along with his own feelings for William Bodie.

It was ridiculous that two very brief encounters with the man should incur such a maelstrom of emotions. And the very negative impact he had obviously made on Bodie should have immediately put a stop to this ridiculous wishful thinking.

Settling himself in his one and only armchair, Ray tried to work out why he was feeling so confused.

There was no doubt that he was physically attracted to Bodie. As a body-type he was very similar to Murphy but that relationship had died because of infidelity, which Ray would not tolerate. Bodie was everything he’d ever dreamed of in a lover – tall, dark haired, blue eyed and he had obviously looked after himself as he had muscles to die for. But the man was an intemperate bully, not prepared to give anyone a chance to explain, seemingly making up his mind on the flimsiest of grounds. And Ray was still no nearer figuring out what had been behind the anger.

He’d thought, for one very brief moment, back at the manor house, that the attraction had been mutual but he’d obviously been mistaken.

He couldn’t believe that he was experiencing such an instantaneous and persistent lust for the man. Although he’d known from his early teens that he was attracted to both sexes, his longest running relationships had been with men. His relations with women had been far more about sexual gratification or providing a respectable cover. His affair with Tony had been the only relationship that had ever looked like being permanent and that had been wrecked by infidelity so over the last couple of years Ray had avoided commitment.

His parents, particularly his father, had been concerned about his bi-sexuality. His father, as a policeman, worried about the potential legal ramifications of homosexual behaviour. His mother more worried that her son would never find a partner with whom to settle down since he had both sexes to choose from and, so far, had not been settled with either.

Running his fingers through his already disordered curls, Ray sighed. The room had darkened with the onset of evening whilst he’d been brooding. Deciding that he wasn’t going to be able to sort this out, as there really wasn’t anything to sort beyond his own confusion, he concluded that he would be better off concentrating on the recording session with Phil Corrigan. He also had an accounting job to fill the next few days. It wasn’t a forensic job but it would put money in the bank.

 

Chapter Five

Confirmation on the timing of the recording session came through from Anson’s office, so early on Monday morning Ray presented himself at The Diamond Studios, situated on the third floor of a Victorian building in an alley off Wardour Street.

Phil Corrigan, the producer, greeted him.

“Ah, Ray. Nice to see you again. I assume Geoff gave you the details.”

“Yeah, he couriered the music round on Friday so I’ve had the weekend to familiarise myself with it.”

“Good, good. Come through and meet the rest of the team.”

Phil led the way from the tiny reception along cramped corridors to Studio B. The control suite was as tiny as the rest of the premises and appeared even smaller with the addition of the team. There was a tall dark haired man sitting at the control desk, setting balances and checking that the sliders were in start position. The other two – one male, one female - were occupying the other two chairs in the room.

“Ray, I’d like you to meet Mike McCabe, who will be running the desk for us; Pete Lewis and Alison Brunning, who will be providing the vocals along with you.”

As Ray shook hands with each of the team, he found he was looking forward to the sessions. It might not be the fame and fortune he wanted but it was part of that same world, which he continued to crave.

“Right,” said Phil. “Now you’re all here, let’s get started. You’ve all seen the score. Mike has the music tracks so we’ll just be laying down the vocals. I’ll need you to work together and singly.”

“No problem,” said Ray.

“It’ll be a breeze,” commented Alison as she and Peter led the way out of the control room.

*****

A breeze it wasn’t, but two days later the final notes had been recorded and the artists were released. It had been a long two days, but enjoyable for all that. Pete and Alison were as professional as Ray, both prepared to put as much effort as possible into achieving the sound for which Phil wanted them to strive.

The five of them left the studios together and headed to the Black Bull for a post-session drink. As was usual at the end of a gig, everyone was relieved but still experiencing the high that resulted from the energies expended in doing their best. The conversation roamed around topics of interest to them all: the amount of work available, who was doing what, whether there would be more work available, whether there had been any way of improving the work just completed, taking apart their individual and collective performances with grace and good humour.

A couple of hours later, Ray headed for home, knowing that the sessions had been successful and that Phil would call on his services again. But it wasn’t enough for him. His ambition was only whetted by this taste of the business. He longed to be able to drown his whole life in a truly successful music career.

*****

Next morning, Mrs Barker called Ray to the telephone. It was Phil Corrigan.

“Hey, Ray.”

“Hi, Phil. What’s up?”

“Have you heard anything from Geoff?’

“Not since last week. Why?”

“Well, I got onto him straight away, but I am quite pleased to get to you first.”

“Pleased about what?”

“It could be a great opportunity for you, Ray. You’ve a great deal of talent and this might be the chance you’re looking for.”

“And what opportunity is that?”

“A really good one. I think it is anyway. It could be the springboard to much greater things.”

“Phil … Phil … slow down. Why don’t you start at the beginning and tell me what this is all about?”

“Sorry for racing off but I’m just so pleased to be able to tell you about this.”

“So tell me already.”

Phil laughed.

“Okay. From the beginning. After we left the pub last night, Mike and I went back to the studio. I wanted to get cracking with the final mix. You know what these advertising people are like. Or maybe you don’t. But everything has to be done yesterday. So a chance to get ahead of the schedule is not to be sneezed at. Anyway, we were just running that section with you and Alison, and Mike suggested putting it on the speakers to get the full effect. It was amazing. Your voices blended really well … and as for your solo piece … then these two guys came in and asked who the male singer was.”

“Who were they?”

“George Cowley was one. You know, the theatre director. And I know the other by sight but can’t put a name to him at the moment. That doesn’t matter anyway. They seemed really keen so I gave them Geoff’s phone number and your stage name. There’s no way that Cowley would be mixed up with anything dodgy so this is definitely on the up and up. I can’t begin to tell you how pleased I am for you, Ray.”

“Did they say what it was about?”

“No, but it must be something big. Cowley usually only works on the biggest shows these days.”

“Thanks for letting me know, Phil. I’ll wait to hear from Geoff.”

“Let me know what happens.”

“I will. Bye then.”

“Bye.”

Ray put down the receiver. His head was buzzing with the news he’d just received. Of course he’d heard of George Cowley. The man had more West End and Broadway hits to his name than almost any other director. He only worked with the best. And now it seemed that he wanted to work with Ray Doyle.

As he turned to go back up the stairs to his bed-sit, the telephone rang again.

“Hello.”

“Hello. Ray?”

“Yeah. Hi, Geoff.”

“Glad I caught you. I have some fantastic news for you.”

“I’m ahead of you there. I’ve just been speaking to Phil Corrigan.”

“Damn. I knew I shouldn’t have taken that call from Tony Murphy. Damn Marianne for taking the day off so I had to take his call. That boy can talk!”

“Don’t I just know it! But details, Geoff, you have the details.”

“I do indeed. I’m sure Phil told you it was for George Cowley’s new production. Well, it was William Bodie with him. They want you to audition for a role in ‘Involvement’.”

Once again, Ray’s heart skipped a beat at hearing William Bodie’s name. He squashed his instinctive reaction to reject having anything to do with the man and his musical. He needed to hear what else Geoff had to say.

“When?”

“Tomorrow at three … Are you okay, Ray? You don’t seem excited by the news.”

“You know what happened the last time I met Bodie. He and I don’t exactly get on.”

“You don’t have to fall in love with him. Just work with him. You aren’t telling me that you’d turn down a chance like this?”

“No, no, of course not. But I thought it was already cast.”

“That’s what their PR man says. Apparently Bodie hasn’t been happy with the casting for the male lead. He’s very particular about the voice he wants. And it seems he wants yours.”

“Probably won’t when he sees me.”

“Don’t be such a pessimist, Ray. There’s no point worrying about things in advance. Go along to the audition and see what happens.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll do that. You’re right. Things could be quite different tomorrow. Let me have the details.”

 

Chapter Six

The Palace Theatre on Cambridge Circus had long been the home of the musical. And after the eight year run of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, it was about to become the home of the Layton-Bentley production of ‘Involvement’, an original musical co-written by William Bodie and Susie Fischer, whose previous collaborations were still playing in theatres worldwide. The massive four-tiered auditorium could seat up to fourteen hundred eager theatregoers and, though in need of refurbishment, it remained one of the most popular theatres in London’s West End.

Arriving early for his audition and having handed his sheet music to the pianist, Ray stood just off stage in the wings and drank in the magnificent atmosphere. He could feel his stomach tightening with nerves so commenced a relaxation routine that had always worked well for him. As he felt the butterflies start to subside, he watched the lighting crew rigging high above the stage. Crawling along narrow gangways, they were quickly and efficiently setting spots and the more general lighting. Instructions were shouted up to them by the Technical Director, who was standing by the lighting board situated in the wings opposite. The half built set on the main stage looked eerie as various lighting set-ups were tried and amended.

Voices from the auditorium caught Ray’s attention and he edged closer to the stage entrance until he could see the first few rows of the plush red seating. However, the changes in the lighting set-up made it difficult to make out who was speaking. But he did recognise one of the voices – Bodie! Back came the nervous cramps and he had to once more concentrate on his breathing but now he could not avoid hearing the conversation.

“I really don’t know why I agreed to this, George. The guy is a total unknown.”

“You heard the voice. If the rest of him is as good, we’ll have another star on our hands.”

“We’ve thought that before. And how often have we been let down? If we don’t find someone soon, we won’t be able to open. You can’t keep on rehearsing the rest of the cast without a lead.”

“I have every confidence that this young man will be exactly what we’re looking for.”

“I don’t see how you could possibly believe that. We haven’t even met him yet. I think you’re grasping at straws.”

“And how long have we worked together, laddie? When have you ever known me not to do my research? I had a long chat with his agent, got a full rundown on his background, and it would appear that he’s well known to Tony Murphy, our second lead. I’ve heard nothing to lead me to suspect that this young man can’t do it. Let’s hear him and then make a judgement. Okay?”

“Fine.” The well-remembered voice called out. “Mr Duncan. Whenever you’re ready.”

Ray felt half-sick with excitement and anticipation. Taking a deep breath, he stepped out onto the stage just as one of the spotlights hit him. Although temporarily blinded, there was nothing wrong with his hearing.

“Bloody hell! What’s he doing here?”

“What you invited him to do,” came the acerbic response. “Good day to you, Mr Duncan. Thank you for taking the time to meet with us. My name is George Cowley and this is William Bodie.”

His eyes becoming accustomed to the bright lights, Ray could now make out two shadowy figures as the voice continued, “Having heard the recording yesterday at Diamond Studios, we’d very much like to hear you sing live. So in your own time …”

Moving to the piano, the spotlight was turned off as the technical team moved to another section of the lighting plan and Ray was able to see the stage and auditorium clearly for the first time. The pianist smiled a welcome and asked pleasantly, “Which song would you like to start with?”

Coughing to clear a suddenly dry throat, Ray replied, “’If I Can Dream’, please.”

“Would you like a drink? There’s water here.” The pianist indicated the bottles under his instrument.

“Thank you.” Taking up the offer, Ray took a quick drink then nodded to indicate that he was ready to begin and the pianist launched into the melody.

After a couple of bars, Ray sang:

“There must be lights burning brighter somewhere
Got to be birds flying higher in a sky more blue …”

The first few notes were decidedly wobbly and he heard a gruff “Nerves” from the director. But as he moved into the feeling of the song, he could feel his muscles start to relax, his breathing became easier and he forgot the audience.

“Tell me why, oh why, oh why, can’t my dream come true.”

As the last notes died away, Ray stood with his head down, concentrating again on his breathing. He knew he’d sung well, the emotion of the song carrying him along.

“Thank you, Mr Duncan.” The director’s voice cut across the stage and Ray raised his head just as a spotlight moved across the stage again and highlighted his curls. “Now I’d like you to try something from ‘Involvement’. Jack would you give Mr Duncan the score for ‘Man Without A Past’. I assume you read music.”

“Yes, I do. I’ll need a few minutes though.” Ray’s voice was husky and he took another sip of water.

“Take all the time you need. I appreciate the song will be out of context for you but I’d like to see what you can do with it.”

Ray took the sheet music and spread it out on the top of the baby grand. Taking his weight on his elbows, he leant across the instrument, feeling his T-shirt and jeans tighten against his muscular back and thighs. He could hear the soft murmur of voices as Cowley and Bodie conversed whilst waiting for him, but he gradually zoned them out as he concentrated on the words and music.

The tune was relatively simple though there were a couple of key changes that could prove tricky.

“Okay,” he said to the pianist. “Would you run through the first verse and chorus for me?”

Listening intently, Ray noted the tempo, deciding how he was going to tackle the piece and turned to his audience.

“I’d like to give it a go.”

“Good, good,” said Cowley. “Let’s hear it.”

The pianist launched into the song. Ray counted the beats and started to sing. Mid-way through the first verse, he faltered and then stopped.

“Is there something wrong?” queried Cowley.

“The key’s wrong. Could we try it a little lower?” Ray spoke directly to the pianist, rather than answering Cowley as he’d heard a derisive snort as he’d stopped, which could only have come from Bodie. The pianist nodded and waited for a cue to start again.

Taking a couple of deep breaths, refusing to feel embarrassed at this faltering start, Ray gave the cue and the pianist started again.

This time he felt much more comfortable and gained confidence as he sang. By the time he’d reached the second verse, his voice was flowing smoothly, the rich tones imbuing the words with meaning as he sang of a man’s despair at finding his life was without meaning.

The chorus contained the key changes he’d noted earlier, but now his confidence took him through them with no difficulty at all. Although still reading the words from the score, he took them and emotionally charged them, using the music to carry the meaning to his audience. Reaching the final chorus, he knew the words and music well enough to let the score drop to the floor as he stepped forward, starting to use his body as well as his voice to convey the feelings he’d found in the words and the music.

As the final chords faded away, Ray stood, head bowed. He didn’t really know what he’d expected the outcome of his audition to be but one thing was certain, he certainly hadn’t expected silence.

 

Chapter Seven

A slow handclap broke the silence. Ray was sure he could hear sarcasm in the sound but it was quickly joined by applause from the technical crew and those members of the cast who were gathered in the wings prior to a set walk-through. Ray acknowledged them with a brief smile but his attention was centred on the dark haired man making his way down an aisle and up onto the stage via the side steps.

Cowley appeared to have been distracted by a member of the crew so it was Bodie alone who now approached Ray.

Dreading what the man might say after their previous, less than auspicious, encounters, Ray could only await his fate. Filled with trepidation, he barely felt the congratulatory shoulder squeeze bestowed by the pianist before folding the sheet music, placing it on top of the piano and he barely heard the quietly murmured “Good luck” as the pianist closed the piano lid and exited.

Bodie stood in front of Ray and looked at him.

Gathering his courage, Ray stared back. The man was having exactly the same impact on Ray’s senses as previously. But his accelerated breathing and heightened colour could be put down to the effort expended in the two songs. He was grateful for such small mercies as he awaited the verdict.

“I think you might just be what we’re looking for. The voice; the looks. But can you act?”

Finding his voice, which seemed to have slipped down into his boots with his courage, Ray responded honestly. “I really don’t know. All I’ve ever wanted to do is sing.”

“And you can certainly do that,” interrupted George Cowley as he joined them on the stage. “What do you want to do now, Bodie?”

“I want to know if the man can act. It’s all very well having a lead who can sing and looks this good but, if he can’t act, the whole show falls down.”

“Well, then, Mr Duncan, we’d better try you out.” Cowley glanced round and beckoned the Assistant Stage Manager forward. “See if you can find Miss Knight and ask her if she would join us. I’d like Mr Duncan …”

“Doyle …”

“What?”

“The last time I met him, his name was Doyle.”

“You didn’t say that you knew him.” Cowley sounded irritated at the interruption.

“I didn’t know I knew him. He wasn’t using the name “Duncan” so it was a hell of a shock when that spot picked him up as he came on stage.”

“Whatever his name is … and you know how often they change in this business … I would like to see him with Kim. The chemistry between the two leads is critical.”

“Duncan is my stage name,” Ray broke in. He wasn’t used to being ignored and his temper, never slow, had started to simmer. “I was born Raymond Doyle. Does that clarify things?”

Bodie turned those incredible blue eyes back to him. “I don’t think it clarifies very much at all …” but before he could continue, the ASM returned.

“Miss Knight isn’t in the theatre. As you gave everyone a two-hour break, she’s gone out. Shall I ask one of the other girls to stand in?”

“No need for that,” said Bodie. “I’m the one who wants to know if he can act so I’ll read with him. Get a couple of scripts.”

“Righto.”

“I’d appreciate it, George, if you’d sit in the stalls. I don’t think we’ll need any direction but I will brief Mr Doyle … er … Duncan before we start.”

As Cowley turned to go back to the stalls, Ray heard him whisper to Bodie, “Go easy on him, laddie. He’s new to all this.”

“I will.” The words might have been positive but Ray wasn’t too sure what to think of the expression on Bodie’s face.

Realising that the next few minutes would make or break his chances at this role, Ray stood to one side and concentrated once more on his breathing exercises. Although he’d acted in school and college productions, he had never appeared professionally as an actor, but he had taken classes in drama and movement. If he could just recall those lessons, he might yet get away with this. And he knew that if he could convince Bodie, the role was his. All the other vibes had been so very positive.

A polite cough drew his attention back to Bodie, who had just been handed two copies of the script.

“If I could have your attention, Mr Doyle, we can get on with this.”

“Of course. What do you want me to do?”

“I’m going to give you a couple of pages to read. I don’t expect a perfect performance at this stage. After all, you have no idea of the plot or the characters.” That admission showed that Bodie was prepared to be fair about this process, although his attitude continued to be disbelieving. “Actually, you don’t need to know a great deal more than that the two leads have just met and the following scene is them trying to get to know each other. I’ll read the part of Anne, you’ll read Paul. There you go …” As he’d been speaking, Bodie had ripped several pages out of each script and he now handed one set across to Ray. “It’s all pretty straightforward so I don’t think there’s any need to spend any time reading it through. Let’s just go straight into it.”

“If that’s what you’d like to do. Whenever you’re ready.”

“Right. The first part of this takes place in a pub. We’ll have to imagine the scenery and props. You bring Ann a drink.”

Ray moved away from Bodie slightly, then turned back and walked towards him, pretending to carry two glasses.

PAUL: There you are.

ANNE: Thank you.

PAUL: Cheers.

ANNE: Cheers. So what brought you back to my door?

After passing Bodie the imaginary glass, Ray was surprised when the man moved closer to him, almost rubbing shoulders. He hesitated, and then continued with the script.

PAUL: I didn’t want to leave you thinking that I didn’t care.

ANNE: I see. You need to be seen to be caring.

PAUL: So you concede that I might be human?

ANNE: Probably.

PAUL: Well, I also wanted some company.

ANNE: Surely not?

PAUL: Not very fond of me, are you?

ANNE: I haven’t had a chance to get to know you.

PAUL: True, but it hasn’t stopped you making decisions about me.

Suddenly, to Ray, this was no longer Paul and Anne speaking but Ray and Bodie. The dialogue was too close to how he’d been feeling about his meetings with Bodie and here was an opportunity to say how he felt about the situation. And he didn’t even need to use his own words. Ray’s frustration at his reaction to Bodie coloured his reading of the lines and he saw Bodie’s confusion as he continued to play the part of Anne.

ANNE: Why do you say that?

PAUL: Look, I know that it was upsetting. But that's not unusual, you know; most people would be. I'd like to explain how it affected me.

Ray leaned into Bodie’s shoulder, just touching. He saw Bodie’s surprise at the move but instead of pulling back, Bodie moved closer. Bodie’s voice softened.

ANNE: I’ll listen.

PAUL: Have dinner with me.

ANNE: [laughs] I'm not dressed for dinner.

PAUL: Neither am I. So come back to my place for spaghetti. I’ve a nice bottle of Chianti that would go well with it.

ANNE: You're pressurising me again.

PAUL: Let me re-phrase that. Would you do me the great honour of joining me for dinner, please?

ANNE: Yes.

As the scene ended, Bodie stepped away from Ray and spoke to Cowley. “How do you think that went?”

“Not bad, not bad. For a first attempt. Mr Duncan …”

“Please call me Ray.”

“… Ray … I think you’ve got enormous potential and I’d like to …”

“Hold your horses, George. We need to discuss this.”

“What’s there to discuss? He has a wonderful tenor voice, he looks great and now it looks as though there will be no problem with the acting.”

“I’m not convinced of that. So he managed to project some feeling into the words …”

“Words he had never seen before.”

“Still doesn’t mean that he will be able to handle the dramatic scenes.”

Once more feeling that he was being ignored and certainly disliking the feeling of being discussed whilst he was still present, Ray put the script pages on the piano stool. Before he could turn to leave, however, his name was called.

“Mr Duncan!” Cowley spoke directly to him. “Thank you very much indeed for coming in to audition. Mr Bodie and I would like to take a little time to consider next steps so if you would like to leave now, we will be in touch within the next couple of days.”

Seeing the sceptical look on the producer’s face, Ray held out very little hope of ever hearing from them again, but he nodded politely to both men, gathered up his music from the piano and left.

 

Chapter Eight

Ray hesitated at the corner of the West End street. He could see the restaurant across the road. He still wasn’t sure why he’d accepted an invitation to dinner. After he’d left the theatre, he’d wandered the streets of London for hours, wondering if he’d blown his chance at stardom. He knew his pride would not have let him stand there for much longer whilst two men, who barely knew him, had argued about his fate. He’d been to many auditions and had often suffered the ignominy of “Thanks for coming but you’re not what we’re looking for.” Rejection was part and parcel of show business. But there had been something deep inside him that had been refusing to stand by and listen to the discussion at the Palace Theatre. He’d just been about to get out and, if the consequence was the loss of this amazing opportunity then so be it, when Cowley’s polite request that he give them time to discuss their decision gave him a way out.

By the time he’d returned home, footsore and weary, he was convinced that he would never hear any more about ‘Involvement’ so he determined to chalk the whole episode up to experience and put the specifics behind him.

Two days later, just as he was coming to terms with the loss, his agent rang him to convey a dinner invitation. From William Bodie. To discuss the role of Paul in ‘Involvement’. Before he could even think about it properly, Geoff told him that he had accepted the invitation on his behalf and then proceeded to lecture him on the correct dress and manners for dinner with a man of Bodie’s stature in the theatre world. His last words, however, were the expected remonstrance about Ray’s impetuosity and an admonition to listen to what Bodie had to say before making any decision.

And now all he had to do was cross the street, enter the restaurant and spend the evening with the one man in all the world whom he would really rather not see ever again.

About to take that all-important first step, he caught movement in his peripheral vision and whirled … to face his own reflection in Burton’s. The darkened shop window was a perfect mirror. Having followed Geoff Anson’s advice, Ray was dressed far more formally than normal for a night out. Pressed dark grey slacks skimmed slim hips and taut thighs; fitted white shirt outlined broad shoulders and muscular chest; black leather belt emphasised the slim waist; polished black leather shoes encased slender feet. The evening being quite warm, he’d carried his grey tweed jacket and it was now slung over one shoulder. Staring at the image thus presented, Ray couldn’t help but pose a little, thrusting one hip forward slightly. He wasn’t in the habit of studying himself or pondering whether or not other people found him attractive, but this pause made him consider the effect he might have on the only man to have interested him in a long time. He had no idea whether or not Bodie was attracted to him. Whether or not Bodie was attracted to men at all, given the delights no doubt offered by Veronica Randolph.

Sighing, his expression rueful, he ran the fingers of his free hand through his hair, destroying the carefully sleek style he’d created a mere hour ago. Anson’s advice, though good, was more suitable for one more accustomed to formal attire. Destroying the smoothness of the hairstyle made Ray feel more like himself. The rest of the outfit he would live with – after all, there was nowhere to change and he acknowledged that he looked good. With a further deep sigh, he slipped his jacket on, straightened his shirt collar and tie and decided to move forward.

The restaurant nominated by Bodie was one Ray had heard of but had never patronised. Approaching the double doors, he noted the quiet opulence of the exterior, realising that, even in a good month, he couldn’t afford to eat here. It was fortunate that Bodie would be picking up the tab.

Pushing the door open, Ray stepped inside onto a deep wool carpet. The maitre d’ smiled a greeting from behind a simple wooden lectern.

“Good evening, sir. Welcome to Carlucci’s.”

“Good evening. I’m meeting Mr Bodie for dinner.”

Discreetly checking the appointment book hidden by the raised front on the lectern, the maitre d’ stepped out from behind it.

“Certainly, Mr Doyle. If you would come with me …”

Walking across the restaurant, Ray noted the carefully separated tables: no crushing as many diners in as possible here. White tablecloths, silver cutlery, discreet flower arrangements and, in the background, the gentle tinkling of piano keys. Following the sound, Ray wasn’t surprised to see a pianist and piano towards the rear of the main room. But the maitre d’ passed through the main restaurant and led Ray to a side alcove with one table.

“Please make yourself comfortable, Mr Doyle. I am sure Mr Bodie will not keep you waiting very long. Whilst you wait, would you like a drink?”

“Thank you. A vodka and orange would be very welcome.”

*****

A waiter had delivered his drink, another one the menu, which proved him right about the cost of a meal here – no prices. He was still studying the food on offer when a very familiar voice broke into his musings.

“I’m sorry to have kept you waiting, Mr Doyle.”

The leather-bound menu hit the table with a thud, knocking cutlery and wine glasses askew. So intent had he been on subduing his nerves by studying the dishes on offer that Ray hadn’t heard the other man’s approach. Glancing up at the tall figure, green eyes met blue.

Despite all his best intentions, there was no way he could ignore this man’s physical presence but, hopefully, he would be able to hide his reaction. Deciding that cool was the way to go, Ray stood and offered his hand.

“Mr Bodie.” His hand was taken in a warm, firm grip. “Thank you for the invitation.”

“Thank you for accepting. I thought we needed an opportunity to talk. And these are congenial surroundings.”

Releasing Ray’s hand, Bodie took the other seat at the table. He watched as Ray straightened his cutlery, and then reached out to pick up the wine glass just as Ray went for it. Once more they touched, warm skin to warm skin, until Ray pulled back, allowing Bodie to set the glass back on the table. Before either could say anything, a waiter appeared.

“A drink, Mr Bodie?”

“Harvey Wallbanger will do nicely. And tell Carlo we’ll be ready to order in a few minutes.”

“We will?”

“Oh, I should think so. You were studying the menu pretty intently when I arrived. And if you haven’t decided, I’ll order for you.”

“I can make my own decisions about what I would like to eat.”

“I’m sure you can. I just wanted to save a little time. Once the meal is ordered and served, it will give us time to talk. And I think we need to talk.”

“What about?”

“Matters of mutual interest.”

“I’m not sure that we have any mutual interests.”

“Then we can spend the evening finding some. What would you like to order?”

As Ray turned his attention back to the menu, he pondered the change in Bodie. Gone was the antagonism he’d encountered at their three previous meetings. This man was charm itself though still a bit pushy. But Ray hadn’t come to this meeting to be seduced so he hauled back on his hormones, which were sending all the wrong messages round his body, and decided to listen to what Bodie had to say before making any decisions.

*****

Having made their choices and placed their order, the two men conversed desultorily on general topics, each avoiding anything of personal import. Between sips of his drink, Ray studied the man opposite him.

Dressed in a well-cut dark suit – Savile Row probably Ray thought - Bodie looked every inch the successful businessman. His hair was cut short but Ray noticed a small curl behind one ear and his hand twitched with an urge to brush it back in place. He resisted.

Discussing some of the recent successes on the West End stage, Ray was delighted when one of his pithy comments made Bodie laugh. The blue eyes sparkled and Ray noted the laughter lines crinkling as Bodie threw his head back and laughed out loud. He found himself wanting to see and hear that again and chided himself for falling further under this man’s spell.

As neither man had ordered a starter, Ray, for one, was grateful when he saw the size of the platter set before him with the main course. Along with the chicken in red wine he’d ordered whilst Bodie had a rare steak, they shared a selection of crisp seasonal vegetables and a bowl of French fries, which Bodie had insisted on and which the waiter did not seem to find at all unusual. It was obvious that he was a regular and valued customer. Bodie had also ordered wine to accompany the main course and Ray had to admit that he found it very much to his liking – crisp and refreshing.

Again the conversation remained on general topics but it was more relaxed and free flowing and, with the serving of the dessert and coffee, Bodie rested his fork and spoon on the side of his plate and leaned forward slightly.

“Before I get to the main reason for inviting you to join me this evening, I realise that I’ve never thanked you for the work you did on the Layton-Bentley books.”

“It was what I was being paid to do.”

“Well, I was less than gracious to you and you did save the company, and me, a great deal of money. I’ve given the file to the police and am told there is every chance of a successful prosecution. Probably won’t get the money back, but it’s stopped the leak and the culprits will be brought to justice.”

“That’s important to you?”

“It is. I don’t believe in letting people get away with crime. And the company can’t afford to lose money like that. So, again, thank you. Now, much though I’ve enjoyed the social chitchat, we need to talk business.”

Taking a final spoonful of the Italian ice cream, Ray too set down his spoon, and hoped his expression was politely interested and not lustful. He’d almost forgotten the reason for their meeting in his enjoyment of Bodie’s company.

“I don’t know how much you know about ‘Involvement’?”

“Just what’s been in the trade press.”

“Ah, well, you shouldn’t believe all you read in the papers. It’s why I employ a PR firm.” Bodie gave a sudden grin, which took years off him, giving him an impish appearance. “The truth is I need this production to be a smash hit, which is why I’ve been so obsessed with finding the right leading man. And I think I’ve found him in you.”

“You didn’t seem to think so at the audition the other day.”

“Mmm, yes, I’m sorry about that. It’s just so important to get this one right.”

“But you’re a hugely successful producer with hit shows all around the world. The papers have you up there on the list of wealthiest Britons.”

“It depends on how you measure wealth. Layton-Bentley’s books are in profit as you know from your stint with us. But it’s my personal finances that are now tied up with the new show and the Manor.”

“But surely you could have got backing?”

“It would appear that ‘Involvement’ is considered to be a considerable departure from our previous productions and, therefore, a much greater risk.”

“How so?”

“If you look at the shows we’ve put on and, particularly those that are still running, you’ll see a definite pattern in using tried and true themes. Often we’ve revived shows, putting a new gloss on them, or adapted straight plays, adding the musical numbers. Those are what the public has paid good money to see and what have made Layton-Bentley top of the tree.”

“So why is this new show so different?”

“It’s very much an original piece. I’ve been working with my business partner, Susie Fischer, for a long time and we started talking about the background to this show over three years ago. We wanted to do something different. It’s taken till now and we’ve spent a lot of time on it whilst still working on other projects. We wrote the playbook and then worked on the songs. Susie is very much the wordsmith. I’ve written the music.”

“I didn’t know you composed.”

“I haven’t professionally until now. I actually started my career in show business as a drummer with a Mersey beat band in the Sixties. Yeah … you can laugh … I’ll have you know that we were very successful, but I wanted more so I eventually moved into management and then production. I seem to have a knack for organisation and planning. But there remained a frustrated composer. I’ve done bits and pieces, of course, for my own enjoyment but it took this collaboration with Susie to make me tackle anything this big.”

“And?”

“And the backers weren’t interested. I couldn’t use the Layton-Bentley profits. There are too many people who would lose their living if the project failed. So Susie and I have put in the majority of the financing with the company providing the personnel and the expertise. And Frederick Randolph, with a couple of other backers, stumped up the final ten per cent.”

“That’s Veronica’s father?”

“Yeah. How did you know that?”

“I met Veronica whilst I was working at Layton-Bentley. She wasn’t exactly … er … subtle about her father’s involvement in the show.”

“She’s not exactly a subtle girl.” Again, a grin lit up Bodie’s face before he continued on a more sombre note. “If we fail, we lose everything. And, for me, that includes Buckleigh Manor.”

The passion Bodie felt for the project was clear in every word. Ray found himself being carried along by his companion’s enthusiasm. He watched as Bodie leant back in his chair, stretching slightly, his dark shirt gaping over his belly. Ray caught a brief glimpse of smooth white skin before Bodie sat forward again to take a sip from his coffee cup.

“So you can see how important this show is to me – both personally and professionally. It’s taken the last six months to get the cast together. I’m afraid I’ve got very definite ideas as to what I want to achieve. Luckily George Cowley shares my vision and, generally, we work well together. It’s only been with the casting of the male lead that we’ve encountered any real difficulties. We must have seen every male singer in London and most of those in the regions.”

“Not everyone surely.”

“Well, it felt like it at times. And then we wandered into Phil Corrigan’s studio to say ‘hello’ and heard this incredible voice. You, Ray.”

“I’m flattered, of course, but, as you said at the audition, I can sing but can I act?”

“George has a proposal to deal with that. I have to be honest and say that I wasn’t convinced at first. Luckily George can be very persistent when he believes he’s right and he made me see sense.”

“Which is?”

“That you are Paul. You have the voice. You have the looks. And with my help and some professional tuition, you will be able to handle the acting. I’m offering you the role. I can sort out the details with your agent but what do you say?”

 

Chapter Nine

The Seven Stars pub was packed when Ray arrived. He quickly pushed his way through to the bar, caught the barman’s attention and, having worked there for the last three Saturdays, was nodded through to the tiny room behind the even tinier stage area. The entertainment for the evening had yet to start so the dressing room was crowded. Reg Blake, the landlord, had decided to offer a variety of acts on a Saturday night and it had proven so popular that he was considering extending the entertainment to week nights.

Finding an unoccupied space, Ray dumped his bag and looked round. He’d done a couple of gigs already for Reg and so was very familiar with the type of acts the landlord favoured. He nodded to a couple he recognised before opening his bag and extracting the clean shirt and trousers he would wear on stage. He’d showered before leaving home so it was a matter of minutes before he was changed and was brushing his curls into some semblance of order.

There was a running order posted by the door so Ray knew he was top of the bill, which gave him a couple of hours before taking the stage. Deciding that a drink was called for, he made his way back into the bar, ordered a beer at the bar and then moved through to a small table set towards the back of the lounge, from where he could see the stage.

Reg Blake came out and introduced the first act; a comedian Ray had seen on the working men’s club circuit. He’d toned down his act for the more general audience and went down well with the early evening drinkers. He was followed by a female singer, dressed as a Cockney barrow boy, whose set consisted of several traditional songs. Whilst she had a reasonably good voice, the act suffered from the mock accent she assumed but she, too, seemed to be popular with the audience. The third act was a ventriloquist. Not very good in Ray’s opinion and audience reaction was lukewarm at best.

Just as the next act came on, a typical pub pianist/singer, a familiar voice said, “Hello, Ray.”

It was Bodie. They hadn’t seen each other since the morning in Geoff Anson’s office when they’d discussed and signed the contract.

Taken by surprise, Ray burst out, “What are you doing here?” Then realising that he had been less than gracious, he continued, “Sorry … that was uncalled for. Hello.”

“I remembered Geoff saying that you had a gig here.” Bodie pulled out a stool and settled himself. “I hope you don’t mind my being here. I wanted to hear you sing.”

Disconcerted by his reaction to Bodie’s sudden appearance once again in his life, he answered honestly. “I was shocked to see you. Somehow I don’t associate you with East End pubs.”

“I’ve been in my share. Though perhaps not recently. You really don’t mind my being here, do you? I’ll leave if you’d rather I wasn’t.”

This somewhat diffident approach was so very different to the characteristics previously presented by the man – aggression, confidence, suave good manners, sheer bad temper – that he was quite disarmed. “No, no. It’s a free country. Stay. Would you like a drink?”
Ray started to stand but Bodie waved him down.

“I’ll get it. What would you like?”

Glancing at his watch, “I’ve got to go on in a bit so just an orange juice please.”

“Okay. Back in a few.” Bodie disappeared into the crowd and reappeared soon afterwards carrying two drinks.

“How did you do that?” Ray queried as he accepted the glass.

“Do what?”

“Get served that quickly when the bar is this busy.” He indicated the increasingly noisy crowd, which was starting to show its lack of appreciation for the pub singer currently on stage.

“Natural charm.” Bodie grinned, left eyebrow quirking. “Oh, and the judicious use of elbows.”

Ray laughed, a husky chortle, relaxing as Bodie re-joined him at the table.

“Is it always like this?” Bodie indicated the surrounding bar. “I’ve not seen a pub this packed since the last Royal wedding.”

“Reg likes to put on a show for the punters. Though not usually this kind of show.” The audience had finally booed the singer off the stage. “He’s been building a reputation for offering a bit of class on a Saturday night.” He shrugged ruefully. “I don’t know what’s gone wrong tonight. Apart from the comedian on first, it’s a decidedly mediocre bunch.”

“Apart from the comedian. And you.”

Ray felt himself starting to blush but agreed. “And me.”

Bodie looked pleased with himself. “When do you go on?”

Glancing at his watch, Ray responded, “About fifteen minutes. Unless this crowd decide not to like the next act.” They both looked towards the stage where the magician was setting up his props. They watched him try out his first couple of tricks. Made nervous by the attitude of the audience, he wasn’t doing well. He fumbled his next attempt and the booing started.

Stepping onto the stage, Reg Blake took the microphone. He looked harried as he stopped the magic act and faced the audience.

Ray commented, “I don’t know what Reg’s booker thought he was doing landing him with this lot. It’s going to take some fast talking to calm them down.” Tuning back in, he realised what Reg was telling the audience.

“If you’d bear with me for five minutes, I’ll get the next act cued up. Those of you who’ve been here the last couple of Saturdays will remember this young man and you’ll agree with me that he’s worth the price of admission.”

A voice called out from a couple of tables over. “That shouldn’t be difficult, Reg, admission was free!” The heckler got a few laughs as Reg continued.

“True, true. Then I hope you’ll agree that the singer about to entertain you would be worth it if I charged admission. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present Ray Duncan.” Reg swung round as if to usher someone onto the stage and stopped suddenly as he realised there was no one there. Looking bewildered, he looked back at the audience. “Sorry, folks, there seems to have been a slight communications breakdown.” He signalled frantically to the barman, who’d been leaning on the bar watching his boss trying to sort the situation out. “Harry, where’s Ray?”

Turning back to Bodie, Ray gave a small smile. “It looks like I’m on sooner than scheduled. Will you be here when I finish?” He wanted to spend more time with Bodie. Maybe discussing this evening would be an opportunity to do so.

“Of course. I came to see you perform. I’d like to see how you handle this audience.”

Somewhat disappointed by this reminder of their purely professional relationship, Ray, nevertheless, managed a rueful shrug. “I’ll see you later then.” Leaving the table, he pushed his way through the crowd and caught Reg’s attention as he reached the stage.

Grinning, Reg reached out a large, meaty hand, grasped Ray’s and pulled him up onto the stage. “Ladies and gentlemen, Ray Duncan.”

A desultory clapping with a few small cheers greeted Ray as he took the mic from Reg. “Thanks, Reg. I’ll start with ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’.”

Reg moved to the tape deck to one side of the stage and quickly lined up the backing track requested. Getting a nod from Ray, he stared the deck. The speakers around the pub came to life with the first notes. Ray moved to the front of the stage, clasping the mic in both hands and stood relaxed as the music flooded through him. He started to sing.

*****

Forty-five minutes later he finished his last number and stood, smiling, accepting the applause and cheers. It had taken the first couple of songs to settle the pub crowd but, thereafter, he had them in the palm of his hand. His set had consisted of the latest pop hits, classic melodies, some rock and roll as well as his own personal favourites from the 1960s and 1970s.

He placed the mic back on the stand and jumped down off the stage, accepting further accolades as he made his way back to the table where Bodie was waiting.

The impresario stood as he approached, grinning broadly. “That was amazing, Ray. You took them with you all the way.”

“Thanks. After the first few minutes, it was a blast. There’s nothing quite like performing live.”

“Oh, I can think of one or two things that have it beat.” If he didn’t know better, Ray would have sworn that Bodie was flirting with him. But despite his own attraction to the man, he was still all too aware of their initial meetings and that Bodie was, for the foreseeable future, his boss. “I thought you could use a drink.” Bodie indicated the full pint sitting on the table.

Ray picked up the glass and took a large drink. “I definitely needed that.” Before he could continue, a large hand slapped his shoulder, spinning him round to face a huge Reg Blake grin.

“My God, Ray, you saved my bacon out there tonight.” Suddenly his feet left the floor as he was enveloped in a bear hug. Gripping his glass tightly to prevent any more spillage than necessary, he laughed.

“It’s okay, Reg. Just did the usual.”

“Usual, my arse! They’d have torn the place apart if you’d been another crap act.” Dropping Ray back on his feet, Reg continued, “I don’t know what that bloody booker was on but I’ll be having words, see if I don’t.”

A polite cough interrupted Reg’s flood of words.

“Oh, sorry. Reg, this is William Bodie.”

“The William Bodie?” queried Reg. “The theatrical producer? The reason why you can’t accept any more gigs from me?”

“The one and only,” replied Bodie, offering his hand, which was immediately swamped in the landlord’s for a brief shake.

“I’m very pleased to meet you, Mr Bodie. Though you’ll understand my disappointment at losing Ray after this evening’s performance.”

“And I’m sure you’ll understand why I’ve cast him. I’ve every confidence he won’t be back.”

“Bodie!”

“It’s fine, Ray,” said Reg. ‘I’m glad you’re getting your chance at last. Just sorry that you’ll be too famous to come back here for a Saturday night.”

“I’ll never be too famous for that, Reg. I owe you for taking a chance on me when you gave me those initial bookings.”

“Wasn’t much of a chance. I know talent when I see it.”

“And so do I,” added Bodie.

*****

“Breathe, Ray, breathe.” Shirley Phillips paced around the small rehearsal room, a small powerhouse of energy focused on her student.

“I am breathing.” Ray was finding it increasingly difficult to understand what she was trying to teach.

Shirley stopped her pacing and moved to stand in front of him. “Don’t be obtuse. You’re a singer. You know how to harness your breath to project a song.”

“I can’t seem to make it work for speech.”

Shirley frowned. “Let’s take this back to basics. Lie down.”

“What?”

“You heard me. Lie down.” As Ray obeyed, she positioned herself on her knees behind his head. “Now, I want you to just breathe.” Leaning over him, she re-positioned his hands so that they rested just above his belly button. “Feel that, Ray. As you breathe, your stomach seems to fill with air. Where your hands are is the diaphragm. In order to start using your voice correctly to project on stage, you need to use the diaphragm.” Suddenly she pressed down hard and he gasped. “Remember your diaphragm. Now, stand up.”

Again, Ray obeyed. Shirley continued. “You have to translate the techniques you use to sing to carry your speaking voice. On stage your voice must resonate the facial mask. As you know, sound carries via wave resonance, not volume. Use your body’s natural resonators and your voice will fill the theatre.” Shirley started to pace around the room again. She seemed incapable of standing still for very long.

Ray watched her as he absorbed what she had told him. He was well aware of the breathing techniques he needed for singing but his experience to date involved the use of microphones and recording equipment. He was finding it very difficult to project his voice without the artificial aids and he needed to be heard in the far reaches of the theatre. Of course, the acoustics of the building would help but he was the starting point.

“Right.” Shirley’s voice interrupted his musing. “I want you to hum for me. Just mmmmm.”

“Mmmmm.”

“That’s it. Now did you feel the buzz against your lips?”

“Yes.”

“Keep on doing it. Count between breaths so you push the words out.”

“Mmmm one, mmmm two, mmmm three …” Ray continued the exercise for several minutes. Shirley kept up her pacing but she was watching him all the time.

“Now, how do your lips feel?”

Ray grinned. “Buzzy.”

“That’s a good description. I want you to do that exercise for a couple of minutes several times a day. Probably best if you do it when you’re on your own. And combine it with the warm up exercises we worked on yesterday.”

“How will this help me on stage?” Ray was curious. The techniques were similar to the ones he used for warming his vocal chords before singing but he was still conscious that he wouldn’t be using a microphone and it would be his words and actions out there on the stage for an audience to appreciate.

“Once you’re confident with your breathing from the diaphragm and how your facial muscles work for you, you’ll find it much easier to project. Remember that no matter the emotions you’re trying to convey, your breathing has to carry you through the whole speech. There is no point peaking at the start and rushing to get to the end. Or saving all your breath for the end. It’s an evening out process. Listen to conversations around you. People don’t think about their breathing whilst they are talking. Yet they always have enough breath for what they need to say. You need to translate that instinctive breathing so that you convey what you need to on stage.”

Ray thought he was beginning to understand but he was obviously still looking concerned as Shirley continued. “Don’t worry about it too much, Ray. It’s early days and you have a wealth of singing experience to support you. Now, I think that’s all from me today. What’s next?”

“A script run-through with Kim and Cowley.” Ray felt himself relax as the lesson concluded. This was proving to be the most difficult part of his new role but Shirley had a way of explaining things and conveying her own enthusiasm for acting that was easing him into it.

“Right then.” She patted his shoulder comfortingly. “You’d better get off then.”

He headed for the door, turning back to grin at Shirley before exiting. “Thanks, Shirl.”

There was a spluttered “Shirl! I’ll give you Shirl!” behind him as he hurried down the corridor.

*****

The small rehearsal room was set high in the theatre, tucked away under the eaves. It was roasting hot in summer; it was freezing cold in winter. Now, it was the second option. Ray shivered as he wrapped his arms round himself, trying to retain some body heat. He’d arrived early, which he was now regretting.

Suddenly the door was flung open and in strode Cowley, closely followed by Kim Knight. The director dumped a pile of scripts on the small table pushed against one wall and turned to Ray. “Glad to see you’re on time, Ray. If you’d join Kim, you can warm-up together.” He turned back to the scripts and started to look through his copy.

As he crossed the room, Kim smiled at him. “Hi, Ray. Looking forward to our first session?”

“Yeah. Be nice to work on actual lines instead of breathing.”

“A Shirley lesson?”

“Spot on. We haven’t even opened a script yet.”

As they chatted, they both went through their own warm-up exercises, both physical and vocal. Gradually Ray could feel his muscles start to relax and he felt much warmer.

“I studied with Shirley when I was first starting out, “ said Kim. “She likes to drill in the basics. But she is really good. You’re lucky to have her.”

“It’s just all a bit strange. I’ve been singing for years but now I have to learn to breathe.”

“I know. Doesn’t seem to make much sense, does it? But, like I said, Shirley likes to make sure we all have the basics under our belts before we move on to the good stuff. You’re getting a crash course as we’re already into full rehearsal.” Kim finished a full body stretch. “A word of advice. Watch, listen and learn. Whether it’s from Shirley or anyone else. You’ve a lot to learn in a very short time.”

Coming up from touching his toes, Ray sighed. “I know, Kim, and I do appreciate all that everyone is doing to help me. I’ll do the very best I can.”

“I know you will. You’ve a great deal of talent. You’re going to be great.”

Ray grinned. “Thanks, Kim … “ Before he could continue, Cowley interrupted as he crossed the room bearing three scripts.

“Right, let’s start with the first time Paul meets Anne. We’ll just run through the dialogue first and then work on blocking some movement.”

“What about our characterisation?” This from Kim.

“We’ll get to that but I just want to see how you work together. So, if you’d both turn to page four and take it from the top.”

*****

Three weeks later, Ray stood once again in the wings at the Palace Theatre. He was waiting for his cue to join his leading lady for one of the crucial dramatic scenes in the musical. Their duet at the end of this scene was the climax of the first act. And, so far, it hadn’t been going at all well.

His life had become a whirlwind since the evening with Bodie. Within days he’d signed a contract and from then on his life had changed so dramatically that he hardly recognised it any more.

He’d started rehearsals, initially with Kim Knight alone and then gradually with the other cast members. They’d worked hard on blocking their scenes in the small rehearsal rooms at the top of the theatre and only this week had started the move to the main stage as the final set construction was almost completed. He’d had his first costume fittings, an unbelievably time consuming occupation for what was a modern dress production, but everything was being made especially for him and the Wardrobe Mistress needed as much time as possible to get everything ready for the dress rehearsals.

He worked every day with the Musical Director to get the songs embedded in his memory. He spent hours working with Shirley, the drama tutor recommended by Bodie, trying to achieve the emotional projection the role required. He read the script over and over again to learn the part. He met with George Cowley to discuss his part and how to play it. In all he’d found himself on the go for eighteen to nineteen hours every day. Meals were snatched snacks whenever and wherever he found a few spare minutes.

He lost weight.

He’d been provided with a car and driver to transport him around but even here he couldn’t relax, using the time to read the script again. He no longer felt as if his life belonged to him. Even telling himself that this was what he’d been working for all these years didn’t give him any more energy. He kept telling himself that he’d get used to it or that the pressure would ease up as rehearsals progressed. The only time he felt in control was when he was singing. The songs written for the part of Paul, and those with other members of the cast, seemed to be the one area where he felt he was succeeding.

And he hadn’t seen more than the occasional glimpse of Bodie as he was rushed hither and thither.

Ray heard his cue and stepped onto the stage. Kim Knight - small, auburn-haired, hazel-eyed, beautiful - awaited him. The lines for the scene flowed smoothly but Ray could feel tiredness dragging at him and he knew his performance was below par. Just before they launched into their duet, Ray heard a familiar voice call from the darkness beyond the spotlights.

“That will be all for today. Thank you, Kim. Ray, would you join me for a moment.” Cowley’s authority was clear.

Kim smiled sympathetically at Ray. “Go on. He won’t bite.”

“That’s what you think! Thanks for the support, Kim.”

Ray took the side steps down to the auditorium and joined Cowley by the orchestra pit.

Cowley looked up as Ray hesitated.

“Sit down, Ray, before you fall down.”

Ray sank gratefully into the plush stalls seat next to Cowley. He stretched out his long legs into the additional legroom between the seating and the orchestra pit and tried to focus on what Cowley was saying.

“You’re doing really well but you’re obviously tired. I think you ought to take tomorrow off.”

“But I’ve got …”

“I know what you’ve got, laddie, but if you don’t have a rest soon, you’ll be good for neither man nor beast.”

“I’ve still so much to learn!”

“And ye canna learn anything when you’re dead on your feet. You’re no use to me in this state. Get yourself home and I’ll see you back here day after tomorrow. I’ll let everyone else know.”

Realising that Cowley had not only his interests at heart but also the show’s, Ray nodded.

“Thanks. I think I could sleep for a week.”

“I said a day, laddie. Now get on yer bike!”

******

It was as he was leaving his dressing room that Ray heard a raised voice. He could see Bodie and Veronica standing by the lighting board but looking out across the set so their backs were to Ray. As he realised the topic under discussion, he moved closer. Finding a clear space behind a flat, which was painted with the interior of Paul’s home, he couldn’t resist listening even knowing that eavesdroppers rarely hear good of themselves.

“I really don’t know what you think you’re playing at hiring that man for the lead. It’s quite clear that he doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing.”

“I don’t think that’s true …”

“And how would you know? You’re hardly ever here these days. I’ve popped in almost every day. Just to keep an eye on Daddy’s investment, you know. And I can tell you that Ray is not up to the role. Even when he does remember his lines, he delivers them with as much feeling as a plank of wood.”

“He’s getting better. With the lessons …”

“And that’s another thing. Whoever heard of a producer paying for acting lessons? Surely you just hire someone with the requisite skills. You don’t hire an electrician, then send him off to get his City and Guilds.”

“It’s not the same thing at all, Ronnie. Ray has all the skills we need. He just hasn’t had a chance to prove it yet.”

“Well if he doesn’t start proving it soon, you’re going to be the laughing stock of the West End.”

Deciding that he’d heard more than enough, Ray made his way, as quietly as possible, to the stage door, unaware of the pair of deep blue eyes watching him leave.

*****

Ray almost fell out of bed with shock the next morning as his doorbell rang insistently. As there was no daylight creeping round the curtains, it had to be really early. He’d fallen into an exhausted sleep soon after arriving home the previous evening and hadn’t moved all night. Trying to get to his feet as the doorbell shrilled once again proved difficult as he found his feet entangled with the sheet and he fell to his knees. Swearing softly he disentangled himself, found a pair of jeans thrown over the armchair, hauled them on, pulled up the zip, leaving the button unfastened and grabbed his brown leather bomber jacket from the hook on the back of the door as he rushed out of the bed-sit and down the stairs.

He was about to fling open the front door as he heard Mrs Barker call up from the basement. “Mr Doyle! Are you getting that?”

“Yes, Mrs Barker,” he called back as he grasped the handle and pulled the door open. “Oh! It’s you.”

On the doorstep, just about to try the doorbell again, stood Bodie. A now seemingly speechless Bodie as he stared at the semi-clad Doyle.

“Well, what do you want?” asked Doyle angrily. “Do you know what bloody time it is?”

Recovering a little of his sang-froid, Bodie responded, “Of course I do. It’s time you had a day off as per Cowley’s orders and I’m going to make sure you get a rest.”

“What? By waking me up at 7 o’clock! And I was getting a rest, thank you, when your clarion call on the bell nearly woke the dead, never mind me.”

“You need more than to spend the day in bed. You need a change. To get away from the theatre for a while. And I’m here to make sure you do so get back upstairs, get dressed – though it’s lovely to see so much of you – and be back down here in fifteen minutes. I’m double parked.”

With that non sequitur, Bodie gave Ray a gentle push back into the hallway and closed the front door. Ray stared at the inside of the door for a minute, shook his head in bemusement and then headed back up the stairs.

*****

Twenty minutes later, he’d washed, dressed, cleaned his teeth and was using an electric razor to remove the last of the overnight stubble as he once more opened the front door, this time quietly so as not to further disturb the Barkers.

Bodie was leaning against the ironwork banister and Ray took the opportunity, missed earlier, of studying the man whilst he was unaware of the observation. Dressed casually in black corduroy trousers and a cream Aran sweater, Bodie was all leashed power and sexuality. His dark hair gleamed with health and his fair skin was a beautiful contrast to his dark brows and lashes.

As he heard the door click closed, he turned towards Ray and smiled. A gentle, welcoming smile, close lipped, but it made Ray’s heart flutter.

“There you are. About time. Come on then, the car’s parked down a ways.” Bodie turned as he spoke and strode off down the street expecting Ray to follow him. Ray did.

On reaching the car, Bodie opened the passenger door and, with a theatrical flourish, bowed Ray towards it. “Your carriage awaits, m’lud.”

“A Capri. You drive a Ford Capri.”

“And what’s wrong with it?”

“Just never pictured you in something like this, that’s all.”

“And just what did you picture me in?”

Ray’s tongue almost tripped him as he held back the ‘nothing at all’ and said, “Oh, I don’t know. A Jag, I suppose. You’re Mr Big, the theatrical producer. So the car should fit the part.”

“I’ve never been much for the trappings of success. And I like the Capri. Oh yes it can be a pig to handle, especially when the back end slips, but it’s also a joy to drive. So come on, get in and I’ll whisk you away from here.”

“Where are we going?”

“You’ll see.”

“Bodieeee …!”

*****


Photobucket

The summer season was long over but the day was bright and clear. Refusing to say where they were going, Bodie had teased Ray about possible ways to spend the day and soon had Ray laughing and relaxed. They stopped for breakfast at a transport café Bodie appeared to know well then continued on down to the south coast. Their destination turned out to be Brighton. Pulling neatly into a parking space along the sea front, Bodie gestured.

“There you go. All the fun of the fair and the wicked delights of Brighton. Can’t get much further away from the West End and the work you’ve been putting into the show. For which I am truly grateful.”

“So this is your way of ensuring that your lead is fit to go on.” Ray had so hoped that Bodie’s offer of a day out was because he wanted to spend time with him.

Bodie turned to look at him. “Yes … No … Well … kind of.” Ray had never heard Bodie anything other than self-assured. “I know Cowley ordered you to take the day off to rest and that is for the good of the production. But this trip is all my idea. I … wanted to spend the day with you.”

Ray’s heart lifted and he smiled. Bodie smiled back. “Let’s go.”

*****

It had been a wonderful day.

They wandered through The Lanes, investigating the narrow alleyways with their vast array of shops offering everything from jewellery and clothing to original art and furniture.

In one interestingly cluttered emporium, Ray found a silver bracelet. It twisted and slithered through his fingers, catching what little light there was in the shop. He became aware of Bodie standing behind him as he played with it. He thought he could feel Bodie’s breath on the back of his neck and goose bumps shivered down his spine.

“Let me help.” Bodie turned Ray around, took the bracelet and put it around Ray’s right wrist, fastening it. He turned the bracelet, admiring it, all the while clasping Ray’s wrist. “It suits you. Buy it.”

“I don’t normally wear jewellery. I’m not sure …”

“Then make a change in your life. Buy it. Wear it.”

Realising that Bodie was still holding his wrist, Ray backed away slightly so that Bodie had to release him. He looked at Bodie, who had been intent on the silver chain against his slim wrist. Bodie looked up as Ray pulled away. He gave a slight nod then he turned his attention to a glass display case full of watches. Changing his mind, Ray put the bracelet back.

Turning back and wanting to see what had attracted the other man’s attention, Ray moved to one side of Bodie.

“What’s caught your eye?”

“I’ve always fancied one of these …” He pointed to a Tag Heuer top of the line watch. “It's a quartz; it's accurate to a tenth of a second.”

“Nice, very nice,” said Ray. “But I’d have thought this was more your style,” pointing to the other side of the cabinet.

“Which one?”

“There. In the top row. Second from the left. Superman.” Ray was laughing as he made a fast exit from the shop.

*****

From the sophisticated shopping delights of The Lanes, they moved on to the fairground, sampling various rides and sideshows. Bodie proved to be remarkably adept at the shooting gallery, devastating the targets and winning one of the top prizes. Ray suddenly found himself carrying an enormous pink teddy bear, which was quite probably one of the ugliest things he had ever seen, but he found himself clinging on to it as they made their way around the fair.

Declaring that he was starving, Bodie led the way to a food stand. Without asking, he ordered two hotdogs and Ray soon found himself holding a giant hotdog, loaded with onions and tomato ketchup. He watched with fascination as Bodie seemed to swallow half of his ‘dog in one bite. His cheeks bulging with frankfurter and bread, Bodie resembled a large hamster. Ray found it almost impossible to reconcile this image with the theatrical mastermind or, indeed, with the raging man at Buckleigh Manor. Swallowing, Bodie noticed Ray watching him, and raised an eyebrow in query. “What?”

“Nothing. Just fascinated by how much you can get into your mouth at any one time.”

“It’s a knack.”

“Mmmm not sure about that. You finished that hotdog in three bites.”

“It was good too. Do you want yours?”

“Keep your mitts off it.”

“Alright, alright, keep your hair on. I’ll just get another.”

And he’d finished the second before Ray got to the end of his.

*****

Having exhausted the delights of the fair, Bodie led the way down onto the beach. Though the sun still shone, the wind off the sea was quite biting and Ray found himself clutching his cuddly toy in front on him to shield him from the gusts.

“Brisk, isn’t it?” said Bodie with glee as he strode down the sloping, pebbled beach towards the sea.

“More like bloody freezing. Are you sure this is a good idea?”

“It’ll blow the cobwebs away.”

“I’m quite fond of my cobwebs, thank you very much.”

As he caught up with Bodie at the sea’s edge, Ray felt his right foot slip from under him as one of the large pebbles twisted away. Convinced he was going to land in what looked like very cold seawater, he grabbed for the nearest support – Bodie.

“Oh shit!” Staggering, they both tried to regain their balance, Bodie’s arms going round Ray’s waist. The teddy bear was lost in the first seconds and was caught by the tide, getting pulled rapidly out to sea. Bodie recovered his balance first and then steadied his companion.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah. Just a bit of a shock when the earth moved.”

“What? Never felt the earth move before?”

“Not on Brighton beach.”

“You’ve never lived, old son.”

Laughing, they moved, in tandem, away from the water’s edge.

“Sorry I lost your prize.”

“Some lucky person will gain a sodden pink teddy. I can always win you another one.”

“No, no, I don’t think that will be necessary. One was enough. In this lifetime.”

“Come on then. You’re right about it being too cold to linger. Let’s get back to the car and I’ll buy you dinner.”

“You’ve only just had lunch.”

“I’m a growing boy. Need to keep my strength up.”

Quite unselfconsciously, Bodie grabbed Ray’s hand and pulled him along in his wake as he headed back up the beach to the promenade.

*****

Dinner was some time later when Bodie pulled off the road back to London on the outskirts of Crowborough.

“A vineyard? Why are we stopping here?”

“’Cos they have a good restaurant.”

Some time later they sat at a table in the Barnsgate Vineyard Restaurant and Ray had to agree that Bodie was right. It was a good restaurant. They enjoyed a leisurely meal with a bottle of the vineyard’s own white wine and were both now replete, though Bodie was still finishing a choux pastry confection filled with cream, bananas, dates and oranges topped with coffee icing whilst Ray sipped a liqueur coffee.

“Thank you for a wonderful day. You were right that I needed a change of scene.”

“My pleasure. And the day isn’t over yet.”

Ray looked at Bodie across the table. He wanted to believe he saw a reciprocal attraction in the dark blue eyes. He hoped he wasn’t hearing the wrong message. If he wasn’t wrong then maybe there was something special between them. But now was not the time for any kind of declaration. So he decided that he’d play it cool and see where this was leading – if to anywhere at all.

*****

Pulling into a convenient parking space in Stanlake Road, Bodie got out of the Capri and followed Ray to the front door of No 26. As Ray opened the door, he turned to find Bodie right behind him. Not sure what Bodie was expecting, Ray stopped on the doorstep.

“Thank you again for today. I really appreciate you taking the time to help me relax.”

“No problem. You needed the time out.”

“Well then. I’ll say good night.”

“Good night, Ray.” Gently Bodie pushed Ray into the hallway so they were unseen from the pavement. Slowly he raised both hands and cupped Ray’s face. Mesmerised, Ray watched Bodie’s face approach then he closed his eyes.

The kiss was tentative, searching and infinitely tender. But as Ray opened his mouth to deepen the contact, Bodie pulled back though his hands still held Ray’s head.

“Good night, Ray. I’ll see you in the morning.” He patted Ray’s cheeks, turned away quickly, running down the steps and disappeared into the night.

 

Chapter Ten

Returning to work refreshed, physically and mentally, Ray found himself mastering the lyrics and music effortlessly. Even the drama lessons began to flow and Shirley was overheard to remark to Cowley, “He’ll do.” Knowing that both Bodie and Cowley had faith in him made it all so much easier.

Kim was an experienced leading lady, having starred in the West End and on Broadway. She was, however, generous in sharing her experience with the two men. Their talents didn’t in any way threaten her, being totally at ease with her own.

Tony and Ray found that they complemented each other. Their long-standing friendship and previous sexual relationship made them comfortable together. They were able to read the other’s mood and played off each other successfully. The book called for their characters to share comedic as well as dramatic moments and such was their ease that they found themselves ad-libbing lines much to the consternation of Cowley as he tried to keep the script on track. But the humour they found helped them to fit into their roles and over the weeks of rehearsal, they gradually settled down.

The trio also worked with the rest of the cast and a lot of effort went into the big production number that opened the show. Ray had never worked with such complex choreography before and was finding it a strain to remember the words, music and moves until Tony offered his advice. They even spent several evenings working late in the rehearsal rooms, perfecting their part in the routine.

“Come on, Ray. You’re like a block of wood. What’s the matter with you?”

“I don’t know. I just can’t seem to get it together.”

“Let’s take a break. Maybe you just need to catch your breath.” Tony moved to the small table, set against one wall of the rehearsal room, and poured orange juice into a cardboard cup. Turning, he offered it to Ray, who was still standing in the middle of the room, shoulders slumped. “Drink?”

Ray looked up. “No, thanks. I need …”

“… to take a few minutes out. You’ve been working your socks off.” Tony put the cup back on the table and came back to Ray. Slinging an arm around Ray’s shoulders, he gave him a slightly awkward hug before continuing, “Come on, mate, you just need to relax a bit more. You know the words. You know the moves. If you can just relax into it, it will come together.”

Twisting out of Tony’s one-armed hug, Ray almost snarled his response. “And how do you know what I can and can’t do? What makes you such an expert on me?” Ray didn’t know where the temper was coming from. He just felt out of sorts with the whole world.

Tony shrugged. “I’ve known you a long time. I know how determined you can be and I know how talented you are. Much as I might like to think that I could play the role of Paul, I also know that I don’t have half your talent. I’m just a hoofer. You’re the right man for the job. You just have to believe in yourself.”

Ray stared at his friend in astonishment. “What can I say to a speech like that? Come here.” He held open his arms and Tony stepped back into an all-embracing hug. “Thank you. I am so lucky to have you in my life.”

Before he could say more, there was a loud bang as the rehearsal room door slammed shut. Not having heard it open, they both stared in astonishment at the dark haired figure they could see disappearing down the corridor through the half glazed door. Bodie.

“Wonder what the boss wanted? Must have changed his mind.” Tony wasn’t really interested and wandered back to the small table and, picking up the cup, took a long swig of orange juice.

Puzzled by Bodie’s actions but having no explanation for them, Ray stared at the door for another second or two then turned back to Tony. “Pour me one of those, please, and then let’s try that number again.”

Tony grinned. “That’s the Ray I know and love.”

*****

On returning to his dressing room later that evening to collect his jacket, Ray found a small white envelope taped to the makeup mirror. Fingering it curiously, he checked it over before opening. Inside was one sheet of notepaper, the writing black and bold.

“Ray, Time for another day off. I’ll pick you up at 9 tomorrow morning. Bodie.”

“Bloody cheek!” Ray couldn’t believe the gall of the man. Although he’d seen Bodie around the theatre, they hadn’t spoken and it almost seemed that Bodie was avoiding him. Or he could just be paranoid about the man. Now, out of the blue, another command. The sheer cheek of the man, expecting him to fall in with plans about which he’d known nothing until he opened the envelope. What if he’d made plans of his own? It being Saturday he’d just been looking forward to a lie-in. At least 9 am was a more civilised hour and he’d had notice rather than being rudely awakened.

With another look at the note, Ray put it in his jacket pocket, left his dressing room and set off home. Maybe by morning he would have calmed down enough not to greet Bodie with a punch.

And he did want to see him again.

*****

The Thames river cruiser chugged serenely down the choppy grey-green waters of the river. It wasn’t an ideal day to take a sightseeing trip, but November wasn’t the height of the tourist season. The few passengers had taken refuge from the wet, cold day in the tiny cabin.

Bodie had turned up at Ray’s bed-sit a few minutes after nine, told him to wrap up warmly and hurried him down to Shepherd’s Bush tube station, explaining briefly that he thought using public transport was an adventure and, anyway, parking was a bitch. Moving quickly along the Uxbridge Road and down past the Green, weaving around the early morning shoppers heading for the Market, it had been impossible to hold a conversation but, once on the Underground, Ray had pushed for answers.

“Just where are we going?”

“What’s the matter, Ray? Don’t you like mystery tours?”

“I’m a little fed up with questions being countered with questions instead of answers. And, while I am asking, what made you decide I needed another break? I’ve got work to do.”

“Nothing that won’t be improved by you being refreshed. All work and no play make Ray a very dull boy.”

“Jack.”

“What?”

“Makes Jack a dull boy.”

“What are you on about? We get off here.” The sudden change of topic confused Ray but he automatically followed Bodie off the tube, down the platform, around the corridors and up and down escalators until they boarded the next train. The carriage was packed with people, making conversation all but impossible, but Ray did find himself squashed very nicely along Bodie’s back for the duration of the journey.

Ray decided that getting a straight answer from Bodie was an impossible task, so going with the flow, he followed his companion out of Westminster station to Westminster Pier and onto the river cruiser. As the destination was clearly visible, there was no point in returning to his original question but his curiosity still burned as to why, after a fortnight of being ignored, Bodie had suddenly decided on another outing. Needing the break seemed too obvious an excuse as he had the whole weekend free of the production so could have got plenty of rest. Perhaps Bodie just wanted his company and was too shy to ask. Shy? Not very likely if his past experience of the man was anything to go by.

“Have you ever been to Greenwich before?” asked Bodie.

“No. It’s funny. I’ve lived in London for years and never really bothered to do the tourist thing.”

“No interest in the history of this great nation?”

“More a lack of time. I came to London to go to college and I stayed to work. Never seemed to have time for sightseeing and the like.”

“Well, we’ll correct a gap in your education today.”

“I thought I was supposed to be having a day off.”

“And so you shall. A change is as good as a rest.”

“Do you have a platitude for every situation?”

Bodie grinned and then settled into his self-appointed roles as tourist guide and information booklet, pointing out various sites of interest along the riverbanks though Ray doubted if much of what he was being told had ever appeared in any history book.

Unsure as to what to expect when they arrived at Greenwich, Ray was pleasantly surprised. Without the masses of tourists from the summer months, they were able to view the Cutty Sark at their leisure. Bodie proved remarkably knowledgeable and kept Ray entertained with a variety of highly improbable tales from the tea trade in the late nineteenth century.

Moving on, they wandered the Maritime Museum, but naval history held no real interest for Ray so on finding the restaurant, they took time out from culture to enjoy a leisurely lunch.

“You never did tell me why you thought I needed another break?”

“I didn’t, did I?”

“Well … are you going to tell me or not?”

Bodie looked thoughtful, fiddling with a teaspoon, before he answered. “Just how close are you to Tony Murphy?”

Ray looked into the beautiful eyes and saw what he hoped was jealousy before Bodie blinked and glanced away. “What has my relationship with Tony got to do with my question?”

“Nothing. And it’s probably none of my business so forget I asked.”

“I don’t have a problem answering you. But you seem to have a problem answering me. Can we come to an agreement to answer each other’s questions or at least to explain why we can’t, or won’t, answer?”

Bodie looked relieved and, indeed, Ray knew that he’d let him off lightly. Bodie had been exceedingly personal.

There was a strained silence for a moment or two as Bodie once more contemplated his teacup then he looked up and Ray was struck by the mischievous grin.

“So what is it between you and Tony?”

Ray couldn’t help himself. He laughed. He laughed so loud and so long that people around them began to stop and stare.

“Ray … Ray, please. It wasn’t that funny,” Bodie pleaded.

Gradually the laughter died away and Ray wiped the tears from his cheeks. “You have the cheek of the devil himself.”

Bodie reached across the table and took hold of Ray’s hand, stroking it gently with his thumb. It was that somewhat tentative, but brave, gesture that decided Ray.

“Tony and I were lovers …” Bodie’s hand jerked back. “… I said were.” And Ray reached out to touch Bodie’s hand. “We were together for two years but we weren’t right for each other. We parted friends. We’re still friends.”

“So the hug last night in the rehearsal room was …”

“… was simply that. A hug. From one friend to another. I needed his support and he gave it. Now tell me why it matters to you.”

“It matters. It does matter. That’s why I couldn’t stay around after I saw you with him. But I thought I might have a chance with you if you agreed to another day out.”

“Agreed! Who got the opportunity to object?”

“Ah … sorry about that. I wrote the note in haste. It was meant to be a question not a command.”

“Alright. I’ll forgive you this once. But don’t try to throw your weight around with me, mate.”

“Are you implying something about my splendid physique?”

“Ahem.” The cough was discreet but it was, nevertheless, an interruption. Both men turned to look at the waitress, who was staring at their still clasped hands, a blush staining her cheeks. “The restaurant is closing now, gentlemen, so I have to ask you to leave.”

“That’s okay, love, we were about to go anyway. Just let me settle the bill and we’ll be on our way.” Bodie was all charm and within minutes the waitress had accepted payment and was ushering them out of the restaurant, all smiles and good wishes for the rest of their day.

And the rest of the day seemed to fulfil her good wishes. Going to the Royal Observatory and onto the Prime Meridian, they both walked the metal strip embedded in the ground that separated the eastern and western hemispheres. Afterwards they walked back to the Pier, taking a cruiser back to Westminster, then stopping off in Leicester Square for a meal at yet another restaurant Bodie knew well and returning to Shepherd’s Bush by the same transport means as the morning.

Once again, Bodie walked Ray to the door of the Victorian terrace and, once again, he left him on the step, gently brushing his fingers over his misshapen cheekbone before disappearing into the night.

Having anticipated another kiss, he was left disappointed, but treasuring the possessive look in Bodie’s eyes as his fingers had stroked the cheekbone. For a seemingly decisive man of action, Bodie was oddly tentative in forwarding any relationship. With a sigh, Ray closed the front door and headed up the stairs.

*****

The next time Ray stepped onto the stage at the Palace Theatre, he was literally paralysed. It was as if every muscle in his body had seized up at the same time. He stood at the very edge of the stage; one step back and he’d be in the wings. He couldn’t bring himself to move forward and he didn’t understand why. He’d been on this stage before.

Around him, the work of a theatre production went on. Crew were busy moving scenery into position whilst some of the cast were getting the feel of the stage. He stared out beyond the footlights, awestruck. The theatre was magnificent, rising in tiers to the ‘gods’ at the back. The stalls seats swept back from the stage in a sea of red. Then the Royal Circle all gold and silver gilt trim. Then a further balcony and finally the seats at the very back, the very top of the theatre. Ray remembered his college days when all he could afford had been a seat up there. And the stage had been as impactful from there as from the front row of the stalls. He’d been able to see the action clearly and to hear every word.

“Come on, Ray. You’re allowed on the stage.” It was Bodie’s voice from behind him. A shiver went down his spine as the voice whispered and a breath touched his ear. It galvanised him into moving forward. He felt a hand in the middle of his back, pushing him gently but firmly to the middle of the stage.

Again, he stopped. “It’s amazing,” he whispered. “It’s as if I’m seeing it for the very first time.”

“You’ve now started to believe that you’re the lead in a major production. Auditions don’t really count. I don’t suppose you took in much of your surroundings that day.”

Ray laughed. “I was so nervous I could have been in the middle of Shepherd’s Bush Market for all the awareness I had of my surroundings. But I’ve worked out here in the past few weeks. It’s just that it’s suddenly all becoming real to me.”

“So, what do you think of it?”

“It’s magnificent. It still feels like a dream. I can’t believe I’m really here.”

“Oh, it’s real alright. And it won’t be long until every seat is filled. The house lights will go down. The orchestra will start up. The curtain will rise. And Ray Duncan will be a star.”

Ray knew he was blushing, a tide of red rising up his neck. “It’s what I’ve wanted for so long.” He turned towards Bodie, his eyes devouring the man. “I won’t let you down, Bodie.”

Blue eyes smiled back at him. “I know you won’t.” They stood like that forever. A loud crash from the back of the stage brought them back.

“Try it out.” Bodie moved back from him, gesturing expansively with one hand.

“Try what out?”

“The stage. Move around. Get used to the feel of it. Sing.”

“But I’ve done all that in rehearsals.”

“Not for me you haven’t.”

Ray realised that though there were technicians moving around the sound and lighting consoles, the crew had gone, leaving them alone on the stage. Hesitantly at first then with increasing confidence, he started to move, just getting used to the boards under his feet, conscious, as never before, of the man watching him. “What shall I sing?”

“Something for me.”

He closed his eyes, breathing deeply and evenly, then started to sing.

“Fish got to swim, birds got to fly
I gotta love one man till I die.
Can’t help lovin’ dat man of mine.
Tell me he’s lazy, tell me he’s slow,
Tell me I’m crazy (maybe I know).
Can’t help lovin’ dat man of mine.”

He stopped mid-flow. There was something odd about the acoustics. He looked across at Bodie, whose face was alight with humour.

“Wouldn’t have taken you for a ‘Showboat’ fan, Ray?”

“Seemed appropriate … there’s something different.” He remembered how his voice had sounded at the audition and during the stage rehearsals to date. There was something … odd. His voice had reverberated round the stage. He hadn’t been trying to project as he was singing for Bodie but somehow his voice had been lifted and pushed outward. He looked around again, now determined to get to the bottom of the puzzle. Suddenly his eyes were drawn to the footlights. Along the edge of the stage, between the lights, he noticed something and moved towards it, peering downwards. Realising what he was seeing, he spoke. “There are microphones down there.”

Bodie moved forward to join him. “Of course there are. What did you expect?”

He gave a brief huff. “I don’t know really. All the lessons with Shirley, breathing exercises, projection. I guess I just never expected mics.”

“Oh, you’ll still need to project. The mics are there to help. They cover most of the stage but they’re there to lift the sound off the stage and into the audience. They mustn’t replace the actor’s efforts.”

Just then a voice rang out from the back of the auditorium. “Thanks, Ray. That little bit of song helped me with the balancing.” The technician waved from the sound desk. “Want to stay on and help a bit more?”

“Don’t be cheeky, Steve. I’m taking our star for a coffee.”

“Well, it was worth asking.”

Ray and Bodie laughed, leaving the stage together.

*****

By the following Thursday, Ray had glimpsed Bodie around the theatre a total of three times but, yet again, there had been no opportunity to talk. Concentrating on his work gave him very little time to think about Bodie but each night before sleep overtook him, he would worry a little as to what the man wanted from him. If anything.

Just as Cowley called a close to rehearsals for the day, a voice called from the stall seats.

“George, I hope you don’t mind me speaking out.”

“Not at all. Please carry on.”

The attention of all the cast and crew was now focussed on Bodie as he stood and walked down the aisle towards the stage. “I’d like to thank you all for your hard work. And I’m sure you’re aware that there will be more hard work to come.” There were a few groans from the stage. Bodie smiled. “So, I’d like to invite you all to join me for a drink this evening. I’ll be in the bar at the Golden Eagle round the corner and the first round’s on me.” This time there were a few cheers and whoops from the stage.

*****

Almost all the cast and crew crowded into the bar and, for the first hour, it was chaotic as Bodie ensured that he bought everyone a drink. Gradually the crowd broke down into smaller groups, some staying at the bar, some finding tables and sitting down. The noise level remained high though as their work that day was dissected.

Ray found himself on a bench seat with Cowley on one side and Bodie on the other. Tony Murphy, Shirley Phillips and Kim Knight pulled up stools and squashed in around the small table. Their conversation remained centred on the day’s work but, whilst he listened, Ray’s real attention was focused on Bodie. The man was plastered all down the side of Ray as he leant in to participate in the conversation. All Ray wanted to do was lean back into the warmth but, though he relaxed slightly, he couldn’t give in to the urge in so public a place.

Gradually the crowd started to thin out as the team made their way home. They all had work the following day so, although it had been an exuberant evening, it couldn’t be a total blowout. Too much depended on them being able to do their jobs in the morning. Neither Bodie nor Cowley would tolerate too much alcohol indulgence if it affected performance.

Cowley, too, took his leave, freeing up space on the bench but Bodie did not move away. Instead Ray felt a hand caress his thigh then give a slight squeeze.

“Would you enjoy a run out to the country on Saturday?” the deep, dark voice whispered in his ear.

Turning, Ray found himself almost nose to nose with Bodie. “Are you asking?”

“I’m asking.”

“Then the answer is yes.”

Bodie’s smile was blinding.

*****

Early Saturday morning, Ray was standing by his window, watching the road. Expecting the Capri, he didn’t pay too much attention as a motorcycle pulled up in front of the house and a tall man in black leather dismounted. His face hidden by the helmet, he appeared to look straight up at Ray, who watched as the helmet was removed and it was Bodie grinning up at him. Ray raised his hand in acknowledgement, then turned from the window and made his way downstairs.

Running down the steps and onto the pavement, Ray greeted the vision in black leather. “Where did you get this? It’s a classic.” His eyes took in the gleaming condition of the Indian Brave motorbike.

“It belonged to a friend of my father. When he died, Dad bought it off his widow and gave it to me for my twenty-first. I don’t ride it too often but I thought you might like to join me today.”

“I’d love to. But I don’t have a helmet.”

“Not a problem. I have a spare.” Bodie opened the box on the back of the bike and produced the twin to the helmet he was carrying. “Let me help you put it on. It might take some doing to get all those curls tucked away.”

More than capable of putting it on for himself, Ray, nevertheless, found himself standing perfectly still whilst Bodie positioned the helmet, pushing the long curls under it, then tightening the strap so that the helmet sat snugly. Once finished, Bodie straddled the bike, replacing his own helmet as he indicated that Ray should join him. In one smooth move, Ray settled himself on the saddle, tucked his legs behind Bodie’s, finding the small foot supports. The engine fired and the bike moved smoothly away from the kerb.

Later that afternoon, after lunch at a pub near Marlow, Ray leant against a five-bar gate, looking out across green fields and re-living the experience of riding a motorbike with Bodie. He felt again the throbbing power of the engine as Bodie guided the bike through the streets of West London before opening up the throttle once they were on the motorway. Bodie handled the bike with confidence, giving lie to his claim not to ride it often. Ray re-lived the feeling of pressing up against Bodie’s back as the bike roared onwards and the wind rushed past him. Wrapping his arms around the leather-clad waist in front of him, he’d revelled in the warmth and strength he could feel.

Now he glanced at the man standing next to him, also leaning on the gate, and wondered just what was going on. Bodie had now sought him out on several occasions but could they be called dates? Or was he simply the concerned impresario ensuring that his leading man took a break from the treadmill. There had been tender gestures such as the stroking of his cheek after their Greenwich trip. There had been close physical proximity such as sitting next to each other at the pub though that could be explained away by the cramped, crowded conditions. But Bodie had made no further attempt to kiss him.

If this was the start of a relationship, it was one of the oddest Ray had encountered. He was used to the instant attraction, the mutual gratification and the parting. Even with Tony, the relationship had developed after they’d jumped into bed together. Was Bodie courting him?

*****

Ray’s thinking was no clearer over the next few days. Concentrating on work kept his attention focused away from Bodie during the day but at night his thoughts whirled.

On the Wednesday morning, as he left his dressing room on the way to an acting lesson with Shirley, Ray bumped into Bodie who was obviously about to knock.

“Hi. Did you want me?”

“I wanted to catch you before you got embroiled with Shirley.” Both men grinned. Shirley was an excellent drama coach but her overwhelming enthusiasm for all things theatrical could, sometimes, be a little hard to take. “I wanted to invite you to come down to Buckleigh Manor with me this weekend.” Bodie looked almost bashful in issuing the invitation. Somewhat taken aback, Ray couldn’t get a reply past a suddenly dry throat. “Er … I quite understand if you don’t want to come. Our original meeting there couldn’t have been pleasant for you.”

Bodie started to turn away from Ray. Realising that Bodie thought he was rejecting the invitation, Ray reached out and caught an arm, halting the retreat.

“I would love to come with you. I’d like to see what you’ve done with the place. There’s nothing but rumour and innuendo in the village.”

“I’d like to correct any misconceptions. But be prepared.”

“For what?”

“I want to get some more work done. How are your DIY skills?”

 

Chapter Eleven

Slipping out of London early on Saturday morning, traffic was light and the journey was completed quickly.

The exterior of Buckleigh Manor had been transformed. Scaffolding had obscured Ray’s last view of the house but now that had been removed and as they drove between the gateposts and down the long drive, the full splendour of the house was revealed. Built in the 1850s it was an impressive Victorian country house with the Mock Tudor brick and timber elevations now fully restored.

Bodie parked the Capri with a flourish by the canopied entrance to the Manor. Turning to Ray, he smiled, “Welcome to my home. Let me show you around.”

An hour later they were sitting side by side at the kitchen table, mugs of hot coffee steaming gently, bacon sandwiches in hand.

Bodie had shown Ray around the Manor from the vestibule with its original tiled floor through to a reception hall with a coffered ceiling. On one side of the hall was the, as yet, unfurnished drawing room with a ten foot high Victorian bay window and French doors leading out onto a paved terrace. Also on this side of the house was what would eventually become a library but, at the moment, it was full of decorating materials. On the other side of the hall were a further reception room and a dining room leading to the kitchen in which they were now sitting. At the far end of the kitchen was a small utility room, which led into yet another large room, which Bodie explained he intended to turn into a small gymnasium, complete with shower room. The upstairs was as impressive with four bedrooms on the first floor, all ensuite, with the master bedroom also having a dressing room. There was also a smaller bedroom that Bodie had already converted into a study, complete with telex and fax machines so that he could stay in touch with the Layton-Bentley organisation even whilst indulging in some DIY. A further floor added another four smaller bedrooms, sharing two bathrooms. Each bedroom had views over the extensive grounds to the surrounding woods.

“What are you planning out there?” Piles of earth and a bright yellow machine had caught Ray’s attention. “Looks like you’re trying to dig up the whole garden.”

Bodie came to his side and followed his gaze out of the window. “I decided I would really like a swimming pool.” This was said so casually that it didn’t register at first. With the vagaries of the British weather, private pools were still relatively rare so Ray felt he had to comment. “In this climate?”

“I know it seems a little odd. I haven’t convinced Bob about it yet and he’s building the thing.” Dark blue eyes, reflecting the daylight through the window, gleamed at Ray as he continued. “I spent a lot of time in Los Angeles a couple of years ago and got used to the convenience of a pool on site. Swimming is great all round exercise and I’ve got the land sitting there so it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“Aren’t you worried that you won’t be able to use it for most of the year?”

“Ah, that’s the beauty of my plan. It’ll be an indoor outdoor pool.”

“What on earth is one of those?”

“There’ll be a pool house so I can swim all year round. But in good weather, the roof and walls can be rolled back so it’s an outdoor pool. Clever, eh?”

“Very. It looks as if you’ve picked the right spot for it too. South facing. Plenty of sun when there is any.”

“Too right. I felt it important to make the most of the site. Once I move in fully, I don’t intend to move again.”

“A real family home.”

“Oh, I don’t know about the family but definitely a home.” Bodie drew Ray away from the window, guiding him with a hand on his elbow. “Shall we continue?”

Bodie had kept up the running commentary as they toured the house, pointing out the work completed and explaining his plans for the rest. He was obviously very proud of his home and Ray found his enthusiasm infectious as he began to realise that Bodie loved the Manor.

Now, as they relaxed in the recently completed kitchen, Ray wanted to know more than the mechanics of the house refurbishment.

“So what brought you to Buckleigh? How did you find the Manor?”

Bodie looked thoughtful for a minute before responding. “I took the bike out for a long run one Sunday. Just headed away from Town, no particular destination in mind. I eventually stopped for a pint and a bite to eat.” Ray grinned and raised one eyebrow to say ‘typical’. Bodie continued. “After I’d had lunch, I decided to take a different route home and ended up down this little side road that ended at the gates. They were chained shut but there was a For Sale Sign. Intrigued, I left the bike and climbed over the wall. And found the Manor. Let’s just say it was love at first sight. On the Monday I bought it.”

“Just like that!”

“Well … it wasn’t quite that easy. But I had the money and the Manor had been on the market for quite a while.”

“I remember my mother talking about how the house couldn’t be sold. Something about the renovation cost.”

“Oh, that’s all too true. You’ve seen the amount of work that remains to be done. You should have seen it when I first viewed it. A wreck doesn’t begin to cover it.”

“What was it that made you buy it? I can see it’s a beautiful house now but I hear you have a lovely flat in London. You surely didn’t need a dilapidated old manor house.”

“I definitely didn’t need it! But there was just something about it that called out to me.” Bodie seemed almost embarrassed. “It just seemed so lonely. Boarded up windows, broken guttering, gaping holes in the roof, ivy taking over the walls, eating away at the brickwork. And that was just what I could see on first viewing. Don’t get me started on damp and dry rot. Oh, it was a wreck all right and quite a few people told me I was mad to even think about being able to bring it back to its former glory. But, as you’ve seen, most of the structural work has been done. I’d begun to think I‘d never see the back of the scaffolding. Now we’re concentrating on the interior.”

“We?”

“I was very lucky to find a local builder who was prepared to tackle the job. And who had the know-how necessary. Although it’s not a listed building, I wanted it restored not modernised.”

“I didn’t think central heating was Victorian.” Ray grinned.

“Of course it’s not. I was talking about the outside and the period features inside. We’re putting in all mod cons as well. I want to be able to live in comfort and that means warmth and running hot water.”

“So what would you like me to do?” For an instant, Ray thought he saw quite a different answer forming but all Bodie said was, “Depends on your DIY skills. There’s all kinds of jobs need doing. Although Bob and his team are doing most of the work, I like getting my hands dirty. It’s an escape from London.”

“Do you need an escape so badly that you’ve bankrupted yourself?”

“Oh, I’m not bankrupt. Not by a long shot. ‘Involvement’ is going to be a smash hit.”

“That confident, are you?”

“Yeah. I know the man starring in it. And he’s going to wow those West End audiences and the cash will come rolling in.”

Ray felt a warm glow that Bodie has such faith in him. “Thanks.”

“Any time, sunshine. I know how to pick ‘em. Now let’s put you to work.”

“Okay. Where first?”

*****

Two hours later, Ray stopped for a moment and looked across the room. Bodie had decided that they should strip the wallpaper from the small reception room next to the dining room. He was keen to get the downstairs rooms ready for decoration.

The reception room was as well proportioned as the rest of the house but, at some point, the wood panelling had been removed and they were now trying to remove several layers of wallpaper and sand down the skirting boards and doors ready for painting. The window frames had already been done when the rotted originals had been replaced.

From the top of a stepladder, Ray watched Bodie, who was working on the skirting, and who was, apparently, unaware of the observation. Dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, he was a world away from the be-suited theatre impresario. As he crouched, the denim pulled taut across muscular thighs. As he leaned forward to work on the skirting, his t-shirt stretched across broad shoulders and emphasised a trim waist.

“Like what you see?”

Bodie’s sudden enquiry startled Ray and the stepladder wobbled alarmingly. “What?”

“You’ve been staring at me for the last five minutes.” Bodie stood and turned to face Ray, stretching cramped muscles as he did so, causing the tight t-shirt to part from the jeans, revealing a flat, white abdomen.

“How do you know that?”

“Got eyes in the back of my head, I have.” Changing the subject, Bodie continued. “Time for a break, I think. Fancy a coffee?”

Thrown slightly by the change of topic, Ray paused before answering. “Yeah. That sounds like a good idea.”

*****

By mid-afternoon, the room was ready for replastering. Side by side, they stood back and appreciated the amount of work they’d got done. Once again Bodie seemed to back away from a more personal conversation and they’d discussed more neutral topics as they’d finished the work. Ray couldn’t figure out what Bodie wanted from him but stuck by his decision to just play it by ear.

Looking down at his damp jeans and wet paper spattered t-shirt, Ray grimaced. “I think I’d better get changed before we pop over to Mum’s.”

“Are you sure she won’t mind?”

“Not a chance. She loves company and was thrilled when I rang to say we’d be popping in for tea.”

“Mmm … did you tell her who you were bringing? I’m not Mr Popular in the village.”

“Although Mum loves to gossip, she also makes up her own mind about people. And I’ll vouch for you.”

“Reassure her I’m not a mass murderer?”

“Absolutely. She’ll be able to see for herself that you’re tall, dark …”

“… and engagingly modest.”

“That too. Where can I change?”

“Use the master bedroom. It’s the only one with running water in the en suite. Well … running water from the taps, not down the wall.”

“Okay. See you back down here in twenty minutes or so.”

*****

Deciding to walk into the village, they set off down the drive but after passing through the gates, Ray directed Bodie down a path that cut through the woods. The shortcut would take five or more minutes off the walk to Acorn Cottage. Walking comfortably side by side, their shoulders nudged every so often and it felt right.

“Are you sure your mother won’t mind?” Bodie asked for the second time since Ray had told him of the invitation to tea. “It’s a bit of an imposition, having a stranger descend out of the blue.”

“She wants to meet you. I’ve told her about you and now she wants to meet.”

“What have you told her?”

“Just about ‘Involvement’ and how the production is going. I ring her every couple of days to see how she’s doing and I’ve been filling her in. She’s a little lonely since Dad died and it’s important to me to at least speak to her regularly. I can’t get down here as often as I’d like.”

“Didn’t you say you had sisters?”

“I do indeed. Katie and Emma. The banes of my life growing up. They’re both older than me and took great delight in tormenting their little brother. They haven’t improved as they’ve got older.”

“And you love them both dearly”

“Adore them. Unfortunately they live on the other side of London. Both married with kids and it’s become a major logistical exercise for them to come and visit. They speak to Mum regularly too but I know she misses seeing them and the kids.”

“Why does she stay in Buckleigh? Couldn’t she move closer to one of your sisters.”

“I suppose she could. But the move here was Dad’s dream and it became hers. I don’t like the idea of her living out here alone but she seems to find lots of things to occupy her time. The village has a lot of groups and activities and she seems to be involved with most of them. She also believes that our lives are our own. That we shouldn’t be dependent upon her and vice versa.”

“So she knows.”

“Knows what?”

“That you’re gay.”

Ray stopped and faced Bodie. This was the first time the subject of sexuality had been broached though the attraction was mutual given the kiss after the Brighton trip. Always honest with himself, he’d always tried to be honest with everyone else so there was no question now about his answer.

“I came out to Mum and Dad just after I went to college. Considering his background in the Met, Dad was amazingly supportive. And I never expected anything else from Mum. I just knew that I had to be honest with them. That said, I’ve never felt very comfortable introducing them to any of my partners. I guess the short-lived nature of most gay relationships just made that difficult. But they did meet, and liked, Tony.”

Bodie reached out and took Ray’s hand and together they continued to walk along the woodland path.

“And what about me?” asked Bodie.

“I haven’t said anything to Mum about you specifically. I just told her I was bringing a friend. But don’t be surprised if you get the full interrogation. She wants to see me settled like Katie and Emma.”

“And do you want to be settled?”

“Isn’t it what we all want?” Still not sure of how Bodie felt about him, he wanted to keep this man in his life somehow but wasn’t prepared to commit without mutual agreement.

Before Bodie could answer, they came to the edge of the small wood and Ray pointed out Acorn Cottage across the green. Reluctantly their hands parted and they continued on.

*****

Molly Doyle was in her element. Two good looking men to entertain, even if one of them was her son, and she got out the good china, presenting them with an afternoon tea that would have satisfied an army platoon after manoeuvres. Ray had called his mother early in the morning and it would appear that she’d baked as the dining table groaned with the results: a Victoria sandwich cake, a fruit loaf, an apple pie, fruit and plain scones with jam and cream, plus a pile of sandwiches made with homemade bread and a variety of delicious fillings.

Bodie rubbed his hands together with glee when he saw the table and Ray laughed. “I think she knows you too well already.”

“Ray! Don’t be rude.” Mrs Doyle turned to Bodie. “Please help yourself, Mr Brody.”

“Mum! It’s Bodie not Brody. I thought I’d already explained that Mrs Roberts got it wrong.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry … What must you think of me?”

“It’s alright, Mrs Doyle. I can see how the mistake happened. And, please, just call me Bodie.”

“That’s unusual. Do you have a Christian name?”

“Three of them. I just prefer to use Bodie.”

“Why? What’s wrong with them?”

“Mum! Leave the poor guy alone.” Ray’s voice showed his exasperation. He knew how much his mother could pry. She didn’t mean to be rude but she was interested in people and sometimes her curiosity got the better of her and she would push and push until stopped.

“It’s fine, Ray. I don’t mind your Mum’s questions. After all, I’m a stranger in her house and she has a right to know more about me.”

“That’s very generous of you but feel free to refuse to answer. Dad always said they could have used her on the Force. Her interrogation technique is second to none.”

“Go on with you, Ray. That’s stuff and nonsense. Now would you be a dear and fetch the tea tray from the kitchen? It’s all ready. Just needs the boiling water in the teapot.”

******

When Ray returned to the dining room, Bodie and his mother were old friends. Sitting on adjacent chairs, Bodie was making inroads into the food supplied whilst entertaining Molly with tales from the theatre. He seemed to have worked with a number of the actors whose names Molly was flinging at him and he was sharing scurrilous stories with her. Once again, Ray was sure that most of the tales contained only a grain of truth but he was pleased to see his mother comfortable in Bodie’s company.

Putting the tea tray down at the end of the table, Ray offered to pour and then settled in to listen.

*****

Several hours later, Ray and Bodie left Acorn Cottage. They set off to cross the Green again, heading for the public footpath through Buckleigh Wood. Molly had insisted on packing up the remains of the afternoon tea and Ray now carried an over-stuffed plastic carrier.

“Thanks, Ray.”

“For what?”

“Introducing me to your mother. She’s an absolute delight.”

“She is that.”

“She seems to be coping very well on her own.”

“It’s been hard on her. It was always Dad’s dream to move out to the country and they had it all planned out how they were going to spend his retirement. Then he dies and most of Mum’s friends and relatives are still in London and it’s difficult for them to get out here on a regular basis. The girls come over as often as possible but it’s not like they live just around the corner. But she won’t go back. This was Dad’s dream and she won’t leave it. I know she doesn’t look it, and she certainly doesn’t act like it, but she is a strong woman. Has a stubborn streak a mile wide.”

“Sounds like someone else I know.” Before Ray could respond, Bodie pointed across the Green. “What’s that?”

Ray peered across the expanse of smooth grass that was used by the local cricket team. “The fish and chip van.”

“That sounds like a good idea.” And Bodie changed direction.

“What’s a good idea?”

“Fish and chips for supper.”

“But we’ve only just finished tea.”

“So!”

*****

It had grown dark whilst they were enjoying tea at Acorn Cottage and they walked back to the Manor in near pitch black, as there were very few streetlights. The moon had yet to rise and though the sky was clear, the stars didn’t offer a great deal of light, which made them grateful for the torch Bodie had slipped into his jacket pocket. They hadn’t spoken much after buying supper but the silence was comfortable. The Manor loomed up in front of them, a dark monolith against the star laden sky. Nothing broke the outline of the house as Bodie had moved the car to the stable block at the rear that served as a garage. Letting them in, Bodie led the way to the kitchen, flicking on the light switches as he strode past.

By the time they got their supper back to the Manor, Ray realised that he was hungry. The walk had been just enough exercise to encourage his appetite. It didn’t take them long to set out the paper wrapped feast on the kitchen table. Bodie produced a couple of beers from the fridge and they settled down to enjoy their meal.

The sound of breaking glass crashed through the house. “What the …” Ray jumped to his feet and whirled, trying to establish what had happened. Bodie was already moving, heading out of the kitchen, down the corridor and into the reception hall.

“Damn it!”

There was broken glass strewn across the tiled floor, along with a half brick, about which there was something odd. As Bodie picked it up, Ray realised that the brick was wrapped in paper. Bodie unwrapped the brick, glanced at the paper, then screwed it up before dropping it.

“I’ll get something to clean this mess up.” And Bodie headed back towards the kitchen, still carrying the brick, returning very quickly with a dustpan and brush. Ray surveyed the damage. The brick had shattered one of the stained glass windows to one side of the vestibule and the front door. As Bodie started to clear up, Ray bent down and picked up the discarded piece of paper. He read it.

“Leeve the vilag now. You’ve bin told. Your sort ain’t wanted here.”

“Bodie. What’s going on? What does this mean?” Ray pushed the paper towards Bodie.

“I’ll explain in a minute. Just let me finish this.”

*****

“It began before I even started work on the house,” explained Bodie. “As soon as the Sold sign went up and it was known who’d bought the place. At first it was just nasty letters, accusing me of all kinds of lurid things and when the phone line was connected, there were calls, threatening, obscene. Now it’s escalated to damage and theft. Windows broken, tools stolen. Before the house was secure, some of the original panelling was ripped out; a hosepipe was run into the house from a standpipe and the tap turned on. Luckily one of the workmen had forgotten something and returned in time to turn it off before it ruined the tiling in the hall. The crew have also had threats but Bob isn’t a man to be easily intimidated nor are the men who work for him.”

“Did you think I was responsible?”

“What?”

“That day when you found me in the drawing room. Did you think I was part of this campaign of destruction?” Ray waved an arm to encompass everything Bodie had said. “You were so angry then and later in the office. I couldn’t work out why.”

Bodie had the grace to look embarrassed. “Yes. Yes, I suppose I did. I‘d come down for the day to see how everything was going and found that some of the planking had been pushed to the ground. Then I heard a noise and walked in to find you there, bold as brass. I saw red, I’m afraid. Didn’t even think to give you the benefit of the doubt. And then you turned up at the office! I was beginning to feel besieged.”

“I couldn’t work out what it was I was supposed to have done. I’ve never provoked such an extreme reaction in anyone before. I’m glad you decided to give me a second chance.” This almost shyly.

Bodie looked directly into Ray’s eyes, his own shining with some emotion Ray couldn’t quite decipher. “Getting to know you better left me in no doubt.”

“Doubt?”

“There was no way you would be involved in anything so underhand. You’re too forthright and honest. It didn’t take me long to work that out.”

“I’m glad you changed your mind. It was decidedly uncomfortable being the subject of so much hostility. And not knowing the reason behind it. And we seemed fated to keep running into each other.”

“I’m glad I changed my mind too. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here.”

“And, despite this incident, I’ve had a lovely day. So have you informed the police?”

“So speaks the copper’s son! They’ve done what they can. But so far they haven’t been able to track down the culprits. I thought at first it was just resentment because the house had been bought by an outsider but it just goes on and on.”

“I know there was concern in the village. And I heard some pretty wild rumours concerning you. But I didn’t think anyone would go this far.”

“Well, someone sees me as the devil incarnate. Personal abuse I can take. I’m a big boy and I didn’t get this far in show business without being able to take the knocks. But why target the house? Surely they can see the work progressing and it must be better to have a restored house than a dangerous wreck?”

“I don’t know, Bodie. Whoever is behind this must believe they can drive you away. But to what end?”

“I’ll report this latest incident to the police and ask if they can put a watch on the place. One thing we do know for certain.”

“What’s that?”

“The culprit can’t spell!”

“Very true but, unfortunately, it’s not that uncommon. So what now?”

“Bob and the crew will be back on Monday. I’ll get him to source a replacement for that stained glass. It was an original piece that had somehow survived all the years of neglect. Damn! Now ... we were finishing supper.”

“It’s stone cold by now.”

“Then how about a brandy?”

“That would be good.”

Bodie pulled out a bottle and two glasses from the Welsh dresser. “Come with me.” He turned and led the way out of the kitchen, across the hall and into the drawing room. Ray remembered the room from his first visit to the Manor. It was in here that Bodie had confronted him when he’d chased his mother’s Papillon through the open French doors. Now the doors were closed against the cold night air but there were no curtains to hide the darkness. There was no carpeting or furniture beyond the piano sitting in one corner.

Bodie crossed the room and pulled off the dust cover. He put the brandy and glasses on top of some sheet music on the piano and poured two large measures. “Join me.” He indicated the large leather piano bench as he held out a glass. Ray took the glass and sat down next to Bodie. There wasn’t a huge amount of room on the seat so they touched all down one side.

“You play?” he asked as Bodie opened the instrument.

“Self-taught but I get by.” Bodie began to pick out a tune with one hand.

“That’s nice. What is it? I don’t recognise it.”

“You wouldn’t. No one’s heard it before. It’s the love theme for ‘Involvement’. It’s called ‘Sing My Heart’. Paul sings it to Anne in the middle of the second act. We’ll be putting it into the show this week.” Putting his glass back on the top of the piano, he started to play.

Ray closed his eyes and let the music curl around him. The notes called to him at some visceral level and he could feel them reverberate deep within. Then he heard the words as Bodie began to sing. Unconsciously he leaned into Bodie, resting against him, and found himself humming a counter melody.

“I’m glad you like it. I wrote it for someone very special. Here’s the words.” And Bodie passed him the sheet music. Glancing down at the words, he found his attention caught by the passion invoked, the caring and the longing. Slowly, cautiously, he started to fit the words to the melody. His voice was low and husky as he realised how perfect the song was for his range. Was it possible that it had been written for him?

Some time later, realising the music had stopped; he opened his eyes and turned his head. Bodie was watching him. He smiled. Bodie moved slowly, cautiously, and then they were kissing. Sweetly, passionately. As they came up for air, Bodie spoke, “There’s a big bed upstairs. Share it with me.”

*****

The master bedroom was very much a work in progress. There was only one piece of furniture. A bed. “A big bed,” Bodie had said. Understating it a little, he thought. It was bloody enormous! This was the one room Bodie had missed out on the grand tour. Now he stood as if hypnotised by the sight of plush velour bed cover.

Coming up behind him, Bodie slipped his arms around his waist. “How about a relaxing bath to get you in the mood?”

Ray wriggled his hips back against Bodie. “I don’t think I need to get any more in the mood … but a bath would be nice.”

“I’ll sort it then. Back in a minute.” And Bodie disappeared into the en suite bathroom.

Ray’s mind flipped between the bed and what they would soon be doing in it to the sound of water splashing and Bodie humming ‘Sing My Heart’. He had a very pleasant baritone and carried a tune well.

Popping his head round the bathroom door, Bodie beckoned Ray to join him. The bathroom was a sybarite’s dream. As well as a walk-in shower, two sinks, a toilet and bidet, there was a massive claw-footed bath, which looked as if it could accommodate half a football team. In the time it had taken him to draw the bath, adding a scented oil that now filled the steamy room, he had also lit candles, adding to the seductive scene.

Looking at the romantic scene, Ray couldn’t resist asking, “Were you planning on seducing me?”

“Were you planning on letting me?” came the swift response.

“I just might be persuaded.”

As he started to pull off his sweatshirt, Bodie stopped him. “Let me,” and he eased the garment up Ray’s torso, along his arms and over his head. He flung it to one side, stole a quick kiss and started to unbutton the shirt. This too was removed with great care, Bodie’s fingers caressing as he unfastened each button. He saw Bodie swallow hard as his torso was revealed. Broad, warm hands stroked his skin down to the belt buckle, conveying a great deal of care through the physical gesture.

The buckle snagged as he pulled it through the belt loops. Ray leaned into him almost as though he couldn’t stand by himself. Instinctively, Bodie caught him.

“Not long now, love. Just let me get the rest of these clothes off.”

The jeans slid down the long legs and Bodie helped him to step out of them. The boxers quickly followed, revealing a jutting erection, throbbing with need. Ray tried to take himself in hand but Bodie gently moved his hand away, “I’ll take care of this for you,” and he knelt on the floor.

Ray watched Bodie run his hands across the smooth skin of his stomach and felt the muscles contract and ripple. One finger ran from the base of the arousal to the tip and Ray groaned. “Please.” Gripping the base of the erection firmly but gently, Bodie kissed the tip, tasting his lover for the first time. He parted his lips, taking the tip of the penis into his mouth and sucked. Ray quivered and gripped Bodie’s shoulders, his fingers bruising in his need. Bodie swallowed, and, in one movement, took the whole of the penis into his mouth. He increased the pressure and then released, creating waves of sensation, which seemed to shudder through to Ray’s very soul. He was already too close to the edge for too much finesse and Bodie released the base of the cock and increased the suction.

As the climax exploded from him, Ray felt his knees give way but he was held firmly as he rode out the orgasm. Swallowing all there was of Ray, Bodie finally raised his head and let him collapse into his arms. Knee to knee, they knelt and, as Ray slumped even more, their foreheads touched in benediction.

Somehow through the haze of climax, Ray managed to verbalise something, which was suddenly at the forefront of his brain “This isn’t your first time with a man, is it?”

“What do you think?” answered Bodie.

“Damn! You’re doing it again, answering questions with questions.”

Just then Ray started to shiver so Bodie helped him to his feet, guided him towards the bath and checked that the bath water was still warm. He helped his lover into the scented depths. As Ray laid his head back on the bath rim, he sighed and shut his eyes in bliss.

“Just relax here for a few minutes, I’ll be back.” Ray could sense Bodie moving away from the bath and acknowledged the comment with a lax wave of his hand.

He continued to breathe deeply, evenly, as his chest rose and fell slowly, to all appearances asleep, but he heard Bodie return and his lashes fluttered as he sensed his approach.

Ray felt a gentle hand on his shoulder. As he opened his eyes, Bodie smiled.

“Let’s get you clean and into bed. You’ll chill if you stay in there much longer.”

“Why I do believe you have nefarious designs on my body.” Ray stretched languidly, never breaking eye contact.

“Whether I have designs, nefarious or otherwise, you won’t thank me if you wake up in a cold bath. And I’d like to be thanked by you.” Bodie picked up the large natural sponge from the edge of the bath and poured a generous amount of the bath soap onto it. He ran the sponge down the hairy chest, eliciting a murmur of appreciation, and back up again. He lifted Ray’s left arm, easing the sponge from shoulder to hand, leaving a trail of sweet smelling foam. He repeated the action with the other arm. Ray’s head dropped back to the rim, as he writhed sensuously with the sensations Bodie was creating with the simple act of bathing.

“Lean forward for me, love.”

The sponge moved deliciously along prominent collarbones and down the leanly muscled back. Ray quivered as the sponge moved over his shoulder blades and back up to collarbones and neck.

Ray cricked his neck and moaned softly as the caresses eased their way to sore and abused muscles. He hadn’t realised just how tired he was. This break from the rigours of the play was more than welcome.

Bodie followed the path of the sponge with soft kisses along the ridge of Ray’s shoulders. As the sponge moved over onto his lover’s chest, the kisses trailed up the long elegant neck and lingered around an earlobe. Ray groaned again.

“Much more of that and you’ll be in here with me.” He stopped the descent of the sponge just above his groin. Bodie grinned as he looked down at Ray’s erection peeking through the bubbles.

“Come on, love, let’s get you out of there. I can think of somewhere we can continue this in much more comfort.” He pulled the bathplug out, grabbed one of the large, fluffy bath sheets that had been warming for just this moment, and pulled Ray to his feet, wrapping him in the towel and his arms. For a heartbeat, Ray rested in the safest haven he had ever known.

Slowly they moved back into the bedroom. Leaving him for a moment, Bodie pulled off the heavy throw and cushions, revealing crisp white Egyptian cotton sheets. Going back to Ray, he pulled him into an embrace and then, almost reverentially, pushed him down onto the gigantic bed.

After pulling off his own clothes, he followed Ray down and covered him completely with his own body. He nipped at his lover’s lips as he settled between the long, athletic legs, which had opened to welcome him. Ray felt as if the heat was rising from every inch of skin, as he was touched with lips and fingers, caressed with murmurs and endearments, coaxed to an increasingly passionate response. The blue eyes glittered in the dim light, picking up the lights from the lamps. Pupils dilated. Breath hitched. Hands grasped golden flesh, kneading, moulding.

Bodie reached for the lube, conveniently placed on the bedside table, and coated the beautiful, long, thick cock, continuing to lick and bite at erect nipples.

Holding Ray’s gaze, Bodie also prepared himself, smoothing the lube into his passage, and then pushing upwards on powerful thighs, he got into position. Slowly, carefully, he lowered his body, sheathing Ray inside.

Ray moaned as the tight, hot channel gripped him. He wanted to pound into the flesh encasing him; he wanted to hear Bodie scream his name as he came, but he couldn’t move as he was pinned firmly to the bed. “Please,” the plea was strained as Ray tried to verbalise what he needed, but Bodie seemed to know what he wanted.

As he pulled upwards, he clenched his internal muscles.

“Oh, God, Bodie …” Ray grabbed Bodie’s hips and tried to push down, to get the rhythm he so desperately needed. But Bodie refused to be rushed.

“Easy, love, I’m going to give you what you need. Stay with me.”

Gradually, slowly, Bodie used his body to worship Ray. The lubrication eased movement, up and down, squeezing, clenching. Ray’s hands moved to the sheets, clutching, as his head tossed from side to side. He was so close. He could feel the pressure building; tiny tremors from the tips of his toes to the sweat drenched curls on his head.

Ray knew he couldn’t last much longer. But it was so good. He never wanted it to end.

Bodie leaned forward and snatched a kiss as with one final lunge up and down, he took Ray deep within him. Ray’s climax shuddered through him as he threw his head back and cried, “Bodie!”

Bodie’s own orgasm followed seconds later.

 

Chapter Twelve

Just as they were finishing for the day, there was a commotion from the back of the main rehearsal room as the double doors were swung open, only prevented from slamming into the walls on either side by the closers on each. The cast remaining on the makeshift stage all turned to look as did those in the seating who had been watching the run-through.

A pretty, blonde woman was hurrying down the room, hair slipping out of a bun, glasses slipping down her nose, a handbag and a pile of papers starting to slip out of her hands.

Bodie was the first to speak. “Susie!” He moved to greet her with a hug, obviously delighted to see her.

Tony leant into Ray and whispered in his ear. “So that’s the mystery lady.”

“What?”

“The other half of the creative team behind ‘Involvement’. Susie Fischer. I wonder what she’s doing here.”

Ray twisted so that he could see Tony’s face. “What’s so mysterious?” He could see the glee as his co-star prepared to impart some of the gossip in which he took such delight.

“She’s been working with Bodie for years but she never, and I mean never, comes to the theatre until First Night. And just look at her now. All over him.”

Together they looked across at the couple, who were still entwined. Whatever the conversation, it was intense.

Unable to hear what was being said, Ray found himself wondering about the nature of the relationship between Bodie and Susie Fischer. They were obviously close, but was it a close working partnership or was there more? He knew he had no claim on Bodie. Their relationship was, as yet, undefined. But he could feel the tendrils of jealousy clawing their way into his heart.

Starting to move towards the exit with Tony, Ray heard his name called.

“Ray! There’s someone I’d like you to meet.”

Giving Tony a gentle shove towards the door. “Go on. I’ll see you later,” he told him.

Tony grinned. “Looks like you get to meet her. Tell me all. I want the full story.”

“Ray!” Bodie’s voice echoed.

“Gotta go.” Moving quickly, he stepped lightly down the steps and joined the small group. Bodie released Susie and draped an arm, casually, around Ray’s shoulders, drawing him into the conversation.

“Susie, I’d like you to meet the star of our show, Ray Doyle. Ray, this is Susie Fischer. Co-creator of ‘Involvement’.”

Smiling, they shook hands. Ray could feel the jealousy retreating under the warmth of Bodie’s arm.

“I’m very pleased to meet you at last, Ray. Bodie has told me so much about you.”

“Oh! All good I hope.” He grinned at his lover and was rewarded with a slightly embarrassed, “Of course.”

Cowley cleared his throat and spoke for the first time. “You were about to tell us what brought you haring down to the theatre. Lovely though it is to see you, Susie, it is unusual for you to turn up during rehearsals.”

Pulling a newspaper out of her capacious handbag, she waved it towards them. “What’s going on? This article talks about some person called Ray Duncan playing the lead. You can’t change the casting at this stage. And what about Ray? Did you know about this?” She shoved the newspaper towards Ray.

“Susie, Susie, Susie. Calm down. There’s absolutely nothing to worry about.” Bodie was grinning at her, which seemed to increase her agitation.

“Oh, you! You never worry about anything. Always Mr Calm. Always with a plan. Well, how do you explain that?” And she slapped Bodie’s ear with the paper. But it was Cowley who answered her.

“First of all, Ray Duncan is Ray Doyle. So there has been no change to the casting. Secondly, we’d agreed that there would be no advance publicity about Ray. He has enough to do without coping with the press.”

“So how do you explain that article?”

“We still need publicity for the show and the press release we put out was intended to gain maximum attention for the show whilst misdirecting the press attention away from Ray.” Bodie continued the explanation. “I think it’s succeeded, don’t you?”

“It certainly fooled me,” said a now smiling co-writer. “I was convinced you’d gone off your trolley and changed the whole show without a word to me.”

“Would I do that to you, Suz?”

“Yes, you would if you thought you’d get away with it.” She turned to Ray. “I’m very glad to find out that this isn’t true and very pleased to meet you at last.”

“And I you. But I believe your partner has some explaining to do.”

“I’ve just explained,” blustered Bodie.

“Not to me, you haven’t.” Ray glared.

“I think that’s a cue for me to buy you a cup of coffee,” said Cowley. “Come on, Susie. You can tell me what you’ve been up to.”

“I think that would be a good idea.” As they started to walk away, she turned, handed the newspaper to Ray and then stuck her tongue out at Bodie.

“Don’t be childish.”

“It’s the only way to treat him, George. You know that.” Their voices faded as they went through the exit .

“What was that all about?”

“You’d better read that first.” Bodie indicated the newspaper. Silence followed as the article was quickly read through and its content digested.

It was a good piece, selling the story behind ‘Involvement’ and only mentioning, in passing, the names of the main cast. When he’d finished, Ray looked across at Bodie. “That’s fine. What was Susie all worked up about?”

“Apart from not knowing your stage name, she hadn’t seen the press release so didn’t know the direction the advance publicity was going to take.”

“Does she normally react like that when something unexpected happens?”

“Unfortunately, yes. I really should have remembered to tell her what Cowley and I had planned.”

“Good to see that type of loyalty to the show though.”

“Yes, it is. She’s amazing to work with though she does have a tendency to treat me like a kid brother. And I’m older than she is.”

“Cowley mentioned that she never comes to rehearsal.”

“That’s true. Shows how upset she was. Susie likes to keep very much in the background once we’re in production. Says it’s better to leave it to me and Cowley. But she’s always ready with an opinion if I need one. I’ve relied on her a lot over the years.”

“You know her really well.” Ray felt the little green veins creeping in again. And Bodie must have picked up something, as his reply was conciliatory.

“I’ve known her forever. Our parents were friends. She and I practically grew up together. When we discovered that we worked well together musically, it kicked off the partnership. ‘Involvement’ will be our sixth show together. I couldn’t have done it without her.”

Realising that his worries were groundless, Ray smiled. “Thanks for telling me. Now … about keeping me out of the publicity …”

*****

As the last notes died away, Ray stood centre stage, his head lowered; his shoulders slumped as he brought his breathing under control.

Over the last three days, the play had moved fully out of the rehearsal rooms and onto the stage. There was still some set construction going on but the cast were familiarising themselves with the props and furniture and adapting their rehearsal moves to the reality of the stage space. And this was the first time most of the cast and crew had heard ‘Sing My Heart’. Ray had worked on it in private with Bodie and the musical director. When all three were finally happy with it, they’d brought Cowley in to hear it. The director had been surprised that there was an additional song so late in the rehearsal process and was inclined to dismiss it out of hand. However, once he’d heard it, he’d agreed that it should be included. As the move to the stage was already scheduled, Cowley decided that the song would be introduced during the first full run-through.

“That was marvellous, Ray. The song fits beautifully at that point,” Cowley commented from the stalls. “Okay, people. Let’s take a break. Back in half an hour.” The cast quickly cleared the stage, disappearing into the wings, jostling and joking as they raced to get to the coffee machines.

“Coffee?”

Ray spun round to find Bodie approaching across the stage. They’d worked closely together since returning from Buckleigh Manor and Ray’s skin still tingled whenever he thought about their night together.

“That sounds good.”

“Come with me then. I know a way to avoid the crowd.”

Bodie grinned at him and led the way off stage, through the wings and up the back staircase towards the offices.

“In here.” Bodie ducked quickly into the director’s office and when Ray entered, he was already pouring coffee from the percolator.

“Isn’t this Cowley’s office?”

“It is. But being the producer has its privileges.”

Ray took the proffered coffee mug, his fingers brushing against Bodie’s. He took a sip. “Mmm. This is so much better than the machine.”

“I thought you deserved a little treat. The rehearsal went really well this morning.”

“It does seem to be coming together, doesn’t it? And it helps to have really good material and a great cast to work off.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment as I was instrumental in bringing it all together. Thank you.”

“And you wrote that amazing song. I can’t begin to tell you how much I enjoy singing it.”

“As I’m planning a long run, you’ll get to enjoy it for months yet. And then on to Broadway and possibly Australia.”

“Confident, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I am.” Bodie’s tone turned serious. “And most of it is down to you, Ray. Without you in the lead, this play would have no chance of being a hit. Producers, directors, writers can only do so much. A charismatic lead is a must.” He saluted Ray with the coffee mug. “And you will make it a hit.”

Ray could feel himself blushing and he felt incredibly proud to have Bodie’s good opinion. Knowing that this man felt this way about him, he could conquer Everest or fly to the moon. There was no way at all that Ray would ever let Bodie down.

Settling next to each other on the leather couch Cowley liked to keep in his office, Ray remembered Cowley’s comments about the furniture. “Youngsters expect to see a casting couch. Who am I to disappoint them?” he’d said with a twinkle when teased about it. “And it’s very handy for catching forty winks on the rare occasion this slave driver,” indicating Bodie, “let’s me get away.” Ray recalled the director’s comments now as he made himself comfortable. He knew that they were sitting far too close together but was unable to regret it enough to move.

Remembering something he’d wanted to discuss with Bodie, but for which he needed privacy, which was in all too short a supply in the run-up to dress rehearsal, Ray took this opportunity.

“I was talking to Mum the other night. She asked to be remembered to you.”

“I like your mother … almost as much as I like her son.” Bodie slid his arm behind Ray’s back and squeezed gently.

Ignoring the second part of Bodie’s comment even as he settled himself even more comfortably against the strong arm now banding his waist, Ray continued, “I told her about the difficulties you’ve been having at the house. She knew, of course, that there was hostility in the village but was horrified to hear it had translated into physical violence. She wants to help.”

“I don’t think there’s much she can do, Ray, that the police and I haven’t already tried.”

“Actually she came up with a couple of ideas, which I thought were quite good so I promised her I would share them with you at the first opportunity.” Ray paused.

“Go on then. I have every respect for your mother’s opinion. I’d like to hear what she suggests.”

“Firstly, she’d like to invite you to lunch on Christmas Eve.”

“And I’m delighted to accept. I was going to ask if you would spend Christmas with me at the Manor. Cowley and I have decided that everyone deserves a break over the holiday before the rush to first night in January. Would you stay with me?”

“I would love to. But what about Veronica?”

“What about her?”

“I’ve heard her mention several times, in front of the cast and crew, that her father is hosting a party over Christmas and that you’re going to be there.”

“First I’ve heard about it. I’ve no intention of wasting my Christmas with a bunch of people whose only interest in me is how much money I can make for them.”

“And Veronica herself? You were an item.”

“Ray, Ray, do you honestly think I would have made a move on you if I were still involved with Veronica?”

“No, no, I don’t but it’s nice to hear you say it.”

“What else did your Mum have to say?”

“Oh … yes … she thinks you should meet the locals so she suggests a casual get together at The Squirrel on Christmas Eve evening. Have you met anyone from the village?”

“Not really. My visits tend to be a bit rushed and Bob has been handling all the restoration contracts and suppliers.”

“Well, Mum feels that it would be a good first step. And … “

“Yes?”

“ … well … she … er … thinks you should host a party on New Year’s Eve. Invite all the locals. Let them see the work you’ve done and the plans for the rest of the estate.”

“She thinks this is a good idea?”

“She does. I know Mum gives the impression of being a bit dippy but she’s actually quite astute. And she’s given this a lot of thought. So what do you think?”

“It might just work. At least it will settle the concerns of the majority of the villagers and if we can get them on side, it might be easier to identify the main culprit. Do you think we can get it all sorted out in time? It will take quite a lot of work to get the Manor ready. We’ll need to spend the whole time between Christmas and New Year sorting everything out.”

“We?”

“Of course, we. You don’t think I’m going to do this on my own, do you?”

“I’d be delighted to help.” Ray could feel a warm glow as he realised that Bodie had just invited him to spend the whole of the holidays with him.

“Does Cowley know that you’re standing down the whole company for ten days or more?”

“He doesn’t know it’s ten.” Bodie grinned.

“He doesn’t what?” came a familiar Scots voice from the doorway.

*****

Once Bodie had explained his reasoning to the irate director, Cowley calmed down enough to consider the situation fairly. Taking nearly a two week break so close to opening night seemed like madness but, with three Bank Holidays so close together plus weekends, and the work that still needed to be completed on the set, which would progress much faster if the cast weren’t competing for use of the stage, everyone would probably benefit from a relaxing break and returning refreshed in the New Year.

Cowley made the announcement at the end of the afternoon rehearsals and it was greeted with cries of delight, which were further enhanced when Bodie invited everyone to Buckleigh Manor for New Year’s Eve. Ray was delighted at how quickly Bodie had accepted his mother’s suggestions and just hoped that they would be able to get everything arranged in time. There wasn’t only the catering and entertainment to organise but an empty house as well though he knew that Bodie had already spoken to Bob about bringing in additional labour and even heaters to help the plaster to dry. However, when he broached the party arrangements with Bodie, he was surprised to be told not to worry, Betty would deal with it all!

*****

Acorn Cottage was ready for the festive season. Although not yet lunchtime, the tree lights shone brightly through the bay window, welcoming them.

As Bodie parked the Capri on the driveway the front door was flung open and there stood Molly Doyle, wreathed in a smile of welcome, holding out her arms for a hug as Ray got out of the car. He lifted his mother off the ground and twirled her around, delighted to hear her giggle as he passed her onto Bodie, who kissed each cheek before depositing her back on the welcome mat.

“It’s so good to see you both. Come in, come in. Settle yourselves in the living room and I’ll bring you a hot drink. Was it a good journey from London? Was the traffic bad? You’re looking so much better, Ray. You’ve regained a bit of weight. I was really worried about you for a while but the hard work must be agreeing with you. You both look really happy.”

Sharing an amused glance, Ray and Bodie allowed themselves to be ushered into the comfortable armchairs on a tide of questions, none of which appeared to require an answer as Molly fussed and fretted.

After an excellent lunch, the trio made their way to The Squirrel public house situated about five hundred yards from the cottage. The pub had a special licence to open in the afternoon so they were not surprised to find it packed with villagers. They’d briefly touched on the topic of the hostility towards Bodie and had mutually decided that it was probably better to see how the session at the pub went before issuing invitations to the New Year’s Eve party. Molly had already prepared a list of names and addresses, which she’d passed to Bodie for onward transmission to Betty. There would be formal invitations to everyone; however, given Christmas Day and Boxing Day plus the weekend between Christmas and New Year, they had decided that there should be a verbal invitation to be passed via the village grapevine.

Holding open the heavy wooden door, Bodie allowed Molly and Ray to precede him into the bar. Consisting of just the one room, the pub was the social centre of the village and a wall of noise hit them as they entered. Molly greeted various people cheerfully as she made her way across the flagstoned floor to the bar. Ray and Bodie followed in her wake as the sea of people parted before her. She also attracted the attention of a member of the bar staff with an ease which Ray envied.

“Merry Christmas, Mrs Doyle, what can I get for you?”

“Hello, Fred. I’ll have half of shandy. Ray? Bodie?” She turned to the two men who’d just managed to squeeze up next to her.

“Pint of beer, please, Mum.”

“Same for me, Molly, and let me get them.”

“No, no, this is my treat. This was my idea.” Turning back to the bar, she handed over a fiver in payment. “Put the change in your tip jar, Fred.”

“That’s very generous of you, Mrs Doyle.”

“Not at all. It’s Christmas. There you go, boys, bottoms up.” And she took a large swallow from her glass. “Now let’s see if we can find a seat. Then I’ll introduce you to some people.”

The Molly Doyle magic worked again as a group vacated several seats by the inglenook fireplace. After settling themselves and enjoying a few sips of the excellent beer, Molly glanced around. “Ah, good. There’s a good starting point for your campaign.” Before they could comment, she’d disappeared into the crowd, returning a few minutes later followed by an elderly gentleman sporting an enormous handlebar moustache, a tweed jacket over corduroy trousers and an ivory headed walking stick. He looked like he’d just stepped out of the pages of ‘Country Life’.

Ray stood, holding out his hand. “Good afternoon, Major Buckleigh. Good to see you again.” His hand was gripped firmly as the Major responded to his greeting.

“Nice to see you again, Ray. And this is?” The Major had turned his attention to Bodie, who had also stood. Molly responded.

“I’d like you to meet William Bodie, who now owns the Manor.”

The Major paused in the process of offering his hand and pulled it back, leaving Bodie with his arm extended in greeting. The Major turned to Molly. “What is the meaning of this, Molly? How dare you bring this … this person here?”

“Now, now, Henry. At least try to be civil whilst I explain.”

“Civil! You know what I feel about this upstart ruining the Manor.” Ray began to worry that the Major was heading for apoplexy as he wound himself up.

“Henry! You will listen to me. Be good enough to shut up and sit down.” Ray looked at his mother in amazement. He’d never heard that tone of command from her before. The rest of the crowded pub went quiet around them.

“It’s alright, Molly. I don’t want to cause any trouble. I’ll go.” This from Bodie, who started to edge his way towards the exit.

“Stay where you are, Bodie. This whole situation has gone on long enough and we are going to put a stop to it.” Within minutes, she had all three men seated round the small pub table. The astonished silence from the rest of the pub’s patrons died away as they returned to their previous conversation.

“Right, now then Henry, please listen. Bodie, tell Henry what you told me about the Manor. Why you bought it and what your plans are.”

“Are you sure about this, Molly?” Bodie still looked as though he wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible and this a man who had taken on the monsters of Broadway and the West End of London.

“Of course I’m sure. Once we have Henry on side, the rest will be a doddle. And, Henry, I want you to keep an open mind.”

“Well, I’m not sure I can do that.” Intercepting a glare from Molly, the Major subsided. “But I will listen.”

“Good, good. Now then Bodie … please tell Henry about the Manor.

*****

“Good God, Molly! I can’t believe that this has been going on.”

“Believe it, Henry. Someone has used the village’s natural distrust of strangers to target this young man and his home. We need to put a stop to it.”

“I agree. Mr Bodie, please accept my apologies for my earlier attitude. I had no idea that my antagonism would have such an effect. It seems I was also taken in by those rumours that you were converting the Manor into a nightclub and bawdy house.”

Ray and Bodie shared amused glances at the Major’s phrasing. “That’s okay, Major. I understand how such a misunderstanding could have arisen. And I’ve had so little time to spare that I haven’t made any effort to find out why everyone was so antagonistic.” Bodie was gracious in expressing his acceptance of the Major’s apology. “You must have been particularly concerned with the Manor having been in your family for so long.”

“Actually, young man, that is where you are mistaken. The Buckleigh family lost the estate during the 1930s’ depression. My anger wasn’t so much about the house but the effect your plans would have on the village. We may not be lords of the manor any longer but the Buckleigh family remain an integral part of this village. And we do our best to protect it, but this vandalism and intimidation isn’t right and I will do all I can to stop it.”

“Thank you. I’d appreciate your help.”

“Now then, that’s settled. Thank you, Molly, for bringing this to my attention. This is exactly the kind of thing we don’t want in Buckleigh. I’ll make sure to spread the word.”

“And talking of spreading the word,” Bodie interjected, “I’m opening the house to the villagers on New Year’s Eve. Any time from two onwards with a party in the evening. I’d be very pleased if you and your family would come along for all or part of the day. I’d like you to see what’s been done and what the plans are for the rest of the estate.”

“That sounds like a remarkably good idea. I’ll talk it over with my lady wife and let you know.”

“There’ll be formal invitations to as many people as we can reach in the time available but, if you could also mention it to as many people as possible, that would be great. Oh, and the cast of my new production will be on hand in the evening to provide some entertainment. Including Ray here.”

“Sounds like jolly good fun. And, congratulations, Ray, on your success.”

“Thanks, Major. Though how successful remains to be seen.”

“Don’t undersell yourself, son. Molly has told me all about you.”

“And I’m sure she’s exaggerated. It’s what mothers do.”

“Behave yourself, Ray. I only ever tell the truth.”

“Yes, Mum.” Ray shared another glance with Bodie, who was grinning gleefully at the exchange.

“Right, I’d best be getting back,” said the Major, offering a handshake to both Ray and Bodie but giving Molly a decorous peck on the cheek. “I’ll be in touch if I find out anything.” And he made his way slowly through the crowd, heading for the door.

“There you go, boys. I knew this would work. Now that the Major is on your side, we’ll get this nonsense stopped.”

“Are you sure, Molly?”

“Of course I am. Salt of the earth and a bit of an old fire-eater and all that, but he’s a nosey old so-and-so. Now that he has the facts, he won’t rest until he’s ferreted out the truth. And the open house is a brilliant idea, Bodie. Do you need any help sorting it out?”

“I’ll let you know. My secretary, Betty, loves a challenge.”

“Oh, I just bet she does,” said Ray, imagining that redoubtable lady’s face when Bodie had told her what he wanted to do and by when.

“Right, then,” said Bodie. “Who wants another drink?”

*****

Christmas morning dawned bright and clear. Ray awoke slowly, his whole body somnolent, contented, well rested and very warm. Lying on his side, one arm under the pillow, the other held in a tight handclasp resting on his hip, he was so comfortable that he had no intention of moving. Unfortunately the body spooning up behind him had different ideas. Bodie wriggled then tried to extricate his hand from Ray’s.

“What’s the matter?” said Ray, grumpily. “It’s too early to get up.”

“Tell that to my bladder. I have to go.”

“Then go.” Ray released Bodie’s hand and turned onto his back to watch him cross the room. Naked the man was more than magnificent, but even magnificence suffered from feet touching cold floorboards. He danced his way to the adjoining bathroom. The central heating obviously hadn’t come on yet. Glancing at the bedside cabinet, Ray could just make out the time. 6.00 am. It was definitely too early to get out of bed, but now he was awake.

Propping the pillows behind his head and shoulders, Ray made himself even more comfortable, pulling the duvet up under his chin. The bed smelled of sex and, as he inhaled, he could feel himself growing hard. One hand moved down and he stroked himself gently as he awaited Bodie’s return.

“Not starting without me, are you?” Bodie appeared in the bathroom doorway, wiping his hands on a towel, which he then threw towards the bed. “Think we can make use of that?”

“Not at the moment but I’m sure we’ll come up with something.”

“Coming up with something isn’t a problem.” Bodie’s erection grew as he watched Ray, who held up the duvet in obvious invitation.

“Get back under here before you freeze that off. I can think of much better uses for it.”

*****

Several hours later, after a shared shower and a hearty breakfast, Ray wandered into the drawing room with a pot of coffee and two mugs. In the ten days since he’d last been at the Manor, the room had been transformed. There were richly coloured rugs scattered across the floor; a collection of comfortable looking sofas and armchairs arranged around coffee tables to make conversation areas. Glass and walnut cabinets gleamed, showing off a collection of fine china and figurines, which he now knew had belonged to Bodie’s grandmother, and a ten foot high Christmas tree stood by the piano.

The tree held an eclectic mix of ornaments, tinsel and lights with a large silver star topping it off. Bodie had explained that his parents had collected most of the decorations. He’d simply added the star and the tinsel and ensured that the lights were safe. The last thing he needed was an electrical short destroying the re-wiring that Bob’s electrician had finally finished.

The wood panelling shone from the waxed finish it had been given by the cleaning company Betty had hired to get at least the ground floor rooms ready to receive visitors. There was still a lot of work to be done for the open house but housework was the least of it.

Glancing around the room, he could see no sign of Bodie so he selected a sofa and put the coffee tray on the small side table. He was slowly sinking into the massed cushions when the door opened and Bodie entered, carrying a pile of garishly wrapped Christmas presents. “Didn’t get a chance to put these under the tree,” he explained. He stopped suddenly, almost dropping several of the presents, as he saw Ray struggling. “I don’t know what persuaded Betty to buy that sofa. Here ... let me put these down and I’ll give you a hand.” Depositing the presents under the tree, he held out a hand to Ray. The resultant tug raised him to his feet and into Bodie’s arms. Bodie snatched a kiss. “Mmm. Good coffee. Come on, it’s prezzie time.”

“Who on earth are all these for? I thought you said you’d posted your family’s presents.”

“Well, there’s Bob and his team, Betty and the office staff as I didn’t get a chance to hand them out, there’s something for you, too, and your Mum … but I don’t recognize those.” And he indicated a small pile of elegantly wrapped boxes.

“Those are from me,” said Ray. “I put them there last night whilst you were showering. I left Mum’s here, as we’ll be seeing her this afternoon. I hope that’s okay.”

“Of course, it is. This is your home too.”

Ray couldn’t believe his ears. “What did you say? Bodie, did you just invite me to live with you?” he asked tentatively.

Bodie looked up at Ray and smilied “Didn’t go about it the right way, did I, love? I meant to ask you last night but got a little distracted.” His smile widened as Ray blushed. “I’d like it very much if you would consider the Manor your home from now on.”

“Yes.”

Bodie quirked an eyebrow. “Just yes.”

“Yes please!”

“Right then. We’ll talk about the practicalities later but first I want to know what’s in these boxes.” Bodie’s smile lit up his face and Ray knew it was because he’d said ‘Yes’ rather than the prospect of opening Christmas presents.

“What shall we open first?” asked Ray.

“You choose.”

Ray crouched down by the tree and quickly sorted through the pile of presents he’d brought. Selecting a long slim box, he handed it to Bodie. “I saw this and thought of you.”

Bodie picked out another long slim box and passed it to Ray. “Let’s open the first ones together. I think you’ll like this.”

Ripping off the wrapping paper, they both opened the jewellery boxes at the same time. A silver bracelet very like the one he’d tried on in The Lanes dropped into Ray’s hand and he lifted shining eyes to Bodie just as his lover registered what was in his box.

“Superman. I’ll give you Superman!”

“I thought you already had.” Deciding that discretion was the better part of valour yet again, Ray quickly put a large sofa between himself and Bodie but his lover hadn’t moved. He was looking at the watch in his hand with an incredibly gentle look on his face. He looked across at Ray.

“Thank you.”

“Er … glad you like it. I do have something else for you. That was a joke prezzie.”

“Yeah, I got that. But it means a lot to me that you remembered our day out.”

“Bodie, I remember every moment we’ve spent together and I intend to spend a lot more moments with you.”

“Come here,” Bodie held open his arms and Ray walked into the warm embrace. “Love you.”

“Love you too.”

*****

Lights blazed from the ground floor rooms of Buckleigh Manor. Further lights illuminated the front of the house, driveway and the courtyard being used for car parking. Music flowed from the drawing room as the cast of ‘Involvement’ entertained with a selection of songs from popular musicals. People drifted in and out of rooms, chatting to friends, enjoying the music, picking over the remains of the buffet laid out on tables that had been groaning with food for most of the day.

Ray had found a quiet corner in the small reception room and was contemplating his drink when Bodie found him. “So this is where you’ve hidden yourself?”

“Just needed a moment to myself. It’s been a hectic week. Still, today seems to have gone well. Are you pleased?”

“Delighted that so many people took up the invitation. And that they seem to be accepting me and the work to the Manor. Not so delighted at the thought of all the clearing up to be done.”

“I thought Betty had organized a cleaning crew.”

“Not till the second. It proved impossible to get anyone to come in on a Bank Holiday. Still, I suppose we can lock ourselves in our bedroom and pretend none of it exists. There’s still enough leftovers to sink a battleship so we won’t starve.”

“That sounds like a plan.” Ray smiled at his lover. Their relationship had been cemented in the period between Christmas and New Year as they’d lived and worked together. Although Betty had been in charge of the party organization, there had been an enormous amount of work to be done to get the downstairs rooms ready. Rugs and furniture had been delivered and had to be placed once the cleaners were finished. Molly Doyle had co-opted the parish church flower arrangers and every corner of every room glowed with colourful flower settings.

“Come on,” said Bodie. “Your mother has commanded a performance from you.”

“Then I guess I’d better go back to the party. It was nice having five minutes to myself though.”

“I know, love, but you can’t disappoint She Who Must Be Obeyed.”

Ray laughed just as Tony Murphy walked in. He felt, rather than saw, Bodie stiffen beside him. Despite their earlier conversation, Bodie still seemed to regard the tall dancer as a rival.

“There you are,” said the ever-ebullient Tony. “There’s a rumour going around that you’ve eloped. But I didn’t believe it. Ray would never two-time me.”

“Tony!” Ray stepped forward, putting himself between the two men. He knew Tony’s sense of humour and wanted to prevent an unnecessary confrontation. “Bodie and I were just taking a break.”

“Not that it’s any of your business,” Bodie interrupted, his voice deepening with anger.

“Whoa, big man. No need to get on your high horse. Ray knows I was only joking, wasn’t I, love?”

“And he’s not your love any more.” Before Bodie could carry this into a more physical confrontation, Ray put his hand on his lover’s arm, gently tugging him to his side. He could feel the tension in the muscle relax slightly at his touch.

“It’s alright, Bodie. You’ll have to get used to Tony’s supposed sense of humour. He never knows when a joke ceases to be a joke. Weren’t you saying something about a command performance?”

Reining in his temper quite visibly, Bodie turned his attention to Ray. “That’s right. Queen Molly awaits.” And he escorted Ray out of the room, an arm possessively placed across his lover’s shoulders.

*****

The drawing room and reception hall were still thronged with visitors. Molly Doyle had, however, ensconced herself near to the piano and she waved as Ray and Bodie appeared in the doorway. “Over here.”

Making their way across the room involved stopping to chat with a variety of people, all of whom seemed to want to apologise to Bodie for the trouble he’d experienced and to thank him for the party and for providing a display of photographs and plans, set out in what was to become the gymnasium.

“At last! I was beginning to wonder if you’d got lost.” Molly beamed at her son and Bodie in equal measure. “You promised that you would sing for us.” This last, of course, was directed at her son as she indicated the vacant piano stool.

“I’ll need someone to play for me. Bodie?”

“Oh, no, not me. I only do private sessions. How about Sara? She played for the group earlier. I’m sure she wouldn’t mind another short stint. Sara!” At his shout, a grey haired woman turned. “Sara, would you mind accompanying Ray?”

“Not at all.” She made her way to the piano and sat down. “Anything in particular, Ray?”

“How about ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’?” and he smiled at Bodie.

*****

Ray was in the middle of his fourth song, having been called back by an appreciative audience, when a diesel engine roared outside. Stopping abruptly as the piano faltered, Ray looked at Bodie. Conversations around the room also died away as the engine note rose and fell. Something very big was moving around outside the Manor.

Not knowing what to expect, they made their way to the front door, followed by a crowd of interested villagers and cast. What they saw shocked them all to silence.

A three-ton digger, originally hired by Bob for work on the swimming pool at the rear of the house and retained for planned work on a tennis court, was cutting great swathes out of the newly laid lawn. The huge tyres were gouging out tracks as the driver swung the vehicle in an erratic pattern, seemingly intent upon causing as much mayhem as possible.

“Stop that at once!” roared the Major as he stepped out of the front door but even his stentorian tones could not be heard over the roar made by the digger.

Ray could hear people around him start to murmur, asking who it was and those still in the house were shouting, asking what was going on.

Suddenly everyone surged down the front steps and onto the lawn, shouting at the driver to stop. Arms were waved and people staggered over the now rough ground.

Ray followed Bodie as he ran to try to intercept the vehicle. His heart was in his mouth as he watched Bodie try to attract the driver’s attention but the view from the vehicle was continually being obscured as the excavator bucket was raised and lowered.

Suddenly a woman’s voice, high-pitched with fear, cut across all the noise. “My God! That’s Ted. That’s my Ted. Ted! Ted!” They turned to see Mrs Roberts from the post office fighting off restraining hands as she tried to reach the digger. And it seemed that her screams had had an effect as the huge vehicle’s engine was suddenly silenced.

The driver looked around, surprised by the number of people watching him, but before he could get down from the cab and possibly make his escape, two large hands reached in and lifted him bodily out. Bob, the builder, was a huge man and the lift appeared effortless. Putting the driver down, but hanging on to his collar, Bob called out, “’ere he is, Mr Bodie. What do you want done with him?”

“Let him go, you beast.” Mrs Roberts had now arrived at her son’s side.

“Mr Bodie?” queried Bob, ignoring the hysterical woman.

“I think we’ll let the police deal with him. They’re probably quite busy tonight so release him to his mother and I’ll speak to Sergeant Carter tomorrow. I wouldn’t imagine that there would be any difficulty in getting witnesses.”

“Are you sure?” Bob indicated the remains of the lawn. “He’s caused one heck of a mess.”

“Oh, I don’t think he’ll be going very far. Will he, Mrs Roberts?”

Apparently having now realised just what her son had done, Mrs Roberts was now soundly berating him. “What did you think you were doing? You could have been killed driving that thing. And look at Mr Brody’s garden. You’ll have to pay for the damage you’ve caused. And don’t think I’ll be helping you.” It seemed she was going to keep up the tirade for quite a bit longer but the authoritarian tones of Major Buckleigh interrupted.

“Now then, young Ted. You’ve been caught red-handed tonight. But are you responsible for the rest of the trouble here at the Manor?”

Still trying to escape from his mother’s shrill voice and her hand gripping his ear, Ted nodded. Now that he’d been caught, he seemed to shrink as the consequences began to dawn.

“What on earth were you thinking? Do you know how much damage you’ve done?”

“Don’t you shout at him, Major. He’s a good boy is Ted.” Mrs Roberts now turned her attention to the three men standing closest. The rest of the partygoers were hanging back whilst listening to every word.

“Let the boy speak, Mrs Roberts,” ordered the Major.

Stumbling over his words, Ted, nevertheless, managed to answer the Major’s question. “It was me, Major. I heard Mum talking about how dreadful it would be when the Manor was converted into a nightclub. How there would be comings and goings at all times of the day and night; how there would be dreadful people driving fast, noisy cars through the village and how we didn’t want his sort here.” He nodded towards Bodie. “I thought if I could put him off, the Manor would be saved. I know how much it means to you, Major, and to the village. We don’t want no outsiders changing everything.”

“ … but that’s a dreadful thing to say.”

“But you said it, Mum. I was just trying to keep the village nice.”

“Really. I don’t know how you could think that I would want you to do all those dreadful things. I’ve a good mind to pack you off to stay with Aunty Marge in Swindon.”

“Aw, Mum, you wouldn’t do that, would you?”

“That might have to wait a while, Mrs Roberts,” said the Major. “Mr Bodie needs to report all this to the police. And he may choose to prosecute.”

“Oh, Major! Oh, Mr Brody! He didn’t mean no harm. He’s a good lad really.”

Eyeing the damage done to the lawn and knowing how serious the previous incidents could have been, Ray was surprised to hear Bodie speak up in defence of Ted. “I’ll have to think about it. Give everyone a chance to calm down. I’ll speak to Sergeant Carter first. Take the lad home now, Mrs Roberts, and I’ll call you tomorrow.”

“Thank you, Mr Brody. Come on, Ted, let’s go.” Dragging her now very sheepish son, she set off down the drive.

“Right,” said Bodie. “Let’s get back to the party. It’s nearly midnight.”

“But what about this mess?” asked the Major.

“It can wait. It won’t get any worse.” And with that, Bodie slipped his arm around Ray’s shoulders and they walked back to the house, gathering up partygoers as they went.

*****

Midnight came and went along with a chorus of ‘Happy New Years’ and a stirring rendition of ‘Auld Lang’s Syne’. There was more singing, and eating, and drinking, and even some dancing before the villagers started to drift home. The cast and crew found their cars and left also. Ray drove Molly home and came back to find a weary looking Bodie surveying the remains of the party in the house.

“Come to bed, love. There’s no point even thinking about this now. And I think you mentioned something about spending tomorrow in bed.”

“I did, didn’t I?” Bodie cheered up. “I do have the best ideas.”

 

 

Chapter Thirteen

Dress rehearsal. At last the whole production came together. The sets were complete with the crew running the changes smoothly and efficiently. The lighting worked with the action, enhancing the sets, highlighting the movement. The musical director and orchestra, now ensconced in the pit in front of the stage, brought the score to life in support of the cast. The costumes and make up, until now only trialled, completed the characters. The crew were ready to tackle the full run through and the cast were hyped up with the chance to show off their talents in the complete production.

Ray sat in his dressing room, staring at his image in the mirror. His dresser was fussing with the rail of clothing behind him, getting his changes into running order to save time. Picking up a sponge, Ray started to apply the pancake make up, transforming his face so that his features would be visible in the powerful stage lighting. Although there was a professional make up team working on the production, he had chosen to do his own, though he had taken several lessons. He needed the time to himself before curtain up to run through his calming routines and he had decided that a make up artist was one distraction too many. As it was a modern dress production anyway, there was nothing too elaborate about the make up design.

“That’s all sorted, Ray,” said his dresser, giving a jacket one last tweak.

“Thanks, Jack. I’ll see you Stage Left for that first quick change.”

“No problem. See you later.”

The door clicked quietly shut. He breathed in slowly. And out again. He could feel very fine tremors running through his body. Whilst the nervous energy would help him perform, he needed to get it under control so that it didn’t disrupt his performance. Just as he could feel the nerves start to settle, a knock on the door brought them roaring back to life.

“Come in.” Still using the mirror, he watched Bodie enter.

“Am I disturbing you?”

“Only a little,” he responded with his usual honesty. “I’m trying to finish my make up and calm my nerves.”

“I’ll go then,” and Bodie made to leave the room.

“No!” Ray turned to face his lover. “No. Don’t go. You are a very welcome distraction.” He held his hand out and Bodie clasped it, pulling Ray to his feet and into a warm embrace. “Mmm. Maybe this is what I needed to fight the butterflies.” The kiss started as a gentle caress but passion was just starting to flare when there was another knock on the door.

“Ten minutes to curtain, Mr Doyle.”

“Probably just as well,” said Bodie. “We don’t want to start something, we can’t finish. How are the nerves now?”

“Subdued. You have pancake smudges.” Ray turned out of the hug to pick up a bunch of tissues and turned back to start dabbing at Bodie’s face.

“Leave it, Ray. You finish getting ready.” Bodie released him.

“I guess I’d better.” He re-started his make up, fixing the damage caused by the kiss as Bodie scrubbed at the evidence around his own mouth. By the time the overture could be heard on the dressing room speakers, Ray was ready.

“Right,” said Bodie. “I’d better get to my seat. George would have a fit if I missed the opening.”

“I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. Go on. I’ll see you later.”

With a last lingering look, Bodie exited the dressing room. Ray took another couple of deep breaths and followed.

*****

Disastrous was the only word that could be used to describe the dress rehearsal. Technically everything ran smoothly. It was the cast which fell apart and it was all Ray’s fault. He forgot the words of his first musical number, being helped out by Phil, playing the part of Paul’s work partner. He stumbled over his lines, even muddling them so that his fellow cast members were adrift until the Prompt hissed the lines from the side of the stage. He knocked over a small piece of scenery during a dance routine when he moved left instead of right out of a turn. The more he tried to pull himself together, the worse it got.

There was no way he could stop. The whole point of the dress rehearsal was to see the whole show through, regardless of errors. He just had to get to the end. He knew the rest of the cast were getting frustrated with him but he also caught several sympathetic glances. Tony rescued his clumsy footwork in another dance number. Kim sang his part when he again forgot the words. He could feel the sweat dripping down his back. Jack offered him a towel during one quick change so that he could dry off slightly but it was only a temporary relief.

Somehow he got through to the end and the final curtain. He stood centre stage, his hands opening and closing, his thumbs stroking his forefinger in an unconscious sign of stress and he couldn’t move. Cast and crew started to gather around him to await the verdict from Cowley and Bodie. As the curtain came up again, he could see the director and producer standing in front of the orchestra pit. Neither looked happy. Ray felt an arm go around his shoulders in support. Tony. And a small hand gripped one of his tightly. Kim. He was so grateful for their support but he knew he’d blown it. He could only wait for Cowley to tell him to get off the stage and never come near the production again.

“Thank you everybody.” Cowley’s voice carried clearly from the stalls. “As you all know, there is a longstanding theatrical tradition that a difficult dress rehearsal foretells a successful First Night. And I know that with the talent in this show, there is no way that our opening night is going to be anything other than a runaway success. You all know your parts and I see no reason why ‘Involvement’ should not be the hit of the season. I’d like you all to go away, get some rest and be back here tomorrow, ready to give your all.”

As he finished speaking, Ray moved towards the front of the stage. “May I say something?”

“Of course, Ray.”

He turned to face his colleagues. Still thinking that he was going to be sacked, though in private not in front of everyone else, he knew he had to say something. “I just wanted you to know that I’m really sorry for the mess I made today. And I really appreciate the support you have showed me.” Meeting Kim’s eyes with his own somewhat shamefaced look, he continued. “It will be better tomorrow. I will be better tomorrow. Thank you all.”

The group started to break up and there were murmurs of ‘No problem, Ray’; ‘We’ve all been there, mate’; ‘Get some rest’; ‘You’ll be fine’. Several people made a point of coming up to him to shake his hand or to offer a hug. His generosity in recognizing his screw-up was cementing his reputation as a good guy. They would continue to support him and the show.

“Ray.” Cowley addressed him. “Would you stay behind a moment? I’d like a word.”

“Of course.”

Fully expecting this to be his last time on this stage, if not any stage, he watched as Cowley made his way to the side, climbing the steps to join him. Bodie stayed put. The director appeared very solemn as he approached. Before he could speak, Ray said, “I’m truly sorry. I have absolutely no idea why everything went wrong for me. I can only apologise.”

To his surprise, Cowley smiled. “No need for apologies, laddie. It’s not the first disastrous dress rehearsal I’ve ever seen. And I’ve no doubt it won’t be the last.”

“But …”

“But nothing. Look at it this way, Ray. You got all the nerves and the mistakes out of your system in a safe environment. Now, when you face a full house tomorrow night, you will be fine. I have every confidence in you. Go home. Get some rest.”

“I don’t know what to say …”

“Nothing more to be said. You are going to be fine. Now go.”

“Thank you. I won’t let you down again.”

“I know you won’t.”

*****

Upon exiting the stage, Ray found the wings strangely quiet; empty of the life normally to be found there when the theatre was in use. As he stepped around the curtain to head for his dressing room, he came face to face with Bodie. Saying not a word, Bodie held out his arms and he stepped into the comfort. He could feel small tremors running through his limbs as his body tried to deal with an excess of adrenalin caused by the embarrassment. Gradually the hug worked its magic and he started to relax. Pulling back slightly, he looked at Bodie. “Thank you. I needed that.”

“I noted earlier that I have a magical power over you so I figured it would work just as well now.”

“You’re not mad at me?”

“Why would I be mad at you?”

“I let you down. I screwed up royally.”

“As Cowley said, it is often the case that a poor dress rehearsal leads to a great first night. And it wouldn’t be quoted so often if there wasn’t an element of truth in it. I know you can do it. I wouldn’t have chosen you for the part otherwise. But you’ve never carried a whole show before so the stress got to you. You need to put today behind you. Relax. Tomorrow will be fine.”

“It’s just that I know how much is riding on the success of this show. I’ve never had this much responsibility on my shoulders before.”

“But you’ve taken responsibility for millions of pounds in your accountancy roles.”

Ray shrugged this off. “It’s not the same. I’m responsible for your dream and I’m not sure I can do it.”

“I believe in you, Raymond Doyle, and there is nothing that you can’t do if you set your mind to it. This show, this part, is your dream too. Don’t let it slip through your fingers because of some unwarranted self-doubt.”

“I just can’t believe I let it all go to pieces like that. It was a disaster.”

“And tomorrow all the pieces will be back together again. Let that stubborn pride of yours come to the fore. You’ve never let anything defeat you before. Don’t start now. Not when this means so much to you.”

“And to you.”

“I’ve got broad shoulders. Give us a kiss then I’m taking you out to dinner. A good night’s sleep and all this is behind you.”

Ray moved closer, trying, if possible, to fit two bodies into the same space. Their lips met. The passion that was always there between them remained banked. The kiss was comfort, giving and taking, and would have lasted much longer if a high-pitched shout hadn’t echoed through the wings.

“Get your hands off him! What do you think you’re doing?”

Pulling apart, they watched in amazement as Veronica marched across the wings. She was as exquisitely coiffeured and outfitted as usual but her face was pinched and sharp. Reaching them, she grabbed Ray’s arm and tried to pull him away from Bodie. “How dare you? How dare you even touch him? He’s my boyfriend!” Ray felt Bodie’s arm tighten around his waist as he resisted the tugging by Veronica.

“Veronica. What are you doing here?” Bodie tried a placating tone.

“I came to see the dress rehearsal. You know Daddy likes me to keep an eye on his investment. And I came looking for you to tell you how sorry I am that it has all gone so horribly wrong. Only to find you entrapped by this slut.”

“This is none of your business.” Bodie’s voice was tight with anger.

“How can you say that? It is so my business. Daddy has put a lot of money into this show and he’s not going to be very happy when he hears about this. You can’t afford for him to be unhappy. I will make damn sure he withdraws his money.”

Slowly Ray extricated himself from Bodie’s arms. He stepped back, separating himself from the couple, who now seemed oblivious to him. Veronica was ranting on about how much money her father had invested, about how much he trusted her to keep an eye on the spending of that money, about how unhappy he would be to hear that he had two-timed her. Bodie was silent though his face was showing an anger that was likely to explode very soon.

Needing to get away, needing to recover from the dress rehearsal debacle, unable to believe that Bodie had lied to him about his relationship with Veronica, Ray continued to back away slowly. Just as it seemed that Veronica had run down and Bodie was about to speak, Ray couldn’t take any more. He turned and ran towards the stage door. Not even stopping by his dressing room for his jacket and wallet, he raced past the doorman and fled down the alley behind the theatre. He thought he heard someone calling his name but he no longer cared. He had to get away.

*****

Despairing, Ray ran through the back streets and alleyways of the West End, stopped finally by a stitch in his side. As he stood, panting, he realized he was quite close to Geoff Anson’s office. He also realized that he had no money on him and he was still wearing his costume and make up. To make his day complete, it had started to rain, that misty drizzle which can hardly be seen but which soaks through unsuitable clothing in a very short time.

He had to have time to put everything together and to sort it all out. He needed somewhere quiet where he wouldn’t be found, assuming that anyone was looking. Picking his way around rubbish bins and other detritus, he turned into Wardour Street and made his way to Geoff’s office.

*****

“Hello, Evelyn. Is Geoff in?”

“Ray! Are you all right? You’re soaked! And what are you wearing?” The concerned gabble rushed out of Geoff’s assistant as she stared in amazement at the dishevelled figure in front of her.

“I got caught in the rain. Is he in?” He repeated his question.

“He had a meeting in the City. Won’t be back for another hour. Though he did say he might drop into the opening night at The Palladium. Here … let me get you a towel and a hot drink. You can’t sit around like that.”

“That’s very kind. Do you think he’d mind if I used the flat for a couple of hours?”

“Of course not. You know it’s always available if needed. Here …take this towel. I’ll find the keys. They’ll be buried under a pile of rubbish in his desk drawer as usual.” With that she hurried into the inner office and Ray could hear her muttering as she tried to find the keys.

Geoff had always operated an open door policy on the flat above the office. He now lived out at Kingston Upon Thames but he’d retained the flat as a pied á terre for late nights in the office or after a film or theatre prémiere. He also allowed various clients, down on their luck, to use it for a few days or a few weeks. As he didn’t want to return home just yet, it seemed like fate had sent Ray in this direction.

“Here they are, Ray. Everything is in the same place. Nothing changes. And there should be some clean clothes in the wardrobe so help yourself.”

“Thanks, Evelyn. Let Geoff know I’m up there, will you?”

*****

Letting himself into the compact one bedroom flat, Ray stripped off his sodden costume, finding an old bathrobe on the bed, which would keep him warm until he could get the gas heater in the bathroom working. Unusually the heater lit at his first attempt and he soon had the bath filling with hot water.

Catching a glimpse of his face in the bathroom mirror, he gave a wry laugh. No wonder Evelyn had looked so shocked to see him. His hair was plastered to his head, curls dripping. His face was streaked where the pancake make up had lost the battle with the rain and his exertions. His eyes looked bruised. He felt bruised. Sinking into the bath, he felt his muscles start to relax in the steaming water and lying back, he closed his eyes and let his mind drift.

He couldn’t explain, even to himself, what had prompted his flight from the theatre but it had been a difficult afternoon. He felt he had let everyone down by not producing even a fairly competent performance at the dress rehearsal. He knew the part and was used to singing. Yes, the dancing and the acting were new to him but he’d had expert tuition. Everyone around him was doing a marvellous job but he knew he’d let them down badly and, worse, he’d let himself down.

This role was his dream come true. All the years of singing in pubs, clubs and recording studios had been his grounding in the business. He so wanted this role so how could he have screwed up when he’d thought he’d been doing so well. Everything had come together in rehearsal and Tony had been happy with the dance routines he’d been coaching him on. Shirley had been happy with his grasp of the lines and his delivery had improved dramatically. He loved the songs and enjoyed working with Kim. The whole package was perfect.

There were too many people involved for him to pull out of the show now. Of course, his understudy could and would take over if necessary. But, damn it, this was his chance and he wasn’t going to let his nerves get the best of him. He knew better than that. He knew how to control them. He just needed to re-direct that nervous energy to get the right result.

What was he going to do about it? He could well have thrown everything away by running out of the theatre and not contacting anyone to let them know where he was. How was he going to face Cowley and Bodie again? The past swirled through his mind, muddying his thinking.

And then there was Bodie. Their initial meetings had been so dreadful; it was hard to believe that they’d started to build a relationship. He believed they’d made a good start. The invitation to share Buckleigh Manor gave every indication that Bodie wanted Ray to be part of his life for the foreseeable future. Or at least that was how he had interpreted the invitation. Why had he let Veronica’s sudden appearance cast doubts on Bodie’s feelings. He worried his way around this for several minutes but came to the same conclusion. Bodie had given him no reason to doubt his honesty.

So how was he going to face his lover again? And did they have a future? Veronica’s determination to get her father to withdraw his backing meant that Bodie was in danger of financial ruin. Would he be able to go on knowing he had been the reason for the bankruptcy? And the show meant so much to Bodie.

The bath water had grown cool whilst he had been pondering. Instead of topping it up with more hot, he got out and found clean towels in the airing cupboard. Drying himself, he tried to decide what he should do. He didn’t want to return home yet as there was always the possibility that Bodie would go there to look for him and he wanted to get his emotions under control and a decision about the show made before he encountered his lover again.

Cleaning up the bathroom, he found himself hurling the towels into the laundry basket. He could feel all his muscles tightening up again as the frustration returned. Whilst he’d gone over the whole situation again and again, he hadn’t come to any conclusion.

“Fuck!” The cry was wrenched from him as he slammed both hands into the bathroom door. He wanted to break something, to throw something, to yell his head off in miserable fury. His fists clenched until the knuckles were bone white, his teeth clamped tight and his whole body shook as he tried to suppress his feelings. In the end, breathing erratically, he managed to calm down but tears ran unchecked down his cheeks.
*****

Warm and dry, but still feeling the effects of his outburst, he wandered out of the bathroom, again wearing the old bathrobe, and into the kitchenette. One wall of the flat’s living room had a basic set of kitchen equipment arranged along it. The fridge held nothing more than a pint of milk but, on checking, he found it was still fresh. There was even a loaf in the bread bin, slightly stale, but it would do if toasted. In one of the cupboards, he found a tin of baked beans and a box of tea bags. It didn’t take long to put together beans on toast and a large mug of tea. Taking them across the room, he put them on the coffee table and settled into an armchair. Although the flat had a television, he chose not to put it on, feeling a need for a lack of distraction.

His mind returned, again and again, to the problem of Veronica. He’d believed Bodie when he’d said he had finished his relationship with her. Today’s scene was caused by an angry, rejected, jealous woman. He knew Bodie loved him and he loved Bodie. Simple. Or so it should be. But how would Bodie react to his precipitous exit from the theatre?

Finishing his meal, Ray quickly washed up the dishes and put them away. His head was aching from the stress of the day and he’d still not worked out what he was going to do. Making another cup of tea, he returned to the armchair and further ponderings.

Now that he’d got some perspective on his abysmal performance, he felt that he could go out on stage and give the performance everyone was expecting. He’d allowed his nerves to get the better of him and he knew that it wouldn’t happen again. He was a professional and would prove it to everyone, including himself.

Cheered by that decision, he went over the Bodie and Veronica situation again. He loved Bodie. Bodie loved him. Veronica had no part in their relationship. So what was it that was still troubling him?

Then he remembered Veronica’s words, hurled at Bodie, only that afternoon.
‘Daddy has put a lot of money into this show and he’s not going to be very happy when he hears about this. You can’t afford for him to be unhappy.’

You can’t afford for him to be unhappy. The words whirled around Ray’s brain as he remembered Bodie telling him about the financial arrangements for the show. How he and Susie had raised as much as they could but the lynchpin was Veronica’s father. Ray had never met Mr Randolph but he had a reputation as a shrewd investor. Surely he wouldn’t pull his backing at this late stage. But he loved his daughter. Ray’s family meant a great deal to him and he couldn’t see how any father would resist a plea from a distraught daughter.

Still not able to sort out his worry about the finances of ‘Involvement’, he decided enough was enough. He needed to get a good night’s sleep, if possible, so that he could face opening night renewed and refreshed.

The flat had a small bedroom and there were clean sheets and blankets in the airing cupboard. After quickly making up the bed, washing up his mug, and visiting the bathroom, he finally climbed into bed. Fully expecting to lie awake for hours, he was asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow.

*****

Next morning, he woke early. Finding an old tracksuit in the wardrobe, he donned it. It fit in all the wrong places and sagged alarmingly in others but at least he didn’t have to try to get home in his costume, which was still lying in a soggy heap by the front door. He’d forgotten to hang it up to dry. His dresser would be annoyed, the costume was ruined, but he knew there were spares of everything so he refused to add this to his worries.

On entering the living room, his eye was immediately drawn to a sheet of paper lying on the coffee table. Picking it up, he read, ‘Ray. Evelyn told me you were using the flat. I got back late so didn’t want to disturb you. I’ll sleep in the office! Come down and see me. It’s urgent! Geoff’

Appreciating his agent’s generosity, he glanced at the clock. 7 am. Early but if Geoff had slept in his office, probably not too early to see him. He quickly tidied the flat, dumping his costume in the bin and the bed linen he’d used in the laundry basket. Geoff employed a firm to clean the flat whenever it had been used so there was no need to do more.

Making his way downstairs, he could see lights on in the offices so knew Geoff was up and about, though Evelyn and Marianne wouldn’t be in until a more respectable time.

Knocking and opening the door at the same time, Ray walked through the tiny reception area to Geoff’s office. The agent looked up as he entered.

“God, Ray, you look rough.” Even at this early hour, the agent’s head was wreathed in cigar smoke.

“Can’t say much better for you.”

“That’s what comes of sleeping on my casting couch,” Geoff indicated the rather lumpy looking sofa on the far side of the office. “Come in, come in. Don’t hover in the doorway making the place look untidy. I got some breakfast in so help yourself to coffee. You look like you need it.”

“Caffeine would be good about now,” said Ray as he crossed to the visitor’s chair and picked up the cardboard cup. Taking a sip, he commented, “Mm. That hits the spot. What’ve you got to eat?”

Geoff shoved a paper bag across to him. Opening it, he found a cheese and ham roll and a currant bun. “Healthy as ever, I see.”

“I’d like to see you find anything different at this time in the morning.” He watched Ray eat for a minute or two, then asked. “What’s been going on, Ray? I came out of the theatre last night and called my messaging service. I had calls from Evelyn, Bodie, George Cowley, Tony Murphy and your mother. The last four were asking if I’d seen you and, if so, to call them. Evelyn, of course, was telling me that you were using the flat. By the time I popped in, you were fast asleep. I also thought it was too late to return the other calls. And I didn’t know what to tell them anyway. What’s going on?”

“I had a few problems yesterday.”

“A few. From the messages I got, it sounded like all hell had let loose.”

“Yeah, I suppose it must have looked like that. Look, I’ll fill you in on everything but just let me ring Mum. She’ll have been awake all night worrying. I just didn’t think to ring her last night. I don’t suppose I was thinking very straight at all. May I use the phone?”

“Help yourself.”

Dialling his mother’s number, Ray was not surprised when it was answered almost before it had time to ring. “Hi, Mum.”

“Ray! Where have you been? I’ve been so worried, love. That nice Mr Cowley rang me and said he was a bit worried because of the dress rehearsal and he wanted to know if you were with me. Bodie rang as well. He also thought you might have come down to Buckleigh. He said that there’d been a bit of an upset but you were probably okay and I wasn’t to worry. How could I not worry? What happened …?”

Knowing his mother could go on in this vein for some time, Ray finally interrupted her. “I’m fine, Mum.”

“You don’t sound fine. You sound tired.”

“I really am fine. But you’re right, I am tired. There were some problems at the theatre yesterday and I took off. Ended up staying at Geoff Anson’s flat. I’ve only just found out that there’s been a nationwide search for me.”

“Oh, don’t joke. We were all so concerned about you. Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yes, I really am fine. I just needed some time to myself.”

“As long as you’re sure,” Molly’s voice reflected her concern that he really wasn’t all right and he knew that nothing would convince her otherwise until she’d seen him.

“I’ll see you tonight, Mum. Don’t forget to put on your glad rags. The car will collect you from the hotel at seven.”

“I’m looking forward to it. But will you be okay? You mustn’t go on if you’re not well.”

“I will be on stage tonight. I have to be at the theatre early so I won’t be able to see you until later.”

“Alright, love. Just make sure you eat something.”

“I will, Mum, I will. Now I have to go. Lots to do before tonight.”

“Take care, darling. Love you. And give my love to Bodie.”

“Got to go, Mum. See you later.” He put the phone down with a sigh. What a mess!

“Is she okay?” Geoff enquired.

“Having spent the night worrying about me, it’ll probably take her a while to calm down. My sisters are meeting her at the hotel later so I’ll let them know that they have to do the soothing bit.”

“My seats are next to hers for tonight so I’ll keep an eye on her.”

“Thanks, Geoff. I appreciate it.

*****

By the time Ray left the agency, Geoff was fully aware of the dress rehearsal fiasco. But Ray didn’t mention Bodie or the prospect of Mr Randolph pulling his financial backing for the show. Geoff also paid for a taxi to take him back to Stanlake Road. As he pointed out, the newest star of the West End stage couldn’t be seen wandering the streets of London in a hand-me-down tracksuit that had definitely seen better days.

Arriving back at his bed-sit, Ray found a number of messages pushed under his door. They were all pretty much the same. ‘Ring me’ from Bodie; ‘Ray, I need to talk to you’ from Cowley. ‘Please ring me as soon as you get this message’ from his mother. Ignoring them all for now, he set about getting himself ready to return to the theatre. Now that his mother knew he was okay, the rest could wait. And he still had a decision to make.

*****

Although it was still relatively early, the Palace Theatre was abuzz with activity as the lighting rig was checked, the sound system balanced, the scenery and furniture adjusted as necessary; the front of house staff ensured that the seating was perfect, the aisles clear, the cloakrooms and toilets ready; the backstage staff hurried to and fro with urgent tasks to complete. Everyone was so tied up in their own job that no one, not even the stage doorkeeper, noticed the star of the show slip quietly into the theatre, along narrow corridors, into his dressing room.

Once in his sanctuary, Ray breathed a little easier. Even though he had decided to return to the theatre, he didn’t want to meet anyone until he was ready to do so. After getting back to the bed-sit just after 9 am, he’d changed into his own tracksuit and quickly went out again for a long run. The exercise helped clear the final cobwebs.

He now had a couple of hours to spare before he had to be ready. Having spoken to Cowley earlier, he knew the director wanted to speak to everyone before the doors were opened to the audience and the whole cast and crew would meet in the auditorium. His dresser wouldn’t come to the dressing room until much closer to curtain up. The rack of costumes sat to one side and nothing needed to be done with them. He could even see that Jack had replaced the costume he’d worn at the end of the dress rehearsal, obviously assuming that it wouldn’t be back in time to be cleaned for the opening.

There were a couple of envelopes on the dressing table, which turned out to be ‘Good Luck’ cards from family and friends. He felt a warm glow that they had thought of him and he arranged them around his make up paraphernalia.

Although he’d showered when he got back to his bed-sit after his run, he decided that another would help him relax so he took his toiletries and towels into the tiny en suite bathroom, a perk of being the star. The water was hot and he adjusted the temperature until it was perfect. He twisted and turned under the spray as much as it was possible to do so in the restrictive shower cabinet and he felt the heat start to work on the tightness across his shoulders. Knowing that lots of other people would want a share of the theatre’s limited hot water supply, he quickly washed his hair.

Minutes later, he was blow-drying the curls when the dressing room door was flung open. The Assistant Stage Manager staggered in, almost buried under the bouquets he was carrying. “Sorry, Ray. Didn’t know you were already here. Where do you want these?”

Ray stared at him, bewildered, until he realized the ASM was referring to the flowers. “For me?”

“Oh, very definitely for you. And there’s more by the stage door. With gifts. As soon as he gets a chance, Bert will bring them through.”

“Put them down anywhere. I’ll sort them out in a minute.”

“I can send Jack through if you like. There should be some vases somewhere.”

“Yes, do that please.”

Obviously having lots of things to do, the ASM hurried off, leaving Ray examining the cards that had accompanied the flowers. There was every variety of bloom and their fragrance started to fill the room. They’d been sent by all kinds of different people; family, friends, some ex-work colleagues with whom he still had contact, cast and crew and some names he didn’t even recognize. The opening of a new show in the West End of London was a big event and lots of people liked to recognize the lead actors. Even if it was a flop, there would still be this outpouring of affection, more for the tradition of the theatre than for the individual actor, but much appreciated all the same.

Whilst he was reading the cards, Jack bustled in. “Oh, aren’t they simply gorgeous? I’m sure I saw some vases tucked away somewhere. Would you like me to deal with them for you?”

“Yes, please. Thanks, Jack.”

As the dresser started to rummage through the storage cupboards that occupied one wall of the room, Ray returned to the dressing table and picked up the hairdryer. His hair was almost dry and it only took a few more gusts to remove the final bit of moisture. Running his fingers through it, he made the curls bounce, gleaming in the lights around the mirror.

“Jack. I’m sorry about the costume from yesterday. I’m afraid I left the theatre in a hurry and got caught in the rain. It was ruined.”

“That’s okay, Ray. There’s a spare already on the rack and I’m sure Harriet and her team could provide duplicates for the run. That’s the joy of a modern dress production. You can always pop out to Marks and Spencer.” Knowing full well that the costume had been specially made for Ray, he was letting him know that there were no after shocks on the wardrobe front.

In next to no time, Jack had the flowers artfully arranged in several large vases and the cards joined the pile on the dressing table. When Ray mentioned that there were more at the stage door, he hurried off, returning shortly with several more bouquets, two boxes of expensive chocolate truffles and a teddy bear.

*****

It seemed like no time at all had passed before there was a general call-out for cast and crew to gather in the auditorium. It was just over an hour to curtain up and the doors would be opened for the audience to enter as soon as the get-together was over.

Ray joined everyone else as they made their way out front. The theatre was eerily quiet apart from the shuffle of feet and the occasional cough. Cowley came onto the stage in front of the fire curtain to address his team.

“Thank you all for gathering so promptly. I just wanted to take a few minutes to express my thanks for the hard work all of you have put into the making of this show. We’ve all had our parts to play over the last few months and, whilst some of our efforts are, so to speak, unsung, it is true to say that without each and every one of you, we wouldn’t be here tonight. We have an amazing show and it’s now time to share it with the world. Let’s get to it.”

There was a brief round of applause then everyone made their way back to their designated posts. Within a very short space of time, the auditorium was once more empty. Ray was the last to leave and, as he moved into the wings, he glanced back. At the rear of the auditorium, the front of house staff were opening the two sets of double doors. Not wanting to see any of the audience, he hurried backstage and headed for his dressing room where he found George Cowley waiting for him.

“Ah, there you are, Ray. I was pleased to hear from you earlier. I’m glad you’ve overcome your doubts from yesterday.”

“I did a lot of thinking and decided that this was the only place I wanted to be.”

“I thought that might be your decision. As you know, I believe you have a great deal of talent and this musical will showcase that for a much wider audience than you’re used to. But I believe … no, I know that you are fully capable of succeeding, both tonight and all the nights to come.”

“That’s very kind of you to say so.”

“Kind! It’s not kind at all. It’s the truth. I wouldn’t have continued to work with you if I didn’t think you had what it takes. So … I’ll just wish you all the best and leave you to finish getting ready.” Cowley held out his hand and Ray grasped it firmly.

“Thank you, Mr Cowley. I’ll do my very best.”

“I know you will, laddie. Now I’ll leave you to it.” And he left the dressing room, leaving a very thoughtful and thankful Ray Doyle behind.

*****

Just as he’d finished putting the final touches to his make up and as Jack helped him into the jacket of his first costume, the ASM popped his head round the door. “Ray, there’s a telephone call for you at the stage door. She says it’s very urgent.”

“Okay. I’ll be right there.” Wondering who on earth would be ringing him fifteen minutes before curtain up, he quickly made his way to the doorkeeper’s cubicle where Bert handed him the receiver then backed out into the corridor to give him a modicum of privacy.

“Ray Doyle.”

“Glad I caught you.” Ray recognized Veronica Randolph’s voice immediately.

“What can I do for you, Miss Randolph?”

“You can stay away from Bodie for a start.” The woman’s voice was almost a snarl.

“I think that’s between me and Bodie.” Ray was amazed at how calm he sounded, as inside he was angry at the sheer gall of the woman trying to tell him what he should do.

“I thought you might say something like that so I’ve taken out a little insurance. As you know, my father is one of the backers of your little show and I have told him what you’re trying to do. If you don’t tell Bodie you’re through, Daddy will pull the finance.”

“That’s blackmail.”

“I do believe it is. And do you know how much it costs to keep a show running in the West End even with full houses every night? Believe me, Ray,” and his name was spat out. “Bodie can’t afford to take that kind of loss. Think about it.”

The phone was slammed down at the other end, whereas Ray replaced the receiver almost reverently. It looked as though his other decision had been made for him. He made his way back to his dressing room, barely acknowledging the enthusiastic ‘break a leg’ from his fellow cast members, who were gathering in the wings for the opening number.

Walking into his dressing room, he almost bumped into Bodie, who was just leaving.

“Ray! There you are. Are you alright?”

“I’m fine.” Ray’s response was subdued.

“When I couldn’t reach you last night I was worried. And then again today there was no word.”

“I’m fine, Bodie.”

“Are you sure? You’re very quiet. Nervous?”

Ray shook his head but Bodie continued, “I know a cure for that.” He made to take Ray in his arms but he twisted away. He now knew what he had to do. His voice was husky with unshed tears as he faced Bodie, putting out one hand to prevent his lover, his ex-lover, from touching him.

“I did a lot of thinking overnight and today and I don’t believe we have a future together. Whatever we had, it’s over. I won’t be the ruination of you.”

He saw the words hit Bodie, the hurt in his eyes, as the meaning sank in. He thought Bodie was going to speak. He almost expected him to lash out. But he simply backed out of the dressing room door, his face taut and white. The door closed quietly.

Ray leaned back against the door. Suddenly his knees didn’t feel strong enough to hold him upright. Breathing in and out deeply, he fought back the threatened tears and something on the dressing table caught his eye.

There was a single red rose in a tiny crystal vase sitting in the middle of all the cards and make up. The ruby red of the petals looked like crushed velvet and tiny drops of water gleamed like diamonds. Stiffening his spine, he crossed the room and picked up the card leaning against the small vase. The card simply held the letter ‘B’ in Bodie’s bold handwriting. It fell from his fingers as the tears rushed back almost choking him.

A bang on the door made him jump. “Five minutes, Ray.” The call brought him back to the reality of his situation. He had cruelly finished the most meaningful relationship of his life and he was supposed to be on stage in less than five minutes. But he knew what he had to do. Releasing Bodie was only one part of saving his finances. The show had to be a success and to achieve that Ray Doyle had to perform.

Pulling himself together was probably one of the hardest things he had ever done but within the time limit he found himself at the side of the stage, listening for his cue. The show must go on, he thought as he stepped out into the spotlight, and Bodie must be saved.

 

Chapter Fourteen

The applause was tumultuous. The audience didn’t want to go home. They called the cast back again and again to show their adoration and the cast accepted their due with bows and encores. The audience stood, clapping and cheering. Flowers littered the edge of the stage.

Ray stepped forward, raising his arms to indicate that he wanted to speak and gradually the incredible noise died to a murmur. “Thank you. Thank you all so very much. We are all delighted that you enjoyed the show. Please spread the word. We’d like a really long run!” This raised a laugh. “Now you all need to go home and we’re going out to celebrate. But before you go … just one more encore. Maestro, please.” And he gestured gracefully to the conductor. The orchestra started to play the opening chords of ‘Sing My Heart’ and the auditorium erupted again. However, as Ray began to sing, they calmed but remained on their feet.

As he reached the second verse, Ray beckoned Kim and Tony forward and they joined him in song. By the time they reached the final verse, the whole cast had joined in. Then one final bow and the curtain came down for the last time that night. Exiting the stage, the cast chattered excitedly. They could still hear the audience calling for more.

On reaching his dressing room, Ray hoped to find Bodie waiting. He knew that he probably wouldn’t be after the earlier scene but he needed to know that he hadn’t let Bodie down professionally. But there was only Jack, ready to help him out of his costume and full of how wonderful the performance had been. “It’s going to run and run, Ray, I just know it. I’ve never seen such an incredible opening night in all my years in the theatre. And you were simply amazing. Never seen a debut like it. You’re a star, Ray, a real, honest-to-goodness star.”

Ray let the chatter wash over him as he cleaned off his make up and changed into the clothes he’d set aside for the after-show party. He desperately wanted to know what Bodie thought of the show, of his performance in particular, but he was scared to see him again after ending their relationship earlier that evening.

“What do you want to do with the flowers and gifts?” Jack’s question penetrated his introspection.

“Leave them for now. The flowers brighten up the place and I’ll pick up the cards and gifts tomorrow. I’d like to write and thank people.”

“That’s a nice idea. You’d be surprised at how many people don’t bother. Manners seem to be a thing of the past.” With that condemnation of the theatrical profession, Jack finished his tidying. “Right, that’s me done. I’ll see you at the hotel. I’ve got a lift down there with a couple of the costume ladies.”

“Thank you, Jack. I’ll see you there.

After Jack left, Ray sat, contemplating his reflection in the mirror. He really didn’t look any different but then what did an absolute bastard look like? He’d behaved appallingly towards Bodie. Though he still felt he’d done the right thing for Bodie’s financial health, his timing had been right off.

Bright red caught his eye and he took the rose out of the vase, dried off the stem and tucked it into the buttonhole of his evening jacket. It was something from Bodie and therefore immeasurably precious. It also looked absolutely stunning against the white jacket that Bodie had persuaded him to buy when they’d spent a memorable couple of hours in Harrods. But those were memories to be taken out and lovingly remembered in the cold, lonely months and years to come.

*****

The Royal Lancaster Hotel, Bayswater, was not the usual venue for an opening night party, but Bodie had decided it was more suited to his requirements than a more centrally located hotel or restaurant. As well as cast and crew, there were guests including press, friends and relatives, backers, agents and a myriad others, who all had a connection to the production and for whom this party was a ‘Thank You’ whether the show was a hit or a miss. Having planned to travel with Bodie, and having delayed his departure from the theatre hoping that he would turn up, Ray hailed a black cab and made his own way to the hotel.

The party was in full swing when he arrived but there was no way he would be able to sneak in quietly. A group of cast members was standing just inside the entrance doors and spotted him as he paid off the cab. He was greeted with shouts of welcome and soon found himself sucked into the maelstrom. It seemed everyone wanted to shake his hand. Everyone wanted a few words. Before long he’d lost track of the number of people he’d met, but throughout his progress across the room, he looked for Bodie. The fact that he overheard several people comment on his absence confirmed that the man was definitely not present.

Eventually he found himself in a group comprising George Cowley, Susie Fischer, Kim Knight, Tony Murphy, his mother and sisters, Katie and Emma, and a distinguished looking gentleman he didn’t recognise. His mother swept him up in a huge hug. “Oh, Ray, darling. You were absolutely marvellous. I can’t begin to tell you how much I enjoyed it all. And Katie did too. Tell him, Katie.”

Ray turned and greeted his sister with an equally warm embrace. “Glad you could make it, Katie. How are Ian and the kids?”

“Kicking themselves ‘cos they couldn’t come too. And Mum’s right, Ray, you were bloody marvellous. My brother … the star.”

“Don’t talk nonsense. I’m still the kid brother you knocked about all those years ago.”

“And I can still knock sense into you. And don’t you forget it.” She mock threatened him with a clenched fist to his nose.

“And I suppose you didn’t enjoy it at all,” he turned to his other sister, Emma, who had been enjoying the byplay with Katie. “As Mum specifically mentioned that Katie enjoyed it ...”

“You know I did, Ray. It was marvellous. Give us a hug then.” She, too, was caught up in exuberant arms and swung round.

“And how’s all your brood?”

“Same as Katie’s. Miffed that they’re not here. It’s going to cost me a fortune to bring them all up to London.”

“I can arrange comps.” Ray was immediately concerned for his sister’s finances.

“I know that, silly. It’s all the extras that go with a trip to the theatre. But don’t you worry about it. I can make it into Christmas and birthday presents for the next two years.”

“That seems a bit mean, Em.” Then he caught the twinkle in his sister’s eyes and realised that, once again, she was teasing him. If he’d ever thought that his sisters would stop the teasing and tormenting that had been such a feature of his childhood, he now knew that even being a star of a West End show wouldn’t do it. Being the youngest Doyle child had its disadvantages.

As he laughed with his sisters and mother, the grey-haired man standing next to Cowley caught his attention and he held out his hand. “Ray Doyle.”

“Yes, I know who you are.”

“Ray, this is Walter Donohue,” introduced Cowley. “He’s …”

“… theatre critic on ‘The Times’,” finished Ray. “Very pleased to meet you. I’ve enjoyed your column for years.”

“Pleased to meet you too, Ray. I’m delighted to tell you that I haven’t enjoyed myself so much at the theatre for a long time.”

“I’m glad you liked the show.”

“Yes, indeed. I’m sure George here will tell you that I don’t say that too often. You have a prodigious talent. Look after it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an editor champing at the bit to get my copy to bed. Lovely to meet you, Ray, and all the best for the run of the show. I don’t imagine there’s any doubt. It’s a hit.”

Shaking hands all round, the critic left the group and made his way out of the room. Cowley turned to Ray and held out his hand. “Thank you, Ray. I had no doubt that you’d do us all proud. All the same, I’m delighted that I can honestly say you got it all together and we have a hit.”

“Without your help and support, I couldn’t have done it. So, thank you, George.”

“Now that you’ve established a mutual admiration society, I say we get on with enjoying the evening,” Tony Murphy interrupted, flinging an arm around both sets of shoulders and grinning widely.

“You’ve all worked really hard. You deserve to let your hair down for a night,” commented Shirley. “But don’t forget you’re back on stage tomorrow night.” She laughed at the groans from Ray, Tony and Kim.

“Champagne all round, I think,” offered Katie, producing a bottle and starting to fill glasses.

*****

The rest of the evening passed in a blur of alcohol and smiling faces. Eventually Ray took refuge behind a display of potted palms situated to one side of the temporary bar. He’d found it increasingly difficult to keep a smile on his face whilst he was worrying what had become of Bodie. He’d heard various tales as to why the impresario wasn’t present at his own opening night party. None of which even approached the truth of his betrayal.

At one point, he’d found himself face to face with Veronica and her father. She was all cold smiles and solicitous enquiries about Bodie. Mr Randolph though seemed delighted with the success of the show so Ray could only presume that he hadn’t pulled his funding. His greeting of Ray was almost warm and certainly gave no indication that he knew of the relationship between Ray and Bodie.

Following that encounter, he’d found this quiet corner, slouching, as far as he was able, on a straight backed chair, whilst he tried to figure out what he needed to do next. Even here though, voices intruded and he found himself listening.

“I’m telling you, Rog, I’ve never heard anything like it. She came storming in, screeching at Ray and Bodie. She never even saw me though she practically ran me down.”

“What was she on about?”

“Didn’t know at first. I was heading for the stage to clear props so I couldn’t get past as they were in the way. And when I heard what she was saying, I thought it best to stay back.”

“Come on, tell all. You’ve got me on tenterhooks.”

“Okay, okay, hold your horses. Was just setting the scene.”

“You’re an old woman, Terry. Living for gossip.”

“Well, it’s not often you see something like this. The producer, the star and the daughter of one of the angels going at it hammer and tongs.”

“So what happened?”

“She was yelling about how Bodie was hers and what her father would do when he found out that Ray was trying to steal him. Then Ray just upped and left.”

“That’s why he went missing yesterday?”

“Absolutely, but the best bit was to come. After Bodie tried to call Ray back, he turned on that Veronica woman. Told her she was an interfering cow. That his relationship with Ray was none of her business as they’d been finished for months. That if he heard her bad mouth Ray ever again, he wouldn’t be answerable for the consequences. Didn’t let her get a word in edgewise. And then he hit her with the killer. That he didn’t care about her father’s money. If he was stupid enough to pull his backing from a sure fire hit then that was his lookout. And, in any case, he’d already covered the possibility of someone pulling out and had backup finance in place. He then told her to get out of the theatre and not to show her face backstage again. There … what do you think of that then?”

“Incredible. I don’t know how you do it. You always seem to be in the right place at the right time.”

“I just keep my eyes and ears open. Come on … let’s get another drink.”

As the duo moved away, Ray sat in stunned silence as he realised the enormity of what he’d destroyed.

*****

Where is Bodie? The question hammered through Ray’s brain as he moved through the crowded party. Various groups demanded his presence as he was alternately congratulated and questioned about the future. But gradually the attendees started to drift away. Much though the cast and crew wanted to continue their celebration, they had a show to put on the following night.

After making sure his mother and sisters were safely settled in their hotel rooms, he headed back to Reception. His family would head for home later in the day. Tony, Shirley and Kim were getting into a cab as he arrived as they all lived within streets of each other. Waving and blowing exaggerated kisses, they disappeared into the night. He found Cowley waiting for him.

“Ah, there you are, Ray. I’m glad I caught you before you left for home.”

“I was just making sure Mum was okay. She had a worrying night and then all the excitement of the show and the party.” Ray could see how tired Cowley was and he steered him towards a group of armchairs on the far side of Reception. “Let’s take a seat for a minute. My feet are killing me.” He sank down into one of the chairs, sighing as he did so. Cowley took one of the others, stretching his legs and feet in relief.

“I think tonight went off very well,“ Cowley began. “Bodie will be pleased. Shame he couldn’t be here.”

“Did you hear from him, George? I was … concerned when he didn’t turn up.”

“He left the theatre straight after the show.”

“He was there?” Ray leaned forward in his excitement.

“He stayed for the whole performance. Told me how pleased he was and then left.”

“Did he say where he was going?”

“Muttered something about having to deal with a crisis at the Manor.”

“Buckleigh? He’s gone to Buckleigh.” Ray felt a huge relief at knowing that Bodie had gone home.

“I would assume so. Are you planning to join him?”

Ray hesitated before answering. “I need to talk to him so it might be best if I did.”

“Well, just make sure you’re back in time for curtain up.”

“Of course … ah … there is one problem.” He looked thoughtfully down at his shoes.

“And what would that be?”

“I’ve no way to get there. I don’t own a car and public transport doesn’t run at this time of night.”

“No problem at all. Take my car.“ Cowley dug the keys out of his jacket pocket and passed them to Ray.

“I couldn’t do that. How will you get home?”

“Taxi. Probably as well as I’ve had rather a lot of champagne. Go on … you’re doing me a favour. Removing temptation so to speak.”

“Well, if you’re sure. Thank you, George. I’ll get off then. Where is the car?” He was eager to leave.

“Just outside. The parking attendant brought it to the front.”

“Will you be all right if I go now?”

“Quite all right. They’ll get me a cab.” He indicated the concierge desk. “Now be off with you.”

Ray took off through the front entrance and found the car just where Cowley had said it would be. He glanced back as he was opening the driver’s door to check that Cowley was okay and noticed a rather smug expression on the director’s face. Not having time to consider what that was about, he got into the car and minutes later was speeding down Bayswater Road heading west out of London.

*****

It was still dark when Ray drove through the gates of Buckleigh Manor. The drive out of London had been easy as the traffic was light to non-existent. Probably a good thing as he was tired and distracted by thoughts of Bodie. It wouldn’t do for the latest West End star to wrap Cowley’s car around a lamp post.

Pulling the Rover to a halt at the front of the Manor, he glanced around but there was no sign of the Capri so Bodie must have garaged it. He could see no sign of life in the house either. There were no lights showing. Getting out, he stretched, his muscles stiff with tiredness. He could see that the front lawns had been repaired, the digger removed. Once decided on a course of action, Bodie certainly didn’t seem to let anything stand in his way.

But that was also true in his personal life. Bodie had pursued Ray diligently and had offered to share his life with him. Yet he’d made no attempt to contact Ray since the scene in the dressing room. From what he’d overheard, Bodie had sorted his finances and was in no danger of bankruptcy. Why hadn’t he told Ray? Why hadn’t he waited to speak to him after the show?

Standing on the porch steps, he realised that he hadn’t given Bodie a chance to speak. He’d made this great self-sacrificing gesture all by himself. He hadn’t asked. He’d assumed. It was quite possible that, by now, Bodie didn’t want to see him, let alone speak to him. Oh, God! Had he made a mistake coming here?

There was no point second-guessing himself. He was here now. If he didn’t take this opportunity to talk to Bodie, he would regret it for the rest of his life.

*****

He crossed the tiled hallway floor, having been surprised to find the front door open. Almost as if Bodie didn’t care to protect his home with such an elementary precaution. There were no lights in the front part of the house but there was a glimmer showing under the drawing room door. And then he heard it. Someone was playing the piano.

Pushing the door open, he entered. Standing in the doorway, Ray thought he had never seen anyone looking as desolate as Bodie at that moment. As the music had told him, Bodie was at the piano. But not seated. He was standing, one hand resting by a glass of amber liquid on top of the instrument, the other picking out a tune; his head bowed, his shoulders slumped.

Not knowing how to start what could be the most important conversation of his life, Ray paused. To his surprise, Bodie spoke. “Don’t clutter up the doorway. Come on in. Have a drink.” He turned from the piano, holding up his glass.

“How did you know it was me?”

“George called.”

Realising now what the smug expression had meant on Cowley’s face as he’d left the Royal Lancaster, Ray silently thanked the director for his interference. He moved further into the room and slowly approached his ex-lover. “I don’t know what to say. I’ve made such a mess of things.”

“Why are you here, Ray?”

The question brought him to a halt part way across the drawing room. Taking a deep breath, he tried to find the words he needed to explain why he had acted as he did; to try to find out if his relationship with Bodie could be salvaged. But, with Bodie’s question, he felt it all start to slip away from him once again. The normally expressive voice had been cold, no feeling at all, the voice of a stranger and not the magnificent man with whom he’d fallen in love.

“I … needed to find you. You weren’t at the after-show party. Everyone was concerned.”

“Everyone?”

“Okay, I was concerned. I wanted to put things right between us.” Ray tentatively raised one hand towards Bodie, pleading with that gesture for understanding.

“And how would you propose to do that?”

Again, he felt himself recoil from the ice in Bodie’s voice. This wasn’t the warm, caring man he thought he knew.

“I have to explain what happened yesterday.”

“And what makes you think I want to hear it.” Bodie remained by the piano, now presenting his back to Ray, his whole manner dismissive.

Ray moved further into the drawing room. Although in the same room, it felt as if there was a chasm between them. A chasm of their own making. For all that their relationship had developed slowly, both of them wary of making a commitment too quickly, somehow they had failed to communicate. Oh, they had talked, particularly between Christmas and New Year when they were getting the Manor ready for the party, but the conversations had been about everyday things or incidents in their pasts, not about what they were feeling or what they wished and hoped for in the future.

Thinking back on previous relationships, Ray realised that this was also true of them. When had he ever shared his most intimate thoughts with those with whom he shared his body? Perhaps the way forward with Bodie was to show his trust and commitment by starting to share.

His head had been lowered as he’d tried to find the right tack. Now he glanced at his lover. Bodie, too, was staring at the floor, his expression sad. Clearing his throat, Ray started to speak.

“I was so very confused, Bodie, when I saw you at the theatre before the show. I’d just spoken to Veronica on the ‘phone and heard that her father was going to pull his financing.” Bodie looked up at this but Ray continued before he could speak. “You told me that your finances were precarious as you’d committed to both the show and to the Manor. I couldn’t see any other way to help you than to back off. If I was out of the picture then the finances would remain in place and your future would be secure. It all seemed so very clear at the time. I didn’t want to see you unhappy and I couldn’t run the risk of you losing all your money. Then, at the after-show party, I overheard a conversation that changed everything. Why didn’t you tell me that you didn’t need Randolph’s money? Why did you let me do that to you? Oh, Bodie, don’t you want me any more?” The final plea seemed to be ripped from Ray’s very soul and now he waited in agony for the response.

Whilst he had been speaking, Bodie had slowly moved to stand in front of Ray and he now reached out and gently touched the rose that was still in the lapel of Ray’s dinner jacket, though Ray knew it was, like him, the worse for wear. Bodie brushed the petals.

“I see you found it.”

“Just after you left my dressing room. It’s so beautiful, I had to wear it. To have something of you close to me.” Ray started to lean towards Bodie, longing to touch him, but wary of pushing too hard, too fast.

“I’m not very good at saying what I want or need when it comes to my personal life. I hoped this might say it for me.” Bodie sounded diffident and Ray smiled at the hopeful expression on Bodie’s face.

“I think it says a lot. But I’d like to hear you say it too.” Slowly Ray put out his hand and touched Bodie’s arm.

“What do you want to know?” Bodie moved away from Ray’s touch but it didn’t seem to be a rejection, more a need to move whilst trying to verbalise something, which he’d kept to himself for a long time.

Not moving, Ray encouraged. “Everything … oh, not immediately. I want to know all about you but let’s start with the important stuff. How you feel about me and what you want from me?”

“Everything.” Their eyes met as Bodie stopped moving away, turning back towards Ray, then he continued. “Perhaps I should start by explaining why I was so very slow at telling you how I felt. I’ve always known that I preferred men to women but women were safe and expected. Sex with men was, of necessity, quick and furtive. And the only time I thought I might have found a life partner, he screwed me in more ways than the obvious.” He paused.

“Go on,” Ray encouraged.

“I met him when I was with the band. We weren’t Top Ten but we had our share of groupies and it didn’t take me long to spot Steve. He was drop dead gorgeous.”

“Oh, really, he was that good looking,” Ray couldn’t resist a gentle tease. Although Bodie had not answered his earlier pleas, he was opening up.

“Well, I thought so at the time. I was only twenty two. Anyway, I fell for him hook, line and sinker. We were touring and he joined us, sharing my digs and riding in the van with the rest of the guys. I thought I was in love … it was a great summer …” Whilst he’d been speaking, Bodie had moved towards the French windows and he now pushed aside the heavy curtains and stared out into the night until a prompt from Ray helped him to continue.

“And then …?”

“And then I found out he’d been helping himself from the cash box. We were so naive we kept all our money in it, divvying it up as needed. Steve robbed us blind.”

“That wasn’t all though, was it?” Ray asked, realising that there had to be more to explain Bodie’s caution in forwarding the relationship with Ray.

“No, no it wasn’t.” Bodie admitted reluctantly. Dropping the curtain but still facing the window, he admitted. “I found him in bed with Pete, the lead guitarist. I’d believed him when he told me I was The One.”

“What did you do?” Fascinated by this insight into Bodie’s past, Ray pushed gently.

“I beat the crap out of the pair of them.”

This was so unexpected that it took Ray a second or two to register what had been said, then he laughed. Bodie finally turned away from the window and joined in the laughter, though his was rueful. “It wasn’t funny at the time. They were going to press charges for assault but the other member of the band, Charlie, had also figured out who’d been thieving and, with both our accusations, they backed off. I didn’t stick around long after that, just finished the tour dates and then quit the band.”

“I can see why you’d be wary of getting involved again.” The incidents related by Bodie explained so much for Ray and he was pleased when the other man continued.

“Yeah. I developed a cautious side. And I stuck to the fairer sex, in the main, after that. I didn’t want commitment; I just wanted to have fun and to avoid ever being hurt like that again. When I met you, I couldn’t believe how much I wanted you.” Walking away from the window, Bodie now came face to face with Ray. His expression was yearning and Ray hoped that they were finally on the right track.

“You hid it well.” Ray’s tone verged on sarcastic. “All I could see was anger.”

“Ah, yes, our original meetings weren’t exactly conducive to a lasting relationship.”

“But they gave me sufficient fodder for some interesting fantasies.” He remembered the day and night dreams he’d had about the tall, dark stranger.

“They did?” Bodie seemed hesitant as if he were only just realising how mutual their attraction had been – and still was.

“Oh, yes. The first time I saw you I thought you were the embodiment of all my dreams. The fantasy even survived your appalling temper.”

“I do not have a temper.”

Ray couldn’t help himself, snorting his disbelief at this statement. “Just go on believing that, love, and I’ll remind you from time to time.”

Bodie looked solemn. “It looks as if I’ll have to get used to a lot of things.”

Ray was all too aware that they had taken tentative steps into a relationship and it now appeared that they had both been too scared to admit to caring and, therefore, were slow to commit. It seemed that neither had wanted to be the first to say “I love you”. But they had taken those steps, they had committed to each other and then he had torn it all apart with those cruel words to Bodie at the theatre. Now, however, he was beginning to hope.

“I think we’ll learn to cope.” Ray held out his hand and Bodie grasped it firmly as if he would never again let go. “We’ve come a long way in a fairly short time. And we’ve a lot further to go. I know that I love you and want to spend the rest of my life making you happy.”

When there was no immediate response from Bodie, the doubts started to crowd back in.
“Please … please, Bodie. Don’t …” Ray couldn’t go any further. He was choked with emotion. He could feel tears in his eyes, ready to fall, but he forced them back.

He watched as Bodie released his hand, backing away. His heart felt as if it was in his throat, it was beating so hard he began to feel as if he couldn’t breathe.

Bodie walked away from him. Passing the piano, he ran his fingers along the keys producing a series of discordant notes. To Ray the sound was like the death knell on his future. It had seemed that they were making progress, both of them opening up about their past and their feelings but now he felt only despair as Bodie continued to move away from him.

The drawing room was only dimly lit by a couple of lamps so the shadows played across the sombre figure as he paced slowly away from the piano towards the bay window. Ray wanted to say something … anything … to rescue the situation but his mouth was so dry that he couldn’t form any words. He remained frozen for what seemed like hours but it could only have been minutes before Bodie swung round and re-crossed the room in powerful strides.

Standing in front of Ray once more, Bodie looked at him.

His whole future hanging on this moment and still Ray could say nothing at all. He stared back at Bodie, hoping that all the love he felt was visible on his face, in his eyes.

Suddenly, Bodie moved. Towards Ray. He reached out and crushed his lover to him. “Oh God, Ray. I can’t do it. I can’t lose you. I love you too damn much.”

Drinking in the strength of the arms around him, Ray tilted his head so that he could kiss the generous mouth that had been saying his name over and over. For long minutes, they tasted each other, tongues twisting and twining. Their bodies moulded together. Finally their lips parted but their foreheads continued to touch.

“What can I do to make it right, Bodie?”

“Maybe all that’s required is an apology.”

“I am sorry, Bodie. I’m so very sorry.”

“Not from you. From me.”

“What are you on about? I was the one who finished with you.”

“And I was the one who didn’t level with you. I let you go on believing that I’d be bankrupt if Veronica’s father pulled his backing. Susie and I raised the additional finance in case something like this happened. I just forgot to tell you.”

“I suppose it’s really none of my business as it concerns your company.”

“I intend to share everything with you, Ray, and that includes the finances of the company.”

“So I guess we’re both sorry.”

“I guess we are.”

“Where do we go from here?”

“I’d like to go forward.”

“Do you have a destination in mind?”

“I think I’d like to get back on track.” Bodie held out his free hand. “Join me.”

He took Bodie’s hand and together they moved back to the piano. Bodie sat down on the bench, gently tugging Ray down to join him. Releasing his hand, Bodie started to play. Sitting close together on the piano bench, Ray remembered a question he’d been wanting to ask since he’d first heard the love theme for ‘Involvement’.

“Did you write ‘Sing My Heart’ for any particular reason?” He couldn’t quite bring himself to ask if it had been written specifically for him.

Bodie had started to play with the piano keys, occasionally producing recognisable phrases from various musical numbers. He looked thoughtful as his fingers found the chords and the now familiar tune flowed around them. “I knew there was something missing from the ‘Involvement’ score and Susie and I had discussed a love theme several times. However, nothing seemed to flow so I’d put it to the back of my mind knowing that when the time was right, the music would come. After our day out in Brighton, I kissed you for the first time.”

“I remember.”

“I wanted it to be so much more but I was scared. My feelings for you seemed to be outstripping my commonsense. I managed to pull back from that kiss but on the way home my head was full of music. This music.” Now his fingers flowed into the full number.

“So it was written for me.”

“Very much so. You inspired the music and I found the words to go with it.”

“Susie didn’t write them?”

“No. This one was totally mine. And yours.”

“Thank you. I love singing it and it will now mean so much more to me.” Turning his head slightly, he kissed the side of Bodie’s mouth.

Ray smiled. He knew this song was a foretelling of the future. A future with Bodie. Humming softly, he raised both his hands and turned Bodie’s head so that their mouths touched. It was an affirmation, a benediction and a new beginning.

Reluctantly parting from the lips he wanted to worship forever, Ray began to sing the words that had been written especially for him and he would never, ever, sing it better than he now did. All his hopes and dreams came together in the man beside him and he truly could sing his heart.

 

The End

 

Notes:

1. ‘If I Can Dream’ written by Blackwell/Presley.
2. ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’ written by Mercury.
3. ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man Of Mine’ written by Kern/Hammerstein.
4. ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’ written by Weiss/Perett/Creatore.
5. I’m no lyricist but the inspiration for the song ‘Sing My Heart’ came from the Michael Bublé song ‘Hold On’, which can be found on the album ‘Crazy Love’. Written by Bublé/Chang/Foster.