Aunt Auriel is waiting for him at the door, features tinged with worry. 'Thank goodness you got here so quickly, Peter -- he's upstairs, third door on the left.'
Peter nods once and climbs the main staircase, briefcase jostling against his thigh. Inside the room, Gregory Shaw is breathing with the aid of an oxygen mask, but the rhythm of his breathing is disquieting, and Peter has been to enough vigils to know that's not a good sign. 'Mr. Shaw,' he says gently, taking a seat in the armchair near the bed. 'I'm told you would like to amend your will?'
Mr. Shaw lets his eyes shut, then opens them slowly again and nods.
Peter opens his briefcase and removes the current will. Mr. Shaw had specified that everything be left to charity, but it isn't uncommon for people to reconsider when the end draws near. There's no point in making Mr. Shaw speak more than he has to, so Peter bypasses his usual speech and says, 'Am I right in assuming you would like to change the beneficiary?'
The old man mouths yes from behind the mask.
'I'll need a name,' Peter says, wincing a little at having to ask Mr. Shaw to do without the mask for a moment.
None too steadily, Mr. Shaw removes the mask, gasps once, and then croaks out, 'Farraday. Becket Farraday.'
Peter's pen stills. 'Becket? Like Thomas à Becket?'
Mr. Shaw nods again.
'I was down at Cambridge with a Becket Farraday,' Peter says meditatively. 'I wonder if he's the same one?' It probably is; how many Farradays named after the famed Archbishop of Canterbury could there be?
Later that afternoon, Aunt Auriel witnesses the revised will, and two days later Mr. Shaw passes on quietly in his sleep.
Peter is vividly aware that adult-onset diabetes is not the worst thing that could happen to a person. He's seen worse, up close and personal, and he's not going to complain about this.
He doesn't take Millie with him on his morning walks on the beach, now -- his strides are purposeful, his heels striking the sand in time with a shameful array of pop music that Lyle loaded on to his iPod. Some might have suggested that it was masochistic to walk on this beach where he'd lost Simon twice, and they're probably not wrong, but he thinks that it's better to keep going there, better to deal with it than avoid it. And there's some part of him that likes the idea of the beach being the site of positive change, for once.
He pulls out his earbuds when he gets back to the house, swinging the door open to find Gloria there early. He smiles at her and she smiles back easily.
'Good morning, Gloria. Any word yet from Mr. Farraday?'
'I'll try him again this morning,' she says. 'Unless you'd rather? Didn't you say you were at university together?'
Peter freezes, then pastes a smile on his face. 'I doubt he remembers me. It's been years. Is Lyle in yet?'
She shakes her head, knowing as well as Peter does that Lyle will slide in at nine on the dot, and not a second before. 'Beatrice is in the kitchen,' she says after a moment, a little apologetic.
'Oh good Lord,' he says, and heads up the stairs for a shower.
Beatrice is taking his diabetes diagnosis very seriously. He can't blame her -- he's the only brother she has left. Not genetically speaking, apparently, but that's the least of their worries at the moment. Magnets on the fridge now do double duty, holding up both pictures of Petra and all the sample menus that Beatrice printed off NHS' website.
'Good morning,' she says, pausing from coaxing more cereal into Petra's mouth. 'I boiled you an egg.'
'Thank you,' he says reflexively. The minor disaster zone on the kitchen counter attracts his attention. 'What happened?' he asks, vaguely alarmed at the profusion of egg shells.
'It's harder than it looks.'
Years of experience tell him not to respond to that. And besides which, the egg is actually good, as are the slices of apple and toast, although he gives a pained look at the glass of milk she's set out for him.
'Drink it,' she says flatly. 'Oh, could you finish feeding her so I can get ready?'
She leaves and he takes her place in front of Petra's chair, wiping the baby's chin where, predictably, roughly half the Ready Brek has gone instead of in her stomach. 'Well,' he says, aiming another spoonful at her mouth, 'I never would have imagined Beatrice mothering a child, much less me. I suppose we all have the capacity for change, hmm?'
Petra squeals, pats the high chair tray with her little chubby baby hands, and spits up the cereal again.
He narrows his eyes at her theatrically, and says, 'You most of all, I should think.' And then he drinks his glass of milk all in one go -- one of them, at least, should finish their breakfast properly, even if the milk has gone slightly warm by this point.
It is undoubtedly his Becket Farraday.
The time-blurred mental image that Peter has held onto -- cricket whites and blond hair with a suspicion of curl to it -- is not so far removed from the present day. This Becket Farraday is wrapped in a sombre charcoal wool overcoat, and his face has a few more lines to it, but overall, the years have been quite kind to him.
Still, Peter doesn't want to presume, so he introduces himself and extends his hand in greeting.
Becket takes his hand, but he says hesitantly, 'Peter Kingdom? Weren't you in Queens' College?'
No sooner has Peter said, 'Oh, well, yes,' than he is the recipient of one of those odd embraces he's never quite got the hang of, where Becket tugs forward on their clasped hands and throws one arm around Peter's neck. The blond curls threaded through with grey at the top of his head tickle Peter's nose.
'I thought it was you,' Becket says, from somewhere in the vicinity of Peter's collarbone. He pulls back. 'How have you been?'
'Well, thank you,' Peter says, avoiding Gloria's curious glance. 'Come in, won't you?'
He helps Becket out of his coat and waves him into the chair in front of his desk. 'I'm sorry to call you here under these circumstances. Were you close to Mr. Shaw?'
Becket shakes his head. 'Not -- not particularly. He was a friend of my father's -- at least, until they had some sort of row before my father passed away.'
Peter raises his eyebrows at that, and extends the pertinent section of the will across the desk. 'Well, he left everything to you.'
Becket leans forward across the desk -- and that's a more potent memory trigger than Peter would have expected, one that evokes the smell of old books and the feel of the smooth grain of worn library tables under his fingertips. When Becket looks up again, there's an expression of saddened bewilderment on his face. 'Did he really have no one else?'
'None that he cared to mention,' Peter says gently.
Becket retrieves his cup and saucer from the desk, slender fingers cradling the china gracefully. 'That's that, I suppose. At least I've been through this before,' he says, and stops. 'Is your father still practising?'
'He passed away several years ago, I'm afraid,' Peter says automatically, time and repetition having worn away all emotion from the statement.
'I'm sorry to hear that,' Becket says, and if Peter is the model of professional detachment, it's clear that Becket's loss is newer, or at least more painful.
'It's quite all right,' Peter says, and gives him a small, sympathetic smile. 'Well, Gloria has a few more things for us to look over -- shall we?' he says, and Becket obediently precedes him out of the office. 'Are you in town just for the day?' Peter asks him, while shuffling through a few of the papers after Gloria hands them over.
'A few, I think -- I've no urgent need to go into the office, as long as I can get a decent wireless connection.'
'Where are you staying?'
Becket has evidently retained his charming habit of looking perplexed by the most ordinary of questions, as if he weren't a linguist by trade. 'I hadn't really thought ahead that far yet, I'm afraid.'
Beatrice's voice interrupts the comfortable back-and-forth. 'You should stay here.'
They both turn their heads to look at her. She's standing in the doorway, Petra perched on one hip.
'My sister, Beatrice, and my niece, Petra,' Peter says by way of introduction, attempting to tell Beatrice through elaborate eyebrow waggling, stop it no what on earth are you thinking?
Beatrice just smiles mercilessly. 'You're Peter's old university friend, aren't you? We've heard so much about you. You really should stay with us so you and Peter can catch up.'
Becket's gaze darts from Beatrice back to Peter, his expression a little uncertain. 'Oh,' he says, sounding surprised but pleasantly so. 'I wouldn't want to impose.'
There's something about the gently expectant expression on Becket's upturned face that makes the years melt away, and Peter can no more deny him now than he ever could. 'I insist,' Peter says warmly, while having a minor internal panic attack as to where in the house to put him.
Fortunately, household logistics are temporarily put on hold as the front door bangs open, Mr. Snell hollering his name, which is something that Peter can count on happening an average of three times a week. Marriage, it seems, has mellowed Mr. Snell's desire to sue everyone not one iota.
Peter has more appointments, and Becket expresses a desire to get some work done, so the easiest solution is to stash him in Lyle's old office until later in the afternoon. The little desk that Lyle had occupied during his articled clerk days is more than sufficient in size for Becket's extremely shiny laptop.
Peter hovers at the door, and says hesitantly, 'Can I get you anything?'
'Hmm?' Becket's face has already taken on a languid, dreamy expression as he looks at his computer screen. He blinks a few times, and then looks up at Peter. 'Oh, no, I'm fine. Go on, Peter -- I'm perfectly capable of entertaining myself for a few hours. I'll be glad for a little peace and quiet to finish the code for this semantics model.'
'That's in short supply around here, I'm afraid,' Peter says ruefully.
'Oh, I think I'll manage,' Becket says, and Peter makes a mental note to ask Gloria to make tea anyway. He turns to go, but stops when Becket says his name again quietly.
Becket gives him a small smile. 'It's good to see you again. I mean that.'
'Likewise,' Peter manages to say, although it is such an understatement that it almost verges on a lie.
In between appointments, Peter catches sight of Beatrice looking over Lyle's shoulder at his desk. Lyle twitches when he realises Peter is watching them, and looks mildly guilty.
Beatrice's gaze flickers up from the computer screen once, but she only looks thoughtful.
Becket looks around Gregory Shaw's room at the mansion, but keeps his hands behind his back, as if he were in a shop filled with priceless porcelain and didn't trust himself to touch anything. 'It's nice,' he allows after a moment or two of observation. 'Was he ill for long?'
The question is directed to Aunt Auriel, who obligingly answers, 'The emphysema troubled him for years, but he seemed relatively well, otherwise. He was quite the correspondent -- I suppose he wrote to your father?'
Something flickers in Becket's eyes -- recognition, and then the second guilty look Peter has seen that day. 'I believe he did.'
Aunt Auriel nods to a solid wooden box sitting at the foot of the bed. 'Gregory wasn't the kind to throw letters away. It wouldn't surprise me if your father's were in there.'
Becket swallows audibly, and says, 'I'm sure they are.' If his voice is a little hoarse with emotion, both Peter and Aunt Auriel do him the courtesy of pretending not to notice.
When he returns to the house, Becket and a box of letters in tow, he has just uncomfortably concluded that the only civil thing to do is to give up his bedroom to Becket. He can hardly turn Beatrice out of hers, and the sofa, while very nice for its intended function, is nonetheless a poor substitute for a bed.
When they open the door, Beatrice says, 'Oh, you're back. Come this way.' She heads up the stairs, perfectly confident that they will follow her.
Peter gathers up Becket's overnight bag and gives Becket a companionable what-can-you-do smile, which is good because it covers for his oh-what-now look of anxiety-ridden terror.
He winces when he sees Beatrice stopping in front of the door of a spare bedroom that has been no such thing for years -- he's been using it as an auxiliary file room since their father passed away. But when Beatrice opens the door, it reveals a small, plainly furnished guestroom, and it is only with effort that he is able to suppress his astonishment and say to Becket, 'We'll let you get settled -- dinner in an hour?'
Becket nods gratefully, still clutching the box to his chest.
Back downstairs in the kitchen, Peter turns to Beatrice. 'How did you--'
She has that look on her face, the one that reminds him of when she was seven and had gleefully figured out that one way to make Simon stop playing his favourite, most annoying records was to paint clear nail polish over them. Peter had given her extra pocket money that week -- he hadn't wanted to hear them again, either. 'You know you were only using that room because you couldn't put Daddy's things in the attic.'
'They weren't just his things,' Peter protests, but weakly. He knows she's right; he couldn't face the prospect of sorting through everything again to put it away in storage. Archiving Simon's things had been hard enough.
'I had Lyle and Gloria do a quick sort while you were busy this morning and when you were out this afternoon, and then I paid those nice strapping young boys who are always hanging out near the square to haul everything up to the attic.'
'Beatrice!' Peter says incredulously. 'Those boys are school delinquents -- you shouldn't be encouraging them!'
'And then I called Ted,' she continues on, as if she hasn't heard him, 'and had him deliver the furniture. Voilà, a place for your dear old friend Becket, whom you never talk about.'
In the end, it's the tell-me-I'm-clever smile on her face that he responds to. 'Thank you,' he tells her sincerely. 'I was at a loss as to where to put him.'
'Am I your favourite sister ever?'
'You're my only sister,' he says, kissing her on the cheek. 'But even if you weren't, you'd still be my favourite.'
Peter was evidently more amusing in university than he remembers -- at least to hear Becket tell it, anyway.
'--so Boot comes back, sopping wet, and Peter just looks at him, and says, "Toast is off, then?"'
Beatrice and Lyle both sputter with laughter, and Peter can't help cracking a smile of his own. These things that Becket is telling them -- they're from half a lifetime ago, before he lost his father to Alzheimer's, before he lost his brother twice to greed and foolishness, before Beatrice had disappeared for a number of years in a succession of clinics. It's hard to remember ever being that carefree -- but then, looking around at the table, he wouldn't trade this family he's made for anything.
'I seem to remember an incident with your girlfriend Caroline -- whatever happened to her, anyway?' Peter says.
Becket looks startled. 'Caroline? Oh, we parted ways not long after we both left university.'
'Rotten luck -- she was mad about you, as I recall,' Peter says sympathetically.
'Bet she wasn't the only one, am I right?' Lyle says, with a ridiculous waggling of his eyebrows. 'And what about Peter's love life? The more blackmail material, the better.'
'Boring. Very boring and inept,' Peter says swiftly, smiling to keep the statement from taking the conversation in any depressing, downward direction.
Becket looks at him through his eyelashes, and then considerately changes the subject.
The box is lying open on the guest bed, but all of the letters are still inside.
'I'm a coward, aren't I?' Becket says softly. 'I could barely stand to talk to my father when he was alive, and I'm too afraid to read his words now that he's gone.'
Peter sits down on the bed beside Becket, their dressing gowns clashing terribly together. 'I thought you were close to your father.'
He hears Becket swallow, and feels his fingers gripping the edge of the bed between them. 'We were,' he says. 'When I was at university. When I published my first paper in computational linguistics -- he didn't understand, but he was proud of me. I know he was. But not after.'
'What happened?' Peter asks delicately.
'Nothing had changed,' Becket says, frustratingly cryptic. 'And when he passed away -- when I sorted through everything, there was only one letter left from Mr. Shaw. Dad must have destroyed the rest. He was so stubborn, Peter. And now I just have -- this box, these letters from my dad that Mr. Shaw could never bring himself to get rid of, not even when he was living in a little room in a retirement home.'
'I could read them with you,' Peter offers cautiously. 'If you thought that would help.'
'You were always helping me, back then,' Becket says, his voice tight.
Peter dares to wrap one comforting arm around Becket's bony shoulders -- he had offered chaste consolation like this too, once upon a time.
Becket's greying curls are still pressed into his pillow when Peter looks in on him the next morning, on the way out for his morning walk.
When he returns, Becket is not yet up -- and Peter feels a pang of sympathy, because they'd been up late, reading through the letters, and that was bound to take its toll. Showered and dressed, he descends to the kitchen to find Beatrice waiting for him again.
'Good morning,' he says, and finds a smile for her even though her steady gaze trained on him is a bit unnerving. There's no use rushing her, though, so he begins to see to breakfast.
'It took me a while to remember,' she says finally. 'You never said anything about it. But Simon did.'
'Simon said what?' Peter asks warily.
'Daddy asked once if we'd heard you talking about any girls down at Cambridge. Simon said you didn't give a toss for anyone if they weren't Archbishops of Canterbury.'
It's a bit something to realise that, after all the strange and marvellous things he's seen in fifty years, he can still be made to turn red by his younger sister.
'I thought it was a joke,' she continues. 'Simon needling you for being such a good student. But it wasn't a joke, was it?'
He closes his eyes briefly, then opens them. 'No,' he admits softly.
'You never said anything to us -- you never said anything to him,' she says, her eyes narrowing.
'It's not -- that world isn't the one we inhabit now, Beatrice. What could I have said to him? He had a girlfriend, a bright career ahead of him. I was coming back to Market Shipborough -- even then, our father was starting to show the first symptoms. What should I have said?'
Beatrice's icy calm breaks into anger, as it so often does, so sharply and suddenly that it still takes Peter by surprise. 'That he meant something to you!'
He flinches at that. 'He knew that. I didn't have to say it,' he says defensively.
Beatrice sighs, and all of her anger goes with that exhaled breath. 'Oh, Peter,' she says, and he doesn't know if she's sympathetic or censorious or both, but takes some comfort in the squeeze she gives his shoulder.
'Just a moment, Peter,' Gloria says. 'You know you were looking for your father's file on Mr. Shaw? I found it when we were packing up the bedroom.'
'What was it doing there?' he says distractedly, flipping through some research Lyle had compiled.
Gloria shrugs but hands it to him, and he takes it into his office.
His father had had the kind of penmanship they didn't teach now, such graceful and elegant cursive. Peter's handwriting had always been more utilitarian, crisp and clear instead of handsome. There wasn't much in the file -- two pages of notes and a will that was dated 1946.
The will left everything to one Colin Farraday.
The notes themselves are routine for the most part -- family background, wartime service, etc. In the margins next to a mention of Colin Farraday is a brief note: 'Foxhole companions.'
Peter narrows his eyes. His father had never been given to recording information he considered unimportant -- even though he must have drafted this will as a newly-minted solicitor, Peter doesn't think that characteristic changed over the years.
'Did you know that Mr. Shaw's original will left everything to your father?' Peter says, coming up behind Becket, who is staring out of the window in Lyle's old office.
Becket looks back over his shoulder, startled. 'I thought he left everything to charity.'
'Oh, he did. But that was a recent revision -- in fact, I'd say that it dates to shortly after whatever argument your father and Mr. Shaw had. Tell me, what did Mr. Shaw's letter say -- the only one your father left?'
'That my father was the worst kind of hypocrite for hating his own son.'
Becket shrugs. 'My grandfather died when I was young, but my dad never had a good word to say about him. I figured that was what Mr. Shaw meant.'
Peter asks carefully, 'Did your father ever give you any reason for how he felt about you?'
'Don't you know?' Becket says tiredly. 'Don't you, of all people, know?'
'I'm afraid I don't understand.'
'I thought you -- looking back at university, I thought you were a bit--'
'A bit?' Peter echoes.
Becket meets his eyes for one long moment, then looks diffidently aside. 'Or was it just me, in particular?'
Comprehension hits Peter then, and he knows that he has to do what Beatrice told him. He has to say it. 'You,' he says, and Becket's eyes widen. 'You, in particular. The rest, I've never cared to be especially certain of.'
'Oh,' Becket says, his cheeks flushing.
'I think you're wrong about what the letter means, though,' Peter says.
Peter pauses briefly, but he thinks his instincts are right. 'Becket, when did you tell your father you were gay?'
'I -- what?' Becket says, eyebrows furrowed in apparent confusion.
'When?' Peter repeats patiently.
'About a year before he died. I hadn't settled down with any woman after Caroline -- I thought he knew, but I didn't want to say it. And then he started to get sick, and I just figured I didn't have much time left to be honest with him.'
'Mr. Shaw may well have called your father a hypocrite for despising his father for not loving him, while similarly treating his own son with disregard. But there was a note in Mr. Shaw's file, where my father referred to yours as a "foxhole companion." That with the will, the box of letters -- Becket, I think Mr. Shaw severed a lifelong relationship because he couldn't bear your father to hate you for being the same as them.'
'Oh my god,' Becket says faintly. 'You think they--'
Peter shakes his head. 'A consummation devoutly to be wished, I think. But your father married in London, and Mr. Shaw returned to Norfolk. I think the letters were the sum total of what they had together after the war.'
'That's awful,' Becket says bleakly. He looks dreadfully shaken, like his heart is breaking.
Peter lays his hand on Becket's shoulder. 'I've never been able to stand it when you're unhappy,' Peter murmurs.
'So don't make me,' Becket says, and leans up to kiss him.
Mr. Shaw's wake takes place early that afternoon.
'This is rather more well-attended than I would have imagined,' Becket says under his breath to Peter. 'I thought you said he didn't have anyone else?'
Peter smiles at that. 'This is Market Shipborough, Becket. Just because he didn't name everyone in his will doesn't mean that he wasn't part of the community.'
The entire retirement home has turned out for the wake, not to mention quite a few citizens well under the retirement age. Ted is keeping the alcohol flowing while attempting to charm women old enough to be his great grandmothers. There's some sadness, yes, but the general atmosphere seems lively, and as more than one person has already told them, 'Gregory Shaw never cheated at croquet, and you know what that says about a man's character.'
Becket's fingers tangle with Peter's, and Peter finds that he doesn't give a damn who sees, although octogenarians are the worst gossips and everyone in town will know inside of two days.
'I'm taking these back to London,' Becket says, looking at the small urn containing Mr. Shaw's ashes that is sitting on Peter's desk. His expression is an odd cross between determined and pleading.
'Well,' Peter says slowly, 'Mr. Shaw didn't actually make any provisions for what to do with his ashes, so whatever you think is best.'
Becket shakes his head impatiently. 'No, no, I mean -- I'm taking them back to London to my father's grave.'
That brings Peter up short. 'You're going to--'
'He would have wanted it, don't you think? And my father would have, too, despite everything.' Becket reaches forward and lays his hands on Peter's shoulders. 'Peter, come with me to London.'
'Becket,' Peter says, starting to think of ways to demur. He has his practise to think of, Beatrice and Petra, not to mention his dog.
Becket squeezes his shoulders, and looks up at him, eyes serious. 'I want more than letters, Peter. Come to London with me to do this one thing. When we're finished, we'll come back to Market Shipborough and figure out the rest.'
Peter is not entirely sure he can breathe. He would say this is all rather sudden, but it's not -- it's been thirty years, and he thanks Mr. Shaw sincerely for lending him the courage to do what he's always wanted to do. 'All right,' he says, and pulls Becket to him for a kiss.