Solitary confinement gave Tom Willis time to do something he didn't usually have much time for, not in himself or in others – introspection.
After a couple of days in the stinking room with only one window high above his head, he decided to organize his days into sections, prayers twice a day, like at school; half the day planning escapes and half the day concentrating on his home and family to give him the heart to continue.
He got into the habit of going like an observant ghost to his home, Lochland Hall and watching scenes from his youth and childhood. Tom was blessed with an almost photographic memory so he decided to pick random times and think about all those people and values he was fighting for, but not Harry. He wouldn’t think about Harry or he would drive himself mad.
The first time in solitary passed quickly for him. He couldn’t wait to get out and have another go. He got used to being unwashed, living in his own filth and unshaved; he put up with all his suffering proudly, knowing that finally the Brigadier would be pleased with him. Perhaps for the first time in his life, if his father had known, he would have said “Well done, old chap” instead of scowling at him and saying “could do better, you little beggar, could do better.”
Tom had concentrated on a summer’s day in the school holidays. His grandmother, always “Grandmama” to her face, but referred to as “The Duchess” behind her back. He laughed when he thought about his brother Richard saying that is wasn’t a problem.
“If the Germans invade, we’ll just put the Duchess at the end of the drive on her shooting stick and if Hitler himself comes down it, she’ll say in her “useless servants” voice “Go away you silly little man and take those tanks with you” and I bet you anything he will.”
Tom thought about Richard, dead at Dunkirk. He’d always been destined for the church but he’d become a padre when war broke out and was shot, ministering to the dying on the French beach as the little ships tried to lift them to safety. Tom would miss him. They’d shared the unspeakable brutality of their childhood and saved each other from insanity. Whenever one of them got a beating, the other would be there to comfort and keep him company.
In his vision, Grandmama was occupied with her embroidery on the terrace, overlooking the lawns and the lake, Richard was sitting at the table, studying and Tom was practicing with his rifle, taking pot shots at pigeons. Two chocolate Labradors lay panting in the heat and at his feet, Poppy, the old hunt terrier was snoring and twitching in her sleep. Harry wasn’t there, he wouldn’t see Harry.
Sir Thomas Willis, 17th earl of Lochland, the Laird to the Estate staff and The Brigadier to everyone else, including his sons or “Sir to his face, came striding out of the French-windows onto the terrace and gave a dismissive snort.
“Nose in a book again, boy?” he barked at Richard who looked up, terrified. “Nothing better to do Tom? Go for a run, get moving, twice around the lake, now, jump to it!” Tom eased the bolt on his rifle and unloaded, peering down the barrel to check it was clear then presented it to his father.
“Springs eased and clear, Sir” he reported. He sometimes thought that actually being in the army would be easier than being here.
In the prison, Tom Willis shook his head and decided that he wouldn’t include the Brigadier in his memories.
It was Christmas holidays when he was 16. He and Richard had come home from school and were running around the hall because it was too cold and snowy to go out. They sneaked down to the kitchens and sweet-talked Cook into giving them biscuits fresh from the oven. Betty, the parlour-maid always blushed a beetroot shade of red when she came across them so Tom wandered over, munching on his biscuit and started a conversation. She pretended to be very busy with the tea trays for the drawing room, so he leaned over and planted a kiss on her cheek which caused her to squeak and drop a china cup.
“Master Tom!” Mrs. Reardon the cook chided him “That is not the behaviour of a young gentleman. If you don’t know that, then you aren’t welcome in my kitchens again. Now scoot!” Mrs. Reardon was Queen below stairs and could speak to the young masters any way she liked – only Grandmama could over-ride her in anything.
Tom staggered out of his jail, saying “Well done, old boy” to Jack Rose, who looked terrible and tried to run on legs that were stiff with non-use. He desperately wanted a shower and a shave, preferably without the high-pressure hose or the rectal “inspection” that was just an excuse for beastly brutality.
He had managed to hold onto the cut-throat razor his father had given him for his 15th birthday and he took enormous pleasure in the smooth, close shave it gave him. He hated being bearded. A gentleman had to keep up standards or what was left? Letting oneself go was the thin end of the wedge.
The second incarceration was worse.
Having failed in another attempt hit Tom very hard. Not only the disappointment but the fact that he had failed others made him very low. He could hear the tongue-lashing his father would have given him.
He slumped in the opposite corner he had used as his latrine and allowed himself to fall into a deep misery. What had it all been for? He was the scion of a very old family, a small fortune had been spent on his education and he had tried his hardest to live up to expectations …but he had failed.
Tears of shame and rage filled his eyes and he dashed them away. Bloody cry-baby, he thought, shivering with the thought of what the Brigadier would say if he could see him now.
7 years old, time to go to prep school. The years in the schoolroom with Guvvy, the beloved governess were over. Tom was in his bed, hugging his teddy bear and sobbing. He didn’t want to go; he didn’t want to leave his adored hounds or his pony. Richard wouldn’t be joining him for another year, he’d be all alone. The Estate staff, he’d miss them too, and Cook …suddenly the Brigadier was looming over him, in a towering rage. He grabbed the teddy bear and shouted, his face purple
“What is this? Crying like a girl? Are you a son of mine, Thomas? Are you a man? What kind of soldier are you going to be? What kind of little pansy have I produced here?” He grabbed Tom by the arm and dragged him to the bathroom along the landing where he filled the bath with cold water and threw his son in.
“Stand up, Sir. Stand there and stay there until you learn to be a proper man.” Tom stood shivering while his father took a pair of scissors and systematically cut up the teddy bear. “I will not have my son behaving like a lily livered little weakling. You will be a man, my son, not a cry-baby, do you hear me?”
Shivering with cold and fear, Tom could hardly speak but he said “Yes, Sir. I’m sorry, Sir.”
Sir Thomas looked at his son, cold and naked but doing his best to stand to attention.
“Good man, taking your punishment like a soldier. Good man.” He held out a towel and watched Tom dry himself, then he handed him a dressing gown and led him down the stairs to the study where he poured him a tot of whisky in a large cut-glass tumbler.
“Get it down you, Thomas. Put hairs on your chest, what? You understand, Thomas, I am responsible for making sure you are a fit man to take up the burden when I am gone. You do understand that, don’t you?”
Tom shivered and sipped at the horrible liquid which burned his mouth and tasted foul.
“Very important you see, having a proper man to take over the reins. Can’t have a fairy boy in the chair, can we now, hmm? Sure your mother wouldn’t have wanted to see you a cry-baby. Hmm?”
“Good chap, now finish your drink, down in one and off you go back to bed and no more blubbing eh?”
Tom knocked back the whisky and staggered up to bed with his stomach heaving and his head spinning but at least the Brigadier had called him a “good chap”, the highest accolade. He wouldn’t think about Mr. Bruin. He couldn’t, or he would start blubbing again.
In his prison, Tom shook his head hard, banging it against the wall, repeating over and over “I won’t be a cry-baby, I won’t be a cry-baby, I won’t be a cry-baby.”
Desperate to find a happy memory, something bright to hold onto he allowed himself to think about Harry, just for once, just for a moment.
Riding to hounds with Harry, racing across the open country, nearly boot to boot, racing each other, matched perfectly in their riding skills and laughing like loons.
Fishing at the end of the day with Harry, the red sunlight glinting off their rods, glancing across at the face under the slouch hat, concentration personified, as the cast was made. Usually a perfect cast, flick, flick, draw ... there wasn’t much that Harry wasn’t good at.
Sitting at the long dining table, listening to one of the Brigadier’s endless stories of his days in the First World War, catching Harry’s eye and having to bite the inside of his cheek to stop giggling.
Oh Harry, why didn’t I do it? Why did I turn your offer down? Why am I sitting here in shit and filth with no memory of your lovely body to take out and examine like a precious jewel. I could have held a memory of loving you, could have had that in my heart forever. One kiss, that’s all I have in my heart, my darling Harry. You presented me with everything you have, with yourself and I, like the prig I am, turned it down. I walked away from real love.
Oh Harry, I miss you so fucking much, so fucking much, so fucking much. Tom Willis was crying again.
By the last time in solitary, Tom was losing his mind.
He didn’t know what was present and what was past. He lived out the days not knowing how much time had gone. He stood to attention for hours on end, waiting for the Brigadier to come and “inspect the troops” as he used to every morning when they were at home, checking their hair, fingernails, boots and general cleanliness.
He groaned and shouted out in his sleep. The rats scuttling over his legs no longer disturbed him. He was past caring.
When he was at the end of his tether, hallucinating and shaking, Harry came to him.
He looked up and held out a hand, it was so real. Harry held out a hand and touched his face.
“You have to come back to me, Tom. You have to stay strong and come back to me. I need you. Everything will be fine. We’ll be like we used to be. Remember that and be strong Tom. I love you, my darling.”
Harry!!!! Harry!!! He was screaming.
When they let him out the last time he was very nearly insane. He cleaned himself up and became withdrawn and morose, lying for hours on his bunk with only the thought of escaping and returning to Harry keeping him from doing the unthinkable and taking the coward’s way out.
When they heard that the American’s had broken through he was tempted to say it was too late, that the Brigadier would be disgusted with him for having to be released, not escaping. Only the thought that he could be free, he could go home and find Harry so that they could go away together somewhere and start a new life.
When the Yanks turned up to liberate Colditz they found Tom Willis in his finest uniform, smart as a new pin.
On the train through liberated France, all he could think of was the sweet face that he’d seen every day of his life since he was four. The rattling of the wheels lulled him to sleep and he dreamed of the days when they were both back from school, running wild on the estate, climbing trees and swimming in the river. Whenever he remembered a happy time, Harry was there in the centre of it, more of a brother to him than Richard who was serious and dreamy.
Harry was always referred to as a cousin but that wasn’t true. Major General Harold Parker-Clyde had been the Brigadier’s closest army chum so it was normal that they would be godfathers to each other’s children. So it was completely normal that when Harold and his wife died in a car accident, little Harry would come and be brought up with the Willis boys. It amused the Brigadier to introduce them as Tom, Dick and Harry; he never ceased to guffaw about it.
Tom slept for most of the journey, waking up briefly to be herded onto a troop ship to cross the Channel. He was mentally and physically exhausted.
When the train arrived at Waterloo, Tom swung his ditty bag onto his shoulder and pushed his way off the train onto the platform that was completely heaving with servicemen, wives, girlfriends … he elbowed his way towards the exit, longing to get to Kings Cross so he could board a Scotland bound train and get home. Home.
“Tom! Tom! Over here, Tom!” He knew that voice. There, in naval uniform, waving like crazy from behind the barrier was Harry. He started to walk faster, then he broke into a trot, then he was running, barging people out of his way, muttering apologies. “Harry! Harry!”
He broke past the crowd at the barrier and they were in each other’s arms, faces pressed against each other.
“Oh my darling Tom, I thought I’d never see you again.”
“Harry. Sweet darling Harry. I thought about you every minute of every day. You were never out of my mind.”
The Honourable Harriet Parker-Clyde pulled Tom’s mouth to hers and gave him the longest, sweetest kiss.
“Now will you take me up on my offer?” she whispered in his ear.
“No, now I’ll marry you Harry. If you’ll have me.”
“I thought you’d never ask, Tom – but the offer is still there. I have a hotel booked.”
“God in heaven but you really are the most practical of women…. And I love you so much my darling, I think I always have.”
“All my life, Tom Willis, all my bloody life!”