You leaned forward in your seat and craned your neck. Although you were tired from the early start and the long plane journey, your curiosity had revived you and you were eager for your first glimpse of Austin's childhood home. However, although you could see many impressive houses along the tree-lined street, you couldn't yet see the one you had heard so much about.
Austin himself, beside you in the driver's seat, looked ahead just as keenly. You had been looking forward to this trip, but you knew your lover had been even more so. You were both so busy professionally that it was rare for you to have any time off, and you certainly hadn't had the opportunity for a holiday in the year you’d been dating. Austin spoke to his parents on the phone often, but you knew he hadn't seen them in a few years, and this trip would be the first time you met them.
You shifted anxiously, some of your excitement turning to nerves at the prospect, and glanced back at the rug that was taking up much of the back seat. Austin's parents had mentioned to him that the rug in the foyer was a bit worn out, and you had brought them a new one as a gift. You worked in restoring and dealing antiques, and so were well suited to the task of selecting one. Nevertheless, that was no guarantee that it would be to their tastes, and you hoped they liked it.
You pushed the thought out of your head as the car turned through an impressive set of wrought iron gates and into the driveway of what must have been Austin's childhood home. You gasped at the sight of the mansion that greeted you. You had thought Austin was exaggerating when he had talked about the place, perhaps unconsciously romanticising his childhood, but it was clear that wasn't the case. Austin parked the car in front of the house and you both got out. Looking around, you could see the house was surrounded by immense gardens as well. You immediately wanted to explore, but Austin made a beeline for the front door and you knew it would have to wait.
“We're running ahead of schedule,” he said, checking his watch, although you knew he knew precisely what time it was. “My parents will still be out, I think.” He knocked on the door as he said it, and as he had predicted there was no answer. “It doesn't matter – the spare key is still in the same place it was when I was a boy!” You smiled at his excitement as he lifted an unobtrusive pot beside the door, and triumphantly showed you the key stuck to the bottom of it.
Austin unlocked the door, and you followed him into the house. Although it was a sunny day outside, the curtains were drawn and your eyes did not adjust immediately to the dim interior. In front of you, Austin stumbled and you managed to catch him by the hips just before he fell. “Thank you,” Austin said, steadying himself on your chest, and looking down in dismay. You followed his gaze to the rug you both stood on. Your eyes had adjusted to the lighting by now, and you could see that it was in far worse shape than Austin's parents must have suggested. You thought it had once been a deep burgundy colour, but it was now so worn and dusty that it was possible you were wrong. Austin had tripped over a large tear, and you could see that it wasn't the only one.
“They should have thrown this rug out years ago,” Austin said, glancing at you with evident embarrassment. “It must have been here since my grandfather was a boy.”
“It's a good thing we brought them a new one then,” you said, patting him on the back reassuringly. “No harm done – as long as you didn't hurt yourself when you tripped.”
“It would take more than a little stumble to put this butler out of commission!” Austin said.
You looked around the foyer. It was a large open space, hinting at the huge size of the home to which it belonged, and proving that it truly had once been as grand as Austin had implied. Directly in front of you was a twin staircase, and you could catch a glimpse of a huge room beyond it that might have been a ballroom or a library. However, it wasn't just the rug that had seen better days. The entire room was in sore need of a good dusting, and there were miscellaneous packages and pieces of furniture everywhere. The floorboards themselves were in need of repair, the wallpaper was peeling, and the furniture was old and faded. In this way, at least, it didn't match Austin's descriptions, and you wondered what had happened.
“Do you want to show me around?” you asked Austin. A little worse for wear or not, you were excited to see more of the place that Austin had told you so many stories about.
“Soon,” Austin promised. “But how about we take advantage of my parents being out and surprise them? Let's roll up this old carpet so no one else trips, and put that beautiful new one you've brought down instead.”
You smiled indulgently. The suggestion was typical of Austin, who was always looking for his next project and never capable of sitting still for a moment.
“Sure,” you said. “Let's open up these curtains and get some light in here.”
The curtains were dusty, but once you had stopped sneezing, you rolled up the old carpet together. It was a difficult task. The carpet had clearly been a fine piece of work once, and although it was too old to be of much use any longer it was still heavy. The tears in its length only made it more difficult to roll carefully, but eventually you managed it, and put it unobtrusively to the side. You felt a little pang of regret looking at it – if only you had been able to get your hands on it a few years earlier, it might have been able to be restored.
With some difficulty, Austin located a broom in a nearby room, and set about sweeping the floor while you went back outside to get the new rug from the car. The floorboards, though still worn, looked a lot better for having been swept. The two of you unrolled the new rug in the old one's place. In contrast to the red of the previous rug, the new one was a deep, jewel-toned blue.
“It goes well with the dark wood of the floorboards,” you said to Austin, pleased with your choice.
“It looks marvellous,” Austin declared. “You chose well, as always.” He leaned over to give you a kiss on the cheek.
Just then, you heard a car pull up outside and realised nervously that you were about to meet Austin's parents. Austin turned with excitement at the noise, and then turned back to the rug, making sure it was straight before his parents came in.
“Is he already here?” you heard a man ask, and then an older couple entered into the foyer. Austin rushed to embrace his parents, and they exclaimed in delight.
“We've missed you so much, my boy,” Austin's father said.
“Have you been eating enough?” his mother asked, looking over his trim form with a concerned eye.
“Oh Mum!” Austin laughed. “I've been eating just fine.”
“And who's this?” his father asked, turning to you. “Introduce us, Austin!”
“Of course,” Austin said, turning back to you with a smile. You returned it, pleased to see his happiness at seeing his family and childhood home. Austin introduced you, and told his parents about your antique restoration business, and that you were the one who picked out the new rug for the foyer. They greeted you warmly, and exclaimed over the new rug – including, gratifyingly, its colour.
“It's lovely of you to replace the carpet, but do try and stop working while you're here and just be our guest,” Olivia, as you had quickly been told to call her, urged you both.
“Exactly!” William said. “You're here to spend the summer relaxing, not moving furniture around! What do you say we head down to the lake this afternoon to start the summer off?”
“Don't be silly, William – let the boys get settled in before running off anywhere!” She turned back to her son. “I've set up the guest bedroom.”
“The guest bedroom?” Austin asked. “You haven't got rid of my childhood bedroom, have you? I wanted to stay in there.”
“Of course not, darling,” Olivia said, and turned to you. “If you're sure you'll be comfortable. But the guest bedroom is all set up already, so if you find your room a bit cramped, it's there.”
“Thank you, Olivia,” you said. “I'm sure Austin's room will be lovely.”
His parents both accepted this and led you to Austin's childhood bedroom. “We haven't been in here for some time,” William admitted as they came to the door. “But all of your things are there.”
“How about the two of you get settled in,” Olivia suggested. “Just give us a shout if you need anything.”
You and Austin thanked them, and entered Austin's bedroom. You were immediately met with another cloud of dust, and both of you waved your hands in front of your faces and coughed and sneezed for a few moments.
“It really has been a while since anyone's been in here,” Austin said once the two of you had recovered. He crossed the room to the window, threw open the curtains, and forced the window up. Sunlight poured in through the window. It immediately made the room more cheerful, but also highlighted the thick layer of dust that covered all surfaces. The furniture, mercifully, was covered in dust cloths, and so was spared the worst of it.
“First thing is to give the room a good dust then, I suppose!” Austin said, and went off to find more cleaning supplies.
You look around curiously at the room your lover had grown up in. There were books piled here and there, and you could see a few dumbbells lying haphazardly by the door. You smiled at the sight of them. So Austin had always been a workout nut. You weren't surprised.
Austin returned with a few cleaning supplies and the two of you set to sweeping and dusting. Before long, the room was in much better shape. You pulled the dust covers off the furniture, revealing a set of shelves, a desk with an ancient computer, a chair, and a bed. Austin gave you a wink as you stood on either side of the bed, each holding one side of the cover to fold it, and you chuckled in response.
“Stop it,” you laughed.
“I think we've earned a break,” Austin said, not to be deterred.
“Your parents could come check on us at any moment,” you said. “Besides, the bed's not even made up.”
“I don't see what difference it makes,” Austin said. “But suit yourself – come sit on the chair with me.”
He made his way over to the armchair. You followed him, but looked at it dubiously. It seemed as old as everything else in this house, and it certainly was only big enough to sit one person even if it were brand new.
“And just where am I supposed to sit?” you began to say, but Austin cut you off by grabbing you around the waist and making to pull you down onto the armchair with him.
You let out a gasp and a laugh, feeling won over to a few minutes of canoodling, and allowed yourself to be pulled down onto Austin's lap. Austin's amorous expression turned quickly to one of alarm as he sunk into the chair, however, and he stood up just as quickly as he had sat, pushing you back up with him. “Something bit me!” he said, and you both turned to look at the chair.
A spring was now poking out of the seat. You both laughed in relief.
“It was just the chair that bit you!” you teased.
“So it was,” Austin agreed. “It's reminding us to stay on task, I suppose. Shall we go out and get a few things? I do think this room is big enough for the two of us, but I'm sure we could make it a little more comfortable.”
“Alright,” you agreed. “But don't forget that you still have to give me the grand tour of this place.”
You found your way back to the foyer. William was nowhere to be seen, but Olivia could be heard bustling around in the kitchen. You poked your head in and a delicious smell greeted you.
“Oh there you boys are,” she said, looking up from the oven. “Did you get settled in alright?”
“Just fine,” Austin said. “We thought we'd go into town to pick up a few things. Do you need anything?”
“Maybe some milk, if you don't mind,” she said, checking the fridge. “But why don't you stop and have something to eat before you go out? Did you have lunch already?”
You had had lunch at the airport, but it hadn't been particularly satisfying, even for an airport meal. You gladly allowed yourselves to be sidetracked and sat down at the kitchen table. Olivia had made a quiche, and you ate it along with some fresh juice.
“This is amazing, Olivia,” you exclaimed, trying to eat it slowly enough to be polite. Olivia blushed, and brushed off your comments, but Austin was not so reticent.
“She's won competitions before for her baking!” he informed you. “Much to the chagrin of our neighbour, Mrs Broom,” he added, with a cheeky glance at his mother.
“Oh shush,” Olivia told him. “Mrs Broom is quite the cook herself. She's beat me just as many times.”
“I'm sure not as many times as the opposite, Mum,” Austin insisted. “To me and dad, you'll always be the better cook either way.”
“And to me too, I'm sure,” you add. You weren't sucking up – it truly was delicious.
“I'm sure you'll get the chance to taste her cooking and decide for yourself some time this summer,” Olivia said.
After lunch, you and Austin got back in the car and drove to town. You hadn't driven through it on your way to Austin's parents' place, so it was your first sight of it. It was charming and fairly small, with all the necessary stores and precious little else. You went to the grocery store for Olivia, and picked up a few odds and ends, before spotting an antique store. Although you only had time for a quick look, you found a lovely yellow armchair that the two of you bought on impulse to replace the broken one. Austin sat on it and gave it a test bounce. “Much better at taking our weight!” he whispered to you, and you smirked and shushed him as the owner came over, sensing a sale.
With the chair loaded into the car, you drove back along the winding road to the mansion. As you pulled into the driveway once more, you stifled a yawn. Travelling always took it out of you, and there had been much more heavy lifting and tidying up today than you had bargained for. Still, you helped Austin get your new chair out of the car and carry it into the bedroom, where you removed the other one. Together you made the bed in a lovely blue linen set that Austin selected. With the sun streaming in, the bed made in blue contrasting with the new yellow armchair, and all the dust cleared away, the room felt much more inhabitable, and a nice refuge from the madness of the rest of the house.
You took a brief walk in the garden, taking advantage of the last of the sun before dinner. The grounds were huge, and there were several distinct garden areas, sectioned off with hedges and trellises. Without Austin to guide you, it would have been possible to get lost here. The garden was in a similar shape to the house, overgrown and clearly not maintained, but in your comfortable sleepiness it had a certain charm to it. It seemed wild and even picturesque, the setting of a romance novel.
Austin was clearly feeling less positively about it. “This is where my grandmother used to have her rose garden,” he said sadly. “And here there used to be a beautiful lawn – I would drive my toy cars over it when I was a boy. I don't know when this all started to get this way, but we can fix it, I think.”
“Fix it?” you asked. “This is months and months of work, Austin.”
“Well... I know, but we're in no hurry to get back are we? The shop is in good hands and the summer is only just starting...”
You hesitated, saying nothing.
“This house has been in my family for generations,” Austin said. “I don't feel right letting it go like this. I have an obligation to my grandparents, and my great-grandparents...”
“If it's important to you, I'm sure we can help Olivia and William out a bit,” you said. It didn't sound so bad really. In fact, it was just the sort of thing you enjoyed, given your line of work. “As long as there's still plenty of time for lying around in a rowboat.”
“Of course there is!” Austin replied. “I brought you here because I wanted to show you all the sights, and I still mean to.”
“Then that's the summer planned,” you said, and slipped your hand into his.
You had dinner that night with William and Olivia at the same kitchen table you had eaten your late lunch at. The meal was delicious and the conversation flowed easily. You were glad your worries about meeting Austin's parents had clearly been unnecessary.
“When did the two of you meet?” Olivia asked.
“Austin came into my shop one day,” you said, glancing at your lover across the table and smiling at the memory. “He bought some vintage napkins, said that no one bothered with real cloth napkins any more but that to him they made a table. And then he came back a few days later, and a few days after that...”
Austin blushed at the good-natured laughter from you and his parents.
“How many napkins did it take for him to finally ask you to dinner?” William asked.
“I asked him,” you replied, “so I suppose we'll never know how many he would have ended up with.”
“Alright, that's enough,” Austin said in mocking effrontery. As the laughter died down, his expression became serious. “Mum, Dad... I wanted to ask you about the house.”
William and Olivia abruptly became serious as well, and you fell silent. This was clearly a family moment, and you wondered if you should find a reason to excuse yourself. “Let me take the plates,” you said, and began to gather the dirty dishes from the table.
“Don't be silly, you're a guest,” Olivia said.
“No, I insist. The cook can't clear the table as well,” you said.
Olivia began to protest again, but Austin interrupted. “Mum, I'd like to talk to the two of you if you don't mind.” You gathered the remaining plates as quickly as you could, and took them to the sink. Although you were technically still in the same room, it was a big space, and there was an island bench between the two of you, giving some illusion of privacy.
“I know I haven't been home in a while, but I don't understand how the house has changed this much... What happened?” Austin asked.
There was a heavy silence behind you for a moment, before Olivia spoke. “I suppose the place has gotten away from us quite a bit these last few years...” she began hesitantly.
“To tell you the truth, I think we didn't realise quite how much until you arrived, and we were able to see it through your eyes,” William added.
“Still,” Olivia said, “we knew we haven't been looking after the house properly for quite some time. Much less the garden.”
“I noticed Nanna's rose garden is almost gone. We thought we would try and revive it this summer.”
“I remember that garden in its prime!” William exclaimed. “I've never smelt anything as beautiful as those roses in the summertime. It would be wonderful to see it in bloom again...”
“William,” Olivia said.
There was another long pause. It went on for long enough that you were almost tempted to turn around, but resolutely continued with the dishes as unobtrusively as you could.
William sighed. “Austin, your mother and I have come to a decision in recent months. In preparing for your visit, we were able to reflect on how much the place has gotten away from us and, well, we decided it's time for us to move to a smaller house. We're going to sell the place.”
“What!?” Austin gasped. You stood, frozen at the sink. Austin had been raving to you for months about the house. You knew how important it was to him. You turned from the sink. His back was to you, but from his posture alone it was clear how shocked he was. Olivia and William faced him, their hands clasped on the table, looking sad but resolute. “You can't sell the place! It's been in the family for generations! Dad, your great-great-grandfather built it himself!”
“I know,” William said regretfully. “But it deserves to go to someone who can restore it to its former glory.”
“But I can do that!” Austin cried. “We can!” He gestured towards you. “We've already talked about wanting to fix the garden up over the summer. We can fix up the house too!”
William and Olivia glanced at each other, but you thought they looked more like they were trying to decide how to dissuade Austin than like they were swayed by his proposition.
“We appreciate the thought, honey,” Olivia said. “But think about what you're offering. That's a mammoth task.”
“But Dad, your grandfather set up a trust for this exact purpose!” Austin protested. “He did, didn't he? Those were his direct wishes, that the house be maintained by the family!”
“Well, that's true...” William conceded. “But it's still a big task for a few people.”
“We can organise help,” Austin said. “I'm a butler after all – I'm an expert at managing projects and groups of people.”
You thought that they might be swayed by this, but instead William and Olivia glanced at each other again and shook their heads in unison.
“Austin, we know you're disappointed,” Olivia said, “but the house belongs to us and it's our decision to make. Both of you have jobs back home, and we're thrilled to have you for the summer, but you can't just drop everything to renovate the house for however long it would take.”
“If the two of you want to do some work in the garden over the summer, you're more than welcome to,” William said. “I'd be happy to help you get the rose garden back in shape, as a final send-off to the place for your grandmother. But your mother's right – our decision is final.”
“But...” Austin said. You waited to hear what he would say next, but uncharacteristically he was clearly at a loss for words. “Excuse me,” he said finally, and left the room without glancing back.
You turned back to the sink, half full of dishes, and wondered if you should go after him. Experience had taught you that Austin would probably prefer to have a moment alone. He hated to be caught without his characteristic composure. But that left you in the room with William and Olivia, whose family business you had just accidentally intruded in and who you had only met today.
William got up from the table with a heavy sigh and came over to the sink. Picking up a dish towel, he began to dry the dishes. “I'm sorry about that,” he said to you. “We thought it best to break the news to him in person.”
“You don't need to apologise,” you replied awkwardly. “I'm sorry to intrude.”
William shook off your apology. “You're not intruding,” he said, grasping your arm for a moment. “You're our guest and you're very welcome here.”
“If you don't mind, I might go to bed,” Olivia said. “Do you need anything else? Austin showed you where the towels and everything are kept?” She seemed very tired. You quickly reassured her that you didn't need anything, and Olivia excused herself for the night. You heard her footsteps recede off into the house.
William sighed and picked up a plate to dry.
“I respect your decision,” you said, “but I do think it's a shame to sell the house. It's truly a beautiful place.”
“I understand what you mean,” he said. “And I do have my misgivings. As Austin said, it has been in the family for generations. But you see the shape it's in – there's no point letting it fall down around us like this.” He turned to put the plates away. “No,” he said, as much to himself as to you. “One last summer, and then we'll pass it on. Let it have its second wind with some new blood.”
You kept quiet, finishing off the last of the dishes and letting him think it over.
When he turned back to you, the melancholy seemed to have gone from the room and the twinkle was back in his eye. “Let me finish these off,” he said. “Go and find Austin – I'm sure he's wondering where you are by now.”
“Alright,” you said, and let the water out of the sink. “I'll see you in the morning, William.”
“Good night,” he replied, and you left the kitchen.
You made your way back to Austin's childhood bedroom. The blue linens were still there, and the new yellow armchair, but Austin was not, and so it seemed much less welcoming. You turned and made your way quietly back through the house, and out the front door.
As you thought, Austin was sitting on the sagging bench in what had been his grandmother's rose garden. He looked up as you approached, and though he was sombre, you were glad to see that he didn't seem as distraught as you had feared. You sat down beside him, and the bench creaked worryingly but held. You said nothing, waiting for Austin to break the silence.
“I just can't believe they'd sell the place,” he said. “It's a little broken down, sure, but not beyond fixing. I always thought I would bring my own children here one day.”
You stayed quiet. You and Austin had never spoken of children, but the longing in Austin's voice spurred a similar feeling in your stomach. You thought of the garden as it must have been when Austin was a boy, and of Austin, older, swinging a child in his arms.
You realised Austin was saying your name, and turned your attention back to him. “I can't accept this,” Austin said. “Dad said they'd be happy for us to fix the place up a bit over the summer. Let's do it – let's show them how fantastic it would be to have the place back to its former glory. Then they'll change their minds, and decide to keep the house.”
You stared back at the impassioned eyes of your lover. It was a crazy idea really. Even with the trust money put aside by Austin's grandfather, it would be an enormous amount of work for you to make even a dent in the repairs that needed to be done to the mansion. But once Austin got an idea into his head, he had an almost supernatural ability to bring it to fruition, and you could see that he was more driven to do this than anything else he ever had been. And after all, you had spent your entire career dedicated to the restoration of beautiful old objects that needed a second chance.
You looked back over your shoulder at the great house behind you, and then to Austin.
“Alright,” you said. “Let's do it.”
It was some time later that you made your way back into the house, the mood between the two of you sombre no more. You had walked around the garden, whispering together and making plans, and you were both giddy with ideas. You shushed each other as you tiptoed in through the darkened entryway, and walked gingerly back to Austin's bedroom. The floor creaked anyway; Austin had claimed he remembered which floorboards to avoid from his misspent youth, but clearly the floor, like the rest of the house, had deteriorated since then. Nevertheless, you seemingly made it to Austin's room without waking William or Olivia.
You gently closed the door behind the two of you, and allowed yourself to stop stifling your laughter for a moment.
“The floorboards will have to be one of the first things to go,” Austin said to you, an excited gleam still in his eye, as he changed into his pyjamas.
You smiled at him. “You never did give me that tour,” you said, opening your own suitcase.
“Tomorrow,” he promised, and beckoned to you. You joined him at the window, and you embraced looking out at the quiet nighttime garden beyond for a long moment.
“We had better get some sleep,” you said. “We've got a much busier day ahead of us tomorrow than I thought.”
Austin smiled, his excitement about what tomorrow would bring not yet gone from his face, but it was clear he had moved on to thinking of other things. “It's still early,” he said. “Perhaps we don't need to sleep just yet.” He leaned in to kiss you. You returned the kiss and the two of you stood there for several long minutes, the kiss gradually becoming more ardent.
Eventually you broke away. You didn't speak for a moment, enjoying the sight of the normally immaculate Austin dishevelled, the collar of his pyjama shirt crumpled and his hair mussed. Austin pulled you out of your reverie by guiding you backwards until you were seated on the bed. You pulled your lover down and back into a passionate kiss.
Later, you lay in Austin's arms. The eventful day was catching up with you, and you were content and drowsy. “Good night,” Austin murmured to you.
“Good night,” you replied, pressing one last kiss to Austin's lips. You thought of the long day ahead of you beginning renovations and smiled before drifting off to sleep.