Truth be told, Ted was lonely. Even though he and Esther hadn’t had much to say to each other these last years, there’d been a quiet comfort in her presence about the house, by the fireside, these long winter evenings. Thirty years together they’d had, even if theirs hadn’t been a grand passion, like you see on the telly, or like Alan Johnson and Betty Burns from the village, who’d run off together to Majorca, abandoning their families without a backward glance. Terrible business, that. Ted could never have done that to Esther, to the children, no matter what he might feel, what temptation—
Ted cut that thought off ruthlessly before he could become even more maudlin. Esther was gone, one might say there was nothing stopping him…nothing in the way of having what he wanted, what he had always wanted, hadn’t he? But he was getting old, too old for—
A tentative knock on the door startled him out of his thoughts. He knew who it was. His heart leapt and started beating faster. He put his cocoa down on the side table with hands that shook slightly. He stared into the fire. If he didn’t answer the door, Ralph would go away. He would never mention that he’d come by, that Ted hadn’t answered the door. A sudden flash of anger at Ralph’s diffidence rose in him and died away just as quickly. It wasn’t Ralph’s fault. A lifetime of rejection, first from his father and then, Ted realised suddenly, feeling sick, from him, even though it couldn’t have been any other way for them. How many times had Ted wished that Ralph could fall in love with someone more suitable, some young man (because Ted was realistic here, Ralph had always been so transparent) from a nice background, with a family who would embrace Ralph as another son? He hadn’t bothered to wish away his own feelings. To be honest, he hadn’t wanted to. Doomed as they were, he couldn’t wish away the joy that seeing Ralph brought him, the desire that ripped through him on the rare, rare occasions that Ralph summoned up his courage to touch him under some pretext or other.
The knock sounded again. Ted hadn’t expected that. Maybe Ralph had been at the pub, fortifying himself with liquid courage. Ted got to his feet, his knees protesting after so long sitting in the same position.
“Ah, Ted, good evening,” Ralph said, when Ted opened the door, staring with apparent fascination at the door hinge. His face was pink and white, flushed from the cold only, as far as Ted could tell, no telltale mussed hair, or glazing of the eyes.
“Sor. Good evening.”
Ralph was carrying a pillow and a small case. That was unexpected. Disconcerting. Was he going away? He hadn’t mentioned anything that morning when he’d come down to the stables to yet again chastise Ted gently for working on Christmas Eve. It dawned on Ted that Ralph was waiting to be invited in.
He didn’t want to invite him. Into his home, where he was at his weakest, where the emptiness of the house reminded him that he was alone. Lonely.
“I…uh…I…” Ralph had obviously realised that Ted wasn’t going to invite him in, and was too diffident to invite himself. He looked crushed, but not surprised and Ted couldn’t bear it, couldn’t bear being the cause of that expression yet again, not on Christmas Eve.
“Would you like to come in, sor,” he mumbled.
Ralph’s face lit up. “Er, yes, thank you, Ted.”
Ralph shuffled by him and stood awkwardly in the kitchen, looking around.
“Won’t you sit down, sor?” Ted asked reluctantly. “Can I get you a cup of tea?”
“That would be lovely, thank you.” Ralph put his case down and sat, hugging the pillow to his chest.
Ted busied himself with the kettle. “Is there something you were needing?” he mumbled, hoping Ralph didn’t want him to go out in the snow at this time of night.
“Listen Ted, I don’t mean to impose, and please do tell me immediately if it is not convenient, but I was wondering, that is to say, I was hoping…”
“If I might stay here the night. On the sofa, of course,” he added hurriedly, “I wouldn’t dream of taking your…” his voice faltered.
Ted couldn’t help shooting Ralph a glance. Ralph was staring at him with wide blue eyes. Ted glanced away hurriedly, aware from the corner of his vision that Ralph was doing the same.
“…bed,” Ralph finished, so quietly Ted had to strain to hear him.
Ted stared at the kettle whistling away, an image of Ralph tucked up in his blue and white striped pyjamas, smiling at him from the other side of his bed, clear as a bell in his mind. He felt like something was squeezing his heart.
“The kettle’s boiling?”
So it was. Ted reached to take it off the stove, barely remembering to grab a cloth so he didn’t burn himself on the handle. He’d been meaning to go down to the shop, buy himself one of those electric ones everyone used nowadays. He didn’t know why he kept using this, except it had been Esther’s favourite.
“Why what, Ted?”
“Why do you want to stay here?”
“I’m afraid I have nowhere else to turn,” Ralph said, looking uncomfortable. “The gas man was out today. He says there’s a gas leak, that it’s too dangerous for me to stay in the house until it’s fixed. Unfortunately there is no one available until after New Year; busiest time of the year for gas leaks, Christmas, apparently. I did ask if I might just bed down in the greenhouse, but he was quite insistent that I evacuate the grounds. Unfortunately, again, it seems that the hotel in the village is booked out. Apparently there’s a medieval fair taking place in the next town. No rooms left at all, same with Mrs Brown’s B&B. Quite unlucky timing, all in all. I’m afraid there is literally, no room at the inn. Not that I mean to imply that, that is, to compare myself to…to…Mary and Joseph’s experiences in Bethlehem, of course.” He stumbled finally to a stop, looking mortified.
Ted held out his tea silently. Ralph put his pillow aside and took it. He took a sip, then stared into the cup, as though there was something fascinating contained within its depths.
Ted stared at him in dismay. The gas man, his sainted aunt. Roger, he’d bet, or Clive. His mates been most insistent that Ted not be alone on Christmas Eve, had tried to get him to come over one of theirs, if he wouldn’t go and stay with either of his children up in London. London! As if! He’d refused their invites of course. He’d have felt like he was imposing. Besides, this was his home and he wasn’t leaving it.
Obviously they’d contrived this elaborate ruse. They’d used Ralph’s feelings for him, feelings that they’d been sniggering over for years, to lure Ralph over to stay with him. His hands shook with anger as he cradled his own tea and he put it down abruptly on the side table before he spilt it.
Why had they gone to so much trouble, though? They had to know that all they had need do was to confide in Ralph that Ted was lonely, that he could do with company and Ralph would have been over here like a shot. Ah. And Ted would have assured him he was fine, ignored his wistful eyes and sent him firmly back to his own lonely house. But now, if he told Ralph he’d been set up, Ralph would feel he’d been made a fool of. Ralph would be horribly hurt (but not surprised) at being yet again the victim of people’s unkindness. They knew he wouldn’t do that to Ralph. His mates knew him that well. But how much did they really know?
“Do you fancy watching the telly, Ted?” Ralph said, still staring at his tea. “They quite often put on some heart-warming film, such as ‘The Sound of Music’. Or at least, I remember watching that each Christmas as a child with my...with my mother. Do they still play ‘The Sound of Music’ at Christmas, Ted?”
“I’m afraid I wouldn’t really know about that, sor,” Ted mumbled. He looked around for the remote and switched on the telly. He flicked through the stations, past the blaring ads and the talk shows. He paused for a moment on the old Morecombe and Wise Christmas special; that were a classic, to be sure. He glanced furtively at Ralph. Ralph was sipping his tea, not really watching the screen. Ted flicked to the next channel. A movie had just started.
“Ooh, Ted. Do you mind?” Ralph said, sounding excited, so Ted put down the remote. It didn’t really matter to him what they watched. He wasn’t going to be able to concentrate on it anyway, not with Ralph sitting right there, in Esther’s chair. It should have felt wrong, having him there, in her place — like he was replacing her. But it didn’t, it felt like everything was how it should be, at last. Anyway, he doubted Esther minded, wherever she was. She was a good woman, she’d be relieved he wasn’t alone at Christmas.
“Have you seen this film before, Ted?”
“I’m not sure, sor. It does seem vaguely familiar.”
“I’m really quite fond of it. The premise is that there are many different kinds of...love, Ted, and there are several such stories interwoven, with the climax, so to speak, Ted, occurring at Christmas.”
Ted looked at Ralph out of the corner of his eye. Ralph was blushing, his eyes fixed on the screen.
“Liam Neeson is an accomplished actor,” he ventured.
“Oh, indeed, Ted. Indeed.” Ralph cleared his throat. “Hugh Grant also has a fine body—”
Ted’s eyes flew up, only to realise that Ralph was staring at him in mortification. They both glanced hurriedly away.
“—of work, I meant, of course, Ted,” Ralph finished, clearing his throat again.
“I’m afraid I’m not really familiar Mr Grant’s…work.”
“Oh really, Ted? Not even ‘Maurice’? An excellent film by the noted Merchant Ivory Productions, it remains quite faithful to the original novel of the same name, by E.M. Forster. Have you read any Forster, by any chance, Ted?”
“I’m afraid I’m not a big reader, sor.”
“No, of course not. Sorry. Sorry.”
“Nothing to be sorry about, sor. I was never really one to have my nose in a book. Always preferred being out in the open air.”
“Yes, it has always seemed to me that that is where you belong, Ted. There’s something remarkably freeing about the outdoors, isn’t there?”
“I really couldn’t say, sor.”
“Oh.” Ralph sounded disappointed. “Anyway, I do recommend Forster, Ted, should you find yourself wishing for something to read. I can loan you ‘Maurice’, if you like. It does not star Hugh Grant of course, ha ha, but there is something about the written word, and Forster’s language is quite...evocative...” Ralph’s voice tailed off.
“I’ll keep that in mind, thank you.”
“I should mention that the subject matter was quite controversial for the time, so much so, in fact, that Forster only shared his novel with his closest intimates, and the book was not permitted to be published until after his death.”
“Is that so, sor?”
“Yes. It…it…it…um…” Ralph’s voice seemed to waver. Ted shot him a quick glance. He looked terrified.
Ted fixed his eyes on the telly again, though he couldn’t have said what was going on.
“The protagonist, that is to say, Maurice, a gentleman, finds himself involved in a platonic love affair with a fellow university student, played by Hugh Grant in the movie, of course.” Ralph’s voice was clearly shaking now. “Ultimately, however, he falls in love with the under gardener, a young man by the name of Scudder.”
Ted was frozen, staring at the screen, his mind whirling. He couldn’t believe Ralph was actually saying what he was saying. What he was alluding to.
Desperately, he tried to focus on the movie. After a moment he recognised the lovely young woman on the screen. “That Keira Knightley’s a wonderful actress, is she not, sor?” he said, desperate to stop this, whatever it was.
“I’m afraid I can’t really say, Ted,” Ralph said, and his voice was heavy with disappointment. More than that, his tone, it almost sounded…broken.
Ted glanced at him, his eyes automatically darting away when he realised Ralph was staring at him. Ralph’s expression, though, he couldn’t get it out of his head. He looked like a man who had staked everything and lost, and couldn’t imagine how he would go on.
Keira Knightley was standing in her doorway. A young man was showing her storyboards to the accompaniment of ‘Silent Night’.
(AND AT CHRISTMAS YOU TELL THE TRUTH)
What, really, was he afraid of? What did he have to lose?
AND MY WASTED HEART WILL LOVE YOU
Ted couldn’t bear it. All these years Ralph had wasted his devotion on Ted, instead of finding someone who could return his love, make him happy.
UNTIL YOU LOOK LIKE THIS…
The next board was a photo of an emaciated corpse. Keira Knightley laughed. Ted didn’t. It only reminded him how little time they had left together.
Slowly he reached out, his hand trembling slightly despite himself, and took Ralph’s hand, and, taking a deep breath, looked at him.
All the world was in Ralph’s eyes. Ted couldn’t look away.
“Happy Christmas, sor.”
“Happy Christmas, Ted.”