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‘She hardly said a word all night,’ whispered Harry.
‘I think she’s quite shy, but it’s not helped by Daddy playing the dominant male.’
Harry stretched and yawned, suddenly tired. His single room now appeared an even more attractive proposition; he didn’t feel up to satisfying Julia’s voracious sexual appetite into the early hours. He just wanted the night off so he could have a really good long night’s sleep. Charles had more than lived up to his expectations; he didn’t know how anyone could put up with such a cantankerous, misogynistic, bullying old bore. No wonder Julia had been so apprehensive. Still, what a house, and a fantastic place to be if only her father could be avoided. Having seen Julia to her room, he stumbled back down the weaving corridors towards his own at the abbey end. Had he not been so exhausted, he might have found the dark, aged walls quite spooky, but as it was, the moment his head hit the pillow, he fell fast asleep, his concerns about Julia temporarily put on hold.
He awoke as Julia slipped into bed beside him.
‘Julia, what are you doing here?’ he mumbled, still full of sleep.
‘I suddenly felt bad leaving you all on your own down here. Anyway, Daddy’s fast asleep now – I could hear him snoring.’
‘Why should he care anyway?’ said Harry, sitting up in bed.
‘We’re Catholic. I’m lapsed obviously, but he’s against sex before marriage. Or so he says. Although I can’t believe he hadn’t slept with Stella before they married.’
Harry always slept with the curtains at least half open as he liked waking in summer to see what the day was like outside. This night, an almost full moon shone through the lead-latticed windows, giving the whole room a luminous glow. Harry was just wondering whether he had the strength to perform when Julia peeled off her silk pyjamas and started kissing him hungrily. Her smooth body, with just a hint of goose-bumps, looked creamy pale in the moonlight, emphasizing every curve of her body. Thrusting her sex towards Harry’s face, she began to moan.
‘Lick me, Harry, suck my fanny!’ she exclaimed loudly.
‘Shh darling,’ said Harry in hushed tones, ‘I really don’t want to be shot by your father.’
‘Oh don’t worry about him – these walls are so thick he won’t be able to hear a thing,’ she breathed heavily into his ear. ‘Oh yes, please, Harry,’ she continued to moan.
Then she was straddling him, pumping up and down on his over-used penis, the four-poster rocking and banging against the wall with each rhythmic thrust.
‘Oh yes, yes, hurt me, harder, ow, ow, OWWW!’
The door swung back and crashed into the wall.
‘What the bloody hell – Julia?’
‘Daddy! What are you doing here?’ screeched Julia.
‘Thought you were being bloody raped!’ Charles stood in the doorway, his pyjamas and dressing gown loosely covering his bulky frame. And he was carrying a shotgun. Julia vainly clutched the sheet to her breasts, while Harry turned his head in abject horror, burying it in the pillow with a loud groan. Charles, lingering by the door, was clearly shocked.
‘Get back to bed now – and as for you, young man, we have rules in this house. Julia, you should know better. You both disgust me.’ He spat out the words, wild, angry eyes honed in on his naked daughter. ‘I want the pair of you out of here first thing.’
‘Daddy, please!’ wailed Julia, embarrassment, humiliation and anger evident in her beseeching.
‘You’re in no position to argue,’ barked Charles.
‘I can’t believe you’re doing this,’ hissed Julia, her rage winning through. ‘You fuck up all our lives and even now, when I’m nearly thirty, you’re still trying to ruin everything for me.’ She began crying, deep convulsions interrupting her words, and then, ineffectively clutching her pyjamas, she sprang from the bed and ran out of the room, her sobs echoing down the corridor.
Charles paused a moment, then calmly said, ‘I don’t ever want to see you here again.’
Harry, frozen with horror, heard the door slam, then started laughing manically. Julia and her fucking pillow talk was going to be the ruin of her. Christ! How embarrassing had that just been?
But at least with Julia banished he could now go back to sleep. Slowly, he sank back under the covers and closed his eyes. But after the shock of Charles’s interruption had worn off, he lay awake thinking he would never be able to marry Julia while Charles was alive, or at least not without eloping. Even then, Charles would probably track them down and shoot him with his shotgun. That was what people like Charles did to filthy curs like him.
He didn’t want this. He wanted everything to be uncomplicated, and to have a normal, happy, utterly contented relationship, with his ideal partner, he adoring her, and she adoring him; no hang-ups, no trauma. Just – perfect. He’d played his hand badly – dishonourably, even. Ben and Lucie had got it right: happily married and welcoming their beautiful baby into the world. So had his parents. Turning over, he tried to find a cool patch of pillow. He was so far behind them, such a long way from finding his dream.
CHAPTER SIX paternity leave (#ulink_67a79993-08d4-56e4-b677-3498e8e2da46)
While Harry’s Gloucestershire weekend was descending into surreal farce, Ben and Lucie were beginning to appreciate what an overwhelming amount of attention a baby required. Added to this was the steady stream of visitors and telephone calls that seemed to litter the day, and the fact that although Ben was officially on leave, he was still expected to put the work in on the Prospero deal from home. Lucie’s mother, Vanessa, usually with Terrence in tow, came round at least once a day; her sister Susie and her boyfriend Bill came up from Bristol on the Saturday, and a steady stream of friends – Flin and Tiffany included – also dropped by to see Ben and Lucie’s miracle.
Finally Ben’s brother Stephen phoned to say he was bringing Tessa, the two kids and their dad Tony up from Brighton to see the new baby on Sunday afternoon.
‘Fantastic, that’s all we need,’ said Ben once he put the phone down.
‘And you can make more of an effort than you usually do,’ added Lucie sharply. ‘I’m not going to do all the hosting this time, OK?’
‘Perhaps I should tell them I’ve got too much work on.’
‘Ben, you can’t. Just be nice to them. It’ll all be over soon enough.’
Ben dreaded his family coming to town. His father always looked so bloody meek and miserable all the time, while his brothers made snide remarks about his comparative success. And it always left him feeling guilty. Guilty that he had his own comfortable middle-class life, and guilty that he couldn’t wait for them to leave. They were his family, his flesh and blood, and he’d virtually disowned them.
They arrived accompanied by the usual awkwardness. Ben never knew how to greet his father – whether to give him a hug or shake his hand, and so did neither. That then set a precedent, and so he didn’t greet Stephen or any of the others with anything more than a hand held up and a terse, ‘Hi, you made it then.’
Lucie was better. She always gave them all a brief kiss on the cheek, although it made Ben wince when his father, as ever, appeared slightly startled by this spontaneous act of tactility.
‘Come on in. Come on in,’ said Ben, ushering them into the sitting room. His nephews, Ashley and Luke, with their spiky shorn hair, looked sulky and disinterested. Clearly this was a mind-blowingly boring day for them: a car ride followed by adults cooing over a stupid baby.
‘He’s got the look of his father,’ said Tony, awkwardly perched on the edge of the sofa designed for deep-seated comfort.
‘No, he looks much more like Lucie,’ countered Stephen. His brother was growing fat, Ben noticed. He still had a thick dark thatch of hair, but his gut now sat tight against his rugby shirt. A big man, Ben thought. Thomas lay peacefully on a baby-rug on the floor, for once not crying.
Ben, hovering by the door, offered drinks. It was early afternoon and as he felt tea would be a bit premature, he went to the sideboard in the dining half of the room to fix beers and gins, leaving Lucie to handle the conversation.
‘Mum, can I put the telly on?’ asked Ashley. At eight years old, he already wore a Manchester United shirt.
‘No, of course you can’t. Why don’t you play with your Gameboy instead?’
‘Well, just sit still for a moment, all right? Sorry, Lucie, you were saying?’
‘Nothing really,’ said Lucie, ‘just that it seems very odd to think this time last week he was still inside and now …’ She left the sentence unfinished, as Ben started handing round the drinks. Tessa looked exhausted, Ben thought. He knew she must only be about thirty-five, but she seemed older. And she never bothered about her appearance – no make-up, no jewellery, just faded black leggings, a large checked shirt and a shapeless haircut. He couldn’t imagine Lucie ever going to pot like that, even after two kids.
‘Why’s Ben’s house bigger than ours when there’s more of us?’ asked Luke suddenly, who was six and draping himself across his mother’s legs.
‘Because he makes lots more money than Dad,’ Tessa told him, adding, ‘You’ve got a really lovely place here, haven’t you, Lucie?’
‘We’re really very lucky,’ said Lucie, ‘although we bought this with some of my dad’s inheritance, so you know it’s not really to do with Ben’s job.’
‘But I bet you take home a tidy sum all the same, don’t you, Ben?’ said Stephen, finally entering into the conversation.
Ben smiled, his irritation already rising. ‘But they take away my soul, the amount of hours I have to work.’
‘Yeah, and you’ll probably regret that when the baby’s a bit older and wanting to play football with you.’
‘Probably, yes.’ There was no point in rising to Stephen’s challenges. Instead Ben turned to his father, who sat silently gazing at his gin and tonic. ‘So how’re things with you, Dad?’
‘Fine, yes. You know.’
‘Much the same. They’re thinking of rebuilding the West Pier.’
‘Some hot-shot developer,’ added Stephen. ‘Waste of time if you ask me.’
Ben noticed Ashley whispering to his mother about the television.
‘You can watch it upstairs in our room if you like,’ he said to him.
Ashley smiled disingenuously, pretending to be embarrassed, said, ‘Thanks, Uncle Ben,’ then, with Luke in tow, thundered up the stairs. Thomas started crying.
‘Sorry, Ben, they’re complete terrors, I know,’ said Tessa as Lucie rushed to comfort her son.
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