Charles held his walking stick under the arm and pulled off his gloves as he stepped into Doyle’s homely little drawing room. A couch and two chairs for the tea table, a bookshelf against the wall with more ornamental figurines than books, a flower vase on the table and flowers on the curtains of the window that looked right out at the busy London street. It was not a private room. Sometimes people randomly knocked on the window or waved at them through it. It always made Doyle happy, and he pretended that they were all his friends, but Charles had never liked it.
“He isn’t coming”, Doyle said.
He was walking ahead of Charles and had just reached the chair that no one else was allowed to sit in.
“Cheeky weasel”, Charles said, slapping his gloves down on the tea table. “So what’s the cause of this ruse to get me alone?”
“He always agrees with you”, Doyle picked up the tea pot and started pouring into one of the cups, “and I don’t want you both against me today.”
“Hm.” Charles sat down on the couch comfortably and put his walking stick on the table. “My best guess was murder. It’s always the quiet ones.” He took off his hat and held it out. “Take my hat.”
Doyle did so and went over to hang it on the coat-hanger behind the door, pursing his lips in mild irritation. Sometimes he complained. Most times he understood that it was no use.
“It’s about Ashbless”, he said.
“What’s he done now?” Charles took the cup that had been filled and blew on it.
Doyle sat down in his chair again and started pouring up a cup for himself too.
“He was arrested a few days ago.”
Charles sighed. “Again? What is it this time?”
Doyle put the tea pot on the table and shook his head, as if it was too bad to be spoken of.
“Public drunkenness?” Charles suggested hopefully.
Doyle took his tea cup and widened his eyes at it. “I wish.”
Charles furrowed a brow. “Not gross indecency, surely?”
“Worse”, Doyle said.
Charles threw out his free hand. “So either he murdered the queen or I give up. What?”
Doyle looked at him with a serious face.
“Charles, he pissed on a police officer.”
“He did what?”
“You heard me.”
Charles had heard him, and started laughing. Doyle remained stern-looking and blowing at his tea.
“Obviously alcohol was involved, and I suppose at some level it can count as indecency…” He stopped talking when he saw that his words were not acknowledged either way. “I don’t think this is funny.”
Charles tried to collect himself, steady his breathing. He only partly succeeded.
“It’s a little funny.”
Doyle shook his head firmly. “No, it isn’t.”
With some deep breaths, Charles was back in control of his body and holding out an apologising hand.
“You’re right, I’m sorry”, he said. The smile remained intact on his face. “What are you going to do about it?”
“Me?” Doyle looked offended. “When did I become responsible for him?”
“When you invited me over here to discuss him.” Charles took a first, careful sip of tea.
“No, seriously.” Doyle stared at him desperately. “What are we going to do about it?”
Charles swallowed some tea. “My honest opinion?” He shrugged. “Drop him. Like he’s hot, like everyone else has already done.”
Doyle sipped on his tea with his brows furrowed in disagreement.
“I don’t know”, he said slowly. “It seems a bit drastic, he makes one mistake and he’s shunned.”
“For the love of god, don’t call me Richie.”
“Don’t call me Charles”, Charles said. “Doyle. He passed the ‘one mistake’ mark ages ago. It’s very clear that at this point he’s not going to bring himself together. All this money is too much for him, and if he can’t handle it – we drop him.” He returned to carelessly sipping tea. “And I for one haven’t managed to contact him in weeks, so I wouldn’t consider it a great loss either. I honestly think we’ll be much better off without him, three musketeers.”
“Technically”, Doyle put on his This-is-something-I-and-not-you-know voice, “when d’Artagnan becomes a musketeer they’re four.”
Charles sighed. “I don’t think Ashbless is our fourth musketeer, Doyle.”
“Then who would be?”
Charles furrowed his brows and thought. But there was really only one option, only one name in his head.
As soon as he said it out loud, he realised how wrong it was. He could not imagine James sitting with them around the table at the Savile Club, he simply did not fit into that picture. He would adjust to always making fun of Doyle, he could learn the right tone of his voice to not offend Bennett, and he would certainly be just as good at talking about Charles whenever he left the room, roll his eyes behind his back and still obey his every command when he looked at him. He would act just like them in every way, he would look, talk and walk like them, like he always did, but he would never be one of them. That was where the problem lay.
Charles had not understood until this moment that that was how James always was. He danced, but never confidently, he talked, but only when spoken to, he dressed good, but never with actual interest. He smiled when someone was polite, he laughed when something was funny, he held himself like a gentleman. But he did not smile because he liked someone, he did not laugh because he ever found anything funny, and he always looked uncomfortable and awkward no matter how well he stood and moved. It was simply not James. It was always something he did, and never something he actually was.
So when Doyle wrinkled his nose and shook his head, Charles already knew what he would say.
“No, I don’t really like him.”
How often had he not heard that? From Guerin, from the tailor, from a lot of others he had randomly met and introduced him to on the street. But just as often he heard the opposite. From lords and ladies, from politicians, businessmen and anyone with money or power. James was always liked, when he wanted to be. When it was about someone like Charles, but not the likes of Doyle.
“Why?” Charles asked.
“I don’t know”, Doyle said. “I just find him a bit – I don’t know, creepy. He’s always been so disinterested in us, he doesn’t talk to us or ask about us or care about us. It’s always just-“ He shrugged, “you. He’s only ever been focused on you.”
Charles frowned. “Me? Doyle, he barely talks to me.”
“Take that first night!” Doyle said. “When we met at the club, the second you left the room, all he did was ask about you.”
“You said he didn’t talk about anything.”
“Because it’s the polite thing to say to the person you talked about.”
Charles was disgusted by his tea – disgusted by the whole world, in fact – and put it back on the table.
“What did he ask about?”
“Where you work, where you live, how your relationship is to your wife-“
“And you told him I’m an MP?”
Doyle nodded and Charles thought about bumping into James on Westminster Bridge. During that first lunch he had definitely asked if Charles was an MP. He had specifically said that they had not talked about him after he left.
“Did you tell him where I live too?” he continued.
“Well”, Doyle said defensively, “in what neighbourhood you live.”
And it was a neighbourhood with a nice name and expensive addresses. Charles felt sick.
“And Nicoline?” he asked. “How did he know I was married? I wasn’t wearing my ring. I never wear my ring at the club.”
“But it leaves a mark, doesn’t it?” Doyle suggested nonchalantly. He drank his tea as if he understood nothing of what was going on.
“Who on earth notices marks on someone’s fingers?” Charles sneered.
The answer came to him by itself; Someone who wants to. Someone who’s looking.
“Doyle”, he said, “it’s very important to me that you’re serious right now.”
“I’m always serious”, Doyle said, offended. “It’s just everyone else who assumes I’m joking.”
“Did you tell him about my father?” Charles asked.
Doyle looked up from his tea. “I suppose”, he said.
“You suppose? So what do you suppose you told him?”
Doyle furrowed his brows and thought. “Well, only a little. That you were very fond of each other, and that you went through a tough time when he died. We were all a bit drunk at that point and Ashbless especially, just-”
James sat on the stool in his bedroom and cried about his father, about how he missed him, about how it had just sunk in that he was dead.
Charles stood up. “But not about the debts?”
“No”, Doyle said. “I wouldn’t do that.”
Charles took his walking stick and hurried across the room for his hat.
“Where are you going?” Doyle asked in confusion, turning after him.
“To the port”, Charles said, putting on his hat.
“What on earth are you doing in the port?”
Charles opened the door and turned around to face him one last time. “I’m looking for Miranda.”
And with that purpose, he left.
He was pacing his room with a cigarette when he finally heard the front door open and close and Guerin mumble without getting anything in reply. Puffing profusely, Charles strode through the hallway to the balcony and made sure his steps were heard.
James had handed his hat and gloves to Guerin and was taking off his coat, looking up with a smile when Charles arrived. He most certainly had not been smiling before.
“Stop taking off your clothes”, Charles commanded.
James smirked, and he switched to French with growing agitation.
“Guerin, drop his things.” Guerin frowned in confusion. “I said drop them on the floor, now.”
So Guerin did, and James stopped smirking.
“Keep everyone from this floor”, Charles continued in French, pointing threateningly with his cigarette, “and if you want to keep your job you don’t mention or even contemplate about why.”
Guerin nodded and Charles turned around.
“James, my room right this instant. If it takes you as much as a minute I swear to god you’re out.”
Which he already might be either way, but he did not know that yet, and it was a good threat.
Charles stomped back to his room without turning to look if James was following, but he did hear some light steps in the staircase, and he did not intend to be disobeyed right now. And sure enough, he stepped in through the open door a few seconds after Charles, grinning like an idiot.
“We’re in a rush, are we?” he said with a gleam in his eyes.
Charles stopped his pacing to point the cigarette at him and scowl, “I just caused a scene in front of a servant, but please do go ahead and assume that I just need to get off! That solves everything either way, doesn’t it?!”
A worried wrinkle appeared on James’ forehead and his tone switched to a softer one. “What is it?”
“I’ll tell you what’s what!” Charles yelled. “Miranda is the smallest bloody fishing boat I’ve ever seen! I swear, if you made it across the Indian Ocean on that thing, I’d be real impressed right now!”
James’ shoulders sunk and his face dropped.
“But you’re not”, he whispered.
“What, are you trying to claim that you did?”
He shook his head. “No”, he said. “You’re right. I didn’t.”
Charles took an aggressive puff of his cigarette, feeling his hand shake in anger.
“So where are you really from? The forge in North Kent?”
“I am from India”, James said. “Truly, I promise. But I couldn’t give you the correct name of the ship, because then you might go looking for it just like you did, and if you found it, you’d find that…” He drifted off and looked desperate.
Charles raised a hand. “What?”
James sighed. “That I didn’t lose any luggage, papers or money, because-“, he took a deep breath, “there was no luggage, papers, or money.”
“What does that even mean?!” Charles exclaimed.
“That my father didn’t let me inherit anything.” James clenched his fist into a ball. “That I’m just as denuded as you.”
“Don’t make this about me!” Charles roared. “Don’t even try to suggest that we’re in any way alike!”
He looked down at the floor and started puffing and pacing again. There was a lot of information to process, there were a lot of things this meant, and none of it was good.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked. “Why did you lie?”
James scoffed. “Why, because it isn’t at all embarrassing to admit that my father left everything to some mistress instead of his only son? Because that’s information I enjoy spreading, you think?”
“It wasn’t an accident that you bumped into me on the bridge, was it?” Charles raised a warning hand as he spoke. “Doyle told me, don’t even try.”
James sighed again and stared out into the middle distance. “No”, he said quietly. “I was at my wit’s end, but then I met you, and I noticed out connection, and I knew where you worked, so I thought, if I could be around at lunch time, if I could get talking to you… Charles, I needed you. You were the only option I had.”
“How could you do that? How could you…” Charles shook his head. He was breathing heavily.
“Completely honestly?” James shrugged apologetically. “I thought you’d be a complete idiot who’d deserve it. But then it turns out you’re not, and you’ve been so kind, and I grew so fond of you, honestly. And it’s been killing me, all this lying to you, so you can’t even imagine what a relief it is that you’ve finally found out-“
As he spoke he stepped closer, until he was close enough to reach out and touch Charles’ shoulders. He immediately jerked back.
“Don’t touch me!” he shouted. “Don’t you dare touch me!”
James followed, his voice growing more desperate with every word. “I’m sorry”, he whispered. “Please, I want to make it right. Please, Charles, I’m so sorry-“
Charles had to fight off his hand again.
“Get off me!”
So finally James lowered his arms in resignation and his lips quivered.
“Do you understand how sick this is?!”
James snivelled. “I know”, he whispered. “I know, but- what else could I…”
Charles watched him with a pang of surprising understanding. Yes, he had been used, but he saw the whole picture now. And if he was, say, 20 years younger, unmarried, home and penniless, and if a rich – or rich-looking – older gentleman took a certain interest, could he honestly say he would not take the chance? And to then slave for that gentleman and his needs, was not a bed to sleep in the least he could expect to get in return? James had, after all, never asked for anything more. Charles had willingly supplied him with everything else, and he could not even be upset about the lessons, because he was responsible for them too, and he had enjoyed them.
It was still the same James, completely alone in a new world with nothing to his name and no one else to turn to. So what if he had used him, he had still chosen him.
“Please”, he begged. “How can I ever make it up to you?”
Charles panted, shook some ashes from his cigarette and looked at him. At this point he only knew one thing to demand.
“Say something that’s true”, he said.
If it was possible for James to look even more miserable, he now did.
“How am I supposed to trust you?” Charles said. “Everything you’ve ever told me is a lie. So – tell – me – something – true.”
It was a big decision for James, it could be seen on his entire demeanour. But almost as if he had anticipated it and already knew what to say, even though he had to brace himself to do it, it only took him a second.
“The girl in my locket isn’t my mother”, he said.
It took much longer for Charles to understand it.
“What?” he asked. “Who is she then?”
James bit his lip as he considered if he actually deserved to know this, if it was worth it just to stay in the house.
“She’s Miranda”, he said then.
“And who’s Miranda?” Charles demanded.
James’ eyes went a shade darker at the harsh treatment of this name, this name so precious and valuable to him.
“Why does any man keep a picture of a girl in a locket?” He shrugged.
“I’ve been married for eight years”, Charles spat. “Forgive me if I don’t know much about love and romance.”
James lowered his head in apparent shame. Charles puffed on.
“Tell me”, he said in a calmer voice.
“Tell you what?”
“Who is she, where is she, how is she, anything.”
James pursed his lips and looked as if he had already lost, then slowly shook his head.
“Charles, this is – the most private thing I have, my absolute deepest secret. And I can’t… This is the most I’ll say. Base your decision on that. Either I go, or I – I stay. But this is it. Nothing more.”
Charles gave him a glare. “When did you become the one making the ultimatums here?”
He did not actually need to hear anything more. In his mind he had already imagined some tragic love story about the English boy and the Indian girl and the parents who kept them apart. And she probably married someone else, while he fled the country to escape the memory of her, with a picture in a locket that he would always refuse to take off.
For a second Charles wanted that too. The pain included, because that was the only way to know that it had been real. He wanted a love that he could defy his father about to the point that he was left out of the will, he wanted a love to keep in a locket forever. All he had ended up with was Nicoline. And James.
It was very difficult suddenly, to face him. To look him in the eye and tell him that no, he did not want him there any longer. To throw him out on the street with only a small bag of clothes he technically did not even own, and watch him walk down the road with his head hanging and his future dark. That was what Charles wanted to do. To just open the door and close it and never again need to hear or see James Federline again, to have him out of his life completely and definitely.
So why could he not do that? He could no longer imagine finding the slightest joy of having breakfast alone, or peace in having no one to wait for at night, no one who would knock on his door. For some reason he could not see a life without James. When had that happened? When had he become so dependent on him? Had it been already when they looked at each other over the others’ bickering and found that solidarity in being the only ones who were above that?
“Shit”, he muttered.
James’ face became brighter again. He did not look relieved. He just looked as if he knew that he had defeated him. Charles hated him almost as much as he hated himself.
“Does that mean I get to stay?” He said it already knowing that it did.
“It means“, – Charles would not be able to take it back once he made the decision, he would never be able to escape it, he would always be stuck, and did he really want to be? Was he not already? Did it actually matter what he wanted to say? Could he truly trust his mouth to execute it? – “that I can’t see what difference it really makes.”
What a lie. The difference was that he would now knowingly and willingly continue to let himself be manipulated. But that was the decision he had made.
James broke out into a smile and started reaching out for him again.
“Thank you so much! I can’t even begin to-“
“I said don’t touch me a minute ago, that still applies!” Charles snapped, at which James immediately retracted his hands. “I have the right to be angry.”
James nodded. “Yes, yes, of course. And I understand, I understand if you hate me and despise me and if you’re disgusted with me.”
He said if and not that, as if it was not obvious.
“Not as disgusted as I am with myself.” Charles wrapped an arm around himself. “I assure you.”