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CHAPTER 25: Open Day
The dark blue Mercedes speeds through the Thursday morning traffic on the M4 and turns sharply onto the B road. Winding lazily through the glorious green Berkshire countryside it follows the twists and turnings that carefully avoid fields and brooks. Majestically the car pulls off the road and sweeps up the beech-lined driveway to the house. Part medieval abbey, part Tudor manor, part Victorian pile, Chaceley Hall is large and old, but strong and alive.
The car passes through an archway built for horse and carriage and stops in a parking area, strangely out of place beside a Norman stable. The driver's door opens and a large, well- dressed woman emerges. She is wearing a dark blue, knee-length dress, precisely cut, with matching coat and shoes. The image is carefully tailored to give the impression of understated wealth but it is not convincing. Little things, such as the sun hat, too fashionable to truly protect her face from the summer sun, and the shoes, not quite appropriate for country house paths, show that she is out of place, but trying hard, so very hard, to fit in.
The passengers are different. Two youths, dressed casually in jeans and shirts, one white, the other pale blue, and an old woman in practical clothes. All three are quite ready, ready for a ramble in the gardens or to take tea in the drawing room. None of them feels the need to impress, the need to fit in, so of course they do.
"Great house," one youth says.
"Ain't it though," the other replies.
"Come on," the old lady urges. "We're late already."
"Sorry Grace, the M4 was so busy," the driver apologises.
"Not your fault Cynthia. Don't worry about it." It's taken some time, but Cynthia has finally stopped calling her Dame Grace. Of course Grace can see Cynthia with her friends, trying to impress them by being on first name terms with a real Dame. Pathetic!
With Grace leading the way, the party follows a path to a side entrance, leading through a short passage to the cloisters of the old abbey. On a normal day this is a peaceful spot with a fountain burbling gently where the pathways cross at its centre. Today the quiet is broken by voices. There are a dozen or so people scattered around, some in the shade of the walkways, some by the fountain. Mostly adults of all ages, there are a two or three teenagers among them, looking faintly uncomfortable.
Cheerfully greeting a few familiar faces, Grace walks straight through the cloisters and out through an archway to the Hall's gardens. Here there are twenty or thirty people chatting. At the sight of Grace advancing towards them a youngish man makes his apologies to the group he is with and hurries towards them, smiling broadly.
"Grace!" he exclaims, throwing his arms about her and hugging her.
"Hello Finch. Good turn out."
"Isn't it." Finch turns to Grace's guests. "Which one's the famous Hopewell?"
"Me," Paul admits
"But he prefers to be called Paul," Grace tells Finch, grinning at her grandson.
"Fair enough." Finch shakes Paul's hand heartily and then takes Cynthia's. "Hi."
"Silly me," Grace remarks. "Cynthia let me introduce Dr Finchley Whithorne, the Director of the Hall. Finch, this Cynthia and Patrick Grenville-Barker."
Patrick nods a greeting, restraining an urge to giggle. He's seen the flicker in Finch's eyes at being introduced by his title. Clearly that was a signal of some sort.
"Ah, the famous Mrs Grenville-Barker. Grace has told me so much about you."
"How kind of her."
"I hear you might join our fund-raising committee."
"I'm considering it."
"We'll have to make a good impression then," he says jokingly.
"You already have."
"A good start then. Grace do you mind if I drag Mrs Grenville-Barker away and give her a quick tour?"
"Go ahead. Is Jack here?"
The gleam in Cynthia's eyes gives away her true interest. She's only here because of the noble Jack.
"He's about somewhere. If I see him I'll tell him you're here." Finch takes Cynthia's arm and leads her into the hall.
"Well DAME Grace, do you think DOCTOR Whithorne will impress my mum," Patrick asks as soon as they are out of range.
"I should think so. I've told her all about his degrees and his fellowships. By now I hope she's ready to believe anything he tells her."
"Let's keep our fingers crossed," Paul says hopefully.
"While you're doing that go find me a cup of coffee. After an hour in the car with that woman I need a strong pick-me-up."
"That bad is it?" a middle-aged man says as he walks over to them.
"Jack! Great to see you. You remember my grandson?"
"Of course, but I bet he doesn't remember me."
"Not really sir," Paul admits, smiling apologetically at Jack. There is something vaguely familiar about this distinguished man with the greying hair but Paul can't remember when they met.
"Well you were only ten when I saw you last. Who's this handsome young man?"
"This is Patrick, Paul's boyfriend of three days," Grace tells him happily. Paul blushes furiously as Patrick shakes Jack's hand. He's going to have to get used to his grandmother's cheerful honesty.
"I'm afraid you've got a bit of an ordeal ahead of you Jack," Grace says.
"The famous Cynthia?"
"Yes. She's with Finch at the moment."
Half an hour passes. People come and go, mainly local businessmen and charity representatives, all potential donors. Amongst them are a few friends and relatives of the residents. Grace and Jack mingle with dignitaries, impressing them with the good the Hall does and the need for, and tax deductibility of, donations. Patrick and Paul wander around the grounds having fun exploring and finding secluded nooks to kiss in. Eventually a sense of duty brings them back to the Hall. As they near the buildings they can see Cynthia and Finch on a balcony above the talking visitors. Finch is gesticulating passionately while Cynthia calmly surveys the crowd. Patrick waves half-heartedly and she waves back. Finch says something to her and they go inside.
"Wonder how it's going?" Patrick says.
"I've got my fingers crossed, metaphorically speaking that is," Paul replies.
They are in no hurry and by the time they rejoin Grace, Finch has already reached her. Seeing them all together Jack comes over.
"Well?" Grace asks Finch.
"That woman has no soul," Finch says with a sigh. Noticing Patrick he smiles an apology.
"That's okay," Patrick tells him. "Where's mum now?"
"I left her with the Chair of the Fund Raising Committee."
"Details Finch, details," Grace insists.
"There's not much to tell. I took her up to the bedrooms first. While we were on the stairs I started telling her about what we do here."
"How did she react?" Paul asks
"She asked about funding arrangements and whether Jack took much of an interest in the place. Then I told her how our residents came to be here. I went into detail about some of the cases, made a strong point about the gay kids who come here, how we try to teach them to accept themselves and the liaison work we do with their parents."
"How did she take it?" Patrick asks hopefully.
"I don't think she heard a word. All she wanted to know was whether we got much government support and whether Jack came to committee meetings. Then I stressed the success we have with getting the kids into University and she wanted to know whether it was justifiable to spend money keeping them here after they turned 18. I explained that the ones who find a job can stay here for six months and pay board and she wondered whether they paid enough."
"That sounds like Cynthia," Grace says dejectedly.
"I'm afraid I got rather carried away. I told her horror stories about the way parents can mistreat their children, particularly the damage they can do simply by not listening to them. I thought I was getting through and…" he shakes his head in disbelief.
"And what Finch?" Jack asks quietly.
"And she asked me to point you out to her. She hadn't listened at all. I swear the bitch was on autopilot. I might as well have been speaking Swahili."
"Damn!" Grace swears. "I really hoped she'd listen to you."
"Want me to have a go?" Jack asks.
"What's the point?" Patrick whispers sadly. Paul takes his hand and holds it tenderly.
"The point young man is that you have to live with her for at least one more year," Grace tells him. "It's not going to be easy if she won't accept you as you are!"
"She never will."
"Perhaps, but it doesn't hurt to try."
"I suppose not." Patrick stares dejectedly at the ground. He's just about given up any hope of either of his parents treating him as a rational, loving, human being.
"Cheer up," Paul says. "You've still got me."
"You don't know what that means to me."
"I think I do. It means the same to me."
The boys stand quietly while Jack, Grace and Finch watch them unhappily. How can any parent treat her son this way? It makes no sense.
Their silence is broken by the sound of steps coming towards them. Grace is the first to pull herself together. Smiling cheerfully she turns towards Cynthia who is descending on them like a small tank.
"Cynthia dear, we were wondering where you were."
"I was with Dr Burgess. She's been telling me about her plans to increase donations."
"Let's hope they work," Jack says, crossing his fingers. Cynthia looks at him expectantly.
Grace rises to the occasion. "Jack, may I introduce Mrs Grenville-Barker."
Jack offers his hand and Cynthia shakes it vigorously. "So nice to meet you your Lordship."
"A pleasure indeed. I hear Dr Whithorne has been showing you around."
"It's been fascinating."
"Have you seen the Great Hall?"
"You really must. It's one of the most interesting parts of the building." Jack slips his arm through Cynthia's and escorts her back inside.
"As you can see Mrs Grenville-Barker, this is an old house and like all old houses it has been added to frequently over the years."
"Do you know much about its history?"
"A little. It belonged to my family for six hundred years before it was converted to its current use."
"It's a shame when these houses pass out of the family's hands."
"Not always. My grandfather donated it to the Society when it was set up after the war."
"That was very generous of him."
"He saw it as his duty. Our family had been so fortunate across the centuries he thought he should give some of the wealth back to the country. Here we are." Jack opens an ornate door leading off the hall and ushers Cynthia into an imposing medieval hall.
"As you can see this the oldest part of the building. One of the most interesting features is the royal arms over the main doors. They commemorate the six weeks when Edward IV stayed here in 1473."
Cynthia looks around the hall and is clearly impressed by its grandeur. "It seems a pity to waste all this," she says.
"It would by so much nicer if it was still a home rather than a refuge."
Jack stares at her in disbelief but restrains the urge to tell her what a fool she is. "We have three other houses," he says coldly. "We can do without this one. The people who live here have a far greater need of it than we do."
Cynthia realises she has made a tactical mistake. "Of course you're right your Lordship," she says soothingly. "A place like this does so much good."
Trying to regain Jack's confidence Cynthia decides to steer the conversation back to the Hall's residents. "Dr Whithorne was telling me about the unfortunate events that make this place necessary."
"I trust he didn't overwhelm you with it all. Finch can get quite passionate about injustice and intolerance."
"He should. So many children don't have the fortune to have understanding parents," Cynthia says sagely. Jack almost reels at the lack of self-knowledge behind her statement.
"No they don't Mrs Grenville-Barker. I can see we will be lucky to have you working with us."
Cynthia simpers at the implied compliment. Just wait 'til that silly Veronica Dixon hears about this.
Time to go on the attack. Jack thinks he knows just the right way to get 'round Cynthia Grenville-Barker. "I'm glad you understand how important it is to stand by our children. I met your son outside, he's a charming young man."
"Why thank you your Lordship. We've done our best."
"Thank God he doesn't have to worry about his parents rejecting him."
"There's no reason...."
Whatever Cynthia is about to say is curtailed by the sound of the side door to the hall being closed quietly. A scared youth of about seventeen is standing with his back against the door, trying to catch his breath. Cynthia is annoyed at having her audience with Jack interrupted. Only his presence stops her from giving the lad a piece of her mind. Jack, on the other hand, is concerned and rushes over to the boy.
"What's the problem Eli?"
Seeing Jack and Cynthia, Eli moves away form the door. "My father's here."
"Outside with the others."
"Did he see you?"
"I think so."
"Damn!" Jack looks around thoughtfully, considering which door would make the safest exit.
"Is there a problem?" Cynthia asks curiously.
"I hope not," Jack says. "I truly hope not."
He is wrong. Before he can decide what action to take the side door opens again. At the sight of the man in the doorway Eli backs away towards the fireplace. Cynthia wonders why he is so scared of this nice looking man in the black jeans.
"What are you doing here Mr Vidler?" Jack asks, watching this man warily. He is very suspicious of the hand that Vidler is keeping in his pocket.
"I've come for my son." To Cynthia it sounds a reasonable enough request. They boy belongs with his father, not in this glorified halfway house.
"I think you should leave now Mr Vidler. You're in breach of the Restraining Order."
"No damn judge is going to keep me away from my son!" the man says vehemently.
"It's for his good." Jack starts moving slowly towards Eli.
"He should be with his father."
"His place is with me!"
"What as? Your slave? Last time he was with you, you broke his arm in three places."
"That was an accident."
"You hit him with a brick!"
"Please leave now Mr Vidler." Jack has nearly reached Eli.
"I will and I'm taking him with me." The man leaps between Jack and Eli. As he does he pulls his hand out of his pocket to reveal a flick knife clenched in his hand. He waves it threateningly at Jack and grabs his son's arm.
"Give me the knife Mr Vidler."
Eli wriggles in his father's grasp, trying to escape his clutch. Taking advantage of Vidler's momentary distraction Jack lunges for the knife. Unfortunately Vidler sees the movement and bashes Jack with the back of his hand. The knife hilt in his fist gives the slap added weight and Jack is flung to the floor. Cynthia screams. She is a large woman with large lungs. Her scream echoes in the rafters of the hall, growing louder and louder. Shocked by the screech and by what he has done, Vidler's grasp on his son's arm loosens enough for Eli to free himself. He darts behind Cynthia's imposing figure.
"Out of the way," Vidler orders through clenched teeth, glaring at Cynthia. "This doesn't concern you." Cynthia glares back. She wishes fervently that she had never heard of Chaceley Hall, that she could be somewhere, anywhere, else. But she doesn't like being given orders and she doesn't budge.
Cynthia gives him her best masterful stare. "You wouldn't hit a lady now, would you?"
"I want my son."
"You know that's not going to happen don't you." She looks over his shoulder to the open door. Several anxious figures are standing there, summoned by Cynthia's scream. Vidler turns to see what she is looking at. He sighs wearily.
"Give me the knife Mr Vidler." Cynthia holds out her hand and Vidler hands her the knife, automatically offering her the handle as his mother had taught him to do when he was a child.
Cynthia holds the knife gingerly, not knowing what to do with it. Jack, recovering from his momentary stunning, takes it from her. Finch and another man take Vidler by the arms and remove him, a woman takes Eli's hand and leads him out through the great doors into the sunlight.
"Are you okay?" Cynthia asks Jack.
"Yes." Jack gently feels his head where he hit the floor and then looks at his hand. "I've got a bump but no blood." Seeing people coming towards them he waves them away, sensing that this is the best chance he'll ever have to get through to Cynthia.
"Why did he do that?" Cynthia wonders, still shocked by what has happened.
"He won't understand that Eli's better off without him."
"Did he really break his arm?"
"Yes and it was no accident."
"What did the boy do?"
"There must have been a reason."
"He found out Eli was gay."
In the distance Jack can hear sirens. The police are on their way. He's going to have to be cruel. "How did you react?"
"How did you react when Patrick told you he was gay?"
"He's not gay."
"Cynthia you know he is."
Cynthia sighs, starts to say something, stops and sighs again. "I know," she finally admits.
"Are you going to break his arm?"
"Of course not," she cries defensively. How can he think that?
"Cynthia, Patrick is a good lad, he's polite, intelligent and charming. You should be proud of him."
"I am. But…"
"He's gay. There's nothing wrong with that you know."
"Do you think it's unnatural?"
"Against the will of God?"
"What then?" While he waits for an answer Jack turns to the door. Only Grace is there. He mouths the words 'Keep them away.' Grace nods.
"He can't be gay. What will people think?"
At last, the nub of the problem. "Does that matter so much?"
"Will your friends mind so much?"
Cynthia thinks feverishly. How will they react? Veronica will be fine. So will Elizabeth Grainger and the others who were at the Dixon's. But then there are the rest. Mostly they'll follow the leader. The leader. "Hillary!" Cynthia says aloud.
"Who's Hillary?" Jack asks.
"Hillary Wickham-Fiennes. Her father was a Minister under Churchill."
"An important woman then. Don't worry about her."
"Don't worry about her. By the time this is over you'll be the most famous woman in Basingstoke."
"The press will love this. You've just disarmed a dangerous man and saved the lives of a young man and a peer of the realm. You'll probably get a medal. Anyway if Hillary's the sort of woman I think she is the mere fact that you know me will clinch the matter."
"Of course, you're an Earl."
"Do you know why I'm an Earl?"
"Because five hundred years ago a thieving, treacherous, murdering bastard, who makes the Kray brothers look like members of the Salvation Army, chose the winning side in the War of the Roses."
Cynthia is quite shocked. She's not used to people being brutally honest.
"Forget Hillary and her cronies. After Grace and I are finished, you won't have to worry about her anymore. Hillary will be the one worrying about you. Now go to your son." Jack can see that Patrick and Paul have joined Grace in the doorway. "Love him for who he is, not what other people might think." He puts his arm around her and leads her over to Patrick. Outside he can see the police and goes out to talk to them and delay them.
"Mum are you okay?" Patrick asks.
"Yes. But I think you'll have to drive home."
"I brought the L plates."
They look at each other nervously. Grace takes an unwilling Paul by the shoulder and drags him away. For a few brief moments Cynthia and Patrick are alone. Unable to think of a thing to say Cynthia holds out her arms. Unbelievingly Patrick steps into them and she holds him tight. It's the first time she's held him in her arms for a long, long, time. Cynthia is surprised to find herself crying, part from reaction to the danger that has passed, part from the effect of Jack's words.
"It's okay mum."
They are still hugging when the police come in to interview her. A step behind them are photographers who have arrived to record the Open Day. Now they have a much better story. And such a great photograph. The heroine of the hour in the arms of her good-looking son, front page material this.
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