I was so pleased to get a reply from my from Mathew and read it, twice. After reading all the pleasant things he said it seemed he got to the real reason why he was writing.
“Albert, I desperately need to talk to you and require at least a whole day to do so. I know you will not want to telephone the Manor now and therefore pick any day and write to me telling me which one, I will be available for any of them and will travel to London the day before and book into the Dorchester and perhaps you could join me for breakfast and I can say all that is needed to be said. Albert, all I can say now is, if we meet, I maybe able to help you understand. However, there are many things you need to know and I am afraid all incredibly sad. With regards. Mathew.”
I put the letter away and thought about the sad news Mathew needed to tell me. I knew most staff from the school and senior boys had joined up and of course many from the estate and villages and many could have been killed. I half smiled to myself and said out loud,
“But Lord Penton and Miller will be fine I am sure, unless they fucked themselves to death.” I was still in a very bad place.
Private Donald Parsons, my batman, 30ish chubby and devoted to looking after me, stood back and admired his work. He then came back and flicked my shoulders with the clothes brush, then stood back again. I just had to go through this routine every morning otherwise Donald would get upset.
“Major, even if I say so myself, I don’t think I have ever pressed your uniform so perfectly, you sir are the smartest officer in the entire British Army.”
“Thank you Donald, but I am Royal Air Force now. My taxi is here may I go please?”
“Indeed you can Major and may I say that the reunion with your father will be a special time for both of you!” He handed me my gloves and baton.
“Thank you Donald, have a good day yourself. I will be late, just how late I have no idea.”
He went to the door to my apartment and opened it. I went out feeling more nervous than any time in my life.
The taxi stopped outside the Dorchester and for the first time wondered how on earth my father could afford to stay here! The door bloke doffed his hat and opened it. I took mine off and went in.
It was like stepping into a palace, it dripped millions. Another bloke who turned out to be the concierge came towards me.
“Good morning Major Dowling sir, it’s a great honour to welcome you to the Dorchester, please follow me.”
The Times piece was only a few days old and now every bugger knew who I was!
My father stood up and came to me with both hands held out beaming all over his face. “Albert, it’s good to see you and welcome home, everyone at the manor are so proud and pleased your fighting war is over, they all send their regards.”
“Yes Albert, everyone.”
We were in a private room, beautifully furnished and overlooking Hyde Park. We made small talk whilst eating breakfast and to be honest I was glad when it was finished and the table cleared and the two waiters left us alone. We got up and sat in armchairs opposite one another.
“Albert, I have a lot to say, much of which will upset you, but you need to know. But the first thing to say is I am here at his Lordship’s request. I have thought through all I need to say to you but just in what order though, I am still at a loss. I am afraid I will be talking for some time, but please do butt in any time.”
I smiled at him. “Just say all you have to Mathew and I will try to keep quiet.”
He returned my smile and took a deep breath.
“Albert, I have the sad duty to inform you that Sir William was killed at the Somme as were your friends from the school, Trevor and Namu at Ypres.”
My heart sank and had to fight to stay in control. Three of the most beautiful males I had ever met and to hear this was another blow to add to the many I knew had also been killed in this bloody war. I leant forward with my hands holding tightly together and just stared at the carpet. Mathew gave me time to absorb all this.
“As you know Sir William was a war artist but was unfortunate in being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The two boys were in the catering Corps and died together during a bombing attack. We have also learnt that Martin Cornish perished at sea in 1916 but have no knowledge of others at this time.
“Albert, may I continue or do you want a break?”
I smiled at him through my tears and shook my head.
“Ben was aware that Sir William had been killed, but Albert, even though at this moment you may not be too affected to hear this right now, I have to tell you Ben also died, two days after you saw him and his Lordship in bed together, his dreadful injuries finally took him.”
“He seemed fine when I saw him.”
“Yes it would have seemed that way, but if he was laying on his right side, you would not recognise him because of his horrific injuries.”
Despite all I was being told I became aware of a very tiny light at the end of a very long tunnel.
“I was called to his Lordship’s study after you had come to the Manor the last time and saw what you saw, and he told me all about your relationship and how much in love you both were. I had known there was a very close bond for some time and all I need to say Albert, I was without any negative thoughts about it, in fact I was delighted and I will explain why later but this needs to be said first and it’s all about his Lordship and Ben.”
That bloody light just went off. I braced myself and waited.
“Albert if I have one good quality it is I have never lied to any other person in my entire life and I am most definitely not now. What I am about to say is the truth, please trust my words… Albert, his Lordship and Ben were not in a relationship neither were they in bed together in a sexual manner. Ben was only in bed with Lord Penton to be comforted by him so he could remain calm for the last few days of his life, and indeed so his Lordship could grab a few hours’ sleep himself knowing Ben would be settled. But Albert there is so much more about this, have you any questions so far?”
“Just one. I thought a lot about what I had seen but one thing stood out, Jonnie was wearing pyjamas, he never wore them when… well you know.”
“That will become clear very soon.”
“After a while, we realised Ben wanted to go to his Lordship’s bed. Using hand signals he was telling us it had to be your side. We learnt that he needed his Lordship to be with him during the night to give him reassurance and feel safe. I would stay with Ben and talk to him as we knew he could still hear but unable to speak. All his communication was through limited hand gestures.
“His Lordship would go for his bath and then get into his pyjamas before he came out of the bathroom and then get into bed, and almost as soon as he got there and holding Ben’s hand, the poor boy fell asleep. I would always stay for a while and I can assure you by the time I went out they were both asleep, his Lordship was drained and completely shattered and even more so when he woke up and found your medallion and ring.
“Now let me tell you how Ben became so dreadfully injured.”
The light had come back on and the tunnel a lot shorter. I know that sounds selfish considering all I was being told but I was now able to understand and be a small part in that awful time. Jonnie was no longer “Lord Penton” he was Jonnie again and Ben no longer “Miller” he was my best friend again.
“Ben was a Sargent in charge of a company of horses. He had around 200 of them and 20 men to look after the animals. At 5am on this day he and others were preparing to get a number of them harnessed up ready for their work when the compound Ben was in came under air attack, and of course the horses were in panic. Ben was not injured by the bombs but by his charges. He was thrown to the ground and trampled many times causing horrendous injuries to the entire left-hand side of his body breaking every bone on that side, but by far the worse were the injuries to the left-hand side of his head, and not wishing to be too descriptive, that side was completely destroyed. He should have died there and then, which would have been a merciful thing to have happened but what kept him alive was the deep mud churned up because of rain and many hoofs. It would seem that every time Ben was trampled, he was pushed deeper into the mud which cushioned each blow to his head and body.
“His men got him out and he was taken to a medical centre, and it’s obvious he was still alive. They found out where Ben lived and His Lordship was informed. His Lordship had him bought to the manor and arranged nursing provision for him so he could die in some relative comfort, it took two months for that to happen and finally passed away three days after you were there.
“Albert, this next part is mostly about you and Ben. We learnt quickly and it was pure luck on his Lordships part when Ben was given your dressing gown to wear during the day, he could not be dressed as normal. He was always in a high state of emotion and the dressing gown he was wearing at the time became soiled and the only one at hand was yours. The nursing staff and I were amazed when his Lordship wrapped it around him telling him it was yours and Ben instantly became calm and even clapped his right hand on the arm of his chair telling us he was content.
“So, what with wearing your dressing gown and lying on your side of the bed and with the comfort of having YOUR lover comforting him throughout the night, helped Ben to die in relative peace, but even that is not the end of the story, but please let us finish this in my room, I have got something for you there which will give you much to think about and what I have to tell you.”
As we went to Mathew’s room I was no longer thinking of lights or tunnels, they no longer existed but although I knew this could have some sort of happier conclusion there was apparently much more to be told before I could give it any thought.
We settled into armchairs and Mathew continued.
“We all knew that Ben was approaching the end of his life and he was very calm as he got closer. He had been washed and then he was put back into your dressing gown and laid on his left side. Just his Lordship and myself were with him at the end but just as he died a remarkable thing happened. He opened his right eye and looked at us and spoke in a plain voice. It was as though he had regained his ability to speak and said one word, or rather one name… and it was yours Albert and then he past away.”
I did not hide my tears as they flowed down my face unable to say a word. We sat in silence for a long, long time until Mathew felt I was able to listen to more.
“His Lordship and I know without doubt Ben was in love with you, but when he realised you and his Lordship were what you were, Ben told you of his love for Sir William and he could not have any more physical moments with you and of course by that time you did not want more anyway. Yes, Ben and William were very happy and would have had a lovely life together in different circumstances, but Lord Penton and I are certain where Ben’s true feelings were Albert, and now you know two very special men were in love with you and one of them is mourning the passing of a friend but mourning the loss of you as well… Albert, that man is devoted to you and I know he will never find another with whom he can have a life with… any more than you can… Ben is at rest in the Penton family plot at the Manor wrapped in your dressing gown, His Lordship is at home waiting and praying you will go back to him and I am positive that is what you want as well… Albert those last words are my words, His Lordship never asked me to say them.”
Once again we sat in silence for a long time. I got up and went to the window and looked out over Hyde Park. People were strolling around and riders were trotting up and down the bridal path, it was as though there was no war being fought and coming to its conclusion but many still being killed. I thought of all that I had been told, and really in comparison to what was happing in Europe I knew conversations like this could be happening throughout the entire world.
I had learnt all about Ben and his dreadful injuries and his eventual passing, but I had also regained my best friend who I now knew he had been in love with me, but there was also Jonnie and as I continued to stare out of the window I knew that he did nothing wrong. It was just unfortunate timing on my part.
“Would you please ask Jonnie if I could visit the manor some time so I can pay my respects to Ben?”
“Of course, I will.”
I turned to look at him.
“Mathew, you said there was something you had to tell me and you have bought something for me?” I continued to look at him and it was obvious he was becoming uneasy, I knew this next bit was going to be a struggle, for both of us.
“Mathew, you are about to tell me you are not my father. I know I am right because there is nothing else that could make you so uncomfortable at this moment.”
“Yes Albert, you are right but first may I call reception, we both need a whisky or two?”
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