The clank of the palace gates shutting behind him gave Robert the push to keep walking forward, beyond the driveway and past the pristine bushes that had been trimmed within an inch of their life, until he ended up face to face with the sorry frame of his Classic Porsche.
It was peeling at the seams and Robert needed to shove a screwdriver in the ignition each morning to get it going but he just couldn’t find an excuse to let go of the car that had seen him through the past twelve years and served as a comfort to him when nothing else did. He sank into the driver’s seat and picked at the leather interior.
It wasn’t until a sleek, matte-black jeep pulled up in his rear-view mirror and unloaded his oblivious brother, dozy sister-in-law, two dodgy tans and a small fortune of luggage that he got his wheezing, spluttering engine going and put his foot down.
Now it was time to pray to God that his sat-nav had saved Aaron’s address.
Shockingly, a fifty-five minute drive through central London during rush hour did not make Robert feel any better. But he had made it to Aaron’s, he hoped, and that did make him feel better.
What he hadn’t remembered from when he’d dropped Aaron off the morning after the night they’d met, which felt like a lifetime ago when in actuality they’d only known each other for a couple months, was that Aaron lived above some swanky bar with this wanna-be retro vibe that was… questionable. The name─Adam’s─in neon lights, fake greenery on every wall, and cocktails starting from £12.99 or something ridiculous. That sort of place. It didn’t scream Aaron, that’s for sure.
(Perhaps the reason that Robert had no recollection of this bar beneath Aaron’s flat was because it was his driver who had dropped them off in the early hours of the morning whilst he was busy spewing into a carrier bag in the backseat after one too many jager bombs. Maybe.)
Robert’s luck checked in when he noticed a metal staircase that began at the side of the red-brick building and disappeared round to the back. There was plastic ivy wrapped around the railing, naturally.
Once he had finally got over himself and climbed the stairs, the first thing Robert saw, to his surprise, was a secret, unkempt terrace, guarded by a blue French bulldog who had been enjoying a spot of sunbathing before he’d heard Robert approaching and gone berserk.
Sure enough, Aaron then appeared from the large window in the corner of the terrace that acted like a miniature pair of double doors. He hushed the yapping dog and sent him inside. Kevin, as Aaron had called him, obeyed with a sniff.
“Sorry, I probably should’ve asked if I could come round first. I just needed to see you,” Robert admitted, his head turned sideways as he stared at anything but Aaron. “I can leave if─”
“I’m watching my baby sister for a bit,” Aaron simply said, his smile warmer than the July heatwave London was currently falling victim to. “We’re playing ballerinas and firemen if you care to join us.”
There promptly came a series of barks from inside followed by a scattered crash and a screech that turned into a giggle. Aaron clenched his jaw, running a hand through his hair.
“Well that depends, will you be in a tutu or a fireman’s uniform?”
“You’ll have to come in and find out.”
After just twenty minutes Little Eve had crashed on Aaron’s lap, her rosy cheeks smushed into her brother’s shoulder as she clutched her toy fire engine in one hand and her tiara in the other. Between her heavy breathing and Kevin’s snoring, any gaps in Aaron and Robert’s conversation were nicely filled. Not that there were many.
“I had no idea your mum had another kid,” Robert said, forgetting about his own life for the afternoon as he refused to budge from Aaron’s sofa.
“Up until a month ago that would’ve made two of us,” Aaron sighed. “Full of surprises, my mum.”
When Robert met Aaron, Aaron couldn’t haven’t pointed Chas out in a crowd. She’d walked out on him when he was still wearing Thomas the Tank Engine pyjamas and did a pretty good job of pretending she didn’t even have a son. That was until she’d ended up in London just sixteen days ago, Eve on her hip as she begged for forgiveness on Aaron’s doorstep.
“She cheated on Eve’s dad and bottled it when she got caught, took Eve, and ran away. She’s got no family left that respects her so she finally remembered I exist,” Aaron explained as he shifted Eve, his tone bitter.
Robert couldn’t comprehend why Aaron was even giving Chas the time of day. For Eve, he figured. But if he were Aaron, Chas would have a door in her face and one less family member to treat like crap.
“Letting her back in your life is more than she deserves,” Robert said.
“She is trying now, which is an improvement, I suppose.”
“Yeah, and thirty years too late.”
Aaron scratched his eyebrow. “Anyway, enough about my shitty family. What about your shitty family?”
Robert went a little spacey as that feeling settled in. Dread. He knew he couldn’t hide at Aaron’s forever. A hyperactive two-year-old running round and round the sofa and Aaron’s stifling conversation about how his boss faked a heart attack to get out of signing his divorce papers could only distract him for so long. Still, it made a nice change to cracking open a bottle of Sauvignon and necking it alone in his room which had been his plan before he ended up gravitating to Aaron’s place instead. He felt safe here.
Robert was swarmed by thoughts at the back of his mind as Aaron waited until he was ready, smoothing out Eve’s tutu. "Well, my Dad's probably shooting whisky as he writes me out of his will." Eve hummed in her sleep, the corner of lips curling up as if she found the image funny.
"He'll come round," Aaron said. Robert’s only thought was that he couldn’t see Aaron being this calm once the salivating press inevitably got a taste.
"I wouldn't be so sure."
“He might surprise you.”
Robert exhaled from his nose. “Didn’t have you down as an optimist.”
Aaron shrugged as he used one hand to push himself off the sofa, trying not to jostle Eve too much. He disappeared for a few moments and Kevin opened one eye that didn’t close until Aaron reappeared with toddler-free arms. He wasted no time in plonking himself down impossibly close to his boyfriend and gleaming up at him. God, Robert was in way too deep with this man.
“Everyone sees my dad as this─ this great man, this hero,” Robert said. “And why? He has his moments but I’m sick of him getting all this respect when he has none for me. He makes me feel like shit for just being myself.”
“Don’t think about his position for a minute. What about the people who matter? Your mum? Vic? Are they honestly that blind?”
“Vic couldn’t care less. My mum was a little surprised but I reckon she's alright with it,”
“Then give them some credit. It’s not as one sided as you think,” Aaron said. “And if your dad goes to the press with all this dribble about how you’ve let him down, which you haven’t, then there’s no reason why you can’t give ‘em your side of the story.”
“Whatever happens, it’ll be a mess,” Robert sighed.
“Then I’ll help you… clean it up.”
Aaron visibly cringed at his closing remark but Robert just stared at him with these irresistible heart eyes, already perfected after just a few months. He threaded his hand through the hair at the nape of Aaron’s neck and pulled him in for a soft kiss.
When Robert put his handbrake on and selected neutral it was way past dinner time, his stomach was yelling out in anger, and all he wanted to do was scoff down a serving of whatever their chef had prepared that night and curl up in bed.
Alas, life must go on.
And it sure did. He’d managed to get all of 10 yards down the entrance hall when Sarah stuck her head around the corner and made a right fuss as she jogged over to him, her silk robe flowing behind her.
“You’ve had me worried sick, love,” she fretted.
“Sorry, my phone was off.”
Sarah just threw her arms around him and suddenly Robert was five years old again, crying because no one had spoken to him on his first day of school.
She took him through to the kitchen and dished him up some Thai curry, knowing what he needed without a single prompt. She then prepared them each a cup of peppermint tea and sat at the island opposite Robert. As the steam coming from Sarah’s favourite mug warmed her face, she ached for her son to communicate with her.
“I’m really sorry,” he said.
“The only thing you should be apologising for is letting me think you were dead in a ditch,” Sarah told him. “And I’m sorry too, as it goes.”
Robert finally looked up at her. “Mum, you’ve got nothing─”
“I’m sorry for whatever it is I’ve done that made you think you can’t talk to me about this.”
Robert blinked his tears away, screwing his face up as he put his loaded fork down.
“I’m not gay,” he said after a beat. “I like both.”
Sarah just nodded, listening.
“His name’s Aaron.”
“And you like this Aaron? It wasn’t just sex?” Sarah asked, way too casually for Robert’s liking.
“God, no,” he grimaced, turning back to his curry.
Sarah gave Robert’s cheek a fond squeeze. “Invite him round for dinner.”
Robert snorted. And then he realised that his mum was being serious.
“Yeah, that will go down well.”
“I’d like to meet him,” she said, like that was the all the reason he needed.
“Hm, maybe at Dad’s funeral.”
Sarah light-heartedly swatted her son on the back of his head. “Bring him around on Saturday, alright? I’ll make sure your dad’s on his best behaviour.”
Well, it would seem Robert was exactly four days away from having his very own dinner party from hell. And he’d attended several banquets and gala dinners hosted by disgraced politicians so that was saying something.