London, April 1924
Evan took a sip from his pint of beer. It wasn’t the best ale he’d tasted, but he intended to drink every drop, delaying his return to Beston House and another inedible meal served up by his landlady, Mrs. Grindley. To be fair, the boarding house wasn’t a bad place. His room was clean and the bed was bigger than the one he’d shared with his brother, but Mrs. Grindley’s cooking would challenge the strongest constitution. Her stew had the texture of wallpaper paste, her soup was little more than hot water, and it was said the pastry on her blackberry pie had broken a former tenant’s tooth.
The barmaid handed Evan his change and narrowed her eyes in what may have been interest or disapproval. Evan was hopeless at reading female gestures and hints, but he was worse at interpreting men’s secret signals, which could sometimes prove to be quite a problem. He took another mouthful of beer and was wondering how long he could make his drink last, when he glimpsed a man with sweetly tousled black hair a short way across the bar.
The Rose and Crown was by no means rough, but the man seemed out of place, his brown tweed jacket and gold-rimmed glasses lending him an academic air. He looked older than Evan, somewhere around thirty, and his blue, almost turquoise, eyes were striking behind his spectacles. Evan had a soft spot for men in glasses. For one thing, he thought their imperfect vision might make them less aware of his physical quirks—namely his slightly crooked nose, broken in a cricket match, and the unruly mop of ginger hair he’d inherited from his father.
Evan also fancied bespectacled men were a cut above the intellectual average, a quality he found far more attractive than a flawless face. While he’d left school at thirteen, Evan had tried to improve himself by reading and learning as much as he could, and he was drawn to scholarly types like the man at the bar. He imagined them strolling in cap and gown across a sunlit college quad, then retiring to their rooms for philosophical debates with their old school chums. Evan saw such men in the shop from time to time, buying tobacco or cigarettes, but he rarely spoke to them if he could help it, afraid they’d laugh at the Derbyshire accent he tried his best to disguise.
Despite his cultured appearance, the man in the tweed jacket didn’t look like he’d mock Evan’s working-class roots or lack of formal education. His blue eyes were kind, as was his smile, which Evan suddenly realized was directed at him. Evan looked down at his pint, unsure of the smile’s meaning. The man may have been the sort who smiled a lot, an open and friendly person who liked to put people at ease. Or perhaps his smile signified something quite different.
While the Rose and Crown wasn’t that kind of pub, it wasn’t unknown for illicit liaisons to begin in respectable places. Evan was no innocent in such matters, but he always waited for his partner in crime to make his intentions clear. He’d never been in trouble with the law, not even scrumping apples when he was a boy, and he didn’t intend to go to jail now because of a misunderstanding.
Evan lifted his gaze to see the man was still smiling. He knew it could be a ruse—a policeman out to trick men into revealing their true nature—but Evan couldn’t help smiling back. He raised his glass in a tentative greeting and the stranger nodded in reply, his eyes flickering in the direction of the pub door. Unable to believe his good fortune, Evan gulped down the rest of his beer as the man stepped purposefully toward him. His haste wasn’t surprising—he probably had a wife to get home to once he’d satisfied his immoral desires—but he didn’t look nervous, as most men did in such a risky situation.
The man held out his hand, and Evan prepared to return the affable gesture. Then he caught a glimpse of movement to his left and the sleeve of an overcoat skimmed his arm. There beside him was a tall, blond-haired man offering his hand to Evan’s prospective playmate. Evan froze where he stood, his hand raised from his side. Then he slowly turned to the bar, trying to look casual as he leaned against the counter. Evan rested his fingers against his temple so that he could discreetly observe the two men. The man in the glasses was first to speak, his accent implying a privileged background somewhere in the south of England.
“I’m so glad you got in touch, Haynes. How is your dear wife? And your two beautiful girls?”
“They’re very well, thank you, sir.” The blond’s voice was a comforting Norfolk burr. “Vera sends her regards and said to thank you for the cake you sent at Christmas. It was most appreciated.”
“It was my pleasure, Haynes. And please don’t call me sir. It’s been a long time since I held rank. I’m plain Milo Halstead now.”
“You’ll always be Captain Halstead to me. The best officer in the regiment by a mile.”
Evan tilted his head and saw Milo blush endearingly.
“Nonsense, Haynes. Now, let me buy you a drink. Is beer all right, or would you like something stronger?”
“I’d better stick with the ale. My train back to Norwich is in an hour, and Vera won’t be happy if I miss it.”
Milo laughed and they moved to the bar. For a moment, Evan thought they might stand next to him, but thankfully they settled a few feet away, where Milo ordered two pints of beer.
Evan’s pulse throbbed in his eardrums and his heart thumped in his chest as he realized how close he’d come to disaster. However intelligent he looked, however refined he sounded, Milo was a former soldier and seemingly a good one. If Evan had offered his homosexual hand, he might well have received a vicious beating in return, and the thought of his landlady’s woeful cooking suddenly seemed quite enticing. Evan took a last glance at Milo and Haynes drinking and chatting, then slipped unnoticed out of the pub and into the London mist.
* * * *
“Sorry I’m late, Mrs. Grindley. I got held up at work.”
With her dark hair scraped back in its customary bun and a look even more frosty than usual, Mrs. Grindley plunged a knife into a large and sagging suet pudding.
“You’re working at the pub now, are you, Mr. Calver?”
Evan was amazed by his landlady’s sense of smell. She could detect a mere hint of alcohol across a crowded room, and if her gifted nose told her that one of her charges had missed his weekly dip in the tub, she dispatched him to the bathroom with a flea in his ear and a bar of carbolic soap.
“I only had the one, Mrs. Grindley. It’s been a tough day.”
“Oh, really? I didn’t know working in a grocer’s was so tiring. I suppose your wrist must be dropping off, what with taking all that money and writing receipts.”
“It’ll not be writing receipts that’s hurting his wrist.”
A collective snort of laughter erupted around the table.
“What was that, Alexander Wallace?”
“Nothing, Mrs. Grindley.” Sandy smiled, angelic as ever with his rosy cheeks and waves of golden hair. “But I’m looking forward to your delicious supper.”
Mrs. Grindley slopped a portion of pudding onto Sandy’s plate, and he beamed like he’d been served caviar and smoked salmon at the Ritz. He rarely ate a mouthful of her meals, but Sandy knew there were worse places to board at higher prices, so he used his easy Scottish charm to keep on Mrs. Grindley’s good side. With his own greasy helping swimming on his plate, along with two bullet-hard potatoes, Evan picked up his fork and prodded something that may have been kidney, though he couldn’t be sure.
Evan forced down a few morsels of food, still not certain what he was eating, and joined in the mealtime conversation. Sandy was entertaining as always. He worked at the nearby chemist’s and was a good one for gossip, divulging the locals’ embarrassing ailments and intimate irritations. While he never named his customers, everyone knew that the auburn-haired woman with a bad case of piles was Mrs. Kent from number twenty-two, and the pipe-smoking man with constipation was Reverend Maguire. Mrs. Grindley scolded him for discussing such subjects at dinner, but she enjoyed his stories too much to stop him and loved a bit of tittle-tattle as much as anyone.
Apart from Sandy, there was Dennis, an insurance clerk who worked down the road from Evan and told his share of anecdotes about his customers’ dubious claims. He wasn’t a bad bloke and was certainly good-looking, with his sleek brown hair and pale green eyes, but he had a slightly superior air that wound Sandy up something rotten. Then there was Victor, a shy young student with an adorable smile who was happy to share the regular gifts of sweets and chocolate his mother supplied. Finally, there was Fred, a cheery lad who worked in a brewery and was therefore the subject of their landlady’s scrutiny more than the rest of them.
They were all far from their families, having made the move to London in the hope of making something of their lives, but they were a jovial bunch and mostly rubbed along well, sharing their triumphs and tribulations in work and football, and sometimes romance. Sandy was the group’s Lothario and always had a girl on the go. He’d even sneaked one or two into his room when he knew Mrs. Grindley was out. Sandy was also the one person Evan could talk to about his own private life.
Evan still wasn’t sure how Sandy had guessed his sexual inclination, but as they’d strolled home with their chips one Saturday night—Mrs. Grindley took a welcome break from her culinary duties at the weekend—Sandy had asked, completely out of the blue, if Evan preferred boys to girls. Evan had almost choked on a scalding hot chip, and once Sandy had thumped him on the back, he’d cautiously admitted he wasn’t all that keen on girls, at least not in that way. He’d been sure Sandy wouldn’t use his confession against him, but Evan had still been wary, having never confided in anyone before. Sandy, however, had been unflustered by his revelation. He’d asked a few forthright questions, to which Evan had given self-conscious replies, then he’d let the subject drop, telling Evan he could talk to him if he wanted or needed to.
Evan had been astounded by Sandy’s generosity, and he’d slept exceedingly well that night, knowing he’d found a friend who would listen to him without judgement. He’d soon called on Sandy’s counsel, when he’d been confused—as he usually was—by signals he’d been getting from a new chap at work. After a lengthy conversation with Sandy, Evan had decided not to act on his unreliable intuition. The lad had been more than friendly since he’d started at Bailey’s, but Evan couldn’t afford to lose his job, which would be the least of the repercussions if he turned out to be mistaken. When his colleague had announced his engagement to a girl from Clapham the following month, he’d been sincerely grateful for Sandy’s wise advice.
As Evan attempted to finish his dinner, he thought he’d have a natter with Sandy later. They often met up for a chat in one or other of their rooms before they turned in for the night. Today’s topic of choice would no doubt be Sandy’s latest rendezvous with Ada, the girl from the Lyons tea shop, but Evan thought he might mention his close shave with the man in the pub. Cheered by the prospect of a chinwag with Sandy and his afternoon off the following day, Evan found his last mouthful of suet pudding just a little more palatable.