‘It really shouldn’t be this difficult,’ Barry thought as he made his way from the tube station to his parents’ house, in one of the more fashionable areas of London. Not that his parents were rich, they were just lucky. Back in the 1970s his grandparents had begged, borrowed, and if truth be known probably stolen to raise the deposit on a run down wreck of a Georgian house in Islington. At that time Islington was a dump, an area of disrepute occupied by whores, con men and petty thugs, just as the house was a dump. The house was also too big for the modern family and to make matters worse it was listed.
All in all the entire house was exactly the type of property that nobody in their right minds would buy. As Barry’s grandmother had pointed out she had never known his grandfather to be in his right mind. So they had bought it and had managed, within the restrictions of the meagre income they both got as teachers, to make it at least inhabitable. Unfortunately, or as it had turned out fortunately, they had never been in a position to get all the work that needed to be done to turn the house from inhabitable to liveable. As a result on the couple of occasions that they had tried to sell it, there had been no buyers so, they had given up trying to sell it and settled into a few rooms on the lower floors that they had occupied in a modicum of comfort.
Over the years of course the area had changed from one of disrepute to a fashionable abode for city bankers, lawyers and politicians, not much had changed. One thing that had changed was the value of the property, Barry’s grandparents’ house was now worth just over six million, which his parents could not touch. His grandmother had left it in trust, to his parents during their lifetime then to Barry. Really it was Barry’s house.
Even though the area was affluent and rich, his parents were not. They, like his grandparents were teachers. Not only were they teachers they were teachers who felt they had a social responsibility, so taught in some of the more deprived areas of inner London, and there are some deprived areas in inner London. They had managed to afford the upkeep of the house by taking in a couple of lodgers. Actually that was not strictly correct, the lodgers had arrived during his grandparents’ time, his parents had simply inherited them along with the house, but they did help to cover the cost of the place. It also had an advantage that they had provided a couple of live in babysitters for Barry when he was younger, and now filled the position of surrogate Aunts replacing the extended family that Barry did not have.
Barry was strongly hoping that both his Aunts and specifically Aunt Jenny would be home when he got there. They had always been able to mediate on his behalf when he was in trouble with his parents. Especially Aunt Jenny, who fitted to perfection the description of ‘a spinster of this parish’, that Barry was so used to coming across when doing genealogical research.
Turning the corner he walked down an apparent side street to come into the Georgian square, one of the many hidden squares of London. It was not a large square, just four houses on each side, it was also not well known, which was one of the reasons it was popular with those who had enough wealth to ensure their privacy. That was why the house his grandparents had bought in the 1960s for ten thousand pounds was now worth six hundred times what they had paid for it, which was fortunate. Some years ago they had transferred the house to Barry’s parents, who were able to get a hundred thousand pound mortgage on it without trouble when, ten years ago his grandparents retired and wanted to get out of London. Not to the country but a small mining town in Leicestershire, albeit one whose pits had closed long ago.
He had half hoped that his grandparents might have been down in town. It would have made life easier. He could have told the whole family in one go, having to go through it twice was something he wished he could avoid. Then again, did his grandparents need to know?
On entering the square he looked across at the house. It was not difficult to spot. Whilst all the other houses in the square shone with pristine white stonework, his parent’s house was still showing the after effects of two centuries exposure to the smoke of London coal fires. Of course, from time to time, neighbours, local community associations, council officers and preservation societies had mentioned to his parents, and his grandparents for that matter, that the façade of the house could do with a jolly good clean up. The response from both his father and grandfather had been the same every time. “You’re paying for it?” So far nobody had taken them up on that, though Barry suspected that sooner of later one of the neighbours probably would, just before they sold their house.
Rather than going up to the front door, Barry slipped the catch on the cast iron gate in the railings and took the steps down into the well between the pavement and the front of the house. There used his key to enter the basement kitchen. This was once the tradesman entrance but now it was the main entrance used by family, as it led to the one room in the house you could be sure was warm.
“Barry!” A welcoming voice exclaimed as he entered the room. Aunt Jenny was seated at the table with his mother, the two of them holding mugs of tea with a selection of cakes on the table before them. His mother turned and looked.
“Wasn’t expecting you up for a couple of weeks,” she commented, “sit down I’ll make you some tea.” Barry seated himself at the table and explained that he needed to do some work in the British Library so thought he would make a weekend of it. His mother nodded. It was not that unusual, he frequently had to research in the British Library and when he did he tried to schedule it for early in the week, that way he could come up from Exeter on the Friday afternoon. He could do the Friday morning lecture and still get to the station in time to get the twelve thirty to London, which got him in just before four so he avoided the start of the rush hour at Paddington.
“So, how’s the PhD going?” Aunt Jenny asked.
“OK, think I’ve made a breakthrough on the genealogical side of things. Found some indications that three of the four family groups which I have identified might well all descend from a common ancestor. Fortunately they have all been in trade since the late Tudor period so records for them are fairly good. It is the fourth group of families in which the condition has appeared that are the real problem. So far as I can see there is no connection between them and the other groups. That means it is difficult to show that the condition came to the UK from Siberia during the Tudor period.”
“Why is that so important?”
“Ellington and Schmidt use the existence of the syndrome in the British Isles and Russian populations but not in the mainland Europe population as proof that the genetic mutation spontaneously developed in two different populations. They also claim that the distribution in both the British Isles and Russia shows that the same genetic mutation spontaneously developed a number of time in each population. They use this as the basis of their argument that the human genome is basically unstable.
“If I can show that there is a genealogical connection between the family groups in the British Isles, then it raises a question on Ellington and Schmidt’s view of things.” Aunt Jenny nodded.
“Your dad is going to be late this evening, he’s supervising an A level candidate taking a late exam. So dinner will not be till eight,” his mother informed in. Barry winced mentally, he had been hoping he could get this over and done with quickly and then maybe go out and get pissed. It was clear that was not to be. “Do you want some tea and cake to keep you going?”
“Yes please mum, I’ll just go and drop my stuff in my room.” She nodded and put the kettle on to make a fresh pot. Barry went up the kitchen stairs to the ground floor, then made his way through to the hall and took front stairs up to the first floor. Once in his room he sat down on the bed and wondered what the hell he was going to do now.
He had everything planned out, just how it would be done. The moment he came home he would sit at the kitchen table with his parents, preferably with Aunt Jenny or Aunt Beth in attendance, and he would come out with it. He would tell them the truth and see how things went from there. Now that was not on. He had to wait till dad got home; there was no way he could face having to tell his mum then his dad. It had to be a done and over in a single announcement.
Could he wangle it so that Aunt Jenny stayed for dinner. She was usually down in the kitchen chatting with his parents over a cup of tea when they got back from work, if she was in the house. It was, however, unusual for either of the Aunts to join them for dinner. They had the use of their own kitchen in the mews block at the back of the house and either cooked there or went out for a meal.
He really did want one of the Aunts to be there when he broke the news. They would be sympathetic and understanding. What he had to say would not bother them, they would just tell him to get on with his life. The problem was his parents; they expected him to succeed, to be the perfect son. So far he had managed it, he had aced his A levels, then gone on to get a first class degree in biology, and then a Masters with Distinction. Now he was well on his way to a doctorate. All perfect and all according to plan.
The problem was that he was not perfect and he knew that. He had known since he was thirteen that he was not perfect, that some things were not as his parents expected them to be. Well they would just have to get used to it and live with it. He had to so why could not they?
He threw his bag down on the bed, took off his coat and hung it in the cupboard then grabbed a cardigan from the cupboard and put it on. Another problem of living in a house that was really beyond ones means was heating. It was really too expensive to heat the whole house, so heating was restricted. During the day about the only room that had any heat in it was the kitchen.
So it was to the kitchen that he returned. Aunt Jenny was talking to his mother about the latest exhibition at the Tate Modern, she turned as Barry entered the room. “If you are in town over the weekend you really ought to try and see it,” she stated.
“See what?” Barry asked. He had heard enough to know they were talking about an exhibition but did not know which one.
“The Nature of Common Life,” his mother responded, “It’s a series of drawings of 19th century life, gives a new insight into the history of that period.”
“I am sure,” Barry replied, “that you both found it interesting.” He had no doubt about that, his mother taught history at the local comprehensive whilst Aunt Jenny was Senior Tutor is modern history at the university. They would both have found it interesting. “However, the 19th century is not something I have a particular interest in.”
“Bloody scientist, you’re turning out to be as bad as your father,” his mother snorted. There was an ongoing dispute between the sciences and the humanities in the house, with his mother and Aunt Jenny on the one side and his father and Aunt Beth, who was a professor of chemistry, on the other. Barry had the distinct feeling that his mother had never quite forgiven him for selecting to read Biology at Exeter rather than Humanities at Oxford. With his A levels he could have gone for either but there was something about Oxford that he found off putting, probably the fact that both his parents had gone there and always seemed to be reminiscing about how great there time there was. Barry knew perfectly well that there could not have been that many warm sunny days during term time to go boating on the Isis, this was England after all.
He sniggered to himself remembering the statement by one of his parents’ friends, who was not quite so enchanted with Oxford student life, that it was dryer in the river than out of it most of the time. His mother gave him the look. Taking the hint he turned his mind to other matters and seated himself at the table. His mother plonked a mug of tea in front of him, followed by a plate with a slice of walnut cake. “That should keep you going till dinner, though why I should bother to feed a couple of scientists I don’t know. Maybe your Aunt Jenny and me could go to that new Italian place and leave you and your father to fend for yourselves.”
“You can if you want to but then you would miss what I want to tell you,” Barry responded.
“So what do you have to tell us?”
“You’ll have to wait till dinner to find out, I am not going to repeat myself telling each of you individually.” His mother nodded, trying not to look frustrated at being put off.
Aunt Jenny took a sip of her tea, and then commented. “Very sensible of you Barry, there is no point in going over the same thing time and time again. I suppose it’s a good job that your mother has asked me to join her for dinner. That way you will not have to repeat it all to me.”
“When did I ask you to join us?” his mother asked.
“When you suggested we should go to that new Italian place, I don’t mind either way, Italian or here, with Beth away I was not planning on cooking anyway.”
“Aunt Beth’s away?” Barry asked.
“Yes, she’s in Sweden collecting some prize or other.”
“Christ, I don’t know, I know it’s not the Nobel. It’s hardly worth the cost of the airfare to go and collect it. By time she has paid for a couple of nights in a hotel and her bar bill she’ll be out of pocket.” Aunt Jenny responded.
The three of them spent the next half hour chatting about Aunt Beth. Barry learnt that she had been awarded a prize for her scientific writing, specifically her communication of scientific ideas to teenagers. “I would never have thought of Aunt Beth as being a good communicator, she always had problems explaining things to me so I could understand them,” Barry stated.
“Which,” responded Aunt Jenny, “is exactly why she became good at communicating scientific ideas to teenagers. She had so many problems getting you to grasp simple ideas; she had to find a way to explain them so you could understand them. Once she had done that, it was easy to explain them to others.”
“So I’m the reason she’s getting the prize.”
“In a way yes, but don’t try to claim any of it.”
At that point Barry’s mother kicked them both out of the kitchen, stating that if she was cooking a meal for four she needed to get started. Barry stated that he was going to his room to get online and check his emails. “More likely checking out some smutty sites,” Aunt Jenny commented.
“As if I would,” Barry retorted.
“Well I would, in fact I think I will.” With that comment she swept past him and up the stairs to the hall. Barry and his mother exchanged looks.
* * * * *
The four of them were sitting round the kitchen table eating vegetarian lasagne, or at least Barry’s mother and father were eating it. Aunt Jenny seemed to be shovelling it in without benefit of mastication. As for Barry, he was moving the food around his plate wondering just how to broach the subject he needed to tell them about.
“That’s the fourth time you’ve moved that piece of lasagne across your plate, wouldn’t it be better just to come out with it and let us know what it is that you have to tell us,” Barry’s father commented.
“How did you …”
“Your mother said you had something to tell us after dinner. By the signs of things unless you get it out of the way now you won’t have any dinner. Come on Barry, spit it out, it can’t be that bad.”
“Well its … its…” At that point Barry found he had lost the will to speak.
“He’s probably got some girl pregiees,” Aunt Jenny commented, giving Barry a sideways glance which managed at one and the same time to convey disapproval and good for you.
“Not likely,” his mother responded, “Barry’s gay.”
“You know?” Barry blurted out.
“Of course we know”, his father responded.
“About nine years.”
“You’ve known I’ve been gay for nine years and never said a bloody thing.”
“Well,” responded his mother, “there was not really much to say was there. You were gay, so what, at least we did not have to worry about unexpected grandchildren, though if you ever feel like adopting I wouldn’t mind a couple of grandkids to spoil. Just get them a bit older than the nappy stage if you can, saves a lot of bother.” Barry looked at his mother in disbelief. This could not be happening.
“But how?” he asked, “how did you find out.”
“It was the week your grandmother was taken ill and you had your music exam,” his father responded. “We decided to drive back overnight on the Saturday. Well to be honest your grandmother can be a pain at the best of times but when she’s ill she is impossible, so as soon as the doctor said she was OK to be left on her own we were off.
“We got back here about half five in the morning. When we walked in we found you and Matt Jarred passed out de flagrante delicto, with the remains of a bottle of my best whisky, and a number of very instructive magazines on the sofa in the living room.” Barry turned a rather indecent shade of red.
“I never knew, we thought we had cleared up before you got back.”
“Yes,” his mother commented, “we thought it best not to embarrass you so we went up to town for breakfast and visited a couple of galleries. I must say by time we got back you and Matt had really cleaned up. I never did find where you hid the magazines.”
“Behind the fish tank,” Barry blurted out, then realised he had just confirmed they were his.
“Oh, good place,” she commented.
“So,” Aunt Jenny inserted, “is that why you choose Exeter, because Matt was going there.”
“No actually, Matt choose Exeter because I had decided to go there. He had offers from both Cambridge and Oxford. He really should have taken one of them.”
“Are you still together?”
“Yes Aunt Jenny, we are just about to buy a house together.”
“Good, then him going to Exeter was the right decision. I suppose the fact that you are buying a house together was what prompted you come up and tell us about your relationship.”
“No, I didn’t come up to tell you I was gay.”
“Then what?” asked his father.
“Well, it’s like this I’ve…”
“You’ve done what?” his father queried.
“I’ve failed my driving test.”
“YOU WHAT?” shouted his father.
“Barry how could you?” responded his mother.
“I’ve failed my driving test, I took it on Wednesday and the examiner failed me.”
“I had problems with the three point turn.”
“How could you? Do you know how much those driving lessons cost us? How could you …” Barry dropped his head into his hands, this is what he had been dreading. He knew his parents could not cope with him not being perfect and succeeding at everything he did.
Note: The UK driving test is in three parts, a theory test, a hazard awareness test and a practical driving test. One of the elements in the practical test is to turn the car around within the width of the road using forward and reverse gears. This is generally called the three point turn though in you can use more than three points if you need to.
Copyright © 2015 Nigel Gordon