A Blessing in Disguise by Mathew Callaghan William arrived home in a rush. He had only been away for a couple of days at a business meeting but the house was in a mess. He could see dust on the mantelpiece, his favourite antique clock had stopped and his beloved orchid was wilting from the August heat. A mere glance out of the window set his blood pressure up a notch when he saw that his gardener hadn’t cleaned up properly after mowing the lawn. He was convinced that a hasty job had been done owing to his absence and he had every intention of reprimanding his gardener on the next visit. William, being ever the perfectionist, thought he would never be able to get everything ready in time for his dinner party that evening. Of course, the disorder he saw around him in the house and garden was merely his personal obsession. To outside eyes, his home and garden were impeccably well kept but to William everything had to be 100 per cent perfect. Right at this moment his score was 75. He wouldn’t have minded so much if regular guests were expected that evening but it was Elizabeth Partridge and her son Sebastian. She was a new parishioner from Saint Gregory’s who had more or less invited herself. She had recently arrived from Devon and was living in rented accommodation while house hunting in the area. William hadn’t met her son because he hadn’t attended church with his mother. However, he was only hours from meeting him as Elizabeth had cheekily asked if she could bring Sebastian along. She had implied that Sebastian was after some expert advice on career options now that he had finished his degree. In fact she announced to William: "And what better person to advise Sebastian than you, with your excellent background - magistrate and former public school teacher." The guests arrived on time. William opened the door to greet them. He suddenly felt faint at the knees when he saw who was standing before him. Elizabeth introduced Sebastian to William. The young man just stared at his host and remained speechless. He had recognised William. William blushed profusely as he extended his hand to welcome both his guests but was unable to look Sebastian in the eye as he too suddenly realised where they had previously met. William guided his guests into the drawing room and offered them pre dinner drinks. While he was fixing these he remained with his back towards them in order to escape his embarrassment and to steady his composure for what he anticipated was going to be a tense and awkward evening ahead. Elizabeth continuously chatted and made admiring comments about the paintings and other objects d’art in the room. She continued in the same vein at the dinner table. In fact she appeared to be having a conversation with herself because William couldn’t get a word in between her sentences. Sebastian just sat there motionless apart from giving an occasional glare at William, who he knew was looking at him, and kept continuously empting his wine glass. Then Elizabeth suddenly announced, "I would love a guided tour of your delightful house," before adding, "Oh, do forgive my son - he is usually not this quiet." William agreed to show her around the house after dinner, even though at the back of his mind he considered this request to be an invasion of his privacy. However, he realised he had now found himself in a situation which was testing his character and that showing some inquisitive woman around his home was the least of his concerns. "Would you care for some more melba toast with your smoked salmon?’’ William finally said to Sebastian, aiming to break the silence between them. "No, can I have some more wine?’’ replied Sebastian. "Darling, where’s your manners, never heard of the word 'please'?" interrupted his mother. The pace of the evening was agonising slow. Elizabeth attempted to introduce Sebastian’s ambition to extend his studies, now that he had finished his degree. "You want to be a lawyer, darling, don’t you?" she quipped. William too tried to gain Sebastian’s interest with some suggestions on how best to pursue a career in law. Neither of them was able to engage him in discussion. He remained slouched in his seat and shrugged his shoulders at everything that was being said. He had barely touched his main course but kept emptying his wine glass after every refill. "Seb, what is the matter with you this evening?" his mother enquired before pointing out, "You were so looking forward to coming here this evening to get some expert advice from William". "I’m not sure I want to be a lawyer any more," Sebastian replied in a sarcastic tone. Silence descended upon the table. Elizabeth was acutely embarrassed by her son’s behaviour and after she had finished her coffee, decided to end the evening. She partly hinted in her goodbye an apology for wasting William’s time and suggested that she would reciprocate with a dinner invitation once she had settled into the neighbourhood. William shut the door after they had left and stood for a while with his back to it, reflecting on the evening. He couldn’t believe what had happened. He had met Sebastian a few months before in Devon when he went on a short holiday. Tristan, his nephew, had gone to live in Florence after having lived with William for a year while completing postgraduate studies at Cambridge. William missed Tristan so much after he left that he decided to take a short break in the West Country. William had been very contented with the choice of accommodation in Devon. He had chosen a small hotel close to the centre of a village that was up on a height and had the most amazing views of the countryside. Immediately upon entering the lobby he had caught sight of Sebastian, whose appearance he found incredibly exciting. Momentarily mesmerised, he stood and stared at his discovery. The young man had long shoulder-length black hair, a slender body, yet muscular arms but hands that were gentle and attractive. No sooner than he had adjusted to this unexpected finding than Sebastian turned around and smiled at him. This added to the emotion that had already captivated William. He didn’t know what to say except to politely ask what time dinner was being served that evening. Sebastian told him the times and made him blush when taking his reservation by asking him if the table would be just for him. William’s heart missed a beat when Sebastian told him that he would be delighted to look after him later that evening in the dining room. William was fidgety for the remainder of the afternoon and stayed in his room. He laid his clothes out for the evening, ensuring that everything was meticulously in order. The thought of wearing any piece of clothing with even the slightest crease would have worried him endlessly. His hands were almost shaking as he locked his room door. It was almost as if he was being hypnotised and was going through motions without thinking of what he was feeling. Either he had never experienced this before or had long since forgotten about how thrilling it was to admire and lust after another individual. There was a sense of mystery and danger to this experience and it had him now firmly within its hold. William was seated by the head waiter. He began pretending to read his book, The Picture of Dorian Grey, while glancing every few seconds across the room at Sebastian who was attending to other guests. He had almost finished his meal before Sebastian came over to his table and spoke. "Oh, I see you like Oscar Wilde too." "Yes, indeed," replied William before adding, "I have started re-reading all his works again after many years - have you read much of his work?" And so their connection was made. They chatted and chatted about the works of Oscar Wilde for at least 20 minutes. Or at least William talked while Sebastian listened. William felt relaxed and at ease while talking to Sebastian but remained infatuated by his beauty. Then Sebastian was called away to do other duties. However, before he left a compulsion sprang into William’s mind to invite him to his room for a drink by diplomatically implying they could continue their discussion and not be interrupted. "I would like that very much and to get to know you a little better," replied Sebastian in a salacious tone, while prolonging William’s handshake. William’s mind became a blank in the intervening time between returning to his room and waiting for Sebastian to join him. He felt the anticipation too electrifying to think logically. Even when Sebastian entered the room he couldn’t fully recall which of them first initiated having sex. All he recalled was getting undressed hastily because he was ashamed of his large paunch. He quickly got into bed and covered himself with the sheet in order to conceal his body from Sebastian. Then he lay there and watched Sebastian take off his clothes and relished what he considered to be a truly splendid sight as he watched the young man’s nakedness become more apparent as each garment was dispensed with on the floor. Sebastian then joined William in bed. The sweet smelling scent of his body made William’s desire for him insatiable. They then took it in turn to pleasure each other. The least enjoyable part for William was when Sebastian removed the sheet, which meant that his paunch was fully exposed, but immediately after climaxing, he pulled the sheet up once more around his body. While the experience of meeting Sebastian excited him, William wasn’t under any illusions that, after he returned to Cambridge, they would ever see each other again. He knew there was no room in his lifestyle where he would be able to include Sebastian among his social circle, because such a friendship would be gossiped and frowned upon. It was best left as it was. He considered the beautiful memories he had taken from the trip would remain with him for the rest of his life. He had given his address to Sebastian but decided not to reply if he received any correspondence. Little had he imagined that the episode would come back and haunt him in such a distressing and unexpected manner. William was in turmoil the morning after the dinner party. He hadn’t slept a wink during the night and tossed and turned in bed anxiously wondering whether Sebastian would tell people what had happened. Recalling his appalling behaviour at dinner, he was able to recapture in his mind the spiteful look that was in Sebastian’s eyes. William loved being a magistrate; he loved his home and garden, his responsibilities as churchwarden, the freemasonry and of course the Rotary Club. His life had status. It had meaning. However, his position in life was not so prominent that he was free from being accountable. If the story got out that he was a homosexual, he would be forced to resign as magistrate, church warden and all the other offices and memberships that were so much part of his life. He felt shattered and found himself drinking a brandy at the breakfast table, which was completely out of character. Then he heard something being put in the letterbox. It was a hand delivered note from Sebastian stating he would keep secret their sexual liaison if William paid him £10,000. He realised then that his worst fears had materialised. He kept reading the note and almost fell into a trance whilse reading the cold and chilling words that it contained. Dear Bill, How interesting it was to meet you again – and so unexpected! Well what can I say? Funny things happened in Devon. So far, life appears to be less complicated here in Cambridge. I’m sure you will agree that it will be best to keep it that way. Any scandal would be a tragic event – especially for someone in such high office. Therefore, in order to bring an end to our unfortunate experience, I am suggesting a payment of £10,000 – especially as you forced me to do something against my natural will. I shall expect payment in cash by the end of the week. Regards, Seb. William was numb with fear after he read the brief missive. His intuition told him that Sebastian was serious in his threat. He knew only too well the law on blackmail but he thought that if he went to the police he would have to admit what happened in Devon, and as a result inadvertently expose himself as a homosexual. But it wasn’t this aspect of the note that incensed him the most. The fact that Seb had the audacity to shorten his name to Bill – and then continue to use insulting comments like "unfortunate experience" coupled with an outright lie: "forced to do something against my natural will," made William very cross indeed. He was fully certain in his thoughts that their liaison was consensual. He buried his head in his hands and then suddenly thought he must ring Tristan for help. The ringing tone made his heart beat faster with the dread of telling his nephew his troubles. Thoughts in his mind began to wander, making him convinced that he would never have gone to Devon if Tristan hadn’t gone to live in Florence. The situation he found himself in would never have occurred if he hadn’t felt so lonely after Tristan's departure. Admittedly, things weren’t always fine between him and Tristan. William’s fastidious tidiness and order clashed with Tristan’s carefree style but ultimately they had enjoyed each other company and often spent hours discussing their shared interest in art, classical music and literature. "Tristan – I’ve got myself into a terrible mess with a young man." "Uncle – whatever has happened?" "He wants me to give him money to keep quiet…" his voice trailing off before he could complete the sentence. But William need not have worried too much about Tristan’s reaction. Deep down he knew that he would find acceptance because he felt an unspoken awareness between them about his sexuality. Indeed, Tristan had known that his uncle was gay for some time but it was never something he felt the need to discuss with him. The fact that his uncle was gay was irrelevant to Tristan and he loved him for who he was, his caring ways and his generosity and besides they had so much in common. Tristan told him not to pay any money to Sebastian under any circumstances but to catch the next flight out to Florence that evening. William rang the airline and booked himself on the flight before hastily packing a suitcase and leaving for the airport. He was in two minds about whether he should accept Tristan's advice about not paying Sebastian. He pondered all the possibilities but in the end decided before leaving for the airport that perhaps the best way to end this sorrowful business was to pay a visit to his bank manager. William’s harrowed face and tired eyes shocked Tristan when he met him at the airport because he had never revealed himself before in such a fragile state. Immediately upon seeing Tristan, he broke down in tears. His turmoil came flooding to the surface as he held on to the arms of his nephew while he hugged him. After he composed himself, he accepted Tristan’s suggestion that they go and have a coffee before travelling to his apartment on the outskirts of the city. Tristan was very much on his uncle’s side and he, too, was livid that a young man who had willingly consented to sex should now make such a drama out of it. Tristan reassured his uncle that he had done nothing wrong and that it was Sebastian that should be ashamed of himself. They agreed that it was best for William to stay in Florence for a few weeks. Tristan told his uncle that he would then return to England with him and that they would sort everything out together and even go to the police, if necessary. He reiterated that, together, they wouldn’t let a vindictive young man destroy William’s happiness and wellbeing. William slept very well that night. When he got up the next morning he was surprised to see that Tristan had prepared a table for breakfast on the balcony. The warm sea breeze was heavenly. The table was impeccably laid with a platter of exotic fruits. The selection contained melons, mangoes, figs, cherries and his favourite papayas. There were also pancakes and honey and freshly brewed coffee. He was about to sit down to breakfast when Tristan announced that he had someone to introduce to him. It was Letizia, his girlfriend. William immediately felt embarrassed that he was standing there without a dressing gown or slippers in the presence of a lady but the awkwardness of the situation soon lessened. "Uncle, stop being such a prude - just sit down and enjoy your breakfast," Tristan said to his uncle. The three of them then sat down to breakfast and after a little while, William relaxed and almost felt liberated as he sat there in his pyjamas and bare feet. "I should have guessed that you had a lady friend. Don’t you think for a second that I hadn’t noticed how tidy the apartment is...so unlike you," he joked to Tristan and Letizia. The doorbell rang. It was Erico, the next-door neighbour who could only be described as a proudly obvious homosexual. Displaying a slender waistline, long hair and swarthy skin, he came in dressed in the skimpiest pair of red shorts that he could possibly have squeezed himself into. However, he didn’t speak very good English and his desire to improve was responsible for the friendship he had struck up with Tristan. Tristan had told him that his uncle was coming from England to stay for a few weeks and promised Erico that he would introduce him. "Hello...nice English man," Erico greeted William. "Good morning...how do you do?" William replied. Erico rather cheekily suggested, in his limited vocabulary, taking William for a walk along the beach. At first, William didn’t like the idea and tried to use the excuse that he hadn’t any appropriate beach clothing. Tristan reminded him that he must stop being such a prude and that he could easily lend him a tee shirt and shorts. William dubiously changed into these unaccustomed garments. After the walk, Tristan proposed that he and Letizia would take him to see an exhibition of Arnolfo Di Cambio’s work at a museum in town. "I will only do this on condition that you allow me to take Letizia and yourself out to dinner tonight," William said nervously, as Erico escorted him out of the door. "How do you do?’’ chirped Erico, practising his English. Florence was certainly going to be eventful and fun, William mused to himself. People say fun and laughter can be a great tonic for the soul. Early indications were that he was going to receive this in abundance if the first few hours of his arrival were anything to go by. And this indeed was the vein in which things continued. Over the next couple of weeks, William, Tristan and Letizia went on many sightseeing excursions, did lots of shopping, paid trips to all the good restaurants and ate the best seafood that Florence had to offer. Erico, who had become very attached to William, accompanied them on several of the outings. The thoughts of returning to Britain became less fearful as time passed. William felt mentally rejuvenated and had reconciled to himself that there were changes that he had to make to his life. He had lived a lie for many years and was beginning to wonder if he had been foolish as a result. During dinner one night, Tristan and Letizia asked William why he had chosen to remain closed about being gay back home in Britain. William paused and sipped his wine before replying: "The stigma during the 1960s was terrible. It wasn’t acceptable to openly discuss homosexuality. A mere mention of it would most certainly have rendered me an outcast in the social circle to which I belonged." William paused again, anticipating Tristan or Letizia would respond in some way but silence prevailed at the dinner table. He then concluded his statement by adding: "Call me a coward if you wish but that was the decision that I made all those years ago and I never changed my mind - up until now." Shortly after this occasion, William decided that it was time to return to Britain to sort out his affairs. He was delighted that Tristan and Letizia agreed to come and stay with him for a couple of weeks. The departure scene at Florence airport consisted of Erico wrapping his arms around William while saying his goodbye. "You leave me, please, please…I come to England to visit you," Erico said in mock grief. Cambridge looked different in William’s eyes. Smaller, greyer and colder than what he had become accustomed to in the past few weeks. Deep down he realised that it wasn’t Cambridge that looked different but it was him who felt different within. The sight of Saint Gregory’s church brought the realisation of what lay ahead. He wondered momentarily what he would say to Elizabeth Partridge when he next met her. He wondered if his period of reflection had provided him with enough courage to be able to tell her about his liaison with her son. Tristan was quiet in the taxi. He had become angry during the flight after William confessed that, before he left for Florence, he had left instructions with his bank manager to give £10,000 to Sebastian. "I told you to do nothing…so what do we do now? Give him another £10,000 and then another £10,000? This could go on forever at this rate," he reprimanded his uncle, who remained silent. Several of William’s friends called to welcome him home. Everyone told him how refreshed and well he looked. Thanking them for their good wishes, he informed each of them that the break away in Florence had made him realise that he had been over-doing things a little and that he had decided to give up his public duties and retire. It was during one of these visits from a fellow church warden from St. Gregory’s that he discovered an interesting piece of information. In fact it was a crucial piece of news that would provide clarity to the whole sordid affair as to why Sebastian had blackmailed him in the way that he did. Of course, it had all been a scam. A terrible, malicious and devious deceit. His friend casually mentioned that Elizabeth Partridge and her son had abruptly left the area without telling anyone. "When did they leave?" enquired William. "I believe it was around the same time as you went to Florence," his friend replied. The whole situation in its entirety was transformed by this news. After his friend had left, William sat down and discussed it with Tristan and Letizia. It was clear that he had been set up from the very beginning. Elizabeth Partridge had been in on the scam all along with Sebastian. He realised he had been tricked. They had created a false identity and probably not for the first time either. Flashbacks to his time in Devon came flooding back. Sebastian's insistence that he gave him his address so that they could stay in contact. His desire to get intimate and gather information about his life, as well as his lack of knowledge about Oscar Wilde, despite his claim to be a admirer of the writer. And now it was obvious that Elizabeth – or whatever her real name was – was too young to be Sebastian’s mother. "I have been such a stupid old fool," announced William. After a few minutes of silence and reflection, Tristan spoke: "Uncle – let’s forget about these wretched people. I know what we should do. Let’s have a party to celebrate your homecoming". "What a splendid idea – yes, I feel I’ve really come home now, after all." "And we can invite Erico." "Oh no!" exclaimed William holding his hands high in pretence horror and then collapsing into a fit of laughter. "Does this mean that you won’t be retiring from your public duties after all?" enquired Letizia. "No – my new life has already begun. There is to be no turning back. I really think that the last few weeks have been nothing short of a blessing in disguise. Now let’s talk about this party…who are we are going to invite?"