SUMMER PASSED England by that year, as if it shared his family’s grief and refused to intrude upon such solemn days with unwanted sunshine. A cool, wet July turned into a blustery August, and now a dismal September loomed. From the window of their rented cottage, there was nothing but gray skies as far as the eye could see. The fields spread out in a patchwork of shortbread and moss. Plentiful rain meant the grass stood tall, but the lack of light filtering through thick, heavy clouds dulled its various shades of green. And this bleak scene was supposed to make everything better?
Oakley sighed and turned to the sink. He poured himself a glass of water from a spluttering, corroded tap and took a sip. Despite the dubious appearance of the fittings, the water was clean, tasteless, and refreshing. He supposed he should at least be thankful for that. It was likely to be the only pleasant thing this vacation would provide.
“Oakley.” His mother’s voice, coming from the other room. “We’re going to walk down to the village and take a look around, maybe get coffee before dinner. Why don’t you come with us?”
“No, I’d rather stay here. I’ll unpack,” he called back, hoping she wouldn’t press.
There was a pause. He could picture his father grimly shaking his head, cautioning his mother to let it go. It wouldn’t take that much effort to persuade her. The past three months, she and his father seemed happier when he wasn’t around. He didn’t know why they’d made him accompany them on this two-week trip. They would have been better off without him. He only disrupted their grief. When they noticed him at all. They had filled the long drive here with blaring pop hits and radio adverts in lieu of conversation, the three of them unable, or unwilling, to think of anything to say.
“Okay, then. We won’t be long.”
There was a tremor in his mother’s voice. The sound made Oakley grimace, and he didn’t answer. A moment later, he heard the heavy lock slam home as they pulled the door shut behind them.
He moved to the lounge and peered out the window. He watched them shuffle along the garden path, his father’s arm around his mother’s shoulders. Then they headed down the narrow laneway and passed out of view. A glance at his watch revealed it was only just gone five. With nothing better to do, he decided to explore the cottage—what little there was of it.
He had no idea where his parents found this place. They had simply announced yesterday morning that they would be spending the next two weeks together in this patch of nowhere on the outskirts of the Cotswolds. Attendance was compulsory—try as he might, Oakley couldn’t budge his mother on that—so he’d thrown a few things into a duffel bag and determined to make the best of it. When they returned home, he’d be back to university. A few months ago, he’d dreaded the thought of his final year; now he looked forward to it as a reprieve from his mother’s tears and his father’s blank-faced stoicism.
Oakley brushed his dreary thoughts aside and commenced his tour. Unfortunately, a closer inspection of the cottage did little to lift his mood. The lounge had nothing to offer save a worn sofa and even rattier armchair, an open fireplace with a pile of chopped wood he knew his city-born-and-raised father would never manage to light, and a selection of old magazines and books, the cheesy titles of which made him cringe. The cramped kitchen with its rusty, noisy pipes was likewise devoid of anything interesting. Though he did grab a Snickers bar from the cooler bag.
He bit into the chocolate and meandered to the other side of the narrow hallway. His parents had claimed the front bedroom overlooking the garden, so he didn’t bother checking in there. The middle door led to a bathroom, which he quickly designated “worst room of the house.” Into this itty-bitty space the builder had squeezed a grimy sink, a low toilet, and a shower so tiny it must have been designed for a dwarf. A fuchsia and salmon-pink color scheme rendered the room all the more monstrous. Why his parents had settled on this dump was beyond him. Surely there had to be other types of accommodation nearby. If he had to come along on this enforced vacation, was it too much to ask for a hotel with Internet access and a television in every room?
The final door led to the single-bed room that was to be his domain for the duration of their stay. He finished his snack, tossed the wrapper onto the bedside table, and took a good look around. The exploration didn’t take long and revealed nothing but dust, an assortment of cobwebs, one disgruntled spider, and, in the back of the bottom drawer of the tallboy, a small red ball.
He palmed the toy and flopped onto the bed. He bounced it in his hand a few times and then tossed it higher. However, he had forgotten how low the ceilings were. The ball collided with the plaster and veered off to the side. Oakley jerked upright and watched as it flew through the air, bounced three times, and disappeared beneath the tallboy. He cursed and contemplated leaving it there, but then he changed his mind. Entertainment was scarce enough that he might want it again before the night was through, so he got down on his hands and knees to retrieve it.
When he rose, he set the ball on the bed. The mood to play with it was gone, and he figured he ought to unpack, since that was his excuse for staying behind. His mother was certain to come in and check once she returned. Or maybe she wouldn’t. It was hard to tell these days.
The unpacking process was not a lengthy one in any case. He opened the duffel, threw the clothes into the tallboy in whatever order they came to hand, and shut the drawers. Then he zipped the bag and kicked it under the bed. That chore completed, he wandered to the small window and tweaked aside the curtain.
Outside, the sky was darkening as evening approached. A tall, broad oak tree dominated the view on this side of the house. It had a thick canopy, though the leaves were already starting to brown in preparation for the winter drop.
Oakley was about to look away when a sudden movement caught his attention. He squinted through the glass. There was someone standing beneath the tree—a man judging by his silhouette. The oak was on cottage land, so no one but he and his parents should be there. He supposed it was one of the locals. If the owners didn’t rent the cottage often—which seemed likely given the state of disrepair—the villagers were probably used to coming and going as they pleased. The man’s presence didn’t bother Oakley, but a nagging feeling prompted him to go out and speak to him. There might be something wrong, and at the very least, he could warn the guy off for the next couple of weeks, since he doubted his parents would countenance anyone hanging around, watching them.
He dropped the curtain and headed for the front door. From there, he turned his steps toward the oak. As he drew nearer, he saw the man was younger than he’d thought. The guy looked about his age, and that was at a push. It was possible he wasn’t yet out of his teens. Oakley raised a hand in greeting, and the stranger started and looked over his shoulder, as if expecting to see someone else there. By the time he realized Oakley’s gesture was for him, Oakley had reached the first of the outstretched branches.
“Hey.” He held out his hand. “I’m Oakley.”
The guy stared at Oakley’s hand, a frown creasing his brow. He seemed confused, so Oakley decided he’d better elaborate. He jerked his thumb toward the house.
“My family rented the cottage. We’re here for the next two weeks.”
Apparently this sufficed, because the guy’s clouded expression cleared and he shook Oakley’s hand. His grip was cool but firm. “Bobby.”
“Nice to meet you. Do you come up here often? Are you from the village?”
Bobby shook his head. “Not the village, but I live nearby. I spend a lot of time here.”
He said this in such a wistful way that Oakley didn’t have the heart to tell him to bugger off for a couple of weeks. There was no sign of graffiti tags on the tree trunk, or any used needles or condom wrappers on the ground, so whatever brought him there, it seemed harmless enough. A grown man lurking in the garden at dusk was one thing; he didn’t think his parents would object to a young lad who liked quiet walks in the countryside.
“What kind of a name is Oakley?”
Oakley shrugged. “Not like I picked it. What kind of a name is Bobby?”
“It’s short for Robert.” A brief pause. “After my father.”
“Robert.” Oakley grinned. “I’d stick with Bobby, if I were you. Robert makes you sound old. It’s the sort of name you’d give some stuffy, middle-aged businessman.”
Bobby chuckled and relaxed against the tree. “Well, I’ll never be a middle-aged businessman. I can promise you that.”
“Good. ’Cause pinstripes really wouldn’t suit you.”
They lapsed into silence, and Oakley raised his arms to grip the thick branch that stretched overhead. He leaned on it as he surveyed Bobby. He pegged him for seventeen. He was casually dressed in faded blue jeans and a tight, plain white T-shirt. His hair was an acorn brown and worn short and slicked back. Oakley wasn’t close enough to get a good view of his eyes, but he figured they were brown as they looked dark in the fading light.
“Why are you here? No one lives here these days.”
Oakley lifted his feet and swung from the branch. “Family holiday. My parents must have found the place online or something.” He dropped back to the ground and flopped against the trunk next to Bobby. “Don’t other people stay here from time to time?”
Bobby shook his head. “Not for a long while.”
“I wouldn’t be here if I had a choice.”
“You don’t like the cottage?”
Oakley uttered an internal curse. He’d forgotten Bobby liked to come here. He’d probably offended him by insulting his favorite spot. He wondered how to respond. In the end, he went with a shrug and an apologetic smile. “Country life really isn’t my thing. I like the city. I live in London now. I’m at uni, and I share a flat with two other guys.”
“Cool. I’ve never been to London.”
“Never? You should totally go one day. You’d love it.”
“I wish I could, but I can’t leave here.”
“Sure you can. Just pack a bag, buy a ticket, and off you go. You could crash on the sofa at my place. Jason and Paul wouldn’t mind.” Oakley wasn’t certain what prompted him to make the offer—he didn’t really know Bobby after all—but it had seemed the natural thing to say, and even now he didn’t regret it, despite Bobby’s sad smile.
“You make it sound so easy.”
“Because it is. Think about it, anyway. The offer’s open.”
There was another pause.
Oakley turned to stare at the horizon. The sun was no longer visible; only a faint glow remained, illuminating the fields in a pink-orange haze. The last few months he’d avoided company, but it felt good to stand here with Bobby in comfortable silence, and Oakley believed he’d found a way to get through the next two weeks.
“Do you come up here every day?”
“Maybe I’ll see you around, then.”
Bobby looked over at him. “Maybe.” His smile lit his eyes, and Oakley saw they were indeed brown: a rich milk chocolate.
Oakley dithered for a moment, worrying at his lower lip. “Listen, though, it’s probably best if my folks don’t see you. They might not like people wandering about the garden while we’re here.”
The lie came easily enough. He was certain his parents wouldn’t object to Bobby—even in their current frame of mind—however, he couldn’t stand the thought of them knowing about him. Oakley wanted this one thing for himself. A secret only he and Bobby would share.
“No sweat. They won’t see me.”
“Oakley!” A long, loud call.
“Damn.” Oakley kicked off the tree and peered around the trunk. “My parents are back.” He met Bobby’s eyes. “I gotta run, but I’ll meet you here tomorrow. Same time?”
“Oakley!” It was his father’s voice this time, the tone insistent.
“Catch you later, then.”
Oakley offered Bobby a final, resigned smile, then sprinted back across the garden to the front door. A family dinner was on the cards. An hour ago that would have filled him with dread, but now he thought he could handle it. He’d go through the motions until it was time for bed, and then tomorrow the expectation of a second meeting with Bobby would help pass what would doubtless be a tedious day. Still, at least another day gone brought him one day closer to a return home.