It’s 1981, Mrs Thatcher is in power and the Australian cricket team is touring. Harry Spittle is in the last year of his legal training, as an articled clerk at Clifford Risely & Co. In this extract from the upcoming sequel to the much loved and significantly over-hyped Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle, Harry is about to meet Sir Penshaw Grimsdale, bart, an important client of the firm to talk about his Will.
“Harry, isn’t it? Call me Pen.”
I can see Jean over his shoulder and her look says if I so much as frame my mouth in a way that suggests I’m not using his full title, she will decapitate me with one of her extra sharp HH pencils.
Sir Penshaw turns to her and leans in close. I’m sure she blushes. “Jean, you know how I like it? And do bring another cup for Harry. He looks like he could do with a brew.”
I love him already. Jean leaves, with a mix of exhilaration and anxiety wafting after her. As the door closes he adds, “I suspect you’d better make it Sir Pen. Jean is a bit of a stickler, isn’t she?”
He makes himself comfortable in the chair by my desk and folds his hands across the silver topped cane he is holding. He can only be about fifty but has the mannerisms of someone twenty years older. According to ‘Queer as Folk’ a diary piece in the Evening paper, Sir Penshaw Grimsdale is ‘compulsively playful’. Private Eye suggests he’s ‘inclined to the distaff side’. “I hope I can trust you.”
I manage a smile. Jean’s note on Will execution sits in front of me. It brings back a vague memory of the College of Law in Guildford. Why can’t I recall stuff like she can? “Yes, Sir. Er, Sir Pen. It might be easiest if I asked some questions and…”
To my surprise and not a little consternation, he holds up a hand, like he is stopping the traffic. “First, if you don’t mind, a little background. You know I’m divorced? Divorcing?”
I nod. It has been Jeremy’s biggest challenge, Grimsdale v Grimsdale. Lady Martha Grimsdale is the most unloved person in our office mainly because her lawyer, Arnold Trimmer clearly has had Jeremy on the run and Jeremy tends to take his frustrations out on the rest of us. Without Jean, we all fear Sir Pen wouldn’t have come away with a penny. After months of pained negotiations, the Nisi was granted a short while ago and the Absolute is due next week. “The Absolute is a formality, sir.”
He waves me quiet. “I know, boy. It’s done. Once she’s not my wife, I’m free to do as I please.” He has been staring into space for a while but abruptly turns to stare at me. “This is rather unfair but if you are going to draw up my Will I think you need to understand this.” He coughs. “I’ve lived a strange life, Harry. Kept up appearances for so long. So long.” He smiles. “You see, on Monday my accountant tells me we will have agreed with the Inland Revenue on father’s estate. And on Wednesday, the Absolute. So, I’m free of debt and free of my darling wife.” For a moment, it looks like he might grab me or froth at the mouth, so intense is his expression. “And the first thing I’m going to do? You have any idea?”
“I’m going to come out.” He looks mightily relieved. “There, I said it. I will have to get used to it. I know as my legal representative you will keep this to yourself but at last I will be able to acknowledge what only those closest to me know. I’m queer, Harry.” He waits, like he’s testing the words on his lips, checking to see if they’ll burn. “I am a homo.”
The door opens and Jean enters, tray balanced on her hip. I’ve never been so delighted to help someone act as mother. Sadly, the distraction only lasts a few minutes. When the tea is poured, Jean begins to drift towards the old redundant fireplace but Sir Pen has other ideas. “That is splendid, Jean. Now, could you perhaps go and dig out my old Will? And those tenancies of the converted barns at Grimsdale Hall? While you do that, Harry and I can debate the merits of Alderman’s outswinger.” His smile could melt glaciers. She almost skips away.
When the door closes, he taps his briefcase and grins, making his craggy face shed years. “She’ll have a job finding those. Jeremy gave them to me last time we met.” He stands and moves to the mantelpiece, staring at the mirror above it. As I watch he adjusts his tie and moves a few hairs to a different place before carefully checking his profile. “I am being terribly unfair on you, young man, telling you that. Maybe half a dozen people know about me for a fact. Lots of speculation, but as a fact…? Very few.” He shakes his head. “Jeremy knows. Trimmer tried to raise it as a reason to get more money, but Jean came up with a neat strategy and he backed off.” He nods at the door. “She knew from a long way back, of course. Thing is,” he’s back at my side looking at my desk, “I’m giving an interview this weekend, telling the world. I… I have a partner, you see. A man friend. We will commit to each other after a ceremony… sort of marriage if you will, not that that’s legal or ever likely to be. Sean and I will declare our love. Sweet, don’t you think?” Sir Penshaw Grimsdale closes his eyes and waltzes around the room. He’s light on his feet. Abruptly he stops. “I need a Will for Saturday. Simple Johnny. Ten thousand to my two boys – they have the trust funds after all – and the rest to Sean. Now the settlement with Martha is complete, I want the rest of my affairs in apple-pie order. Can you do that?”
I manage a nod. “He… Mr Sean…”
“Sean Latterly. An actor and plumber when he’s not treading the boards. He’s been in that musical at the Haymarket. Third taut buttock kind of thing. God, sorry Harry, but it’s a relief to be honest. You’re a man of the world, I know. Your generation is much more understanding than mine. I imagine you have a lot of homosexual friends.”
Nope, not one, not that I know. But he’s right that it doesn’t faze me. I worked with a chap called Amos once. He was queer and manic and a loyal colleague when I was surrounded by some complete psychos. Briefly I wonder where Amos is now. Last heard he had a job at a club on Pall Mall. Maybe Penny knows. I should look him up.
“Right, now do you…?” Before Sir Pen can finish his next request, the phone rings. We both stare at it. The light on the side shows it is Gloria in reception. “Do you want to answer it?”
“It’s only the receptionist, sir.”
“Better pick up, Harry. I left my driver on a double yellow and he may be wanting to let me know he’s had to move.”
It sounds unlikely but I pick up. “Hello?”
“Harry, can you come down now? There’s… there’s a man, here Ben or whatever it was, says he must see you now. He’s a… he…” There’s a noise which clearly involves Gloria trying to stop someone doing something before she comes back on. “Harry, sorry, but he’s on his way up to you.”
“Ben? Did you say Ben? I don’t know any Bens.”
Sir Penshaw raises an eyebrow at me as the door bursts open and in strides Sven Andersen. Unlike the last time I saw him, his hair is cut short and his face seems grubby. The foppish, matinee idol look he used to employ has gone.
“Sven? What on earth?”
To my complete amazement, he walks right up to me and holds my arms, gazing at me with a maniacal stare. “Harold Spittle, never have I wanted to see anyone so pathetic more in my life.”