When water balloons sink

This is the start of a new story, which means it is a work in progress, so please be patient.  I shall continue adding to it in fits and starts.

Ethan Sedgecombe III

There are two women in Ethan Sedgecombe III’s life.  Like many triangular relationships, the crowning point quietly watches over the other two, while the link between the two lower points is squashed into a mire of ignorance.  However, there is no cunning or guile involved in keeping the two parties separate.  Ethan’s make-up is not that of the serial philanderer, nor does he brush his teeth with the paste of deceit.  Indeed, he takes  great care to ensure he is as honest and straightforward in his relationships – be they business or personal – as a plumb line.

Yet, for all his honesty, Ethan would not give up either woman… not that he has a choice.

Each morning, he wakes up looking forward to his daily interactions with his two obsessions: seeing them, hearing them, secretly salivating over every small detail, the subtle changes that will clue him in to their lifestyles, moods and wishes.  He then spends the rest of the day and each night mulling over his observations, while anticipating the next interaction.  The next time… an event he can never guarantee.

Now, you may turn your nose up because, well, one man, two women? It isn’t exactly a situation smiled upon and encouraged in polite society.  What sort of person wants to read about cheaters and bigamists and polygamists?  No woman wants to be thought of as second fiddle and certainly no woman likes to be thought of as insufficient.  Although, from a male perspective it might seem like Heaven to have two women in your life, neither knowing about the other.

But, I beg you to keep reading because it isn’t his fault (how many times have you read/heard that?).  Ethan neither set out to pursue, nor encouraged either of these ladies.  In fact, and this will make you frown in confusion, he has yet to officially meet them.

Let me start at the beginning.


Chapter 1

Being the black sheep of the family ought to make it easier to revolt and do things that your parents disapprove of.  Easier to make decisions that are not all about the greater (or family) good.  Easier to be careless with your life and attitude.

Easier was never Ethan’s way.  Easier was never an option, because easier didn’t always mean ‘doing the right thing’.  (Please, don’t confuse right with proper, for the two are as different as chalk and mud in Ethan’s world).  Easier didn’t always equate to sensible and easier had never, in his mind, been classifed alongside honourable.  If there’s one thing Ethan prided himself on, it’s honour.

Lying and cheating are not words he’s comfortable being associated with.  Hence, he was not comfortable being associated with the Sedgecombes of Greenhaven, a well distinguished family of barristers and lawyers who could stretch their lineage back to the days of Charles I, and proudly advertised the fact to anyone who cared to listen.  Somehow, they always managed (contrived might be a better word) to fall on the winning side of the line dividing the country and fall into the nearest pit overflowing with honey and money.   Strife, struggle and scraping (-the-bottom-of-barrel) were not words associated with their esteemed family name.

Luck?  Good Practices? Ingenuity and clever connections?  Or perhaps it was sheer hard work and unfailing endeavour?  Ethan only wished that were true, but he had read the letters and diaries, listened to the cackling tales of intrigue and double-cross, the prideful boasts of one-uppence and back-stabbing that continually added to the family’s coffers,  assuring them of invitations to the most prestigious occasions and, of course, awarding them access to the ears and doors of the most influential people in the land.  The Sedgecombes had proved to be as pretty and poisonous as the foxglove and as sly and slippery as the eel.  Ethan thought of himself as more of a hemp plant – versatile and mellow, with the survival instincts of a badger.  His family hated badgers.

Ethan had been a disappointment from a very early age – before he even took his first faltering breath to be exact.

He was conceived during Easter – a time of new beginnings, hope and sunny skies, in every home except the Sedgecombe estate.  They were far too busy to take note of such pagan thinking and far too self-absorbed to be concerned with the idea of anything so mundane as pregnancy; and so, Ethan’s invisible presence went unnoticed right through spring and most of the summer.  All the way to August, in fact.

It had never occurred to his mother, Lady Helen Sedgecombe, to query the sporadic nature of her menses in the  months prior to her ‘illness’, other than to maybe think she was finally (thank the Lord) going through the change.  She was far too involved in organising her daughter, Philomena’s wedding.  Anyway, who had heard of a forty-nine year old being pregnant?  You managed two strikes in one hit Ethan – not only did you disrupt Philomena’s plans by affecting Mother’s blood pressure to the point where she was commanded to undergo bed rest, but you also made her a target for gossip, and not the good sort.

Then, of course, the subject of the due date was broached: New Year’s day!  Not only did Mother not want to be waddling about over Christmas and the New Year, but now she was confronted with an embargo on her favourites: shop, drink and party.  To cap it all, Father had immediately asked Grandma Sedgecombe to host the annual Christmas ball – a role Mother prided herself that no-one else could possibly undertake.  Only last year someone had referred to it on facebook as Helen’s Heavenly Hearthwarming, abbreviated to HHH and it had stuck.  She shined whenever someone mentioned it.  It was an abbreviation she wanted repeated and recorded in history books and how was that supposed to happen if she didn’t organise it?

But Ethan wasn’t born in the New Year.  He was not so considerate – although, from the previous paragraph you may have determined that a New Year baby was considered a calamity.  But, more calamitous still, was Ethan’s determination to not wait one second more than the morning of the Christmas Ball itself.  Mother did not get to wear her special dress, or the spectacular Sedgecombe diamonds that had been specially polished for the occasion.  Nor did she get the honour of turning on the lights at Greenhaven – an honour that had been reserved for the Lady Sedgecombe for almost one hundred years.

Ethan, most inconveniently, arrived two weeks before Christmas – both too early and too late.  But his lack of consideration did not end there, oh no.  For starters, he decided to burst his birthing balloon of water the day before; the very afternoon his mother was getting ready for the big switch on of the lights (you see why she was unable to do the honours) and forever ruining her hand-printed silk and organza Valentino shift with brocade jacket.  Gladys Weatherill, Mother’s closest friend and the mayor’s wife, was all commiserating and assured Helen Sedgecombe she would take care of everything.  Of course, Helen’s martyrish vision of being carried to the venue by two oiled-up Chippendales in loincloths, cutting the ribbon and smiling valiantly through the agony of multiple contractions was not Gladys’ plan.   That was not the type of help she offered.  Like a slap in the face by a wet fish, Helen had to watch it all on the local news: Gladys, wearing her ridiculous Russian Furs – which she assured everyone no animal had been harmed for, the lying bitch – plastered with a simpering orange smile – that colour looked awful on her – and accompanied by her insipid daughter, took the all important gracious ceremonial ribbon and used the hand-crafted Cartier-designed gold-plated scissors, stamped with the Sedgecombe crest, to cut away the silk bow with a flourish.  The bouquet of flowers Gladys took away were hers, dammit!

Ethan’s catalogue of inconveniences faults piled up from there.  Premature he might have been (there was absolutely no doubt, of course, as Father had been away almost six weeks prior to the date of conception), but he was still the largest Sedgecombe to ever have been born.  In fact, he was too big a baby.  Suffering countless hours in the delivery suite, her pubic area hacked to make more room for Ethan’s rather large cranium and suffering the objectionable insertion of forceps and ventouse, Helen finally screeched acquiescence to the Doctor’s insistence on a C-section.  No sooner was the sobbing decision made than mother and baby were rushed to theatre.

Bloody and damaged down below, bloody and damaged across her stomach – she’d never be able to wear a bikini again, and she’d sue that doctor for not tucking away the excess – pride and ego brutalised by the short media clip an imbecilic nurse had shown her of the Lighting ceremony, Helen was in the most angry, resentful and stubbornest of moods.  A mood not helped by her husband entering her plush hospital room well after the event, somewhat dishevelled and smelling faintly of a cheap perfume, with the deplorable excuse that it would have been the height of rudeness to shun the post-lighting party at the Mayor’s house; after all, he was there representing Helen and he knew what stock she put in the occasion.  Luckily, Ethan had been removed to the hospital nursery so his delicate baby ears were not subjected to the ensuing eruption.

Poor Ethan.  He was to get a shock when he was finally presented to his parents, but not as much of a shock as Helen received when she was handed one shiny pink baby with a face that looked like an over-baked strawberry meringue, pulled and peaked and mashed by his face-first efforts to escape his maternal cradle.

The excuse given for poor little Ethan’s seclusion for the first four weeks of his life was that, as a prem baby, he was somewhat delicate and couldn’t possibly be subjected to the myriad of germs brought in by well-wishers.  Helen had nothing but groans and bedrest to show for her sacrifices and she lapped up the attention that ought to have been shared with her newborn.

Those precious, tender weeks, hidden away in the nursery, blissfully unaware of the upheaval he had caused, were the quietest and most peaceful of Ethan’s childhood.  He slept on clouds of cotton, rocked by doughy, warm arms and almost smothered by the cushiony softness of an ample bosom as he fed his fill of warm milk.  Not one whimper, not one cry, not one impatient or unhappy mewl was to be heard from the babe.

At the end of the four weeks, too physically and emotionally frail to deal with a new baby, Helen whisked herself away from the trauma of her recent hospitalisation.  Accompanied by Gladys (who had sufficiently grovelled), her daughter and new son-in-law (who decided to take a sabbatical), the party boarded a cruise ship in Portsmouth Harbour.  The trip around Europe, focussing on the Mediterranean ports, was to last a month.  Partway through the first week the weather proved far too inclement and Helen suffered dreadfully.  Disembarking in Nice to allow her to recover on stable land, it was unanimously decided the paltry size of the boat was at fault and they adjusted their trip accordingly.  Arrangements were hastily made and the party transferred to a far superior liner heading for the warmer waters of the African coast.  One month gradually extended to ten when the delights of the African frill were followed by the exotic islands of the Indian Ocean and the South Seas.  They were so close to them, it seemed a terrible shame not to take advantage.

Those motherless months proved to be Ethan’s most loving.  Routines were changed almost seamlessly with the baby growing needs.  Daily walks grew longer; colourful toys grew bigger and more complicated; singing and dancing became more exuberant and agile.  Ethan went from a gurgling, bubbling, smiling baby to a laughing, jumping, curiosity-driven toddler impatient to walk and talk and see and touch and hear everything.

The earliest memories people generally have are from the age of five onwards.  There aren’t many who remember much from the age of two to five, possibly one or two vague, foggy recollections of colour or smell.  Rarer still to remember anything from their first birthday onwards.  Ethan was different, the rarest of them all, for he remembered that first year: the softness of his nanny’s cuddles, the talcum and lilac smell of her skin, the crinkly mohair tickles of hair and her gentle, loving murmurings.  He remembered the happiness and warm contentment of just being.

The memory never faded. Had it done, Ethan may have turned out to be a different sort of person.

When the cruise party returned home, laden with gifts and souvenirs for family and friends – Ethan wasn’t exactly forgotten, but what does a little baby need? – Helen retired to her rooms for a week, far too exhausted from the trip to contemplate taking up her abandoned duties.  The upheaval in the household wrought by his mother’s return went unnoticed by Ethan.  His devoted nanny made sure of it.

Those precious months were brought to an abrupt halt one frost-glazed Friday morning when, on their way downstairs for his walk, his nanny decided to knock on Helen Sedgecombe’s door, on the off-chance she was well enough to visit with her son.  A son she surely must be eager to see, no matter how insistent the housekeeper was that she not be disturbed.

Ethan did not go for his walk that day.  Nor did he see his nanny at breakfast, lunch or dinner that day.  Or the next.  Or the one after that.  In fact, he never saw her again.

Children crave attention from their parents and, when it is missing, search for it in others, from siblings, the postman… anyone, really.  It is an inbuilt survival mechanism, a deep-rooted human reflex to communicate with others and Ethan was no different… at the beginning.  When his second Nanny was installed in the hastily-relocated attic nursery, he was forced to relearn the rules of infancy.  Both crying, which had previously been unknown to him, and whingeing were forbidden.  Ethan’s desires held no sway over the day’s activities; indeed, it was the clock that ruled in the large, cavernous room.  Mealtimes were strictly adhered to and there was no food, or clothing or toy (his collection had been replaced with more educationally acceptable ones) he was allowed to dislike.  His one and only temper tantrum was dealt with in such an instant, abrupt manner that he was forever shocked into compliance.  Ethan was a fast learner.

He quickly learnt that only an empty plate assured him another meal that day.  Nappies, clothes and bedsheets were changed once a day and children had to learn to tuck corners as soon as they could walk, his new Nanny informed him.  As it happened, he had learnt to walk the month prior to her arrival.   As for the nappy – well, he learnt to use the scary toilet within a week.

There were other changes: his favourite sing-along splashtastic bathtime routine became a five minute lukewarm shower; penmanship replaced creativity; music was about structure and form rather than noise and fun; his favourite colourful picture books were removed and replaced with stolid classics; television was strictly for educational purposes; Tuesdays equalled French, Wednesdays German, Thursdays Greek and Fridays Latin; long walks were restricted to the paths and conducted in silence and he was not, under any circumstances, to disturb any other staff member from their work.

Ethan was far superior in intelligence to other children his age; it might have been better for him if he weren’t, for he learnt very early on not to argue the draconian decisions made for his welfare, not to crave the softness he remembered and not to fuss for there would be no-one to coddle his frustrations.  By his second birthday, of which he was unaware and spent once again in the nursery with his new nanny, he had learnt to push away his infantile need to be regarded with affection by his family, or indeed by anyone of any consequence in his short little life.  It irked him, that trembling sliver of need to be acknowledged; made him feel other.

His nanny assured him little boys with flimsy upper lips would never grow to be wise, trustworthy adults.  He learnt to firm his upper lip, and his chin, and his brow so it should not convey any semblance of the irregular emotions that regularly wracked his solid frame.  It helped that the people who surrounded him were functional and circumspect.  He knew no different, had no awareness that an alternative lifestyle was awarded to other children, children who hadn’t inconvenienced their parents.  Children like his rarely-seen siblings who were all older and too fully engaged in their own glass bubble lives to wonder why the youngest Sedgecombe was confined away.  The outside world had almost forgotten there was ever a baby Sedgecombe and if he was remembered, so was his premature birth causing the party to swiftly conclude ‘unsavoury complications’ were the reason for the baby’s concealment.


‘Today is a special day, Ethan.’  Nanny Webster spooned another mouthful of bland porridge.

Ethan did not respond.  A small fleck of porridge had stuck to the corner of Nanny’s mouth and it wiggled when she spoke.  Ethan was timing it, waiting for it to fall.  Taking into account its gloopiness, its icky, stickyness and that Nanny rarely spoke at mealtimes, he guessed it would be another full minute before it fell, straight onto the green enamelled brooch she always wore over her left breast.

‘You have permission to speak Ethan.’

It might seem like an invitation to open up a conversation but he knew from previous experiences it was merely so he could query her previous statement.  Ethan was not curious about the day’s events.  Even though the sun shone brightly, the frosty window panes told him their walk was not going to happen – Nanny said the cold made her bones ache.  More than that, he was persuaded by previous similar statements not to take too great a stock in such an ambiguous term as special.  The appearance of a riding crop had been for a ‘special’ reason – the introduction of a different type of punishment that had nothing to do with horses; a delivery of drum sticks – he was to roll them over Nanny’s calves when she suffered from leg cramps; modelling clay – to enable him to replace the earthen bowl he had accidentally dropped; a bicycle – which he was taught to strip down and rebuild before it was returned, never to be ridden… special was not a word he had any interest in.

Nanny looked at her tiny gold watch.  ‘Two more minutes,’ she announced, meaning he had two minutes to finish his breakfast.  Two minutes to clean his bowl of porridge and finish his toast or he would not see another meal for the rest of the day.  But he was not allowed to rush.  Eyes fixed firmly to the porridge trembling on Nanny’s mouth he gulped down two more spoonfuls of porridge and folded up the last piece of toast so he could cram it all in his mouth.

Plop!  The grey blob fell onto her brooch.  She hadn’t noticed.  A tiny flare of pride in his own accuracy flared within Ethan’s chest.  A glance at the clock told him he had fifty seconds left.  Toast – gone.  Porridge – two more spoonfuls.  He scraped out the last few trails, wiped his mouth and sat back.

‘Thank you, Nanny for my delicious breakfast.’

Nanny inclined her head once and stood up.  Under her watchful eye, Ethan carefully place the used bowls, (one of which he’d made from the surprise clay), plates and cutlery onto a tray and deposited it on the table that stood in the hall outside the nursery door.  Closing the door silently he waited for Nanny’s next instructions.  She pointed towards the floor, to a pair of dark brown loafers.  Stepping out of his slippers, he placed them neatly on the shoe rack by the door and put on the loafers.

‘I don’t expect a dullard like you to appreciate the condescension that is to be showered upon you, so listen well.  You are to have breakfast with your parents this morning, but you are not to eat anything.  You have had sufficient.  You will greet your parents and sit with them.  Answer any and all questions they ask of you honestly and quickly, without hesitation, as you have been taught.  Do not speak unless you are spoken to and do not, under any circumstances, leave the table until you are excused at which time you will, without fail, bow and express your full gratitude for the honour they have shown you, as you have been taught.  Now, do you have any questions?’

He had several but knew he would only be allowed one.  ‘Why did we just eat breakfast if I am to go down for breakfast?’

‘So, you would prefer me to dine alone?’  Nanny never raised her eyebrows or her voice, but her tone could get colder than ice.  ‘Your insensitive question displays your inherent selfishness.  You are slovenly and your table manners leave much to be desired.  You are not yet fit to dine in anyone’s company, other than my own.’  With a small sniff she walked over to the telephone and held the receiver to her ear.  ‘He’s ready.’

Tibbs didn’t speak.  Ethan had never heard him utter a word and he didn’t know whether it was because he had nothing to say or if he genuinely was unable to.  With one hand on Ethan’s shoulder – to guide or restrain, Ethan wondered – Tibbs led him down the stairs to the solarium, leaving him standing just inside the doors.  His parents, who he was brought down to say goodnight to once in a while, for they were rarely home at his bedtime, sat at a marble-topped table, both engrossed in some form of literature.  The china on the tables clinked delicately when his mother put down her cup of tea.  Ethan stood still and waited, unsure whether to venture further in or cough to announce his presence.

‘More expense fiddling – looks like it’ll be a busy year for us,’ his father laughed, shaking the paper to stand it a little flatter.

‘As long as you don’t work Regus too hard, Dear.  You know how rocky it is for them at the moment.  Philomena’s still very sensitive about the trouble they had and these first months of her pregnancy are making her doubt everything.  Just you make sure that boy gets home at a decent time to see his wife or she’ll convince herself he’s where he ought not to be, again.’

‘Give the boy a break, Helen.  I think he grovelled enough.  Don’t you go putting ideas into our daughter’s head.’

‘Ideas indeed.  Why-‘  She flipped round to stare at Ethan.  ‘Lord!  What are doing standing there like a pillar?  Doesn’t Nanny teach you anything?  Come here, give your Mother a kiss and sit down.’

Ethan stepped forward and kissed her perfunctorily on the cheek.  It was thin and powdery, like chalk, and smelt strange.  ‘Good Morning, Mother.  Father,’ he inclined his head to the other end of the table and pulled out a chair.  With a grunt that could have been ‘Ethan’ or just a clearing of his throat, his father returned to peruse his paper.  His mother did the same.

Ethan unsnapped his napkin and laid it across his lap as he’d practised countless times and waited.

A maid who’d been standing unnoticed in the corner, approached him.

‘Tea or coffee, Sir?’

‘Tea, please.’

With a small smile she retreated to her corner for a moment and reappeared with a cup of tea, placing it near the plate that sat in front of him.  ‘Thank you,’ he smiled back.

‘Ethan!’  His mother hissed.  ‘Compose yourself.’

Both Ethan’s smile and the maid disappeared.

‘Well, best get off.’  His father roughly rearranged the papers and dropped them onto his plate, followed by his napkin.  A belch was swiftly smothered as a cough by one of his hands.  Without another word he left.

His mother raised a brow.  Ethan took that as his cue to leave, dabbed at his clean mouth with his napkin and rose.

‘Thank you, Mother, for my delicious breakfast.’  Bending to give her a quick kiss to the cheek he brushed his nose against her hair.  It smelled of dried apricots and he could see the faint trace of grey roots where her hair was pulled back.

She waved a hand in dismissal, engrossed once again in an article in her magazine.

Ethan’s invitations to dine with his parents never progressed from Breakfast to Lunch or from tea to solids and their conversation with him never strayed far from either the weather or his many faux pas.

Two days after his fifth birthday, Ethan’s confinement was transferred from the stifling attic nursery to Bertrand Millward Hall, A School For Boys and Young Gentlemen.  This fine, exclusive establishment prided itself in ‘raising leaders of the future’ and was particularly popular with parents in either the military or the diplomatic corps who didn’t want their children taken into a war zone, aided quite effectively with a generous discount for serving officers.  Although, if the fees hadn’t been so exorbitant in the first place….  Ethan’s admittance was granted by special request of the Deputy Prime Minister himself.

His first day was very strange in that he happened to arrive not only mid-term but also halfway through the day.  Unfortunately, it was not in the half containing lunch.  Ethan’s journey had been long and tedious: a car took him to the mainline station in Milton Keynes where he was put onto an express to London.  It was his first car journey (the trip from hospital to estate as a newborn doesn’t count).  It was also his first train journey… in fact, it was the first time he had ever left the estate.

Both he and his trunk were met on the platform by a taxi driver who took him across London to another train station where he was deposited onto another express.  By this point Ethan was so giddy with excitement and a sensory overload of information – so many new and strange sights, smells and sounds – he was unable to comprehend the route he was taking.   Indeed, it was unfortunate that no-one had thought to tell him the name of his destination.  He ran the line straight through to Exeter before the conductor took control and directed him (and his trunk) across the platform and onto the train to Salisbury.

Unfortunately, due to his delayed arrival at Salisbury, the car that had been sent to collect him had returned passenger-less to Bertrand Millward Hall.  The Sedgecombe household was immediately notified of his absence.  The Headmaster, Mr Rupert Marchant, awaited instructions on how best to proceed – after all, he hadn’t taken delivery of the boy so he was not to be blamed for the boy’s non-appearance.  At 2pm another call was made to the Sedgecombes.  The butler assured Mr Marchant his urgent messages were being relayed and the master would respond as soon as he was able.

Meanwhile, the train had spewed Ethan (and trunk) onto the coffee-cup, sandwich box and cigarette-butt strewn platform at Salisbury.  Ethan sat on his trunk and avidly watched the flow of human traffic while thinking how strange a thing was hunger, accompanied as it was by gurgles and blurts.  It hurt while it soothed with a musical announcement.  A concerned lady brought his presence to the attention of the man at the ticket booth who in turn reported to the platform supervisor who walkie-talkie’d the Station Master.  The whole while, Ethan continued to wonder about hunger and thirst and how it had no affect on the need to pee, which he needed to do (rather badly), whilst watching the strange people with their strange manners and their frantic rush to be somewhere other than here.  Of those that waited, no-one paid any attention to anything other than their phone or book or newspaper.  Hardly anyone uttered a word to anyone else.

When, through happy chance, luck and some considerable rummaging about in the trunk, the Station Master located Ethan’s admission papers, he immediately telephoned the Headmaster at Bertrand Millward Hall.  Within the hour, Ethan was retrieved from Salisbury Station and escorted to the doors of his final destination where he was greeted by a disgruntled Headmaster and a bored-faced senior who was instructed to take charge of their newest inmate.

It so happened there were no other boys his age currently boarding and so, rather than opening up and staffing the nursery dorms above the Humanities block, he was escorted to the hastily cleared and furnished buttery at Wellerton House which housed the pubescent Prep boys.  He was fortunate in that he did not have to share his large, cool (in more ways than one) room with the prank-laden, fart-filled boys of The Boot (as in wellington – it took Ethan a while to appreciate the nickname).  However, it was unfortunate that he had no-one to share his cold, windowless room and his thoughts with, for it might have changed his whole persona.  Not that Ethan noticed.  He had been used to his own company from an extremely young age, but no five year-old should be left to their own devices.  Ethan’s quiet, unassuming attitude made it easy for the boys and staff to relegate him to a tidy little corner of their world.  He wasn’t cute or friendly enough to tease, he wasn’t small enough to bully (at the age of five he was taller than half the boys in Wellie), nor was he playful enough to be interesting.  Ethan just wasn’t interesting enough to be noticed.

He unpacked, washed and waited for someone to bring him his dinner, just like home, and while he waited he reread The Iliad.  In Greek, as it was Thursday.

It is a strange thing to grow up outside of society, apart from other people, especially other children.  Until Bertie’s (as the school was not-always-affectionately called), Ethan was under the impression that his lifestyle was the norm.  That every boy (girls hadn’t yet been given any room in his mind) lived in attic bedrooms, with strait-laced nannies and little-to-no human interaction.  His parameters of social understanding and moral views were formed around the strictest of disciplines and enforced through emotionally stagnant means.  For Ethan, a sign of approval was denoted by a frownless forehead, while other children looked for smiles.  For agreement he strived for the absence of ridicule rather than a word of praise.  Company was the hard-earned reward for a day without any black marks on the whiteboard and came by way of a game of chess or a fencing lesson.  But for affection… the last time someone touched Ethan in anything like an affectionate manner, he was barely four and it was by the nurse who applied lotion to the blanket of chickenpox spots covering his back – the ones he was unable to reach himself.  So it was a revelation to him when the House matron came to his door, not with a dinner tray, but an offer to escort him to the dining hall, which happened to be at the other end of the corridor to his own room.  A dining hall which was just a simple panelled room with eight round tables, each with six chairs.  A smaller oblong table sat under the windows with three chairs and a long sideboard abutted the wall to the left of the door upon which sat heated, covered trays that emitted the most wonderous smells.  Smells he could never recall experiencing before.

But the most surprising sight was not the furniture, or the food, or the adults by the windows, but the ten boys standing silent and watchful behind the chairs at two of the round tables.  Each boy wore crisp-pleated iron-grey trousers ending in patent black Oxfords, a startlingly white shirt, a buttoned-up maroon blazer with a feint grey stripe and the school crest embroidered onto a pocket over the left breast.   Under their collars sat a maroon cravat held in place with a silver crested pin.  Every head in the room swivelled to the door at his entrance.

Ethan, in his brand new, crumpled, navy travelling suit looked as out of place as a duck in a nye of pheasants.  It unnerved him to be the object of so much silent attention.  Not the silence, just the attention.  But he had learnt how to be still and the awkward shuffling and fidgeting that might be expected of a normal five-year old were missing.  As were a smile (even a tiny one would have made a difference) and a timid ‘hello’.  Instead, he appeared as a frigid statue, out of place and lacking in interest.  If the first rule of social interaction is to smile, then the second must surely be to appear interested in getting to know the other person.  Ethan was dismissed from the minds of the boys faster than rain slides off glass; he was as near invisible as well.

Had Matron not urged him to a seat, he might well have spent the entire evening in the doorway until forced to move aside.

Watching the boys, it suddenly occurred to him that if he wanted to savour the contents of the dishes on the sideboard he’d have to do something other than wait silently.  With full false-confidence, he followed the routine of the other boys and when his table was awarded permission to approach the sideboard, Ethan followed.

The smells were indescribable.  Despite the number of words in several languages that he had at his command, Ethan felt completely unable to fully express his delight.  For the first time in a long while, Ethan Sedgecombe gave himself over to his senses completely.  It proved difficult, but not impossible, to not consume everything within sight there and then.  He managed to wait until he was seated, copying the other boys in unsnapping his folded napkin, filling his water-glass, dusting the vegetables with salt, drizzling ribbons of shiny gravy over the brown meat.  Whispers of steam rose and curled about his face, activating his salivary glands so he sat and swallowed over and over again.  The only sounds in the room were faint whispers from the Masters table, the rustle of tablecloths and the clink-clank as salt and pepper pots, gravy boat and water pitcher were distributed.  The wait was agonising.

At some unseen command, because he was so focussed on the wonderful hues and shapes heaped on his plate, the boys picked up their cutlery.  At the first clink of knife to plate Ethan looked up and, seeing food approaching open mouths all around him cautiously picked up his own utensils.  His mouth watered faster until he worried he might dribble over the wonderful offering in front of him.  The silver blade cut through the meat as if it were butter.  He closed his eyes as he brought the morsel to his mouth, inhaling deeply of the sweet tang.  He’d cut off too large a piece.  The blunt edges folded when his teeth and the edges of his mouth hit the flesh, juices escaping to coat his lips and dribble down his chin.  The morsel filled his mouth completely, barely giving him room to chew.  His tongue was captured and held immobile in the squeeze but Ethan, almost faint from the delirious rush of pleasure at the flavours bombarding his taste buds, closed his eyes and groaned aloud, uncaring of the sight he made, uncaring of the astonished looks cast his way.  The sharp nudge to his ribcage failed to bring him out of his flavour-laden stupor, but being stabbed on the back of his hand with a fork did the trick and his eyes flashed open, cheeks bulging in the manner of a chipmunk, face glistening with gravy.  The boy across from him gave a cold glare and slowly raised his napkin, brushing it over his mouth.  Ethan copied the gesture.  The other boys resumed eating their meal and so did Ethan, only marginally more aware of the others.  It was to take at least another week of meals before he was fully cognisant of his dining companions.  It would be useless to even mention his reactions to puddings or fizzy drinks – they are best left forgotten for they did him no favours in the normality stakes.

As eye-opening as the food was, it was a flash-in-the-pan of revelations when compared to the interactions of the other boys and the staff.  The different dynamics in play held him as spellbound as his first taste of roast beef had, but the complexity and lack of structure left him confused.  There were no books available in the library to help him understand the teasing and joking, the joviality, the camaraderie and bullying, the politeness and rudeness, one boy’s panic versus one boy’s apathy, the obsequiousness and cheekiness, the crying in anger and sadness and hilarity.  The laughter: that captivated him more than anything else, from small sniggers and chuckles to full-blown stomach-clutching-roll-on-floor shrieks.

Perhaps he would forever have remained ignorant of the social rules that melded together Wellie society if not for Robert McDowell, the other newt, as the pre-preppies were called, and his older brother, Percy.  The duo arrived almost four months to the day.  With Robert’s arrival came a room change and Ethan was moved from the cool buttery – which would have been a blessing in the hotter summer months – to the attic.  From having the smallest, coldest, loneliest room Ethan now shared the largest.  It was big and echoey and light with seven dormer windows – four on one side and three on the other.  The boys chosen beds were positioned near the hot chimney breast and, as the months moved from cold to warm, so did their beds, travelling to the far wall which sat above the bathroom.  The floorboards were ineffective silencers and every ribald conversation floated up through the cracks and thin carpet.  These proved to be a revelation in many things, but most of it could not be understood until explained by Percy and Robert knew better than to take everything he said as gospel.  Ethan did not.

The familiarity and trusting camaraderie of the brothers was Ethan’s first glimpse of true family life and affection.  Very quickly he became an adopted brother and the relationship was cemented when Ethan pushed Wilkie Stevens into a gorse bush for pinching Robert.  The action had a twofold effect for no-one messed with Ethan after that.

Percy and Robert offered more than a pseudo-sibling friendship.  They offered a whole world of possibilities Ethan had never known existed, and would have possibly remained unaware of.  Their patience and non-judgemental observations uncapped the well of

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