Unrequited by Rules

The summer afternoon had been punished, and when the sun made its encore appearance amidst the leaving storm clouds, the redeeming blue sky stole the show. Manfred sauntered out into the garden, and Simon followed. Lagging a few paces behind, Simon ran his hand through the unruly curls that always hung like a tattered curtain over his eyes. But Simon had to have just one moment alone with the man whom he admired most of all. He skipped down the stone steps leading away from the terrace just as the butler, or someone else dressed in black and white, visible only his periphery, opened the floor to ceiling windows leading from the grand salon to the immaculate lawn. A restlessness made Simon impatient, maybe too impatient. And as of late, Manfred seemed preoccupied, always a million miles away.

“Quite the storm.” Simon called out to Manfred, who, lost in his own collection of misery, hadn’t heard the footsteps approaching him on the wet gravel.

“Just checking on the damage. To see if any trees came down.

“May I?”Glancing shyly, Simon didn’t need permission to follow, yet he longed for just one kind word of encouragement.

“You might get dirty.”

A reputation preceded Simon; one based on facts. A stickler by nature, Simon was and insisted on being the best-dressed gentleman in the room. He didn’t mind outshining the ladies. This afternoon, for he had changed his attire again after lunch on the terrace, he wore a new set of stylish garments. An argyle sweater of the purest cashmere matched the blue in his eyes and reflected the sky. Without staring at himself in the gilded mirror, Simon knew he cut a dashing figure, but not everyone was attracted to his shine.

Manfred stopped on the path, waited, and fished in the deep pocket of his slacks for his cigarette case. The one Simon had given to him for his birthday and had had the silver inscribed with the simple words, Friends, always. He held the open case out to Simon. Simon took a slim cigarette and peered into Manfred’s soulful eyes. Something was amiss. A haunting secret too painful to share and divide amongst friends. Even with someone as loyal as Simon.

It was Simon’s turn, and he flicked his Cartier, the gold one that had been a gift to him from his father, engraved with the initials SML. Simon Maurice Lavall. 1919. A generous token, given the year he graduated from Oxford during a time when his father was still proud to call him his son and teasingly the diplomat. Simon wasn’t averse to being a diplomat, he had the skill, and following in the one-size-too-large footprints of his older brother was a cross he could bear. If anything, his brother had prepared him well enough, but the uphill climb and a new awakening within himself slowed Simon’s pace.

“Oh, I don’t mind getting dirty. Fresh air always does the soul more good than harm,” Simon said.

Each man inhaled deeply, neither caring about the implications of cigarette smoke. They were too stylish to consider quitting.

“You’re like me then. Enjoying a walk after a storm. Everything is washed and clean.

“You know I’m like you. Your twin, you once said.”

“I did? When was that?” Manfred gazed in the direction of his shoes toward the gravel trail.

Simon flinched. The hurtful question, and Manfred forgetting the intimate moment, just the two of them in the lounge after midnight, after too many bourbons by the fire, stung. A moment when Simon saw the glint of vulnerability in Manfred’s grey eyes. At times Simon could still feel the gentle caress when Manfred reached and took his hand, hesitating and bringing his lips to kiss Simon’s fingertips. He whispered, “You are my twin and soul.” It was only the entrance of the butler that broke the bittersweet moment in half. There hadn’t been another chance to rekindle that telltale beginning, each carrying their piece of the burdensome half.

“You don’t remember the night? After Julian’s wedding. Here at Langley. Just you and I.

“I remember Julian’s wedding. Sad business that. You’ve heard, I’m sure?”

Simon understood the tactic. Manfred was shifting and tugging his somber mood, like a winter cloak, closer. Julian’s wedding had been such a glamorous affair. Talk of the town. Everything about the bride, Hermine, was clad in ivory. Sensuous folds of ivory satin shimmered over her rail-thin body. Her small breasts were nude beneath the fabric. As a gag, she had colored her hair into a fawn shade of blonde, her skin had always exuded the glow of alabaster ivory. She was a goddess and turned the heads of many gentlemen. Even Simon had to admit he was smitten by the sensuality that oozed like wine from a fountain. Hermine was alluring, her exotic voice, the purr of a kitten when she turned it on, her infectious laugh turned heads. Julian hadn’t stopped grinning for the weeks leading up to the nuptials, but regretfully the groom-to-be had also tipped the bottle rather frequently as if he had suddenly realized his good fortune had a glaring flaw.

“I’m not surprised. Are you?” Simon inhaled a long draft of smoke.

“Wishful thinking, I guess, that one of my friends would find bliss in this lifetime.

“Are you unhappy? Is there something I can do?” Simon reached for Manfred’s elbow to slow him in his pace. Manfred shook his head.

“There’s nothing. I’m perfectly fine. I’m sorry if I misled you.”

“Misled me? You might not remember the incident when you were, for once, honest enough with yourself and me. You said I was your twin. I am your soul. I can see within your eyes, you’re deeply troubled.”

“Am I? Are you analyzing me and my motives?”

Manfred snorted with disgust and walked away. Simon remained alone under the canopy of trees. So much for his skill at diplomacy. He watched Manfred hurry along the curve of a trimmed hedge before he vanished. The high waist of his slacks met the crisp pleat of his cotton shirt, just where the bulk of his frame tapered to a slim waist. Manfred often rolled the sleeves to mid-arm, exposing soft, dark hairs and lean forearms. He wore the watch his mother had given him just a few weeks ago. A garish gold Rolex engraved with a seascape. Manfred only wore it to please her, he despised pomp of any sort—but she was coming for a visit this very afternoon.

“Manfred!” Simon ran to catch up, but Manfred walked on and took the winding path leading to the boathouse; only a broken branch obscuring his way slowed him down.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. Please forgive me.”

Slightly out of breath, Simon reached Manfred, who was vainly trying to move the heavy branch by himself. Simon took hold of the gnarled limb just where it had broken off, and together dragged the cumbersome obstruction from the path. They looked upwards at the tree’s flesh wound, the glorious blue sky winking through the leaves. Manfred handed Simon his handkerchief; to wipe the damp and dirt from his hands.

“No, it’s me. I’m a beast. I know you meant well. Julian’s misery has latched onto me.”

“Manfred, listen to me. Hermine was always out of Julian’s league. I’m not talking about the social or financial league. She has a zest for adventure, and Julie, you know Julie, he’s just as happy traipsing through his slice of the world with a pair of hunting dogs. Hermine wants the world at her feet. She wants to bend everyone to her will. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out they’re not a match.”

“Did you ever whisper any of your suspicions to Julian? We should have warned him.” Manfred walked on but allowed room on the wooded trail for Simon.

“Would he have listened? Or would it have ruined our friendship if I had?”

“I blame myself. Julian has always been easy to manipulate. I could have done something.”

“Like what? Stop Hermine from stomping on his heart? Stop Hermine from flirting excessively even on her wedding day, from walking out on a dear friend of ours after only three months of marriage?” Simon snorted with disgust.

“Something like that”

“You’d have to have been God to intervene. And yes, it breaks my heart to see my friend Julie so broken. But he’s a survivor. He’ll endure and come out a better man for it.”

“I suppose I’m heartbroken because I introduced them, and that I was so utterly wrong about Hermine.” The confession shrunk Manfred’s stature. But Simon guessed Julian and Hermine had nothing to do with Manfred’s plaguing issue.

They arrived at the boathouse. Sometime during the storm, the wind had blown the door wide open, debris littered the dock. The small yacht, tied to the mooring, lumbered softly on the dark water, that Manfred had aptly named the sleek yacht Eternity, and she’d survived many galeforce storms at sea. She was a legend in the small harbor on the coast at La Rochelle, where he had rescued her from a life of corrosion. He always claimed she was his first love.

Manfred jumped aboard and held his hand out to Simon. It was a small jump, the gesture simply implied a peace offering which Simon gladly accepted. Manfred had large hands while Simon had the slender fingers generally attributed to an artist, musical or visual. But Simon professed no talent with notes or paint. He played the piano rather poorly because he was deficient in discipline.

“Welcome to my sanctuary.”

“There’s an entire mansion, fifty rooms minimum, just as many in the attic, and you need the confines of a yacht to allow you privacy?”

“Spoiled. But every room in that house is filled with memories and obligations which are a bear of burden today. It never ends. There’s always some nosy tourist staring at the portraits of my ancestors, or a maid or workman trying to keep it from falling apart. And they all want a piece of me, whether that is money, permission, acceptance, or direction. It’s rather tiresome.”

“Would you rather an apartment in the city? A lonely place where no one cares about you? Where you can blend in amongst the crowd and vanish.”

“Are you suggesting a trade?”

“No. But you’re always welcome in my flat. As long as you can suffer the leaky pipes, the window shutters that flap in the slightest draft, and the mice that scurry in the walls.”

“You forgot about old spinsters who point their fingers.” Manfred laughed. He held out a glass of amber brandy to Simon.

“Thank you.” Simon tried to frame the moment within his eyes.

“I’m sorry for what I said. And thank you for making me laugh. You have a talent for exaggerating. Your flat is the envy of many young men.”

“I mean it. My place is yours. All you have to do is come.”

“What if I took you up on the offer. Where would that lead? I’m acutely aware of my feelings toward you. I’ve not forgotten that night. I’ve tried but can’t deny it. For me, it was a moment of clarity, of who I am, but can’t allow myself to be.”

“Are you saying this to spare my heart or to break it?”Simon braced his heart against the emotions he was sure were yet to surface. Sitting across from Manfred, who leaned into the cowhide leather bench seat, his arm extended across the long back, was all he ever dreamed of. Manfred kept him awake at night, preventing him from accepting a lucrative position with the American Consulate not often offered to someone as young as himself.

 “Both. I long to hurt you, and I long to spare you. Selfish. I know.”

 “Then, why do it?”

 Manfred reached across and brushed a piece of moss from Simon’s hair. The gesture unseated Simon, who had been sitting, halfway on an upturned crate. He fell backward before Manfred could catch him from falling.

Simon felt the slow-motion of falling and being unable to stop himself. He remembered seeing the glint of a hunting knife before he sat down with his back toward it. His head, just where it meets the spine, hit the hard edge of the galley kitchen and the steely edge of the knife poked the tender flesh in his nape. If there was a sound at all, Simon didn’t hear anything. Within seconds, Manfred loomed over him. His expression aghast at what had happened.

“I’m so sorry. Don’t move.”

Simon blinked. His head hurt much less than Manfred seemed to assume. Manfred sunk down on one knee, gently cradled Simon’s head and slipped a cushion, a wad of cloth, beneath him. Their eyes met. Simon’s blue eyes danced beneath Manfred’s grey eyes. At that moment they understood what had to be done, what had to be said. Manfred brushed a long blond curl from Simon’s brow and his fingers stayed in the curve of Simon’s warm neck. Neither spoke. They saw only what could have been.

 “I’ve known since the first time I met you.” Simon’s voice was filled with hoarse emotion. A small tear gathered in his eye. A soft liquid oozed and warmed the back of his neck.

“Me too. I thought you were the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen. Still do.”

 Simon remembered the day. He’d been invited by Julian to escape the city. Before Hermine tainted the picture and before Simon understood just who he was. Before that fateful day, he had had an inkling, but meeting the man who now tenderly cradled his head, confirmed all of his suspicions. On that morning, Manfred hadn’t expected any guests to intrude on his duties of managing an estate. He had been out riding, but Julian, always rash, couldn’t wait to show off his sleek Paige-Roadster. When Manfred reached to shake Simon’s hand, sweet sweat and the subtle scent of the wind, reached Simon’s nose before he could look up and see the monster of a man approaching to grip his hand. Something, an instant recognition, in Manfred’s eyes, startled him.

“I wish I had acted sooner. It’s too late now.”

 “Does it hurt an awful lot?” Manfred’s voice was close.

“Somewhat. But not nearly as bad as not being able to love you.”

“I can run and get a doctor. But I don’t want to leave you.” Manfred fumbled with the cloth, tenderly soaking up the blood spilling from Simon’s wound.

“I don’t have much time, but I’m glad we’ve had this moment. Yours has always been the last face I wanted to gaze on.” Simon blinked, pain freezing his body in place.

“Don’t go. Please don’t leave me. Let me take the blade out? Staunch the bleeding.”

“There isn’t time. I’m getting colder. Can you warm me? A sanguine smile loomed on Simon’s mouth and set his pinwheel dimples into play.

“What if I came with you? Let me.” Manfred reached for the cabinet and pulled out a small-caliber revolver. Simon’s eyes widened, and he motioned a meaningful no with his eyes.

“You can’t. Just remember me as I will always remember you.” A tear rolled, without guardianship, down the side of his Simon’s face, into his ear.

“Close your eyes. My love. Close your eyes.”

Sleep closed Simon’s eyes. A shot pierced the silence of the afternoon and brought the gardener and the laundry maid running. Simon was aware only of a great weight burdening his breathing, and then it was all over. He slept the sleep of giants.

It was winter when he woke, unable to recognize the flaccid, yet slender fingers in his lap; the wool blanket folded over his knees. His hand moved when he commanded it. Instinctively, he remembered the hands belonged to a man named Simon Maurice Lavall. Blinking, he recognized that they were slimmer, a shade of pale associated with invalids. Next to him lay a book, his own copy of poems by Longfellow, a small vase with a single-stemmed rose, a crystal pitcher of lemonade and a glass. Someone had parked him in a wheelchair on the sunny side of the terrace windows. Behind him, he heard the soft tread of footfalls coming toward him. Sparrows chirped in the crown of the old oak in the garden, and the wind rustled in the eaves.

            “He’s awake,” Julian said. “Manfred, come, he’s finally awake.”

Monika R. Martyn is retired, married, happy, and a minimalist. She enjoys traveling and has been published in print and online. Her debut novel, The Lucky Man—An Act of Malice, is scheduled for publication in March 2021 with Adelaide Books. She is currently the Canadian Culture editor at BellaOnline.com or visit her at https://monikarmartynauthor.wordpress.com/