Walter meets Jude and is a disgrace to his father.
The breakfast bell rang at quarter to seven, as it always did. Walter Ross groaned as he rolled over in his bed, tangled in the heap heavy covers. He was never going to get used to waking up so early - back at his mother’s house she’d allowed him to sleep in as long as he liked. His father was apparently very fond of a tight schedule and premature mornings. He was also fond of making a fool out of his eldest son in front of anyone in the room, so Walter wasn’t particularly motivated to get dressed and head down for breakfast.
Once more, the bell rang, prompting him to finally untangle himself from the sheets and sit up on his bed. He caught his reflection in the mirror that hung on the wall opposite his bed, his dark hair was a mess that needed a good trim - it was practically covering his eyes. Running his hands through his hair, he glanced around the room for his clothes, but evidently he’d still forgotten to unpack them. It’d been three days now, and he still hadn't gotten his act together. At least, that’s what his father had said. Unpacking his suitcases would mean the stay at his father’s country villa would no longer feel like a holiday, and he didn’t want to think about that. The less time he spent here the better, and if he kept his stuff packed tight in his suitcases it made for an easy getaway when the time came.
Stark naked, Walter stood up and stretched his arms out before pulling open the thick curtains. Golden light spilled into the room, burning his eyes as he squinted through the glass. Outside, the gardens were impeccably neat, with hundreds of neatly trimmed hedges stretching out for miles, boxing in the property. Rows upon rows of countless varieties of flowers also bordered the land, leaving the middle a plain green playing field. The gardeners were already up and out, tending to their plants with the sort of care Walter could only wish for.
A sudden sharp knock at the door startled him, and he quickly pulled a sheet from his bed and wrapped it around his waist before shouting “Come in!” to whomever had knocked. The door was pushed open with a slow creak to reveal a tall, blonde haired boy holding a basket of neatly folded clothes. The boy eyed the sheet that was loosely tied round Walter’s body and cleared his throat.
“Ahem, Some, uh, clean clothes, Sir. From your father.”
Walter studied the boy’s face, trying to gage his age, but without his spectacles the features all blurred into one. The boy averted his eyes from Walter’s body and cleared his throat again.
Cheeks red with embarrassment, Walter moved swiftly across the room and scooped his clothes out of the basket. “Thank you.” He smiled, chucking the clothes down onto the bed. “You’re not one of my father’s regular staff, are you?”
“I’m Jude Wolfe, sir. My father is the gamekeeper, sir. He got me a housekeeping job for the summer, your father was kind enough to give me a decent wage, sir.”
Walter sifted through the clothes until he found a pair of undergarments and quickly slipped them on under the sheets. “I didn’t think I’d seen you before. Oh, and you can drop the ‘sir’, I’m Walter. I hate being called sir. It’s too fancy. It’s pretending to be something that we’re not. Well, I’m not anyway. I don’t suppose my father told you about his infidelities with a certain ‘lowly maid’ named-” He noticed Jude shift his weight from one foot to the other. “Oh, I do apologise if I’m keeping you from your work.”
“It’s no problem, sir - I mean, Walter. But you should get dressed, breakfast is sure to be on the table by now.”
“Bloody breakfast! Why does my father insist on eating as a family, it’s not like he’s ever looked at me as a part of his family before. Er, you can go, Jude whatever your name was. Tell my father I’ll be down in a few minutes.”
Jude smiled sheepishly as he backed out of the room, pulling the door shut behind him with a click. When his father had informed him of a housekeeping job offer at the Ross’s countryside villa for the summer, he’d been excited at the prospect of earning some money and at staying in such a beautiful home, but the past week had been almost torture. Clarence Ross was an unbearable man at the best of times, yet he seemed to be even worse now his children had returned home from school for the summer. There were three of them, excluding Walter, the eldest. Arthur, Edward and Margaret, who were aged 15, 12 and 8, respectively. Jude didn’t mind the children, in fact, he rather enjoyed the time he was allocated to care for them, but whenever Clarence entered the room he found himself at the brunt of his drunken abuse. It wasn’t clear how the Ross family had come into such wealth, but it sure wasn’t thanks to Clarence’s manners
“Walter asked me to assure you he will be down soon.” He announced as he made his way into the dining room. An audible grunt from Clarence seemingly echoed around the dark oak walls, and he waved away one of the cooks who’d just set down a plate of steaming sausages in front of him.
“That bloody ungrateful boy. I invite him to stay at my house with my family and he’s not even up in time for breakfast on the third day!?” Clarence’s face was red with anger, and his three children, who were sat opposite him, shrunk back in their seats. Arthur, the eldest of the three legitimate children, reached out with his fork to pinch a sausage but Clarence slapped his hand away, a ferocious scowl crawling across his wrinkled face.
His wife, Henrietta, leant forward and straightened some of the cutlery on the table. “You’re scaring the kids again, Clarence.” she sighed. “And Walter is eighteen now, surely he could make his own breakfast whenever he pleases?”
“Don’t you start defending him, he’s not your son!”
“No, of course, but I just thought -”
“That’s the problem! Women don’t think. They just talk!” He banged his fist on the table and then jabbed a fat finger towards Arthur and Edward’s solemn faces. “You’ve got two sons of your own to worry about. Let me worry about that boy upstairs. You two promise never to turn out like that insolent brother of yours, you understand?”
The two boys nodded, silently wishing that they could just get on and eat breakfast before it went cold.
Jude had been staring in amazement at the family’s dynamic. He’d never seen a man get so angry over someone being late to breakfast. Breakfast in his own home would have been much less eventful - but then again, this was a wealthy upper-class family, what did he know about them? Maybe this was how all rich families ate breakfast.
At last, Walter appeared at the door, the collar on his crisp white shirt still upturned. He was struggling to do up his tie.
“I apologize for being late again, father, I was simply -” he started to say, approaching the head of the table.
“No excuses, boy!” His father snapped, cutting him off. “You’ll be here at ten to seven sharp every single morning or I’ll send you back home to your mother, end of!”
That didn’t sound like a bad idea to Walter, but he thought it best to keep his mouth firmly shut. He went to take a seat next to Henrietta, his step-mother. She smiled at him, inviting him to sit down, but Clarence had other ideas.
“You can join us for breakfast,” he began, wiping sweat off of his brow. “When you’ve done up your tie.”
Walter gulped. He’d never had to wear a tie before, and for the past few days he’d just kept one already tied hanging from his bed post so he could just slip it over his neck in the morning. His hands fumbled with the fabric, but no matter what he did he couldn’t get it to loop round like he’d been shown a hundred times by his mother.
“This is why they wouldn’t let you in the army, boy! Who doesn’t know how to tie a tie?”
Everyone watched as he tried and failed over and over, tears forming in his corners of his eyes. He could just never get his hands to coordinate with his brain, no matter what he did. He couldn’t draw, or cook, or even ride a bike without messing it up - no wonder he’d been unable to complete the basic army training. In a flurry of tears and embarrassment, he ran from the room.
“That was cruel, Clarence!” Henrietta poured a glass of orange juice for Margaret and handed it to her. “You’re too harsh on that poor boy!”
“Too harsh?” Her husband practically screeched. “You can never be too harsh on a boy. They need more discipline than girls, it’s a fact. Arthur and Edward know more than how to put on a tie, thanks to my discipline! And that school of theirs that you were so against them going to is one of the reasons they’ll make it far in life! Beat the wimpiness out of them, that school does! Doesn’t it boys?”
The pair nodded.
“And you have to be at breakfast by six o’clock when you’re there, don’t you?”
Jude watched as Clarence grilled his poor sons over their schooling, and decided he was most likely no longer needed. In order to avoid being the brunt of another rant, he ducked out of the door and wandered aimlessly around the huge house. There was nothing else for him to do until later this afternoon, when he’d need to run baths and wash clothes and tidy rooms.
A quiet sniffling was coming from the stairs, and Jude stopped in his tracks as he was about to walk past them. He shuffled backwards and looked up, his eyes landing on Walter. His head was buried in his hands, and his shoulders were slowly shifting up and down.
“Are you okay?”
The question startled him, and Walter furiously rubbed at his red eyes as he snapped his head upwards. “I’m fine. Leave me be, please.”
But Jude knew better than to leave him be. He climbed the stairs until he stood next to the crying Walter and took a seat on the same step. “Sir, I must insist that you listen to me.” He put on his best reassuring voice. “Your dad is a ruddy nightmare!”
Walter sniffed, and turned to face Jude, a little shocked that a housekeeper would have the nerve to speak ill of his father whilst under the same roof. “If you think that after barely a week of knowing him, just wait until the end of the summer. Either he’ll have slaughtered you with the pigs or you’ll have bashed his brains in with a rolling pin.”
A giggled escaped Jude’s lips, and he clamped his hand over his mouth after realising.
“You’re allowed to laugh, idiot.” Walter grinned, elbowing Jude in the ribs “I’d have done it years ago if I knew I could get away with it.”
The black piece of fabric still hung around his neck, untied. Jude reached out with both hands and took either end. “Want me to tie it for you?”
Walter nodded, and so Jude expertly looped one piece round the other and pulled one end through, creating the perfect knot. His hands brushed Walter’s chin and he did so, causing both of them to tense up. Jude recoiled a little, smiling awkwardly.
“There you go. Just ask me next time. I don’t mind. Mama used to make me wear a tie to church every Sunday.”
The pair stared at each other’s faces. Walter’s was pale and hollow, his eyes almost the exact same colour as his messy dark brown hair. His lips were thin and pursed into a long line, giving his face an overall sombre look. Jude’s hair was longer, and a bright blonde that practically glowed in the streaks of sunlight that were shining in from the window at the top of the stairs. His eyes were pale blue, and smiling, glowing just like his skin which had an olive tint from working out in the sun with his father. Walter had never known anyone’s eyes to smile like that.
He sharply turned away. “I don’t have anything to do today.”
“Me neither.” Jude replied. “Not until later.”
A little hesitantly, Walter took a deep breath and asked “Would you like to come into the garden? I know you’ve seen it and all, your father being the gamekeeper, but I found a secret little spot down by the river the last time I was her. It’s right at the end. I haven’t shown it to anyone before.”
“Not even your brothers?”
Walter gave a half smirk. “They’re my half brothers. I barely know them. They’re always away at some posh boarding school.”
“I wish I had brothers. Even a half one would do.”
Leaping to his feet, Walter ignored Jude’s comment. “Well? Are you coming or not?”
The housekeeper gave a wide grin and used the banister to pull himself up. “Of course! But you don’t particularly look like you’re dressed for exploring the garden.”
“Says the servant in his hand-me-down corduroy shirt and shorts.” Walter rolled his eyes, wishing that Jude would hurry up. He didn’t want to bump into his father again.
“I am not a servant! Unless you want me to be?” Jude shoved his hands into his pockets and bowed. “Good day sir, how do you do sir? May I take your coat sir? Wash your hair sir? Wipe your-”
“Come off it!” Walter interrupted him, laughing. “Now, let’s be quick about getting down the garden. Mrs. Lyons doesn’t like her poor roses being trampled, and we have to trampled through them in order to get to the secret spot. I don’t want to get yelled at again by my father! If he catches us, I’m going to blame you for everything!”