KING OF KINGS (A Christmas Coda to ‘Bitter Legacy’)
by Dal Maclean
James had never really felt comfortable with Christmas. In fact, from the age of six, after his mother died, he’d been taught to view the Festive Season as a period of awkward social embarrassment, best slid through as inconspicuously as possible. The unapologetic garishness, the crazed buy-it-all commercialism, the gooey cloy of sentimentality… Other people might spend the best part of a month behaving like maudlin lunatics, but not Magnus Henderson, or his son.
So, from the age of six there had been no mince pies for Rudolf, perfunctory gift giving, no turkey dinner with crackers and hats on Christmas Day. James and his father had simply waited it out.
When he got older of course, James had taken full advantage of the party season for its own sake, but he’d never felt part of the celebrations. And even after he’d changed his life and left his father behind, he’d chosen to work every Christmas Day.
Yet… yet, there had also always been a secret, suppressed part of him, the ghost of his six-year-old self perhaps, which had held on to an outsider’s sense of fascination. That part sometimes felt a surreptitious envy of other people who still seemed to see magic in the mayhem. And then, he could almost wish to see it too.
Now, he couldn’t really be sure—lounging on his father’s sofa, champagne glass in hand—if the six year old or the cynic held sway as he gazed at the gargantuan, ridiculously over-the-top tree, standing, bedecked, in the corner of his father’s elegant drawing room. And the trouser-clad, middle-aged bottom, sticking out anxiously from underneath it.
The Christmas tree lights had fused. Which, on a smaller tree would be tricky enough, but on this leviathan… It could take George, Magnus’s housekeeper’s put-upon husband, hours of grovelling to find the loose connection. And in the meantime, the magnificent fairy tree for which James’s father had paid a fortune, stood exposed as an over-sized Douglas Fir, with random, twee objects dangling from its branches. Magic, mysteriously stripped away to reveal the mildly ridiculous reality.
On the whole though, Magnus had taken it rather well, given this was Christmas Day and he’d put considerable effort into recreating a perfect family experience, as if he’d been trying to relearn how to celebrate. And of course he never did anything by halves.
He’d reserved the morning for James and Ben, and the three of them played out the kind of scene James knew only from corny films and his own dim memory… loved ones handing out presents from beneath the tree, while music played softly and a fire roared in the grate. It had been both mildly embarrassing, and surprisingly emotive and Ben had grinned from beginning to end. Now they were waiting for Magnus’s other guests to arrive, and lunch to be served. James fully expected Christmas hats.
He slid his gaze from George’s bottom over to Magnus, standing, talking by the door with Mrs. Morris, his battle-axe housekeeper. They were both frowning. Magnus wore a collared shirt, a cravat and an expensive cardigan—his idea of smart-casual—and Mrs. Morris wore what she always wore, Christmas or not -- a plain dark dress. James wondered idly how she and George were coping after years of icy peace in this house, suddenly faced with bursts of messy life.
“I think the Trafalgar Square tree still has a couple of feet on it,” Ben observed waspishly. Sometimes, he could read James’s mind. “Maybe. I think this one’s wider.”
Ben slouched on the sofa beside him, gaze also riveted on the drama underneath the Christmas tree, but when James turned his attention to him, Ben’s brow was creased, as if the scene displeased him somehow.
He wore a black Aran jumper and fitted black trousers, his dark curls lay shiny and silky against his long neck, and his thick lashes brushed his cheekbones when he blinked. His fingers played idly with his half-full champagne flute and he seemed to be almost pouting. James very badly wanted to shove him on to his back and snog him.
No change there then.
“We always had a tree out of a box before this,” James offered instead. Yes, the fake tree had come from Harrods, and cost a small fortune, but still… “Seven feet tall at best, and the branches were detachable.” It had been a gesture to social expectations, no more, though no one ever really saw it other than Magnus, James and the staff.
Ben’s eyes swung to him at once, softer now. Reminders of James’s stoic childhood tended to do that. The corners of Ben’s full mouth quirked upwards hesitantly. “How did Magnus find enough decorations for this one, then? And there’s three miles of lights. Minimum.”
“Mrs. Morris,” James confided. “Shopping with extreme prejudice.”
Ben smirked and they both eyed the woman standing in the doorway, glowering at her husband’s posterior. Magnus had slipped out of the room.
“Well, whoever sold her the dodgy ones’d better start putting their affairs in order,” Ben muttered, with no exaggeration. His eyes caught James’s in amused complicity, and each took a sip of champagne.
“It’s great though.” Ben sighed, as if he were conceding a point. “It’s great your dad’s so into it now.”
The tree rustled alarmingly, decorations jangling, as George wriggled further underneath its vast canopy. The lights remained stubbornly dark.
“How about you?” James asked, voice careful. “Have you enjoyed it so far? Did you enjoy last night?”
Ben’s looked down at his glass. “Yeah,” he said, just too quickly. “It was amazing. ” It sounded lukewarm, though James knew very well that Ben could hide his true feelings impeccably if he wanted to. Which meant, James surmised, that deep down Ben wanted to talk about it. “Quite an experience,” Ben added.
The night before had boasted Magnus’s first personal Christmas Eve party, held at his own home, since James’s mother had died. But Magnus, of course, hadn’t been able to ignore the business possibilities. So, along with people he regarded as his old friends, he’d included some industry and political contacts he wanted to schmooze, a few oligarchs and fellow billionaires and a significant clutch of celebrities as unpaid attractions. And there had also been the people James had brought into Magnus’s life in the past months.
Ben’s ultra-progressive parents would normally never live down accepting the hospitality of an oil tycoon, but James suspected they were still deeply shaken by the events of the past few months—Ben’s brush with death and the revelation of their own past actions. In any event, they and Magnus seemed ready to live and let live. Conversations steered well clear of Brexit and energy policy, and stuck to gardening and fine wine. They were coming for lunch today as well—their two families brought together on Christmas Day, like a proper couple.
Also swishing around among the glitterati had been James’s boss, DCI Ingham, in a smart navy-blue cocktail dress; DC Kaur in slinky black; and DS Alec Scrivenor in an evening suit which he appeared to have put on by accident. Magnus’d had to be argued out of adding the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police to the guest list, to try to advance all their careers, but he’d slipped in the Justice Secretary behind James’s back.
James hadn’t wanted to invite anyone else from the station. He’d agonised enough about these three, his closest colleagues, though he felt sure he could trust them not to view him differently, even after experiencing in person the surreal reality of the world he’d come from.
“You spent quite a lot of time with Charles’s boyfriend,” James observed with care. “The MP.”
Ben’s eyes snapped up to meet his, dark blue ice. “Crispin,” he enunciated, voice as frosty as his gaze. “Mayhew.”
“Yeah.” Crispin was an extremely attractive man in his early thirties—fair-haired, clever, charming, and media catnip, which probably explained how he’d managed to land a safe Conservative constituency so young and openly gay. “He seemed pretty into you.” James observed, and waited. He felt only mildly guilty for turning his best professional technique on the man he loved.
“Not as much as Charles was into you,” Ben bit out. And now they were getting somewhere.
“We were chatting,” James’s tone remained deliberately mild, not defensive. “Mainly about how much Father’s changed.”
James actually had a lot of time for Charles Forsyth for all kinds of reasons, though at times he reminded James of a young, gay Magnus. But the night of their first meeting—the night of Magnus’s charity ball—remained a private bubble of purity in James’s mind, the last time he’d seen Steggie happy. Charles had made Steggie feel good about himself. James would always remember that.
But James knew Ben’s jealousy of Charles wasn’t rooted in reason.
“They want a foursome,” Ben announced.
James blinked. Hard.
“Crispin wanted my number,” Ben went on relentlessly. “He said Charles talks about you when they screw.” His tone dripped with ‘I told you so’, but he’d been bottling it up since the night before after all, and to be fair, even James felt a bit stunned. “And now he’s met me, he says he’s going to get off on fantasies about all of us together. Fucking.”
James blinked again. That seemed incredibly reckless for an MP. And Charles and Crispin were also coming to lunch.
“He was winding you up,” he protested. But he remembered that Charles had seemed unfazed by his boyfriend’s focus on Ben, across the room from them, even though Crispin should have been taking the chance to network with the extremely powerful people at the party.
Who could have blamed him though, for hanging on to Ben for as long as he could?
Ben looked astoundingly sexy in a dinner suit, and he could turn charm and flirtation into an Olympic sport when he felt like it. Which still, inevitably, gnawed at James in odd moments of weakness -- echoes of past misery. But those moments were rare now because he genuinely trusted Ben, not least because, since they’d got back together, Ben seemed to have fixed on monogamy and fidelity with the same all-or-nothing, iron-willed certainty with which he’d once embraced promiscuity.
“Charles didn’t say anything like that to me,” James said definitely. The closest Charles had come to anything personal in fact, had been the confidence that he and ‘Cris’ were still ‘working out what they wanted from their relationship’. But James hadn’t seen any other signals. Not, admittedly, that he'd ever had much success at spotting them when it came to himself… but he really didn’t get those desperate, lecherous vibes from Charles Forsyth, business supremo.
Ben let out a heavy, belligerent breath through his nose. “Well, he will.” Suddenly he seemed wildly frustrated. “Fuck Jamie… how can you be surprised? Just look at yourself.” James peered down defensively at his own torso, his trouser clad thighs, then back up again. Ben shook his head in despair. “You’re… Who wouldn’t want you? Maybe he told Crispin to try…”
“I’d rather not.” Ben spat. “And I’d rather you didn’t fuck Charles.”
“Ben! I’ve told you. Over and over. There is no way...”
Ben shook his head impatiently. “I know. But...” He swallowed hard and looked wildly at the door, where Mrs Morris still glared at events under the Christmas tree as if sheer outrage could alter the rules of electricity. “Shit!” he breathed. It sounded hopeless.
“If you know, then…what is it?” James pleaded.
Ben darted a glance at him and ran his hand back through his hair. It looked like a gesture of defeat. “It’s just… I don’t fit. Jamie. Any of this. It’s another planet. And I don’t belong. He does. Charles does.”
In a strange way, James felt unutterably proud of him for saying it. They’d promised each other honesty after secrets had almost finished them. And Ben, with all that formidable determination, had stuck to his promise, forgoing his pride, letting shame and fear and panicked worry periodically out into the light, rather than letting it hide and fester. Just as James forced himself to expose his own lingering insecurities.
But James had half-suspected the party might have this effect—like a poultice on a wound, drawing up the legacy of corruption, old poison bubbling up through the cracks. The previous night had been a carelessly brutal window into the life of obscene wealth and influence that James could easily lead if he wanted, almost calculated to remind Ben of his own very different origins.
“You fit,” James countered, voice low and firm. “And you did brilliantly last night. You can charm… you can talk to anyone. And they all love you.”
“But…it’s not real is it? It’s a billion miles from…” He grimaced. “It’s not where I’m from. Magnus sees it. Fuck, he had God knows how many A-listers and Cabinet ministers there, and…. your boss and I ended up in a corner with the Beckhams. And half of One Direction.” He made a sound between amusement and hopelessness. “How the hell did he manage that?”
James shrugged half-heartedly. How did Magnus manage anything? He hoped Ingham had enjoyed it anyway.
“You must see it, Jamie,” Ben sounded almost as if he were pleading with James to just finally give up and agree. That he wasn’t good enough. That James deserved better. “You know who I am.” And he said that as if it dealt the winning blow.
James swallowed. His throat hurt. “I know who you are,” he agreed quietly. Ben’s mouth wobbled, but he showed no more visible emotion. He’d had as good training as James after all, in keeping up appearances. “And I don’t want anyone else. Hell, Ben… the last ten months haven’t convinced you of that?” James’s stolid, determined obsession through their agonizing relationship and explosive, gut-wrenching end, and now their new beginning.
Ben’s shoulders seemed to drop minutely. James hadn’t noticed until then, how tensely he’d been holding himself in his seat.
“And,” James added. “We’ve just bought a house, so it’s a bit late to throw you over for Charles Forsyth.”
Ben’s mouth quirked into a reluctant smile. “I love you,” he muttered, almost as if conceding a point, as if it should have had ‘Oh all right then,’ in front of it. “But that doesn’t …” He met James’s eyes, his skin flushed with emotion. He seemed to brace himself, then blurted, “Your dad’s changed with me.” He stopped for a moment, appearing almost surprised that he’d actually said it out loud. The core, at last, of his worry. “I mean,” he rushed on. “He’s perfectly polite. Embarrassingly generous.” He’d just given Ben a state-of-the art iMac after all. “But there’s something…off. I think I’m just realising that… maybe he’s been playing a long game. Hoping if he waited it out, you’d have dumped me by now. And after last night, God, Jamie, I really can see why. I know he wants to say... He’s up to something.”
“What?” James asked. “Like plotting to get me to fuck Charles Forsyth?”
Ben darted a touchingly nervous glance toward the half open door and Mrs. Morris. “I’m… Jamie, I’m just…” He stopped as if he’d realised it was pointless going on, and shook his head miserably.
Over Ben’s shoulder, James caught sight of Magnus appearing in the doorway.
Showtime. And, ironically, perfectly on cue.
James reached into his shirt pocket and drew out a small, red envelope.
“Actually. I know why he’s been even weirder than usual.” He proffered the envelope to Ben who eyed it warily before shooting his gaze up to James’s face. “Go on then,” James urged. He felt both excited and extremely nervous, because really this could go very wrong. “Merry Christmas,” he said.
Ben frowned, but he put his glass on the floor by his foot, took the envelope, and opened the flap. A blank silver disc slid out into his palm, the wrong side facing upwards, which felt to James like a needed stroke of good luck.
Ben stared at the disc in puzzlement, apparently not noticing as Magnus approached their sofa, until Ben seemed to register him at last and glance up. Then Ben’s gaze slid inevitably downwards again, to what stood beside him.
“This,” James announced with as much vocal fanfare as he could muster, “Is Ozymandias,” and he gently flipped over the disc on Ben’s palm, to reveal the word ‘Ozzy’ engraved there.
The dog cringing on a lead against Magnus’s leg was extremely unprepossessing—of indeterminate breed, medium sized, black, with a touch of white around its muzzle and on its paws, and far too thin. For all it still appeared quite young, its body language radiated desperation to avoid the consequences of giving offence. Its short-ish coat looked rough with neglect, and the tip of one ear flopped down, while the other stood up. No one’s ideal dog. Ben stared at it with startled suspicion.
James rubbed the back of his neck and went on quickly, “I only went to the rescue home to get you an appointment card to give today as a present, so you could go and choose. But…they were taking him out when I was there. To be put down. He’d been very badly treated, and no one wanted him. And I thought…”
That Ben would want him. Ben, who for all his determined, ingrained cynicism, had never lost a gut urge to help the hopeless, the abused.
Ben still regarded the dog with a kind of wary uncertainty, but at last he reached a tentative hand out for it to sniff. It wagged its tail obsequiously for a second or two, but then shrank back to press against Magnus’s legs as if it believed it had done the wrong thing. It didn’t seem to know how to trust a friendly approach.
Ben slowly withdrew his hand.
James, not for the first time since his visit to the dog home, was horribly sure that his impulse had been all wrong. He shouldn’t have allowed pity and sentiment to take over. He should have let Ben go there himself. Find the right dog for him rather than imposing one, especially knowing the significance of his childhood -- and only – dog. Meeting that dog had signalled the start of Ben’s miraculous new life after purgatory. And the fact that Ben wanted so badly to get his second dog now, with James, had felt like something important. Symbolic.
James rushed on anyway, desperate to rescue the moment. “They said it was too late and they had to go ahead with putting him to sleep, since all the forms had been signed.” Ben’s gaze never left the dog, but his hand slid over to clutch James’s knee. James began, minutely, to relax. “I argued the toss with them, and they still said no. So I was reduced to waving my warrant card around and calling Father. Who called someone else. And… well…” It had been like a Death Row movie, with a last minute Governor’s reprieve by telephone. “Total abuse of authority. He’s been here ever since. Ozzy. With Father. And,” James added ingratiatingly, “With the help of Mrs. Morris. Of course.”
They all glanced toward the door. Mrs. Morris’s lethal scowl in their direction said everything necessary about her opinion of Ozymandias the dog, and their role in bringing him into her life.
“He’s incontinent when alarmed,” Magnus announced with ruthless economy, as if to explain Mrs. Morris’s displeasure. “And he’s very frequently alarmed.” He held out the handle of the dog’s lead to Ben. Ben’s fingers squeezed James’s knee tighter still, bruise-tight. “I wouldn’t have done it for just anyone,” Magnus informed Ben, as if James had written his lines for him.
Ben stared up at him for a long moment, then, mouth quirking with acknowledgement, he reached out to take the lead. His gaze fixed again on the terrified dog.
“Hello, Ozzy,” he said softly. His eyes looked happy.
In the corner, the Christmas tree lights switched on.
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley