Bran takes Freddie to see Holland Close House for Boys
YE WHO ENTER HERE
The wooden sign still bore some of the faded letters: Holl... ouse.
Bran stopped in the dust light and breathed. He felt an odd sensation in his chest, like snake was tightening around his insides, slithering and sliding into his belly. He didn't know why he'd brought them here.
He had realised it was bad when he nearly walked right by it. The building was so changed that it was barely recognisable. There were no daffodils or crocuses growing in the flowerbeds now. There were no longer flowerbeds, just tangles of weeds growing along the low walled front garden. The Edwardian brick architecture had been completely warped too. Large slats blinkered the front windows. Chunks of the portico were missing. The local brick had been defaced by rheumy yellow and puce lettering across the ground floor. The huge wooden front door that had been glossy red as long as Bran could remember was now a collection of crooked boards concealed the gaping chasm beyond.
Bran stared up at the building, gaze wandering down along the street. Standing here, he realised, no one planted flowers in their front gardens any more. Almost all the snaggle-toothed houses had at least one window boarded, that the curtains in top windows were closed to the glare of xenon streetlights. At the end of the street, a gaggle of Asian boys loitered with the fierce look of the persecuted and the socially estranged. The snake in his chest wound tighter.
A hand touched his shoulder and he drew himself back together. Bran was six two on a good day but projected something stronger when he held himself tall.
"Just a little bit more," came the voice he needed, the hand rubbing along the back of his neck.
"It was called the Holland Close House for Boys."
"It was where I was sent before Grantham."
He didn't know why he'd brought them here. He was never one to volunteer information about his life. Freddie knew he'd grown up in foster care. He knew that his parents had died when he was a young child, too old for adoption. Bran assumed he'd have figured the rest out on his own. Freddie wasn't just a detective. He'd been a doctor, an army surgeon, and now he worked closely with him in Wandsworth. He knew what abuse looked like. He knew what Bran looked like. Given his training, the pieces would have fallen into place.
"It didn't used to be like this."
He stepped away from Freddie and immediately missed the comfort of his touch. Hunching down to slide through the gap in the slats and into the gloomy heart of his old home, he tried not to look back and see if he was being followed. As a kid he'd always felt the early twisting of dread whenever it had come to entering through this door. It had been so red, like the last warning before a car crash, and behind the doors there was always the threat of new children, older children with something to prove... or visitors... well-dressed men in suits with wandering eyes and wandering hands. He hadn't ever been taken out, he'd been too vicious, too wild for those men who liked to take guests to their parties, but... He let out a gush of air and forced his shoulders down.
Inside was fetid, dark, even though it was bright outside. The musky sweetness that crawled into his nose was nothing like the vanilla candles Matron burned in an attempt to cover the stench of boy's trainers. He tried the light to no avail.
Freddie said, "We can stop, just say the word."
"I'm fine. But it's definitely different..." Bran eyed the hallway. Broken glass pipes and tinfoil, cigarette stumps smoked down to brown paper, the floor was littered with other people's mistakes.
He felt oddly defensive as Freddie's hand came out to wrap around the back of his neck again. "Picture it with... picture the walls. They were white. And the carpet was green then, with a big chair, one of those big ones with the high backs. One of those sat there at the bottom of the stairs." He frowned and looked at his shoes. They looked so clean, the black so shiny. "It was a lot cleaner though. You know."
Freddie moved into his peripheral casting the ridges of his face into half shadow. He could remember what this place was like but Freddie had never seen it. He had never walked down that street outside, seen the hollow eyed children dawdling on the pavement with their sticks and stones. He'd seen other things. No doubt worse things. But Holland House had been its own battle ground and almost everyone left a casualty.
Pacing towards the back of the hallway, he pushed the door at the end open.. "This was where we ate. There was a huge table right here, it used to sit ten of us at a time. There were usually less than that here but sometimes we'd get an emergency placement. Sometimes they got stuck here for a while." Like he did. "But it was constantly changing, new boys arriving every week. Usually not for long though." Because they didn't really like kids over fourteen. "This was the kitchen. We took turns to make meals."
"What about the woman who looked after you?"
"Matron?" He shrugged, unable to remember a single time Matron had cooked for any of them. " I guess she was usually busy. Looking after the youngest kids?"
"Here." Bran stopped in front of an open doorway. The room was a dark hole. He could easily visualise how it used to be though. Pictures of cats. Yellow wall paper. An antique desk and chair that smelt of pine and old leather. "This was her office."
"What happened to her?"
"No idea. I remember hearing that the place was closed. Maybe she died." Or got arrested.
Bran continued down the hallway and back round to the stairs. The cellar door was ajar underneath them. Graffitti marred the peeling paint and paper. He shuddered, "We were sent down there when we acted up."
He snuck a look at Freddie, saw his mouth was grim as he studied the rusted bolt below the handle.
"Trust me, being sent down there... it wasn't the worst that happened to a lot of the kids here," He could see the question rising in his partner's eyes, "I wasn't locked in there much." That was a lie. Once or twice had been more than enough for him to learn that being down there was safer than being upstairs sometimes. He'd cultivated his wilful, angry, spitfire persona precisely so he could find solace in the dark.
"We don't have to continue, Bran. We can stop, just say the word."
By god he wanted to but the honest truth was, "I don't need to." Not yet.
Carefully, Bran went to the stairs, trying not to look too closely at the expression in Freddie's grey eyes.
"Up here." He took the stairs two at a time, as if this was exactly what he'd planned to do with his afternoon off from the lab. Like downstairs, not much had changed from his childhood, although now the signs of drug addicts, hookers and drunks spilt out of the rooms. A pervasive sweetness in the air told him heroin was the escape of choice for the sad, shrunken creatures that crawled into this desperate place. Most of the doors sagged on their hinges, few walls were clean and few of the skirting boards remained unaffected by what must have been rodents.
Bran stopped at one of the rooms and tapped on the wooden door. It still had a sign hanging from the front hook: Ashurst, Smith and Koepf. He pushed it open with his knee. Three steel frames, two thin grey mattresses, what was left of a sink and a bookshelf...
"My bed." He pointed at the one closest to the window. "The previous boy died so I got his bed."
Freddie didn't respond. Bran turned around to look at him. His face was closed, eyes boring into the scraggly remains of where he had slept for four years.
"I know it looks shit." And it was, really. "But it wasn't as bad when I first got here. It was nice. I swear. Clean."
Clean was true. Matron's father had been a military guy, she'd never tolerated anything less than perfectly turned down beds, perfectly tidy rooms. He couldn't remember dust anywhere except the cellar.
Nice might have been pushing it... but it had been a roof over his head when no one else wanted him, regular food when for almost three weeks he'd been surviving off cold baked beans and spaghettiOs. Matron hadn't been awful, even if she'd been a bit free handed. It was only when he was twelve and Matron's husband came back from Sierra Leone that things took a real turn for the worst and the 'guests' became more frequent and the boys started to huddle in on themselves, talk in whispers, cringe from physical contact with adults. Bran was lucky. So damn lucky that he'd learnt all about those kinds of men before he came to Holland Close. He knew how to be vile, how to lash out, how to be ugly.
Freddie was watching him and Bran felt the snake in his chest become vice like around his heart. There was no overcoming this difference between them. Freddie grew up with a mother who loved him, a father who accepted who he was, an older sister who'd take on the world to save him even though she was the smallest, sweetest thing most of the time, and then the younger twins who idolised him and gave zero fucks that their brother was gay. They were a wonderful, stable, upper-middle class family who were so unbelievably proud of their brother, their soldier, their doctor, their hero.
And Bran had grown up here. A throwaway kid.
"Hey, baby." Freddie was in front of him in a moment. "Come back here."
Bran shrank a little involuntarily. Why was he such a fool? Why did he keep making mistakes with Freddie that he'd never made with anyone else in his life? There was a reason he didn't talk about this part of his life. People felt pity when they should have felt relief.
"We can go home. I'm sorry."
Freddie grabbed his chin and forced their eyes to meet, "Please don't be. This was your home. It's part of your past."
"It's a shithole where everything... everything... where I -" he couldn't finish that sentence. He tried again. "It's a dump in the middle of a place we really shouldn't be right now." Because Freddie and his suit would stand out like a sore thumb within a five mile radius of this place.
"I know where we are." He placed both of his hands on Bran's shoulders and squeeze. "Thank you."
Bran's inherent wariness writhed again.
"For sharing this part of your life with me." He gently kissed him on the lips. "Thank you."
Bran stared into those grey eyes, wishing he could read his mind. He didn't understand Frederick Delaney. Not one little bit. He was kind. He was strong. He wasn't storing up information to use against him. He wasn't pushing until it hurt, not when he didn't want him to. He wasn't like any one he'd ever known in his life. Not even Jackdaw or Bal had come close to this and they'd pulled him through Grantham by the skin of his teeth.
Freddie kissed him again. More demanding as his hand went to the back of his neck. God he loved those hands. So big it felt like they'd always catch him.
"Baby, I know that look and it's not going to happen here."
Bran opened his mouth to respond but stopped when he saw that light behind Freddie's expression and let himself be kissed again, again.
"You did so good, baby. So good."
And oddly enough Bran felt good. Somehow terror was bleeding into that familiar, warm place where Freddie never let him fall. He felt lighter as well. Lighter than he had in the ten days since he'd last mucked up and Freddie had told him that if he couldn't trust him then this couldn't work. It was then he'd known he had to do something to prove how he felt, that Freddie's penalty: to choose his own punishment, had to show just how deeply he wanted to trust, how much he needed what Freddie gave him.
Bran whimpered as Freddie hit a particular sensitive spot below his ear. "Can we go home now?"
The deep chuckle in Freddie's chest let him know he was forgiven, "I think we better had."