Thomas Barrow, Jimmmy Kent, Original Characters, AU
Title: Stephen


This falls chronologically between Wickhampton Road and The Tangled Web, but like the rest of the series it has been written out of sequence. You may want to read Wickhampton in order to understand the origin of the characters Cassandra, Reggie, Stephen, and Simon.
Thomas was late. He and Jimmy were supposed to go to the pub at five and then on to one of the local restaurants; it was now nearly six. Jimmy didn't have a phone so there had been no way to let him know. He's not going to be happy, but you can't control someone getting sick. Mr. Lamont had been taken ill in the early afternoon and Thomas had to stay to finish both the two clocks he was working on and the one that sat in pieces on Lamont's work table. They had to be delivered tomorrow morning without fail.

As he climbed the stairs to his flat he instead decided to go on up to Jimmy's first, but he stopped on the first step when he saw someone slumped in his doorway.

"All right, chum," he called out as he made a quick turn, "this isn't a doss-house. Move along."

The figure stood quickly and Thomas checked to see if he was someone he could handle. The man was his height and sturdily built. He grabbed a small suitcase as he blocked the door.

"Are you Thomas Barrow?"

Thomas frowned and moved closer.

"And who wants to know?"

"I'm Stephen Bailey," the man replied as he held out his hand.

"Stephen Bailey? My nephew?" Thomas moved to one side so the evening light filled the hallway.

"Do you know another Stephen Bailey?"

Thomas wasn't sure if it was an innocent question or if the boy - because at first glance he did look young - was being cheeky. He decided to overlook it for the time being.

"As it so happens, no." Thomas took the boy's extended hand and as he shook it pulled him in for a closer look. "Well, you have your mother's eyes."

"No not really. She still has hers; mine just look like them."

Cheeky, then. Bloody cheeky.

"Watch it boyo or you can sling your hook."

Stephen looked startled. His mother used to call him "boyo" when he was younger, usually as a warning when he had done something he shouldn't have.

"So what's this?" Thomas asked, nodding down at the suitcase.

It's a suitcase, what's it look like? Fortunately Stephen had been smart enough not say that out loud.

"Can we go inside so I can try to explain?"

"Well we could, but you're blocking the bloody door."

Stephen sheepishly stepped aside to let Thomas unlock and open the door.

"All right," Thomas chuckled as he passed him, "don't just stand there." For all his initial bravado, Stephen seemed suddenly subdued. "Come on, I have things to do."

Stephen followed him inside, setting his case to one side as he looked around. Well, it's certainly not like home. The Baileys were a comfortably well-off family; he could hardly say the same about his uncle. Still he didn't think that mattered; at least he hoped it wouldn't

"Take a seat," Thomas called over his shoulder from where he was hanging his jacket in the wardrobe. "Want tea?"

Stephen sank into the armchair sat at an angle to a small chesterfield.

"Not right now, thank you."

"Good," Thomas replied with a smile as he took a seat opposite him, "because since you have no idea where I keep things you wouldn't be able to make it for us." Two can play the cheeky game and I've been at it much longer than you.

"Uh ," Stephen began before Thomas interrupted.

"Fine, now let me guess what's going on here, shall I?"

"If you want."

"Some stranger shows up at my door, suitcase in hand. And this stranger is not much more than a boy."

"I'm twenty."

"And this stranger is not much more than a boy," Thomas repeated, although it was definitely an exaggeration. He had been a boy when he started work at twelve; Stephen was a young man, but calling him a boy suited his purpose for now.

"It turns out he's not a stranger after all, just a boy running away from home. How am I doing so far?"

"Well I suppose Maybe running away isn't quite right," Stephen offered weakly.

"All right, this boy has come to the big city for an adventure with the blessing of his parents."

"Please stop calling me a boy, Uncle Thomas," Stephen almost begged, for some reason his voice suddenly jagged with emotion.

With the words "Uncle Thomas" Stephen had put an end to the teasing.

"You're right, Stephen. That's unkind and uncalled for on my part."

"Thank you."

"But one more guess. Your parents don't know you're here, do they? Otherwise Cassandra would have called me at the shop to ask if you could come, especially since I don't know you from Adam."

That's not my fault, is it? Once again Stephen had wisely held his tongue and merely nodded.

"So, Thomas asked as he kicked off his shoes, "do you want to tell me your story?"

Before Stephen could answer the door to the flat swung open and Jimmy stalked in, coat over his arm.

"Where the hell have you been, Thomas? Jesus, don't tell me you've been sitting here all along." He stopped a few paces from the door and looked at Stephen in surprise. "Thomas?"

"Ah, right, dinner. Sorry, I had to work late."

"Thomas?" Jimmy repeated in confusion.

"This is Stephen, my nephew," Thomas explained as Stephen stood.

"Your nephew? Cassandra's son?"

"That's me."

"This is my friend Jimmy Kent, Stephen. He has the flat upstairs."

Stephen wondered as Jimmy shook his hand how he knew who his mother was.

Jimmy turned to Thomas.

"You didn't tell me you were expecting him. I wouldn't have planned a night out if you had."

"That's the point you see, Jimmy, I wasn't expecting him. And Stephen here was about to explain that before you barged in."

"Well, I'm bloody hungry," Jimmy groused. "Can't it wait?"

Stephen's eyes widened in surprise. Surely he wasn't meant to include him in this.

Thomas looked at Stephen then back to Jimmy.

"I suppose so. We'll obviously skip the pub. Would you like dinner, Stephen? You can tell us then," Thomas suggested as he bent to put on his shoes.

"Do you really mean 'us', Uncle Thomas?" Oh my God, he does want to include him. "I don't mean to be rude, but this is about family and Mr. Kent, well, he's not."

"Oh don't worry about Jimmy," Thomas laughed as he retrieved his jacket from the wardrobe, "he might as well be family and unlike some members of a family, he's quite discreet. Aren't you Jimmy?"

Jimmy's cheeks flushed lightly as he nodded in agreement.

"Still, I don't know," Stephen replied hesitatingly.

"I think you should have confidence in the judgement of the man whose doorstep you turned up on uninvited, don't you," Thomas urged as he ushered the two of them out the door and down the stairs.

"I suppose so," he answered uncertainly.

"First, though," Thomas placed a hand on his shoulder and guided him toward the corner telephone box, "you're going to remind me of Reggie and Cassandra's telephone number so I can let them know you're safe." Thomas knew he had the number somewhere in the flat, but since he had never called this was easier than hunting for it.

"But they'll want me to go home or they'll come and get me."

"Leave that to me."

Thomas wasn't sure how he would manage it, but he hoped to buy Stephen a day at least. Maybe the realisation that he had been so desperate that he had turned to a stranger would be enough. It was likely that he would end up going back, back to whatever had scared him away, but at this point that didn't matter. He wondered if Cassandra would faint on hearing his voice; although he had difficulty imagining Cassandra fainting at anything.

Thomas closed the door and lifted the receiver. As he waited for the connection he had already made one decision that would make things easier. He wasn't going to tell them that Stephen would be staying with him - he knew that was where this was all leading - but with his 'upstairs neighbour who has kindly offered'. If he hoped to give him a chance and not have Reggie on his doorstep before the night was out it was the best he could do. Lord knows I would never touch him, but no use trying to explain that to distrusting ears. When the truth came out, as it likely would, he and Stephen would deal with the implications then.

When he finally finished his call and stepped out of the box, he sighed in relief. Well, not too bad I guess.

"They are far from pleased, Stephen. Frankly if Cassandra could have reached you she might have wrung your neck."

"And?"

"And they've given you a couple of days to 'come to your senses'. So now it's time for dinner and a story."

-----

As he grew older Stephen realised that he had always felt a bit out of place even in his family, not entirely of course, but enough so that he noticed it. While he had been in his brother Simon's shadow academically as long as he could remember, he had talents that Simon lacked. Simon had the artistic ability of a chimpanzee - that had earned Stephen a clout on the ear from his mother. When it came to the piano, which Stephen played daily, and beautifully according to his parents, Simon begged off after a handful of lessons saying he would rather concentrate on his studies and leave less useful pursuits to someone who couldn't do any better. That had in turn earned Simon a clout on the ear - it would have been one on each ear, but he dodged out of the way and ran off laughing.

But it was painting that was Stephen's passion; a passion which his mother reluctantly encouraged at first and which his father tolerated, despite acknowledging both Stephen's natural ability and dedication. Stephen devoured books on art and art criticism, spent his free time taking lessons on technique, and when his mother realised he wasn't destined for university she had him spend a summer on the continent. It was better than he had dreamed. He wandered museums and ferreted out galleries and artists' garrets, absorbing as much as he could. If his mother had thought that the summer would satiate him, that he would grow out of his "fancy", she had been wrong.

Eventually though, both his parents began to worry about his future, even though he seemed to have little concern. What his father called his aimlessness was more obvious because in comparison Simon seemed to have mapped out his life long before he went to university. Stephen knew that his painting wasn't the problem, although his father insisted to Cassandra, who had started to agree, that it was. Until he could settle the things about himself that he was struggling with, that had little to do with painting, he was at an impasse. Not making decisions, not planning a life were simply symptoms of that.

But his father thought differently and one day after lunch sat him down while his mother hovered in the background nervously toying with her handkerchief. Stephen knew it was serious because his mother was never nervous about anything.

"It's time you started thinking about earning a living, my boy. You can't stay here doing nothing all day."

"I understand, Father, but I know what I want to do. Keep learning, keep painting, then I could have a career."

"That isn't a career, Stephen, it's a pastime; something to fill your idle hours."

"Was it a pastime for Rembrandt? Or van Gogh? Or "

"Surely you're not comparing yourself to Rembrandt. I realise you're talented Stephen, but do you think you're that talented?"

"Well I suppose "

"And do you aspire to live and die like van Gogh? I doubt that you would give up this soft life for that."

"Reggie!" Cassandra warned.

"Yes, yes. I'm sorry, but don't be so impertinent Stephen."

Stephen stared at him. Impertinent? You asked me what I was going to do then all but laughed at what I said.

"I'm sorry, Father, I was only trying to make a point,"

"And badly," his father huffed. "However, if you can't or won't make a decision, we have. I think you should come into the business."

"Me? You think I should be working with you?" Stephen asked in disbelief. He had never once expressed any interest in his father's business and his father had never mentioned their working together.

"Yes, dear," his mother said as she sat down beside him, as if signaling that his father should say nothing more. "We think you could do very well. Your father would be able to teach you everything and eventually the business would be yours.

Ah, this explains it. Stephen dearly loved his mother but at times she could be interfering, although he knew it was only because she felt he needed guidance. But this, working as a clockmaker and whatever else his father did, this was something he couldn't understand her even thinking. She knew him; she knew in such a place, in such a job, he would fade away. And yet, she was serious. He stared down at his hands.

"And even you think this is what I should do?" he almost whispered.

She put her hand on his shoulder.

"I believe you should try it. I think you will find that it's what you're meant to do."

Her voice was so unconvincing that it was all Stephen could do not to laugh. Or cry. He sighed.

"Perhaps I should then."

"Of course you should, my boy," his father broke in. "I'll work out something in the next few days and you can start in a week.' He stood and held out his hand. "Bailey & Son. How does that sound?"

Stephen stood and shook his hand with as much enthusiasm as he could muster.

"I think it might be a bit premature."

"Nonsense!" His father chuckled as he sat down again. "It's just a matter of time."

Stephen nodded and left. Time. I need more time. I can't be condemned to this, not yet. He sat in his bedroom for the rest of the afternoon trying desperately to find a solution. He needed a job, just not with his father, but there was little he was qualified for. His fascination with art, with painting in particular, hadn't readied him for much. He realised he couldn't blame his parents for their concern, but that didn't mean he had to give up. Continuing to wrack his brain the only thing he could come up with was to leave and he wasn't sure if he was that desperate, at least not yet. And if he did leave where would he go? Certainly not his friends because his parents would know where to look and not his father's family - they would send him packing the minute he showed up. His mother had a brother somewhere in London, but beyond that he didn't know where. Finally his mother called him for dinner.

Simon, who was home from Cambridge, was opposite him when he took his seat.

"So, Stephen, father tells me you're going into the business," he commented as he took the bowl of vegetables that his mother handed him.

"Does he now?"

"Yes and I think it's just what you need. A nice little job that you're suited for; I mean rather than actually having to make it on your own."

"Simon!" both parents admonished at once.

"Oh dear," Simon smirked as he handed the bowl across the table, "have I said something out of turn?"

"Yes, Simon," his mother warned, "as usual you can't resist, can you? Now that's enough. Eat and stay quiet or leave the table."

"Of course, Mother."

Cassandra just shook her head. She had come to the late realisation a while ago that Stephen might seem to be her problem child, but that Simon could be equally as difficult for other reasons. They're like oil and water. Where did I go wrong?

Stephen spooned a few vegetables onto his plate while wondering how much trouble he would be in if he broke the bowl over Simon's head. He spent the rest of the meal moving the food around rather than eating it until he was finally able to escape again. As he sat in his father's small library pretending to read so no one would disturb him he made up his mind.

Later that night when his parents had gone to the theatre and Simon was nowhere to be seen, he went through his mother's desk and found her address book. He wrote down his uncle's address and went upstairs to pack, sliding the suitcase under his bed in case anyone came in. He had some money, not a lot, but more than enough to buy a ticket to London and get a taxi from the station. Beyond that he had typically made no plans, which he knew was unwise but he was willing to take the chance.

After breakfast the next morning, he secreted his suitcase outside the garden door and told his mother he was going to the exhibition at the museum before lunch. Instead he left a note on his pillow simply saying that he was leaving and that he would let them know where he had gone later. He was unhappy that it would worry them, but he couldn't take a chance that they would suspect it was to London and from there make the connection to his uncle.

-----

Simon's explanation over dinner didn't include a lot of what he had been thinking, just enough so that Thomas could hopefully understand how unhappy he was going to be. Since he didn't know Thomas at all, he had no idea how he would react or if he would even care.

"So," Thomas began as he set down his knife and fork, "now that you're here, what next? Are you really any better off than back home? I mean you still have to make a living and you have no idea how you're going to do that, do you. At least when you were at home you knew where your next meal was coming from, where you were going to sleep."

This wasn't going the way Stephen had hoped at all, still he knew Thomas was right. He had jumped from the frying pan into the fire. He wondered why he had even thought that his uncle could help. Once again he had barrelled head on without a plan.

"Don't be so glum. All I'm saying is that you haven't solved your problem; maybe all you've done is delayed the inevitable."

Jimmy, who had sat quietly most of the meal, now spoke up.

"How desperate are you for a job."

Both Thomas and Stephen looked at him.

"What work are you willing to do, even just so you can get a toehold in London."

"Jimmy, what are you saying?"

"I'm asking Stephen, Thomas."

Jimmy seldom put Thomas in his place, but tonight was one of those times. Thomas took the hint.

"I suppose almost anything. At least anything that will buy me time, allow me to keep painting and learning, and not have to admit defeat."

"I work backstage at one of the West End theatres and they always seem to need help, mainly stage hands. It's not glamourous and it sometimes means a lot of lugging, but it's usually steady. There's one job at the moment and there are the other theatres too. You won't need much in the way of skills if you're starting at the bottom; you learn on the job really. It may not be what you want to do forever, but at least you're not being forced into something you already know you'll hate."

"Would you be able to put a word in?"

"If you come with me tomorrow morning we'll see what happens."

"Really?" Stephen glanced at Thomas quickly. "I still need somewhere to live, at least for a while."

Despite knowing his answer, Thomas drained the last of his wine rather than taking the bait. I wonder if he knows the meaning of the word subtlety.

"You mean with me? I'm not sure what your mother would think of that. Cassandra's not exactly a person to get on the wrong side of."

"How do you think she would feel if you turned her beloved son out onto the unfriendly, dark streets of London?"

Stephen thought he had gone too far when all he got was a blank stare. Oh God, I've misjudged him. Then a smile played at the corners of Thomas's mouth.

"Apparently not only are you an artist but you also have a flair for the overly dramatic."

While the waiter cleared the table, Thomas considered what he was going to say next. Just one more hurdle.

"What has your mother told you about me?" Beside him he could see Jimmy tense.

"Nothing. I mean I know you're my uncle and that there was a family problem years ago that seems to still bother her, but she never explained any of it. Should she have?"

Under the table, Jimmy's toe tapped the side of Thomas's shoe a couple of times.

Don't worry Jimmy I just want to know where I stand.

"No, it's really not that important now; someday I'll probably tell you. Cassandra wasn't happy when I wouldn't agree to put you on a train tonight, you know, so I'm going to ask you to do the one thing that we did agree on and you're not to question why. Understand?"

"Yes."

"As far as she and your father are concerned, you're staying with Jimmy."

"Fine."

Thomas and Jimmy looked at one another, surprised at how he had answered without hesitation.

"Well there are no stumbling blocks then," Thomas said as he waved the waiter over for the bill. "All that remains is to work out some type of sleeping arrangements because you're definitely not getting my bed."

"I wouldn't dream of putting someone your age out of his bed."

"Oi, cheeky!"

Jimmy started to laugh. "Oh, you're going to be fun to have around."

Stephen smiled to himself as Thomas and Jimmy took care of paying. He knew more about his uncle than he had let on, even though he had been truthful when he said his mother hadn't told him anything at least not intentionally. On one occasion after she had received a letter he had overheard his father call him "unnatural" when they both thought he had gone to bed. At the time he didn't know what that meant but his studies in art and of artists had taught him much more than just about painting and his travel on the continent, combined with a few enjoyable personal experiences, had opened his eyes even more. What Thomas was, what other people thought of him, made no difference. In fact, once he could confide in him as he was sure he would eventually be able to, it would be good to have someone like Thomas as he waded further into mostly unknown and possibly dangerous waters.

As they left the restaurant and made their way back to the flat Stephen knew he had chanced on the right decision.

~~~ End ~~~