Someone’s outside. He’d missed them at the window but Frank was sure they were now climbing up the walkway.
He positioned himself behind his entrance door. “Who is it?”
“It’s us, Uncle Frank.”
Abigail? They’re early. He unbolted and unlocked the door before opening it and peering outside, to see his niece and great-nephew waiting with their bags. He’d invited them to stay the weekend after being pestered again by his sister. “You have to make an effort, Frank. They’re the only family you’ve got.” In truth he didn’t mind their company, and the boy had shown a keen interest in the tower – what boy wouldn’t?
“Hello, you two. You better come in.” He scanned down the walkway.
The boy leapt over to hug his great-uncle, catching him off guard. “Hello, Uncle.”
“Steady on, Lucas.” Frank gripped his great-nephew’s shoulder. The boy had grown considerably taller since they’d last met.
“Sorry about that, Uncle Frank. Lucas has been so excited to visit you again.”
“Right.” He patted the boy’s head. “We’re going to have fun, aren’t we, Lucas? Are you ready to help me man the fort?”
“Oh, yes, Uncle.”
Frank observed his great-nephew from his armchair. The boy had been admiring the old artwork and ornaments around the chamber and was now inspecting the brass bugle in one of the alcoves.
“Lucas, you really should come back and finish off your orange squash.” Abigail patted the space next to her on the sofa.
The boy returned and sat next to his mother.
“Is that new, Uncle Frank? I don’t remember seeing it when we last visited.” She studied the lion skin splayed out on the floor, its mouth gaping open, baring its teeth. Lucas had already toyed with it.
Surely, that rug would be hard to forget? Frank reached over to replenish his niece’s tea from the pot. “Yes, I found it in a shop in Brighton last summer.” He handed her the cup.
He’d spent years collecting imperial-themed décor for his home, proud of his heritage and the time when Great Britain ruled the world. After he’d retired from the company and researched the family tree he’d discovered he had ancestors in the military who had been stationed in India and Africa. A pity. If he’d known this when he was younger he might’ve joined the army and become an officer. Life could have been so different.
“And that gun is new too, isn’t it?” She pointed to the antique rifle mounted above the fireplace.
“Is that a real gun, Uncle Frank?” asked the boy.
“Lucas, you mustn’t interrupt.” His mother squeezed his thigh.
“That’s all right, Abigail.” Frank smiled at his great-nephew. “Yes, Lucas, it’s real, although sadly it no longer works.”
“Cool.” The boy stared at the gun.
Frank finished his reply to Abigail. “I’d actually had that gun in storage for years and only got it restored recently.”
“Well, they’ve done a terrific job, Uncle Frank.”
“Yes, I’m very pleased.” He noticed that Lucas had turned his attention to the stairway. Of course the boy remembers. “Shall we go up top, Lucas?”
“Do you mind, Abigail?”
“No, you go ahead. I’m going to finish off my tea and head back downstairs to unpack.”
Lucas followed his great-uncle up the narrow stone stairs to the top of the tower.
The stone parapet rooftop was Frank’s favourite part of his home. A cannon used to be mounted on a raised platform and could shoot lead balls a mile out to sea – foreign warships had no chance at all. The weapon had long since been removed and the rooftop area was now enclosed by a modern roof and windows, though an outdoor section was still accessible through a glass door. Every morning at dawn, Frank would step out the door, raise the Union Jack flag up a pole and watch the sun rise in the east. And every evening at dusk he would lower the flag as the sun set. Forty-foot up, the panoramic views of the sea, coastline and land were stunning.
“Uncle Frank, I forgot something. Can I go back downstairs and get it?”
“Yes, of course.” Frank wondered what could be so important.
On the fixed seating in the centre of the room — the iron pivot that used to rotate the cannon was hidden beneath it — he waited for the boy to return. When Frank first renovated the tower he’d considered restoring the parapet rooftop to its former glory with a mounted cannon, but he’d changed his mind, knowing it would’ve been a minefield to get the plan through council.
Lucas came back up the stairs.
“What’s that you’ve got there?”
“Binoculars. Mummy bought them especially for me to use here.”
“Let me see.” Frank examined them. Cheap, nasty plastic. He found a marking underneath, Made in China. Everything’s made there nowadays. China this, and China that. Bloody Chinese – Frank didn’t trust them. “Don’t use them, Lucas.” He fetched another pair from a cabinet. “Here, use these instead.”
The boy swapped binoculars. “What happened to the other ones I used last time, Uncle Frank?”
“Oh, I still have them, but these are better.”
“They’re heavy. Are they old?”
“Sixty years old and British-made. Just be careful with them. Now, Lucas, like last time I want you to keep a lookout across the bay for any ships with foreign markings. Do you know what? I think you could be tall enough now to view from this ledge. Try it out. Can you see all right?”
“Excellent, I’ll leave you to your duty, gunner. I have a few things to do downstairs, but call me if you spot anything.”
Frank took Lucas’s binoculars away.
Abigail trapped him in the kitchen when he was washing up the tea set. She was just like her mother, badgering him. “Are you sure you’re managing on your own? Isn’t this place a lot of work?”
“I can manage.” He knew she meant well. “How’s your mother?”
She poured the milk from the jug back into its container. “Good. She sends her love.”
“You should call her sometime.” His niece held onto the milk container. “She does worry about you.”
“She needn’t worry.” Frank dried his hands and took the container away from her.
“Mum says you really need to get out more, Uncle Frank.”
He placed the milk back into the fridge and swung round. “How does she know what I get up to?”
“Look, if she really must know, tell my sister that I go to my local pub once a week, and visit the bandstand and theatre in Eastbourne whenever something good is on.” God, Chrissy’s worse than Mother ever was.
“Please, Uncle Frank, I didn’t mean anything bad by it. We’re only concerned that you’re always cooped up in this place. Mum wants you to meet people.”
Make friends – he knew that was what she was implying. Frank could hear his sister’s voice in Abigail, and remembered Chrissy’s relentless pushing at him to get married. It’s none of your business. So what if I didn’t get married? He’d accepted his fate a long time ago. He had to. The image of the Enchantress came back to him. The crumbling brickwork. The boarded-up window. No, I have my magnificent home now. I don’t need anything else.
His niece picked up a used saucer still on the tray. “And she…”
He snapped, “Abigail, that’s enough.” He snatched the saucer out of her hand and placed it into the sink to wash up, beginning to regret inviting them to stay.