‘What is the meaning of this!?’ yelled Mrs Beck.
Hugo Fox and Theodore Bellamy looked at one another in confusion. The meaning of what, exactly, Mrs Beck didn’t actually know. Seized by a fit of embarrassment, she had covered her eyes as she walked in. When the cries of shock and shame she’d anticipated never came, she peeked through her fingers.
The sitting room of flat #4 was not well decorated. No, that wasn’t true. It was actually decorated very finely. The walls were freshly papered and decorated with all manner of paintings, both classical and modern. The floorboards were newly waxed and softened with patterned rugs. Bold colours cast against rich woods, all washed in golden, electric light. These details spoke of a refined taste, but the effect was ruined by the whole. As spacious and airy the room had been when the gentlemen first viewed it, it was now cramped. The room attempted to serve several functions at once.
It was a library. What walls weren’t sloped were buttressed by bookshelves and antique filing cabinets. There were hunched reading lamps, an antique standing globe and the tall, grandfather clock.
It was an office. Under the windows were the two desks, facing each other. One held a big, red typewriter, surrounded by piled up papers, some scrunched into balls. The other was entirely empty, save for a half-played chess game. On the wall nearby, a cork-board peppered with pins and newspaper cuttings.
Lastly, as intended, it was a sitting room. But the place was so full that only a quarter of the room remained for this purpose. The red, leather sofa stood against the wall, which Hugo and Theodore shared. Facing this, a tall armchair, occupied by their guest. A pot of tea steamed on the coffee table. All three of them were enjoying a cup. Were it not for the fact there was a man dressed in women’s clothing, there would be nothing unusual about the scene whatsoever.
Theodore Bellamy leaned over to the ladyboy. ‘Florence, darling. Perhaps you’d better come back tomorrow.’
‘Mm. Of course,’ said “Florence”. She went to the door, avoiding Mrs Beck’s gaze as she went.
‘Why don’t you take a seat, Mrs Beck?’ said Hugo Fox.
Despite being utterly confused, Mrs Beck took the armchair that the ladyboy had just vacated.
Theodore poured her a cup of tea. She thanked him, a slave to etiquette no matter the circumstances, and took a sip. As the gentlemen waited, Theodore glanced at Hugo, who reassured him with a calm expression. Don’t panic.
‘Now, Mrs Beck,’ said Hugo, adjusting his spectacles. ‘Why don’t you tell us exactly what you’re accusing us of.’
Mrs Beck seemed momentarily unsure, but then her fury returned to her. ‘You have come here under false pretences. You have masqueraded as gentlemen when in fact you are sharing your bed with each other and any manner of creature who rings your bell. You have turned my respectable residence into a bawdy house for undesirables.’
Theodore was surprised by the last part of this accusation. Hugo was not. Mrs Beck took another sip of tea.
‘Summer’s lease hath all too short a date,’ said Theodore with a sigh, running a hand through his red hair. ‘Huey, I think we’ve got to come clean.’
‘Are you sure?’ said Hugo.
‘I like it here. I want to stay. I think Mrs Beck deserves to hear the truth.’
Mrs Beck blinked. ‘The truth? Surely, you’re not saying there’s an innocent explanation to all this?’
‘Not an innocent one, no,’ said Theodore. He grinned. ‘But it’s not as bad as you think. We’re not running a bordello out of our flat, for starters. And I don’t think we’re at all the way you’ve characterised us. I don’t share a bed with Hugo. I share a flat with him. Because I love him.’
‘Same to you, teddybear,’ said Hugo. He held out his hand and Theodore squeezed it tightly.
Mrs Beck was caught between staring at this and averting her gaze. She compromised by looking right into Theodore’s eyes. ‘And what is this detective agency of yours?’
‘It’s a detective agency,’ said Theodore with a shrug. ‘Although, we do cater to a specific type of client.’
Theodore looked at Hugo, who shrugged. He, like Theodore, didn’t think that needed explaining.
‘Queers,’ said Theodore.
‘You mean… people like you?’
‘People like us and not so like us. Inverts, urnings, sapphists, mollys, tommys, ladyboys. People whose very existence is outlawed.’
‘We serve any victim,’ Hugo added, ‘who might have innocent reason to fear the police.’
Mrs Beck said nothing. It was hard to tell how how much of this she was digesting.
For lack of anything better to do, Theodore continued. ‘A couple of friends of ours were burgled in the night. But the police were more concerned about why there was only one bed in the house. Our friends were each sentenced to two years hard labour and the burglary was never investigated. We took it upon ourselves to put that to rights. And it soon turned out there were others who needed our help. So we’ve decided to make it an official business.’
Theodore searched Mrs Beck’s face for the slightest clue of what she was thinking, but learned nothing. He nodded to himself. ‘I understand why you’re angry. We have lied to you, or at least omitted some of the truth. And while we may disagree with the law, we are committing a crime in your home. You have every right to report us to the police. I hope you won’t. My dearest hope is that you can see that nothing immoral is happening in this flat. Most of the time, we are sharing a meal or talking about the weather or simply enjoying each other’s company. And I wasn’t lying when I said our business was a charity. Our aim is to help the vulnerable. And I think that’s what makes us gentlemen, more than anything else. Please let us stay.’
Mrs Beck took another sip of her tea. Hugo tightened his grip on Theodore’s hand. All they could do was wait.
‘Well,’ said Mrs Beck. ‘That was a very impassioned speech, Mr Bellamy. And I suppose it succeeded in some respect. I will not report you to the police.’
Hugo and Theodore sighed in relief.
‘However, I don’t want you in my house. As of today, you have four weeks notice to leave.’
Their faces fell. Theodore opened his mouth to protest but Hugo put a hand on his shoulder.
‘That’s more than fair,’ he said. ‘Thank you, Mrs Beck.’
‘Yes,’ said Mrs Beck. For a moment, it seemed she might say more. The conversation felt unfinished. Hugo and Theodore watched her, silently and expectantly. But after a time, it was clear this meeting was over. Without bidding them goodnight, she stood and left.
But as she passed through the door, she just caught the sound of Theodore’s voice.
‘Children of the future age,
Reading this indignant page,
Know that in a former time
Love, sweet love, was thought a crime.’