I shivered. London hadn’t had a March this cold since 1947. The weather was as unforgiving as my mother on a good day. My North Face jacket was zipped all the way to my nose and the embarrassing googly-eyed beanie that she had got me for Christmas was pulled down to my eyebrows – partly to shield me from the cold, partly to tame my in-between haircut into something presentable. On a normal day, the tranquil waters of The Serpentine, Hyde Park’s recreational lake, would be dotted with colourful rental boats. Today, even the ducks were admiring it from a distance. I dodged a group of tourists and kept rushing along its banks, schoolbag slung over my shoulder, heart in my throat. I couldn’t be late. Not for this.
I reached the Serpentine Bridge and stopped briefly to catch my breath. Moshe and Gunnar, his gargantuan bodyguards, towered over the passing tourists like two mini-mountains. For a moment, I considered turning back. And then I saw him. Tall, impassive, his navy coat in direct contrast to his silver hair. The arctic wind didn’t seem to bother him, but then he had probably experienced a lot worse in his native Sweden. Moshe whispered something in his ear. He turned in my direction and offered the slightest nod. I stepped towards him, unsure how to address him: Mr Larsson? Knut? Grandfather?
‘I got your message,’ he said, before I could decide.
I swallowed, but my mouth was dry. ‘Thank you for coming.’
A light drizzle began to fall. Passers-by quickened their pace. He pulled the collar of his coat up and caught me glancing at his bodyguards. ‘Do they make you uncomfortable?’
‘A bit. I was hoping for a private conversation.’
‘Give us some space,’ he said to his burly guardian angels.
To Moshe and Gunnar “some space” equated to roughly two and a half metres. I joined my grandfather at the edge of the bridge and rested my shivering hands on the stone balustrade. We had never been alone before – unlike me, he seemed completely at ease. I guess that, as Grand Master of the Templar Order, he had bigger things to worry about than meeting with his fifteen-year-old estranged grandson.
‘How did you know I was in London?’ he asked, gazing at the placid waters of the narrow lake stretching below us.
‘I heard about your meeting with the Prime Minister on the news channel. Jean-Claude watches it twenty-four-seven.’
‘Jean-Claude, mum’s fiancé. He’s moved in with us.’
‘Ah, yes. She is getting remarried next week, isn’t she?’
‘Yeah, big wedding in the South of France. I’m supposed to stay with dad while she’s on honeymoon, but we haven’t heard from him in five weeks. If he doesn’t show up, she’ll drag him to court and sue him for the cost of the wedding.’
‘He’ll show up,’ he said, without taking his eyes off the lake.
His confidence confirmed my suspicions about my father’s untimely disappearance: he was on a mission for the Templar Order.
After spending most of our lives apart, my father and I had only recently reconnected. In the eyes of the world, he was a failed archaeologist with an obsession for cryptozoology, who had flushed a brilliant academic career down the toilet to pursue fanciful projects. In the eyes of my mother, he was all that and a lot worse – she had never forgiven him for walking out on us shortly after my second birthday. Obsession for cryptozoology aside, my mother and the world couldn’t have been more wrong. My father, Magnus Larsson, was actually a modern-day Templar knight who regularly recovered artefacts on behalf of the order. Knut’s voice, and a particularly cold gust of wind, brought me back to earth. ‘Your message said you wanted to discuss something important,’ he said.
I couldn’t remember a single line of the speech I had prepared earlier. I scratched my head and realised that I was still wearing the googly-eyed beanie. So much for looking presentable – instead of maturity, I was conveying pure idiocy. Removing it would have involved a certain amount of hand-combing, so I decided against it. I glanced over my shoulder to make sure we couldn’t be overheard. Not a chance- people were still avoiding Gunnar and Moshe as if they were radioactive and about to explode. ‘Well,’ I began, ‘the thing is… I’ve been thinking about my future and… I’ve come to a decision.’
‘Which is?’ he asked, eyes still fixed on the lake and sensibly avoiding my startled beanie.
‘I…’ I wet my lips. ‘I would like to begin my training at Clearview.’
His face barely moved. If he ever decided to give up the Templar business, he would make a great poker player. ‘You should discuss your intentions with your father.’
‘I’ve tried. Many times. He keeps on shutting me out.’
He turned to face me. He had dad’s blue eyes, with a slightly colder tinge. ‘He has his reasons.’
I bit my lip to stop it from trembling. ‘May I speak freely?’
He blew on his hands and rubbed them together to warm them up. ‘On this occasion. For my ears only.’
I lowered my voice to a whisper. ‘At my debriefing, three months ago, my father said that the order no longer abides by monastic rules. Admission is strictly through bloodline. The honour to serve is passed down from generation to generation; from firstborn son, to firstborn son.’
‘The hereditary rules were introduced in 1307,’ said Knut. ‘It was the only way to ensure our survival.’
I tried to impress him with my knowledge of the order’s history. ‘1307 was the Templars’ darkest hour,’ I said, with more solemnity that my beanie allowed. ‘King Philippe IV was dead-set on destroying them. Realising that their days were numbered, they tasked an elite group of knights – the Chosen Twelve – with saving the Templar treasure and rebuilding the brotherhood from scratch.’
If he was impressed, he didn’t show it. ‘Our ancestor, Ulf Larsson, was an original member of the Chosen Twelve,’ he said instead, with a hint of pride. ‘Our family has been in the brotherhood for centuries.’
‘And that’s exactly why I’m here! Unless we change my father’s mind, our legacy will die with him!’
Unlike most parents, my father was adamant that I shouldn’t follow in his footsteps. He had even repudiated me within the order, effectively pulverising any chances of me joining: as far the brotherhood was concerned, and despite my birth certificate stating the contrary, I wasn’t his son.
Knut’s gaze returned to the lake. His quiet sigh was betrayed by a cloud of warm breath. ‘Magnus’s decision wasn’t taken lightly. I have never agreed with it, but we must respect it nonetheless.’
My frustration got the best of me. ‘But it’s my birthright! He shouldn’t have stripped it away in the first place! Not on a false pretence anyway! You’re in charge! Why on earth did you let him get away with it? I am his son, his bloodline.’ I paused. ‘Your bloodline. I know I’m old enough to begin my training and I want to start. I want to learn. I want to carry on the family legacy. What I do with my life should be my choice, not my father’s.’
A terse smile flashed across his thin lips. ‘Definitely Magnus’s son. Impulsive, passionate, and stubborn.’ It was hard to tell whether he appreciated or despised the qualities he had listed. His wrinkly forehead curled into a slight frown. ‘Since when have you felt this strongly about the brotherhood?’
‘Since I found out about it three months ago.’
‘Three months isn’t a very long time.’
Maybe at his age. At fifteen, it felt like an eternity. ‘I know what I want.’
‘What about your mother? She has full custody. Do you think she would let you board at Clearview?’
‘We’ve talked about it. She’s fine with it. I mean… she doesn’t know what Clearview really is because she’s in the dark about the Templars, but she’s happy for me to go boarding. It’s best for everyone. She and Jean-Claude need their space.’
‘You seem to have thought of everything.’
‘I have. All I need is for dad to change his mind. I was hoping that you could speak to him, make him see sense.’
He remained quiet for a few long seconds. ‘I very much doubt that Magnus will reverse his decision, but I will arrange a meeting to discuss your situation.’
I spread my hands. ‘If he won’t budge, what’s the point?’
He carefully gauged his next words. ‘If you are truly serious about joining the brotherhood, I may be able to help you nonetheless.’
I went more googly-eyed than the beanie. ‘How?’
‘I will explain at the meeting, with your father present.’ He pushed up his sleeve and uncovered the Patek Philippe watch that Jean-Claude was hoping to buy if he ever won the lottery. ‘My presence is required elsewhere.’ One slight nod and his bodyguards materialised next to him. ‘I will be in touch.’
I stepped forward. ‘I… I don’t know how to thank you.’
He threw an unimpressed glance at my beanie. ‘A different hat could be a start.’
‘I’ll get a new one soon,’ I said, without volunteering that my other beanies, together with a couple of PE kits, lay forgotten on the London bus network.
‘Good.’ He dusted some rain drops off his lapel. ‘And of course, you will have to tell Magnus about our chat.’
I paled. ‘I thought this was a private conversation.’
‘It was. Which is why you will tell him.’
And with that, he was gone.
A week later, I was stifling a yawn in a lavishly decorated church in the South of France. My mother’s wedding was well under-way. She hadn’t trusted me with a single task, but I had managed to mess things up anyway by growing a few centimetres taller – my tailor-made suit was no longer a perfect fit. I doubted anyone would notice, but she was terrified that my Star Wars socks would show in the photos and had relegated me to a second-row pew. The particularly industrious bridesmaid who had attempted to fix my jacket minutes before the ceremony had forgotten to remove some of the sewing pins and I felt like a smartly-dressed voodoo doll.
‘I now pronounce you husband and wife,’ boomed the priest. ‘You may kiss the bride.’
Jean-Claude, in a dark morning coat that could have belonged to a royal butler, lifted my mother’s white veil and puckered his lips the same way he did when he kissed Chantal, his beloved miniature poodle. I cringed (sometimes Chantal did too) and checked the time on my phone. The kiss was right on schedule. If I survived the next two hours and thirty-seven minutes, my father would come and rescue me from this nightmare.
Since their bitter divorce, mum had raised me in a sterile environment, completely devoid of feelings or emotions. I often wondered if our relationship would be better if I didn’t look like him – my blue eyes and light blond hair a constant reminder of a part of her life she’d rather forget. I had never thought that she was capable of love until she had met Jean-Claude in the operating theatre. She was the surgeon, he was the anaesthetist. They shared a passion for ground-breaking science, rare germs and generic dullness. Mum and Jean-Claude worked at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London and most of the wedding guests had worn scrubs at one point or another. I had no idea why they had flown them all to the South of France, they could have held the ceremony directly at the hospital and saved themselves a lot of money.
With the religious service out of the way, we drove to Chateau du Belris, the sprawling country estate where the wedding reception would be held. The impressive manor house came with an immaculate topiary garden and enough turrets to compete with Cinderella’s castle. The inside was equally magnificent. I was gaping at a sweeping staircase when a helpful usher tapped me on the shoulder and directed me to my table.
Given my desperately-single status, I had hoped I would be sitting next to the pretty girl in the pale-blue dress that I had seen at the back of the church, but mum had squashed me between an overweight cardiologist and an orthopaedic surgeon with a broken ankle. Judging by how much wine he was drinking – enough to support the French economy – he was on a mission to break the other one.
A few courses later, after yet another conversation about the weather, my phone vibrated in my pocket. I checked the notification and breathed a sigh of relief: my father was waiting outside. I excused myself – much to the joy of the cardiologist, who immediately claimed the leftovers of my cake – and scanned the tipsy crowd for my mother’s stone-sober face. I found her in the ballroom adjacent to the banquet hall, drawing a weird diagram on a piece of paper.
‘Dad’s here,’ I said.
She set her pencil down. ‘Did you see him?’
‘Ask him to come in the foyer. Knowing your father, he will have parked in front of the wrong chateau.’
‘I doubt it, but I’m perfectly capable of coming back inside if he’s not there. I’m fifteen, not five.’
She folded her diagram in half and pursed her lips in an annoyed expression. ‘Regardless of your age, Noah, I would like to go on honeymoon knowing that your father has actually picked you up. Do I have to remind you that he failed to return our calls for six weeks? Ask him to come in, it will only take a minute.’
I sighed. Despite divorcing her, my father still harboured some feelings for her. Seeing her newly married to another man couldn’t have been high on his bucket list. I dialled him. ‘You need to come in. Mum wants to make sure you’re here.’
He cursed in his native Swedish. ‘I don’t want to see her. Not today. Tell her I’m not dressed for a wedding. She’d be embarrassed.’
I edited and relayed. ‘He would love to see you, but he’s not dressed for a wedding and—’
She snatched the phone from my hand. ‘Magnus, do you have to make things difficult on my wedding day too? I have a reception to get back to and I still haven’t calculated the trajectory of the bouquet! Get in the foyer! Now!’
She marched me to the lobby to retrieve my suitcase from the cloakroom. It weighed a ton because she had forced me to pack enough Latin schoolbooks to fill the British Library. My father strode through the panelled double-doors with a dark expression on his face. He had added a grey hooded sweatshirt to his usual combo of cargo shorts and battered Converse trainers. His blond goatee beard was shorter and his hair longer than the last time I saw him, but he still had the urban-Thor look about him. He clapped my shoulder in an affectionate gesture – and jabbed one of the forgotten sewing pins deep into my arm. He barely registered my whimper: the sight of my mother in her wedding dress had knocked the air out of him. For a few long seconds, he was lost for words.
‘Hi Katie,’ he eventually said, unable to take his eyes off her. ‘You look absolutely…’ He bit his lip and dropped his gaze. ‘Congratulations.’
‘Thank you,’ she replied coldly. ‘I appreciate you looking after Noah while I’m on honeymoon. Did you speak to my lawyer?’
Inefficiency was mum’s ultimate pet hate. When she spoke, the frost in her voice could have killed a spring-flower. ‘He left you several messages, Magnus.’
He nodded once. ‘I know, I’ve been busy.’
‘Too busy to discuss your only son’s future?’ she screeched. ‘You’ve never been much of a father, but when you said you wanted to be part of Noah’s life again, I believed you. Clearly, his education isn’t one of your priorities. What’s your excuse this time? The sighting of a sea serpent? Lunch with the Yeti?’
I felt a bit sorry for him. She was totally oblivious to his Templar commitments and blamed his erratic lifestyle on a mixture of selfishness and incompetence. ‘Mum,’ I protested, ‘give him a break. He’s here now, isn’t he?’
She stiffened. We had been arguing a lot lately and she blamed my budding confidence on my stint on dad’s yacht three months before. After years as a submissive doormat, I had developed a personality. One that she didn’t like.
‘Why are you defending him?’ she said, digging her fingers into the folds of her ivory dress. ‘Do I need to remind you that every boarding school you applied to has rejected your application? Clearview is the only option left, but unless your father gets his act together, you will never get in.’
‘Clearview isn’t the right school for Noah,’ said my father curtly.
‘The location may be a bit remote,’ conceded my mother, ‘but the curriculum is impressive and its pupils seem to be going on to excellent universities. Its admission criteria clearly state that alumni’s sons have priority over everyone else. You’re an ex-pupil, Magnus. All you have to do is make a call.’
‘We’ll talk about this some other time,’ he said, curling his hand over the gilded door handle. ‘Get your stuff Noah, we should get going.’
My mother stepped forward. Her dress swished against floor. ‘Wait, you never left your itinerary with my lawyer. Will you be taking him back to Valhalla? Is she still moored in the Bahamas?’
I crossed my fingers. His yacht, Valhalla, the perfect replica of a Spanish galleon, was an awesome vessel that could have passed for Captain Blackbeard’s ship. Until one climbed aboard. Beyond her classic exterior, she came equipped with a powerful engine, a security system that would have put the Pentagon to shame, a fully-functional lab and a variety of other gadgets that Blackbeard would never have been able to operate.