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lomax61

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  1. lomax61

    Goodbye

    Nathan sat in a booth opposite Jaymes in a coffee shop at Heathrow airport, enjoying the final minutes before Jaymes' departure. Making small talk, trying to keep the mood upbeat, Nathan wracked his brain to recall the last time he'd flown. Eventually, he settled on twelve years ago, at the age of sixteen, when the school had arranged an exchange trip with another school's football team in Greece. Luton airport back then had been compact and cosy, a poor cousin to the hugely sprawling complex of Heathrow. Jaymes tried to downplay his own travelling experience, but from the tattered labels on his suitcase, Nathan knew he had visited all seven continents at least once. Today Jaymes seemed distracted, as though his mind was focused elsewhere. Nathan noticed Jaymes' right knee constantly bouncing beneath the table and him not being able to maintain his usual generous smile. Not wanting to ask, he assumed Jaymes was mulling over the complexities of the job he had waiting for him at the end of the long flight. "Sorry, Nate," said Jaymes eventually. "I know this is tough on you, but it's killing me." Jaymes raked his fingers distractedly through his hair. "I usually can't wait to get on the plane, to get a new adventure started. But things are different this time. And I can't help thinking about the last time I said goodbye to somebody I cared about, and then returned home to find—" "I am not him, Jay, and never will be. You have nothing to worry about. That kind of thing is not going to happen. Please trust me." "Do you think I don't know that? But it makes leaving you all the more difficult." Further out of character, Jayme's eyes had teared up, and Nate felt a moment of hesitation. Up until now, he had been the one in the relationship needing reassurance. How the tables had turned. Without another thought, he got up and went to sit on Jaymes' side of the booth, pulled Jaymes' head onto his shoulder and placed a steadying hand on the twitching knee. "Remember what you said to me in the Lakes? About me being the one for you? Well, the same goes for me. You're the one, Jay. Nobody in my whole life has ever come close. So think of me as your anchor. I'll be right here when you're ready to come home. And I promise to keep the fridge stocked with beer and chocolate, and the coffee machine ready to start chugging away on demand. I'll even sleep on your side of the bed to make sure it's kept toasty warm for when you come home. How does that sound?" Nathan warmed inside when he heard a happy chuckle rumble through Jaymes. "I don't deserve you, Nate." "Probably not. But you're stuck with me now." While he had been speaking, a young blond girl dressed in the purple cafe uniform appeared with their drinks. While putting them down on the table, she glanced nervously at Nathan and Jaymes and smiled genuinely, before uttering one single word: adorable. As soon as she had left, Jaymes nudged Nathan's shoulder. "You are adorable, you know? She's dead right." "She's talking about us." Happily, the exchange seemed to defuse the tension, and they each reached to sample their drinks. "Should have delayed a day, so I could be there for your semi-finals tomorrow." "And another week, so you could be there for the calendar launch? Or another month so you could attend the fete? At that rate, you'd never have left." "Maybe that's not such a bad—" "We talked about this. You're doing what you love. Which makes me love you even more." Nathan felt Jaymes relax next to him and smiled. "By the way, Nate, please thank Grant for doing me a favour and filling in for you today. Again. And Clifton for the use of his car and driver. That was really kind of him." Nathan hadn't been sure when Clifton first offered. A favour for a favour, he'd called it. Although being able to sit in the roomy back seat with Jaymes, to chat and sit pressed up against each other without any other distraction had been fantastic. "I will." "What time are you meeting him tonight? For your 'live on the red carpet' moment?" Nathan sighed aloud. Jaymes laughed and squeezed his arm around Nathan's shoulder. "Thanks for reminding me. Seven-thirty. I wish I could just stay at home." "Hey, it'll do you good, getting out of the house. And I want a full account of the night, all the stars you bumped into, and what they're like in real life." Nathan laughed. "Whatever you want." "And don't drink too much bubbly stuff. The last thing you need is a hangover for your semi-finals. And text me to let me know how you did." "As long as I get a call from you, the moment you've landed." "Yeah, best if I text. I arrive at Kota Kinabalu airport midmorning, which translates to the early hours over here. We can video-chat later tomorrow, once I'm settled. So I can show you my luxury digs." Jaymes had already told Nathan about the threadbare accommodation usually accompanying his trips, with usually four or more to a room. Not that he spent much time in them, anyway. "Photos too, please. I'm going to buy a couple of small clocks for the kitchen; one with London time, the other with Malaysian. So I know when to call you." Jaymes sighed and kissed the top of Nathan's head. "Still wish I could put you in my case." "Me too. But it's already checked in." Arms around each other's waists, they strolled to the departure section of the airport. For a change, according to Jaymes, there was no long queue of travellers waiting to head through to immigration control, and they enjoyed a lengthy hug goodbye before Jaymes released Nathan and disappeared into the bowels of the airport. Nathan stared at the empty doorway. When a stream of people pushed past him, he moved out of the way and stood one side of a shop window, opposite the departure portal, feeling self-conscious and inconsequential. On the way there, he had planned to stay longer at the airport, to find a viewing gallery and watch as Jaymes' plane took off. Overwhelmed and confused by the number of signs and volume of people milling around, he had almost given up on the idea. But Jaymes had promised to send him a text message as soon as he was on board, so Nathan wandered around until he found an information desk where two airport staff—one male, one female—stood chatting. Nathan waited before interrupting, amused to overhear their topic of conversation. "…an absolute dream, if you ask me. Did you see him on horseback in Prince in the Snow? Thighs to die for. Or between. Whatever works." "You're just gushing 'cause he bats for your team. Don't you find him just a little plastic? A bit too good looking?" "Are you kidding me," said the man, before nodding his head to somewhere behind Nathan. "Look at him over there, sultry and smouldering. He's pure sex on legs." Nathan turned startled, fully expecting to see Clifton striding towards them. Instead, he realised they were referring to a huge poster suspended above the shops advertising the pilot episode of Candlelight, the new television thriller starring Clifton O'Keefe and Helen Monash. In the advertisement, Clifton strolled purposefully down an archetypal English country lane, with his co-star, Helen, just behind his right shoulder and looking equally stern. "Sorry, sir, excuse my colleague's appalling taste. Can I help you with something?" With the help of the woman, he discovered a reasonably quiet bar on a mezzanine level, one overlooking the external airport complex. And even though he had no idea which runway Jaymes' plane would take off from, he installed himself at a small table by the window and ordered a toasted sandwich and a pot of tea, determined to make them both last. When his order arrived, he sat back in his chair, sipped his drink, and thought back on the incredible year. So much had happened. Getting photographed almost entirely naked for a team calendar, reconnecting with Cliff, his childhood sweetheart and now a famous film and television star, meeting a cousin from Melbourne he never knew he had, and finally finding out the fate of his mother. But the best part had been meeting Jaymes, the catalyst for this new, improved version of Nathan Fresher. Jaymes had somehow unlocked something in Nate and made him feel wanted, even when they weren't together. Last night, they'd made love the whole evening, each of them taking turns to memorise the other's body, to brand each curve, each muscle, each groove into memory for the lonely nights to come. Instead of being melancholy at missing Jaymes, Nathan recognised he had someone who would always be there for him, someone not far from his thoughts, someone whose mere existence could make him smile even when he was working thousands of miles away. As though hearing his thoughts, Nathan's phone beeped with a message. Jay: About to close the doors. Miss me yet? Nathan snorted aloud. Jaymes' telepathy seemed to be working well today. Nate: What do you think? Of course. Safe trip, Jay. Jay: Gonna miss you too. But I'll be home before you know it. Nate: I'm already crossing off the days. Jay: Just got told to turn off my phone. Love you baby. Will txt when I get to KK. Nate: Love you too. Come back to me soon. Nathan fixed his gaze outside the airport window. Eventually, he picked out the distinctive design on the tail of a plane, one that had to be Jaymes' flight. Hiking in a deep breath, he heard the muffled sound of engines roar and watched as the implausibly large jet aircraft trundled slowly down the runway, nose tilting up, before gliding almost in slow motion into the air. Moments later, the plane had breached low hanging clouds and disappeared into the daytime sky. Nathan sat there, his gaze frozen to the spot in the clouds, the vanishing point, waiting for something to happen. Maybe he expected a massive wave of abandonment to overtake him, or a bolt of lightning to illuminate the sky and strike the tarmac, just—something. But nothing came. And why should it? Just like someone going to work in the morning, Jaymes would be coming home. Maybe not today, but he would be coming back to him. Even though he'd said so, deep inside, Nathan knew the truth and instantly felt the warm comfort of certitude. Leaning back, he inhaled a deep breath and held on. But his mind had not quietened. Waiting in the wings, a measured voice of a woman sounded out, told him to stand up, get moving, take control, and get busy. Even though the voice came as a bucket of icy water over the head, the effect startled him in a positive way, empowering, invigorating, as he released air from his lungs. After paying up and texting the driver, he noticed a spring in his step as he made his way to the carpark. Tomorrow, he would rally his teammates, and they would play their best game of the season. He would also ensure a full turnout on Tuesday, not just the players, but their family and friends. Tuesday would be a knockout. Outside in the car park, the air felt fresh on his skin, and despite the distinctive and all-pervading stench of aviation fuel, Nathan made his way with a positive stride through the rows of parked vehicles, to the waiting Lexus. As he approached, the driver lowered the automatic front window, nodded once, before opening the sliding back door. Smiling to himself at the opulence, he almost missed the long pair of tracksuit wearing legs inside the back, sitting on the far side. "Thought you could do with some friendly company right about now?" came a familiar voice. When the door of the car had fully opened, the handsomely grinning face leant into view. Clifton. Nathan faltered a moment, but then regained his new composure. Clifton's company might be a good distraction, keeping him from any melancholy thoughts. He settled in the back and clicked his seatbelt in place, as the door of the car slid closed. With a quick word from Clifton to the driver, the vehicle moved soundlessly forward, navigating the labyrinth of the carpark. "I'll go home first, change for tonight." "No need. I've got plenty of clothes back at my grandparents' house. You and I are still around the same build. What shoe size are you? Nine?" "Ten." "I'm nine and a half, but a couple of those are loose, so they'll fit you fine. And I have the perfect Armani black tie combination. You'll rock the look. I, on the other hand, have to wear another Alain Pouchard creation, part of a commercial arrangement. Bit of a bore having to put on the same designer for every public event, but the two-year sponsorship is insanely lucrative." Nathan peered over at Clifton as he talked and studied him, really studied him. Maybe he'd missed the signs the first time, been starstruck by his old flame, but Clifton's confidence had begun to resemble arrogance. Had the unflinching exterior, the overconfidence, been a simple acting job designed to impress his audience? Back at school, he'd known the shy, almost introverted kid who had apparently only joined the football team to please Nathan. But Nathan knew nothing about Clifton O'Keefe, the movie star. Maybe he ought to correct that particular oversight. "I've never asked, Cliff. Do you ever get involved in other types of work? Charities, or other causes?" "Are you kidding? Not unless I absolutely have to. Giorgio usually steers me right on those types of gigs. If it means getting airtime—Comic Relief days or something resembling Live Aid—or an event that will get me in the good books of my fans, then he'll usually stick my hand up and volunteer me." "But surely you're the face of some charitable organisation or another?" "God, have you been speaking to Raul? I do whatever Giorgio tells me to do. And anyway, at the moment most charities won't come near me." Nathan wasn't so sure. After Clifton's sexual exploitation as a college student, now out there in the public domain, surely there would be plenty of anti-bullying and anti-trolling organisations happy to have him as their spokesperson. Maybe he needed to work on Clifton. "So here we are. Two lonely, good looking guys separated from their loved ones. What could we possibly do to pass the time and make us both feel better?" "I thought you said Raul was coming home tonight?" "He flies tonight but doesn't land until tomorrow morning around six-thirty. And we've got three hours until hair and makeup arrive. Two, before we need to shower and change. Any suggestions?" "Not really." "Want to hear mine?" Nathan looked across at Clifton, his brows furrowed. "I'm not sure. Do I?" "Relax, Nathan. Just hear me out, okay? Before you decide." Nathan took a deep, steadying breath before staring out the car window. "Go ahead." ***** An hour in Clifton's grandparent's temperature-controlled jacuzzi sipping on glasses of appletini, followed by a simultaneous manicure and massage by professionals Clifton had magicked up, and Nathan felt positively rejuvenated. Getting dressed together in Clifton's bedroom afterwards, trying on one bowtie after another, laughing and throwing socks at each other, giggling like school kids, and Nathan finally remembered why they had been best friends. In the jacuzzi, Clifton had given Nathan the rundown on the evening, about what to expect. Although the dinner event would be much smaller than those of the usual award ceremony season, explained Clifton, Nathan still might be approached by the media, so best to be prepared. "The Evening Chronicle Film and Stage Awards, and in case they ask you, I'm up for the Breakthrough Performance Award for the lead role in Tangerine Smile." "Cliff, I didn't see the film. What should I tell them if they do ask me?" "Okay, a quick synopsis. My character, Stevie O'Neill, of Irish descent, and recently returned from active overseas service with the British army. Stevie now works in Borough Market on the family fruit and veg stall, with his father and two uncles, together with his sister who has cerebral palsy, who they take along because she loves being with them. The four men always work late on a Saturday evening, and Stevie is told that one of them heads to a local cafe a few streets away to buy snacks and teas to keep them going until closing. They toss a coin, and Stevie loses. Stevie suspects his uncle has used a double-headed coin he has often boasted about. As he grumbles and is about to leave, his sister gives him a smile with tangerine peel in her mouth, something they'd often do with each other for fun, which makes him laugh. Anyway, as he's standing in line in the cafe, he notices three men outside, arguing urgently together with one guy clearly in charge. Eventually, a white van pulls up, the side door opens, and they all pile in. With his military training embedded in him, Stevie still sees danger everywhere and makes a mental note of the number plate. As he finally gets to the front of the queue, about to place his order, an explosion from outside rattles the cafe window. Amid screams and confusion, Stevie pushes back against the rampaging crowd until he reaches his family's stall, but finds nothing left standing, and only part of his sister's torso lying beneath her overturned wheelchair. The rest of the movie is Stevie trying to find the three guys he believes killed his family, something the police put down to an act of terrorism, but which turns out to be far more personal and sinister." "Not a musical, then?" "Maybe next time," said a grinning Clifton. "So if they ask you for your favourite scene—" "I'll tell them the opening sequence after the bomb goes off. And if they ask me who's my favourite actor, of course, I'll tell them it's you, and that your performance is not only award-winning but nothing short of Oscar-worthy." "Good man. In which case, you're now up to speed." Nathan could not believe the fuss in getting ready for a night out. Hair washed, cut and styled by professionals, nails and teeth checked and fussed over, attire assessed by Clifton's image team, tweaking one thing or another. He only drew the line at having makeup applied, something Clifton seemed to take for granted. In the car on the way, Nathan relaxed again, the cocktails still in his bloodstream. Clifton's mind appeared to be otherwise occupied. "To be absolutely honest, there's so much competition this year, and what with everything else that's gone down for me recently, I'm unlikely to win. So although I've got a simple acceptance speech—just in case—I've mainly practiced my brave, happy-for-the-winner, expression, just in case anyone is filming." "Your day will come, Cliff." "Oh my God, you really are Raul. That's exactly what he would say." "You do know what a great couple you two make, don't you?" "Of course. And I do love him, Nathan. But now with kids coming along—I don't know—it feels as though the world is closing in, as though everyone expects me to grow up. And I'm not sure I'm ready for someone to call me dad just yet." "Ah, so that's it. Peter Pan syndrome. Polly, my teacher friend, tells me that most of the dads at her school seem to revert back to childhood once kids appear on the scene. Yes, of course, they have to shoulder the new responsibility, but they're also given liberty—encouraged even—to play with their kids, especially once they're up and running around on their own two feet. Child psychologists reckon fathers who associate with their kids from an early age, are far more likely to maintain a healthy bond throughout their lives." "Thank you, Freud. So do you think I'll make a good father?" "I think you'll make an awesome father. I hope you realise that Raul is going to spoil them rotten and cave in instantly whenever they ask for any tiny little thing—" "Yeah, well, that's not going to happen." "Which is why you guys are the perfect parenting double-act." Clifton sat smiling, appeared to be digesting Nathan's words "In the meantime," he said, staring out the window. "I still haven't done everything I want. Not quite. There are a couple of things I need to get out of my system before I take the next grown-up step." At the venue in the heart of London, rows of freshly cleaned cars pulled up spilling equally polished guests onto the pavement, but the event seemed nothing like the grand scale of the ceremonies Nathan had seen on television. Very few fans turned up to catch sight of the celebrities, and the press waited inside, not out, taking pictures of people against the ceremonial backdrop, a long plastic hanging complete with logos of the sponsors showcased along one wall of the spacious corridor leading to the main auditorium. Even dinner seemed uneventful; a three-course meal of bland tomato soup, grilled chicken, and lemon sorbet. Once the meal had finished, and coffees had been served, the award ceremony began. By ten o'clock, Nathan wished he had only been invited along for the edited highlights. Apart from Clifton's name being called out as a nominee, Nathan had heard of nobody. As Clifton predicted, he didn't win the award in his category but produced a convincing suck-it-up smile for the other eight guests gathered on his table. During a break, several people came up and spoke to Clifton, one or two whose names Nathan knew, but many he didn't. Apart from sharing a few words in between courses, Clifton spoke very little, and at one point, Nathan wondered why Giorgio had not been invited. Until the awards came to an end and many seated got up to stretch their legs and mingle. Giorgio appeared out of nowhere—possibly because he'd been relegated to a table further from the stage—and nodded to Nathan before whisking Clifton away. Nathan continued to sip his coffee at the almost empty table, feeling completely out of his depth, while people chatted loudly behind and around him. A couple of times, he checked his phone, hoping for a message from Jaymes but calculated the times and realised he would still be in the air. Just as he'd popped his phone back in his pocket, and decided to escape the party, to leave Clifton a text message and find his own way back home, someone tapped him on the shoulder. "Nathan Fletcher?" came a voice Nathan would rather not have heard, the tone making Nathan's spine stiffen. "It's Lawrence, Lawrence Cotterbourne. Remember me? We met at the cast party for Candlelight?" "Yes, of course. Hello, Lawrence," said Nathan, turning awkwardly in his seat, shaking Lawrence's hand over the back of the chair and trying to sound genuine. "Lovely to see you again. Who brought you?" "I'm here with Clifton O'Keefe." "Really? No Jaymes?" "Jaymes is in Malaysia." "Oh. Is he now?" Lawrence's innuendo was plain, his attitude bordering on supercilious, as though he had won a long-standing argument. "So how are sales of your naked calendar coming along? After all that free publicity, I sincerely hope they made you the centrefold." Clearly, Lawrence had been waiting to make this overloud pronouncement, which caused many heads in the vicinity—possibly those of reporters, who could tell?—who had not previously noticed Nathan, to turn. Nathan quickly scanned the room to see if he could spot Clifton, to send out a silent distress signal, but he only spied a sea of black evening suits and low cut evening dresses. "Only, I noticed it had gone on sale already. Bet it's selling like hotcakes. Or should I say, hot buns?" Having dealt his blow, Lawrence quickly moved off several feet away, singling out one of the female rubberneckers, who assessed Nathan with renewed interest. Lawrence clearly knew her because Nathan could make out snippets of his one-way conversation, executed in a ridiculous theatrical tone. "……featured in HuffPost online, darling……absolutely starkers……runs his own baker's shop……yes, sweetie, a real-life baker……photo was molten, laid out on a baker's table……but somewhat unhygienic, if you want my honest opinion……arrived tonight with Clifton O'Keefe…… anybody's guess……wonder if anyone told poor Raul." Nathan felt his usually dormant temper begin to prickle and then spike. In the past, he might have sat by, unruffled, done the noble thing, and chosen to tune out Lawrence. But not anymore. Standing abruptly, he moved with polite but assertive speed through the wedge of people standing nearby until he came face-to-face with the woman, whose bright blue eyes widened on his approach. Without acknowledging Lawrence, he faced her head on, her attention immediately drawn to him. "Sorry, you are?" "This is—" "I'm talking to her, Lawrence, not you." Nathan heard a couple of hissed intakes of breath, and sensed the conversations around them reduce in volume. "Madeleine Manners. I work for the Chronicle." "Nice to meet you, Madeleine," he said, reaching out and shaking her hand. "And from what I overheard, I guess you already know who I am. While I apologise for interrupting, I'm sure you want some validation on what your—uh—acquaintance here has been spouting. Either he has an overactive imagination, or a penchant for salacious and, frankly, libellous gossip. So, for the sake of keeping things civil, I'm going to run with the former. For the record, Raul knows about me being here with Clifton tonight and fully approves. He'd be here himself, if not for being out of the country attending a charity function in San Paolo. In fact, it was Clifton's mother who asked me to accompany Clifton tonight as a favour to them both." By now, within the close proximity anyway, Nathan could almost hear a pin drop. "As for the calendar, this is something most of our village football team agreed to do as a part of Crumbington's upcoming fête. Nothing explicit, you understand, just a bit of fun, and the proceeds will go to a local charity; St Joseph's school for physically challenged children. In fact, we're having a calendar launch party in the village hall next Tuesday, if you'd like to attend. And despite the ordeals he has been through recently, Clifton—together with his husband, Raul—has agreed to open and attend the day of our fête. Because that's the kind of generous, big-hearted person he is and, in turn, our village community fully supports him, supports them both. So if you want a story with a positive spin, one that could give us a boost with some upbeat publicity, then I would be eternally grateful if you focus on that particular angle." Nathan turned to leave, but then a thought came to him. "Of course, if you're simply looking for dirt, then I suggest you ask Lawrence to give you an account of the cast party in Oxford for Candlelight, which took place at the house used in the series and was arranged by the two wonderful gentlemen who own the property. Yes, there's nothing particularly gossip-worthy about that, but Lawrence might be persuaded to give you intimate details about his own little private party-within-a-party in the upstairs cloakroom, which allegedly has become something of a tradition with him and his buddies. And if you need any corroboration, I'm sure Giorgio Costello, Clifton's manager—who happened to stumble in on them and shut them down before the police were called—would be more than happy to provide details." Madeleine's unwavering and humoured smirk gave Nathan the impression his revelation was old news to her. Finished now, he turned his attention to a pale-faced and pouting Lawrence. "Lawrence. Over to you." Without a backward glance, Nathan strode off through the crowds, heading to the restroom. With annoyance still bubbling in the pit of his stomach, he needed to escape the circus. After washing up, he texted a message to Clifton and made to leave. Outside the bathroom, however, Giorgio was waiting for him. As soon as he exited, Giorgio singled him out, his arms folded, a grim look on his face. Nathan didn't care. If Giorgio wanted to berate him for what he had said, then so be it. He would do the same again, without changing a word. Instead, Giorgio's face transformed into his trademark toothy grin. Without asking permission, he took Nathan by the elbow and led him to a quiet corner of the hall. "I've contacted Clifton's driver, asked him to wait out front to take you home. By now, I'm sure you've had enough. But Clifton's still doing the rounds, networking, and won't be finished for at least another hour. So I'll take over the babysitting duties from you." While they talked, Giorgio had been peering out at the guests, his gaze sweeping the room like a secret service agent. Finally, they came to rest on Nathan. "As for you, Nathan Fresher, you are full of surprises. I've no idea what you said back there to Madeleine Manners, Editor in Chief of the Chronicle, but the whole room is abuzz. Says she wants to have a word with me later about Clifton. And something about coming to your calendar launch next week. So I'm guessing that must be your doing." "Did she ask you anything about Lawrence the asshole?" Giorgio snorted, and for the first time, Nathan thought Giorgio might even be enjoying himself. "No comment. But let me just say, thanks for the referral. Now, go on home, before you cause any more trouble." Nathan didn't need telling twice, and once again began to leave. "Oh, and before you go. Tell your committee to expect an exceptional turnout for both the calendar launch and the fête. Sounds like Madeleine's going to make sure The Chronicle covers both." After thanking Giorgio, Nathan strolled down the hall corridor, walking on air and feeling every bit as important as the roomful of celebrities he had just left behind. And right then, an impossible idea came to him. Impossible in the sense that, in the past, he would have shrugged off or laughed the idea away. But now, he stopped for a moment, let the idea form into something tangible, considered the immediate pros and cons, before tucking the proposal into a pending section of his brain, ready for further analysis. Something had definitely changed. Because right now, everything felt like a possibility.
  2. lomax61

    May

    Subject: Fifth Meeting of the Crumbington Summer Fête Committee: Thursday 4 May Attendees: Arlene Killjoy (chair); Doris Watts; Nathan Fresher; Polly Fischer; Arbuthnot Mulligan; Michael Stanton Ten minutes after the official start of the meeting, Nathan sat alone in his usual plastic seat in the village hall, staring at his open palms. Although the chairs had been laid out in the standard semi-circle, neither Father Mulligan nor Doris Watts appeared to be around. Grateful for the quiet time—the shop had been chaotic all day—he sat back and stared into space. Something had shifted in him, and he couldn't pinpoint exactly what. Margaret's revelation had undoubtedly played a part. He simply had no idea what had changed. After she dropped him back home on that day over a week ago, he'd spent the evening pouring his heart out to poor Jaymes, trying to piece together old memories, trying to find clues maybe he missed from his childhood. Jaymes had been nothing less than a saint. "What about other friends and family?" "That's the thing, there weren't any. My mother may have been friendly to everyone, but she was close to nobody. Except, perhaps, Margaret. Mum was an only child and her parents—who I never met—died years ago. Apparently, it was she who insisted on having no funeral. So, at her request, my father spent some of her life assurance monies sorting out a simple cremation and the rest getting the bench arranged with the local authority in Hastings." “I thought you mentioned remembering your father and grandfather closing the shop to attend a funeral. Was that someone else, then?” “No. Apparently, that was the day they went to Hastings to scatter her ashes in the sea.” Jaymes nodded but passed no judgement. After a few moments of silent reflection, Jaymes spoke. "Do you hate him?" Nathan turned to Jaymes, stunned at the question. "My father? Why would I hate him?" "For keeping the truth from you all these years? Some people might call what did cruel." Nathan thought about that for a moment. "No, I don't," said Nathan eventually. "And as for those people you refer to, whoever they may be, if they knew my father they'd know he didn't have a cruel bone in his body. I may not agree with what he did or entirely understand, but I don't hate him. What would be the point? If I had any hate in me—and I no longer do—it was directed at my mother for deserting us. And what a waste of emotion that turned out to be. I am not going to be one of those people feeding off their own hatred, blaming others for the shortfalls in the lives instead of actually living. I am stronger than that. As for my father? We're all flawed in this life, we all have our weaknesses. Poor man, I think he was lost, still mourning the loss of my mother up until the day he died. I have to remember that she didn't just leave me, she left him, too. My father had the love of his life ripped from him. Something I do remember is that it killed him to talk about her. The second time I had an argument with him about her—a blazing row that time—he cried in front of me. And for someone always so restrained, that shocked me to the core. Except I was upset too, so I locked myself in my room and cried the whole evening, vowed never to speak to him again. But then I suddenly got scared that he might up and leave me, too. So I went and told him I was sorry, that I loved him, and vowed to myself never to mention her leaving again." Jaymes nodded his understanding, allowed Nathan's thoughts to settle before going on. "Do you wish you'd never known? Wish Margaret had kept the secret?" Perhaps the answer should have been easier, but Nathan had to weigh up what Jaymes meant. Would he better off not knowing? "That would be easy, wouldn't it? But no, definitely not. Although I am still processing exactly what this means to me if that makes sense?" "Of course. I'm so proud of you, Nate." "But Jaymes, please. Don't ever keep secrets from me. Big or small, however bad it might be, I want you to be honest with me. I don't want anybody else thinking they know best and vetting what I'm told in this life." Instead of answering with words, Jaymes pulled him into a tight hug, kissed him on the side of the head until his body began to relax, and eventually, his mind stopped churning. But now he kept having a recurring dream, disturbing, not about his mother but about Jaymes. They sat together on a tube train late at night. On which line, Nathan had no idea. Opposite from each other, Nathan observed every little movement of Jaymes' face as he talked, each one a tell, each sentence ending in a smile. Even though Nathan couldn't hear Jaymes’ words above the roar of the train, he loved his partner’s expressive eyes; cobalt blue, and thick, honeyed eyebrows, holding a promise of untold pleasures once they reached their final destination. And then Jaymes' face changed, posing a question, an invitation. Nodding his chin a couple of times towards the glass window of the carriage door separating their car from the next which contained barely any commuters, he was soundlessly urging Nathan to join him. With his usual enthusiasm, he bounded up from his seat and stood one side of the closed door, beckoning Nathan to follow. But when he pulled the portal wide open, an unnatural and crippling terror consumed Nathan, as though Jaymes had unleashed something evil and unspeakable. When Nathan looked through the doorway, the view did not show the other carriage, but a total absence of light. Except when Nathan's gaze drew closer, the darkness was not complete but punctuated by white pinpricks of light, like a summer night sky, cloudless and untainted by skyglow. In spite of Nathan's desperate warning which went unheard, Jaymes stepped into the darkness and disappeared, leaving Nathan alone in the carriage, terrified and sobbing. Each time the dream occurred, he woke up panting for breath, his heart racing, trying to get his bearings and wondering what the hell the vision meant. And that very morning, as if Nathan didn't have enough to contend with, Jaymes showed him the email confirming his flights to Malaysia. The final nail in the coffin of their separation. Gentle reminders had already been popping up; more early morning conference calls, finding Jaymes' huge suitcase open on the bed of the usually closed guest bedroom, items like towels and handkerchiefs and rainwear already packed. When Nathan spotted this, he backed out of the room and pulled the door closed. What the eye doesn't see. Maybe his father's blood did run through his veins. At least with Jaymes, he'd known he would be leaving from the start, knew there was nothing clandestine about his departure. Since their intimate chat at the Lakes, neither had mentioned the looming deadline. "Did you meet with Margaret, dear?" came Doris' voice, bringing him out of his reverie. "Evening, Doris. Yes, I did. Last Wednesday." "How is she," she asked, coming to sit next to him. "She's looking good. I think LA-life agrees with her." "And?" said Doris, looking hopeful. "What did she want? What was this favour she mentioned?" "Nothing big. She wants me to accompany Clifton to an awards ceremony later this month. His husband's not in town, and she feels he needs a friend right now. I checked with Jaymes, and he's fine." "That's good. Good of you to do that." "She also told me about my mother." "What about her?" "She didn't run away, she passed away. Back in 2001." Doris blinked at him a couple of times as though she didn't hear properly. Eventually, she gently shook her head and squeezed together her old hands, one in the other, resting in her lap. "I'm so sorry to hear that, dear," said Doris, looking apologetically at Nathan. "But I have to say, it makes more sense than her running off with somebody. She and your father seemed so happy together, especially when you came along. But that explains Margaret's hesitation on the phone. When she called last month, she asked me how you were, and I told her you were lovely as ever, but still missing your mother, still fretting about why she upped and went. I can't remember her exact words, but I remember she let out one of her long sighs—as though she's ever known what it's like to have the weight of the world on her shoulders—and said something like, looks like it’s down to me, then. That's when she asked me for your number. Poor Ellie. I'm glad she's at peace now." "You didn't know? She told you nothing?" "Your mother? Heavens, no. For all her friendliness to people, she had very few close friends—not that I could tell. I can only guess Margaret Hogmore was one because you and her son were of the same age. They had little else in common, Margaret with her expensive tastes, and la-dee-da airs and graces." Margaret had said the same thing about his mother. As a child, he never saw that side of her. But Doris’ assessment of Margaret was spot on. "I thought you and Margaret were friends?" "I'd hardly call it friends. She rarely called, and then never just for a chat. Usually, she needed me to do something, or find out some information for her." "Like needing someone to do a favour for her son?" "Exactly," said Doris, smiling. "But I got the impression she was going to do that over the phone. I'm glad you had the chance to catch up with her. Face to face." "Me too." Father Mulligan entered and took his seat, clutching a book to his chest which Nathan thought to be the Good Book, but which was more likely to be the committee accounts. Once he had nodded a greeting, Doris turned to Nathan and, in a hushed voice, spoke again. "Can I confess something I'm a little ashamed of?” Nathan wasn't sure he wanted to hear any more confessions, but nodded his assent anyway. "As I told you, Ned and I never had children of our own, not because we didn't want to, because we couldn't. So when I heard your mother was pregnant with you, I'm ashamed to admit I resented her. Yes, publicly I congratulated her and your father, even arranged for one of my best bouquets to be sent to the hospital. But I was still envious. And envy is a horrible emotion, Nathan. Pointless and all-consuming. After you were born, I rarely spoke to your mother, and then she was gone. Of course, her disappearance was scandalous tittle-tattle for us old women. And then one day you came into my shop with your father. You must have been around nine or ten. I'd never properly met you before then—seen you in the bakery from time to time. When he formally introduced us, and you shook my hand, you had a little lost look about you. But when you caught my eye, you gave me such a bright, wonderful smile. Right then, my heart broke for you. So I saved those rings up, looking for the right time to give them to you when it looked as though happiness might be within your grasp. So it warms my heart to see you're wearing them now. If anyone deserves a little happiness—" Right at that moment, Arlene burst into the room, looking flustered. "Looks like Boudicca has arrived on her chariot," said Doris, patting his arm, before sitting back in her chair and folding her arms. "I'll talk to you later." "Okay," said Arlene, placing her handbag on the chair next to her, and plucking out a file and pen, before staring at her wristwatch. "Where is everyone? Heavens, can't anybody be on time? We need to make this meeting quick, get things over with as soon as possible. My husband's picking me up from outside at eight o'clock sharp. And he has less patience than the current American president." As she finished the last sentence, Polly and Mikey strolled casually into the hall, chatting together. "Quick march, quick march, you two. Am I the only person in this committee who knows the meaning of the word punctuality?" Nathan should have taken affront, but he could not help smirking at the sight of Polly and Mikey. Considering Polly usually spent her day rounding up and hushing kids, Arlene doing the same to her and Mikey amused the hell out of him. Without a glance at this week's agenda—something Arlene chose to ignore completely—she launched straight into her own list of items. "First thing I need to voice, only because I've heard a few grumbles from within our community. Bearing in mind all the recent salacious publicity, should we consider cancelling Clifton O'Keefe and his partner for the opening ceremony and general proceedings? What do you think?" "Now hang on—" began Nathan. "Are you serious?" added Polly, almost at the same time. "Don't be ridiculous," said Doris, even though she was already resting her eyes. Arlene certainly knew how to keep the committee members alert. Nathan waited until everyone had stopped talking before taking up the reins. "If we cancel, it's tantamount to agreeing with all those vicious, homophobic media trolls who want to see them both crash and burn. We should be setting an example, sending a positive message that Crumbington supports all of its citizens; past and present, no matter what. Not shutting the door in their faces.” "Hear, hear," said Father Mulligan. "And what's that saying?" said Mikey. "'There's no such thing as bad publicity—'" "'—except your own obituary.'" finished Polly smugly, which had the whole room chuckling. "Brendan Behan. Irish poet and writer." Arlene waited until everyone had calmed down before she continued. "Well. Looks as though that's not even a matter for debate," she said, smiling. "So let's move on to my next concern. The ducking stool. Polly. Can we have an update?" "Equipment’s all arranged. A couple of volunteers, but nobody people would happily throw sopping wet sponges at or care enough to drown. I don't suppose you'd consider sitting, Arlene?" Arlene provided a thin, humoured smile in return, as though sucking on a sherbet lemon. "Need to get your finger out, Polly. Everyone else here is pulling their weight. Father Mulligan. How are we getting on with the insurance cover for the event?" "Oh, um. Well, our local solicitor and insurance representative, Gupta Mahtani usually deals with that. I've been rather busy lately—" "I can sort that out," said Nathan, looking up when he thought he heard the distant tooting of a car horn from outside. "I've got to see him about some other business, so I can happily kill two birds, so to speak. Will he know what it's about?" "Yes," said Father Mulligan. "He does the same thing for us every year. Has for the past seven years." "Leave it with me, then." "And as for you, Nathan. When is your team playing again?" "This Sunday. Semi-finals in the sports stadium at Eastbourne." "Well, make sure you win. We're getting more and more interest in the calendar and the player raffle with every match you win. Pre-sales are off the charts. How many, Doris?" When eyes turned to Doris, she still had her eyes closed. “Around six hundred and twenty now," said Father Mulligan, on her behalf. "You see? Not even a single foot has stepped onto the fête grounds, and already we've made more than last year. And talking of the calendar, the launch on the eighteenth is all arranged. Caterers are confirmed, Jenny will be there to take any questions about her concept and the shoot, I've alerted all my contacts in the press, and I will do a short presentation to the audience to promote the calendar and the upcoming fête. Apart from committee members, I expect all of the team to be there, Nathan, to sign calendars. So please remind them. The printed calendars will only be sent from printers the day before, but Jenny has proofed them and is extremely happy with the finished product. So make sure all of the team is there." "I'll do my best." "In which case," said Arlene, who had already started packing her handbag. Once again, an impatient car horn sounded from outside. "I call this meeting to a close and see you all on the eighteenth. All we need now are people to turn out, so rally around everyone and pray for a rain-free evening. After that, we have one more meeting before the big event. Please make sure everything is on target for our next get-together because I'll want a full update from each of you. Have a nice evening." With the bag dangling from the crook of her arm, Arlene marched out of the hall. A frozen tableau, everyone watched her go. "All clear, Dolly," said Father Mulligan, patting Doris on the shoulder. "You can open your eyes now." "Sherry time?" said Doris, cranking her eyes open and smiling at Father Mulligan. "Any other business, anyone?" said Polly, standing and mimicking Arlene's stiff pose, with her shopping bag dangling from her arm. “Tough luck. Meeting's already ended. Ta-ta." Mikey and Nathan laughed at Polly, walking stiffly, affectedly, towards the door. "Pub?" said Nathan, to Mikey. "Can't tonight. Wife's parents are staying, so I need to get home." "No problem. See you at the coach on Sunday. Ten-thirty pick-up. Polly, are you coming to the pub? Jaymes is going to be late, and I need some company." "Try and stop me." In the pub, Grant arrived just as Polly had gone to the bar to buy a round of drinks. Polly had obviously texted him on their way. After Jaymes, Grant had been the next person he spoke to about his mother. Of all people, Grant was no stranger to family secrets and sympathised genuinely. Tonight, he led Nathan to a quiet corner table, wanting to have a quick chat. Looking furtively over his shoulder, Nathan guessed the reason had something to do with their family and his recent discovery about his mother. He guessed incorrectly. "Look, cuz. I've asked Polly to come back to Melbourne with me over winter—I mean, your summer. For a holiday during her school holidays. Spend the whole month of July with me at my place in Melbourne. She's never been, and it's on her list of places to see. I just want to know if you're okay with that?" "Of course, I'm okay," said Nathan quickly, trying to smile. "Why wouldn't I be?" But in truth, he was not okay at all. Something in the idea unsettled him. Jaymes would be gone by then, and now both Grant and Polly would not be there. Just as everything had settled to a new normal. "I'd invite you, too. But, you know, with the shop and all." "No, it's fine. I completely understand. And yes, of course, Polly should go. I'd just—um—got used to having you around." "I'm not going forever, mate. I'll be back in September to finalise my UK passport. Some interview or another, something your Home Office insists on me attending. But I just wanted to make sure you're okay with me inviting Polly to come with." "I told you I am. She should definitely go. She'll love the place." "She will, right? And I promise she'll be back with you by August." Nathan forced a grin and nodded his approval. Polly would definitely love Australia. And she’d soon be back to Crumbington, to her teaching post. So what was with the nagging voice inside telling him that perhaps she wouldn’t?
  3. lomax61

    Hogmore

    So I normally just write the story without comment, but I do have to step in here and defend Margaret. Some people are reading more into the story than is actually there and making her out to be a divisive, manipulative character, which she is absolutely not. Firstly, there is no ‘trade-off’ with Nathan about demanding a favour in return for information about his mother. Where did you read that? She could have taken him to some fancy hotel, had a nice lunch, and asked for the favour anyway. She would likely have had the same response and Nathan would have been none the wiser. Moreover, Nathan hasn’t said yes yet. He could still refuse. When she was dragged off to LA, Nathan’s dad was still alive, and as far as she was concerned, it was his duty to come clean with his son. We don’t know here, but it’s safe to assume that she didn’t stay in touch. Clifton didn’t, so why should the mother? More than likely she found out about Nathan from Clifton when they reconnected earlier in the story. The burden of disclosure never belonged to Margaret and what she did took courage and guts. If this writer is going to give her a label, then he’s going to call her a saviour, or a hero, and, personally, I wish there were more Margarets in this world.
  4. lomax61

    Hogmore

    Margaret Hogmore stood in the baker shop doorway, dressed in an uncharacteristically simple but stylish outfit of olive green slacks and matching woollen scarf, white silk blouse beneath a thick overcoat in sandy brown, and flat brown shoes. Simple perhaps, but Nathan suspected designer labels hid beneath the clothing’s surface. Despite the years, she had kept her figure well, although, even from behind the counter, Nathan could see aging lines on her long, once elegant neck. With her grey hair pulled back now in a tidy bun, to Nathan she looked classic and unmistakable. Genes-wise, Clifton had a lot to be thankful for. Sadness framed her face today as her gaze took in the shop; the empty upper shelves of dark oak, ornate stucco ceiling, and white marble flooring. In her eyes, nothing would have changed much since she lived in England, maybe everything simply appeared a little like her, worn around the edges. Eventually, her gaze came to rest on Nathan, who had been working alone out front when she turned up, and her face immediately transformed into a genuine smile. Like his mother, Auntie Margie’s presence always had a way of lifting spirits. But where his mother wore a bohemian mishmash of inexpensive clothes in vibrant colours back then, Auntie Margie dressed in the latest Chanel suit and silk headscarf, always in heels despite the turf of the football pitch. Perhaps the sight of this unlikely pair should have caused derision, but Nathan only remembered his teammates’ positive comments and ardent attention. Clifton alone voiced any irritation at her public presence, even though Nathan knew he worshipped the ground she walked on. “Lovely to see you, Margaret,” said Nathan, coming out from behind the counter, and offering her the quintessential English greeting. “Cut of tea?” Her smile faltered an instant, before she regained her composure. Nathan hesitated, too. Margaret—the Margaret he had known—had always loved Assam tea and digestive biscuits with his mother. Maybe her time in Los Angeles had changed her tastes. “That’s Auntie Margie to you, young man,” she said, in reprimand, but the smile had returned to her face. She leant in and gave him the kind of brief hug he remembered well. Apart from her floral perfume, he noticed a slight American pronunciation of some words, Auntie sounding like Arnie. “And no, thank you. I thought we could grab coffee on the way. You ready?” Nathan had already told Fingal about the visit, giving him the briefest of details. He’d agreed to come in for the day, even though the week was not strictly his shift. “Let me go and let my stand-in know. Do I need an umbrella?” After the deluge of April, the first week of May had been nothing short of optimistic. Cloudless skies and brilliant sunshine dried the puddles and put everyone in good spirits. This morning, however, the temperature had dropped again with clouds low in the sky, and, based on Auntie Margie’s attire, Nathan figured he needed a coat and an umbrella. “Best bring one anyway. Better to be safe than sorry. You know what the weather’s like over here. Four seasons in one day.” Nathan found Fingal in the small office, going though invoices, deep in concentration. Nathan smiled to himself for a moment, before gently rapping a knuckle in the doorframe. “My aunt’s here. Are you okay if I head out now?” “Of course I am. Sorry we haven’t had time to chat this morning. Did you see we have a buyer for two of the ovens already? I’m going to push for the new one to be delivered a month earlier. So we get used to the new one before selling off the last two.” “How did Grant get on last week? I haven’t had a chance to speak to him yet.” Fingal grinned then, not unkindly, and leant back in his chair. “Let’s just say he was very keen, if you know what I mean? Took instructions well and he certainly has a way with the customers. I think a few of them thought they were talking to you. You should have a chat with him, though, see how he felt about the few days working here. I know the early starts didn’t agree with him. On Thursday, before they left, he told Arthur and his son to open up themselves on Friday and Saturday, that he was having a lie-in. Not that it made the slightest bit of difference to Arthur. The man can make his own tea, for Percy’s sake.” Nathan smiled, but the comment didn’t go unnoticed. Why had he insisted on getting up and opening so early every morning? Had it really been necessary? Had Arthur simply been humoured by the gesture? He’d only opened up and made tea because his father had done the same thing. “More importantly, I didn’t get the chance to congratulate you on your win Sunday. Or ask you about your trip to the Lakes.” The past week had been unreal. After Grant and Polly managed to land a front page article on the team, over a hundred locals turned out to watch Crumbington United against Tonbridge Knights. Having the support for their side definitely helped spur on Nathan’s team, but even by half time, neither side had scored. About ten minutes into the second half, the Milton twins played another blinder and managed to get one past the goalkeeper. As uninspiring as the rest of the game was, playing a strictly defensive strategy, they managed to win 1-0. “We’re through to the semis. Crumbington. Can you believe? That’s like winning the lottery.” “No doubt you deserved it. And the Lakes?” “Beautiful part of the country. Weather wasn’t fantastic, but we managed to keep ourselves amused.” “I’m sure you did.” They certainly did, the majority of which he would not share with Fingal. He and Jaymes barely left the bed the first full day in their beautiful old rented cottage. Fitted out with a modern kitchen, Jaymes spent two of the four days spoiling Nathan with his culinary skills. After Jaymes had got back from hospital, they’d had a heart-to-heart of sorts, but Jaymes had not been particularly focused or clear-headed, an overspill from the medicines the hospital had prescribed. Holidaying in the Lake District had been just the remedy they both needed, with Jaymes back to full strength and focused on enjoying some down-time and also on pleasing Nathan. On their second morning, they sat naked on top of the bed, facing each other, and sipping mugs of tea that Jaymes had brought back to bed. After a few minutes enjoying the drink and grinning at each other—they seemed to be doing that a lot lately—Jaymes reached over and took Nathan’s mug from him, and then took both Nathan’s hands in his own. “Let’s talk. As you know, my stint in Malaysia will last around six months. I can’t do anything about that now. But I wrap things up there at the end of November. And then I’ll be home, Nate. Back to you. New Zealand isn’t until the end of January, another six month contract. If I was going to be totally honest, I wish I could get out of that now, but I don’t want to muddy the waters. They’re being really good to me, and the pay is excellent.” “I don’t want you to change anything. Don’t know how many times I need to say it, baby, but I’m really pleased you’re doing what makes you happy.” “Just wish I could kidnap you. Put you in my case without anyone noticing, and take you with me.” “Nice thought. I’d probably even let you.” “The thing is, Nate—and I’m sorry it’s taken a bump on the head for me to finally say this to you—I feel as though I can be myself around you. I’ve never had that before. Not with anybody. People always want me to change, to be more serious and tone down my personality—” “I love your personality.” “My point exactly. And as I’m going for honestly, you should know that I used to get bored with the few partners I had. Pretty quickly. Although that might have something to do with them taking me for somebody I’m not. But with you, Nate, every time I see you my heart does this happy flip, like someone’s switched the lights on.” Nathan smiled down at his hands, overwhelmed. When he finally brought his eyes level, Jaymes still had his amazing smile aimed at him. “Well, you do the same to me. And more.” In the spirit of honesty, Nathan decided to ask a question he’d been burning to ask ever since the weekend at Martin and Gallagher’s home. “Can I ask you something?” “Anything.” “Something Lawrence said.” Nathan almost decided to drop the question when he saw the change of expression on Jaymes’ face. But Jaymes fought off whatever emotion had hit him and nodded his approval. “Go ahead. As long as you’re not going to ask me if Lawrence and I were ever a thing, because I already answered that question.” “He said one of your boyfriends took his own life. Because of you. What did he mean?” Jaymes let out an exasperated sigh and looked away. “Is that what he’s telling people behind my back? The little shit. I should have stayed, let him say that to my face. The boyfriend he’s referring to was my lying, cheating, sack-of-shit, drug addicted ex. Almost a year after we parted company, a college friend called me up to say he’d died of an overdose of heroin and booze. He and three friends were on a binge, partying at one of their parent’s houses. Apparently, they found him passed out on the bathroom floor. When the medics got to him, he was already gone. The college friend asked if I wanted to attend the funeral. Fortunately for me, I was working in Chile at the time, so couldn’t have got back even if I’d wanted to. Which I didn’t.” “So he didn’t overdose because of you?” “Absolutely no way. The day I walked out the door, I never heard a word from him again. Friends told me he’d shacked up with the fuck buddy neighbour, which tells you what a class act the man was, and exactly how much he thought of me. Perhaps Lawrence cites my influence, because I was the only one who tried—and failed—to get him help when we were together. But after a whole year had passed, I’d be surprised if he could even remember my name, let alone who I was. Rumour has it his parents tried to arrange an intervention, but he was always a stubborn bastard. If anything, he was a little tragic, didn’t want to get clean. His family could see where he was heading. I think he could even see himself. But for some people, there’s no helping them.” While Jaymes had been talking, Nathan had nodded his understanding. Everything made sense. Jaymes was the kind of person who would help others, would never tread on them or purposely make them feel bad about themselves. Nathan knew that instinctively from the short time they’d known each other. “I need to ask you if you’d do something for me,” said Nathan, making up his mind. “And you can say no, I won’t be offended.” “Does this involve lubricant?” said Jaymes, smirking seductively and raising one eyebrow. Nathan laughed then, and shook his head. After leaning over and pecking Jaymes on the lips, he reached down to get his trousers from the floor and then rifled through each of the pockets until he found what he wanted. “Doris gave me these.” Nathan held two rings in his palm. “They’re Claddagh rings.” “I know what they are,” said Jaymes, staring reverently at Nathan’s outstretched palm. “And they look pretty darned expensive, too.” “The thing is, would you wear one of these for me? If I wear the other?” Jaymes didn’t answer straight away. Instead, he asked a question. “Isn’t there some story about which hand you need to wear them on, and which way up they should be?” “There is,” said Nathan, placing one ring on the bed in front of him, and demonstrating with the other. “If you’re single and available, you wear the ring on your right hand with the tip of the heart facing outwards.” Nathan placed a ring on his right hand to demonstrate the direction. “Upside down?” “Exactly. And if you’re in a committed relationship, you wear it on the same hand but with the heart pointed inwards, the right way up.” Again, Nathan demonstrated, plucking off and returning the ring the other way up. He continued doing the same for the last two positions. “Once you’re engaged, you wear the ring on your left hand with the heart pointing outwards, and finally, once you’re married, you wear it on your left hand with the heart facing inward.” “So what are you asking me?” “I—I thought maybe we could wear the rings on our right hands, facing inward, to show the world that we’re in a committed relationship.” Jaymes pondered the idea for a moment, his face serious, until he looked up into Nathan’s eyes. “No. I don’t think I can do that, Nate.” Nathan’s heart dropped, but he didn’t want to spoil the moment, or the weekend, so smiled bravely. “Too soon?” “No, not at all. But if we’re both going to be wearing these, I think they should be on the left hand, upside down.” “Engaged?” said Nathan, his face lighting up. “Give me your left hand, Nate.” Nathan did as told and Jaymes slid the golden ring into place. “Now you. Place the ring on my finger.” Nathan followed suit, until they both held their ring hands out to each other. After a moment of admiring the rings, Jaymes leant forward and pulled Nathan into a fierce hug. “In case I haven’t already told you enough, Nate,” said Jaymes, his warm breath in Nathan’s ear. “You’re it for me. I love you. I love you so much.” Nathan almost collapsed into the embrace, his heart overflowing. “I love you, too,” said Nathan, something inside bursting, his arms tightening around Jaymes. The rest of the weekend went by in a blur of happiness; making love, laughing together, helping prepare meals. Nathan couldn’t help catching a glimpse of the ring on Jaymes’ finger, when he did innocent things like reaching for a carton of milk, or scratching his head. And each time he filled with pride. Friday afternoon they took a refreshing country walk after finally managing to get out of the cottage, Jaymes taking his hand as they strolled down a country lane. Inadvertently, their walk culminated in them stumbling upon the local village pub, where they decided to sample the local beers and home cooked food, chatting about football, the news, and, of course, Polly and Grant. But mainly they enjoyed the simple pleasure of each other’s company. ***** Margaret stood outside the shop front, appearing to take in the old town. Perhaps the sight brought back memories. She stared up the buildings a little like Grant had the first time Nathan met him. “Do you want me to drive?” asked Nathan, joining her. “No, that’s fine, Nathan,” she said, setting off immediately. “Cliffy loaned me his car and his driver. They’re in the car park, around the corner.” “So where are we going? I’m trusting you here, Auntie Margie.” “I thought we’d head down to the coast. Have a coffee, and then a spot of lunch. And catch up. How does that sound?” “Sounds perfect.” Nathan let her lead the way to the small carpark tucked away at the back of the high street. Along the short walk, she said nothing, and he chose not to fill the silence. She had called for the meeting, after all. When they reached the Tesla, she got in the back without a word to the driver. Once Nathan had belted up, the car started moving off almost silently, the driver obviously aware of the destination. Five minutes into the drive, and Margaret reached forward to a concealed compartment, revealing a large aluminium jug, carton of milk and china mugs. Without a word, she made coffee for Nathan and herself before settling back in her seat. “I suppose Cliffy told you what happened? To him, I mean,” she said, sullen, her head swinging quickly around to acknowledge Nathan’s simple nod. “A mother ought to have known. Not easy finding out that some older man thought to sexually exploit your own son. From everything Cliffy told me at the time, he seemed to adore college life. Finally found something he had a passion for, something he worked his heart out to excel at. When we lived here, he was never very interested or talented in anything.” “Ooh, that’s a little unfair. He rocked at football.” “Nonsense. He was mediocre, at best. Your mother and I knew he only joined the team because you did. In case you hadn’t worked it out, Clifton worshipped you, Nathan. You thought you were both being so smart, towards the end there, but I could tell there was something more than friendship between you two. You never talked about girls, like the other boys. And Cliffy would have done anything you asked.” Was that true? Nathan always assumed Clifton wanted to be a part of the team as much as he did. He always had the impression he was the one doing the following around and the hero-worshipping. “If you’d still been in his life, none of this would have happened.” Like a slap in the face, the remark brought Nathan back to the present. “Come on, Auntie Margie. That’s a little unfair,” “Oh, I’m not blaming you, dear. Exactly the opposite. Your influence when you were around him, was very—levelling for Cliffy. Something I noticed every time you were together. Your moral compass is very centred.” Nathan felt uncomfortable with the topic, and decided for a reprieve before they went back there. “So how’s life in LA?” he asked. “The way we left was wrong, I know,” she said, ignoring his diversion. “Very hard on both of you, but particularly you, after your mother and everything. But at the time, we had no say in the matter. My husband—my ex-husband—accepted the new job without really consulting us. Which was always his way. We were a part of his entourage, little more, and when he said jump, we jumped.” “What happened to him?” “Don’t worry about him. He got what he deserved.” Nathan pulled a face, imagining the worst. He’d rarely met Mr Hogmore, but he wouldn’t have wanted anything bad to happen to him. “Oh, nothing like what you’re imagining. Two years ago, he remarried, to a twenty-four year old underwear model—his third wife—who is currently expecting twins. My ex-husband turns sixty-five this year, and having been forcibly retired from the bank, he spends a lot of time pottering around their home. So let’s just see how he copes with crappy diapers and sleepless nights. Maybe there is a God.” “And how about you?” “Me? I’m doing well. Started my own business back in 2012—an online fashion house. Since then we’ve gone from strength to strength. Of course, it doesn’t hurt having a son in the spotlight.” “So you’re like Stella McCartney, except in reverse?” “Exactly. Although I’m hoping this little setback of his isn’t going to be permanent. Becoming a celebrity no longer has the appeal it used to. One little misdemeanour or slip of the tongue and you’re yesterday’s news, and nobody will hire you. Ironic, really, when some our politicians say and do whatever they want, no matter who they offend, and the voters still rally to endorse them.” Nathan had been training his gaze out the car window, half listening when she made the remark. Something he had loved as a child, was searching for the flat horizon of the sea when they drove to the coast. Just the sight gave him a thrill, knowing that soon they’d be able to smell the sea air, and wade in the chill waves of the Atlantic Ocean, if they wanted. Today, he guessed that wouldn’t happen, bearing in mind the deteriorating weather outside the car. They parked a few roads back from the Hastings waterfront. Margaret leant in and informed the driver they would be around three hours. When she led the way, he was intrigued, wondering what kind of luxury lunch venue she had found. So when she stopped outside a small cafe serving locally caught fried fish in batter, with fat chips and mushy teas, he burst out laughing. “What?” she asked, grinning at him. “Did you think I’d ever lose sight of my humble roots?” “I was thinking more of your waistline.” “So let’s call this a cheat day, and be done with it.” “Fine by me.” They washed down their fish and chips in true local fashion with mugs of milky tea, sat at a table by the window overlooking the seashore. Margaret surprised Nathan by discarding cutlery, and using her thumb and forefinger to delicately pull apart the batter and fish, and to eat like a true local. In between eating, they chatted about general things, Margaret hogging most of the conversation with stories about her impressive successes. One was her pride and joy, her ‘cosy little’ house she’d snapped up in Bel Air with six bedrooms, nine bathrooms, and its own Olympic-sized swimming pool. More than enough room to house her, her four Pomeranians, her three domestic helpers, and Clifton and Raul whenever they chose to come and stay. Without saying a word, Nathan guessed her divorce settlement must have been substantial. “Let me get the check,” said Margaret, returning from the bathroom, primped and spruce. “And then we’ll take a stroll along the promenade.” “That’s bill to you, Auntie Margie. And I don’t think this place takes American Express, even if you do have a black card.” “Darling, I do have cash. It’s Auntie not Princess. I’m not royalty,” she said, waving her purse at him, before disappearing off to the cash register. Nathan walked outside into the cool air, where the day still couldn’t make up its mind whether to be foul or fair. Leaning his backside against a bollard, he folded his arms and waited. Meeting with Margaret had been fun, not awkward at all, and a little like going back in time. But the point of their meeting had yet to be addressed and Nathan wondered what Margaret wanted to talk to him about regarding Clifton. When he looked up, she approached him holding two golden cones, topped with vanilla-swirled ice cream and two milk chocolate flakes sticking from the top of each like alien antennas. “There we are. Ninety-nines. Used to be your favourite.” “Okay, officially a cheat day,” he replied, reaching for one. Margaret linked her arm with his as they strolled along the raised path separating the road from the shingle beach. Few other people had braved the day, their stroll undisturbed. “So, Nathan. Crunch time. I need your help. My Cliffy needs his best friend back. He has Raul, who is an absolute darling, but he’s so busy travelling this year.” “I’m there for him, Auntie Margie. Whenever he needs me.” “Are you? Well, he’s got a public appearance coming up at the end of this month, an awards ceremony where they’re bound to ask a lot of uncomfortable and inappropriate questions. Raul’s not around, so I wanted you to accompany him. I would be there myself, but I’ve got a store opening in New York at the same time.” “Hang on. Won’t the press read something more into us being seen together?” “Not if we’re upfront with them. Tell them you’re an old friend from schooldays. At the moment, the press are onside, and we need to keep things that way.” “What does Giorgio say?” Margaret rolled her eyes dramatically, and with a flourish, dumped the remnants of her ice cream into a conveniently placed rubbish bin. “That man? Honestly, Cliffy can’t poop without Giorgio asking him twenty questions. I raised the idea with him and although he wasn’t completely adverse—for a change—he said you’d never agree.” “I’m not over the moon—” “Cliffy needs someone to support him right now, Nathan. And you are his friend.” “Look, as long as Raul’s okay with me standing in for him. And I’ll need to clear it with my own boyfriend.” “You’re dating?” Margaret appeared delighted, and Nathan held up the ring to show her. “Cliffy never said anything. How lovely. Tell me all about him.” Talking about Jaymes came easy to Nathan, with Margaret asking questions to find out more, questions Nathan found he enjoyed answering. Before he realised, they’d walked half a mile down the beachfront. “Ouch, we’re a long way from the carpark. Should we turn back?” “Not yet. Let’s go on a little further.” At the top end of the beach road, the tall buildings petered out and only a few smaller bungalows sat back from the road. A cul-de-sac road, no cars came along this stretch, even though the promenade continued, the only sounds coming from the constant crash of waves and the cry of seagulls. They kept going slowly on, arms linked, but now walking in companionable silence. Nathan decided the time was right to ask the question burning a hole in his brain. “So are we going to talk about my mother?” “Do you want to?” “Of course I do. Wasn’t she your best friend?” Margaret stopped and turned to the ocean, her gloved hands placed on the seafront railing. Smiling wistfully, she glanced out to the horizon. “Not sure if you know, but we were both single children, your mother and I. Just like you. To me, it was like having the sister I always wanted, someone to talk to and confide in.” Her gaze returned to Nathan and faltered for a second, as though she were unsure how he might react to her next words. ”What do you remember about her? “So much. I remember her laughter, like birdsong, and the smell of her perfume. I remember her dancing, and the way she watched me when she bought me a present, so happy watching me tear away at the packaging, and especially when she saw me delighted with what she’d bought. I loved hearing her talk to the customers. She had a way about her.” “A lot of positive things?” “Yes, mainly.” “That’s good. That’s very good.” “But then she disappeared, Auntie Margie, and I still have a hard time reconciling that.” Margaret put an arm around him and squeezed in sympathy. “You know,” Nathan continued, staring out to sea. “When I got older, I ran through a whole heap of scenarios for her leaving, but the only one I could reasonably justify, the only one that made sense, was that she’d met someone else. Another man. My father was too tired and, frankly, too dull, to be of interest to other women. And my mother was a firecracker.” “Did you ever ask your father?” “A couple of times. In my late teens. He stated quite firmly that she hadn’t had an affair, and on both occasions seemed to want to tell me more, but then sort of became overcome, really sad and withdrawn. When I look back at his reaction, I thought he might have been in denial. But the last thing I wanted was to make him unhappy, so I stopped pushing.” “Poor John. He loved her so much.” “But I had these dreams that one day she would come back for me, take me out of that dungeon and fly me across the world somewhere, to be with fun people and live an interesting life.” “She always said you were like her. I know she argued with your father about your future.” “So what happened to her?” Margie took his arm again, and pulled him further along the coast, until they reached a wooden bench. “Here we are. Sit down.” “Are you sure? It’s seriously nippy out today. Sure you wouldn’t be more comfortable in the warm coffee shop back down the road?” Offshore blustery winds buffeted the coastline, sending errant grains of sand and carelessly discarded items of trash onto the road, and causing him to button tight the collar of his overcoat. Before answering, she seated herself on the bench, and then yanked on his sleeve for him to join her. “Are you disparaging me as an LA mom, used to more temperate weather? I did live here for most of my life, Nathan. And still have some fond memories of the place. Look out there.” After Nathan joined her and settled back, she nodded her chin out towards the deserted beach and white spume of the grey Atlantic waves. “Do you remember coming here as a child?” “To Hastings? Yes, of course.” “Not just Hastings, Nathan. To this particular spot.” As Nathan stared out at the view and focused, a wave of memory washed over him. Even though the family had only ever enjoyed one or two proper holidays, they often came to the beaches of the south coast on Sunday or a bank holiday, and particularly here, to Hastings. Right in front of them was where they used to set up camp, the same spot every time. Nathan had been back to the town a few years since. Despite the pebble beach, Hastings always felt more genuine, less commercialised than other towns along the south coast, with its rows of pretty three-storey buildings facing the sea and cluster of working fishing boats at one end of the beach. Less than an hour’s drive from home, they could spend the day here and still be home in time for tea. On many occasions, the two families had come to the beach together, always without Clifton’s father, and often without Nathan’s. He still had a photograph of his mother wearing a huge brimmed straw hat, hugging a squirming Nathan—who must have been four or five at the time—and grinning happily at the camera. Looking back, he assumed Auntie Margie had taken the photograph. In his late teens, he began to question that assumption. Had there been another man taking the picture? Had the other man been his real father? If so, were he and his mother living together somewhere? Adolescent minds could conjure amazing fantasies. “Vaguely. Yes, I do. We were happy here.” “We most certainly were.” Memories of his mother made him sad, and though he didn’t want to be rude to Margaret, he needed some answers from her, whatever she had. “Do you know where my mother is, Margaret?” She must have heard the tone in his voice, because she replied, very plainly. “Yes, I do.” Nathan waited for an answer, but when none came, he turned sidelong to look at her. “And?” Margaret took a deep sigh, before continuing. “She’s right here.” “What do you mean? Here. Here, where?” Nathan looked behind him, at the small seaside bungalow right behind them, wondering if his Aunt had set him up with a surprise meeting with his estranged mother. “Right here,” said Margaret, smiling tenderly. “We’re sitting on her.” Nathan looked down between his legs, confused. “We’re sitting on a bench, Auntie Margie,” he said, as though talking to a twelve year old. “Look between us, behind you, at the top of the bench.” Nathan did as asked and spotted a bronze plaque, weathered speckled with age, affixed to the top of the stone seat. The inscription read: Eleanor Jane Fresher, 1959-2001, Loving Wife and Mother, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” A sensation Nathan didn’t recognise overwhelmed him. Understanding mixed with confusion mixed with sadness and dismay. Maybe, he thought, this is what grief feels like. Deep in his brain, he realised the truth in the written words. Shine On You Crazy Diamond, the Pink Floyd song, had been his mother and father’s first dance song at their wedding. “I don’t understand,” he said, his eyes misting, even though instinctively he did know. Maybe, though, he needed to clutch at straws. “That’s the year she ran way, isn’t it? Or is she—?” Margaret let out another deep sigh, and continued looking out to the sea. “This is so unfair. Your father should have brought you here a long time ago.” “My father’s dead.” “I know, Nathan. And so is your mother. She died in 2001. The reason she left is because she was diagnosed with stage four cancer. Terminal and horribly aggressive. She’d had no warning signs until it was too late. By then the cancer had pretty much spread everywhere. Your father knew about this. Of course he did. But the decision to leave home for the hospice was hers alone, and she did so mainly to shield you from seeing her go into decline. She refused to let your last memories of her be of a woman becoming frail and diseased. Whether that was the right thing to do or not, I don’t know. I am not here to judge. I wonder sometimes if there was a little vanity in there somewhere. Your father was supposed to tell you about all of this when you were older—I even went to the shop to remind him a couple of times—but clearly he decided to put the deed off until it was too late. I think she might have sensed your father’s reticence, because the last time I saw her—bless her, she was barely clinging onto life—she kept telling me that you were her world. She loved you above anyone else, you were the biggest and brightest achievement of her life. I went straight back to John and told him we needed to take you to see her before she passed, and he finally agreed. But before we could arrange anything, though, she’d already gone.” Nathan sat rigid. Cold winds rocked into him, but made no impact. Too many emotions almost prevented him from thinking things through properly. “Was she buried?” “No, she wanted to be cremated.” “Did my father lay any tombstone or stone plaque in the crematorium? So that people could go and pay their respects?” “She didn’t want that. You knew your mother. She lived for life. Wanted half of her ashes to be spread in the sea out there, which is what we did. And she asked John to have a bench built here, where she was the most happy, playing with you by the sea.” Yes, thought Nathan. That made perfect sense. As if reading his mind, Margaret reached across and took his hand in both of hers. “One of her worries was that you might be prone to the same disease, through inherited cancer genes. Doctors said the chances were slim. But she made your father promise he’d have you tested each year—” “Twice a year. I always wondered why my father was so obsessive about that.” And then other dots began to connect; how his grandfather had stepped back in from retirement to help out full-time when his mother left, never once uttering a bad word about her; how his father had uncharacteristically taken time away from the shop following her departure; how they’d closed the shop on a Tuesday later that year, to both attend a distant relative’s funeral. Maybe not so distant, as fate would have it. “If it’s any consolation, she loved your father. I get the impression she didn’t have a happy childhood. She eventually found her little corner of heaven with you and your father at the bakery, and she wanted nothing more than for you to find yours.” “Well, it’s not in the bakery, Auntie Margie.” “You think she didn’t realise that?” said Margaret, turning to him and squeezing his hands in hers. “The questions is, Nathan. What are you going to do about it?”
  5. lomax61

    Score

    Oakfield, dingbat!
  6. lomax61

    Score

    Ten minutes before the full time whistle and, with Crumbington United 1-0 down, most people watching would have bet on Oakfield Wanderers having the match in the bag. Nathan’s team had played their best game of the season, and yet none of their players could get even close to a shot at goal. When the referee awarded a free kick to Crumbington, Nathan decided to substitute George Collier (postman) who looked ready to drop from exhaustion on the unusually warm morning, with Norris Hillwood (gynaecologist). Despite a damn good run during the season, putting them in the third round of the Southdown Cup, they needed to beat Oakfield to go through to the quarter finals. Norris was far from being their best player, but having stood for most of the action on the sidelines, he had more stamina than the rest of the team put together. Preparing to take the free kick, Nathan surveyed his team for a second, noting who looked as though they had given up and who still had energy enough to drive the play forward. Already two Oakfield midfield players had moved to surround Norris, which is exactly what Nathan had hoped for. Nobody seemed to have noticed Tom Milton (painter and decorator) on the right wing, the defenders all shadowing Mikey (butcher), one of their strongest players, and one of the few who had almost broken through their defence. Facing towards Mike, Nathan twisted at the last minute and fired a perfect kick to Tom, who trapped the ball flawlessly, before heading towards the penalty area. By then, two of the bigger Oakfield players had peeled away and were hurtling straight for Tom. At the last second, he paused, appearing to cue the ball up to try for goal. Surprising everyone, however, he chipped the ball high into the goal area, to where his twin brother, Eric, had been left unmarked, and who sailed through the air, heading the ball cleanly into the back of the net. All along the touchline, supporters went wild. Burgundy and yellow scarves, the team colours, were thrust into the air along one side of the pitch. Thirty or so people had driven to the Oakfield home ground to cheer them on. Over the past month, support had grown in numbers, especially among the female fans and a few male ones, too. Nathan looked over and smiled when he saw Jaymes grinning at him and pumping his fist in the air. A healthy and recovered Jaymes had brought Polly and Grant with him today, the first game Grant had witnessed. Thank goodness they’d equalised. The last thing Nathan wanted was his cousin thinking he played for a lame-assed team. Jaymes insisted on driving them all to the grounds, had even offered to cook a Sunday roast for them when they got back. Since their heart to heart two weeks before, Jaymes and Nathan had been spending a lot more time together and been far more open with each other. Despite the looming deadline, they had come to an understanding. More importantly, the levelling of the score seemed to give a much-needed boost to the Crumbington team, who appeared to have all but given up. Nathan growled encouragement to his players, not oblivious to the usual Oakfield players sidling up and murmuring distractions to one or two of his men. Similar to the last few games they’d played, some of the opposing team players had used the leaked news about the calendar to try to rile his players. By now, Nathan along with the rest of the team, had learned to give back whatever they got. When the opposition players made lame quips like ‘are you going to get naked for us after the game?’ they would shoot back ripostes such as ‘only if your wife or your girlfriend is joining. And in which case, you can leave your clothes on.’ In fact, a lot of the wives or girlfriends of the Sunday sides singled out Nathan, asking if all the photographs would be as stunning and of such high quality, and asking when the calendar would be going on sale. But for now, Nathan tried to ignore the noise. They had a game to win. The calendar would sell itself, but if they could also prove themselves a legitimate winning team, then all the better. Immediately, Oakfield made a classic tactical error, taking the kick-off too quickly, and trying to press their advantage by sending too many players into the opposition half. Their mistake cost them. Within seconds, Mel had possession of the ball and thundered forward down the left wing. Seeing nobody there to support him, Nathan moved into the centre of the field, much farther forward than his usual midfield position. Seconds later he sensed Mikey join him parallel on the pitch but much closer to Mel. Taking a second to scope out his options, Mel lobbed the ball high into the air. When Mikey jumped, everyone held their breath, expecting a copycat goal, everyone except Nathan who could see the pass being far too high for Mikey. Taking his opportunity, he moved into position and connected with the ball at waist height, swung his left foot around in a one-eighty and cannoned the ball towards the right side of the goal. The goalkeeper didn’t stand a chance. All the while, he had been waiting for Mikey to connect with the ball from the left side of the penalty box. Nathan’s shot struck so fast, he could only look on in dismay as Crumbington went into the lead with two minutes to spare. Nathan became surrounded by his team players; hugging and kissing him, jumping on his back, patting his backside, and generally doing entirely inappropriate things which, for some reason, heterosexual men considered normal on a football pitch. Ironically, only Ken—the only other gay player on the team—strolled up, shook his hand and patted his right shoulder. Even with extra minutes added, Crumbington still managed to retain their 2-1 win, playing a defensive game. When the final whistle blew, most of his team collapsed onto the pitch. Hats off to the Oakfield team players, they were good sports, and came and shook hands with them all. Best of all for Nathan was seeing the happy faces of his men as they clumped their weary way to Oakfield’s changing rooms. Mikey’s elated face said it all. “We’re through to the quarter finals. The quarter fucking finals! Can you believe?” “I wouldn’t celebrate just yet,” said one of the Oakfield players, coming up on his right shoulder. “You’ll be up against last year’s cup winners next week, Marsfield Marauders. They’re tough bastards.” “You don’t know that yet, Pete,” said the Oakfield captain. “They’re playing Tonbridge Knights right now. The game isn’t over yet.” “That bunch of pussies—” “My brother plays for Tonbridge,” said the captain, glaring at his teammate, before turning to Nathan. “Actually, the Marauders are down two of their best players today due to injury. So you may well be playing against my brother’s team. Let’s get scrubbed up and then I think we owe you guys a beer or three.” Oakfield had excellent facilities, almost brand new, shared with the local rugby and cricket clubs. As usual, the optimistic atmosphere in the changing room carried through to the bar. Showered, dried off, and changed into fresh clothes, Nathan could barely hear himself above the clamour of the overheated clubhouse. After doing the rounds of all his teammates, getting pats on the back and offers of drinks, and confirming their extra practice on Tuesday night, he decided to take his pint outside, where the air felt much cooler and he could hear himself think. A couple of clusters of people had the same idea. Grant and Polly, one of them, stood away from everyone, chatting happily together, as thick as thieves. “Where’s Jaymes?” called Nathan, as he approached them. Even with the fresh air, the day had turned out to be cloudless and, in the open, at least, the warmest day of the year so far. Drinking a pint in the sunshine with friends felt the right thing to do. “Getting a round in,” said Grant, the first to look up. “Man of the match. Winning goal scorer. Captain Nathan Fresher,” said Polly, coming over and flinging her arms around him. “Still not talking to you,” said Nathan, his arms dangling at his sides. After a few moments, and a pitiful moan, she released the hug. “Come on, Nate,” said Grant, already taking her side. “You know the score. Polly’s trying to make sure you’re not caught in the flak when the shit hits the fan.” “What shit? What fan? I don’t know what you’re talking about. Because nobody’s kept me in the loop.” The last words were directed at Polly, and after glancing at her briefly, Grant put his arm around her almost defensively. Already they’d become a tight-knit unit. “Grant’s right,” said Polly, leaning into the embrace. “And let me just say once again. Yes, me and Katherine Osmond have some dirt on Arlene, but I don’t want to announce anything until the time is right, certainly not while preparations for the fete are in full swing. The last thing we need right now is negative publicity.” “You know, though. Don’t you?” Nathan asked Grant, pointedly, ignoring the phone vibrating in his pocket. Whoever it was could wait. “Some,” said Grant, sheepishly. “Not much.” “Look Nathan, darling. Do you trust me?” After a short pause and a dramatic sigh, Nathan nodded his head. Polly had always been there for him, would never knowingly dump on him. “Then let me ask you this. What do you do when someone you despise is digging a hole for themselves? Hmm? What do you do?” “Is this a joke, like one of those knock-knock—?” “You give them a bigger shovel! Which is what I’m doing right now. And why I sided with her regarding the catering job.” “I still don’t see the relevance. Why can’t you just tell me?” Nathan’s pocket produced a familiar buzz, indicating whoever had called had left a voice message. Assuming the message to be from Arlene or maybe one of the players’ wives, and with more important matters in from of him, he chose to ignore it for now, to check later. “Partly because we don’t have all the facts yet, but also because when I do decide to share what I’ve found with the rest of the committee, I want a genuine reaction from you.” “Is it that bad?” “Could be. As I say, we don’t have all the information yet.” “Are you worried I’ll say something?” “No, it’s not that. I haven’t even told Grant everything, yet. So if anyone asks you anything, you can’t tell them because you don’t know.” “She’ll think I know anyway.” “Actually, no she won’t. There’s no way you could. And that’s all I’m going to say on the matter.” Jaymes appeared then, three pint glasses clamped together in his big hands. When he saw Nathan, he grinned before coming to a stop before them. “Here, David Beckham, have my pint and I’ll go get another.” “No need,” said Nathan, who had enough in his glass. “I’m good for now.” “Did I miss something?” he said, handing drinks to Polly and Grant and searching each of their faces. “Nothing important,” said Nathan. “Just talking about the fete, as usual.” “So after your stellar performance,” said Jaymes, seeming to accept Nathan’s explanation. “I suppose we need to drive back from the Lake District a day early.” “Yeah, I’m sorry—” Jaymes and Nathan had planned a few days away together the following week. Grant wanted to see how the bakery ran first hand, so Fingal who could comfortably run the show alone, had agreed to show him the ropes, while Nathan and Jaymes took off Wednesday through to Sunday. Grant agreed to stay in the guest bedroom and open up in the early hours, get a true taste of Nathan’s life. In part, Nathan wanted to be there with his cousin, to see how he coped, but he also looked forward to the time away with Jaymes. “Sorry? Sorry for winning the match? Don’t be crazy, Nate.” Jaymes leant in towards Nathan and brought their foreheads together. “You were awesome out there today. When you’re on the pitch running around in your shorty shorts, I see you in a whole new light. And watching you score the winning goal gave me the biggest hard-on ever.” “Ahem. Other people here, in case you hadn’t noticed,” said Grant, even though Polly had started giggling. “Maybe you can show me later?” murmured Nathan. “Shall we go inside, Polly?” said Grant, frowning and shaking his head. “Sorry, Grant. I have to put up with this, otherwise the boys won’t come and support me once I’ve finally got our women’s team assembled.”’ “You’ve got a women’s team?” asked Grant, astonished. “Put your tongue back in, cousin.” “Not yet,” said Polly. “Still work in progress.” “Women’s football is awesome, Nate. Have you been watching any of the World Cup? You know, if you need a football coach, Polly, I’d be happy to donate my services.” “I’m sure you would,” said Nathan, laughing. “Nathan,” said Jaymes, serious now. “Inside the club bar they had the television on, and although I couldn’t hear anything specific, Clifton’s face is all over the news this morning. Looks like that sex scandal might have finally broke.” “What scandal?” asked Polly. Nathan shared a look with Jaymes before he gave her and Grant the lowdown. He saw no point holding back now the news had already been aired. Once he finished, everyone became silent. Even though Jaymes knew the score, he wondered what Polly and Grant would make of the story. People often surprised Nathan at how unsympathetic they could be. “Poor bastard,” said Grant, frowning and shaking his head. “There are some truly fucked-up predators out there.” Polly said nothing, but smiled up at Grant and squeezed her arm further around him. Nathan breathed out a silent sigh of relief, and made a note to send Clifton a message of support. “Hey guys,” said Mikey, coming over to join their cluster with his grinning wife on his arm. Mikey was oblivious to the solemn mood, his eyes glowing with unabashed excitement. “Tonbridge beat the Marauders, 1-0. Nathan, we’re playing Tonbridge next week. We’re still in this competition with a chance.” “That’s brilliant news, Mikey. But don’t get complacent. We’re still having that extra practice Tuesday.” For the past two seasons, Crumbington had beaten Tonbridge. Not that Nathan wanted to linger on that too much. For the past two seasons, Oakfield had kicked Crumbington out in the early rounds. “Great game today, Nathan” said Mikey’s wife, reaching over and giving him a kiss on the cheek. “I felt sure they were going to beat you.” “You and the rest of the crowd,” said Nathan, grimacing. “She’s right, though, Nate,” said Grant. “I should have said earlier. You played a blinder today.” “Thanks.” Funnily enough, the approval of his cousin meant a lot. He liked Grant, would have liked him even if he hadn’t been family. And he had just about gotten used to him and Polly being together—very together. “You’re nowhere near as good as me, mind,” added a smirking Grant. “But you did pretty good.” While Nathan gave him the stink-eye, everyone else laughed. “You know,” said Mikey. “If we’re having this calendar launch with the press, they’re bound to write about us as a team. So even if we’re mentioned as quarter-finalists, we still sound like a legitimate football team.” “We are a legitimate football team, Mikey” “You know what I mean. Everyone’s saying we did the calendar just for publicity, or because we’re crap at football. Be great to prove them wrong and shut them up. And finalists would be even better,” said Mikey, grinning. “Or better still, cup winners.” “When is this calendar launch,” asked Grant. “Twenty-first of May,” said Nathan, Mikey and Polly in unison, making Grant chuckle. “I suppose you’re going, Jaymes?” asked Grant. Jaymes’ smile slipped at Grant’s question. Probably only Nathan recognised the flash of sorrow in his eyes, when they connected with Nathan. “Actually, I fly on the eighteenth. So no, I won’t be there.” “It’s okay, Jaymes,” said Polly, leaning across and hugging his arm. “We'll send you photos of the evening. Maybe even a random amateur video on the fly.” ”Yeah, I’m not sure Arlene’s going to allow that,” said Nathan. “Like she going to know?” said Polly. “Actually, I’ve got an idea,” said Grant. “You’re playing at home next week, aren’t you?” “We are” said Mikey, looking curiously from Nathan to Grant. “So how about we do a bit of publicity for the game. Muster support, so to speak? You had a pretty good turnout today, but I’m sure we can do a lot better at home.” “And how would you go about that?” asked Nathan. “Polly’s in with Kathleen and she’s running the local newspaper. Surely we could get an article on the front page, Polly? If nobody has any better ones, I’ve got some pictures of today’s action on my phone.” “Before next week? Is that even possible?” asked Nathan. “No harm in asking,” said Polly, catching up with Grant. “And by the way, the Oakfield manager said she’d organised a photographer from their local paper to be here today. Maybe he’d be prepared to share a few photos. Leave everything with me.” One more drink later and, after a quick look at his watch, Jaymes insisted they head back. Apparently, the already prepared root vegetables would need to join the slow cooked lamb if they were going to sit down to eat before three. Polly and Grant had already consulted him and bought a couple of nice bottles of red wine, as well as dessert. On the way back home, Polly opted to sit in the back of the Rover with Grant, with Nathan being promoted to the front. With Jaymes concentrating on the drive, he pulled out his phone and saw the missed call and voicemail message was from Clifton. When he dialled is voicemail, Clifton’s voice sounded upbeat but forced. “Hi Nathan. It’s Cliff. No doubt you’ve seen the news by now. Sorry to call, but when the story broke I needed to hear a friendly voice. Raul is training in Switzerland all this week and Giorgio has the emotional depth of Siri, pragmatic but not exactly an ear to bend or a shoulder to cry on. Give me call if you get a moment. I’m screening, but if you call, I’ll answer. But don’t worry if you’re busy. Later.” “It’s Cliff. He needs to hear a friendly voice.” “So what are you waiting for? Call him,” said Jaymes, shrugging, no hesitation in his voice. Clifton answered after only one ring. “Shit, Nathan. My email’s backed up with messages and the phone’s been ringing non-stop. Mostly newspapers and television networks from what I can tell.” “Are you managing okay?” “Giorgio’s dealing with most of the shit. Certainly earning his money today. Tomorrow morning, I have a meeting with the studio execs at the television station, to go over their options for Candle Wishes; deciding if they’re prepared to weather the storm and go ahead with the current format, or whether to postpone shooting. They’re even considering whether to cast someone else in my role. Bummer, eh?” “Fuck, seriously?” said Nathan, causing Jaymes to turn with concern. Pulling the phone to his chest to make his words, he spoke to Jaymes. “They’re considering replacing him on the crime show.” Jaymes returned his attention to the road, but shook his head in disgust. “That’s show business, Nathan,” continued Clifton. “Believe it or not, that kind of thing happens all the time. Nick Robinson—the cute young guy from Love, Simon—originally had the lead in Prince in the Snow. Although in his case, he withdrew voluntarily because of scheduling difficulties.” “They’d be crazy to drop you. Having your name attached to the project can only draw bigger audiences.” Clifton laughed at the other end of the phone. “Thanks Nathan. That’s why I needed to hear your voice. Good to know you’re on my side. Oh yeah, and I also need to warn you that mother’s coming to town next week, on her way over from LA, wants to be by my side to give me maternal support. Giorgio’s going to end up bursting a blood vessel. But she insists on meeting you while she’s here. I think she wants to drum up support for me in my hour of need. Hope that’s okay. Shout if you need me to be there to run interference?” “It’s okay, Cliff. Not sure if you remember her, but Doris who runs the local florists already told me your mum’s heading here. Although she doesn’t need to worry, I already have your back. But you’d better let her know Jaymes and I are away next week, Wednesday through to Saturday.” “I will. But I’m guessing she’ll have a whole heap of people to get to, before she calls you. Shall I tell her the Wednesday after next?” “I’ll need to check with my part time manager, but I think it should be fine. Normally a quiet day for us. Might actually be nice seeing Auntie Margie again after all these years.” “Ooh, ouch. Just FYI. As a seasoned LA resident, fiercely independent and proud, I’m not sure the endearment, Auntie Margie, is going to go down so well. Just to be on the safe side, call her Margaret.” Nathan laughed aloud at that comment, and Clifton soon joined in. “Point taken. How the world changes.” “Tell me about it. Good talking to you, Nathan. And I’ll see you in May at the fete publicity event.” “You’re still coming to that? With the press being there?” “Me and Raul. Yes, I wouldn’t miss it. I’m hoping things might have blown over a bit by then.” After he’d signed off, Nathan leant back and sighed, hoping Clifton was right.
  7. lomax61

    April

    Subject: Fourth Meeting of the Crumbington Summer Fête Committee: Wednesday 18 April Attendees: Arlene Killjoy (chair); Doris Watts; Nathan Fresher; Arbuthnot Mulligan; Michael Stanton Apologies: Polly Fischer April showers. Molly had tuned the shop’s personal address system into a radio station called Gold, the current programme playing non-stop classics from the last century. Nathan remembered his mother singing along to the song from an old compact disc bequeathed her by Nathan’s grandfather. A deep baritone accompanied by a full orchestra oozed the tune, one Nathan still associated with her. Maybe the choice of song had been the radio host’s attempt at humour. In reality, the showers arriving in Crumbington that April felt like an augur; a constant downpour bringing day after day of endless gloom. Despite what people said, the weather did affect the bread business. Fingal stood next to him that Wednesday morning, staring out in solidarity at the rain. “We ought to ramp up the delivery service in preparation for times like this. Nobody comes out in this weather and I hate waste, even though I realise it’s a necessary evil in our business. For all their loyalty, customers won’t tolerate us being out-of-stock. They’ll simply go somewhere else.” “We’re not bad on wastage. Much of what we can’t sell goes to charities, while the rest goes to local pig farms. But if you have any ideas, Fingal, you know I’ll always listen.” Without turning, Nathan could tell Fingal was smiling. “You got one of those meetings tonight?” “You make it sound like a support group. If you mean the fête committee meeting, then yes. Six-thirty. You want to go in my stead?” “Mrs Killjoy and I are not on speaking terms right now. Not since I defected.” Nathan laughed out loud. These days, he seemed to be laughing a lot more. But Fingal had a point. Despite the ‘insider knowledge’ accidentally provided by Arlene’s husband about Upper Crust being about to make an offer on his bakery, over the past fortnight Nathan had received no phone call from a potential buyer, no attractive offer for his shop. And tonight he would find out first hand the extent to which Arlene had been irritated by the outcome of Fingal’s allegiance—surely not one she could have anticipated—and whether her attitude towards him, Nathan, had changed. “Right. Then if there are no customers, and all the work is done, it’s time for a brew.” Fingal’s constant good mood made the day a little brighter for everyone. “Usual?” “Why not?” “Molly?” “Usual, please.” Even on a gloomy day, Fingal brought levity into the old place. Since their chat and his earlier suggestions, Nathan had met with Molly’s daughter, Janette, that lunchtime and had shown her around the shop during his lunch break. By the end of the tour, they’d agreed to have her preparing food on the premises and selling selected items across the counter beginning the end of April. As luck would have it, the arrangement favoured everyone, because she could no longer afford the small kitchen she rented to prepare her organic meals. Using the bakery, she could cover everything including the new demand from Fresher Bakers. Fingal had already put his ovens up for sale and made a draft order for the new model of oven he’d recommended. Levity was not the only benefit Fingal provided. On Sunday, after Nathan's football game and with Jaymes’ blessing, Nathan agreed to accompany Grant to the city of York to see the sights, or what Jaymes called bonding time. They spent two days wandering the old city, Grant’s bubbling enthusiasm infectious, his knowledge of sites like York Minster, Castle Howard and the city walls probably more detailed and extensive than having a personal tour guide. Grant had organised not only first class rail tickets, but had pre-booked them into a heritage hotel in the heart of York, elegant adjoining rooms overlooking the city centre, and would not take Nathan’s money. Eventually Nathan had to insist on buying dinner the first night at an expensive but highly rated fine dining restaurant. He could tell Grant wasn’t comfortable at having to wear pressed trousers, button-down shirt and a jacket for dinner, had done so simply because Nathan had made the booking. “This is not your thing at all, is it?” said Nathan, as the waiter took away the amuse-bouche plate. “It’s fine, Nate.” Hearing Jaymes do the same, Grant had taken to calling him by the short form of his name. “Really. I’m just not—I’m not used to this kind of tucker.” “What? They don’t have fine dining restaurants back in Melbourne?” On the table top, the phone Grant had brought with him, buzzed with a message. Abiding by the restaurant policy for patrons, they had put their phones on silent mode. “Are you kidding me? Melbourne is arguably the gastronomic centre of Australia. But I’m more of a meat and veggies straight off the barbie kind of person. Never really been one for fussy food. That much I get from my dad.” “Over here, we think all Aussies are born with barbecue tongs in their hands.” “No longer the case, mate. Plenty of my countryfolk are gastronomes. Can’t turn on the television without wading through channel after channel of cooking shows. Probably to do with all the fresh, organic produce we have back home. I blame my particular predilection on my old man.” He had already explained to Nathan how his parents had divorced before he turned fourteen. “He spent his down time out the back of our house, either tending garden or socialising with friends and hogging the barbie on our deck. Simple, honest food and good company, was his motto.” “Sorry, Grant, you should have said.” “It’s not an issue.” Grant’s phone wriggled on the tabletop with another buzz, but he didn’t even look down. “You’ve got to try everything at least once, haven’t you?” Nathan said nothing, but simply smirked and looked out across the restaurant. “Not sure what’s going through your filthy mind, cuz, but the answer’s no,” said Grant. “In case you were going to ask. I’ve never been with another dude, nor do I ever plan on doing so.” Nathan turned back to look shocked across the table at Grant. “That wasn’t what I was thinking.” “Liar,” said Grant, grinning. “Okay,” said Nathan, chuckling at being caught out. “But just so you know, I’ve never been with a woman, either. Nor do I ever plan on doing so. Aren’t you going to see who that is?” “Later.” “Is it Polly?” “If it was, would that be a problem?” Nathan studied Grant for a while before answering. “Why would it be a problem?” “She’s your best friend. And Jaymes’ cousin. Wouldn’t that be weird for you?” If he was going to honest, the thought had crossed his mind. But at the end of the day, they were all grown ups, finding happiness wherever they could. And he not only liked, but trusted his cousin. Moreover, if they did get together and anything went pear-shaped, Nathan felt sure it wouldn’t be Polly who’d end up needing a shoulder to cry on. “I’m seeing Polly’s cousin. And she doesn’t find it weird. In fact, she’s really warmed to the idea since you turned up a couple of weeks ago. So if I did object, I’d be a bit of a hypocrite, wouldn’t I?” Grant smiled back, before picking up his phone and dialling a number. “Hey Polly. How’s it going?” They arrived home on Tuesday around six-thirty in the evening. Grant headed back to his hotel, while Nathan went to unpack and shower. Not that he got to do either. An unexpected bonus of the few days away was how much Jaymes had missed him. As soon as he entered the flat, without a word being spoken between them, Jaymes tackled him and took him to bed where they stayed most of the evening. All in all, piece by piece, his life had become the kind of perfect picture he could never have imagined. An hour before he left for the church hall, Polly texted him to tell him she would not attend. School had rescheduled her timetable and she had to be there tonight for the parent’s evening. But she’d join them for drinks later. Despite a string of sad faced emojis, Nathan’s heart sank. Tonight of all nights, he could have done with Polly’s support to front Arlene. He’d almost been tempted to text Grant and ask if he wanted to come, but then reconsidered. Sitting through a committee meeting might scare him back to Australian forever and they’d only just gotten to know each other. After finally texting Grant and then Jaymes to remind them both to come to the pub for drinks and food after the meeting, he made his way to the village hall. Only as he text the word food did his stomach growl, remembering he hadn’t eaten since breakfast. At the meeting, Arlene arrived last. Efficiently and with a quick nod to everyone, she got straight down to business. Nathan noted no undercurrent towards him, just her usual business self. The topic of the calendar came up last, after all other agenda items were out of the way. “Due to pressure from our public—following the publishing of the online article—preorders of the calendar have gone wild. I’ll need to contact the printers for a re-run at this rate. At £14.99 a copy, that gives us a clear profit of just over ten pounds for each one sold. Doris reported that we already have over seven hundred pre-booked sales, so that’s seven thousand pounds in the fête kitty already and we haven’t even set up a single stall yet. Officially the calendar launch will be the third week in May, here in the village hall—Nathan, can you make sure they’ve all marked their calendars?—with all the players signing copies and, of course, Jenny explaining her concept. We’re expecting to have prominent members of the press in attendance. There’s been a lot of interest nationally, especially since Clifton O’Keefe and his husband Raul will be here, too. So, of course, we’ll need to lay on a range of canapés, bubbles and cocktails for the event. My contact in catering will take care of all that.” “Nathan could do the catering. Keep things local,” said Mike, uncharacteristically bluntly. “It’s a sizeable order, Michael,” said Arlene, not even bothering to acknowledge Nathan. “We’ll be expecting around two hundred in attendance. Moreover, my contact has already been informed.” “So un-inform them. Nathan can handle the catering, can’t you, Nathan?” “I suppose so. It’s—what—a month away?” “There’s no need. Everything’s under control—” “Your control,” said Mike. Something or someone had really gotten to him. “But if you insist on us using your contact, then we need to have the details. The committee needs to approve the supplier.” “That won’t be necessary—” “Michael is right, Arlene,” said Father Mulligan. “We should really have voted on Jenny Gillespie before contracting her to take the photographs for the calendar. But I think in that instance, we would have all been in favour, seeing as we had no viable alternatives. I’m not saying I don’t agree with you on the catering matter—I’m sure your previous role as an events coordinator would have brought you into contact with some very capable people—I’m just stating a matter of protocol.” “Fine, then,” said Arlene, glaring at Father Arbuthnot, rattled but still sitting stiffly upright. “Let’s have a vote, if we must. Who’s in favour of Nathan’s little shop providing the catering?” Mike shot up his hand, followed by Doris, and, after a few seconds pause, Nathan put his hand up as well. If he was going to be honest, he didn’t want the job, but if the weather stayed this bad, perhaps he could give Molly and Fingal something else to do. “So that’s three against two,” said Mike, triumphantly. “What about Polly?” said Father Arbuthnot. “She may not be here in person, but she should still get a vote.” “Seriously?” said Mike. “You know she’s going to side with Nathan.” “I’m not a side—” began Nathan, but was totally ignored. So much for trying to mend his relationship with Arlene. “Nevertheless, somebody ought to call her,” said Father Arbuthnot. “I’ll do it, then,” said Mike, before anyone else could offer. Bringing out his phone, he swiped the screen and tapped the display twice with his thumb. “Since when did you have Polly on speed dial?” murmured Nathan, an eyebrow raised. “Since my twins were in her class,” said Mike, rolling his eyes. “We’ll be seeing her at the school tomorrow night.” Luckily for them, Polly appeared to answer on the first ring. Perfect timing, Mike told them, passing the message on as Polly spoke to him. Apparently they’d just finished one round of interviews, he explained, and were having a quick half hour break. When Mike explained the situation to her, she talked for some time, during which Mike listened carefully, frowning and occasionally nodding his head. Eventually, he put her on speaker, so everyone could hear what she had to say. “Hi everyone. Sorry I couldn’t be there tonight, but duty calls. Listen, I really think we ought to consider Arlene’s contact for this. There’s going to be a lot of important people attending we need to impress and we could do with someone who’s experienced in these things. I know Nathan would do a good job, but let’s use someone who does this kind of thing for a living. My vote is with Arlene.” Nathan sat stunned. Although he didn’t really want the job, he was floored that Polly would choose Arlene over him. Even Doris let out a soft ‘well, I never!’ After thanking Polly, and getting back to the meeting, Arlene took back control, her hands clasped triumphantly in her lap. “So that’s a draw. In which case, as the chair, I have the deciding vote.” Nathan turned his attention to Mike, who no longer seemed irritated. While Arlene finished off the meeting he tried to read between the lines. Why had Polly voted against him—not that he wanted the job anyway, but she didn’t know that? And why had Mike suddenly chilled? While Arlene droned on, he pulled out his phone and sent a frowning emoji to Polly. She immediately replied with a simple ‘I’ll explain in the pub later.’ After shaking his head, his attention returned to the room. “…two more meetings until the event. By May, the next meeting, all arrangements for the calendar should have been completed, so we can concentrate on the actual event, and, of course, the date auction. Nathan, I’ll expect you to have finalised the list of players who can participate by the next meeting. Persuade as many as you can from the calendar.” “I’ll do my best. But some of the boys are concerned because they’re either married or in relationships. Ken wondered if we could revise the auction prize into the men offering their services for their given professions. Ken would offer them a round of personal training sessions—” “What?” said Mike, grinning. “So Mel would mow their back lawn, and Eric and Tom would decorate a room. All to the highest bidder? Would they need to be naked when they carry out these jobs?” “Of course not,” said Nathan, beginning to see the flaw in the idea. “Then why not just—I don’t know—hire them? Got to be cheaper.” “He’s right, dear. Who’s going to bid for that?” asked Doris. “And what would they be bidding for with me?” asked Mike. “Your meat,” said Father Mulligan, which had Nathan chuckling and Doris coughing into her drink. All the while Arlene sat back and said nothing, a thin smile on her face. “Okay, but can you just make sure the publicity is clear, and says the highest bidder gets to have a dinner date—with the emphasis on dinner—with the person. We could combine the offer of the individual’s professional services to add a further incentive and sweeten the deal. Most importantly, let’s not compromise the goodwill of the players or mislead the bidder into believing they’re getting something they’re not.” “The wording in the publicity is crystal clear, Nathan. We’re not pimping any of you out, for heaven’s sake. But do remind the men it’s for charity.” As usual, the meeting petered out and, as soon as Arlene left and Nathan had tidied furniture away, he made his way over to Mike to talk. Until Doris stepped in and intercepted him. “Ooh, Nathan, dear,” she said, grabbing his forearm in both her veined hands. “Just wanted to tell you. I had a long chat on the phone with Margie Hogmore—Clifton’s mother—over the weekend. Called out of the blue. She does that from time to time. Anyway, she’s flying into London next week and, among other things, she wanted to come here and talk to you. I gave her your number, I hope that’s okay?” “Absolutely fine. What does she want to talk about?” “She didn’t actually say. But from the other things she mentioned, she’s worried about Clifton. He’s going through a difficult patch at the moment, and she knows you two have reconnected. So I think maybe she wants get your advice on what’s best for him.” “Why doesn’t she talk to Raul?” “I have no idea. Maybe they don’t see eye to eye.” Nathan found that hard to believe. In his experience, Raul came across as likeable with everyone. More than likely, though, Raul knew where his allegiances lay, and would not be as candid with Clifton’s mother as someone like Nathan. “Not sure what good I’ll be, but I’m happy to meet and talk.” Actually, he had fond memories of Aunt Margie from when they were kids, standing on the sidelines with his mother, watching them play football. Even if he was no help, he’d welcome seeing her again. “Good. Anyway, she’ll call or message you.” “Thanks, Doris.” “Still got those rings?” Nathan smiled and looked sheepish. “Safe and sound.” “Not thought about sharing one yet?” “Not just yet, no.” “Well, don’t leave it too long. Don’t want to miss the opportunity.” Lost in his talk with Doris, Nathan noticed a stranger enter the hall. Clad in black jeans and a thick North face jacket opened up, he wore a brown shirt with a logo Nathan vaguely recognised. If anything, his grim expression made him appear annoyed or put out, or both, as his eyes darted about the room. “Is Polly Fischer here?” he barked out. “No, she isn’t,” said Nathan, before anyone else could answer. “She’s at the school tonight. Parent teacher night. Is there anything I can help you with?” Unsteadily, the man sized up Nathan before making up his mind and continuing. “It’s about her cousin.” Coldness washed over Nathan, as the blood drain from his face. “Jaymes?” “You know him?” “Of course I do. He lives with me. What’s happened?” “You’d better come with me. I’m Kurt, one of his co-workers. There’s been an accident at the lodge. They’ve taken him to Eastbourne General.” +++++++ Nathan didn’t usually mind hospitals, especially not this one. Twice a year he hung about in Eastbourne General during his bi-annual heath check, waiting to have various specialist tests performed, so he’s become immune to the pungent smells, stark neon lighting, and strict precision. In his past experience, medical staff had been courteous, friendly even, chatting and smiling as they went about their duties. But health checks happened in a different wing; relaxed, decorated, bordering on sedate, where he inevitably felt fit and healthy. Tonight he felt sick to his stomach, worn thin, as though he had been woken too early from a deep sleep. Kurt managed the half hour journey in record time, speeding around bends, breaking hard, accelerating rapidly whenever the road allowed. And now the accident and emergency waiting area did nothing to soothe him, the hall wholly unfamiliar and unnerving. Row upon row of pale-faced people sat either waiting for loved ones or to be seen by professionals, while fraught medical staff rushed from one emergency room to another. According to Kurt, as they stood drying off in the foyer after a short walk through the crowded carpark, prolonged bad weather ensured a fuller house than a Bon Jovi concert. On the way down, largely to keep his mind occupied and himself from throwing up with worry, he grilled Kurt about the accident. Having shed his jacket, Nathan finally recognised Kurt’s short sleeve shirt uniform and breast logo of the Mosswold Forest National Trust. For all his indifference, Kurt drove competently, knew exactly how to handle his silver Toyota Landcruiser. Sitting high on the road, its beams flooded the silvered road and wipers dealt efficiently with the constant downpour. Either talk did not come naturally to Kurt or he didn’t want to discuss the accident. After a number of Nathan’s questions, he finally snapped. “Look, I wasn’t there. All I know is what I’ve been told.” “Which is?” insisted Nathan. “Which is that they should never have been out there in the first place.” So there it was. Kurt’s taut shake of the head and barely surpassed anger had Nathan wondering at what Jaymes seemed to consider his close, tightly-knit team. “Mitch is going to be fucking pissed when he gets back.” Nathan had heard Mitch’s name mentioned before. He ran operations at the centre. “So what happened?” “I told Fischer to leave it ’til tomorrow—see if the weather improved—but if you know him, you’ll know what a stubborn prick he can be. Could have gotten somebody killed.” Yes, himself, thought Nathan, but by the sound of things Kurt meant someone else. Only ten minutes into the journey and he got the strong impression Jaymes and Kurt were not the best of mates in or out of work. Nathan knew Jaymes well enough to recognise how he could be stubborn sometimes, but never reckless. “But she always sides with him. Every fucking time.” “Sorry, who?” “Beth,” said Kurt, turning to Nathan as if the answer was obvious. “They went to inspect a patch of trees in the northeast corner of the forest, a part fenced off from the public—for good reason. Anyway, from what I heard, they reached a spot covered by bracken beneath dense trees. One minute, Fischer goes prancing off the path into the undergrowth, next minute he disappears from view. Beth called out a couple of times and then went to check on him. Beth’s smart, cautious—she’s got good instincts, a good person to have by your side. Anyway, she discovered a steep, hidden ravine. She called down, but got no answer. Just as well Fischer took her in the end. If he’d gone alone, help may have come too late. Beth’s a total pro and radioed the incident in straight away. Even so, four people were needed to haul Fischer’s body back out, strapped to a gurney and still unconscious.” “What’s the latest?” “No idea.” When Nathan sighed, Kurt glanced over briefly before continuing on. “I don’t know, because I got tasked with finding the cousin, from the emergency contact he provided. A landline number. Who has a fucking landline these days? Every call I made went to her voice-call service.” “Oh, shit. Polly’s going to freak.” “Only left one message. Told her to call me. Nothing more.” “I’ll text her mobile when we get there. Are his injuries serious?” “No idea. All I know is he was unconscious when they pulled him out.” “Nobody’s given you an update?” “Nope.” Not that Kurt would have given a monkey’s. Maybe they knew that much, maybe Kurt had been given this particular task for a reason. Nathan decided not to push. “How did you know about the committee meeting?” “I didn’t. Beth did. She’d been banging on about some calendar or another, and mentioned Fischer’s cousin being on the committee. Heard Fischer saying he was going for a drink tonight with his mate and her after they’d finished the meeting at the village hall. So after I had no joy with her number, I went there to find her. I suppose you’re the mate?” “I am.” “Figures.” Despite his apparent lack of knowledge of, or interest in, events, Kurt excelled in the hospital, finding out information, stopping staff and addressing them directly, until he found out what he needed. Nathan assumed he had done this kind of thing before, and used the alone time to call Polly and Grant. As luck would have it, they were already in the pub, with Polly insisting on coming straight away. As soon as Nathan clicked off the call, Kurt returned with an older nurse, who led them to a ward room two floors up, to the first bed inside the door. Kurt marched straight into the tableau, where two other brown shirts stood around the bed. One was a pretty blonde-haired woman around five six standing near the head of the bed, the other, a big man in brown short sleeve shirt and shorts, stood opposite. Sitting up, Jaymes had part of the left side of his head covered by a large patch bandage, but when Nathan saw he was conscious—a little tired and shaken, but otherwise healthy—realisation and relief hit him hard. As though his body had been tensed up the whole time, awareness hit him like collapsing soufflé. Apart from a very early breakfast, a small bowl of oatmeal and berries, he had eaten nothing all day. Supported by the cool wall, he steadied himself, watching Jaymes take in Kurt as he lumbered over to the woman. Without even a glance at Jaymes, Kurt placed a hand on the shoulder of the woman, who had to be Beth, and began an earnest conversation. On the opposite side of the bed, the other colleague now stood in Nathan’s line of sight of Jaymes. A mountain of a man, he had a startling shock of ginger hair tied back in a ponytail, enhanced by the brown uniform of shirt and shorts, a colour which continued down in the hairs of his big, tattooed arms and thick thighs. Kurt must have announced something at one point, because as one, they turned to where Nathan stood, with Ginger stepping out of the way, and Jaymes’ gaze swinging Nathan’s way. Immediately Jaymes’ sat up, his face brightening, but then almost instantly creasing with concern. “Nate?,” said Jaymes, softly. Hearing so much love and care in the voice threatened to overwhelm Nathan. “Are you okay?” Nathan pushed away from the wall, but then thought better of the action. Nausea and dizziness hit him like an oven door opening and the ground tilted suddenly, threatening to topple him. “Actually, I don’t feel so—” “Fuck. Ralph, get him a seat.” Before he knew what was happening, a strong arm clamped around his shoulders and lowered him into a plastic hospital seat. Voices carried on around him, as he leant forward, his head cradled in his hands on the side of the bed. “Shit, sorry everyone,” Without even attempting to lift his head, he spoke to the grey linoleum floor. “I haven’t eaten all day. Feeling a little light-headed. Give me a minute.” “Want me to get him a coffee and a sandwich from the cafe?” said Beth. “You’re an angel, Beth.” Jaymes’ voice. “I’ll come with you.” Kurt, cold as ever. “Me too. Give you two some time to—err—catch up.” A deep voice, accented, warm, and the only one Nathan couldn’t make out, must have belonged to the large ginger-haired man. And suddenly, apart from the general background noise from the rest of the ward, glorious silence descended. Nathan took a few steadying breaths, about to lift his head, when a warm hand landed on the back of his neck. Tears filled his eyes, as he let the familiar hand massage his neck. “Hey, Nate. I’m sorry.” With an effort of will, and excruciatingly slowly, Nathan raised his head. Jaymes’ beautiful face and adoring gaze almost undid him. “You scared the shit out of me. I thought when I got here, you were going to be in a coma. That fuckwit neanderthal told me next to nothing.” “Ha. You met Kurt? I’ve met oak trees with more emotional intelligence.” “The way fuckwit tells it, you were goofing around in the woods, and thought leaving the path might be a brilliant idea— “Path? What path? There are no fixed paths in that part of the forest. Old trails maybe, but most of those are hidden by the undergrowth. Unless you know that section of the forest well, you’d never find them. I went on ahead to check because the ground seemed to undulate, and I didn’t want Beth put in any danger. But some of those areas are tricky, deceiving, where branches have fallen and vegetation has grown over the top.” “You see? Kurt’s a prick.” Jaymes grinned and leaned over to take hold of Nathan’s hand. “I called Polly and Grant,” said Nathan, feeling more centred now. “They’re coming down, but I said I’d call and give them an update. What’s the diagnosis?” “I’m fine, I really am. Banged my head on a stump, and got a few scratches and scrapes, but bloody lucky that’s all, according to Beth. When they lifted me out, she saw what a deathtrap the hole was. They’re going to keep me in forty-eight hours for observation. Mainly for possible concussion. And then I’m back home.” “Don’t suppose there’s a flying ban in there somewhere?” Jaymes smiled sadly then, and gently shook his head. “Okay, Nate. We need to sit down and talk about me going to Malaysia. The reason I left early this morning was to have a conference call with them, something I didn’t want to do at home with you around. We’re both skirting the subject and before we know it, the time will upon us. So when I’m home, let’s sit down and have a serious chat. About the trip, and most importantly, about us.” When Jaymes reached out and touched the side of Nathan’s head, Nathan placed his own hand on top. “Because I don’t know about you, Nate, but I want there to be an ‘us’ in our future.”
  8. lomax61

    Visitors

    Three in the afternoon on a quiet Wednesday, Nathan sat in the small office at the back of the bakers, nursing a mug of tea, logging invoices and paying bills from his laptop. The only personal items he kept in the office were his overcoat, scarf and an assortment of umbrellas, in case he needed to head out to the high street for anything. Over the weekend, an electric kettle, mugs and tea bags had found their way onto one side of his office desk. And now, the small fridge his father had installed there, many moons ago, placed atop a waist-high filing cabinet, contained not only chilled bottles of water but a tall carton of fresh milk. Fingal’s doing, according to Molly. Apparently, he had baulked on Friday at having to run upstairs to the flat every time he fancied a brew. Rather than being rattled, Nathan found the change endearing, reminded him so much of his father. Strangely, the weekend away from the shop had changed him, chilled him, and he suddenly imagined a world outside his own. Even the announcement of his cousin coming to see him hadn’t fazed him, something he had taken in his stride. About to close down the laptop, he hesitated, then opened a browser and searched again for the Huffpost article on the calendar. In all fairness, the story had been well-written and provided excellent publicity for the upcoming event. The catchline ‘Crumbington Baker Bares All’ with the photo of him laid out on the wooden bench had initially filled him with cold dread, but had since begun to lose its potency. As had the couple of times he had been stared at or, on one occasion, wolf-whistled on the high street since Monday. More to the point, he wondered, would the title and picture entice anyone to read the actual article? He hoped so. Nevertheless, a smile tugged his face on seeing the photograph and remembering what exactly had been happening behind the camera. After finally leaving her a message Saturday night, Jenny Gillespie called Sunday lunchtime as he and Jaymes stuffed their bags into the back of the Rover and began to bid farewell to Clifton and Raul. Apparently her contact had initially confirmed publishing the article mid to late April. When he saw the material, and having had a fairly quiet month on the news front, his editor had insisted on publishing early. Her apology sounded genuine and Nathan placated her with his tale of being hijacked by a woman at the party, which had Jaymes laughing in the background and seemed to mollify Jenny. Before she called off, Jaymes demanded to know the details of the website, which she promptly provided. Clifton became quiet and pensive, and gently shook his head at Nathan, while all the others either hooted with joy, whistled, or made largely positive noises. Nathan put Clifton’s reaction down to his own dubious online experience. As they drove to the antiques store in Oxford, Nathan received a string of text messages from his teammates. Apparently, the site was now in the public domain. Two hours later, as they stood in the heart of Martin and Gallagher’s antiques shop, Arlene called. Although she sounded guarded at first—probably expecting to be blamed by Nathan—she didn’t seem overly bothered. Publicity, she put it assertively, being the key to a successful campaign and, ultimately, a profitable festival. Once she had finished her lecture, Nathan breathed out a sigh and then chuckled, and told her not to worry. That particular reaction, strangely, elicited a response from her, almost one of suspicion. But in a resigned voice, he told her the circus had already begun and that he simply would have liked to have been given a heads-up. On Monday morning, Jaymes texted him a photograph of his desktop computer with naked Nathan as the new wallpaper. An hour later, without knowing about her cousin’s action, Polly sent him one exactly the same but hers now filled the home display of her smartphone. After rolling his eyes, he resigned himself to being in the spotlight for a few more weeks. Just as well, too, because several people came into the shop that week, immediately seeking out this famous baker. After giving them a smile and a nod, telling them the calendar would be on sale very soon, he often watched them leave, and wondered what they thought when they realised he really was just an ordinary person, a true to life boring baker. “So this is where you hide yourself, is it?” came a baritone voice with a gentle Irish lilt. “Well, don’t just sit there. Make yourself useful and put the kettle on. Me and Molly here are parched.” Fingal stood in the doorway, smiling, Molly grinning over his shoulder. Nathan rolled his eyes, but got up and went to fill the kettle from the sink in the restroom attached to the office. When he returned, Fingal had already installed himself in the old chair opposite. As Nathan plugged in the kettle and set about making tea, Fingal watched him good-humouredly. “I was going to berate you about not publicising your damn fine produce enough. But seems you’ve gone above and beyond in that respect. I’d never have considered getting me togs off back in Ireland. An advert in a local paper holding a loaf maybe, but I’d never have considered appearing in the buff.” “Oh, my lord,” said Nathan, putting his face in his hands. “Who told you?” “Nobody needed to. After the third time being asked by a customer where the naked baker was, I kind of guessed they weren’t talking about Arthur—although I did wonder about his son. And then, before we closed up Friday, Molly’s daughter came in and showed us the photo on her phone. You do know takings were up by about a third for both days, don’t you?” “And I apologise for the trouble it caused. I want to truly thank you for coping, and especially taking the team out for a drink on Friday. But the calendar was never meant to be about me or the shop. It’s for charity—” “I know all that, Nathan. But a little bit of publicity for the shop can’t do any harm, can it?” Nathan finished off preparing the teas, and took one out to Molly, telling her to call him if things got busy. When he returned, he took his seat while Fingal folded his arms and observed him. “Now, son. Are you happy to hear some advice from an old timer?” “I’m all ears.” “Are you? It’s just, some people don’t want to hear from those they consider outsiders. And if you knew me well, you’d know that I’m not one to pull any punches.” “I’m a big boy.” “To be sure. Even Molly knows that. She saw the photo,” said Fingal, chuckling, while Nathan groaned and looked away. “What I mean is, please go on,” said Nathan, braving Fingal again. “Tell me what you think.” “Okay then. Like I said to you before, you’re missing a lot of tricks, so I’m going to start gently. To begin with, every morning you deliver fresh rolls and mini baguettes to seven cafes and convenience stores dotted about town. Once delivered, each store spends time filling them to sell as breakfasts, or lunches, or in readiness for their lunchtime trade. So I’m thinking, why don’t you do everything here instead, find out what fillings are popular and do the work for them? Price them accordingly, but I bet they’d love you for that. Molly’s more than capable. Although you might want to consider getting extra help. You could sell them here, out of the shop, too. And did you know her girl Janette has her own business making organic pies, salads and soups for schools, clubs and local cafes? How about you let her sell through the bakery? That way people can get freshly baked, freshly filled rolls or baguettes as well as pies, soups or salads for their lunches. Could get yourself a smart little side business going, if you wanted.” “Nice idea. But I’d need to find space if we’re going to prepare fresh food. And wouldn’t the health department need to approve us preparing fresh food on the premises?” “Your food prep licence might already cover you, but anyway, it’d be nothing more than a technicality. And as for space? You’ve got four ovens out back, Nathan. And you only ever use two. Sure, they’re a few years old, but they’re still in good nick. I bet you could sell them fairly easily, which is what I would do.” “Sell two? But I keep two as a back-up, in case—” “In case of what? According to Arthur, those ovens have rarely even needed any maintenance. They’re just sitting there, taking up valuable space, space that Molly could use to prepare rolls and baguettes. My advice would be to sell the whole lot, two at a time, and install a new Duvall Grande Deluxe at the back, which would take up a fraction of the current space and still easily cope with your current demand.” “I—I’d never thought of that. Should I talk to Arthur?” “Look, I really like Arthur, I do. He’s a professional, an artisan—and, man, can he down a pint—but he’s not a businessman. Whatever you say to him, he’ll agree. This ultimate decision would be yours.” Nathan sat back in his chair and stared at the ceiling. Two days under his roof and Fingal had identified so much, while Nathan had simply let the business drift. Was this what Jaymes meant about having a passion for what you do? “I googled your place, by the way,” continued Fingal. “Did you know you used to have a shop logo and a slogan in each of your front windows and on the glass in the door? Must have been back in the eighties.” “Before I was born. Probably my grandma.” “Cute little sign that read: Buy Local, Buy Fresher, with a smiling cartoon baker with his thumb up while cradling a cottage loaf. A subtle but kind of cute way of flipping off the supermarkets. Your shop front could do with a makeover, how about resurrecting the old sign. Kind of thing speaks to today’s consumer.” “I don’t think I know anyone, but I could ask Polly—” “Don’t worry about that. I got plenty of contacts,” said Fingal, putting down his mug of tea, and leaning forward. “Now, another thing. Don’t be surprised if, over the next couple of weeks, you get a call from an agent interested in buying the shop on behalf of a third party. Between you and me, they’ll likely be a representative of Upper Crust, that big outfit on the outskirts of town. From what I heard, they’ll offer you a substantial amount not only for the business and premises, but also for the goodwill. They’ll want to keep your family name but the shop will be run independently by Upper Crust.” Nathan sat staring disbelieving at Fingal, biting his bottom lip. Selling out to Upper Crust could be the answer to everything, would allow him to follow his dreams. And yet a part of him felt a stab of betrayal at even considering letting some faceless corporation stamp all over the family business. “I’ll let that sink in while I move onto the tough love. I mean no disrespect, Nathan, but I’ve a feeling you’ve got your head up your ar—I mean, in the sand—right now. Gonna put my cards on the table, so you know the kind of man you’ve been dealing with. The reason I agreed to come and help out over the weekend is because I owed Bob, Arlene’s husband, a favour. But when his wife called me up and asked that I help you out only because she wanted me to get intel on your operation, I almost told her to go to hell. But I agreed anyway, and I’m glad I did but for a very different reason. Not sure if you’re aware, but Mrs Killjoy is doing freelance marketing work for the big boys who run the chain of hypermarkets all along the south of England, the ones who also own Upper Crust. I’m telling you all this because I’m in favour of local businesses. Hell, I ran one myself for forty years. I think there’s been a trend away from the mass market style of selling goods and services, and—okay, there is also online shopping for some goods—but these days people in communities want to actively support local businesses, especially those generating fresh and organic produce. That’s why this town needs you, but if you’re going to do this, you need to grow a pair and fight back, Nathan.” “I don’t know what to say.” “Well, you’re clearly going to need help. And seeing as I’ve got time on my hands—” Nathan sat bolt upright. “You’d come and work for me?” “Part time. The missus would never forgive me if I agreed to do full time. But honestly, I’m climbing the walls at home at the moment. My wife just told me she had the best weekend in months doing spas and whatnot, without having to keep me entertained. And I thought you could do with some support, and give you a chance to take a few days off. Win-win, I think they call it. So I wondered if I offer to do a shift every fortnight, alternating Wednesday through Saturday when you’re at your busiest, and then Sunday through Wednesday when you’re quieter—” “We don’t open Sundays.” “Not yet, we don’t.” Nathan suddenly felt a weight lifting from his shoulders, and his eyes began to tear up. With Fingal on board, he could finally take time off, might even be able to schedule a holiday if they could work out schedules between them. He would also have someone he could trust working alongside, who’d be happy to speak his own mind. “Yes, Fingal. Hell, yes. I’d love to have you working here,” he said, until a thought came to him. “But what do we do about Arlene?” This time Fingal leant back in his chair, and nursed his tea mug, a smug grin on his face. “Bob’s a great guy, you know? He really is. But I have no idea what he sees in his wife. She is one ruthless bitch—or at least she likes to think she is. But you don’t need to worry yourself about Arlene Killjoy, Nathan. You’ve got me in your corner now. And, between me, your friend Polly—she’s a little firecracker, isn’t she?—and some very influential friends of hers, well, let’s just say, when the time is right, Arlene Killjoy is going to find out the true meaning of the word payback.” “What have you done—?” “You know, Nathan, as a member of the fête committee, I think the less you know, the better. So now you know I’m as devious as your committee organiser, do you still want me on board?” Nathan put down his mug, stood and leant across the table, his hand outstretched. “Absolutely, yes,” said Nathan, shaking Fingal’s hand. “It would be my honour to have you work alongside me.” “Good then. My wife has just become your new best friend.” Just then, Nathan heard Molly’s voice calling from inside the shop. “Nathan, can you come out, please. There’s a gentleman to see you.” After releasing Fingal’s firm handshake, Nathan walked into the shop, smiling. Molly stood frozen at the till, staring open-mouthed at the stranger. The man standing self-consciously in the centre of the empty shop, wrapped in warm garb, may have been a few years older than Nathan but the resemblance was uncanny. Same dark hair in almost the same style, same complexion, same shape and shade of eyes—even though Nathan couldn’t tell the exact colour—same shaped eyebrows, lips and mouth. If Nathan believed in doppelgängers, in having a mirror image, he would have called this person his. Before he had a chance to speak, the double, who appeared extremely nervous, spoke first. “Hello Nathan. My name’s Grant—” “Yes, I know who you are,” said Nathan, a little more abruptly than he’d meant. To soften the remark, he smiled and pointed to Grant’s face. “Family resemblance. And I’ve been expecting you.” “You know what,” said Fingal, his voice sounding over Nathan’s right shoulder. “It’s almost closing time. Why don’t I stay and help Molly shut up shop, and then you can take this young fellow-me-lad out for a coffee or something stronger.” “How about that, Grant? Fancy a coffee or—?” “A pint. Down the local. Would be perfect. My treat,” said Grant, appearing to relax slightly. Maybe he needed a drink to help calm his nerves even more. “Let me get my coat and scarf, and I’ll join you out front.” When Nathan returned, Molly and Fingal stood together laughing at a shared joke. “So, Mr Finnegan.” Nathan’s relieved mood had not been dampened by the arrival of Grant. No matter what his news might be, Nathan felt prepared for anything. He now had a fearless Irishman on his side. “When do you think you might be able to start?” “Well, I’m here now, aren’t I? So I may as well work until Saturday, if that’s okay by you? I’ve still got the spare set of keys, so I’ll keep hold of them.” “Fine by me,” said Nathan, grinning. “And at some point, I’ll need to get you officially onto our payroll.” “I’ll sort that out,” said Fingal. “You go and talk to your—cousin, is it?” Nathan peered out through the shop window, watching his cousin standing nervously, peering off down the road. Something resonated in that moment. Grant looked like Nathan’s father—or at least photographs of him when he was younger, when he was happy with Nathan’s mother. A tiny wave of affection hit him then, which he quickly batted away. What if Grant had come to claim his business from him? The thing was, even though they had just met, Nathan felt a connection. Maybe he should keep an open mind. “Be nice to him,” came Fingal’s voice. “He’s scared to death, poor chap. And by the sound of that accent, he’s a long way from home.” Without another word, Nathan sighed deeply, before walking out and joining his cousin. At first, they strolled unspeaking towards the pub. Grant was the first to break the silence. “You know, it’s autumn in Melbourne. Temperatures hover around twenty to twenty five during the day. Here feels like the middle of winter.” “Officially, spring has already started. But I know what you mean.” “But your history in England is incredible. The woman in the newsagent said this village dates back as far as the twelfth century. Even walking down the high street, with the black and white fronted Victorian buildings, feels like I’m in a Dickens novel.” Nathan laughed aloud. Some things he had learnt to take for granted. “Never really think about it.” “You should, it’s amazing. And not only authentic, but somebody’s spent a lot of time and money making sure they’re maintained. You can’t buy heritage. Well, you can—didn’t someone in Arizona buy London Bridge in the sixties and reassemble the whole thing on the Colorado River?” “Lake Havasu City. And rumour has it the guy thought he was getting Tower Bridge.” “Yeah, I think that’s a myth. But I wonder how the bridge looks now. Hundreds of years, Londoners walked or rode across, and now it’s plonked in the middle of Arizona. Yes, I know people are still crossing the bridge, but if Disney had built a replica instead, would anyone have noticed or cared? I walked across Westminster Bridge on Saturday. I know it’s not the same one Wordsworth refers to in his poem Upon Westminster Bridge—his poem was written in 1803 and the bridge was rebuilt later in the century—but standing there, staring at the River Thames and the skyline of London, and you can almost feel ghosts walking past.” Nathan turned to his cousin and raised an eyebrow, an expression not lost on Grant. “Oh crap. You think I’m a dork?” “No, I think you like history. Clearly.” “I love it. And especially when I see old buildings still being lived in, built centuries ago. To me, cousin, that is seriously mind-blowing.” “You’ll find the interiors have mod cons now. How else could we get through these bleak winters?” “I know. I’m staying at Uppingham Manor Hotel near Five Ashes right now. Old stately home converted into a hotel. And at some point I’d like to stay at Claridges in London—built 1865—before heading up country.” “Heavens. Someone has a few bob stashed away?” Grant looked away then, appeared a little embarrassed. Nathan figured his father had been as generous to him upon his death as he had been to Nathan, even more so. He immediately changed tack. “Might want to consider investing in a thicker jacket, if you’re thinking about doing any travelling. Weather’s even colder up north.” “Good advice. And if you ever need to escape this weather, you should come visit me when I get back to Oz. Bet you’d like Melbourne.” Nathan fell silent. Almost on impulse, he had been about to cite all the usual reasons why leaving the shop was impossible—except he no longer believed his own overused argument. Having Fingal on board would give him more freedom now. And he had still not forgotten Fingal’s words about Upper Crust making an offer for his shop. As they passed the small charity shop, a familiar woman whose name he couldn’t recall stopped in the shop doorway and called out to him. “Hey there, Mr Fresher. Nice photo. Keep up the good work.” “Thank you.” As they continued on, Grant peered at him quizzically. “I’ll explain later,” said Nathan, without turning. “Once I’ve got a pint in my hand.” “Would that be the reason I got stared at so much on the street Saturday? Did they mistake me for you? I’m sure someone even whistled.” “Could very well be.” Nathan said no more, and Grant grunted with laughter but didn’t push. “So what do friends and family call you? Nathan or Nate?” said Grant, as they reached the door of the pub. “You know us Aussies. We like to shorten everything.” “Well, I used to prefer Nathan.” Nathan smirked when he thought of Jaymes. He held the door open while Grant walked inside. “But Nate is beginning to grow on me. So how long are you over here for?” Inside, the warmth soon had his cheeks tingling. They both approached the bar, but Grant stopped him when he reached inside his coat for his wallet. “My treat, remember. Pint of lager?” Nathan nodded and then smiled when Grant ordered two pints of the same brand, Nathan’s favourite. As soon as the girl moved away to fetch their drinks, he turned back to Nathan. “To answer your question about how long I aim to stay, at least a month, but I’ve got no set plan. Tourist visa is for six months. Main objective was to come here and get to know you. Then I thought I’d spend time visiting historic places like York—which I did over the past couple of days—as well as Cornwall, Windsor and Edinburgh. But I really want to get to know Crumbington while I get my UK passport sorted, which might take some time.” “Are you changing your name?” Grant eyed Nathan carefully before speaking. “That’s one of the things I wanted to talk to you about. Would you be freaked out if I did?” “No. I mean, why would I?” “Well, all these years you’ve been an only child with no other living relative. Now suddenly—” “Why would that be a bad thing?” “Not bad, perhaps. Just might take some getting used to.” “I’d be honoured if you took the Fresher family name.” Either someone opened the pub door wide right at that moment, or a cold wave of premonition swept through Nathan. Fortunately, at that moment, the girl behind the bar returned with two pint glasses full of golden beer and Grant had turned away to pay. They took their drinks to a small nook at the back of the pub. As Grant put his wallet away, he smiled and brought something out of his pocket. “When I visited the shop with my father—years ago—your father gave me this.” Grant produced a small keyring which had an old fashioned silver half crown inside a perspex shell. Nathan chuckled and then drew out his own set of keys with an identical coin. When he held the token up next to Grant’s, his cousin’s smile drained away. “Do you think he knew?” Nathan’s own smile slipped then. He put the keyring together with his phone down on the table. “No. How could he? Even my grandfather didn’t know.” “Didn’t he?” After staring at Grant for a full minute, Nathan took a gulp of his beer. Grant was right, of course. Had his grandfather and father known about the orphaned brother? And even if they had, what good could it do now? Nathan shook his head and downed a little more of the pint. “So what do you want to know?” he asked, putting down his glass and wiping his upper lip. “Everything.” “Come on, Grant. Help me here.” “Look, I know my dad’s my birth dad. But it’s been odd finding out my grandfather—his father—is not actually family. And to be honest, I think I knew. In all the photos of my grandfather and his brothers as kids, they had golden hair. And grandma was a natural red head. But somehow, my dad ended up with dark hair like me.” “It’s been known to happen, family genes skipping generations.” “But the point is, they didn’t, did they?” “Did you ever say anything to your father?” “Once. He laughed it off. Asked if I thought grandma had been moonlighting. But now I know my real grandparents were different people, living their lives on the other side of the planet. Did you ever meet him, your great grandfather?” “Not really. I vaguely remember his funeral. I’d have been around eight when he died.” “How about my uncle, your grandfather? What was he like?” “Serious. Hard-working. Not particularly warm, and not much of a sense of humour. His whole life revolved around the bakery. My dad stepped straight into his shoes when he retired.” “But not you?” “For a time I wanted other things. But what choice did I have? How old are you, by the way?” “Thirty-seven.” “Single?” “That obvious?” Nathan snorted. He liked Grant. Even though they looked the same, they were different in some ways, but Grant had the same humble air about him, the same as his father and grandfather. Even if he hadn’t been given the letter, he might have suspected a family connection somewhere. “You’re very lucky, Nathan.” “Lucky? How so?” “To have a job where you not only create something, but you feed people. There’s something really noble about that. Must feel really satisfying.” “You want it? It’s all yours.” “No, I’m good,” laughed Grant, before sipping on his beer. “But, you know, I wouldn’t mind seeing the place in action, a working bakery, if you’d be okay with that?” Nathan smiled and nodded. A dose of realism never hurt anyone. He wondered why people romanticised his job, something he’d never found either worthy or fulfilling. “What do you do?” he asked. “For a living?” “Very little now. Don’t really need to. My dad’s partner, Dan, runs the real estate business. I’m a director—which is more of an honorary title—and I show up whenever there’s a board meeting or if there’s an emergency, which is never. Dan prefers it if I stay well out of the way. And to be perfectly honest, dad left me so much I don’t really need to work. He knew the business inside out, worked there every day up until the day he died.” “How old was he?” “Eighty-one.” “He had you late in life?” “Guess you could say that. Forty-four. Met my mum the year before. So maybe there’s hope for me yet.” While Grant had been speaking, a message beeped on Nathan’s phone. Nathan leant forward and touched the screen to bring up the full message. “Who’s that?” “Polly. Just stopped off at the shop to talk to me. Says she’s on her way.” Nathan peered up from his phone. “Hope that’s okay?” “Is she your—uh—your girl?” “Polly’s a friend. A good friend. She’s the one who tried to bar you from coming into the shop Saturday. Didn’t you two go for a drink—” “Oh shit, mate. Her? She’s coming here?” said Grant, taking a swig of his beer, before putting the glass down. After wiping his hand on his jacket, he swiped at his fringe. An amusing blush had appeared on his cheeks. “Calm down, Grant. She’s just—” said Nathan, before a sudden realisation dawned on him. “Oh my God. You fancy her. You fancy Polly.” “Are you kidding me? She’s a beauty, a stone cold fox. Doubt she’d even look at me twice.” “Wouldn’t be so sure about that. She has a thing for dark hair and green eyes. And she likes older guys. Reckon if I’d ever swung that way, she might have even had a thing for me.” “You’re gay?” Oh shit, thought Nathan. What a way to come out to your cousin. Although Grant’s face didn’t appear to hold any disgust, just inquisitiveness. “Is that a problem?” “Uh, mate, we do have gay people in Melbourne. Billy Hughes is my best bud from school and he’s gay. We’re on the same soccer team.” “You play football?” “Soccer.” “This just keeps getting better. I play for the local team. So, before Polly gets here, let me explain something the team’s been involved in recently for charity, the reason for the attention on the street.” Just as Nathan finished the story to a wide-eyed Grant, Polly turned up. Nathan spied her entering the pub from his vantage point, but she hadn’t seen them yet. With the pub relatively empty, she soon found them and Nathan smirked at Grant’s formality as he stood abruptly to greet her. When he offered to buy her a drink, she accepted immediately—a glass of white wine—and he almost fell over a chair to get to the bar. “Someone has an admirer,” said Nathan, smirking, as Polly took a seat opposite. Polly’s keen gaze after Grant told him everything he needed to know. “Be nice,” said Nathan. “He’s a gentle soul.” “When I am ever not nice?” asked Polly, a perfect pout in place trying hard to mask a smile. “I called Jaymes, by the way. He’s on his way, too.” Nathan laughed. Polly appeared to be amassing the troops. “Why? Did you think I needed saving?” “I dropped by the shop.” Polly folded her arms and gave him her best stony expression. “Fingal said you were headed here. So I thought it might be nice for your cousin to meet a couple of your friends. Is that a problem?” “No, not a problem. I appreciate the sentiment. But if you were worried about me, don’t be. From what I can tell in the short space of time I’ve known him, he’s a decent sort.” “Which is what I told you.” “Anyway, now I’ve got you alone, do you want to tell me what you’ve found out about Arlene?” Polly stared at Nathan, but gave nothing away. “Fingal says you’ve been digging,” Nathan added. “All in good time, Nathan darling. All in good time,” said Polly, before something caught her eye through the side window. “Jaymes is here.” Nathan turned, his interrogation instantly forgotten. Jaymes entered the pub with his usual confidence. He had come straight from work, still wore the clothes Nathan had watched him pull on that very morning; hugging jeans, thick black jumper beneath his warm parka jacket and solid work boots. Sex on legs. But even more, Nathan never tired of seeing Jaymes’ happy face. As always of late, his insides turned over a couple of times and he could not stop the smile stretching his face. Jaymes reciprocated as he made his way over. On autopilot, he made his way straight for Nathan, before stopping in front, a hand planted on either shoulder, about to place a kiss on Nathan’s lips. Except he froze at the last minute, when his gaze swung behind Nathan. “Poll,” he said, patting Nathan’s shoulders and dropping his hands. “There you are. Gonna buy me a drink?” Polly folded her arms and looked between the two of them. “Honestly, you two must think I walk around with my eyes closed.” “What—what do you mean?” asked Nathan. “His clothes in your wardrobe; lube left out on the side of your bed; the unused spare bedroom. Doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure things out. How long’s it been going on? No, let me guess. Since he saw you naked? At the photographer’s studio?” “Before then,” said Jaymes, calmly, surprising Nathan by putting his arm around his shoulders and fronting Polly. “But I knew as far back as January. The day I arrived., the day I walked in that door.” “You did?” asked Nathan, turning to Jaymes. This time, Nathan was rewarded with a peck on the cheek. “Hook, line and sinker. You have no idea what you do to me. Sorry I took so long to get my shit together, Nate.” They gave each other goofy grins, but Polly hadn’t finished. “And has he told you he’s off again? In June?” she said, her tone serious and assertive. Jaymes had been about to respond, but Nathan squeezed a hand on his forearm. “Polly. Jaymes has been upfront about everything. I know he’s only here for a few months, but I’m prepared to take whatever he can give. How can I be annoyed by someone who has a job they love? If anything, he’s an inspiration. And, in case you’re going to ask, I asked him to move in with me. Not the other way around. Your cousin is the best thing that’s happened to me in as long as I can remember.” “Oh, Nathan.” Polly’s gaze seemed almost maternal, pitiful. “What has he done to you?” This time, Nathan couldn’t stop the grin spreading across his face, and he pulled Jaymes in for a tight hug. “He’s made me happy.” Even Polly couldn’t resist then, and joined in the group hug. Just then a nervous cough sounded behind them. “Did I miss something?” came Grant’s voice.
  9. lomax61

    Party

    Not today, thunderstorms. But yes, all happening out this way. Taiwan gay marriage, Hong Kong extradition protests (China blaming the US and UK for stirring up trouble - what’s new?), more Sharia laws being considered in Malaysia, Brunei almost passing a law condoning the stoning of gay people... So even with my home country about to elect Boris Trump as Prime Minister, my husband and I (how I love the sound of that) are heading home next year. Enough.
  10. lomax61

    Party

    Next chapter. I promise. Working on it now. Finally have a few weeks of freedom to write (hoorah).
  11. lomax61

    Party

    Stood alone in the darkened room, Nathan glared hard out through the front window into the bleak night. Dark bulky shapes—the outlines of cars—stood beneath a clear night sky full of bleary-eyed stars. Memories of a peaceful, almost transformational, weekend had dissolved in just a few minutes. Only as he stood there for a full minute with the phone glued to his ear, his temper held at bay, did he realise nothing was happening. When he checked closely, by the light of the device’s display, he realised his phone had no signal, not a single bar. Audibly, he cursed himself. He hadn’t even asked his hosts if they had a WiFi network he could log onto. His first thought was to head back and find Gallagher and Martin, ask to use the house phone—Jaymes had left his mobile phone at home, insisting on a tech-detox weekend—but then, at the notion of Jaymes, other thoughts crowded his mind and he stalled. Had Lawrence been Jaymes’ ex-lover? The one who cheated on him? Admittedly, Lawrence did have a certain charisma. Until he opened his mouth. Surely the Jaymes he had grown to know—and yes, love—would never have fallen for someone so shallow and self-absorbed. And hearing him articulate Jaymes’ wanderlust in terms of being commitment phobic was at the very least unsettling. Part of coming to terms with Jaymes’ eventual departure had been his understanding that Jaymes’ enjoyed his profession with a passion. As far as Nathan was concerned, anyone who loved their job in this life deserved to be given every possible latitude to follow their dreams. “Nathan? Nathan Fresher?” came a deep voice, both familiar and unfamiliar. Nathan turned to see the silhouette of a short man in the doorway, the light from the hallway behind him. “Do you mind if I switch the light on?” came the voice, and before Nathan could respond, light flooded the room. Only then did Nathan realise he stood in a room off the main hallway. Large black plastic boxes—the solid types used by removal companies—formed a wall against one side of the room. On each, the letters HBC4 stencilled onto the side in bright green. Apart from three stainless steel coat racks filled with coats of all colours and sizes, the room was otherwise bare, in stark contrast to the rest of the house. Giorgio Costello came into the room and shut the door behind him, before turning to Nathan. “I was trying to make a call. But there’s no signal.” “Yep, this place is a freaking fortress. Try outside the front of the house. Or the back but it’s a little rowdy. I managed a few calls in the parking bay earlier. Listen, I’m glad I caught you, I wanted to speak to you in private. About Clifton. And I saw you dive in here, so I thought I’d grab my chance.” At first, Nathan wondered if Giorgio wanted to talk about the filming at his shop but then noted Giorgio’s seriousness. After scrutinising Nathan in silence for an uncomfortable minute, he let out a deep sigh. “If only Clifton had ended up with someone like you, things would be so much easier. Raul’s a lovely guy but they’re both constantly in the spotlight, both being scrutinised by those muck-raking media morons. Couples are so much easier to handle when one of them’s a nobody.” Maybe Nathan should have been more insulted, but a sudden thought had come to him. Had Giorgio been the one hovering and watching from outside the bedroom when Clifton made his move? Was that why he was here? Perhaps he realised the slight in his final words because he quickly appended his remark. “No offence meant.” “None taken. But you know that could never have happened, don’t you?” said Nathan, trying to preempt any accusation. “My inherited vocation not only ties me to one place six days a week—most of the time, anyway—but also means me having to be up well before the crack of dawn. I could never have accompanied Clifton to his endless parade of evening celebrity shindigs or travelled abroad with him.” “You could have sold up.” “It’s a family business.” Recently, those two last words had begun to lose their power. And had he discussed the same thing with someone recently? Or maybe the fanciful notion had visited him in his sleep once again. And why he felt the need to justify himself to Giorgio, he had no idea. “Now that I do understand. My family’s Italian American, settled in New York from Sicily in 1910. Our family restaurant business became a way of life. My oldest brother still runs the outfit back of the Meatpacking District. Only kept afloat because the rest of us throw money at the place. Should have gone under years ago.” “My shop still makes money. If yours isn’t, why aren’t you tempted to let it go?” “That’s what I’m saying. The shop is as much a part of the family as our own flesh and blood.” “And how many are there? In your family?” “Including me? Eight. Five brothers and three sisters.” “What if it had just been you?” “What do you mean?” Even Nathan had been thrown by his own sudden change of tack. “What if you’d been an only child and your family place was going down the drain.” Giorgio stared hard at Nathan for a long time before he spoke again. “You need financial backing? Is that what you’re driving at? Because publicity from the television shoot is more than likely going—” “No,” said Nathan, harder than he meant to. “That’s not what I’m asking. The bakery is doing fine. But if it wasn’t, whether a family business or not, I’m not sure I’d have your faith. Maybe you do understand the extra pressure that goes with keeping a family business afloat, but it feels as though all I’m doing right now—by keeping the damned place going—is being loyal to ghosts.” Giorgio had a habit of rubbing two fingers and the thumb of his right hand together when he thought hard. Maybe he wished they held a cigar for him to puff on. Eventually he broke the silence. “Anyway, that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about. Clifton says you know about his—uh—predicament.” “You mean the bastard ex and his hidden handy-cam?” Giorgio’s pudgy face broke into a yellow-toothed smile then. “One way of putting it.” “When you do find him—before you throw his arse in jail—will you promise to bring him to the shop so that I can be the first one to kick him in the nuts.” This time Giorgio laughed aloud, and also appeared to relax. Why had he been so tense? “Look, in case you’re going to ask, I will not tell another living soul. Cliff is a good friend—always will be. If there is anything I can do to help him—legally—just let me know.” “You told him to come clean. To give an interview.” “Well I didn’t exactly tell him to give an interview, but I told him I thought honesty is best. Rip off the plaster, so to speak. Before some rag or another sniffs out a little bit of the story, and then makes up the rest.” “Which is what I advised him months ago. And it seems he’s come around now, after chatting with you. So I just wanted to come and say thank you. You’re impartial, unlike Raul and me, and I’m quickly getting to realise that you’re a good influence. You two used to have a thing, didn’t you?” Ah, thought Nathan, so here it comes. “When we were kids. Long time ago. Water under the bridge. We’re just friends now.” “Are you?” “We are. And in case it escaped your notice, Jaymes and I are very happy together.” Giorgio nodded sagely and began to turn for the door, before turning back. “He still carries a torch for you, you know? Ever since he’s been back.” “Don’t worry. He’ll get over it.” “Will he?” “Mark my words. When he’s holding a couple of giggling, dribbling babies and is up to his knees in poopy nappies, I’ll be but a distant memory. He won’t give me a second thought or—” Right at that moment, the door opened a crack and Jaymes poked his head in. “There you are. I thought you’d run off. Finished helping Gallagher and then I couldn’t find you anywhere. Sorry for leaving you with Lawrence. But I think if I’d stayed, things might have gotten ugly.” “Lovable Larry. They did anyway, I’m afraid.” “Oh shit,” said Jaymes, coming into the room. “What happened?” “You can probably guess. He said some unpleasant things about you, which I was not about to let go unchallenged. His finale was along the lines of me not being good enough to snare someone like you.” “Sorry, who is this you’re talking about?” asked Giorgio. “Lawrence Cotterbourne,” said Jaymes. “One of the cast members, I’m guessing. Someone I used to know.” “Who’s currently with his pals getting ‘freshened up’ in an upstairs cloakroom.” Nathan used double finger air quotes to emphasis the two words. “Whatever the hell that means.” “He’s what?” said Giorgio, his tone almost as dark as his face. “Someone came and dragged him away. Those were the exact words they used.” “Upstairs, you say?” said Giorgio, moving quickly to the door. “Thanks for the heads-up. That’s all I need. Clifton involved in a police raid on a house where their idea of a party is popping pills and snorting happy dust. See you guys later. Once I’ve dealt with this shit.” When Giorgio squeezed past Jaymes and closed the door, Jaymes simply stood there. They both appeared oddly awkward around each other. “Oops, sorry. Did I just snitch on your ex?” said Nathan, trying to make light of things. “My ex?” said Jaymes, his eyes narrowing on Nathan. “You think Lawrence is my ex?” “Isn’t he?” “Give me some credit, Nate. Yes, we were at college together and we kind of bounced around in similar circles, but we were never more than friends of friends. What are you doing in here, anyway? Surely not hiding from a prick like Lawrence?” “No. I’m trying to call Arlene bloody Killjoy. Some kind soul has already published one of the naked team photos online, one of mine. A random woman singled me out after you went to help Gallagher. I want to hear what Arlene has to say, because she’s probably the one who leaked the thing.” “Okay,” said Jaymes, shrugging. “And the problem is—?” “The problem is I’ve been blindsided.” “Didn’t you give your consent for her to use the photos?” “Yes, but...” Nathan responded, but then hesitated. Jaymes stared at him in all innocence and didn’t see the breach of faith in what she had done. Yes, truth be told, he had agreed to her using his photographs for an online magazine, so she’d done nothing illicit. But he had expected to be given some notice, at least, as a simple courtesy. “Nate. Eventually these calendars are going to go on sale, yes? For charity. That was the point of the exercise. And then, the whole world will be able to purchase them and see you in the buff.” “Why are you doing this?” “Doing what?” “Taking her side?” “Taking her side? Seriously? I’m not taking her side, I’m not taking anyone’s side. I’m simply stating a fact. You told me an online magazine reporter spoke to Jenny and wanted copies of your photo, that they were going to do an article about the calendar.” “After speaking to me.” “Oh, I see,” said Jaymes, holding both palms up, his face registering comprehension. “Okay, in which case I apologise. You didn’t tell me that bit. Now I understand why you’re pissed.” “I—” began Nathan, but then realised he’d only assumed the reporter would want to speak to him. “Actually, no. You’re right. We didn’t agree that part. I guess I just assumed—hell, I don’t know what I assumed.” Jaymes let out a deep sigh and studied Nathan. “Are you having second thoughts about being in the calendar, Nate? Because if you are, you really need to have a conversation with Arlene before—” “I’m not having second thoughts,” said Nathan, pushing a hand through his hair and looking suitably rattled. “I just—I was thrown. What do you say when some random woman walks up, calls you the naked baker, and then mentions you having hot cross buns.” At least Jaymes had the decency to put a hand over his mouth to mask his smile. “Apart from telling her to keep her bloody hands to herself, I’d say she has pretty good taste.” “Jaymes,” said Nathan, not seeing the humour in the remark. But Jaymes strode forward and pulled Nathan into a hug. At first Nathan resisted, but after a few moments he relaxed into Jaymes’ body warmth. Perhaps Jaymes had a point, he thought. Soon the whole world would be able to buy the calendar online, and he did seem to remember telling Jenny he didn’t mind if the Huffpost journalist did a story on them and used a photo. Maybe Lawrence had wound him up more than he’d realised. “What’s going on with you, Nate? This weekend you’ve been so changeable; incredibly chilled one moment, and then as tight as a Scotman’s wallet the next. So here’s a thought for you to consider. Instead of calling Arlene—who will probably be doubly pissed about not having been invited to Clifton’s cast party—and giving her a hard time, how about you phone Jenny and ask her? She’s been pretty up front to deal with.” Nathan chuckled into Jaymes’ shoulder and then sighed. When Jaymes left, he was going to miss having someone calming him down, someone providing plain common sense. Right then, he considered asking Jaymes about Lawrence’s quip, about the ex who had taken his own life. But even if Lawrence had been telling the truth, he might only succeed in pissing Jaymes off, and he liked this version of Jaymes. As if hearing Nathan’s thoughts, Jaymes brought them face to face and kissed him, softly at first, but at Nathan’s enthusiastic reciprocation, the kiss became something more urgent and carnal. Eventually Jaymes broke away breathless. “This feels really sordid and wholly disrespectful, making out in our good friend’s storeroom. Is there a lock on this door?” “Hate to be the voice of reason,” said Nathan, straightening Jaymes’ collar, “but shouldn’t we get back to the party? It’s ten-thirty and people are leaving now, anyway—I can hear cabs pulling up—and I want to be there to help Martin and Gallagher.” “Spoilsport.” “And then we can head to bed.” “Now you’re talking—” “On our eeky, squeaky, bouncy castle mattress.” “Oh.” “But we’ll be home tomorrow night, just you and me. Once we get rid of Polly.” “Just us,” said Jaymes, adjusting his trousers before learning in and kissing Nathan again, softly and almost chastely this time. When Nathan pulled away, he still had his hands on each of Jaymes’ shoulders. “Who’s going to be my voice of reason when you’re gone?” “If the website I checked out is telling the truth, they now have mobile phones and FaceTime in Malaysia. There might be a bit of a time difference, but I’ll still be at the end of a phone line, Nate. It’s not the end of the world. And Polly will still be here.” “Fair point. Okay, I’m decent again. Let’s head back.” “Hang on,” said Jaymes, grabbing Nathan’s hand. “I know it’s late. But how about you try phoning Jenny now? Rather than leave things until the morning.” Which is exactly what they agreed. Nathan found a quiet spot out front—away from the noise of departing cars and arriving taxis—where he managed to get a decent reception. As soon as a signal kicked in, he noticed missed calls and another two messages from Polly had popped up on his phone. The earlier one had been a simple ‘how are things?’ which he chose to ignore. These appeared far more urgent, including a ‘call me back now!’ Instant coldness filled him and he immediately thumbed Polly’s number. “Polly, it’s Nath—” “Where the hell have you been? I’ve called you three times this evening. Did you turn your phone off?” “I didn’t, it’s— I didn’t realise I couldn’t get a signal in the house.” Nathan realised he had stopped breathing. “What happened? Why did you call? Is it the shop? Tell me it’s not the shop.” “Okay, first of all calm down, Nathan.” Probably realising the concern she’d caused him, Polly’s voice softened. “The shop is fine and business has been amazing. Just so you know, the poor buggers were rushed off their feet again today. Molly said people kept coming in all day asking if you were around, not regulars according to her. And some of them stood outside the shop, taking selfies with the shop as the backdrop. What that was about nobody seems to know. Any ideas?” “Ah, yes. Somehow one of the naked photos of me was published in an online publication. I was about to phone Jenny the photographer to find out more. So that’s what you were calling about?” “Uh, no. So, anyway, after a crazy day, they managed to close the doors at around six-thirty. Some people were still in the shop, so Fingal and Molly served the last of the customers while I helped them, standing at the locked front door letting people out. When I went to let the last woman and her kid go, a man came up and tapped his knuckle on the front window. I was about to tell him to bugger off, but Nathan, when I saw his face I nearly fell over.” “Why? Who was it?” “Fingal asked me if it was you,” said Polly, skirting the truth. “Asked why I wasn’t letting you in. Honest to God, Nathan, the guy could have been your older brother. Your really good-looking older brother. So of course I let him in and, like everyone else that day, he asked for you. I told him you were away and he said he’d come back and see you Wednesday. Said he’s away in the north of England until then. Honestly Nathan, even though his voice is very different—an Australian accent—he even has the same eyes and nose as you.” “Grant Brooks,” Nathan spoke quietly, looking over at Jaymes who sensed something wrong and strolled over to stand next to him. “My long lost Australian cousin?” “One and the same.” “Did he say what he wanted? Or did he leave a number?” “No. Just needs to talk to you. He wouldn’t say any more than that, and, believe me, I tried. Took him out for a drink at the local. Interesting guy. Over here for a month, is all I could get out of him. Despite my usual irresistible charm, he was totally tight-lipped when it came to you.” “You took him for a drink?” “Of course I did. How does the saying go? Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies—” “You think he’s an enemy?” “All I can tell you with any certainty is that he is definitely from the same Fresher gene pool as you. And, as I say, he wouldn’t take your phone number, wants to speak to you in person.” “Thanks Polly. We’ll be back around three-thirty tomorrow.” “Don’t worry, Nathan. He seems like a nice guy and I am usually a good judge of character.” “Are you?” “I’m friends with you, aren’t I?”
  12. lomax61

    Overnight

    'Jimmy' is Jaymes. They are one and the same people. Jaymes hates being called Jim, so Jimmy would not be welcome. More importantly, who is Lawrence to Jaymes?
  13. lomax61

    Overnight

    Agreed. But if it was, what is he going to do with that? What would you do?
  14. lomax61

    Overnight

    And we're also assuming here that what Lawrence is saying in this chapter is reliable.
  15. lomax61

    Overnight

    Sorry @Cachondeo - been tied up. Or getting hitched, should I say.
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