Leopard Skin Cover - 13. Chapter 13
He was content. His life was back on track, and his mental anguish had subsided.
He still felt the desire to tell people that he’s gay, but he had it under control. He would periodically consider the option, but he would weigh up the risks and decide it wasn’t the right time.
Unlike before, though, he didn’t feel pressure building. There was a hole called Tony penetrating the wall around his inner self, and that was enough to keep him sane.
He still felt guilty about his lies, but he justified them to himself that they were necessary. He didn’t like them, but they were no longer threatening to cause a mental breakdown.
Anytime he felt he was losing control, he would ring Tony. If possible, he would drop in to see him at the Leopards’ offices, but that introduced too many risks, and so, just as he had dealt with his nightclub visits previously, he rationed his time with Tony.
He hadn’t used the house key he had been given, but he kept it with the rest of his keys, available if needed. Simply knowing he could go somewhere safe gave him enough relief that he didn’t need to go.
Life was good.
* * *
Michelle smiled at the visitors as they all sat down in the recording studio. “Relax guys. Just imagine it’s the four of us and we’re just chatting. Don’t ignore the microphones, but don’t worry about them too much, either. We’re going to be recording this conversation, and we’ll be able to edit out any problems.”
Maria, Michelle’s co-presenter for the Pride FM breakfast show, nodded. “Just relax and don’t fuss if you’ve said something wrong. Unless it’s a complete disaster, we can fix it.”
Michelle jumped in quickly. “And complete disasters are rare. I haven’t seen one in a long time.”
Roger grinned back. “I hope we’re not going to break that streak.”
Maria laughed. “I hope not, too.” She raised an eyebrow at Paul. “Ready to start?”
Paul took a deep breath, then smiled. “Let’s go.”
Michelle nodded to the sound technician who, along with Tony and Joe, the show’s producer, was in the booth alongside the studio. Brandon and Eric, the two presenters who had interviewed Roger and Paul the Friday before, had been told that there wasn’t enough room for them to attend the recording session.
“Okay, everyone, it’s time for something new. We’re here with two extremely hunky guys that have half the office drooling at the window, wishing they were the ones doing this segment. Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to introduce Roger McDowell and Paul Chapman from the Lilydale Leopards football club.”
Michelle nodded to Roger. “I believe you’re the captain of the Leopards, Roger, and a former AFL player.”
“That’s right, Michelle, though I have to admit that my AFL career was rather short. I only played four games with the Blues before a small injury put me out for a few weeks. I never made it back into the team. At the end of the season I was dropped, and the Leopards picked me up.”
Maria gave him a thumbs-up. “What about you, Paul? How did you end up at the Leopards?”
Paul grinned. “Nothing as exciting as Roger. I played in the TAC Cup in 2008 as a seventeen-year-old and nominated for the AFL draft, but I wasn’t selected. I’ve been playing for the Leopards ever since, hoping to generate enough attention that one of the AFL teams would pick me up.”
Michelle smiled and winked. “If they picked AFL teams based on sex appeal, both of you guys would be in like a shot.”
Maria grinned. “I can see Joe in the sound booth nodded furiously, so I think he agrees with you, Michelle. Listeners, if we go off the air in the next couple of minutes, it’ll because Joe’s been drooling so much he’s shorted out the system.”
The four heard a male voice over their headphones. “I’m not drooling. Merely expressing a healthy appreciation for the male form.”
Roger and Paul turned their heads to see Joe smiling and giving them a thumbs-up before he returned his attention to the controls in front of him. They looked back at Michelle and Maria, Roger raising an eyebrow at the acting between the hosts and their producer.
Michelle gave them a smile. “You need to settle down, Joe. Roger, Paul, we’ll get more chances to chat in the future, but for now we’ve got a job to do. Given that you both play in the VFL and not the AFL, we’re looking for an unbiased view on the upcoming AFL round. Let’s get started.”
Maria looked at Roger. “The first game is tonight at Etihad Stadium between Collingwood and Fremantle. What’s your opinion, Roger?”
Roger glanced down at the piece of paper he had brought with him. “Last year’s third versus sixth. It’s not an easy game to call. Collingwood is always a challenge, especially Travis Cloke on the forward line. However, I think they depend on him too much, and Fremantle know it. They’ll shut him down, and that’s why I’ll have to go with last year’s runner-up, Fremantle.”
Michelle smiled at Paul. “Do you agree, Paul? Collingwood is the greatest team, after all.”
Maria chuckled. “Ignore her, Paul. She’s biased. Who do you think will win tonight’s match?”
Paul grinned while quickly scanning the notes in front of him. “The two didn’t meet in the preseason NAB Challenge, but Collingwood had a much tougher set of games. That should mean that their match fitness will be better, but I have to agree with Roger that Fremantle will have the edge because of their overall strength across the ground. It should be a good game, though.”
Both girls gave the guys a thumbs-up.
Maria looked at Roger. “The next game is the two Sydney teams: Greater Western Sydney Giants at home against the Sydney Swans tomorrow afternoon. Do the Giants have any chance?”
“There’s always a chance, but I wouldn’t want to place a bet on it. The Swans should romp this one in.”
Michelle raised an eyebrow at Paul, who took the hint.
“I have to agree. The Swans will be too strong for the Giants. I’d like to see the Giants win a few games this year, but this won’t be one of them. It won’t even be close.”
Michelle smiled. “That was short and sweet. What about the other game on Saturday? The Gold Coast Suns versus the Richmond Tigers at the Gold Coast. Paul, what’s your opinion?”
Paul shrugged. “On paper, it should be the Tigers, but we can’t forget that the Suns are quite capable of surprises when they’re playing at home. I’ll say the Tigers, but I wouldn’t be shocked if there was an upset. They’ve done it before.”
Michelle frowned. “Don’t remind me. I’m still smarting about Collingwood’s round-17 loss to the Suns last year. Inaccurate kicking cost us the match.”
Roger grinned. “Inaccurate kicking will do it every time. We’ve both played enough games to know that. I’m going to disagree with Paul on this one. The Suns opened their season last year with a win, and I think they can do it again. Gary Ablett, Jr., is still one of the top players in the competition, and he’ll make the Tigers sweat. It’ll be close, but I think the Suns will take it out.”
Michelle held up a hand. “The final game this week in the split round is Carlton versus Port Adelaide at Etihad Stadium on Sunday night. Who will it be: the Blues or the Power? We’ll find out after this song.”
Michelle waited a couple of seconds and then lowered her hand. “We’re here with Paul and Roger from the VFL’s Lilydale Leopards, getting a player’s perspective on the upcoming AFL round. Paul, between the Carlton Blues and Port Adelaide Power, who do you think will win?”
Paul grimaced. “This is the one I’ve gone back and forth on all week. Both teams are tough and it’ll come down to how much match fitness they’ve gained leading up to the game. Both had similar challenges in the preseason, and they both played the Adelaide Crows. We could use those results to gauge how they’ll do against each other, but those games were almost a month ago, and a month is a long time in football. Port Adelaide have more strength in their forward line with Schulz, Wingard, and Monfries, but the Carlton trio of Garlett, Henderson, and Waite can be just as dangerous on the right day. I think Port Adelaide is going to have more to prove, and that’ll be the difference between the teams. I’m going with the Power.”
Maria glanced at Roger. “Roger, I can see from your expression that you disagree.”
“I agree with Paul that this is a tough game to call, but I disagree with the analysis. I think it’ll be the Blues in a tight game.”
Michelle smiled. “Would that be because you used to play for the Blues?”
Roger chuckled. “That was a factor, I’ll admit, but only because the game was so hard to call. Once we’re a few games into the season, it’ll be easier to see how things are developing, but for now all we have to go on are the preseason results and last year’s efforts. Carlton defeated Port Adelaide by one point in the last round of the 2013 season, but that was in Port Adelaide when the Power had the home-ground advantage. While the Power will be itching for revenge, I think the Blues will have the edge on Sunday night.”
Michelle caught Joe’s thumbs-up. “Thank you very much Roger and Paul. We look forward to hearing your opinions on the second half of the split round next week. For now, it’s time for the traffic report. Over to you, Sam.”
After a pause of a couple of seconds, Michelle took off her headphones and grinned. “Well done, guys. You’re both wrong about Collingwood, but otherwise that was excellent. Well researched and well presented.”
“Thanks. You made it easy for us,” Roger said as he removed his headphones.
Paul nodded as he followed Roger’s lead. “Yeah, thanks. I’ll admit I was nervous before we started, but once we got going, everything just flowed along.”
Maria smiled and held out her hand. “Thank you. I hope you don’t think we’re rude, but we still have some preparation work to do before the show starts. If you want to listen in, I’m sure Joe won’t mind you joining him. Otherwise, we’ll see you next week.”
* * *
Glenda and the rest of the office staff were gathered around the radio, waiting for Roger’s and Paul’s debut performance on Pride FM to be broadcast when she spotted Richard Lyons entering the building.
Internally grimacing and hoping that she wasn’t going to miss the show, she smiled at one of the club’s major sponsors. “Good morning, Mr. Lyons. How may I help you?”
He scowled. “I have an eight o’clock appointment with Eric.”
Glenda kept a smile on her face, though she sensed that something was wrong. “I don’t think Eric has arrived yet, but I could be wrong. Melissa is at her desk, though, and I’m sure she’ll be able to look after you. Would you like me to escort you to Eric’s office?”
Richard waved a hand dismissively. “I know the way.” He started to step away but then frowned as he looked past Glenda to the other office workers. “What’s going on? Why is everyone gathered around that desk?”
Glenda grinned. “We’re getting ready to listen to Roger and Paul on the radio. No one wants to miss their first appearance.”
“First appearance? What’s this about?”
“The club’s organised a regular segment on Pride FM’s Friday-morning show to review the upcoming AFL round. Roger and Paul went in this morning to do the show, and we’re looking forward to hearing them. Pride FM have promised to mention the Leopards as part of the show, so it’s good publicity for the club.”
Richard scowled. “Pride FM? Never heard of them. Obviously, one of those young-people stations. Not really that important, but if it helps the club, then that’s fine with me.”
Glenda watched him march down the hallway, a faint frown on her face. She couldn’t help feel that something wasn’t right.
* * *
Tony smiled as Paul’s phone beeped again. Roger had said he would drive himself, but Tony and Paul had decided to car pool for the trip to Pride FM and were on the way back to Lilydale. “Who’s this one from?”
Paul’s grin hadn’t faded in the fifteen minutes since the first text message had arrived. “Anne Flintlock. She heard the segment as she was driving into the office but couldn’t send me a text until she arrived. She thought we were both great!”
Tony laughed. “You were. As Michelle said at the station, you and Roger did your homework and presented extremely well. Just remember, you’ve only got one more easy week with the second half of round one, and then you’ll be reviewing nine games a week. You’ve set a standard that you’re going to have to keep up.”
Paul shrugged. “A couple of hours of homework a week, and it’s good for me, anyway. Analysing other teams is a useful skill, especially if I ever want to move into coaching.”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to take you home? It’s going to be a long day for you – with training tonight. What time did you get up, anyway? Four-thirty?”
Paul chuckled. “Four. I didn’t want to oversleep. Nah, I’m fine. I’m too hyped up at the moment, so my plan is to do a light workout at the club and then head back home for a nap once I’ve calmed down.”
“Okay, if that’s what you want. I’ll pick you up again on Thursday next week, but I might let you go in by yourself on Friday.”
“I’ll be fine on Thursday. You don’t have to come with me, Tony.”
Tony smiled. “I know you’ll be fine, but the plan at the moment is for Dave to join you, and just like today, I want to be there for his first time on the radio to make sure it goes smoothly. I’ll take both of you in and then bring you back when you’re done.”
Paul shrugged. “Okay, then.” He laughed. “I can’t believe how much of a buzz it is to have been on the radio. It’s unbelievable!”
Tony grinned. “I wouldn’t know. I was always stuck in an office when I worked at the station.” He flicked Paul a quick look. “While I remember, what’s the story with Roger? Is he playing tomorrow?”
“Peter’s making a decision after training tonight, but I think Roger will start on the interchange bench. That way he’s available if needed, but he won’t need to stress his ankle if he’s not.”
Tony nodded. “Thanks, I’d been wondering, but I wasn’t sure who to ask.”
Paul shrugged. “Injuries can be touchy. No one wants to be dropped because of them, especially Roger. As he mentioned in the broadcast, his AFL career was cut short after a minor injury, and he never made it back into the team; his spot had gone to someone else.”
Paul’s phone beeped, and Tony laughed. “Who is it this time?”
Paul’s eyebrow’s shot up. “My dad! Julie must’ve told him.” Paul frowned. “I wonder what he’s thinking – about me being on a gay radio station, I mean.”
Tony frowned. “What did the text say?”
“Just a simple congratulations and nothing else.” Paul’s forehead wrinkled as he typed a reply. “Shit! I didn’t think about Julie telling the family.”
“Don’t worry about it. It’s only a radio broadcast, and Roger was there with you. As far as they’re concerned, it’s just an opportunity to promote the club. Nothing more than that.”
Paul grimaced. “Yeah, but it means that Mum is going to want me to show up for dinner sometime soon and will use this as an excuse to put pressure on me. Damn! I didn’t want this.”
Tony glanced at Paul before returning his attention to the road. “You didn’t tell them you were doing the show?”
Paul shook his head and then turned to stare out the side window. “No. I thought about it, but if I rang them, they’d ask more questions – like why I broke up with Rochelle – and I’m not ready for that.”
Tony nodded. “Okay, but you know you’ll have to sooner or later. And the same applies to your teammates. I noticed that you’re still on the expected attendee list for Jim’s party tomorrow night. What are you going to do about that?”
Paul shrugged. “I’ll think of some excuse. I’ll tell them something’s cropped up and I can’t make it. I’ll leave my present with Ollie and Todd and let them give it to Jim with my apologies.”
A faint frown appeared on Tony’s face. “The truth might be easier, Paul.”
Paul winced. “I can’t, Tony. I just can’t!”
* * *
“Richard Lyons is on the line for you, Eric,” Melissa said.
Eric quickly swallowed the mouthful of lunch and put down his sandwich. He started to worry. The meeting with Richard early that morning had been cordial, and there had been no outstanding issues that needed urgent attention. For Richard to call only a few hours later was not good news.
“Richard! How’s things?”
The voice on the other end of the phone was abrupt. “I’m terminating my sponsorship of the Leopards. My legal team will have the paperwork faxed to you later today.”
Eric swallowed. “But why? We agreed that last week’s loss was still a positive sign, and–”
“It’s got nothing to do with that. This morning’s episode was the final straw, Eric. The Leopards are no longer a club that I want my company associated with.”
Eric waved a hand wildly to tell Melissa to pick up her phone and listen in. “What episode this morning?”
“That radio broadcast! I’ve just been informed as to what that radio station stands for. If the Leopards are going to get themselves involved with that sort of organisation, then they’re not a club I want my company to do business with.”
“Calm down, Richard. The radio broadcasts are just a trial, and we can pull out if we want. You don’t have to quit the club.”
“It’s too late, Eric. This is just the last episode in a pattern of events that have told me that the Leopards have changed and are no longer the club I’ve been supporting. It’s over.”
Eric gave Melissa a panicked look. “Now, let’s not be hasty. I’m sure we can work this out–”
“No. It’s done. I’ve instructed my legal people to terminate the relationship, and now I’m going to concentrate my efforts on my company. My employees don’t need me distracted by a football club that has clearly gone off the rails. Out of respect for all the years when the Leopards have been a club worth supporting, I will let you make the announcement to the media, but don’t expect anything more from Lyons Automotive Supplies.
“Goodbye, Eric. I’m sorry it’s come to this, but it’s time the club and I went our separate ways.”
“Richard, I’m sure–”
Eric stopped when the phone line was disconnected. He met Melissa’s shell-shocked eyes and swallowed.
“Mel, set up a meeting as soon as possible with Anne and Colin. We’ve got a tough decision to make.”
“What about Peter?”
Eric thought about it for a moment. “No, let’s leave him out of this for now. We’ll give the team one more game and then let them enjoy Jim’s birthday party. A few more days won’t make any difference.”
* * *
Peter smiled as he glanced around the change room. The team was pumped, deservedly so after an excellent first half against their opponents, Sandringham. “Settle down, guys. There’s still plenty of the game to play. Don’t get complacent.”
Zach grinned. “Roger’s the captain, and he wants us to be overconfident so he can have a chance to play.”
Roger scowled for a moment and then grinned back. “Not really. I’m enjoying the holiday. It’s about time you guys started pulling your own weight.”
Peter frowned. “Enough! Since we’re thirty-four points up, I’m going to switch things around to give some players more experience. The first thing is that Ollie’s moving back to the midfield. Don’t give me that look, Ollie. Three goals are enough for now, and you need to keep your midfield skills up to date. Ty, you’re making your debut on the forward line.”
Ty’s eyes widened. “Are you sure? I didn’t think Will thought I was ready.”
Peter glanced at Will.
Will nodded. “You’re not, Ty, but you’re close. This is a good chance to give you some match practise as a forward. If they start reducing our lead, we’ll swap you back as a defender, but I think this will help you develop your skills, so I agree with Peter. Don’t stress if you struggle. We’re dominating the game, and it’s too good an opportunity to pass up to give you some experience.”
Jim grinned at Ty from across the room. “You’ll be fine, brat. Just mark the ball when we kick it to you, and the rest will fall into place.”
“Listen to Dad, Ty. And if you stuff it up, I’ll come on and sort out your mess.” Roger gave Ty a smile and a wink.
Peter held up a hand to attract everyone’s attention. “Ty, guys, I hope you realise what’s happening out there. We’re coming together as a team in a way that I haven’t seen for years. We’ve still got work to do, but we’re already a big threat to the rest of the competition. What we’re doing with Ollie, Charlie, Jarrod and Ty is expanding on our options to make us an even larger challenge. Keep up the hard work and we’ll be playing in the grand final in September.”
Peter let them show their enthusiasm for half a minute before he started deflating them. The game could still turn around, and he needed to make sure the team stayed focused.
* * *
Eric scowled. “Why did Richard have to make his decision yesterday? This game would’ve made him stick with the Leopards.”
Colin shrugged. “Nothing we can do about it. If nothing else, the team is going out on a high note. We haven’t had a win like this one for years.” He peered at the scoreboard for a moment. “Fifty-eight points up, and there’s still fifteen minutes to play. They should pass the twenty-goal mark without any trouble.”
Eric shook his head with frustration. “This could’ve been our year. The team’s on fire, and it’s all for naught. Why this year?”
Colin sighed. “Maybe someone will have an idea on how to save the club when we tell everyone. You’re still planning on doing that on Monday night instead of having training?”
“Yes. It seems the most appropriate time. The players deserve a weekend to celebrate their win and Jim’s birthday. Anne and I agreed that we need to tell the office staff at the same time as the players, and that means Monday. I’ll speak to Peter on Sunday night, and then we’ll let everyone know that there’s a mandatory club meeting Monday.” Eric slammed his fist onto his thigh. “I can’t believe our bad luck!”
Colin grimaced. “Neither can I. The end of the Leopards – just when the team’s showing so much promise.”
* * *
“Way to go, Ty!” Roger gave the topless rookie a high five before stripping off his own top. He hadn’t played, but he still needed to change out of his football gear.
Ty couldn’t stop grinning as he bent over to undo his football boots. “I still can’t believe it. Three goals!”
Jim paused on his way to the shower to give Ty a slap on the back. “Well done, brat. I’m proud of you.”
“Thanks, Dad.” Ty frowned for a moment as he looked up. “I’m not sure, but didn’t I kick two of those goals after passes from you?”
Jim grinned. “You did, but I wasn’t going to mention it. You got into the right position at the right time. That’s all your doing, not mine. I just had to deliver the ball to you.”
Ty grinned back. “You keep doing your job, and I’ll do mine.”
Jim laughed as he headed towards the showers. “Deal!” he called back over his shoulder.
Ty kicked off his boots and socks and stood up as a towel-clad Deon passed. “Deon, great job!”
Deon smiled as he shrugged. “Roger wasn’t there, so I had to do something.”
“I think eight goals counts as doing something.” Ty gave Roger a nudge. “What do you think, Roger?”
Roger rolled his eyes. “It’s okay, I suppose.” He grinned. “Does this mean I can retire now, Deon?”
Deon held up his hands. “No way! You still need to do your fair share. I’m just there to help.”
Roger chuckled. “I’m happy to help out, but I think you’ve got a chance of being the team’s top goal scorer this year.”
Deon frowned. “I hope you’re not going to make it a contest.”
Roger’s expression went serious. “No. We’re a team, not a pack of individuals out for what’s best for them.” He glanced at Ty. “That’s why we did so well today, and that’s why we’re going to do so well this season. We’re a team.”
Ty nodded. “I’ve already gotten that story from Dad. I may slip up from time to time, but I’m a team player now.”
Roger smiled. “I know, brat. And I really appreciate it. We all do.”
* * *
Paul was in his bedroom, preparing for the night and wondering how he’d get out of going to the party when his phone started to ring. Swallowing once, on the expectation that it was his mother inviting him to a family dinner, he glanced at the caller ID.
Grinning with relief, Paul answered the call. “G’day, Carol. To what do I owe the honour?”
“Sorry to call you, Paul, but we’ve had someone call in sick at the Camberwell restaurant. They’re fully booked, and we can’t afford for them to be short-staffed, so can you work there instead of Hawthorn tonight?”
“Sure, not a problem.” An idea popped into Paul’s mind. “Can you send me a text with the address? I think I remember where it is, but if you text it to me, I can’t get lost.”
“I’ll do that, but it’s not hard to get to. It’s in Burke Road, not far from the train station. You can’t miss it. Thanks a million for this, Paul. When you get there, ask for Rory. You should remember him; he was the one who supervised you the first couple of nights. He’s managing the staff at the new restaurant now, so he’ll be a familiar face.”
Paul smiled. “Yeah, I remember Rory. I heard he was working at the new place, but I didn’t know he was managing things there.”
“Just the dining-room staff. I’m keeping an eye on things overall from here, and Lionel manages the kitchen staff. Thanks for this, Paul; I really appreciate it. It’s going to be a busy night. Now, I’ve got to go and get ready myself. Bye for now!”
“See you.” Paul grinned. He knew what his excuse to his housemates was going to be.
He turned up the volume on his phone, picked up the present for Jim, stepped out of his room, and headed to the lounge room. The bag with a change of clothes was already in his car.
“Okay, guys, I’m ready,” Paul said.
Oliver grinned. “You’ve got plenty of time. The bus isn’t leaving for another hour. I’m going to have to go soon to set up, but you’ve got plenty of time.”
Paul was about to say something when there was a loud beep from his phone. He pulled it out and checked the text message. As he had hoped, it was the address of the Camberwell restaurant. He put a frown on his face. “Shit!”
Ignoring his housemates, he entered the number of his phone and hit the call button. A couple of seconds later, he started a conversation with his voicemail prompt.
“G’day, Carol. What’s happened?”
Paul saw Todd getting ready to ask him something, so he put up his hand to indicate he was busy.
Paul made sure his face looked concerned. “Oh, fuck. Of course, I’ll come. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
He waited a couple of seconds before speaking again. “Okay, see you there. Love you!”
Paul hung up and looked at Oliver and Todd.
“Guys, I’m sorry, but something’s come up. I can’t make it to the party.”
Todd frowned. “What’s wrong?”
“Who’s Carol?” Oliver asked before Paul could answer.
“Carol’s this girl that I’ve been seeing recently. I don’t have the details, but she’s really distressed and needs me there to help her. I’ll give you the story when I see you tomorrow.” Paul handed the wrapped present to Todd. “Can you give this to Jim tonight for me? I’ll ring him on my way to apologise, but I’ve got to run now. Sorry.”
“Sure, Paul. I hope everything works out,” Todd said, looking concerned.
“Let us know if we can do anything,” Oliver said.
Paul gave them what he hoped was a weak smile. “Thanks, guys. I’m really sorry about this.” He headed to the front door.
“Take care, Paul,” Todd said, a sentiment immediately echoed by Oliver.
As soon as Paul stepped outside, he breathed a sigh of relief. He knew he’d have to come up with a story for the next morning, but he thought he might get away with a story about his fictitious girlfriend overreacting to something minor.
He drove out of Lilydale and headed towards Camberwell. Partway there, he pulled over so he could ring Jim. After wishing him all the best and repeating his story of a girlfriend emergency, he continued on his way. Thirty minutes later, he had parked his car in the shopping-centre car park behind Burke Road and was walking towards the Camberwell Ignition Bar and Grill restaurant, carrying his bag.
Rory was manning the reception desk. “Can I help you?”
Paul grinned. “G’day, Rory. It’s Paul. Carol asked me to come here to help out.”
The look of relief on Rory’s face made Paul chuckle.
“You have no idea how much we need you, mate. We’ve got a massive booking in about an hour’s time, and we need everyone we can get. If it’s okay with you, we may need you to act as a bouncer, too.”
Paul frowned. “A bouncer? Why?”
Rory glanced around before lowering his voice. “The restaurant is booked out by a football club for some sort of party, and if they get rowdy we may need someone with your size to make sure things don’t get out of control.”
Paul froze as his heart started to sink. “A football club? Would that be the Lilydale Leopards?
Rory’s eyes widened. “Yes, how did you know?”
Paul’s shoulders slumped as he dropped his gaze to the top of the reception desk. “I’m dead. I’m so dead.”
Rory came around and put a hand on Paul’s bicep. “Are you okay, mate? You look a little sick.”
Paul pulled a face and looked up. “You won’t have to worry about any of the players messing up because there’ll be a couple of the coaches here. They’ll keep things under control. My problem is that’s the team I play for. I gave them a phoney excuse why I couldn’t be at the party...”
Rory frowned. “Why? Don’t they know you’re working?”
“It’s a long story...” Paul shook his head fatalistically. “Oh, well. Time to get to work.” He straightened his shoulders. “I’ll get changed, and then you can show me where everything is.”
* * *
Oliver led Jarrod and Charlie into the restaurant. “We’ve got about thirty minutes before everyone shows up. That should be plenty of time to get things ready.”
“Sure, Ollie. All you have to do is to tell us what you want us to do,” Jarrod said.
Charlie, carrying the box that Oliver had given him, nodded his agreement.
“Can I help you?” the slender young man at the reception desk asked.
Oliver grinned. “I’m Ollie Bellesconi from the Lilydale Leopards. We’re here to get things ready for the party tonight.”
The young man grinned. “We’ve been expecting you. I’m Rory, and if you have any questions or concerns through the night, just come and see me and I’ll get it sorted out. We’ve still got one set of early diners in the restaurant, but they should be leaving soon. That’ll leave you with the run of the place.”
“Great! We’ve got a banner to put up and a few balloons and streamers. The only other thing is checking if we need to reorganise tables. Tony told me that it would be okay if we did that.”
“Sure. The only caveat is that you’ll need to leave sufficient room for the serving staff to move around. Occupational Health and Safety issues – I hope you understand.”
Oliver nodded. “We’ve got the same at the club, so that’s fine. Tell us if we do something wrong, and we’ll fix it.”
Ten minutes later, Oliver, Jarrod and Charlie were struggling to put up the “Happy 21st Jim” birthday banner that Glenda had provided. The problem was that it needed one person to hold up the banner while a second attached it to a fitting on the wall, and none of the three were tall enough to make it easy.
“You should’ve brought someone a bit bigger, Ollie,” Paul said from behind them.
Oliver spun around, while Jarrod and Charlie twisted their heads to look at Paul.
“Paul! What are you doing here?” Oliver frowned. “And how did you know where to go? I never told you!”
Paul gave him a wry smile. “I’m working here tonight. Charlie, why don’t you give me the end of that banner, and I’ll hold it up so Jarrod can tie it on.”
Charlie silently handed it over, a faint quizzical expression on his face.
Oliver’s eyes narrowed. “What about Carol? And what do you mean you’re working here?”
Paul shrugged as he held the banner up for Jarrod. “Carol needed me to work here tonight because someone called in sick. She’s the owner of the two Ignition restaurants. I normally work at the one in Hawthorn, but apparently there’s a big party here tonight, and they need a full complement of staff.”
“You never told me that you were working at a restaurant.” Oliver crossed his arms. “What’s going on, Paul?”
Paul sighed while waiting for Jarrod to finish. “I never told you because you’d want to know why I was working a second job. I need the money.”
Oliver was sceptical. “You need money? Why?”
“Because of Rochelle.” Paul’s head dropped. “I did something stupid, and now I’m paying for it. She left me with a rather nasty STD.”
Oliver’s eyes widened. He glanced around to see Jarrod and Charlie with similarly shocked expressions. “Which STD? It’s not HIV, is it?”
Paul chuckled, though he didn’t sound amused. “STD: that’s Sexually Transmitted Debt. She had trouble getting finance for that new car she bought last year, so I made the mistake of agreeing to guarantee the loan. She missed some payments, and the bank turned to me. Because I’m the guarantor, I now owe the bank just under $15,000 for a car that’s not even mine.”
Oliver winced. “That’s why you broke up with Rochelle?”
Paul nodded. “With a second job, I’m keeping my head above water, just, but I need the extra income. I’m sorry I lied, Ollie, but I feel so stupid for doing what I did. I should’ve questioned Rochelle why the bank wouldn’t lend her the money without a guarantor. Apparently, this isn’t the first loan she defaulted on.” He looked up. “Finished, Jarrod?”
“Er...yes.” Jarrod looked at Oliver, an unspoken question in his gaze.
“Let’s get the other end up,” Oliver said, while trying to process what Paul had told him.
“You’ve got the worst luck, Paul,” Charlie said, giving his taller teammate a supportive smile. “First, Rochelle, and now having Jim’s party at the place where you work. The odds must be astronomical.”
Paul shrugged and gave Charlie a wry smile in response. “It’s not that much of a coincidence. I spoke to Tony a few weeks ago about my problem trying to find ways to get extra sponsorship money. I told him I’d started working weekends at Ignition in Hawthorn, and he said he’d eaten there and really enjoyed it. I think that was around the time that Oliver asked Tony about a place for the party, and with Ignition fresh in his mind, he must’ve checked out their new restaurant here in Camberwell.” Paul sighed. “My shit luck, but it’s not that coincidental.”
Oliver frowned. “Paul, I take it you don’t really want everyone to know what’s happened. I’ve got an idea if you’re interested.”
Paul rolled his eyes. “Of course I don’t! I feel stupid enough about it as is; I don’t need everyone else telling me, too.”
Oliver grinned. “In that case I think I’ve got an answer. The only ones that’ll know will be the four of us and Todd; we’ll have to tell him about your phoney excuse earlier tonight because I presume you’ll be continuing to work. I told everyone that there’ll be surprises. I’ve got another planned, but you can be one of those surprises. We’ll tell everyone that we got special dispensation for you to work here tonight to make sure Jim is treated the way he deserves. What do you think?”
Paul’s mouth dropped open. “I...” He shook his head and grinned. “That just might work! I’ll need to speak to Rory to get assigned to Jim’s table, but I don’t see why he’d say no.” His body slumped. “Ah...who the fuck am I kidding? No one would believe that cock-and-bull story.”
Oliver reached over and rested a hand on Paul’s shoulder. “It doesn’t matter who doesn’t believe it. It’s an excuse for not explaining things any further, and it’s the line we’ll take. Even if some people see through it, it’s plausible enough that they’ll accept it as some sort of present to Jim. It’ll work...trust me!”
Paul flinched, then sighed. “You should also send a text to Tony so he doesn’t have a heart attack when he sees me. He knows I’m working tonight, but he thought it’d be in Hawthorn, not here. He might blurt something out if he’s not warned.”
“I’ll do that now.” Oliver glanced at Jarrod and Charlie. “Are you guys okay with this?”
“I’m fine,” Charlie said.
“Sure! It sounds like Rochelle was a real bitch,” Jarrod said.
Paul grimaced. “In this respect, she was. But otherwise she was a nice girl. I still miss her, but I couldn’t go out with her anymore after what she did to me.”
Oliver looked up from the text message he was typing for Tony. “She was a bitch, Paul. $15,000 swamps any other good points she had. What she did was financial rape – legal, maybe, but it was still rape. I don’t know what else to call it.
“Now let’s get this place ready for the party. We’ve got a couple of special guests showing up soon, and I want everything set up before then.”
Charlie frowned. “Special guests?”
Oliver grinned. “It’s a surprise. Mainly for Jim, but you can wait, too.”
* * *
Jim stopped soon after entering the restaurant and shook his head in disbelief. A wide smile appeared on his face. “Mum, Dad? What are you doing here?”
Phillip and Jessica Henderson grinned at their only son. “Did you think we’d miss your twenty-first birthday?” Jim’s father asked.
Jim stepped forward and gave his mother a hug. “But you said you were staying in Adelaide!”
“We were going to because we didn’t think we could afford the trip, but Ollie contacted us and asked if we could come here as a surprise for you. After he organised a place for us to stay, we said yes.” Jessica stepped back and smiled. “He was very persuasive.”
Jim looked past his parents to where Oliver was grinning. “You’re a bastard, Ollie, but thanks. I don’t think I could’ve had a better birthday surprise.”
“You’re welcome, mate, but that’s not your only surprise.” Oliver shrugged. “Okay, it may be the biggest, but I’ve got others planned, too.”
Jim shook his head while grinning. “I don’t think you can top this one.” He smiled at his parents. “Where has Ollie got you staying?”
“We’re staying with your coach, Peter,” Phillip said. “It’s just for one night; we have to head back tomorrow. His wife picked us up from the airport this afternoon.”
Jim glanced around. “Are they coming tonight? I haven’t seen them.”
Oliver shook his head. “Peter’s comment was something along the lines of: he didn’t think he was up to partying with a bunch of young yobbos. He said to have fun, because he’s planning on making everyone pay for it at training on Monday night.” He grinned. “So, party hard.”
* * *
“Mum, Dad, this is Ty and Karen. Ty, Karen, these are my parents.” Jim was grinning as he made the introductions. He’d already finished one beer and was well into the next, but the real buzz was the atmosphere.
Jim had been expecting that Oliver had hired a hall somewhere – with simple tables and chairs and a caterer in the background. Finding out that they were having the party at a restaurant had been a pleasant surprise and finding his parents waiting for him an even bigger one. By the time he learnt that Paul would be waiting on his table for the night, he was ready to just enjoy the evening.
“So you’re Dad’s dad. Please to meet you, sir,” Ty said as he held out a hand while holding a small wrapped box in the other.
Jim’s father took the hand but flicked Jim a surprised look in the process. “G’day, Ty. What did you call Jim just then?”
Jim grinned. “He called me ‛Dad’. For reasons I still can’t quite work out, it appears I’ve sort-of adopted the brat here. He’s toilet-trained, but I’ve given Karen the job of housebreaking him.”
The confused look on his parents’ faces made Jim chuckle. He and Ty exchanged grins.
Ty smiled at Mr. and Mrs. Henderson. “Jim’s my mentor, but he’s also a better dad than my old man. I was in danger of getting kicked out of the club because of some off-field stuff, but Jim pulled me into line and got me back on track. That’s why I call him ‛Dad’. In retaliation, he calls me the brat.”
Jessica Henderson returned the smile. “That sounds like you’re our honorary grandson.” She opened her arms. “How about a hug for your grandma?”
Ty was momentarily startled but quickly recovered. Grinning broadly, he handed the present to Jim and then gave Jim’s mother a warm hug.
After he let go, Ty frowned at Jim. “Aren’t you going to open that?” he asked, indicated the gift in Jim’s hand.
Jim chuckled. “I was going to do them all later because, otherwise, I’ll be unwrapping presents instead of thanking everyone, but for you I’ll make an exception.” He winked at Karen. “I hope you had a hand in picking it; without guidance, the brat would’ve gotten me something obnoxious.”
Karen laughed. “No, he picked this one himself, but I think it’s cute. He did well.”
Jim smiled while raising an eyebrow. He ripped the paper off to reveal a boxed coffee mug. He stared for a moment, and then started laughing. Jim put the mug down, stood up, and pulled Ty into a hug.
“Brat, thank you. It’s perfect.”
* * *
Owen glanced across to where Dave was sitting in the corner with two of the club’s male, front-office staff before turning his attention back to the pile of presents on the table in front of him. He frowned and picked up one of the gifts: a coffee mug bearing the slogan, ‘World’s Greatest Dad’.
Todd slipped an arm across Lorraine’s shoulders as they joined Owen. “That was from Ty. He also gave Jim a bottle of bourbon to put in the cup when needed.”
Owen grinned and put the mug back. “I don’t think Jim needs any more alcohol. It looks like there’s enough to last him a few months.”
“Doesn’t anyone have any other ideas for birthday presents?” Lorraine asked.
“There are a few. I don’t know who gave him the Nathan Buckley biography, but the coaches gave him a new set of football boots,” Owen said.
She frowned. “That doesn’t sound particularly exciting.”
Todd smiled. “Those boots are worth almost $300. It’s not a cheap present. I’m not sure, but I think I heard Julie say that Eric and Anne also put in. That’s the club’s president and financial controller.” He frowned. “Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever heard them doing that before. Normally, it’s just the people attending the party who put in for presents.”
“I heard that they put in the money yesterday after the present was already bought.” Owen shrugged. “I don’t have a problem. It’s their money; they can do whatever they want with it.”
* * *
Paul grinned at Jim scoffing down a piece of the birthday cake. The chef had gone all out in creating a large football themed cake in the Leopard-club colours with a snarling, sculptured leopard head made from icing. After the singing of Happy Birthday and the cutting of the cake, Paul was placing slices onto plates for distribution.
“Absolutely delicious!” Jim grinned. “Thank the chef for me, will you, Paul?”
“I’ll do that as soon as I’m done here.” Paul continued to cut and plate pieces of birthday cake, while Jim moved to where Denise was speaking to Ty and Karen.
“It certainly looks delicious. The chef’s done a great job,” a voice said from behind Paul.
Paul looked over his shoulder and smiled. “He certainly did, Tony. Here, have a piece.”
Tony held up a hand. “Sorry, none for me.”
“Go on. Indulge yourself. It’s not like you eat this stuff every day.” Paul winked.
Tony gave Paul a wry smile. “I don’t eat that stuff, ever. It’s not gluten-free.”
Paul blinked. “Oh, shit. Sorry, I’d forgotten. Does this mean you never have a birthday cake?”
“Not normally, but if someone makes a cake for me, they can make one that’s gluten-free.” Tony shrugged. “I’d like to say that I don’t miss it, but to be honest, I do. I’d love to try some of Jim’s cake, but I can’t, and that’s it.”
“Sorry.” Paul returned to cutting up the last pieces of the birthday cake.
“Actually, I came over to say sorry, myself. I shouldn’t have picked this place for the party. In hindsight, it was obvious that you might be asked to help out here.”
Paul sighed. “Water under the bridge, Tony. It’s no one’s fault apart from maybe Rochelle’s. It’s just one of those things that’s happened.”
Tony put a hand on Paul’s shoulder. “I’m still sorry. You’ve got enough problems without me adding to them.”
Paul smiled at Tony. “It’s okay. In some ways, this has simplified things. I’ll be able to work weekends now without having to sneak away. I’m not sure how Todd will be when Ollie and I explain what’s going on, but I’m sure he’ll be fine.
“So, thanks.” Paul put down the knife he had been using to cut the cake and gave Tony a hug. “I really appreciate what you’ve done for me, Tony. Once I get my finances under control again, I owe you some drinks.”
* * *
Peter’s wife smiled at Jessica as she placed the plate of breakfast sausages, bacon and scrambled eggs in front of her. “Did you enjoy the party?”
Jessica smiled back. “We had a wonderful time, Yvonne. It was so good to see Jim again. We worked it out: since he didn’t make it home for Christmas last year, it’d been fourteen months since we’d seen him.”
Philip nodded. “And his teammates are a good bunch of guys. They were rowdy, but no one went out of control.”
Peter grinned across the dining table. “Did you meet Ty?”
Philip rolled his eyes while Jessica laughed. “He and his girlfriend were there all the time. He made me feel old; he was calling me ‛Grandpa’ by the end of the night.”
“Now, now, Philip, Ty’s a wonderful kid, and he adores his new dad. It wasn’t exactly the way I was expecting to get grandkids, but he’s a nice boy.” Jessica glanced at Peter. “You obviously know that Ty has a major case of hero worship for our boy. How did that come about?”
Peter shrugged. “It just happened. Ty was out of control and in danger of being dropped, which would’ve been a pity, because he’s potentially the best player on the team. Jim was mentoring Deon at the time, but he and Ryan swapped rookies, and Jim took over with Ty. From what I’ve been told, he came down heavy on Ty and told him a number of home truths. For whatever reason, that was exactly what Ty needed, and he’s been fixated on trying to make Jim proud ever since.
“I’m not complaining; it’s working out – and for both of them. Jim’s game has improved, too, because Ty’s inspiring him to do better. In fact, Ty’s changed attitude has been lifting the whole team. I’m anticipating a good season this year, and Jim can take credit for some of that. If he hadn’t turned Ty around, we’d be nowhere as strong as we are.”
Jessica smiled. “I’m glad to hear it. I hope everything goes well.”
Philip nodded. “I sensed the change, too. There was a buzz through the whole team last night. They’re all anticipating a great season.”
* * *
Dave frowned at the phone before putting it back in his pocket. He glanced across the living room to see his housemates staring at him.
“Well, what did Peter ask you to tell us?” Owen asked.
Dave pulled a face. “Training tomorrow night’s been cancelled. Instead, there’s a club meeting, and everyone has to be there. There’s some sort of big announcement being made, but Peter wouldn’t tell me what it is. He just said we all had to be there.”
“Did it sound like good news or bad news?” Jarrod asked.
Dave shrugged. “I don’t know. Peter sounded more annoyed than excited. He did say Eric would be making the announcement, so I’m guessing it’s something at the club level, not something within the team. Otherwise, no idea.”
Charlie stood up. “If that’s it, I think I’ll go to my room to study. I’ve got classes tomorrow I need to prepare for.”
Dave exchanged looks with Owen. Neither said anything, but Dave knew that Owen shared his sense of unease.
* * *
Tony wasn’t the only one in the room who was shocked by what the Leopards’ president was saying.
“...and so we see no alternative but to shut the club down.” Eric grimaced. “I know this is a lot to take in, but are there any questions?”
Roger frowned. “You checked with our other sponsors to see if they can pick up the slack?”
Eric nodded to where Colin was standing next to Tony. “Colin and Tony will be ringing around again this week to check, but we’ve been quietly asking for the last two weeks when we were alerted to the possibility of Lyons Automotive Supplies pulling out, and there was little in the way of hope. We could probably bring in some money but not enough to keep the club financial. Sorry.”
“Did they say why they’re stopping their support?” Will asked.
“There were a number of factors mentioned, but as you all know, the automotive industry is pulling out of Melbourne, and they’re a major customer of our sponsor. Lyons need to restructure now to be ready for when Ford and Holden stop manufacturing in a couple of years’ time. They were hoping to be able to keep sponsoring us, but that hope died last week.” Eric turned to Anne. “Anything you want to add?”
She shook her head. “That pretty much sums it up. It really doesn’t matter why. The fact is that a significant source of revenue for the club has dried up, and we can’t see how to replace it in the timeframe we’ve got before we have to declare we’re insolvent.”
“How much money are we talking about?” Brett Heywood asked.
“It works out at $10,000 a month. That’s more than 15% of our total annual income,” Anne said. “It’s not something most people can spare each month.”
Tony tuned out the main conversation and turned to Colin. “This is why you’ve been asking me to see if I can get additional sponsors for the club. Couldn’t you have told me why?”
Colin grimaced. “It was a Catch-22 situation. If we told people that the club might become insolvent, it would cause existing sponsors to pull out. We’ve been hoping that it was all academic, but unfortunately it wasn’t. Do you think knowing would’ve helped win any deals?”
Tony sighed. “No. You’re right in that respect. When does the news become public?”
Colin shrugged. “Effectively, now, since we don’t expect it to be kept quiet with everyone being told. We needed to tell everyone in the club first, but the next step is the media. We’ll be making an announcement first thing tomorrow morning.
“I’m sorry, Tony, I really am. When I hired you, I didn’t expect this to happen. It never crossed my mind that the club could fold.”
Tony shrugged philosophically. “I can probably go back to Pride FM if I need to. Keith has almost promised me my old job back if I want it, but I really wanted to work here.”
Tony and Colin turned their attention back to the main speakers.
“...that’s why we didn’t say anything earlier. We found out about the withdrawal of the sponsorship on Friday, but we decided to let everyone enjoy their weekend. We didn’t see an extra couple of days would matter.” Eric sighed. “If that was the wrong decision, I’ll take responsibility, but I still think everyone was better off not knowing until today.”
“Are there any other ways we can get the money?” Owen asked.
Anne stepped forward. “We’ve looked into a lot of options, but none of them will generate the revenue we’re talking about in the timeframe required.”
Tony was distracted by his phone beeping. He took it out and scanned the text he’d received. It took him a moment to understand what had been sent, and then he reread it to make sure he wasn’t misinterpreting the message.
He glanced across the room, looking for one person, and found him. Tony gave him a quizzical look, to which he received a single nod in return.
Tony pulled a face and started thinking furiously. Possibilities started running through his mind as hope rose. As soon as he had a rough plan of attack in mind, he stepped forward, raising a hand to attract the attention of Eric and Anne.
“How much time do we have? How long before we have to commit to shutting down? Surely, we’ve got the money in the bank to keep operating for awhile.”
Eric frowned and turned to Anne. “I think you need to answer that one.”
Anne nodded. “We’ve got cash reserves for another three weeks, and we’ll get some revenue in during that time to give us at least another week, but the main season starts in just under two weeks. The league is going to need us to commit to the season before then, because otherwise we’re going to suffer some major penalties. Eric, the board, and I will be held personally liable if that happens, and I don’t think any of us can afford that. If we can find another revenue stream, we’ve got four weeks, maybe five. If we can’t, we need to close up by the end of next week.”
Tony nodded. “Can you hold off notifying the league until the start of next week? There’s a chance we can get through this. It’s only a chance, and I’m going to need a lot of help, but it could work.”
Tony ignored the buzz that rose around him as he concentrated on Anne and Eric.
“What’s your idea?” Eric asked.
Tony shook his head. “Sorry, I can’t say just yet, at least not publicly. There’s a number of things that need to happen first before it’ll work. Can we go to your office to discuss them? I’ll need Colin and Peter, too.”
Anne frowned. “Do you really believe you can find the money we need?”
Tony took a deep breath. “I think it’s doable. I’ll know within a week.”
Tony felt everyone’s eyes on him. He knew he was raising everyone’s hopes, and he didn’t want to disappoint them.
Don't forget to vote in the forum thread for who you think is the gay player. This is your last chance, as I ask that you don't vote after you've read chapter 14. The reason for that request will become obvious....
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