Living in the church-owned house adjacent to the village hall, Father Mulligan always arrived first to committee meetings, to unlock doors and put out chairs, drinks and snacks. By the time Nathan arrived for the meetings, as soon as he’d locked up the shop, Arlene and Doris had usually joined Father Mulligan. Polly and Mikey arrived last of all. Despite Nathan being later than usual that evening, courtesy of Jaymes’ habitual horniness, Doris sat alone in her seat of choice.
“Did I get the wrong night?” said Nathan, hesitating in the doorway.
“Arby’s gone to get a small table to put Arlene’s fancy snacks on. She called and doled out instructions. And said she’s running a little late,” said Doris, rising slowly from her seat and hobbling over to him. “Apparently she’s picking up the photographer who’s got pictures from your calendar. Can’t wait to see, can you?”
“Hmm,” said Nathan, purposely looking away. As he stood there, she reached him and hooked her hand under his arm.
“Come and join me. Try a cup of Arby’s cooler.”
At the previous meeting, Father Mulligan and Doris had made up a jug of cranberry fruit mix, a berry flavour Arlene detested and not something any of the others had wanted to try.
“Not for me, Doris. It’s one of the few things Arlene and I agree on. I find cranberries on the sour side.”
“Most people do, which is why Arby and I shake things up a bit by using our own secret recipe. Just try one cup. I promise you won’t be disappointed. And I wanted to have a chat with you, anyway.”
As Nathan settled and took a tentative gulp of the juice, his taste buds exploded, just as the burn hit the back of his throat.
“What in heaven’s name..?”
“Shush, dear. Arby ran out of Smirnoff, so he’s using something called Balkan 176 this week. But I find a cup or two of Mulligan’s Cosmopolitan Cooler helps oil the wheels and makes Arlene’s meetings run more smoothly. Amazing the little things that man picks up in his religious circles. Now, about you. Thought I was right last month. And now I am seeing almost pure red. Energy, sex, and passion. More vibrant than the colour of this cocktail. I am right, aren’t I? Somebody’s having a marvellous time in the bedroom department right now. Your aura’s burning brighter than a bonfire.”
“Is it?” said Nathan, his cheeks reddening. “Yes, things are—quite good—in that department. I suppose.”
“You suppose? Goodness me. I’m worried if I sit too close, I might burst into flames.”
Nathan gave a shaky laugh and polished off the rest of his drink.
“Nathan, you are such a lovely boy. Anybody else who’d been through what you have, would have run a thousand miles from this village. But that’s not you, is it? Loyal to a fault. Your father would be so proud. You know, at my wedding to Ned, my late husband, my mother told me that if my son or daughter ever found someone special, I was to pass these onto them. Unfortunately, we never had any children, so I hope you’ll do me the honour of being the son I never had.”
Doris handed over a small, deep blue velvet pouch, tied together with black drawstrings. When Nathan opened the bag and tipped the contents into the palm of his hand, out fell two silver Claddagh rings. He’d seen similar ones before, Irish rings used to indicate someone’s search for love and whether the person is in love and taken.
“If you’re available, you’re supposed to wear this on your right hand with the point of the heart away from the wrist. Pointing towards the wrist—I always think it looks upside down—indicates you’re not looking for a relationship because you’re already in one. Of course, it could also mean you’re simply not looking. On your left hand pointing to your wrist means you’re engaged, or taken for good.”
“Why two? One for each hand?”
“Silly boy. Of course not. The other’s meant for the person who shares their heart with you.”
“Oh. Not sure if I’m ready for that yet.”
“Perfectly fine, Nathan,” said Doris, wrapping her veined hand around his and smiling. “Then keep them safe until you’re sure.”
Nathan wondered if Jaymes would notice if he popped a ring on his right hand the way Doris had described. Then again, maybe that would be a bit too much, considering the circumstances. When he held one ring up to the light, he smiled.
“She’d have wanted you to be happy, you know.”
“Your mother. She’d have wanted to see you happy and settled.”
Nathan popped both rings into the pouch and put them into his pocket.
“How well did you know her, Doris?”
“Everyone knew your mother, dear. Well, on the surface anyway, but apparently not as well as we thought. But she was friendly enough with me and the other ladies of the village. Refused to join in the gossip, and never had a bad word to say about anyone. Her only close friend was Margie Hogmore.”
“Clifton’s mum. I remember. I’m sure I’ve asked you this before, but do you know why my mother left? The real reason?”
Doris grimaced then.
“You know what us old ladies are like. We all had our opinions and suspicions. Rarely grounded in any truth or facts. She was a popular woman with everyone, so we assumed she’d met someone else. But the true answer is, nobody really knew. She told none of us. The only person she might have told would have been Margie. But if so, Margie never breathed a word.”
“She’s coming back here next month. Mrs Hogmore. To visit her son, Clifton. He’s working over here.”
“Is she now? That’ll be nice. Maybe you and her should have a heart to heart.”
Maybe we should, thought Nathan. Maybe the time was right. Right then, Arlene Killjoy burst into the room, a huge black bag dangling heavily from one hand, her designer handbag in the other. Apart from being weighed down, she appeared in unusually high spirits.
“Nathan. Be a dear, will you? Go and help Jenny with the projector screen and the projector. We’re having a bit of a production tonight. Got some wonderful things to show you.”
Over the next twenty minutes, as Mikey and Polly arrived, everyone took instructions from either Jenny or Arlene in setting up the hall. Anticipation ran high when they arranged the usual horseshoe of chairs around a low table of canapés and a selection of drinks including beer and wine, with a projector and screen set up at the open end.
“Well, everyone,” said Arlene, clapping her hands together, once everyone had seated themselves and relaxed. “We’re going to dispense with the usual agenda this month because I’m absolutely delighted to report that it’s all good news. Very shortly, we’ll be showcasing some of the football team calendar, which, I am pleased to report, has turned out far better than anyone could have expected. I’ll let Jenny talk more about that and some other amazing developments. In addition, I have a three dimensional computer animated walkthrough of the stall plan for the fete, something my husband’s department helped create, so you can see where every stall will be set up. And before I start, let me tell you that all village stores remain pride of place on the green. The last thing I’ll talk to you about is a couple of the sponsors I’ve approached. As usual, let’s make this open to any comments or suggestions. Now, I’m going to hand over to Jenny.”
Jenny Gillespie was about to stand, but then thought better of it, and sat back down again.
“Okay, so if I tell you I was a little sceptical about the calendar idea, I’m certain you’ll understand. I know some of you had doubts yourselves,” she said, glancing around, her gaze and smile settling on Nathan. “A lot of the team members had reservations, too. But I can tell you here and now, that, as Arlene intimated in her introduction, I am immensely proud of the end result. Both personally and professionally. What I’m going to show you tonight is only a draft of the final version—some of the twelve players still need to sign consent forms for us to use their images, so those I cannot show you today, even though I’m sure they wouldn’t mind—but even so, I hope you see the quality and potential. Father Mulligan, can you hit the lights, please?”
As the lights dimmed, Jenny played with the laptop on the table in front of her, until the first slide popped up, of a white screen. In plain black, the words Crumbington United Uncovered headed the empty shot.
“We’re still in two minds what to have here. Arlene and I wondered about a whole team photograph in the changing room, but logistically that’s difficult to organise.”
“Pop along Sunday,” said Mikey. “We’ll all be there for the game against Christchurch.”
“Nice idea, in theory,” said Jenny. “But a candid shot of the team without the professional touches of all the other photos is going to look out of place. And, no disrespect, but to put that on the front cover might cheapen the overall effect. I’m considering have a collage of all the team shots in December. For the cover, I’m actually thinking along the lines of having a monochrome shot of a recently vacated changing room. But let’s keep an open mind as you see the other photos. Okay, these are in no particular order of which month will be which. So I’ll start with Ken Mills, the gym instructor.”
As soon as the shot appeared, Nathan could tell exactly what Jenny meant. Professional. Pure resolution, skin tones and sensuality, the shot was exquisite. With wall bars as a backdrop, a naked Ken scaled a huge braided rope held tightly between his thick hairy thighs, the corded muscles of his arms and defined furry chest, his feet crossed around the rope at the ankles and his handsome features in full view even though his tense concentration was fixed on a spot above his head.
“Oh. My. Giddy. Aunt,” whispered Polly, next to him. “Is that really young Kenneth Mills? If so, I need to change my personal trainer.”
“Sorry, Polly,” Nathan whispered back. “But he bats for my team.”
“Of course he does.”
“Arby, dear. Can you give me a top up and some more ice,” said Doris, holding out her plastic cup to him. “I’m going to need lots if they’re all like this one.”
The next photograph had everyone instantly laughing aloud. Mikey—stark naked, his hairless skin oiled liberally and caught by the studio lights—held a meat cleaver in his hand which had just sunk into the surface of a thick wooden trestle, nicely covering his groin area. With a startled but comical look directly at the camera, his other hand held the rim of his white butcher’s hat, which had the words ‘Fresh Meat’ in red plastered across the top. It looked as though whatever he was supposed to be chopping had just escaped. Either that, or he had just managed to avoid chopping off his chopper. But once the laughter had died down, and on second glance, Nathan realised how Jenny had captured Mikey perfectly, his comical personality, but also his amazing body, large and muscled which dwarfed the trestle.
“Fresh meat, indeed,” said Polly. “What did Bev make of this?”
Beverley was Mikey’s wife.
“You’re all the first ones to see any of the photos in their finished format,” said Jenny.
“Well, when she does,” said Polly. “Just make sure your mother-in-law has the kids that night.”
Everyone laughed, but a quick look at Mikey, and Nathan could see pride shining from his eyes. Sat next to him, he leant over and nudged Mikey in the ribs.
“Pleased you got involved now?” he asked.
“I can’t believe that’s me,” said Mikey, scratching his head.
“Definitely one to show the grandkids.”
Jenny went through more. Dennis Abraham the plasterer, originally from the West Indies, his flawless polished walnut skin contrasting amazingly with the roughly plastered and whitewashed wall behind him; Mel—Melchior Slubowski—landscape gardener, with his Polish origins, and almost bleached ivory skin but lean, muscled body pushing a lawnmower set against the verdant greenery of a beautifully trimmed garden. Even George Collier, Bob’s son, and now the village postman, who quite frankly could do with losing a few pounds, had been captured brilliantly, another comic pose, lying facing the camera on a conveyor belt with parcels and packages, a postman’s hat on and a heart-shaped package covering his vitals.
A couple of others were not only stunning but also interesting, such as the identical twins Eric and Tom Milton, painters and decorators, and their wallpapering shot. Eric stood to the left of the shot facing the camera, behind a wallpapering table which stopped just above his groin, a pasting brush in one hand, but had been caught turning and laughing at something his brother had said. Tom perched halfway up a short stepladder, one leg raised to the top step, completely naked but facing the wall, about to hang a sheet of paper, turned to his brother, caught mid laugh. Neither had gym-wrought bodies, but the shot was nevertheless flawless, not only showing humour but incredible skin tones and the stunning likeness between the two younger men.
Others shots, Jenny went on to describe briefly, unable to show them because consent forms had not been completed. Shots such as Benny Cheung the mechanic—who had been worried about being photographed with Ken, and Gupta Mahtani, who had stalled a couple of times about whether to take part fearing the publicity might hurt his professional career until his daughter had all but threatened him. Nathan noticed Jenny hadn’t shown his photograph yet and wondered if maybe something had happened to make them decide to withdraw his pictures.
Until the next slide lit up the screen. This time Polly, next to him,gasped quietly.
Jenny had chosen the one where Nathan started to get a hard on, so had rolled onto his stomach and glared at Jaymes. Except the overall effect became something entirely different. Even if he did say so himself, Nathan’s backside had been captured perfectly, his socked feet crossed at the ankles of his long legs, a slight dusting of hair visible on his nicely defined chest. But the stare—or perhaps carnal glare would be a better expression—was nothing short of incendiary. In a good way. More importantly, technically everything about the shot appeared perfect; the focus, the detail, the tones, the lighting.
“I’m very proud of this one,” said Jenny.
“Good God, Nathan!” said Polly, before thrusting a hand over her mouth. “Sorry, Father Mulligan. I was going to comment on your amazing bum, but that sexy stare is nothing short of explosive. Nuclear. What lucky so-and-so was on the receiving end of that?”
“What did I tell you,” said Jenny, smiling satisfied at Nathan. She had taken great pains to impress on him how people zero’d in on faces before bodies.
“Actually, Polly, I was giving your annoying cousin the evil eye, because he was misbehaving. As usual.”
In the semi-darkness of the room, Nathan sensed Polly’s gaze land on him.
“I have to come clean, Nathan,” said Jenny. “I showed a couple of your shots to a friend of mine who’s a reporter. They’re always looking for good stories and he wanted to know if they could do an article on the village calendar for their newspaper. Arlene knows and loves the idea, but I’d need your consent. He’d want to use this picture or one of the others. But there would be amazing publicity, not just for the fête, but for your shop.”
“Who is it?”
“Isn’t that an American publication,” asked Polly. ‘Why would they be interested in us?”
“More international, these days,” said Jenny. Nathan noticed Arlene had said nothing, had let Jenny do all the talking. “And they love local interest stories. Bread and butter of modern day media.”
“I don’t see why not,” said Nathan, shrugging.
“Don’t you?” said Polly. “With shots like that, darling, you’re likely to end up being invited to do movies.”
Mikey choked on a laugh, until Polly elbowed him in the ribs.
“Not those kind of movies, perv,” she said, before her attention shifted back to Jenny. “But why can’t we use our own local newspaper? Wouldn’t that be more appropriate?”
“And we will,” said Arlene. “Before anything else. But wouldn’t it be good to entice people from further afield to come to our little festival in this neck of the woods?”
Nobody could argue with that. Jenny even offered to talk to Katherine Osmond and provide a couple of sample shots for the paper. Arlene then went on to show them the three-dimensional model of the actual fete on the screen, which was actually extremely cool, even though the model stalls had no particular detail. The way it had been designed felt as though those watching strolled into the village green, past the Fresher name and logo above the first stall, around the small fairground in the centre of the green, past Mikey’s stall, the newsagent and confectioner, Doris’ florist stall, the shoe shop, and the haberdashery, all interspersed with fun stalls such as hoopla and coconut shies. Out onto Church lane, other stalls had no names above them, supposedly not yet confirmed, but the whole thing appeared professional and at the end, everyone applauded, even Polly. For all her pushiness, Arlene had done an incredible job. Once the lights came back on, she stood to address them all.
“I’ve got a number of investors onboard already—Shawbanks, Radleigh and Posner—and a few more irons in the fire, but I’m sure once they’re aware of the calendar, the celebrity hosts, and other surprises we have in store, many more will commit. As far as the calendar is concerned, we’re considering a retail price of £14.99, which, as long as we sell the minimum five hundred, will give us a clear profit of ten pounds per calendar, so five thousand pounds, already twice the amount we raised from the fête last year. Officially the calendar launch will be the third week in June, here in the village hall, with all the players signing copies and, of course, Jenny explaining her concept. We’re expecting to have a number of members of the press in attendance especially as Clifton O’Keefe and Raul Jurado will be here, too. So, of course, we’ll need to lay on more canapés, bubbles and cocktails for the event. Fortunately a friend of mine is a caterer and will take care of all of that. But it’s almost nine-thirty, so I think that’s enough for one night. Once again, a big thanks to Jenny for her superb work.”
Among the small group, everyone gave a polite round of applause.
“And I must add, Arlene, you’ve outdone yourself. You were right all along, this event really did need an injection of new ideas,” said Father Mulligan. Even Polly nodded her approval, although her smile didn’t quite reach her eyes.
“Hear, hear,” said Nathan, just as his phone vibrated in his pocket.
Jay: How’s it going?
Nathan grinned down at the display. Every time Jaymes’ name popped up on his screen, a smile lit his face and he felt his heart get lighter inside. He quickly thumbed a response.
Nathan: Top notch. Just got to see myself naked.
Jay: If you’re trying to impress, don’t bother. I get to do that every morning and night. When can I get my hands on this calendar?
While others around him began to clear things away, Nathan halted for a moment. By the third week in June, at the official calendar launch, Jaymes would already be on the other side of the world in Malaysia. He shook his head quickly to suppress the twinge of sadness seeping into him.
Nathan: Don’t worry. I’ll get you an advanced copy.
Jay: Magic. Are you done there?
Nathan: Almost. Give me 15, just in case.
Jay: I’ll order your usual. Tell Poll and Mikey I’ll get theirs, too.
Before leaving the hall, Nathan approached Jenny and went to shake her hand, but she pulled him into a hug.
“You’re very photogenic, Nathan. And you look after your body. If you ever wanted to do any modelling—”
“Heavens, no. That is not me, Jenny. I do look after myself but I don’t want to have to worry about everything I eat or every grey hair that appears. That is simply not me.”
“Well, just to let you know, my journalist friend’s name is Franz Kingston, and he will most likely contact you by telephone, ask you a few questions about the fête and the calendar. Hope that’s going to be okay?”
“Fine. I’ll also mention the brilliant photographer.”
Jenny chuckled and awarded him with her warm smile, before raising an eyebrow.
“And if you and your boyfriend ever consider coming in for a couple’s session, just let me know.”
Nathan pulled a face and shook his head at a still smiling Jenny. Once in front of the camera was enough for a lifetime, but he looked forward to telling Jaymes about her offer later. As he held the door open watching Jenny depart, once again his phone buzzed. Raising his eyes to the heavens, and sure to see another text from Jaymes appear on his phone, he was surprised to see one from someone else.
Martin: Giorgio mentioned you coming up to Oxford to see the film crew setting up. He said something about arranging a local hotel for you, but I told him you’d stay with us. Hope that’s okay? But why don’t you and your lovely man come for a long weekend? Drive up Friday and back Monday. We’d both love to have you here and your man will help keep Gallagher from murdering members of the TV crew.
Stood now in the middle of the church hall, Nathan chuckled at the words. Lost in thought, he puffed out a sigh and gently shook his head.
“What’s the matter?” asked Polly, in the process of carrying plates to the small kitchen.
“New friends. They’re inviting me to their place in Oxford for a long weekend.” Nathan stuffed the phone into his pocket and began to help with the tidying, “Obviously, I can’t go.”
“Why obviously?” asked Arlene, in the process of shutting down her laptop computer.
“Yes, Nathan,” said Polly, stopping inlace and adopting a familiar admonishing tone. “Explain to Arlene. When was the last time you had a proper holiday?”
Nathan rolled his eyes at Polly and said nothing, folding one of the chairs around the small table.
“That would be when his grandfather was still alive,” said Polly, raising her eyebrows at Arlene.
“And it rained the whole time we were away. I’d have been eight, I think. Grandad was still around to look after the shop while we went to Blackpool for the week; mum, dad and me.”
Despite the terrible weather, Nathan still had snippets of good memories from their one time away.
“And since your father passed away, when was the last time you had a holiday or even a week off?” asked Polly. “Sorry, scratch that, how about a whole weekend off.”
“Okay, Polly. I get the point,” said Nathan, glaring at her as he carried a couple of chairs to the storeroom, and continuing as he returned. “Since dad died, I don’t really feel confident burdening anyone with managing everything. Molly can look after things for a couple of hours, but she has never cashed up or dealt with orders and invoices. And heaven knows what she’d do if one of the ovens packed up, or something worse. So I’m usually not far away, in case she has any difficulties.”
“Because, of course, Oxford is on another continent,” said Polly, heading towards the kitchen.
“You know, Nathan,” said Arlene, as she packed her laptop away in her bag. “My husband’s friend, Fingal, has run a professional baking outfit in Dublin for the best part of thirty years. He’s semi-retired now—has been for over five years—and lives with his new wife just outside Mosswold. If you want, I could put you in touch?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Nathan Fresher,” said Polly, hands on hips, a tone he knew only too well. “Don’t make me slap you.”
“No obligation,” said Arlene, with a shrug. “Meet him, have a chat, and if you think he’s okay, consider having him step in. I get the impression he’s a little bored right now, so the work and a little bit of pocket money might be just what the doctor ordered. And don’t you think it might be good to have someone as a backup in case, at the very least, you’re ever under the weather?” No sooner had she finished than her attention turned elsewhere. “Father Mulligan, can you show me where you store this extension lead you lent me? In case I need it again?”
Arlene trailed behind Father Mulligan in the direction of the small storeroom.
“As much as I mistrust her, she might have a point,” said Polly, arms now folded. “If he’s got experience, why not at least meet up with him?”
If there was one thing living with Jaymes—albeit for a short while—had taught him, it was that he had to start living again, grabbing every scrap of life thrown his way. What could be the harm in meeting this person, Fingal? Maybe he needed to start letting go a little, listen instead of always finding reasons why he couldn’t do something. A long weekend away from the shop with Jaymes and in the company of new friends sounded like heaven. Surely he was entitled to a little slice every now and again?
“Okay, Arlene. I’ll meet this friend of yours, Fingal. Let me know his number and I’ll call him tomorrow.”
In the cold light of day, he thought, he could always change his mind and decide not to call.
“Better yet, Nathan,” said Arlene, as though hearing his thoughts, and plucking her phone from her bag. “I’ll call him now for you. Get him to come and see you at the shop first thing. That way you can let your friends know tomorrow whether you’re going to see them or not.”
When Nathan turned to Polly, she simply shrugged and gave him a supercilious smile. Even Doris patted him on the arm as she went to leave with Father Mulligan.
“Okay, okay. Thank you, Arlene. I’d love to meet your friend.”
Maybe they were all right. Maybe the time had come to shake things up a little.
What harm could there be?
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