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.”
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.
Thanks for reading.
Loving the reactions, comments, and suggestions, so keep them coming.