Half an hour before the doors opened to the press and public, Nathan ambled down the length of the village hall, assessing preparations. Along the far wall, regiments of assorted-sized glasses and bottles of alcohol stood together, with a kaleidoscope of various finger foods still being brought in by caterers and arranged on tables. Free-standing boards with the official calendar pictures had been erected at the far end of the hall. In front of them, ten rows of twenty chairs had been arranged for the official opening and presentation. However much a person disliked or mistrusted Arlene Killjoy, the woman knew how to shake things up and put on a show.
For Nathan, though, the highlight of the evening had to be the entire opposite side of the hall wall where Jenny was still putting the finishing touches to boards containing candid photos from each of the player's photo sessions. These informal shots included the player's partners; Mikey's wife's concentrated expression as she held a small bottle of baby oil in one hand giggling as she applied a handful to Mikey's muscular arm and shoulder; someone Nathan assumed to be Ken Mills' partner, good-looking and significantly older, laughing happily with Ken, the thick gym rope Ken was about to use, tied with a hangman's noose and placed around his own neck; Benny Cheung's girlfriend spreading what appeared to be dark motor grease over his face, biting her lip in concentration, her eyes betraying the fact she was trying hard not to laugh; George Collier's larger than life wife in her horizontal-striped white and navy top, modelling the postman's hat he was about to wear, and looking like a saucy seaside postcard. If any of the team had been nervous about tonight, one look at those unposed, natural photos and Nathan just knew the laughter in the room would become not only infectious but positively endearing.
When Nathan's gaze landed on the six pictures of him and Jaymes at the end of the row, his heart gave a tug, a combination of affection and yearning. Just like the others, he had no idea Jenny had taken them. In one picture Jaymes smiled affectionately, tucking a lock of hair over Nathan's ear, while Nathan stared nervously off into space. The expression in Jaymes' eyes was nothing short of reverent, adoring, smitten. Another had him and Jaymes kissing chastely, both sure nobody had seen. So much for them thinking they had been discreet.
"All the way back then?" Polly's voice sounded next to him as she nudged her shoulder into his.
"Yes. Only just, though. Saturday before the photoshoot. But, yes."
"Aren't we the dark horse?"
Polly linked her arm with his and, even without looking at her, Nathan felt tears burn his eyes. For all his recent bravado and control, certain things still managed to get through his armour.
"I miss him so much, Polly, it hurts."
Transferring her arm around his waist, she pulled him against her.
"You're allowed to. I bet he's missing you, too."
"You think so?"
"I know so."
So did Nathan. At least, if Jaymes' many daily messages and regular calls were anything to go by. Even without those communiqués, he knew in his heart, Jaymes missed him just as badly.
"And now you're going to be buggering off to the Land of Oz. And probably never coming back?"
Polly sucked in a deep breath and whipped her arm away from around him. Turning to face him, she transferred both hands to her hips.
"I'm going for a month, Nathan. Say the word, and I'll tell Grant I can't come—"
"Don't be soft, Polly. I'm only pulling your leg. Besides, I'd never be able to live with myself if I thought I was to blame for you cancelling a chance to go to Australia. Where is he, by the way? Your beau?"
"Having a pint with Fingal. Calendars of naked men aren't exactly his thing."
The way she still eyed him, he realised he wasn't entirely off the hook, so nodded back at the photographs.
"Jenny's done an amazing job, don't you think?"
Polly grinned thinly, before returning her attention to the display.
"Totally. What time's she coming tonight?"
"She's here already. Who do you think arranged this lot? Probably powdering her nose right now before members of the press are let in the doors to grill her."
"Good. I need to have a quiet word with her before things kick-off."
"Me too. I want to tell her how brilliant these are. And try and get a couple of copies to send to Jaymes."
"I need her for something more pressing, but I'll pass your message on."
"What could be more pressing?"
"Nothing you need to worry your pretty little head about," she said, releasing him after a hug, and giving him a cryptic smile. "Just make sure you're there—front and centre—at the next committee meeting."
Without elucidating more, she strolled off like a proud peahen. On any other day, he might have been irked or tempted to push her for more information. Polly loved her games but, this time around anyway, he decided to hold his tongue, ignore his irritation, and simply enjoy the evening. As Polly disappeared into the restroom, he noticed Father Mulligan opening one side to the double doors to the hall. From the looks of things, a crowd of people already gathered outside. Nodding once, Father Mulligan stepped aside, allowing Clifton and Raul to enter the hall. Neither was supposed to attend the calendar launch, only the day of the fête. Raul spotted him first, and they both headed over to him. Nathan couldn't help the broad smile of relief filling his face.
"What the hell are you two doing here?" he asked.
"Giorgio's instructions," said Clifton, as they both came up and gave him a hug. "Been told we need to give you all the support we possibly can. Bet nobody told you there'd be television crews here tonight? GBBN, Channel P4, and PNN."
"Seriously?" said Nathan astounded. "Does Arlene know?"
"She does now, doesn't she, love?" said Clifton, turning to Raul, whose gaze appeared hypnotised by the photographs on the wall behind Nathan. "We gave her a lift here, poor thing. I was having a meeting with her husband when she burst into his office to tell him. In a bit of a tizzy, she was. Left her laptop with the presentation and everything back at work. So we had to drive back with her and retrieve it on our way tonight. Otherwise, we'd have been here earlier."
Arlene had phoned Nathan the day before, already worked up about the number of people coming to the launch, and asking him a long list of questions about the football team and the village, facts she could comfortably incorporate into her introduction.
"Nathan, these shots are amazing," said Raul, heading straight for the wall and carefully scrutinising the photographs. "The two of you are adorable."
"Yes, we've been told as much," said Nathan, remembering a similar comment by a girl at the airport coffee shop. "We had no idea the photographer, Jenny, was taking them."
"I might have to have a word with her," murmured Raul. "See if we can use her amazing talents."
"She's here tonight. And I'm sure she'll be happy to chat with our guest celebrities."
Right then, a male member of the catering staff who must have spotted Clifton and Raul appeared with a tray of champagne. Clifton ignored him, wanting to have a private moment with Nathan, but Raul engaged him with a few kind words.
"Giorgio told me what happened on Saturday. Didn't pick up your message until later. Sorry, I'd forgotten what a bore those things can be for people who are not in the business."
"Don't worry," said Nathan. "The afternoon of pampering and fun with you more than made up for the evening. What did Giorgio make of the food?"
"Neither of us ate anything. He'd already made reservations for after the event. The man's not stupid."
"Maddy Manners from the Evening Chronicle got in touch. Wants an exclusive interview with Raul and me. Giorgio said you had a hand in it. Is that true?"
"Unlikely. I barely spoke to her."
"Is that so?" said Clifton, raising an eyebrow. "So how come their reporter is here tonight?"
"Ask Giorgio. He probably told them you'd both be here."
"And how about the representative from StandUp, the anti-bullying foundation, who contacted me on Monday? Asking if I would consider being the face of their international support group and charity?"
"I told him he should do it," said Raul, who had rejoined them. "It's like a gift from God. And you never look a gift horse in the teeth. Isn't that what you say?"
Clifton turned to his partner with a huge smile and kissed him on the cheek.
"Yes, darling. That's exactly what we say."
"And are you going to do it?" asked Nathan.
"Of course he is," said Raul.
"Giorgio thinks it's a brilliant idea. So yes, I'm going to see what I can do."
"Then the world's already a better place."
Father Mulligan opened the doors to the press at seven-fifteen—to allow camera crews to set up equipment and press members to take seats towards the front—and then to the rest of the waiting public fifteen minutes later.
Once everyone had settled, Arlene stepped up to the front of the proceedings—freshly styled hair and somewhat overstated make-up—and anticipation in the hall felt almost tangible. People packed every corner, every seat was taken up, and many others standing along the walls. Like a firing squad, professionals with cameras on pods, or holding heavy-looking video cameras, lined up behind the last row of chairs. As Father Mulligan had informed Nathan during their earlier meeting, the official hall capacity stood at two hundred and fifty. Nathan estimated they had that number, perhaps a few more, crammed inside the four walls.
Most importantly for Nathan, all of the football squad and their partners had turned out, sat in reserved seats in the first two rows. Nathan stood with Polly, Father Mulligan, Clifton, and Raul at the front but to one side of the projector screen. Only Doris hadn't shown up that night. Father Mulligan relayed her apologies about her having 'a bit of a cold,' but Nathan suspected the real reason was her aversion to large crowds. When Arlene stood purposely still making eye contact with the audience, everyone slowly quietened.
"Ladies and gentlemen, members of the press, welcome to the launch of Crumbington's very first official calendar to mark our annual garden fête. Maybe this is not a completely original initiative in the grand scheme of things, but for the villagers of Crumbington, this has been something extraordinary. Special because those involved form an integral part of our village community. All the players in our small football team are not only passionate about the team they play for but contribute to our little community in their day-to-day occupations. That's something we aim to showcase here tonight. All of the squad of eighteen handsome gentlemen sitting here at the front wanted to take part in my initiative, but sadly, there are only twelve months in the calendar year, so we could only take the best looking."
At first there came polite but muted laughter, until Mikey guffawed loudly from the front like a braying donkey. His outburst prompted a second wave of much louder, widespread laughter from around the room, mostly from the rest of the players.
"I know there has been substantial publicity about this venture in the media, and while I would never downplay anything that brings the world's attention to our little corner of the world, I do want to focus you tonight on these real heroes of this piece. Soon to be in the finals against Bosworth Heath in the Southdown Cup, after their one-nil win against Middlehampton Wanderers, nobody can accuse our players of just being pretty faces. This is the first time in fifteen years our team has performed so well, and the first time ever we've reached the final. Each of them is a real person, with a real job, who earns a modest living and agreed to do the calendar out of sheer love for their community."
Arlene stopped to take a sip of water, which prompted a polite round of applause instigated by villagers in the room. A couple of the players appeared startled and more than a little touched by the support.
"Yes, they are all here tonight to chat freely, to autograph officially purchased calendars later on, and also to sell tickets for the upcoming fête. As I'm sure you're all aware by now, the majority of the proceeds will go to worthwhile local charities, so please dig deep. As you may also know, Clifton O'Keefe and his partner, Raul Jurado, have kindly agreed to open our fête on the twenty-first June, and to spend the day with us, helping out on stalls and in the multitude of activities we have planned. Clifton and Raul are here with us tonight—come forward gentlemen—so I'm sure if you have any questions for them later on—"
As Clifton and Raul stepped out front from beside the projector screen, politeness and control flew out the window. While flashes of lights lit the hall like strobes, only a few reporters had the decency to hold their hands in the air. Others simply fired questions to the front. Startled, Arlene became tongue-tied, until a calmly smiling Raul took her by the elbow and pulled her to one side, while an equally calm Clifton took centre stage.
"—Clifton, do you think revelations about the leaked sex tape had anything to do with you not winning the Evening Chronicle award for breakthrough performance?"
"—What do you have to say about the allegations surrounding you and Helen Monash having an affair while working on Candlelight?"
"—Who was the mystery man you took to the recent awards ceremony?"
"—Is there any truth in the rumour that you and Raul are about to break up?"
"—And do you think the sordid details of that leaked sex tape will mean an end to your career?"
"—Is it true you're having a fling with Crumbington's naked baker?"
Nathan realised he was not the only one shocked to silence by the sudden onslaught of questions, and only picked up on a couple alluding to him. Usually, Clifton probably had Giorgio on hand to field any questions on these kinds of occasions, but tonight he had only himself and Raul. As the bombardment died down along with the lessening of camera flashes, Clifton gestured with both hands for the audience to calm down.
"Friends of the media, please keep in mind that tonight is not about Raul or me, but about this amazing community of people who are selflessly giving up their time and talents to help others. What Mrs Killjoy didn't mention is that one of the reasons I agreed to participate in the fête is because I was fortunate enough to have grown up in this village. In fact, the local baker, Nathan Fresher, who accompanied me to the recent award ceremony because Raul was out of town, is an old friend of mine from school—we played side-by-side in the school football team—and is still a good and loyal friend to my family and me. I know many of you are here today because you want to land a story about Raul or me, but, you know, there's a wealth of far more interesting stories right here in this room, stories I am positive your readers or viewers would find far more interesting than tittle-tattle about Raul and me. So can I please beg you to focus your attention on the reason you've been invited here tonight, the Crumbington Calendar and these amazing people and their families sitting in the front rows. And Raul and I will be happy to take questions offline, later on. Thank you."
Clifton knew how to work the media because nobody interrupted or followed up with any more questions. Perhaps his little olive branch at the end worked the trick. Either way, Arlene took the cue to step forward and continue her introduction.
"So before we open the proceeding and allow you to mingle about the hall, I've asked Jenny Gillespie, from Gillespie Studios, who provided the inspirational concept behind each month, and personally photographed the players, to briefly go through each of the twelve shots on the projector screen behind me, and explain her idea for each. At the end of the presentation, if you have any questions, please feel free to ask. Lights please, Father Mulligan."
Unlike Arlene, Jenny's voice came across as far more intimate and relaxed with the audience as she took them through her initial concept while projecting the cover of the calendar: an empty changing room in grainy black and white. She presented beautifully, effortlessly, with no notes and only the presentation remote control device in her right hand.
Nathan had seen many of the pictures before, previewed by Jenny at an earlier meeting. What he hadn't appreciated back then was the singular attention to detail, quality, and connected theme and design of each page. Bald headed Dennis Abrahams, the plasterer, completely naked, his back to the camera but turning to the front while plastering a wall, provided the cover for March. Although he stood squatter than others in the team, his back and shoulder muscles from years of manual labour stood out impressively. Following him there came Benny Cheung, village mechanic and then Bob Morris, local cab driver, before they got to June and the photograph of Nathan.
Nathan heard a sharp intake of breath beside him and turned to see Raul staring at the screen before bringing his gaze to Nathan and grinning broadly. If he had not been mistaken, the room had also gotten a little quieter, the previous hubbub of impromptu voiceovers within the audience stopping altogether while the sound of cameras clicking seemed to increase. Jenny spent more time explaining the picture, about how this particular shot had happened, mainly by chance, and how the subject, including many professionals who had passed through her studio, had been one of the most natural she had been gifted to work with.
Nathan wished she had left him until last, because the excellent photographs of other players including new ones from Norris Hillwood, the local gynaecologist, and Gupta Mahtani, the village lawyer, tended to be lost amid chatter among the audience.
For December, Jenny had chosen a collage of the whole team, including those not in the calendar, taken the changing room at the end of the game they'd won against Tonbridge Knights. Everyone had been in high spirits, and a couple of the guys had removed their shirts—but nothing else just then. Nathan vaguely remembered Jenny being there, but she had captured the team spirit beautifully. Thinking back on the occasion, Kyle Morris, Bob Morris' son, had entered the changing rooms with a crate of beers and stood next to Jenny. Using his pub voice that carried over everyone else's, he'd got their attention by asking who wanted a beer. Maybe the ploy had been planned, but they had all turned in his direction and, in that moment, Jenny had snapped the shot. Absolutely priceless and from the reaction of the front two rows, the other players thought so, too.
"And that brings me to the end of the presentation. If you have not already done so, you can purchase a copy here tonight and have it signed by one of the players," said Jenny, turning to click on the screen. Except the presentation did not end but brought up a video that immediately began to play.
Jenny hesitated, confused, while the audience stared at the scene.
"I'm sorry, this isn't part of my presentation. I'm using someone else's— Uh, Arlene, are you there?"
Jenny moved to the side of the screen, while the video depicted a cosy room, with an adjoining kitchen, small round table, and an unmade double bed. Two figures, one largely unseen except for the legs, appeared at first frozen on the screen. The smaller of the two was squashed behind the larger one who had his track bottoms around his knees. They appeared to be frozen in a tableau on a small two-seater sofa. As Nathan watched, the bigger of the two figures moved to one side. When he did so, you could see he had one hand clamped around the neck of the person below and had begun to force the head of that person down towards what was clearly his full erection.
Right then, someone let out an appalled gasp from somewhere at the back of the hall. Shocked too, Nathan recognised the face of the second person on the screen; a young and scared Clifton.
Without hesitation, he went over to the projector, placed his hand over the lens light, and yanked out the power cord, plunging the room into darkness.
"Sorry about that everyone. Technical glitch. Can someone please put the lights back on."
When light eventually flooded the hall, Nathan could tell he had not acted quickly enough to fool anybody. He turned to find Arlene standing next to Jenny, a hand over her mouth, her eyes wide in shock. Neither Clifton nor Raul were anywhere to be seen.
After a second or two of shocked silence, the room exploded into shouts and questions.
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