After a successful day, it's time to auction off the Crumbington United football players.
At nine in the evening, the fairground sat in shadow, asleep, unmoving, silhouetted lumps that had provided a day of fun and laughter. Unbroken sunshine had defined the day, and with no threat of clouds as evening fell, they agreed to use the brightly lit outside stage on which the school bands had played, and various competition winners were announced, to run the date auction. Next to the beer tent, eager and nicely relaxed people already crowded around, socialising and chatting, waiting to bid for a night out with one of the good-looking players in the calendar.
Between them, they had all agreed—some reluctantly—that as each player stepped out onto the stage, their particular page of the calendar would be projected onto the screen filling the whole back of the stage. Helen Monash and Clifton had also agreed to host the auction, taking bids from audience members.
Five minutes before the auction was set to begin, the players stood together in nervous excitement on the grass behind the back of the stage, while Arlene came up to give them a pep talk. Nathan stood by and smiled, watching as everyone paid careful attention to her, as though she were a headmistress. In the end, Nathan had managed to persuade all twelve players to take part, even though some, like Mikey, had only agreed after being jollied along by his teammates.
"Gentlemen. We've already had an amazing success here today—from a financial, entertainment, and media publicity perspective—so I'm going to lower the starting bid for each of you to fifty pounds. I hope you're all okay with that? It's not because anybody thinks that's all you're worth. We just feel the people of Crumbington and surrounding areas have already been incredibly generous today. And, incidentally, I have asked Helen to remind everyone this is just about having a nice meal out with you, or you providing an hour of your individual professional service if that's more beneficial to the bidder and mutually agreeable. Not you, of course, Mr Hillwood."
Norris Hillwood, the village gynaecologist, grinned broadly, but the other men standing around laughed aloud. Nathan marvelled at Arlene, who had managed to defuse the tension with her previously hidden sense of humour. Something had changed, and he wondered if her husband's advice, or Doris' passing, had anything to do with it.
"I appreciate many of you are not comfortable doing this, but some things we have to do for the greater good. In case you're thinking I have no idea what I'm talking about, you should know that these are not empty words. I, too, have played my part today. As some of you know, I spent half an hour being submerged in freezing cold water, and had to change into dry clothes four times, which is also why I am wearing this ridiculous turban right now, and why despite attempts to rectify my makeup, I still resemble a racoon. I'm sure many of your children recorded the event on their smartphones, if you need proof."
"But my advice is, when you're up there on stage, think of who you'll be helping, both locally and internationally; the children of St Joseph's School; the St Mary's Church restoration fund; and the international Save The Children charity. Although we haven't had a chance to tally today's takings, we've already raised almost six thousand pounds from calendar sales alone, and that's all down to you. You're a good-looking bunch of men, and if it weren't for the fact my darling husband would probably never speak to me again, I'd stump up the six hundred pounds right now and take the lot of you out for a nice steak dinner. So go out there, have fun, and enjoy yourselves—and before you go, give yourselves a rousing cheer."
Everyone joined in, and the sound not only silenced the waiting crowd the other side of the stage but must have been the signal for the hosts—Helen and Clifton—because they immediately launched into their spiel for the beginning of the auction.
Ken Mills, the model for January, should have gone first, but after a good scout around and several phone calls which simply went to voicemail, they decided to begin with February. Nathan and the rest of the team watched from the side of the stage. When poor Mikey Shanton stepped out into the lights and was met with a huge cheer, thunderous applause, and a sea of grinning face, he tried his best to maintain his composure, but Nathan could see he looked nervous bordering mortified. Fortunately, Helen Monash used the words written on her cue card to help him relax.
"Our February model is Michael Shanton, the village butcher. Michael has served the community for over thirty years, providing sources of protein to keep us strong and fit. And as you can see from his photograph, it certainly hasn't done him any harm. Although Michael is not single—certainly all those who live here in Crumbington will know his lovely wife, Mary—he has agreed to either have a meal out with someone or to use his culinary skills to cook the successful bidder a nice dinner. Michael promises he can cook any meat of your choice, or—his words—if the person is not a meat-eater, he makes a mean vegan three-bean pie. So who will start the bidding at a very reasonable twenty pounds."
"A hundred pounds," called Mary, his wife, her hand raised in the air holding fifty-pound note.
Those around her laughed aloud, and a few people burst into applause. Mikey shook his head at his wife, but his endearing smile said everything. Seeing her bid, Nathan felt sure nobody would dare try and better her, and thankfully, nobody did. When Mikey stepped off the stage and, very publicly, gave his wife a kiss and a hug, a huge cheer went up among the audience.
All in good fun, most of the bidding went as expected—wives or girlfriends bidding for their other halves—but there were a few surprises. Standing onstage, single Dennis Abraham, the local plasterer started a heated bidding war between two middle-aged women. Mikey whispered to Nathan that they had both dated Dennis at one point. Arlene—the self-appointed auctioneer—had to whisper a reminder to Helen to tell them the auction was only for dinner, nothing more, which raised another huge burst of laughter. When the bid reached two hundred and seventy-five pounds, the smaller of the two women caved in and muttered something only those around could hear, but which also caused a ripple of laughter.
Benny Cheung, the mechanic; Gupta Mahtani, lawyer; Bob Morris, cab driver, George Collier, postman; Mel Slubowski, gardener; Norris Hillwood, gynaecologist, and Ken Mills—when he finally appeared. All of them were all bid for and won by their respective partners.
Eric and Tom Milton, the family painting and decorating team, and both single, provided some drama. A beautiful woman nobody recognised bet on good looking Eric—the slightly taller of the twins—starting the bidding at a cool six hundred pounds, which silenced everyone in the crowd, and a sum nobody challenged. Her bid also made poor Eric blush from head to foot. Gossip spread through the crowd like wildfire, about who this mysterious woman could be. Surely nothing could top that?
But when equally good-looking Tom stepped forward straight afterwards, the mood of the auction changed up yet another gear. There began a four-way bidding war—between a small blonde woman, the busty brunette at the Crumbington Arms whose name Nathan could never remember, a much older woman who looked like, and probably was, the twins' mother, and a forty-something, over-six-foot, good-looking hunk of a man with short sexy salt-and-pepper hair. All eyes watched on mesmerised—heads twisting back and forth like spectators at a game of tennis—and, of course, the television documentary crew made sure they filmed everything. When the bidding reached eight hundred pounds from the small blonde woman, everyone else backed down. But even as Tom went down the stage steps to greet the woman, Nathan noticed him look over, smile, and wink at the tall man. Interesting.
"And finally, the captain of the football team, owner of Crumbington's local bakery, who has lived here all his life. If you've read any publicity about the calendar, you'll know that my co-star, Clifton O'Keith, and Nathan Fresher were best friends at school. And remain so. Described by HuffPost as the dishiest baker this side of the Atlantic, with the caption Fresher by name and fresher by nature—please give a huge round of applause for our very own Mr Nathan Fresher."
When Nathan walked out into the spotlights, applause reverberated around the green, punctuated by whistles and whoops, causing a twinge of nervousness to fill his stomach. Mikey's wife had promised that if nobody put an opening bid in for him, she would offer the minimum fifty and he'd give her the money back later. But he needn't have worried. Helen didn't even get a chance to start the bidding.
"One hundred pounds," came a female voice from somewhere in the crowd. When Nathan placed a hand above his eyes and followed everyone's gaze, he spotted Jenny Gillespie holding her hand aloft and smiling.
"Jenny Gillespie. Are you serious?" shouted Nathan, indicating the colossal calendar picture of himself behind. "For someone who can make someone like me look like this, I should be paying you."
The crowd roared with laughter, the sense of fun back in the atmosphere.
"One hundred and fifty," came a male voice in the crowd, once the laughter had died down. Nathan smiled in confusion at a mischievously grinning Ken Mills, who simply shrugged. His older partner, an arm around Ken's shoulders, smiled conspiratorially. Heaven knows what they had in mind.
"Two hundred," came Polly's voice, from somewhere in the crowd, standing next to a grinning Grant. Had they planned this little charade to try and raise the stakes?
"Okay, Polly. You know I can't cook," said Nathan.
"Who said anything about cooking. I'll pick out the inordinately expensive restaurant, and you pick up the tab. That way, I know I'll get my money's worth."
Another vast bout of laughter followed. People were getting a better show than anything on the television that night. Eventually, the laughter died down.
"A thousand pounds," came the very distinctive voice of Clifton O'Keith, with some finality, who had been standing on the stage to the right of Helen and Arlene, but stepped forward to the microphone. "For the honour of having dinner with my best mate from high school."
At first, the whole crowd went silent, but then wild applause followed. Cameras flashes went off around the group, the journalists eating up the spectacle.
"Eleven hundred pounds," came a woman's voice, from the back of the crowd, causing a collective intake of breath and all heads to turn.
"What are you playing at?" called Clifton, his hands held out, which brought a roar of laughter from everyone gathered. A spotlight singled out Margaret Hogmore.
"What? A mother can't bid for a nice dinner with her son's best friend? You know I'd invite you and Raul, too. So don't be so selfish. That's not how I brought you up."
"One thousand, two hundred pounds," said Clifton, his hands on his hips, bringing another roar of laughter. "And you're not invited."
Helen, amused by the spectacle, watched both of them, as Clifton glared out at his mother. Eventually, she decided to bring the bidding to a close.
"One thousand, six hundred," said Clifton, folding his arms and glaring at his mother.
"Seventeen hundred. And I will outbid every one of your counter-offers until I get what I want. And as your mother, you know I will, dear."
Helen Monash, giggling, clearly amused by the spectacle, looked between Clifton and his mother. Eventually, as nothing else came, she began the final chant.
"Well, there it is, folks. For seventeen hundred pounds, going once, going twice…"
"Stop, stop," said Arlene, coming forward to the microphone, one hand glued to her phone, the other held in the air. "Look, I know this is a little unorthodox, ladies and gentleman—well, for this kind of local auction, anyway—but we have an anonymous telephone bidder. Someone on the line right now who is prepared to bid ten thousand pounds for a night out with our baker, Nathan Fresher."
For a split second, silence filled the air as though the whole crowd had taken a collective intake of breath until a tremendous cheer roared in the air followed by a round of applause. Helen looked to Clifton and then out to Clifton's mother for any further bids, but both shook their heads.
"In which case, sold to the secret anonymous bidder on the phone, for ten thousand pounds. Let's hope you take them somewhere nice, Nathan."
"Yeah, Florida might be a good idea," shouted Bob Morris. "For that price."
And with another burst of good-natured laughter, the auction ended. Lots of the players and people he knew came up to ask who the person might be, but Nathan had no idea. Surely Jaymes didn't have that kind of money, and anyway, it would be far too early in the morning for him in his part of the world. And Jaymes was definitely not a morning person. As the band members began to get in place, ready to start up the music again, Arlene pulled Nathan to one side and handed him the phone.
"The winning bidder's still on the line. Wants to speak to you privately, away from prying ears. I suggest you go out back behind the stage where it'll be much quieter."
Nathan stepped outside behind the empty backstage, just as the band stuck up the begin bars to a Beatles song; 'All You Need Is Love.'
Not a good line, Nathan thought, hearing the echo of his own voice, and a slight static crackle. Was the call long distance? With the band playing, he had to walk away a few metres, one hand clamped over his free ear to hear better.
At first, Nathan didn't recognise the voice, even though the accent sounded oddly familiar. And then, suddenly, everything fell into place.
"Yes, it's me. Calling…maternity ward…San Diego. Are you having a good day?"
"Raul, you can't bid that much money. You've got the new babies to think about—"
"Stop, Nathan. I donate ten times…to charities every year. For me, it's…agreement with…sponsorship deals. So don't even…saying no."
Despite the lousy connection, words cutting out every now and then, Nathan caught the gist of what Raul was saying.
"Well, I—I'm stunned. It's very generous. Hey, hang on a minute. Does Clifton know?"
"No. But mum-in-law does. She's…idea…help me set this up."
"Why am I not surprised? Hang on, I'm going to see if I can get a better signal."
Nathan moved away a little into the centre of the green, which seemed to do the trick.
"Look, Nathan. I'm not blind. I know my husband has a soft spot for you. And I overheard him telling you so in the bedroom at your friend's house in Oxford. That weekend of the launch party. I understand. You were his first love, and that's hard to get over. But I also know he loves me. And, truly, when he meets his son and daughter for the first time—who are stubbornly taking their time to arrive—I know he will be totally in love with them. I just didn't want him to make a fool of himself at the fête."
"So you did this to stop Clifton from winning me in the auction?"
"Ah, Raul. You should have called me first. I could have saved you a lot of money. That was never going to happen because I wouldn't have let him. Clifton is a friend. A great friend. But that's all he's ever going to be. My heart belongs to someone else."
Nathan wasn't even sure if Raul heard the last part because the static was almost deafening. By the time Nathan could hear more clearly, his mood had softened.
"Okay, Raul. So when is our dinner date supposed to happen?"
"Sorry I missed...bad sig…not...open space. My end. Can you….again…louder"
"I asked when is our dinner— Okay, actually. It doesn't matter." Nathan had raised his voice, but then considered ending the call because they'd said everything they needed to.
"Hang on, Raul," he shouted into the phone, walking even further away from the stage. "Let me see if I can get a better signal. Hang on."
Once he had moved out and stood in front of the darkened Merry-Go-Round, leaning his back against the wooden fencing, he tried again.
"Hi, Raul. I'm back. Can you hear me now?"
"Loud and clear. Now, what were you asking?"
"I was asking when is the dinner date going to happen?"
But the voice didn't come from the phone. The tone—strong and familiar—came from the shadow of a figure beneath the covering of a stall, a tall shadow that broke away from the darkness and moved with self-assurance towards Nathan. Astonished, Nathan dropped his hands to his sides. Without stopping, Jaymes Fischer stepped up and pulled a slack-jawed Nathan into a powerful hug, squeezing the air from Nathan's lungs, before pushing his stubbly chin into Nathan's ear. After a second, he stood back, took the phone from Nathan's hand, and spoke into the earpiece.
"Well played, Raul. I owe you. But I'll take it from here. Let us know as soon as you hear the good news. Yes, mate. We love you too."
Popping the phone into his jacket pocket, Jaymes reached out and pulled Nathan back towards him. This time, instead of a cosy hug, their lips met, and Nathan felt tears brimming at the warmth and softness and familiarity, something he had forgotten just how much he'd missed. Strong arms wrapped around his back and a solid body crushed up against his, and suddenly Nathan felt the world make sense. Jaymes tasted of fresh minty toothpaste and smelt of a unique citrus shower gel, almost masking his usual musky body odour and distinctive aftershave. Coming up for air, Nathan pulled his face away.
"But how can you be here? I only spoke to you this morning?"
"At three in the morning, your time. I was just boarding the flight to Heathrow. Got into London around four this afternoon. Ken picked me up and drove me to his place, so I could shower and change before the auction. Look, I know you don't like surprises but—"
"Maybe I need to qualify that. I don't like being made to look a fool, don't like what I consider bad surprises. But I love good ones, and this is one of the best I've ever had. So who was in on this whole covert operation of yours? Clifton?"
"No. We didn't even tell Polly, because she can be a little—uh—"
"Indiscreet? Uh-huh. How are you feeling?"
"I watched a movie and got quite a bit of work done. It's a long flight."
"You must be really tired."
"A little. But not that tired. Not for what I want."
"Dinner can wait. I have something else in mind."
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