After a pint and a chat with Polly, Nathan starts to relax. Until her cousin shows up.
One ice cold pint of Skol down, and the shock of their usually sedate meeting had begun to lose its potency for Nathan. Sat on high bar stools in one of the town’s two local pubs—The Crumbington Arms—they’d carefully dissected the events of the evening. Usually Mikey would join them, but apparently, according to Father Mulligan, he and the wife were at some butcher’s function or another that night, which explained Mikey’s absence.
“Lady Gaga.” Nathan giggled again, like a school kid. “I nearly fell off my seat. Good job I managed to keep my Poker Face. You certainly know how to wind Arlene up.”
“What can I say? I was Born This Way! Seriously though, me and her are going to fall out in a big way before the day comes. She’s so damned competitive.”
“No, smartass. Lady Muck. Arlene.”
“Why do you do it, then? Volunteer?”
“You know why. Because our Head thinks the school should be involved. And it means I can do things outside the school grounds without other teachers involved, without their petty politics and bickering. And, most importantly of all, I get to hang out with the coolest baker in Crumbington.”
Nathan rolled his eyes. In front of people, she often referred to him as the coolest baker in the village, knowing full well he was the only one.
“Fair enough. So who are you going to persuade to sit in the ducking stool?”
“Off the top of my head? I have a list of favourites, but none of them would agree.”
“Then you need to come up with a strategy. Get some of the kids on side. Or the parents. Amazing how a little cajoling from the right, influential, resourceful, school-supporting parent can make things happen. Didn’t you once tell me that?”
“Actually that’s not a bad idea.” Right then her phone vibrated and shuffled across the table top. “Oh, shit, hang on a sec, I need to take this.”
When she wandered off, Nathan looked around the little local. The place had been built in the seventeenth century and had benefited from a scant few modernisations and paint jobs along the way. The flooring was still uneven in places—not so great if a person had consumed one too many; the toilets stood out the back in a lean-to kind of shed, fine in summer but not in January, when a quick pee could end in frost bite. But apart from that, especially in winter with no tourists around, the place with its threadbare carpets and worn chesterfield sofas felt like a second home. Most of the locals seated at the bar, all retired residents of Crumbington, he knew by name. Having Polly and Nathan in the place brought the average age down by a decade or two. The landlord and his wife had run the pub for over fifteen years, and before that had owned a small cafe on the high street. Nathan noticed Polly frowning down at her phone, before shaking her head gently and heading back to him.
“Missed his message. My cousin’s just arrived. Dad’s brother’s kid. Two bloody hours late, true to form. My aunt—his mother—asked if he could sleep on my couch while he sorts himself out a place, hopefully no more than a week or so. Family can be a pain in the bum. Do you mind if he joins? Otherwise, I’ll need to head home and let him in.”
Funnily enough, Nathan did mind, but said nothing. He enjoyed having Polly to himself. When Mikey joined them, he tended to monopolise the conversation, either wanting to talk about his kids, football, or gripe about customers, suppliers, prices, or another new hypermarket opening within driving distance of their village and trying to steal his butcher’s shop livelihood. Hopefully the cousin was a listener.
“Of course. Didn’t even know you had any cousins. He’s a kid?”
“A big kid, yeah. A thirty-one year old child called Jaymes. Whatever you do, don’t call him Jim, he hates that. He’s down from North Wales. And he spends a lot of time out of the country, that’s why I’ve never mentioned him. Always getting me into trouble when we were young.”
“I’m sure he was,” said Nathan, not believing a word of the last statement. Polly needed no encouraging where trouble was concerned. “Must be a family trait. So what’s brought him down here?”
“Something to do with meeting people in this neck of the woods. I wasn’t really paying attention.” About to take a drink of her gin and tonic, a huge smile blossomed on her face. “So are we going to talk about the elephant in the room? Clifton?”
Nathan’s face fell. He put down his fresh pint and licked his lips nervously.
“Oh, come on, Nathan. It was like—what—fifteen years ago?”
“Ten. We were both eighteen when he fell off the face of the planet.”
People disappearing from his life felt like a curse. His mother leaving when he was ten, Clifton when he was eighteen, his father passing away five years ago and effectively chaining him to the family business. And although losing his mother and father had hurt, he had been in love with Clifton, and his desertion had scarred him deeply.
“Maybe you’ll finally find out why. You were best mates, weren’t you?”
“We were a darn sight more than that.”
“Well, you never know. Maybe he still has feelings for you.”
“Bullshit. He’s married now. Doubt he’ll even remember me.”
“Bit of closure, then.”
Nathan had been about to respond, when, over Polly’s shoulder he spotted a man stroll into the bar, someone definitely not local; he could count all of Crumbington’s attractive men on one hand. Ruggedly good looking, he gave off an outdoorsy vibe—tanned face, windswept hair, solid build. Even from where they stood, Nathan could tell he was put together nicely beneath his tan leather pilot’s jacket and jeans, broad-shouldered, trim waist, and big strong thighs to match. Maybe his blond hair needed tidying up, but then again the bed hair suited him. When his gaze swung around to take in Nathan, his eyes—blue, grey?—not only remained on him, but the handsome face creased into a broad smile, causing Nathan’s pulse to quicken, his mouth to hang open, and his face to flush. Polly, noticing this with concern, twisted around just in time for the stranger to stride forward and sweep her off the stool into a hug.
“Poll dancer. How have you been?”
“Put me down, you bloody oaf,” Polly pushed herself out of his grasp and readjusted her clothes. Her teacher tone only made the man grin wider. “I’m not seven anymore and you’re not ten. Even though, clearly, you’re still happy to act like a child.”
“Gonna buy me a drink, or what? As you kept me waiting in the cold.”
“You were supposed to be here over two hours ago.”
“Yeah, well. M25 got snarled up.”
“For two hours. Bullshit. And if so, why didn’t you text?”
“I’ll get some drinks in,” said Nathan, hopping off the barstool and stepping away from the table. “Let you two duke it out in peace.”
“Hold your horses one minute.” Jaymes reached out and placed his hand on Nathan’s forearm. Even through his thick shirt, Nathan trembled at the firm touch. “Shouldn’t I officially meet my little cousin’s boyfriend? Especially if he’s going to be kind enough to buy me a drink.”
“I’m not—” began Nathan, horrified.
“We’re not—“ said Polly, at exactly the same time, looking equally mortified.
At the same moment, the two swung around to look at each other and burst into giggles, which helped soften the tension.
“We’re friends from school,” said Nathan.
“And he’s gay,” added Polly.
“Polly!” said Nathan, his face aghast. “TMI!”
Jaymes tipped his head back and burst into loud laughter. He had a nice laugh, Nathan noted, a little like his personality: loud, masculine, unsubtle, and more than a little infectious.
“Yeah, anyway. What do you want to—”
“Outed by your best friend. Priceless. I’ll have a Guinness, uh—?”
“Nathan. Nathan Fresher. Polly’s ex best friend. Nice to meet you, Jaymes.”
“Oh, so she talked about me, did she? As I said, I’ll have a pint of Guinness, Nate. Thanks”
Brilliant. Nobody ever abbreviated Nathan’s name, not even his father when he’d been alive. The only person who had ever done so, and had also called him Nate, had been Cliff—Clifton. After ordering and having a chitchat with the landlady, Nathan returned to the table balancing three drinks, relieved to find no blood on the floor.
“Good,” said Polly. “You’re back. Babysit the child for me, while I go for a pee. Maybe he can give you some advice on your naked football team calendar.”
“Your what?” asked Jaymes, brightening up, as a slyly grinning Polly excused herself.
“Oh, heck,” said Nathan, setting the drinks down. “Our chairman on the fête committee wants to up-the-ante for the event this year. Wants our local team to do a naked photo shoot for a calendar. All the proceeds would go to charity. I’ve got to convince the team and get them onside.”
After downing a good gulp of his drink, Jaymes lowered the glass from his mouth and appeared to consider this, nodding thoughtfully.
“Are you on the team?”
“I’m the captain.”
“So you’ll be stripping off, then?”
“No! Well…” Nathan hadn’t thought about whether he would be in the calendar or not. He’d assumed he wouldn’t.
“Hold on a minute.” Jaymes put his glass down on a coaster and folded his arms. “You’re the one from the committee who’s been volunteered to get your team out of their kit, yes? And you’re also the team captain, correct?”
“Then of course you’re going to be in the calendar. How can you not be? Captains need to lead by example. Otherwise you’ll be seen as a total hypocrite.”
Nathan hadn’t thought that far ahead.
“It’s a moot point, anyway. None of the guys are going to agree to get naked in front of a camera.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I play football with them. I know them.”
“Hang on. I bet you all get naked together in the changing rooms. And you might be surprised,” said Jaymes, calmly, knocking back another slug of his Guinness and leaving a white moustache on his upper lip. “Maybe the guys will be a little coy at first, but I bet their other halves will back them all the way. Would your partner have a problem with people seeing you in the buff?”
“I don’t have a partner. And even if I did, I bet he’d have issues.”
“You’d be surprised.”
“I’d get my kit off at the drop of a hat for a good cause. Got nothing to be ashamed of.”
Nathan eyes appraised Jayme’s body again, as Jaymes placed his empty glass back on the table.
“Yeah, well. You’re in better shape than most.”
“Are you hitting on me?” asked Jaymes, a grin curling one side of his mouth.
“What? No!” said Nathan, reddening, before scanning the bar. “Where the hell is Polly?”
He craned his neck to see if she was on her way back, but even though the Friday night pub was packed, she stood out in her shocking pink woolly poncho and was nowhere to be seen. Something about Jaymes made him uncomfortable, self-conscious, maybe his candour, his raw masculinity, maybe his proximity—but he was definitely the kind of person you either loved or hated. Right now the jury was out.
“Okay, this has to be my last,” said Nathan, tossing back the rest of his lager.
“It’s barely eight.”
“I know, but I have an early start tomorrow.”
“Oh, yeah? What is it you do?”
“I’m a baker. Run the bakery on the high street.”
“No seriously, Nate,” said Jaymes, chuckling in a way that irritated Nathan. “What is it you do for a living?”
“Like I said, I run the bakery. I’m a baker by profession. Fresher and Son. Family Baker. You have a problem with that?”
“No, not at all. I just never—” Whatever he had been about to add, wisely he through better of it. “So is there a lot of dough in that? I only ask, because I hear bakers make a shitload of bread.”
Jaymes followed up by laughing aloud at his own joke. And just like that, the jury returned. Guilty as charged. Of being a total and utter prick.
“You truly are a child, aren’t you?”
“Don’t be a doughnut, I’m a practising Buddhist. Seriously though, come on, Nate—”
“Nath-an. It’s Nathan. Two syllables, if you can manage that.”
”Come on, Nathan. Was that what you always wanted to do? Your life ambition. To become a baker?”
Joking Jaymes had no idea how much he had hit a nerve with that little interrogation. Nathan felt heat in his neck, his anger rising.
“It’s a family business. I joined my father straight from school. Although it’s also a front for my other job as a professional hitman. Someone who quietly takes care of people, the types others don’t particularly like. You know, like irritating relatives with puerile senses of humour.” Most annoying of all, Jaymes also found this diatribe hilarious. Out of the corner of his eye, Nathan spotted pink Polly returning, and breathed out a sigh of relief. “So what do you do for a living that’s brought you to our little shithole of a village? No, let me guess. You’re unemployed and on the dole?”
“Forestry Commission,” said Jaymes, wiping his eyes, and bringing his laughter under control. “I’m a Senior Environmental Specialist. Mastered in ecology, forestry or land management at Durham Uni. I’ll be working over in Mosswold Forest for six months, at the very least. So, which bakery college did you attend?”
“Have a nice life, Jim.”
Ignoring the laughter behind him, Nathan strolled over to the bar and thumped down his empty glass, before catching Polly on his way out.
“Just for the record, your cousin’s an asshole.”
“Tell me something I don’t know. Will I see you Sunday? After the game?”
“Are you bringing the neanderthal?”
“I imagine he’d have found other apes to swing with by then.”
“I bloody well hope so,” said Nathan, scowling.
“Chill, Nathan. He’s actually harmless,” said Polly, sighing, before kissing him on the cheek and looking over Nathan’s shoulder. “Bit of an acquired taste, I grant you, but his heart’s in the right place.”
“You mean he has one?”
“Ha, ha. I promise I’ll be there Sunday. You?”
“Yes, then. Around twelve-thirty. Love you, Polly.”
“You too, Nate.”
Nathan took a step back and eyed her dangerously.
“Sorry, darling. Couldn’t resist. See you Sunday, Nathan darling.”
Thank you for reading.
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