Nathan stands in the flat, one last time, with Jaymes helping him move.
Note: I'd like to thank all my readers for coming on this journey with me, but now it's time to say goodbye to Crumbington.
Sunday afternoon, Nathan stood alone in the stillness of the empty flat above the baker's shop. Inhaling the all-too-familiar smells deeply from the closed bakery below, he shut his eyes, allowing conflicting emotions free rein. Jayme's footsteps had faded away at the bottom of the stairs taking the last box of clothes out to his Land Rover.
All twenty-nine years of Nathan's life had been played out under this roof. Many happy fun times and a whole lot of sad ones. In his mind, he heard his mother humming a melody washing dishes at the kitchen sink, while his father barked his trademark laughter at watching a comedy show on the television. How easily we forget that our homes are characters in our lives, as much a part of our family as the people inhabiting them. How often do we return home to an empty house or apartment after an endlessly tiring day, or a long solo business trip, and feel the hug of familiarity of our home? It is undoubtedly not coincidental the word family is embedded in the word familiarity. So, of course, we are going to feel a tug of loss and grief and abandonment at leaving them behind. Anyone who has moved on from a family residence knows those feelings only too well.
For Nathan, everything had come together, almost too quickly. The place he had hated most of his life, the only home he really knew, and the single location he felt safe and able to carry on as usual. How the hell do you normalise something like that in your head?
By mid-August, once a replacement had been found and trained up to replace Jaymes in Malaysia, he returned to England. After a single weekend searching, they viewed a vacant ground-floor garden apartment together in Horsham. Beautiful. One of Jaymes' conditions on them living together was on having a garden where he could cultivate fresh herbs and a manageable sized vegetable patch. By early September, the beginning of both their changes in career, when Nathan had been accepted for the full-time Sport and Exercise Science degree programme, Jaymes had already moved in, while Nathan remained in the bakery flat, handholding the new manager, Sean.
When he opened his eyes again, he felt a little calmer. Pieces of furniture Sean and Federico wanted to keep, had been draped in paint-speckled dust covers so the decorators could give the flat a much-needed facelift before the couple moved in. The four of them had met at the flat two weeks after Nathan signed the business—lock, stock and barrel—over to the Hogmore family.
What was intended to be a quick, formal, half-hour meeting with the new residents turned into a three-hour marathon. Fortunately, neither couple had anywhere else to be, and settled themselves around the coffee table on the sofa and easy chairs, with wine, sandwiches and bowl of assorted potato chips. Although Nathan had already agreed to work alongside Sean for his first couple of weeks as manager, Sean's main concern centred around knowing about the existing staff, how to keep them happy and make sure they didn't walk. Nathan had no such worry. Seeing Sean and Fingal chatting together—both from the Emerald Isles—not only about home, but about baking and produce and a variety of baked items some Nathan had never heard of, nor cared to know about, he knew Sean had already made an ally. After a concise discussion, Nathan managed to placate him before they moved on to talk about more general things.
"You have no idea how much this means to us. Living here together," said Federico, his olive-skinned good looks and piercing dark eyes taking in both Nathan and Jaymes. "Sean has been living in Dublin in Ireland, on another continent, so we have been surviving on FaceTime, sex text, and sharing mutual masturbation videos."
"Federico!" chastised Sean.
"Ireland is not another continent."
Both Jaymes and Nathan laughed aloud, which had Sean smirking and Federico shrugging the comment away.
"Seriously, though," said Sean. "Even when I worked over here, up in Newcastle, Rico's job kept him down south. And now we're worried what's going to happen after Brexit, whether he'll still be able to stay and work, him being a Spanish national. Honestly, it's a killer. But we'll take whatever life gives us. You've no idea how tough it is to live so far apart—"
"Whoah, hang on a moment," said Jaymes. "In case Nathan forgot to mention, I've been living in Malaysia. Yes, only for the past three months, but still. We do have some idea of how difficult it is to live apart."
"But now we'll live together here under the same roof," said Federico, taking Sean's hand. "And Sean will manage the baker shop while I have a job working in a local hotel restaurant. A dream come to be true."
One bottle of red wine down and another open, they all relaxed back in their seats and swapped more stories. Federico lapped up Jaymes' tales of working in the forests of the world, especially some of his hairy moments, encountering any number of wild beasts and creepy crawlies. But now Jaymes would be installed in the lecture hall in London, with the occasional trips abroad, mainly to lecture or to promote the college programme. Nathan had noticed when he talked about the changes, a new enthusiasm lit in his eyes about the new role, the curriculum, and the students, which helped to allay any lingering worries about Jaymes coming home.
Eventually, they got onto the subject of relationships.
"So how did you two meet?" asked Nathan.
"Friends of ours—you know them, Martin and Gallagher—tried to fix up my Sean on a blind date with another friend, Doctor stick-up-bum Miller."
Sean laughed, shook his head and rolled his eyes. Nathan assumed he had heard Federico tell the story a hundred times before.
"Stephen Miller. He's a nice bloke, actually. And if you know Martin and Gallagher, it's almost a certainty you'll get to meet Stephen, his husband Anton, and their kid Raffy, one day. Now how they met is another story altogether."
At the mention of the child, Nathan's thoughts turned to Clifton and Raul. Still, in the close-knit group, they had been sent updated photos since the birth of the twins regularly. Both doing well, a tabloid had posted a photo of Clifton and Raul leaving a clinic—probably after a regular check-up for the twins—each carrying a baby car seat with one of their kids in each. The tabloid heading read: And Then There Were Four, a reference to the title of a nail-biting and award-winning episode of Candlelight. Nathan only came back to the conversation when Jaymes nudged his arm.
"You're not, are you, babe?"
Perhaps the wine had gone to his head, but his face warmed at Jaymes' endearment.
"Sorry. I was miles away. I'm not what?"
"Staying on as a part of the Crumbington fête committee? Sean was asking if he'd have to get involved. On behalf of the bakery. I'm guessing from his expression the idea doesn't exactly fill him with excitement."
"No, it's not that. I'll do whatever I need," said Sean. "In fact, I love what you guys did here. We both saw the documentary. Sheer bloody brilliance. Even though rugby's more my game, we thought it was superb what your players in the football team did to raise—"
"You have a very hot naked body, Nathan. I bought the calendar for Sean."
"Which I have yet to see," said Sean. "No, what I was trying to say is I'm not much for committee—"
"Relax, Sean," said Nathan, with a sly grin to Jaymes. "The answer is, no. You're off the hook. Someone else will be representing the bakery on the fête committee."
Margaret Hogmore's trip back to Crumbington had apparently cemented something in her. Investing in the bakery and setting up an outlet for her fashion range locally, she had decided to settle back in the country. Nathan wondered if the move might also have been spurred on by the idea of being a grandma in the US and potentially feeling obliged to offer babysitting duties. Surprisingly, however, Clifton and Raul both ultimately approved the plan, loved the notion of the whole family being able to visit 'English grandma' in England.
Almost immediately, Margaret moved in provisionally with her parents, was accepted unanimously to replace Nathan on the fête committee, and then, two weeks later, had announced her intention to run for the chair of the committee when they reconvened later in the year. Polly had been having lunch with her fiancé, Grant—yes, not only had Grant managed to get his UK citizenship, but both Grant and Polly would soon carry Nathan's family name—when the message popped up on the committee group chat. Polly said she felt sure she could hear Arlene Killjoy's scream from several miles away. But with Arlene having raised a cool eighty-five thousand pounds for charities, Margaret would be up against stiff competition come voting time.
As they finally left in a taxi—after finishing the second bottle of wine, a plate of sandwiches, and a round of hugs—Sean and Federico felt like old friends. And now they would be moving into Nathan's family home. We don't often get to choose who will inhabit our homes once we leave, but in this case, Nathan felt the new residents would treat the place well.
Lost in thought, he barely heard Jaymes come up behind him.
"Hey, baby? Is that everything?"
"Think so, yes," Nathan replied, absently.
"Are you okay?" said Jaymes, placing his chin on Nathan's shoulder and wrapping his arms around his chest, conscious and considerate of Nathan's feelings. The gesture almost undid him.
Jaymes kissed his ear before whispering to him.
"How about we have one final scout around? Before we hand over the keys?"
"You check the kitchen and bathroom, I'll check the bedrooms."
Even though they had done checks and double-checks already, Nathan knew what Jaymes was doing. Giving Nathan closure. While checking cupboards beneath the sink, his phone beeped a message.
Grant: I'm supposed to introduce myself to the captain.
Grant: As your new team coach.
Nathan chuckled. He had been having an evening orientation at the Open Road gymnasium in Shipworth at the team's last practice. Since reaching the final, Crumbington United had seen a steady stream of new players wanting to join up, so much so they'd not only considered getting a coach but had enough players to have a second team. There'd even been talks of starting up a women's team. Nathan had considered giving up his place on the team, but he didn't want to break all ties with Crumbington. So when Grant had suggested offering his services as the team coach, Nathan decided to stay on and support not only the team of players he had grown to love but his cousin, who would have his work cut out for him.
Nathan: Welcome coach. How did it go?
Grant: Some are still on the fence. But I went through the strengths and areas needing work. Used the semis and the final as examples. So I think they realise I know what I'm talking about.
Nathan: Let's have a chat about the individual players some time.
Grant: You free later?
Nathan: Bad timing. Closing up the flat once and for all today. Doing a final check. Tomorrow, maybe?
Grant: Let me check with the boss. Get back to you later. I'll let you go. Say hi to J.
Nathan popped his phone back in his pocket. Now installed in Polly's flat, Grant fit into Crumbington like a seasoned local. They'd both need somewhere bigger, especially after Polly shocked everyone by casually announcing their plan to start a family, but both wanted to do so in Crumbington. And just like that, one of Nathan's guilty regrets vanished, that he would be the last in his family line. Jaymes surprised him most of all, absolutely delighted at the idea, he'd warned Polly and Grant about the dangers of having gay uncles, that their future nephews or nieces would be spoilt rotten. After checking the final kitchen cupboard, Nathan started for the bathroom but met Jaymes in the corridor.
"Did you keep anything up in the loft?" he asked.
"We don't have a loft."
"Actually, you do. Beneath one of those square tiles in the ceiling at the back of the spare bedroom is a hatch. Do you want me to get the ladder and go up? Have a quick look?"
"I suppose. But if you find any human skeletons or dead animals up there, I don't want to know."
Knowing Jaymes would relish the idea of clambering on all fours in the dirty eaves of the house, Nathan checked the bathroom. One of the things he had insisted on doing—which made Jaymes smirk—was to stock both kitchen and bathroom with cleaning products, so when Sean and Federico moved in, there would already be necessary supplies. By the time he had finished, standing in the living room, a dusty-kneed Jaymes had reappeared.
"Anything of interest?" asked Nathan.
"Nothing much. Lots of dust and cobwebs. And this."
Jaymes held out something the size of a shoebox, an old box tightly bound with string. By the looks of things, Jaymes had already wiped the worst of the dust away. Nathan frowned as he took the package, one too light to hold anything substantial. The string had been tied with a neat bow on top, one which, despite age, untied quickly. His father had used the same kind of knot a hundred times before.
They sat at the dust sheet covered table and pulled out a couple of chairs. Inside, he found vaguely recognisable items, but things clear—they had all belonged to his mother. On top was a silk headscarf in turquoise and light blue, one she often wore in the shop, beneath were some multi-coloured bangles she used to wear, oranges, browns, reds—the colours of autumn leaves. In an open envelope were some old faded polaroids of the family together on Hastings seafront;
And there, right at the bottom, sat a letter addressed simply with the words: To My Darling Son, Nathan
Before Nathan even opened the envelope, he knew the beautiful penmanship only too well.
"It's from my mother."
"Do you want to read it now, or save it for later?"
Nathan knew Jaymes was giving him an out. Leaving the flat was traumatic enough. Reading something from his mother might be hard on him. But Jaymes forgot Nathan had Jaymes there for support.
"Now. Let me open it up, but please keep holding my hand."
My darling boy,
I've asked your father not to give you this letter until you turn twenty-one. It's been the hardest thing I've ever had to write in my too-short life.
In case he told you it was his idea, I was the one who insisted he leave things a couple of months after my funeral before he told you the truth about what happened. So I hope you can forgive me and hope you don't blame him for following my wishes. I can only guess how hard it's been on you both not having me around, but I hope you understand why I didn't want you to come to the hospital or to my funeral. Partly vanity, I admit, but mostly I felt it would be wrong for a young boy, my beautiful son, especially one as sensitive as you, to have to deal with those harsh realities at such an early age.
Nathan, my love, I know you are going to be special. A mother knows these things. You're not like the other boys you go to school with. I see that growing in you every day. Hopefully, your father will come to see the same things I see in you. And one thing is for sure. The bakery is never going to be your passion. Not the same as it has been for your father, and his father before him. I'm afraid you have me to thank for that. Who in their right mind would want to be a baker's wife? Had it not been for meeting your father, who turned out to be the love of my life, I would never have chosen this existence. In the end, though, this life chose me.
In case you ever wondered, your father and I loved each other deeply, and as if that wasn't enough, God gave us a beautiful child, you, the greatest gift of all. So even though my time is being cut short, I feel blessed to have been surrounded by so much beauty, love, and laughter.
Nathan, my love, my son, I hope you live the long and loving life you deserve, and especially find someone to share it with. Because I know that when they feel the warmth of your love the way I've felt it, they will know they're the luckiest person alive.
Loving you always and forever,
Nathan handed the letter to Jaymes, tears blurring his vision. Before long, Jaymes—totally out of character—was doing the same, wiping his eyes on his sleeve.
"I wish I'd met her," said Jaymes.
"She would have adored you. Absolutely. I'll take you to her seat in Hastings someday."
"Along the coast? I'd like that."
After a moment of contemplation, Jaymes stood up and came around Nathan's side of the table, straddled Nathan's lap and kissed him.
"She loved you, baby. And she's right. You are special. You are someone people want to know and love."
"Thank you. It's just when people suddenly leave—"
"If you mean your mum and your dad, then people don't always have a choice. It's how they handle things which is the issue. I'm not going anywhere, Nate. I'm here. With you. Which is the only place I want to be. And I promise, there will be no secrets—well, maybe some good ones, like Christmas presents and surprise weekends away—and most importantly, no lies. What you see is what you get, I'm afraid."
"That's all I want."
"Oh, and maybe a dog."
"I thought now we have the downstairs garden, we could—"
"You've already picked one out, haven't you?"
"Online. The Dog Shelter site. But one caught my eye, and you know what they call him—or her?"
"Muffin. What better symbol than a Highland terrier called Muffin to remind you of your old life?"
"Jaymes. I think we need to talk."
Thank you so much for following this story and also for your reactions and comments.