Nathan tries to convince the Sunday football team to get naked.
Nathan had a dreadful game that Sunday, largely because he wasn’t concentrating, knew his team would slay him once they knew what he needed to ask of them. Overnight frost had made the ground as hard as granite, so when he fell for the third time, instead of being covered in mud, he managed to scrape skin from his shin and upper thigh. Three times during the game, Mikey sidled up and asked him what was wrong. If only he’d been at the meeting, Nathan would already have someone on his side. As it was, what could he say? Sorry, mate, but I’ve promised to get you all naked and on a calendar for the summer fête. When the full time whistle blew, they’d managed a goalless score draw, no thanks to him.
In the changing rooms, the usual banter ensued. Funny really, but even with them all knowing Nathan was gay, nobody seemed to have an issue. For Nathan, it had taken a long time for him to feel comfortable around the other men. Straight men had the wrong idea about gay guys in changing rooms. Gay guys would not be the ones wantonly ogling the bodies of other men, making lurid comments and getting a semi in the process. They’d be the ones with their eyes glued to the floor, a towel covering their faces, or staring into their lockers, carefully avoiding eye contact or even a casual glance at another man’s body. They’d be either the first or last to shower—in the shortest time possible, if they even bothered to shower at all. If you wanted to spot the gay guy, look for the most terrified man in the room, the one who refused to give eye contact.
More importantly for Nathan, he found none of them sexually attractive. Yes, a few of them looked after themselves, had good bodies, but none had the combination of attraction and intelligence, and none of them were gay, which was non-negotiable.
“What was up with you today, Fresher?” asked the full back.
“Not on my best form today, sorry chaps,” said Nathan.
“We all have our off days.”
“Thought maybe one of the opposition had caught his eye,” said Ken, one of the younger and better looking team players, smirking and winking at Nathan. Laughter filled the room at that remark and Nathan joined them. One thing he could confidently say about his team was that none of them cared about his sexuality.
“That would be a definite no.”
He also enjoyed being a part of the banter, but sat nervously, already changed into his grey crew neck sweater and jeans, waiting until everyone was dressed. When he felt the time was right, he stood up on the bench to get their attention.
“Before you all bugger off, I’ve got something I need to run by you. I can’t come and have a beer today, because of a previous engagement, so I need to get this out of the way now.”
One thing Nathan could count on was getting the team’s attention when needed. They were a good-hearted bunch, had played a game for charity the previous year against St Joseph’s school for physically disabled kids—which the kids had won. As he went through the proposal for the summer fête, the room grew progressively quiet, and as he came to the end, a deathly silence hovered over the room.
“Look, you don’t have tell me right away. Maybe have a chat with your other halves, see what they think,” he said, hands on hips. “To be honest, I’m not over the moon about the idea. It’s a lot to ask and the new chairperson, Arlene Killjoy, doesn’t know you. So if it’s a no, I’ll back you all the way. But I’ll add you all to a WhatsApp group called Summer Fête Initiative—so we keep things inconspicuous—and only if you’re in, do you need message me. But if you are—and we’ll need twelve, one for every month of next year—I’ll need your response before our next committee meeting, so before the end of January. The shoot, if it goes ahead, will be in Feb.”
A quick glance around the room, and Nathan could see heads shaking, and the faces of those who did not like the idea. Most of them in the room, by the looks of things.
“Would we be showing our cocks?” asked Bob Morris, the goalkeeper.
“It’s not Tinder, dick brain,” said Mikey.
“Don’t worry, they’ll photoshop yours, Bob. To make it look like a real one.”
Laughter was always the best medicine in tense situations. Nathan laughed along with them.
“No cock shots. Arlene guaranteed there would be no junk on display, just very tasteful and attractive shots of the best bits of our bodies. To make us look as sexy as possible.”
"Like I said, Photoshop, Bob."
More laughter, but this time Nathan took the murmur of voices to be a good sign.
“Are you going to do it, then?” came a voice from the back of the room, after a lull.
“If you’re in, then so am I. I’m not going to be a hypocrite here.” However immature he thought the man, he was grateful to have Jaymes’ words come back to him. “I would never ask you to do something I’m not prepared to do myself.”
Silence again. He glanced at his watch. Arlene’s function was due to begin in thirty minutes, so he would need to rush. Maybe he needed one last carrot to dangle.
“And I’m going to insist that the majority of the proceeds from the sale of the calendars goes to St Joseph’s. Think that’s only fair, because we know them and they know us.”
As he jumped down from the bench, he noticed a few of them finally nodding. Yes, he thought, they were a good bunch of blokes, really.
Outside the clubhouse in the chill midday air, Mikey called out his name, before dashing to catch up with him, and pulling him to a stop.
“What the fuck?”
“I know.” Nathan huffed out a sigh, staring at Mikey’s collar. “I’d have give you the head’s up, but I couldn’t find you. You missed an interesting committee meeting this week. Do you think they’ll do it?”
“Some might. And if you’re in, I’m in.”
Nathan looked up into his friend’s eyes.
Actually, Mikey had a good body, made up in his physique what he lacked in the looks department. Far more toned than Nathan. Somewhat unkindly, Polly described Mikey’s types as prawns; sculpted body, ugly face.
“Reckon my missus will love it. Might even get me a shag or ten.”
“Nice. So we only need March to December. Work on a few for me, will you?”
“Sure. Benny Osmond might come around. If only we could guarantee that your teacher friend got to see him in the calendar.”
“Polly? Why does Benny—?”
“He’s not said anything to you, because he knows you two are friends. But the man would give his right arm for a date with her.”
“Really?” Nathan had no idea, but he wondered what Polly might say. If anything, Polly tended to go for older men. “I think he might be a bit young for her.”
“He’s twenty-five. How old is she?”
“Same age as me, twenty-eight,” said Nathan, glancing sidelong at Mikey. “Think she likes them older. But maybe I can put in a good word for him, if he agrees to do the calendar?”
“Blackmail? Love it. Are you going to this shindig Arlene’s holding now?”
Mikey started moving quickly away.
“Come on, then. I’ll give you a lift. The wife’s already there. Her mum’s got the kids.”
On the way, Nathan brought Mikey up to speed with the other items on the committee agenda.
“As much as I hate to say it, she’s probably right,” said Mikey, turning his car into the pub car park. “The event has got a bit stale. Even my kids say so.”
Sunday, and the car park was fuller than usual. Mikey parked up his Volvo estate between a beaten up old Toyota and a sleek Tesla, which just about summed up Crumbington. Families liked to get out of the house and take advantage of the reasonably priced pub lunches. Usually on a Sunday, Nathan would have a pint with the lads after the game and then head home for a sandwich lunch. This was more Mikey’s domain.
Nathan trailed Mikey into the private bar, already filled with bodies. A big cluster of people chatted excitedly at one end of the bar, one of those being Arlene. Somebody else clearly held court. After pecking Mikey’s wife on the cheek, Nathan peered around trying to find Polly. Eventually, he offered to get a round of drinks for them and headed to the bar where a flustered barman finally got to him. As he ordered a rum and coke and two pints of Skol, he stared at the lad, thought he recognised him.
“Pretty busy today, I see,” said Nathan, stating the obvious.
“Bat shit crazy, more like.”
“Are you Bob Morris’s son?”
“Kyle Morris,” said the lad, ginning wide and looking even more like his father. “Yep, that’s me.”
Everybody knew everybody in Crumbington. Kyle was Bob’s eldest, probably just turned eighteen. Kyle still had a full head of unruly red hair, but had the same rosy cheeked complexion as his father.
“Your dad played a blinder in goal today. Didn’t let a single one in.”
Kyle shook his head but laughed, too. Nathan handed over a twenty pound note.
“That game’ll be the death of him.”
“But at least he’ll die happy. Hey, have you seen Polly Fischer?”
“Miss Fischer? The teacher?”
Polly hated being called Miss Fischer outside of school, especially along the high street when one youngster or another would address her as simply; ‘miss’.
“No, not seen her,” he said, handing over the change, and giving Nathan a small tray. “But I’ll let you know if she turns up. So you’re here with Mrs Killjoy’s mob to meet the celeb, are you?”
Nathan chuckled. So they’d labelled her photographer friend a celebrity already, had they? Typical of the village folk to consider anyone who worked in the big smoke a celebrity.
“Looks like it,” said Nathan, taking the drinks.
Nathan had barely put the drinks down and begun chatting to Mikey’s lovely wife, when Arlene stepped over and grabbed him by the forearm. Her eyes sparkled with excitement, her cheeks reddened. Nathan hadn’t realised how excited she was about the team shoot. Was there a kinky side to Arlene Killjoy? Across from him,unseen by Arlene, Mikey rolled his eyes in sympathy.
“Nathan, I need you,” she said, before he could speak. No word of apology to Mikey and his wife for taking him away, no polite explanation or apologetic smile. Polly was right. One day they would come to blows. “Someone is insisting on meeting you.”
Without another word, she pulled him away, leading the way through the room of bodies. Of course, he thought, her photographer friend would also be putting the thumb screws on him to get the players to agree to the shoot. They headed for the far corner, where the larger crowd still hemmed in the poor photographer.
“Oh. I thought you wanted to know how it went with the team.”
“Later,” she said, over her shoulder. “More important things right now.”
Without consideration, Arlene shoved people out of their path like a professional bodyguard, until only the front row stood in their way. With a loud cough, she got the attention of the front two women, who parted to let her through, to meet…
Nathan had no time to check himself and stood there, doing a fantastic impression of a goldfish in a bowl suddenly being gawked at by a roomful of amused onlookers. Clifton looked even better in the flesh, better than Nathan remembered him. Not that he hadn’t always been handsome, but somewhere in the background, someone had taken him in hand, accentuated all his many good points—the sweeping black fringe, those thick, perfect eyebrows and piercing brown eyes, the full lips and immaculate teeth—and given him a particular look. Magnetic, Nathan mused, effortlessly drawing attention to himself wherever he went. Maybe that was something movie stars were taught. Why else would people pay good money to watch them pretending to be other people. Nathan had only seen one of his films—Prince in the Snow—a Christmas story Mikey’s kids had wanted to see at the cinema complex in the nearby town. Knowing nothing about the plot, Nathan had been stunned silent when he recognised the face on the screen, especially the familiar voice coming from the very familiar mouth; one that, once upon a time, he had been allowed to kiss.
Clifton—clearly used to being the centre of attention—gave Nathan a sympathetic smile, before coming over and giving him a gentle, but somewhat theatrical, embrace. Nathan froze, let himself be hugged like a farmer positioning a scarecrow, unsure of how to respond.
“Nate Fresher, my old friend. How are you?” he said, and then to those gathered. “Nate and I went to school together. All the way from Crumbington Junior to Applegate High. We both played for the school football team.”
And occasionally sucked each other’s dicks, thought Nathan. Or jerked each other off while kissing in the groundsman’s shed. Fortunately, the crowd didn’t hear those thoughts and simply cooed at Clifton’s admission.
“Still baking bread. Still feeding the masses?”
“Bread. Yes.” Nathan’s mouth spouted words like a long distance phone call. “Baker. Um, baking. Yes.”
“So I was just telling everyone here that I’ll be around until the end of the year, staying locally, so please treat me as one of you.” For a moment, Nathan wondered at Clifton’s formality, until he noticed the way his eyes swept across the crowd of onlookers, realised he addressed the flock, not just Nathan. “When he arrives, Raul and I will be attending a number of events for the LGBTQI community, especially relating to our personal favourite charity: Out On The Streets, aimed at homeless gay kids. Which is good practise, because we’ll be adding to our family unit later in the year. But in case you’ve not heard yet, the big news is we’re delighted to be hosting the Crumbington Summer Fête in July. Raul will adore this place, it’s so quintessentially English. And, of course, the place where I grew up. Right now, though, Arlene has reminded me that there’s still a whole tableful of food that needs to be eaten, so please go and help yourselves. If you don’t mind, I’d like a few moments alone to catch up with my old friend.”
Clifton knew how to work a crowd. Everyone dutifully moved away, even those who clearly wanted to speak more to him. Only Arlene remained by his side, as though she needed to protect her asset. Even then, Clifton managed to get her away, by leaning in and whispering something in her ear. For a moment, Nathan thought she might click her fingers and summon someone over to do her bidding, but eventually, after looking around her, she realised there would be nobody and finally excused herself.
“Hey there,” said Clifton, once Arlene was out of earshot. His voice came out natural, honeyed, the warmth of his gaze comfortably familiar.
“Sorry, Cliff,” said Nathan, before placing a hand in front of his mouth. “Shit, I mean Clifton. Arlene told us you were coming for the summer fête, but I didn’t realise you’d be here already. Took me by surprise.”
“Then it’s me who should apologise. And Cliff’s fine. For you, anyway. Was then, is now. Arlene told me your dad passed away.”
“Five years now.”
“I’m so sorry. What happened?”
“Not sure really. Weak heart, the doctor said. Broken heart, more like. Don’t think he ever really got over my mum disappearing into the night without a word.”
Clifton’s professional smile slipped for a moment. Nathan realised why—Clifton had been there at the time his mother skipped town. He had also done the same thing to Nathan.
“I saw one of your films. Prince in the Snow,” said Nathan, changing tack.
“Oh, God. Hardly my finest work.”
“Mike Shanton’s kids loved it. Thought you made a—what was it his six-year-old daughter said—a totally crush-worthy prince. I even think she has a poster of you on her bedroom wall.”
When Clifton laughed, it felt like old times, and Nathan sensed himself relaxing.
“I’ve done a lot more and had far better roles. I’m even up for a Teen Choice award this year for Tangerine Smile. And my manager reckons I might even be in the running for a Golden Globe nomination.”
“I—I never saw that one. Only Prince in the Snow.”
Clifton smiled his incredible smile again.
“And what did you think?”
“Honestly? I had a hard time reconciling you up on the screen. In fact, I’m having a hard time believing it’s you standing here now.”
This time, when Clifton’s eyes bored into Nathan, something calculating settled there. Moments passed between them that felt like hours. Reaching into his jacket pocket, Clifton drew out and unlocked his mobile phone before handing the device to Nathan.
“Give me your number.”
Nathan smiled, and did as asked, using his thumbs to enter the number. Once he had finished, Clifton texted a message and Nathan heard the gentle ping of the message arriving in his jacket pocket.
“Look, I’m having some like-minded couples over to my grandparent’s house next Saturday evening for a dinner party—catered, of course—starting around seven-thirty. I’m staying there taking care of the place while they escape to their villa in Barbados for the winter months. I’ve just sent you an invite, if you’d like to come. Raul won’t be over until mid-March, so we’ll have a chance to catch up properly—if you know what I mean? What do you think?”
Clifton grinned broadly and winked. At first, Nathan felt bemused but flattered. Something felt a little off about the smile—something his father would have called a salesman’s smile. One thing was for sure. The shy, nervous boy he’d known ten years ago bore no resemblance to the beautiful, confident man standing before him. Nevertheless, he’d been about to accept the invitation, when a heavy arm landed around his shoulders.
“We’d love to come, wouldn’t we, Nate?” came a deep, now familiar voice.
Nathan had been about to roll his eyes and shove the arm away, when he noticed barely suppressed anger flash across Clifton’s face out of the corner of his eye. What the hell?
“And you are?” asked Clifton, his usual pleasant tone slipping.
“Jaymes Fischer,” said Jaymes, genially holding out his free hand, bunches of leather bands tied around and dangling from his wrist. For a few short moments, Clifton peered down at the large outstretched hand, giving Nathan a moment of clarity. Clifton probably employed bodyguards who looked like Jaymes.
“Nate?” asked Clifton, glaring at Jaymes and ignoring the outstretched hand.
“He’s a friend,” said Nathan, finally catching up.
“Friend?” said Clifton, his gaze sweeping to Nathan’s face, a mixture of bafflement and disgust in his face.
“Boyfriend,” said Jaymes. “Didn’t Nate tell you?”
Thank you for reading.
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