Jaymes' intervention is not appreciated, so Nathan is pleased when Clifton sends him an invite message on his phone.
Amazingly, Arlene Killjoy broke the tension by finally returning with a glass of Moet champagne for Clifton. By then Jaymes had released his hold on Nathan but remained fixed at his side, a smile Nathan could only describe as weapon-like plastered on his face. Clifton, his usual unshakeable confidence rattled, had most definitely slipped out of character, and Nathan was still unsure whether to be pissed at Jaymes’ intervention or flattered he’d stood by him. Before Arlene returned, he had been genuinely worried about the two of them engaging in conversation, felt sure Jaymes would once again showcase his love of a fight together with his irritating and childish sense of humour. What Nathan definitely did not want was to be stuck between the two. Fortunately for him, Arlene once again started hogging Clifton’s attention, giving Nathan the perfect opportunity to retreat.
Except Jaymes had already begun to move, grabbing him by the elbow, and half hauling him across the room to where Polly tucked into a plate of sushi. On seeing Nathan’s face, she froze mid-chew.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” demanded Nathan, yanking his arm away from Jaymes.
“What happened?” asked Polly.
“Saving your arse.” Jaymes picked up his pint of dark ale from the table. “And a simple ‘thank you’ will suffice.”
“I don’t need saving, asshole. I know exactly what I’m doing. Clifton and I go back a long way.”
“What happened?” Polly asked again, this time thrusting a fresh pint of lager at Nathan.
“I was right. Mr Scumbag, the wannabe-movie-star over there, was trying to smarm his way into your best friend’s pants by getting him to attend some sleazy sex party. Recreational drugs, too, if his reputation is anything to go by. And all this while his husband’s out of town. Pure class. The man makes me want to vomit fur balls.”
Nathan looked aghast. In all this time, Nathan hadn’t taken in Jaymes’s face, which—still handsome in a rugged kind of way—had darkened dangerously. All he’d seen the other night was the playful but irritating joker. This angry side of him came as a revelation and tempered his own anger.
“Jaymes, he was not—”
“Oh, come on. You’re not a child. Poll and I were standing all the way over here and even we could tell what he was up to. Looking at you the way a lion looks at a baby zebra. Licking his fucking eyebrows. When I got to you, I was surprised to see no saliva on his chin.”
After a few deep breaths, Nathan calmed for a moment, before turning to Polly.
“You told him? About me and Clifton?”
“He asked,” said Polly, a little sheepish now. “And, to be honest, he’s right. You did look as though you needed someone to bail you out. But I told him not to go.”
“What the hell does this have to do with either of you?”
“Wake up, buddy,” said Jaymes, who had now calmed himself after a good tug on his pint of stout. “You’re my cousin’s friend. And therefore you’re mine. And I look out for my friends. So get used to it.”
“I don’t need looking out for.”
“The hell you don’t.”
“Boys,” said Polly. “Play nicely.”
Snatching Nathan’s attention away, the phone in his jacket pocket dinged a couple of times in short succession. Taking the opportunity to move away from Polly and Jaymes, he walked towards the pub window to check the messages. Behind him, he could hear the two of them start a heated exchange, but tuned them out. On checking his phone, he noted the first from Clifton, sent earlier. Before Jaymes had butted in.
Unknown: Cute as ever, Nate. Next Saturday 7:30pm. Details to follow. Cliff xx
The second came as a surprise, because he hadn’t even set up the message group yet.
Bob Morris: Just been chatting with the lads over a pint. I’m in and so is Eric. And I’m sure others will come around, too. It’ll be a laugh.
Nathan stared out of the pub window, noticing a light drizzle beginning. He grinned happily to himself. Four members agreeing to the photo shoot already. Would wonders never cease? Right then he spotted Clifton leaving the pub, strolling across the car park behind a larger man in a dark suit while tucking something into his inside jacket pocket. They moved over towards the sparkling Tesla parked up next to Mikey’s estate car, Clifton stopping and waiting for the man to open the back door for him. Every action, every movement, looked so perfect, as though the walk from the pub exit to the car had been choreographed by a film director. Had Jaymes been right? Was Clifton simply hitting on him because he thought he would be a familiar and easy fuck during a dry spell? If anything, Nathan preferred to give people in life the benefit of the doubt instead of making assumptions. As the car reversed out and headed to the main road, Nathan peered down at the final message.
Unknown: Sorry about earlier. Please feel free to bring your friend. Still need some time alone with you. Lot of catching up to do, and some explaining, I guess. I’ve missed you. Sending contact address file now. Cliff. xx
Nathan bit the inside of his lip. One thing was for sure. He needed some answers from Clifton, about why he and his family had disappeared without a word ten years ago. Memories of his beautiful face especially when he climaxed when Nathan sucked him off, the way his eyes lit up when they were together, even the simple things like how well they worked together on the football field. All the good things came back to Nathan, something he’d naively believed they would use to build into a life together. Until the family disappeared. Customers to the bakery speculated about Clifton’s father, a relatively successful futures trader for a global investment bank. Rumours sprang up saying maybe he had escaped the country before suspicion of fraud could be levied against him. But nothing appeared in the press about any difficulties with the bank, and no police came knocking on anyone’s doors, so the rumours soon fizzled out. Later, people found out the father had quite legitimately given notice to leave his job. And the money angle had been wildly overstated, anyway, because Clifton’s grandfather owned a fortune, money from the sale of commercial warehouses in East London in the early eighties, money which would one day pass on to his son. No, money couldn’t have been the reason. What did come to light was the fact their head teacher had known about Clifton’s removal from the school a month before it happened. That particular piece of news had devastated Nathan. If Clifton knew he would be leaving, he had said nothing, not a word, to his best friend and lover. So yes, Nathan needed answers.
When Nathan returned to Polly, he gave her a smile and a nod to let her know he had calmed down. In his short time away, three young women had joined them—or joined Jaymes, by the looks of things—with Jaymes mid-speech, his handsomely rugged face attractive in the way he enthused about his job.
“And what people don’t realise is that the threat to trees from pests and diseases has never been greater. Your grandparents may have told you about DED, Dutch Elm Disease. Changed the face of the English countryside back in 1975. Even in our generation we’ve had cases of Oak Processionary Moth—OPM—even though working with the EU, we’ve managed to reduced the number of cases—another reason why Brexit is such a bad idea. But others of our tree species are at risk such as ash and larch. Plant health officers inspect wood imports at ports around the country every day to minimise the risk from invasive pests and diseases. But even then, with those strict regulations in place, sometimes diseases get through. So if any outbreaks do occur, experts like me work with local authorities and landowners to contain and control any spread.”
“Your cousin’s a tree-hugger?” Nathan whispered to Polly, making her chuckle.
“It may not be the most glamorous job in the world, but someone needs to protect our species of forest plants and animals for future generations. Despite what some world leaders may tell you, climate change is real, and we’re in danger of losing many of our native species, not only in terms of flora, but also forest animals. You only have to look at the news in places like North America or Australia to know that a beautiful forest which has been there for generations, could be gone in a matter of days to wildfire under the wrong conditions. Our own Mosswold Forest doesn’t have a dedicated environmental specialist, so the Forestry Commission sent me here for the year, to carry a kind of stock and health check.”
“So you’re, like, Greenpeace for trees, yeah?” said one, which had the other two girls giggling.
“Except I get paid a wage. I’m not a volunteer.”
“You look like a superhero to me,” said another.
Nathan held his tongue, even though a couple of comments began to form.
“Hey, do you drive a range rover? And wear a flat cap and green wellies and go fox-hunting?” asked another. Okay, thought Nathan, not the most intelligent of questions. Hat’s off to Jaymes, he took the comments in his stride, kept smiling and answered good-naturedly. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Arlene making a beeline for him.
“Actually, I drive an old Land Rover and, yes, I do possess a pair of green wellies, as well as a matching Barbour jacket. But both are only worn when the weather’s bad.”
Without even a glance at anyone else around, Arleen pulled Nathan away from the crowd to a quieter spot at the back of the bar. Nathan was getting a little irritated at being dragged around by people.
“Clifton O’Keefe left,” she said, a little alarmed.
“Yes, I know, I saw him go.”
“Oh. He said nothing to me.”
“I get the impression he’s quite the busy man right now.”
“Of course, of course. I didn’t realise you two were so close once. I don’t suppose you have his contact details? I could ask my husband but he’s already done so much. All I have at the moment is an email address.”
For a split second, Nathan considered sharing them with her, but then wondered if Clifton might consider that an invasion of his privacy.
“I’m seeing him next Saturday night for dinner. I gave him my details and he’s going to let me know where. If you don’t mind waiting until then, I can either give him your details or ask permission to pass his onto you. How does that sound?”
“And we’ve already got four agreed to do the calendar.”
“Mike Shanton, Eric Noble, Bob Morris, and me.”
“Oh,’ said Arlene, her disappointment clear and vaguely insulting. “Is that all?”
“So far,” said Nathan, a little miffed. “I’ve only just told them. It wasn’t a show of hands, so some will want to talk to their other halves. I’m sure there’ll be a lot more.”
“Let’s hope so. And how many of the squad are single?”
Nathan made a quick mental calculation, made sure he included those who were single, divorced or separated—and not dating—into the pot.
“Of course not. I’m gay, Arlene.”
“And single. So it’s ten, then. Excellent. I’m thinking we start the bidding at a hundred pounds a person. What do you think?”
As if it even mattered what he thought. He knew exactly what was going through her head. One event and she would already have made almost a half of what the committee came up with last year for the whole day.
“It’ll be fun,” she said.
Her attention elsewhere now, she wiggled the fingers of one hand at friends and headed away. He waited until she was well out of earshot before murmuring to himself.
“It’ll be an embarrassment.”
“What’ll be an embarrassment?” came Jaymes’ voice, next to him, startling him.
“What the—! Will you stop stalking me?”
“I’m not stalking—” Jaymes looked away, his eyebrows scrunched together and pushed out a sigh. “Polly sent me over to see if you wanted a lift home. In case you haven’t noticed, the weather’s none too bright. She says you’re on our way. Or you could come back and share some lunch with us.”
“Polly’s cooking?” said Nathan, aghast. Polly only ever opened packets or tins. He wondered if she even knew how to use her microwave.
“Of course not.”
“Oh, so you’re getting takeaway?”
“I’m cooking. Why do people find that so hard to believe?”
“Give me a few minutes to come up with a suitably sarcastic response.”
“You want a lift or not?”
Nathan peered out the window again, where the weather had become noticeably worse. Rain now hammered down from the sky, January rain—ice cold, unrelenting, and able to pierce even the thickest overcoat. His flat stood a forty-five minute brisk walk away, usually giving him refreshing exercise after a beer, but now he would get soaked. A lift home would be very much welcome.
“Go on, then. Home please. Thanks.”
After finding Polly chatting to an older woman who turned out to the photographer, hiding from Arlene, they stayed for a few more minutes before making their farewells. Trudging across the car park beneath the umbrellas Jaymes and Polly had sensibly brought, they made their way over to a racing green Land Rover, an old style with two doors and a canvass covering over the back of the vehicle.
“Series three, single wheel base,” said Jaymes, pulling keys from a jacket pocket. “My pride and joy. Came off the line in 1976, long before I was born. Belonged to granddad. She’s a beauty, alright. Just needs a bit of love and attention from time to time.”
“Don’t we all,” said Nathan and Polly in unison, both laughing at their shared response, and high-fiving.
After opening the passenger side for Polly, Jaymes walked to the rear of the car and opened up the canvass flap, before looking expectantly at Nathan. When Nathan peered inside, he saw an untidy mess of toolkit, deflated football, plastic tub and buckets, two huge water bottles—the type you find upside down on a water cooler—range of brushes, rubbish sacks, Snickers wrappers, and old bits of flora peppering the floor.
“You want me to get in there?”
“Either that or the roof,” said Jaymes, that smug smile on his face again.
“We’ve only just met, and you already take great pride in humiliating me, don’t you?”
“You need no help from me, hotshot. Getting in or not?”
Nathan clambered awkwardly into the back and made himself cosy on an old, rolled-up carpet against one side of the car. Seeing Nathan get comfortable, Jaymes still held the canvass flap open.
“What now?” asked Nathan.
“Are you going to pretty boy’s house next weekend?”
“What do you care?”
“Nate! Nathan. Are you going?”
“I’ve been invited, yes.”
“What time Saturday?”
“Why? You’re not—”
“What time Saturday?”
“It’s a dinner party, Jaymes. Nothing more—”
Nathan breathed out a sigh. Maybe he did need some moral support that night.
“I’ll pick you up at seven.”
Jaymes reply came in the form of the canvass flap being slapped back into place, and the driver’s door opening and slamming closed. All the way back to the shop, Nathan braced himself against the chassis to stop from being thrown across the car, doing a better job than the poor squashed football.
Thank you for reading.
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