Jaymes joins Nathan for the dinner held by Clifton and his friends.
Nathan’s good mood had risen like slow baking cottage loaves as the week progressed. By Friday, twelve team members—not including himself—had volunteered for the naked calendar. Eight of those were in their early to mid-twenties, good looking enough, and in the flush of manhood, probably doing the shot to impress their girlfriends, or wives, or both. Even though he kept the thought on a back burner, he wondered if he could persuade Arlene not to include him, to rely on the younger, fitter, and better looking team players.
After he let his shop assistants leave that Saturday at 6:15pm, wishing them a nice rest of the weekend, he locked and shuttered the shop front. Satisfied everything appeared clean and ready for Monday morning, he used the door inside the shop to head up to his small two bedroom flat.
All week he had scoured his brain at what to wear to Clifton’s party. When he’d texted Clifton to ask for the dress code and what to bring, the reply came short and unhelpful: Smart caj & just yourselves. Nathan hated dress codes, had once attended a business dinner on behalf of his father where the code had been smart casual. So he’d worn jeans and a jacket only to find a dining hall full of men in stylish blazers, shirts and silk ties. And all night people had remarked on how ‘relaxed’ he looked.
Working in the shop, Nathan only had two suits. One black, for funerals and weddings; the other blue—or rather, Egyptian blue, as Polly had once corrected him—for business and social functions. These days neither got used much.
After a moment’s hesitation, he decided to run with the blue, adding a nicely tailored white shirt with embroidered swirls and flowers in silver down the left side, a Christmas present from Polly he’d never found the opportunity to wear. Tonight would be the night. With the open jacket and the detail on the shirt, he decided to run with no tie. Smart, check. Casual, check.
In the process of buckling his trouser belt, the flat doorbell rang. When Nathan bounded down the stairs and opened the door, Jaymes stood at the bottom of the two stone steps leading down to the road. Sensibly, he’d worn a thick woollen overcoat either navy or black; Nathan couldn’t tell by the dim light.
“Come in for a minute.”
“I’ve parked outside your shop. Am I going to be okay there?”
“Are you worried about someone stealing your motorised heap-of-junk?”
Jaymes looked away and chuckled to himself.
“I’m concerned, Mr Fresher, that I might get a ticket for illegal parking.”
“You’ll be fine. And I’ll only be a couple of minutes. Come in.”
Nathan turned and led the way up the stairs, hearing the front door close as Jaymes entered. At the top of the stairs, in the brightly lit living room, Nathan moved across the bathroom door and waited for Jaymes to appear. Strange actually, because for the first time since Nathan had met him—only a couple of times—Jaymes moved carefully into the room, his face registering concern, peering about the space as though truly nervous. Nathan couldn’t imagine anything making Jaymes uneasy. When he eventually met Nathan’s gaze, Nathan gave him his best smile in the hopes of relaxing the man. Jaymes’ smile in return didn’t quite reach his eyes.
“Take your coat off and grab a seat.”
But Jaymes simply stood there looking lost, and Nathan began to feel uncomfortable.
“Fine. Can we have a quick chat before we head out?”
“Sure. Sounds ominous.”
“Not really. Just want to get a few things clear. Okay?”
“Give me a couple of seconds to finish up.”
Nathan stood staring into the bathroom mirror. Until a few moment ago, he had been feeling neutral about the evening, had actually been looking forward to catching up with Clifton, meeting some of his celebrity friends, hearing about their colourful lives. Having Jaymes along was a bonus, just to see him not give a toss when the celebrity guests started talking themselves up. Now Jaymes’ nervousness had stirred up his own. Of course, in all likelihood, the other guests would be gay. Perhaps that’s why Jaymes appeared unsettled. Opening the cabinet door, Nathan pulled down his only bottle of cologne, sprayed a thin mist around his chin and then waited for the moisture to dry into his skin.
Should he give Jaymes a get-out? Give him a chance to pull out of tonight’s charade? After all, if he was likely to be the only straight guy there, how fair was that? Although, from the short time Nathan had known him, Jaymes didn’t seem like the kind of guy who would shy away from anything.
“How’s the flat search coming along?” called Nathan.
“It’s not. I’ve worked every day the past week without a break. No time to go see any rooms. Polly’s none too pleased, but at least she’s got the place to herself tonight. Don’t suppose you know anyone with a spare room to rent, do you?”
Nathan had a spare room, and even though batting the thought away made him feel mean, he had no intention of sharing his space with anyone. Working the hours he did, he needed his quiet time in the evening.
“Not off the top of my head, but I’ll put the word out and let you know.”
He finished up, splashed some water on his cheeks to dilute the potency of the scent, then patted his face dry. Back inside the room, Jaymes had finally removed his overcoat and stood at Nathan’s bookcase, reading the back cover of a paperback. For a second, Nathan stopped and stared, admiring the view. Jaymes really understood the term smart casual. He’d donned an extremely well-fitted combination of caramel jacket, over blue jeans and a tight black polo neck jumper, which showcased defined pecs. His mop of dusty blond hair had been tamed tonight and entirely complemented the ensemble.
“Wow, Jaymes. You scrub up really nice.”
Jaymes turned to Nathan, book still in hand, and frowned quizzically down at his body. Nathan thought he may have overstepped, until Jaymes’ face blossomed into a broad smile. Wow, thought Nathan, he’s going to have to be careful with those dangerous bedroom eyes and red carpet smile tonight. Turning to face Nathan, Jaymes took his turn to return the appraisal, this time of Nathan’s suit and shirt combo, a smile still plastered in place.
“You don’t look so bad yourself, hotshot. A bit overdressed, maybe. Trying to show me up?”
“Course not. It’s the smart casual tag. I never know what’s too much, or too little.”
“Well, you look fine to me. And as I’m your plus one tonight, that’s all that matters.”
“Uh, yeah,” said Nathan, thrusting his hands into his trouser pockets. ”About that. How are we going to play this?”
“This pretend boyfriend thing.”
“For a start, relax. We’re not playing anything. When they ask about us, just stick as close to the truth as possible. We met a couple of weeks ago through my cousin at the local pub. We hit it off immediately, even though you think I’m an arrogant pain in the ass sometimes, and I think you’re a pussy, too open and trusting. If it’s mainly celebrities he’s got coming, then we’re fine. You’ll be lucky to get a word in before they get lost in the sound of their own voices. So ask a couple of questions and let them drone on. As for dinner, they’ll more than likely split couples across the table, so we won’t have to hold hands. And if there’s even a whiff of a suggestion of hard drugs, then we’re out of there. And I’ll tell you now, if I see you slipping away with lover boy, I will follow you like a jealous boyfriend and make a very vocal scene.”
“Clifton? You don’t like him, do you? Why is that?”
“Let’s just say I’ve known his type before, and leave things there.”
“Okay, but as Polly told you, he and I used to be extremely close. So I’m going to want to speak to him. A lot of things were left unsaid when his family left. But I also respect that he’s married now, so all we’ll do is talk.”
“You mean that?”
“I do. But I’m intrigued. Why does this mean so much to you?”
Jaymes twisted around to place the book carefully back in the bookcase, making sure the spine lined up with the other books.
“For all my bullshit, I do have morals. If Clifton were single, then I’d say ‘go for it, and good luck to you’. But we both know that’s not the case, and if he does try something on, trust me, it’s you who’s going to end up being singled out as the bad guy and getting hurt the most. So, no matter what happens, you’ll just talk?”
“I promise, Jaymes. All I want are some answers.”
Jaymes appeared to relax at Nathan’s remark, slowly nodding his head.
“Okay, then. One last thing, before we head out. We need an escape plan.”
“Yes. To get us out of there. In case either of us has had enough, or if something happens. If I turn to you and start talking about something unusual and unfamiliar, I don’t know, something like, uh—”
Jaymes tilted his head and pierced Nathan with a look.
“Seriously? Trees? It’s what I do for a living, Nate,” Jaymes breathed out a sigh and tried again. “Something unfamiliar to both of us. So please, for goodness’ sake, don’t talk trees. Or baking bread, come to that.”
“Jaymes, I’m hopeless at these kinds of games. Everyone’s going to know I’m faking. Can’t we just send Polly a text and ask her to call one of us?”
Jaymes stared at Nathan for a few moments before slowly nodding.
“Brilliant plan, actually. She’s having a threesome with reruns of Downton Abbey, and a bottle of Pinot Grigio tonight. So I’m sure she’d be more than happy to oblige.”
“In which case, better still, we’ll tell her to come here. She has spare keys and knows I subscribe to Netflix. Go and start the car, and I’ll call her, let her know the plan.”
Polly jumped at the idea, even vowed to stay until they returned to get all the gossip and have a nightcap together. Once settled in the Land Rover, Nathan used the GPS app on his phone to guide them to the address. Navigating the country lanes, Jaymes spoke about his own family, how his Australian mother and British father—a professor of environmental engineering—had emigrated to Australia while Jaymes was still at university, mainly because his sister and her husband in Melbourne had decided to start a family. Asked how he felt about them leaving, he shrugged, said he had no hard feelings, because at the time he had his own future sorted. Now considered an expert in his field, he spent a large part of his time out of the country anyway, travelling the forests of the world.
Clifton’s grandparents’ house—more a modern, slightly gaudy design of mansion—stood on the outskirts of Mayfield, around fifteen miles away from Crumbington. Traffic that evening was light and, according to his watch, they arrived right on time. As they pulled into the driveway, the automatic security light flooded the courtyard, and Nathan spotted Clifton’s Tesla, along with a couple of sports cars, a white Mercedes, and a Range Rover.
“Are you sure he said seven-thirty?” asked Jaymes, reading his mind.
“I can show you the text if you like?”
“No, I believe you. I just wonder why we were asked to arrive later than everyone else.”
Nathan wondered the same thing. He jumped out first and headed for the large, oak front door, while Jaymes locked up. When he turned back to check on his ride, he smirked at seeing Jaymes’ beaten up old Land Rover parked in between the pristine sports cars. Arms folded, he stood watching as Jaymes sauntered over to join him.
“Ready to dazzle them, honeybun?” asked Jaymes, adding a quick wink.
“Do not call me ‘honeybun’ tonight. I’m serious. If you do, I will strangle you in front of everyone.”
Jaymes didn’t disappoint, blowing Nathan a kiss before leaning forward and ramming his finger on the doorbell. Somewhere in the bowels of the building, a chime sounded repeatedly, a light came on, and the door opened to a laughing Clifton O’Keefe—in the flesh. A half full champagne flute in one hand, his attention was still focused over his shoulder, at something someone had said.
“Nate. I wasn’t sure you’d actually come. And guest,” he said, after turning and seeing Nathan, his eyes then sliding to Jaymes. This time his face remained a mask, the smile award-winning, as he opened the door wide. “Lovely you could make it. Hang your coats in the hall, and come in and meet the rest of the boys.”
Once in the large living area, they were introduced to Clifton’s manager, Giorgio Costello, a squat man with a bald head and wire framed spectacles, and probably, thought Nathan, the only straight man in the room apart from Jaymes. He took over from Clifton—maybe this was something they had agreed—and spent the next thirty minutes introducing them to most of eighteen other men around the room. Nathan vaguely recognised a few of the striking faces from television shows, but only one stood out.
Stanley Kimbleton, in his sixties, had been a television news reporter for many years and now presented a late night news show on the BBC. Standing close to him was an exceptionally handsome Japanese man called Hiro, probably in his mid-twenties, who hung on to his every word. Nathan noticed Jaymes finally relax as they chatted about one of the special events Stanley had covered, and at that point Giorgio excused himself. Before they’d met everyone, a member of the waiting staff came to the door and ushered them into the dining room.
Inside the long room, place name cards had already been laid out, with Jaymes referred to simply as Nathan’s guest. When Jaymes sat, Nathan eyed him with concern until Jaymes, catching his reaction, produced a Buddhist monk hand gesture; left hand held vertical with the thumb and forefinger touching, the other hand doing the same but horizontal and resting on the table cloth. Nathan snorted a soft laugh and shook his head.
In true dinner guest fashion, they waited for their glasses to be filled by a couple of extremely good looking servers, before engaging the people around them.
Nathan found himself enjoying warming to his nearest neighbours. Probably in their mid-forties, they had none of the loudness and polish of others along the table, and by the way they interacted, one tucking a loose thread of slightly silvering hair behind the ear of the other before taking their seats, he had no doubt they were intimate. Beside him, the good-looking man dressed comfortably in a thin brown tweed suit and white shirt, while his partner had on a simple light blue polo shirt with navy pullover slung across his shoulders. Smart casual. Nathan tilted his head to spy the name card which contained the words Giorgio’s Guest. When he looked over, even Jaymes appeared to be enjoying himself. They’d been placed at the far end of the table from Clifton, Jaymes diagonally across from Nathan and seated next to the guy in the polo shirt. Funnily enough, the man voiced Nathan’s thoughts almost as soon as they’d been served a light white Pinot Gris.
“I think we must be on the ‘b’ list, relegated to the cheap seats.”
“Suits me fine,” said Jaymes. “Always preferred grown up conversation.”
“Oh, thank the heavens,” said the man, brightening and clapping his hands once. “Looks like this is going to be a fun evening after all. I’m Gallagher, by the way.”
Jaymes shook hands, introducing himself and Nathan. At the same time, the man seated next to Nathan introduced himself.
“I’m Martin, Martin Gilchrist. We’re not in the entertainment industry. Gallagher and I run a couple of antique shops in Oxford. The reason we’ve been invited tonight is partly because we’re visiting the area, but also because the television production company is using our home as a setting for one of the characters on the series Clifton’s shooting. Giorgio—his manager—is one of our better customers and thought our house would be the perfect setting for one of their lead characters, especially as it’s filled with our antique pieces.”
“Is he gay? Giorgio?” asked Jaymes.
“With six kids and two ex-wives, I’d say no. Although if he had been, he’d be a lot wealthier than he is right now, what with the alimony and child support payments,” said Gallagher, eavesdropping their conversation, and making Jaymes choke into his wine.
“Do they pay you for that?” asked Nathan. “Using your home as a set for the show?”
“A little, not a huge amount,” said Gallagher, from across the table. “Not really worth the inconvenience, if you ask me. We’ll have to abandon the house for two weeks in May, which is when most of the filming takes place.”
“But I see this more as a favour for Giorgio. And we get to stay with our friends in Cornwall—”
“With a doctor friend of ours, who is not only an amazing cook—”
“But has an insanely gorgeous husband—”
“Gallagher! I was going to say, has a great wine cellar—”
“And a hot husband. Say it like it is, dear. And what exactly are you laughing at, young man?”
Nathan realised he had been smiling, but across the table from him. Jaymes’ head had lolled back, his shoulders shaking with laughter.
“He’s laughing at you two finishing each other’s sentences,” said Nathan, because Jaymes, apparently, had lost the power of speech.
“Ah,” said Martin. “Old habits, and all that.”
“How long have you been together?”
“Twenty-five years. We met in college.”
“Wow,” said Jaymes, his head dropping forward, his laughter dissolving. “That’s a life sentence.”
“Perspective, old man. It’s only a life sentence if you’re somewhere you don’t want to be,” said Gallagher, winking at Martin. “And we’re perfectly fine, thanks.”
“How about you two?” asked Martin, to Nathan. “I must say, you make a very striking couple.”
“Couple of weeks. And an excellent turn of phrase, actually,” said Nathan. “Bearing in mind the number of times of late I’ve wanted to strike him.”
Jaymes smiled sweetly at him while Martin chuckled and Gallagher laughed aloud. Yes, thought Nathan, these guys are definitely good to be around. Before Jaymes had a chance to defend himself, Clifton had risen from his prime position at the other end of the table.
“Gentlemen and gentlemen. Tonight I’ve managed to bribe one of the winners of SuperChef UK to prepare a sumptuous four course meal for us, including his award winning braised duck leg with caramelised apples, and finishing with his dark chocolate Chernobyl. So while the appetisers are being served, take the time to get to know the people around you.”
As the man to Nathan’s right was already deep in conversation with someone else, he was happy to continue chatting to Martin and Gallagher. Martin turned out to be very insightful. Impressed at Nathan being a baker, he asked questions about his daily habits and routines, how he felt about being stuck inside a shop all day. Martin sympathised, having done the same when they had only one antique shop and when Gallagher held down a high powered job in manufacturing before deciding to take voluntary redundancy. Asking what time Clifton has asked them to arrive that evening, Martin rolled his eyes and explained the very vague response he’d had from Clifton, which had been ‘seven, for seven thirty’. Apparently, they’d turned up ten minutes before Nathan and Jaymes.
After dessert, many of the thespian guests held court, telling anecdotes about their lives and times in show business. On one such occasion, Nathan’s interest waned and instead he focussed his attention on Martin’s quieter but far more interesting story, when Stanley Kimbleton’s familiar baritone boomed down the table.
“Let’s ask someone’s opinion who’s not in the profession. What do you think, Jaymes? Has the day of our silver screen matinee idol been and gone?”
Nathan stopped breathing, his head swinging horrified across to Jaymes. Concentrating on Martin’s story, he had been only partially aware of the subject in question, about the hardships of the modern actor. Clearly, Jaymes, grinning down the table at Stanley, had been paying full attention. All heads turned to wait for the reply, some less enthusiastically, probably having very little interest in the response of some random guest who knew nothing about them, their craft, or being in the profession. Others clearly wanted to hear.
“I’m sorry to say, but I don’t think the majority of paying audiences go to the cinema to see actors any more. What I mean is, they no longer pay to see a star vehicle, like a Clifton O’Keefe film—no offence, Clifton. Those days are well and truly over. They pay to see a particular product; a franchise superhero film, or a fictional world of wizards and magic, filled with millions of dollars’ worth of dazzling special effects. There are honestly times I’ve left the cinema after a great film and if you’d asked me the character’s name, I’d have been able to tell you instantly. But if you’d asked me the name of the actor playing the role, I wouldn’t have had a clue. For my mother and her generation, the reverse was true. Today’s actors simply fill the shoes of the onscreen characters—competent actors, of course. But that’s where the studios are making the big money these days, that’s how they get audiences off their backsides, out of their homes, and into cinema seats. Downloading the same thing, or streaming and watching at home, simply doesn’t provide the same sensory experience, unlike the noble, but conveniently downloadable, human interest stories.”
Jayme’s edict was met with cold silence.
“I did warn you that Jaymes speaks his mind,” Nathan said to Stanley, and when Jaymes turned to him and narrowed his eyes, quickly appended his statement. “It’s one of the things I like most about him.”
When a flicker of a smile crossed Jaymes’ mouth, Nathan felt a flutter in his stomach.
“No need to explain, Nathan,” said Stanley, Nathan flattered he’d remembered his name. “I wholeheartedly agree with Jaymes. I’ve always believed acting is synonymous with its origin, which is theatre, and still largely uncontaminated by onstage computer special effects, thank the heavens.”
Polite agreement followed Stanley’s words. When Nathan peered across the table, Gallagher leant in to Jaymes and whispered something in his ear, making Jaymes chuckle. Nathan realised then how much he was enjoying the evening, even though he originally only wanted to accept the invitation to get some time alone with Clifton. Had he come alone, he would have felt out of his depth with most of the people around him. While serving staff cleaned plates away, Clifton stood up again and addressed the whole table.
“So, while the kitchen is preparing a selection of cheese and biscuits, and coffees, I thought we’d all play a little game to keep us amused. And also get to know each other a little better. I have a plate of fortune cookies here, and each has a question inside. One for each of you. Consider this a truth game, and the best answer wins an after-dinner mint.”
A collective groan issued from all those gathered. Clifton broke the first of the Chinese fortune cookies with his fist. When he pulled out the piece of paper and read, his eyes gleamed with playfulness.
“Okay, Brock, darling. This first one’s for you. Sexually speaking, in the bedroom, what’s your favourite position?”
“That’s an easy one, darling. Horizontal.”
Laughter bubbled around the table. Nathan’s heart sank. Quick-wittedness was never one of his things. Jaymes would be a hit, of course, but Nathan’s answer would probably bore the pants off the guests. One by one, Clifton asked a cookie question, and each answer got progressively more humorous or provoked an extremely interesting response. Finally, Clifton aimed his question at Nathan, who felt his mouth go dry.
“Nathan,” said Clifton, before explaining to those gathered. “In case he hasn’t told you, Nathan and I grew up together in a nearby town and played in the school football team. He’s now the town baker. So Nathan, what’s the most embarrassing thing you’ve ever had to do?”
A number of guests chuckled at the question. Nathan’s mind went blank and he knew his brow had furrowed. Did he have a ditty he could draw on from childhood? Was there something a room full of gay men would at least be interested in, something that would live up to the entertaining responses of others?
“Apologies for interrupting,” said Jaymes, coming to his rescue. “But I think that’s a question you should ask him six months from now.”
“Why’s that?” asked Clifton.
Jaymes nodded at Nathan, who smiled, catching up quickly.
“What Jaymes means is that by then, I’ll have had my photograph taken, naked, along with the rest of the local football team, and then showcased in the Crumbington football team calendar.”
A collective intake of breath had all eyes spotlighted on Nathan, all finally impressed.
“Naturally, all the proceeds will go to charity,” he added.
“Then you’d better sign us all up for a copy right now,” said one of the men.
“I’ll take ten,” said another.
In the meantime, Clifton had claimed eye contact with Nathan and mouthed the word ‘really?’ to which Nathan responded with a grim smile and a simple nod.
“Okay then. Well, this one’s for Jaymes, Nathan’s boyfriend. What’s the longest sexual relationship you’ve ever been involved in?”
“Can I have another one?” asked Jaymes immediately, causing people around to chuckle.
“You should give that one to Martin or Gallagher,” offered Nathan, trying to bail out his friend. For a cold minute, he wondered if Jaymes had ever been in a relationship.
“Nope, come on. Everyone else has been a sport. Answer the question.”
“Five weeks,” said Jaymes, eventually.
Nathan peered across the table so see if Jaymes was joking, but his gaze boring into the table was defiant.
“That’s not a relationship,” came a voice.
“It’s barely a handshake,” came another. “Are you not afraid he’ll up and run, Hayden?”
“Oh, so says the queen of one-night-stands.”
“Well, on the positive side, we’ve finished desserts and he’s still here.”
Laughter grew louder around the table with each remark. Nathan wanted to say something smart, but he didn’t have Jaymes’ quick wit. Defence came from an unlikely source.
“Come on, you bunch of queeny prudes,” said Stanley Kimbleton. “Britney Spears and Jason Alexander were married for fifty-five hours. A five-week relationship is positively heroic by comparison.”
“And Jaymes spends a lot of his professional life away from home, travelling the globe,” added Nathan, trying to repay the debt of help Jaymes had given him. Jaymes, who had quietened, looked up and smiled at Nathan.
“If you don’t mind my asking, Jaymes,” said Clifton, intrigued, and not letting the subject drop. “How old are you?”
“Thirty-one,” said Jaymes, unflinching.
“”I see,” replied Clifton, the response loaded, and an eyebrow raised at Nathan.
“No, you don’t,” answered Jaymes, plastic smile firmly in place. “But that’s fine.”
In the short silence that followed, Nathan looked to Jaymes and, for the first time since they’d met, felt sorry for him. Fortunately, he was not the only person to register the awkward pause.
“Clifton, dear boy. Can Martin and I have our questions please. I’m sure we’re not the only ones gagging for a cup of that fresh coffee you promised us,” said Gallagher, saving the evening.
Both he and Martin had innocent enough questions, but across the table Jaymes had become sullen, avoiding eye contact. Part way through Martin’s response, he excused himself abruptly from the table to use the restroom, without a glance to any of them. Nathan wanted to placate him, wanted to say the longest relationship he’d ever had was his doomed three months hook-up with Clifton, before he and his family disappeared. And did kissing, fumbling, or jerking each other off in Clifton’s bedroom or in the sports hut at school even constitute a relationship? Nathan was staring at the darkened hallway down which Jaymes had disappeared when someone touched him on the shoulder. When he peered up, Clifton stood before him and took the seat next to him which had been vacated. Without noticing, and while coffee and cheeses were being served, some of the men around the table had got up and switched places. Maybe the suggestion had been prompted by Clifton, Nathan hadn’t heard.
“So, we finally get to speak—semi privately, at least.”
“Cliff, thanks for inviting me tonight, inviting us both. You and I have so much to catch up on.”
“I know. Sorry to hear about your dad, Nate. He was a great man. Bet you were devastated.”
Nathan relaxed into Clifton’s old, familiar tone which came across as genuine. They used to tell each other everything. He missed having someone to confide in.
“It’s been five years,” he said, sighing and offering a shrug. “I’ve had time to adjust. How are your folks?”
“Mum and dad divorced. Couple of years after we settled in LA.”
“You had the whole town talking when you upped and left. Theories ran from theft, murder, international espionage to some kind of salacious cover up. It all blew over eventually, of course. But for a while there, your family was the talk of the village. Even your grandparents remained tight-lipped.”
Clifton had the decency to look embarrassed.
“That’s because at the time they didn’t know anything.”
“So what happened?”
Clifton peered down at his hands clenched together on the tablecloth.
“A couple of things, actually. My father was headhunted for a job in Los Angeles. He had to be very careful—keep things under wraps—because officially he had a non-compete clause. If you remember, this all happened just as the global financial crisis shit hit the fan. His old bank was one of those who suffered. Thankfully, Dad wasnever involved, even though they tried to pin a couple of things on him. Eventually they came to an agreement with the new bank to get him on board, involving some kind of financial settlement, a buyout or something. Negotiations took around three months, but the whole family only found out a month before we were due to leave and even then we were sworn to secrecy. When he first told us about the move, I pretty much hit the roof. So did mum. Our lives were here. But he called me out, Nate. To this day I don’t know how, but he knew exactly what was going on between you and me. Some pretty harsh things were said, none of which I’m going to repeat, but in the end, I had no choice.”
“Did he blackmail you?”
“No, he’s always had very good powers of persuasion. If for any minute I’d thought he was blackmailing me, I’d have told him to shove the move up his arse. But mum and I agreed to give things a try. For the first three months, I thought about stealing his credit card and booking myself on the first flight home. But I have to admit, life became real good, really quickly. LA can be like that, seduce you, living right on the ocean and learning to surf, great weather compared to here, amazingly cool friends, less stuffy, if you know what I mean. And on top of all that, I was admitted into the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Which is where I got my first break. Although he denies it, I think my father managed to pull a few strings.”
“You never wrote. Not even an email.”
“No I didn’t. And for that, I apologise. You deserved to know what happened but, by the time things had settled down, life had moved on so much. I didn’t think you’d care to know, anymore.”
“I would have. I missed you like crazy.”
Clifton raised his eyes to take in Nathan, a sympathetic and melancholy gaze settling there.
“Are you and Jaymes really together?”
“We’re friends, yes.”
“He’s not your type.”
Clifton’s dazzling smile stayed in place, but his eyes shone with irritation. Was he jealous?
“And exactly how would you know what my type is anymore?”
“Because I still feel the same Nate vibe. And you’ve never been into casual, superficial, or flippant. And he seems like a meat block mix of all three. Nothing like you, a man who’s conservative but sensitive to the core. Bet you’re still living in that old flat above the shop, aren’t you?” asked Clifton, placing his thin hand Nathan’s shoulder. “Then again, maybe you have changed. Are you really doing a nude calendar?”
Nate laughed and shook his head.
“Reluctantly. And then only if the rest of the team agree.”
“You’ve a good body, Nate. Even better than I remember. I bet you’ll look smoking.”
Nathan looked away bashfully, as Clifton removed his hand.
“Hey, listen, I’ve got rehearsals for the series all next week, but I’m free Saturday night. I don’t really like going out because of the attention I draw, but how about I come over to your place? A night of Xbox games, takeout Thai, designer beer—maybe something energising for dessert, and then whatever else pops up? On your couch together. I’m sure my fitness coach won’t mind me having one night of carbs and alcohol. As long as I get a workout in.”
“I’ll need to check if Jaymes is free.”
“Uh, I thought maybe just the two of us. Like old times.”
Clifton’s expression smouldered with remembered want. Had Jaymes been right about him?
“Cliff, you’re married.”
“I’m sure Raul wouldn’t mind. And what the eye doesn’t see—”
Just then the phone in his trouser pocket buzzed persistently. Someone calling. When he pulled out the device and saw Polly’s name on the display, he assumed Jaymes had contacted her. This time, it was his turn to excuse himself from the table, and with an apologetic tilt of his head, got up and headed out. Fortuitously too, because he’d had no idea how to react to Clifton’s offer. Intrigued at what Polly was going to say, he took the call out in the hallway, so he could meet Jaymes on his way back to the table, and then decide together on their exit strategy.
“Hey Polly. Let me guess. Jaymes texted you?”
Polly’s voice sounded strange, tense, and he wondered what Jaymes had told her.
“No, Nathan. Jaymes didn’t call. Some official called your house phone from Australia. Sounded serious. I wasn’t going to answer, assumed the call would go to voicemail. But then they rang off, and rang again and again. So I took the call.”
“Who was it?”
“Said his name is Gerrard Flynn, a solicitor in Melbourne, Australia. Needs to speak to you urgently. He left a number but wouldn’t tell me any more. Shall I text you the number?”
Nathan noticed Jaymes heading towards him, a quizzical look on his face.
“No, Polly. We’re coming home,” said Nathan, with a quick nod to Jaymes. “I think we’ve both had enough.”
Jaymes’ features relaxed instantly, his relief palpable, and Nathan almost laughed aloud.
Thank you for reading.
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