Nathan attends the February meeting, but is not entirely happy with the aftermath.
Subject:Second Meeting of the Crumbington Summer Fête Committee: Tuesday 11 February Attendees: Arlene Killjoy (chair); Doris Watts; Nathan Fresher; Polly Fischer; Arbuthnot Mulligan; Michael Stanton Guest(s):Jenny Gillespie
Arms folded in his usual plastic seat in the village hall, and returning the hall clock’s smile, Nathan took the opportunity to close his eyes. Inhaling his usual indelible baked bread body odour, he tried to tune out Arlene’s enthused recounting of her dinner at a posh Brighton restaurant the past Saturday night with Clifton O’Keefe and his husband. Yes, he already knew Raul had returned earlier than expected from a competition in Colorado. Not a day Nathan could forget, being the same Saturday night Clifton had suggested he and Nathan catch up. During the week, and against his better judgement, Nathan had blown off weekend invites from Jaymes and Polly, and two members of the football team, so he could make sure he’d be available for Clifton. When Clifton sent him an apologetic text message on Friday night, he had felt an odd sense karma; a mix of disappointment and relief. His bad judgement had meant that on the one night of the week he could actually let his hair down and play, without worrying about getting up in the early hours for work, he had to stay home, alone. And he had fallen asleep in front of the television before the ten o’clock news even aired.
Who would choose to be a baker in this day? Only other bakers understood the heavy time commitment of his profession. Since his father’s death, he had stopped trying to compete with the big bakery—Upper Crust—in nearby Brockwynn, and decided to narrow Fresher’s freshly baked range down to local favourites: bread rolls—soft and crusty, plain croissants, baguettes, ciabattas, cottage loaves in white and wholemeal, and sourdough loaves. Everything else he bought wholesale from the distributors. Arthur—in his early sixties now—had always supervised mixing dough and baking the fresh daily goods in the early hours of the morning. Four professional ovens stood almost as tall as Nathan in a lean-to building at the back of the shop, although only two ever got used. Starting at one o’clock, Arthur continued to have everything ready for opening. A master of his trade, he had worked for Nathan’s father and grandfather, back then with three assistants. Now, due to the reduced demand, he had only one—his own son. Nathan knew Arthur had been approached to work elsewhere on a couple of occasions, probably nearer to his home in the neighbouring village, and probably offered more money, too. But Arthur, like his father before him, was loyal to a fault.
Even though he could do little to help, Nathan often rose each morning out of habit just as Arthur arrived, switching on the ovens and making hot mugs of tea. Once they’d settled into their routine, he’d return to the flat, change into his jogging gear, and take to the streets. Which is why by seven each evening, with the doors to the shop closed, cashed up, and after a quick shower and dinner in the flat, he often felt ready to drop.
“Now, where were we? Ah, yes. Welcome to the second meeting of the summer fête committee. A full house this month—welcome back, Michael. And less than six months until the big day. Now, in case you didn’t bother to print a copy of the agenda, I have some here. Can we please stick strictly to the allocated timings for each item. Let’s respect each other’s time, shall we?”
Polly turned to Nathan and rolled her eyes, making him smile. Arlene’s impromptu anecdote already had them running late. When he’d talked through the telephone call from the Australian firm with her and Jaymes, they’d had a hundred and one questions—none he could answer—and even more fanciful assumptions about what had happened, including his phantom uncle being a spy for the UK government, or a hired assassin. Nathan put the craziness down to Polly having binge-watched too much Netflix that evening. But two days later, Nathan had received an email from Gerrard Flynn of Flynn & Fox requesting him to attend a meeting at a solicitor’s office in Eastbourne. Because of his hours in the shop, they made a special appointment for him the coming Sunday. Jaymes had offered to drive him.
Without Nathan’s prior knowledge, Jaymes had texted his sister—a paralegal for another Melbourne firm—to ask if Flynn & Fox actually existed. Apparently, he had heard of scams in the past with people getting emails or calls from bogus solicitors to extract fees from people and then disappear. But the firm was large and legit, and the managing partner, Gerrard Flynn, was well known and highly respected in legal circles. And the gesture had not gone unnoticed, that Jaymes had stepped in once again to take care of Nathan. In very subtle ways, Jaymes had begun to insinuate himself into Nathan’s life, something that both confused and excited him. Was this simply Jaymes’ way to taking care of friends, or rather, friends of relatives? Or was there more to it?
“I’d also like to welcome our guest, Jenny Gillespie, who will be the photographer for the sports calendar. In a moment, Jenny’s going to begin by talking through some of the ideas she has and also provide dates for individuals.”
Nathan could tell Jenny would be good. A chilled person with a gentle nature, even the way she spoke made him relax a fraction.
“Fourteen out of eighteen players have agreed to be photographed, which is marvellous. That includes both Michael and Nathan.” Aileen had insisted Nathan, as captain, throw his hat into the ring. “I’ve been in touch with all of them now and a couple mentioned being photographed together, thought doing so would be more fun, or maybe there would be safety in numbers. Jenny thinks a combination of groups and singles would be fantastic. However, some players—like our captain here—would have their own month. Anything to add, Jenny?”
“Yes, thank you, Arlene. I want people to see the team as they really are, a village team, and incorporate each player’s local profession into the shoot; for example, a butcher’s theme for Michael, baked good for Nathan, a garage theme for Benny—”
“Norris Hillwood’s a gynaecologist,” interrupted Mikey.
“Yes, that might be problematic, but I’m sure we can work something out.”
“Get him flat on his back in a pair of stirrups,” said Polly, which had everyone except Arlene laughing, with Doris coughing uncontrollably and Father Mulligan wheezing. “Give the bastard a taste of his own medicine.”
“Can we please let Jenny finish,” said Arlene.
“Actually, I think that’s a marvellous idea, Polly,” said Jenny, still laughing at Polly’s suggestion. “Maybe you could help me with some ideas for the others in the team. Anyway, I have three full days set aside for the shoot this month and will let everyone know the time slots available. We’ll be using my studio in Mayfield for some of the pictures, but also the changing room and showers at the football clubhouse. I’ll let each of the players know where they’ll be needed.”
Nathan’s stomach curdled every time he thought about the shoot. Once again, Jaymes had stepped in and offered to accompany him to his private session. He’d declined, didn’t want someone he now considered a friend to see him in the buff. Not that the reasoning made any sense. A straight guy like Jaymes was simply offering moral support. As always, Jaymes had simply shrugged off the refusal. But the idea of Jaymes seeing him naked made him even more nervous, even though he regularly got his kit off in front of his teammates. And he knew exactly why. Since the dinner party, Nathan had found himself thinking more and more about his friend. Apart from being a free spirit, Jaymes had a certain magnetic charisma in the flesh that put a smile on Nathan’s face, gave him a warm feeling whenever he showed up. When he thought about Jaymes, everything else melted away. Right now, next to him, Polly’s voice sounded from time to time, something about teacher numbers, while Doris piped up about hits on the festival site, and Mikey talked more about the calendar. Behind closed eyes, however, all Nathan could see was Jaymes’ laughing face floating before his own.
“—fairground, music stage, fun stalls like the dunking tub, and a single covered stand housing the cake competition, will fill up the green. So I’ve talked to the police about closing off Church Lane again and, this year, having all produce and food stalls running either side down towards the church—”
“Hang on a minute. We’re not having our stalls on the village green?” interrupted Mikey. “We’ve always had local booths on the village green. I rely on that spot to shift a shedload of meat produce; specialist sausages, meat pies, and the like.”
At Mikey’s words, Nathan’s attention returned to the room. One of his father’s stipulations about joining the committee was on the understanding the Fresher stall would greet guests at the entrance on the village green.
“I have to say, I’m in agreement with Mikey there. Local stalls have always been given pride of place on the green. Vendors from out of town, including those from Europe last year, get to set up along Church Lane. Are we now being relegated to the road along with everyone else?”
“It’s simply a matter of prioritising space for more crowd-drawing attractions,” said Arlene, pouting but adamant. Nathan had already noticed that when she got defensive, she crossed her legs at the ankles and forced them beneath her seat.
“Complete rubbish,” said Polly, sitting up in her seat. “You could set the cake competition up here, in the village hall. Even some of the fun stalls could line the road. You should be supporting and promoting local, Arlene. It’s not called the Crumbington Fête for nothing.”
“Hear, hear,” said Father Arbuthnot, much to everyone’s surprise.
“Maybe we should take a vote,” said Mikey.
“I don’t think that’s necessary, Michael. You clearly all feel the same way. So I’ll take your comments under consideration when I’m finalising the layout. One piece of good news, though. Although Lady Gaga was already booked—as was Boris Johnson—my husband managed to snag Gordon Ramsay to judge the baking competition.”
Finally, the whole room woke to life. Even Doris opened her eyes. Polly’s gaze swung to Nathan, her eyes wide.
“Gordon Ramsay? How the hell did you manage that?” asked Mikey, clearly impressed. Everyone in the room had seen at least one of the British celebrity chef’s programmes on the television.
“Not the real Gordon, naturally. One of those look-a-likes. Very good, too, and well within budget. I saw him in Birmingham last weekend, opening a cooking competition at a local school. Marvellous fun.”
“Without the foul language, one would hope.” Doris Watts was clearly not a fan.
“Anyway, that’s about it for tonight,” said Arlene, before nodding at Jenny. “By the next meeting, we should have the final stall layout plan, and hopefully a mocked-up sample of the calendar. At which point I’ll present my marketing campaign. So if there’s nothing else, I’ll see you in March.”
Arlene had hung around at the end of the last meeting and chatted to everyone individually. That night, she packed her bag promptly, and after a quick nod to everyone, headed for the door with Jenny in tow. Had she been irritated by their disapproval? Nathan watched her go, and hadn’t noticed Doris sidle up and stand beside him.
“Are you okay, Nathan, dear?” she asked, lightly touching his forearm with her frail hand.
Doris rarely spoke for any length of time to anyone except Father Mulligan, so Nathan felt part surprised, part honoured. When he peered around the room, Polly and Mikey busied themselves folding chairs and clearing them into the storeroom. Father Mulligan stood at the door of the hall, arms folded, apparently waiting for Doris to say what she needed to say to Nathan. The two always left together. Polly often giggled about religious Father Mulligan being best friends—maybe more—with superstitious, tea-leaf reading, computer whiz, Doris.
“I’m fine, Doris. Why do you ask?”
“Ever since you sat down tonight, I’ve noticed your aura’s in transition. Dashes of orangey-red. Not your usual grey.”
“Oh, I see,” said Nathan, even though he didn’t. “And is that a bad thing?”
“No, not bad, as it were. Just different. How’s your love life at the moment?”
Nathan coughed into his fist and glanced around nervously to see if anyone, especially Polly, had heard.
“Absolutely nothing happening on that front, Doris.”
“Well, in the song lyrics from West Side Story by Stephen Sondheim, I should warn you that flickering auras usually mean Something’s Coming.”
“Something good?” Nathan grinned. He knew the song well, from the CD his mother had left behind, the original cast soundtrack.
“Who knows?” sang Doris, joining in, before her smile slipped into one of compassion. “But let’s hope so,dear, if anyone deserves it, you do. You know, I read somewhere recently that happiness is a choice. We can choose whether to be happy. There's always going to be stress in our lives, but it's our choice whether we let it affect us or not. And there are a lot of us on your side, wishing you the best.”
In the past five years he had known her, those had probably been the most words she had ever spoken to him. And on that cryptic note, she squeezed his upper arm once, then patted him there before turning and joining Father Mulligan. After waving them off, a bemused Nathan, together with Polly and Mikey, stayed back to tidy away any remaining chairs, cups, glasses and other leftovers.
“What did Doris want?” asked Polly, leaving Mikey to take the last items away.
“Nothing. Something about my aura.”
“Apparently I’m in transition. Whatever that means.”
“She’s a funny one. Whatever you do, don’t let her recruit you into the coven,” said Polly, laughing. “Come on. Pub therapy. Jaymes is waiting on us”
“Is he? I wasn’t going to come tonight. Feeling a little tired—and it’s a weekday.”
“You have to come, Nathan. I need a sanity check,” she said, punching his upper arm. “Besides, Jaymes has been looking forward to catching up with you.”
Once again, a knot of nervousness appeared in Nathan’s stomach. Right then, Mikey ambled over, having stacked the last of the chairs into the small storage room.
“You two coming to the Arms? I’m meeting Bob and Benny from the team.”
At the last name, Nathan peered at Mikey. Polly had turned away to pick up her shoulder bag, and Nathan didn’t miss the smirk and wink from Mikey. He’d been thinking of an excuse to head home, but decided he ought to be there. Benny—a good-looking lad, but not the most subtle player on the team—fancied Polly, and Nathan wanted to make sure his friend had an ear to bend, in case she needed one.
“Okay, I’ll come.”
“Besides,” said Polly, oblivious to the exchange. “Am I the only one who thought Arlene deflected the comment about local stores on the green? Seriously, guys, I don’t trust her, she’s up to something. And I, for one, intend to find out what.”
“Oh heavens,” said Nathan. “Miss Marple rises from the grave.”
“There you go, then,” said Mikey, cheerily. “Talk to Benny Osmond. As I said, he’ll be down the pub tonight. His mum runs the Gazette. If anyone’s going to know anything, she will.”
Retired from her Fleet Street journalist role, Katherine Osmond, Benny’s mother, had been chief editor for the Mayfield, Mosswold, and Crumbington Gazette for the past five years. If you wanted to know anything about comings and goings in Crumbington, forget the police service or CID or even the Women’s Guild. Katherine would be everyone’s first port of call. Maybe Mikey had a point.
After getting togged up for the sub-zero temperature, and a short but refreshing stroll from the village hall across the white, frost-crusted village green, they were welcomed by a hug of toasty air inside the Crumbington Arms. Cheeks tingling, Nathan immediately scoped out Jaymes at their regular high table with three other people, and a tableful of drinks. Jaymes’ wide grin on seeing Nathan stoked the warmth in him and had him smiling back. Until something caught his eye. Two of the people standing with him, Nathan knew—Bob and Benny from the team—but the attractive woman on his right, with short brunette hair, and one hand resting on Jaymes’ forearm, laughing at something he had said, he did not. Unusual, too, because he thought he knew pretty much everyone in Crumbington. On noticing Jaymes’ attention turn elsewhere, the woman stopped laughing and peered curiously in Nathan’s direction. A baffling annoyance unsettled him, which must have risen to his face, because Jaymes tilted his head to one side and frowned quizzically. Caught off guard, Nathan forced a smile and raised a hand in greeting. When Polly excused herself to use the restroom, his gaze trailed her departure across the bar, and once he had regained his composure, he joined them.
“Nate. This is Kelly,” said Jaymes, nodding at the woman. “Kell-Bell, this is Nate, the town baker.”
“Don’t call me Kell-Bell, Jaymes. Unless you want me to call you Jim,” she replied. They shared an old familiarity, the way they smiled at each other and interacted. Maybe Kelly was an old girlfriend. Her attention turned to him now. “A worthy profession, Nate. Nice to meet you.”
Although Nathan waited for more of an explanation from Jaymes about who Kelly was, none came. Instead of simply nodding back to the girl, Nathan purposely reached out a hand in greeting.
“Nice to meet you, too,” said Nathan, trying hard to neutralise his feelings.
Without removing the hand from Jaymes’ forearm, she carefully repositioned her glass of wine on the table, and reached out to Nathan. Chilled fingers clasped his own. When he released them, he wanted to wipe his hand on his coat but thought that might appear rude.
“How’d it go tonight?” asked Jaymes, probably out of politeness.
“You know, usual stuff—”
“Sorry, Jaymes, we need Nathan. Something needs ironing out,” interrupted Mikey, a hand on Nathan’s shoulder, happily pulling his attention away to the three men who stood to one side. Once they were out of earshot, he continued on. “The guys are asking. Are they going to be expected to do any poses together that might be considered suggestive, or, you know, gay? During the shoot?”
When he glanced back, Jaymes and his friend had their heads together again, deep in conversation, oblivious to everyone else around them.
“Not this again,” said Nathan, turning back irritated. “Come on, guys. Of course not. Why are you even asking?”
“Arlene said the photographer wants to shoot Benny and Ken together.”
That made sense. Ken and Benny had to be the youngest, best looking, and fittest lads on the team. The two of them alone would ensure a good number of calendars were sold.
“We didn’t ask to be photographed together,” said Benny. “Just wondering.”
“If it’s an issue, making you uncomfortable, I’ll talk to the photographer. Get her to change things around.”
“Look, I don’t want to be a pain—”
“Benny, you’re doing this for charity, doing the committee a favour. So if you’re not comfortable with anything, then Arlene can go to fucking hell and I’ll change things around myself.”
“It’s not that, Nathan,” saidBob, nudging Benny. “Tell him, Benny. Before Polly comes back.”
“Look, no offence Nathan, but Ken bats for your team. And I don’t want people—”
“Ken’s gay,” said Mikey, smirking. “Don’t say you didn’t know?”
Rightly or wrongly, Nathan had always assumed he was the only gay man on the football team. Good looking Ken always had a couple of girls hanging off him whenever he joined them for drinks after a match.
“Apparently my Gaydar’s broken,” said Nathan, making both Mikey and Benny laugh. “Hang on, though. How do you know?”
“Down here on Christmas Eve. You weren’t around. But he introduced a few of us to his boyfriend,” said Benny, shaking his head. “Nice guy. Older, you know, but smart and funny. Looks a bit like you, actually. I’ve got no issue with Ken, Nathan. But I just wonder why they’d want to put us together on the shoot.”
“Does Ken know?”
“No idea. I suppose so.”
“Leave it with me,” said Nathan. “Let me talk to him and the photographer. I met her tonight. She’s really great and, honestly, if you’re not one hundred percent comfortable during the shoot, it’ll show. She knows that.”
“Thanks mate—” said Benny, before looking up, his serious face transforming into a big smile. “Hey there, Miss Fischer.”
“Don’t call me that, unless you want a telling off and a detention,” came Polly’s voice, as she approached. “Actually, Benjamin, can you and I have a chat? Away from this lot?”
Once they had gone to a corner, Mikey and Bob started on about their favourite topic, the new hypermarket on the outskirts of town trying to put them all out of business. And as usual, Nathan tuned them out. Whenever he peered over, whenever Jaymes’ eyes rose to meet his, they held the confident gaze a straight man gives a male friend when he secretly knows he’s on a promise, and wants to share the news with his male friends via secret smiles and wide eyes. At least, that’s what it felt like. What Nathan wouldn’t have given to have someone feel that way about him. Bloody good luck to Jaymes. At one point, he turned his head to find Jaymes’ friend alone checking messages on her phone—Jaymes either at the bar or in the restroom—so he decided to make his escape. Quickly downing the last of his drink, and without disturbing Polly, he said a brief farewell to the boys and slipped out.
Barely ten minutes later, out in the freezing night air, his phone beeped with a message. Fully expecting to get a cursory text from Jaymes, he pulled out his phone and read the words on the screen.
Cliff: How’s my favourite football chum? Still sexy as ever?
Cliff: Fancy meeting for dinner one night next week?
Cliff: Me and the hubby, you and the boyfriend?
Each message popped through so quickly, Nathan could almost see Clifton’s thumbs flashing across the onscreen keyboard. He stopped beneath a lamppost and breathed out a steamy sigh. Sounded like Raul would be here for the long haul. Maybe that was a good thing. In the space of one evening, he’d found himself alone again. Naturally. Right now his fake boyfriend had better things to do, and his ex-boyfriend was curling up next to his husband. How should he respond to Clifton? If in doubt, delay, had been one of his father’s mottos.
Nathan: Let me check with him. He’s really busy. I’ll get back to you.
And right then, a flurry of messages pinged onto his phone like a manic pinball machine.
Jaymes: Where the hell did you go?
Polly: Where are you?
Clifton: Benedetti’s in the West End. If he can’t make it, then just you, sexy
Jaymes: Bob said you’d left. Didn’t even stay to catch up?
Polly: Wanted to ask if you’re up for beers and a curry with J and me on Sat. What do you think?
Jaymes: Did I say something to piss you off?
Polly: Don’t let me get stuck with him alone? You owe me, Nathan!
Clifton: Sleep tight IMIYD
Nathan snorted. IMIYD. Include Me In Your Dreams. Clifton had used the same secret sign off in emails when they’d been kids in love. Taking a deep breath, he scanned down the list of messages again. Overwhelmed and unsure how to reply to any of the messages, Nathan did what he always did in these kinds of situations.
He switched off his phone.
Thank you for reading. Another chapter in a week's time.
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