Ross glanced around the Lilydale Leopards home ground, taking in the grandstand on one side and the administration building beyond, before turning his attention to the two guys and a fit-looking young woman waiting near the change-room door. Jim Henderson and the woman were stretching, while the young man that Ross didn’t recognise was chatting.
As Ross approached, the second guy met him half way. “Hi, I’m Tony. Welcome to Lilydale. You’re Ross, is that right?”
“Yeah, that’s me.” They shook hands and then headed back to where the other two were waiting.
“The others will be out soon. Did the brat fill you in on what you’ll be doing?” Tony asked.
“We’re starting with a run and then some of the exercises we’ll be doing next Saturday. After that, Ty said he was going to organise access to the gym for me, but I don’t know if that happened.”
“It did. It was okayed late Saturday afternoon. We’ll need you to sign something to indemnify the club in case of an accident, but otherwise you’re fine.” Tony smiled. “And in case he hasn’t already told you, Ty doesn’t like his name. He prefers to be called the brat.”
Ross chuckled. “He did tell me, and I prefer Roscoe. That’s what all my friends call me.”
“Roscoe it is, then.” Tony smiled as they reached the other two. “Jim, Julie, this is Roscoe.”
Jim stuck out his hand, though Ross couldn’t help but notice that he didn’t smile. “It’s good to see you again, Roscoe.”
Ross flinched and avoided eye contact while they shook. “Sorry about Friday. I had some things I had to do.” He let go as soon as he felt it wouldn’t be impolite. He was embarrassed, and if the other two hadn’t been there, he would have explained, but he couldn’t give Jim the real reason while there were witnesses.
“I’ll be joining you and the guys today,” Julie said. “I’m one of the assistant coaches here as well as being a personal trainer.” She smiled. “I’ll make sure the brat doesn’t push you guys too hard. You need some short-term tuning, not long-term development, and the brat doesn’t always know the difference. It’ll only be for today, though, as I have other commitments for the rest of the week. Good luck for Saturday in case I don’t catch up with you at the end of today.”
Tony spotted four guys exiting the building. “It looks like you’re about ready to start, so I’ll get back to my desk. I’ll see you around.”
Ross spotted Deon, Ty, and Kevin, and recognised the fourth as Dave Islington, the other Leopard who would be at the combine on Saturday.
“Thanks, Tony. I really appreciate how everyone’s kicking in to help out.” Ross’s smile then faltered when Tony stepped up to Jim and gave him a quick kiss before leaving. He hadn’t realised that Tony was Jim’s boyfriend, and he hoped he hadn’t done something to give himself away. When he saw Ty giving him a hard stare, Ross painted a grin back on his face. “Hi, guys. Thanks for inviting me to join you.”
“It’s great you can be here.” Deon smiled and quickly introduced the newcomers.
Ross was warmly greeted by Kevin and Ty, though Ross had the impression that he was still on probation as far as Ty was concerned. Dave was cold. He wasn’t hostile, but there was an invisible barrier that made Ross keep his distance.
“Enough standing around.” Julie’s scowl swept over the assembled group. “This isn’t getting anyone ready.”
As they started a slow jog around the football oval, Ross glanced over his shoulder to where Ty was heading back into the change room. “He’s not joining us?”
“His knee’s still not up to it yet, but he’s going to walk on the treadmill for awhile. He’ll join in when we return,” Deon said. “How long is your usual morning run?”
“Just over six kilometres. Why?”
“Then that’s what we’ll do today.” Deon raised his voice to attract the attention of the pacesetter. “Six Ks, Julie.”
Julie called back from where she and Dave were leading the group. “We’ll make it seven. Six isn’t long enough.”
Deon snorted. “Typical.” He winked at Ross. “She always makes us do more than we want. That’s why she’s such a great coach.”
“We’re here to do what we need, not what we want,” Jim said. “The danger of training by yourself is that you don’t push yourself enough. Having someone there to make you try that little bit harder is important.”
“And on that subject, thanks for coming, Roscoe.” Deon grinned as they jogged slowly around the oval. “I think it’s going to make a difference, training with someone beforehand and then having them there on the day.”
Jim frowned. “Didn’t you know anyone last year?”
“A couple of guys, but most of the ones I knew were in the national combine, not the state one.” Deon grimaced. “The state one had a lot of older guys from the VFL and Tasmanian League as well as those of us who didn’t make the four-day camp. Last year, I was also a lot more nervous because I didn’t know exactly what we’d be doing.”
“You probably still don’t.” Jim smiled. “There’s no guarantee it’ll be the same as last time.”
“They’ll keep the exercises the same, otherwise they won’t be able to do year-to-year comparisons,” Kevin said. “But they may organise things differently.” He grinned. “And hopefully there’s lots of speed dating.”
“What?” Deon said. “We’re there to get into the AFL, not get a date.”
Ross smiled. He recognised the phrase. “Speed dating is when a club gets ten minutes to interview you. If you’re popular, you’ll have back-to-back interviews.”
“When did they call it that?” Deon asked. “I don’t recall hearing the term last year.”
“I think it’s this year’s group that named it. I’ve heard Christian Petracca talk about speed dating,” Ross said, referring to one of his Eastern Ranges teammates whose name was constantly being floated as a possible number-one draft pick.
“And I’ve heard the same from Isaac Heeney,” Kevin said. “The New South Wales Academy players often train with the Swans development squad.”
“Is Isaac as good as they claim?” Deon asked.
Kevin shrugged. “I think so, but I haven’t watched him play. He’s certainly a tough bugger.” He grinned at Deon and Ross. “But this isn’t getting either of you ready for the AFL.” He raised his voice to attract the attention of the pacesetter. “Julie, I think we’re all warmed up enough.”
After Julie waved a hand to acknowledge the comment, Deon grinned at Ross. “Just be warned that we’ll be doing a lot more tomorrow. That’s our scheduled endurance day; the last one before the combine. Be glad you weren’t here last week. I had to do two of them—Tuesday and Thursday.”
“You’ll be doing more than that next year, Deon,” Kevin said. “The AFL’s a lot tougher than you realise.”
Julie looked back at them. “Finish your chat. If I hear you again, we’re obviously not running anywhere near fast enough.”
The conversation died as the pace increased. As they headed out of the stadium and ran along the back streets of Lilydale, Ross started to settle down. What they were doing was stretching him, but not by too much. It was only slightly faster than he normally ran by himself.
Ross had a good feeling about the training. He began to believe it was going to make a difference.
* * *
Neil was waiting in the Lilydale Leopards car park when Liam arrived.
“What’s wrong?” Liam asked as he exited and locked his mother’s car. “You sounded worried.”
“I am.” Neil grabbed his boyfriend and pulled him into a firm, almost frantic, embrace. “I’ve got a bad feeling. Mum and Dad want to see us. Both of us. Today, if we can make it, but as soon as possible if we can’t.”
Liam waited for Neil to let him go before taking a half-step backward so he could smile encouragingly. “Maybe they’re ready to finally accept things?”
“Maybe, but I don’t think so. Last week, Mum still couldn’t handle us being a couple. She’s been better since Jim’s parents stayed with them, but she’s still not okay with it.” Neil grabbed Liam’s hand. “Come on. The guys will be in the gym, and I wanted to ask the brat if he’ll come with us.”
Liam let Neil lead him into the building while mentally debating if he should say anything to his own parents. Liam knew that Phil Rosewood had come a long way since he’d struck Neil back in May and that he was no longer a threat, but not everyone agreed with him. Liam’s parents had never explicitly said that he wasn’t to visit Neil’s parents without support, but it was implied. Liam hadn’t told them that he’d already done so. It was easier for everyone if they didn’t know.
Neil’s mother was the parent who was still struggling with having a gay son, but she wasn’t a danger. She was, however, the reason why Neil couldn’t return home. He would be welcome, and Liam would be, too, but they wouldn’t be able to show affection for each other without it causing problems.
Neil led them straight to the gym. When they arrived, they found six guys exercising under Julie’s supervision. Liam guessed that the one guy he didn’t know was Ross.
“Neil, Liam! What brings you here?” Ty smiled. “Get changed and you can join in the workout.”
“Sorry, brat, but I didn’t bring my gear.” Neil’s determined attitude had disappeared, and he dropped his head. “I was wondering…that is, if you’re not too busy...”
Ty spoke quietly to Jim and then walked over to Liam and Neil. “What is it, mate?”
“Mum and Dad wanted to see us…today, if possible.” Neil looked up. “Could you...?”
“Why do they want to see me?” Ty asked.
“Not you. Me and Liam,” Neil said, waving a hand between himself and his boyfriend. “They didn’t say why, but I want someone else there just in case. If you’re free, could you come, too?”
Ty smiled. “Sure, mate. When?”
“They said they would prefer it to be today. Around three?” Neil grimaced. “They said any time, so something’s up. Dad should be at work, but he’s going to be at home.” Neil gave Ty a worried look.
Liam kept his mouth shut, though Neil’s observation relieved some of his own concerns. Phil Rosewood had asked Liam not to tell Neil that he had lost his job. Liam had found out a couple of months earlier, and it sounded as if Neil’s father was still unemployed. Liam hoped that the meeting was to tell Neil the truth, because he hated keeping a secret from his boyfriend. He’d done that too often in the past, and every time he did it again, Liam risked alienating Neil.
“I’ll be there.” Neil and Ty quickly discussed the logistics as to where they would meet up, and then Ty glanced over his shoulder to the other side of the gym. “Time for me to get back to work, but before you go, I’ll introduce you to Roscoe.”
“How’s it going, Liam?” Kevin asked as they walked past where the AFL player had just finished a set of inclined-bench presses.
Liam stopped and smiled. “Good. Yourself?”
“Not bad. This week is busy helping get the guys ready for the combine, but are you two free next week some time? I wouldn’t mind catching up.”
“We’ll be back at school, but we can make time after school if you want.” Liam glanced across and received a smile and a nod from Neil. “We generally go out for coffee with Clarissa after school on Tuesdays. Why don’t you join us?”
“Sounds great!” Kevin’s gaze flicked past Liam, and then he chuckled. “Someone’s getting upset, so I should get back to work. Text me the details and I’ll see you then, if not before.”
Liam turned around and saw Ty waiting impatiently. He smiled nervously and grabbed Neil’s hand as they went to where Ty was standing next to Ross.
“Roscoe, this is Neil and Liam. Neil was one of our runners this year, as well as the unofficial team mascot. Guys, this is Roscoe. He’ll be at the AFL combine with Deon and Dave on Saturday.”
Liam couldn’t help noticing that Ross’s gaze was fixed on Liam’s and Neil’s clasped grasp. He let go and stepped forward. “Pleased to meet you. Good luck with the combine!”
Ross’s eyes snapped up. “Oh...thanks...” He gathered himself together and put on a clearly plastic smile. “It’s good to meet you, too.” There was a moment of hesitation before they shook hands. “And you, Neil,” Ross added, though without making eye contact.
Neil smiled, though it was weak. “I hope it all goes well on Saturday.”
“Me, too,” Ross said without looking directly at Neil. He turned to Ty. “We should keep going. We don’t want to cool down too much.”
Liam caught Neil’s flinch. His own fists tightened at the obvious snub, and he could see that Ty wasn’t that impressed, either.
* * *
Eric Blackman, President of the Lilydale Leopards, stared down from the boardroom window as the small group ran a couple of laps to cool down. “I hope they do well. It’ll be a real feather in our cap to get one or two of our players drafted.”
Anne Flintlock, the club’s financial controller, glanced up from the papers she was studying. “It will be, but our job at the moment is to try to set things up for a repeat season next year.” She pushed two pieces of paper across the table. “These two applications are the only ones so far that have impressed me. I’m happy to sit in on interviews for the others, but they’ll have a lot of ground to catch up.”
Colin Mann, the marketing manager and Tony’s boss, settled back in his chair. “We can’t afford to take too long on this. We’ve had a few weeks to prepare, so we should be ready to evaluate the applicants and move on without delay. We’ve given them two weeks to apply, and that gives us a month to do the evaluation. We need the new coach settled in before the draft so they can have input on who we approach to replace whoever we lose.”
Eric turned his back on the window and headed back to the boardroom table. “But we can’t rush this, either. There’s still another week for that ideal person to apply. Finding someone to replace Peter as head coach isn’t easy. Not only do they need to have his football brains, but they also need to fit into the Leopard family. The guys won’t react well to a dictator, but they equally won’t give their best for someone who’s too easy-going. They have to be able to be firm when needed.”
“We know that, Eric,” Anne said with just a hint of exasperation. “That’s why we have Roger involved in the selection process. That may not be the way other clubs do things, but we’re Leopards, and that means we’re family. Finding the right person is critical. Our captain, our premiership winning captain, knows what the team needs, and he’s already given me his feedback.” The level of exasperation increased as she continued. “Getting the input from our vice-captain and Norm Goss medallist would also be useful, but I was overruled on that one.”
“Ty’s too young.” Eric was firm. “He’s got the football skills and leadership qualities that will be great in the future; but remember that when Roger was out of action, Peter didn’t want Ty to fill in for him. That tells me that he’s not ready for a major leadership role, and that means he’s not ready to help us select a new coach.”
“It sounds like we all agree, apart from the matter of Ty.” Colin waved a hand at the two documents that Anne had pushed forward. “Roger’s told me that while he’s happy to listen to others, there’s one person on the short list that he thinks stands out above the others and who he’d be proud to have as our new coach.”
“Who?” Eric asked as he picked up the papers. He glanced at the first and then turned to the second. His head snapped up. “Are you serious?”
Anne and Colin both nodded.
“We need to go through the process, and getting the board approval will be tricky, but that’s where you come in.” Colin leant forward. “I’ve done some quiet checking with the players, asking them about who they’d like to see in the position. There’s not a single one who wouldn’t be more than happy to have Julie as our new head coach.”
Eric snorted. “Does that include Ty? He and she don’t get along, and it’ll disrupt the team if our vice-captain has a problem with the coach. He’s not mature enough yet to know when he has to back off and do what he’s told.”
Anne laughed. “You don’t know the brat as well as you think, Eric. His comment to me was along the lines of: there’s no bloody way he’ll ever put his hand up to have her as our head coach, but that’s because she’ll make him work too hard. If she got the job, though, he said he’ll be getting ready for the chance at another premiership, because he knows that she’s capable of getting the best out of the team, including him.”
“But a girl?”
Anne’s expression hardened. “Are we going to go through the same thing we did at the start of the season, Eric? Yes, Julie’s a woman, but she’s also a bloody-good coach. All of the players agree on that. And, do I need to remind you again that the AFL Victoria policies explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender?”
Eric held up both hands in surrender. “I’m just repeating the comments that the board members will make. I don’t have a problem with Julie as our new head coach, but we have to get it past the board. That’s not going to be easy.”
Colin nodded. “And that’s why we’ll need you to swing the board behind her, if needed.” He leant back in his chair. “But we’re jumping the gun. We still have another week to see if anyone else applies. We then need to do the interviews followed by the evaluations. Julie may be the candidate currently preferred by our players, but we still need to interview the others. One of them may change all our minds.”
* * *
“I don’t bloody care! He’s insulted you, and now he’s insulted Neil. He’s not worth the aggravation!”
Ross was waiting outside the gym for Ty and couldn’t help overhear the Leopards’ vice-captain yelling. Ross knew he had been abrupt with Neil and Liam, but he hadn’t expected what he had seen. He had already been on edge due to a phone call from Stuart earlier that day, and being ambushed by another couple of gay guys showing public affection by holding hands had pushed him to the edge of panic.
“Brat, leave him alone! He’s not doing anyone any harm, and Deon thinks he’s helping him get prepared. It’s only for a week. If you can’t control yourself for that long, go home.”
Ross appreciated Jim’s support, weak though it was. He wondered if there was any way he could apologise without making things worse. Stuart was already pushing him harder than he wanted, with the plans for Saturday night being expanded to include a nightclub—Stuart promised it would be exclusively gay, though that didn’t alleviate Ross’s worries—and for the two to spend the night and Sunday morning at Stuart’s house. Ross had already pushed back as much as he dared, but he was quickly losing interest in the idea of Stuart as a boyfriend. The guy had a great body, though it wasn’t Ross’s type, but Ross suspected that Stuart wouldn’t be able to keep the relationship a secret. Stuart was too outgoing, and he would end up outing Ross whether he intended to or not. In the meantime, Stuart was being controlling, and Ross was too worried to assert himself.
The only thing going Ross’s way at the moment was the fact that Stuart had dropped out of school a few months earlier to start a plumbing apprenticeship. Otherwise, Ross would have expected Stuart to be looking for them to spend as much time together as possible during what was left of the two-week break between school terms 3 and 4.
“Fine! I’ll put up with him until Saturday. After that, though, he’s out of here!”
Ross moved away from the gym exit and tried to look lost. He didn’t want Ty to think he had been eavesdropping.
Ty stormed out of the gym and was several paces down the corridor before he saw Ross waiting for him. Ty didn’t look happy.
“Sorry, brat, but I got held up, and then I saw Kevin and Deon heading one way, while Dave headed another. I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to go, and the guys were all out of sight before I could react, so I thought I’d wait for you here.” Ross tried to smile, but he knew his nervousness was showing.
Ty stared for a moment and then pointed in the direction that Kevin and Deon had gone. “The change room’s that way. Dave had some other things he needed to do.”
“Okay, thanks.” Ross swallowed once before continuing. “Sorry about earlier, too. Can you pass on my apologies to Liam and Neil? I didn’t mean to be rude; I’m just stressing about Saturday, and I’ve never been around gay guys before. I overreacted.”
Ty grunted. “They’re ordinary guys, Roscoe. Great guys, too, and being gay has nothing to do with who they are.” He started heading towards the change room. “You’ve pissed me off a few times now, and if Dad didn’t support you, I’d be kicking you out of the building. Don’t piss me off again.”
“Okay.” Ross glanced back to the gym, wondering if Jim was going to be getting changed, too.
“Dad’s staying to do a bit more work.” Ty scowled at Ross. “And that’s just an excuse so he doesn’t upset your stupid arse by being in the change room at the same time as some immature idiot. He’s doing that for you, and you’d better not fuck things up.”
Ross nodded, not game to speak. He couldn’t promise he wouldn’t react poorly again, but he had to protect himself. There was too much riding on being drafted for him to risk causing waves by being outed. He needed to stay in the closet.
* * *
Dave stepped out of the coaches’ change room, only to find Julie waiting for him.
“Have you got a few minutes?” Julie asked. When he nodded, she led him back into the change room and closed the door. “Something’s bothering you, Dave. You don’t have to tell me, but maybe I can help.”
Dave scowled at her, but she simply stared back. Dave was the one who broke first, dropping his head. “It’s Saturday. I’m wondering if it’s a good idea for me to be going.”
Julie reached out and put a hand on Dave’s shoulder, only to drop it when Dave flinched. “Yes, it’s a good idea. You’re a bloody good midfielder, Dave, and everyone—including the AFL clubs—recognises that. This is your chance to show them what you’re capable of and maybe find yourself at an AFL club next year.”
“But will they want someone who’s crazy?”
“You’re not crazy!” Julie stated that so forcibly that Dave’s head snapped up to see her angry face. “Dave, you’re hurt. We all know that. The AFL clubs know that, too, and they’re still talking to you, aren’t they?”
Julie smiled. “People are keeping an eye out for you, Dave. I’m keeping an eye on what’s happening.” When Dave started to scowl again, she held up a hand to stop him from saying anything. “All the Leopards are rooting for you, Dave. You were one of my best midfielders this year, and I’d love to see you in the AFL. If there’s anything I can do to help, I’ll do it. That’s why I’m here now.”
“They all want to know what...what made me like this.” Dave shuddered. “I’m getting stressed worrying about Saturday, and I’m back on antipsychotics. I’m worried I’m going to snap.” He gave Julie a painful look. “What if something goes wrong while I’m at the combine? I can’t control when things happen. I...” He dropped his head.
“Dave...” Julie waited and then repeated it again more firmly. “Dave...look at me.”
He lifted his head and met her compassionate gaze. “You won’t be alone. There will be others there who will support you. What’s going on inside your head is your battle to fight, but I know you can win that one. I have faith in you. What happens outside your head is our battle to fight, and you’ve got all the Leopards at your side for that one.”
Dave stared at her and then nodded his head. His face firmed into his normal cold, forbidding expression.
Julie narrowed her eyes for a moment and then smiled. “This is for your ears only. I don’t want Deon or the others to know about it, but you’ll have some extra support on Saturday.”
Dave’s eyes widened as he listened to what Julie had to tell him. The mere fact that she trusted him with the information helped to partly settle his worries about the combine. Dave had lost a lot of faith in people when he had his breakdown at Easter. It was taking time to regain his ability to trust, and Julie’s simple act was helping with that process.
* * *
A half-dressed Deon frowned at his phone. “Brat, do you have any plans for Thursday night?”
“Not yet, but I can organise something if you need me to.” Ty smiled across the change room as he slipped on a pair of jeans. “What did Clarissa have to say?”
“It wasn’t her. It was Hawthorn again.” Deon put the phone on top of his sports bag and grabbed his shirt. “They want to meet my housemates.”
“You’re telling them no, right?” Kevin asked. “We don’t want to encourage them, especially not after what they did to my teammates on Saturday.” He grinned to show he wasn’t serious as he jabbed a finger in Deon’s direction “And if you end up playing for them, it’s going to put a serious strain on our friendship.”
Deon chuckled. “I could always let them meet the brat. He’s enough to put anyone off.”
Ty smiled playfully. “Ah, the stories I could tell...” He winked at Kevin. “Once they know the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, do you really think they’ll want him?”
Deon glared. “Don’t you dare!”
Kevin’s gaze flicked between the two before settling on Ty. “Have you got stories that I should know about?”
“Brat...” Deon grimaced and then turned to the fourth person in the room. “Have many teams been talking to you, Roscoe?”
Ross looked up from the corner where he had been quietly getting dressed. He was envious of the easy camaraderie between the other three guys, but as the outsider he didn’t feel it was his place to push himself into the conversation. He could tell that Deon was trying to redirect attention away, but the question was one that Ross had fielded many times from his school friends.
“I’ve only had three clubs speak to me more than once, and none of them have spoken to me in the last month.”
“Which clubs?” Kevin asked.
“Brisbane, West Coast, and Richmond.”
Deon frowned at him. “That’s a two in three chance you’ll be moving interstate. How do you feel about that?”
“Nervous, but excited, too. Mum’s made sure I can cope on my own if I have to, but Brisbane and West Coast are a long way from family and friends.” Ross dropped his head. “That assumes that one of them drafts me, though. I don’t get the impression that I’m high up on any of their lists.”
“It’s a long way from home, but you’ll make friends quickly.” Kevin smiled. “If it’s anything like what happened to me, you’ll have all the other new guys at the club who have come from interstate in exactly the same boat, and the club will have you stay with someone who can help you settle in. I’ve been living with the Wembleys, and they’re like a second set of parents, now.”
Ross looked up at Kevin. “Did...” He shook his head. “Never mind.”
“What is it? If you’ve got a question, I’ll try to answer it.” Kevin grinned. “I was in your shoes this time last year. I know you’ve got a ton of questions you’d like to ask.”
“Did the clubs keep talking to you right up to the draft?” Ross grimaced. “I’m worried that no contact means they’re no longer interested.” He tilted his head towards Deon. “He’s still getting calls, but they’ve stopped talking to me.”
“No, they didn’t, but don’t worry about it. I know most of the guys didn’t hear anything between the combine and the end of school exams, but that’s because the AFL is trying not to disrupt the last year of school. For me, things were quiet before the combine, too, but they more than made up for it when I was there.” Kevin snorted. “Some of the guys barely had time to piss, they were so busy between the testing and interviews.”
“Tell me about it.” Ty rolled his eyes. “Though that was mainly the first couple of days. The last two days of the combine were easier in that respect, at least for me. I was able to concentrate on the tests and not worry about talking.”
Kevin gave Deon a thoughtful look. “You know, because you’ve already finished school, maybe the same rules don’t apply. Maybe that’s why the clubs are starting to pay more attention to you. For now, they’re finished with guys still in school, and now they’re working on you guys that are already in the work force.”
Ty nodded his head slowly. “Could be. That’ll explain the late interest in Dad. The Blues got in first back in June, but now the other clubs are starting to call.”
“And you guys certainly didn’t hurt your chances with your performance in the VFL finals.” Kevin grinned. “From sixth place to winning the premiership? If that hasn’t made the clubs sit up and take notice, I don’t know what will.”
Deon cocked his head. “Do you think some of the other guys might be approached? That premiership was very much a team effort.”
“The other guys put in solid performances, too, and deserve to be noticed,” Ty said. “But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We don’t say anything about being possibly approached to the others until someone’s contacted. No false hopes, guys.”
Deon and Kevin both nodded. Kevin then smiled at Ross. “I hope that helps. None of us knows what’s going to happen in November, but don’t stress about the fact that you haven’t heard from anyone recently. I was in your situation last year, and I got picked.”
Ross nodded slowly. “Thanks.” He hesitated before asking a related question. “But did you worry about not getting drafted?”
Kevin scoffed. “Are you kidding me? Between exams and the draft, I was a nervous wreck. Then on draft day, my name didn’t get called until the third round, just over an hour after it started. I was shitting bricks, worried that my dreams were going up in smoke.” He stiffened. “Sorry, Deon, Ty. I didn’t mean...that is...”
Deon waved a hand to dismiss Kevin’s apology. “Don’t worry about it. As it turns out, not getting drafted was the best thing that could’ve happened to me. Julie found and fixed the problem I had with my kicking, and everyone here gave me the support I needed to shine.” He smirked. “Even though you’ve played two games in the AFL itself, I think more people would know me than you.”
Kevin laughed. “At least around here. Up in Sydney, don’t expect people to have any idea who you are.” He winked. “Apart from all the people I’ve been telling, of course.”
Ross, however, had spotted Ty’s face before he looked away. When Ross had researched the people he would be training with, he had found out that Ty had been considered by many to be a top prospect the year before, a first-round draft pick. His name was never called.
Not saying anything, Ross walked over and put a hand on Ty’s shoulder. When Ty looked up at him, Ross smiled and nodded his head once. “Maybe this year.”
Ty scowled and knocked Ross’s hand away. “This is going to be Deon’s year, not mine. If you’re lucky it might be yours, too, but we all still have a lot of work to do before that happens.” Ty grabbed his bag and glared at the other three guys. “Tomorrow morning, 7 a.m. We’ll be running for almost two hours, so be prepared.”
Ross watched Ty storm out of the room before feeling a hand on his own shoulder. He turned around to see Deon standing there, a sad smile on his face. “The brat doesn’t like being reminded about last year. He also doesn’t want to get his hopes up for this year. We,” Deon indicated Kevin and himself, “both think he should be a good prospect, but none of the clubs are talking to him. We don’t know why. That hurts.”
* * *
Neil swallowed as he glanced across at Liam and Ty. Saying he was nervous would be an understatement. He knew in his heart he was about to hear some bad news, and the possibilities were terrifying him.
Ty smiled in a reassuring way and waved a hand towards the gate. “After you.”
Neil nodded once and headed through. When he was halfway up the path, the front door opened and his parents appeared. His mother rushed forward to embrace him. “Neil!”
“Hi, Mum.” Neil hugged her back and then tried to smile past her to his father. “Dad.”
Phil Rosewood smiled back. “G’day, Neil. It’s good to see you again. You, too, Liam, Ty.”
“What is it that you wanted to talk about?” Neil asked as his mother let go.
Mary Rosewood glanced around. “Not out here.” She beckoned the three guys forward. “Let’s go inside. I’ve got cakes and biscuits ready. Will you all have your usual drinks?”
After a chorus of confirmations, they headed inside. While Neil’s mother disappeared to the kitchen, the four males went to the living room. A table with light snacks was in already in place, with a space left for the tray of drinks when they were ready.
Neil and Liam sat on the couch together, and Neil clenched Liam’s hand. His father frowned. “Is that necessary, Neil?” He quickly raised both hands. “I don’t mind, but you know what that does to your mother.”
“You’re making me nervous, Dad. What’s going on that’s so urgent? You don’t look like you’ve won the lottery, and you wanted Liam here, too, so all I can think of is that someone’s sick—really sick—and you want Liam here to support me.” Neil lifted their joined hands for a moment. “This is my support.”
Phil smiled, though Neil thought it was more just an upturn of the lips than a genuine smile. “It’s not that bad.”
“But it’s not good news.” Neil made it a statement, though he hoped his father would tell him he was wrong.
Phil glanced at the doorway to the kitchen. “We should wait for your mother to get back. She won’t be long.”
Neil didn’t like the way his father was avoiding eye contact. He glanced at Ty, who seemed equally concerned, before turning to Liam.
“I’m here for you, Neil,” Liam said quietly. “Whatever is going on, we’ll get through this together.”
Neil took a deep breath and then nodded. He released Liam’s hand. The tactile contact had been reassuring, but Liam’s words gave him the courage to let go. He didn’t need to distress his mother by holding his boyfriend’s hand.
“How are things generally, Neil?” his father asked.
“Pretty good. I worked four days last week, and I’ll be working three days this week, so that’s giving me some decent savings to keep me going next year until I can find a job in Sydney.”
“You’re going to work? I thought you’ll be concentrating on your studies next year.”
“I will be, but I want some of my own money, too.” Neil gave his father a half-smile. “I know Sam and Marcus are giving me a place for free, but I’d like to contribute something if I can, as well as being able to pay for dates with Liam. Keith—that’s the sales and marketing manager at the radio station—said he’s going to contact some people he knows in Sydney to see if I can get a similar job up there. I won’t be working too much; just enough to give me some spending money.”
Phil nodded, though with a frown on his face. “What about your upcoming exams? I hope you haven’t been working so much that you end up not studying enough. You’ll need good results if you’re going to get into uni.”
“Good.” Phil looked up as Mary entered with the tray of drinks. He jumped up. “Let me help you with that.”
A couple of minutes later, they were all seated. There was an awkward silence for a few seconds before Phil sighed and dropped his head. “Neil, I want you to know that this has nothing to do with you. Absolutely nothing. Work has gotten...difficult. After a lot of discussion between your mother and me, we have decided that it would be best if we moved. The house goes on the market today.”
Neil blinked, not quite absorbing what his father was saying. “Moving? To where?”
Phil looked up. “I’ve found a job in a small town a couple of hours south of Sydney. I start work in two weeks’ time. We still haven’t found a house to buy up there, but we’re going to rent a place for a few months while we look. In the meantime, we want to ask you if you’d like to move back home to look after the place until it’s sold.”
Neil had too many things to think about. He focused on one. “Sydney? Is that because I’m moving up there next year? Are you following me?”
Mrs. Rosewood leant forward. “It was a factor, dear, but it was also where there was a job. It’ll mean that we’ll be able to see you from time to time, but we also know you won’t be able to live with us.” The cup and saucer in her hand started to rattle. “We miss you, Neil. We don’t want to lose you for four years. When this opportunity arose, it seemed like a sign from God. We had to take it.”
Neil turned to Liam and then Ty. Both guys were smiling encouragingly. Neil sighed. “Okay, I understand, but I’m not sure about moving back here.” His expression firmed as he looked at his parents. “Will Liam be welcome?”
Mary had to put her cup down before it spilt.
Phil reached over and patted her hand, though he kept his eyes on Neil. “We won’t be here, Neil. We’re moving next week. We’re also telling the real-estate agent that the settlement date has to be after all your exams are finished. That way you can stay here until school’s finished.”
Liam had a faint frown on his face. “We’re not going to get any offers from the universities until January. We won’t know until then if we’re going to Sydney at all. What will Neil do if the house sells before then? He won’t have anywhere to stay.”
“We’ll find him somewhere,” Ty said. “I’m sure Ollie and Paul will let him move back in.”
Phil smiled his thanks before returning his attention to his son. “And you’ll be welcome to stay with us for a few weeks.” He pulled a face. “We know it may mean moving a couple of times before you head off to Sydney, but we really do want you here. All we ask is that you keep the place looking nice for when the real-estate agent brings over prospective buyers.”
“We know it’s an imposition, dear, but it’ll make both of us feel better if you came home, even if it’s only for a short time.” Mary dabbed at her eyes with a lace handkerchief. “I’ve kept your room ready for you. You can move in whenever you want.”
Neil stared and then grimaced. “Can I think about it? I’m happy where I am. Moving back here, staying in the house by myself...” he dropped his head. “...I don’t know.”
Liam put an arm around Neil and gave him a squeeze of reassurance. “I’m happy with whatever you decide. Staying where you are will mean you can concentrate on your exams. Staying here will mean you’re closer to school and you’ll be able to have dinner at my place whenever you want.” He leant over and whispered, “And maybe my parents will let me stay here with you.”
Neil smiled and gave Liam a quick kiss. “We’ll see.” A strangled gasp brought him back to reality, and he turned to watch his mother studiously not looking in their direction. She still couldn’t accept that Liam was his boyfriend.
* * *
“Peter, wait up!”
Peter had just stepped outside the Whitten Oval training facilities of the Western Bulldogs, ready to head home, when he heard his name being called. He smiled when he recognised the trainer that he had been working with earlier that day. “Lee! What’s up?”
Lee Corrigan jogged up. “Any chance of a drink and chat before you head out? There are a few things I thought you should know.”
Peter hesitated for a moment. Lee had made a good impression on him earlier that day, so he gave him the benefit of the doubt. “I’ve got some time, but not too much. Where did you want to go?”
“That depends.” Lee grinned. “Did you want beer or coffee?”
A few minutes later, they were seated at the back of a small cafe, waiting for their coffees to arrive. Peter leant back in his chair. “You want to chat about something in particular?”
Lee grimaced. “Yeah, I do. The main thing is to suggest you try to keep your head down over the next couple of weeks and don’t get noticed. Things have been really tense, and I’m sensing that the situation is about to explode. You’re new, but you could get caught up in it, and you don’t want that.”
Peter waited, an eyebrow raised.
“This has nothing to do with you personally, but Brendan had a big say in who got your job. There will be some people who resent that.”
Peter wasn’t surprised that Brendan McCartney, the Western Bulldogs head coach, had a say in the assistant-coaching, position-selection process, but he wasn’t sure what to make of Lee’s last comment. “Resent? Why?”
“As I said, this has nothing to do with you, but there are a number of senior players who haven’t been getting along with Brendan, and the fact that he wanted you for the job means that they’ll be viewing you with a jaundiced eye.”
“But the players aren’t back training for over a month. I was told the first group would be starting on the 5th of November, and that didn’t include the senior players. Why do you think there are going to be problems now?”
Lee grimaced and looked away. “Because the AFL Trade Period starts next Monday, and I expect a number of players will be requesting trades. We haven’t managed to get Shaun Higgins to sign up again, so he’s a good chance to disappear as a free agent. Jason’s already pulling his hair out about that as he stresses about whether the AFL Commission will give us adequate compensation.”
Peter snorted in sympathy. The concept of free agents—out-of-contract players who were able to offer their services to other clubs without a formal trade agreement—was relatively new to the AFL. As part of the deal struck between the AFL Commission and the AFL Players’ Association, clubs would be compensated with extra draft picks when a free agent left, but it would be up to the commission to decide where in the draft order those picks would be located, based on the AFL’s view as to that player’s existing and future status.
“Exactly what’s going to happen, I don’t know, but I’ve heard enough rumblings that I’m sure that something is going to hit the fan. When it does, there’s a good chance that the club will be split as to who is at fault. You’re better off trying to avoid picking sides, Peter, and waiting for the dramas to settle before lifting your head up above the ramparts.”
Peter grimaced as he absorbed the information. He had always hated office politics, but it seemed that even AFL clubs couldn’t get away from them. “Thanks, Lee. What do you think is likely to happen?”
“It all depends on who asks to be traded. If it’s only a handful, things will settle down quickly. If too many senior players ask to leave, then I think Brendan’s job will be on the line. It’ll be easier for management to replace a head coach than it will be to replace a lot of experienced players.” Lee caught Peter’s eye. “Don’t get your name tied too closely to Brendan’s...just in case.”
Peter nodded. There was little he could do about the situation except try to protect himself.
* * *
Kevin sat on the edge of his bed playing with his phone. Deon was going to have an early night on Friday because of the combine the next day, but Kevin wanted to cut loose and party. By that stage, he would have spent the week working hard and felt one night of fun was due.
While his short time with Evelyn had been fun, they were never a couple, and both of them had always known that. He accepted that she had found someone local whom she liked and had a chance at a long-term relationship, something that wasn’t an option with him.
Kevin toyed with the idea of ringing one of the girls whose numbers he had collected before the grand-final parade the previous Friday, but for some reason he didn’t feel like another physical relationship. They were too easy to come by for him, and while fun, they were also not completely satisfying.
He knew what he preferred—a night out relaxing with friends—but Deon wasn’t available, and Kevin had drifted away from his other Melbourne-based football friends. He considered asking Ty, but he suspected Ty wouldn’t be good company. The discussion with Roscoe in the Leopards change room earlier that day had shown that Ty was sensitive on the subject of the draft, and the main thing that Ty and Kevin had in common was Deon and the combine on Saturday.
As he scrolled through his contact list, trying to work out whom he should call, he found himself returning to the same name. He stared at it, wondering if it was what he wanted to do.
“Fuck it!” He hit the call button and waited.
“Hello?” a hesitant male voice answered.
“Hi, Warwick, it’s Kevin. I was wondering if you had any plans for Friday night. I’m going to be at a loose end and thought we could hang out together.”
“Kevin! Yeah, that sounds great. Did you have any ideas of what you wanted to do?”
“Not a lot. Grab a bite to eat somewhere and then maybe a few drinks. I don’t feel like doing a lot, just relaxing without any pressure. Where would you suggest?”
There was a moment of hesitation. “Most of the places I usually go to cater to a largely gay crowd, but I can ask around at work for what other places are recommended.”
“No need to do that. We’ll go where you’re comfortable.” Kevin chuckled. “I’ve never been to a gay bar. It might be an interesting experience.”
“Are you sure? Someone will hit on you, I can guarantee it.”
“Yeah, I’m sure. If I don’t like it, we can always go somewhere else.”
After a short discussion, they settled on where they would meet. Once the call was finished, Kevin lay down and stared at the ceiling. He was both excited and nervous about Friday night. What he tried desperately to avoid doing was to work out why. He just wanted a good time with someone with whom he had things in common. Kevin was anticipating a night of discussing football, probably paired with a shared commiseration for Sydney’s loss in the AFL grand final. That was all. Nothing more.
At least that’s what he kept telling himself.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: As Lee told Peter, the next day Shaun Higgins’s decision to leave the Western Bulldogs was made official.