Ross mentally berated himself for telling Wu and Lauren that he was going on a date. He hadn’t expected to see them and hadn’t prepared a lie. All he could come up with at the spur of the moment was a version of the truth and then work hard to keep secret the fact that the date was with Stuart.
The only saving grace was that he had implied that he would only tell them the name of the date if it worked out. He could always tell them that it didn’t, though he suspected that the two would then return to trying to find him a suitable girl.
It was also a blessing that Dave was driving him home. Ross had used the excuse that he needed to return quickly so he would be ready for his date, and taking the train back with Wu and Lauren would take too long. Ross had worried that the insult to his friends would be too much, but they accepted the decision magnanimously and decided to stay in the city for a night out. Ross knew that Dave wouldn’t talk during the trip, so that allowed Ross to avoid questions from everyone...except Deon.
“Why didn’t you tell me about this date?” Deon asked. “I told you about the one I’m going on tonight.”
“I didn’t think you’d be interested.” Ross quickly tried to change the subject. “You didn’t tell me that your housemates were showing up after the combine. Why didn’t you head back home with them?”
Deon grinned. “Because they’re not heading home, at least not yet. They’re meeting up with a couple of friends, having something to eat, and visiting some nightclubs.”
“Sounds like the same as what I’ll be doing tonight. What about you?”
“Just dinner for us. Neil and Liam are trying to save up so they can go to Sydney next year, and Clarissa wanted a double date with them, so...” Deon shrugged and then grinned. “The brat suggested this cheap Indian place in Ringwood. He’s told me I have to order the lamb vindaloo.”
“Aren’t vindaloos supposed to be really spicy?”
“They are.” Deon chuckled. “I’ve already told the brat that I know what happened to him when he tried that dish. He had trouble speaking and went through several litres of water and three naan breads before he finished.”
Ross smiled. “So you’re not trying his suggestion?”
“No bloody way! I want to be able to give my girlfriend a goodnight kiss afterwards, and that’s not going to be possible if I eat something too hot.”
“Yeah...” Ross stared for a moment. “So it’s dinner, then an early night?”
“Nah.” Deon grinned. “Neil’s got his parents’ house to himself, so the four of us will be going back there afterwards before I take Clarissa home. She’s already started getting her mindset back into gear for the last term of school.”
Ross grimaced. The change of subject didn’t thrill him. “Yeah, I understand that. It’s back to the grind on Monday. It’s only a short term for us because they’re giving us two weeks off for revision before exams start, but it’s still a pain.”
“I remember.” Deon shuddered. “I’m glad school’s over, though one of the clubs today brought back some of the horror. They asked me if I’d thought about getting a degree. They told me that the club would assist me if that’s what I wanted. I told them no. I’d do an apprenticeship if one’s available because I like working with my hands. There’s no way I’ll go back to school if I have any say in the matter. I’d had more than enough of studying by the time I finished my exams last year.”
“I wouldn’t mind going on to university, though I’m not sure what I’d do. Business, I suppose.” Ross sighed. “I’ve just got to get through this year first.”
“Well there’s not too much more to go.” Deon paused. “When’s Muck Up day?”
“Friday week, 17th of October. Why?”
“What have you got planned? We had a superhero day for our last day at school before the exams.” Deon chuckled. “I succumbed to peer pressure, got myself a blond wig, and went as Thor. Out of the three guys who had done the same, the girls voted me as the hunkiest.”
“That sounds like it was a lot of fun.” Ross smiled at the mental picture Deon’s description had generated.
“It was, but what about you? What’s your year got planned?”
Ross knew his face was going red. “They’ve...ah...dedicated the day to me.” He gave Deon a sheepish smile. “They’re going to decorate eighteen rooms in the school with the colours of the eighteen AFL teams, and everyone in Year 12 apart from me is going to come to school dressed in team uniforms, even the girls.”
“That’s cool, but why aren’t you dressing up, too?”
“I’m supposed to visit each of the rooms, get changed into the uniform for that team, and pose for photos.” Ross could feel his face burning with embarrassment. “I’ve overheard a couple of girls mention that they made sure the uniform they bought for me was at least a size too small.”
Deon laughed. “And you have to get dressed in front of them?”
“Yep. I’m wearing speedos to school that day.”
“Well, I hope you have fun.” Deon continued in a more gentle tone. “It shows you how much everyone else at the school is behind you.”
“Well...at least some of them. I think they railroaded the others, most of whom probably don’t care.” Ross turned and stared out the window. “The school hasn’t had anyone with a chance at the AFL before. I’m just scared that I won’t make it. It’ll feel like I’ve let them down.”
Deon sighed. “I understand. I went through the same thing last year, too. I was afraid to show my face for a couple of weeks after the draft. Everyone told me that I gave it my best shot and that there wasn’t anything more I could’ve done, but still...”
There was silence in the car as both Ross and Deon were lost in their thoughts. There was nothing more they could do except wait until November to see if they had done enough to get drafted.
* * *
“So...who interviewed you?” Kevin asked.
Deon glanced into his wardrobe while talking on the phone. He still hadn’t decided what he was going to wear for his date that night.
“Hawthorn, Greater Western Sydney, St. Kilda, and Geelong. I also had informal chats with Adelaide and Essendon.”
“I’ve already told you that our friendship is in danger if you go to the Hawks, but I want to say the same could occur if you end up at GWS. I’m not sure I can be friends with someone who plays for our cross-town rival.”
Deon chuckled. He knew from the tone that Kevin wasn’t being serious. “Well, you told me I’m not likely to get drafted by the Swans, so GWS is my only chance if we’re going to end up in the same city.”
“Yeah, but playing for them is a step too far. I wouldn’t ask you to sacrifice yourself in that way. Oh, and while I think of it, you can’t get drafted by Geelong, either. There’s too much chance you’ll lift them enough that they’ll be challenging us for a spot in the grand final next year.”
“Okay, but let’s be honest Kev. What you really want to do is to name all seventeen of the other AFL teams and tell me I can’t play for any of them.”
“Not true!” Kevin’s tone indicated amusement. “You can play for Gold Coast or Brisbane, preferably Gold Coast. That way I’ll have a place to stay when I’m holidaying in Queensland.”
Deon laughed. “Sorry, Kev, but I’ve got no say in who drafts me—or if anyone does.”
“Hey, don’t be like that. You’ll get drafted; I know you will. You told me you had a good combine, so you should be a shoo-in. Be positive!”
Deon’s phone beeped, indicating the receipt of a text message. “Thanks mate, but I’ve got to go. I still need to get ready for my date tonight, and time’s running out.”
“Alright. Take care, and good luck. I’ll give you a call tomorrow, and we’ll work out when we can catch up next.”
“We’ll do that. Bye, Kev!”
Deon hung up and then checked the message that had arrived. He’d already had several from friends and teammates, checking on how the combine had gone, so he was expecting another of the same type. His eyes widened with delight when he saw that it had been a missed call from his father.
He quickly rang him back “Dad!”
“G’day, Deon. I hope I’m not calling at a bad time. I wasn’t sure what time the combine finished, so we waited until we thought you’d be home.”
“No, it’s perfect timing. I haven’t been home that long, but the phone keeps ringing. I’ve just finished chatting with Kev.” He settled himself on the edge of the bed so he could concentrate on the call. “It’s good to hear from you.”
“Marcus and I were wondering how you’re feeling. You told us on Wednesday that you were getting stressed. Was it as bad as you thought?”
Deon chuckled. “No. I was in the same group as Roscoe, the guy I’ve been training with all week, and that helped a lot. We pushed each other, simply by being together, and I think we both did pretty well. There were others who did better in a lot of the tests, but I don’t think I let myself down—unlike last year.”
“That’s great! We’ll be keeping our fingers crossed for draft night. If you hear anything before then, let us know, if you can.”
“Sure, Dad. Are you still coming down in a couple of weeks’ time?”
“For the Leopards awards night? We wouldn’t miss it!” It was Sam’s turn to chuckle. “Matt and Gary have already been in touch and told us that we’re staying with them for the weekend. They want to know if you’ll pick us up from the airport. Otherwise, they’ll arrange for a car to collect us. We told them that we didn’t want to impose, but they said they’re going to make us work for the accommodation. We have to spend the weekend test-driving one of their new BMWs.”
Deon laughed. Matt and Gary were the owners of a BMW dealership, and they’d allowed Deon to test-drive one of their new vehicles earlier in the year. It was an experience that Deon still remembered and wanted to repeat. A brand new BMW sports car—from Matt and Gary’s dealership, naturally—was on his wish list for when he was rich enough to afford one.
“Yeah, I’ll pick you up. The usual flight on Friday night?”
“It is, but I’ll text you the details to make sure.” There was a short pause. “I’m proud of you, Deon. Regardless of whether or not you make it to the AFL, I’m proud of the man you’ve turned into. I want you to know that.”
Deon’s sight started to blur as his eyes became moist. He hadn’t always been a good son. “Thanks, Dad. I’m sorry, but I’ve got to go. I’m going out for dinner with Clarissa, Neil, and Liam, and I need to get changed before I pick up Neil. I told him I’d be there in thirty minutes.”
“Okay, Deon. Have fun tonight, and say hi to the others for me. You can also tell Neil that his room is almost ready for when he wants to move up here. He’ll be able to move in anytime after his exams are finished.”
“I’ll tell him. Thanks, Dad.”
Deon had a smile on his face the entire time he prepared for his dinner date. The phone call from his father was the icing on what had already been a great day.
* * *
Garry, the Hawthorn recruitment manager, glanced around the private function room above the Lygon Street restaurant. “Remember guys, nothing’s off topic tonight. It’s not often we get all the Hawthorn recruiters in the same room, so let’s take advantage of it.” He smiled and waved at the pizzas that had been delivered from downstairs. “Let’s get started. I suspect it’s going to be a long night.”
The next twenty minutes were spent eating and catching up. With the recruiting managers from Western Australia, South Australia, and the northern states, as well as half-a-dozen Melbourne-based recruiters in the same room, the conversation was naturally dominated by football prospects for the upcoming draft.
“What did you think of your namesake?” Scotty, the manager responsible for both New South Wales and Queensland, asked Isaac. “I presume you watched him during the week.”
“Heeney? He was impressive, but he didn’t stand out. He was just a good solid performer. I didn’t see any weaknesses that needed addressing, but I’d like to see him in a game. I’ve only seen video highlights, and they don’t show what he’s doing away from the ball.”
“I’ve seen him play, and the highlights don’t do him justice.”
Isaac frowned. “He’s that good?”
“I’d say he’s one of the top five in this year’s group, and a possible top three.” Scotty grimaced. “It really pisses me off that the Swans are getting him for a song. We’ve got pick 19 as our first pick, so we’re barely going to get one of the top twenty, but Sydney are going to pick up a top-five player with pick 18.”
Isaac smiled. “We might have a chance of pulling off a similar coup. There’s someone who I think is a top-five player that almost every other club seems to be ignoring. There’s another club that appears to be interested in him, but if they don’t take him first round, we might be able to snag him.”
Scotty’s jaw dropped. “Flanders? That cretin?” His voice started to rise. “Why the hell would we want to draft him? He’s a self-centred bastard that would cause more problems than any good he could bring to the table. We all agreed on that last year.”
The raised tone had attracted the interest of those around them. Isaac knew it was time to sell Ty to the other recruiters, though ultimately it was only Garry he needed to convince.
“He’s changed. I’ve spoken to him and his teammates. Despite his age, the Lilydale Leopards made him their vice-captain, and he’s done things for people other than himself. He’s not the immature kid he was last year.”
“Isn’t he the guy who wouldn’t even come to the phone when we called? That doesn’t sound like he’s changed.” The other recruiter’s tone showed his disgust.
Isaac grinned. “That’s what his father told us. Of course, that’s also the guy who didn’t know that his son played in the grand final. His comment to me was that Ty had insisted on getting up to watch the game instead of staying in bed to rest his knee, which is what his father thought he should be doing.”
There was a moment of silence.
“You’re joking, right?” Scotty asked.
“Nope. Flanders’ father didn’t know he was playing. He tried to tell me that the kid was at home, instead.”
“Exactly.” Isaac’s eyes took in the variety of disbelieving or cynical expressions on the other recruiters’ faces. “We can’t trust anything he’s said. When I spoke to Flanders during the week, he indicated he’d never been contacted by any AFL clubs. I’m sure we weren’t the only club who tried, but his father wasn’t passing on any messages. The two haven’t spoken to each other for months.”
“So where does that leave us?”
“With the chance to pick this year’s Norm Goss medallist for a song.” Isaac saw Garry frowning and concentrated on him for the rest of his sales pitch. “The Bulldogs will also know the truth because the Leopards coach has started work there, but we’re hoping that they won’t take him in the first round, allowing us to grab him instead.”
Garry shook his head. “Sorry, but I don’t think that’s likely.” He raised his voice to make sure everyone in the room could hear him. “Enough chatting, guys. We need to start work on determining who we want to draft. I want everyone’s top-sixty list by this time next week.”
“Sixty!” Scotty frowned. “We’ve rarely gone past fifty in the past.”
“This year we want more. That’s one of the reasons we’re here tonight: so you can try to convince your colleagues about your favourite players.” Garry waited until the murmurs died down. “Nothing’s official until the start of the Trade Period on Monday, but we’re going to be negotiating with GWS for Jonathan O’Rourke. We all know he wants to return to Melbourne, and his manager has indicated to us that Hawthorn is his club of choice. We’ll probably have to give up our first-round pick to get him, which means that unless we can trade for something higher, our first pick may be number 36 or worse.”
Isaac reflected on what Garry had announced. Retaining players was a chronic problem for the two new interstate clubs: Greater Western Sydney and the Gold Coast Suns. After their initial two-year contract was up, an uncomfortably large number of youngsters wanted to return home, which usually meant returning to Melbourne. The Greater Western Sydney Giants had just completed their third AFL season, and they were already losing players as they came out of contract. That was good news for teams like Hawthorn, because players wanted to join teams that could win premierships, but it was bad news for the AFL’s attempt to open up a new market in Sydney’s west.
“Jono may have been the number-2 draft pick from 2012, but he’s had a lot of injury problems while he’s been with the Giants. Is he worth it?”
“Graham and I think so,” Garry said, referring to the Hawthorn list manager and ultimate decision-maker on all trade and draft issues. “We’re getting our doctors to check him out on Monday. We’re also going to go after James Frawley as an unrestricted free agent, and we think he’ll agree. Trade Period is going to be busy guys, because the way the draft is structured, we’re not going to get a shot at any of the top candidates. Instead, we’re looking at trading to improve our list and using the mid-range draft picks, if we can get them, to round out our collection of youngsters.”
After winning two premierships in a row, Hawthorn was widely acknowledged as a strong team with plenty of depth. The downside was that the way the draft was structured, it also meant that they would be making their selections after every other team had made theirs. That left their long-term prospects weaker, as it gave them fewer strong youngsters coming up as the existing team aged.
Isaac grimaced as he realised that the club wasn’t looking at the draft as the main source of footballers for the playing list, and that meant Ty was unlikely to end up as a Hawk. He would still put Ty’s name forward just in case he was available when it was Hawthorn’s turn to pick a player, but with the Western Bulldogs also knowing about Ty’s attitude change, that wasn’t something they could expect.
* * *
Ross glanced nervously out the car window as Stuart took an unexpected turn. “Where are we going?” Instead of heading towards central Melbourne where they were going out for dinner, Stuart was driving in the direction of his house.
“We’re taking the train in. That way we can both drink and not worry about being pulled over by the cops.”
“But you picked me up from the train station. Why didn’t we just go in from there?” Ross had to sit on his hands to keep them from shaking. He was afraid of what Stuart might have planned.
“Yeah, but that station wasn’t walking distance to my place.” Stuart grinned as he glanced at Ross and then reached over to caress Ross’s thigh. “We’re going to have a great dinner, some dancing at a nightclub, and then back to my place for some intimate fun. I’ve got it all planned. Trust me.”
Ross didn’t trust him at all, and the hand on his thigh was feeding his anxieties. “We can’t dance at a nightclub. Someone might recognise me! I can’t be out, Stuart. I just can’t!”
“Relax. While most gay nightclubs in Melbourne cater for a mixed crowd as long as they’re gay-friendly, there’s one that I know of that’s exclusively gay. Even if you’re recognised, it’ll be by someone who’s also gay and will understand your need to stay in the closet. Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me.” Stuart chuckled. “I’ll even make the ultimate sacrifice and promise to keep my hands off you while we’re having dinner. The place we’re going—and the nightclub later—is in Prahran, which is in my opinion the most gay-friendly part of Melbourne. People might wonder about two guys eating together, but as long as you keep your hands to yourself,” Stuart threw Ross a cheeky grin, “no one will know for sure.” He winked. “Later on, when we’re at MANdatory, your hands can do whatever they want.”
“That’s the nightclub we’re going to. It’s not large, and the entrance is off an alleyway, so there’s no passing traffic to observe people going in and out, and best of all, the bouncer makes sure that only gay guys get in. It’s somewhere you can be yourself and not worry about being outed.”
Ross’s heart and mind were torn. He knew that Stuart wasn’t the one for him, but he didn’t know anyone he could trust with his secret. He didn’t even trust Stuart, but it was too late to do anything about that. Despite his earlier decision that he had to try to maintain a distance between them, the opportunity to spend a few hours being himself—being a gay guy—was too much to resist. Ross hoped he wouldn’t end up digging a hole he couldn’t get out of, but he was starting to look forward to the evening.
* * *
“...and that’s when a very red-faced and half-naked Tony disappeared.” Alex grinned across the restaurant table at his flatmate. “What’s wrong, Tony? You’re blushing.”
“You’re just lucky that I’m not as big a gossip as you; otherwise, I’d be telling tales about some of the things you’ve been up to.” Tony gave Alex a weak smile. “Now, how about picking on someone else for a change?”
“Dad!” Ty grinned at his housemate. “We can start picking on him.”
“How about not?” Jim said in a pained tone. “We’re here to enjoy dinner. Between you and Alex, I’m starting to get indigestion.”
“That reminds me of another story,” Alex said, to the collective groans of Jim and Tony. “Did I ever tell you about the first time these two lovebirds met?” he asked Karen and Ty.
“No.” Ty smirked at Jim while speaking to Alex. “But from the expression on both their faces it sounds like a story worth hearing.”
“Okay, boys, I think that’s enough.” Karen gave both Alex and Ty stern looks. “Don’t make me get my claws out. You’ve had your fun, but tonight is about everyone having fun. If we ever want to go out with Jim and Tony again we need to make sure they have a good time, too.”
Ethan smiled. “Why don’t we do both? Let the boys have their fun, but make sure that Jim and Tony do, too?”
“And how the hell are you going to manage that trick?” Tony asked.
“We’re going clubbing after dinner, right?” When everyone indicated their agreement, Ethan grinned. “Then why don’t we start with the nightclub where Jim and Tony met? I’m sure they’d love to go there, for old time’s sake if nothing else.”
Jim blinked and then smiled at Tony. “I don’t mind. What do you think?”
Tony shook his head. “It’s a gay-only nightclub. Ty and Karen wouldn’t be able to get in.”
Ty shrugged. “Unless they ask for proof, how are they going to know I’m not gay? Since it’s your idea, Ethan, I’m sure you won’t mind if I borrow Alex as a temporary boyfriend if needed to get entry.” He waved a finger at Alex. “But no tongue!” He grinned at the rest of the group. “We just need a way to sneak Karen in.”
“Leave that one to me.” Alex grinned. “I’m sure I can convince the bouncer. If necessary, I’ll offer him Ty’s body if he looks the other way when Karen goes in.”
Alex batted his eyelashes. “Surely you’d do anything for Karen? Isn’t she worth it?”
“Of course she is, but how is this for Karen?”
“So she gets to see where Jim and Tony met. Don’t you want that?”
Jim laughed. “The look on your face, brat...” He smiled at Karen. “All we can do is try. I don’t like using my ‘fame’,” he said, making air quotes, “but maybe they’ll let you in as a favour to me.”
“Worst case, we just go somewhere else.” Ty cocked his head. “Where is this nightclub? I know most of the clubs around here.”
“It’s not far,” Alex said, “but I’d be surprised if you’ve heard of it. As far as I know, it’s only advertised on gay websites.”
“Try me.” Ty smiled in a cocky manner.
“MANdatory.” Alex raised an eyebrow. “Well?”
Ty frowned back for a second and then shrugged. “Okay, you got me. Never heard of it.” He turned to Karen with an unspoken question.
“Yeah, it sounds fine to me. I’ve never been to a gay nightclub, but my sister has. She went to one several years ago in Commercial Road, not far from the Prahran Market. I can’t remember what it’s called, but she said she had a great time.”
Ethan sighed. “That must have been quite a few years ago, because it’s not there anymore. That place is now a regular nightclub. Even when it was a gay club, it still had a lot of straight patrons. I think that’s why it ended up changing and losing the gay focus.”
“But this place we’re going to is similar?” Karen asked.
“I don’t know. I never went to the other one, I only heard about it.” Ethan smiled. “MANdatory is exclusively gay. You two may end up being the first straight couple to enter.”
Ty made a face. “If you think we’ll cause problems, we’re happy not to go. Karen and I can head off by ourselves while you four let your hair down and party.”
“No, it’ll be no problem.” Alex smiled. “It’s much more fun to party in a group, which is why we want you two to join us. Tony’s getting old and has probably forgotten what fun is all about.”
“Hey!” Tony was indignant. “I’m only twenty-two.”
“Almost twenty-three.” Alex shrugged. “As I said, you’re getting old.”
* * *
“It’s nice to have you home for a change, son,” Kevin’s father said as they sat around the dining-room table. “You’ve been disappearing so much it’s almost like you’re still in Sydney.”
“Apart from the extra washing, that is,” his mother said dryly before Kevin could respond.
“I know I’ve been going out a lot, but it’s a long time since I’ve spent time in Melbourne, and I’ve got a lot of people to catch up with.”
Mr. Scanlan chuckled. “And given how much time you spend getting ready each night most of these people are girls.” He smiled at his son. “Any one in particular, or are you still taking advantage of being in the AFL to play the field?”
Kevin shrugged as he dropped his eyes to the food in front of him. His mother had cooked one of his favourite meals: Chicken Kiev. “I’m not seeing anyone seriously. I can’t, not unless they’re also down from Sydney or about to move there.” He looked up. “I’m being careful.”
“Whoa! We don’t need to know the details.” His father smirked. “The Wembleys kept us informed of what you were up to during the year. According to them, you were out almost every second weekend.”
Kevin blinked. He knew that his parents and his host family in Sydney communicated regularly, but he hadn’t been aware of how much information was being passed on.
“At least it wasn’t every weekend.” Mrs. Scanlan frowned at her son. “We know it’s all new and you’re all excited, but don’t forget what you told us back in January after the Players’ Association camp. Most footballers don’t last past four years. You’re going to need to apply yourself if you want to make this your career.”
Kevin felt like rolling his eyes. “I know, Mum, and that’s why I’ve spent the last week training with Deon and the other guys. I’ve got a few weeks before the pre-season starts up again, but I’m trying not to lose too much of my fitness in the meantime. Even so, I also need to relax. That’s what this break is all about: recharging the batteries before another ten months of training, strict diets, rigorous schedules, and having very little chance to do whatever I want.”
“Is this pattern going to continue for the next six weeks?” his mother asked.
“No.” Kevin forced himself to stay calm. The Wembleys were a great host family and didn’t intrude too much into Kevin’s social life, but after almost a year away from home, he had forgotten how nosey his parents could be. “Now that the combine is over, my social life is going to be mainly on weekends. I might go out one or two nights during the week, but I’ll be home most days.” He gave what he hoped was a winning smile to his mother. “I can’t do without your cooking for too long.”
She laughed. “Yeah, sure. Which is why you’ve been ringing home most weeks during the year complaining about the food.”
Kevin shrugged at the sarcasm. He rang home every two or three weeks, but he’d never discussed the food the club and the Wembleys had been feeding him. “During the year, I don’t get too much say in what I eat. For these eight weeks, I do.” He glanced down at his plate, where the aroma from garlic butter was wafting upwards, and he privately winced at what it was going to do to his body-fat levels. “I can’t eat too many meals like this or my skinfolds will go through the roof, but I definitely miss your cooking.” He looked up and surprised himself with his next statement. “Like I miss both of you.”
He hadn’t consciously thought about it, but he realised as he said it that it was true. Being away from home was tough at times, especially with the pressure that came from being a young player in the AFL. It was at that moment that he started to appreciate how many young draftees could get up and leave a club after their initial two years just so they could return home. He wasn’t personally tempted, because, while he was with the Swans, he had a chance to play in an AFL grand final; but it would be different for those drafted by the weaker clubs. With little hope of playing in the finals, combined with missing friends and family and the stress of working hard each week, every week, the temptation to move back home as soon as possible would be hard to resist.
* * *
Stuart smiled across the small table. “You’re being very quiet. I don’t mind talking, but it would be great to hear your voice occasionally.”
“Sorry.” Ross dropped his head. “I think I’m still recovering from the combine.”
“Well then, why don’t you tell me a bit about what happened?” Stuart grinned. “You talk and I’ll listen. There’s no point getting to the nightclub for at least another hour or two as it rarely fires up before ten.”
“What are we going to do until then?” Ross was already nervous. Not knowing exactly what Stuart had planned was stressing him out.
“Relax. We can certainly stretch things out here for most of that time, but if we want to, we can drop into one of the bars around here for a drink beforehand. There’s a great gay bar—”
“No!” Ross glanced around, desperately hoping no one had overheard Stuart’s comment. He quickly lowered his voice. “No gay bars, Stuart. You promised that no one will know.”
“Okay, okay.” Stuart also glanced around. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking. You’re right. We’ll go somewhere else. There’s a bowling place that includes a bar not too far from here.” He gave Ross an apologetic smile. “Or we can stay here. We can order some coffees until it’s time to go.”
Ross stayed silent for several seconds until Stuart started to squirm. “Thanks.” When Stuart relaxed and smiled back, Ross took a deep breath. “I know I’m being paranoid, but I can’t take any risks. I already know from the combine that I’m not at the top of any team’s list. Deon had a lot more teams chasing him. He lost over half his lunch break because different AFL teams wanted to talk to him, and then he was interrupted again twice while we were having breaks. I had two interviews, and that’s it.”
“But that’s two teams that could draft you,” Stuart said. “That means you’ve got a chance.”
“Yeah, but I’m not the only tall forward out there. I heard today that Peter Wright wants to be a forward, so that’s someone else who’s going to be ahead of me.”
“Peter Wright. He played in the TAC Cup as a ruckman, and that’s what he’s listed as on the AFL website, but I was told that he thinks he’ll be better as a forward.” Ross grimaced. “One of the few things going for me is that I’m one of the tallest forwards in the draft—there’s only a handful taller than me—but Pete’s over two metres in height. That means he’ll be in front of me for any of the teams that are looking for a key forward. Earlier in the year, some people have talked about him being a possible number-1 pick. He’s had some injuries so he’s dropped down the list, but he still got an invite to the four-day national combine. I only got an invite to the state combine.”
Stuart looked concerned. “I would’ve thought with your height and skills you were a certainty to be drafted. Are you telling me you don’t think you will be?”
“I’m saying I don’t know!” Ross grimaced. “Tall forwards are needed by all the teams, but they already have a number. The draft is to get someone who will be reaching their peak as the current forwards are reaching the end of their careers. The clubs can’t afford to have too many, because they also need replacement midfielders, ruckmen, and defenders. They won’t pick replacement forwards every year, so it’s going to be only some of the teams that will be considering me. Collingwood have already nominated Darcy Moore under the father-son rule, and GWS have nominated Jeremy Finlayson under the northern-academy rule. That’s two teams that are unlikely to want another tall forward, and I’m competing against people like Peter Wright, Matt Hammelmann, and even Deon, despite him being a lot shorter than me.”
He dropped his head. “Will there be enough teams looking for someone like me that I’ll get a chance, or is this not my year because there’s too many other tall forwards competing for a small number of spots? I won’t know until the end of November...”
There was silence as Ross contemplated his uncertain future and Stuart absorbed the information that Ross had provided.
“Then we wait until November,” Stuart eventually said. “That’s when we find out if you’re an AFL player.” He smiled. “I really hope you get drafted. It would be bloody fantastic if you were.”
Ross couldn’t help but feel that Stuart was too keen for him to end up in the AFL. He hadn’t said anything about it not mattering if Ross missed out. Was the prospect of dating an AFL player the only reason Stuart was interested in him? Ross didn’t know, but he couldn’t ask, either. He could only worry.
* * *
“Ah, come on. How about a bit of flexibility and let her in?” Alex was trying to use his puppy-dog eyes to get Karen into the nightclub.
The heavy-set security guard in the black suit shook his head. “I’ve already told you: this is a gay nightclub. Only gays allowed. It would be like letting a guy enter a women-only gym. They’re women-only to allow the women to exercise in peace. This is a gay-only nightclub so the guys can enjoy themselves in peace.”
Alex ground his teeth before trying one more time. “Do you know who that is over there? That’s Jim Henderson, the VFL football player. Do you want your boss to know that you refused him entry because you didn’t like who he was with?”
“Alex!” Jim glared at him and then smiled at the guard. “Don’t worry, we’re not going to say anything to your boss. We knew the rules before we came here, so we’re not surprised you’re enforcing them. Come on guys, let’s go.”
“Wait!” The guard stepped out into the dimly lit alley where the entrance was located and walked up to Jim. He peered for a moment and then grinned. “It really is you! Wow, this is great. I’ve been following the Leopards since you came out. I was even at the grand final a couple of weeks ago.” He glanced at the others. “Who are these people?”
“This is Tony, my boyfriend,” Jim said as he grabbed Tony’s hand.
“They met at MANdatory,” Alex added quickly. “That’s why we’re here tonight.”
“Alex!” Jim gave the security guard an apologetic smile. “Alex is Tony’s flatmate, and Ethan is Alex’s boyfriend. The other two are my teammate Ty Flanders and his girlfriend, Karen.”
The guard frowned at Ty for a moment and then pulled a face. “If there are any complaints, she’ll have to leave.” He gave Karen a half-smile. “It’s nothing personal, but there are a lot of guys who come here to be themselves. Some may feel uneasy with a girl in the room. But if you keep to yourself in a corner, you should get away with it. If you can, try to pretend to be a guy in drag.”
“Yes!” Alex pumped his fist. “Come on guys. Let’s go in before he changes his mind.”
Alex started to enter but was grabbed by the guard. “I need to check IDs first.”
He quickly checked their driver’s licenses but hesitated when he examined Alex’s. “This looks fake to me.”
“What?” Alex glowered. “It’s a legitimate license, and I’ve used it here many times in the past. What’s wrong with it?”
“It’s the picture. It’s an obvious fake.”
“It’s not! That’s me.” He turned to Ty and showed his license to Ty. “What do you think? The guy’s got rocks in his head!”
When Ty saw the security guard smirk and give him a wink, Ty grinned. “Yeah, I think he’s right. It’s not you.” He waited for Alex’s stunned expression to start to fade before continuing. “It’s too good-looking to be a real photo.”
Alex narrowed his eyes and then looked over his shoulder at the original complainant. The guard waved a hand towards the entrance. “You can all go in. Next time, don’t try to threaten me. It doesn’t make me happy, and it certainly doesn’t make me want to be lenient.”
Ethan put a hand over Alex’s mouth. “Thanks. We’ll remember that.” He then kissed Alex on the cheek. “Lick all you like. I’m not letting you say anything until we’re safely inside.”
Alex and Ethan were laughing when they entered the nightclub, attracting the attention of the dozen or so guys in the room. The crowd all stared at Karen as the six made their way to the far side and a dark, corner booth. Several guys scowled and whispered to each other, but no one approached or said anything directly. After seating his girlfriend, Ty headed to the bar. He returned soon afterwards with a tray of drinks.
“I’ve set up a tab, told the barman who Dad is and that Dad’s paying for the drinks for the next twenty people who order them. That should stop any potential trouble.”
“You did what?” Jim glared and then started to laugh. “If they’re putting them on your credit card, don’t expect me to be paying you back.”
“Do I look stupid?” Ty rolled his eyes. “I gave him your credit card.”
Jim quickly pulled out his wallet and then gave a sigh of relief when he saw that his cards were still there. “Don’t do that to me, brat.”
Ty chuckled. “I did tell him who you were, though. He said he’d let people know when they ask for a drink. We might get some fans approaching, but I don’t think we’ll get any hassles.” He glanced around. “It doesn’t seem that different. Smaller than what I used to go to but nice. A little quiet, though. Not that many people, and they’re all guys, which feels weird.”
“It’s still early. It picks up closer to midnight. Can’t do much about it being all guys, but I like it that way.” Alex grinned at Tony. “Speaking of pickups, are you going to try to get that guy you met here back in February into your bed tonight?”
Tony chuckled. “It’s a definite possibility.” He stood up and held a hand out to Jim. “Care for a dance?”
“What was that about?” Ty asked, his eyes flicking between Alex and the two guys on the dance floor.
Ethan smiled. “We told you before: this is where Jim and Tony first met—just before Tony started work with you guys. We had to practically force Tony to come with us, but it all turned out well in the end.”
“It did, but I still insist that Tony misunderstood me. I said he needed to get laid, not that he needed a boyfriend.” Alex smiled at Karen. “I think it’ll be best if we guys buy the drinks tonight. I wouldn’t want to subject you to being hassled if you approached the bar.”
“I’m not moving,” Karen said. “I think it’ll be better for everyone if I stayed here in the corner. Out of sight and out of mind, hopefully.” She smiled at Ty. “But if you want to get up and dance with Alex and Ethan, I won’t mind.”
Ty laughed and pulled her in for a kiss. “At least I can trust those two to keep their hands to themselves. I’d be in mortal danger if you got up there with me.”
“Oh, really?” Karen maintained the haughty expression for less than a second before she grinned. “We’ll see how much ‛mortal danger’ I can put you in later tonight when we’re alone.”
Ty grinned. “I’m looking forward to it.”
Over the next hour, the three couples chatted and relaxed, interrupted a few times when someone asked for a photo with Jim. Karen did get up for one dance with the five guys, but otherwise she stayed in the corner. As 10:30 p.m. approached, the six were back at their table, discussing whether it was time to leave, either to go home or onto another nightclub where Ty and Karen would be free to do what they wanted.
Ty was gazing out over the room when he suddenly stiffened. He leant forward, dropping his head in the process. “Dad, I need some urgent advice.”
“What is it, brat?”
“What do you do when you see someone who you thought was straight and partly homophobic entering a gay nightclub?” When Jim and Tony started to check out the crowd, Ty blurted, “Don’t look! He might spot you.”
“What about us?” Alex asked.
“You can look, he doesn’t know you. Just me, Dad, and Tony.” Ty’s head lifted for a moment and then dropped again. “Good, he’s not heading this way.”
“Who is it?” Jim asked as Alex, Ethan, and Karen all stared out across the room.
Jim and Tony exchanged looks. “He must be deep in the closet,” Jim said. “That’s why he’s been acting like he has. He’s afraid he’ll be outed.”
Tony nodded. “And if he’s as deep as you were, he might do the same thing you did when I recognised you.”
“What’s that?” Karen asked.
“Run,” was the answer from not only Tony, but also Alex and Ethan.
“Should I go speak to him?” Ty asked.
Jim shook his head. “If anyone does that, it should be me. He knows I’m gay, and hopefully he realises that means I won’t out him. If it were you, he wouldn’t have that assurance.”
Alex was still peering out over the crowd. “Which one is he?”
Ty snorted. “He’s the tall, slender guy. You can’t miss him; he’s easily the tallest in the room.”
“Ah...not bad looking. He’s young, though. Are you sure he’s eighteen?”
“Yes, though I think he only turned eighteen a couple of months ago.” Ty turned back to Jim. “Tell me what you want me to do. I think he’s likely to notice Karen and me if we try to leave, given the way Karen attracts attention. That means we can’t sneak out and hope he doesn’t realise we were here.”
Jim nodded. “The best option is for me to go over, say hi, and try to reassure him that his secret’s safe with us.”
“What if he runs?” Karen asked.
“Someone should go out to check on him just in case.” Jim grimaced. “If I was in his shoes at his age and someone recognised me, I’d probably end up outside throwing up. He might just disappear, but he might not, either.”
“I’ll do that.” Ty turned to Karen. “I think we’ve spent enough time here, anyway. If Roscoe leaves, we’ll follow him and make sure he’s okay.” He looked at the other four. “You guys can stay. I can tell you’re enjoying yourself, and I don’t want you to cut your night short.”
“We could all go out,” Alex suggested in a half-hearted tone.
Ty shook his head. “He’d think we were ganging up on him.” He looked at Jim. “Dad, I don’t understand something. He knows you’re gay, so why didn’t he say anything to you?”
“Because I was never alone with him.” Jim snorted. “I tried to make sure I wasn’t because I didn’t want him to freak out, but that meant he couldn’t tell me in private. If he said anything, he would be outing himself to whoever else was there.”
“Makes sense.” Ty caught Jim’s eye. “You approach him, and we’ll keep watch. If we need to, Karen and I will follow him outside.”
“Okay, brat. We’ll do it that way. Finish your drinks, and then I’ll go over and say hello.”
Ethan was still watching Ross. “I don’t know if it makes any difference, but he appears to be with someone.”
Jim looked at Tony, who shrugged. Jim sighed. “It might. No one knew when I met Tony. If he’s already out to some people, he mightn’t panic. But the way he was during the week with me and then Neil and Liam, I don’t know...” He shook his head. “It’s obvious in hindsight, but I was trying to give him space, so I didn’t observe him closely. I might’ve realised he was a closet case and not homophobic if I had.”
“That’s history, Dad.” Ty threw the remains of his drink down his throat. “I’m ready when you are.”
Jim glanced at Karen who also indicated she was ready to leave. Jim took a deep breath and stood up. “Okay, let’s do this.”
* * *
Stuart smiled at Ross. “Wait here and I’ll be back soon with some drinks.” He winked. “Don’t chat up any cute guys while I’m gone.”
Ross’s lips flicked into a momentary smile. He was terrified at the prospect of being recognised, though he knew the odds were against it, but he was also excited at being able to let his hair down. He and Stuart had already had a couple of beers before arriving at the nightclub, and the alcohol was slowly wearing away Ross’s inhibitions.
He didn’t want to do something wrong, so he kept his head down while he waited for Stuart to return. He wanted to look around and see if there was anyone there he found attractive, but he didn’t want to catch the eye of the wrong person. Even if he was worried about Stuart’s intentions, he knew he could trust his date to keep him safe from predators.
“Do you mind if I join you?” a vaguely familiar voice asked.
Ross looked up, about to say he was with someone when the words died in his mouth. He recognised the smiling figure standing on the other side of the chest-high drinks table.
“We’ve never had a chance to talk in private,” Jim said. “It’s nice to finally have an opportunity to do so.”
Ross’s mouth was opening and closing, though no words were coming out. He glanced around wildly, wondering if there was anyone else there who would know him. When he spotted Ty staring in his direction, his mind went into a full-blown panic. Ty looked away as soon as Ross saw him, but the damage was done.
“Roscoe, wait!” Jim called out, but Ross was already pushing his way through the crowd on his way to the exit. He ignored the complaints from the other patrons as he barged past them, and he didn’t stop until he was in the alley outside. It was only then that he wondered what he could do.
“Fuck!” Ross hit the brick wall next to him. “Fuck, fuck, fuck!”
It was still early enough that he could take a train home, but he wasn’t sure what he should tell Stuart. He then started to consider whether it mattered, since he was outed, anyway.
“Roscoe! What are you doing here?”
Ross turned to Ty and straightened his spine. “Ty, I can explain...” He wasn’t sure how, but he was going to give it his best shot.
Ty smiled. “If you’re thinking of going in there,” he waved a hand to the nightclub entrance, “I wouldn’t bother. It’s a gay nightclub and not really the best place for straight guys like us. Karen and I only went in there as a favour to Dad. Have you met Karen?” Ty smiled at the girl next to him. “Karen, this is Roscoe. He’s the one who’s been training with us during the week. Roscoe, this is Karen. Just a word of warning, don’t try to steal her away from me or I might get upset. She’s special.”
Ross’s mouth was gaping. He was having trouble processing what Ty was saying. “Ty, I...”
Ty gave him a sardonic stare. “How many times do I have to tell you; my friends call me the brat. You need to try harder, because sooner or later I’m going to stop answering to the name of Ty.”
“Ty...brat...it’s not what you think.”
“What do you mean?” Ty frowned. “You were obviously thinking of trying out this nightclub, and I’m here to tell you not to bother before you waste any time going inside.” Ty stepped over and put an arm across Ross’s shoulders. “It’s not the right place for us straight guys.”
Before Ross could work out how to respond to the blatant lie, Stuart rushed out into the alleyway. “Roscoe!” He glared at Ty. “Back off, bastard. He’s mine.”
Ty glared back as he let go of Ross and took a step forward. “What did you call me?”
Stuart moved up until he was well within Ty’s personal space despite being shorter and less muscular than Ty. “Leave him alone. He’s my boyfriend. You can’t have him.”
Ty looked at Ross. “Is this true?”
Ross dropped his head. “I...er...”
Ross felt his arm being grabbed. He looked up to see Stuart scowling. “Come on, Roscoe. Let’s get out of here.” He yanked, but Ross didn’t move. He didn’t know what to do as his eyes flicked between Stuart and Ty. He noticed Karen had moved away and was whispering something to the security guard, who was keeping a close eye on the drama unfolding. A momentary distraction crossed Ross’s mind as he wondered how many gay tiffs the guard had witnessed, before the seriousness of the situation asserted itself.
“Roscoe?” Stuart asked, his expression settling into one that told Roscoe he had better answer the question correctly or he would be in trouble.
“I...” Ross sensed that Ty would support him, no matter what he said. He also saw Karen smiling encouragingly in the distance. He took a deep breath, hoping he wasn’t making a mistake. “I’m not his boyfriend. I’m not gay.” He continued in a whisper that he wasn’t sure either guy would hear. “I can’t be gay.”
“Roscoe, you bastard!” Stuart snarled. “You like cock as much as I do, but you’re too afraid to admit it.”
Before he could do or say anything else, Ty grabbed Stuart and slammed him against the brick wall next to them. He held him there while putting his face close to Stuart’s.
“Listen, mate,” Ty said in a low, strong voice. “I’ve been training with Roscoe all week, and he’s never indicated he’s gay. If he’s straight, like he said, you’re an arsehole for accusing him of being a cocksucker. If he’s gay, he’s in the closet and you’re a bastard and an arsehole for trying to out him. Either way, you’re an arsehole, and when I let you go, I’m giving you until the count of three to get the fuck out of here before I kick you into next week.”
“He’s gay! You were there inside; I saw you leaving. You must have seen him. He’s gay!”
Ty pulled back for a moment and then slammed Stuart into the wall again. “I didn’t see him. I don’t believe he was in there, and anyone saying otherwise is trying to make trouble. I don’t want to hear another word about Roscoe. In the unlikely event that he’s gay, it’s up to him to tell me, not you. Got it?” He waited a second and then repeated the question more forcibly. “Got it?”
Stuart’s bravado had expired. “Yeah, I’ve got it.” He glanced at Ross, his expression unreadable. “I’ll talk to you later, Roscoe.”
Ross nodded, a lump in his throat. He hoped that wasn’t a threat.
Ty let go. He stood there while Stuart made a point of dusting himself off. “One...”
“You think you’re so good because you’re bigger than me. Well, fuck you! All that makes you is a bully.”
Stuart strolled away, giving the impression that he wasn’t intimidated.
“Thr...” Ty chuckled when Stuart started to run. He turned to Ross. “Are you okay, mate?”
“Thanks, Ty.” When Ty gave him a mock glare, Ross started to laugh. He knew it was inappropriate, but he needed the relief. “Sorry, brat.”
Ty put his arm back across Ross’s shoulders. “How about we get out of here and head somewhere else?”
“Okay.” Ross didn’t understand what was going on, but he realised that Ty was giving him space. Even though he knew the truth, Ty was going to ignore it until Ross told him otherwise.
After Karen rejoined them, the three walked out of the alleyway and onto the better-lit main street. Ty kept his right arm across Ross’s shoulders while his left was around Karen’s waist.
“Do you want to do some light training tomorrow afternoon?” Ty asked. “Nothing too strenuous, but I’ve got this top-notch personal coach who’s been teaching me all these great moves. I’m sure he’ll teach you, too, if I ask.”
“Sure, but I’ll have to check with my mum. I’ll probably need to have all my chores done first, especially since school starts up again on Monday.” After the stress of the night, Ross thought some football-related activities may be just what he needed to calm down.
“Great! I’ll let you know the time, and if you can make it, I’ll pick you up. Just don’t be surprised by my coach’s appearance. Sean may be small, but he’s one of the most aggressive tacklers that I know. He’s also got the most amazing energy levels I’ve ever seen, but I’ll make sure he goes easy on you.”
Karen chuckled. “You obviously don’t know many other six-year-olds, Ty. Sean’s pretty typical for his age.”
“Hey, he’s almost seven!” Ty winked at Ross. “If you play your cards right, you might even wrangle an invite to the birthday party. Rumour has it that there will be an ice-cream cake...”
Ross laughed as most of the remaining tension flowed away. He wasn’t sure if Stuart would say anything and mess up his chance of getting into the AFL, but he knew he had some new friends who didn’t mind that he’s gay.
It felt good to have them know, even if nothing was ever said.