Lee tapped Peter on the shoulder. “Are you up for a coffee?”
“Sure!” Peter pushed the keyboard away and then rose. “I hate paperwork.”
“Don’t we all!” Lee grinned. “We’re here to work with the guys, not with computers. It’s quiet at the moment with the players off on their end-of-season break, but everything will pick up again next month when they’re back.”
The two wandered towards the Barker’s Cafe that was attached to the Whitten Oval training grounds for their regular mid-morning break. Lee chatted about some of the new equipment that was arriving as they walked. It was only when they sat down after ordering their drinks that the conversation turned serious.
“I’m guessing you haven’t heard the latest.” Lee raised an eyebrow. “Unless you’re holding out on me and you’ve already tapped into the grapevine?”
Peter chuckled. “Yes, I’ve tapped into the grapevine: I have coffee with you each day. What’s going on?”
Lee gave Peter a hard stare and then smiled. “Okay, you got me there.” He leant forward and lowered his voice. “They’ve organised a press conference in an hour’s time. The word hasn’t leaked out yet, but Brendan’s resigned. I don’t know if he was pushed to quit, but regardless of whether he was or wasn’t, he’s out the door.”
Peter grimaced. “That sucks, but I suppose that’s the life of an AFL senior coach. The spotlight is always on you, and if things go bad, you’re usually the scapegoat.”
“What about Ryan?”
Lee shrugged as he settled back into his chair. “Don’t know. I doubt he’ll stay on as captain, but he’s never really wanted the position, so that won’t upset him. The club is saying we’ll require him to fulfil the last year of his contract, but that could just be noise to push up the price that GWS will have to pay to get him.”
“So we wait and see.” Peter gave Lee a half-smile. “I’m glad I’m not in Jason’s shoes. I understand the basics of recruiting because that was part of my job with the Leopards. This time last year I was preparing lists of players to recruit assuming they didn’t make the draft. It was a pain in the neck, because I had no idea who was going to be available. Having to worry about trading players as well as recruiting would’ve had me pulling my hair out.”
“Didn’t you lose a few players at the end of your previous season?”
Peter shrugged. “We kicked one guy out, and good riddance to him. He broke the spirit of the team and that resulted in a few others quitting, but what we had left coalesced into a solid group. We brought in more rookies than normal, but they worked out well, too. I made the decision at the time that we’d go for youth rather than experience and spend the year rebuilding.” He chuckled. “The rebuilding went better than I expected.”
Lee laughed. “It certainly did, and our VFL team suffered the consequences.” He paused. “I understand Jason’s been picking your brains as to which Leopards would fit in here.”
“He has, but he’s not making any sort of commitment. I’m hoping we’ll get at least one, maybe two, but any more than that would be a miracle that I’m not expecting.”
“Who do you think we’ll get?”
Peter hesitated. “I’m not sure if Jason wants me to say anything. I’m hoping we’ll pick up Deon Bradshaw, but the rest is all speculation.”
Lee made a face. “Don’t get your hopes up too high. I doubt Bradshaw will end up with us. I know Jason’s got his eye on another forward. Someone taller.”
It was Lee’s turn to hesitate. “As you said, Jason probably doesn’t want anyone to know. He’s keeping this one under wraps and expects it to be a big surprise when it’s announced.”
Peter took a sip of his coffee while pondering Lee’s comment. He’d love it if Deon and Ty were both drafted by the Bulldogs, but it sounded like Deon was unlikely.
* * *
Liam frowned at his boyfriend as they strolled along the suburban streets of Ringwood. “What’s wrong? It’s Friday afternoon, school’s finished for the day, we’re heading back to your parents’ house for some one-on-one private time...and you look like you’ve just eaten a lemon.”
Neil’s head snapped around. “Sorry. What did you say?”
“What’s wrong, Neil? You weren’t listening to me, and you look upset. Have I done something wrong?”
Neil grabbed Liam’s hand. “No! It’s nothing to do with you. It’s...”
Liam squeezed Neil’s hand, trying to pass on some tactile reassurance. “What is it?”
“Todd told me that Ross and a footballer friend of his will be at the party tomorrow. I just know he’s going to go off and cause a scene. I don’t want Todd’s party to be ruined by that homophobic prick.”
“Did Todd say why he’s coming?”
“The brat invited him.” Neil scowled. “There’s something going on, but no one is telling me anything. I thought they were my friends!”
Liam hesitated before deciding that he was better off speaking up rather than staying quiet. “Ty’s a good friend, Neil. If he’s got his reasons, then you should trust him. He’s never given you a reason to doubt him, has he?”
“No, but...” Neil kicked at a stone on the ground before looking back at Liam. “He knows what that bastard is like. Why is he trying to fuck up Todd’s party?”
“Todd seems to be on board with the idea, too. Have you talked to Todd about it?”
Neil’s scowl returned. “Yeah.... All he said is that while I’m the little brother he never had, the brat’s part of the family, too, and asked him to help with Ross. Todd said it wasn’t his place to tell me why.”
“It sounds to me like Ty’s trying to break through Ross’s homophobia. That’s a good thing if he can do it, especially if Ross ends up in the AFL.”
Neil dropped his head. “You may be right.”
“Which means that we might be asked to talk to Ross at the party.”
Neil grimaced. “Shit! If it was anyone else asking me...”
Liam slipped an arm around Neil’s waist and pulled him into an embrace. “Trust Ty, trust Todd, and remember that I’ll be there with you, too. None of the Leopards are going to let anyone abuse you, and I’ll be right at your side the whole time.”
Neil relaxed against Liam’s body before pulling back and smiling. “Thanks, Liam.” He leant over and gave Liam a quick kiss on the lips.
Liam didn’t even bother to look as he raised his middle finger in the direction of the voice that had called out from the other side of the street. Instead, he smiled at Neil who was looking nervous. “How about we continue this at your parents’ place? We won’t be interrupted there.”
Neil peered past him and then nodded. “Sounds like a good idea to me.”
As they resumed their walk, Liam glanced around. There were two vaguely familiar guys glaring at them. Liam guessed that they were probably students at their school but one or two years younger than he and Neil. They both appeared fit with reasonably muscular builds, but the fact that they were staying where they were, told Liam that they weren’t ready to fight. He resisted the urge to flip them off again and turned his attention back to his boyfriend.
“Changing the subject, if you feel uncomfortable next Friday, we can leave Stevo’s party at any time. Dad said I can borrow his car as long as I don’t drink, so if you’ve had enough, we can go whenever you want.”
Neil made a face. “I haven’t been to a lot of parties. Just our birthday parties and a few with the Leopards. Is this one going to be any different?”
“A bit.” Liam thought for a moment. “It’ll be nothing like my party, but probably closer to yours. You just won’t be the centre of attention at this one.”
“Unless I’m invited so they can pick on me one last time.”
Liam winced at the suspicious tone. “Stevo wouldn’t do that. He’s trying to get to know you better, and the invite is part of that.” He smiled and gave Neil a playful punch to the arm. “He wants to get Helena’s cousin into bed, and that’s not going to happen if you don’t have a good time, so he’ll do whatever it takes to keep you happy.”
“So you’re saying he’s using me.”
“No!” Liam screwed up his face as he tried to think of a way to explain it. “I think he’s genuine in trying to get to know you better. Toula is just an added incentive for him to do what he wanted to do, anyway. I believe him when he says he wants you to have a good time. That’s why he said we can invite any of the Leopards who want to go.”
Neil glanced at Liam with the blank expression he used whenever he was trying to keep his thoughts to himself. Liam was glad that was becoming rarer, but when Neil became stressed, he fell back into his old habit of closing off other people. Liam knew enough to let Neil sort himself out, though he waited nervously.
“Okay,” Neil said eventually. He smiled, which relieved Liam’s worries. “If you trust him, I trust you.”
“Thank you.” Liam smiled back. “Any idea who you’ll be inviting?”
“The brat, of course. It’s a Friday night, so Karen won’t be able to come, but I don’t think he’ll turn down an invite to a party. I was also thinking of asking Charlie, Jarrod, and maybe Euan and Zach. Deon’s going with Clarissa, and Ollie’s coming too, so that will mean all the guys around our age will be there.”
“If they can make it. Charlie might be studying. Remember, he’s got his uni exams coming up.”
Neil scowled. “Actually, none of them may make it. The Leopards’ awards night is the following day and they may not want two nights out in a row. And I’ve just remembered that Charlie’s got something on at the St. Kilda Football Club that Saturday morning, so he won’t want a late night. I’m probably better off not asking any of them.”
Liam put an arm across Neil’s shoulders. “Ask them. The worst that can happen is that they say no. Charlie may not go, but the others might. Don’t make the decision for them; let them do that.”
The two strolled along for several seconds before Neil nodded. “Okay, you’re right. I’ll invite all of them, even Charlie. I’ll do that tonight.”
Liam smiled as they approached their destination. “Now, before you get on the phone and start talking to lots of people, can I have a bit of one-on-one time with my boyfriend?” He waved a hand towards Neil’s parents’ house and the ‘For Sale’ sign out the front. “We’ve got a house to ourselves for a couple of hours.”
“Unless the real-estate agent rings to say they’re bringing someone around to have a look at it.” Neil grinned while his face went red. “But until that happens...” He grabbed Liam’s hand, and the two raced towards the front door.
* * *
Warwick lifted his beer and tapped it against Kevin’s. “Here’s to a great weekend and to sending to hell as quickly as possible those bastards at the AFL Commission.”
“Too fucking right!” Kevin took a healthy gulp and then placed his glass onto the tabletop with more than the necessary force. A couple of the nearby bar patrons glanced in their direction, but otherwise Kevin’s action was ignored. “I was reading today about how Michael Voss slammed our trade ban. You can’t say that someone like him is biased, since he’s never had anything to do with the Sydney Swans. He spent his entire career—playing and coaching—with the Brisbane Lions.”
“The AFL Players’ Association is on our side, too. How can we be banned from trading for following the AFL rules?”
“Exactly! Vossy said the same thing.” Kevin wrapped his hand around his beer glass, wishing it was an AFL commissioner he could throttle. “I don’t suppose they had much choice, but I wish the club was fighting this rather than accepting the ban.”
“The Melbourne clubs have too much sway in the Commission. More than half the clubs are here in Victoria so if they agree on something, the rest of us are screwed.”
Kevin took another big swig of beer. “It’s so fucking unfair! Not only is the ban unfair, but you can tell that’s just an excuse to penalise the Swans, because they didn’t ban Greater Western Sydney, just us. GWS get to continue to trade players, while we’re told we can’t, even though both clubs pay the cost-of-living allowance.” He shook his head and then tried to smile at his friend. “I’m looking to you to take my mind off the bloody ban for the weekend, mate. I need to be thinking about something else. Otherwise, I’m going to explode.”
“You and me both.” Warwick seemed skittish. “We’re playing this weekend by ear, aren’t we? Not doing anything unless we’re sure we both want it?”
Kevin’s heart started to race, and the beer made his stomach feel queasy. He knew he had set this weekend up for him to learn about gay sex, but he was still nervous. It didn’t help that he still couldn’t understand why he was doing this. “Sure, but we’re not going to shy away from things, either. What did you have in mind?”
Warwick stared back across the table and then shrugged. “A few drinks, something to eat, and then maybe back to my apartment to watch a movie.”
Kevin tried to leer since it seemed appropriate. “What sort of movie?”
“Whatever you want. It doesn’t have to be that sort of movie if you don’t want. In fact, I wasn’t planning on watching one of those. I was thinking of an action movie myself. Something we can both enjoy to help us relax.”
Kevin flinched. He knew he was trying too hard. “Sorry. An action movie sounds good to me.”
“Kevin, it’s okay.” Warwick started to reach across the table before pulling his hand back. “We’ve got time before you head back to Sydney. We don’t have to rush things.”
“Yeah, but I need my head screwed on right before I go. Otherwise, I’m going to fuck up, and my footy career will be down the toilet.”
“Then don’t rush this. If we go too fast, we could end up making things worse for you by confusing you even more.” Warwick gave Kevin a soft smile. “The best sex I’ve ever had was after a night of romance. If you’re after what I think you’re after, you need to have your emotions right before anything physical happens. Otherwise you’re not dealing with what’s going on inside your head.”
Kevin sighed and then smiled back. He made himself reach across the table and rest his hand on top of Warwick’s for a moment. “And that’s why I trust you to do this for me. You seem to know what I need better than I do.” He picked up his drink and took a quick sip.
“I don’t, and please don’t think that I do. I just know how I was the first time. I’m pretty sure you’re going through the same mixed emotions that I had.” Warwick raised an eyebrow and gave Kevin a mild smirk. “Heart racing, stomach about to throw up, excited and scared at the same time, all while being incredibly horny...”
Kevin laughed. “Everything except the horny part.” His brow wrinkled as he narrowed his eyes at what was left of his beer. “And if I’m not horny, why am I doing this?”
“I don’t know. Maybe that part will come later.” Warwick started to say something more but was interrupted by his phone. He glanced at the caller ID and frowned. “G’day, Luke.”
Kevin finished his beer and lifted the glass in a silent question to Warwick. When his friend shook his head, Kevin put the glass back down and waited for Warwick to finish his call.
“What the fuck!” Warwick scowled as his brow wrinkled, and he put his other hand to his free ear to block out the background noise. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” A few seconds later he caught Kevin’s eye. “Just a second and I’ll check.”
Warwick lowered his phone. “Sorry, Kevin, but a friend of ours has just lost her job and she needs cheering up. Do you mind if we cancel tonight? I really need to go and spend some time with Geraldine. Luke’s saying she’s so depressed that he’s worried.”
Kevin swallowed once as he realised his expectations for the evening had just been shot down. “No, that’s fine. Friends are important.” He hesitated for a split second before continuing. “Would it be okay if I came along, too?”
Warwick gnawed at his lower lip. “It’s probably better if you didn’t. I’ll explain later.” He lifted the phone back to his ear. “I’ll be there as soon as I can. I’m with a friend at the moment, but once we’ve finished up here, I’ll go straight to Geraldine’s place. Bye, Luke.”
Kevin waited for Warwick to put away his phone. “What’s wrong? Is there anything I can do to help?”
“I doubt it. My friend Geraldine has been harassed by the other workers for a few weeks now, and it finally got to her. She quit her job, even though she loved the work, and now she needs her friends around her for support. You can’t really help there, since you don’t know her.”
“I can help by being a stranger who’s there for her.” Kevin’s brow wrinkled. “Why didn’t she just complain to her boss? Surely they could’ve done something to stop the abuse.”
“It’s not that simple.”
Kevin made a guess that Geraldine was a lesbian. “Her boss is homophobic?”
“Something like that.” Warwick screwed up his face. “Geraldine’s not gay. She likes guys—possibly too much because she’s not too picky about who she brings home—but there are...complications.”
Kevin opened his mouth to ask but changed his mind. He waited for Warwick to continue.
Warwick picked up his beer and took a long slow sip. He grimaced as he put the drink back down. “Look, normally I wouldn’t say anything because it’s not my place, and don’t say anything to anyone else, because she prefers to tell people herself if it’s relevant...but Geraldine wasn’t always a girl.”
Kevin blinked. “She’s like that stripper in Sydney that I told you about—transgender?”
Warwick nodded. “She normally keeps it a secret, but that’s why she lost her job. Her workmates found out and made her life a living hell. She had to resign or go insane. She quit, but it wasn’t because she wanted to. She had to. That’s why she’s so upset, and that’s why she needs people around her that love her for who she is.”
Kevin leant across the table to emphasise his words. “Warwick, I’d like to go. I fucked up the last time I met a transgender girl, but I won’t do that again. If she likes guys...well, I’m a guy. Maybe have someone new being nice to her will be just what she needs right now?”
Warwick screwed up his face as he thought. He sighed and stared across the table. “Are you sure about this? The rest of the people there probably won’t be straight, depending on who Luke’s been calling.”
“I can handle it; I can do it. I guess I need to do it.” Kevin smiled. “If they’re friends of yours, I’m sure I’ll be fine.” He was nervous, but he didn’t want Warwick to know.
Warwick hesitated. “I’ll ring Luke to see if it’s okay. He’s her best friend, and he’ll be the best one to judge if you being there will make things better or worse.” Not waiting for a response, he picked up his phone and rang his friend. “Luke, the friend I’m with wants to come, too. He’s straight and maybe he can help keep Geraldine from getting too depressed.” He listened for a moment before his lips quirked up into a smile. “No, you don’t know him, and yes, he’s good looking. He’ll be great eye candy, if nothing else.”
Kevin chuckled at the compliment while waiting for the conversation to finish.
Warwick smiled across the table while continuing to listen. “Okay, we’ll see you shortly.” He ended the call and then caught Kevin’s eye. “Be careful, Kevin. Don’t react negatively or you’ll hurt her more than you know.”
“Thanks, mate. The last thing I want is to hurt anyone.” Once was enough. He didn’t want to do that again.
* * *
Jim and Tony were both topless as they lay on Jim’s bed. The make-out session had well and truly started when they heard a knock.
“Dad? Have you got a minute?” Ty called out through the closed door.
“Just a minute!” Jim called back. He gave Tony a wry smile. “He wouldn’t interrupt unless it’s important.”
“I know.” Tony grabbed his shirt and then tossed Jim’s across the bed. “He’s been great about giving us privacy all year.”
Once they were both dressed, Jim opened the door. “What is it, brat?”
“Can I come in?” Ty winced as he looked at Tony. “Sorry, guys. I know I should be leaving you two alone, but I’m worried.”
Jim stepped back and waved a hand as an invitation. He raised an eyebrow when Ty closed the door after entering. “What are you worried about?”
“Roscoe.” Ty made a face as he sat down in the only chair in the bedroom. “This plan we’ve got for tomorrow night is pretty risky. It could easily blow up in our faces, and Roscoe will have to live with the consequences.”
Jim sat on the bed next to Tony. “I know, but there aren’t many options. We can’t stop Stuart from outing Roscoe. All we can do is to try to scare him into keeping his mouth shut.”
“Yeah, but the way we’re planning on doing that...” Ty ran a hand through his hair. “Paul has to go to work, so if he’s going to get involved, he has to do it as soon as Roscoe and the arsehole show up. I don’t like that. It’s too likely to make the arsehole drag Roscoe away straightaway before anyone else has a chance to do anything.”
“Paul, Todd, Zach, and Roger are our biggest guys and the most intimidating. Zach might be too nice, but if he’s got a reason to think someone is being threatened, he’ll play his part.” Jim smiled. “Todd said he thinks he’s got a way to get Zach to show his tough side. Roger will play along, though he’ll ask for an explanation later. Paul and Todd know what’s going on and will play their parts. I agree that we can’t have them all come down on Stuart at the same time. It needs to be a gradual lesson, with Paul doing the intro.”
Tony tapped his lips. “What does Stuart do for a living?”
“He’s an apprentice plumber.” Ty cocked his head. “Why?”
“They live around here, so there’s a chance that he works around here. If so, there’s a remote chance that whoever he works for is a sponsor of the club. We may be able to threaten him through his employer.”
“That’s a lot of ifs,” Jim said.
Tony shrugged. “It’s a long shot, but there’s no harm in checking it out.” He looked at Ty and asked a silent question.
“I’ll ask Roscoe, but I don’t think he knows. He’s currently trying to avoid Stuart, so we may have to ask at the party tomorrow night.” Ty looked thoughtful. “Dad, you were talking about our intimidating players. You left one name off the list: Dave.”
Jim scowled. “I know what you’re thinking, and no! Do not bring Dave into this. He’s got his own problems to deal with. He doesn’t need us to pile on extras.”
“It was only a thought.” Ty screwed up his face. “He probably won’t be at the party, anyway, but if he is, there’s no harm in mentioning what he’s like on the field to the arsehole, is there? Roscoe knows Dave, so it’s not like we’ll be talking about a complete stranger to the two of them.”
“Brat...” Jim’s warning growl was cut off by the touch of Tony’s hand on his arm.
“Ty may be onto something. If Dave is there, there’s a lot we can talk about without touching on his mental health. That’s off limits, of course,” Tony caught and held Ty’s gaze, “and no one will even hint about it, but if he’s there, there’s no problem with talking about how good he’s been all season with shutting down the play on whichever wing he was playing.”
“Do you think he’ll come to the party?” Ty asked, his eyes sweeping from Jim to Tony.
Jim shrugged. “I don’t know. He might—he’s been opening up recently—but we shouldn’t plan on it.”
“If Charlie asked him to, he will.” Ty grinned. “And that reminds me. Are you up to some more concentrated training for the next week?”
Jim scowled suspiciously. “Why?”
“Charlie’s off to the St. Kilda Football Club on the 18th for testing.” Ty’s eyes widened as if he had just realised something. “And that gives me an excuse to talk to Dave. He’ll want Charlie to be ready, too, so I’ll talk to him tonight about a training schedule to have Charlie as ready as we can make him in the time we’ve got.”
* * *
Kevin had been introduced to the small group as a straight friend of Warwick’s. Since then, he’d stayed mainly in the background while observing the others supporting Geraldine.
Luke had turned out to be a weedy Sudanese young man who had been in Australia for five years and was planning on becoming a citizen at the following year’s Australia Day celebrations. His focus on Geraldine was immense, almost fanatical, but it wasn’t long before Kevin learnt that Geraldine was the first friend he’d made after arriving in Melbourne.
Brad was Luke’s boyfriend of almost a year and was spending most of his time in the kitchen preparing snack food for everyone. Kevin had only heard him say a few words since arriving at the apartment, and most of those had been to ask if anyone needed another drink or something to eat.
Penny and Quentin had arrived together, and Kevin had original thought they were a couple. He quickly learnt that Penny was a lesbian, and Quentin was not only single and gay, but also on the prowl. He only backed off when Warwick told him that Kevin was straight.
“You could probably sue if you wanted,” Quentin told Geraldine. “You have the right to work in a safe environment, and you didn’t get that. What they did to you is not only unacceptable, but it’s illegal, too!”
Geraldine blew her nose. “It’d be my word against theirs, and it’s just not fucking worth it. They’ll say I’m making it up, that it’s all bullshit.”
“Did you ever complain to your manager?” Warwick asked. “If you did, Quentin’s right; you should be able to sue.”
“No. It just wasn’t fucking worth it.” Geraldine dropped her head.
Luke used the arm that had been around Geraldine the entire time to give her a squeeze. “Hey, no more tears! Your friends are here to cheer you up, not make you depressed.” He gave the others an indiscriminate glare. “No more talk about what happened. Only positive comments from now on.”
Kevin stayed quiet. He was feeling uncomfortable, not because of the people he was with, but because of his own thoughts. He could imagine himself reacting like Geraldine’s former co-workers.
Geraldine had given them a summary of what had been happened over the last month. The girls she worked with had found out first and refused to share the bathroom with her, insisting that she use the boys’ toilets and not the girls’. Geraldine couldn’t do that, which meant travelling to a different floor of the building each time, raising questions with her boss as to why her breaks took so long. Geraldine couldn’t bring herself to tell the truth to her male manager and had made up a story that he seemed to accept
Next, it was the guys that she worked with making snide comments whenever they had a chance. It wasn’t everyone but enough to contribute to Geraldine’s already depressed mood. Individually, none of the incidents amounted to much, so Kevin could appreciate why Geraldine hadn’t reported them. It was the accumulated impact of the constant, low-level abuse that had brought her down.
Kevin could see himself making the sort of comments that Geraldine had repeated, not realising the impact that they would have. As he listened, he resolved to do his best in the future to think before making a joke about someone else. He was seeing firsthand the consequences of the type of unthinking comments he’d made in the past.
“Would you like me to talk to someone at the radio station?” Warwick asked. “There may be an opening for you somewhere in the organisation.”
Geraldine gave him a weak smile. “Thanks. I might need something short term, but I doubt there will be anything in my fucking field. I can do odd jobs until I find something better, but don’t go out of your way.”
“It’s no problem. I’ll do that first thing Monday.” Warwick gave her a big smile. “It’s the least I can do.”
“Okay, that’s enough.” Penny scowled at all the guys. “What Geraldine needs now is to get drunk. How about we head out and get her wasted? We do the buying, and she does the drinking.”
“Thanks, Penny, but what I really want is a good fucking.” Geraldine sighed, and her body started to shake. “I need some strong guy to show me that I’m not the worthless freak everyone at work thinks I am. Someone to fuck my brains out and leave me panting for more. Someone to show me that I’m a real woman.”
Luke immediately pulled her into an embrace. “Sorry, Gerry. I’d do it, but...”
“You’re in a relationship,” Penny completed for him. She fixed her eye on Warwick and then Quentin. “Are either of you two single guys man enough to satisfy our girl? It would be better coming from someone who cares rather than some stranger who could fuck it up.”
Quentin dropped his head. “Sorry, but I can’t. That’s just not me.”
“You go through guys more often than you go through clothes. Are you saying you won’t do this for our friend?”
“It’s not that I won’t. I just can’t! Geraldine is...Geraldine. She’s not someone I’d fuck!”
Penny turned to Warwick, but Kevin broke in before she said anything. His mind had been racing since Geraldine’s comment, and he wanted to do this before he lost his nerve.
“I’ll do it.” He knew his face was red. “That is, if she doesn’t mind.”
There was silence for a moment. Luke frowned. “Thanks, but there’s something you should know...” He looked at Geraldine and asked a silent question.
Kevin got in first. “Warwick told me before we arrived.” He turned to Geraldine and smiled. She wasn’t his type. She had a nice pair of breasts, but her face still had a masculine edge he didn’t find attractive, and the language that fell out of her mouth was a turn off. She was plain, not ugly, but held herself in a way that didn’t invite attention. Kevin didn’t know how much of her attitude and words were due to the circumstances, but ordinarily he would have passed her by without a second glance.
Despite all of that, he knew she had loyal friends, and that one of those was Warwick. There was also the allure of something new as well as a feeling of atonement from trying to help. Kevin’s smile widened as Geraldine looked him up and down. He wanted to encourage her to accept.
“Kevin, are you sure?” Warwick asked. He leant over to continue in a whisper. “You won’t freak out or anything, will you? You’ve never done anything like this before.”
Kevin stood up while keeping eye contact with Geraldine. “It’ll all be new to me, so I’ll need advice as to what to do, but I’ll be gentle. I don’t want to hurt you, but I’ll do my best to give you what you want. I mightn’t succeed, but I’m here and available. As Penny indicated, I’m better than a complete stranger. What do you say?”
A leer slowly grew on Geraldine’s face as she gave Kevin’s body another onceover. “Fuck, yeah!”
* * *
“Sure, I’d love to come!”
“Thanks, Jarrod. I’ll email the details of the party as soon as I have them.” Neil smiled as he sat in the lounge room making the last of the phone calls regarding the party the following Friday night.
“Say...I don’t suppose you know if Mary is going to be there?”
Neil lost his relaxed posture at the unexpected question. He sat up and frowned while thinking quickly. “I honestly don’t know. Do you want me to call her and ask?”
“No, I’ll do that,” Jarrod said. “I haven’t spoken to her for a long time. It’ll be nice to catch up. She’s not seeing anyone, is she?”
Neil grinned. “Not that I know of. Are you sure you don’t want me to call her?”
“It’ll be fine. I’ll ring her now. Thanks for the invite, Neil. I look forward to seeing you next Friday night if I don’t see you before then.”
Neil chuckled as the phone call ended. Mary and Jarrod had gone out together for a couple of weeks earlier in the year, but the relationship had fallen through. Despite that, both had asked Neil about the other a few times during the year.
“All finished?” Oliver asked as he dropped onto the couch and spread himself along the length.
“Yep, that’s everyone. As expected, Charlie apologised and said no. Euan has something else on, and Zach said he’d get back to me after speaking with Angela. The others all said yes.”
Oliver waved a hand dismissively. “Zach will come unless Angela has something else planned.” He contemplated Neil for a moment and then smiled. “You’re excited about this party. You haven’t been like this for any other parties that I can remember.”
“I haven’t been asked to invite anyone to a party before now, unless you count my birthday party, and the brat organised most of that.” Neil made a face. “It’s also the first school party I’ve been to since primary school.”
“Ah...” Oliver grinned. “Just relax and be yourself. Show everyone the Neil they’ve been missing out on for the last six years.”
“That’s why I’m inviting people I know. I can be relaxed with you guys. The people from school, on the other hand...”
“You’ll get there. And if it all falls in a screaming heap, it’s not a big deal. You’re not going to be seeing most of those people again once exams are over. You and Liam will be able to start again with new friends next year in Sydney.”
“As long as I do well on those exams.” Neil sighed. “I suppose it’s good to have a big party before the exams start. Let off steam and get it all out of the system before we buckle down. But I can’t help being nervous.”
“You’ve got a week and a half after the party before your first exam, right?” When Neil nodded, Oliver continued. “And you’ve got six exams over four weeks. That should be plenty of time to get ready for each one. Knowing you, you’ve got the dates all memorised.”
Neil laughed. “It’s not quite that simple, Ollie. Some of my subjects have two exams. I’ve got English on Wednesday the 29th. Math Methods the following Wednesday and Thursday—November 5th and 6th—with Specialist Maths on the Friday and following Monday. I’ve got Chemistry on the Tuesday after that, and Physics on the Wednesday. That’s six exams in six days if you ignore the weekend. Then I get a day off before my final exam on Friday the 14th for Software Development. That’s eight exams, with the only decent break being between English and my first Maths exam.”
Oliver gave him a mock frown. “You didn’t organise that very well, did you? If you were smart, you would’ve arranged for a day off between exams and not be doing subjects that have two exams.”
Neil shrugged. “They only released the exam timetable in August. That’s a bit late to be changing subjects.” He screwed up his face. “I’m only really worried about a few of them, but I’ve already downloaded the exams from the last few years to get in some practise. I’m just going to need to spend a lot of time studying.”
“If you’re that crazy...” Oliver smiled. “You’ll do fine, but make sure you leave space in your schedule for Liam. Your boyfriend needs support for his exams, too, and the best form of support is horizontal.” He winked. “You’re clever. I’m sure you’ll work out what I mean.”
Neil’s red face made it clear that he knew exactly what Oliver was talking about.
* * *
Charlie was doing schoolwork on his laptop when he responded to the knock at his bedroom door.
“Dave! Sorry, I didn’t see you there. How long have you been home?” Charlie spun his chair around so he was facing his friend. All his housemates knew he was getting prepared for the end-of-year exams at RMIT, so Charlie knew that Dave had something important he wanted to discuss.
“Just got in. I had dinner while I was out.” A half-smile appeared. “The Hawthorn Football Club paid for it.”
Charlie smiled and waved a hand to invite Dave to sit on his bed. “When was that organised?”
Dave entered the room, shutting the door in the process. Charlie wasn’t surprised; he knew that Dave needed privacy to be able to talk about a lot of things.
“A few days ago.” Dave seemed perplexed as he sat on the edge of the bed. “It was...odd.”
“In what way?”
Dave wasn’t meeting Charlie’s gaze, but that was normal when he was stressed. “They asked me to come in for a meeting with their head doctor, with an interview and dinner afterwards.”
Charlie waited. Dave hadn’t answered the question, so he let his friend direct the conversation.
“The doctor wanted to talk about the incident with that homophobic cockroach at the combine. He asked pretty much the same questions that my psychologist asked me yesterday, so that wasn’t too bad.” Dave gave Charlie another half-smile. “He actually congratulated me on how I handled it and asked if I thought things were improving for me. I said yes.”
“That’s great news.” Charlie grinned. “It sounds like the doctor’s visit went well.”
“It did.” Dave frowned as he stared at the carpet. “He told me that if the Hawks drafted me, he’d let me choose whether I wanted to continue with my current shrink or if I’d like him to take over.”
“That’s positive. It means they’re seriously considering picking you.”
“Yeah, but is it for the right reasons?” Dave looked up, his expression one of uncertainty. “I had dinner afterwards with Garry and Isaac. Garry’s the head of their recruitment team. They talked a lot about the culture at the club, and how they like to encourage diversity.”
“What’s that got to do with you?”
“They told me about a very promising young aboriginal player they’d recruited from outback South Australia in the rookie draft a few years ago. They only saw one game he played in the South Australian league, but that was enough for them. When he arrived, he could barely speak any English. The community he was from was so isolated that English wasn’t the main language.” Dave dropped his head again.
“What happened to him?” Charlie asked, knowing that there had to be a reason why the Hawthorn recruiters had talked about that young man.
“He never played a senior game and was dropped from their list last year because of injury, but they made a point of saying that he’d made a great contribution to the club. He was always around, always enthusiastic. The club had supplied a tutor to teach him English, and they didn’t regret the resources they’d put in, even though he never played a game at the AFL level. One of the things he’d done for the club, simply by being there, was to educate the players on the challenges that face players from remote communities and about how the community from which he’d come was so different from that here in Melbourne.”
Charlie was beginning to see where this was leading. Rather than prompting Dave, he stayed quiet and let his mate approach the issue at his own pace.
“They then talked about how high-stress being an AFL player can be, and how they felt that there were more mental-health problems in the AFL than most people realised; that there were players suffering but not saying anything because of the stigma attached.” Dave pulled a face. “They told me that my situation was different and they believed my...problems...wouldn’t affect my playing, but because everyone knows I’m crazy, that I’ll help encourage other players to seek help before it’s too late.”
Charlie couldn’t stop himself from interrupting. “They actually called you crazy?”
Dave snorted and a momentary smile appeared in response to Charlie’s disbelief. “No. I think they said something like that everyone knew about my own struggles, but the intent was clear.” He closed his eyes. “Is that all I’m good for? An example of how stuffed up someone can be?”
Charlie moved from his chair and sat next to Dave on the bed. “How about an example of someone overcoming adversity? Someone who’s been hurt—badly hurt—but is still playing top-level football.” He smiled encouragingly. “Someone who’s gone through all of that and is still good enough that AFL teams are thinking of drafting him. And someone who I think has the ability to break into the senior team and show everyone what he’s made of.”
Dave’s return smile was weak. “Someone mad enough that no one in their right mind would stand in his way when he’s going after the footy.”
Charlie laughed. Dave’s smile broadened in response. He cocked his head and continued. “They told me that they probably wouldn’t pick me in the main draft. They’d consider me for the rookie draft, but only if I was comfortable with what they were asking of me. I told them I’d need to think about it.” He gave a self-deprecating snort. “Who would’ve thought that being crazy could be considered a positive? What do you think, Charlie?”
Charlie hesitated before picking his words carefully. “It all depends on how you feel about it, Dave. Are you ready for people to know part of the truth? What if the rest comes out?”
Dave looked away. “I think they already know. They mentioned that they’d support me if I needed time off for any legal matters and that they’d do their best to keep the media away from me if I had to testify in court.”
Charlie could see a shudder run through Dave’s body. While he knew Dave didn’t normally like physical contact, his instincts told him it was time to make an exception. He reached out and gently pulled his teammate into a hug. Dave didn’t resist.
The two sat there for almost a minute before Dave stood up. He wiped his eyes. “Thanks, Charlie. I’m going to sleep on it, but I think I’ll tell them that if I’m drafted by Hawthorn, I’m ready and willing to be a Hawk and do whatever I can for the club.”
Charlie smiled back while mentally crossing his fingers. He wanted what was best for Dave, but he had no idea if being drafted was going to help or hurt his friend.
Dave nodded his head towards Charlie’s laptop. “Don’t stay up too long. You’ve got an early start tomorrow.”
“What do you mean?”
Dave grinned with just a hint of something playful. “The brat called and told us about your planned day at St. Kilda next weekend. You’ve getting up at six tomorrow morning for a run, and then the brat and I are going to work you hard at the gym. We’re going to make sure you’re going to be as ready as you can be when you’re tested.”
“I’ve got to study, too!”
Dave shrugged. “We know that, but you can spend Saturday and Sunday afternoon doing that. The mornings are for training.” He raised an eyebrow, challenging Charlie to object.
Charlie knew it would be a waste of time. He sighed. “Okay, six o’clock, it is. I’ll see you then. Now, if you’ll leave me, I’ve just found out I don’t have as much time to study as I thought.”
Dave was chuckling as he left the room. Despite the unexpected extra work he’d just been given, Charlie smiled. It was taking time, but Dave was slowly returning to the cheerful guy he’d first met the previous December when he joined the Leopards.
* * *
Warwick was waiting at the bar to be served when his arm was grabbed. Startled, he turned to confront the person doing so until he saw that it was Luke.
“Who’s Kevin, and how well do you know him? You’ve never mentioned him before, and then you show up with him tonight.” Luke’s face indicated he wanted serious answers.
Warwick glanced across to where Kevin was sitting with an arm wrapped around Geraldine. Four empty plates from the snacks they’d ordered were in the middle of the table, with a number of empty beer glasses filling in the gaps. Kevin and Geraldine were listening to Quentin while Brad and Penny were holding their own private conversation.
After Geraldine had accepted Kevin’s offer, he had suggested that they still go out for some food and alcohol. Kevin had said that would give him a chance to get to know Geraldine a little before they spend the night together.
“Kevin’s a friend. He lives in Sydney, which is why I’ve never brought him around before.”
“Is he really straight? You almost jumped down Quentin’s throat when he started to make a move on Kevin soon after he arrived at Geraldine’s place. If you hadn’t insisted earlier that you’re just friends, I’d say you were jealous.”
“Kevin’s straight...ish.” Warwick sighed. “He’s curious, and the plan was for the two of us to spend the weekend together to see what happened. That plan’s gone out the window.”
“Is he going to hurt her?”
“I don’t think so. He may not be able to perform, but I know him well enough, I think, to say he’ll take the blame for anything that goes wrong.”
“How well do you know him? How long have you two been friends, and why haven’t you ever mentioned him before?”
Warwick wasn’t annoyed by the third degree. He knew how protective Luke could be when it came to Geraldine. “I think I know him pretty well, considering we only met a couple of weeks ago.” He caught Luke’s startled look. “Yeah, I know that’s not very long, but he’s shared confidences with me. I’m worried, but I think he’ll be okay.”
“Two weeks, and you expect me to believe you ‘know’ him?” Luke scowled in the direction of Kevin. “I’m going to put a stop to this.”
“No, wait!” Warwick grabbed Luke’s arm. “There’s a piece of information that I haven’t shared. I’ll tell you, but you have to promise to keep it to yourself. Kevin can’t afford for the word to get out.”
“What word? What are you talking about?”
Warwick pulled Luke to one side and, after glancing around to make sure no one was trying to eavesdrop, lowered his voice. “Kevin’s an AFL footballer. He plays for the Sydney Swans.”
“Shush!” Warwick glanced around again. They’d attracted some attention, but that quickly evaporated. “That’s why we can trust him. If he hurts Geraldine, he knows the Swans will find out and he’ll be in big trouble. He can’t afford for that to happen.” Warwick didn’t mention that it would be Kevin’s second time, if anything was reported to the club. From what Kevin had told him, that second strike would be enough to ruin his career.
“How do you know that’s not just a line he spins to get what he wants?” Luke’s tone had returned to one of suspicion.
“Do you remember the Sydney player who was in the papers about three weeks ago—the week before the AFL grand final—because he stood up against a group of homophobes?”
“Yeah, but what has that got to do...” Luke’s head snapped around, and he stared at Kevin. He shook his head. “Are you sure? I don’t remember any of the guys in the photo being blond.”
“He bleached his hair this week. He did it because he knows I like blonds. And, yes, I know it’s him because that’s how we met. He came to the radio station to do an interview about that incident and again later to do a review for the grand final. He’s a Sydney Swans footballer.”
Luke was wearing a faint frown when he returned his attention. “You’re trusting him, simply because he plays for the team you follow?”
“That, and private things that Kevin’s shared with me. Yes, I trust him. I’m not sure he can do what he said he’ll do, but he’ll do everything in his power to make sure he doesn’t hurt her and that she has as good a time as he can manage. That, I’m sure of.”
* * *
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Warwick asked quietly.
Kevin glanced over to where Geraldine was hugging Penny. The group was breaking up, and Geraldine was slowly saying goodbye to each of her friends.
“I am. It feels right.” Kevin brought his attention back to Warwick. “It’s my chance to make up for that mess I made at the start of the year with that girl in Sydney. This time I’m not going to be surprised. I’ll admit that I’m nervous, but I’m not going to freak out.” He put a hand on Warwick’s shoulder. “I’m doing this for me as well as Geraldine.”
“If you’re sure...” Warwick sighed. “This isn’t the way I’d prefer to teach you this, but...use lots of lube and take it slow. Keep checking that she’s okay before continuing.”
“Lube?” Kevin didn’t know what Warwick was talking about.
“Geraldine will talk you through it, but you need to use lube and your fingers to open her up before you can fuck her. Don’t try too soon or you’ll hurt her. Understand?”
Kevin could feel his face going red. “Yeah, I do. Sorry. I’ve never done that before.”
“I didn’t think you had.” Warwick smiled and then pulled Kevin into a hug. “I was half-hoping I’d be your first, but I can tell that simply by offering yourself, you’ve made Geraldine feel better. Be careful, that’s all I ask.”
“I will.” Kevin hesitated before continuing. “I’ll call you tomorrow morning, and maybe tomorrow night you can be my second. I suspect you’ll still have things to show me.”
Kevin felt Warwick stiffen before his friend pulled away and gave him a look that Kevin couldn’t decipher.
“Kevin...” Warwick shook his head as if to clear it. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We’ll wait and see what tomorrow brings.”
It was Kevin’s turn to pull Warwick into a hug. “Thanks, mate,” Kevin whispered.
A few minutes later, Kevin had his arm around Geraldine, and the two were strolling towards her apartment building.
“I still can’t fucking believe it,” Geraldine said. “With a body like yours, you could have any fucking girl you want, but you’re going to spend the night fucking me!”
Kevin smiled, trying to not let her know how much her language was turning him off. “You wanted someone to show you that you’re still a desirable girl. That you’re someone a guy could want. That’s what I’m here for.”
Geraldine was silent for a few steps and then she stopped and turned to Kevin. “Look, Kevin, I know you’re just being nice to the freak, but—”Kevin put a finger on her mouth. “You’re not a freak. You’re transgender. I understand that. You’re not the norm, but I recently spent a week training with a gay guy, and I’ve learnt that people who aren’t the norm are still people. Warwick’s been helping me with that, too. I’ll be honest, you’re not the first transgender girl I’ve met.” Kevin turned his head away. “I didn’t handle that other one well, which is why Warwick was concerned about tonight.” He looked back and tried to give Geraldine a reassuring smile. “But this time I’m not being surprised. I know what I’m letting myself in for—at least I think I do—and I’m going to do my best to make this night special for you. Will you let me?”
AUTHOR’S NOTE: The story about the aboriginal player drafted by Hawthorn is true. The player in question, Amos Frank was drafted in the 2011 rookie draft. The club taught him English and he, in turn, taught them that it doesn’t matter where you come from, it’s who you are that is important. Here’s a video about Amos from when he was still playing in Hawthorn’s VFL affiliated team, the Box Hill Hawks.