This is not the usual story of alternative sexualties (though needless to say that comes into it). This is a story about consequences and obligation - about parenthood in fact. The hero is our old friend Justin Macavoy, alias Peacher-White. Those who remember The Chav Prince will know that he put it about a bit at the age of fifteen, and now his precocious sexuality brings a package home to roost.
Deep thanks as ever to Rob and Terry, my generous and hard-working readers and correctors. Thank God they do it for free, otherwise I don't like to think what they might charge me.
It was dark backstage. Although Justin could not see much, what he could hear left nothing to the imagination. Gasps, grunts and groans told him that Cody was at it again. The singer had this thing about getting his end away before going on stage. It was a bit like Mussolini before a speech, as Justin's dad Matthew had told him with a grin. Matt always had a historical parallel.
Somehow, Cody the Creep never had any trouble finding a girl who would open her legs to satisfy his urge. Justin suspected that the manager of The Sick Boys had a private arrangement with local pimps. Justin quietly approved of the good sense. It was better for Cody to screw well-paid prostitutes than to recklessly dip his wick into underage fans, with all the complications that might bring.
Justin did not see the attraction in Cody Bignall. That might have surprised other gays, for whom Cody was something of a lust object, but cleaning up the mess after the singer and minding his overexposed ass had left Justin pretty well jaundiced about pop-star fame. More and more he was beginning to find parallels between his current job of minding boy bands and the profession of childcare. At twenty-two years of age, Justin Peacher-White, divisional security manager of O'Brien Associates, was starting to feel old.
However, there was a job to do, and Justin could not complain that it was badly paid. The current tour would transfer a whacking six-figure sum from the millions The Sick Boys earned into the deep coffers of O'Brien Associates, and a quarter of that would be Justin's. For he was not just the chief showbiz consultant for the company, he had been made a partner the previous month. His bank account had been transferred to Coutts and his first dividend advance had already made him a millionaire. He would be a serious multimillionaire after only a couple more years - less, probably.
Ever since he was sixteen, Justin had moved in a world of wealth and fame. He thoroughly enjoyed the creature comforts they had brought him, but the keenness of mind that made him so good at his chosen profession had led him to realize, while still quite young, that other things in life could be even more important than material possessions. Love was one of them. Justin loved and was loved by his Nathan, a man who moved in very different circles from him, yet was always waiting patiently for him at the end of his contracts. Nathan had little use for money. Apart from Justin, all he cared for were his plants. His life was consumed by his garden-centre business in Suffolk.
Justin smiled gently as he thought of his faithful and steady lover, the real centre of his universe, standing at the checkout in a green sweatshirt, a pencil stuck behind one ear. Suddenly, he just wanted to be home in Haddesley Cottage. It was always like this in the last week of a contract. The fun, the travel and the challenges were over. He was bored, and he wanted his Nathan. In particular, he wanted his Nathan inside him.
Justin checked his illuminated watch. The warm-up band was coming to the end of its set. Chants for The Sick Boys were already rising in the Astrodome. Houston wanted the latest pop sensation. As if recognising this, Cody's panting rose to a climax and he groaned out his orgasm. Justin talked quietly into his earpiece mike to his second-in-command, who reported that the rest of the band was moving. When Cody finally appeared, pulling on his tee-shirt over his well-buffed abdomen, Justin was ready to direct him to where he should join the rest. Justin caught a glimpse of a high-heeled woman teetering off towards an exit, another professional in the execution of her duty. He grimaced.
* * *
'What are you going to do this summer, Danny?' Dad asked.
'Er ... dunno. You think I should be doing something? You mean like work?'
'That's exactly what I mean, son. Work. The thing that distinguishes humanity from the rest of the animal kingdom. We have jobs. We have currency. And we have pay packets that nicely match the two concepts. And my pay isn't sufficient to keep four kids in the things they would like to enjoy. So, yes. Get a job.'
Danny gave his father a quirky look. Dad was an English teacher in the local rural comprehensive, the same one from which Danny was about to graduate to sixth-form college, once GCSEs were out of the way. Danny's brother was already in the sixth, and his two sisters were lower down the same school. Danny realized that money was tight at the moment, or tighter than usual. Mum had just lost her job in the shutdown of the local branch of the bank where she had worked. Danny knew a lot more was riding on his dad's light remarks than was being said, so he didn't express the faint resentment that bubbled up in him. Instead he asked, 'Any ideas then?'
Dad smiled approvingly at his son's willingness to at least listen. 'The free sheet has just come through the door. See what's in it.' He took his mug out of the kitchen and disappeared up to the shelter of his den.
Danny leafed through the Classifieds - nothing there for sixteen-year-olds. Feeling strangely and uncomfortably adult and responsible, he grabbed a jacket and walked out into the Saturday afternoon quiet of Castringham village.
When Danny was seven, the Hackness family had settled in a former Rural District Council house on a quiet estate originally intended for farm labourers. Nowadays, Castringham Crescent chiefly housed commuters to Ipswich and Cambridge. Danny's house was situated at the end of a cul-de-sac, with nothing but fields and woods beyond. In some ways it had been a perfect place to grow up, and Danny, his siblings and friends had enjoyed an idyllic country childhood.
Now he was sixteen and this sort of picture-book world was beginning to seem tame and boring. He could not wait to get away from it. But where? He mused. Maybe think of university, or maybe he'd go directly into the world of work. He knew he was bright. Most of his friends hung round the village green, worrying the older inhabitants with their coarse language and ostentatious cigarette smoking. Danny did not care for that. He wanted to make something of himself.
He emerged on the green. It was a nice-looking place, the sort that people took Sunday drives to see. It had a duck pond, a line of thatched cottages, a medieval church and a red pillar-box. But Danny wanted the post office. He looked at the display of want ads and notices in the window. It was not promising. He didn't fancy Pilates classes in the village hall. He also had no interest in delivering papers, suspecting the reason why they were always advertising for paperboys had something to do with the conditions of the job. Oh why was there no McDonald's or Pizza Hut in Castringham? He knew the answer to that one, of course - Castringham was the back of beyond.
Suddenly, a nicely typed notice hijacked Danny's attention: Haddesley Hall Garden Centre and Pet Supplies. Manager, N. Underwood. Assistant needed. Reasonable rates. Ring this number and ask for Nate.
Haddesley was the next village along. Danny knew the garden centre well, having been dragged round it often enough as a kid. He was aware it had been under new management for the past three years. There was something else his brother had told him about it, too. Oh yes. Now he remembered. The guy who ran it was a poof. Danny played that piece of data through his brain, then shrugged. He was sufficiently alienated from his rural background to affect to resent backwoods prejudices. This Nate was a poof, so what? Just try making a pass at him and see what happened!
Danny had his mobile, so he rang the number immediately, standing outside the window. He had just got the cut-glass tones of the answerphone lady when she was cut off by a pleasant male voice: 'Hi! Garden Centre. Nate speaking.'
'Oh ... er, hi! Er ... my name's Danny. I saw your ad in Castringham post office for an assistant. Is there still a vacancy?'
There was a pause. Then the voice recommenced, 'Could you tell me how old you are?'
'Sixteen last March.'
'Well, normally I prefer to employ sixth-formers, but you're nearly there I suppose. I've actually got two jobs going, since a couple of my old regulars are moving on to uni. I have to tell you that at the moment I've got six applicants. Still, could you come for an interview tomorrow at ... say, eight in the morning? Even though it's Sunday, it's a working day for us.'
'OK, I guess so.'
'Good. Give us your details then, Danny.'
When Danny hung up, he found he had mixed feelings about this. The idea of an interview scared him slightly. What sort of questions would he get? He knew little about plants and gardens. Also, if the guy was gay, good looks might swing it, and Danny was no Adonis. Indeed, he was just an ordinary, mousy-haired kid, with no special talents he had ever discovered.
He strolled back up the Crescent, wondering where he had put his National Insurance card. Mum would know.
* * *
Danny did have one talent, though he had never looked at it that way. He was, even at sixteen, very much his own man. He was rarely flustered by anything that happened around him, and he couldn't care less about his peer group and what they thought. The consensus in year 11 at his comprehensive had been that Danny Hackness was cool. It made him quite a hit with the girls. And if he was still a virgin, it wasn't for want of opportunities not to be. The fact that his father was a teacher in the same school had not bothered Danny either, the way it did his sisters. It gave him little fear of the rest of the staff, and he tended to talk to them with an air of confidence. He was never disrespectful, far from it, but he looked adults in the eye when he talked to them.
He rode his bike the three miles through the country lanes to Haddesley. It was a fine, warm early morning. There were no cars around, and the hedges and trees were full of birdsong. Danny was not immune to the charms of nature, which made him feel quite cheerful.
Just outside the village was Haddesley Hall, a stately home set in its own private park. It was a long red-brick house of eighteenth-century vintage, with a flat parapet and an ugly Victorian portico added to the door. Next to it was Haddesley church, whose bells were chiming seven-thirty just at that moment, echoed by the stable clock behind the hall.
Danny was early. When he dismounted and pulled off his helmet, he realized he was sweating from the ride and smelled a bit niffy. Across the low park wall and through the trees he could see the flat grey surface of a lake spread out, with reed beds along its banks. It looked so inviting that he leaned his bike against the wall and hopped over. Going down through the thin line of trees behind the wall, he found a sunlit miniature beach along the lake bank, sheltered from either side by tall reeds. He quickly stripped off his top and knelt down to splash his face and rub his armpits. The water was chilly but very refreshing. He bent down and plunged his head into its cool depths.
As Danny pulled up out of the lake and shook his long hair, he heard a voice, and not a friendly one. 'Here, I say! You! Do you know you're trespassing? This is a private home.'
Danny wiped the water from his eyes and stood up. The voice belonged to a tall boy, probably much his own age. Danny saw he was red-faced about something. The bright-red cheeks didn't go too well with his thick blond hair.
'Is it?' Danny responded mildly. 'I'd better be off, then. Sorry to be a bother.'
The other boy seemed even more peeved by the mild answer - either that, or Danny's usual careless and confident tone had further irritated him. Perhaps he felt he was being made fun of.
'That's right, now clear off. Bloody village kids. Treat the park like a bloody playground!'
Danny was becoming amused. The strange boy was clearly trying to be something he was not. He seemed too mild a boy for the aggression he was displaying. Danny slowly put his top back on, smiling as his head emerged. 'What's your name then, mate?' he drawled, deliberately proletarianising his accent to that of the local townies. His mother would have been appalled.
'My name is none of your concern,' snapped the irate boy. Danny was rather surprised that he hadn't been called 'My man' or 'Fellow'. The other boy's accent was distinctly upper class as he continued, 'Be off with you, or I'll ... yes, I'll get the police to you.'
Danny was now very amused. 'OK, chief. No need to get your knickers in a hernia. I said I was goin', dinn I? You live here then, mate?'
The red-faced boy balled his fists. Danny really began to believe that he was about to get hit, so he put up his hands pacifically. 'OK, goin' now. No need to call out the gamekeepers and 'ave me 'orse-whipped. Bye.'
Danny wandered back to the wall, taking his time. As he hopped over he looked back. The boy was still by the lakeside, and still had his fists clenched. But now he looked uncertain and a bit lost.
At 7:55, Danny propped up his bike outside the garden centre and locked the back wheel. He looked around. The gravelled car park was empty but for a small red Clio on the other side, next to a cottage. No one seemed to be around. He tapped on the garden-centre door, but everything was locked up and dark inside.
Then he heard a voice calling from across the car park. He looked towards the cottage where a big bloke was waving at him. He walked over. 'You Nate?' he asked.
The big bloke smiled. For the first professed gay Danny had seen close up he looked pretty normal, which was almost a disappointment. He was wearing a green polo shirt with the garden-centre logo in yellow, cargo trousers and trainers. His wide face, seemingly set in a permanent smile, was framed in rich auburn hair that tumbled over his ears.
'Nathan Underwood. Pleased to meet you, Danny. Fancy a coffee or something while we have a chat?' His voice was a pleasant baritone.
'Coffee's fine,' Danny smiled back. They went into the cottage, along a corridor and into a bright and neat kitchen with an Aga range to one side. The smell of fresh coffee and warm croissants was very seductive.
'Help yourself.' As Danny poured his mug and selected a croissant from the basket, Nathan added, 'Tell me about yourself.'
Danny gave him a potted history of who he was and where he lived. It didn't take long.
'Ever had another job?' Nathan wanted to know. Danny shook his head.
'You got problems with regular weekends?' Danny said no. He had been into rugby at school, but had no interest in pursuing sports outside it. As for holidays, the family had no money at the moment, so there was little chance of interruption to his work.
'If I give you the job, when can you start?' Danny said any time.
'OK, then,' Nathan continued, 'I'll let you know. I'm seeing the others today and tomorrow. Hopefully I'll have made a decision by Tuesday. Thanks for coming over.'
'No problem, Nate, it was an enjoyable ride. Er ... by the way, don't mean to be nosy, but who's the dark-headed guy in the pictures with you?'
Nathan laughed. 'That's Justin, my boyfriend. I'm gay, if you didn't know.'
'Someone mentioned it.'
Nathan laughed louder. 'I'm not in the least surprised, Danny. Villages are like that. Does it bother you?'
It was Danny's turn to laugh. 'No, not at all. But I'm glad you cleared it up.'
They shook hands. Nathan had a powerful grip.