First Innings

 

 

NAT SEDDON was exhausted. His remarkable body could withstand the physical demands of a tour, but his mind was already on the plane back home. He missed his friends, he missed his mum, and most of all he missed the Australian sunshine. They’d had a few decent days in what was laughingly called a British summer, but his overriding memory of the past three months was the soul-sapping grayness of the northern skies. It was a good thing they’d won almost every match, or he might be really pissed off.

From a sporting point of view, it had been a great series, from which Nat and his teammates had emerged victorious. It had hurt like hell when England beat them two years before, so the moment had been especially sweet when Nat raised the Ashes urn in triumph. It was a ridiculous trophy, five inches in height and made of clay, but he cherished the century-old trinket all the same.

The Australian team had quite a party the night of the deciding test match. While Nat considered himself a wine connoisseur, he’d downed a few beers with the rest of the guys and joined in the raucous celebrations. Now they were playing one last game in London, a one-day match at Lord’s. Nat wasn’t the sentimental type, but he did have a soft spot for Lord’s. There were bigger grounds, more modern grounds, and certainly ones in sunnier climes, but it still made the hairs stand up on his neck when he stepped onto the turf of the hallowed home of cricket.

After thirty exhilarating minutes, Nat had already disposed of the first two batsmen. At this point, he would normally be anticipating the arrival of Charlie Greer. Charlie had a wicked sense of humor that frequently had Nat in stitches, but as soon as he took to the field of play, he became the most boring man in England. He guarded his wicket like a family treasure and was virtually impossible to get out. But Nat wouldn’t be facing Charlie today, as he’d apparently been injured in an unfortunate bathroom incident.

His replacement was England’s new boy, Scott Alverley. Nat had seen him around, carrying bottles of water for the other players. He’d glimpsed wisps of golden hair beneath his blue England cap, but Nat was so focused when he played, he wouldn’t notice a herd of bison charging across the field. A few blond curls would hardly divert him from the task at hand, which was namely to smash three sticks of wood straight out of the damp English turf.

The youngster strode past him down the pitch and Nat glanced toward him, intending to give his customary glare. His face was obscured by the grill of his helmet, but Nat could still make out his fine cheekbones, his honey-colored skin, and the bow of his cherry-pink lips. There were some good-looking blokes on the cricket scene, but Nat set aside his fondness for the male form when he set foot in the dressing room. Nat was a professional sportsman, and he couldn’t afford any distractions.

As he passed, the new guy turned to look at Nat with eyes as blue as a Gold Coast sky. The poor thing looked terrified, which under any other circumstances would have delighted Nat, but he found himself in the unthinkable position of feeling sorry for the lad. He wanted to put his arm around him, to tell him to relax and enjoy his debut. More disturbing by far was an almost irresistible urge to kiss those pretty pink lips.

Nat’s temporary insanity lasted barely a second. He flipped the hard crimson ball in his hands and stormed away down the pitch. The new batsman had scarcely taken his place when Nat unleashed a ferocious delivery, which tore the wooden stumps right out of the ground. Nat looked away uneasily as Alverley trudged back to the dressing room. Then he proceeded to dismiss the remaining batsmen, in a bout of bowling so full of aggression that even his own teammates looked nervous.

A couple of hours later, Nat stood in the crowded bar, toasting another successful day with fellow bowler, Sam Banks. Sam took a sip of dark local ale and appraised the small island they’d be leaving the next day.

“Cold, wet weather. Warm, flat beer. My idea of fuckin’ heaven.”

Nat chuckled and picked up his tumbler of scotch. However dark his mood, and it was pretty black sometimes, Sam could always make him laugh. Nat got on well with the other guys, but he and Sam were on the same wavelength. They were both perfectionists, both obsessed with the minutiae of cricket, and both unexpectedly avid readers of European literature.

Nat could usually rely on Sam, so it was most inconsiderate of him to head off at that moment for a piss—the very same moment the new kid walked in through the door. He’d looked doleful as a kicked puppy when Nat took his wicket a few hours before, but now he strolled coolly toward the bar, with his waves of blond hair still damp from the shower and eyes so blue Nat could literally have dived into them. Nat prayed for Sam’s speedy return as the youngster drew uncomfortably close.

“Good evening.” He held out his hand in such a formal manner, Nat assumed he was speaking to someone else. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Seddon. I’m Scott Alverley.”

Sam seemed to have got lost on his way back from the loo, so Nat warily shook Scott’s hand.

“How’s it goin’?”

Scott appeared to give the question some thought before he replied, “Well, apart from being out for a duck on my debut, I’m fine, thanks very much.”

Nat wasn’t sure if he was being serious or not, but then his flawless face creased into a smile, and Nat couldn’t help smiling back.

“Sorry about that.”

As they stood grinning at each other, Nat knew the sensible course of action would be to make his excuses and join his teammates across the room. Instead, he opened his mouth to say the least sensible words he’d ever uttered.

“Can I get you a drink, Scott?”

Scott accepted his offer and asked for a glass of lemonade. Sipping their drinks, they made perfectly ordinary conversation, chatting about the match, the weather, and the many attractions of London. When it emerged that Scott lived in the capital, Nat innocently asked if he knew of any good bars. Scott said he knew of one or two.

A more risky question popped into Nat’s head, and he wondered why on earth he’d want to ask it. Scott was pleasant and chatty, but Nat had no reason to think his interest was due to anything more than professional courtesy. Besides, it was Nat’s first unbreakable rule that he didn’t flirt with other players, even if he knew for a fact they were gay. His second rule was that he didn’t sleep around on tour. He’d seen enough reputations ruined by media revelations to know it wasn’t worth the trouble. So it made no sense at all to ask the question he found coming out of his mouth.

“Do you know of anywhere more interesting?”

To be fair, he could have meant anything. A strip club, a casino, a temperance bar. As it was, Scott seemed to know exactly what he meant. With the slightest quiver to his voice, he said he didn’t know of any more interesting bars, but his apartment was only a short walk away.

Nat’s mouth sagged open, unable to believe his luck—whether good or bad he wasn’t sure.

A look of panic flashed across Scott’s face. “Shit. You are…? Aren’t you?”

Nat had somehow avoided that question, the question, since the day he’d signed his first contract. He’d avoided it because he was always totally open about the answer. There’d never been any question of pretending to be straight, joining in with the dressing room banter when it turned to models and actresses. And Nat had no intention of finding a girl in a sparkly dress and a painted-on smile to traipse around to official events.

His teammates knew he liked men, but he gave them no details and they asked for none. He wanted no publicity and neither did they. The arrangement suited all concerned. He felt a twinge of guilt from time to time, but it wasn’t in his nature to be an ambassador for anything, let alone what he considered a private matter. But now the question had been asked, he gave the only answer he could.

“Yes, I am.”

 

 

SCOTT was still astounded by what he’d just done. At the age of twenty-one, he’d finally come out. He may not have said the actual words, but he’d made it clear to another person that he liked men. And who was the recipient of his life-changing announcement? A friend, a relative, or respected colleague? Of course not. He’d chosen Australia’s most fearsome fast bowler.

He hadn’t expected this to happen when he got the phone call that morning. The phone call that every sportsman both longs for and fears: the call-up to the national side. He’d been named in the squad a couple of times but had given up hope of playing at this late stage of the summer. He had been dozing in bed when his mobile rang and Tom Gardener’s name appeared on the screen.

“Scott, man, get your arse over to Lord’s.” A straight-talking Geordie, the England captain always made Scott smile when he called. “Charlie’s slipped on a bar of soap, the daft sod. You should see the shiner he’s got on his backside.”

Scott tried not to squeal with joy as he leaped out of bed. He didn’t want Tom to think he was gloating at Charlie’s misfortune, but he’d never been so excited in his life. By the time he reached the Lord’s ground, however, his elation had turned to trepidation. He’d been playing for Surrey for a while now, so he knew the pressures of first-class cricket, but this was a very different ball game. This was Australia, the old enemy, a team with some of the best players in the world, and the glorious old ground would be packed to the rafters, all waiting to see what the new boy was made of.

As it happened, the crowd couldn’t have been more disappointed. He’d stood at the wicket for precisely half a minute before his stumps were smashed to pieces. He knew it was half a minute because he’d counted every tortuous second, but it wasn’t the crowd or the occasion or the quality of the bowling that had been his undoing. His legs had turned to jelly and his brain to mush because of one unforgettable look.

When his eyes met Nat’s, Scott saw something in his chestnut gaze he’d never seen before. He’d seen looks of lust from boys at school who hadn’t even tried to hide it, but this was lust and warmth and concern all rolled into one. He’d heard the rumors about Nat Seddon, and now he knew they were true. In that moment, he also knew that this was the man he’d come out to. It was illogical and stupid, maybe even dangerous, but that was how it was going to be.

So Scott found himself passing a glass of Meursault to the Australian sitting on his sofa. Nat was a stunning sight; six feet five of finely toned muscle, his olive skin and cropped black hair set off to perfection by his pristine white shirt. They’d had a lovely walk from the ground, chatting about London and Brisbane and everywhere in between. Then, as soon as they’d walked in the door, Nat had, quite reasonably, tried to kiss him. He’d tried, but he hadn’t succeeded.

Scott had been so scared he’d pushed him away, on the pretext of offering Nat a drink like the well-trained host he was. He’d thought he’d gotten away with it, but as Nat now smiled uneasily, Scott knew he’d seen through him. Scott could hear the disappointment in Nat’s voice, as he asked, “You’re pretty new to this, aren’t you?”

Scott nodded, and Nat’s face sank like a stone dropping through water. Scott expected him to make some excuse and escape as fast as he could. It was obvious what Nat wanted and playing agony uncle to a twenty-one-year-old virgin certainly wasn’t it. Scott struggled to contain the tears of embarrassment pricking at his eyes.

“I’m sorry, Nat. I shouldn’t have asked you here.”

Nat looked at him for what felt like hours, but was barely a couple of seconds. Then he patted the seat next to him with an encouraging hand.

“Come on. Tell your uncle Nat all about it.”

Scott couldn’t imagine anything more thrilling or frightening than revealing his true feelings to this mountain of a man. He swallowed half a glass of wine before daring to sit next to him on the sofa. Nat smiled at him expectantly, and Scott began his tragic tale.

There honestly wasn’t much of a story to tell, as Scott had managed to spend five years at boarding school without so much as kissing another boy. His school had hardly been a hotbed of sexual depravity, but there were boys who would have happily welcomed Scott into the realms of physical pleasure. Indeed, some were his friends, who delighted in trying to shock him with accounts of their carnal exploits. He’d laughingly shut them up as he wrote an essay or read a book; then, a few hours later, tucked up in bed, he’d borrow their tales for his own fantasies. He knew it would only take a word for his dreams to become a reality, and as he drifted off to sleep each night, he resolved that tomorrow would be the day when he grasped life and all it entailed with his most capable hands.

Alas that day never came. He couldn’t take the risk. Scott knew there were laws to prevent discrimination, but children could be, not to put too fine a point on it, vicious little bastards. He’d seen it for himself, with the few boys who were openly gay or who simply couldn’t hide the fact. He never saw any physical violence—Scott would have put a stop to that—but he knew that names could be equally hurtful. He’d heard boys cry themselves to sleep and knew he could have gone to them, put an arm round their quaking shoulders, and told them that he understood.

Scott knew he could have tried to stop the names too, but he’d never dared to put up a fight, not even a verbal one. He couldn’t be sure he’d still be captain of the First XI, that he’d be a prefect in his final year, or that he’d still be quite as popular as he was. So he lived his safe half-life, waiting for the day when he left school and could finally be himself.

Unfortunately, going from boarding school to professional cricket wasn’t the ideal path to sexual liberation. There were some openly gay cricketers, but they were few and far between, and he knew what would happen if he came out. He’d no longer be Scott Alverley, Surrey batsman, he’d be Scott Alverley, gay cricketer. He’d had so many labels since he left school—posh boy, rich boy, pretty boy—and that would be a label too far.

This left him in something of a quandary. If he couldn’t tell anyone, whatever he did would have to be in secret. The thought of going to gay bars filled him with absolute terror. What would he do if someone came on to him? He wouldn’t have a clue, and the thought of answering a lonely hearts ad was too awful for words. So he spent night after lonely night in his apartment, hoping that one day he’d find the courage to get a life, or at the very least get laid.

His story ended, Scott looked forlornly at Nat and asked the purely rhetorical question, “I really am a sad case, aren’t I?”

 

 

NAT wanted to take Scott by the shoulders and shake him hard. Yes, you are a sad case, you stupid arse. You’re beautiful, you’re talented, and I could listen to that classy voice of yours all night. What the hell have you been playing at all these years? But as Nat was wearing his diplomatic hat that evening, he thought better of it.

“Of course you’re not a sad case. Everyone develops at their own pace.”

Nat had simply developed a little faster than most. He’d known for certain he was gay when he was thirteen. It was a common enough story: boys gawping at pictures of scantily clad women and Nat looking and looking and just not getting it. He’d plucked up the nerve to ask his best mate, Andy, what it felt like when he ogled the magazines or caught a glimpse of a dodgy film late at night.

Andy had stared at him, confused. How could he not know? But Andy was always keen to help and also loved the sound of his own voice, so he proceeded to describe, in extensive detail, exactly how it felt when he saw a woman’s tits and bum and the exotic curls of hair between her legs. A wave of relief had washed over Nat. Of course he knew those feelings. In a rare moment of religious fervor, Nat had raised his eyes to the heavens. He was normal. Thank you, God.

The only difference was, it was cricketers and rugby stars, and any bloke in a tight pair of shorts, who gave Nat those feelings. He didn’t share these thoughts with Andy there and then, but he’d always been grateful for Andy’s way with words. He was a writer now and still a good mate.

He considered himself incredibly lucky to have had Andy as a friend, along with Mark and Barry who lived on his street. When he told Andy he was gay, on his fifteenth birthday, Andy called a meeting of the four friends. They made a solemn oath that if anyone gave Nat any trouble, the crap would swiftly be kicked out of the offending person. Nat never had to hold them to their promise, but the threat of potential violence on his behalf was oddly comforting.

Nat, meanwhile, was capable of inflicting his own brand of violence on the cricket field. An unwise comment from an opposing player was answered with a pinpoint delivery to balls or head or chest. Nat didn’t care where the damage was done, as long as the message was received loud and clear. Was it unprofessional and unsportsmanlike? Probably. Was it effective? Definitely. He rarely had to do it twice.

It was a shame he couldn’t use the same tactic with his father, Frank Seddon, successful barrister, bigot, and arsehole. That may have been a little unfair, but not much. He’d insisted he was thinking of Nat, that he knew he was making life difficult for himself. He’d asked him if he could just give girls a try. Nat had calmly asked his father if he’d like to give men a try. The look of disgust on his face had told Nat all he needed to know. The thought of his son with another man made him feel sick, and there was nothing Nat could do about it.

In total contrast, his mother had been amazing. She’d given him the biggest hug and told him she was there if he wanted to talk, but she’d understand if he didn’t. Dr. Annie Seddon was his heroine and always had been. A psychologist would have a field day with that sentiment, but she’d still be incredible even if they weren’t related. And a shrink would go into raptures if they heard she was responsible for Nat losing his virginity at the age of sixteen.

Annie had left something at home; lunchbox, stethoscope, she was always forgetting something. Nat had cycled up to the hospital to drop off whatever it was. Shadowing Annie that day was a first-year medical student named Rich. They got chatting, and somewhere between music and sport, Rich had smiled at Nat in a way no one had ever smiled at him before. He knew it wasn’t love at first sight. He wasn’t that naïve, but he knew pure lust when he saw it. They arranged to meet at Rich’s student digs, so he could help Nat with his science coursework. Nat took his books along, afraid he might have the wrong idea, but as Rich slowly slid his hand up Nat’s thigh, he figured he had exactly the right idea.

Rich was hardly more experienced than Nat, but they both had fond memories of those tentative forays into manhood. Which isn’t to say it didn’t hurt like hell when, squashed in his narrow student bed, Rich had pushed inside Nat for the first time. Not that Rich would have known, as a narrowing of the eyes was the only indication of the white-hot pain that had pulsed through Nat’s body. Rich had been impressed by his bravery, as was anyone who’d seen Nat hit by a cricket ball or a hockey stick or, on occasion, a fist. Spectacular bruises later showed the violence of such acts, but a slight wince would be his only reaction. He refused to give anyone the chance to call him fairy or pansy or any of the feeble epithets used down the years, and if it meant he appeared heartless or devoid of feelings, he really couldn’t have cared less.

Through Rich he met other students and, later on, slightly older men: academics, businessmen, politicians. Highly private men, none of them were looking for a relationship, which suited Nat just fine. Spending most of the year traveling wasn’t conducive to a stable relationship, and he’d have plenty of time for that sort of thing when he retired. Besides, he knew that when he fell for someone, he’d fall hard, as he wasn’t capable of doing anything by halves. So for now he stuck with his little blue book.

When the plane touched down at the end of a tour, he’d mentally flick through its pages. Did he want to talk business or politics? Quietly attentive or gregariously chatty? Elegantly slender or gym-obsessed Greek god? He had a soft spot for all of them, considering them friends. And they adored him, with his insatiable intellect and dry sense of humor, but he could have been the dullest man alive and they wouldn’t have cared. Nat was as close to physical perfection as they would ever encounter and athletic in ways most men could only dream of.

Each successful and respected in his own field, they still felt a flutter of excitement when Nat was in town, and secretly hoped theirs would be the first number he called. To fuck and be fucked by an intelligent, beautiful man was an honor. When that man had been deprived of sex for weeks, or even months, it was a rare privilege indeed.

Nat was naturally reluctant to share the details of his life with anyone, but as Scott had been so honest, he felt obliged to give him the edited highlights. When Nat finished his story, Scott slumped back against the couch.

“And I thought my life was pathetic? It’s positively pitiful.”

Nat chuckled at Scott’s sulky schoolboy pout. “You’re still young. There’s plenty of time to catch up.”

Scott touchily pointed out that he was only a few years younger than him. Nat tried not to laugh as he explained to Scott that he had the severe disadvantage of being English and was therefore emotionally and physically repressed.

Scott broke into a grudging smile. “How very true.”

A little while later, Scott stood in the kitchen making tea, while Nat watched him from the comfort of the couch. Scott looked more relaxed than he had all night and even more attractive. Nat felt his heart begin to race as he imagined the feel of Scott’s skin beneath his fingers, the taste of his lips, the heat of his—

Nat recalled the panic in Scott’s eyes when he’d tried to kiss him a few hours earlier. No matter how much Nat ached to see what lay beneath his shirt and jeans, he couldn’t put the slightest pressure on Scott. He knew he’d never forgive himself, so he got up from the couch and made his way to the kitchen.

“Listen, Scott, it’s getting late.”

A teaspoon slipped from Scott’s hand and clattered onto a saucer. Nat could have kicked himself when he saw the anxious rise and fall of Scott’s chest, and the lump in his throat as he swallowed. Scott plainly thought Nat expected his reward for being such a patient listener.

“I didn’t mean… I have to go. We’ve got an early flight tomorrow.”

Scott didn’t look any less fearful at the thought of him leaving. In fact, he looked like he might cry. Nat didn’t know what to do, so he reached into his pocket and took out his phone.

“Take my number. Give me a call if you’re in Brisbane or if you just want a chat.”

Nat looked down to switch on his phone, but before he could tap the screen to life, he felt Scott’s trembling fingers on the back of his neck. As Scott pulled Nat toward him, Nat saw the awful consequences if he let this happen. He’d be thousands of miles away this time tomorrow, unable to help Scott through a difficult time, and if he let Scott think he was interested, it could only make things worse. Nat determined to resist. He’d put Scott in touch with some gay support group, then get the hell out of the country.

But as Nat felt the touch of Scott’s lips against his, he found himself helpless in the face of temptation. Remembering this was Scott’s first kiss, Nat was more restrained than he’d been in his life. He longed to grab Scott’s sweet backside and run his hands over every inch of his body, but instead he stroked his fingers through Scott’s hair as their lips gently explored. Nat felt the tension in Scott’s body ease, as their kisses became deeper and more intense. Nat’s heart began to flutter and tiny shivers rippled over his skin. Then Scott pulled away and said the oddest thing.

“Do you have to go home tomorrow?”