“Y’know they just make you look more conspicuous down here, dun’t ya?”
Seb curled a finger around the arm of his shades and slipped them to the end of his nose, his chocolate-brown doe eyes focusing on Jay. “Conspicuous?”
Jay raised his eyebrows to the point they were hidden underneath the peak of his baseball cap. He stepped in closer to Seb, avoiding another influx of commuters to the Underground platform. The musty smell of a day’s office work wafted from the nearest suited male, masking the dust and cast-iron scent, and the echoing tap of kitten heels ricocheted off the curved walls.
Tutting, Seb slipped the glasses back up. “That’s four syllables, Champ.” Bashed by another oversized handbag passing him, Seb grimaced. “Careful, you’ll quash the stereotypical notion that footballers are all as thick as shit.”
Jay snorted and glanced up to the digital timetable display. “Two minutes.”
“Fuck’s sake, why did you have to trade in our tangerine machine? We could have used that car right now.”
“I had to, to get the upgraded motor. Least the BMW will be more subtle. With blacked-out windas, an’ all.”
“Damn right. But we could have taken a cab.”
“And fork out a fuck ton to pay some geezer to sit us in midday traffic? No, ta.”
“Isn’t now a little prudent to be counting the pennies? If that last contract you signed at West Ham for a cool half a mil is anything to go by.” Seb tsked. “New money.”
“I’ll always count my kilkennies,” Jay retaliated. “No matter what I earn now. Just like you’ll always be an entitled rich kid who throws away his mash the moment it touches his sky rocket.”
“I won’t even attempt to decipher what you just said.” Seb twirled a crunchy tip of dark brown hair between his fingers. “And I swear you do it to confuse the fuck out of me.”
“Nah. I just know you like it.”
“Ha.” Seb ran his tongue along his front teeth. “That I do. Say more.”
Jay chuckled. A group of rowdy lads bundled down the underground steps to the platform, each one wearing a replica Tottenham football shirt, and the remnants of their drinking session hit Jay in the face. Jay cursed under his breath. Why he’d agreed to do this on the same day as a London derby was due to kick off, he’d never know. Edging closer to the yellow line, he impatiently awaited the next train, hoping to avoid any undue attention.
It had been getting harder to venture out in public, but he couldn’t remain inside with Seb forever. Not that it was a particularly bad thing when they did get to close the doors to their poky flat and shut out the world for a while.
“Ah, bollocks.” Seb shoved Jay on the arm and squirmed through a crowd of commuters. “Who the fuck invented a fucking camera on a fucking phone? How is that ever going to be fucking useful?”
Stumbling to the end of the platform, Jay peered over Seb’s shoulder. The flash of a mobile camera illuminated the tunnel, and all the other passengers scrambled to see who or what had been the target of the non-consensual snap. Him? Seb? Both of them. Together. Bowing his head, Jay gripped the peak of his cap to conceal as much of his face as possible into the shadows.
This was also taking some getting used to—the attention, the random cameras being shoved in his face, the recognition on the street that his status as one of the top goal scorers of last season had brought him. Seb seemed to take the attention in his stride. But he’d always been destined for celebrity status, and revelled in the public’s scrutiny. Like a moth to a flame, Seb was drawn to the bright lights of the media circus they’d inadvertently created for themselves. Jay wouldn’t have him any other way, of course. Well... Maybe sometimes.
“The specs ain’t working.”
“Nor is the cap.” Seb slapped the peak of Jay’s hat and it fell to obscure his vision.
“Piss off.” Ripping it from his head, Jay huffed and slicked back his floppy blond hair. His hooded sweatshirt rose to reveal his stomach, but he slapped it down, double lively, on seeing Seb’s roaming gaze. “And you can put your tongue back in.”
He almost wiped the corner of Seb’s mouth with his thumb. But that would have caused even more of a stir, and they’d made their pact not to fuel the speculation in the press about them. Jay may have outed himself last year, but he refused to speak of his love life—of Seb. Keeping that firmly in the shadows aided his survival on the pitch, the training ground, the changing rooms, even if he claimed it was so Seb could find his own path without the links to him. And he was.
“You show those abs,” Seb licked his lips, “and I’m going to drool. Sue me. I got a lawyer.”
“Speakin’ of cash...”
The tube train shunted into the station and the doors bleeped open, stifling the conversation that Jay had been meaning to have for a while. Well, since this had all got a bit more serious. Steering Seb onto the carriage, Jay pointed toward two vacated seats and Seb grabbed the copy of the Metro newspaper left on the multicoloured cushion.
“Hmm?” Seb sat and flicked through the pages, eyes hidden behind his dark glasses, but Jay knew they’d be darting across the printed words and no longer focused on him. Priorities. Not for the latest news in the capital: probably more for the entertainment section. The hottest in music releases, more specifically.
“We need to get the finances sorted.”
“The club are setting up a meetin’ with an agent, so I gotta know what we got between us.”
“An agent? Why do you need one of those money-grabbing sleazes?” Seb slapped the paper to his lap. “You have me to swipe your hard-earned cash off your hands.”
“Ain’t that the truth. But the club recommended it. Could be a good move. Getting someone to, y’know, deal with all the shit. Especially with what we’re about to go do right now.”
Seb chewed his lip. “How much?”
“They’ll take ten percent.”
“Of your wages?”
“No, off my boot laces.” Jay tutted.
“That’ll make it hard to kick a ball.”
The train pulled out of the station and Jay rocked against the window pane. The raucous banter from the group of lads all squashed into the vestibule drowned out the squeal of the metal wheels on the track. Jay tensed, wriggling in the seat and adjusted his trackie bottoms down his legs. This train couldn’t go quick enough.
“And what do these people do for the sweat off your back?” Seb returned his interest to the Metro.
“Sort my life out.”
“They’ll tell you to stay in the closet.”
“Bit hard that now, innit?”
Seb smiled. “Whatever you want, Champ.” He trailed his gaze back to the printed text on the newspaper. “But you are aware of my own background in business? I can sort your finances out into various investments that’ll mean you won’t be destitute by the time you’re thirty.”
“You mean, put my hard-earned dough into your band?”
“No sell-by date on rock and roll. Look at Bowie.” Seb grinned. “No, you don’t need an agent. You just need some sweet talker to answer all those OK! and Hello requests. What about your dad? Surely the man wants to give the decorating stint up at his age? I would pay good money to read John Ruttman’s response to a photo shoot, ‘Fuck off, sweet’art, my son ain’t no piece of meat to sell your shit rag, so you can stop gettin’ your knickers in a flap over ’im. And you at the Mail, you homophobic twat with a microphone, you can go fuck yourself. ’”
Jay glared. Hard. “And that’s the reason, right there, why you ain’t allowed to talk to the press.”
“And my old man don’t speak like that.”
“Pretty much word for word what he said when the journo’s knocked on his door after your press conference. Absolute legend. The man’s going down in history. Love him.”
“I meant the accent. It was shit.”
“Knees up, Mother Brown.” Seb over-pronounced every blasted syllable.
Drumming his fingers on his knee, Jay settled back in the seat. Seb had been right, they should have got a cab. But Jay’s habit of saving money was so deep-rooted that he hadn’t been able to shed it even after a year of earning a professional footballer’s wage. Now on a packed tube train at the busiest time of the day, with a bunch of football supporters heckling through the latest scores, Jay’s instinctive fear was getting the better of him. Splashing out on a little indulgence, like Seb might say, would have been better all round.
One of the blokes slammed up against the pane beside Jay’s seat, rattling the glass and Jay’s nerves. The geezer shoved his mate out of the way and started up with a play fight inappropriate for a packed tube ride. New Year in the city and people go mad.
“What a fucking load of wank.” Seb slammed the paper shut.
“My latest album is not a pitiful self-indulgent ramble from a group of private school boys trying to proclaim the working-class hero subculture as their own.” Pouting, he shoved the Metro between his and Jay’s seats.
“What was it then?”
Seb crossed his arms, jiggling his leg so the designer rip on his black drainpipe jeans tore farther across his knee. “Firstly, Kensington Boys is a state school.”
“Yeah, but you were at private school before that.”
“Unnecessary details.” Seb waved a hand. “Secondly, the album was a deep and meaningful glance into the angst of discovering who you are and where you really belong.” He grinned. “And a brief fuck-you to the bourgeois hypocrisy.”
Jay nodded. “Yeah. Your usual stuff.”
“Don’t humour me.”
“I ain’t. It was good.” Jay shrugged. “What do you care what a tosser from the Metro thinks, anyway? Don’t ever read the rags. That’s what I’ve learned. Ain’t worth the agg. What does some journo who sits on the side lines know about it? He ain’t out on the pitch, doing it.”
“You got to number one. So, fuck ’em.” Jay smiled. “Can be our New Year motto if you like?”
Seb bounced his knee, but his arms did unfurl from their stiffness. For all Seb’s confidence and the fuck-you to the world he composed on a daily basis through his rocking guitar-riff songs, he could be seriously affected by a local rag review. No matter, Jay would relieve that for him later. After they’d done the grown-up stuff, that was.
“Next stop.” Jay nodded to the sign and flinched when another loud burst of laughter exploded from the group beside them.
The train screeched into the next station and Jay shot up from his seat. He had to squeeze through the lads, accidentally stepping on someone’s toes. “Sorry, mate.” He tapped the man’s arm in apology.
“Watch it.” The bloke spat lager breath onto Jay’s face, then stopped, gawked and pointed. “Fuckin’ ’ell. Lads, it’s Rutters. From West Ham.”
“What, the queer?” another one blurted out, scrambling through the mob to get a proper look. “You should be on the girls’ team, mate!”
Head down, Jay jumped off the train with his heart pounding and his gut wrenched in knots. Another thing he should be used to by now—the casual homophobia of fickle football fans. It never made it any easier to cope with, no matter how many times he heard the usual rants. And certainly not when on a packed train and having to witness his boyfriend swivelling his middle finger in the air whilst bounding off the carriage behind him.
The lads all bundled forward, and Jay had to grab Seb’s arm to yank him away. Luckily, the doors dinged shut, preventing the group from clambering off and no doubt pummelling Seb, and him, to the concrete. Instead, they all offered the wank sign through the glass and Seb had delight in keeping his skull and crossbones tattoo erected high until the train had left the station.
Jay shook his head, inhaling a fierce breath.
“What?” Seb slapped his arm down to his side.
“You remember our deal, right?”
Seb smiled. Then shrugged. “Fuck ’em?”
“Keep everything on the low-key. Don’t make a scene, don’t engage, don’t—”
“Retaliate. I know, I know.” Seb angled his head and they both made their way to exit the station via the twist of steps and emerged outside where the freezing mid-evening temperature smacked Jay in the mouth.
He yanked his hood over his cap and rubbed his hands together, shaking his head at Seb’s inappropriate slim-fit leather jacket barely being any protector of the thin T-shirt beneath.
“Right, this way.” Jay tugged on Seb’s fingers, but he didn’t entwine his with them. He couldn’t. Not here. Not after what had just happened on the train. Will I ever be able to?
Seb hurried alongside him, through the bustling high street, passing the gastro pubs and the trinket gift shops selling Harry Potter memorabilia and university branded hoodies. They ambled through the busy market place wafting an array of international spicy street foods, and dodged the after-work crowd bundling into the nearest boozer with an open fire.
A stone-brick church stood on the corner, prominent along the cobbled streets, and gazed down on the area as its master and protector. Jay chucked a left, leading Seb over the road and snaked through the bumper-to-bumper cars until they hit the first residential street. Everything calmed to the point that the tweet of birds was noticeable over the burst of exhaust fumes.
“This one.” Jay stopped, squinting as he lifted the shield of his cap.
Seb’s mouth fell open.
“You like it?”
“Shit, Jay. It’s—”
“Ain’t as big as your Kensington gaff, I know, but it’s five bed. Music room already sound-proofed. Kitchen-diner. Conservatory and two reception rooms. Ain’t got a clue why you need two—”
“One for guests.”
“Well, yeah. ’Spose we could shove Martin, Noah and Ann in one room and we fuck off in the other.”
“That’s a recipe for disaster, and a headline waiting to happen.”
Jay chuckled, then tilted his head toward the house. “It’s also got all the latest security features. Take it you wanna go in?”
Seb grinned, then leaned closer to whisper in Jay’s ear. “Try and stop me, Champ.”
That warm soft breath danced down Jay’s spine, but he shook it off to allow Seb to walk through the open gates first.
It didn’t take much convincing on Jay’s part. Not that he thought it would. He knew Seb needed more room with their Limehouse loft flat now filled to the brim with Seb’s music gear. The stunning light-brick detached house situated in one of the more affluent areas of Greenwich, east London, had already been refurbished and decked out to pristine standards. Even without Seb’s knowledge of property development, Jay knew this was the right place for them. And after one brief look around with the vendors, Jay signed on the dotted line with Seb’s signature scrawled beside his. Their house. Their first joint home. Seb might be crap with money, but Jay had managed to get him to save enough of his royalties over the past year of touring the indie music scene to afford the hefty mortgage on the place. Things were looking up. Ain’t nothing, not even the slurs from those wankers who think there ain’t room in football for a gay player, can ruin this.
“Come on.” Jay nudged Seb with his elbow as they emerged back out to the street. “Got one more thing to check out.”
Seb blinked. “What?” He shot a frantic look over his shoulder. “Why? Which paps are chasing us now?”
“None. Thank, fuck. But we’re right by the park. Run with me. To the top and back. Promise the view is worth it.”
“Baby, I love you. I do. And you know I’ll do anything for love.” Seb breathed in, glancing up the street to Greenwich Park and its huge slanted hill. “But I won’t do that.” He grinned. “Meatloaf, FYI.”
Jay tutted. “I know. See you up there, then.”
He bounded across the road, setting a pace to pound the pavement until he reached the black gates to enter the park. It was generally a clear run, but he could imagine how the place would get crowded in the summer months with it being the optimal place for kite flying and other family sporting endeavours. This season, though, it was mainly a few couples snuggled together on the benches dotted beside the greenery, and dog walkers sipping from take-out coffee cups. Jay smiled, inhaling the scent of fresh, cold air that he drew into his lungs to sprint faster up the steep rise. Off-season, he’d still need to maintain his fitness and this hill work-out would be perfect for morning runs, and dusk ones if he could ever convince Seb to come with him.
The January wind chill slapped against his cheeks, that ever-present reminder of his early morning runs from his old gaff in Plaistow to the university in Beckton. Where he’d met Seb. That industrial working-class East End he’d grown up in now swapped for the affluent and leafy Greenwich with his live-in boyfriend. Pretty amazing how much life changes within a couple of years. Reaching the top, he swerved in front of the bronze statue of General Wolfe and, hands on hips, breathed in the glorious view. The crisp, clear sky allowed for the winter sun to shine over the city. His London. Although, now, it felt bigger.
The Royal Museums of London and the University of Greenwich spread out before him like a panoramic picture-postcard. Beyond that curved the River Thames, and farther still new London appeared in Canary Wharf’s gleaming silver skyscrapers that reflected the sun’s rays, as did the iconic rods poking out of the 02’s dome like structure. The view brought a whole new level of beauty to a city that Jay had grown up in. That he’d never leave. He’d just made it to the top. And he planned to stay there. Even if that meant having to live as far away from the flurry to keep his life as much in the shadows as he could.
“Hey.” Emerging from the pedestrian walkway a short time after, Seb sipped through the hole in a plastic top of a cardboard cup and offered over one to Jay. “No sugar. No syrup. No milk. No taste.”
“Cheers.” Jay took the cup and ignored the jibe. Water. He smiled as he took a sip. Seb had learned that nothing was allowed to slip through the net of Jay’s strict diet now it was controlled by the club’s nutritionist, not even for him.
“I was not in any way prepared for running.” Seb held out his arms to display his tight ripped jeans, fitted shirt and leather jacket. “Next time. I promise.”
They slid down to sit on the grassy bank, taking in the view that now belonged to them. Seb slurped away on his no-doubt sugary sweet coffee, not saying a word. Not even singing, or humming.
“You’re unusually quiet,” Jay remarked, voice low.
Seb waved a hand, indicating the view.
“I know, right.” Jay leaned back on one arm. “It’s somethin’ else, innit?”
“Yes. Yes, it is.” Seb gripped the cup between his legs and inhaled, his chest rising. “This’ll do, Champ. This’ll do. So us.”
Jay swallowed. It was. It was so them. Away from everything and up in the clouds. Things were different down there, amongst the hustle and bustle. Least he could stay here for a while.
Until football beckoned.