“Hi, boys. What would you like?”
The voice behind us is not that of Simon, the cute waiter, but of his mother who owns the café in the shopping centre. Sitting at our usual table, watching the people walking past, neither Tony nor I had seen her approach. Unlike Simon, his mother doesn’t know our regular order. We turn towards her.
“Cappuccino with chocolate for me, please,” I reply.
“Flat white, please,” Tony adds.
“No thanks,” we say in unison.
She leaves and we turn back to our people-watching. It is half-term, so we have the opportunity to see the weekday cast of passers-by.
“I know it’s in a different town, but, I thought Simon’s school had the same half term as us. I expected he would be working today,” I say.
“I think you’re right. However, it’s a weekday. Not as busy as Saturdays. He’s probably having a day off.” Tony grins. “Missing him?” he teases.
“Er, well,” I mumble while trying to think of a suitable reply. “He is part of the attraction of the place. Anyway you can’t deny he’s cute. You were checking him out that first time we met here. Remember: when Miss Rutherford roped us into the fête?”
Got him! He goes a delicate shade of pink at the memory.
Our coffees arrive and our attention turns to what we want to do during the rest of the week.
“Paul told me he would like to get some tennis in before the courts are finally closed for the winter at the end of next week. He has asked if I would play with him this week…”
I cough and raise an eyebrow. “Not unless I’m there.”
Tony gets my meaning. “Tennis, I meant,” he grumbles, “and you know it. You and your dirty mind!”
“I could come and watch anyway. He might have it all hanging out, like the day Mum caught you watching him!” I snigger.
“You’re getting worse! You need taking in hand.”
“You offering? Your place or mine?” I take a sip of my coffee.
Before I can swallow, Tony gropes my thigh under the table causing me to do the drink up the nose trick.
“Yours!” he says in triumph.
We clean up the mess, gather our empty cups and take them with us to the counter where we pay for our coffees.
On the way to my house, Tony makes a suggestion.
“Why don’t you ask Donny if he would like to run round the park with you one day, while Paul and I play tennis? There are enough paths for you to vary your route and stop it becoming boring.”
“Am I glad you suggested this,” Donny states as we hit a downhill section of our circuit of the park.
“Uh?” I grunt, suggesting he should tell me more.
“Gets me away from my bitchy sisters, for a while. They are being a real pain at the moment.”
Donny has this love-hate relationship with his sisters. They gang up on him, but, although they are older, he holds his own, usually by playing one off against the other. They might appear to fight all the time but if an outsider attacks any of them, they have each other’s backs.
“Admit it. You love them really! What are they up to now?”
“Saying I am not fulfilling my brotherly duties. One said I needed to get a girlfriend so they can bitch about her. When I said having sisters could be enough to put anyone off girls, the other said I should get a boyfriend then. One that they can lust over. Gossipy pervs, the pair of them.”
“Runs in the family then.”
“Being a gossipy little perv. We’ve seen you checking us out. Paul, too.”
“Don’t know what you mean,” he pouts with a blatantly fake air of injured innocence.
We stop talking as we start the climb that leads towards the tennis courts. Although the path levels off at the courts, Donny keeps the pace slow. Slow enough that we get to see Paul’s backside as he bends over to pick up a tennis ball. I enjoy the display and I can see Donny does too.
“Perv,” I say to him. He just grins. We start our next circuit of the park.
Don’t ask me the connection, but seeing Paul in his shorts reminds me of something. I mention it to Donny when we get to the downhill section again.
“Did Brussels say something about a wrestling match next week?”
“Yeah. Thinks we are now good enough to test us with some outside competition.”
“Any idea when, where and who?”
“Friday after school, in the gym. I think he said it was against the Catholic school.”
“You should make the team. Looking forward to it?”
“Oh, yes. Who would have guessed: me representing the school in a macho sport, not just running?”
“Your sisters know you’re keen on wrestling, don’t they? Get them to come for support. They might find someone other than you to perv over, too.”
“Offer them fresh meat? No way.”
At the bottom of the grade we take a turning that leads in a big loop around the duckpond so that we end up going back the way we came. It gives us a change of scenery by doing our circuits in the opposite direction.
“Talking of wrestling,” says Donny when we are next on a level bit. “I was searching the web for some tips on technique and found this site; an American one I think. I’ll send you the link. At lot of useful stuff on lifestyle as well as wrestling. Not gay but you and Tony will like it. Some really cute guys for you to perv at as well. Hunks, too.”
“And you haven’t perved on them?”
“Would I do a thing like that?” The air of false innocence is back.
“Guilty as charged.” Donny admits, grinning.
Donny sends me the link for the wrestling site late in the evening. I have a quick look. I can see why he likes it. I read the home page but, as it is bedtime, I leave a more detailed investigation of the site for another day. Okay…after I have checked out a picture Donny specifically mentioned. One from his spank bank probably.
It is a picture of a kid about my age wearing nothing but a pair of boxing trunks marked — Tony would say emblazoned — with the words ‘Texas Wrestle’. The kid is way cute. Correction: He’s drop dead gorgeous and the spitting image of Simon from the café. Also in the picture is another guy, I guess a year or so older and certainly taller and hunkier. He is wearing a wrestling singlet with the top rolled down and, possessively, has his arm around the gorgeous guy’s shoulders. For some reason this second guy also reminds me of someone but I can’t think who.
The photo is accompanied by an article. I must remember to read it sometime.
On the Saturday morning before we go back to school, Tony and I make our regular visit to the shopping mall for a coffee. As we approach the café we can see there is a problem. There is un-collected crockery and cutlery on the tables and a queue of people at the counter who appear to be waiting to pay or for an empty table. The owner is behind the counter looking flustered and the customers in the queue are showing signs of impatience. We realise she is short staffed: Simon is nowhere to be seen.
Our eyes have followed Simon around often enough that we know what his duties entail and where things like trays, wiping cloths and order pads are kept.
“Right, Mr. Boy Scout,” I say to Tony. “Jacket off! Time to step up and do your ‘be prepared’ stuff. You tell Simon’s mum to deal with the people wanting to pay and what we are going to do. I’ll get a tray and cloth and start clearing the tables. You grab an order pad and once I have cleared one, you can start on those waiting to be seated and take their orders. Don’t forget to put something on the ticket so you know which table it is for. Once she has finished on the till, Simon’s mum can prepare the orders.” I start taking my hoodie off.
“Okay. What do we say if someone asks what is going on?”
“That it looks as though one of the staff has been taken ill, leaving them short. Say we don’t really know, we’re just regulars that saw they needed some help. Play for sympathy.”
We get some curious looks as we go round behind the counter, especially from Simon’s mum. While Tony explains to her why we are there, I grab a tray and cloth and start work. I hadn’t noticed her, but as he passes me with his first customers, Tony tells me that our favourite teacher, Miss Rutherford, is in the queue and vouched for our bona fides. ‘Good faith’, he says that means.
I don’t clear our usual table until I think Miss Rutherford is next in the queue. I tell Tony to seat her there and we will join her when the panic is over. It’s my cunning plan to make sure we get our favourite seats without upsetting other waiting customers.
As I clear the tables, I put everything I have collected into the dishwasher. When it is full, I set it running. It’s commercial machine, so it only takes about five minutes to run. Brill! It has finished by the time I get the last of the tables cleared. I start to unload it but nearly drop the first item. It’s still red-hot from the drying cycle!
Meanwhile, Tony and Simon’s mother clear the customers from the counter and Tony starts taking completed orders out to the tables.
It seems longer but is only a hectic fifteen minutes or so before everything is caught up and the last order taken to a waiting customer. Simon’s mum thanks us then asks us what we want to order.
“Go and find a seat,” she says. “I’ll bring it over to you.”
“We’ll be over there with Miss Rutherford,” I reply, pointing her out.
We have time to greet Miss Rutherford and get ourselves settled, before Simon’s mum appears with our drinks.
“Simon not working today, Maria?” Miss Rutherford asks.
“No, he’s not,” Simon’s mum answers. Her tone suggests this is a sore point. “That’s why things got in a mess. I was managing to cope until the card machine rejected a customer’s payment, holding me up just when there was a bit of a rush. Thankfully, these guys stepped up.”
“Is Simon ill? We saw he wasn’t in the other day, either,” I query.
“Ill? Ill in the head I think. He says he’s got a boyfriend.” Clearly another sore point.
Tony and I both shift in our seats. Miss Rutherford gives a warning cough to attract Maria’s attention and nods in our direction.
“Sorry guys. That sounded worse than I meant it to.” Simon’s mother now sounds contrite. “I don’t have a problem with Simon being gay and having a boyfriend. It’s this particular boyfriend that is the problem. I’m not sure I trust him. I certainly don’t like him. He seems very demanding.”
I nearly say that boyfriends are demanding in an attempt to lighten the mood, but looking at the faces of the others I can see it would be a bad move.
“He’s why Simon’s not here today. He’s a bad influence. I know Simon’s school work is being affected. He’s not always doing his homework. Also, he always looks tired and seems to be getting clumsy lately. Several times I have spotted bruises on him and when I ask him about them he says he has walked into a lamppost or a brick wall or did it wrestling at school.” Simon’s mum has been watching the room as she talks to us. “Must go,” she says. “There are some customers at the counter.”
We watch her cross the room.
“Mm. That is a bit concerning,” Miss Rutherford muses.
“Why?” Tony asks. She pauses as if trying to decide if she should say any more before replying.
“It confirms my opinion. Simon hasn’t been to the youth club I help run for a couple of weeks. Last time he came he brought a friend with him who I now presume is the boyfriend Maria was talking about. I didn’t like him either. He stopped Simon from joining in the things he usually does. Demanding is a good description, but maybe controlling is a better one. That makes me question if the bruises are from more than the clumsiness of a growing teen. You know, the boyfriend reminded me of someone although the boyfriend is less attractive both in looks and personality.” The expression on Miss Rutherford’s face changes from concern to amusement. “Someone you two know well — Roger Prescott.”
‘Presscock’ Prescott is the arrogant git of a senior who covered Tony in chocolate at the school fête in July last year.
“He must be an unpleasant character if he is worse than Prescott,” I say.
“At least Roger was better after Virginia sorted him out,” Tony adds.
Our teacher nods sagely.
We finish our coffees and conversation and head towards counter taking our empty cups with us. The place is busy again so we clear some more tables while we wait to talk to Simon’s mother.
“Thanks again, guys,” she says when it is our turn.
“Will you be able to manage now? Or would you like us to stay for a bit longer?” I ask.
“After this last little rush it should level out. I should be all right but thanks for asking.”
“We’ll be off then. We have to pay you though.”
“No you don’t. Not after what you’ve done for me. In fact you had better have this.” Simon’s mum gets a small bag and empties into it the contents of a mug she pulls from the counter top next to the till. She hands it to me. It’s a bag of cash. I must have a blank look on my face.
“Tips,” she says.
“Er, I thought people only left tips in posh restaurants.” I still have the blank look on my face.
“We don’t expect it, but some people, especially older folk, like to leave a little something. We’re not reliant on it for our wages though. Not like in some parts of the world.”
Tony and I thank her and wish her well for the rest of the day.
We set off for my house, where we will split the kitty. As we walk through the park, a black cat joins the path about ten meters in front of us. Since it has come from the direction of the school, it must be Merkin, the school cat. For something to do we decide to follow her and see what she is up to. We feel a bit cheated when she only leads us to my house and into the garden. She makes a bee-line for the catnip plants that I planted last year, rolls on one and starts tripping out.
“I wonder why she has come here for her fix. I’ve only seen her this far from school a couple of times before,” I say.
Tony looks around the garden before replying. “You seem to have missed it here, but we had a heavy frost one night earlier in the week. A lot of the perennials in our garden have started to die back for the winter. Maybe your plants are the nearest to school that she knows about that haven’t been nipped by frost yet.”
Since we had been concentrating on tailing the cat, we hadn’t talked about anything much as we were walking from the park. I think back to our conversation in the café.
“Simon’s mother and Miss Rutherford were both concerned about this boyfriend of Simon’s,” I comment to Tony. “I know we don’t know Simon very well, but I like him. I wouldn’t want him to get hurt.”
“Neither do I, but I don’t think there is anything we can do. As you say, we don’t really know anything about him.”
“His mum said something about him wrestling at school. We’ve got a match against the Catholic school next week. I wonder if he is in their team.”
As we talk, I have been watching the cat. She has finished her silly session and is now sitting up, ears perked as if listening to our conversation.
“Who told you about the match?” asks Tony.
“Donny mentioned it the other day when we were running. Did I forget to tell you?”
Thinking of that day reminds me about that site Donny sent me the link for. The picture of the two wrestlers is suddenly vivid in my mind.
“Confession time,” I say. “I also forgot about a link Donny sent me. I think we should look at it. Let’s go to my room.”
As we go into the house, I hold the door open for Tony, but my back is towards him. I tell him to go on up to my room and boot up my computer. I will fix some drinks and snacks and bring them up with me. Tony asks for milk. That’s a new one. I don’t think he has ever asked for it before. I look in the cupboard and, for a change, choose a tin of tuna to make us some sarnies, which I do at the same time as making tea for me.
When I go up to my room, I nearly drop the tray of snacks. Yes, my computer is on, but Merkin is sitting on my desk, next to my keyboard. Tony is in my chair idly scratching the cat behind her ear. Okay, she has been a lot friendlier since Mrs O’Reilly’s niece visited and we got roped in to showing her around, but this is another level altogether.
“How the fuck did she get in here?”
“Zipped past when you held the door open for me.”
Tony moves out of the way to let me put my password into the computer so it can finish booting up while we eat our snacks. Merkin scrounges some of the tuna from my sandwich and Tony has to fetch a saucer so she can have some of his milk. Maybe I shouldn’t feed her, but I don’t trust her enough yet to resist her demands.
I bring up the site. ‘Mat Mates’ is what it’s called. We spend some time investigating the content, reading some of the articles and feedback, looking at some of the gallery photos, trying to get a handle on the approach of the site owner and the target audience.
“It’s like some of the men’s magazines,” Tony sums up. “Lifestyle and grooming articles hung around a theme — in this case wrestling. Although not explicitly gay, there is strong undercurrent of the homoerotic. Some subtle, some quite blatant.
“Although some of the photos and other contributions clearly are, I don’t think the site is American. The main articles and the home page are all written with English spellings: colour with a ‘u’, realise with an ‘s’, not a ‘z’. And I don’t think the Americans use the word ‘mate’ the same way as we and the Aussies do.
“Okay,” I agree. “Now I want to show you a picture Donny found.” As I paste in the link, Merkin, who has been dozing since we first opened the site, sits up and is looking at what we are now doing.
“That looks like Simon,” Tony says, pointing at the cute guy.
“That’s what I thought. Who do you think the other one looks like?”
With the benefit of our conversation with Miss Rutherford earlier I now realise who the other guy in the picture looks like. I don’t say anything. I want Tony to give his own opinion.
Tony takes his time, twisting his head this way and that to look at the face from different angles. Merkin, on the other hand, takes one look and makes a judgment; she lets out a low hiss before settling back down.
Finally Tony makes his mind up. “A bit like Roger Prescott.”
“Yup. As Miss Rutherford said this morning — like Roger but less attractive both in looks and personality. Do you think it could be Simon and his boyfriend?”
“Maybe. Does it say anything in the article?”
We read the article and learn that they are boyfriends called Zander and Randy — surely American names — and that they live near Birmingham.
“That could be in the States,” I say. “Don’t you remember, a few years ago, the public relations department in Brum dropped a bollock and used a photo of the city in Alabama in their advertising? They’d downloaded it from the web and didn’t check it. Made the national news.”
“Embarrassing,” Tony replies when we stop giggling. “However, I think it’s our Birmingham. I bet there are loads of Birminghams in the U.S. If it was one of those, the name would have a qualifier after it indicating which state it is in. There’s no such indication here. Let’s see if we can find any more about the picture.”
Tony takes over the mouse and keyboard. He wants to see if he can get at the metadata relating to the picture. He knows more about that sort of thing than I do. When he finishes ferreting around he tells me that the picture appears to have been taken a couple of weeks ago.
“I can’t be sure of where it was taken,” he says. “There’s nothing attached to the picture itself, but there is something that suggests Tamworth — this side of Brum — but that might be a red herring. Probably in the U.K, though.”
“How does that fit with the American names and the Texas shorts? The van looks to be left hand drive as well.”
“Well, the names are probably pseudonyms. Would you want your real name on a site like this?”
“No! Definitely not. Erm. I suppose the shorts could be off the internet.”
“Or Raj’s Uncle Veejay. Bet he has something equally gross on his market stall,” Tony says with a grin. “The van is a bit more problematic, but it might be one that has been brought over from Europe for some reason.”
“That’s possible. So where do we go from here?”
We chew on the problem for a while before agreeing that we will talk to Donny and possibly some of our other friends when we are back at school on Monday. Tony suggests I print off the picture as an aide memoire and pin it on my wall.
The rattle of the printer rouses Merkin. She stretches then jumps over to the window and demands to be let out. I’m not worried that we are upstairs. She has sat outside on my window ledge before and knows her way down.
Donny is hanging around outside school when we get there on Monday morning. He is usually one of the first there. He bounces over to us.
“Hi, guys. Good break? Did you like the link I sent you?”
“It was interesting.” I try to sound unenthusiastic just to wind him up, but he is too hyper to notice.
“What about the two guys in the picture?” He waggles his eyebrows suggestively.
“Yes, you perv. We wanted to ask you about that. Do either of them remind you of anyone? Especially the cute one — Zander?”
“No, should they?” He gets his mobile out and opens his picture gallery. I should have guessed he would have it downloaded. “No,” he says after looking at the picture again.
“Have you never noticed the kid that waits on sometimes at the café in the shopping centre?” Tony asks.
“I don’t go through the arcade that often but, yeah, I’ve seen him. He’s cute.”
“He’s a dead ringer for the kid in the photo,” I suggest. “Don’t you agree?”
Donny has another look at his phone. “Suppose so.”
“Now what about the other one?” Before he can answer my question, the bell goes summoning us to lessons.
“Think about it and we’ll talk at lunch. Now put your phone away before it gets confiscated,” Tony commands as we walk into our classroom.
At our lunch table, we spend a few minutes catching up with our friends before Tony looks across the table at Donny.
“Have you thought who the second guy in that photo looks like?”
Although addressed to Donny, Tony’s question gets the attention of those nearest to us. Donny mumbles something negative in reply and shakes his head.
“We’ll help. Let’s have a look,” demands Mel, who is sitting next to Donny.
Reluctantly Donny pulls out his phone and opens the photo. I don’t know why he is being reluctant unless he thinks he is going to be teased about being a perv. He already knows we suspect he is gay or at least bi. None of us are bothered.
“Give it here, so we can see better,” Mel says in her best schoolmarm voice, before grabbing the phone off him and placing it on the table between herself and Paul. It’s about one second before Paul gets a dirty grin.
“The one on the left looks like the owner’s son at the café in the arcade,” he says, then points at Tony and me. “These two can’t keep their eye off him. It’s embarrassing to be with them, watching them drool!”
I stick my tongue out at him, like we did when we were kids, while I wait for the laughter to die down a bit.
“Only reason we go there,” I quip which gets more laughter.
“Serious now!” Mel forestalls any further joking. “What about the other guy? Remind you of anyone?”
“Mm. I think so, but I’ll not say anything until these two have had a look.” Paul passes the phone across the table to Bruno and Cath.
“Definitely looks like the café kid. I see him at Mass occasionally. Seems a nice guy.” I should have realised Bruno would be Catholic — his family run the Italian restaurant.
Cath offers her opinion. “The other one reminds me of that creep, Roger Prescott, but nothing like as good looking.”
The bulb lights up over Donny’s head as he catches up with the general consensus.
“Why are we interested?” asks Cath, who is still studying the photo. She puts two fingers to the screen and spreads them to enlarge the picture.
“Two reasons,” says Tony. “First, in spite of those shorts suggesting Texas, we think the picture might actually be of Simon, the guy from the café, and a friend. And we have a wrestling match against the Catholic school on Friday. We know Simon wrestles, so there is a chance he or the friend could be in their team.”
Cath looks up from phone towards Donny. “The site where you got this; did it say if they are supposed to be boyfriends?”
Donny doesn’t get the opportunity to reply. He is too busy rubbing his shin. Tony has administered the required kick. He poses the question I want to hear answered. “Why are you asking?”
“Something about the body language in the picture. I don’t think — what did you call him, Simon? — is happy with his situation. If you enlarge it his smile isn’t really a smile at all. The other one’s arm around him signals possession or control. What do you think, Mel?” Cath hands Donny’s phone to her, then turns to look at Tony. “You said two reasons why we should be interested. What you gave us was really all one.”
“Two. That it might be Simon and his boyfriend, and that either or both of them might be on their wrestling team for the match on Friday,” Tony pauses. I wonder if he realises he has just outed Simon. Tony continues. “But you’re right; there is another reason we’re interested, and you’ve touched on it with something we hadn’t noticed: the body language in the picture. Very perceptive of you. We’ve heard that the boyfriend is controlling. Possibly hurting Simon. He may need support to see the relationship for what it is and help to get away if necessary.”
“Right,” says Mel taking command. “I agree with Cath about the body language in the picture.” She hands Donny his phone. “However, whether the picture is of your Simon or not, we need to help if his so-called boyfriend is abusive. Tony, you’re good with pictures on computer. Can you crop the photo to remove the Simon figure then send it to me, please. The boyfriend looks enough like Roger that he could be a relative. Virginia has met some of the family. I’ll send it on to her. She might recognise him. Everyone, please see what else you can find out. The match on Friday might be our opportunity to help Simon if he needs it.”
The bell goes for the end of our lunch period. Bruno is next to me as we walk to class.
“If you see Simon before I do,” he says, “tell him to make sure only Father Dawkins hears his confession.”
I am unsure how this confession thing works. “Er, okay. Why?”
“Because the other priest, Father Robinson, is one of those creationist, pray-the-gay-away types. He would invoke the full Catholic guilt trip and try to get Simon to go on retreat to be reprogrammed. Father Dawkins is much more approachable. He even understands evolution. We only go to Mass when he is the celebrant. We leave if they have to swap for any reason.”
I think there must be a story there, but it’s not my place to ask. Perhaps it is one reason why Bruno goes to our school and not the Catholic school in the next town. I shall have to ask Tony if he knows anything.
Friday lunchtime is our last chance for a review before the match. Mel takes command again.
“Virginia has got back to me,” she tells us as she gets out her mobile. “She was fairly sure she had met the guy in the picture, but couldn’t remember much about him so she forwarded the photo to Roger. I’ll read his reply in full.” She opens a file on her phone and starts to read.
“Yes, it’s my cousin Jefferson. Not a pleasant person. A bit psycho even. I can imagine he still pulls wings off flies and burns ants with a magnifying glass. He certainly has a reputation as a bully. Probably gets that off his father. That’s his father’s van in the background. He got himself a left hand drive because he thinks it safer to get out of the van on the nearside as he often has to park in the middle of heavy traffic when doing his job. He’s a freelance parking enforcer. Goes around wheel-clamping cars. Got me once and he made me pay to get released.”
Mel sums up: “You’ll all agree it’s pretty damning for Roger to have noticed.”
“So what are we going to do about Simon.” I ask.
“Since he knows you and Tony, find a reason to talk to him. Try to draw him out. Tell him you’re concerned and want to help. You’ll have to play it by ear.”
“What about me? What have I got to do?” queries Donny. Mel turns to him.
“You can never be anything other than your usual impetuous self. Maybe ask him if he is the guy in the photo. If nothing else the question might put him off enough to give you an edge if you have a bout with him!
“If Jefferson starts something, we’ll all be there and so will the staff. I’m hoping there will be other supporters as well.”
“My sisters will be there,” Donny grumbles. “They caught me looking at the picture and asked if one was my boyfriend. I had to blag that I was doing research for the match. They want to come and perv at all the boys in leotards.”
“Just one in my case,” Cath says before giving Bruno a kiss on the cheek.
“Funny thing, though,” Donny continues. “My sisters said we should mind the cat.”
“How do they know about Merkin?” I ask.
“Probably in the same coven as the Wicked Witch.”
Tony nudges me in the ribs. “Engage brain. They’re Donny’s sisters. They are in this school. They do art with Mrs O’Reilly.”
“That’s not what I meant. How do they know the cat will be there?”
“Come on,” says Mel. “Merkin likes to know everything that goes on in the school. She’ll be there.”
I still don’t know why we have to watch the cat.
The gym is set up with the heavy wrestling mat at the end nearest to the changing rooms. It covers most of the width of the gym. Beyond the mat are two benches for the teams with a neutral area between approximately one and a half metres wide. Behind the benches, two rows of seats have been put out for spectators and there is standing room at the back. All our friends have come to watch. Even Susie. She must have heard that there is no risk of Paul exposing himself — he’s not on the team. Mel has brought her sister, although she will probably be watching our coach, Mr Sproat, rather than the wrestlers. Mr Morgan — the physics teacher and Brussels boyfriend — is chatting to them. Mrs O’Reilly is talking to two girls. All three are dressed in black. We have seen Mrs O’Reilly’s austere style before on odd occasions.
“Is that emo or goth?” I ask Donny, indicating in the direction of the girls.
“Nah. Mourning. The Wicked Witch’s acolytes are my sisters.”
I can’t deny that I find the three intimidating.
One thing is certain though: if Mrs O’Reilly is here, Merkin will be, too.
When the team from the Catholic school walk out from the changing rooms, we see that we were correct in our guess: Jefferson and Simon are there, last in the file. Jefferson makes sure he is sitting between Simon and the rest of their team. They are next to the gap between the benches. Donny and I take the equivalent places on our bench. Tony, who is not on the team, grabs a seat behind me. He has brought his camera, hoping to get some good action shots.
Brussels says a few words of welcome before handing over to the opposition coach.
“You will be aware,” their coach says, “that wrestling is offered by very few schools in the U.K. and is a minority sport amongst minority sports in the wider community. Mervyn Sproat and I met at a presentation being given by the British Wrestling Association at a CPD event we were attending. We discovered we had both done placements at schools in the United States during our training and had been impressed with how much the students got out of participation in wrestling. Although we were keen to try wrestling in our schools we were both worried that without external competition to maintain interest the experiment would soon fail. We were therefore both surprised and delighted to find that we worked in neighbouring towns and agreed we should try programmes in our respective schools, with the results you will see here today. Thank you and good luck — not only those on the teams but those who have participated but not been selected as well.”
While the coach is holding forth, Merkin appears at the far end of the gym. Tail high to attract attention, she walks slowly across the mat, surveying it. Satisfied with what she sees, her gait becomes purposeful as she heads directly towards Donny and crouches in front of him. I just have time to hiss “stay calm” at him before she leaps onto his lap. As the cat settles, I hear Mrs O’Reilly whisper from the row behind us.
“Stroke her gently, as if she is your lover’s thigh!”
Donny does as commanded and, against precedent, his hand isn’t shredded. In fact Donny is able to take Mrs O’Reilly’s instruction to heart. Who knew stroking a cat could be so erotic?
After their coach has said his piece, Mr Sproat starts to explain the format of the meet, including what special arrangements have been agreed due to time constraints and our gym being too small for a second competition mat. (Those things are big! Twelve metres by twelve.) He talks about the different weight classes, mentioning the two athletes from each team in each class. Donny and I will be in the same class as Simon, and Bruno and a guy from year twelve are in Jefferson’s class. We will all have two bouts.
As Brussels introduces the wrestlers, Merkin jumps down from Donny’s lap, stretches then wanders across the aisle to inspect the opposition. On reaching the far end of the bench, she turns back and, when close enough, launches herself onto Jefferson’s thigh. Judging by his reaction the cat is using her claws to steady herself on landing. Although he raises his hand to cuff Merkin to the floor, she is already gone, Jefferson’s thigh merely a springboard on her way to Simon.
Merkin demonstrates she can do cute if she wants and soon has Simon stroking her with the same eroticism Donny that was using. Jefferson is left glaring at her. She just looks smug.
Brussels finishes explaining the rules to the spectators and the first bout is soon underway.
Bruno and Jefferson are eventually called onto the mat. Tony and I stand in the aisle so that we can talk quietly to Simon.
“Hi, Simon. Did your mum tell you we were asking about you when we were in the café last Saturday and saw you weren’t working?” Tony asks.
“It was you two, was it. Thanks for helping Mum out. I thought it must have been you when she said you were with Miss Rutherford as she was giving me an ear-bashing for not turning up for work.”
“She said you were out with your -er - friend. Is that him on the mat now?” I ask although I know the answer.
“Better an ear bashing from mum than have him tear you a new arsehole, eh?” Although Tony’s tone is jesting, and his question rhetorical, Simon tenses up, disturbing the cat. I think it time to ask something different.
“Do you like cats? ’Cos Merkin seems to like you.” I point down at the cat on his lap. Simon visibly relaxes at the change of subject.
“Yeah. We used to have one and I’d love for us to have another but we can’t because my little brother is allergic to them.” Simon starts petting the cat again. “This one seems super friendly.”
Tony and I both have to clear our throats. “Yes,” we lie. Tony adds a rider. “Although she isn’t always. Some of us have scars in evidence.” Why is he looking at me? I’m not the only one.
“She looked friendly enough when she was with the guy next to you. The one who kept looking at me.”
“Donny was next to me,” I say. “He was probably just watching Merkin.”
“He was looking before the cat came to me!” Simon seems both annoyed and amused that Donny has been watching him. I am saved from having to reply when Donny himself bounces in front of us.
“Brussels says you are to stop fratern...” In close proximity to the object of his fantasies, Donny loses his power of speech. Being Donny, it is only a temporary phenomenon.
“Zander?” he squeaks out as he looks at Simon, who blanches in reply.
“What does Brussels say?” Tony asks, breaking Donny out of his enchantment.
“Oh. Stop fraternising with the enemy,” Donny says before turning back to Simon. “You and I have to get ready. We’re on next.”
As we split up we hear the referee call the result of the previous bout. Bruno has won. Watching the two combatants walk back to the benches, we can see Bruno looks knackered. Jefferson, meanwhile, has a face like thunder.
Bruno slumps down on the bench next to me. Adam, our year twelve guy in Bruno’s weight class sits on his other side.
“That was bloody hard work,” Bruno says. “We’re too used to fighting each other. We know each other’s moves and bodies. With someone new you don’t have that advantage,” He turns to his weight colleague. “Didn’t you find that in your bout? You were on before me.”
“Yes, I did. I think that’s why I lost. I didn’t recognise the problem until it was too late.”
“You won though,” I tell Bruno.
“I nearly didn’t. Especially when he got riled up seeing you and Tony talking to that Simon. I got lucky though. Hoping to distract him, I said something to him. It worked. I pulled in the hold I had across his thigh and felt something give. I was able to pin him down.”
I am about to ask him what he had said, when I get the feeling something else is more important.
“Which thigh did you have in your hold?”
“This one,” Bruno indicates on his own body. “Not using my stronger side, but it got the job done.”
“Ah. You might have had some help then. Were you watching Merkin before the match? She jumped on that leg on her way across to Simon. I think she had her claws out.”
“When aren’t they out?” Adam quips. Bruno’s response is more measured.
“If what you say is true, I won’t feel guilty about it. He was fighting dirty, getting in little pinches and hits in places hidden from the ref.”
I leave them discussing tactics for their second bouts, as I am called to the mat for my first.
Bruno’s comments on his match provide preparation for meeting a new opponent. I still lose but the match is closer than it otherwise might have been. I did my best so I am not ashamed; he’s a better wrestler than me.
When I return to the bench, Donny tells me he lost to Simon. I ask him if he has worked out why.
“Pheromones,” he says, grinning. “Pheromones and hormones. As soon as I was on the mat with him I was intoxicated. Instant boner in our first hold. He was as bad. He told me he had seen the erotic way I had been stroking the cat. It set us off giggling. Simon sobered up first, probably because of the foul look on that Jefferson’s face. He scored enough points off me before I sobered for him to win. Basically I was too distracted to put up a fight.”
I tell Donny what I can about my opponent and offer my opinion.
“… you’re normally better than me. If you concentrate and don’t think about Simon, you should win. He didn’t beat me by much.”
There is a round of bouts in another weight class in progress so I ask Bruno what he had said to Jefferson.
“‘Roger asks if you are still burning ants’,” he replies. “Made him question how we know of his relationship to Roger. It distracted him enough for me to gain an advantage.”
I look around, wondering where Merkin is. She is sitting on an empty seat behind Simon. In the row behind her are Donny’s sisters and Mrs O’Reilly. I nudge Donny to get his attention.
“Are they spying for us?” I ask him and tip my head in his sisters’ direction. “Will they hear what is being said two rows in front?”
“Those two? They can listen to three conversations at once across a crowded room. They will be listening to us.” As if to prove his point one of the girls looks across at us and waves. “Spying to help the team win?” Donny continues. “Probably not. But it will be intelligence of some sort. From what I told you at lunchtime about Merkin, it’s more likely to be about Simon and Jefferson.” There is a thumbs-up signal from the sister.
Bruno gets called for his second bout, which he wins. Next on the mat is Jefferson against Adam, our year twelve man.
We watch closely. Bruno points out some of the fouls Jefferson makes but which are hidden from the referee. The fouls do Jefferson no good, though, because each time Adam retaliates by working on the thigh the cat had jumped on. The result is declared in favour of Adam.
Donny wins, meaning it is now my turn to wrestle Simon. It is hard work. He is stronger than I expected. At first I score enough points to stay in contention, but I don’t have the stamina and strength needed to beat him.
A couple of times during our bout, Simon’s singlet stretches enough that I can see the remains of bruises in places normally covered. Although I feel him flinch occasionally they appear not to affect his wrestling performance. At least not enough that I can win. I do not take unfair advantage by deliberately pressing on them.
After the referee has declared our result, instead of heading to his bench, Simon turns towards the changing rooms. I need a leak so I walk with him.
“You’re stronger than you look,” I say to start a conversation.
“Thanks. You had some good moves.”
I make a move that probably isn’t a good one.
“I saw your bruises. He hits you, doesn’t he?”
There is no reply so I look across at him. A few moments ago he appeared self-confident on the back of his win; now he looks downcast.
“You don’t have to put up with that. Tell someone if you need help to make it stop.” I try to keep my voice gentle.
He pushes open their changing room door. “Remember what I said,” I say to his back.
I stand there for a moment pondering if I have done the right thing. Remembering the purpose of my visit, I am about to open the door to our home team changing room, when Jefferson pushes past me. As the door to their team room closes, I get a glimpse of Merkin trotting in behind him.
With Merkin involved, I am not surprised that Mrs O’Reilly appears with Donny’s sisters. They have Mr Morgan with them. The two girls take guard either side of the changing room door and the two teachers quietly push it open and go in.
The lockers are positioned so as to screen the inside of the room from the doorway. I might not be able to see in, but in the few moments before the door closes I think I can hear Jefferson’s voice.
“It’s your fault. You shouldn’t make me do this,” he appears to say.
Although it seems ages, it can’t be more than two minutes before the door reopens. It’s Mrs O’Reilly. She is bristling with controlled rage. If she was intimidating before, now she is a terrifying presence, filling the doorway.
“One of you come with me, the other, stay on guard,” she snaps at Donny’s sisters. She turns to me. “You!” she barks. “Find their coach and tell him to come here immediately. No ifs or buts. Then send Tony here with his camera. Finally, tell Mervyn Sproat to stop the teams using the changing rooms until I give the all clear. Go!”
I pass Tony on my way to find the coach so I give him his instructions. Fortunately, Brussels and the coach are standing together, talking and watching the last few bouts.
“Sorry to interrupt, Sir,” I say without being invited to speak. “But our Mrs O’Reilly wants you to go to your team’s changing room immediately, please.”
“Okay. When this bout is finished,” the coach replies, clearly irritated by my intrusion.
“No, Sir. She said now, Sir.”
“I said when this bout has finished. You cheeky pup.”
I’m not having that.
“Mrs O’Reilly said now and I would advise you to go now. She looked ready to summon Beelzebub to fetch you if need be.”
I hold eye contact with him when turns from watching the mat to look down at me. He wasn’t expecting it and it sows the seed of doubt.
“Good grief. I think he means it!” he says more for Mr Sproat’s benefit than mine.
“Quite probably,” Brussels affirms. He grins as the coach walks away.
“You needn’t laugh, Sir. She says you are to stop anyone using the changing rooms until she gives the all clear. Even if the match has finished.”
“Everything seemed to be going so well,” he sighs then takes a deep breath. “All right, I suppose I’d better talk to their team first.”
When the last bout ends, Mr Sproat stands up to give the overall results. Both teams have won the same number of bouts. Amazingly, they even have the same total number of points. Nearly all the wrestlers scored a win and a loss. Everyone there agrees that is satisfactory result. Jefferson probably doesn’t agree, since he lost both his bouts, but he’s not there. He and Simon are still in the changing rooms. There is a certain symmetry in that Simon should be the one on their team who won both of his matches. Me? Yes, I have lost both my bouts, but I am happy that I have given my best.
Brussels thanks all the participants and officials then waffles for a bit before asking Adam to help him demonstrate some points from the match that he thought both teams could learn from. He manages to keep everyone engaged until, at last, one of Donny’s sisters walks over and tells him the changing rooms are open. She then comes to me and asks me to wait in the school entrance for Simon’s mother and show her to Mrs O’Reilly’s classroom. I get volunteered as she should recognise me and vice versa. I do have time for my postponed leak before Simon’s mum arrives.
Mrs O’Reilly looks more relaxed when we enter her room. She thanks me and tells me I am free to go. Tony says he will catch up with me tomorrow. It looks like he will be there a while longer.
Tony texts me in the morning and suggests that, since it is a nice day, we meet in the park for a walk. Less chance of being interrupted, or worse, by parents. Tony says he had the parental inquisition on his case last night when he was home later than expected.
Of course we have only been the park for a few minutes when we are interrupted by Brussels out for his morning run.
“Morning boys,” he says. “I thought the wrestling went well yesterday, although it was a pity about the incident in the visitors changing room. Not that I really know what happened. Some altercation between two of their team members. David wouldn’t say more than that when he came home. Can you two say any more?”
“No, Sir,” we both reply. If Mr Morgan isn’t saying anything, then neither are we.
Brussels looks at me. “I am sorry I was slow to support you when you came for their coach. I never expected him to be such a pompous prat. You saw him off though. Well done!”
“Tony, I hope you managed to get some good shots.”
“I think so, but I haven’t had a chance to sort through them all yet.”
“Well, when you have, would you let me have a look at them, please?”
Brussels says goodbye and resumes his run. We resume our walk.
“What was that about their coach?” Tony asks.
I tell him about the exchange and Brussels confirming I meant what I had said. Tony laughs.
“You’ll have to tell Mrs O’Reilly. She’ll love that you softened him up. She still looked terrifying when I got there. He came barging into the room intent on throwing his weight around. She turned and glared at him, then moved her hand to reveal that pentangle pendant she wears. I’m sure I heard him gulp!”
It’s my turn for a question.
“I know we told Brussels that we couldn’t say more. You know more though, don’t you?”
“Probably,” Tony replies.
“You had to take photos and were in on the discussions with the coach. You must know more,” I grumble. “I assume Jefferson hit Simon. I heard his threat.”
Tony stops me and asks what I overheard. When I tell him he says it’s another thing I should mention to Mrs O’Reilly. It will corroborate what she and Mr Morgan say they heard.
“Go on. What else do you know?” Tony prompts.
“I’m guessing the teachers in the changing room see the fight but were not close enough to stop it. Judging by the state Mrs O’Reilly was in, Merkin was involved and possibly hurt. I got the impression Donny’s sister might have been called into the room to do something because Mrs O’Reilly was too angry to trust herself to do it.”
Tony offers no details.
While we have been talking we have been climbing the gradient towards the tennis courts. Nobody is playing, but there is someone there. It is Mrs O’Reilly. She must have come through the connecting gate from the school. Merkin is riding on her shoulder.
“Good morning, Miss. Morning, Merkin,” we say.
“Good morning, boys,” the teacher purrs, pleased we have acknowledged the cat and not just her. “Swapping notes about events at the wrestling, I suppose.”
“Not swapping. Tony won’t tell me anything.”
“I thought you two would tell each other everything.”
“It was agreed that everything should be kept confidential, Miss,” Tony objects.
“Quite so,” Mrs O’Reilly replies.
There is one way I might get her to tell me more. I make eye contact with the cat and risk putting a hand up where she can rub against it — or shred it — if she wants.
“You were involved in the fight, weren’t you, Merkin?” The cat mewls and rubs her head on my hand in reply.
“Yes, you were,” Mrs O’Reilly twists her head to address the cat on her shoulder, “and you’ve got the bruises to prove it haven’t you? The boy who kicked you came off second best though, didn’t he?” The cat mewls again.
My curiosity answered for now, I lower my hand which draws the teacher’s attention back to me.
“Oh! I’ve probably said more than I should,” she says. “How did you know about Merkin’s involvement?”
I tell her I had seen the cat go into the room and had seen her anger when she sent me to find the coach. That leads into me reporting my conversation with the coach. She has a good laugh.
“You told him I would summon Beelzebub. That’s a good one! When he walked in, I thought the man would be trouble, but one look and he fell apart. Now I know why.” Mrs O’Reilly turns serious. “Not my scene though: summoning demons.”
She lets us think on that for a while before changing the subject. “Why did Donny call Simon, Zander?”
We tell her about the photo on the wrestling site.
“Ah! We’d forgotten about the photo, hadn’t we, Merkin?”
I will swear the cat rolled its eyes.
“Do you think there is any significance in ‘Zander’ for a pseudonym,” I ask for something to say.
“If you ask him he’ll tell you his middle name is Alexander,” Mrs O’Reilly states. “The common abbreviations are Alex or Sandy, but Zander is a variant of the name.”
“What about Randy, is that his middle name?”
“No, it’s Davies. But you like old jokes. Think about it. Why would a somewhat immature teenager choose Randy?”
“Because he is,” Tony answers.
I groan. “They don’t get much older than that.”
We say goodbye to Mrs O’Reilly — and Merkin — and start walking towards the park gates.
“I can’t believe she fell for your talking to the cat routine,” Tony says when we are out of earshot.
“I’m not sure she did. I think she had been hinting we could talk about what happened. Then you had to mention confidentiality, so she had to be more nuanced in circumventing the embargo.”
“Nuanced, circumvent?” Tony sniggers. I catch his implication about my vocabulary.
“Caught them off you!”
We decide to go to the café to see if Simon is there and offer our support if he needs it. We are greeted by a man who is about our parents’ age. We see our favourite table is free so we give him our order and tell him where we will be sitting.
Our coffees are brought by Simon’s mum.
“I wondered if you boys would be in this morning,” she says.
“We came to see if he is okay after yesterday. But he’s not here. He is all right, isn't he?” I ask.
“He says he is, apart from a couple of new bruises. He asked for the day off to do something with his brother to make up for ignoring him this last couple of months. They have gone to Crich tramway museum. It's only about half an hour away on the bus. Young Thomas loves it there. I think he wants to be a tram or train driver when he grows up.”
“Who’s helping you today, then,” Tony asks.
“That’s my husband, Tom. He’s usually with Thomas on a Saturday morning,” she looks across to the counter. “Must go. He’s struggling.”
When we have finished our coffees and go to pay, Tom is on the till. He introduces himself.
“Maria says she was so glad to see a couple of friendly faces when she had to go to your school yesterday. So thank you boys for being there for her. Your two teachers made a good impression too, especially Mrs O’Reilly.”
Mrs O’Reilly was definitely impressive yesterday.
Tony relents and tells me more of what he knows during the weekend. Of course there are things still to be decided and which we are not privy to: such as what action is to be taken against Jefferson, and if Simon will need therapy. Nevertheless we are left with the impression that what was reported in Tony’s presence was not the whole story of what happened in the changing room.
At school, Donny is uncharacteristically subdued. He is either embarrassed about his showing in his bout with Simon or been comprehensively put in his place by his sisters. Probably both. He won’t talk about wrestling. Nor does he seem interested in talking about Simon. No one else is interested either. The rumour mill now grinds on different subjects. The only person who makes any comment is Bruno, who says he talked to Simon and his family at Mass on Sunday. He doesn’t say what they talked about!
We are back in the café the following Saturday. This time Simon is back waiting on.
There are three drinks on his tray when he brings our order.
“Mind if I join you? Mum says to take five and have a chat with you. She’ll shout if it gets too busy for her to cope.” He sits down before we can reply, but of course he can join us. We’re pleased he does.
Inevitably the conversation turns to the incident at the wrestling meet.
“I don’t know how you knew but you were right,” he says to me. “Jefferson was hitting me. Ours was an abusive relationship. I suppose I knew but couldn’t see how to break out of it. He wouldn’t have let go if I’d tried to walk away. If anyone looked at me, never mind if I so much as glanced at anyone else, he’d use it as an excuse to hit me, saying it was my fault he was doing it.”
“I heard him say that,” I offer in support.
“The frightening thing is, I was beginning to believe it.”
“When he kicked the cat,” Simon sips his drink before continuing. “When he started hitting me, the cat hissed and bristled — she looked enormous nearly twice her size — attracting his attention. ‘You fucking lost me both bouts. Fuck off, cat,’ he yelled as he kicked her across the room. That was the trigger. You know I love cats. That kick wasn’t her fault, it was his. I lost it. I don’t remember doing it but your teachers had seen the whole thing and said I lifted him off his feet and dumped him on his back on the floor. Stronger than I look, eh?” He gives me a playful push on the arm.
I grin at him but remain quiet.
“All I can remember is seeing that poor cat in a heap where she’d landed against the lockers,” Simon giggles. “I think she was faking it for Mr Morgan’s benefit though. He put that she was injured in the notes he made later. She didn’t seem that badly hurt as she trotted off when Mrs O’Reilly called her. I am sure she gave me a sly grin as she went past.”
“Probably knew the kick was coming and rode with it. Merkin’s pretty smart,” says Tony. “You don’t kick her and survive unscathed though. I’m surprised she didn’t flay Jefferson alive.”
“Maybe she tried but couldn’t get through his singlet.”
“What makes you say that?”
“It wasn’t mentioned later, and this is going to sound a bit odd, but when I watched the cat go to Mrs O’Reilly, Jefferson was still lying on the floor and she seemed to be dangling that pendant of hers in front of his face. The cat jumped on his chest and started that kneading thing cats do but she must have had her claws out. I could see the singlet pull up every time she lifted a paw. I could tell Mrs O’Reilly was really angry. She was saying something about burning ants and ant stings burning. I couldn’t hear very well as Mr Morgan was trying to calm me, telling me Jefferson was just winded, that it was self-defence. Things like that. He didn’t see what was going on as he was in front of me with his back to them. He wouldn’t have heard either as he was talking.
“Merkin stayed kneading when Mrs O’Reilly got up to fetch the girl and send for Coach and you, Tony. The girl took over from Mr Morgan, who wasn’t getting through to me. She hugged me and made me look into her eyes. I knew then that everything would be all right. You know she has dark brown eyes like deep pools.”
“She is one of Donny’s sisters. He also has deep brown eyes,” Tony says.
“Interested?” I add.
There is an awkward silence as Simon does bashful.
Tony lets him off the hook. “You probably need a breather after Jefferson.”
We take a drink of our coffees.
“I don’t suppose you remember what else happened,” Tony says. “You were asleep when I came in and didn’t wake until your coach arrived. Mrs O’Reilly was reviewing the notes Mr Morgan was making on his phone. Jefferson had recovered enough to sit up and Merkin was on top of a locker. Typical of her.”
Where she can pounce on the unwary!
“Nothing else from that evening, but early this week, Jefferson got in my face. He grabbed hold of me but, as he raised his arm to hit me, he got a look of pain on his face and started scratching at his chest, muttering about ‘fucking fire ants’. He hasn’t tried anything since. We don’t have fire ants in the UK, do we?”
“Er, no.” Tony and I look at each other. We both rub our shoulders where we have been marked by the cat in the past.
I think it’s time to move onto something else.
“Bruno says he saw you at Mass last Sunday.”
“The boy from your wrestling team? Yes, he caught me in the queue for the confessional booth. I haven’t been to confession for a few weeks. He insisted I talk with him first, so we went outside so as not to disturb the other worshipers. We were talking long enough that my parents came to find me. Bruno’s parents also appeared from the car park. None of us went to confession or stayed for Mass. Father Robinson was on duty. We’ll only go now when it’s Father Dawkins.
“Bruno explained why he goes to your school and not mine. So the good news is that the ‘rents have said I can swap to your school if pass my GCSE’s this year and want to do A levels. My brother, Thomas, will also go to your school next year.”
There is a shout from Simon’s mum, calling him back to work. We quickly exchange numbers then stand up. We are about to leave, but looking round we see things have got a bit out of hand. Tony and I grab cloths and trays and clear the tables while Simon serves customers. Between us we soon have everything under control.
“That stuff about the cat on Jefferson’s chest was never mentioned at the meeting,” Tony says as we leave the shopping centre.
“Are we surprised?”
Copyright © Pedro May 2021
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