SON OF THE CHAV PRINCE
Justin cuddled into the broad chest of his lover. Their reunion had as ever been glorious, leaving them exhausted and perfectly content.
Nathan kissed Justin’s thick black hair and enveloped him in a powerful but gentle embrace. Justin sighed. ‘I love you, Nate. I miss you so much when I’m away, I doan know why I bother goin’ any more.’
Nathan chuckled. ‘It’s the call of the sleaze, chavvy babe. You can’t give it up. You love the low life too much. Besides, you’re good at what you do. Terry told Andy that you’re the best, a complete natural.’
‘Well fuck it for a bit. I’m just glad to be home wiv you, superbabe. Have I told you how much I missed you?’
‘Just about thirty times.’
‘That all?’ Justin laughed with pure happiness. ‘Wass up in the centre, then?’
‘Staff changes. Claire and Louise are moving on. I’ll miss ‘em. Great and reliable workers the pair of them. We’re having a farewell night for them in the Feathers at Haseldene end of next week. You coming?’
‘Oh yeah. Claire always made me laugh, and she so obviously fancied me little butt. So what you doin’ about gettin’ new people?’
‘I spread the word at the college and put an ad up in the local post offices. There’s a lot of interest, y’know. We pay relatively well here, and business is good. But there’s been a … complication.’
‘A complication? Tell me more.’
‘It’s Gus. Uncle Phil’s fed up of the boy hanging idle round the house in the holidays, and wants him to get out and do something useful. So I’m more or less obliged to offer him one of the jobs. A pity, cos the other applicants are all better bets than he is.’
Justin frowned. ‘Which one is Gus?’
‘The youngest of the three boys. The difficult one. Remember?’
‘Oh God, yes. He’s the weirdo. The middle one is James, the sadist, and Lewis, the eldest, is in the army. Didn’t Gus get into stuffing animals at one point? Stank the Hall out when it went wrong. It was my first memory of the house – the stench of death.’
‘Yeah,’ Nathan nodded. ‘He was thirteen at the time. Weird then, and just as weird now. He needs a good shagging, as Terry would say. That would sort him.’
‘Certainly sorted me, dinnit? So who’s the other new guy gonna be, Nate?’
‘Who says it has to be a guy?’
‘No one. Just thought it might make a change. We been flooded out wiv girls recently. Do you suppose the locals have guessed we’re, y’know, gay?’ Justin looked appallingly innocent for a moment, and fluttered his eyelids.
Nathan cracked up. When he had recovered, he replied, ‘One of them is both male and a good prospect, as it happens. Nice lad. Sixteen. No experience, but he’s got something about him.’
‘Not really, though he seems quite fit. But he projects an air of confidence and competence. He’ll do well on the tills.’
Nathan kissed and stroked his partner’s hair for a while. Suddenly he paused, looking narrowly at Justin’s head.
Justin stared at him. ‘What is it?’
‘Justy, you’ve got a grey hair!’
‘Really. It’s there. Above your ear. Want me to pull it out?’
‘Fuck. What! No leave it. If you pluck it out, you get three more.’
‘Old wives’ tale,’ Nathan laughed. Then he looked serious. ‘Justy, you’re bothered by it, aren’t you.’
Justin looked a little cross, but also despondent. ‘I’m getting’ older, Nate. Iss awful. I’m twenty-two and I got a grey hair. Life sucks.’
‘Ease off, babe. You’re too young for a mid-life crisis, although you might think of giving up the fags.’
‘You wish. Anyway, I only smoke outside the house. Be fair.’
‘Yeah, Justy, you’re good, I know that. But it’s time you thought of trying to quit, seriously.’
‘What? Eat wholemeal bread, go vegan, and have organic shits? You never gives up, do ya mate.’
‘Not where my Justy is concerned, no I don’t.’
‘You’re kicking me when I’m down, Nate. Doan you feel ashamed?’
‘Are you really down?’
‘Yes. A bit. Sorry, Nate. I can’t always be your chirpy little cockney, and just recently things have been getting to me.’
‘Want to talk about it, my chavvy prince?’
‘Nah. Not yet. I’m still trying to work it out. But it ain’t you, Nate. You’re perfect. Don’t you ever change.’
‘It’s not in my plan.’ Nathan smiled at his lover, but deep behind his eyes, Justin saw he was troubled.
Danny was in his room vegetating when the call came on Tuesday morning. He had to run downstairs to the hall phone.
‘Hey, Danny, it’s Nate. I’ve seen all the applicants now, and I just want to say that you’re the one who impressed me most. Can you start tomorrow?’
Danny stood stunned for a moment. He hadn’t thought he’d have a chance against kids from the college, but here he was, the successful applicant.
‘Hullo?’ he heard Nathan’s voice. ‘You there?’
‘Yeah. Thanks, Nate. I can start today if you like.’
A laugh came down the line. ‘OK. Jump on your bike and get yourself over here. I’ll show you around the place. It’s never that busy in midweek. It’s weekends that are the big rush. I’d like you to do four days a week normally, that OK?’
‘Exactly what I want. Cheers, Nate. Thanks so much!’
‘Don’t mention it.’
Danny pedalled like a maniac across to Haddesley through the back lanes. He drew up in the car park in a scatter of gravel, then picked up his bike and carried it inside. Nathan gave him a grin and indicated where to put the bike out of the way.
The rest of the day was busy. This was a new world to Danny, the world of retail. The till was not too difficult to master, though he concluded that using it at speed might be a problem. Mostly he had to memorise the stock, its location and prices. This he was good at, and he smiled under the sun of Nathan’s approval.
By midday, when the Hall gardens were open to tourists, the number of customers in the shop rose. Nathan had to run the till, and soon Danny found himself face to face with the general public, directing them, carrying heavy items and parking shopping trolleys and baskets. Nathan watched him out of the corner of his eye with satisfaction. The boy was a Trojan, tireless, collected and endlessly polite. If he didn’t know something, he dashed over to find out.
Before long the pressure of a coach party led Nathan to call for reinforcements. Justin appeared in garden-centre gear, and the rush abated somewhat for Danny, who breathed a sigh of relief. Even so, it was four o’clock before Nathan was able to let him take a break. He and Justin went up to the little staffroom and Justin snapped on the kettle.
‘Tea, thanks. Er … what do I call you?’
‘Justy to me mates, Dan the man.’
Danny grinned, concluding there was a lot about this Justin to like, even though he was a gay. He was very good looking, and you could easily have thought he was still in his late teens. What impressed Danny more, though, was the edge of danger he caught in the man’s eye and speech. This, he instinctively knew, was a person who would do or say anything he chose, and wouldn’t give a damn what anyone else thought. It echoed something in Danny himself.
They sat next to each other in the battered old armchairs. As a country boy, Danny was endlessly curious about other people, and not afraid of prying. ‘What do you do when you’re not at Haddesley, Justy?’
‘Dinn Nate tell you? I works in showbiz security. Me last contract was a boy band.’
‘Really? Which one?’
‘The Sick Boys.’
‘Them? Can’t stand ’em. One more bloody manufactured group of talentless pretty boys. Oops, sorry. You a friend of theirs?’
‘Not after being on the road across the States wiv ‘em for six fuckin’ weeks, no. Wears out your tolerance no end.’
‘They pretty bad then?’
‘Nah … to be fair, they’ve only just made it, so they’ve not developed the fuck-you-it’s-what-I-want-that-counts attitude they all eventually get. Doan yet have to kiss their arses. But by next time, they’ll be monsters. That Cody fuckin’ Bignall’s the worst.’
‘What? The blond one? Now he can really sing, I’ll admit. He makes the band.’
‘An’ doan he know it, mate. He’s on the path to rock-and-roll legend, he is. Self-destructive as they come, too.’
‘Tell me more.’
Justin laughed. ‘If I did that, I wouldn’t be any good at what I do.’
Danny pleaded, ‘Aww, come on.’ As he did, he caught himself pouting playfully, trying to draw more out of Justin. It was the sort of thing he might have done with his mates, but sitting next to a gay man, it somehow took on a different significance. Danny blushed. That was a gay sort of thing to do, he thought. Had Justin noticed? He certainly had, and Danny had been swept by a brief, calculating glance. His ears burned. There was an uncomfortable pause in the conversation, or at least it seemed that way to Danny.
But Justin simply gave a brief laugh and asked about Danny’s family, allowing the moment to pass. Regardless, Danny knew that something about him had been registered.
The garden centre closed at six. Nathan and Justy sent Danny on his way with a wave. As he pedalled the lanes of Suffolk, he decided he really liked the two men, gay or not. He believed his was a much more open and emotionally literate generation of British youth, theoretically very accepting of gayness. Boys in his year at school tended to hug and kiss girls indiscriminately and a little theatrically, in a way that bemused the staff, and it was fashionable for them to be camp. Even so, he had definitely been a little nervous about Nathan and Justin to begin with. Now he was fine with them.
When Danny arrived home, his big brother Wesley waylaid him with a smirk. ‘How was life in Pansy Park?’
‘The Gay Gardens, the Homo Horticulturists?’
‘You mean Haddesley Hall Garden Centre and Pet Supplies?’
‘Thought you’d recognise the description eventually.’
‘Y’know, Wesley Hackness, there are times when I think you’re not very liberal or modern in your attitudes.’
‘C’mon, Danny. It’s a scream. Working there with two poofs. They try to grab your arse? Chat-you-up sort of thing?’
‘People do say, Wes – and I’m only repeating this, mind – that fascination with the gay lifestyle, when expressed by straights, is the first indicator that they have secret longings that way.’
‘No, it’s true. I was reading it in Dad’s Guardian. Has to be true, dunnit.’
Wesley jumped his brother, and there followed a period of laughter and yelps, until Danny begged for mercy and Mum shouted up to them to stop making the house shake.
It was a cheery Danny in green trousers and sweat shirt who arrived at Haddesley at eight the next morning, looking forward to another day’s hard work with Nate and Justy. The big doors were already open and he parked his bike inside. His shouted greeting to Nate was answered by a distant hallo from somewhere out the back.
Danny went looking for his boss. Between two rows of dwarf conifers he walked abruptly into a tall boy who was not Nate, but had a curious resemblance to him in build and face.
The boy blinked down at him before asking diffidently, ‘Who are you?’
‘I work here. Who are you?’
‘I work here too. I began today.’
The boy was indeed wearing garden-centre gear. Then Danny realized he was looking at the same lad who had told him to get out of the park of Haddesley Hall the previous weekend. Although the face was no longer red but was now dominated by a look of puzzlement, it was the same boy alright.
Nathan came up at that point. ‘Oh, hi Danny. This is Gus. He’ll be working here too during the holidays.’
‘Er … hi Gus.’ If it had been anyone else, Danny would have put out his hand. But this weirdo, he would not trust to take it. It did indeed seem the gesture was unknown to Gus, as his hands stayed hanging loosely at his sides.
‘Gus, this is Danny Hackness.’
Gus continued to examine Danny with a dawning awareness that they had met before. ‘You were the boy who was trespassing in the park early on Sunday morning.’
‘I guess,’ admitted Danny. Looking at Nathan he added, ‘Sorry.’
‘You shouldn’t have been there.’
‘I suppose not.’
Nathan broke in brightly on their pointless conversation. ‘Gus has just finished year 11 at Medwardine School where he boards. He’s the son of Sir Philip Underwood who lives at the Hall, and since Phil is my uncle, that makes Gus my cousin. And Gus, Danny is about to go on to the sixth-form college here. Well, now you’ve met, why don’t you both go along and sweep the outside paths before we open.’
Danny found two brushes and handed one to Gus, who took it gingerly while still staring at Danny in a puzzled manner.
‘You do it like this.’ Danny, irritated into deliberate sarcasm, began to clear the main path.
‘Yes, I know,’ came the emotionless response, and Gus started sweeping alongside Danny. He said never a word, just worked mechanically until they’d cleaned the main aisle. Then Danny suggested he would do the left-side aisles while Gus took the right. Gus went off and did it, silently.
Danny was not too happy with this new development. He liked kids who were as cheery and laid-back as he was. But he was saddled for the summer with this irritating cold fish … this irritating, snobbish cold fish. How could he have been so unlucky? He hoped fervently that the rota would keep them apart. And how would Gus get on with the public?
Danny soon found out the answer to that one. An old lady had wandered in to buy some cat food. Gus looked on absently as she laboriously tried to haul a big bag into a trolley. Danny ran up and helped her with it, taking the trolley to the till and then loading the bag into her car. She smiled at Danny and said a very warm thank-you, at the same time casting a dark glance past him at Gus, who was by then gazing up vaguely at the roof girders.
Danny stormed over to him. ‘What the bloody hell were you doing letting the poor old dear struggle with that heavy bag? What sort of git are you?’
Gus looked at him. ‘What did you say your name was?’
Danny saw red. ‘Danny, you fuckwit.’
‘No, not Daniel, I’m Danny. Christ almighty, are you on dope or something?’
‘Drugs? No, I never touch them. So I’m supposed to load things on to trolleys for people? Is that part of my contract? I never saw it written down. Of course, if you say so, I will do precisely that. I would rather hear it direct from Nathan, however.’
Danny thrust his face up into Gus’s. ‘You’re a fucking nutcase, mate.’
‘My name is Augustus, actually,’ he said pedantically, ‘Augustus Lewis Lawrence Fincham Underwood. People tend to call me Gus, though.’
Danny was more and more bewildered. Hadn’t the weirdo heard himself called a fuckwit and a nutcase? Danny replied weakly, ‘What would you rather be called?’
‘Gussie. I like Gussie. I had a friend who called me that in year 9. He left to go to Oundle. I rather miss him.’
‘Oh, sweet Jesus,’ swore Danny, ‘let me outa here!’ He retreated to the bedding plants and began to tidy them up before the morning opening. He fervently hoped he could avoid seeing Gus for the rest of the day.
His hopes were dashed when Nathan gave him the job of initiating Gus into the location of stock. Danny groaned, then tackled this assignment as conscientiously as he did everything else. He had to assume his trainee was taking it all in, but when he decided to test the other boy on the location of the hydrangeas, he got nothing more than a blank look. Danny dragged Gus over to the section and told him to remember it.
Gus nodded wisely in agreement. ‘They’re a bit like pink cauliflowers, aren’t they,’ he commented vaguely.
Danny nodded. ‘Yes, Gus, like pink cauliflowers.’
‘Call me Gussie, please.’
‘OK … Gussie.’
Danny was greatly relieved when lunchtime came and Justin took over from him. Nursing a cup of coffee, Danny looked down from the interior window of the first-floor staffroom on to the aisles and stacks of the centre, and was surprised to see Gus and Justin talking perfectly amicably. Then he remembered that Justin was virtually family to the Underwoods.
Danny finished work at three, and left without saying anything further to Gus. As he was pedalling home, Danny thought the oddest thing of all was that Gus had actually piqued his interest. Usually he could happily ignore weirdos. This one had got to him.