Juggling the Pieces

by Pink Panther

Chapter 26

August 2011

It's Wednesday morning. Unusually, Mum and Dad are here. Dad's just finished one project. He's got two weeks off before starting his next one, so Mum's taken time off work too.

I'm not sure why, but they haven't gone on holiday this year. When I asked them, Mum told me that rather than spend the money on having a holiday, there was something else they wanted to sort out. She didn't say what. I don't think there's a problem. I certainly hope there isn't.

At quarter past ten, the guys start arriving for our next training run. The doorbell rings. I go to answer it, and there he is.

"Simon! " I say, smiling. "You made it! Good to see you!"

"Yeah," he responds, a broad grin on his face . "It's not hard to find!"

Even though he has a mop of blond curls – his hair is actually lighter than mine – he tans really well. In snugly-fitting shorts and a polo shirt, he looks stunning. I've always thought Tim was the best-looking boy in our year. Now, I'm not so sure.

As he's not been here before, I take him into the lounge.

"Mum and Dad," I say. "This is Simon. He's come to join us."

"Pleased to meet you!" Dad says warmly. "You're new to this then?"

"Not exactly," Simon explains. "I've been in the cross-country team for two years, but my main sport's cricket. I spend my weekends at the county ground, working with their junior squad. That's why I've never been here before. But when I found out that the guys run during the week, I asked Ian if it'd be okay to come along."

"You're very welcome," Dad responds. "Make yourself at home!"

I lead Simon through to what's become our club room.

"When Claire and I were little," I explain. "This was our playroom. Dad built it before I was born."

"This is great!" Simon enthuses. "I did wonder where you put everybody!"

We set off just after ten-thirty. Although we're taking a different route from the one we ran on Sunday, it's about the same distance. Once again, we keep the pace steady. At the moment, we're just easing our way into it, trying to get our lungs working and our legs moving. Then when we get back to school, we can start to do some proper training.

By quarter past eleven, we're back. Half an hour later, everyone's gone home. I'm just tidying the club room when Mum appears.

"What a nice young man!" she says approvingly. "And so good-looking. He must have the girls all over him!"

That raises an interesting question. Simon's a really nice guy and gets on well with everyone, boys and girls. But I've no idea if he's got a girlfriend. He's certainly not one of the guys who's always got a girl with him.

"Yeah," I say casually, not really knowing whether he has or he hasn't.

The upcoming weekend includes the August bank holiday. After that, we've got one more week off school. Then we'll be right back into it. Not having heard from him, I decide to call Franny.

"Hi, man!" I greet. "How's it going?"

"It's been good," he enthuses. "After term ended, we went on holiday for two weeks. When I got back, I did the jazz summer school at the School of Music, and since then I've been spending a couple of days a week at Josh's place, working on stuff."

I'd guess that means he's been seeing quite a bit of Daniel, but I'm not going there.

"So you've been keeping pretty busy then?" I venture.

"Oh, totally! It's been manic! Next week, I'll need to get myself ready to head up to Manchester."

"Looking forward to it?"

"Sort of. I mean, the music side's great. I'm not so sure about the rest of it. I'm totally going to miss… you know! The supervision's really tight. There's no chance of actually doing anything. I'll have to rely on my right hand!"

"You won't be the only one!" I quip.

"No, I know! But when you've got used to having plenty, it's hard!"

"Tell me about it! You'll survive! Are you still going to be able to play with Josh and his mates?"

"Oh yeah! If they're doing a new song, Josh will send me the parts, together with links to recordings of it, so that I know what it sounds like. We'll be able to rehearse together during half-term. We'll have at least one gig before Christmas, possibly a couple."

"So will your school give you the time off?" I query.

"Oh yeah! They know that opportunities for us to play to an audience are like gold dust."

"Cool! Make sure you send me the dates, won't you? I can't promise, but as long as Scott can make it, we'll be there."

"Thanks, man! He's been doing great, hasn't he? I saw his first match back, when he nutmegged the defender and chipped it over the goalkeeper. That was fantastic!"

"Did you see it on The Football League Show?"

"Yeah! I'd seen the result so I made a point of watching it."

"Right! I was there! His dad took me. It was so exciting! He's been called up for the England Under-21 squad now."

"He had to be, playing like that!"

"Right, I'd better let you go! Take care, yeah?"

"Sure! And you! Give Scott all the best from me!"

"Cool! Enjoy Manchester!"

I end the call feeling breathless. I love Franny! Even just talking to him is fun. It would have been nice if we'd been able to hook up again, but I guess that right now, we're both too busy.

On Saturday evening, Scott and I manage to spend a few hours together before he heads off the following morning to join up with the England Under-21 squad. Actually, I'm quite relaxed about it. Unlike last year, I've got plenty to do, which helps.

Our Sunday morning training run goes well. There are a couple of guys missing because they're away for the weekend, but we've got Patrick back with us, which is good. Once again, we keep it nice and relaxed. This isn't the time for heroics.

Back at the house, Patrick takes me to one side.

"I believe you know Jimmy," he says quietly, "the lad that Bill's just taken on."

"Yeah, I know Jimmy," I admit, trying not to look like a rabbit caught in the headlights.

"How did you meet him? " Patrick queries, raising an eyebrow.

"You know the park where the art gallery is?"


"It was during the summer holiday. He was fourteen; I was thirteen. As I was walking through the park, I saw him looking at me. He smiled at me. I smiled back."

"Oh, right!"

"He lives just round the corner, so that's where we went."

"Yeah, I know where he lives. I reckon it's even rougher than Monkswood!"

"It's not great. Jimmy's okay though. How did you get on with him?"

"Fine! He's a good worker. I was better at some things; he was better at others. It was quite funny, actually. I'm the one who wants to be a structural engineer, but when it came to actually putting in a steel joist, I struggled. But he's ripped, man! He handled it like it was nothing!"

"So he's doing okay then?"

"Oh yeah! He's really into it. It was just that when Bill told me that you'd recommended him, it seemed a bit odd. I hadn't thought about you meeting like that." He lowers his voice. "After that first time, did you see him again?"

"Not then. I'd never been with anyone before. Let's just say that it didn't go that well. Then a few weeks later, I hooked up with Anthony. I didn't see Jimmy again for a couple of years. One day, we just bumped into each other. Well, at the time, I hadn't got anybody and neither had he, so I went to his place a few times. I'd had a bit more experience by then, so it was okay, but it was never going anywhere. We didn't have enough in common."


"He wasn't that ripped when I knew him. His legs were always very strong, but his upper body wasn't anything special. Anyway, when he went to college, he started working out. That's how he met his boyfriend. But we sort of kept in touch, you know, the odd phone call. He'd told me he was doing well on the construction course he was doing, so when Bill said he was looking for someone, I thought it wouldn't hurt to put his name forward. I'm glad he's doing okay."

"Yeah; he's doing great!"

A few minutes later, Niall's dad takes Niall, Shaun and Patrick home. I breathe a sigh of relief. I had not seen that coming! Somehow, I got through it without giving too much away. Wow!

With Scott not around, I spend the Bank Holiday Monday at Anthony's house, just hanging out, chatting about this and that. He's done superbly in his GCSE exams, getting nine A-star grades. Typically, he's taking it in his stride, and looking forward to the next challenge.

Jayden's still in Portugal, not that it makes much difference. Anthony's pretty much split up with him. He seems pretty pissed off about it.

We arrange to meet again on Thursday. We're going to go to Birmingham, to visit the Art Gallery and the Midlands Arts Centre, and have a general mooch around. It might not have been my first choice, but I enjoy Anthony's company. He makes me think.

Right now, it's Wednesday morning, and time for another training run. Having returned from America – it was New England this year – Dean's with us. Within the first mile, it's obvious that he's in even poorer shape than he was this time last year. I can understand why. He injured his hamstring early in June, and hasn't trained since. After we've run a couple of miles, I give him the key and send him back to the house.

After everyone else has gone home, Dean, Patrick and I sit down for a chat.

"When we get back to school," I ask, "will you be happy to work with the weaker runners like you did last year?"

"Sure, " Dean says. "I think that could help a lot."

"The thing is, we're due to start racing after a couple of weeks. There's no way you're going to be ready."

"Well, they're not going to let me off, are they?" Dean argues. " I'll just have to get on with it."

"If I'm right, your priority is to get yourself into the best possible shape ready for next summer."

"Sure. If I can get a good winter in, and don't have any more injuries, I think I can win the English Schools."

"Well, I think the school ought to be supporting you. They'll be pretty happy if you do win it, Lenny especially, getting your picture in the local paper and stuff."


"Right!" I say, grinning. "When we get back to school, I'll see what I can do!"

September 2011

The next morning, Anthony and I meet at the station just after ten. A few minutes later, we get onto the train to Birmingham. At this time of day, it's half-empty.

"Is Jayden back?" I ask.

"Yeah," Anthony responds, looking bored. "He called me, asking if he could come over. I told him to forget it. I let him use me for long enough."

"Yeah, I guess."

"Jay's great at talking, making everything sound wonderful. But he's flaky, man! At the end of the day, he does what suits him. I've had enough of it."

There's really nothing I can say. I saw this coming a year ago. The only surprise is that it didn't end sooner.

Despite Anthony not being on top form, I enjoy spending time with him. I always do. I guess we have so much in common, it's easy for us to relate to each other. Without meaning to, I begin speculating about what might have happened if Anthony had dumped Jayden before I met Scott. Would Anthony and I have got back together? Probably.

It's harder to say whether it would have worked. My guess is that we'd have been happy enough while we were both still at school. But there's no way it would have come close to the relationship that I have with Scott. I can't explain why; I just know it wouldn't .

It's Friday. While Scott's been away, he's been sending me a text every evening, telling me what he's been doing, and I've replied with any news that I've had. Yesterday, that included telling him about spending the day with Anthony and what his GCSE results were.

This evening's message arrives after ten, more than an hour later than the others. It's the one I've been waiting for.

Beat Azerbaijan 6 – 0. I got 1 goal & 2 assists. Love you lots! Hugs! S

My reply is equally brief.

Well done! Love you too! See you Tuesday! Hugs! I

Yes! He's done what he was called up to do. I'm delighted for him.

For Sunday's training run, I devise a route that enables Dean and his dad to cut back to the house after around three miles, so that they'll end up running between four and five.

After they've turned off, we pick the pace up a little. It's nothing extravagant; just a bit faster than we have been running. The encouraging thing is that everybody's on it, even Rhys and Gary, who are less experienced than the others. This is looking good!

It's Monday evening. I'm just preparing to go to bed when I get a text.

Won 4 – 0 against Israel. I played the first half and got an assist. Love you lots and missing you like crazy! See you tomorrow! Hugs! S

I text him back.

Well done! Love you too! Hugs back! I

On Tuesday morning, we're back at school. Unlike last year when there was a great deal of sorting out to do, this time we're straight into it, simply picking up where we left off in the summer.

The only change is that Smudger has been promoted into our maths group. We knew that was going to happen. I like it; he's fun to have around. He might be a much better student than he used to be, but his sense of humour hasn't changed.

At morning break, I go to see Mr Lenham to explain the problem with Dean. He listens carefully.

"The thing is, sir," I conclude. "It was Dean who got me running in the first place. He taught me how to breathe properly. If he hadn't been so patient with me, I don't think I'd have continued. He wasn't very fit this time last year, so he started off working with the weaker runners. Within a few weeks, he'd got Rhys Shipley running really well."

"I must admit, I wasn't aware of that," he says thoughtfully. "The difference this time is that you're suggesting that he should not be required to race until after half term?"

"Yes, sir. Until last week, he hadn't done any real training since he got injured. His focus is on getting fit for next summer. I just think it would be easier for him to do that if he wasn't pressured into racing before he's ready. It's not like we're going to need him. I don't expect him to make the scoring six even when he's fit. "

"Have you spoken to Mr Bentley about this?"

"Not yet, sir. I was going to speak to him at lunchtime."

"Fine! What I'd also like you to do is to ask Dean to come to see me. Ask him to come over to the pavilion at the end of the day, and we'll have a chat."

"The one thing that did worry me, sir, is if Dean's excused from racing, some people are going to say he's been given special privileges."

"Oh, I wouldn't worry about that," Mr Lenham says, smiling. "If he is given special privileges, it'll be because he's earned them, as I'll be happy to explain to anyone who thinks otherwise." He pauses for a moment. "Thanks for coming to see me," he continues. "It shows that you care, not just about the team, but about the individuals in it."

"Thanks, sir," I respond.

At the start of the lunch break, I go to see Mr Bentley. Having explained things much as I did to Mr Lenham, I take a deep breath.

"At break, I went to speak to Mr Lenham," I say as respectfully as possible, "to see what he thought of the idea."

"Yes, and?" Mr Bentley queries, raising an eyebrow.

"He asked me to ask Dean to go and see him after school so that they could have a chat about it"

"Okay, leave it with me. I'll talk to Mr Lenham as well. Tell me, have you had the group out training like you did last year?"

"Yes sir; we've been training for the past two weeks. Simon joined us for the midweek runs, which was great!"

"That's remarkable!" he says, shaking his head. "You really do know how to get things done!"

As soon as school is over for the day, I make my way to Scott's place. After nine days apart, I am so pleased to see him again! We make wonderful, passionate love.

Even though we don't do anything special, it's fantastic. Within a few minutes of being back together, we've re-established that amazing sense of togetherness that makes our relationship what it is. It's hard to describe, and even harder to explain. All I know is that I never want to lose it.

The following morning, I see Dean at registration.

"Did you go to see Lenny?" I ask quietly.

"Yeah," Dean confirms. "He asked me to sit down with my coach from the athletics club and draw up a winter training programme. He wants a copy. Well, I've spoken to my coach, and we're going to do it at the weekend. I'm going to see Lenny at break to say that I'll give him a copy next week."

"Great! It looks like this is going to work!"

"Yeah, thanks man! I wouldn't have had the balls to ask!"

That's an interesting comment. I guess I did have to screw up my courage a bit, but once I'd sorted out what I was going to say, it really wasn't that difficult.

A few minutes later, we head into Sixth Form Assembly. Unusually, Mr Carter is accompanied by the headmaster, Dr Kingslake. We don't see him very often. Then I remember why. This morning Dr Kingslake will present the new sports team captains with their colours; a cloth badge to be sewn onto our school blazer.

The assembly starts as it always does with prayers, a reading, and a few announcements.

"At this point," Mr Carter announces, "we have a pleasant duty to perform. Dr Kingslake is going to present colours to the team captains of the sports that take place during the autumn and spring terms. Please come up onto the platform as I call your names. For girls' hockey, the captain will be Leanne Taylor!"

Accompanied by a generous round of applause, Leanne strides to the front, mounts the steps, shakes hands with Dr Kingslake, and receives her badge. She's followed by Jane Cross for girls' netball. Mr Carter then moves onto the boys, Matthew for rugby and Tim for football.

"For boys' cross-country," he announces. " Ian Haskell! "

Being applauded as I head to the platform seems surreal. A number of times, I've received a prize at the school's speech day, but somehow, this seems different. Mounting the steps, I shake hands with Dr Kingslake.

"Well done, Ian!" he congratulates, handing me my badge.

"Thank you, sir."

"Mr Lenham tells me that from very modest beginnings, you've worked extremely hard to reach this position," he continues quietly. "It was very good to hear that."

"Thank you, sir," I repeat before going to stand with the other team captains.

As Tom Whitcombe, captain of the boys' hockey team is called up, I glance down at my badge. Two years ago, when I first joined the cross-country team, there is no way I could have imagined myself being here.

As soon as the bell goes for the end of lunch, I head to the gym changing rooms for what will be our first 'official' training session. Once all the badminton and table-tennis players have disappeared, Mr Bentley gets us together.

"Good afternoon, gentlemen!" he says brightly. "It's good to see you all! I'd like to give a special welcome to the Year Eleven boys who I'm sure are going to make a big contribution to the team. The team captain this year is Ian Haskell. Stand up please, Ian, so that everyone can see you!"

I get to my feet, turning around to smile at everyone. On Mr Bentley's nod, I sit down again.

"I think everyone here has met Ian at least once before," Mr Bentley continues. "May I remind you all that in addition to Wednesday afternoons, we train from here after school on Mondays and Thursdays. You are all expected to attend those training sessions. I know that a good number of you also train together on Sundays. That, of course, is entirely voluntary. Please remember that it's a long season, so build up your training steadily. Our first race will take place in two weeks' time. Initially, you will be split into two groups. Ian will lead the main group. Dean Griffiths will lead a group containing Armstrong from Year Thirteen, Birch from Year Twelve, and Snowden and Lewington from Year Eleven. Your objective is, or should be, to be promoted to the main group. In order to do that, I want you to do what Dean tells you to the best of your ability. If you do, you will improve. Okay! Off you go!"

We trot outside into the pale September sunshine. It's time to run. I lead the main group out through the school gates onto Birmingham Road, heading north, away from the city centre. After half a mile, we turn onto a broad track that will take us out into the countryside.

Away from the traffic, we settle into our running. Utilising a mixture of tracks, footpaths and quiet country lanes, we're bowling along at a decent pace. Without anyone having to work too hard, all nine of us stay pretty much together. In near-perfect conditions, it's most enjoyable.

After a while, we turn onto a track that meanders through the forest. It's one we often use. Almost before I know it, we're approaching the far end, with five miles completed and less than two to go. I'm running so easily, it feels as though we only just started.

We emerge onto the minor road that we'll follow for the next mile and a half. At this point, Patrick would usually hit the front and pull away, but having only just started training again, he's not interested. Neither am I. We keep it nice and relaxed all the way back to school.

After trotting through the school grounds, we reach the changing rooms. Dean, who's already changed back into his school uniform, is waiting for us.

"Is everyone back?" he asks.

"Sure, " I say casually.

"Good! I can go home then. Mr Bentley asked me to stay until we were sure he wasn't going to have to send out a search party."

"As far as I know, that's never happened."

"I don't think it has either," Dean responds. "But that's what he said."

"So how did it go?"

"Not bad. We spent some time working on breathing exercises. None of them breathes efficiently. There was one thing though. It seems like the two Year Eleven guys don't get on. It wasn't anything major, but I could tell that there was a bit of needle between them. I'll keep an eye on it. It may turn out to be nothing."

That's a complication we don't need. The atmosphere within the cross-country squad has always been very good. Even though there have been a few lads who only do the bare minimum, we've all got along okay.

I'm reminded of the day last December when we competed in the county AAA Championships, running against club teams. In the Under-15s' race, which the lads who are now in Year Eleven ran in, our boys ran well, apart from Jake Lewington.

At the end of the race, having run quite poorly, Jake was almost in tears, and none of the other boys would talk to him. Could that still be rumbling on? If it is, I'll have to deal with it.

On a pleasant September afternoon, I could just towel down and get dressed, the same as all the other lads. But as I'm about to get up close and personal with Scott, having a quick shower seems like the right thing to do.

By the time I'm done, all the other runners have gone, while the guys doing badminton and table-tennis are still playing. As I prepare to put my clothes on, I notice my black Umbro football shorts lying in my bag.

Having not over-exerted myself this afternoon, I'm super-horny. I quickly pull them on. After dressing in my school uniform, I put my underpants in the bag for later. I'm sure Scott will get the message. I just hope that he's as horny as I am!

After dinner, I show Mum my cross-country captain's badge. I thought she'd leave it until the weekend to sew it onto my blazer. Instead, she insists on doing it right then. It's her way of showing me how important she thinks it is. I totally get it. Little things like that mean a lot.

One week on, I'm like totally back into the routine. I'm enjoying it. I'm on top of everything, and that's where I intend to stay. Of course, it means I'm quite busy, but that's not a problem.

After lunch, it's down to the gym changing rooms for another cross-country training session. As soon as everyone's ready, Dean takes his group out onto the field, while I lead my group out through the school gates.

Today, we're going to run a bit further, around eight miles. For the first six miles or so, we keep the pace quite steady, just as we've been doing on all our previous runs.

We pause at a junction so that I can check that the group's still together. It's clear that a few of the younger lads are starting to tire a little, but it's not a problem. Nobody's got tailed-off, and from here, the run back to school is easy.

"Well done, guys!" I call. "You all know the way, so just keep it smooth and relaxed all the way back to school. We'll see you there!"

We immediately set off again. After around a quarter of a mile, Patrick comes past me. He's picked the pace up, but as it's nothing extravagant, I go with him. It's a revelation. Even though we're running at a more than decent pace, I'm still comfortable. Actually, it feels great!

Turning in through the school gate, we slow to a trot. Checking over my shoulder, I'm expecting to see some of the other lads right behind us, but there's nobody there. Without me realising it, we've pulled out a gap of around a hundred yards back to Nathan, who's next to finish. Over the next minute or so, the rest of the boys make it back.

"Well done, everyone!" I congratulate. "That was good! We'll do about the same tomorrow, and again on Sunday for those who can make it. Next Monday, we'll just do an easy five miles so that we're all fresh for the race next Wednesday."

We stroll back to the changing rooms, with me bringing up the rear. I'm feeling pretty good about how things are going. As we approach the buildings, Dean's waiting for me. He takes me to one side.

"It seems we have a problem," he says quietly.

"What exactly?"

"After lunch, when I got to the changing rooms, Ben and the small, feisty one that runs with you…"

"Gary? " I suggest.

"Yeah, that's him. Well those two were having a right go at Jake, telling him how useless he is. I don't think they'd noticed me. One of them even called him a poof."

"Well, we're not having that!" I say firmly. "Did you speak to them about it?"

"No, I wanted to talk to you first. D'you think we should just tell Mr Bentley, and let him deal with it?"

"I'd rather not," I tell him. "I think it would be much better if we sorted it out."

"So what are we going to do?"

"At tomorrow's training session, we'll ask them to stay behind for a few minutes. You can tell them what you heard. Then we'll ask them to explain it. You've worked with Jake. How d'you get on with him?"

"He's very quiet. He does his best, but he's got absolutely no confidence. I've noticed that when we're out running, Ben won't run with him."

"Is he gay, d'you think?"

"I don't know," Dean answers. "I guess he could be."

After getting changed, I head to Scott's place, feeling far less happy than I did an hour ago. Just when everything seemed to be going so well, I have to deal with something like this.

Of course, I could do as Dean suggested, and simply turn it over to Mr Bentley. But all that would do is to quieten things down. If we're going to sort this out properly, Gary and Ben need to be fully involved. They're not bad kids; I'm sure we can win them round.

The thing is, if Jake is actually gay, as one of the school's few out-gay students, I need to offer him my support, especially as I've been through this myself. I know that there are lots of other things that I need to be doing, but I can't let that stop me. The problem's landed in my lap, and I have to deal with it.

I arrive at the flat.

"Are you okay?" Scott asks, ushering me into the lounge.

Flopping down on the sofa, I explain what's happened.

"Well, I'm sure you're doing the right thing," Scott says. "You were never going to look the other way, were you? He's probably feeling totally lost. He needs some support, and I can't think of anyone better than you."

"Thanks!" I respond, smiling.

"Come on, babe," he says, helping me to my feet. "It's 'feel better' time!"

When I arrive at the changing rooms the following afternoon, Dean comes straight over to me.

"I've spoken to Ben and Gary," he says quietly. "I told them we need to have a word with them after training."

As I begin to get changed, I notice Jake, who's a couple of yards away, pulling his shorts on. It's like looking at a younger version of myself: small for his age, slim without being a total stick-insect, and very fair-skinned. Okay, his hair's darker than mine, and straight rather than wavy. Even so, the similarities are remarkable.

He's a couple of inches shorter than I am, about the same height as Gary, but whereas Gary's got some nice muscle-definition going on, Jake's got virtually nothing. Two years ago, I hadn't either.

Once again, the training run goes well. This time, Patrick doesn't increase the pace towards the end, so it's fairly relaxed all the way back to school. That suits me, helping to clear my head for what I need to do next.

Back in the changing room, I quickly towel myself down before pulling on my school uniform. A few minutes later, with everyone else on their way home, Gary and Ben are parked together on one bench, while Dean and I sit on the bench facing them.

"Right, lads," I say quietly. " I'm guessing you know why we've asked you to stay behind. I'll let Dean begin."

"Yesterday afternoon," Dean begins, "when I arrived to get changed, you two were having a go at Jake. You were being thoroughly unpleasant. One of you actually called him a poof. It doesn't matter which of you it was; you were both involved. Could you explain to us why you were doing that? What's he done to you?"

"We don't like having him here," Gary says. " He's useless! All he does is hold us up."

"I know I'm not very good," Ben adds, "but I always try my best. He doesn't, not really. He's just a nuisance. Last year, we were surprised when he asked to join the group. None of us wanted him to, but Mr Saunders said he could, so we were stuck with him."

"Now one of you called him a poof," I say, changing tack. "Do you actually know he's gay?"

"Pretty much," Gary says, not actually looking at me.

"How? "

"Back when we were in Year Nine, if we had to have a shower after games, he'd always, like, check us out. And he got a hard-on!"

"That doesn't necessarily mean he's gay, " I point out, "though it probably is a reasonable indication. I assume he's never actually come on to you?"

"Nah! He wouldn't have the balls to do that!"

"Now it can't have escaped your attention that I'm gay, " I continue. "But you don't seem to have a problem with me. How does that work?"

"Oh, you' re different! " Gary explains. "You're really tough! I've seen how you run, like yesterday afternoon, when you and Patrick took off. I was like 'How do they do that?' And you've got mates like Tim Powell and Matthew Westhall, as well as Dean, of course. If you're friends with those guys, you must be alright!"

"I see! And Jake?"

"Oh, he's as soft as they come!" Ben says. "And when things don't go right, he bursts into tears."

"Jake 's biggest problem is that he's got absolutely no confidence," Dean says quietly. "As yet, I don't understand why that is. What I do know is that the way you've been treating him is only going to make the problem worse."

Ben and Gary look at each other, but don't respond.

"What you need to understand, lads," I add, "is that we're a team. We all need to support each other. We don't tell other guys in the team that they're useless. Part of being a team member is encouraging the other guys, especially the weaker ones, to work hard and believe in themselves. That applies to you as much as anyone else."

"Sorry," Gary says quietly, looking at his feet.

"Now let me tell you something," I go on. "When I was in Years Seven and Eight, I was completely useless at all sport. I hated it! Then during Year Eight, I began to realise that I was gay. A boy who was in my form at the time began picking on me; calling me names: 'gayboy', 'queer', 'poof', you know? At first, I tried to ignore it, hoping it'd stop, but it didn't; it got worse. In the end, after we'd moved up to Year Nine, I decided I had to give him some back. The interesting thing about that was that as soon as I started to stand up for myself, some of the other kids came in on my side, yeah? Well, the boy who'd been picking on me didn't like that at all! Things escalated, and he finished up getting into quite a bit of trouble. Mr Broadhurst sent him home."

"Was that Stanford?" Ben asks.

"Yeah," I confirm.

"I thought so! He was a dickhead!"

"Well," I continue, "shortly after that, I became friends with Dean. He suggested that I should try to get myself fitter and stronger. At first, I didn't want to because I'd always hated doing things like that. But in the end, I agreed to try doing some running. You wouldn't believe how bad I was! I couldn't even run a lap of the school field without getting out of breath. If Dean hadn't been so patient with me, I probably wouldn't have continued. Things just built up from there. So don't get the idea that I was a naturally good runner, because I wasn't. I'm not naturally tough either, but over the years, I've learned to demand more of myself. And that's what Jake will have to do, but he'll need the same sort of support that I had, and I want you guys to be part of that."

"Thanks for being so honest with us," Gary says, looking rather shame-faced. "I really didn't know any of that. When you asked us to stay behind, I thought you'd just tell us off, but you didn't. I understand now. I'm sorry we screwed things up. Do you think we should apologise to Jake?"

"I think it would be good if you did," I respond.

"We will, won't we Ben? "

"Yeah," Ben agrees. "I think we ought to."

"What we need to do is to draw a line under what's happened and start again," I suggest. " I'll talk to Jake on Monday. He'll have to make changes too. He will have to get tougher; you're quite right about that. And we'll have to be there to help him."

The weekend simply flies past. It's very enjoyable, but very busy. As the icing on the cake, Scott has another good game, away at Derby. He's starting to produce top performances on a regular basis. Inevitably, there's more speculation that when the transfer window opens in January, a club from the Premier League will try to sign him.

Almost before I know it, I'm back at school, Monday's classes are over and I'm out training with the cross-country squad. With our first race coming up in two days' time, we limit ourselves to an easy five miles.

Afterwards, after towelling myself down and pulling on my school uniform, I find Jake waiting for me, as arranged, in the corner of the changing room.

"Hi! " I say brightly, sitting down next to him. "Thanks for waiting! How's your weekend been?"

"It's been okay," he says. "Ben and Gary came and apologised to me. They were really nice about it."

"Good! They said they'd do that." I pause for a moment. "This is the start of a new chapter," I continue. "What you need to understand is that although we'll do our best to support you, you will have to do the work. We can't do it for you."

With the last of our team-mates heading out of the door, I recount my own experiences, just as I did with Ben and Gary.

"So, the first thing you need to do is to do exactly what Dean tells you. Learning to breathe efficiently takes time, but once you've mastered it, everything becomes easier."

He looks back at me, hanging onto my every word.

"The second really important thing is not to put pressure on yourself. I remember you running in the county championships last December. You didn't run very well, and at the end you were almost in tears. That needs to stop. Remember that you're just starting. At this stage, the results don't matter. Now Wednesday's race is quite long, just over four miles, so it's important not to go off too fast. Then, just ease your way through it so that you're still running okay at the end." I pause again, giving time for my words to sink in. "Now this is not going to be easy," I advise. "It wasn't easy for me, and it won't be easy for you. In my first season, I ran all the Wednesday afternoon races. I only made the scoring six once. This year's team is stronger than the one we had then. You could run every Wednesday afternoon race, run pretty well, and not get near the scoring six. It doesn't matter. You need to hang in there!"

"Weren't you in the team that won the County Schools' Championships?"

"Yes; that's run on a Saturday. There's a separate race for Years Ten and Eleven, so I wasn't running against any older boys. If you really get stuck in, you might well do the same."

"I wasn't picked for it back in February."

"No, we're only allowed eight runners, and you weren't selected. But if you put the work in, there's every chance you'll make the team this time." I pause for a moment. "What made you want to join the cross-country team?"

I'm regretting having asked him even before he has chance to answer. That is such a stupid question! I know what he's going to say.

"You did," he says, smiling. "I knew you were gay, and I knew you'd been bullied, but a couple of years later, you were in the team that won the county championships. I thought that if you could do it, maybe I could too."

Of course he did! I'm small, like he is; I'm gay, like he is, and I got picked on, sort of like he has. He saw me as his role model, someone he could aspire to be like. And something's telling me that it may not stop there.

Instinctively, I glance down towards his crotch. As I expected, he's got a raging hard-on that his school trousers are covering rather than hiding. Fuck! This is the last thing I needed! I swallow hard.

"If you put the work in, there's every chance that you will," I say, looking him right in the eye. "Unfortunately, the other thing you seem to be hoping for isn't going to happen."

"You don't like me?" he says, looking almost distraught.

"Oh, I like you," I assure him, putting my hand on his shoulder. "I like you a great deal. I'm sorry, but I have a long-term boyfriend. We've been together for eighteen months, and I'm not going to cheat on him, not with you, and not with anyone else."

He turns away, trying to hide his disappointment. Reaching across, I gently turn his face back towards me.

"I'm not the only pebble on the beach, you know," I say, smiling at him. "You'll find someone; you'll just have to be patient, like I did." A thought strikes me. "I'm guessing you're not actually legal yet."

"I am, actually," he corrects. "I was sixteen last Friday."

So, despite being among the smallest in his year, he's actually one of the oldest.

"Well, in that case, there may be someone who'd like to meet you, if you're up for it. Do you need to be home early tomorrow?"

"No, I never do."

"Okay then. When school ends tomorrow, wait for me by the main gate. All being well, I'll introduce you. Of course, at this stage, there's no commitment on either side. Either of you can walk away with no hard feelings. But you can have a chat and see how you get on. I think it might just work."

"Who is it?"

"That would be telling!" I say, grinning. "What I can say is that he's a good guy, he lives close by, and you'll be perfectly safe. I also happen to know that he's not with anyone at the moment. So are you up for it?"

"Yeah, I guess."

After dinner, I call Anthony. I explain the situation to him, taking care not to miss anything out.

"He seems to have got a bit lost," I conclude. "He really needs a boyfriend; someone a bit older, a bit more experienced. He'd set his sights on it being me, but I explained to him why that's not going to happen. I'm hoping that you might be interested in meeting him. No commitment, of course. You'll need to see how you get on."

"If it was anyone else asking, I'd probably tell them to fuck off," Anthony says bluntly. "But as it's you, at least I know he won't be a total nightmare. No promises of course; we'll have to see how it goes. When were you thinking of?"

"Tomorrow, after school. I've arranged to meet him by the main gate."

"Yeah, that works. Bring him over to the newsagents. I'll meet you there."

As soon as I've finished speaking to Anthony, I call Scott, and explain the situation to him.

"So Anthony's finally dumped Jayden?" he queries.


"About bloody time! That was never going anywhere! Jay Kirby is great at making promises; not so good when it comes to delivery."

"That's pretty much what Anthony said."

"D'you think it'll work, Anthony with this Jake kid?"

"I'm not sure," I admit. "I think it stands a chance."

"Let's hope it does! You say that Jake's like a younger version of you?"

"Yeah, sort of."

"Sounds cute!"

"He is, especially when he smiles. The thing is, I don't think he's had much to smile about recently."

"Right! Thanks for putting me in the picture. I wouldn't have wanted to hear about it from someone else."

"Yeah, well I've learned that lesson! I'll see you tomorrow. It should be about ten past four. Love you!"

The following afternoon, as soon as classes have finished, I make my way out to the main gate. Jake's already there, waiting for me.

"Hi!" I say brightly. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah!" he says, smiling nervously.

"Okay, come on then!"

With me leading the way, we head over the school crossing to the far side of Birmingham Road, and along to the corner where the newsagent is. Right on cue, Anthony appears.

"Hi! " I greet. "Anthony, this is Jake. Jake, this is Anthony."

"Hi, Jake! " Anthony says, smiling.

"Hi!" Jake responds, looking slightly awestruck.

"Would you like to come to mine for a bit, so we can have a chat and get to know each other?" Anthony asks. "I only live just along there," he adds, indicating the side road that leads to Grosvenor Terrace.

"Sure," Jake answers quietly. "Thanks!"

"Okay, I need to be somewhere," I say, smiling. " I'll leave you guys to it."

I stride away in the direction of Scott's place. When I arrive, it's just gone ten past four.

"Nice timing!" Scott says, welcoming me inside. "So how did it go?"

"Okay, I think. Jake looked a bit awestruck, but other than that, it all seemed positive. They were going back to Anthony's place to get to know each other."

"Let's hope it works out."

"Yeah, it could be good for both of them if it does."

"So, what would you like now?" Scott asks, drawing me into a hug.

"What I'd really like is a damn good fucking," I tell him. "But as I'm racing tomorrow, that might not be a good idea. Can we save that till afterwards?"

"No problem! But what about now?"

"Oh, I'll just have a pint of my usual, please guvnor!"

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