Frank is making a call to the florist. He is making a call for red carnations to be delivered to Christine, and it seems to be serious business. He is clad in his damp towel, pacing back and forth across the changing room, which is already emptying out after practice. John leans back to rest his aching back against the wall, and watches Frank fulfill the duties of besotted fiancé. Water droplets are rolling down Frank’s back, diamond-drop glitters magnified in the harsh artificial light and John imagines tracing them with his lips and hands, drinking off Frank’s silken skin. He would taste of clean skin and sandalwood soap, the earthy tang of grass and rain lingering behind, always always on his skin. He closes his eyes, trapping the familiar picture of Frank completely at home in the room, going through the mundane routine he knows by heart, every movement familiar, repeated a hundred thousand times.
Frank has concluded the call and is now stepping into is jeans. He notices John, and something startled shows up in his eyes at the fact that John is still in his grimy kit, sprawling on the bench, showing no desire to strip and shower and wash off the exertions of practice. He steps closer, lays a careful hand on John’s forehead which is lined as if with pain. “John”, he calls softly. “John? Are you falling asleep here?” Jon smiles a little, reaches out and encircles Frank’s wrist with his fingers, a loose chain, and opens his eyes slowly. His smile is so sweet it wipes off years of his face, and Frank’s heart gives an odd stutter, suddenly transported back to those early days when John was endlessly fascinating, endlessly new – a project of discovery on and off the field that bewildered and excited him. John is watching him with steady eyes, that odd lovely quirk of lips, dimples deepening in his cheeks, his thumb softly rubbing the tender skin of Frank’s pulse point, slow and comforting. “No”, he rumbles softly. “No, I am not falling asleep Frankie. Just waiting, waiting for you.” And Frank does not know why the simple statement should make his eyes prickle, but he disengages from John and turns around to brusquely shoulder his bag and make his way out of the changing rooms. “Go home Johnny, it’s late,” he says in the quietness, voice gone rough, “Good night”.
John watches Frank leave, and slowly, grimacing a little at the stiffness in his joints, steps into the shower. The shower Frank used, now that nobody else is here, and he can let go of his pride and the ever-present wariness to do just as he wishes. The small cubicle still smells of Frank’s products, and the hot water washes the dirt and the ache of the field away. He can brace himself against the blue tiles; close his eyes while the endless countdown repeats itself in time with his heartbeat, a hundred days more of this, of Frank, and then what? He closes his eyes against the brutal grief that threatens to overwhelm his control anytime he thinks of it, and lets the water beat down, as hot as he can stand it. He touches his chest, his cock, his belly, breathing growing short and labored. He pretends it’s the rough velvet of Frank’s body as he fists his cock, desperate, and there is only a pair of vivid green eyes in his memory, drugged, pupils dilated, that tips him over the edge. It’s release, of a sort, desperately unsatisfactory, sad. But it’s all that there is now, and he better get used to this – this gnawing hunger, this emptiness, the absence of Frank in him that nothing seems to fill.
Toni, the babies and his mother-in-law are in Dubai for a short break, and he has an hour of Skypeing with Georgie and Summer when he gets back home to the dark, silent house later in the evening. They babble on about ice-cream and sand-castles and the waves, while Toni smiles indulgently in the background, the impish caste of her face, the lithe nut-brown body so very loved. He misses her, misses all of them desperately. He says so and Toni laughs, “Had a fight with Frank, did you?” she asks through her laughter. He suspects she knows what Frank really means to him, after all these years, but she has always been amused by his open adoration of Frank. Something in his expression sobers her up though and she says, “It’s about him leaving, that’s what you’re so tore up about?” He can’t answer her, her bluntness, always straight to the point talk leaving him defenseless, and she sighs exasperated at his bowed head. “Idiot, him leaving the club is not the same as leaving you, okay? He’s your best mate Johnny, you know that! Don’t mope silly!!” He has nothing to say to that really – it’s true, he knows, and Frank’s said as much, but who’s to explain the truth to his heart that’s taken fright?
It’s nearing ten at night, and he’s wrapped himself in the old Chelsea blanket he’s had since academy, soft and frayed, lying on the couch, watching cartoons. He’s not hungry, and though he is exhausted, in his heart and body, he cannot sleep, the bed too large, the house too quiet, the memories upon him vivid and merciless and quick. It’s better to lie here, with the television for companionship, passing the endless night with ghosts of his and Frank’s younger selves. The news of the young Leeds lad who’s come out has rattled him to the core, and he drifts half in a dream. If Frank were not a footballer, if he had never seen a football at the estate in Barking, would they’ve met? Possibly not. He would have had a simpler life. He could have opened a shop, and Toni would be there, and they would have been poor, but maybe he would have been happier. Not pulled in all directions at once, always wanting and never having enough. Or who knows, him and Frank, they might have met on the Tube, Frank in one of his posh suits and wearing glasses, John in his tattered jeans on the way to work, or maybe both of them going to the races. Maybe the movement of the train would have pushed them together inadvertently, John’s lips on Frank’s nape, and Frank would’ve shivered, and that would be that. He loves Frank so much it’s difficult to imagine a possible universe where he does not know Frank, does not care for him, is not his friend.
The sound of a car pulling up in the silent street breaks through his sleepy daze, and there it is, the gate opening, sound of footsteps up the stairs. He sits still, even as he knows the rhythm of those feet coming up and inside – Frank, the only person who has a key to the house other than his family members. Frank opens the door to the living room, stands still for a few seconds, and then says, “Why are you lying in the dark John?” Frank stumbles his way across to the couch in the dim light of the muted television, sits down at the end near John’s head, and that’s it. John’s done. The grief he’s been holding in all day, he can’t anymore. He doesn’t need to know why and how Frank’s here; he heaves up in a rush and lays his weary head in Frank’s lap. He presses his face to Frank’s stomach, inhaling his scent through the thin tee-shirt, just as Frank’s slender fingers card through his hair. The tears he had squeezed back throughout the day fall silently and wet Frank’s shirt, as he shakes apart without sound and Frank, grimly silent, rubs his arms and caresses his forehead, traces his tears with calloused fingers in the darkness.
When it’s done and his eyes and throat feel raw and painful, and he has managed to half sit up and has put his arms around Frank’s shoulder so hard it’s sure to bruise both him and Frank, he notices Frank holding him just as hard and close. “Listen to me,” Frank says, and his voice is shot, the words as ragged as if pushed through shards of glass. “You know what you mean to me Johnny”. John shakes his head, anguished, even as Frank holds his head in a cupped palm to stop the movement. “You know. John. Johnny. I’ll never let you go, okay?”