Day 1 of the photoshoot. This was it. It was actually happening; Aaron’s first job. The first time he was going to get paid for, well, mostly hanging around he expected.
The lobby of the hotel was surprisingly noisy when he stepped out; a coach had just arrived with new guests who were waiting in line to check in. He saw the waitress from breakfast in a black and white uniform shimmy towards the seats by the window carrying a tray with cups of coffee.
He looked around, relieved to spot the rest of his crew near the entrance; the stylist with garment bags over her arm, an assistant carrying tripods, another with a backpack and suitcases. The photographer Marc was talking on the phone, an expensive looking digital camera slung on straps over his shoulder.
The stylist raised a hand to signal to the driver of a minivan parked up outside just beyond the hotel entrance steps.
Aaron started walking towards the group, when above the holiday frivolity, he heard the elevator ping.
A voice rang out above the general holidaymaker hum.
‘Oh look! It’s that... you know… that famous one… from that TV show.’
There was a momentary lull, then a second voice squealed, ‘Yes! Over there! It is! It’s him! It’s that... Richard Sugden!’
People pressed forward. Aaron found himself being propelled in the direction of the lift.
In front of him, framed by the open gold cage door of the elevator, Robert stood, looking all the world like he’d stepped out of one of those prints of Italian renaissance paintings that Aaron had seen hanging in the art department at college. Like a newly hatched golden god.
Aaron ran a critical eye over his handiwork. Had he gone overboard with the shimmer? Did the lips look glossy enough but still natural?
A voice over his shoulder with an Eastern European accent interrupted his thoughts.
‘Wowzer, he’s cute! In fact, he’s perfect!’
It was the waitress.
‘Perfect make-up you mean.’
‘No,’ she insisted, ‘…perfect man specimen - don’t you think?’
He looked again at Robert and blinked. Okay, so maybe in a certain light, some people - people who didn’t get out a lot, might think he was easy on the eyes.
He thought back to earlier in the bedroom when he’d stripped his T-shirt off; and yes, he admitted, if someone had happened to see the cluster of freckles just next to his left nipple, he swallowed; they might think that was a talking point (- no pun intended.)
The lobby suddenly felt hot and airless, and he felt a wave of impatience, and wished they could just get on with the day now.
‘So, who is he? Do you know him?’ The waitress was still drooling from over his shoulder. ‘You know he tried to chat me up this morning at breakfast?’
‘His name’s Robert Sugden,’ he answered. ‘He’s not all that.’
He could hear Robert’s name now being carried to and fro around the lobby like a crowd surfer. In his pocket, his fingers found the purity ring on the chain that just a short while ago Robert had handed over to his safekeeping.
‘He used to be in a TV show that ran for a few years; pretty lame,’ he heard himself say. And then he didn’t know why he did it; he pulled the ring out and held it at waist level on his palm as he and the waitress bent foreheads to get a closer look. ‘This is his. It’s one of those purity rings. He’s still a virgin,’ he said.
And then he died inside at what he’d just done. But it was too late.
‘Help get me out of here, will you?’
He hadn’t had time to wallow in guilt; Robert had somehow made it across the lobby and arrived right next to them. Aaron buried the chain and ring hastily back in his pocket, and, seeing his eyes plead, he steered him by the elbow past the crowd who were pressing forwards around them with phones held high, then continued out to the minivan.
Robert scooted onto the back seat. Aaron couldn’t meet his eyes. He gestured at the makeup case and mumbled something about needing space, then slid into a seat nearer the front, not looking back, but feeling Robert’s eyes penetrate his neck from behind.
He was still reeling at what he’d done. He rested his head against the windowpane.
He thought about Adam, who would be home right now doubtless still in bed. Sometimes he stayed over, and he wished he was there instead of here doing this stupid job. He remembered the time when he fixed false eyelashes on him while he slept but he could still sense Robert watching him.
The van gave a little lurch as the driver turned on the engine and Aaron huffed with relief.
His thoughts were interrupted by a tap on the window. The waitress was waving at him, eyes wide, she expanded her screen and held up her phone. Aaron squinted at the number on it. She stretched her eyebrows, gesturing over his head.
‘Give it to him, please? To him? Yes?’ He half heard; half lip-read.
He rolled his eyes but took out his phone and got the number.
She raised her thumbs, and he saw her smile receding into the distance as they finally took off.
The Bay at Filey curved like a beckoning finger, caressing the sea that moved close and then ducked away in an endless cycle of kiss and chase.
The van followed the road parallel to the sweeping sandy beach, towards the fingertip formed of a long narrow peninsula of grey rocks, where they stopped in a car park.
This was the spot Marc had chosen for the first shoot.
They left the van and made their way along a wavy concrete path past rock pools of trapped sea water. The sea sparkled and with the late winter sun providing backlighting, Aaron could already see how the photographer would use the setting to compliment his model. He still felt confused and cross with himself for the betrayal, but more so with Robert for asking him to take the ring in the first place when he didn’t even know him. He was conscious of the ring and the chain heavy in his pocket … ‘my precious…’ he thought wryly, imagining telling Adam all about it.
Marc asked Robert to sit on some stacked rocks with the sea behind him, and then knelt on one knee and looked through his camera.
Robert posed, looking inscrutable as he gazed off into the distance.
He was good; creating angles with subtle repositioning of his body, he raised a hand to tug at the roll neck of his sweater, then tucked his chin in, stroking it under the material seductively.
Aaron looked away.
There was a break. Aaron helped hand out bottles of water, then caught up on his phone. In the periphery of his vision, he could see the stylist using the open door of the van as a screen while Robert changed outfits from the sweater and trousers he’d been wearing into a floral shirt and pale blue nylon beach shorts.
He couldn’t help but notice Robert shivering, his hands rubbing against his pale thighs as the offshore winds stung his skin. He rolled his eyes and turned his shoulders, frowning over a list of top ten ever Popular Prosthetics in some cinema industry blog.
He heard the rustle of material approach. Robert was next to him, a trench coat over his model’s clothes, raising a paper cup of steaming coffee to his mouth as he spoke.
‘What are you playing? Candy crush?’
‘I once got to level a thousand and something when I was filming, you know.’
‘Good for you.’
‘There was a lot of hanging around, time sat in the caravan between takes, learning lines. Not like this, this’ll be over quicker, right?’
‘What’s that then, a dating app? Not that you’d need to. Nice looking lad like you, expect you get your pick of drop-dead gorgeous girls working in this job.’
Aaron pulled in his chin.
‘You should hang around in my orbit then, tell you what, you could be my wing-man, though I need to warn you, there’ll only be slim pickings left for you.’
Robert flapped his hands in the pockets of his trench coat.
Aaron lowered his phone and turned to inspect Robert’s face. He wanted to point out that he’d already heard his car crash of an attempt to chat up girls that morning with the waitress, but then, he reflected it hadn’t seemed to matter as she’d somehow liked him anyway. What was it she’d said? That he was perfect? He needed to give him the waitress's number, but he’d make him wait. Robert cracked a boyish grin looking back at him. Aaron shook his head.
‘Good job I’m gay then,’ he answered.
He saw Robert’s eyelids flicker like the lights on the Blackpool ghost train that time he’d gone with Adam last summer.
‘Really. So, you can keep all the girls - not that you know what to do with them, ey?’
Aaron patted his arm through the fabric of the trench coat, then walked away.
Shortly after, Marc called everyone back to work. Robert had sunglasses as a prop to hold as he sat on the rocks. Marc told him to undo the buttons of his shirt and made encouraging comments as Robert posed, drawing on his acting skills, moving with precision for the camera.
‘That’s awesome. Can you look off that way? Now with the sunglasses? Just play… Oh yeah…Love that!’
Aaron was reluctantly mesmerized. He noticed day trippers had started to stop and watch. He followed their eyes, watching Robert’s exposed body in the cold. Someone raised a phone to take a picture.
‘Oi! Do you mind?’ he bristled, putting a hand out to block them.
‘Didn’t we do a spray tan? Did we decide not to?’ Marc took more pictures as he spoke – shlack -shlack. ‘…Maybe we should though, Aaron - tonight? Can you get that done? Just a light tan to suit that copper shimmer you’ve got going on. Thanks, love.’
Aaron chewed his lower lip. He didn’t have that kind of equipment. The easiest thing would be to phone around and get him booked into a beauty salon somewhere that stayed open late.
‘Okay, let’s take another break.’ Marc announced. ‘Drink water everyone. Stay hydrated.’
Aaron felt relieved as they all started to pick their way back along the path towards the van. He sensed rather than saw Robert draw level with him and dropped to one knee to fake fasten a shoelace. For a moment Robert rocked on his feet and then he walked on.
Aaron watched him walk around alone while the others in the work group stood together chatting. He had some phone calls to make, didn’t he?
He called up a few salons in town in walking distance of the hotel. It started to spit with rain; Aaron looked up, he wondered what Marc the photographer would decide to do. Next thing the stylist was herding them all back onto the mini-bus and there was an announcement that that was the wrap for the day, and an early start tomorrow. Just before he got on the bus Aaron caught up with Robert, briefly touching his elbow to get his attention.
‘This is yours.’ He slipped the ring into his hand, blushing glad to be rid of it, so maybe not so precious after all. ‘And also, this is for you.’ He’d scrawled the waitress’s number on the back of a sandwich wrapper. He explained whose number it was. ‘She wants to meet up with you,’ he said turning down the corners of his mouth.
‘Why?’ Robert frowned, looking bemused.
‘You know! Like hook up…a date?’ Aaron shook his head despairing; could Robert really be this big a loser?
‘And you need to go for a fake tan, Marc said. So, give me your number, mate, and I’ll be in touch about it.’
Sitting back on the bus, he rolled out his shoulders, relieved that the half-day was finally over.
He looked out of the window and watched the hills and fields pass as the bus made its way back towards the hotel. He could feel his mouth start to turn up into a smile, bit down hard against his lip; he’d only gone and got the personal phone number of the actual verified child star and heart throb Robert Sugden, hadn’t he? Not like he cared, but still, he would tell his cousin Belle about it when he got back; she’d be made up, and all her mates.
‘My room’s better than this one; the bed’s bigger, and it’s got a sea view.’ Robert leaned with his hands on the sill looking out from the window, where it had stopped raining a while ago. He turned back to Aaron, fixing him with glittering eyes. ‘Always happens to me. I always get the best. Perks of being the star, you see.’
Aaron inclined his head.
‘If you say so. Shall we get on with this, then?’
He hoped he didn’t sound nervous. The problem was it was half day closing in Filey, and he hadn’t been able to get an appointment for a spray tan anywhere, so Marc had told him to buy a kit on express delivery and said he’d put it down as expenses. It had arrived an hour ago, complete with pop up tent, spray machine and gun and accelerated spray tanning lotion, and a packet of twenty-five paper thongs – now twenty-three – because yes, Aaron had … well anyway….
‘Oh and, ta very much for the number,’ Robert went on. ‘I did call her; and since you’re dying to know, I can tell you that I am meeting up with her later this evening; a walk round the bay, maybe a drink, who knows.’
‘Good for you,’ Aaron replied. He was mostly concerned about how this was going to go. The pop-up tent was open in the bathroom, and the machine was plugged in. Somehow, he needed Robert naked and ready to be sprayed.
He pointed to the bathroom and coughed.
‘Could you, erm…take your kit off, and put on those?’ he mumbled, gesturing at the paper pants.
But instead, Robert reached in the gym bag he’d come in with and pulled out a bottle of spirits.
‘I will,’ he answered, ‘but how about we have some of this first?’
Aaron blinked. He wondered if this was because Robert wanted Dutch courage for his date later, or was it that he wanted Dutch courage for the spray tan? Or was he just another young star whose life had unfolded under the glare of media and public scrutiny, who’d turned to substances to help him cope. They’d talked about the risks in college as a part of his course work.
On the other hand, he’d quite like a drink himself in the current circumstances. It couldn’t hurt.
‘Alright,’ he nodded.
Robert produced a stack of paper cups. He’d really thought of everything. He unscrewed the lid and poured them each a glass while Aaron watched, then handed one over to him.
‘Cheers, then,’ Robert said, holding out his cup.
Maybe for the first time that day, Aaron looked into his eyes, and Robert looked directly back, holding each other’s gaze.
‘Cheers,’ Aaron touched his cup against Robert’s, and smiled shyly back.
The thing was, he wasn’t so bad when you talked to him – still had an ego the size of a planet mind, but also, he had this way of smiling right at you, with his eyes creasing at the corners, like he saw you – the actual you, in a way Aaron wasn’t used to.
‘You’re doing great, building a career like this.’ Robert gestured at Aaron’s make up case in the corner of the room. ‘So, you still live at home with your family I expect? And they support you, do they?’
‘Well, with my Mum, yes. My dad, let’s just say he wasn’t the best, and he’s out of the picture for good now.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that. But your Mum, she’s there for you. That’s really important.’
Aaron nodded, then blinked. ‘Erm, do you fancy a game?’ He’d already connected his Nintendo switch console to the hotel wi-fi, and before long they were both side by side cross legged on the bed, a little flushed from the free-flowing drink. Robert unzipped his blue track suit top and took it off, and Aaron looked sideways at his loose cotton T-shirt over his wide chest, then remembered they were supposed to be doing the spray tan.
‘That’s alright,’ Robert grinned stumbling out of his trousers, and laughing.
‘Careful,’ Aaron put out a hand to steady him, feeling Robert grip his forearm. He handed him the paper pants and Robert squinted at them and said they were rather ridiculous and both started giggling. Robert didn’t care at all about stripping off in front of Aaron who lowered his gaze, trying not to notice this beautiful naked youth in his bedroom. Then Robert wrecked a couple of pairs of paper thongs ripping them as he tried to get them on then finally succeeded and went into the pop-up tent. And Aaron proceeded to spray him.
‘Do you think she’ll want me to kiss her?’
Aaron stroked an eyebrow. Robert lay glowing and bronze, propped up on an elbow on Aaron’s bed, just a bath towel wrapped round his waist while they waited for the tan to settle.
‘How would I know? Maybe, ‘ he answered, distractedly. Mostly he was worried that Marc would say he’d gone too many tones deep, but since he wasn’t experienced, Marc would just have to lump it.
‘What if she realizes I don’t know what I’m doing?’
The morning came flooding back to Aaron. How could he tell Robert that she already knew about the purity ring; that he’d betrayed him!
‘Well, you must have kissed.’
‘No not, you know, not with an open mouth.’
‘No, we agreed it might lead to other stuff. I just want to be normal now. Will you help me?’
‘Will you show me. How it is. I just. I don’t want to look an idiot.’
‘You already failed at that mate. How can I help anyway? Just search, I’m sure you’ll find loads of stuff.’
‘Well, that’s the problem; there’s so much, it’s confusing.’
They were side by side on their elbows on the bed, Robert bare-chested. Aaron could still feel the heat from the alcohol in his stomach. The whole day had been bizarre anyway, so what difference would this make?
All at once Robert leant forward to his face, a peck against his cheek.
It was really nice.
‘What did you do that for?’
‘I just wanted to. You don’t mind, do you?’
Aaron could see a vague hint of salt on his lips, and then there was that melon scent, like that morning when he was applying his make-up. He could see sparkles from the fake tan on the open pores of Robert’s cheeks, dancing over the freckles.
Robert’s eyes shifted down Aaron’s face, too.
‘Practice with me,’ he said.
‘I don’t need to practice, mate,’ Aaron muttered.
‘You know what I mean. Show me, Aaron, show me how to do it well.’
Aaron held his breath. There was a voice saying this wasn’t right, and then another one, asking why not? It’s just to practice, it’s not real, it doesn’t mean anything, and later he’ll be kissing the girl from the restaurant anyway, and… wasn’t he even curious?
‘Just keep still,’ he breathed.
Robert nodded. He had a deadly serious expression on his face.
And Aaron did it. He moved closer. And kissed him on the mouth.
He could smell his skin, so bloody sweet and delicious; all peaches and cream with freckles like sprinkles of caramel sugar.
Their lips brushed softly together. He noticed the rise and fall of Robert’s chest, reached a hand up to his shoulder squeezing him reassuringly with his fingertips. Next, he moved his mouth slowly increasing the pressure as they got used to the sensation of lips being in contact. Then he gradually parted his, the motion forcing Robert’s mouth to open too, and pushed the tip of his tongue forward into the gap, where he found Robert’s tongue and they touched, tenderly seeking out the sensation of caressing each other intimately.
Aaron stopped for a moment just to draw a breath and heard a hitch of longing in Robert’s throat. It’s okay, he wanted to say, I’m just learning to breathe with you like this.
Their tongues met again.
And then Robert took his hand and threaded his fingers, and it was so unexpected, Aaron leaned back and shook his head.
Robert’s eyes were still closed, and for a moment Aaron swept his gaze over him, lying in just a towel on his bed. Then Robert opened his eyes and smiled.
‘So, what do you think?’ Robert asked. ‘Will she like it?’ He was already diving off the bed looking for his clothes. ‘I’m going to be late!’ he added.
‘She’ll like it. You’ll be fine,’ Aaron said, looking down.
‘See you in the morning, then. I’ll tell you all about it.’
‘Wow, can’t wait, mate.’ Aaron answered, but Robert had already gone.