It’s apparently a law amongst finance workers of all kinds that on a regular basis they play squash with their yuppie comrades.
So it is that Dakin, happy to join the ranks of other wealthy and well-educated members of his profession, goes straight to the health club after work every Thursday.
Irwin has no thoughts about it, other than occasional amusement on those days when he compares the precocious, self-confident schoolboy he first fell in love with to the slick businessman who piles gym bag, bag of after-work-and-gym clothes and briefcase into the boot of his cherished Jag, and finds himself completely unsurprised by the transition.
Arriving home on Thursdays Irwin takes the opportunity to put his feet up with a cuppa and get some research done in peace and quiet before Stu arrives home with beer breath and fluffy hair, courtesy of a hasty gym shower and the all-important post-game drink.
On this particular Thursday, Stu gives him a quick hello-kiss at the door and dumps his gym bag in the middle of the floor.
“Can you ask Michelle to shove my stuff in the wash for me tomorrow? I’m playing again on Monday.” He asks.
Tom rolls his eyes “She’s the cleaner, not your mum. She doesn’t come here to do your washing. Give them here.”
Dakin obediently hands over his gym bag. “Don’t go sniffing them, I know you get off on it.”
Tom ignores him in favour of thrusting a takeaway menu at his chest. “Order some food.”
“It’s your turn to do dinner.”
“And I’m doing your washing.” He calls from the direction of the machine.
It takes Irwin by surprise when, out of the blue, over dinner, Stu asks him “will you come with me?”
“Where are you going?”
“Next Thursday. Nige is away on a trip so he’s cancelled on me. Come with me instead.”
“but if you’re playing on Monday…”
“It’d be nice though.”
Tom looks at him as if he’s just suggested throwing a brick through the window.
“Come on, you’ll enjoy it. You keep saying how you need to get fit.”
“I said it once, last weekend!”
“Still, strike while the iron’s hot, eh?”
“And you told me I had nothing to worry about.” Tom’s narrowed eyes are a clear danger signal.
“You don’t! For fuck's sake, of all people to be worried about their weight! But you were pretty adamant you wanted to do something, and I think you’d enjoy it like I said.”
“I don’t think so.”
He knows when to drop it and they curl up on the sofa together after dinner and watch the thing with the puppets that Tom likes until he falls asleep on Dakin’s arm.
The subject re-emerges the next morning when Stu has Tom pressed up against the tiles in the shower. He has to exercise some of his persuasive charm and a bit of bribery and blackmail, but this time he gets a more positive response and it’s not too hard to keep it buoyed up over the next few days.
“I’ll buy you dinner afterwards.” He promises as they sit together in front of the telly on Wednesday night.
“You buy me dinner anyway.”
“Fine, but we’ll be spending time together as a couple.”
Tom rolls his eyes and Stu has to admit (to himself) that he’s being a bit transparent.
“I’ll come, I said I would, but… It’s just… games!” Tom actually shudders. “It brings to mind all these memories of ritual humiliation and getting bullied for looking at boys in the showers.”
“Were you a shower ogler?!” Stu practically shouts with glee.
“No! Not an ogler, but I had the odd glance, you know?”
Tom’s gone red and Stu knows he should try and disguise the fact he’s having the time of his life, but such a good opportunity for teasing is rare. He turns in his seat to look Tom in the eye.
“Usually I got called up on it before I even noticed I was looking, so it’s not like I derived any enjoyment from it.”
Stu tries hiding his smirk behind his hand. Tom keeps muttering, getting progressively redder as he speaks.
“I always wondered how anybody ever managed to find out if they were normal if you can’t even glance at anyone, but it seemed like it was only me who was ever doing anything wrong.”
Stu finally takes pity on him. “It’s just because they knew you were gay, that’s all.” He puts his arm around the hunched shoulders of his boyfriend.
“Don’t worry. Nobody’s going to make you do it in your pants. There’s private showers there too, although you can ogle me if you like.” He can’t help the grin that leeches into his voice.
Tom’s mouth twitches into a little half smile. “Ok, just don’t tell everyone who I am. I don’t want to worry about… things.”
“Tom, it’s a health club, not a prison. No one’s going to beat you up afterwards. If they know me, they’ll know who you are anyway.”
“You talk about me, us?” Tom twists away from him, frowning and Stu tries not to bristle at this pointless display of closeted bullshit.
“We do talk there, it’s not just taking it in turns to hit a ball at a wall and then going home. Believe it or not, you are actually quite an important fixture in my life and I’ve mentioned you, yeah.”
“Sorry, I’m just surprised. I thought you’d talk about girls or stocks or cars.”
“We do. Don’t worry I won’t be expecting any of that from you.”
“Pack a pair of shorts, trainers, t-shirt and a towel. You’ll have fun.” He says for about the hundredth time.
Tom had imagined some ghastly leisure centre style building, with damp, verrucca infected floors that make screeching noises underfoot, replete with the eye-watering smells of chlorine and stale sweat hanging in the humid air. He is relieved to arrive at Stu’s health club, the lobby of which resembles that of a five-star hotel, without a pungent odour or screaming child to be found.
Pleasantly surprised, he takes a seat on one of the expensive looking leather couches while he waits for Stuart.
The changing room is just as pleasant, with the promised private cubicles for both showering and changing. Stu, of course, chooses to whip his kit off in the main room, laughing at Tom for holing up in a cubicle despite them being the only people there.
“Someone’s bound to walk in and unlike you, I’m not comfortable waving my willy around in public.” He emerges from the cubicle and deposits his neatly folded clothes in a locker.
Stu chortles. “This may shock you to learn, Tom, but you don’t actually have anything to worry about.”
Irwin is spared having to make any response by the arrival of a group of four men, racquets under their arms.
The ‘I told you so’ look he sends across the room is adorable though, and Stu wishes he could kiss it off Tom’s face.
Stu takes advantage of the private court (which Irwin insisted on, but would have got anyway because honestly, Tom, it’s not a fucking community centre) to stand close and touch him, while he initially guides him through stretches and moves and explains the rules before they get going.
“Basically just remember: up against the wall as hard as you can go.” Stu mutters into Tom’s hair before he moves away with a final pat on Tom’s arse. The blush he’s hoping for isn’t forthcoming, but at least he gets another eye roll.
Tom is quick to pick the game up. Stu supposes this should come as no surprise, considering how sharp he is. He lets Tom win a couple of sets if truth be told, but he’s not bad for a beginner and by the third set both of them have given in to their fierce competitive streaks. It’s fast and brilliant and breathless and fun, just like he knew it would be.
He’s a genius sometimes Stu reminds himself, throwing an arm around Tom at the finish of their game, in place of the customary handshake he shares with Nige.
Tom is sweating and flushed pink, chest heaving and grinning from ear to ear; it’s physical work not to ravish him then and there. It doesn’t help that, out of necessity, the glasses have been briefly exchanged for contacts and Tom looks as near to post-coital as Stu’s ever seen him. He settles for giving him an affectionate shove. A tried and tested technique of disguising affection, known to every schoolboy on Earth, he supposes.
“The pool looks welcoming.” Tom sighs as they pass the glass windows onto the pool on their return to the changing room.
“Lucky I brought your swimsuit then isn’t it?”
After a quick change and rinse off they make their way to the poolside. Tom is definitely ogling now. Stu carefully controls his grin, sure of two things: that he looks great in his trunks and that if he lets Tom know he’s noticed it’ll be the last ogling he'll receive for a while.
Swimming is much more Irwin’s thing and he glides under the water with ease. Stu does a few laps before getting out to enjoy the view. It’s why he made the last minute decision to throw in the swimsuits, after all.
“Have fun?” Stu asks, only a bit smugly, as he leads Tom up to the bar.
“I did, thanks. You were right, much more fun than school games.”
The dreaded contacts have been removed and the glasses are back. Stu is torn between disappointment that the sex look has gone, and satisfaction because they’re in public and Tom without glasses is very much his own private thing to be fiercely guarded.
There’s a list of services offered at the club tacked up next to the bar and Tom inspects it while they wait for their drinks.
“There’s some great stuff to do here, why don’t we come here more often?”
“I come here every week. If you remember, I practically had to drag you in the door by the balls. Let me know if you want a class or something, I’ll book it for you.”
“I can book it myself, thanks.”
He’s just about to tease Tom about wanting to do aerobics or yoga or something Stu would class as embarrassing, when he’s clapped solidly on the back.
“Stu! How’s it going you sonofabitch? Thought you weren’t in today.”
He turns to greet Dan, of all people, on the day he’s brought Tom. Why today?
Gritting his teeth Dakin introduces them, praying that Dan has enough tact to not refer to Tom as ‘the wife’ (which he does whenever he asks after him). It’s not that he’s a bad bloke, it’s just that he makes Timms look like a pinnacle of tact and reserve by comparison.
“Tom hi, yeah.” Dan drawls as they shake hands. Stu can see Irwin taking on his superior look: like he’s observing Dan in a zoo.
“You’re Stu’s er watchacallit nowadays, yeah?”
“’Partner’ generally works fine.” Tom smiles and extricates his hand from what Stu knows is a grip of death.
“Partner, right. Hey, don’t I know you from that thing?”
“I’m on 9 o’clock on Tuesdays, BBC2.”
“The history thing, right. I think I read your book, what was it on, the wars of the Roses or something?”
“The Reformation.” Tom interjects.
“Right.” He pauses to give Tom a once over. “Funny, I never got that vibe off you on the box, funny that.”
Dakin only just dares to meet the sideways look being shot his way.
“Don’t get me wrong, nothing wrong with it, it’s just not for me, never got into it at school either, y’know.”
Dan’s voice is about 10,000 decibels too loud and Irwin is looking increasingly pissed off so Dakin decides now is the time to derail the conversation.
“Could you speak a bit louder, Dan, there’s a few of them in the kitchen can’t hear you. How’s the market today?”
The resulting laugh is uproarious. “Sorry, no offence, I’m just so used to ragging on Stu for being queer.”
This is followed by five minutes of incomprehensible talk about figures, but Stu’s done his job in moving Dan away from publicly and loudly outing Tom to anyone within a fifty-mile radius, so he pays for the drinks and tunes out.
Thankfully, Dan doesn’t stick around after his market talk. Even better, Tom’s gaze is still wryly amused over his glass after he’s gone.
Stu lets him watch while he drinks.
“What a ghastly man.” Tom says after while when it becomes clear Stuart isn’t going to ask.
“Oh come on, you can talk, I’ve met some of the BBC lot you work with.”
“Yeah, but I don’t know them socially.”
“This isn’t social, it’s networking. Same as your bloody cocktail parties.”
Tom harrumphs a bit (mostly) under his breath about Thatcherite yuppies but Stu knows he’s won.
“I was rather in the mood after seeing you in your budgie smugglers, but he’s cooled me off quite a bit.”
“I can always model them for you at home.”
“You promised to buy me dinner.”
“You’re right.” Stu drains his glass and stands. “Dinner first then home for speedos. Let’s go.”
Tom grins and follows him.