A Change of Perspective

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August 2009

I get travel-sick on coaches. Which is unfortunate, given how much time I spend being driven around Europe. It’s the only aspect of travelling I don’t like – I’m fine flying, or on boats, or even in cars – but the endless hours on the team bus are sometimes enough to make me wish I worked in an office. When I first started out I tried every remedy going, which once got me into serious trouble with the team doctor over some blood test results. Since then I’ve found that the best way to cope is to put my earphones in and try to pretend I’m not there.

I’m just about managing it on the flatter roads outside Ljubljana, but our training camp’s high up in the mountains. I looked the village up online earlier and I know I’ve got at least an hour of hairpin bends to live through yet – so I’m not in the best of moods when Gil suddenly drops down into the empty seat beside me.

“Si! Stop sulking and talk to me.”

I turn the volume down but don’t open my eyes. “Go away.”

“Aw, come on… don’t be like that.” His tone changes. “It’s beautiful, you know.”

“What is?”

“Slovenia. You’re missing it.”

“It’ll still be there when we get to the hotel.” Gil’s silent, but I can feel him fidgeting next to me. When it becomes clear he’s not about to leave any time soon I open my eyes. “What’s up?”

“I need you, Si. You’re the only man who can help me.” He’s got his best trust-me-I’m-innocent expression on, the one that says he’s plotting something.

“Am I?”

“Oh Simon…” He bats his eyelashes, presumably intending to be alluring. “You’ll always be the only man for me.”

My stomach turns over, and it’s not because of any sudden dips in the road. For as long as I’ve known him Gil’s been interested in my sex-life, particularly in the fact that it’s non-existent. But lately the interest has become more focussed, as if he wants to be the one to change that. I know he swings both ways – it’s hard not to know – and I love him like a brother, but neither of those facts make me comfortable with the idea. Even the thought of discussing it with him makes me uneasy. I know it’s not rational, or healthy, but I don’t know how else to behave.

His knee nudges mine. “It’s nothing bad, I promise. Look, why don’t we pretend we’ve had the argument and you’ve agreed?”

I look at him warily. “And what have I agreed to?”

“There’s this club in London I want to go to. They don’t let straights in.”

“Well, you’ll be fine then.” He doesn’t answer. “Won’t you?”

Gil puts his hand on my thigh, but I’m already shaking my head. “I thought maybe we could go together. Please, Si? Be my date?”

I knock his hand away. “Don’t say that.” There’s no way I can go to a gay bar. I just… I can’t.

“Why not? I’m a great date – ask anyone.”

I know he’s only teasing me, but all of a sudden I can’t breathe. “I –” It’s a hoarse croak, and I have to cough before I can try again. “No.”

His face falls. “Really? I thought it might be a bit of fun.”

I shake my head again, the movement making me feel sick.

“Well… okay. Never mind.” He looks genuinely disappointed and I feel guilty, but not enough to change my mind. I turn the volume back up and close my eyes, and after a moment he leaves me to my thoughts.

Some time later the coach pulls into the courtyard of the hotel where we’re staying for the next nine days. Everyone lurches to their feet and starts collecting their stuff, while at the front of the coach, our head of ops is trying to tell us something. “Ladies and gentlemen, if I could have your attention please…?” Everyone ignores him. Mike is a really nice guy, but he sometimes seems far too polite to be managing a team of pro-cyclists and their assorted staff.

He tries again. “LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!” This time the hubbub dies down. “Thank you. Right. Before anyone gets off this bus, I’ve got a couple of bits of information for you. First, room numbers. Everyone will be sharing –“

A groan goes up behind me. “I bet that means I’m bunking up with Piotr again, and you know he snores like a bastard.”

“I do not!”

Mike ignores the familiar argument. “Don’t worry Alec, I’ve brought enough earplugs for anyone who wants them. Next. The hotel have given us a section of the restaurant to call our own while we’re here, so that’s where the noticeboard will be. I’ll put up the usual schedules, but it’s up to you to read them. Anyone who’s late for anything – and that includes meals – more than once without a very good reason will be sent home. Do you understand?”

There are more protests, but they’re only token. In truth no-one wants to jeopardise their place on this camp, or in the Vuelta team. I grab one of the room lists that have been circulating while Mike talks, unsurprised to see my name bracketed with Gil’s.

“Thirdly. We want to be welcome back here next year, so I will not tolerate any behaviour that might upset the staff or the other guests.”

There’s another shout from the back of the bus. “What about chatting them up? Is that allowed?”

Mike sighs exaggeratedly. “Gil, güvenilir canlı bahis siteleri I don’t care who you sleep with, as long as you turn up to training on time and I don’t get any polite phone calls from the hotel manager telling me that there’s a problem. Okay?”

“Thanks boss.”

“You’re welcome. But if I could go back to the real reason we’re here, there’ll be a full team debrief in the restaurant at five, and dinner’s at seven. You’re free between now and then – off you go.”

Mike stands aside as there’s a rush for the exit. Sometimes I wonder if he was a teacher in a previous life – he seems to have infinite patience for us, even though we usually behave like a group of overgrown school kids.

“You okay honey?” Sarah, one of our soigneurs, is standing next to my seat. “You’re very pale, even for you.”

I force a smile. “I’m alright. Those last few corners nearly finished me off, that’s all. Give me ten minutes on solid ground and I’ll be fine.”

“Good.” She smiles and pats my shoulder affectionately. “See you later.”

I don’t say much to Gil as we settle in to our room. I don’t want to seem hostile, but his long-running assumption that I’m gay bothers me more than I like to admit. I don’t know how to deal with it. Gil seems as unaffected as ever, and not for the first time I envy him his utter self-assurance. Outside of training, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him mind what anyone thinks about him.

I finish unpacking first and sit on my bed, still uncomfortable. After a moment Gil sits down opposite me. “I didn’t mean to offend you, earlier.”

“You didn’t. It’s just… I’m not like you. I know I shouldn’t care what people think of me, but I do.”

“If you and I went to a gay bar together, the only thing anyone who knows you would think is, ‘Poor Simon, what’s Gil talked him into this time?’ They’d just assume I was a bad influence.”

“You are a bad influence. I’d end up in the papers. My father would have a fit.”

He grins. “How do you know your father doesn’t ring me up and beg me to get you to lighten up?” He puts on a dodgy accent – I think it’s supposed to be Belgian but it morphs into bad Italian gangster. “My boy… he’s 26, he’s a star, he’s good-looking… he never dates, never has sex, never ends up in the papers… it’s unnatural. Help him, Gil, I’m begging you.”

I can’t help laughing. “My dad’s not Mafia, you fool.”

“He loves you, Si. He’d want you to be happy.” Gil’s suddenly serious. “You can’t live like this forever.”

“You don’t know anything about how I live.”

“You daft bugger, I spend more time with you than anyone else does – of course I know how you live. I certainly know enough to be sure that you’re not happy. Not really. Are you?”

I want to be angry at his presumption, but he’s right and we both know it. “No.”

“So do something about it.” He flops back onto his bed.

I don’t know if he’s annoyed with me. I don’t know what he wants me to say. I don’t know why I’m so scared. The one thing I do know is that right now I’d rather suffer through a thousand more hairpin bends than be having this conversation.

We’ve been silent for so long that Gil’s voice makes me jump. “I’ll always be there for you, Si. No matter what.” He suddenly sits up. “And now on to more important things. Beer?”

Like the coward I am, I choose the escape route with relief. “If you’re buying, sure.”

~

The training passes uneventfully, the way most training does. We spend our days riding hard and our evenings being lectured and quizzed on tactics, race psychology and sports science. It’s a tiring schedule, and for the first seven days all anyone wants to do after dinner is go to bed. At breakfast on the eighth day, when most of us are groping blindly for the coffee and trying to make ourselves eat something, Mike makes an announcement.

“Ladies and gentlemen, a moment please.” A few heads look up incuriously. “I’m pleased to say that we’ve had a great camp so far. Nearly everyone’s stats have improved since last year, and we’ve been impressed by how hard you’ve all been working. So well done, and keep up the good work.”

A murmur of surprise and pleasure rumbles around the table. It’s always nice to have the coaches appreciate that we’re working hard, especially when a lot of the team will never get the chance to compete for an individual win.

Mike continues. “In recognition, we’re going to finish up here a day early. Today will be the last training session and we’ll skip tonight’s class – unless any of you especially want to sit through two hours of social media skills?” He’s smiling, knowing that we all think being told how to use Facebook and Twitter is patronising in the extreme.

“Does that mean we’re going home a day early?”

“No, the coach and flights are booked and we’ll travel as planned. I want you packed and in the lobby ready to go at 1am Saturday – that’s tomorrow night, in case you’re confused. But the rest of tomorrow is a whole day off to do with what you like. And that goes for everyone, not just the riders. If you want güvenilir illegal bahis siteleri a massage or your bike needs any work you’ll have to do it yourself. Understood?”

The pleased noises get louder. Even towards the tail end of the season we don’t get much free time, and the unexpected treat is a big bonus. Mike raises his voice. “In the meantime, today is still a normal training day. I want you outside and ready to go in twenty minutes.”

Unsurprisingly, the conversation turns to how best to use our day off – although most of us quickly conclude that we’ll be spending it by the pool, sleeping off a hangover. According to our waitress the local brandy is more than worth the short walk to the nearby pub, and the decision to sample the local nightlife is near unanimous.

Gil, as usual, has his own spin on the plan. Later that afternoon I’m on the massage table when he wanders over. “You coming out tonight?”

“Of course.” Sarah puts some pressure on a knot in my left calf. “Ow, Jesus! If I can still walk, that is.”

She pats me absentmindedly. “Sweetheart, you are such a wimp. I’ll go nicer on you if you invite me along too.”

Gil sits down on the next table. “You don’t have to be nice to him, you’re invited anyway. I hear you’ve got your eye on that blond waiter.”

Sarah’s hands never stop moving, but I hear her sigh. “Oh yes, he’s gorgeous.”

“He is, isn’t he? But I think he’s gay – come into town with us and find someone else.”

“Dammit.” She taps me again. “Roll over for me, baby.”

I do as I’m told. “Gil, you think everyone’s gay. You’re only saying that so you can have a crack at him first.”

His mouth twitches in amusement. “No straight man should have an arse that gorgeous. Apart from me, obviously.”

Sarah glances at him. “Oh honey, you’re a long way from straight, however many girls you sleep with.”

Maybe it’s Gil having told me earlier in the week to lighten up, but I’m struck by an idea. “Tell you what, why don’t you both make a play for him? Find out which he prefers.”

They both turn to look at me, making me self-conscious. “What? I’m not a complete prude, you know.”

“That’s a great idea. Sarah, you up for a challenge?”

She grins, and I begin to feel sorry for the poor boy. “Most definitely. But we need stakes. The winner gets our lovely young waiter, obviously. What does the loser get?”

All three of us are silent for a moment until Sarah’s thumbs find another knot in my quad, making me swear. “Fuck me!”

Gil laughs. “That’s it, perfect. The loser gets to take Simon to bed. Si, you’re a genius.”

“No, I didn’t me–“

I start to sit up, but Sarah pushes me back down. “I’m not finished yet, baby-doll. And if Gil’s right and I lose, I’m not going to be finished with you until morning – and you won’t have one of these to preserve your modesty.”

She tweaks the towel lying across my hips and I grab at it. “This is harassment. Don’t I get a say?”

Gil hops down off his table, still laughing. “You’ve had your say. You suggested the challenge – and you suggested the consolation prize. Your father would be proud of you.” He bends down and before I can react, kisses me on the forehead. “See you at dinner, baby-doll.”

~

“So what do you think?” Gil shouts the question at me as he passes me my beer and sits down. The bar’s crowded and noisy, thanks to the sudden influx of most of our group. We’ve been made to feel very welcome, and in return we’re doing our best to drink them dry. I think this might be my fifth pint, but I’m beginning to lose track.

I lean into Gil, not wanting everyone to hear what we’re talking about. “Straight, definitely. He can’t keep his eyes off her boobs.”

We watch Sarah and the waiter for a moment, before Gil sighs. “Damn, you’re right. And he had such a pretty arse.” He takes a long swallow of his drink, looking at me out of the corner of his eye. “Just as well the runner’s up prize is equally cute.”

I wonder if he can see my blush glowing in the dark. “Gil, don’t.”

A hand grabs my shoulder and I turn round to see Piotr. “I wondered where you’d both got to. A couple of the girls want to meet you, come and join us.”

Gil grins. “Sounds good. Simon was just telling me how much he’d like to pull some hot chicks, weren’t you Si?”

I flip him the bird, which only makes him laugh. Piotr either doesn’t see or doesn’t understand, and we follow him back across the room to where a small group of – admittedly stunning – girls are waiting. Alec is already chatting to them, explaining what cadence means, and they’re hanging onto every word he says. At least, they are until one of them notices Gil approaching and nudges her friends.

“Mark Gilwood… wow.” All four of them gaze adoringly at him.

He preens. “Hello ladies, it’s a pleasure to meet you.” He kisses each girl on the cheek and they visibly swoon at the attention.

Alec realises he’s been dropped and mutters in my ear. “I give it five minutes before they’re knifing each other for the privilege of blowing him in the güvenilir bahis şirketleri men’s toilets. Bastard.” Despite his language, he’s grinning. Somehow no-one seems to really mind that the girls flock to Gil before anyone else. Perhaps it’s because he attracts so many that there are always enough to go round. Or perhaps it’s because he’ll always be the first to point out that he’s only five foot nine and can’t reliably multiply six by seven.

Happily unaware of his poor numeracy skills, the girls do indeed fight, albeit discreetly, for the position closest to Gil. When he casually slips an arm around the brunette’s waist, the looks from the other three would curdle milk. Hiding a grin, Alec steps into the breach to soothe the ruffled feathers, and he and Piotr are soon well on the way to taking their own companions home for the night.

Entertaining as this is to watch, I’m soon bored. The girls are pleasant enough but don’t hold my interest, and with the brunette never moving more than six inches away I can’t talk to Gil. When I finish my beer I make my excuses and move on.

Although I’m friendly with a lot of people I’m not wildly sociable, and I don’t much enjoy large crowds like this. I wander through the room aimlessly, not sure what I’m looking for but not finding it. Eventually, fed up, I head for the bar.

“What can I get you?”

I’ve been idly watching the pattern some spilled beer is making on the bar-top, oblivious to the fact that I’ve made it to the front of the queue. When I look up, the most gorgeous eyes I’ve ever seen are looking at me.

“Uh…” Shock makes me stupid. I ask for the first thing that comes to mind. “Vodka tonic, please.”

“Sure.” The barman turns away. He’s lean under a tight t-shirt and his jeans are snug enough to show off his arse. I can’t take my eyes off how the muscles in his back move when he reaches up to the optic and down to the fridge. By the time he’s standing back in front of me I’m breathing hard, and I can’t stop myself blushing when he makes eye contact.

I pay hurriedly and stumble away, downing the vodka in two swallows. My head’s spinning and my stomach’s churning. When I’ve been attracted to men in the past I’ve always been able to rationalise it to myself. It’s not that I fancy the ripped gym bunny, I just admire his dedication to working out. The cute lawyer in a suit isn’t sexy, he just looks a bit like that actor in that film. Somehow, if I can justify the attraction, I can tell myself I’m not gay – despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

But this time… this time there’s no way I can explain away the lust I’m feeling. I want to be naked with this guy so badly that I can’t breathe. It’s as if the universe has finally had enough of my cowardice and is getting its own back. For a second I’m almost tempted to head back to the safety of the hotel, but then I remember Gil telling me that I can’t live like this forever. The vodka makes me brave. Clutching my drunkenness around me like a safety blanket, I turn back to the bar and send up a silent plea.

It’s answered. “You must be thirsty. Same again?”

His eyes are just as beautiful the second time. “Please. And one for you, this time?”

The barman smiles. “Thanks. I’ll have the same.” His accent is either American or Canadian, I can’t tell. Whichever it is, it’s making me weak at the knees.

I hand him a note and he returns a moment later with my drink and some change. My heart stops when his fingers brush against mine. “Here you go – I’ll get mine later when it gets a bit quieter. If I can grab ten minutes away from the bar, d’you want to join me?” I nod speechlessly and he smiles again. “Great. I’ll come find you when I can.”

I make my way back to Piotr’s group, drinking this vodka more slowly and trying to hide the fact that I’m watching the barman’s every move. I’m drunk enough now to slur a little when I speak, but not so drunk that I don’t notice Gil glance at me more often than usual. When the girls disappear to powder their noses, he sends Alec and Piotr to get the next round in.

As soon as we’re alone he smiles at me, and I know I’m blushing again. “What?”

“I was just wondering what he’s got that I don’t.”

My face gets hotter. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He puts his hand on my arm and pivots me gently to face him. “The barman. You’ve not taken your eyes off him since he asked you what you wanted to drink the first time. I’ve never seen you look like that at anyone.”

I stare at him, horrified. “You were watching me?” My mouth goes dry as I wonder who else might have seen.

“Okay… you need to sit down. You’ve gone very pale.” He guides me to a spare chair and I collapse into it weakly, feeling sick. A couple of people look over curiously and Gil waves a beer glass at them, telling them that I can’t handle my drink.

I groan faintly. “Now they really will think I’m a fairy.”

“Hey, knock it off.” He’s knelt in front of me, his hands on my shoulders so that I have to look at him. “Firstly, everyone here’s far too drunk to have the first clue what’s going on, and no-one will remember anything in the morning. Secondly, no-one except me gives a flying fuck about who you may or may not want to spend the night with, and I only care because I’m jealous. And thirdly, it would really make your life a whole lot simpler if you just came out of the fucking closet.”

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