A Treading the Boards Novella
Andy Marshall moves to London looking for a fresh start after breaking up with his long-term boyfriend. To stave off boredom from his day job as an accountant and to meet new people, Andy joins a local amateur dramatics society called the Sarky Players based in Greenwich, South London. Despite his best efforts to avoid it, Andy is cast as one of the leads in a truly dreadful play called Whoops, Vicar, There Goes My Trousers, written by a local playwright.
The play might be bad, but the Sarky Players are a friendly bunch. Andy quickly makes new friends and finds himself attracted to Phil Cormack, a local artist helping with the props. But life doesn’t run to a script, so Andy and Phil will have to work hard to improvise their own happy ending.
A FEW more boxes and Andy would be finished. The remnants of a failed relationship and four years of love, tears, and anger down the drain and packed away into cardboard. He didn’t know if it was a good thing that he’d been able to shift his whole life one hundred and twenty miles in the back of his VW Golf, or if he should have fought harder to keep hold of more of their shared possessions. Too late for that type of thinking; he’d made his choice, and he was back in London—at least his mum would be happy. He shoved the keys into the pocket of his jeans, balanced the box on his hip, and looked up at his new block of flats. Not bad: new home, new job, new start.
Having committed the PIN code for the block’s outer door to memory, Andy let himself in and took the lift to the fourth floor, deciding not to think of the problems it might cause if it were ever out of order. He’d already worked harder today than during his usual visit to the gym, and the thought of lugging all his stuff up four floors without a lift made him thirst for a cold beer or—even better—a nice cup of tea. Dear God, had he really thought of tea over beer? Maybe Charlie was right about his head being twenty years older than his body. He was only thirty-bloody-four, but his back felt like it belonged to a sixty-year-old with an aversion to exercise.
“Do you need a hand?”
Andy turned to see a man who should be gracing the cover of Men’s Health leaving the flat across from his. Blond hair, blue eyes, and filling his Armani jeans like he was born to wear them, the stranger graced him with a blinding smile. If Andy had known the neighbors were this attractive, he wouldn’t have haggled so much over the rent.
“Well, er, if you’ve a few minutes.” As he tripped over the words, he wondered if he could sound any more idiotic. “I need to do a few more trips to my car.”
“More than happy to help. The name’s Rob, by the way.”
“I’ll just drop this in my flat,” Andy said, indicating the box. “And I’m Andy.”
Andy opened the front door, dropped the box in the hall, and glanced at the chaos of his life that needed to be sorted. He quickly shut the door again. “Thanks for helping. My car’s just downstairs.”
“No worries. I know the pain of moving. We’re just doing the final big clean before we give the keys back.”
Any hope of coming to Rob’s aid in a future “locked out just wearing a towel” scenario vanished, and Andy tried to tell himself that beautiful men who liked to help out their neighbors weren’t on his agenda right now. He was happy being single, no matter how lickable someone’s biceps might be.
“Oh, now there’s a pity. I thought I’d found a friendly face.” They entered the lift together.
“My boyfriend’s got a job in New York, and, well, you don’t turn down that sort of offer, do you?”
Andy consoled himself with the knowledge that at least his gaydar was working and the prospect of the wonderful view of watching Rob lift the boxes out of his car as they made two trips to bring up the rest of Andy’s possessions.
“Fancy a cup of tea as a thank-you?” Andy asked, setting the final box down in his hallway.
“Sorry. I need to get the keys back to the agent before they close.”
Andy waved Rob off with a wistful sigh because he’d never see that beautifully pert arse grace the hallway on a daily basis.
He retreated to his new flat, which wasn’t even half the size of the one he’d shared with Charlie. Although he might have dramatically culled his possessions, the London property market had reduced his living space as well. He hoped his expert Tetris skills would finally come in handy when it came to sorting through what was left of his “ordered mountain of clutter,” as Charlie had referred to it.
He hopped over a box containing books and CDs and picked up the one marked Essential Items, which he plonked down on the countertop of the kitchen. Out came the kettle, teabags, and his favorite mug, and a few minutes later, he sat in the small remaining space on the sofa, sipping at a cup of Earl Grey with a notebook open on his lap. His to-do list spanned several pages.
Andy chewed the end of his pen, trying to figure out which of his many three-star priorities he should tackle first. The new filing system would need to be high on the list, but so would the color-coding of cupboards and getting the tracker set up for the contents of the fridge and freezer. This was something else Charlie had hated—Andy’s lists. As if Andy’s perpetual planning were an affront to his own “throw a bag in the car and drive” mentality. Andy snapped shut the notebook, annoyed with himself for letting his mind wander. He had too much to do to waste time thinking about a selfish prick who’d valued casual sex over their relationship.
Draining the last dregs of his mug, he stood up with purpose. First things first: get the bed made and his suit sorted for Monday.
“Positive thoughts,” he muttered to himself and headed to the flat’s master—and only—bedroom.
With the duvet defeated, a new bedcover in place, and pillows plumped, Andy lay back on the bed and stared up at the ceiling. A crack ran out from the light fitting and a tangle of spiders’ webs would have to go before he went to sleep, but despite his initial misgivings, he knew he’d made the right decision. It had been a while since he’d lived on his own, and it would take some getting used to, but he was already relishing sorting out the kitchen cupboards and ordering the plates by size.
Finally he could have the home he wanted, a home fit for his purpose and not for a fat-headed, duvet-stealing bastard who wouldn’t know a good thing if it danced naked in front of him.
THE HEADQUARTERS of Bennet and Mulrose, international accountants, were housed in an impressive building Andy had visited a number of times, but it didn’t stop his first-day nerves from rolling around his stomach as he crossed the road to the converted church on Curzon Street. At least he didn’t get lost, unlike the embarrassing first time he’d visited, when he hadn’t expected the building to be an old church and had walked straight past it. The columns and archway frontage still belonged to an in-use church, but beyond the steps, hidden from the road, was a courtyard with two fountains and flower beds lined with slate pieces. Suddenly the noise of the city was gone, swallowed by the high sides of the building. It made him believe he could forget he was in the center of one of the world’s busiest cities.
The efficient receptionist soon had him shuttled off to HR, and before he knew it, he had his new ID badge, had survived the tedious Health and Safety videos, and, with a clutch of HR forms to complete, had been delivered to the open plan space that would be his new office.
“You must be Andy,” said a blonde-haired woman as he stepped out of the lift. “I’m Cathy, one of the admins. Let me give a quick tour while the boss is in a meeting. Richard won’t be long, but he’s had to take an important call.”
He received a number of curious looks from the occupants of the desks he passed. Some had to belong to people he would be managing, who were trying to get the first glimpse of their new boss.
The toilets, break room, and stationery cupboard were first on Cathy’s list. She was a whirlwind, and a terribly efficient one at that, preempting his questions and covering everything she deemed important. She led him to a desk that was part of a cluster of four. The other three desks were unmanned at the moment, but the array of personal items indicated their owners were somewhere around. Andy smiled at the crayon drawing on the desk next to his, reminding him of the painting his six-year-old niece had done for him that would need to go back on the fridge as soon as he unearthed it.
A laptop was cradled, ready for him, alongside a keyboard and large monitor. It didn’t take long for him to get set up and running once Cathy pointed him in the right direction of the servers and file paths. Andy sank back in the familiarity of the company’s computer system and was amazed that IT had managed to transfer his e-mail account without irrevocably losing half the contents of his inbox.
A loud bang, followed swiftly by someone swearing, made him look up and peer over his monitor. He saw a flustered woman in her early thirties, with her long curly hair flying in all directions as she raced across the office. She had a shopping bag dangling from one wrist, a rucksack slung over the opposite arm, and a laptop clutched to her chest. In her mouth was an apple, and spilled coffee stained her once white shirt and pale blue raincoat. She stopped at the desk next to his, dumped her bags, and spat out her apple, which she only just managed to stop rolling over the edge.
“What a shit morning!”
Andy smiled weakly at her, standing up and about to ask if he could help. It looked as if she’d only that minute realized he was there.
“Oh, sorry. Early-morning meeting with a client at their office, the other side of the river.”
She struggled out of her raincoat, tutting at the coffee stain. “What a mess. I swear I’m single-handedly putting my dry cleaner’s children through university.” She draped the coat over her chair. “You must think I’m a right one. The name’s Naomi Jameson.”
Andy shook her hand. He recognized her name from the organizational chart Richard had shown him and remembered that Naomi was one of the other team leaders.
“Andy,” he said. “And no worries. I’ve had plenty of ropey starts to a week.”
“You want to get a coffee? It’s pretty decent from the machine in the break room, and as you can see, I didn’t get to drink mine.”
He let her lead him, and once in the break room, she poured two mugs of coffee and leaned against a high table in the center of the room, which was the perfect height to stand and rest his mug on.
Naomi sipped her coffee. “I heard you were at the Bristol branch before. What made you jack in the South West for the capital?”
“I’m from South London originally. I fancied moving back so I could see more of my family. Richard said he had an open position, and here I am.”
“Most folks want to escape to the country, not from it.” She blew on her coffee.
“Bristol’s hardly countryside. And I had a rather nasty breakup—you know how it goes.”
“Oh boy, do I! Still, her loss, eh?”
“His, actually.” He braced himself for the reaction. Andy had debated hiding his sexuality at work when he made his decision to move, but he hadn’t hidden it since school, and he was damned if he was going to do it now.
“His loss.” Naomi corrected herself without missing a beat, and Andy let his defenses drop. “So now you’re footloose and fancy-free. London’s your oyster.”
“I’m happy enough on my own for now. I daresay the gay men of Greenwich will be breathing a collective sigh of relief.”
“Well, how’s that for a coincidence. Desk neighbor and home neighbor. That’s my neck of the woods.”
“Really? Brilliant.” Naomi seemed nice and accepting, and Andy was happy to have found a friendly face.
“If you want, you’re more than welcome to join me and my hubby for Friday night drinks.”
Andy beamed. Although he had never been a social butterfly, he would admit he had been worried that until he could build up a network of friends, he would be spending his weekends and evenings alone. “I’d love to.”
“I’m afraid this week the luvvy lot will be there.” Naomi wrinkled her nose.
“Luvvy lot?” Andy wondered what it was about Naomi’s friends that could make her pull such a face.
“My hubby’s am-dram group,” she said with a roll of her eyes.
“Amateur dramatics? Surely they can’t be that bad. I did a spot of it myself at university.”
“They’re okay, if you have enough to drink. They’re just a bit… one-track minded when it comes to conversation.”
“Compared to some of my ex’s friends, I’m sure they’ll be scintillating company.”
Naomi laughed. “Better get back to the grindstone. It’ll take you the rest of the day to fill out the HR paperwork.”
“I had hoped I’d avoid most of it,” he admitted, following her lead and rinsing out his mug and putting it in the dishwasher. “I mean, I’ve worked for the company for years.”
“You poor, deluded fool. If anything, you’ll probably have more.”
Andy settled back at his desk. Cathy appeared half an hour later to give him another whirlwind tour, this time of his colleagues. By the end of it, he doubted he would remember any names apart from the ones on his team, which he’d made a special effort to commit to memory. He imagined he’d be trying to surreptitiously read ID badges in the weeks to come.
The morning, what was left of it, was filled with reading the local policies and completing the forms HR had given him. Naomi stood up and called over her desk, “Want to come with us to lunch? The canteen’s not up to much, but Tim and Sharon are on their way to a Chinese place that does pretty decent dim sum.”
“Tim and Sharon?”
“Our deskmates, the other two team leaders. They’ve been on an influencing skills course this morning.”
“Sounds great. Lunch, not the course. I hate those things.”
“I think if you enjoy them, you need a different kind of help than those courses are offering.”
Andy laughed and followed her out of the office.