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His devil won. He walked inside. He lowered his eyes, mumbled an order to the bartender. He wasn't gay. A man in his late 40s approached and began to chat. Alf had no idea why he was pulled to older men, any more than another man knew why he was pulled to blonde hair or long legs or full breasts. He murmured brief replies, a few small lies, nothing of rugby. He left alone, knowing that the man would return the following night.
Sunday crawled. He couldn't bring himself to leave London. Darkness fell. Same pub. Same man. They ended up in a hotel room. Then came Monday morning, and the nausea all the way home on the M4. Jemma ... how could he face her?
He'd met her a few years before at a friend's birthday party. No, his knees didn't go rubbery, the way other blokes' did for girls, but she was so kind, so nurturing and organized, a caretaker, just like his mom, who'd allow Alfie to go on being the eternal child, the man who couldn't send an e-mail or coax cash from the hole in the bank wall, the one addressing everyone as butt—short for butty, the old Welsh miners' word for workmates—because he couldn't remember anyone's name, the one still showing up on his mother's doorstep in his mid-30s for his breakfast, dinner and laundry, his socks and underwear ironed! How could Jemma not be besotted by him, the rippling lad who ran over everyone on her local rugby pitch on Saturdays and yet who would call twice a day to check up on a friend stuffy with a cold. The lad leaping her neighbors' hedges each morning, running a sackful of mail down her street and leaving notes in her mailbox if he was too early to pop in for biscuits and tea: Hope you're sleeping good and dreaming big, Jemma!
He arrived home from London, reeled into the shower, began scrubbing himself harder, harder, harder—ohmygod. His thighs were bleeding! He jammed his toothbrush into his mouth and raked his teeth and tongue till he vomited.
How could he keep hiding this from her, from himself, from all of Wales? All of Wales? Bloody 'ell, it was more village than country: Somebody farted in Llanelli, someone heard about it five minutes later in Merthyr Tydfil. Imagine what ran through Alfie that day at the post office when his dad handed him the letter from the Welsh Rugby Union inviting him to the national team's training camp for the 1995 World Cup at the raw age of 20. Barry Thomas—normally so laid-back he was horizontal—was prancing and cawing, "Open it! Open it!" as Alf plastered a smile on his mug and quivered, spooked by the fruition of his childhood dream.
His talent was a riptide sweeping him where he couldn't risk going: in front of everyone's eyes. Sarn, his gritty little village crammed into a narrow valley on the crust of Bridgend—an industrial town thronged with shift workers at the Ford and Sony plants—was no nest for a homosexual. Some gay Bridgenders avoided streets with pubs where "rugger-buggers" drank, for fear of being gang-jumped. But Bridgend knew Alf as a rugby player, looked right past the Adam Ant regalia and face paint he'd put on as a teen. The farther from Bridgend he went, however, the more he feared that some expression on his face or inflection in his voice would betray him. On the way to that first national team practice, all of 20 minutes up the road in Cardiff, he took wrong turns, pulled over to buy a chocolate bar and sat on the side of the road for two hours, gnawing ... then slinking home.
No coach or official murmured a word about his absence when he worked up the nerve and slipped in a day later. That good, he was. He exploded on the international scene, seeing space where no one else did and scoring three times in his debut against Japan in the World Cup. But now he was a gay man embedded on two rugby teams. Now he had two groups to hide him—or expose him. Shoveling abuse on one another, taking the mick out of mates, was mandatory on Welsh teams; secrets blistered and leaked in the hothouse of a rugby locker room. Why, wondered the boys, did Alf stay in the hotel bar drinking with the married vets rather than peel off with the other pups to prowl the nightclubs? Why did he lurch from one extreme to another, one night diving headfirst onto a pub table covered with pints, the next night tugging a cap low over his brow, excusing himself to take a leak, then vanishing? One night throwing down all 12 shots off a tray meant for half the team and materializing in the deejay's booth wearing sunglasses and a headband with two metal springs poking from it like antennae, scratching records like a street rapper, getting the whole joint jumping ... the next week unreachable, stonewalling everyone's texts and calls?
Where did it spring from, the false rumor that Alf and a national teammate had been caught together in a locker room? To outsiders, of course, the boys circled the wagons, scoffing at every insinuation, but on the inside they had to be careful, because one offhand remark might uncage the elephant in the dressing room.
You gay bastard! He ran off the field and tried to hurtle a barrier to reach the section of the Bridgend crowd where he'd heard a man scream that in 1998, the year after he'd jumped teams to play for Cardiff; thank God the referee intercepted him. You queer! The next year he played an entire game in a blind fury after a Newport Dragons player called him that and hit him in the chops. He's a faggot! He wheeled and flattened a man who hissed that as Alf departed from a pub a few years later, but at least this sonovabitch—unlike other pub patrons he'd slugged for just looking at him because he imagined what they were saying—had earned it.
He'd lie in bed, mind fogged by the alcohol that eased the stress of the constant sweep of radar required to anticipate that word before it arose, mind fried by the need to dominate a room or duck it altogether rather than risk the uncertainty in between, by the strain of concocting some new heterosexual exploit to peddle to the boys. F--- it, he couldn't live in a closet. It cried for the devious mind, the cautious man, not the one who punted balls at the p.r. director's head. He had to compress his homosexuality into a smaller and smaller lump, shove it lower and lower until he actually pictured it and felt its location: a small black ball lodged in the lower left side of his abdomen. Please, God, change me tonight, let me wake up normal, he'd beg as exhaustion finally began to overtake him, when ... wot? It was the strangest thing. Now he could feel the little black ball oozing fluid.