After a few minutes of light-hearted banter with his co-host Lanita, Alex Shaefer brought his weekly podcast to a close. There were never enough hours in the day for Alex to achieve all the things he wanted, and with today’s recording running half an hour over, time was getting tight.
“Nice one,” Lanita said, reaching across the desk to give him a high-five.
“Is that everything?” Alex asked their producer Naz. “Have we got enough?”
Naz gave a thumbs-up through the studio window. “All good.”
Alex let out a long exhalation and took off his headphones.
The Long Run was Alex’s baby. The podcast was coming to the end of a second successful year that had seen it move from being an independent broadcast in its first seven months onto the wider platform of the BBC. The original concept had been to focus on British athletics, but they had widened their remit to cover all aspects of sport. Lanita Khan, a well-known football pundit, had joined the team when the show expanded, taking it to even greater triumphs.
With success came more work. The show took longer than ever to put together—booking guests, researching subjects and covering all the latest sports news and gossip. It was a relentless cycle each week. As a sideline, it had almost become a full-time job in itself. At least the move to the BBC had saved him from having to chase the sponsorship and funding deals that had been essential for them as an indie. Because podcasts were free to listen to and so many kids were doing them for fun from their bedrooms, a lot of people were surprised to learn how expensive it was to put a professional-sounding show together and get it on the air.
It was done—for today, at least. Tomorrow the work would start all over on next week’s production.
Alex ran his fingers through his dark brown hair, pushing it back from his forehead in thick waves.
“Relax,” Lanita said, obviously noticing his tension.
“I can’t help it. You know how much I hate having to do the front and centre promotion. That stuff kills me.”
Lanita grinned. “Babe, I don’t want to sound rude, but you’ve got nothing to worry about. Sure, you wrote the book, but no one will pay you much attention. You know that, right? All eyes will be on Fernando.”
“I hope that’s true,” he said, unconvinced.
Tonight was the launch of Playing with Pride, the official autobiography of Fernando Inglesias. Fernando had made headlines late in the past year when he’d become the first premiership footballer to come out as gay. It was sensational news, which had caused headlines around the world. Everybody had wanted his story. At the time, Alex had dedicated an entire episode of the podcast to the issue of homophobia, not just in football but in sport in general. It was one of his most streamed shows and had resulted in him being asked to speak on several TV programmes.
It had been a huge shock to receive a call three weeks later, asking if he’d like to write Fernando’s story for a book. Alex had ghostwritten three other sporting biographies, and the experience had been far from fulfilling. The majority of the subjects for those biographies were people who had no interest in books or even reading, beyond the advance they were offered from the publishers. Sitting down with a writer to flesh out the details of their life and career was often the last thing any of the sporting icons wanted to do. It had been a dismal experience working with those people.
“Things will be different this time.” That was what he’d been promised. He’d have unrestricted access to Fernando for the period of research and full credit for having written the book, not just a mention in the acknowledgement section.
Despite his reservations about writing another sports bio, the offer had been too good for him to refuse, and against all expectations, Fernando had come through and acknowledged Alex as his co-writer on Playing with Pride. It was a bold step and one which he was grateful for, even when that meant accompanying Fernando on the publicity circuit.
They’d already given joint interviews to several media outlets. No big deal. That was part of Alex’s business. After completing an MA in sports journalism in his early twenties and gaining his first job at BBC Radio, he’d been in the profession sixteen years and knew how to handle the press.
However, all the other aspects of promotion were a struggle.
To celebrate the book, there would be a huge party in central Manchester. A year after his ground-breaking announcement, Fernando Inglesias was still big news…huge. The pre-sales on Playing with Pride were massive. All eyes would be on him, and as his collaborator, Fernando wanted Alex by his side.
“Why don’t you tell him you’re uncomfortable with this?” Lanita asked.
“I don’t want to hurt his feelings. Besides, I’ve got my name on the cover rather than a ghostwriting credit, so I owe him,” Alex said.
“I’m sure he’d understand.”
“The trouble is, I think Fernando is nervous too. You know what a big deal this is. He’s still the only openly gay player we have. There are plenty of other gay footballers, but no one has followed his lead and come out after him. The guy needs all the support he can get.”
She nodded. “And you’ll be perfect at it. You always are. Why do you get so nervous? You’re a natural at what you do.”
“Behind the camera,” he said. “Radio, podcasting, writing… There’s a reason I haven’t gone up for any TV presenting jobs. I hate having a camera pointed at me and being the centre of attention.”
Lanita rolled her eyes. “You being so unattractive and all.”
Alex gave a shy laugh. It wasn’t his looks that bothered him about being on camera. He knew he was photogenic, with his strong bone structure and dark hair. Even if he weren’t, he didn’t care what people thought of him. He just didn’t want the attention or adulation that came from appearing on screen or in print—the letters, the emails and IMs that came in the thousands whenever he appeared on TV. There was always a mix of good and bad comments, and they were an unwanted distraction. Alex didn’t need any of that to do his job.
As a journalist or reporter, the best asset anyone could have was the ability to walk around unnoticed.
Something inside him clammed up when he was on camera. He could sit in the podcast studio and talk for hours, but the few times he’d been dragged onto TV shows, he’d found himself unable to articulate or express any of the points he needed to make.
He was in a minority. Plenty of other journalists sought fame and attention from TV and social media, and they were welcome to every bit of it.
Alex didn’t need or want it.
Lanita gathered her things together, stuffing them inside a huge red leather bag. “C’mon. Let’s go. I’m taking you for a drink.”
Alex shook his head. “I can’t. I have to go home to get ready for the party.”
“Bitch, please. What are you going to do? Take a shower and change your shirt? You can do that in fifteen minutes. I know what you’re like when you go out, and you don’t need two hours to achieve it. C’mon. We’re going—me, you and Naz. You know we can’t make this evening, and we want to celebrate the book too. I’m buying, so you’d better take advantage of that while you can.”
They recorded the podcast at a studio in Media City close to Salford Quays and an array of trendy bars and restaurants. Ten minutes later, they were settled in a comfortable booth with a bottle of champagne on the table.
“To Alex and Fernando,” Lanita said, raising a toast.
They clinked glasses.
“When are we gonna get him on the show?” Naz asked. “Fernando, I mean. If anyone can pull a few strings, it’s got to be you. We should be all over this book release.”
Naz was a good ten years younger than Alex and Lanita but knew more about broadcast technology and recording than the two of them combined. He was a talented kid and had been with the show since the beginning. Alex had picked well when he’d hired him.
“It doesn’t feel right, using privilege like that,” Alex said. “Besides, there’s also the BBC policy about advertising. I can’t plug my own book on the show.”
“Bullshit,” Naz and Lanita said in unison.
“You don’t have to mention the book at all,” Naz continued. “We just want an interview with Fernando. You know what he would do for our listening figures. Ask him about it tonight.”
“No,” Alex said firmly. “I’m not going to exploit our friendship for listeners.”
“I would,” Lanita said. “If I was going to the launch, I wouldn’t hesitate. And he would say yes. I’m sure of it.”
“How come you’re not going?” Naz asked.
“I’m presenting a feature on The One Show. Can’t get out of it,” she said, taking a sip of champagne. “It’s bound to be some party. I heard the pre-sales are the biggest in years for a football book. They expect it to be bigger than Beckham’s. Your publisher will have money to burn. There are bound to be some big names around tonight.”
“Oh, please don’t say that,” Alex protested. “I feel nervous enough as it is.”
“There’s are players and managers going from Liverpool and Manchester,” she continued undeterred. “Soap stars, musicians, athletes. Ethan Bower, Rory Evans, Moses Adebayo… They’re all going.”
Alex froze, backtracking on what she had just said—one name in particular.
“Ethan Bower?” he said. “He’s going?”
“Sure. All of them are.”
Naz grinned at Alex across the table. “Doesn’t he, like, hate you?”
Alex grimaced. “I have no idea.”
Naz laughed. “I think you do.”
“What’s this?” Lanita perked up, a huge smile on her face as she put down her glass. “What have I missed?”
“Nothing,” Alex said.
“Alex and Ethan Bower have history,” Naz chuckled.
Lanita turned to Alex, her pretty eyes sparkling. “OMG. You haven’t shagged him, have you? Tell me you didn’t.”
“I didn’t,” he protested. “It’s nothing like that.”
She groaned. “Pity. Then what? Come on. Spill the story? And how come I don’t know this already?”
“It’s no big secret,” Alex said, shooting Naz a dirty look. “I ghostwrote Ethan’s autobiography, which came out about eight years ago.”
“You did? I don’t even remember him having a book out.”
“With good reason. It was a busy time with a lot of big-name biographies vying for the Christmas market. His book kind of got lost in the crowd. It didn’t really bother me. As a ghostwriter, they paid me a flat fee. Whether the book was a success or bombed, I got paid just the same.”
“So, what’s the big deal? Does he think it’s your fault his book flopped? I mean, how old was he, anyway? In his twenties? He can’t have had much of a story to tell at that age.”
Naz cleared his throat theatrically and read aloud from the screen of his phone. “Quote… ‘The man who wrote my book didn’t do his research and was poorly informed. He seemed like a nice enough guy when we sat down for the interviews, but when he wrote it up, he did a real hatchet job on me. What’s written in that book are not my words. He made it up so I would sound like a shallow, egotistical arsehole. I tried to get him fired and hire someone new, but it was too late. The book had to be in the shops by a certain date, and there just wasn’t time to start over. I’m glad it didn’t do well in the end, so less people got to read that bullshit. Jesus, that guy was a prick.’ End quote.” Naz put down the phone, his eyes twinkling with mischief.
“A hatchet job,” Lanita said. “Classy.”
Alex sighed and swallowed some champagne. It tasted bitter all of a sudden. “That’s Ethan’s version of what happened.”
“And how does your version differ?” she asked. “Dramatically, no doubt.”
“The part about him being a shallow, egotistical arsehole… I didn’t make that up. It was all there to begin with. All I did was put his personality on the page.”
“I’ve always found him quite charming,” she said.
“You know him?”
“A little. Not so much from his competition days, but I’ve met him recently. In fact, I saw him just last month on a breakfast show, and he was very nice. I wouldn’t call him an arsehole at all.”
“Maybe he’s mellowed. I met him at the height of his success.”
Ethan Bower was one of the UK’s most triumphant sprinters. He’d won silver and gold medals at both the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games for the four-hundred-metre races, as well as sharing team glory in the relays. With his wholesome good looks and dazzling green eyes, Ethan had been the poster boy for British athletics when Alex had been approached to pen his biography. Alex had leapt at the opportunity. Ethan had been one of the UK’s most exciting stars…a hero.
Ethan had proved to Alex that the adage of never meeting your heroes was true. With reddish-blond hair, Ethan had the fiery temper to match. As Alex spent time with him for the purpose of the book, he’d witnessed first-hand Ethan’s obnoxious behaviour. He’d treated everyone as if they were beneath him—his coach, trainers, physios, ground attendants, reporters and even his fans. He’d been mean-spirited and aggressive and focused on nothing other than his own achievements. His apparent lack of empathy or understanding of others had caused Alex to question more than once whether or not Ethan was a psychopath.
Alex had raised his concerns with the publisher at the time—that he didn’t think he could present an impartial view of Ethan, after everything he’d witnessed. They had dismissed his unease. They needed the book in a hurry and didn’t care how it was written. Ethan already had a reputation as a bad boy of athletics. No one wanted to read a sanitized version of his story.
“Throw it all in,” his editor had advised.
The experience of writing the book had almost put Alex off ghostwriting for life.
Thankfully, none of his other subjects had turned out to be as difficult as Ethan.
“He’s pretty hot,” Lanita said. “He was always a good-looking guy, but have you seen him recently? OMG, time has been very kind. He’s unbelievably fine.”
“It doesn’t matter what he looks like,” Alex said. “It’s what’s on the inside that counts, and from what I saw, the inside of that man is the worst kind of brat.”
“You might be surprised. What you’re describing does not sound like the man I know. He was charming, well-spoken…quite humble, in fact.”
Alex spluttered, almost choking on his drink. “Humble? Ethan Bower? You have definitely got the wrong guy—not unless he’s had a personality transplant. ‘Toxic’ is the best word I can think of to describe him.”
She shrugged. “Well, like I said earlier, it’s going to be a big party. You probably won’t even see him if he’s there. Don’t let it spoil your night. It’s about you and Fernando, not Ethan.”
“Too right,” he said. “And if I do see him, you can be sure I’ll give him a wide berth. He doesn’t like me, and I don’t like him. I don’t think we have anything to achieve in speaking to each other.”