I might have known it could not be kept quiet; I might have expected, I suppose, that Phil’s colleagues would notice that all was not well with him. I might even have expected that one would muster his courage and speak to me about it. I would not have expected it to be the one it was.
Mark Sawston is a rugby player of the old school: big, none too quick in thought, none too sophisticated in his likings and opinions. He is skilled at his work; he and Phil have had a working relationship, I believe, since Phil arrived first with the Gryphons, raw and inexperienced, and the captain of the time asked Mark to act as his sheepdog until Phil could find his way around. For Mark, there is no place in rugby for a homosexual, except of course for the ones he knows. Phil is accepted because he is, as I believe Ryan worded it, ‘a fucking shirtlifter, but our fucking shirtlifter’, and I am accepted because I cause there to be silverware in the cabinet, and in both cases, Mark would prefer not to think at all, ever, about what we actually do. Personally, he has the morals of an alley-cat; he will bed any woman with a short skirt and a pulse, and more than once that has landed him in trouble, the woman in question being another man’s girlfriend (and on one occasion, wife). The very notion of approaching any man to discuss his relationship with another man must be anathema to him; I heard him pass the door to my office three or four times before he brought himself to knock.
And then, having made his way inside, he did not know what to say, and I, not knowing what he wanted, could not help him. Eventually, he looked squarely at the middle of my chest, not my face and asked hoarsely, “What’s wrong with Phil?”
For a moment I could not answer him, not having expected the question, and the colour rushed to his face, and he added, extremely defensively, “He’s not been himself for days and it’s beginning to affect. . . he’s not missing out on training or anything, it’s just. . .”
I sighed. “Sit down, Mr Sawston. Phil has been having some. . . personal difficulties.”
He sat, heavily, and I could see him brace himself for the next question as he braces on the rugby pitch, all solid neck and chest. It came pitched a little outside his normal range: he was hating this. “Is it between you and him?”
“No.” It was, at least in part, but not as Mark meant.
“Can any of us do anything to help?”
I shook my head. “I do not think so, other than by continuing as his friends. Tell me what he is doing that you have seen.” For I had been spending my time with the forwards, not with Phil and the backs, and I had not seen him at work for a week or so.
He was not himself, it seemed. Mark was unable to say what was wrong other than by example.
“He’s there, and he’s training and training hard, but it’s like the lights are off. He. . . like today, the backs were already in the dressing room when you finished with us, and he was in the shower, and so were Darren and Rob and T-Bone and one or two others, and Darren started to sing. And the others joined in, or catcalled, or flicked soap, you know the sort of thing.”
“And Phil finished washing himself and got out of the shower and went to get dressed. Like he hadn’t noticed that there was anything else going on. He’s short tempered – no, not exactly that. But he’s not joining in the locker room talk, not about anything; he’s quicker than usual to criticise in training. Not unfairly, but he’s not giving anybody any leeway. And then there’s the Colts.”
“The Colts have their first match on Saturday, and some of us will go and watch.” That was understood. I encouraged my senior players to support the juniors. “Rob asked Phil if he was making a cake as usual. He’s done that since the second year he was here, you know: he makes a cake for the Colts’ first match of the season because all their parents come and James Winston opens up the dressing room to visitors after the match. Well, you know that. And really, I think Rob was just making conversation. But Phil, Phil looked at him like he hadn’t understood all the words. And when Rob said again ‘Cake? For the Colts?’ it was like he was asking Phil to cut his hands off. I mean Phil said after a moment that he would do it, but from his face when Rob turned away, it was a big deal, it was a chore, an imposition, you know? He looked. . .” he considered, and found a comparison, “he looked the way I would look if Rob had asked me.”
“But you say he is not cutting corners in training?”
Mark shook his had. “If anything, I would say he was doing the top end of what he should be at the moment. He’s careful, you know. He knows the dangers of overtraining as well as undertraining, but sometimes in the gym, when he gets off the equipment, he looks as if he’s. . . as if he wanted to do more.” He considered again, his face screwed up with the effort of making me understand, a hard task for a man who will not willingly discuss feelings with another. “It’s like the only thing he cares about at the moment is training and for everything else the gas is turned down low.”
That, I thought, was a very good description. Phil’s gas had been turned down low for weeks.
And then I caught him out. Not in anything particularly serious, to tell the truth. He has a pass key for the premises, as do all the players and staff. The players are not required to clock on and off, but it is a security matter that if they are on the premises, we wish to know it. Phil has a tendency to leave his card on the dressing table when he empties his pockets at night, and then, instead of going in via the front reception desk and signing in manually, he will wait until someone else approaches the door from the car park and walk in behind them. As I said, not serious, except that if the fire alarm goes off, the security man, who is in a different building with the backup system, can tell us how many people need to be accounted for – and of course, that if my senior players do not observe the rules, we cannot be surprised if the juniors are also disobedient. I came to know a month or so back that Phil was in the building and no one was aware of it but me, and I reproved him. The second time, I warned him that if I caught him so again, I would punish him.
And this time, I needed to speak to Alicia, and could not find her, and when my search took me past reception, I called up the list on the screen and spotted that Alicia Driscoll was in the building – but that Phil Cartwright apparently was not.
I did nothing about it until I encountered Phil by chance in the middle of the afternoon. He was about to go home; I had another appointment.
“A moment, Mr Cartwright.”
He froze. There was no one else present, so I would normally have called him by his given name.
“I am fascinated to see you here; according to the security report you have not been in today.”
He looked at me, without speaking.
“Where is your pass card?”
“Bedside table, I think.”
“I warned you, did I not, that you were not to do this? There is a means of recording yourself present without your card and you have not done it. Or am I mistaken?”
“Very well. We will speak of it when I come home.”
I was not long: my appointment was brief, and I came through the door of The Dairy and found Phil already there, sitting on the red couch in my study. He rose awkwardly as I entered.
“Wilful disobedience, Mr Cartwright?”
“And I warned you, did I not, that I would punish you for it?”
He looked past me, slightly over my shoulder. “Yes, sir.”
I waited, in silence, until his gaze shifted and he looked at me. It took longer than I liked.
“Very well. You will not use your swimming pool between now and Monday morning.”
I had surprised him, I think: he frowned, not understanding. “My schedule requires me to swim every day this week.”
“Then you shall do as you did before we had our own pool. You were lazy: you would not accept a minor inconvenience consequent on your own carelessness, so this week you will bear a greater inconvenience as a punishment and drive to Brody Street to swim.”
“We will leave it at that.”
He was more than surprised, he was shocked and I saw his glance touch on the desk drawer, but I held out my arms to him. “You will not be so careless again, koekie?”
“No, sir,” he said submissively from inside my embrace, and I felt him relax as he understood that there was no more to come, that he was quite forgiven.
I was pleased to see Nick again. Ach, I would have been pleased to see anybody. I had been going to work, coming home, talking about neutral subjects with Tim. Still he would not open up to me. In the back of my head, I could hear Piet, saying disapprovingly, “Mr Creed, freezing everybody out, managing all on his own again,” but I could not hear any further prompts, any suggestions about what to do next.
I could not go back. I could not go to Piet and Phil, it would be disloyal. Nick would not help me, and I felt a guilty twinge at having asked him. I had known when I did it that I was asking him to do something – well, let us put no spin on it, something less than honourable. But Nick had said he would speak with Phil, and Fran I was sure would speak with Piet. . . And even if there was nothing he could tell me, Nick would at least be prepared to listen while I talked to him. He is a very good listener, as good, in a slightly different way, as Phil.
He met me at the Case Is Altered in Brookwell Street; he says their cellar man knows his work. He was looking well, I thought and I had a small pleasure in that. He had put on some weight, he was moving freely – at least he was moving freely when he crossed the floor from the bar, although there was enough of a hesitation when he sat down that I smiled into my drink, and he caught my eye, and smiled too.
“Things are going well for you, Nick?”
“Better, at any rate. I saw the consultant again today and I’m to be allowed back to work on the 1st, I think, unless some disaster overcomes me.”
“Ach, but that is excellent news. I am so glad for you.”
“And how are things with you and Tim?”
“Much - much as they were. No worse, I suppose. I – I will be honest, we are working hard on a big European deal in the office and I am glad to have the excuse to work late, just so I will not have to think of things to say that do not involve – involve things he will not discuss. Did you – have you seen Phil? Or Piet?”
“I saw Phil. Fran saw Piet. Phil looks like shit. Fran says Piet doesn’t look much better.”
I winced; that felt oddly harsh for Nick. “I do not ask you to break confidences, but. . . Nick, I so need to know! What is wrong with Phil?”
He shrugged. “Well, of course this row with his dad didn’t help anything, did it?”
I waited for more clues; they were not forthcoming. In the end I had to ask. “He has fought with his father? Why? Over what?”
“You don’t know?”
“Obviously not,” I said dryly.
“Hmm. And then you told me yourself that Tim was harping on about weddings a bit, and of course, with Phil that’s a touchy subject.”
“It is?” I could not remember Phil ever having mentioned a wedding.
“Has been for months.”
“But surely. . .” I considered. “Can he get married? Surely, if he is not out, it would be. . .”
“Well, you know how he feels about it.”
I took a hasty mouthful of beer, and grunted, in the hope of not displaying my ignorance.
“And then, of course, there was this Oxford thing. And the way Phil feels about that.”
Well, there went that hope. . . I put my glass down. “O.K., Nick, ja, enough. I get it. I get what you are telling me. You are saying that I do not know how Phil feels, and I do not know what you want from me.” For indeed, I was feeling myself scolded. There was affection in it, I felt, but nonetheless, he was telling me that I was acting wrongly. Like a good schoolmaster, giving me hints to turn my thoughts the right way so that I could solve the problem myself, rather than simply being told the answer. “No, obviously I do not know how Phil feels, but what can I do about it?”
He shrugged. “No idea. But Hansie, you ought to know. He’s your baby brother, he’s been unhappy for two months at least that I know of, and he’s closer to you than to me. You should know what’s troubling him. He told me half of it after the Oxford affair hit the fan. As far as I can tell, nobody picked up on that.”
“But. . . but Phil is never unhappy!”
He didn’t bother to answer that, which is just as well, because even as I said it, I could tell it was ridiculous.
“You and Tim have been helped out quite a bit by Piet, haven’t you?”
“Ach, ja. We owe him so much. He has been wonderful.”
“Ja. What about it?” But I had given the schoolmaster the wrong answer again, I could see.
“Listen to yourself, Hansie. By Piet. You say Piet was wonderful, as if Phil hadn’t even been there. You owe Piet so much. Without Piet, you’d have been in a mess. You painted a picture, you told me, to say thank you to Piet. Tim made a frame for it as a gift for Piet. Where’s Phil in this?”
I had no very swift answer for him, and while I was still struggling with the idea, he went on.
“And does Phil mind you turning up on his doorstep wanting his partner?”
“If you ask, you are telling me that he did,” I said slowly.
“Actually, I think Phil’s the sort of man who sees a need and looks for what he can do to answer it. But I also think that you’re pushing it with him.”
I drank about half my beer, mulling on this. “Nick, this is. . . this is not what we do. Not how the Family thinks. We may ask for help where we need it, Piet – ja, and Phil too – has taught us so.”
He did not answer me, and I thought some more, until I could not avoid the conclusion. “You are saying that I am not asking, I am merely taking. But I did, I did ask. I did tell Phil that I would not have him wrong with Piet on my account, I was not trying to come between them. I told him so when. . . the first time that I went to Piet. Phil was funny, he was cross with Piet for upsetting me. And surely, if Phil minded, Piet would not help?”
He sighed, rather sadly, the schoolmaster disappointed by the student. “Hansie, if Fran throws a party, the fact that she invited you and I want you to come won’t stop me being a bit peeved if you land me with all the washing up and nobody offers to help. And then when you throw a party in turn, the fact that I may not be able to go to it won’t stop my feelings being hurt if you don’t invite me.” He picked up my glass. “Another of those?”
“I will get them,” I said numbly. He had given me something to think about, fersure. Were we taking advantage of Phil’s good nature? And ja, I could see that we had failed the Family, if Phil was so unhappy, had been unhappy for months, and we had simply not noticed. By the time I came back to the table, I had my objection ready.
“Nick, the way we see things, any one of us may ask for help when we need it, you know this. But Phil has not asked. He has not said that anything is wrong. Not at least to me.”
“He told me, when I asked, because I noticed.”
And in that case, as he said, I should have noticed: I who love Phil should have noticed.
“Hansie, I’m not saying you shouldn’t look for support in your Family. That’s what it’s for, God knows. But I’m saying: it’s not all one way. Sometimes, it’s got to be you who offers, as well as taking. You’ve got rights, but that means you have responsibilities as well.” He grimaced. “God, I sound like a politician.”
“Or a senior policeman?” I asked slyly. He stuck out his tongue at me.
“Can we go outside? Do you mind? I want to ask you some stuff, and it’s filling up in here.”
We found a table in the beer garden, under the trees and against the high wall. I have noticed before that Nick will always for preference sit where he can have a wall at his back, but he can see what goes on. And he watches, always. He misses very little. I have wondered, is he a detective because he likes to do this? Or does he do it because he is a detective?
“Hansie, tell me about domestic discipline.”
That, I had not expected.
“What is there to know? I told you once before, ja nee?”
“Yes, but the more I think about it, the less I understand. Look, I understand about play.”
I should think so. I suspect he plays harder than any of us.
“And I suppose I understand punishment. Sort of. Well, I mean I can get my head round ‘do something wrong and this will happen’. I just don’t see how you can combine them.”
I frowned, and he could see my incomprehension.
“Look, you play because you like it, don’t you?”
“And you’ve implied that you like to go pretty far?”
I blushed, but I did not let my gaze drop, and I nodded again.
“So if Tim’s pissed off with you and lines you up for whatever you’re due, how is that a punishment? When it’s what you might do another time just for fun?”
“Ach, I see, ja. It is what I call the whip in the head, Nick. The punishment is not what he does to my body. It is quite, quite different, not in the sting, but in the way I think about it. It is knowing I’m in the wrong and I am demonstrating to him that I know it. And then there is. . . there is the other side of it. That when we play, he touches me, he teases me perhaps? He speaks to me differently. When we play, the point of it is that we shall end up in bed. With punishment, well, sometimes we do and sometimes we do not, but if we do, it is make-up sex like after a quarrel.”
He sat for a while thinking about that.
“And you feel better afterwards? About whatever you’ve done, I mean.”
I nodded. “That is why I do it. There, that thing is over, there is no more guilt, no more blame. I may still have to deal with the results – the occasion with Rebecca, there were consequences over and above how I felt. Jim Hamilton chewed our heads off and spat out the pieces, we both had warnings put on our personnel files, and he booked for me an anger management course, and for Rebecca a course in racial awareness or whatever it is called. (She did not go, she handed in her notice and left.) But those were consequences I had simply to get through, and Tim said no more about it, and I felt. . . it was like, I acknowledged that I had been at fault and I went to my course, and I signed my warning notice and I moved on. The thing was completed, I did not need to feel. . . No, I felt bad, ja, but not disproportionately so.”
“And you got over it.”
“I got over it.”
He thought some more. “O.K. So say it’s not something you’ve done to some third party. Say it’s something you’ve done to Tim. You screw up, he’s pissed off.”
“He tells me he is pissed off, I agree that he has cause, he punishes me for it, we both move on.”
I was beginning to struggle. I could not see where this was going.
“You feel better because you’ve admitted your guilt, paid for it.”
“Ja, I said so.”
“What about Tim? Does he feel better? Or do you, when it’s the other way round, and the strap’s in your hand?”
I wondered if there was some significance in the mention of the strap. “Then I punish him and I feel better. I know that he knows I was not happy, I know that he will remember for a day or two that he was at fault. He will feel the strap when he sits down, and it will remind him that he was at fault. And I feel better for knowing it.”
“Whereas other times, he feels the effect and it reminds him that you had an entertaining Sunday afternoon; yes, I see.”
He was very thoughtful and I sat quietly with my drink. I know Nick well enough now to be aware that there was something behind this.
“What happens if it doesn’t work?”
I gawped at him.
“I mean, what if it’s something you can’t deal with that way?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know, do I, but there must be something. Say. . . say he was having an affair and you found out. What do you do? No, seriously, Hansie, I need to get this.”
So I tried to imagine how I would feel. I have enough imagination that my stomach turned, and I could feel myself grow heated. But what would I do?
“It would depend, I think, on how serious he was.”
“Serious enough that he’d been deceiving you for six months, not serious enough that he wanted the house sold and to be free of you to go to somebody else. And, say, somebody you know.” He hesitated for a moment, obviously avoiding the suggestion of Phil or Piet. “Say, me.”
I snorted. “Not you, Nick. You are too obviously straight, and not Tim’s type. But, ja, I get what you mean. No, I think. . . I think I would not punish him. I think I would leave him.”
“And what if he was sorry, assured you it was a one-off, he didn’t want to leave you, he’d never do it again, he’d never see me again? And you believed him?”
“Get me another pint – it is as well I did not drive here – and I will think about it.”
I thought. I had no idea why Nick wished me to think about this but I thought. By the time he came back with our drinks, I knew the answer.
“Nee. I would simply leave. It would be too big a thing to deal with using the cane.”
“So there are crises too big to face that way?”
I nodded wordlessly.
“It wouldn’t make you feel better?”
“It might make me feel better,” I said carefully. “It would not make me feel good. It would not make everything come out right. There are surely some things you cannot deal with that way. Nick, I do not understand this. Why do you wish to know? Such punishment is not your thing, we know that.”
He shook his head. “I’ve been reading up on the internet among the people who do it. Who claim to do it. I’m not sure how much of it I believe, you know, and some of the blogs really strike me as sad, people who don’t like their lives and seem to think that they can make them better that way. I admit, most of the blogs I read were straight submissive women. I don’t know if it’s different for a gay couple?”
Nor did I.
“I just. . . Hansie, there doesn’t seem to be any feeling that maybe a spanking won’t always put everything right, and I’m damned if I see how it could.”
“Well, but as I say, you do not do it, so why would it trouble you?”
“Because I think half the trouble you’ve had over this Oxford thing is because you’ve bought into the myth that it always works. So when it didn’t, Tim and Phil didn’t know what else to do.”
My mouth fell open.
“Ach, Nick, ach here God, Nick, how did we not see that? How did we not see it? Oh God, poor Phil, that will be him. Because he had never even heard of such a thing before Piet, and Piet, of course, said it was his work only, not their private life because he will know that it cannot be. . . and Phil asked because he thought that Tim wanted it and Tim, no, Tim didn’t want to but it was all that Phil knew, and. . .” I was beginning to gabble as it all unravelled for me to see. I was making no sense and I knew it. “Oh, Nick, I must. . . I must speak to Tim, no, I must speak to Piet, I must. . .” I ground rather uneasily to a halt.
“Nick, I do not know. I – what on earth should I do?”
He shook his head.
“I haven’t the first idea. Well, except that I’m coming round to yours tonight and I’m taking that strap away with me.”
I frowned. “Why?”
“Because my copper’s nerve tells me it will be safer with me than with you, that’s why. “ I winced a little – I had not heard Nick so cross in some time, and I did not like the feeling that it was me he was annoyed with. “Between you, you’ve fucked this up pretty comprehensively and I don’t trust you not to make it worse. But in terms of what you should do? I haven’t a clue.”
I was beginning to realise that it had been a mistake to come to the Bear’s Head on my own this evening, particularly in my present mood. But Hansie had been called away to Germany – a potentially big deal, that needed someone to go and finalise it urgently, and of all the potential candidates only Hansie was competent in German, though apparently his accent is as heavy as it is in English. So there I was, stuck, miserable, in the quiet of the country and I just felt I needed to be somewhere loud and amusing.
But it had turned out that it was Underwear Night in the Bear’s Head – the only proper gay pub in the town, although the White Goose has a monthly gay night. Underwear Night, and very loud, cruisy, and full of half-naked 20-somethings it was.
It seemed that I wasn’t in the mood for quite that loud and amusing after all. And while it was not unflattering to have guys eyeing me up, there were one or two who were frankly pushy, even when I’d made it clear I wasn’t in the market.
So when someone started to sit at the stool opposite mine I automatically, and perhaps a little snappily, said: “That seat’s taken.”
“Of course it is, sweetie, by me. How nice of you to save it for me,” said a familiar voice.
“Simon! Sorry, I didn’t realise. . .”
He looked at me quizzically. “What are you doing in here on your own anyway, petal?” he asked. “It’s practically an occasion of sin, given the scantiness of some of the dress tonight.”
“I didn’t realise,” I said feebly. “I thought – well, it doesn’t matter what I thought. You’re right, I ought to go home.” I made to get up, and he caught my hand.
“Tim.” A different voice, the one you only heard when Simon talked about the things that really mattered. No ‘sweeties’ or ‘darlings’, just a quiet concern. “What’s the matter?”
“It’s – complicated.”
He smiled sadly. “Life is. Here, isn’t Hansie in Germany? How did you get into town?”
“On the bus. There’s one back fairly soon.”
“There isn’t, actually. The last one in your direction goes at 8 now, the 9 and 10 o’clock ones only go as far as Rixborough Cross.”
“Fuck.” I kind of remembered now he said it, Sandra in the village pub had been moaning about the recent changes to the timetable.
“Come on.” He got up again, having hardly sat down.
“You are coming back with me, darling, you’re much too gloomy to sit here on your own, you’ll only get yourself into a stew. And afterwards I’ll drive you home.”
“No, no, it’s fine, I’ll get a taxi. . .”
“Just accept a little help for once, hmm?”
Ouch. Did everyone think I was that prickly? I nodded. “Yes. Umm, sorry. Thank you.”
Simon's place wasn't that far from the pub. He rapidly extracted a bottle from somewhere and pressed a large – no, a very large – glass of red wine into my hand.
“I don't think I should...”
“Sweetie, something is obviously not going right for you – your face always did give away everything you were feeling, and right now it's saying that you feel awful. So have a big gulp of wine and tell Auntie Simon what it's all about.”
“I – it's complicated,” I repeated.
“Yes, I got that bit,” he returned. “Try telling me why.”
I considered saying that it was none of his damned business, but I knew it would only upset him, and that would make me feel even worse. I didn't think I could afford to throw away any more friends. And Simon had proved that he could be discreet, even if I wasn't.
“I – you know that I, that Hansie and I, we were friends with Phil Cartwright and Piet.”
“Were?” He was onto that one like a hawk.
I took a huge swallow of the wine, carefully avoided looking at him. “Yes. We had a huge row, Phil and I. It's over between us. Well, maybe it's been over a long time, and we've been kidding ourselves.”
He frowned. “I don't really understand what you mean.”
“We have – history. I knew him before.”
“Before? Before Hansie?”
“Yes, and before Piet. We – were together for a time. And we'd met, once, a long time ago, even before that.”
“Ah. And something from the past came back to haunt you?”
“Yes. Yes, exactly that,” I said, gratefully. “Something from a long time ago, that I hadn't thought about, that neither of us had thought about – well, that we'd carefully avoided thinking about – for ages.”
“Oh Tim, that's a terrible shame.”
“It's not. I hate the arrogant bastard, I'm glad to be shot of him. Only... I'm worried that Hansie will miss him. And miss Piet.”
He looked at me consideringly. “Hate, petal? That's a strong word to use.”
I supposed it was, the sudden flash of anger that had prompted it having vanished as quickly as it came.
“And you don't think you can patch things up?”
“No! No, I think things have gone too far this time, things have been said that can't be taken back.”
He waited, patiently. And eventually, haltingly, I told him. About Oxford, Hallam, Phil. About Phil's ill-judged remark that had brought it all back.
“Good grief, Tim,” he said quietly, and laid his hand momentarily on mine. “I had no idea. I'm so sorry.”
And that did it. Suddenly, I was in floods of tears. Simon silently proffered a box of hankies.
“Oh God, I'm soh-horry...” I snivelled.
“Don't be ridiculous!”
“But I'm so... Phil said – he said I did it for effect, but I don't. I hate being like this, a big cry baby.”
“No, you want to be the Iron Man, like your uncle,” he said acutely. “Only you aren't.”
I hiccupped slightly in surprise at the sharpness in his tone.
“And his remark, stirring all this up, was what you argued about?”
“We were supposed to have made it up.” I was not going to tell him how – he knew that I was interested in CP, but he didn't need to know that Phil and Piet used it. And ‘I spanked him and that’s supposed to put an end to it’ sounded ridiculous, even to me. I wondered in passing why I hadn’t been so clear sighted at the time. “And I said I did, only I didn't, and the – resentment, I suppose, between us, on both sides, just grew. And then the other night it just blew up.”
“Just blew up? All of a sudden, after you've made it up, it explodes? Sorry, sweetie, I don’t really understand how, when you’ve been on good terms for so many years.”
“We argued when we had a relationship, too,” I said defensively. “Terribly. That was why we split up. Chalk and cheese, completely incompatible.”
“That isn't the description that springs to my mind,” he said.
“What is, then?”
“Far, far too alike.”
“We're nothing like each other!”
“Oh, I think you are. I think you're both used to being the golden boy, the king of your particular little hill. You say he's arrogant – so are you. Oh, not about your looks, you seem to have this idea that you're a troll when really you're quite decent, no, you're vain about your brains.”
“Well I'm sorry, sweetie, but you are. And you aren't always patient with people who have less of them than you.”
“I've never set myself up as some sort of know-it-all,” I said indignantly.
“No, but you aren't shy of correcting people when they don't know as much as you, either.”
“But I'd want to be told when I'd got it wrong.”
“Oooh, you fibber, you hate being wrong. The time I caught you out in a spelling mistake your face would have curdled milk.”
An indignant retort sprang to my lips, died as I caught the wicked glint in Simon's eye. A reluctant smile spread instead. “OK, I do hate being wrong. But I'd hate worse being allowed to carry on with a mistake thinking it was right.”
“Yes, but not everyone is as secure as you about their faculties, sweetie.”
“You mean vain.”
“Exactly. Quod erat, sweetie. And perhaps Phil isn't so secure – rugby players aren't exactly renowned for their high intellect – and perhaps when you just mean to help, he hears someone putting him down. But then he can do all those big rough physical things you so wish that you could, can't he?”
“You're saying I'm jealous? Of Phil?” He shrugged expressively, in a 'work it out for yourself' kind of way.
I thought about it. Hansie had once accused me of the same thing. Could it be true? It wasn't a very nice thing to think about yourself.
“I don't know.”
“And you don't want to know.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Tim, I do know you fairly well. Yes, you're smart, and funny, and you can be very kind and considerate. I've never forgotten that the first week at work, when no-one wanted to risk the gossip of having anything to do with a flamboyant queen, you made a point of sitting at my table in the canteen. But. But. You are also pig-stubborn enough to make a saint scream. And you have a terrible habit of just setting aside things you don't want to think about, and ignoring them with all the very considerable will you can bring to bear.”
For some reason, that got up my nose.
“And when will you be sending me the bill for this analysis, Doctor Fraud?”
He raised his eyebrows at me.
“There's no need to get angry, Tim, I'm on your side.”
“Well it doesn't sound like it,” I said grumpily.
“Well I am. And since you mention it – have you considered going and seeing someone? A professional?”
“What? No!” I half stood in horror.
“Calm down, I'm not suggesting that you be sectioned.”
“I don't need any poking and prying into my head, thank you very much.”
“Well, sweetie, I wonder if that's true. Something very nasty happened to you, and you've tried all these years to pretend it didn't. And it grew and grew in the dark until you couldn't ignore it any more, and it's wrecked the most important friendship you had.”
“Oh, I think it was. You and Phil – you couldn't feel so strongly about him if you weren't still intimately tied together. Don't you hear how everything in your story revolves around him? If you hadn’t felt the need to protect Phil, then Hallam would have had no power over you. And Tim – Hallam is the villain here. Not Phil.”
I bit my lip. “It was a long time ago. And nothing really happened. I’ve moved on. There've been enough men since.”
He looked at me. “Yes, so you're always reminding us,” he said. “Didn’t you once tell me your first time was when you were 14?”
“Fifteen. Down by the railway bridge. There was a sort of cruising ground there – not a lot of action, but some. And I was desperate to find out what it was like, sex. Who I was. What I was. A guy – I thought then he was really old, but I guess he was only about thirty-five – asked me to put my hand in his pants, touch him. I was afraid for days after that I'd caught something awful and my hand would drop off or something, but I remember how he held me, and how good that felt. But I wanted to go all the way, real sex, and not in the open where someone could come along. So I tried a few weeks later with the barman at the pub -”
“The Bear's Head?”
“Yes. But he realised how young I was and got me banned. From all the pubs in town, too – I was underage to drink as well as have sex.”
“So when did you really do it? Go all the way?”
“Eighteen. At college. A dirty weekend.”
“Did it live up to expectations?”
“I'm not sure anything could have lived up to my expectations then. But it wasn't a bad experience, at all.”
“And that was the start of Tim the Party Animal.”
“Maybe not quite then. I was fairly modest at first. A couple of love affairs. A few one-night stands after the bars, or clubbing. It was only after...” I broke off.
“Only after the business with Hallam?”
I couldn't answer for a moment, horrified by what I found myself saying, the place to which Simon was pushing me. I really didn't want to go there.
“No. It wasn't – I mean I didn't – it wasn't like it was some kind of reaction, damn you. Stop looking at me as if I was a pathology specimen!”
He laid his hand on mine again.
“Tim, Tim, my own dear Tim,” he sighed, shaking his head. “What was I saying about your capacity for ignoring things you don't want to think about?”
“There's nothing wrong with sex! Or with having lots of it.”
“No-one is saying there is. Except perhaps Tim. The Tim locked inside. Look, are you really sure you can't contemplate talking to someone with a professional understanding of these things?”
“No. I shouldn't – Simon, I really don't want to talk about this, even to you. I shouldn't have come.”
“But sweetie, you did want to talk, ever so much. You know you did.”
I opened my mouth to rubbish this, closed it again after a moment. It had felt good to be open, to be honest with someone.
“I can't any more, then. Please?”
“Of course. Of course. You know I only want to help.”
“I know. But I don't think anyone can help with this. It's done. It's over.”
He looked dubious, but all he said was: “And you're upset. I understand. And Hansie?”
“He – I don't really know. He hasn't gone to pieces, which is what I was afraid of. He was angry first, angry at Phil but at me too, I'm afraid. He said we'd lied to him when we said we'd be a family for him.”
“Oh but darling, all the best arguments happen in families. I should know.”
“Well anyway, he seems to be over that, though he's playing his cards very close to his chest. Mainly, though, he seems to be bewildered, about how we ended up where we did.”
“I don't blame him. I don’t know him quite as well as you, obviously, but I’ve always found Phil Cartwright sweet-natured and empathetic. The kind of person at a party who sees that everyone has a drink, or someone to talk to, or whatever they need.”
I gritted my teeth and told the truth. “He is. Was. Mostly. A giver.”
“So what did he get in return, then?”
I looked at him, surprised.
“Well, there must have been some quid pro quo, sweetie, surely?”
Us, I thought, he got us, and then thought that perhaps that wasn't an answer. “I – I don't quite know.”
There was a silence, that stretched and stretched. I didn't know. Why didn't I know? This was supposed to be one of my closest friends, a man with whom I'd experienced just about all the erotic combinations possible for two male bodies. A man I'd claimed to love. I knew what Hansie got from the relationship, and what I did. Even, I thought, what Piet did. What did Phil get?
“Would you like some more wine?” asked Simon softly.
“I – would you mind awfully if I went home? I can get a minicab if you'd rather not drive.”
“I told you I'd drive you home, and I will. Just let me get my car keys.”
“Thank you. Simon?”
“Thank you. For everything.”
I do sometimes wonder at the extent of Family, and indeed of family. My relatives, naturally, know nothing of the former; why would they? But I think that if they could get over some of the more unusual aspects, they might approve very well of the underlying principle.
Because my mother rang up. Nothing in that, I speak to her once a week or so. She likes to hear what I have been doing, to tell me about what is happening in Ficksburg, and to fuss at me, even at my age. Am I eating right? (She asks that less often now that she has met Phil.) Is my health good? Am I still happy in my job? And:
“What is the matter with Phil?”
For all is not well, and even at the far end of the world, it seems, they know it.
“Who says anything is wrong with Phil?” I asked defensively.
Mamma says. Mirrie had rung up to speak to me about some silly gift I had sent home for the girls; she had spoken with Phil; she had told her mother that Meneer Phil (and yes, I think she does know that he is gay, but she has an overwhelming crush on him nonetheless) did not sound at all well; Riana had told our mother; Mamma had rung up because naturally it must be my fault. Apparently it is a mother thing. To the outside world, the child can do no wrong and the mother will defend to the death; to the child himself, the mother speaks as to a complete idiot, because the child, no matter how old, is incompetent in all matters, is, after all, a child. If Phil is unwell, it will almost certainly be Pieter’s fault.
It is Pieter’s fault. But what could I tell her? About Phil and Tim? Only that he had quarrelled with a close friend and not yet made it up. About the rest?
I found that I had been on the phone for 35 minutes, telling her about Phil wanting to be married and the fact that we could not; about his desire for recognition, for validation of our relationship. Some about his family, as carefully worded as I could manage, for at a reasonable distance from Lancashire, I could see that Edwin Cartwright did indeed love his son, however little he understood him. I would not turn him into the villain.
“Are you sure you won't come in?” I asked again.
“Sweetness, I absolutely must get home and get my beauty sleep.”
“I'm so sorry to drag you all the way out here.”
He sighed. “Tim, don't let's go through all that again, petal, hmm? It's really no bother.”
“But it is. And I know it is. And I appreciate it, honestly. You're a good friend.”
He smiled with genuine warmth.
“And so are you. Now get in, before the wolves eat you.”
“Or whatever ferocious wildlife roams these wild surrounds. Night, sweetie. See you in the morning.”
“Night.” I waved once more, then trudged up the path and in. I didn't bother to put the hall light on, just walked through into the living room, reaching for the light switch. There was...
“Jesus fucking Christ!”
“Hansie! You scared the shit out of me you idiot. What the hell are you sitting here in the dark for? God, Hansie, my heart is pounding fit to bust, I thought you were a burglar or something. Anyway, what are you doing home? I didn't expect you till tomorrow.”
“Ach, so you didn't check your mobile, then? That is it, so. Stupid Hansie, I should have thought of that, instead of...”
“Instead of what? Hansie? Hansie, have you been crying?”
“I – Tim, I came home and you were not here and I thought you had left me.”
“Left you? Left you? You complete nana. What would I do that for? Left you? You'll have to pry me off with a stick. Why would you think - oh, Hansie...”
And then he was clinging to me, murmuring 'Ach Tim, ach Tim', and other things in Afrikaans I couldn't understand, the tears tracking slowly down his face, and answering ones springing in mine.
This was down to me. Well, to Phil and me. Between us, this was what we'd done to him, knocked back the confidence he'd been gaining, all the belief that he could be loved, that he was loved, that Hansie van den Broek was a person worthy to be loved, until he could come home (admittedly tired and not at his best), find an empty house, and leap to the conclusion that his lover had given up on him and left.
“Hansie, whatever happens, whatever happens, I'd never just leave you like that. Anyway, my passport is here, my clothes are still here – I bet you didn’t even think to look, did you? I’ve heard of leaping to conclusions but that’s an Olympic long jump. Oh, Hansie. I'd understand if you wanted to leave me, God knows I've been awful to you sometimes, but I love you.”
“Say that again.”
“I love you. I'm mad about you. You're entwined with my life so that I couldn't be free of you even if I wanted to, and I don't want to. When you're not here, like the last couple of days, it's like someone turned the colour down on my world. If I'd known you were coming back early, I'd have been here twitching the curtains waiting for you. Why are you back early – it didn't go belly-up, did it?”
“Ach nee, I'm back this evening because it went better than expected. Much better, they'll take an extra four hundred units if we give them the same discount we gave to Scheinmann-Laval. And we were all wrapped up by lunchtime, so I thought to change my flight and give you a lekker surprise.”
“A nice surprise? A bloody coronary more like.”
“Well, if you had checked your text messages...”
“All right, all right. I left my phone in my work jacket as it happens.”
“And where were you anyway? Was that a taxi?”
“No, Simon drove me home. We had a drink. And a chat.”
“Ach, a pity he did not come in, I would have liked to have seen him.”
I looked at him. He looked weary, and still a little tear-stained. My heart squeezed inside my chest with love and grief, and my eyes filled again.
“Oh Hansie, I'm so sorry. Sorry about everything. I've messed up, Hansie. I'm starting to realise just how much. Phil, you, you all got caught up in what was my problem, not yours...”
“Nee! No! My little – well, I suppose I must not call him so. Phil was wrong, wrong in what he said to you, and how he said it. Let no-one say other, or he will have me to answer to. But still, my liefie, we have perhaps not thought enough about him, about what he needed. Nick said as much to me.”
“I know, Simon has just finished pointing out the same to me in words of one syllable, suited to the very dim. We've taken him for granted. I've taken him for granted. I suppose I always thought – well, he's always so cheerful, and he has Piet, his career, everything anyone could want. Everything I would have wanted. I never stopped to think that perhaps he had things he wanted and couldn't have either.” I sighed. “I suppose it's a bit late to be thinking of that now. Hindsight's always 20:20, isn't it?”
“I will not believe that there is nothing we can do,” he said stubbornly.
“Well what? He made it pretty clear he never wants to see me again. But Hansie, there's no reason why you shouldn't go. He likes you.”
“No. I will not go where you are not welcome.”
“That's silly. Everyone has friends who don't like each other. And there's Piet.”
“No, I said.” Mutinously. “Speak no more of it.”
“But Hansie, you can't let my mistake...”
“I said, no more!” He pulled me to him, and smacked me hard, three times, on the backside.
And I burst into tears.
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