Never holiday with your friends, they say. Your relationships aren’t the same afterwards. Bloody right they’re not.
I would never have thought of holidaying with de Vries and Phil. Never. I’m not sure that Hansie would have thought of it, either, but for me being ill. I picked up something which I didn’t quite throw off again, and then I went back to work a little too early, and all of a sudden I was flat on my back with a doctor listening to my chest and talking about sending me to hospital. It didn’t come to that in the end, but I had to go home to Mary – the doctor wasn’t happy about me being somewhere without someone in attendance twenty-four/seven. I didn’t care, which isn’t like me: normally I’m a lousy patient, I want to get up and get on, but I felt so dreadful that when Hansie said I had to go to Jim and Mary’s, I just nodded. My chest hurt – they talked vaguely about bronchitis, and then about pleurisy, and then about it being some unidentified chest infection, and I had the red pills and the blue pills and the green pills and the white pills and Hansie sat by my bed and talked gently of nothing for hours, or propped me up to let me breathe more easily.
The pale yellow room had been mine all through my childhood, and when I left home Mary had turned it into a spare room, putting twin beds in it in the place of the cabin bed which had been mine. She made up both beds the day I arrived, and when Hansie strongarmed me up the stairs, said brightly, “Now, dear, we thought you would be better on this side, so Hansie, you take the one next the window.” Hansie nearly dropped me, and Jim, who had obviously not been party to this decision – this was, I decided, the editorial ‘we’ – had a coughing fit at least as good as anything I had managed. I flopped onto the bed as I had been told – even at my age I have more sense than to argue with Mary – and Hansie looked at her, opened his mouth, shut it again, and just nodded. He’s brighter than he makes out.
We were there a fortnight, and I did improve, but I was a long way from being fit to go back to work. I thought I could do it, but nobody agreed with me, and after I was shouted down for the third time, the question of a holiday was mooted.
“Two weeks in the sun somewhere. Preferably not the sort of place you usually go,” ordered Mary. “Somewhere quiet. And respectable.”
Hell, I didn’t realise she knew about the sort of place I usually went. I glanced at Jim. I don’t think he had realised she knew either.
“You and Hansie both. Hamilton’s can do without you quite well for a fortnight.”
Hansie and I both looked at Jim. He was gazing at Mary with his mouth open.
“Can’t you, dear?”
It may be a marriage thing – this was a question expecting the answer ‘yes’, and Jim duly gave it.
“Where would you like to go, Timmy?” asked Hansie. I didn’t care. I didn’t care until he came home the next day full of himself and his bright idea.
“I met Viper today – he came over to see your uncle. He was asking after you.”
Bet he wasn’t. He despised me. I didn’t mean to do that to Phil, really I didn’t and. . . but that’s history. We seem to have got away with it. Simon hasn’t talked. And I did pay for it. Phil forgave me, but de Vries? I doubted it. Fran Milton says that what he does is give his whole attention to people and things and that’s why he’s so scary, because of the intensity of it. He has given his whole heart to Phil (God knows why, the man’s an idiot) and anybody who hurts Phil can expect to answer to de Vries. I think he would be a bad enemy, and I was afraid he was mine.
“He and Phil are going to Greece for two weeks. They’ve taken a house – he told me where, but it didn’t mean anything to me – miles from anywhere, he said, with a pool. Very quiet. I was telling him that you are to have a holiday too, and he asked if we would like to go with them. I thought it would be perfect, so we went at once to see about flights, and we can go on Monday.”
Oh, God, he was so pleased with himself. He thought I would be pleased too. I could think of few things worse than two weeks isolation in the company of Viper de Vries. But what could I say? What could I say?
I could say: what a nice idea, Hansie. How kind of Viper. I shall look forward to it.
What on earth had prompted the man to offer? He didn’t like me, I didn’t like him much. I respected him: his professionalism was beyond compare, and the way he managed to juggle Phil and Hansie was masterly in all senses of the world. That whole relationship was difficult, for all four of us, and the way he contrived to keep Phil from jealousy and to deal with Hansie's – I don’t have a word for what Hansie feels. We had been doing very well until I fucked it up. And I had paid for it, but I wasn’t sure that de Vries felt that I had paid enough. He gives very little away.
Let’s face it, I’m scared of him. Viper is an excellent name for him.
The travelling was difficult. I couldn’t really help much with cases and so on, because if I exerted myself I began to cough again, and the other three had to manage all my stuff as well as their own. I did keep trying, until Hansie led me into a corner and whispered in my ear that if I didn’t sit down and stop flapping, he would put me over his knee right here on the concourse, and I wouldn’t like that, hey? And my own knees were wobbling, and I wasn’t absolutely convinced either that he was joking or that I could stop him if he tried, so I did as I was told, and left him to manage everything. The flight wasn’t too bad, but there was rather a long drive in a strange hire car at the other end, and I was like a piece of chewed string by the time we arrived. Not that I was prepared to admit it.
It was a beautiful house – a pale green villa with cool rooms and a pool, and a balcony that went all the way round. A stoep, de Vries called it. A huge living space with a modern kitchen off it. Two big double bedrooms with little en suite bathrooms, and what they called a ‘family bathroom’ as well, a vast tiled space which frankly looked like something from a porn film. Hansie led me into one of the bedrooms and pushed me onto the bed. “Now, Timmy, you will lie down for an hour and I will unpack.”
“I can unpack for myself, Hansie.”
“O.K. Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear, hey? You can lie down for an hour while I unpack, or I can spank you first and then you can lie down while I unpack.”
“Oh, Hansie, don’t fuss so! I’m quite capable of unpacking.”
“Ja, ja, and you always have those circles under your eyes, and you always look so thin, and you always tremble like that. A rest, Timmy, or a spanking and then a rest. Choose.”
I kicked my shoes off and did as I was told, with a bad grace. Hansie grinned at me and set about the unpacking, and then came to lie beside me. “You’re definitely on the mend, Timmy, ja? You’re beginning to argue. Just don’t overdo it.”
“I really didn’t need a rest, Hansie. I’m fine.”
“Oh, ja. In that case you won’t want to keep me company while I have a rest. Viper and Phil have gone out to the village to bring in supplies, and there’s nobody here, and they’ll be an hour at least. So I’m lying down, but if you want to get up and go and do things, you do that.”
Well, there were things I could think of to fill in an hour, sure enough. And afterwards I went to sleep, which was probably what Hansie had intended all along. He came to wake me in time for dinner, which Phil had constructed, largely from the village deli. It was rather good, actually.
“Don’t let Piet cook,” he counselled. “If it’s his turn to make a meal, hope for salad. He is a truly dreadful cook.”
I glanced, involuntarily, at de Vries. The notion of him being bad at anything was unbelievable. He said nothing, and opened a bottle of wine. Phil came up behind him, wound his arms round his neck and kissed him. I wondered if he were just too stupid to be scared, but de Vries smiled at him, swatted him lightly on the rear, and reached for glasses.
“Tim, are you allowed wine? Or are you still taking antibiotics?”
“No, I’ve finished all my tablets. I’ll have a glass of wine. Thank you.”
I couldn’t bring myself to call him by name. I had been calling him Pieter, or Viper, for months, but I kept having to stop myself saying ‘Mr de Vries’ again.
I flagged badly after dinner – the second glass of wine didn’t help, either – and Hansie swept me off to bed early. I didn’t sleep well, though; I woke at about two and was awake until five, and only dozed after that.
It was a beautiful morning and we breakfasted on the verandah, and I was allowed to wash the dishes afterwards, although Hansie fussed again. Nobody particularly wanted to go anywhere, so by mid-morning we were all in the pool. Hansie and Phil were playing like puppies, ducking each other and racing, and I swam very slowly up and down, wondering when my limbs would stop feeling like soft boiled spaghetti. I was just turning at one end when a hand closed on my wrist.
“Enough,” said de Vries. “Out now. You are tired. A rest in the sun before you do any more.”
I opened my mouth: I had half a dozen things to say. Mind your own business. You aren’t my Top. I’m fine, I don’t need to be watched like a toddler. Several more along the same lines, but de Vries raised one eyebrow, and obediently I climbed out of the water and wrapped myself in a towel and flopped onto a lounger in a profound sulk. He came after me, stretched out and said, apparently to the sky, “There is no point in overdoing things when you are convalescent. A few days’ quietness and you will be quite fit again. Be patient, and Hansie will worry about you less.”
Ouch. Below the belt. I shut my eyes to avoid him seeing how much that hurt; for some reason being ill had made me weepy and I had to bite my lip now. And it was no better for knowing that de Vries was right. My legs were trembling, I had done too much, and Hansie needed some time to relax too, without having to worry about me.
I lay there long enough to dry off, and was just beginning to wonder about sitting up when a cold something landed on my chest. I opened one eye and focused on the plastic bottle. “Sunscreen,” said de Vries, concisely.
So it was. I slapped a hefty quantity onto my chest and legs, and thought about lying down again, but de Vries held out his hand for the bottle. “Turn over and I will do your back.” I couldn’t think of how to stop him, but I really didn’t want him to touch me: I hesitated, and that eyebrow went up again. It occurred to me to wonder, as I rolled onto my face, how Phil contrived to get into so much trouble. I simply wouldn’t dare defy that man, I thought. He was very gentle over my back, and he found a sore place where I had pulled a muscle coughing, and worked at it for several minutes. “Renew that in an hour.”
Bloody mother hen, I thought crossly, and only realised I had said it aloud when he leaned over me and said very softly in my ear, “Cluck”. Oh, please, let the earth open and swallow me. Let the lounger fold up with me inside. That isn’t sunburn, it’s hot embarrassment.
He went back to his book, smiling slightly, and I lay still and let the heat of stupidity be replaced by the heat of the sun. And in an hour, I sat up and ostentatiously renewed my sunscreen. Hansie had come out of the water by then, and we carefully did each other’s backs; I absolutely didn’t want de Vries doing it. He was working over Phil’s shoulders, and Phil was wriggling and pretending that it tickled. Then de Vries turned and Phil started on him, and I saw his face. He never looked like that with me – he’s just nuts about de Vries. He finished off with a kiss to the back of the neck, and de Vries put a hand up to him, and I looked away. Those two are like Jim and Mary – I think there will never be anyone else for either of them. It’s vaguely scary (you know, at some point, everybody who speaks of de Vries uses the word ‘scary’) that either of them can make space for the rest of us, but they do. It’s very noticeable that Phil always knows where de Vries is, apparently without looking, and that anywhere they feel safe, anywhere they don’t have to be watchful, they will be touching. Phil sits at his feet and leans on his legs, or de Vries will be stroking his hair.
We spent the whole day like that. de Vries was reading philosophy, of all things. I soaked up the sun and swam for ten minutes at a time. Hansie and Phil romped like children. By ten o’clock they were both yawning and by eleven we were all in bed.
I couldn’t sleep. At one, I got up, pulled on shorts and a T shirt, and went out onto the verandah. It was cool, and dark, and I leaned on the railing and listened to the night, and wondered how on earth I was going to manage a fortnight of this. And I paced the length of the house, and round the corner, away from the bedrooms, to the bit outside the living room, where there was a big garden swing affair, and sat down in it in despair. This side of the house was brighter, because there was a full moon. I heard the door click and glanced round, and saw de Vries, leaning on the doorframe.
Suddenly I could see what Phil saw. He was wearing a pair of jeans only, no shirt, and nothing on his feet, and the moonlight painted shadows down his chest, and he was beautiful, all straight lines and planes. But still, I would as soon have gone to bed with the viper they call him.
“Tim. Is something wrong?”
“I can’t sleep, that’s all. Did I wake you? I’m sorry.”
“I sleep very lightly. Phil will not wake. I wondered if you were in pain again. I heard you cough.”
“I – no. Thank you. Just sleepless.”
“Then we will take this opportunity while the others sleep, and you will tell me why you are so uncomfortable with me. Why you flinch when I look at you. Why you do not wish to talk to me.”
What could I say to that? Because your lover put me over his knee at the instruction of you and my lover? Because I had deserved it? Because I did damage to your relationship when you had been doing everything in your power to sustain mine for me? Because there is something you can do for Hansie that I can’t, when there is nothing – nothing! – that I would not do for Hansie if it lay within my power. Because the only thing that does lie within my power is for me to give my lover into your hands and to accept him back. Because I am not convinced that I paid sufficiently for what I did to you, or that you have forgiven me for it. Because –
I got up, paced to the railing, stood with my back to him and searched for words.
“Mr de Vries - ”
“Ach, Tim, we are past that. We have been past that for a long time. Tell me what troubles you.”
I absolutely couldn’t. I bent my head over my hands, and he came up beside me and put his hand on top of mine just as the tears spilled. The single drop hit his wrist, and he made a sound of surprise, and caught me round the waist, sweeping me off my feet, hooking an arm under my knees and carrying me to the swing, where he settled himself lengthways with me on his lap. I struggled briefly and ineffectively, and gave in like a collapse, dropping my head onto his chest. His arms closed hard round me and one hand came up my neck, and he ran his fingers through my hair while I wept silently against him. It was a short attack, and a humiliating one. Of all the people in front of whom to display weakness! He wouldn’t let me go when I recovered myself, either, and I found myself too limp to force him.
“Now, that is better.” Was it? I didn’t think so. He went on stroking my hair, very gently, and the tension began to bleed out of me. It was hypnotic, specially when the other hand came to thumb the tears off my cheeks and then to hold me warmly against him.
“Talk to me, Tim. You have been upset since we got here, and it is not just the effect of illness, although I think perhaps that being ill has made you lose your sense of perspective. This is not, I think, to do with Hansie. Hansie is happy, and much better than he has been. What is it with you?”
I held out for perhaps five minutes. Then I talked, helplessly. About how much I loved Hansie. About how much Hansie loved Piet. About how much Hansie loved Phil. About the damage I had done.
“But that is long over. That was paid for, was it not?”
I didn’t know. It was over between me and Phil. “Yes. That was what we agreed. Phil to deal with it. And he told me that he did, that you and he had made your peace. So why are you worrying about it still?”
“Because I didn’t make peace with you.”
“But you did. When you made things right with Phil, you no longer owed me anything. Perhaps that is my fault: I did not let you see it. I admit, I was very angry, and I did go on being angry, even after you saw Phil. But I am not angry now. You were careless, yes, but see, there is no blood, there has been no lasting damage. So I will forgive you for carelessness, and you will forgive me for bearing a grudge, and we will go on better, fersure. Yes?”
I nodded. People say that a weight lifted off their shoulders, but in my case it was a band round my chest. I took a deep breath, and for the first time in a month it didn’t make me cough. de Vries was rubbing my back, gently, and I rested my head on his chest again. It was rather nice, actually. He spoke again. “You know, I am most impressed with what you have done for Hansie. I can only help him because he knows that he goes home to you. He believes now that we all love him, I think, but he is yours and he knows it.” Ah. So that was what Phil and Hansie were after. There’s something about praise from Viper – possibly its rarity – that makes it particularly warming. He went on. “You must be careful, Tim, not to fall into Hansie's trap. He blames himself for every bad thing that has happened to him, and he struggles to accept a mistake, put it behind him and go on. You must not let yourself believe that you are the only one who can help him, or even that you are the only one who cannot. You must not believe, either, that you have no right to be helped yourself.”
“But I don’t believe it. I know that you and I and Phil and Fran, oh, and Jim and Mary all help Hansie.”
“Ah, but who helps Tim? When Tim loses heart, a little, when he tires, who helps him?”
“Hansie, I suppose.”
“And who else?”
I frowned. “I don’t understand you.”
“Who loves Tim, as well as James and Mary and Hansie?”
“Oh, well. . .”
“Yes: oh, well. Does Tim remember that Piet and Phil love him too? And Frances? And for his own sake, not just for Hansie's?”
I was embarrassed. Touched. Reassured. It didn’t occur to me not to believe him: I don’t think Piet de Vries has ever said anything he didn’t mean. And I don’t think that talk of love comes easily to him, either.
Suddenly I yawned. He gave a little snort of amusement, and swung me to my feet. “Bed. You will sleep now, yes?”
I thought I would. He walked me to my bedroom door, and as I put my hand to the doorknob, he leaned to me, touched my face, and kissed me gently. “Sleep well, Tim. Worry about nothing.” And he patted me on the rump as I went back to my lover’s bed.
It was a lot easier after that, and curiously, my health improved in great leaps. Suddenly I had an appetite – it was a source of great amusement that I ate three helpings of some unidentifiable dish the night Viper did cook. I let all three of them boss me over having a nap after lunch, and not letting myself get cold when I had been swimming, and going to bed early, and I slept easily and all night. Well, except when Hansie had some other imaginative ideas. We went out together and separately, and we ate and played and slept and enjoyed ourselves, and talked. God but we talked. Hansie talked about his family, spitting out poison, and we all hugged him and helped him let it go. I admitted to my resentment about my mother, and gained some relief, and mustered my courage again and committed myself to going when we went home to try for a fourth time to tell her about me and Hansie. Phil made us laugh with scandalous tales about his team mates, old and new, and Piet told us of old matches, and famous names and places. It was a wonderful holiday.
I did – I did do one more thing. I manoeuvred a situation. We had found that there was a night club in the nearest town. A very small and from the look of it insalubrious night club, which had become the running joke – that Phil and I were going clubbing to pick up some talent, that Hansie was insisting on going to chaperon, that Piet was too old for such things. Piet was far too advanced in years for such activities, and would come down heavily on us if we weren’t home by Cinderella time, and all the rest of it. Oh, you know how it is, it’s not really funny, but in your own group it’s your own particular joke. And Piet was pretending to be cross with us all, for calling him old.
And one day he turned on us in mock anger, and threatened that the next person who called him old would go over his knee – and I felt my heart flip. And I made some remark about him having to catch us first. You know, ‘you and whose army’ stuff. Oh yes, Piet knew. Piet got the point at once. I don’t think anything gets past that one. He grabbed at me, and I ran, and all three of them took off after me. But it was Piet who caught me. Hansie admits freely that he’s not as fast as he used to be, but Piet doesn’t seem to have slowed at all since his prime, although I suppose he must have done. And I was hauled back to the garden in mock disgrace, and Piet sat down on the steps, and I went over his knee.
Six, he gave me, and I don’t think that the other two saw anything other than horseplay, despite being his lover and mine. But that was just a little harder than horseplay, just a little more than sting, and he set me back on my feet, and I rubbed my backside, mock-ruefully, and Phil said, laughing at me, “Go on, Piet, when I’ve had a spanking I always get a kiss too, so make up properly”, and Piet pulled me to him and kissed me.
Bloody hell! So that’s why Phil comes over as a complete airhead. I’m with him – I can’t do that and think at the same time either.
It was near the end that I fell. A stupid accident, I just lost my footing on the steps. It was the one wet day, and I was coming in as the rain started, and I slipped and fell, and wrenched my thigh and back. Not badly, but I jarred everything. We just spent the day at home, talking and snoozing and drinking – that was probably what got us where we ended up. We opened a bottle of wine at lunchtime, and another one half way through the afternoon, and another with dinner, and the rain came down in stair-rods outside, and we sat in the living room and watched it. And I fidgeted, because I could feel the discomfort in my thigh and my back. Viper noticed me.
“You hurt yourself when you fell.”
“A little, yes. It’s tight, rather than painful. It’s not serious.”
“Phil, you should massage his back for him. You are good at that.”
Phil looked up from his book. “Sure, Tim, if you would like that. Have we anything – I don’t know, baby lotion or the like?”
“There’s something in the main bathroom,” offered Hansie. “Apple body lotion. Would that do?”
Phil thought it would, and Piet pulled the sofa to bits and made me a heap of cushions on the floor. “Come Tim, take off your shirt and lie down.”
Well, I don’t know anybody who doesn’t enjoy a back massage, and Phil is indeed good at it. The trouble was – and I hadn’t anticipated this – that he had done it for me before, a long time ago, and it had instigated a lengthy period in bed for both of us. Jointly. And my body remembered this and was more than willing to repeat the experience. And when he asked, quite seriously, which leg I had hurt, and then worked at the sore thigh muscle, he was having a very unrelaxing effect indeed.
Yes, I did feel that it was disloyal to Hansie. But what do we know that has no conscience? And I kept saying to myself: it will be fine as long as I don’t turn over, and no doubt he’s doing me good. And I was thinking about Phil, rather than about Hansie – just because Phil and I did have something, although not anything sustainable – and I was, I supposed, having my own little ‘mais où sont les neiges d’antan?’ moment instead of paying attention to what was going on. So I wasn’t listening when Phil asked me to turn over, and when he asked for the third time, Hansie decided that I was asleep, and slid a hand under me, and just rolled me onto my back. With all the evidence plainly visible. And I was about to expire from pure mortification, when Hansie laughed. And said:
“Phil, teach me to do that. It’s obviously a real life skill.”
And a minute later I was flat on my back with two – count them! – gorgeous men rubbing apple scented body lotion into my thighs. I was so completely gob-smacked that I didn’t think of anything to say at all for several minutes and then I said a variety of ‘don’t do that’ things, with less and less conviction in my voice, until Piet, of all people, trapped my wrists in his hands and asked, innocently, “Now Tim, my English is not up to this. Was that: ‘No! Don’t! Stop!’ Or was it: ‘No! Don’t stop!’?”
And whatever Hansie did just as he spoke had me arching frantically off the cushions, and then Hansie came down to kiss me, and Phil. . . do you know, I never realised Phil was so uninhibited?
And I thought that a little revenge was called for, so I started on Hansie's shirt buttons, and Phil came to help, and that turned into a tickling match, and it was Piet who held Hansie down while Phil and I tickled him into total submission. But Hansie's attack on Phil was to kiss him, and. . . well, that was when it got away from us. I can remember at one point thinking: I know that’s Hansie's hair, and I recognise Phil’s mouth so dear God, that must be Piet! And sometimes only multiple punctuation will do. ! ! ! ! ! ! ! !
And I pulled free of Phil once and heard Hansie begging in a hoarse voice, and croaked “What’s Piet doing to him?” and Phil whispered, “this” and I made a most peculiar noise, and he added, sadly, “but I’m not as good at it as he is”. And Piet said, “move over and make room for the expert,” and Phil did. And if I didn’t die of it, it was more luck than judgment.
Now look, without going into too much detail, I’ve done something like that before. I’ve been around a bit, and well, I’ve played with more than one partner. Before Hansie. Hansie and I are – we forsake all others, cleaving only unto each other, as they say. And we went and saw the people at the clinic and had blood tests done and the like. And from something Phil said, he and Piet have done the same. Life is a lot less safe than it used to be. And I think it’s probably just as well that we all had gone, because although it was definitely Hansie who made me whoop at the end, I wouldn’t like to swear who laid the foundations. In a manner of speaking.
But for me at least, the scent of sweet apple gives me an immediate kick in the libido - petites madeleines for my sex life. One waft of orchard fruits and I’m thinking, let’s go home, Hansie, and practise that thing that Piet taught us. Practice makes perfect. And if not perfect, pretty damn good.
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