“Why did I ever agree to this?”
“Because, my liefie, you have always had Christmas lunch with Mary and Jim. So you told me.”
“Not my gap year. That year I had Christmas on a beach in Australia. I wish I was there now.”
“Liefling, you know you don’t mean that. Besides, considering the fuss you made about me coming with you, that Christmas was for family, and that Jim and Mary were part of my family now, I would think that you would be only delighted to spend the time with your closest relative.”
I glared at Hansie. That was definitely below the belt.
“You know that this is difficult for me.”
“Ja, and I know that you are making it difficult for everyone else. So you will go, and you will be polite and make nice conversation with everyone. Will you not?”
He smiled at me with a distinct air of menace, until I shrugged and turned away.
“I suppose.” I was aware how much like a sulky little boy I sounded – well, I suppose I was acting like a sulky little boy, too. I mean, he was quite right, I had made a fuss about him coming to Jim and Mary’s for Christmas lunch, and now I was royally hoist with my own petard. All because Mary had oh so casually mentioned to me last week, while discussing the arrangements, that ‘oh, by the way, we have asked your mother, too’.
The prospect of a whole afternoon and evening in my beloved parent’s company didn’t exactly fill me with delight. It isn’t that I hate her exactly, not really. Not anymore, although I suppose there are some hurts that never entirely heal. It’s more that we really don’t have anything to say to one another. Well, apart from the one big thing, and I’ve flunked that several times.
“Good. So get your coat, and get into the car, because I myself am looking forward to a drink.” I had suggested Bucks Fizz and scrambled eggs with smoked salmon for breakfast, but he had refused all but a little sip of the former on the grounds that he was driving us over to my uncle’s house for lunch.
I put on my new coat, which was one of his presents to me, and went to sit, slightly uncomfortably, in the car. Generally, in my childhood, gifts were piled under the tree and not opened until after Christmas lunch, which was torture when I was ten, but seems pleasantly civilised now. However, since we weren’t going to be at home on Christmas Day, and some of the gifts were items of, lets say, a rather personal and risqué nature, we had opened the gifts we had for each other at midnight on Christmas Eve. His had included a paddle, along the lines of the one Phil had used on me, which he had insisted on trying out, the rat. Twelve strokes, and he didn’t exactly hold back. Mind you, what he gave me after that to make up. . . but I digress.
I was not looking forward to the day at all.
Tim was so caught up with this thing about his mother that he never stopped to think that it might be difficult for me too. Jim and Mary have always treated me as family, and in as much as I know what a family is I am beginning to think of them now as part of mine. I did not mind the thought of a meal with them, not at all. But this meal, this time, by which people in this country seem to set so much store that they spend three months leading up to it, and another couple of weeks recovering from it – well, I was not sure that I knew what to do, how to behave.
I do not really remember Christmas being celebrated in my father’s house, even when Julius was alive. Oh, I remember going to church, and I think I remember sitting to a big meal at the table, but I don’t remember it as a joyous family occasion. Ha, I don’t think those two words even belonged together in my father’s mind, ‘joyous’ and ‘family’. And after Julius died –well, there were no celebrations in that house then, ever.
So I had no real idea of what to expect, only I did not expect it to be comfortable. Most especially in the presence of this woman whom I had never met, Tim’s mother. I admit to a certain curiosity, but she would not have been in the least important to me if it were not for the fact that she was so obviously important to him. He says she isn’t, that she is an irrelevance, and that his true mother is Mary, but although he may even believe this himself, it is clearly untrue. I do not know if there is any love left there, but she is important. She retains, at the least, the power to hurt him. That sort of mother I understand very well. And for his sake I was prepared to dislike her, intensely, and was rather surprised when I did not.
I think I would have known at once who she was, even if I had not been told. She had the same fine, lightly tanned skin and highbred bone structure as Tim, the same ash blond hair. Not the eyes, though. His eyes must come from his father, that grey-green like the northern sea. Hers were hazel. And she was pleasant, undemanding company, perfectly polite. No more than that – I cannot say that she was fun, or warm, but she kept up her end of the conversation, made encouraging noises in the right places when someone else was holding forth, even ventured a story or two of her own. But you could not help but notice that only when she spoke with Jim did she really open up, really laugh, really show animation. Then it was, I think, that you saw glimpses of the person she might have been. The person she once was. And when she spoke to her son – well, perhaps I was being oversensitive, but it seemed to me that when she spoke to Tim she was more hesitant. More careful. More measured. And the more quiet and careful she got, the more – reckless – he seemed to be. I kept thinking: any minute now, Jim will say something, slap him down, but he did not.
“More w-wine, Hansie?” Tim said.
“No, thank you, I have not finished this glass yet, and this is too excellent a wine to be hurried.” I shot him a reproving glance. We were not yet on the cheese course, and already he was on at least his sixth glass. Not counting the champagne, of which he had two glasses, topped up by Jim. These were big glasses, too, and he was overfilling them. And the question had had the exaggerated control of someone who is really extremely drunk and teetering on the edge. Why did Jim not stop him?
You could not call what I got back a smile. It was more like a baring of teeth.
He swung abruptly on his mother. “Mother, won’t you join me in another drop?”
“No, thank you, Tim. Haven’t you had. . . ” She paused, rethought what she had evidently been going to say. “I think your friend is right, this is too good a wine to hurry.”
“He isn’t my friend,” said Tim, savagely. “He’s my lover. My partner. The man I sleep with.”
In the horrible, ages-long silence that followed, I could feel the wave of red sweeping me up to the roots of my hair. For his part, though, Tim was as pale as milk, rigid, staring at his mother, daring her to say something. Say something, say anything. Please, somebody say something.
“Hansie, darling, will you help me clear these plates?” said Mary calmly, rising from her chair.
“Ja, Mary, of course,” I said. Thank you, thank you! I dropped a fork in my haste, had to bend down to pick it up, saw Tim’s hands knotted in his lap, knuckles standing out white. Then as I rose, he quite deliberately stretched his hand out, to fondle my backside, in full view of everyone.
His mother placed her glass very precisely down on her tablemat, dabbed at her lips with her napkin, turned to her brother, and said:
“It really is a lovely wine, Jim. Did you get it from Weston’s in the High Street?”
“No, I ordered a couple of cases from Addison and Heybridge, on Hansie’s recommendation. He really knows his stuff when it comes to the grape.”
“Ah. Well of course, South Africa has such a . . .”
The conversation faded as I took the plates into the kitchen.
“Where do you want these, Mary?”
“Oh, just on the top there.” She looked at me, shook her head, and hugged me hard.
“I’m sorry, my dear,” she said. “I told Jim that this was a bad idea, but he really didn’t want her to be on her own at Christmas. Usually she goes away, but this year. . .”
“Ach, Mary, it does not matter. Family secrets, family rows, I understand these.”
She winced. “Yes, but that isn’t supposed to be how it is. Not entirely, at any rate. Though I've not said so, I've been waiting for Tim to tell his mother for a long time, for both their sakes. But not like this, not as a weapon.”
I shrugged. “It seems it makes no difference. It is as if he hadn’t spoken.”
“It’s her only defence, poor girl. It’s the only way she knows to cope, to ignore the bad thing and hope it will go away.” She patted me on the back. “Take the cheese in for me, will you?”
“Hail Caesar. We who are about to dine, salute you.”
She shook her head at me. “Puns, is it, and not even in your mother tongue? Hansie van den Broek, get in there and sort your partner out before things get even worse.”
“Yes, Mary,” I replied meekly. It was only as I was edging back through into the dining room that it suddenly clicked. Sort out your partner. That was why Jim had said nothing. He had been waiting for me to do so.
“Here is the cheese, meneeren, mevrou.”
“Excellen’! Open ano’ bottle of red, will you Jim?” slurred Tim. “Or s’me port, maybe?”
“I think you have had quite enough, Tim,” I said as calmly as I could manage.
Jim smiled slightly, relieved, and Tim’s mother’s eyebrows rose, although she said nothing.
“But. . .”
“Tim.” I gave him the Look. It must have been a good one, because even in his present state his eyes widened a bit, and he looked down, abashed. He was less white than greenish now, truth to tell, as if whatever tide of emotion had been carrying him had receded, and the effects of the alcohol were no longer masked by adrenaline.
“I think he’s right, laddie,” said Jim. “You look a little the worse for wear.”
“I – acshurly I feel a bit. . . a bit. . . the room is going round.” He was sweating profusely, swallowing. I’d seen that look often enough – well, been in that state often enough, if truth be told, that I was pretty sure we would be treated to a display of his stomach contents any time soon, which would do nobody any good.
“Kom, my liefie, let me help you. Op, op now,” and I got one arm round him, and his arm over my shoulders, and walked him, very unsteadily, to the bathroom. I could have carried him, and it would have been easier, but I thought that perhaps there had been enough public displays for one day.
Afterwards I held him, cold and shaking, as retching turned imperceptibly into sobs.
“Shh, shh, it’s all right, geliefde hart, everything will be all right.”
“No it won’t. Oh God, what a mess I‘ve made. Are you going to cane me now?”
“Nee, don’t be silly. We will talk, when you are feeling better. This was. . . “ Well, I wasn’t too sure what it was. Nevertheless, although he had behaved badly I thought there were extenuating circumstances. Besides, he had been sick as a dog. He would be quite sore enough tomorrow without me adding to it. I thought I might save his offences, such as they were, for another and less emotionally charged time.
“I’m soo-o sorry. I’ve ruined it all, everyone’s Christmas.”
“Ag, nee, my liefie, my skat. Nobody’s Christmas is ruined. Christmas is only starting. There is plenty of time yet for us to be happy, as we were last night. Come now, drink some water, it will take the bad taste from your mouth. Afterwards you must have some more, and maybe some orange juice, and two paracetamol.”
“I don’t really want. . .”
“You must rehydrate or you will feel even more awful afterwards. Be sure I know. And if you argue with me I really will cane you. Now drink the water.”
Oh God, did I feel sorry for myself Boxing Day morning. Hansie had forced litres of water and orange juice down me the previous evening, interspersed with coffee and a couple of paracetamol, but the combination of alcohol, stress, and a much larger and more meat-heavy meal than I usually eat had upset my stomach, and between that and the after effects of the booze and Hansie’s espresso, and worrying about what I’d done, I hardly slept a wink.
“I feel like death.”
“You look like death,” he agreed pleasantly. “Buck up, we’re going to Piet and Phil for the day.”
I groaned. “Oh no, I’d forgotten that. Can’t we call and say I’m ill?”
“No, we can’t,” replied the heartless brute calmly. “They’re expecting us to rock up in about an hour and a half. Phil will be preparing lunch already. We can’t let them down now.”
Let them down? Why not? I’ve let everyone else down.
“Look, I’m really sorry. About my mother. She will come round, I’m sure, but it doesn’t matter if she doesn’t. Mary and Jim are. . .”
“Liefling, if you say they are your real parents and your mother is not important I may just spank you for lying.”
“But. . .”
“But nothing. I know how important Mary and Jim are to you, how big a role they play in your life. No-one can take that from them, no-one. But your mother – she does matter to you. I even can see that. What she thinks, what she does, does still matter to you.”
“But it shouldn’t! She went away and left me!” And that was from the heart, spontaneous. I think if I hadn’t been very tired, and still a bit hung over, I wouldn’t have said it.
He looked a bit sad, and shook his head as he held out his arms to me.
“No, liefling,” he said quietly. “It perhaps shouldn’t. But you will find it does.”
Tim was awfully subdued when they came over to us. At first, I thought that Hansie must have punished him for something, but they didn’t seem to be behaving like satisfied Top and chastened Bottom. Then I wondered if they’d had a row on the way over, but they seemed very – well, not quite clingy, but they touched at every opportunity, in the way that people do when they’re sending the message: I’m here, I love you, it’s all right. And whatever the problem was it was with Tim, not Hansie. Hansie was in very good form.
“Here God, that was a good meal, Phil. That stir-fry was delicious,” he said over the last of the coffee.
“Thank you, Hansie. I thought that something a bit lighter and fresher might be called for after yesterday’s blow-out.”
He looked startled, and said something in rapid Afrikaans to Piet, who shook his head, looking a bit surprised, and responded in the same language. Tim and I looked at each other. He shrugged, obviously at a loss.
Then Piet laughed. “No, Hansie, it is ‘blow-up’ you are thinking of. Ontploffing. ‘Blow-out’ is ‘n feesmaal.”
“Ach. I am sorry. English has so many ways of saying the same thing.” I saw Piet look at him, and caught the tiniest shake of the head in return. So, something was up. I knew Tim was feeling bad about something.
We went back into the living room. Piet sat on one of the sofas, and I sat on the floor and leaned back against him. Hansie plonked himself into one of the armchairs with a satisfied sigh. Tim – Tim didn’t sit, but strolled over to the piano and plonked a key, idly. C above middle C. His eye was caught by the sheet music on the stand, and he began slowly – painfully slowly – to pick out the melody line. Then he began to sing. He has a nice voice, quite high. I think he could sing alto if he wanted, though tenor is obviously easier for him. It was a piano setting of the Coventry Carol, old and beautiful. I had been playing it for Piet on Christmas Eve.
“Lullay lullow, thou litel tiny childe. . .” His voice broke on the last word, and he stopped abruptly.
“Excuse me,” he mumbled, and fled for the downstairs cloakroom.
Hansie half rose, shrugged helplessly, sat again.
“Hansie, what’s wrong with Tim?”
“He has – he had too much to drink yesterday and told his mother that I was his lover. Ja, and quite brutally. And she blanked him out, just ignored the statement. And more or less ignored him, too.”
“And you, my Hansie? Did she ignore you too?” asked Piet.
“Ach, I do not care about that. It makes no difference to me what the woman thinks. But it matters to him, no matter how much he says it does not.”
Poor Tim. My heart went out to him. In a way, both he and Hansie come from broken families, and maybe that helps hold them together, gives them the determination to build something secure and enduring and loving. Of course, unlike Hansie, Tim did have someone to give him a loving home. But I suppose, no matter how much he loves Jim and Mary, and they him, there was still that loss to deal with.
Piet rose. “Go stack the dishwasher, koekie. Hansie will help you. I will have a little talk with young master Tim.”
“Piet. . .”
“Go. We will be fine.”
Damn, damn, damn.
Why do I always lose it in front of Phil and Piet, of all people? (A small treacherous voice inside murmured: because you trust them, and I silenced it ruthlessly. I hate it when my subconscious starts answering my rhetorical questions.)
Once I was certain that I had my emotions under control again I splashed some water on my face, flushed the loo to maintain the pretence that that was my only reason for being in here, took a deep breath and stepped out to brazen it out.
Hansie and Phil had magically vanished. Piet was standing, looking out at the garden, his back to me.
“I’m sorry, I have a slightly upset stomach after yesterday.”
He spoke without turning. “I have heard that you were upset yesterday, yes, and not only your stomach, I think.”
Damn Hansie! Did he have to tell all our business to this man?
“Do not blame Hansie, it was natural that we should ask. You are not yourself, Tim, and Phil was concerned about you. We both are.”
Despite myself, I couldn’t help a little glow at that. It sputtered and faded as quickly as it had come, returned to the grey chill that had descended on me after we got home yesterday. I hadn’t even been punished, and God knows I deserved it.
“I – I’m sorry.”
“Why do you apologise to me?” He turned for the first time, genuine surprise on the hawk features. Surprise, and something softer, gentler, that sits strangely (and yet strangely well) there. I know what a privilege it is, that I am allowed to see that kindness.
“Because – because I’m spoiling your day, too. After I spoiled yesterday.”
“Tim, that isn’t true.”
No, it isn’t, but I’d feel stupid saying what came into my head first. That I apologised because I feel that I’ve fallen below the standards you expect. I mean, you aren’t my Top. Exactly.
“I – I feel that I haven’t – that I’ve made a mess of things. With everybody.”
“You may owe apologies to your family for that, perhaps. But not to your friends. We are not here to judge you.” Reading my mind again, Piet?
He opened his arms, a little hesitantly, as if unsure whether I would take the offered comfort. Fool. The way I was feeling at the moment I would take any comfort going, gratefully.
“Oh Piet,” I said to his broad chest, “what am I going to do? If Hansie is rejected again, by my mother as well as his. . .”
“Ach, Tim, do not use Hansie as an excuse. Hansie is quite used to being ignored by his family, by his own mother, it troubles him not at all that your mother should do so.”
“But I want her to love him. I want her. . .”
“To love me.” There, I’d said it.
“And you fear that she does not. That if she had loved you she would have fought to stay with you, no matter what had happened to your father. That the intensity of her grief for him means that it was only ever him that she loved, and never you at all.”
Well, if you put it like that.
I grimaced. “Yes. It sounds so bald, so selfish. But then a child’s love is, I suppose, in some ways.”
“Yes, Tim, it can be so. But the thing is, you are no longer a child.”
“Ouch.” That cut. That cut deep, because it was true. “No, I know.”
“I do not mean to criticize. I am just observing the facts. There is too much of the past in what you feel, too much of Tim the little boy who was left feeling all alone, and not enough of that remarkable young man who has the strength to help someone still more badly wounded, the maturity to love as an adult loves, seeing the flawed human being, acknowledging the faults, and loving despite them. Because of them.”
“Oh.” I gulped. I hugged him hard, felt him squeeze a little tighter in return “But Piet, I don’t feel very remarkable. And. . .”
“If you say anything else nice I’m going to burst into tears.”
A tremor of silent laughter. “Then I shall be harsh.” A paw descended from my back to swat me on the backside just a little harder than was comfortable. “You will by damn sort yourself out, you hear me?”
“Good. I cannot tell you how to live your life, or what it is best to do with your mother. But I can tell you that whatever happens there are many who love you, and she has, perhaps, not so many to love her. If you can love her, do so. If you can not, try to be kind. And if that is not possible, then be civil. There are women who do not deserve even that – that bitch of a mother Hansie has for one” I was startled by the venom that suddenly percolated into his voice “– but from what I have heard your own mother is not such a person, fersure.”
Jennifer Alison Creed and Ellie van der Merwe? Definitely no comparison. My mother had never actively rejected me. Had, to be fair, made efforts to repair the breach. Piet, as usual, was right. I wanted her love, but I wasn’t offering her much of mine.
“I’ll send her some flowers, and ask if I can come round to apologise. To talk.” I felt better for saying it.
“Can we come in now?” asked Phil’s voice. “Only we’ve restacked the dishwasher three times, and even Mr Perfectionist van den Broek admits we can’t squeeze another thing in.”
“Of course, koekie. Can they not, Tim?”
“Yes, I’m sorry, I didn’t realise you’d been banished.”
“And why is it,” added Phil plaintively, “that every time I leave the pair of you alone I come back to find you both in a clinch?”
“Ja. Phil, I think we have been betrayed,” agreed Hansie solemnly.
“If you’re so careless as to leave me lying about for other men to pick up,” I told him, “you deserve it. You too, Phil.”
“You trollop,” he said to me with a grin. I could remember him spitting that at me in real anger once, long ago. Now, not even the echo of that anger remained. We do grow. We do learn. It’s just that some of us need it knocked into us with more firmness than others.
“Takes one to know one.” Piet released me and pushed me gently towards Phil, who engulfed me in a hug of his own. “I’m glad to see you looking brighter,” he murmured in my ear, as he crushed me to him. I squeezed back, touched anew, although unlike his, my arms didn’t go all the way round.
“And am I to be left alone, abandoned, unloved, hey?” asked Hansie, tragically. “Just because unlike the rest of you I am a man of upright moral character?”
“You will not be upright for long,” promised Piet, “once I get my hands on you.” He advanced menacingly on my partner, who backed away in mock fear, and was chased around the sofa twice before I stuck out a leg and tripped him so that he fell into its leathery embrace and was pounced upon by his compatriot, who tickled him unmercifully until he was screaming with laughter and begging for release.
“Shocking,” said Phil severely.
“Such childish behaviour from grown men,” I agreed.
They looked at us and then at each other.
They let us make it as far as the bedroom before they caught us
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