I cannot sleep. Tim has wept himself into exhausted slumber, but I have been lying here, the thoughts going round and round in my head. I'd like to be angry, blame someone. I'd like to be able to bang their heads together, all of them, and remind them that they promised me a Family, and now they've made liars of themselves. And I know that none of this is my fault, hey? Or that it is the fault of all of us, or of no-one, I don’t know which. Relationships go wrong, and you take the sour with the sweet, who should know that better? But still I feel that I pushed things when I should have seen to leave well enough alone, and that the blame for that is mine.
”Do you realise,” I said to Tim, as I looked at the calendar on the wall, “that it has been nearly two months since we saw Phil and Piet?”
He raised his eyebrows.
“We’re not joined at the hip,” he said dryly. “They are entitled to their own life. So are we if it comes to it.”
“Ja, I know, but I miss our Friday nights.”
“Well… you’ve been busy with the 'Abbot’s Storley in Bloom' committee or whatever it is. And Phil has had a lot to do, and I suppose he wanted to make the most of whatever break he got for the summer. The season will be starting again pretty soon, and there’s the World Cup and everything that involves. He’s got a lot of competition for a place in the squad.”
“Even so… I was thinking we might invite them over this Friday.”
“I suppose,” he mumbled, before turning back to his newspaper.
“Don’t kill me with your enthusiasm, hey?”
“No, no, it’s fine, if that’s what you want to do. I’ll do that stuffed pepper dish, and maybe a mezze to start, then Phil can pick and choose what fits his nutritionist’s demands.”
“He says she is a bigger Top than Piet.”
“I find that hard to believe.”
“Ach, Piet is – very different from how he used to be. He was a lot harder when he was our coach, man, I tell you.”
“I find that hard to believe, too,” he grinned, then conceded. “Or maybe you're right. Having someone, someone special, that makes a difference. Perhaps Phil makes him feel safe enough to show the other side of him. To us, at least. I don't underrate that privilege.”
I thought about that. God, it must have been tough for him. I could not have taken it – Here God, I did not. I ran, as soon as I was able. But for Piet, exposed as he was on the pedestal we South Africans put our sports players on, it must have been damned near impossible, ja? The man was strong beyond belief. But sometimes even the strongest arm must wobble a little.
I rang. Piet answered. He sounded pleased to hear from me, which gave me a little fillip of pleasure in turn – silly, I know, but it did.
“Phil is training with the England team at the moment since he has been named as a reserve for the World Cup squad – but he will be back later this evening, and the weekend is free, so unless some urgent problem comes up, I think we will both be pleased to accept your invitation. The usual time? Good – it has been too long, and we have many stories to tell you. Until Friday, then.”
I was tired and bruised when I got in. We had been training hard, and all I wanted was to flop onto the sofa, preferably comfortably tangled up in Piet, and watch something completely undemanding on the TV. And to stay there, or in bed, for several days.
So I wasn’t best pleased to be told that we were going over to Tim and Hansie’s the following evening.
“Piet, I’d really rather not. The last thing I want, to be honest, is to go out again – I’d much rather spend the weekend holed up with you.”
“Koekie, I am sorry. You are right, I should have consulted you first. But I thought it would be nice to see our friends before World Cup madness kicks in and even I must make an appointment to see you. I will ring Hansie and tell him that we cannot come.”
“No, no…” I protested feebly. I supposed it had been rather a long time. “Look, tell them to come over here instead. I’ll cook something.”
At least we wouldn’t have to drive, which meant that we could both have a drink. And the meal would be more to my taste. It’s not that Tim’s a bad cook, at all, but there’s no doubt that I’m a better one.
I heard Piet’s voice on the phone in the other room, and then he called through:
“Tim asks if they can bring anything.”
“No, that’s all right. Just themselves.” That would be plenty.
“I suppose my cooking isn’t good enough for him now he’s the new Nigella, with the entire nation uncertain whether it wants to eat him or his recipes,” said Tim ruefully as we drove up the lane to Phil’s house.
“Ach, that isn’t fair. He had seconds when you cooked that lemony artichoke thing. And he asked for the recipe of that almond cake you did.”
“Yes, all right, I was only joking.” I thought it had been a rather pointed joke if so, but you learn in any relationship that some thoughts need not be said, hey?
Piet met us at the door.
“Come through, come through. Phil is just putting the finishing touches to dinner.”
“Ah, the TV chef strikes again… no wonder you’ve put on weight, Piet.”
Piet growled – there was no other word for it. “That, Mr Creed, is not funny,” he said sternly.
Tim took this for what it was worth, and grinned wickedly in the way that always makes him look like a naughty 7-year old. I wish he did it more.
“What makes you think it was a joke?” he said, and dodged Piet’s half-hearted swat, laughing, as we walked into the kitchen. “Hi, Phil.”
“Hello guys,” said Phil, flashing us a distracted smile, as he fiddled with something on the stove. “Wine's open, help yourself.” He was clearly already halfway through a glass.
“Thanks, but I'm driving,” said Tim. “We brought you a bottle too, and some interesting chilli flakes I got in a Turkish corner shop in Rushmarket Linsey of all places. Urfa pepper, quite fruity but with a bit of a kick. Have you tried it?”
“You really didn't have to, but that sounds interesting, thanks.” He broke off from his cooking long enough to offer his cheek to me to be kissed, but Tim had moved away to the other side of the table. Piet offered me a glass of red with a smile, and turned to Tim.
“Tim, surely you will stay tonight? Can I not press you to wine?”
“They don't have to stay if they want to get back,” said Phil, and “No, I think we really need to be up early in the morning,” said Tim at the same time. Did we? That was news to me.
Piet raised an eyebrow, but said only: “Well, a pity, but if it has to be so we must make the most of the time we have. Come, sit, and tell me what you have both been doing.”
“We're more interested in hearing yours. I'm afraid our life is very dull in comparison – just an old married couple in our quiet little country backwater.”
Phil's head shot up at something in that – I couldn't think why, it seemed unexceptional.
“Oh stop laying it on,” he said, a little crossly. “You aren't that, that – stodgy. Yet.”
“Thanks,” said Tim dryly. “I swear to you, I'm all about stock control at the moment, and Hansie is Abbot's Storley's one man answer to Alan Titchmarsh. Only not quite as irritating.”
“Titchmarsh?” said Piet. He never was much of a one for watching television.
“Gardening. He's a TV presenter on gardening programs. Unlike Phil, who's bidding fair to become a presenter on cooking programs.”
“Was. He was a presenter. I think he has gone now,” I chipped in. “I wouldn't mind his money though.”
“So you have been co-opted by the Villages in Bloom committee, my Hansie?”
“Ja, Piet. It is quite funny – there is George Vane from the pub, and me, and three formidable old women. And even though he was not so comfortable with me at first, because I live with another man, we have got quite matey: he has been forced to make alliance against the Three Witches, as he calls them.”
“Are they so bad?”
“Ach, nee. At least, Rose Dawlish is fine, and funny too. And Elizabeth Mandeville is ok, if a bit stand-offish. Joan Pollock – well she can be difficult, I admit, but she has the best garden in the village, and not by accident. She just thinks that that makes discussion a waste of time once she has given her opinion.”
“A perfectly understandable position,” said Piet blandly. “I feel the same.”
This was greeted with a general chorus of groans. Phil put out plates with a garlicky dip, some really good bread, and several kinds of olives, and the conversation and the wine waxed and flowed.
The main course was steak, and a green salad, and it was followed by grilled peaches stuffed with some sort of almond paste – simple food, beautifully cooked, though it kept Phil away from the table rather a lot, cooking it. He sank his fair share of the wine, though, a glass in his hand as he cooked. He cooked the way he played rugby, with such grace and ease that he made it look simple, every movement elegant and efficient.
“So what happens next with your television career, Phil?” asked Tim, idly.
“My television career? You mean the World Cup?” retorted Phil.
“No, idiot, the cooking.”
“I cook for pleasure, not as a career,” said Phil. “My career is rugby.”
“Yes, I think we got that part.”
“Really? I wondered if you were getting slower on the uptake.”
I stared. That was pretty sharp for the sweet-natured Phil. Piet obviously thought so, too.
“Koekie,” he said, mildly.
“Well for fuck's sake, you do go on, Tim. It wasn't even that funny the first time. One sodding program, I did one sodding program and I'm booked to do one more. End of story.”
Tim looked taken aback. “Sorry, I didn't realise you were sensitive about it.”
“No, you never do.”
A spot of pink appeared in each of Tim's cheeks, and I saw him bite back his reply. Piet frowned openly this time.
“Phil, that was...”
“Don't, Piet,” said Tim. “It doesn't matter.” He laid a hand on Piet's arm. “I didn't mean to upset either of you, and if I did I apologise.”
Phil stood up. I don't think it was intentional, but he is a very large man, and he rose abruptly, and just for a millisecond the thought flashed through my mind that he was going to hit Tim. However, before I could move to do anything about it he had picked up the pile of dessert bowls and taken it to the dishwasher. Stupid of me.
“Go through to the other room,” suggested Piet. “I will bring coffee through.”
Tim looked at Phil, standing stiffly at the dishwasher, his back turned to us, and rose, offering me his hand. “Come on, Hansie,” he said. “Let's go and bag the comfy chairs.”
“What the hell is the matter with him?” he hissed to me as soon as we were out of the kitchen.
“I don't know, my liefie. You did go on a bit about the cooking.”
“It isn't as if it was something to be ashamed of, for fuck's sake.”
“No, but he is famous because he plays rugby. Plays it bloody well, hey?”
“Yes, but we all know that. That's a given.”
“But it does not hurt to show we remember it, hey? I know you love me, but I will never tire of being told it.”
He melted, offered his face up to kiss me, his lips light and strong against mine, real fine, ach bloody fine. Hansie, why did you insist on coming out here tonight, when you could have been with this man, this damn fabulous man, screwing his brains out?
“Hah, I see I am interrupting,” said Piet. Hmm, on the other hand, maybe...
“You want a kiss too?” asked Tim.
Piet smiled, but did not seem in a hurry to accept the offer. “Your coffee is here, gentlemen. Phil will be through in a moment.”
“Is Phil ok? He seems a bit tense,” I asked tentatively.
Piet simply shook his head. “You can ask him for yourself,” he said. And yes, even dumb Hansie got the message. Piet was not going to discuss his partner with us, so perhaps it was a matter best left alone. A private matter.
But when Phil did emerge he seemed calmer, if still more quiet and subdued. Usually my 'younger brother' is full of life, burning brightly, but this evening it was as if someone had turned the lamps down low. Still, he did say it had been hard training this week. And even the cheeriest people can have off days, ja nee?
Somehow the whole night had been like that. The food had been good, the conversation and the wine had flowed, but it had been – restrained. That was the word. As if somewhere in the course of the evening, without anyone saying it, we had all agreed to a polite middle-class dinner party, and no more. I did not think that there would be any games – well, let us not mince words – any orgies of the sort that were not so unusual after our Friday night get-togethers.
Since it seemed a safe topic, I quizzed Phil and Piet about their preparations for both the upcoming rugby season and the looming Rugby World Cup, and talking of what he hoped to achieve in the white shirt of England, Phil seemed to recover a little of his usual cheerfulness.
“And what about you two, what are your plans for the next few weeks?”
“Well, we've got tickets for a couple of the matches, and we'll be glued to the TV for the rest,” said Tim. “And we're hoping to have a few days holiday in the South of France as well.”
“But we have to be back in mid-September, we're going to not one but two civil partnership ceremonies. I swear the government had no idea what it was letting itself in for – every gay man I know seems to be getting married or thinking about it.”
“But not you,” pointed out Phil, heavily.
“Well, maybe one day,” Tim said airily. “But neither of us quite sees the need.”
“Afraid it would cramp your style?” There was a definite edge to that.
“Hardly,” said Tim. “We know what we are to each other, we don't need to make a song and dance about it.”
“My liefie,” I began, and stopped. What was the polite code for 'shut the fuck up, you're putting your foot in it'? But Tim seemed to get the message anyway, and turned to Piet.
“Piet, I meant to ask you if you finished 'The God Delusion'”
“Ah, yes, and you remind me that I must return your copy to you. Straw men, I think. He makes some good points, some very good points, but he spoils it too often by attacking what he thinks religion is saying, rather than what it is actually saying.”
“But surely...” And they were off. I looked at Phil, and shrugged. But he would not meet my eyes. Instead, he said:
“Would the pair of you mind having a conversation that everyone else can join in?”
“Well you could if you read the book,” said Tim.
“Meaning I don't read, I suppose.”
“No, that wasn't what I meant. Phil, what's got into you this evening? You're jumping down my throat every time I speak, like...”
“Oh, and you're not having a go at me, I suppose.”
“I'd damn well like to, with a length of rattan,” said Tim. “You aren't getting spanked enough, my lad. Piet, this is dereliction of duty.”
“It's nothing to do with you!” snapped Phil. “What gives you the right to interfere with how we run our relationship?”
Tim looked aghast. “I didn't mean...”
“Come, my hart,” said Piet. “This is not mannerly, and it is not like you.”
“I'm sorry, but I'm fed up with being treated like some sort of bystander in my own house.”
“We did ask you to ours,” pointed out Tim.
“Like that would have been better.”
“Maybe it was a mistake to come at all,” said Tim. “I thought so from the first.”
“Yeah, well we all make mistakes.”
“Yes, we do,” said Tim with some emphasis.
Phil's forefinger stabbed the air. “Now we're getting to it. Out with it then.”
“I don't know what you mean, Phil. I don't even think you know what you mean.”
“Oh, I'm not quite as thick as you think, Mr Clever Clogs. You're still going to throw it in my face every time you think you're losing an argument, aren't you?”
“Throw what?” said Tim, rather defensively I thought.
“You know what. That fucking episode in Oxford. And I'm sick of hearing about it, Tim. You took that bloody strap of Hansie's to me, didn't you?”
“Well you were the one that made a big thing about it.”
“Me? It wasn't me that had a tantrum and locked himself in my toilet.”
“You know what I mean. You insisted on me beating you.”
“I just wanted to shut you up! I wanted to get it sorted, and be done with it, and not have to watch my mouth and feel guilt-tripped by you for the next 20 years.”
“I didn't... Look. You made me strap you, so I would have to forgive you.” He paused, licked his lips nervously, added in a small voice: “But I didn't, Phil. I'm sorry, but I didn't. I couldn't.”
“Then why did you do it? Why did you damn well do it?” Phil roared. It was as if a dam had broken, all the sniping and resentment suddenly exploding in our faces like a bomb. Tim studied his hands for a moment, then said:
“Because you wanted it, and Piet seemed to want it, and Hansie was there handing me the strap. Everyone wanted it except me.”
“Oh for God's sake! You're supposed to be the smart one, and you couldn't even find a way to say: look this isn't a good idea?”
“No, Piet, I've had enough of it. I hated that damned strapping and now he's whining on about it again. So you got into a bad situation once: get over it. Given your history I'm amazed worse things haven't happened to you.”
“You don't know the first thing about my history,” said Tim angrily.
“Oh come off it! When you rub it in our faces at every opportunity? All your sexual exploits? All your sob stories about your childhood?”
“What sob stories? I don't...”
“For fuck's sake, you trade on it continually. Always going on about your dad...”
Tim's grey-green eyes went as cold as winter seas, and his voice equally icy. “I have never even mentioned my father to you or anybody else here,” he said. Even in the heat of the moment I thought it a curious slip on Phil's part.
“Your damned mother then, I meant your mother,” snapped Phil. “Poor Timmy's mother didn't love him, and how he likes to play on it.”
“I do not! And my family is none of your damned business anyway.”
“Fine, then keep it to yourself!”
“I certainly wouldn't dream of mentioning anything about my life to you, since it's so boring and ordinary compared to the glamorous existence of Mr C List Celebrity, with all his fame and wealth.”
“Careful, your envy is showing,” jeered Phil. I hardly recognised the gentle, funny, compassionate man I knew in this red-faced, sneering stranger. From the expression I surprised on his face, neither did Piet. “Just because some of us are actually good at what we do.”
“Oh, you're good all right. You're a one-off.”
“What's that supposed to mean?”
“No, come on. Let's have it, let's hear what you really think.”
“Phil, Tim, enough!” Piet's voice held a strange note – could that be distress?
But it was too late. Into the sudden silence, Tim spoke quietly, almost reflectively.
“What do I really think? I think success has spoiled you. I think you've forgotten who your friends really are.”
Phil stared at him. Then he said, equally quietly:
“Success? When I can't even...” He broke off, then added: “You're right about one thing. Whoever my friends are, I don't think they include you.”
A spasm of pain passed across Tim's face. “No,” he said at last. “No, I think you might be right. I loved you once. But right now I can't see in you someone I want to know.” He stood up, looking about blindly, as if wanting to go and uncertain where the exit lay.
“No, because I know what you're like. You never loved me. You just wanted another trophy fuck for your collection. You take and take, and never give, and I'm sick of it.” Phil, it was clear, hadn't finished.
“That's not true.” From the sound of Tim's voice he was close to tears. Phil heard it too, and pounced on it.
“Oh is little Timmy upset again? Shall we get a big rugby player to give him a cuddle?”
“I have one,” said Tim, equally viciously. “And I live openly with mine, instead of pretending we're just business partners.”
“You fucker,” said Phil. That had hurt. That had obviously hurt; hurt, perhaps, more than even Tim had intended. “You complete fucker.”
“Enough, both of you!” If Piet had sounded distressed before, now he was openly angry. “I will have no more of this.” Phil turned a face of open distress to him. When Piet opened his arms, Phil burrowed into them blindly.
“Tim, Hansie, I think it would be better if you went.” Tim's head swung around. I was looking at Piet as he spoke and I think – no, I am sure, that it was just a simple statement of fact. In the end, Phil was Piet's first concern. That did not mean that he did not have other concerns, merely that Phil, of course, came first.
But Tim – Tim heard in it only dismissal.
“Come Hansie,” he said. His eyes were bright with unshed tears. “Let's go home. Goodbye, Piet. I'm glad to have known you.”
“Tim...” but he had gone. I gave them both one helpless glance, and followed him. I have a first concern too.
We drove home slowly, and in silence. In the darkness the lights from the dashboard glistened on a tear that trickled slowly down Tim's cheek. And then another.
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