I’d like to say that it was the fault of the boy on the television, but it wasn’t of course – he was just the trigger. And if I hadn’t been celebrating the end of the rugby season (and one that had seen the results we deserved, with a big growth in sponsorship and the prospects of some serious silverware next year) with a long and leisurely meal that had involved fairly generous amounts of booze, I’d like to think I would never have said it.
But when we turned on the television, sound off, to catch the news headlines, and across a shot of the outside of the Scottish parliament wandered a rather pretty Scots boy in full highland rig, Hansie murmured, a little wistfully:
“Timmy, you never wear a kilt.”
And before my brain engaged, I heard myself say:
“That’s because he’s never looked good in skirts.” It was just automatic banter, the sort of thing that’s common currency in the locker room – if the truth be told, not uncommon between any of us, either, though I like to think there’s less of an edge to it among the four of us. There was a burst of laughter from the others in response.
And Tim, who was sprawled out with his head in Hansie’s lap, sat bolt upright and stared at me, with a peculiar little gasp as if someone had punched him in the gut and driven the wind out of him. The colour that had drained from his face slowly returned in a deep flush over his cheekbones. Then he got to his feet and stalked out of the room.
Just banter, yeah, and the minute I realised what I had said I swear I’d have bitten my tongue off if I could have taken it back. “Tim, I’d forgotten, I didn’t mean. . . shit, shit, shit!”
“Tim?” called Hansie, in a panicky voice, “what is wrong?” He jumped up too, and Piet got up, looking worried, and I could see the whole thing tilting merrily towards disaster.
“Sit, all of you, I’ll go,” I said.
“Phil, what is all this about?” asked Piet.
“Later, all right? Let me go and try to sort this out.”
I think I must have sounded a bit like Mr Cartwright the Vice-Captain, rather than their mate Phil, because the pair exchanged glances, and Piet raised an eyebrow that said as clearly as words: very well, do what is necessary, but we will be having that discussion later.
He’d locked himself in the bathroom, and I could hear lots of water splashing.
“Tim, it’s Phil. Look, I’m really sorry. I never meant that. I never even thought. . . it was just a silly remark, I swear. . .”
“Look, love, please, open the door and talk to me.”
The water stopped, but still an obstinate silence.
“Tim, you have to come out sometime. I’m not going away till you do.”
The sound of the door being unbolted, and then it was flung open, and a taut, blotchy-faced, and slightly red-eyed Tim stood there.
“You fucker! How could you? How could you, after everything you promised? To throw that in my face?”
“Tim, I swear, I wasn’t thinking of that, it was years ago, I didn’t even remember that until after. . . it was just locker room stuff, you know.”
“You’re a bastard,” he said bitterly.
Well, I felt like one, to be honest. I can’t tell you how mad I was with myself. I mean, I’m supposed to be the one who’s good with people, understands their feelings, and I go and do something like this.
“Phil, will you call me a taxi, please. I’m going home.”
I didn’t even consider saying: ‘you’re a taxi’. “Tim, please, don’t. . .”
“I’m not staying. I can’t stay. No, don’t!” as I reached out a hand to him. “Please, don’t touch me. I just need to get out of here.”
“But what about Hansie?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know! I can’t face him. I can’t face any of you.”
“Tim, he’s your partner! And you are not going home on your own in this state, and that’s final. I may be a stupid idiot. . .”
“Stupid treacherous idiot,” he corrected spitefully. That hurt.
“No, not treacherous. I didn’t mean to refer to that business. I promised you I never would, and I won’t. I was going to say I may be an idiot, but I still care about you. Please, Tim.”
He struggled for a moment, then shook his head.
“I – I believe you, Phil. It’s just that right now I don’t want to look at you. I don’t want to look at any of you.”
“If you go, Hansie and Piet are going to want explanations.”
“They’re going to want them anyway, aren’t they? Oh God,” he buried his face in his hands, “what a bloody mess.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself.
He was the most beautiful boy I’d ever seen, and I wanted him so much it hurt.
Oh, he wasn’t quite as glorious physically as he is now – he was a teenager still, with a scattering of acne round his jaw, gawky, rawboned, yet to grow fully into his frame. But when he moved on the rugby field it was like watching some beautiful animal, all flowing muscular power and speed, an unmistakable talent, and when you looked at him he shone as if there was a light inside him.
He’d come up to Oxford with a number of promising young university and pre-university players aged between 17 and 21, to spend a week at a rugby summer school coached by the University sports staff and a couple of England internationals. All the visitors got assigned a buddy from one of the colleges here to show them around, make them feel welcome and so on. And I got, not without a certain amount of sleight-of-hand, Phil, the beautiful one.
But God, he was cocky. Cocky, and perhaps a little bit chippy, an odd mix. I think someone had told him, before he came, to watch out for being patronised or looked down on by the snobby patricians of Oxford, and he was ready to see signs of them even when they weren’t there.
“You don’t play, then,” was almost the first thing he said to me, when I’d explained that I was a sort of gofer and waterboy and general help about the place. I bit my lip, dismissed in one sentence.
“No, I’m not – good enough.” It still hurt to say it. I had managed schools rugby pretty well, but I lacked the physical skills to be a decent player at any higher level. “My uncle was a Scotland international, James Hamilton, so there’s a family connection, but I don’t play other than for fun.”
“Rugby isn’t about fun,” he said, vaguely scandalised, and clearly mouthing some mantra that he’d been taught. “Rugby’s about winning.”
“What, any way you can? Machine guns? Tanks?”
He frowned at me.
“Are you taking the piss?”
I smiled brightly. “No, a waterboy’s duties don’t go that far.”
There was a momentary silence as he worked it out. Then he grinned, and it was like the sun coming from behind a cloud, and something inside me went ‘twang!’. I think I must have stared, because he looked away and went a bit pink, and then tossed his head irritably and said:
“Nothing, sorry. So would you like a look around the college?”
“Um, yeah, I suppose.”
“Careful, I might be overcome by your enthusiasm.”
He punched me very gently in the arm, and shook his head.
“Sarky bugger. No, I’d like to, really. Only can we go and get something to eat, after? I’m starving.” He made big puppy dog eyes at me and at that moment I would happily have chopped off some non-essential body part to feed him, if that would have helped. I discovered on closer acquaintance that young Phil was always starving, no matter how recent his last meal.
Which, since the buttery was closed, was how we ended up queuing for fish and chips in the ‘Golden Duck Fish and Chip Shop and Chinese Takeaway’. Despite its unwieldy name, it served the best chips and the most generous portions in the area, and as a result was always full of poor and hungry students.
And the occasional don:
“Timothy, my dear, how charming to see you. And who is your delightful friend?”
“Hello, Dr Hallam.”
“Oh please, I’ve told you before, it’s Iain. Aren’t you going to introduce me?”
“Phil, this is Dr Iain Hallam, a college fellow and deputy provost. Iain, this is Phil Cartwright, who’s here for the Rugby Summer School.”
“Phil, how lovely to meet you. Rugby – such a splendidly masculine game, and I know you are a great amateur of such things, Timothy. I am not, of course, a sporting type myself, but I can see the attraction.”
“Um, will you excuse us, Dr – Iain? Only our fish is getting cold.”
“Anxious to get the catch back to your room, dear boy? I quite understand.”
We hurried out of the shop and back towards the college. It was perfectly true, the dinner would get cold if we dawdled. Somehow, neither of us seemed to want to speak until we were back in the room and I’d sported the oak. OK, shut the door if you prefer. It was Phil, not looking anywhere in particular, who asked of the air:
“Is he always so. . .?”
“So what?” I snapped. Iain Hallam always got to me.
“So. . .” he waved, limp wristedly.
I wondered what to say. When I said I wanted him, I didn’t mean that I expected to get him. Although some of the rugby blues could be both willing and surprisingly uninhibited if approached under the right circumstances, I had no reason to suppose that this glorious visitor would let me do anything more than worship discreetly from a distance. On the other hand, if he was actively homophobic, this was going to be a difficult, and short, relationship.
He blushed. “Yes.”
I shrugged, watching him carefully. “It takes all sorts. Especially here.”
“Oh yeah, sure. I mean, I don’t care, like,” he went on hastily, and I thought perhaps untruthfully. “It’s just a bit over the top. You were a bit short with him,” he added, an apparent non-sequitur.
“He gives me the creeps,” I admitted. “No, he isn’t always that flamboyant. Not with everyone.”
“Just you?” He flashed me a brief, unreadable glance, then blushed and said, hesitatingly. “One of the – that hooker, Val, he said you were, are, that I should be, um, that you. . .”
I put him out of his misery. “Yes. I am.” Trust Valentine D’Arcy-Smith to be the one retailing it. He had got blind drunk one May Ball, dragged me into some bushes, and asked me to suck his cock. I refused, and he had never, never forgiven me. Not so much, I think, for turning him down, but because I knew that he had wanted it. I rather imagined that his warning had been along the lines of ‘don’t turn your back’.
“Ah.” A long pause. “And. Um. Is that guy, that Doctor Hallam, trying to, you know?”
“I know what?”
He blushed deeper, and refused to look at me. “You know. Get off with you.”
For some reason that made me blush. God knows why, it wasn’t as if the idea came as any shock to me. Exposure to innocence, I guess.
“Er, yeah. Yes, he’s been trying to get into my pants virtually since I came.”
It was the first time I’d seen someone look horrified and disapproving and mortally embarrassed all at once. He opened his mouth, but what he said wasn’t quite what I’d expected.
“But he’s so old!”
I blinked. Part of me agreed with that analysis – Iain was in his forties, an unimaginable gap of years from my early twenties, and even vaster from Phil's eighteen. But the contrary voice in my head immediately wanted to protest this ageism. I'd had one or two partners who were much older than me. One of them, a man in his fifties with whom I had reluctantly gone home from a bar because I'd had no luck with several younger and much more attractive men, had spent a night making my whole body convulse in spasms of pleasure; the following morning he'd made me a huge breakfast and smilingly thrown me out, despite my shameless begging for more. I'd never seen him again, and believe me I kept an eye out for him.
No, it wasn't Iain Hallam's age that bothered me. It was something about the man himself. Something vaguely reptilian, that I lacked the words and the experience to name.
“It isn't that. I just don't like him.”
“Right.” He looked at his empty plate, and then at mine, still half full of chips. “Are you going to eat those, then?”
“Christ, it's like having a bloody vulture around. No, you have them. But I thought you athletes had to watch your diet.”
“We do. Normally.” He grinned at me as he stole another chip. God, he was gorgeous.
“So what are we going to do for the evening, then?”
“What would you like to do? I don't suppose the coaches will be any too happy if I take you boozing and get you legless.”
“I'm not...” he started to say, then stopped for a moment. “I'm not a kid,” he said. “I can go drinking if I want.”
I considered. Maybe just one, somewhere quiet. And straight. Or at least mixed. The Starling, perhaps. Or 99, that would be quiet until after 10pm, by which time my charge was supposed to be back to his accommodation.
So off we went to the 99 Bar. There was the usual scattering of trendier students, a few townies, including a rather raucous hen party in one corner, a few older, settled-looking couples. That was one of the nice things about the 99, it had a very mixed clientele.
I bought us pints and brought them over to the table that Phil had nabbed. He lowered his head, close to mine, and hissed:
“Those two women over there are kissing!”
“And your point was?”
He looked taken aback. “I've never seen real lesbians before.”
“Look, whatever fantasies you might have in your head, they aren't interested in you, believe me, so I suggest you stop staring at them.”
He pinked up again, and took a huge swallow of his pint. I shook my head, sat back, stretched out my legs, and sipped mine, scanning the bar for anything tasty as I did so. Don't look like that, I wasn't about to run off and leave Phil to the tender mercies of the hen party. Nor was I going to propose a threesome. It was just – well, habit. I noticed, with some amusement, that he soon adopted the same posture. It was quite nice, being the sophisticated older man.
About two-thirds of the way down his pint he got up the nerve to ask the question that he had obviously been dying to ask for some time.
“So you've – done it, with other blokes?”
“Never you mind. Enough.”
He was obviously trying to find some way to ask exactly what it was that I did with other blokes, and failing to find a polite way of asking. I reckoned it would take another couple of pints before he was able to ask impolitely. I wasn't entirely surprised. Straight blokes were often curious, in a slightly horrified way, about what it was like to take it up the arse, I don't know why.
“So how about you?” Turnabout seemed fair. “You have a girlfriend?”
“No-one special.” He took another gulp of beer, belched, then laughed slightly sheepishly.
“I'll get them!”
“OK. I'm just going to the loo.” I watched him ease through the tables as gracefully as he wove through his opponents on the rugby field, and sighed, then headed off for the gents.
When I came out, it was to see him seated back at the table, his face a careful blank. Seated beside him was Iain Hallam. Shit!
I hurried over.
“Timothy, my dear, it seems to be our evening for unexpected encounters. Twice in one night – not unusual for a young man like you, I expect, but really quite invigorating for me.”
I bared my teeth in what could hardly be called a smile. The double entendres got old decidedly fast.
“We're just finishing up,” I said lamely.
He looked at the two full pints on the table and smiled sweetly at me. “Surely not. From what young Philip tells me, you are just getting started.”
Phil blushed, and took another huge gulp of beer, then broke into a coughing fit as some of it went down the wrong way, gasped and flailed, and contrived to knock my pint over completely, soaking both Iain and me.
“Dear me.” His response was mild, but the flash of fury on his face as beer gushed into his lap was less controlled.
“Sorry, I'm so sorry, here let me...”
“I think you've done enough, young man,” said Iain, more than a little waspishly. “I'll leave you both to deal with your own wet patches, and I'll deal with mine.” He rose, not without dignity, and headed for the toilets in his turn.
“Sorry, it was the only way I could think of to get rid of him.”
“You mean you deliberately...” I thought of his grace and control, weaving through the tables. Of course it was deliberate. “You sneaky bastard,” I added with grudging admiration.
A ghost of a grin. “He wouldn't leave me alone. He kept asking all these questions.”
“About you. And me.” He looked under his brows at me, muttered something I didn't catch.
“I told him that you were – that we were together.”
“What?! Um, when you say 'together' you mean...”
“Yes. I thought he was trying to... chat me up. I just wanted to make him go away, and he wouldn't. I'm sorry.”
“I don't know what to say. Aren't you afraid people might think you're gay?”
He looked away and didn't answer.
“Come on, this place is filling up, and you should probably be back at base. Early start tomorrow. And frankly, this T-shirt needs to go in the wash – it smells like a brewery.”
“Just the perfume you need to pull rugby players,” he said, straight-faced.
“Funny man. Let's roll.”
We were on our way out when a hand on my shoulder stopped me.
“Dr Hallam, we really have to go.”
“We? I think that you and I need to have a little talk first, Timothy.”
I looked at Phil. “Wait for me outside a minute, will you Phil? I won't be long.” He looked at me, then biting his lip looked at Iain Hallam, his embarrassment and uncertainty obvious.
“It's all right. Honest.” He gave me another doubtful glance then walked out of the door.
“Phil tells me that you and he are, how shall I put it delicately, physically acquainted with one another?”
“Dr Hallam, that really isn't any of your business.”
“Oh, I think it is. Is it true?” His voice sharpened.
“Yes, so what?” I snapped. To this day, I'm not entirely sure why I lied, other than a vague feeling that I was protecting Phil.
“Pretty, isn't he? So fresh. So – young.”
I began to get a nasty feeling. “What are you saying?”
“I'm afraid that while as an aesthete I understand your desire perfectly, as deputy provost I must take quite another view. After all, a student of the college seducing a guest, an underage boy...”
“A 17-year-old boy, taking him to pubs, getting him drunk, having an illegal sexual relationship with him – well, I'm afraid that that is the construction that would be put upon it, and both the college authorities and the police would take a very dim view. Most unfortunate for you – you would be sent down, of course, and I think it unlikely you could return, even if no criminal charges were forthcoming. And for the boy – his reputation would be lost forever, alas. Sport can be an unforgiving mistress, I believe.”
“But we didn't, we haven't...”
“Oh come, you have both assured me that you have. It does no good to lie now.”
“But I...” I ran out of words. What could I say? What could I do? Who would believe the truth?
“Doctor Hallam, I...”
“Iain. Call me Iain. And don't look so distressed, Tim. I would not want it to come to that.”
“You won't tell?”
“Well, I'm not sure...” he smiled vaguely. “As an official of the college, I really can't be party to anything – illegal. But I've always thought you a charming young man. Perhaps we could find a way around the difficulty.”
“I – what should I do? Iain?”
He patted my hand. His fingers were damp and sweaty. “Take Phil home, or get someone to take him home. Then come to my rooms, and we'll have a friendly talk and see what, between friends, we can do for one another.” He smiled again.
Oh I knew what he meant, all right, although he was far too clever to say anything overt. The whole thing was hints and suggestions, nudges and winks. But I could feel myself sinking deeper and deeper. I felt like such a fool, getting myself into this situation. I had assumed Phil was over 18 – why hadn't I thought to check? No wonder he was so wide-eyed about everything. Tim the bloody sophisticate! Tim the moron, more like, falling for jailbait.
“Yes, Dr Hallam, I'll do that now.”
“Good boy. I'll see you later.” His tone sharpened again, a man yanking an invisible dog leash. “Don't be too long.”
I almost ran out of the pub, and into Val D'Arcy Smith, who was chatting to a Phil who looked more animated than I'd seen him all night. Val pushed me away, roughly. “Naff off, you bender.”
My 'Dreadfully sorry' was automatic, that bone deep politeness I had learned as a child and that never goes away. If I'd thought about it I would never have apologised to him. He eyed me thoughtfully.
“What are you hanging around with this runt for, Cartwright? Come and have a drink with some proper blokes.”
I saw he had two of his cronies with him, Steve Hailes, and Bryan somebody, a New Zealander. Phil looked wistfully at them, then at me.
“I ought to...” he began regretfully.
“No, you go off, Phil. I have to go and see Dr Hallam.”
“Just a little – problem.”
He looked at the others. “Be with you in a minute then, guys,” he said, “I just need to tell Tim something.” He pulled me aside, something he did without noticeable difficulty.
“What's wrong?” he hissed.
“You didn't tell me you were underage! He thinks I'm having it off with a kid.”
He went pale. “Shit. Tim, I never thought...”
“No, I can see that,” I said furiously. “Look, I'll sort it out. He – I’ll sort it out. Will you be OK with those 3 hoorays?”
“I'm not a kid,” he said, low and furious. “And don't make the mistake of thinking I am. I'll be 18 soon, I can look after myself.”
“All right,” I said, a bit shaken by the vehemence. “Don't worry, I think I can get us both off the hook.”
“Both? What do you mean?”
“Nothing. Nothing.” I suddenly felt unutterably weary, and rather grubby. “Enjoy yourself, Phil. I'll see you tomorrow. I'm sorry, I have to go.” And I hurried away, conscious of him standing, staring after me.
“You took rather longer than I would like,” said Iain Hallam curtly, as he opened the door and let me in.
“Sorry, I'm sorry, Iain.”
“And perhaps Iain is a little inappropriate at this stage, Timothy. You've been a rather naughty boy.”
“I'm sorry?” It seemed to be my night for saying that.
“Not quite the thing until we have resolved where we stand, I think.”
“Much, much better.” He smiled. “Sit beside me.” I sat down cautiously on his leather-upholstered Chesterfield. “Oh, closer, I don't bite except on far better acquaintance.” I blushed and moved a little closer. He squeezed my knee.
“Now, I've been considering this entire unfortunate business, and I think I could be persuaded to keep matters quiet for a friend. And we are going to be friends, aren't we, Tim?”
“Of course we are. Friends who'll do anything for one another.” His hand moved up my thigh. With a smile that was more of a rictus I spread my legs to allow it easier access. I felt sleazy, and not in a sexy way. The whole thing was stomach-turning, but I just had to grit my teeth and go through with it.
“Ah, you're such a flirt, Tim. Right from the first day I saw you, I said, that boy is such a charming little flirt.”
“I don't mean to be.”
“Oh, I think you do. Those short shorts you like to wear, and the tight-fitting T-shirts that show off that lovely slender waist? You advertise your charms quite shamelessly.”
I blushed and looked down.
“There, see, you're doing it again. Irresistible.” His hand reached a place that should have been showing signs of interest, and equally clearly wasn't. He squeezed a couple of times, then sighed gently.
Somehow, that sigh made me feel worse. As if I had failed somehow. As if I had fallen down in manners, in what was expected of me.
“But of course,” he murmured, “although I'd like to be friends, there is the problem of your actions. Quite wrong actions. I do feel that perhaps they should attract some sort of sanction, don't you agree?”
“Sanction?” I asked cautiously.
“Yes. Perhaps some sort of recompense, a recognition of your wrongdoing. A punishment.”
No, it didn't excite me, despite the number of times I’d imagined a lover saying it to me, despite even some tentative experiments. Oh believe me, I’d had fantasies about being overpowered and punished by a big gorgeous man, but that’s what they were, fantasies, woven around some imaginary and desirable figure. There was nothing here to desire. All I felt was a kind of sick fear.
“What sort of punishment?” I hardly recognised my own voice, high and childish.
“The sort I think appropriate,” he said, a hint of something harder under the silky feline manner. “Why don’t you go next door?” He indicated a door. “On the bed you will find some clothes. Perhaps you would care to remove your own – all of them, please – and try the others. Just to please me.” I gaped at him, taken aback by the sudden turnaround. “Go!” he snapped.
“Y-yes, sir.” I stumbled up and through into what seemed to be a spare room. On the bed was – no fucking way! No, I wasn't wearing those!
Yes, I was. I sank onto the bed as I realised the truth of my position. Deeper and deeper. I'd agreed to come here, I'd more or less agreed to prostitute myself to keep Iain Hallam sweet and Phil and me safe. I didn’t know how to start saying 'no' to him now. I didn’t see how I could. Only – a schoolgirl blouse? A navy blue skirt and knickers? A fucking bra for God's sake? Of them all, that was somehow the worst, the most demeaning. And I wasn't entirely sure how to put one on.
“Oh Timothy, how enchanting,” said Iain Hallam. “What a vision.” I knew that he was laughing at me, and I hated it, as much as I had ever hated anything in my life. I stood in the doorway feeling my face grow hotter and darker with shame.
“Come here,” he beckoned, smiling, until I stood before him. He slid a hand up my leg, under the skirt. I felt his damp fingers slide into the leg of the blue panties, brush my resolutely shrunken cock, retreat. “Yes, a very pretty little schoolgirl,” he added. “Sit on my knee.”
I hesitated. He patted his leg, and I sat, clumsily and awkwardly.
“Yes, I think that's quite delicious,”
he said. “I think we must record the image for posterity.”
Photographs! He was going to take photographs. I realised instantly and miserably that once he took them he would own me. I would never be able to say no to him. I would never be quite sure that they wouldn't turn up to haunt me.
“Please, Dr Hallam, not photographs.”
He looked thoughtful. “Weeeeeeeeell... perhaps not.” I felt a rush of gratitude. “Although you disappoint me.” He smiled. “Perhaps another time. Up then.” I got off his knee, and he stood, and indicated I should kneel.
I looked up at him through my fringe. I don't know what he saw, pleading or submission or what, but it pleased him. The swelling at the crotch of his trousers showed me that. He pulled my head forwards, pressed it against that bulge. I knew what I should do. I knew my part of the bargain. But it seemed to be more than I could manage.
A furious knocking at the door.
“What on earth?” muttered Iain Hallam.
“Open up, or we'll call the police,” said a voice. A voice with a slight but definite Northern accent. Phil's voice?
Iain Hallam made a sound of annoyance, and strode out of the room.
“What is all this ab- hey, you can't just...”
As I was scrambling to my feet, Phil burst into the room, followed to my amazement by Val and by Iain Hallam as I had never seen him, incandescent with rage.
“This is outrageous!” he spat. “D'Arcy-Smith you will be sent down for this! As for you, you redbrick oik...”
“Underage redbrick oik, you forgot that bit,” said Val D'Arcy-Smith. “Underage redbrick oik that you were chatting up in the 99 Bar earlier, as the barman is prepared to testify.” Iain Hallam suddenly went very quiet. D'Arcy-Smith looked at me in the silence, and grinned. “Well, Creedy, I never thought that navy blue was your colour.”
Of all the people to see me like this, it had to be him. I needn't have worried about photographs, everybody in Oxford was going to know now. I didn’t think I could bear it. Phil, once he'd picked his jaw up off the floor, came over to me.
“Are you all right? You didn’t – a dress? Did he make you – I'm sorry, I only worked out what you meant after, and then I had to persuade Val to come and help me, and – please tell me you're all right?”
I shook my head, but I couldn't speak. Instead I fled the room, ripped the horrible things off me, and pulled on my own pants and trousers and T-shirt. I was in such a hurry to get out I just stuffed my socks into my pockets and pulled my trainers on unlaced. I ran out, intending to run out of the door and out of Oxford and out of everything and everyone who knew me, but a lace tripped me, and I fell into the arms of Valentine D'Arcy-Smith for the second time that night.
This time he didn't push me away.
“Please, let me go.” Instead he ran a thumb wonderingly up my cheek to meet a tear trickling down. That was all I needed – not only did I dress like a girl, I cried like one.
“Oh for God's sake take him,” said Iain, waspishly. “Go away, all of you. I won't say anything if you won't, that's what you want isn't it?”
We looked at one another, and Phil and Val shrugged. It wasn't ideal, but it was probably the best that could be achieved under the circumstances.
“Come on,” said Val. “Tim, come on.” My legs seemed to have become jelly. He put his arm around me one side, and Phil did the same on the other, and they walked me out.
As we reached the door, I looked back. Iain Hallam sneered at me. “You are a severe disappointment to me, Timothy. And you really don't have the legs for a skirt after all.”
“He ought to get the sack,” said Phil furiously when we got outside.
“He should, but it doesn't work like that,” said Val. “He’s too well connected. Creedy – Tim – can you stand all right now?”
“What's wrong with him?” asked Phil.
“Just shock, I think. No, you’re still all wobbly, it’s ok, I’ve got you, I’ve got you.” This to me as I staggered. “Here, sit down, put your head between your knees.” I waited for the punchline but there didn't seem to be one. I couldn't quite understand why he was being nice to me. After a bit I was less wobbly, and the pair of them walked me back to my room.
“Tim, I’m so sorry.”
“It wasn’t your fault.” I ground the words out. It wasn’t fair to blame Phil, even if part of me, the unreasonable part of me, wanted to hang the blame on someone else. Only, I just wanted to die. Just crawl away and die.
“But if I’d never said. . . I really am sorry.”
“Phil, I was the one who let him force me into that, those, things. . .” I felt my eyes sting and prickle again with tears of rage and shame.
“I’ll never say. We’ll never say, will we Val? Not to anyone.”
“Sure. Look, Phil, you ought to get back to your room before they come looking for you, it’s well past 11. I’ll make sure Tim is all right.”
“Are you sure?” We both nodded, and he turned to go, then turned back, dropped a hand tentatively on my shoulder and patted it a couple of times before he fled. We watched the door shut behind him.
“Poor kid,” said Val. “Came up here to play rugby from wherever it is, innocent as fuck, and now he thinks Oxford is full of benders, transvestites, and creeps. Which it probably is.”
“I’m not a transvestite! I’ve never – he made me! Oh shit, shit, shit! I can’t bear this. I’ve made such a show of myself. I’ll have to leave.”
“Cr – Tim. Tim, calm down. No-one will ever know. You heard Phil promise that, and I promise too. And look – if you go, this will just follow you. You know it happened, and you know we know it happened. It can’t be made not to be. If you feel you made a mistake, live with it. And live with it here. Don’t try to run away.”
God, counselling from a rugby blue. And the worst of it was, he was right. I nodded slowly.
“Will you be OK?”
“I – yes, thanks. Thank you. I didn't expect...”
“Yeah, I know, I've given you a bit of a hard time. But you're all right, I suppose. For a swotty runt.” He looked at me hard to make sure I had taken this in the spirit in which it was meant.
I managed the ghost of a smile. “And you're all right, for a brainless hooray.”
He grinned, turned to the door, turned back.
“Oh fuck it,” he said, stepped across the room in two big steps, and put his arms around me in a hug, brushed his lips gently across my neck.
I blinked. “Sorry,” he said. “I know my timing's shit. After what happened to you that's probably the last thing you need. I just...”
I swallowed. “You're right, your timing is shit. Same as it was last time. But thank you.”
Later, in the dark, sleepless and sick at heart and wanting, oh so wanting someone to hold me, I remembered the sensation of his arms around me and wished I'd asked him to stay.
Hansie and Piet looked on in astonishment as Tim’s halting explanation petered out, finally.
“So Tim and these others, they did not know then that you were gay, hey?” Hansie asked me. “Did you yourself. . .?”
“Oh yes, I was fairly certain by then, and starting to wonder if I could be that and a rugby player too, if I’d have to hide all my life. But if things had gone differently, if I’d been a bit older, and a bit more confident, Tim might have been my first.”
“Still, my liefie, I do not understand why you feel so bad about it. You did nothing actually wrong, from what I can see.”
“I was the one who did something wrong, Hansie,” I said. “I lied, and Tim got into a lot of trouble trying to protect us both from the consequences of that lie. When we met again, years afterwards, it came up of course, and I could see Tim was still really upset about it, and I told him then what I told him when it happened, if that’s what you want, we’ll never talk about it, never refer to it. And so. . .”
“And so of course, it was always there between you, unspoken.” Piet shook his head. “Really, Timmy. . .”
“Oh don’t, Piet. Please. I made such a fool of myself,” said Tim, his voice still shaking, after all these years, with anger and desperation.
“Tim, Tim.” The huge arms drew him in, helpless, and I felt a slight twinge of, not jealousy exactly, but regret. Regret that Tim needed Piet, that they all needed Piet. Regret that it wasn’t me. That isn’t a very nice thing to admit, but I’m only human. And to be honest, I’d never really understood why Tim felt so badly about this one incident. From what I knew of his sex life, he’d done far kinkier things than dress up in women’s clothes. OK, maybe it was jealousy.
“Was it really so bad? Is it so terrible to be wrong and foolish sometimes?”
“No, I. . . I don’t know.”
“Because Timothy Creed must always be right, mustn’t he? Other people are allowed mistakes, but not Tim?”
“You don’t understand!” It was almost a wail. “It was – I should have been able to handle it. And I couldn’t.” My heart wrung for him, and my earlier feelings vanished, overcome with concern, and a useless wish to turn back time, and undo all the hurt I’d caused.
“A predatory older man, in a position of power over you? Your intellectual equal, at least, and much more cunning in the ways of the world? Why should you have been able to handle him, pray, and you only what – 21, 22, and not nearly as worldly as you thought yourself?
“Other people may fail, and try again, and you will not think the worse of them. Phil misses a score, and you slap him on the back afterwards, and say ‘never mind, you’ll do better next time’. My team loses, and you say to me: ‘there’s still all to play for this season, Piet, and I thought they really picked it up in the second half’. Hansie will make mistake after mistake” – Hansie pulled a face, and Piet smiled before continuing relentlessly – “and still you love him. But Tim, he is not permitted to err. Your standards are high, Mr Creed.”
He muttered something that none of us caught.
“I said, when I was 10, at the school prize giving, and I won nearly all the academic prizes in my year, the headmaster thought I needed taking down a peg or two, and he told me I always had to set my own standards, because other people’s standards would be too easy for me. I’ve never forgotten it.”
“That is – a heavy burden to give a child,” said Piet reprovingly. “It is almost too heavy for the grown man.”
“It’s not wrong.”
“No, it is not – wrong. But it takes no account of other things. Sometimes, sometimes, you are permitted to rest a while.” He smiled, and drew a slightly shaky answering grin from Tim.
“So then. You will forgive us for laughing at Phil’s remark? Truly, Tim, we were not laughing at you. And,” he cast a quick look down, “I think you have very nice legs.”
“I felt so – so disgusting in those things. I don’t know why, I don’t have a problem with people wearing drag in general.”
“Because you did not choose them! They were the symbols of his power over you – not a power freely accepted, but one imposed. Do you not understand? You did not consent, and power over the body without consent is rape, not play.” I felt a thrill of shock at the word. I suppose I hadn’t quite thought of it in those terms, none of us had at the time, but that’s what it had been. Not just the kind of bad sex you wish you hadn’t had afterwards, but an almost-rape. How far would things have gone, how far would Tim have been forced to go, if we hadn’t come when we did?
“I didn’t consent but I did it anyway. I was complicit, Piet. I practically asked for it.”
“No, Tim. Never think that. You were drowning, and the person who should have been pulling you out of the water was pushing you down into it. You do not bear the blame.”
I don’t know how he does that. I mean, objectively, he isn’t in a position to make rulings on Tim’s life, to give absolution. And yet, he has such authority, he spoke with such conviction, such grave judgement, that I believed him implicitly. And so, I think, did Tim, at least a little bit. He looked at me for the first time, and I went to him and knelt.
“Tim, I’m sorry. For everything.”
He sighed, touched my hair. “We do seem to have a history of finding ways to hurt each other, don’t we? It’s – it’s all right. I’m just being oversensitive and silly. I have been silly, I mean, but I’ll try to put it behind me.”
“Well, I’d like to do the same. Only, how do we make things right between us? I don’t want this to always be there.”
He knew what I was saying. “You want me to punish you?”
“I don’t know. No. Not want, exactly. But I think perhaps you need to.”
He looked dubious, but Piet said:
“My study is available, gentlemen, if you wish it.” And Hansie chipped in:
“Wait, I have an idea, hey?” and bounded out of the room. When he came back, he was holding – oh shit! That awful strap of his.
“What’s that doing here?” asked Tim.
“I came across it this morning, and I thought it was lacking use lately, hey? I planned to surprise you with it at some point this evening. But now – well, if Phil needs punishing, he has felt this before, ja nee, and it did a good enough job then. And you know well how to use it, as I know to my own cost.”
I had felt it before, and I wasn’t anxious to feel it again. On the other hand, if this was to be a real punishment, and not just a token, perhaps that was how it should be.
By the time he got to stroke number eight, I was grasping the edge of the desk with white fingers, and wondering how I got myself into this.
SLAP. “Oww, eight sir!” I felt my legs and backside quiver as I tried to process the sensation.
“Stop jiggling and keep still,” said Tim, “or I’ll give you extra for moving, as well as the remaining four.”
“Yes sir,” I managed. “Ah, fuck, nine sir. Oooooh, ten sir!” He slid the heavy leather across my blazing backside, a cool tickle on the overheated and swollen flesh. I sensed his arm draw back, tensed myself. THWAP! “Ohowowoh. Oh Jesus that hurts.”
“Did I hear a number?” he asked menacingly.
“Eleven, eleven sir, definitely eleven!”
“Hmm, you always did push the envelope, Cartwright. Last one, then. Brace yourself.” He slid the strap across my bum, once, twice, and: THWAP!!
“Christ on a bike, twelve sir, fucking twelve. Jesus, that bloody strap is a killer.”
“Such language.” He ran his fingertips over the scorched wasteland south of my waist, delicately, then tapped one cheek.
“A good job, I think. Up with you.”
I rose stiffly. “Am I forgiven?”
“Yes, of course you are.” He pulled me to him and we kissed, very gently. A thought occurred to me.
“So did you ever add Val D’Arcy-Smith to your collection, then?”
“Oh yes.” His smile was fond and a little complacent. “Eventually. Six times in one evening.”
He shrugged. “Well, you asked.”
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