This story follows on directly from 'Naught for your Comfort'. If you haven't read that, this won't make much sense. Maybe it won't anyway...

Things were no better after the weekend. No better at all. Tim was warm and affectionate with me, and when we had Sunday lunch with Jim and Mary, he was bright and amusing and witty. Jim wished to speak about the Gryphons and the new season, and somehow when he did, Tim was not present – the subject came up more than once, and Tim was in the garden, or helping to clear the table, or looking through Jim’s bookcase. He had no opinion about the rugby at all. I think Jim did not notice; I think Mary did, although she said nothing, but she gave Tim some rather hard looks.

With me, as I say, Tim was bright and loving – until I tried to raise the matter of Friday night. That, he would not discuss with me, not at all. “I’m sorry, Hansie. I’m sorry it’s come to such a. . . such a . . . I’m sorry it ended the way it did. But it wasn’t my fault and I won’t be told it was. I don’t know what came over Phil, but he doesn’t want anything more to do with me. If you want to go on seeing them, that’s your own affair. I won’t try to stop you. But I won’t go there again.”

And that was all. He would not talk about it. He turned me off several times, and eventually said with glacial politeness, “Hansie, I don’t want to discuss this. Phil’s forced Piet to choose between us, and Piet’s chosen. I don’t blame him, his loyalty has to be to Phil, no matter what. I really don’t think there’s any more to say.”

He would say no more about it, just looked away and changed the subject if I pressed him, but indeed, what could I say? What could I say? I thought of going back to Piet and Phil, to talk with them, to try to find out how we had come so far in such a short time, but. . . well, but Piet was not the only one with loyalties to observe, ja nee? And indeed, I could not see what Tim had done to offend Phil so. Equally, I could not believe that Phil would lose his temper so completely without cause, so cause there must be, but no amount of thought would reveal it to me.

It took me a week to think what I should do. Where I should go. How I should find out. And then, of course, I was amazed that I had not thought of it before.

I do not at all know if I handled Phil right in the aftermath of that dreadful, dreadful evening. I cannot remember ever having been so much at a loss in my dealings with any young man, never mind with my lover. I was shocked, shocked beyond anything by the speed with which the breach had sprung up. I was also shocked by Phil himself, whose behaviour was so far out of character that I confess I felt his forehead surreptitiously for fever. I could have been angry – I was angry, both with him and with Tim – were it not that he was so patently miserable. He clung to me, trembling, while Hansie and Tim left the house, and when we heard the engine start, he broke from me and fled to the cloakroom, where I heard him retch. I do not think he was actually sick, but when I followed him, he was kneeling on the floor, white-faced and shivering. He did not respond when I spoke to him, until I put a hand to his arm, and then he struggled to his feet with none of his customary grace and leaned back into my embrace.

Whatever this was, there would be nothing gained by trying to extract the tale while he was in such distress. I held him while I checked that there was nothing in the kitchen to burn or take harm, and then I closed the door and drew him away. Ach, that was enough to tell me that all was not well. Dishes left on the table, pots unwashed, his kitchen not set in order, and Phil walking away?

I put him to bed as one would a child, with simple commands firmly issued, and as soon as I joined him he plastered himself against me, less than comfortably for either of us, I think. I petted his shoulders and whispered reassurances, and he fell swiftly into sleep, although at intervals I heard a shuddering breath, as if in sleep he encountered the nightmare. In the morning he was quiet and remote, heavy eyed and subdued. Eventually I could put it off no longer.

“Phil? We must talk about last night.”

He turned, and for a moment I thought he meant to defy me, and go out, but his hand went to the door leading to the Dairy and I realised he intended to go to the study, that he thought he was in disgrace.

“No, koekie, come here. Come here to me. We will take our coffee and sit together – is it warm enough to go to the patio? – and we will discuss this calmly.”

“Just tell me what you want me to do.”

It was no more than muttered, a tone of such miserable surrender that I could hardly bear it.

“To do? I want you to talk to me. I want to know how we came to this, and what we may do to put it right.”

His head came up and I heard the sharp intake of breath, and his eyes blazed; his capitulation, it seemed, did not go that far. I held up a hand. “Calmly, Phil. I do not understand what happened.”

“Bloody Tim happened! He niggled and niggled at me, you heard him, and I’ve just about had it! I’ve had his sly sniping that I’m no good for anything except rugby and not much good at that, I’ve had him rubbing my nose in it that he’s out and I’m not, that he can get married and I can’t, I’ve had always being fifth wheel, fit for nothing except to feed those bloody gannets. I’ve had it that any time something goes wrong they come running to you and I’m expected to take myself off, go tidily out of earshot and wait while you sort out their bloody petty little problems, and then nobody even has the grace to acknowledge that I’m there! I’ve had his fucking superiority, that he’s the great brain, he’s the brilliant businessman, and I’m a Northern nothing. I’ve had his assumptions that I should be grateful for him noticing me. Grateful! That I owe him because of what happened at Oxford, which wasn’t my fucking fault! You said yourself it wasn’t my fault! I’m sick, sick of always having to watch what I say in front of him, because his father died and he doesn’t get on with his mother! So bloody what if he doesn’t get on with his mother? I don’t get on with my dad, but I don’t make a fucking song and dance about it, I don’t expect everything to grind to a halt so that everybody can tell me how dreadful it is! Lots of people don’t get on with their parents and they don’t make such a parade about it! So his dad died: Fran’s dad abandoned her and from what she says, things were a damn sight harder for her with her mum trying to bring her up and work as well and no spare money about, and she doesn’t complain. Tim had Jim and Mary and God knows, they aren’t short of a bob or two – what does he fucking have to complain about? I’m tired of Mr Experience who’s played in the clubs and all the rest of it, suggesting that I don’t know anything and I’ve never done anything, as if there’s anything so wonderful about having gone to bed with men you didn’t fancy whose names you can’t remember. Yeah, well, maybe he does have all the experience – but there are some of his experiences I’m not sorry to have missed, the STD clinic for one. I’ve had putting myself out to make Tim happy because he’s never going to be happy, he won’t try. I’ve had it always having to be me, having to be us, making it right for Tim, coaxing him out of his tantrums, and nothing ever coming back. I’ve had being his fuck buddy, just because he can’t have you without having to have me too.”

He drew a shuddering breath and turned away from me, biting his lip and fighting for control. And the really bad thing? The bad thing was that I could recognise Tim in his bitter, vicious, warped description, the same way that I had been able to recognise Phil in Tim’s biting words the night before. Both of them, seeing the other through a curtain of hurt and spite and anger.

I did not know what to do. This was wholly beyond my experience, and I had to admit, with bitter shame, that the reason it was beyond my experience was that at my age, this was my first, my only true relationship in which I had given of myself and in which it mattered to me that it should succeed. I had also to admit my share of the blame; I had failed all three of them, but most of all I had failed Phil. In the matter of Hallam and what he had done to Tim, I had seen again the harm that can be done by an older man to a younger one. In my dealings with Hansie, there had been no coercion intended, but he had nonetheless felt coerced; I had seen this reflected in Hallam and Tim, and because of my own history I had made too much of Tim’s lack of blame – no, for that is wrong. It is simply not possible to make too much of Tim’s lack of blame. What I did not do was establish clearly and beyond any contradiction, for both of them to understand, that there was no blame to be attached to Phil either, for what had he done that was so dreadful? Poor Phil, he had every right to assume that I, his lover, his partner, his Top – oh, God, his Top! – would take his part, that I would back him up. That I would, as a matter of course, presume his innocence until shown otherwise. And I did not do it. I was anxious to comfort Tim, and that was only in part for Tim’s sake; that was at least as much for my own peace of mind, for the easing of my own conscience with respect to the Hallam-thing which I had done to Hansie in my turn. So it was that I missed Phil’s need, which was as great, and his entitlement, which was greater by far, than Tim’s.

 “And you can beat me for it if you think. . .”

I had more sense than that, at least. That word sounded a warning – I do not believe it had ever been used between us. I spank him, yes; I cane him, punish him, correct him – for all of us, I think, the word ‘beat’ describes what Matthias used to do to Hansie. It has no place in our house. I knew better than to attempt to bring him to his senses that way.

But I did not know what to do.

It’s not usual to see Nick in a whole-hearted strop.

“He said no, then?’

“My fine motor skills still aren’t up to scratch.”

I waited. He would tell me about it eventually, and faster if I didn’t push.

“Two more weeks at least. And he wouldn’t sign for my driving licence.”

Well, no. If his motor skills weren’t good enough for him to go back to work, they weren’t good enough for him to be safe driving. He walloped both fists hard against the dashboard in frustration and I sat and waited. I couldn’t help him with this, he had to get his head round it all on his own. He’s a sensible and well-balanced man: it didn’t take long. He looked sideways at me.

“On the other hand, he did say that in his opinion, it would all come back. No permanent loss of function. And there was one big plus.”


“He’s signed me off everybody else. No more physio, no more tests. Nobody, Miss Frances, looking at my back or my legs. Nobody asking embarrassing questions about why the marks weren’t gone.”

I grinned back. “So what had you in mind? A little diversion via Prudhoe Street to see if there’s anything new and interesting in the shop?”

“Just straight home, and please tell me you don’t have an evening appointment?”

Only there was a car on the drive. Nick’s shoulders dropped ruefully.

“I told Phil that Hansie’s timing sucked. . . Fran, there’s something wrong.”

I agreed: Hansie looked drawn and oddly indecisive and he hesitated before he kissed my cheek, almost as if he expected me to draw back. He used to do that, oh, ages ago, when we met first, when he wasn’t quite certain if he should kiss me or not.

“No, I should have phoned, hey? I wanted to see you and I never thought that you might be out or busy. Stupid of me.”

“Have you been waiting long?” I asked, fumbling for my keys.

“No, no. Five minutes? Ten? I could not decide whether to call your mobile or wait, or go away. . . Ach, Fran, Nick, we are in such a mess, such a mess, and I do not know what to do, not at all, but maybe you have spoken with Piet?”

I shook my head and ushered him into the sitting room. “What’s happened?”

“Tim and Phil have had the most dreadful quarrel and I do not know why. Indeed, I am not sure that they know why, but they have each declared that they have no longer any friendly feelings towards each other. And they were upset, both of them, so that Piet said we should go away, and Tim has that as meaning he no longer wishes to know us, although I am not so sure. Or at least I was not sure, but we have heard nothing more from them since.”

“I’ll put the kettle on,” said Nick, plainly resigned to the loss of his evening’s play – and that tells you something about his feelings towards Hansie, don’t you think? That he should give up his first serious scene in literally months, without complaint – “and you can tell us about it properly.”

Well, I can’t say we made much of it. Or at least I didn’t: there was one point at which Nick’s expression changed slightly and I thought that he knew more than he was telling. It was complicated by the fact that Hansie ground to a halt halfway through, when it came to mention of the Oxford business, and looked at us in some dismay.

“That is not my story to tell, but. . . ach, I cannot see. . . I think it may be the pivot of the whole thing.”

Nick nodded. “Phil told me a little. If I tell you what he was happy for me to know, and then you can tell me if that’s enough to work with?”

And that was a nasty spiteful little story, even in the bowdlerised version. I could see why Tim might be upset, although not necessarily why he would be upset with Phil. The sudden development of the quarrel, though, was as much a surprise to Nick and me as it had been to Hansie, and Hansie was coming unstuck. His speech was too quick, his accent was strong, there was a lot of repetition, and in my opinion at least, too many places where the question, either express or implied, was ‘what did I do wrong?’

“So I need your help, ja nee? This is beyond me.”

“I’ll go and see Piet,” I said thoughtfully, “see if he’ll talk to me. I don’t know about Phil: he did come to me once, but that was specifically when he needed to talk to a Top. I don’t think I would be his first choice otherwise.”

Nick was looking at Hansie with a rather odd expression. “I can see if Phil’s wanting to talk, but I’ll tell you for nothing, Hansie, I’m not pressing him. I don’t really know him well enough for that.”

Hansie faltered a little. “You understand what motivates people, Nick, and you know how to find out things. This is your profession, ja nee? And I want to know what happened, what is lying between Tim and Phil, for there is more that they have not shared with us, and I want to know what it is. Maybe my Family is broken again, broken past mending, but I will not so believe until I can do no other.” His English always goes a little odd when he’s upset. “So you will find out for me?”

Nick was silent for a moment. Then: “No.”

 Hansie flinched; the extent of his disappointment obvious. “But Nick. . .!”

“No. What you’re asking me to do is spy on your friends – on your Family – and report back to you without their knowledge. And they’ve made a point of including me in this Family set-up and I won’t do it. No.”

It made for an awkward visit, after that. Hansie was wounded, and trying to hide it – he’s too honest not to acknowledge the truth in what Nick was saying, too honest not to face what he was asking for and admit that he had no right to ask for it, but he was desperately disappointed nonetheless. He went away very shortly afterwards, trying to smile at us and assuring us that he would be in touch, and I felt the first coil of anger in the pit of my stomach. Oh, not with Nick. Hansie’s dismay wasn’t his fault, and I could quite see why he wouldn’t – couldn’t – do what Hansie wanted. No, I was more than a little ticked with Phil and Tim. Whatever their quarrel, they didn’t seem to have given any thought at all to the effect it would have on Hansie, and when I found an opportunity, I had every intention of giving them my opinion on that subject. I didn’t think they’d ever seen me in full Alpha Top mode, and they weren’t going to enjoy the experience.

I was sorry for the poor bastard. Afterwards I was sorry for him. At the time I was just bloody angry. I mean, they know how things are with Hansie. They know how fragile he is with all this about his Family. They know the poor bugger has real trouble trusting people, and he’d been getting a grip on it and learning to trust his Family – and then Phil and Tim let rip at each other, Pieter de Vries, who’s supposed to be about as senior a Top as Tops get, completely fails to control the situation, and suddenly there’s blood all over the floor, so to speak. Mind you, once I started to hear about the background, and once Fran and I began to compare notes of all the bits we thought we could decently share, I was a bit ticked with Hansie too. Not as much as with the others – he doesn’t read situations well, hasn’t the background for it, but there were warning signs he’d missed too.

I’d have arrested the whole damn lot of them if I could have thought of a charge.

“I just wondered if you would like to come over. We had a deal, remember?”

Phil’s voice on the phone was dead. “Sorry?”

“’Darling, how awful, he didn’t!’?”

There was quite a long silence, and then a slightly sharper tone. “You’ve heard?”

“I’ve heard it’s all gone to hell. Want to tell me about it?”

“Yes. Yes, I think I do.”

It’s funny – funny peculiar – talking to any of that lot. From a professional point of view, I mean. I’d believe anything they told me, I don’t think there’s any question of their honesty, and look, I would know, O.K.? Phil gave me a full breakdown of the evening, and although he did have a tendency to justify what he had said without taking on board Tim’s motives, I don’t think he told me anything untrue, or left out anything significant.

The catch was, he was looking for sympathy – and I didn’t give him much. I may not know about topping, but I know how to bollock a stroppy constable. I know how to spell out in words of one syllable, as to the seriously hard of thinking, what they did, what they should have done, and what I think of them. I wasn’t particularly gentle.

“Come on, if you thought people were taking advantage, were treading on your toes, why the hell didn’t you do something about it ages ago? What is your problem?”

“Fucking Tim, treating me like I was still 17! The way he goes on, it’s like the three of them are the adults and I’m being allowed to stay up late as a special treat. What he would really like is for me to sit in the corner with my mouth shut until he condescends to notice me and ask me how my A level revision is going, and then I should be honoured by his attention.”

“If that’s your attitude then I wouldn’t say you were 17, I’d say you were 7.”

He looked at me as if I had kicked him, and I hardened my heart.

“Phil, you’re too old, too big, much too big, not to stand up for yourself. Yes, all right, you’re the youngest of your group, I see that, and I see that there might be a temptation for them to make too much of it. Some of that will be because Piet is older than you by a fair bit, that’s just a fact, and the others take their lead from him. But if you don’t like it, do something about it, rather than whinging to me or picking a quarrel with Tim. You’re not 17. You’re all grown up, you’re a professional sportsman, you’re a celebrity. If you don’t like the way the world treats you, do something about it.”

He shook his head again and went back to what I thought was probably the least important point in what I’d said.

“I don’t care about being a celebrity. And if Tim’s right, I’m not much of a celebrity anyway.”

I snorted. That told me more about Tim than about Phil, actually. “What else have you to complain about?”

“I told you, as far as Tim’s concerned I’m just an extra. An add on. He wants access to Piet, partly for his own sake, but mostly for Hansie’s, I’ll admit that. And I’m in the way. He said as much once.”

That did startle me. “What did he say?”

“It was the first time Piet. . . dealt. . . with Hansie. Hansie and I got into trouble together, ages ago now, and Tim pushed Piet into sorting it. I wasn’t. . . I couldn’t. . . Tim said. . . I asked him how he thought I felt about it, and he said he didn’t care. Said he would do anything to make the world better for Hansie and that I wasn’t his problem.”

That had the ring of truth about it, although I suspected that Phil was doing exactly what Tim had done over mention of Oxford, allowing to rankle something said in passing or without much thought.

“They were good to me when Piet was missing. When we thought he was dead.” That came unwillingly, and was followed by “But the rest of the time? Piet sorts out their bloody quarrel about Tim’s MBA, and they’re so grateful. To him. Piet sorts out Hansie’s feelings over that racism thing – did Hansie tell you about that? – and they’re so grateful. To Piet. They fuck up their lives and they run to Piet and I’m supposed to just. . . I don’t know, make coffee for everybody afterwards. It doesn’t matter whether I’m there or not, it’s not me they want to see, it doesn’t matter what I think about anything. There’s never any question that actually, I might mind having my partner press-ganged. . . That once in a while I might like to be asked. Involved. That, fuck it, he’s my partner, not theirs!”

“Well,” I said dryly, “he threw them out, didn’t he? So I don’t think you can doubt that when the crunch came, he chose you. I’m not sure I admire the way you forced him to it, but I hope you’re happy with the result.”

From the haunted look he cast at me, he wasn’t. “I. . . always knew he would. Choose me, I mean. Only it hurt.”

“Serves you right. You behaved like a complete. . . I can’t think of a word.”

“I don’t mean it hurt me, I mean it’s hurting him. And. . . he’s not pleased.”

“You don’t say.”

He broke then. Leaning forward, elbows on his knees, face hidden in his hands so that I wouldn’t see him weep – as if I could have missed it.

“I don’t know what to do, Nick. I’m. . . I’ve done things, before. He’s been angry because of what I’ve done, I’ve let him down, let myself down, and we’ve. . . he’s. . . You know we have. . .”

I rescued him. It’s only recently that he and I have begun to work towards a genuine friendship in our own right, rather than as an extension of the way I feel about Hansie. We’re not quite ready to have what I would think of as girly conversations about emotions. (All right, what in my head I would think of as ‘gay’ conversations about emotions. I’m working on it.) We are absolutely not ready to have, while sober, conversations in which he tells me that he gets his bottom smacked for behaving badly. The sex side of it? No problem. It’s just a variation of the sort of bragging which men do when they get together, specially when they’ve been drinking. “You have House Rules and an agreement of some sort.”

“Yes. For when he’s pissed off with what I’ve done. Only I don’t think he is, Nick. Not with what I’ve done. I think he’s pissed off with me.”

Which is different, yes, I could see that. “Isn’t that covered by your rules?”

He still had his face hidden, but I thought that was a shake of his head. Well, hell, that complicated things. Didn’t it?

Did it?

I couldn’t ask Phil about that. Not without embarrassing both of us past bearing, and anyway, I’d shocked him enough, I could tell. He was trying to scrub his eyes inconspicuously and I sat down beside him and patted his shoulder awkwardly. Then I patted his back, even more awkwardly. Yes, I know he’s a cuddler, but I’m not.

“Chin up, then. You’ve managed to make a complete pig’s breakfast of all this, but I don’t think it’s entirely your fault. The bit that is your fault is where you broke your word.”

I felt him quiver with surprise, and I gave him both barrels.

“You gave Hansie the Family he wanted and you told him it was the real deal, and now you’re telling him it’s not. You told him he could rely on you and then you and Tim between you do this to him. Not very admirable on your part, yours or Tim’s. I’m not impressed. And I’ll tell you, just in case it hadn’t crossed your mind: Hansie’s very upset about it, and you know how Fran feels about people upsetting Hansie.”

His head shot up.

“Fran is very, very annoyed with both you and Tim.”

Well, however put out I had been with Phil, I had my revenge in that one sentence.

I expected Piet to call me; he didn’t so I went to him. I was unbelievably angry – with all of them, yes, with Piet too. Between them, they had knocked Hansie back to where he had been two years ago, and I couldn’t hear that anybody, excepting Hansie himself, was trying to do anything at all to sort it out. Nick wouldn’t tell me what he suspected about the Oxford story over and above what Hansie had said, although plainly he thought he knew something more, but he admitted that Hansie was probably right in considering it the trigger for what had happened. Or at least, he added thoughtfully, as the trigger for Tim. Phil’s trigger, he implied, might be different.

I called Piet, told him abruptly that I was coming over, that I wanted to talk to him and that I wasn’t standing for any argument. Sometimes it’s easier to top another Top – they recognise advanced Alpha mode and don’t waste time fighting.

Phil wasn’t there when I arrived.

“Well? Are you going to tell me what the hell is going on?”

He winced. “I am not sure that I know, Fran. Except that Phil is as unhappy as I have ever seen a man.”

“Nick’s not best pleased with you,” I said brutally. “He says he told you six weeks ago that Phil was unhappy.”

“And he thinks that I am not?” That was torn from him. Yes, I thought, taking a proper look; yes, you are unhappy. You just disguise it better than Hansie. “But he is right to reproach me. He did indeed tell me that Phil was unhappy, and I thought I had dealt with it. Fran, can we walk? I have not left the house these two days, other than to go to work. Phil is at the gym. I need a change of scenery. We could walk?”

It took him an hour to tell me about it. He too went back to the Oxford story; he too hesitated about repeating it. We settled on Phil’s cut version. Piet, though, added something new to me: he told me about Phil’s desire to get married and his row with his dad.

“We cannot do it, Fran. We cannot marry if his career is to continue. No matter how discreet we were, the story would get out. We have talked about other – other methods of demonstrating commitment. I have offered to buy him a ring: a signet ring on a man is no longer a cause for comment, and I would wear his ring if he wished to wear mine. I offered to have my ear pierced – I have heard of a couple sharing earrings as a sign of togetherness.” (I pictured Piet with an ear stud and had a serious ‘does not compute’ moment. Later I pictured him with a dangling feather and nearly put the bike in the ditch laughing.) “It is not what he wants. He says he does not doubt my commitment, it is that he wishes for it to be acknowledged by others, and that is what we cannot have. Not if he is to play rugby. And now,” he shook his head crossly, “now it seems we are to be watched again. You have seen the news reports about the new Youth Rugby position?”

I had, although I hadn’t been following the story in any detail. “It has been offered to me and I have refused it, but the press continues to print stories about all the people who might be persuaded to take it on. I have said clearly that it will not be me, but still, there I am in the headlines again.”

I was surprised. “Is it such a big deal? Sorry, that sounds rude, but. . . is it?”

He nodded. “An enormous anonymous donation and a scandal. The first man they wanted in place was caught with an expensive prostitute – not the rôle model they wanted for the children. The second choice is currently under investigation for tax evasion – not someone to be trusted with a large budget. So they want a man to whom no scandal has ever been attached, nor could be attached – and that is not me, you know?”

It was a distraction so I let the subject drop.

“Has Phil got genuine cause for complaint?”

“Against Tim? Perhaps a little. Against me, yes, I fear so. This Oxford business, I handled it extremely badly. I should not have left it for Phil and Tim to decide between themselves what was to be done, it needed a cooler head, somebody not involved, but it came upon us so suddenly, with no warning, and. . . well, after quite a lot of wine. It was obvious to me almost at once that it had been a mistake, and then I compounded the error by choosing to let sleeping dogs lie, but the dog was not asleep, and now we have all been bitten. I thought, you see, that Tim’s complaint was that Phil had spoken out of turn. That was a valid grievance, although the punishment for it was severe, but at first they both seemed eased by it, you know? Later, though, I found that Phil believed that he had in fact been punished for his original misjudgement. I would not have permitted that, Frances. I really would not. It was not, as I have assured Phil, his fault that he did not foresee that Tim’s senior was an abuser. In any event, this happened so long ago that the statute of limitations would long since have wiped it out. And now they both blame me for it, and with justification.”

I doubted that. It sounded to me as if Phil and Tim blamed each other and the only person blaming Piet was Piet. Well, and me. “What about the other things he said?”

“I do not know. I really do not know. That Hansie and Tim come to me for help and he is excluded? I thought that they valued his input. I told him at the start that if he was harmed by it I would not do it, and I had his express permission. I told him too that he could withdraw that permission at any time, and he has not done so.”

“Well, no,” I said thoughtfully. “He couldn’t really, could he? Not once he knew them. Not without feeling like a complete shit, like a dog in the manger. Not knowing Hansie the way we do. That might bear some investigation, Piet. Make him talk about it. And. . .look, plainly some of the problem is that Phil’s jealous of Tim and Hansie making demands on you, but at the same time, he can’t, or won’t, say directly that he can’t stomach any more of it. But there must be something, something you do or say, or. . . I don’t know, but something that’s just for Phil. I mean, there’s some part of your life which is Piet and Phil, and not The Family. Something private, something that’s personal just to the pair of you. And maybe you need. . . this sounds counterintuitive, I know, but maybe you need to show that. Show it in front of Hansie and Tim. To make it obvious that there’s some part of you which Phil can have and nobody else can. That he’s the special one and his place is unassailable? Because he’s obviously feeling badly left out. As for the rest of it, you’re not going to be able to do anything without getting Phil and Tim to talk, and I admit that sounds difficult. But what you said, that remark of Tim’s about Phil not knowing anything about his life? Sounds as if that might run both ways. I admit, I didn’t know Phil and his dad weren’t on the best of terms. I only met them the once, his parents, at that Christmas do you and Phil had, and I didn’t notice anything, but then I don’t know Phil that well. Did Tim know? I mean, it’s obvious enough that’s what’s at the back of the words about Tim’s mother, and the slip about his father. And I have to say, my sympathies aren’t with either Phil or Tim on that one, they’re with Mary.”

I had caught him out – I saw the flash of incomprehension, the look of puzzlement, and the capitulation.

“Why Mary?”

I’ve noticed before, none of those four has the first idea of what goes on in a woman’s head. Not a flipping clue. Let Tim talk about his family (as opposed to his Family) and it’s obvious that Jim is, to all intents and purposes, his father. I’m not sure how well he remembers his real father, but the father figure is Jim. And he’s done a good job of it, too, I’m not saying he hasn’t! But the mother figure? Tim hasn’t got one. His own mother, well, we know about her. And Mary, in his head, is still his aunt, not his mother.

I blame Jim for that, not that it’s any of my business, and I don’t really blame him, I suppose, that’s the wrong word. Just, with 20-20 hindsight, I think he made a mistake. I think he put too much emphasis on Jennifer Creed being Tim’s mother. I can see why: his baby sister, he loved her, he wasn’t going to admit the possibility that she might not be a fit person to look after her son in the future, wasn’t going to see her place usurped, not even by his own wife. But I think some of Tim’s inability to move on in his relationship with her is Jim’s fault: Jim didn’t allow it. It would have been natural, eventually, for Tim to transfer his allegiance to Mary, but Jim wouldn’t have it, reminding him (he still does it) that Jennifer is his mother.

I’m not saying it would have been easy for anybody; I’m not saying it wouldn’t have been desperately hurtful for Jennifer. I’m saying that although she’s never passed one comment to me, or as far as I know, to anybody else (and she and my mum have corresponded once a fortnight for 20 years, so I think I’d have heard), I believe Mary is the one who’s been hurt by that. You only have to see her with a borrowed baby to realise how much she would have liked children of her own. And yet, even the one she mothered isn’t wholly hers.

“You see her as Tim’s mother?” asked Piet curiously.

“Well, I know she didn’t do the pushing in the labour ward, and I know Jennifer did the first however many years, but who did the school uniform, the cut knees, the teenage friends passing through the house like Pac-man on a mission, eating everything in sight from the front door to the back? Who did sewing in name tapes and taking messages from friends with odd names, and shouting until homework was done? Who did getting up in the night for the child who’s throwing up or who’s had a nightmare? It wasn’t Jennifer and I bet it wasn’t Jim either. But that’s all by the by, Piet. You’ve got to get Tim and Phil to talk if there’s to be anything recovered from this mess, and yes, I think I’m with Phil on this one, you’ve got to get Tim to pick up on the fact that just because Phil normally has a sunny disposition doesn’t mean that there’s no more to know.”

He sighed. “Phil’s disposition. . . Frances, I think I have a Stepford wife.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or stare.

“Phil is so docile, so submissive. He is not himself at all. But it is not his ‘sunny disposition’ as you put it, it is. . . I would hate to say it was fear, and I truly hope that it is not fear of me, but it looks distressingly like it.”

“What’s he doing?”

“He is quiet, obedient, respectful. . . it sounds like all one could desire, do you not think? It is horrible. Little things only, but such things. Such as. . . I asked him last night if he had emptied the waste paper baskets into the outdoor bin ready for the collection this morning. I asked him if he had done it. I did not suggest that I expected him to have done it, or that it was his job to do, or that he was at fault for not doing it: we share such chores. He rose and said he would do it, and he did, at once. But Fran, he had been watching the television, some programme which I know he enjoys, and he left it to deal with the household waste. I could have done it, or it could quite well have waited until his programme had finished. That is a foolish example, but I could give you a dozen such. He will not gainsay me in anything. If I express an opinion on any matter, he listens politely, he makes an intelligent response, but he will not contradict me or offer any opinion of his own. Every task is done early, and correctly and without complaint, even the dull ones which we all do, and then wish aloud that we did not have to. Or, here is another thing. Phil has a sweet tooth, you know?”

I did know. Phil’s chocolate cake. . .

“Well, you can imagine, during the season in particular, he must be careful about his diet, so his habit is that he buys expensive chocolates, high quality ones, and then every day he permits himself one only, a single chocolate with his coffee after dinner. When we go out, he may relax his rules a little, but at home, he is actually very abstemious. One chocolate every day, but a good one.” He looked forbidding; I wasn’t fooled. This was deep distress. “He has not so much as opened the box for a week.”

This sounded to me horribly like a man who didn’t want to be spanked for any reason and was refusing to do anything – anything at all – to which his partner might object. I didn’t like the sound of it.

 “And this is. . . you say there’s more like this?”

“Any amount of it. Any amount. He has lost all his pleasure in his kitchen, and for that, yes, I do blame Tim. Phil is not spending time in his kitchen, his food magazines go unread, when we shop he does not stop to look at things he does not recognise. He does not play his piano either, other than to carry out the exercises for his teacher – nothing just for his own entertainment. It is as if he has gone two dimensional, Fran. Now there is only Phil the rugby player. The Phil who is interested in anything else is lost. And also. . .” he took a deep breath. He’s a desperately private person, Piet de Vries, and it was tearing at him to talk of his personal life this way, even to me,  “I said that he would not defy me, but that is not quite true. He will not play. I have only just realised it. He does not refuse me outright, he turns my attention away, he suggests something else. That is not since this last upset, that has been going on since. . . since before he went to make that cookery programme. He comes to my bed willingly, I would know if it were not so, but he. . .”

I was shaken, I confess. “Have you had cause to punish him?”

“I. . . yes, but I could not do it, Fran. I could not. He was due a minor punishment, a brief spanking – Fran, he must have known that what he deserved was the sort of spanking which would not even make him yelp aloud, merely a reminder of ‘you are not to do this’. He has taken such on many and many an occasion. But when I came to him, he was stiff with – with dread! I cannot think of another word for it. He came to me, he made no attempt to excuse himself or to avoid punishment, I think had I held out my hand to him he would have submitted, but he could not hide from me that the thought of it was awful, in its most literal definition. I could not do it.”

“Congratulations,” I said unsympathetically. “That’s the first call you’ve got right in a month, from the sound of it.”

“I know. I know! I should never have allowed Tim to strap Phil. I cannot believe I made such an elementary mistake. It did neither of them any good at all. They are both perfectly clear sighted, except when it comes to each other. My Phil - he reads hearts as if they were books, but when it comes to Tim he seems to hear slights and insults where there are none. And Tim is smart, and he understands motivations very well, and yet when it comes to Phil it is as if he did not even want to know what he thinks, what he wants. I knew this – I knew it – and still I misjudged it. I am a fool, and I tell myself so hourly.”

“That’s all very well,” I said sharply, “but it isn’t exactly helpful. There’s no point now in beating yourself up.” I couldn’t resist it; I didn’t actually try. “More to the point to let me do it.”

He said nothing, but his glance slipped slowly round to me, and I glared at him. “Pieter, I don’t think you have the slightest appreciation of the extent of my desire to take that damned strap away from Hansie and use it on all four of you, one after the other. Nor of how little it would take by way of further provocation to make me actually do it.”

He sensibly held his tongue. I went on thinking. “What about you, Piet? Enough about Phil, what about you?”

He looked sideways at me. “I have made such a. . .” he descended into Afrikaans, caught himself, and shifted back to English. “I should have known. I did know, I knew something was not as it should be but not what it was. And I fear that it was that I would not know, rather than that I could not. Wilful blindness on my part, because of my fear, because. . .”

I let it go until it was obvious that he wouldn’t finish the sentence unprompted. 

“Because what?”

“Selfishness. Vanity. GreedAch, you see how it is – here are three handsome men, three young men, and I treat them as my personal harem. As evidence that Pieter de Vries still has what it takes.”

Pieter de Vries, I thought, would still have what it took right up until they stuffed him in his coffin, but now was perhaps not the time to say so. And to call them a harem implied a lack of willingness on their part in which I didn’t at all believe.

“I wonder, Fran, I wonder if perhaps my inability to see that all was not as it should be between Tim and Phil was my reluctance to face the fact that if they were not happy, then the relationship between the four of us must needs be changed. That perhaps I could not have what I enjoyed so much. And I wonder if what Phil fears is that I blame him for this.”

It had to be asked. “Do you?”

He was silent for a long time. “Perhaps. Perhaps. That is unfair in me, fersure. It must not be so; I will not allow it to be so. I will not allow my happiness to be at the cost of his, just as I told him that I would not allow Hansie’s peace of mind to be at the expense of Phil’s. If it is Phil and not the others, then that is enough for any man – if I had been asked outright, I would have said so. Without Phil, I would not want the others. Without my Phil as he should be, exasperating and argumentative and difficult and loving, I would not want the others.”

We walked on; I almost didn’t catch what he said next: “Without him, I do not want the others.”


Idris the Dragon

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