(this follows on from Hans, Knees. . . and precedes Sed Quod Amem. Read them in order or you'll only get all depressed and confused)
I think it was somewhere in the small hours of the night, the time when life ebbs and gutters, and things die, that Devastated became Icily Raging.
After I had watched the lights of his car turn the corner and fade away I stumbled back into the living room where my knees slowly gave way and deposited me on the floor. I vaguely remember lying there, curled up in a tight ball, shivering, hearing the words over and over in my mind and unable to make it come right. I do know that I didn’t cry. I couldn’t. Blubber Tim, who cries at soppy movies. But not for this. This was too big, too cold for that.
I knew, you see. I knew that this was, was, was something beyond healing. Knew it instantly, the way you know the difference between a mortal wound and a graze. I know Phil thinks I don’t understand feelings very well, but I knew this one.
I’ve had relationships end badly before, cried into my beer over lost boyfriends, and got over them the next week, the next month. But I know what a truly broken heart, and a broken life, feels like. Once, long ago, I had felt like this when my father died and my mother left me. The same sense that the world beneath my feet, that seemed so solid, had crumbled away and left me falling through emptiness.
That was why I had cared so much about Hansie, who had been falling that way for so long. . . no, that wasn’t something I was ready to think about. I resumed my rocking and shivering.
But after a long time, a very long time, the cold – why was the room so cold? what had happened to the central heating? – seemed to seep into my heart, and become a lump of frozen rage.
How dare he! How dare he, of all people, refuse me the right to speak and explain myself? To say that I would not let him think of himself like that, that I wouldn’t let him run himself down? That I would not let him say I didn’t care? Well, if that was all my love was worth he could run himself down all he liked. He could run himself over for all I cared, because it was going to be a cold day in Hell before I ever offered Johannes Martinus Christiaan van den Broek so much as the time of day.
At some point in between raging and wondering what I was going to say to him in the office tomorrow I fell again into the sort of exhausted sleep that had triggered all this in the first place. When I woke up again, chilled and cramped, it was because the phone was ringing.
I leaped to answer it, and fell over as my muscles spasmed in protest at the contorted position I was in.
“Oh. Oh, Uncle Jim. Sorry, what did you. . .”
“We were wondering if you were planning to come into work this morning?” Clipped, precise, annoyed.
“This morning? Sorry, what time is. . .oh fuck.” The clock on the wall said 10:45.
“I see,” said my uncle drily. “Overdoing it last night, were you?”
“No, not exactly.”
“Tim, what’s the matter laddie? You sound. . . a wee bit off colour? Are you ill?”
“I’m. . . sorry, Jim. I really don’t think I can make it in today.”
“Fine. And Hansie?”
“You mean he isn’t in either?”
“You didn’t know? Tim, what the hell is going on?”
“I really can’t talk about it now, Jim. OK, if there’s no-one in, give me an hour to make myself respectable and I’ll come in.”
“Are ye sure ye’re all right?” The accent had thickened noticeably.
“I – I will be, Jim.”
A treacherous pang of worry for Hansie swept me, before the ice closed round my heart again. No, I would not ring round our friends to see where he was. Gone to ground with Phil and Piet, no doubt, telling them all about Wicked Tim. I supposed Piet would have me on the Shoot on Sight list, now, as another of those who had let Hansie down. And Phil. Well, they could keep him. I didn’t need any of them.
I don’t quite know who I expected to be ringing me at 7:45 in the morning; my friends mostly know that I am not a morning person, and that any contact beyond proffering coffee and keeping out of my way is not likely to be appreciated before 10am at the earliest. On the other hand, it was the private line ringing, and I don’t give that to clients, of either kind. But whoever I might have expected, I didn’t expect it to be Hansie.
“Hi, Hansie, are you ringing from work?”
“No, Fran. I am not – not in work today. I wonder if I might come and speak to you.”
My antennae all went ‘ping’ and started shrieking alarms. The last time I heard a voice that sounded like that, the person it belonged to went into a barn with a shotgun shortly afterwards and came out in a body bag. Very messy for all concerned.
I tried to keep the worry from my voice. Calm authority, that was what I needed. Come on Fran, you’re supposed to be a Top. You can do Calm Authority.
“Hansie, where are you?”
“I – am not entirely sure. A car park. Somewhere near the river.”
“Then I want you to get in the car and drive straight over here. Do you understand?”
There was a long pause. Then: “Yes, Fran.” Very meekly, maybe even with a hint of relief.
“Good. I’ll put some coffee on.” And try to find out what the hell was going on. I rang the house but Tim wasn’t there, or wasn’t answering, and I hesitated to ring him at work, just in case I was wrong. So I rang Piet, instead.
Phil answered. “Sorry, Fran, he’s left for the club already. Is it anything I can help with?”
I hesitated. I had heard about Phil’s knee. If I told him that there was something wrong with Hansie he would fret, or worse, try to get in the car and drive over.
“No, nothing urgent. I’ll catch him another time.” And besides, I would be hearing from the horse’s mouth soon enough. . .
When I opened the door he looked even worse than I expected. He clearly hadn’t washed or shaved, and his clothes looked slept in, but that was incidental. He looked – hollowed out. Beaten. Despairing.
I ushered him into the main room ahead of me, and as I opened my mouth to say: now what the hell is going on? he forestalled me.
“I’ve lost him, Fran. I’ve lost everything.”
“Sweetheart – who? Tim?”
“Yes. It’s over, Fran.”
I took a deep breath. He wasn’t hysterical, as he had been the night he found out about his father’s death. This was something else, something worse, this dead-voiced, dry, hopeless recitation.
“Hansie. . .” I opened my arms to him.
He collapsed into my embrace like a puppet whose strings have been cut.
“Oh, God, Fran, where can I go? What am I going to do?”
I bit my lip hard to keep my own emotions under control. It wouldn’t help if I lost it too.
“Sweetheart, don’t worry about that now. When did you last eat?”
He looked puzzled for a moment as if the question had been asked in a foreign language. Then he shrugged.
“I don’t remember. Yesterday lunchtime, I think.”
“Fine. Then this is what you are going to do. You are going to go into the bathroom, and shower, and shave – I’ve got a packet of disposable razors, and a couple of spare toothbrushes in their wrappers.”
“I. . .”
“This isn’t a debate, Hansie, I’m telling you what you are going to do. Do you understand me?”
A crooked nod.
“Good. When you’ve showered and cleaned yourself up and feel a bit more human you are going to eat some breakfast, and then you are going to tell me exactly what has happened to get you into this state. Come along, the bathroom is this way.” Not that you can miss it, there are only 4 rooms in my flat, which seemed all the smaller with someone the size of Hansie blocking out the light.
I went to the kitchen and started fixing something. I’m not the world’s greatest cook – both Tim and Phil are far better than I am – but I can do a proper fried breakfast. And I knew that the simple domestic routine was likely to be more soothing to someone in his state than anything I could say.
When he came out of the bathroom he looked like an extra from a cheap vampire movie. There was a cut just under his lower lip, another (inexpertly stanched with a piece of toilet roll) on his jawline, and a third, dripping merrily onto his collar, on his neck
“Oh Hansie, you’ll ruin that shirt. Come here.” I found a bottle of surgical spirit and some cotton wool from my first aid kit and swabbed the cuts clean, then put a plaster on the one on his neck; the others seemed to have stopped bleeding by themselves. Neither of us said anything about blood, or the risks attached – initially he made to pull away and do it for himself, but I slapped him and gave him the Look. “Keep still.” I thought it would do him good to be taken on trust.
“You’re welcome. Now, breakfast.”
“Fran, I. . .”
“Breakfast, Hansie. And you will eat it, after I cooked it for you, believe me.”
He was a bit inclined to push it around the plate but I gave him the Look again, and he began to eat. Mechanically, at first, but after a while the body took over and reminded him it was starving. I doubt he tasted any of it, but he did eat it. I restricted myself to orange juice and a bowl of cereal.
“Now, then,” I said. “What’s all this about you and Tim being over?”
His face, which had been looking moderately more human, crumpled inwards again.
“He – has fallen out of love with me. I thought it was just overwork, but now I see it was more. And then he would not even – he no longer trusts me. It is over, Fran. It has to be over.” The words tumbled out, as if anxious to escape.
“Whoa. I want a proper connected story, Hansie. Start at the beginning. What happened, exactly, when, and to whom.”
With a few false starts, and much reading between the lines, I managed to put together a story. Tim grown cold, throwing himself into his work and ignoring everything else, hiding how much it was taking out him. Hansie grown increasingly unhappy and frustrated with the way things were working between them. Something about Tim going to Edinburgh, or was it Carlisle, and being robbed and having to be rescued by Piet – I wasn’t entirely sure how that fitted in. Piet telling Hansie he had to punish Tim for this immediately – but why, and why didn’t he do it himself? And why did it need to be done that minute? And Tim telling Hansie he was no longer prepared to be punished by him.
“That was it, Fran. I knew then that it was over. That he no longer loved me. Even he could find nothing in me to love. There is nothing in me to love. I am worthless, and he has told me so.”
“Stop that at once, you hear, or you’ll be over my knee. How dare you decide who shall and shan’t love you, and why? I don’t want to hear the word worthless from you. Ever.”
“I – “
“No, Hansie. Now just let me get this clear: Tim said he was no longer interested in being punished by you, not that he no longer wanted to be with you?”
“He said. . .” a very long pause, and then, with a tremor. “I am not sure. I will not say that he said this, exactly. No, I remember. He said: ‘you can’t’.”
“You can’t? You can’t what?”
“Punish him. And that is not important in itself, but what it implies is a foundation of our relationship. The trust. You understand this. He was saying that things had come to an end.”
“But what had you said before that?” There was something about this story that didn’t feel quite right. I wasn’t sure exactly what, but not how it should be. I wouldn’t say that Tim was my bosom pal, but I’ve grown to like him, and he didn’t strike me as the type to just give up on someone like that. The reverse, if anything: I’d have him down as the type who’d go on with a relationship long after it had ceased to offer him anything, out of an overdeveloped sense of responsibility.
“I do not remember. I was angry. I told him that I would punish him because he lied to me, that I would not stand for it.”
“And he said: you can’t? Just like that?”
“Yes. Fran, I shall have to give up my job. Move away.”
“I cannot work with him. Not side by side. It would hurt too much.”
“Look, I would talk to Jim before I made any decisions on that. And even if you do go, Hamilton’s isn’t the only employer in the area. You have friends here, Hansie. More: family. We won’t let you just run away.”
That was the point at which he started to sob, helplessly. He seemed almost shocked at first, the sobs forcing their way out despite his desperate efforts at control. A man betrayed by his own body – I doubt he had cried like that since he was a kid, but the body has its own wisdom, and right now it was not going to be denied. I pulled him to me again, and rocked him while I made meaningless soothing noises. I’m not a great fan of men who cry at the drop of a handkerchief, but I thought, under the circumstances, that it was the most healthy reaction I had seen from him all morning. Let him cry himself out.
I must have washed and dressed and driven the twenty minutes to work, but I don’t remember any of it. There’s a sort of blank in my memory between the phone call and arriving at work to a message on my voicemail from Shona asking me to go over to the CE’s office as soon as I arrived.
“Tim is here, Jim.”
“Thanks. Send him in and hold my calls, please, Shona,” the intercom replied.
I walked into his office. A quick searching glance at me, and a frown.
“Shut the door, please.”
The signs were not good.
“I had a phone call this morning. Do you know what it was about?”
Lurid visions of Hansie in a motorway pile-up or plunging from a cliff leaped into my mind for a moment, but no, Jim would never have taken that tone with that sort of news.
“I’ve no idea.”
“It was Pieter de Vries. He rang up to tell me that you really were telling the truth about the coursework, you needed some sort of study leave arrangement. When I asked him what truth, he told me that you have been overworking yourself on this MBA course to such an extent that you practically fell unconscious on a train, were robbed, and ended up penniless in Edinburgh having to be rescued by him.”
The utter bastard! How could he? And then with a sickening realisation: of course. This was part of the payback for Hansie. For splitting up.
“I’m sorry, Uncle Jim, I don’t know what you want me to say.”
“Well, how about: yes, it’s true, or no it isn’t, for a start.”
“I don’t think Piet knows how to lie. Yes, it’s true. I’m not proud of it.”
“And how do you think it makes me feel? That my nephew got himself into such a state, and didn’t feel able to come and tell me? That a stranger – oh, a very decent and able stranger, a friend indeed – but that Pieter de Vries knew that one of my managers was overstretching himself, and I did not?”
“Jim, I. . .”
“Quite apart from anything you might feel you owe myself and your aunt as family,” oh, that was a low blow, “I expect of my staff that they report any problems with their workload as a matter of course. You know that, and you deliberately concealed the situation from me. Didn’t you, Tim?”
I looked at the carpet. I was not going to weep. Not for this. I could feel my head spinning. . .
“Timmie? Tim, are you all right, son?” Now how had I got down here? And what was Jim doing hovering above me, suddenly looking his age?
“Where? What happened? I must have got dizzy.”
“Your eyes just rolled up and you rolled over, laddie. Don’t do that to an old man, you scared the life out of me.” He sounded it too, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Jim’s voice shake. Somehow, that was more upsetting than anything.
“I’m fine, I’m fine. I’m. . .” and suddenly the truth hit me.
“Well, no, I’m not fine, actually. Not fine at all. Hansie’s left me.”
“Left you? You mean, left, left? Split up? That’s. . . och, laddie, that’s awfu’ news. I am so sorry. When was this?”
“Last night. He – we had a, he was, it was supposed to be reconciliation over this stupid MBA, and I’ve been ignoring him I know, well and Phil, but I think Phil will forgive me but Hansie won’t and now Piet won’t so maybe Phil won’t either, and he said he knew he was worthless, and I didn’t care about him but he wouldn’t have me lie to him, and I didn’t, for God’s sake, but then I couldn’t let him say that, how could he throw my care back at me like that and say it wasn’t there, it was false, and he isn’t worthless but he’s saying that I am, that my care for him was worthless, that it was all a sham, if that’s what he thinks I don’t think he can ever have loved me at all. . .”
“Hey, hey, laddie. . .” It’s a strange thing that at the age of 27 it can be so comforting to be engulfed in a big, firm, fatherly hug.
“Where is he now?”
“I don’t know. With Piet I suppose. I don’t care.”
“Tim, that isnae true. And do you not think that maybe switching from giving him practically all of your time, your undivided attention, to giving him practically none, might have confused the poor fellow? That he might have got the wrong message? Can ye not talk to him about it?”
“No. I won’t have him back, Jim. It’s over. I would have given him my life, the rest of my life, and he threw it in my face.”
He sighed. “Timothy James Creed, I love you as a son, but sometimes you drive me to distraction. Everyone, including you, tells me how pig-headedly stubborn Hansie is, but for sheer, polite, sweet-natured intransigence you have always taken the biscuit.”
“He left me!”
“Aye, well people do things under stress that they regret. What am I always telling you about the need to compromise? That applies in life as well as in business. That’s what adults do. Compromise.”
“I don’t think there’s anything to compromise on. There’s nothing left, Jim.”
There was a long pause. “If that’s true,” he said, “then things must have been going wrong for a long time, and quite badly. Because love doesnae evaporate overnight, and I would have sworn that you had that, even quite recently.”
I had to rub my eye. Something in it.
“Well,” he said at last. “Your aunt will be sorry. She cared a great deal for Hansie.”
There didn’t seem anything I could say to that, either.
“You can’t continue working together, of course,” he said, in the same grave tone. “But I’ll not put him off because of it. You’ll have to be transferred.”
I looked up, aghast, at the unfairness of it.
“We’ll work something out, maybe say that you’re being rotated through the departments to gain experience. That’s not a bad idea, in fact, I had something like that in mind before you. . . well. For the moment, stay home. You’re on study leave if anyone asks. And don’t suppose, while we’re on that tack, that I’ve forgotten what a pig’s ear you’ve made of this whole MBA thing, but we’ll discuss that later when things are more settled.”
Ouch. I could guess what sort of discussion that was going to be. Hugs aren’t the only thing you’re not too old for at 27 in Jim’s book.
“You’re not to drive yourself home. It’s nearly lunchtime, I’ll drop you off myself. And come to dinner. You shouldn’t be on your own tonight.”
“Yes, Jim. Thank you. For everything.”
“Stupid idiot. That’s what family’s for. It doesn’t all go one way, you know, we are allowed to do things for you, as well as letting you do things for us.”
“I don’t seem to have done much for anybody lately.”
It seemed to be my morning for phone calls. After he had stopped crying, Hansie had eventually fallen asleep, exhausted, on the sofa. I don’t suppose he slept very well last night. So when the phone rang, I leaped to get it, afraid it would wake him.
“Jim?” Now that was a surprise. I might possibly have expected Tim.
“Is Hansie with you, by any chance?”
“Yes. How did you know?”
“Mary suggested he might go to you. I suppose you’ve heard. . .”
“About the break-up? Yes.”
“It all seems very sudden. I hope the pair of them know what they’re about.”
“I doubt it very much. The story I have from Hansie seems very confused.”
“Ah. Tim is much the same. I can’t help thinking that this whole gallimaufry doesn’t feel quite. . .”
“Quite right? I’m very glad to hear you say that, Jim. I don’t think so, either. You see, as far as I can tell from his reaction, Hansie is still deeply in love with Tim. Angry, hurt, bitter, but still deeply in love.”
“Aye, well that seems to be the position here, too. Tim seems to think that Hansie has rejected his love, that he thinks it was all false.”
“Ah. Hansie is of the opinion that Tim no longer loves or trusts him. That he wants the relationship to end.”
“That wasn’t the impression I had. How is he?”
“Asleep at the moment. He was in a fair state when he first got here – to be honest, when he rang me I was concerned that he might do something silly.”
“When the opportunity arises, will you tell him that as soon as he is fit to come back to work his job is still here? Tim is on study leave at the moment, and will be rotating to another department to continue learning the company ropes when he comes back. I don’t expect them to work together, under the circumstances.” He sighed. “That’s why all the recommendations are to avoid office romances, of course, but I can hardly complain as I was the one threw them together. I thought they’d be good for each other.”
“They have been,” I hastened to reassure him. “A year ago Hansie would have been in the next county by now. And I’m not giving up on them yet. You say Tim is at home?”
“Aye, but I don’t want him. . . he’s still my nephew, Fran, and he’s a very, very unhappy boy at the moment. Not to mention worn to a frazzle – did Hansie tell you he was so exhausted he fell asleep on the train and got robbed?” I could hear a certain amount of self-recrimination in Jim’s voice. “I don’t want him hurt any more.”
“I wasn’t planning to go over there and box his ears,” I said. “In fact, Hansie made me promise I wouldn’t try to talk to Tim behind his back. But if Hansie needs to get anything I wanted to make sure there were no unexpected confrontations.”
“If he needs to go and pick up his things, Tim will be having dinner with us tonight. And if I know Mary she’ll make him stay over, too.”
“OK. Thanks, Jim. And thank you for Hansie, too.”
“Och, that’s all right. Hansie has grown quite dear to us. I hope. . . well, I hope that things aren’t as bad as they seem.”
“So do I, Jim, so do I.”
I had hardly put the phone down when it rang again.
“Frances?” It was Pieter de Vries. “You were trying to reach me?”
“Ah. Pieter, I have some news for you, that you aren’t going to be very happy about. Tim and Hansie have split up. Hansie walked out on Tim yesterday and spent the night in his car. He’s with me at the moment. I’ve fed him and he’s sleeping at the moment, but he’s not in great shape.”
There was such a long silence at the other end that I thought I had lost the connection.
“Yes, Fran, I am still here. I simply do not know what to say. I am not a gambling man, but if you had asked me, I would have wagered that that was a relationship that would last.”
“I’m not entirely convinced that it’s beyond saving, and neither is James Hamilton. There’s just a hint that this is more about crossed wires between two stressed and angry people than any fundamental flaw in the relationship.” And yes, I had my fingers crossed behind my back.
“Well. You give me some hope, then, for I respect both your judgements. And without this – I fear for Hansie, truly I do. And also for Tim.”
“Tim?” And that was a surprise, because it was fairly obvious how much Piet cared for Hansie, but I hadn’t realised that he also cared about Tim.
“He is not nearly as strong or as confident as he wishes to seem. It would be a great shame if the generosity of spirit that could offer love to someone as desperate as a Hansie were to be blighted by this. I cannot believe it,” he added. “Last night there was nothing to suggest this.”
“No-one seems to have a clear picture of what led up to this. Hansie said something about having to punish Tim for lying to him, and that Tim refused.”
I could hear the frown in the voice all the way down the telephone line.
“That is – strange. We spoke of this, this problem, but there was nothing to suggest that Tim was so unhappy about it. He accepted that he had not been behaving as he should. And why did they not wait until morning and discuss it if there was a difficulty?”
“I don’t know. Tim seems to think that Hansie has rejected him and all his works, according to Jim, told him that he didn’t care about him and all his love was pretence.”
“That is clearly an untruth – ach, this is madness, it is completely stapelgek.” I could tell how disturbed he was by the fact that Afrikaans had crept into his English. “I cannot help but worry that I may have contributed to this.”
“I’m sure you can’t have.”
“Nonetheless, I must know, Fran. I think I should speak to them.”
“I don’t think they’re ready to confront each other, Piet.”
“I do not ask them to confront each other. I ask them to confront me. To tell me, amongst other things, why their friends must find this out from other friends.”
“Piet – go easy. It’s only just happened. By all accounts Tim is in as bad a state as Hansie. If we rush things, we could make them worse.”
“I will wait a little, Fran. But not too long. When a bone is broken, it must be set straight quickly or it will never heal correctly. The longer they have to brood on the wrong and the injustice done to them, the harder it will be to set things right between them.” And there was truth in that, too.
“A few days, at least. Discuss it with Phil, he knows them both quite well, too.”
“Yes. Yes, this is wise. Thank you, Fran. I am glad that Hansie has you.”
“He needs somebody. Well, to be honest, he needs Tim, but in his absence I’ll just have to do as a stopgap.”
“You are very much more than a stopgap, Frances Milton. We both know that.”
It was a dreadful week. Ach, it was not anyone’s fault but mine, but it was a dreadful week.
It was a dreadful week. For a start, there’s rather a lot of Hansie, and I’m not a small woman myself, and there isn’t so much of my flat that two adults can easily avoid one another.
And for another – well, I discreetly rescheduled everything that was feasible and could be done without making it obvious to Hansie himself, but there was a certain minimum of work that couldn’t be avoided. In the end I got him to help me redecorate the living room, just to give him something useful to do. But if left to himself for any length of time, he was inclined to end up staring vacantly into space with a look of utter despair on his face, absently shredding anything that he happened to have in his hands.
What rather concerned me is that he didn’t seem to be moving on as the days went on. There was no sign of anger, or resignation, or anything but that weary burnt-out desperation. He wouldn’t talk about it, though, retreating into indirection or flatly ignoring any hints that he might like to. And if he found one more way to imply that he was a waste of space, I was going to abandon my good intentions and give him a good hiding.
So, not a good week. Not a good week at all.
It was a dreadful week. The first night I went to Jim and Mary’s for dinner, and admittedly it felt good to be hugged and fussed over, and made to feel special, though I couldn’t eat and left half my dinner on my plate. But it was difficult, because of course they wanted to know what happened, and I really wasn’t ready to say: well, he made me strip naked so he could beat me, so I necessarily had to edit the details, and both Jim and Mary are plenty smart enough to hear when they’re getting an edited account. And when my bitterness got the better of me, and I started to have a real go at Hansie, Mary put her hand over mine and said:
“Why not? He is a bastard, and I hope that he rots in hell. Doesn’t he deserve to suffer for what he’s done?”
“Tim, I understand that you’re very upset with him right now, and from what you say he has behaved very badly to you. But I liked – I like – Hansie, and I’d rather not be forced to take sides between you. He must have had a reason for behaving like that.”
I stared at her open mouthed. It was like – I felt betrayed. She was supposed to stand up for me. I was the one who was abandoned, rejected.
“Don’t look like that,” said Jim. “We’re here for you laddie. It’s just that we wish. . .”
“It’s over, Jim. Wishing is no good. He’s gone.”
“But it seems so pointless. I’ve never seen you so contented, so settled. Why give that all up?”
“Well, you’ll have to ask him that, won’t you?” I said coldly. “I really think I’d better go home.”
“Sorry. Sorry, Mary. But can we change the subject? Please?”
We did, but it was there nonetheless, a conversational elephant in the room that we all pointedly ignored. I went to bed very early and I think everyone was relieved.
The whole of the following week everything was up in a heap. Work was a complete nightmare because I had to make arrangements for my work to be taken over by someone else, and they all wanted to know what was going on and I didn’t know what to tell them.
And of course no-one was sure when Hansie was coming back to work, if at all. I had started to worry that no-one had heard anything from him, until Jim revealed that he had heard he was all right, and ‘staying with someone’. Phil and Piet, of course. They would see that he was OK. But that meant that I couldn’t go to them, couldn’t talk to them. A couple of times I picked up the phone to dial, then put it back down. What was the point? They would only take his side. Even Mary had taken his side (I know, I know, it was unfair of me to think that, but I did. No-one said I had to be reasonable.)
I was temporarily desked in Jim’s office. That wasn’t much fun, either, being under his eye all day, especially as I was finding it nearly impossible to concentrate. I kept replaying that last scene between us in my head. Kept hearing Hansie say those awful things, seeing the lights of his car vanishing at the corner of the road.
The worst part was the nights, though. I had forgotten how much I had come to rely on the comfort of another warm human body there beside me in the darkness, on listening to his breathing, slow and regular, when I woke in the still watches of the night. They say you only truly value what you have when it’s gone. Not the sex, good though that had been. Not even the love, though I felt as if half of me had been cauterised. Just the simple companionship. The being there. Having someone to share thoughts, ideas, jokes with. Someone to tell about what happened today, to offer tea, aspirin, a hug when you needed it.
I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t cry. I had a permanent headache because I didn’t feel like eating, certainly not like cooking, so I just picked at the occasional sandwich. The idea of studying filled me with revulsion. I wasn’t sure what I was good for, but by the end of the week I was damn sure the one thing I really couldn’t do was carry on this way.
And then, Friday morning, as I was trying and failing to understand the financial projections for the next quarter that Jim had just passed me, the phone rang. I picked it up and got Piet at his most forbidding. I could imagine the cheekbones in sharp relief as he spoke.
“Tim, I wish to speak to you. I will pick you up at your house at 7:30pm tonight.”
“Piet, I. . .”
“This is not a request, Tim. I will see you then, do you understand?”
“Good. At 7:30.” And he was gone.
“de Vries?” asked Jim.
“Yes. He wants to see me. Tonight.”
“Good, maybe he can pound some sense into you. Now, about these projections. . .”
I really don’t think he got much work out of me that day. Only now instead of fretting about the past I was worrying about the future. About what Piet was going to say to me this evening.
I left at five, went home, showered and changed, and then sat and brooded.
From about 7pm I started watching the road. Not that I was anxious or anything – oh, who was I kidding? I felt like a criminal waiting for the police to arrive. When I saw Piet’s car pulling up my stomach did several interesting low-gravity orbits of my hollow insides. I went to the door to meet him.
“Come, Tim.” He turned on his heel without looking back, and I followed meekly.
“Get in.” I obeyed, and buckled up in silence. He set off, but to my surprise we didn’t turn left, towards his house, but right, towards the centre of town.
I opened my mouth to say something, and thought better of it. His manner really didn’t invite questions. He was at his most prickly and intimidating, quite deliberately I suspected. He turned off along the Abbey Parade.
“But – this is Fran’s place.”
“Yes. I have something to collect. Wait here.”
He got out and went into Fran’s flat. Shortly afterwards he came back out, accompanied by. . .
“Oh no!” I fumbled with my seatbelt, opened the door, and was out on the pavement without a second thought.
“Tim!” Then, hurriedly, “Hansie, stay here. Do not move, understand me?”
I heard his footsteps hurrying behind me. There was no way I was going to outpace him, even if I ran. I turned to face him.
“You told me that if I no longer recognised your authority you wouldn’t force me. Well I’m telling you, Piet. I want nothing more to do with you, with him. Understand me? This is it. It’s over. Finished. I never want to see any of you again.” The anger in my own voice astonished even me. It certainly seemed to take him aback.
“Tim – this is. . .”
“No, Piet.” Then I realised what I sounded like. “I’m sorry. Be kind to him, if you can, help him if you can. Just don’t involve me. Let me go.”
His face had stiffened – not, I suddenly realised, with anger, but with pain.
“Tim. Are you sure of this?”
“Yes. Goodbye, Piet.”
I turned from him, and began to stride out blindly towards home. Towards a hole to crawl into and die in.
Then I heard a voice behind me say: “No. No, I will not let this be.” And in a few swift steps he had come up behind me, lifted me bodily, and thrown me over his shoulder in a fireman’s lift, winding me in the process.
“Piet! Put me down!” I gasped when I could speak again.
“No, Tim. Sometimes being a friend requires that we must save our friends from themselves. Despite themselves. I will not let you go. We will not let you go, you or Hansie. You will come, and you will listen, and you will speak. Afterwards, if you will, you may take whatever action against me you think necessary, but I will not let you throw away this chance untested.”
“I am sorry?”
“I said all right. I’ll come. Now put me down, will you? This is embarrassing.”
He set me down on the pavement. A few passers-by gave us curious glances, but probably took it for horseplay. Hansie was still standing by the car. So he had been staying with Fran, had he? Why hadn’t I thought of that? Why had I assumed that he would be with Piet and Phil? As I got closer I could see that frankly he looked awful. His skin was grey, and there were huge blue circles under his eyes. They matched the ones I’d been seeing every time I looked in the mirror.
“Hansie, in the back,” ordered Piet. “Tim, get back into the front.”
Hansie shot me an unreadable glance, then got in without a word. Fine, I could go along with that. I did the same.
It may have been only down the road, but it was a long ride.
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© , 2005