Cobweb would like to make it perfectly clear that the Gnome is solely responsible for the title of this one, and she is not taking any of the blame. So there.
The telephone rang.
This is not, understand, an unusual thing in itself. But at three o’clock in the morning it is not so usual, and not a welcome thing. By the time I had struggled out of sleep – yes, I sleep heavily, and when Tim teases me about it I tell him that he is jealous of my sound conscience – by the time, as I say, that I had roused properly, Tim had already sprung out of bed and gone downstairs to answer it. We knew, of course, what it most likely was. We had been waiting for it.
“Hey, Tim, Hansie, come in,” said Simon, brightly. “Daddy is watching TV, come through.”
Since we had discovered that Simon was effectively sole carer for his father we had made a point of dropping in regularly to see them. The stimulation, the doctors agreed, was good for the old man. When he was on good form he treated Hansie with old-world courtesy, and me with a slightly schoolmasterly humour, and he had eventually got used enough to us that Simon felt able to leave us to babysit for short periods. Piet and Phil had also visited a few times, but although he seemed to warm to Piet in the same way that children did, he flinched every time Phil moved. Really odd, if the old man was going to be scared of anyone in that pairing I would have laid odds on it being Piet. It upset Phil terribly, particularly as he had developed quite a good friendship with Simon, but it was just one of those things, so he stayed away.
“I’m just going to go and get the shopping, Daddy,” said Simon. “But Tim and Hansie are here to keep you company, you remember Tim and Hansie don’t you?”
“I’m not a complete idiot,” said his father equably. “Of course I remember them.” Simon and I exchanged wry glances. On his good days, Charles Langridge still showed signs of the man whose personality and intellect had brought him a successful civil service career. He stood to shake hands with Hansie, and then with me.
“Shall I make tea?” he asked.
“No, that’s all right,” said Hansie hastily as Simon quickly interjected:
“No, I’ll do that, I’ll bring a pot through before I go.”
“Let me give you a hand,” I suggested. I followed him through to the kitchen.
“Everything all right?”
He pulled a face. “As all right as it ever is, I suppose. I daren’t let him make tea. He put the electric kettle on the gas stove once.” He sounded tired.
I smiled sympathetically. “It must be very hard.”
“You really have no idea, sweetie. Sometimes I just feel. . .” he trailed off for a moment. “But there, no point in being a crosspatch, is there? Thank you both for coming over like this. It’s really very good of you.”
“I told you, it’s what friends are for. And we like him, Simon. When he’s on form, he’s good company.” He was too. It had surprised me. I had expected – well, I don’t know quite what I had expected. A giant 2-year-old. But Charles Langridge, when he was lucid, was perfectly sensible and grown up. Yes, he told you everything 4 or 5 times in an hour, but that aside, in good moments he was capable of holding a sensible conversation. The bad moments – well, luckily we had missed the worst of those. Outbursts of tears, sometimes, and once the quiet, sad question: ‘I’m losing my mind, aren’t I?’ but nothing worse. That there were worse moments – tantrums and outbursts of undirected fury, I guessed from things Simon said, but we had never witnessed them.
Simon smiled at me sadly. “I wish you could have known him before,” he said. “When he was really Daddy. He was such a marvellous man.” He turned hastily away and cleared his throat. “Well, here now, your tea. Will you take it through, darling? They have cava on special offer and I simply must away before the Greedy Fairy grabs every trace of it off the supermarket shelves. And if I go in again I shall have to explain where I’m going for the 25th time. Shan’t be long, poppet.” He gave a brittle smile, and disappeared off down the hallway.
I carried the tea through. Charles looked at me bemused.
“Oh. That’s very kind.” He looked at me intently, his jaw working. “I’m sorry, you’ll think me very foolish, but have we met?”
“Tim. I’m Tim. Simon’s friend. And this is Hansie.”
He looked around as if spotting Hansie for the first time. “Of course it is. Who else did you think it was?” Then, carefully, “Tim. Yes, Tim. How silly of me! Getting old – don’t do it boy, it’s overrated.”
“Not compared to the alternative,” said Hansie, deadpan.
The old man’s face crinkled with amusement. “Well, yes, there is that. Tea, hah. How splendid. Where’s Simon? I’m sure he told me.”
“Yes, yes, he’s just popped out to the shops, Charles. He won’t be long.”
Charles reached out a hand and placed it over mine as I went to pour the tea. “He’s a very good boy, you know. So very good to me. I know people say things about him, but he’s a good boy.”
“He is one of the best, Charles,” said Hansie solemnly.
“Yes, yes he is,” his father agreed slowly. “I’m glad he has friends like you. You will take care of him, after I’m gone?”
“Ach, that will not be for a long while yet. Do not talk so.”
“Let’s all have some tea,” I said hastily, not liking where the conversation was going. “Do you take sugar, Charles?”
He looked at me for such a long moment that I was sure he didn’t know himself. “No,” he said at last. “I never have, not since Simon’s mother – not for twenty years or more.”
We had been waiting a week – a week we could ill afford – to have the patch for the new software for the firm’s switchboard installed, during which time all incoming calls were being randomly diverted around the building. A week in which my staff went from irritated to completely livid to tearfully desperate, and in which my temper went from controlled to uncertain to volcanic, as accounts went AWOL and customers went ape, or in at least one case, to another company altogether.
I had had an email from Simon the first day promising to get someone onto it right away, and then nothing. Every time I rang IT I got someone’s voicemail, and when I went down there myself, fully intending to wring Simon’s neck, I could find no-one. I wouldn’t put it past them to have one of these how-do-they-call-them, web cameras fixed up somewhere to monitor if someone was coming and allow them all to be somewhere else in the building. In fact, I think they all do it. Everywhere I have ever worked that was large enough to have an IT department, you could never find one of its staff when you wanted one. In the end, tired of the whole business, and of being ignored, I sent a very stiff email to Resources saying that if someone didn’t get back to me within the hour I was taking the matter up with the Chief Exec because it was impacting on the company’s reputation and future profitability.
That got me a phone call from a rather defensive Laura – which made a change from the other way round. I know she thinks I’m an idiot, but this time I was an idiot who was in the right. And then she sunk me, dead in the water, just as I was running up a good head of steam about Simon’s team and the appalling level of service.
“I’m sorry, I thought you’d know. Simon’s father is very ill in hospital, pneumonia I believe. I think Simon’s spent most of the last two days there.”
“I – I – I. . .” I realised that I was only contributing to the idiot impression. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know. But are you telling me that no-one but Simon can fix this problem? It is unacceptable not to be able to take customers’ calls.”
“Yes, yes, you’re quite right. I will ensure that someone from IT at least gets back to you, it isn’t an acceptable level of service. But we are, as I keep telling everyone to no apparent effect, seriously under-resourced in that area.”
“Then if you want to detail that for the Chief Exec I will happily lend my support to getting more staff. We cannot have whole departments close down just because a key member of staff in IT is absent.”
“Would you? Yes, that might be helpful. I’ll put something together and forward it on to you, see what you think. Thank you, Hansie.”
“Welcome.” And I think that is the first time she has ever called me by my first name. But Simon? How was it we did not know of this? I was – well, I was hurt, to be honest. I had thought he would let his friends know, that something like this had happened. And then I thought that perhaps he had told Tim, for Tim was his friend first of all of us, and Tim had not thought to tell me.
It was only a casually flip remark as I came in about lazy lummoxes lying on the sofa. I didn’t expect said lazy lummox to surge upwards, grab me, and flip me across his lap fast enough to make my teeth rattle, nor to continue the tooth rattling process with the aid of his hand across my backside. Luckily I was in jeans, but the bugger soon had those off me, and my underwear down too. Look, I’ve said it before. He’s a big man, with broad shoulders and a lot of muscles. And when he spanks, he uses them. It hurts. It hurt a little bit more, this time, than was entirely comfortable for play, and I really didn’t think I deserved serious punishment for anything. I was just contemplating the idea of my safe word when his hand rested on my rigid, scorched backside and began describing circles with his fingertips. It makes me shiver with pleasure, always does, when someone does that. Pure sensuality – not sex per se, just sensation.
“Ooh, Hansie, do that some more.”
“What, you want more spanking?”
“No, you idiot, that thing with the fingertips. Ahhh, yes that thing.” He ran the nails very gently up the small of my back. “I’ve had quite enough whacking for the moment, thank you.”
“Ach, Timmy, I am sorry. You did not perhaps deserve so hard a spanking. It has been one of those days. And did you know about Simon, and if so why did you not tell me?”
My head shot up, and I twisted off his lap to sit up and look at him, wincing as my sore arse scraped against the denim of his jeans.
“What about Simon?”
“His father is in hospital, seriously ill.”
“What? Why the fuck didn’t you tell me at once? We should go round.”
“Calm down.” He tapped my thigh warningly. “Simon is not at home, or at least not answering the phone, and Lol said that he was spending most of his time at the hospital, so there is no point in going to the flat. And Mr Langridge is not able to have visitors at the moment, I rang and asked.”
“Still. . .”
“I know you want to do something, but at the moment there is nothing we can do. I have left a message on Simon’s answerphone asking him to let us know how his father is doing when he can spare a moment, also to ring us at any time if there is anything he needs. OK, so?”
I grudgingly conceded that he seemed to have covered all the bases. “How could you imagine that I wouldn’t tell you something like that? Of course I would have, immediately.” Yes, OK, maybe unnecessarily heavy stress on that ‘immediately’.
He was contrite. “Ja, ok, sorry.”
“Sorry?” I felt an evil grin coming on. “Well, Master van den Broek, I think that perhaps I might be inclined to make you sorrier.”
Puppy dog eyes. “I’ll never do it again Sir, I promise.” His lips twitched. “At least, not today.”
“Right, my boy, you just signed your own death warrant. Go and fetch the plimsoll, Hansie.”
“Not the nasty stingy grubby takkie with the torn upper? The plimsoll of Destruction?”
“The very same.”
“Can I have a last hearty meal first, then?”
“No. You can have a hearty meal afterwards. I took some meatballs out of the freezer.”
“Will I have to sit down for it?”
“Oh yes. You won’t want to. But you’ll have to.”
“Bastard,” he grumbled, an effect spoiled by the attempt not to grin in return. “At least you’ll have to sit too.”
“Don’t remind me of that too loudly, Hansie. Remember, your punishment is yet to come. . .”
“So am I,” he said lasciviously, indicating a growing bulge in his jeans.
“Down boy. You’ll be hot somewhere else when I’ve finished with you.”
That proved to be only half right; if I’d only added ‘as well’. It was ten o’clock before we got any dinner. And then it was interrupted by a phone call from Simon. He sounded as if he was talking from the bottom of a well.
“Simon, are you all right?”
“Not – not really, Tim. Daddy is dying, you see.”
“Oh God, Simon, that’s awful.”
And now this, this 3am phone call. Tim came back to me looking tired and sad. “He’s gone, Hansie. Charles Langridge is dead.”
“I am sorry for it. He was a nice old man. And I am more sorry for Simon. Is someone with him? How will he manage now, do you think? You have known him longer.”
“I’ve known what he allowed me to know. Simon’s such a private person, behind that camp mask. I really don’t know, Hansie, I don’t know what he’ll do. I did ask him if he would let us come and bring him home here with us tonight, but he said no. One of his cousins is staying with him, he says, although I don’t know if that was just an excuse and he thinks he’s being a burden. But if he won’t come, he won’t.” He slipped into bed beside me, his body distinctly chilly against mine, for the nights were growing cooler as autumn drew in, especially out here in the country. I thought it would not be so many weeks until the first frost.
“Here, my liefie. You are cold. Let me hold you.” He snuggled against me. I had meant to say something more, but somehow it escaped me in the dark, feeling him breathe against me. I had a sudden sense of how precious he was to me, fought the urge to clutch him to me like a drowning man with a spar. We fell asleep that way, my arm over him protectively. This one’s mine. Mine. No-one, nothing is taking him away from me.
“Hallo, Tim. What are you doing in the most expensive clothes shop in town? I thought you always maintained that the designer labels in here were overrated tat?”
“No comment,” he said, looking sideways at the assistant and getting a particularly flouncy glare as my comment registered. “Actually, I’m looking for a black tie – I seem to have got something on mine that won’t come off, and neither Burtons nor Debenhams appear to have anything so fundamental in stock at the moment.”
“Try Tie Rack on the south side of the Buttermarket. They usually have all the basic shades.”
“Damn, I knew I should have just phoned you first. Thanks, I’ll do that.”
“Can I ask why you need one?” We were being all formal and careful, out in public.
“Ah, you wouldn’t have heard, of course. Simon’s father died on Thursday.”
“Oh no! Oh, I am sorry to hear that. So will Piet be, I’m sure. When’s the funeral?”
He grimaced. “Thereby hangs a tale. Supposedly next Friday, and you’ll no doubt get an invitation in due course, but it isn’t quite settled yet, because Simon and his three cousins can’t agree on any of the details. Especially about the reception, afterwards. Apparently nowhere in town is quite good enough to suit them.”
“I didn’t know he had cousins. Mind you, I don’t know him that well.”
“All on his mother’s side, I think. But they’ve certainly been conspicuously absent when it came to any of the messy and expensive business of looking after the old man while he was alive, so quite why Simon feels he has to take any notice of them regarding the funeral arrangements I don’t really know. He spent half an hour on the phone to me dithering and complaining last night.”
I laughed. “Poor you.”
“Oh, I don’t really mind, I know it’s a hard time for him. And they are family, I suppose.”
“Have you met any of them yet?”
“No, we have that pleasure tonight. We’ve asked Simon and them over for drinks and dinner, just to give him a break as much as anything.”
“God, he must be feeling wretched. Would he mind if we sent him flowers or something. . .?”
“I’m sure he’d be delighted. Jim had some sent from the firm, and I expect they’ll send some to the funeral, but I think he would appreciate it. Well, er, they all would, the cousins and that, as they’re staying with him.
“Oh. Right. Yes, I quite understand.” And thank you, Tim, I get the message: keep the card formal. “I’ll do that then. And I’ll let him know that if there’s anything else I can do for him. . .”
“Do that, I’m sure he’ll – well, hell, actually, don’t be surprised if he turns you down a bit coolly. I’m worried about him to be frank, he seems determined not to accept help from anybody.”
“Well, he was a bit like that about his dad while he was alive, wasn’t he?” I pointed out. “And maybe he doesn’t dare give in to his feelings just yet.”
“Maybe. I’m sure you’re right, you usually are about these things” – and I couldn’t quite disguise the little thrill of pleasure that admission gave me, either – “but I think it’s going to be messy when he finally does give in to it.”
“Hansie, they’re horrible,” I hissed to my partner as he helped me take the dishes out to the kitchen, leaving our guests to settle themselves back in the lounge after quitting the table.
“Shh, they’ll hear you. What did I say to you about not getting on your high horse and making things worse?”
“Well, I haven’t said anything, have I? And I might add it took considerable restraint on my part when Max was pontificating about matters on which he knows much less than he thinks.”
“You did fine, my skat,” he assured me solemnly. “Just make sure you keep it up until they’ve gone home, hey? You don’t want to make Simon’s life any more difficult than it is already.”
“I noticed that you were unable to refrain from correcting Maxine, though, when she started on about South Africa.”
“Ja, but Max is only a bore, and Janet is actually quite nice, whereas Maxine is a grade A bitch.”
“Well, I suppose Janet’s all right,” I conceded. She was the one who came and stayed with Simon at the last, a large, untidy woman who did seem to possess both a sense of humour and some vestiges of common sense. “But Max and Maxine! What sort of parents name their twins Max and Maxine anyway?”
“Ones who got the children they deserved, evidently. Come, take the coffee through, my liefie.”
The door to the lounge was pulled to, and I had to pause outside to shift the tray of coffee so I had a hand free to open it. So I got the benefit of Max’s rounded tones from inside, saying:
“Bloody good meal, what? Of course, you can always rely on poofs to be good in the kitchen – not sure where you went wrong there, Simon, hah-hah-hah.” He had a particularly irritating and mannered laugh: he actually said ‘hah-hah-hah’, evenly spaced, as if he were reading the words off an autocue.
“Oh hush, Max,” said Maxine irritably. “They’ll hear you. Mind you Simon, I do hope that the funeral isn’t going to be overwhelmed with, well, you know, your sort. We don’t want any scandal.”
“My sort?” asked Simon, in as chilly a tone as I’ve ever heard him use. “IT professionals you mean? We aren’t a particularly scandalous profession.”
“You know perfectly well what I mean. Homosexuals. We don’t want the whole thing made into a show.”
“I shall invite those friends who knew Daddy,” said Simon evenly. “Of course. Some of them happen to be gay, some don’t.” I thought this was an opportune time to make an entrance, so I pushed the door open, announcing loudly “Coffee, everyone?”
“Do you have decaf?” asked Maxine.
“No, I’m sorry, we don’t. Would you prefer tea?”
“No, that’s all right, thank you. I’ll just manage without.” She adopted a martyred expression that emphasised the heavy lines from the corners of her mouth down to the jaw, making her look like some ghastly ventriloquist’s doll.
“Well, I shall certainly have some, Tim,” said Janet. “It smells wonderful – I do love the smell of real coffee.”
“Good. Ah, here’s Hansie with the chocolates. Do help yourselves.”
“Tim, old boy, no sugar?” said Max.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I’ll go and get some. I always forget, neither of us takes it.” I rose, and as I did so Simon did the same, muttering something about ‘the little boys’ room’. When we got into the hall he grabbed my arm.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “You heard, didn’t you?”
“I don’t know what you’re sorry about, Simon. You haven’t said anything out of the way.”
“I know, Max and Maxine are ghastly, aren’t they? But they’re my family, and I can’t just. . .”
“Simon, you do whatever you need to do. But you really need to make a decision about the funeral arrangements and letting people know. I met Phil in town and he hadn’t any idea of your dad’s death – I think he was a bit hurt he hadn’t heard.”
“Oh bother, I’ll ring him, I promise, sweetie. It just slipped my mind. Everything seems to, at the moment.”
I gave him a hug. “Of course it does. You’ve just had a huge loss.”
“I suppose,” he said, in a small voice. “That’s it, you see, I don’t have so many people that I can afford to lose anyone else. Not even Max and Maxine.”
“I’ll reserve judgement on that. But do ring Phil. He’s very good at listening.”
“Are you sure this is a good idea, koekie?” asked Piet. “Holding the wake here?”
“I want to do something for him,” I said. “And they’ve dithered for so long that there really isn’t anywhere suitable in town to hold the reception, and Simon’s house is far too small, even if there won’t be that many there. And Tim and Hansie are too far out from town.”
“And how many people are we talking about, exactly?”
“Well, Simon said he’d asked 25 people to the reception, and that about 17 of them had indicated they were definitely coming, but I told him that if he saw anyone at the service that he’d forgotten and wanted to ask them back it wouldn’t be a problem. I doubt it will be more than 30, tops. And he’s insisted on caterers to do the food, though Tim and I did volunteer.”
He looked at me. “You have thought, of course, that an association with Simon may be seen as reflecting on you?”
“Yes,” I said shortly. He raised an eyebrow, and I sighed. “Piet, people already talk. Not many, and not, so far, to the wrong people, but too many people know about us, in the team and elsewhere, for things to be absolutely watertight. And I don’t want to be so scared of being revealed for what I am that I can’t even offer a hand to a friend in need. I’ll do what I do, and if things get out, we’ll deal with them as best we can. Anyway, there’s no rule that says straight people can’t have gay friends, is there?”
“None, koekie, none.” Neither of us mentioned, though I’m sure that the thought crossed both our minds – I know it did mine – that it was partly due to Simon’s discretion that more people weren’t talking about us. I’ve forgiven Tim for that. Really I have. A smile flitted across Piet’s face, though it was a rather worried smile, and he added: “And – I am proud of you.”
I pretended to consider this. “Really? Why don’t you come here and show it?”
“Show what, exactly?” He pulled me to him, and nibbled gently at my neck. I allowed my hands to slide down the solid masonry of his back and into his waistband.
“Well, this for a start. . .Get ’em off, big boy.”
A hand the size of a shovel swatted my backside just hard enough to sting, as he set his teeth gently in my shoulder and growled at me: “Who is the Top here?” Well, you’ve heard the expression, putty in his hands? I was, and when he’d finished moulding me to his satisfaction it was generally agreed that Piet was Top and Phil was Bottom, and this was a good arrangement for everybody, even the Bottom’s bottom, which was glowing a healthy shade of pink.
Simon’s vervloek relations, Phil, that is what could go wrong. That cow Maxine. That bitch. That. . . that. . . Sometimes English just doesn’t cut it, hey? It was all in hand, and then Simon arrived at work – nee, of course he was not coming in properly, Jim would never have permitted it, but he was putting in an appearance for an hour each morning, giving orders to his department, going away again. He looked. . . I was there on Tuesday when he did it, and so was Laura, and the word which came to me was ‘brittle’.
“Oh, Hansie, you wanted something done about your printer, too, didn’t you? I can. . .”
“It will wait,” I said firmly. “We are sending all our printing to Laura’s printer, and just at the moment I am not at all pleased with Damian, and I think it will do him no harm at all to spend a day or two running errands. He can bring me up my printing , and Mike’s and Melanie’s too. That will keep him on his feet most of the day and perhaps in future he will engage his brain before he runs his mouth. No, Simon, that one is not important. The phones, yes, if we can have someone to look at those, and the question of the server.”
He nodded briskly and gave incomprehensible orders, and went again, and Laura did that thing. . . do people who wear spectacles have lessons in looking over the tops of them?
“Do you know, Hansie, I could have sworn I had heard that you were recommending Damian to the CEO for a pay-rise?”
“Oh?” I said, non-committally. And at eleven o’clock, when Damian came back from his fourth visit to the printer, he came armed with coffee cake. Compliments of the accounts department, he said, Laura had decided that everybody needed a sugar fix. Including, apparently, both Hansie and Damian, who is a good lad and who had grasped that the occasional complaint to the IT people that he was in disgrace with van den Broek would help carry the tale.
But the next morning Simon looked worse than brittle. He looked so bad that I dragged him into my office and shut the door.
“Simon, please do not lie to me and tell me that all the arrangements are going well because I can see that something has gone wrong. What is it?”
He started to deny it, and I gave him a Look. Ja wel, even on a man who is not a Bottom, it can work, and he was sufficiently disturbed that it did. He collapsed into a chair, and stared up at me, and the circles under his eyes were shocking, and even more shocking was the total un-campness of his speech. Not a ‘sweetie’ or a ‘darling’ anywhere.
“It’s Max and Maxine. And this wake. They don’t like the notion of having it at Phil’s, they think I’m trying to do it on the cheap. It’s not proper, not decent, they think. Hansie, they were on the phone all day yesterday and the numbers are getting away from me. They’ve invited a load of – well, of really obscure relatives, people I’ve never met. And friends of their parents, more people I’ve never met. We’re up to 60 people now. And I can’t refuse them, Hansie, I can’t, and I’ve spoken to the caterers, that’s not a problem, but Max and Maxine are still hammering on about going to the Baskerville Hotel. It’s the only one that could give us a booking, but it wanted £20 per head, and I can’t. . .”
I cut him off before he had to admit to me that he couldn’t afford it. There are things a man should not have to say in the hearing of another, and that he cannot afford to bury his father decently is one of them.
“It is not at all suitable, that hotel. Not at all. What is their objection to Phil’s house?”
“It’s not Phil’s, he’s a big enough star to impress even them, it’s that I cut the caterers to the bone. Not on the food, but I didn’t take the staff. They’re going to set up in Phil’s dining room and kitchen, but it’s a self service finger buffet, and Max thinks we need waiters. And with 60 people we do, it’ll be a complete scrum otherwise, and Phil knew about 30, but I can’t just double it on him.”
“It’s too much, too many people.”
“It is not. Phil feels it badly that he did not take a share of helping you before. We know why he did not, it could not be done, but he will be glad to help now. Leave Phil to me. And leave waiters to me. I can manage that.”
“Hansie, I can’t pay them.”
“You will not have to. I will sort all. Your cousins want a glansparty, a, a, a posh event? They will have it. I will speak to Phil and all will yet be well. And you will go home and calm yourself and trust your friends to help you.”
It was not difficult. Phil was not in the least bothered to hear that the 30 people was now 60 people.
“But what about staff, Hansie? Can we book them from somewhere, and I’ll pay for them and we just won’t tell Simon? We can’t, can we? He’s going to ask where they’ve come from.”
“I can get them, Phil, and you will have to pay them, yes, but not directly. I will go to the rugby club, to my 18 year olds, and I will get four of them and a couple of their girlfriends. They are just out of school, so they will have white shirts and black trousers, and I will borrow black bow ties from. . . I’ll think of somebody.”
“You and me and Piet and Tim, no trouble, and if you want to put them on the girls too I can borrow from Rob and Darren. What do we pay them? £25 per head in cash and not tell Simon?”
“Nee. He will know if we lie to him, he has a good ear for that. You will get Premiership match tickets for the boys. Can you do that?”
“Sure. First few matches at the start of the season nobody ever takes up their full allocation. Rob will let me have his if I ask, or I can swap with somebody for mine later on. What about the girls?”
“They may want tickets too, or. . . a piece of jewellery? Something appropriate for a teenager?”
“O.K., or if we asked Fran, I bet she would do a photo portfolio for them, you know, something nice to please the parents, or the promise of an 18th birthday portrait, that sort of thing? Something so that we can say truthfully to Simon that no money has changed hands. Fran likes Simon. She’d do it.”
And so it was arranged. It was not difficult, not difficult at all.
The funeral itself was about as stressful as a funeral always is. It was very traditional – but then Charles Langridge was a very traditional man, ja nee? A church service, and hymns, Immortal, Invisible, and Jerusalem, and the old version of the Bible with the beautiful language. ‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels’, read Max, very badly, and I did not catch Tim’s eye, for Max and charity are not words which run well together; and Simon himself read ‘To everything there is a season’, clearly and thoughtfully, without any affectation, although his voice broke a little on ‘a time to mourn’.
We did not go to the crematorium with the family, we went to Phil’s house to ensure that all was as it should be. My boys were there waiting, good boys they are, sensible, smartly dressed, and two girls who became a little flustered if Phil came too close. I went to give them final instructions – they were of an age to be flattered by being let into the secret. “Simon’s family is snobbish and they think he does not know how to arrange a formal occasion, and I would have them see it is not so. So you ‘sir’ and ‘madam’ everybody, and nothing is dropped or spilled, and you are cool and professional. O.K.?”
I do not share this common view that modern youth does not know how to behave. I did not even tell them what to do, they planned it themselves. As Simon’s guests arrived, their coats were taken from them and placed in a spare room, they were given glasses of sherry, they were watched over. At all times there was one of the teenagers collecting glasses and plates, one with a drinks tray, one in the kitchen rearranging trays of food, two circulating with it, one fetching and carrying and directing people to the bathroom. Anything anybody asked for, one of my waiters would say, ‘Certainly, sir, I’ll arrange that for you,’ and it was so arranged. Poor Phil’s beautiful kitchen looked like a war zone, as they searched for white sugar, brown sugar, sugar substitute, full fat milk, skimmed milk, in one case soya milk (the boy with the car went to Tesco for it and was back faster than I would have believed possible).
The war zone between Phil’s dining room and his living room and his patio, the day being, fortunately, warm enough for him to throw the doors open, was less obvious but more dangerous.
“And how did you meet Simon?” asked Maxine greedily, eyeing Phil up and down with a revolting mixture of libidinous flirtation and suspicion. He smiled at her gently.
“This estate needs a lot of running, and I need advice on an IT system for it. Simon is my consultant.”
“But how did you come across him?”
I think Tim must have told his uncle about Simon’s relatives, for it was Jim who answered her. “Phil is the front man for my advertising campaign, so I want him kept happy and if that means lending my IT professional out of hours, I’ll arrange it.”
Ja, that was good. A link that did not include me or Tim. I breathed again. Only to hyperventilate fifteen minutes later when I went upstairs to the bathroom and met Max on the landing. Phil’s bedroom door was standing open; when I had gone up earlier it had been shut.
“This guy Cartwright must be doing O.K. for himself,” he said to me inquisitively. I raised a chilly eyebrow.
“I wouldn’t know.”
“House this size, and I gather the buildings all round, and a trading estate somewhere? He must be coining it. He’s very young to be running it all, and he can’t be here that much. What sort of business advisers does he have? I mean, I work in the City, I could be a big help to him.”
“Mr Cartwright and I have all the advice we need, thank you,” said Piet’s voice, from below me on the stairs. “Mr Benchley, is it not? My condolences on your loss. I am Pieter de Vries; I am Mr Cartwright’s business associate, and part owner of the estate. We had to take very detailed advice, since I am technically an overseas investor. Mr van den Broek, good afternoon.”
I answered him mechanically, frantically trying to think of some way to draw his attention to the open door above me.
“Is the bathroom occupied? There is another through Phil’s room, Mr Benchley; allow me to show you.”
And Piet, calm as anything, ushered Max into Phil’s bedroom; I thought my heart would stop, until I looked in myself and saw that Piet’s belongings were all removed from the bedside table and the dresser. There was no sign of a second occupant. Piet winked at me as he came out; I fled for the main bathroom, and met Max again on the landing a moment later.
“Did you see that bed?” he asked me in hushed tones. “You could fit three or four into that.” I froze again. “God, some guys have all the luck. Looks and money and fame – he must be an absolute pussy magnet.” Nasty, vulgar little man! “Anyway, how do you know him? Or is it that other man you know, Reece, or whatever he said his name was?”
I opened my mouth to say that I had played rugby with Piet in my youth, and thought better of it. If Max did not think that poofs played rugby, I would not put the notion in his head. “It is through Pieter de Vries, yes. We foreign nationals stick together, you know.” Ja, I was waiting for some remark about ‘bloody foreigners’, and I have no doubt that later on, with his sister, he made it.
And his brother-in-law. Maxine’s husband had come to support her at the funeral. She had married well, I suppose; well for everybody else. At least if those two had married each other, neither of them could make anyone else’s life a misery. David Collinge had, as far as I could see, spent the entire afternoon valuing Phil’s possessions. I did not know what he did, but no doubt presently he would also make a play for a share of Phil’s income.
But eventually people began to leave. Fran went early; Nick had come to the church, but not to the house, saying that he did not know Simon well enough. Jim and Mary gathered together the Hamiltons representation, nodded at me to stay and left. Most of the elderly relatives took themselves off promptly, and when I looked round I could see that the worst was over. What was left was Simon, Janet, Maxine (David having left to collect their daughter from his parents, who had been looking after her all week), Max, and us. Piet had slipped out of sight and was calmly washing up glasses in the kitchen, and telling rugby stories to the waiters, who had reached the stage of being allowed something to eat themselves. Their spokesman looked up as I came in. “Do you want anything else done, Hansie? We’ve boxed up the leftovers, the plates are in the dishwasher. There were only two glasses broken. We said we would clear up in here but Phil said not to.”
“No, you have done excellently well, all of you. If you want to go, you may. Let me find Phil, he has tickets for you as I promised.”
He came to hand them over himself, shook hands with the boys, assured them that he would come and see them in training again soon, kissed both the girls on the cheek, and ushered them out. Then he looked at the devastation of his kitchen, and shuddered. And it was then, when we were starting to relax, when we thought the worst was past, that it all fell apart.
We were at the – I was going to say, the post mortem, but that’s really tasteless. You know the sort of thing. The cousins were casting through who had been there, who hadn't, what they had said, how they looked. Simon had managed to say several things about his father without looking in imminent danger of breaking down, and Max and Maxine had been no more than averagely horrible. Phil offered more tea and coffee, and I followed him into the kitchen to help, carefully shutting the door: I had suddenly noticed that he looked dreadfully tired, not like himself at all.
“You O.K., mate?”
He nodded. “I’m shattered. You know me, Tim, I need my sleep, and Tuesday night we had one of those automatic diallers, you know, when the phone rings and there’s no one there? Got us up four times. Then on Wednesday night a bloody squirrel got into one of the units and set off the burglar alarm, and it took us forty minutes to find out where it was and another hour to get the bugger out. I had an away training session yesterday and the damned coach broke down on the way home. I got in at four this morning; I could have walked home faster. The caterers came at eight to deliver, and there was no point in asking Piet to deal with them, he wouldn’t know what to do with the stuff. And the cleaner came yesterday – did you know we’ve got a cleaner? Nick got her for us; apparently she’s mind-bogglingly discreet. She does stuff for the police, I think – well, she came so everywhere was clean and tidy, but we had to make sure that there was nothing of Piet’s hanging about. I’ve spent the last hour and a half with that twit Benchley. The man keeps trying to get me to buy into some fund he manages, and I daren’t tune him out in case I find myself signing something.”
“Why didn’t you just abandon him?”
“Because every time I did, he latched onto Simon again and Simon isn’t fit for it. He’s been trying to get Simon to tell him what’s in the will, and who owns the house, and suggesting that with no carers’ bills to pay now (pass me the teapot, will you?), Simon will have funds for Benchley to invest.”
“That’s what I thought. But where he had the choice of Simon or me, I’m better because he can smell more money on me, so I’ve just let him bore me.” He rinsed the teapot briskly, and reached for the tea caddy, and I opened the fridge for milk. “Tim?” in an undertone. “Don’t let Benchley catch Simon. Stick to Simon’s side all day, keep him here with us when they go, or take him home with you; don’t let him go home if Benchley goes with him.”
“Why not? Surely if we can snub him on the subject of the will or whatever. . .”
But Phil was shaking his head. “He explained his fund to me in more detail that I really wanted to hear; my life was passing in front of my eyes. And I don’t think one word in four was the truth.”
I didn’t quite understand, and it must have shown. “Look, I’ve heard this sort of thing all my life, from my dad, and I won’t pretend I understand it. But I know the things he ought to have been saying about it, even if I don’t know what they mean, and he didn’t say them, and. . . well, I do know when somebody’s lying to me. I couldn’t tell you how I know, but I know. And I know when somebody’s trying to manipulate somebody else, and he is. First Simon, and then me. He’s a fly boy, that one, and Simon’s vulnerable just now, and. . . look, I’ll do what I can, I don’t mind setting myself up as a financial target, but I don’t want. . .”
“You don’t want to appear to be on too close terms with Simon.”
He made a face. “No. He’s my consultant and I owe him a favour, that’s the story, and if somebody works out that there’s more, then tough and I’ll live with it. But I don’t need to go chasing trouble. It would be better for me, if it were you watching over Simon while his family’s here. Sorry. That’s selfish.”
“No, that’s practical; you’ve got something to lose. As you say, we won’t go looking for trouble. You’re sure he’s up to something?”
“Certain. And it’s to do with money.”
“Well, you should know,” I said, absently, and was rewarded with Phil’s flashing smile as he set cups on the tray. He does know. He knows this sort of thing; it’s only recently that I’ve learned to trust him on it and to acknowledge – hell, to acknowledge that he knows better than me about it. I thought to ask.
“What about the other two? Maxine and Janet? Simon says he doesn’t want to get on bad terms with them but I’m not sure that he’s right. But that seems to be all the family of his own generation that he’s got, and the relatives from his dad’s generation are fairly remote, I don’t think he really knows them.”
“Maxine’s a grasping harpy, just like her brother. She’s tried to get me to sign up with Max, she’s tried to get me to persuade Mr Hamilton to employ her husband, and she did everything but flash her knickers at me.” He looked sideways at me. “You have no idea how good-humouredly stupid I’ve been this afternoon. With a bit of luck she’ll think I’m too dim to have understood what I was being offered; fortunately a rugby player can always pretend to be stupider than he is, and nobody’s surprised.”
I stuck my tongue out at him. “What about Janet?”
“She’s just lazy, I think. Not physically, but emotionally. I gather she’s a nurse, and we all know that doesn’t pay well, and she lives in York, so I don’t think she could really have been expected to help Simon much in practical terms – but she’s not the sort to put herself out, even to the extent of a phone call every ten days just to cheer him up. She would see that she couldn’t do any of the easy things for Charles and it wouldn’t occur to her to search for something she could do, for Simon. But she’s not venal or malicious like the other two.”
He picked up the tray, and I opened the door for him and followed him through. It suddenly occurred to me that the other reason he looked so tired was that he (together with Simon, of course) had been the host to total strangers all afternoon – Piet hadn't been able to help. Until these bloody people went away, Piet was a visitor in Phil’s house too.
And they were beginning, thank God, to have the air of people who were going to go away. Last cup of tea, and the sort of ‘wrapping it up’ conversation. Which suddenly underwent spontaneous combustion, when Maxine said, “Oh, Simon, where’s the starburst?”
Simon looked a bit blank. “The what, darling?”
“The starburst. Auntie Rosalie’s diamond starburst brooch. It wasn’t in the dressing table. I couldn’t find her rings, either, or the diamond and ruby set, or the emerald bracelet.”
Simon’s face was developing a look of polar chill. “If you wanted to see them, you should have asked me. There was no need to go rummaging in my mother’s dressing table.”
“Oh, don’t be silly, Simon, you can’t still be calling it that, you’re mother’s been dead since you were very tiny. Anyway, why wouldn’t I look for them? I thought I might as well take them away with me now.”
It was developing into one of those conversations that gives you an urgent desire to be somewhere else, not hearing it, coupled with a rabbit-in-the-headlights inability to go away. Simon’s face – I actually turned my eyes away. I don’t think I had ever seen such a display of naked emotion from him, and it frightened me.
“Daddy and I have always referred to that as Mummy’s dressing table, and since I never went into it without Daddy’s express permission, I can’t possibly imagine why you would.”
Maxine sighed ostentatiously. “Simon, dear, I realise you probably haven’t thought all this through, but David has already gone home and I shall be setting off today as soon as I’ve picked up my things from your house. I would like to take the jewellery with me. You couldn’t possibly post it, it’s far too valuable, and I don’t want to have to trail all the way up here again for it.”
“I have no intention of posting it. It’s in the bank and it’s staying there.”
Max took a share. “Oh, come on, Simon, I know that strictly speaking, you should wait for probate and so on, but there’s no need to be obstructive. Why can’t Maxine take it now?”
“Why should she, sweetie?”
Simon’s conversation is always well seasoned with ‘darlings’ and ‘sweeties’ but this one was acid. Maxine stared.
“Because it’s mine, of course, or will be.”
She sighed again. “Come on, Simon. Those things are family heirlooms. I want them for Maximette.” At my shoulder, Piet coughed briefly into his tea cup; when I glanced round, he mouthed “Maximette?” at me with an expression of rank horror, which I returned.
“Actually, darling, they aren’t heirlooms. They’re all things Daddy bought for Mummy. Your side of the family doesn’t come into it at all; even if you did, your claim wouldn’t be any better than Janet’s.”
“Oh, no,” murmured Janet, mildly. “I hardly knew uncle Charles, he wouldn’t have left me anything.”
Maxine stared. “Well, but that’s hardly the point, Janet. There’s only Maximette” – yes, we had heard correctly – “in the next generation, so obviously she ought to have the things, and I’m her mother, so I ought to have the care of them. Oh well, if they’re in the bank, that’s too bad; you’ll have to courier them to me, obviously.”
Simon’s chest was heaving; Hansie, beside him, put a careful hand on his arm. “There’s no ‘obviously’ about it. Maximette is mentioned in Daddy’s will. She gets £500. You and Max and Janet get £1500 each. The jewellery isn’t mentioned at all.”
“Well, but then, Simon, obviously – ” This was a woman who used ‘obviously’ as a means of expressing ‘I want’, she’d said it about eight times – and at last Simon was rousing himself to fight.
“No, Maxine. Mummy’s jewellery is mine now and you aren’t having it, not for yourself, not for your daughter. The starburst is gone anyway and the other things are in the bank and they’re staying there. If Daddy had wanted you to have them he would have given them to you; he made his will before he got. . . before he got at all confused.”
“What do you mean, the starburst is gone?” That was Max again. Simon gave him a look of unadulterated hatred.
“I mean,” he said, in a tight, high voice, “that when my father began to suspect that he wasn’t as sharp as he had been, he was sufficiently lucid to agree to a Power of Attorney, shared between me and his solicitor, and we went to court for one. And a year or so later, when he first needed full time care, I couldn’t afford it and my family didn’t seem very interested in helping. The solicitor thought we should re-mortgage the house, but I didn’t like that because then if anything happened to me, Daddy might be put out of his home, and. . .” He choked, and recovered himself. “So I suggested selling the starburst. Daddy never liked to look at Mummy’s jewellery, it had all been in the bank for years, he never missed it and it paid for most of a year’s care.”
The twins gazed at him in horror. “You sold the starburst?” squeaked Maxine. “How dare you? You had no right to sell it without asking the rest of the family! That should have been mine!”
Simon was beginning to look sick. “I went through it all with the solicitor. The insurance company had records of the things being bought, they saw receipts and things because of the values, and Daddy had insured with them for nearly 50 years. The solicitor said there was no doubt that Daddy had clear title and that we could sell them for his benefit.”
“How could you do that, how could you sell something that Maximette was entitled to? It was just spite, wasn’t it? Just jealousy because you’re a bloody pervert and you won’t have any children of your own!”
Even thinking about it later, I don’t remember standing up. I don’t remember what I was thinking. It’s not like me, you know, to hurl myself into something like this; I’m an observer by nature, not a participant. The closest I can remember was that night with the man Cavenagh who was so horrible to Phil, but with him, I wanted to cut, slowly, so that he knew he had been cut. With the twins, it was cosh stuff, I just wanted them on the floor.
“You have got to be,” I said clearly, “the most grasping, greedy, avaricious, materialistic hellcat of a harpy I have ever encountered. I’m not surprised Charles didn’t leave you his wife’s jewellery. I’m surprised he left you anything at all: even at his most confused he was a better judge of character than that. Still, presumably he felt he had some duty towards his relatives; it’s a shame one can’t say the same about you. How dare you ask Simon for anything? Where were you when he was getting up three and four times in the night, and explaining everything over and over, and being shouted at and wept at, and holding down a full time job, and never, never so much as hinting to his friends that life was difficult? And that he knew that however bad it was now it was only going to get worse? Where were you when the carer didn’t turn up, or when Charles was bored with Simon’s company and wanted somebody else to talk to? Where were you when Simon was fed up and needed to talk, and to be allowed to complain, and not to have it held against him? Where were you when basic chores needed to be done, shopping and cooking and cleaning, and Charles couldn’t be left alone for Simon to do them?
“And then you have the brass neck, the unutterable gall, to say that he should have asked you before he made provision for his father? You can’t have it both ways – you can’t make it none of your business when the old man was alive and then all your concern when he dies.”
I only stopped to draw breath, but she bleated at me, “But I’ve got a right. . .”
“No. You haven’t. Simon told you. You’ve got no rights under the will, and you’ve got no moral rights either. For Chrissakes, Hansie and I spent more time with Charles than you did!”
“But I hardly knew him!”
“Neither did I. So I wouldn’t expect to be mentioned in the will.” I let her grasp that one. “But I’m glad I met him, I’m glad for my own sake that I knew him, and that Simon allowed me to help.”
“Well,” said Max, spitefully, “you shirtlifters all hang together, don’t you? You were probably doing the old man too, he wouldn’t have known.”
Piet actually had to lift me off the ground, to stop me from getting my hands around the bastard’s throat. Max tried to grin at me struggling in the iron grip, but his mouth wouldn’t go quite right, it was twisted when he turned back to Simon.
“We’ll contest the will, of course. The jewellery belongs to the family, and we ought to have a share of it; he would never have left heirlooms to a bloody bender if he’d been in his right mind.”
“You’ll lose,” said Simon, quietly and despairingly. “Even if there was no will, I would inherit; I’m his son. There’s nothing wrong with the will, and there’s proof that the jewellery was his to give as he pleased, and if he didn’t give it to you, it’s because he didn’t want you to have it. He knew I was gay, he knew it before I did, and he didn’t care.”
“We’ll see if the courts think so!”
“No,” said Phil softly, “we won’t.”
He smiled at Max, and I went limp in Piet’s grip; he set me on my feet again, although he kept a warning hand on my shoulder. Phil looked, in his own way, as scary as anything the Viper can manage. I knew that look: he used to get that way on the pitch, in the days before Piet; it’s a feral look, and it always meant trouble. Sometimes he would do something mind-blowingly thrilling and dangerous which would un-nerve his own team, never mind the opposition, but which would get them in among the points; equally often he would get himself sent off. Now, though, there was a core of control under the wildness, learned from Piet – now there was an icy calculation of risk and payback.
“I think it’s time you went home. Right home. Simon doesn’t need any more of this bullshit. You seem to be forgetting that there was a solicitor involved all the way through; Mr Langridge’s solicitor can be expected to know Mr Langridge’s intentions. If you’re entitled to anything, the solicitor will see you get it; if you don’t get it, you’re not entitled to it.”
Max’s mouth twisted again. “It’s none of your fucking business! I’ll get my own lawyer on it and. . .”
“No,” said Phil, still softly, still with that feral look. “It’s none of my business, and I suggest that you keep it none of my business. I would very much like it to be none of my business, because contesting a will is very expensive. And I think that perhaps you have an idea that if you make scary noises, Simon will think that he can’t afford to fight you, and he’ll give in. Now I think that would be immoral, and when it comes down to it, I can afford to fight you. I can afford lawyers, Mr Benchley. I can afford lots of lawyers. I can afford the sort of lawyers who will win my case – Simon’s case – and win costs, and leave you hugely out of pocket, and Simon laughing, and me not inconvenienced at all. Now I could have afforded to help Simon with the costs of nursing his father, and I hinted at it often enough that Simon knew I would have done it if he had nodded, but he’s a good man and a good son and he thought that was his job to do, so I didn’t press it. But if I think you’re trying to bully him into giving up what’s his, I’ll press him to let me help. And I can press hard, Mr Benchley. I can press harder than you.”
He stopped to take a breath; I don’t think anybody else in the room did. Hansie had his arm round Simon; Piet’s hand was still on my shoulder.
“You bastard,” whispered Max. His sister came forward to his side.
“You haven’t heard the last of this,” she spat at Phil, her face nearly as wild as his. “It won’t do you any good to have it known” oh, fuck, she’d worked it out, “that you’re bankrolling a homosexual,” thank God, she hadn't worked it out. “You make one move against us and I’ll call the papers.” I nearly cried out: Piet’s fingers had spasmed on my shoulder, although he didn’t open his mouth.
Phil grinned at her. The expression would have been familiar to every rugby player in the Premiership, although they usually saw it masked by the gum-shield. Cartwright was about to score.
“I don’t think so. Not unless you would like me to start calling round the various investment brokers’ professional associations until I find where your brother is registered, and asking questions about his fund. Tell me, Mr Benchley, would you like to explain your fund to my broker? In detail? Including the administration costs? Do you know, I don’t think you would. And the minute I hear that you’re putting any pressure on Simon, any pressure at all, I’ll have my financial team on you. I’ll ask questions, questions about ghost companies and cross-firing. I don’t know the right questions to ask, but I know a man who will. You leave Simon alone, and I’ll leave you alone. You bother him over so much as a lost penny, and I’ll break you. I could do it, and you know I could.”
Bluff. Dummy. Viper de Vries was the best of his generation at selling the dummy; Phil Cartwright is an apt pupil. I knew that he didn’t know for sure what was wrong with Max’s fund; I had a fair notion that he hadn't much of an idea what a ghost company is, or what cross-firing does (I only know because of my MBA); nobody else would have guessed. Phil watched him for a moment; then he nodded slowly.
“I would like you out of my house now. You’ve outstayed your welcome.” He looked round at Janet. “You’re welcome to stay if you wish.”
“I’m the one with the car,” she said, in a quiet voice. “And I’ve got Simon’s spare key. I’ll take them back to collect their bags and their cars. And then I think I shall go home.”
It was something of an anticlimax, actually. Max and Maxine got into Janet’s car, and sat looking straight in front of them. Janet came back to kiss Simon. Neither of them spoke, but it was more than a formal embrace. We watched the car to the end of the lane.
When we went back inside, Simon looked round for Phil. “That was. . . thank you. I wish. . . I think. . . I wanted to hold onto them, to my cousins, but I can’t, can I?”
“I’m sorry,” said Phil, gently. “I don’t think you can, no. I think that the breach was inevitable as soon as she raised the question of your mother’s jewellery.”
“I couldn’t give it to her,” he said, despairingly. “I couldn’t. I don’t think I’ll even be able to keep it myself. See, I haven’t paid anything into my pension since. . . since I started having to pay for care, I need to do that now. And there isn’t ever going to be anybody else to help me with that, but what else could I do? I couldn’t choose my security later over paying for Daddy now. I couldn’t. . . Oh, Daddy. . .” and that last came in a whining keen which made the hair rise on the back of my neck, and which went on and on in what was plainly the start of hysteria.
No prizes for guessing who dealt with that. Simon struggled a bit when Phil’s arms went round him, but more, I think, for form than anything. Anyway, Phil’s twice his size, and once Phil had decided that what he needed was a cuddle, then he was going to have a cuddle. It must have taken all of fifteen seconds before Phil was in an armchair and Simon was tucked up against him, and the tears he had held off all day overwhelmed him. Phil looked up at us and jerked his head towards the door, and obediently, we backed out, all three of us. We stopped in the hall, and Hansie pulled the door shut behind us.
“I think perhaps the kitchen is next, hey?”
So we did that. We tidied up, and we washed the things that couldn’t go in the dishwasher, and we boxed up the hired glasses and crockery, and at intervals one of us would go to the sitting room door and listen to Simon’s hiccupy voice and Phil’s deeper one, and come back.
I’d got as far as washing the floor – somebody had spilled sugar – and Hansie was wiping down the sink, when we heard the door open, and the pair of them going upstairs. Phil appeared alone a moment later.
“He’s gone to wash his face and take a couple of aspirin. Piet, can I have your keys? He wants to go home, and your car’s on the outside.”
Piet reached into his pocket at once. “Koekie, will he not stay with us? We will not ask him to talk, if he does not want to.”
“He’s flattened, Piet. He wants to go home. And I think he’s actually ready to be alone; he hasn’t been alone since it happened. I told him he was welcome to stay, but he doesn’t want to; I’ll take him home, and if that harridan is still there I’ll feel no qualms about throwing her out. I don’t expect she will be.”
No, nor did anybody else, I don’t think.
Simon came, rather tentatively, into the doorway. “Sorry, darlings, it all just got too much for me. Phil says he’ll run me home, and then you people can get on with your lives. You’ve been very kind, all of you. I’m sorry you had to see that; I didn’t realise my family was so horrible. I thought I was Queen Bitch, but I’m not really in Maxine’s league.”
“I’m faintly relieved, actually,” said Hansie, dryly. “I thought it was only my family which could behave so badly in public.”
“Simon, I’m really sorry,” I said, shamefaced. “If I’d held my tongue. . . I know you said you hadn't so many relatives you were willing to lose some, and, well, you have, I think, and it was my fault.”
“I don’t think so, darling. You only said what I’d thought. And it’s true, I don’t have” he choked a little, and recovered himself, and went on more strongly, “I don’t have so many people, but that’s just too bad. I don’t think even I’m desperate enough to want those two. It’s a shame but if your family’s awful what do you do?”
It was a rhetorical question but Hansie answered it. “You do what I did, hey? You look to your friends. You are amply provided with those.”
“Oh yes, sweetie, you people have been. . .”
“Nee, I did not mean us. I meant all the other people.”
“Oh well, poppet, there aren’t so many – but then I haven’t been getting about lately, not socialising. I’ll have to work on it.”
But Hansie was shaking his head. “Maybe you did not see? At the church? Who was there?”
“I don’t quite follow, darling?”
“Simon, Fran and Nick were there. They took time off work to come. And Jim and Mary, well, you would have expected them, ja nee? And Lol and Sally were here this afternoon. Jeremy and Ben and Michelle and Kelly were all at the church although they didn’t come here. Mike asked me if he could be spared to go to the church also, and Alan from Stores, and Marianne from Purchasing. And one of the drivers, the short man with the birthmark on his cheek, I don’t know his name. The three receptionists rearranged their shifts, did you not know? And Pat covered so that Helena could come. Ja, and when I sat down, I was next to a total stranger who addressed me by name: I didn’t recognise Martin. He was wearing a suit.”
“Martin? In a suit? Oh no, darling, that can’t be right.”
I nodded. “I saw him too, Simon. A very sharp suit. Not the tie I would have chosen for a funeral, but a proper collared shirt and his hair tied back and everything. Real shoes. Two of the shift foremen were there, and there was a wreath from the night shift, and one from Packing.”
His mouth was hanging open; he turned blindly back to Phil. “I want. . . please, sweetie, just take me home?”
“Right now. Listen, you’ll need something to eat later, and there’s loads of food left over.”
“Oh. No. No, will you deal with that for me, darling, do you mind? Eat it, or throw it away. I don’t want. . . I don’t think I ever want to see a sausage roll again.”
Piet nodded. “We will deal with it. But Phil is right, you should eat later. Phil, what is in our freezer that Simon could take? What about the chicken from Monday?”
“Find it, will you, while I turn the car? Simon, heat it through and do some rice or something, there’ll be enough for two days and you can send the container back by Tim. No, take it; if you don’t want it tonight you’ll want it tomorrow. Or if you want to come for a meal tomorrow, just for the company, ring us up, we’ll be here.”
I felt bloody when they had gone; we went back into the living room and Hansie and Piet sat down and talked inconsequential nonsense while I paced up and down trying to think of a way to start the conversation which I knew was due, so that it was obvious that I also knew myself to be at fault. In the end I just turned to them and interrupted.
“That was my fault, wasn’t it?”
Neither of them pretended not to know what I was talking about. “It was not well done, liefling, no. I think it probably made little difference, but you didn’t help much. Like Phil says, the breach was probably inevitable, but you left Simon no chance of turning the argument off until a time of his own choosing.”
I looked at Piet, but he was examining his hands, and didn’t seem to have anything to add. “I should have kept my damn mouth shut. Poor Simon, now he won’t even be able to think about the funeral without remembering that it ended up in a ghastly row. And it ought to have been something” I struggled for a word better than the clichéd ‘nice’ “something comforting for him, a line drawn so that he can move on from it. I’ve spoiled that for him, haven’t I? It was stressful enough and I made it worse. And it’s not even as if I don’t know better! I knew the woman was a grade A bitch, and I knew Simon wanted to keep on good terms with her anyway. It wasn’t my business, none of it was; if Simon had wanted to fight with her he’s more than capable of doing it himself. And now I’ve dragged everybody into it, Phil and all. If she works out about Phil. . . she’s capable of outing him just for spite. I – Piet, I didn’t do it on purpose! Oh God, I’m so stupid! And poor Phil, he’s tired and none of this is his business, and we all just leave him to heal everybody’s broken hearts because it’s what he does, and he must think sometimes: when is it somebody else’s turn?”
I took another turn round the room, chewing on my guilt. “Hansie, we’ve got to wait for Phil, I’ve got to tell him I’m sorry, and then,” I gulped “I think we should go home and you can. . . um. . .”
Piet shifted a little. “You express the case for the prosecution very clearly, Tim; what about the case for the defence?”
“I don’t think there is one.”
He rose swiftly and came to hug me. “Do you not? Then you will allow me to speak for you? May it please the court, the woman is as the previous witness stated, a grade A bitch. A harridan. A shrew, a fury, a hellcat. She was attacking your friend in a manner against which he had few defences, and you defended him. Your timing was maybe a little off, I will agree to that. But you defended Simon. You did not draw Phil into the quarrel, he did that himself, and he knew the dangers. We spoke of them last week; we must be careful, all of us, to protect Phil’s reputation, but not to the point of denying him the right to make his own decisions and take his own risks. I think. . . Will you not stay here tonight?”
I looked up into the pale eyes, my mouth trembling. “Not if Phil wants me to go.”
“Then we will ask him, but for me, I would like you to stay. There need be no more than companionship, but I have seen a family break today, and I would be reassured to have my family around me, and to know that we will not break.”
I buried my face against him, and Hansie came silently to hug us both; we stayed that way until Phil came back. He had pulled his black tie loose, and he still looked desperately tired, but he grinned at us. “Starting without me? That’s not fair.”
I pulled free. “Phil, I just wanted to say I was sorry.”
His eyebrows went up. “What for?”
“Dumping you in it. Leaving you to rescue Simon because I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. Making it so that you had to hold him together when you’re dead on your feet already. I’m sorry. I screwed up.”
“Not badly,” he said, coming to join in the hug. “Simon was ready to break anyway; if it hadn't been that it would have been something else. He’s better for having given way, and much better doing it here with us, than with that bloody pair of vultures, or on his own.”
Piet gave a little satisfied snort. He doesn’t say ‘I told you so’, but you can sometimes hear him not saying it. “I have asked them to stay, koekie. I think we should open a bottle of something sparkling and drink a toast to Charles Langridge and eat the rest of the things in the fridge and try to have no more high emotion.”
“Sounds good to me,” agreed Phil. “There’s fizz in your fridge.” He turned back to me. “The fridge here is that vast built-in American thing, so we put the fridge from the old house in Piet’s Dairy, and we keep wine in it. It’s great, there’s always something cold. Bring a couple through, Piet.”
“You will need to give me back my keys, koekie. I locked the connecting doors this morning.”
We did drink to Charles, and to better times for Simon, and I choked on both toasts. Piet gave me a hard look, and presently, when Phil slid off the sofa to his habitual place on the floor, it wasn’t Piet’s legs he leaned against, it was mine. They both knew, and eventually the conversation faltered and Piet stood up.
“Koekie, come, and you and I will change out of our suits before you ruin the set of that jacket completely. Hansie, for heaven’s sake, take Tim through to my study and ease his conscience. The desk is not locked should you want anything. Come, Phil.”
Phil uncoiled from the floor with one hand on my knee, and looked down at me. “Go on, mate, and have done with it, and then we can finish the bottle and have something to eat. Go on.”
I went. I didn’t even look to see if Hansie were following me; he was a couple of minutes behind me, and I suspect Piet had had something to say to him about me. I had the desk open, and Piet’s cane out by the time he caught up with me. But Hansie came round the desk and put it back.
“That is not your decision to make, Tim. I think not the cane. Find the paddle.”
Difficult to explain this, but – well, the cane hurts more than the paddle, and the effects last longer, and I hate the paddle more. I suppose it’s like Phil and switches: he says he can stand the senior cane more easily than the lighter whippy one. So I didn’t want the paddle except that because I felt bad, I did. Does that make any sense? I hadn’t chosen the paddle myself, but I knew I should have done and I was glad that Hansie did.
“Take your trousers down, and bend over the desk.”
He didn’t need to mention my briefs. We both knew they had to come down. I yanked viciously at my shirt to pull it clear of my backside; Hansie's hands came down on top of mine and steadied me for a moment. “Calmly, now, Tim. I will do this, but you will calm down, hey?”
I nodded blindly, and bent, stretching forward to grip the edge of the desk. “Go on. I’m ready.”
“Well now, what is this for?”
“For losing my temper. For interfering in something that was none of my business. For shouting at that. . . For abusing a lady.”
“Ach, no, I do not think you could call Maxine a lady. Your aunt Mary is a lady.”
I laughed, unwillingly. “A woman?”
“Well, she has had a baby, so I suppose the evidence is that way,” agreed Hansie, “but I cannot say that I think it a very serious offence.”
“Well, for embarrassing you all and for landing Simon in it, and for leaving Phil to clear up my mess.”
“Very well. And what do you deserve for it?”
Oh God. “I don’t know. . . whatever you think, Hansie.”
“I don’t know either. So I will make you choose.”
“I will keep going until you tell me to stop, that you have been punished enough. But understand me, Tim, when we have finished, we have finished. We will not speak of it again, you will not give Piet and Phil these guilty looks, you will most certainly not go back to Simon and make him tell you again that he is not upset. Simon does not think you did anything very dreadful and nor do I; nor does Phil and nor does Piet. The only person who thinks Tim is seriously at fault and should be punished is Tim. So Tim is the only one who can say when you have had enough. Do you understand me?”
I did, I thought. And I was fairly sure that Hansie would never have thought of that himself: that’s Piet’s hand. I turned my head until my cheek rested on the cool leather of the desk.
Only. . . when he snaps that paddle down, I never actually am ready. He always lays the first one on hard. But I deserved it. I’d screwed up with Simon again and – ow! – it had cost me two dozen last time and it would be at least the same this time. It hurt.
And he was mixing it up. Moving the paddle about. Laying on three or four at full strength, and then a couple which stung but didn’t go as deep, whatever the description is. I couldn’t fault his coverage either. He went on, and I thought about Simon, and about Phil, until I couldn’t think about them any more, I could only think about me, about the blaze in my backside, about how much I wanted him to –
My back was arched, my forehead against the desk, the smell of leather strong in my nostrils, and the throb from my arse pounding through my whole body. I couldn’t get up. Hansie's hands spanned my waist, and his thumbs worked across my back.
“How many was that?” I asked hoarsely.
“37. You will blister, I think.” His fingertips explored briefly. “Yes, here and here at least. So, that is over. Now, come, stand up.”
I managed that, and rested my head against him, dizzy from bending.
“Shall I make you kiss the paddle?”
“I don’t think so. I’m properly chastened without doing that.”
“Good. So we can go back and finish our wine, hey?”
“Give me a moment. I do love you, Hansie.”
That, apparently, was convenient, and it was discussed wordlessly for a minute or two, until I was fit to reach stiffly for my clothes and render myself decent. We went back to the sitting room; Phil was stretched out on the sofa with one arm thrown over his eyes.
“Piet’s in the kitchen. He says if we’re only eating leftovers, even he can’t mess up reheating them and putting them on plates. I have my doubts, actually, but I’m too tired to argue. Are you O.K., Tim?”
“I suppose so, within the meaning of the act. Turn over, Phil.”
He looked faintly surprised, but he heaved himself obligingly onto his front, pulling a cushion under his cheek and squinting up at me. I knelt down awkwardly beside him, and touched his back. “You’ve done enough today. It’s your turn to be looked after.” And I started to work at his neck and shoulders, until he sighed and relaxed under my hands. Behind me, Hansie made a sound of approval, and went to help Piet.
I helped Piet take the dirty cups out and put them in the dishwasher. It took a little time and ingenuity, but we managed to get everything in – I hate wasting energy on a half-empty load. As we went back to the living room Piet paused in the doorway.
“What is it?”
He moved aside a little, placed an arm around my shoulders and urged me forward. Tim and Phil, sound asleep, on the sofa, Tim curled in the embrace of the bigger, younger man’s arm, his head on Phil’s chest, the way he sometimes fell asleep against me at home. I should have felt jealous, perhaps. Instead, I felt as if I were looking at something unbearably precious and fragile. My eyes filled a little, and there was a strange, sweet pain in my chest.
Piet’s gaze flicked aside to me.
“Ja,” he said, slipping into our common mother tongue, knowing the unspoken truth as always. “That is your heart, and mine, lying sleeping there.”
“I feel – Piet, it scares me, how much I feel.”
“Don’t be afraid, Hansie. This is how it’s supposed to be.”
“But if something happened. . .”
“We would be there. We would all be there, for one another, when it counted. That is what families do. That is what makes a family. What you grew up in, what Simon’s cousins are: that is not a true family. This thing we have made, out of love and care for one another, this is a family. This is our family. We are together. Now, tomorrow, twenty years from now. Whatever happens.”
His arm squeezed me tight, and I nodded wholeheartedly. Well, he’s Alpha Top. I’m not arguing with him.
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