This story runs on directly from Serpent's Tooth; the reader may wish to read them in order. In order to avoid confusion, that is.
I didn’t sleep well, after. Apart from anything else, my arse hurt. Hansie and Tim stayed, and. . . it’s a big bed, you know? But even so, we don’t always share it four ways. Three big men and Tim, we don’t really fit even in a custom bed, and it’s not uncommon, specially in the warmer weather, for them to stagger off to the spare room at about 3 a.m. when one of them falls out or overheats or something. But we all started off in our bed, and although I made it plain to Tim that I was willing enough, he maybe took something from what Piet had said about the difference between submitting and consenting. I was sore, and not really inclined even for make-up sex, although if it had been important to him. . . anyway, it wasn’t. He wriggled up against the headboard and encouraged me to come and cuddle while Hansie and Piet. . . well.
Later, though, I brushed against Tim and he leaned over for a kiss, and then he caught my hand quite tentatively and drew it downward, and reached for me the same way, and Hansie, behind me, stroked my back while Piet whispered encouragement softly behind Tim. I think Tim might have been in tears; I know I was. That was submission and consent.
It was still dark when I got up and I had to wait another couple of hours before I risked a shower in the bathroom furthest from the bedroom. My head was pounding as well as my arse and I looked fairly wistfully at the painkillers in the cabinet, but it wouldn’t have been right to take any. It felt like hours more before I heard one of the others in the bathroom, and then I went and made coffee. I don’t think they realised I hadn’t slept; Hansie made some teasing remark about me not wanting to lie on my back and I answered him the same way, and I made Scotch pancakes for breakfast, not because I particularly fancied them, although that was the excuse I made, but because they’re something you have to watch constantly or they stick, so that I couldn’t be expected to make snappy conversation as well. Then after Hansie and Tim went home, I muttered something about the Farmers’ Market, and took myself off. I think Piet was a bit surprised that I came home with so little, but I said something about some of the usual stalls not being there. I don’t know if they had been there or not; I’d spent an hour just sitting in the car, nursing a polystyrene cup of coffee and trying to get my head straight.
I went to bed before Piet that night, pleading a headache, which was true; on Sunday we both went over to see Hansie’s kids in training and I helped the Hazlehurst woman with the very little ones. That kept me clear of both Piet and Hansie for most of the afternoon, and Piet had a batch of paperwork to finish, so it wasn’t difficult to be in bed and all but asleep before he came up.
And on Monday, I couldn’t stand it any longer and I went over to look for Nick. It only occurred to me when I rang the doorbell that he might not be there, but after a moment he opened the door and his face lit up. That choked me up a bit: somehow I wasn’t expecting anybody to be terribly pleased to see me.
“Phil! Come in, come in. Coffee?”
I shuddered slightly. “Only if you let me make it.” Then I was ashamed of myself for being precious, but he only laughed at me.
“We’ve got a new toy, we’ve bought one of those coffee machines that you use with pre-measured pods. The days of the Maitland caffeinated mud are gone. Come through. I’ve got a couple of your freezer boxes for you too, if you give me a minute to think where they are.”
He set his coffee machine going and then turned, and I saw his face change. “You don’t look too good, Phil. Is something the matter?”
“I – no, not really. End of the season, I suppose. Leaves me a bit flat. How’s Fran?”
I managed ten minutes of small talk before the thing I wanted to say threatened to choke me, and I interrupted him in the middle of a sentence.
“Nick – I need to know. When I – you know when – a while ago, I went to Fran for help when Piet and I – when things were. . .” I trailed off, and he nodded. I looked down. “You know that – of course you do, she rang you to say she would be late. You know about it.”
“Not ‘about’ it,” he said, in that pleasant, calm way of his. “I know it happened. Fran told me only that you had come a bit unstuck and had wanted her advice, she didn’t tell me the details.”
Of course she didn’t. And I had known she wouldn’t. Fuck. This was harder than I had anticipated.
“Did you mind?”
“What, that she didn’t tell me? Of course not.”
“No, I mean that I asked her at all.”
He’s an odd guy, Nick. Says less than he thinks, according to Piet, and rarely – except maybe for the awful evening with the loopy johnny – speaks out of turn. He didn’t answer me straight away, certainly not with the polite negative that someone else might have produced. In some ways, it was worrying that he didn’t give me an instant answer, but at the same time, it was reassuring that he was taking me seriously and thinking about what I had asked him.
“I thought it a bit unusual, but I didn’t object to it, no. Why?”
Fuck. Of course he was going to ask why, and I didn’t have a particularly good answer. “I, um, I just thought that it hadn’t been very polite of me, that’s all.”
His eyebrows went up and for a moment I felt the way I do when Piet’s asked me a question and I’ve given him an answer which we both know to be less than satisfactory. And I looked down and blushed and fuck, fuck, fuck, he knew it had been a lie. Of course he knew. He may not be a Top, but his job is knowing when people are lying and he deserved better than that the person lying should be me.
He didn’t call me on it though. He just said mildly, “Are you busy this afternoon, Phil?”
“Would you do me a favour?”
“Of course, if I can.”
“I’m still not driving, and I’ve got cabin fever. I’m supposed to walk, to start getting fit again, and I’m bored to death of the streets and the park, and Fran doesn’t like me just going off on the bus on my own and walking back in case I run out of steam and can’t get home. Would you take me somewhere we can walk for an hour or so?”
“Where do you fancy?”
“The old railway line above Malton? There’s a car park. . . actually, it belongs to the boat club, but there won’t be anybody there on a weekday, and we could go up the track a bit.”
He sent Fran a text to tell her where we were going, and followed me to the car. I knew he had seen me wince as I got in; that damn strap. . . but he didn’t comment, just directed me on a rat run I didn’t know, up the back of the industrial estate and out to Honnicutt Road. He was right about the car park, there was nobody there.
“I like this stretch, I run here quite a lot. You get dog walkers, but nobody else, and not many of those.”
He was right, it was attractive. The track was sound and not too badly overgrown, although the banks on either side were white with cow parsley. We walked in silence for several minutes and I felt the tension in me coil tighter and tighter until I couldn’t stand it any longer and I exploded away from him, sprinting for the middle distance as hard as I could. I suppose I covered about half a mile before it hurt. Well, before my thigh twinged to remind me that I’d been injured and was supposed to be taking things easy. My backside still hurt when I moved, and something inside my chest hurt all the bloody time. I turned and jogged rather more slowly back down the track. I’d come round a fairly tight bend and I was all but on top of Nick before I saw him – and I saw him before he had a chance to control his expression.
And that hit me bang in the middle of the chest. Again. “Oh, fuck, Nick, that was. . . I’m so. . . Christ, I am such a fucking div at the moment, I can’t do anything right!”
He didn’t pretend not to understand me. “It’s all right. It’s all right, Phil, I told you, I’ve got cabin fever. Come on, you know about getting over injuries, it’s dull and frustrating and it’s driving me nuts that I can’t do stuff, that’s all. I can’t go back to work and I can’t run or take any decent exercise, and I can’t concentrate for any length of time, and I’m bored to screaming. I’m jealous that you can run and I can’t yet. But I will, in time.”
“So fucking tactless. . .” I muttered, ashamed.
“Never mind. It’s nice to watch you run, you’ve got such good technique. Did that come naturally, or were you taught?”
I tried to follow him, to talk about running and training, but frankly some of my answers were completely irrelevant to his questions, and in the end, he turned away from the track into a grassy space with occasional stretches of stonework and timber – an old siding or something, I suppose, with a crab apple tree. Even in my misery I made a note of that: my mum has a brilliant recipe for crab apple jelly. The grass under the tree was lush and he dropped down into it and lay flat with an arm behind his head. I followed him, and for a minute or two there was nothing to hear except bees in the hedgerow behind us, and the heavy thump of my own blood in my ears.
“Which of them have you quarrelled with, Hansie or Tim?”
“Tim,” I said automatically, before pulling myself up on one elbow. “How did you do that?”
His eyes were shut and he grinned lazily. “You know my methods, Watson. Actually, it wasn’t hard. You’re upset to hell, and if you’ve come to me about it, then presumably it’s Family. Something to do with the law, you might come to me, but you wouldn’t be making such a meal of telling me. It’s something to do with you asking Fran for advice before, so it’s definitely Family. If it’s Family, then it’s not me, or I would know, and I think if it were Fran, I’d know that too. If it were Pieter, then it wouldn’t be me you would come to, it would be Hansie or Fran. Hence trivially, it’s Hansie or Tim. What’s happened?”
Only I couldn’t tell him, not without making it worse than it already was.
“I did something stupid, ages ago. . . I can’t tell you all of it.”
“Tell me what you can,” he suggested agreeably. I thought for a moment.
“I can’t tell you it all, because it’s Tim’s story, not mine. The reason he was so upset with me is that he thought I had told somebody. It’s not that I don’t trust you, I know you wouldn’t repeat it but this is his tale, if he wants people to know.”
I did know that he wouldn’t repeat it. Nick talked occasionally about bits of his work, but when a big local case had gone to court and been written up day by day in the paper, we all realised how much Nick hadn’t said. Compared to Nick, graves are positively chatty.
“It was when I was 17, which was before they lowered the age of consent. That was when I met Tim first. There was a man hit on me, and I got rid of him by telling him that I was with Tim. It wasn’t true, but Tim backed me up and the man – he’d been hitting on Tim, before – blackmailed him about me being underage.” There. No mention of schoolgirls or drag at all.
“Blackmailed him for what? Sexual favours?”
It was hardly more than a murmur. Nick’s eyes were closed and there was no judgement in his face.
“Yes. I wasn’t quick enough on the uptake to see the way things were going, but I got that, and well, I went off to muster the cavalry for the big rescue scene. So it never came to anything but it was very upsetting for Tim.”
That was stretching the truth a little. It had come to more than nothing but thank God, not what it might have been.
“It all came out, this last weekend, when we were together. We’re sorted, at least I think we are, only. . . only it occurred to me afterwards that I’d gone running to Fran to sort things out when something went wrong for me and you might not have liked it.”
He had no trouble with that leap at all. “Because you don’t like it when Pieter sorts Tim.”
“No! Yes. Sort of.” Oh, very articulate, Phil. “I just. . . sometimes. . . they all look to Piet and I don’t want them not to, not if he can help, only sometimes. . .”
He opened his eyes. “Only sometimes, when Hansie’s in a fizz about something, sometimes, Phil, I think ‘Jesus, what is it this time?’”
I wound my jaw back up. “You do?”
“Yup. Sometimes it’s a struggle not to say ‘oh, just get over it’.”
The knot in my chest loosened a little. “But I thought. . . you’ve been such a help to Hansie.”
He closed his eyes again. “I’ll give Hansie whatever help I can. Some of that’s more for my benefit than his. Some of his stories about his childhood. . . I don’t like to hear about people damaging children.”
“And he’s the child you can rescue,” I said slowly.
“Just so. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes think his timing sucks.”
“With Tim,” I confessed darkly, “I do sometimes think: what’s he got to complain about?” I looked sideways at Nick. “I mean, yes, his dad died, and that’s sad; and his mum had a breakdown and I can see that it was catastrophic for a small child. But he wasn’t completely bereft, was he? It’s not like he was taken into care, or anything. He had his uncle and aunt, and. . . and they’re good people, they did everything for him.”
Out in the open, that sounded horrible. I sounded horrible, although Nick said nothing to agree or disagree, just let it hang in the air until I’d worked out how to go on. “Except be his parents. That’s the point, isn’t it? He was effectively orphaned and I’m saying that he uses it.”
“He does,” said Nick, flatly. “Sometimes. I’ve heard him. It’s unconscious, I’m sure: we’ve all got unpleasant characteristics and occasionally we all show them. Tim occasionally – not often but sometimes – uses people’s pity for him. So does Hansie. I’ve seen you use charm to get your own way, and I’ve seen Pieter use the force of his personality. That thing I did to you, the Great Detective watch-me-deduce-what-you’re-thinking trick, I did it to startle you into telling me what was wrong, but I’ve done it just to impress people, just to make myself look clever. Sorry, Phil, but not everybody can be utterly good and utterly nice all the time, and even with the people we love, sometimes we notice. We’ve all got baggage of some sort, although yours and mine and Pieter’s is less family based that the others. Hansie has no family except us. Tim’s got plenty, but not the family he wanted. Fran’s got half a family and see what that’s done to her? She’s about the only person I know who thinks the Child Support Agency is a good idea. Her blind spot is absent fathers – she thinks, not in her head but in her gut, that every single mother is an abandoned victim and every absent father is a villain, because that’s what her childhood contained. Intellectually she knows it’s not true, but her heart says it is. And you’ve got supportive parents alive, who behave like parents do, and so have I, and Pieter and I have sisters and they have children, and our baggage is different. So yes, we’ll help where we can, but we are allowed sometimes to find it an effort.”
“Piet helps and helps, he’s everybody’s anchor, and once in a while, yes, I do mind,” I confessed. “That’s why. . . why I wondered if you did when I went to Fran.”
“That’s not quite the same though,” he objected. Hansie’s right, you can see why he would be a good policeman. It’s easy to tell him things.
“Why is it not?”
“Because, at its crudest, you are not a sexual threat to my relationship.”
Fuck. My head went down again. Not just jealousy, but sexual jealousy. Vile. Nick sat up abruptly, reaching over to put his hand on my knee. He’s not a toucher; even now, the only one of us he hugs is Hansie, although he’ll accept an arm round the shoulder from any of us. He doesn’t instigate it, though, so that touch from him was – it was the equivalent of a 20 minute cuddle from one of the others, and I had to hide my face from the kindness of it.
“Do you want them not to turn to Pieter?”
“No.” I could say that truthfully. “They need to and I wouldn’t feel good about myself if I said no. I could say no, Nick, and Piet would turn them away. And usually, I don’t even want to, but, I don’t know, just at the moment. . .” Just at the moment I’m not a nice person. I’d thought that the other night and hastily throttled my selfishness and spite before the others could see it. Nonetheless, Nick did see it – and he’d let me see his failings too and he didn’t seem to think either of us was necessarily a Bad Person for having them. “I don’t know, maybe it is just end of season blues.” If I said ‘I don’t know’ again he was going to think me completely brain dead. “Maybe it’s coming face to face with just how stupid and immature I was when I was 17.”
“Goes with the territory, mate. There’s something about being 17 which turns the brains of the average boy to porridge. Honestly, 17 year olds shouldn’t be allowed out without a muzzle and a keeper, and that’s my professional opinion. Jesus, when I think of some of the things I did when I was 17, I’m surprised I saw 17½ , never mind 18. We used to hang out on the building site, Phil, climb in over the chainlink fence, and bump-start the digger. I’m amazed nobody was ever killed. I climbed up the scaffolding on one of the unfinished houses and walked the length of the whatever you call it, the roof ridge, for a dare. If my dad had caught me at it. . . or worse still, my mum. . .”
I was half amused, half horrified: I’m not good with heights. That trip in London with the girls had involved more Up than I had quite liked.
“I swear, it’s not just you.” He lay down in the grass again. “The brains. . . the dares. . . the arrogance. . . the hormones. Oh sweet heaven, the hormones. I was so in love with Stacey Maconie, I can’t tell you. I’d known her since I was 11, and somehow at 17 it was as if I’d never seen her before, and bang, there she was and I couldn’t even speak to her without stammering. The minute she appeared, my wits went and hid behind a rock. And – Phil, I bet whatever you’ve done, however stupid, I swear you’ve never done anything this dim. There was a whole group of us, hanging about on street corners, and somebody had a girly mag, probably pinched, now I come to think about it. Not serious stuff, but fairly heady to 17 year olds, you know? The thought that, my God, there’s sex and presently some of us may get some. I mean, if you’d asked us, we’d all have said, oh yes, we were getting laid regularly, and there wouldn’t have been one of us who wasn’t lying through his teeth.”
I laughed. “I remember that one well enough, and I was lying both ways, because not only was I not getting any from the girls but I was terrified that somebody was going to offer me some.”
He grinned. “Oh, we insisted we were getting it, all right, but nobody in their right mind would have taken it as gospel. Anyway, this magazine had been going from hand to hand, a little group of 3 or 4 looking at it, and another couple half acting as lookout and agitating for their turn, and Stacey Maconie came past. And as far as I could tell, all the blood in my body shot into my dick, presumably leaving my brain unattended, because when she smiled at me, and said, “Hi, Nick, what are you doing?”, I told her.
I choked. “You never did!”
“Swear to God. Mouth open and listen aghast to the words coming out. And the other guys, they just sort of melted away leaving me standing there with a copy of ‘Tits and Bums’ or whatever in my hand, and Stacey Maconie standing in front of me.”
I couldn’t help it, I was helpless with giggles. “What happened?”
“She hit me. Slapped my face so hard she made my ears ring, and she stormed off, and I suppose that might have been my first introduction to women who smack? I crawled away feeling about so big, and from then to now, I should say that if anybody mentioned Stacey Maconie’s name, I would probably be impotent for a month.” He started to get up, and stuck half way, hissing with pain: I gave him my hand and let him hang on me for a moment until he could get his back straight. He glanced at me apologetically. “It still takes me in the ribs. I’m all right up or down but getting from one to the other hurts.”
“I know,” I agreed. “I did intercostal damage once and hope most sincerely never to do it again.”
“But you missed the last match? Hansie said you were injured again?”
“Groin strain. Mild one, but enough that I missed the South Africa tour. They said I’d have been selected if I’d been fit.” There was enough bitterness there that even I was ashamed of it. I’d hidden it from Piet, naturally, but now it just spilled. “I was fucking first choice and I wasn’t fit.”
“Ah. Is that why the end of the season’s taken you so hard?”
“Oh, probably,” I said, dispiritedly. “It’s always a bit hard, the first week or so after, and I knew I was online for the tour, I was looking forward to it, and then suddenly I was laid up again. Mind you, they got such a tonking that it’s probably a good tour not to have been on.”
“I saw some of the reports,” he agreed. “It sounded like a shambles, actually. Sounds like you weren’t the only one not fit, just the only one with enough sense to admit it and stay at home.”
“Can you imagine Piet letting me go when I’m injured?”
“I can’t imagine him thinking it would be a good idea, certainly. I’d have thought you would have been likely to come home worse than you went away.” His eyes flickered in my direction. “Console yourself with the knowledge that you’ve done your bit for the environment, like buying local apples rather than imported peaches.”
“Well, you don’t need to go all that way to get a hiding from hefty South African rugby players. You can stay home and have one locally and in the convenience of your own home. No carbon footprint worth mentioning.”
“Just a scorching handprint,” I agreed, laughing. “We can all go into environmental research. There’s probably grants to be had for it.” I couldn’t help it, I touched him lightly on the shoulder. “Thanks, Nick.”
“It’s just getting everything into proportion,” he said gently. “I come home sometimes and whine to Fran about my workmates and some of the stupider members of the public I have to deal with, and she does the same to me, and it doesn’t mean anything, you know? I just want her to say ‘darling, how awful, he didn’t?’ at intervals until I feel better.
“Yes,” I agreed. “I. . . can’t always do that. If what I want to whine about is something Piet’s done at the club, I can’t whine to him. I mean, he makes decisions based on what’s best for the club first, and I suppose sometimes I just don’t get what I want because what I want isn’t right for the club or isn’t right for me in the long term. I know they’re the right decisions but some of them are hard to swallow without. . . I don’t want to complain to him because. . .”
“Because he has to make decisions that aren’t just about you.”
“Yes. And he’ll justify them to me if I ask but it’s not on for me to complain past that.”
“The catch with a relationship with your boss. If you need to grumble, just for the sake of grumbling, you can always ring me, you know.”
“And you’ll say ‘darling, how awful, he didn’t?’”
“Possibly skipping the ‘darling’. It’s liable to cause talk.”
I smiled, rather shakily, but with a definite lift to my spirits. Nick stuffed his hands in his pockets and set off down the track again.
“You know, Phil, thinking of idiot 17 year olds, when I was in the third form, the captain of football was a guy called Marcus Burroughs. I have a notion he got scouted for one of the teams in the Midlands after he left school, I wonder what happened to him? Anyway, he was in the school band too, and in his last term. . .”
I didn’t take him home: he called Fran, who agreed to go up to the house and wait to drive Nick home herself. She and Piet were drinking coffee on the patio when we came in.
“Well, Nick, you are looking better.”
“I am better, thanks. And a lot better for a change of scenery with Phil today.”
“Are you two staying for dinner?” I asked. Nick shook his head. “I’ve taken enough of your day.”
“Then. . . how are you with fish pie? I made fish pie last week, put several in the freezer. All sorts of interesting things in it, you could take one home.”
Fran put a hand out to stop me. “Phil, you don’t need to look after us any more, really you don’t.”
“Go on, humour me, take one. I worry about Nick, he’s too thin.”
“And I worry about Phil, he looks tired. Phil’s always looking after somebody,” observed Nick; “who’s looking after Phil?”
“Oh, everybody,” I answered, smiling. He didn’t smile back, he just looked rather oddly at Piet.
“I know all about that: when something’s everybody’s job, it’s nobody’s job and it doesn’t get done.”
Piet looked rather startled; Nick looked away again. “Right, Fran, are we going?”
“I’ll get the fish pie,” I said firmly. “And Piet, next time we have everybody over, we have to get Nick to tell the story about the football captain and the euphonium, it’s a killer.”
We waved them off, and turned back inside; somehow, with Nick’s departure, exhaustion was creeping up on me again.
“Do you mind if we have fish pie out of the freezer too? Or do you want me to cook something?”
“Fish pie will do very well, koekie, and you will sit down and I will do the rest.”
“Nick is right, you look weary. If it is just a matter of reheating a fish pie and cooking some vegetables, I will do it and you will sit and bear me company.”
I sat, rather bewildered, at the kitchen table and Piet inexpertly began to shred cabbage. The kitchen was too warm and I was tired and after a while the silence weighed on me.
“I wasn’t quite as raw as he said, you know.”
He stopped chopping and looked at me.
“As Tim said. Cocky and chippy. I wasn’t. . . I knew he thought I was provincial, the country cousin, all brawn and no brain, but I really wasn’t that pleased with myself.”
Piet turned back to the chopping board. “It is very curious, koekie, the way we all hear different things from the same conversation. That you should only have heard Tim say that you were cocky and chippy, as you put it.”
“He did say so,” I said wearily, leaning forward to rest my forearms on the table and letting my head drop onto my wrists.
“And that was all you heard? Whereas I, poppie, I heard him say that you were talented and beautiful and that he desired you.”
“It’s hardly a recommendation. We know what he was like, he wasn’t exactly discriminating.”
“Is this jealousy, koekie, because he was able to express his sexuality while you had to be discreet? He has had more partners than you or me, yes, but we had different priorities. We could not have the partners and the rugby and we both chose the rugby. We cannot blame Tim for the fact that we were forced to choose. I thought too that you had ceased to worry that he used to criticise your intellect.”
“I thought he’d stopped doing it,” I answered, bitterly. “Oh, all right, I know, it probably was true. But for fuck’s sake, I was 17! First time away from home, and I wasn’t even out of school. I had another year to go – I was one of the oldest in my year but I was one of the youngest on that damn rugby course, and I was one of the best. If I was cocky, I had some justification for it, and if I was chippy, well, maybe fewer judgements from people like Tim. . . it wasn’t, after all, as if he. . . Oh, never mind.”
“I have no doubt, Phil, that in terms of both cockiness and chippiness (is that the right word?) there was nothing at all to choose between you and Tim. If you were arrogant about your sport, I am certain that he was as arrogant about his brains; if you were provincially defensive, he will have been no less so. I have thought more than once that the reason you could not maintain a relationship was not your differences, but your similarities.” He came to sit opposite me. “Hart, what is this? Your quarrel was made up the other night. Why are you bringing it up again now?”
“I just. . . I don’t want you thinking I was quite such a thoughtless shit as all that.”
He shook his head. “It was as you said, it was locker room banter. Careless, maybe, but. . .”
“Not the other night! I mean then, in Oxford!”
He frowned. “But nobody blames you for that, Phil. You did nothing very serious in Oxford.”
“Of course I fucking did! I told a lie which nearly got Tim raped!”
His hand came hard under my chin, yanking upward. “No! You told a social lie – ‘Sorry, I’m with somebody.’ You have never done that since? I have, Phil. Most of us have. It is a courteous form of words and most people would accept it as such. It is no reflection on you that the man Hallam did not. Nor could you reasonably have foreseen the consequence any more than Tim could have been expected to foresee the consequence of agreeing with you.” He let go of my face and I dropped my head onto my arms again. His voice gentled. “Phil, if I had known you thought that way, I would never have permitted Tim to punish you. I thought only that you accepted his resentment that you were clumsy in your words. Hansie does not believe you did anything so dreadful in Oxford, and Tim, I think, blamed you as the trigger, but not as anything worse. Shall we ask him?”
“No.” I was definite about that. “Whatever he thought, he’s forgiven me. It doesn’t really matter, I suppose, whether he strapped me for the lie or the remark, as long as he feels O.K. about it.” And as long as Piet knew that I wasn’t the insensitive jerk I had been feeling.
“And as long as you do, koekie. Whatever you did, you have been punished for it, and quite severely. Now let it go.”
I sighed and shut my eyes. “He made me count. I hate that.”
“His punishment, his rules. You did it without argument?”
“Then it is all done. Come, koekie, go and wash your hands and we will eat.”
I stood up and for a moment the room swung; Piet had an arm round my waist at once.
“What? What is it?”
“Got up too fast, I think. I’m O.K. now, it was just a dizzy turn.”
He looked at me with dawning comprehension. “Phil, did you have any lunch?”
I looked at the table top. “No.”
The hand withdrew from my side and came to rest between my shoulder blades, a gentle pressure. I bent slowly over the table. This wasn’t something we had ever discussed: we had never needed to. My body is my livelihood; I make heavy demands on it and I have to look after it; skipping meals is a non-starter. That’s not just what Piet thinks: every coach I’ve ever had has insisted on sensible and regular eating, and any one of them would have disciplined me in one way or another for wilfully not doing it. The slaps – one on each cheek – weren’t even particularly hard, and if it hadn’t been for the strap, I doubt I’d have felt either. The hand on my back was withdrawn, but I didn’t move.
“I didn’t have any breakfast either.”
These slaps were harder, two on each side this time, and although I made no sound the tears spilled, not from pain but from I didn’t quite know what. Piet lifted me and gathered me gently against his chest, soothing me as tenderly as if I had been sharply caned and was now comprehensively forgiven.
“Go now, wash your hands and face.”
I thought I couldn’t eat, although I knew I needed to try, but in fact fish pie – nursery food – went down easily enough. I made the coffee while Piet filled the dishwasher, and we took it into the living room, where he wouldn’t let me sit other than with him, close enough to cuddle.
“Now, koekie, tell me where you and Nick went and what you spoke of today, so that I may understand why I am in such deep disgrace.”
“Did you not hear Nick reprove me?”
I hastily reran the earlier conversation.
“He told me I was not behaving as I ought, not taking care of you the way I should.”
“Is this another example of what different people hear from the same conversation? I heard him make some vague remark, the sort of thing people say to explain why it’s your job and not theirs to do the stationery order.”
“Indeed. And Nick is a gentle and courteous man, and he is also, do what I may, still rather wary of me. Nonetheless, his sense of duty and responsibility is very strong, and if it brought him to challenge me I would be ill-advised to ignore him. That was a reproach, and by his standards, a severe one, so tell me about your day, koekie.”
I edited it heavily. I told him about end of season blues, like he didn’t already know. I told him about how much I resented not having been fit to go to South Africa. I made him laugh by repeating Nick’s opinion that I was ecologically responsible, and again by telling him about Nick and Stacey Maconie. I didn’t mention anything about ever wanting him to turn away Tim and Hansie, because the Phil I want to be all the time doesn’t think that way, only the Phil I don’t like much. And anyway if Nick, who is, as Piet says, responsible and kind, can sometimes think ‘oh God, not again’ about Hansie, and then go ahead and help him anyway, then maybe I needn’t judge myself too harshly that I do the same.
“There is something more, koekie.”
I was silent for a moment. Then: “Yes, there was, but Nick sorted it for me.”
“You promise me so?”
I nodded. Piet pulled me until I slipped down with my head in his lap and his fingers working gently in my hair.
“I shall not ask, then. I shall merely count myself well scolded, and with cause, for I had not taken in that the end of the season had hit you so hard. You were quite cheerful on Friday.”
“I know,” I agreed. “Maybe it was just going down so hard from a natural high. And a little bit. . . I hadn’t thought for ages about that time in Oxford, but. . . see, Piet, for all it was a ghastly experience for Tim, and I didn’t understand or didn’t remember that, it was a magical one for me. Like I said, it was my first flight from home and it was the first time I really began to believe that I could have a rugby career. And it was the first time I’d tried myself against serious opposition – I mean, I belonged to a club like Hansie’s but there were all sorts of regulations about who you could play at what age, and I was always playing with guys who weren’t as good as me, and I knew it. So maybe that’s where the cockiness came from: I knew I was better than most – any – of my contemporaries. But it would be where the chippiness came from too, because suddenly I had to prove myself to strangers and people with much more experience than me and I didn’t know if I really was as good as my coaches had told me, and I was afraid I wasn’t. Tim’s not the only player who suddenly hits his limits. I’ve got friends I played with at school who weren’t good enough for university rugby, or who played at university and never made the grade after that. But that training scheme showed me that I could do it, I had two professional clubs scouting me and it was just golden for me. I was in love with the whole world. And now, it’s. . .” I choked. And I sounded like a sentimental girl, I knew I did, and selfish too, but I swallowed and forged on, “it’s like it’s spoiled. Now I understand what I did to Tim (no, all right, what Hallam did to Tim, but I was part of it), and the whole summer feels tarnished.”
He made a little sympathetic noise, and pulled me closer, his fingers working to the spot at the back of my neck, just in my hairline, where I like to be petted. I sighed. “I’ll get over it. Nick thought my perspective was off, and he’s probably right.”
“He is absolutely right, koekie, and if you were to spend time with him while he needs company in his exercise, I think it would be good for you both. Tim has forgiven you any fault and your memory will regain its gloss, and I will make an effort – no, that is wrong, for it is no effort to spend time with you and to take care of you. You need a holiday and even if we do not go away, we shall spend some time together, do some things just for ourselves.”
“Maybe we should go away,” I said slowly. “We could see if Hansie and Tim. . .”
“No, not with Hansie and Tim. Perhaps later but we shall have some time just for ourselves first.”
Later, in bed, my head on his shoulder, he said in some amusement, “Mind you, nobody has yet challenged you on your simply appalling views about older lovers.”
I turned to kiss the skin under me. “I should have been willing to wait, shouldn’t I? To wait until you came along.”
“Ah, no. The first time for the virgin lover has never been one of my fantasies; indeed, perhaps that is why when the occasion came upon me, I handled it so badly. After that, after I did Hansie such harm, I would take no innocent to my bed, Phil; if you had come to me untouched, I would have sent you away again, and I would have missed such happiness as I never imagined. And anyway, if I did not have that first time with you, I have had others.”
“You were first to turn me over your knee, first with a paddle, first with a cane,” I teased.
“First to show you that you could enjoy it. First to have you in a bed of hay. . . although you did give a very good impression then of the blushing innocent. Yes, it is true, I did enjoy that. Perhaps for me, then, I can have the fantasy and enjoy it all the more for knowing it to be untrue. And have it again and again, a virgin Phil tumbled in a hayloft as often as I desire.”
“Ha, you may not fantasise about first times,” I mumbled sleepily, “but Tim does.”
“Does he?” murmured Piet into my hair. “Does he indeed?”
It seemed a little unusual, what Piet intended, but we fell in with his plans easily enough. He mentioned rôle play again; I still reckon I don’t get it, but if I say so, everybody laughs raucously, and Piet said casually that if we found it didn’t work, it didn’t matter, but that it was something he and Phil wanted to try, and if we were made uneasy by it at any point we need only say so. He had booked a table at a restaurant for us, he said, and he would come by to pick us up. Phil wasn’t with him in the car, and when I asked where he was, it seemed that Piet didn’t hear; at least he didn’t answer. I knew they had been away for three days; we’d had a postcard from Copenhagen, and when Hansie remarked on it to Nick, he apparently said ‘bloody good thing too’ in a fulminating tone and then refused to say anything more.
The restaurant was a pretty place out of town, the type that relies on its reputation rather than any passing trade, and rather to my surprise, Phil wasn’t waiting for us there either. Piet ignored questions until we all had drinks and then he smiled wolfishly at us both and said, “Ah, here he is,” and I looked across the room and there was Phil.
I admit, I was shocked. It was nearly the Phil of Oxford – not quite, obviously. He’s bulked up a lot since then, put on muscle and tone, grown into his hands and feet, lost the puppy look. But now his clothes seemed a little too large for him (it was only later that I worked out he was wearing something of Piet’s) and his hair wasn’t in its usual expensive artlessness, but slicked damply down, and beginning to twist out of the comb marks the way I remembered, into the loose curl which I had wanted so badly to touch when he was 17. He had been out in the sun, I think, for he was blonder than usual, and he hesitated in the doorway as the maître d’ spoke to him, in a manner far removed from his usual confidence. He came tentatively to our table, and gave me a polite nervous smile before holding his hand out to Piet.
“I’m sorry, am I late? I had trouble getting a cab.”
“Not at all, we have only just arrived. A glass of wine? A beer? Or something else?”
“Oh! Um, yes, please, a glass of wine. Red. Whatever.”
“And these are my friends. Hansie, Tim, this is Phil Cartwright; he is recently arrived from Lancashire to play for my team. Phil, Hansie van den Broek played for me in South Africa and Tim Creed is nephew to James Hamilton whom you already know.”
And I got it. Straight off, I got it. This was Phil at 17 – let’s say 18, and legal so many years ago as he would be now – and my chance to say and do what I would have done then given half a chance. And I couldn’t be too snippy, if I were to be honest: I’m not sure that I would have refused him if – if things had been other than the way they were, even knowing that he was a month shy of his 18th birthday, any more than I waited willingly for my own 18th birthday. Something emotional exploded in me and I started to push my chair back, thought to accuse them both of kicking me in my bad experiences, and looked up into Phil’s eyes, and saw his misgivings too. He might be pretending to be 18, but he was the same Phil who’s shared my bed and who has a share of my heart and a big share of Hansie’s. He doesn’t hurt me deliberately. Even that thing the other night – he didn’t mean it. I could back off it far enough to know he didn’t mean it.
That didn’t mean I was sure that this was a good idea. It did mean that I could afford to play along, at least for a while. I glanced at Piet: he had said if we didn’t like it. . . and Hansie was all but dribbling, he’d got the idea too. How would it hurt me if they wanted to play at seducing the virgin? Why should I spoil their fun by refusing to co-operate? I held out my hand to Phil. “Pleased to meet you.”
Piet took control. “Shall we look at the menu, then? I believe the rack of lamb is supposed to be very good here.”
It was a most peculiar meal. We simply followed where Piet led. Phil behaved like the rather edgy young man I remembered: even his accent was different. The vowel sounds were longer, flatter. He played with his cutlery and his wineglass, hesitated when asked for his opinion, and flowered only when Piet ‘noticed’ him. At one point Piet touched his hand and he jumped nervously; when Hansie and I chose to share a dessert, his eyes went wide and he seemed to have trouble tearing his gaze away from us.
Piet, it seemed, didn’t want to drink his coffee at the restaurant. “You will all come home with me? I have some rather good brandy, if you care for such a thing.” Yes, Piet, we know you do, we gave it to you. But we all climbed into his car – he arranged it so that I went in the front with him, and I could hear Hansie, who had plainly decided just to roll with it, asking where in Lancashire Phil came from, and whether he was finding this part of the world very different.
In the house (Phil had eyes like saucers and had made some remark about the size of it), Piet didn’t take us to the sitting room, but to the living room at the back which they use when it’s only the two of them. It is a smaller room, made smaller yet by the placement in the centre of the floor of a bed. A round bed. They had bought it, with great amusement, as an alternative to a sofa for the room in which they watch television and talk, and it’s not made up as a bed, but merely covered with a padded throw.
“Wow,” said Phil, inelegantly. “That’s a bit. . .”
“It is a useful means of providing seating for several people,” shrugged Piet. I glanced at Hansie, who flickered an eyebrow at me. The last time we had seen it, we had been playing Strip Trivial Pursuit, and Phil and Hansie and I had ended up kneeling on the floor holding hands across the bed, while Piet, armed with a clothes brush, tested our general knowledge. I don’t remember all the rules, only that Hansie lost and couldn’t sit comfortably for several hours. Phil sat down rather tentatively, and accepted a glass of brandy; within ten minutes he was sprawled bonelessly across the bed, questioning Hansie about South African rugby. Then he turned on me, demanding details of Jim’s career.
“God, there’s just so much I don’t know. I can’t imagine. . .”
His words ran out with a gurgle as he glanced over; Piet had taken Hansie’s empty glass from me, and put an arm firmly around his shoulders, pulling him back to take a lengthy kiss. When they broke apart, Phil was staring, wide-eyed.
“I trust we have not shocked you,” said Piet, smoothly.
“I. . . I mean. . . it’s just. . .” He was utterly convincing.
“Perhaps you find it disturbing to see two men kiss?”
“I – no! No, not at. . . No, it’s hot.” That last in a voice that cracked.
“You think so? And if I kiss Tim?”
I pulled away in time to see Phil’s tongue flickering nervously over his lower lip.
“And what of you, Phil? Are you willing to be kissed? And more?”
“Well, I. . . I mean. . . I haven’t. . .”
Hansie knelt behind him, and put his hands on Phil’s shoulders; Phil jumped convulsively.
“You’re frightening him, Piet. It’s all right, Phil, nobody’s going to do anything if you don’t want.” Weird though it sounded, I almost believed that he needed to be reassured.
“I’ve just never done anything like that. . .” admitted Phil, Phil who has about the filthiest imagination I have ever encountered, and I’ve met a few. I was amazed his nose didn’t grow with the lie.
“And do you want to? It is as Tim says, we will not press you if you wish not.”
The hesitation was a perfect representation of wanting and fearing. It was totally irresistible. I went in for the kiss, slowly enough that he could pull back if he wanted.
He was clumsy. I don’t know how he did it; it was all teeth and bumping noses and I could have sworn he had never done it before. Maybe it goes with the empathy thing: he can imagine how it would be and so he can ‘be’ it. I eased my hand into his hair and steadied his head, and came back for a second attempt. Better.
“Yes. . . but. . .”
Piet came to me again. “Mr Cartwright’s learning style – see how I know the training jargon? – is visual. He does best if he is shown what to do. So Hansie and I will show you, Phil, and then you will know.”
“Watch you? I can watch you?” There was that crack in his voice again; he would give himself a sore throat if he did it too often. I wasn’t the only one to find it interesting though: Hansie growled.
“You like that idea?” I slipped an arm around his waist.
“Fuck, yes,” he breathed into my mouth. I grinned over his shoulder at Hansie.
“Put on a show for us then, boys, and make it good.”
They did, although Phil was putting on a show of his own. His eyebrows went up so far I thought his hairline would crack, and several times he put out a hand tentatively, until I crawled over the bed and said conversationally, “They won’t mind if we touch, you know.” Then he ran a hand down Hansie’s spine very gently, snatching his fingers back from the muscular arse as if he expected to be burned.
“God, does that not hurt?” he asked, as if the question was torn out of him, and I swear that he blushed when Hansie laughed explosively. He can’t surely be able to blush on cue?
“Want to try it and see?” I whispered in his ear, and he jumped; “or would you rather do what Piet’s doing?”
“Yes,” he answered breathlessly and unhelpfully, before twisting to give me another teeth-knocking kiss, just as Hansie let out a squall and Piet rumbled deep in his throat.
“That’s not pain, babe, believe me.”
Piet, panting, rested his forehead against Hansie’s shoulder. “Not unless I was doing it very wrongly indeed.”
“Wow,” said Phil, all inarticulate inexperience.
“Wow indeed,” agreed Hansie, gasping for air. “Give us a minute or two to recover, and then you shall try for yourself.”
“I. . . um. . . right. Yes. Only. . .”
“Are you turning shy on us?”
“No! it’s just. . .”
Hansie rolled onto his back, his chest still heaving. “Ach, I know what it is. You are not a natural blond.”
There was a stunned silence while we all processed that.
“Sorry?” enquired Phil, carefully, but I saw the corners of his mouth twitch.
“Well, it is not usual, is it? Brown eyes and blond hair. Blond hair goes with blue eyes. So you dye your hair, ja?”
“Um, no,” Phil assured him. “I’m blond.”
“I do not believe you.”
Phil giggled, a very adolescent sound. “You’re just trying to get my kit off so you can have a look.”
“Ja, I admit it. If you are fair all the way down, prove it. I dare you.”
And Phil stared at him for a moment and then bounced to his knees, yanking at his shirt, accepting the dare. And yes, what little there was to see (Phil’s light on body hair) was blond – of course it was, good grief, I was beginning to believe in this too! – and when the three of us looked greedily at the loose waistband and the line of coloured elastic showing above it, he grabbed a handful of fabric and backed away, half laughing and, anyone would have said, half scared. But he backed into me, straight into my arms.
“Gently, gently, now. I won’t let them touch you. Well, not unless you want them to. Come on, let’s have these off.”
“You owe him an apology, my Hansie, he is indeed a natural blond.”
He threw himself flat, hiding the evidence. Hansie patted him lightly on the bottom and he squeaked. I felt a twist of guilt. “Oh Phil. . .”
He looked over his shoulder at me. “What?”
I ran my fingertip along a bruise. I’d really gone at him with the strap and the marks were flamboyant still.
“Oh, that. Yes. Well, I play rugby, it’s a contact sport. I’m always covered in bruises. If you’d looked last night, you’d have seen a handprint, I swear.” He looked at me seriously: “It’s not sore, you know. Not any more.”
I leaned in, set my mouth to the purple mark. He squeaked again.
“You know, Timmy, if he has never been kissed at all, I think we may count on it that he has never been kissed. . .”
“. . . there. No, I thought not. Do you like it?”
“That’s a yes,” I smirked, and pulled to make him turn over. “Go on, Hansie, you have a go. Relax, Phil, Hansie has an amazingly talented mouth.”
“Oh fuck, oh fuck. . .”
“In a minute. Don’t be so impatient. Slower is better, honestly. Relax. What do you want to do, give or take?”
Give, apparently. And he was impatient and a little bit rough and clumsy and enthusiastic and pretending to be 18 and bloody fabulous and just the way I wanted to think he would have been.
And Hansie said hopefully: “Want to try the other way, hey?”
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