Spilt Milk

I don’t know why I’m not dead.

I mean, I really, honestly, don’t understand how I’m still alive. I tried not to look back at my car because I thought if I saw it I’d be sick, or faint, or just stand in the middle of the road and scream like a fire alarm. I’ve always thought that roundabout was too tight and I was right.

Not making a lot of sense, am I? Piet was in Doncaster until late, I’d been to training, and I thought half way home ‘no milk’. So I stopped at the superstore on the bypass. That’ll teach me: see me suddenly in favour of local shopping in village shops? Well, I am anyway but it would have meant driving an extra mile and a half and they don’t always have milk left at the end of the day.

God, I’m babbling. I expect it’s the shock.

Bought a carton of milk, headed for the exit. There are two lanes coming onto that roundabout; the left hand one goes into the petrol station. Then there are two lanes up the slope to the lights and a controlled junction to let people back onto the bypass. There was a lorry, a big container thing, on my left; I was going to turn right and go along as far as Wood Lane. . .

Babbling again.

The lorry driver got it wrong. It was his fault – well, except that like I say, that roundabout’s too small. He misjudged the angle, and I heard the scream of metal, and turned my head to look. The policeman reckoned what I’d heard was the corner of the cab scraping the corner of the canopy thing over the petrol pumps; I don’t know. Anyway, when I looked forward again, the cab was halfway in front of me, in my lane, and it had rained in the early afternoon, just enough to make the tarmac greasy, and you could see the wheels spin and find no grip. I slammed on the brakes – I was only going walking speed, it wasn’t a big deal, but there were things coming down the other side and not enough room for me to get through, and then the lorry jack-knifed and I saw it – it looked like horribly slowly, but the other witnesses said it wasn’t – start to tip.

I don’t know. . . lots of things. I don’t know how I processed what I was seeing and what was about to happen, except that fast physical response to a changing situation is what I do all day. I can’t remember getting my seat belt off or the door open, but I could see that the container bit was coming over onto my car, and it looked heavy and my car’s a convertible, a soft-top and I needed to be not inside it. I threw myself out of the car and into the road, landing on my hands and knees, and there was a ferocious screech of brakes and I looked sideways into the bumper of an Astra coming the other way and scrabbled across the tarmac (I think that was when I ripped the knees out of my trousers and cut my hands). I rolled onto the kerb and looked up as the container hit my car and bounced, and the whole top of my car just folded into the body, and the cab of the lorry toppled sideways onto the top of the Astra. There was a moment when everything was still and quiet and I could see the woman in the Astra shove her fist into her mouth to stop herself screaming, her eyes wide at the lorry cab filling her windscreen.

I yanked the door open and reached across for her seatbelt. This was not the time to wonder about whiplash and injuries – the roof of the car was making an unhealthy noise and I wasn’t at all sure that it was going to hold. “Out, quick!”

I dragged her onto the kerb too, and the edifice above us rocked and we both backed away. And then suddenly there were people all round, helping the lorry driver out, calling the police and an ambulance, leading us into the back office of the petrol station, and asking ‘Can we call somebody for you?’

And all I could think was ‘I want Piet, and I mustn’t even mention his name.’

The call had come from the man in the petrol station, put through to me at work, and it had taken him three repetitions before I grasped what he was telling me: that Phil Cartwright had been involved in an accident, that no, he wasn’t hurt, but that the paramedic thought he shouldn’t go home alone, that he had given them my name as somebody who would come and pick him up. I was at the Southgate roundabout before it occurred to me that I’d left the computer on and my briefcase under the desk.

He looked truly dreadful. His clothes were all cut about where he’d hit the ground, the palms of his hands and the back of one leg were bloody, he was a bad colour and he kept having shaking fits. Pure shock, of course. I stuffed him in my car, and then thought about where we were going – my first thought was our house, only he hadn’t been there since. . . in some time, and in the end I thought he would be better in his own home.

“Phil, who’s your doctor? I really think you should see somebody. Are you still with the surgery at Bantmore Street?”

He shook his head. “Mick Vernon. Doctor at the club, he does all our medical stuff now.”

So we went back to the club as the quickest way to get at a doctor, not that Mick Vernon told me anything I didn’t already know. Hot drinks, sugar, go to bed if he felt shaky, take care not to get chilled. He cleaned Phil’s hands and knees, dressed a long cut on his calf where something had hit him as he escaped (I didn’t like to think about how close that meant the lorry had been), and gave him an anti-tetanus booster, and a prescription for a sedative (which I insisted on collecting as we passed a chemist on the way up the High Street), but he said Phil could take it or not as he thought he needed it.

Then I took him home.

He tried to tell me I needn’t stay once we got there, but it was plain to the meanest intelligence that he wasn’t fit to be left. Piet’s mobile was turned off, which probably meant he was in the car – he’s got a hands-free set but he hardly ever uses it, says telephones in cars are an invitation to accidents – and I couldn’t actually think of a message to leave which wouldn’t worry him more than it reassured so I didn’t leave one.

“Phil, go upstairs. I’ll make tea, you get out of those clothes, they’re filthy. And maybe get into bed, hmm? Just for a bit? Just until you warm up? I’ll be up in five minutes.”

Took me ten. The milk, of course, was in the crushed remnants of Phil’s car; there was none in the fridge but I remembered having a conversation with Phil about the best milk for home made yogurt, and I found some long-life semi in his store cupboard. I wanted biscuits too, or cake, or something with sugar in, but there didn’t seem to be anything in any of the tins, and when I opened the freezer I had so shamelessly burgled for Nick, it was only half full, and not of anything fancy. In the end I found a half pack of rather soggy digestives; all in all, it looked most unlike Phil’s kitchen.

He was sitting on the bed when I went up, but he hadn’t changed his clothes or done anything other than kick off his shoes. He’d just sort of stopped, from the look of it; he wasn’t doing anything, except staring into space. Shock, I thought again.

“Come on, Phil. Take those sweatpants off. I think they’ve had it, mate, I really do, both knees are through. Have you got clean ones in here? And maybe a clean shirt too? And a sweater? Or are you getting into bed?”

He turned a blank look on me, and I revised my plan. Coaxing and questions weren’t cutting it: I opened the wardrobe and found him clean clothes, chivvied him into changing, and then told him firmly to get onto the bed and packed him round with pillows.

“Now, here’s your tea. I’ve put sugar in it and I want you to eat a biscuit too. I couldn’t find anything better: have you not been baking?”

He shook his head, refusing to catch my eye. I supposed that with the World Cup and the way it had gone, cooking had probably been the last thing on his mind, but I was faintly surprised he hadn’t done more since he came home. It’s how he unwinds from anything high octane, has been for as long as I’ve known him. Anyway, he drank some of his tea, shook his head again when I tried to persuade him to take one of Dr Vernon’s pills, and wriggled back among the pillows. I took the cup hastily when he began to tremble again, and set it down out of the way. He looked both miserable and, by his standards, desperately unwell, and I – actually, I caught myself putting a hand out to him, and hurriedly drew it back. He saw me, though, and opened his mouth, and then in his turn thought better of whatever he was about to say and shut it again.

“What time are you expecting Piet?” I asked hastily. He looked at the clock.

“About half an hour, I think.” He sounded hoarse. I considered.

“I’ll just ring Hansie and tell him where I am. He’s been at some networking do today in Colchester, he’ll be home about now. . . Damn. The answering service.” I left a message which I knew would bewilder Hansie completely, and turned back to Phil. “Do you want some more tea?”

“Actually,” he said in a very small voice, “could you just hold me? I feel a bit. . . no, sorry, sorry, you don’t want to. . .” That last trailed away and I saw him shiver helplessly, and well, whatever I thought, whatever he thought about how things were between us, he was suffering, and knowing intellectually that it was shock wouldn’t make it any easier for him. And heaven knows, Phil had put himself out often enough when one of us was suffering, and if I had learned anything from that godawful mess of the past few months, it was that it had cost him something to do it, and I thought. . . not that I owed him, exactly, although it was almost that, but. . . oh, I don’t know, that he was suffering and if he needed a cuddle he was surely entitled to one. I kicked my shoes off, dumped my work jacket on Piet’s bedside chair, and wriggled over to Phil.

He sighed and put his head on my shoulder, and I wrapped both arms as far round him as I could reach. It felt odd; he’s a cuddler, we all know that, and he’s such a lot bigger than me that he had always cuddled me, not the other way round, and – and I suddenly wondered about that. Piet cuddles Phil, and Phil obviously likes it, and I just wondered why I hadn’t done it more. Then I put the thought firmly aside; that was not what we were doing. He wasn’t well; I was just keeping him safe until Piet came home, nothing more.

Only he shifted against me, turning his hips against my thigh, and I was suddenly, shockingly aware of him, of his rising excitement, of the sheer animal power of him, and he knew it, he twisted against me, caught my hands as I started to pull away, yanking them back and pinning me down to the bed, mashing his mouth against mine. I was so completely taken aback that I didn’t do anything for a moment, and Phil dragged my wrists together, caught them both in his left hand and tugged hard at my shirt with his right, his thigh working between mine, his hips humping gracelessly against me. Then I pulled against his grip and struggled – and nothing happened. Nothing.

And my God, I was so scared. Look, I like to play rough, and I’ve had Phil hold me down and refuse to let me go before: I thought I knew how that one went. But I suddenly realised just how much he had been holding back all the times we’d done it – I’d had a tiger by the tail and I hadn’t had a bloody clue. He’s a lot, a lot bigger and heavier and stronger than me, and I literally couldn’t get my hands free, and he gave one big heave and got his body on top of me, and I could do nothing about it, and. . . it isn’t like the fantasies. It’s not. It’s utterly, stomach-churningly terrifying, and totally incapacitating, both physically and mentally.

It takes longer to describe than it did to happen. I think, altogether, it was five seconds at most, and I felt him realise that I wasn’t responding – and then he threw himself away from me, gasping, and when I sat up cautiously, he was looking completely horrified and sickened, and for once, for the first time in bloody months, my brains kicked in before my mouth opened, and I realised what it was. And I hurled myself after him, grabbed him as he tried to flinch away from me, and started to babble, loudly, and without, as far as I could tell, ever stopping for breath.

“It’s all right, it’s all right, that’s shock, it’s well known as a reaction to shock, your body does funny things, it’s just reaction, don’t panic, calm down, you’re all right, it’s shock, come and lie down, deep breath, it’s just adrenaline, your body processes it whatever way it can, there’s no harm done, you took me by surprise, that’s all, now come and lie down again, come on, you’re fine, you’re all right, Phil, you’re all right, come on, come back, you’ll be just fine.”

He plainly didn’t believe a word of it: his face was white with panic and his mouth worked but no sound came out, and he started to scrabble away from me. I wasn’t having it. I flung both arms round him. “No! You’re not going. I’m not going. I’m not going anywhere. Come, Phil, come on, you’re all right, you’re all right.”

That was when he burst into tears, and no, I didn’t even think the thing about ‘and he says I’m a cry-baby’. I had never seen Phil before as needy – and later I was ashamed of that: he’s as imperfect, as flawed as the rest of us, and he deserves the same care as anybody else. But Jesus, the man was all over the place, he didn’t know which way was up. It took me twenty minutes to get him back into the middle of the bed; he wouldn’t touch me, not of his own accord, and I was hanging onto him like he was my only hope in a shipwreck. I’ve no idea whether it was the right thing to do or not, but my instincts were screaming at me not to let him go, and to keep talking at all costs. I’m not sure when ‘it’s all right’ shifted to ‘you’re all right’ and then to ‘we’re all right’; I’m not sure he even heard me.

I didn’t hear Piet come in; first I knew of it was when I was picked up by my collar and put aside like a cat does with a kitten, and Piet had both arms round Phil and was pouring a stream of concerned Afrikaans into his ear, and Phil was twisting to get properly into his arms and at last, at last beginning to calm down.

And I wondered about hiding under the bed. Or running away to Venezuela. Because Piet turned on me, and said, in a tone I had never heard from him before, “What is going on here?”

Only then Hansie arrived. None of us had heard the car, but the doorbell went and we all froze as if we had been caught in some wrongdoing, even Piet, and it didn’t seem to occur to any of us to go downstairs and answer it. But the key scraped in the lock – yes, Hansie and I still had keys to this house, Phil and Piet still had keys to ours, the desirability of returning them having apparently passed all of us by – and a moment later we heard Hansie’s voice in the hall.

“Up here, Hansie!” I yelled, before thinking that it would perhaps have been politer to let Piet invite him in, or. . . or not, and he thundered up the stairs, burst through the door and gazed white-faced from Piet to Phil and back.

“You have your car smashed? Here God, you are not badly hurt? You have the doctor seen? What did he say?”

And Piet turned on Phil and in tones of frantic incomprehension asked, “Have you? Crashed the car? Is that what this is about? Are you hurt? Did you see the doctor? What happened, what did you do?” and I suddenly realised that no, of course, I hadn’t left a message so he was completely in the dark – all he knew was that he had come home, found me in bed with Phil and Phil in tears and that if I wasn’t dead it was because Piet has more in the way of self control than is at all usual.

“Maybe I can explain?” a small voice enquired and I realised it was mine. “Phil’s had his car crashed, he didn’t do it. The car’s a write-off. Yes, he’s seen a doctor, no, there’s no serious damage, just cuts and bruises and shock. Piet, I don’t think he should go back to training until he’s seen the doctor again, he’s very shaky and distressed. That’s all, there’s no real harm done.”

“Yes there is,” said Phil, harshly. “You know there fucking is.”

“Is there? What damage is done to you, my hart?” This into Phil’s hair, and accompanied by a very tender touch to his cheek, and Phil leaned into it yearningly for the shortest moment, before pulling himself upright, and saying uncompromisingly, “I attacked Tim.”

I don’t know which of us was the most surprised; I’m not at all sure that it wasn’t me. I don’t think Phil got exactly the response he was expecting; well, actually, that’s not fair, that suggests he did it for effect and of course he didn’t. I think he said what he believed to be true and he said it without any attempt to soften it or to make himself look better. It’s one of the few times I’ve seen Piet de Vries completely discombobulated.

“You did what?”

“No he didn’t,” I said crossly. “He took me by surprise, that’s all. For heaven’s sake, look at him, he’s all anyhow. Somebody make some more tea and Piet, make him take one of those sodding pills the doctor gave him, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

“I do, I do know,” he said, in a tone of such quiet despair, such an un-Phil tone, that my heart turned over. “Tim came to look after me, and I asked him to hold me because I was so shaky, and when he did, I. . . for Christ’s sake, I all but raped him. I’m no better than bloody Hallam.”

Hansie said afterwards – a long time afterwards – that it was, in retrospect, one of the funniest things he had ever seen; he likened it to a lap dog attacking a Rottweiler. I’d like to say that I shook Phil; I certainly got my hands on his shoulders and applied pressure but he didn’t move and the one who shook was me, hard enough to make my fillings rattle. I was snarling at him like a dog too, like one of those irritable little terriers that maiden aunts keep.

“Don’t you dare say that, you bloody drama queen! Don’t you dare ever compare yourself to that piece of shit! You’re worth ten of him, a hundred of him and I won’t fucking have it, do you hear me?”

Yes, I know, ridiculous, and Hansie and Piet exchanging looks of utter bewilderment across the bed.

“But I did just what he did,” said Phil in a tone of exhausted reason. “I wanted you and I was taking what I wanted and I’d have taken it whether you objected or not.”

Fortunately, Hansie caught my wrist as it came round: I was actually going to box Phil’s ears. I got right up close and screamed in his face in a much less than reasonable manner: “BUT YOU FUCKING DIDN’T!

He shrugged wearily. I went limp in Hansie’s grip and looked to Piet for help: he looked back, his eyebrows raised. “Timmy, perhaps if you could tell us a little more calmly what happened?”

“I told you Piet, I – ”

“Be silent, Phil. I am asking Tim.”

“Bloody Phil, who hasn’t got the brains of an egg-timer, has escaped death by inches, according to witnesses. He’s in shock. The paramedic told him so, the doctor told him so, I told him so. I brought him home and made him tea and got him to lie down. He said he felt bad, he asked me to hold him, I held him. Then he got what we all know to be a standard reaction to a near-death scare, which is the urge to fuck somebody’s brains out. Anybody’s. Come on, everybody knows that! He threw his leg over me, he kissed me, I didn’t respond, he let me go. Excuse me, I have not had another near-rape experience and being the one who hasn’t had it, I should bloody well know!” I was shrieking again.

“I could have raped you,” said Phil again, stubbornly. I threw my hands in the air and fell backwards.

“Well, you’ve got the equipment, I grant you. So, come to that, has Hansie. Or Piet. Or me. And yes, you’re stronger than me; if you had gone through with it, I doubt I could have stopped you. But see me here? Clothes not torn? No blood? No bruises? The fucking bed is still made for Christ’s sake! Shall we phone Nick? I imagine he knows how to work a rape scene but he’s going to be hard pressed to find any physical evidence because there fucking isn’t any!”

He shifted his ground slightly. “I wanted to.”

“Yes, thank you, I did notice that! I also noticed that when you realised I didn’t, you let me go!” I caught my breath, crawled up the bed to him. “Phil, you didn’t do it. You couldn’t. We all know you couldn’t. Yes, all right, maybe you’re not as sparkly white as you would like to think. Maybe you’ve seen the grubby corner in your own soul where you wanted to do it. But it’s not so dreadful to feel the temptation: that just makes you human. Maybe you’re more like me than either of us thought: Piet says I set my sights too high sometimes, I can’t bear to fail. I can’t bear to come second in anything intellectual, I’ll. . .” I gagged on the confession and forced myself on. “I’ll give up sooner than not be best. And I’ve got to learn not to do that, to accept that in some things, I’m not number one. And neither are you, not when it comes to always being kind and gentle and affectionate and the rest. We all know, you’re kinder than the rest of us, gentler, nicer if you like. But you’re not bloody perfect! So you felt the temptation: that doesn’t turn you into Hallam. Hallam didn’t care whether I was willing or not; he never asked if I was willing. I’m not sure he didn’t like it all the more because I wasn’t willing. You asked in a fairly extreme manner, but the moment you understood that I said no – in fact, it wasn’t even that, was it? I didn’t even have to say no. It was enough for you that I didn’t say yes. O.K., so you’ve seen something in yourself that you don’t like: get over it. Whatever it is, it’s not that you’re a rapist. Piet told me once, ages ago, that your aggression shows on the pitch and sometimes off it, but that you have no sexual violence in you and it’s true. Even when you’re sick, when you’re adrenalined up in shock, you understand that no means no. I don’t believe you could have done it. You’re a million times better than Hallam because you felt the temptation and you didn’t give way to it.”

He wanted to believe me, I could see that, but he wasn’t absolutely convinced. “I frightened you.”

And I realised, instantly and absolutely, that I had one chance at this. One chance to make him realise that I understood what had happened, that I understood it better, for once, than he did, and that. . . that it hadn’t done any more damage between him and me. One chance for me to make him believe that he hadn’t done anything he need be ashamed of, or distressed about. One chance. One.

And it meant lying, at which I am about the world’s worst. I can’t tell you the number of times I came unstuck with Jim in my youth because of my inability to tell even the smallest fib convincingly. But well, I suppose it’s like the way people manage great feats of strength to rescue others in natural disasters – when you have to do it, you can. I looked him straight in the eye and I lied, never a crack in my voice, never a blink.

“You didn’t frighten me. I was startled, that’s all; I never felt in any danger.”

And that’s my return for all the things Phil has ever done for me, for Hansie. . . I’m not sharing it with Hansie, nor with Piet, nor anybody else. Phil would be utterly destroyed if he thought that I had been frightened so he won’t ever know, not from me. Not by a word or a hint or a look or anything. Not ever. And. . . yes, all right, it was a lie. I had been terrified. But I had been terrified for all of five seconds. The rest of it was true: Phil would absolutely not be capable of rape and the evidence for that is that he had wanted to – and hadn’t done it.

“I. . . is that true, what you said about it being a common reaction to near death experiences?” He was settling back against Piet’s shoulder, but he still looked like death himself.

“Fersure,” shrugged Piet. “There was once, when I was in the army, I can remember quite clearly a sergeant saying to me, ‘I’m not a fokking moffie, I’m not a fokking moffie’ – which was, as far as I knew, true but unconvincing in the light of the fact that each of us had his hands inside the other’s combat trousers. I frankly did not care whether he was a moffie or not, provided he got me off some time within the next ten seconds, and he seemed to feel the same about me. And afterwards neither of us ever mentioned it again. It is well enough known in the army, at least.”

Ja, and when you were missing, Piet, when we thought you were dead and we came to be with Phil,” chipped in Hansie, “and we went home for clean clothes, do you remember, Tim? We did not even make it to the top of the stairs. I confess, I do not recommend it, I had carpet burns on my knees, and I walked funny afterwards.”

That got a rather twisted smile from Phil at least, and he seemed to be calming down a bit; I thought it was time we took our departure. Phil needed Piet and he didn’t need us, although something inside me was howling like an animal at that.

“Look, Piet’s home now; we’ll go. Will you. . . will you give us a ring tomorrow or send us a text or something, and let us know how you are?”

Hansie shifted uncomfortably off the end of the bed, giving me an unfathomable look; I picked up my jacket and turned to the door.

And Phil said, quietly, but perfectly clearly, “Please don’t go.”

I stopped, but I didn’t turn round; I couldn’t bear to. “It’s all right, Phil, this isn’t the time for you to have visitors, you don’t have to. . .”

Please don’t go.” He sounded desperate, and I turned, despite myself, just as he went on, “I know you don’t particularly care about me, I know you said we would be civil but I can’t bear it. . . oh fuck, I swore I wasn’t going to do this, I wasn’t going to beg, I’m sorry, no, you must do what you want, I do understand, you want Piet for Hansie, and me for Hansie a bit too, I’m sorry, I won’t do this, I won’t – I won’t embarrass you any further. I’m sorry.”

“Do you seriously think. . . is that what you thought I meant? That I didn’t care any more? That I only wanted. . .” I choked, and heard Fran in my head, that acid remark about Phil and me together not having the brains to make a half-wit. “It wasn’t like that. . . it was just. . .” and it came out very small, “what right had I to ask for anything more?

“Phil,” said Piet carefully, rubbing one hand over his face, “you told me that you and Tim talked, at Hansie’s Craft Fair. What did you talk about?”

Phil looked a bit shifty; I have no doubt that I looked much the same. “Um, I don’t really know.”

Did you actually talk? About anything that matters? Or did you merely mouth platitudes at each other?”

Phil looked sideways at me; I refused to catch his eye.

“Platitudes then.” He added something in Afrikaans and Hansie nodded; I didn’t understand it entirely but I think it was something along the lines of neither of us being fit to go out unattended.

“We did talk,” said Phil feebly. “We just. . .”

There was a moment’s silence and then Hansie sat down heavily on the bed again. “No, I can’t bear any more of this, hey? Ach, I know I am not the one who understands what is going on, but this I understand well enough and I do not understand why you do not, and I am sick of this catfooting around, hey?”

“Pussyfooting,” I said automatically, and flinched as Piet Looked at me. Hansie went on.

“Tim, why do you persist in this conviction that Phil does not care about you? Why? Do you not see? He has had an accident and he needs somebody because Piet is not here. Does he phone me? No. Nor Fran or Nick, who would both have run to help him. His team-mates, his friends? No. The officials from the club? No. He calls you. He calls you, Timmy. And what do you do? You go to him. Why does he call you? Because he knows – we all know – that you will go to him. If he did not care, he would have called. . . ach, Mark or Rob or. . . He called you because he knew that you would come and he knew that you would come because you are Family, and. . . and Tim, can you possibly believe that Phil would have been so upset about kissing you against your will if he did not care? Can you even think that he would have asked to be held if he did not care? If he did not trust you? If you did not matter to him?”

God, I don’t know how I’ve ever had the nerve to say Phil was stupid, because as I processed that little lot, I could see that in the ‘not applying the brain’ stakes, T Creed was probably leading by a short head, although P Cartwright was coming up fast on the rails.

“Hansie is right, Tim,” confirmed Piet. “And I agree with him, I can bear no more of this either. You are as idiotic as each other and you should both be thoroughly ashamed of yourselves. Phil has convinced himself, Tim, that you see him as” and he made a face, “a ‘fuck buddy’. I am wholly at a loss to understand why. He does not seem to be able to understand that there must be more, that there must always have been more. He has convinced himself that the occasion in Oxford has left you resentful of him, not just recently when it has come up again, but through all the time since, and he cannot see that if that were all there was to say about it, you would never have attempted a relationship with him later, that you would have avoided him at all costs. So your pairing was not successful, we all know that; frankly I at least am not surprised, you would have competed your way into an early grave, both of you, but you both plainly wanted to try it, despite the bad experience of the earlier time. Phil, if Tim did not care, why would he even have attempted to form a relationship with you? And no, before the pair of you can complicate things even further by making brainless and inaccurate assumptions about what other people must be thinking, I will say this: I know, Phil, that you love me best. I know that you will choose me over Hansie and Tim. I know, as does Hansie I think, that Tim loves Hansie more than he loves Piet or Phil. But I can also see that Phil loves Tim, and Tim loves Phil, and Hansie and I think it is time for them both to say so.”

“And I think too,” agreed Hansie, “that we have had quite enough all round of worrying about things which did not happen. We have heard that Tim had a bad experience in Oxford, ja, it was dreadful. But the thing which would have made it more than dreadful did not happen, after all, did it? Because Phil worked it out and he and the man with the fancy name came and rescued Tim. Tim saved Phil from Hallam and then Phil saved Tim, and please, we are done with it. And today, ja, maybe Phil asked the question of Tim a little too roughly, but when the answer was no, nothing happened. There is no harm in asking provided that you accept the no when you get it.”

Well, I froze, and so, I think, did Phil and Piet. And Hansie looked a bit blank for a moment, and then I saw him get it too.

“Hansie. . .”

“No, Piet. It does no harm. As Tim says, it may startle but it does no harm. It is another place where nothing has happened and we do not need to bother ourselves. We are grown up, we know we make mistakes, we get over them, we do not beat ourselves up over the ones which have done no damage.”

“But what if damage has been done?” asked Piet a little unsteadily.

“That is not for you to say. I say, no damage now. Like Tim, I am the one it didn’t happen to and I would know. So for you it is only to believe me, or call me a liar.”

“I would not do that,” agreed Piet, still unsteadily and they exchanged a long look, a look of acceptance, I thought. Phil had his mouth screwed up, and I was no better and I was not, not going to cry, but I could see one or two things which really ought to be said.

“Phil, I don’t blame you for Oxford. Not in my head, and I’m working on. . . on how I feel about it in my heart. It wasn’t your fault; we were both turned over by a clever, manipulative, abusive man and it wasn’t your fault any more than it was mine. And I blamed you because. . . because you were the easier target. Because Hallam said some things about me, about the way I behaved, and I. . . he made me believe them. He was good at that. And because I wasn’t, I don’t know, old enough, or experienced enough, or maybe just confident enough, to say either that he was wrong, or that he was right but it didn’t matter, I needed to blame somebody and it was you because that was safer than blaming him or actually thinking about what had happened. It wasn’t you. You didn’t do anything wrong, and neither did I, and Hallam did and it was his fault.” I felt Hansie behind me slipping his arms round me and resting his head on my back; I leaned to the security of him but at the same time, I reached out to Phil.

“I do care, Tim,” he said painfully, taking my hand. “I’ve always cared. And I fought with you when I was unhappy because – because of Oxford, mostly. I was unhappy because I couldn’t have what I wanted, and because I felt that people were taking advantage of me, and I didn’t like to say so because it made me sound selfish and greedy. I couldn’t pick a quarrel with Piet because it wasn’t his fault, and it wasn’t Hansie’s either, and I shouldn’t have with you because it wasn’t yours – but when I felt that you were blaming me for Oxford, when I didn’t see what I’d done wrong, it made it easy for me to blame you just as unfairly. And then when I drove you away, that hurt, and. . . and I thought you wouldn’t come back because I know how much you’re afraid of being rejected and when I’d rejected you once, I couldn’t expect you to risk it again.”

My mouth dropped open. Yes, sure, I admit the truth of that. Even I can do the pop psychology of that one: Dad died and left, which to a small child is a rejection. My mother – you know about that. I was young enough still to see that as a rejection. I don’t handle rejection well. I just didn’t know that Phil knew.

Yes, all right. He’s an empath, of course he bloody knew.

I didn’t let go of his hand. I just crawled up the bed, and Piet shifted over so that there was room for me, and for a moment I was going to cuddle up against Phil and then I had a better idea, and pushed behind him so that he was half on Piet and half on me, and we were cuddling him, and Piet threw an arm over my shoulder, and Hansie wound himself in and out of all our legs and rested his head on Piet’s thigh, and for a moment or two that was enough. And then Phil mourned, “How did we get into such a mess?”

I don’t think he expected an answer, it was a rhetorical question, but Hansie, of all people, Hansie, not Piet, gave him one.

“We got lazy, hey? We got set in our ways. Nick showed me.”

“Nick?” I asked apprehensively. I still felt that I could have done with maybe not so many people knowing all about our lives. “What. . . how much does Nick – and Fran, come to that – know about Oxford?”

“I told Nick that somebody tried to blackmail you over me, but not what he wanted you to do,” answered Phil. “But. . . I’m sorry, Tim, but I’m not sure he didn’t work it out. I never said, I never even hinted, I swear I didn’t, but. . . I don’t know what he got or who from, and I don’t think it was me.”

“No, nor me,” agreed Hansie, “but I think you are right, he suspects at least. But he has not shared his suspicions with Fran and I tell you that he will not.”

I sighed. “I told Simon all of it. Gory detail and all. Nick. . . well, I suppose it’s what he does, isn’t it? And no, I think you’re right, he’s discreet. I’d rather he didn’t know but better him than anybody else. What did he say, Hansie?”

“Say? Oh. . . I have lost my train of thought.”

“That we had grown lazy,” prompted Piet, shifting slightly to get comfortable.

Ach, yes. He did not say, exactly. That is not what Nick does, ja nee? He does not tell you things, he asks questions and then makes you think about the answers. He did not say we were lazy. That was what I thought later.”

“Babe? Can you get to the point? What, in that case, did Nick not say?”

 “He asked me about punishment and about how it worked, and about what happens when it doesn’t work. And when I thought about it, I could see, we had got lazy, we had got set into our ways: Piet is Alpha and cannot make a mistake; Tim is Smart and does everybody’s thinking; Phil is Emotional and deals with all our feelings; Hansie is the, the, the glue which links all these people together. So I am not responsible for what I do, that is Piet’s job, and I do not have to worry about what Tim is thinking because thinking is his job, not mine, and Phil is unhappy but he is the only one of us who knows when somebody is unhappy so I have no responsibility to sort it out.”

My turn to shift uneasily. That about Phil was exactly what I had been thinking: that he wasn’t my responsibility, which was bullshit.

“And Nick asked me, I say, about punishment. He said he had been reading blogs and things and he could find no widespread belief that punishment will not fix everything, and of course it cannot, how could it possibly?”

Phil looked at me. “You said that to me once, remember? That sometimes it wasn’t the answer? Why did I not remember that?”

“Why didn’t I?” I agreed. “I should have known better.”

“We should all have known better,” rumbled Piet; “go on, my Hansie.”

“Well, we stopped thinking about what we were doing, perhaps? We started to assume that as soon as something goes wrong, somebody must be to blame and he gets his bottom smacked and the only question is who it is and who does it. Nick was very critical – as much as Nick is critical ever – of us for that.”

We all thought about it. “Oh God, we did exactly that, didn’t we?” I asked slowly. “Oxford was a fuck up; it wasn’t Tim’s fault so it must be Phil’s. It’s Phil’s fault so he gets a strapping. I can’t believe – I just can’t believe we were so stupid. Any of us. We all did that, didn’t we? Nobody said to us, Phil, none of us said: hang on, why exactly is this Phil’s fault? Why is it not Hallam’s fault?”

“And nobody said,” agreed Phil, “we’re talking about attempted rape, don’t be stupid, of course you can’t fix that with a strapping. And the end result is that we did it and I felt awful because. . . well, I expected to feel better afterwards because I always do, when I’ve done something wrong. But I didn’t really feel I had done anything wrong, except make a smart remark.”

“And I didn’t feel better because I hadn’t done anything at all to address the real problem, which wasn’t you at all, it was Hallam. Jesus, we’ve been so stupid!”

“It is very shaming,” agreed Piet. “I do not know what I was thinking of to allow it.”

“Or me to suggest it,” mourned Hansie. “And. . . what do we do now?”

The ensuing silence was broken by an extremely loud rumble from Hansie’s stomach and we all dissolved in giggles.

“We have dinner,” said Phil firmly, sitting up, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed and collapsing on the spot. Hansie caught him before he hit the carpet.

Ja, but perhaps you stay here and we bring you a tray? We must not forget that you have been in an accident today, you are not well.”

“No. . . I’m fine, I’m just a bit wobbly.”

Koekie, Hansie is right. We will eat something from the freezer, Hansie and I will deal with it, and you and Tim will stay here, or at least you will go to the sofa and rest.”

“Um. . . is there anything in the freezer?” I asked tentatively. “I looked for cake earlier and I thought there wasn’t much there.”

“There’s bloody hotpot,” said Phil, “loads of that, but no, not a lot else.”

“Have you not been cooking?” I asked.

“I. . . yes, yes I have, but we’ve eaten it. I. . . um. . .” he gulped guiltily. “Everything I’ve cooked recently was practice for the TV thing, and it all went to the club, and then we had a trial run here one Sunday with the squad, and then the filming and. . . well, anyway, I’ve not done much since then, I’ve been too busy.”

And I wanted to say: you cooked for the TV and you didn’t tell us? You didn’t want my input? You asked your mates from the club and not us?

Yes, Tim, he did, because you let him think you despised him for doing it at all, and because you let him think that you didn’t care what he was doing, that you only wanted to be a casual acquaintance. And you are not going to take the huff about it now, it’s over.

“Right,” I said rather hoarsely. “Did it go off well? And hotpot will do, won’t it? Although, Phil, I’ve got an idea that when you’re in shock, you can get nauseous easily, so maybe Piet’s right, better if you don’t have anything to do with putting it on the table. Shall we let them do it? And you can lie down on the sofa like Piet says, and tell me what you cooked for the TV.”

Phil didn’t eat much, just pushed it round his plate, but we all pretended not to notice, and afterwards, Piet said “Shall we have coffee?”

“I suppose I should have tea,” said Phil mournfully. “I think coffee might make me jittery again, but there are some chocolates in the top cupboard.”

I fetched them down. “Make tea for us all, Piet, if you want. Easier. And look, Phil, would you not be better lying down again?”

“Yes, he would,” said Piet. “Go back upstairs, Phil, and Tim will go and bear you company. Hansie and I will make tea and bring it up.”

And then while we were drinking our tea, the phone rang, the weeble noise that says it’s for Phil rather than the old fashioned bell which is Piet’s line. He leaned past me to pick it up.

“Hello, Phil Cartwright? Yes? Oh yes. . . Oh wonderful! No, I hadn’t even thought about them. I don’t suppose there was any sign of my sunglasses? No, well, it was probably too much to ask, and I expect the insurance will cover them. So will you. . . in the safe, yes, brilliant, thank you so much. I’m sorry, what did you say your name was? Thanks, Nathan, I’m terrifically grateful, I’ll come in for them tomorrow.”

He put the phone down. “Three cheers for staff with brains. The recovery people have just moved the lorry and the lad in the petrol station had the sense to look in my car when they cut the engine block out and freed off the roof. He’s got my wallet and my phone and then found my home number on the phone to tell me he’d got them. But my sunglasses are just splinters, he says.”

There was a moment’s silence, and then Piet said, “Cut out the engine block?” on a rising note, and Hansie chipped in with “Freed off the roof?” and I suddenly realised that while we were all emoting like mad things and explaining ourselves, we hadn’t actually said anything to them about the precise form of Phil’s accident, just that he’d had one and it had been nasty, which of course covers a multitude of sins.

So Phil started to explain it, and not too surprisingly, he wasn’t terrifically lucid and Piet and Hansie needed him to go back over bits of it several times, with me squeaking at intervals because the repetition and thinking about it meant that Phil was beginning to tremble again, Hansie was getting that horrible grey look he has when he’s shocked, and Piet himself looked stricken.

Koekie, I am so sorry, I did not realise it was so extreme. I thought you had, well, perhaps had a shunt? That somebody had driven into you at a junction? Or cut across the bypass and you had had a near miss. I was distracted by these other stories, I did not ask, and Tim said you had seen the doctor and were shocked but not hurt, and I suppose I thought that you had been concerned about the season and maybe damaging your back. . . So what did the doctor say, precisely, and what. . . do you truly tell me you are not hurt?”

Phil, who was now shivering noticeably, shook his head. “Only my leg and some scrapes.” His voice quivered too, and Piet gathered him firmly into his arms.

“Show me, hart.”

It wasn’t actually that bad: a long cut on his calf, but it looked nasty. “Mick sorted it, and he said it didn’t need stitches.”

“Does it hurt?”

“No, nothing hurts, nothing’s wrong except that I get these shaking fits and I can’t stop. I can’t stop! And no, I don’t want Mick’s damn pill, I’ve had them before and they make me woozy, I hate them! I just want. . .” his voice broke and we all sort of surged at him, “I want to lie down and I want somebody to hold me, and. . .”

And we were all there. Piet had him tightly on one side, Hansie beat me to the other, and I curled against his legs. After a moment, Phil managed a rather shaky smile for us.

“I’m sorry, nobody looks comfortable at all. I’m better now.”

“No, you are not,” murmured Piet. “But you will be. We will look after you and you will be fine.” He lifted Phil’s hand and carefully kissed the gravel rash on his palm and wrist, and then leaned to run a delicate finger over the scabs on Phil’s knees.

“Look,” said Hansie a little doubtfully, “you should spend some time together, hey? You need maybe to make a fuss of him and get him to bed early? Timmy and I will go and yes, you will call us tomorrow and tell us how you are going on?”

“I don’t want you to go,” said Phil stubbornly.

“Then we won’t,” I said cheerfully. “But are you sure? Maybe Piet wants you to himself? He looks nearly as bad as you.”

“I am a little shaken, I confess, but I am more concerned about Phil. Koekie, what can we do for you?”

Phil turned his face up to be kissed, and then rested his head against Piet’s shoulder. “That’s nice,” he said dreamily. “I like being cuddled. I don’t need anything.”

It took me a minute or so to work out what was wrong with that. So what if he didn’t ‘need’ anything? I didn’t need to be ‘kidnapped’ and carried off to Piet’s hay barn. I didn’t need to have a rôle-playing virginal Phil. I don’t, come to that, need the big rough rugby players who hold me down and have their wicked way with me. I just enjoy them all. I liked it. And what did Phil like? And why, given how much time I had spent in bed with him over the past however many years, didn’t I know already? I mean, I had some ideas, obviously, I’m not completely selfish in bed, but. . .

But of course, what it comes down to is that Phil is always trying to give somebody else what they want, and it’s too easy with him to assume that he’s enjoying it as much as you are. And he is, I suppose – what he likes is to give you what you like. It turns him on to turn somebody else on. He’ll always say ‘what can I do for you?’ rather than ‘what I want you to do for me is. . .’ It’s unselfish, sure, but maybe unselfish past the point of being particularly helpful?

Well, the cuddle was a good place to start, he obviously liked that, so we cuddled him, in shifts, one each side and one spare, with Hansie and me changing places every so often, and the spare one providing a secondary cuddle to Piet. And after all, most of us would say that three people giving us their undivided attention would be pretty good, don’t you think? Even if that’s not your primary fantasy, you wouldn’t kick it out of bed, so to speak – and for somebody as tactile as Phil, it might well be the primary fantasy. He certainly seemed to be enjoying it, and when Piet began coaxing a stronger response out of him, he wasn’t having to work very hard. It was my turn on the other side, and Phil threw an arm round my neck and pulled me closer, and I saw him realise suddenly what he was doing and slacken his grip to let me go. I wasn’t having that. I wasn’t having him suddenly going all passive on me so that I couldn’t think that he would hold me against my will. I leaned over him.

“Hey, you. Aren’t you going to ask again?”

He looked puzzled, and Piet stopped what he was doing to listen to us.

“Hansie told you: nothing wrong with asking if you’re prepared to take no for an answer. So are you never going to ask again?”

He bit his lip and shut his eyes. I came closer. “What about if I ask? Are you willing if I ask, Phil?”

He nodded, still with his eyes shut.

“What are you asking for, Tim?” That was Piet, hardly more than a whisper. “The big rough rugby player? Do you trust him still?”

“Of course I do,” I scoffed. “Why would I not trust him? He showed me clearly enough that I’m safe with him, whatever happens. I’ll want him again, but not this time. This time I’m asking for the snugglebunny. I want the Phil who wants to be stroked and hugged and loved. I want to hold him while Piet makes him feel good. And I want to hold him while Hansie makes him feel good. And maybe, if he’s not asleep by then, I want a try at making him feel good myself. Open your eyes, Phil, and tell me if you’re willing.”

That was a yes, apparently.

Idris the Dragon

Click on Idris the Dragon to go back

© , 2007