Nuclear Family

There was no phone message, but that didn’t really surprise me. Piet was. . . I wasn’t very sure where. I knew he had started in Georgia, where they are enthusiastic about their rugby, although their funding is pretty well imaginary, but his itinerary after that had included a selection of places I had never heard of, some of them in countries which had been called something else when last I learned any geography. Developing nations rugby. Various international bodies had put together conferences and tours, and about thirty ex-players and refs and coaches and what James Hamilton would call High Heidyins had taken themselves off to promote rugby in places which didn’t currently play seriously. Piet tried to phone me every night, but it came off about one night in four. Sometimes there was no phone, sometimes there was no connection, his mobile worked on and off. . . When there was a connection, he would email me, but even then I frequently got three messages at once and then a big gap. I missed him like fury. And when I made my coffee and booted up, there was no message tonight either. Oh well. Never mind. Tomorrow.

Except that the phone did go, just when I was beginning to think about going to bed. And it was James Hamilton.

“Phil? Have you heard from Pieter today?”

“No, nothing. The news has been patchy all week. Did you want to talk to him? He’ll probably ring tomorrow, and I’ll be emailing him, if you want to give me a message.”

“Ah. You’ve not. . . Look, Phil, it’s probably nothing. But there was a report on the news tonight about an attempted military coup, and I just wondered where precisely Pieter was.”

“Somewhere called. . . hang on, this is Thursday, isn’t it? Kot’sa. Where’s this coup?”

“Aye, that’s what I thought. It sounds as if the trip may get held up a little. I’m sure it’ll no’ be anything serious, but you’ll let me know when you hear from him, will you?”

Right, well, we’ve established that I’m not stupid, haven’t we? I can hear what people aren’t saying. I can hear what happens to accents. Piet’s accent goes solid when he’s disturbed about something, and James Hamilton is the same. You would never doubt that he’s a Scot, but put him out of his normal way of thinking and he goes completely Clan McHaggis. And this time. . .

“Are you telling me that Piet is somewhere with a war going on?”

“Och, no, no, I’m sure it’s no’ that. You know what these states are like, Phil. It’ll all be all right. All over by tomorrow, no doubt. Just let me know when he calls next, there’s a good lad.”

Yeah, right, fine, thank you for your reassurances. Not.

Back to the computer. BBC News. Reuters. CNN. Blind panic. There was a military coup going on where Piet was, and the borders were shut and there was no information getting in or out.

I didn’t sleep. Look, Piet and I. . . I’ve been in love before. I’ve had relationships before. There was Tim, but that didn’t work. That was purely physical. I like him more – I love him more – now. There was. . . never mind. I was seventeen when I lost my virginity. No, I didn’t lose it: even I’m not that careless. I gave it away. I was lucky, considering some of the stories you hear. He was careful, and gentle, and experienced. But Piet – Piet completes me. God only knows why: Piet is much smarter than me. He could have his pick, and his pick is me. And oh, God, if he left me, I don’t think I would survive it.

And never mind what James Hamilton said about ‘over by tomorrow’. Piet was somewhere in the Caucasus and I didn’t know where he was, and there was an armed uprising going on. The headlines were terrifying. I watched them develop all night.



Subject: meeting

The CE would like to see both you and Tim immediately, please.


We had seen the reports, of course, but it wasn’t enough to make us any more than uneasy. We had decided over breakfast that morning – that was Friday – that we would go round after work, keep Phil company, maybe get a takeaway, have a couple of beers. Just be there for him.

Only uncle Jim asked for us at about four. A message that we were to go at once. And I think we both knew that it wasn’t to do with Hamiltons.

“Hansie, Tim, come in. Shona, no calls. Look, you’d better see this.”

‘This’ was a page printed from one of the internet news sites.

“I’ve been watching it on and off all day. This came up about fifteen minutes ago.”

I leaned over Hansie's shoulder to read it, and felt the muscles in his neck spasm.

‘Reports are coming in of a missile attack on the centre of Kot’sa, where armed insurgents have taken over government buildings. There has been no official confirmation of events, but preliminary intelligence suggests that a missile struck an hotel in the centre of the city, which was being used for a sports conference. The casualty list currently suggests two dead and seven injured. No details of the dead are yet available, but they are believed both to be male, one from Argentina and one from South Africa.’

“Oh, fuck,” I said, softly. “Sorry, Jim.”

“Och, no, son, that’s what I said, too. Is there another South African in the party?”

I didn’t know. “Hansie?”

He shook his head; he was grey and trembling.

“Well, now, Tim, this isn’t anything definite. But I think it might perhaps be a good idea if you were to go and see Phil. Never mind clearing your desks tonight. What were you doing? Was it anything that won’t wait until Monday? I can get Mike to finish up for you. . .”

I had been marking up the aged debtors listing for Miriam to chase the customers next week. That would wait. Hansie had been reviewing and signing his post. Mike could deal with that. We went straight to Phil’s house.

They told me, as gently as anyone could have wished. They showed me the report. We went to look at the websites. They touched me, all the time – there was always one of them with a hand on my shoulder. And I hated them both. I couldn’t bear to tell them to go: Piet’s friends, my friends, but they were there, both of them, breathing, warm, alive. And if Piet were dead – if Piet were dead, so was I.

The report changed as we watched it: the Argentinian became an Italian. Tim stood up.

“Phil, I don’t think you should sit here over this all night. Obviously there’s more than one story running and you aren’t going to get it here. I think we should simply look in every hour or so to see what’s changed, and meanwhile keep hoping. It’s not definite, and I think – I think you’ll hear soon enough officially when there’s anything to hear.”

“But he won’t, Tim. It will not be here that any official news comes, will it? I think we should ring South Africa.”

I looked up at Hansie. He was very tight round the mouth. “Phil, if there is official news, it will go to Ficksburg, won’t it? To Piet’s parents. Have you spoken with them?”


“Do they know of you?”

“I – think so. They know we share the house. I don’t know if they know. . . I think surely they must. I’ve got to ring them, haven’t I? In case they haven’t seen this.”

“I think so, yes, my broer. And because that is where the news will go.”

To his parents. To his sister. Not to me. Not to his lover, not to the man he claims to love more than anything. Not to the man with whom he has expressed his intention of living for the rest of his life. That wave swamped me: if Piet is dead, I will not be told except by the grace of his family. If Piet is dead, I will have no right to bury him. It will not be my choice where he goes, by what rites all that was Pieter de Vries is remembered and released. If his family chooses to deny me, then all that I have had with him is nothing in the eyes of the world, and there never was a relationship between us.

“Come, Phil, we will do it now, ja? I will help you. Do you have the number?”

Of course. It’s in the speed-dial. I don’t speak to them, except when they call and I answer the phone and shout for Piet.

That was the hardest call I have ever made. They knew. They did know. Some government body – their own Foreign Office, I suppose – had told them, not ten minutes before. I spoke to his father, but his English kept deserting him, and in the end his sister came to the phone.

“Phil? This is Riana. What news do you have?”

None. I had none. What had they been told?

We established that they knew what I knew. One dead man who seemed to be from South Africa. Nothing more.

“Riana? When you hear more, when you hear something for certain. . .”

“I will call you, Phil. And if you hear. . .”

“But I won’t hear. I’m not likely to hear.”

“Phil, if my brother is alive he will call you first. So promise me.”

“I’ll call, Riana. I promise.”

The whole weekend was so bad. We did not know what to do. We did not know how to speak to Phil. We stayed – we could see at once that Phil must not be left alone, so I stayed with him and Tim went to our house and collected the things we needed. He brought food too, and Phil looked at it, and pushed it around on a plate, and pretended to eat. Then we surfed from one news site to another for hours. Ach, yes, Tim was right, it was not a good thing to do. Better to look only at one or two places, and not too often, but we could not do it. Phil would get up, move around the room, pace like a caged thing, but the computer drew him. He could not leave it. At midnight, I thought to stop him.

“Enough, Phil. I think we must go to bed. We will stay. Whatever is happening, will happen without us watching it. You did not sleep a great deal last night, I think. Go to bed. We will leave the doors open and if the phone should ring, we will hear it. Come now. Come.”

He came passively up the stairs, and roused himself to find towels and so on for us. Tim and I arranged ourselves in the spare room, and we heard Phil in the bathroom, and then he came out and went to his own room. We spent as long as you would think, preparing for sleep, and then I think all three of us lay in the unfriendly dark and wondered if the others slept. And presently I heard Phil. He moved very quietly – for such a big man he is graceful – and he went down the stairs. I thought at first he wanted something – a glass of water, or such – but he did not return. I feared he had gone back to the internet, and eventually I rolled out of bed, quietly, in case Tim slept.

At the bottom of the stairs I stopped. No lights were on, and the computer was dark as I stepped into the living room, but I could hear Phil breathe.

“What is it?”

“Phil? What are you doing down here in the dark?”

He moved, and turned on a small lamp. He was lying on the sofa with a blanket pulled around him.

“I’m just going to sleep down here.”

“But why?”

“I can’t sleep up there. I can’t lie in Piet’s bed, Hansie. I can’t.”

This was flat despair. My first thought: come, my friend, that is folly, be reasonable, died on my lips. I thought: if it were Tim, could I sleep in our bed? I thought I could – I thought I would want to, to have that familiarity – but I could see that perhaps he could not.

“Come then. Come to us. It will be no less comfortable than sleeping here. Come, my broer.”

He followed me obediently, and at the top of the stairs there was a little light; Tim had turned on a reading lamp. I closed the door of Piet’s room, and ushered Phil in to ours. Tim had obviously heard; he moved across the bed and made room.

“Come on, mate. It’ll be a bit of a squeeze but we’ll be O.K. You come in the middle. Hell, your feet are cold. That’s better. Turn out the light, Hansie.”

I slept a little, and Tim did, but I’m not sure about Phil. Each time I woke to turn over, I think he was awake. He rose very early, slipping down the bed to escape, and I thought it best to let him go. Tim followed him fifteen minutes later, and came back with tea for me.

“Anything different?”

“Now it’s a Canadian and a South African on some of the sites, and a Canadian and an Italian on some of the others. They obviously aren’t getting any real news out. No names, but they’ve named the group. I think we may take it that it’s definitely Piet’s group and definitely two dead, but nothing else for sure. Hansie, what are we going to do?”

What could we do? Wait. All through Saturday we waited, and we watched, and we learned nothing. Nothing. And Phil withered – diminished – under our gaze. We could persuade him to eat nothing, to drink little. He would not go out lest the phone rang. Tim persuaded him to call his own parents, and they offered to come to him, but he did not want them.

That night, Tim did not give him the option of going to his own bed. Tim drew him up with us, asked him matter-of-factly if he preferred the middle or the outside, curled up with an arm across Phil’s waist.

Sunday was no better.

It’s not that big a town, and news travels fast in it. I heard on Saturday from one of my clients that the big man from the rugby club in the county town was missing, presumed dead. I rang Mary Hamilton, and she gave me all the detail she had.

“What about Phil? Has he got someone with him?”

“Hansie and Tim are there. They won’t leave him. God knows how he’s going to manage the week. The paper’s got the story and he’s supposed to be playing on Tuesday, Jim says, but Tim says he’s barely coping. It’s the not knowing, Fran.”

“Should I go round? If he needs someone with him, I could spell Hansie and Tim. It must be stressful for them too. Hansie's devoted to Piet.”

“They all are. Hansie and he go back years, apparently, and Tim admires him hugely, and. . . Yes, go round, Fran. They’ll be the better, I’m sure, for another face. But you’ll not be offended if they’re. . .”

“I’ll not take it personally if they don’t want me. If it’s male bonding, I’ll just tiptoe quietly away again. I’ll go in the morning, after. . . I’ll go in the morning.”

I thought of somewhere else to go on Sunday morning, and I went. I hoped to get away with it, but as always happens when you want to pass unseen, all the world and his wife was there to meet me. I met Jim and Mary at Angel Corner. Mary raised an eyebrow and said nothing, but Jim was less reserved. He looked up the steps I had just come down, and said, “Good morning, Fran. Now, I knew you were brought up a Catholic, but I thought you had lapsed.”

“I have. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in it, I actually, actively disbelieve it.”

“So what are you doing on Sunday morning at Sacred Heart?”

I blushed. Me! I haven’t blushed in twenty years.

“I went to Mass. And afterwards I lit a candle for Piet, and one for Phil.”

“Why would you do that, if you ‘actually, actively’ disbelieve it?”

“Because I am prepared to consider the possibility that I may be wrong.”             

I’m not sure quite what it has done for my reputation, to be kissed, solidly on the mouth, on Sunday morning, in the town centre, in front of Father James, by a Scottish Presbyterian.

I went to the house afterwards. The three of them were sitting in the front room, and it was true that Phil looked dreadful. Hansie didn’t look much better, actually. Tim made me coffee, and kept me in the kitchen.

“Fran, can you stay with Phil for an hour or so? We need to go home for a change of clothes and so on, and – well, basically for a break. Phil ought to go out, but he can’t, and we won’t be any good for him unless we get a chance to recharge. There’s still no real news.”

“Go. I’ll make him some lunch. I can stay all day if you need me to.”

He grimaced. “If you can persuade him to eat something, you’d be doing everybody a favour. And try not to let him spend all the time hopping from one news site to another. You might do better than us – he might be more inclined to do as you suggest.”

“I’ll try. Go on, take Hansie home. I have nowhere else to be today.”

We left Phil with Fran and went home, making mental lists all the way of things we needed or must do.

“What about tomorrow? Do you think Jim would let me take a day off?”

“It was his idea for us to come, wasn’t it? You go in first thing. I’ll stay with Phil. Then maybe if you came back at about three, I could go in and blitz my paperwork. There’s a late shift working, so security will be there and I could stay until about eight. Uncle Jim won’t mind. But Phil’s supposed to be going to Newcastle, isn’t he? To play on Tuesday. Can he do it?”

“I had forgotten. He must. Unless he’s dropped, and I think. . . I think if he doesn’t play, there will be people asking questions. He can afford to be seen to be anxious, but nothing more than that, and if he is seen as he currently is, there will be no pretending any more. He will be out and the story will not be deniable.”

I pulled the car onto the drive, and Tim got out and unlocked the door. I walked in behind him, and suddenly he kicked the door shut and launched himself at me, twining his arms round my neck and clamping his mouth on mine. I felt two buttons go as he tore at my shirt, and the heat of him was infectious, and I grabbed him, bit his neck, scrabbled at his sweatshirt. He was all over me, like a rash, as they say, and we left a trail of clothing through the hall. I’ve said before, Tim likes sometimes that we play rough, that I fight him into submission, and I am less afraid to do it than I used to be, less afraid that I will harm him, but this time it was him. He is smaller than I am, you know? And lighter, and he has not had the training, but he was ferocious and – and almost, he snarled at me, and we did not even make it all the way upstairs. On the landing, with my hands gripping the balusters, and actually, he hurt me, a little, but I did not complain. I knew what this was. It was the affirmation that he was alive and so was I. There was a desperation in it, a panic, and we rose, and gathered our clothes, and continued upstairs and did not speak of what we had done. But when we had sorted out the things we needed, I took his hand, and led him to our bed, and we lay together, just holding each other, for a long time, not talking, and then I stroked his face, and his back, and this time was gentler and slower.

“This is bad for you too, Hansie. I know it is.”

“Ja. I cannot deny it. It is not – Tim, it is not that I love him more than you. You would not think so?”

He was quick with reassurances. “No. But he’s a major part of your life. And mine, now, too. And, oh God, Phil. . .”

“Tim, how are we going to make Phil go to Newcastle?”                                                            

“I haven’t the least idea. Absolutely none.”

“I have always thought him compliant, but he is not bending at all, not over any of the things that matter. He is not arguing, he is simply not doing what we suggest. I do not know what to do.”

Fran did. When we went back to the house, she had persuaded Phil to lie down on the sofa, and he was half asleep. She came into the kitchen with us.

“I couldn’t get him to eat. He tried, but he couldn’t do it. The news is no different and there’s no more of it. I wanted him to come out with me, even just into the garden, but he wouldn’t do that, either.”

“How the hell can we get him out of this? Fran, he must go to Newcastle tomorrow, he must play in a match on Tuesday, or his reputation is shot, and Piet’s with it.”

She hesitated; I could see that she thought she knew, but that she also thought that we would not like it. She looked at Tim.

“You may not be able to do it. Either of you.”

“What?”  Tim was uneasy. “What must we do?”

“I think Hansie must make him do whatever he has to do.”

“Ja, Fran, but how? I cannot persuade him to anything.”

“Not persuade him, Hansie. Make him. Tell him what he must do. Give him his orders and – this is what Tim may not be able to stand. Give him his orders and if necessary, enforce them. You know what he’s used to, and I think you must do it.”

I looked at Tim.

“If it’s that, love, do it. Fran’s right, I don’t like it, but if that’s the answer, just do it.”

“Ach, Fran, must it be me? Can’t you do it?”

“No. Not for Phil. It must be one of you two.”

I looked at Tim. “No, Hansie. Not me. He won’t take it from me. Fran’s right. If it’s this, then it’s you. Can you do it?”

I dropped my head into my hands. Could I do it?

Nee, I do not think so. But I see no alternative. So I must, hey? And if. . . if Piet should not return, Phil will never forgive me, and I will have lost them both. So I must choose, ja?”

Fran leaned forward to me. “Hansie, you said to me once that you couldn’t live with any of the choices you had made, and I’m afraid I’ve given you another one. This one has too many bad outcomes, and I at least won’t blame you if you choose not to do it.”

I looked at Tim again. “Nor me, love. You’re going to be wrong whatever you do, Fran’s right about that. But I wonder if it would be easier to live with the consequence of having done the wrong thing, than of having not done anything.”

I nodded. “Ja, well, if I must do it, I will do it. And if I have to. . . if I have to get physical, I will.”

Tim flinched. “But not in Piet’s study, Hansie. Phil couldn’t stand that, and neither could I.”

No, nor me.

Fran went home, and Tim began to talk about cooking, and I left him to it. I went back to Phil, who was rousing.

“Phil, liefie, you must go to Newcastle. Tomorrow, you must go, and Tuesday you must play, and Tim and I will stay here and mind the telephone.”

“You can’t. You have to go to work, so I can’t go. I’m not going.”

“We have thought of that. We will take it in turns to go in. Jim will not mind, and one of us will be here.”

“No. You can’t. You’ve got work to do, and I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying here.”

I had just opened my mouth again when the doorbell rang, and I heard a familiar voice in the hall. “Darlings, I’ve brought the benefits of technology. The Iron Man rang me at home and said Phil had to go away, and so I’ve burgled the Hamiltons’ telephony system and here I am. Phil, sweetheart, I’m so sorry about all this, but I’m here to help, and I’m sure it will all come right in the end. Where’s your phone point?”

Simon. Subdued, by his standards, but still over the top. He burbled happily as he unplugged Phil’s phone and plugged in some huge switchboard affair, explaining to us about equivalences and programming. I got none of it.

“Simon? What will it actually do?”

“Well, darling, after I’ve finished with it – is there any chance of a cup of coffee? One is simply gasping – it will ring here the same as usual, and if it isn’t picked up it will transfer to your usual answering machine. But watch! When you go away tomorrow, you press this button, and when it beeps, that one – I’ll write this down for you, darling, I can see you aren’t at your best – and then all calls are transferred to Hansie's phone at work. So if you make sure Hansie's at his desk before you leave, and then transfer it, there won’t be any gaps. And tomorrow night, Hansie can come back here and I’ll watch his phone at work, and when he rings me and tells me he’s here, we can transfer it back again. So there will always be somebody at the end of your land line. And then – what sort of mobile have you got? – good, easy. You can pick up your messages by dialling in. There’s a code. I’ll write it all down, Phil darling. It’ll be fine.”

“Will it?” asked Phil, plaintively, but clearly wanting to believe. Perhaps Fran was right, and we were being too gentle with him. Simon’s sharper tone seemed to be rousing him a little.

“I cannot believe – I just cannot believe – that your brute of a man will have allowed any harm to come to him. Sweetheart, he will simply glower at any terrorists and they will hand over their guns and beg to surrender. I know I would.”

Phil actually smiled, and hugged Simon, who squeaked about broken ribs, and who stayed and drank his coffee and told us three extremely slanderous stories about his friends, and who then rushed off, crying, “Tell me if there’s anything else I can do. Call me any time, darlings.”

After Simon left, I went back into the kitchen and thought about food. Phil wasn’t eating, and he certainly wouldn’t be able to play if he weren’t properly fed, so I searched the cupboards and freezer for inspiration. In the end I decided to make soup, not from a packet but real soup that tastes of something. I thought Phil might eat soup and bread, because it doesn’t look like a real meal.

He wasn’t enthusiastic. I called him and Hansie to the kitchen, and Phil came in, glanced at the table just as I put the first bowlful down, and said, “Oh, Tim, I can’t. I’m sorry, but maybe later.” I looked over his shoulder at Hansie, who nodded slightly.

“Phil, you must eat something, hey? You ate no breakfast, and Fran said you ate no lunch. Come, boet, sit down and have a little. Tim is a good cook, you know?”

“I said no. I can’t. I’m sorry, but I can’t.”

“Phil, sit down. That is enough. You must eat. You will make yourself ill, and that is not going to help anybody.”

“I told you, I can’t.”

“You will. Sit. Now.”

“No. I’m going to. . .”

“You are going to sit down here with Tim and me, and eat something.”

“Hansie, I honestly can’t. I’ll just. . .”

“You will just sit down, Phil, and eat.”

I would never have believed that Phil would do it: he simply picked up the bowl and hurled it at the wall, and then turned and headed for the door.

And Hansie.

Who didn’t move. He gave Phil the Look. He’s very good at the Look, I’m telling you. Not as good as Piet, perhaps, or as Jim, but better than me. He didn’t say anything, he just Looked. He bulked in the doorway and Looked, and after about twenty seconds, Phil’s gaze dropped and his shoulders went down, and Hansie spoke, quite gently.

“Is this a proper way to behave, Phil?”

There was no answer. Hansie's tone hardened.

“Is it?”


“I beg your pardon?”

“No, sir.”

“No. This is rude to me, and ungrateful to Tim, and disrespectful to Piet, who has taught you better. Is it not?”

“Sir.” It was hardly even a whisper.

“Come.” And Hansie stalked off up the hall, as if it never even occurred to him that Phil would not follow. I could see Phil’s gaze fix on the door to Piet’s study, and then Hansie turned towards the living room, and glanced back, and said sharply, “Here, Phil, and at once”, and Phil followed him.

I didn’t. I picked up broken crockery and put it in the bin, and then I ran water into the sink and began to wash soup off the wall. But I could hear them. The unmistakeable crack of hand on bare skin, and from the volume, Hansie wasn’t holding anything back. He’s heavy handed even in play, but this didn’t sound at all like play, and it went on for a horribly long time. I was a little worried that I couldn’t hear Phil – I mean, I’ve seen Piet spank him once, and he yelled blue murder, and Hansie did it once in play, and Phil squeaked a good deal. He says he isn’t physically brave, and he admits that when Piet punishes him, he makes a fair amount of noise (although I don’t believe he ever tries to avoid what’s coming – he’s braver than he thinks) but this time he was silent. When eventually it all went quiet again, I ventured up the hall and peered round the door jamb. Phil was on his knees, still with his jeans round his thighs, but leaning on Hansie, and hanging on to Hansie's shirt. And Hansie was petting him and murmuring in his ear, and as Phil began to straighten, I retreated to the kitchen again.

Hansie came in a moment later, and came to my arms. He was tense, and anxious. “Timmy, I don’t know if that was right. I wish he would cry. I think he would be better for it.”

“Where is he?”

“Gone to wash his hands and face.”

He came back just then, and glanced at me, and said, “Sorry, Tim,” in a rather shame-faced way, and then sat, carefully, at the table, so I put another bowlful of soup in front of him, and he picked up his spoon. He did try; the first few mouthfuls were plainly an effort, but it became easier, and when Hansie passed him the bread he took some without argument. In the end, he ate quite a lot, and Hansie and I made desultory conversation about cooking, and shopping, and the relative merits of the farmers’ market and the farm shop.

I saw Hansie work himself up to the next bit. “Now, Phil, that is better. So you will go and pack now, ready to leave in the morning, and we will all go early to bed. Tim and I will look once more for any change in the news.”

“Hansie, can’t I do that?”

“You do not trust us with it?”

His head went down again. “I do. But. . .”

“Then do as you are told. We will tell you, or show you, what is different. Ach, come, you can do this. Piet has made you strong. Show us.”

There was nothing different, and Phil packed his bag, and went quietly to bed. This time, he turned to face Hansie, not me, and I’m still not sure that he slept much, but he was still and quiet. And certainly less tightly coiled.

I expected a scene in the morning, but we didn’t get one. Phil ate his breakfast, quietly, and checked the news, which was no different, and picked up his bag. “Hansie, you won’t forget the phone, will you?”

“You have my word. We will not let the phone go unanswered. We will check the websites. We will call you at lunchtime, we will call you tonight. And the same tomorrow. And if there is anything different, we will call you. And if the de Vrieses call here, we will call you. We will do everything that you might do yourself. But you have to do things for us too.”

“I know. I have to eat. And I have to behave as if – as if I’m only a little worried.”

“And you have to play like an absolute demon, so that everybody sees the value of what you have learned from Piet, hey? You will remember everything he has taught you, and you will demonstrate what you know. You can do this?”

“Piet has taught me control. This is what he would expect.”

“What he does expect. Even if – what he expects. So you can do it, ja?”

“I can.”

Only I couldn’t. I did try, honestly. I got through Monday. God, but it was hard, but Tim phoned me at lunchtime, and Hansie at six, and both of them at ten. We were travelling for a lot of the day, and I had my mates around me, and they were good. They didn’t know how to talk to me, but they tried. It was hard, because they never talk to me about the fact that I’m gay, about the fact that Piet is my lover. But they took it in turns to sit with me, and they talked, until I wished they would shut up. I suppose it was a bit like toothache to take your mind off appendicitis – I found that I was thinking how irritating Rob’s verbal tics are, rather than about Piet.

The next day was worse. Tim called before breakfast. No news. Hansie called at lunchtime. No news. So I was to go out and play like I had never played before, hey? For Piet’s sake. And we went to the ground and changed, ready to go out and warm up and all the rest of it, and suddenly there was one of the Newcastle second team with a message for Harry, who’s Piet’s second in command, and a good bloke. There was a journalist outside who would like a couple of quotes from the team on how we felt about the situation regarding our coach.

I lost it. Completely. Harry got the guy outside faster than fast, while I was still drawing breath, and then I yelled that I would tell them, I’d tell them all and I headed for the door, and Ryan tackled me, a high tackle that would have got him in all sorts of trouble on the pitch, and Mark took me round the knees, and Dave sat on my back, and I bucked and struggled under them.

They wouldn’t have it. They carried me, physically, right off the floor, and locked me in the showers, with Mark and Ryan holding me still. Mark had his hand over my mouth and Ryan pinned my arms to my sides, and Rob the captain, and Joe the vice-captain gave a gentle and unremarkable interview in the dressing room, about how disturbed they were over the stories from Kot’sa, about how worried the whole team was, about how much sympathy they had for Pieter de Vries’s family and friends. I bit Mark, and he shoved a towel in my mouth and swung me round until my face was pressed against his shoulder, and hissed, “Shut up! It won’t help. Just shut up.” And the journalist went away, and the guys released me, slowly, and when I started to shake, Mark – straight Mark, who’ll screw anything with tits and a pulse, and who calls me queer, not gay – Mark held me, rather clumsily, and patted my shoulder until I dragged in a couple of deep breaths, and said awkwardly, “You’re all right now, Phil. Put your boots on.”

Oddly, after that, I was all right. It was as if that one eruption had taken off just enough pressure. I went onto the pitch remembering what Hansie had said, and I did play like a demon. One or two of the others caught it from me, too, and the Falcons seemed a little taken aback at the way we were all over them. They’re good, but we were better. And Harry sent Darren down with Rob for the post-match interviews, not me, and the guys sort of swarmed round me when we went back to the coach, so that I was always in the middle and nobody could ask me anything.

But I didn’t want to stay at the hotel. I wanted to go home. I told Harry that, and that I would ring up about trains, and Harry, who always wants us to travel together because he says it’s good for team morale and bonding, called a taxi for me and let me go. It was gone midnight when I got home, and Tim and Hansie had gone to bed, but Tim got up and made me a sandwich and some tea, and chivvied me through the bathroom, and into bed.

It was about half three when the phone rang, and Phil was out of bed before I had even got a grip on what the noise was. He threw himself down the stairs and I was after him, but I saw him hesitate before he lifted the phone. My stomach turned over, and for a moment I knew that it was bad news, and so did he, and then he lifted the receiver and said, steadily, “Hello?” And he turned away from me, and I didn’t hear any of what followed, but it was very short. And then he turned back towards me, but he didn’t put the phone down; he dialled again and waited, and obviously somebody picked up the phone, and Phil said, still in that steady, controlled voice, “Mr de Vries? This is Phil. Pieter has just called me. He will be back here tomorrow afternoon, he says. Yes. No, he didn’t have time to say much; apparently there’s one phone and a queue of them to use it. I’ll get him to call you as soon as he’s here. Or I’ll call if he lets me know he’s delayed again. And – would you like to come over? To stay? I’m sure you’ll want to see him for yourselves. Think about it, and let us know. Would you like me to call Riana, or will you do it? Fine. I’m sorry I haven’t more to tell you, but you know all that I do. Yes. Yes. Good night.”

And he put the phone down, and came up the stairs, and I put out my hand to him, but he passed me, almost blindly, and stooped to his case, which was still on the landing, and took something out of it, and then he went into his own room, and closed the door very quietly.

I went back into the spare room. Hansie was hunched on the bed, and there were tears running down his face, and I leaned over him and said, “Oh, heart, don’t cry. He’ll be home tomorrow.”

And he gave a great whoop for air, and choked out: “What?”

“Tomorrow. Phil said Piet will be home tomorrow. I think he just needs a bit of space for a few moments to take it in, and then we’ll get him to tell us exactly what he said.”

And Hansie hauled himself up onto his knees and said again: “What?” Only this time there was a note of hope.

“Well, love, you heard him.”

But he shook his head.

“Then what’s this?” I asked, confused, running a finger across his wet face.

“Phil put his knee in my balls as he got up,” choked Hansie, hoarsely.

It was too much. After all the strangled emotion of the previous week, it was simply too much. I sat on the side of the bed and laughed until I too dissolved into tears.

We clung to each other for about a quarter of an hour, and then we both got up and went across the landing, and I tapped gently on the door. “Phil? May we come in?”

He said something, I didn’t catch what, so I opened the door. He was stretched out, face down, across the bed, and as we went in, he rolled slightly, and I could see that he had something clutched in one hand, against his mouth.

“Phil? What did he say?”

“That he was coming home. He’ll be flying in tomorrow at about two. He isn’t hurt, but it is true that two of the party are dead. The Canadian and the Italian. And that was about all.”

A huge yawn overtook him, and Hansie grinned. “Come, boet, come back to bed. Or are you going to sleep in here now?”

“I – no. I’d rather come in with you. If you don’t mind.”

“Come then.”

He got up, and I realised that the thing he had been holding to his face was one of Piet’s gloves. He picked it up, and something else, and put them together on the bedside table. Hansie stared. “Phil, what is that?”

“My medallion. It’s for Piet.”

“Your – medallion? You were man of the match? For the first time? And you didn’t tell us?”

“It’s for Piet.”

I caught Hansie's eye. Let that one lie.

We curled up again together, and in a tiny corner of my mind I was glad that we wouldn’t have to do it any more. That bed is a standard double, and both Phil and Hansie are big men, and I lose when they turn over. I wanted to sleep in my own bed, with my own lover. That train of thought was broken by the slightest imaginable hitch in Phil’s breathing, and I suddenly realised that he was weeping, desperately, silently.

“Oh, here, Phil, come on, pet. It’s all right. It’s all right now. Don’t cry!”

“Ach, Tim, let him. It is only reaction. It will pass. Come, Phil, come here to me, hey? Now, just let it go. You have been brave, man, and Piet will be pleased with you. Just relax, and this will pass.”

It took a long time to pass, with Hansie holding Phil on his shoulder, and me rubbing his back and both of us talking nonsense to him, and in the end he fell asleep like a child, with one arm gripping Hansie, and the other hand in mine.

We hadn’t foreseen the problem which arose at breakfast. Phil was white and exhausted and hyper, and Hansie had to be very firm to get him to sit down again and eat, and he was halfway through his toast when he said something about the airport, and I – well, I let my mouth run too fast. I said, “But Phil, you can’t go to meet him!”

He turned on me. “I can and I will. He’s coming home and I’m going to meet him.”

“No, you mustn’t! Wait at home. We’ll wait with you. We’ll think of somebody who will meet Piet, but you must understand that this is a national story now. There will be journalists and photographers at the airport, and you mustn’t blow it now. Think, Phil, don’t just react. I know you want to go, but it honestly isn’t sensible. For the sake of one more hour, don’t waste what you’ve done so far.”

He swore at me. Oh, for pity’s sake, he’s a rugby player, he knows all the words, and he was vicious. I was a cold, unfeeling bastard. I had no idea what it was to love anybody. I was so convinced of my own unutterable rightness that it never occurred to me that somebody else might think differently. I was arrogant and insensitive and so set up with my own intellectual prowess that I had no idea about relationships. And the rest. Oh, and I think I was a lousy fuck as well. And then he stamped out and crashed up the stairs and we heard him in his own bedroom. And he slammed the door.

“Timmy, liefie, do I need to tell you that he does not mean it?”

I put my head in my hands. “No. I could have worded it better. I walked right into that one, Hansie, didn’t I? That’s my repayment for all the things I’ve ever said about him being stupid, isn’t it? All the times I thought he wasn’t very bright, he’s been thinking that I’m emotionally retarded, but he had better manners than me: he never said it.”

“Ach, Tim, you are different, that’s all. We all know you are smart, but you do not read people well. Phil understands people, but he does not claim to be an intellectual. We have already been here, ja? He is so angry because he knows you are right, and he is suffering. He will suffer until he actually has Piet back in front of him. Do not hold it against him.”

“I don’t. But Hansie, don’t you go and punish him for it. Just let it go.”

“You think? That was a nasty outburst against a friend.”

“That’s why he did it. Why he could do it. It’s like – it’s fighting inside the family. You can dare to do it because it’s your family. You know what they say: home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. Phil and I will be reconciled soon enough. He shouted at me because he knew he could dare to. We’ll make it up; let it go.”

“If you say so, my liefie. But what are we to do now? You are right, he must not go to the airport. Am I to go?”

“N-no. I don’t think so. We might perhaps ask Jim? We’ve got to phone him and tell him, at least. And – Hansie! Better still, let’s see if Fran’s free to go.”

“Ach, ja, that is perfect. Only, she has no car, has she?”

“Send them both. Jim can drive. We’ll call him first, and then we’ll call Fran, and then. . . then perhaps I should go to work. I think you should stay with Phil until Piet is actually home. But Phil is angry with me, and later I think he’ll be very embarrassed, so I think it will be better if I go.”

“Ja. O.K. Phone Jim, then.”

I wallowed in misery until Hansie came back upstairs. I had heard the front door shut, and when I looked out, Tim was leaving, and I took a small hot pleasure in that. But Hansie stayed, and I had a distinct feeling that there was going to be more heat and less pleasure for me presently.

He said nothing about it, though. He told me, calmly, that Jim and Fran would collect Piet from the airport, and bring him here, and that Jim would then take Hansie home. And then he said, “We should perhaps tidy up here a little, hey? Come and we will strip our bed, and remake it, and make sure that Tim and I have left nothing behind.”

He ran me ragged all morning with housework. We changed the spare bed, and then we changed our bed too (“Piet will likely be tired, you know? Let us make him comfortable.”) We ran the washing machine and the dishwasher, and then I vacuumed while Hansie washed the kitchen floor. Displacement activity, most of it, but more useful than most. And Hansie cooked something, I forget what, and put it in the fridge for us to have later, and found a bottle of fizz in our wine rack, and put that in the fridge too. “If you don’t want it, it will come to no harm, but you may want to have a little celebration, hey?” And I got a scolding, although not a very serious one, for leaving my dirty kit from the day before in my bag on the landing. “And clean your boots, too. And don’t get mud all over that floor I have just washed, or I will have your hide.”

I didn’t argue when he made me a sandwich at lunchtime, and he in exchange didn’t scold when I couldn’t eat it all. And he didn’t say anything when I began to watch the street at about a quarter past two, much earlier than Piet could possibly be expected.

He came at half three, with Fran and Jim. They all got out of the car, and Fran kissed Piet, and Jim said something that made him laugh, and Hansie opened the door and let him in. And Piet came straight up the hall to me, and by the time he broke away I was breathless. But we both heard the door open, and Piet, without turning, said, “Hansie?” and then he did turn, and took three steps down the hall again to hug Hansie, and say something soft in Afrikaans. And I glanced at Hansie, and then I looked away. I know what there is between those two, and I’m not jealous of it any more, but Hansie didn’t need me to see. And the door shut and Hansie was gone, and Piet was back with me and the world turned.

It must have been a good fifteen minutes before I was able to pull away and say, “Phone your mother. Do it quick. I promised I’d get you to do it straight away.”

He did, and I went into the kitchen and boiled the kettle. Piet was home and I could afford to be a little more sensitive than I had been. His mother crying was another of those things I didn’t need to know about. He came back presently and wrapped his arms around me, and nuzzled at my neck. “So you are inviting my family to stay, koekie? They are coming, both of them. But not Riana and her family. She says she will come next year.”

“I’ll ask Hansie if I can go and stay with them, then.” I tried not to think about Tim. And whether they would let me go and stay after the things I had said.


“Your parents. . .”

Koekie, my parents have grasped what is between us. They may not be enthusiastic, but they will understand that it is the way things are. And you will stay in this house, and you will share my bed.”

And that appeared to be that. And in a moment, Piet said, “Is there any hot water?”

“Lots. We thought you would probably want a bath or a shower, so the water’s been on for hours. And. . . Piet, when did you shave last?”

He thought about it. “Saturday. I think. You do not like this effect on me?”


“I admit, nor do I. But heaven knows where my luggage is. I have not seen it since the weekend, so if you want me differently, you will have to lend me your razor. And tomorrow we will go and buy me a new one. I have come home with only the clothes in which I stand up, and since I have been wearing them since Saturday too, they would stand up on their own. Come, koekie, and bring a bin liner. I am never wearing any of these things again. They are going in the rubbish, all of them. My winter coat is lost, and my new gloves that we bought together. And I do not care.”

Nor did I. He stripped in the bathroom and everything except his wallet and his keys went into the bin bag, and then I took it all down to the bin while he shaved. And I took the stairs two at a time to get back to him, and he heard me, and laughed, and started on my shirt buttons, and pulled me into the shower with him. I washed his hair three times, and the rest of him twice, before he was satisfied. He was yawning, so we dried each other, and took ourselves off to bed, and no, we didn’t. We just curled up together, my head on his chest where I like to be, and he told me, softly, about what had happened while they had been away. And presently he drifted off to sleep, and so did I.

The trouble with going to sleep at five in the afternoon is that you wake at two in the morning. I slid out of bed to go to the bathroom, and was just padding back when Piet’s voice said, “Phil? I’m hungry.”

So was I. Starving. We went downstairs and ate the thing Hansie had made, and opened the wine. It felt very decadent, somehow, getting up to drink at that time. And then we went back to bed, and Piet said, “So Hansie and Tim looked after you? They are good friends.”

I wriggled a bit, and heard Piet’s amusement. “You have a guilty conscience, I can tell. What went wrong?”

“Hansie spanked me,” I admitted.

“What for?”

“I threw a bowl of soup at the wall.”

He snorted. “Good for Hansie. I would have taken the stick to you. Why did you do it?”

“They were trying to make me eat. It hurt, too. But I did behave a bit better after that.”

“So I should think. What else troubles you, my hart? Something does, I can tell.”

“I – turn out the light. Please? This is so horrible. I hate myself for it.”

He turned off the lamp and drew me back to my place on his chest.

“So tell me, and we will see if it cannot be made better.”

“It can’t. It was. . . it was after you rang. I got upset. I cried then. I hadn’t cried before. Hansie and Tim thought it was just reaction but it wasn’t. Well, I suppose some of it was, but some of it was realising what a selfish bastard I am.”

Piet’s grip tightened. “What had you done?”

“When you told me that the Canadian and the Italian reps were dead, all I could think was how glad I was, because that meant it wasn’t you. The reports here said it was you, for days. From Friday, I’ve been thinking you were dead. But the reports kept getting confused, and sometimes it was you and sometimes it was them, and I’ve been wishing them dead so that it wouldn’t be you.”

He didn’t loosen his grip, but he didn’t speak for a minute, either, and then he said, very gently, “But Phil, we all do this. With every bad thing that happens to us, we wish it not to us, and about half the time we wish it to somebody else. And when we are in a situation when people die, we cling to our own. When someone dies in a hospital, do you believe that the families of the other patients do not think: better him than my brother, my wife, my child? I can guarantee to you that my parents will have been thinking the same as you. Better Nightingale and Rossi than Piet de Vries. Do you think that I did not think so too? You did nothing to them, you did them no harm. I do not believe that you seriously wished them ill.”

I clung closer, thankful. He smoothed a hand over my hair. “I will tell you something else, Phil. Nightingale, the Canadian, was a very quiet man. I liked him. He had been working very hard, I think, for very little return, and he managed it without becoming bitter. The Italian I did not like at all. I thought him arrogant and loud and not particularly good at what he did. And I cannot like him any better simply because he is dead. I feel guilty about that, too, my hart. He had a right to something better than to die in such a way, but that does not make him likeable, and I feel bad that I could not like him. Whatever guilt you think you carry for them, I will give you a chance to expiate it. They were both married men with families, and we do not know what way their families will be left, so there was talk about testimonial matches, about perhaps a representatives’ team to play half a dozen sides to raise money. So you will play for me?”

“Of course.”

“There will be no glory in it. Five or six matches, and the potential to damage your career with the possibility of injury as there always is, and all your other commitments to fit in around them. And no good to you in it, playing with strangers.”

“Experience is always good. And. . . yes. It will make me feel better. I’ll play.”

We lay in the dark for another while, and I thought he had gone to sleep again, until he said, “So what else is there? I can feel you tense still.”

He always bloody knows. So I sighed, and I told him about Tim.

“And you think what? That he will resent it?”

“Well, I must have hurt him. I was viciously spiteful.”

“Hansie said nothing?”

“Not a peep. And of course, Tim was right, and I was wrong.”

“Then tomorrow, koekie, you had best go and tell him so.”

“I suppose so. I’ll have to apologise. And. . . um. . .”

I could tell he was smiling. “Yes, koekie, and um. If he wishes to extract payment, you will pay, will you not?”

“Don’t you mind?”

“To make things right between you? No, I do not mind. I have said that I am a jealous man, but between you and me and Tim and Hansie there is such a bond that it will do us no harm.”

“Then I’ll pay.”

“I will call Hansie and ask him to come and see me tomorrow evening, and you can go to Tim. I wish to talk to Hansie about my will.”

I was surprised. “Your will?”

“I had it mostly done before I went away. I have been worrying all the time I was away, because matters were not completed before I left. The solicitor has arranged it so that you get everything, through a – what did she call it? A trust of some sort. A blind trust, I think. So that it is not known that you are the beneficiary. But I need a trustee to act with the solicitor and I thought to ask Hansie. And koekie, I have come face-to-face with my own mortality, and my perspectives have changed. I think perhaps I may be less careful than I was before. I do not wish to put off small pleasures any more, lest I miss the chance to have them, and I want to give you something.”

I rolled on top of him. “Give me what?” I asked hopefully.

“That as well. In a minute. And possibly several times. No, I thought on the plane that I would like to give you something that would give you pleasure. So soon, perhaps at the weekend, if you would like it, we will go and buy a piano.”

I passed Hansie at the corner of the High Street – we flipped our headlights at each other. He was going to Piet, and I was going to Tim. And I felt very peculiar. Unpleasantly apprehensive, for one thing, and decidedly guilty. And a great deal more sympathetic to the way Tim had looked when he came to confess to having outed me, for another. I had given him the mother of all wallopings for it, and I reckoned I was about to get it back. Probably with interest, and a late payment penalty.

I was strongly inclined to sit in the car outside the house, but I knew damn well that if I didn’t go straight to the door, I’d bottle it. I’d nearly bottled it the night I had to go and see Hansie. So I tried not to think about it, trotted up the path and rang the bell. And then I suddenly thought that I hadn’t the first idea of what to say: not a bloody clue. I didn’t even know if Tim knew I was coming.

I think he must have done, because he didn’t look surprised to see me. He just stepped back, and allowed me in, and motioned me towards the living room, and followed me inside.

I thought I had best get started before I had time to lose any more of my nerve.

“I’ve come to apologise. I should never have said – what I said the other day. I’m sorry. It was stupid and unkind and untrue. And ungrateful, too, after what you had done for me.”

He looked at me, unmoving. I didn’t know what else to say, and I began to blush, and shift from foot to foot.

“Phil? I’m sorry too. I still think I was right, but I could have put it to you better.”

That shocked me enough to make me look up. He looked worried.

“You were right. We both know that. I knew it at the time. I just didn’t like it.” I shifted about again. “Um, Tim? If you want to – punish me for it. . .”

“Did Piet say you had to ask me?”

“Not exactly. He said I had to apologise, but I knew that. And I thought you would want to punish me, and Piet says you can.”

“I can? Or I should?”

I didn’t understand the difference.

“He said if you wanted to, he was O.K. with it.”

“But he didn’t say I ought to.”

“He didn’t say anything about it except that if you wanted to, you could.”

“And if I don’t want to?”

I frowned.

“Phil, it isn’t always the answer. It isn’t always right. You were upset, and I handled things badly. It’s true that I was hurt by what you said, but I understood why you said it. You reacted badly, but I hadn’t started very well. I can’t – I don’t want to punish you for it. It wouldn’t make either of us feel better. It wouldn’t serve to make either of us change our behaviour, would it? Because we simply aren’t likely to be in that sort of situation again. It wouldn’t help me get over being hurt, because I wasn’t hurt for very long. I knew why you said what you did, and I discounted it. I didn’t think you meant it. So I don’t need to punish you for it.”

“And what about me?”

“What about you?”

“I feel bad. I feel guilty.”

“Well, you’ve apologised to me, and obviously you’ve confessed to Piet – did he do anything about it?”

“No. Said it was your concern.”

“Then you’ve done all that’s required of you. I’m sorry if you feel bad, but if I punish you, all that will happen is that I’ll feel bad. Like I’m taking advantage. This time, it isn’t the right thing to do. Not for me. If you feel bad, tell Piet so and let him deal with it.”

I thought about that, and then I looked at him. He was bothered, obviously, so I held out a hand, tentatively. “It’s your call. If you don’t want to, you don’t.”

“I don’t. And I don’t want to shake hands with you, either, you nit. I want a hug, and for you to tell me that Piet’s all right.”

“Come back with me and see him. Hansie's there. He’ll want to see you, too. I told him how good you guys were to me.”

“What’s family for? But yes, I’d like to see him. I won’t really believe he’s O.K. until I see him.”

“Come on, then, get your coat.”

 “And Phil? The next time you say I’m a lousy fuck, I really will spank you. Hard.”

“Yes, sir. . .


Idris the Dragon

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