Pooling Resources

It is not like Phil to be so nervous in his kitchen, in his own domain, but apart from the fact that there was no music, I could hear him muttering to himself as I came in through the connecting door, and the look he cast over his shoulder at me was positively hunted.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, you needn’t eat it, I know you must be sick of it, I’ll make you something else. I was just wondering if the lovage was too strong, if it would be better with just parsley, and now I can’t decide.”

I went to wrap my arms around his waist and look over his shoulder into his casserole. “Koekie, I think you worry unnecessarily. I like the lovage, and if I do, it is very unlikely that a professional chef, whose tastes will be much more sophisticated than mine, will not. Remember, before we came to this house, I did not even know what lovage was; now I expect to find it in my salads.”

“Yes, but I don’t know how common it is. I’ve never seen it for sale on the market so people may not know what it is, or where to get it.” He sounded pettish and awkward, unlike himself. He had sounded so for some time, I thought: really, since the end of the season. He was still out of sorts and uncomfortable in his own skin, and although we had managed several weekends away together, we had not managed to co-ordinate our diaries to the extent of taking the lengthy holiday which he perhaps needed.

“So, hart, where did the plant in your herb bed come from?”

“From the garden centre. I like it so I planted three or four, and. . .”

“Then you explain it that way to the viewer. That it can be had as a plant from growers, that you keep it in the garden, that those who do not like it or cannot get it can use parsley instead. Come, Phil, you are seeing difficulties where there are none. You know what you are doing, you do it well. Why are you so nervous about it?”

He began to relax against me. “The cameras, I suppose. I’m scared I’m going to make a fool of myself.”

“Hardly the cameras,” I objected. “How many interviews have you done for television? How many times have you been the guest on that sports quiz?  The camera loves you, we know that, and so does the public.”

“The public has never seen me cook,” he argued, darkly. “I just think I’m going to make a complete arse of myself, in front of a large live audience and a larger screen one. I’m going to forget what I’m talking about and come over all handless.”

“I do not think so,” I said firmly. “After all, you will not be alone. The presenter, Hayley whatever-her-name-is, she is skilled at keeping things moving, she will not let you come to grief, and we saw in the episode with the actor that the chef will not allow the meal to spoil from inattention. They know that the celebrities are just that, they are not professional cooks. In any event, it is not a live transmission so if it all goes wrong, I have no doubt that they will stop you and allow everything to be fixed. Now, put your dish in the oven and stop worrying about it; you have paid no attention at all to me today and I think I do not like that.”

He let his head tip to one side, giving me access to the sensitive places of his neck. “What do you want to eat later, then?”

“We are eating this,” I said resolutely, disengaging from him and pushing him gently out of the way to lift the dish and open the oven.

“You don’t have to, honestly. . . You must be bored with it. I’ll make you something else.”

“You will not. That will do well enough. I want you upstairs now, Phil. Now.” I raised my hand as he turned, and he slipped past me, twisting his hips away.

“I’m going, I’m going. . . God, do you think of nothing but sex?”

“I have had a boring afternoon, and frankly I have been thinking of sex since about three o’clock, holding it out to myself as a reward for finishing my paperwork.”

“And you couldn’t wait until after dinner?” he complained, not very seriously, from the landing.

“I could, but I do not want to. I think perhaps I want you as an appetiser, and then again for dessert.  Have we any spray cream?”

“You’ll get no spray cream in this house,” he scolded me; he has broken me of many of  my eating habits. “I can do you home made yogurt with ginger honey?”

“Well, that might do. Might, I say, although I may have to spank you for pretentiousness.”

“Please don’t,” he said, suddenly serious. “I’m not in the mood?”

I drew back, of course. I take no unwilling partner to my bed. He read my withdrawal.

“No, I don’t mean. . . I only meant, I don’t feel like a spanking? Is that all right?”

I reached for him. “Of course, koekie. There is no pleasure for me in it unless there is also pleasure for you. So what are you in the mood for?”

He was oddly clingy but I put it down to nervousness, and gave some thought after dinner as to how I could distract him.

Hart, do you think it would be too short notice to ask Hansie and Tim to come north with us? They would like to see you cook, and you would know you had some support in the audience, and afterwards, Tim would enjoy the food exhibition, do you not think?”

“Mmm, he probably would, but I was actually wondering about going home, Piet, so it might get a bit complicated. My mum’s coming to see the filming, and dad too if he can get away, although he’s not sure if he’ll be back from London until the evening. I thought we could go and stay for a few days? I mean, I haven’t seen them since Christmas.”

I considered. “I cannot stay past Tuesday morning: I am committed to various things next week. But it is true, we could perhaps go on Friday – it would mean missing our evening with Tim and Hansie but we can rearrange that for another time – and if you did not wish to come home with me, we could take both cars and you could stay longer. Your parents would like to have you, I am sure.”

“I wish that you and Dad. . .” he said, rather wistfully; I cut in.

“Your father is not comfortable with me, Phil. We know this. He is becoming reconciled to your sexuality, but he thinks I am too old for you. After all, I am nearer his contemporary than yours. It is easier when he comes to visit us here, however illogical that may be: perhaps he can convince himself that what we do in our house is our business, but he does not like to think that we share a bed in his house. Nonetheless, we saw last time we visited that we could get on for three or four days. Yes, let us do that, and I will make my excuses and come home to my work, and you will spend some time with your parents.”

And so it was arranged, but I continued to think about the fact that Phil was unsettled. He needed, I thought, something to distract him a little, something simply to amuse him, a treat. And there was one large treat which we had not yet managed to achieve.

The pool.

The pool, which should have been so straightforward, had turned into a running joke. We had done nothing about it for the first  year: it was not high on our list of priorities, to tell the truth. Then we both had end-of-year bonuses, and we looked again at our situation, and agreed to go ahead with it. Tony who looks after the business of the estate for us, found us three construction business willing to take on the creation of a small private indoor pool and various associated rooms and fittings, and Phil chose one.

Phil chose it. I was not best pleased about that and I told him so. He made the decision while I was absent, and signed the contract with Laurell & Blackwater. He assured me that he had read through all the details; nonetheless, I thought it ill-mannered of him to commit to a contract that large without my input.

“Oh, come on, Piet, they were cheaper than either Splashback or Dolce Vita by 25%, it was an obvious choice!”

“I see they were, and I should like to know why. You are sure that they intend to cover all the points? The wiring as well as the plumbing? The filtration? The tiling and flooring?”

“Everything which was on our list. And they say they’ll be done in two months.”

Well, I do not think even Phil believed that. Everybody knows that when a builder says ‘two months’, he means three. But their three became four and then five. . . always with an excuse. The council could not decide if we needed planning permission or not, and nothing could go ahead until that was clarified; then some inspector would not permit them to use the holes and trenches which had already been dug without seeing the paperwork which had been lodged by the previous owner, and that could not be found. So far, one could not blame Laurell & Blackwater, but once all those matters were resolved, there was a lengthy break before they could send a team out. I had insisted (and Phil had not gainsaid me, fortunately for his bottom – I think he had expected to be spanked when he realised how vexed I was that he had gone ahead without consulting me, but I spoke my mind and let the matter drop: having gone through his paperwork, I could find nothing tangible to support my belief that the price was too low) on there being one contract only: this was ‘supply and fit’. It was for the people from Laurell & Blackwater to buy the materials, arrange delivery, and pay for them. We had agreed stage payments, of course; nonetheless, when the deliveries of piping and tiles seemed always to be a week or so later than expected, I at least began to wonder if suppliers were refusing to extend credit.

I also began to wonder when the team, originally five men, became four men, and then three. When it dropped to two, and one of those speaking very little English, I was seriously concerned. Hence, I was not particularly surprised when I came home one day, several months ago now, and found Phil sitting with a long face.

Koekie? Is something the matter?”

“You could say that. You’re going to kill me. You might as well fetch the cane at once.”

“What have you done?”

He pushed a letter across the table to me. It was in legal terminology and I confess I did not follow all the detail, but the general basis was clear enough: the company had gone out of business, our contract would not be completed, and if we thought we had overpaid for work done, we could probably whistle for our money. I swore, briefly, and Phil winced.

“Is there anything we can do?”

“Don’t think so. I’ve spoken to Tony; he’d going to ring me back later. The liquidator, administrator, whatever, is sending somebody round to assess the state of completion of all the company’s contracts, and whether we’ve got a claim for money back. Tony’s trying to track down what actually happened, too; he’s got financial contacts. I’m sorry, Piet. That was my fault. If I hadn’t been so keen to get a bargain. . .”

“You contracted for a lot of money with less care and thought than you would have given to having a suit made,” I agreed. He did not contradict me, merely fixed his gaze on his hands against the table top. “Do not do so again, please.”

He stared at me, blankly. “Is that it? Is that all? Just ‘don’t do it again’? No. . .” and he swung a hand threateningly through the air.

“Well, koekie, we both know that the point of punishment is to stop you repeating foolish or destructive behaviour. You seem to be capable of repeating misdeeds which a sensible man would not commit once; nevertheless, I cannot imagine that even you would allow yourself to be fooled by an inefficient construction company a second time.” I pretended to consider. “Of course if your conscience bothers you, it would be no trouble to stripe that handsome bottom. . .”

“No! No thank you, I reckon I can live with the guilt. I really am sorry, though. . . that’s the phone, it’ll be Tony.”

It was, and Phil came back looking annoyed. “They bloody overstretched themselves, apparently. Subcontracted a load of work and then they got done for employing foreign fitters without the proper work permits, and two teams got deported and that’s when it really went pear-shaped. They’ve been borrowing people from one contract to finish another, and they missed the deadlines on a couple of contracts with time penalties, and next thing the receivers are in, and we’re stuffed.”

“Well. . .” I said thoughtfully, “I think it may not be quite so bad, koekie. I was going to write the cheque for the next stage payment tomorrow, and there are no pallets in the yard, so I think that all the tiles are probably in place. So there is no loose stock which might be recovered as not belonging to us; there is only the work in progress which patently does. We may have overpaid for the work done so far, but not, I suspect, by more than we would have paid had we gone to somebody else. It may cost us a bit more to have another company come in and finish the job, but not to the extent of it being more than we would have been prepared to pay in the first place. We shall not lose heart completely, not yet.”

Phil, I think, was not convinced; he was anxious for a week until the assessor came, and he remained anxious until the report came in, leaving it unopened until I was there to read it with him. Even then, he hovered over me as I opened the letter.

“Well, we are listed as having overpaid on account, and it is plain that we will not see our money back, but it is not as large a sum as we feared. It could be worse. But koekie, I must forbid you to commit another time to a contract based on nothing more than the cuteness of the surveyor’s arse.”

There was a moment before he took in what I had said, and then he squawked with indignation and hurled a cushion at me. I side-stepped it easily and caught the second one as it flew through the air, dropping it on the sofa and taking hold of Phil before he could hit me with a third. He twisted and wriggled as I pulled him to me and trapped his legs between mine, dragging him down among the cushions.

“You said you weren’t going to spank me for making a mistake about the contract!” he complained as I pushed his shoulders towards the floor.

“I am not. On the other hand, I am going to spank you for throwing soft furnishings, which is very bad.”

“Oh, right; you should have said,” he agreed, rolling a little to ease the passage of my hand beneath his hip to his waistband – not so much that his complicity could be taken for granted, of course. I hooked my arm under him and hitched him a little higher, working the abused cushion between us to set his firm bottom at a satisfactory angle.

Well, satisfactory to me, at any rate. And his complaints were not altogether convincing – I think he was of the opinion that he deserved something of what I intended only as play, although I did fall in with his demands that I should make it up to him afterwards.

His swimming pool, though, remained incomplete for some months, and even when we had found another contractor to complete the work, it was a construction company only and refused to take on the contract for maintenance. We made desultory enquiries, but no-one seemed willing to devote the resources to keeping a private pool in working order, and both Phil and I were of the opinion that we had not the time to do it ourselves, so the pool remained dusty and dry. The poor summer weather – even for England, it was a remarkably cold and wet summer – had done nothing to prompt us to take more trouble about finding support; I could do something about that, surely?

Meanwhile, we went to Lancashire, to the ‘Keep It Local’ food fair and the filming of ‘At Close Range’, with local hero and England rugby international Phil Cartwright.

“So is cooking important to you, Phil?”

“Food is important to me, Hayley, and in some ways I’m a picky eater. I’m not faddy but I’ve got to be careful what I eat and I like to know what’s in it and where it came from. Otherwise I can end up eating all sorts of rubbish, either stuff my dietician doesn’t want me to eat, or worse still, stuff she does. If I give her grief about anything she threatens me with egg-white-only omelettes.”

“Is an egg-white-omelette worth eating?”

“It’s vile. Even the way it looks is vile, and it’s made unsalted so it tastes worse. I won’t say what I think it looks like; this is a respectable show and my mother’s watching. But I’m not eating it.”

“Cooking, though, is that something which goes down well in the rugby world? I mean, we all know that despite the preponderance of male chefs, more women cook than men. It’s not viewed as terrifically macho, so does it go with rugby?”

He leaned across the worktop and eyed her up and down lecherously. It got a laugh.

“I’ve never understood why not. It’s something I worked out very early: my mother teaches. . . well, they call it Food Technology now, there’s less cookery in it than there used to be, but she taught me to cook when I was quite small, and almost at once I discovered that the boys might not be impressed, but the girls certainly were. By the time I went to college, I knew that the boy who could cook need never go home from the pub alone. . . am I making a mistake sharing that information?”

Another laugh.

“So what are you going to cook for us today, Phil?”

“Well, I’m accustomed to cooking for big healthy rugby playing boys with big healthy rugby playing appetites, Hayley,” (this with a leer and a wink, and on my part a shock of jealousy – how dare he flirt so outrageously? – before I came sharply to my senses) “so I thought a nice traditional Lancashire hotpot. Can’t beat it. Now the best hotpot is made with mutton, not lamb, but it’s quite hard to get mutton nowadays unless you live close to a good halal butcher, although some of the organic farmers are bringing it back. For another thing, if you use mutton, the hotpot really needs to be made the day before you’re going to eat it and then reheated, and Sharon backstage, who sorted out all my ingredients for me today, reckons that may make good hotpot but it’s going to make lousy television. So for the sake of speed, these are chump chops, but usually I’d make it with best end of neck. Now in my opinion it’s not a proper hotpot unless you use lamb’s kidneys in it, but I know a lot of people don’t care for offal, so I’ve got a means of using puréed cooked kidney to thicken the gravy which means there are no big bits your kids can pick out and sneer at. Proper hotpot is served with pickled red cabbage, which is something of an acquired taste, so in my kitchen, you’ll get braised sweet and sour red cabbage with onion and apple and lots and lots of spices. Then after that, the guys on the team would expect me to provide Eccles cakes, but I thought that might be a bit much for anyone with a more normal appetite, so we’ll make Eccles cake filling, and put it inside filo pastry twists and just pretend not to notice, O.K.?”

They loved him. He flirted with the presenter, he flirted with the camera, he was all-boys-together with the professional chef and he behaved like a favourite nephew with the volunteers from the audience who came to taste his dishes (and who admitted to being unacquainted with lovage but willing to try it). My beautiful boy did not put a foot wrong all day: his flirtation had an element of self-mockery in it which stopped it cloying, and his enthusiasm about cooking and about good quality ingredients came over undiluted.

I was amused to find myself  jealous: I actually growled once and the middle aged woman beside me gazed in some alarm until I turned it into a strangled cough and she rather nervously offered me a peppermint to stop me choking. That, I kept catching myself thinking, was my Phil and that man-eating presenter (who is, I believe, happily married to the show’s producer) could just stop turning pink every time he smiled at her: she could not have him. I think perhaps I would be well advised to stay away from Phil’s interactions with his adoring public.

He was exhausted afterwards, though: weary almost past the point of being pleased to see his parents, who had been close to the front in the VIP seats as his guests while I stayed among the casual visitors further back. They, naturally, were pleased to see him; less pleased to see me, although as I had said to Phil earlier, we were all of an age to observe the courtesies, whatever our personal opinions. To be fair, too, when we reached their house, Gillian Cartwright showed us both into the spare room without any apparent embarrassment, and downstairs, Edwin Cartwright engaged me in a rather laboured but well intentioned conversation about South Africa.

It was not an easy weekend, not for any of us, and by Monday I was looking forward to going home. The Cartwrights would be easier without me, I thought. In particular, Ed Cartwright struggled to speak to me, and his face darkened when I spoke with any affection to Phil. He was perfectly courteous, understand me, but it was the chilly courtesy one extends to a disliked visitor, the courtesy which will be shrugged off with relief when he goes away. It would be better when I left, I thought; in my absence he and Phil could be comfortable with each other. Meanwhile I did what I could recall Phil doing in the presence of my parents: I refrained from touching him, I held back the pet names.

And then. . . there was the kind of disaster which afterwards one sees as having been inevitable. Phil and I had taken Gillian’s dog, a particularly lively and enthusiastic mongrel, for a lengthy walk; it was purely by chance as we came up the side of the house, that neither of us was speaking, and that the dog had fallen behind to nose under the hedge. So it was that Ed Cartwright did not realise he could be overheard when, from a seat on the patio, he said crossly to his wife, who was weeding a flowerbed, “Well, I don’t care how un-p.c. it is, I don’t bloody like it. It makes my skin crawl – our Phil who could take his pick of the girls ever since he was a little lad, and that great ugly walking corpse comes along looking for a pretty bum boy and lays it on until Phil thinks that’s what he wants. . .”

“I don’t think it’s what I want,” snarled Phil through his teeth; his father leaped like a hooked fish and turned a look of horror on him.  “It’s what I want. Full stop.”

For a moment, I think that Ed Cartwright swung between the crippling embarrassment of knowing he had been overheard, and surprise at having been challenged; both emotions were speedily overcome by fury as Phil went on:

“What in the name of fuck makes you think it’s any of your goddamned business anyway? I’m not a little boy any more: I’m a long way over the age of consent and if I wanted to be somebody’s bum boy that’s my decision, not yours. And it’s not even true, not the way you mean it, not with him keeping me like a pet. I’m not his pet, I’m his lover, I’m his partner, I’m his equal. What we do in bed is absolutely none of your concern. He looks after me, and he supports me, and he loves me, and if the sex isn’t what you would like, that’s just tough.  You’ve always thought you knew better than me what I wanted, what was right for me, you’ve always laid down the law about what I should be doing and I’ve just about had it. . .”

“I’ve always wanted what was best for you, yes,” Cartwright roared back. “That’s what being a father’s all about, remember? And how dare you. . .” and they were off into the house, growling and snapping like dogs, one hurtful phrase after another and me left at the door with, for once, absolutely no idea of what to say or do.

“Ignore them,” said a voice behind me, and I swung back to stare at Gillian Cartwright. She was flushed and mortally embarrassed, but she met my eye squarely. “I’m sorry you heard that, Pieter.”

I shrugged helplessly. “It was. . . not altogether a surprise. I know that you would prefer that Phil were heterosexual or at least that his homosexuality had led him to another partner. It would be best, I think, if I left today rather than tomorrow. Phil and his father may achieve some understanding if I am not here to add fuel to the fire.”

“I wish you wouldn’t. All right, I’ll admit I wish Phil weren’t gay – only because I’m his mother and I want the world to be easy for my son, and specially in the career he’s chosen, his sexuality is a difficulty for him. But his choice of partner is, as he is informing Ed, his own look-out. As a matter of fact, I happen to think you’re good for him. He’s steadied a lot since he met you.”

“Your husband does not agree with you, and I would not be the cause of such a breach between them. If I were to leave. . .”

“If you leave before tomorrow, Phil will resent it. Pieter, maybe you don’t understand: this isn’t a new thing, for Phil and Ed to row. It’s just a new topic. They’ve fought since Phil was old enough to turn stubborn.” She sat down on the garden bench and gestured for me to join her. “The year Phil left school they fought just about every day: he’d been offered places with more than one of the big teams and we could see that he had potential, but we didn’t want him to go there straight from school. His school coach – do you know about him?”

“A man called Spearman? Phil has spoken of him.”

“Well, he advised us against letting Phil go professional straight away. I don’t know if he was right, but you see, Pieter, there’s no history of sport on either side of the family and we didn’t know where to go for advice. Mr Spearman said that Phil wouldn’t stop growing until he was turned 20, and that if he went pro at 18, there was a good chance he’s be out at 24 with some long term injury.”

I nodded. “He is of that physical type, yes. I myself had achieved my full growth by 18, but I have at least two boys in my secondary teams whom I will not take to full time play for another few years. They have the talent, but one can do a great deal of unwitting damage by using them too young.”

“Well, there was that, you see, and like I said, no sportsmen in the family so we were flying blind. And we both thought that if it went wrong, or if Phil wasn’t as good as people were saying, if it was a flash in the pan or even that he played and didn’t like it, he would have nothing to fall back on. His A levels weren’t anything special, he’s not academic, but they were enough to get him to university and to allow him to have a qualification just in case. But he wanted to play rugby. He wanted to go to one of the teams, and when Ed said that no, he should go to college, they quarrelled.” She shuddered theatrically. “They quarrelled every day for months. There were times when I came close to picking up my handbag and going home to my mother, just leaving them to it until they had stopped. But what you need to understand is that they quarrelled and they got over it. Phil loves his dad, and when he’s calmer he knows that Ed just wants what’s best for him. The trouble is, of course, when they disagree on what is best. And Ed can manage new ideas, but only when you’ve hit him on the head with them. Ed is unbelievably proud of Phil and what he’s achieved. Leave them be and they’ll sort themselves out.” She looked sideways at me. “That is, if you can stand it. He was very rude about you, I’d understand if you took offence.”

“He is not saying anything I have not heard before,” I said harshly. It was true but I could wish it was not. Gillian Cartwright looked at me for a moment and then put her hand on mine.

“That doesn’t make it right. And I’m afraid you won’t get an apology from him; Phil inherits his stubbornness from his father.” 

And his empathy, I think, from his mother. Whatever I might have said next, my train of thought was interrupted by Phil crashing back out through the door, white in the face with fury. He checked at the sight of me, and I schooled my face to impassivity: a fight between father and son is not one in which I think my participation would be helpful. He didn’t speak, he just looked at me, and a slow flush crept over him; I have seen him colour so when I have enquired about some action of his and he has actually thought about whether or not he should have done it. Then he turned back and as he went in, I heard him say angrily, “Look, I’m not apologising for what I said, only for the way I said it. I’m right and you bloody know I am, but I suppose I shouldn’t have spoken to you like that. . .”

“A less than graceful apology,” I said dryly, hurting for him, and Gillian laughed a little.

“But a couple of years ago, he wouldn’t have offered even that much. Leave them be, Pieter.” She went on carefully. “See, I don’t know if it’s a generational thing or a class thing or maybe geographical or what, but I don’t think we know any other gay people. Well, that’s silly, I suppose we must, but none who. . . who. . .”

“None who are out. Who admit to it in public.”

She nodded. “So Ed sees it as the first characteristic, and it’s one he doesn’t know how to deal with. There’s a female partner and several women managers in his firm and another one who’ll be made up to partner in a year or so, and she’s black. Sexism and racism he won’t have in his business, because he meets women, he meets coloured people, he can see what they are. They’re people. I don’t know why he has such trouble with gay people except that he can’t identify them.” She sighed. “I’m afraid he does see it as a. . . a taint in Phil. The music and cookery don’t help either. Real men don’t cook. And yet, at the same time, he was just exploding with pride the other day when that chef praised Phil’s hotpot. He’s desperately proud of Phil’s achievements, all of them, he just doesn’t understand them. I think we’ve just got to leave them to achieve. . .”

“Armed neutrality?”

She snorted. “I’d like better but that might be the best we can do. Do you know, I think I’m going to make a pot of tea and bring it out here. And there’s some cake. They’ll both come for cake, and they might calm down a bit.”

“Is it that lemon cake?” I asked hopefully, lightening the situation. “For the lemon cake I will leave Phil and invite you to run away with me.”

“Yes? What about Phil’s chocolate cake?”

“Ah, well, for that I might have to go home again. Unless it was originally your recipe? In which case we can be married at once. . . Shall I fill the kettle?”

We all retired early to bed that evening; it had been a hard day all round. I lay sleepless for an hour at least before I heard Phil whisper.

“Piet? Are you asleep?”

“No, koekie.”

“Are you. . . are you going to spank me when I come home? For losing my temper?”

Ach, he sounded so. . . not fearful, not exactly. Resigned, perhaps?

“No, hart, I am not. That was between you and your father.”

“I’m coming home with you tomorrow. I’m not staying.”

I sat up. “Phil, you said you would stay until the weekend. You had plans to see your school friends, had you not?”

“I don’t want to without you.”

“But you cannot do it with me in tow, Phil, you know you cannot. Better for us to hold by our arrangements and for you to come home later.”

I heard him sigh miserably. “It’s just. . .”

“I know what it is just, Phil. But your mother would have you stay. And your father too.”

“He wouldn’t have you stay.” That was bitter.

“That is his right. Phil, I would not have you estranged from your family the way Hansie is, and indeed, for all that your father does not wish me here, he has not tried to persuade you not to bring me, he has not suggested that I have no right to be here. He is entitled to his own opinion in his own house.”

“He was bloody rude to you!”

“That was unwitting. He was rude about me, not to me. Come, Phil, if you do not like his way of thinking, then teach him a better one. Do it by showing that you are quite grown, that you are a complete man. Show him that you have your temper under control and that you do not bear petty grudges. Stay. It is only a few days.”

“Must I?”

“Of course not! I do not command. You do as you will, hart. But that is my opinion.”

He sighed again. “I’ll think about it.” I heard him turn in bed, restlessly.

Koekie? Come here.”

He turned again, and I could just see him frown; then he slipped out of bed and padded across the floor. I pushed back the covers on my own bed, and held out a hand for him.

“There’s not room,” he objected weakly; it was true that two of us in a single bed was a close fit, but the bedframe was sturdy and did not creak. He squirmed a little. “I hate twin beds.”

“There is room enough for what we want,” I assured him, and pulled him close, searching for his mouth. I like to kiss, and when I give my whole attention to it, I can make Phil melt against me. He began to relax, and I slipped lower to kiss his chest and stomach, while pulling away the pyjama trousers we both find it politic to wear when we sleep away from home. When I would have moved my mouth down again, though, he tugged at my shoulders.

“No? Piet? Please?”

“What then, poppie?”

“Talk to me?”

Now that is something I have never done with a man other than Phil. It is only Phil who can be seduced by love words in a language he does not understand. But I obliged him, worshipping him in a whisper of Afrikaans, and kissing him gently throughout. The gentleness – yes, that I see elsewhere. Hansie’s life contained so little tenderness that a gentle touch is balm to him, let the toucher’s sex or orientation be as it may. A hug from Fran or Nick. . . I have thought more than once that had Matthias van den Broek offered his son one kind word, one gentle touch, Hansie would have followed him like a puppy. Tim, Tim who so loves to play at violence, Tim can be unmanned completely by tenderness. But my Phil will kindle at my touch if I coax him with pretty words.

As he did tonight, so that when I slid a hand down his body, I felt the hardness of his desire for me, and had to muffle his sounds of pleasure with my own mouth. I went slowly, for he was tense and I wished him to sleep; I took my time, I say, until he thrust into my hand and I swallowed his gasp and sigh, feeling him relax against me. Where there has been great tension, there is a correspondingly great release, and his weight fell towards me, his head against me, his fingers loosening their bruising grip on my arm. I held him so for five minutes, still whispering endearments, and then I made him comfortable, and tucked him in my bed, easing across to his to take his place. He was asleep.

And I, on the other hand, was hard and hot and not asleep, nor likely to be.

It was a long drive home, and a slow one, and I was pleased to. . . no. No, I was not. When Phil is away, and known to be away, I live in The Dairy, and no lights or movements show in the main house except when Mrs Woollard is there to clean. It is comfortable enough, but it is not our house and my bed is not our bed. Still, I had asked him to make a sacrifice in staying with his parents and it was only fair that I should make a sacrifice of my own.

And the next day, I opened my post, and stared in some shock at one of the letters. Then I went to look for Miss Jasmine. She was doing something on the river bank with willow shoots, and she straightened as I came towards her.

“Miss Jasmine, I have received today a letter from Mr Thomas.”

You have? Sorry, I. . . Why did you get one?”

I stared at her for a moment before I understood. “Because the Haydon Estate is a limited company, and I am a company director, together with Phil Cartwright. I am also a shareholder. I know that most of your dealings have been through Tony Russell instructing Mr Thomas, and then the detail has been arranged between you and Phil, but he is not here this week so the letter came to me.”

“Right. Well then?”

“Mr Thomas tells me he is retiring and winding up his company?”

“Yes. He tried to find a buyer for it, but he couldn’t, so he’s just winding it up. All contracts over by the end of September.”

“And what of his staff?”

She shrugged. “We’re all being paid off. Quite generously, actually, and he says there’s nothing to stop us contracting with the clients individually, or trying to take them with us if we get other jobs.” She looked at me hopefully.

“And you are going to do what? Are you looking for another job?”

She wrinkled her nose. “I’m going self employed if I can get enough together, but I might need to take a part time job as well.” I saw her nerve herself. “What about the contract here?”

“Well, now, Miss Jasmine, let us talk about that.”

Phil came home mid afternoon on the Friday following; I saw his car turn into the courtyard and went out (through my own front door) to greet him.

“Well, koekie? I am glad you are home.”

He fell out of the car and stretched. “So am I. That was a foul drive. The M6 was the way the M6 always is, and then there’d been a huge accident on the A14, 20 mile tailback, and nowhere to get off because half the back roads are still closed off after the floods. Take that bag, will you? Mum’s sent another selection of jam and stuff. And more bloody pickled walnuts, there’s no getting through to her that I can’t stand the things.”

“And where are your purchases?”

“Aren’t any.”

I all but fell down with amazement. “Phil, you have been away from home for a week, away from me for 4 days, and you have bought nothing? No clothes? No unusual ingredients? Are you feeling quite well?”

“I’m fine,” he said wearily. “I just thought. . . Well, anyway, I didn’t shop.”

For once I risked following him through the front door. “Have you made your peace with your father?” I closed the door and held out my arms; he came at once to me.

“Not exactly, but we didn’t fight any more. I’m dead tired, Piet. I don’t sleep well without you and that drive was horrible. I need a shower and a change of clothes. My back hurts.”

“Come then, hart, and you may have those, and I will rub your back if you would like? And do you wish to eat?”

He made a face. “Promise it’s not hotpot?”

“We can make salad. I have bread, and there is cold meat in the fridge.”

“And pickled bloody walnuts. . .”

“But you seriously tell me you did not shop? What am I to spank you for if not extravagance?”

He flopped on the bed. “Not for extravagance, not for quarrelling with dad. Honestly, Piet, I haven’t done anything.”

He was too weary to be teased, I could see, so I coaxed him into the bathroom, and then downstairs for a glass of wine and food. By the time he had begun to relax, it was nearly dark.

“Come, koekie, I have something to show you.”

I took him through the hay barn ( I saw him smile when the scent of hay drifted to his nose, as I always smile)  and through the door to –

“Wow! You’ve filled the pool! How – when – have you found somebody to manage it, then?” He knelt to trail his hand in the water, and shivered. “God, it’s cold! I didn’t expect it to be so cold!”

“That is because it was only filled completely today. It will not be up to temperature for another two or three days. But I thought you deserved to have it, koekie, before what you laughingly call a summer here is quite over.”

He threw himself into my arms to kiss me hard. “Oh, Piet. . . How are we managing it? Who’s going to look after it?”

“Miss Jasmine. Mr Thomas is closing his company, so I have discussed with her the transfer of the work to her own business. It is not finalised, nothing is signed, I thought you had better be involved, and Tony Russell too, but there is enough to occupy her here for two days in the week if we make her responsible for all the outdoor work. She can be our. . . what is the word in English, if she takes care of the garden and the pool, and cleans the windows, and looks after the fences and the hedges and gates and so on?”

“I’ve no idea, I don’t think we have a word for it. And Jazzer’s happy with that?”

“Well, she is agreeable to learning how to manage the pool if in exchange we rent her cheaply one of the small units, and she will see if Mr Thomas will sell to her some of the equipment from his company – a rotavator, she said, and some other things, a ride-on mower, a generator, the small truck. Then she will be self-employed and can manage one or two of her other clients from a base here, and we will have an estate contractor on site. And I think, koekie, that you should speak to her too. She is interested in the top field, the one we have not managed to lease out. She wishes to move into the provision of fruit and vegetables, but she said that she had not the capital to start such a thing if she must also buy equipment to start her business. Nonetheless, Phil, it might be a venture you wished to consider. I make the suggestion only, but you have the name locally, you might like to think about selling farm produce.”

He ground his head against my chest. “Oh Piet. . . Oh God, I love you so much.”

I held him to me in silence for a moment or so. Then he pulled away and walked around the edge of his pool. I followed him.

“It’s fabulous. Thank you so much.”

“You need not thank me, hart. I only completed what we had already planned.”

He glanced back at me mischievously. “You just want an excuse to have me wet and naked.”

“Fersure,” I agreed equably. “I like the idea.”

“You’ll have to wait, though. That’s way too cold still, I’d get hypothermia.”

I considered. “You know, koekie, when I was in the army, they taught us that when a man is wet and cold, the best thing to do is to get him naked and into a sleeping bag with another man, to share body heat.” 

He barked with laughter. “Did they honestly? And it never occurred to them that this might seem a bit. . .”

“They never commented on the homo-erotic overtones, no.”

“Amazing. . .” he said, returning his attention to the tiles and the water and the filter. I reminisced, for once not disturbed by the recollection of my army days. That survival training week, and Sergeant Joubert teaching us those water skills which might keep us alive. He had been the one to advise taking a wet naked man into a sleeping bag. I thought of a wet naked Phil. A wet, cold, naked Phil. And in the absence of a sleeping bag, a comfortable bed with a duvet, and the sharing of body heat in all sorts of pleasurable ways.

Then I pushed him in. 


Idris the Dragon

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