Maybe we should no longer call it Boys’ Night Out? It is not always just the four of us, it is sometimes also Fran and Nick. That is good for us, hey? We cannot always talk only about rugby, or only about ourselves. This time, it was some time ago at the start of the summer, we were at Phil and Piet’s and Phil was cooking. Nothing new there, you will say, except that he looked preoccupied. He had been home all afternoon; we arrived a few minutes before Piet, who had been at meetings since lunchtime. He came to kiss Phil, who turned and looked at us.
“Now that we’re all here: Fran rang up. They’re not coming tonight, they’ve cried off. I’ve rearranged for next weekend, and said I’d let her know if it would be here or at yours; I don’t mind cooking next weekend too or we can get a takeaway. But listen up, guys, this is important. If you see Nick through the week, this would be a good time for not asking him anything about his work. In fact, I think this is a good time for not giving Nick any grief about anything, and cutting him some slack.” He very carefully didn’t look at me, but I asked anyway.
“Why, what has happened?”
Piet pulled out a chair at the kitchen table. “Come, koekie, you are upset. Here, sit down and tell us what has happened. Can you leave your cooking? Will it spoil?”
Phil shook his head. “It’s fattoush, it’s all cold. We’re eating vegetarian tonight. It’s all right, Piet, it’s not me who’s upset. I think Fran’s a little twitchy and God only knows what sort of state Nick must be in.”
Piet’s eyebrows rose. “So what is wrong?”
“You know that house fire at Malton? Been on the news? It’s Nick’s case.”
Ach, that was nasty. It had been on the local news at the start of the week: a small terraced house behind the station burned out, and a family of four dead. Nasty, but – well, we did not ask about Nick’s current cases, not ever. He occasionally told us what he could, things that were not confidential, but we would not put him in the position of either telling what he should not, or of having to refuse us. We knew that his work was sometimes unpleasant. Not always: he had complained bitterly one evening about an investigation into stolen cars which had been going on for 18 months, and which was, he said, tedious in the extreme.
“It was on the lunchtime news. It wasn’t an accident, it was arson. I heard Nick interviewed and he sounded – you know the way his voice goes all tight when he’s angry? Apparently they’ve linked it with people traffickers. From what Nick said, and the other interviews, they think the attack was aimed at illegal immigrants who had been trying to avoid paying the traffickers.” Phil rubbed his face; Piet was right, he was upset by this. Not on his own account, perhaps, but on Nick’s. “Then it gets worse; the family in the house had only been in for two days, and had nothing to do with immigration, legal or otherwise. They’d only come from Stafford. It was the wrong house.”
Now that was – was horrible. A murder of such a type is dreadful enough; a murder through inefficiency, carelessness, mistaken identity, has a chilling randomness about it. Indeed, this was decidedly not something to discuss with Nick, and I said so.
Phil agreed. “Fran said,” he swallowed, “that Nick has known this all week, but they’ve only just released the story. She said he spent all day Tuesday at the house in Malton, and when he came home, he came in through the back door and emptied his pockets onto the worktop, and then he just stripped to the skin, there in the kitchen, shoved all his clothes in the washing machine, and went to the shower. He wouldn’t let her come near him until he’d washed his hair, like he thought he was tainted. She said the autopsies were to be held today and he was going to be present, and she expected him to do the same thing tonight. She said he wouldn’t be fit to come out and I didn’t argue with her.”
Piet’s face was like a stone; Tim was screwing up his mouth with distress. Phil looked round at us. “That family, the couple, they were my age. Her mother was staying with them and she’s dead. And the baby. . . they got the baby to hospital alive and she died later. Nick’s going to break his heart over that baby. 8 months old. You know how he is with cases over children.”
I did. I had seen his rage over the children he could not protect. I am one of the children he could not protect, but he will try, he will always try.
“Fran said . . . she said that on Tuesday, when he came in, she knew he had been at a fire because she could smell it on him, in his clothes and on his skin, you know how the smell of smoke clings? And she said it smelled of worse than smoke.” We all thought about that for a moment, and made the horrible connection. He didn’t need to spell it out; we could all understand why, after such a conversation, he was making a vegetarian meal.
“Koekie, you are sure you are not making too much of this? I agree with you, it is very dreadful, but Nick has been 20 years in the police. He could not have managed so long unless he had learned a means of disengaging his personal feelings from his work.”
Phil nodded. “I’m sure he can. I just don’t want one of us saying the wrong thing later and making it worse for him.”
“No,” agreed Tim. “It’s difficult to know quite how to be supportive, isn’t it? I mean,” he looked round at us questioningly, “I imagine we would all want to be there for Nick as much as for each other but it’s hard to know what to do.”
Phil nodded again, and got up to finish chopping tomatoes. “He’s very. . . closed up. Less than he was, much less than when we met him first, but he doesn’t give much away.”
“Must drive you nuts, Phil,” observed Tim, in a deliberately lighter tone.
“Because we all know your reaction to anybody needing support is a compulsory cuddle, and he’s the one man you can’t give it to.”
“True. I’ll just have to cuddle you instead.” This as he dried his hands, and with a big grin. It has become a joke between them, that Phil will cuddle Tim whether he likes it or not, and Tim would have us believe that he submits to it only because Phil is so large and he cannot get away.
“No! Get off me, you great gorilla! Piet, buy him a teddy bear or something, I can’t be doing with him hauling me about all the time, just because I’m the smallest.” This from a position in Phil’s lap.
“But you look very sweet there, boet.”
“Fersure. The way you snuggle up to him. Hansie, do you not think it is cute?”
“Ja, I do,” I agreed. The word ‘cute’ is to Tim as a red rag to a bull, is that the English phrase? He was spluttering with indignation, mostly false. “That will do very well, that Tim will take Nick’s cuddles, the ones he will not. That is what you can do for him, Timmy.”
Phil had been laughing, but he looked thoughtful, and he allowed Tim to slide off his lap. “All joking aside, Hansie, I’m not sure you aren’t onto something. Have you noticed, when he’s here, Nick doesn’t touch anybody much. You, occasionally, but not even Fran. When we take our coffee into the other room, it’s Fran who curls up against him, not him against her. Don’t you think that’s odd?”
Tim shook his head. “I don’t think he’s a great toucher, Phil. And it’s different with a straight couple, even if she is Top. She’s smaller than him, for one thing. Not by much, she’s a tall woman, but she is. Why would he touch any of us? He doesn’t avoid us, it’s not like the people who try to get out of shaking your hand in case they catch something, I think he just isn’t very tactile. Some people aren’t.”
Phil was not convinced. “If he really isn’t tactile, how come he hugs Hansie?”
“Because Hansie wants to be hugged,” said Piet, as if it were evident.
“Ach, not just that,” I objected, shaken. “I cannot believe that he merely humours me because he thinks that I would want it. He must know surely that I would not ask him to do that – to act outside his own nature simply for my. . . for my comfort?”
But Piet was shaking his head. “I did not mean that. It is true, though, Hansie, is it not? You take a great deal of pleasure in being touched, we all know that. No, do not blush, I do not mean merely in bed. But we know that you like to cuddle with Phil or with me, that you will happily spend an evening while Tim rubs your back. You told us that when you sat with Fran, she stroked your hair and it sent you to sleep, did you not?”
I must have been purple with embarrassment, for he held out his hand to me, drew me to him, and yes, gave me a hug. “There is no shame in it, Hansie. The people who touch you so, do it because they love you; you like to know (as do we all) that you are loved. Nick is your big brother and he sees how things are with you. He is one of the most observant men I know; Phil sees and his instincts tell him what he sees but Nick sees and it is his intellect which speaks to him. He sees that he can connect with you by patting you on the back or punching you on the arm, and he cares enough that he will do it even though he might not do it to the rest of us.”
“Ja but if he dislikes it. . .” I objected again. Phil smiled at me.
“He doesn’t dislike it, Hansie. Trust me, he doesn’t. It just isn’t what he normally does with other people. He isn’t uncomfortable doing it with you although he might be with somebody else.”
I subsided. Phil and Piet between them know these things.
“Anyway,” added Piet, “it is not your problem either way. Nick is a grown man; how he interacts with his friends is his own concern. You do not force yourself upon him so if he demonstrates that he wishes to touch you it is not for you to tell him he should not, not unless you do not, on your own account, wish for him to do it. I am more interested in what Phil thinks is wrong; why do you think it important that Nick does not touch anybody, when we are agreed that he is not by nature a tactile man?”
Phil was pensive. “I don’t quite know, I just do think so. It’s something to do with what Tim said about being there for him (I hate that phrase, you know? Nasty touchy-feely stuff). Look, I’ve finished here; let’s go outside and finish our drinks on the patio. Hansie, bring that plate of cheese things, will you?”
It was pleasant outside; Piet and Phil have employed a gardener, and the patio is bordered with a hollow wall which was filled with greenery. Typically of Phil, it was not the petunias and lobelia which I would have put around a summer seating place; no, his patio carried his herb garden. It was successful; the air was scented with rosemary and lavender, lemon balm and thyme. Even the flowering plants were edible. Phil sat frowning, though, rolling a sprig of mint between his fingers.
“Well, koekie?” prompted Piet. “What troubles you about Nick? We cannot force ourselves on him; as you say, we are there for him but if he does not want us, he does not. If he wishes to talk with us for his own peace of mind, he may, but I think perhaps he does not. Not everybody wishes always to talk of things that distress them.”
It was Tim who objected this time. “Surely it’s better to talk about traumatic things than to bottle them up?”
We all stared at him: he began to blush. Tim is absolutely the worst man I know for bottling up his feelings and refusing to share them with anybody. Well, perhaps the worst except for me. And Piet. “Isn’t it?” he asked, less confidently. I began to consider what I could in conscience tell them about Nick.
“Is that what he does?” asked Phil, slowly.
“Nee,” I said, equally slowly. “Not exactly. He closes them off, ja, blocks them away, because otherwise he cannot handle them. And he says that sometimes there are too many things and he cannot get the box shut. And then. . .” I would not tell them what he had said about what he called white noise. That was between him and me and I had not his leave to pass it on. “He has a. . . a procedure,” I said carefully. “A means by which he turns his back on the box, and contrives to put it out of his head completely. Then when he comes back to it, he can open it, and look at the things inside, and see them in their proper perspective, and sort them out. And then, I think, he can cope with them.”
Phil nodded. “I see. Put everything in the cupboard, slam the door and ignore it until you’ve got a moment to deal with it. Then take everything out, wipe the shelves and sort the contents into their proper places. But if you try to do it all at once you get the cupboard in a worse mess and you don’t know what you’ve got or how old it is or what shelf it’s on. And he’s got a method of getting the door shut and everything out of sight, Hansie?”
I am sure he guessed – well, I am sure they all did – but it is Nick’s business and Nick’s business only. I nodded. “He does not wish to talk of the bad things in his work. For him, talking makes them more real, I think, and he knows already that they are real. He deals with them every day; he does not need to pick them over at home as well.”
“So we do not encourage him to talk,” rumbled Piet, “because for him, talking is the wrong thing. If we are to look after our Family – that is what is troubling you, koekie, is it not?”
“Yes,” agreed Phil. “We aren’t. . . we aren’t. . . oh bugger. We aren’t there for Nick the way Nick is there for Hansie.”
“Yes, but. . .” objected Tim, “but Nick and Fran are a unit.”
“You and I are a unit,” I murmured into my glass. “The Family is bigger than the units.”
“Do Nick and Fran belong in the Family?” That was Phil again, gently enquiring. I made a shocked noise, and some of Tim’s drink slopped over his fingers. We stared at him. “Well, do they?” he asked again. “Or is the Family just the four of us? Or the four of us and Fran? I’ll tell you what’s bothering me: we don’t treat Nick the same way we do each other, or even the same way we treat Fran.”
“We don’t know him as well as we know Fran.” That was Tim again.
“It might just be that,” said Phil, slowly. “But that’s not how it feels to me. I counted Fran in when I knew her less well than I know Nick now, when really it was only for Hansie’s sake, not because she was directly linked to the rest of us too. And look, it’s plain enough that the man’s staying, so if we don’t know him properly, whose fault is that? And what does it say about us?”
“Well, but he’s. . .” started Tim and then stopped. “Oh. Yes. I see.”
“I don’t,” I said plaintively.
“What Phil’s saying is that we treat Nick differently because he’s straight.”
Phil nodded, and then shook his head in frustration. “Not exactly, Tim, although that’s some of it. Of course we do treat him differently, same as we treat any of our other straight friends. I mean, I’ll, I don’t know, I’ll kiss Piet in front of you. I wouldn’t do it in front of your uncle Jim.”
“I don’t think he’d be that bothered if you did.”
“No, probably not, but all right, I don’t touch Piet in front of the guys at the club. They know, they all know, that we’re a couple, but they don’t want to think about the detail, and the club would be the wrong place to do it anyway. That’s fair enough. But we’ve had most of them here, Sunday lunch or Piet’s party or whatever, and we don’t touch in front of them then either.”
“But you touch in front of Nick,” I objected, beginning to grasp what he was saying. “You sit at Piet’s feet and lean on his legs, I have seen you do it. And further than that, well, it is only good manners, is it not? Tim does not put his tongue down my throat in front of people who might find it distasteful. I agree, I do not think Nick would be badly shocked – to tell the truth, I do not think there is much which one person can do to another which would shock him – and I do not think he is uncomfortable with gay men, particularly. If he is uncomfortable it is no more than the wish not to say the wrong thing. All right, I know I have said before that he was prejudiced, but I was wrong. He is not. He is maybe inexperienced, he is unsure of how to respond to us, but no more.”
We thought about that for another minute or two, and then Phil said carefully, “I don’t think that’s it either, Hansie. I’m not saying that Nick is prejudiced; I’m saying we are.”
He knocked the breath out of me; I have never thought of myself as prejudiced. Ja wel, one does not, does one? But I did have a flashing memory of Nick once saying the same thing. He had told me, by the river, “I don’t care that you’re gay; why should I? The prejudiced one is you. . . Because I’m straight and you think I can’t possibly understand.” Piet was nodding, too; he understood Phil if I did not.
“You think we are patronising him when we do not relax before him.”
“I do. And look, not just that, but think about it. Last time we saw Fran and Nick was at Tim and Hansie’s. When we all got up to go home, you kissed Fran.”
Piet nodded, and one eyebrow went up in amusement. “You are surely not suggesting that I should kiss Nick, koekie? I tell you fersure, he is not ready for that.”
That made us all laugh. “No, of course not. Anyway, you always kiss Fran, that’s not a big deal. The problem is that you didn’t hug Hansie or Tim, and neither did I, and normally we would. So if we don’t behave in front of Nick the way we usually would, then we aren’t treating him as Family; if we don’t treat him as Family how can we expect him to know that we think he is Family? Worse still, as you say, Nick is very observant. If we don’t treat him as Family, he’s going to have noticed. And think about it: he’s a polite man. If you don’t hold my hand in front of him, do you really think he’ll be comfortable holding Fran’s hand in front of us? Does he not touch her because he isn’t tactile? Or is it because he thinks we would find it icky, and he’s too nice for his own good and thinks we would be embarrassed? Oh, I don’t know; maybe I’m over-reacting. Come on, everybody, let’s go and eat.”
We let the subject drop, but there was something in what he had said and we all knew it. Tim came back to the subject bluntly, later on. “You think this case of his will make him need Family?” He did not need to say who ‘he’ was.
Phil shook his head. “Not really. That’s his own lookout; like Hansie says, he’ll have a method of coping. And he’s got blood family anyway, hasn’t he, and so has Fran. She phones her mum quite often, and Nick talks about his parents and his sister and her kids. No, the job isn’t our concern unless he wants to make it so; it was just, I suppose, because I heard about it and then I was thinking about him and it made me uneasy.”
Ja, and me too. I was not sure whether or not Phil was right; I thought about what he had said on and off over the next few weeks, and half the time I thought he was imagining things and the rest I was afraid that he was right. When I saw Nick, I was so confused that I confused him too, I know I did, and he began to do that trick where he becomes invisible again. It is damn clever; I wish I knew how he does it. I would like to be able to disappear at some of Jim’s business meetings so that it is not always my name on the minutes to deal with problems.
They did not come to eat with us the next week either, nor the week after that; first Nick was engaged, and then Phil was, and then I went to Germany again for Jim and. . . oh, you know how it goes. We invited them again the next time it was Boys’ Night Out at Piet and Phil’s, but it was not convenient, or so we heard. We did not give a lot of thought to that, to tell the truth. Nick has said more than once that he has trouble with social engagements because if some crisis develops at work he simply must go. We do not take offence at it.
So anyway, Tim and I drove out to the farm on Friday and Piet waved at us from the patio as we arrived.
“Phil is not here yet; he had an appointment with the dentist. I am left with instructions to get the braai going and not under any circumstances to attempt to cook anything. You know, for a man who says he is not a Top, he gives me a lot of orders.”
I leaned over to see how the braai was going.
“You do not use bags of charcoal?”
He gave me a Look; I laughed. “No, I do not either. I cannot understand these English barbecues where everything is bought in and usually tastes of paraffin.”
“It’s because we don’t really have the weather for it,” said Tim, equably; it was too hot to tease, really. “We can’t afford to wait all afternoon for somebody to make a proper wood fire. How long have you been standing over that, Piet?”
“Not long. It is my only culinary skill, Phil says; I can build a really good braai. At home we used to use the fallen wood from the fruit trees, and my mother would make a dressing for the salad with oranges and lemons and then put the peel on the coals.”
Tim ran a hand along Phil’s herb border; the scent lifted in the air. “We can put a handful of the aromatics on before we cook. Rosemary is good, and thyme. Listen, that’s Phil now, isn’t it?”
I walked around the house to meet my little brother – and found my big brother with him. “Hi, Hansie – look who I found in the High Street.”
“Ach, Nick – Fran is not with you?”
“Fran’s in Jersey, of all places. Some mate of hers was down to do a photoshoot and he’s broken his wrist and can’t go, so she’s covering for him. So I’m at a loose end, and Phil found me on my way to the Kerala for a takeaway.” He was looking at me rather tentatively.
“But why did you not ring us up? You know that most Fridays are takeaway and DVD night, you are always welcome.”
Phil laughed. “I’ve already told him off for not phoning. I made him go home for his toothbrush too; no, Nick, don’t be silly. There’s always a bed made up in the spare room. Now, what are we doing with this beer? Hansie, we’ve been missing a trick; Nick’s on first name terms with the man in the offie in the Buttermarket, and apparently if he knows you, he’ll sell you a case of beer out of the chiller in the back, rather than just off the pile in the shop. This stuff was on buy one, get one half price.”
I stared at them. “I thought we were not allowed chilled beer when Nick was here?”
Nick punched me lightly in the ribs. “Idiot. I didn’t say you couldn’t chill any beer, just that you need to understand that some you do and some you don’t.”
“Phil, Piet says – Nick! No, Piet didn’t say that, he said fifteen minutes and that barbecue will be ready, and why has he not got a drink?”
“Ask him if he wants me to open a bottle of wine, Tim, or if he’ll drink the beer Nick brought. Nick’s a photoshoot widower tonight.”
“Why didn’t you phone, Nick? We could have picked you up; no need for you to bring your car too.”
I laughed. “Phil and I have already scolded him for this; there is no need for you to do it too. Do you want beer, Tim? Or wine?”
“Actually, beer sounds good for a barbecue, I’ll have one of those, please. I’ll see what Piet wants.”
Piet wanted to come in to say hello to Nick. “But boet, why did you not tell us you were at a loose end? That is not treating us as you should; you must know that we would want you to come over if you were free. It is not only when Fran is here that we want to see you.”
Nick’s face was a picture; I went looking for a bottle opener. “You may as well go and stand in the corner, Nick; see, we are all displeased that you did not call. We have each of us in turn given him a hard time over it, Piet; he will not do it again, I am sure. But he has come armed with beer; do you want one of these or some wine?”
“I am happy with beer if it is cold. I cannot bring myself to like warm English beer. Beer ought to be cold.”
Nick flipped the lid off a bottle and passed it to Piet. “So you keep your chianti in the fridge, then?”
Piet’s eyebrows went up, questioningly.
“Beers are all different, like wines are different. Some of them take chilling, like this one. Some don’t. If you chill a real ale, it tastes wrong because something happens to the yeast - the yeast in a real ale isn’t dead the way it is even with draft keg, so you shouldn’t chill it any more than you would chill a red wine. And if you’ve been drinking warm beer, you’ve been in a bad pub: cellar temperature, it should be, which is a bit cooler than room temperature.”
He saw that Phil and Tim were smiling, and flushed a little. “Sorry. Soap box. Tell me to shut up.”
“Not at all, boet,” reassured Piet. “It is your interest, and we are woefully ignorant. But this is cold; you are not compromising your principles, I hope, to keep us happy?”
“No; Phil said you were having a barbecue, so I thought something cold would go down best. It’s been so hot and humid today that I admit cold sounds the better option.”
“So you let us drink lager and you do not turn up your nose?” I teased.
“It’s not lager, Hansie; it’s blond. Not the same thing.”
We should perhaps have paid more attention to that? At home, with a braai, you drink Castle lager, 5%, or Windhoek, 4%. This blond, as he called it, was 8.5%, and he was right, the weather was both hot and humid, and we were all well past the first bottle even before I could hold my hand over the braai just for a count of ten, and Phil gave me the steaks and went to make salad.
“Potato salad, Phil,” Piet called after him. “There must be potato salad at a braai, it is the law!”
“I’ll make some; I’ve promised Tim I’ll do the pasta salad too, and if you char a couple of those peppers I’ll do the one with balsamic vinegar that you like. Any takers for mango and rocket as well as green salad?”
He would not let us come and help, saying that he had most of it already done, so we behaved like all proper men at a braai: that is, I cooked while the others stood around nursing their dumpies and telling me at intervals that I was doing it all wrong. I said as much and Nick laughed. “It’s the Y chromosomes, Hansie. I’ve never yet met a woman who cared about a barbecue. Fran won’t be bothered with them; Kate hated them; my mother thinks they’re a waste of space.”
“What’s a waste of space?” asked Phil, emerging with salad bowls.
“A barbecue, per all the women I know. All right, Hansie, a braai. It’s a male thing.”
“Believe it,” agreed Phil. “My mum can’t be arsed with them, and she’s a cookery teacher. She says they’re one of the great cons perpetrated by men on women. My dad loves to barbecue; my mum says that she has to plan it, buy the charcoal, make the marinade, put the meat in it, buy the beer, chill the beer, make the salads, plan the pudding and make that, bake some potatoes, wash all the dishes and clean the barbecue afterwards. Then my dad expects praise because ‘she’s had a night off and he’s cooked her a meal’ when actually all he’s done is light a fire using half a box of matches and a pint of lighter fuel, and cook some sausages so badly that the outside is pure charcoal and the inside is still raw. But it’s macho cooking! Where’s my beer? Anybody ready for another one? Nick, I put the rest in the fridge.”
He tipped his head back to finish the last of the bottle and stilled, looking at the sky. We all turned to look the same way.
“Well, now,” said Piet. “What do you think, koekie? Will we get our meal outside?”
There was a huge thunderhead building up in the distance, and the air was hot and coppery. Phil shrugged. “I’ll open the sitting room doors and if it comes over we’ll just have to bolt inside. How are we doing, Hansie?”
“I am nearly finished. This is the last. Is that my beer Tim is drinking?”
It was almost certainly the beer that did it. We did eat outside, although behind the house the cloud climbed and swelled, and down by the river the trees shivered and stilled. The first of the rain came as we finished the strawberries, and we hastened to gather the plates and scurry to the kitchen, leaving the doors standing wide. We went back to the sitting room just as the storm arrived overhead with a long peal of thunder and that smell of acrid dust that comes when the rain falls on hot stone; Nick went to the door and leaned on the frame, his beer bottle hanging loosely between his fingers; he looked back into the room just as Phil came up behind Piet’s chair, and Phil, quite deliberately, leaned down and kissed Piet. For perhaps two heartbeats we were all motionless, and then there was another peal of thunder and I at least jumped.
“It’s getting closer,” said Tim, superfluously.
The lightning took us all by surprise – a long double flash which earthed itself somewhere on the other side of the river, and from the kitchen we heard the dishwasher whine and halt. Piet raised one eyebrow and reached for the light switch. We heard it click but there was no response.
“Well,” said Phil, cheerfully, dropping onto the sofa, “reckon that puts paid to a DVD. The electricity substation is at the bottom of the hill, opposite the riding school. I bet that’s what was hit. What’s it going to be, then? Obscene limericks? Karaoke rugby songs? Shut the doors, Nick.”
Definitely the beer; we drank some more, all of us, and we talked, of nothing in particular. I think, actually, it was Piet who said something about ‘to tell the truth. . .’ but it was Tim whose response was “Let’s have the truth, then. Truth or Dare. Who’ll start?”
Truth or Dare? I have not played that since I was 20, and it was a silly idea then – but Phil started. “Truth or Dare, Nick?”
I opened my mouth to head him off, but Nick was ahead of me. “Truth.”
“Did it bother you when I kissed Piet?”
“Bother me? Why should it bother me?”
Phil was shaking his head. “No passing off a question with another question. Answer.”
Nick – Nick is too smart for that. He smiled wryly at Phil. “No. It surprised me a little but I wasn’t shocked or horrified or anything. It was a little strange, that’s all. It surprised me because it’s not something you do in public, is it?”
“No,” agreed Phil, and their eyes met. Piet is right, I think. Nick understands intellectually what Phil knows instinctively; they understood each other quite well, those two.
“My turn, then. Truth or Dare, Hansie?”
Always in my youth it was Dare, for the questions involved in Truth might have revealed more of me than I cared for.
“Why did you jump when Phil kissed Piet? You were scared, but you must have seen that before; what were you scared of?”
Truth. “That you would find it distasteful. That you would be made uncomfortable by it.” He was nodding; Piet was expressionless, but I could feel his approval. I turned to Tim. “Truth or Dare?” I forget what I asked him, it was the beer, it was definitely the beer, but apart from those two questions we had two rounds of fairly innocuous point scoring.
Until Tim turned to Nick, and Nick said “Dare.” He was the first of us to say it.
“Phil’s a snugglebunny, loves to cuddle. Go and cuddle with him, for five minutes.”
I do not believe Tim thought he would do it; I could have told him better. Nick got up, a little unsteadily, and crossed the room; Phil turned his body into the corner of the sofa and as Nick sat down beside him, rather uncertainly, Phil drew him against his chest, and dropped an arm round him. Then he sat quite still; had it been me or Tim, he would have stroked our hair or run his thumb across our ribs but with Nick he sat still, and Nick relaxed the way a man does in the dentist’s chair, with a deliberate exhalation and an effort of will.
“God, you’re bony,” said Phil, lightly. “You don’t eat enough. Let’s think of something horrible for Tim. Truth or Dare, Tim?”
“How many men have you been to bed with?”
Ja, well, he coloured up at that. “I don’t know. More than is respectable. I used to put it about a good deal.”
Nick laughed, obviously thinking that he owed Tim something. “You don’t mean to tell me that you don’t remember all their names?”
“I hate to say it, but I never knew some of their names. I started young. I would have started younger, only the barman from the Bear’s Head twigged that I was under age and got me banned from every bar in the town centre, and I couldn’t go further afield because all the Barchester clubs demanded ID.”
“Good for the barman at the Bear’s Head,” interjected Piet.
“Rotten sod was nearly my first, only I said something that made him suspicious, and he asked me what year I was born, and I couldn’t remember how old I’d told him I was. He dumped me on the landing in my underpants and double locked the door behind me. Bastard. Oh all right, not a bastard, just more careful and law abiding than I was. He did come back out and drive me home, but even once I was street legal, I couldn’t get him. Wonder what happened to him? It wasn’t the greatest coming out experience; I’d never told anybody before and it was another year before I told anybody else, and that was Jim. Truth or Dare, Piet?”
“Who was the first person you came out to?”
“My sister; I had to stop her trying to set me up with her girlfriends. Fortunately she never attempted to set me up with her discarded boyfriends. Truth or Dare, Nick?”
“Are you going to marry Fran?”
Phil had to prop Nick up and pound him on the back: quite a lot of beer had gone down the wrong way.
“I shall take that as a ‘no’, then?”
“Bloody hell, are you asking me my intentions?” he wheezed, still coughing. Piet laughed; he was sprawled in his chair, and at least as far gone in drink as the rest of us. “I am reminding you that you are in the arms of my lover, however uncomfortable you are, and the others will tell you that I am a jealous man. Are you going to marry her?”
“We haven’t talked about it. Anyway, she’s Top; surely you mean: is she going to marry me? And I’m quite comfortable here – actually, I’m not, excuse me, and you can have Phil back if you want.” He got up and headed for the cloakroom and Piet heaved himself out of his chair and took his place on the sofa, with Phil stretching full length to get his head into Piet’s lap. It was neatly done, to give Nick a means of freeing himself gracefully from Phil. He fell into the smaller sofa beside me when he came back. “Truth or Dare?”
“Which of us?” I enquired.
He considered, owlishly. “All of you. I want a Truth from all of you.” His speech was a little too careful. “Have any of you ever been with a woman?”
Phil shook his head. “Never wanted to. I’m like Tim, I knew what I was looking for before I was old enough to look for it. Well, an evening snogging and trying to get her bra undone – that’s difficult, you know – which I used to shore up my reputation with the school First Fifteen, but it did nothing for me, and gave me a guilty conscience about leading her on. No girls. Tim?”
“No. I played doctors and nurses with the girl next door when we were. . . perhaps a little older than is acceptable for doctors and nurses. And Don Cunningham got hold of a video from somewhere, it went the rounds at school, which told me more than I felt I really needed to know about female anatomy. I reckon every boy in our year watched it at least once, and logically, I can’t have been the only one more interested in Dick Shaft or whatever his name was than in the girls, but it felt like it. No, no women. Piet?”
I would never have dared ask Piet such a thing, never; in fact, the next morning, I reminded Tim that he had done it and I thought he was going to swallow his tongue.
“Yes. Three times. It was pleasant enough, but it was not for me. I found myself treating it as. . . as a scientific experiment, as an experience a man ought to have, and as Phil says, it had a bad effect on the conscience. I too felt that I had used her – I had done the thing she accused me of when I left her, although not for the reason she thought. Hansie?”
I would have avoided this question if I could; I could think of no way round it. “Yes. As Piet says, three times. It was. . . it was an unqualified disaster every single time.” There was a moment’s silence and I looked down, ashamed, although quite what I was ashamed of I could not have told you. I was taken aback by Nick, who slipped an arm round my shoulder and pulled, until I slid against him, the way he had been against Phil; his arm lay across my chest, and when I looked into his face, he said “Sorry,” very softly; I do not think the others heard him. I mustered my courage. “Well then, Nick, we shall reverse the question: have you ever. . .”
“Some players on the school football team were known to indulge in the occasional circle jerk.”
We considered this in some surprise for a moment; then Phil asked delicately, “And you played. . .”
“Attacking midfield. So I had the opportunity, as you might say, but it didn’t appeal to me. Even at 17, when all the male animal can think about is sex, I was fairly sure that what I wanted wasn’t that. So no, I didn’t. As Piet says, not for me. I spent 40 years being unadulterated vanilla. What did I do with my beer?” He was scarlet, but his voice was steady.
“I think we all need more beer,” said Tim, “I’ll fetch another couple of bottles, shall I?” and he went rather unsteadily via the cloakroom to the kitchen. When he came back, he pushed a bottle towards Nick, who was absently running his fingers through my hair, and said firmly, “Your turn.” Quite how the game had become Question Time only, straight against gay, I did not know.
“All right, that’s what we all have done. What would you not do? What fails to float your boat? We’ll take children and animals as given. Phil?”
Phil laughed. “If you’d asked me when I was 22, I would have told you it was any sort of pain play. I thought that was well past kinky and into perverted, I’m telling you.”
“You did tell me,” accused Tim, in good humour. “I only suggested that you give me a little spanking and you behaved like I’d propositioned your granny. We all know that we’ve corrupted you beyond recognition. What do you not do now?”
He thought. “Asphyxiation. Blacking out. I can’t imagine wanting to do that.”
We all nodded at that; Phil looked at his partner. “What do you really want not to do, Piet?”
“Cross-dressing. I feel absolutely no urge to wear a dress.”
I think we all got beer up our noses at the notion of Piet in a frock and Tim positively blanched. “Tim?”
“Rôle play. I just can’t, it’s ridiculous. Grown men dressed up as schoolboys, or pretending to be James Bond or slaves and masters or whatever. I can’t get my head round it.”
Now for some reason, Piet and Phil exchanged glances at that, glances which I really think I would have to call smirks. I would have asked, but Piet was turning to Nick. “What will you not do?”
“Enemas. Or the other one, whassit called, urolagnia.”
Piet looked round enquiringly at us all, and then back to Nick. “I think we are also taking those as read, boet, and bloodplay too. What else?”
“Anal, then. Sorry, everybody, but I really don’t want to.”
Tim waved expansively, almost overturning his beer. “Don’t worry; when we decide on a group seduction we’ll let Phil teach you; he’s very gentle.”
“I am not!” objected Phil, laughing. “I’m a rugby player, Nick: rough and tough. I don’t do gentle. And Tim, if we seduced Nick, I think Fran might be cross with us, and of all the things I don’t do, I really don’t do Scary Women. Hansie? What do you not do?”
Bondage, I thought, but there was no need for me to say it, not to these people. “Rubber,” I said thoughtfully. “Ach, you know, and gas masks and inflatable suits and those things that turn up on television late at night. Harmless it may be, but I do not understand it.”
More beer. And our turn again, and it was Piet who came up with it. “So Nick is having all our dreadful secrets from us; what shall we have from him in exchange? I know: tell us what you did the last time you went to a club.”
Nick looked up and let his eyes widen mischievously. “What, all the details?”
“Nothing squishy,” insisted Phil with a theatrical shudder. “Nothing that involves us thinking of Fran with her clothes off, please, because apart from the fact that she would have to kill us if she found out, it would be effective incest for Hansie. Nobody mentioned incest as things we don’t do?”
“Incest and folk dancing,” murmured Tim; I think it is a quotation but I do not know from what. “That’s right, Nick, mention Fran without her clothes and you can just see, Hansie’s brain is shutting down in five. . . four. . . three. . . What club is this?”
“Mortimer’s. Do you know it?”
“I’ve heard of it, but it’s since my time. Go on, then, tell us your worst. What amazingly kinky thing did you do there?”
“We played Victorian parlour games, actually.”
“If you won’t tell the truth, you have to take the dare, you know.”
“No, honestly. We played Kim’s game, although I think the rules have developed a bit since Kipling’s day. It started with eight of us and we played in pairs. One of the senior Tops had a big plastic storage box, one of those ones you can get in DIY stores, you know, full of stuff. Small things: a diary and a calculator, a TV remote control, a coin, a photo frame, a phone charger, a battery, a toy car, a doll, a key, all sorts of tut. And then he added in things from the Tops and Bottoms who weren’t playing: a collar, an earring, a paddle, a chain, and some stuff from the club itself: a shot glass, a beer mat, a cloakroom tag. . . You get the idea. Well, they brought us out in pairs to look at a table worth. Started with 12 things on it. We got a minute to look and then they covered the table and separated us, and we each had however long to list how many we could remember – and then the referee flipped a coin and we either got the number we remembered or the number we missed.”
Phil shifted. “Sorry? I don’t get that.”
“Well, suppose it’s your turn, and you remember 9 of the 12 things. If the coin lands heads, you get 3 from your Top with whatever implement he’s nominated at the start, for the 3 you forgot. If the coin lands tails you get 9 for the 9 you remembered. Apparently it stops us trying to manipulate the result. So you play once against me and if I win you’re eliminated and if we draw we play again with 15 objects, and then with 18, and then with 21, until one of us wins. Until I win; I’m really good at this.”
He sounded. . . he sounded a little surprised, a little defiant, a little amused at himself. Tim was equally amused, and a little admiring. “What sort of implements are we talking about?”
“Well, since it can go to several bouts in a round and three or four rounds, nothing very serious. Leather paddle’s the most popular.”
This is a definition of ‘not very serious’ with which I would not absolutely agree. Nick says often to me that he is inexperienced but he is a serious player, I think. Ja, the leather paddle, for all Tim complains that it is Evil, is maybe not such a big deal, but the multiplicity of rounds? Even allowing that one may escape half the time by the flip of a coin? I think he underestimates himself; indeed, given what he said before about not permitting it to be said in the clubs that Fran’s man is not up to scratch, I know he does.
“It’s rare for me not to be able to remember all the things, so I either get off free if it’s heads, or if it’s tails I get the full dozen. Or 15 or whatever. Anyway, I play against you, and then I play the winner of the match between Tim and Hansie. The most they’ll allow to play is 8, so three rounds, but each round can have several matches. We’ve done it several times now; but the buzz is going off it, because I always win and Vicky is always the runner up, provided she doesn’t start in my side of the draw. She’s a waitress at one of those pretentious restaurants where the staff aren’t allowed to write anything down; she can do a drinks order for 20 people and get it right. But I have a visual memory rather than an aural one, so even when they rearrange the things on the table, and ask what they’ve removed, I can see the patterns.”
There was a sudden hum as the dishwasher restarted, and we blinked at each other rather foolishly as the lights came back on. Piet leaned forward. “I would like to see this,” he rumbled. “You will show us?” I thought it a little odd; only later did I think that with the return of the electricity he was perhaps bringing us round to something more innocent, less emotionally charged than what we had been talking about, for we had been sitting in the twilight, in which a man does not feel so exposed.
Nick was not lying. He could remember 20 random objects on a tray with absolutely no difficulty, he could tell which one we had removed even when we rearranged them – and when we tried to catch him out, he knew it. “The one that’s missing is the wrist watch. And something else has changed. . . it’s the key-ring. It’s not the same one.”
“I am impressed, boet. We could do with you here, for I think you will know where you saw things last, and neither Phil nor I has ever the faintest recollection of where we left our car keys or sunglasses. I am already on my second pair of sunglasses this year, and Phil is on his third. Now, koekie, since we have power in the kitchen again, shall we have coffee?”
The coffee was a good idea, but it did not save us: not, I fear, any of us. In the morning, even Piet looked a little fragile and both Tim and Nick looked white and very second-hand. It was a combination, I think, of a hangover and the feeling in the pit of the stomach that comes after drunken conversations, the feeling that leaves you thinking ‘please tell me I didn’t say that out loud. . .’ Piet announced firmly (although not loudly – anyone speaking loudly would have come to an untimely end) that nobody was to attempt to drive anywhere before lunch, and there was a packet of paracetamol and several large bottles of mineral water passed from hand to hand through the morning until we all felt better. But after lunch, Tim and I gathered ourselves to go, and so did Nick, saying that Fran would be home in the middle of the afternoon. Piet and Phil walked with us to our cars – and Phil hung an arm over Nick’s shoulders as he did it.
It was Piet, though, who reached into his pocket as Nick started the engine and wound down his window to say goodbye. He produced a coin, and flipped it lightly into the air, catching it on the back of his hand and bending down to show Nick.
“I am still permitted to referee on an amateur basis. When you go home, tell Fran that even in her absence you showed yourself to her advantage, you played several rounds of 20 objects, remembering them all – and that when I tossed the coin, it landed tails.”
I wonder if Fran. . . if Nick. . . No. No. This is Hansie’s brain closing down in five. . . four. . . three. . .
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