Stronger Than Lions by Sean J Halford


1. In Tenebris

Listen: there's a hell of a good universe next door; let's go - E. E. Cummings

 

*

 

The week my mother died, a white lion escaped from the zoo and prowled the streets of the suburbs for four days, gripping the city in an electric hold of fear and excitement. Old ladies in nursing homes clutched each other, startled from their knitting or card games as the TV stations kept live footage of helicopters scanning the road grids. I imagine those old ladies dreaming at night about the big cat stealing into their institutions, upsetting pots of boiled cabbage and grabbing dull matrons by the throat. Perhaps they secretly hoped that the beast would hop onto their beds, put a curious paw on their heads and settle down for the night, giving the old dears the biggest excitement they’d had in decades. 

I remember Uncle Joe with his arm around my father who was limping like an injured man. I had been sitting outside the ward listening to my iPod, playing the Chili Peppers at full blast to try and drown out my sobbing sister. She yelps when she's really upset - her voice tinkles like shattering glass - and at that moment I wanted to punch her. I'd never felt something that before, and I remember it as a stab to my solar plexus. For a long time it was the only feeling I could remember reverberating through the numbness that had already been there for months.

‘My boy,’ my big bear of a father said through a breaking voice. He patted me absent-mindedly on the head as if I were a friendly dog.

I knew she was gone.

It was Uncle Joe who led me into the room and ushered everyone out. I held her hand for a long time until mine got all sweaty and I recoiled. 

The cancer had gnawed away at Mom for two years, the cycles of chemo and radiotherapy buoying her only temporarily, until the next little tumour decided to pop up in a liver segment or a vertebra or a lung lobe. I only remember crying when she went for the mastectomy. In some sick way I looked forward to the days she had chemo; I'd sit with her while the lurid red cocktail soaked itself into her veins and we joked they were giving her raspberry juice IV. Clarice - yes, my therapist is called Clarice, and she even looks a bit like Jodie Foster - said it made perfect sense because these hours were precious moments when we bonded.

Ja, I'd shrug, but where were the great talks, the Tuesdays With Morrie? Thursdays At Chemo revolved around Sudoku and pep talks about my impending final year at high school. Only once did she talk about the cancer directly to me: she joked that I had to give any girl I ended up with a monthly breast exam, and was about to describe how to do it when she smiled and apologized for oversharing.

After that conversation, I suddenly needed to go outside and smoke. I double-clutched three and puked in the big potted cycad outside the oncology ward. I'd started smoking six months before with Anders Kowalski, the big lumpy kid who could smuggle in cool imported Davidoffs from his dad's corner café.

I don't remember much of the funeral. I'm not going to bore you with the psychobabble: you can guess I was in shock and all that; all I remember was sloppy kisses from aunts and cousins I hadn't seen in years while Father Quimby and my dad sat in the study drinking way too much whisky. Everybody seemed so concerned about me, like I was flavour of the month or something . At least Sarah was about to finish varsity, they whispered, and was probably going to get engaged to Dave, and Dad's dental practice would keep him busy, but, Good Lord, the poor kid was starting his final year high school and now he had lost his mother. And, like flavour of the month, all those so concerned seemed to disappear shortly afterwards.

After the funeral, Dave took me for what he thought was my first drink. I smirked and downed the Heineken with gusto but then got a headache so couldn't nurse anything more, while Dave in his button-down collar and sweaty pits lectured me about now having to "man up" and "not lose sight of my studies" and "make my mother proud".

I know he meant well, but I loathed this man with his Colgate smile and talk-show-host hair. He was all beers at the nineteenth hole and hedge fund performance reports. He didn't understand me, who could only find physical outlets in swimming or playing piano. To him, swimming was a "lonely sport" and piano was “sissy stuff”. Dave had said I already had enough cultural and academic bars on my school blazer. I guess Dave always wanted to turn his girlfriend's skinny baby brother into a jock. He went on about “responsibility” (I bet he spelled it in capitals, like in those awful motivational posters) and how the best thing for a young man was team sports. It was never too late to take up some rugby, he said (also written in majuscule, I’m sure.) 

I appeared to be nodding, but I was looking over his shoulder at the bulletin on the TV which said that the lion had been found wandering in the woods next to the country club and was now safely in custody.

The end of the school year came quickly. I spent the summer sleeping late and lurking around the mall and finally opening the Bach Prelude and Fugue No. 1, the first piece I had to master for my final music exams. I normally hate Baroque music but I respect old Bach, and that first prelude is fucking beautiful. My music teacher, Mrs Geordadis, told me that this French composer Charles Gounod was so moved when he heard it that he wrote a melody above it and turned it into an Ave Maria, ‘thereby coating a perfectly subtle piece of 18th century Protestant industriousness in a cloying syrup of French romanticism,’ or something like that. (Mrs Geordadis used to teach English as well and liked to talk in extended metaphors, but she got agoraphobia after getting lost in the Namib desert on a walking tour, and now preferred piano teaching as she preferred the one-on-one contact in the small soundproof music rooms.)

Christmas came, the bright, harsh Christmas that sweats and boils in the peak of the Southern Hemisphere summer, best spent barbecuing and dunking screaming children in the pool. We MacLeods, however, always had to have the full Northern fanfare at lunchtime. We tried to cook my mother's turkey and gammon, but avoided the big elephant in the room and, in typical MacLeod style, buried all our feelings in sleep deprivation from an achingly long Midnight Mass and a fog of wine and glut. Then we collapsed in our rooms and slept the afternoon away.

I awoke at twilight and padded around in the cool spot under the large plane tree in our garden, still giddy, and remembered that school would be starting in just under a fortnight. Just one more year of humiliation, I thought; maybe they'd spare me the heckling on the way to music class in the afternoon or stop making comments about my skinny body at swim practice. I had to steam through this year, I said to myself, and then it hit me that Mom wouldn't be sitting around the table making Mom noises and humming Joni Mitchell quietly to herself while she fixed my school blazer and helped me cover my books.

 

*

 

Suddenly, I was a senior, walking up the hill to the great wrought iron school gates. They were frightening Gothic things: a Tim Burton masterclass in design in the way the intricate metalwork wove around the school coat of arms with its stylized representation of a wolf, a cross, an anchor and a book. Around this, in gilded lettering, unfurled the great motto Lux in Tenebris (Light in Darkness) from the first chapter of the Gospel of St John. I would always stop and read those words, thinking how beautiful even the most ordinary phrase could sound in the dead language. Lately, the gold leaf had been flaking off the "Lux" so that, in the shadows of the pine trees, it simply looked like it was saying "In Darkness". 

Rather apt, I thought, as a sudden gust of wind played with the tops of the trees.

I arrived for registration and sorting into classes. You had to stand in the front quad and be called into lines. Then you’d be led to your form classrooms for orientation, as if you were new arrivals at a concentration camp. They'd hand out all your prescribed books en masse and then give you ten minutes to put them in your assigned locker, any longer and you'd have detention. Having an ex-army major for a headmaster certainly made things run efficiently.

As I shuffled into the throng of students a few murmurs rippled down the ranks. A few looked at me sadly and nodded. One of the First Team rugby players actually came up to me and patted me on the back and murmured ‘Sorry about your mom, dude.’ 

I'd never actually spoken to Mike Delport before. I was wary of him, but at least he'd never called me "Piano Fag" like Frank Arliss, the beefy lock who with his high forehead and thick pelt of chest hair looked like a cross between an Orc and Frankenstein’s Monster. For some reason Frank and his buddies loved making my life miserable.

The first periods swam by, double Maths and then English lit.  First break arrived, and so far it had been a surprisingly uneventful day, until I went to my locker to fetch stuff for the middle periods. It all started again: my locker had been tipped and a cascade of books and gym clothes and stationery poured out. Guys and girls laughed as they passed. 

Tricia Moore, one of the cheerleaders, whispered loudly to her posse.

 ‘What a dork. Cal just looks more pathetic every year.’ Their giggles echoed down the old domed corridor to their alternative universe of gossip and make-up and shopping trips to London and New York.

I was gathering up my books when I heard someone come up behind me. I knew it was Frank by the way he breathed – slow, snort-like gasps – and, of course, the looming shadow that put me in eclipse.

‘What do you want, Frank,’ I muttered, not looking up, trying to scramble up the last bits that had scattered across the cement floor.

‘This,’ he chortled, holding up a pink fluorescent pen, a marker I suddenly realized I'd grabbed from my mom's desk. My dad had left her study exactly as it was since the final time she'd been admitted to hospital.

‘Little Cally likes pink I see.’

‘It's just a marker, Frank. You know, to study with.’

I kept my eyes on the ground. He came up to me, breathing in my face. His breath stank.

‘Studying what?’ he said, raising an eyebrow. ‘Gay porn? Faggoty music stuff?’ He sneered and mussed up my dark brown hair with his fist so that it stood in ten different directions.

‘Yeah, now you look faggoty, you fucking faggot.’

I'd always been a prime target for the jocks, with my scrawny body and geeky glasses and penchant for being a diligent student. I'd pretty much made peace with it. I ground my teeth and started walking away.

‘Yeah, walk away, little piss-willy MacFaggot.’

I turned around, grateful that it had just been verbal jostling. Then I saw him squash and crack the marker with a stomp of his size 11 shoes. I took a deep breath and scurried off to the boys’ bathroom and splashed water on my face. Great, I thought, it was Arliss 1, MacLeod 0. Like always.

The bell rang and I pulled myself towards myself as best I could towards History class.

 

*

 

I was grateful that not too many people had come up to me doing the whole I'm-so-sorry-about-your-mom routine. After several times it had just become irritating.

I was one of the first to walk into the class and chose a seat far back, but not before I felt a tap on my back.

‘Hello Caleb.’ 

 

It was Mrs Roux, the history teacher. She looked at me kindly and smiled. ‘I see you're early as always.’

I shrugged. She didn't say anything else. I got a feeling that she understood that I didn't want sympathy poured on me right now.

Students filtered in, and Mrs Roux started writing an outline of the year's syllabus on the board. I busied myself with sorting out my bag that was in complete disarray after I had hastily stuffed it with books.

‘You dropped this, dude,’ said someone.

I looked around. Next to me was a big guy I'd never seen before, holding out my copy of Bach's Das Wolhltemperirte Clavier - 48 Preludes and Fugues.

‘Um, thanks,’ I said, and reached out for the book. I stared at him a little too long. He was tall and built - half-surfer, half-rugby player. He had dirty blond hair and deep green eyes. A quizzical smile was on his face.

‘Bach, eh?’ he asked.

‘Er, ja,’ I managed. Now he knows I'm a music geek, I thought to myself.

‘Bach's pretty awesome. Wish I could play piano.’ 

He held out a hand. ‘I'm Chris Hathaway. I'm new.’

I shook his hand, noticing how warm it was. I've always had icy hands. I wondered why this jock was actually talking to me in a nice way. Aside from Mike earlier today, jocks didn't do that to me. Especially ones who looked, well, handsome. I could usually smell malice miles away.

It was weird. Here there was none.

‘Caleb MacLeod,’ I said, and managed a weak smile.

‘Nice to meet you.’

I managed a nod, and Mrs Roux started greeting the class formally as the last students came in. ‘Guess we'd better pay attention,’ said Chris, settling down at a desk next to me. 

I nodded dumbly, taken aback that someone had acknowledged my existence. Perhaps it was just a matter of time before he'd join the cool group and I'd be just another geek to ignore or make fun of. Still, I noticed a warm little feeling had taken hold of me. I wondered how long it would last.

The lesson started, and we busied ourselves with the outbreak of the Korean War. It was interesting, but as the period ended I realized that I was rubbing my hands over each other, thinking over and over again about how warm the new guy's touch had been.

 

 


2. Preludes and Fugues

 

Classes ended, and I made my way to the dining hall. Our school, St Francis Collegiate, was one of the old-fashioned boarding schools in Cape Town and had equal numbers of day scholars and boarders. Day kids like me - at our own risk of salmonella - could eat lunch with the boarders if we had after-school activities. I had music lessons and swim practice on alternate days.

I was happy to see Rob and Bella at one of the tables. I hadn't seen them all day, as we'd all been put in different classes to our mutual dismay.

‘Hey stranger,’ said Rob as I approached them. Rob Jordan and Bella Carmichael were my only real friends; we'd known each other since primary school. We were three happy geeks together, Bella with her orthodontics and Jesus sandals and Rob with his salamander complexion gleaned from hours spent in a dark bedroom married to an Alienware gaming system. We all loathed the cool crowd, and they loathed us back.

My friends had been great during the summer, giving me space, yet abducting me for ice-cream and trips to the movies when they thought I'd become too maudlin.

 ‘Where were you guys at break?’ I asked, plonking down the day's slop of unidentifiable stew and tragic salad.

‘Oh,’ said Bella, ‘There was a Virginia Woolf crisis. I finished The Waves over the holidays and had to search for To The Lighthouse in the library. I took Rob with cause the computers were offline. He knows the Dewey Decimal System backwards and the fascists have decided to put the Classics in the NON-fiction section.’

I nodded, smiling. Bella was a bit of an emo literary type, and was always reading something at least fifty years old. She was in a feminist literature phase at the moment and was spouting Woolf and de Beauvoir at any opportunity.

We made the usual small talk, Bella talking about her Christmas away in the Drakensberg and Rob chattering excitedly about the latest game releases. I was arguing with him about whether StarCraft or David Braben's Elite was the best space strategy game ever created when I noticed Chris enter the dining hall. 

I was fascinated to see how lithe he was as he walked about, exuding a quiet air of confidence that was neither arrogant nor intimidating. Not something you'd find in your average jock who was all swaggering alpha-male.

I was hoping he'd notice me, and then it occurred to me why on earth I'd wanted him to do this. I was usually very shy about meeting new people.

My hopes were dashed in any case, as I saw the cheerleader squad flocking towards him. They were obviously checking him out, attracted like typical cheerleading moths to his jock flame.

That's it, I thought, he'd soon be assimilated into the cool collective, join the rugby team and be just one more potential bully to avoid.

Sure enough, he sat down with them. Why, though, would he have made that approving comment about Bach, I found myself thinking.

‘Who's that?’ asked Rob. ‘You've been staring at him for like half a minute.’

‘Oh, that's Chris.He's new. Met him in my history class.’

‘Meh,’ snorted Rob through a mouthful of the sloppy stew. ‘I see the Pom Pom Posse have already snookered him in.’

‘Yup,’ I said. ‘So predictable.’

‘He's quite a specimen though,’ said Bella, looking up from the battered copy of To The Lighthouse. ‘I mean, in a surfer boy kind of way. I mean, I like my men dark and poetic, but still.’

‘Your men?’ asked Rob. ‘Oh! You mean all those morbid English poets you have a permanent crush on. Aren't they a bit mouldy though? I didn't know necrophilia was your thing. I mean it would take a while to dig them out of the grave for starters.’

‘Screw you, Jordan,’ she said, whacking him over the head with the Virginia Woolf.  ‘I was just saying he looked kinda cute in spite of myself. It's a pity, really. Those peroxide vamps will soon suck whatever brain cells he had right out of him and he'll be reduced to being a walking pair of gonads, if he isn't one already.’

Bella could really put the stamp on things.

 

                                      *

 

After lunch, I made my way to my piano lesson. The music department was in a separate building from the main school. It was housed in an old stable which was part of the original farm the school was built on in the 1860s. Mrs Georgadis's teaching room was a tiny little nest with a Steinway upright. Through a little window one could see the back of Table Mountain looming in the distance. One of the things I love most about my city is the fact that there's this huge mountain planted in the middle of it; you see it from any corner of the metropolis.  It has so many different moods - from the waterfalls that erupt out of the crevasses during the rainy winters, to the clouds billowing over Devil's Peak like candy-floss vapour. This afternoon an impossibly blue African sky stretched in a wide yawn above it.

‘Come, Caleb, you can daydream later. Go with the Bach.’

‘Yes, ma'am,’ I said, and launched into the Prelude. I'd pretty much mastered it over the holidays - we had already worked out my entire portfolio last year. I knew the real challenge was the fugue that followed directly after it. A fugue, if you didn't know already, is a particularly exact musical form. It's basically a canon (think Frère Jacques) on steroids, where melodies call, answer and dovetail each other in an intricate mathematical dance. They sound effortless, so logical is the counterpoint, but they are of the most taxing works for a pianist to master.

My fingers were already aching from contorting themselves around the first twelve bars of the fugue when it was time to go home. It was already four o’clock, but the January sun was still screaming down on my back as I made it to the bike shed behind the cricket pitch.  I'd survived the first day of Matric without too much drama so far.

The shed was spookily empty as I entered it. 

Then I saw my bike.

The bike was leering at an odd angle. Someone had bent the front wheel at nearly ninety degrees and, as an afterthought, scratched “FAGGOT” on the top tube.

I shook my head and tried to fight the swell of blood rising up towards my face.

‘Fuck’, I said to myself, and clenched my teeth. I knew it was Frank Arliss or one of his cronies.

Sure enough, there he was, stepping out of the shadows. Ed Healy and Jason Weiss were with him, two more of my regular tormentors. They'd obviously messed up my bike and had waited to see my reaction.

‘Heya pissface,’ said Frank with a sneer. ‘What's the matter? Someone hurt your tricycle?’ 

‘Surprised you haven't started crying yet, fag-ass,’ Jason chimed in, while Ed just glowered at me.

In many ways, Jason was even scarier than Frank. Tall, clever, built and mean, he was one of the prefects, and Arliss & Co. enjoyed absolute immunity under his mafioso gaze. They particularly liked terrorizing the first formers - hazing had officially been prohibited at the school since the Major took control in the nineties, but of course it still occurred.

I was shaking, half from fear and half from fury. I gazed at them, not knowing what to do.

‘What are you staring at, MacLeod? Do you like what you see?’ said Frank.

‘Mmm, maybe he should come here and get some,’ said Jason, widening his sneer so he looked like a Jack-O-Lantern.

‘That's a good idea,’ replied Frank, and before I could back away he had grabbed me by my shirt and had stuffed my face into his armpit. I remained very still, expecting the worst, feeling oddly calm. ‘Yeah, smell that man-musk,’ he continued, tightening his grip around my neck as if I were a puppy being held by its scruff.

‘Leave him alone,’ somebody growled. Surprised, Frank let go of me. I staggered back and managed not to fall. I looked around nervously to see who it was.

It was Chris. He had somehow materialized and was walking straight up to us.

‘So what's going on here?’ he said casually, arms folded.

‘Nothing,’ said Jason, still sneering.

‘Ja. Me and my little friend MacLeod here were just mucking about,’ said Frank.

‘Ja. Right.’ Chris nodded in the direction of my bike. ‘If that's what you call it. Because it looks to me like you're just being an arsehole.’

‘It's nothing,' I murmured, but they all ignored me.

Jason and Frank lost their smile while Ed just glowered as before. Frank walked right up to Chris with a cold, menacing expression. Chris mirrored his stance, nonplussed.

‘You stay out of this, new boy,’ he said, breathing heavily. ‘You've got to tread carefully when you're on new turf.’

‘Or what?’ said Chris gently. ‘Maybe you should muck about with someone your own size.’

I noticed that Chris's voice had become dead calm, and its effect was unnerving. He gazed intensely at Frank, as if he were concentrating on a spot between his eyes. It certainly confused the bigger boy, who suddenly backed down.

‘You're a freak, new boy,’ he managed to snarl. ‘I'm watching you. Let's go, dudes,’ he said to the others, and as suddenly as they had arrived they had skulked off. It took a while to realize that I was standing staring stupidly into the middle distance.

‘You ok?’ Chris said. ‘Did those fuckers hurt you, bud?’

‘Huh? Uh. No. Sorry.’ I hastily rearranged my glasses and patted my hair down. ‘I'm ok,’ I managed.

‘Dude, that wasn't cool. Hope you didn't think I was fighting your own battle, but I really hate bullying.’

I wasn't quite believing all this. No-one had ever rescued me from one of these situations, certainly not a jock. I'd just silently endured the many humiliations, usually with a giggling audience to boot. There was this sad code of denial among all the uncool - just endure it all, and don't say anything. Else it would just get worse.

‘Hello, Earth to Caleb,’ he said, bending down slightly and putting a hand gently on my shoulder. The deep green of his eyes was a bit freaky.

‘It's - it's ok,’ I stammered. ‘I mean, thanks.'

‘No prob, dude. They really did a number on your bike though. Fuckers.’

I'd forgotten all about it until he mentioned it. Chris squatted down in front of the battered bike and shook his head.

‘Arseholes. But it doesn't look like a write-off  - hmm - a bit of paint and some elbow grease and it should be all fixed. I could sort it out for you.’

Why are you being so nice to me, I thought.

‘No, please, you've been so helpful already,’ I said, feeling  embarrassed. I didn't want this guy pitying me. ‘You don't need all this bullshit on your first day.’

‘I insist. I love fixing things. At least let me give you a lift home, it's not looking like she's rideable right now.’

‘Um, ok,’ I blurted out. ‘If it's not too far. Will your folks mind?’

‘I got my own wheels, dude,’ he said with a smile, whipping out a set of keys from his pocket.

‘Awesome,’ I said, brightening. ‘I mean - you have your driver's licence already? Have you just had your birthday?’

In South Africa, you had to be eighteen to drive a car, and that would only be in May for me.

‘Dude,’ he smiled. ‘I've been eighteen since last year. I'm a repeater. Er, um, special circumstances.’

‘Sorry, I didn't mean to - I just assumed.’

He laughed. ‘No worries. I'll bore you all about it in the car. Come, let's unchain your bike and put it in the back of my Jeep.’

Like a lost puppy, I followed him through the avenue of pine trees to his car.

It was just one day in, and Matric year was turning into a very strange country indeed.

 


3. Curiouser and Curiouser

Chris’s Jeep was an old army-green Cherokee from the mid-nineties that was a hand-me-down from his eldest brother, who was a farmer in the KwaZulu-Natal1 midlands.

‘I call it The Thing,’ Chris said proudly as he helped me put my bike in the back. ‘She’s old, but she goes.’

‘Serious street cred,’ I said. ‘Or farm cred,’ I added with a smirk.

‘I see you’ve got a quick sense of humour,’ he said smiling, ‘and, more importantly. it’s back. I’m glad. Hop in.’

The Jeep snarled to life and we backed out into the road.

My house turned out to be on his way home. I lived in Newlands, an old, leafy suburb hugging the back of Table Mountain. Mom and Dad had bought the old Victorian double-storey just after they got married in the seventies, long before it became the rather uppity enclave it is today. Dad used to quip they’d lived on baked beans and bully beef for a year after they'd bought the house, having poured all they had into the deposit. He took great pride in being the poorest man on Snob Hill when he was still a dentistry student. They had to rely on Mom’s job at the daily paper to stay afloat.

Chris was quite a chatterbox. He told me his parents had recently divorced and that his mom had decided to move down to the Cape from Durban. His dad was a stockbroker who owned his own investment company, and his mom was a trained ICU nurse. I didn’t ask what the cause of the divorce was, seeing that I’d only known the guy for a couple of hours.

‘I was wondering what had brought you to St Frank’s,’ I ventured as we weaved our way through the snaking expressway that joined the city with the southern suburbs.

'I got into a bit of shit in Durban,’ he said nonchalantly. ‘Guess you could say I was dishonourably discharged.’

‘Really?’ I said, cocking my head like a dog hearing a high note. How could such a nice guy have been expelled?

‘Relax, I didn’t murder anyone,’ he said. ‘Let’s just say I went a bit batshit when I discovered my old man was having an affair. With his assistant for fuck's sakes, just like in some stupid movie.’

‘That sucks,’ I said. ‘I’m sorry, man.’ For a brief moment I thought of Mrs du Preez, my dad’s ancient dragon of a receptionist who had a Far Side beehive. The thought of them having an affair was completely ludicrous.

‘Not your fault, bud,’ he said. He stared intently at the road as we waited at a red light.

‘So, um, how are you enjoying Cape Town?’

‘Oh, it’s great,’ he replied,  'I’ve always loved coming here on holiday, but it’s still a bit of a culture shock. It’s so different from Durbs.’

Durban is South Africa’s sweaty version of Miami that faces the warm, blue-green Indian Ocean. It is a heady mix of different cultures, tropical humidity and ugly eighties beachfront architecture. I love it, albeit in small doses. His friendliness now made even more sense. Durbanites, bless them, are of the most laid-back South Africans you’ll ever meet – and South Africans, I assure you, are among the friendliest people in the world.

 ‘It's going take a while to get used to the new school and all,’ he said, ‘but looks like I’ve already made a new friend who can show me around.’

Good Lord, I thought, he actually wants to be my friend? The day was getting, as Alice would have said, curiouser and curiouser.

I couldn’t handle it anymore. ‘Dude, what gives? I could be a psycho and you’re giving me a lift home.’

He burst out laughing. ‘You’re funny, Cal. Can I call you Cal?’

‘Sure,’ I said.

‘I’m good at sniffing out cool people. When I met you this morning you had Watchmen in your bag, which is like my favourite graphic novel of all time, and you play Bach. ‘

I snorted. “Cool” and I were antonyms.

‘Well, I do have good taste in literature,’ I said, stopping myself short of rattling on about my very eclectic library in case he’d really think I was a fruitcake and run. ‘Thanks.’ 

‘You’re too polite, Cal. Which is why I like you. You were the first person I met today who didn’t seem fake… I’m sorry, but having been in an all-boys school for four years surrounded by preppy wankers has left me a bit jaded. Am I talking too much? Ja, I’m talking too much. I hope you don’t think I’m insulting your – our - schoolmates…’

‘No, go on,’ I said, really enjoying listening to him. ‘I think St Frank’s is a great school but, yeah, there’s some arseholes in there too.’

Chris snorted. ‘You say "arsehole" so prim and proper. Like you’re being… naughty. Makes my Durban accent sound all hillbilly.’

‘How’s this,’ I said, and putting on my best King’s English hot potato accent, yelled, ‘Piss-Willy-Fuck-Balls-Pussy!’

He let out a belly laugh, and I shrugged my shoulders.

‘But seriously, right about those fuckers,’ my new friend said, his voice darkening. ‘You mustn’t let them push you around. Why are they giving you so much grief, if you don’t mind me asking?’

We had just hit the afternoon jam on Edinburgh Drive and traffic was dead slow.

‘I’m not a rugger-bugger,’ I said, sighing. ‘People like Frank Arliss - the big guy who came up to you – think contact sports are like the only measure of being a man, and if you play piano...’

‘I see,’ said Chris, nodding. ‘Well, I read somewhere that old Bach had like twenty children didn’t he? Now that’s manhood, dude.’

‘I hadn’t thought of that,’ I said, impressed at his general knowledge. ‘You’re good. But it doesn’t change the fact that there’s always going to be this great divide between the nerds and the jocks.’

‘I like to think I’m a bit of both,’ he said, and my eyes widened. ‘Let me see... I'm a Star Wars freak and I play rugby.’ 

Star Wars?’ I gasped, and my brain did a little dance that I had discovered another person to possibly share my zealous following of The Church of St George Lucas. ‘I love Star Wars! Don’t get me wrong – I’m a very proud Springbok supporter too…’

‘Just not a Frank Arliss supporter,’ said Chris, nodding. ‘Just because he's a good rugby player - so I heard - doesn't make him a hero. Come on now, your turn.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Sure, you’re a bit of a geek – which I mean as a total compliment – but I think there’s another side to you. What does Caleb do when you take his comic and music books away?’

‘Er, well, I do swim on the school team,’ I admitted.

‘Yeah, see. You’re balanced, and you didn’t even know it.’

Those green eyes were staring at me again and it was rather disquieting. But his voice was warm, brotherly. He looked back at the road. ‘Looks like it’s easing up.’ He put the Jeep back into gear and soon we were taking the turn-off to Newlands.

I was wishing that the traffic would have lasted for hours. It felt so simple, so safe, just chatting with this guy I hardly knew, as easily as if he were Rob or Bella.  As we drove through tree-lined lanes, dappled blobs of sunlight splashed over us, painting everything in green and gold Dalmatian spots. Springbok colours, I thought, smiling. Chris had pulled up the sleeves of his white school shirt and I was entranced how the hairs on his forearms glowed like tiny tungsten filaments in the half-light. It was crazy: not even an hour ago, I was consumed by rage and panic; now, I felt as if I’d just woken from a long afternoon nap.

When he pulled up outside my house, he nodded approvingly. ‘Is that like Victorian style? It’s really beautiful.’

‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘She’s proper Victorian. 110 years old.’

He whistled. ‘Your mom must be quite a gardener,’ he said, pointing at the mass of rose bushes and topiaries in front of my house.

‘Um, ja,’ I said quietly. ‘She loved gardening.’

‘Loved?’ said Chris, narrowing his eyes.

‘She died last year. She had cancer.’ 

The words came out  easily now. They hardly registered; I’d said them so many times. ‘My dad keeps up the garden but it’s not the same.’

‘Fuck.’ Chris looked ashen. ‘I’m so sorry dude. I didn’t mean to...’

 

‘It’s ok,’ I said, looking away. ‘Like you said, not your fault dude.’

I waited for the inevitable silence to pass. Chris put a warm hand on my shoulder and patted it. I didn’t know what to do; it felt weird. The MacLeod men have never been touchy-feely types, and I was no exception.

Chris started talking rapidly again. ‘I’m making you uncomfortable, aren't I? I always do this, I can be a real dufus sometimes, is there anything I can...'

‘I said, it’s ok,’ I interrupted him. ‘Let me get out before this turns into a scene from a bad soap opera.’

He chortled. ‘Dude, I just love your sense of humour.’

‘Thanks.' I said. ‘Oh wait... my bike...’

 

‘I told you, I’m taking care of it.’

‘But...’

‘No buts. And if it’s ok with your dad I’ll give you a lift to and from school until it’s fixed.’

‘But...’

‘All I ask is that you show me around ok? That flock of cheerleaders at lunch was creepy. They wanted to give me this big tour but I went to the library instead and did some homework.’

‘Glad to see you weren’t consumed by the Boob Brood,’ I ventured, while he chuckled.  

As if I would be so lucky, I couldn’t help thinking.

‘So do we have a deal then, Mr MacLeod?’

‘I guess I’m not saying no. But you’ll have to deal with my Catholic guilt then.’

‘That’s ok, I’ve had all my shots, I think. Have a Jewish grandma, and Dad’s a WASP, so I know a bit about guilt.’

The banter was addictive, and I felt I could sit in The Thing with him for hours talking crap. Then I saw my dad waving from the kitchen window.

‘I guess I have to go,’ I said, opening the door.

‘Sure. Let me take your number,’ he said, taking out his phone from his pocket. We exchanged details. 

‘SMS me later to say if you’re dad’s ok with me picking you up tomorrow,’ he said, starting the Jeep. ‘Can I get you at 7:30?’

I nodded and waved as he drove off. It almost sounded like a date.

 

*

 

‘Hello, son,’ said my dad as I walked into the kitchen. He was still in his white jacket and fussing over a pot on the hob.

‘Hi Dad. What are you doing?’

‘Trying to cook pasta. Rosalie had to go home early because her daughter’s ill... damn! Now I’m burning the sauce.’

I flitted over to the stove and quickly turned down the raging gas flame, which was threatening to turn the napoletana in the tiny aluminium pot into a tomato Vesuvius.

‘I've got it,’ I said, stirring the stuff as fast as I could and added a good glug of Mrs Balls' Chutney, which could save almost any kitchen disaster from doom. ‘Ok. I think I’ve saved it.’

‘No-one can cook pasta like your mother,’ Dad said with a weak smile, leaning against the fridge. He looked really tired. ‘How was your first day of Matric? Anything exciting?’

‘No, it was pretty straightforward,’ I lied. ‘Seem to have made a new friend though.’

‘Oh. Yes. Is that the boy who dropped you off? I was about to ask about that.’

‘Oh, um, that’s Chris. He’s new. I, um, broke my bicycle chain, and he helped me out.’

I looked away awkwardly, I hated lying to my father.

‘Really?’ said my father with raised eyebrows. ‘Why didn’t you call me? I could have picked you up on my way back from work. Does he have a licence?’

‘Sorry, Dad,’ I said, realizing I’d had him worried. I busied myself cleaning up the mess on the stove. ‘He’s very nice, he and his mom just moved down to Cape Town; of course he’s got a licence.’

‘I just want you to be safe, Caleb. Just let me know, next time. So where’s your bike?’

I told him Chris had offered to fix it as well as give me a ride to school until it was sorted.

‘He seems nice, then,’ said my father. ‘But I want to meet him tomorrow when he picks you up; my first patient is only at nine.’

I nodded. I suddenly realize how helpless my father looked in the kitchen. I don’t even think he’d ever cooked an egg. If it weren’t for Rosalie, who worked for us three times a week, our whole household would have imploded within a month after mom died. She’d worked with the family since my mom was pregnant with me, when Dad finally convinced mom she didn’t have to be a newspaper editor, mother and do-it-all homemaker simultaneously. Between Rosalie and my sister, who drove in from Somerset West to see us twice a week, the MacLeod men were saved from living the rest of our lives on KFC.

‘There,’ I said, ‘it’s all ready, we can heat it up when it’s time for supper.’

‘Thanks, son,’ my father said, rubbing is eyes. ‘Shall we watch some TV in the meantime?’

‘Thanks, Dad, but I’m gonna go to my room and sort out some stuff.’


*

 

I was exhausted and wanted to lie down and zone out for half an hour. It was nearly six, and the sun was only now beginning to dip down towards mountain. It was hot, so I stripped down to my boxers and flopped down onto my bed. I stared at the canopy of old trees that turned our back garden into a mini Hundred Acre Wood.

I thought about the day, about how many things had happened in rapid succession. For some reason I was focusing on Tricia hijacking Chris at lunch and was surprised at how irritated the thought made me. Veronica Wakeford, Jason’s girlfriend, had been there as well. I thought she was much hotter that Tricia’s über-blondeness, and like almost every other male at St Francis, I had had my puppy-dog crush on her. In spite of myself, I thought of how hot she looked today with her school skirt size bordering on the obscene. Now I had a raging boner and it needed to be dealt with before I could nap.

Thanks to my parents, I’d been raised with an open-minded attitude to sex and sexuality, even if I had hardly any experience. My sister and I were spared the more odious overtones of Catholic hellfire towards teenage hormones. I still remember my poor dad, trying to have The Conversation with me when I was eleven, managing only to stammer that ‘just know, son, condoms and masturbation are, ah,  very good things for young men and used responsibility are definitely the right thing.’ He then ran away and expected my mother to deal with everything else –which I had fortunately known for a while already.

I fumbled for the Swimsuit Edition of Sports Illustrated under my bed and proceeded to page through the babes, who were always there and never judged. I was happily paging through the magazine until I noticed I’d gone way past the paper harem and found myself eyeing some pics of Olympic swimmers. Male swimmers. This was new. I knew very well that it was normal for sexual fantasies to come in all sorts of flavours and didn’t mean anything in particular; I’d had gay, bi and some frankly bizarre ones with fair regularity before, and it had never bothered me. But staring at these guys with their skimpy swimsuits and chiseled bodies directly was something completely different… and I was now really turned on.

I decided to go with it. I marveled at their taut undulating muscles, their classic V shaped torsos, knowing what machines they became in the water. And then the small knots gathered together in the pit of my stomach followed by the intense wave ricocheting through my body, the deep intake of breath, and the inevitable explosion. The dizzy fall ended and I needed to clean up. But I lay there for a good couple of minutes, listening to my breathing slowing down, gazing at my rising and falling chest in the twilight. I closed my eyes and thought about one of the swimmers, imagining him with warm hands holding me and piercing green eyes staring at me.

I sat bolt upright.

‘Shit,’ I whispered to myself loudly.

I was Dorothy, and I was definitely not in Kansas anymore.


4. Amadoda

I remember how one evening I had brought my mother a cup of tea while she was busy in her study. She had continued to work for the newspaper until two months before she died, stepping down as senior editor only then. This night she was not at her Mac clacking away as usual, but writing carefully and deliberately with a fountain pen on an old-style letter pad. She was using her special Mont Blanc, a gift from her father when she landed her first job as a journalist. It's mine now, and I keep it in my desk, and take it out now and then and twirl the beautiful thing around in my hands as if it were a magic wand. Oupa Stefanus had it inscribed with a quotation from the Gospel of St John in Afrikaans1: In die begin was die WOORD (In the Beginning was the Word).

‘Hi Mom,’ I had said, putting down the tea. ‘What are you up to?’

She stopped writing and pushed the pad underneath some papers. ‘Oh, hello dear, nothing, just signing some letters.’ She craned her graceful neck up and gave me a kiss on the cheek.  ‘How's my boy,’ she said.

‘I'm cool,’ I said smiling. Her eyes looked puffy. ‘Are you OK?’

She stroked the fuzz on her head. Her hair was growing back now; she had already ditched the headscarf. Still, we would end up never seeing her with her trademark raven tresses again.

‘I'm fine, Cal. Just tired.’ She rubbed her eyes and I knew she was lying. ‘There's so much work at the paper, I've got three junior editors to train and I've got to finish overseeing the honours students' dissertation before the semester is finished.’ In typical Mom fashion, she still had a thousand irons in the fire.

‘You need to rest,’ I said.

‘Oh, Caleb, son of Adam Trask, Caleb son of Jephunneh. Don't worry about your poor old mother. She's got to keep herself busy.’

I smiled as she invoked the dual literary and Biblical heritage of my name. My mother loved books as if they were members of her family. To Kill a Mockingbird was one of her favourites; I was very nearly called Atticus after the character in Harper Lee's book. My father fortunately intervened and they settled for the name of the prodigal son in Steinbeck's East of Eden. Stephen, my second name, was a compromise between my grandfather, Stefanus Johannes, and the Struggle activist Steve Biko. He had died in detention the year my sister was born. Mom had always been one for mixing things up - a Protestant Afrikaans girl from the Free State who fell in love with a Catholic Celt, on a windy day on Hout Bay Beach when hairstyles were big and fear and loathing were even bigger.

She took my hand in hers. Her hand looked old, spidery with veins, as translucent as an embryo. 

‘Stop fussing about me and go do your homework,’ she said eventually, and kissed my hand.

Jy moet nog vir jou ma luister, my kind,’ she said in Afrikaans: You still have to listen to your mother, my child.

‘Ja, ja,’ I said, and trundled off to my room.

 

*

 

I'd hastily showered and was on my way down to join my dad for supper when my phone beeped. It was an SMS from Chris.

 

How you doing bud?

I replied:

Cool thx. Dad said it's fine for you to pick me up but he wants to meet you first.

Then:

Eish buddy. Should I be nervous?

Dad's a nice guy, just wants to say hello and verify your car's safe. He's a bit protective.

As he should be bud. And I like that you don't use sms spk 4 ur txts cuz it just m8kes ppl luk lyk 1diots…

LOL! [*ironic*] Ditto for you dude. What you up to?

 

The phone rang in my hand. I was so startled I nearly dropped it.

‘Hi?’

‘Hey Cal. Hope I’m not disturbing you.’

‘Um, no. I was just chilling.’

‘Cool. Listen, I’ve been trying to get all my stuff sorted for the year, and I wanted to ask you a favour.’

‘What is it?’ I said, puzzled.

He sounded shy. ‘You take science right?’

‘Ja. Why?’

‘I was wondering if you could help me a bit with the science syllabus. I got a bit behind last year when things got, um, a little complicated. I’m really behind in chem.’

I smiled to myself. Tutoring was one of my fortes. I’d made a fair amount of pocket money giving extra lessons to dazed Form Ones who got overwhelmed in their first year in high school.

‘Of course. No problem. It's the least I can do since you’ve been so kind to me.’

‘Aw, shit, man, that would be awesome,' he said. 'I owe you big time. I just need this year to go smoothly, you know?’

That makes two of us, I thought. ‘How’s tomorrow after school? I’ve got swim practice until 3:30.’

‘Awesome. Hang on.’  There was some muffled conversation in the background. ‘My mom insists on you having a meal with us if you’re gonna help me out. Would that be ok with your dad?’

I felt a strange rush of blood to my head. Apart from Rob and Bella, no-one had invited me to their home since I was in primary school.

‘That would be great. I’ll check with my dad and let you know in a little while?’

‘Cool. Thanks so much again.'

‘No worries.’

I heard my dad calling me for supper downstairs.

‘Coming Dad!’ I yelled. ‘Chris, I gotta go. See ya tomorrow? If that’s still ok?’

‘Absolutely. Free chauffeur service for my teacher as long as he likes.’

I laughed.

‘Oh, and Caleb?’ he said. ‘Thanks for not pressing me about what happened in Durban - I’ll tell you about it sometime.’

‘Of course,’ I said.

I raced down the stairs to supper, suddenly feeling very hungry.

 

*

 

Chris was at my house early. My dad came out at greeted him, and seemed to like him instantly.

‘Hello Chris,’ he said, holding out his hand, ‘I’m Devon MacLeod. Thank you for helping my son out yesterday.’

‘Hello, Dr MacLeod, it’s very nice to meet you.’

‘And you.' Dad turned to me. ‘Well, Cal, I guess I’ll see you later tonight? And make sure you boys drive slowly and carefully. Don’t overload poor Chris with too many equations now,’ he added, turning back to Chris. ‘When my son gets going on a tangent he doesn't stop.’

‘Sure Dad,’ I said, rolling my eyes as we got into The Thing and drove off to school.

The morning sped by. I was really looking forward to seeing where Chris lived. But first I had to get to the start of swimming try-outs in the afternoon. I was a decent swimmer but needed to up my game; there was a good chance I might get selected on the junior provincial team.

At lunch I met Rob and Bella again and we caught up. Bella was telling me about her irritation with the year's English syllabus  - too many male writers, she lamented - when Chris walked up to the table.

‘Hi, I’m Chris,’ he said pleasantly, extending a hand to Bella and then to Rob. ‘You must be Cal’s good friends I believe?’

‘Hi,’ said Bella, beaming, looking at him up and down a little too eagerly. She always developed these huge crushes on guys whom she would mourn for weeks afterwards because, according to her, Pre-Raphaelite poetry and jockstraps were doomed to be incompatible. I supposed Chris would be no exception.

Rob extended a cautious hand and nodded hello.

‘Do you mind if I sit with you guys?’

‘Not at all!’ said Bella, and whipped out a seat.

‘So,’ she said, leaning forward on her elbows and cupping her head in her hands, ‘what brings you to St Francis? Not our summer arts programme, perhaps? I did Pablo Neruda last year, comparing the Spanish to the English translation...'

Rob elbowed her gently in the ribs. I rolled my eyes. Chris chuckled.

‘I do not love you as if you were salt rose, or topaz,’ he suddenly said, his eyes staring far into the distance. Bella was struck speechless, and this was a rare thing. Rob raised his eyes at me.

‘I take it that's Pablo Neruda?’ I said, ‘because if so you've just gained a billion brownie points with Miss Literature here.’

‘Yup,’ said Chris. ‘I like the odd bit of poetry.’ He switched gear effortlessly: ‘So Rob, Caleb tells me you're a bit of a gamer and into Alienware? Cause that's awesome, man. I've been looking for someone to help me assemble a kick-ass system and I thought maybe you'd be able to give me some pointers.’

It was Rob's turn to be entranced. Except this turned on his chatterbox button, and soon Chris and Rob were involved in an intricate discussion of 64-bit microprocessor architecture that went way over even my geekified head. I found myself shaking my head gently in disbelief. Who was this guy? He'd seemed so calmly one-dimensional when I first laid eyes on him, with his casual surfer dude -slash-rugby jock air. Now it was as if his personality had turned from a straight line into a dodecahedron. And he liked me. And seemingly too, my friends.

We finished lunch, with Chris already making plans for us three dudes to game online and to bring Bella his copy of the collected works of Neruda his dad had bought on a trip to Cuba (with his assistant, as it turned out.) What a charmer, I thought, and then glanced at my watch. I had to dash off to swim practice.

 

*

 

Water, like music, is one of the few places where I feel totally at home. Being surrounded by the quiet blue makes my spirit soar and my mind float in absolute freedom. Mom used to say I'd been a seal in a previous life. Swimming was my solace when storm clouds gathered in my brain. When Mom died my body threatened to grow gills.

I hurriedly got my kit on - the regulation Speedo with the school colours of red and blue and a stylized wolf on the one side. “WOLVES” was emblazoned on the butt in a jaunty font. It was a lurid thing, but at least it wasn't like I was in the USA in the fifties and sixties, when boys did their swimming in the nude at the YMCA. I don't think I would have survived that.

A couple of guys were already messing around in the pool, and I jumped in. I dived down to the bottom and gazed upwards, where the meniscus of the water spread across like a sheet of quicksilver. I stayed there for a good half-minute, surrounding myself in the cool calm blue. When I surfaced, Jason was standing with his arms folded in the lane next to me.

‘Why hello, MacLeod,’ he said with a dead smile, ‘you also trying out for the team?’

I had almost forgotten he would be there. Jason was the school's swimming star, and he made sure you knew it.

‘Hi Jason. You know I've been on the team for the past three years.’

‘Just checking that you didn't have other more pressing interests. Like fixing bicycles.’

I was about to tell him to fuck off when Mr Mazibuko, the swim coach arrived and started yelling at us.

Molweni amadoda!2 he greeted us in Xhosa3. ‘You are not inkwenkwe anymore so stop messing about and line up for roll call!’

Amadoda was the Xhosa word for “men”, and, you can guess, inkwenkwe meant “boys”. Moses Mazibuko was something of a local legend. Though his regular job was as geography teacher, he had been an Olympic-quality swimmer in his prime. Tragically, he was not allowed to realize his dream of becoming a competitive athlete. According to the apartheid government, "black people didn't swim". So he did what he could: teach swimming. He had been at St Frank's for years, and had hand-reared dozens of great athletes. Though nearing sixty he had the frame of a thirty year-old, and swam a mile every morning. 

‘Ok, guys, all out the pool!’ he barked. He made us line up and he checked each one of us up and down, taking our details. ‘Ok,’ he finally said. ‘We'll mix newcomers and existing team members. The following each choose a lane: Williams, Van Wyk, Padayachee, Weiss, Ndwandwa, and MacLeod.

We scrambled to our positions.

'Right,’ he continued. ‘We'll start you lot with hundred metre heats: freestyle, then butterfly, then backstroke. Overall winner gets the key to the steam room for the rest of the month.’

Mr Mazibuko's philosophy was that if you worked hard you got to play hard. You had to get special permission to use the steam room in the change rooms, and trust me; it's the best way to relax after a hard swimming session. I was definitely going to take Mr Mazibuko up on his offer.

‘Ready, set, go!’

I dived in with singular purpose. Buoyed by the good mood I was in, I was soon ahead of the others - even Jason. I completed my second tumble turn and then felt blinding pain . Someone had kicked me in the left side. As I squirmed up to the surface I saw Jason flit past me. I hopped around, rubbing my flank, furious as all the other swimmers raced off into the distance.

‘MacLeod, what's wrong?’ Mr Mazibuko asked.

‘Nothing sir, just a cramp,’ I lied.

‘You didn't warm up, did you?’ he asked, with a concerned look on his face. ‘Go take a breather, and start with the next heat if you're feeling better.’

‘OK, sir,’ I managed, and crawled out of the pool to go sit down on a bench, rubbing my sore side. The other boys finished. Jason was first and was beating his chest triumphantly in the water. He briefly looked at me, trademark serial killer grin on cue. I ignored him.

‘Good going, Weiss,’ nodded Mr Mazibuko. ‘Ok, butterfly. Get yourselves ready!’

‘Wait, sir,’ I said. ‘I'm going too.’

‘If you cramp out again you're off for the rest of the day.’

‘Understood.’

Suddenly I thought of Chris. I was going to be calm, very calm, and not give Jason any satisfaction. I looked back at Jason and nodded to him with a smile. ‘Well done,’ I said to him, and suddenly felt invincible.

He looked at me quizzically.

‘Ready, set, GO!’

I don't know how, but after an initial wince the pain was gone. I was just so focused on the water that I didn't even realize I was first to finish because I turned around for another length and Mr Mazibuko shouted at me to stop.

Jason was second to arrive, and he did not like it. He punched the water with a sour expression. I couldn't help feeling vindicated.

‘Excellent, MacLeod,’ he said, bending down and tapping me on the back. ‘Great form. THIS, he said, pointing to me, is how you swim butterfly. Furious but graceful. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee eh?’ He chuckled, clapping his hands. ‘St Franks hasn't won the interschool championships for four years…I see a lot of talent here today, men!’

We proceeded with backstroke, this went uneventfully, and I tied with Vijay Padayachee, who was a newbie who was surprising everyone. We were exhausted, and staggered out of the pool for the next round to do their heats. Panting heavily, we collapsed on the one stand where Mr Mazibuko addressed us.

‘Great work, this team. For now… you can all stay. In particular I think the overall winner is - for the first time -MacLeod!’

I smiled, not quite believing, but thrilled.

‘Something good has happened to you, MacLeod. I think you've developed the attitude you need.’

My fellow swimmers applauded. Except, of course, Jason, who was looking surly and then skulked off to the boys change room.

‘Ok, men, you've earned your rest, and Caleb gets the master key to the steam-room. You can all go home and rest while I triage the next two groups. Next time we're going at it full throttle!’

With that Mazibuko lumbered away blowing his whistle to put the next group of boys through their paces.

 

*

 

The steam was great. In typical fashion we were playing chicken to see how long we could stay at the hottest temperature before passing out. I was feeling euphoric, half-dazed by the extreme heat and thrilled by my finest performance in the pool so far. I’d never been a bad swimmer, but had never really shone. I’d never expected to feel so happy two days into the new school year.

The other guys in our group left and I stayed in a good ten minutes longer, just letting my mind float. Then I remembered Chris would be waiting for me. My body was aching now, and the kick to my side was making its presence known again. I hobbled to the nearest shower stall and launched myself into an ice-cold rain. The shock of the cold water was invigorating. When I thought I had endured enough I brought the water to the perfect temperature and just stood there letting it massage my back.

I was in deep, deep thought when I felt myself connecting with the tiled wall. Two fists plunged into my back. Winded, I fell gasping to the floor, confused and frightened. I couldn't make a sound. I looked up. Bending over me was Jason. He had a vicious sneer on his face and his hand was grabbing my throat.

‘Fuck you, MacLeod,’ he hissed. ‘Quit trying to be a faggot prima donna.’ His eyes exuded absolute hatred. Naked and glistening, his taut body looked like some steroid-enhanced version of Gollum.

I coughed and tried to mouth the words ‘Stop, Please.’

‘You think you’re better than me?’ he went on, his voice getting thinner and reedier. ‘NO-ONE. Is. Better. Than. ME!’

With all the strength I had, I swung a punch at him. It missed, feebly grazing his chin. I’d never even tried to hit somebody before.

He kneed me in the groin. I doubled up and crumpled to the ground, groaning softly. I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of screaming.

There was movement at the back of the changing rooms and a group of boys came in. Jason cautiously backed away, but not before mouthing ‘I’m watching you’.

You fucking coward, I thought to myself. At least have the balls to attack me in public. I was crying, but more as a reflex. I was most disappointed that I couldn’t even throw a decent punch. I didn’t dare dwell on the monstrous unfairness of it all, because I’d been a victim for far too long.

I must have stayed under the shower zoning out and getting my breath back for a long time because the next thing I remember was a gentle tap on my back. I winced, darting around with wide eyes.

‘Whoa, easy tiger,’ said Chris, who had come into the changing rooms to find me. ‘It’s just me.’

I nodded, but kept my arms folded protectively over my body.

‘What happened? Are you hurt? Oh fuck. You look like you've been... holy shit, did someone hurt you?’

‘Just leave it, Chris,’ I said.

‘For fuck’s sakes,’ he growled under his breath and quietly punched his one fist into his hand. ‘Let me see.’

‘No, it’s ok,’ I coughed, ‘it’s…’

‘Buddy – trust me. No one can see us here.’ He laid a protective hand around my shoulder. I nodded. Ever so gently, he pulled me towards him and stared at the spot on my flank, which was rapidly turning into a big blue shiner.

‘Arsehole. So that’s what happened in the first heat. Did the fucker kick you in the nuts too?’ he asked nonchalantly.

‘How did you know?’ I said, my voice more even.

‘The way you’re clutching your stomach. You always feel the pain there. Trust me, I know.’

I was shivering and suddenly realized I was completely naked in front of my new friend. ‘I - I need a towel,’ I gasped.

‘Here you go,’ he said, handing me one. ‘And don’t worry, I have brothers and we’re all guys here. Sorry, I figured your shy.'

'Thanks,' I managed.

'Take your time and get dressed and I’ll meet you outside. I want to KILL whoever did this to you… and I know it’s Jason, you don’t have to tell me. I want to march up to that arsewipe right now and kick his head in!’  

He certainly looked angry; Chris’s fists were balled and every muscle in his body was tense. He looked like a panther about to pounce.

‘No Chris… not your fight…’

‘Ok buddy. But... I’m going to help YOU do something about this.’

‘What can I do?’ I sighed. ‘This is my life, Chris.’

‘Not necessarily. Just leave it to your pal to change a few things.’

I nodded, not knowing what to say.

‘Do you want me to take you home rather? We can always reschedule if you’re not feeling well,’ he said kindly.

‘No, dude,’ I said, breathing heavily. ‘I would really, really, like to go and get out of here and just do what we said we’d do.’

‘As you wish, captain,’ he said, and gave me the Vulcan salute. ‘See you outside.’

A few moments later we were in The Thing and driving out the school gates.

‘How you feeling?’ said Chris, turning into the main road.

‘Ok, I guess. I mean, it was awesome to come first and all,’

‘Yeah! Cal, you were like on fire with the butterfly!’

‘You were watching me?’

‘Yeah! I sat on the grandstands. You’re like a torpedo in the water!’

‘Ja, thanks. Until of course it all went south later. Jason is...’

‘A narcissistic fuckwit who can’t handle anything better than he is.’

I laughed, even though it hurt. ‘I guess you said it, Durban boy,’ I said, smiling.

‘So come now,’ he said, slapping me on my thigh, ‘we’re gonna have an awesome afternoon, and if you don’t feel like going through the work stuff we can just hang out. Forget all this kak and listen to your friend.’

I closed my eyes, playing a mental movie of all the highs and lows that I’d been through in the past 24 hours. For the second time, I was with Chris after a traumatic event and I was feeling safe and calm. Even happy. It was only when we arrived in his driveway when I realized his elbow had been gently leaning on my shoulder throughout the drive home.


5. A Spy in the Land of Canaan

Chris’s house was in Constantia, that beautiful, expensive valley of mountain vistas, city vineyards and WASPy housewives permanently sipping Chardonnay.

‘Wow,’ I said, as he drove up to the wrought-iron gates of a large Cape Georgian house.

‘Oh,’ he said. ‘It’s called an expensive divorce settlement.’

He looked uncomfortable. ‘Mom kind of took my dad to the cleaners.’

‘When did you move in?’ I asked, changing the topic as we drove into the garage. We pulled up next to a gleaming silver Mercedes.

‘Just before Christmas,’ he said. ‘We’re still unpacking.’

We got out and Chris motioned me to the kitchen door. The Thing looked comically out of place next to the Merc. He seemed to sense this.

‘Dad tried to buy me a brand new LandRover for Christmas, which was so weird. I mean, the biggest thing he’s ever bought me was a Swiss watch for my sixteenth. I guess he was feeling guilty about leaving.’

I whistled. ‘Respect, dude,’ I said. ‘I don’t think I would have been that gracious.’

‘Plus I couldn’t have parted with her, could I?’ said Chris, looking proudly at The Thing. ‘My brothers fixed her up and gave her to me for my eighteenth birthday last year. I was so inspired I passed my driver’s the next week.’

‘Sweet,’ I said, touched.

'Anyway, here we are,’ Chris said, leading me into the kitchen. ‘Mom!’ he yelled. ‘We’re home!’

‘Coming, sweetheart,’ said a distant voice. Chris made a beeline for the fridge and grabbed a bottle of milk.

‘Want something to drink?’ he asked. I shook my head. ‘Ok, don’t mind me.’ 

He glugged greedily from the bottle. I sensed someone coming up behind me.

‘Chris! Don’t drink from the bottle!’

With a guilty grin Chris put down the bottle and walked towards his mother. He looked very cute with a milk moustache.

Mrs Hathaway was a small woman with wild, wavy red hair and an intelligent, freckled face. She looked like Julianne Moore having a bad hair day.

‘Hello, Chrissie,’ she said, kissing her son.

‘Gross, Mom, you’ve been smoking,’ he said, pulling up his nose.

‘I need my vices.’ She turned around and smiled. ‘You must be Caleb.’

‘That’s right. Hello, Mrs Hathaway,’ I said, holding out my hand.

‘I’m Fiona. So nice to meet you.’

She wasn’t all what I had expected. She was all Earth mother. She was wearing multiple layers of beads and hippie fabrics. I liked her instantly. She had a broad, sunlit smile and I knew immediately from where Chris had gotten his pearly whites. Neither she nor her son seemed to belong in this massive house.

‘You’re our first official guest,’ she said. ‘I’m so happy he’s already made a friend. And thank you so much for helping my son out.’

‘It’s nothing,’ I said, and felt that I should be the one thanking her.

‘Has Chris offered you a drink?’ she asked, walking to the fridge and pouring herself a glass of wine. ‘This is a really nice Sauvignon Blanc, right here from the cutest little vineyard up the road. There’s beer in the fridge too.’

‘Mom!’ said Chris, rolling his eyes.

‘I’m still seventeen, Mrs Hathaway,’ I said, blushing. ‘But thank you.’

‘Oh!’ she said, covering her face. ‘I’m so sorry. I’ve been trying to be all grown-up about my baby becoming a, well, grown-up. And you seem so mature, Caleb.’

‘Thanks, Mrs Hathaway.’ 

‘Please call me Fiona,’ she said. ‘You boys help yourselves to whatever you like, but don’t overeat because I’m cooking tonight.’

‘Well this is news,’ said Chris to his mother. ‘You haven’t cooked since we got here.’

‘Well, we have a guest,’ she said, feigning indignance. ‘You must excuse my son, he’s a bit of a hooligan. To think that I was in labour for seventeen hours with him.’

Chris squirmed. It was rather cute seeing this big guy in front of his tiny dynamo of a mother.

‘Mom…’ he sighed, and she pinched his cheeks.

‘You’ll always be my baby. Ok, the old dragon will leave now, I think I’ve embarrassed my son enough for the day.’

‘That’s Mom,’ Chris said, shrugging helplessly. ‘Let’s chill out a bit before we get to work? It’s hot and, um, I know you’ve been swimming all afternoon, but I’d love to get into the pool.’ He pointed to the back garden with its massive sparkling pool. In the distance was a postcard view of the Constantia Valley.

‘Awesome,’ I said, gaping. 

I followed him through the large expanse of the house, up the stairs and down the corridor to his room. It was impressive. It opened up on to a terrace directly overlooking the valley. You could see Table Mountain in the distance. There was a large sleigh-bed and a beautiful oak desk with a brand new iMac. Comic books were stacked up against the wall along with several boxes that still had to be unpacked. Rugby balls, dumbbells, gaming magazines and CDs littered the floor. Chris evidently was a bit of a slob, I thought to myself. He seemed to like Calvin Klein briefs and Abercrombie boxers (the latter which you couldn’t get in South Africa) - there were several scattered on the floor.

I imagined he looked pretty impressive in them.

‘Sorry, it’s a bit of a mess.’

‘No - it’s cool,’ I said, gawking at a vintage Star Wars poster from the 70s hanging above his bed.

‘Yeah, it’s real,’ Chris said. ‘My dad took my eldest brother to see the film when it first came out, and Matthew loved it so much my dad bribed the cinema to give him the poster.’

‘You must really be the baby of the family then,’ I said.

‘Ja. Three older brothers – Matt is 35. Sixteen years older. He’s been more like a second dad than a brother to me.’

He plopped his bag on the bed. ‘Dump your stuff, dude,’ he said, ‘and let’s get changed.’

Chris started undressing nonchalantly until he was standing in nothing but a pair of white boxers.

Although I’m shy, I was used to changing rooms, but had never seen someone who could have been a Men’s Health cover model. I blinked, thinking for a moment that he’d been airbrushed or something. His body seemed the perfect combination between surfer and rugby player – ripped but not bulging, powerful but graceful. He had the trifecta of washboard abs, smooth, tight pectorals, and legs worthy of Greek statuary. 

I realized I was staring and looked away. I started fumbling in my gym bag for my swimming kit. Chris had found a pair of boardshorts and promptly kicked off his boxers. He was now completely naked and he must have heard me gasp this time. I tried to look away but couldn’t help glancing at the obvious. He definitely didn’t get any complaints from the ladies, I thought.

‘Oh, sorry,’ he said, jumping into his boardshorts. ‘Didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable… I’m not shy but I forget other people are.’

‘It’s ok,’ I said, blushing.

‘Plus,’ he said, giving me a friendly little punch on the shoulder, ‘it’s not like I haven’t seen you naked before.’

I blushed more.

‘C’mon, Cal. I saw you in the pool – you have a great body. Nothing to be ashamed of.’

‘I’m just all thin and skinny,’ I said, shrugging. I took a deep breath  and hurriedly put on my swimming trunks. As an afterthought I put over my pair of gym shorts – I was not going to be seen dead in a Speedo anywhere outside the school pool.

‘That’s not a problem,’ said Chris, you just need a bit of meat on your bones. You’ve got great definition, hardly any body fat and you’re very well proportioned. If you got a bit out of your shell… hmm….’

‘Hmm, what?’ I said, suddenly feeling a bit like a piece of meat.

Chris chuckled. ‘I meant, we could get you to set a few hearts aflutter.’

‘Ha!’ I said, shaking my head. ‘Now you’re smoking something strong.’

‘No, bud, really. Give me six weeks and I’ll set you well on the way to being a machine. Plus I’m going to teach you to defend yourself against those fuckers.’

This was too much.

‘Dude!’ I said, all discombobulated. ‘I don’t understand. Why are you being so nice to me?'

‘Hey, buddy,’ he said, frowning. He came up to me and softened his voice. ‘I didn’t mean to come on too strong.’

‘No it’s not that – you’ve been so incredibly kind to me and you’ve just met me, and you must think I’m a total loser with all the shit I get myself into.’

He put an arm around me. I was so confused, and winced a little. God, I thought, this feels good, feeling the warmth of his bare skin against mine. It also felt wrong. And right at the same time.

‘Cal,’ he said softly,  'I think you’re an awesome guy. Like I said, you’re not fake. I feel like - I dunno... I’ve known you for a long time.’

It struck me that I felt the same way. I nodded idiotically.

‘You are not a loser,’ he continued, ‘THOSE fuckers are the losers. I’m sorry, but I’m making you my pet project. I want to teach you to use their own weapons against them. Anyone can have brute strength, but very few can apply brains to it. And you have a lot of brains.’

‘You’re kind… and… well, thank you.’

‘You’re welcome, MacLeod,’ he said, giving me a quick bro hug. This time I didn’t pull away.

 

 

*

 

We horsed around in the huge pool for at least an hour. I felt like a six-year old; it had been ages since I was in a pool doing anything but serious swimming. Exhausted, we clambered out of the water, breathing heavily. Chris’s abdominal muscles tensed and relaxed rhythmically, like a cat’s paws when it’s in a deep state of kitty nirvana.

I had to frog-march him to his desk to get to the actual purpose of the evening. If there’s one thing I do well, it’s organize things: within half and hour I had laid out the Form IV and V chemistry syllabus for him, making a list of all the bits he needed to brush up on and formulating a study plan on a spreadsheet. I was about to start on biology when Fiona called us for supper.

Despite her protestations about being a lousy cook, Fiona had whipped up a Moroccan dish from memory, gleaned from a trip to Morocco when she was a student. Chris joked that his mother could recall any recipe instantly yet would get lost in her own house. Although wildly different in appearance and manner, it seemed our respective mothers shared the same passion for life and astounding general knowledge. I suddenly missed Mom very much. Fiona was getting more and more animated as dinner progressed and I noticed Chris was looking a bit concerned.

‘That’s enough Mom,’ he said, holding a hand over her glass as she reached to empty the bottle of wine she’d been nursing since we’d arrived. She looked at him for an uncomfortable second and nodded.

‘I’m going to have a cigarette outside, boys,’ Fiona said, and excused herself. We finished our ice cream in silence.

‘Sorry,’ said Chris quietly. ‘My mom likes her wine every now and then.’

‘Sure,’ I said, and changed the subject, something MacLeods do best. ‘Shall we tackle some biology?’

‘That’ll be great. We’ve got an hour before I need to get you back. Thanks buddy.’

My friend looked really lost. I wanted to reach out to him, but didn’t know what to do except distract him with homework.

We took a last dip in the pool before he drove me home. It was a clear night, and we lay on recliners floating dreamily in the lukewarm water looking up at the stars. I traced out constellations on my finger and rattled off the mythology behind them to Chris, who was captivated.

‘How come you know so much?’ he said.

‘Fear of contact sports,’ I said, only half-joking. ‘When you don’t run around on the field you read a lot of books to pass the time.’

 

*

 

I stood for a long time at my window, gazing out at the lights of his car getting smaller and smaller as he drove off. So many thoughts were racing through my mind. How busy the past two days had been. How this guy was rapidly becoming one of my best friends. How good it felt to be in his arms…

‘Oh fuck,’ I said aloud. My brain spoke, cautioning my heart. Caleb MacLeod’s brain could be a haughty little thing; after all, it had ingested Freud and Jung at a time when other kids were reading Archie comics. It had figured things out, it had decided, and was calmly offering explanations. You have a crush, it said. No need to panic, it continued. Perfectly normal for a kid your age when you’re busy adjusting to growing up. It's a fledgeling bromance. You’ll get over it.

Except my brain was wrong. I didn’t know it yet, but I was completely, madly, and head-over-heels in love with Chris Hathaway.

 


6. I Can Make You A Man

True to my Celtic and Afrikaner bloodlines, I decided that for the time being there were more important things than silly things like crushes. I’d had crushes before. I recall Tammy Petersen in Grade 5, the first person I kissed (or rather, she pinned me against a wall and stuck a bubblegum-coated tongue down my throat. It was gross… and great.) Then there was my unrequited pining for Oscar de la Rey, who was the handsome Form V cricket captain when I started high school in Form I, and recently, Veronica Wakeford, she-who-belonged-to-Jason. 

My attempt at sublimating the crush was working, for now. Chris and I were quickly becoming close friends, and with a tide of homework, swimming training and piano pieces to memorize, there was no time to devote to my trademark bout of existential agonizing. Chris insisted on taking me to school for the next week, saying he was still busy putting some finishing touches on my bike. I went over to his house two more times, sorting and fine-tuning his study plan. 

A few days later, Chris was at my house extra early in the morning. I had just stepped out of the shower when I voices downstairs and realized he and my dad were chatting in the kitchen. I dived into my school uniform and raced down. Flustered, I started apologizing for being late.

‘Howzit bud,’ said Chris, ‘you’re not late, I’m early and your dad invited me in.’

‘Morning, son,’ said Dad, flicking a lint ball off his dentist’s jacket. ‘Chris and I were just gossiping about you.’

I raised an eyebrow. The two of them looked like old friends, each sitting with a big mug of coffee.

Then I saw my bike in the corner of the kitchen.

‘My bike!’ I exclaimed. ‘It’s fixed! How did you…?’

‘Oh,’ said Chris, ‘It was quite quick. I managed to get most of it done over the weekend. I just needed to spray, ahem, that scratch on the tube, which I did last night.

Nice save, I thought. Dad would have been so furious and devastated if he heard what had happened with Frank. The bike looked brand new. He’d even cleaned the spokes. I was speechless.

 ‘Th-thanks,’ I managed eventually.

‘You really went above and beyond the call of duty,’ said my dad. ‘Is there any way we can repay you for your kindness?’

‘Not at all,’ said Chris, ‘Cal has already paid me back more than enough by helping me with my studies. Besides, I’m a bit of a grease monkey and it gave me a chance to get out all my tools and shit… oh I’m sorry, Dr MacLeod.’ He covered his mouth in exactly the same way his mother did when she had offered me a glass of wine the previous week.

My father laughed. ‘We’re all adults here. Well, Cal’s got three months to go, but no need to apologize for the odd bit of French.’

‘Thanks,’ said Chris. ‘Um, as I was saying, it was nothing. The least I can do. I’d really like it if Cal would still ride with me today, though.’

‘Sure,’ I said, smiling. ‘And thank you, again.’ I was simultaneously touched by the way he had laboured on my bike and disappointed that I wouldn’t be riding with him any more.

 

*

 

 

‘Won’t you have to wait for me after school though?’ I asked Chris, as we trundled through the morning traffic. ‘I’ve got a music lesson.’

‘Oh, I know,’ he said. ‘I’ve got my own extra-murals this arvie.’

‘Oh really?’

‘Don’t think I’m going over to the Dark Side, but, there’s already rugby try-outs for the winter season. I need to run around a bit in the fresh air.’

‘Ok,’ I said nervously. I suddenly had this image in my mind of Chris hanging out with Frank Arliss and his cronies and becoming a testosterone zombie. But then I also had this image of Chris in rugby kit, covered in grime, and the image was rather pleasant. Crush alert, my brain cautioned, so I lay back in the seat and thought of England. Anthony W. England, to be precise, the geochemist who was also an astronaut, and whose work on Remote Sensing Geophysics I’d gobbled up like the supergeek I was.

Sensing that I was a bit uncomfortable, Chris pawed me on the shoulder. ‘Relax, buddy, I just enjoy mucking about with a ball. Besides, it would give me an opportunity to keep Frank and his boys in check.’

I chided myself for being so patronizing as to judge Chris for what he did in his free time.

‘You don’t have to protect me,’ I said.

‘I know, bru, but think of it as a bit of insurance until we get you ripped so you can trash those bastards yourself.'

I laughed. ‘Not bloody likely.’

‘Stick with me and you’ll go far. Which reminds me. Tomorrow after school, we’re hitting the gym. You’re gonna eat high protein…’

‘And swallow raw eggs,’ I chimed in.

Rocky Horror?' Chris asked with glee. 'I love that movie! I know all the music!'

‘No way,’ I said. ‘Me too!’ He’d floored me. 'How...?'

'My brother Matt has freakazoid tastes, growing up in the early eighties. Kinda rubbed off on me.'

'I guess that includes ABBA?'

‘I'm not admitting or denying guilt there,' he said, grinning. 'Look in my CD wallet,’ he added ‘I have the Rocky Horror soundtrack in there... you have to play it now!’

We arrived at school singing along to Dr Frank ‘n’ Furter like two escaped psychiatric patients.

He'll eat nutritious, high protein
And swallow raw eggs
Try to build up his shoulders
His chest, arms, and legs
Such an effort,
If he only knew of my plan
In just seven days
I can make you a man!

 

*

 

‘Where were you last night?’ asked Rob as we sat down to lunch. ‘I waited online for like an hour.’

‘Shit,’ I said. I’d forgotten that we had an online gaming meet.

‘That’s my fault,’ said Chris. ‘Cal's been helping me with getting my studies sorted.’

‘No, no,’ I said, feeling bad. ‘I forgot.’ Rob looked a bit sore. Chris bit his lip.

‘Oh dear, lover’s spat,’ said Bella, not looking up from her Virginia Woolf.

‘I’m going to get some juice,’ Chris said nervously, and left the table. Only then did Bella look up, her eyes glinting and fixed on Chris’s frame.

‘Dude,’ said Rob. ‘What’s this? You’ve known each other for, like, ten days and there’s already a bromance going on? We’ve never missed an online meet before.’

I nearly snorted my cream soda up my nose when he said “bromance”.

‘Are you jealous, Robbie?’ said Bella, slapping him on the shoulder.

‘Fuck off,’ said Rob. ‘I’m not jealous. No wait, maybe I am. I don't know. He seems like a really nice guy, and I’m chuffed we have a jock who seems to want to hang with us, but…’

I smiled. ‘It’s so sweet you’re being protective. And I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to stand you up.’

I confessed and explained about what happened with my bike on the first day.

Bella and Rob looked at me in horror as I relayed the story. Rob punched the table, and startled us.

‘Those orcs have messed me around a couple of times, but they’ve never gone that far,’ said Rob. ‘I’m sorry buddy. I feel like I should have been there. Good on Chris for helping you out.’

I couldn’t help smiling at the thought of Rob with his spindly frame rushing to my aid.

‘You should report this,’ said Bella. ‘But then again it could backfire and just mark you more. I can’t wait for varsity where no-one gives a fuck about who you are.’

‘Guess it wouldn’t hurt to have some muscle on our side,’ said Rob, nodding. ‘I’m still your best buddy though?’

‘Of course, Your Highness,’ I said, doing my best Darth Vader voice. In Grade 3 I had decided that I was Darth Vader and Bella was Princess Leia and I was going to rule the galaxy, until Rob reminded me that Emperor Palpatine was in fact Vader’s superior. ‘And you, too, Leia,’ I said, looking at Bella.

‘Oh, I never doubted that,' she said. 'But it still doesn’t change the fact that you have a total man-crush on Chris. It’s cute.’

‘Pot calling the kettle black!’ I gasped with feigned indignation. ‘You’ve been batting your eyes and pouting like a cheerleader since you saw him.’

‘Maybe. Let’s face it, he’s gorgeous. But still. You two would look so cute together. I just hope your first wife approves,’ she said, looking at Rob, who groaned.

Moments later Chris sat down next to me and I blushed crimson.

‘What’s with you?’ he asked.

‘Oh, nothing,’ said Bella, gazing dreamily at Chris, ‘Cal’s just a bit hot under the collar.’

I gave her a death stare. She didn’t blink. ‘I mean, he’s always sensitive to changes in… the weather. So I believe you’re trying out for rugby, Mr Hathaway? I’d love to come watch, actually, seeing you boys trying to kill each other over an egg-shaped piece of leather. So Freudian, those scrums.’

Our Y chromosomes squirmed in concert.

 

*

 

The next couple of weeks passed in a flurry. Chris had been taken on as a flyhalf in the Second Team. As it happened, rugby and swimming took place on the same days (as did Rob’s chess and computer club) so our little band of oddities was able to meet for lunch regularly. Bella simply changed poetry club to fit in, seeing she was the chairman and frequently the sole member. I had never made real friends beyond Rob and Bella before, so I was thrilled that they both accepted this blond, six-foot, muscled addition to the Geek Corner of the dining hall. 

Miraculously, I hadn't had any major incidents with Frank or Jason lately. Only once did I bump into Frank and his crowd at the bicycle shed. They stared at my bike and looked very confounded, but nothing happened. Were they cautious that Chris might be around, perhaps? 

I had to lie to Mr Mazibuko about where the bruises on my back and side had come from, but after Vijay and I were winning more and more heats I noticed I wasn’t as scared of Jason as I usually was. I knew he couldn’t beat up Vijay because that would immediately out him as a racist and a bully, and that would be goodbye to his prefect career. I’d like to say that I’m a bigger person in that I didn’t succumb to Schadenfreude, but it was rather delicious beating the Weissmeister (as he called himself) – several times. 

Still, I had this uncomfortable feeling that Jason was simply storing up indignation and malice, just waiting to pounce at an unexpected moment. I shuddered to realize that he was probably taking it out on those most defenceless: hapless little Form Ones who were known to be threatened out of lunch money or made to run menial errands for lazy seniors.

I managed to sort out Chris’s study plan without much effort. In return he marched me off to gym. I had only ever used the local gym for swimming, never even thinking about the alternate universe that existed upstairs where iron and sweat and grunting were ever present.

Naturally, I made a total idiot out of myself the first time, having never really done weights before. I nearly cried like a girl when I tried my first bench press and Chris had to scramble to catch the teetering barbell so that I didn’t end up with a dislocated shoulder. I remember that afternoon well. When I complained melodramatically about having no coordination he chided me, looking directly at me with a very serious expression on his face.

‘Don’t give up so easily, man.’ He had put his emerald eyes on stun. ‘Do you mean to tell me you can play piano at advanced level, and can swim the butterfly like a seal on cocaine, but don’t have co-ordination? Bullshit. It’s all there. Just move the energy from the little muscles to the big muscles.’

He was right; I just needed practice. I was the physician who had to heal himself: Just a week before, I had sat patiently explaining the finer details of organic chem to Chris late into the night, getting him to draw benzene rings and Aufbau diagrams over and over, until I made some rugby metaphor about the ball being passed from player to player, when the lights went on and he understood the nebulous concept of electron resonance. I guess it was just taking me a little while to get accustomed to being the student and someone else being the teacher this time.

Slowly, very slowly, the weights started piling up on the barbells, and it didn’t hurt as much the next day after a session. (Rob even joined us once, but then texted afterwards that he couldn’t move a chess piece without wanting to burst into tears, and had taken to bed with anti-inflammatories and a PlayStation.)

It was turning out to be one of the best school years ever – about bloody time, I thought. Somewhere in all this montage of rapidly growing schoolwork, music, gym and swimming I completely forgot about my crush. Bella and Rob did openly speak about the ‘Fine Bromance’ between Chris and I, but it simply seemed like we Three Musketeers had found our D’Artagnan. 

 

*

 

Just over two months had passed, and one could just detect that the glorious Cape summer days were slowly getting shorter, the evening light turning from champagne to cognac as autumn approached. It was still hot though, and I’d passed out on my bed one afternoon when my father knocked on the door.

‘Come in,’ I said sleepily, rubbing my eyes. I’d had a weird dream that Rachmaninov and Chopin were sitting at the piano with me arguing about what was the best way for me to approach the Beethoven sonata I was learning. Except old man Rachmaninov was wearing rugby gear and poncey Chopin was clad in only a swimsuit. 

‘Hey Cal,’ said my father, opening the door. ‘I just wanted to make sure you’re ready. We’re leaving in an hour so better get ready.’

Uncle Joe, my mom’s brother, was in town and the family was meeting him for dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant in Tamboerskloof. We hadn’t seen him since the funeral; he had had to fly back to Qatar where he worked as an ex-pat civil engineer. The city of Doha was threatening to take over Dubai as the next Middle Eastern Metropolis, and the latter I mean in the Superman sense. My uncle had always been a nomad, and Grandma, when she was still alive, said her son had been doomed to be restless after fighting in the Angolan War.

‘Sure, Dad. I’ll just go take a shower.’

I got up and realized I was only in my boxers.

My father looked me up and down and smiled. ‘That gym is really paying off, my boy,’ he said. ‘Seems there’s a bit of your dad’s genes under there after all. At least when he was in his prime. Think I better get Chris to sort me out, too!’

He patted his belly and left.

Curious, I had a good hard look at myself in the bathroom mirror. I had always thought my body was entirely my mother’s lanky frame, but Chris’s rigorous regimen of supersets and a Rocky Horror diet was activating my MacLeod genes. For the first time, I had proper biceps appearing. My six-pack was no longer attributable to just being skinny; there was something growing there. My legs and arms were filling out, and for the first time I thought I was looking pretty damn good, the V of my swimmer’s torso finally coming into its own.

Like all  boys my age I posed for ages, flexing and admiring myself. I stripped off my shorts and looked at my nakedness in the mirror. I was that Thing now, the big M, a man. I explored my body slowly with deep clinical interest, as if it were an alien. My hand stopped at my groin. I shook my head as I thought how it was that this almost comical piece of flesh was considered ground zero of manhood and masculinity.

I’d never really compared or measured or appreciated that part of myself for what it was, apart from being a useful conduit for peeing standing up, and, ok, a ever-obliging stress reliever armed with a couple of girlie mags. (Ok, and lately, the odd Men’s Health too). But, there it was, and, suddenly, on this afternoon, looking at my reflection, everything seemed to just belong happily together. There was no angst about being too small or deformed or cut or uncut. It was odd, feeling this, this holistic sense of self. I wanted to appreciate more of this, but now I needed to shower.

 

*

It was hard seeing Uncle Joe. I think he’d been in complete denial about Mom’s death and simply plunged himself back into work in Doha, and now that he saw the family he had to deal with reality. He had tears in his eyes when we arrived at the restaurant, hugging me and Sarah so tightly it was hard to breathe. It would have been nice to have had Oupa Stefan there, but he was deep in his eighties and since Mom died he looked more like a hundred.

‘You’re looking good, Callie,’ said Uncle Joe, who was the only person allowed to call me by that diminutive. ‘Have you been working out?’

I nodded as the dim sum arrived. I suddenly felt strange. We hadn’t had all the family together since the funeral, and I felt this strange squeezing sensation around my heart. I realized I hadn’t thought about Mom really in the last few weeks and I felt guilty.

‘Can’t believe my little brother’s growing up,’ added Sarah warmly. She’s always been protective of me, and this acknowledgement meant a lot.

‘Good show. Tell your personal trainer I approve.’ Now that really was a compliment. Joe and my mother were like yin and yang; he was built like a Staffordshire bull terrier and had been a judo champion in his youth. Mom, by contrast, was the tall graceful bookworm. But they were extremely close.

‘Yeah, it’s about time he stopped being so scrawny,’ said Dave, who was rudely texting on his phone. I ignored him and Uncle Joe winked at me.

No one had spoken about Mom, and her absence at the table was painfully evident. As we spoke about more pleasantries I couldn’t bear it any more. I grabbed Dave’s glass.

‘Hey!’ he said.

‘To Mom,’ I said, holding up the glass.

Startled, everyone meekly raised their glasses. I took a big gulp. It was a Pinotage, and not being used to red wine, the tannins made my mouth pucker.

‘Son – you shouldn’t…’ said my Dad.

‘Shouldn’t what?’ I said, a little too loudly. ‘Drink? I’m eighteen in a month. Or do you mean talk about Mom?’

There was a nasty silence around the table.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘Excuse me. I need some air.’

I got up and walked out into the back garden of the restaurant. I heard my father get up but Uncle Joe held him back. ‘Leave him, Devon,’ I heard him say.

I must have stood outside for at least five minutes when I felt a small hand on my shoulder. It was Sarah.

‘Hey sis,’ I said, feeling stupid. I still had Dave’s half-full glass of wine in my hand.

‘I think you should down it,’ she said with a wry smile.

‘It’s gross.’

‘You’ll learn to love it. Wine is every Capetonian’s birthright.’

I gulped it down and made a face. Then my tiny sister embraced me, and I put my head down on her shoulder. We didn’t say anything. I wanted to cry but nothing came out.

‘Come, let’s go back and eat supper,’ she said, ‘and the MacLeods can sweep all their emotions under the carpet at usual.’

The wine helped, and soon I was pleasantly tipsy. I’d ordered a hot curry and the millions of Scoville units it let loose on my mouth and tongue only made me more spaced out.

‘Son,’ my father said eventually. ‘I was chatting to Joe while you were, ah, outside, and we’ve been thinking you need a bit of a break? You’ve been working so hard.’

‘Ok…’ I said, unsure about what he meant.

‘You know about the little house I’ve bought in Theewaterskloof as an investment?’ said Uncle Joe.

‘Yes, I remember,’ I said. Theewaterskloof – literally, “Valley of the Tea Coloured Water” in Dutch – is a stunningly beautiful place just an hour out of Cape Town up in the Overberg District. There is a huge dam that looks more like an Alpine lake; it segues so naturally into the landscape of craggy mountains and lush forest. On the other side of the mountains lies Franschhoek, where French Huguenot refugees first brought wine to Africa in the 17th Century.

‘Well, I need someone to go check it out and make sure everything’s in order,’ Joe continued. ‘I have to fly back to Doha next week and I can’t go myself. I haven’t been able to get a tenant yet and it’s standing empty, perhaps you and a friend would like to go up there? Maybe for the upcoming long weekend?’

‘I think some you-time with friends would be good for you,’ said my Dad, looking me directly in the eye. ‘You and Rob and Chris and Bella could all go and have a great time, if their parents were ok with it.’

I couldn’t argue and it sounded like a great idea. Human Rights Day was coming up in two weeks, celebrated every 21st of March since 1994. It was held in remembrance of the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre when the police opened fire on a crowd of pro-democracy protesters, killing 69. It fell on a Thursday and the education department had graciously made the Friday a school holiday as well.

‘That sounds… awesome.’

‘I wouldn’t have a problem if Chris drove you guys up,’ said my father.

‘I don’t think that’s such a good idea,’ said Dave, who’d been basically silent throughout dinner. ‘Three teenage boys with a girl? Not that old Cally here would be any threat.’

‘I trust Chris and Rob, and I trust my son,’ said Dad, giving him a pointed stare. Sarah looked very uncomfortable. I gritted my teeth.

‘All sorted then?’ said Joe. ‘Talk to your friends and I’ll give you all the details before I leave.’

Dad and Joe were right. I did need some downtime. And the thought of chilling out with my best mates sounded just perfect.

However, there was this small voice I kept hearing inside of me.

It said how nice it would be if it were just Chris and I.


7. Galaxies

As it turned out, that little voice was going to get its wish at least partly fulfilled.

All my friends were delighted to come.Chris agreed instantly when I asked him. Rob, however, would only be able to come up on the Saturday, as he was going with his family to Arniston first to visit his grandparents. Bella, in turn, decided the impromptu weekend would be the perfect opportunity to nurture her “tragically repressed inner poet” (or something). She decided to invite herself along to Arniston, tagging along with Rob to the mountain cottage on the way back.

‘Two days on the beach and two days in the mountains would be a perfect juxtaposition,’ she had sighed, as Bella and Rob and I walked out of school one afternoon. It was a week before the long weekend.

‘You just said that so you could use the word “juxtaposition”,’ snorted Rob. ‘But of course you’re welcome, you know how much my grandparents love you.’
‘Yeah, and they’re still hoping we’ll end up marrying and raising personality-disordered children,’ said Bella. ‘I mean, my emo to your geek? Poor kids would never have a chance.’

I had to laugh. What I loved most about Bella was her ability to send herself up. Behind the Avril Lavigne make-up and tortured artistic angst was a girl who was more self-actualized than a roomful of Gestalt therapists.

Chris caught sight of us as we walked past the rugby fields and he sprinted towards us.

‘Hey guys,’ he said, panting. He was smeared with mud and was sporting a bruise next to his left eye.

I had this sudden urge to run up and wipe his face and ask him if he was all right, even if it was just to be close to him... steady on, Cal, I found myself muttering under my breath. You're going to have him all to yourself soon... oh my God...

I nearly lost my balance as all the pennies dropped: All to yourself for two whole days.

 

Chris winked at me as he walked up and I just hoped he hadn't seen my little geek-out.

‘Howzit,’ said Rob. ‘You’ve just rescued me from a conversation involving a horrible alternate universe married to Miss Carmichael here.’
 

Chris sniggered.

‘Eventful practice?’ Rob asked him.

‘Yeah. Rough tackle,’ he said, patting his eye proudly.

‘All this violence,’ sighed Bella. ‘Anyway,’ she said, ‘I’m all keen for the long weekend. I’ll just have to check if my parents are ok with me coming to Theewaterskloof,’ she said.

‘What do you mean?’ I said. ‘We’ve been away for weekends on our own before.’

‘But not with Captain Fantastic here,’ she said, patting Chris on his taut belly, ‘who, as you know is a big man who can drink alcohol and drive a car.’ She looked at Chris with a truculent little smile. ‘I guess my father thinks you’re going to hit me over the head with a club and drag me by the hair to a cave and well, you know, be a caveman.’

Chris was very cute when he blushed. ‘You know me better than that,’ he said meekly.

‘Of course I do, but I’m allowed to call you a caveman when you’re walking around like that in your filthy rugby gear. Why do boys always have to play in the mud?’

‘Because me likey,’ Chris said suddenly in a Frankenstein’s Monster voice, taking mud from his shorts and wiping it on his face so he looked appropriately Cro-Magnon. He wielded an imaginary club behind Bella’s head and scratched his chest with his other hand.

‘You tell father me drag you to nice cave,’ he grunted. ‘Me have big club for woman me likey.’

It was Bella’s turn to blush. ‘Ok, Hathaway. I concede. Anyway, guys, I’d love to come, but my parents need to be ok with it. I am after all their youngest baby who they think is never going to grow up.’

Fortunately, my dad ended up calling the Carmichaels to vouch for Chris’s inner boy scout.

 

 

*
 

Chris and I drove up on the Wednesday. School finished early, and after lunch at my house we changed into civvies, loaded my stuff in The Thing and stopped at the supermarket to buy groceries. Chris was like a kid at Christmas when we got to the sweets aisle, arming himself with enough chocolate slabs and boiled sweets to preserve himself in sugar for a couple of geological epochs. 

‘Don't look at me like that, when you're still smoking behind everybody's back,’ he retorted when I stared at him stuffing the umpteenth strawberry sparkle into his mouth as we set off.

‘I don't smoke that much,’ I protested.

‘Really. You and my mother. Wish you'd stop. I don't like my loved ones smelling like ashtrays.’ He put on a cross baby face, which just upped my crush level to Orange Alert.

Loved ones. I felt this little warm glow in the base of my spine. We turned on to the N2 and The Thing reluctantly shuddered into fifth gear. Soon we were speeding past the outskirts of the city and towards the Stellenbosch Mountains, glowing purple in the early autumn afternoon. If you continued on this highway, South Africa's longest, you'd pass through three provinces, each with some of the most magnificent landscapes on the planet, eventually sneaking past through Durban up the Dolphin Coast towards Mozambique. There the highway swung ninety degrees inland, passing through Anglo-Boer War battlefields, eventually joining the N4 in Mpumalanga province. You could then drive west to the Washington-upon-Boredom that is the nation's capital, Pretoria, or go east touching the base of the Kruger Park, eventually stopping at the boiling blue bay of Maputo.

As we climbed Sir Lowry's Pass the breath-taking arc of False Bay stretched itself lazily behind us, flanked by craggy peaks on either side. Table Mountain herself became smaller and smaller as the cold Atlantic behind her sparkled in a symphony of cerulean and indigo. As if on cue, Chris popped in a mix CD he had burned. The first track was U2’s Beautiful Day.

‘This is going to be such an awesome weekend!’ he said excitedly as we reached the top of the pass. ‘Just one rule, ok?’

‘What?’

‘No rules,’ he replied grinning. ‘We do what we want. Sleep, read, walk, swim, zone out, whatever takes our fancy.’

‘Absolutely.’

We hit the top of the pass and started weaving gently down again. Music pulsed within, sunlight pulsed without. I noticed both our left hands were tapping out the rhythm of the song independently. Without warning, Chris turned down the volume.

'Cal?’ he asked, softly, eyes fixed on the winding road.

‘Ja?’

‘Thank you buddy.’ He had narrowed his beautiful eyes the way he does when he's being serious. ‘This means a lot to me. I think this is the first proper time out I've had since my folks split up. Probably for you too.’

‘It's a pleasure,’ I said, touched. ‘You're right, too,’ I added quietly.

‘I just want you to know if you ever want to talk about your mom, I'm here. I'm not sure I'd know what to say but I'm a good listener.’

He said it with such warmth, such gentleness. I took a deep breath.

‘Um, thanks,’ I managed. The thought of talking about Mom hadn’t even occurred to me. ‘You'd be my first port of call,’ I said quietly, and I widened my eyes when I realized that I meant it.

‘Any time, dude,’ he said, ruffling my hair. ‘Whoa, we're getting too serious, aren’t we? Let's up the mood.’

He skipped to the next track. It was The Zephyr Song by the Chilli Peppers. Just right, I thought.

Just after Grabouw we turned off on to the road to Theewaterskloof, stopping at a roadside café to have a cup of coffee and buy some firewood. We drove on and were soon in a Tolkienesque landscape as we approached the massive dam sprawling between the peaks that glowed like molten electrum in the afternoon sun. I'd forgotten how spectacular the valley was.

We crossed the dam and soon turned off onto the road that led to the farm where Uncle Joe's cottage was. He'd bought the house and a few hectares of land from Mr Gerber, a rich fruit farmer. Joe had arranged for us to fetch the keys from him.

Mr Gerber was a short man with a grey Texan moustache and a ruddy complexion. He waved as we turned into the driveway of his rambling colonial farmhouse.

‘Hello boys,’ he said cheerfully. ‘You must be Joe's nephew,’ he added, shaking hands with me and nodding hello to Chris. ‘Glad to see you came in a 4x4. The drive up to the cottage is a bit of a rough track.’ He pointed up to a small plateau halfway up one of the looming peaks. Through a glade one could just make out the cottage, its windows glinting in the afternoon sun. I felt oddly thrilled at how isolated it was.

‘I put on the electricity just now,’ said Mr Gerber, ‘so you boys should have hot water this evening. I suggest you make a fire too because it gets bloody cold on the mountain at night.’

‘Thanks,’ said Chris, taking the keys.

We waved and started up the rough track to the cottage. Here, The Thing came into its own, tenaciously gripping the earth and growling like a big cat as we snaked through the hairpin bends surrounded by thick forest. Startled birds swooped through the trees, and we nearly ran over a mongoose scurrying across the track. I could see Chris loved off-roading and I was beginning to enjoy it too.

The track leveled out and the forest cleared as we finally turned into the driveway of the cottage.

‘Shit,’ said Chris, and I whistled. ‘This is awesome.’

Huge, ancient trees stood guard over the cottage. It was built from wood slats and painted white in a New England style. It had evidently been Mr Gerber’s pet project before he sold it. It was a double-storey and had a wide porch in front of the house. As we walked to the front door we gasped as we looked out at the view. The entire valley yawned before us like a golden green ocean, falling away from the overgrown front garden as if it were a continental shelf. 

Inside, Uncle Joe had furnished it in a minimalist, modest manner. There was a huge couch in front of the fireplace and to my delight there were several bookshelves filled with what I realized were books from Oupa Stefanus’s house.

Chris raced up the stairs. I heard his feet thudding above on the wooden floors. He yelled. ‘Cal! Come check this out!’

I ran up and found Chris on the balcony of the main bedroom with his arms outstretched, turning around in a circle. ‘The view is even more spectacular here! And look! There’s a lake!’

Sure enough, about two hundred metres behind the house, was a small lake with that disappeared into the forest. Joe hadn’t told me how beautiful the place was.

‘I’m going to jump in that lake right now!’ said Chris, grinning like an excited toddler, kicking off his shoes and socks. ‘I'll race you there!’

He took off and thundered down the stairs. Bewildered, I could do nothing but run after him.

‘Chris!’ I yelled, as we darted through the trail behind the house. He was a good twenty metres in front of me, whooping and waving his arms. ‘What about towels? Swimming trunks?’

‘Who needs trunks!’ he cried, and started stripping off his clothes as he ran. I laughed nervously to myself, stopping at the jetty just to see him sound the depth of the water with his leg and then jump into the lake nude.

He let out a yawp, splashing about with glee. ‘It’s great,’ he said. ‘Jump in!’

‘But…’

‘C’mon Cal! It’s not like I haven’t seen you in the shower. No one can see us here. Get in!’

‘Ok…’

Quickly, I took off my clothes and jumped hurriedly into the water. It was bracing, to say the least, and I shuddered as the icy shock spread through my body.

‘Lovely my arse!’ I said, splashing him in the face.

‘All the better to wake you,’ he said with a grin. He dived down to do a somersault. ‘AWESOME!’ he cried as he surfaced, looking as happy as if he had just scored a winning try.

‘I guess it isn’t that bad,’ I said, lazily treading water. I was getting used to the temperature and had to admit it was pretty amazing being the lake watching the sun set behind the mountains.

We swam about for a couple of minutes, and then made our way back to the jetty. It was still deep here, and we both leaned with our arms on the wooden planks, facing each other.

‘So what do you think of your first skinny dip, bud?’ he said, smiling that wonderful smile of his.

‘How do you know this is my first time?’

He ran his fingers through his wet hair. ‘Oh please, buddy. I know how shy you are.’

‘Is it that obvious?’ I said, blushing a bit. ‘But yeah, it’s cool. Don’t think I could have done this with anybody else.’

His eyes went all soft. ‘Thanks, bud, that’s very sweet of you. Anyway. Let’s get out before we freeze.’

He made his way to the shore. He got out and stretched himself, turning slowly around.

Then I saw him, as if for the first time. The dying sun had caught him in silhouette, and his damp mop of hair was lit up, glowing in the amber rays. He looked like a young lion with a mane of gold, and the contours of his torso segued into the pink light like so many dunes in a vast desert. I saw the heat from his body form tiny circling mirages around him, like dust storms traversing a great planet.

I was hard and vertigo undulated through my core.

I finally knew I was in love.

‘I’ll go get you a towel,’ he said kindly, and ran off to the house, still wet. I said a quiet prayer of thanks to whatever deity might have been out there.

I was shivering, but not from the cold.

*

 

We each had a hot shower and unloaded our bags into the house.

‘Which room do you want?’ I asked, lugging my stuff up the stairs. ‘There are three bedrooms. There’s a double in the main bedroom and singles in each of the other two.’

‘I don’t mind,’ he said, following me. ‘You take the master. But wait now.’

‘What?’

‘Where are Bella and Rob going to sleep? They’ll probably each need a room to themselves. I can take the couch.’

‘I hadn’t thought of that,’ I said, still not realizing the obvious. ‘No, I insist, you take the master. You drove all the way and did most of the heavy lugging about.’

I motioned him into the main bedroom.

‘Well, we could share,’ he said, matter-of-factly. ‘The bed is huge, and I don’t bite. And look, there’s an electric blanket.’

Oh my God, I thought. I’m in love with one of my best friends and he wants me to share a bed with him! I was giddy and had to ball my fists hard to stop myself from shaking.

He walked up to me and put a hand on my shoulder. Shit, it felt good.

‘Am I making you uncomfortable? I keep forgetting I’m pretty nuts and bolts and you’re, well, shyer. I just meant I’ve bunked with my brothers and cousins in the same bed so many times before. No sweat man, I’ll sleep on the couch.’

I gathered up some boldness. ‘No,’ I said, ‘I think it would be fine. Plus we can watch DVDs till late,’ I said, pointing at the TV and cabinet full of movies.

‘So much of awesomeness,’ said Chris, sweeping his hair back. ‘What side of the bed do you want, dear?’ he said, making a pouty face.

I stuck out my tongue, but briefly indulged a fantasy of us really being a married couple. It was less silly than I thought.

 

*


We made a fire and set to supper, heating up ready meals we’d bought from the supermarket.

‘Mind if I have a beer?’ asked Chris as we ate at the kitchen table. ‘I’ve brought a dozen. I’m not officially going to give you any but you can help yourself.’

‘Such a boy scout,’ I said smirking. ‘Of course you can. And yes, maybe I will have a beer too.’

‘Thanks,’ he said, putting down two bottles in front of us. ‘I’m not going to be accused of corrupting the youth.’

‘The youth in question is just over a month away from being legal,’ I said, snorting.

‘Yes, dear,’ he said again, and I punched him playfully on the shoulder.

Of course I had to go and match Chris beer for beer. Being ten kilograms lighter than him and not used to alcohol, after three I was quite sloshed.

‘Easy tiger,’ he said, as I tripped getting up. I giggled. ‘No more for you,’ he added. ‘Are you ok?’

‘I feel a bit woozy,’ I admitted. The floor seemed to be made of jelly.

‘C’mon, let’s get you some fresh air.’ Gently, he took my hand and led me outside onto the porch. He sat me down on a chair. The night air was cool and refreshing, and I felt better.

‘I’ll go get you a Coke, stay here.’

‘Wait, Chris – look!’

‘What?’

‘Up!’ I cried, pointing at the sky. ‘Look! Everywhere! Quick, put off the lights!’

It was the stars. There were millions of them. There was no light pollution up here and in the clear, cold, moonless autumn night, the sky looked as if one had a view from the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. I couldn’t remember when last I had seen so many stars.

‘That’s fucking amazing!’ he cried. ‘Wait! I have an idea!’

He raced back into the house. I heard him ascend the staircase and then come down again. Suddenly the lights went out, and I heard his footsteps come up to me. He was holding a duvet, blanket and two pillows.

‘Come, let’s go lie on the grass and you can teach me the constellations some more!’

 

*

 

We chose a spot at the bottom of the garden where there was the least amount of forest in our peripheral vision and smoothed out the duvet, covering ourselves with the blanket and settling comfortably on the pillows. The dizziness was ebbing and it felt as if I was floating gently in space, stars surrounding our entire field of vision. The great spiral arm of the Milky Way pulsed slowly into view, reaching out to us. The Magellanic Clouds glowed softly like radioactive steel wool. So many constellations you couldn’t see from a city sky were flagrantly exhibiting themselves. Even shy Lupus was there, and Mons Mensa, the constellation named after Table Mountain – the only constellation named after a feature on Earth.

Emboldened by the alcohol, I got very talkative. I traced out the ecliptic for Chris and found Scorpio rising in the east, which meant that Orion must have been setting. I told him of the story how the gods put the great scorpion and the heroic hunter at opposite ends of the sky so they would never bother each other again as they did in life. I spoke of Castor and Pollux, the twins of Gemini, and of the two pointers to the Southern Cross, which are the closest stars to Earth, and how it would take one four and a half years to get to Proxima Centauri if you travelled at the speed of light.

‘You’re like my own private Wikipedia,’ he said, plopping an arm lazily on my chest. It felt so wonderful being so close to him and I didn’t want to move for fear he’d take his hand away. I inched myself closer to him and my leg was just touching his. I could feel his warmth radiating out to me. I was hard again and startled by this, I got up too quickly and felt faint.

‘Whoops,’ he said, getting up in time to catch me. ‘Seems like the beer hasn’t quite left Mr MacLeod yet.’

‘Sorry,’ I mumbled, feeling like an idiot.

‘No worries. You’re funny when you’re tipsy.’

If he only knew that I was not just drunk from beer.

‘Come, I think we should get you to bed, sir,’ and helped me up and led me towards the house.

What was I thinking, I thought as a wave of conflicting emotions washed over me. In love with my best friend and expecting some fairy tale to magically play out? This crush had gone too far, I reasoned, and it might very well ruin our friendship. I had to do something about it. At the same time my heart was trying to tell my brain to shut up. Too much inner noise, I thought, and closed my eyes and focused on psychedelic patterns throbbing in the blackness.

I must have been lost in my thoughts for a while for the next thing I knew, Chris had me on the bed and was pulling off my shoes and socks.

‘What’s going on?’ I asked, confused. I felt completely disconnected from my body.

‘Relax, buddy,’ he said, handing me a pair of my sleep shorts. ‘Just helping you get ready for bed. Why don’t you go brush your teeth?’

‘Uh. Ok,’ I said, yawning, undressed and pulled on my shorts and a T-shirt. I fumbled for my toiletries in my bag and waddled to the en-suite bathroom. Chris joined me at the basin and we brushed our teeth in silence.

‘Now drink this and swallow these.’ He held out a large glass of water and two tablets of paracetamol. I did so, and he guided me to my side of the bed.

‘There you go,’ he said, holding the blankets up for me as I got in. He walked over to his side and plugged his cellphone in to charge. I was now in a very pleasant haze and the confusion of a few moments ago was receding ever further in the distance.

‘You ok, Cal?’ he asked, settling himself in.

‘Mmh,’ was all I could say. My eyelids were leaden weights.

‘I’m going to read a bit,’ he said. ‘Night, buddy. And thank you for an awesome astronomy lesson.’

I don’t even know if I replied, because moments later I was in a very deep sleep.

 

*

 

I awoke suddenly, at dawn. I didn’t know where I was for a moment, and then I took in the vast expanse of the bed and the rosy light creeping through the curtains. The bedclothes were rising and falling softly and I felt warmth around my entire body.

Chris was snuggled up right against me, an arm around my waist and another on my shoulder. He was bare-chested. My shirt had ridden up at the back and I felt his abdominal muscles wedged against me. I shivered briefly, in spite of the warmth. I took a few deep breaths and settled back in, not knowing quite what to do. I felt something else: he had morning wood, a lot of it, and it was pressed against me. My heart was pounding rapidly, but I calmed myself with my breathing.. I turned my head as much as I could and then saw his beautiful face, fast asleep.

There was nothing I could do but lie still; I didn’t want to wake him. As if on cue, he suddenly shifted in his sleep and wrapped his legs around mine.

Abandoning all efforts to get up, I closed my eyes and lost myself in the warmth.

 

 


8. Coup d'état

I must have dozed off again because the next thing it was much brighter in the room and I woke to Chris standing over me with a cup of coffee in his hand.

“Wakey wakey!” he said, putting down the coffee on the nightstand, and shaking me good-naturedly by my shoulders.

I yawned and rubbed my eyes. “Morning,” I said sleepily. For a moment I thought I’d been dreaming about him spooning me, but then I saw he was still wearing his baby blue boxer shorts. I couldn’t help smiling. I wondered if he’d woken up and realized.

“When did you get up?” I asked him, reaching for the coffee.

“Oh, about an hour ago,” he said, flopping down on the bed. “It’s nearly ten now. I sat outside and read for a bit and I thought I’d let you sleep in. You were out for the count. How’s the hangover?”

“Oh?” I said, and slowly remembered the events of the night. “Actually quite good,” I said, rubbing my head. “The water and the tablets helped.”

“First rule of drinking,” he said, smiling and drawing his legs towards his chest with his arms. He looked adorable. “Well, the second. The first is never drive. But yeah, a litre of water and headache tablets before you hit the hay.”

“I’ll remember that.”

He stretched out a lazy hand for the TV remote and started channel hopping while I drank my coffee.

There was something intangibly addictive about little domestic moments like these. Ever since I’d met Chris, my life was becoming full of small shared exchanges, which, by themselves, were nothing special, but together weaved themselves into a giant security blanket of memories. Like the way he’d chew his pencil in deep thought when I was explaining some equation to him, or the way he’d instinctively reach out and steady me when I picked up a weight I’d underestimated. Was this just the heightened-senses-gambit of being in love, I thought? But the thought simply passed, dissolving in the morning light.

This weekend would be the longest the two of us had ever spent in each other’s company uninterrupted, but any fears about me getting cabin fever seemed already assuaged. I felt I could simply be, doing nothing but hang out with him for the whole day.

That previous afternoon, in the dizzy moments while I was in the lake waiting for him to get me a towel, I had a thousand different feelings scurrying frantically around, begging for instructions. I took a deep breath and flooded my mind with the order I can summon so effortlessly when needed. I told myself simply that, as far as this weekend was concerned, I simply had to go with the head rush and not worry about whether anything was going to be reciprocated or not. It was too beautiful, too remote, too fucking special right now, right here, to bog it down with my quotidian teenage angst. That could wait when I was back in suburbia.


We made breakfast. Chris fried up some eggs and I fussed with the bacon, trying to get it crispy to the point of disintegration. We sat on the veranda with its chessboard tessellation, looking out at the magnificent valley. We could have been two 1920s gentlemen visitors taking tea on the terrace at a country hotel.


“Anything you want to do today?” Chris asked through a mouthful of eggs and bacon. We’d slopped everything onto a big tray and it looked like a prehistoric landscape: the eggs were pools of molten sulphur, the bacon a burnt-out volcano and the scattered slices of toast exposed geological strata from an earthquake.

“I thought it might be nice to take a walk through the woods,” I said. “Uncle Joe said there’s a trail down to a waterfall. But I could also just sit around the lake and chill.”

“Totally, dude,” said Chris, pouring himself a big glass of orange juice. “I couldn’t sleep last night and I found this book I’ve been meaning to read, and I’m already like a hundred pages in.”

“What is it?”

“The book where your name comes from. East of Eden.”

“Where did you find it?” I asked, astounded.

“I was looking through your grandfather’s books and found it, along with a hell of a lot of other interesting stuff. He was quite a collector. There’s a whole herd of Steinbecks. Here, I’ll show you.”

He wiped his hands and went inside to fetch the book. It was a hardcover, and still had its dust jacket in very good condition.

My grandfather had written his elaborate signature in fountain pen on the inside cover, subtitling it MCMLIII. 1953, I realized. Intrigued, I paged on to the frontispiece. Below the title and author credit it read: “Viking Press” and 1952”.

“It’s a first edition!” I said astounded. “East of Eden was first published in 1952!”

“Really?” said Chris. “I shouldn’t then! It must be worth a lot!”

“No, bud,” I said. “Do read it, my Grandpa would be thrilled. He hated the idea of books being collected just for the sake of collecting. I think every book in those shelves has been read. Definitely the ones he put a Roman date in, it was his way of marking things… are you enjoying it?”

“It’s… awesome. No… it’s magnificent,” he said, putting down the book carefully and helping himself to a piece of toast. “His descriptions of California are beautiful, you feel like you’ve been to the Salinas Valley yourself. And it’s so clever, like, the way he uses the story of Cain and Abel to link all the characters. And this Cathy woman is an evil bitch.”

“I believe so,” I said, smiling.

“You haven’t read it?”

“Only bits. I tried when I was like 12 and it went over my head.”

“Well, you should try it again. If I can get the themes you certainly will,” he said with a shit-eating grin. God, he was cute when he was being humble.

*

After breakfast we finally remembered Uncle Joe’s snag list that he wanted us to go through in the house. Chris was in his element, inspecting trip switches and water pipes and even hoisted himself into the rafters to check out the geyser. After about two hours we were sweaty and hungry, so we made sandwiches, assembled some makeshift gear and set out for the lake.

There was a little clearing halfway up the shore from the jetty and we set up our impromptu picnic there. We ate hungrily and spent an hour or so lazily floating about in the calm lake and sunning ourselves on the soft grass.

The sun was still high and I was starting to feel uncomfortable, so I moved my towel next to the tree where Chris had retreated, deeply engrossed in the book. He had a large bag of boiled sweets next to him and was absent-mindedly stuffing one into his mouth every few minutes.

I lay down and closed my eyes. There was no sound except for the quiet lap-lap-lapping of the lake and birdsong in the trees. I felt warmth on my left shoulder, and thought it was a ray of sunlight that was peeking through the foliage, but then realized it was Chris’s hand moving down to find the bag of Fruit Sparkles that was between us. Except his hand stopped on my elbow and stayed there.

I didn’t say anything, and opened my eyes slowly. He was reading intently and seemed to be quite unaware. His thumb started making small circles around my bicep. I closed my eyes again. It felt wonderful. This can’t be happening, I thought. Still, his hand stayed there, massaging my arm. The sensation was soporific and I was floating, already sleepy from lying in the sun.

I let out a little moan when his hand started tickling the inside of my forearm.

His hand stopped. I opened my eyes and saw Chris looking at me with a startled expression.

“Shit, sorry Cal!” he said.

“It’s ok,” I said dreamily. He moved to pull his hand away, but I caught it in mine. He kept it there. I still don’t know where I got the courage from, but I raised myself up and leaned in close to him. My heart had finally had enough and had staged a bloodless coup d’état in the nation of my body. It had hijacked my brain in its presidential suite, leaving it bound and gagged while it quietly took over control of the armed forces.

 

“It’s ok,” I said, squeezing his hand. I felt giddy but I kept my stance.

He looked so vulnerable. Wide-eyed, and opening his mouth slightly, he took a long deep breath, staring at me with those green eyes.

“Caleb,” he said softly, and tightened his grip around my hand.

“Chris,” I said, smiling, and placing my other hand on top.

Then he drew me in and kissed me. I didn’t resist. He tasted of blackcurrant and cola. I smelt the clean scent of his T-shirt and I shuddered as I felt our stubble brushing against each other’s cheeks. There was no jostling of tongues: it was a long, slow, gentle kiss, more a wet sigh than anything else.

Our lips parted and his hands were cupping my face. He looked at me with fear and hopefulness.

“I can’t believe it,” he said eventually.

I stared at him, entranced.

“Cal? Say something. Please.” He looked helpless.

“Something," I replied, and as I smiled his fear retreated.

Like two magnets brought together, our lips connected again. There was heavy breathing and fumbling as our hands explored each other’s hair, neck, chest. He lost his balance trying to get his hand under my shirt and toppled backwards. I collapsed on top of him, laughing and panting.

“Hey,” he said, pawing my shoulder gently as I raised myself up on my elbows, peering down at him.

“Hey you,” I said coyly. “I guess I’ve been waiting do to that as well.” I blushed.

“Oh my God,” said Chris. I could swear there were tears in his eyes. “Cal – Cal…. I’m… oh fuck… I’m in love with you.” He shook his head.  “I said it. I didn’t think...”

A giddy thrill trickled right through me. “I didn’t think either,” I said, and brought a tentative hand to his golden mane. He closed his eyes and smiled, kissing my arm.

“What now?” he said.

“I don’t know,” I answered, stroking his forehead. “But I guess you could start with taking your shirt off.”

“Yes sir,” he said, sitting bolt upright and flinging off his T.

I don’t know how much time actually passed, but we made out under the tree for what seemed a blessed eternity. I still chuckle to myself when I think how innocent we were back then. Just the previous evening we’d happily been swimming naked together. Now as we kissed, both of us stayed in our shorts, too nervous to wander anywhere below each other’s bellybuttons. As we tumbled around on the grass I felt the bulge in his shorts brush against me, and I looked at him and he blushed.

“Um,” he said, with a bashful expression. “There’s that. Is it freaking you out?”

“Not unless this is,” I said, and shifted myself so that my own wood pressed against his leg.

We both laughed.

“I could get used to this,” he said quietly, giving me a peck on the cheek. I laid my head down on his smooth chest. There were fine golden hairs on his pecs, gradually gaining in number at the base of his sternum to form the beginnings of a garden path leading down to his waist. He smelled wonderful, of cedar and citrus and a very gentle muskiness that was unmistakably Chris.

“Back at you,” I sighed. Then I became serious. “Where do we go from here though?” I asked. I was suddenly anxious. I hadn’t thought of what would happen if I actually got to this point.

“I guess this is new for both of us,” he said, putting an arm around me. “Shall we just... take it slow? Figure it out as we go along?”

“Awesome,” I said, feeling relieved. “I mean, I didn’t think you were going to take me out the back now and fuck my brains out.”

I covered my mouth, shocked at what I had said. Chris roared with laughter, every block of his eight-pack pulsing. “I wouldn’t dare,” he said, getting up and staring into the distance. “Much as part of me might like to. It would be wrong, now.”

“Oh really?” I said nervously.

“Oh yes.” He bent down dramatically on one knee and with a broad grin took my hand. “Cal, you’re gold. You deserve to be… courted.”

It was now my turn to have misty eyes. I jumped up, made a little whoop and ran into the lake.


9. Laws of Motion

Newton's third law of motion is well known. Anybody who has done high school physics knows that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. You push against a wall; it pushes back against you. I think there is great poetry hidden in these truths, the many laws we’ve discovered that underpin the universal fabric. We search for meaning ever hungrier, perhaps even with desperation, because the symmetry in the equations belies the fact that, for all we know, there is just us on this lonely little blue marble in the inky void.  

We want union with something, even if the opposite seems true.  Bring two atomic nuclei together and their positive electrostatic forces will repel each other, but, with the patience and strength of the blind god of the galaxies, there comes a point where a greater entity takes over and welds them together. Physicists call it simply the Strong Nuclear Force; I’ve called this magic glue God. All the elements heavier than hydrogen were so formed, forged in the great hearts of the stars: sulphur, potassium, gold, radium. Everything you can think of.  

 

*


As we walked back to the cottage in the auburn afternoon the vortex in my stomach had been inverted; it had spread out into a wave of sheer joy. We held each other's hands shyly, getting used to the sensation I'd never held hands in public before, save for when I was a toddler playing ring-a-ring-a-roses, or being walked across the street by my parents.  

Chris chuckled to himself as we ambled along the lakeshore.

‘What?’ I asked.  

‘I was just thinking, are we not allowed to call each other “dude” or “buddy” anymore?’

I snorted. ‘Well, dude, there's your answer. I'll slap you if you call me dear, my dear.’

‘Can I call you “sexy” though?’ he asked with a wry smile.

‘No-one's called me that before,’ I said bashfully. We had reached the cottage and I sat down on the bench next to the front door.  

‘You're shitting me. You're so cute.’ He sat down next to me and played with my hair.  

‘Really?’

I couldn't help enjoying the compliment and grinned like the Cheshire Cat.  

Chris was giving me that soulful serious look again.

‘I think I was in love with you when you dropped your music book on the first day,’ he said in a whisper. ‘Your hands - they were so… so beautiful.’

He put one of my hands in his and traced out the big dorsal vein with his fingers. I was transfixed.

‘You looked so cute, when I said hello,' he continued. I stared at him, not quite believing what he was saying. "And then when I saw you swimming...  geez, you're hot, Cal. And I don't think you know it. It's time you did.’ 

‘Stop it,’ I said. ‘You're so hot I want to, well, cream myself.’

He sniggered.

‘Flattery will get you everywhere, sexy,’ he said, squeezing my hand. ‘Took me years to get myself into not-too-shabby shape. But look at you, turning into Aquaman after just two months of regular weights and enough protein. I’m jealous.’

‘Flattery? You give as good as you get,’ I replied. ‘But - Chris - did you really felt that way about me the first time you saw me? I mean, aren’t you supposed to be all hung up on girls? They flock around you all the time, and you don’t seem to notice them.’

‘Cal,’ he said, ‘here’s the thing. You tortured me. You hit me like a bolt from the blue. I’ve dated girls, and I’ve been in a few relationships, but when I met you it was like something... reset itself in my brain. I was in love with you before I realized I was in love with, well, a guy.’

‘Um,’ I said, not sure of what to say. Was this it, now?

‘Shit. I didn’t mean to imply that that’s a bad thing or anything… like, I’ve never been fussed with whether people are gay or straight. This was just something I never expected. And sure, I notice those girls. Hell, I know you notice them too. But I didn’t care about them any more because I was feeling so lost without you... and now, thank God, you rescued me.’

I stammered. ‘D-did I?’

‘Cal,’ he said softly, and brought his face close to mine. ‘I’ve never fallen for someone so quickly, and so hard.’

My heart should have leapt at this point. But a horror overtook me. I suddenly saw Frank and Jason and Ed standing around me, chanting “fag-ass” over and over again.

‘What’s it, Cal?’

I looked down. ‘Looks like I detonated a big gay bomb on you without even knowing it,’ I groaned. ‘Maybe they’re right… I’m just a fucking faggot and I’ve somehow… turned you gay.’

He looked stricken. ‘Cal!” he cried. “How can someone so clever say something so stupid?! Don’t ever talk about yourself that way. I never thought about you being gay or straight or anything. You’re just… a great guy. With whom I’m in love.’

‘Do you really mean that?’ I said, wiping my eyes.

‘Of course, silly,’ he said, and hugged me. I let out a deep sigh.

‘I don’t know what I am,’ I said eventually and leaned my head against his shoulder. ‘It’s never really bothered me, because I’ve never dated. I thought I liked girls until last year when I found out I like boys too. A lot,  sometimes. It got so confusing. I thought that if you were gay you’d hate looking at tits. But I don’t… shit… and then along you came. I’ve had a crush on you for such a long time. Are we, like, gay now? What does all this make us?’

He stared out at the valley for a few moments. ‘Two people in love,’ he said, kissing my forehead.

That direct Hathaway logic just pulls the rug from under my feet every time.

‘I guess I’m over-analyzing.’

I let out a deep breath while Chris nodded.

‘Who cares if we’re gonna end up gay, straight, bisexual, whatever,’ he said. ‘Fact is, I just can’t stop thinking about you. And I thought I was the only one feeling the same way. That was smooth of you man, making the first move.’

I shrugged, grinning. ‘Well, someone had to,’ I said. ‘I was terrified that you’d freak out but I couldn’t handle it any more.’

‘You too? I was totally shitting myself!’

‘Geez. We’re turning into our own little scripted rom-com,’ I said. ‘Me falling for you and you for me, each one too scared to make a move while all this time… and now, we’re together, and I don’t quite know what that means, it’s all so complicated…’

He cut me off. ‘No,’ he said. ‘It’s simple.’  He looked at me earnestly. ‘Did you not hear what I said to you at the lake? Caleb MacLeod, I want to be your boyfriend. Will you be mine?’

Inside, my entire being was jumping up and down.

‘As if you have to ask, big guy,’ I said, kissing him.

*


We spent the rest of the afternoon lazing about in the house. As the sun set a chill descended on the valley. We made a fire and collapsed on the couch, Chris reading while I cuddled up next to him listening to music. I'd recently discovered César Franck and duly immersed myself in his colossal Symphony in D minor, following that with a strangely apt tour of Nirvana's greatest hits. This is what I love about iPods and their kin the most: you can place Beethoven and the Beach Boys next to each other, and let them have a conversation.

After supper we went upstairs and inspected Uncle Joe's DVD collection. I found the director's cut of Ridley Scott's Alien. To my surprise Chris had never seen it.

'It's like one of the greatest science-fiction films of all time!' I said, incredulous.

'Um, yeah,' said Chris, looking down. 'I'm kinda scared of stuff like that.'

'No way! You? Scared?'

'I'm scared of a lot of things. Spiders. Snakes. Yeuch.' It looked very cute seeing my boyfriend shudder.

'A farm boy scared of snakes. It's ok, dear, I'll protect you from the big bad alien.’

He looked at me with his eyebrows raised. 'Um, ok. But I might have to hold on to you tightly.'

'I doubt that would be a problem,' I said.

It was true - watching a horror movie is great for fostering physical contact. The film absorbed Chris completely, even as he squirmed and dug his nails into my arm as terror slowly engulfed the hapless crew of the Nostromo. H. R. Giger's horrible creature actually gets barely ten minutes of screen time in that 1979 masterpiece of suspense. It's the stuff happening off-cam - the creepy white noise of the spaceship’s engines, the whirling shadows and muffled screams - that truly makes it both terrifying and high cinematic art. When the famous chestburster scene came, Chris yelped like a puppy and dived under the covers.

He looked stunned as the end credits rolled to the wistful strain of Howard Hanson's Symphony No. 2. It's such an ingenious use of music in film: Ridley Scott gives an orchestral lullaby to the audience, who badly need it at this point, having deep-fried their adrenal glands.

‘Fuck,’ Chris said eventually. ‘That was... awesome!’

‘Glad I convinced you,’ I said, smirking. I was lying with my head on his chest and we’d ended up holding hands. Seeing his fingers interlaced with mine was suddenly deeply moving. So this is what couples “do”, I thought. 

‘I don’t know about you, sexy, but I’m ready for bed.’

I widened my eyes. ‘Bed?’

My mind was doing equations. Couple + Bed = Sex, it suggested. I wasn’t ready for this.

‘What’s wrong?’ said Chris as he saw my worried expression.

‘Um, well, us… going to bed… does that mean we’re going to…’

Chris tapped me lovingly on the shoulder. ‘I just meant I want to sleep, silly,’ he said. ‘We said we’re taking it slow, didn’t we? Cal… we’re not going to do anything either of us isn’t comfortable with.’

‘Thanks,’ I said.

‘So yeah,’ he continued, smiling, ‘I do hope though that you’ll sleep with me tonight… as in, sleep right next to me, cause I think I need to… hold you all night long.’

‘You’re on,’ I said, beaming.

This was officially one of the best days of my life.
 

*

We made our ablutions separately. Chris pulled on a crisp white T-shirt and boxers to sleep in while I fussed with a piece of dental floss. A coyness had descended upon us. We were both really tired now and relayed yawns to each other as we walked towards the bed.

In silence, we got under the covers, edging towards each other until we were spooning. He murmured goodnight in my ear and was out within seconds.

As I lay pillowed on Chris’ chest that night, I tried hard to stay awake. I wanted to experience every second of this, being held by him, hearing him snore softly in tandem with his heartbeat. It dawned on me that I had never been this physically close to any person before.

 

*

 

I was woken up at around eight by my phone ringing. It was Rob, calling to ask if he and Bella could come up to the cottage a day earlier.

‘The grandparents want to go on some crazy birdwatching trip near Montagu for the rest of the weekend. Dad said he’d rather chew his wrists off, so he's decided he’d go back to Cape Town and could drop us off on the way.’

‘Yeah, sure,’ I mumbled, still half-asleep, and rang off.

‘Morning,’ said Chris, stretching himself and rubbing his eyes. ‘What was that about?’

I told him.

‘Oh,’ he said. ‘You mean they’re coming later today?’

‘Shit,’ I said. ‘You’re right.’

Our mutual disappointment was almost tangible. I’d been looking so forward to spending another unsullied day with my… my boyfriend. The word reverberated in my thoughts like an echo.

‘Well,’ said Chris, ‘I guess we’ve got to make hay while the sun shines.’ He pulled me down and started kissing me.

‘Gross,’ I protested, ‘you’ve got morning breath.’

*

 


We fetched Rob and Bella at Mr Gerber’s house a few hours later. It felt weird, being in the company of other people again, even if these were my best friends. Chris and I hadn’t given a thought of how we were going to “be” around others: we hadn’t even figured out how to “be” with each other. 


‘Are we going to, you know, tell them?’ I asked Chris quietly as Rob and Bella took their stuff into their rooms.

‘I dunno,’ Chris whispered. ‘It might be awkward.’

‘Might be?! It’s weirding me out! I mean… I don’t mean that “us” is weird...’

‘I know,’ he said, putting a tentative hand on my shoulder. ‘We’ll have to tell them soon, but let’s just, have fun hanging out in the meantime?’

'I guess.’

I was nervous. I was most worried about how we were going to explain Chris and I sharing a bed. Chris tried to soothe me and pointed out that we had made that arrangement before we boarded the Romance Express, but I countered that he’d at least partly had an ulterior motive. He blushed with a guilty grin and I sniggered.

Fortunately, nobody asked.

My anxiety abated as I soaked up the luxury of being around my best buddies in an idyllic setting. We had a lazy lunch and sat around talking all kinds of shit. We even managed to get Rob to take a dip in the lake, despite his protests of blinding everybody with the whiteness of his skin. Bella saw fit to have a moment with her inner child in the forest, Chris read, and I listened to more music. I was only frustrated that I couldn’t hold Chris’s hand. Or could I? So many questions were suddenly upon me.

After a raucous evening of playing 30 Seconds and Pictionary and getting Rob tipsy on beer, which made him a bad and theatrical loser, we all decided to call it a night.

‘You boys bunking together, I see,’ said Bella casually as she walked past the main bedroom.

‘Um, ja,’ I said. ‘So you could have your own room.’ My heart suddenly beat very fast.

‘Very gentlemanly of you boys,’ said Bella. ‘I know Rob wouldn’t cope sharing. Must be an only child thing.’

I shuddered, thinking how much stomach acid I’d secreted unnecessarily.

 

*



Chris was stretched out on the bed as I closed the door behind me.

‘Come here,’ he said, reaching out his arm. I wasted no time in snuggling up to him.

‘Finally,’ I said, and craned my head up to kiss him.

Perhaps it was the thrill of having other people in the house, or perhaps it was the pent-up pressure of not having any physical contact with my brand-new boyfriend for nearly twelve hours, but this kiss was different. It was frantic, aggressive, as if we wanted to inhale each other. My pants were uncomfortable within seconds and before I knew it I had edged a hand inside Chris’s boxers and caressed the top of his thigh. His dick brushed against the back of my hand, and we both shivered.

‘Oh man,’ he said, breaking our kiss briefly.

‘That good?’ I asked. He nodded, eyes closed. I continued stroking his thigh, but very slowly let my hand move between his legs. Curiosity and desire had suddenly taken hold of me and I was drunk on it all. I took a deep breath and cupped his balls. He groaned and twitched. It felt strange, and soft, and beautiful.

‘Cal…’ he said breathlessly, ‘are you sure? Cause I’m not going to say no…oh God that is good…’

‘I’m sure,’ I said, emboldened, stroking his chest with my other hand. ‘Perhaps if we, um, got you a bit freer?’

He wasted no time in losing all his clothes. Suddenly I realized there was a nude blond god next to me, and I was playing with his raging hard-on. I’d never seen him hard before and I stared at him half-shocked.

‘Wow,’ I said, gently forming a grip around his shaft and stroking him slowly up and down. He squirmed and murmured, breathing heavily. His hand reached out and rested on my cheek. It was such a tender gesture, and I was overcome with a giddy mixture of lust and awe. In all his magnificence he looked so vulnerable.

He turned to his side and cupped his other hand around mine where I was touching him.

‘Cal,’ he said softly. ‘May I return the favour?’

‘Ok,’ I said trembling.

‘Let me see you,’ he said, staring deep into my eyes. ‘If that’s ok.’

I nodded slowly, as if in a trance, and shed my clothes. We were both naked now, facing each other, our manhoods almost touching. His hand trailed from my cheek across my chest, down my abs to my groin. I let out a little yelp when he finally had me in his hand.

‘You’re so beautiful,’ he said gently. He started stroking me slowly, just as I had done to him. ‘Is this good?’

‘Mmh,’ I groaned. I thought I would have been scared but all I felt was pleasure.

We mirrored each other’s movements with fascination. Slow and gentle, then firmer, then faster, and faster, until…

I came first, in a furious fountain, unable to hold back, burying my head in the bed just in time not to make too much of a noise. As I lay panting his own orgasm overtook him. He was quiet, breathing heavily, his eyes closed shut as he shot his load over his six-pack.

As the room came back into view my first reaction was to get up, but Chris gently pushed me back.

'It's ok,' he said, 'let me help.' Unceremoniously, he reached for his shirt and started cleaning me up.

'Your shirt!' I gasped.

'Don't worry, I want to.' Tenderly, he wiped me down and then attended to himself. I couldn't help but melt into his arms as he snuggled against me.

We lay there for a long time in silence, listening to our breathing slow down.

'Hey,' I said eventually as he started playing with my hair.

'Hey you,' he replied. 'How… are you feeling?'

'Amazing,' I sighed. 'I've never... done that, I mean, with someone else.'

'Really?' he said, propping himself up on one arm.

'Yeah. You? It's ok, you can tell me. I mean, I know lots of guys mess around with each other in their teens, I just never...'

'I should have asked,' he said.

'That's ok.'

'Yeah, um, I've had a few experiences like that,’ he said in a low whisper. ‘Nothing more than what we just did. I mean, with guys. But nothing as special as, well, this.’

My eyes were moist. ‘Just this?’ I remember saying. ‘I thought you’d have, you know, you’re a man of the world, I guess…’

‘Cal,’ he said slowly, ‘I know you’re a virgin, and there’s nothing to be ashamed about. I think it’s great. Ja, I’ve been with a few girls, I was sixteen the first time, but that doesn’t matter. You can ask me anything you like – but not tonight.’

I nodded. His voice was like velvet.

‘It was an honour to be your first jerk-off buddy,’ he said, giggling a little.

I couldn’t help smiling too.

‘Come,’ he said softly, 'let's go take a shower.'

 

*

 

I think the best sleep I ever had was that night. We spent a long time in the shower, soaping up gratuitously and exploring each others bodies with a primal curiosity: I thought of Anton van Leeuwenhoek, discovering the hidden universes when he peered through the first microscope on that fateful day in 1673.

Chris reached for a pair of boxers, but I shook my head. Smiling, he took my hand and led me into the bed, wrapping his arms around me.

‘Wait,' I said, and nudged him to turn round. 'Let me hold you.'

‘Awesome,’ he murmured, shifting, and closed his eyes as a beatific grin radiated out from his face.

His magnificent body felt strangely fragile in my arms, as if I were holding a sleeping panther that was dreaming of being a cub once again.


10. The Rusty Earth

Genesis would have it that on the third day, God separated land from sea and made the Earth bring forth plants. But we were anything but separated on this morning.  It was nearly eleven when we stirred and disentangled ourselves from each other. The smell of bacon frying wafted up from downstairs.

 'Shit,' I exclaimed, still thick with sleep as I glanced at my watch on the nightstand. The air was cool against my skin as I sat up and realized I was buck-naked. A little thrill coursed down my spine.

 'Morning, sexy dude,' said Chris, stretching. He reached down and scratched himself.

 'Don't mind me,' I said, rolling my eyes.

 'As if you don't say hello to your lads in the morning,' he said, scooting up to me and poking me in the ribs.

 'Ow. We gotta get up or Rob and Bella are going to send out a search party.'

 We dressed and went downstairs.

 'Well, look who's up,' said Bella. 'Any longer and you would have missed out.' There was a formidable spread on the kitchen table.

 'C'mon, grub's up,' said Rob, who had already assembled himself a leaning tower of pancakes.

 Wolfing down my food, I noticed Rob and Bella whispering to each other and nod as they were getting more toast from the kitchen. They sat down again. Bella cupped her face in her hands and leaned forward.

 'So,' she said, ‘are you guys officially a couple now, or do we need to give you a bit more time on your own?’

 Chris dropped his orange juice and spilt it in his lap. My face went peuce and I looked helplessly at Rob, who was looking very bored and rolling his eyes.

 ‘Um, um, oh fuck,’ said Chris, trying to mop up the mess he had made.

 ‘Here,’ said Bella, handing him a serviette. ‘You two still haven’t answered my question.’

 I looked down, unable to think of anything to say.

 'Cal, Chris,’ said Bella. ‘Look at me. Rob and I want you to know it’s ok.’

 Rob put down his fork and nodded. ‘I’m like totally cool if you guys are, well, you know, more than friends. I mean, it’s all new for me, but, yeah.’

 I gasped. ‘How – how did you guys know?’

 ‘Oh puleeze, Cal,’ said Bella, ‘How long have I known you? I can see through your prim and proper façade with X-ray vision. I’ve seen the way you two look at each other and the way your faces light up when you’re in each other’s company.’

 ‘Yeah,’ said Rob. ‘At first I was jealous, but then I realized you weren’t replacing me with a new best friend, you’d just found, well, ah, a boyfriend.’

 ‘And neither of you two even clicked that you were both into each other,’ said Bella. ‘Men so don’t get cues. And when I saw how you guys were interacting yesterday, trying so hard not be close to each other for our benefit – which was so sweet, but like so unnecessary – we both figured you’d finally, like, acknowledged the big elephant in the room.’

 Chris and I looked at each other with guilty expressions.

 ‘Geez,’ said Chris. ‘Sorry that I freaked out a bit. You guys really mean you’re ok with this?’

 ‘It’s gonna take me a bit of getting used to,’ said Rob, ‘but hey, look at you, Cal. You’ve been so happy lately. I like to see you happy. And I know that Chris makes you happy.’

 ‘I think you’re so cute together,’ added Bella.

 My eyes were welling with tears for like the umpteenth time this weekend.

 ‘You guys are the best,’ I managed, wiping my eyes.

 ‘Um, Chris?’ said Bella, pointing to me. ‘I think your man needs a hug.’

 ‘Yup,’ said Bella, as Chris folded his arms around me. ‘Cute. Definitely cute. And now I get to be a certified fag hag. Yay!’

 ‘Bella!’ said Rob in mock horror. ‘You have no tact.’

 ‘Oh don’t mind me,’ she said, giggling. ‘I’m not implying you two have to now start singing Broadway show tunes and take me shoe-shopping.’

 Rob punched her gently on the shoulder, and Chris and I smiled nervously.

 

*

 

It took some getting used to, gingerly holding hands in company. A tinge of sadness swept through me as I realized the weekend was ending and that it wouldn’t be this easy back in civilization. I had this fear that I’d have to choose between two lifestyles, two extreme stereotypes of South African males: braaivleis-eating, rugby-playing super-straight weekend warriors or shallow, poncey, screaming queens obsessed with sex and drugs.

For the moment we were safe, and I held onto this as best I could. After breakfast, the four of us followed the trail down to the waterfall and discovered that one could swim in the pool it dropped into with relative safety. Surrounded by forest, and braced by the icy, foaming water, I thought of how many faces Africa has: Savanna, mountains, forest, desert, even snow. I may be white, I may be descended from a mongrel mix of Scot, Irishman, French Huguenot and Dutch explorer, but the rusty earth of Africa seeped into my forebears’ flesh long before my bones were knit.

We drove back on Sunday afternoon, Bella doing Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday with sunglasses and her head in a scarf, Rob passed out with his face mushed against the window. I had my hand on Chris’s lap as we drove back into Cape Town. At the airport the shacks and informal settlements came into view, and I saw a mother with a child on her back bending down to fetch water. Our eyes met for a nanosecond and I felt fragile. I was who I was, a white boy nestled cozily in a green suburb, purely by an accident of history. I could have been her. Yet we were both 'in Africa'. Something in me wanted to reach out... but I didn't know what to do. Next to the woman a thin little dog jogged at her heels, and she bent down to pat the mongrel on his back. I looked away.

'What's wrong, Cal?' said my boyfriend, sensing I had gone quiet.

'I don't know... I guess I've never really paid attention to all the shacks out here... so many people live in them. Like, we don't know what it's like not to have electricity and water.'

Chris nodded sagely.

'It's like that in Durban too. KwaMashu stretches for miles around the city.'

'Sometimes I feel so...'

'Guitly?'

I nodded.

'Yeah, I know what you mean. But my mom said to me once guilt doesn't help any situation. Rather do something about it.'

'But what?'

He turned to me briefly and narrowed his eyes. 'Finish your school year and get your education and then use it to change the world. I want to change the world.'

'You say it like it's so easy,' I said, still trailing my eyes at the little dog getting smaller and smaller in the rear view mirror as we drove towards the city.

'It is easy, Cal. Because you make me want to believe in good things.' 

I was both moved and saddened, as I contemplated how much inequality still existed in my beautiful complicated country. Yet beyond all the HIV, poverty, corruption and crime, I was thinking of the animals that were loved and treasured by these people. Where did they go when they got ill? I sighed and closed my eyes, and tried to suppress the thought - it was easy, as I was still tripping on the headiness of the whole weekend.

As Chris dropped me off at my house, it hit me: we had to say goodbye to each other, even if we were only going to be separated for a few hours of darkness. My own bed would feel so lonely. I felt the ache of being in love for the first time as he gave me a stolen kiss in my room, my dad downstairs.

‘Bye, sexy,’ he said as he got back into The Thing. ‘I’ll miss you.

 ‘Me too,’ I said. ‘We’re pathetic aren’t we?’

 ‘Ja. I love it.’

 

*

I was about to drift off to sleep when my phone rang. It was Chris.

‘Hey, buddy.’ His voice was trembling and cracking.

‘What’s it?’

‘It’s… my mom. She, ah, spoke to my dad on the phone and got they had and argument. She got drunk and fell. She’s hit her head against a cupboard. I think I need to take her to the hospital…. she’s got a big cut on her forehead.’

 ‘Shit!’ I cried.

 ‘I’m sorry, Cal, I didn’t know who to call.’

 ‘Just put pressure on the wound,’ I said. ‘I'm coming.’ I remembered how my mom had done it when I cut my foot on a rock when I was six, playing in a rock pool at Scarborough beach.

 Fortunately my dad was still up, and I told him what had happened. He didn’t ask any questions, bless him, and we went straight to the car. Chris phoned again and said he’d managed to get his mom in his Jeep and was going through to the hospital in Constantia. I said we’d meet him there, and my dad nodded.

‘No Cal, it’s ok,’ he said.

‘Bullshit. We’re coming, no questions asked.’

We met an ashen-looking Chris sitting in the waiting room of the emergency unit.

‘Hello, son,’ said my father, and we sat down next to him. ‘Where’s your mom?’

‘She’s with the doctor now getting stitches. I think she’ll be okay. I’m so sorry, you didn’t need to come out. I feel really stupid.’

‘No,’ said my dad gently. ‘I’m very glad you called.’ Sensing that it was awkward for Chris, he added: ‘Why don’t you boys go get a Coke or something from the vending machine? I’ll wait here and if you want I’ll find out how she’s doing. They know me here, I work on my paediatric patients in their outpatient theatre.’

 ‘Thanks, Dr MacLeod,’ said Chris as I led him out of the waiting room. I got us each a can of cooldrink and we sat down on a bench in the outside garden, the very one where I used to smoke illegally when my mom had chemo.

 I put my arm around him. He burst into tears.

 ‘Shit,’ he said through his sobs, ‘this is all so fucked-up.’

 I didn’t know what to do and just pressed my side against him. ‘It’s ok. Just let it out. You don’t have to tell me what happened.’

 He leaned down and buried his beautiful face in my chest. He cried softly for a good minute, his powerful shoulders heaving against me. A deep ague spasmed through my body. It was agony seeing him so upset. Suddenly I didn’t care who might be looking. I stroked his hair and kissed him on the forehead.

 ‘Sorry,’ he said, sniffing. ‘I’ve gone and messed up your shirt.’

 ‘It’s about time my shirt got messed on instead of yours,’ I said. ‘Oh, er, um, I didn’t mean to sound flippant.’

 ‘Bless you, Cal,’ he said, putting his head on my shoulder and exhaling deeply.

 He started telling me what happened.

 'Just after I got home, I heard my mother shouting over the phone. It was ugly. Apparently my dad’s coming to Cape Town with his floozy and wasn’t happy that I’d been put into a co-ed school and that it’s gonna make me soft. As if he cares, he’s only bothered to find out now. Anyway, I think it sent mom over the edge. She drank like two bottles of wine and I got angry with her and told her she was an alcoholic and an embarrassment and ran out to my car.

‘I just like went for a drive to clear my head and when I got back I found her lying in a heap in the kitchen with this huge gash on her forehead. She wasn’t even doing anything about it, just letting the blood run down her face and onto her clothes.

‘She kept on saying how sorry she was but it’s all my fault. If I hadn’t said anything none of this would have happened.’

I tightened my grip around his arm. ‘It’s not your fault,’ I said. ‘Has she drunk like this… before?’

‘I thought she just liked her wine, but she’s been drinking more and more. She’s tipsy almost every night.’

‘Ever since she and your dad…’

‘Yeah.’ He stomped his foot and whacked his one hand into his fist with sudden fury. I got a fright.

‘Sorry, Cal.’

‘It’s ok.’

‘You know what’s the worst thing, bud? He’s more upset that I’m not going to matriculate from the same school he did because of… oh God, all the shit that happened last year.’

‘You can tell me, I won’t judge you. But you also don’t have to tell me.’

‘Thanks, Cal. You’re a good friend. Uh, boyfriend… um, both.’

He gave me a weak smile and looked so vulnerable I nearly started crying myself.

We were interrupted by my dad, who was whistling as he walked towards us.

'The doctor came out and said your mom wants to see you.’ Chris was wide-eyed as Dr van Zyl, a leggy blonde with too much make-up, led him into the emergency room and closed the door behind us.

‘Thanks, Dad,’ I said, as I sat down.

‘No problem, my boy. Chris could use some support. He’s been such a good friend to you.’

A few minutes later, Chris came out again and walked towards us. He looked a bit calmer.

‘How is she?’ I asked.

‘She’ll be ok. They’ve stitched her up and she’s sober. They want to keep her overnight for observation because she hit her head.’

‘I think that’s a very good idea,’ said my dad. ‘Come stay with us tonight, Chris, I insist.’

My heart leapt at this, and then I felt guilty that I was getting a wish granted because of an awful situation.

‘Thanks, Dr MacLeod. Um,’ said Chris, ‘she’d like to see you, Cal, um, if that’s ok.’

‘Me?’ I said, widening my eyes. ‘Uh, ok.’

Chris motioned to the back and a nurse beckoned me to come towards the emergency room. She led me into the bright hall with its bleating monitors and smell of blood and alcohol to the bed where Mrs Hathaway was lying. She waved at me and motioned me to sit down on the bench next to the bed. There was a nasty bruise welling up on her one eye and the sutured scar, though neatly patched up, was angry.

‘Hello, Caleb,’ she said softly.

‘Hi, Mrs Hathaway. How are you feeling?’

‘I think I’ll be ok. I just wanted to say how sorry I am about all this.’

'It’s nothing,’ I said, looking down. I really felt awkward.

‘I know I’ve been having some problems but I want you to know that I had a big fright tonight and I’m going to… try to set things right. That’s not your problem - but thank you for being there for Chris. It’s all been very hard for him.’

‘It’s really nothing.’

‘You are a good man, Caleb. Your mother would be very proud of you. Like I’m proud of my son.’

‘Thanks,’ I managed. ‘My dad said Chris can stay with us tonight.’

‘I’m so embarrassed about all this. I’m forever in your debt.’

Chris had obviously inherited his vulnerable looks from Fiona as well.

‘I hope you don’t think I’m a terrible mother,’ she said, with a tinge of desperation.

A little voice started speaking inside me, and I let it take over.

‘I don’t think that,’ it said to her. ‘Being a mother, I guess, must be both extremely difficult and totally rewarding. I don't think anyone could do it perfectly.’

I was shocked:  I was channeling my mother’s words.

I gave her a small wave and walked back to the waiting room.

 


11. What Socrates Knew

‘I suppose I should have gotten suspicious when Dad started going away on all these supposed business trips,’ said Chris as he sat down on my desk chair in my room, ‘but you just tell yourself these things are coincidences. We seemed so happy. I was enjoying Matric, was on the First XV rugby team and mom had gotten the post of Matron in charge of the paediatric ICU at St Lucy’s Hospital. Hell, I’d even made prefect and was applying to study medicine and Katie and I were going steady.’

‘Katie?’ I asked, shifting uncomfortably where I sat cross-legged on the bed. ‘Girlfriend?’

‘Oh, sorry, Cal. Yeah. Ex-girlfriend, of course. Please, I didn’t mean to -’

‘It’s ok,’ I said, taking a deep breath and trying to suppress my jealousy. ‘Go on.’

‘Yeah, well, I was pretty much the golden boy of the school. Quite sickening, really. So, Mom starts questioning why Dad’s being all secretive and going away all the time, he denies everything and then she goes into his email - serves him right for choosing 54321 as his password - and she discovers all these messages from Patricia, one of his freelance consultants.

‘I wasn’t exactly truthful with you, Cal, Patricia wasn’t his secretary. She was actually also Mrs Smythe, my maths teacher. She’s a statistician or something in her free time and my dad insisted on hiring her for this big account they were working on, which was weird cause you’d think they’d have more than enough of their own number-crunchers.  Her son Bradley was the rugby captain in my team… and it turns out my dad met her at one of my rugby matches and they started seeing each other.’

‘Shit,’ I said, shocked, and told him to come sit next to me on the bed. I put my hand on his shoulder.

‘Yeah,’ said Chris, sniffing. ‘So one night I find my mom crying in her bedroom and I saw she’d smashed their framed wedding pictures. I just knew. It was Sunday and he soon came home from his supposed latest "business trip" and I wanted to punch him in the face - my dad, my hero - but I just ignored him and went outside and then heard my folks arguing upstairs.

‘Turns out he went down to Southbroom with her and – get this – Bradley came with for the weekend and my dad took him surfing! My dad always used to surf with me and my brothers and he like hadn’t gone with me for nearly half a year!’

‘Ouch,’ I said. ‘I was wondering about the longboard in your room.’

‘Yeah, fuck surfing. He taught me, you know?’

‘I’m sorry, buddy,’ I said stroking his arm. ‘What about Bradley’s dad?’

‘Oh, his folks are divorced. She left his dad when he was six and he lives in Australia. To think I felt sorry for Brad.

‘So Dad moved out the next day and at school Mrs Evil Bitch acted as if nothing had happened. I deliberately messed up my test that week but she still gave me full marks. And then that Saturday it’s the big rugby game against Pretoria College, our oldest rivals.

‘So the game’s going well and we’re leading Pretoria at half-time, and Bradley makes this smarmy comment in the changing rooms that he’s taking up surfing, and we should go catch some waves sometime. I was so pissed off, but I just let the anger out on the game. Then Bradley scores a drop goal with five minutes left in the game, with us leading Pretoria by two points, and he’s running around like a fucking circus pony, enjoying all the cheers from the crowd and I just start boiling inside. So then we get into a scrum, and I just see red and trip Brad, who then elbows the Pretoria captain, and Pretoria get a penalty awarded and score successfully just as the 80th minute comes. So we lose and I get red-carded for the rest of the season and everybody hates me.

‘Of course, Bradley’s like going at it like a prima donna moaning about his ankle, which I’m certain was just bruised, I didn’t trip him that violently… and I see my dad and his mom fussing all over him like he’s a five year-old. When my dad sees me he just sneers and turns his attention back to Bradley.

‘I couldn’t handle it any more. I’ve never been that upset. I mean, I was crying. I hadn’t cried since I was a kid when my cat was run over and Dad told me only girls cry. I just ran off the field away from the people to get out of the school, and then I saw Patricia Smythe’s car parked next to my dad’s Jaguar and next thing I knew, I had picked up a rock and began screaming and smashing both cars’ windows. I just went apeshit.

‘So of course, everyone saw this and they called the police. I got arrested, and my dad just looked on when they carted me into the police truck. Since I was already 18 so they put me in an adult holding cell.’

‘I’m so sorry, Chris,’ I said. ‘That’s awful.’

He wiped his eyes. He was talking quickly now, and I just let him get it all out.

‘Eventually my mom arrived, completely hysterical and bailed me out. I’d never been so scared in my life, Cal. It really stank in that cell and all these guys were like checking me out and threatening me.’

He shivered.

‘So, long story short, the charges were dropped, probably because I’d never had any record before and my dad was on the school governing body and he didn’t want to have a son with a criminal record – it would look bad for him, you see – and instead I got stripped of being a prefect and expelled. It was so hard on my mom. She never said anything, but I knew I’d failed her.'

‘You didn’t fail her,’ I said. ‘It was a hard time for everybody. What about your brothers?’

‘Oh,’ sighed Chris, ‘it was difficult. Matthew’s on the farm in the Midlands, but his first child was about to be born, and Tom lives in the UK and Andrew was taking his gap year touring around South-East Asia. It’s been hard for them too. We all hero-worshipped dad and never thought that our family could be ripped apart.

‘Mom stopped working; she got depressed and was too embarrassed to speak to anybody. I think that’s when she started drinking. She was angry, and she really let my dad have it with the divorce. She did an Ivana Trump on him.'

‘Good for her,’ I said, squeezing his thigh. ‘I like your mom.’

He let out a bitter chuckle. ‘Not that I was really aware. Katie broke up with me, I moved out of the house, and Matt got me a job on the farm as a deputy farm manager; he paid me a small salary and I just did my own thing. I should have stayed with Mom or all this wouldn’t have happened.’

He was sobbing again. I wrapped my arms around him and waited for him to calm down. My mom would do the same with my dad when he got overwhelmed when she was so ill. I think he’s always going to feel guilty, because it never occurs to him that it’s ok that he needed her too. It’s the deadly mix of Catholic and Calvinist genes that have a field day in every MacLeods’ basal ganglia. Man hands on misery to man, goes Philip Larkin’s poem, it deepens like a coastal shelf.

‘So, there it is,’ sighed Chris after a while, wiping his eyes. ‘Here we are with this huge house and all this money and we’re completely miserable. I guess Mom tried to wipe the slate clean but she’s alienated herself. And now she’s in hospital because of me.'

‘Stop that, Chris,’ I said in a serious tone. He looked at me with wide eyes. Not many people get my serious treatment; my voice drops an octave and people are transfixed. ‘That’s rubbish. Remember how you told me I was speaking rubbish about being a faggot that had turned you? Now you’re the one talking kak. I think I’d have gone much more psycho than you did. Good on you for trashing that bitch’s car who tore your family apart.'

‘I fucked up, Cal. But then I met you. I thought this new year of school was going to be terrible, and I’d decided to just keep my head down. But you – you were the first good thing to happen to me in Cape Town. Actually, the best thing that’s happened to me in, oh God, I don’t know how long.’

‘I could say the same thing,’ I said breathlessly.

Would the world please stop turning so fast, I thought to myself, I can’t handle being moved so much! During the past few days I’d shed a small lake of tears – most of them tears of joy and wonderment. I hugged him tight and we held onto each other for a long time.

‘Caleb MacLeod,’ he said, holding my face against his, ‘I love you.’

English author Martin Amis’s collection of brilliant essays is entitled The War Against Cliché, but, for all his literary prowess and powers of invention, he can be a sour old fart. For "I Love You" are the three little words that are never a cliché. They are the words that make the galaxies spin around everyone fortunate enough to hear them. English has been infused with French since the Norman Conquest, it has absorbed Latin and Greek and sucked merrily on a cornucopia of tongues, but in articulating the force that makes us believe (rightly or wrongly) that our lives actually have meaning, the language goes back to its simple Germanic roots, the tribal words of a people that lived by the seasons, the stars, the sword.

‘I love you too,’ I said, and kissed him. Now we were both sobbing.

‘Fuck,’ he said eventually, ‘I think I’m making up for all the times I should have cried since I was a kid.'

‘For a cry-baby you sure swear a lot,’ I said.

‘Grandpa Hathaway was a sailor,’ he said, shrugging his shoulders.

It was nearly one o’clock in the morning and we had to be up soon for school. It was hard to see him go, as he kissed me goodnight and shuffled off to the guest room. I was exhausted from all the emotion and drifted off into a dreamless sleep.

*

I awoke just before six by Chris tip-toeing into my room.

‘Shhh,’ he said, with a naughty expression on his face and very gently shutting the door. ‘Perhaps we could cuddle for ten minutes?’

Ah, the stolen moments of young love: they are so precious.

*

Chris’s mom was discharged the next day. I offered to come with him, but he told me he’d prefer to fetch her himself. I really felt for him, having to deal with all this drama on his own. I thought of how Sarah had been there for my dad and I during the last months of Mom’s illness, doing what she does best when shit hits the fan: running around, making tea, cooking casseroles and vacuuming unnecessarily, Martha to our mother’s Mary.

School was strange after the weekend away. I was with Chris in History and Afrikaans, and I had to stop myself from reaching across to him in class several times. It was hard, seeing couples holding hands during break. Even though no physical contact was allowed between pupils at the school no one seemed to police it as long as no person was found with their lips stuck against somebody else’s. What about us, I thought. Could we stare dreamily into each other’s eyes at a restaurant? Would people balk if we walked with our arms around each other in a mall? Were we going to be forced to conduct our relationship in secret, in side alleys and cars and seedy clubs in Green Point, being salivated at by creepy old men?

I hadn’t prepared myself for all the questions love had brought. But I wasn’t going to run, even if I’d never get the answers.

For the moment, there was loads of work to distract me.

*

‘Magnificent,’ said Mrs Georgadis, as I got to the final bar of one of the Études-Tableaux by Rachmaninov.

‘You’ve finally grasped the soul of this piece,’ she said. ‘Your technique has always been excellent, my boy, but I’ve always noticed that you were hesitant - cautious even - when we’ve tackled Romantic repertoire. But here, you’ve made the Rach sing, you’ve channelled all the drama and passion that makes it Russian.’

‘Thanks ma’am,’ I said, shyly.

‘There’s a change come over you, Caleb,’ she said kindly. ‘I haven’t seen you smile for a long time. Excuse an old woman’s curiosity, but are you... are you in love?’

I blushed.

‘I knew it,’ she said, clapping her old hands together. ‘About bloody time, my child. Most boys your age would be totally distracted by all this, but I daresay it’s made you more focused.’

‘Um, thanks, ma’am.’

‘I envy the lucky girl,’ she said. ‘Or is it a boy?’

I looked at her in shock.

‘It’s ok, Caleb. I wasn’t insinuating anything. At my age the brain becomes blasé. I’m a Greek woman, remember that: so many of our ancient heroes were homosexual, and respected. Achilles, to name but one.’

I bit my lip.

‘As long as you two are happy. You must do what makes you happy, and as long as no one gets hurt, what’s there to worry about? Who cares what the world thinks! My Spiro taught me that.’

‘Your husband?’

‘Yes. We would have been married forty-two years this year. I’ll always remember what he told me about Socrates.’ She indicated the bust of the old Greek philosopher, sitting somewhat out of place among the busts of Beethoven and Brahms. ‘Socrates said of himself he was the wisest philosopher because he knew that he knew nothing.’

‘That doesn’t make sense,’ I said.

‘It didn’t to the people of Athens either, who condemned him to death for corrupting the youth with his unsettling ideas. But the old man just meant that he knew his limits. And Spiro said that if one knew one’s own limits, one’s love wouldn’t have any.’

‘That’s beautiful,’ I said.

She smiled. ‘You know, my cousin Andreas in Corfu is gay. His mother fainted when she found out that he was actually in love with Kallistos the fisherman, his fiancée’s brother. There was baklava on the ceiling, I tell you! But twenty years later they are still together and happy. Spiro and I visited them three years ago, just before his heart attack.’

‘I’m sorry, ma’am,’ I said.

She wiped her eyes. ‘Oh, don’t let the ramblings of an old woman get to you my boy. Back to work. Play it again, and let’s try full tempo this time.’

*

A week had passed since we drove up to Theewaterskloof. I had just finished a music lesson and was walking to my bike, when it occurred to me that I’d never watched Chris at rugby practice. I giggled to myself when I thought of sitting with all the girls coming to watch their beaux play, and then rolled my eyes.

I sat down on one of the grandstands overlooking the field where both the second and first teams were going through rucks and mauls and chose a spot away from where everybody else was sitting, self-consciously taking out my iPod and some books to hide the fact that I was looking at Chris.

He looked so sexy on the field in his rugby kit, running about like a gazelle with sheer unadulterated joy. I took a deep breath as I thrilled at the fact that I knew well what was under his jersey and shorts.

‘Hi, Cal,’ said a voice. I turned around. It was Veronica, Jason’s girlfriend. I don’t think she’d ever acknowledged my existence before.

‘Hi,’ I said cautiously. ‘You um, come out to support the guys? I believe it’s the big clash against St Dominic’s next week.’

‘With them?’ she said, indicating the cheerleading crowd. ‘Yes and no.’

‘How come?’ I asked.

 ‘Oh, I just hang with Trisha and the girls because she’s going out with Frank and Frank is Jason’s best friend.’ She waved nonchalantly to Trisha, who was staring at us with an expression of disapproval.

Veronica really was beautiful, with piercing blue eyes. I was amazed at how comfortable I felt talking to her, when she was the girlfriend of my arch-nemesis.

‘Your friend seems quite a talented player,’ she said, looking at Chris, who was standing in the middle of the field with arms akimbo, panting like a dog.

‘I guess,’ I said, shrugging.

‘He could very easily move up into the First Team, you know,’ she added. ‘And you, Cal, good luck for the provincial try-outs. You guys are really sizzling on the swim team.’

‘Thanks,’ I said. She got up and gave me a wave and walked towards Trisha and Co. That was weird, I thought. Random, but cool.

The players stopped for a break. Chris noticed me and waved.

‘Hey Cal!’ he called, jogging towards the stands. I walked down to the bottom to meet him.

‘Hey there.’

He was almost unbearably gorgeous. Little beads of sweat were dripping from his hair, his muscles were taut against his rugby jersey and the veins in his arms were huge. I could smell the wonderful scent of his body mixed with his cologne and fresh grass.

‘You came to watch your boyfriend play?’ he whispered, grinning.

I nodded.

‘Listen,’ he said, suddenly animated. ‘I nearly forgot to tell you!’

‘What?”

‘I got an A for my chemistry test! And it’s all because of you!’

‘No way! That’s fantastic!’

I high-fived him. He beamed from ear to ear. I shivered a bit as Frank Arliss walked past us to the drinking fountain, frowning.

‘Ignore him,’ said Chris. ‘Listen, I have lots of news… all good, just a lot to talk about. So, um… I was thinking…’

‘Yeah?’ I said, raising an eyebrow. He suddenly looked all bashful.

‘Would you go out with me tomorrow night? I thought we should, you know, have our first official… date.’

I had a sudden rush of blood to the head.

‘Wow,” I said, nodding, and drinking in the sensation of being asked out.

‘Cal?’

‘Of course… that would be awesome.’

‘Maybe pizza and a movie? I know, that’s like so old and lame, but…’

‘It sounds perfect,’ I said. ‘But I choose the movie. There’s a great sci-fi horror showing,’ I added, with a wicked grin.

‘Oh dear,’ he said in mock fear. ‘But you’ll protect me, I know.’

The coach whistled for the guys to get back on the field.

‘Gotta go. Text you tonight?’

‘Sure.’

He jogged back, mouthing ‘I love you’ quietly.

I don’t quite remember cycling home; I was in such a heady blur of dizzy happiness.


12. Under The Branches

The Cape Town Herald, April 5, 200-

White Lion Depressed

Jonathan the white lion, who caused a sensation last year when he escaped from the Peninsula Zoo, appears to be depressed. Staff at the zoo say the young male, the zoo’s star attraction, has not been eating "for several days" and has retreated into the artificial cave in the zoo's big cat enclosure.

Jonathan is one of three white lion cubs born in captivity three years ago and is descended from the famous white lions of Timbavati. Efforts to make him breed with Sheba the lioness, in an effort to bolster the white lion population, have so far proved futile.

"He just doesn't seem interested," says Dr Lindiwe Dlamini, zoo veterinarian. "He remains in good health, but we may consider transferring him much earlier than expected to our reintroduction programme at a facility near the Kruger National Park."

Dr Dlamini has campaigned tirelessly for making zoos more animal friendly, and the Peninsula Zoo's big cat enclosure she helped design has been recognized as a model of habitat simulation. She is also well known for exposing several illegal canned hunting operations.

- Seth Rabinowitz, Staff Reporter

*

I hardly heard my name being read out at Friday assembly that I'd been awarded school colours for swimming, along with Vijay. Rob had to nudge me to get up and walk up to the stage to shake the headmaster's hand. The school applauded, but I could hear some heckling from the gallery and sure enough, Jason was wearing a sour expression on his face. It dawned on me that I'd now be eligible to wear the green sports blazer, making me - on paper - a jock. But all these thoughts were overtaken when I suddenly realized that my date with Chris was tonight and I didn't know how to prepare for it. What was I going to wear? Did I need to get him a present? I bolted out of the hall as soon as assembly finished and ran to the only person I could talk to - Bella.

'It's not like you're going ballroom dancing,' said Bella, as we sat down on a bench in the quad outside the hall. 'How about a nice long-sleeved cotton shirt and jeans? And make sure you shave your five o'clock shadow, you have a dark beard I imagine.'

I nodded.

'What does your dad know?'

'Oh, he thinks we're just going to the movies, which is true, but obviously he doesn't know the exact circumstances.'

'You're going to have to tell him at some stage.'

'I know. But I don't know how he'll react. What if he freaks out and I can't see Chris?'

'I understand. But you're 18 in two weeks and then legally you can do what you want.'

'Bella, you make everything seem so easy.'

She sighed. 'Don't worry so much. Do you want me to drop by to help you choose an outfit?'

I beamed. 'That would be awesome. I couldn't have asked for a better fag hag.'

Bella came round at about four, and we fussed for about half an hour choosing a shirt. We settled on a cobalt blue one that she said brought out the colour of my ice-blue eyes.

'Why don't you lose the glasses and wear your contacts? I mean you're cute with your nerd specs but you should mix things up a bit.'

I did as she said and disappeared into the bathroom to assemble my ensemble.

'Wow,' said Bella, whistling as I walked back out. 'Hunk in the room, everyone!'

I had to admit; she'd helped me clean up pretty impressively. For the first time in my life I really felt like taking care of my appearance; I was a kid who lived happily in shorts and T-shirts.

Bella left and I undressed again and took a shower. Afterwards I lay on my bed for a while. Then I spotted my grandfather's cigarette tin I'd had for years, which housed a sticker collection I'd amassed when I was ten. It was a Fantastic Four collection. They were of course, Mr Fantastic, Sue Storm, Johnny Storm and... The Thing!

I reached for the tin and rummaged through the stickers. Sure enough, there was a sticker of Thing with his fist aimed at all and sundry. Chris had to have this.

Chris arrived at half-past six. I heard my dad let him in and I frantically had a last check in the mirror and descended the staircase as nonchalantly as I could. My heart was beating very fast as I saw him talking to my dad.

He was wearing a charcoal jacket and a crisp striped shirt, with dark trousers and Converse All Stars. His wavy hair had been tamed and he radiated über-coolness. God, my boyfriend was a sexy beast. He took a small sharp breath as he saw me, obviously liking what he saw. I said a silent prayer of thanks for Bella.

'You two boys are looking really sharp there,' said my father. 'Try not to break too many girls' hearts!'

Chris gave me a wink and we greeted my dad and walked to the Jeep. We wasted no time in driving away and as soon as we were out of the house's view I kissed him on the cheek.

'Hello, sexy dude,' he said. 'You look fantastic.'

'You too, gorgeous man.' We were slowly getting more comfortable calling each other affectionate names.

We had pizza in a cosy little Italian place in Kenilworth. Halfway through I felt his one foot gently playing with my leg. It was hard for me to keep a straight face.

The movie was great, mindless fun, with buckets of blood spilt, slimy monsters, screaming pneumatic blondes and pitch-perfect black humour. Chris held my hand, clenching every time the film delivered a jolt. Halfway through he guided my hand to his crotch. We were sitting in the back in an empty row. I took a deep breath and inched my hand under his boxers. He groaned deeply as I played with him, and he leaned his head against mine. It felt naughty; it felt wrong; it felt right.

He started squirming and took hold of my hand and gently moved it away.

'If I come I might not be able to keep quiet,' he whispered, and I sniggered. 'Let me give you some attention for a while.'

I stopped sniggering and started breathing heavily as he returned the favour.

We didn’t say anything as we drove back; we were simply happy to be quiet in each other’s presence. The autumn night was unusually warm and we rolled down the windows, breathing in the fresh air.

He stopped The Thing a little bit past my house, under the branches a large oak tree where the pools of light from the streetlamps didn’t reach. The tree still was heavy with yellowing leaves and hadn’t begun to shed them. We kissed long and slow, making out for a good ten minutes.

‘First make-out session in a car,’ I said eventually, as we stopped to draw breath.

‘Well you certainly knew what to do,’ he said, smiling with closed eyes.

‘Um,’ I said, fumbling in my back pocket, ‘I have a little something for you.’ I handed him an envelope in which I’d put the sticker. ‘I thought it might look cool.’

His face lit up as he took the sticker out.

‘This is fantastic! The Thing and… The Thing!’

He gave me a bear hug and kissed me on the cheek. ‘Thanks, Cal. You’re the best.’

‘I try,’ I said, shrugging.

‘Which reminds me,’ he said, reaching behind his seat and fumbling about, ‘I got a little something for you too. Except I was a dork and didn’t give it to you at the beginning.’

‘Eh?’ I said, curious.

‘Um. I hope you don’t think it’s too schmaltzy, but, anyway…’

Almost gingerly, he handed me a brown paper gift bag. Inside was a small soft toy: a lion cub with oversize, almost anime eyes.

‘His name is Cubby. Not very original, I know, but I was five years old at the time.’

I gasped. ‘This was one of your soft toys? No, Chris, I can’t take this! It’s too precious!’

‘No, no,’ he said. ‘I want you to have him. Think of him as being on permanent loan. Cubby has always slept on my bed with me and now I want him to be with you when I’m not, so you’ll always think of me.’

‘Chris,’ I said, and buried my face in his chest, sniffing his wonderful scent. ‘You’re so good to me. And all I gave you is a silly sticker.’

‘Which is possibly the coolest thing someone’s ever given me.’

‘Ok. I’ll look after Cubby – but only if you promise to visit him regularly.’

‘You can be assured of that, sir,’ he said, giving me a mock salute.

*

How do you quantify love? Can you weigh it, measure it, pin it down with equations? If the sum of all experiences is really just the interaction of a finite soup of chemicals copulating in nerve endings, how does this even dare articulate the infinite?

For all this we treat love as a countable infinity. We can love someone more and more; we can stop loving. But we can never guess how much all this is. Love has no units. Verily, the Psalter has it that 'if I look to the east, behold, thou art there... If I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.'

Perhaps love is like the theory of the ever-expanding universe, we are caught inside of the inside of an ever-inflating sphere, ever boundless.

My emotions were smearing across each other as I finally drifted off to sleep. I held little Cubby close to me, unashamed. I could smell Chris on him. I imagined my love as a little flaxen-haired boy, comforted by his favorite toy as the sounds of the old farmhouse enveloped him. Perhaps he heard his brothers messing about with each other in another room.

Perhaps his parents peered lovingly over his bed, holding hands, long before the bitterness forced its way between them.

On Saturday afternoon, we took a walk through Newlands forest. Panting and sweating, we came to a viewpoint and sat down, looking at the panorama of the city below us. He propped himself against a tree and I settled myself between his legs against his torso.

'It's our one week anniversary,' Chris chuckled.

'Who would've thought,' I said dreamily.

His tone became serious. 'Are you happy with the pace of things? I mean, are things too fast or too slow for you?'

I reached out and touched his neck. 'No, silly. It's just perfect.'

'Thanks, my love.' I thrilled as he said it. 'I like to take things slow. I'm not a wham-bam-thank you ma'am kind of guy.'

'Or man, as in not ma'am,' I chuckled. He tapped me playfully on my head. 'Why?' I asked, 'has that been a problem for some people?'

'You wouldn't believe,' he said, massaging my shoulders. 'One girl I dated broke up with me because I hadn't slept with her after one week.'

'No way!' I said incredulously.

'Yup. I was too old-fashioned that way,' he said. 'I mean I'm not a prude, but I don't want to do something so intimate with someone I hardly know.'

'Such a gentleman. I never thought of girls as predatory.'

He nodded.

'Uh, Chris?'

'Yes my love?'

'What's sex like?'

He took a deep breath. 'You sure you're ok with me talking about my past?'

'I'm sure. '

'Well,' he said, 'at its best, it's like this slow wave that builds up inside you and you melt into the other person. It's warm, and wet, and messy - and it's great. But that's when you care about the person. Else it's just a brief, like, happy little squirt but you feel strangely empty afterwards.'

'Wow,' I said. 'Go on.'

'So yeah. I've slept with five girls. I was 16 when I lost my virginity. I didn't really know what I was doing, but that's the great thing, you get to practice.'

'Five? You stud.'

He blushed. 'I guess I was a bit of a slut. But Cal, it's not just about sticking your dick in someone. Last week, when we were together in bed - that was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever experienced. I knew I loved you then.'

I closed my eyes, overwhelmed. 'Is it my mind,' I managed, 'but can it be that I feel as if I've always known you?'

He interlaced his hands with mine. 'I feel the same way,' he said. 'And I've loved and been in love before and not felt that. You feel like... You feel like home.'

'Shit,' I said, fighting back tears. 'That's probably the nicest thing anybody's ever said to me. Perhaps the ancient myths were true.'

'What myths?'

'That the gods, fearing the humans they'd created would conquer them, split each one's soul into two, so we are forever searching for our other half.'

'That's beautiful. But so sad. But if I feel like I know you before, one could say we've found each other time and time again in different lifetimes.'

'Perhaps we were husband and wife, and then swapped roles in the next one,' I quipped. He laughed. 'And then maybe we were two girls,' I added.

'Now that's hot,' he said, and kissed me passionately.

Presently we heard voices, and we broke off our kiss prematurely. A woman walking past had seen us, and she had her mouth open, staring.

'Hi there,' said Chris, waving, and draping an arm across my shoulder. 'Lovely day, isn't it!'

The woman sneered, turned her head and walked away briskly.

'That was so rude,' I said. 'Good on you though, I don't think I would have been able to be so ballsy.'

'I just really don't care what people think any more.' He shrugged. 'But it just goes to show that not everybody is going to understand... us. We’re lucky to have Bella and Rob.’

I nodded. ‘I remember you said to me that this hit you like a bolt from the blue. Did you ever… at all… think you’d end up dating… a guy?’

He chuckled. ‘To be honest, no. But I’ve had fantasies about guys, sure, although they’ve been rare. And I jerked off with one or two mates when I was 14 or so, but we were watching straight porn. I always assumed I’d be with women. You?’

‘I’ve been realizing I’m wired a bit differently for a while now. I’d say I’ve been 60/40 in favour of girls… but now I’m 100% for team Chris.’

‘Aw.’ He tickled the back of my neck and I shivered from the delicious sensation. ‘That’s so cool.’

‘You think?’

‘Nothing wrong with being bi. I think you’re my one in a million. Whatever. Don’t put yourself in a box.’

‘You’re right. But it’s like… like I’m this third type of human… I’m scared neither straight nor gay people are going to, you know, get me… like I can’t be trusted. I was watching this episode of Sex and the City with my sister where one of the girls dates a bi guy and her friends say “bisexuality is just a layover on the way to Gay Town.” Are you scared I’m going to cheat on you with – another woman?’

‘No, silly,’ he said, smiling kindly. ‘Well, not any more than you’d cheat on me with another guy. And same goes for me. You’re confusing fidelity with sexual preference. And on that subject, I need you to know that sexual identity for me is totally different from sexual preference.’

‘Duh,’ I said, punching him on the shoulder. ‘Everyone knows that.’

‘I’m talking from the point of knowing how many straight guys think. Cal, I respect you as a man. As I am a man. There’s nothing effeminate about you. You’re sensitive, and sophisticated, but don’t ever think you’re less of a man just because you don’t run around after a ball in the mud. I may not have thought much about ending up with a guy, but I realize when those fuckers taunt you with the word “faggot” they’re trying to undermine your masculinity, as if being gay or bi somehow takes away your Y chromosome.’

He’d flummoxed me, again. ‘I love you,’ was all I could say.

‘I don’t want you to feel that either of us has to take on a passive or active role. I only have experience dating girls, so it’s like hard-wired in me to want to open the door for you or pay for dinner or, I dunno, whatever. I hope you don’t think I’m trying to dominate you or something.’

‘Good Lord,’ I said, ‘when did you swallow a psychology textbook? No seriously, don’t worry, man. I’m flattered. As long as I can return the favour. I guess I couldn’t carry you in my arms, big guy, but watch out, I’m leading you when we dance.’

‘Yes, sir!’ he said with a broad grin. 'And, if it got to a point where you'd like to maybe, um, experience things with a woman, I guess that would be ok with me.'

'I couldn't cheat on you! Ever!'

'It wouldn't be cheating if I was involved,' he said with a smirk. 'Ok, sorry, I didn't mean to freak you out. I just meant, you know, I know you've got some girlie mags under your bed. I got some too. We can look at them together, or look at guys, too.'

I went as red as a beetroot. 'How come you're so open-minded about things?'

'Too much fresh farm air,' he said, shrugging. I loved this man so much, it hurt. ‘Um, Cal?’ he asked, softly.

‘Yes?’

‘I just wanted to say that when you held me that night, after we had, you know, played around for the first time, I’d never felt so close to anyone.’ He rubbed his eyes. ‘You make me feel safe.’

‘Well,’ I said, sighing deeply, and trying hard not to burst with emotion, ‘thank you for letting me.’

My phone bleeped with a message. It was Rob:

- Hey you two lovebirds! Don’t forget our online game meet tonight at 7. I’m gonna nail you all! Ice cream at my place after?

I stood up, texting back that I was keen. I offered Chris my arm to pull himself up.

We walked down the hill to the parking lot arm in arm, feeling utterly invincible.

 


13. Champagne and Telescopes

The Easter weekend was almost upon us, and the traditional rugby match between St Francis and St Dominic’s, our ancient rivals, would be on Maundy Thursday. School would finish early and the matches would commence at 12pm, with the First Team kicking off at four. Of course, I was most interested in watching the Second XV as my man would be playing. St Franks hadn’t won the game in over five years and the school was baying for blood.

The Easter break couldn’t have come sooner. For two weeks there would be no school – and Chris and I could be alone during the day. Lust and love battled it out in my thoughts on the Thursday morning, and I was preoccupied with thinking about what to do with this largesse of time ahead of us.

We managed to steal a kiss in the back of the science lab just after classes finished, under the pretence of helping Mrs Muller put the reagents back in the chemical store.

‘I’ll be right in front,’ I said, as he walked out. ‘Go get them!’

 

By the time the Second Team game kicked off the stands were full. Rob had improvised his own ‘Rugby for Idiots’ schematic for Bella to follow, beautifully printed out on an A4 sheet that he’d even laminated.

‘I didn’t know you were into rugby,’ she said to him. ‘This is great, though. Cal obviously has his reasons now, but you, Mr Jordan?’

‘It’s all reducible to equations. The rules are fascinating, actually.’

The game was tight, with the two teams having almost equal possession of the ball until the second half, when St Frank's gradually gained the upper hand.

It was hypnotic, seeing Chris play. He moved with singular purpose across the field, every muscle taut, playing his heart out. I’d previously thought of rugby as a disorganised bout of mass wrestling, but watching him run and kick and tackle turned the game into a muscular ballet. I was whooping myself hoarse as he kicked a successful goal and helped inch St Franks to a 14-12 victory. If the First Team won, we would have trounced St Dominic’s in all games except one.

It was moving to see the crowd as delighted with the Second Team as they would be with the First Team.

‘Is he going to get lucky tonight?’ Bella whispered into my ear as the team ran around the field waving.

‘Stop that,’ I said, elbowing her in the side. She giggled.

Chris had told us meet him at the entrance to the changing rooms, so he could meet us to watch the First Team game with us. In a little while he emerged, freshly-showered and in his tracksuit.

‘Well done,’ I said, slapping him on the back. I was irritated that I couldn’t show more affection.

‘Not too shabby,’ said Bella. ‘But tell me, what do you guys get up to in the changing room, when you’re already so homoerotic on the field?’

Chris rolled his eyes. ‘I’ll rather take my homoeroticism with this beautiful man right here.’ He mussed my hair and we walked back to the stand. Tricia was leading the St Franks appreciation machine with an elaborate display of gymnastics that was bordering on contortionism. In spite of myself, I had to admit that it was impressive.

If the previous game had been exciting, the First Team clash was positively a white-knuckle ride. In the 70th minute Mike Delport, our star fly-half, deftly scooped the ball from the scrum-half and looked like he was setting up a magnificent try when, almost in slow motion, we saw him do a surreal pirouette as he shifted his weight onto his left foot.

There was a horrible snapping sound. Mike fell to the ground screaming, grabbing his ankle. Bewildered, the players crowded around him and medics raced onto the field. He had snapped his Achilles tendon. He was carried off the field groaning in pain.

As gameplay resumed, the crowd was eerily quiet, not quite believing what had happened until Frank Arliss sneaked the winning try across the line. Even then, it took a couple of seconds for everyone to register that we had won.

Frank tore off his jersey and ran around the field, beating his chest. The players hoisted him up and the crowd’s screams were deafening. I couldn’t believe I was applauding him.



 


Like a typical Catholic, I had suddenly become devout during Holy Week. I’ve tried, but I’ve never been able to wash the Church out of my system completely. It dyed my soul as a child, and a faint hue remains, even after science and psychology bleached away most of the guilt and self-castigation. I’ve always found the story of the Passion extremely moving, trying to comprehend how a pacifist died so violently and how his legacy became so powerful, and tragically corrupt.

‘What do you want to do for your birthday, son?’ said my father as we drove home from the Good Friday service.

My eyes widened. I hadn’t thought of actually doing anything at all, and it would be in exactly a week’s time.

‘I don’t know.’

‘It’s your 18th, we should definitely celebrate. How about we go out for dinner? Invite everyone you want.’

‘Ok,’ I said, absent-mindedly, staring out of the car window. I was pre-occupied with the thought that I had decided not to take Communion: that somehow, I was not “pure of heart” anymore, as if what had happened with Chris made me a reprobate. It didn’t make sense: Jesus turning no one away; the Church casting out anyone who dared question its authority.

Much later that evening, I was lying on my bed reading when heard something hit the window. I ignored it, but then it happened again.

Irritated, I got up to investigate. I opened the window and peered out.

‘Cal!’ came a loud whisper. I looked down. It was Chris, with a guilty expression on his face, hiding in one of the bushes at the base of the big tree outside.

‘What the…?’

‘Can I come up?’ He said it more as a statement than a question. Deftly, he clambered up the tree and within moments he had scrambled up to the branch just outside my window.

‘Chris! You’re going to kill yourself!’

In a single fluid movement, he stepped over onto the sill and hauled himself into my room.

‘Hello,’ he said beaming, kissing me on the cheek.

‘How did you…?’

‘Shhhh,’ he said, hugging me. ‘I’ve had loads of practice sneaking into houses.’

‘Well, this is unexpected. Nice, though.’

‘I missed you, so I thought I’d come say goodnight.’

Inside, I was swooning. I finally understood how one could become drunk on a single romantic gesture.

We flopped on the bed and cuddled for a while, talking softly. I was relieved to hear my father snoring loudly down the passage.

‘Does he suspect anything?’ said Chris.

‘I don’t think so. But how long can we keep this a secret?’

‘Shit, Cal, I never thought how difficult it might be. It’s really hard for me not to, like, hold hands with you in public.’

‘I know. I wanted to jump you yesterday when you came out after the rugby match. You’re so hot on the field.’

‘Aw.’ He ran his fingers through my hair and I sighed. ‘It’ll be easier, at the end of the year. And now we have two weeks.’ He let out an evil mad scientist chuckle.
‘So I believe someone is turning eighteen next week? I hope we’re celebrating!’

‘Yeah, how about that. It hasn’t really been on my mind. But my dad was suggesting we go out for dinner.’

‘Abso-bloody-lutely! And I’m buying you your first official legal drink.’

‘You’re on. Speaking of that – um,’

‘Mmmh?’

‘How’s your mom?’

‘She’s ok,’ said Chris, shrugging. ‘She hasn’t touched a drop since that night. She’s going to start going to AA meetings as well.’

‘That’s great,’ I said. ‘Are you ok?’

‘I will be. But my dad’s coming to Cape Town just after the holidays and he’ll obviously want to see me.’

‘How do you feel about that?’

‘I’m so confused. I miss him but I’m so angry with him.’

I nodded, and had to fight hard to not voice my opinion that Chris’s dad was a complete arsehole.

‘When last did you see him?’

‘Just before Christmas. Remember, he tried to give me this brand new 4x4, but it was all I could do to say no and not start screaming at him. It’s still there on the farm for all I know. I hope Matt has found some use for it.’

‘And he probably thinks you’re ungrateful, when all you were doing was letting him know that you don’t approve of what he did. Which is entirely correct.’

‘You’re so right,’ he said. ‘Thanks. I don’t know whom else to talk to about this. So... how was church?’

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Long, as usual. Tiring. Good Friday is never the happiest occasion. Plus my dad takes the whole fasting thing seriously. Grandma MacLeod was hard-line, she always made them fast fully for 24 hours, not just the avoid eating meat thing.’

‘That’s harsh. Say, you guys do the whole Easter Vigil thing, don’t you?’

‘Yeah. It’s like the highlight of the liturgical year.’

‘Do you think, uh, I could come with you tomorrow night? I’ve always wanted to see what it’s about. I was raised Anglican which is like Catholic-lite but, I guess, I want to see the source.’

I gave him a little chuckle. ‘Sure. Of course, we might just burst into flames when we walk in.’ I was quite touched that he wanted to come with.

He laughed. ‘Well, it’s not like you burst into flames when you jerked off for the very first time, I imagine. And I know what the Church says about that.’

I became serious. ‘Yeah. Guilt deluxe from the moment you grow your first pubic hair. Christianity seems so simple but it becomes so complicated. I don’t even know what I believe anymore. I’m a fake, really, clinging to all these traditions when they make less and less sense as I learn more and more about the world.’

‘I don’t think so,’ said Chris, putting an arm around me. ‘I can’t claim to believe in anything right now – but I don’t think it’s fake to want to have those traditions. I guess religion has done a lot of bad things, but there’s a lot of beautiful stuff too, and if it gives people comfort…’

‘I feel safe inside a church,’ I said. I was suddenly aware of this deep ache inside my gut. ‘You know, until today I hadn’t been to Mass since…’

‘Your mom’s funeral,’ he said, drawing me in closer. ‘It’s ok.’ He kissed the side of my head.

Sometimes the smallest of gestures can have titanic effects. That small kiss, softer than the flutter of a hummingbird’s wing, sent me over. My whole body went into spasm and I let out a wild, searing cry. I barely had the presence of mind to bury my head in his shirt to muffle the sound. As if in reflex, his arms tightened around me as I cascaded forth in sobs.

‘Let it out,’ he whispered. ‘I’m here.’

‘I’m so… so angry,’ I cried between sobs. ‘Why did she have to leave? Why her? Why would God make her suffer like that?’

He didn’t say anything, but held me tight. I just went with the wave of emotion. It was weird – I didn’t make much noise, I just gasped and shook as the tears flooded out.

When the worst of the torrent had come out, I realised that, once more, I’d made quite a mess of Chris’s shirt.

‘Your shirt,’ I said, sniffing. ‘Again.’

He pulled his white tee off and wiped my face with it. I inhaled the dark fragrance of his scent mixed with his cologne; it was like an opiate to the pain inside me.

‘You can soak any of my shirts, any time,’ he said with a little smile. ‘Come here, my love.’ He lay back and gently pulled my head onto his warm bare chest. He stroked my hair as my breathing gradually calmed.

‘I haven’t cried… about… my mom until... until now,’ I said, sighing deeply.

‘Everybody’s different,’ he said. ‘It’s just your time now. You held me when I poured out all my stuff about the divorce. I’m here for you, Cal. Say or don’t say anything. You can react in any way you want. I’m just… glad… you’re letting things out.’

‘Thanks. You know, I don’t even know if God exists but I’m angry with him.’

‘Who wouldn’t be? Makes sense. How do you feel?’

‘Better,’ I admitted. I was now in that torpor you get into after having had a good cry, where every breath is a deep gulp of air and the world around you seems to disintegrate into a million little points, like one of those paintings by Seurat.

I yawned. ‘Sleepy, eh?’ he said, and I nodded. He lifted up the duvet and motioned me to get in. I don’t think I’d been tucked in since I was eight years old. He got in next to me and held me. ‘I’ll stay here until you fall asleep.’

I was out within minutes.

When I awoke I was clutching Cubby. He must have put him in my arms, because I remembered he was on my desk earlier in the evening.

As I got out of bed, I felt strangely light. It was a good feeling.

 

 

*

 

During a recent session, Clarice asked me how our sexual relationship progressed during those first heady days. It would be easy to imagine that Chris and I went from nought to two hundred miles per hour, especially with a vacation ahead of us with no parental interference. I don’t know if we were subconsciously holding back before my birthday, but we were more than happy to continue exploring our intimacy at a gentle pace, going nothing further than mutual fondling. I’m vanilla and proud of it, and it’s taken me a while to realize this. We were still courting each other: there was a beautiful shyness in everything, even as the contours of his body became as familiar to me as my own. Something had deepened too, as we shared our secrets with each other, his anguish over his parents’ break-up, my surfacing lake of sorrows of which I had yet to plumb the depths.

It may have been autumn, but it was my summer of love. It was difficult to decide whether we were behaving as best friends or as lovers. One moment we’d be in the car staring dreamily into each other’s eyes, the next we’d be roughing about on the beach like any two friends our age. It didn’t matter: it all felt good.

 

*


My birthday arrived, and Rob, Chris, Bella and I spent the morning on Clifton beach. We laughed at the foreigners who tried to brave the icy Atlantic, who were obviously under the impression that because they were in Africa temperatures were a uniform blood-heat everywhere. We went to the amusement park in Century City and rode all the thrill rides several times, Rob memorably puking up his blue Slush Puppie on an extremely obnoxious Canadian girl, who had been telling everybody in earshot just how she was saving all the children in Khayelitsha from the scourge of genetically modified crops with her involvement in an organic vegetable planting programme.

Chris dropped me off at my house in the afternoon. Dad had organised supper with my four buddies and the family at a restaurant on the Waterfront.

‘Hello, son,’ said my dad as I entered the house. ‘Had a good day so far?’

‘Awesome, thanks.’

‘Go up to your room,’ he said, smiling, ‘there’s a little something there for you.’

I bounded up the stairs. I entered my room and then I saw it: sleek and shiny, pointing out the window to the heavens.

It was a telescope – not just any amateur telescope, but the sexy apochromatic refractor I’d always been dreaming about, perfect for exploring all the major attractions of the night sky, from the moons of Jupiter to globular star clusters.

I whooped and ran around the room.

‘Like it?’ said my dad, walking in with a smirk on his face. I hugged him.

‘This is fantastic, Dad! Thank you so much!’

‘Happy birthday, Cal,’ he said, patting my head. ‘Your mom and I discussed this a while ago, so it’s from both of us. She was adamant that you get it for your 18th.’

His voice was cracking, and he quickly changed the subject. ‘I can’t believe my boy is now a man,’ he said, looking away.

‘I still feel the same.’

‘It was like that for me too. But I can pinpoint the exact moment I felt fully grown-up for the first time.’

‘When was that?’

‘The day your sister was born. When I held her in my arms for the first time.’ He brushed away a tear.

Devon MacLeod, the six-foot, four-inch big softie. I smiled to myself.

‘Well,’ he said eventually, ‘I’ll leave you and your new girlfriend to get acquainted. Sarah’s picking us up at seven, so remember to be ready.’

 


*
 


We – the gang, Dad, Sarah, Dave and I - had a lovely dinner looking out at the harbour lights. Bella and Rob’s parents also came, and, on a whim, I’d asked Chris’s mom to join us too, and she seemed to enjoy herself thoroughly. Conspicuously, she was the only one without a champagne glass in her hand when the bottles of bubbly arrived.

Veuve Cliquot?’ I said to my dad. ‘That’s like very expensive, Dad!’

‘It’s not every day a child of mine grows up,’ he said. 'And bugger it, I've got the vintage stuff. Your mother had expensive taste in champagne, so I figured, why not?'

Chris rapped a knife against a glass and stood up with a ditzy smile on his face. He looked adorable in his preppy shirt and boot-cut jeans.

‘I know I’ve only been part of this posse for a short while, but I’d like to propose a toast to my new best friend Caleb. Cal, now that you’re legal, you’re going to need a wingman, so this is just to say that I’ll be there to bail you out of jail whenever and wherever, no questions asked.’ We laughed.

‘So, Cal, this is your first official glass of champagne, and I know you’re quite the astronomer, and did you know the two are linked? I did some reading up about how champagne was discovered by accident when some monks left some wine in a cave and it fermented, and one of them tasted the stuff and legend has it he said, “Come quick, I’m tasting the stars!” Cal, I know that you won’t just taste the stars but that you’ll reach them and put them in your back pocket. Happy Birthday, buddy!’

I was overwhelmed, and knocked back the Veuve in a gulp as everyone sang “Happy Birthday”. The dryness made my eyes water, but I could taste it was good stuff as the complex nexus of flavours lingered on my tongue. I opened my presents. Rob had gotten me a copy of a new space shoot-em-up I’d been wanting and a bottle of appropriately 18 year-old Scotch single malt, saying in his card that every gentleman gamer needed to sip something sophisticated when blowing up a planet or conceding the loss of his imperial navy. Bella gave me a set of mother-of-pearl cufflinks and a years’ subscription to Scientific American, and Sarah (and supposedly Dave) had bought me the complete set of all six Star Wars films on DVD.

I got up to go to the bathroom, and when I returned, Chris caught me walking back to where we were sitting on the terrace overlooking the waterfront.

‘Hey,’ he said, giving me a clandestine hug. ‘Come walk with me a bit.’

I followed him past the rows of restaurant tables onto one of the piers. A myriad of coloured lights were dancing on the dark water as we settled against the railing.

‘This is for you,’ he said, handing me a beautifully wrapped parcel.

Carefully, I opened it. It was a magnificent book about the history of the constellations.

‘Chris… this is beautiful,’ I said, gasping as I paged through it, marveling at the rich illustrations and photographs, cleverly juxtaposing old etchings and medieval drawings with the latest high-resolution pictures taken with deep-field telescopes.

‘I wrote a little something in it,’ he said.

I turned to the frontispiece. In his spidery hand, he had written:



“You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star” – Friedrich Nietzsche.

To Cal, the man who has taught me to look at the stars. Happy Birthday, With love, Chris.

 

Without thinking, I flung my arms around him and kissed him furiously.

I didn’t see my father coming up to us until his hands were on my shoulders, pulling us apart.

 


14. Lacrimosa

‘What are you doing?’ shouted my father. There was a look of horror on his face. He pushed his hands on Chris’ chest, shoving him away from me.

‘Dad! No!’ I felt nauseous. No, no, no, I thought.

‘Dr MacLeod…’ said Chris, backing away with his hands up in a submissive gesture. My father’s face was red. He lunged forward and grabbed Chris by the shoulders.

‘What do you think you’re doing with my son?’ he cried, shaking him. ‘How can you take advantage of him like that?! All this time…’

‘No!’ I shouted, forcing myself between them. ‘It’s not what you think, Dad, please!’

‘Please leave, Chris,’ said my dad in a low growl.

‘Dad!’ I was desperate.

‘I’m sorry,’ said Chris softly, eyes downcast. He turned around and jogged away.

I ran after him but my father grabbed me by my collar.

‘Caleb!’

‘Let me go!’ I tore myself away from him and he staggered backwards, shouting and swearing. I ran off, trying to catch up with Chris, who was walking quickly towards the plaza opposite the main restaurant strip. In the distance I could see my friends and family staring at the commotion.

My face was hot and my eyes were blurred with rage and tears, so I didn’t see the tourist bus swinging around the corner of the access road in front of the pier.

The last thing I remember was hitting the cement and seeing the lights of the harbour upside down.

 

*

Lights and bleeps flickered in and out of existence around me. I opened my eyes slowly; it felt as if there was a massive weight pressing down on my forehead. Everything was a blur. Slowly, the room around me came into some sort of focus. I could make out a screen with flashing colours and the familiar smell of disinfectant assaulted my nostrils. I knew I was in hospital.

It took me quite a while to remember what had happened, but then realisation hit me with full force. I tried to get up and my whole body went into spasm with pain. I yelled out.

A nurse ran into the room.

‘He’s awake,’ she shouted over her shoulder. ‘It’s ok, Caleb, you’re in hospital,’ she said soothingly, touching her hand to my cheek. I winced, realising it must be bruised.

‘What happened?’ I managed. My mouth was dry and my head was spinning.

‘You were hit by a bus at the Waterfront last night. Thank heavens it was going dead slow. You’re badly bruised and concussed but nothing’s broken, you’ve been kept here for observation. How are you feeling?’

‘Thirsty. My whole body hurts.’

‘I’ll go get you some ice to suck, dear, and give you some morphine for the pain. I’m Sister Abrahams. Just don’t move about so much.’

‘Was I in a coma?’ I asked.

‘No, you were rouseable, but you probably don’t remember it. I’m going to call Dr Moosa now and get your father to come and see you. He’s been waiting here all night.’

‘I don’t want to see him,’ I said, looking away, but as I said it my father barged into the room.

‘Cal! Oh, thank God!’ He collapsed into the chair next to the bed and stared at me, stricken.

‘Dad,’ I managed, still looking away.

‘I’ll be right back with the morphine,’ said Sister Abrahams tactfully, and stepped out.

‘Son… oh my God… I’m so sorry. I’m so fucking sorry. This is all my fault.’

He looked awful, his ashen face punctuated by deep rings under his eyes. The brief hatred I had felt collapsed and I turned to look at him.

‘My beautiful boy,’ he said, squeezing my hand, which was probably the only part of my body that wasn’t hurting. ‘Please forgive me,’ he pleaded, trying to hold back tears.

I let out a deep sigh and groaned a bit as I found out it hurt to breathe.

‘What’s the time?’ was all I could say.

‘Um, it’s eleven o’clock in the morning. You’ve been out all this time.’

‘You’ve been here the whole night?’

‘Of course. Chris too. He wouldn’t leave your side. Neither would Rob or Bella. We went down to get some coffee when they called us. Do you want to see him?’

‘Chris? Yes.. of course… but I thought you told him…’

‘Caleb. I was wrong. I got a fright and overreacted. I wasn’t expecting what had happened between… between you two. I nearly lost you last night and I was such a fool to get upset. I hope you can forgive me.’

In spite of my pain I took another deep breath. ‘Sure,’ I said, managing a weak smile. ‘It’s my fault too,’ I said. ‘I should have looked before I crossed the road.’

Sister Abrahams came and helped prop me up so that I’d be more comfortable. She gave me the morphine shot and let me try a little water.

‘I’ll call them now,’ said my father, stroking my hand and wiping his eyes. ‘Everyone else is outside as well. We've been taking turns sitting here with you. Rob and Bella wanted to stay the whole night but I sent them home. They've been here since this morning. I just need to tell you a few things first.’

‘Ok…’ I said, uncertain about what he meant.

‘Cal. You and your sister are the most precious things to me. I’m so proud of the young man you’ve become. I just never thought, you know, that you’d end up… gay. Are you gay?’

‘God, Dad, I’m still trying to figure that out for myself. I still… like girls too… I think. So does Chris. It’s all so confusing.’

‘I… I guess that must be complicated. I mean, son, I have no problem with gay people. It just came as a shock to me; I can’t deny that. I know you’ve never dated and that you’re a late bloomer, and when I saw you two I thought Chris was seducing you or something. I don’t know, that probably doesn’t make sense. But I acted out of wanting to protect you. Please understand that. It’s been such a hard year since… since your mother…’

‘It’s all right, Dad, I guess I understand.’ It was agony, seeing this big man so helpless.

‘Part of me thought I’d made some mistake, that I hadn’t been a good father or something.’

‘No, Dad, that’s bullshit.’

‘Thanks, Cal. And I know how the world treats people who are different. But I had a long think last night while I was sitting here, praying for you to wake up. And I realised that Chris is a good man, and if he makes you happy, well, I guess I can be ok with that. You’re both adults now.’

I was sideswiped. The morphine was starting to kick in and I thought I was hallucinating.

‘Do you really mean that?’

‘Of course, son. I’ve told Chris that much. It will take me a bit of getting used to, though.’

‘It’s taking me a bit of getting used to as well,’ I said, wincing as I tried to laugh.

‘Do you… do you love him?’

‘Yes,’ I said.

My father nodded. ‘Well, I have no right to stand in your way. But I will be there for you, and I’m always going to be protective. Shit. I never thought the shotgun I bought would be used to guard you instead of Sarah.’

‘Stop it,’ I said, grinning. ‘It hurts when I laugh.’

‘Thank you Lord,’ said my father, suddenly burying his head in his hands. ‘Exaudi orationem meam, Domine, et deprecationem meam.’

Auribus percipe lacrimas meas,’ I suddenly replied. The Latin came pouring out of me; I hadn’t uttered the dead language since Catechism when I was twelve. Trust a Carmelite nun to teach children to recite Psalms in the Vulgate. ‘Ne sileas.’

‘Your mother would know what to do,’ he said. ‘But I know she would be happy that you’re happy.’

‘You do know what to do Dad,’ I said, squeezing his hand.

He finally broke down and grabbed the sheets, howling into them.

‘I miss her so much,’ he gasped. ‘So much! I’ve been lost in my own world, trying not to think about anything… and I’ve almost forgotten that you and Sarah are there… and that you miss her too.’

With all the strength I had, I pushed my Dad’s head towards me, hot tears streaming down my face. We sobbed in unison for a long time. But it felt good, crying together. I don’t think that had ever happened in our family before.

‘I love you, son,’ he eventually said.

‘I love you too, Dad.’

We sat in silence for a while, recovering.

‘Oh – everyone must be dying to see you! Especially your… your boyfriend. Can I call him that?’

‘That’d be cool,’ I said, smiling weakly.

Chris, big softie, started crying immediately when he saw me. He kept saying ‘Thank God, thank God’ over and over again. That cumulative lake of tears that had been shed since the beginning of this year was threatening to become an ocean.

‘Good grief,’ I joked, ‘you’re supposed to be looking after me, not the other way round,’ I said.

Eventually the morphine overtook me and I couldn’t stay awake. Just before I drifted off I ordered them all to go home and rest.

*

I was discharged the next day, after a follow-up CT scan. I had bruised four ribs and the left side of my body was turning into a Picasso of angry blue and yellow bruises. I had several abrasions and a deep cut on my head, which had been sutured and fortunately would not be visible when my hair grew back.

Fiona came over for the first two days and pottered around the house while my dad was at work. As an ICU nurse she was skilled in taking neurological observations and did them religiously, reporting to Dr Moosa so frequently that I’m certain he was getting irritated. Rob and Bella took turns visiting and brought me so much junk food I was in danger of getting my own E number.

Chris had attached himself to me like a shadow. It was just as well he had seen everything there was to see about me, because I needed help getting into the shower and going to the bathroom while I still was in pain.

‘There you go,’ he said, as he steadied me in the shower on the first day back home. ‘Hold on to me and I’ll wash you.’

Very gently, he soaped me up and slowly worked his fingers from my neck down to my feet. His touch was a drug more powerful than any morphine.

‘That good?’ he said, as he heard me groaning.

‘Mmmmh. Thanks.’

‘Ok, I’m going to do your family jewels, if that’s ok. Even if it’s just because I’ve missed your big lad.’

‘Slag,’ I said, chuckling.

‘Can you blame me, when he’s so beautiful?’

I shivered as he took me in his hands and ever so gently washed me. I returned the favour, stroking him slowly, and for a moment there was no pain as we touched each other and I buried my face in his neck.

It hurt when I came, but it was worth it. Startled, he embraced me, massaging my wet hair.

‘It’s ok,’ I said. ‘It was good.’

He nodded, and proceeded to wash my hair. It may sound trite but it was the most intimate thing anyone had ever done to me.

He put me to bed and snuggled up to me, bathed in a pool of the weakening autumn sun. Fiona came into the room with some tea.

‘Oh,’ she said, smiling. ‘Sorry. I’ll put it down here.’ She quietly left, saying she’d be downstairs watching TV.

‘Your mom… does she…?’

‘Relax,’ said Chris. ‘She’s totally fine about us. I think she had us figured out from the beginning. Have your tea, drink your tablets and get some sleep.’

‘Yes, Mr Hathaway,’ I said, snorting. He chuckled and helped himself to one of my comic books as I drifted off.

For the moment, it seemed that the emptiness that had haunted me for two years had dissolved in the afternoon light. There was a detached voice chanting as I yielded to the embrace of the painkillers:

Quoniam advena ego sum apud te et peregrinus, sicut omnes patres mei.

Remitte mihi, ut refrigerer prius quam abeam et amplius non ero.

(For I am a stranger with Thee: and a sojourner, as all my fathers were.

O spare me a little that I may recover my strength: before I go hence and be no more.)

 

 

 

 

 


15. Thou Mayest

I recovered quickly. This was partly due to Chris going into drill sergeant mode. After two days in bed he dragged me into The Thing and drove me to his house.

'Into your Speedo, sexy,' he said as we walked into his room. 'We're going to the pool. I brought your kit.'

'It'll be freezing! What's this all about, anyway?'

'We have solar heating, numbnuts. We're going to get you to do some gentle exercise, and if you're good, you get a reward.'

'What sort of reward?'

'Oh, you'll have to see,' he said, shucking off his shorts and shirt. He was such a magnificent beast in his cotton briefs. He winked at me. 'Off with those clothes, soldier!' He handed me my Speedo.

'Can't I wear boardshorts?'

'No, I wanna perv over my boyfriend's hot body.'

'Hot bruised body,' I said, sticking my tongue out.

We ambled to the pool. Fiona was out for the day, she had approached the local hospital for a part-time job in the paediatric ICU and had gone for an interview.

Gingerly, I lowered myself into the water. It was surprisingly warm. Steam rose from the surface and mingled with the crisp morning air. He sat me down on the step on top of him, wrapping his legs around mine. He grabbed hold of my arms, slowly stretching them out and rotating all the joints. I winced with pain but he egged me on, stroking my head and whispering encouragement. Soon the pain was much bearable, and he stood up and started to stretch out my legs. He cupped a hand on my inner thigh and brushed against my hardness.

'I see someone's happy,' he said, nonchalantly caressing me through my Speedo. It felt amazing. He stretched out my legs in turn with his other hand while continuing to play with me. I was so drunk on him touching me that he'd stretched out all my joints without me noticing.

'You're a wizard,' I said.

'Thanks. Now try a length or two. Breaststroke. Gently.'

I pushed myself off. It was a bit sore, but not much more than the day after a hard gym session. I managed two lengths.

'Well done,' he said. 'Try a bit more if you like.'

I was astonished that I felt so much better. Encouraged, I launched myself into freestyle and before I knew it, ten lengths had been done.

'Awesome,' I said.

'You just needed a bit of warming up,' said my boyfriend. 'Ok. Into the shower with you.'

'Only if you come with.' 

 

*

 

After a long hot shower, he toweled me off gently.

'Go lie down on the bed.' 

'Ok,' I said, a little nervous.

'Relax, my boykie, you're getting a massage.'

He put on some soft music and I heard him rub oil on his hands.  I shivered and groaned. His touch was gentle but firm. I didn't resist.  Tenderly, he caressed my bruises, making sure he didn't hurt me.

'To what do I owe this honour?' I asked in a low moan.

'Because I love you. More than anything in the world,' he said softly. He straddled me and I felt his cock settle against my lower back. I was so hard I was ploughing into the bed.

I drifted into a far, distant galaxy of calm as his hands made love to my body. I must have fallen asleep because the next thing I knew he was whispering in my ear, telling me to turn over.

Every part of my body was caressed, fondled, rubbed limp by those magnificent hands. I was in a trance as I felt him lie down on top of me, beginning a trail of gentle kisses, on my forehead, nose, chin, neck, chest, belly...

'Cal,' he sighed, 'you're so damn beautiful.'

He gently took hold of my furious erection and kissed it, moving down onto my balls and back up again. I let out a deep groan, and I felt his breath warm against my tip.

'Cal,' he said, and kissed my tip. 'May I?'

I opened my eyes. He had a wild, protean look on his face. I smiled and nodded.

I gasped as he took me in his mouth. I jolted, as if an electric current was running through me. He fondled my balls with one hand and tickled my right nipple. I squirmed and twitched, like a marionette being controlled by a puppeteer.

He settled into a slow, steady rhythm. Like a porn star, I put a hand on his head and mussed the golden wavy locks.

I felt the torrent welling up inside me.

'Chris,'  gasped, 'I'm gonna.. gonna...'

But he just pushed me down with a firm hand and sucked me faster.

I let out a deep roar and exploded inside him. The room disintegrated and reassembled itself around me. There were stars, comets, quasars. I felt as if I came for an eternity. As I floated back down I saw him still swallowing greedily, licking me clean.

'Awesome,' he said smiling, and hoisted himself up to my face. Our lips locked and I tasted myself on him.

I took a deep breath and shuddered as our lips parted.

'You swallowed.' I said idiotically.

'Mmm. I like the taste, actually,' he said, lying on his side and making lazy circles with his finger on my chest. He started stroking himself with his other hand.

'Oh,' I said. 'You haven't had any attention. Let me.' I pushed him on his back and held his beautiful manhood in my hand. But within seconds I had him in my mouth.

'Cal... Oh God... are you sure...oh man...'

I nodded. It felt wonderful, he was so tender and yet so hard. Gazing up at him, he looked like an angel with the midmorning sunlight bathing his face, so powerful and yet so vulnerable, twitching just as I had done a few minutes ago.

My tongue explored him like a blind navigator on a strange new land.  I broke free and nuzzled his balls, teasing him until I set to work again on his tip, taking him in gently as my tongue flicked faster and faster. Then the earthquake came, and his hot white lava erupted in my mouth. His body convulsed and I gagged briefly as he spurted forth. He made no sound. It tasted much milder than I thought - slightly salty, slightly sweet. I swallowed too.

Gently, I guided him out of my mouth and  looked up. He was crying softly. I scrambled up to him, wiping his eyes, kissing his face, tasting more salt.

 Cal,' he sobbed, 'That was so beautiful. I love you, man.'

'I love you too.'

We were silent for a while, feeling our chests rising and falling against each other as our breaths slowed.

He propped himself up on his arms and blew out his cheeks. 'I've never come so hard before,' he said, with a little chuckle. 'In fact, I've never been able to climax from a blowjob. But this... fuck, Cal, I can't begin to tell you how amazing that was.'

I beamed. 'Beginner's luck,' I said. 'And for a beginner you're pretty awesome too.'

'I've never felt so close to anyone before,' he said, grabbing my shoulder. 

'I know,' murmured, motioning him to turn around. We spooned and interlocked our legs. 'I don't ever want to let you go of you.'

'Me too. They'd have to pry you from my cold, dead hands,' he said.

The room was heady with the scent of the ocean, and it felt as if we were melting into each other as we fell asleep.

 

*

 

It was Sunday and the holidays were over. It was a clear night, and I had aimed my telescope at the Pleiades, when my father came up to me. There was an envelope in his hand.

'I completely forgot with all the things that happened over the week. This came for you. I signed for it, I hope you don't mind.'

He gave the envelope to me casually and walked away.

It was a brown Manila envelope, addressed to me by registered mail and marked 'Confidential'. There was a logo on one of the corners marked 'Ndwanda, Kahn & Hutchinson Attorneys'.

My heart beat fast. I tore it open and found a typewritten sheet with the firm's letterhead. I read quickly:

 

Dear Mr MacLeod

As per the wishes of your late mother, Susanna Magdalena Rousseau MacLeod, we, the appointed executors of her estate have been instructed to deliver the enclosed letter to you on your eighteenth birthday.

Sincerely,

A R Khan

Executor of Trust

Est. Late SM MacLeod

 

I was tremblin as I rummaged inside the envelope and found another envelope. I saw the flowing cursive hand I knew so well, written with her beloved Mont Blanc:

 

Caleb

 

I sat down on the floor and carefully opened the baby blue envelope. Shaking, I splayed open the crisp folded sheets:

 

My darling boy

 

If you are reading this letter, then it means that I am already gone. It was not my intention to be melodramatic but I really wanted you to at least have a little something just from me on your birthday. I want to reach out to you from where I am right now. Picture it perhaps as a wormhole through space-time; I know how much you love your astrophysics.

I can't believe my baby is a man now! I hope you have had a wonderful day and that you like the telescope. Your dad and I have been planning this for a while now and as I write this we've just ordered it from the States. Snapshot: it's a cold July night, nearly midnight, I can see a star outside my window (or perhaps it is a planet - you'd be able to tell me) and you and your father are fast asleep. I feel good today; no pain, just tired, and you brought me a lovely cup of tea earlier. You make the best cups of tea. It's a gift.

 I've been writing a lot in the past few weeks until the early hours of the morning, hoping you wouldn't catch onto what I was doing: but the secret's out now. This is not the first letter I've written to you, but it's the first you'll receive. There are letters for Sarah and your dad too which will come on their birthdays. I'm trying to write as many as I can - it's partly therapeutic for me but it's my small way of wanting to be with you all as the years recede. Because I know you'll be wanting to read them all at once, I have let the lawyers control strictly when they will arrive. 

I'm not going to lie: cancer is nasty - it's shit. Yes, I want you to know that your mother can swear. And drink. And I spit well too. I was a barefoot tomboy running around catching frogs with your Uncle Joe when we were little pips on Grandpa and Grandmas farm in the Karoo.  So yes, this thing I have to live with is a bastard. But it's also just a disease, and there is no one to blame. The worst thing about the chemo is the exhaustion. Dr van der Schyff and his team have been wonderful. The pain has honestly been well-controlled (God bless morphine, I say, bring the stuff on!)

Of course I have days when I’m scared. But I’ve never lost hope. By hope I meant I’ve never lost a will to live, not yet. And I’ve never felt overwhelmed by fear through all this. Remember, Cal, just because people are dying doesn’t mean they have to stop living. (Permit me to put you on one last searing maternal guilt trip and ask you to stop smoking! I know you've been, and I understand why. But quit. And enjoy your last one, think of me, and tell yourself no cancer is ever going to get hold of your lungs, at least. )

I want you and your sister and your father to know that I am a truly blessed woman. I married the love of my life and I have the two most wonderful children in the world. I know I’ve done something right when I see what compassionate, intelligent people you have blossomed into. I’ve traveled to wonderful places, met amazing people and helped turn a small regional paper into an important city daily. In essence I have lived, and now I invite you all to do the same.

My boy – you will always be my boy - I could not have asked for a better son. You were a precious gift. You know that they thought I'd never be able to have another child after the complications when your sister was born, and we were so happy to have a perfect baby girl. And then, six years later, you came along. Sarah tried to take up knitting to make you a cap for your bald little head and made a right royal mess of Grandma's wool and nearly poked her eye out! She insisted on wearing her favourite yellow polka dot dress the day you came home.

I know that seeing me ill has been a terrible strain on all of you. I want you to know that your support and love has been perfect. There is nothing you should or should not have done.  I have never felt alone during this process. Angry, yes. Depressed, of course. But I have always felt your love. My only regret is that I am not going to be here on so many occasions - birthdays, Christmases, weddings, graduations. But I know how proud and delighted I would have been. So, please listen to your own feelings – they will surface at different times and in different ways for all of you, I expect. From my experience with survivors of war, rape, torture and molestation, I’ve learned that there is no set formula for grief; everyone’s process is different. Be angry. Cry. Jump up and down. Talk. It is easier for me, leaving you behind than it is for you. I don’t think I could have coped with the loss of a child, whereas all children must deal with their parents parting. My exit has just come a little sooner. It’s part of the natural law.

So don’t feel guilty, ever. As we face mortality, of course, our thoughts turn towards big ideas – is there an afterlife? Does God exist? If he does, why the hell is this happening to me?

I'm afraid you will have to figure this all out for yourself. I was raised in a very conservative Calvinist tradition and then I married your father, an Irish-Scots Catholic. Our families were fine with it but the greater Karoo community was shocked. I learnt valuable lessons about the idiocy of blind dogma and realized faith is so much more than reading a text and attending a service in a building.

I would rather you be a good atheist than a bad Christian. I personally have come to the conclusion that God does exist, but this has not been a frantic return to the fold because my days are numbered. No. I have seen the way you gaze out at the night sky, and how your father looks so proud when he sees all of us, and how Sarah lights up a room with her gentle presence. That is enough to convince me. 

Question everything, Cal. Break things down and analyze them, for then you can build them back up into something meaningful. You have been such a diligent student and well-behaved young man; don’t be afraid to live a little. There is a passion in you that hides itself. Do not be afraid of it – it is part of you.

Trust your father. He is a good man. He is a big softie and doesn't like speaking about emotional things. But he is the most honest and loyal person I know, and though he is rarely wrong, he will always tell you when he is. He may not say it, but he loves you so much; he is so proud of the young man you have become.

I know that you have suffered at the hands of bullies at school and that it has been hard for you. It breaks my heart that this should happen, just because you don’t fit into some arbitrary pre-defined archetype of “manhood”. I’ll tell you what a man is: your father – who is so long-suffering, who makes me laugh, who is so proud of all of you that he cries when you are not looking – and, here’s the rub – a true man who will admit when he is wrong. Your father is not the most direct communicator – this is a MacLeod plague that I have been trying to exterminate since I married him. The scourge of our family is that we hide all our emotions. Enough of this! Let it out. Let it out.

Now that you are a man, I’m supposed to give you “pointers” for life, but to my immense pride I feel that you already figured them out. I know you are a gentleman, I know you are kind, I know you are shy at first but a warm and loyal friend. Look at Rob and Bella, each of whom regards you as a brother. Look after each other; good friends are the family you never knew you had.

You are 18 now, and I know you are what people would call a “late bloomer”. Never feel awkward about this! But you will be meeting people, and starting to date, and, well, yes…

I don’t care about whatever person you end up with as long as she (or even he) makes you happy, and that you make them happy. And that in conducting your love no other person has been hurt by the process. Treat each other with integrity. Love is wonderful, love is amazing. I am still head over heels in love with your father. Every day. Tell him that, because his birthday letter will only come in December.

Do not be concerned that I said "she (or even he)". I’m not insinuating anything. Sarah is getting these exact same lines. I hate discrimination in any form – libertarian that I am, all people should be free to love whomever they deem worthy, bugger class or colour or sex.

But beware that love does not consume you. Friar Laurence warns Romeo and Juliet to “love moderately”, so that their passion does not burn up prematurely. Alas, we know their fates. My romance with your father has flickered from raging fire to slow burn, but the fire is always there. You have to attend to it, rake the coals, and add more wood from time to time. 

So now, I send you my blessings. I want you to do one thing as a favour to yourself: read East of Eden, the book from whence your name comes. Even if you don't read it all, concentrate on the second part about Adam Trask’s two sons, Aaron and Caleb. Specifically, I refer you to the passages where Lee (the  Chinese servant) and old Adam have a series of conversations about the original Hebrew text of Genesis and they debate the translation of the word “Timshel", the imperative given to Cain when he is branded and cast out by God.

For "Timshel" means “Thou Mayest”. You have a choice. “Thou mayest be good, Caleb.” And I already know you are. You have made me so happy, and so proud.

I want to think that I’ll be somewhere, as some type of energy, that I’ve just changed form, and that I’ll be looking out for you. Perhaps I'll be one again with the universe, and you can imagine there is one special part in it that loved and loves and forever will love you. We get sombre about death. Think about Charon the ferryman rowing the souls across the Styx to the Isle of the Dead. But perhaps, at times, old Charon rows souls back to the land of the living too. Perhaps I have merely gone to rest awhile…

If you think I am in the heavens, look for me in the Sinus Iridium on the Moon with your telescope. It means "Bay of Rainbows", and I've always loved that name.

My hand is a bit tired now and I will go make some more tea – goodness, it is 3am!

So, my lovely child, I love you more than anything in the world, the galaxy, the universe. You and Sarah are the best things of me.

I wish you a life full of colour, free of guilt, full of adventure, with little regrets (the one who thinks there will be no regrets was on drugs,)

Go now.

Live.

Timshel!

 

Happy Birthday my precious boy

 

Your very proud mother

 

 


16. Déj Vu

I was strangely calm after reading my mother’s letter. I had cried throughout the time it took to read it, but the tears felt good, welcome. There was no ache, compared to when the dam wall of emotion first shattered that night when Chris climbed up the tree to visit me. If my father suspected anything about the letter, he didn’t say it.

I spent the rest of the holiday easing myself back into swimming practice, managing to go back to gym even for a few workouts. My three friends were ever present, I practically had to shoo them away - even Chris - to have some downtime. It occurred to me that as much as Chris and I wanted to spend all our time together, we each needed time on our own. I thought about how we had absorbed bits of each other after that  day at his house; in some bizarre way I felt he was now physically in my system, a part of me.

School started again, and things became so busy that we hardly saw each other in the first week back. Work had doubled as preparation for the mid-year exams began in earnest, swimming season would be culminating with the junior provincial gala in a month, and rugby season was in full swing. The accident had set me back with my piano practice and I had a Chopin and a Ravel to master quickly.

We arranged to date once a week, on Fridays. My father was still a bit awkward about things, but I could see he was trying his best. There was something special about seeing each other after a few days of separation. We quickly established little routines in our relationship - he'd text me in the morning, I'd call him at night.

On our second official date we had a late lunch and afterwards went for a walk on the long white runway that is Noordhoek Beach. The setting sun was obscured by a blanket of fog rolling in from the Atlantic, lighting up the sky in an eerie phosphorescent glow. We held hands in the half-light. Locals passed us, walking dogs and children, and nobody batted an eyelid. But then this was Cape Town's own little enclave of ageing hippies.

'The first team coach approached me,' said Chris as we sat down for a moment. 'They need someone to replace Mike. He's gonna be out for the rest of the season.'

'Awesome!' I said, patting him on the back. It hadn't occurred to me that he and Mike played the same position on their respective teams.

'Yeah,' he said. 'I wanted to know if you'd be ok with it.'

'You're sweet, dufus,' I said and kissed him on the cheek. 'Why wouldn't I be?'

'Well, it does mean that I'm going to be playing with Frank. And spending a lot of time with the team - we have to go away on some bonding camp next weekend.'

I paused for a moment to reflect. 'That's cool,' I said eventually. 'You're a brilliant player. You deserve an opportunity like this.'

'Thanks, my love.'

'As long as you don't run off with one of your teammates. Bella is probably right about all that repressed gay energy.'

He chortled. 'You're hilarious. I love you so much, Cal.'

'Yeah yeah. I love you too, blondie. Anyway. I have a little something for you.'

'Ja?'

His eyes brightened. I handed him the little parcel I'd been secreting inside my jacket pocket. He tore it open.

'Oh, Cal! This is beautiful!'

It was a framed photograph that Sarah had taken of us the previous week, when she came over for supper. It was a lovely shot of us with Chris standing behind me, his arms hugging my chest. Dad had insisted that Chris come. Dave wasn’t there that evening, which was odd. It occurred to me that I hadn’t seen him since the accident.

'Glad you like it,’ I said. ‘I was scared you might think it’s cheesy.'

‘Who’s the dufus now? I love it! I’m really touched the way your sister’s been so accepting, like when she snapped this shot.’

‘Yeah. She’s always looked out for her little brother.’

‘Don’t mind me, but I think she could do better than Dave.’

‘Finally!’ I said, taking a deep breath. ‘That guy is a tool. Always been so condescending to me.’

He nodded, and looked away. ‘Cal,’ he said, drawing his knees to his chest, ‘this has been an awesome date. Thanks for spoiling me.’

‘What do you mean?’ I said, raising an eyebrow.

‘I mean, you organizing the date. Paying for dinner. Showing me this beautiful place. I’ve never been here. I’m used to…’

‘Being the guy?’ I said, with a little smile. ‘Yeah, I get you. Except both of us is “the guy” now. What’s it? You’re looking all bleak.’

‘Nah, dude, I’m just a bit wistful. I guess I’m adjusting… in a good way. I’ve never dated a guy before.’

‘Neither have I, numbnuts.’ I enjoyed using the word he always jibed me with.

‘I know. Like I said, I always thought I had to take the lead in everything. You’ve taught me I can let someone else be in charge… and I like it. Thanks.’

He took my hand and squeezed it.

Such a gentle giant, I thought, and sighed deeply. ‘I’m glad we can talk about this. It’s like there’s this stupid rule that one person has to be “the man” and the other “the woman” and what does that mean? You were the one who said to me that day at the lake that we were simply two guys in love. I’ll never forget that. I mean, when we’re, you know, together, um…’

He raised an eyebrow and grinned. ‘You mean, fooling around?’

‘Yeah,’ I said, blushing. ‘It’s like then I don’t have to think. It seems so equal... does that make sense?’

‘I know,’ he said, sighing. ‘Can I vent something? If it makes you uncomfortable, tell me to shut up.’

‘Sure.’

‘When I’ve been with some girls… it always felt like I had to do everything. From chatting up to dating, which is fine, that’s what guys are raised to do, but then like in bed, I have to do all… all the work. No-one’s ever, you know, like held me the way you did.’

His voice cracked a little. It was so moving, seeing him pour out his most intimate moments to me. ‘Why wouldn’t I, silly? I give as good as I get.’

‘Thanks, sexy.’

I changed tack, feeling a little bit overwhelmed. ‘So how are you feeling about seeing your dad tomorrow?’

He shrugged. ‘Mixed bag. Nothing’s changed – still confused, angry, but missing him.’

‘Are you meeting on neutral territory at least?’

‘Well, he’s supposedly picking me up from my house and we’re going for lunch.’

‘Then why don’t you just take it as it comes? He is your dad. Perhaps you just need to keep things simple for now. Although you must have a million things you want to say to him, I bet.’

‘No. Just one. Why? Why did he have to leave us?’

I put my arm around him. ‘It’s ok. I’m here. And I’ll be at the end of a phone.’

He nodded. I understood his hurt, and there was this wild desire to want to fix everything between them. As if I could! As much as I’d decided Mr Hathaway was a real piece of work, I had this sudden horror of something happening to Chris’s dad and there never being a chance for reconciliation. I tensed as I thought, what if my mother and I were estranged and there had been no time to patch things up before she died? I thought of that ghoulish etching by Goya: The Sleep Of Reason Produces Monsters. It depicts a poor sleeper tormented by a cloud of demons hovering over him. I told myself to stop being silly.

‘Wow, it’s completely dark,' I said. 'Wanna go play some PlayStation?’ 

‘Yeah. I’m gonna cream you!’

‘In more ways than one, I bet,’ I said, sticking out my tongue.

 

*

 

I spent the next morning trying to prepare for my learner’s driver’s licence, memorizing the rules of the road and hundreds of signs so that I could start driving lessons in earnest. I thought of how different living in the USA must be: in some states you could drive a car at sixteen but had to wait until twenty-one to drink alcohol; here, eighteen sufficed for doing all grown-up things.

Getting a licence was a priority: I’d have to be getting myself around as soon as I started varsity in just under a year’s time. I was realizing how my life had been put on hold since my mother died, I’d hardly given a thought to what I was going to study, and applications had to be in soon. My parents had wisely guided me to arm myself a holistic batallion of senior subjects – English, Afrikaans, Maths, Physics & Chemistry, Biology, History and Music – so that I could gain entry into almost any undergraduate programme. But which one?

I was torn between outer and inner space. Part of me wanted to do astrophysics and spend my life helping to conquer the universe, but lately, I’d acknowledged my life-long love affair with atoms and molecules. I’d first noticed it when I’d started tutoring Chris about chemistry, revisiting the cosmic dance between electrons and protons that permits both cars and cats to exist. If there was one thing I had achieved, it was instilling a wild-eyed wonder in him for the way things worked at this tiny, tiny level: but then, too, he was holding a mirror up to me.

In trying to explain life we have reduced it to a series of chemical reactions, whether it be the burning of glucose in mitochondria to create energy, or the folding of proteins to make bile, or pollen, or semen, or nectar. Zoom out to where we perceive things, the titanic mathematics of it all is silent. We have twisted our thoughts and feelings into all sorts of psychological origami about whether these things are a result of evolution, intelligent design, or creation ex nihilo, and for all we know, our little planet is the only place that holds all of this wonder in a void that is too staggeringly huge to conceive.

I made a list. Astronomy, quantum physics, chemistry, biochemistry, molecular biology. As an afterthought, I scribbled down engineering. Why engineering, I thought? I wasn’t interested in building any bridges other than the type called “Einstein-Rosen”, which is just a fancy name for a hole in space-time.

Suddenly, I realized that man didn’t just have the capacity to assemble structures made of concrete or steel or wood: ever since the scientists of the Enlightenment had taken those first tentative steps out of superstition into healthy skepticism, we had learnt to assemble atoms.

Chemical engineering. Biomedical engineering. Useful or deadly in the right or wrong hands; we could make nerve gas to decimate populations or build molecules that prevented your omelette from sticking to the frying pan.

A sudden passion grabbed hold of me as I thought of helping to design a microscopic missile that could attack the great scourge that kills life even as it races after its own immortality:

Cancer.

Before I knew it, I had downloaded application forms for six different universities.

I was about to fill the first form in, when the phone rang. It was Chris.

‘Hey gorgeous!’ I said, upbeat.

There was silence on the other end.

‘Chris?’ I said again.

‘Hi, Cal.’  His voice was soft, distant. I could hear a commotion in the background; someone was wailing.

‘What’s wrong?’ I asked, my heart beating in my throat.

‘I’m sorry… I’m doing it to you again.’

There was silence.

‘What? What is it? Tell me!’

‘My dad…my dad...’ he gasped. ‘He – he found out about you and me… he got upset and started beating me. I fought back and my mom tried to get between us and… and… he hit her. I swung a punch at him and he’s out cold. Oh God. I don’t know what to do. I’ve called the police and the ambulance… I hit him really hard. What if I've killed him?!’

‘Fuck!’ I cried. ‘Hang on! I’m coming!’

‘Dad!’ I screamed, racing down the stairs as the awful flood of déjà vu threatened to drown me.

 

 


17. Storms and Teacups

It looked like a scene from a movie. An ambulance and a police van were parked in the Hathaways’ driveway. My dad and I raced through the open front door and were met by a disorganized tableau in the living room.

Fiona was sitting on the couch staring into the middle distance. Chris was next to her, rubbing an angry shiner that was developing around his left eye and holding his mother’s hand. The corner of his lip was crusted with dried blood and was flaring up into a weal. To my surprise, the big man who must have been Chris’s dad was up and about, arguing with the police officers who were trying to calm him down, while two paramedics were circling around them, looking rather lost.

‘You should fuck off and stop intruding,’ said Mr Hathaway to them. He was a big, muscular man with thick greying hair that had been involved in an unfortunate Brylcreem accident. His face, too, was bruised and there was a bump on his forehead.

‘Sir, please calm down,’ said the taller of the two policemen. We are just trying to establish if everything is safe. Please let the paramedics attend to you.’

‘I’m fine!’ he bellowed.

‘Chris!’ said my father, walking towards the couch. Everybody turned towards us - nobody had noticed us up to this point.

‘Cal! Dr MacLeod!’ my boyfriend cried, getting up. ‘I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.’

‘It’s ok, Chris,’ said my father calmly. ‘Is everyone all right?’ I started to walk towards Chris, but my father motioned me to stay put.

Mr Hathaway sneered and walked towards us. He fixed his gaze on me.

‘So you’re the pansy,’ said Chris’s dad. ‘You have no business here. I have a good mind to beat the shit out of you, boy.’

‘No Dad!’ cried Chris. My father walked straight up to Mr Hathaway and stared at him.

‘If you’re going to mess with my son,’ he said quietly, ‘you’re going to mess with me.’ My father was more of a Baloo the Bear in his size to Mr Hathaway’s growling grizzly, but there was a frightening violence in his stare that made Chris’s dad back down.

‘Chris has done nothing wrong,’ continued my father, while the other man glowered at him. I watched, astounded at how my father’s presence engulfed the room. ‘He has only been good to my son.'

‘He’s not my son anymore,’ growled Mr Hathaway. Everybody else in the room gasped. He turned his gaze to Fiona. ‘You did this! You’ve always been soft on him. No wonder he’s turned out to be a little fudgepacker.’

‘Brian! No!’ shrieked Fiona, who got up. One of the paramedics restrained her.

‘Now listen here,’ said my father, grabbing Brian by the shoulders. The stockier of the two policemen came up to them and forced himself between them. Chris sat with his head in his hands.

‘All right, all right, everybody calm down,’ he said in an even voice. My father backed down gracefully. I felt utterly helpless, but realized that staying put would be the best thing for now.

‘That was uncalled for,’ continued my father. ‘Chris, I’m certain your father doesn’t mean that. Now... is it Constable?’ He peered at the policeman’s name badge.

‘Yes. Constable Maqungo.’

‘Now as Constable Maqungo has suggested, why don’t we all relax and let yourself be looked at by the paramedics? I believe you were... out cold.’

Brian Hathaway bristled. I couldn’t help relishing the fact that Chris had KO’d him.

‘Fuck that,’ said Brian, who turned on his heel and stormed out the room towards the front door.

‘I love him, Dad!’ cried Chris. His face was flushed and contorted in agony. The other policeman got up and followed Brian out the house.

‘Let him go son,’ said Constable Maqungo. He motioned to his colleague. ‘My partner will follow him and we can issue him with a warning. We can’t force him to have medical attention. Are you all right, ma’am? Your son says you got hit when they were fighting.’

‘It’s fine,’ said Fiona, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief. ‘I just got pushed by accident.’

‘I suppose you’re going to arrest me now?’ said Chris with a deep sigh. I raced to sit down next to him and put my arm around him. He pressed his head against mine, shutting his eyes tight.

‘Not at all,’ said the constable. ‘From our point of view you were defending yourself, and your mother’s honour. So far this is a simple domestic disturbance, no-one has been seriously injured. You can have a restraining order issued against him if you like, or press charges for assault. Your mother testifies that he assaulted you first and I believe her.’

‘Chris?’ said my father. ‘It’s ok son, think about it.’

‘No, no,’ he said, trying to keep his voice even. ‘I’m so sorry everyone. I’m sorry, Mom.’ He put his arm around her. In the distance we heard Mr Hathaway shouting.

‘Chris, I’m glad you called,’ said my dad. Please don’t feel embarrassed.’

‘It’s ok,’ I added, stroking his back. If Chris had looked upset before, his face was now one of utter devastation. He was currently in shock, beyond any emotion. I knew the feeling. I gave him what I knew he needed – what I didn’t have when I needed it: a non-judgmental presence.

‘Think about it,’ said Constable Maqungo. There was a growl on his radio as his colleague asked for assistance outside. ‘If you will excuse me, I think I need to help my partner outside. It may be that Mr Hathaway is being uncooperative. I’ll be back shortly.’

Neither Chris nor Fiona said anything.

‘I’ll go with you,’ said my father. ‘Cal, why don’t you make some tea for everybody.’

I nodded while my father walked out with the constable.

*

As it turned out, Brian Hathaway saw fit to shove Constable Davids away from him as he tried to get into his car. When the policeman politely asked him to cooperate, he responded by spitting in his face and shoving him away. Moments later, Brian found himself handcuffed and bundled into the police van, arrested for assaulting a police officer.

‘Serves him right,’ said Chris bleakly, as Constable Maqungo returned with my father to tell us what had happened. I had moved everybody to the verandah overlooking the pool and was busy handing out tea.

‘We will take him down to Wynberg Police Station,’ said the constable. ‘He will now have no choice but to comply with a medical examination. I gather his… girlfriend will come bail him out,’ he added, with a little twinkle in his eye.

Fiona managed a hollow laugh. ‘Forgive me if I’m not going to avail myself of that opportunity. I can’t help thinking it’s poetic justice.’

‘Eh?’ said the policeman.

She stiffened, obviously not wanting to embarrass her son about the incident in Durban. ‘Nothing,’ she said softly. ‘I’m just a divorced, bitter woman.’

Constable Maqungo nodded politely. ‘Is there anything else I can do? We have a 24 hour trauma counseling service that we can organize for you.’

‘I think we’ll be all right, officer,’ said Fiona. ‘We have our very good friends here.’

‘Very well. But call me if you want to institute any charges or restraining orders.’ He finished taking the rest of the statement from her and Chris. Then he handed Fiona his card, greeted us, and left.

We sat and drank the tea in silence. Fiona lit up a cigarette, and I joined her.

‘Just this once,’ I said to Chris and my father, neither of whom said anything. I realized I hadn’t smoked since my mother’s letter. I looked up at the sky and mouthed ‘I know you’re watching, Mom.’ It was comforting.

‘Right,’ said my father, ‘why don’t I organize some take-aways for everybody?’

‘You’re very kind, Devon,’ said Fiona. ‘First, I’d like to talk to you, though, about something. Perhaps you boys could go up to Chris’s room for a little bit?’

‘That’s a great idea,’ I said, extinguishing the cigarette. ‘Come,’ I said, helping my man up. I escorted him up the stairs. He walked slowly, deliberately, as if he were in a trance.

*

‘It happened here,’ said Chris slowly, as I sat him down on the bed and scooted up to him. ‘He found the picture you had given me and went berserk.’

‘Oh God,’ I said. ‘If I hadn’t…’

‘No, Cal. I’m glad he found out. At least now I know what he really thinks of me. Good fucking riddance. All those years of trying to be good enough for him… it didn’t mean jack shit.’

I was waiting for him to cry, but the eerie calm in his voice continued.

‘It’s ok,’ I said soothingly, rubbing his shoulder. ‘Tell me. I’m here.’

‘So he came in this morning all smiles, and my mom was quite neutral and courteous and even made us coffee. He was going to take me to lunch but then he told me Patricia and Bradley were going to be there too, and I refused. He said to me I was being ungrateful because he’d come all this way to see me – bullshit! He’s probably just flown them down for a holiday; they’ve been here a week already!

‘So I went upstairs and he stormed after me, and then he saw the photo you’d given me and he asked me what all that was about, and I told him. I enjoyed telling him, you know, I enjoyed the shock and rage on his face. He’s always been a homophobe. I kinda knew he’d hit me, too. He punched me twice and I just let it happen. He was shaking me and shouting at me and then Mom came up and tried to get between us. I don’t think he meant to hit her, but I just saw red and then my fist was in his face. He hit his head on the side of the desk and then he was lights out. I panicked and called the police and the ambulance and then you. He was out for five minutes or so and then he came round again.’

‘You did the right thing. You stood up for yourself. You defended your mother.’

‘But I could have killed him, I hit him so hard. And you know, it was all I could do to not keep hitting him. For a moment I didn’t care if he was dead. I’ve never really hated anyone… but I hate him now. He hates me, that’s clear. He said as much. Carried on about what a disappointment I am and that I’m weak and an embarrassment to the family.’

‘I’m so sorry, my love. But the point is, you didn’t carry on hitting him. You’re the better person.’

‘I’m a mess, Cal. There’s this violence inside me… this rage. What if I hurt you?’

‘You wouldn’t, and stop talking bullshit. You took the punches from your dad. You punched him in defence. You didn’t sock Bradley in the face when I think you should have – when he made that comment about going surfing! You only elbowed him in a scrum. And you smashed a few car windows. So fucking what. If I were here, someone would be dead, and it wouldn’t be me.’

He let out the first smile I had seen all morning. ‘You always know what to say,’ he said.

‘It’s a boyfriend’s job,’ I said. ‘We’re here for each other, dude. We’re a… oh God it sounds so cheesy… we’re a team.’

He nodded. ‘I feel I’ve only brought you drama and misery. First when my mom hurt herself, then I had to go and kiss you in public and upset your family and you end up being run over, and now my arsehole of a father…’

‘Shut up, Hathaway,’ I said. ‘I love you. Ok?’

He nodded quietly.

‘Was he always like this?’ I said, and really wished I could have another cigarette.

‘That’s the thing. I never thought so. Dad was my idol. Everybody loved Brian Hathaway – the big successful businessman, with the farm in the Midlands, the wife and four sons. He’s a charmer. A real man’s man. He was always lavish with gifts and taking us on holidays and buying my mom expensive stuff… when we lived on the farm it was all so, you know, like I was living in Anne of Green Gables or something.’

‘You read Anne of Green Gables?’ I said, smiling.

‘Yeah. I loved it. I think that’s where we like disconnected. He always said I wasn’t tough enough. He said reading and books and stuff just filled one’s mind with unnecessary ideas. He tried to raise us all to be John Wayne or something. I wanted a He-Man action figurine when I was like eight and he told me real men don’t play with dolls. It was fucking He-Man. I always felt like I needed to push myself, so I could be noticed. He always seemed to give my brothers more attention. Matt was the only one who stood up for me.’

‘Your eldest brother?’

‘Yeah. I think because of the age difference. The other two, well, we played rough with each other, and I was pretty scrawny, so I was always coming off second best.’

‘You? Scrawny?!’

‘Before puberty began and the genes took over. Don’t get me wrong – I had an idyllic childhood, I thought, growing up on a beautiful farm. I could run around and just be… but in spite of all that I don’t think my dad ever got me. When I started growing up I often just wanted to retreat into my room and like listen to music or zone out.’

‘Damn right.’ It didn’t occur to me that some parents didn’t get the need for teens to shut out the world and be surly.

‘But then I got carted off to high school and I had to follow in the footsteps of all the Hathaway men. My folks moved down to Durban when I started high school and Matt took over the farm. I became a good athlete and my marks were good too, but my dad was always only interested in my sporting achievements. He only really applauded me when I made the first rugby team. He and all my brothers played first team. Rugby is a religion in my family. I used to struggle with maths a bit and I pushed myself to go for extra lessons and I showed him the B I got, proudly on my report card in Form II, and all he said was, why didn’t I get an A?

‘It’s so fucked up, Cal. I love rugby myself, but I hate the fact that my dad loves it too, and he thinks that I’m doing it because of him. At least, I used to. But not any more.’

‘It’s not fucked up,’ I said, still taking in what a first-class fuckwit Brian Hathaway was. ‘Maybe you’re just learning to play for yourself.’

‘I used to think that because I’m athletic, I could be like my dad. Now I’m scared I’ll turn into my dad. I mean, I’m as big as he is… oh God…’

‘Just because you share genes doesn’t mean you have to share personalities,’ I said. ‘I’m living proof you’re not a homophobe. What is it… are you scared you’ll… you’ll cheat? Because he did?’

He nodded and the tears started flooding, finally. I was calm. With all these dramas, I was at least beginning to realize the magic of being together: the being together. The one who is seeking shelter doesn’t want fancy words or solutions or promises – just a place to put their head.

‘Oh, buddy,’ I said, and drew him close. ‘You silly, silly man. Yes, you’re half him. But you’re the best part of him.’

‘Cal?’ he said, sniffing.

‘Yes?’

‘When does all this stop? It feels like we’re just dodging waves the whole time. Is there going to be a disaster every time somebody finds out?’

‘I don’t know,’ I said, shrugging, ‘but maybe it’s just a stormy patch we’ve hit. If you think about it, most of the people who know about us have been pretty ok. We can’t prevent people from freaking out, can we?’

‘Your family are fine,’ he said, taking a deep breath. ‘Mine? Oh God. What are my brothers going to think? Cal, I can’t lose them too! And then there’s school... what happens if... when...what if some arseholes go gay bashing?’

‘Stop it,’ I said. ‘You’re... what did Mom call it... catastrophizing. We’ve kept a low profile at school. If anything, people respect me more now... You’ve made me stand up for myself. As for your brothers... well.. do you think they’d react badly?’

‘I’d trust Matt the most,’ Chris said. ‘He was the one who was there for me when my folks split up. Andy... well, he had a gay friend at school, and my dad wasn’t happy about it but Andy just ignored it. Tom, I don’t know. We’ve never really bonded, but no bad blood either.’

‘Sounds like you all take after your mother then. But Chris...’ I breathed hard, not wanting to say the words: ‘I’ll understand if you can’t do this. I don’t ever want to come between you and your family.’

‘No. No. Fuck, no. You haven’t ever. Cal, no, I couldn’t ever let you go. I might as well cut off my arm.’ He hugged me tightly. ‘Don’t ever doubt that. Letting you in... into my heart... I’ll never regret that, ever.’

‘Me too,’ I sighed. ‘My mom used to say that when you open yourself up to good, some bad always comes in, because that’s just the way the world is. But you can deal with the bad... you just gotta breathe it out, like carbon dioxide in the air.’

‘She was a wise woman.’

‘I wish you could have known her,’ I said, smiling. ‘I know she would have loved you.’

‘But I do know her, Cal.’

‘Eh?’

‘I see her in you every day.’

I hugged him, and then we heard my dad calling us to come down.

*

‘In a way I’m relieved that all this is out in the open,’ said Fiona, who was still sitting next to my father, looking much more composed. ‘Caleb, I know that your birthday turned out to be quite different than everybody expected, but having spoken to your father I know he’s as supportive of you as I am. I knew from the start something was up, when I saw how happy my son was around you.’

Chris blushed, and I looked away.

‘It’s ok. I didn’t want to interfere. But Cal, I should have told you directly -  I’m happy for the two of you. And your father and I have spoken, and you can be assured of our support.’

‘Your mother is right, Chris,’ said my dad, nodding. Chris met his eye awkwardly. ‘I can’t erase how I reacted that night, but,’

‘It’s no problem, Dr MacLeod,’ said Chris. ‘I know you were being protective. You said as much to me while we were waiting at the hospital.’

‘Please call me Devon, Christopher. Like your mother just said to my son now, you have my blessing. I’ve needed to say that to you directly.’

‘Th-thanks,’ said Chris, who looked all at sea. I also was stunned.

‘You don’t have to sit so far from each other,’ said my dad. ‘It’s ok. Hold hands or something.’

‘That doesn’t freak you out?’ I gasped.

‘No, Cal,’ he said softly. ‘I know you two have been playing things down for my benefit, but just because something is new to me doesn’t mean I disapprove. I know what happens the moment I leave the room. I was also eighteen once. So as long as you guys keep things... er, well, above board as it were in public...’

Fiona managed a little cackle while Chris and I squirmed in our seats.

‘I think what Devon is trying to say is that we don’t want you two to feel ashamed or nervous about your relationship. We want you to feel safe. We need you to feel safe. You are our children, and we love you. Your relationship is going to be challenged by prejudice - God knows, it already has been. So we want you to know you have some backup.’

‘Thanks Ma, thanks... er... Devon,’ said Chris, genuinely moved. I just nodded, with wide eyes. I realized very few people who were not in a ‘standard’ relationship had the luxury of acceptance.

‘Speaking of safety, ahem,’ said my father, who had suddenly lost the confident tone he had had.  ‘This may be awkward, but, I am a dentist and she is a nurse, so, ah, we just wanted to be sure that, well, you are two adults... er...’

‘We want to be sure that you will be practicing safe sex, when it happens,’ said Fiona simply, without batting an eyelid.

I waited for the ground to swallow me.

‘Jeez! Mom!’ cried Chris, turning purple. I laughed nervously.

‘We haven’t...’ gasped Chris. ‘We haven’t gone... like... all the...oh God this is embarrassing.’

‘We had to say it,’ said Fiona kindly.  ‘It’s not the fourteenth century, my boy. Your grandparents were way too embarrassed to talk about these things. I had to figure these things out for myself. We trust you. Is that ok? Promise us you’ll be safe?’

We both nodded sheepishly.

‘Right,’ said my father. ‘Moving right along, um, Fiona?’

In my mind I heard my mother giggling at my father’s squeamishness.

‘Yes. Of course. There’s one more thing. Today, I saw how things could get out of control. Chrissie, I had a long chat with Cal’s dad and I’ve realized I’m in danger of letting this whole divorce swallow me. You’ve been the victim of all the bad blood between your father and I. I thought, when I had that fright that night that I’d sort everything out - but I need more help. That’s why I’m going to go to rehab.’

‘Mom!’ cried Chris. ‘Why? Oh God. Have you been...’

‘No, my boy, not since that night. But I’ve wanted to, and it’s been torture. This morning, after your father... I just wanted to reach for the bottle of vodka I’ve been hiding in my bedroom... and no, I haven’t touched it, and Devon is going to take it away from me. I can’t let myself become bitter and twisted or let you get hurt any more.’

‘I hate the bastard!’ cried Chris. ‘I hate what he’s done to you - what he did to us!’

‘Chris,’ said Fiona. ‘Whatever happened between your father and I is just that - between us. Once, we were very happy. I know he left but I - I can be difficult too. I can’t say that he is my favourite person in the world right now, but don’t harbour hate. Hate is a very powerful, dark thing. You must not yield to it.’

I couldn’t help thinking that she sounded like Yoda giving advice to a young Anakin Skywalker - but it was a compliment, not a jibe.

He remained silent, but managed a nod. He flipped his hoodie over his beautiful hair and retreated into the cowl. I looked at him and nodded too.

‘He’s said and done some horrible things. Especially to you. You have done nothing wrong. As much as my own feelings rage against saying this - but you and your brothers are entitled to have a relationship with your father. You’re adults, and I will not go to my grave having projected my bitterness onto you. Maybe that’s why I tried to dilute it all in drinking. I was wrong. Perhaps you will communicate with him later. Whether he wants to, is up to him. It’s his loss.’

‘It’s his loss,’ repeated Chris, like an automaton.

‘Precisely,’ added my father.

‘So, that is why I need to do this. It seems there was some logic in coming to Cape Town after all. I sometimes think you would have been happier staying with Matt on the farm and finishing school down the road in Maritzburg, but I dragged you along thinking a change of scenery would solve everything. It didn’t. Until you met Caleb. You were happy, my boy, for the first time since all this crap had happened.’

Chris bit his lip, and I noticed we had instinctively huddled towards each other, as if we were rare animals on display at some exhibition. All this probing and sharing was becoming awkward. We looked at each other and, meekly, we held hands shyly, as if this were our first time.

‘So anyway,’ continued my father. ‘Chris, would you like to stay with us while things, um, get sorted? Your mother has said it will be fine, and I would insist on it anyway.’

Both Chris and I were now frozen on the spot with disbelief.

‘I won’t go unless I know you’re ok,’ said Fiona. ‘I’ve actually just called Aunt Jenny to come through and stay with me until I’ve sorted out when I can enter a suitable programme. She’s been meaning to come visit for ages anyway.’

‘Mom,’ said Chris. ‘Sorry. This is all a bit much to take in… I mean, it’s good, I’m relieved. I was worried about the, you know, drinking, whether it would become a problem again. I’m… I’m happy.’

‘You’re not going to be embarrassed about your crazy alcoholic mother checking into rehab?’ she said with a sad smile.

Chris thought for a while and then spoke.

‘You’re not going to be embarrassed about your gay son with rage issues who got expelled from his last school?’

‘Oh, my boy,’ said Fiona, and walked over to Chris and hugged him. She was tiny against him, but fierce as she held onto her son.

‘My boys, actually,’ she said, and reached out one arm to include me.

My father, ever the MacLeod, was humming to himself while he gathered up cups and saucers.

 

 


18. Downtime

Chris’s aunt drove down from Worcester two days later. My man told me Jenny hadn’t seen Fiona in ages but didn’t hesitate to come down and help her sister. Together, they found a clinic with an intensive one-month program in Kommetjie, half an hour south of the city.

It was hard for Chris to deal with all of this, so he said a tearful goodbye to Fiona at his house the day after Jenny arrived and moved in with us. Jenny had organized everything - since she was a freelance consultant in the insurance industry, she was happy to move into the house and set up a temporary base there.

Officially, Chris would be staying in Sarah’s old room. My father’s trust was overwhelming, and it had a reverse psychological effect on us in that we were scrupulously discreet.

Ever since he had acknowledged his grief that morning in the hospital, a subtle brightness had appeared in my father’s eyes. I noticed that the pictures of my mom were back on the nightstand next to his bed; he had put them away after she died. He could look at her, I realized, and take a deep breath and go on with the rest of the day. I thought of the E. E. Cummings poem my father moved through dooms of love. A small little cold hand squeezed my heart and left its tiny thermal imprint there for several days.

Brian Hathaway had been bailed out by Patricia, oiling his way out of prosecution by flying down his team of lawyers he had on retainer. Chris had had no contact with him, but Patricia rained a torrent of histrionic SMSes down on him. At Bella’s suggestion, he replied to all of them with that trusty psychoanalytic staple: ‘I’m sorry you feel that way. Do you want to talk about it?’

Chris was two nights at my house, and then the Friday arrived for the First Team bonding camp, which was held every year at the school farm near Clanwilliam up the West Coast. I tried very hard not to be an anxious other half, recalling the rumours of debauchery that supposedly happened on this testosterone-soaked weekend of mud and sweat and team-building exercises.

‘I’ll be a good boy,’ said Chris, as we cuddled in bed the night before. He was rubbing me behind my ears and I groaned.

‘You’d make me sign my life away when you do that,’ I sighed. He pressed himself against me and this withered any concerns.

‘Smooth,’ I murmured. ‘Taking advantage of me like that. So yeah, you must enjoy your jock weekend.’

‘I’ll be pretty pent up for you when I come back,’ he said sniggering. ‘All lonely in the bush pining for my man.’

‘Yeah, yeah,’ I said, secretly turned on by the thought of him coming home wild with lust.

Chris sat up. ‘I nearly forgot... Matt phoned me earlier today.’

‘Really? What did he say?’

‘It was so weird, dude. He started by saying how he would always love his little brother… whether he was gay or straight. He’s seriously pissed with Dad... basically written him off. He’s very worried about Mom and was whipping himself for not coming down earlier. He was nearly on the next plane down from Durban.’

‘Wow. See, you're not alone. I knew he’d be ok with it all.’

‘I told him there’s no point coming down now, Mom’s going into the clinic tomorrow, and they do this lockdown thing with no communication for two weeks and then she can have her first family visit. So Matt’s coming down then.’

‘That’s great. You need to see him as much as she does.’

‘Yeah. It was great catching up with my big brother. He’s been... I’ve realized... more of a father to me than our own dad. He also says he’s really looking forward to meeting you.’

‘Really? He’s not even remotely awkward about it?’

‘Trust me, Matt shoots from the hip. He’d have told me if he weren't happy. I’m so relieved. He even said he’ll speak to Tom and Andy. Though God knows where Andy is right now, I got an email from him two weeks ago saying that he’d met some French girl in Cambodia and that they were going to go island hopping in Vietnam.’

‘Lucky bastard. Didn’t you think of traveling, getting away from it all last year, you know, when things went pear-shaped?’

‘Nah. I considered it, but I figured I’d just be more miserable on my own. There are so many places I want to see, Cal. But I’d like to see them with you.’

I was swooning with endorphins. ‘I love you so much, dude. Don’t you feel like we’re living in a Mills & Boon novel right now? Not that I’m complaining.’

‘Heh. If that’s the case I want to break the fourth wall and both kiss and kick the author in the shins. For all the highs and lows he or she has put us through.’

‘You’re funny,’ I said. ‘But I’ve thought that myself. Perhaps God is a novelist, and he’s got to keep the story interesting.’

‘Well here’s something interesting,’ he said, and grabbed my hand and stuffed it down his boxers.

So there we were, two young guys, a rugby player with a bruised heart from a try life had denied him, a swimmer recovering from a cramp in his brain rather than his legs. We were more innocent and callow in our lovemaking than either of us expected, and yes, it was lovemaking, even as it never ventured beyond whatever the gay equivalent of third base was. We had entered each other’s souls long before any physical part of our bodies felt the need to do the same.

*

I was glad to have some more downtime with Chris away for the weekend, especially as I savoured the delicious thought that he was coming back to stay with me - sharing my bed - for the next month. The First Team left directly after school, and in spite of myself, I couldn’t help smiling as I saw him getting high fives from his teammates as he stepped into the chartered bus.

I wrote and successfully passed my learner’s licence exam on the Saturday morning, and then spent the afternoon getting used to the fantastic detail of Chopin’s Berceuse in the dreamy, distant key of D flat major. It’s true genius: the moody old Pole takes a simple lullaby and subverts into one of the most dazzling displays of intricacy in the entire keyboard repertoire. While the left hand repeats the same pattern throughout the entire piece, bobbing lazily up and down like a boat on a calm sea, the right hand has to run around ceaselessly, riding the wave of an ever-growing fractal of sonic geometry.

‘That’s beautiful, son,’ said my dad, as I ended a slow but passable rendition of the Berceuse nearly three hours later.

I stiffened at the piano. ‘Oh, um, thanks.’

‘Sorry, Cal, I know you hate people watching you when you practise.’

‘It’s ok, Dad.’ I turned myself around on the seat and faced him.

‘Have you heard from Chris?’ he asked. He was standing in the doorway, sipping from a mug of coffee.

‘Got a text from him earlier, says the reception is crap on the farm but they seem to having a good time. They had to get up at five this morning and hike up a mountain.’

‘And now they’re probably doing the whole kum-bay-ya thing this evening round a campfire,’ said my dad, smirking. ‘So I was wondering…’ 

‘Ja, Dad?’

‘How are you, son? It’s been such a hectic few weeks… I realized you and I haven’t really had any father-son time. I thought maybe we could, I don’t know, hang out a bit, I mean, if you don’t have anything more exciting on tonight, perhaps you and I could get something to eat and have a beer or two?’

‘I’d like that, Dad. Althought it’s a bit weird…’

‘What, son?’

‘Us drinking while Chris’s mom is in rehab.’

He blew out his cheeks. ‘Addiction is as much a physical disease as it's psychological, Cal. It’s awful. You know, dentists have some of the highest rates of substance abuse. Hit a few of my colleagues. It’s not what you use… it’s the way the booze or the drugs or whatever takes over your life... it starts filling a hole inside of you, but it's never enough. It could be anything. Some people cut themselves. It's not alcohol per se that's the problem - it's what you use it for. You and Chris are young, and I know all guys get shit-faced in their youth now and then, hell, I did frequently… but, Cal, but promise me one thing.’

‘Yeah?’

‘I don’t care what time of the morning it is, or where you are, or what happened. If you’re drunk you don’t drive. You call me. I’ll come out, no questions asked. That offer extends to any of your friends, too.’

‘Sure, Dad. I promise.’

‘Great. Cause we’ve got to get you driving soon. I was thinking – you should have your mother’s car. If that would… be okay with you. Or we could trade it in for another, if it’s too… too many memories.’

I hadn’t even thought of it. Mom’s beloved little Honda Civic had been whiling away months in the garage, only being driven once a week or so by my father to keep it going.

‘No. That would be awesome. Thanks.’

‘I’ll go check out some driving schools right away. Because I sure as hell am not teaching you. Grandpa tried with me once and we had a huge fight after I ground the gears on his precious Buick. So… I guess you want to practice some more; I’m going to watch some TV. Shall we go out at about six? Maybe walk over to Forries round the corner?’

‘Awesome. And Dad?’

‘Yes, Cal?’

‘Thanks. For everything. For being so cool about me and Chris. I don’t think I could have handled all this without you.’

‘Of course, my boy. It’s nice… having another person in the house. And for heaven’s sake tell your boyfriend he can stop sneaking back into the guest room at 6 am. Really. Just close the door.’

I burst out laughing. He smiled shyly and walked to the living room.

It was great, sitting with my father at the Forester’s Arms, drinking draughts and talking about all sorts of things. There seemed to be an urgency about the way he spoke: I suspect he felt unnecessarily guilty about the fact that we had been emotionally disconnected for so long.

Halfway through his steak and chips, he dropped his voice an octave.

‘Cal, I hope Fiona and I didn’t embarrass you guys too much last week when we had that epic conversation.’

‘Nah,’ I said, disarmed by his concerned expression. ‘I appreciate it, as weird as it was. This is all new for... for us.’

‘May I ask... Cal, have you ever, you know, been with a girl?’

I took a deep breath. ‘No, Dad. You know I’ve never really dated.’

‘That’s admirable. If it’s anything to you, I was 20.’

I raised my eyebrow. ‘Eh? Mom always joked that you were one of the popular guys at varsity.’

‘Ha. Yeah, I dated a lot, but I didn’t, you know... much. Grandma cast a lot of guilt on me and your aunt and uncle. And your grandfather never spoke about things like that. Bur then I met your mother, and that was that.’

‘Cool. I hope we can have something like you and Mom had.’

‘It looks very promising, from where I’m sitting. Of course, I thought it would be a girl.’

We laughed. ‘So, just curious, have you always felt this way?’ he asked.  ‘I mean, preferring guys?’

Perhaps it was the beer, but the frankness of the conversation wasn’t awkward any more. In fact, it was refreshing.

‘You know I read a lot,’ I said. ‘I first became aware of it when I was fourteen or so, it was the odd fantasy, but hell, it’s been mainly girls. But I read about Alfred Kinsey’s research in the fifties how he put all sexuality on a scale. Mom’s fault for putting the adult books within reach. I even did a test online, shortly before I met Chris, and it said I was “bisexual, leaning female”. Even now I still find girls, well hot. So does Chris. It’s confusing.’

‘Online tests, eh? Wish I had those when I was growing up. Doesn’t really matter though, I think, whether men or women turn you on.  You guys really seem to be so in love. I think Mom would have been thrilled.’

‘Aw, Dad. You’re gonna make me drizzle,’ I said.

‘Sorry. Actually no, I’m not sorry. Opening up is good. Glad you’re doing it long before I learned to. So. Another thing. We’ve hardly spoken about varsity. But I was thinking, if you wanted to take a gap year, I think that might be a good option for you. And.. I can afford it.’

‘Shit, Dad... I’ve never even thought of that. ‘

‘It just occurred to me recently. I wish I could have done that before I went to dent school. But that was never going to be an option: it was varsity or join the seminary! Thank God your mother forced me to take off after I qualified and we spent those six months in Europe.’

I suddenly remembered the photo albums of my parents abroad, happy and carefree, Dad in awful 70s clothes, Mom with gratuitously long hair: Paris, Rome, Seville, the Dordogne, Lake Como, the Cliffs of Moher. A parallel universe.

‘Then Sarah came,’ he said, chuckling. ‘Made in Italy. In Venice. God, that day we found out, we were in Sorrento, this tiny Italian doctor babbling away and me trying to communicate in broken French. And then we were back in Cape Town with your beautiful sister. Once you have a child, your priorities are so different. And then of course I had to join the army. Those were scary times.’

I nodded, fascinated to hear about a part of my dad I barely knew existed. I suddenly felt weird. I was the only boy in the family. And now it was very likely I’d never pass on my genes.

‘What’s wrong, son?’

‘It’s just... I dunno. I’m thinking about you and Mom, having me and Sarah... and it may be I may never...’

My father gave me a distant, sagacious look. ‘Oh Cal, you’re such a serious kid. You and Chris... you shouldn’t weigh yourself down with that now, my boy. You’ve just started your first serious relationship for goodness sake! Whomever you end up with in the long term - and I’m not suggesting you and Chris don’t have that potential - there are options. Many options. Same-sex couples can adopt. There’s surrogacy. I’d love to be a grandpa, sure, but don’t ever feel pressured to carry on the line.’

‘Eish Dad, I know you and Mom were liberal... but wow. Grandma must be spinning in her grave.’

‘Ha! Don’t underestimate old Irish battleaxes. For all her stubbornness and piety she had a heart of gold. She never judged; she taught me tolerance. She married a Scot, after all!’

‘To Grandma,’ I said, raising my glass.

Sláinte!’ said my tipsy father, suddenly recalling the smattering of Gaelic he had learned from his mother.

*

Chris arrived back late on Sunday afternoon, filthy and exhausted. I just hoped the weekend wasn’t echoing the notorious horrors of Kamp Staaldraad (Camp Steel Wire), a regrettable episode in the history of the Springboks where an inane "toughen-em-up" exercise culminated in our boys in green being filmed, huddling naked in freezing cold water, overnight without food.

I went into Desperate Housewife mode, stripping him summarily in the bathroom and marching him into the shower. (Of course I washed him myself. Egregiously.) As he wolfed down a pizza my father had thoughtfully ordered I dumped the festering laundry into the washing machine, selecting the hottest cycle. I’m weird: I love doing laundry. It soothes my inner obsessive-compulsive.

I tucked him into bed. I enjoyed fussing over him; it was almost paternal. As he started snoring softly I kissed him on his forehead, switched the lights out, and went to the movies with Rob and Bella.

 

 


19. Lunch Money

The Cape Town Herald, May 22, 200-

Jonathan doing well at Kitty Boot Camp

Staff at the Predator Reintroduction Project (PRP) in northern Limpopo Province say that Jonathan the white lion – famed for escaping from a Cape zoo last year - looks set to be “a good candidate” for introduction into the wild. Since arriving at the Fitzpatrick Nature Reserve, where the project is based, he has gained weight after a spell of apparent depression at Cape Town’s Peninsula Zoo.

According to Saul Blake, conservationist and co-founder of the PRP, introduction of animals born in activity is an intensive process and carries a high failure rate. “Jonathan may end up having to be placed in a smaller facility like the Natal Lion Park,” he says, “but… we owe [him] a chance to roam free in his ancestral homeland.” Blake describes the PRP at Fitzpatrick a “kitty boot camp” where the young male will be acclimatized to the wild and monitored to see if he can develop the requisite hunting skills in order to survive.

Probably the most famous case of reintroduction is that of Elsa the lioness, who was hand-reared from cubhood by the Kenyan author and naturalist Joy Adamson in the 1960s, later recorded in the bestselling book “Born Free”.

- Seth Rabinowitz, Staff Reporter

 

It had suddenly turned cold, and the winter rain had come early. I didn’t mind - the only thing I don’t like about the Cape is the awful winter darkness, our time zone being the victim of an inconvenient meridian. If, in previous winters, it had been difficult for me to get out of a toasty bed on these dark mornings, removing myself now from Chris’s warm embrace was sheer torture. We always woke up in the same way, his arm around my waist, him drooling on my shoulder. I’d turn around and bury my head in his chest, inhaling the gentle mustiness he had built up during the night, wishing there were just a few more minutes left before we had to get out of bed and submit to the day’s machinations.

A week or so into his stay, I found myself picking up his stuff that had slowly been conquering my room.

‘What are you doing?’ he said, rubbing his eyes.

‘Picking up your clothes. The room looks like a pigsty.’ I was surprised by the irritation in my voice.

‘Hey, you should have just asked me,’ he said, stretching himself and getting out of bed. We had collapsed together for a late afternoon snuggle and now it was already dark.

‘I don’t have a chance,’ I grumbled. I was hungry and this made me even grumpier. ‘You just dump your stuff and get into bed and I have to drag you out most mornings.’

‘I’m sorry, Cal, I didn’t mean… I’ve just been so tired in the evenings.’

I sighed. ‘Just leave it.’

‘No, we’re not leaving it,’ he said, frowning. I bit my lip, and felt my face flush. ‘You’re upset. Talk to me.’

‘It’s just… it’s just, you can be a bit of a slob sometimes.’

‘Hey,’ he said, defensively. ‘It’s not intentional. You’re a bit of a neat freak yourself.’

I snorted.

‘Sorry. That was uncalled for. This is your room. I’m being a bad guest.’ He looked down. ‘Maybe I should go back to my house… I mean, Aunt Jenny is there.’

I was stung. ‘No! Don’t.’ I covered my face with my hands. ‘Great,’ I sighed, ‘now you think I’m kicking you out.’

He put his hand on my shoulder. I shut my eyes tight. I felt all queasy, possessed by this insane fear that our relationship was now in trouble.

He suddenly laughed.

‘What you laughing about?’ I said crossly, but then found myself looking into the deep green pools of his eyes. Damn it, I thought, as his beautiful face disarmed me.

‘I think we just had our first fight,’ he said, giggling. He gazed at me with a truculent little smile.

‘Stop it,’ I said, stifling a grin.

‘You stop it.’

‘No you.’

I started poking him in the ribs. He caught me in a bear hug and threw me onto the bed. We wrestled for a few moments, trying frantically to avoid the each other’s tickling hands.

‘Mercy!’ he cried, as I managed to overpower him, jiggling my hands in his axillae. I let him have it for a few more seconds and then stopped.

‘I guess that’s a little milestone,’ I said, exhaling deeply.

‘Yeah. But it’s good. I know you hate conflict. ’

 ‘True. So… so, why… why are you so tired lately?’ I asked. ‘After supper and we’ve done our homework, it’s been so cool just hanging out… now you just flop down and pass out.’

‘I guess the rugby has been a bit exhausting. Coach is really making us sweat. I’m sorry it’s impacted on us. I need to make more of an effort.’

‘Please stay,’ I said meekly. ‘I didn’t mean to sound like a nag. I just… can’t handle mess on the floor.’

‘Of course I’ll stay,’ he said, tugging my ear. ‘As long as it’s ok with you guys. I forgot… this is your first relationship. People get irritated with each other.’

I nodded. ‘For a moment I thought the fairy tale was over.’

‘Fairy tale? Pardon the pun,’ he said, bursting into laughter again. It took me a moment to get the joke and I rolled my eyes. ‘Seriously, I’m glad you can tell me when I’m irritating you. It’s so cool staying together, but I hadn’t thought about how your personal space might be bigger than mine.’

‘Ok I guess,’ I said shrugging. ‘I don’t have brothers, farm boy.’

‘Ha!’ he said, grinning. ‘And you’re a city slicker.’ He sat down and started fidgeting with his hands.  ‘Uh, there is something I wanted to discuss, though.’

‘What?’ I said, raising my eyebrow.

‘Hope you don’t think this is weird, but, I think we need to sometimes have time to ourselves… I mean, socially. I was thinking of looking up some of my buddies from school who are now at varsity here.’ He looked up at me with a worried expression.

‘Why are you looking so stricken?’ I asked. ‘Of course you can hang with your own pals, big lug. I mean I know you’ve made friends with some of your teammates too. Are you… are you feeling guilty or something?’

He nodded, looking away. I felt all choked up. ‘You silly man,’ I said, coming up to him and pecking him on the cheek.

He let out a deep sigh. ‘Thanks, Cal. I know it’s stupid but I felt like I only had your friends now, don’t get me wrong, I love Rob and Bella, and it was reminding me how I fucked up last year. Then I got messages from Sam and Paul who are both at varsity here and are asking how I’m doing. They were like my closest friends.’

‘And you’ve been too embarrassed to see them, I mean, about last year, and then you also felt bad about spending any time away from me. Jeez, Chris, you’re a dufus sometimes. Come here.’

We hugged. I’d been waiting with dread for our first little lover’s tiff, but now that it was over I realized how stupid I had been. I guess everybody wants to cling to the halcyon largesse of a relationship in its early days, desperately afraid that any negativity between lovers would destroy the bliss.

‘Come now, it’s all cool. You must go see your friends.’

He smirked and started picking up his clothes. ‘I promise I’ll try my best to be neater,’ he said. ‘And I know you’re freaking out about the toothpaste cap I keep leaving off. Bad habit. I’m on it.’

‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘Let’s go downstairs and be sociable.’

*

School was getting so busy we hardly saw each other during the day. Loaded up with looming exams, piano pieces to perfect for my June portfolio and the interprovincial swimming meet coming up, it was amazing that Chris and I still managed to go to gym and manage a date once a week. And, in typical fashion, I added to my brain’s queue of tasks by reading as much as I can. I got hold of the copy of East of Eden Chris had finished, and slowly immersed myself into Steinbeck’s words at night. I like to savour great literature slowly, as if it were a slab of rich dark chocolate that must be eaten one morsel at a time. I have a friend who prides himself on being a speed reader, but the logic is lost on me: it’s like going sightseeing travelling through a majestic landscape at 200 miles per hour.

The first major game of the winter season was up, and it would be Chris’s first test as a first teamer. The Wolves were now on their longest winning streak in over a decade and the First XV were rapidly achieving god-like status amongst the school. Girls (and who knows how many boys) wanted to date them; guys wanted to be them. I accepted some immunity had washed off onto me and Rob and Bella owing to one of the star jocks hanging with us.

I was just mulling this in my mind when I went to my locker at break, when I came across Jason and Ed. They had cornered a small kid and were taunting him. They hadn’t seen me, so I hid behind one of the stone pillars in the archway to gauge the situation.

‘Is that all you have?’ said Jason, sneering, as the boy held up a R10 note.

The boy nodded nervously. He was small, pale and had a frightened expression on his face. ‘I – I can get more,’ he squeaked.

‘You had better,’ said Ed. ‘Else we can’t protect you.’

‘Yup,’ said Jason, taking the note while still holding that awful grin of his. ‘You’ll have to tell your mommy she doesn’t give you enough lunch money.’

No, I thought. Not again. I couldn’t handle any more of this and barged out towards them.

‘That’s enough, Jason,’ I said calmly. Suddenly nothing mattered: I needed to stop this. Everybody turned and looked at me. Jason lost his smile and stared at me with a cool hatred. ‘What’s all this then?’

‘Nothing, MacLeod,’ he said with a growl. ‘Mind your own business.’ Ed, ever the hired muscle, stepped in front of Jason, but I ignored him.

‘I assume that R10 note is nothing either, ’ I said and turned to the kid. ‘What’s your name?’

‘S-Sebastian,’ he stammered.

‘It’s all right, Sebastian,’ I continued. ‘Is that your money?’

He looked away, not answering. I understood his terror: admitting anything would just mark him for further abuse.

‘Fuck it, Jason, he’s terrified. Give it back to him.’

Jason crumpled up the note in his hand and threw it down on the floor. Sebastian bent down to pick it up, but I stopped him.

‘No, I asked him to give it back to you. Give it back to him, Jason.’

‘Fuck you, MacLeod,’ said Jason, launching himself at me with his hands outstretched. I had seen it coming, though, and deftly stepped aside, so that he lost his balance and fell against the rubbish bin I’d been standing in front of. A group of students walked past us at that very moment and started cheering and applauding. Sebastian remained rooted to the ground, wide-eyed.

‘Oops,’ I said, smirking. Jason was fuming with malevolence. I turned to Ed. ‘Perhaps you wouldn’t mind giving Sebastian his money, since our friend is currently occupied?’

Ed grunted and picked up the note and gave it to Sebastian.

‘Thanks,’ he said, meekly, and scurried off.

‘Where’s your boyfriend to protect you?’ hissed Jason, getting up and dusting papers and orange peels off his trousers. I twitched briefly as he said the word “boyfriend” but didn’t overreact.

‘Where’s yours?’ I shot back. ‘And I don’t mean Ed here. Let’s face it Ed, you’re not Jason’s first love. We all know he loves Frank more.’

Ed looked at me with a confused, simian expression.

‘What are you insinuating?’ said Jason, who grabbed me by my shoulder. Several students had gathered around us and were clearly entranced by the spectacle.  I was shaking a bit, not believing how bold I had been.

‘Nothing, unless you have been,’ I said gently, and removed his hand.

‘You’re a fucking freak, MacLeod,’ he said, backing down. ‘I don’t know what it is, but there’s something going on between you and Hathaway and I don’t like it.’

He walked off. I took a deep breath and then saw the crowd come up to me, high-fiving me and patting me on the back. I had to admit: the feeling was exhilarating.

‘Good on you for standing up to Geiss like that,’ said a petite brown-eyed girl with pigtails. I shrugged my shoulders and scanned the crowd for Sebastian, but he had disappeared – like I had on so many previous occasions.

The bell rang, and it was time for History. I ran to class, bursting to tell Chris what had happened. It occurred to me that Jason was not going to let this little incident slide, but I forgot about it as soon as I saw Chris’s beaming smile.


20. Gutted

‘Say, how you bearing up for seeing your mom this weekend?’ I asked Chris as we walked to his car. It was a chilly Friday afternoon.

‘I guess it’s going to be a bit emotional,’ said Chris. ‘I miss her. This two week lockdown thing has been harder than I thought.’

I squeezed his hand. It always struck me how vulnerable he looked, for all his strength, when his eyes became sad. It made me feel that my Christopher was too good for this world - that I wanted to wrap him up and keep him to myself and savage anybody who came too close to him.

Two weeks had passed since Fiona had entered rehab, and he would be seeing her for the first time since then. Matt’s flight from Durban would be landing in the next half an hour and Chris had invited me to come with to the airport.

‘I feel weird about meeting your big brother,’ I admitted, as we took the turn-off to the airport road.

‘No man. He’s very keen to meet you. Plus, I’m gonna miss you tonight.’

‘I’m flattered. But you need to catch up with your bro and your aunt. I think I can cope a night or two without you in my bed.’

When I first saw Matt walking into the arrivals hall, I got a fright. He was the spitting image of Brian Hathaway, if not as stocky. But then he smiled and I saw his mother’s gentleness, and I was disarmed. The two brothers embraced each other tightly, and I saw my man had tears in his emerald eyes that were a bright counterpoint to Matt’s hazel ones.

‘How’s my little brother? Matt said, mussing Chris’s hair. ‘I’m so sorry I couldn’t come earlier.’

‘I’m just so stoked you’re here,’ said Chris, returning the gesture. It struck me that, though both brothers were big men, Chris was svelte and graceful in his glorious musculature, truly Grecian in proportion.

‘You must be Caleb,’ Matt said, nearly crushing my hand as he shook it. ‘Nice to finally meet you.’

It soon became apparent that Matt was merely Brian on the outside – on the inside he was pure Fiona, not batting an eyelid when Chris held my hand.

Matt insisted we drive through to Camps Bay and treated us to lunch overlooking the ocean.

‘I hope I’m not being a third wheel,’ I said, half-joking as we settled into our table. It had rained all morning but the wind had finally ousted the clouds and, though it was still blustery, a glorious golden light sparkled on the bay.

‘Nonsense,’ said Matt. ‘You’ve welcomed my little bro into your family and I want to return the favour. I’m only sorry that you couldn’t meet my wife and daughter, but you two will just have to come up to the farm.’

We made small talk and ordered drinks. As they arrived, I tactfully busied myself with my beer, allowing Matt and Chris to catch up.

‘So,’ said Matt, suddenly. ‘Let me just clear the air with one thing.’

I widened my eyes nervously.

‘Well done, you two, for finding each other and sticking together. Caleb, I’ve only known you for an hour but I can see how happy you’ve made my kleinboet1.’

Chris put his arm around me, and floored me with a beatific smile. He looked proud. Proud, it seemed, of me, as if he were showing me off to Matt.

‘Uh,’ I said, blushing, ‘please call me Cal.’

‘Cal it is. Chris might have told you, but here it is from the horse’s mouth, I’m totally cool with you guys being together. Never suspected my boet2 preferred beef though, but I can see you’re a handsome bastard.’

I choked on my beer.

Chris laughed heartily. ‘You gotta excuse Matt, he doesn’t get out into civilization much.’

‘Yeah yeah,’ Matt said good-naturedly. ‘But seriously, I got you guys’ backs.’

‘Thanks, Matty,’ said Chris softly. He looked calm, and relieved. It felt wonderful, basking in the glow of acceptance, and eerie too, as I saw how closely Matt’s face resembled his father’s.


 

*


The Saturday was, obviously, an emotional one for Chris and Matt. He looked drained as he came back from the visit. It had only been two hours but a lifetime of memories had been touched upon.

‘She’s good,’ said Chris, as we sat in my room. My father had invited Matt and Jenny for dinner, and they were downstairs getting to know each other. ‘The physical side of the rehab has gone very well, but the whole process has unlocked all sorts of stuff for her.’

‘I can understand that,’ I said.

‘It’s just… I think things were bad between my parents for a long time. Like since I was a baby. And I think my dad was being unfaithful long before Patricia. God, I think they were staying together because… because of me. I was unplanned, you know.’

‘That was their decision, to stay together.’ I said, hugging him. I thought to myself that the only parent who really cared about Chris was Fiona. I couldn’t help thinking that Brian didn’t really want a fourth kid and that there had been a disconnect even then.

‘I never told you, one day I made my dad a paperweight for his birthday – it was a figure of a lion I modeled out of clay. I think I was ten. I even got Mom to bake it; she was going through a pottery phase. I gave it to him, and he seemed to like it, but then Tom and Andy got him a desk pad and he liked that more. He put the lion in a drawer and never used it. My mom rescued it and put it on her desk. I mean, I made that especially for him, you know? But he didn’t want my gift.’

He was tearful. I was so furious with his father I dug my nails into my palms.

‘Anyway,’ he said, sniffing, ‘my mom has two more weeks and then she gets released into what they call “secondary care”, where she can have free access to visitors. It’s all voluntary of course, and she could discharge herself any time, even now. But she’s staying. She says the workshops and counseling have been great.’

‘She’s awesome. She’s so brave.’

‘She says it’s been amazing meeting other people and hearing their stories. She jokes people come in with one addiction and leave with like twenty that they never realised they had. She admitted to me she was also using sleeping tablets and painkillers… that was hard, but I guess I understand now.’

‘That’s intense. And Matt? How’s he taking things?’

‘Oh, he’s playing it cool as always, acting as the head of the family. He always buries his feelings. I actually left so he could have some time on his own with my mom. But I can see he’s sad, and he’s going to have all this unnecessary guilt, as if he’s the cause of my parent’s worries. That’s Matt, always looking out for others except himself.’

‘And your other brothers?’

‘Tom’s playing ostrich, I think. Andy at least spoke to my mom on the phone, and he’s decided to come back to South Africa in a month’s time for an extended visit. He and the French girl broke up and he’s already hooked up with a Japanese chick.’

‘Rolling stone, eh,’ I said, smiling.

‘Yeah. God, Cal, I couldn’t get over you just like that, if we ever… shit, I’m not even going to mention it.’

‘Don’t mention it,’ I said, touched. ‘Let’s go down and socialize.’

 


*
 


The school’s sports calendar was reaching its zenith: St Frank’s had made it to the final of the School’s Cup – the most prestigious schoolboy rugby event of the year – and stood a good chance of becoming the champions, the first time in 32 years. Major O’Reilly, our headmaster, had been in the winning St Frank’s team all those years ago and it was obvious what victory would mean. Also, St Francis had been selected to host the final. Our opponents? None other than Pretoria College.

‘How do you feel about facing Pretoria again?’ I asked Chris as we walked to his Jeep the next day after school. The School’s Cup final would be on the coming Saturday.

He shrugged. ‘I’ve been a bit nervous,’ he said, ‘but I spoke to Coach. He knows about what happened in Durban last year… he tactfully took it up with the committee of the School’s Cup, on which he serves, and they agreed that my red card was just that – a season suspension, which is over now.’

‘Awesome,’ I said, patting him on the back. ‘And… about the other stuff?’

‘He said the School’s Cup wasn’t interested in things that happened off-field.’

I was thrilled. ‘That’s fantastic! I’m so excited. This must be such a rush for the Major.’

Major O’Reilly, for all his moustachioed military precision, was actually a big pushover. He’d been a high-ranking brigadier in the bad old days of the South African Defence Force, and had stepped down after being exposed to the horrors of the Angolan War - South Africa’s own Vietnam. He returned to his former profession, teaching, and had been head of his old high school for twelve years. I remember once, in Form 1, in his Geography class, a jet from the local Air Force base flew overhead and he dropped the chalk and put his hands over his face. There was an eerie silence in the class as he stood motionless for about a minute; then he went on as if nothing had happened. There were murmurs that he had tried to expose some horrific human rights abuses but the old regime had quashed his efforts, demoted him to major and effectively ended his military career. The story made sense: as tight a ship he ran at the school, he had phased out hazing and corporal punishment and, though a devout Catholic, he had vastly toned down the school’s involvement in Church dogma.

‘Well, it’s going to be a tough game,’ said my boyfriend. ‘And you, you getting ready for the end of the swim season?’

I nodded. The provincial inter-high would be the week after the rugby final, and if St Frank’s came in the top two, we’d be competing in the national finals when the swimming season restarted in September.

‘Can’t wait to see you in your Speedo,’ he said, discreetly slapping my butt as we approached The Thing. I rolled my eyes and laughed.

‘Whatever. So, you looking forward to seeing your buddies later tonight?’

‘Yeah. A bit nervous. It’s weird that I’m still at school and they’re at varsity already.’

‘They’re your mates. They’re not going to mind. Erm… what about us? I mean, are you going to tell them?’

‘Not immediately, of course,’ he said. ‘And I won’t say anything unless it’s ok with you.’

‘Well, your friends deserve to know. I’ll leave it up to you.’

‘Thanks, my man,’ he said, kissing my cheek.



*



‘So does he look cute in his jockstrap?’

‘Bella!’

I covered my face with my hand and fumed while I heard the jarring arpeggios of two girls laughing.

‘Excuse me while I barf,’ said Rob, who got up and walked to the self-service coffee station.

We had been sitting in the Starlight Diner in Rondebosch with Olivia, Bella’s older sister who was visiting from the UK. Chris was at rugby practice. I had felt like an idiot: Olivia had been talking about Noordhoek Beach and how romantic it was and I just blurted out what a lovely date I had had there with Chris. She didn’t bat an eyelid.

‘I hope you’re not blushing because you accidentally outed yourself to me,’ Olivia said nonchalantly. The Carmichael girls were born nonplussed.

‘I guess… I thought Bella would have told you,’ I said, recovering.

‘Dumbass,’ said Bella. ‘It’s nobody else’s business but yours.’

I was touched. ‘Thanks,’ I said, squeezing her hand. ‘I mean, I don’t mind your sister knowing.’

‘You’ll do yourselves a huge favour when you come out fully, though,’ said Olivia, sipping lazily from her cappuccino. ‘But I guess that would be tricky right now. It’s been four years since I left St Frank’s and I still get shudders when I think of how regimental high school can be. Especially for guys, I bet.’

‘You got that right,’ said Rob, who was picking sesame seeds off his hamburger.

‘You’re looking great though, Cal,’ said Olivia. ‘Have you been taking horse steroids or something? You’re like twice the size you were a year ago.’

‘Chris has been taking Cal to gym,’ said Bella conspiratorially.

‘Nice. Wouldn’t be a bad idea for you now, Rob. I mean, Cal was always scrawny and look at him now! You could be… a ginger ninja if you bulked up.’

Bella, Olivia and I burst out laughing.

‘Over my dead, fetid, rotting corpse,’ he said between mouthfuls of burger.

‘Pity. You’re not bad looking, Mr Jordan.’ Rob coughed and gawked at her. I knew he had always harboured a secret crush on Olivia.

‘So what does this Chris person look like?’ she asked.

‘Oh, he’s gorgeous,’ said Bella. ‘Tall, blond, built like a god. Plays rugby.’

‘Mmmmm,’ said Olivia. ‘So he wears a jockstrap, I presume…’

I raised my eyebrows but nodded in spite of myself, and then it was open season. Rob took a long time at the coffee station while the inevitable comparison of jockstraps to Speedos ensued and I was gasping with laughter with the Carmichael sisters.  

As Rob sat down again, I noticed the man sitting at the booth diagonally opposite us. He was in his forties, had deep-set eyes and tiny burst veins on his cheeks. He was neat, and looked professional. He had been staring at us since we’d arrived and was sitting with a trenchcoat spread over his lap and torso. I shuddered: I realised that one of his hands had been underneath the coat all this time and I could detect a suggestion of rhythmic movement. The sick bastard was touching himself. I felt nauseous, and dirty somehow, as if our jocular conversation at the table had been contaminated. I murmured my concerns and we got up en masse and moved to another booth on the other side of the diner. We had to walk past him and in spite of myself I glanced at the man. His wallet was folded open on the table and there was a photo of a pretty woman holding a toddler in her arms. I took a deep breath.

‘Excuse me sir,’ I said, in a deep monotone.

‘Yes?’ the creep said nervously. I could see his carotid arteries pulsing quickly through the shiny skin of his neck.

‘Is that your wife and daughter?’ I said, indicating the photograph in the wallet.

He nodded. He was regarding me suspiciously.

‘They’re beautiful,’ I said, and walked away.

I drove back in my mom’s Honda with Rob sitting next to me; he had been licensed for six months already.

‘That was creepy,’ I said.

‘Yeuch. In broad daylight, like that. I feel violated or something. You wonder how many perverts there are out there.’

I nodded blankly. ‘And you must have felt like doubly uncomfortable.’

‘What do you mean? Change up a gear, Cal, the engine’s suffering.’

‘Right. Um, you know, the girls giving me the third degree about Chris and me. I know the thought of us two… well, it’s weird for you.’

‘Jeez, Cal, is that what this is all about? You think I think you and Chris are like… like unnatural?’ He sounded angry. ‘Just because I’m unfamiliar about certain things doesn’t mean I disapprove. I’m now kinda pissed of you’d think that.’

‘I’m sorry. You’re my oldest and best guy friend, you know? I only meant…’

‘Yeah, yeah,’ he said, folding his arms. ‘Cal, I’m happy for you, dickwad. We’re all happy for you. At least one of us has met someone and gotten… you know, the whole lurve thing right.’

I felt awful. ‘Shit, man. I didn’t realise. Are you guys feeling… I dunno, left behind?’

‘Oh for fuck’s sakes. Stop the car, Cal,’ he said. ‘Pull over there.’

I did as he said. Rob leaned over, looking fierce as the timid winter sun lit up his fiery dishevelled red mop.

‘Cal. There are a few things I need to get through to what’s under your thick skull. Firstly. I’m not attracted to guys, ok, but if I were I’d be all over Chris in a second. I think it’s great you guys are in love, ok? I don’t have little fangirl spazzes about it like Bella does but you’re fucking happy and that’s awesome. So how the fuck could I think that what’s going on between you two is unnatural? When I’ve been hundred percent for you guys since I knew? Even though I was jealous of this new person taking Cal time away from me?’

‘Jeez, dude, I’m a moron.’

‘Yup. But then I thought if it was weird for me to digest, it must have been weirder for you, since you’re the one, you know, actually in the relationship. But for fuck’s sake, stop thinking I’m grossed out by it all. I’m gonna get pissed off if you feel you can’t kiss your boyfriend in front of me. I don’t mean you have to lick his face off with your tongue… would it be any different if it were a girl? I think I could trust you to use your judgement.’

‘I know. I’m sorry.’

‘Wait, Cal. I’m not that pissed. I understand not everybody is as open-minded as me and Bella and your family, so I know you gotta be cautious. I’m just saying, I got your back, you know?’

‘You’re making me cry, Rob,’ I said.

‘Yeah, and now I’m going to make you scream,’ he said, smirking, and suddenly planted a hasty kiss on my forehead.

We both sat bold upright. Rob wiped his mouth reflexively and burst out laughing.

‘What the fuck was that?’ I said, gasping.

‘Just telling you I love you, man,’ he said, and smiled the evil genius smile he was so accomplished at. ‘As a brother. Man, your skin is softer than I imagined. Are you moisturising or something?’

‘Fuck off, Mr Sunscreen.’

He elbowed me, and I put an arm around my best friend. Rob was not a touchy-feely person but he eased into my arm with grace. I guess, after bringing himself to actually give me a kiss this was walking up a hill compared to scaling Mount Everest. I let my tears flow freely, but quietly.



*
 


The night before the game, Chris was jittery. He was quiet during supper, tapping his feet incessantly against the legs of the dining room table, hardly touching his food. I tried to distract him with a game of Grand Theft Auto on PlayStation but he wasn’t paying any attention at all. He got up and started pacing around the room like a panther in a cage.

‘Come here,’ I said, taking him by the hand. ‘I can make it better.’

‘I’m sorry buddy,’ he sighed. ‘I’m really tense.’

‘I know,’ I said, leading him up the stairs. ‘I’m going to run you a bath. Go get undressed so long.’

He nodded meekly while I walked to the bathroom.

‘Thanks, Cal,’ he said as I gently sponged him down. ‘I’m sorry I’m such a wuss tonight.’

‘Don’t be a twit, man,’ I snorted, ‘it’s a big day for you tomorrow. Just lie back and let me take care of you.’

‘I love you, babe,’ he said, closing his eyes. A little thrill coursed down my back. He’d never called me that before.

I started working on his taut belly. I was getting really horny, feeling the tight undulations of his abs, and soon my hand brushed against his rock-hard dick. He shivered as I took hold of him and started playing slowly.

‘Oh, Cal, that’s so good,’ he gasped. ‘Get in.’

It took me seconds to shed my clothes and get in behind him. It was a big bathtub and I could comfortably wrap my legs around him while I cradled his head on my chest. I stroked his damp hair with one hand while I resumed playing with him. He closed his eyes and moaned softly.

‘Good?’ I asked.

‘Perfect,’ he murmured.

A thought occurred to me. ‘Is this allowed?’ I asked suddenly. ‘I mean... I know some coaches don’t want their players to have, uh, action the night before.’

‘Aw, you’re sweet. Nah. Coach is pretty cool about that. Not that I’d listen to him if he were against it. Oh... wow... that’s good...’

I chuckled to myself, as my hand started making slow circles around his corona. He was paralytic with pleasure.

He came violently, nearly winding me as his elbows dug into my sides and his convulsions splashed nearly half the tub’s water on the floor.

I helped him out of the tub and towelled him off.



*



Chris left early the next morning. Although the First Team game would only be at four o’clock the coach had decided to get them together at ten for an alternating series of warm-ups and what he called "contemplation".

I decided to bunk the morning’s festivities at the school - it was one of the few events that had compulsory attendance - and slept in. I vaguely remembered Chris kissing me goodbye. A chilly draft was blowing on me as I dozed off again.

It was eleven o’clock when my father dragged me out of bed.

‘What’s wrong, my boy?’ he asked me as we sat at brunch he had made. ‘You’ve hardly touched your food.’

‘Oh... I dunno, I guess I’m not feeling too well.’
I felt bad - he had specially tried to cook, and miraculously not burned anything, but I wasn’t hungry.

‘Sorry, Dad.’

‘No worries. You two have been working like crazy. At least you’ll have more time for studying after next week when swimming and rugby are over. I’m really proud of you boys.’

‘Thanks, Dad,’ I said, staring out of the window. I felt strange: there was this creeping uneasiness bearing down on me, and I didn’t know what to do.

‘Well, let’s get going shall we? I mean, if you’re not too indisposed? I can’t wait to see the Wolves reclaim their glory.’

I had nearly forgotten: my father had been a proud Wolf in his day, even playing as a replacement in the First XV when he was in Matric.

‘It’s fine, Dad, just a bit of a headache. I took some paracetamol.’

As we parked outside the school, my father’s cell phone rang. His face became serious and he nodded, sighing.

‘Shit,’ he said, ending the call. ‘There are two emergencies. Dental abscess and a knocked out incisor.’

‘It’s fine, Dad. I can get Rob or Chris to bring me home later. I have keys.’

‘Ok, son. No curfew. I imagine you kids will want to go out afterwards. But you call me if you’re not safe to drive, ok?’

‘I promise,’ I said, and hopped out of the car and started walking to the rugby fields.



*
 


There was a huge crowd of Pretoria supporters - in spite of myself I was quite touched by the all-boys school’s fiercely loyal support base. I had arrived just in time for the second team game and managed to avoid prosecution by the prefects, who were always on the lookout for those playing hooky at compulsory events.

Thankfully, Rob had received my SMS and waved to me from the grandstands. I melted into the crowd and squeezed my way towards him and Bella.

‘We were wondering what happened to you,’ said Bella, looking odd in a huge Wolves jersey. Even Rob was decked out in the old red and blue and was waving the flag of the howling wolf.

My school is named after the famous friar from Assisi because it was attached to the Franciscan monastery next door. It had as its emblem a stylized representation of the Wolf of Gubbio, whom St Francis supposedly tamed after it was terrorizing the inhabitants of the small Italian village. The wolf promised to stop attacking and St Francis, in return, arranged for the villagers to feed the wolf. I always loved that story, and my favourite prayer in Christendom is Francis’s Canticle of the Creatures, in which - like the very last Psalm - he exhorts the Universe to praise God. I think even an atheist could be moved by its high poetry and message of peace and love.

‘Yes, where have you been?’ asked Rob. ‘Bella has been perving all over the Pretoria players and I needed you to dilute the oestrogen.’

‘Hey. I have to put up with your sighs and moans over the cheerleaders,’ said Bella.

‘Sorry,’ I shrugged, ‘I haven't been feeling too hot. Slept in.’

‘Bet you’ll feel much better when Chris runs onto the field,’ she said. ‘Oh, look, the second team is running on.’

The second team game swam before me in a haze. Unfortunately Pretoria hit an early winning streak and the Wolves just couldn’t keep up. Pretoria was victorious, the College’s crowd erupting into a roar as they trounced us 22-8.

‘Shit,’ said Rob. ‘This puts us at equal points with Pretoria in the tournament. We’re going to have to thump them in the Firsts game to win.’

‘You ok?’ said Rob as we bought hot dogs before the final game.

‘Dunno,’ I confessed. ‘I’m all nervous. But it’s only partly due to the game. I’m all weirded out, like something bad’s going to happen.’

He patted my back. ‘Don’t freak yourself out, dude. Grab some chow and let’s make fun of Miss Carmichael throwing herself at the rugby players.

I had to admit, Bella was behaving a bit like a groupie. She had this romantic idea that the Pretoria boys were soulful Heathcliff clones that were deemed worthy of rescuing even the most feminist damsel in distress. I also had to concede, though, that some of them were really hot.

We all cheered as the Wolves ran onto the field. Mike Delport shook hands with the Pretoria captain - a massive ginger, who briefly raised his eyebrows as he scanned his opposition and caught sight of Chris. I suppose he recognized him as the bad boy from last Year’s game, and I swear my boyfriend looked uncomfortable for a second. But then the teams launched successively into their school songs and soon the game was underway.

The game eclipsed any Springboks vs. All Blacks clash in terms of nail-biting intensity. At half- time, Pretoria led St Frank’s by three points, each team having conceded a penalty and scored a try, but the Wolves failing to convert. I had quite a tachycardia as the second half started. Nearly half an hour ensued until Pretoria scored another try, though failing to convert. At 15-7, it was looking grim for us until, Mike Delport sneaked a try over the line. A palpable sigh of relief washed over the crowd as the try was converted successfully.

It was now 15 all, and five minutes were left. Pretoria would still win on possession if we tied.

Four minutes.

Three minutes.

Two.

Silence descended on the crowd as the teams got into a scrum: the mass of players heaving and pushing this way and that like a giant writhing centipede.

Then a player broke loose. It was Mike. He charged across the field like a demon - sidestepping two burly Pretorians and passed it to Chris…

...who leapt like a flying squirrel and scored the winning try.

The whole of St Frank’s exploded into jubilation. I was dizzy. The Major had tears in his eyes and hopped over onto the field to hug the players. They hoisted Chris and Mike into the air and above the screams and shouts I could hear Mr Mazibuko’s wife ululating.

The crowd charged onto the field and I followed suit - I wanted to congratulate Chris, hug him, cry with joy with him. I forced my way through the crowd. I could see him, metres away. I was inching towards him. I could almost reach out and tug his jersey.

‘Chris!’ I bellowed. But he didn’t hear me as the cheering team swept him past me.

Feeling gutted, I slunk back to the edge of the field.



*
 


Rob must have sensed that I was disappointed and promptly hauled Bella and I into the car, driving to Mexicali, a Mexican restaurant around the corner from the school that was a local favourite. He shoved two tequila slammers in front of me.

‘Down ‘em, MacLeod,’ said Bella. ‘You’ll feel better.’

‘Am I the only one drinking?’

‘Afraid so,’ she replied. ‘And don’t worry, you’ll see Chris soon enough.’

‘I guess I didn’t realize there’d be an after-party for the team.’

‘Meh,’ said Rob, as our food arrived.

I felt better after my beef enchilada and the tequila, and soon we decided to call it a night and get home. We were all frankly exhausted.

‘Wait,’ I said, as we passed the school. ‘Drop me off.’

‘Ok,’ said Rob. ‘You wanna try find Chris?’

‘Yeah. His phone is off, but I want to see if I can find him. I can get my dad to fetch me if I don’t see him.’

‘No sweat,’ said Rob, stopping at the main gate.

It was seven, dark, and a chilly wind had brought the scent of the sea behind the mountain from Table Bay. It would probably be raining soon. I zipped up my hoodie and jogged to the main rugby field, reasoning the team would still be celebrating in the changing rooms. Sure enough, there was light behind the entrance.

Cautiously, I tried the door. It opened. There was nobody in the corridor but I could hear shouts and cheers coming from the end of the passage.

What the hell, I thought, and walked into the locker room.

I’m glad I hid behind a cupboard and that no one saw me as I looked on in horror.

There was a Bacchanal taking place. A bunch of girls, all topless, were dancing around the room, giggling as they taunted and cajoled a clearly drunk team.

I saw Chris.

He was sitting on a chair with his hands tied behind his back. Tricia Moore was bending over him, emptying a bottle of beer on his head, waving her huge breasts in his face.

I must have gasped too deeply because he caught my eye.

‘Oh no!’ he shouted, trying to get up and falling over in the process. The crowd laughed.

I ran out into the night, pelted by the freezing rain, a hot bomb of pain exploding in my head.




 


21. Out of the Depths

 

Black holes remain when stars die, eventually consumed by the very same gravity that made them shine in the first place. Nothing, not even light can escape the pull of their darkness: nobody knows where they lead to, and perhaps there the world ends – to paraphrase T.S. Eliot - not with the bang that began it, but with a whimper. 

 

And yet light persists in shining, obstinately traveling at the fastest velocity physics permits. It does not curse the darkness, but defies it. 

 

*

 

‘Cal!’ cried Chris, who had followed me as I ran out. ‘Wait!’

 

I didn’t say anything but looked over my shoulder. The rain was coming down heavily. I saw him struggling with something around his waist and realized he was trying to get his sweat pants on. He was still bare-chested. He tripped and fell face-down in the mud. 

 

‘Fuck!’ he cursed, getting up. I said nothing, but carried on walking away. I approached the pine plantation that skirted the school’s southern border and put my back against one of the trees to hide from the worst of the rain. It was now a thick sheet and soon I could only see about a metre in front of me.

 

‘Cal! Please, buddy!’ Chris cried. He sounded desperate. ‘Where are you?’

 

I heard him scrambling around, and trip again. He was clearly still under the influence. 

 

‘Leave me alone!’

 

‘Cal... I’m so sorry. It’s not what you...’

 

‘Not what I think?!’ I yelled. My voice echoed across the artificial lake at the end of the woods. ‘What a fucking cliché! Go back to your party.’

 

‘Cal...’

 

I was furious, crushed, dizzy. 

 

‘Leave me alone!’ I cried, and jogged deeper into the woods. As I ran I heard him puke violently in the distance. 

 

I was broken. Seeing the ugly drunken smile across Chris’s face as Tricia lap-danced on him while Frank looked on cheering had seared a hot weal across my heart. He had been wearing nothing but his jockstrap and had been sporting an obvious hard-on. My tears were hot against the icy rain, and as I reached the school’s Eastern Gate I was sweaty and flushed. The rain was so heavy that I felt I was at the bottom of a huge body of water, a great, groaning pressure bearing down on me in all directions.

 

I stood on the pavement like an idiot, staring into space. Then it occurred to me I needed to get home. The rain was not letting up so walking would not be a wise option. I scurried to the bus shelter and reached for my phone to call my dad. 

 

As I did so a car pulled onto the shoulder and hooted. The driver reached over and rolled down the passenger window. 

 

‘Cal? Is that you?’

 

It was Veronica. 

 

‘Hi...Veronica. What are you...’

 

‘You’re soaked! Get in.’ She opened the passenger door and I meekly got into the old Citroën. She looked at me kindly. 

 

‘What were you doing standing in the rain like that?’ she asked. 

 

‘Oh, um, I got caught in it walking home and was about to phone my dad to fetch me.’

 

‘Where do you live?’ she asked. 

 

‘Newlands.’

 

‘I could give you a lift home, it’s close for me.’

 

‘Uh, ok. Thanks. What were you doing driving by?’

 

‘Oh,’ she said, ‘I was going to fetch Tricia but she just called and said she was staying for some after-party with the team.’

 

I nodded, and felt a twinge of pain as she mentioned Tricia. Veronica looked beautiful - her brown hair was loose around her graceful neck, and her eyes were large and kind. I couldn’t believe she was going out with an arsehole like Jason. 

 

‘Are you all right?’ she asked. ‘You seem upset. What happened?’

 

‘Uh, it’s nothing. Had a disagreement with... with somebody.’

 

‘I know what you mean. I’ve had my share of that this week.’

 

‘What do you mean?’

 

She let out a deep sigh, and reached for a packet of menthol cigarettes. 

 

‘Do you mind?’ she said, opening the box. I shook my head. She offered me one and I took it. We lit ours simultaneously from the lighter flame. 

 

‘You might as well know,’ she said. ‘Jason and I broke up.’ 

 

I momentarily forgot my anguish. ‘No way. You guys have been together for nearly two years!’

 

‘Yeah,’ she said, taking a deep draw. ‘But then I grew up. I know there’s no love lost between you and Jason, so I can say it - he’s just turned into a selfish moron. It’s like power has gone to his head ever since he became prefect.’

 

‘I’m sorry,’ I said. She looked sad, and I suddenly felt I was seeing the real Veronica for the first time, not the popular cheerleader who was a rugby groupie. 

 

‘Don’t worry about it. We’ve had problems for a while now. I don’t even know why I still hang with Tricia and her crowd. You know I stopped cheerleading supposedly to have more time studying, but it was actually because it was getting bored. There’s more to life than talking about boys and shopping and bitching about people behind their backs.’

 

She stubbed out her cigarette and started the car. 

 

As we got onto the M3 my phone rang. It was my dad, saying that he’d had to take the abscess patient to theatre and had had to call out the maxillo-facial surgeon. I sighed and realized I’d be coming home to an empty house. 

 

‘Was that your dad?’ asked Veronica. 

 

‘Yeah. He’s going to be home late.’’

 

‘Oh. You going to be alone? I thought Chris was staying with you - I heard his mom’s been ill.’

 

I nodded, and played dumb. ‘Yeah,’ I said and shrugged, ‘But I guess he'll be out partying with the team till late.’

 

‘Say, Cal, if you want to... perhaps we could hang out a bit, maybe? My parents are away for the weekend and my big brother’s gone out on the town. Maybe us lonesome souls could, you know, stick together?’

 

At first I thought this was a trap, some kind of set-up. But her eyes were gentle. She was really being friendly. And she sounded lonely. 

 

‘Um, ok,’ I said sheepishly. 

 

‘Great. I feel like junk food and a DVD.’

 

Now my curiosity was piqued. ‘You eat junk food? I thought you’d be all lentils and bean sprouts and stuff like that.’

 

‘Hell no. At least, not always. And don’t worry, I’m not sticking my finger down my throat.’

 

I laughed nervously. 

 

‘At least...’ she added, ‘not anymore.’ She looked away. I shivered. I hadn’t thought that popular girls harboured secret tragedies. 

 

‘Um, well,’ I said, changing the subject, ‘shall we get a movie then?’

 

‘Absolutely.’

 

We took out The Bourne Identity and got some KFC. It was strange being in Veronica’s house, alone. I felt as if I’d entered a secret lair. I was still smarting from what I’d seen earlier in the locker rooms, but was entranced by Veronica. I realized again how stunning she was. I could see her nipples through her blouse. I was suddenly aware I had a semi in my pants and I sat down on the couch trying to discreetly cover the evidence. 

 

‘Want some?’ she said, bringing out a bottle of wine. It was a 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon from an acclaimed Franschhoek vineyard. 

 

I whistled. The bottle was adorned with three independent gold medals it had won at various festivals. ‘This must be expensive.’

 

‘Yeah. My dad’s got a whole wine cellar out the back. Doubt he’d miss this one.’

 

‘Why the hell not then,’ I said, smiling. 

 

It was good - I was still getting used to wine, but this bottle was liquid velvet. I finally understood how people could taste berries and whatever else in the stuff. We watched the movie and then sat chatting and smoking. Suddenly, we had finished two bottles.

 

I got up to go the bathroom, and on the way back gravity was doing that jelly-floor thing it did when I tried to match Chris beer for beer at Theewaterskloof. As I neared the couch I lost my balance and toppled over, landing next to Veronica. 

 

I was face to face with her and I could smell her delicate floral perfume. 

 

‘Oh,’ she said, ‘you’ve got a wine stain on your cheek.’ She put out a hand and wiped my face. 

 

Then we were kissing. I grabbed her instinctively and we writhed around awkwardly on the couch. I was out of breath but our lips remained locked.

 

I pawed her breasts: they were like Fabergé eggs, so rich, so splendid.

 

It seemed like no time had passed when I found myself naked on her bed, while she deftly eased a condom over me. 

 

I was dizzy as she guided me to her secret space. I slid into her warm softness easily. She moaned and bit her tongue and pressed her hand against my butt, until I was in all the way. As she wrapped her silken legs around me the protean urge took over and I started thrusting reflexively, buoyed by her moans until I was plowing her like an incubus. Soon I was overwhelmed and let out a whimper as I came. I collapsed on top of her, weak, spent, suddenly ashamed. 

 

She stroked my head as if I were a baby. 

 

‘Wow,’ she said, gently motioning me to roll off her. I shuddered as I pulled out and slid off the condom, filled with the evidence of what we had done. She was flushed and panting heavily. ‘Awesome,’ she said with a little giggle.

 

‘Was it?’ I said miserably. I turned away from Veronica and sat with my head in my hands. I felt nauseous. 

 

‘Of course. What’s wrong, Cal?’

 

‘I’ve never done this...’ I stammered. ‘And I shouldn’t have.’

 

‘This was... your first time?’ she gasped, getting up and moving herself next to me. She wrapped the sheet around her and put a hand on my shoulder. ‘I - I didn’t know, Cal, honestly. But that was great, you certainly, um, know what to do. Most guys are weirded out the first time; it’s ok.’

 

‘Thanks,’ I managed. ‘But that’s not what I meant. This - this shouldn’t have happened. Oh God, what have I done?’ 

 

I started sobbing. She started stroking my hair and I winced. 

 

‘What’s it, Cal? Tell me.’

 

‘I’m a cad. I’m an arsehole. Chris... Chris and I... oh God, now you know.’

 

‘Shit,’ she said, wide-eyed. She was silent for a moment. ‘You and Chris are... together?’

 

I nodded miserably. ‘We are. At least I thought we were. Go ahead,’ I said, ‘I know I’m a freak. But it’s me - not him.’

 

She looked away for a moment and shook her head. ‘No you’re not,’ she said gently. ‘It all makes sense now. Shit. I would never have come on to you if I knew - I’m so sorry. Is that... that the disagreement you had? Did you guys have a fight?’

 

I was stunned that there was no judgment in her voice, only concern. 

 

‘It doesn’t matter. Oh God, I’ve totally misunderstood the situation. I thought he was cheating and now - oh fuck, now I’m the cheat...’

 

‘Whoa, wait now, tell me the story from the beginning. I’m not going to judge you, Cal, God knows I’ve fucked up stuff in relationships before. In fact...let me make us some coffee so we can sober up and then you tell me, ok?’

 

‘Ok. Um, is there a shower? I want to take a shower.’

 

I was suddenly shy. 

 

‘Of course. I think I’ll do that too. Use the one down the hall, I’ll use my parents’ en-suite.’

 

I nodded blankly and reached for my jocks and pulled them on. I shuddered, thinking how moments earlier I had been inside her; now I couldn’t bear her looking at me.

 

‘Cal?’ she said, as I reached for the door. 

 

‘I just want to tell you this, and I’ll never bring it up again. I know guys gave fragile egos. So I'm just saying that the sex was... great. I couldn’t believe it was your first time. And - though it’s no matter to me - you’re perfectly, you know, endowed down there. You're a good-looking guy, Cal, I think you need to know that. And a nice guy, too. Don't forget that.'

 

The blood drained away from my face and I shuffled off to the shower. Still, I felt a small part of me glowing in a faint dream of pride. 

 

I spent a long time in the shower, lathering obsessively. I felt dirty - as if I had soiled myself. It wasn’t so much as if I wanted to wash off traces of Veronica; it was more like I wanted to erase myself. In the pounding stream I felt the alcohol’s chokehold starting to ease and clarity blowing in my brain like an icy wind. 

 

We sat facing opposite each other on the sofa where it had all happened. I took a deep breath and told her my story, from when Chris and I met to me thinking he had cheated on me in the change room. I clawed my scalp as I pondered the orders of magnitude that separated a lap dance with me sleeping with Veronica.

 

Half an hour had passed, and Veronica was looking at me with a kind and gentle expression that made me feel even more vulnerable. 

 

‘Oh Cal,’ she said eventually, ‘you really are a drama magnet. But I think I understand. Is this - the first relationship you’ve ever had?’

 

I nodded. 

 

‘Do you love him?’

 

‘Yes!’ I blurted out, getting tearful. ‘Although how could I do this to him if I loved him?’

 

‘Wait now. When you saw him, earlier this evening, you thought he was ready to have sex with Tricia, and you thought the relationship was over?’

 

‘Yes,’ I admitted, covering my face with my hands. ‘Like I’d just been replaced. That I wasn’t good enough any more. It’s like this feeling of betrayal overtook me and I didn’t think it might just have been something far more innocent. They were all drunk, after all.’

 

‘And, um, so were we. And you thought it was over.’

 

I nodded bitterly.

 

She put an arm around me. I didn’t move away. ‘You’re not a bad person, Cal. Silly, maybe. I guess we’ve both been very stupid. I hope you don’t hate me.’

 

‘No, I don’t. But I hate myself. How will I ever live with this?’

 

‘You will. But you’re going to have to tell him. Trust me, guilt will kill any relationship. Plus you haven’t heard his side of the story. You don’t know how far things did or did not go.’

 

I squirmed. I knew she was telling me what I needed to hear, not what I wanted to hear.

 

‘You really think so?’ I asked, hoping desperately that this was just a nightmare from which I'd soon wake up.

 

‘Well, could you look him in the eye and pretend that nothing had happened? Not the Cal I know. You have far too much integrity for that.’

 

‘Some integrity,’ I said bitterly. ‘And how come you’re saying you “know” me? We’ve hardly spoken before this year.’

 

‘Cal, I’ve been watching you since we met in first form. One of the reasons I got more and more distant with Jason… yes, I broke up with him, not the other way round… is because of the way he treats you and everybody else who’s not part of his pathetic little cool crowd. I know he’s been bullying you and I’m only sorry that I didn’t stand up for you earlier.’

 

‘Not your problem,’ I said, shrugging.

 

‘Perhaps not. But it sounds like you and Chris have something special. I can see it now. Look at how you’ve blossomed - you’re even a better swimmer than Jason. Oh, God, and now I slept with you. I guess there was a rebound thing happening when we kissed… but please, I wasn’t intending to lead you on… could you forgive me?’

 

I wiped my eyes, overwhelmed with all the information. Then a strange calm descended on me. I looked at Veronica for a long time and then softened my gaze.

 

‘Cal?’

 

‘Yes. I forgive you. I mean, there’s nothing to forgive. We were both…fucking stupid.’

 

‘I know. I hope it wasn’t the worst experience of your life.’

 

I let out a dry chuckle. ‘No… not at all… it was… it was good. In different circumstances I would have been the happiest guy on the planet.’

 

It now occurred to me that I had just had sex with one of the hottest girls in school, who was also the ex of my arch-enemy. Never in a million years, I thought, wiping my eyes.

 

‘I’m… relieved,’ she said, sighing. ‘I promise I won’t say anything. But please – talk to him. At worst, and it will be awful, your relationship is over. But at least you’ll be able to sleep at night that you were honest. I’m sorry I can’t turn the clock back.’

 

I nodded.

 

‘I think I better get you home. It’s nearly midnight.’

 

‘Thanks,’ I said, and started gathering up my stuff.

 

*

 

My dad was still up when Veronica dropped me. I’d managed to compose myself and was trying to slink unnoticed up the stairs when he spotted me from the main bedroom where he was reading.

 

‘Hey son,’ he said, getting up. ‘Some game I believe! So irritated I couldn’t be there. Go Wolves!’

 

‘Yeah,’ I said, managing a smile. 

 

‘You guys must have had a great evening celebrating. Where’s Chris?’

 

‘Oh, he’s out with the team, I’m tired. I think he’ll – he’ll be staying over at his place.’

 

My father raised an eyebrow. ‘As long as he’s safe. Wake me if he needs fetching…. are you okay, Cal? You look bleak.’

 

‘I’m just tired, Dad,’ I lied. 

 

‘Okay. Well, have a good rest and we’ll all catch up in the morning. 

 

He put his arms around me, and for a moment I felt safe. I was three years old again, being held aloft by my father’s arms as he whirled me around on the beach while I screeched with delight. It was all I could do not to start sniffing again.

 

As I lay down on my bed I heard my phone beep. I knew it was Chris. I took a deep breath and opened the message.

 

 

Chris: Hey. Can we talk?

 

Caleb: I can’t right now. Sorry. Are you safe?

 

Chris: Yes. Am with Jenny. Thought you might need some space. You safe?

 

Caleb: Yes. 

 

Chris: I fucked up big time. I’m so sorry.

 

Caleb: I fucked up too.

 

Chris: What do you mean?

 

Caleb: Please. I don’t want to talk about it now.

 

Chris: Ok. Just know I love you.

 

Caleb: I love you too.

 

Chris: Ok. Tomorrow maybe? Sleep well. xxx

 

Caleb: Ok. You too.

 

 

Awash with anguish, I fumbled in the drawer of my bedside table for the packet of sleeping tablets I’d been prescribed when my mother died. I’d only used half a tablet once or twice but I took a whole one. Its effect was quick, and within minutes I slipped into merciful oblivion.

 

22. Confessions

Predictably, I woke up in a haze. The zolpidem tablet, in concert with the wine, had conspired to swipe me sideways with an epic hangover. Surprisingly, it was still early - a milky weak light was just beginning to dilute the darkness.

I drank three glasses of water and stood under a cool shower for an indeterminate length. My father was still snoring when I collapsed back on my bed, only then realizing that I was alone between the sheets.

Nausea enveloped me as the events of the previous night rained down on me in an avalanche.

Chris. My love. Betrayed. By me.

I was rotten, selfish, the armpit of humanity. It was not Veronica’s fault. It wasn’t just the wine’s. Mea culpa, my soul cried. Mea maxima culpa.

For the first time in my life, I was drowning in the poison my parents had valiantly protected me from: guilt.

My reptilian brain took hold and foisted a solution on me: purge, confess. It said I needed to go to Mass. Though my agnostic sensibilities shivered with indignation, I got up, dressed and searched for the missal that I hadn’t opened since my mother’s funeral.

It was half-past eight, and St Jude’s always had confession available before the ten o’clock Mass. I skulked guiltily into the little church, half-expecting to burst into flames. An old nun was kneeling at one of the back pews, whispering the Rosary. The organist was practicing a Bach passacaglia and I could hear the choir warming up in the balcony. I hurried into the open confessional and closed the door. I crossed myself, feeling like an idiot.

‘Bless me Father, for I have sinned.’ The words fell wooden and brittle from my lips. ‘It has been... three years since my last confession.’

‘Tell me what plagues you, my son.’ I could hear it was Father Donaghey, who was well into his seventies and had returned from a two year sabbatical in Rome. Great, I thought, how appropriate to have the old-school firebrand back now that I really was a reprobate. The parish had all heaved a quiet sigh of relief when he had left. But, remarkably, his voice was gentle as he welcomed me.

‘I have betrayed someone I love, Father,’ I began. ‘I don’t even know why I am here. I can’t even claim to believe in God any more. I have doubted my faith… for a while now.’

‘Yet you chose to come here,’ he said calmly. ‘There is no evil in doubting or questioning one’s faith. The Lord gives us free will. So, my son, how have you betrayed this person? Ease your burden.’

The words were like a hot lance to an abscess. It all came tumbling out, my relationship with Chris, my overreaction, my drunken romp with Veronica. I told him about my bisexuality bluntly and my dissatisfaction with the Church, that I had essentially left it after the international child abuse scandal broke. I told him I was angry, and sad, and heartbroken.

He was silent for a while as I waited for the torrent of brimstone to sear me.

Rain started pelting heavily on the church’s tin roof. Above the roar, he spoke:

‘My son. You know what the Church says about homosexuality and sexual relations outside of marriage. Do I need to expound on that?’

‘No, Father,’ I said quietly.

‘Good, because I don’t want to either. I think I can leave that to your own conscience.’

I was astounded. I was expecting to be flayed.

‘If I had a rand for every teenager who came to me plagued by their hormones,’ he continued, ‘I would be a very rich man. But I am just an old man, my child, and my calling forbids me the experience of the flesh. It is a difficult road.

‘That which is not done out of malice can be remedied, I think. The Church cannot condone physical relations between people of the same sex, but, it pronounces no judgment on love between two men or two women. You know about David and Jonathan, surely?’

‘Yes, father.’

‘Probably one of the greatest love stories ever told. And David, the great king, was not without his faults. He lusted after Uriah’s wife and sent him to the front line of a battle knowing he would be killed, so he could take her for himself. But he was forgiven, and from the line of David came our Saviour’s father.

‘I do not think you acted out of malice. You let alcohol take the better of you, which was irresponsible. May that be a lesson to you. This Chris, do you love him?

‘Yes, father.’

‘And does he return your love?’

‘Yes, Father.’

‘Then I shall make no pronouncement on that love. I’m diverging from dogma, Caleb, so do not quote me. I know it’s you. It’s been a hard year for you, since your mother died, hasn’t it?’

‘Yes, Father.’

‘A remarkable woman, Susanna. Not easy marrying into Catholicism when you come from a staunch Calvinist background. We had a lot of illuminating conversations about politics when the old regime was at its most vicious. She opened my eyes – I didn’t really know any Afrikaner liberals before I met her. She certainly fought for what she believed in. And she loved her family more than anything, I know that.’

‘Father, I miss her so much. I want to believe that...that…’

‘That she is still somewhere? Of course we all do. We have no proof, directly. That is what faith is, my son. Were you angry with God for taking her away?’

‘Yes,’ I said softly.

‘A child can be angry with its parent. It doesn’t mean he curses his parent.’

‘Father, I don’t understand. I was expecting... retribution.’

Father Donaghey laughed. ‘Caleb. Our Lord did not turn anyone away. Often it was the most despised or ordinary members of society that offered kindness to Him in his anguish. Do you know the story of Veronica?’

I shuddered. Veronica?!

‘It is not mentioned in the Gospels but, legend has it she was a woman who reached out of the crowd and wiped the sweat from Jesus’ face as He made His way to the cross. Supposedly, the cloth became a holy relic as it miraculously bore an imprint His face. Such a small, touching gesture. She did what she thought she could to ease his suffering.’

‘Wait,’ I said. ‘It’s one of the Stations of the Cross isn’t it? I remember you teaching us about it in Catechism.’

‘I’m impressed,’ he said. ‘You would have been nine years old then.’

I reached for the curtain covering the hole in the wall that separated priest from confessor and drew it back. I stared into Father Donaghey’s eyes. With his beard he looked like one of the Old Testament prophets, as realized by Michelangelo.

‘Not many people draw back the curtain,’ he observed.

‘Well, here I am, Father. Anything else you want to know?’

‘Have you been using drugs?’

‘Illegal ones? No. I smoke, but I’m trying to quit. And as you know I’ve been silly with wine.’

He chuckled. ‘I only ask because it’s such a scourge among the youth these days. I’ve seen so many young lives ruined.’

I was getting impatient. ‘What are you going to do with me, then?’ I asked.

‘Caleb. You know that if you wish to receive the sacrament you must make the Act of Contrition. This is not a trial in a courtroom. Whatever I say only has bearing in as much as you believe in it.’

‘I’m confused, Father.’

‘You question your faith, and you are angry with the Church, and with God; is that true?’

‘I said so earlier,’ I muttered, getting irritated.

‘Calm down, my son. I’m not saying that to admonish you. If I can put you at ease with one thing, the whole scandal in the Church horrifies me. Particularly the silence of those who could have blown the whistle. I want you to know that I have been outspoken against it. I can understand why so many feel betrayed.’

I was perplexed. ‘Why are you telling me this?’

‘Because I don’t want you to think of true faith as hypocritical. I cannot sit here and lecture you about morality because you fell in love with another… another boy when horrors of infinitely higher magnitude have been perpetrated by my own colleagues. I was in Rome when all this hit the news. Such anger, such denial. I had a crisis of faith myself.

‘I refused to go to Mass, would you believe, thinking that this would solve things. I became bitter. Then one morning I was walking from the seminary where I was lodging to the little café near the Trevi Fountain where I always got my morning espresso and the paper, and I saw a prostitute run into the road to stop the traffic, so that a blind old man could pass. I started crying, I tell you, when I saw that kind gesture. And I thought, that, that is what God is. Love where you least expect it. My boy. You understand morality, from the contrite way you speak about betraying this person you love. So I urge you to resolve this matter – I urge you to speak to him.’

I nodded grimly. I wanted to punch the wall: it would have been so easy if he had told me I was a wretch, a sinner consumed by lust and depravity. His kindness was killing me.

‘I can say the prayer,’ I confessed, ‘but I don’t know if it will mean anything.’

‘Did you pray at your mother’s funeral?’

‘Yes,’ I said defensively. ‘What do you mean by that?’

‘You were far more vulnerable then, my boy. Why do you think you prayed?’

‘For her,’ I said quietly. ‘For… I don’t know… for something, somewhere to listen. Out of respect. For… for hope, maybe’

‘Then that is enough. But it’s your decision. Confession has its set formula, and I have my role. You can choose to leave this just a simple conversation. No-one will think the lesser of you.’

Before I could think clearly, the Latin spewed forth:

Deus meus, ex toto corde paenitet me omnium meorum peccatorum,

eaque detestor, quia peccando…

‘Impressive Latin,’ Father Donaghey said.

‘Thanks,’ I said, not telling him that it was easier to say the words in a dead tongue.

‘And for penance… I ask you to read Psalm 139.’

What, no Hail Marys, no Our Fathers?

He smiled, and proceeded to absolve me.

‘One thing, Caleb,’ he said, as I reached for the door.

‘Yes Father?’

‘Remember what was said to Cain.’

Suddenly I thought of Chris quoting Steinbeck back in Theewaterskloof.

‘Timshel?’ I ventured. ‘Thou mayest… be good?’

‘Now I am impressed, my boy! You know your heritage.’

‘Father, how did you… how did you know?’

‘I baptized you, Caleb. And I know how much your mother loved East of Eden. Go forth and be good.’

 

*

 

I sat through Mass, not really paying attention to anything. I didn't attend Communion, and quietly slipped out during the recessional hymn. A couple of parish members had already spotted me as the service started and I was desperate not to get involved in any conversation.

The rain had stopped, and as I walked home the streets and lanes were eerie with only the sound of water dropping softly from the bare branches. The mountain was completely covered in fog.

As I turned the corner into my street I saw the Thing parked outside my house. I froze. I fought the desire to run away, but then he saw me and flashed his headlights. He started the Jeep and drove slowly towards me.

He drove right up to me and rolled down the window.

‘Hey,’ he said softly. He looked bleak, and I guess I must have as well.

‘Hey.’

‘How long have you been waiting outside the house?’

‘I dunno, about twenty minutes. I thought you were inside. I was gathering up the courage to come in when I saw you walking. Where have you come from?’

‘I went to Mass.’

‘Oh. Um, do you want to get in? I thought we could go somewhere and… talk.’

I bit my lip. ‘Ok,’ I said, and he opened the passenger door and got in.

‘Let’s go to the park around the corner,’ I said.

He nodded. I’d spent many hours as a child running around and exploring in that little park which abutted the Newlands Forest. A small stream separated it from the woods and I used to imagine that there were water sprites that lived in its sparkling waters.

He parked the car and we got out. We walked in silence to one of the benches underneath a silver oak and sat down, startling a sacred ibis that flew off, squawking loudly in disdain.

We stared ahead into space, not saying anything for a long time.

‘So,’ he said eventually, ‘thanks for coming to talk.’ I nodded.

He took a deep breath. ‘Cal… I don’t know what to say except I’m so sorry. You must hate me.’

‘No,’ I managed.

‘I was stupid. We all… got drunk and it was in the heat of the moment… I know what it must have looked like to you. I swear, I didn’t…’

I couldn’t bear it any more. ‘I slept with Veronica,’ I gasped.

‘What?’ he said, and his jaw dropped. He looked at me with confusion.

I raised my voice. ‘You heard me. I slept with Veronica. Last night. I fucked up. I overreacted. Whatever. I’m a worthless piece of shit.’

‘Cal…’ he said. His eyes were huge and I couldn’t bear to look at him. Blood pulsed in my ears. ‘Oh, God,’ he said, getting up and picking up a stone. He flung it violently across the park towards the stream.

‘It just happened,’ I sniffed, trying to hold back sobs. ‘I’m sorry. Not that that changes anything.’

He sat down again and put his hands over his face, shaking his head from side to side.

‘Chris,’ I said desperately. ‘Say something. Punch me. Anything. I deserve it.’

I closed my eyes and waited for something to happen. Nothing did.

There was a horrible silence for about a minute, then I heard him giggling. At first I thought he was sobbing, but then I turned to look at him and he was definitely laughing.

Soon he had progressed into full belly laughter.

‘Veronica!’ he chuckled. ‘Oh, God… this is hilarious,’ and punched me playfully on the shoulder.

‘Chris?’ I said, shocked. ‘What the fuck?!’

‘You biscuit,’ he sniggered, breathing heavily. ‘You bagged the hottest girl in school.’

‘I don’t understand,’ I stammered, ‘I just cheated on you and you’re not mad?’

‘Come here,’ he said, and pulled me towards him. I didn’t resist. He wrapped his arms around me and kissed the top of my head.

‘Cal,’ he said, and then started laughing again, ‘we’ve both been… both been incredibly silly. I’m not mad at you. You were drunk and angry, weren’t you?’

‘Yeah,’ I said, pulling away and looking at him quizzically. ‘I didn’t plan it… I bumped into Veronica by total accident and… and we went to her house and had too much wine and it just… it just happened, oh God, I’m so sorry…’

‘It’s okay,’ he said, taking my hand and kissing it. ‘If you hadn’t seen me with Tricia you wouldn’t have gotten upset.’

‘But – but you didn’t sleep with her, and I slept with Veronica. How come you’re not furious?’

‘I was angry for a few moments,’ he said, ‘but then I saw it in context. Cal, you’ve never been with a girl before, and I have. It’s not how I would have planned things but… I’m kind of glad it happened.’

‘You forgive me?’ I said, stunned.

‘Of course. You were drunk and vulnerable. Do you forgive me?’

‘Uh, of… of course. I guess you were drunk and vulnerable too, and I overreacted.’

We hugged, and an incredible wave of relief swept over me. I felt giddy.

‘I don’t think I could have coped if it were another guy,’ said Chris eventually.

‘Me too,’ I said, astonished. ‘I was just thinking the same thing.’

‘I mean, it’s not that I’m saying we should sleep with other women, it’s just, you know, you’re the only man in my life.’

‘Back at you,’ I said, smiling, still not quite believing everything that was happening. ‘I understand what you mean.’

‘Cal… I really wanted to leave straight after the game. I didn’t want to be anywhere else. But I had to stay for the celebrations, and then things got out of hand…’

‘It’s fine,’ I said. ‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. It was innocent fun. And, now that I think of it, kinda sexy.’

‘No way. I was getting turned on by the thought of you… you and Veronica.’

I blushed. ‘Is this what we are?’ I asked, shaking my head, ‘just a bunch of hormones? Young guys are such a cliché.’

‘Aw, you’re so cute. Remember I said if you wanted to be with a girl, I’d be okay with it. Just let’s discuss it next time.’

‘If there is a next time,’ I said quickly.

He drew me in close again. ‘Cal, if I may ask, did she – did she treat you right? Was it… ok?’

I nodded. ‘It was… weird. Not bad, though. She was very sweet. It was all over before I really knew what was happening. She even – complimented me.’

‘Of course she did, my man,’ he said, kissing me. ‘I know how amazing it is to be touched by you,’ he whispered into my ear, and I squirmed.

‘Please understand, Chris… she didn’t know that you and I were together,’ I said. ‘She said she’d never have, you know, if she knew. She feels awful.’

He raised an eyebrow. ‘So she knows about us?’

‘Yeah, and she’s totally fine with it. She confessed she was on the rebound after breaking up with Jason, but she thought I was single.’

‘You stud you!’ he said, whooping and laughing. ‘I’m not going to be able to look at her with a straight face… but you had better be a gentleman and let her off the hook and tell her the air is cleared.’

I nodded, feeling awkward.

‘Don’t think I’m completely crazy, but I think we need to celebrate your first time. Come. I know this great place on Kloof Street that does amazing pancakes. My treat.’

‘Okay,’ I said, and leaned in close to him. ‘And later, you’re getting a treat from me.’

‘And what would that be?’ he said with a shit-eating grin.

‘Oh you just wait and see,’ I said mischievously, ‘but we need to celebrate your magnificent try too.’

I slapped his butt and ran towards the Jeep, with him following me in hot pursuit.


23. Conversations

‘Hello sexy,’ said Chris, rubbing his eyes and stretching as I wriggled under the covers. I had gotten up to go to the bathroom. The display on the bedside clock read half-past four.

‘Sorry, didn’t mean to wake you,’ I said, getting back under the covers.

‘No worries,’ he said, snuggling up to me and lazily stroking my chest. ‘I can’t sleep any more.’

‘Me too,’ I confessed.

We had passed out at eight the previous evening. My dad had been called out for yet another patient in the afternoon and we took full opportunity to obliterate the momentary gulf between us. I practically ravaged him, and he returned the favour with gusto. After three glorious hours of drifting between cuddling and horseplay and sweet, sticky tomfoolery we collapsed intertwined, limp and spent, and drifted off into a blissful date with Morpheus and his kin.

‘Man, oh man,’ said Chris, yawning, ‘last night was friggin’ awesome.’

I nodded, grinning.

‘You know what, Cal?’

‘Yeah?’

‘You’re the best lover I’ve ever had.’

I flushed crimson, and a vortex whirled in my belly. ‘Really?’ I gasped. ‘But - but, we’ve never gone like, all the way.’

‘Ha. Trust me, that was sex. Awesome, mind- blowing sex. Perhaps we will get to full-on eventually, I imagine. But I’m not ready.’

‘I don’t think I’m either. It kind of freaks me out, a little.’

He stroked my leg. ‘I know,’ he said. ‘What will happen, will happen. If I may ask, what was it like for you? With Veronica?’

‘You sure you’re ok with me answering that?’

‘Of course. If you are. We’re guys, you know, we can tell each other about our... exploits.’

I laughed. ‘But I thought a gentleman doesn’t tell.’

‘He doesn’t tell lurid details. Come on, sexy. Indulge me.’ He made a puppy dog face.

‘Okay,’ I said, ruffling his hair. ‘Like I said, it was new and a bit scary. But she was so cool about it, so patient. When I was, you know, inside her - that was awesome. I knew what to do. But I could only last like half a minute, it was so intense. And then I felt all guilty.’

‘Aw,’ he said, and kissed me. ‘It’s hardly ever fireworks the first time. But hell, it gets better and better. It’s a different energy, isn’t it, with girls I mean.’

I nodded. ‘Yeah. She was so… soft. And man, she was really encouraging. But how come I can last so long with you when we mess around? We can go on for like half an hour sometimes.’

‘That’s easy, numbnuts. We know each other’s bodies. There’s no pressure. We feel safe about each other.’

‘You’re so great,’ I said, burying my head in his chest. ‘I’m so lucky.’

‘Ditto,’ he said. ‘Can I just stay like this, right now, forever? This must be what heaven feels like.’

I was suddenly fearful. ‘How do we know it’ll be like this always? What if… something happens? I thought my mom would always be there... And then...’

‘Shhh, my love,’ he murmured, holding me tight. ‘We can’t know what the future brings. But Iiiiiiii…..’

He launched into a mock falsetto. ‘Will aaaalwaayyyys looove youuuuuuu,’ he sang, murdering the Dolly Parton standard, and we both started laughing.

I kissed him as if the world were going to end, and soon we had shed our clothes and were writhing about the bed in a whirlwind of lust. We had to be quiet, which made everything just more intense.

Gasping, we lay side by side, holding hands. I kicked off the counterpane, as I was muggy with sweat and come. It was still dark, but the setting moon spilled its light through the window. He looked so lovely, so perfect. I gazed down at my own body next to his and suddenly saw it for what it was: his compliment. The undulations of our muscles seemed echo each other. Together our bodies formed a magnificent chimera.

We were not boys any more. We were men. We were invincible. Stronger than lions.

We toweled the worst of the stickiness off each other, and spooned.

Lazily, I trailed my hand down his torso, down his abs to his groin to give him an affectionate little tickle. My hand brushed against a rough patch on the inside of his leg and he winced.

‘What’s that?’ I asked. ‘Are you hurt?’

‘It’s nothing,’ he said, but he was covering the area with his hand reflexively.

I switched on the light. ‘Let me see,’ I said, and he meekly moved his hand away. There was an angry scratch mark on the inside of his leg. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it earlier.

‘What happened?’ I asked, aghast. ‘It looks bloody painful.’

‘Oh,’ he said, ‘Saturday night, when I was running after you in the rain, I kinda tripped and fell and landed on a large twig. It scratched me.’

‘Shit, man, I’m sorry!’

‘Don’t worry. Serves me right for being so piss drunk and upsetting you.’

‘Aw,’ I said. ‘Let me kiss it better.’ I bent down and touched my lips gently to the wound. Come,’ I said, and started dragging him to the bathroom. ‘It’s gonna leave a mark if we don’t attend to it properly.’

He didn’t protest. We showered, and I toweled him off and inspected the wound. I found some disinfectant and though I had to hold a squirming Chris down in my best wrestling lock I managed to clean it properly. He whined like a puppy.

‘Shhh,’ I said, rubbing some antiseptic ointment on it. ‘It will stop stinging soon. Come, let’s get back to bed.’

‘Thanks for looking after me, Cal.’

‘It’s my job, you big lug.’

We got back into bed.

‘Still an hour before we have to get up for school,’ I said, yawning. ‘Guess I could drift off a bit.’

‘Mmmm,’ he said, ‘me too,’ and closed his beautiful eyes.

 

*

 

‘You did what?’

Rob gaped at me in horror, and Bella dropped her Dostoyevsky. ‘How could you do that to Chris?!’

‘Yeah, I know,’ I said, looking down. The three of us were sitting sunning ourselves on the green in front of the old school buildings.

‘I - I don’t know what to say,’ said Bella with a blank expression.

‘Guys,’ I said nervously, regretting that I had decided to share the weekend’s events with my buddies. ‘Chris and I are cool, please, understand that.’

Rob shook his head in disbelief. ‘Excuse me,’ he said. His face was flushed. He got up and walked off. I started after him but Bella grabbed my arm.

‘Leave him,’ she said softly. ‘Just let him be.’

I felt awful. ‘I’m such an asshole. I know what you guys must think.’

Bella looked away for a moment, and I waited for her admonishment.

‘I’m not judging you, Cal. I’m surprised... but not shocked.’

‘Really? I don’t deserve you.’ The guilt that I thought I’d successfully exorcised was bubbling back from a deep crack in my soul.

‘Men can be so stupid,’ said Bella, rolling her eyes. ‘But I get it. Not the way I would have handled things, but you didn’t do it out of malice. Main thing is you and Chris are ok with each other.’

 ‘Thanks,’ I managed. ‘I’ve sure pissed Rob off though.’ I’d never seen him looking so furious with me.

‘It’s not so much about you and Chris,’ she said. ‘He’s had a crush on Veronica for a long time.’

‘Oh, fuck,’ I said, putting my head in my hands. ‘I didn’t realize...’

‘It will blow over, I’m sure,’ said Bella evenly. ‘For God’s sake don’t do your puppy dog apologizing routine now. It’ll only make things worse.’

‘How can you be so sure?’ I asked.

‘I know I’m a feminist but I think I understand men reasonably well. If the rivalries between my brother and his friends over girls are anything to go by.’

I bit my lip. I thought how Rob and I were essentially brothers.

‘He loves you, you know. He’s just not going to like you for a few days. But I’ll be bloody annoyed with you two if you turn this into a competition.’

‘I doubt that would happen.’

‘You do know that if Jason finds out he’s going to want to murder you. Not that it’s any of his business.’

I gulped. I hadn’t thought of that.

‘Tough,’ I said with bravado.

Bella nodded. ‘I just wanted to warn you. But I can’t help thinking in spite of myself I’m kinda proud of you, I mean, now that I know Chris is ok with what happened.’

‘Ok with what?’ said a voice. Bella and I nearly jumped out of our skin. It was Chris, who had materialized behind us and with standing with his arms folded and smirking.

‘I guess you needed to share,’ he said, sitting down.  ‘It’s fine with me. Is... is everything all right though?’

Bella nodded. ‘With me, sure.’

‘Rob’s pissed,’ I said, looking away. ‘With me, I mean.’

‘Oh,’ said Chris. Bella proceeded to fill him in and his eyes widened. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said eventually. ‘Should I talk to him?’

I shook my head. ‘Bella says we should leave him for now. But I have to talk to Veronica.’

‘Good boy,’ said Bella. ‘You had better reassure her.’

As the bell rang I closed my eyes, a flood of images whirling about in my mind like an infernal carousel. To call this year eventful was like calling Australia an islet. I shook my head and started walking towards class, wondering how I was going to work out things with Rob and face Veronica.

As I walked up to Maths, I caught sight of Jason at the end of the corridor. I gasped and realized on Saturday we’d be swimming in our greatest event yet and he was going to be voracious for victory.

 

 


24. Icicles

I still wonder whose bright idea it was to hold the provincial gala that year in midwinter, even if it would take place in an indoor heated pool. Before this, however, was the prospect of the annual Polar Bear Club - a hangover from when St Frank’s was a boys-only school and seniors could boost their machismo by swimming two lengths in the outdoor pool, at sunrise, on the winter solstice.

As a swim team member I had no option really but to take part, even though hypothermia was not exactly my idea of a fun outing.

‘You ready for the big chill tomorrow?’ said Chris, flopping down on the bed and lazily tossing a rugby ball between his hands.

I looked up from my trigonometry homework and sighed. ‘Hardly,’ I said. ‘But what can I do? I can’t exactly skip the Polar Bear Club and then compete in the provincials on Saturday.’

‘Well, if it’s any consolation, I’m gonna be right there next to you.’

I raised my eyebrow. ‘You? Durban boy? You can’t even dip your toes into the water at Clifton.’

‘Hey, I’m gonna try,’ he said, and came up behind my chair and wrapped his arms around me. ‘Plus, don’t you want to see me in a Speedo?’

My pulse quickened. ‘I can’t say no to that,’ I said, smiling. ‘Now leave me so I can finish my homework.’

‘Aw, I’ve been done for hours. Come play some PlayStation, it’s almost bedtime.’

‘You didn’t have to practice Beethoven for two hours.’

He put up his hands. ‘Can’t argue with that. Let me get you some tea.’

‘Thanks, babe,’ I said. ‘What are you buttering me up for?’

‘Moi?’ he said, with mock indignation. ‘Actually, it’s kind of silly but…’

‘What?’

‘Would you play piano for me sometime? I’ve never actually… had you play for me. I know you don’t like being watched, but…’

I stared at him, amazed. ‘How did you know that?’

‘I know how personal it is for you. I bet it’s fine when you’re in the examination room or on stage, but I suspect you get all weirded out in any other situation? I’ve heard it’s like that for many performers.’

I nodded. He was right. The great French composer Claude Debussy wrote of his two books of Preludes that they should be played "to an audience of one"; he also referred to his works as conversations between the performer and the piano. I’ve never come across a more prescient observation of the uneasy truce between the public and private natures of art. At the concerts where I’ve performed, I’m as nervous as a whore in church until I walk out onto the stage, but then the spotlight melts everything away. As I depress the first key, there is nothing but sound, glorious sound. And then my soul swims in it, as my body does in water.

‘Cal?’

‘Yes, I’ll play for you.’ I said, softly. ‘Just not… not now.’

‘Of course,’ he said, bending over and giving me a peck on the cheek. ‘By the way, you’ve reversed the signs on this equation, that’s why you’re messing up the proof.’

‘Right, Ace,’ I said grumpily. I hated it that he was better in maths than I was, even though I was the one who usually saved him from chemistry.

He sniggered and shuffled off to go and make tea.

 

*

 

It was like having the pain of an ice-cream headache jammed into every neuron of my body. It may only have been just over a minute, but the requisite two lengths for membership of the Polar Bear Club was a fully-fledged neuropsychiatric assault. I’ve been a water baby all my life, but I prefer my temperatures at least temperate. I was so disorientated from the cold that Vijay had to grab my arm as I was attempting a third length.

‘You’re done!’ he yelled, and I clambered out, instantly yielding to a cascade of shivering. Mr Mazibuko shook my hand and a broadly grinning Form 1 girl wrapped a towel around me. Vijay had finished first, just before me and Jason, and was being crowned King of the Polar Bears and was trying his best to smile as he posed for a photograph for the school magazine. Like all the other guys, I had only one thing on my mind: a hot shower. A few had not made the two lengths: Anders Kowalski, bless him, for all his layers of natural insulation had only managed a few metres before shaking his head and giving up. I joined the throng of boys running towards the changing rooms, and noticed for the first time how disgustingly green the pool had become with algae.

Mercifully, they had got the showers going as we ran in and raced towards the soothing hot water.

‘Well done, buddy!’

It was Chris. I hadn’t noticed him earlier, but now he was in the shower right next to me, with a big grin on his face and looking like a doll as the cold had made his cheeks rosy. I resisted the impulse to pinch them.

‘Th-thanks. I see you survived.’

 

‘Barely, I was one of the last out. But still alive. I can’t feel my extremities yet.’

 

‘No sympathy,’ I said, smirking, still shivering as I stood under the blast of the hot water.

Presently, Mr Mazibuko walked in and commandeered us to get ready for class. I groaned as we rushed to get dressed and be in time for the start of the first period. Inadvertently, Chris and I had been chatting for so long that we ended up being the last to leave.

‘Oh, I left my swimming cap at the showers,’ I said, motioning Chris to go so long.

‘Ok, I’ll catch up with you later. Gotta French test now, so I’ll see you at break.’

He looked around briefly and gave me a quick hug. I thought I heard something, but I couldn’t see anyone.

Chris took off, and I walked back to the shower cubicle where I had been. I sighed with relief that my cap and goggles were still hanging over the tap.

Then the icy splash of water hit me from behind.

‘Fuck!’ I yelled, going into involuntary spasm from the cold. Someone had emptied at least a bucket of ice-cold water on top of me. I was soaked. I heard footsteps running away and saw a shadow disappearing into the distance with muffled laughter.

‘Fuck you too!’ I cried, and shook my head. My entire uniform was wet. I shucked off the soggy mess and tried to get the hot water on, but it had been all used up. Grumbling and shivering, I made my way back to my locker and cursed as I saw that the pranksters had taken the liberty of drenching my towel too. Thank God my school bag was locked away. Clattering, I unlocked my locker, found my phone and hoped bitterly that Chris was still on his way to class as I dialled his number.

He answered.

‘Cal?’

‘Are you in class yet?’

‘No, will be in two minutes. What’s up?’

I told him.

‘Shit. What fuckers. I’ll come down. You can use my stuff; I’ve got my school tracksuit and a towel with my rugby kit down there.’

‘No, wait. Do you have the towel and tracksuit in your changing room locker?’

‘Yeah?’

‘Give me the combination and I’ll sort myself out, if that’s ok.’

‘Sure buddy. I bet it was Jason trying to get to you before the swim meet this weekend.’

‘Yeah. Anyway… you go ahead, catch you at break.’

‘Thanks.’

I prayed that Mrs Tomlinson would be having one of her regular cat crises at home and would be late for calculus. I opened Chris’ locker and was stunned to see that he had, discreetly in one corner, pasted a photograph of me. As I towelled myself off the heady scents of his sweat and fabric softener made me sigh. I positively swam in his tracksuit, and I had to go commando, which made the whole feeling kinda sexy. Still chilled but at least dry and covered, I grabbed my books and ran as fast as I could out of the changing rooms.

‘Whoa!’

I nearly winded Chris as my head connected with his chest.

‘What are you doing here?’

He gave me a wide grin. ‘Madame Duparc brought the test papers but forgot to fetch the test answer books from the print room so I volunteered and made a quick detour, since there’s usually a queue for stuff this time in the morning. Just wanted to check if my man was ok.’ He patted my shoulder.

‘Thanks,’ I said, frowning a little. ‘Just so pissed off that this stuff is starting all over again.’

‘Just take a deep breath… Jason was probably pissed that he wasn’t first in the Polar Bear Club. Anyway, you look so cute in my tracksuit.’

‘Heh,’ I said, my frown evaporating.

‘In fact…’

He pulled me towards him, and brought his face next to mine.

‘Chris, we’re at school…’

‘There’s no-one here,’ he said, and kissed me long and slow.

I had to force myself out of the kiss. ‘Enough,’ I said, smiling and panting. ‘I’m commando, so, I can’t afford… this!’

I pointed to my boner making an obvious tent through the tracksuit pants.

Chris laughed. ‘Sorry!’ he said, beaming, and slapped me on the back. We walked out together. I held my bag in front of my waist to conceal the obvious.

As we turned to our respective classes, he whispered in my ear.

‘I guess you better not get excited for the rest of the day. So try not to think of me muddied up after practice with my shirt off waiting for you to scrub me clean.’

‘Stop that’ I said, smirking, and elbowed him away.

 

*

 

The giggles started almost imperceptibly, like the first pebbles of an avalanche, and soon swelled onto a sonic boom of jeers and taunts. I first thought something amusing was happening outside, but as I walked down the corridor I realized with a chill that everybody was laughing at me. Girls tittered and boys booed. One of them shoved a cell phone in my face, and there it was: a video of Chris embracing me earlier, and the obvious bulge in my trousers. A frenzy of lit-up phone screens confirmed that it had gone viral.

‘Faggot!’

‘Queer!’

‘Fudgepacker!’

‘Does Chris hurt you with his big dick?’

‘Chris and Cal! Sitting in a tree! F-U-C-K-I-N-G!’

‘You two going to get married?’

‘It’s unnatural.’

‘You guys are sick. You're going to go to hell.’

All the words swarmed into a terrible whirlpool of voices. I shut my eyes tight, storming my way through the crowd, trying very hard not to explode with rage and hurt. I managed to race down the stairs and heard one of the teachers break up the commotion.

I winced as a hand grabbed my shoulder.

‘Hey, it’s me!’

It was Rob.

‘Rob... I...’

‘It’s ok buddy. I just saw what happened. Ed caught you guys with his phone. Fucker.’

‘Fuck. Chris... I gotta get to Chris...’

‘I don’t think that’s going to be such a good idea,’ Rob said evenly. ‘Things will just get worse if they see you two together now.’

I nodded. I wanted to convulse with fear and anger.

‘I have an idea,’ said Rob. ‘Follow me.’

He jogged across the foyer and out of the school’s main entrance, and I followed him like a mindless sheep. There was a small wood set on a slope next to the school’s south wing and Rob disappeared into the bushes. I passed some kids who yelled a few taunts at me, but I ignored them.

‘Here, Cal,’ said Rob. I followed his voice and I found him standing in the small clearing, which was, I realized, the secret smoking haunt known as Little Mordor. I’d never been there before, but I knew a few students did. There were even a few makeshift benches fashioned out of planks and bricks.

‘Sit down,’ said Rob. ‘Give me your bag. Don’t ask questions.’

I nodded and handed it over. He rummaged in it and found a wrinkled packet of Camels I’d almost forgotten I had.

‘I know you keep a stash, I never thought I’d say this but I think you’d better have one.’

He practically shoved the cigarette in my mouth.

‘Now stay here. I’m going to find Chris.’

I nodded, and sat and puffing on the cigarette as he disappeared. I felt like a stalactite of ice hanging in some horrid vast Arctic cave, waiting to be shattered by an earthquake.

 

 


25. Evil Under The Sun

 

Five minutes passed. I heard a rustle, and Rob appeared with a worried expression on his face.

‘Where’s Chris?’ I asked. He looked down and shook his head, and that was all I needed to know.

‘He can’t come,’ said Rob. ‘Cal… I don’t know how to tell you this… but they’re looking for you. I mean, they want you in the Headmaster’s office.’

I felt cold wash down my spine for the third time today. I nodded, and the bell rang, sounding that break was over.

‘I’ll come with you,’ said Rob.

‘No,’ I managed. ‘You go back to class. They’re going to give you lates if you don’t go now.’

‘You sure buddy?’

‘Yeah. Go. The sooner I sort this out, the better.’

‘I’m here, Cal. I’ll keep my phone on silent. Just call and I’ll fake a sickie and find you.’

 

*

 

Major O’Reilly’s suite was like stepping through a time-warp back into the Victorian era - all bay windows, wood-panelling and pressed ceilings. As I sat on the bench outside his office, Mrs van der Heever clacked away at her computer. The door to the actual office was closed and I could hear muffled voices inside. There were some National Geographic magazines on a table next to me and I tried as much as I could to distract myself by paging through them.

The door opened, its ancient lock grinding heavily. Chris stepped out. His face was flushed and his eyes were downcast. I got up, but he looked away and walked out quickly. I shivered and sat down.

‘Mr Dawkins will see you now,’ said Mrs van der Heever.

‘Mr Dawkins?’ I said, confused.

‘Major O’Reilly is away today for a meeting, so the Deputy Headmaster is in charge.’

I felt suddenly nauseous, and shuffled into the Headmaster’s office. I’d never liked Mr Dawkins. He was known to have a frightening temper, and though he had never taught me, I always got the impression that he had a sadistic streak in him. More than one pupil had been sent home or given detention for something as minor as a badly-tied school tie or a scuff on a shoe.

‘Sit down, Mr MacLeod,’ he said coolly. He was sitting glowering in the Major’s leather chair and in his black academic gown he looked positively Dickensian. On the wall behind him was a papyrus depicting the Amun-Ra, a souvenir from O’Reilly’s travels in Egypt. Mr Dawkins’s expression betokened the exact opposite of the ancient sun god. His moustache was trimmed with precision and his black eyes glinted fiercely. I realised suddenly that, for his entire military demeanour, old Major O’Reilly had kind eyes by comparison.

‘I am very disappointed in you, Mr MacLeod,’ Mr Dawkins intoned in a velvety drone. ‘You certainly have landed yourself in very grave circumstances.’

‘I’m sorry, Sir,’ I said reflexively, ‘I – I didn’t mean…’

‘The School will not tolerate indecency on its grounds. Especially when a student corrupts another with… certain tendencies.’

‘Corrupts?’ I said, astonished.

‘Don’t play coy with me,’ said Mr Dawkins. ‘Until now, I have tolerated way too much laxity among the students. St Francis prides itself on producing well-rounded men and women, and I cannot allow the ethos of this school to be compromised.’

My tongue had turned to lead.

‘Tell me, Mr MacLeod, do you get sexually aroused by boys?’

I shuddered. I didn’t answer, but looked at the floor.

‘You do, don’t you,’ he said, and a sickly smile spread across his sallow face. ‘So tell me. Do you like dressing up in girls’ clothes?'

'No, sir.'

'Do you think of men when you touch yourself? Or do you think of… little boys?’

‘NO!’ I cried, erupting with anger. ‘That’s not true!’

‘Be careful, Mr MacLeod,’ said Mr Dawkins, sneering as he rapped his fingers lazily over Major O’Reilly’s open diary. ‘Your reaction shows you’re obviously being defensive. And what shocks me most is that you come from a good Christian family.’

‘Please, Mr Dawkins.’

‘You know that homosexuality is an abomination before the Lord. You will be damned. And what will your poor father say when he finds out about this?

‘He already knows,’ I managed. ‘And he supports me.’

Mr Dawkins puckered his mouth. ‘How disappointing,’ he said, sighing. ‘Anyway, it seems there is little I can do to help you, Mr MacLeod, for I fear you are already hopelessly ensnared by your… passions. I saddens me that someone of your potential ends up seriously damaging the reputation of the school. Mr Hathaway, as you know, is one of our star sportsmen. You wouldn’t want anything to hamper his future career now, would you?’

‘H-how do you mean?’ I stammered.

‘I’m sure you know what to do,’ he said, looking out of the window.

‘You mean…’

‘You will cease to have anything to do with Mr Hathaway. We are prepared to overlook this… this incident, and I’m certain that around the right sort of peer group Mr Hathaway’s reputation will remain unscathed, especially since all this was due to the unsavoury influence of another student.’

I bit my lip and tried to fight back the rage.

‘I am arranging that the two of you be separated from the classes you share,’ he went on. ‘Crying will not help, Mr MacLeod, you are not a schoolgirl. Well, perhaps you are. You are weak, young man. You need to toughen up. Although I’m not sure if that’s possible, among… your type.’

‘I’m sorry to disappoint you,’ I said in a slow and brittle voice.

‘And one more thing. I think it is best that your involvement with the swimming team be terminated. I cannot allow the rest of the team to be… polluted, as it were.’

‘Sir,’ I said, gasping. ‘The inter-provincial gala is this week!’

‘I’m well aware of that,’ he said, sneering again. ‘We have enough talent to dispense with you. I shall inform Mr Mazibuko that you are ill. Which reminds me, you are suspended until the end of next week, and shall forthwith focus on your academics. If you remain in the top group of students in the preliminary exams your school testimonial may well remain unblemished.’

A migraine was heralding itself with a sickening aura in front of my eyes.

‘And I trust that you shall keep this confidential. For Mr Hathaway’s sake.’

I couldn’t see properly anymore. I wanted to dissolve, disappear, not be.

‘You’re dismissed, Mr MacLeod. You may go home, and you may have the responsibility of informing your father of this suspension.’

‘Sir,’ I said dumbly, and slumped out of the office.

I skulked out of the front gates feeling like a criminal. It was freezing, and I realised I didn’t have my bike as I’d come to school with Chris. I didn’t want to go home, so decided to walk down to the local mall.

After an hour of mindless milling about, I found myself buying a ticket at the movies. I chose a forgettable thriller. My mind was split into two parallel planes: one trying to desperately get caught up in the movie’s storyline, the other obsessing frantically about what had happened. I’d suppressed the urge to get hold of Chris: something about the way he looked when he walked past me cautioned me to let him be.

The film finished, and I wandered the Italian restaurant across the multiplex and tried to navigate my way through a pizza, but I only managed two slices. I thought I might as well get home. Perhaps Chris would be home too, and we could talk.

It was three o’clock when the bus dropped me a few blocks from my house, and I must have cut a sad figure huddled and crouched as I walked in the wind and drizzle. Looking at the dead branches of the trees overhead hurt my eyes as I walked past. A sickly disk of the winter sun appeared momentarily as some clouds thinned, and the world seemed evil, eldritch.

The Thing was parked in our driveway. Its lights were on, and at first I thought Chris had just arrived home. Then I saw him walk out the front door. He winced as he saw me. He was holding his tog-bag, and I could see it had been hastily stuffed to the brim.

‘Hey,’ I said. Confusion furrowed my brow. ‘What’s up?’

‘Hi.’ His voice was monochrome and he walked to the Jeep and dumped his bag in the front seat.

‘What’s going on?’ I asked, not understanding.

‘I have to go.’ He didn’t look at me.

‘Chris? Go? What do you mean?’

‘It’s – it’s better I leave. Besides, my mom’s coming home this weekend.’

‘No… please don’t…’

‘Cal. Please.’

I walked up to him and put my hand on his shoulder, but he pushed me away. I gasped, shaking my head.

‘Goddamnit, just leave me, Cal,’ he growled, and got into the car. I was rooted to the spot, swirling in nausea and horror.

He reversed hastily and drove off.

I didn’t realise how tightly I’d clenched my jaw until I tasted the copper in my mouth.

 

 


26. Breakfast on Saturn

 

The Cape Town HeraldJune 24, 200-

Jonathan Missing

 

Staff at the Predator Reintroduction Project at the Fitzpatrick Nature Reserve are devastated that their star project, Jonathan the white lion, has gone off the radar. Rangers suspected as much when his radio-collar signal was found to be static a few days ago.

It appeared Jonathan was successfully being reintroduced, but all tracking is now impossible after his collar was found - with no sign of Jonathan in sight - near a waterhole in the bush. Trackers have thus far failed to spot the famed white lion, who caused a sensation last year when he escaped from the Peninsula Zoo in Cape Town.

‘We are worried that he has not developed the requisite hunting skills to survive in the bush,’ said Marc McClarty, deputy manager of Fitzpatrick. ‘Thus far Jonathan has not brought down a large kill and until he is spotted we have no way of knowing where he is.’

While small by comparison to its neighbour, the Kruger National Park, Fitzpatrick is comprised of 600 square kilometres of bushveld.

- Seth Rabinowitz, Staff Reporter

*

 

In many ways the hardest part was deceiving my father.

He was surprised that Chris had left, but when I told him that he was getting ready for his mom returning home, he seemed to buy it. I even faked conversations with Chris on the phone. For the rest of the week, I would get up, shower and put on my school uniform and cycle through Newlands until my dad had left for work. After two days I’d had enough and pretended to have flu.

‘How long do you think you’re going to be able to keep this up?’ asked Bella as we sat on my bed. Radiohead was wailing in the background. Rob came in bearing coffee and rusks.

‘Bella is right,’ he said, sitting down. ‘You have to tell your dad.’

‘He’ll go nuts,’ I said. ‘He’ll storm straight to the school and raise hell, which will just make things worse.’

‘Cal, you can’t suffer in silence,’ said Bella. ‘I feel like going to the Major myself.’

‘No, please don’t,’ I said, a little too desperately. ‘They’ll ruin Chris. Mr Dawkins said so.’

‘The fucker is blackmailing you,’ said Rob. ‘Besides, Chris can fend for himself. Why has he been so fucking silent? I’m sorry, your boyfriend is being an asshole.’

‘I don’t think he thinks of himself as my boyfriend anymore,’ I said miserably.

‘This is so fucking messed up,’ said Bella. ‘Because of a little kiss! I mean, it’s not great you were outed like that, but the story needed to come out sometime.’

‘I’m a freak.’

‘Bullshit,’ she said. ‘Then we’re all freaks. Just because we think outside the box.’

Bella took a deep breath, and then I saw her teeth.

‘Oh my,’ I said. Her braces were off, and her teeth were perfect. ‘Your braces…’

‘Yeah, I know. Came off yesterday. Don’t change the subject now, Cal; there are more important things…’

‘No!’ I snapped. ‘I want to change the subject. I don’t want to talk about this any more.’

‘Easy, tiger,’ said Rob soothingly.

‘Sorry, Bell.’ 

‘No worries,’ she said. ‘Drink your coffee.’

‘Yes, Aunty Bella,’ I said, managing a weak smile.

‘Cal,’ said Rob, ‘please think about what we’ve said. I’ll leave it now.’

‘Ok,’ I said, knowing I was lying. ‘You guys promise you won’t blab about this?’

‘I promise,’ said Bella, but Rob looked away. ‘Come, let’s go watch that DVD.’

I wanted to be alone, but they were being so sweet. I felt a little guilty, wallowing in misery, when I had two friends like this. But I couldn’t ignore the ache, the deep, deep weal etched across my heart. Wherever I looked, there was a Chris-shaped hole in my life. I could smell him on my pillow. Some of his clothes were still about, as was his shaving foam in the bathroom. I used it, torturing myself. I desperately clung to whatever he had left in the house. I didn’t change the sheets. I wore his boxers. After three days he hadn’t replied to any of the messages I’d sent or left on his voicemail. Deep down I was angry, but I didn’t want to admit it. I was wrong, you see. I was the little noxious fairy who’d messed with a decent boy and corrupted him, and the heartache was well-deserved punishment. I was a fool for believing I could have my Prince Charming. I hadn’t asked for it, and this was the price of getting intoxicated by a dream. A beautiful, stupid, toxic dream.

It was clear - my mind was weak: I should have resisted my heart’s coup that day in Theewaterskloof.

 

*

 

I was dozing on the couch later that evening when I was startled by my phone ringing. I didn’t recognise the number, and answered it with surprise, as it was past ten.

‘Hello?’

‘Caleb?’ asked a deep, rich voice.

‘Speaking. Who is this?’

‘It’s Mr Mazibuko.’

‘Sir… hello,’ I said, shuddering, and bracing myself for a torrent of admonishment.  ‘How can I help  you?’

‘I hope you don’t mind me disturbing you so late, but I’ve been busy making a lot of sudden decisions about the gala on Saturday.’

‘Sir… I’m sorry…’

‘No, Caleb. You have nothing to apologize for.’

‘Sir?’

‘I’ve thought long and hard about this, and I’ve decided to withdraw St Francis from the tournament.’

‘Sir! What do you mean?’

‘I can’t enter my team without my star swimmer when he’s the victim of prejudice.’

I was stunned.

‘It’s ok, my boy,’ he continued. I of all people should know what it’s like to be discriminated against. In this country we have a long and proud history of protesting hatred. In fact, most of the team don’t want to enter without you in it, and I shall be submitting my decision to Mr Dawkins tomorrow.’

‘Sir… I thought you were told that I was ill.’

Mr Mazibuko chuckled. ‘During the bad old days I could smell a police raid coming on a mile off. I just knew something was up when the Deputy Headmaster told me, and I only had to listen to two minutes of schoolgirl conversation to put the whole thing together.’

‘I don’t know what to say, sir.’

‘You don’t have to say anything. I can’t get directly involved right now, but I think it’s shocking the way you’ve been treated. I can’t do anything until the Headmaster returns next week. If anything, you should have just gotten detention at most, you know, we can’t have students sucking face on the school premises. But I was a teenager once too.’

I let out a bitter little laugh. ‘You’re not… you’re not horrified… that I’m… I’m…’

‘For goodness sake, my boy, you’re eighteen and I don’t care what you do with your private life. The only thing that horrifies me is the way you had to be… what’s the word… outed? Yes. That and the cowardly way the staff are not saying anything to Mr Dawkins. So I thought I’d let you know that I’m thinking of you.’

‘Thanks, sir.’ I hadn’t expected this; my thoughts were winded.

‘You’re a good man, Caleb, and you deserve better than this. Just sit it out until you’re back at school; this will blow over.’

I wished I could believe him.

He rang off, and I lay for a long time on the couch, astonished that someone had come through for me when I least expected it. But nothing was healed: if anything, the little rush of comfort was but a thin membrane that was straining as it was stretched across a great festering burn wound of hurt and shame.

A little flame of anger took hold that I hadn’t heard anything from Chris. I picked up my phone and scanned through the messages I had sent him, hoping that I hadn’t sounded too desperate.

I was very calm as I typed out a final SMS to him:

 

Chris. I know you’re avoiding me. This is not how I want things to end. At least let’s do it face to face. We owe each other that. If this was a giant mistake, and you want me out of your life, I can respect that, but look me in the eyes and tell me. Caleb.

 

Cubby was still on my nightstand as I collapsed heavily into bed, and I tortured myself a bit more by holding him close to me, but it seemed the obsessional thoughts were a little less frantic as I drifted off.

Sometime, during the night, I thought I heard a car start and drive off, and later I could have sworn I heard muffled voices downstairs, but I figured my dad was watching the all-night movie channel so I just turned around and went back to sleep.

 

*

 

I awoke at around ten, and lay for a few minutes in that foggy stupor where you don’t know what time it is, who you are or where you’ve been. The conversation with Mr Mazibuko filtered in, and I turned around and realised again that Chris wasn’t next to me. Still my body stretched, as if with muscle memory, around the bedclothes to find him. Love, I guess, is as much a way of life as it is a constellation of feelings: you become used to each other, you become each other’s habits. I tried not to think about it - perhaps Chris would slowly wane inside me, atrophy, and desiccate. Whatever would happen, I knew two things: I wouldn’t survive him being ripped out of me all at once, nor would a part of him ever leave me, even if it remained as a scar.

I was startled to see my father casually reading the newspaper at the breakfast table.

‘Oh, you’re finally up,’ he said pleasantly. ‘Can I get you some coffee my boy?’

‘Dad? What are you doing at home?’

‘Oh, I thought I’d take the morning off and told my two very understanding patients that I had something important to attend to.’

My heart beat in my throat. ‘Oh?’ I said, trying to sound casual.

‘I guess you must be pretty bleak that this flu has knocked you out of the tournament.’

I nodded, looking away. I couldn’t bear this much longer.

My father gave me an enigmatic smile. ‘Which is odd, because you wouldn’t be swimming anyway. Because I hear St Francis isn’t competing.’

‘Dad? Oh God… Dad… I…’

He came up to me and put his hand on my shoulder. ‘It’s all right, my boy, I know everything. And I’m furious as hell - not with you - but with the whole situation. But I haven’t ripped off Dawkins’s head… not yet… but I want you to know I’m very close to doing so.’

I shook my head. ‘Dad… how did you…’

‘Perhaps it’s better that Chris tells you from the beginning.’

‘Chris?’

‘Behind you, Cal,’ said my father, pointing.

I looked around. There he was, standing in the kitchen doorway. His eyes were bleak and moist and, dappled in the weak winter sunlight, he looked like a wounded angel. He had dark rings under his eyes and his white T and cotton pyjama trousers looked tragic with crinkles.

‘Cal…’ he gasped. ‘I fucked up again. I’m so sorry.’

‘I - I don’t understand,’ I said, stammering. I was balancing precariously on a cliff of hope that yawned down to a dark valley of desolation.

‘Perhaps this will make you understand,’ he said, as he walked up and folded his arms around me. The kitchen dissolved and then there was only him, his deep wonderful scent, his warm chest against my head, his stubble against my forehead. His breaths were like a high tide, and his sobs were a warm breeze.

At least a minute passed as we hugged each other, until we broke apart as my father quietly cleared his throat.

‘Don’t mean to interrupt,’ he said kindly, ‘but I think you two need to catch up. I think I’m going to work in my office a bit, but I want to speak to you guys a little bit later.’

‘Ok, dad,’ I said breathlessly.

‘There’s eggs and bacon in the warmer,’ he said as he walked out of the kitchen. ‘And no, I didn’t burn them.’

I couldn’t help smiling, and Chris grabbed two plates and started dishing up for us.

‘Better eat up,’ he said quietly, ‘we’ve got a lot to talk about.'

I shook my head in disbelief. I thought I might as well be having breakfast on Saturn.

 


27. A Miracle on Long Street

 

We sat on the couch in the living room as Chris unloaded a third major soliloquy.

‘When I saw it was Dawkins who had called for me I knew something was up. I wanted to warn you, but I couldn’t. The guy basically went on this rant and told me it was against nature to be gay and that I had everything going for me until now. I told him that didn’t matter but he was trying to convince me that I was going "through a phase" and he was going to have to be cruel to be kind.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘He told me that your reputation as one of the school’s star pupils was at stake, and that if we were still together he’d be forced to make "some changes" to your school record.’

‘For fuck sakes!' I exclaimed. 'He threatened me with messing with your career!’

‘Really?’ asked Chris, shocked. ‘What else did he say to you?’

I tried to bring my rage down to a simmer and told him.

‘We’ve both been fucking had,’ he said when I'd finished, shaking his head. ‘He played me like a violin. Cal… I’m so sorry. I honestly thought that it would be better for me to stay away from you… that I was brining you nothing but misery. I was stupid to think like that. I don’t know if you’ll buy this, but I did it… I did it because I love you, and if your life was going to be better without out me, then, I’d leave.’

His eyes were huge and his lip quivered, as if he were an anime version of himself.

I grabbed his hand. ‘I get it,’ I said. ‘I guess we were both led to believe that we were corrupting each other. I thought… you didn’t love me any more. I was stupid too.’

He held me tight. ‘God, Cal, I could never stop loving you, numbnuts.’

We cried and held each other for a few moments.

‘Are we ever going to stop crying?’ I said eventually, snorting and blowing my nose loudly.

He grinned. ‘Probably not. I mean… you make it real, Cal. You let all my feelings flow. You make me real.’

‘Stop it,’ I said. ‘I’m half expecting strings to start playing.’

We laughed and sat in silence for a while. He played with my hair and flicked a lint ball off his pyjamas.

‘So, I gather that you slept here last night? I’m confused.’

‘Yeah. Um. I slept in the spare room. Your dad fetched me.’

‘I thought so! I heard a car… but it was like two in the morning! What happened?’

‘I called him. I was drunk, and I couldn’t get home. And I remembered what he’s always saying, that we could call him.’

‘I’m glad you did. Where… where were you and why were you drinking?’

‘I was trying to erase my feelings. Last night, Rob came to my place. I think he’d just left from visiting you. My aunt let him in and he just burst into my room and gave me the grilling of my life. I needed it, I tell you.’

‘Oh fuck.’

‘Don’t be angry with him, Cal. He loves you so much. It was because of him that I realised my reaction was totally the wrong one. I felt so shit I just got into my car and drove and drove. I ended up in Long Street and started pissing it up. Then I remember puking in front of the car and realizing this nightmare had to end. I needed to call someone… and I called your dad. He just came, no questions asked, and brought me here. I told him the whole sorry story while he helped me sober up. Then he put me to bed. I felt like a little boy. I mean in a good way. My dad… my dad’s never done that for me. I don’t know how I’m ever going to repay your dad for his kindness.’

I took a deep breath, and quietly thanked God - whatever he, she or it was - for the saint my father was. ‘My dad loves you, Chris; he loves you like you’re his own kid. You don’t have to repay him.’

Chris nodded meekly and wiped his eyes. ‘I just don’t know why Dawkins would react like this,’ he said eventually. ‘I mean, he’s obviously a homophobe, but why is he so desperate to break us up?’

‘I think I know why,’ said my father, casually striding into the room. We both looked around with fright. ‘Sorry to startle you, but earlier this morning I had a long conversation with the Headmaster’s secretary. I may have been inactive for a couple of months, but I am a member of the School’s governing body, and, as you might guess, that gives me a little bit of clout. Which I’ve never needed to use, until now.’

I’d nearly forgotten that my father was a respected elder in the running of the school’s affairs.

He smiled. ‘With a little bit of the old MacLeod charm, Mrs van der Heever sang like a canary. I said I wanted to chair an emergency meeting of the governing body and the PTA because I heard a rumour that the school’s reputation had been compromised. She thought I didn’t know the details, and said I really shouldn’t spread any anxiety because the school was about to receive a substantial donation from a private company and the last thing we needed now was some scandal. I mean, please. A "scandal" about a kiss. But then I dug a little deeper about how the donation had been set up and she said she could tell me nothing except that this company had approached Mr Dawkins directly.’

‘What company?’ I asked.

‘Some corporation called Eagle International,’ my father said, shrugging. ‘They’re wooing different schools and I think Dawkins is hungry for the opportunity.’

Chris nearly dropped his mug of coffee. ‘Eagle?’ he said, shocked. ‘That… that’s my father’s company!’

‘Oh my God,’ said my father. ‘Now it all makes sense.’

‘The bastard!’ cried Chris, punching a pillow. ‘The fucking bastard! He’s still pissed about me and Caleb, so he wants to tear us apart!’

‘I’m so sorry, Chris,’ said my father quietly. ‘But don’t say that. Don’t drag yourself down to his level.’

Instinctively, my father and I both hugged him.

‘This is awful,’ I said.

‘So fucking petty,’ said my father. We were both startled: he hardly ever swore. ‘I’m sorry Chris, but I want to punch him and Dawkins’s lights out.’

‘You have my blessing,’ said Chris grimly.

‘I shouldn’t have said that. I think… I think because your father is homophobic this is his way, however misguided and twisted, of trying to "sort you out". He doesn’t want you to be gay because he thinks that he did something wrong. As if. You’re one of the most together young men I’ve ever met. Don’t hate him, Chris. Don’t take on his negative energy.’

‘You mean I must turn the other cheek?’

‘Yes and no,’ said my dad. ‘Yes, in that you don’t spew back the same hate. No, in that you hold your head up high and be proud of who you are. Why the hell do people have to get their knickers in a knot about who loves whom? I mean, as long as you aren’t related or under age or something.’

‘You’re awesome, Dr MacLeod.’

‘It’s Devon, remember, Christopher,’ he said, and mussed his hair affectionately.

‘What are we going to do, though?’ I asked.

‘Leave it to me… no, Cal, don’t fret. I can be discreet, you know. Perhaps it sounds a bit perverse, but your mother would absolutely love investigating this scandal. She’d bite onto a story like a terrier and wouldn’t stop until the truth came out. I’ve learnt a thing or two from her, don’t you worry. Besides, Chris, I believe your mom is coming back tomorrow - you have more than enough on your plate. I took the liberty of speaking to your aunt; she’s called the school and told them you’re ill.’

‘Thanks, um, Devon.’

‘Looks like another pupil has fallen victim to "the flu",’ I said chuckling.

‘Yeah,’ said my dad. ‘If I have my way, the only thing Paul Dawkins will have accomplished is give my son a two week holiday. Although that’s no excuse for you to slack off, son. I expect you to be fully up to date by the end of the weekend, I called Bella this morning and she’s coming this afternoon with all the work.’

‘Yes sir. I’m sorry I lied to you.’

He looked me in the eye and put his hand on my shoulder. ‘Cal. I guess I realise why you did it; you were ashamed. For no reason. Promise me you’ll always tell me the truth.’

‘Thanks, Dad,’ I said softly, and hugged him.

He sat down between Chris and me and put his arms around us. ‘No-one,’ he said fiercely, ‘and I mean no-one, messes with my cubs,’ he said. Devon MacLeod, the lion in mouse’s clothing. I suddenly realised I was in the presence of one of the greatest men I would ever know. As quickly as his proud growl had appeared, it retreated, and the familiar shyness came back. He got up and looked askance. ‘I’ve said enough. I’ll leave you two… but Chris, you better sleep off the rest of your hangover and get a shave. You look like hell and you need to be shipshape for your mother tomorrow.’

‘Of course, sir,’ said Chris, and gave my dad a salute as he shuffled back towards his study.

I blew out my cheeks. I was drained, but happily so. There had been so much negativity, so much sadness and despair, that its sudden departure had enervated me.

‘Are you still mad at me?’ said Chris.

I punched him on the shoulder and started tickling him. ‘How could I stay mad at you, dickwad,’ I said, and he retaliated by grabbing me in a chokehold. We ended up wrestling about on the floor for a minute or two, until we upset the vase of flowers on the coffee table and rushed to clean up the mess like two guilty children.

‘Hey guys!’ called my dad from down the passage, ‘keep it down! I’m on a phone call.’

We both giggled. ‘Come,’ I said, still catching my breath, ‘let’s go upstairs.’

Chris’s eyes brightened. ‘I guess this means I can sleep my hangover off… with you?’

I sniffed him and made a pouty face. ‘Only if you get your sorry ass into the shower. You smell ripe.’

Chris sniffed his armpits and blushed. ‘Er, I guess I do. Perhaps, um, you could help clean me up?’

‘I think I might need to do that,’ I said with a mischievous grin.

Half an hour later, scrubbed fresh and pleasantly sleepy, we tumbled into bed and spooned. It started raining outside and the wind made the plane tree sway tragically in front of the window. I thought briefly of that scene in Poltergeist where the tree comes alive and tries to grab one of the kids, and how as a little boy I always used to close the curtains in my room when the wind came up. I remember I was too proud to get into my parents’ bed from about the age of seven, and knowing this, my mother would let our golden retriever, Temba, into my room where he would lie at the foot of the bed. But now, this afternoon, the bare branches were not ominous, they just made me feel cosy as I felt Chris’s warmth wrapped around me. Soon his soft snoring lulled me into my own heavy sleep.

 

*

 

We dozed till around three in the afternoon and were woken by the doorbell ringing plaintively. My dad had left a note on my door saying that he’d gone back to work for the afternoon. I shuffled downstairs and saw Bella’s face on the CCTV monitor.

‘Hurry up, Cal, it’s pissing down out here!’

I opened the gate and she ran towards the front door.

‘Hey you,’ she said as I opened for her, and dumped her bag into my arms. It was portentously heavy.

‘Is this what I think it is?’

‘Oh yes. You’re going to be up to your eyeballs in homework. Prelims are less than a month away, you know.’

I nodded gravely. Chris came down the stairs and smiled sheepishly when he saw Bella.

‘Oh my,’ she said. ‘The prodigal hunk returns. So I assume everything’s copacetic with you guys?’

We both nodded.

‘Oh, thank God. I was so relieved when your dad called me, Cal, but I didn’t know if you guys had sorted things out. I was a bit miffed that Rob went ahead and gave your man a piece of his mind, but then I promised you I wouldn’t say anything… but he didn’t. Although, Chris, I had a thousand things to say to you.’

Chris blushed and looked away. She walked up to him and forced him to look into her dark brown eyes. The rain had plastered a spitcurl against her forehead, and she looked strangely beautiful.

‘It’s ok, lover boy. I don’t think you meant to hurt Cal. You were avoiding him because you thought it would be better that way, isn’t that so?’

‘Damn you women and your intuition,’ said Chris uncomfortably.

‘Hah!’ she said triumphantly, but then kissed him on the cheek. ‘It’s ok; I still love you. Wow... you both look like you need some coffee.’

‘Good idea,’ I said, leading the way into the kitchen.

‘I want to hear everything,’ said Bella. ‘It’s my right as a fag hag.’

I rolled my eyes and switched on the coffee maker.

 

*

 

After Bella got me on top of all the work I’d missed, Rob came over later and we all hung about talking crap. It was so great having the gang together again, and I felt that things were normalising. For the first time, too, there wasn’t this fear of waiting for the next wave of crap to hit. I was acutely aware that there was this whole network of safety nets around me. They couldn’t insulate me completely, nor would I ever want them to. Life is difficult, true, as M. Scott Peck says, but with the love of friends and family it doesn’t have to be miserable. I thought of what the great Roman philosopher Seneca said: in life we are like a dog tied with a rope to a moving vehicle. We can try and rail against its course, in which case we will hurt and possibly even strangle ourselves, or we can walk in step with it and travel unencumbered.

‘What a week,’ I said as we stood at the sink washing up after Rob and Bella had left.

‘Fucking ridiculous,’ said my boyfriend as I passed him stuff to dry and put away. He looked disarmingly cute fussing about with the dishcloth. It hit me: we really were a couple; this domesticity put the seal on it. Whoever thought doing the dishes could be so romantic?

‘So, you must be glad that your mom’s back tomorrow.’

‘Yeah. It’s gonna be a bit weird, though. I mean… you understand I have to go back to my place.’

I hadn’t thought of that. I took a deep breath.

‘Cal…’

I shook my head and smiled. ‘No, Chris, of course you need to move back. That was always the agreement. I mean, I’m going to miss waking up next to you every day, and God knows it was torture without you this week, but guess what, life carried on and I’m still alive.’

He beamed at me. ‘I’m so relieved. But I owe you a lot of sleepovers at my place now.’

‘You’re on,’ I said, whipping his butt with the washcloth. I heard my father’s car pull into the garage.

‘Oh good, you’re still here, Chris,’ said my father as he came in. ‘It just occurred to me that your Jeep is still parked in Long Street.’

‘Oh shit,’ said Chris. ‘I forgot!’

‘Don't worry. I paid one of those Congolese car guards R100 to look after it, it should be fine.’

‘Wow, thanks, Devon.’

‘Shall we go fetch it? Cal, you can drive.’

‘Dad, it’s raining.’

‘Yes, and I’ll be right next to you. About time you learnt to drive in wet weather. Just go slow.’

‘He’s right,’ said Chris. ‘Plus I have an idea. As payback, can I treat you guys to supper in Long Street? It’s the least I can do.’

‘That’s very generous of you,’ said my father. ‘This old man hasn’t been out in the centre of town for ages. I know this great place where Suzie and I used to go. On one condition.’

‘Sir?’

‘You two get the bulk of your homework done. I assume Bella came over? Good. At it, soldiers! You have an hour an a half before we go.’

‘Awesome,’ I said, and Chris and I ran up to my room to tackle the terrors of geometry, physics, and in Chris’s case, the slippery convolutions of French grammar.


28. Counter-Intelligence

 

A calm descended on the weekend. I helped Chris moved back into his house, and I let him be for the rest of the Saturday. I figured he needed to have some family time with his mom. My father told us to keep quiet about all the drama for now; he would call her later when she settled in. As it happened, Fiona invited us for lunch on Sunday. There was a vitality in her that I hadn’t seen before: the month in rehab had helped her regain part of herself that had been lost for a long time. It was sweet seeing my boyfriend fuss over her.

After we finished lunch outside on the Hathaways' terrace overlooking the Constantia Valley, my father gently motioned Chris and me to excuse ourselves.

We went to Chris’s room and played online with Rob for an hour - who wiped us out several times with malevolent glee. We were about to mount a third offensive when our respective parents called us back.

Fiona was understandably furious and shocked.

'Your father is one serious piece of work,' she said to her son grimly. 'Wait till your brothers find out.’ She brightened: ‘Which reminds me, Tom and Andy are coming down in two weeks. I thought I'd surprise you. We're going to have a full house again.'

That’s awesome, Mom,' said Chris, beaming. 'I wonder if Andy will bring his latest conquest with him.'

'Oh dear,' said Fiona. 'Around the world with eighty girls. I nearly said "IN eighty girls."

My father and I laughed nervously, and Chris grinned. Fiona's rather outré sense of humour was back and stronger than ever.

'Well,' said my dad. 'You two are going to lay low. Chris, you're back at school tomorrow, and I'm going to speak to the Major. I believe there’s going to be an official presentation by Eagle to the school next week. Cal, you're still officially suspended so you get on top of your work... I believe you've got a lot practising to do.'

I nodded. Beethoven's Pathétique Sonata was still an Alp to be scaled.

'I haven't seen Tom and Andy in nearly a year,' said Chris. He looked a bit worried.

I squeezed his hand. 'You're worried about Tom, eh?'

He nodded. 'Yeah. He's always been the most conservative one.'

'Don't worry, Chrissie,' said Fiona. 'You know, he's actually always stood up for you, in his own way.'

She walked over to her son and ran her fingers through his hair.

'That day… when Snowball was run over, and you were so upset, and your dad told you to toughen up… Tom was nine and he marched into a meeting your dad was having with his farm managers. He told him he was a mean man and wouldn’t speak to him for days. He gave you Cubby, you know, it was his toy.'

Chris's eyes moistened. 'I didn't know that.'

'It's true. I'll talk to him, if he has any problem. If.'

Chris's phone beeped.

'Oh, jeez, I forgot about this evening.'

'What?' I asked.

'It's Sam. You know, one of my friends from KZN who's now at varsity here. I arranged to meet up with him and my other pal Vusi. Plus, they want to meet you.'

'Shit,' I said. 'That's gonna be weird.'

'Oh please, Cal. They're cool okes. I want to.. want to show you off. Pleaaaase?'

He made the baby face. I nodded. 'Ok.'

'On one condition,' said my father, raising his eyebrow. 'You both get some work done. Time for us to go, Cal.'



*


I was nervous as hell, but as soon as I met Sam and Vusi I relaxed. They were both very friendly. Sam was a bit of a hipster, spouting the names of obscure bands and using, yes really, the word "ironic" at every opportunity. Vusi was an alarmingly large Zulu with a sense of humour as dry as the Namib Desert. He was a first year medical student and Sam was doing computer engineering. Neither of them batted an eyelid when Chris put his arm around me. I stiffened at first.

'Relax dude,' said Vusi. 'We're cool.'

'Mrs Smythe would totally platz if she saw you guys,' said Sam, sniggering. 'Oh, sorry, Chris, I didn't mean…'

'It's cool,' he said. 'That's blood under the bridge.'

'Are you guys like out?'

'I guess,' I said. 'I mean, neither of us imagined this would happen. And we didn't exactly come out in the way we wanted to.'

Chris gave them a précis of the events.

'Jeez, dude,' said Vusi, shaking his head and motioning to the waiter to bring us another round of beers. 'It's like apartheid all over again. I mean, it’s the 21st century, and we're in Cape fucking Town. The gay capital of South Africa. I mean, I’m not trying to box you guys as a stereotype.’

Chris laughed. 'We haven't been out clubbing or anything, if that's what you mean. In fact here in the Southern Suburbs it feels as if the only gays in the village. Or only bi’s. I don't know, it gets confusing.'

'What,' said Sam, 'you guys still scope babes?'

I nodded with a grin.

'Wicked, man,’ said Vusi.

'Yeah,' said Chris, digging me in the ribs with his elbow, ' old Cal here can be a bit of a ladies man, as it turns out.'

I looked at him in shock, but he burst out in guffaws. 'Just messing with ya,' he said sotto voce, and I made a face.

'Can I take a pic of you guys?' said Sam. 'My girlfriend asked me for one.'

‘Ok… but why?' I asked.

'Oh, she finds the idea of two hot guys together a real turn-on.'

I tried not to choke on my beer, and Chris and I bunched together in a pose.

'Cute,' said Sam. 'Well, Cal, let's see. Vusi and I have got a shitload of embarrassing stories about your man.'

'Oh dear,' said Chris, and rolled his eyes. 'I should have known this was coming.'

'Do tell,' I said, and grinned while Chris rolled his eyes.




*
 

I had a feeling my time off wouldn't last long.

At eleven o'clock on Monday morning, my phone rang.

'Mr MacLeod? This is Mrs van der Heever from the Headmaster's office.' Her voice was plummy with the affected Received Pronunciation she liked to adopt when speaking to students.

'Yes, ma'am?' I answered, trying to sound as calm and courteous as I could.

'Major O'Reilly would like to see you in his office at once.'

'Ma'am, I am at home following Mr Dawkins's orders. It will take me a while to get ready to school.

'Oh,' she said, 'of course.' I heard her rustling about frantically. I chuckled to myself; the old bat's smarmy tone had vanished. 'How soonest can you get here?'

'As soon as I can,' I replied flatly. 'I will need to cycle to school, naturally.'

'Very well,' she said, and rang off.

I decided to have a long shower and take as long as I needed.

I arrived just after noon and presented myself in the Major's office.

'Oh, good,' said Mrs van der Heever, and anxiously motioned me to the Major's door.

It felt surreal, entering the imposing lair for the second time in just over a week. To my astonishment, Chris was there, sitting at one of the desk chairs.

The Major walked up to me and shook my hand, nearly crushing it with his strength.

'Good afternoon, Caleb,' he said pleasantly. 'Please, won't you sit down.'

'Thank you, sir.'

He seated himself. I sat bolt upright. His military demeanour demanded it.

He seemed to notice this.

'At ease, my boy. This isn't the army, as much as I would like it to be run like one.'

I smiled weakly and stole a glance at Chris, who was looking as nervous as I was. Chris was fumbling with what looked like a clipboard and a wad of papers. I also saw he had his laptop with him.

'I'm glad you could make it, and I'm sorry it's such short notice. I said, relax, Mr MacLeod. Nobody is in trouble here.'

 

*

 

I nearly wilted with relief. Chris continued fiddling with his papers.

'Mr Hathaway, why not put that down, it's not needed right now.'

'Yes, sir. Of course.'

'Now, Caleb. There seems to have been a gross misunderstanding. I have learnt that both of you have been unjustly accused of something you didn't do. Worse, you were punished as such. It has come to my attention that there was an unnecessary overreaction to a certain small indiscretion. Am I correct that the two of you are a couple?'

He asked it so matter-of-factly that I was completely disarmed. 'Yes, sir,' we both said, nodding meekly.

'Very good. Interesting. Never come across it before officially in this school. I say, officially. Now I must make it clear to you that although this is a Catholic school, there’s no censure placed upon any students who choose to be in a relationship, provided that this does not interfere with their school career. I guess that would apply to any relationship between two pupils, two boys as well as two girls.

'Of course, this is a bit of a delicate matter, as I'm not aware of any openly... well, gay relationship at this school before, and I worry about prejudice. Prejudice that has already reared its ugly head. People are, unfortunately, always afraid of what they don't understand. During my days in the Army there were some terrible things that happened to men who well, preferred other men. They were sent for all sorts of bogus therapies. Some even had shock treatments, to try and "cure" them.

‘I’ve always believed that being gay is not something to be "cured". I’m glad we live in a more tolerant age now. What concerns me is that, as the head of this school I’m responsible for the safety of all the students, and the reality is I won't be able to protect you from every slander or insult that may come your way.'

'Sir,' said Chris, 'I… we wouldn't expect you to protect us from everything. But thank you.'

'Not at all. I’m very upset however, that you two were used as pawns in a larger game. I know all about the donation that the school stands to receive, and how some over-eagerness to secure it turned into manipulation. I want to assure you that no student's welfare will ever be compromised in favour of any monetary gain.'

'Wow, sir,' I said, shaking my head.

'Indeed.' The Major twiddled one end of his moustache, and for all I knew, I could have been a private being addressed by a World War I officer.

'So firstly, I am overturning your suspension, Caleb, and you are to be back at school from tomorrow. And you are back on the swim team. Rest assured that your school records are untouched. However, the two of you are given an hour's detention each, which I believe is the appropriate penalty for students kissing on school premises.'

Chris and I both chuckled. 'Yes sir!' said Chris.

'I will supervise it personally, later today. But you can do that after the meeting in the boardroom.'

'Sir?' I asked. Both Chris and I looked confused.

'A senior member of the governing body came to see me this morning and explained to me what had been going on. I further learnt that, without my knowledge, the benefactor had arranged a meeting with the governing body to take place today, while I was still on leave. So I came in. I was naturally concerned that no-one had bothered to inform me about this while I was away at the educational congress I was attending in Port Elizabeth.

'The presentation is happening right now, and I would ask you two gentlemen to join me, as I shall be making a statement that pertains to both of you. Mr Hathaway, are you happy to continue, bearing in mind that your father is going to be there?'

'Yes sir.'

'Continue with what?' I asked.

'You'll see,' said Chris with a sly grin.

The Major gave my boyfriend a conspiratorial look. I felt as if I were caught up in some clandestine counter-intelligence operation.

'Almost half-past!' said the Major, standing up. 'If you would be so kind as to follow me.'

He walked briskly out of the office and down the corridor, which was flanked with yellowing photographs of St Francis rugby players from the past. We tried to keep up with him as best we could as his black academic gown flapped like the outsize wings of a giant bat.

 


29. What The Saint Wished For

 

The boardroom in the school’s executive suite was out of bounds to students. As I entered it I couldn’t help feeling as if I were trespassing.

Several people were seated around the massive oak table. A hush descended on them as we walked in behind the Major.

Mr Dawkins’s jaw dropped when he saw us. Next to him was Brian Hathaway, a deep scowl etched upon his face.

 ‘Major O’Reilly,’ said Mr Dawkins, ‘with respect, students are not allowed in the boardroom.’

‘Good afternoon, Paul,’ said the Major pleasantly. ‘I believe that as the headmaster I can make exceptions at my discretion. Or would you like to check my job description if you’re not sure? My secretary can provide you with a copy.’

Dawkins bit his lip.

‘Please, won’t you gentlemen sit down,’ continued the Major, motioning Chris and I towards some empty seats. ‘I’m sorry I’m late, but thank you for waiting for me.’

‘Of course,’ said a voice, and I suddenly realized that I had seated myself directly opposite my father, who winked at me.

‘I am very grateful to Dr Devon MacLeod for convening this extraordinary meeting,’ said the Major, ‘and I’d like to thank you all for delaying the presentation which I believe was scheduled for now. I’m concerned that I was not informed about it timeously.’

‘Major,’ said Mr Dawkins, ‘the Governing Body has the right to convene a meeting by a quorum if the Headmaster is not available. As Acting Principal last week, I felt the need to seize the opportunity when we were approached by Mr Hathaway’s company.’

'I understand that, Paul, but I’m certain that even a million rand could wait a few days.’

‘This is not how I arranged things,’ snapped Brian Hathaway, who had been drumming his fingers with impatience.  ‘I didn’t fly down to Cape Town to be subjected to red tape, especially when I’m the benefactor.’

‘Of course, Mr Hathaway,’ said the Major, ‘however, it is not in the best interests of this School to let financial gain obscure its duty to protect students from harm of whatever form.’

‘Whatever do you mean?’ said Mrs Cohen, an imposing woman who was chair of the PTA.

The Major motioned to Chris and me. ‘I believe that Mr Dawkins was persuaded to blackmail these two students into breaking up their relationship.’

‘Relationship?’ asked Mrs Cohen quizzically.

‘They’re a couple, Matilda,’ said the Major calmly. There were murmurings around the table. ‘Evidently you’ve been spared the latest doggerel teenage gossip tends to generate.’

Mrs Cohen removed her glasses and raised an eyebrow. ‘I’m confused,’ she said. ‘What does that have to do with today’s presentation?’

‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ said the Major, ‘I haven’t made myself quite clear.’ He turned to the rest of the table. ‘Christopher here is Mr Hathaway’s son. He is dating Dr MacLeod’s son, Caleb, and Mr Hathaway does not approve of their relationship. It seems to me that he wants to split them up. That is why, I believe, he told the Deputy Headmaster to intervene, and that the donation was subject to them being split up, as it were.’

The murmurings turned into excited chatter. Brian folded his arms and looked out of the window.

‘That has nothing to do with it,’ said Dawkins irritably. ‘We have to set standards at this institution. We cannot deal with this type of publicity. A gay relationship at one of the country’s finest schools…’

‘…is a reflection of St Francis espousing the virtues of the South African Constitution,’ interrupted my father, ‘which we all know is one of the finest and most liberal in the world.’

Mrs Cohen cleared her throat. ‘You have a point, Devon. Paul, do you really think it was a wise decision to make such a fuss over this?’

‘The media furor would damage the School’s reputation,’ he said, snorting.

‘Actually, I think the media furor about you trying to suppress a gay relationship would be even more damaging. What do you think, Devon?’

My father nodded.

‘What the hell are you asking him for?’ snapped Brian.

A gentle voice answered from across the table. ‘Dr MacLeod’s late wife was editor of the Cape Town Herald.’

It was Sister Agatha, the head of Mathematics and one of the Governing Body members representing the Church. ‘I believe he would know a thing or two about the media,’ she said, smiling.

Mrs Cohen nodded. ‘Hopefully it will not come to that. But the matter of the Deputy Headmaster being swayed by a donation is a very serious one.’

‘Indeed,’ said the Major, who had been watching the interchange with a wry smile. ‘Caleb was unfairly suspended for two weeks. Furthermore, both of them were told that if they were to continue their relationship, there would be consequences. As in, Caleb’s school records would be unfavourably altered, or Christopher’s sport career impeded.’

‘No,’ gasped Mrs Cohen, while Sister Agatha shook her head.

‘That is hearsay!’ cried Dawkins.

‘Oh really, Paul,’ said the Major. ‘You should know that I never ever make allegations without sound proof. Even though I trusted everything Dr MacLeod told me, it was serendipitous to stumble across hard evidence.’

‘Evidence?’

‘You were careless, Paul. I don’t mind you using my office when I’m not there, though heaven knows you have your own one with a better view.’

‘What the hell does this have to do with anything?’

‘You left your web email account open in the browser.’

The blood drained from Mr Dawkins’s face.

‘Clever, now that I think of it, using your private mail account so as not to leave a trail. Except you didn’t log out. And I clicked open an email that I thought was meant for me. After all, it was marked “Urgent: Donation”. Christopher, please distribute the copies to the board members, wouldn’t you?’

Chris got up and started passing out printouts to everyone, and there were several sharp intakes of breath as people started reading. I shook my head as I read it myself:

 

To:       Paul Dawkins pauldawkins@*****.com

From:   Brian Hathaway <bhathaway@*****.net>

 

Paul

Thanks for your call. I’m very glad you decided to contact me when you heard about this thing. My ex-wife is too soft about this. If I had known that you felt the same way earlier, we could have squashed it before it went public.

I don’t care what you do, but if you can split up Chris and the MacLeod kid, I can give your school a sizeable donation.

How about 1 million, and a 100k cut for you? It’s win-win. My company gets a tax break, we all look good and we can hush up this embarrassment about my son and that faggot kid he’s messing around with. Your CV should be impressive with the big donation you sourced.

Chris has disappointed me enough. Be as harsh as you need to. He can’t drag the family name through the mud with this. Hopefully he can get out of this phase of acting out so he can focus on more important things. It’s very important to me that my family’s tradition of excellence continues.

Think about it.

Cheers,

Brian

 

‘I cannot believe this,’ said Mrs Cohen, who had been reading the email with her mouth agape. The rest of the governing body looked in shock at Mr Dawkins.

‘I agree,’ said Sister Agatha. ‘I’m certain I speak for the Governing Body that we couldn’t possibly accept a donation under these circumstances.’

‘Well, you aren’t getting your donation anyway!’ said Brian, punching the desk and getting up. ‘Screw all of you! You’re supposed to be a Church school, goddamnit! You know what they’re doing is a sin!’

‘Calm yourself, Mr Hathaway,’ said Mrs Cohen. Her imperious tone made me think of what Queen Victoria would have sounded like. ‘I’m not a Catholic,’ she continued, ‘but I believe that the school’s namesake would see all this as a moot point.’

‘Very true,’ said Sister Agatha, ‘the blessed Friar from Assisi was all about love and tolerance. And he was a wild young man before he received his calling. Whatever is between these two boys, that is a private matter for their consciences. Mr Hathaway, if we are a Catholic school, we have to respect free will. I know the Church’s past is far from perfect. But I also know that the Church’s institutions, like this school, made an active stand against oppression in this country. We admitted pupils of all races because the old regime’s laws could not interfere with private schools’ admission policies. Intolerance is a sin, Mr Hathaway. Matilda, I’m sorry to use you as an example, but would one dismiss Mrs Cohen because she is Jewish? I think not.’

Several people nodded, and the Major’s expression broadened into a wide smile.

‘Well said, Sister,’ he said. ‘The boys were caught kissing in public, but that is a minor offence, which I have already dealt with.’

Both Chris and I blushed crimson.

‘Are we all in agreement then? Does anybody object to us kindly refusing Mr Hathaway’s generous offer?’

No-one spoke.

‘Well, that settles it. Mr Hathaway, the School thanks you for your interest.’

‘You’re all fucked up,’ fumed Chris’s dad, ‘I’m leaving this freak show.’

He stormed towards the door.

‘No, Father,’ said Chris suddenly. ‘I need to tell you something.’

Brian turned around and stared at Chris.

Chris looked nervously at the Major, who smiled and nodded. I turned to my boyfriend and furrowed my brow.

‘Ladies and Gentlemen,’ he said, fumbling with the remaining pile of papers he had, ‘I understand  that the donation that was offered would be a major boost to the school and something sorely needed, what with our scholarship projects to destitute communities and the building of the new proposed e-learning centre. Therefore, on behalf of Eagle Industries, I am offering the school a new proposal of two million rand.’

There were gasps all around.

‘What the fuck?’ said Brian, and looked at Chris with a mixture of disgust and incredulity.

‘Perhaps you forgot that I’m eighteen now, and I have a vote on the Board of Directors. With Mom and my brothers. I believe that, together, that gives us a majority.’

Brian froze. His face turned crimson and his hands started shaking.

‘You… wouldn’t… dare,’ he hissed.

‘I’ve already spoken to the rest of the board,’ said Chris, who was now speaking in a dead calm. ‘They thought it was a brilliant idea. Especially since Eagle has been anxious to promote itself as a socially responsible corporation. You’re right, Father, it would be a good tax incentive too.’

Brian was now speechless. Dawkins was sitting hunched trying desperately to make himself as small as possible.

‘Father, you don’t look well,’ continued Chris. ‘Did you take your blood pressure tablet this morning? I hope Patricia reminds you; Mom was always going on about how forgetful you are.’

Mrs Cohen snorted and tried unsuccessfully to stifle a chuckle.

‘You are dead to me,’ said Brian suddenly in a deep rasp. Chris winced and a Mexican wave of horror spread through everyone at the table. The Major shot up, lunging towards Brian, but Chris grabbed him by the arm.

‘Please, sir, no.’

‘How dare you say that!’ hissed the Major fiercely, while several people shook their heads. I could see my own father simmering with quiet rage. Brian and the Major stared at each other as if facing up for a duel. ‘You do not say that to your own child. Ever.’ He looked ready to punch Brian’s lights out.

‘It’s all right, sir,’ said Chris, who motioned the Major to sit down. Chris got up slowly and walked towards Brian. Bristling with anger, I tried to get up, but I saw my own father shake his head at me, mouthing “No”. 

Chris’s face was reddening, but I could sense he had summoned a great strength from the depths of his soul.

‘I’m sorry that you feel that way,’ he said softly, ‘but I guess, if that is your decision, I can’t call you Dad anymore. I know you always saw me as weak, and God knows I’ve tried to show you that I’m not. The thing is, now I know I’m not weak. I’m not angry at life anymore either. I wish you could have taught me that. But other people have.’

He turned his head and gazed benevolently at me for a few moments, and I reddened. He turned back to face his father.

‘Anyway. My door is open. I hope your choice works out for you. Give Bradley and Patricia my best regards.’

Brian shuddered and balled his fists. I could sense a vicious fury swirling around his body like some malignant ectoplasm. He took a deep breath and stormed out the door.

Chris turned slowly towards the table, eyes downcast. Silence splashed everywhere. Eventually he looked at the board and smiled weakly.

‘I’m sorry you all had to see that.'

The Major got up and walked up to Chris.

'Are you all right, son?' he asked softly. 

'I don't know... I... I think so, sir.'

The hush was still awkward. Nobody seemed to be able to look Chris in the eye. I think Brian's words were echoing harshly in everyone's heads.

The Major cleared his throat.

‘That was very brave of you, Christopher, to stand up to authority that doesn’t deserve its power. I tried to do this long ago in an evil time, but I never quite succeeded.’

Sister Agatha nodded gravely, while Mrs Cohen bowed her head in deference.

‘Very well then,’ said the Major. ‘I believe we have a lot to discuss about this very generous donation this young man has arranged.’

‘I don’t want any special treatment,’ said Chris.

‘Of course not,’ said Sister Agatha pleasantly, waving a finger jocularly at my boyfriend. ‘You’re going to get that A in Maths with hard work.

‘Good show,’ said the Major, and motioned to me and Chris. ‘Now, if you two gentlemen will excuse yourselves and present yourselves in my office in half an hour to do your detention.'

There was muffled laughter from some of the board members. I quietly got up, nodded, and joined Chris. Nervously, we walked out of the corridor.

In the vestibule of the executive suite, I placed my hand against the wall and blew out my cheeks. I felt giddy.

‘Wow,’ I said, ‘that was intense. Are you ok?’

Chris nodded. ‘I will be. I’m strangely calm.’

I looked deeply into his eyes and a wave of deep love washed over me. ‘I love you so much,’ I said. ‘It’s all I can do not to want to hold you tight right now, but I guess that wouldn’t be appropriate.’

He let out a bitter little chuckle, and returned my gaze with those emerald eyes. ‘I guess we better take a breather before we see the Major again. Shall we go hang out in the quad and talk kak?’

‘Sure,’ I said, and we ambled down the corridor. In my mind I was hugging him as if my life depended on it; I wanted to envelop him, make him feel safe, shelter him. But it would have to wait.

 

*

 

The Major gave us each a bundle of foolscap paper as we sat at his desk.

‘Right, men,’ he said pleasantly, ‘I want at least four pages on your opinion on how best society can combat prejudice, giving special reference to the history of our country. Take as much time as you need. I’m going for a walk.’

I grinned and started scribbling.


30. No Answer

Things were a bit better after that day. There were still sniggers and hushed conversations when we passed down the hallways, but no direct taunts. Once somebody shoved gay porn through the louvres of my locker (where did the supposed homophobe get that, I thought?) but for the rest of the time, everything was eerily quiet.

As hard as it was, Chris and I decided to keep to ourselves while at school, except at lunch when the whole gang would sit together as usual. It helped that, except for History and Chemistry, we were in different classes. Perhaps some would say we were just enabling further discrimination by doing this, but then, the Major had said that the rules of public displays of affection applied to everyone.

Prelims were just around the corner, and everyone was freaking out: this was the dress rehearsal for the final matriculation examination. It set the benchmark against which you’d be judged if the final exam went south.

The Saturday after our eventful day with the Governing Body, I organized with the gang do a study group. The morning flew by, and by noon we had all agreed that our brains were saturated. After lunch, Rob and Bella excused themselves.

We sat on the couch and Chris lay in my lap while we listened to Katie Melua.

‘Where are you?’ I asked, stroking his hair while he stared at the ceiling vacantly.

‘Huh?’

‘You’re like on a different planet, dude. You’ve been all week.’

Chris shrugged and blew out his cheeks. ‘I dunno,’ he said. ‘I’m tired I guess.’

I frowned. We had gone out for a date the night before. During the movie he held my hand perhaps for a minute, and at dinner we barely spoke; he spent most of the time surfing the web on his phone or sipping his beer excruciatingly slowly. I also realized that we’d only spoken over the phone once or twice during the week. Our folks had given us carte blanche to sleep over at each other’s house during the weekends, provided we were up to date with our work. After our date I had been looking forward to a blissful night cuddling and maybe more, but Chris just shuffled into bed and fell asleep. His goodnight kiss was barely a peck on the cheek.

‘It’s more than that,’ I said as gently as possible. ‘Something’s bothering you; it’s like your not here. I mean, we’re both up to our arms in studying but, what’s up?’

He scowled and shook his head, and suddenly sat up and punched his fist into his other hand. Startled, I put my hand on his shoulder but he flinched.

‘Chris? What’s wrong?’

‘I… I don’t know,’ he said slowly. He got up and reached for his keys. ‘I need to go,’ he said flatly.

I shivered, recalling acutely the last time he’d said this to me. ‘No, Chris,’ I pleaded. ‘Don’t.’

He turned and looked at me with a pall on his face. ‘It’s not you my love,’ he said, biting his lip. ‘I… I love you; nothing’s changed. I just want to be alone, now.’

‘Chris…’

‘Please don’t, Cal.’

He started walking towards the front door. ‘I’ll… I’ll call you later.’

I wanted to run after him and grab him, but I knew I had to stay put. I stared at the floor and managed a goodbye. I stayed like that for several minutes after I’d heard him drive off in The Thing.

‘What’s wrong?’ said my dad as I walked back into the house. He’d obviously seen my perplexed expression.

‘I dunno, Dad. Chris is not himself. He just up and left now.’

‘It’s been a stressful time,’ said my father kindly. ‘Just let him be for now. I don’t think it’s anything to do with you, son.’

‘He said as much. I just wish I could do something.’

‘Sometimes the best thing to do is to do nothing at all.’

‘I guess,’ I shrugged.

‘Come, son, let me take you out for a pizza. You deserve a night off.’

 

*

 

The exams came, and they came quickly. They were nasty, to say the least. We had been warned as well: better to hit your head at prelims so you knew what to expect at finals.

Maths was particularly evil. My piano recital exam came the next day - a whole hour of repertoire. It was freezing, and I had to sit on my hands to warm them up. I stumbled through the scales and arpeggios, and made a few slips with the first piece, but things improved as I went along.

I was utterly exhausted by the end of the first week, and another two lay ahead. Chris and I hardly saw each other. We managed one date on the first weekend but we hardly made any conversation throughout dinner.

‘Are you ok?’ I asked him, as the bill came.

‘Meh,’ he said. ‘Don’t worry about me. So how about that maths paper?’

‘Awful,’ I said, and tried not to frown as I picked up on his obvious steering away from personal questions.

‘Yeah.’

He looked so forlorn. I took his hand in mine. He gripped it weakly, not with the robust vigour he usually had.

‘Anyway,’ he said flatly, ‘I think I’m gonna call it quits. I need to go to bed. Do you mind if we skip the sleepover?’

I hid my dismay. ‘Sure,’ I lied, ‘I think that’s... that’s a good idea.’

I held Cubby close to me that night, telling myself things were going to get better.

But it didn’t get better.

I kept thinking he was just swamped with work, but even as the exams drew to a close, he was answering fewer phone calls. Text messages became perfunctory. Dates were cancelled. I was getting resentful and decided to play as good as I got.

Then he wasn’t at school. I called, and Fiona answered.

‘Oh Cal! How are you dear? I haven’t seen you around for ages. How were the exams?’

‘They were ok, I guess. How’s Chris? He hasn’t been at school.’

Oh, he didn’t tell you? He’s been floored by the flu. Sick as a dog, my poor boy.’

‘Oh! I should come over.’

I couldn’t help feeling excluded.

‘Sure, love. Perhaps tomorrow? He got a migraine this afternoon, on top of it all, I whacked him with some painkillers. He’s out like a light.’

‘Of course. Would you send him my love?’

‘Certainly, dear. And it would be lovely to see you.’

I rang off. I should have felt relief, but a wave of worry came instead.

 

*

 

The next morning sped by. The results were coming out by the end of the week, but I was preoccupied thinking about Chris.

‘I agree,’ said Bella at break. ‘Even though he’s ill, he’s not been himself.’

‘I can’t help thinking I’ve done something wrong.’

‘Bullshit,’ said Rob. ‘Like you said, he told you it’s not you.’

I sighed, but didn’t feel any better.

I would have gone straight to Chris but as I got onto my bike I remembered I forgot the comic books I was going to bring him, so I took a detour to my house.

I was surprised to see Sarah’s car parked in the driveway.

She was sitting staring blankly at the dining-room table. Then I saw the suitcases in the corner of the room.

‘Sarah?’ I asked, putting down my bag. Her eyes were red and moist. ‘What’s wrong?’

‘Dave and I broke up,’ she said quietly. ‘He... he cheated on me.’

My eyes widened. ‘Shit!’ I said. ‘That’s awful!’

Instinctively, I walked up to her and gave her a big hug. She sniffed and didn’t say anything, but I could feel her digging her nails into my shoulders.

‘The fucking bastard,’ I said. ‘I’m gonna kill him.’

‘Thanks, Cal,’ she managed, ‘but it’s ok. We’ve had problems for a while. I just didn’t expect… this.’

I was crestfallen. I couldn’t bear to see my sister look so devastated, and a torrent of testosterone threatened to turn me into a vigilante on her behalf.

‘Let me make you a cup of tea,’ I said, not knowing what else to do.

I knew I couldn’t go to Chris. Right now I had to be there for my big sister.

In the kitchen, I phoned Fiona, making up a story that I had a lot of work to do. She said Chris was still out of it anyway.

I sat my sister down on the couch and just listened. I’ve always been a good listener, and Clarice says it’s because of my innate ability to “hold” people’s issues when things overwhelm them. The downside of this is that I tend to absorb the negative energy as well, and it’s taken me a long time to set boundaries for myself.

Sarah spoke for a long time while I plied her with tea and cookies. Presently I helped her get her stuff up into her old room.

‘There we are,’ I said pleasantly, ‘just like old times.’

‘I know. Thank God you and Dad are here,’ she said, squeezing my hand. ‘Wish I had the same luck with… with men as you’re having. How is Chris?’

I managed a smile.  ‘He’s fine,’ I lied.

‘I love that guy,’ she said. ‘I’m so glad you two are so happy. Thank God that bullshit with that Mr Dawkins is over. I’m so sorry I wasn’t there for you more.’

‘Don’t stress, sis,’ I said. ‘I’m a big boy now. Anyway. You look knackered. Why don’t you have a nap? I think I’ll make dinner for all of us. Rosalie’s taught me how to make Mom’s lasagne – I can almost pull it off. And we can all have a glass of wine and catch up.’

‘You’re an amazing brother,’ she said, smiling. ‘Thank you. I never thought you’d be looking after me. Somehow part of me always sees this little boy with a mop of black hair running around playing with his toy cars. And now look at the big handsome man in front of me.’

‘Heh. You do realize, of course, that Dad’s gonna be pissed. He’s going to want to murder Dave, and frankly, I wouldn’t stand in his way.’

‘You’re sweet, little brother.’

 

*

 

After my father calmed down – I had to admit, it was amusing and touching seeing him morph from Baloo the Bear to Shere Khan in a matter of seconds – the evening turned out to be quite pleasant. The lasagne was a pretty close approximation of the Suzie MacLeod masterwork, though after years and years I’ve never managed to get the pancetta as crispy or the béchamel as smooth as she did. Dad cracked open a twelve-year-old bottle of Pinotage and in the haze of conversation, good food and wine I quite forgot about Chris. Sarah, too, seemed to have put her betrayal temporarily on the back-burner. I didn’t want to say it, but I felt relieved. Then it hit me: Dave was nothing more than Brian Hathaway-lite: good-looking, effusively charming and a first-rate, stuffed-shirt, pompous narcissist wanker.

I called Chris after dinner, but his phone was on voicemail again. The last I’d heard from him was a brief “Ok thanks” in the morning when I texted to find out how he was feeling.

As I got into bed, I called him again. Still voicemail. I toyed with calling his landline but my etiquette-obsessed conscience vetoed it. I sighed, and reached for my copy of East of Eden. I read late into the night, and had a weird dream about visiting the whorehouse in Salinas that Cathy ruled, after murdering the previous Madam.

Finally, as school ended the next day, Chris picked up the phone. His voice was dry and reedy.

‘Hi, Cal.’

‘Dude! What gives? I’ve been trying to get hold of you!’

‘I’ve been… been ill.’

‘I know that, dufus. I’ve been worried. I’ve hardly seen you in a week.’

‘Yeah, I’m sorry Cal.’

‘I’m coming over,’ I said, ‘and I'm nursing you back to health.’

He made a flat little laugh. ‘Oh, jeez, thanks. But I’m really tired hey, I think I need to sleep some more. I’m not good company.’

‘But…’

‘Please, Cal. I’ll make it up to you, I promise.’

I bit my lip and sighed. ‘Fine. But I need to see you soon. I miss you.’

‘I miss you too.’

After we said goodbye, I shook my head. No, I decided. This ends right now.

I got onto my bike and set off for his house.

 

*

 

I rang the bell at his gate. There was no answer. I cursed and kicked the ground. I called his cell, but it just rang. Ditto with his landline. Gutted and frustrated, I was about to give up when I saw Mrs Armstrong, Chris’s neighbour, pull up into her driveway.

I remembered Fiona mentioning what a good neighbour the wealthy old widow was, always checking on the house when they weren’t there.

I ran up to her just as the gates were closing.

‘Mrs Armstrong!’ I yelled, out of breath.

‘Good Lord!’ she said, startled, as I came up to the car door. ‘May I help you?’

‘Ma'am, it’s me, Caleb. Chris Hathaway's friend.’

‘Oh yes, I remember you.’ She rolled down the window. ‘Shame on you for nearly giving an old woman a heart attack!’

‘I’m so sorry, ma’am,’ I said.

Her butler came out the front door and walked towards the car, eyeing me suspiciously.

‘It’s all right, Richard,’ she said, and got out of her Mercedes. ‘What’s wrong, young man?’

‘Um, I was wondering if you have a set of keys to the Hathaways’ house. Chris is ill and I wanted to check up on him, but he’s not answering.’

‘Oh, goodness,’ she said. ‘I do. Do you mind if I check with Fiona? She’s at work, I imagine, but if it’s fine with her I’ll let Richard give you the keys.

‘Certainly, ma’am.’

Oh please, oh please, I pleaded silently, as she looked up Fiona’s number and called.

Presently she nodded. ‘She says that’s fine, and says thank you for checking up on him.’

 

*

 

The house was silent and empty as I raced up the stairs to Chris's room. The door was closed. Carefully, I opened it, and saw that his bed was empty and unmade.

I heard the echo of water dripping coming from the en-suite.

‘Chris?’ I called.

No answer.

I walked into the bathroom.

I gasped as I saw him in the bath with his head in his hands, keening quietly, to and fro.

 


31. Black Dog

 

‘Chris?’

He stiffened, and turned his head slowly towards me. There were dark rings under his eyes, and a spitcurl was plastered like a sad question mark upon his forehead. He obviously hadn’t shaved for days. A gaunt pallor had overtaken his face, and as his eyes met mine his arms sank limply into the bathwater.

I put my hand to my mouth. I had never seen him look so anguished before. He looked like a wounded angel.

‘Cal,’ he said blankly, and looked away.

I raced up to him and bent down, putting my arm around him. He skin was icy.

‘The water’s freezing! How long have you been sitting here?’ I asked, aghast.

‘I… I don’t know,’ he said. His voice was like lead.

I reached for a towel. ‘Come, get out of here. You’re going to get pneumonia.’

He nodded slowly. I tugged on his arm; I almost had to drag him out of the bath. He was as meek as a lamb as I covered him with a towel and started drying him off. I led him to his bed and rummaged through his cupboard and found a pair of tracksuit pants and a long-sleeved tee. I had to nudge him to get dressed, which he did like an automaton.

‘You… you came,’ he said, staring into the middle distance.

‘Of course I did,’ I said, and embraced him tightly. His head sank onto my shoulder and I stroked his damp hair. ‘It will be all right. I’m here.’

He didn’t cry, but he grabbed fiercely onto me while his body made little convulsions against mine. He was breathing rapidly, like a panting dog. I just held him until his breathing slowed, and then I gently motioned him onto the bed.

‘What’s wrong?’ I asked, squeezing his hand. ‘It’s ok. You can tell me. You’re hurt. What’s happened?’

He shook his head and shrugged. He stared at the floor for nearly half a minute.

‘I don’t know what’s going on, Cal,’ he said eventually. ‘I’m just… I don’t know. Everything’s… empty. So empty. I feel… I feel nothing.’

My heart wanted to crack. I brushed my hand against his cheek, and rubbed my thumb against the grain of his stubble.

‘Chris,’ I said softly, and the realization hit me even as a horrible knot engorged itself in my stomach. ‘I think I know what’s going on.’

‘What,’ he said quietly.

‘You’re depressed. It all makes sense now. It’s all been such a rollercoaster, these past few weeks. And then what your dad said to you… that was the last straw wasn’t it?’

I had pressed the button. His lip quivered and he suddenly punched both his fists into the mattress. I didn’t twitch; somehow I knew that would happen.

‘Oh God, Cal. I’m so fucked up. I’m bad news.’

‘Stop that,’ I said calmly. ‘That’s the depression talking. I know what’s happening.’

‘How can you know?’

His head was cocked now, and I noticed with relief that I’d managed to engage him.

‘You know your boyfriend reads a lot. You’ve been feeling like this for weeks, haven’t you? Lack of energy, difficulty getting out of bed, loss of interest in everything?’

He nodded miserably.

‘Feeling plagued by guilt that you can’t place? Feeling so empty that life isn’t worth living?’

That did it. The tears started streaming down his face.

‘Oh buddy,’ I said, and hugged him again. ‘It’s all right. You’re reacting to all the shit that has happened. It’s depression. It’s a condition. We have it in our family. It’s horrible, but it’s not the end of the world.’

He finally let out a deep, single, primal sob. ‘I should be stronger than this,’ he said miserably. ‘You lost your mother.’

‘I know, babe, but it was nobody’s fault that she died. Yes, it was awful, and I’m still grieving. But it’s a process that I have to let be. Your father – he chose to abandon you. It’s his fucked-up decision, not yours. He has hurt you terribly. Anyone would react like this. You know, Winston Churchill had it. He used to call it the Black Dog that would come visiting every now and then.’

I kissed him on his cheek. ‘I should have let up on this sooner,’ I said. ‘I just thought you were exhausted.’

‘So did I,’ he said, as his breathing calmed. ‘But then it just spiralled out of control, and now everything’s just black, Cal. I didn’t want to burden you. And now, oh fuck, you must think I didn’t want to be with you…’

‘Bullshit,’ I said, grabbing him by the shoulders. ‘You’ve done nothing wrong. Depression is awful. And you’re grieving on top of that, too, in a way, you must feel like you’ve lost your dad.’

He nodded again.

‘Does your mom know?’

‘No,’ he said. ‘I can’t burden her more.’

‘So you’ve only been pretending that you have the flu?’

‘Yes. No. I don’t know. I got a cold, but I thought it’s easier for her to think it’s worse than that. I was… I was hoping it would all go away if I just slept. It’s all I wanna do these days.’

‘Like hell you’d be able to keep this up. But we’re going to get you better.’

He covered his face again, and I noticed the angry abrasions on his knuckles for the first time.

‘What the…?’ I gasped, running my fingers over the dried blood.

‘Oh. I. I um, I guess I punched the wall a few times.’

‘Oh my poor man,’ I said, about to burst into tears.

‘I’m so angry, Cal. I feel like there’s this bomb inside of me that’s going to go off at any moment. I’m scared I’ll…’

‘Hurt me?’

He screwed his eyes up in agony and looked away.

‘I know you’d never do that,’ I said calmly, scooting up to him and laying my head on his shoulder. ‘So what if you have some anger issues. Depression makes that worse, too. You’ve only ever hurt yourself, not others.’

‘Cal, you’re too good for me.’

‘If you talk more shit like that, I’m going to deck you,’ I said, and he managed a weak smile. ‘Who’s been there for me all the time? You. Who protected me when I was at my most vulnerable? You. Who held me when I was missing my mom the most? You, dufus, you. You’ve only been good to me. I love you, numbnuts. Through thick and thin.’

‘I’m not… I’m not used to this,’ he said breathlessly.

‘Shut up,’ I said, and kissed him fiercely. He was startled, but didn’t resist, and as our lips locked I imagined myself breathing fire into his belly. I just wanted to warm him, make him feel that I was there.

‘Thanks, Cal,’ he said eventually, after I had pinned him down and covered his face with kisses. ‘I love you so much. You came… you came to save me. I’m scared I’ll drag you down.’

‘Shhh,’ I said, straddling him. ‘Here’s what we’re going to do. You’re going to get into a hot shower and then into some clean jammies, while I’m going to make the bed and get us each a hot cup of tea and something to eat. The MacLeod cure for everything. And then I’m going to phone our GP and make an appointment for you to see him ASAP.’

‘No, Cal…’

‘None of that,’ I said firmly. ‘You have to trust me on this one.’

‘Ok. But don’t leave.’

‘Of course not, you twit. I’m going to lie here right next to you and hold you all afternoon. But you have to let me help you. Do you trust me to get all the ones who love you involved? And no, none of this I-don’t-want-to-be-a-burden thing.’

I lay down next to him and we held hands.

‘When… when did you become a psychologist?’ he asked.

I smirked. ‘It was Uncle Joe. He’s suffered with depression his whole life. My mom had to drag him out of that black hole so many times. Back then there was such a stigma attached to mental illness. People didn’t understand it was a disease, just like diabetes. But it can be managed. My mother read up about it extensively. And, of course, it was only a matter of time before I found the copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and I read it from cover to cover.’

He laughed for the first time. ‘I would have expected that. How old were you?’

‘Ten.’

‘Oh my God. That’s… that’s hilarious. So what does this mean? Am I going to become a Prozac zombie?’

‘If Dr Meyer thinks you need it, sure. And it won’t make you a zombie. Uncle Joe’s been on meds for years now, and he hasn’t had a relapse in God knows how long.’

‘I’m scared, Cal.’

‘Of course you are. But you don’t have to be. Just let your loved ones in. Come, tell me how many people love you.’

‘Uh, you, my Mom… my brothers…’

‘More,’ I said gently.

‘Uh, Rob, Bella… your dad, Sarah, Aunt Jenny…’

‘See, dufus. We’re all gonna come through for you. Let go. You can fall, we’ll catch you.’

A little bit of colour was returning to his beautiful face.

‘Cal?’ he said, and laid his head on my chest.

‘Yes my love?’

He sighed deeply, and then said the words that knit him to my heart forever:

‘You make me want to be a better man.’

 

*

I got Chris showered, changed, and forced him to shave. I could see he already was starting to feel better. ‘Just go take a long bath and have a hot cup of tea,’ was what my grandmother would say when someone was wrapped in discord. In her mind there was nothing that couldn’t be alleviated by that recipe, and in some ways she’s right. I’m glad I've picked up some of the folk remedies of my forebears: a wet facecloth on your forehead when you’re racked with fever, crushed ginger and lime for nausea, peppermint oil your temples for headaches.

It barely took me an hour to rally the troops. I had a brainwave and got hold of my dad at work, asking him to leverage an appointment as soon as possible for Chris with Alistair Meyer, whom my father had known since primary school and who had been our family GP since before I was born. I phoned Rob and Bella and they insisted on coming over later. I ordered pizza and made sure my boyfriend ate something.

‘Better?’ I said, as I put Chris to bed and snuggled up to him.

‘Mmmm,’ he sighed, and melted into my embrace. ‘Thanks.’

‘From the way you finished that pizza, I’d swear you hadn’t eaten in days.’

‘You wouldn’t be far off the mark,’ he said grimly. ‘I forgot to eat.’

‘Well, that’s nipped in the bud now. You just relax and let me take care of you.’

‘Thanks, Cal, I don’t know what to say.’

‘You don’t have to say anything,’ I said, and inched my hands underneath his shirt to stroke the soft fuzz on his granite abs. ‘Just rest now. Rob and Bella are adamant they want to see you, even if just for a little bit.’

‘Aw, that would be great. I – I miss them. But… but what about my mom?’

‘Relax, I’m on it. I’ll tell her personally.’

‘She’s going to be devastated.’

‘Not as devastated as if you kept this from her and something… something happened.’

I shuddered a bit as I thought of what could have happened if I hadn’t found Chris.

‘Tell me,’ I continued carefully, ‘did you… did you feel like, suicidal at any point?’

He shivered. ‘It’s hard to say… I guess even if I were, I wouldn’t have had the energy. No, I wasn’t actively thinking about that. But, like, I didn’t want to exist… I wanted to zone out, not be for a while… oh God, I don’t want to talk about it.’

‘It’s all right,’ I said, holding him closer. ‘I’m just glad you’re safe.’

‘Because of you,’ he murmured.

‘You’d do the same for me,’ I ventured.

‘In a heartbeat.’

He closed his eyes and drifted off.

 

*

‘I feel so awful,’ said Fiona, shaking her head as we sat in the lounge. ‘I should have seen it coming.’

It was raining heavily again, and the Constantia Valley was obscured in fog.

‘He was hiding it, Mrs H. We all thought he had flu.’

‘Oh, my poor boy. Bless you Cal. He always tries to bear his burdens alone, until it poisons him. Thank God you came. How did you…?’

‘I just had a gut feeling,’ I shrugged. ‘Anyway, he’s got an appointment with my GP tomorrow – I hope you don’t mind, but Dr Meyer has a great family practice and would be ideal to handle this, I think.’

‘Of course, Cal… thank you so much. You’re an angel.’

‘Meh,’ I said. ‘Just doing my job as a boyfriend.’

She smiled and yawned. Her nurse’s uniform was crinkled from obviously a long day in the ICU.

‘Long day at work?’

‘Yes. Four admissions; there’s been a spate of adenovirus pneumonia.’

‘How do you handle it?’ I asked. ‘I mean, all those dozens of critically ill children?’

‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘It’s hard work, but I love it. I guess children are so… so innocent. It’s never their fault that they’re ill. I mean, we grow up, we do things to ourselves, we forget to take responsibility. Then there’s my son, who we know takes far too much responsibility. I suppose it’s my way of sublimating my own issues. It’s great, being back doing what I love doing.

‘When I married Brian he wanted me to stop working and be a stay at home mom; he was a rising young star with his own company and there was more than enough income to look after everybody. But I said no. As soon as each one of my boys was old enough, I went back to work. After… after I found out about the affair, I stopped working. I moved here and thought that with half his fortune, I'd  spend Brian’s money out of spite and everything would be fine. I was such a fool.’

‘But look now,’ I said, smiling. ‘Not many people work solely because they love it – I know you don’t need the salary.’

She chuckled. ‘And, I must tell you, after my boy’s clever little stunt with the donation he sourced from Eagle, I approached the Board of Directors and convinced them to do some creative accounting with Brian's expense account.’

‘Oh really?’

‘Yes. he doesn’t know it yet, but he just donated four new ventilators to the state hospital’s paediatric ICU. Oh, and a revamped playroom for the oncology ward. I put it to the board that he'll travel economy class for the next three years to recoup the costs.’

I burst out laughing. ‘Hell hath no fury,’ I said. ‘You’re the best, Mrs H.’

We heard footsteps coming down the stairs. Presently Chris appeared, yawning and rubbing his eyes.

‘Well look who’s up!’ cried Fiona. She went up to him and hugged him. ‘How’s my big boy,’ she said. ‘It’s all right, Chrissie, your boyfriend told me everything.’

‘I’m sorry, Ma,’ he said sadly.

‘Don’t worry about that. Main thing is we know what’s wrong and things are going to get better.’

‘I hope so.’

‘I know so.’

‘You rested up?’ I asked.

‘Mmm, I guess. I’m starving.’

‘Good. Go get dressed, because we’re meeting Rob and Bella at the movies in an hour. Your varsity pals are coming after too to join us for sushi. I booked at that beachfront place you’ve been wanting to go in Mouille Point.’

‘What? But…’

‘No buts, soldier. You need to get out and have some distraction. Trust me. None of this skulking around in your bedroom. You’ve got tomorrow off so you can sleep in, and then you’re going to the doctor.’

‘Yes sir,’ he said astounded, slightly taken aback at my managerial tone.

‘You’ve got to hold on to this one, Chrissie,’ said his mother, pointing at me.

‘I’m not ever letting go, Ma, trust me.’

I felt a bit awkward, and excused myself to make him a sandwich.

The evening turned out to be a success. We all agreed to keep dinner short, because we figured Chris's energy reserves would be low, but the combination of friends, good food and the ocean crashing outside put a smile on his face. We even had him laughing by the end of the evening when Rob and Vusi lost a bet with Bella and had to sing a Britney Spears song - with dance moves.

I drove him back in The Thing.

‘Feeling better?’

‘Like a million times better. Just knackered now. Shit, buddy, it’s late and you still have to go to school.’

‘Oh dear,’ I said, suddenly affecting a consumptive cough. ‘I seem to have caught something.’

‘You little shit,’ he said, grinning.

‘Please. I’ve got my dad’s official permission to bunk, just this once. No-one will suspect anything, I’m Supernerd, remember? Allow me my little thrill. And I’m staying with you tonight. It’s all sorted. Think of it as a long weekend.’

‘Cal, you’re… you’re… fuck. I don’t know what to say. Except you’ve become Supernerd in a Superjock’s body.’

‘I have you to thank for that,’ I said. ‘It’s symbiosis.’

‘You’re so sexy when you say scientific terms.’

‘Mmmm. Now I know you’re feeling better. I’ll whisper some Schrödinger equations into your ear later.’

*

I said a quiet prayer of thanks that night, holding him in my arms. He’s always been bigger than me, but I was stronger now, and I could cradle him with ease. He woke up once in the night all freaked out because of a nightmare, and it took me a while to soothe him back to sleep. There was still a rocky road ahead, I thought to myself as his breathing slowed and his muscles slackened.

I gazed out through window while my hand made slow circles around his belly button.The clouds had cleared, and the bright diamond of Sirius winked at me like an old friend. I thought of that night in Theewaterskloof when we looked at the stars. I’ve always felt so safe when I lie back and look at the heavens: somehow, that initial shock of how tiny our little blue planet is against the void, gives way to this mystical sensation of being blanketed by the great sprawl of the galaxy.

I guess I’ve whittled my fascination with cosmology down to this mantra: we can imagine the Universe as a giant void racing away from us at a frightening speed, or it could occur to us that, in fact, it is wrapped around us in all directions. Then, no matter where we are, we are at the centre of something wonderful. And that’s how I’ve always thought about it.

 

 


32. No Wolf Shall Eat The Sun

 

The next day, Dr Meyer diagnosed Chris with a major depressive episode and put him on a six-month course of antidepressants. Chris insisted that I come with. I have to admit I felt like a spouse, sitting next to him, watching him break down as the doctor gently teased out the symptoms.

‘You’re coming back in two weeks for a follow-up,’ said Meyer, and if you’re starting to feel better I’m recommending you see a psychologist for some therapy. Don’t worry, lad, I know some excellent people. And if it makes you feel better, I’ve been in therapy for years.’

‘Really, sir?’

‘Oh yes. I think of it as mental hygiene. Everyone has issues, and being in touch with my psyche makes me a better doctor.’

I wished all doctors were as switched on as this one.

‘So the two of you are a couple?’

Shyly, we both nodded.

‘Coming out can be difficult, I imagine. All the more reason for you to discuss things when you get to therapy. Are you two sexually active? Don’t be shy, we’re all grown men here.’

I forced myself out of my innate bashfulness. ‘Sort of,’ I said. ‘We haven’t gone all the way. We’ve both been with girls, but always used condoms.’

‘We’ve decided to take it slow,’ added Chris, looking surprised at my directness.

‘An excellent decision,’ said Dr Meyer. ‘Very mature. Well, whether you go all the way or not, when the time is right, I’d like you two to consider coming to see me for HIV and other STD testing. I also do a lot of safe sex counselling in my practice… I don’t have a diploma in sexology for nothing. Stop blushing, Caleb. I’ve known you since you were a baby.’

I squirmed in my seat, and Chris’s sniggering wasn’t helping at all.

I took a deep breath and looked at Chris.

‘Very well,’ I said. ‘In fact, I’m ready to do that now, if… if you are.’

Chris nodded. ‘I think that’s a great idea.’

‘Well,’ said the doctor, ‘I must obviously counsel you both first on the implications of the test, and then if you’re in agreement I’ll take the bloods. You can both come see me for the results when Chris comes for his follow-up, and then we can talk turkey, as it were. But I think that’s enough for the moment. Chris, you need to concentrate now on taking things day by day and allowing yourself to be looked after.’

‘I know, Doc. I’m slowly getting used to that.’

‘He has no choice,’ I piped up, ‘he’s not leaving my sight until we’re sure the storm has passed.’

‘My God, Caleb,’ said Dr Meyer. ‘You’re all grown up. All muscled up, both in body and mind. Your mother would be so proud.’

‘We know she is,’ said Chris, mussing my hair affectionately.

 

*

It was still very much touch-and-go the first few days after that. His mood slowly lifted as the meds began to work, but he still had a few lows and panic attacks. All of us kept a close watch on him. I moved in for a few days, so I could be right next to him when the nightmares would hit. Something paternal had been unlocked in me, and I daresay I enjoyed it. I’ve discovered that my love language is caring: holding and soothing my loved ones when the storm clouds gather. By the end of the first week I was positively broody and indulged in syrupy fantasies of Chris and I ending up married, raising dogs and children.

I reflected on the months that had passed and hardly recognized the frightened boy I was at the beginning of the year. I believe the Universe hands out just as much shit to us as we can handle, especially if we open ourselves up to the idea that even as we are battered we are blessed.

The exam results were sobering to say the least. I dropped down a symbol in most of my subjects, which was rather a severe blow to my ego. Rob, of course, managed his usual clean sweep of A’s while Bella reigned supreme as the Queen of English and French.

Chris did surprisingly well – even scoring a B+ in Chem and Physics. His explanation was that as the depression had taken hold he channelled whatever energy he had into studying. The penny dropped: it was escapism, even if it drained him of everything else. Of course, now that we were out, there was no escape from the taunts and jeers, although they had become subtler.

Which is why I was totally flummoxed by what happened a few weeks later after one Phys Ed period.

I’ve always been shy by nature, so you can imagine what a nightmare showering after PE had become with guys pointedly avoiding me. They’d stand at least two places away from me, as if my sexuality were catching.

We’d had a heavy PE session doing rope climbing and all sorts of Navy Seal-grade tortures, and there was enough sweat among the guys to fill a swimming pool. Ed and Frank muttered obscenities at me as I passed them on the way to the showers. I felt a yank as one of them pulled my towel away from me. Guffaws and whistles spread through the locker room. I turned around and stared at them.

‘Ooh, the fag is upset,’ said Frank.

‘No,’ I said sweetly, ‘just surprised. Didn’t know you had a thing for me. Do you like what you see? Go ahead, cop a feel if you like, I don’t mind.’

Frank’s smile involuted and guys laughed heartily. Backfire, I thought with glee. I was shocked: it was thrilling talking back to him. Somehow I didn’t care that I might end up with a fist in my face.

‘Fuck you, freak,’ he growled.

‘Mmm, nah, fuck you. I’d prefer to be top.’

I pointed to my groin and looked at Ed. ‘You want some of this too, Ed?’ I continued. ‘No need for you boys to flirt by grabbing my towel. All you had to do was ask. As you can see there’s more than enough for both of you. ’

There was whistling and applause. The two ogres seemed to coil their muscles around themselves and I braced myself calmly for the attack, but it never came. Instead there was a hush.

‘Good show,’ said a voice. It was Mike Delport, who walked past Frank and Ed, elbowing them aside. ‘This crap has gone far enough.’

He dropped his towel and walked buck naked up to me with his Superman physique. My jaw dropped.

‘It’s cool, Cal,’ he said, patting me on the back with a powerful hand. ‘Come, let’s go shower, bud. I want to hear about how you got that fucking impressive six-pack.’ He turned around and addressed the mesmerised crowd. ‘Gentlemen, why don’t you join us?’

Meekly at first, everybody followed suit, except Ed and Mike, who cut two sad figures skulking next to the lockers, not knowing where to look.

Mike showered right next to me, and even joked that I could wash his back, but I politely declined. On my other side was Anders Kowalski, who winked at me and said he agreed with Mike, and could Chris and I give him some workout pointers.

‘Of course,’ I said. ‘You’re most welcome. But be warned, Chris is a mean slave-driver.’

‘Awesome sauce!’ said Anders. ‘The way you’ve bulked up this year has inspired me to get rid of all this flab.’ He patted his cherubic belly.

I shook my head in disbelief, and yielded to the hard rain of the shower, feeling dizzy with endorphins.

 

*

 

Chris caught me at break afterwards, underneath the big pepper tree in the quad where we usually hung out.

‘Why are you grinning so much?’

‘I’ll show you soon,’ I said through a mouthful of sandwich.

He frowned. ‘Why are you being so mysterious?’

‘Relax,’ I said, opening my cola. ‘All in good time. Suffice to say I’ve had a good day so far. How’s your day been?’

‘Wait now. You hate Thursdays. That’s when your form class has Phys Ed.’

I was enjoying this way too much. ‘You first.’

He sighed. ‘Ok, ok. Today’s been fine. Been concentrating well. Was a bit drowsy in the first period but much better than before.’

‘I can see. Since yesterday it hasn’t been a battle to get you out of bed. I mean, you were up before I was. Seems to me your mood’s been consistently normal for a few days now.’

He nodded. ‘I can’t wait to go back to Doc Meyer tomorrow and show him my progress. I feel like I’m cured!’

‘Easy, tiger,’ I said. ‘He said it was going to be a long road. You have to stay on these meds for at least six months, and I imagine you need to start seeing the shrink.’

‘Aw,’ he said, ‘do I really have to have some stranger analyse me and fill me with a million complexes I never had?’

‘And it’s not like that! Babe, you promised. At least give it a try.’

He looked surly for a moment and then nodded.

‘I’m still scared.’

‘I know, babe. And you don’t have to pretend to be permanently happy now just because we identified what was wrong. It’s not like you’ve failed if your mood slips again. You’re still fragile, and you have to accept that. I mean would you go out and play rugby two weeks after breaking your ankle just because it wasn’t painful any more?’

‘Ok, point taken. You know me too well. Damn it.’

‘You better believe it,’ I said, knocking back the dregs of my soda. ‘But yes, you are definitely much better. And of course that’s awesome. Just don’t hide things from me, ok?’

‘Of course. We both know what could have happened if you hadn’t pulled me back from the brink.’

I was about to shudder, but then was distracted as I saw Mike walking up to us.

‘Hey Chris!’ he said, and shook his hand warmly.

‘Hey Mike,’ said Chris pleasantly, while Mike slapped me on the back. ‘How are things?’

‘Good bru, good.’ He looked at me and back at Chris. ‘You’ve got a good man here. I’m happy for you guys.’

Chris smiled shyly and looked at me slightly taken aback. ‘Thanks, Mike,’ he managed. ‘That means a lot.’

‘No worries. Say, haven’t seem you at practice. I mean I know the season’s over but we’re still meeting for friendlies or touch on the beach. And there’s varsity scholarships to think of.’

‘I’ll think about that.’

‘We’re meeting for touch rugby on Clifton beach on Saturday afternoon, come join us, apparently the weather’s going to be awesome. Bring your mates; we wanna do a picnic on the beach after. Cal, why don’t you play with us too?’

‘I’m sorry?’ I said, astounded. ‘You know I’ve never touched a rugby ball in my life. And I don’t plan to spend the weekend in the ICU.’

Mike chuckled and squeezed my shoulder. ‘Chris, your boyfriend’s hilarious.’

‘He is,’ Chris said with a shy grin. ‘Um, yeah, it’d be cool to come. Uh, the rest of the team - are they... are they cool with, you know...’

‘Can’t speak for Ed and Frank, but seems to me everyone else doesn’t give a shit, especially after you guys toppled Dawkins. We all know he hated Coach. Besides, I’m the captain and deputy head boy, and I’m prepared to throw my weight around on this issue.’

‘Jeez,’ said Chris, ‘ Awesome. Thanks, dude.’

‘Anyway, I’m sure you’ll find Ed and Frank aren’t going to be as vocal about things from now on. I gotta go, but I’ll see you guys around.’

Mike ambled off whistling to himself.

Chris frowned at me. ‘What just happened?’

The first bell rang, indicating the end of second break.

‘Come,’ I said, giving him a hand to pull himself up.

The applause started slowly as we walked down the corridor to our lockers, but soon it turned into a wave of cheers and whistles.

Chris looked utterly confused, while I smiled to myself. A few people came up to us and gave us high fives while others winked at us or gave us the thumbs-up.

‘Cool on you for pulling that move on Frank and Ed,’ said a pale young girl with flaxen hair. I recognised her: it was Anna, one of the library prefects, who was always being ridiculed by Tricia and her sisterhood of sycophants.

‘Thanks, Anna,’ I said, while Chris scratched furrowed his brow.

‘Everyone’s talking about it. It’s so funny, especially since Ed was the one who spread that video of you guys kissing. I only wish there was a full-on video this time, instead of just an audio clip.’

‘Ok, wait now,’ interrupted Chris, ‘what the fuck is going on?’

‘He doesn’t know?’ said Anna with a mischievous expression. ‘Here.’

She whipped out her cellphone and pressed a few buttons. I blushed as I heard my voice, while Chris listened, astonished.

‘Cal, I never knew you were such a motormouth,’ Anna said, giggling. ‘Anyway, everyone’s listening to it.’

‘It was Mike’s idea,’ I said, shrugging. ‘Quite a fluke that Anders happened to be recording a sound memo at the time it happened. I mean, that's so typical of Anders, though.’

‘Wait,’ said Chris, ‘this happened now?’

‘Yeah,’ I said, and fessed up. I told him the whole story, and how after we had showered Anders had told me with a smirk and showed me that he had picked up the conversation, and how Mike had this brainwave to give Ed a taste of his own medicine.

Chris laughed so hard he was almost crying. It was the first time I’d heard his trademark belly laugh in weeks.

‘I can’t believe it,’ he said breathlessly. ‘You little shit, you.’

I looked around, and saw the good humour on everyone’s faces. Well, nearly everyone.

‘That’s just so gross,’ said Tricia. Her locker was opposite mine, and she was standing with her arms folded, glowering at Chris and me. Her eye-shadow blazed like war paint, and her eyelashes looked like malignant black centipedes.

‘Actually, I think they’re quite hot,’ said another voice. It was Veronica, and she walked up to Tricia and gazed lazily at her. ‘They have style, and they’re so cute together. Like two Abercrombie models, but with brains. It’s nice to have a bit of fresh air.’

On cue, I smiled at Tricia and put my arm around Chris and then winked at her. She snorted and stormed off, while the group who had watched this little set piece unfold sniggered and chuckled.

I held onto Chris, looking around nervously that no teachers were around to notice. All I saw was now nonchalant friendliness.

Then I got it.

We were cool.

I was about to get drunk on the idea, but a little bitterness unravelled itself in the back of my mind, rather like the aftertaste of artificial sweetener. Some of these people were the same ones who had leered and jeered at us just a few weeks previously.

People can be so fickle, I thought. But I also thought of Anna, and Sebastian, and the shy frightened kid I had been. I hoped that this small victory would be the start of something: something to inspire everyone who had been mocked, side-lined or trodden upon just because they didn’t fit into some stupid pre-conceived mould. Chris and I had crossed over into each other’s supposedly mutually exclusive worlds, and, surprise, the sky had not fallen, nor had a wolf eaten the sun, as the old Vikings said of the world’s end. My thoughts raced around each other like a puppy chasing its tail.

‘What are you thinking about, Cal?’

‘Oh, just some random stuff.’

‘Tell me,’ said Chris. ‘Your thoughts are never boring.’

I sighed, and rambled on briefly about the Last Days in Norse mythology.

‘I like that,’ said my boyfriend. ‘Wolf eating the sun. Though it seems today like the wolf has no intention of doing that. Like he wants to play in the sun, instead.’

‘Yeah, like St Francis’s wolf.’

I liked the image, and thought again of the Wolf of Gubbio. How weird it must have been for both the animal and the villagers after the peace was proclaimed. Who made the first move, I wondered, and lost myself in the apocryphal tale for a moment. Did the wolf step gingerly into the town square, and was there a sudden icy hush? Was the saint there, his hands outstretched as if to bless? Was it an old widow who made the first move, tossing a soup bone at the feared creature? And did he eventually lope from house to house, woofing at the gate like a friendly old hound, while young children scrambled to pet him and give him some food? I was such an incurable romantic at heart.

The second bell rang, and we quickly gathered our things for the last periods. I was dying to give Chris a kiss, but blew him one surreptitiously instead. As I raced to Biology I caught a glimpse of Rob talking to Veronica.

*

It seemed as if we were having the first unfettered lunch together in ages.

‘It must be snowing in hell,’ said Bella. ‘I wish I had been there to see it all – damn the film club meeting. And this lasagne is edible! Who knew?’

‘Yeah,’ said Rob. ‘I only caught the tail end of it… but it’s here for posterity!’

‘Oh no, not you too,’ I sighed, and Rob gleefully accessed the sound clip on his phone. ‘And where did you get that from?’

‘Mmm,’ sighed Rob, ‘a lovely little thing called Bluetooth.’

Chris rolled his eyes. ‘Enjoying your fame, Cal?’ he said mischievously. ‘You really sound like a porn star on that clip.’

‘Fuck off,’ I said good-naturedly, and Chris gave me a shit-eating grin.

‘I see old green eyes has got his mojo back,’ said Bella.

‘Getting there,’ he said. ‘You guys have all been so awesome.’

‘These two had good practice with me,’ I said, smiling at my two oldest friends.

I told Rob and Bella about the beach picnic on Saturday, and we all thought it would be great to get out.

‘I don’t know what I’m going to say to the rest of the jock crowd, though,’ said Bella.

‘Maybe if you tried talking to them, you’d be surprised,’ said Rob, looking up briefly from his phone, where he had been texting furiously for the past few minutes.

‘What’s gotten into you?’ she said, frowning. ‘And who are you messaging so ardently?’

‘Oh, just someone,’ said Rob. ‘Anyway, could I bring a friend with?’

‘Who?’ we all asked, surprised.

‘I have other friends, you know,’ he said defensively. ‘Um, it’s Veronica.’

Bella burst out laughing, and Chris and I looked at each other in amazement.

Veronica?’ she said incredulously. ‘What the fuck?’

‘Hey,’ said Rob, looking hurt. ‘I – I – I mean, if that’s ok with Cal and Chris, I mean, given all the drama that happened…’

‘It’s fine,’ I said, smiling. When Rob blushed, it was quite spectacular, seeing the rush of colour flow across his pale hide like a red tide.

‘Yeah,’ nodded Chris. ‘I’m cool.’

‘I don’t believe this,’ said Bella, twirling a strand of her honey brown locks absent-mindedly. I noticed she had toned down the emo eye make-up quite a few notches and noticed, as if for the first time, how large and bright her eyes were. ‘Next thing you know, you’re all going to be joining them for touch rugby.’

‘I may very well,’ said Rob, sticking out his tongue at her.

 

*

‘I think I’m going to be ok,’ said Chris, as we drove home from gym in the twilight that afternoon. It had been an unusually warm day, and as the rain began to fall again steam and mist hovered over the tar like ectoplasm.

‘Of course you are,’ I said, fumbling to find the rear-window demister. ‘Jeez, I can’t get used to your car.’

‘Here,’ he said, and flicked the switch for me. His arm brushed against mine and I thought dreamily of the first time that happened, when he drove me home on the first day of school.

He cleared his throat. ‘I meant, I think I’m ready to be… to be on my own.’

I slowed down involuntarily. ‘Oh,’ I said, trying very hard to hide the disappointment in my voice. I’d become rather addicted to soothing him to sleep every night.

‘I don’t mean that I’m chasing you away… God knows I want to be with you every hour of every day… but…’

I nodded. ‘I get it,’ I said. ‘You need to know for yourself. And, yes, space, routine, all that. We’re still at school. But you call me, any time, and I’ll be right over.’

‘I love you so much,’ he said, and tickled the back of my neck.

‘Stop that,’ I said. ‘I’m going to fall into a trance if you continue and then drive off the verge.’

‘Sorry. You do realise weekend sleepovers are still happening, though?’

‘Abso-bloody-lutely,’ I said, snorting. ‘Of course, that means I’ll be at my place tonight, and then again at yours tomorrow, cause it’s Friday.’

‘Aw, Cal, you could still stay tonight.’

‘Oh no, no, no, mister,’ I teased. ‘You don’t get to have it both ways. And, what a pity, I’m wearing those new CK briefs you thought would look so sexy on me…’

He pouted. ‘You bought them? You little tease.’

‘Oh yes,’ I said, and turned up the volume on the radio.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


33. Undertow

 

That night I didn't sleep well. I had a lurid nightmare about a contagion hitting my neighbourhood and scores of people dying of haemorrhagic fever. It ended with a tsunami wiping out Cape Town.

I must have been worried about the results of the STD tests. I obsessed about my night with Veronica. What if the condom broke? What if Chris had caught something from a girl back in Durban? I felt guilty for thinking that Chris and Veronica had passed something on to me.

We found ourselves sitting in front of Dr Meyer again as he calmly reached for our files.

'All your tests are negative,' he said nonchalantly, 'as I expected.'

The wave of relief was dizzying.

He went on to explain the risks of HIV and other STD transmission, all of which we knew. We sat with mild discomfort as Meyer rather graphically discussed safe sex practices.

'Well, that's that sorted then,' the good doctor said, 'you boys can go out and, ah, have fun with each other free of worries. I suppose I've embarrassed you both enough. Now, Chris. How are you feeling?'

While my delicate sensibilities recovered, Meyer took a detailed history from Chris.

'I can see you're much better; the meds are obviously working. How's your libido?'

'Sir?'

'Your sex drive. Perfectly normal for it to be low at this stage. It takes a while to recover.'

Chris shrugged uncomfortably. 'It's hardly been on my mind, Doc. I mean, I'm still getting, you know, turned on, but the idea of following through... Shit, I'm sorry, Cal. I feel like I've been neglecting you.'

I squeezed his hand, and my concern for him eclipsed my shyness. 'Oh please,' I said. 'It's hardly the most important thing right now. What happens, happens. You're still my man.'

He smiled sheepishly. 'Thanks, Cal'.

'You two certainly have it figured out,' said Meyer. 'If I may, though, one of the best ways to flood the brain with feel-good hormones is to get one's rocks off, as it were...'

'My God,' I said, like an old prude.

'If I may suggest something. You two take some time in a safe place to rediscover each other. No expectations or goals. Be slow, be sensual. If you do this frequently arousal will take care of itself. And Chris, this class of drugs tends to delay ejaculation in young men, so just keep that in mind.'

'Jeez, Doc,' he chortled, 'perhaps that wouldn't be a bad thing.'

I couldn't take it any more, and started giggling. Chris mussed my hair.

'Well, I'm very happy with things,' said the doctor. 'We will continue with the citalopram for at least six months. I also think you're ready for therapy. Please consider it.'

He handed Chris a business card.

'Joanne is brilliant. She specializes in depression. Try one session, at least; sometimes one has to try a few different people unfortunately before one finds the right fit.'

Chris took a breath. 'Very well. I'll try.'

He looked at me and I gave him the thumbs-up.

'Good show,' said Meyer. 'Anything else I may be of service with?'

We shook our heads.

'Great then. Be good to each other, lads. Life will always come up bite your ankles when you least expect it, so having someone at your side is a great blessing.'

We smiled at each other and walked out.

'Eish,' said Chris as he started the car, 'that was intense.'

'Rather. But... it was kinda cool. Really sort of underlined the fact that we're a couple.'

'I know what you mean. So I was wondering: it's such a lovely afternoon, why don't we start our date early and go wander around Kalk Bay?'

'Awesome,' I said.

'Yeah. I haven't been out in the sunshine in ages. I want to hold your hand and walk around and show you off.'

'Back at you, sexy,' I said. I propped my head against his shoulder and inhaled his wonderful scent. I felt like the happiest man in the world.

We walked around the main drag of Kalk Bay for a good hour, browsing books. We stopped at a cool surf shop and tried on some clothes. I bought him a T-shirt with a logo of a hamburger on it that said "100% Beef". We had some coffee and ice cream and then went for a lazy walk on the pier. We sat on the edge looking at the stone-smooth expanse of False Bay. He put his arm around me and I let myself melt against his chest.

'Cal,' he said dreamily, 'I don't know what I would have done without you. You're an angel. My angel.'

I looked up at him and raised my hand up to tickle the back of his neck.

'I'm just doing what you did for me. Just giving something back. You've changed my life. You've given me such happiness. I never thought... one could be so happy.'

I felt a warm tear splash heavily on my head.

'Oh, shit,' he said. 'Here I go, drizzling away.'

'Go with it,' I said, and turned around to embrace him. I held him for a long time. I didn't care who saw us. This was the man I loved, and I wanted to shout my love to the furthest stars. I closed my eyes and rocked him slowly, drinking in his breath and the scents of the sea, listening to the seagulls and the distant cries of the fishermen bringing in their daily catch.

‘Thanks again, Superman,’ he said as he eventually broke free from the embrace.

‘Superman?’ I said, getting all bashful again.

‘Oh yes. Caleb MacLeod is like Clark Kent. All shy and bashful and adoringly geeky, but when he rips his glasses and his shirt off, there he is, the hero who saves the day. And yes, you’d look hot in Spandex.’

‘Ha! If I’m Superman, then you’re… hmmm, with that body and the blond locks… of course. Thor. I’m ignoring the fact that one is DC and the other is Marvel.’

‘Ooh, flattery will get you everywhere.’

‘Yeah, well, I’ve got to give credit where it’s due, Mr Rugby God.’

‘Mmm. I have an idea.’

‘What?’

‘Let’s go down to Muizenberg Beach. Thor’s going to teach Superman how to play touch rugby.’

‘Chris, I’ve never held a rugby ball in my life. I’m a klutz with contact sports.’

‘Oh for fuck’s sake. You just got to pick up the ball and run. Come on, it will be fun. No tackles. Touch is easy.’

‘Do I have to?’ I said, pouting.

‘Beware the Hammer of Thor,’ he said with a twinkle in his eye. ‘I might have to use it to convince you.’

‘Oh really. Beware Superman’s heat vision that could melt the Hammer of Thor in a nanosecond.’

‘Ooh,’ he said mischievously. ‘You wouldn’t really, would you? Take me flying rather, you can even call me Lois.’

‘Ok, you win. You’re cute. Show me how to chase after a ball then.’

‘You’re on!’

I laughed to myself. Cal MacLeod, playing rugby? Well, stranger – much stranger – things had happened already.

 

*

 

Thinking back, I realize now that it seems as if everybody sat about crying and holding each other a lot, like we were in some endless Oprah and Dr Phil special. I'm not apologizing for this. Tears are a wonderful thing; they wash, they warm, they are the rivers that run through our minds, seeking release. In their salinity they remind us that we came from the sea; our cells know this, and go about their machinations, ceaselessly recreating the primordial brine. We are water, whether or not the Spirit of God once hovered formless and magnificent above the idea of us, in some ancient place before the Singularity uncoiled itself into space and time.

If there is one thing that Chris taught me, it is the appreciation for the small things. In love, even the mundane becomes transfigured. I remember on our first date how the top of the bottle of salt and vinegar seasoning came loose and dumped a small hill of lurid yellow powder on my popcorn. I didn't curse; the contrast of the white kernels and the powder looked like sulphur dusting itself over coral. Silly things like that: the moon reflected in a chance pool of water as we drove back; the question mark tail of a stray cat as it scurried across a fence.

On the outside, young love seems saccharine, callow. We are too apt to dismiss its limpid flow as naïveté, forgetting (or envying) the days of our youth. The novelist Henry James knew this well; he rewards his protagonists with innocence gained from experience. Read The Portrait of a Lady if you don’t believe me.

Regardless of whether we yielded to it or not, there was that capacity in all of us to get physically ill from infatuation, as if it were a toxin we had to metabolize. I know I was lucky: I never thought that at eighteen the great love of my life was by my side and in my dreams. Here was a man who let me be by myself when I needed it. I didn't feel disconnected from the world anymore when I drew the curtains, put on a surly expression and listened to Metallica. I just enjoyed it. My emo child was flummoxed by this, given permission to play: in return I found my innate cynicism tempered and buffed into a clear veneer, no longer the thick suffocating pelt I had carried around for so long. And tears had helped to wash me clean.

Salt water: that is how my land was formed. Not just by the two oceans that bathe and carve its contours from three sides. Not only the evaporated seas that once stretched across the forbidding plain of the Karoo. (It remembers its past: dig into the stubborn earth and you will find shells, fossils of gastropods.) No. There is too the joint weeping of all the people, grief from terrible times of subjugation, but there are also so many tears of joy too. It is no accident that Alan Paton titled his harrowing tale of reconciliation at the height of Grand Apartheid Cry, the Beloved Country.

 

*

 

That night, we decided to try Dr Meyer’s advice. We took a long bath together in the requisite candlelight, and afterwards we dried each other off and walked to his bedroom. He wanted to cuddle, but I made him lie down and close his eyes.

‘Payback,’ I said gently, and started giving him a long, slow massage.

‘Wow, Cal, I forget sometimes how strong your hands are,’ he murmured as I set to work.

‘Yeah, well, I am a pianist. Am I hurting you?’

‘Hell no, this is awesome.’

I took my time working on the many knots in his back and shoulders. It was hard work, given that he was pure chiselled muscle, and I worked up quite a sweat. He groaned softly with pleasure as I kneaded him into a trance. He was so beautiful: my own living, breathing god of thunder.

After giving him a long rubdown we rolled around slowly, exploring, rediscovering. Things didn’t end in the obvious goal, but that was fine – to be honest, I tired before he did, and we fell asleep on top of each other. Still, we felt astonishingly close. I woke up with a start around two in the morning; I’d been passed out on his chest and arm had gone to sleep. I got up and stood at the window for a long time, looking at the gibbous moon and listening to dogs barking in the distance. I got cold and pulled on boxers and a T. Drifting back to sleep, images of being underwater tugged vaguely at my disappearing thoughts.

 

*

 

The forecast was spot on – it was a perfect afternoon, glorious mild sunshine and no wind as we gathered on the beach. They call it the hidden season – those anodyne sunlit days that interpolate, every so often, the wet, dark chill that is a Cape winter. If it weren’t for them, Capetonians could well imagine that they had been teleported to Seattle from May to August.

‘This is going to be fun to watch,’ said Bella as I agreed gingerly to join the jocks for some touch.

‘I should have brought popcorn,’ Rob chimed in, and settled himself lazily on the picnic blanket. ‘I’ll call the ambulance so long for you.’

‘Sod off,’ I said, and walked towards Chris and his posse, who were already running about after the ball, shouting and sparring for possession.

Predictably, I was a klutz at first, but everybody was good-natured about it. Well, perhaps not Frank and Ed, who had to everyone’s surprise turned up. I guess they were trying to save face about their recent fall from social grace. I ignored them. Eventually my self-consciousness waned and ran about, even getting the ball a couple of times, and when we decided to break after a good half hour I was smiling to myself, astonished that I was suddenly “one of the boys”.

Panting and flushed, Chris and I collapsed on the picnic blanket next to Rob.

‘Not too shabby, I must say,’ he said, and passed us some water.

‘Hey guys,’ said a voice. We turned, and saw Veronica walking up to us. She cut quite a beach babe in her bikini. We waved, except Bella, who was engrossed in a book.

Rob got up and motioned Veronica to sit next to him. He seemed all fidgety.

Chris and I grinned to each other.

‘Oh my,’ I mouthed softly, and Chris put his finger to his mouth.

We set to work on the snacks we had packed, mowing through the sandwiches Rosalie had made for us. Soon Rob and Veronica were engaged in a deep conversation. Rob was doing Star Wars impressions and in spite of my misgivings she was giggling hysterically. Chris and I tactfully turned away and started chatting to Mike who was sitting next to us with some of his pals. Presently I noticed Jason in the distance, walking over to Ed and Frank, scowling at our crowd. I hadn’t really seen him in the past few weeks and it was certainly no loss. I shivered a bit, thinking that he might lay into Rob for the obvious chemistry that was fizzing between him and Veronica.

I turned to ask Bella something, and noticed she wasn’t there. I looked around, and caught her walking to the rocks in the distance.

‘What’s with Bella?’ Chris asked. ‘She’s been awfully quiet for the past while.’

‘I don’t know. Let me go check.’

I got up and jogged towards her. I passed Ed and Frank and Jason, who were sitting by themselves drinking beers. Presently I caught up with Bella and sat down next to her. She had seated herself on top of the rocks and was gazing far out to sea.

‘Hey,’ I said, as nonchalantly as I could. ‘What’s up?’

‘Nothing.’

‘Bullshit. I can see something’s bothering you.’

She sighed deeply. ‘No Cal, just leave me.’ Then I saw that her eyes were red.

‘Tell me, Bell. I’m here. Please.’

‘It’s stupid.’

‘Try me.’

She was quiet for a while, and ran her fingers through her hair.

‘I feel like a fifth wheel,’ she said very softly.

‘Aw, friendie, you’re not! You’re my oldest friend. We were friends before Rob joined us.’

‘By only a few days, and that’s because he’d been sick when school started that year.’

‘Come on, Miss Carmichael.’

She looked away. ‘It sounds selfish, and believe me, I’m so happy for you and Chris… I was before Rob got used to the idea… but I feel left out. Now there’s Rob and Veronica sitting there getting on like a house on fire. Who would have guessed. I feel like I’m going to end up old and lonely.’

‘That’s rubbish.’ I put my arm around her.

I listened calmly as she spoke, interrupting only when she chastised herself for having silly feelings. It was hard, holding her anxiety and sadness without letting it seep into my system.

‘I guess I understand how you must feel,’ I said eventually. Nearly half an hour had passed. ‘Shit, I’ve been so insensitive, absorbed in Chris, while you’ve been ignored and still being there for me when all the shit hit during the last few weeks. I’m sorry.’

She shook her head. ‘It’s not that. I understand how couples withdraw when they’re besotted with each other – and trust me, you and Chris have been mild compared to some people I’ve known. I know you’re there for me. Chris too. It’s just… you know, we joked that we three musketeers would end up buying a house in Florida when we’re eighty and playing shuffleboard and embarrassing children. I’m such a dork.’

She smiled sadly at me, and I felt awful.

‘Bella,’ I said, and brought her head on my shoulder, ‘for a super clever person you can be really stupid sometimes. You’re beautiful, and smart, and funny. Some day some guy is going to throw himself at you. I never thought I’d meet someone, and look what happened. Somehow I think love springs itself upon you when you stop worrying about it.’

‘I don’t know about that.’

‘Stop that. Come back and join us. We wanna play Scrabble, and I know you’ll wipe us out.’

‘That’s just mean, Cal. You know I can’t resist.’

‘You distracted me when I needed it most, when I had my dark days after my mom died. This is not the time for you to have one of your trademark moments with nature. Come.’

I took her arm and pulled her up, and she reluctantly followed.

‘Hey,’ she said suddenly, pointing. ‘Something’s going on.’

People were crowding at the waters edge, gesticulating frantically. A few were running around, shouting.

‘Oh my God,’ I said, suddenly noticing two specks caught far out behind the waves. ‘There’s two people in trouble!’

‘Shit, you’re right! That’s fucking stupid, swimming where it’s clearly marked prohibited!’

‘They must be caught in a rip,’ I said, now frightened. We both started running towards the commotion.

‘What’s happened?’ I said, running up to Anders, who was looking shocked. Jason was standing next to him, immobilized.

‘Cal! It’s Ed and Frank – they got drunk and went into the waves… we tried to stop them but now… shit… Chris just went after them. The lifeguards are off duty.’

‘Oh fuck,’ I gasped. ‘I gotta go. Jason and I are the only ones who could make it.’

‘Cal! No!’ shouted Bella. ‘It’s too dangerous!’

I didn’t listen. I pulled off my shirt.

‘Call the sea rescue people! The ambulance!’ I yelled as I ran into the freezing water. ‘Jason! You gotta come!’

But he stood there, doing nothing.

I summoned all my muscles to attention and dived under the first monstrous wave.

 


34. Full Fathom Five

 

There are times when everything around you becomes a dark tunnel and your consciousness is fixed on a single image burning through your entire being. It bore down on me like lead: Chris. I had to get to them as soon as possible. I knew Chris would try and save both. They’d all drown if he did. If there were two of us… maybe there was a chance. Ed and Frank were fuckwits for going into the ocean drunk. They had obviously made things worse by fighting the current. I had a horrible, shameful moment, wanting to abandon my two tormentors and saving only the man I loved. But I knew I had to go to whomever was closest and in trouble.

Twice I was tumbled by the waves, the second time narrowly missing a sandbank that could have killed me. I didn’t feel the cold; I was unaware of the burn of the salt and the water I swallowed reflexively. I saw the crags of the mountains lurching sickeningly in my peripheral vision; the loom of Lion’s Head seemed to be chiding me in rhythm with the swells: stupid boy, stupid boy. It began to sing Ariel’s song from The Tempest.

Full fathom five thy father lies,

Of his bones are coral made,

Those are pearls that were his eyes…

It felt as if every myofibril in every muscle was going to uncoil and burst. I broke free of the surf and was disorientated as I was sucked into the trough of a swell and my vision could track only blue. I couldn’t see anyone. For the first time, fear coursed through me. I knew I was at least three metres deep. My feet would find no purchase. The current was vicious, and hopelessness threatened to engulf me. I was yielding rapidly to the boundless might of the Atlantic.

Yield. The word sparked in my brain. I heard Mr Mazibuko’s voice, shouting at me when I was in Form 1 and struggling with freestyle.

‘Yield to the water, MacLeod, don’t fight it! Give in to it, and it will guide you!’

Of course. Basic lifesaving had taught me enough to know that you never fight a rip, but it suddenly dawned on me that the current might actually lead me to where I needed to be. All I had to do was keep my body in the right direction and keep my head above water.

Presently I was buoyed up into a crest and I caught sight of the horizon, of the peaks of the Twelve Apostles coursing in the distance. Determination started raising its hackles. I launched myself into the direction of the current. I felt strangely light, as if I didn’t have to worry.

I heard noises and turned my head.

I saw a head and arms flailing about. It was Frank, and he was about twenty metres from me. Idiot. He was tiring himself out at an exponential rate.

I decided to trust the current. It was working: I was gaining on him, but it was still tough. I could feel my legs starting to ache.

‘Frank!’ I shouted. ‘Over here!’

Then he was under.

‘Fuck!’ I shouted at the Universe.

But the water was clear, and I could see him, kicking weakly. I dived under, and reached… and reached…

I felt his shoulder, and jammed my fingers into it. An arm shot out and I felt his hand engage mine. I waited for a swell, and yanked with all my might. I told myself I was just doing a bar chin-up, and that Chris had managed to get me to do twelve in a row.

His head surfaced, then his shoulders.

He started flailing again, almost knocking me out.

‘Frank! Stop it! You’re panicking!’

‘Help! Help!’

He was going crazy. He was going to pull us both under.

I still tell myself it was a reflex. My left arm bunched itself back, as if about to pounce, and I punched him square in the face. There was a crack, and blood poured out of his nose.

The shock made him go quiet.

‘Cal!’ he gasped.

‘Fucking listen to me, you bastard. Hold onto me. We’re going to ride out the rip. If you stop panicking you’ll be ok. Trust me.’

He was silent as he took hold of me, almost meekly.

I bit my tongue with anger. I suddenly noticed that the rip was getting calmer. I knew we just had to stay calm now. I tried to blot out the thought of Chris somewhere out there. I hadn’t seen him, and I knew that worrying about it would make me lose my focus. For months afterwards I felt guilty about trying to erase him from my mind, even if it was only for a few minutes.

‘See,’ I said to Frank, as evenly as I could. ‘I’m just treading water. Try that. Don’t fight it. Just keep your head above water. We’re going to stay parallel to the shore. It will take us back.’

He nodded, and I could see that he was afraid. He looked so helpless, and I knew that he was completely dependent on me.

‘Don’t leave me, Cal,’ he managed.

‘I won’t. But you have to do as I say. Tread, tread. Not so fast. Conserve your energy.’

I bunched closer to him. We were being pulled more slowly now, and I felt that we had turned the arc. We were facing the shore again. I pointed it out to Frank, and I could see him calming down.

Then I heard a shout. I turned around. I saw Chris, and my heart leapt.

‘Chris!’ I yelled.

‘Cal! You ok?’

I could just make him out.

‘Yes! I got Frank! You?’

‘I’m fine! I got Ed!’

‘Is he ok?’

But a swell blocked him out of view, and I had to focus again on Frank. When I looked again, I couldn’t see Chris, and I kept telling myself, he’s just out of my sight, he’s going to be ok.

I had to believe that.

Presently, I felt the tips of my toes touch sand, just for a moment. The nerd lobe in my brain decided to engage itself, now, of all times, and I recalled the physics of rip currents: they are formed when there’s a gap between two sandbars. After breakers cross them the water that moves back is sucked through the opening due to the drop in pressure distal to it, creating the rip. It’s analogous to the Bernoulli effect. Perhaps that intrusive thought helped, because it calmed me down, and I realised that the current had weakened considerably.

‘Ok,’ I said to Frank. ‘I’m going to let go just now. We’re going to be able to swim out of this.’

‘No! Don’t let go!’

‘I’m going to have to. We have to swim to the breakers now, and then we can ride them back to shore.’

He was terrified.

‘Do you trust me?’ I asked sternly.

‘Cal… Cal…’

‘Fucking asshole!’ I roared, and he winced. ‘Do. You. Fucking. TRUST. ME?’

He nodded.

‘Good.’

I let go, and as calmly as I could, I started swimming diagonally to the waves, exaggerating my movements so he could mimic me. Soon we were at the head of the breakers.

‘Ok, Frank, we’re going to each catch a wave and ride it out. Ok?’

Then the surge propelled me forward, and I knew we were going to be ok.

Perhaps.

We were halfway back to shore, when I saw movement a few metres down. It was Chris, and I could see he was dragging something. A wave bashed me sideways and I cursed, stupidly, inhaling a jet of water. Snorting and yelling, I surfaced, and horror overtook me as I saw Chris holding onto Ed, who was splayed against his side like a ragdoll.

‘Cal!’ shouted my boyfriend. ‘I need help! But be careful!’

‘Frank!’ I yelled. ‘You’re going to have to get to shore on your own! You can do it!’

He nodded, nervously, and I saw him swim out with the next wave.

For the second time, my body got bathed in a torrent of adrenalin. God only knows how I got there, but I bumped against Chris and Ed and instinctively helped him share the load.

‘Cal,’ said Chris. ‘Oh fuck. I got to him, but he’s unconscious.’

‘Don’t worry about that,’ I lied, ‘it looks like he’s breathing. We’ve just all got to ride this out.’

Chris nodded. ‘And we have to do it now!’ he cried, just as a four metre wave arced itself above us.

I’d like to say that we swam towards the shore like superheroes, but after a minute or so we saw the rescue swimmers come towards us. Any longer and I think we would have all drowned. I nearly started crying with relief when they yanked me free from Ed and they shoved the plastic buoy into my hands.

‘Kick with your legs!’ shouted my rescuer, a small sprightly woman with raven hair, and for a microsecond I saw my mother’s face in hers.

I knew we were going to be all right.

They got to all of us, although I realised later to my chagrin that we were now only thirty metres or so from the shore. And then, I felt the sand against my feet, and I offered up prayers of thanks to whatever iterations of whatever deities may have existed in all times and cultures.

The crowd was upon me like a second series of breakers as I stepped upon the shore. I mowed through them, almost violently, towards the commotion next to me.

Ed was lying spread-eagled. A lifeguard was opening his airway and giving rescue breaths, while Chris was bent over his chest giving rapid compressions.

Oh fuck, I thought. He’s arrested.

Chris was panting. I ran over and elbowed him aside and took over. My legs were jelly but my arms still felt strong. I knew Chris would be at breaking point, hauling a dead weight for so long.

‘You’re exhausted!’ I shouted as he tumbled back, startled. I pounded Ed’s chest with rage, and felt the horrible cracking of ribs. Suddenly a bystander grabbed my arm.

‘It’s fine, son, let me take over! I’m fresh!’

She was a large Xhosa woman with a bright orange wrap on her head, and even in my dizzy exhaustion I managed to see the humour in the situation, her pendulous bosom heaving as she did a perfect cycle of CPR in concert with the lifeguard.

I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to see Chris. We were both panting so heavily our neck muscles were straining.

‘Oh baby,’ he cried, and we engulfed each other in a primal embrace.

Bella and Rob and Veronica burst through the crowd, and within moments we had all morphed into a giant group hug.

There were shouts and cheers around us, and in the distance I saw the paramedics rushing towards the scene. I heard a high howl and realised it was Frank’s voice.

Then the dizziness and the nausea came, and I broke free from my friends and fell to the ground.

I puked up a good litre of seawater and passed out.

 

 


35. Chrysalis

I came to finding myself wrapped in a lurid orange blanket. I was shivering furiously and the IV in my arm was throbbing against the convulsions.

‘Hey, hey, calm down!’

My rescuer’s face hovered above me, smiling gently. I saw my mother’s likeness again. I opened my mouth but no sound came out.

‘It’s all right, Caleb. You passed out from cold and exhaustion. You’re with the paramedics.’

‘Hello there,’ said a gruff voice in a thick Scots accent. A huge ruddy bear of a paramedic loomed over me and pulled up the head of the stretcher I was lying on. ‘I’m Hamish,’ he said, and fiddled with the pulse oximeter on my thumb to obtain a better reading.

‘Saturations are now 100% on 40% oxygen, heart rate 96,’ he called over his shoulder. Another paramedic nodded and scribbled on a clipboard.

‘What does that mean?’ I managed nervously. I could taste brack and puke at the back of my throat.

‘It’s means you’re going to be fine, sweetie,’ said the lifeguard. ‘I’m Gabriella, by the way. You and your friend are heroes. Those other two boys would have drowned if it weren’t for you.’

‘Oh my God,’ I said, as my memory clicked itself into place. ‘Chris! Frank… Ed…’

‘Don’t worry,’ she said, ‘your friend is fine. The boy you rescued is all right, but they’re busy resuscitating the other one. There’s a whole team of people working on him.’

‘Shit… we were giving him CPR...’

I yanked the nasal prongs off my face and tried to get up, but Hamish grabbed me with his big paws and held me down.

‘Easy, laddie, easy. You stay put. Your friends are here.’

Rob and Bella were walking slowly towards me, each with an arm around Chris, who was also wrapped in a blanket. Bella was holding her cell to her ear, chattering furiously.

‘He’s awake!’ Bella shouted into the phone. ‘He’s fine, just cold…. I’ll tell him you’re coming.’

Chris broke free and scrambled up to me. He grabbed my hand and brought it to his lips.

‘Oh, Cal, thank God.’

‘Hi,’ I said weakly. ‘I believe I passed out there.’

‘Yeah,’ said Chris, sitting down. ‘You gave us a fright.’

‘It was just a few minutes,’ said Rob, squatting down next to Chris. ‘You were breathing all the time. Frank’s fine, just freaked out. Um, Ed… Ed is…’

‘I know they’re busy resuscitating him,’ I said grimly.

As if on cue, I heard sirens, and saw a stretcher being loaded into another ambulance parked opposite us. I gasped as I realised I was in the beach parking lot, well away from the shore. It was definitely Ed. He was horribly pale and he had a tube in his mouth. A paramedic was breathing for him via a resuscitator bag.

‘Shit,’ I said. ‘What’s going on?’

‘He’s alive,’ said Hamish calmly. ‘They had to intubate him. His heart stopped several times and they had to shock him, but he’s stable now. They’re taking him straight through to the ICU at Good Hope.’

‘Shit,’ said Chris, shaking his head. ‘If only I could have gotten there sooner.’

‘Stop that,’ said Gabriella. ‘You saved his life. Now stay calm or I’ll get Hamish here to put up an IV on you too.’

I laughed weakly. Chris was petrified of needles, and he nodded and squeezed my hand furiously.

‘How did you get here so fast, anyway?’ Hamish asked my boyfriend. ‘You were being attended to down there by the rocks!’

‘He couldn’t stay put,’ said Rob, smiling. ‘There was just no stopping him.’

‘That’s Chris for you,’ said Bella. ‘Anyway, boys, your folks are on their way.’

‘Better tell them to go straight through to Good Hope,’ said Hamish. ‘You lads need to be formally checked out.’

‘Oh, God,’ I sighed. ‘Not again.’

It had been just a few months ago that I’d been admitted to Good Hope after being knocked over at the Waterfront.

‘Getting some frequent flyer miles, eh,’ said Chris, and kissed me on the forehead.

‘Sod off,’ I said, scowling.

‘Can we travel together in the ambulance?’ Chris asked Hamish.

‘Sure,’ he said. ‘Wouldn’t want to separate you two lovebirds.’

‘Does anyone have some insulin here?’ said Rob, rolling his eyes, ‘because I think I’m about to choke on all this sweetness.’

‘Come, grumpy,’ said Bella, yanking Rob by his collar, ‘let’s go ahead so long.’

‘Ok…’

‘And yes,’ she sighed, ‘bring Veronica.’

 

*

 

The ride to the hospital was dizzying as the ambulance snaked up the pass to Kloof Nek Road and then down into Gardens. I got sick twice. Chris held my hand throughout the journey and good-naturedly held the bowl for me, which was astounding, because he was usually completely grossed out by things like that. Hamish tried to divert my attention and instructed me to breathe deeply while he told me about growing up in Scotland. It turned out he was from Aberdeen and fell in love with a South African girl on a visit to the Cape ten years previously.

‘In fact, I fell in love with two girls,’ he said, smiling. ‘The other one was Cape Town.’

‘My Dad always said Hout Bay looks like the Highlands,’ I said, ‘especially when the clouds come hovering in.’

‘Aye,’ he said. ‘You been there? With a name like MacLeod I would hope so.’

I shook my head.

‘You’ll need to go to the Isle of Skye, then, where your clan comes from. Very beautiful there.’

‘Yeah I believe so,’ I said, coughing. The back of my throat was really burning now. ‘Dunvegan Castle.’

Hamish whistled. ‘I’m impressed, laddie. I see you’re cheeks are all rosy now from the cold. Like a Scottish lad.’

‘Ha! Dad’s only half-Scot. Other half’s Irish.’

‘Oh dear,’ he said melodramatically. ‘Well, we can’t all be perfect. What’s your mother?’

‘Afrikaans. French Huguenot branch.’

‘Ah, good people. You’re a fine mongrel.’

Chris chuckled. ‘Don’t mind the Englishman here.’

Hamish narrowed his eyes in mock disdain. ‘Oh well. We’re all from Africa, ultimately, anyway.’

We had stopped at the casualty entrance and within moments I was at the mercy of the bright lights and bleeping machines again. Chris and I were placed in cubicles next to each other. My father caused a small scene in the waiting room and had to be held back by security until the doctor had finished examining me. He scrambled in with Fiona in tow, and hugged me so tightly that I was afraid he’d cut off the blood supply to my brain.

‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph,’ he said breathlessly, ‘I don’t know what I would have done if something happened to you boys.’

‘It’s all right, Dad,’ I said soothingly. ‘You know I’m a good swimmer. And right now I’m the strongest I’ve ever been.’

‘You little shits,’ said my father, as he sat between us and grabbed Chris’s hand as well. ‘Putting yourselves in danger like that! Sounds like something I would have done.’

Fiona was clearly overwhelmed, and sat quietly, holding her son’s hand.

‘It’s ok, Mom,’ said Chris. ‘I knew Cal had my back. He’s the best swimmer I know.’

‘You two,’ she said eventually. ‘You saved those boys’ lives. I’m… I’m so proud.’

‘You better believe it,’ said Dr Singh, who had reappeared in a small whirlwind of bangles and silk scarves. Even her stethoscope was bling; she had pasted sparkly stickers on the tubing.

She caught me staring at it.

‘Oh,’ she said, ‘I find it distracts my paediatric patients. And a lot of adults, too. Now I need to take some blood from you boys.’

‘Oh, God,’ moaned Chris.

Dr Singh sighed. ‘Oh really now. You have veins the size of hosepipes and just faced death and now you’re scared of a little needle?’

‘I’ll deal with this,’ said Fiona. ‘He’s embarrassing me. I’m an ICU nurse. I’ll hold him down.’

Chris yelped as she took his blood, and my father and I sniggered.

The results came back quickly. My electrolytes were a tad off-kilter, from all the salt water I’d ingested and subsequently vomited out. Chris and Frank were fit to go home, but I had to stay overnight so they could slowly correct my sodium levels and monitor me for signs of water aspiration. Fortunately, the latter didn’t seem to be the case.

Ed hadn’t been so lucky.

He was being ventilated in the ICU, and the oxygen levels in his blood were not looking healthy. I learned later that he had aspirated a large amount of water, which had injured his lungs and almost fatally deranged his gas exchange mechanisms. His heart had gone into ventricular fibrillation twice on the beach. Had there not been a lifeguard to scramble for the automated defibrillator he would probably not have been with us anymore. It was sheer luck that some lifeguards were still hanging around in the clubhouse when the alarm was sounded.

I wanted to see Ed, but they wouldn’t let me.

I was given a private cubicle in the High Care Unit. News of the drama had spread quickly and the next thing I knew, Sister Abrahams – the very same nurse who had tended to me the last time I was there – was barking at a crowd of people at the HCU entrance.

‘It’s the press,’ said Bella, who was trying to convince me to finish my jelly and custard. ‘You boys are famous.’

‘Oh, great,’ I said, ‘just what I need. More exposure. As if my on-screen kiss with Chris weren’t enough.’

‘You’re hilarious,’ she said. ‘You’re making up for all the adventures all of us never had.’

‘Tell me about it. What’s with this year anyway?’

She sighed and laid her lovely head on my lap. We were having a rare quiet moment together: I’d ordered Chris to go home and be looked after by his mother, after I had told my father to stop fretting and let Sarah make sure he got supper. Rob had been doing that irritating hovering thing he does when things go awry, and I had to whisper into Veronica’s ear to please take him out somewhere. I didn’t know it then, but I’d sent them off on their first date.

Right now, I only wanted my oldest friend, and begged the nursing staff to let her stay a little bit longer. My shit-eating grin worked its magic.

‘I don’t know, Bell,’ I said. ‘It’s like… it’s like we’ve all been cocooned up for so long…’

‘Like a chrysalis? Yeah. Like we’re undergoing metamorphosis.’

‘Metamorphosis. I like that. We’ve all changed.’

‘Some of us more than others,’ she said, looking up at me and smiling. She squeezed my bicep. I winced slightly, and realised I was only wearing my boxers.

‘Relax, Cal,’ she said, ‘I’m just impressed. What the hell has Chris been feeding you anyway? You really are big… oh God, that came out completely the wrong way.’

I burst out laughing, and I gasped as I realised how much my chest hurt.

‘It’s okay, Bell,’ I said between giggles, ‘it’s still me, I’m the same old Cal you’ve known since primary school.’

‘I know, silly. I meant, it’s like there’s more of you – I mean, like I’m seeing the real you, finally, the person I always knew was there.’

‘You and Rob always believed in me. I owe you guys so much.’

‘It’s nothing, friendie. I’m sorry I was such a misery earlier, before all the shit happened.’

‘There’s nothing to apologise for. I swear, I’m gonna get you hooked up with a stud. Just not mine, of course.’

‘You don’t have to do that,’ she said. ‘I had this epiphany while all the commotion was going on. I saw how very nearly you could all have been… been killed, oh my God. Just like that. And before that I’d been, like, wallowing in self-pity and waiting for some man to ride up on a white horse… I’d become one of those languishing ladies I loathe so much in bad romances. I dunno. I’m going to try and stop feeling sorry for myself.’

‘Don’t sell yourself short. Look at me, Isabella Carmichael. You’re a beautiful woman. You should smile more. I mean, your teeth are perfect now. And I like what you’re doing with your hair and make-up lately. Suits you far more than that emo look you’ve done for so long. Own your inner glamour girl for once.’

She giggled and blushed. ‘Finally. I’ve been waiting for one of you to start giving me fashion advice. This fag-hag thing was becoming a bit one-sided.’

‘Sorry, dear,’ I said smirking, ‘we’re all learning this as we go along. It’s not like I can mainline the entire box set of Will and Grace through my IV. I couldn’t tell a Gucci from a Givenchy if the fate of the planet depended on it. Anyway. I’m serious. Any guy who doesn’t see what I see is plain fucking stupid. I mean, please, if our carrot-top can bag Veronica, for heaven’s sakes…’

‘You’re sweet, Cal,’ she said, and kissed me on my forehead.

I yawned and squeezed her hand.

‘Jeez, it’s late,’ I said, glancing at the clock on the wall.

‘Shit, you’re right. I think I better leave you to get some rest. God knows Chris will probably be here at sunrise with a whole flower shop in tow.’

‘Crikey, yes, if last time was anything to go by.’

‘Well, I’ll see you tomorrow, hero boy.’

‘Sure thing.’

We waved goodbye and I fumbled for the control to dim the lights. The unit was noisy with bleeps and flickering monitors, but I was so exhausted I was out within minutes. There were no dreams.

The next thing I knew, Chris’s face was hovering above me.

‘Hey,’ he said softly, and leant in to kiss me.

‘Hey,’ I said. I was disorientated for a few seconds, but soon remembered.

‘What time is it?’ I said, yawning and rubbing my face.

‘Just past eight.’

I raised a sleepy eyebrow. ‘Huh? How did you get in so early?’

‘I begged Sister Abrahams. She remembered me from last time. It’s high care, so close friends and family can be let in any time at the unit’s discretion.’

‘You charmer, you. But wait. Abrahams was on duty last night; they change shift at seven.’

‘I know,’ he said, smiling.

‘You’ve been here since sparrow’s fart waiting?’

‘Of course. I’ve been awake since five. Couldn’t sleep any more.’

‘I love you,’ was all I could say.

‘I love you too.’

He drew the curtains around the bed. I noticed there was a trolley with water and a washcloth.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Giving you your bedbath,’ he said, grinning. ‘Off with those trunks, soldier.’

‘You scheisster,’ I giggled.

‘Actually, it was Sister Abrahams’s idea. Serious.’

I shook my head in disbelief and slipped off my boxers. I closed my eyes and murmured quietly as he tenderly set to work on me.

 

*

The attending physician was happy to discharge me a few hours later when the latest blood results showed that my serum electrolytes were normal. I felt invigorated, to be honest. As I walked out with Chris and my father, I saw the doors to the ICU adjoining the HCU entrance. I stopped and took a deep breath.

‘I want to see Ed,’ I said.

‘Me too,’ said Chris.

‘Are you sure, boys?’ asked my father.

We both nodded.

‘Well. Perhaps it might be a good thing – but I warn you, it’s not easy seeing… very ill people.’

‘I know that, Dad,’ I said softly, and Chris put his arm around me.

‘Oh. Of course,’ said my father, and looked ashen. ‘I’m so stupid, Cal. You’ve seen more than your fair share. Well, I’ll wait outside if the staff allow you in.’

The chief ICU nurse was hesitant at first, but she soon put together who we were and ushered us inside. I got a shock when I saw Ed. This big hulk that had made up a third of my personal terrorist squad looked completely helpless as the ventilator puffed away and the ECG trace squirreled along the monitor. Every now and then he would twitch, as if being chastised with a cattle prod.

‘He’s still under sedation,’ said the nurse. ‘He’s not aware of his surroundings, so don’t be concerned about that.’

I was grateful that my mother’s illness had never come to life support. She never wanted that. She had slipped away gently under a haze of morphine; the only thing connected to her had been an IV line for fluid.

‘Why is his heart rate so fast?’ asked Chris.

‘He may be getting an infection, or it’s a reaction to the lung injury,’ said the nurse. ‘Don’t worry, it’s all being investigated and he’s under the best care.’

Chris and I were both freaked. We stood there watching him silently for several minutes. My mind was hollow. I felt confused, agitated. Ed always seemed as if he could survive a nuclear holocaust; now he looked brittle, fragile. I’d never felt exactly warm towards him, but I certainly didn’t want him to die.

I heard footsteps behind me.

‘Are you the boys who rescued my son?’

Chris and I both turned around.

‘Mrs Healy?’

It was Ed’s mother. She was a small woman with tired but kind eyes. She stood clasping her hands smiling sadly.

We nodded in unison.

‘It’s Caleb, isn’t it?’ she said, walking up to us. ‘And Christopher? I believe you were the one who went after him and got to him just before… just before… oh God.’

Mrs Healy covered her face with her hands.

‘Don’t worry about that,’ said Chris quietly.

‘I don’t know how to repay you for what you did,’ she said eventually. ‘Thank you… thank you so much… I meant to come see you last night, but…’

‘It’s nothing,’ I said, feeling horribly uncomfortable.

She came up to us and gave us each a hug.

We all stood for a moment, stupidly staring at the monitors.

‘What have the doctors said?’ ventured Chris.

She shrugged. ‘There’s lung damage, that’s what they know, and he’s probably going to be ventilated for a while. But they’re concerned about how long he was without oxygen. There’s a risk that… that there may be brain damage.’

‘Oh God,’ I said softly.

‘He’s moving his left side, but not his right.’

Shit, I thought. He may have had a stroke.

‘I guess we all just have to wait,’ I said, spouting the cliché like a machine.

She nodded. ‘It’s all we can do.’

‘Are you going to be all right?’ asked Chris. ‘Where’s the rest of your family?’

‘Oh,’ she said, looking away. ‘Edward’s father and I are divorced, but he’s on his way down from Johannesburg.’

I didn’t know that, and I felt genuinely weird. Twenty-four hours ago, Ed’s life was a cipher to me. Now I’d irrevocably become involved in it.

‘Is there anything we can do to help?’ I asked.

‘Goodness, no,’ she said. ‘Are you all right, Caleb? I know you’ve been here under observation.’

I told her I’d just been discharged.

‘Please, go home and rest, I’ll be fine. I will call your parents later and tell them how deeply I appreciate everything you’ve done.’

We said goodbye awkwardly, and the beeps of the machines took a long time to fade as we walked out the doors of the ICU and met my dad.

‘I nearly forgot,’ said my father, as we got into the car. ‘Frank’s parents called several times. They wanted to come see you but I told them rather to go home and look after their own son. I said they could call later today.’

‘Sure,’ I said, having completely forgotten about Frank. ‘How is he?’

‘He’s fine, apparently. Very freaked out, but he went home shortly after you were admitted. He had a panic attack on the beach when he saw Ed being resuscitated.’

‘Typical,’ said Chris. ‘The drunk one gets a clean bill of health, while the rescuer ends up with crazy blood results and almost gets lung damage.’

‘Indeed,’ said my father, scowling. ‘Morons. I just hope Edward pulls through.’

 

*

I didn’t feel like resting, despite everyone’s protestations.

‘I read that electrolyte disturbances can make you temporarily psychotic,’ said Rob, who came over later in the afternoon. ‘I mean, more than usual.’

‘Piss off,’ I said, and threw one of the sofa pillows at him.

‘Ow. Anyway, I see you’re back to normal. Are you going back to school tomorrow?’

‘I’ve been booked off for a few days, but I think I’ll go crazy if I stay at home. ’

‘Perhaps. But you do know they’re going to mob you and Chris.’

I changed the subject, not wanting to dwell more on the rescue drama. I kept seeing Ed in the ICU at the back of my head.

‘So,’ I said. ‘You and Veronica.’

Rob looked a little sheepish. ‘Yeah.’

‘So what happened last night when I chased you away?’

‘Oh, we went for burgers in Long Street. I… I um, kept talking too much.’

‘Nonsense. She was lapping up all your geeky goodness on the beach.’

He grinned broadly. ‘I’m scared I’ll fuck this up, Cal. But I can’t stop thinking about her. Was it like that for you with Chris?’

‘Oh, God, yeah. And I hadn’t told anyone because I had no idea how you guys would react. Those weeks before we finally let the cat out the bag were torture. I’d say, good going. You’ve actually been out on a date now.’

‘Yeah, because you forced it upon us.’

‘Oops. Well, thing is, is she keen on another date?’

‘Um,’ said Rob, and grinned again, ‘she kind of asked me on another date.’

‘You biscuit! Way to go!’

I suddenly felt weird, and I remembered my drunken night with Veronica.

‘What’s wrong, Cal?’

‘Um. Nothing.’

‘Spit it out, buddy.’

‘Is everything ok with you and me, you know, with what happened that night…’

Rob frowned. ‘Of course, stupid,’ he said after a while. ‘I know you had no idea I liked her. And it’s not like you dated. I’ve gotten over it.’

‘I haven’t. I still feel guilty.’

‘Would it help if I said I forgive you? Even if there’s nothing to forgive?’

I looked at my friend uneasily.

‘Very well,’ he said, and melodramatically put his hand on my forehead. ‘Caleb Stephen MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod, I hereby forgive and absolve you and declare this truce between you and the House of Jordan, in aeternam, quando caeli movendi sunt et terra dum veneris iudicare saeculum per ignem.’

I burst out in giggles. ‘Not bad Latin for a Protestant,’ I said smirking, ‘but you do realise the last line meant “when the earth shall move and Thou shalt come to judge the world by fire.” Scary.’

‘Details, details. It sounds cool. The only Latin I know is from the Mozart Requiem.’

‘Oh really?’

‘Yeah. I like to blast it when gaming.’

I shook my head in disbelief.  ‘You never cease to amaze,’ I said.

‘I aim to please. Anyway, dude, I gotta go. Say hi to Chris for me when he wakes up.’

 

*

I was about to doze off when my phone beeped with a message.

 

hi caleb. i’m sorry it’s so late and that i didn’t come visit u in hospital. i don’t know what 2 say but thank u. i’m sorry 4 all the shit i’ve caused u. it’s a bit weird 4 me right now but maybe we can talk sometime. if u want 2 talk to me. cheers. frank

 

I was flummoxed. I took a deep breath and texted back:

 

Hi. No worries. Would be cool to talk. See you at school. Cal.

 

‘Hey, sexy.’

I felt Chris hug me from behind.

‘Hi. Had a good nap?’

‘Yeah,’ he said, yawning. ‘What’s up? You look a bit freaked.’

‘Frank just texted me. He like, thanked me and apologised. It’s weird.’

‘It’s the least he can do, after you saved his life. But yeah, it must be odd for you.’

‘Everything’s gone upside down again,’ I sighed. ‘It’s making me dizzy.’

‘I hear you,’ he said, sitting down next to me. ‘What next? Alien abduction?’

‘Ha.’

‘Come, let me make you some coffee. And then we could go chill out at the gym and sit in the sauna or something. You need to take your mind off things. So do I.’

‘Wait,’ I said, ‘I have a better idea. Come.’

I took him by the hand and led him into the study.

‘Sit down,’ I said, indicating the couch opposite the piano. I walked towards my old ebony friend.

‘I’ve been meaning to do this for a long time,’ I said, and pulled up the bench and opened the keyboard.

‘Wow, Cal. You sure?’

‘I promised you,’ I said. ‘This is for you.’

I closed my eyes, paused, and launched into Rachmaninov.

 

 

 

 


36. Flotsam and Jetsam

 

The Cape Town Herald

August 23, 200-

David and Jonathan?

 

The saga of Jonathan the lion has taken a new turn – a romantic one, evidently.

The young white lion, known as Cape Town’s most famous escape artist, was recently reintroduced to the wild at the Predator Reintroduction Project (PRP) of the Fitzpatrick Nature Reserve in Mpumalanga Province. After stymying ranger’s efforts by losing his radio collar, Jonathan was successfully tracked down a few weeks later, tranquilised and fitted with a new collar. The team at the PRP have since been gathering data continuously and following his movements.

Fears of the young male not being able to survive on his own were allayed when he was spotted eating at a kill with another young male, who presumably was the hunter. The two have since been seen together almost invariably and appear to have become close companions. Jonathan’s new friend has been, appropriately, nicknamed ‘David’. He is a standard tan-coloured lion and is about the same age as Jonathan; both have juvenile manes that are still in the process of developing.

Young male lions have been known to form “bachelor groups” but, according to Mike Venter, one of the Fitzpatrick rangers, these two appear especially affectionate. ‘Maybe they’re in love,’ he quips. ‘I guess it’s not just penguins who can be in same-sex relationships. I must admit though that the notion of two gay lions is amusing.’

Homosexual behaviour has increasingly been recognised as a common phenomenon in the animal kingdom and has been interpreted as a natural method of population control when species numbers increase. Same-sex Emperor Penguin couples, for example, have been known to adopt (or even steal) eggs from other penguins and raise them as their own.

-       Seth Rabinowitz, staff reporter

 

*

 

The Cape Town Herald

August 25, 200-

Heroic Students Save Classmates in Llandudno Rescue Drama

 

High drama played out at Llandudno Beach this weekend when two high school students nearly drowned after being swept out to sea by a strong rip current.

They were saved thanks to the heroic efforts of two of their classmates who braved the treacherous waters and swam out to rescue them. One of the boys who nearly drowned is now in a serious but stable condition at the Good Hope Hospital in Gardens.

Christopher Hathaway (18) and Caleb MacLeod (18) of St Francis Collegiate happened to spot their classmates, Edward Healy and Francis Arliss (both also 18) in distress after the latter two decided to take a dip in the ocean late in the afternoon.

After calling for assistance, Hathaway and MacLeod swam out to the other two boys and managed to bring them to shore.

‘It was a truly heroic act,’ said voluntary lifeguard Gabriella Sinclair, who was one of four lifeguards who appeared on the scene shortly after the alarm was sounded. The incident happened at around 4:30 pm in an area not designated as safe for swimming, after the lifeguards were off duty. ‘While it was lucky that a few of us were still hanging about in the clubhouse, the rescue was already well under way when we got there. Chris and Caleb risked their lives to save their classmates, and they are true heroes.’

Mr MacLeod is an experienced swimmer and is a member of his school’s senior swimming team, while Hathaway, Healy and Arliss are on the First Rugby team that brought the Collegiate to a thrilling victory at the School’s Rugby Cup earlier this year.

Mr Healy is currently in the intensive care unit on a ventilator. He required CPR on the beach and it is understood that he sustained lung damage from inhaling large quantities of seawater. Mr MacLeod was admitted overnight for observation but discharged without incident this morning, while the other two boys were declared fit to go home after being seen at the Good Hope Emergency unit.

‘This incident serves to remind the public how dangerous the ocean can be,’ said Sinclair. ‘I urge people to only swim at designated areas where lifeguards are on duty. The area where the incident happened is notorious for rip currents and the two boys who were swept out made the classic mistake of trying to fight the current. If you’re ever caught in a current, it is important to try and remain as calm as possible and focus on treading water gently. The current will always return you back to the shore.’

Staff at St Francis Collegiate were unavailable for comment, and the boys’ parents have kindly asked the flood of well-wishers that have gathered at the hospital to respect their children’s privacy.

-       Siyabonga Tabane, Staff Reporter

 

*

 

Ed stayed on the ventilator for just over two weeks. He regained consciousness on his third day in hospital but developed severe pneumonia a few days later. The doctors decided to perform a tracheostomy on him for his comfort and to make nursing care easier. After two weeks, he was managing to breathe without the ventilator’s help and was soon discharged to the ward.

Chris and I visited him a couple of times. It freaked me out every time I saw him: the tracheostomy tube looked like an alien probe as energy steadily leached out of his body. By the time he was home three weeks after the incident, he had lost fifteen kilograms and weighed less than I did at the beginning of the year.

Still, I couldn’t have been more relieved. Those first weeks of watching, visiting, hoping and praying were torture. A pall blanketed everyone at the school; people seemed to speak less; greetings were cool, perfunctory. Chris took it pretty badly. After all, my charge survived with only a broken nose (courtesy of yours truly) and mild hypothermia, but Ed was clinically dead when he got to shore.

‘I’ve never seen… that…’ he said to me later. ‘How did you cope? I mean, you must have seen your mom after…’

‘It was different,’ I said soothingly. ‘We’d been prepared for it. This would be a shock to anyone.’

‘You’re so strong, Cal,’ he said, and hugged me tight.

‘We all are,’ I sighed. ‘But your psychotherapy couldn’t be starting sooner.’

After coming home, I stayed away for two days on doctors’ orders “recovering” (all I did was pig out in front of the TV) and soon I couldn’t handle it any more. I convinced my father that I could go back to school, and he reluctantly agreed. It was weird being back. It felt like months had passed since the high drama of that Saturday. People nodded and cheered as I walked down the corridors, but the good wishes felt distant, unreal.

I just wanted to be left alone with my loved ones. The rescue ordeal had done more than exhaust me physically: I felt numb, deflated, scattered all over the place, like flotsam and jetsam. It didn’t help that the Major decided to announce the whole story officially at assembly and made us get up and shake his hand on stage. Applause makes me very uncomfortable, even now, after many recitals and concerts. It’s always a shock when I hit the final notes: my fingers want to stay glued to the keys for an ice age, but after the vibrations die I have to get up and stare into the bright lights. But performers must bow. It is as much an acknowledgement of the souls who have graciously sat for so long listening to me… and only to me… as it is for them to acknowledge my little effort.

On my second day back, I was fumbling at my locker when a familiar shadow cast itself over me.

I couldn’t help shuddering; some fears leave an imprint no matter how vigorously we try and excise them.

‘Cal.’

Frank’s voice was soft and eerie. It hurt to look at him: his face was positively sallow with discomfort. The plaster on his nose was strangely comical and the great bruise stretching across his maxilla was a palette of peuce and purple.

‘Hey, Frank,’ I said as cheerfully as possible. ‘How are you?’

‘I should be asking you that. I’m… I’m ok. I’ve been meaning to talk to you but I just haven’t got round to it. Anyway. So yeah, how are you?’

‘I’m good,’ I said. ‘Shit, I really did a number on your nose. I’m sorry.’

‘Stop it, Cal,’ he said, stricken. He looked away. ‘I deserved that. If you hadn’t hit me I wouldn’t have stopped panicking. This is all so fucked up. You should’ve hit me more for all the shit I’ve caused you.’

I frowned. I’d imagined a moment like this for years, secretly playing out endless variations on a theme where my tormentors had a Damascene moment and realised how they’d ruined my life, and I’d relish the looks of guilt and remorse.

But I felt no joy at seeing him now, small and sad and confused. I just felt awkward, and slightly freaked.

‘It’s ok, Frank. It’s in the past. Apology accepted.’

‘How can you be so forgiving? I’ve been a real arsehole.’

I took a deep breath. ‘Yeah, well, I’m still here, aren’t I. I guess it takes more than name-calling and mocking to get me down. Ok, sure, there was some bad shit, and yes, it did hurt, but I know people aren’t always going to get on. It wasn’t just you, you know.’

He was silent for a while. He had winced when I mentioned how I’d been hurt, but I hadn’t said it to make him uncomfortable. Honesty was coursing through my brain in a fast torrent, and I had to yield to it.

‘I can’t pay you back for saving my life, ‘ he said, ‘and I can’t make up for all the times I caused you shit, but I want to promise you I’m not going to be a bully any more. Not towards anyone. My dad said to me that if someone saves your life, you belong to them. So, um, yeah, I’m really sorry. Here I am. Don’t think I’d be much use to you, though.’

I suddenly burst out laughing.

‘Sorry,’ I said giggling, ‘I didn’t mean to… it’s just, the thought of me owning you…’

The corner of his mouth strained into a semi-smile. ‘Yeah,’ he said, looking down. ‘That is kinda funny. Where would you put me? In your cupboard?’

‘Jeez, Frank, that’s hilarious.’

I’ve come to the conclusion that I have my own LSD-secreting gland buried deep inside my brain, and it was definitely squeezing out a good few aliquots right now. Things felt dizzyingly, luridly surreal.

Frank shrugged.

‘It’s fine, Frank,’ I said, finally, ‘I’ve got enough people in my room.’

It just came out. ‘Oh, fuck, that came out wrong.’

Frank was finally smiling unashamedly. ‘That’s cool. I mean… you and Chris are cool. I’m happy for you guys, even if you don’t believe that I feel that. For the record, I never thought you were gay just because you played piano and shit.’

‘Really?’

‘Nah. I was just being a dick, making fun of people like you because I thought things like music and being good at academics was not, like, manly. And it was easy, cause everyone went along with it because that’s how things have always been. But then I met Chris and… well… you and Chris… it fucked with my mind. And seeing you, like, fill out like you have. I dunno. I was scared.’

‘You? Scared? Scared of what?’

This was the longest conversation that Frank and I had ever had. Without being conscious of it, we’d ambled along to the pepper tree in the quad and were now sitting down, facing each other. We sat with our arms folded, each still wary of the other.

‘I mean, you know, you and Chris, you’re good looking guys, and… oh fuck… you know, I thought, what if…’

‘You’re scared you could turn gay?’ I asked, slack-jawed. ‘It’s not catching, you idiot. Ok, I didn’t ever know I’d feel like this about a guy, and neither did Chris, but you meet the right person, and, so what?’

‘Shit, Cal, you don’t understand. In my family…’

He looked completely pale now.

‘What is it, Frank?’ I said, genuinely concerned.

‘My dad’s gay, ok? I found out a year ago.’

‘Shit!’

‘Yeah. I was so angry. He was my idol, you know? And there he has this secret he’s been living with his whole life. It hurt my mom so much…’

I felt as if I’d been socked in the stomach. ‘Jeez, dude. But wait. Your folks are still together?’

‘Yeah. I can’t really explain it. But he really does love my mom, and I don’t know what’s going to happen, I think he’s been denying himself for the sake of me and my sister… he’s a good dad…we don’t talk about it, and I know that’s actually fucked up.’

‘I don’t think sexuality has anything to do with one’s parenting skills,’ I said.

‘Fuck, man. Your mom died, and I’ve still got my folks.’

‘Dude. Everybody’s got their own problems. All this must be really freaky for you to deal with. I guess I get why you’ve been such a homophobe.’

‘Yeah. Like, I blamed all gay people for the fact that my dad’s gay. Stupid isn’t it? And then like, you and Chris, seeing you two so, so damn happy… it felt so unfair… I hate him for hurting my mom, but what could he do? His own family would have disowned him.’

So much emotion was adhering to me I got up and shook my head.

‘That must be really hard, dude,’ I said.

‘Cal… I’ve never…. I’ve never told anyone this, except Tricia. Please…’

‘Of course. I won’t tell anyone.’

‘I mean, you can tell Chris, sure. I get that couples can share everything.’

‘That’s sweet, man, but maybe you can tell him yourself, if you want to. I mean, don’t you feel better now that you’ve told me? None of this is your fault.’

‘Shit, you’re right. I do feel better.’

‘I daresay you and Chris have things in common besides rugby.’

‘Fuck yeah. I heard what his dad did.’

I nodded, and the bell for final periods rang.

Gingerly, Frank held out a hand to me. ‘So yeah, um, thanks for listening. And for the record, Jason’s a fucking twat. I’m not hanging out with him any more. And he was there…’

I hadn’t thought of that at all. Jason had just stood there, staring at the ocean, throughout the whole ordeal. And he had been conspicuously quiet ever since.

I shook his hand and smiled. ‘See? No gay genes jumping from me to you. All good, man. I’m glad we spoke. If you wanna hang out with us sometime, you know where to find us. In the geek corner of the dining hall.’

He laughed.

‘You’re a good man, Cal,’ he said, and turned around, raising his hand. ‘See you around. And you and Chris should join us for touch more often. You’re not bad for a beginner, MacLeod.’

For a moment, I held my hands up in disbelief at the universe, but then thought better of it, and walked to class feeling a strange mixture of gratitude and regret.

 


37. Around The Unchanging Star

 

Ed regained full consciousness a week into his stay, though he couldn't speak yet because of the tracheostomy and ventilation. Once the pneumonia settled and he could manage breathing on his own, they put in what is called a speaking valve, which allowed him to vocalize by covering the hole in his neck.

He seemed to be making a full recovery... except for one thing: he was very weak on his left side.

CT scans revealed what everybody feared: he had suffered a stroke.

When he first saw Chris and me he stared at us wide-eyed in fear. It was awful seeing him tear up. I stayed away after that for a good while, until I heard he was in a regular ward.

'I'm sorry,' he had groaned when he saw us. He mouthed the words in a reedy growl. It would take some time before his voice recovered. The doctors said there was a slim chance of his stroke recovering, or at least improving. He would need intensive physiotherapy and occupational therapy.

One thing was certain: his rugby career was over.

Chris took it very badly.

'What if I got to him sooner?' he said miserably after the visit. We were lying together on the couch in his living room watching The Empire Strikes Back.

'You really have to stop beating yourself up, dude,' I said. 'You saved his life! Have you made an appointment with the psychologist yet?'

'Yeah. Next week.'

'Finally.'

He nodded. 'This hero status thing is weird, isn't it?'

'I know. I don't feel like I'm anything special.'

He wrapped his legs around me and kissed me. 'You are very special,' he murmured. 'But I know what you mean.'

Sure enough, the lifeguards had blabbed to someone in the fire department who blabbed to someone's girlfriend whose sister worked at the Mayor's office and the next thing we knew, we were going to be presented with medals for bravery at a formal function.

'Only fair,' said Rob a few days later as we tucked into some Chinese at Bella's place after going to the movies. We'd all arranged to meet up once a week for an evening free from studying. Finals were just under two months away and pressure was on. It was actually Dad's suggestion that we granted ourselves the odd respite to keep us motivated.

'I hate attention like that,' I said. 'It's bad enough being stared at doe-eyed by the juniors.'

'Aw, puppy crushes making you awkward?' said Chris. I made a face at him.

'I wonder how many of them are fantasizing about you two,' said Bella, rubbing some more salt into the wound.

'Jeez, Bell, that's just weird!' I cried.

'No really. Many girls think the idea of two hot boys together is seriously... well, hot. Did you know that a significant amount of gay romance - especially slash fiction - is written by straight women?'

'Slash fiction?' said Chris, looking puzzled.

'Oh, you boys are so naïve. It's fan fiction usually pairing two well-known characters from a film or TV series. Usually two guys. Like Kirk and Spock from Star Trek. In fact that was the first trope to surface in the genre. Kirk slash Spock. Hence slash.'

I giggled nervously. For once Bella knew more about Star Trek than I did.

'Oh please, Cal, there's enough suppressed homoeroticism between those two to fuel a whole Pride Parade.'

'Oh God,' sighed Rob, 'Star Trek isn't ever going to be the same again. Next thing you know you'll be telling me there's sexual tension between Han Solo and Luke.'

'Ooh, now that's sexy,' said Bella mischievously. 'Young Luke enfolded in Han's strong, sheltering arms. I’m certain there were deleted scenes after Han rescued Luke from that abominable snowman on that ice planet.'

'That's just wrong!' said Rob melodramatically. 'Stop ruining one of my reasons to live! And it was a Wampa, by the way, not an abominable snowman.'

'Wait, wait,' I said breathlessly. 'Does 't work it both ways? Hmm... Lois Lane and Lana Lang... hotness.'

'I guess so,' said Bella.

'I'm going to have to check this out,' said Chris, who started googling on his phone. 'Mmm. Superman and Lex Luthor. Batman and Green Lantern.'

Rob glared at Chris.

'Something wrong?'

'It's not the same-sex thing,' he protested. 'It's that you're messing with the canon. You know I'm a purist.'

'Ok, grumpy pants,' said Bella. 'Speaking of hot couples, have you all got your stuff sorted for the Matric Dance? It’s in two weeks, in case it slipped your minds.'

'Shit!' I exclaimed. 'I... I completely forgot. Um...'

'Of course we have,' said Chris, and put his arm around me. 'That is, Cal, if you'll do me the honor of being my date.'

'Of... of course,' I stammered, and then blushed. 'But you do realize that we're going to be the first gay couple going to the dance in the school's history. I can't say it's not going to be a bit overwhelming. Some people will still be shocked.'

'I'll be there to protect you,' said my boyfriend, drawing me in close. 'I want to show the whole world how happy we are. How happy you make me.'

'Nurse! Insulin!' cried Rob.

'Stop it, Rob,' hissed Bella. 'Anyway. I'm so proud of you boys.'

I smiled. The more I thought about it, I realized Chris was right. There was nothing to be ashamed of. It would be cool to go with our heads held high - fuck whoever disapproved.

'Great stuff,' said Bella dreamily. 'And you, Robbie dearest? You asked Veronica yet?'

Rob grinned shyly. 'Um, she kind of asked me before I could.'

I whooped. 'Impressive! Where is she tonight, anyway?'

'Oh, she's seeing her brother who's visiting from Joburg.'

'Miss her, stud?' Chris jibed.

'What do you think,' Rob retorted.

Bella looked away for a moment. Then it struck me: she didn't have a date. And she was being deliberately brave now; I knew her too well. I felt awful.

'Hey Chris,' I said, 'don't you want to come help me get some coffee for everyone?'

'Uh, ok,' he said, getting up. I winked at him, and he followed me into the kitchen.

'Eish,' he said, after I told him my concern. 'You're right. Everybody except her has a significant other.'

He thought for a moment.

‘I have an idea,’ he said.

‘What?’

‘How about… we both be her dates?’

‘That’s a brilliant idea. On one condition.’

‘Eh?’

‘I have the last dance with you.’

‘Like you had to ask, sexy,’ he said, and whipped me into dancing position. He dipped me dramatically.

‘Hey,’ I protested, ‘I thought I said I was going to lead.’

‘Not this time,’ he said, grinning, and led me into a fox-trot across the kitchen. I knew the basic step, but it took a few seconds for me to work out the reverse pattern.

‘Where did you learn to dance so well?’

‘My cousin Leah’s a ballroom dancer,’ he said. ‘I used to be one of her lab rats.’

He twirled me, and we crashed into the washing machine. I toppled over and we giggled like schoolgirls. He helped me up and I nuzzled my cheek against his. I grabbed him by the waist and took his hand in mine.

‘My turn,’ I said, and started leading him.

*

Bella protested at first but Chris did his puppy-dog eyes routine on her and she capitulated. Soon she was in a frenzy about getting a dress sorted out at the last minute, because she had assumed that she wouldn’t be going.

Rob was also freaking out a bit.

‘I need to look my best!’ he said to us at break the next day. ‘What do I wear? I don’t have a tux!’

‘Relax,’ said Chris. ‘I’ve got that sorted.’

‘How?’

‘Well, my dad has a bespoke tailor… here in Cape Town, would you believe. He’s always had his suits made by Hassan and sent up to KZN. He used to fly to London to have them made in Saville Row, when he was still working for the accounting firm. Their headquarters were in the UK. Then he discovered Hassan did an even better job at half the price.’

‘But that’s going to cost a fortune!’ I said.

Chris grinned mischievously. ‘Not if we put it on my dad’s tab.’

‘No!’

‘Surely I’m entitled to a little more revenge,’ he said with a truculent expression. ‘And if it helps my pals out, all the better! And by the way, Bella, Hassan’s wife is an expert dressmaker… she could sort you out with something in record time.’

Bella thought for a moment. ‘Well, if my two dates are going to look fabulous I guess I can’t let them outshine me. Count me in.’

We arranged to go the next afternoon. I told my dad about the plan and he thought it was very amusing.

‘Although,’ he said smiling, ‘I don’t think you need to have a tux made. Though you might still need to go to this Hassan guy for some alterations.’

‘What do you mean?’ I said, raising an eyebrow.

‘Follow me,’ he said, and led me up the stairs to the master bedroom, into the dressing area adjoining the en-suite.

A pang of sadness struck me as I saw that most of my mother’s clothes were still there, untouched.

He saw me staring. ‘I know I have to let go of them, Cal,’ he said softly. ‘But I just can’t… yet.’

I nodded. ‘So what did you want to show me?’ I said, changing the subject.

‘One moment,’ he said, and fumbled through his cupboard. ‘Aha!’

He retrieved a zipped-up suit bag.

‘My old tux,’ he said proudly. ‘I wore this at my wedding. It’s pure wool with silk lining and was made for me. It doesn’t fit me any more but I’m certain it will fit you.’

He zipped it open and held it in front of me. It was a beautiful tuxedo.

‘Wow, Dad, that’s awesome!’ I said, touched. ‘I had no idea you still had it.’

‘I always kept it, hoping a son of mine would wear it someday.’

‘Aw, Dad,’ I said, and hugged him.

‘Go on, try it on.’

‘My God,’ said my father when I slipped into it. ‘It’s practically perfect. Although you’ll need to have the trousers altered slightly. And of course, you should get a new wing-collared shirt.’

‘Thanks, Dad,’ I said.

‘You and Chris will certainly make a dashing couple. Or trio. I think it’s very sweet that you asked Bella to go with you. Why that girl doesn’t have a man panting at her feet, I don’t know.’

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘I feel bad.’

‘It’s always like that, actually. So many men are intimidated by smart women.’

‘But not you,’ I said, sitting down on the bed.

‘Hell no. I remember on our first date, I was trying to impress your mother by talking about Freud. I’d done a semester of psychology in my first year and thought I was the shit. She lost no time in correcting me, informing me that I was actually talking about Jung and explained some of his theories to me. I was hooked.’

‘Sounds just like Mom,’ I said, smiling sadly.

‘Shit, son, it’s been nine months already.’

‘I know,’ I said, looking away. ‘It’s all gone so quickly. How… how are you, Dad?’

‘I miss her at every turn. It’s still hard, Cal. As I’m certain it must be for you and Sarah. But, I think of what she would have done. So I get up and carry on. And of course, I have you and Sarah. It’s been great having her move back in for a bit.’

‘You going to miss her when she moves into her new flat next week?’

‘Of course, but she has fled the nest once already. As you will, soon.’

‘Dad?’

‘Come on, you’ll be going to varsity soon. Or taking a gap year. Even if you study here in Cape Town, I’m certain you’d want to move into digs? I mean, you can stay at home as long as you like…’

‘Shit, Dad, you’ll be on your own if I…’

‘I’ve got to be brave, Cal, and face this. I can’t prevent my children from growing up. I’ll have to get used to it sooner or later. It’s the hardest thing about being a parent, that you have to set your children free – the most precious things you ever had. You’ll understand that, one day, if you become a father. But you hope they’ll come back to visit from time to time.’

I was silent for a moment. ‘Dad. Whatever happens, I’ll always come back. Frequently. Not because I have to. Because I want to.’

‘You don’t know how proud I am of you, son,’ he said, his voice cracking. ‘Jeez, let’s go down and have a beer.’

‘Good idea,’ I said, and motioned him to go ahead. I noticed the woolen cardigan my mother loved, hanging in her cupboard. I went up to it and buried my face in it. I could still smell her, her perfume, impregnated into the fabric. I closed my eyes and imagined her around me.

‘I miss you, Mom,’ I said softly.

*

The dance was now just a few days away. Chris’s tailor had worked double time to kit us out in suitable finery. Rob decided to go for an old-fashioned top hat and tails look while Chris had a new tux made for himself. The three of us stood admiring ourselves in front of the mirror as we went for the final fitting.

‘We look like we could be part of the Rat Pack,’ said Chris, grinning.

I had to admit, we had cleaned up pretty nicely.

‘Aren’t you two not supposed to see each other’s outfits before the dance?’ quipped Rob.

‘It’s not like it’s a big secret,’ I said. ‘It’s not like Chris could surprise me walking down the stairs while I waited for him. I mean, unless he were going to go for a low-cut dress and sling-back stilettos.’

Rob rolled his eyes while Chris sniggered. ‘Ok, sorry, I walked into that one.’

‘And I have to do my hair, darling,’ said Chris, batting his eyes at us. ‘Besides, if anyone’s going to be waiting, it would be me, as I have to do the driving.’

‘Don’t rub it in,’ I said, frowning. I had failed my first attempt at my driver’s licence spectacularly, after mowing down half the beacons during the parallel parking section, which Rob had captured with glee on his cellphone.

‘Better luck next time,’ said Rob. ‘Anyway, I think it’s cool that you guys are being Bella’s white knights. And we’re all sitting at the same table, so that’s going to be awesome too.’

‘Any idea who else is going to be sitting with us?’ I asked.

‘Who cares,’ said Rob. ‘I just did a block booking, so I don’t know who the other three will be. Doubt it would be Jason though!’

I raised my eyebrows.

‘What?’

‘Nothing. I mean, he’s been awfully quiet.’

‘Yeah, well,’ said Rob, ‘his whole little empire has fallen, hasn’t it?’

‘I guess,’ I said, shrugging.

*

The next day, school would early for the Michaelmas long weekend. I guess there was a subtle psychology in having the dance on the Saturday, so that afterwards just over two weeks separated us from our final examinations.

‘What’s it, buddy?’

I hadn’t been able to sleep since four, and I was standing staring out at my bay window, looking at the garden still splashed with dying moonlight. It was September already but the cold had dragged itself out painfully, refusing to give up, even as blossoms had started appearing all over the Peninsula for weeks now.

‘Oh, nothing, can’t sleep.’

I heard Chris get up and walk up behind me. He folded his arms around me and nuzzled my neck.

‘Come back to bed,’ he said sleepily. ‘You’re freezing. What gives?’

I reached up to kiss him on the cheek. ‘I don’t know. I was just thinking, it’s Michaelmas – the last Michaelmas weekend we’ll ever have at school – and then it’s exams, and then…’

‘I know,’ he said, yawning, and led me back into bed. ‘I get freaked out thinking about it myself.’

‘You too? I thought it was only me.’

He drew me towards him and we spooned. I shivered a bit, adjusting to his wonderful warmth.

‘It’s change, that’s all,’ he said, ‘God knows we’ve both have our fair share of that. And I’m not a boy any more… shit, I’m almost nineteen.’

I had nearly forgotten.

‘Jeez, Chris, I’m such a bad boyfriend! Your birthday – it’s… it’s… oh fuck, I know it’s in October but…’

‘It’s ok, dufus, I never actually told you the date.’

‘But I should have asked.’

‘It’s the eighth,’ he said good-naturedly.

My heart filled with ice.

‘Cal? What’s wrong?’

October the 8th. The day just after my mother died. The sunlight was different, then, when she closed her eyes for the last time. It had crept in, illuminating her face in a reddish glow; it was inconceivable that the planet was about to wind itself around its unchanging star to that exact same point.

‘It’s… it’s nothing,’ I stammered ‘it’s just that, October 7th, it will be… it will be one year since…’

He held me tight. ‘Your mom?’

I nodded quietly.

‘Shit, buddy, I’m so sorry. One year… jeez… has it been that long?’

I shrugged, and my voice cracked a little. ‘It’s gonna be weird. But… but let’s rather focus on your birthday. It will be nice to celebrate.’

‘We don’t have to do anything if you don’t want to,’ he said gently.

I shook my head. ‘This isn’t anybody’s fault. I’ll be ok… just… I think I’ll need you just to be there, on the day.’

He kissed me, and sighed deeply. ‘I’m not going anywhere, my love,’ he said. ‘Change can come. But it will have to deal with the two of us together.’

‘Sounds good,’ I said, and suddenly felt heavy with sleep. I yawned. 'I'm glad you stayed over, even though it breaks the school night rule.'

'I'll charm my way out of that one,' he said, chuckling. 'I'll just tell your dad I was way too tired to drive home after our date last night. And it's not like he'll fall for me saying I slept on the couch.'

I elbowed him gently in the ribs, and he responded by tickling me.

'Not fair!' I gasped between by hysterical giggles, and decided to shut him up with my secret weapon as I managed to inch my hand into his pajama bottoms.

He grinned and lost his shirt in seconds.

 


38. In Rain and Steam and Mist

 

It was the day before the dance. Those of us who wanted to could attend the Michaelmas service after school ended early, and I must admit it was a beautiful service. Chris was perpetually fascinated by all the bells and smells of Catholicism, even if he'd already known a little bit of it, having been raised Anglican. 

'Well, I see we didn't burst into flames,' he quipped as we walked out of the school chapel.

I elbowed him. 'Don't feed into my Catholic guilt,' I said. 'It's big enough already.' 

'I could think of other things that are big enough already.'

'You should be so lucky.'

'Actually,' he said, smirking, 'I am.'

I was about to elbow him again when It started raining. The wind picked up and we hurried across the field to the awning outside the gymnasium. 

We were soaked. Chris shook himself like a dog. 

'This is when I miss Durban the most,' he said. 'Right now I bet it's 22 degrees with a warm breeze and perfect surf.'

I nodded, remembering the winter breaks we took there when I was small. It has always seemed to me that the beaches of Africa's east coast were forged in the heart of another star: they glow golden-pink in the twilight, as warm and as lazy as the Indian Ocean that bathes them. The Cape's sands are powdery, ghostly white; they yawn in melancholy beauty, content to shimmer cold in the moonlight while the mountains loom and the Atlantic surges.  

I brightened. 'I have the keys to the pool,' I said. 'We can go warm up in the steam room and change into sweats afterwards.'

'Really? I thought Mr Mazibuko only loaded the keys out for a month or so, and it isn't  swimming season now.'

'I made a copy,' I said mischievously. 

'You little scheisster!'

'See, I'm not just a pretty face.'

 

*

I had extra kit in my locker, and convinced Chris to take a dip in the pool with me before we went to the steam room. Thankfully, the heating was still on. I love swimming when it rains - indoors or outdoors - and the flailing torrent raging down on the gym’s perspex roof made us feel as if we were caught inside the bowels of a giant translucent sea monster. We had the pool completely to ourselves. We seemed cut off from the rest of the world, as if we were in a lake on an island in a lake on an island, ad infinitum.

We messed around in the luke-warm water for at least half an hour, and then ambled through to the steam room. Through the heavy mist, the lines of Chris’s muscles became sylph-like; I couldn’t help smiling idiotically as I drank in - once again - his magnificent physique. He was a living kouros. He sat lost in thought with his head in one hand, the opposite arm dangling heavily by the gravity of its musculature, so that he looked like a cross between Rodin’s Thinker and Michelangelo’s David.

‘You’re driving me crazy,’ I confessed. ‘Did you ever consider being an artist’s model?’

He raised his eyebrows and opened his mouth slightly.

‘What?’ I asked.

He looked sheepish. ‘Um, well, what would you say if that had already happened?’

‘No way!’ I said, and laughed. ‘When?’

‘Um, well, when I was in Form IV. A mate of mine’s sister was a varsity art student and had seen a couple of us running around with our shirts off at rugby practice. She asked us to volunteer for her life-drawing class.’

‘And you said yes?’

‘It wasn’t like that... I lost a bet at poker.’

‘So you posed in the buff.’

‘No. Yes. Um, I could wear this posing thong but it just looked too porno so I decided to not wear anything.’

I giggled and slapped him on the back. ‘You biscuit. Did it feel weird?’

‘At first, and I’m certain some people were checking out my beef for more than artistic purposes, but the money was good.’

‘I’m impressed. I kinda thought that you didn’t need pocket money.’

Chris frowned. ‘Hey, I know I’ve had a lot of privileges but I’ve always believed in doing things on my own steam. I don’t want to owe my dad anything... especially now. I’d hate for people to think I’m just another spoilt trust-fund brat.’

He sounded bitter. ‘I’m... I’m sorry, man,’ I said. ‘I didn’t mean...’

He softened. ‘It’s all right, I know you didn’t mean it that way.’

‘Thanks. I just meant, I really respect you for not taking things for granted like that, dude.’

‘Aw, you’re sweet.’

I exhaled deeply. ‘I’d love to see the art that you inspired,’ I said, smiling.

‘Ha! I dunno. For me, it’d be like looking at nude pics of myself. And if I may confess, there were a couple of hot girls in that class, and it was... pardon the pun... hard sometimes.’

‘That’s classic, dude!’

‘Hey, you’re not telling the others, promise?’

‘Mmm, ok, but now I have some leverage when it comes to blackmailing you.’

‘As if! I’ll tell Rob you actually like Jar-Jar Binks.’

‘Ok. Stalemate.’

I was falling in love with him all over again, just listening to his voice. I caught him staring lazily at me.

‘What?’ 

‘Oh, um, something just occurred to me, I don’t know why.’

‘Go on.’

‘I just find it interesting that we’re both uncut. I mean, I know we’re in the majority, but, I don’t know. Does it... does it matter to you?’

'Of course not, numbnuts. You’re - you’re beautiful. Every bit of you.’

He smiled broadly.

‘Since we’re talking turkey, I have a freaky story to tell,' I added. 'Seems now that I'm one of the two gays in the village everybody's asking me all sorts of advice. Like sex advice. Girls mostly!'

Chris raised an eyebrow. 'Oh really? This sounds entertaining. Well, you are the biology brainbox of the school, maybe they see you as like the resident doctor.'

'Uh huh,' I said, not convinced. 'One girl actually asked me what's the best way to touch a man!'

Chris burst out laughing while I reddened. 'Oh, man, that is hysterical! Well, you are an expert, bud, I certainly have no complaints.'

'You're too kind,' I managed.

'So what did you tell her?' he asked with a wicked twinkle in his eye.

'I said, let him show you.'

'Nice save.'

'And then her friend wanted to know if there was any difference between an uncut guy versus a cut guy. Like I would know, since one can't be both. I mean, like you said, we're both uncut…'

'God, girls can be strange. What did you say?'

'Well, I said to her she should… er, try both and decide for herself. And remember that cut or uncut the dick belongs to a human being.'

'Aw, you're such a boy scout,' he said, and sidled up to me and hugged me.

'Funny how people can fuss so much about a small flap of skin. I've always felt you should let a guy decide for himself when he's grown up. I mean, religious and medical reasons aside.'

'I agree. You know, I had a girlfriend who wouldn't, you know, sleep with me because I was uncut.'

'Seriously?'

'Yeah. She was from the US. Most guys are cut there.'

'Yeah I know. Good old John Harvey Kellogg.'

'Kellogg?'

'Yup. He of the Corn Flakes. He was a quack who wrote a very successful medical home advisor in the nineteenth century… he advocated that circumcision would prevent masturbation.'

'Jeez. That's fucked up.'

'Anyway, I've read that most American women have never seen an uncut dick before,' I said, 'though I think that might me an exaggeration.'

'Certainly not in this girl's case,' he said. ‘She was totally grossed out. Said it was dirty.'

'For fuck sakes! You don't say that to someone!'

He shrugged and looked away. 'One of the most embarrassing moments of my life. And it's not like I was dating her to bag her. In fact, she was the one who tore off my clothes... and then she stopped when she saw, you know, all of me.'

'You don't have to explain, Romeo,' I said, and laid my head on his shoulder. Now that my jealousy was paling in the security of our relationship, the thought of Chris with a girl really turned me on. ‘Her loss.’

I reached down and gave him an affectionate tug on the piece of skin in question. He jumped and we both collapsed in giggles.

‘Stop that,’ he said, ‘or I’m going to have to break a whole bunch of the school decency rules.’

‘Promises, promises.'

 

*

 

Just as we got to The Thing we saw Rob getting into his car. I waved to him but he didn't catch my eye. 

'Hey,' said Chris, 'he needs to fetch his tux from my house, I nearly forgot Hassan dropped our stuff off last night.'

'Eish, you're right.' I ran up to Rob just as he started his car. He got such a fright he slammed on the brakes and nearly bumped me with the lurch of his ancient Golf. 

'Jeez, Cal, don't do that!'

'Sorry, man. Open up, it's pissing down.'

I jumped into the passenger side and wiped my face. He looked pale and spooked. 

'Hey, dude, what's up?'

I saw his shirt was ruffled and stained with mud. 

'It's nothing,' he said, looking away. 

'Robbie, you're the worst liar I know. Come on. Level with me. Looks like you got caught in a scuffle.'

Chris rapped on the door and got onto the back seat.

'Don't mind me, but I sensed there's something going on.'

'You guys are incorrigible!' said Rob, sighing. 

'Spill it,' I said, nonplussed. 

'Ok. I bumped into Jason and he obviously hasn't taken kindly to Veronica and me becoming an item.'

I groaned. 'I was wondering when old Fuckface would surface. You ok?''

'Yeah. He was just trying to do his intimidati