|Primary Characters:||Cal, Dan, Della, Cameron|
|Description:||Cal’s trying to get back on his feet after the Collins’ affair. Dan loses his wife. When Dan ends up in trouble, Cal takes him home with him, which leads to misunderstandings. Della gets caught in the middle and Cameron’s on the warpath.|
When she met Cal and Dan at the airport, she almost regretted her decision. She felt shy and awkward around them, and though both appeared genuninely pleased to see her, she shrank back from their greetings and kept to herself the entire duration of the flight. Cal and Dan exchanged concerned looks but couldn’t very well begin discussing the matter with the other passengers listening in. So they each brooded on in silence, until they set down outside of Nice. Dan called for a rental car to take them out to his aunt’s house, where he’d spent many a summer, while his mother was still well enough to travel. That was a long time ago, but he’d continued to visit now and again. His aunt never used it anymore, so it was understood that he could stay there any time he wanted, unless his cousin Audrey claimed the privilege.
During the drive, Della perked up considerably, which might or might not have something to do with the drinks she’d grimly gulped down, as if daring her hosts to stop her. In reality, it had more to do with the intense Provencal sunlight, and the fields of lavender they were passing through. Cal, on the other hand, who hadn’t been drinking, kept a nervous eye on Dan’s reckless driving, but for the time being, he was quiet. Eventually, Dan pulled up outside a small, but luxurious white house. Della gasped as she caught sight of the walled in garden and the low white washed building. The only times she’d ever seen anything like it was in movies. Whatever happened, it would be worth it. She felt like she was the heroine of one of her favorite romantic movies. All that was missing was the little scarf tied under her chin, à la Audrey Hepburn. As she got out of the car, unsteadily after sitting in a cramped position for so long, she abruptly felt herself being pulled down to earth again. Who did she think she was? She was nobody. And the men she loved didn’t love her, they loved each other.
“I’ll – I’ll go and change.”
“Good idea. So will I. Cal?”
“What? Oh, yes, I suppose so.”
“And I’ll fix you some supper. Champagne.”
“I don’t think Della should be drinking champagne on top of all that Scotch she had earlier.”
“Relax. Champagne never hurt anybody. Though you could be right. She is rather small. If she gets too drunk, the evening could be cut short. Hmm. Mineral water? It’s sparkly.”
Dan showed his guests to their rooms and got into a small argument with Cal about who got to carry Della’s bag up to her room. Hers was the prettiest, but smallest, right underneath the roof. It used to be Audrey’s, but nowadays, she and her husband used the master bedroom. Out of courtesy, Dan saw to Della first, and so she missed the guys’ sleeping arrangements entirely. To Cal’s relief, Dan ignored the master bedroom and put his friend in one of two nearly identical smaller rooms at opposite ends of a short passage.
“I’d let you have the large bedroom, but I don’t think Audrey would like that. She keeps all kinds of odds and ends in there.”
“My cousin. My aunt’s daughter.”
Dan hurriedly changed into something more comfortable, then rushed into the kitchen, boyishly enthusiastic about showing his friends a good time. In the meantime, Cal changed rather more slowly, wondering what Dan had planned for the evening. He was hoping it would be something he could live with, and not only him, but especially Della. Dan’s idea of cooking ran along the lines of opening cans and bottles, but he did add a few quick finishing touches before proudly showing Cal the dining table on the terrace. Cal didn’t usually worry about material goods, but this luxury setting was like something straight from Hollywood. He guessed that this must be impressing Della enormously, and even he felt slightly awed. Where was Della anyway?
“Hasn’t she been gone rather a long time?”
“Go up and call her, will you. The champagne’s getting warm. Oh, I know I said I’d get her mineral water, but I thought that just one sip wouldn’t do any harm. Look. There’s Evian too and some orange juice if she prefers that. And beer for you and me.”
Cal hesitantly ascended the stairs. He wasn’t at all sure if it was a good idea to knock on her door. What if she was still not dressed? Or if she was in the shower? What if she would simply refuse to come out at all? But he knew that he ought to have a go at drawing her out. After what Cameron had put her through, it was only fair that they made it up to her any way they could. He couldn’t prevent himself from rather angrily blaming Dan for the entire situation. That kid’s sense of humour was just a little too much. In the end, he compromised and called Della’s name. No reply. Was she in the shower? Or was she simply ignoring him? Again. This time he heard a slight noise, as if she was approaching the door. To his relief, she now opened it a crack and peered out, suspiciously.
“Dan’s got supper waiting. Are you ready?”
“I suppose so. I’m not really hungry.”
Cal didn’t know what to say. He didn’t want to beg, but he was desperately hoping Della would thaw out a bit so he could talk to her the way he used to, before any of this began. How he missed those days. Before Anne. Before Dan’s wife’s death. Before the ridiculous misunderstandings. At least she didn’t appear to be intent on hiding out in the guest room. She closed the door behind her and waited for him to walk on ahead. But that was all wrong. He wanted to let her pass first. An awkward silence followed, until she realized what his intention was. Again, she hesitated, then she walked on, and down the stairs, without looking back.
He could tell that she was avoiding any conversation at all. Was there anything more behind her silence than the unfair treatment Cameron had subjected her to? Could it be – no. He mustn’t be such a fool. If there was anyone she was attracted to, it had to be Dan. What girl wouldn’t be, Cal thought bitterly. Then he remembered Dan’s almost complete lack of appreciation for his own good looks and lost the train of thought. They were standing in front of the dining table, looking out across the fields surrounding the house.
Again, the sheer beauty of the landscape held Della’s attention. She couldn’t help smiling. When she sat down she noticed that Dan had placed a small bouquet of roses in front of her plate. She looked up and met Dan’s eyes, then looked away, her face hot and red all over. Cal caught her look and felt himself shrink inwardly. It was true. She was falling for Dan.
Dinner turned out to be a subdued affair. Despite Dan’s best efforts, he was unable to draw Della out. Her replies were mainly monosyllabic and she didn’t show much enthusiasm over the expensive dishes or the champagne. To Cal’s relief, she appeared to be favouring the mineral water over the champagne, but perhaps that was merely because there was more of it.
“If you’re really not going to have any more, why don’t I take the two of you on a tour of the grounds? It’s not too late for you, is it, Della?”
“I know it’s getting dark, but there’s a full moon and if you’re not too tired we could take a walk around the garden and so on.”
It occurred to Della that she was being a very poor guest, not to show any more appreciation of her host’s efforts. After all, this was the holiday of a lifetime, and she knew she would have to live on the memories for the rest of her life. Though the grounds appeared to be extensive, Dan didn’t take them on a long roundabout walk. Instead, he focused on the highlights, a gazebo, a few statues that were pretty good, Cal suspected, but naked young men didn’t appeal to him, so he didn’t pay much attention. There was also a fountain, featuring a dolphin and small version of a maze. All very pretty and tasteful, but Cal suspected that everyone’s minds were on other matters.
“And now – the pool. I’ve saved the best for last. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll just get a few refreshments for later.”
Della stared in disbelief at the small round pool. It was the kind she associated with Beverly Hills and Palm Springs, not Provence, but her worst objection was that apparently Dan was hoping they’d all jump in together. Was this his idea of a joke? She had brought her bikini, but she certainly hadn’t imagined that they would be taunting her with their intimacy in quite this way.
“What is this? Your idea of a joke?”
“Don’t ask me. This is all Dan’s show. He didn’t confide in me. All he would tell me was that he was very sorry for what Cameron did to you and that he wanted to make it up to you.”
“So you’re not going to bathe?”
“Not if I have any say in it. Look, if you’d like to use the pool, I’ll leave you to it and -”
“What is this? Leaving so soon? Come on. Where is your bathing attire?”
Bathing attire? Did he really talk like that, or was this Dan’s idea of some kind of complicated cineastic joke?
“If you think I’m going to -”
“Oh, come on. Didn’t you bring your bikini?”
“That’s not the point.”
“Of course it is. Run upstairs and get it. What about you Cal? Did you -”
“No, of course I didn’t. What are you up to?”
“What’s wrong with you? Don’t you think we deserve a bit of fun? All of us. Please. Humour me. After all, I’m your host. I’ll lend you a pair, Cal. No problem. There’s plenty of stuff here. Just a second. Run along now, Della. Be a good sport. Please.”
And once again, Cal could see at first hand the magic Dan’s smiles could work. Della looked as if she wanted to run away and never come back, but after a few seconds of Dan’s treatment, she slowly and reluctantly did as he asked her to. Cal squirmed uncomfortably. Taking his clothes off in public wasn’t his idea of fun. It appeared as if Dan had been reading his mind, judging by the amused smile playing on his lips.
“You could change while I’m inside getting a second pair. Have these. They’re all the same. Or don’t you like red?”
“What? No. But never mind. Give me those, if you’re still dead set on making a fool of me and Della.”
“Trust me. You’ll love this. Why so suspicious? Oh, alright. I see your point, but I swear to you this time there won’t be any embarrassing moments. Not that kind anyway.”
To Cal’s surprise and dismay, Dan now winked at him in a very suggestive way. How on earth could this imp be joking about that? By the time Dan returned, Cal had changed into the ridiculously small and tight swimming trunks and slipped into the pool. He had to admit that it felt wonderful. Dan got in too, but left plenty of space in between them, something which would have reassured Cal, if it hadn’t been for Dan’s teasing smile.
“Shouldn’t there be oysters and caviar too, to go with this setup?”
“Oh, do you like that stuff? I hate it. There might be something in the larder, though. Mme Simone will have something to say about the state of the kitchen.”
“The housekeeper. She’s been given some time off. I don’t like to have strict middle-aged women bossing me about.”
“I can imagine. A housekeeper.”
Cal shook his head as if in disbelief.
“What’s keeping Della do you think? You do think she’ll come down, don’t you?”
“How could she resist your smile?”
The bitter tone of Cal’s voice got through to Dan and he frowned. He knew he’d treated Cal rather shabbily, after all the kindness his friend had shown him. But wasn’t he making up for it all by treating him to this trip and by giving him an opportunity of wooing Della? Though now that he’d managed to bring his plan to fruition, he was beginning to have slight regrets. Seeing Della again after all this time had made her appear in a new light. He’d always liked her and found her pretty enough, but since he was already happily married, he’d hardly seen her as anything other than one of the boys. Now there was something new in his reaction to her. He was interrupted by the sound of Della’s footsteps approaching. She was wearing a robe, but he could see that she was indeed wearing a bikini underneath. To say that she looked happy and relaxed couldn’t have been further from the truth, but she was here and about to get into the pool with them. So far so good.
Dan smiled invitingly and after some hesitation, Della shed the robe and quickly got in. She had intended to sit as far away as posssible, from them both, but to her astonishment, Dan gestured for her to get in right in between them. Not knowing any way to refuse, she complied.
Gratefully, she seized on the one excuse she could think of not to have to face them or talk to them. For a while, there was silence, during which Della consumed more than half the bottle of the pink champagne Dan had brought. Cal was about to object, when Della put down her glass with a giggle.
“Now I’m feeling a lot better. I’m pissed, but so what? This place is – I had no idea people really had places like this.”
Dan didn’t look exactly thrilled to be reminded of his background, but he smiled encouragingly all the same.
“I told you you’d be feeling better.”
“I’m so angry with you. Both of you. Why did you have to do this?”
“Take you to the south of France?”
“No, silly. The two fellows I want the most in the entire world and you have to go and get involved with each other. Typical.”
Cal couldn’t keep quiet any longer. But Dan interrupted him.
“Della – there’s something I have to tell you. But first, I’m really, really sorry about how dad treated you. I’ll ring him and make sure you get to keep your job.”
“Such as it is.”
“What do you mean?”
“He told me to investigate the illegal garbage dumping in Brixton.”
“He did? With all your experience and your journalistic skills. How dare he treat you like this?”
“He was furious with me for not telling him about you. And Cal. It’s not fair. I’ve always loved you, Cal. Ever since we started working together. And you – Do you have any idea of how attractive you are?”
“Yes, I think I do.”
Dan sounded tired and dejected. He felt guilty over having hurt Della’s feelings like this. A part of him was feeling stung by the implication that while she loved Cal, she merely found him sexy.
But Della hadn’t finished yet.
“And when we were working together I fell in love with you too. I know, you were married. Dan, I haven’t told you how sorry I am for your loss, have I?”
“I didn’t wish for this to happen, you know. I knew I couldn’t have you, but I was hoping I could have Cal. But why should you want someone like me? If I were you, I’d want you instead. I mean, if I were one of you, I’d want me, I mean, one of you as well.”
“Della, most of all I want to apologize for lying to you. Cal and I are not involved and we never have been. I was just hoping he’d finally find the courage to tell you how he feels about you. But I was wrong. He’s such a coward.”
“Thank you, Dan. Della – How was I supposed to know how you felt about me?”
Cal felt like a worse fool than ever. If only he’d known, he might have been spared all this humiliation. Dan had been right.
“You see. Hopeless. I knew it from the start. All you have to do is look. You don’t see it, do you, Cal?”
But Cal was beginning to see one thing clearly, whether it was due to the upheaval that had shaken him up or the pink champagne, and that was that Dan was just as smitten with Della as he was. How could he have missed that? That placed him in a new dilemma. Who was Della going to choose? Only now did he realize that Della hadn’t said a word after Dan’s startling apology.
“What did you say?”
“I said – About what?”
“About you and Cal.”
“Oh, that. You heard me. I lied to you. Forgive me for that. I’m really truly sorry I hurt you. Dad might have no business punishing you for trying to keep what you thought was my secret, but either way, it was all my fault. Please try to forgive me.”
“You’re not shagging each other?”
Cal winced at her expression.
“No, we’re not. Of course not. If you knew how furious I’ve been with Dan for making that up – I’m sorry too, Della. For not seeing how you felt about me. I needed some time to get over Anne and Stephen – I mean losing his friendship – but I knew I should have tried to see more of you and – if I hadn’t been such a coward as Dan so correctly referred to me, I might have found a way of telling you how I felt about you. On the other hand, I wasn’t aware of it until that day when you ran out of my flat, after hearing Dan tell you that absurd lie.”
“You don’t love Dan? And you don’t love Cal?”
“No. I mean, Cal’s fantastic. I owe him more than I could ever repay him for, but not that way.”
“I – like you a lot too, Dan. Even if you’re the most exasperating person in the whole world.”
“I know. You’re not the first one to tell me that. Cal, I’m sorry for the way I treated you too. It wasn’t my intention, dragging you into my quarrel with dad. And all this time, you’ve been so awfully decent to me. After -”
Hurriedly, he changed the subject. He was not going to get all teary-eyed about the fact that he’d spent his honeymoon here. That was past history. Right now, all he needed to worry about was how he was going to find the strength to be the kind of friend Cal deserved and give up his chance to have Della.
But first, he needed to give Cal another little nudge in the right direction. So he inched closer to Della and put his arm around her shoulder, placing his face right next to her, as if wanting to bestow an intimate confidence on her.
Cal drew in breath as if he couldn’t believe his eyes. After all the trouble Dan had caused him, was that kid going to make a pass at Della, right now?
“Say you’ll forgive me.”
Before Cal or Della had time to react, Dan kissed Della on the cheek. He intended to make the kiss brief and brotherly but somehow, now that he was so close to Della’s smooth skin, breathing in her intoxicating scent, he found it hard to pull back. At last, Cal found that he had regained the ability to move. He reached over and shoved Dan away, managing somehow to squeeze in between them. After all his troubles he was not going to let Della get away this time. Aided by the alcohol, Cal pulled her into his arms and when their lips met, he was able to to blot out Dan and the whole of Provence. For a while, there was only he and Della. But far too soon, his conscience struck him. Dan too was lonely. Though the kid had tried to conceal his own feelings, it was clear to Cal that his friend was every bit as much in love with Della as he was, do he forced himself to let go. He sought out Dan’s gaze and some silent communication passed between the men. When it was over, Dan moved closer too, and began to kiss Della, this time more passionately, until he too pulled back, to let Cal begin again. It was obvious that Della had no objections. Quite the contrary.
Freed from her inhibitions by the alcohol, she enthusiastically pulled them both closer than either one of them would have found comfortable under other circumstances. But tonight was different. Not even Cal minded Dan’s close proximity. Della was all that mattered.
At some point, they must have adjourned to one of the bedrooms, because that was where they woke up late the following afternoon. Cal came to with a start, and catching sight of Dan’s hair, he recoiled violently. His head was pounding and he felt weak. For the first horrible seconds, he had absolutely no memory of last night. His sudden movement woke Della, who emerged from underneath the sheet, where she had been resting with her head on Cal’s arm, her own arm entwined with Dan’s.
“What? Oh, bloody hell. My head. What did you two give me last night?”
“Just champagne. But I admit that we might have been overdoing it a bit. I suppose as your host, I should go and get us some aspirin.”
To Cal’s total and utter astonishment, Dan displayed no concern at all over the fact that he was stark naked. A discreet rummaging underneath the sheets revealed to Cal that he too, was displaying the same state of nudity. His face heated up and he was beginning to seriously regret last night. At least the part where he’d clearly allowed his judgment be clouded enough to get into bed with Dan. Not actually with Dan, he sincerely hoped, but all the same, into the same bed as Dan. Della’s face relaxed into a smile where she lay watching him.
“I never thought this day would come.”
“You’re not sorry?”
“No. How could I be sorry about this? I – I never told you this last night, did I, Della? I love you.”
“I love you too.”
“I’m back. Aspirins for everyone. Take two. Take three. If you’re feeling half as bad as I am, you’ll want at least four.”
“And I love you too, Dan.”
Dan’s face lit up by a smile more sincere and warm than any that Cal had previously seen him display. His unease vanished and he found himself actually feeling glad for his friend’s sake. How could he have rejoiced in his own good fortune if Dan had been left out?
“I love you, Della. You have no idea how much.”
Late in the afternoon, they returned to the terrace, for a delicious hedonistic breakfast of strawberries and all kinds of delicacies Della had never before had for breakfast and hardly ever at other times of the day or night. When the heat of the sun forced them to seek shelter, they returned to the pool where Dan managed to induce the others to a seldom seen display of childish playfulness. If Della’s makeup looked rather the worse for wear afterwards, she was oblivious to that fact. Not that either of the guys were particularly cognizant of such feminine secrets. When the sun was lower in the sky, they stretched out on a blanket in the shade of the olive trees, where Cal soon drifted off to sleep, with Della’s head on his chest. Dan amused himself and Della by smearing sun screen on her arms and legs and back.
Unnoticed by either one of them, Cameron had walked through the house and, not finding his son and the guest he expected to find with him, he had come out on the terrace. The sight he beheld startled him out of his brooding. Impossible. Who was that third person lying underneath his son? Surely not Syd? No, that was decidedly a young woman. A woman? Confusedly, Cameron shook his head. Would his son ever cease to amaze him?
Della too had begun to doze off, but Dan suddenly saw a tall, dark shadow fall across the tiles and he looked up, startled.
Their words woke up Cal and startled Della, who, when she found her boss staring down at her forbiddingly, gasped and began searching for her robe. Not finding it, she flew to her feet and with lowered eyes, ran past the men, into the house. Cameron opened his mouth as if to call her back, then appeared to think the better of it. Cal, too, had managed to get to his feet, feeling at a distinct disadvantage before his former boss.
“Hello, McCaffrey. I suppose neither of you were expecting to see me.”
“Dad, you have no right to – Why are you here? To spy on me?”
“No, I haven’t come to spy, or argue with you.”
Dan suddenly noticed the weary look on his father’s face. For the first time in his life, he realized that his father was getting old. What if his impulsive lie had made him ill? Despite everything, he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he loved the old man. Ill tempered and autocratic as he might be.
“That goes for you too, McCaffrey. Your career is safe from me. Dan – I don’t know how to tell you this, so I’ll just say it. It’s your mother – She’s taken a turn for the worse. If you want to see her again, we’ll have to leave at once. I did try to ring you, but I suppose the phone has been disconnected and you didn’t answer on the mobile.”
“I -uh – turned it off.”
“So I couldn’t reach you, no doubt. Still, I can’t blame you for that. I tried phoning you, as well, McCaffrey, but with no more success.”
“I didn’t renew my service. It must have slipped my mind. Now that I’m not working.”
“I see. Well, it doesn’t matter. Are you coming, son?”
Cameron merely acknowledged Cal’s presence with the curtest of nods. Dan’s face had lost its glow and he looked just like a little boy who had lost his favorite toy. He hurried into to the house, followed by his anxious father. Cal remained standing, all the jubilation gone out of him. It was as if the magic was gone. All of it. In the harsh light of day, his and Della’s love appeared childish and immature. And here Cameron was again, as if to remind them of their shortcomings. At first Dan thought his father was going to stand over him while he packed, as he had once done a summer twelve years ago, when he’d been sent home to England in disgrace after a particularly jolly stunt.
Instead his father vanished on an errand of his own. Cameron went off in search of Della. It had occurred to him, in the midst of his personal tragedy, that he had treated Della rather more harshly than called for, even under the circumstances. He found her cowering in the kitchen, no doubt hoping he’d gone away. Far more gently than she’d expected, Cameron said her name.
“Della. I don’t have much time, but I would like to apologize for my outburst the other day. It was inexusable of me to take out my frustrations over my wayward son on you. I realize that none of this is your responsibility.”
“Oh. Of course.”
Unhappily, she continued to gaze down at her own bare feet, as if still expecting a telling off.
“And before I forget. The story about the garbage dumping – I gave it to the new boy. When you return, which I’m hoping you will, soon, you will find a new assignment on your desk. Talk to Helen.”
A few minutes later, Della heard Dan’s footsteps approaching and then father and son leaving together. This time she heard a car door slam, and a car drive off. She was hoping that wasn’t Dan’s rental, in which case they’d both be stranded in a foreign country. If so, she hoped Cal’s French was better than her own. Her father had insisted that she study German for A levels. Of course. The dream was too good to be true. But at least Cal was still here. And by now, he had to be wondering where she was. She wouldn’t let him get away, now that she’d finally learned about his feelings for her. Before she had time to go outside, Cal appeared in the kitchen, a worried frown on his face.
“There you are. What did he say to you?”
“He apologized for the Brixton story. Apparently, he’s given me a new assignment.”
“Oh. I’m really glad to hear that. But he didn’t mention why he was here?”
“Wasn’t he here to take Dan back?”
“Well, yes, but apparently Dan’s mother is dying.”
“Oh, no. Poor Dan. Right after losing his wife.”
“I know. We should probably make arrangements to get out here.”
“Yes. About that – do you speak French?”
“Not much. What about you?”
“No. My father preferred German.”
“Oh. I did Spanish for A levels. Ibiza. Don’t ask. I outgrew that sort of thing a long time ago.”
Even if they were stranded in France, Cal was once again his old self. With a slight difference. Whatever happened, Della wouldn’t regret a thing.
“Besides, I’m sure they speak English at the airport. Let’s just take the rental back. Make sure Dan doesn’t lose the deposit.”
Della nodded happily. They were together. She still had a job. All was not lost.
They didn’t hear from Dan again for nearly a fortnight, but they were hardly surprised by his absence. Cal knew far too well how much losing one’s mother hurt. In the meantime, Della more or less moved in with Cal, and though he still hadn’t found work, he felt more cheerful. The flat was hurriedly tidied up and the piles of dirty dishes vanished, mainly so he could impress Della, but after all, it seemed the memory of the Collins’ had ceased to weigh so heavily on him.
To their astonishment, Cameron rang them and invited them to the funeral. Cal had a bad feeling about the entire affair, but he didn’t feel he could let Dan down at a time like this. When they met, at Cameron’s house, before driving to the ceremony, Cal was surprised to find that Dan hugging him didn’t feel at all awkward. Besides, it was Della Dan held on to as if he was drowning. During their visit, Cameron tactfully remained absent, and after the ceremony there was no time for conversations. When it was all over, Cal and Della returned to his flat, without Dan. Naturally, father and son wanted to be alone at a time like this.
After three weeks, Della was beginning to think that she’d lost Dan. Though he rang her and Cal frequently, he showed no sign of wanting to resume the affair. It seemed as if everything was back to the way it had been between them during their work of the Collins’ story. She was disappointed, but at least she now trusted in the relationship with Cal. Despite that, she felt just a little bit hurt that Dan didn’t seek consolation in her arms. Dan running back to his father, gave the impression he was nothing more than the little boy he so often appeared to be. He was only two years younger than she was, but at times Della felt so much more mature.
Cal wasn’t altogether displeased to have Della to himself, but he couldn’t deny to himself that he missed his friend and as the days without Dan went by, he caught himself wondering how Dan was, and how badly the loss of his mother had really hit him. The drinking binge not so long ago had told Cal clearly how Dan was likely to react in a crisis. But since he didn’t seek out his friend’s help, it was to be assumed that Dan was getting by with his father’s support. And that was as it should be. They were all the family they had left. If they were able to put their differences behind them, surely that was for the best?
One afternoon, when Cal was expecting Della back for dinner at any moment, the door bell rang. Since Della had been given a key, Cal assumed that either she had forgotten, or else that he would need to turn away some door-to-door salesman. He had absolutely no idea what else to expect. When he opened the door, there was Dan, carrying a shoulder bag, smiling, only a little bit less widely than he had the last time Cal saw him before Cameron had come to Provence to pick him up.
“I hope the invitation still stands?”
Cal remained motionless, staring in disbelief.
Dan put on a sad spaniel face, clearly intended to work its charm on Cal.
“Of course. Come on in. I just didn’t expect to see you like this. You didn’t give any indication you were coming back.”
“I know. I tried really hard to get along with dad, but he’s so difficult. Alright, I suppose that might be said about me too, but -”
“You’ll get no argument from me.”
Dan’s face fell slightly at this surprising announcement. Cal couldn’t help smiling and before he realized what he was doing, he reached out a hand and grabbed Dan’s shoulder bag.
“About Cameron. He has his difficult moments alright, but I still think -”
“You don’t have to elaborate. You and Della would follow him to the ends of the world. Perhaps I would too, but I’m hoping it won’t come to that. Speaking of the lovely Della – where is she?”
“I was expecting her at any moment now.”
“Fantastic. I’ve missed her so much. And you too, of course.”
“Welcome back. I’ve missed you too, unbelievable as it might seem.”
“I knew you would. A place always seems quiet and boring when I leave. So, what’s for dinner? That is, if there’s enough for me?”
“I’m sure we’ll manage. We’ll just toss that over there.”
He was indicating Dan’s luggage.
“What? Not the guest room this time?”
“Della’s in there.”
Dan’s eyebrows shot up at this startling piece of news. He couldn’t resist satisfying his curiosity by asking, though he did feel Cal might be a bit more forthcoming about their girlfriend.
“We felt – Della felt that it was only fair. If you did decide to return -”
Dan’s eyes began to shine, and Cal realized that Dan despite all his advantages, still craved every little proof of affection.
“I agreed. The less we talk about this – arrangement – the better, but fair’s fair, right?”
“You’re one in a million, do you know that, Cal?”
Cal watched his friend in amazement. Judging by Dan’s tone of voice, he definitely meant what he said. It was cheering, if a bit daunting to inspire that much affection even in another man, and by now, Cal was suitably reassured about Dan’s intentions towards him, not to feel threatened by this affection.
“You’re not so bad yourself. Come on. You can set the table.”
“This place has changed a bit since the last time. A woman’s touch?”
At this, Cal looked decidedly cagey and it dawned on Dan that it was Cal’s touch, presumably with the intention of impressing Della, and possibly partially a way to keep busy. Again, Dan was seized by the impulse to draw Cal into his own work, forgetting momentarily how Cal disapproved of his own technique. Still, after the Syd incident, Dan had found himself slightly less inclined to use his charm on men. Just in case. Cal couldn’t be there every time there was a misunderstanding.
When Della returned, there was no mistaking her delight at having her other boyfriend returned to her. Cal smothered the slight twinge of jealousy and focused on Della’s and Dan’s obvious happiness. Besides, it was no use denying to himself how much Dan’s presence cheered him up as well. Life had changed quite a bit since only a few months back, when Stephen and Anne still weighed heavily on his mind.
Though Cal was able to pick up the odd freelance story, usually thanks to Dan, he still hadn’t found a permanent job and there were times when he feared having to leave either the profession or the city. But he couldn’t seriously contemplate leaving Della and Dan behind. In the meantime, he did some research on his own, satisfying his curiosity over a few matters that he didn’t feel were getting the proper media attention they deserved.
One morning, around eleven, the door bell rang, startling him. By now, Dan too had been given a key to the front door, so it couldn’t be him, unless he’d managed to forget or mislay the key. This had happened twice already, so Cal wasn’t entirely sure his visitor wouldn’t turn out to be his second room mate. Not unduly concerned, Cal got up to answer the door. When he had managed to get the door unlocked and he could see who his visitor was, he was rendered speechless. Not that he should have been so surprised, but he had been lulled into a false sense of security, by not hearing from Cameron for such a long time. In fact, he had even begun to hope that Cameron was going to leave the delicate matter of his son’s living arrangements be. Cal couldn’t be sure of what Dan had told his father and somehow, Cal hadn’t been inclined to ask. He was fairly sure Della would have told him if she’d learned the answer to that question from Dan. But now his silence was verging on the impolite. He had to say something.
“May I come in?”
“Oh, of course. Dan’s not here at the moment and Della -”
“Della is working on the story I set her to investigate, or so I hope.”
“Exactly. And Dan -”
“Is not here. So I gathered. Excellent. It was you I came to talk to.”
Cal felt a shiver go down his spine. This was it. The aggrieved father coming to punish the man he believed had – shagged his son. What a mess. Now Cal desperately wished he had told Cameron the truth or at least that he’d asked Dan if he had informed his father of the real state of the matter.
Cameron turned and faced his reluctant host and startled him yet again, by smiling, albeit in a somewhat strained way.
“Don’t look so frightened, McCaffrey. I’m not here to kill you or castrate you, if that’s what you’re afraid of. Look. I’m unarmed. No hostilities. I would simply like to talk to you.”
That was exactly what Cal had been afraid of, so Cameron’s seemingly reasonable behaviour did nothing to reassure him. Still, he couldn’t think of any excuse not to ask his former boss to sit down and offering him some refreshments.
“Thank you. That would be very nice.”
At least the short trip into the kitchen would delay the inevitable a little longer. Cal half wished he could sneak out and run as far as he could, just to avoid this conversation. This time, he was in for it.
“Cameron – about Dan and – his staying here -”
He couldn’t bring himself to refer to what Cameron no doubt thought about his relationship to his son.
“I suppose I owe you an apology. You and Dan are both grown men. What you do is your own business. Times are changing. I suppose I’m too old to keep up. But I wouldn’t like you to think I’m such an old fool I can’t learn to accept -”
“Yes, but about that -”
“You must see that Dan has always been such a difficult child. I left entirely too much of his upbringing to his mother, the poor woman. A boy needs his father. I ought to have been there. Instead, I was working. Building a career. I told myself that if I didn’t, my son wouldn’t have a father he could respect. And now -”
Cameron broke off before he had said what was on his mind. Now he had a son he couldn’t respect. But that was too harsh. He loved Dan. His little boy who was so much like his mother, it caused him pain to even look at the boy. He was being unfair.
Cal had no idea where this conversation was leading, but he couldn’t help thinking that his own father had only ever contributed to his son’s upbringing after he’d had a few too many and felt he had to take his belt to the boy’s backside for no reason the boy himself had ever understood. Being brought up by one’s mother, was that such a bad thing? Cal didn’t think so, but it was obvious that Cameron suffered feelings of guilt over his supposed neglect of his son.
“Her influence over Dan was – unhealthy.”
Cal stared at his former boss in confusion. Was Cameron blaming his wife for Dan’s flirtatious ways? Or was he referring to something else?
“One day I returned home earlier than expected from the office. I was about to shower and change and try to find the time to take Dan to a cricket game. What I found upstairs -”
Cameron covered his eyes with one hand, as if he even now wanted to blot out an image from his mind. It was as if he’d forgotten he had an audience. He was now speaking as much to himself as to anyone else.
“Dan was 12 – no -13 years old at the time. My wife was lying on the bed, wearing a neglige. This was, oh, perhaps 1.30 or 2 in the afternoon. What Dan was doing at home at that hour, I really don’t know. He was -”
Judging by the tone of his voice, Cameron found this – whatever it was he had seen – painful in the extreme.
“He was kissing his mother on the mouth. On the mouth. I couldn’t believe my eyes. At first I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Then I wanted to grab Dan and shake some sense into him and – But I was afraid of what else I’d learn and I couldn’t bring myself to do anything. Instead, I walked down the stairs again, and when I returned, I made rather more noise than before. Of course, by then, all I could see was Dan, jumping up from the bed, seemingly pleased to see me.”
Cal couldn’t believe this either. Was Cameron really saying that Dan had been kissing his mother? Kissing, as a lover. Not the way a child should kiss his mother? Surely not. That was impossible. Had Cameron misread the scene or overreacted?
“But you never saw anything more than that?”
“Surely what I saw was quite bad enough?”
“Yes, but you don’t know that anything other than that ever happened.”
Cameron stared at Cal as if the man had taken leave of his senses, then after a moment’s thought nodded.
“Alright. Let’s say that nothing more ever did. And that’s what I’ve been hoping ever since. But don’t you see that this only shows what sort of unhealthy relationship there was between them? This must be what made him grow up into a – gigolo.”
Cal had to smother a giggle at this image, but he had to admit that in some ways the description was apt. Dan was extremely skilled at seducing people. Hadn’t he seen that first hand, when Dan set to work on Della? Both men were so deep into the conversation, they failed to notice that someone had entered the room, silently, remaining in the background to listen. At last, Dan felt he couldn’t keep quiet anymore. It hurt to listen to his father referring to him that way. As if he was little better than a prostitute. And he’d only ever wanted to become a good reporter, just like his father.
“Oh, please, dad. What did you think we did? Did you think mom and I had sex? I thought I’d never say this, but you have a dirty mind. How can you even think such a thing?”
Cameron looked mortified to face his son like this, but the truth had to come out.
“I know what I saw.”
“You saw one kiss. Alright. Perhaps that was a bit much. I know that now. But I loved her so much. Besides, if you recall, there were times when I would come and sit on your lap and try to get you to stop sulking.”
“Don’t remind me. But never when you were thirteen. And surely you’re not trying to tell me that you were -”
Here at last, he broke off, feeling like a fool.
“That I was trying to seduce you? Come on, dad. What did I just say about having a dirty mind? You and mom were always arguing. Always screaming and calling each other names. Sometimes I was dragged in as well. Can you blame me for trying to get round you – both of you? Alright, I might have used those skills later in life to flirt with others. Women.”
At this, Cal almost interrupted, but Dan put up a hand to silence him.
“Professionally, I might have been known to flirt with men as well, if it produced the right result. Can you blame me for that, dad? I’ve seen you using that charm of yours on women in any case. Don’t tell me you’ve never used the same tactic to get a scoop?”
“That’s not -”
“If you think that makes me -”
Here Dan broke off, realizing that to his father’s knowledge, he had been sleeping with a man for the past month or so. Not such a good example, perhaps. But his father’s innuendo had really hit a nerve and he wanted to have it out, no matter how embarrassing the discussion is.
“You’re not going to ask me if I’ve slept with men?”
“Well, why not, since we’re being so candid all of a sudden? From what I’ve seen so far, there has to be at least one.”
At this, Cameron shot Cal a slightly dark look. Cal felt his face turn a deep, dark red. This really had gone far enough. If Dan didn’t come clean right this very minute –
“Alright then. Perhaps a couple of times. At uni when I was too pissed to think straight, no pun intended. I don’t think so, but it’s possible. But this – is different.”
“So I see. Apparently, Della’s involved in this somehow.”
“Dad, there’s something I have to tell you. I’m sorry to have lied to you, but you did make me furious with your spying and – Cal and I never – Just Della and – Anyway, I’m not prepared to discuss or justify this relationship. You couldn’t possibly understand. Besides, I’m willing to bet you had a fling or two when you were at school. With other chaps.”
Cameron’s face took on colour and Cal remembered thinking, surely that can’t be true.
Dan shot his father an amused smile but decided not to press his advantage.
“Don’t worry, dad. I won’t ask about that anymore.”
“This isn’t about me and my past, and you know it. I wasn’t going to ask you about what I saw that day, but since you overheard me mentioning it, you have to admit it’s a reasonable question.”
“I told you. I never had sex with mom. Never. That kiss was as far as it ever went. When mom was in one of her moods, I used to put on my charmer’s act. That’s how she referred to it. She always said I was such a little charmer. And if I did that, she’d get in a good mood. Just like when I got on your knee and asked you about your work. You always relaxed then and stopped looking so stern. I kept thinking you were going to spank me or something. Because you did. Not often, but you did.”
Cameron looked stricken. Dan was right. He had lost his temper on a few occasions. It was unforgivable of him.
“I’m sorry, son. You were trying my patience and I lost my temper. That’s no excuse, I know. I should never have laid a hand on you. Alright. Whatever is going on between you and Della and – I won’t give you a hard time about it. Cal – Again, forgive me. I’m just an old fool. Dan, whatever you do, you’ll always be my boy.”
Dan’s face lit up and he threw himself into his father’s arms. Cameron, taken unawares, hugged his son back, for a moment. Then, recalling that they had an audience, he gently pushed his son away.
“That’s enough, Dan. Though I am glad we had a chance to sort things out.”
“Me too. I want to stay here with Della and Cal but you’ll always be my dad. You know that, don’t you?”
“Hm. Now I think I’ve abused your hospitality for long enough, McCaffrey. Thanks for the beer and the conversation. You – are a good man. And an excellent reporter. I’ll see what I can do about getting you a new contract.”
“I appreciate that. Thank you. I – uh – should have told you the truth a long time ago. It’s just that, well, it was Dan’s idea and I felt -”
“Oh, I ought to have recognized that story as another one of my son’s deranged schemes. I can’t imagine why I was taken in. Preposterous. Anyway, I’m delighted my son has a friend like you. It’s about time he started frequenting more civilized circles. Oh, Della. There you are. If I could just have a word -”
“Cameron. I’m nearly finished with the trafficking story. Helen’s just putting the finishing touches on some of the -”
“Oh, yes, I have no doubt you’ll do well. Oh, come on, girl. Don’t look like that. I’m not going to bite you. You’re exactly the sort of girl I’d love to see as my daughter-in-law. And I know you’ve made Dan very happy. Hm. I should get going.”
“Why don’t you stay for dinner?”
Cal and Dan stared at Della as if they’d only just met her. They knew she was fond of Cameron and they had guessed that she had a troubled relationship to her own father, but to imagine Della inviting her boss to dinner, as if that was the most natural thing in the world – well, it took some getting used to. But to their astonishment, Cameron’s weary face relaxed into a smile.
“Well, if my son doesn’t mind and our host is in agreement -”
Cal drew himself up. He liked Cameron every bit as much as Della did. It would be an honour to have him over for dinner.
“Oh, of course. I think we’ll all be pleased to have you here.”
“Thanks. Dinner alone can be a bit grim.”
Dan’s face fell as he recalled how happy he’d been to leave his father’s house. How thoughtless of him not to realize how lonely the old man was now. His mother might not have been in good health for years, but on most nights, she must have been able to dine with her husband. Now, the old man was all alone. How selfish of him to want to abandon his father.
“Dad, I’m sorry. I’ll come back and stay with you instead.”
“Nonsense. You’re too old to live with your father. Just come and visit once in a while. And bring your friends.”
The warm smile really did seem to include all of them. Cal felt relieved. There was no one he admired more than Cameron, and when his former boss had disowned him, it had hurt terribly. At last the entire painful Collins’ affair was settled. He wouldn’t look back. If he was lucky, he might soon be working again in the only profession he’d ever considered worth pursuing.