Well, yes, all right. Maybe just one more story. Or two. You try having four hulking great rugby players in your head, leering at you. Well, three rugby players and Tim, and he leers worse than any of them.
I hate these corporate drinks parties. Oh, I go, of course. Jim wants me to, so I go. No question. I’m perfectly well aware that it’s all part of the subtle grooming that is intended to leave Timothy James Creed as a potential future chief executive of Hamiltons. (Only potential – there’s no way that Jim would entrust the business to me if he thought that I was going to screw it up, nor that I would want it under those terms. Hamiltons is a part of Jim, an extra limb. Breaking it would be like breaking him.) So, yes, I understood why I got told to come along to a lot of these things. It didn’t mean I had to like them.
Hansie, who had wriggled out of this one, the wretch, pleading a prior engagement with his junior boys’ team, had looked at me long and lasciviously, told me I scrubbed up well and might well get more than I expected when I got home if I was still looking so hot, and left me to it.
And here I was, stuck with a glass of lukewarm and rather indifferent chardonnay, making small talk to various local luminaries and members of the Gryphons’ board. Speaking of which, I saw one of the latter heading my way with my uncle and looked vainly round for an escape hatch. Sadly, none was available.
“John, you know my nephew Tim, I think.”
Sir John Maybury fits all the stereotypes of Captain of Industry as neatly as if some factory in Japan had turned him out. Firm handshake, firm jawline, immaculately cut steel grey hair, expensively and tastefully dressed (Patek Philippe rather than Rolex, handmade brogues), a tan acquired on the ski slopes rather than a tanning salon. And buckets of charm, when he chooses to turn it on, which you should never allow to blind you to the fact that he’s a completely ruthless operator with an ego the size of China. Oh, and that he is actually old money with most of his wealth tied up in land and property, had a brief and unimpressive career in merchant banking, and has in fact never run a real business larger than a farm shop.
“Timothy. Good heavens, I don’t think I’ve seen you since you were at school.”
“Sir John, what a pleasure.” The lies I tell for my job. Well, not entirely a lie. The charm is as soothing as a warm bath if you give in to it. The problem was, I knew I mustn’t. “I’m afraid my schooldays are well behind me now.”
“Ah, from my perspective it’s only the twinkling of an eye. Perils of growing old, I’m afraid.”
“Well, you’re looking extremely well on it if you are,” I said, and he laughed.
“So, you’re still making your career at Hamilton’s? Excellent, family loyalty is such a splendid thing.” I’m sure it was only oversensitivity on my part that read the subtext ‘if you’re lacking the ability to make it on your own’ into that statement.
“Well, I still have a lot to learn here, and of course I’m studying for my MBA part-time.”
“An MBA? Ah, you were always a smart lad as I recall. So many younger executives have them now, it makes me feel quite the dinosaur. I’m sure your uncle is the same.”
“Well the dinosaurs did rule the earth for untold millions of years, so maybe that’s not such a bad thing to be.” And that was a slight score for Timothy, I thought. “Can I get you some more wine, Sir John? I see your glass is empty.”
“Well, maybe a splash. Not to knock Jim in any way, but the plonk at these affairs is always a little. . .” he allowed the sentence to trail off, and shrugged. Despite the fact that I’d just thought the same thing, I admit it annoyed me. However, I honestly didn’t mean to soak the cuff of his Jermyn Street shirt when I poured; it was just that the bottle was wet and it slipped in my hand.
“Oh God, Sir John, I’m so sorry. . .”
“No, no, it doesn’t matter, although when I said a splash, I didn’t mean it quite so literally.” To his credit he didn’t bat an eyelid, though he can’t have been pleased. “Excuse me, I’d better just go and damp this down with some water. At least it was white wine.” He smiled, as sharks smile, and moved off.
Jim, who misses nothing, beckoned me over. “That was well done,” he said.
“Ah well. If I give ye another one to talk to, will ye promise to no soak him?”
“I’ll do my best.”
I followed him over to a tall and rather handsome young man who had just come in.
“Thibault de Saint-Cyr, can I introduce my nephew, Tim Creed? Tim, this Mr de Saint-Cyr who’s come to join the Gryphons. Thibault, you’ll be pleased to know that Tim speaks French.”
The Frenchman gave me the wary smile of someone who had been exposed to rather too many people anxious to try out their half-remembered school lessons.
“M Creed. Vous parlez Français un peu, hein?”
“Pas couramment,” I said modestly. “Mais j’habitais à Paris pour quelques mois avant que je suis allé à l’université. Il y a – donc, est-ce qu’il peut être vraiment dix, onze ans?”
He perked up immediately and launched into a torrent of French.
“But your French is really good – I’m afraid I often find the accent difficult to understand when English people speak French, but you have an excellent accent. Whereabouts in Paris did you live when you were there?”
“In the 4th for a few weeks, staying with friends, then I shared an apartment in the 12th, not far from the Place d’Aligre. Wonderful market.”
“Oh, oh, I know it! My aunt lives not so far away.” He looked like an eager puppy, and I was suddenly aware of how frighteningly young he was.
“Do your family live in Paris, too?”
“My parents? No, they live in the family house, in Quercy. But Papa keeps a town house in the 7th.”
“Ah, I see.” Even in the land of égalité some families were more equal than others. “But tell me, you have an aristocratic name – are you related to the famous Marshal of France?”
“So my father claims. And to half a dozen older families too. Papa is a terrible old Bourbon. And on Maman’s side we are descended from another famous soldier, Jean Martinet.” He laughed. “I never cared much about any of it, except when Papa used to remind me that Martinet invented the whip named after him, and the Academie Saint-Cyr was the place that popularised its use.”
I managed not to spill my drink, suppressed a sudden memory of a suave middle-aged Frenchman bending me over a Directoire style chair in a Paris apartment many years ago, not to mention that unforgettable night in a club outside Bresse of all places. “Really?” I said in as noncommittal a voice as I could manage. “I didn’t know that the martinet was named after a person. But surely. . .”
“Oh no, Papa never used one.” He sounded both amused and a little shocked that I should think so. “But he used to threaten it quite a lot. It was a joke between us.”
“Of course.” Lucky you. I got a great deal more than threatened in my youth. Mind you, perhaps Thibault de Saint-Cyr was better behaved than Timothy Creed.
“I’m surprised” – I paused, rethought what I had been about to say. “What does your father think about your choice of career?” Rugby has, or at least had in the past, a – well, let’s say slightly middle-to-upper class image in England. In France, on the other hand, as in Wales, it is definitely a game of the working class South.
“Oh, he didn’t think it was quite proper for a Malenfant-Gouvier de Saint-Cyr et Vieuxchêne,” he admitted cheerfully. “But I did not like academic things, and the army was out because I hated my military service, so when he saw that it was the one thing I was really good at and loved doing, he did not stand in my way. You just have to know how to get around him. Maman was more of a problem. She fusses so, they both do. She was very afraid that I would get hurt. I had to remind them that our ancestors were, after all, warriors, and wouldn’t have got very far if they’d been afraid of being hurt.”
I began to get the feeling that Thibault was almost certainly the apple of his parents’ eye. And the warmth with which he spoke of them belied the casual references to terrible old Bourbons and fusspots.
“And how are you finding life in England?”
He looked at me cautiously, as if deciding what to say. “It’s very interesting,” he said at last. God, and I thought I was transparent when I tried to lie.
“That bad, huh?” I said and got a sudden grin in response. Oh, and wasn’t Thibault de Saint-Cyr a pretty boy when he smiled? Especially if you liked coal black hair and dark eyes and all the smouldering passion that they implied. Very pretty. Mind you, he knew it.
“It is difficult,” he admitted. “I miss France. I knew to expect the big things that were different, the language and so on, it is the small things that make me feel not at home. I bought coffee in a café in the town, and I left my small change in the saucer as we always do at home, and they chased me up the street to return it. And the bread. Tim, your bread is horrible!”
I laughed. “Go to Denby’s on the far side of the Buttermarket. An artisan baker, proper bread. But go early, especially on Saturday, and be prepared to queue. And there’s a patisserie in Queen Street that does decent viennoiserie and first-rate coffee. The woman who runs that is French, Pascale.”
“You have saved my life,” he said solemnly. “Thank you, Tim.”
“A pleasure. And the rugby? How is that going?”
He shook his head. “The style of play is very different. Bernard – the coach where I was before – he told me that it would be so, but that M de Vries would teach me things I could learn nowhere else. But so far, I think, I am not learning much. And they have not let me do what I know I can do.”
“Well, I expect it must be a bit like going to a new school. New faces to learn, finding out who does what, where you have to go for things, which teachers are the strict ones. . .”
“Who are the school bullies,” he agreed.
Ouch. I had gathered from a few things that Piet and Phil had let slip that Thibault hadn’t exactly endeared himself to the other players. But bullying sounded a bit much.
Just as I opened my mouth to enquire further (and it can only have been my imagination that supplied the theme from ‘Jaws’ as a soundtrack when I thought about it afterwards) Sir John materialised again.
We switched into English. “Oh Sir John, did you get the wine out? I really am sorry.”
“As I said, nothing to worry about. I wonder if I might borrow M Saint-Cyr from you. There are a few people I’d like him to meet.”
“Of course. Thibault. Really nice to talk to you.”
“My pleasure, I greatly enjoyed it, also.” His English is pretty good, if a bit heavily accented. “Perhaps – perhaps one might go for a drink some time?” He looked at me hesitantly, as if afraid I might tell him to get lost. I smiled and patted his arm.
“I’d like that. Here, take my card, it has my mobile number, and give me a ring.”
“Thank you, Tim.” The dark eyes had veiled, become troubled, as he turned to Sir John.. He couldn’t be unaware that the other man had argued vehemently against his, Thibault’s, coming. But he trotted away obediently enough with the magnate. He wasn’t impervious to the charm, either. Later in the evening I noticed him with Sir John’s arm round his shoulders, laughing, together with a couple of rather pretty girls hanging on his every word, and Martin Wendell who reports for the Gazette, and who makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up when I talk to him. Pure instinct, he’s never done anything to me, but by all accounts to call him a reptile is to slur a great and ancient order of creation. And he and Sir John are, according to Jim, as thick as thieves. That isn’t a recommendation in my book, not for either of them.
But then I saw Thibault leaving, with the prettier of the two girls on his arm. He winked and gave me a thumbs-up as he went. And I thought no more about it. Not then.
It was Thursday evening, and I was upstairs putting washing in the airing cupboard – no, do not laugh, it is not so funny. Who do you think knows all the settings on the washing machine, hey? Tim? Hah! Ja, so I do not like to iron. Who does? But I do my share of the chores. Anyway, this is beside the point, I was upstairs, and I was close enough to the small box room where we keep the computer, and the desk, and all Tim’s files for that never-ending damned MBA course to hear his exclamation of shock.
“Tim, what is it?” Ja, and you may believe that I was in there quick enough, too.
He was staring at the computer screen.
“Fuck,” he said bitterly. “Fuck the bastards to hell.”
“Look,” he said. “You know that gossip site I’m subscribed to, ‘That’s Miss Bitch 2 U’? The one that has the almost libellous weekly email describing in thinly veiled ways what outrageous things celebrities are up to?”
I remembered it. Some of the stories are quite amusing, though I do not recognise many of the characters being described.
“What of it?”
“It just stopped being funny. Look at this.”
He pointed to the screen.
‘Which mockney soap star disappeared to the toilets not once but three times during the recent Lather Awards, returning refreshed and oh so lightly dusted with white powder each time? Wear the ice-cream suit next time baby!’
“What is ‘mockney’?”
“Fake cockney. Someone who pretends to be working class and from London. That isn’t the one I meant. Look at the one below.”
‘Which famously photogenic English rugby player is set to disappoint his legions of female fans when they discover that the balls he really likes to play with belong to his personal trainer and live-in boyfriend? Scrum on down, boys!’
“Ach, Tim. This is talking about Phil, nee?”
“I think so. It says trainer rather than coach, but I think it must be. Someone has spilled the beans, or at least some of them.”
I swore in Afrikaans. There are some things that just sound better in my native language.
“I suppose,” said Tim slowly and reluctantly, “that we’d better tell Phil.”
“We can’t, my liefie. He is at training camp all week, remember.”
“Shit, yes. Not back till Sunday, you’re right. Then – I suppose we’d better tell Piet.”
“I am taking my boys for training in half an hour – ach, less, I must get a move on. You will have to go over and tell him – I think this is a thing that you should not say over the phone.”
“I guess.” Very reluctantly.
“Definitely. Not a nice task, but it has to be done. They need to know, so they can. . .”
“Can what? That’s just it, isn’t it. What will they do if it comes out? What will everyone else do? There’s never been an out gay player in English rugby – plenty of closeted ones, but none where it made it to the papers as far as I know. It might be the end of Phil’s career.”
“Look, Timmie – I know you’re concerned, but in the end there’s nothing we can do except be there as friends for them. Don’t go borrowing trouble, hey?”
Well, it was difficult to believe I was getting life coaching from Hansie, of all people, but as it happened he was right. There was nothing we could do to put the genie back in the bottle, so we just had to let Piet know about this, and promise to be there.
Only, call it lingering guilt over that time I accidentally spilled the beans to Simon, but I found myself strangely reluctant to be the one who told Piet about it. Still it had to be done. I rang, and confirmed that Piet was in, and said I wanted to come round briefly and discuss something with him. I think he knew from my voice that something was up, because the minute I drew up he opened the door – the one to his own side of the house, his private wing, and ushered me in.
“So, what is the problem?” he asked. Well, at least the famous de Vries telepathy saved me a long stammering explanation.
I shoved the printout under his nose. “This,” I said.
He read it, face immobile, screwed it up and threw it into the corner. Then carefully retrieved it, unfolded it, smoothed it down and put it on the table.
“I’m sorry,” I ventured. He shook his head.
“No, no, you have nothing to be sorry for. I am grateful that you brought me this, this. . .”
“Rag, yes. People read this? No, of course they do.”
“And enjoy it. People like me, I’m afraid, Piet. I used to look forward to getting this in my Inbox. I never thought – never thought that these were real people we were reading about, people who could be hurt.”
He sighed. “People like to gossip, it is human nature. Rugby players can gossip like washerwomen, in my experience. But it is unpleasant to be on the end of it. And always I must think of Phil, of what is best for him. Whether it would be better if I was not around.”
“You know perfectly well that there isn’t any conceivable universe in which Phil Cartwright would trade you in for a rugby career. He won’t let you go, Piet. Not until they nail down the coffin,” and then I bit my tongue. Tactful, Tim, really tactful.
“I have thought of that, too. I am so very much older than him, Tim. There will come a time when he is alone again, will he or not.”
“How do you know? You could both be in a team bus when it goes over a cliff. Or he could be, could be. . . could be trampled to death by maddened sheep at that training camp. Or. . .”
“Yes, I get the picture.” Dryly. Well aware I was trying to distract him.
“Well good. The picture is, you’re stuck with him. And the pair of you are stuck with us.”
He pulled me to him in a brief fierce hug. “I know. We know. We do not forget it.”
Harry is not, in general, a sidling man, but it was the only way that I could describe the manner in which he entered my office Friday morning.
He slid the local newspaper onto my desk.
“Umm, I think you’d better have a look at this, if you haven’t already seen it,” he said cautiously.
“The Gazette? No, I haven’t read it. Another of those articles by Wendell?”
“Read it for yourself, Piet. But I warn you, you aren’t going to like it.”
He was right, I did not. I am not a man of hot angers. No, my anger is ice, crushing and destroying. And as I read I felt the cold fire in my heart.
GRYPHONS TO SEEK NEW DIRECTOR OF RUGBY? read the headline, with, of course, the byline of that, that, journalist (for the moment I could think of no word, in any of three languages, that would do him justice), Martin Wendell.
Troubled rugby team Barchester Gryphons are wondering if their coach, former Springbok international Pieter de Vries, has lost his touch, as troubles in the dressing room and problems with player selection contribute to a lacklustre season so far, it continued. Some of the club’s key players are thought to have lost confidence in the formidable South African, who rejoices in the nickname of the Terminator. Now the board are rumoured to be considering whether de Vries’ contract should be renewed. . .
I read on. Most of it was the same, ‘rumours’, ‘thought’, ‘it is believed’ – all deniable, and all slanted. But there was an accurate précis of at least two incidents that should not have gone beyond the walls of the dressing room or my office, and an almost word-for-word summary of an email I had sent. And the nickname, Terminator – to the wider world I am still the Viper, as I was in my glory days. Only among my players, and increasingly among the coaching staff, has this newer name suddenly become the fashion, for no very good reason that I can determine. I had only suspected before, but all this could not be explained any other way. Someone was speaking where they should not, of matters that they should not. And it had to stop. By God, it would stop, whether Pieter de Vries was employed at this club or no!
Harry jumped as I threw the newspaper down on the desk.
“I told you you wouldn’t like it,” he said.
“No, you are right, I do not. Not because of any speculation about my position. It is by such things that sports journalists live. But because there are things here that no-one but a player or member of staff could know, Harry. And that I do not like at all.”
He looked a bit green. “Yes,” he muttered. “I thought of that.”
“I will find out who it is. And they will not remain at this club. Or I will not. One or the other.”
He shook his head. “Don’t get. . .”
“Get what? Have I lost the confidence of the players, Harry? Or the coaching staff?”
“You know damned well you haven’t. Like I told you, they’ll give you that extra percentage that they won’t give anyone else. There are some problems, and you know them as well as I do. James Gerrold not pulling his weight. Ryan being stroppy as usual. That French boy in the Seconds. . .”
“Thibault de Saint-Cyr?”
“Yes. Some people are saying that for the amount of money we paid for his contract he damned well ought to be playing for the Firsts, not pissing around with the Seconds.”
“You think we should play him on Saturday week?”
“I think that’s what the Board think. So I’ve heard.”
“And do you think he’s ready? Because maybe I am losing my touch, Harry, for I do not. He will be very good. He could be great. But at the moment, he is like a stone in your shoe. He will make the team stumble.”
He spread his hands. “Hey, I’m not disagreeing with you. But I’ve heard people saying that if we’d gone for the Ukrainian – yes, I know he’d never be more than good, but he’s good now – we could be playing him in the Firsts already and getting a return.” He looked apologetic. “Sorry.”
“Harry, when have I ever asked anything but your true opinion? That you are prepared to give it tells me that I do still have your confidence. As for the Board – well, it is no secret that there is a divide between those who want quick results and those who understand that a truly great club is so because it nurtures and shapes raw talent. It is an investment. Thibault de Saint-Cyr is an investment.”
I kept to myself my thought that not every investment is successful.
Well, it wasn’t exactly the welcome home I’d hoped for. I came back Sunday evening on a real high. Training camp had gone so well, I thought I’d really put on a good performance, several influential people had said they were impressed – and then this.
I had known there was something the minute I put my arms around Piet. We’d spoken several times each day I’d been away, and he’d said nothing, and Sunday evening he had his best stone face on, but the tension in his muscles when we hugged gave him away.
“So what is it?”
“Ah, koekie, I can have no secrets from you.”
“Just remember it, if you’re planning to elope with someone else.”
He smiled wanly, handed me a piece of computer printout.
It took a while for it to sink in.
“Shit. Who told them?”
“You have said it yourself, koekie, many people know. Too many. And yet we should not make too much of this. It names no names, and it is slightly wrong in at least one particular.”
“Oh, come off it. We all know who it’s about.”
“Yes, we know, because we know. But would others, would, say, the English Rugby Union officials, know who was being referred to?”
“Maybe not,” I admitted gloomily. “Not yet, at any rate.”
“And maybe never. And times are changing, attitudes are changing. It may be, just may be, that rugby is ready for an openly gay player. Your position in the Gryphons team need not be threatened, since the Firsts and the important members of the coaching squad all know already.”
“They might be all right with it. But there are plenty who wouldn’t be. Piet, one person on that training week told me a joke about gays that if you told it about a black person, or a woman, would probably get you arrested, and several people laughed. Not everyone’s attitude has changed. Hell, there are still one or two people on the team who don’t like to shower with me. Rhys even changed lockers so he didn’t have to change at my end of the room.”
“I did not say it would be easy. But there is an answer, if it should happen, one thing that is in your hands to do.”
“You must play the best rugby of your life. You must show the world what I have seen in you. Show them how a gay rugby player can play.”
I looked at him. “No pressure, then?”
He laughed, genuinely this time. “No, koekie. No pressure at all.” Then he had added: “And for someone who has left his lover at home while he gets sweaty with other men all week, you are wearing entirely too many clothes.”
Well, we remedied that.
But the annoyance, and the sense of frustration at not being able to do anything about this nasty, sniping little campaign, didn’t entirely go away. And when, Monday morning, I came across Wendell’s article in the cuttings file, it only intensified.
“Piet, what is this?”
“Ach, my hart, you need not trouble yourself with it. It is more of the same. My concern about it is that someone is talking to him of matters that should be private.”
“Yes. Piet? Do you think the same person might have been at the root of that piece about me?”
“It has crossed my mind, koekie. But there is nothing about you, not any suggestion of an improper relationship of mine, in any of Wendell’s articles. Either he does not know yet, or he is waiting for the proper time, or the right price, to write that.”
“That’s a comforting thought.”
“I had rather you did not think about it at all, although I know that it will be difficult to avoid. There is much to do this week, to prepare for Saturday’s match. Just because our opponents are towards the bottom of the Premiership at the moment does not mean that we can underestimate them. They will be all the more keen to score points, and in our last game we gave away far too many positions inside our own 22 to please me. That was how that last try got scored, when we should have kept them pinned back in their own half. It must not happen again.”
“No, sir.” Somewhere in the middle of that he had morphed from concerned boyfriend to displeased coach.
“Ach, koekie, I am sorry. That is a speech for the changing room, not the kitchen. Speaking of which, we should go. I must check my e-mails and do some paperwork, and you have line-out training at 9:00.”
And off we went, and everything went much as normal (except that Rhys was missing, and there was a certain amount of banter about the reasons for that, since rumour had it he had been seen throwing up into the planters outside the Marlborough Hotel. There was also some speculation about what Piet would do to him when he got his hands on him – for some reason, people seemed to think that I might have an opinion about that). But that lunchtime, Piet appeared with his stoniest face on, accompanied by T-Bone de Saint-Cyr. Mark, who can’t stand T-Bone, muttered something rude under his breath, and I have to say that the general temperature fell a degree or two.
“I must tell you that Mr Saint-Cyr will be training with the Firsts this week,” he said. “We hope that he will be playing for at least part of the game on Saturday. I’m sure you will welcome him as you would welcome any new member of the team. Mr Standish, Mr Cartwright, a word, please.”
He drew us out into the corridor.
“I thought you said that he wasn’t ready to play with the Firsts?” said Rob, as soon as we were out of earshot of the others.
“I believe that he is still inexperienced, and needs time to become accustomed to playing at this level in the English game,” said Piet carefully. “However, he has to gain experience somewhere. And, to be honest, my hand has just been somewhat forced. Rhys Morgan has a burst appendix, and will be in hospital for at least 10 days, and we need someone with pace on the wing.”
“Fuck,” said Rob, simply.
“As you say. I could resist pressure from the board to play Thibault de Saint-Cyr before, but it is impossible now. We need him. We will just have to try and make it work”
Well, we tried.
I’ve said before that it’s obvious that T-Bone doesn’t like me, though I’m not quite sure why. No, that’s not true. Every time Piet was around, T-Bone was clearly desperate to impress him. I didn’t know exactly what he’d heard about Piet and me, but he must have heard something, and I think he saw me as the obstacle to his glittering career.
The problem is, if it was just me and T-Bone we could work our way around it. But he didn’t really click with anyone else on the team either. There wasn’t anyone that he could turn to as a mate, ask those questions that aren’t in any rule book but to which you need to know the answers in order to fit into a team. And the trouble was, that it seemed to be catching. We stopped playing as a team, as a unit, and started playing as 15 large men with muscles and an excess of testosterone.
And on Saturday afternoon we paid for it.
It was a home game, not a capacity crowd but decent numbers, and a fair sprinkling of opposition fans too. There was a bit of a breeze blowing from the St Mary’s end of the field, but nothing outrageous, and it was overcast but no immediate prospect of rain. Ought to have been a doddle.
Instead it was a massacre. They came roaring up the field at the starting whistle, kept us under relentless pressure, and managed to get an overlap, find some space between Tommy and Darren, and get in a beautiful try between the posts. The scowl on Darren’s face and the anguish on Tommy's (not that he had had a hope of getting to the man with the ball as he passed - powerhouse in the scrum, but no pace) told its own story. An easy enough conversion, and there were 7 points on the scoreboard in the first 10 minutes, and none of them ours.
And it just got worse. We couldn’t seem to get anything right. Our ball got stolen twice in line-outs, snatched by one of the opposition before our receiver could lay hand to it, and that’s normally an area of our play that’s rock solid, and then we gave away some silly penalties for things like hanging on to the ball because no-one else was near enough to get it away, and by half time the score was 17:3 against us, and none of us were looking forward to the half-time talk from Piet and Harry.
However, after Piet’s dry “Well, gentlemen, that was not the start I had hoped for,” we got a clear, unemotional analysis of just what we’d done wrong. “But don’t forget lads, they made mistakes too,” added Harry, and with some suggestions about how we might remedy the situation, we came out of the tunnel for the second half feeling that the situation was recoverable.
Shortly into the second half we seemed to be turning it around. We were putting real pressure on them for the first time, playing most of the game in their half of the field. A fumbled pass gave us turnover ball, and made an opportunity for me to get a try, which I was pleased to take, and which we converted for the full 7 points available. Two penalty kicks and a drop goal brought us to within one point of them: 17:16 with 10 minutes still in the game.
And then T-Bone got the ball off a mistimed opposition pass, and started to run. And boy did he run, jinking through a couple of attempts to tackle him, right up three-quarters of the left-hand side of the field. Magnificent pace, the crowd were on their feet in anticipation. Ten metres from their goal line three of the opposition converged on him, and you could see, we could all see, that as they did so space was opening up on the right, and Gregor was poised to take advantage of the inevitable pass, the opportunity for a match-winning try.
Only T-Bone didn’t pass. The idiot held onto the ball, tried frantically to dodge one tackle, only to be sent thumping into touch by a second. I could see Gregor’s mouth move in something that was probably a jawbreaking Georgian curse on T-Bone’s ancestry, and the looks on several of our players’ faces suggested that similar thoughts were going through their heads too.
And just as quickly as that our momentum had gone. It was their throw-in, they got the ball out efficiently, chipped it way down field, and just because the gods never send troubles singly it bounced nicely into the hands of Darren who fumbled it and watched disbelievingly as it was knocked back into touch. So they had a line-out way down in our half, and guess what? They scored. No conversion this time, with the wind strengthening and against them, but it was enough to win them the game 22:16.
And needless to say, we did not go back down the tunnel in the sunniest of moods. Rob had gone off to the TV people on the touchline to give them a quick talking head reaction before joining the others in the dressing room, and I’d swapped shirts with Gordon Swales, whom I knew from the England training camp, accepted his slap on the back and ‘hard luck, mate’ with, I hope, a decent grace, and then I got held up to sign autographs for a party of kids in Gryphons’ colours, and for one of their dads, too, and accept more commiserations (and those hurt far worse than anything the other team might have had to say – I hate letting the fans down). And when I walked back into our dressing room I walked into a full-scale barney.
“. . .the fuck did you think you were doing,” Ryan was repeating, prodding T-Bone in the chest for emphasis with each word. “You fucking lost us the match, you French cunt.”
T-Bone pushed him, quite hard judging by the way Ryan staggered back.
“Don’t call me a cunt, you stinking English salaud. You think you are so great? Where were you when they made that bad pass, hein? Still trying to get your fat English chip-eating body up the field, no? At least I can get to the ball, and run with it. If any of you could do the same, maybe this team could play some proper rugby.”
“Listen,” roared Mark, “cool it the pair of you,” but it was too late, because everyone started shouting at once. Tommy grabbed at Ryan’s arm as if to restrain him, but Ryan shook the Samoan off and made for T-Bone, who squared up to him, raising his fists.
Now fisticuffs in the dressing room were a really bad idea, particularly since the TV people, who would currently be getting postmortems from Piet and the opposition manager, were still around. A full scale dressing room punch-up on film would end up on the main news, if I was any judge.
So I slipped the nod to Tommy, who grabbed Ryan more firmly and stuck his head under his arm (and believe me, when 18 stone of Samoan sticks you in an headlock, you stay stuck), while I stepped in to intercept T-Bone.
“Look, just calm down, please?” I said, in my most winning voice.
T-Bone was not in a mood to be won over.
“Get out of my way,” he hissed.
“No. Not until you calm down and promise not to do anything stupid.”
“Oh, the magnificent Phil who can do no wrong, he is so gracious to the poor Frenchman, n’est-ce pas? You think you are so great? You don’t have to worry for the place because the boss is your boyfriend, because he give you all the attention and you can do as you please unlike the rest of them poor bastard who don’t bend over and take it.”
A sudden, shocking silence fell.
“What did you just say?”
He snarled something in French, and I saw Gregor, whose French is as fluent as his English, wince. I’m no linguist, but if some of that wasn’t the French for ‘fucking queer’ you can dress me up in lace and call me aunty.
“Do you honestly think that Piet, Piet of all people, would base his choices on anything less than the good of the team? Because if you do, you don’t belong on this team. You don’t belong in this club.”
And then, blazing with indignation and bitterness and the stupidity of youth, T-Bone said:
“He wouldn’t be the first old man to do stupid things for a pretty arse.”
And I hit him.
Look, I know, I know, all right? There's nothing you can say about stupidity, and lack of self-control, and repeating your mistakes that I didn't say to myslef, afterwards. It was a pretty clean blow, too, though I say it myself, right to the jaw, and he went down like a felled tree. And to make matters worse, everyone cheered, and then Ryan leaned down and hissed: “He may be a fucking shirtlifter, but he’s our fucking shirtlifter, and if all queers could play rugby as well as he does, let alone the Terminator, I’d learn to take it up the arse myself.” Which was a sort of vote of confidence, if you like.
And in the middle of all this, as I was shaking my hand (T-Bone’s jaw was hard), and he was shaking his head groggily on the floor and fingering the spreading bruise on his face, and everyone went back to talking at once at the top of their voices, Piet walked in, with Rob in tow, and everything went dead silent again.
His cheekbones leaped into the severest relief.
“What,” he asked quietly, “is going on here?”
Heads hung like a lot of naughty schoolboys, and no-one seemed disposed either to meet his eye or to answer.
“Well? I am waiting for an answer, gentlemen.”
“We, that is, we were just discussing the match,” mumbled Ryan.
“You were discussing the match. I see. Mr Saint-Cyr, perhaps you could enlighten me as to why you chose to discuss the match from the floor?”
Thibault hung his head and said nothing. Unfortunately, as his dark hair swung, the movement exposed the swollen livid mark where my fist had made contact.
Piet’s cheekbones sharpened further as he stepped quickly forward and turned T-Bone’s face to the light to inspect the damage.
“Who was responsible for this particular part of the discussion?” he asked, to no-one in particular. Thibault, to his credit, said nothing, but Piet’s gaze swept the room like a searchlight and came blindingly, fierily to rest on me and my skinned knuckles.
“Mr Cartwright? Do you have anything to add?”
“I’m sorry, sir. It was me. I hit Thibault.”
It was only a blink. No-one who didn’t know him as well as I did would have seen it. But I saw something on Piet’s face that I’ve only seen a couple of times, and hope not to see again. Disappointment. Disappointment in me.
I knew that I was for it. This was a caning offence. But whatever he did to me it couldn’t hurt as much as seeing that in his eyes. I’d let myself down, and him, and it was bitter, bitter.
“I see. Mr Cartwright, Mr Saint-Cyr, I will see you in my office, please. The rest of you shower and go home. We will go through today’s mistakes on Monday morning, 8:30 sharp. Do not be late, any of you.”
A mumbled chorus of ‘yes, sir’ and the others escaped gratefully enough to the showers. I walked silently behind Piet, feeling sick inside.
When the door closed behind us, he spun on us, and Thibault took a step backwards in alarm. Piet could be a bit – well, a bit intimidating at the best of times. In this mood he was downright scary.
“Well? I am waiting for an explanation, gentlemen.”
We both hung our heads, unwilling to be the first to say something, and Thibault shot me a careful, sideways glance, as if wondering what I was going to say. Piet didn’t miss it. He focused his attention on me. It was like being skewered.
“I, er. . . we were arguing about the match, about the way it went,” I said when the pressure became unbearable. “It got a bit heated.”
Piet still said nothing. In the end I had to go on.
“Well, like I say, tempers were up, over losing, and, um, then we all said a few things that we shouldn’t have, and, well, and I lost my temper and hit Thibault.”
There was another long silence.
“I see,” said Piet heavily, at last. “No further explanation? Saint-Cyr, do you have anything to add?”
Thibault shook his head, then obviously feeling that this wasn’t quite enough, mumbled: “Non. No, Mr de Vries.”
“Very well. I must tell you that I am not pleased, not pleased at all to find my players brawling like schoolboys in a playground.” His tone was withering, and I willed the ground to open and swallow me. “Perhaps I should make you both play with the under-19s, so that they may teach you a little maturity. Certainly neither of you is fit to play with the Firsts, and I will play neither of you, neither of you, in the next game, and perhaps not in further games until you impress me with a more responsible attitude.” My head shot up, anguished, and I saw a similar look on T-Bone’s face, but Piet was at his stoniest and most unresponsive.
“Furthermore,” he added, “since you obviously have excess energy to use up, you may come in tomorrow and use it running laps. Fifty, gentlemen, starting at 9am. That is all.”
He made a gesture of dismissal, and we turned to go. At the door I turned back for a moment, hoping for a flicker of, I don’t know, forgiveness, understanding, something. Piet’s face might have been carved on an Egyptian tomb for all the response I got.
I don’t really remember much about showering and getting changed. When I went back, Piet’s office was closed, and for a dreadful moment I thought that he had gone home without me, until I saw him stalking along the corridor.
“Come,” he said, “let us go home.”
In the car, I couldn’t keep quiet any longer.
“Piet, I. . .”
“Koekie, I am well aware that there is more to this than you have told me. Several of your team-mates have come to me and said that I must not be too hard on you, that you were severely provoked.”
I admit, that cheered me a little.
“I told them what I tell you: that I expect my players to be able to hold their tempers under the worst provocation. Retaliate on the scoreboard, against other teams. Not with your fists, and most certainly not against other players in your own team.”
“So do you want to tell me what he said, that so upset you?”
I thought that one through. Did I want to? After how low Piet had been over his birthday, did I want to tell him that one of his players thought him an old fool chasing a pretty arse?
“No?” he asked. “Perhaps I can guess. Something about you and I, something that suggested that you do not have your place as of right but because the boss wishes his handsome young boyfriend to be the star of the team?”
Damn him, but he is entirely too good at that. Tim always says that Piet’s ability to read minds is the most scary thing about him.
“Er, something like that, yes.”
“I see, and are you perhaps sleeping with the England selectors as well? Because if you are not, it would seem that they think you capable of great rugby as well. And there are few teams that would not wish to play an England international, regardless of his relationship with the director of rugby.”
Well, when you put it like that. . .
“So in fact, the suggestion is ridiculous, a schoolboy taunt, no more. Certainly not worth starting a fight for.”
“I didn’t start it, I was trying to stop it,” I said, a little peevishly.
“Well you seemed to have succeeded in that when I came in,” he returned.
“Yes. Look, I know it was stupid, I know I let you down.”
“No, you let yourself down, koekie. Perhaps you are right though. Perhaps it does show that rugby is not yet ready for an openly gay player. If your own team-mates can make you cease to think with such slurs, think how much worse it would be on the field, in the mouth of an opposing player. You would end up red-carded every game.”
Ouch. Piet, that was unfair. Except, of course, that it wasn’t. He was right, I had let myself get riled by an insult that struck a little too close to home.
When we got in I went straight to his study and got out the cane. Better to get it over with.
He came in behind me.
“Why have you taken that out, koekie?”
“Piet, I’d really like to get this over with. Please don’t make me wait.”
“I have not said I intended to cane you, have I?”
I stared at him, mouth open.
“But, but. . .hitting people is a. . . you caned me before, Hansie, and that man at the concert.”
“Exactly so. And it did no good. If the cane does not work as a punishment in this matter there is no point in employing it.”
“But Piet. . .” I was lost.
He took my hand, sat on the edge of the desk and pulled me to him. “Koekie, you have been punished. You will sit the next game out on the bench, though I do not truly intend to keep you from playing any longer than that. And so everyone will see that I am displeased, and that you have been punished, and it will be done. And tomorrow you will run your laps, you and Thibault de Saint-Cyr, and that is enough.”
“I – oh.” Well, I supposed so. Only it didn’t quite feel right, somehow.
“Come, my hart. Let us think about dinner, and perhaps a DVD.”
I made us a simple, quick, pasta dish, and we curled up together in front of something undemanding. Only there was something, something nagging at me, a discomfort. I was forgiven, but I didn’t feel forgiven. I felt – well, I wasn’t sure what I felt, but I didn’t feel right.
In the small hours of the morning I woke up thinking about it, and couldn’t get back to sleep. About 4 am, just as the first birds were making sleepy, querulous noises outside, it came to me why I felt so bad.
When I was ten I hung around with Stefan Kapuszynski and Mark Dolan for a while. One day, the pair of them stole some sweets from the local corner shop. Just penny chews, the sort of stuff that kids get up to. I was horrified – that was stealing – but at the same time fascinated. And then they told me that I had to steal something too, to stay in their gang. And while my friends chatted to Mr O’Leary, the shopkeeper, I slipped a banana chew into my pocket. The whole length of the shop, as I walked out, I could feel it burning against my thigh, waiting for the cry of ‘stop, thief’ and the inevitable shame and punishment that would follow.
Only it didn’t happen. We met around the corner, and it was agreed that I had met the entrance requirements for the gang, and then Stefan ate the evidence. I couldn’t have, it would have choked me. So I got away scot free, except that there was a wrongness in the world. I knew that I shouldn’t have got away with it, and it gnawed at me, until at the end of the week, when I got my pocket money, I went into the shop and left a pound coin, which was several times the cost of the sweet, tucked between two of the boxes. And I stopped playing with Mark and Stefan.
It was guilt. That was what I was feeling, just the same as then. I’d had forgiveness, but I couldn’t quite believe in it because I couldn’t feel that I deserved it, just as I hadn’t felt that I deserved to get away with stealing as a lad.
I got up about 6 am, showered and tidied myself up, thought I might make porridge for breakfast, then thought better of it and had cornflakes instead. As I was pouring fruit juice Piet came down.
“Good morning koekie. Did you not sleep well?”
It was the tenderness in his voice that did it, the concern. I swung to him, tears in my eyes.
“Piet, I. . .”
“Koekie, koekie, whatever is the matter?” He swept me into an enfolding hug.
“I – Piet, I really hate having to say this, but I need that caning. I won’t feel right until you do, that everything is right between us. I know you’ve forgiven me, really I do, but I don’t feel forgiven, do you see?”
“Hush, hush. Yes, my hart, I understand, of course I understand. Very well, it shall be as you say, and your heart will be a little lighter for it, I think, though I fear your bottom will be the sorer. I will do it properly, you understand?”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” I said shakily.
“So, then. Go and change into your training kit, while I finish my orange juice, and then go into the study. I will join you presently.”
And of course, as soon as he said it, I heard the internal voice saying: are you mad? You could have got away with it. But I shushed it, impatiently.
Still, waiting in Piet’s study I was on tenterhooks. Luckily, he didn’t keep me waiting too long. Went to the drawer, took out, as I had expected, the long, pale rattan that bites like the viper for which he was nicknamed.
“So, Mr Cartwright.” His voice was quite soft, quite gentle. “A dozen, then.”
I breathed out. It could have been worse. I got eighteen that time with Hansie. But still, bad enough. I was not going to enjoy running those laps this morning, or sitting in the car on the way there.
“Please drop your shorts and bend over the desk,” he said. I obeyed, positioned myself, felt the gentle tap, tap, tap of the cane against my skin as he found the range. Then – one!
Oooh. He wasn’t joking when he said was going to do it properly. Two! A little below it. Not quite so bad, somehow, that one. The thing is that the first few strokes of a caning are usually the more bearable – ah! three – ones, but the sensation seems to get worse as you build up – shit, four! That one was lower, and it burned like fire. Five, six! Faster, higher. The lower ones sting more, but the higher ones sort of ache in a particularly unpleasant way.
There would now be, I knew from experience, an elegantly placed pattern of dark red bars, each with a whitish centre, painted across my backside with geometric precision. And still another six to come.
Seven, oh God that hurt! And eight, right down in the sulcal crease, and I yelped for it, loudly. And then nine, ten, eleven, all right across the centre of the target, overlain, and it was all I could do to keep from jumping up and yelling. I did the yelling part anyway, felt an involuntary tear trickle from my left eye down the side of my nose.
“One more, Mr Cartwright,” his voice reminded me from somewhere very far away. Yes, I know, please get it – ah! Over. It was over. The world was back in balance. Everything from lower back to the top of my thighs throbbed and burned. His hands helped me gently up, folded me to him.
“There, there, my hart, my brave one. You took that well, and it is all done, and Piet forgives Phil, and Phil, he hopes, forgives Piet for hurting him.”
“You didn’t hurt me.”
“No? Am I perhaps doing it wrong?”
I punched him gently. “You know what I mean. You hurt me, but it was like, like, like when the physios pummel you. Something you need to heal.”
“And you feel better? You accept that you are forgiven?”
“Yes, Piet. Yes.” And I did. I felt – renewed. Sore, but good, like after winning a hard match. “I’ve forgiven myself. Phil forgives Phil.”
“Ah.” A sound of complete satisfaction. “Good. Good. Then pull your shorts up, and we will go fulfil the next part of your redemption.”
I pulled a face. Running laps is never exactly appealing – it’s dead boring, for one thing, unless you have an iPod or something to listen to, and I didn’t suppose for one moment I was going to be allowed that – but running laps in this condition was going to be no fun at all.
When we got to the club (Piet had wordlessly placed a cushion on the car seat for me, but the drive was still uncomfortable) T-Bone was already there.
“You are early, Mr Saint-Cyr,” said Piet. “Excellent. Very well, fifty laps of the training field. You, Mr Cartwright will run clockwise, and you Mr Saint-Cyr counterclockwise. Warm-up exercises and stretches first, please.”
And he walked away.
T-Bone and I began a set of stretches and warm-ups, conspicuously ignoring one another. Only I couldn’t help wincing from time to time, and I saw him look at me, surprised, as breath hissed between my teeth at one point.
“You are injured,” he said, apparently to a point in the air midway between us.
“Not – exactly.”
Well, I thought, you want to know?
“I was punished. Piet expects high standards of me.”
He frowned. “I do not understand. He punched you?”
I squared up to him. “No, Thibault. You wanted Piet’s attention? This is what his attention looks like.” I turned my back on him, slipped my shorts down for a moment, heard his shocked intake of breath. Then I pulled them up again, turned back.
“But – but – I thought you and he – why do you let him do this thing to you?” He sounded bewildered. “It’s barbaric.”
“It’s our bargain. I screw up, I pay the price.”
He muttered something.
“I said, I screwed up.” He sounded angry.
“Yeah, yeah, you did. Big time. Thibault, you can’t play a game of rugby on your own. If you can’t work with the team, they’ll freeze you out.”
He was silent for a long time.
“Yes.” Grudgingly. Then another blazing look from under those straight black brows.
“Phil, I do not like you. And I do not think you like me. But I respect you, for not saying anything last night. You did not – you did not say anything, after?”
“After we went home? No, your secret is safe,” I said curtly.
“Yes. I knew it would be so. It was wrong to speak as I did, of M de Vries. I cannot apologise to him, so I apologise to you.”
I nodded, not knowing what else to do. Then to my surprise, he held out his hand, solemnly. We shook. It felt strange, but at least it was a sort of truce. He wanted to see us as honourable enemies. I thought that worth having, as a start.
“So, we will run our laps then.” He turned, shaking his head. “You really let him beat you? Like a dog?”
“It isn’t like that.”
“The English vice.”
“Don’t say that around Piet. He isn’t, remember.”
“Ah non. Bizarre.” Then he added:
“But I will still be finished my laps while you are only half way.” And he was off.
It cost me, but he was wrong about that, as well.
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