I had not thought of it seriously for years, except that I had told Tim part of it that night that Piet first punished me. It was not a big thing in the tale of my life, and there was so much more that was of greater importance that one small grief was allowed to pass by. But sometimes the healing of a small grief allows the healing of a greater one, ja? And it was Phil’s doing, not Piet’s. Piet – Piet has great strength. He holds us all up when things are bad for us. Not just me, but Tim too. But Phil is a healer.
We were at Piet’s when it began, and we had been telling tales and drinking wine. Ach, you would think to hear us talk that all we ever did was drink wine, and it is not so. Phil in particular is careful about what he eats and drinks. Well, I suppose he has to be. So he had drunk less than the rest of us, and that perhaps was why he heard what I had not the words to say clearly, although I think he hears more than he says, often. We had been telling tales, Piet and I, of the days at our old club, and making ever wilder stories to make the others laugh, until Piet remembered. . .
Piet remembered the day I drew on the pavilion door. I had not thought of that in so many years. I think too that Piet. . . No. That is unfair. Piet did not know what came after it, or he would not have mentioned the tale. Piet knew only the first part, as it concerned him and me, and which was only a story to be told against me, and not an unkind one at that. Piet would not willingly pain me by bringing me back against the hurts of my youth, and I know that it grieved him when he realised that he had done it.
He did it so innocently, too. “Do you remember, Hansie, President Pou? President Peacock, you would say in English, Phil. Spicer, that was his name. He was president of our club, and he was a vain man. Worse than you.” Phil gave a snort and leaned round to aim a punch at Piet’s arm. He was sitting on the floor with his back to Piet’s legs – that seems to be a favourite place for him. Piet caught the hand coming up, and kissed his knuckles.
“He was vain about the club and his position at the club, and the cups we had won. Everything had to be on display all the time, all cleaned and shiny and nicely laid out. And he showed them off as if he had won them all himself, by his own efforts. So we called him the Peacock, and he knew it, but for all his vanity, he was a good-humoured man with no harm in him. His wife was a cold woman, vain as her husband but without the good nature to soften the vanity. Trudi Bezuidenhout Spicer. Trudi Trots we called her. Toffee-nose Trudi? Some name like that.
“And one day I came up to the club and I met the president and Trudi in the car park. She was in a temper and was demanding that I should find out who had done this thing and ban him from the club, and her husband was saying: but, my dear, it is a joke only and not important, and I was saying: what? What are you talking about? What do you want me to do? And we all talked at once for several minutes, until Trudi dragged me round to the front of the pavilion, and there on the door was a picture – a. . . a. . . cartoon? No, that is not the word. A caricature, that is it. Drawn in chalk, of a peacock, with the president’s face, and a spread tail made up of cups and trophies. And where that tail was going. . .
“And Trudi was insisting that I should find out who had done this, and throw him out of the club, and her husband was saying that it was only a joke and it would be more dignified to take no notice, and I was thinking: it is that van den Broek brat, he is the only one with the talent to do this, and actually it is a very clever piece of work and when I have finished with him he will not be able to sit down until the weekend.”
Tim and Phil were laughing, and I was laughing too, until suddenly the rest of how that was came to me, and I remembered all that came afterwards, and. . . I do not know how to explain how it is when I remember my youth. It is as if all that time was a pit of oily misery in which I must swim, and sometimes the toxic waste comes up to my mouth and eyes and I fear to drown in it. Less often now: now, there is Tim, and Piet and Phil, and the others who are so important to me. It is true that we are all the sum of our experiences, but I am learning that I can place my own value on the things I have lived through. I can say: this time with Tim is important, that time is over and it was bad but it did not break me and I am stronger for it. For some reason, though, the recollection of that time, that silly story about a young man and a cheeky drawing, brought with it so much else, that my laughter broke into a sob and I had to cover my face.
Tim was there at once. “Hansie, what? What is it?” And I felt his hands on my wrists. I struggled to master myself, and heard him swear softly, and with misery of his own. He hurts so much to see me hurt; he would take away all the pain if he knew how, and indeed, he does take so much. My beloved Tim. I fought again, and dropped my hands, and said, “Glad niks nie, Tim, nothing, it is nothing, it is only. . . it is nothing to signify. It was a bad time, is all. It is nothing.”
I could see that Tim did not believe me, and I added, softly, “It was the last time I drew. I told you, it was not something that was encouraged and there came a time when I was not strong enough to fight any more.” And Tim dropped his head onto my knee, and swore again, and I said, more strongly, “We do not need to remember that time.”
But no-one agreed with me. Piet frowned. “Why was it a bad time, Hansie? Tell us, and perhaps we can help you let it go.” Tim was shaking his head, too, but I did not want to speak of it, and I got up and went to the window to master my emotions, and Phil came after me and put his hand on my arm. When I turned again Phil looked at me, and then back at Piet, and he did a most curious thing. He gave both Piet and Tim a Look. Not the Look that Piet gives me and I give Tim, when something has been done that should not be done. Phil is no sort of Top. I cannot describe the Look he gave them, but clearly they understood it if I did not, for Piet got up from the sofa and went to an armchair, and Tim rose from the floor and went and took Phil’s place at Piet’s feet, and Phil held out his hand. Quite automatically I put my hand in his, and he led me over to the sofa, and pushed me into it. Then he sat down beside me, and wrapped his arms round me. I was inclined to struggle, but Phil is a very large young man, larger than he was a year ago, and he was determined to have his way. I was pulled into his embrace, and turned until my head was against his chest, and he began to run his fingers through my hair.
“Hansie? I don’t understand what all this is about. Tell me about it.”
I shook my head. I really didn’t want to talk about it, but Phil said, softly, “Please?” and suddenly I remembered him kneeling on the floor at Fran Milton’s, listening to me talk of my father, and I thought that he might understand. But even the idea of speaking of it made my throat close and my eyes fill, and I fought until Phil put his cheek against the top of my head and tightened his grip and whispered, “Let me help, Hansie.”
It is odd, that. Tim and I both look to this household for our strength when we fail. Tim thinks much more of Piet than he would admit. If you ask him, he would deny it, but he judges himself now in Piet’s eyes, by Piet’s standards. He wants, he wants so badly that Piet should think well of him. And Piet does, any fool can see that. Me, I want that too. But where Tim is miserable beyond my mending, it is Piet he would go to, and Piet who will talk to him of what he has done and what he might do, to make all well again. Ja, I look to Piet, but differently. Piet takes away my guilt, but when my unhappiness overwhelms both Tim and me, my succour is Phil. To know that Phil cares is. . . the closest I can get – it sounds childish and foolish – Phil is where I go to hide my head under the blanket and clutch the teddy bear.
So I hid my head against him and I shut my eyes and I reached for the Hansie who was twenty years old, and foolish as fourteen, and who could draw, a little.
It seemed that all through my school days there was the battle between what I wanted to learn and what my father would allow me to learn. I came to know, early, that it was wise to carry only my school texts, and not anything from the library. There were too many books which made my father say: this is not suitable. No, the word he used was behoorlik, proper, correct, appropriate. Fiction he did not like to see me read unless it was serious. Everything was serious. Sport even was to be taken seriously. Rugby, yes. Cricket, yes. Football, yes. Tennis, perhaps. Swimming, as an ability, yes, but as a sport, no. Such sports as squash or badminton, no. I must learn to ride a horse, but for work, for the farm or the army only, not for pleasure. Music, probably not. I could sing in the church choir if I wished, but not as a soloist. No lessons. I could learn a musical instrument, but a brass one, not the violin. I learned the cornet, badly. And as for art! As soon as it could be given up, I was to give it up.
I enjoyed it, while I had it. I could draw, reasonably accurately. Technical drawing, that was permitted. Sketching was not. Painting was frowned upon. My talent was not large: it would never have been something that I could have made into a career. But I could draw faces, and my friends learned soon – even at junior school – that I could draw the pictures of the teachers which would go from hand to hand around a class. Miss Smits tore up a sketch of her looking like a giraffe, all legs and neck, as she was, and used her ruler on my palms to very good effect. Mr de Groot kept me behind class every day for a week for a drawing of him getting into his car, for he was a big man and it was a small car. And by the time I was twenty I had learned to draw caricatures, and my friends liked that too.
This much I explained to Phil, who continued to stroke my hair, and I looked over at Tim and Piet. “You knew it was me. You did not ask.”
Piet, who had been looking harsh, suddenly smiled. “But of course, my Hansie. We all knew that it was you. There was a picture of me as a vulture which lived behind the bar for almost a year.”
I had forgotten that one, and I felt the tide of scarlet run up my neck. Piet grinned at me. “I always thought it best to pretend that I had not seen it. I know I look like a vulture.”
“Hawk,” objected Phil, and Tim nodded. I turned back to Phil. Smiling despite myself.
“Well, it was true that I did the sketches to amuse my team-mates. But there was another thing. You know how it is with young men, they take up a craze and it runs for three months and then they take up another. We had a game which we played. One at a time, we had to choose either to do something foolish for the others to see, or to make some admission about ourselves.”
Tim nodded again. “Truth Or Dare. International, is it? I played that, and got into so much trouble with Jim for pinching the Hamiltons fork lift truck that you wouldn’t believe.”
Actually, thinking about it, I would. “Well, I always chose the dare. The questions for those who would speak the truth were beginning to be about girls and I did not want to get into that sort of conversation. Nor did I want to think about why I did not want to do it. So I chose always the dare, and I began to get myself a reputation for being. . . for being a little wild. And this was heard at home, and it was not received well. Not at all well. But that was why I did the drawing. They dared me to make a caricature of President Peacock, and I did, I drew one on the back of somebody’s college pad. But then they dared me to do it on the pavilion door.”
“Not sensible,” put in Piet, gently. I looked over at him. “No. But I was what? Twenty? Twenty-one?”
I thought for a little about that Hansie. Almost I can believe that he was someone else, not me. He was Johannes, still, and I am not Johannes any more. I don’t know how much of what I thought, I said. Some of it I must have said out loud, for Phil to understand. I drew President Peacock on the door, in chalks borrowed from the dartboard at the bar. And I knew that when Viper de Vries saw it, I was going to be sorry, and I didn’t care. It was not the first time, either. I spent a lot of time in trouble with Viper. Always when the dare was mooted, somebody would say: and the Viper will not be happy, and we would all nod sententiously, and think for a moment. And then, whatever it was, I would do it anyway. Always, when we talked of the risk, it seemed that it would be worth the trouble we would get into. Always, it turned out to be me who took the risk. I can’t believe now, so long after, that I did it. I was desperate for him to think well of me, as Tim is now, but I didn’t seem to be able to resist the temptations. I knew – knew – every time that I would feel his cane, and I feared it, but it was only ever when he had me bent over that I thought: this was really a bad idea, he will think me a complete idiot. Next time I will think of this and I will not do the foolish thing. But next time, I would think, Viper will punish me, but never mind, and I would do it again.
I did not think, with the drawing, that Viper would get into trouble with President Peacock. I think that if that had occurred to me, I really would not have done it. He came through to the dressing room, and we were all a bit giggly, and he stood in the doorway and waited until we were silent, and then he said, conversationally, “Meneer van den Broek, Mevrou Spicer wishes me to find out who made the picture on the door, and then to expel him from the club. Meneer Spicer is more generous: he thinks it a rather bad-mannered and ill-bred joke, but one not worth his notice. It has taken me twenty minutes to persuade Mevrou Spicer that I am in control of my team and capable of enforcing proper behaviour. You will take a cloth outside and remove your artwork, if you please, and after training you will come to me and we will discuss this further.”
I had nothing to say to that, fersure. Viper’s discussions I already knew very well. I went, quite quietly, and wiped away the picture, and I went out on the pitch, and attempted not to draw any more attention to myself. Afterwards, we showered, and the others put on their everyday clothes, and I changed into clean kit. Then I sat and waited until the last of them went away, with a tap on my shoulder which was, I think, meant to be reassuring. The Viper passed him in the doorway, and I stood up, and waited, as I had waited before, while he turned the key in the door.
“Well, Johannes? Tell me why you did it.”
I had no good answer to give him. “It was a dare.” Which of course is no answer at all. He gave me another moment to come up with something better, and when I did not, he turned to the rack of lockers and opened his own. I knew – oh, yes, I knew – what was inside. He removed the cane and flexed it between his hands, and said, still calmly, “Twelve, then, as usual, Johannes, and afterwards you will go through to the main part of the bar and you will apologise to Meneer Spicer and to his wife.” And I nodded, and turned, and bent over and put my hands flat on the bench I had just been sitting on. And I said to myself that this time, this time I would keep silent. I had learned to do it when my father beat me, to be still and silent, but I never managed it for the Viper. I did not understand why not. The cane hurt more than the strap, but not by much, and when the Viper beat me I knew what I had done to earn it. It should have been easier to take my punishment from him than from my father, but it was not.
And I was silent, I was silent for six, laid hard across the seat of my shorts, which provided much less in the way of protection that I would have wished. But then he stopped, and I knew what I was expected to do next. I stood up, very carefully, and I worked my shorts down to the hollows of my knees, and I fought the temptation to clutch my backside and hop from foot to foot. And then I bent over again, but this time I wrapped my fingers into the gaps between the slats of the bench, and I locked my elbows and my knees. And I heard the Viper say “Ready?” and my voice said, “Yes, sir,” although I was not ready, I would never be ready.
Sure enough, when the cane came down again, I was not ready, and my resolution to be silent was broken at once. I cried out at each stroke, but I think I did not move. I think I did not. I wish I could have been silent.
And the twenty year old Johannes came back to the thirty-five year old Hansie, who had his cheek on the chest of a man ten years or so his junior, who said, gently, “Hansie, I’ve never yet managed more than six in silence. I yell like nobody’s business every time. Piet doesn’t seem to mind.”
“Why should I mind? If you are silent, how do I know that I am getting through to you? I remember this, Hansie. You did not move. You never moved. Not once, in all the times I punished you. No more than a wriggle.”
“Tim can be silent,” I observed, shakily.
“Yes, thank you, and I weep for a kind word or a cruel one. I weep at sentimental songs on the radio, or happy endings on chick flicks. Take me to a wedding and watch me howl. Kill off the hero in my library book and watch me tear up. You don’t do that.”
True, I do not. Ja wel, let that one go.
But when the young Johannes did get up, he was very well aware that he had been punished. I leaned on the wall and did not care that my shorts were still round my knees, but I put my fist against my mouth until my breath had ceased to come in little whimpers. And the Viper said, “Come, Johannes, put on your proper clothes,” and I did so, but I moved very carefully. And then he looked at me, and he said, “Go and wash your face. And comb your hair while you are there,” and I did that, and he said, “Now we will walk once around the pitch, and then you will go and make your apologies.” I thought the walk would kill me, but by the time we got back, I was fit to go inside, although I saw myself reflected in the mirror behind the bar, and I was very red in the face. I made my apologies quite properly, and Mevrou Spicer sneered at me, and said something about Meneer de Vries having made me sorry, and I realised that she knew what had been done to me, and blushed all the more.
“She did not know,” interrupted Piet. “That was why I made you walk. I would not let you go in there until you looked no more than embarrassed. She thought I had scolded you only.”
How many years on, and I was relieved by that! I shut my eyes again and let Phil rub my neck and back, and presently I was fit to go on.
For that was not the end of it. Far from it. Somebody told my father what I had done, making a joke of it, I think, but my father was never one to see a joke. He told me off again, and said that I had to write to Meneer Spicer with proper apologies, and for once I defied him and said I would not. I said that Meneer de Vries had punished me for my fault – I did not exactly lie, but I think I let him believe that I had done extra training, although I do not know why I did that. My father would have thought it quite proper that I should have been beaten – and that I had already made my apologies to the Spicers, and that Meneer Spicer had accepted them. And when he would have insisted, I said that the way I behaved at the club was down to Meneer de Vries, and that if he thought I had been punished enough, I would not be punished again. But my father said, “No, Johannes, you will find that you are mistaken. What you do reflects upon me, and if you will not by yourself behave as a man should, I will make you.” And he turned and went away from me, but for a short while I thought that I had won, because I could not see what more he could do to me. I was by then as big as him, and it had begun to come into my mind that I was old enough that I would not let him beat me.
He did not try. When I came next to my room, he had stripped from it again all the things he thought were the proof that I was unsatisfactory.
I raised my head from Phil’s chest to look at Tim. “I told you this before, I think. He had done it before. Twice he had done it, to take from me my books and the things that gave me pleasure. My paints, my music. And this third time he did it, and by the time I realised what he had done, he had again burned all my drawing implements.”
This was the third time, and I was too weary to fight any more. I did not replace them. I gave up drawing, and I strove to be what he wanted. It was as if he had not only burned my sketch pad but my desire to draw, and there was nothing left of it but ash. I could not have it back.
They tried to persuade me that I was wrong, Piet and Tim. They said I could come to it again, that I was surely wrong to think that the wish was completely burned out of me. That my feeling in my head that there was nothing left of the desire but ash was misplaced. But it is the picture I saw, you know? When I think of drawing, now, I think of the little pile of ash with the twisted loops in it which had been the metal spine of my sketchbook. I can look at art but there is always in my head the smell and touch of ash.
And that is why the tale distressed me. It was foolish, the disappointments of a boy. Not important. Yet, when I said so, Phil tightened his grip on me, and made an odd noise in his chest, and his touch on my back was tender. I said, as strongly as I could, that we would talk no more of that, and when Tim and Piet would have argued, Phil gave them that Look again, until they humoured me and talked of other, recent things. But Phil did not talk at all, he just held me to him, and I felt better for it. I thanked him when we left, and he smiled at me, rather crookedly, and said, “You can’t make everything right with a cuddle, but there isn’t much that it won’t help.”
Hansie didn’t talk any more about that story, and I let it go. We had talked about that sort of thing before, enough that I knew that I couldn’t help him any more than I was already doing. He was rather subdued the next morning – but again, that wasn’t unusual. Any time we made him talk about his family he suffered afterwards, but he was generally better for it. Get it out, put it into perspective. Agree that it was bad, and that now he’s doing better. I did wonder if there was something I could do about this one, but I didn’t see what. I should have had more faith in Phil. As usual, I was thinking and he was feeling. I did try – as Piet had said, I tried to imagine how I would have felt if someone had treated me that way, but frankly I couldn’t do it. It was too far from my experience. All right, with my mother there was an element of. . . it’s too harsh to call it abandonment. We’re agreed it wasn’t deliberate rejection. She was an inadequate parent but there was no actual cruelty in her. And Jim and Mary gave me everything a child should have. I couldn’t find any hook in my head on which to hang the imaginings of what Hansie had gone through.
I rather thought we might have to spend a lot of time with Piet again. Hansie had said that he didn’t know why at twenty he kept getting himself into trouble with the Viper, but I had exchanged glances with Piet, and I think we both knew quite well. But Phil forestalled us. We came in the next day, and found a parcel on the doorstep, and a note attached to it in Phil’s untidy, looping hand.
‘When you brush away the ash, this is what you can find underneath.’ And when Hansie opened the parcel, there was a sketchpad, and a handful of pencils, all different types.
And a box of charcoal.
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