It took me a little time to work out why Piet didn’t want to tell us the story. It was for my sake, not his own, to start with – he doesn’t mind telling a story against himself but he’s careful when the rugby talk starts that I’m not excluded. I could tell there was a story – well, I could tell there was something. Piet isn’t what he was a year or two ago. We none of us are, you know. It shows less on him than on the rest of us, because he’s so controlled, but he’s. . . well, when he’s with us he lets the control slip. He doesn’t mind showing the real Pieter de Vries as much as I think he used to. I’m not the only one to have noticed it, either: Fran said something to me about the way he kisses her goodbye, and taps Nick on the shoulder; she said that when she knew him first he didn’t touch people, and now he does. He’s opened up such a lot and I think that sometimes he’s a little surprised by himself. He’s happy with Phil; I think that before, he wasn’t unhappy, but it was by an exercise of will; now he doesn’t have to work at it. But it still comes as a surprise to us all when Piet shows himself to be unhappy.
Boys’ Friday night. Takeaway and a DVD is the usual, but we hadn't been able to find anything we all wanted to see, so Phil said he would cook instead. Piet wasn’t there when we arrived, and Phil looked a bit second hand, not his usual cheerful self, when he let us in. He was occupied in the kitchen, so we all went in there, and Hansie went looking for the corkscrew while I fetched down glasses.
“Where’s Piet, Phil? Shall I pour a glass for him?”
“He should have been back by now. Put a glass out for him, Tim; I don’t suppose he’ll be long. In fact, is that the car now?”
It was and a stone-faced Piet came in. I took one look, sloshed quite a lot of solid-enough-to-stand-up-to-spiced-food red into a glass and put it in his hand. He smiled at me wearily, and took a sizeable slug. Phil glanced over. Obviously whatever had been bothering him was to do with where Piet had been and what he’d been doing.
“He was. . . not respectful, no. And I fear, koekie, that he blames you.”
“He’ll get over it,” said Phil. “We go back years, Piet. I told you: I saw this one coming. Most of the guys have worked out that they shouldn’t tell me anything they would object to you knowing. I don’t know if they think I tell you everything, or if they think it not fair to make me choose, but there are occasions when I come in and some conversation stops. It’s not just you. Some of it comes with being vice-captain, they do it to Rob as well. Some of it is because of you, yes, but I knew that a year ago, Piet. Now is anybody going to eat any of this thing I’ve made?”
No doubt about who’s Top in that kitchen – we were scattering to our places round the table before Hansie could say, “So what has gone wrong, Piet? Is it something you can tell us?”
“No,” said Phil, firmly. “Not until after we’ve eaten. We’ll tell you about it afterwards.”
“You see what I have to put up with?” asked Piet, mournfully. “It is this kitchen, Tim. I think we have some sort of wicked spirit: it has had the most dreadful effect on Phil. I had him nicely broken to bridle, he was most accommodating and obedient – no, give me back my plate!”
“Behave, then,” scolded Phil, laughing at him, “or I won’t give you any bredie.”
“I thought you were going to make kebabs?”
“Changed my mind,” said Phil shortly, and Piet hooked an arm round his waist and pulled him down for a kiss, barely avoiding a major disaster as the casserole tipped dangerously. I raised an eyebrow at Hansie. Comfort food is comfort food all across the world, and Phil had obviously thought that Piet might come in. . . well, the way he had come in. Hansie made a face back at me, and accepted his plate from Phil. “Where did you get the recipe, Phil?”
“Piet’s mum. It ought to be mutton, not lamb, but it’s almost impossible to get mutton here now. Don’t stuff yourselves, there’s a pudding. I’ve forgotten what it’s called.”
Piet looked up in some alarm. “Another of my mother’s?”
“No, it was that recipe Riana sent me last month.”
“Malvapoeding. If none of my clothes fit me, I will know where to lay the blame. And I know quite well that you were intending to cook with the chicken pieces, and to give us the peaches afterwards, so you have done this for me. Have I mentioned lately, Phil, how good you are to me?”
“I could stand to hear it again. Has everybody got everything? Where did my glass of wine go?”
I shall have both those recipes from Phil, if I remember, but I think Piet is right to fear for his waistline.
Hansie and I were allowed to fill the dishwasher, while Phil set his kitchen to rights, since obviously we couldn’t be trusted with wiping the surfaces or anything (yes, all right, I covet that kitchen) and Piet found us another bottle of wine to take into the sitting room. We didn’t have to press too hard for the tale of what had gone wrong with his day.
“It is Ryan. You know him? You know of him, at least: Phil’s team-mate. His approach to off-season training has become very odd, and I called him in last week to discuss it. He was very off-hand with me, and I did not at all like his manner; I said so, and he passed some remark about supposing Phil to have been telling tales.”
He stopped to take a mouthful of wine. “It is as Phil says. Mostly, I know his colleagues are careful not to tell him things they want me not to know. I could do very little with Ryan, because I must not bring Phil into the argument, unless he rightly has a place there through club business. Still, I expressed my displeasure with the way Ryan had been behaving in training. He is late, he is not giving me his attention, his fitness has fallen off very badly in the last six weeks. He has, Phil tells me, a new girlfriend.”
“It’s not a secret,” said Phil, rather defensively. “Any of the team would have told Piet that.”
Well, I’ve never been a rugby player, but I can see where the problem is. It’s the same as the one Jim is so determinedly avoiding now, when he keeps Hansie and me separated at work. Obviously there is a difficulty; equally obviously, Piet and Phil are addressing it. I couldn’t see the problem with Ryan having a new girlfriend, though, and I said so.
“Ryan thinks with his balls,” said Phil, bluntly. “We went round this before Piet came here, with his last girlfriend. He can’t think and screw at the same time, and he’s been cutting corners to spend time with Lauren. He isn’t half fit enough this close to the start of the season, and he’s not paying attention at training.”
I smiled a little. Phil the vice captain, this was, not just Phil the player.
Piet went on. “And last week as you know, we went to London for two pre-season warm-up matches. Now they do not carry any weight in Premiership terms, but they are important, and I will have them taken seriously. Ryan played abominably badly in the first; well, that happens sometimes to us all. But I had my suspicions, and so, on the night before the second, I made a check that all my players were where I expected them to be, and as I thought, Ryan had broken curfew. So today, I had him in to the office, and I made it plain that I was not happy. I have told him that if I do not see some immediate improvement, his place is in danger. He blamed Phil for telling me that he had not been putting in the effort at training when I was not present.”
“That’s a bit rough,” I observed.
“Except that I did it,” said Phil. “I’m vice captain. I’ve got responsibilities to the whole team which outweigh personal friendships with a single player, and Ryan should bloody know that. Piet doesn’t come into it. It wasn’t pillow talk – it was me as a senior player telling the coach that another senior player can’t run his laps without stopping to throw up in the hedge. I know you don’t like feeling that you’ve put Ryan and me wrong with each other, Piet, but it’s Ryan’s fault, not yours. You can’t make allowances for my relationships in the course of your job. I know that, and I don’t expect you to; and I know that it was bothering you today too, and that’s stupid. If it weren’t for me you would have busted Ryan without thinking twice; I know that, you know that, and if Ryan were thinking at all, he would know it too.”
“And so you make bredie and malvapoeding, to make me feel better, after I have disciplined your friend for breaking curfew.”
Phil had the grace to blush. “I can’t imagine what else he expected. We all know we have to be in our hotel rooms by ten on the eve of a match.”
“There was a time, koekie, when you did not seem to know it,” observed Piet, slyly. Phil blushed further.
“I learned fast enough, didn’t I?”
Hansie laughed. “Piet has always been death on unauthorised absences. He had you for staying out late, did he?”
Phil gave in, laughing at himself. “First time. I hadn't got a bloody clue.”
Well, it was true, I hadn't. The Deal – Piet’s and mine – was all of six weeks old, and I had been spanked three times. Four if you count the add-on I got for being caught in possession of cold cream with intent to apply it to the bum. I didn’t like it – well, I still don’t, come to that, not when I’m in trouble, but it works for us. And I had a fairly good notion, when Mark suggested that half past nine was far too early to go back to the hotel, that it was not a good idea.
“The Viper isn’t stupid,” I objected; “He’s going to want to check on us, surely.” Remember, at that point, they might have suspected that Piet and I had a thing going on, but they didn’t know for sure.
“So we go cheerfully and obviously back to the hotel, we say goodnight to the Viper, we go upstairs, and the fire stairs are at the end of the corridor. Oh, don’t be so wet, Phil! We can be back here in ten minutes and as long as we’re back by midnight we’ll be fine. He’s over-reacting. It’s because he’s older than we are, he probably never had any fun himself, you can tell from the look of him. He looks like he’s been dead for a week. We aren’t staying out that late. Come on. . .”
Dim. Stupid Phil. I’m not proud of that; it was stupid. And juvenile and immature and the rest. I wanted to keep in with my mates and I hadn't the strength of character to say either ‘he is the coach and he presumably knows what he’s doing, and even if he doesn’t he’s still in charge’ or ‘I don’t know about you but I need the sleep and I’m going home to bed’.
We went back to the hotel, we milled about in the bar, and as Mark had suggested (I suddenly thought to glance at Piet, whose nod confirmed that he had known that Mark was the progenitor of the whole half-baked plan), we waited for Piet to put in an appearance, we wished him goodnight with a plaintive and touching innocence which wouldn’t have fooled him for a moment, and we exited, stage left, through the fire doors. And just before midnight we came back in through the fire doors, giggling like school children and with a great deal of ‘sssshhhhhhhhh!’ing, and tiptoed up the hall, and to our rooms.
I don’t remember much about the match the next day, except that I didn’t play particularly well, and I’m not sure the others did either. I think we won, but not by the margin we should have done. We were cheerful enough coming home, until the bus pulled into the club car park, we all began to gather our belongings, and Piet stood up at the front.
“Gentlemen? There will be no training session tomorrow, and on the following day Harry will see the backs at eleven, and I will take everybody else. Thank you for your efforts, enjoy your day off, and before they leave, I will speak to Phil, Darren, Mark, and Nathan in the office, on the subject of breaking curfew.”
Nathan gave a little squeak of surprise, and Darren dropped his suitcase on his foot; I felt my stomach detach itself from its place and go looking for a safer place to hide, and such is the power of Pavlovian conditioning that my backside clenched hard.
It was still clenched an hour and a half later. Piet had expressed himself with some articulacy on the subject of following the coach’s instructions whether we liked them or not, and also on using the few brains with which a benign providence had supplied us. He had then explained slowly and carefully what would happen to us all if he ever caught us breaking curfew again, and even so early in our relationship I can remember noticing and being impressed that he did it without sounding like a man scolding the children for getting out of bed to read by the landing light. The others scattered, looking sheepish; I went back to my flat and waited to be sent for.
That came mid afternoon. I picked up the ringing phone and said, “Hello?” rather nervously; Piet’s voice said, “I am ready to deal with you now. Come at once, please.”
I went. I was not looking forward to the spanking I knew – I thought I knew – was in store for me, but I didn’t deny that I had earned it. I was thoroughly thrown to step inside his study and see, for the first time, the cane laid out on the desk.
Look, I knew it existed. When Piet and I had fought out the detail of what we were doing, he had shown me the cane, and assured me that if I gave him cause, he would use it. I wasn’t enthusiastic; I had nothing specific to go on, but the reality of a spanking had been a shock, and I was quite capable of working out that a caning wouldn’t be an experience I would enjoy. I jibbed in the doorway like a nervy horse, and then I sidled in, my gaze fixed on that length of rattan. Piet had to speak to me twice to get my attention.
“You know that what you did was wrong?”
I considered for a moment denying that I had done it, or that it was wrong, but then some element of self-preservation pointed out that I had done it, that I had known when I did that it was a bad idea, and that denying it wasn’t likely to take me anywhere useful. I nodded.
“And you knew that when I found out,” ‘when’, note, not ‘if’, “I would be displeased? That I would punish you for it?”
I nodded again. That idea had been in the back of my head since Mark had first mooted the plan.
“So is there any reason why I should not?”
Other than that I didn’t want him to? None.
“So. Come here, then, and we will have this done.”
I was rather stiff-legged in going to him. He guided me to the back of the sofa.
“Here. Now, drop your trousers and your underwear. Good. Lift your shirt above your waist, please. Have you been caned before?”
I thought he knew I hadn’t, but I shook my head. So far I hadn't said anything, and I wasn’t sure that I actually could speak.
“I will give you six, then, only. This will hurt, Phil, hurt a lot. This is not a schoolboy’s punishment. Bend over the couch. Are you ready?”
No. Definitely not. That remark about it not being a schoolboy’s punishment had unnerved me – I had been trying to convince myself that six of the best might hurt more than a spanking but it would be over quicker and would be the better option. I can manage deliberate self-delusion as well as the next man. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. Piet knew, I think, because he rubbed my back gently, and then he stepped away to the desk, and I heard the cane rasp on the surface as he picked it up. He tapped it lightly across my backside, and I flinched, and locked my knees, which were threatening to let me down. It would soon be over. The explosion of pain, for all that I had been anticipating it, was a massive shock, and I said, “Oh!” in foolish astonishment.
He gave me long enough to think about it, long enough for the edge of the pain to recede a little before he snapped down the second stroke and I yelped. It had come a little lower, and it burned and stung, and the third came down while I was still thinking about that, and I jumped and yelped again. The fourth and fifth he delivered close together, knocking the breath out of me.
“One more. Keep still.”
Only one. I could take one more. I bit my lip – I wouldn’t yelp again.
It wasn't really fair. I didn’t know anything: I certainly didn’t know about a final stroke just at the top of my thighs. I didn’t yelp, I squealed, dignity forgotten.
“There. That is done. Come, stand up.”
I wasn’t sure I could. I levered myself up on the back of the couch, and twisted to look as best I could at my tail. It was striped cleanly, and when I touched the skin cautiously, I could feel the ridges. Each one was marked twice; I hadn't expected that. Piet dropped the cane on the desk and held out his arms to me, but I looked away, ashamed, until he lifted a hand to my face.
“Do you not want a hug?”
I did, but. . . My body suddenly pointed out that breathing was generally thought of as desirable, and that I hadn't been doing any. The air rushed out of my chest, and I snatched another breath and held it again, in the hope of feeling the pain subside. Piet pulled me into his arms.
“Silly boy. Breathe. Breathe normally. Come, and again. Relax.”
Relax? How? But his arms were tight around me, and when I leaned on him a little, he shifted to support me, running a hand up to the back of my neck and allowing me to hide my face against his shoulder. When my breathing had eased a little I drew back and reached for my clothes. No, I didn’t like that at all, and there was no way I was going to do anything to line myself up for a repeat prescription. Not ever. Viper de Vries could just lose the cane because you could take it as read that Phil Cartwright was never going to do anything to deserve that again. I hopped a little as I refastened my trousers, and then forced myself to look up.
“Sorry. Won’t do that again.”
“No,” Piet agreed. “So come here now.” He sat down on the sofa, and I looked at it doubtfully. “Lie down,” he encouraged, and I did, settling my upper half into his lap. “I really am sorry. I knew it was a stupid thing to do.”
“It was, and you have been punished for it, so that is all. It is forgotten.”
Well, that might make up for it. Forgotten? So that was how it worked.
Piet reached past me to splash more wine into Hansie's glass. “It was a long time ago, koekie, and I think you have not done it since. I can still remember how shocked you looked, you and your friends, when I called you on it. I was hard put not to laugh.”
Phil stuck out his tongue at his lover, and allowed his own glass to be refilled. “But how did you know?”
“Ach, koekie, it was not difficult. You said yourself, you were not convincing in assuring me that you were all going to bed. And besides, every team I have ever coached has had some player wishing to know how serious I was about curfew. I always watch to see who will challenge my authority: I had known for a month that it would be Darren and Mark at least, I was not surprised by Nathan. I had hoped that it would not be you.”
Phil looked down and made a face; Piet touched his head. “No, do not concern yourself. It is no more now than a story. All blame was long since forgotten; indeed, you said yourself that you understood it to be so at the time.”
“So I did,” agreed Phil, softly, smiling at him. Then he looked up at Hansie. “But you seemed to guess that fairly quickly, Hansie. Don’t tell me that van den Broek was caught out the same way?”
“Certainly not,” said Hansie, primly. “I would never have thought of escaping down the fire stairs to avoid the coach’s curfew.” He took a mouthful of wine, and grinned at us. “I climbed down a tree.”
Ja, me and Alet Olivier, and Jurie van Vuuren; and Coach de Vries had said that with a match the next day we were to be in our rooms by ten. Ja, and so we were, because apparently he had a nasty habit of coming round at ten past to see who wasn’t there. It was all new to me. I had rarely been away from home before, and never, I think, without family or school to keep me in my place. I was what, eighteen, nineteen? Newly on the team, my first season, and desperate to make a success of it, to convince my father that I could be good, that it could be a real career, as real as the army I had refused. It was a good team, and I knew I had done well in making a place for myself. Everybody knew that Coach de Vries took only the best, and that he wanted the best from them. He had spoken with me when I had come first, frightened me half to death with his hawk look. He had gazed at me, questioned me about what I wanted from the sport and what I thought I could do in it. Then he had told me that he expected much of me, and what I could expect in my turn if I did not work. I was not particularly surprised. My father’s belt still waited to punish failings at home, I was not long from school where I had encountered the cane as often as anyone else. It was not news to me that the cost of bad behaviour was a sore backside: that was known in the dressing room. I was. . . not afraid, exactly, but respectful. Coach de Vries was a big man; he still had the occasional place on the national squad, he was player for us as well as coach. I did not need to think about it to know that he was strong enough to make a cane speak, and I would prefer it not to speak to me. But, ach, it was not new. It would not be that big a deal, hey?
But Alet didn’t want to go to his bed at ten. He was older than me, but not by much, and Jurie was another barely out of school. We had not between us the brains that. . . what is that phrase Jim uses? The brains God gave geese. We wanted to break rules; it was as simple as that. It was not that we wished to go to clubs or to drink or anything. We were much younger and less mature than Phil and his friends, but we were just as silly. We went to our rooms, and I think we all looked out at the night and one after another we thought: I do not wish to be sent to bed like a child.
We had rooms all along one side of the hotel; it was a provincial place, with many rooms for tourist visitors but run still with the air of a guesthouse, and we were one floor off the ground. The rooms were small but each one had a little balcony, and I went out onto mine and looked to my left and there was Jurie, and past him Alet. I opened my mouth to speak, and heard a knock at my door, and I fell over myself to get there, to show Coach de Vries that I was in my room as I should be. A minute later I heard him speak to Jurie, and I went slowly back to the window, meaning only to look out for a moment before I went to bed. But Jurie came too, and a minute later Alet, and we all stood there for a moment, before Alet said pettishly, “It is too early to go to bed, and I want a cigarette.”
“Ja,” agreed Jurie, “the Viper over-reacts so. We are not children, to be sent to bed.” We all stood and sulked for a moment, like the children we so denied being, and then Jurie looked over at me, and past me at the tree which stood at the corner of the building. “Hansie, could we reach the tree from your balcony?”
No brains. None at all. We went from balcony to balcony, and then Alet, who was the tallest of us and had the longest reach, held the balcony rail while we swung on his wrist to reach the tree and climb into it. Then he leaned over until we could catch him, and we all went down the tree and across the shadows of the lawn and over the fence.
We had not even the sense to go right away. We went as far as the swimming pool and then we sat by the water and we all smoked a cigarette. I had hardly ever done that before, and I was not convinced I liked it, but it was what the adults did, hey? And it did not occur to me at least that sound travels over water, and that although our rooms were all on the other side of the building, there were rooms on this side, and somebody must be in them. I do not suppose we were more than half an hour, and then we felt we had had our adventure, and we went, giggling and pushing at each other, back to the tree. We sent Alet first, and I heard him moving about awkwardly, trying to get to a place where he could lean far enough to reach the balcony railing. He made an odd sound as he did it, and when we looked up, we could see him swing himself up to safety, and then his voice called us up. He sounded out of breath, and I thought that perhaps it had been harder to get up than he had thought, but Jurie went up, and I saw him reach to the hand extended to help him. Then I climbed up myself, held out my hand, and jumped for the railing. It was only when I swung myself over it that I realised that it was not Alet gripping my wrist. It was Viper de Vries.
Ja wel, you may laugh, but we did not. He ushered us inside to my room and closed the window, and then we stood there in a row like idiots, while he told us in measured terms what he thought of our indiscipline and our stupidity. He spelled out how badly we might have been hurt had we fallen from the balcony. He explained again why he imposed a curfew, as if we were too stupid to have grasped it the first time.
And then he reached into his pocket and removed a key. He held it out to Alet. “My room is number 19. The cane is inside the wardrobe. Fetch it.”
Alet went white. It was no more than eleven o’clock; there were still people moving about in the hotel. It was extremely likely that he would be seen. He opened his mouth to argue, and thought better of it, and took himself off, and I glanced sideways at Jurie. His mouth was set, and he swallowed nervously; I knew he had been caned by the Viper before, he had been the one who had told me that it was not a threat merely, and I began to wonder uneasily if perhaps I had been underestimating what the Viper could do.
By the time Alet came back, the silence in the room was booming in my ears. He was no longer white, he was flushed and embarrassed: we learned later he had met the team manager, who had kept him standing on the landing, cane in hand, while he expressed himself on breaking curfew, and two couples had come up the stairs while they were there. It was with a jerky movement that Alet held out the rattan to the Viper.
“Thank you. You will go first, Mr Olivier. This is not the first time that I have caught you in breach of my curfew instructions, nor the second. An intelligent man learns from his mistakes. The next time you do this, I will punish you in the dressing room, in front of the whole team, do you understand me?”
Alet nodded, once. “Good. Bring that chair over here.”
I wanted not to watch – ach, at school, it was the courtesy we offered to the partner in crime, that when two of us were punished together, you looked at your feet, you did not watch. I could not tear my gaze away. Alet bent over the back of the chair, and took a tight grip on the seat.
The first crack of the cane on the seat of his trousers made me jump, it was so loud. I heard Alet gasp, and my stomach plummeted towards the floor. This was not the light, stinging caning I was accustomed to from my school; this was more like what my father did. He caned occasionally, although he preferred to strap; he had drawn blood once or twice. Alet took his six in relative silence, only a gasp and hiss betraying how little he was enjoying it. The Viper stepped back and I thought it was over, I was a little reassured that it was six only, until I realised that Alet was fumbling at his belt, dropping his trousers and his pants. The stripes were already developing on his backside, straight and clean and scarlet, and my own backside clenched in sympathy. He bent again without waiting to be told, and I watched, horrified, while another six were delivered on top. This time Alet could not limit himself to a hiss, he cried out, and when he stood and adjusted his clothing, his eyes were wet, and he would not look at any of us.
“You may go, Mr Olivier.”
He did more than go, he fled, and I heard his door bang a second later.
“Mr van Vuuren, you are next. Mr van den Broek, turn your back, please.”
I turned, less than smartly, but relieved not to have to watch. I could not have done otherwise had I been facing them, but Jurie would know that although I could hear all, I could see nothing. It was the same, six and a pause in which I could hear the rustle of Jurie unfastening his trousers and the faint metallic sound of his belt, and then another six. He managed two of them in silence, but the last four elicited loud yelps. I looked at the wallpaper while he was dismissed.
“Mr van den Broek. Come.”
I turned and went to the chair. Come, Hansie, you have been beaten before. It will be soon over.
Not soon enough. My father was no tyro with a cane, but he had never made it bite like this. I set my jaw: I would make no sound. So far I had not impressed Coach de Vries, but I would do it in this if nothing else. I had acted wrongly and I would accept the punishment I had deserved, without complaint. Without outward complaint. My backside was developing a mind and opinions of its own, such opinions (that Hansie was an idiot and that the next time Coach de Vries said that something was not to be done, Hansie would be well advised not to do it) being passed to my brain to be filed for future reference.
That was six. I had seen and heard what was expected of me. I stood up, rather stiffly, unfastened my trousers and let them drop. My underwear followed, and I doubled back over the chair. Six more: be silent, Hansie.
Some hope. I did not even manage the two Jurie had achieved. I cried out on each stroke, and it was only by the exercise of an extreme effort of will that I did not move. When he allowed me up my eyes were as wet as Alet’s had been, and I was torn between the need to cover myself, and the need to clutch my backside and dance from foot to foot. I managed the former and looked up at the Viper.
“I will not have disobedience in the matter of your rugby, Mr van den Broek. Is that plain?”
“Ja, meneer.” It was. Very plain. Very plain indeed. But I was not stupid, I would not need to revisit this experience. I could learn from my mistakes. I had no illusions – the marks of this caning would last for several days, and the match the next afternoon would not be rendered any easier by the smarting which I knew I would still feel.
“Good. We will say no more about it. To your bed, then, Johannes. Good night.”
There was kindness in that, or I thought so, I thought so. Not gentleness: such men as Coach de Vries were not gentle, that was no characteristic for a real man. I knew that well enough. But kindness, I heard it. Ja, pathetic, Hansie finding kindness in a man bidding him good night.
And the match the next day? I played well, well enough that I forgot my hurts in the rush of excitement on the pitch, and as I came off, Coach de Vries clapped me on the shoulder, and said “Well done, Johannes, that was good play.”
I lived off the compliment for a week.
Phil shifted uneasily. “Not fair, Piet. You let me off easily. I only got six.”
Hansie shook his head. “He did not. I was accustomed to it, remember. Even had my father not been. . . not been as he was, my generation was beaten at school for impudence, for disobedience, for laziness, and I was still young enough to remember it. It came new to you.”
“Well, but I got a cuddle to make it all better.”
Hansie laughed a little. “If the dreaded Coach de Vries had offered me a cuddle to get over it, I think I would have had hysterics and been carried out foaming at the mouth. Anyway, if I had lost my grip on that balcony railing, I would have broken my neck. That was worth the other six, fersure.”
Piet was watching them, smiling to himself a little, remembering, although I think there was an element of regret too. I wouldn’t be surprised if he still gets the occasional guilty pang at having missed the way things were with Hansie at that age. Then his expression altered, intensified, darkened. . . oh, I don’t quite know. He had thought of something and he didn’t like it. I leaned forward. “What?”
He raised one eyebrow at me. I shook my head. “You thought of something. What was it?”
“Only more rugby tales; we have had enough of those for one night.”
I stared at him. “No,” I said, slowly. “It’s not just that. Go on, what was it? What were you thinking about?”
“Nothing to signify, Timmy. Old history, as we have been telling it. But that is enough.”
Hansie suddenly laughed. “Oh, no! Tell me it’s not true. Not the Viper as well? Breaking curfew? Ach, it is, I see it is! I want to hear this, Piet. When did the Viper stay out late?”
“It was not that, no. And anyway, that is enough of such tales. Come Hansie, we will talk of something else.”
He didn’t look in my direction, but I could feel his attention was on me. I wondered. . . “I don’t mind, you know.”
Now I really did have his attention. “I don’t mind the rugby stories. I’ve heard them all my life, from Jim and his mates even before Hansie and you two. I’ve stopped caring that I don’t have them to tell. I’ve got stories of my own, you know, even if they aren’t rugby. There are things I could tell you – curfew stories of my own. . . Actually, I think I may still be grounded for the rock concert thing, and that’s ten years ago. More. Mention it even now and Jim will clip me one as a reflex action. When I’m bored with rugby talk, I’ll tell you so.”
That was it. That’s Piet, you see: he won’t allow me to be excluded. Do you wonder we all love him?
“Come on. I want this story too; I agree with Hansie. What was the Viper doing out after curfew?”
He gave in. And he surprised us all, I think. It’s not like Piet to have a story so dark; it’s not at all like him to be so plainly upset about it, or not to be sure whether or not he had done something wrong.
He is beginning to see too much, young Mr Creed. I did not want to spend an evening in which Phil and Hansie and I all had stories on a theme, and he did not. He feels it sometimes, that we are all physical types, and he is intellectual, that we are all large and he is not. I know he does and I feel no need to make him the outsider, for it is not so. He and Hansie love to distraction; he and Phil have a stronger relationship now than I think they did when they were exclusive lovers. He has his place in my heart too, if mine in his is less secure. But I can trust him; if he says he does not mind, he does not mind.
So it was this way. . . No, it was not the Viper breaking curfew. Not precisely, although the curfew was broken and I was beaten for it. I was. . . maybe twenty-six? I was team captain. I had come back to my rugby after my National Service, which I had hated with a passion. I will not speak of that; enough to say that I was twenty-six going on thirty-five, and I loved my rugby, I devoted myself to it in an attempt, I think, to make the world return to the way it had been before I went into the army, and perhaps I was so determined that my rugby should be a shield that I did not see what else it was. I played with all my heart and so I was captain.
Alain van Zyl was coach, and in retrospect, he was mad. Not, I mean, as we say such things of someone who is a little eccentric. No, Alain van Zyl was, I think, a borderline psychopath. They say as much of me, I know, but Alain. . .
He was also recently out of the army, where he had been a career soldier. He had resigned his commission and I wonder now if that had been wholly his own idea, or if the army had seen what I now suspect. He was of the old brigade, he thought that the army was the only career for a man, that the modern army was going soft, that all young men were not what they had been in his youth, that the world was going to hell in a handcart. You think I am hard on my squad? I am an absolute pussycat compared with Alain. He taught me a lot, mostly by the way of leaving me thinking ‘when it is my place to handle this situation, I will not do it like that.’
Oh yes, he punished, as I do. As I did. It answers with Phil, but even without our relationship, it would not do for the rest of the team. Not in England, not now. It answered in South Africa with Hansie's generation: as Hansie says, they were accustomed to it, they understood it. Alain did not cane often: he strapped. He had a belt – I recognised it, when I was in the army I had one just the same – and he was powerful through the shoulder. I do not think any of his team escaped the strap. I had encountered it twice, and thereafter took pains not to encounter it again. That was early on; I soon became careful. I knew that the captaincy conferred no immunity. It was from Alain that I learned the effect of stroke after stroke overlaid, although I have never brought a man to his knees the way he regularly did.
He had other punishments, too: many of them are the same ones I use, and indeed many coaches use. Extra training, laps, that sort of thing. On top of those, though, he used the punishments of the army. Of sending the offender to carry out meaningless tasks, and then again to undo them, and redo them, and undo them again. Of interrupting a legitimate task for another person, so that there would be trouble for something not completed. Of demanding that something should be done, and declaring it done badly, and overturning or spoiling it, so that it could not be corrected but had to be done again from the beginning. He it was who had Pimmie Wohlberg repaint the lines on the pitch with a child’s paintbrush, blade of grass by blade of grass, who had the du Toit brothers clean the dressing room with toothbrushes. . . ach, you know the sort of thing. He was a knowledgeable coach – his army team had been very successful – but he was not liked. Well, and one does not need to be. I am not liked by my team. I do not inspire affection: these relationships I have now are a surprise to me. Phil loves me, and I cannot deny it; Hansie will love anywhere love is offered to him. Tim is, I think, fond of me, mostly for Hansie's sake, a little for his own. More generally? No. Respect, yes, I find that easily enough; liking, no.
But Alain van Zyl was hated. Hated. He knew how to humiliate, how to get what he wanted because we feared not to give it to him. Many players would not stay with him, they lasted half a season and then they transferred to another team. I know of several who, when they could not get a transfer, gave up their sport completely. I was too young to challenge him, to say with conviction, “No, your methods get results but mine would get better ones.” I had not yet the experience, although I was playing at the highest level.
Well, and this is off the point. It was not the Viper – oh, yes, I had already collected that name and I took it with. . . I will admit it, with vanity. I pretended I did not like it, but I was flattered. Nicknames I had not had before – you give a nickname to someone you like a great deal, or to someone you do not, and I was neither thing, neither popular nor disliked. But in sport they give you a nickname and more often than not it is either admiration or affection and I was vain enough to accept either. It was not the Viper who was not in his bed when he should be. I was serious about my sport, serious enough that prior to a match I did not go out, I went to my room and considered my tactics, took my bath, retired to my bed in good time.
The match was a disaster. Pimmie Wohlberg was hungover; I could tell that as soon as I met him in the dressing room. In fact, worse, I do not think he was totally sober. He arrived at lunchtime, having missed the morning warm-ups, and all I could think of to do with him was to drag him to the showers and turn the cold water on him. I do not believe I have ever been abused the way Pimmie did it: he had a most inventive vocabulary and he swore at me in Afrikaans and in English, and also in Sesotho, which he had learned from his nurse. The du Toit twins were present and they were sober, although they were also hungover, but they had obviously quarrelled and were not on speaking terms either with each other or with Pimmie. Or with me. I am not very sure to this day what I had done that they were so angry with me.
We lost, and we lost a match we should have won, and Alain was most displeased. You think you have seen my displeasure? It counts as nothing beside his. He gathered us in the dressing room and he addressed us as the Sergeant Major does, a mixture of sarcasm and shouted invective. For a good quarter of an hour he abused us for what we had done and what we had not done, and although I think his manner was unacceptable, what he said was true and well deserved. Then he told us that when we were bathed and dressed, he would see Pimmie, and the du Toit boys, and Paul Retief and Danie Pretorius, and me.
Well, I knew about that. I had played well, on my own account, but it had not been enough to make up for the others. Pimmie and François and André had not been fit to play, not any of them. Paul and Danie had simply played badly, and there had not been the solidity in the pack to make up for them. Alain would strap all five of them, I knew that, and he would make me watch. I was captain: he believed I had a responsibility to my team and that included backing him up. I wish now that I had had the courage to refuse. When I was away playing for the national squad, and Freddie Murray was captain, Alain made him do the same, and Freddie gave up his place sooner than do it. He was more. . . he was stronger in his morals than I was; I wish now. . .
I have told both Hansie and Tim that there is no point in looking always backwards. I am what I am because of what I have been and done in the past, and not all of it was good. I made bad choices when I was younger; which of us did not?
Anyway, we went to the bath and there was no singing, and little talk except that the du Toits quarrelled in an undertone until Herman Pienaar shoved André’s head under the water and told him to shut up. And afterwards the six of us went to the office and on the stairs I suddenly realised how frightened Danie Pretorius was. He was only seventeen, and very raw. A huge talent but he was not even come into his full growth: you know the type, all big hands and feet and not under his proper control, clumsy and awkward. He was trembling and I could see it, and it came to me that this was the wrong way to deal with him, that he needed to be coaxed to show his best, not bullied.
Alain had more to say about the match; well, no, he had the same to say again. He said it, and then he ordered all out of the room to wait on the stairs except Danie and me. And I looked at Danie, and I saw his despair and his fear, and when Alain lifted his belt and stepped towards Danie, I said, “No!”
I think Alain was as surprised as if the belt had turned into a snake and bitten him. He turned on me a face of such astonishment that I nearly laughed, as much from nerves as anything, and I spoke, quickly, before he had a chance to say anything.
“Pretorius and Retief played badly but that was not wholly their fault. Retief was simply out of form, and Pretorius has not yet got the core skills to cope when he has no backup. They know you are displeased; that is enough.” And before he could answer me, I turned to Danie, and I said, “You need to work more on your scrum skills; talk to me about it next session. Now take Paul and go, get out of my sight, both of you.”
He looked at me, wild-eyed, and turned and flung the door open and I saw the others looking in from the landing, so I said clearly to Retief, “You and Pretorius may go. Go.”
The speed with which they took the stairs was evidence of their lack of enthusiasm for Alain’s teaching methods. The other three looked on amazed, and Alain came to the door and looked at them coldly, and said, shortly, “Go.” They hesitated, all three of them, for the shortest of moments, and then they were gone, not without a look of astonishment at me, and Alain gripped my collar and threw me back into his office.
He was plainly very surprised – and so was I. I had not thought to challenge him so, I had simply done it, and suddenly I thought of what I had done – I had destroyed completely his authority over his team. Danie would not hold his tongue, and nor would Paul; the other three even less so. And mark me, had Alain strapped Pimmie and the du Toits, I would have watched and never gainsaid him: they had been out in some street bar until all hours and we had lost our match on the strength of it. For them I had no sympathy at all.
“So, Mr de Vries. You have decided that the responsibility for your team – is yours.”
I faced him down, and nodded.
“That you know better than me.”
There was no going back. “I know better than you how to deal with the likes of Danie Pretorius, yes.”
“Then the failings of your team are your failings. Three of them, breaking curfew. Two who cannot handle the ball. And you stand between me and them.”
I swallowed. “Yes.”
“Then it is you, Mr de Vries. It is you. You did not enforce the curfew. You were not even aware that it was being broken. Bad captaincy, Mr de Vries. Drop your trousers, and bend over.”
That damned belt! I was silent as long as I could manage it, and I do not believe I asked him to stop although I wished it most fervently, at least as fervently as Hansie or Phil has ever done. When he was done, he flung the door open and ordered me out, and I half fell down the stairs, for I could not walk easily. At the bottom there was a door and on the other side of it was Danie. He held me up and got me to my car, and then he put me on my face in the back of it, and drove me to my lodgings – I do not believe he had either licence nor insurance, and I cared not at all. He wanted to call a doctor for me and I would not permit him, but he put me to bed and he stayed with me that day and came back the next to see that I could get up.
The rest of the season was. . . we won nothing. It might as well have been a mutiny. Alain van Zyl could do nothing. Every order he gave was referred to me for confirmation, despite all that I could do to put a stop to it. He and I were coldly civil to one another, and I let it be known that anyone who was not equally civil could expect to answer to me. In that I was obeyed, although I could not persuade my team to return to obedience to him. It became known that something was wrong, and at the end of the season I was asked if I wanted to stay, if I wished to renegotiate my contract. I thought it might be better not, until one of the committee informed me delicately and unofficially that Alain was not returning, and that if I left, Pretorius would go, and Retief, and Pienaar, and Wohlberg.
The names of my youth, they are. They were the backbone of the team I made, with Fanie du Plessis as coach, and the du Toit twins on the wings. We made something, we did something great. But I sometimes wonder if I might have done it differently, done it sooner and with less destruction. If perhaps, had I challenged Alain earlier, it might have been possible to negotiate a transfer of power. This was ‘the King is dead’, and within three years he was dead, he had drunk himself to death, and I do not know if that should be included among the things I have done.
But that was how Pieter de Vries was beaten for curfew being broken although it was not me who broke it.
Piet stared into the depths of his wine glass when he had finished speaking, as if it contained the answer to some vitally important question. The mood had changed, the way it sometimes does: we had all been light-hearted enough, but Piet’s gloom seemed to have infected us. And no-one does gloom like an Afrikaner, believe me.
“But what. . .” began Phil, then hesitated, started again. “But what else could you have done?”
Piet shrugged. “Oh, many things, koekie. The easiest of them would have been simply to leave. I was. . . let us say that many teams would have been glad to take my contract, and not fussed too much about the details of a mid-season transfer. Or I could, as I said, have stood up to him earlier.”
I stirred, made a faint sound of disagreement, and the hawk face swung towards me. It remained scrupulously blank, but I couldn’t help thinking that somewhere behind that formidable self-control there must be a small, suppressed thought shouting: ‘and what do you know about it?’
“You said it yourself, you were young. And he was in a position of authority. It’s very hard to challenge that. . . I once singularly failed to do it.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“It was when I was at boarding school. I enjoyed it mostly. I was in the top grades academically, and good enough at sport not to be the last one picked for teams – I actually played schools rugby, so you see I do have some rugby stories after all. I wasn’t big enough or fast enough to go on afterwards, but. . . anyway, that isn’t the point. There was a boy in my year called Martin Docherty. He was the sort of person who always wants to be in with the in crowd and can never quite manage it. Tries too hard, makes just the wrong kind of joke at the wrong time and sets everyone’s teeth on edge, you know the sort of thing.” I saw a smile of recognition from Phil, a nod from Hansie.
“This Martin tried to be friends with me. And I was – I suppose I was slightly flattered by the attention. At least I wasn’t unkind enough to give him the brush-off the way that most of the others did – you know how cruel children can be. Anyway, I think he thought I was his friend. And so one day he told me. . . he told me that he thought he might be gay.”
I had their attention fully now. “Now, I had some idea that I was that way too, and I so didn’t want to be. I wanted to be like everyone else. I wanted to be normal, not something that people made disgusting jokes about, somebody everyone would hate if they knew.
“So I ignored it. I just blanked the statement out, refused to acknowledge that I had heard it, refused to discuss it, just up and left him there. I left him to stew in his own juices, in his own fears and loneliness. And he went and told Mad Dog Mackay, the geography teacher.” I swallowed. “I don’t know why. At least, I do, because Mackay was his housemaster, but what can have possessed him to tell someone so. . . unsympathetic I’ll never know.
“Mackay was – well, he had a filthy temper. He was a bully, frankly. He used to throw things at anyone he thought wasn’t paying attention – chalk, usually, but occasionally the big wooden-backed blackboard dusters, or a textbook. And once he knew about Docherty he rode him about it the whole of the rest of the term. Snide, sniping comments about maybe he’d be more comfortable in home economics than geography lessons, calling him Martina or Miss Docherty, that sort of thing. And of course the other boys put two and two together and worked out that Docherty was gay, not that it would have made any difference if he was or not once people had decided he was, and they made his life hell all the rest of the time.
“And I did nothing to stop it. Nothing at all. I cut off all contact with him in case people thought the same about me. And one night he slipped out of the dorm after prep, set light to the geography room (and I think we all knew who that was directed at), smashed three of the windows in the chapel, and was found half-dressed and weeping, with a bottle of brandy in his hand, sitting on the roof. I think they thought he was going to jump – I’d never seen Mackay look so terrified before.”
I looked at Piet. “So you see, I do know what it is to fail someone. They expelled him, of course, though I think they refunded his fees and said it was on medical grounds. Someone told me, years afterwards, that they met him working in a charity shop. Mackay left too, there was a bit of a scandal about the whole affair. Such a waste. And I could have stood up in that geography class and defended him. I could have told Mackay that his behaviour was unacceptable, and my school mates that it was time they grew up. I could have been a friend to Martin and maybe he’d have had a glittering career. But I didn’t, so I as good as helped bully him myself.”
Hansie made a small sound of protest, and Piet shook his head, laid a sympathetic hand on my arm. “No, Tim. In the end, their actions were their own. You may not have been as strong as you wished, but you did not drive him to breakdown. The blame for that lies elsewhere.”
“Yes?” Got you. “And why then are your actions blameworthy and mine not? I know you’re a better man than I am, Piet, but I wouldn’t like to think that I’m entirely incapable of meeting your standards.”
I got a distinctly irritated look from Piet and a flash of a grin from Phil. “You are not. . . I did not mean. . . ach, the two cases are not at all the same. You had no responsibility for this other boy, apart from what you owed him as a fellow human being. I was responsible.”
“Yes, and when it was necessary you acted. I didn’t. Piet, I know you find this hard to believe, but do you really, honestly think that you could have achieved what you’ve achieved in your career if people just regarded you with respect and fear? Do you still hear from – what was his name? Danie?”
He blinked. “Well, yes. A card every Christmas, and on my birthday, without fail. I never knew how he found out that last. He has a son playing rugby now, and two daughters.”
“Do you think you did well by him? That he remembers you with affection?”
His first impulse was to deny it out of hand, I just know it was, but Piet is too honest for a flip response to a serious question. He stopped and thought for a long time before he answered. “To be honest, Tim, I do not know. I think – I think that perhaps he thinks of me more favourably than I deserve. He was young at the time, very young. I. . .” he looked acutely uncomfortable for a moment, swung his gaze briefly to Phil, then back again to me “I think that it would be true to say he hero-worshipped me, and that that feeling has not entirely faded.”
“He wouldn’t be the only one, then.” My glance rested deliberately at Hansie, and then swung back to Piet. “You know it’s odd, I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to say to you: ‘you’re wrong’, before, but I really think you are being unfair to yourself, underestimating what people feel about you. Do you remember that match against Gloucester last season?” They had had a hard-fought and not entirely expected victory against the Cherry-and-Whites, which had been the subject of considerable merrymaking afterwards. “I happened to be in the bar when that same Ryan you’ve just had a run-in with was drinking with two of the Gloucester players, and they made some disparaging comment about being coached by a South African cyborg” – Phil winced but Piet just raised an eyebrow – “and Ryan defended your honour so vigorously that there was very nearly a diplomatic incident. Luckily Rob materialised just in time to comment that being coached by the Terminator concentrated minds wonderfully, and wasn’t it a shame that their opponents didn’t have the benefit of concentrating so well when the ball was in their hands? Which given that you guys had stolen their ball in the line-out three times in that match, rather shut them up.”
“Tim!” said Phil in mock outrage. “He’s not supposed to know that we call him the Terminator.”
Piet shook his head ruefully at me, and pulled him into an embrace. “Terminator, is it? Well you can be sure of one thing, koekie.”
“I’ll be back.” He rose, disentangled his legs from the man at his feet, and made for the toilet.
Phil looked at me. “Thank you,” he said quietly.
“There’s just one thing.”
“What?” I asked, a trifle uncomfortably.
“Didn’t you tell me once that you went to the local grammar school, not a boarding school?”
I looked at him unwaveringly. “Yes,” I admitted.
“Hmm. You’re getting better at this lying stuff.”
That time I did blush and break my gaze. “I wanted to. . . he’ll always be harder on himself than on someone else. If I was guilty of the same thing, he’d have to look at it more – appropriately, or admit I was a loathsome excuse for a human being, too.”
Phil reached for me. “You are,” he said, kissing me gently on the forehead, “a lying hound. And a good friend.”
“Hey,” said Hansie plaintively. “Don’t I get a kiss too?” Which is why we were all entangled in a group hug when Piet came back into the room. Well, it made a change – usually it's Phil who catches me being hugged by Piet.
“I see that I cannot trust the three of you to be left on your own,” he said ruminatively. “Disgraceful behaviour. As Senior Top I shall have to do something about it.”
We looked at one another. And, well, Piet is a big man, but against three of us, especially when one is as large and fit as Phil, even he was lost. And I discovered something else – the Terminator can be tickled into temporary helplessness, if you can find the right spot. Mind you I paid for it later, but some things are worth the price.
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