Black dog on my back, my mother used to call it. Black dog on my shoulder is what Phil says. One day I must look into the derivation of the phrase, for such things interest me. Churchill used the phrase, I believe, to describe depression, but for me it is not that, it is what I have also heard called ‘having a pain in my temper’.
You know what I mean, I am sure. The days when you wake up and all is not well with your world. There is no reason for it, or the reason is trivial: the milk has turned sour and you cannot have your coffee until the milkman comes, or the toaster jams again, or the car will not start, or you knock over something in the bathroom and the contents spill. Nothing that is worth losing your composure, but somehow the day begins badly and it gets steadily worse, and you know – you know when you are out of temper that there is not a good reason for it, that you are making yourself ridiculous, that when your disposition returns to normal you will be both embarrassed and shamed by the way you have behaved.
My black dog comes from my mother’s family. My father is of a most equable disposition, but my mother had her own black dog and bequeathed it to both her children. I can remember still Riana’s boyfriend encountering her black dog, and asking if she were pre-menstrual; I thought he would not leave the house alive. Her husband and her children know that there are days she is to be left most strictly alone, and that the act of asking ‘what’s the matter?’ will be perceived as an intimation of willingness for the fray.
With me, it is a little different. Before Phil, I had my partners, fersure, but I never lived with one and I did not share this part of myself with them. When I started a day and felt my black dog, I would cancel all but the most essential of my tasks. I would call friend, or colleague, or lover, and excuse myself from meeting, from engaging with them. On black dog days, my temper must be exercised not on a snaffle bit but on a double bridle. I think that my work does not suffer; I think that my team goes home only saying: Viper made us work today; or: Viper was sparing with praise today. I try hard not to be unfair, not to vent my temper upon my young men. It is not a common thing. Twice, three times in a year? And sometimes it lasts only an hour or so. But Phil knows about it; it is possible to disguise such a thing from the outside world but not from the man who shares the kitchen and the bathroom as well as the bed. I have learned to deal with it, to tighten my control on myself, but the effort of managing my temper at work leaves me no resources to manage it elsewhere.
So when I go home on such a day I tend to avoid Phil, for fear of picking a quarrel with him. This is in no part his fault; why should he suffer for it? I tried to conceal it, for quite a long time, until I thought: I cannot do this, he knows something is not as it should be. He will think I am displeased with him, not that I am displeased, in its most literal definition, with myself. I explained to him about my black dog – that was when he said he knew the phrase from his childhood – and that when it comes upon me, there is nothing for me to do but wait for it to pass. It is not of long duration: a day? Rarely more. Indeed, since I have been with Phil, never longer than a day and less often than it used to be. He tried at first to find solutions for me. Phil cannot see someone in distress and not wish to help, it is beyond him. Once he tried to cheer me up, once to coax me – well, to tell the truth, to seduce me into a better humour. I think I persuaded him that neither was worth his efforts. Sit it out, I told him. It is not that I am in general not happy with you, it is merely that for one day I am not happy with anybody or anything. Tomorrow all will be well again. I thought he had believed me.
Well, my black dog came upon me. It was not like that day when I felt so unwell – that time it was as if I could not control my temper and I did not know that I needed to. I was bitterly unkind to Phil then, and not much kinder to Ryan and to some of the others. That was different. This day, I knew that if I did not curb my tongue, I would make myself hated. I know what I can do with a well chosen word. Both Hansie and Phil I have on occasion reduced to tears in two sentences; Tim. . . is different and will weep for a sad story but rarely for disgrace, but he too has shrunk from my verbal disapproval. I have a skill at that: I can convey censure in a very few words that are not quickly forgotten, and because it is something which comes easily to me I must be careful to use it appropriately. It was a difficult day. I had to concentrate very hard, to be aware at all times of what I was about to say, to check and check again that I was not over-reacting to some minor annoyance.
And what had brought this about? Nothing. The day was threatening to be hot, and I rose early and went to the bathroom and I was just out of the shower when Phil tapped on the door. “Do you want your coffee in there?”
“No, koekie, I shall be out in a minute. Put it on the dressing table, please.”
And indeed, he did, and I came out, and dressed myself, stopping at intervals to drink my coffee. I had not finished it when I turned incautiously, caught the handle, and tipped the remnants down my leg. It was no longer hot enough to scald, there was no danger, but I snatched at the cup, missed it, and knocked it against the dressing table, where it broke.
Shall I confess that my anger was mostly vanity? Irritation that I should have been so clumsy in the first place as to knock something over, and a greater irritation that having done so, I could not catch the cup. It is to be expected: my reflexes are not what they were twenty years ago. I am strong and fast and fit, but not now what I was in my prime. My prime is past. I am no longer Viper de Vries who is famous throughout the sporting world – Pieter de Vries is now known mostly as mentor to P A Cartwright. Do I care? Generally, no. I develop, I move on. The young Viper did not have his heart given to another, did not have the keeping of another’s heart, and all but three days in the year I think the deal was worth it – particularly since the cost, the slowing, the aging would have come upon me whether or not I had the gift of Phil to discount it. He heard the smash and came to look.
“I’ll get a cloth. Have you cut yourself?”
“No, I am clumsy but not that clumsy. Pass me the waste paper basket.”
He shot me a glance at my tone, and did as he was told, and went for a cloth without saying anything further. I picked up all the pieces, and he came back with a rag and the carpet spray. I held out my hand for them.
“I’ll do it, you change your trousers.”
“I am not incapable yet, Phil, I can clear up after myself. Dress yourself, you will be late.”
“There’s plenty of time, it’s not even. . .”
“Just do as you are told!”
He jumped, and obeyed me, but I saw from his expression that he was surprised. I cleared up the cup and the coffee, and changed my clothes, by which time Phil was himself ready to go downstairs. He picked up the damp trousers.
“You do not need to tidy up behind me, Phil, I can look after my own belongings. Give them to me, I will put them in the basket.”
“I was going to leave them to soak in the sink while we were out. There isn’t enough to make up a full load this morning but there will be after training, and if you let a coffee stain dry, you won’t get it out.”
Now there is nothing in that to which a sensible man could object, is there? Forethought, economy, practical good sense. Not a good reason for me to snarl at him but snarl I did. “I can do it myself! I know you are the domestic god, but I am not quite incapable yet.”
Shameful. I know it was. I preach to Phil about self-control and I demonstrated none. His mouth fell open a little and his eyebrows went up, but he said nothing and turned to go downstairs, pointedly leaving my trousers on the bed. I snatched them up and followed him to the kitchen, where I reached for the tap and hesitated. I had not the least idea whether a coffee stain would set in hot water or not.
“Tepid,” said Phil, not looking at me. He knows this kind of thing – he is so vain and fussy about his clothes, but sometimes his vanity comes in useful. “Rinse it through and get out what you can. Then put a splash of vinegar – not the cooking stuff, the white vinegar under the sink – in a cup, top it up with cold water and work that through it and rinse it off. Then put a scoop of that bio-soak stuff in the sink and top it up with cold water and leave them to soak.” He took his breakfast into the dining room and I did as he had said. I was a little recovered when I followed him, enough to drop a kiss on his neck, and say, “Pay no attention to me, my hart, I am in a temper, is all.” He smiled at me, but he did not answer, which was probably wise.
As I say, such a small thing to breed a black dog.
But I drove us to the club, and when the man in the BMW with his telephone clamped to his ear attempted to put us off the roundabout, I swore very profanely indeed, to the extent of losing my English for once. I should not have criticised so – I do not ever use my phone while I drive, but even without it I was aware that I was not driving well. A fraction too fast, a fraction too close. We made it unharmed to the club, but Phil had hissed through his teeth more than once, although he said nothing.
I do not think that anyone at training would have spotted that there was anything wrong, although I worked the team a good deal harder than they would have expected for this time of year. It is another two months to the new season. I dealt with the firsts and seconds myself and Harry had the dealing with the reserves, and afterwards they went about their lawful occasions and I went to look at my paperwork.
Of which there was a. . . well, as Phil would say, a shitload. It took me the whole of the afternoon and I will tell you I had to deal by telephone with some extraordinarily stupid people. Even now that my temper is recovered, I will maintain that they were stupid.
Then the photocopier died on me, just as I had something requiring forty copies. Absolutely and totally dead. I called the support people. I pressed 1 to report a fault, I pressed 5 for the particular manufacturer, I pressed 2 for the particular model. I listened to the same piece by Vivaldi for forty minutes. I spoke to some teenager who addressed me as if he had known me all of his short and uninspiring life. I assured him that yes, the machine was plugged in. Yes, and switched on. Yes, we did have power in the building. How did I know? Because I could turn on the lights and other things plugged in were still working. Yes, I had checked the fuse. And the toner. And the paper.
He could, he said, send somebody out to look at it some time late next week.
Alternatively, I suggested, through my teeth, he could abide by the conditions of the support contract and send somebody within three hours.
He asked me for the contract number and announced that he could find no trace of the contract. I asked him to repeat the number, and corrected him, and corrected him twice more until he had it right. He found the contract, and agreed that he was obliged to send us someone at once. He suggested that he did not have anyone to send and that he could manage the beginning of next week.
I said, despite the cramp in my jaw, that we had a legally enforceable contract, and that he would find that the penalty for failing to come out within three hours was equivalent to three months’ rental, plus taxes. He said he could manage tomorrow.
I lost my temper.
A woman came, opened the copier, removed a component, replaced it, and made it work.
By the time we came home, I was weary, and very irritable, and thoroughly tired of myself. My own company was – well, what? Abhorrent is too strong a word. Tiresome? Yes, tiresome, to me. I disliked myself thoroughly.
Phil said very little on the way home, and that little to the point. “We need milk. If you stop just past the post office, I’ll get some in the corner shop.” And “I’ll cook that fish tonight but it won’t take long to do.” And when we got home, “Go and watch the news while I cook. Do you want a cup of coffee to take with you?” Coffee. I had forgotten the damn trousers. He caught me heading for the kitchen and shooed me away. “I’ll do it, Piet. Go on, go.”
The news was depressing, and I knew I was being unreasonable, but I could not overcome my black dog. After we had eaten I tried to read but I could not concentrate on my book. Several times I got up, and went to look for something else to do, but I could not motivate myself to start anything. I had to exercise extreme self control not to slam doors and stamp.
Phil sat with a book himself, and presently I noticed that he was flexing his knee.
“Is something wrong?”
“What? Oh. . . no. No. I’m just a little. . .”
“Phil, is your knee stiff?”
“A bit. It’s fine.”
“Stand up. Get those jeans off. Show me your knee.”
“Piet, it’s fine. A little stiff, that’s all. I’ve maybe done a bit too much today in the gym.”
“Are you going to take those jeans off or do I have to do it for you?”
It was a threat only. On a black dog day I would prefer not to discipline, simply because I know that my judgement is not the best. But he rose and peeled the jeans off and came to show me his leg. I ran my hand over the joint.
“There is no heat in it, no swelling. Bend your knee. Higher? Good. Does that hurt? Or that? Can you move it this way?”
“It’s fine, Piet. There’s nothing wrong with it. Too long on the stepper today, that’s all.”
“On the what?”
When I looked up, he was colouring, and uncomfortable. “You have been on the stepper? When Stan said that you must not until the end of this month?”
He shrugged. “My knee’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s been better for weeks already. Come on, Piet, I’ve been back in full time training for ages. Stan’s fussing about nothing.”
“Stan said that you were not to use the stepper. He is the senior physio who deals with you. He is paid to know what he is talking about; he gave you a training regimen and I approved it and you agreed to it: by what right do you change it now without reference to Stan or to me?”
His eyes dropped; he did not answer me.
“Go to the study and wait for me. No, leave your jeans. You do not need them.”
I would not follow him at once. I could not believe how foolish he had been, nor how out of character such behaviour was. Phil is generally most biddable in terms of his health and his fitness. It is quite unlike him to display such stupidity, never mind the disobedience of it. As far as it went, I was inclined to agree with him that Stan was over-cautious: I thought there was nothing he was not fit to try. But that was hardly the point. I am not a physio, although I have some experience. I would defer to Stan’s view in this and I expected Phil to do the same; it had not occurred to me that he would need to be watched. When I thought I could control myself – not at once, not today – I went to the study.
He rose from the couch as I came in; I took his place and held out my hand to him. “You have broken your training regimen, have you not? Disobeyed your physio and therefore also me.”
“And have you an excuse?”
I stripped his briefs down and he placed himself across my lap. I shifted him a little higher and began.
I can read the progress of a punishment in Phil’s back, which is most expressive. He starts with stiff endurance, sometimes varied slightly with a flexed indignation in his shoulders. His mind accepts his punishment but his body is unaccepting at first. This time I was determined to spank him hard, hard and long. He would feel the smart of it for most of the evening and know my disapproval. He has not Hansie's pallor, but his skin blushed under my palm, and heated, and the prints of my hand showed white and then red and paled to redden once more. He did not shift across my lap but his neck arched and presently I heard him hiss with pain.
I know that I am getting through to him when his shoulders relax and his head drops. That is usually when he begins to squirm. He hates it, I know, feels it undignified. He wants to take his punishment bravely and have it done and he cannot. That is my decision, not his. This time he was hot and sore and I began to spank down his thighs. I will not have him putting his career at risk through impatience and thoughtlessness. On this occasion it probably did not matter very much; next time it might. His skin burned under my palm, and I worked a little harder. He began to wriggle, and there was a faint plaint in each indrawn breath, not quite a whimper. He squirmed his weight around on my lap, twisting slightly to try to protect the tender skin at the tops of his thighs, but I warmed that again, and then pulled him more tightly against me. He knows what that means – a final steady coverage of every inch of the wriggling and scarlet bottom in front of me. I extracted two or three yelps and squeaks before I let him go and he slid off my lap to the floor.
He laid his head against my thigh and took several shuddering breaths, and I rested my arm over his shoulders. Presently he rocked back onto his heels and I helped him resettle his clothing before I held out my arms and he came to me. His mouth was quivering slightly, and his lashes – those long, thick eyelashes which my mother says are not decent on a man – were spiked and damp. He hitched himself onto the couch, turned his weight onto his hip, and rested his head against my chest. Once, I told him that was his place, that no others came as close to my heart, and I think he took it literally, for he loves to be there, to be held so.
“Sorry,” he said, rather unsteadily.
“It is done,” I assured him, softly. He tightened his grip around my chest and pressed his head in like a dog or a cat looking for caresses. I was pleased to oblige, to run my fingers through the springy curls, trace the cheekbones with my thumb. He tilted his head back, hinting for kisses. I was pleased to oblige there too, to tease his mouth open, to tug at his lower lip with my teeth. I slipped a hand down to his hip and he jumped a little. I could feel the heat even through the fabric of his briefs, and my touch on the hot skin of his thighs made his skin quiver. He turned and my hand slid up his leg to the delicate skin of his inner thigh and I felt him smile into my mouth.
I can still lift him and carry him to my bed. . . perhaps the Viper is not quite old and decrepit yet. And my black dog, I suddenly thought, my black dog was nowhere to be seen.
In the morning, I caught Phil coming out of the bathroom, and made him flex and stretch before he put his trousers on, so that I might see the degree of movement in his knee and feel the joint for heat and swelling. There was neither, and I patted him lightly on the rump. “I think you have got away with it. It does not hurt?”
“Not a bit.”
“Good. But try that trick again without permission. . .” I scowled at him, leaving the threat open, and he grinned at me.
“And I won’t sit down in a fortnight?”
“Indeed so. Now go, koekie, I must be at the club early. I will finish the paperwork I did not do yesterday for fighting with idiot maintenance companies.”
His appointments took him elsewhere and I went to my work. Harry came in mid morning to share his coffee with me and to chat.
“That damn gym equipment company is no good, Piet. Don’t take any more stuff from them, no matter how good the price. Their maintenance is rubbish. Eight days to get the new control panels for the steppers.”
I frowned at him. “Why are they to have new panels?”
“Because when they changed the heart monitor software the new stuff wouldn’t run the steppers. We’ve had no steppers all this week and that’s not. . .”
“All this week? No steppers?”
He looked at me quizzically. “That’s right. Did Phil not tell you? Oh, no, he wouldn’t have done, would he? He’s not using the thing yet, he’d maybe not have noticed.”
“And has he been keeping off the stepper?”
“Phil? Of course. He’s very good about keeping to his schedule. You don’t need to worry about him that way. Mind you, one or two of the others. . .”
I answered him mechanically. I could not make much sense of this; why had Phil lied to me? And I know my Phil: he is a bad liar. When my pension fails to pay out, I will take Phil on at poker, for he cannot deceive as a gambler would. He blushes and. . . he blushes. When he mentioned the stepper, he coloured and I had thought him embarrassed at being caught out, but it was not so. It was a lie. It was a deliberate lie to get him to where he ended up, not because he wanted a spanking – he will take one in play, but not as severe as that – but because he knows that I will give him all my attention when I punish him, and all my attention afterwards. And he would have guessed – deduced? known? – that I could not maintain a black dog and at the same time comfort an unhappy lover. He would have known that the comfort he needed – that he had forced me to make him need – would be more important to me than my own evil temper. Oh, he is not an intellectual, my Phil, but I have never met a man with a better understanding of human nature. No, that is not so. Of male nature: he knows nothing of women. He is a little afraid of Fran still, and she is amused by him.
So shall I tell him that I know? I think not. In his generosity he has given me a gift and I shall not spoil it for him. For now, while it would still be an issue between us, I shall let him win. Later, perhaps, when we can both place it in a proper perspective, I shall let him see that I know, but perhaps not how I know. All Tops need to maintain the illusion of knowing everything as a matter of course. Besides which, it would be more entertaining to keep it for an occasion of play: he lied to me, did he not? So he should be spanked for it.
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