Piet and I had just come in from training when the phone rang. I picked it up, and rather to my surprise, found Tim Creed on the other end. “Hi, Phil, can I speak to Viper, please?”
I passed it over, and listened to the one sided conversation. “Hello? Yes, Tim. Yes? I see. I must speak to Phil. Yes, you know that I am willing but the final decision is Phil’s, and if he says no, then it is no, and I will not negotiate. I will call you back.”
“What does he want?” I asked resignedly.
“It is Hansie. He is. . . upset again. Tim thinks he need to come and see me.”
“See you? Or ‘see’ you?”
Piet wrapped his arms round me and tugged me down onto his lap. “The latter. You know how Hansie is. But I told you, Phil, I would help Hansie if I could, but not at your expense. So if you say that you want me not to do this thing, I will not do it. You do not need to give me a reason.”
I thought about it. Again. I did feel for Hansie, honestly I did. He had plainly had a horrible childhood with a family like something from Grand Guignol (see, I’m not the uneducated idiot Tim thinks me), and there was a whole group of us trying to keep him afloat in his sea of relationships. But his relationship with Piet was, and had been, peculiarly intense, and Piet was mine. Mine. I felt like standing over him and showing Hansie my teeth. Nonetheless, when it came down to it, I trusted Piet absolutely – I couldn’t manage a relationship like the one we’ve got otherwise – and I liked Hansie a lot.
“Do it. Whatever Hansie needs.”
Piet’s grip on me tightened. “You know, koekie, I will always ask you. Every time. I need your express permission for this. And you can give me a different answer each time if you want. If it becomes too much, you do not have to agree just because you agreed before.”
“Well, I agree this time. Whatever Hansie needs.”
He kissed me, which is always entertaining, and picked up the phone again.
“Tim? Pieter. Send him over. Does he know you have spoken to me? Does he need to? Half an hour then.” And back to me. “Tim will order Hansie here. Hansie will not know that we have spoken.”
“I’ll be surprised to see him then. Or perhaps I had better go out.”
“I. . . no. I will not have you sent from your home for this.”
“Well, I’ll go outside at least. It’ll be better for both Hansie and me to know that I’m not within earshot.”
I got some more kisses for that.
I opened the door to Hansie half an hour later. He was scarlet, already. He blushes like a Victorian maiden, and given the colour of his hair, probably wishes he didn’t.
“I need to see Viper, Phil. I’m sorry.”
“Come in, Hansie. He’s in the study.”
I showed him in, leaving the door open, and then picked up my fleece, and pushed my head round the door. “Piet, I’m in the garden if you want me.” I went out through the kitchen, and walked down the garden path. It was colder than I had thought – too cold to sit with a book, which was what I had intended, but I went out of sight behind the hedge, and paced briskly up and down across the decking, for what felt like hours. I suddenly realised that I had no idea of how long to stay out, and I hoped that it would occur to Piet to come and fetch me at the first opportunity. And at that point it started to rain.
Actually, to hail. I hadn’t thought it was cold enough for that but apparently I was wrong, and it was getting heavier by the minute. When the hailstones began to bounce, I could stand no more of it, and bolted back towards the house, only to discover that the Yale lock on the kitchen door was not on the snib, and that I had no keys.
Well, there was a limit to the extent to which I was prepared to preserve Hansie's dignity. I fled round the side of the house to the study, and wrenched open the patio door.
Fortunately they were done: Hansie was kneeling on the floor with his head against Piet’s thigh, but as I came in, as quietly as I could manage, I heard him sob, great wrenching, rusty hiccups of distress.
My intention had been to sneak across the room and out as discreetly as I could, but this was beyond bearing. I stopped, stared at them both, and snarled, “For heaven’s sake, Piet, you’re supposed to be helping him, not making him worse!” And I scrambled down onto the floor beside Hansie, and dragged him into my arms, and hugged him. “There, my tjerrie, it’s all right, don’t cry, skattie, don’t cry.”
He hiccupped again, and his head came onto my shoulder, and his arms went round my waist. “That’s better, ou voëltjie, now, calm down a little. It’s all right, pet, it’s all right. You don’t need to go on like this, kleintjie, really you don’t.” I rubbed the small of his back, and pressed my cheek against his, and talked on, utter rubbish most of it, until the sobs died away. Then I wriggled a little to get one leg free, and tried to find my handkerchief, but I couldn’t get my hand into my pocket at that angle. Piet leaned over me. He always has a clean handkerchief, and he always knows where it is; a thing like a bedspread was pushed into my hand. I dried Hansie's face, and he lifted his head and snatched for breath a couple of times, and smiled at me, rather waveringly.
“Y-your accent is h-horrible, Phil.”
“Well, yours isn’t so special,” I scolded, smiling back. He hugged me solemnly, and pulled away; I let him go. “And don’t get at Piet, hey? He didn’t make me worse. He makes me better. I just need. . . I want. . . This is good for me, ja?”
I was doubtful. “Are you sure?”
“Oh, ja. Ja. It’s. . . I don’t know the word. Like everything comes out, all the bad things.”
I pondered. “Cathartic?”
“Ja. Cathartic.” He hiccupped again, the convulsive hitch that comes after prolonged weeping. I started to get up, suddenly embarrassed at having interfered, but Piet slid off the couch between us and held me still while he settled himself on the floor. His right arm went round Hansie, and his left round me, and we both leaned to him.
“Do you realise, Hansie, that that was the first time you ever called me Piet?”
From Hansie's expression, he hadn’t realised. He was still sighing, and every so often his breath would catch in his throat. Piet slid a hand up to stroke his hair.
“I’m not sure that I’ll be able to manage this if Phil is going to get all protective about you,” he murmured gravely. Hansie and I both raised our heads to look at him, me with suspicion and Hansie with alarm.
“I don’t know what’s come over him lately,” I confided in Hansie. “He’s been making jokes. It’s not natural. He’s smiling a lot, too. It’s like living with a shark.”
“What do you think, Hansie, should I spank him for insolence?”
Hansie still looked worried. “Look, I don’t want to. . . to put you two wrong with each other, you know? You know that I wouldn’t do that, Phil, don’t you?”
I had a flip remark ready, but something in his tone made me bite it back. I looked at him and knew that he had felt a little of what I had felt that first time at the club. He was a little jealous of me. Not much: he had Tim, and he wouldn’t want Piet now, not seriously, but just a little. . . And he was offering me what he thought I needed, just as Piet had given him what he needed. I didn’t need to show my teeth. He had lowered his head and backed off.
“I know, Hansie. I do know. Don’t worry; Piet’s teasing you. I realise this must sound unlikely, but he’s developing a sense of humour. It isn’t a very good one yet, but he’s – ow! Ow!”
Piet had flipped me over his lap and placed two smart spanks left-handed on my rear. I scrambled up and reached down for Hansie.
“Let’s get away from this monster and make some coffee. I’m cold and my fleece is wet.”
“Coffee sounds good,” agreed Hansie, although he still sounded shaken. Piet was just following us up when the phone rang. He leaned over the desk to pick it up, and waved us away, covering the mouthpiece. “My mother in SA. She’ll talk for hours. Go.”
In the kitchen, Hansie looked gobsmacked. “His mother?”
“I know. It was a shock to me too. I always assumed he sprang fully formed from a rugby ball, or something, but apparently he has parents, and a sister, and nieces. He thinks the world of them; takes ages choosing birthday presents for them. He’s grasped that the point of an uncle on the far side of the world is to send the sort of gifts that your mother has already refused to buy you.”
I suddenly thought that talk about a loving family was foot-in-mouth stuff, but Hansie just seemed interested.
“What about you? Have you got brothers and sisters?”
“No. Just me. Not even any cousins. I wish I did, you know.”
“Does Viper’s family know about you?”
I made a face. “Not exactly. His parents know he’s gay, and his sister, but you know how he is. He’s just said that he’s my agent and we share a house, and left them to draw whatever conclusions they like. I get the impression that his sister understands and his parents don’t think about it in case they were to understand too. Maybe it’s a generational thing.”
“And your parents?”
“They know. My father doesn’t like it. He thinks Piet’s too old, and he doesn’t really like me being gay. My mother’s better about it.”
Hansie frowned. “I wonder if women just are, generally? Mary Hamilton doesn’t seem bothered by Tim and me at all, and Jim’s good about it, but I think he doesn’t like to dwell on the details, you know?”
I poured the coffee. “Can you take that through to Piet? Do you take sugar? Milk?”
He came back, and I gave him his coffee, and, without comment, the cushion which tended to live somewhere around the table. “Phil? Tim told me to come today because – ”
I held up a hand. “You don’t have to tell me. I don’t need to know. If you want to, I’ll listen, but. . . look, I know you’re. . . struggling. I know you’ve got a lot of baggage. If Piet helps you drop it, fine, but you don’t have to explain to me.”
His head went down again. “Dankie. That is. . . is generous.”
“You don’t have to be grateful for it.” I didn’t quite know where that came from; I was flying blind here. I’ve heard a lot of Hansie's history since, but at the time I only knew what he and Tim had told me between his father’s death and the awful evening at the club. He tipped his head and looked quizzically at me. “I mean, if you’re abandoning your baggage, don’t go picking up a new set relating to Piet and me.”
He made a face. “Tim has already said that I must learn to let people help me, you know? And just accept it because. . . it’s what they want to do.”
I got the impression that the second half of that sentence had been edited at the last minute. “It’s certainly what Piet wants. He hates feeling that he might have spared you something and missed it.”
“Ja, but you don’t need to help me, hey? Not if it puts you wrong with him.”
“I don’t think it will. I’ll help if I can.”
“Why would you?”
“Why would I not?”
He frowned. I suddenly understood. I could hear Tim in the back of my head: “I don’t know what you want from him, but he wants your friendship and he doesn’t really know how to get it.” This was the damage that he and Piet had done to each other: neither of them knew how to ask for what he wanted. I had defeated Piet by offering, without waiting to be asked; perhaps I could do the same for Hansie. “Hansie, people will help you because they like you. That’s all the reason there needs to be: I’ll help you because you’re my friend.” I pretended not to notice when his eyes filled again. “I admit, I don’t understand why you want help in the form you do. I would go miles to avoid dealing that way with Piet. I can’t imagine ever asking him to do that.”
“You never just go and confess, and take what’s due?”
“If I’d got away with something and Piet hadn’t found out, I would be inclined to keep my mouth tight shut and my backside untouched. Unfortunately I don’t think it’s ever happened. He has some sort of tracking system for me doing things I ought not, and he always finds out.”
“Like parents, hey?”
“Yes, but my parents never spanked me.”
“No. They didn’t believe in it.”
“What about at school?”
“No corporal punishment at either of my schools. Nobody before Piet. Nobody else.”
He began to laugh. “So the first time you got spanked was by Piet, and you were what? Twenty-one?”
“Twenty-two. I always thought a spanking was a mild punishment, but Piet didn’t. It was a horrible shock, I’m telling you.”
“I’ll bet. He has a very heavy hand, ja?”
“Has he? I’ve nothing to compare it with. I wasn’t sure if it was him being tough or me being a wimp when I yelled.”
“Oh, ja. I yelled, too. You probably heard me.”
“I didn’t. The glazing here is very good. Nobody will have heard you.”
He grinned at me companionably, and turned the subject. I wasn’t sorry.
“So are you playing next week?”
“Yes, apparently. Want to come? I get tickets, and my parents can’t come this time. If you and Tim wanted them instead. . .”
“Ja, I would like that, but Tim is going to see his mother. I think he wants to tell her about me. But if there is a spare ticket, I would like to see you play.”
He went soon after, looking – I don’t quite know. More relaxed, or something. More comfortable in his skin. Piet emerged from the study to say goodbye, and came to hug me after I shut the door.
“Well, little fierce one? Are you going to refuse to let me hurt Hansie?”
“I get the impression he’s been hurt enough already. I don’t understand it, and I’m sorry I crashed in on you. . . I don’t suppose Tim will be pleased.”
Piet frowned. “I – don’t know. I think you and Tim might give Hansie different things. I think Tim understands Hansie in his head, which is how he can do this without damaging himself. But you are different. You know how people feel. You knew how I felt. You might be good for Hansie too.”
“I hope so. I’ve promised him a ticket for next week.”
“Yes? Good. I will not be able to stay, afterwards, and come back with you. There is a referees’ meeting and I must go. So you will be careful, Phil. Your team mates will want to go out after the match, and I suppose you will want to go too, but I do not want to see your name in the headlines the next morning for behaving like a lout.”
“I wouldn’t dare,” I assured him. “I’ll be good.”
I meant to, honestly I did. The match went off reasonably well; I didn't cover myself with glory but I wasn’t disgraced either. Workmanlike, Piet called me later, and he was fairly pleased. Hansie did come, and I asked him if he wanted to come clubbing with the guys afterwards. He said not – he came and had a drink with me, and then he said he was going back to his hotel and would see me at home. The rest of us went out looking for fun. Well, I thought that was what we were looking for.
It was well past midnight when it all went wrong. I suddenly began to feel very, very odd, and I went towards the door, looking for some fresh air. I felt as if I had drunk a great deal too much, but I knew I hadn’t, and I ended up leaning on the doorframe and gasping. I couldn’t imagine what was wrong with me, and I thought I should go back to the hotel: I made it about three hundred yards before I had to stop. There was something wrong with my eyes – all the colours were wrong, and it was far too bright for the time of night. I was grinding my teeth frantically, my fingertips were tingling and I felt both breathless and restless. What the hell was wrong with me? I had never felt like this, even when I had been ill – and I felt most peculiar. I wanted to go to bed, and at the same time I wanted to run and run, and I had no idea where I was, or where I should be. I thrust my hands into my pockets and pulled myself upright again, and my right hand closed on my mobile phone. I pulled it out and looked at it blankly – and I knew what to do. I wasn’t well, and I needed to phone somebody. Piet. I wanted Piet. He would know what to do.
He might have done, but at that time of night, his mobile was turned off. So who?
Hansie. I would call Hansie.
I got him out of bed and he sounded less than thrilled, but once he realised it was me, his tone sharpened.
“Is something wrong?”
“I – yes. Yes. But I don’t know what. I don’t know where I am, and I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
“O.K. Calm down. Are you still in the club?”
“No. I’m in a back street. There’s a park.”
“Walk to the end of the street, Phil. To the junction. Can you see a road sign?”
“Good. Now, what about the junction? What’s the other street called?”
“Don’t know. It’s got a shopping mall. A jeweller. Burden’s the jeweller.”
“That’ll do. Stay there, Phil. I’m coming, O.K.? Don’t go anywhere. Just wait.”
I was past being able to do anything else. I stood on that street corner, and I fidgeted, and shadow-boxed and bounced up and down, and presently I saw a taxi stop on the other side of the park, and Hansie got out, and ran across the grass.
“What’s happened, Phil? What’s wrong?”
“Don’t know. Feel odd. And everything’s too bright.”
“When did this come on?”
“About an hour ago, in the club. Some of the guys were messing about and I just started to feel odd. I’ve got pins and needles.”
“What were you drinking?”
“Bottled lager, that’s all.”
“Did you leave your drink anywhere? Take your eye off it?”
“Don’t know. Can’t remember. Probably. We were dancing.”
He swore under his breath, and took me by the arm, making me walk. He had his mobile out and dialled as we walked.
“Come on, Tim, pick it up, pick it up. Yes! Hi, love. Yes, I do know what time it is. No, don’t. . . Tim, this is important, hey? Boot up the computer. Please, Tim, don’t argue, just do it, hey? I don’t know how much time we’ve got. I’m with Phil and I think somebody’s given him something. And there’s a guy with a camera following us. He thinks I haven’t noticed him. Is it up? Go on line. Find something that will tell you about soft drugs. Social drugs? What do they call them in English? Recreational?
“Now, he’s pronking like a bok, and he says he’s got pins and needles. And he keeps complaining about it being too bright. What is it? Do we need to go to the hospital, or can he walk it off?”
He went on for about ten minutes and we walked and walked. I kept trying to break away from him, but he had a grip on my wrist and wouldn’t let go.
“No, he’s lucid enough. Ecstasy? Yes, likely. No, I think somebody put something in his drink. What do we do, hey?”
I missed the next bit, but by the time I looked round again, Hansie had put his phone away and was leading me across the road to an all-night petrol station. He bought a couple of bottles of water, and gave me one.
“Drink that. All of it. And walk.”
I think, that between two o’clock and six, we must have covered about twelve miles, and I drank pints of water. Every all night café, every petrol station was a source of another bottle of water. Every half an hour, Hansie stopped me against a wall and made me spell, or do mental arithmetic to check I was still with it. I recited all the poetry I could remember (he was impressed by that) and we worked through the names of all the rugby players we knew. He told me about South Africa and I told him about Lancashire. And the photographer lurked behind us at every corner.
“What does he want?”
“Was he in the club when you were there?”
“I don’t remember him inside, but I think he was on the doorstep when I came out.”
“Hmm. In that case, I reckon he doesn’t know anything but he suspects something. He probably saw you reeling when you came out and wanted pictures of the golden boy drunk, hey? And by now, he knows there’s something up and he’s chasing the story.”
“He’s taken pictures, you know.”
“How do you know?”
“I can hear the shutter click.”
“From that distance?”
“Yes. It’s like – it’s like all my senses have had a skin pulled away.”
Hansie swore again. “We’ll have to get the pictures off him. And you need to be in your hotel and coming respectably and conspicuously down to breakfast.”
We ended up at the back of the hotel. “Phil, stay there. I’m going to look for a way in, ja?”
“We can go in the front, Hansie, the doors are open all night.”
“Oh, ja, brilliant idea, and then your photographer gets a shot of Phil Cartwright rolling home with the milk. What’s Piet going to say, hey?”
“Piet’s going to kill me.”
“Ja, likely. And if you don’t stay there, I’m going to kill you first.”
“Oh, God, Piet’s going to spank me soooooo hard. . .”
“Phil, for God’s sake stop wandering about, or. . . or I’ll spank you too.”
“Oh, fun, do we all get a go? Can I spank Tim? I never tried that. Or he could spank me. I wouldn’t mind spanking you. Do you spank hard?”
A small sober Phil at the very back of my head was saying: shut up now; you’re making a fool of yourself; close the mouth. Fortunately, Hansie ignored me. “Here. Fire escape. Up you go.”
It was one of those staircases that doesn’t come down all the way. It stopped six feet off the ground, but Hansie boosted me up, and then scrambled up after me. His trousers would never be the same again. We went up the rickety steps, and in through a fire door, and Hansie found my room for me.
“Get into bed. Here, finish the water. Stay there until I come back.”
“Where are you going?”
He grinned at me. “I’m going to do something very illegal.”
“Piet will spank you,” I warned sleepily. I couldn’t even bring myself to ask what he intended to do.
“Probably. But if I don’t get you out of this mess, he’s going to slay both of us.” And he was gone. I was instantly asleep.
Here God, the boy was in such a mess! And not his fault, either, as far as I could see. But he was right about one thing – Viper was going to kill him. And once he found out that I was involved, he was going to kill me too. I had to find that photographer. I had to get that film off him. I would not allow – I would not allow – Phil to make a mess of his potential the way I had made a mess of mine. Why not? Because he is my friend. He is my brother. I could not protect Julius, and Julius could not protect me, but I would protect Phil. And perhaps that way I would feel, too, that I was paying back Piet for what he was giving me. That it was not always other people holding me up, looking out for me, looking after me. And Tim, too; he says he doesn’t like Phil much. They had a fling, you know? Any fool could see that it would not do, and they quarrelled all the time; they quarrel still every time they meet, but when someone at the rugby club criticised Phil in Tim’s hearing, Tim savaged him. We are all family now, you know? We are. . . we are like one organism. Piet and Tim have the brains, and Phil is such a physical animal, and he loves so completely, and without reserve. He loves Piet – I was going to say, with all his heart, but it is not: there is space left in his heart for me. I think, with that one, there will always be space left in his heart for the needy. Tim thinks he is not very clever, but for once Tim is wrong: Phil is clever in dealing with people, because he can always imagine how they will feel.
I did not realise it until lately, but suddenly, this year, there are people who love me, who love Hansie van den Broek. Not Johannes. Johannes is gone, he will not come back. But Hansie has Tim, and Jim and Mary are fond of me, a little, I think. And Piet - he and I will always be tied. He helps me, and afterwards he tells me that he does it because he loves me. My father never said so. . . And Phil says he is my friend, and I love him, and I think he loves me. And Fran, who pretends to be so cold, so hard, so dominating, and who rescues kittens, and stupid Afrikaners, and who says she is my sister.
That is a family, ja? My lover, and his parents, except that they are not his parents either, who count me as one of them. And my brother and my sister and Piet who is not my father, and I so wish he were. Silly. He is, what? Ten, twelve years older than me only? Enough of this. I begin to learn to be complete.
But my brother Phil was in a mess, and I had promised myself to put it right, and I had no idea, but no idea of how to do it. But I went downstairs, and I thought that I would find that photographer and I would take his camera away from him.
Only, he had seen me, he had seen me with Phil. So he would know. I would have to think of something else. And I offered a prayer to any god who listened, not to my father’s god, for he did not protect the innocent, but perhaps to Jim’s. And He gave me Dave and Ryan.
I knew their faces, but not their names. I had seen them play: they were Phil’s team-mates from the club, and they were just coming round the corner of the hotel. And they knew me, too; they had seen Phil punch me in the face. They had been out all night, probably best not to ask where. Young men, in a strange town, out all night like tom-cats. So I stopped them, and I said, “Phil Cartwright needs his friends: he is in trouble”.
They stopped. “Who says?” asked the big one, the prop.
“I say. I am Hansie van den Broek. I came to see Phil play yesterday: so, I think, did you. Once, Viper de Vries was my coach too.”
The other one, a handsome boy until somebody broke his nose, I would say, looked me up and down.
“You had a fight with Phil.”
“I did. He and I were both drunk. We do not fight now. He is my friend, and he is in trouble.”
“What sort of trouble?”
“Somebody has put something in his drink. He is not hurt, but there are photographs. It will damage his reputation. And I think Viper will be very angry.”
Ach, look, when I played we knew that Viper being angry was a bad thing, because although he did not take out his temper on the wrong people, it was like being too close to a thunderstorm, you know? It made everybody nervous. These boys exchanged glances.
“What can we do about it?”
“The photographer is just round that corner. I was going to take his camera away from him and destroy his film, but he has seen me with Phil, and he will know if I do it.”
The prop was quicker than the jokes suggest that a prop would be. “You want us to mug a photographer?”
“Ja. You could get away with it as drunken horseplay. I could not. He does not know that you are Phil’s friends.”
“Man, you’re mad.”
“You will not help?”
“Well. . .”
If they had drunk a little less through the night, I would not have persuaded them to it. But I walked round the front of the hotel, in full view of the photographer, and bought a newspaper from a stand, speaking to the man, and thickening my accent, so if need be he would know me again, and be a witness that I was not involved. And while I stood there, plainly having nothing to do with it, two drunken louts ripped a man’s camera from his shoulder and threw it from one to the other, ending by yanking the film out of it, throwing the camera back to him, and running down a back street.
I woke when Hansie came back into the room; I had the father and mother of all hangovers, which seemed a bit rough, given that I had been careful not to drink too much. He was a great deal too loud and chirpy.
“Ach, Phil, I think we will get away with this. You must buy drinks for Ryan and Dave when you get home. As many drinks as they want. They got this for you.” And he held up a tangled mess of exposed film.
“How did they do that?”
“You would be better not to know, and then Viper cannot blame you for it. In fact, I think you should forget what I just said, and just remember that I gave you the film. And I will buy them drinks until they fall down if that is what they want. Now, get up, and have a shower and go and have breakfast. And be bright and cheerful, so that if anybody should ask, you were just as usual.”
I argued a bit, but Hansie was obdurate, and eventually I saw the point of what he was saying. I went down to breakfast with the others, ate a huge cholesterol overload, talked loudly about the match, and then set off back to my room with the speed of a man ready to face the day. Or desperate to get back to his own bathroom before the breakfast reappeared. Hansie was dozing on my bed as I crashed through; he came after me and rubbed my back as I retched, and gave me glasses of water until I felt better.
“How are you getting home? Did you drive here? I don’t think you should drive yet.”
“Piet brought me, and Simon was going to take me back as far as his house, and then Piet would pick me up from there.”
“Better, I think, if you call them and say you have met me and I will drive you home. The fewer people who see that you are not well, the better.”
It was. It was a lot better, given that we had to stop twice for me to throw up. Hansie makes a very tender nurse. I was more or less recovered by the time we got home.
“Hansie? I’m not going to tell Piet about this.”
“Ach, Phil, are you sure that is a good idea?”
“No, but I’m not. He’d do his nut. He told me to be careful, and obviously I wasn’t careful enough, but I will be next time. I don’t want him thinking that I’m not fit to be let out on my own.”
He sighed. “I think you are making a mistake, but I will not tell him if you say not.”
“I say not. Thanks, Hansie. For everything.”
He shrugged. “You said it yourself: I help because you are my friend.”
He was right, though. It was a mistake not to tell Piet. I spent some time on line, looking up Ecstasy so that if it didn’t wear off I would know what to expect, and I went to the gym and basically sweated it off, so that when Piet came home, I was nominally back to normal. But I wasn’t right. I was jumpy and nervy, and Piet kept asking what was wrong, and we nearly quarrelled because I was so rude. And. . . well, thinking about it, it probably wasn’t the drug, it was probably the guilty conscience, but when we went to bed, I couldn’t. . . Like I said, I looked it up: it’s one of the recorded side effects in men, but I doubt if I’d had enough to signify, so I think it was just in my head. And it really shook me. Look, I know that it happens to everybody some time – but it had never happened to me before.
I lasted a week. Then Piet caught me, took me into the study and shut the door. I shivered.
“Now you will tell me what is going on. It is something to do with the match last week, and I want to know.”
I tried to deny it, but I’m an unconvincing liar, and even I could hear that I wasn’t getting away with it. And Piet was looking more and more like a hawk, and when I glanced up at him, my resolve abandoned ship and I began to talk. I told him what had happened. I didn’t mention Hansie at all, I implied that I had known what to do and had worked it all out myself. I didn’t mention the photographer either. Unfortunately, that made the whole story so bald that nobody in their right mind would have believed it, and Piet didn’t. He thought for a moment when I stopped. And then he called Hansie.
“Hansie, you brought Phil home from the match last week. So you know about this Ecstasy thing.” It wasn’t a question. How does he know? How does he know when I’ve done something wrong? How did he know that Hansie was involved? Poor Hansie tried to deny it, and in the end I could stand no more of it, and took the phone from Piet’s hand.
“Hansie? Just tell him. It wasn’t your fault, so just tell him.”
He did. And Piet put the phone down and turned back to me. He looked seriously scary: all bones and resolve.
“Why did you not tell me this?”
“I was – afraid – you would be angry.”
“I am angry. You were in danger. Had you told me, we could have gone to the police. You should have done so. Suppose you had been called for a random drug test this week? You would have failed it, and that would have been your career gone. And probably mine too. Who stole the film?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
“Can’t? Or won’t?”
“Won’t. They thought they were helping me.”
He considered that. “Very well. We will let that go. But the rest was bad judgment on your part, Phil. I can see that at the time you were not in a position to make good decisions but you should have told me straight afterwards.”
“Yes. I’m sorry.”
“Did you really believe I would be unreasonably angry?”
I looked up, surprised. “I thought you would punish me for it.”
“If you are so afraid of me, I will not. I will not do it again.”
My mouth fell open.
“If you do not trust me, I will not deal so with you.”
“I do trust you! Of course I’m not afraid of you! Sometimes I’m afraid of what you do, that’s all. But you’re my coach and our deal is that you enforce the rules.”
“I see. Very well. Bad judgment, then. I cannot act in your best professional interests if I do not know all the facts. This is not for the occurrence itself; it is for concealing it from me.”
He opened the drawer of the desk; I got up. It was the little black cane, his original one, not the pale thin one he made me buy when I hit Hansie. Bad enough, but still better. And. . . it was like his heart wasn’t in it. Six, he gave me, and they hurt, but nothing to what I’d had in the past.
“I wish. . . I wish you had trusted me enough to have told me. I thought we had a better relationship than that.”
And he went out! He didn’t stop with me. He had never done that before. Always he hugged me, petted me, let me know that he forgave me, loved me. Always we made up, talked through anything that needed to be said, reconciled ourselves and made it possible to go on. But this time he left me, and he went out. Right out. He left the house. And he looked awful: dragged and tired. He looked his age, for once.
It was hours before he came back, and I was panicking. I had suddenly understood what I had done to him, and I hated myself for it. I didn’t understand how I could have failed to see what I was doing. I was still in the study, waiting, curled on the couch holding a cushion to my chest. “Piet? In here. Please – can we talk?”
“Have we anything to talk about?”
“Please. Please. I’ve screwed this up, but I didn’t mean to. I’ve been thinking and I – Piet, I’m sorry! I really am! I didn’t mean to do that to you.”
He stopped looming in the doorway and came in, dropping onto the couch beside me. I put out a tentative hand – I wanted to fling myself on him, arms round his neck, but I didn’t think I’d be welcome. He worked himself round into the corner, and looked at me.
“So talk to me then.”
“You told me to be careful, and I thought I was. I was careful how much I drank and what I drank. I thought about all the headlines about footballers last year, and the stories about the way they behaved in nightclubs, and the rest. And I didn’t want to end up in headlines like that. But I didn’t think about somebody putting something in my drink. You know, you read about date-rape drugs and so on, but it never occurs to you that anything like that could happen to a man.”
“I know. I told you: I understand that you were not in a position to make good decisions at the time. I would not have punished you for that.”
“No? I thought you might. And I wasn’t. . . I didn’t want you to, but I wasn’t afraid. Not of the cane. Well, not much.”
“So what were you afraid of?”
“Of you realising that I had let you down. Again. I’m always doing it.”
He reached out and put his hand on top of mine. “Exaggeration. You rarely do, and very rarely is it serious.”
“Well, I just panicked. And I had drawn Hansie into this too, and he was so good. He was so competent, Piet. He managed everything.”
“He can manage very well. He just has no faith in himself. But I should have expected him to tell you to tell me.”
“He did. He did then and he has done several times since. You won’t blame him, Piet, will you?”
“No, not if you tell me not.”
“Well, then, there’s just – you need to – we have to – oh, hell!”
“You have to – I can’t believe I’m doing this! I told Hansie I would never do this!”
“I need more clues, koekie. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You’vegottopunishmeforscrewingup.” Very fast and low.
“I already did, poppie. Remember?”
“No, the Viper punished Cartwright for an error of judgment. But Piet needs to punish Phil for hurting him. I did hurt you. I can see I did. I don’t want to have to feel guilty about that for weeks. Piet? Does Hansie feel like this all the time?”
“I think so, yes.”
“How does he bear it?”
“My hart, I don’t know.”
“I can’t. I can’t bear it. I need you to deal with it.”
He considered. “It is true, I was hurt that you felt you could not confide in me. Hansie knew all about it, and presumably Tim as well?”
I nodded. “Tim looked up for him what we should do. And Ryan and Dave as well – oh, shit!”
“It is Ryan and Dave who stole the film?”
“O.K. We are agreed that I don’t know who they were. But two more people who knew that you were in trouble. Two more people you trusted to help you when you didn’t trust me. Are they close friends of yours?”
“Fairly, I suppose. Not very.”
“So I come lower on the list than Hansie and Tim, and even than ‘not very’ close friends. I cannot pretend that I am not hurt, Phil.”
“I know. Deal with it.”
“If I do, it will be harder than I have ever done before.”
“But that will be the end of it?”
I stood up, came round his legs to stand at his hip, waited. He peeled my jeans down, bared me neatly, and shifted to the centre of the couch. I knelt and leaned forward. He rearranged me to his satisfaction, pulled my shirt a little higher to get his left hand onto my back, lightly. Always lightly. It was the right hand which did the damage. And remember, I was striped already.
I was well into my traditional poetry recital almost at once. As much of the Ancient Mariner as I could remember. Smart’s cat again, that’s a good one. Something about a knight in armour, all chalcedony and malachite. My backside was on fire from my waist to mid-thigh. Nursery rhymes. Silly mnemonics about metrication which my mother used when she cooked: two and a quarter pounds of jam weighs about a kilogram. A litre of water’s a pint and three quarters. A metre measures three foot three; it’s longer than a yard, you see. Except that they twisted in my mind as Piet’s hand came down on my defenceless backside. A litre of water’s a yard and three quarters. Try multiplication: seven times table.
No. Just yell. This hurts. Squirm. Wriggle. Buck against the balancing hand. Until eventually, after a millennium or so, I couldn’t bear it, and I slid off his lap. I looked up through my tears, snivelling and hiccupping as Hansie had done.
“We’re not finished, Phil.”
Somehow I got myself back up, back in place. “Please, sir, hold me.”
“I can’t keep still, I just can’t. Not unless you hold me.”
He never did. Never restrained me. There was only ever the light hand on my back, and always before it had been enough. He reached across me, his palm cool on my hip, pulling me against his body.
I managed about another century like that, with my fingers knotted in his trouser leg, before my right hand rose despite me to protect my bottom. He let go of my hip, caught my hand and trapped it – gently - against my back. The blaze of pain was unbearable and it went on and on, for another aeon. The noise – the crack of palm on flesh and my yells – went on and on too. He would never stop.
He stopped. He rolled me lightly, until I was safely against his chest, with the three-bar fire of my backside radiating into the room, and my head under his chin. His arms were tightly round me, and I was home. He rocked me gently until the sobs subsided a little, tipped my chin up, and kissed the tears as they formed.
“My hart, stop crying now. We are done.”
I couldn’t stop. He lifted me – he’s going to do himself a mischief, because even though he’s bigger than me, I’m half a stone heavier than I was a year ago and I’m not small – and carried me upstairs. Then he held me for what felt like hours until I was calm and exhausted. And very sore.
“Sorry. I’m sorry.”
“I know, koekie. It’s over. But not again, Phil. This is too much, even for me. Let us not do this again.”
I was in favour of that. I was also in favour of what he was doing with the hand that was not round my shoulders. Only:
“Piet? Ecstasy has a bad effect on that. It can. . . Sometimes it. . . Apparently. . .”
“Apparently what, koekie?”
“Dunno. Can’t remember. Don’t stop.”
Oh, look, it did still work. How nice.
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© , 2005