I was so bored. I was sooooooooooooo bored. Well, I’m sorry, but being unable to train was reducing me to quivering hysteria. Tim calls me a physical animal, and it’s true: yes, I do read, and I like to cook, and I enjoy music, and the rest of it, but I need my exercise. When I haven’t enough to do, I go out and run, or spend some extra time at the gym, or just go for a walk, or swim. And I couldn’t do any of those.
My knee was much better, and I was allowed to leave the strapping off, and to walk short distances, but I couldn’t run. I went to the gym and did upper body work and I could swim a little, in a rather ungainly manner, but I was just buzzing with an excess of energy and nothing to do with it. I had cleaned the house – well, those bits of it I could do in ten minutes at a time of standing up. It’s quite a lot, actually. I had spent an entire day with the vacuum cleaner, not pushing it about but using the hand held attachments and sitting on the floor. I had washed all the downstairs windows, inside and out, sitting on the kitchen steps, and the upstairs ones, inside only. I did think about getting the ladder and doing the outside as well. I thought about it as far as: I wonder what Piet would say if. . . and then my imagination filled me in on precisely what Piet would say, starting with “Come here and bend over”, and discretion overcame valour. I took down and washed all the curtains, ironed them, sitting down, re-hung them. I defrosted the freezer. I cleaned the oven, for God’s sake. I sorted out all my books and Piet took half of them to the charity shop (and being Piet, and understanding how things were with me, brought back a boxful of second hand paperbacks which he thought I might like). I went through my wardrobe and sorted out all the things which fitted me two years ago and never will again, and Piet went uncomplainingly to the charity shop again. I went through the kitchen and threw away the worst excesses of Piet’s store cupboards. I. . . well, you get the idea.
I had help from unlikely people. Obviously Tim and Hansie had put it about that I was bored, because Fran called in fairly often. She’s Hansie's friend rather than mine, although I do like her, but she came and had coffee with me while Piet was at the club, and she spent a whole day once, showing me what I could do to digital photographs, even with the noddy little program on our computer. Simon came, too, armed with program disks and lists of free downloads, and helped me turn our High Street standard computer into something that actually worked without the regular expressions of profanity to which I had become accustomed. Mary Hamilton came one day in the car and took me out for lunch, saying dryly that it was good for her to be seen with a Toy Boy, it stopped her husband being complacent. And still I was bored.
I cooked, with my bum hitched on the kitchen stool, meals of such complexity that Piet began to put on weight and eventually forbade me to produce three courses except at weekends. Me? I didn’t put on any weight – by the time I had cooked them I didn’t want to eat them. I made him homesick, though – I emailed his sister once to ask for advice about something, and she said she didn’t know, and asked her mother. Two days later I received, electronically, half a dozen of his favourite recipes: bredie, frikkadels, asynpoeding, dadelbrood (that was the one which did the damage to the waistline), several others. Piet just fell about, and apparently his sister had mild hysterics: Martje de Vries apparently has been known as a grade one Luddite all her life, being the sort of woman who thinks a computer is a trap for the unwary. But she demanded from Riana the loan of one of the grandchildren, who typed up the recipes for her and then showed grootmoeder how to send an email. I get about three a week now; the last one recommended a couple of websites.
Anyway, people were kind, and I tried not to be too self-centred about my knee and about Spider Backhurst getting the place I thought ought to be mine. I promise, I tried. It didn’t always come off. I can be as unreasonable as the next man when I don’t get my own way (specially when the next man is Tim. . .) I hit Piet squarely in the middle of the chest with a detective novel one night – I hadn’t heard him come in, and I was basically throwing a major wobbly. I had done all the housework I could stand, I had watched all the television I could stand, and I had read all of that book I could stand, criticising it aloud for being ungrammatical and poor style. When my irritation at the lack of literary merit overcame my limited interest in the content, I lost it completely and hurled the thing from me, just as Piet opened the door. His reflexes are good: I got him dead centre, but he caught the thing and looked at it seriously, before turning his gaze on me.
“Sorry,” I said, rather sullenly.
“So I should think. Is a man to be attacked with novels in his own house?”
“It’s a stupid book.”
“And this makes it acceptable to throw it at me?”
“I didn’t throw it at you. I just threw it.”
“This is better, is it?”
I snarled. I was in a very bad temper, and past the point at which I was prepared to be reasonable.
“I’m bored, it’s a stupid book, and I didn’t throw it at you. I just threw it. I said I was sorry! What more do you want?”
I snarled again, shouldered past him and limped upstairs to throw myself on the bed. See? I can sulk too. Ten minutes later he came after me, bearing coffee. I made a vague noise that might have been a ‘thank you’, and lifted the mug.
“You should think yourself lucky that I am not like the Tops on those websites you have been accessing. Any one of them would have spanked you for that outburst.”
I missed my mouth and poured a quarter of a pint of coffee straight down my shirtfront. Piet actually laughed out loud at my shock.
“I am not complaining about it, koekie. Why should I? You are bored, I know, and I am sure that you are careful about the virus protection. Why should you not amuse yourself with the computer?”
I made a noise like a drain. It wasn’t so much that he knew what I had been doing, it was that he knew what sort of sites they were. I said so.
“I was looking for a rugby site which I had been using a couple of nights ago, only I could not remember what it was called so I looked in the history. And I recognised some of the names, and I went and looked at some of the others. They are not a new phenomenon, Phil. They have been around a long time. Some of them are better than others. I was merely a little surprised that you should be interested.”
“It’s just. . . well, I. . . I know you like it, and I wondered what I was missing.”
“Hart, you are not missing anything. If you do not wish to play so, you shall not. We are agreed that I may punish you when you deserve it, but it is an agreement, I would not force you, you know that. And if you do not wish to play, you need not, you know that, too.”
I looked at him, and my mouth twisted. He frowned, more, I think, in confusion than anything else.
“Koekie, what troubles you? Something here is not right. I thought you were merely amusing yourself with this, but it is plainly not so. Come, come here, and let me know what is wrong. What are you worrying about? Tell me, and let us see if we can make all come right again.”
I set my mug down, and looked at him doubtfully. He held out his arms, and I wriggled clumsily across the bed to him, to my favourite place with my head on his chest. He wrapped his arms round me and made a little sound of satisfaction.
“Now, tell me all.”
“It’s just. . . Oh, I don’t know. I wanted to know if I was missing something. If you were missing something.”
“Me? What would I be missing?”
“Somebody to play with properly. The way you want to. The way Tim and Hansie do.”
He was very still for a moment, and then he said, gently, “You think that I am disappointed because you do not wish to play to the extremes that they do?”
“Well, it’s what you like, isn’t it? And I can’t give it to you.”
“I do not need you to. It is only a part of what we are, Phil. Only a part of what we have. Not the most important part either. The most important part is that you are here with me. That when I wake up, you are here, by your choice, with me. That every evening, you come home, by your choice, to me, and I by my choice to you. The rest is – is icing. Adornment. Decoration. If we lose the decoration, the substance is still sound. I enjoy it when we play, and I thought you did too; was I wrong?”
“No – no, not wrong. But I don’t know that I can go much further than we go now. I do enjoy that, but I think that much more and I wouldn’t.”
“And that is why you have a safe word, is it not? And you know how to use it.”
“JPR to slow down, Johnson to stop.” I didn’t tell him that I had never even come close to wanting either word in play, not because I didn’t sometimes want him to stop but because I trusted him completely to know better than I did how far we could go. I knew he would do me no harm, and I wanted – well, I wanted to give him what he wanted.
“And you know, do you not, that I would never ask you to do more in play than you enjoyed? If you do not enjoy it, it is not play, it is punishment. I hope we know how to keep those two separate.”
“I know that.”
“So is it punishment that troubles you? If you want to break our agreement, I will not stop you.”
“Want to break it? If it distresses you, yes. On my own account, no. I told you, koekie, I could make you great, and if you want me to, I will. If you have lost heart for your rugby, lost the desire, then tell me how I may help you to succeed at what you do want. If you still want your rugby but you want to change the terms of the agreement, tell me so and we will see what agreement we can have instead.”
“If I said that. . . what would it do to us?”
He didn’t understand me, I could see that. I gestured round the room. “To our relationship?”
His face cleared. “Nothing. Cartwright and de Vries are engaged together to make Cartwright great. They may need to renegotiate from time to time how this is to be done. That is normal. And in here? Piet loves Phil, and if Cartwright gives up rugby, or gives up his deal with de Vries, Piet will still love Phil. It is not a condition of my love that you should let me punish you, nor that you should let me have my own way always in the manner in which we enjoy ourselves. So what is it, geliefde? You wish for me not to punish you? Or you wish for me not to spank you in play? Or both?”
“Neither. I just. . . I don’t want you to miss out on anything, that’s all! Just because I can’t give you what you want. . .”
“You do, every day, give me what I want. So your tastes are not the same as mine, what of it? You do not require that I eat the things I do not like, simply because you like them, or that I read the thrillers you love which I do not. We are different. Yes, I will admit that I like to take you across my lap and make you squirm, but it is your reactions which I like, and they are to do with what you are, as much as with what I am. If we played more severely your reactions would be different and it would not please either of us. You see a problem where there is not one, I think.”
I was reassured, a little. “Maybe I’ve had too much time to think, lately, and we both know it isn’t what I do best.”
He gave a snort of amusement. “I think maybe you are right. You have been convincing yourself that I will be bored and will not love you any more, have you not? I thought so. Sometimes, when we are not together, when you are away training or when we travel and I cannot take you to my bed, I too lie awake and worry. I think: I am too old for Phil. He will lose interest in me. He will leave me for a younger man. When you go clubbing with your team-mates, I sometimes fear that you will meet someone more attractive than me. And then you come home and I wonder what I worried about. I am yours, Phil. As long as you want me, I am yours.”
“Even if. . . even if I can’t play rugby any more?”
“It’s. . . when I saw Stan this morning, he said my knee wasn’t improving as fast as he expected.”
“What precisely did he say?”
“Pass me the phone.”
The conversation with Stan was brief and to the point, and Piet frowned at me as he put the phone down. “You are an idiot boy. You should try listening when Stan speaks, or asking him when you have not understood. He said that the improvement was slower than last week, not that it was slower than he expected. He says it goes on very nicely and he expects you to play again before the season is over. Nor have I forgotten what you said to start this: I love Phil, not Phil the rugby player. When your career comes to an end I will still love you. And we must find something for you to do; I will not repeat this idiocy simply because you have too much time to worry.”
I put my head down on his chest, and for the first time that day began to relax. “I hate it, Piet. I hate being immobile, not being able to train, not being able to drive, depending on everybody else. I feel so useless!”
“That I know. You are being very patient and good, and you will be rewarded for it. Stan thinks there will be no permanent weakness in the knee, because you have been sensible about not trying to do too much too soon, because you have been guided by him.”
“I knew you would have something to say if I didn’t do as I was told.”
“I think you would have taken advice even without me. You are not a fool. But we must find you occupation. If you do not wish to start writing the unauthorised biography of Viper de Vries, by asking my mother for more dreadful tales of my youth (and I know quite well that she would tell you them all, with absolutely no proper maternal concern for my dignity!), then perhaps we should ask James Hamilton and Hansie if they could use you at training at their club. Even if you cannot stand long or run, you can observe and advise. You are getting a good head for tactics: you could talk to them about that. Shall we ask them?”
I nodded, thoughtfully. And then I rolled off Piet’s chest, and said “Sit up,” and when he did, I worked my sweatpants off my hips and eased myself across his lap. Automatically, he tucked a pillow under the bad knee. “So what is this for?”
“Brats who throw books get spanked. Everybody knows that. Well, everybody but me: I had to find it out from the websites. Apparently proper Tops won’t stand for tantrums.”
“You know, Phil, I have never understood that. It always seemed to me that if a man was in a bad temper, it was unlikely to be improved by spanking him. Now if the Top were the one in a bad temper, it would work.”
I grinned back over my shoulder at him. “Are you going to do this? Or just philosophise about it?”
“I can do both. Watch.”
It was only a day later that he brought me the news. “I had a call today asking about your recovery and your prospects for the rest of the season. Spider Backhurst is in hospital.”
“In hospital? Why? Is he injured?”
Piet gave that sideways shake of the head. “He is plainly not very bright. His home team went to Toulouse to play a friendly last week, and afterwards, several of them went out drinking and Spider decided that what he really needed was a tattoo.”
“A big one. He thought it would be attractive.”
“You think it wouldn’t?”
“I am – not enthusiastic about them, koekie, no. I think that such an adornment may look well when one is twenty, thirty, even forty, but as the elasticity of the skin diminishes, and the colours fade, the attraction is much reduced. However, that is by the way. Spider chose to have a tattoo, and did not have the sense to wait until he came home. He found an establishment – what do they call them?”
“Just so. A parlour in Toulouse. But it seems it was less than wholly reputable, and he is now not well.”
“If they did him a tattoo when he was drunk – and Spider gets totally off his face when he drinks – it can’t have been reputable. I’d have thought a decent place wouldn’t do it. So what’s wrong with him?”
“Blood poisoning. And they are testing for all sorts of other worse things.”
“Hepatitis. And. . .”
“Indeed. And he is very unwell, and expected to remain in hospital a week or maybe two, and be a long time convalescing. And apparently Mrs Spider Backhurst has announced her intention of removing the tattoo with a blunt penknife, and if she lays hand on Spider’s team-mates who encouraged him, she will, I fear, remove other things too. So currently, all the places are as they were before your injury and that young man from Halifax has your place at centre. You are better than him, so you will go back at least to centre as soon as you are fit, and if you are fit sooner than Spider, you will be given another chance at standoff. And if you bounce up and down like that you will not be fit for another six weeks. Get your weight off your knee and behave!”
And two days after that, I went into town on the bus, without my crutches but with my knee taped tightly, and did the very tiny amount of shopping which I had decided I could manage in the time before I needed to sit down again. I was just thinking of going back to the bus station when I heard my name called.
“Simon! What are you doing in town at this time of day?”
“Day off, sweetie. Where are you going?”
“Home. I still can’t drive, so I’m on the bus.”
“Come and have lunch with me, darling, and I’ll run you home afterwards. I’ve been shopping all morning, and I’m starving, and I bought some clothes, and I need a second opinion. We could go to the Ship and Star, that’s not far, and I’ll bring the car round for you afterwards. Oh, go on, Phil darling. . .”
I didn’t take much persuading. I like Simon: he makes me laugh, and actually I think him a lot more reliable than Tim does. He’s a simply shocking flirt, and he makes eyes at me shamelessly – but only in private. He’s as camp as army tents most of the time – but not with me, at least not anywhere anyone might see and wonder. In public with me he’s fairly restrained, but when we’re out of general view, he puts it on big time. Even in front of Piet he comes on to me – and he would be absolutely horrified if I made a pass at him. I’m not his type at all, whatever he says. So I give him the eye back and we both know where we are. So does Piet: Piet admires anybody who is good at what they do, and Simon is good. And Piet says nothing about the glances and head tossing aimed in my direction in private, because he too has noticed that nothing is ever said or done publicly to suggest that I am other than a red-blooded heterosexual male. I think Tim worries still that Simon may talk; I am quite certain that he won’t.
We had a pleasant lunch, and I admired his shopping, and afterwards he did run me home, and came in for coffee. He asked how my knee was going on, and I filled him in on the Spider story.
“Oooh, darling, tattoos. Just love a tattoo on a big man. Why don’t you get one? I’ll come with you and help you choose.”
“Because Piet doesn’t like them, and I’m not that keen myself. I do occasionally think it might be quite fun, but I would change my mind once a month about what to have, which isn’t a good start.”
“You want to go to the joke shop in the Buttermarket. They have the stick-on ones: I bought some last month for a party. They’ve got all sorts: little sets for children, all the way up to the big ones like those gorgeous New Zealanders have. And dragons and eagles and everything, none of your ‘Mother’ on a ribbon rubbish.”
“I could fancy having a dragon, but Piet would go ape. . .”
My only defence is that I hadn’t enough to do, O.K.? And I did promise to make it plain to absolutely everybody that Simon wasn’t to blame for this. He insisted on that. “Darling, all your friends are eight inches taller than me and four stone heavier. And a lot faster. Now, normally I wouldn’t have a problem with that, it’s nice to be able to run away and know that one will get caught, but if that huge ferocious brute of yours thought I had been leading you astray it would be a different matter.”
I was on the giggly side when Piet came home, but I think he was so pleased to find me more cheerful than I had been recently that he didn’t like to ask about the reasons for it. By the time we had eaten, we were both cheerful: he had cooked lamb chops without setting off the smoke alarm, which was most decidedly progress. He filled me in on what was happening at the club, and then we watched part of a DVD together, with me stretched along the sofa and Piet running his fingers through my hair.
“Come, poppie, let us go to bed. I will lock the doors.”
Upstairs, I managed to keep a straight face when he followed me into the bedroom and sat down on the bed. I made some vague remark, so that he would turn and look at me as I peeled my shirt off, and the look on his face, which I could see in the mirror, was absolutely priceless. It didn’t last more than a fraction of a second – he’s quite bright enough to work out that I couldn’t have gained a tattoo in fourteen hours without also having a surgical dressing – but the expression of blank horror in that microsecond made up for several occasions on which I have given way to Piet when he has forbidden something I really wanted to do.
“You unbelievable brat! Where did you get that?”
“In the Buttermarket. Like it?”
“It is. . . it is certainly very ornate.”
It was. I had picked out the dragon. Not a Chinese dragon but a Norse dragon, wings outspread and flaming. It stretched from just below my collar to the back of my waist, and round to my ribs on both sides. I turned, and Piet gave a squawk of scandalised amusement. On my chest I had five tropical fish, and Simon had been to a great deal of trouble to line them up so that my nipples disappeared into the scales.
“I liked these. And I admit I do like the Celtic woven bands, here.” I had one on each arm. “And you could buy the letters separately, so. . .” I dropped my trousers. Simon had been absolutely helpless with laughter doing that one, and had insisted on first writing down what I wanted and then laying the letters out in order across the kitchen table. He said he wasn’t prepared to face Piet if he had got the spelling wrong, so my right leg, from knee to inner thigh, said, in neat red Gothic lettering: PIETER LAURENS FREDERIC WESSELS DE VRIES.
“Now this I like. My property, correctly marked. Is there more?”
“You mean apart from these?”
Flags of England and South Africa on my left cheek, and a springbok apparently about to eat a red rose on my right. And a heart with an arrow through it, carefully placed. . . um. . . under my navel. I didn’t ask Simon to help with that one, I did it myself after he had gone home.
“How do they come off?”
“They’ll last about a week, even under the shower, or I can take them off with anything oil based. According to the packet they shouldn’t break up too badly or rub off under clothing, unless they’re placed where there’s a lot of friction.”
I didn’t even see Piet move, but my feet were off the floor, and then I was face down across his lap as he sat on the bed. “We ought to test this, koekie.” And his hand came down, hard. I bucked and yelped, and he pulled my legs up onto the bed, with due care for the bad knee, and then pinned me lightly and brought his hand down again. And again. And again. By the time he stopped, I was wriggling and breathless, and strongly heated both before and behind, and every squirm from me was eliciting a responsive pulse from him.
“Well, koekie, it would seem to be true. Even with this much friction, they are not breaking up at all, but the springbok now has a red nose and appears to have a head cold and the rose has all but vanished into the background. And the colours on the flags are a little unusual. But the quality is excellent; I am most impressed.”
“Do you want one, then?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“The easiest way to get the England flag and the rose and the heart was to buy a mixed packet. There’s quite a lot left over.”
“Is there a viper?”
“Um. . . let’s have a look. Yes, look, there are several snakes. Where would you like to put it?”
“Where should Viper’s viper go?”
“Not there. It’ll come off with lube, and I’m not convinced that. . . well. Stretch out and I’ll put it up your thigh. Oh look, there’s a rugby ball too. Well, it’s an American football, actually, but it will do as a rugby ball. Want that on your bum? And I think we should put the hawk on your shoulder. Just don’t shower with the squad tomorrow, that’s all.”
“Honestly, Phil, you are the most ridiculous. . .”
“Well, a set of stick-on tattoos might not improve your standing as a referee, either.”
“No indeed. Every referee is a Top at heart, you know, Phil.”
“I always suspected it. You boss people about, you give orders. . .”
“I punish disobedience. I shall give you a yellow card and send you to the sin-bin for teasing your Top with mock tattoos.”
“What do I have to do to get out again?”
“Follow the referee’s instructions. See, you come here to me, and stand between my knees, and then I give appropriate referee-like commands.”
“Which ones did you have in mind?”
“Scrum, I thought. Ready? Mind your knee. Now: Crouch and hold. Good. Engage!”
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