He is asleep, my golden boy, my beautiful one. My hartjie, my koekie. Beminde, geliefde, soetlief. These are the words he loves. He would have me make love with him in my own language, always. To begin with, I tried not to do it: I tried, even when he pleased me most – pleasured me most – to speak to him in words he would understand. He has no talent for languages, my Phil, and I would have it that he understood how much I cared for him, how dear he was – is – to me. But once or twice I could not remember my English – me, and at my age, with my English shaken out of me by a boy in his twenties! And he laughed, not at me, as I feared, but with joy, and asked me what the words meant, and repeated them to me, in a bad accent, and lay with his head on my chest, and murmured “I love it when you lose control, and talk to me like that. When you can’t remember the words for what you want me to do.” So now I do not try. I would not patronise him, humour him by always offering him my own language, but I let myself slip from one to the other, and sometimes still I have no English at all with him.
He will be great. I shall make him great in his sport; it has already begun, and yet he has such sweetness of heart that fame does not tarnish him. He will be as great a player as I was (that is not vanity, I was great in my day), but he will be more popular than I ever was, because he knows how to make himself loved. No, he is not perfect, but his faults are not major. He is impatient, he does not think ahead, he does not plan, he is vain, but these things are not serious. He is vain about his looks, but not vain enough to fear to ruck or maul. He has little vanity about his skills or about his ability to make friends. He learns to look ahead and to calculate a little. I would not have him do it too much. I tell him that I teach him control and so I do, but he has taught me the value of sometimes simply letting what will happen, happen.
I have never been so happy. I thought such things would not come to me, that my chance at such a relationship had passed me. I thought… I do not know what I thought. I have always been one to be in control of my emotions. I knew when I was very young that I was not as other men, that the way of wife and children was not to be mine. That did not lie well with rugby and I learned to be very discreet. Not inhibited, no. I learned early what I liked, and that I liked a good deal of it. But I made careful choices in my early years. It was only when I had stopped international play and turned to coaching that I chose badly.
No, that is not true. I did not choose badly, but I did not recognise what I was seeing. I saw Johannes van den Broek, and I recognised what he was. He had talent, and I could have made him into a serious player. He had not the raw potential that I saw in Phil, but he would have gone a long way. And he played for my team for several seasons, and I drove him towards the top. You know how I did it. He is one like Phil, to be driven towards his goal. Tim would need always to be led, rather than driven; Hansie is the reverse. Hansie was beautiful too when he was twenty-one, twenty-two. He is a handsome man now, but then? Hair the colour that still to me says Africa, and skin paper white. Not usual in that part of the world, but he claims a great-grandmother from Scotland, where such things are more common. I wanted him, and I called to him and I thought he came to me willingly.
I did not see. I had been aware that there had been times when he had done something for which he knew I would punish him, done it deliberately. I thought that either he had weighed up the action and the reaction, and decided that the gain was worth the payment, or perhaps that the fact that I would punish him was – yes, let us admit it freely – was exciting to him. It was not in fact so, I think. It was more complex than I realised. It was his father.
You know, I have always been a man to control my emotions. It is only with Phil that I give myself up to love freely. I do not believe that I have ever loved the way I do with him. For him. But equally, it does not come easily to me to hate, yet for Matthias van den Broek, I feel a deep and abiding loathing. I never knew him well, and when I was in my thirties, I cared about him not at all, except as Hansie's father. Had I known what he had done to his son – to both his sons… I could have done very little for them, but I might have dealt differently with Hansie, and I might have spared him some grief. I saw that Hansie loved me, and I could have loved him too; I did not see that he was so starved of affection that he would have given his heart anywhere he thought it might have been welcomed. I did not see that he was still denying his nature and claiming to himself that he could still do and be what his father wanted. I did not see that his denial was such that he would earn himself a punishment from me, and take it, take it gracefully, because he knew of no other way to get the attention he needed. I did not see that his father was aware of him only when he was unsatisfactory and that therefore he believed that he was always unsatisfactory, that his role in life was to be unsatisfactory and to be punished for it. I did not see that he came to me to be punished because he did not know how to come to me, or to any man, for anything else.
I did not see. That was my fault, my sin. Hansie's sins were not, any of them, significant, whatever his father thought. He was gentle, and the gentleness was beaten out of him until he became a bully. He was occasionally lazy: what boy in his teens and twenties is not? He was imaginative, and his imagination was used to strike at him until he feared fear more than he feared anything else. And I did not see it. I. Did. Not. See.
Do you know how much that grieves me now? I might have been able to help him. I might not, but my sins of omission trouble me more now than those of commission.
And then I betrayed him too. I held out my hand to him, and I was so sure that I knew what he wanted, that I could give him everything he needed. My own arrogance amazes me now. I knew that I could make Hansie happy. Make him. As if any human being can make another happy. We can give each other the space to be happy. We can do the things that bring happiness, but we cannot make each other happy. Not by force. I held out my hand to Hansie and he looked at me, and I drew him to me and kissed him. And he answered me, for a moment. He leaned against me, and his mouth opened, and his lashes, those amazing long lashes, dropped, and he canted his hips against me. Oh yes, he wanted what I was offering him. He wanted it all. He wanted it desperately, for about thirty seconds, before all that he had been taught, all that he had been raised to believe, broke over him. And I did not see that either. I could have – well, I could have seduced him. A little coaxing, a little gentleness, a little reassurance, a little time and he would have ended the evening in my bed and never regretted it. But I did not see it. I did not see his fear. I did not know that the admission of his own response frightened him so much that he could not think, so that when I asked him for more, he could neither consent to give it, not find the means to refuse.
I said to Phil: no, it was not too late for Hansie. I had done nothing that was irrevocable. Nothing that was forced. Except frighten him. Oh God, he was so young. Much younger than Phil at the same age. Hansie knew nothing. Above all, he did not know how to refuse me. Understand me, I did nothing violent, nothing to force him, nothing that he could not have stopped, except that he did not know how. It was only when I kissed his eyelids and tasted tears that I realised his fright, his refusal. I reared back from him and I let him go. And I fear, at this remove, that that was wrong too. It was too late: he was committed, as was I. Had I kept him with me, he might have overcome his fear and… well. My mother used to say… I believe in English the phrase is: if ‘ifs’ and ‘ands’ were pots and pans, we’d have no need for tinkers.
I let him go. Still today I do not know if that was the right thing to do or not. By then, I fear all our choices were bad. I let him go because it is not in me to force a lover, partly because I know I could do it. I could do it by the force of my body, because I am a big man, and even now that the best of my physical years are behind me, I am strong and fast. I could force a man by the power of my character, by my intellect, by the strength of my will. I did not fully understand that it was that strength which I had used against Hansie. I understand it now, and I am careful. I became careful almost at once, when I had the time to think, consider, understand what I had done, and determine that I would never do such a thing again.
There is always a desire to say, when the world is not to our liking: what have I done to deserve this? It is the childish cry: it is not fair. Well, and what had Hansie done to be so betrayed? By his father, who wanted him to be Julius when Julius was gone, and not the real Julius, either, but the son of his head who would do all that Matthias wanted, and nothing that he did not want. By Julius himself. I will not criticise Julius: I did not know him and I do not know what demons drove him to do what he did. If we are to be pedantic, I do not know that he did what Hansie suspects. I do not know that his death was other than an accident. I will try not to judge him, but he did do damage to Hansie. He left him, and he left him at the mercy of a hard, cold man. He left Hansie to carry not only his own burdens, but those that Julius had laid down as well. Yet he was hardly more than a child himself, and if Hansie forgives him, what right have I to judge? And who else betrayed Hansie? His mother, who betrays him still, who followed a step behind his father. I do not know much of women, but my own mother would never have acted so. Mary Hamilton could not do such a thing to a child. Frances Milton would, I think, defend the child she has never had against all comers: she calls herself Hansie's sister now, but sometimes when he weakens, she is his mother. And she, who has no experience of mothering except that which comes with a kind heart (and she would deny having that!), she mothers him better than Ellie van den Broek. He has no claim on her – but I will not be the one to tell her so. I may be – what is it Tim calls me? Alpha Top – but if I hurt Hansie, I would flee the wrath of Frances Milton.
And then there was me. What had Hansie done that his first encounter with someone who recognised his sexuality and acted upon it, should have been with my arrogance? I did him such a wrong, and within a day I knew it. The next time I saw him I knew it, for his was not the embarrassment of a man who has refused the advance of a potential partner, it was the bitter and abiding shame and confusion that he seems to have carried – well, until he met Tim. And he ran from me. He ran from everything. From me, from rugby, from his family, from his home.
I admit my fault. I confess it. I accept it. My penance is that there is no penance I can do for it. I can quite see the irony there. Phil has learned what Hansie had known before, that when he has done something he should not, he can offer his guilt to me and I can free him of it. He sees it only as a part of our relationship; he would not do it with another man, except insofar as the relationship with me spills over to Hansie and Tim. Hansie has a deeper need: a need for forgiveness, catharsis, absolution from the world, not just from Tim or from me. But he has learned that Tim and I will provide. It was brave of Tim to push Hansie to me: he must have feared that Hansie would not return to him afterwards, that Hansie's links to me might have been stronger, being older, than his links to Tim. He need not have been concerned. Oh yes, Hansie loves me, but his love for Tim is deeper. It is the love of an adult. It is a true relationship now. And Hansie and I – well, we love, but it is almost a new thing. We have never been able to put aside what we had in South Africa, but we have accepted it as a necessary foundation for something better.
Tim – now Tim interests me. Tim, emotionally, is what I was at the same age. That may very well be what attracted Hansie. No, not to replace me, something simpler, that we are both of the sort of man to whom Hansie would look. But Tim is so clear of jealousy. He might so easily have seen me as a rival for Hansie's affections, as a threat. And yet he too looks to me. He too wants my support, my approval. Sometimes my disapproval. Not in the small things – he and Hansie are sufficient to each other there. But – well, where it is something that Hansie cannot or should not handle, Tim will answer to me if I call him on what he has done. It is a big responsibility, but one I accept. Tim is one of mine, when he wants or needs to be. He does so much for Hansie that if he needs something from me, he shall have it for the asking.
But what about me? When I confess my fault, who is there to absolve me?
Me. It must be so. I confess that I handled Hansie badly so long ago, I admit my error. I regret it. And I accept my penance which is that I shall always know that I did it. I said to Phil: I will help Hansie, I will do what I can for him, but not at your expense. If Phil had been harmed by Hansie's need, I would have betrayed Hansie again, and lived with that betrayal as I learned to live with the first. But Phil feels deeply. He knows in his heart, not his head, how people are, and he felt Hansie's need and grief, and could not turn him away. He gave me to Hansie as Tim gave Hansie to me, and his depth of feeling is enough to take Hansie into his heart too. He will always make room for another human being in need.
So I must accept that Hansie does not forgive me for what I did to him, because he does not see the need for forgiveness. I did apologise to him, and he seemed more shocked by that than by anything else I had ever said or done. He does not see that I know myself to have been in the wrong, and I do not tell him so. He carries enough without adding that. That too is my penance. Part of my penance.
I moved on, after Hansie. I was badly shaken, and I questioned my own rightness. I took other lovers, of course. It does not come easily to me to be without a companion, a lover. But I chose the companionship over the love. I moved on and I moved around, from one rugby club to another, never staying long at any, and I took my lovers, but always I let it be seen that I would move again, and that I was not a committed partner to any. Serial monogamy, they call it. I took no more young men to my bed. No more virgins. Many of my lovers were older than me, and all were experienced. I learned from them, too. I learned from them all the variations in physical pleasure, and I learned how they thought and felt and acted. I learned that I liked to control and how to do it without harm to them or to me. I have a strong drive, and I learned that I could gain great pleasure from providing pleasure to others. I thought that I was happy so.
Well, and I was happy. I was contented. All was well with me, until I met Phil. But I was a shell, and I did not know it. He did. I saw him and I denied to myself that I wanted him. I saw his talent, which was large, and his skill, which was not, and I knew that here was the boy who could take from me all that I could teach him, and put it to use. But he was raw, rough. Talented, but desperately undisciplined. I know what I have done for him. Without me, he might have been good, but he would not have been great. He might have had a career at the highest level, but most likely not, and whatever he had would have been punctuated by scandals and by public amusement, which tends always to scorn.
I offered him a career, but nothing more. I would not fall into the same trap again. You may ask, could I have done it? Could I have given him all my knowledge, all my skills, and not let him know that I wanted him?
Yes. I could. Had he been heterosexual, I could certainly have done it. As things are, I think I could. I would, I think, have come to accept that I wanted him – but I would never have admitted it to him.
Only, of course, he had the better of me. He does not think first, he feels, and he knew what I would not say, and he would not allow me to deny it. That was a new experience for me. Since Hansie, I had always waited to be sure; I told Phil that I took nothing that was not offered, and it became a dance, a manoeuvring, between two men. I – what is the phrase in English? I laid out my stall but I did not make a direct approach. I waited for the offer, which sometimes came, sometimes not. Oh, certainly, I have in my time been disappointed, and sometimes the unwelcome offer came and I turned it down, as courteously as I could. That was not new, but it was new to me to have someone declare so clearly that I was what he wanted, and to refuse in his turn to be denied. So it was, when I gave way to him, I fell like a stone. From the heights I fell, and Phil caught me, and set me lightly on my feet. He is the one. Now and always, he is the one.
He sleeps and I watch him. I love to watch him, my beautiful boy. I would never – never! – have believed that my chosen one would be so much younger than I am. I could watch him for hours.
Occasionally I do. Early on, I asked him simply to stand, and to let me look at him. He did not like it to begin with: he thought it was a punishment which he did not understand. He blushed, and although he stood still, it was an effort to him. His head drooped on his neck, and he shut his eyes, and pinned his mouth tightly shut, and when I asked him to move, to turn, he did it clumsily, without his accustomed grace. It took me a little time to see that it troubled him, and then I took him in my arms and asked him why he thought I wanted him to stand so.
“I don’t know,” he said, and his voice trembled.
“Do you not, my hart?
“‘Twice or thrice had I loved thee,
Before I knew thy face or name;
So in a voice, so in a shapeless flame
Angels affect us oft, and worshipp'd be.
Still when, to where thou wert, I came,
Some lovely glorious nothing did I see.
But since my soul, whose child love is,
Takes limbs of flesh, and else could nothing do,
More subtle than the parent is
Love must not be, but take a body too;
And therefore what thou wert, and who,
I bid Love ask, and now
That it assume thy body, I allow,
And fix itself in thy lip, eye, and brow.’”
That opened his eyes! The surprise of hearing poetry from Viper de Vries outweighed his discomfort. He gazed at me in flat amazement. “Where did that come from? I’ve never even seen you read poetry before, never mind quote it. You don’t even know any limericks.”
I laughed at him. “It was an imposition set me by my English teacher when I was at school, for impertinence. To learn it.”
The eyes rounded, but it was not this time the poetry which startled him. “Impertinence? You?”
“I see you will have the whole sorry tale. I was impertinent, and my teacher set me the piece to learn, and I was resentful, and would not take the trouble over it that I should. Consequently, when he called me to recite, I could not do it. So, impertinent and disobedient. And I was caned for the disobedience, smartly enough that the next day I knew the poem, although I confess that I can no longer remember the other verse. You see, my hart, you are not the only one with poems in your memory, although I think that is the only one I have and I have waited thirty years to find an occasion to use it. But I would look at you because you are beautiful, and because you are mine.”
He blushed again at that, but he stood a little straighter. “Then be my guest.”
I have looked at him many times since. And sometimes I tell him what I am looking at, and sometimes when I touch him, I tell him what I see. The hollows above his collarbones, which are made to accumulate kisses. The dip at the top of his breastbone, which comes and goes as he lifts his head, and in which the touch of my tongue makes him purr. The lines of his ribs, made to accommodate my fingers in the indentations. The muscles of his abdomen, which jump under my cheek when I breathe on his skin. The tilt of his hips when I do so, to encourage me lower, and the way his hipbones fit into my hands. The curve of thigh and flank, begging for caresses, the calf muscles which move as he turns to and from me. The little callus on his ankle, made by his boot, and the swell of instep. He allows me to touch where I please, and thinks I do not know that he does not like for me to concentrate on his feet – so I do not, only one swift caress from instep to knee. The hum of pleasure that he gives when I stroke upward from the back of his knee, and the way his thighs fall open. And then the wriggle of frustration when I refuse the temptation and instead touch his back, the indentations of his spine, the two hollows which span his tailbone, and into which my thumbs slide as a homecoming. I would kiss every peak and trough of his spine, all the way past the wings of his shoulder blades, and into the undergrowth of nape. The tender skin on the inside of his elbows, and the delicacy of his wrists, where the veins show blue and his pulse leaps under my lips. His fingers curling around my cheek as I bite at them. We both know that he will do that to me later, and I will melt. The breathy sound he makes when I nip at ear and neck and jawline, before returning the way I have come.
The way he lifts into my touch like a cat as I reach the swell of hip and cup my hands on him, with the flutter of sensitive skin against my fingertips if he is red and smarting. Less often now for punishment, although occasionally for play, and now and then still serious. And if he is striped by my cane – no, I do not do that in play. That is more than he wishes, although if I asked him, he would do it. To please me he would do it, which is why I do not ask. No, if he is striped, it has been the consequence of a serious error, but it is done, finished, over, and need not be referred to again. Need not be, but that is not to say that we must ignore the effect completely. I can touch my mouth to a mark, and feel him quiver, run my tongue along a scarlet welt, and he will shudder, and make that little mewling sound which undoes me completely. But five minutes of my mouth on his stripes and he will be helpless, speechless, whimpering with need.
If I do not touch him – if I merely look – I can still make him mine. He can feel my gaze on him like a touch, and he responds to that touch. And when I sit before him wearing my gloves, I have made him shiver with longing without ever laying hand on his skin, until he begs to be allowed to come to me. Which I eventually permit. Those tend to be the times I have no English afterwards. And when he rests his head on my shoulder, pulls himself close with an arm over my waist, and I feel him relaxed and warm and unmistakeably mine, I know myself blessed far beyond my deserts.
And sometimes, I think the same as Hansie – but I think it with greater cause. What more is there that I could ever want? I have had my career, and I left it at a time of my choosing, which is not a gift given to us all. I have my work now, which satisfies me. I have Phil, who loves me as no man has ever done before, and for that alone I would have sacrificed the rest. And then sometimes there is still more, and sometimes I look across my bed and see not only Phil but Hansie and Tim. Three beautiful men in my bed. The dreams we had in our teens, brought to life. To my life.
What have I done to deserve this?
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