It was Ranger who first drew to my attention the item which startled Tim and Hansie so much. I just want to be sure that if any of you are equally startled, you lay the blame where it belongs. Ranger, not me, O.K.?
I’m not quite sure how it came about that we all got ourselves into quite such a tangle. It was like a complicated dance: we all made our figures and came together and spun off again, but everybody touched hands with everybody else and every couple turned round every other couple. And where did it start? I think – I think it started at the beginning of December, with Phil making Sunday lunch for us and Fran and Nick as well, and opening a tin of something. Olives, I expect: Phil doesn’t cook much with tins. It wasn’t a ring pull tin, just an ordinary one, and he couldn’t make the tin opener work – it did that irritating thing where it bites and breaks the seal and then the butterfly just spins but the blade won’t engage. Phil muttered a bit under his breath and went back into the drawer, emerging with a different tin opener, one of the lever ones which leaves a jagged edge on the tin – and that wouldn’t catch on the puncture from the first one, and then suddenly it did, and Phil gave a yelp and rammed his finger into his mouth.
“Have you cut yourself, koekie?”
“No, I just bent my nail back. Bloody useless thing! I swear, I’ll promise a 20 minute blow-job to anyone who brings me a fucking tin-opener which fucking works! Oh. . . sorry, Fran.”
That last was in response to Piet’s frown, rather than any surprise on Fran’s part. Piet makes us all watch our language in front of her, although he’s wasting his time: she has a fine flow of invective when she’s put out about something. At least once, Hansie has come home and had to look up what she’s said, despite having learned most of his colloquial English from rugby players. But Fran made some dismissive gesture, and Phil wrung his fingers a time or two more, and then he tipped the olives into a bowl and brought them to the table and the conversation moved on. It was nothing to make anything of, except that in retrospect I can see that the next step of that particular figure, Fran and Phil’s figure, was inevitable. You can probably see it too.
Hansie’s figure, Hansie’s and mine, started on Christmas Day. Well, as far as I was concerned it started on Christmas Day. Jim and Mary had come to us, and I was alternating between smug pride at how we were managing Christmas dinner and all the whistles and bells, and blind panic in case something went wrong, because I’d never done Christmas for them before. Hansie had been teasing me about it all day, not nastily, just little digs about whatever I was currently worrying about, usually before he went and did what I wanted. We negotiated the turkey without too much trouble (well, actually, with a fair number of compliments) and took our coffee and the rest of the wine into the sitting room to open the presents.
And yes, there were one or two which Hansie and I had agreed we would keep back until everybody had gone away again. They were upstairs in the bottom of the wardrobe. All presents suitable for general consumption were under the tree. Which is why it was such a surprise when I picked up one oddly shaped parcel, flipped over the label (‘To Tim, from Hansie. I just thought it looked interesting’), and had it snatched out of my hand, very nearly with the loss of most of a glass of wine.
“Ah, not that one, my liefie? Leave that one for later, ja? Have... have the red one, ja, the red one. There.”
Well, you wouldn’t have expected Jim to let that pass, and he didn’t. No, he doesn’t want to think about what Hansie and I actually do together – he loves us both, he accepts what we are, but he feels he doesn’t need to know the fine detail – still, he knows an embarrassing gift which ought not to have been put under the tree, and the teasing which can be attached to it. Hansie and I both got a fair amount of barracking on the subject of what the lovebirds buy for each other. I wasn’t quite quick enough (well, I’d had quite a lot to drink, if nothing like what I drank last year) and I said something about ‘oh, go on, Hansie, Jim and Mary aren’t easily shocked’, but the face Hansie turned on me bore such a look of blind panic that I swallowed whatever I had meant to add, and kicked the parcel behind the sofa.
We didn’t actually get back to it until the next morning. Jim and Mary had stayed late and what with that and the amount of wine sloshing about in us both, we had simply fallen into bed, leaving all extra surprises for the morning.
Well, yes, I was surprised. Boy, was I surprised.
We slept late, and Hansie brought me breakfast in bed as a reward for the amount of cooking I had done on Christmas Day, and I suppose it must have been a quarter to ten and neither of us dressed, when we thought of the Other gifts and settled down to open them with a fair amount of laughter. Hansie nipped back downstairs and recovered the blue and silver package from behind the settee, and flipped it across the bed to me.
“I’m telling you, liefie, I thought I would have a heart attack yesterday when I realised that had got among the main gifts.”
“Is it so dreadful?” I enquired, sliding a finger under the sellotape.
“It might take a certain amount of explanation,” confirmed Hansie, grinning, as the paper fell apart, and a. . . a Thing dropped into my lap.
My first thought was that it was a flogger, which would certainly have explained Hansie’s lack of enthusiasm for explaining it to Mary. It surprised me a little – we both. . . well, in our kinky turns, we both prefer something with a bit more oomph. Strap, or paddle. Wallop, rather than whip. Still, no harm in trying something new, is there? And in the dear dead days beyond recall, when I used to frequent some of the more outrageous clubs in some of the more outrageous holiday resorts on the Continent, I have tried a flogger and it wasn’t wholly unpleasant, although that might have had something to do with the charming Frenchman who was attached to the other end of it. Still, that might be something not to share with Hansie. I picked it up and shook out the tails, and realised that it certainly wasn’t the same sort of flogger as I remembered. The tails weren’t single, they were three long loops of – I had thought leather, but it wasn’t, it was some sort of rubber.
“Where did you find this?”
“Internet,” he shrugged. Sure. Silly question.
“And do tell, Mr van den Broek, which end of it did you expect to find yourself on?”
“Well, you know, Mr Creed, I’m not sure that it matters, but yesterday you were very snitty about the way I set the table, and less than polite about my skills as a wine waiter. There was some remark about ‘where’s my bloody drink, Hansie?’, was there not?”
I lifted a shoulder at him. “As I recall, you had drunk most of my glass of wine as well as your own.”
“Only because you could not keep track of where you had left your glass. I recovered it for you once from the cloakroom, once from the middle of the table I was attempting to decorate, and once from the hall table. And what thanks did I get?”
By now we were wrestling across the bed for ownership of the flogger, a battle I was only ever going to lose. I ended up pinned under Hansie’s knees while he leaned over to manoeuvre the tray onto the dressing table. I didn’t mind much. As I said, neither of us was dressed, and by that I mean that. . . Well, pyjamas are largely optional, aren’t they? Unless you have visitors in the house? So I didn’t fight very hard when Hansie rolled me onto my face, just pushed free of the pillow which was threatening to smother me.
“Now, Timmy, let me explain to you about being polite to your partner who keeps you well supplied with alcohol while you cook.”
I hardly heard the thing, rather to my surprise. It made almost no noise, either in the air or on impact. I felt it, though. I’m not sure that I’ve ever felt anything like it, before or since. I don’t think I made any sound, not on that first stroke. I did on the second, Hansie tells me: I reared backwards like an illustration from a yoga book, and made a noise he couldn’t reproduce, and on the third, to which he was apparently already committed, Pieter de Vries’s careful training kicked in and my mouth opened.
All right, you know how old I am. I’ve been about as a player basically since I was old enough to get into the clubs – and I had never used my safe word before. Never. That was why Hansie and I hadn’t had them, you see: I’d got complacent because I’d never used mine in the days when I had it, Hansie had never played to the extent of feeling that he might need one. It was beautifully effective, I’ll say that for it. Hansie leapt away from me and fell off the bed, banging his head on the dressing table and bringing the tray down on top of himself in a welter of spilled milk and toast crumbs, and when the mugs had stopped bouncing and the plates rolling, his saucer-like eyes appeared over the edge of the duvet.
I took a great whooping breath, my eyes watering and my nose running, and said hoarsely, “What the fuck is that?”
He scrambled up beside me and gathered me into his arms. “What? What is it? Timmy, I can feel your heart thumping. What is wrong?”
I snatched for breath again, and twisted to look at my arse. There was hardly a mark on it – no wonder Hansie was confused.
“Hansie, that thing is seriously evil. I. . . well, I don’t think we want to keep it. No way am I’m going to let you use it in play, and I don’t even want it available in the house if you’re pissed off with me.”
“It is so unpleasant?”
He sounded startled, rather than actually doubting. I scrubbed my hand across my eyes and reached for a tissue. “Trust me. Whatever that is, I don’t play with it.”
“I think you had better let me try,” he said soberly. I blew my nose and shook my head.
“You just did. Pick it up again and die.”
“No, I mean you had better let me feel it.”
I tried to talk him out of it, honestly. I don’t think there was any real issue of ‘I had three so you can have three.’ But he was determined so, in the end I lifted it, distrustfully, and Hansie stretched out on the bed.
I was careful; I don’t want you thinking (I don’t want Piet thinking) that I was being spiteful or that I felt Hansie owed me anything. He hadn’t known any more than I did what the thing did. I didn’t put any force worth mentioning into the downstroke, and Hansie’s response was pretty well identical to mine, although I didn’t wait for his safe word. His is ‘Ridgeback’, but I accepted ‘Bliksem!’, it being said with huge sincerity and conviction. I think that was when we mislaid the flogger, because I let go as Hansie grabbed my wrist, and it slid off the mattress and under the edge of the headboard, landing with a ‘flump’ under the bed.
“Timmy, I am so sorry, I had no idea. I just thought it looked interesting, hey?”
“Interesting is about what it is, yes, and I for one think I have been interested quite enough. We lose that, Hansie. It goes out of the house. We do not keep it.”
“Nee. We put that down to experience, and I agree with you, that is an experience we do not need to repeat. Ach, come here, my liefie, and let me rub it all better for you.”
“Mm. Yes, that’s a good. . . Hansie, that isn’t where you hit me. I would have noticed.”
She’s ever so imaginative, my Fran. I don’t mean to imply that all we do is spank and have sex – although that holiday in Scotland had distinct tendencies that way. We did go to the event, but we rather lurked in the shadows and didn’t participate: I wasn’t quite ready to join in, although I saw enough to start to get my head round just how much further I could go – we could go - if we wanted. We spent a simply scandalous amount of money on a couple of new toys. The two tailed tawse I like a lot – well, I like the straps generally, and the ones Fran already had weren’t tailed. That was my choice, and hers was an acrylic paddle which I do not like at all, although I just love not liking it, if you know what I mean.
But imaginative! And it’s no use Hansie giving me that old-fashioned look; he got no more than he deserved. I got. . . well, I don’t know if I deserved it but I enjoyed it. It was ten days past Christmas and I was on leave. Fran had been busy right up to Christmas Eve with works parties and so on, and I had volunteered to work the holiday days so that the people with kids could get the time off. Then I took my leave at the start of January when Fran hadn’t much work on, and we painted the hall and the kitchen, and had a huge clear up in the house and the garage, sorting out a load of stuff which hadn’t been touched since we moved in. In the spring, I’m going to get a shed put up and then we’ll see about the garage conversion. It was when we were going out to the garage for about the fifth time that Fran actually stopped and looked at the dogwood.
We left the borders alone, when we flagged the garden. They’re low maintenance, shrubs and bushes rather than flowers and neither of us could think of anything we would like better, but there was one bush which was just getting out of hand. I don’t suppose we’d have bothered with it, except that every time we went to the garage, we had to turn to avoid it, because it was spreading across the path. We had a wet December here, so the damn thing was full of water, and of course after we’d brushed past it twice, we were both soaked.
“What is that bloody thing?” asked Fran, eventually. “Will it die if we wallop off about half those branches?”
“I think it’s called dogwood,” I said doubtfully. “At least, I think that was what Hansie called it. It’s either that or potentilla, he mentioned both. And I have no idea if it would die or not. We could probably find out off the internet.”
So at the end of the day, Fran went into the freezer for something we could eat and I checked my email and then went looking for information about plants.
“It is dogwood. And it says that if we want it to go on having those red branches, we need to cut it back hard in late winter or early spring, so even if it’s too early yet to do that, I doubt if it will die if we cut it back enough to let us past it into the garage.”
“Hm,” said Fran, thoughtfully. “Is it poisonous? Your dad was saying that the leylandii in his garden gives him a rash every time he trims it.”
I searched round a bit more. “I can’t find any warnings for it. Mild astringent effect of bark, that’s all.”
“Oh good,” said Fran and smiled at me innocently. Too innocently. “In that case, Dominic, you can go outside now and cut me twenty or so lengths – about so big – and strip the leaves off.”
“Why?” I asked suspiciously, as if I didn’t know, or at least have a damn good idea. I got the innocent smile again.
“That red bark is pretty, and I found the big Chinese vase today. Stand some stems in water in that corner and it will liven up the room a little.”
Oh yes? Flower arranging isn’t exactly my thing, but I did as I was told. Twenty sprays was too many, but I wasn’t at all surprised to see Fran sorting out some particular lengths and measuring them against each other, and then binding one end with a length of ribbon from her props box. It hissed when she tried it through the air. I shivered in pleasurable apprehension.
Liven up. Yes, that’s a good term for it. The sprays livened up the room. And they livened up me too; did they just! I went over the back of the armchair, not quite sure what to expect, and Fran’s voice enquired seriously, “Words?”
“Yes,” I agreed – it sounds silly, but all she’s doing is reminding me that I have them. She doesn’t always, not when it’s something we’ve used before and she’s fairly sure what I can take, or when we’re pretending that I haven’t got a choice. It breaks the mood for her to make me repeat them, although she always does when it’s a white noise scene. She tapped with the – can I call it a birch? Even though it’s dogwood? I can, can’t I? Just a tap, for me to feel, I suppose, where it would strike, and then she said, firmly, “Feet together,” and I pulled myself a little more upright.
“No, Nick, right together,” and I got a spank for disobedience. All right, so you probably worked it out. I didn’t; it didn’t occur to me that all those whippy little twigs were different lengths and would get everywhere, including some places that, I can now tell you from experience, it would be preferable for them not to go. I learned that on the first stroke. It wasn’t particularly hard; it wasn’t half as painful as I had been anticipating, not compared to the cane, say. But the sting was lively, and widespread in a way that nothing I had experienced so far had prepared me for, and those rod ends curled around and in and between and. . . look, draw your own picture, O.K.? I gave a squeak of surprise, and a wriggle and Fran laughed.
What’s it like? Not like. . . well, not like the Reform School descriptions you can read if you know where to look. Most of that comes down to Fran, of course – she knows what I like and she simply wouldn’t use anything to an extent that she thought I couldn’t bear. She really doesn’t approve of drawing blood, and I don’t think there’s any doubt that even a home-made rod made of something other than birch could cut, and cut quite severely, in careless hands. I do know how lucky I am, you know. But it’s a sensation unlike anything else I can think of.
The closest I can get is: have you ever cut your tongue licking an envelope? Or had a paper cut on your finger? It hurts out of all proportion to the damage you’ve actually done. Well, it was a bit that way. Like I said, I reckon both the strap and the cane (and quite possibly that damned acrylic paddle) hurt more – but the pure sting of a birch, top level sensation, isn’t to be matched. Yes, all right, I jump and flinch and shift when Fran’s feeling severe, but it’s only with that thing that I actually squirm non-stop between strokes. I literally can’t keep still, which she finds very amusing.
I had six, and was in some danger of sliding off the back of the chair, I was twisting so much, and when Fran stopped I went on wriggling for a moment. She stepped close and ran a palm over the heated skin of my rear.
“You’re a lovely colour. Keep still a moment and let me look? Hm. I think we’ll Savlon you.”
“Has it broken the skin?”
“Not exactly, it looks more like scratches. I suspect it will itch later. Come on, up you get. Hell, there are little bits of twig everywhere!”
“Aren’t there just?” I said ruefully, removing two from somewhere uncomfortably intimate.
“Is it worth it?”
“Only if we can leave hoovering until the morning. It’s very. . . warming. A remarkable effect: I don’t think we want to waste it, you know. Go on, shut the door on the mess on the carpet and come upstairs. Please?”
She laughed again, and twisted the ribbon off the switches, leaving only loose twigs which went into the vase among the others. “I think you need a shower to be sure we’ve got rid of all those little bits.”
“You could come in with me. Make sure I didn’t miss any.” Now that’s something. A spanking delivered to a damp, birched bottom. That really is something. We didn’t even make it out of the bathroom.
And she was right. Later it itched like fury.
Another get-together, this one at our house; another meal for the six of us. My turn to cook, and we were at the gin-and-tonic stage beforehand, when Fran accepted her glass and set it carefully on the coffee table before opening her handbag and rummaging inside. Most of the time she doesn’t carry a bag at all, and all her coats have huge pockets, but when she does it comes in one of two sizes: I’ve gone on holiday for a week with a bag smaller than the big one and the small one is barely big enough for keys, and seems to annoy her hugely, mostly because she can’t fit a camera inside. It was this that she opened, and whatever was inside was clearly too big, because it wouldn’t come out.
“Damn thing. . . Phil, this is for you. I did an advertising shoot at that new bistro on Monday, and I asked the chef to tell me the best sort of. . . ah, here it comes.”
It was a tin opener, of a brand I didn’t know, and Phil turned it over in some bewilderment, before looking at Fran who had her head cocked teasingly to one side.
“I thought twenty minutes was too good an offer to miss.”
It was Piet who got there first. There’s something about Fran: remember that story about the rugby club bath? Fran can reduce him to absolute helpless hysteria the way nobody else can; his legendary self-control shatters with her. He simply whooped with laughter, and then I got it and started to giggle, and Phil put on an expression of half serious panic, and enquired, in apparent alarm, “Piet, what shall I do? I know you say I have to keep all my promises, but honestly, I haven’t the least idea of how to go about it.”
“Oh, it’s not difficult,” murmured Nick, with an innocent smile. “All you have to do is. . .”
And that did for Phil completely – hands over his ears, chanting “don’t want to know, too much information, not listening, don’t want to know!”, which set Piet off again. He actually laughed himself into hiccups: I’ve never seen him do that before, and I was fairly helpless myself, although that was as much from watching Piet as from anything Fran said.
“Oh, come on, Phil,” teased Nick. “Don’t you want to try something new? Fran’s a good teacher, you know. And she hardly ever uses the bullwhip.”
“Fran’s scary,” insisted Phil, hiding behind a cushion. “There’s no saying what she might do if I got it wrong. I can’t go to training with marks all over, I have to undress in front of other people, you realise.”
“Wimp,” said Nick, cheerfully. “No sense of adventure. Never see any of you in the clubs, do we? Call yourselves players?”
“You’re very sure of yourself, for a beginner,” observed Hansie.
“I’ve been well taught. Some of us are playing Premiership, you know, while you guys mess about in the amateur divisions. Chicken, the whole lot of you.”
“That’s quite enough from you, mister,” put in Fran. “Sorry, everybody, I don’t know what’s got into him, he doesn’t know whether he’s machismo man or masochismo man. Obviously I’ll have to be a great deal more severe.”
“Oh yes, darling, promise? Never mind Phil losing his nerve, I’ll play. Anything that bites, you know I like that.”
Fran rolled her eyes. “They cracked a big case yesterday, and he’s been like this all day. It’s incredibly exhausting.”
He tipped his glass at her. “And you love it, admit it.”
“I’m not as young as I was, Piet, I can’t lay it on the way I used to. You don’t want to know what I’ve tried. I’ve had things out of the box today I haven’t used in years, and look at him, coming back for more! Beginner? I don’t think he’s ever been a beginner. I need to spend more time in the gym, get you to make me up a programme to build up some muscle if I’m going to deal with him.”
We all laughed, and just then the oven timer pinged and we went to eat; Nick was a little hyper, but from the sound of it, he always goes a bit that way when a case breaks open. A bit like Phil after a good match, all adrenaline and overexcitement. Nick was, at this stage at least, in very good form.
Only. . . Only after that, the conversation went a bit clunky. To be precise, Hansie, who had started off very genial and cheerful, was suddenly out of sorts, and being Hansie, he was going to spread that about, and the unfortunate recipient of his bad temper was Nick. Well, I suspect that when he’s in any way uncomfortable with the Family, it will always be Nick who bears the brunt of it. Everything Nick said he contradicted, in a rather bored ‘how can you be so stupid’ tone which made my palm itch. Once or twice Fran shot him a look, but she kept up her end of the conversation manfully, only it was a struggle; Nick tried too, but after he had been snubbed for the third time, all the buzz went out of him and he did that thing where he becomes invisible. I’ve seen him do it before, and I’m damned if I know what he does, but I bet it’s an incredibly useful skill for a policeman. He just sits there looking pleasant, and presently you forget he’s there, so that when he does speak or move, it makes you jump. I’ve seen him do it several times with Hansie – just fade into the background. Piet came to the rescue, cheerfully started another thread of conversation, and Phil shot a look of his own at Hansie and followed where Piet led.
We managed half an hour, with the conversation becoming more and more stilted, and my temper beginning to get away from me. I would have kicked Hansie if I hadn’t been on the other side of the table, and if I had known what he was going to do, I would have crossed the room and done it deliberately. By the time we had taken our coffee back into the living room, the conversation had turned again, I can’t remember how, to ‘things we’ve never done’. Who’s been ski-ing or parascending and who never felt any urge to try. Fran had done a charity bungee-jump once, and told us about it: she said she didn’t know how she had mustered the nerve to go off the platform, but that she would be prepared to pay good money never to have to do it again.
“Still, I suppose it was good for me. Everybody should try something new once in a while, don’t you think?”
And Hansie’s head came up, and he said, with just a little bit too much edge, “Oh, ja, I agree with you totally. In fact, I think I can help there, with Nick being so anxious to strike out in new directions. I did not think of it before, but. . . Excuse me for just a moment.”
And he got up and went out, and Piet lifted an eyebrow in my direction, but I shook my head. I had no idea what was wrong with him, none at all. Phil, who could obviously feel the tension and who seemed to have, for once, no better idea than the rest of us as to what was wrong, said something anodyne, and then I heard Hansie’s step in the hall again.
You know, I think I’m going to dream about it. It’s going to become one of those nightmares in which you know what’s going to happen and the scene plays out in slow motion but you can’t do anything to change it. He came in with something in his hand, and for a moment I couldn’t see what and then suddenly it resolved itself to that flaming flogger, and my brains skidded with horror at what he might be about to say or do. What he actually did was flick it at Nick, who caught it automatically, turned it over in his hands, and looked up at Hansie, with his expression metamorphosing from amused interest to offence, as Hansie said, again with that bitter edge, “Tim and I tried this but we didn’t like it. Maybe you’ll get on with it better, being so much more adventurous than the rest of us inferior beings, ja nee? I don’t suppose people like you find it easy to think down to our level.”
I think there was a fraction of a second in which Nick came close to standing up and smacking Hansie in the mouth – it was that ‘people like you’ – and I wasn’t the only one to see it. Phil had a hand out and was halfway from his seat; Fran said “Dominic!” sharply, and I could actually see Nick take control of himself, bridle his temper. Piet’s mouth had gone thin and there was a spot of colour on each sharp cheekbone, which is a sure sign with him that he’s displeased with somebody, but he was the one who made some move to pass things off, leaning over and taking the offending item from Nick, and shaking it so that the loops fell across his wrist.
“Ah. I have heard of these but I have never seen one.”
Ri-ight. We’re going for the ‘normal course of conversation’ line, at least until everybody goes away and I can kill van den Broek and bury the body under the patio. Fran took a breath and I saw from the corner of my eye that her shoulders squared. The Alpha Tops were going to control this situation.
“Loopy Johnny? They had a period of popularity in the clubs, yes. I believe they were designed for anywhere that discretion was needed – they’re almost silent in use, so they’re good in hotels or flats or whatever. Unfortunately the design flaw appears to be that the implement is silent but the recipient can be heard over three counties.”
I was desperate to say something, anything, which would align me with the side of virtue, and make sure that Piet didn’t think – no, that Fran didn’t think that I approved of what Hansie had done. Nothing came to mind at all. “More coffee, anybody?” I said weakly.
“Yes, please, Tim, I’ll have some more,” said Fran, firmly, passing me a cup still more than half full; I topped it up without comment, and leaned forward to put a splash into Nick’s cup too, hoping to catch his eye and. . . I don’t know. I like Nick, I like him a lot, and Hansie – I thought we were through this nonsense about Hansie not liking Nick! I thought he’d got Nick placed as his big brother as well as just as Fran’s consort. I was going to bloody kill him! Oh, he wasn’t entirely wrong. Nick didn’t utter another peep all the time he was there, but he couldn’t take his eye off the. . . what had Fran called it? A Loopy Johnny? He fancied the idea all right, I could see that. Anybody could see that. Well, he was welcome to the thing, and to tell the truth, from what we knew about Fran and could deduce about Nick, they had a better chance of getting some good of it than anybody else. But oh, please, let this evening be nearly over so that I could kill Hansie? It wasn’t just that Hansie was sulking and Nick basically wasn’t there at all, but now Phil had gone all silent and remote as well, and bugger knew what was wrong with him. Not one of my more successful dinner parties.
Looked like I wasn’t the only one who thought so. Fran finished her coffee fairly briskly and started making ‘time to go’ noises, much earlier than they normally would, and Nick didn’t try to stretch it out, just rose to his feet and thanked me formally, cutting Hansie dead.
“Don’t forget your toy,” said Hansie, spitefully, and this time I did kick him, smartly on the ankle. He winced, and winced again as Nick, with an expression of some disdain and with enormous dignity (this was Inspector Maitland with however many years’ seniority, not Nick the Bottom) lifted the thing without a word. Hansie did care, then. He did care that Nick was offended.
And so did I. I showed them out, closed the door firmly and gathered myself for the row, for there was going to be a row and it was going to happen at once, when I still had the backup of Phil who might conceivably be able to tell me what was going on in Hansie’s head, and Piet who would stop me doing anything dreadfully wrong in dealing with it. They were sitting in silence when I went back in.
“Well, Hansie, perhaps you would like to explain what the hell that was about?”
I will say for Hansie that he very rarely does the ‘I don’t know what you mean’ thing. He didn’t pretend not to know why I was hacked off.
“He’s a patronising git.”
“Nick?” I asked, baffled.
“Yes. Getting at Phil that way. How dare he?”
Phil blinked a little in surprise. “Hansie, he was only teasing. Why shouldn’t he? I walked right into that one, and he wasn’t nasty with it. I don’t mind so why should you?” There was an undercurrent of “How is it your business?” with which I fully agreed. Hansie teases Phil that way all the time.
“Ach, you are too good natured. I did not like what he was implying or the way he said it. He was getting at us.”
“And we did not do the same when you set him up with a Brat pack to take to Scotland? He knows about us, Hansie, and we know about him. That cannot be escaped now. We have admitted him to our confidence and he in turn has admitted us to his, and you cannot therefore demand a different standard from him than from us.” That was Piet, still with iceberg cheekbones and the Look about him.
“Well, but saying that we were doing it all wrong! He was insulting.”
“He was teasing us!” I burst out, exasperated. “For God’s sake, Hansie, can’t you take a joke? He said nothing worse than you would have taken from one of your rugby friends – all right, maybe he had access to subjects they wouldn’t, but you’d have taken comments in the same style from Greg or Patrick or even Jim, and flipped them a rude gesture and thought nothing of it.”
“But Nick does not do that, Timmy, do you not see? Ja, maybe I wouldn’t have bothered from Greg, but Greg has been a rugby player all his life, he behaves like that with everybody. Greg does not throw insults at people he dislikes, he does it to his friends, it is just the way he is. He is used to a macho culture: maybe not very admirable but understandable, hey?”
Phil stirred. “And you think Nick isn’t? Hansie, where have you been for the last five years? Do you not read the newspapers? Have you not seen the articles about the way the police are trying to stamp out canteen culture? How many regional forces have women as Chief Constable? One? Two? Come on, you watch the news – you know the police are trying to get more women, more ethnic minorities, more anything other than WASP men. I don’t think you could tell Nick anything about a macho culture. I suspect that inside a police station, it’s pretty much the same as the inside of my dressing room. The team, the squad is everything but we’ll never say so. We’ll defend each other to. . . I was going to say, to the death, and in the case of the police that might be literally true, but we won’t admit to so much as liking each other. Fran told you what was wrong with Nick, if anything’s wrong at all – he’s had a high-scoring win, and at a guess he’s man of the match, and he’ll celebrate with the boys the same way I do, the same way you do. What did he say that was so dreadful? He said that we’re lifestylers and he’s a player. Well, don’t know about you, but I already knew that. You tease him enough about Fran not letting him get away with things, and you know quite well that’s not what they do – and he knows you know. It’s a joke. So what’s this? You can give it out but you can’t take it?”
Hansie flinched a bit at that one: too many memories of the same argument between him and me over me saying that Phil was dim, I expect.
“Phil is quite right, Hansie,” confirmed Piet. “Nick was teasing only, and he was teasing us in precisely the same way that any one of us has in the past teased him. He did not at all understand why you were so touchy about it, and nor do I.”
Hansie made a face like a schoolboy trying to come up with a good explanation for Sir. “I thought. . . it felt to me like he was getting at Phil.”
“And what?” asked Phil. “I can’t defend myself? Or you’re going to be all possessive and territorial and nobody’s allowed to tease me except you? You didn’t get a snit on with Fran and she started it. Or. . . no, I see. I get it. It’s the big brother thing, isn’t it? It’s not me you want to claim; it’s him. He’s your big brother, not mine; he plays with you, not with me. And then he suggested that he was playing grown up games and you couldn’t. Hansie, you’re such a twit sometimes.”
And that one remark just did it: reduced Hansie to some recognition that he didn’t have cause to be massively offended, and that he was being silly and immature. I don’t think he would have taken that even from Piet, you know. From Piet, he’ll accept that he’s been behaving wrongly; from me, that he’s done something hurtful; only his baby brother who loves him will be allowed to tell him that he’s an idiot. Well, and Fran: I’ve heard Fran do it.
Hansie blushed: he goes such an ugly colour when he blushes. A man with hair that colour ought not to be allowed to blush. “Ja,” he said in a small voice. “There is nothing new there, hey?”
“It’s going to take some putting right,” observed Phil, dispassionately. “Nick was very full of himself, and from what Fran said he’d had a big hit at work; you’ve taken the gilt off his gingerbread. That’ll have hurt. And I don’t think Fran was terrifically impressed herself.”
Hansie looked at the floor and began to pick at the skin round his thumbnail; I put my hand over his. I’ve seen him make his thumb bleed when he’s stressed. “I must apologise to them both, I know. Do you think they will be home yet?”
I looked at my watch. “Should be. Are you going to ring up?”
“Ja, but I think I must also go round tomorrow. Fran will forgive me, but she will want to tell me to my face that I have no brains.”
Piet nodded. “And if Nick wishes the same, you will need to swallow your pride and allow him, Hansie, yes?”
Hansie’s gaze flickered up and down again, and he didn’t answer. Phil leaned forward. “What? Come on, what’s bugging you with that? You’ll apologise to Fran but not to Nick? She won’t let you away with that, you know.”
“He will. . . Do you think he will accept it?”
We all stared a bit, and I glanced round at Phil and Piet to see if they were making more of this than I was. “Why would he not? I mean, he’s not unreasonable, why would he refuse to accept an apology?”
Hansie looked blankly at me: his view was plainly ‘why would he accept it?’
Piet sat up. “Hansie, I think this is important. Tim is right. Why do you think Nick will not accept your apology? Come, explain to us.”
Hansie struggled. “I just cannot see. . . ja, Fran will. She will tell me off, but she is my sister. We will make it up. But what is there for Nick in it? Why would he?”
I could see us going round and round this one more or less indefinitely: me saying ‘why would he not?’ and Hansie saying ‘why would he?’ There was a complete gulf of incomprehension here. I looked imploringly at Phil for help.
“Because he’s one of the Family,” said Phil, firmly. “Well, isn’t he? Either in his own right or as Fran’s other half. So it’s got to be a huge quarrel before he can cut you off, more than just you losing track of your manners once. Even if he doesn’t count as Family, he’s your friend, isn’t he?”
“He was,” said Hansie in a subdued voice. “I don’t know about now. He may not want. . .”
Phil made a rude noise. “Come on, it takes more than that. I hit you and you came back for more. Don’t you remember what I said to Tim when Piet was missing? I was a damn sight ruder and nastier than you were tonight, and I apologised to Tim and we got over it. I’m telling you, he’s your friend. He may want to make you crawl a bit, but he’s one of the good guys, you’ll be O.K.”
Hansie wasn’t convinced. “It is not at all the same thing,” he objected. “Between you and Tim, or you and me, there is. . . our relationship is different. Because we. . . we are. . .”
Phil made an even ruder noise. “You aren’t good about friends, are you? Nick doesn’t have to be a fuck-buddy” (I saw Piet wince: he hates that sort of term) “to be your friend. To be a close friend. Yes, he’s gone home in a huff, and you certainly gave him cause, but he’ll come back. Go on, pick up the phone. Don’t let the sun go down on. . . well, it’ll be on his anger, I suppose. Do it now.”
But nobody picked up at the other end, just the recorded message telling us that if we left our name and number. . . “Ach, this is Hansie. I wanted. . . I wanted to apologise. I was rude, and. . . look, I will call you tomorrow, hey? I’m sorry.”
Piet rose to his feet and patted Hansie’s shoulder. “That is well done, and tomorrow you will put all right again. Phil is right, Hansie. Nick’s intimacy is not the same as ours, but he feels it nonetheless. Tonight he probably does not want to speak with you: he may not be answering the phone; by tomorrow he will be cooler and he will be prepared to be reasonable. You will allow him to be angry with you and to say so, and he will get over it and be your friend again. And now, I shall take Phil home, for it grows late.”
Actually, it didn’t particularly, but Phil didn’t argue. He wasn’t right either – there was something bothering him too, but he’s so open that if he’d wanted to talk to us about it, he would have done. If he hadn’t, he didn’t. I didn’t try to make them stay. They both had a hug for Hansie, and Phil murmured something encouraging to him, and Piet hugged me hard and brought his mouth close to my ear.
“Timmy, do not permit Hansie to change his mind about calling Nick tomorrow. He may try to talk himself out of it, to convince himself that Nick will be so offended that it is past recovery.” We turned away from the other two and started slowly for the door. I nodded. “Phil’s right, isn’t he, Piet? Hansie hasn’t had close friends, I think. He hasn’t dared open up that much to people, so he doesn’t understand how a plain non-physical friendship works on any sort of profound basis. He has lots of casual acquaintances, people from the rugby club and work and so on, but he didn’t keep up with, oh, I don’t know, the people who go back years with you. The school friends, and college friends, the ones you never lose touch with.”
Piet nodded. “And his experience of family is that family leaves you, like Julius, or makes you leave them, like his parents. All we can do is keep telling him that it is not so.” He shot me a sharp look. “He is feeling very guilty now, I think.”
I thought about it. “I think we can leave it until after he’s spoken to them tomorrow. Then with a bit of luck we can say that everything’s sorted, and sort Hansie too, and move on.” There was the faintest question in my tone; I was sure in my own mind that it was the right thing to do, but I wasn’t above having Piet’s approval. He smiled at me and nodded, and I relaxed, and handed him his coat, and turned to open the door. It would sort itself out in the morning, no doubt.
It didn’t take us long to get home. To tell the truth, I had half thought that we might stay over, but I think Piet had had his suspicions early on, because he had accepted one drink before dinner, and then although Hansie had poured a glass of wine for him, he hadn’t drunk it. He took my keys from me at the door – we always take my car because I get my petrol paid – and we set off in the dark; we must have been half way home before he spoke.
“And what is wrong with you?”
It made me jump. “Nothing. I’m fine.”
“Yes? You were certainly dealing very well with Hansie, but on your own account you had nothing to say. Come, Phil, what is it?”
Bloody hellfire, will I never be able to hide anything from him? “There’s nothing wrong. I just found that a bit. . . I don’t know. Disconcerting? Worrying?”
“That is a lie,” observed Piet dispassionately. “Oh, disconcerting, yes, perhaps even embarrassing, upsetting inasmuch as we do not like to see our friends quarrel. But you were quite sure that Nick and Hansie would make up their fight; you were not in the least worried about it. There was something else.”
“No, I don’t think so.” I would have made a lousy spy. I can’t even hold my tongue when I’m not full of truth drugs: I can’t resist the silence. Three minutes, maybe? Four?
“Phil? Tell me what is wrong.”
“I can’t do what you want.” Muttered to my hands which were clasped in my lap.
“What I want? What do I want? I have not asked you for anything, have I?”
“I saw the way you looked at that. . . that thing of Hansie's.”
The tyres squealed as he swung the wheel and put the car into a field gateway, yanking on the handbrake. “Do we have to go round this again, Phil? I thought you understood me last time. I-do-not-need, I do not want you to feel obliged to offer me more than you are comfortable doing. You do not wish to play with such things; I do not wish for an unwilling partner.”
I was right in it, sinking. “But I saw the way you looked at it. You were. . . interested.”
“Interested, yes, I will admit to that. I told you, I had never seen one. It is known to be very severe, Phil. I do not think I would ever want to use one.”
“But you want to use other things.”
“You are putting words in my mouth, koekie. I do not need to – ”
“No, not need to, but you want to. You do, Piet. You do. You know you do, and I can’t do it.”
He shrugged. I could see the shift in his outline, although it was too dark to see his expression. “You have done it. Before Christmas, when I chased you through Tim and Hansie's orchard with that riding crop, you did do it. I caught you in the garage, as I recall.”
I had forgotten that, but he was quite right. He had caught me in the garage and Tim in the shed, and then we had ganged up to bring Hansie down on the cellar steps. “That was different!”
“No, it was not. That was play and you were not afraid of me, and you were not afraid of the crop. You are afraid of the other things and I will take no frightened partner to my bed.” There was a harshness in his tone; we all have some baggage, it’s not just Hansie, and Piet’s is the knowledge that he frightened Hansie sufficiently by making a pass at him, that Hansie bolted. Mine, perhaps, is an excess of rugby machismo; I won’t be told that I’m afraid, even when I am.
“I’m not afraid,” I said as steadily as I could. “You said I could go as far as I wanted and I’m telling you, I want to go further.” Don’t, don’t, don’t. Liar, Phil Cartwright, you are afraid. I don’t believe I’ve ever got a lie past Piet. Well, except the one about my knee and the steppers, and I’m not absolutely certain of that one. He started the engine again, and spoke over the thrum.
“Phil, we both know this is not what you want. It has never been what you want. I do not ask it of you.” He put the car in gear, but I was fighting to get my seatbelt off and to throw the door open. “You just don’t think I can! You don’t trust me to be able to do it!” I was being at least as childish and petty as Hansie had been and with less cause, and a small dispassionate part of my mind knew it. I stamped up the muddy verge – well, as convincingly as one can stamp in mud – with no very good idea of what I was going to do next. It wouldn’t take me that long to walk home from here if Piet left me to my temper, but it was damn cold and beginning to rain.
I didn’t hear him come up behind me; the first intimation I had of his presence was his grip on the back of my neck, and the tug on my wrist which spun me on the wet grass and sent me off-balance back towards the car. The engine was still running and the vibration buzzed against my thighs as slowly I submitted to the pressure on my nape, and leaned over the side of the bonnet, my backside anticipating the slap. It didn’t come. Instead I felt Piet’s thighs against the back of my own, his chest against my back, his breath hot on my neck.
“You want to play rough, Mr Cartwright? Very well. We will play rough. But we will play by my rules, not yours, do you understand? You want to go further? I will take you all the way. I decide. Me. Am I frightening you?”
He had asked me that once before, about a hundred years ago, and he had been. He was again.
“Will you submit to me?”
“What will you make me do?” My voice quivered.
“Whatever I please. I do not have to discuss it with you. I merely decide what will please me, and you do it.”
Whoa, slow down! This isn’t quite what I had in mind! I was thinking. . . “I was thinking of. . . just something a little. . .”
“No. You were thinking that I might start you with baby steps, were you not? A slipper, maybe, or your own wooden spoon. And then in a month, or three months, or six months, we would have this argument again. I am tired of it, Phil. I will not be accused again and again, particularly when I cannot prove a negative to you. You say that I need to do this and you cannot, and I tell you that neither of those things is true. Tonight, you let this drop for good, or you give yourself over to me and I will teach you all you need to know.”
“I. . . I just. . .”
“Do you trust me?”
“Of course!” but it sounded less than convincing.
“You can stop me, if you will. You know how?”
“JPR. Johnson.” Safe words.
“And do you trust me with them? Have I ever failed to stop when you used them?”
“You know quite well I’ve never used either.”
There was a questioning quality to the silence in the dark, one which I recognised from training. Piet leads us half way and wants us to work out the rest for ourselves. I applied my head. “I can trust you. I’ve never needed my words.”
“But you have them, you know how to use them. If you need to, you will use them. Is that clear?”
I nodded, uncertainly. The pressure on my legs and back eased and the hateful, beloved voice said , “I said, is that clear?” And there was the slap, a stinging blow low on my bottom. I squeaked.
“Better. Stand up.”
I straightened, nervously, turning to him in response to pressure on my waist. He leaned me back against the car, still humming quietly to itself, and took a kiss. I didn’t give it, he took it, harshly, with one hand entangled in my hair and my head pulled back. His thigh rubbed between mine and the spare hand ran up inside my fleece, slid over my chest and pinched my nipple, hard. I jumped.
“Turn. Face the car.” I felt his hands on my waist again, on my belt buckle and then the chill as he unfastened my cords and yanked them down my thighs. I squeaked again, swallowed my objections – think, Phil, there’s about one car an hour on this road in daylight, none after dark except us, it doesn’t lead anywhere useful except past our back lane, there won’t be any traffic, for God’s sake, only I’m half naked on a public road, what happened to discretion, Piet? – and bent back over the bonnet under his guiding hand, staying where I was put.
“Shall I have you like this? Or just spank you?”
O.K., calm intellect would have said that no matter how toppish Piet was feeling, no matter what assessment he had made of the risk of being caught, he wasn’t actually going to fuck me over the bonnet of a car in public. There are scandals and Scandals, and that would be a News Of the World special edition. But believe me, even the threat (promise?) is scary, in a thrilling sort of way. I got the spanking, a crisp, brisk, noisy, bottom-heating walloping which had me wriggling against the humming car, since the rain (which was now coming down steadily) and the cold made my backside hyper-sensitive. I don’t think it was deliberate that he had left the engine running; it certainly wasn’t ecologically desirable, but the buzz against my thighs while the burn built in my rear added to my need to wriggle.
“Get into the car.”
My hands were cold and wet; I couldn’t get my zip up for a moment. He was already putting the car in gear by the time I got in. He removed his hand from my thigh only to change gear all the way to the end of the lane; the lane itself twists too much to be driven safely with one hand. He stopped at the top of the hill. At the willows.
“Oh Piet, no! Please?”
“A switch, Phil. A good limber one.”
Hate the switch. Still, he hadn’t. . . I got out. Crossed the ditch to the pollarded willows. Broke off a switch and came back to the driver’s window to show him.
“Adequate. Get in.”
I was trembling. Hate the switch. But if I had understood anything, I had understood that my nerve might stand for only one chance at this, that my only choice was yes or no, not ‘maybe’, not ‘some of it’. I didn’t yet have cause to use my word. Not yet. I was scared, stomach churning scared. I was also ferociously turned on, still smarting, and I could still feel the effect of Piet’s mouth on mine, still feel his grip on my hair.
“Go inside; hang up your coat. Go to the kitchen and turn on the central heating. Then go up to the back bedroom and draw the curtains. Not our room, the back bedroom. Go.”
Mistake. I’m a quick learner; I got that one simply from the turn of his head, without him saying anything. “Sorry. Because you said so.” He dipped his head in acknowledgement, and I opened the car door. I heard him putting the car under cover as I struggled to get the key into the door. Central heating, well, the house was chilly; we had been out all evening and the boiler had turned itself off. But why the back bedroom?
Because he said so. I went, placed the switch on the end of the bed and waited. I heard him come in and smiled a little. Even in the middle of a . . . of whatever this was, Piet came in through his own front door and then through the connecting door to our house. I was standing in the bedroom doorway when he came up – and he ignored me completely, striding past me to our bedroom and emerging a moment later. This time he did look at me, and I backed into the room. He Looked at me. The way he Looks when we’ve screwed up a set piece on the pitch: it makes my stomach churn every time.
Something between a whisper and a growl, and it was either utterly terrifying or the most erotic thing I had ever heard. Definitely one of those two. My legs jolted into action before my brain had made a decision; his hand went into my hair again, and he took another bruising, breath-taking kiss, biting my lip and winding the other arm round my waist to pull me close. I felt that hand begin to work my shirt free of my waistband, and then slide inside and I jumped: his hands were no warmer than mine and when his fingers eased up my chest, my nipples hardened as much from the temperature as the touch. He pinched them each in turn and I jumped again.
The shirt was peeled over my head and tossed into a corner, and his hands swept over my torso again. It wasn’t exactly a caress; it felt more primitive, more like. . . well, like the Alpha laying claim to me. He stepped back and lifted his own shirt, working it off. He likes the older style rugby shirts, the loose ones; I wish he would wear the modern close-fitting ones, but he won’t. Wasteful: the body under that cloth was quite good enough for show, and I got an eyeful before his hand came to the back of my neck again. I sagged a little against him, expecting to be kissed again, but that wasn’t what he wanted.
“Bite me. Here.” He was indicating a spot just below his collar bone.
I thought of saying “What?” but his expression made my think better of it, and instead I obediently lowered my head to his chest, and nipped the skin where he indicated.
“No. Harder. Make a mark.”
I nipped again, with a little more force. He spun me away from him and landed a thunderous slap on my behind.
“Properly! Bite, Phil, not nibble. Make a mark.”
I didn’t at all understand what he wanted, but I set my teeth hard in his flesh, sucking like a teenager having his first experience of naked skin and not lifting my head until I felt him wince. He looked down at the darkening bruise.
“Better. Do you know what that is?”
I know what it’s going to be, surely – it’s going to be a love bite, a hickey, and if you show it off at the club over the next few days I’m going to hear all about it and then some more from Rob and Ryan – because they don’t tease you, Piet, they don’t dare, but I get your share as well as my own. He knew that I knew what it was, but I had no idea what it was. I shook my head.
“That is your mark. Phil Cartwright was here: I permit no one else to do that. I have never permitted it. But you have set your mark on me and I belong to you. Now I will set my mark on you.” And while I was still assimilating that, his hands went to my waistband and he began to unbuckle my belt I looked down as he pulled, felt the flick-flick-flick of the leather freeing itself from my belt loops. I had to fight down a shudder: the memory of Hansie's strap was still vivid enough in my mind that I felt no urge to repeat the experience –and yet. . . and yet. . . Piet dropped the belt on the bed and reached for me again. My breath shortened as his cold fingers skated over my skin; he raised a trail of gooseflesh everywhere he touched but I burned under his gaze. He stepped back a little and looked me up and down.
Just the one word and the room spun. I didn’t want to do this? Who was I kidding? He doesn’t even have to touch me, he just speaks and my brain shuts down all higher functions and devotes itself to processing lust. My shoes came off easily, but I struggled with the button on my waistband, suddenly clumsy with nerves. I was just beginning to panic when it popped loose, and I hastily twisted free of the entangling cloth, kicking the untidy pile to join my shirt in the corner. Then I turned my attention back to Piet.
He was as expressionless as ever as he walked round me, inspecting me from hairline to heels. I blushed. I defy anybody not to blush under that sort of attention, no matter who it’s from, and we all know that Piet’s pale gaze has disconcerted better men than me. He stepped close behind me, his chest pressed to my back, his hands roaming unhindered over my chest. “Beautiful,” he growled in my ear, and I leaned back against him, shifting my weight, hoping to encourage his hands lower. We needn’t bother with the belt or the switch, need we? We could just go straight to the hot sex? His hand slid between us, smoothing over my arse.
“And still pink and warm too,” whispered the amused voice, interspersing the words with kisses. He nipped my shoulder and then ran his tongue over the small hurt, soothing it. Again, higher. Again at the nape of my neck, and my head lolled forward to permit it. Again, in the hollow below my ear and I quivered; when he trapped my earlobe between his teeth I was lost. I whimpered when he stopped and nearly cried out when he stepped away from me.
“Close the door. Put your hands on it. Lower. Back away.”
I did as I was told, and Piet’s hands settled on my hips as he arranged me to his satisfaction, suddenly vulnerable, half bent and nervous again. Nervous, and hot, and hard to the point of discomfort.
“Look straight ahead. Do not turn round; keep your arms braced or you will bump your head.”
And with that his hand cracked hard against my backside. It stung, of course, but it felt odd too. Nothing new about a spanking, of course, but rare for me to get one where Piet isn’t holding me. Punishment or play, a spanking is delivered to me across his knee, his hand on my back or round my ribs, or occasionally under my body and teasing me. A serious punishment, with me standing, means the cane, and for that I may be bared but I’m never totally naked. Piet makes it quite plain what’s punishment and what’s play. It felt peculiar to be both bare and standing but any unfamiliarity was soon driven out by the increasing warmth. Oh, he wasn’t severe, not even allowing for the spanking I’d already had; he was making me fidget, but nothing worse, and I could feel his amusement and enjoyment. He loves it when I squirm, and I’ll admit to putting it on for him a little sometimes. No, that wasn’t wholly unpleasant – who am I trying to kid? I was enjoying that, and I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t still been uneasy about what was still to come. Nonetheless, I liked it and he wasn’t missing that fact.
“Stand up straight. Keep your hands on the door.” He had stopped, and I didn’t know what he was doing; I stood still, breathing a little fast, feeling the burn and smart in my tail, and then he ran a finger down my spine, making me arch to him like a cat. His hands splayed on my hips and smoothed round me.
I opened my eyes and looked down. Oh God, he had his gloves on. His gloves. What is it about his gloves? I don’t particularly go for leather, I don’t go for gloves on anybody else, but the minute those gloves touch my skin, I might as well roll on my back with my knees in the air, and Piet knows it, and feels no compunction at using it against me. I couldn’t tear my gaze away as his fingers wrapped round me and he began a slow friction which made my knees tremble. I couldn’t breathe, my legs ached with the effort of keeping even half upright, and I could feel the sweat break on my neck, slide down my spine, stick us together, his bare chest against my back. His other arm went round my waist and supported me, the right hand working steadily. My elbows buckled slowly and I keeled forward until my head rested on the door between my clenched fists. He stopped and I couldn’t hold back either the gasp or the keening complaint.
“Do you want more?”
“God, yes, please, please.”
I was thrusting helplessly into his hand but he wouldn’t help me; his fingers slackened.
“Then you must earn it. Stay there.”
Oh fuck, must I? If I opened my eyes I could actually see my own sweaty handprints on the glossy paintwork. I couldn’t bear much more of this. I could hear my own heartbeat, feel the throb of my pulse in my throat. God knows what was beating there, all the blood was lower.
He had pulled all the bedclothes into a soft roll at the foot of the bed.
“I will give you what you want, my hart, but you must earn it.” His hand on my back propelled me forward, until my hands braced over the cotton pile.
“You look so good like that, my Phil. Flushed and hot and shining.” The gloved hand teased over my proffered bottom, and I worked my feet further apart, hollowed my back, let my head drop forward. Oh God, yes, just there, do that some more, that spot is so sensitive, I love it when you do that.
When he knelt and kissed me, I screamed, a strangled yowl of pure sensation.
“What will you do for it?”
Don’t understand the question. Something cold touched my back, tickled smoothly down my spine, tapped my backside. I thought about what it was until he kissed me again, after which I didn’t think at all, having nothing to think with. Phil’s brain is not responding: press control-alt-delete to terminate this application. You may lose any unsaved data.
“What will you do?”
O.K., I had never realised; my intellectual capacity is directly linked to my arse and my I.Q. drops in proportion to the proximity of Piet’s tongue to oh dear heaven he’s doing it again. Come on, boy, THINK! What does he want? The cold whatever tickled again – it must be significant. The word ‘belt’ dredged itself up from somewhere and presented itself across the inside of my eyelids. I could read, even if I couldn’t think.
That was taken as permission, I think. He backed away, and a moment later I felt the snap of the doubled leather on my behind. It stung, but the observer who lives at the back of my head, the dispassionate one who had been making remarks about ‘childishness’ earlier, pointed out that it was nothing like as painful as when Hansie had used the strap. I’ve been spanked harder than that; it nipped, cracked, smarted – but it was nothing that would have caused me to want a safe word. Not even close. I pushed up to it, growing in confidence.
He dropped it on the bed again; I could see it from the corner of my eye. I had my reward, the gloved palm stroking my bottom, curving round my hip, sliding slowly the length of my prick. I could hear it, stickily damp; I was all but dripping.
More. I think I might have nodded; I know the bite of the switch dropped me onto my forearms, my wrists unable to take my weight any longer but my backside still lifted. It hurt; oh yes, it hurt, stung, the heat spreading, but not like before. I wasn’t afraid. This was nothing like a punishment. Five, six, seven, and I was growling in the back of my throat. Nine, ten. There were words but they made no sense to me. Eleven, twelve.
No more. My arse throbbed, my knees sagged. I collapsed onto the roll of bedcovers, my breath coming in short sobs. Piet leaned over me, kissing my back and neck, my shoulders and waist, praising me in a polyglot whisper, his hands still roving. One glove landed in front of my face, followed by the capless tube of lubricant, produced from God knows where. I heard his hasty removal of clothing, felt the chill smoothness of lube, and his gentle tease to test my readiness.
“Just fuckin’ do it!” And one slow thrust and another and another and I was coming like a teenager, spasm after helpless spasm, and Piet with no more control than me.
I don’t know how long afterwards it was that he coaxed me up the bed to lie in his arms. I don’t know how long after that it was before I could manage coherent speech. I know he was gripping me to his chest and whispering endearments into my hair.
“I am sorry, koekie, I will need at least an hour before I am fit to go again.”
“Funny man. Oh dear God, there’s training on Monday; I must be striped like a zebra.”
“Beloved, there will not be a mark on you by the morning. Well, nothing more than the stud marks you already had from the Castres match. You have this conviction that play with an implement must be severe, and see, it is not so. I have not hurt you badly, have I?”
I thought about it. My backside felt stiff, and when I reached cautiously to touch, I could feel the ridges where something had landed, but there was heat there without pain. “I thought you would have done it harder than that.”
“But this is what I am telling you. I have spanked you hard enough to make you cry, in the past, have I not? And you do not desire that, but you know you can manage to get through it. That is punishment. In play, it need not be severe. I could make you very unhappy with a hairbrush; I can use a switch to do no more than tease. I am well aware, koekie, that you would hold back your safe word past the point at which you ought to use it, that you would put yourself in danger sooner than use it. I will try never to push you to that point.”
I made a vague humming noise and shut my eyes again. Presently he nudged at me.
“Poppie? Do not go to sleep here. Come, we will have a shower and I will wash your back, and we will go to our own bed. Come, get up. We will leave this room untidy (although I think I should open the window and let the room air!) until tomorrow. Come.”
“What were we doing in here? Why here rather than our own room?”
“I wanted that if you found that you really did not like it, you were not left with unpleasant associations for your own bedroom. There was a risk, Phil. I was not absolutely certain that you would not dislike the whole business.”
“I could do that again.”
He smiled at me as he pulled me up from the crumpled bed.
“So could I, but not right now. Now I want a shower, and to sleep with my beloved Phil beside me, in my own bed. Come.”
“That’s going to be one big bruise on your chest. Have you really never let anybody else do that?”
He wrinkled his nose. “Not willingly, although it has on occasion been done. I do not care for such adolescent marks of ownership, but I am yours, Phil, and I thought you needed to be reminded of it before we began. You I will permit to do it. God knows I mark you often enough; I will wear your mark with pride.”
He’s getting romantic. Sentimental. My hawk. Unfortunately even Piet’s romancing doesn’t always go off without a hitch – we forgot to go downstairs and turn off the heating with the result that I woke at half four in a welter of perspiration – but when I detoured to the bathroom on my way back to bed, I could see that he had been right. There wouldn’t be a mark on me by breakfast time.
Bloody Hansie! Bloody man! What had all that been about? He’d come on like a maiden aunt, and then he’d produced that whatever it was, and. . . No. No, I understood about making allowances for Hansie, but there were allowances which just went beyond anything I could manage. ‘People like you’? ‘People like you’? He thought I wasn’t part of his damn Family? Fine. I wasn’t. If he didn’t want me, I wouldn’t trouble him with my presence. No, from now on if Fran wanted to see him she could go on her own. I wouldn’t try to talk her out of it, that was her own affair, but she needn’t think I was going too. I wasn’t going to his house, I sincerely hoped never to set eyes on him again and I wasn’t going anywhere I might meet him. Yes, I was, I was going to go and meet him and thrust his bloody teeth down his bloody neck. He wasn’t getting away with it that easily, I would throttle him, him and his snide comments, him and his clever remarks, him and his BDSM toys. . .
“Nick? Where are we going?”
Oh bloody hell, I’d missed the turn. I was heading for the by-pass, not going home with Fran, going home instead to a house I didn’t live in any more. I’d got us into the one way system and now we would have to go the whole way round the town centre.
“Slow down a bit, will you? And stop revving like that. The lights won’t change any faster for you burning out the clutch.”
I spared a glance sideways for Fran.
“I’m not going back, you know.” That was a bit brusque, but she didn’t seem to mind.
“I won’t ask you to. I’ll go round myself and Master van den Broek will have a piece of my mind, but there’s no need for you to concern yourself. I can’t imagine what was wrong with him, but it wasn’t your fault and you needn’t see him again until you’re ready.”
Which would be never. I never wanted to see him again and when I did see him. . . I bit down on the conflicting desires to cut him out of my life and to get up close and personal and make him understand exactly how pissed off I was, and relaxed a little. As long as Fran thought it wasn’t my fault. . . “But what did I do, Fran?”
“I haven’t got the least idea, but I intend to find out. Poor Tim, he made such a lovely meal and his whole evening was a disaster. It wasn’t just you and Hansie, did you notice? Phil went all quiet too. Something not right there either.”
“Oh hell. Did he mind what I said, then? I didn’t mean anything by it, you know.”
“I don’t think he did mind: he seemed to take it in good enough part, and for pity’s sake, he’s a rugby player, he’ll have heard worse. If he’s pissed off with anybody it ought to be me, and I didn’t think he was. No, something else was wrong. I wouldn’t worry about it; it’s Piet’s problem and he’ll sort it.”
The light was flashing on the answer-phone when we got in. Fran raised one eyebrow at me when she saw it – we have caller ID – and pressed the button.
“Ach, this is Hansie. I wanted. . . I wanted to apologise. I was rude, and. . . look, I will call you tomorrow, hey? I’m sorry.”
It was only when the machine clicked and buzzed that I realised that I had been holding my breath, and let it go in a rush.
“Are you going to call him back?”
Fran shook her head. “No. I need to calm down a bit before I talk to him, and so do you. No,” that came quickly as she saw my expression, “before I talk to him. I see no reason why you should until you want to. Come on, Nick, I don’t want to talk about it any more tonight. Lock up and let’s go to bed.”
I nodded and reached into my pocket for my keys. Bed. Not that I expected to sleep well, I never do when I’m stressed, and I felt slightly sick too. I’ve got a delicate stomach, always have had. I’m. . . not as careful as I should be about it; if I were really careful I wouldn’t drink coffee and I wouldn’t eat curries and suchlike. But I always know when I need to start thinking about my stomach, and I do tend to take notice. I’ve no desire to end up on a desk job because I’ve got an ulcer. I’ve learned the hard way how to take myself off to bed without lying awake worrying about the day gone or the day coming – I can almost force sleep. It relieves me physically, but I tend to wake up still tired and feeling stale, and. . . well, I suffer from nightmares. Not really bad ones, not monsters or serial killers or anything, but anxiety dreams. You know the sort of thing: dreams where you find yourself in a public place with no trousers, or where you’re trying to find paperwork in a filing system you don’t understand. That night I spent trotting from one interview room to another in a police station laid out like the Hampton Court Maze because somebody had arrested Hansie and I couldn’t find him, and it was important that I should.
Fran works Sundays quite often; she does family portrait work and of course the times when all the members of a family are free are at weekends. She was doing a family album for a Golden Wedding, starting at ten o’clock, so she went off at nine, leaving me in the bath with my coffee and my book. The phone rang at a quarter past. I did nothing about it – why should I? We have an answer-phone. It rang again at half past and again at a quarter to ten. When I went downstairs, I went to look, and all of them had been Hansie. Well, or Tim, perhaps: whichever one of them it was hadn’t left a message. I didn’t call back, but nor was I hugely surprised to hear the doorbell. Hansie was on the doorstep, clutching a bunch of flowers and with a look of mixed panic and determination.
I think he must have been hoping it wouldn’t be me who answered the door.
“Good morning,” I said, fairly frostily. “I’m afraid Fran is working this morning. She’ll be back at lunchtime. Would you like to leave a message for her?” I know, not kind, but I wasn’t feeling kind.
“Ja, I mean no, I mean. . . I brought these.” I accepted the flowers without comment, and as far as possible without any change of expression. Damned if I was going to help him; he had dug himself into this pit and he could damn well climb out of it without my help. I saw him take a breath, and he went on with a slightly glassy look, “I have come to apologise to you both. Last night was. . . I was out of order, I know it.”
I suddenly realised that Mr Arkwright from next door was hovering on the footpath with that nasty yappy little dog, listening (he has got to be the nosiest man in existence) so that however disinclined I felt to let Hansie in, it would probably be the lesser evil. I stepped back, gestured Hansie to come in, and instantly realised my mistake. He’s a big man, not as big as Phil or the Viper but a lot bigger than me. When he was outside on the path we were eye to eye; once he came up the step into the hall, he was bigger than me. Well, I knew how to deal with that; I know all the physical tricks to take command of a situation, all the body language things. I’ve learned them, had to, because I’m not big, I’m not imposing – but at work, I am in charge.
“Have a seat.”
And that got him lower than me again, because I wasn’t going to sit down. I leaned against the closed door and looked down at Hansie and said nothing. I was not going to help him.
“Ach, Nick, I really am sorry. I cannot offer any excuse, I cannot give you any explanation; there was no justification for the way I was behaving last night. I was unbelievably rude and I apologise.”
Yes, well, that was difficult. I didn’t – all right, my turn to behave badly. I didn’t want to forgive him; he had hurt me and he had hurt Fran, and I still didn’t know why, but an apology so simple is very disarming. He looked up at me, and plainly didn’t like what he saw, because his glance dropped again to his own hands, and I could see him begin to worry at a piece of loose skin by his thumbnail. I couldn’t think of anything to say, other than a pathetic ‘but what did I do?’ which I was damned if I was going to say out loud, so I said nothing, and presently he went on.
“It is. . . you are important to me, you and Fran both; Phil says I am not good at this, I do not do well with my friends, and he is right. I do not mean to screw things up so badly, but. . .” There was a tiny drop of blood forming beside his thumbnail, and he looked up at me. Obviously he still didn’t like what he saw, because his shoulders went down again, and he said to the carpet, “Ja wel, I will go; you will tell Fran I came?” And he looked so defeated, and suddenly I didn’t like myself very much. Suddenly I was somebody else who wouldn’t give Hansie the benefit of the doubt, somebody else who had thrown him out. He had told me enough that I could guess how little that that would surprise him and how much it would hurt him. I still thought he had behaved like an oaf the night before, but he had come to try and put it right – and he had faced me himself, without Fran as an intermediary. Only I couldn’t think of any words to say: All right, we’ll let it go – except those ones, so when he got up, I said that, rather hoarsely.
“All right, we’ll let it go.” He looked at me, disbelievingly, I thought, and I held out my hand to show I meant it; he took it, and I had one of those moments when the brain works unbelievably fast, when synapses fire and connections are made, when I thought: what does Hansie want from me? How can I connect with him? And I do know, I’ve seen it; do I need to say it again? I’m a detective; I see patterns. I read people. The people close to Hansie, the people to whom he doesn’t do what he did to me, are the people who touch him. Maybe, I don’t know but it seems likely, maybe he went short of the simple signs of affection as a child? Only – well, I don’t think I’m particularly prejudiced, but I’m not particularly a toucher either, not by nature. And for God’s sake, are there rules? You know, like at the family gatherings, where you know you have to kiss Great Aunt Mabel but not Cousin Harry’s wife? Are there rules of engagement between a straight man and a gay one? I haven’t had gay friends before – only Inspector Gillan, and you wouldn’t say we were friends. Friendly, not friends. All this at such speed that Hansie hadn’t even dropped my hand before I made my decision and pulled him into a hug.
I startled him, I think. I startled myself, but I had been right; he gripped me desperately tightly and his forehead went down onto my shoulder, and I felt a huge shiver run right through him; the moment I shifted he drew back, obviously so as not to hold me longer than I was willing to be held. We didn’t look at each other either: I looked at the centre of his chest and asked unevenly, “Do you want a beer?”, and he fixed his gaze over my shoulder, and said, “Thank you, that would be nice.”
“Come into the kitchen then, we might even have
some of that horrible fizzy lager you drink.” My eye fell on the bunch of flowers
he had brought for Fran, and I lifted them, having some vague notion of standing
them in the sink, and said, still shakily, “And you needn't think you'll get round
me again with nothing more than freesia and baby's breath. I want roses at least next
”No, but it is worse than you think, hey? The florist was shut, I had to get them from the vulstasie, from the petrol station.”
“Not the all night filling station?”
“Ja, I am afraid so. Does anybody ever buy flowers there for any reason except to make up a quarrel?” Rather heavily light conversation designed to recover ourselves.
“Forgotten wedding anniversaries,” I agreed, offering him a choice of bottles and opening a drawer to find a bottle opener. There’s one on the end of the tin opener, and I flipped my own bottle top to the bin and passed the opener to Hansie without thinking – and he looked down at what it was, and then up at me, and said, “Here God, Nick, did you see Phil’s face?”
My God, but that man’s a giggler, and once he’s started there’s no stopping him – and it’s horribly infectious. Still, by the time we were either of us fit to drink our beer, we were able to look each other in the face again, and by the time we were half way down the bottles I was able to say, “Do you want your toy back?”
He gagged on a mouthful and coughed hard. “Nee. Nee. Under no circumstances. I was telling the truth, ja nee? That thing is beyond Tim and me. You may keep it or not as you like. Try it, but I warn you, it is very horrible. If you like it, keep it; if you do not, throw it in the bin. I never want to see it again. I am all in favour of trying something new, but not that thing.”
Hmmm. “In that drawer behind you there’s a pair of scissors, Hansie.”
It was nearly lunchtime when I came home, to find Nick stretched out on the sofa with a beer in his hand, looking like a cartoon unreconstructed husband. There was a strong smell of freesias in the hall.
“Has he indeed? And what did have to say for himself?”
“’Sorry’, mostly. He said it several times. We had a beer. He brought you some flowers; they’re in the kitchen.”
“Right. And you and he are sorted?”
“Think so. I asked him what all that was about, but I didn’t get any sort of sensible answer. Something to do with me teasing Phil, but Phil didn’t care. I can’t say I made much of it, to tell the truth. How did your session go?”
Well now, was this male bonding? Looked suspiciously like it; would it be better to follow it up and take a full part, or to let it go and accept that whatever the crisis had been, it seemed to be over?
“Quite well, actually. There was a seriously cute and surprisingly well behaved and photogenic baby and the teenagers were less dreadful and more biddable than usual. I’ll get some good stuff. Have you had anything to eat yet?”
He snaked an arm out to me. “Not hungry. I had something mid-morning when I wanted another beer. You?”
“I got a Danish at half eleven before I did my developing. Late lunch, then?” The hand was wandering slowly from just above my knee towards my hip.
“I was just thinking that we had a new toy we might try out.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Hansie didn’t want it back?”
He sat up. “He did not. He was most definite on the subject. He virtually made me sign a disclaimer, too; Hansie and Tim accept no responsibility for anything we do with it.”
I grinned at him. “Frankly, love, I don’t think you’ll like it. I don’t know anybody who does.”
“Hah! I knew it. You’ve used one, haven’t you?”
I admitted it.
“Is it really as bad as Hansie says?”
“I don’t know what Hansie said, but it was viewed with an uncompromising lack of enthusiasm by the Bottoms in the Domina Club.” I looked down at him. “You want to try, don’t you?”
“I’d like to know,” he confessed.
Ten minutes later he knew. And he was inclined to agree with Hansie.
“So do you want to lose it?”
“Not absolutely, but I don’t want to play with it. It feels. . . unloving. Unaffectionate. Serious in a way that none of the other things feels. It might go with my white noise collar, though. Yes, save it for that. And I don’t think that even then I could bear it much harder than you used it just now.”
“All right then, I’ll put it with your other collar. Do you want to choose something else?”
“No, I think I want to get over that first. That was rather shocking, Fran. That’s the first thing I really felt I couldn’t bear.”
“Come for a cuddle, then, and we won’t play until you feel better.”
Which is why we were curled on the bed, watching the Sunday film together, when the phone rang.
“Jy pis my af, poephol! Jou naai, klein kakfokker! Mofgat! Jou bliksem! “
“Hello, Hansie,” I said carefully. “Did you want to speak to me or to Nick?”
There was a long silence, and then Hansie's voice said, equally carefully, “Hello, Fran. Sorry. Yes, may I speak with Nick, please?” and in the background I could hear Tim shrieking with laughter. I passed the phone over. “Hansie, for you. He seems to be upset about something.”
From Nick’s smirk, he wasn’t surprised. “Hello? Yes? I did warn you. . . Well, it’s your own fault. No, I didn’t say you had to, I just said you might like to. What did Tim think? As many as that? No, it won’t last. Well, I didn’t like yours either. Actually, yes, I did. If it comes to a choice, that’s a no-brainer, I’ll pick that every time. Listen, one of the techies at the station has put me onto a new pub, somewhere out towards Codlingfield, selling Tindall’s and Woodeforde’s: fancy a trip out there? I’ll buy you some Great Eastern, you can drink that chilled, but I’m telling you, I’m going to get you up to proper room temperature beer if it kills me. Thursday? I’ll give you a call later in the week, O.K.?”
“What was that about, Nick?”
He smirked some more, trying hard not to let it break into a giggle.
“I showed Hansie how to make a dogwood birch. He took it home with him, and apparently Tim thought it would be appropriate for how he was going on last night. He didn’t like it. Tim did. Hansie says they’ve got dogwood all along the back of the orchard and he’s going to ring a farming contractor to take it out.”
I struggled to keep my face straight. “Nick, that was really not a kind thing to do.”
He widened his eyes at me. “No?”
“No. If you and Hansie had made up your quarrel, you had no business upping the ante. Escalation, that’s the word I want, and I’m not in favour of it.”
He shrugged and gave me an insolent look. “So what are you going to do about it?”
“Come here, pass me your slipper, and I’ll show you.”
Honestly, those boys.
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