“Phil, that was fabulous,” said Tim, pushing his dessert-bowl away with a sigh of repletion. “One of Flora’s recipes?” he added with a twinkle.
A strange expression crossed Phil's face, and then he stuck his tongue out like a naughty child. “Just because you’re jealous.”
“Oh I am, I am.”
“Go through to the lounge, why don’t you, and I’ll bring coffee through presently. I just want to wash the good glasses – they won’t go in the dishwasher – and clear up.”
“I will help,” I said hurriedly, before anyone else could volunteer. “I can dry the glasses for you if you wash.”
“Hansie, why do you never volunteer at home?” asked Tim with a grin, as he and Piet both rose, pushing back their chairs.
“Because I have you to do the work, my liefie.”
When they had gone, I turned to Phil. “Now, shall I bring these things through?”
“If you would, Hansie. You don’t need to, you know, I could do them myself.”
“I do not need to. I choose to, boet. That is a different thing, ja nee?”
“Yeah. Thanks, Hansie.” He took half the dessert bowls and turned back to the sink.
I hardly knew how to ask. “Is everything – well, all right with you? You seem, I do not know, you seem not quite yourself.”
He blinked, then grinned at me.
“I'm fine, Hansie, just tired. Like I said at dinner, they've worked us hard over the internationals, and I don't really – well, the England set-up is all very competitive.”
Yes, he had said that. Still, there was a, a, a thing in the set of him that reminded me of something, but I could not quite put a finger on it. I had seen that look somewhere before, and it maddened me that I could not think where. Because there was something about him, something that worried me. Ach, I know it was stupid of me to think I could see something that Piet did not, that was not evident to the others. Still, I did not like it.
I followed Piet out into the living room. He was standing looking out over the garden, but turned with a tired smile to acknowledge me. He’s so fit that I forget sometimes that he’s – well, technically old enough to be my father. Dad would have been only a year or two older.
“You look tired.”
“I am sorry, Tim, I know I have not been the brightest company. We are in the middle of two sets of contract negotiations for the club, I have a disciplinary hearing coming up for one of the juniors that must be handled delicately, and the paperwork that crosses my desk seems to be procreating overnight. I fear I am becoming an administrator. Can it be long before I am good for nothing else?” He pulled a face of mock horror, but I appreciated how much it meant that he would joke about it with me. The regrets, I knew, were genuine.
“Oh, I think you've got a few good years in you yet before we put you out to pasture.” I squeezed his bicep appraisingly. “Well, maybe one or two.”
“Cheeky brat. I shall remind you of that next time you are over my knee. Then we shall see who wishes to retire to pasture.”
I laughed, but there was a certain thrill in it. He wouldn’t forget. He never did. And he certainly had the wherewithal to make me regret being cheeky. But I had something else on my mind than the future fate of my bum.
“Piet, is Phil OK? Really, I mean?”
His face went impassive again for a moment, then relaxed into a sigh.
“You see it too?”
“Yes. Even me.”
“You know, I think, that I did not mean it like that. That is the biggest problem of all.” He paused, and then suddenly, almost as if it burst out against his will, he added: “Tim, I do not know what to do for him. He denies flatly that there is a problem, and I will not force his confidence. Do you think he will speak to you?”
“No. If he won’t tell you he certainly won’t tell me. Unless...”
“No, there are no problems between us.” He paused. “That I am aware of,” he qualified reluctantly. “No, I am certain it is not that. Things are good in that way. Indeed, in almost every way. He had a bad match in Newcastle, but that is over, and he has played here since and played well. And the Six Nations is done for this year, and if he did not play as much as he wished, he played well enough to have been mentioned as at least a possible selection for the Lions. Indeed, I thought in the match against Scotland that he played as well as I have seen him play in an England shirt. No, I do not think it is really professional, either. Tim, I am at a loss to know what troubles him.”
I put a hand briefly on his arm. I knew that the Piet of a couple of years ago – even a year ago - would not have said so much. The fact that he trusted me enough to say it felt like – like being accepted as a grown-up. As a true friend, and Piet didn't have many of them. I was being honoured, and I knew it. I opened my mouth to say more, but the look in Piet's eyes gave me warning just in time to turn and smile at Phil and Hansie bearing coffee, and a small plate with a collection of exquisite petit-fours. Whatever was troubling Phil it couldn’t be quite as bad as the trainwreck he and I had made of all our lives before. He was still baking. Still it worried me that Piet was worried. I didn't much like that.
“Hansie?” He sat bolt upright in our bed, muttering something in Afrikaans. “Bad dream, love? Shh, not to worry. Lie back down. You’re at home, in your own bed. You’re safe. You’re safe.”
He turned to me in the darkness, his eyes black pits in the grey shadow of his face.
“Nee, not a dream. It is me. It is me.”
“What’s you? You’re half asleep – it's 3:20 in the morning, sweetheart. Go back to sleep, it will keep.”
“No, you don’t understand. I did not know what it was that Phil reminded me of, his expression. And now I do. I used to see it in the mirror. It is me.”
I groaned, not all that awake myself, and certainly not firing on all cylinders. “You’re right, I don't understand. Why does Phil remind you of you? What does that mean?”
“Something is wrong with Phil, we all see that, ja nee?”
“Yes,” I agreed sleepily. “I asked Piet...” and then, gradually becoming more alert, I hesitated, wondering how much of what had been said was for me alone, wondering how much I should say. “I asked Piet if Phil was all right but he couldn’t think of any reason for him not to be, though he agreed he wasn’t himself.”
“No, he is not himself. He feels worthless.”
“Hansie – I’m not sure Phil has ever felt worthless in his life. You’re projecting. Phil’s good, and he knows he’s good. He’s young, he’s fit, he’s beautiful, he’s well off – why on earth would he feel worthless? No, sweetheart, it must be something else.”
“Look, please can we have this conversation at a more civilised hour? Like after the sun comes up? Please? I've got a teleconference call at 10 tomorrow – this morning I mean – and I’d like to be awake for it.”
He touched me briefly, in apology or agreement,
I wasn’t sure which, and lay back down again in silence, but I could tell the
whole bizarre idea hadn’t lost its grip on him. Maybe I could talk him out of
it tomorrow. Phil worthless? I’d never heard anything like it.
I suppose it was straws, and camels. None of the things individually would have done it, but all together they added up.
I was a good rugby player, I knew that – but so were lots of others, and they all coveted the same places I did. By current standards I was almost middle aged compared to some of the teenagers coming through. And they were hungry, and I was starting to wonder if I was hungry enough to compete with them. I'd heard someone on the England coaching staff, thinking me safely out of earshot, describe me as ‘almost too bloody nice’. I'm pretty sure he wasn’t talking about my performance on the training field, as I’d just sent somebody off with a mild concussion after a big tackle. But if being too bloody nice meant not dropping the snide remark or the poisoned word in the right ear, not being prepared to use people’s personal weaknesses against them in the struggle for a place, then I thought yes, perhaps I might be. God knew I had more to lose from that, potentially, than anyone. I’d do it on performance or not at all. I’d just started to wonder if that would be enough.
And without it? Well, I’d always known my rugby career wouldn’t last for ever. But as a second-rank rugby player I wasn’t going to be such a marketable property once it did stop. I’d relied on my looks to help me there. Let’s face it, I always have. Someone once told me that nice-looking people get a disproportionate number of good breaks. People will do more for them, offer them opportunities that someone more average looking doesn’t get. Maybe that was why I’d got as far as I had. And like the rugby, if I’d bothered to think about it I suppose I knew good looks don’t last for ever. But I hadn’t expected them to go this soon. Yet now I’d lost the BF contract, and I supposed that would get around, and maybe the others would start to slip too. God knew how I was going to make it up to Fran. She depended on those contracts. She wasn’t going to like it that I wasn’t able to bring them in for her anymore. No, she wasn’t going to like that at all.
And then to be faced with those kids, putting up with real, genuine trauma, and here was I whining to myself about getting older, not being pretty enough? What sort of a shallow, self-obsessed excuse for a man did that make me?
I know I am stupid to think I see something that all the world else does not see. I know I am just stupid Hansie. . . no, damn that. I will not say those things. I am not stupid. I speak three languages, maybe two of them not so perfectly, but well enough to do business in. I have lived and worked in four countries, and held down a good job. I can grow anything that has roots, and make a garden sing. I can paint not so badly, and draw, and make people laugh or coo with pleasure with it. I am not worthless, and I will not listen to the voices in my head that say so. And I think – I think, I believe – that those voices, those cursed, plausible voices, are speaking to Phil, my little brother, right now. And I by damn will not have it so. I am loved, I come to believe it, and to believe that maybe, just maybe, that is because there is something worth loving in me. And I will show him that he is loved too, and worth loving. And if I am wrong, and I make a fool of myself, well, I will not like it, but it will not be the first time, nor the last. And it cannot be so bad, ever, I think, to tell someone that they are worthy to be loved.
Only, I do not know, quite, how I am to do it?
“Hansie,” I said for the fifth time, “why have you insisted on bringing all your drawing things into the bedroom? I mean, if you want porn, there are easier ways to get it. We could have brought a camera. Or a video camera. That would be interesting.”
“That would be entirely too much a hostage to fortune,” rumbled Piet. “Such movies have a way of finding themselves where they should not. And of being seen by other eyes than those they are intended for. Even this should stay under lock and key. Still, will you not come back to bed, my Hansie? There is a space for you just here.”
“Nee, not just yet,” said Hansie absently, round the pencil clamped between his teeth. “And keep still, it is hard enough without you all moving.”
I felt Piet’s amusement through the arm that snaked under Phil’s neck to embrace me too, and stifled my own giggles. Hansie would be mortified if he ever stopped to consider just how he had spoken to our Alpha Top. Still. He seemed very determined about it. He had said that he wanted to take the opportunity to do ‘a few sketches’. Yesterday evening had produced a quick, vivid, pencil sketch of Piet, his face turned to look out of the window at the twilit garden, that Phil had seized on with a crow of delight, and a determined ‘I’m keeping that’ that had made Hansie blush, and a study of Piet’s hands, clasped together on the desk, that I rather coveted for myself. How could someone make hands, especially big rough hands like those, look at the one time powerful, curiously vulnerable, and sexy? I don’t know how he does it. Later on there had been a picture of me across Piet’s knee with him exacting the revenge he had threatened the week before – the sketch skilfully avoided faces, but any one of us would have known the actors – that I did not think was sexy, but the other two seemed to find quite exciting.
Curiously, he had avoided drawing Phil. Even more curiously, Phil hadn’t complained, or asked to be drawn. Until, as we lay sleepily curled together in the early morning light filtering past the curtains Hansie had slipped out of bed for his sketch pad and bag.
“Hush, Tim, I am nearly done.”
“My arm is going to sleep.”
“It will wake up again when I spank you.”
“My arm, not my arse.”
“Ja, I heard you the first time. Don’t distract me, and it will go quicker.”
“You’d better do as he says, Tim, these artistic types can be very touchy,” said Phil in a stage whisper.
“I believe you are right, koekie.”
“Ach, you are all hopeless, hopeless as models,” said Hansie with great dignity. “I do not know why I bother to immortalise you. Here.” He carefully detached the leaf of thick paper, held it out to us.
He had been using aquarelles, smudging them with distilled water from the tiny pot that he kept in his kit. The picture was soft, impressionistic, filled with that misty morning light. And it was – we were – beautiful. As if the light were filling us too, as if the light were coming from us, from our three bodies.
Phil made a choked sound, and wrenched his head violently aside.
“It’s not – I don’t. . .”
“But you do,” said Hansie softly. His hands were working, swiftly, on another sheet even as he spoke.
“He does what?” I asked, bewildered.
“Look like that. You all do. To me.”
“Hansie, it’s too much.”
“It is not too much!” His vehemence took me by surprise – took all of us, for I saw Piet’s sudden frown, and Phil’s surprised jerk. “Do you still not understand? It is not just me who sees you so. It is them. It is everyone.”
“No.” My heart was wrung by the quiet misery in Phil’s tone, all the unexpressed misery that all of us had sensed hanging about him. But I had not guessed at the depth of it. “I’m just not – it’s not right to see me like that, Hansie. Not like that.”
“But koekie,” said Piet, “that is how you are seen. You cannot choose not to be loved by others. You may not love them in return, but you cannot stop them loving you. I too see you that way. Have I not shown you that already? Will you deny me the right?”
“But you’re – of course I know you would, but I’m not – I’m really not the way you see me. I’m such a scumbag, Piet. All I can do is worry about the fact that I’m losing my looks, that I’m not doing so well on the rugby front. . .”
“Losing your looks?” I said, bewildered. Hansie had said it to me, had tried to tell me, and I hadn’t believed him. I was going to have to eat a great deal of humble pie, I suspected. “Phil, who on earth told you you’re losing your looks?”
“Tim – did you know I’d lost a big advertising contract? I don’t look quite presentable enough for their market, apparently. And that it will cost Fran, as well as me, in lost income? God knows how I’m going to make it up to her.”
“You mean Broussard Fournier?” asked Piet crisply. “I suggest you make it up to her at their next photoshoot.”
“But I. . .”
“Who told you that you had lost the contract, Mr Cartwright?”
I noticed the change of address, the sudden sharpness in Piet’s voice. So did Phil. It snapped him out of whatever pit he was engaged in digging to wallow in. He paused before he answered.
“They said. . .” he stopped. “They said they couldn’t use me.”
“They said they couldn’t use you then. Did they say they couldn’t use you at all?”
“Yes! Er. . . well – yes, they did, didn’t they?”
“No. Which will be why they have already contacted me, and I assume Fran, to see about rescheduling. As far away as possible from any match dates.”
“Oh.” He looked rather sheepish. “Still. I mean I saw the photos for myself. And Flora wasn’t exactly. . .”
“She was taken aback,” said Piet. “I believe we discussed this at the time. I thought you had put it behind you. I am distressed to find that you have continued to worry about it all this time, and did not tell me.”
The worst of it was, he did sound distressed.
Phil flung himself – there was no other word for it – at Piet, snuggling like a child. I was glad I was on the outside, I would have been flattened between them.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “Piet, I’m so sorry.”
I felt my face flush, made a sign to Hansie that we should leave. We were close, we were all close, but this was too private. I attempted to extricate my arm, but Phil disentangled one of his and drew me in, too. “No, Tim, I’m sorry, I’m sorry to all of you. I’ve been so moody and self-obsessed. And all about such stupid things. You always said I was vain, and you’re right, you’re right. I’m vain about my rugby, I’m vain about my looks, and none of it matters a damn. I went to the hospital, you know, one of those club visits, and there were kids there, little kids, having bits chopped off them, and cancer, and God knows what, and all I could worry about was if I might not be as pretty as I used to think I was. And you still think I look like that?” He waved a hand in the vague direction of Hansie’s picture.
“Yes, oh yes, you do. You do. Because that’s the person inside, Phil. You do look like that. You’re kind, and talented, and yes, you’re physically beautiful. Sometimes it makes me ache to look at you.”
“I can’t listen to this.” He sounded almost desperate.
“But I think you must,” said Piet. “Do not push us away, the people who love you. The people who see the beauty in you. You are beautiful. You have never before had cause to doubt it, and it has hurt your confidence. But you are beautiful. You are beautiful. The world can see it. We can see it more clearly, because we see the beauty inside as well as out. Do not doubt that beauty in yourself.”
“I don’t want to. But I think – I think you see those things because you love me. Not because they’re true.”
“And is love untrue?” Hansie asked harshly. “When you told me I was worth something, was that untrue?”
“No. No! That isn’t what I meant.”
“Why will you not accept for yourself the thing you offer me then?” he asked, more quietly. He thrust forward another piece of paper. “You will never lose your looks, Phil, not the way you mean. When you are old, you will look so, I think. I see this, and I see true.”
Phil looked at the paper, and his expression held surprise, and a touch of something else. Dawning belief, perhaps?
“But that’s – I can see my dad in that. And a bit of my grandfather, my mum’s dad. Do I – will I really look like that?” His voice sounded wondering, curiously childlike. I craned over his shoulder to see.
“Wow. I tell you one thing, Phil Cartwright. If you look like that when you’re sixty-odd I for one wouldn’t kick you out of bed.”
He managed a watery smile. “There’s a surprise.” He squeezed my hand. “Thanks. All of you. And Hansie. Come here.” He threw his arms around my partner and rocked him to him. I smiled, and turned – and saw what Hansie and Phil did not. Piet, looking at that picture, with, for just a moment, a look of utter desolation. And I knew, as clearly as if he had said it, what he was thinking. This is the Phil I shall never know, for I shall be gone. And then it was gone, hidden behind the mask. I don’t think he knew that I had seen him. And I’ll never tell.
They went home after lunch, with Phil looking considerably better and – well, actually, with Phil looking what he was, which was very thoroughly fucked, in its most literal sense. He can’t possibly have gone on thinking that he was unattractive, not after that. I cleared the table, Hansie having vanished – it’s funny, he does do his share of housework and he’s better with laundry than I am but he loathes washing dishes, which is probably why he’s made such a science of stacking the dishwasher. Anyway, I sorted that, and did one or two other domestic-type things, and then I made some coffee and went to look for him.
I found him – no surprise there! – in the garden, tidying up the little herb patch which he had laid out, and with tools scattered round him. He was obviously intending some major horticultural activity but he came to sit beside me on the low wall, and took the mug greedily.
“Well, my liefie, you have come to help?”
“In your dreams. No, actually, I’ve come to grovel.”
He grinned at me. “That sounds good. Why? What have you done?”
“Go on, Hansie, how did you do it? How did you spot all that with Phil? I confess, I knew he wasn’t happy, but I missed what was beneath it, missed it completely. I thought you were barking, actually, when you said he was feeling worthless. I mean, Phil? Phil?”
He wrinkled his nose and looked into his coffee.
“I had some help. I told you, I knew that I had seen the look, I had seen it on myself, times. . . times when my father had been particularly, particularly. . . dismissive, maybe. When he had told me that I would never amount to anything.”
I took his hand. “But – no, Hansie, really. I can’t imagine that anybody has ever said that to Phil. O.K., he’ll have had his knock-backs, same as the rest of us, but. . .”
He shook his head. “I did not get it straight away, but you know I went for a drink last weekend with Nick? Well, he told me what Fran had told him about Phil’s photo-shoot and about him being turned away from it because he did not look good. Ach, I wish that I – or Nick, or Fran or Piet! – had known that Phil thought they meant permanently. Nick already knew that it was to be rescheduled, and Fran would never have left Phil to believe otherwise had she realised.”
“No, of course she wouldn’t. Go on.”
“Well, it was no more than chat, but Nick said something like ‘poor Phil, Fran said he didn’t like it.’ And when I thought about that later, it occurred to me that you had said the same to me about the rugby report, that Phil would not like it, and I had said it to you about the celeb news, and that in fact we had both said more than once over the last month or so that Phil would not like something.” He turned his coffee mug round in his hands, without lifting his gaze from it. “I do not know what told me that the photo-shoot was the important one, but something did. We are. . . Tim, I think we are sometimes a little unfair to Phil about that sort of thing. We tease him – I will not say that we accuse him, but we tease him – about being vain about his looks, about taking advantage of them. And about being vain too about his talent for rugby. But what if he said: oh no, I have no great skill, I am an average player only? What if he said: no, no, I am not good to look at? What would we say then?”
I’d worked that one out as he was talking. “We’d accuse him of false modesty, that’s what you mean, isn’t it?”
He nodded. “Because he is a great talent, Tim. And he has physical beauty as well. And well, if they go wrong, why should he not be distressed, as any of us would be distressed if our talent suddenly failed us?”
“When I was still at school,” I said slowly, “I had glandular fever. The first sign of it was that I bombed the Christmas exams. It was like my brains just didn’t work, all of a sudden. I can remember – Hansie, I can actually remember crying over some incomprehensible piece of homework which I knew I ought to be able to do easily.”
“Ja, exactly, because your skill, which is your intelligence, failed you without warning. Well, think how that would have been had it happened to you now and at work. For the photographs, the advertising, that is Phil’s work as much as the rugby, ja nee?”
“Of course it is. And he must know that both of them are. . . well, not exactly long term. Hansie, that sketch you did of what Phil would turn into, was that for real?”
“Why not? I was guessing a little, I do not know if the men in his family keep their hair and their teeth, but his father has done. The rest is just the bones of his face.”
“But I remember Phil saying that he didn’t take after his father at all, he looked like somebody. . . his father’s uncle, was it? He’s not like his dad, particularly.”
“Ja, I remember him saying it, but it is not so. He thinks it because he is fair and his father is dark, because he is tall and his father is not. But if you take just the faces, he is very like. He has more refinement of bone, perhaps, he is better looking than his father, but there is no doubting the relationship. The size, that is maybe from his mother’s family, I don’t know, but the physical grace, the ease of movement – Tim, do you not remember, when we saw them at Christmas, Phil’s parents dancing together?”
I did, actually. It had been a joke, something about the song on the radio being ‘their tune’ from when they had been engaged.
“Phil gets his grace from his father. He will never be other than a handsome man, barring some total catastrophe.”
“Yes, I see. But if he didn’t think that, and then the hospital. . .” because Phil had told us about that, and actually, I’m not sure that we had altogether managed to put his mind at rest about it.
“He sees people – and children in particular – who are suffering, and he thinks that his perspective on himself is off, ja nee? And then he does not much like himself for it, he thinks that he is not a nice person, whereas in fact – ”
“In fact,” I said sadly, “the plain fact that he does think that way, that he can feel guilty because he had been worrying about a black eye when some kid has no eye at all, means that he’s not the vain, shallow bastard he’s judging himself to be.”
Hansie nodded. “You said it to me once. Just because somebody else suffers more does not mean that I did not suffer. Just because a child has a traumatic and life-changing operation does not mean that Phil has no right to be dismayed that he has a cut face and loses work by it. And because he is a kind and responsible man, he worries that Fran will lose work also – I think, Tim, I think that we must tell Fran that. She makes a joke that Phil is her pension; I think perhaps she needs to make sure he understands that it is a joke. He is not her employer; he does not have to see that she has work.”
“I don’t think she actually believes that he has any responsibility to her at all.”
“I’m sure she does not.”
I drank the last of my cold coffee. “Hansie. . .”
“Sometimes I love you so much that I don’t know how to bear it. To see all that. . . and then to see what to do about it. . . God, Hansie, I do love you, I love you so much.”
He perked up. “Ja? And so there will be a reward for Hansie in all this?”
“Anything,” I said expansively. “Anything at all. Whatever you want.”
“I want, I want. . .” he said thoughtfully, “I know what I want. I want something physical. Something” and he leered at me, “something dirty.”
“Again?” I enquired in mock horror. “I’m not Piet, you know, I don’t have his recovery time. And in passing, I’m telling you, Hansie, that if Phil feels bad about losing his looks as he gets older, I can manage to feel completely inadequate when Piet says ‘more?’ and I think, ‘Oh God, no, not yet, not yet!’”
“You and me both. I hope Phil does not tell them at training camp what form his stamina training normally takes.”
“I think we would have seen it in the papers if he had mentioned it. But come on, Hansie, what particular form is this physical and dirty reward to take?”
“And you will give it to me?”
He grinned and slid off the wall, holding out his hand. “So come.”
He turned away from the house, though – outdoor sex? At this time of year? We’d freeze our bits off, still – and led me to – oh damn, Tim, you walked right into that one.
“Joan Pollock has promised me asparagus crowns and they need to go in by the end of this month. So there is a load of manure coming some time next week and before that the bed must be double dug.”
I sighed. “Go on then, how long a trench do you want?”
He laughed, and pulled me to him. “No, I am teasing you. I will do it. You will make the dinner while I dig and then I will not feel guilty about spending the whole afternoon in the garden getting hot and filthy and sweaty.”
I thought about that. Hot. And filthy. And sweaty. Hansie, hot and sweaty.
“Hang dinner, we can have frozen pizza. Have we got another spade?”
“Phil! Phil, can we have a few words?”
“Sure, hi, just let me get my breath though.”
“Phil, that was some match to wrap up the Gryphons campaign. Can you tell the viewers, is this the strongest Gryphons team you can remember?”
“I think it is, and we’re not done yet. We’re still learning, we’re still moving people about, trying different combinations, working out which players make the team as a whole play best. We had several good people leave or retire over the last couple of seasons but we’ve got some strong juniors coming up. It’s just the natural way of things and we can’t afford to be complacent. But I can’t remember the squad ever being so solid; I can’t remember us ever having so many workable options before.”
“Well, it certainly showed in this match – there wasn’t much to choose between you in the first half but in the second you just ran all over them. Was it as easy as it looked?”
“It wasn’t easy at all. You always know when you play a match in Wales that you’re going to have to work hard; the Welsh teams have such enormous pride in what they do that they won’t give you anything for nothing. But I think it came down to stamina, to fitness, in the end. We had more to give than they did in the final 20 minutes or so. And concentration too: it’s one of the things our coaching team is very hot on, that everybody has to be able to play the full 80 minutes if they’re needed to, and play them well. It’s easy to lose focus in the last quarter, and if you’re not careful, you can let a victory slide away from you then.”
“Did you have any unusual instructions from the dressing room at half time? We noticed that your Director of Rugby, Pieter de Vries, came out with you and he spoke to you just before he went back to the stand. Whatever he said, it seemed to amuse the people round you.”
“Yeah, it did. He’d given some of the others quite detailed instructions inside, but he’d not had much to say to me except ‘more of the same’. Only then as we went out he said ‘The Welsh fans are singing, Mr Cartwright. Make them stop.’”
“No doubt about it, you did that, specially with that long run. That was quite something for the last quarter of any match.”
“Like I said, we’ve given a lot of attention to fitness and stamina. I’m not the only one on the team who could have done that, I’m just the one who had the ball.”
“Well, since you’ve come back from the England squad, you’ve played all of almost every match – all but one, I think. No doubts about your fitness or focus. What are your hopes for the Lions tour?”
“They’re hopes, that’s all. I think I have quite a good chance but there are a lot of other guys who do too. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
“Thanks, Phil; congratulations on the win, and I have to tell you too that you are not only the CRTV Man of the Match, as chosen by the commentary team, but also the Man of the Season as voted for by the viewers.”
“Thanks, Mike, and thank you to the viewers too. I appreciate their faith in me.”
I would not have expected it of Laura Jameson – apart from anything else, I reckon she is about old enough to be his mother. And the same goes for Tracey Gosling – if you had asked me to name a woman who would go all wobbly over a handsome young man, hers is not the first name which would have sprung to my mind, hey? Sally Braithwaite, she is younger but she is still older than him, and there were the three of them, and the two girls – I should not call them girls, they are adult women even if they are not as old as me – from Reception, and another of Tracey’s colleagues from the factory floor, and they were leaning over a magazine on one of the tables in the staff canteen, and giggling, giggling like teenagers. Lol looked up as I collected a sandwich and a cup of coffee, and waved me over to join them.
“Hansie, how much influence do you have over the advertising budget?”
“Some,” I said, suspiciously.
“Well, I think there’s too much of the advertising planning which is controlled by Sales. I think Finance needs more of an input.”
“And the shop floor,” put in the other woman. I think she works in Packing.
“And front of house,” added one of the receptionists, giggling again.
“And this would be why?”
“Because we all know that the Face of Hamiltons is your friend Phil Cartwright, and we want to know why you haven’t delivered him to us with a red ribbon round his neck so that we can check his suitability.” That was Sally.
“You know him?” That was the other receptionist; she is new. I nodded.
“Ja, the Director of Rugby at the Gryphons I have known for years, and I know Phil quite well, too. And Tim Creed has known him since they were young. Why?”
One of them pushed the magazine – it was one of the more expensive glossies – over the table at me. I looked down and my breath caught. A double page advertising spread, with Phil on one page in a picture which looked as if it was from a rather dirty match, all mud and aggression. They had changed the colour of his shirt, touched out the Gryphons’ logo and added in one I did not recognise, a monogrammed B and F, but the picture was not, I thought, posed. Then on the other page he was smiling straight at the camera, all golden and relaxed, in a suit which must have cost more than I would spend on my clothes in a year, and the same logo showing in a gold cufflink and on the leather of his watch strap.
“You can tell when he’s coming in to see the boss,” giggled the senior receptionist to her friend. “As soon as his name shows in the visitors’ book, the girls start fighting to be on the front desk rather than on the switchboard. He really does look like that, too. And he’s sweet, he remembers everybody’s name.”
“No doubt about it, we need more input from the factory floor,” sighed the woman from Packing, theatrically. Tracey concurred: “I could trip him up and be under him before he hit the ground.”
“He certainly scrubs up well,” agreed Sally. “Actually, I wouldn’t mind being the one to wash off all that mud. . .”
“I’ll tell him you said so,” I said drily – but I would. “He may have his pick from the women at Hamiltons, is that it?”
“Oh, I think it would be fair to say,” summed up Lol, “that most of us would like some of that.”
Our turn to go to Piet and Phil’s again, and Phil looking much more like himself, thank goodness. Mind you, when he reached into the cupboard for glasses I realised that one arm was scraped quite severely, and his elbow had a huge black bruise on it. He saw me looking.
“I had the ball and some people wanted it. Wanted it quite badly, apparently.”
“Nasty,” I commented cautiously, but he just wrinkled his nose.
“Risks of the job,” he said without any particular heat. “Red or white? I’ve got something better for later.”
And dinner was well up to his usual standard, even if he did seem to be going a little short himself. I began to have suspicions when he split the last of the amazing chocolate and coffee thing three ways rather than four and didn’t have seconds himself. Usually by this point in the season, he would be allowing himself a little leeway in terms of what he ate and drank, but he’d only had half a glass of wine, too. When we went through to the sitting room, though, he produced his ‘something better’.
“Champagne? Good champagne, too. . . Was this what you got for Player of the Season?”
He and Piet both laughed. “Dream on. That never made it out of the dressing room, we drank it straight from the bottle, the whole team. Well, there were several bottles actually, but they were all empty before we had our outdoor clothes back on. No, this was a present from Bernard Fournier.”
“Who’s. . . oh, the clothes people?”
“Yeah, he gave me a case. The family has a vineyard, I think. I wanted Fran to take it to make up for losing her a day’s work last month, but she wouldn’t have more than two bottles. . . said they paid her a retainer anyway. But I’m celebrating, so I thought we could crack one or two tonight.”
“And I,” said Piet, accepting his glass, “am celebrating on Phil’s behalf and mourning on my own.”
That was easy, then. “You’ve been selected? For the Lions?”
“I’m off on tour,” Phil confirmed. “Leaving the old man behind and running away to South Africa.” His tone belied his words and Piet merely looked down his nose.
“Weeks and weeks without some bossy Director of Rugby telling me what to do. . .”
There was something behind that – he might tease Piet a little about leaving him behind, but Phil would just hate not seeing Piet for a long stretch. There was more, and I raised my eyebrows at Piet, who laughed.
“He is not fooled, koekie. No, I must stay here to see out the last of the season and the last of the ever increasing paperwork, but then I think I may take the traditional step of the man left at home while his partner gallivants about – I shall go home to my mother for a holiday. Some home cooking, somebody to fuss after me and look after me properly. . .”
“While I get to enjoy myself without anybody telling me I’m not to do things,” Phil teased back. “Maybe I’ll never come back. Spending my time with other players. . . young men. Pretty boys, some of them, fit, all rippling muscles and toned bodies, all – eek!”
Because Piet had risen from his chair and advanced upon Phil, removing his wineglass and setting it down before doing something, I couldn’t quite work out what or how, which twisted Phil under Piet’s arm and against his hip.
“Now, koekie, what was it about these boys?”
“Pretty, was it?”
“No, do not try to stand up; touch your toes. Do go on, what were you saying about them?”
“I said they were fit and toned. . . ow!”
“And what else?” The tone was threatening, if the expression was not: Piet was struggling not to laugh as Phil squirmed unconvincingly.
“Um. . . rippling muscles? Did I mention those? Ow!”
“And what else?”
“Um . . . suffering from galloping heterosexuality, most of them?”
Even Piet laughed at that one, his hand slowing to turn the slap into a caress. “You are a wicked boy and not fit to be let out of my sight. I should beat you hard.”
Phil turned puppy-dog eyes on him. “Oh no, that wouldn’t be at all fair. When I’m all scraped and bruised already?”
Piet picked up his glass again and pretended to consider. “Well, then. . . perhaps we should have a care for those scrapes and bruises. What do you think, Hansie? Or you, Tim?”
“When I was small,” I said judiciously, “Mary always said the best cure for a scrape was to have it kissed better. Is it just that elbow, Phil?”
He shook his head. “I’ve got bumps in all sorts of places,” he confessed in wide-eyed innocence. “Lots and lots of them.”
“So perhaps it will require all three of us to kiss them better?” enquired Hansie seriously.
Piet reached over and picked up the half empty bottle. “We will go upstairs and I will punish you severely for even thinking in such a way about your team mates and their rippling muscles, and then we will inspect these cuts and bruises and see which of them require to be kissed better, and then, koekie, then we will see if we can do anything which would convince you that you would do better at the end of the tour to come home to us, rather than to stay away with all those rampant heterosexuals. Perhaps Hansie and Tim will have some ideas as to how we can persuade you.”
Well, one way or another, I think we can say that Phil liked that.
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