I can’t speak for anybody else, obviously, although there have been hints dropped suggesting that nobody got off much more lightly than I did, but the twenty-four hours after the Rugby Club dinner dance were about the worst I had ever passed. Piet took me home in dire disgrace, and not to his house, either – he dropped me at my own flat, which we still kept, mostly as a blind. He told the taxi to wait, too, which didn’t suggest anything promising, although he did come in.
“I will see you in town tomorrow. Prudhoe Street, behind the bus station. 10:15. You will not be late.”
It wasn’t a question. Why Prudhoe Street? I didn’t feel inclined to ask. And I wished to God that we had gone back to his house. He was going to cane me, that was a given, and frankly I didn’t want to wait for it. I was so scared! Only he doesn’t nag, or anything – once I’ve had what I’m due, it’s history. We were going to have to talk about all this, though – about van den Broek and him, and what on earth had been going on. I was in the wrong to have hit him, and I knew it, but he had just come barrelling up in the bar, abused me up and down and I hadn’t the faintest idea why.
“Sir. . .”
Bad. “Please. . . Do it tonight.” We both knew what I was talking about.
“No. Tomorrow you will be sober, and I will be in control of my temper. 10:15.”
He glanced over his shoulder from the door, and suddenly came back to pull me into his arms and kiss me hard. I clung for a moment, and let him go. It would be all right. Eventually.
No bloody sleep worth mentioning, and no possibility of eating any breakfast, even had there been anything in the flat to eat. Ten past ten saw me in Prudhoe Street, waiting for Piet. He appeared out of a shop on the other side of the road, saw me, came across. No greeting. No smile. This was Viper de Vries at his most terrifying.
“You saw where I came from? Go inside. Go the full length of the aisle on the left. At the back of the shop, on the right hand side, there is a rack of canes. I have written down the reference number of the one you are to buy. Go.”
I fled. Stupid of me, I know, but until I got inside, I didn’t realise what sort of shop it was. And I didn’t like what I had to pick up. Piet’s usual cane is shortish and stiff, and it hurts, but this was longer, thinner, and lighter, and although my gut feeling was that it wouldn’t be as severe, I had enough wit to work out that I wouldn’t be in here buying it if that were true. Logically, too, the man behind the counter couldn’t have known who I was (I had enough presence of mind not to offer my credit card), nor could he have known whether that cane was due to be used by me or on me (and I doubt if he would have cared), but I felt as conspicuous as hell.
The damn thing was flexible enough for the man to horseshoe the ends and fit it into an unmarked green carrier bag. I went back outside. Piet was waiting.
“Training. I will see you at three o’clock at my house.”
Training! I hadn’t even thought about that! I had been primed to face my punishment, and it hadn’t occurred to me that Piet was taking a training session at eleven o’clock, and that there wasn’t time to deal with me first. And his control is just scary. He did a two hour session, and bollocked me twice for not paying attention, but nobody would have known that he had anything else on his mind.
I was just about incapable with fear by three o’clock. The green parcel sat on the front seat of my car, sneering at me as I drove to his house. I didn’t even like to use my own key to open the door: I rang the bell, and was ushered, silently, into the study. He took the bag from me – I hadn’t the wit to offer it – and opened it.
“Do we need to talk about self-control?”
“No, sir.” It came out as more of a squeak that I quite liked, but at least it came out.
“Is there anything you can tell me that will excuse your behaviour?”
He always asks that or something like it; I always have a chance to defend myself. I had spent the night drawing up the case for the defence: I had been provoked, that bloody Afrikaner had insulted me in the bar and humiliated me in front of a sizeable crowd. Did that warrant punching him in the face?
“We will talk afterwards about. . . about Johannes van den Broek.”
“Sir.” He was a little nervous, then, too. But I didn’t have time to think about that. He nodded at the couch, and I turned to it, unfastening my belt. I knew the routine. He hadn’t caned me often – he hadn’t needed to, the spanking was bad enough! – but the formalities never changed.
What! Never fewer than six, and never more than twelve, that had been his practice to date, and I had been expecting twelve. But eighteen! And with that new cane? Sounded bad.
It was bad. It was very bad. The back of that couch puts me at the perfect height for him, but it’s slippery leather and there’s nothing to hold on to. Don’t ask me how I kept from getting up, because I don’t know. I yelled from start to finish, and by the last six, I wasn’t even yelling at the strokes, I was just yelling. He was merciless. He didn’t space the blows at all. One across the centre of my bare backside (ow!), one low, in the sulcal crease (OW!), and one squarely across the backs of my thighs (OW!). Six times. The new cane was much more flexible than the old one, and it bit, and Piet has a very straight eye. The first three were bad, and all the subsequent ones landed on the existing welts. I couldn’t get up when he stopped. He had to lift me, and help me round the end of the couch, and I went down flat on it in a tangle of trousers. No, I did not want to pull them up; I wanted to lie here and die quietly alone. Until Piet sat down beside me and put his hand on my neck, and then I wanted to get my arms round his waist and my head into his lap, and be forgiven. Better. Perhaps I wasn’t going to die. Unfortunately. I hiccupped, and shivered, and Piet stroked my neck and back, and murmured soothingly, until I was silent and boneless and exhausted.
“Control. You can. You can work through pain. Come. Upstairs. You need something on those.”
I didn’t want to look. I wobbled to my feet, and kicked free of pants and trousers. No question of bending to pull them up. He took me upstairs, and when I collapsed on his bed, he brought a cold damp cloth and laid it on my backside. I braced myself to twist and look, and gasped. I had three welts. Just three, but they were purpling to bruises as I watched, and Piet’s touch as he put some sort of cold cream on them made me whimper again.
“You never let me (ouch!) do that! You never let me put anything on the marks.”
“This time I do. Lie down. Please don’t hit Mr van den Broek again, Phil.”
Thank God, I was ‘Phil’ again, not ‘Cartwright’. “Why was he so. . . what’s his problem, anyway? I presume from what he said that he was one of your. . . that you coached him, too.”
“Yes. And he. . . I’ve told you about him before.”
“I don’t rem. . . Him? It was him? The. . . the young one who said no?”
“Him. Dear God, yes, him. I did him a dreadful wrong, Phil. I told you.”
“But it wasn’t serious. You let him go. And it wasn’t as if he was straight.”
“No, but. . . I don’t think he knew what he was. I did, but he didn’t. I offered him a deal, like you, but I offered him myself, too. I didn’t recognise that he wasn’t ready for that. I think that he didn’t understand that he could have the first part without the rest, that I would make him a great player even if he didn’t want me. He was your age, but you are much older than he was then. And he bolted. I don’t know where he went. But he’s here, and he and I must achieve some sort of. . . some sort of accommodation. He took me by surprise, last night, and I accused him of cowardice, in bolting, not from me, no, not from me, he didn’t want that, but from his sport. I should have held my tongue. I think that was why he was so angry: he is hurting still, and that is my fault. I must see what can be put right with him. But you will not hit him, Phil.”
I turned my face away. Damn right I wouldn’t hit him, not if the price was to be extracted with that cane.
“And I will talk to him. He will not speak to you again like that.”
That gave me mixed feelings. That Piet cared enough to see that I had not been the only one in the wrong, that he would protect me from van den Broek? Yes, I liked that. But that he would still have the power over van den Broek to do it? I didn’t think I liked that very much. I didn’t like the next thing either.
“We are due at the Hamilton offices at five o’clock, for you to offer your apologies.”
“Well, of course. You will apologise to Mr Hamilton for creating a disturbance in front of his guests.”
Oh, bugger. I supposed so.
“And you will apologise to Johannes van den Broek.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Oh, Piet, please! He provoked me, you know he did.”
“And that makes it acceptable for you to hit him?”
“You’ve caned me for that!”
“I have punished you for it, yes, and now you will put it right.”
The tone again. The answer he wants is “Yes, sir”. I couldn’t give it.
“You are my protégé, Phil. You have the self-control to behave properly despite whatever van den Broek says or does. I told him too that I could make him great, but if even at his age he has so little self-control, I think I might have been wrong. Am I wrong about you?”
Bloody Viper. Carrot and stick, and he knows exactly which one to use and when. Presses every single one of the sodding buttons.
“No, sir. I’ll do it.”
Not enjoyable. Piet took me to James Hamilton’s office, and I apologised formally to him, and he told me where I got off. It made me sweat. Then he sent for Tim and for van den Broek. I apologised to him, too, although I choked on it. He glared at me, and accepted my apology in as few words as he could manage, and turned to go, but Tim put out a hand and stopped him. They looked at each other for a moment, although Tim didn’t speak, and then van den Broek turned back, and in a strangled voice, begged my pardon for anything he had said to offend me the previous night. I reckoned his apology was worth about the same as mine, and I accepted it in the same spirit as he had accepted mine. Then, at last, James Hamilton let us all go. I couldn’t get out fast enough, and van den Broek and Tim were of the same mind. They were ahead of me on the stairs, and it seemed to me that actually, neither of them was moving any more freely than I did myself. . .
Anyway, that was the history of it. I went home with Piet, and we spent the evening making up, very, very gently. I couldn’t lie on my back; I couldn’t sit for more than ten minutes; if I lay on my face I couldn’t bear to have my bruises touched. Piet kissed me. All over, for an hour, or so. I felt a lot better after that. I didn’t want to go to bed, I just wanted to be with Piet and to be held by him, and to hear him whisper to me in Afrikaans. Even when I don’t know what he’s saying, I know it’s only for me, and I needed to know that. Let’s face it, van den Broek is nearer Piet’s age by ten years at least, and although I don’t think it matters, I know Piet does. I was jealous, O.K.? I know it’s me now, but he was still unhappy about someone earlier. Irrational, but there you are.
Several things changed, though, afterwards – one guy on the team, who had been inclined to be jealous that Piet was coaching me and not him, saw the bruises, and became very thoughtful, and less touchy. He had known that I paid, and how I paid, but I don’t think he had quite understood just how big the bill could be.
Piet went to see van den Broek. I didn’t know what was said between them, and I didn’t ask, but. . . well, he said that I would have to meet Tim, and van den Broek, and James Hamilton, and that we would all be civil to each other, and since my stripes took three full weeks to go down, I agreed with him.
There was no question of us meeting again for six weeks or so, until the matter of the charity match reared its head.
“James Hamilton has the son of a business associate bringing a team to play a charity match against a scratch side from his company. Apparently they do this every year. I understand that Johannes van den Broek is to captain, and James has asked me to referee.”
I rolled over in bed, to watch him dress.
“I’ll go to. . . I’ll go and visit my mother.”
He was looking in the mirror, but I felt his gaze on me even via the reflection. “I had hoped for your support.”
Ouch. “What do you want me to do?”
“James is bringing his guests to the clubhouse on Friday afternoon. He would like a team representative to be there. There is a semi-formal dinner for the teams in the evening. And the match is on Saturday, and there should be some team representation in the clubhouse.”
“Oh, Piet, must I? Bloody van den Broek, and Hamilton doesn’t like me either.”
“I have told James that you are sufficiently mature to put past mistakes behind you.”
He knew that was the wrong thing to say as soon as he had said it, specially when I threw the pillow at him. “It was you who put them behind me, and I had the marks for weeks!”
The pillow came back, accurately and with interest; Piet’s learning to play. “How can I persuade you?”
“Well, you could. . . you could. . . you could do that some more, for a start. . .”
Hence, on Friday afternoon, I was at the clubhouse, ready to be introduced to John Marshall and his wife. Just as well I was, actually, because as Piet and I came in, Steve, the steward was hurrying out. “Phil, you’ll do, you’ve done barman, haven’t you? Susie’s mum just rang, Susie’s started in labour and it’s looking like a Caesarean, and I’ve got to go.”
“Course I’ll do it. Give me the keys. Is the till balanced? Coffee machine working? Who else is on?”
“Melanie’s coming in any minute, and she’ll do the work, but she’s too young to be a keyholder. Just keep an eye on things until Kasan arrives. He’s due at six, and he’ll cover for me tomorrow. Are you sure it’s O.K.?”
“Go. Give Susie our love. Give us a call and let us know when it all happens, and tell her I’ve drawn 7 pounds 2 ounces in the sweepstake.”
So I went to the kitchen and the bar, and when the Marshalls arrived I was being a waiter. It’s just as well, in retrospect. If Marshall had realised that I was a serious player, rather than an employee, we would never have got away with it. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
They all trooped in together, James Hamilton and his wife, Tim, van den Broek, and the Marshalls. John Marshall was a big, strong looking man of about thirty, and his wife was a skinny anaemic bottle blonde with a heavy make-up. Piet went to greet them, and introductions were made, and they went through to the sponsors’ room together. I organised coffee, and went after them, fully intending to join the party. Yes, and to be civil to van den Broek, too.
I didn’t get the chance.
Marshall was in full flow when I arrived. “Nice club, Jim. Side did well, too, I hear. I understand you’ve got a wonder-boy to be capped next season?”
I caught van den Broek’s eye. Hah. He hadn’t known that. I smirked at him. Tim scowled at me. He had known, I think.
“Mind you, the word is, he’s a raving queen. Quite open about it, I gather. Pity. Spoils the game for real players.”
van den Broek had his mouth open. So did Tim. Probably, so did I.
“Is it true, then, de Vries?”
James Hamilton interrupted. “No business of ours, John, what our. . . oh, thank you” (this to me as I placed the coffee tray on the table). Then he did a double-take and recognised me. Tim said later that he had never seen his uncle at a loss before. I poured coffee into cups.
“Coffee, madam?” to Mary Hamilton. She accepted a cup, and tipped her head like a curious bird. Marshall was off again. “Shouldn’t let the bloody shirt-lifters play, should they?”
“Sugar, madam?” to Mrs Marshall. Tim and van den Broek were watching me in rapt fascination, presumably in case I exploded or underwent spontaneous combustion. I didn’t dare look at Piet.
“Still, I don’t suppose there are many of them who play, de Vries, are there? Not in a real game.”
I caught van den Broek’s eye again. For a moment he lost control of his mouth – so he did have a sense of humour after all, probably the same sort as me, the one that gets you in trouble for inappropriate fits of giggles. He glanced at the empty chair, and back at me, and I shook my head very slightly – there were limits, I thought – and retired behind the bar and began to polish glasses. I brought them more coffee half an hour later, and when Melanie arrived I left her to deal with them and I started to check the barrels for the evening rush. The next time I looked up, the party was on its feet, and the Marshalls were talking of being on their way back to their hotel to change for dinner. The place was filling up with members and their guests, and I didn’t see where they all went next, except that van den Broek appeared at the glass doors as I was about to clear the tables.
I acknowledged him with a nod, and began to stack cups on the tray. I was going to keep my temper, I was going to keep my temper, I was going. . .
“That won’t do any good to your career. Or to the Viper’s.”
I said nothing. It was a plain statement of fact.
“Do you think he knows what it’s really about?”
Say nothing, Phil. You can’t be in the wrong if you won’t rise to him.
“I can just imagine what he’d say if he knew.”
Alternatively, if I could get one good solid one under his ear. . .
van den Broek’s eyes widened suddenly, but he wasn’t looking at me, he was gazing over my shoulder at the car park. I swung round just in time to see Marshall hit his wife.
That’s a dreadful sentence: another plain statement of fact. He didn’t punch her; I don’t mean that. He delivered a flat-handed slap to the side of her jaw, which spun her against the side of the car, and then he leaned over her, and said something. We couldn’t hear the words, but his expression was vicious, and she flinched again, and then he strode off into the clubhouse. van den Broek. . . Hansie and I were running before the door was shut behind him. We came up on either side of Iona Marshall, and she cowered from us. It made me feel sick; I’ve never seen a woman cringe from me before and I hope never to again. I’m afraid we frightened her: I’m tall, and Hansie’s a big solid man, and if my expression was anything like his she couldn’t have helped being scared.
“Mrs Marshall, are you all right?” I asked, stupidly.
She blinked at me and then smiled rather lop-sidedly. “Yes, thank you. I’m a little. . . a little dizzy. It’s the sun.”
“Fuck it is,” said Hansie, concisely. “That bastard hit you.”
“Oh, no, it was just . . .”
“Mrs Marshall, I saw him. Phil saw him. He hit you.”
“No. . . no, he. . .”
My turn. I went for a more conciliatory tone than Hansie’s. “Mrs Marshall, you really don’t have to put up with that. Honestly. Look, why don’t you come inside, and let me find Mrs Hamilton, and then you can talk about what you want to do. Come inside and have some tea or something, and - ”
“No! Don’t tell Mary! There’s nothing to tell! You’ve made a mistake! I don’t know what you think you saw, but you’ve made a mistake. If you repeat this. . . this ludicrous fairy tale, I shall deny it!” And she tore herself out from between us, and ran inside, leaving Hansie and me looking rather stupidly at each other.
Hansie turned his back on Marshall’s car, and slid slowly down until he was sitting on the tarmac. He was swearing in Afrikaans, very softly. I recognised some of the words – it’s one thing to have Piet whisper them to me in bed, but Hansie imbued them with a vitriol all his own. I looked at him for a moment, and then sat carefully beside him. “I didn’t handle that very well, did I?”
He turned to look at me. “You and me both, hey? Did you see her eye?”
“No, what about it?”
“Big yellow bruise under the make-up. That wasn’t a one off: the bastard’s done it before. She’s covered it very carefully, but I have a cousin in Pietermaritzburg whose husband used to hit her. You get to spot the signs after a while, you know? And the way she moved when he did it: she was shocked but she wasn’t surprised. She was half expecting it.”
“And she was afraid when we loomed over her, too. She thought we were going to hurt her.”
Hansie nodded. He was very pale, and sweating, and he looked faintly sick. I felt a bit queasy myself. We just sat. I shifted, uneasily. “Can we do anything about it?”
“Officially? No. Her word against ours. She won’t press charges. Millie wouldn’t either. Unofficially? Ja, I can wait for him here, and give him a bloody good kicking.”
“Is that going to help her?”
“It’ll make me feel a damn sight better.” Viciously.
I dropped my head onto my knees. After a moment, I said, in a very small voice, “I’ve never looked at Piet like that. Even the. . . the first time, when I knew that he was going to hurt me. I was so scared that I didn’t know what to do with myself, but I’ve never shrunk from him like that. Even after I hit you, I didn’t look at him that way.”
Hansie touched my shoulder, gently. “It’s not at all the same thing, and you know it.”
“Well, don’t you always know what you’ve done to get the cane laid across your backside, hey? I always did. I’d always done something to deserve it, and I don’t suppose he’s changed that much; he’s a bloody psychopath, but he wasn’t capricious.”
“You turned him down.” I hadn’t meant to say that. The aching misery that I’d been denying for six weeks was only too audible. Not that Piet had had lovers before me; I’d had lovers before him. Better to be the last than the first. But that Hansie had hurt him, and he Hansie, and that somehow their lack of closure carried through to his relationship with me.
“Ja. What about it? It wasn’t for me. I wasn’t out, you know? I was denying. He came to talk to me, you know?” I nodded. “Well, he told you, I suppose.” I shook my head.
“He told me you talked, that’s all.”
“He apologised to me. Pieter de Vries apologising!”
“He thinks he let you down.”
“No. I hadn’t the courage to take what he offered, is all. You did. I couldn’t take it all, so I wouldn’t take any of it. It was a long time ago, hey? History. He made you the same offer, and you took it.”
“Not the same. He didn’t offer me himself.”
The eyebrows went up. “So did that come later?”
“No. I seduced him. I had to. He – you – he wouldn’t make the same mistake again.”
If his eyebrows went up any higher, his ears would fall off. “You seduced Viper de Vries? I couldn’t have done that then, I couldn’t do it now. He must think you’re something special.”
“So were you. Special enough for him to want you. He denied wanting me.”
“Ach, don’t go all jealous and possessive, O.K.? It was a different country, a different time. He doesn’t love me, I. . . I’m with Tim, we’re all happy, hey? He loves you. I mean, you call him ‘Piet’. I still call him ‘Meneer de Vries’, for God’s sake, even in my head.”
“He doesn’t trust me.”
“What, he won’t commit?”
“Oh, no, it’s not that at all. He commits every day. But he won’t let me commit. I have to make all the running. I seduced him. I claim him. He’s so anxious about what he did to you that although he commits to me, he won’t allow me to commit to him. He doesn’t really believe me when I tell him he’s what I want.”
Why on earth were we having this conversation? Me and Hansie, of all people. We were pulled from our respective abstractions by Tim.
“What are you two doing here? Aren’t you coming in? What’s the matter? What’s happened? Hansie, you look dreadful. Have you two been fighting again?”
We denied it, hastily and in chorus. And we went inside where we told Piet and Tim and James Hamilton what we had seen. Three quarters of an hour later we were still sitting round the table, arguing about what we should do, even assuming that there was anything we could do. Tim had vetoed Hansie’s idea of giving Marshall a kicking with sufficient vehemence that Hansie had given way, although with a poor grace.
“Well then, Timmy, if you’re so damned clever, you think of something. That bastard” (he didn’t seem to be able to call Marshall by his name, nor to find another epithet for him) “wants bringing down a bit, even if we can’t tell him why.” I nodded. I hadn’t been convinced by the kicking plan, but I agreed the principle behind it.
“Stand on him tomorrow in the match,” offered Tim, only half joking. “He loves these matches so much because his side sets him up to score. You can extract some payment there.”
Hansie turned to Piet. “You were always able to work out a way to persuade us to behave the way you wanted, meneer. You think of something.”
“I already have.”
He had our undivided attention.
“The man wants his own way at all costs. Thwart him. Mr Creed is right. The rugby is his weak spot. He wants to look like the great player. Stop him.”
“But his players set him up to score,” objected Hansie.
“He can’t score if he doesn’t have the ball.”
We all looked a bit taken aback at this statement of the blindingly obvious, but Mr Hamilton recovered soonest, giving a crow of understanding. “You mean the Lomu defence!”
“The what?” I knew what he meant, and understanding was dawning on Hansie’s face, but Tim was still baffled.
“When Jonah Lomu was playing at his peak, the only successful technique against him was the one which simply denied him the ball. It was understood that no matter who did gain possession, he was not to. It’s been used since then too,” added Mr Hamilton, happily. “It was done against Mike Catt, to such an extent that he lost his temper and got into all sorts of trouble. I like it, Pieter. Hansie, can we do it?”
“No,” said Hansie, flatly. “We haven’t got the skill, we haven’t got the speed. Your team ranges from a skinny eighteen-year-old to a selection of has-beens who can’t run. I could do it if I had even one other player to back me up, but there’s nobody on the team better than me, and I haven’t the speed for it any more.”
I looked up to see Piet’s gaze fixed on me. I knew what he wanted: I also knew that I didn’t like Hansie enough to want to do it. Of course, Piet knew that too. He just does bloody know things. He knows how to push buttons. Marshall, or van den Broek? Which, he was asking me, do you dislike more? I scowled, and gave in. Marshall. “Hansie, if you can think of any way to get me on your team, I’ll play. If I’m not better than Marshall, I’ll give up the game now.”
Hansie made a face but Piet forestalled him. “That’s not vanity. He’s good, he’s talented, and I trained him. Together, you should be enough. Can he play for you?”
Hansie looked at Mr Hamilton. “He’s not an employee. And we’ve posted a team list. How do we change it without making it obvious that we’re fielding a ringer?”
“My job,” said Tim. “I’ll do it at the dinner. Just remember to be surprised. Who do you want to lose, Hansie? ”
“Damian. He’s the youngest, and he’s quick, but he’s got legs like knotted string. He needs to be twenty pounds heavier before he plays seriously. He’s keen enough but his stamina lets him down. I’ll ask him to. . .”
“You won’t. You’ll scare him and leave him resentful. I’ll ask him, and you’ll make it plain later that he’s done you a favour. Do we tell the team the reason for the change?”
Mr Hamilton thought carefully about it. “I think we do. Marshall isn’t popular with anybody, and Phil and Hansie will manage better if they’ve got support from the rest of the team. Yes, Tim, let it be known. Discreetly.”
Damian turned up at the pre-dinner drinks (I had returned to my place behind the bar), and came looking for Hansie at once, accompanied by a rather severe looking lady of about fifty. It was she who spoke. “Oh, Mr Hamilton! Mr van den Broek! Talk some sense into this boy!”
“What’s the matter, Janice? Oh, John, excuse me. Let me introduce Janice MacAteer. She’s our company nurse. And this is Damian, who works for Hansie. What’s the problem, Janice?”
Damian, who looked sick with apprehension, held up an arm bandaged from wrist to elbow. “I was training this afternoon and, well, but Janice says it isn’t broken, Mr van den Broek, and I’m sure that I could play tomorrow. . .”
“Mr van den Broek, make him see sense. Surely you’ve got somebody else who can play?”
“Well, you know, I’m not sure that I have. No, Damian, I couldn’t encourage anybody to play with an injury. I think, Mr Marshall, we might just have to scratch this year.”
I tried not to grin. Nobody had told an absolute lie. It was Tim who opened limpid eyes and turned over the bar to me. “Don’t you play a bit, Phil? Could we persuade you to turn out in a good cause? It’s not very serious, you know, just a charity do.”
I hesitated. “Oh, I don’t know. . . How serious is ‘not very’?”
Hansie looked doubtful. “It’s just the Marshalls people against ours. Just a charity fundraiser. If Mr Marshall doesn’t mind us running an outsider? We’d appreciate your help, Mr. . . oh, O.K., Phil. I’m Hansie. ” And so it was settled.
I’ve played in some dirty matches in my time, and obviously Hansie had been playing much longer than me, and Piet longer than either of us, but we are agreed that none of us had ever played in a match like that one. The closest I came was the Medallion under fifteens final when I was still at school, when the final casualty list was one broken nose, one broken wrist, two missing teeth and a sprained ankle, and that was just on our side. And we won. Four consecutive Saturday morning detentions it cost us, too, and five hundred lines apiece on the subject of unsporting behaviour. But this one was past dirty. We intended to win at all costs, and we intended, more specifically, that John Marshall should lose at all costs. He spent a phenomenal amount of time face down in the mud, usually with one of us kneeling on him. It was remarkable, too, how often it happened that he went down, and somebody was unable to stop before putting stud marks between his shoulders. I picked him up myself, twice, apologising profusely; Hansie did it once (and although he’s not as tall as I am, he’s broader and heavier – I shouldn’t care to have him stamp on me); that guy from Sales (is his name Mike?) did it once, and Piet stepped backwards onto his fingers once.
It was quite interesting, in some ways, playing with Hansie on the team. We weren’t really a team: they didn’t play together often enough, and of course I had never played with any of them (shut up, Hansie), so we didn’t gel the way the Club team does, but Piet always says that if the team is all focused on the same end, the job becomes much easier, and of course he’s right. We wanted Marshall to eat dirt, and eat dirt he did. But specifically, Hansie had been trained by Piet too. He could do the thing that Piet had been trying to teach me for three months, and suddenly so could I.
Piet’s pet point, you see, is about being where you should be. “Don’t follow the play, Phil. Make it.” What he means is, the most effective way to play is not to chase the action, but to be where it’s about to be and then to take it over. When the opposition has the ball, don’t chase them for it, but be in the right place to take it from them. He’s spent hours with me, making me watch videos of obscure games between teams I’ve never heard of, stopping the replay and making me say what’s going to happen next. Who’s going to have the ball after the next tackle? Which way is he going to run? Where should you be to stop him? How? Read the play and then subvert it. It’s why he was so good himself – he was never where the opposition expected him to be. I’ve been getting steadily better and better at it, but with Hansie knowing how to do it too, Marshall’s team couldn’t get a grip on us at all. We largely left the rest of the Hamilton side to sort out our score-line – our job was to stop any of his team giving Marshall the ball, and if they did manage it, to stop Marshall scoring. Every time he turned round, one of us was there. I was fast enough to nip the ball out from under his nose – Hansie was heavy enough to take it away from him. He got away from us once when their Marketing Manager sat on me, and Hansie hadn’t the legs to catch him although he nearly did himself a mischief trying, but it did Marshall no good – he was offside before I was on my feet again.
Well, that was another matter. It’s just as well that nobody wrote up the match for the local paper. Every referee – every truthful referee – will tell you that some days he refs better than others, and by anybody’s standards, that pillar of the rugby community, Pieter (Viper) de Vries had an absolute shocker. I think that if it hadn’t been for his reputation, which as we all know is that of a fine, incorruptible, and highly experienced ex-international player, referee and coach, outstanding in all areas (stop sniggering, Hansie – where was I?), there would have been a great deal of complaint. However, we’re talking about Viper de Vries here; he couldn’t possibly be wrong over such matters as the interpretation of the offside rule. If the Viper says you’re offside, then you’re offside. And if he says that wasn’t a try, it wasn’t. And if he didn’t see the foul on your player, then there wasn’t one, because the Viper, as everybody knows, doesn’t miss anything and doesn’t let anybody away with anything. And if you go whining to him about it, he’ll call it dissent and I don’t recommend it, honestly I don’t. I’ve tried it, and smarted for it. Another ref would have been hung out to dry, probably by the balls, but because it was Pieter de Vries, everybody just took his word for everything.
It was one tough, hard, dirty match played in an exceedingly bad spirit. That’s really all there was to it. Hansie managed to intimidate one of their players (a tot about Damian’s age) so much that every time their eyes met, the tot dropped the ball. He probably went home to his mother in tears. My opposite number was carrying about a surplus stone, so every time we met I made some remark about him not being able to run fast enough to keep warm, or the like, and then I just bolted away from him. Bugged the hell out of him. Nearly killed me, trying to make it look effortless. At intervals I caught Piet’s eye, and once or twice he was smiling slightly – and those of us who know him well (shut up, Hansie) recognise that as the equivalent of fits of hysterical laughter in anybody else.
Of course we won. The margin was. . . well, big enough to be marked. Marshall hadn’t scored at all (Piet having disallowed a perfectly good try), although a couple of his staff had, but generally the day was ours. Hansie started the singing in the bath. He seemed to know most of the same songs as we did, although occasionally some slightly different verses, and we didn’t know the one about the sheep and the springbok at all. I’ve introduced it at the club now, although Piet has asked me to make sure that Mrs Hamilton has left before we sing it. Then we went to the bar, and started to compare notes.
“That guy Ged,” said Hansie, thoughtfully, “asked me at half-time why we had chosen the women’s refuge as our charity when in all previous years it’s been the hospital. I told him there had been a nasty incident in the club car park which we had taken personally, and just glanced at his boss.”
“That explains a great deal,” I said happily. “He had a lousy second half. Put the ball directly into my hands three times. Remarkable, isn’t it, how somebody who played so well to begin with could lose his touch so completely?”
“Mmm,” agreed Mike. “I heard him tell Marshall it was because he’d been playing league rather than union all winter and tended to lose track of what he was doing. Although what that has to do with the price of eggs I can’t think, and he’s played the last three years and it’s never taken him like that before. You know, Hansie, if we could poach him from Marshalls, I think he’d be a useful addition to the team.”
“Sales?” asked Hansie, dryly. “Or rugby?”
“I’ll think about it.”
I grew steadily less and less comfortable over the course of the later afternoon and early evening. I had a guilty conscience. Me! Eventually, Piet came over to where I was sitting, and parked himself opposite me.
“Tell me what’s wrong.”
It was an instruction, not an invitation. I wriggled in my chair, and peered into the bottom of my glass.
“Phil.” It was a decidedly warning tone, and when, against my will, I glanced up, he had that hard, bright, fierce look that I knew. It rarely boded well for me, although I hadn’t seen it nearly as much recently as at the start of our relationship. Well, except after I hit Hansie.
The silence was eloquent. I wriggled again. “I just. . . I think I did the wrong thing. And I think that perhaps it’s going to do damage to Mr Hamilton. And maybe Hansie.”
He just looked at me for a moment or two, and then he got up and went away. I was rather surprised, and actually somewhat disappointed. I had begun to feel better even just talking to Piet – I suppose I had been counting on him either to confirm my fears or to deny them, and to have him just walk away was unexpected. Then he came back, followed by Mr Hamilton, Hansie, and Tim. I looked up at them, and they down at me. It was Mr Hamilton who spoke.
“Pieter says you’re worried about something.”
I cast him a look of panic. Suddenly it had become something I really, really didn’t want to discuss. Or if I did, only with Piet. The very idea of explaining it to the others had clarified my thoughts. I didn’t think I had done the wrong thing; I knew I had done the wrong thing. And I knew what Piet felt about errors, and the consequences of errors. This was going to cost me, and if I had to explain it to Piet and then face those consequences, well, I would, but I didn’t want to involve the others.
“I don’t think that. . . Piet, can I talk to you?”
He raised his eyebrows and Tim began to turn away again. I thought better of it. “No. Sorry. Tim, stay. I think I’ve fucked up, and I don’t know what effect it’s going to have, and I suppose. . .”
Tim pulled out a chair, and sat down, leaning over the table towards me. The others followed suit. “Go on, Phil. Spit it out. Confession is good for the soul.”
“I rather think I’ve overdone dealing with Marshall, and I think it’s going to rebound on you and it’s my fault.”
I saw the exchange of glances. Hansie grinned at me. “You waited for him in the car park and gave him a kicking after all!” Then he winced. I think a kick was indeed delivered, but under the table and to him.
Mr Hamilton leaned his chin on his hands. “What have you done that we don’t know about yet?”
“It was in that last play. You know, when that blond man of theirs nearly scored? Most of us were – well, basically we were just piled up on the ground. Marshall’s shoulders were under Hansie – he couldn’t get up, and he couldn’t look round. And. . .”
“What did you do to him?” That was Piet. He knew I had done something. He just does know things. “I know you did something, Phil. I heard him yell. I just couldn’t see what you’d done.” Not like Piet to admit to not knowing something. I must be having an effect on him too: he’s making me grow up, so perhaps I’m making him less up-tight.
“I groped him. Thoroughly.”
There was a moment’s astounded silence. Then Hansie gave a huge whoop of delighted laughter. “Oh, wonderful! Why didn’t I think of – ouch!”
Tim glared at him, and he shut up.
Mr Hamilton ignored the by-play. “You also stood on him, knocked him down, thumped him and humiliated him. You all did. Is this different?”
“Yes,” I said, baldly. “It is. He signed up for the other stuff. We ought not to have done it, it was malicious and violent and unsporting and all the rest of it, and I don’t regret any of it. Scores have been settled on the pitch for years, and that doesn’t make it right but. . . well, it’s the way things are. But what I did to him was something that he couldn’t have expected, and he hadn’t any defences against it. It was. . .” I struggled for the words to explain the roil of emotions and ideas, and eventually descended into the language of the playground. “It made me no better than him. It’s bullying.”
Hansie blushed, suddenly and catastrophically, to a deep and ugly red which clashed horribly with his hair. I couldn’t spare more than a corner of my mind to wonder why. I went on. “What’s more, it was stupid. The other stuff, he could never have proved that was anybody’s fault, he couldn’t have proved it was deliberate. But what I did wasn’t accidental and he’ll know it.”
“It was a criminal assault,” said Piet, calmly.
“Yes. And. . . and it diminishes what I have with you. And he’s likely to throw a big one, and that comes down to Mr Hamilton, and Hansie, and Tim, because of the business.”
“He won’t make anything of it,” said Mr Hamilton, equably. “Suggest publicly that he had been touched up by a gay man? He won’t even admit it to himself. Ignore the business. He’s gone. Gone home. He told me that he wasn’t sure that he’d be able to put any business our way next year because they were – what was his phrase? – ‘rationalising their suppliers’. We’ll lose him, and I at least don’t care. I’ve already told his father that I won’t see him here again, and why. Hansie, next week, start working out where we’re going to take up the slack. Get Damian and Mike on the phones. See what we can do with a little flexibility. We might have to be imaginative with discounts and so on.”
Hansie was blushing again, but nodding. “Ja. Don’t worry, Phil. We’ll put some work in, and we’ll make up the loss. I don’t think anybody will miss them much, except Mike: it’s Mike’s bonus that will be affected. But I dare say we can fix that, hey?” His glance, oddly, was not at Mr Hamilton, but at Tim, who nodded approvingly.
Mr Hamilton looked back at me. “Bullying, though. I’m inclined to agree with you. Definitely bullying.” He glanced round. So did I. Tim nodded. Hansie was looking at the table, and his colour was still high, but Tim said, “Hansie?” quietly, and he looked up, nodded once, and dropped his head again. I made myself look at Piet. “Bullying,” he confirmed.
I suppose I had hoped that they would argue with me. I felt. . . I felt small, and very ashamed of myself. It was like facing a jury, and they had taken a vote, and the verdict was ‘guilty’. They said nothing, any of them, until I was ready to scream. I couldn’t bear to look at Piet – I had let him down again - so it was Mr Hamilton I spoke to.
“I’m sorry,” I offered. “It was a stupid thing to do. And even though you say you don’t care, I’ve forced the decision on you. What. . . what do you want to do about it?”
We all jumped. It hadn’t been Mr Hamilton who spoke; it had been Piet. The hawk look was very bright and hard; he was looking at Mr Hamilton in a challenging manner. “This is mine to deal with, James. Phil is mine to deal with. Not yours.”
“In matters of rugby, Pieter, I wouldn’t argue with you, but this is perhaps. . .”
Mr Hamilton’s eyebrows went higher even than Hansie had managed. “Even in questions entirely unrelated to his training?”
He glanced back at me. “Don’t envy you, son. I reckon there’s a sore backside lined up for you.”
“Again,” said Hansie, softly, but when I looked at him he was only mocking very gently, and not unsympathetically. “You wanted to be claimed, and I think you just have been, ja?”
I felt better for a while after sentence had been passed on me, particularly considering Piet’s part in it. There was a warm place inside (as opposed to what would be a warm place behind at some later point. . .) when I thought of Piet claiming me quite so obviously. It was, in its own way, romantic. (Well, if you don’t see it, you don’t.) But that feeling wore off disturbingly soon when I thought about what I had coming to me, and by about nine o’clock, I simply felt sick. There was still a big celebration going on, and the spin of people threw Hansie out to my feet.
“Oh, Phil. Are you ready for another drink, hey? No? What’s wrong? I thought – ”
“It’s just apprehension, that’s all. I know what’s coming, I just wish it was coming before lunchtime tomorrow.”
“Lunchtime? Why lunchtime? I assumed. . . well, it’s not my business, of course, but I rather thought that as soon as you went home, the Viper would sort you out.”
“We’re not going home tonight. We thought that, win or lose, there would be a fair amount put away, so we booked rooms at the Crown. We won’t go home until tomorrow. And the wait always makes me feel sick.”
“Ah, I see. Ja, a little apprehension is salutary but you’re finding this excessive.”
“It’s my own fault, Hansie. Piet always says that the consequence of error is punishment. That’s the deal I made with him six months ago. And this time the punishment includes waiting. It’s happened before. There was a match in Bath. . . it was a long drive home. And after I hit you, too. It makes me nervous, that’s all.”
“So enjoy it.”
He gave me an odd look, and then laughed. “You don’t like it?”
“What?” Honestly, the conversations here were all beyond me. I never seemed to know what anybody was talking about.
“Amazing. I don’t know how you two sustain a relationship. You’ve got the hottest Top in the country and you don’t like it.”
He gave me another drink (it was easiest in the end to accept), and wandered off into the crowd again. Ten minutes later, Piet caught my eye across the room, and beckoned me outside. There was a taxi, and he hustled me across the car park and into the back seat.
“Have you had enough? I didn’t say goodbye to anybody.”
“We’ll come back later.”
“Where are we going?”
“Johannes’ house. I’ve got his keys.”
“Because he says I’m being unfair on you.”
No, didn’t get that at all. Didn’t understand it. We went to Hansie’s.
“Upstairs, he said, and first on the right.”
First on the right was a spare room, with that chill unmistakeable smell and air of spare rooms everywhere. There was a large padded chair in the centre of the floor. I began to get a bad feeling.
“Johannes said, top shelf in the wardrobe.”
I opened the wardrobe, suspiciously. Took down the cane from the top shelf. Stared at Piet. “Hansie canes Tim?”
“Or the other way round. I didn’t ask.”
That conversation had begun to make more sense, but I didn’t like it any better.
Sigh. Yes. Better now than tomorrow. I drew the curtains, faced the chair and unfastened my belt.
“Take them right off, Phil.”
Not Piet’s usual style. I didn’t like it, but I did as I was told. Bent over the back of the chair. Waited.
“Six should be enough.”
More than enough, thanks. I waited. The cane tapped lightly across my backside.
“One.” Piet never counted aloud – he must be drunk. I braced myself for the first blow, but he tapped again. “Two.” What the hell was he doing? He delivered a little more sharply. “Three.” It was no more than a slight sting, not even enough to disturb my breathing. “Four.” He had run mad. Or I had. “Five.” Sharp enough to itch slightly, but not to hurt. “Six. Get up.”
“What was that about?”
“Form. I’ve never seen you as a bully before, I don’t expect that you’ll do it again, but you know now that I disapprove of it.” I was beginning to smile, when he caught my wrist and pulled me round the chair. He was seated and I was face down before I had grasped what was going on.
“On the other hand, groping Marshall is not something I’m going to let you away with.” Ow! Ow, ow, ow! He had definitely run mad. Piet’s spankings are delivered slowly, judiciously, impersonally. Effectively. This was hard, fast, but still effective. I wasn’t very sure what I’d done, but he wanted me not to do it again, I gathered that.
“Ow! Piet! What’s that for?” I slid off his knee, rubbing my tail vigorously. He caught me again and pulled me to my feet, yanked me against him with both hands hard on my backside, and kissed me.
“You want to put your hands in somebody’s shorts, Phil? Put them in mine. I don’t mind you looking – window shopping, you know? – but if I catch you trying for size, I’ll blister your backside.”
“That’s nothing to do with rugby. That’s outside our deal.”
“Yes. And it’s the way it is, too. I find that I’m a jealous man. I won’t have James discipline you, and I won’t have you groping someone else.”
Oh. O.K. Kiss me some more. Nobody kisses like Piet, not even Tim, and he can lick his own eyebrows. Nobody touches like Piet, either, and there’s a bed behind. . .
“No. No, you don’t. I’m not having you in somebody else’s bed.”
“Awwww, Piet. . . You can’t leave me like this!”
“I can. Get dressed. I’ll call for a taxi. We’re going back to the club.”
Bastard! Controlling bastard! Viper! He kept me there until midnight, and every twenty minutes he drew me behind a door and got me all worked up again. Groping? Don’t talk to me about groping. Tim spotted what he was doing, and laughed like a hyena, and he told Hansie, but that backfired on him, because Hansie did it to him too. Mr Hamilton kept introducing me to his business contacts, and that was the night I got the reputation that I’m trying so hard to shed now – Phil Cartwright’s a charming boy, lovely manners, but absolutely no brains, and you can’t get any sense from him. You try making intelligent conversation when you can’t stand up straight because of what your lover’s just done to you in the kitchen in the dark.
But what he did to me in the hotel in the dark made up for it.
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© , 2005