It was Hansie’s fault. You know, I do seem to end up saying that rather a lot. I’m not very sure why I end up in trouble so often over something Hansie did – nor why the trouble so often ends up with me smarting while Piet warms my backside. But this one was definitely Hansie’s fault.
And yet he means so well! I can’t deny it. It had suddenly occurred to him that the evening we all spent chasing him round the town while he fell out of his tree, ending up at Fran Milton’s, was supposed to be the celebration for my first international. And he felt guilty about it. Honestly, for an Afrikaner, supposed to be about as Calvinist as you can get outside the tighter bits of Ulster or Scotland, he does guilt like a Catholic. To hear him talk, you would think he was personally responsible for every bad thing that happens to anybody, whereas he is in fact only responsible for the bad things that happen to him and to me. And probably only half the ones that happen to me.
He must have apologised to me six times for spoiling my evening, and to tell the truth I wasn’t that bothered about it. It wasn’t as if we had been throwing a party or anything. We had all gone out for a drink together, and there would be other opportunities to do that. I wished he would just let it drop. I had to bite back a couple of “Oh, for pity’s sake, let it go” remarks, because Hansie was still desperately on edge about everything. He hadn’t reconciled himself to being abandoned by his family, although he didn’t talk about it, but anything anyone else said about their families made him wince; he was attached to Tim by the hip, but I had the feeling that all wasn’t well between them; I saw him a couple of times with James Hamilton, and I got the distinct impression that he was desperate to please; the only person with whom he seemed to be at all comfortable was Fran Milton. And between him and Piet there was an atmosphere that I couldn’t read at all. They were on first name terms (well, Piet called him ‘Hansie’ and he called Piet ‘Viper’), but Piet was giving him more attention than I quite liked, and he was hanging on Piet’s every word like a pre-teen after a pop star. I didn’t really like it, and I don’t think Tim did either. But Hansie was so fragile that I held my tongue. I wouldn’t have done that a year ago, but Piet is a great believer in thinking before one speaks and I’m a great believer in doing as Piet wants in the hope of not ending up over his knee. Well, that’s an exaggeration, I suppose. I know it’s a good idea in its own right, and something I do aim to do, and avoiding trouble is just an extra.
Where was I?
Yes, Hansie was all anyhow and desperately trying to keep himself right with everybody, including me, so when we got to yet another social event which we were all expected to attend, he was looking to be the genial host to me. This time it was a ‘Friends of’ thrash. Sorry, bad choice of words. Freudian. Friends of what? I haven’t the faintest idea. The hospital, it might have been, or the hospice. Something like that. And all these bashes are held at the Club, basically because we’ve got the only decent sized public rooms in the area, and a respectable kitchen with good sub-contractors, and a bar and an understanding with the licensing authorities, and no near neighbours so no trouble about late licences. And whoever books the rooms always wants a player or two to swell the ranks and basically at the moment they want Piet and me, because that guarantees them a line or two in the local rag, and occasionally a picture. And that’s not swank on my part, but in purely local terms I’m a big fish. I’m not vain enough to imagine that I’m anything important once we get ten miles from home. It’s not something I particularly want: I can’t tell you how much rubber chicken I’ve eaten in the last six months.
But James Hamilton serves on all the committees: I think it’s Scottish Presbyterianism at its strongest. Serious duty. So he turned out for the Friends of whatever, with Mrs Hamilton, who always seems to find me terribly amusing, and with Tim and Hansie. Tim, I think because his uncle wanted him to show, and Hansie because Tim wanted him. And we ate our rubber chicken, and Piet and I did the civil around the associated Friends, and eventually they got to the speeches.
Mercifully, by this point, we were all on the move again, not pinned in our places. The dreadfully dull woman on my left had simpered away to talk to somebody more important. The pretty girl on my right fled; she and I had laboured mightily over the meal, because however hard we had tried (and we had both tried) we had been unable to find any topic of conversation of mutual interest. And Hansie came to sit beside me, and whipped my wine glass away from under my nose, and gave me a clean one.
“You don’t want to drink any more of that, Phil, it’s not a good year. Try this one, it’s better.”
I tasted it carefully. He watched me, hopefully. “Why is it better? It doesn’t taste very different to me.”
He was horrified. “Can’t you taste the difference? No, don’t gulp at it. Look, like this.”
I had a brief lesson in wine tasting, and rather too much information about vanilla and oak and all sorts of other things, none of which I could taste. It tasted of wine to me, but Hansie seemed happy, so I humoured him. Perhaps we shouldn’t have finished the bottle between us while the speeches were going on, but they did go on. And on. And on.
Until eventually, James Hamilton got to his feet. He’s a good speaker, sharp and amusing, and if Hansie and I hadn’t all but finished the bottle, all the other stuff wouldn’t have happened. They had given him the ‘what we achieved this year’ stuff to do, probably because he’s the only one who can make it interesting. This was what we raised, this is where we spent it. And it was all going on very nicely until he mentioned some fundraising activity which had been done in collaboration with the women’s refuge, and I caught Hansie’s eye. And he laughed.
Well, actually, he giggled. And he leaned over, and whispered in my ear, “What do we know about collaborations and the women’s refuge?”
No, it wasn’t funny. I know it wasn’t. But it broke me up. And I dug him sharply in the ribs, and that broke him up too. And then I saw Tim, and whispered to Hansie, “Shut up, you’re getting the evil eye from Himself”. And with some struggle, I pulled my face straight, and listened to Mr Hamilton speak. And I was doing O.K. until he said something about some fundraising that we had done at the club, and how you could always count on club members to do the right thing. And Hansie leaned over to whisper in my ear, “Yeah, like groping a wife-beater when the scrum collapses, hey?”
It was perhaps unfortunate that I had just taken a mouthful of wine, because I can’t laugh and swallow at the same time, and my coughing fit was not improved any by the fact that Hansie, although looking into space with an expression of the utmost innocence, was running his hand up my thigh. But I managed to gasp myself into quietness again, mostly by catching Piet’s eye. He didn’t know what I was doing, and I liked it that way. And James Hamilton was beginning to glance my way too, and I’ve heard once before what he thinks about brattish behaviour, and I don’t need to hear it again.
And so far I reckon it was all Hansie's fault, but I’ll put my hand up to the next bit; it was me. I waited until the next speaker was on his feet, and as he started on how wonderful fundraising was, I patted Hansie's knee and ran a fingertip up his leg.
Well, I didn’t know he was ticklish, did I?
He let out a squawk, and knocked over the water jug, and I just collapsed in fits, and then so did Hansie. We both giggled uncontrollably through the whole of the last speech, and we weren’t doing that much better afterwards when Tim came over.
“What on earth is wrong with you two tonight?”
Not that that helped any. What eventually stopped us was Piet, who crossed the room to me, and said, quietly enough that only the four of us heard him, “I will see you in fifteen minutes in the physiotherapist’s room”.
Oh shit. That sobered me sharply enough, and wiped the smile off my face. Piet went off again, and I just stood looking after him, and Hansie, who seemed sober enough himself all of a sudden, said, rather uneasily, “He won’t. . . you know, will he?”
I nodded. He would ‘you know’. I was fairly sure he would.
“Does he keep a cane here?”
“Shut up!” I hissed. “You don’t have to tell everybody!”
“Sorry. But does he?”
“No. Anyway, he wouldn’t do that for this. But I’m going to get a rocket and probably a sp. . .”
I stopped. I’d never actually said that Piet spanked me. Hansie knew I got caned when I really blew things (well, it had happened to him too when Piet was his coach) but I didn’t know if he knew that minor offences got me turned over Piet’s knee. And if he didn’t, I didn’t particularly want him to. I don’t altogether understand this myself, but although the cane is much more painful than the spanking, the spanking is much more humiliating than the cane.
“A what, Phil?”
“Never mind. Trouble.”
“What sort of trouble?”
“The sort I’d rather not be in.”
“But if he isn’t going to. . . you know, you’ll just get your ears chewed off, won’t you?”
“Then what. . .”
“Look, just let it go, will you? It isn’t your business.”
“Well, but it was partly my fault.”
“Piet won’t let that go as an excuse, will he? And you aren’t his concern, and I am, so it’ll be trouble for me. Let it alone.”
“Not until you tell me what he’s going to do.”
Oh, God, but he’s stubborn. Tim always says so. I gave in, swinging round so that nobody would lip-read, and speaking very softly.
“I’m going to get a spanking, O.K.? And Piet spanks bloody hard. And if I don’t go now, I’ll be late and I’ll get another one for that. Piet’s absolutely beans on punctuality. Get out of the way.”
“No. I’m coming with you. It wasn’t your fault, and it isn’t fair. The Viper never used to be unfair.”
“Why don’t you just mind your own business?”
He took on that mulish look again. “Because it’s not fair.”
I really hadn’t time to bother about him, so I pushed past him to the door. Tim had a very odd expression, and he came after us both, and I really, really didn’t want him, but it was obvious to me that nobody was going to pay any attention to what I wanted. I hurried up the stairs to the physio’s room. Piet was at the window: as I arrived, he flicked the blinds shut and opened his mouth to speak, but Hansie and Tim came in behind me, and he raised his eyebrows. “What is this, a delegation?”
“I didn’t bring them,” I said crossly. “Hansie's determined to talk to you, and God knows what Tim wants.”
“I want you to be civil, for a start,” snapped Tim equally crossly. I blinked.
Hansie went in feet first. Subtle as a mugger. “It wasn’t Phil’s fault he had the giggles. I was winding him up.”
The eyebrows went up again.
“We just made each other laugh, you know? And then I was touching him up. That’s what made him cough. It wasn’t his fault, Viper.”
It was fine until that ‘Viper’. That was a mistake.
“It wasn't his fault that he cannot control his sense of humour. I see. What caused you to overturn the water, Hansie?”
Then, of course, Hansie saw it coming. He ummed a bit, and I put in, wearily, “I put my hand on his leg. I didn’t know he was ticklish.” Look, I already knew what was coming, and as I think I’ve said before, I don’t like the wait. I want it over and done with.
Just that. I cringed. He always did see. It never saved me.
“Thank you, Hansie. If you will excuse us, I will talk to Phil about this.”
But Hansie didn’t go. “I remember your ‘talks’. But it wasn’t his fault.”
“It was his fault. Oh, not exclusively, I agree, but in part. So he and I will talk.”
“That’s not fair!”
I jumped. He sounded about twelve. Something was horribly wrong here; I glanced instinctively at Tim; he was frowning.
“What isn’t fair?”
“You’re going to punish Phil and it wasn’t his fault! It’s not fair!”
It was actually rather scary: Hansie was working himself up into a right state. I didn’t see why, unless it was the wine. “Hansie, let it go. You know the deal I have with Piet. It’s payment time for me. Just go back downstairs and let me get it over.”
“No! Meneer, you never used to be unfair.”
I saw Tim stiffen at that ‘meneer’. And Piet didn’t like it, either.
“Hansie, this is nothing to do with you. It’s between me and Phil. I do not force him to it.”
“But it’s not fair!”
I was growing very tired of that complaint, but Tim got in ahead of me saying so.
“Hansie? If it’s that unfair, then the obvious corollary is that you deserve to be punished too.”
Wow! Where had that one come from? My mouth fell open. Piet was quicker.
“Indeed so. Take him home, Mr Creed, and deal with him as you see fit.”
“No, Mr de Vries, I don’t think so. This time, I think you should do it.”
There was a wordless conversation between them; I didn’t get any of it, and I don’t think Hansie did either. But Piet obviously understood very well what was going on. He nodded, once. “Hansie? If you want me to be absolutely fair, I will give you exactly what I am about to give Phil. Yes or no?”
Hansie cast an unreadable glance at me, and looked back at Piet. “Ja,” he said, almost inaudibly.
I opened my mouth to say “No!”, much more audibly, and Piet gave me a Look, and suddenly I shut up. There was something going on, and I didn’t know what it was. He looked past me. “Mr Creed, perhaps you and Phil would go and walk round the pitch. That should give us long enough.”
Tim took my arm, firmly, and led me out. We were at the bottom of the stairs when I heard the door above us close. I pulled free.
“What the fuck is going on? What’s that about?”
He led me outside and towards the pitch, in the dark. “It’s to do with Hansie's father, I think. He’s been talking about his father a lot lately, you know?”
“You’re picking up his accent,” I said nastily.
He snorted. “Probably. It’s emotive stuff, Phil. Fran Milton was in the right of it – Matthias van den Broek was a right bastard. I’m amazed that Hansie's as well balanced as he actually is. But you must have seen that he and de Vries don’t know how to deal with each other.”
“I don’t want them to deal with each other that way. That’s. . .”
“That’s your deal,” he said shrewdly. “And it’s the one Hansie refused. I think it’s just as well he did. I think they would have killed each other. But de Vries seems to have been what kept Hansie balanced for quite a long time. Hansie worshipped him. And then he bolted from him, and now he doesn’t know where to put de Vries in his world.”
I thought about this. I didn’t understand any of it. “What do you mean?”
“As far as I can tell, Matthias ignored his younger son except when he had misbehaved, and then he beat him. And Matthias seems to have had some fairly extreme ideas about what constituted misbehaviour. Breathing, living, that sort of thing. And then Hansie met de Vries, and de Vries became a substitute father. Hansie says he caned harder than his father did, but never without cause. Some of Hansie's guilt is at having loved de Vries more than he loved his father.”
I choked on that ‘loved’. Tim saw it, and hooked his arm through mine. “Look, this is amateur psychology stuff. I’m guessing. Then de Vries made a pass at him. Oedipal? Of sorts. What’s the other complex? Electra? What do you think it is for gay men? Hansie doesn’t want him now, although I think he regretted him for years, but he doesn’t know where to place him instead. He’s got a huge hole in his life for a male role model, and it was de Vries, and I think perhaps it should be again. Specially since you and de Vries are obviously as happy together as the day is long, so it will be good for Hansie (and for me as well) for him to have a role model who isn’t afraid to love.”
“O.K., I can see that. But what’s all this ‘it’s not fair’ stuff? Hansie knows I get a walloping when Piet reckons I’m out of order. And I don’t like it – not like you two do” - (that was a guess, based on other stuff, but Tim flushed and wriggled) – “but that’s how things are between Piet and me. So what’s with ‘it’s not fair’?”
Tim hesitated. “I think I know what’s behind that, but I wouldn’t swear to it. Apparently when Hansie was in his teens, his father accused him once of breaking some valuable family heirloom. Hansie denied it, and his father didn’t believe him, and beat him for it. And then he beat him for lying about it. And Hansie says his father’s standard punishment was twelve with his belt, to be taken in silence.”
My turn to flinch. Piet can make me squeak just by spanking me, and I’ve never yet taken more than six with the cane without complaint.
“And if he didn’t take twelve in silence, his father would go on until he did. Any time he cried out, that one didn’t count. And this time he couldn’t. He says he can’t remember how many he got, to take two dozen in silence. And afterwards, it was discovered that it had been his mother who broke the whatever-it-was.”
“Yes. And his father didn’t acknowledge that later. Never admitted that Hansie had been punished for something he hadn’t done. Is it any wonder he tends to be a bully? It’s all he saw in his formative years. But he has a very strong notion of ‘not fair’. And we’ve been talking so much about his family that I think that’s what’s coming out.”
I saw. But I still didn’t like it. “So why didn’t you take him home and spank him, if you think he’s worried about me getting it for something that’s not my fault?”
“Because I want de Vries placed as a role model, as a father substitute, as anything but an abandoned lover.”
“Great. And what about me? How do you think I feel about it?”
“Sorry, Phil, but I don’t care. You’ll sort yourself out. Hansie's much more imaginative than you and he’s been hurt enough already. I’ll do anything to make the world better for him. You’re not my problem.”
“Oh. Thanks very much.”
He softened. “No, that’s not true. I do care what happens to you. But I think you and de Vries will sort yourselves out. And if I don’t look after Hansie, who’s going to? He’s making a new family, like Fran said he should, and we’re all part of it, but she’s the only one he’s really properly placed with.”
“Because she’s the only one of us who isn’t asking him for more than he knows how to give. I want him to love me and to let me love him, and he’s scared to. He wants to, but he’s scared. de Vries wants forgiveness, I think; reconciliation at least. I don’t know what you want from him, but he wants your friendship and he doesn’t really know how to get it. Fran wanted him to pose for her, and he did, and that’s all she wants from him. So they can be friends without baggage. She really does treat him like her baby brother, and he loves it. He lets her tease him in a way he wouldn’t accept from anybody else – and she doesn’t let anybody else do it.”
I thought about this. I still didn’t like it. We turned round the corner flag and came back towards the building.
“Well, I sort of see what you’re getting at, but I hate it. I wish you hadn’t involved Piet. Specially not if you and Hansie do that sort of thing too. I don’t see why you couldn’t have done it yourself.”
“Oh, I’m going to,” he said coolly. “Hansie's going over my knee as well tonight. He just doesn’t know it yet. But he’ll be thinking about me last thing, not about de Vries.”
“Why don’t you call him Pieter?” I asked, side-tracked.
“Because he calls me Mr Creed.”
At the top of the stairs, it was quiet. We looked at the door.
“Do we knock?” Tim asked.
“You’d be able to hear if he hadn’t finished,” I said, with the fervency of experience, and opened the door. I wished I hadn’t. Piet was sitting on the physio’s couch; Hansie was on the floor at his feet. He had his legs curled under him: I knew that pose, it’s the one that keeps the bottom off the hard floor, with the weight balanced between the thighs and the shins. His arms were folded across Piet’s lap, his head on his forearms, and Piet was stroking his hair, and speaking to him very softly. He didn’t move as we came in, but Piet looked up, and then slid a hand under Hansie's arm to urge him up.
“There. Here is Mr Creed. Go home, Hansie. Go on.”
He looked. . . different. A little pink around the eyes, and very, very tired, but less hyper than earlier. I hated him. He moved towards us, and I stepped out of his way, turning my gaze away from him.
“Phil? I’m sorry. . .”
I nodded, without looking at him, still looking at Piet. Tim took Hansie by the arm.
“We’re out of here. Come on, Hansie. Goodnight, Mr de Vries.”
“Goodnight, Mr Creed.”
“Tim. Not Mr Creed.”
“Pieter, then. Or Viper.”
The door shut behind them. I looked at Piet. He patted his lap. “Come then.”
I stumbled to him, hating him, hating Hansie, hating Tim. Hating myself. I saw what Tim and Piet were trying to do for Hansie. I had said I didn’t understand it, but I did. I did. And I was so jealous that I felt sick. A line from some silly song wandered through my head: ‘Jealousy comes in the colour of jade’. And so does nausea. I wanted Piet to love me, to care about me more than he cared about Hansie. Intellectually, I thought he did, but my intellect was away with the fairies, and my gut twisted with pure bitterness. I knew it was jealousy and I despised myself for it, and I fought it even as Piet bared me and drew me over his lap.
He didn’t even spank me hard: a couple of dozen in his usual measured manner, without the edge that he applies when I’ve really pissed him off. But my emotions were too raw to bear it: I was weeping before the first ten. He very rarely makes me cry – not properly. Oh, sure, I get up with tears running down my face, but I don’t sob. The cane makes me yell, but not cry. But this time, although I made no sound, I was swamped with tears, and it was only by the utmost control over my breathing that I stopped myself bawling like an infant.
He let me go, and I got up, turning away from him. I never did that: always I just slid off his lap to my knees, while Piet helped me dress, and then sat as Hansie had sat while he petted me back to calmness. But I dressed myself with my back to him, and said in a strangled voice, “May I go?”
He rose and came up behind me and put his hands on my shoulders, trying to persuade me to turn to him. I wouldn’t. But he’s not stupid, and he’s not stubborn, either; he simply walked round me and took my face between his hands.
“Ah, Phil. . . What have we done to you? Here, liefling, here.” And he tried to encourage me back to the couch. I wouldn’t go, until he said, “Now, Phil, please” in his hardest tone, and I broke and followed him, and stood in front of him.
“It seems I can’t do this. I can’t make it right for Hansie and keep it right for you.”
And I knew from his voice that he was grieving over this too, and the tears spilled again, and I heard my voice say, with a childish break in it, “He was in my place!”
Oh God, if Hansie had sounded twelve, I sounded about nine. Petulant and whiny and horrible. Pathetic.
“You let him have my place afterwards.”
I could hear what I sounded like, and I hated it, and if Piet had so much as smiled our relationship wouldn’t have survived it. But he looked at me seriously. “You mean when he was sitting on the floor.”
“That’s my place.”
I’m embarrassed still when I think of this. But Piet did me the courtesy of taking me seriously, and answering me gravely.
“Geliefde, that is not your place. Others have had it before you; you can afford to let Hansie have it. Your place is higher.”
I didn’t understand, and he saw that. He backed up to the couch. “Shall I show you your place?”
Over his lap, I thought wearily, being punished like a child for a lack of self-control. But he took my hand and drew me to him, settled himself on the couch and swung his legs up, and pulled me alongside him until I perched on the edge. “Here. Lie down.”
And he drew my head down onto his chest, and tucked his arms round me, and pressed his face into my hair, and said, softly, “This is your place, beminde, next my heart. None before you. No others. Not Hansie, then or now. Just you.”
Sentimental, or what? Viper de Vries turned sentimental. Let the sky fall; I can’t imagine what it cost him to say it, but there could be no doubting his sincerity. And I buried my face in his shoulder and shook, and he held me and whispered endearments and stroked my back and neck.
Eventually I pulled away, and smiled, rather shakily, at him. “Is Hansie. . . will he be all right?”
Piet shrugged. “I have no idea. Tim Creed is a remarkable young man. He hated that at least as much as you did, but he wants Hansie disentangled from me. Or rather, when I spoke to him earlier tonight, he said he wanted Hansie to free himself of his father. I think he may have decided that I will do as a substitute.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “He said more or less that. That he wanted you slotted in as a substitute rather than as the lover Hansie didn’t take. Do you think it will work?”
He shrugged again, pulling me back against his chest. “I don’t know. But I did not think it would take you so badly. I feel a responsibility to Hansie and I will do what I can for him, but not at your expense.”
Oh God, but that felt good. It allowed me to be generous in my turn. “Do whatever Hansie needs. But remember that it’s hard for me.”
He made an acquiescent noise in his chest, and we lay, pressed together on a couch intended for one. I listened to his heart, and as usual marvelled at how slow it was. Even in his forties, he is amazingly fit, and his pulse is very slow. Presently, though, I thought it quickened a little, and his fingers came to search for mine, weaving them together. And he drew our joined hands down over his body.
“Phil? This is hard for you too. Just for you.”
Angels and ministers of grace defend us, Piet cracking a joke. Not a particularly good one, but a year ago he wouldn’t have known how.
“Is that door locked, Piet?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Shall I lock it?”
“And then what will you do, koekie?”
“I’ll think of something. Look for vipers.”
“Look for Viper’s what?”
Well, work it out. And the Friends of the Hospital nearly got some extra business and a bigger write up in the local press than they expected, because we fell off the couch fifteen minutes later. And once Piet gets going, he’s a worse giggler than Hansie.
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