God help me, I’ve created a monster.
And the worst part is, that everything started with such good intentions – but then, I suppose we all know what’s paved with those.
“You will just have to handle the negotiations with Fleming and Johnson yourself,” Hansie had said. “I’m really sorry, Tim, but there’s no way Jim and I can postpone this meeting with the auditors, and I’ve already put F&J off once – if we do it again there’s a good chance they’ll conclude we’re not serious about the business, and we’ll lose our chance not only of this contract but of getting any further sales too.”
I grimaced. “Hansie, you know I’m not really a salesman. Couldn’t Mike handle it?”
“Mike will come with you and hold your hand, for sure, but they want to see someone senior on our side, someone with a knowledge of the bigger picture – what we can and can’t commit to.” He grinned at me suddenly. “Don’t look so scared, boet. Time for Timmy to take his first faltering steps in the big bad world of sales.”
I punched him gently in the arm. “Very funny”. I’d been going round in the car with Jim and various of the company salesmen since I was about five. But I wasn’t – didn’t think of myself as – a salesman. I’m not outgoing enough to be a natural at it. And I needed to get over that if I was going to carry on in my present position as Deputy Sales Director, because in a company the size of Hamilton’s there wasn’t really enough slack to carry a pure desk-jockey. Everyone had to pitch in and get their hands dirty.
He was right, I acknowledged it. Increasingly he was. As he grew in confidence he was growing into the job. Or maybe I was getting – we were all getting – used to the way he worked. He and I hadn’t had to have any of our little ‘talks’ about his behaviour in the office for several weeks.
Personally I thought it was the long slow business of coming to terms with the darkness in his own life – his loveless childhood, his regrets for the career he might have had in international rugby – that was leading him to lighten up with other people. He would always bear the scars, but he was learning to grow around them, the way a tree grows around its wounds.
I think I can take a little of the credit for that. Not all, by a long chalk – much of it belongs to Fran, the big sister he never had, and to Jim and Mary, and Phil, and above all the enigmatic Pieter de Vries – but some, yes. And I’m proud of that, damned proud; but then I would be. I love him, you see.
Uh-oh, not appropriate, you’re thinking. Office romance – bad. Office gay romance – stuff of Sunday tabloids, or tribunals. It didn’t start that way – I thought he was obnoxious. Actually, he was obnoxious. But Jim, my uncle saw something in him. And I think saw something between me and him, too, that led him to throw us at one another and see what happened. Like a couple of spitting cats in a sack, left to sort out their differences. Which we did, and not entirely in the sack.
So much as I didn’t want to do this, I could see all the reasons why I should. And I was prepared to do it for him, because I loved him, but more because he needed my help. All right, I’m a bleeding heart, but I can’t resist a cry for help. And after all, it wasn’t as if I didn’t have lots of experience being nice to people I’d never met at all the events the company sponsors, and I did know the brief. Hell, I’d written the brief.
I took a deep breath. “Yes. OK. I can do this.”
“Ja, of course you can. Meetings or no meetings, you don’t think Jim and I would let someone go out and do business in our name if we didn’t think he could handle it, do you? We both agree you are more than capable of doing this.”
So Jim and my lover had been discussing me, had they? I supposed they would have had to. I just wasn’t too sure I liked it. But then he added:
“Besides, most of it is already agreed in principle – this is just finalising the details. And Tim – I want you to understand that if it doesn’t happen, well it’s not the end of the world. Sometimes that happens in Sales – you can’t win them all. Hamilton’s will survive without the extra business.”
I wondered afterwards if he knew that that comment would make me determined to get the contract if it killed me. He knows me well enough, I think, to know what buttons to push. It’s just that he isn’t usually that subtle.
God, if it killed me? It nearly did, and in more ways than one.
The irritation generated by the remark was, however, enough to carry me all through the rest of that day, and into the following morning, in fact, right up to the time that Mike stepped into the office in his best suit, looked me up and down and wolf-whistled.
“Very pretty.” I took that as it was meant and flipped him a V-sign. Mike is famously married and famously straight, with a bunch of kids aged 5 through 14 whom he absolutely dotes on. I think he knows that I’m gay – quite a lot of the longer-term staff do, though I don’t make a big thing of it. I don’t think anybody knows about me and Hansie, though, apart from Jim.
“Is that Armani? They’re paying you too much.”
“It isn’t, and they don’t,” I said shortly.
“Fair enough. Hey, relax, this isn’t your execution we’re going to.”
“Sorry, Mike, just a bit nervous. I’m not used to doing this.”
“You’ll be fine,” he said breezily. “Trust me.”
“Trust me, I’m a salesman? That’s a new one.”
He chuckled. “Just follow my lead, and be charming. I know you can do that, because I’ve seen you. Come on.”
I took a deep breath and started to follow him out of the office.
“Oh, by the way, can we take your car? Mine still hasn’t had that dent in the offside wing sorted out.”
“Oh, we can do better than that,” I said smugly. “Hansie suggested we use his BMW.”
“We’re definitely paying him too much then.”
“I think he thinks we should make an appropriate impression.”
“Fine. But you drive – if the paintwork gets scratched, I’d rather it was your arse on the line than mine.”
I hope my double take wasn’t too obvious. I mean, I’m sure the remark was made in all innocence – it was well known that Hansie took a very dim view of irresponsible driving. Several of the staff, including me, had had the odd tongue-lashing in his office, at a volume quite likely to be overheard outside, on the dangers of speeding: ‘You are travelling in a guided missile, thousands of kilos of metal and glass and flammable liquid, at a speed you cannot properly control. You think this is a smart idea, ja?’ It was just that unlike the rest of the staff, when I got home I got more than my ears bashed. Usually I supply the discipline in our little set-up, but on those occasions I found myself sitting uncomfortably for a while. And while I was fairly certain that Mike couldn’t know that, he had worked for Hamilton’s for a long while, and might know about my Uncle’s views on discipline. Well, a lot of people did after the famous, public, and mortally embarrassing incident when I was 19, which took me years to live down.
So it was with due care and attention – it was a powerful car, after all, and I wasn’t used to driving anything so big – and at well under the legal speed limit, that I drove us to F & J’s headquarters and halted in their carpark just before 10:30.
The funny thing was that the minute we sat down and got on with it, I completely forgot to be nervous. Steven Armitage, their Marketing Manager, is a shark if ever I met one, but Mike has a few shark genes himself, and I knew what we could afford to give on and what we couldn’t, so I wasn’t about to be pressured into anything we couldn’t live with. And Philippa Bryce, from their Distribution and Sales department, is competent, drily funny, and reasonable, while Alan Fleming himself, who appeared halfway though in a rush of apologies for his lateness, is a complete sweetie. So it didn’t go badly, not badly at all, and when we had it all wrapped up and Alan said: ‘we had a spot of lunch prepared’, it was in a general atmosphere of bonhomie that we all repaired to the executive dining suite.
I don’t suppose that F&J’s directors eat like that every day, but it was a nice spread, I must say – salmon koulibiac, wild rice salad, roasted vegetables in a balsamic vinegar dressing, that kind of thing – and accompanied by a succession of toasts in a rather good champagne. I have to admit that it was a flushed and happy pair that departed F&J’s considerably later that afternoon. By the time we got back it was nearly 6:00 and the office would be closed, so I just dropped Mike off at his house and drove the BMW home.
It was just as I was coming off the roundabout at the edge of town that I had the close shave. I forgot I suppose that I was driving his car, not my Polo. A touch too much on the accelerator, a bit too much torque on the steering wheel, and I had mounted the pavement in the general direction of a plate glass window. A funeral director’s, appropriately enough.
Thank God, I had time to hit the brake before more than the bonnet of the car was on the pavement. Thank God again that there was no other traffic on the road just then, and more importantly no pedestrians passing by.
As soon as I could breathe again I pulled the nose of the car back onto the road, and drove very, very carefully the rest of the short distance home. The incident stripped away the rest of the warm feel-good glow though, and I still hadn’t quite recovered it by the time I pulled into the driveway.
“Hey babe, I’m home.”
“No, howzit,” he said, appearing from the kitchen and throwing his arms round me. “Did it go OK?”
I shrugged. “Done.” He tilted his head on one side. “Done? This is all you have to say?”
I tried to play insouciant a bit longer. “Well, you know. They’ll take thirty grand’s worth a month, agreed all our wish list on regional distribution, with options to extend further after six months if it goes well. Oh, and they might be interested in the new range as well, and Mike’s going to take some samples over for them to look at.” His grin threatened to split his face and I felt my own face responding. “And Alan Fleming says they look forward to a long and productive relationship with another of the pillars of the local business community, blah blah. Oh, and if Philippa Bryce ever decides she wants a change of scenery snap her up, because she’s bloody good.”
“And so are you, my liefie. Well done.”
“Well, we did do rather well, now you mention it.” And the warm glow was back.
“Ja. We shall celebrate. I have bobotie in the oven, and some champagne in the fridge.”
That was where I made the slip, you see. “Oh, more champagne,” I said. “Goody.”
He frowned, leaned forward – I assumed, foolishly, to kiss me – and I puckered up obligingly. Instead he sniffed cautiously.
“How much did you have?” he asked tightly. The warm chestnut of his eyes had suddenly become flint, hard and dark.
“I – I’m not sure,” I admitted, taken aback. “They refilled my glass a couple of times. Maybe more. What’s the matter?”
“You don’t get it, do you? Ach, stupid boet, stupid!” He lapsed completely into Afrikaans, several bits of which I recognised as distinctly uncomplimentary.
I flushed, getting angry in turn.
“Now look . . .”
“No. You look. You still can’t see it, can you? How did you get home?”
“How do you think? I dr- oh.”
“Ja. ‘Oh’. You drove. You drove, Tim, in an unfamiliar car, more powerful than you are used to drive, with a skinful of drink. Half a bottle of champagne, maybe more. Leave aside that you could have lost your license, and your job, if you were stopped. What if you had had an accident? Hurt yourself? Hurt or killed someone else – Mike say? How would you face his family? Or another driver, or a child playing by the road? How would you live with yourself, Tim?”
All the joy, all the glow went out like a light. I hadn’t felt so small, so stupid since – well, since that time I was 19, when Uncle Jim caught me smoking a joint with three of my mates in the watchman’s shelter in Hamiltons’ grounds, and dealt with me painfully, publically, there and then.
There was a chilly precision to Hansie’s voice, too, that wasn’t his normal tone at all. I’ve never had a bollocking from Pieter de Vries, but I was willing to bet that I was hearing echoes of him now. From one or two things Phil and others have let slip, he has a tongue that can reduce grown men to tears. If that’s so, Hansie has learned more than just tackling and line-out strategy at the feet of the master. The redness in my face had nothing to do with alcohol any more.
“I’m sorry.” Very small, very contrite.
“And that is all you have to say?”
I swallowed. Hansie in this mood was scary. Not the overgrown adolescent of his worst escapades, nor the friendly and competent boss that we increasingly saw at work (to Jim’s smug satisfaction at having picked out another diamond in the rough, it must be said). No, in this mood he reminded me of Jim at his most authoritarian. I was aware of him physically, and not in any erotic way, either. Normally he stands rather apologetically, a bit round-shouldered, as if to minimise his size. Now he seemed to tower enough to block out the light.
“I. . .” oh fuck, this was going to be so not good. But it never occurred to me not to tell him. I’m very bad at keeping secrets. “I had a slight. . . I mounted the pavement coming off the roundabout at Southgate.”
A long pause. “Any damage?”
“No, the car’s fine.”
“I’m not talking about the fucking car, hey!”
“No. No, I’m all right. No damage to anyone else, either.”
“So. Thanks be to the god that protects fools. Tim, go upstairs and wait for me. I am too angry and upset to deal with you yet.”
“Do you dispute my right? Or that you have earned it?”
“Then go.” I trotted up the stairs. I could feel my eyes brimming. I know I cry easily for a man, but never about punishment. I’ve always taken what I had coming dry-eyed. It was just that this felt – that I felt – so bad. So in the wrong.
Then, of course, I had to sit on the bed thinking about what I’d done, and wait for my just deserts. That just made matters worse. I always hated the wait outside the headmaster’s office far more than anything that happened to me inside. It seemed to last for ever, that wait, and yet when I leaped up, hearing his feet on the stairs, it seemed as if it was far too little time.
He came in, looked at me, then went to the wardrobe where we keep the implements. Took out – oh no! – the cane. The heavy one.
“Agtien,” he said. It didn’t register, and that must have shown on my face because he repeated it in English. “Eighteen.”
Fuck. This was going to be really bad. I hadn’t had the cane from him before – usually it’s the other way round – but I knew from experience that he has a heavy hand. I hoped he knew what he was doing. I wasn’t sure if I could take eighteen strokes of that cane.
“Hansie, please. . .”
“I will make it clear to you that you never will do this sort of thing again,” he said softly. “Don’t beg, don’t ask me to stop, because I will by God not.” I could tell how upset he was because he was losing his grasp of English syntax. “Remove your trousers and your underpants.”
I obeyed with hands that shook. Stood there feeling scared and foolish and oh so humiliated, with my equipment trying to retract itself back inside me, and a voice in my head saying ‘run like fuck’ at the same time as a louder one was saying ‘you stupid bastard, you deserve it all twice over’.
“Bend over the end of the bed,” he said. “Do not get up until I tell you you may, or I’ll start again from one.”
“Yes sir,” I breathed. I don’t know where that came from, I never call him sir. Never.
I could feel the air cold on my backside, felt him lift the end of my shirt away from the target zone. The last cold I felt around there for a while, as it turned out. Then the nasty ‘whip whip whip’ sound of him flexing the damn thing, getting the feel of it. He tapped it gently against my bum for range, and I flinched, then locked my muscles as best I could. I knew from bitter experience that this wasn’t going to be pretty. Jim usually contented himself with 6, a dozen for more serious offences. A dozen from a senior cane is pretty hard for me to take. This was likely to be. . .
Shhhh-THUP. A hiss of agonised breath escaped my lips before I clamped them shut. Oh fuck, he did know what he was doing. Did he ever. Shhhh-THWUP. Oh fuck, this was murder. Shh-THWIP. Shhhhh-THAP. A small whimper. Was that me? He swished the thing through the air again, a practice stroke, a warning, I don’t know, but I felt myself cringe. It was like being painted with fire. ShhhhwWHIP. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Not even half way through. Shhh-THUP. Shhh-THUP. Two low strokes, burning like red hot pokers. A pause. He grasped my chin to lift my head, looked me in the eye. I couldn’t see the slightest sympathy in his face, just a certain satisfaction. I think that’s what it was. He moved back behind me. Every muscle in my body seemed to be screaming. I clenched everything. Shhhwish-THUP. Shhh-THWAP. Shhh-THWAP. Shh-WHAP. Shhh-WHAP. Shh-THWIP. I had bitten through the inside of my mouth. The pain was almost welcome as a distraction. Only two more to go. The problem was that I wasn’t sure I could bear it. My legs were trembling with the effort to hold them rigid. Shhh-WHIP. Shhh-WHAP.
Everything throbbed. Everything hurt. Everything between my lower back and my upper thighs. My breath was coming in little sobbing noises, not quite cries but on the verge of. I could hear him breathing heavily too.
And then he did it. Gave me the one unbearable stroke, the one thing that makes this punishment stand out in my mind as the worst I’ve ever had. The one, brutal, savage, totally deserved blow.
He came up behind me, put his hand on my shoulder and drew me upright. And in my ear he murmured:
“Please Timmy. Don’t die and leave me. Don’t you go away too, and leave me lonely. I don’t think I could bear it again.”
I knew at once what he meant; saw, physically saw for a moment, the twisted wreck of his car and me somewhere in it. And I totally broke down. Cried and cried while he held me, sobbing and promising never, never, to get behind the wheel of a car when I’d let anything more than lemonade pass my lips.
I cried till I was exhausted, and then drowsed, curled into his lap. On my stomach, of course. At some point he roused me, both of us stiff and uncomfortable, and put me to bed properly. Where the welts crossed the skin had broken in a couple of places – I vaguely remember the sting of TCP, and his hands, careful and strong, putting a plaster on, and then the flutter of his lips. Kissing it better. I slept on my stomach that night, and not well – my backside throbbed too much for that. But I slept secure. Sure of him. Sure of us.
The next morning he brought me a cup of tea in bed, which was an unusual privilege. He’s not a morning person, so usually I get up first.
“Go have your shower now,” he said when I’d finished. “You need to get a move on, so we can get into town before the rush.”
“You go, I can always follow on,” I said sleepily.
“And how will you get into work?”
“The way I always do – oh no, Hansie, you can’t.”
“Oh, but I can. Did I tell you your punishment was over?”
“But my car. . .”
“When I am satisfied you have learned your lesson, I will give you your keys back. But this week, you do not drive.”
“But how will I get to places?”
“I will drive you. Or someone else will drive you, if you ask them.”
“But that’s so embarrassing! I. . .”
“One week. Remember that if you had been caught, it would have
been many months, perhaps years before you could drive again. Let it remind
you of what you risked. What else you risked.”
Ouch. Point well and truly taken. And when I came to sit in the car, very gingerly, I wondered if I could have driven anyway. I caught a glimpse of my arse in the mirror when I was showering, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. I wasn’t going to be doing any gym time for a week or two, that was for sure. Explaining that lot in the showers was more than I wanted to face.
And there was one more thing I had to do. When Mike came in, I took him to one side.
“Mike, I have to offer you an apology.”
“Huh? Am I missing something?”
“Yesterday. When I drove us home. I hadn’t realised I’d had quite that much to drink. I shouldn’t have driven.”
“Ah. Well, I did wonder, but I hadn’t really noticed what you’d had. I just assumed that you wouldn’t have driven if you didn’t feel safe doing it.”
I grimaced. “That was the problem,” I said. “I did feel safe. Wrongly. I know that now. It won’t happen again.”
He looked at me shrewdly. “Boss caught you out, did he?”
“Yes,” I admitted ruefully.
“No harm done. We all do stupid things sometimes, even bright guys like you.” I blushed, couldn’t hold his gaze.
“No, but I could have. . .”
“But you didn’t. Word of advice, lad. Don’t worry too much about might have beens. Worry about ‘are’s instead.” And patting me on the shoulder, he disappeared off to fill in his paperwork.
Hansie was in the doorway of the office, watching me.
“Well done,” he said. “I wondered if you’d think to do that.”
“Am I forgiven, then?”
“Hmm. Not yet. One week I said, one week I meant.”
“Is that any way to talk to your superiors?” And he swatted me on the arse as I walked past him to my desk. It hurt. It hurt a lot, on top of last night’s collection of marks.
“Ow. Sorry, sir.”
“Better. Much better, ja. I think I like this respectful youth. We must take trouble to keep him. A good klap or two tonight, I think, for general poor behaviour in the office.”
“Hansie, you wouldn’t.”
“Would I not? That was our agreement, that I should spank you if you behaved badly. Perhaps I have let you get away with too much. I have worried too much about my own problems, and not enough about yours. Fear not, my liefie. That can change.”
Now I know how Victor Frankenstein felt. Only – he’s such an attractive
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