As I came into the hubbub of the Feathers on a busy Saturday evening I heard a familiar voice call: “Phil! Hey, boet, over here.”
It was Hansie, sitting with the lanky boy – Damian, was it? – from his office, and a couple of the others that he coaches at the local amateur club. I made my way over through the crush.
“Hi, Hansie. Lads.” No sign of Tim. I raised an eyebrow at Hansie, unwilling to ask outright in mixed company. “What are you doing in here?”
“Having a drink. These lads have done well today in their training, and I have promised them a drink. Also that I will teach them the words to the song about the springbok and the sheep.”
I noticed them perk noticeably at the praise. Damian in particular seemed to gain an extra six inches in height, which to be frank he didn’t need. More of a basketball player than a rugby player.
“Hansie, you can’t possibly sing that in here. The landlord will have you thrown out.”
He grinned at me. “Ja. So we will sing it together. No-one will throw out the great Phil Cartwright, who scored that try against Wasps last week.”
He was full of praise this evening. Oh, all right, I probably gained an inch or two myself. Well, I admit it was a damned good try. Even Piet said so, and his praise for professional matters is pretty sparing.
“Can I get you a pint Mr Cartwright?”
“That’s all right – Damian, isn’t it? I can get it. . .” the boy looked crestfallen. “Well, OK then, if you’re sure. Beamish, please, unless it’s run out, Murphys if not.”
He smiled nervously. “Hansie? Can I get you another?”
Hansie patted him on the back.
“Why not?” he said. Damian sprang like a young lamb – Hansie would probably say a springbok – to get the orders in. He positively shone at the attention.
I have to say, I rather enjoyed the next hour. Well, I suppose that adulation is easy to get used to, and there was no doubt that what I was getting from those lads was the pure unadulterated stuff, not your street-level rubbish cut with cynicism and envy. But I couldn’t help noticing that while the other two focused all their attention on me, young Damian was only giving me part of his. Hansie was the sun that Damian was orbiting, no doubt of it.
At one point I found myself at the bar with Hansie, getting in the next round.
“You have quite an admirer there,” I said.
“Who, Damian? He’s not a bad lad. He’ll never make a real rugby player of course but he has moed.” I must have looked confused. “Spirit, I suppose you would say, though that doesn’t really have the same. . . well, anyway, he gives everything.”
“Ja, I suppose. We got off to a bad start. I have tried to be kinder since.”
“Perhaps. . . Hansie, perhaps just a little too kind? Lads of Damian’s age can get a bit confused sometimes. They get a bit of a crush on their heroes, maybe mistake kindness for something else. . .”
“You are saying that Damian is in love with me? I do not think he is gay, Phil.”
“No, I’m just saying be careful. You don’t have to be gay to have a crush. And besides, not everyone knows early. You didn’t.”
“Ach, I knew, Phil. I just didn’t want to admit it.”
“Whatever. Just be careful. I don’t want to see you or him hurt.”
He looked at me thoughtfully. “Ja. Dankie, Phil. I will be careful.”
And then we were sitting down, and Hansie encouraged me to boast shamelessly about my own exploits, and it was as if we had never had that little conversation. Except that I noticed him watching Damian, watching properly, seeing the way the lad hung on his every word, laughed louder and longer than everyone else at his jokes.
It was about 10ish that Tim walked in.
“Ah,” said Hansie. “No, howzit, Tim? Here is my taxi.”
“Bloody cheek,” said Tim. “The things I do for my friends. Hi, lads.”
There was a chorus of ‘Tims’ and ‘Mr Creeds’ depending on the degree of acquaintance claimed.
“One last pint?” suggested Hansie. “Tim, a mineral water?” He enjoyed that, I could tell, and I saw Tim mouth ‘wait till I get you home’ behind the boys’ backs.
“Go on then,” agreed Tim. He sat himself on a spare stool next to me. “So what have you lot been talking about all evening, as if I couldn’t guess? The political situation in Iraq? The likelihood of euro-sterling parity? Who’s going to win the Booker?”
“Mr Cartwright has been telling us about the last international,” piped up one of the junior contingent. “And the time three of the squad ran naked through the Forum in Rome after playing Italy, and got chased by the police.” Yes, thank you boys, that will be all if you don’t mind. . .
“And the time that he mooned. . .”
“Yes, thank you boys, Tim has heard that story. Oh look, here’s Hansie with the drinks.”
Tim grinned at me. “Oh, don’t worry I don’t expect anything else from rugby players. Their brains are in their odd-shaped balls, not in their heads.”
I bit back all the angry words that came springing onto my tongue. One thing I have learned from Piet is the value of thinking before I open my mouth.
And yes, it might not seem that much. A fairly innocuous piece of banter, the sort of thing that any of my team mates might say to me and I’d just pour a beer over their head, and we’d all laugh. Only in Tim’s mouth it wasn’t just banter. Oh no. He meant it.
You see, when Tim and I had been –well, ‘an item’ is putting it too strongly, there was – oh, fuck it, no point in lying – still is – a strong physical attraction. He’s exactly the kind of man I would have told you was my type, until I fell hook line and sinker for Pieter de Vries, who is so not my type that it isn’t true. So Tim and I had had a fling, very hot on the bedroom front, and a complete non-starter everywhere else. We argued like an old married couple from day one. And he made it obvious – very obvious – that he fancied me rotten for my body, but that whatever thoughts passed through my fluffy little brain were of no moment to his mighty intellect. It really got up my nose – it was one of the things that led to rows all the time when we were together.
It jarred still. It hurt still. I was surprised how much it hurt still. I may not be the world’s greatest thinker, and I know I’m not as academically gifted as Tim, but I’m not stupid, and I don’t like being treated as if I am.
But on the other hand, now I know that I’m loved, loved for all of me, and by someone to whom Tim can’t hold a candle; and that I don’t have to flare up when people slag me off – at least, not if I don’t want to end up over Piet’s knee inspecting the carpet. And I’ve grown up enough to recognise that good people can have bad points, and vice versa. Tim is brave, caring – I couldn’t do what he does with Hansie, he’d be far too high-maintenance for me – and a lot of fun when he gets off his high horse. So I bit my tongue, and said nothing, just smiled, and nodded, and listened to what everyone else had to say. And when Tim offered to drop me off at ‘my place’, meaning of course Piet’s house, I just sat in the back and listened to him and Hansie laughing and joking, and let them get on with it.
How was I to know that Hansie was still being watchful?
“Well, you obviously had a good time. I didn’t expect to see Phil in there on a Saturday night, and on his own.”
“He said that the Viper sent him out because he was reading some book with a strange name and needed to concentrate.”
“Something about tractors and logic. A book of philosophy.”
“Tractors? Philosophy? Doesn’t sound quite – oh, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus? Wittgenstein? Piet reads Wittgenstein for relaxation? Rather him than me. Now he’s one smart guy.”
“Ja, and about that. He is, and by contrast, Phil is not? You must stop putting Phil down, my liefie. He isn’t stupid. Not at all stupid.”
“I never said – well, all right I did, but come on, I was joking. He knew I was joking.”
My lover shook his head.
“Nee, I do not think so. Have you not noticed that he goes quiet when you start to speak? He will not argue with you, I think, but you hurt him. He takes it personally.”
“But I would never – if I really thought he was stupid of course I wouldn’t tease him about it. It would be like mocking someone for being blind, or crippled. But Phil – well, it’s just. . . he isn’t an intellectual, I know, and I. . . well, I. . .”
Hansie raised an eyebrow and saved me from a further descent into incoherence. “I thought I was the one who had been drinking all night, and who is besides only one of those gentlemen with his brains in his odd-shaped balls. You would not make that remark to Jim, I think.”
“Of course I would, and then he’d threaten me with dire retribution, or dismiss me as a jealous stripling unable to measure up to his elders and betters. That’s the way it works, Hansie. You have to be able to take it as well as give it.”
“Ja, my skat, but Phil doesn’t give it, does he? When did he ever insult you?”
Oh, I could think of a few times, a few bitter times. . . but that was ancient history, and behind us all now. Now – well, apart from the time that I had, to my shame, accidentally outed Phil and Piet, and when I had truly deserved anything the pair of them chose to call me, the truth was I couldn’t really put my finger on an example.
“Well, but – I’ve heard him dissing his mates on the team.”
Hansie just looked at me.
“Oh, all right. But – do you really think he takes it personally? I don’t mean it that way.”
He paused before replying. “I know – that there is old history between you. Perhaps the problem lies there, in things that have been said in the past. But yes. You hurt him, my liefie, I think. I do not like to see such things between my brother and the man I love. And it is unfair to call him stupid – unfair and wrong. He sees deeply. He saw that Damian. . .”
“Damian what? You haven’t been upsetting him again, have you?”
“No. Not exactly. But I think I may have to.”
“Phil says he has – what was the word he used? A smash? No, a crush. A crush on me.”
“Oh. Oh. But Damian’s not – I mean he has a girlfriend, that brown-haired girl who came to watch him play the other day.”
“Ja, but he is young, young enough to get muddled between admiration and love, a little. I don’t think it is anything serious, but I must be careful not to let him come into a situation in which he might embarrass himself. And me.”
“Oh.” It really wasn’t my night for intelligent contributions. As soon as it was said, of course, I could see that the signs were obvious. Damian had been rather hanging on Hansie’s every word lately, seeking opportunities to do things for him. How had I missed it? Especially when it was, apparently, obvious to Phil.
And Phil? Was I really upsetting him every time I joked about his lack of brains? How had I missed that one, too? I was beginning to wonder who was the stupid one. I bratted until Hansie got the point, and I got the strap, but it didn’t help. I went to bed wondering.
At 3 am I was still wondering. I couldn’t sleep. Hansie’s breathing was deep and regular beside me – it takes an earthquake to wake him once he drops off. I slid out from under the duvet, found my dressing gown, and padded down to the kitchen. Maybe a cup of tea would help.
The kitchen lino was cold – I should have put my slippers on – and I jiggled from one foot to the other as I waited for the kettle to boil, then retreated gratefully to the carpet in the living room with my mug. If I had really been hurting Phil every time I made some comment about his lack of intellect – well, that was just awful. Awful. And he had just taken it, not even snapping back at me. I had to put things right with him. But if I had to walk on eggshells, monitor what I said all the time when I was with him – well, it wasn’t going to be very relaxing.
I chewed it over while my tea cooled unnoticed in my hand. Eventually, I made a decision. Then I took a mouthful of tea, spat it back into the mug because it was stone cold (yes, disgusting I know, but if a man can’t be disgusting in his own house at 4 o’clock in the morning, when can he be?), and crept back up the stairs to bed.
In the morning, over coffee and cereal, I said:
“I’m just going to pop over and see Phil.”
“Why? Is this about. . .?”
“What we were talking about last night, yes. I have to put things right with Phil if I have upset him.”
He looked doubtful. “Are you sure this is the right way?”
I thought about that one. “Phil is a pretty straightforward sort of guy. I think he’d prefer honesty to pussyfooting around the problem. If it is a problem.”
“You still do not believe it?”
“I’m very afraid you’re right. Just part of me hopes that you aren’t.”
I felt like a Christian about to enter the arena as I rang the doorbell. It was answered by Piet, dressed in a T-shirt and sweat-pants. Most guys look scruffy in that. Piet didn’t – I don’t think his clothes would dare.
“Ah. Um – hi, Piet. Is – er – Phil in?”
Something like a smile flickered across the craggy features.
“Come in, Tim. You sound like a small child asking Papa if Phil can come out to play. As it happens he is not here, but he will be back shortly. You can wait.”
Oh no, this was all going pear-shaped already. The prospect of waiting under the Viper’s all-seeing gaze for Phil to return did not appeal, but there wasn’t any polite way to decline the invitation.
“Will you take coffee? It’s all right, Phil made a pot before he went out, it is none of my making.”
“Ah, er, yes, yes please, Piet.” He disappeared to the kitchen, came back with a mug that looked doll-sized in that massive paw. Big hands he has, Pieter de Vries, and hard too. I can assure you of that from personal experience.
“Will Phil be long? I mean, I don’t want to put you out.” I so don’t want to do that.
“No, he has gone shopping for a few things. I would say a half hour at most. So in the mean time, why do you not tell me what is wrong?”
I spluttered a bit in my coffee. See, this was why I knew this was a bad idea. de Vries sees into your head.
“Ach, come my friend, we know each other well enough now. Something is worrying you, that is very obvious, and I deduce that it has to do with Phil, since it is him you wish to speak to. If it is a private matter, then tell me so, and we will speak no more of it. But if I can help – well, remember what I said to you in Greece. You do not have to carry every burden alone. And what affects Phil affects me too.”
I bit my lip. “I’m afraid you won’t be very pleased with me if I tell you.”
“I cannot promise not to be angry if I do not know what the matter concerns. But I think you know me well enough to know that I do not allow my feelings to get in the way of what is right. Do you trust me, Tim?”
And of course, when he put it that way I realised: yes, actually, I do. I trust you in a way that I trust only one other man in my life, Uncle Jim. Part of me will always be a little nervous of you, I think, but I would trust my life to you, undoubtedly.
“It’s Phil, you’re right. I’m afraid – I think – no, I’m almost certain, that I’ve been hurting him in a way I never meant to.”
I had de Vries’ full attention now. It was like being pinned by a spotlight.
“You know – Phil and I – we had. . . um, that is . . .”
“You were lovers. Yes, I know this.”
“Well, I’m sure Phil also told you that it wasn’t a success. We weren’t well matched in temperament, no matter how hot. . .” shut UP, Tim, this is his lover you are talking to. My face went red, but Piet remained completely impassive, so I struggled on. “We argued all the time. I mean all the time; we couldn’t even decide what we were having to eat without it becoming a row. The making up afterwards was fun, but the rows – well, it was obvious very quickly that it wasn’t going to work.”
I took a swallow of coffee.
“So anyway, we split up, not on terribly good terms, though once we made the decision we at least managed to be civil to one another. But we had both said – well, some rather harsh things before that. And I think some things I said may have rankled with Phil, much more than I realised. At the time I would probably have been delighted to know that, but now . . .”
de Vries frowned. “And why has this become an issue, now?”
“Before we split I told Phil he was a moron with the intellectual capacity of an 8-year-old. Now, when I’ve been teasing him about rugby players having too much brawn and too little brain, I think he’s been taking that as a continuation of the same argument, and it’s hurt him.” A slow nod.
“I don’t want there to be bad feeling between us, Piet. I like Phil. I’ve grown to care for him a lot. I respect his skills on the field, and off it. He’s very good with people. He spotted a potential problem between Hansie and one of the lads he’s training just like that, and both of us had missed it. But how do I tell him that without seeming patronising?” Tears sprang to my eyes. Yes, all right, I’m a wuss, we’ve already established that.
The hawk features weighed me, like some Egyptian god judging a doomed soul. Then Pieter de Vries opened his arms and I stepped gratefully – oh, so gratefully – into a hug.
“Timmy, Timmy,” he said gently. “You are the kind of man who has a little model of people in his head. As you learn more of them you improve that model, until you can work out from it what people are likely to do, to say, and you can prepare how you will respond in advance. That kind of planning is much more important to you than your feelings as a guide to action.”
I broke away a little, looked at him astonished. I told you he can see into people’s heads.
He smiled. “Ach, no, I do not read thoughts.” No, then how did you know I was thinking that? “But I understand this way of thinking, for I am also such a man. I have more practice at it than you, for I am older, and I have learned to use my feelings far more, but we are much the same in that way. Phil, though, does this to a much lesser extent. He feels deeply, and it is his feelings he uses as his first guide. So what I must teach him, what he must learn, is to think a little more like you. To plan, to prejudge, to consider.”
“And I must learn to be a little more like Phil?”
“Just so, boetie.” He pulled me effortlessly back into his embrace. “You must trust what you feel a little more, and allow a place for feeling in the models in your head. Think of how you might feel in the same situation.”
“I – suppose.”
“Not supposition. That was an order.” A by-no-means gentle tap on my backside.
“Yes, sir!” It comes without thinking with him, that sir. “But still, how do I put things right with Phil? Should I ask him to punish me?”
He hesitated, thinking it over. “I am sorry to say that I do not think that such an old scar can be healed overnight, and with a single punishment. You must simply work to build up the realisation in Phil that you do respect his intelligence. That you respect him.”
“I do, I really do. His kindness, his openness, his understanding of people’s feelings. I’ll never have that, no matter how long I practise.”
“Now that defeatism is something I do not permit my players, and I will not permit you. Any skill can be acquired with sufficient training. I am serious, Timmy.”
“Better believe him, Tim, if you don’t want to taste his cane.”
“Phil!” I struggled to free myself from de Vries’ embrace, but with – a grin? On the great stone face? – yes, definitely a grin, he refused to let me go. I managed to turn in his arms to face Phil, who was looking a bit – well, I couldn’t read the expression on his face at all, to be honest.
“Honestly, Piet, I go out for five minutes to get some coriander and fish sauce, and I come back to find you carrying on with another man.”
“Phil, we didn’t!” I squeaked.
“No, koekie,” rumbled de Vries. “You have caught us in flagrant delight. Our affair can no longer be a secret.”
“I want half of everything,” said Phil promptly.
“Everything? There are some bits that do not divide well, koekie.”
“Then I’ll just have to decide where to make the chop for the best effect, won’t I?” he said, and with a huge grin launched himself at both of us. We all fell to the floor, and as the smallest of the three, by some way, I think I came off worst. I know that somebody held my arms while someone else tickled me unmercifully, but I’m not sure which of them did which.
“How long,” I managed to gasp, when I could breathe again. “How long were you listening?”
“Long enough. Did you mean what you said?”
“Yes. Umm, which bit?”
“That you respect me? That I’m kind?”
“Of course I do, idiot.”
“Piet! He called me an idiot. I’ve been emotionally scarred.”
“Don’t joke. I really didn’t want to hurt you. I don’t think you’re stupid, not at all. A stupid person wouldn’t have spotted Damian’s crush, and I can’t thank you enough for that.”
“Hey, it was nothing.”
“No, koekie,” said Piet. “It was not nothing. Do not denigrate your own abilities, or Tim’s gratitude. You did well, and now with luck the problem will never happen. That is what intelligence is for, is it not?”
“Yes, I suppose so. But I think I should spank Tim for calling me kind. If that kind of thing gets around my reputation as a rugby player will be shot.”
“That is so. And we must preserve that reputation to keep you safe.”
“Piet!” I squeaked. “That’s not fair.”
“That is also so. So he will spank you, and then I will spank him for being unfair.”
“Hey, wait a minute,” said Phil.
“Or perhaps I should simply cut out the middle man and spank both of you. On consideration, that may be the simplest solution.”
“Is he always like this?” I asked Phil.
“Increasingly,” he sighed. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with him.”
“No? Let me suggest. . .” and he bent to whisper into Phil’s ear. Phil went red, and giggled, and I started to feel like a gooseberry.
“I’d better go.”
“Unspanked. Though my backside probably still shows the marks of Hansie’s strap, if that’s any consolation.”
“That makes me feel a whole lot better,” grinned Phil. “Tell him to give you some more. Tell him you are owed a spanking from either me or Piet, and that he’s been deputed to give it.”
“Tell him also that Phil will be getting the same,” said Piet drily. “And that therefore he must do it for fairness sake.”
“You’re rotten, nasty kids, and I’m going home,” I said. And I so far forgot myself as to stick my tongue out at Pieter de Vries. He caught me of course, and got in three or four pretty effective smacks, well before I made it, laughing, to the door.
I did tell Hansie – well, I was afraid that they might have rung him in the meantime. And of course, he being big on fairness, I did get spanked. But then he gave me what I deserved. Until I screamed, lucky me.
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