Piet says: Castigo te
non quod odio habeam, sed quod amem. I chastise thee, not because I hate thee,
but because I love thee. But you knew that, didn't you? The Gnome thought you
might not, but I was sure you would know that.
“Phil, I think I will have to deal with both Hansie and Tim. I think they will need me to.”
I was startled, I admit it. “Well, yes, I was assuming that that you would.”
“You will permit me?”
He caught my hand and pulled me to him, gently, so as not to upset my balance while I swung the taped knee. I dropped onto the couch beside him, with my leg braced out in front of me.
“I promised you, the first time Tim sent Hansie to me, that I would not do this without your express consent.”
“Yes, but that was ages ago. We’re way past that now.”
“No, we are not. There has been Hansie alone, but not for quite a long time now. And there has been the trouble that you and he, or you and he and Tim share. That is different. This is where Tim and Hansie have gone wrong with each other, and I think I can help them, but it will be difficult. It may require that I be. . .”
“That you top them both. Now tell me something I don’t know.”
“That I top them without at the same time topping you, my hart. So it is different.”
I actually thought about what he was saying. He was right, of course, it was different. “What do you want me to do, Piet? Do you want me to go out somewhere? I can call Simon and go for a drink, or see if one of the guys wants to go to a film or something.”
“No, koekie, what I want from you is permission.”
“Well, you have it. Sort them out. Those two can’t manage without each other, so make it work for them. I’ll find somewhere to go if you tell me when.”
“I think. . . I think not, koekie, unless you wish most particularly to have nothing to do with this. From what I hear from James Hamilton, Tim is denying us all as his friends, and that will grieve him when he comes to think more calmly about it. He believes that Hansie has come to us to complain of him and that we will no longer want to count him as one of us.”
“You know, Piet, for an intelligent man, Tim ain’t half stupid sometimes.”
“As you say yourself, now tell me something I do not know. And Hansie, of course. . .”
“And Hansie, of course, is assuming that this time, he’s made such a complete mess that we’ll strike him out of the address book and wipe his name from the Christmas card list.”
“Just so. I think they will both need to know that while we disapprove most strongly of the way they have been behaving, we will not abandon them. And you are the one who loves most obviously, with least reserve, and if you tell them that all may yet be well, I think they will believe you. So I think that unless it makes you very uncomfortable, you should be there for them. If you are unhappy about it, then you shall go out. I love both Tim and Hansie dearly, but I will not have them distressing you.”
“If you think I can help, I’ll stay. But if you’re going to wallop them both – are you going to wallop them both?”
“I think it likely.”
“Then they won’t want me there, will they?”
“I may need to be very severe, very sharp, if there is no other way to get through. Very severe indeed. I do not fully know yet what has gone wrong: I have heard some of Hansie's tale from Frances, but that is of course at one remove, and Tim’s version may be different. Will be different, if only from the change in perspective. But it sounds to me as if they began a punishment and then when it began to go bad, neither of them knew how to stop it. And then Hansie did what Hansie always does in a crisis: he ran away. And Tim did what he too always does: he refused to allow anybody else to help. And this self-destructive behaviour must be stopped, so I may have to be harsh, past the point at which you are comfortable.”
He boxed my ears, lightly, a caress. “I will not cane – however severe a caning is, it is relatively quick, and it is too impersonal. I want them to have long enough with me to understand just how foolish they have been. But I will spank very hard. Very hard and very audibly, I think.”
“Oh. I had been thinking of hiding in here with the TV on loud.”
“No, I think you will look after whichever one of them I do not have, but I want them each to hear the other and know what they have earned for each other from me.”
“You mean to be blamed for this, don’t you! You mean to have them turn against you and towards each other! You sneaky, conniving, contriving, manipulative, scheming, devious. . .”
“The word you want is Top, liefie, and you see through my plan. Yes, they will go home together, if I work it right, comforting each other for what the horrible Viper did, for the Viper is going to be very harsh indeed. So harsh that if they are to get in my car later to go home, I may have to give in on the matter of salve.”
“I’ve got that huge tub of ChillGel that Elaine gave me.”
“Keep it to hand, and be prepared to use it. But here we are talking about bad things in the future for Hansie and Tim – and, you know, my hart, I think we must be prepared to find that this time their relationship is broken past my mending, but I will not let it go without a fight – and I would much rather consider good things for Phil. Come, tell me. You are being generous towards Hansie and Tim, and letting me have my way with them. What shall I do in return? What would you like, simply for your own pleasure?”
I leaned over for a kiss, nipped his lip and slid a hand up his chest.
“What’s on offer?”
“Anything you would like. Something to do? Somewhere you would like to go? Shall we go and spend money, or stay here and do something you like? Ah, I see there is something. Tell me what it is.”
“I – yes. Only I don’t know if you would. . .”
“I cannot say if you do not tell me.”
“Well, I’ll tell you. But you have to promise that if you really don’t want to, if you don’t like the idea, you’ll say no. I’d like it, but I’m not hung up on it.”
“I promise. I will listen and if I do not like the idea, I will say no.”
“I want to bat rather than field.”
“You want to – oh, I see. Well, and why not?”
“You don’t mind?”
“No, although I prefer the other way, and since you always seemed contented so. . .”
“I am, I’ve done both and with you I’m happy that way, it feels right, but once in a while. . .”
“Hah! My young lover becomes bored with me and looks for new excitements! Next he will want me to dress up in uniform, or to cover me in chocolate sauce.”
“No, I just want. . . what sort of uniform? And have we got any chocolate sauce?”
“I do not think so. So in the absence of chocolate sauce, you wish to have your wicked way with me. But you cannot kneel, and even if we lie down, you will need to take your weight on your legs. I am not going on top lest I lean on your plaster.”
“That’s a perfectly good leather couch in the study, and a man bending over it is very vulnerable and I should know.”
“Ye-es, and if you put your weight on your knee. . .”
“I won’t, I shall lean on you.”
“If your leg hurts at all. . .”
“I’ll say so. I told you, I’m not hung up on the idea. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter.”
“If it does not work, we shall save it for when your knee is better. And I suppose that you are going to tell me that you cannot go upstairs for the bottle?”
“I can, but it’ll take hours. Go on, Piet, you go.”
And that is how we ended up in the study, Piet braced on the couch, me braced on Piet.
“Go slowly, please, koekie. It is a very long time since I have done this.”
“Am I hurting you? You don’t have to do it.”
“Shut up and – oh yes. Slowly, and just there. Juuuuuuust there.”
I think I bit him. No, I don’t want to do that every time, or even very often, but once a year or so, maybe on my birthday, I’d like to top. When he allows me to. And there are photos of him in uniform, he did National Service. . .
I opened the door as soon as I heard the car. Hansie came first, and he looked like death in a bucket; I pulled him in for a hug as he came past me, but I didn’t say anything. Tim looked no better; and when I put my arms around him he was stiff and unyielding against me in a way Hansie had not been. Piet made a face as he stooped to kiss me, and then he straightened, and I saw him put on the Alpha Top expression. My God but that’s scary. Even when it isn’t me it’s aimed at, it’s scary.
“Inside, both of you. Tim, sit there. Hansie, there. I will have some sense of what you have been doing.”
I stopped in the doorway. Piet and I were not in full agreement over whether or not they would want me there, but we had agreed that I should ask.
“Do you guys want me to stay or go? If either of you wants me to go, I’ll go.”
Hansie looked up, and said hoarsely, “Stay, please?” I glanced at Tim. “Tim?”
I hobbled in – thank heavens I could manage more or less without my crutches. There simply wasn’t room – and sat down on the sofa. Piet bulked in the middle of the floor.
“Now. We will start with Hansie. You will tell me, Hansie, what happened after you left us here last week. I want to know what you said, what you did. Not what you thought, or imagined, or what you meant or what you thought anybody else meant. I want facts. We will turn to motives later. Tim, you will not interrupt unless you believe Hansie has said something which is not factually correct. Do you both understand me?”
It took the best part of an hour to get a complete story of who did what and said what to whom, and I at least was very little the wiser at the end. I’m not sure Piet was, either.
“Now, I am going to ask questions. Do not get off the point, either of you. You will have a chance to tell me anything later which you think I need to hear. Hansie, you must have seen that all was going wrong. Why did you not stop? Leave it all to the next day? Say: we are not together on this, we will wait until we are calmer?”
“You told me not to.”
“Ja. You said I should deal with this at once.”
Piet stared at him blankly. “I do not recall saying anything of the sort. I recall saying that you would need to be quite severe, that is all. What, precisely, did I say?”
“I do not remember, but I am sure. . .”
I suddenly got a flashback to what Piet had said to me about dealing severely with both of them. “Can I. . . Can I ask a question?”
Piet turned to me. “Am I missing something?”
“What language did you have this conversation in?”
Hansie looked over at me. “In English.”
“Did Piet say: deal sharply?”
“I – yes, I think so. Or promptly, or something.”
I looked at Piet. “My money’s on that. You said: sharply, meaning with severity. Hansie heard: sharply, meaning immediately.”
The dawning understanding on Hansie's face made it plain that I was right.
“Yes,” said Piet, consideringly. “Yes, I see. But Hansie, you are not inexperienced as a Top. Whatever I said was an opinion only; it was not a full instruction. I was not there, so you should have used your own judgement.”
Hansie dropped his gaze and said nothing.
“Now, Hansie. Why did you make Tim strip? Do you normally do so?”
It was asked with clinical indifference, but both Hansie and Tim coloured hotly.
“Nee. Not in punishment. I – I do not know why I did. He did not like it, I could see so. I never did either as a child.”
“You turned into your father,” said Tim spitefully, and it hit a nerve. I saw Hansie open his mouth to make a sharp retort, and almost one could see the truth of it connect all through him. He’s honest, Hansie. He gasped, and leaned forward – for a moment I thought he was going to be sick – and then he straightened, and looked at Tim and said, painfully, “Ja, I did. It was wrong.”
I shifted again, and glanced at Piet, who raised his eyebrows at me. “Ummm, what I don’t understand. . . look, I can see it was all going wrong, and I can understand that there wasn’t a good point to say: this isn’t working. But Tim, why didn’t you use your safe word?”
All three of them were staring at me as if I had taken leave of what few wits they allow that I possess. I hurried on, “I mean, I know you can’t word out of a punishment, but you hadn’t got that far, and surely if you’d done it, Hansie would have backed off enough to let you talk? I mean” (too many ‘I means’, I wasn’t making myself clear) “I know that when I screw up, it’s Piet’s decision about the punishment, and I won’t get out of it by using my word, but if I really felt that he wasn’t listening, I’d word for the time-out and a chance to explain some more.” Hell, they were still staring at me as if I were an idiot, except that Piet’s expression was turning to a controlled fury.
“Yes. Phil is quite right. Why did you not word to get a breathing space?”
The silence was deafening.
“Tim, answer me.”
“Tim, what is your safe word?”
“I haven’t got one.”
The sky fell, I think. On Tim, on Hansie, on them both. Jointly and severally as the legal profession says. I have never heard Piet better the tongue-lashing he gave out: I was inclined to hide behind the sofa, and none of it was aimed at me. He absolutely scarified them: for stupidity, for pride, for carelessness, for recklessness, for the fall of the Ottoman Empire for all I knew. At Hansie for starting to top when he was so angry, at Tim for accepting it and not backing out as soon as he saw that Hansie wasn’t in a fit state to top. My ears were burning when he drew breath, and Hansie was near to tears.
“Now. We will go on to motives. What you said and what you meant. And this – this, I will have you see, is why you must never top when you are angry. Hansie, I am very disappointed in you. You must have known that you were not in the right frame of mind to punish safely. And Tim, you are as much to blame as he is. Hansie, tell us now what you meant when you spoke.”
Oh God, but that hurt. He spoke, and every word bled from him, clotted gouts of poisoned misery. I don’t think even Piet had realised how much this MBA thing had cost Hansie, and the extent to which Hansie had concealed it, out of affection for James Hamilton, because it was something he had wanted Tim to do, out of love and admiration for Tim himself because Hansie knew such a thing was beyond him. How much it had hurt to realise that Tim was overwhelmed but that he wouldn’t let Hansie help. Tim certainly hadn’t realised it. He had his arms wrapped round his body like someone in shock, and he was rocking in the armchair. When it was his turn, Piet had to speak to him three times before he turned his head and answered.
“Now, Tim. Your objection. You said: you can’t, I won’t. What did you mean by that?”
“I meant: Stop.”
“And what else did you mean?”
We waited and he gathered himself enough to add, “Not anything else. I meant, he had misunderstood me, I hadn’t deliberately withheld anything from him, it had just all got away from me. I meant that I had wanted to do this for him as well as for Jim, because I knew – I thought – I could make them both proud of me. I meant – I meant. . .” He was shivering and Hansie half got up to go to him, but Piet stopped him, glanced at me. I made it across the room (damn this knee, I’ll never get used to not being mobile), pulled Tim to his feet and dragged him to the sofa, where he collapsed beside me, leaned to put his head on my chest, and whispered, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.”
The other two made no sound, and I stroked his head, and whispered back. They could hear. “What else did you mean, sweetheart?”
“I meant, I knew I had earned a punishment, I’d already agreed that with Piet. And I would take it, too, Hansie was entitled to be angry. He said I’d been horrible to you and I’d let Piet down, and Jim, and I’d treated him badly and it was all true. And I was willing to pay for it. But I couldn’t let him go on thinking I didn’t care. But he wouldn’t listen.”
We all let that sit for a moment or two. Then Piet stirred. “Tim, why did you not come here to me for help?”
“I thought Hansie would be here. And I knew that you would – that you would hold him up. Everybody lets Hansie down except you. Where else would he go? And then when Jim seemed to know about the Edinburgh fiasco, I thought you had told him because of Hansie. To pay me back.”
He actually flinched when Piet came close, and his fingers tightened on my shirt again. “You thought I would be spiteful enough to harm you for Hansie's sake?”
“I – didn’t think of it quite that way.”
“You did not think at all. You had asked me, not twenty-four hours earlier, why I helped you both. Both of you, Timothy, not just Hansie. And I told you, did I not?”
“Did I say: because you are Hansie's lover?”
“No. You asked me for reassurances, you asked to know that we love you for your own sake, and I told you we did. And you took those assurances, and denied them. Hansie, why did you not come here?”
“I thought Tim would come.”
“And that was sufficient reason that you should not? Phil and I are not sufficiently capable to help you both?”
Honestly, I haven’t ever seen two grown men look so plain silly. Look like they had made prime, first-rate fools of themselves, and they were totally aware of it. Piet stalked across the room and threw himself into the chair Tim had left. He was wearing the Alpha Top face again, and I straightened up, and disengaged Tim’s fingers. I knew the signs of a bollocking coming and Tim was going to get what he had earned. If Hansie couldn’t have a cuddle, neither could he.
“Very well. So what we have is two adults in a long term relationship who have forgotten how to talk to each other, or indeed to anybody else. And when it goes wrong, they both behave exactly according to their usual habits. Hansie runs away. Not as badly as before, I will allow that, Hansie, and I am pleased that at least you had the sense to run to Frances. But you ran. And Tim blocks everybody out and insists that he can manage on his own. He needs nobody. Is this situation recoverable?”
Neither of them had anything to say.
Tim broke first. “I don’t know. I can’t see how.”
“Do you want to mend it, Tim?” That was me.
“I don’t know how!” A howl.
“Nor do I.” That was Hansie. “But I want to.”
And that was enough. Tim went across the floor like a scrum-half, except that Piet with his ref’s hat on would have given him a red card for a high tackle and playing the man instead of the ball. Both arms round Hansie's neck, head burrowing in, and a muffled “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” just audible. Piet’s hand closed on his collar, and pulled him up, out of Hansie's clutching embrace, and dropped him back in the armchair.
“How are you going to fix it?”
Hansie, who looked better than he had looked all night, lifted his head. “Help us, Piet?”
“Tim no longer recognises my authority. You must sort this yourselves.”
Hansie looked as if he had been hit with a brick. A large one. Tim looked no better. There was a long silence, and then Tim said, very quietly, “I’m out of my depth. I can’t manage this. Please, Piet, help us.”
Piet touched his head, lightly. “Well done.” Then his tone hardened. “I am to fix it all? You agree on this?”
“I will not be gentle. And it will not just be a physical thing, either. There are serious faults here which will have to be addressed. You will take on everything I instruct, or none of it. I will have you hear it all before you commit to it. Clear?”
They nodded again.
“Then we will begin with the MBA. Tim, what have you arranged with James?”
“Nothing yet. He’s going to bust me for it. He said so.”
“I do not doubt it,” said Piet, dryly. I don’t think either of the other two would have seen it, but I had: the flash of amusement. I do sometimes suspect that when Piet has, as Tim would put it, busted us for something, he then shuts himself in the shed and laughs until he’s sick. “Very well. I think we can leave that to him. But you must rearrange your workload. Tell me what you will ask him for.”
“Two half days a week at home or in the boardroom. The boardroom would be better. Time off to do what he wants. And I won’t work every night. If I work Sunday to Thursday, I’ll take Friday night and Saturday night off. I’ll work Saturday or Sunday but not both.”
“Good. Hansie? Is that enough?”
“Nee. I want also that if you wake in the night, you do not work.”
“I can’t just lie in bed when I don’t sleep well, it gives me backache.”
“Then get up, yes, but read, or watch the television, anything, but not study. Make meals to put in the freezer. Learn to knit. Download soft porn from the internet, for all I care. Not study.”
“I won’t study.”
Piet shifted. “That is agreed then. And you will make room in your days for your family.”
“Jim has already said. . .”
“Not just James and Mary. The rest of the family.”
Tim looked bewildered. I took a turn. “Me, Tim. If Hansie calls me his baby brother, I’m your brother-in-law. And if he calls Fran his sister, she’s your sister-in-law. And Piet, who is. . . um. . .” My analogy broke down, but I recovered as best I could. “Your cater-cousin.” Piet was struggling not to laugh again. Tim’s mouth was hanging open.
“Family. Yes, Phil.”
“And Tim? If we’re family, you’re allowed to quarrel with us. You’re allowed to snipe and have a go. You can complain about Hansie to us, or moan because you’re not happy. And we’ll moan and snipe and complain back.”
Piet took up the reins again. “Next thing. You have both shown us that you cannot discipline safely.” He looked round, obviously waiting for objections, but apart from a slow wash of colour over them both, there was no reaction. “So you will not do it, until I am satisfied that you know how. You will not punish, either of you. Nor will you play so. Is that clear? Not so much as a slap. You must find some other way to reconcile your differences. If you have a genuine difficulty that you would normally deal with so, and you are both agreed that a punishment is due, you will come to me. I may do it, or I may permit you to do it under my supervision. When I think you know what you are doing, I will lift the prohibition. You will both – both! – be able to tell me each other’s safe words the next time we meet. Is that clear?”
“Yes, sir.” Soft chorus.
“Hansie. You will arrange a gift for Frances Milton. Not wine or flowers or chocolate, although you may add those if you wish. But you will think of something personal as a gift for your sister who loves you.”
“Ja, that is easy. A silk shirt.”
“I spoiled her white shirt, and I had it in mind that I must get her another, although she said not. But everything Fran owns is. . . I do not know the word in English. Ordinary. Useful, but not pleasurable.”
“Ja, thank you, Phil. So, a silk shirt, not a, a, a fine, feminine one, but a heavy shirt, like you have for a wedding. She would look well in such.”
We all pictured that. It was true, she would. Pretty things aren’t Fran, but good style would be.
“Good,” agreed Piet. “You will also apologise to James Hamilton for allowing Tim to make such a mess and for making such a mess yourself.”
“Tim, you will accept that you must allow Hansie to help you. You have helped him for so long, and now it is his turn to help you. And the means by which that is to be done are for Hansie to decide, not you. If he wishes to discuss them with you, he will, but you will allow him to decide what he can do, and to do it, and you will not tell him lies about being able to manage.”
Tim winced a bit at that, but he nodded.
“Neither of you will return to this affair. There will be no recriminations: neither ‘if you had only’, nor ‘if I had only’. You have both behaved very badly and foolishly and we all know it. There is no need for it to be recycled again and again until it becomes an even bigger issue than it is now. And I will spank you both, very hard indeed, before I take you home.”
There was a lengthy silence. Then Piet said calmly, “That is the deal. If you want me to fix things, that is the deal. Take it or leave it. If you think you can do better yourselves, do so.” The silence thundered: I could feel the blood pounding in my head, and I wasn’t even part of this. I was careful to sit very still and quiet. I don’t think either of them was actually capable of thinking it through – that if they simply went away, there was nothing to stop them doing all the things Piet had said, without further reference to him, and certainly without the spanking. Then Hansie said, “I am willing to agree to it.”
Tim took longer. Suddenly he ducked his head, and said, apparently to his clasped hands, “Who goes first?”
“You do. You come to the study now.”
He stood up, and took a step towards the door, before looking down at Hansie, who stretched out a hand to him and smiled, rather shakily. They touched fingers, and Tim went, head high, towards the study, followed by Piet, who left both doors open. Hansie reached to close the living room door, and I said, in a rather tight voice. “Leave it.” He looked round at me. “But surely Tim is entitled to a little privacy?”
“Tim is entitled to precisely what Piet gives him.”
“Phil, I do not wish to hear this.”
He got it then, and his face whitened again, but he left the door alone. He walked to the back of the room, and we both heard Piet address Tim. He hadn’t raised his voice, and it was possible, by not listening very closely, to tune out the words, but the tone was unmistakeable. Tim was getting his ears ripped off. The first smack made us both jump; by the tenth, Hansie was on the floor at my feet with his head in my lap. He had tried to cover his ears, and I had, as gently as I could, caught both hands and drawn them away from his head. Piet had said he was to hear this, and hear it he would. He started to shake with the first cry. Not quite a yelp, not quite anything else. Three minutes later, Tim was sobbing and Hansie was whimpering.
“Phil, he cannot stand it. What is Piet doing? Tim never weeps this way, never cries for a punishment. He cannot take this!”
“Hansie, Piet never, never forces me. Never holds me against my will. If Tim tries to get up, Piet will let him. And he’s crying but I haven’t heard any words. I haven’t heard him ask Piet to stop.”
Oh, God, I don’t know how long it went on. It felt like hours, but it can’t possibly have been. Every breath Hansie drew had a note of pain in it, Tim was howling, and the crack of hand on skin went on and on. By the time it stopped Hansie had all but crawled inside my shirt, and I was petting him as you would pet a frightened animal. But it was all for Tim: no ‘It’s me next’, all ‘Oh, Tim, oh, Tim’. And then we sat another ten minutes at least, while the hiccupping sobs died down, and we could hear Piet’s deep tones, making faint soothing noises. Presently we heard movement, and a very tearstained Tim appeared in the doorway, with Piet’s arm round his waist.
“Now, Tim, Phil will look after you. Let him put on some salve for you. Hansie, come.”
Hansie wanted to go to Tim, but a glare from Piet sent him on his way, and Tim stumbled to me. I reached for the ChillGel, which had been mildly disguised behind a photo-frame on the coffee table.
“Come on, sweetheart, do you want to do this yourself?”
He had to try twice, before any words would come out.
“It is, you heard Piet. Just this once. Shall I do it, or do you want to?” I was trying not to listen again, as Hansie was being verbally skinned. Tim’s eyes came up to meet mine, and then he struggled with his button again, and I reached forward to help. He yanked everything down, and knelt to lean onto the sofa beside me.
Now I won’t claim to be an expert, but I’ve been spanked by all three of them, and I know what a spanking feels like, and what the after-effects look like, and that one was quite something. I’ve been spanked that hard maybe three times: once after the Ecstasy thing for deceit, once after a serious screw-up on the pitch when I had to admit that I hadn’t been listening when Piet changed the pre-match instructions, and once when I got sent off for taking a swing at a guy who had been needling me all match. Usually if I fuck up that badly, I get the cane, but both those last two had been away matches, and the only grace granted to me was Piet suggesting to Rob in the hotel that the guys in the rooms either side of mine might like to go out for half an hour and Rob making it happen.
“This is going to sting when it goes on first, sweetheart, but it will help. Ready?”
A nod, and he buried his face in the cushions, just as we heard the first report from the study. I gelled his backside, and his thighs, very thoroughly – the heat coming off him was shocking, and he had blisters rising. He was going to feel this for days, and be reminded of it every time he sat down for days more. He was marked from just below his waist to halfway down his thighs, his skin was a deep angry shade past crimson, mottled with the purple of tiny bruises, and everything felt swollen. It must have hurt him to be touched, but although I felt him flinch, it wasn’t in time with my fingers – I was as gentle as I could possibly manage – no, the winces were for the sounds we could hear coming from the study. “Keep still for a minute while that dries, love, and then we’ll have your trousers up. Can you manage? Here, let me. Now, here, come here, Tim, come on.” Piet or no Piet, he was going to have a hug. And how he wanted it: he pushed into my arms and whispered, “He called me Timothy. And he said he was disappointed with me.” Then he fell silent again and I manoeuvred both of us round until I was lying on the sofa and he was lying on me, and I just held him, while we listened to Hansie make it plain that he was in distress.
Piet brought him through the same way he had brought Tim, almost holding him up, and Tim struggled up (leaning on my knee as he did it, but I bit back the yell). By the time I was sitting upright again, he had his arms round Hansie and was making very little sense on the subject of ChillGel. “Here, Hansie, Piet says we may, let Phil, please Hansie, please let Phil, I can’t, my hands are shaking, Phil will do it, please Phil, help him!” I leaned for Hansie, who was still gasping for air, and worked his sweatpants down in a tangle with his briefs, and felt him leap like a hooked fish as the gel touched his skin. He looked no better than Tim: slightly worse if anything, given the normal pallor of his skin. By the time I had got him dressed again, Piet had reappeared with a tray – he had made tea, of all things, and I suddenly realised that I had a raging thirst. Hansie was clutching my shirt – I don’t think he knew who was inside it – and Piet pushed gently at me until I lay down again, propped to allow me to drink my tea, and coaxed Hansie to where Tim had been, raised enough that he could reach his own mug. Then Piet took Tim’s hand and next time I looked, Piet was in the armchair and Tim was in his lap, knees hooked over the arm, turned far enough that he wasn’t resting on anything that hurt, with Piet nudging at him to drink his tea. We stayed so for about twenty minutes, quietly, Hansie on my chest and Tim on Piet’s until Piet said softly, “Are you ready to go home?”
They both went in the back of the car, and I think they were holding hands.
I took the mugs back to the kitchen, and then sat, thinking. After a few minutes, I lifted the phone.
“Fran? This is Phil. Hansie won’t be back tonight, he’s gone home.”
She gave a yip of pleasure. “Piet sorted them, did he?”
“Comprehensively. I don’t suppose it’ll occur to Hansie to call you, he wasn’t at his best.”
She laughed. “Bet he wasn’t. O.K., thanks, Phil, I can double lock the door. I dare say he’ll come for his stuff. . .”
“When he can sit in the car, which won’t be tomorrow. Maybe best if Piet comes round for it. We’ll give you a call.”
The second call was more difficult, but there were other people who were entitled to know.
“Mr Hamilton? This is Phil. Hansie and Tim have gone home together.” A bald statement of fact: I don’t know what he actually knows. There have been remarks made before, but they might be only that: remarks.
“Have they indeed? Now that is worth knowing. Pieter de Vries has talked some sense into them, has he?”
“Well, they seem to have negotiated a settlement.”
“Oh aye? And they’ll both be in to sit at their desks on Monday?”
I was too slow to answer that one, and he laughed. “Och, relax, laddie, I’m not asking you to tell me secrets. They’ve gone home and that’ll do. Thank you for letting me know; Mary will be pleased.”
I got the impression that he did know, but he wasn’t saying. I wasn’t going there: he’s a strange man, James Hamilton, and you don’t take liberties with him. A bit like Piet that way. But if he knew, I couldn’t see him being sympathetic to the fact that two of his executives couldn’t sit comfortably at their work. I didn’t reckon there would be any spare cushions knocking about those offices on Monday.
“I’m up here, Piet.”
He came briskly up the stairs and checked at the sight of the bedside table.
“What is this?”
“Whiskey. Glasses. ChillGel. And that nice body oil which smells slightly of sandalwood.”
“Well, yes, I see so, but why?”
“Come here, Piet, and show me your hands.”
He humoured me, sitting down on the edge of the bed and holding out his hands to me. His right palm was welted and hot; I brought it to my mouth, kissed the centre gently, and ran my tongue slowly from wrist to fingertips.
“Mmm. That is very good.”
I reached past him for the ChillGel, and spread a little across his palm. He hissed. So it had cost him something too – his hand hurt.
“If Tim and Hansie are entitled to this, you are too. I was thinking while you were out: I did my knee, and who looked after me? Piet. Tim made a complete pig’s breakfast of his study day and who sorted it for him? Piet.”
“Well, koekie, but you would not have had me leave him in trouble?”
“Of course not. And he and Hansie got themselves into a mess, and who helped them? James Hamilton, and Fran, and Piet. And after a while, I thought, Piet looks after everybody, so who looks after Piet?”
“Ach, but I do not need looking after.”
“Look me in the eye and tell me that. You spanked Tim for saying that.”
“So I did. So perhaps I am wrong? Who looks after Piet? You do, hartlam. Every day that you live with me, you make me happy. What could be better looking after than that?”
“Well, I was thinking, that must have been fairly strenuous, all that tonight. Hansie's nearly as big as me, and Tim isn’t exactly small even if he’s not up to rugby standards. And. . . I don’t know, Piet, is it difficult, topping? Not the physical stuff, but the emotional, the mental?”
“Yes. To do it to that extent? It leaves me weary, because I must always be so alert, to be sure I do not get it wrong. I got too much wrong this time, in the early stages, and this tonight was dancing on a tightrope. I think that I am not a favourite person for either Tim or Hansie now, and I am very tired.”
“So perhaps it’s time for you to be a bit selfish? Time to let me look after you a little?”
“And how will you do this?”
“I thought a bath. I can’t kneel, but I think that if I sat on the edge of the bath I could still wash your back. Your hand must hurt, to have given Hansie and Tim that much.”
“It does, and my elbow and shoulder too. A bath is a good idea.”
“And a drink, to take with you. Then afterwards, I want to rub your back. You know I’m good at that.”
“You are indeed, and I would like that very much.”
“And after that – well, let’s just see if any more ideas come to us.”
“Beminde, I think I have some more ideas already.”
“Do they involve me sucking your brains out through your dick?”
“You have such a delicate turn of phrase. They did not, but I have heard worse suggestions.”
“There’s a whole jar of chocolate spread behind the whiskey bottle. Does that come before or after the bath?”
“Do I have to choose? I thought I was to be allowed to be selfish? I shall dip my fingers in the chocolate sauce, and you shall lick it off again, and then after my bath. . .”
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© , 2005