I gave it some considerable thought beforehand. Phil is very fond of both Frances and Nick, as am I, and he would say or do nothing to blight their celebration. Nonetheless, the pain he felt at knowing that he and I cannot celebrate our own relationship similarly has not gone away. He has, I believe, managed to some degree to make his head over-rule his heart; we cannot have the work we both love if we announce our relationship, but we can if we hold our tongues, and meanwhile the people we love know about us and hold their tongues too.
He says nothing but he regrets it still, I know he does.
And because of that, I gave thought to how the marriage of Frances and Nick might affect him. He has been to many and many a wedding, of course. He is of the age at which his friends and associates wed and breed. But these are among our closest friends; they are people whom we trust with. . . well, with everything. It would not be surprising if Phil felt an occasional twinge of jealousy that they can so easily do what he desires for himself.
I simply wished to turn his thoughts a little on the day itself, so that when he thought of himself and me, his attention would be on what we do have, rather than on what we do not.
It looked to be a fine warm day, fortunately, in a summer of more or less disastrous weather. Phil had gone out mid-morning to deliver his cake to the kitchens of the Town Hall and to leave detailed instructions about its presentation with the professional caterers. By the time I heard him in the hall again, I was already showered and shaved.
“Koekie? Could I trouble you to do something for me?”
“Would you be so obliging as to bring the cane upstairs when you come? In fact, bring both the canes.”
He knew that I was not vexed. He is punished in the study, never – never! – in the bedroom which we share and in which we love. He looked up at me from the foot of the stairs, without fear, and his tongue flickered out to touch his lower lip, but he passed no comment as he went to the door to my house.
“Thank you, koekie.” I took the canes from him and laid them on the bed. “I am quite finished in the bathroom if you wish to shower now.”
That disconcerted him; he wanted to know what I intended, but he was not quite willing to ask. While he made his ablutions, I dressed myself, with some care – both for Frances’s sake and for Phil’s. I was at the final stage of gathering my wallet and my keys when he emerged from the bathroom, with his towel firmly knotted around his hips. He cast one glance at the bed and another at me, and hesitated. I held out a hand to him.
“I will tell you what I wish, Phil, and if you dislike the idea, you will say no to me and there will be no more said.”
He looked suspicious in the extreme.
“We will be in public today, and many of the people we will meet will not be known to us.”
He nodded. “Nick’s family.”
“And his colleagues, and Fran’s acquaintances from the cricket club, and her friends from elsewhere, and Nick’s also. So I will spend less time with you than I might wish.”
That is another consequence of our life. It went without saying that through the course of the day, Phil could not be by my side constantly. We needed to imply that we were acquaintances, work colleagues, even friends – but no more. That if we arrived and left together, it signified no more than two men who lived close by one another and who therefore found it convenient to share a taxi. In all likelihood, he would not sit with me; certainly he would not touch me.
“I am a jealous man and it does not please me that you shall spend your day paying attention to people other than me. So I am minded to make sure that you think of me, and think of me often.”
I could see the dawning of understanding on his face, and a flicker of amusement.
“And how were you planning to ensure this?”
I unwound the towel from his waist, urging him to the edge of the bed and pressing his shoulder until he bent provocatively - and he was provocative, arching his back and glancing at me.
“I thought that I would lay my mark on you,” and my palm smoothed across the centre of the fine arse, “so that every time I see you, I will know that you are mine. Nobody else will see, but I will know.”
He shuddered a little, but I was not done. My fingers drifted lower, to the crease between buttock and thigh. “Such a mark, though, you might ignore.”
“I don’t think so,” he murmured, eyes closed and leaning into my touch.
“But you might. So I would wish also to add something which you would feel. Which you would feel all day, my Phil, both when you stood and when you sat.” Of course he would feel the higher stripe too, but I had no fear of him not understanding me. It is the stroke biting low which stands in the mind and which smarts and throbs afterwards. “Yes? Or no?”
“What’s in this for me? Seems like a rather lopsided deal: you get to know that I’m marked and I get a sore arse. What’s the payback?”
I continued to fondle him delicately. “The payback is my word that when we come home, koekie, I will give you pleasure at least equal to the pain. Yes? Or no? It is your choice.”
He straightened and hesitated, and reached out to the canes on the bed. The dark one he pushed towards me; the paler one he left untouched. I shook my head, smiling a little.
“No, koekie. You may say me nay if you wish but if you say yes, the detail is mine to decide, not yours.”
Still he hesitated and I closed my arms around him, nuzzling into his neck and pressing kisses along his jaw. I felt the muscles shift as he swallowed.
“Piet. . . you know how I feel about that yellow one.”
“Then say no,” I whispered into the ear beside my mouth. “You know that I will not hold it against you. The choice is always yours, geliefde, always.”
He leaned back, his head dropping to my shoulder, his eyes closed. I waited and just as I began to fear that I had misjudged it, he said very softly, “Put your gloves on first.”
He watched, his eyes hooded, as I did so, and then I lifted the dark cane and took my position. He bent without instruction, forearms on the bedclothes, eyes fixed between them. I rested the cane across the very centre of his bottom.
“Yes,” he confirmed and gasped as I laid the first stroke in place. I waited for a moment, and tapped again, and snapped a second stroke directly on top of the first. Phil’s breath came hard between his teeth, out and in, but he said nothing, not did he move. Already the line was darkening across his skin. The third stroke, on top again, extracted a long grumble of pain from him, and his head came up although he did not straighten. I set the cane down where he could see it, and lifted the other.
Now that yellow cane is a perfect example of how the whip in the head differs from the one in the hand. Phil fears it but in fact it is not as severe as the darker, stiffer one which he met first. I bought it – or rather, I had him buy it – when he had made a violent scene in a public place and I was very vexed with him. I had in mind to give him a punishment which would take considerably longer to impose than any he had previously experienced, and which he would remember. Eighteen strokes with the heavy black cane would have bruised him deeply – would possibly have drawn blood, which I will not ever do. That other is lighter, more flexible, whippier. It must sting like a hornet, and it raises lines which linger on the skin, visible to the eye long after the smart has vanished. Eighteen strokes with that had him loudly penitent, and with a more than healthy respect for the new implement – but there was no serious damage.
And yet he fears it, and will take great care to avoid it. Why? Because, I think, he associates it with severe anger on my part. He can stand the heavy thud and the bruise of the thicker rattan more easily than the whip and smart of the thinner because he links the smart more closely with my disapproval.
So before I touched him with it, I smoothed my gloved hand again and again down his back until I felt the taut muscles ease, and I tickled one fingertip across the mark developing on his skin until he squirmed and muttered my name, half in amusement and half in objection. Then I rested the length of the cane in the line of buttock and thigh and watched as Phil twisted the bed covers in his fists.
The first stroke had him arching his back and releasing a long whine; the second, similarly placed, extracted a yelp. I rested the cane in the same spot.
He buried his face in the crumpled linen and fidgeted slightly. I tapped once –
And laid the stroke hard, not where he had been anticipating, but across the very centre of his thighs, eliciting a squeal, as much of indignation as of pain, as he shot upright.
I sat on the bed and pulled him into my lap, where he squirmed at the feel of my clothing against the weal. “I have been called worse. I am cruel to you, am I not?”
“Yes, you fucking are!” He was half inclined to be offended, so I kissed him into a softer humour.
“What did I tell you? That I would give you pleasure at least equal to the pain. How much pleasure am I going to give you tonight, Phil?” As I spoke, my hands drifted across his skin, not to arouse but to soothe, and he relaxed against me, his body forgiving me even as he grumbled under his breath.
“I want a down payment now.”
I kissed him again, more deeply. “There is not time. The cab will be here in twenty minutes and you are not dressed.”
“Then there’s going to be interest and a late payment penalty.”
I eased him off my lap. “I will pay both and think nothing of the cost. Tonight. Now, my hart, delectable though you look, I think you must put on some clothes.” And I sat and watched while he did so, while he brushed his hair and fastened his cuff links, and I thought of what I would do. . . later. He turned, finally, satisfied with his own appearance, and cast a critical eye over me.
“Not that tie, Piet.”
He shook his head. “Have you a paler one?”
I made him free of my wardrobe with a gesture and he flicked through my ties, frowning, before turning to his own extensive collection and extracting a pale blue silk. I fastened it under his judicious gaze and submitted to him rearranging the knot and pulling the ends straight. Then he nodded and set off to the stairs and I allowed myself a smile – for what was he doing other than what I had done to him? He had placed his mark on me, in a manner that would be known only to him and to me, but which I would see every time I looked downwards, and I would wear his mark as willingly as he had borne mine.
They scrub up well, Fran and Nick both. Fran rarely wears anything fancy – even at the rugby club shows, she’s usually working so she’ll wear the ubiquitous LBD to be inconspicuous – but the outfit, about which we had heard from Mary, was a winner, and Fran herself just glowed with happiness. And Nick, as Phil had said, paid for careful dressing. I remembered him in a suit at Simon’s dad’s funeral, and seeing him now, I got some idea of what Phil meant when he spoke of the difference between a good suit and a poor one. The thing I really noticed, though, was that he kept still. He rarely does, you see – he’s a fidgeter. He’ll twist the stem of his wineglass between his fingers, or constantly rearrange his knife and fork, or when his hands are empty, his fingers flex slowly and continuously. It’s probably why he’s so thin – he’s never still.
But he looked different, somehow. He didn’t fidget or fiddle with things; he looked calm and relaxed and content, unlike Hansie, who was nervous enough for both of them, and who had, in the approved fashion of the Best Man, lost the wedding rings twice by noon.
It was a very informal wedding: Register Office formalities and then a buffet. Once it had been established that Phil and I weren’t going to be allowed to do it – and we both fought over that one a bit, until Piet simply said to Phil ‘cooking or the Lions’ tour, choose one’ and then glared at me until I worked out that I was expected to give way gracefully too; where was I? oh yes – I had been allowed to pick up sample menus from various caterers and then to email Phil with my opinions and to go back to the caterers with demands for variations. I still say we would have done it better, and cheaper, but I’ll concede that it would have been a lot of work, and between us we intimidated the caterers into laying on a decent spread. Phil’s cakes were simply beautiful; he had avoided the temptation to do too much, even using those damned almonds sparingly.
No speeches, either – well, Nick had got to his feet and quietly thanked us all for coming, mentioned Hansie, and Marianne who had stood up with Fran, and Phil, of course, and Mike who was taking photographs because Fran obviously wasn’t allowed to (that got a big laugh) and had then announced that since the reception was full of rugby players and cricket players and police officers, there weren’t going to be any proper speeches because they just ate into good drinking time.
I can’t think of when I last enjoyed myself so much at a wedding.
Until the swirl of meet-and-part brought me into a group with Phil, and Rob Standish from the rugby club and his wife Jackie, who is heavily pregnant, and Sergeant Bateman (“John, please. Sergeant Bateman’s at work”) and his wife Sarah, and a couple of others. And even that was fine until Hansie appeared, armed with a spare bottle of fizz with which to top up all our glasses, and accompanied by Marianne, whom he proceeded to introduce around the group.
“And this is Marianne – ” and it sounded like a sneeze. Phil at least looked a little startled and Hansie rolled one eye towards Marianne in theatrical embarrassment and took a breath to try again. She forestalled him.
“It’s Marianne Szczeszynski, but it’s all right, Marianne will do. The only thing I regretted leaving behind in my divorce was my married name. Everybody could spell Fletcher.”
It got a laugh and the conversation went on, the way it does among people who don’t know each other but who are prepared to be sociable until Marianne said to Phil ‘I’ve been talking to your. . . your boss, is he? Pieter?”
“He’s our Director of Rugby, Rob’s and mine,” agreed Phil.
“He’s a most interesting man, isn’t he? Somehow one doesn’t expect – please don’t take offence, I know it’s pure prejudice, but one doesn’t expect somebody who earns his living from sport to be so knowledgeable about subjects like philosophy.”
“I believe he’s very widely read,” said Phil, non-committally.
“And pure animal magnetism as well.” That was Jackie Standish of all people. Rob turned to stare at her, and she laughed at him. “It’s all right, pet, even if I could waddle fast enough in my condition to catch him, he’s not my type. But,” she appealed to Marianne, “he’s really got it, hasn’t he?”
“In spades,” agreed Marianne, and Sarah Bateman cocked her head. “Who is this paragon?”
Jackie turned, rather like a ship in full sail, to point him out, and the small man beside her – I’d got his name as Denis and his wife, who topped him by several inches, seemed to be called Vanessa – reached out to steady her. Vanessa turned to gaze at Piet too.
“Oh,” she said quietly. “Oh, I see.”
I wasn’t quite sure what she saw, but before I had a chance to ask, Marianne turned back to Rob.
“Is he married?”
Rob managed not to look at Phil, but the tendons stood out in his neck. “No, no he’s not.”
Rob hesitated, which was exactly wrong. Nick always says, and my limited experience confirms, that Sergeant Bateman can see further through a brick wall than most. I said before, I think, that my distinct impression was that very little troubles him with the exception of people telling him lies. I suspect that he can smell a lie a mile off – and we really wanted him not to grasp that there might be a lie even being implied, insofar as it related to Pieter de Vries and his marital status. Phil was plainly not going to say anything; Rob wanted not to say anything; Hansie said later that his mind went completely blank leaving him incapable of saying even what he said before to that parent at the kids’ rugby, that Piet was in a long term relationship. Fortunately, Jackie put her oar in again, before the silence could stretch any further; unfortunately, what she said didn’t help.
“Well, I’ve never seen him bring anybody to any of the rugby club functions, have you, Rob?”
By now Rob looked overwhelmingly embarrassed, but he did his best. “He’s a very private man; he doesn’t talk about himself much. I know he travelled a lot when he was younger; maybe he’s just. . . never settled down.”
“Well, the way the job is nowadays, that’s not so unusual,” I said, slightly too firmly. “I mean, only about half your team are married or settled, aren’t they, Rob? I know I’ve heard you, Phil, complaining that you’re away so much that it doesn’t fit well with a long term relationship.”
“Rob’s away from home more than I would like,” agreed Jackie; “but surely Phil’s well on the way to getting tied down? You’ve been in the papers enough: when are you going to introduce her to us all? I thought she’d be here today.”
“Flora?” enquired Phil. “She’s in Canada on a book tour. Anyway, she doesn’t know Fran. But Tim’s quite right; when I’m home, Flora’s away and when she’s here I’m on tour. We’re not. . . it’s not a – ” he did the finger quotes thing – “‘relationship’. We’re friends, that’s all.”
John Bateman raised his eyebrows, apparently finding this doubtful. “I think what the ladies really want to know is whether your Director of Rugby has a ‘friend’ of that sort, or if he’s interested in having one.”
And I think – no, I’m sure, that he was only teasing Marianne a little for her obvious interest. But I also think that he picked up that there might be something else to know. Well, I know he did, because he caught me later, and asked.
It was carelessness on my part; I’d been to the loo and on the way back Bateman cheerfully caught my eye and indicated a half full bottle on the table. I dropped into the seat beside him and let him fill my glass – and then of course I couldn’t immediately move on. Meanwhile, he turned his chair ten degrees or so, and suddenly I couldn’t just stand up and walk away; I’d need to squeeze past him. Oh, it was neatly done: I was pinned by his side for anything short of outright rudeness – and once he started to ask questions it was obvious that outright rudeness would hang a sign over my head screaming I KNOW A SECRET!
“Your friend there,” indicating Hansie with a wave of his wineglass, “obviously knows Pieter de Vries quite well.”
I agreed, easily enough. “Hansie played in one of Pieter’s South African teams.”
“Ah, is that it? And is that why de Vries came here to take over the team? He’s Sales Director, isn’t he? Hansie? And the company sponsors the club.”
“He’s not actually a director,” I said; “when we did the stock market flotation, the company lawyers got on everybody’s case and made us stop calling people directors. Well, you know, small companies, the ‘director’ is just the one in charge, you don’t think that the word has a proper legal meaning. But Hansie’s not on the board; he’s Senior Sales Manager, really.”
Bateman smiled but he wouldn’t be distracted into talking about business law. “Did he call in his friend from South Africa then?”
I shook my head. “Pieter was here a couple of months – half a season or so – before Hansie. My Uncle Jim got him, I don’t know how. Why?”
“Oh, no reason, no reason. I’m just curious about what keeps a man of his calibre here. I remember seeing a while back that he’d been offered a place with. . . youth rugby, would it have been? The local journalists seemed very sure that he would take it.”
That hung in the air a bit. I shrugged. “I remember that; Jim was afraid he would want to be released from his contract.”
“But he didn’t?”
“I’ve no idea,” I said, a little frostily. “I’m not on the board either, not of Hamiltons or the rugby club. I couldn’t tell you if he decided not to go or if one or the other made it worth his while not to. Why, what’s your interest?” because really, he was asking more than general conversation would expect and if I had nothing to hide, I thought, I would certainly have asked.
He shrugged in his turn. “Curiosity. I’m sure Nick’s told you, policemen are inherently nosy. This seems an odd, out of the way place to have a big name sports star; I’m just curious about what keeps him here.”
“He’s hardly a big name any more,” I objected, swallowing down the bitter feeling of betrayal. I didn’t want to be involved in a conversation about what kept Piet here. I already knew the answer and I didn’t think Bateman needed to. “Pieter de Vries’s day wasn’t exactly yesterday. If you ask somebody round here who their sports hero is, they’ll maybe say Phil Cartwright, or Steve Ackerley the footballer, or Moira Maxwell the swimmer, but I doubt they’d mention Pieter de Vries. It’s not as if a sporting career is particularly long term anyway, and he’s not a local hero, so I shouldn’t think that anybody except other rugby players would have heard of him before he came. I can remember Hansie filling Fran in on his career, and certainly she didn’t know him from Adam.”
“Did she not?” he said, softly. I shook my head.
“And as for what keeps him here, the Gryphons. . . well, I would say that every year since he came, they’ve probably been in the top 5 clubs nationally. Look how many of them go off to national squads. Cartwright again, Thibault de Saint-Cyr’s being tipped for France next season, Bourne and Matthews to Wales, that Irishman, I can never remember his name. . . That’s down to Pieter, mostly, but it works both ways: he makes the club successful and he reaps the reward when they are.”
“Oh, I’m sure you’re right,” agreed Bateman, but his tone sounded doubtful. “I just wondered if there were more. . . personal reasons too.”
I felt a trickle of sweat down my back; fortunately, at that moment, Sarah Bateman came by and I leapt to my feet and offered her my chair. “There’s some wine left in this if you would like. . . no, no, I’ll get myself another, you finish this one.” It took a considerable degree of restraint to stop me bolting, but I think I managed to get back to the bar without making myself too conspicuous. Then I took a large refill of the surprisingly good wine (Hansie’s recommendation) and marshalled my wits.
Bateman plainly suspected something; I had no idea what had attracted his attention to Piet but he absolutely could not be allowed to make any link between Piet and Phil. What was needed, I thought desperately, was a large helping of misdirection.
By the time Nick caught up with me an hour later in the garden, I was totally frazzled. He, on the other hand, looked – for once – completely happy, just a little bewildered.
“Tim? I can’t bear it any longer, I have to know: what are you doing?”
I shushed him hastily.
“No, come on, what’s it about? I mean, I can see what you’re doing; I just don’t get why you’re doing it.”
“I think I should like to know that too.”
That came from behind me and was uttered in a very deep – and ominous – tone; Nick’s eyebrows went up and two minutes later we were all seated on a bench in the rose garden with the hedge behind us stopping us being overheard. Nick leaned forward.
“Come on, Tim, give. You’ve been pushing women at Piet all afternoon; what’s it about? I’ve been watching: every time he draws breath, you’ve been there introducing another one.”
I looked pleadingly at Piet. “I couldn’t get you on your own to tell you.”
Stone face. Hanging Judge. Scary. “To tell me what?”
I glanced at Nick. “John Bateman’s onto something. He’s way, way too interested in why Piet’s here, in what’s keeping him. And I know he’s smart, you’ve said so often enough and. . . well, I just thought he’d be better thinking that Piet was a complete womaniser than making any connection between Piet and other men. I mean, I don’t know if he knows that we’re more than acquaintances, but he knows I’m gay and he knows Hansie is, and he’s spotted for himself that Hansie’s friends with Piet, so. . . well, you know, anybody can have some gay friends but I didn’t think we wanted him thinking that. . . that it might be more than just Hansie and me, and us safely paired off. And all I could think of,” turning to Piet, “was that Marianne plainly fancies you, and would be willing to chat you up, and then when she wandered off again, Bateman was looking, which was why I introduced Vanessa,” (Nick choked on his wine for some reason) “and then that woman Pat or Pam or whoever she was, and I was struggling a bit by then, so I just snaffled Sarah Bateman as she came past and introduced you. . .”
Nick gave a squawk of laughter. “You’ve been pimping John Bateman’s wife to Piet? Oh joy! Oh God, I am so going to wind him up about that!”
Piet still looked stone faced. I swallowed nervously and went on: “But I couldn’t manage to get a word with you to tell you about it. You’ve got to keep away from Phil. I’m telling you, Bateman’s onto something.”
Nick sobered suddenly. “Tell us exactly what he said, Tim. I’m just wondering. . .”
I repeated as much as I could remember of the two conversations and Nick shook his head.
“I agree with you that he’s onto something, Tim, and I’m afraid that I think you’ll have told him a lot more than you meant to. He’s a bloody good copper and he can hear a lot of what people don’t say, but I don’t think it’s to do with Phil. I think it’s to do with me. Or rather,” he added thoughtfully, “Fran.”
Piet shifted, without looking at me, and spoke for the first time. “Why Fran?”
“John doesn’t like her. He likes me, and I think he respects Fran – he got to know her a lot better when I was in hospital – but he can’t get over the fact that she’s been a porn photographer. Oddly enough, I don’t think the clubbing thing bothers him that much – he doesn’t like it, the idea gives him the yips, but he can box it away on the grounds that it’s my private life and no concern of his. But the fact that she has worked in the fields she has, he finds that more difficult. Why he can’t pack that up as Fran’s private life and equally none of his business, I don’t know, but he plain doesn’t like her much.”
I thought about this but what with the wine and Piet glowering, my brains had gone to porridge. “So?”
Nick glanced at Piet. “Before I ever met Fran, we knew about you. When we investigated her to find out if she could help with our case, we came on the story about you and her in that magazine.”
Piet nodded slowly, just once. Nick went on.
“I think you’ve been just a bit too successful. Fran told me about it – you were aiming at people thinking that you and she were involved. I reckon John does think so, and he’s. . . well, he’s looking out for me. He’s wanting to be sure that you’re not hovering round being a threat.”
“So what,” enquired Piet, “are we going to do about it?”
Nick looked faintly surprised. “Nothing. My marriage is not, bottom line, any of John’s concern, and if he says anything to me, I won’t feel any qualms about snubbing him. I’m sure he means well, but I’m not going to encourage him to poke his nose in.” He considered for a moment. “Actually, no, there is one thing you can do. You are staying through the evening, aren’t you?”
“I was intending to,” confirmed Piet.
“Good. Dance with Fran. Dance with Fran when I’m there. We’ll show John that I know and I’m not bothered, that it’s not a secret.” He hesitated. “Um, are you intending to keep on going to the tango club with her? I know it’s hard for you to find dates you can both manage but it would be a shame to stop.”
It’s rare for anybody to surprise Piet, but Nick managed it.
“I had rather thought that she would not wish to do it again.”
Nick shook his head. “Why shouldn’t she? She enjoys it and it’s good for her to have things to do without me. I’ll be playing football this winter, there’s a veterans’ team plays out of the Admiral Nelson and I’ve signed up for Saturday mornings. I dare say Fran will come and watch a couple of times, but she’s not keen on football, it’s something just for me. Why should she not have her own outing with her own friend?”
“I will speak to her about it,” said Piet, cautiously. “And I will take your advice and ask her to dance with me this evening.” His gaze fell on me. “And as for you, Mr Creed, I will deal with you,” oh God, nobody can do the ominous tone like Piet, not even Uncle Jim, “the next time we meet.”
My tongue instantly cleaved to the roof of my mouth; I couldn’t manage so much as a squeak, but Nick, who was getting to his feet, turned back uneasily toward Piet.
“Um. . . it wasn’t an unreasonable conclusion that he drew from the evidence available to him, you know. And I don’t doubt that his intentions were good.”
And what do we know about good intentions?
But Piet just gave that odd jerk of his head. “You need not protect him, Nick. Indeed, I know that his intentions were good. Why else would I be promising him a reward?”
“Ah. Well, as long as it’s like that. . .”
We sat for a minute after Nick had gone; eventually Piet stirred.
“You are still concerned about something.”
I leaned forward, my elbows on my knees and spoke to the ground. “I couldn’t get at you without there being somebody in earshot.”
“So you said. I understand it.”
“I couldn’t get at Phil either, to tell him what I was doing. And – I don’t know that I could have explained it to Phil anyway. I didn’t know what to do!” That had a slightly childish ring to it. “Piet, he’d already had to listen to a whole conversation about why you weren’t married and we know how he feels about that. Oh God, it was. . . just watching him, Piet, watching him having to listen to it, having to be polite, it was heartbreaking, I didn’t want to look at him, it felt. . . it felt indecent, almost, knowing how miserable it was making him. The whole thing was just bloody. But I swear, I could think of nothing to do, nothing that would help at all, except to throw women at you, specially Marianne who would go home with you if you gave her half a hint. If he’s been watching. . . if he’s been thinking that he mustn’t come near you, and at a wedding of all things, and I’m making it worse, he must be wondering what the hell I’ve been doing, and I know I fucked it all up before, I know I missed the fact that he wants to get married, I know. . .”
I got a grip on myself. “I know how much it hurt him that I missed it. And it hurts me now too, to know that I let him down so badly. If he saw me this afternoon – but I didn’t know what else to do! I swear, I thought it was the best thing to do, I thought it would keep him safe, even if it hurt him!” It was hardly more than a whisper: “If I’ve hurt him again he’ll never forgive me. Never.”
Piet was silent for a moment. Then: “Timmy, we shall go and look for some coffee; I think that perhaps you have had enough to drink for the present. I will speak to Phil. I will tell him myself what you were doing and you may trust me, Phil will find it an amusing story. He will not blame you for it.”
I wanted desperately to believe him; he smiled reassuringly. “Come. This is a wedding; it is a celebration. Enough anxiety, we shall go and be happy for our friends. I would not lie to you, Tim, not over this. You are right that Phil feels the situation keenly but I have already taken steps today to turn his mind into a different course and I promise you that all will be well.” He got up from the bench and glared at me. “Would you doubt your Alpha Top?”
Well, there’s only one answer to that, so I gave it.
I made a full payment on my promise, as soon as we arrived home; I did not hurry myself. Well, and why would I? And hence it was the early hours of the morning when I told Phil the tale of Tim and Sergeant Bateman, turning it into a joke of Tim’s panicked provision of one pretty woman after another and my complete incomprehension, and Nick’s bewildered fascination, and Phil leaned against the headboard and listened to it all with – well, to be frank, with less amusement than I had hoped, but without the distress which I had, for all my fine words to Tim, feared.
“I knew there was something going on,” he said. “I’m not blind, I could see what Tim was doing, and I couldn’t make anything of it, any more than Nick could. But I didn’t dare come and ask you, and I never managed to catch Tim.” He was pensive for a moment and I hesitated to interrupt his thoughts, but he turned a little eventually and went on, “I wasn’t best pleased about it. I thought it was a rather. . . insensitive. . . joke on his part.”
I opened my mouth, with no clear idea of what I was going to say, but he went on.
“And then I thought, well, last time I made assumptions about Tim, we got ourselves into a hell of a mess, so maybe I’d be better to wait and see, not just go off half-cocked and blame him. If you hadn’t told me tonight, I was going to ask you tomorrow what it had been about.” He wriggled down the bed, settling the pillows more comfortably, and finally beginning to smile. “Poor sod, he must have been sweating cobs.”
“If that means what I think it does,” I said cautiously, “he was very anxious. Anxious that his plan would fail, anxious that I would be angry, anxious,” and I looked full into his face, “that you would be upset.”
He glanced at me and then back at his own hands. “I couldn’t think of any reason he would do that, other than to wind one of us up, but I kept telling myself that just because I didn’t understand it didn’t mean that he. . . that it was spite, or thoughtlessness.”
And that simply took my breath away; Phil, after a moment, sat up again and said uneasily, “What? What did I say?” but when I held out my arms, he came to me easily enough.
“My hart, I fear that I have been doing you a great wrong.”
“I don’t think so? Well,” and with a smile, “not unless you really were planning to go home with Marianne Thing.”
“Koekie, I do not joke. I watch, and I take pleasure when Hansie grows in confidence and when he dares to love; I take pleasure when I see Tim trust his heart occasionally over his head. And yet here you show me that you have grown as surely as either of them, that when I tell you that sometimes you must use your head and not let your emotions run away with you, you do it. I thought that Tim deserved a reward, for his intentions were indeed good, and he acted despite his fear that you would blame him, but truly, Phil, I think that your inaction, your faith, your thought, showed as much courage as his action ever did.”
We lay quietly after for a minute or two, and then Phil eased himself away from me.
“Piet?” and he rolled over and canted his hips invitingly. “Why are we talking about Hansie and Tim?”
I had no idea.
But one way or another, it was nearly dawn when we slept, and well into Sunday when we woke, and we did very little with the remains of the weekend. Then on Monday, we went our various ways, I to my desk and to the increasing administrative workload, Phil to out-of-season training and then to various meetings in the afternoon. He arrived home only a few minutes before me and was making coffee as I picked up the note which Mrs Woollard, who cleans for us, had left on the table.
Sorry, can’t do Thursday this week, going to dentist, can do Friday instead if that’s any good for you? You need more disinfectant and dishwasher tablets. Signed for parcel, came by courier mid-morning, hope that’s O.K. RW.
“What is it, Piet?”
“It is addressed to you, koekie.”
“Yes, but the sender is de Vries, Ficksburg.”
“Something from the girls? No, for you said de Vries, not Meyer. I do not know.”
I have never known Phil to weep like that. Never. He stood at first with the note in his hand and an expression of such raw emotion that I was afraid, and then he opened the box and looked at the contents, and gave way entirely. He is quiet now, his head on my chest, one hand closed tightly around his new treasure, and only the damp eyelashes and occasional hitching breath left to betray him. Presently, when he can speak again, I will help him to make the telephone call he wishes.
My dear Phil,
It was most pleasant to meet with you while you were here on tour, and I must again thank you for the tickets. I enjoyed having the opportunity once more to watch a top level game. (We will not speak of the result: it stands to reason that no result is likely to please us both!)
I think you know that I suffer with arthritis in my hands; recently, as a result of this, it became necessary for me to give up the signet ring which Martje gave me on the occasion of our marriage. I confess to having been a little dismayed by this, it being the symbol to me of a happy and lengthy marriage. She and I have now chosen together another ring, which I can wear without discomfort; however, I found myself unwilling to put the original aside completely, as it had obvious sentimental value to me.
I appreciate that it is not likely that you could wear any such item all the time; even when Pieter was coaching a team here in South Africa, I can recall him reminding his players to remove ear studs and the like before matches, and of course the fashion for a wedding ring on a man’s hand comes and goes as it has done more than once even in my lifetime. However, I hope that you would find some occasion to wear this one, which comes now to you with best wishes from Martje as well as from me, and in the hope that it will bring you happiness equal to that which we have had.
Yours very affectionately
Hendrik de Vries
It is not, I think, the gift which has affected him so. The item itself, scratched and worn – no. More than once I have offered to buy him one and he has turned me down, saying that he did not care one way or the other about such things. No, the gift is merely a tangible symbol of the contents of the letter, and it is the letter which has so completely undone him, and in particular the salutation and the close.
For it is so, is it not, that a man will speak to his most beloved son in law?
Click on Idris the Dragon to go back
© , 2009