Five Ways to Friday



About the Muddied Oafs.

I do wish you wouldn’t call them that. About Pieter and Phil, yes, what?

And Hansie and the rest in that series.

Well, it’s hardly a series, is it? Just a couple of stories. You’d hardly call that a series. Otherwhen is a series.

Otherwhen is a… is a… 49 stories, Cobweb. There are 49 stories about the Muddied Oafs. And that’s not including the ones about Fran and Nick.

Don’t be silly, there can’t be that many… there was Pieter and Phil, and all the way to Aunt Cornelia, that’s… um… 15, it is quite a lot, isn’t it? And then Hansie's homebrew, that’s… 27. You’re right, it is a series. When did that happen?

About the third bottle of wine, I think. Where did these olives come from? They’re very good.

Constant Reader left them as an offering. I’m not sure if they’re for us or for the Pantheon, but the Pantheon isn’t here and we are. And everybody moving house took us up to about 43, and then… I do believe you’re right. 49 stories. Well, well. I think we ought to stop. They’re not supposed to be a series, and if you overdose on rugby players we’ll never get anything more useful done.

If I overdose on rugby players? Anyway, I don’t have useful things to do, that’s your problem. Useful things is not my department; I do advanced time-wasting and idleness, it’s my job.

And I don’t know anybody who does it as well as you, darling. But no more rugby players?

No more rugby players. We’re not having a 50th birthday/anniversary/whatever for them. That’s enough.

Right. No more. Only… Gnome?

Oh, Gods and Goddesses, you’re going to say that one of them has Story for you. Tell him to shut up. Tell him we don’t do that any more. Tell him we’ve moved away. Tell him…

It’s the Viper.

Tell him we’ll be pleased to take dictation just as soon as we’ve found a pen. What sort of Story is it?

Apparently it’s the traditional story about somebody being too stressed to handle his own job.

So why on earth is it coming here? We don’t do that sort of story, do we? We do Tops who aren’t always Right and Bottoms who aren’t always Wrong and Characters who are capable of running their own lives without Outside Interference. If it’s a traditional Story it doesn’t belong with us. Give it a forwarding address and tell it to try…

Gnome? They’re all here. All of them. Tim and Hansie I might send away. Phil’s a sweetie, he won’t press it if we aren’t willing, but Piet’s here. The Alpha Top.

He’s a gentleman. He won’t insist if you...

Fran and Nick. Fran’s giving me the Look. I don’t want to be Looked at by Fran, Gnome, I don’t do F/F, specially not when I’m the second F.

Fran doesn’t do F/F either. She’s bluffing.

Gnome? I can see Aunt Cornelia.

Pen. Notepad. I’ll get the kettle on. We’re going to need to be sober for this one. Are you sure it’s a job story? We don’t do job stories.

I’m not sure of anything, they’re all talking at once. SHUT UP ALREADY! Sorry, Mrs van der Merwe, I didn’t mean you. One at a time please. Who’s first? All right, Phil, go on, then, not too fast. From the top.

I was already in bed when Piet came out of the shower; I wasn’t really paying attention, but I did look up when he went to the mirror: that’s my trick, not his. I’m the vain one who preens and poses.

“Hey, gorgeous, what are you doing?”

“When I was in the shower I found a grey hair.”

I was a bit puzzled by that; he’s had grey temples as long as I’ve known him. It’s sexy as hell, or would be if he didn’t insist on having that damn brutal haircut. I keep telling him, go twice as often and only have half as much taken off, but he won’t have it.

“So? Who’s going to notice, since you’ve been buzzcut again? I wish you wouldn’t.”

“Not there, koekie.” He glanced down, and I got it, and hastily scrambled out of bed to stand behind him at the mirror.

“Looks all right to me. I’m not buying components, you know. I want the whole package, and the package looks good.”

I wasn’t flattering him, either. He isn’t a handsome man, nobody would say that, but he is incredibly sexy and I’m not the only one who thinks so. He’s in prime condition too – I mean, I’m supposed to be about at my peak now, but there’s no more on Piet’s waist than there is on mine, there’s no softening on that body. He is in excellent shape, and I eyed him up and down lecherously.

“Where’s this grey hair, then?”

And of course he couldn’t find it again, so I knelt down and applied myself to looking for it, with a certain amount of wide-eyed innocence. Well, I had to inspect very closely.

“Ah, yes, look, here. Well, that’s easily rectified, Piet.” And I wound it round my finger and yanked, and Piet jumped.

“That hurt!”

So I kissed it better, naturally, and then I kissed some other things better, and then I spotted a second grey hair, and whipped that out too. That got me a smart slap, and a shift of Piet’s weight, and the faintest softening of his knees when I kissed that place better too. When I found and removed a third grey hair, I was soundly spanked for it, and after that we were too busy to look for any more. Well, I was close enough to look, but I can’t focus at that distance, and anyway I had my eyes shut. I don’t know what Piet was looking for, but he seemed happy enough so I dare say he found it. He can look there like that any time he likes.

And I thought that would be the end of it. So he’s starting to go grey; it’s hardly a big deal, is it?

Well, no, I suspect it wasn’t in and of itself a big deal. That was a couple of months ago. It was some of the other stuff that came with it which was the big deal, starting with the letter. The letter was there one day when we came in after training, an official looking thing – actually, I was expecting it to be a bill and reached for it, only to realise that it was Piet’s name on it, not mine. He opened it and went very still as he read it; then he folded it back into the envelope without comment. I don’t know quite what I picked up to tell me that it was important.

“What was that, Piet?”

“Only something I have been expecting.”


“It was to notify me that my referee’s accreditation will not be renewed. I am too old, it is a question of the insurance. I knew it would come this season. Do not look so horrified, koekie. I have it for this year, and in truth, I referee very little now that I am manager as well as coach. I can still watch over junior matches, and the like, and I have done no serious work since I went to Scotland. I have known that I must give it up.”

I couldn't help myself; I had to ask. “Do you mind?”

“Perhaps a little, yes. We none of us like to feel that we are getting old, do we? But, koekie, it is not wholly a new thing. I gave up my play at international level, and then a few years later, at Premiership level. This is how it works, Phil. You work your way up through the ranks and when you know that you can no longer sustain your position, you make a decision about either leaving it, or working your way back down. I regretted the point at which I had to leave my country’s squad, and I regretted leaving my club place, but I did not wish to diminish to the Seconds, so I moved sideways into coaching and refereeing. I have known for two or three years that I must give up refereeing, and so I registered as an agent. There will come a time when I must also admit that my skills, my knowledge will be out of date and it will be time for me to leave coaching too, although that is not yet. But yes, I regret this; I have enjoyed it. It cannot be helped, though, so I will not repine over it.”

I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I just nodded. I’d have hugged him, only. . . well, I didn’t want to make any more of it than it already was. He did mind. He minded a lot. But he was quite right – there was nothing to be done about it, so if he was going to pretend that he didn’t care more than a little, I wouldn’t call him on the lie. Sometimes it’s better just to pretend you didn’t see.

But that was two things. It was the third one, I think, which did the damage. I was there to see it happen because I wasn’t playing. I had damage of my own. Never mind where we were playing, or who; that was a straightforward professional foul, and the man who did it got a six match ban and a stonking fine, and I had a personal apology from his team captain, because that’s not how they usually play. That wasn’t a great deal of comfort, frankly; the X-ray people couldn’t decide whether what they could see was a new crack in my collar bone or the shadow of the old one so they gave me a sling and a sick note just in case. The understanding that I would be out for however long it took for it all to mend – which might be a fortnight and might be eight weeks – brought about a prolonged sulk on my part and an evening of Piet humouring me and coaxing me out of my disappointment.

He does coax beautifully.

That’s by the by; no, the next problem was Thibault de Saint-Cyr, commonly known as T-Bone. He was Piet’s latest find, poached fairly shamelessly from one of the French teams, where he had been playing for the Seconds. He’s good; he could be very good. He’s a winger, with all the virtues of a winger (excessive speed, mostly – he runs very gracefully and extraordinarily fast) and all their vices too – the conviction that nobody else on the team can run fast enough to keep warm, the passionate assurance that once the ball is in his hands there’s nowhere else for it to go, and the certainty that all the scoring in any match is his to do, with the occasional kicked conversion by some lesser mortal.

Yes, all right, I’ve played on the wing too in my time, and I thought precisely the same thing. Ask the locks about this: the forwards, they say, shall get the ball, the forwards shall keep the ball, and the backs shall buy the beer. Wingers are notoriously selfish with the ball, but even for a winger T-Bone was pushing it. But. . . well, I could see what Piet had seen in him. What Piet had seen was me.

He’s the same physical type as me, although he’s nowhere near into his full growth. I don’t think he’s 20 yet, and he’s got a stone and a half to gain, I reckon, and possibly a couple of inches in height too. He’s dark to my blond, but he’s a pretty boy, sure enough. Purely het, though; straight enough arrow, but with the morals of an alley cat. Distinct tendencies to Mark’s techniques of ‘skirt – pulse – screw’, although I will say that his conquests appeared to be consecutive, rather than Mark’s concurrent, even if none of them lasted more than a week. We’d – Piet had – brought him over, found him somewhere to live and enrolled him in college part-time. Piet is strongly in favour of second string occupations for players; there are charities, you know, to support broken down racehorses but broken down rugby players largely rely on their benefit matches and the goodwill of other rugby players, and that can be on the thin side. Piet likes to know that we’ve thought about what we’re going to do when we give up play. Anybody wanting to go to college, Piet will bust a gut to rearrange their training schedule to make it possible. Trouble is, I don’t think T-Bone did want to go to college, even part-time, but it was part of his contract.

He wasn’t happy, and nobody seemed to know why. For God’s sake, he’d come from a half-way decent club to a serious contender, he’d left a club with a respectable but unremarkable coach for one with Viper de Vries, left a club with a budget problem for one with enough money to take him places he wanted to go. He was still playing for the Seconds but it was fairly obvious that if he could just get his head right he would be up to the Firsts. He was homesick; that wasn’t too hard to spot, and I at least was sorry for him: he wasn’t the first player to find that a new team and a new town was a bit much to handle, even without the language thing, and in fact his English was excellent – with everybody except me. I had tried to help him a bit, during coaching, made sure he came with me when we were split up, made a point of keeping an eye on him to see that he understood what was going on. Well, I’m vice-captain, so team morale is at least partly my responsibility. I’d tried to make sure that he was included off the pitch too, that he came to the pub with us and so on. I’d invited him to the house a couple of times, and he wouldn’t come. It was quite remarkable the way any time I spoke to him, his English apparently deserted him, and I was the one who ended up looking stupid, as I reduced what I was saying to more and more basic terms. I’ve said before, I think, I’m no sort of linguist – but I know when somebody’s taking the piss in a foreign language. He didn’t seem to get on terrifically well with any of the guys; Tommy was civil to him, but then Tommy’s civil to everybody. Rob tried to bring him on too, but T-Bone was less than responsive and in the end Rob, as captain, had to snub him. Mark despised him and the others didn’t particularly care one way or the other.

Oh, he would settle down in due course, I supposed, but meanwhile, there had been a couple of articles in the local paper with what I thought were better than guesses about what was going on inside in the dressing room. Nothing attributed or attributable, nothing that might not be shrewd conjecture on the journalist’s part, only the journalist was Martin Wendell. He makes my skin crawl: I’m always polite to him, but it’s like treating a vicious dog with respect. I don’t turn my back on him. Piet had read the articles, and then had asked me about who had been around when certain conversations were going on, and I know he wondered if T-Bone had a loose lip. We can’t afford to have that; it’s damaging to team spirit to have outside conjecture on the internal squabbles and stresses.

Well, but somebody new coming in is always a bit unsettling for the team, specially if they come when the season has already started. No doubt T-Bone would settle down. I thought so. Rob thought so. Piet thought so. Sir John from the Board didn’t think so.

Sir John fancies himself as a big name with us. He’s been acting God on that Board for years, and if you mention his name, James Hamilton will roll his eyes. To hear him speak, Sir John found Rob, and me, and Ryan; he found Piet and Elaine, who’s our club physio. He’s responsible for the way the club has progressed in the last few years, and the fact that we didn’t win anything worth having before James Hamilton pulled Piet in and started throwing money at the problem wasn’t relevant. Sir John didn’t like T-Bone. He was happy with an Afrikaner on the list; he didn’t mind a Georgian and a Samoan; he didn’t want ‘a damned Frog’. He had wanted the Ukrainian winger who had been Piet’s second choice. He’d been a lot on Piet’s case: given what we’d paid for early release for T-Bone, why wasn’t he playing for the Firsts? When were we going to see some return on the money we had paid out? (James Hamilton had rolled his eyes even more and muttered something about ‘Who’s this ‘we’, laddie?’)

If you ask me, at another time, Piet wouldn’t have batted an eyelid at either T-Bone or Sir John. He’d have found some way to settle T-Bone; he’d have brought Sir John to some realisation of how dangerous it can be to overuse a young player. It was only a problem because Piet had already been shaken by losing his ref’s accreditation and by another hint that he was growing older – and let’s face it, he only cares about that because of me. Only you know how trouble is – what’s that line about single spies and battalions? And of course once it starts to go wrong it just gets worse and worse.

He had another row with Ryan and ended up benching him for a fortnight – although that did seem to work, partly because Ryan came back into the dressing room and slagged Piet off, with one eye on me to see what I was going to make of it, and was extremely taken aback to get a second earful, not from me, but from Tommy, of all people – quiet, polite Tommy – on the subject of unprofessional behaviour, of letting your team mates down, of leaving other people to cover your work, and of bellyaching about it when your sins found you out and your coach who had been more than generous with his warnings finally reached the end of his tether. It was a joy to hear, although some of his colloquialisms were a little off centre and there was one which he had obviously translated directly from Samoan, and it didn’t quite work. Ryan sat there with his mouth hanging open and a look of blank amazement on his face, which was compounded when Rob took a turn, pointing out that Tommy had only said what everybody else had been thinking. That, mind you, was one of those stories which made it to the Gazette, and caused me a certain amount of discomfort – I was still writing the occasional column for them and I couldn’t decide whether it would be better to address the point or ignore it.

The big one though? The big one was Fizzer. He’s another Phil, actually, Phil Fitzpatrick, but he came after me or I would have been the one to collect the nickname. Piet wasn’t happy with him, hadn’t been for ages. He wasn’t reliable on the pitch – when he was good, he was very, very good, and when he was bad he was horrid. That was the problem. He didn’t seem to be reliably either in form or out of it, nothing anybody could get a grip on. He would have a dire morning and a brilliant afternoon, or show sparks of genius all through the warm-ups and then play like a total wazzock. He was beginning to unsettle us all – several of us had developed a tendency to try to miss him out when we passed along the line. Piet didn’t like that. Fizzer was one of Sir John’s protégés, and any time he didn’t play, Sir John tended to want to know why not, and to quote a couple of examples of pure brilliance in his favour, cheerfully ignoring the equal number of total balls-ups.

So when Piet came in one evening, and sat down in the kitchen while I was cooking, and said, “Phil, I want to talk to you about Phil Fitzpatrick,” I wasn’t totally surprised. He very rarely asks me about what happens in the dressing room; occasionally, though, there are things he ought to know and I tell him. No, I’m not always easy in my conscience about it, and sometimes there are things he ought to know, and I don’t tell him, and my conscience nips at me over those too, but nobody said that life was easy, did they? I thought he was going to ask me what was wrong with Fizzer, but he wasn’t. He was going to tell me.

Koekie, I must tell you some things in strict confidence in order for you to make sense of the rest, which is very much your concern.”

There was something in the tone which made me turn off the gas and come and sit opposite him, rather than going on with whatever I was cooking.


“I fear it will not be possible to keep this quiet, but the story must not get out sooner than it must.” He didn’t ask me for promises, but I nodded to show that I understood.

“I have discovered what is wrong with Fitzpatrick. It is drugs.”

Drugs. As soon as he said it, I thought: of course it is; why didn’t we work that out three months ago? It was so bloody obvious.

“What’s he taking?”

He shrugged. “I do not know; the name was not familiar to me. Nothing he need inject, I think; you may have noticed that I have been about more than usual in the dressing room lately. He seems to have only the marks and bruises you all do. It is something he is taking by mouth. I am amazed that he has not yet failed a dope test. I had him in this afternoon and confronted him; he admitted it. Not. . . not the sort of drugs a sportsman may be tempted to take to improve his physique, although that is not better than anything else; no, he takes plain recreational drugs.”

“Dear God. What did you do?”

“I have convened the Board to meet tomorrow. I will not have him on my team, Phil. I will not. If he will accept help, go for treatment, I will support him all I can, but he will not play for any team with which I am involved. I will have him back after treatment, but he does not play for me until he is clean. I have seen too much of what is associated with this.”

“Well, if the story gets out, it won’t just be Fizzer who gets tested, will it? We’ll all be tested every time we get out of bed. Guilty by association. And that’ll run to all the sponsors too.”

He nodded, but it wasn’t the team he was thinking about. “Phil, when I was in the army, we were called to a place. . . we were told they were terrorists. Insurgents. And even now, when the line between the freedom fighter and the terrorist is blurred, even now, I believe that. . . whatever they called themselves, they needed money, ja? And they made it, they made it through drugs, there were buildings full of drugs, ja and worse than drugs. Hoerery. Prostitution. There was a, it was like a school, Phil, a school of prostitution, full of pikkies, the oldest was about twelve, boys as well as girls, they were being trained. . .”

I put my hand on top of his to stop him. Piet, losing his English? Piet simply doesn’t do that, he doesn’t ja-nee like Hansie does. Piet’s only regular use of his mother tongue with me is terms of affection. Well, with any of us: I’ve heard him call Nick ‘boet’, although I’m not sure Nick knows what it means (I’m not sure I do, except that Piet uses it for people he likes).

He swallowed and started again, more steadily. “Fizzer may do what he pleases to his own body, but when he pays for drugs he is paying into a hell which incorporates such things as that, Phil. Violence. Death. And I will not descend into hell with him. I will help him come up again if I can but I will not. . .”

“What are you going to tell the Board?” I asked, as calmly as I could.

“Just that. That he must be removed from the team. I have been thinking today, what will they do? James, he will back me up, and so will Milligan and Cohen and the woman from the Stock Exchange, what is her name? Sir John will want him kept, he will probably want the whole thing hushed up. And the others I do not know. Phil, it may come to. . . it may be necessary for me to resign. I will not be involved if Fitzpatrick stays. That is why I am telling you today; I may have to lose my employment, and if I do, we will be in big trouble with the mortgage. You have the right to know that and to have me hear your opinion.”

I bit back the quick comment (he deserved better of me than that) and actually thought.

“We can manage. We will manage, somehow. If I’m not laid up too long I should be back among the match bonuses anyway. Unless. . . if they want to keep him, do you want me to leave?”

He shook his head. “You will make your own decision on that. But I tell you, if they keep him, even if I hold my tongue. . .”

“There’ll be a big scandal, sooner rather than later, and even aside from any ethical issues, I don’t want to be part of that. So I might have to move. Which might mean less money. My advertising contracts should be O.K. – well, now, that’s a point. A drugs scandal and they won’t be O.K., will they? We’ll have to keep that in mind. The mortgage will be a problem, yes, but I can’t see why you wouldn’t get another job. Maybe not local, and we’d have to travel a bit until you could get back here. We’ll manage somehow. At absolute worst we might have to sell up here, and I can’t see that we wouldn’t get back what it cost. We wouldn’t do brilliantly on it, but provided we weren’t in too much of a hurry. . . And we might be able to lease it out and. . . Look, Piet, let’s not go chasing trouble. If you have to resign, we’ll manage somehow. With a bit more effort, we might be able to let a couple more units and that would help too.”

He didn’t look at me. “You speak very calmly of the possibility of selling up. I know that this place is your centre, it is where you want to be, with your beloved kitchen. I do not ask you to give it up, except – ”

He got up, swept the pile of place mats off the table to the floor with one grand gesture.

“Except that I am asking you exactly that. I cannot do that, can I? This is your home and I cannot ask you to risk your home for my personal morality. I cannot afford to go to the Board and say: Pieter de Vries will have his own way here or he will take his ball and go home in a sulk. I must be prepared to accept whatever decision they make.”


I think he was surprised: I don’t contradict him quite that flatly very often.

“Piet, if you were threatening to hand in your notice over something petty I might argue about it, but I can see this is something that bothers you a lot. I’m not going to choose a house, however desirable, over your happiness. If we lose this house, well, there are others. If you mean that I might choose my kitchen over you being comfortable in your own skin and able to sleep well at night because of what you believe, then you don’t know me very well. You can’t stay somewhere they won’t take drugs seriously? Then if they don’t, you won’t. If they won’t take proper action, you give in your notice tomorrow and we’ll worry about the house after that. Now pick up those place mats and set the table.”

“But Phil. . .”

“No, Piet. You don’t have the right to abandon your ethical integrity simply because I like having a big kitchen. Put one of the heatproof mats out, please, and we’ll just put the pan on the table.”

He did as he was told, quietly enough, and then came, still quietly, to stand behind me while I chopped vegetables, and when I put down the knife, he wrapped his arms round me and pressed his face against my neck.

And he woke in the night with bad dreams.

He was in an evil temper when he came in the next night; I didn’t ask what the Board had said, I simply fed him and then dragged him upstairs to the bedroom, so that he could lie down – he looked tired to death – and I could get an arm over him and my head on his chest.

“What did they say?”

“Fitzpatrick is going to rehab. The club will keep his place on the books but not an automatic place in the team. He will have a set period in which to get clean, we are to take advice on that from some doctor. After that, it will be in his contract that the club may do random tests, a certain number in a given period, on top of anything the authorities do, and if he fails even one, he is out. We will not be able to keep the story quiet but we will do a press release on our own terms, saying that however sympathetic we were to the personal tragedy we would not permit a confirmed addict to play, and I think we will aim for the other team members saying nothing.”

“Were they difficult about it?”

He sighed. “Less difficult than I feared they would be. James was very much on my side, and Mrs St George too, and as I thought, Cohen and Milligan, but the one I did not expect was Grandison. He does not like me much, but he was most supportive. I spoke to him afterwards, I told him a little of what I told you, and he was. . . he was understanding, I think. I suspect he has some tale of his own, some member of his family perhaps involved with drugs, but I would not ask. Sir John was strongly in favour of us simply hushing it all up, telling Fitzpatrick to sort himself out but not offering any support and certainly keeping it secret, and so were Astbury and Turner. I had hoped that I would not have to threaten to leave, but Sir John gave me no room to manoeuvre. Still, the power on that Board lies really with James and with Margaret St George, because they have the money, and with Damien Grandison because he has the connections, and they would not let Sir John call me on the threat.”

I rolled a little and encouraged him to turn over so that I could rub his back. It was a bit awkward because my left arm doesn’t work properly, but I did what I could. “Doesn’t sound too bad.”

His voice was muffled in the pillow. “No, I think I won that one, but Sir John, having failed to get his own way, was less than cordial, and made a point of telling me how disappointed he was in Thibault de Saint-Cyr. I am assured that I made a mistake in asking for him and that I am handling him badly if he is not settling. Oh, and he has heard the tale of Ryan and that was my fault also. Bad man management. He thinks I am losing my touch.”

Wouldn’t have mattered, I don’t think, except that we lost our next match and we should have won. It just went wrong in the middle, nothing you could quite lay a finger on except that they were in form and we weren’t. Well, you don’t win all your matches in a season and we had won six of our last eight, we were doing well – only not well enough for Sir John. He just ‘happened’ to drop round at The Dairy one evening, uninvited, and had to be taken into Piet’s study and allowed to ‘discuss’ how things had been going, otherwise known as criticising the way Piet had been doing a job he couldn’t have done himself, and given that I don’t live there I couldn’t very well barrel in and interfere.

But it went quiet again after that, and we rather took stock of where we were and how we were, and things settled down. They weren’t quite right, although – well, that’s how life is, isn’t it? You get periods when it all goes your way and periods when it doesn’t, and both of them are temporary. It wasn’t usual that we were both on the ‘down’ part of the cycle at the same time but my shoulder would mend and Sir John would get off Piet’s case and we would head for ‘up’ again. Meanwhile I had an invitation to go to Wales for a local radio programme and be interviewed, and Piet thought I should go. Well, so did I. The trouble with being out injured is the number of people chasing your place, and anything which keeps your name at the top of the list is a good thing. Radio interviews, even for small local slots, can get syndicated, can be picked up for quotes by the bigger stations. Wales it was.

One of the advantages of being a senior player is that other people look after you: I could drive short distances with my shoulder strapped up, but driving to Wales was out of the question, so I was given a very junior bod, told off to take me to Wales in my own car and basically to wait on me hand and foot. I know Piet considered sending T-Bone, in the hope of me being able to get from him what was making him so snippy, but I wasn’t keen and he decided against it in the end. Josh was pleasant and willing to please, and frankly easier company than T-Bone on a long journey.

Not that he got much sense from me on the way back. What I had done would earn me a caning if Piet found out. On the other hand, Piet wasn’t likely to find out. On the third hand (I could borrow one of Josh’s hands) I am not good at deception. On the fourth hand (Josh’s again) I really, really didn’t want Piet hearing about what had provoked me. No, I would just have to go the deception route.

But (no more hands, I was going to need the whole squad lined up with their arms out at this rate) Piet was going to hear about what had provoked me. He couldn’t avoid hearing it. I might be able to avoid him realising that I had been miffed about it. All pigs fully fuelled, as Tim says, and cleared for take-off. It took a week before the story made its way back to Piet via the friend of a friend of the interviewer, and a connection to James Hamilton, who thought it was funny.

“Phil? Tell me what precisely you said to the interviewer in Wales by way of farewell.”

“Oh fuck. Who told you?”

So we got that out of the way first. “You know how the interview went.”

He nodded. The first half had been fine, all about the team, and what I had thought about various recent matches both at Premiership and International level. Nothing out of the ordinary, really. Then the second half was about me. My international prospects. My hopes for the Gryphons. My plans for the future. Was it true that Sale had expressed an interest in me? And the Llanelli Scarlets too? Would I think of leaving the Gryphons? How much interest did I take in the Celtic League? Would I ever think of playing for a non-English team?

And I made all the right responses. Never say never, but I was happy where I was. There had been a couple of offers for me at transfer time, but I wasn’t interested. Naturally, I took an interest in all the leagues and so on; it was where you got a notion of how good various players were, and how to play both with them and against them. On cold mornings when my shoulder ached I thought regularly of playing somewhere that wasn’t England, but given the annual rainfall in Wales, it wasn’t my first choice. Besides, I was no linguist, and Welsh was reputed to be difficult.

That one raised a laugh. But the rumour was that I was musical, that I could sing, wasn’t it? That would stand me in good stead in Wales. In fact, a previous interviewee from the Cardiff Blues had mentioned my name with reference to an evening in a pub teaching three or four saeson to sing in God’s Own Language.

I admitted it, cheerfully enough. “I can sing ‘Calon Lan’, although apparently my accent is dreadful. I don’t think it’s really enough to establish eligibility. That’s just about the full extent of my Welsh.”

Only then he started on Piet. It was common knowledge that my career had really taken off when Viper de Vries came to the Gryphons dressing room. I was quite happy to talk about that – until the bloody ferret started on: well, obviously I had learned a lot from de Vries and the man had been a huge name in international rugby in his day. In his day. Too much emphasis on ‘in his day’. I stiffened and the hair at the back of my neck began to prickle. But really, Phil, don’t you ever think that you’ve used him up and it’s time to get a younger coach with more recent knowledge? Oh, it was worded more delicately than that, but that was the gist of it. And no, I bloody didn’t. I was still learning and learning a lot and I didn’t feel I needed a new coach at all. I mean, quite apart from anything else, I had been man of the match for three of my last four outings. Trouble was, the interviewer was a smart cookie, and he picked up that he’d said something which rang my bell – and being (oh, credit where credit’s due, I suppose) a good presenter, he started to poke. To dig. He would not leave the subject alone, until I was hanging onto my temper with my fingernails and watching the studio clock for the point at which he would have to shut up and let me go.

Eventually, though, he started to wrap it all up, you had been listening to ‘Ruck and Maul’ with him, whatever his damned name was, and his guest, Gryphons player and England international Phil Cartwright. “Pleasure to have talked to you, Phil, and diolch yn fawr for coming in to talk to us. Even you must have that much Welsh.”

Croeso i chi,” I answered automatically, having had that one well drummed in during an evening of multiple rounds of beer in Cardiff. And he did his station announcements, transferred the audio output, whatever it’s called, to the newsroom and took off his headphones, while I disentangled myself from mine.

“Right, Phil, thanks, if you go back out the way you came in, Ceri at the desk will see you back downstairs.”

I was almost at the door when I lost it.

“Oh, I do know one more phrase of Welsh. Learned it from a prop in Swansea. Cachau bant, haliwr.” And I swept out.

Piet leaned forward and rested his head in his hands.

“You said what?”

I shifted uneasily, and offered, “It means. . .”

“I know what it means, Phil, I have played in Wales. I am at a loss to know why you should have said it to a radio interviewer.”

“I didn’t like him.”

“Not good enough. What had he said or done that you should be so rude? And so stupid? Say that to an interviewer with the tape running and it would be a headline on every sports page. What were you thinking?”

I held him off for half an hour, insisting merely that I hadn’t liked the man. At the end of the half hour, Piet looked so worn that I actually thought it would be better to give in.

“He was going on and on about your age. He thought I should have a younger coach, and I thought it was none of his business.”

“Of course it is his business! He is a sports journalist: everything to do with your professional life is his business, or indeed the business of anyone who follows the sport at all. This is why you must be so careful to keep your private life private: because your public life is so public. He is entitled to his opinion as an individual and as a journalist he is entitled to express it. I heard the interview, the man said nothing untoward.”

I looked at the floor. “I didn’t like it.”

“You did not like him reminding you that your partner is older than you.”

My head came up at that. “No! He didn’t know that! I didn’t like him saying that you were past it professionally. It isn’t true and it’s nasty and unkind!”

And dear God, that sounded childishly stupid, but Piet seemed to understand; he came out from behind the desk and sat down beside me, taking my hand.

Koekie, I appreciate that you feel for my pride, but you must not express it, and you know so. Do you not?”

I looked sulkily at the floor. Of course I had known that he wouldn’t be pleased.

“Phil.” That was harder.

“You can’t expect me not to defend you,” I muttered sullenly.

“I can. I do. I love that you wish to, but you know that you must not, and if you do I will punish you for it. Is that clear?”

I didn’t answer, and presently, I heard him go to the desk and open the drawer. I got up and dragged my feet round behind the couch, pulling my belt free as I went.

“You must not do this, Phil, and you know it. I forbid you to do it again. That was something you knew would displease me; you knew it even as you did it, and the fact that you hid it from me means that you cannot expect me to be merciful.”

Couldn’t argue with that. I bared my backside and bent over, with my right arm folded and my head turned into my elbow so that he wouldn’t see the degree of rebelliousness on my face, and he came close, picked up a cushion and tucked it solicitously under my left shoulder. Yes, go on, laugh – he had a cane in his hand and he was about to stripe my arse, but he took time to make me comfortable. Then I had only six for the language and nothing at all for the deceit – I had been expecting the same again for not telling him what I had done – and they weren’t by any means hard; if I’d had those with his usual timing I don’t think I would even have yelped, and I only did because of the speed with which they were delivered, all six in maybe 15 seconds. All over and me re-trousered and curled into his lap and forgiven in under a minute. Not merciful, no. Not at all.

It hurt him more than it hurt me, poor lamb. What hurt me was having Rob come in the next day after training – I had been doing leg presses in the gym – and ask me in an undertone, “What’s wrong with the Big Man?”

“Is anything?”

He shrugged. “He didn’t pack down with us. He taught a good session, I’m not saying he didn’t, but everything was verbal, he didn’t join in. He didn’t run the cool-down laps with us, and I don’t believe he’s ever missed before.” No, I don’t think he had. He’s not as sure as he was, not as strong as Tommy, not as fast as Darren, I don’t think he could play a full match at our level – but he could play one half well, and he made a point of working with the guys every day. I didn’t like the feel of that at all; I liked it even less when I passed him his coffee that night and asked, “What shall we do for your birthday? I think we should have a party this year, we’ve got the space to have a load of people now.”


“Why not?”

“I do not want a party. And who would we ask, anyway?”

“Excuse me? The team. The team’s significant others. The Hamiltons. Fran and Nick. Steph and Lizzie. Harry. Alicia. Elaine. Michelle. . .”


“But why not?”

“I do not want a party, Phil. I do not want to impose on work colleagues that way.”

I choked on my coffee. “Is that all they are to you? Work colleagues?”

“I like them well enough, but I cannot believe they would want to celebrate my birthday.”

“But Piet. . .!”

NO, Phil. I will not have a party. Is that clear?”


And it was. It was crystal clear that Phil was going to call up the cavalry and not allow this to go any further. I called Tim the next day.

“I need to come over. Piet’s at the scheduled Board meeting tonight, can I come about eight?”

“Sure. Fran and Nick are coming about then, Nick has been borrowing books from Hansie and they’re dropping in for coffee, but I doubt if they’ll stay because he’s on split shifts.”

“Actually, Tim, I’m not sure I don’t want to talk to them too. I’ll see you later.”

I dithered about that all day. I still don’t really get Fran, although she’s one of the good guys. Girls. Whatever. And Nick has grown on me. I wasn’t sure whether to bring them in or not, although I supposed I didn’t need to decide until I got to Tim’s.

As it happened, Nick took the decision neatly out of my hands. “What’s the matter with the Viper, Phil? I saw him in town yesterday and he looked right through me. I had to speak to him twice before he realised who I was. Is he worrying about this drugs thing?”

“You know about that?”

He nodded. “Not all the detail; I couldn’t take the case because I know you, but from what I’ve heard we’ve questioned Fitzpatrick and a couple of his friends and we aren’t pressing charges. Is the Viper worrying about it?”

“He thinks he should have spotted it earlier and done something about it.”

Nick rolled his eyes. “Like everybody who has ever had a friend get mixed up in drugs. What could he have done?”

“Brought it out sooner? Stopped Fizzer earlier?”

Nick snorted. “I wouldn’t lay money on him stopping now. I gather he’s going to rehab? Come on, Phil, have you any idea what the success rate is for rehab? For getting clean and staying clean? Viper can’t do that for him, he needs to want to do it himself, and if need be I’ll come round and tell the Viper that.”

“Would you?” I asked, slowly. Nick grimaced at me.

“Sure. Come on, what’s this about?”

It was about lots of things, and I spilled them all. All but one. I told them about the interview, I told the three who didn’t already know, all about Fizzer. I told them about Sir John. I told them about Piet not wanting a birthday party. I told them about him not doing the laps with his troops (Hansie hissed at that one). I told them about his ref’s accreditation and Nick winced. I dithered again about telling them. . .

“What?” asked Tim, leaning forward. “What else?”

I hesitated, and Fran glanced at Nick. “No, never mind, Phil. I think we get it. He’s come unstuck.”

I took a breath. After all, they already knew about us, for heaven’s sake and we knew about them. “He isn’t topping. Oh, he does when I screw up, but that’s only been once lately. Otherwise he hasn’t. Didn’t. Doesn’t. Not for weeks.”

Tim’s eyes widened; Hansie hissed again. Fran leaned back with an inscrutable expression, and Nick asked, calmly and clinically (Hansie said he was good at getting people to talk about things they would rather not talk about), “And this isn’t usual for him?”

“No.” I was grateful that he made it so simple. That was quite enough, thank you; yes, there was more, but I wasn’t telling Nick and Fran. In fact, I wasn’t even telling Tim and Hansie. There were limits after all, and he was my partner, my lover. And my partner has a very powerful sex drive. Usually. Except that lately. . . It wasn’t that he couldn’t, not that he was trying and failing, he was as responsive as ever – provided I initiated it. On his own account, it seemed that all he wanted to do was cuddle, and nice though that was, it was most unlike Piet.

“So he’s come up against his own mortality and his own fallibility all in one go.” That was Nick again. God, he sees a lot! I nodded.

“I think so, and because he’s so buttoned up and controlled, he’s trying to control this too, and he can’t. Any one of these he would manage perfectly well, it’s just too much all at once and, yes, I do know that if I leave well alone, he’ll get over it himself, he’s not going to have a breakdown or let his health go to pot or anything, but he isn’t happy and I don’t like it, so what the hell are we going to do about it?”

Thank God for Family; there wasn’t any suggestion of ‘but what can we do?’; it was straight on to ‘think of something’. Nick started it.

“Will he be at the club at lunchtime tomorrow?”

I nodded.

“Right. The idiocy of trying to take responsibility for a drug addict is mine, thank you. It’ll have to be lunchtime because my shifts at the moment are all over the shop.”

O.K., that was a good start. Hansie frowned. “I do not see, I have never seen, why he has this conviction that his team respects him but does not like him. Phil, you will know how your boys are now, but when I played for him, there was nothing we would not have done for him.”

I thought about it. “Some of the guys are rather afraid of him, but we all know he’s on our side. I mean, everybody knows that if you screw up, Piet will have your balls in the dressing room, but never outside. He won’t criticise any player in public for bad play. Ever. Bad behaviour, yes – did you hear what he said about players spitting? And we all know that if he sees one of us carry out a deliberate foul, if the ref doesn’t pick it up he’ll fall on us afterwards. I’ve seen guys benched three weeks for something that they should have been sent off for. But as far as skill on the pitch goes, my God you’ll know about it if you fuck up, but nobody outside the squad ever will. Hansie's right, there’s nothing the squad wouldn’t do for him, in general. Most people have fits of hating him, usually just after he’s skinned them alive, but on the whole, he’s our Viper, and we get a bit possessive about him.”

Tim stirred. “Hansie, what was it like when he was still playing in South Africa? Do you remember?”

Hansie shrugged. “It was a little before my time, but fersure, he was one of our heroes.”

“Was it known that he was gay?”

We all stared at him; he made a face. “I’m just trying to think this through, to work out what’s going on in his head. He said once that he was like me in the way he thought. Go on, Hansie.”

Hansie's turn to make faces as he thought. “I do not think. . . it cannot have been widely known, for I certainly did not know. And it was not illegal, but nor was it socially acceptable, and for him in rugby. . .”

“And in the army,” put in Tim, thoughtfully.

Ja, the army, that would be worse. Ach, you have no idea. Think of how it still is for Phil; it was ten times worse when I played; it would have been a hundred times worse for Piet. A moffie in the changing room? He would have been lucky to get out alive.”

“The army was obviously not something he enjoyed,” put in Nick, “from what Phil told us about his response to the drugs.”

“And from what he told us before,” agreed Tim, “do you remember? When he told us about Danie and Alain What’shisface? He said something about his rugby being a defence against his time in the army. I think he’s been buttoning himself up for years, pushing people away, not daring to admit the possibility of being liked, because of the notion that if people knew what he was, they would turn against him. He’s naturally controlled and he’s just forgotten how not to be. He’s done the Right Thing, done his duty for so long, that he’s forgotten how to do anything else.”

We considered that for a while. Hansie shook his head. “I do not think so, liefie. He is not at all what he was when I knew him in South Africa. You think he is controlled now? You want to have seen him then.”

“I think that’s me,” I said, rather shamefaced. “Remember, I seduced him.”

“Ahhhh,” breathed Tim. “Bingo. Yes, Phil, that’s important. See, Piet tried to seduce Hansie, and Hansie turned him down, and we always say it was traumatic for Hansie, but I suspect it wasn’t much less traumatic for Piet. Come on, we know he feels guilty about it. And then Phil turns up, not taking no for an answer and Piet gives in. Piet gives in: how often does that happen? You’re the key to this, Phil.”

“But how does that help with him thinking nobody likes him?”

Tim frowned. “We went round this before, and I told him about the guys from Gloucester. He still thinks that way, does he?”

I nodded. “Sorry, Tim, but yes, he does. He let you win the argument but you didn’t convince him. If it comes to that, I think he thinks that any affection you have for him is on Hansie's account.”

Tim’s face was a study, a mixture of black affront and dawning comprehension. “Right. Well, that’s got to go. We’ll think about that later. But meanwhile, I think we want to try and get hold of some of his old team-mates. He said he always got a card from Danie; I wonder if we could poke any of the others into sending him birthday cards? Phil, have you got, or can you get, an email address or a phone number for Danie?”

I nodded. “He’s in Piet’s address book; there’s an address, and I’m fairly sure there’s an email. He’s likely to know where some at least of his team mates are. What about his international mates? I don’t even know who they were.”

“It wouldn’t be hard to find out,” suggested Hansie. “The internet would give us most of the names and maybe where to find some of them. And. . . ach, I know who would know who to ask to find the rest: Aunt Cornelia.”

Tim gazed at him open mouthed. “You’re going to sic Aunt Cornelia on Piet? I think I want to hide under the bed. The poor man hasn’t got a chance.”

Fran was looking thoughtful. “Phil, Piet has a photograph in his study of his international team mates.” Why hadn't I thought of that? Of course he did. “Has it got names on?”

I struggled to remember. “Not on the face, I don’t think.”

“Take it out of its frame and look at the back. If you can get names and addresses, I have an idea.”

Nick suddenly glanced at his watch and gave a yelp of horror. “Fran, we’ve got to go: I’ll be late. Lunchtime tomorrow, Phil, unless some disaster comes up, and if it does I’ll make time somewhere else. Anything else you think I can help with, give me a bell.” He was struggling into his coat as he spoke, and Hansie rose to hold Fran’s jacket for her; he leaned over to kiss her cheek as usual, and I was interested to see that he and Nick touched fist to fist like boxers. It was an odd gesture, affectionate.

Anyway, after they’d gone, Hansie came back to sit beside me. “You are really concerned about Piet, hey?”

I frowned. “Not worried exactly. I mean, I know that he’ll sort out his own head if I leave him to it. I just don’t see why he has to – I mean, he’s always there for everybody else and I suppose I think it’s his turn now. I’m all for these see-everybody-likes-you plans, but I think we could do something. . . something more direct. Just us. Just to, I don’t know, to make him sort of connect? He’s gone all remote and chilly, he’s decided that he has to manage everything himself. I want. . . I suppose I want him to relax and stop being in control, just for a day or two? No, not quite that, not stop being in control, but accept that he doesn’t have to be in control of everything. I mean, Nick’s right, why on earth does he think that it’s his problem to deal with Fizzer? Yes, sure, he has to be involved, and he’s a decent human being, he cares about Fizzer, but. . . Oh hell, I don’t know what I mean.”

“You mean,” said Tim, “that he doesn’t have to do it all, and he doesn’t have to do it himself. As I recall, Hansie and I got a lesson in that ourselves. And what I’m seeing here is Phil wanting to top.” He was smiling at me, he wasn’t very serious, but I picked him up on it.

“Well, if that’s what topping is, picking up when somebody you love is unhappy and doing something about it, then yes, I want to top. What about it?”

“What do you want to do? O.K., Piet’s got too close, he’s focusing on the detail and he’s lost sight of the big picture. What’s the big picture?”

I thought for a moment, but the answer was obvious enough. “It’s the Family, isn’t it? We need to make him reconnect with the Family. Well, that’s easy. We know how to do that. What we have to do is basically fuck him five ways to Friday until all he can think about is us. And I’d quite like to connect it to his birthday, so that instead of his birthday meaning that he’s getting old and useless, he associates it with a lot of really good sex.”

“Excellent,” approved Tim. “A subtle and sophisticated plan. Hansie, put the kettle on again and make some more coffee, and we’ll work out the detail.”

He was worried about me, my golden boy, and I knew it, but there was, for once, little I could do to help him. My failings were finding me out and all at once, and there was nothing I could do but endure it. I am older than Phil by a considerable margin; that is merely a statement of fact, however little I may like it. He says he does not care and I believe him; not even I dare doubt him when he says he loves me.  In our private lives, I am his as surely as he is mine, and this is the relationship that will define me until I die.

In our public lives? I am older than my protégé – well, I could hardly be his mentor were I not. It is beginning to be commented on, to be discussed within the hierarchy of the sport: is it time for Phil Cartwright to have a different coach? He says not; I think not; in point of fact, his advisers at national level think not. Nonetheless, the question is being asked.

At the club, too, I was feeling the cold. James is a good friend and a solid Board member, but that meeting regarding Fitzpatrick and the drugs had been unpleasant. Sir John dislikes me, his two followers were not keen. Grandison does not like me on a personal basis but he is a clear thinking man; he knows that I have been good for the club. He can divorce his personal feelings from his desires for the club. Still, the meeting had been bad tempered and difficult and I was left in no doubt that my standing with the Board was not what it had been. I was not totally surprised. I am a hard man, difficult for others to get on with. I have always been so, it is a failing in me that I do not interact easily. Sir John  would willingly have accepted my resignation even before that meeting; afterwards, he was actively looking for it, and I was not certain that Grandison would stay on my side in the long term.

No, I was not happy about it, but I know not to concern myself with things which may not come about. I was more concerned with my team. It is not like me to be unable to read the mind of a young man, but that French boy would not let me close enough to help him at all. I had thought that Phil might befriend him and bring him on, but he would have none of it; well, if not Phil (for however outgoing and friendly Phil may be, it is not to be expected that he will always be liked), perhaps one of the others. But Thibault de Saint-Cyr had somehow contrived to antagonise the whole team, and I was smoothing ruffled feathers at every turn.

Phil was concerned at my loss of my referee’s accreditation – I was surprised by the pain it caused me. That was foolishness and I would not allow myself to descend into self pity over it. These things come to us all; why should I think that I was above the law? No, I would not permit myself to regret it more than a little.

I was  sorry to disappoint him over the notion of a party. For his own sake, if he wanted a party I had no objection, but he would send no invitations in my name. I did wonder a little if I needed also to forbid him to have Hansie and Tim throw a party – but such sophistry is not in his character. He is, in general, very honest.

In general.

But I let all such notions pass from me and I went about my work in my usual way, until Rob came to the office after training. I was at my desk, as was Harry, and Rob threw the door open and demanded ‘What’s this about bloody Sir John, and you giving in your notice?”

Harry spilled his coffee; I looked up and said, calmly, “Good afternoon, Rob. Come in, close the door and moderate your tone.”

He slammed the door behind him, and strode across the room, leaning threateningly on my desk. “Is it true? Have you given in your notice? How could you do that to us? Without even telling us? What the hell are we going to do without you? Where are you going?”

“Robert,” I said, firming my tone slightly, “I have not given in my notice, I am not going anywhere, and I will not be shouted at. Sit down and speak to me sensibly.”

“Sensibly!” he exploded. “Sensibly! The guys in the dressing room are going ape-shit! We couldn’t get Phil on the phone to get any proper answer from him about what you were doing” (no, they would not, he was at the hospital for another X-ray), “Darren’s saying that if you’re leaving he wants to go too, so is Mark, Ryan is trying to work out how we can lodge a vote of no confidence against Sir John and we’re supposed to be playing Saracens at the weekend! I don’t need this shit!”

“Nor do I,” I agreed. “Why does anybody think I am leaving?”

“Sir John said you wanted to go over Fizzer and the drugs.”

“That is not strictly true. I said that if the club wished to keep Mr Fitzpatrick as an active and playing member of the team, I would not stay. I will not be involved with any club which does not act to keep drugs out of the sport. The Board, in total, agreed with me and I am staying.”

“Sir John said he doubted your commitment.”

“And do you?”

He looked away. Harry was watching all this with his mouth hanging open. “I never did before, but Dave said that Sir John said. . .”

“Directly to him?”

“No, he overheard it in the car park.”

“Then that will teach him something about eavesdroppers,” I said severely. “He has completely misunderstood what Sir John must have said.” Although Sir John is by no means a stupid man, and I think it very likely that he has been putting such a story about deliberately, in the hope of achieving precisely what he did. Rob was a little reassured.

“The boys are very upset.”

“I will come down and speak with them.”

He had not been exaggerating. I could hear the row from the dressing room from half way along the corridor, and I did not get the expected hush when I opened the door. Several of my team were shouting at each other, and they took much longer than usual to notice my presence and to quieten down.

“I believe that some of you have been indulging in foolish and pointless gossip.”

That silenced them, and there was a certain amount of shuffling and pointed glances until Mark, as probably my most senior player, spoke up.

“Sir John says you’re leaving.”

“I do not think Sir John has said so. In any event it is not true. My contract runs to the end of next season, I expect to fulfil it, and we are going to Vicarage Road at the weekend. I am coming with you because I wish to see you beat Saracens. I am at a loss to know why you think that I would not have told you if my plans were different.”

“Sir John said that you had lost interest in the club.”

That was Dave. I fixed him with a glare. I had quite a lot of sympathy for him; it seemed probable to me that he had repeated precisely what he had heard; nonetheless, I had to back up a Board member. Mother and father will show a united front against the children.

“And is that likely? I have turned you all from an indisciplined rabble to a strong and successful team. What would make you think that I no longer cared for my own success?”

They fidgeted a little at that, and there were further exchanges of glances, but no answer. I thought it important – I cannot coach a team which will not communicate with me. It is not at all usual for me that I am so badly out of harmony with my players; Sir John was perhaps right, I was indeed losing my touch.

“Come, talk to me. Tell me what the problem is. I will not hold it against any one of you.”

  The glances were exchanged once more, all coming round to Mark, who plainly did not relish his position as spokesman.

“You didn’t come out with us today. You haven’t come out with us for ages. Well, not this week, at least.”

I frowned at him. “Come out?”

“You don’t come on the runs with us any more. You didn’t come into the pool when we swam yesterday. You haven’t done anybody’s gym checks, you’ve left them all for Harry and you always do at least one or two.”

“Harry is quite capable of doing them. . .”

“Of course he is, but that’s not the point. You weren’t there.”

“You wish me to be there?”

He was drowned out by several others, all agreeing that they did, in tones of some pique.

“Then if that is what you want, we will go back to that schedule. As for the rest, you must consider that I am no longer a young man; you are all of you in your prime and fit, and it is not to be expected that I can keep up with you in training.”

Ryan made a rude noise. “Phil been wearing you out?”

That raised a laugh, and I must have looked a little surprised, because he added, “Don’t give us the BS about being old. You can run faster than the props. . . well, my granny can run faster than the props, O.K., but even so. . . I haven’t exactly noticed you lagging behind.”

“Ryan, it is a statement of fact that I am older than you all. The question of my age is not a new one; it has been widely discussed lately.”

 “Yeah, and it’s a pity you don’t throw out the main counter-argument, which is Phil.”

I did not understand him. “I mean that the general opinion of just about every woman I know is that Phil is supremely buff. I don’t know how it works for you. . . people, but I would imagine that any man who looks at other men would also think that Phil is supremely buff. Phil could pull without having to make much effort; if he doesn’t, it’s because he’s getting enough at home. Which presumably is why you’re too exhausted to run with us. Maybe a little more attention to us and a little less to Phil?”

I was utterly shocked, but I had promised that I would let them have their say. Mark cut in again.

“Shut up, Ryan, that’s irrelevant. All we’re saying is that we think you haven’t been giving us your full attention and we want it.”

“Then you shall have it,” I agreed. “If that is what you all want?”

There was muttering and shifting about, but it seemed to be so, so I nodded to them and left. I am a sneaky bastard, though; I stopped outside the door to listen. Mark has a clear voice.

“Fucking hell, Ryan, have you got a death wish or something?”

Ryan sounded a little sulky. “Well, it’s true.”

The deeper voice was Darren. “Ryan, I don’t want, I really don’t want to know about the Terminator’s sex life. I don’t want to look at Phil and think ‘he’s buff’. I don’t want to know that anybody else looks at Phil and thinks ‘he’s buff’. I don’t want to consider the possibility that my wife may look at Phil and think ‘he’s buff’. The buffness of Phil is a closed subject now, O.K.? And above all else, I don’t want to think, ever, ever, about whether Phil and the Viper are getting enough. I’m sure you’re right, but can we please not talk about it?” His voice was getting closer to the door; I thought it politic to take myself elsewhere.

Back in the office, Harry looked at me quizzically. “So what was all that about?”

“Apparently I am devoting too much time to my buff young lover and not enough to my team.”

He spilled his coffee again. “They told you that?”

“Harry, I am not very sure what they told me, except that they wish me to run with them and swim with them and shout at them in the gym, and they are offended with me because I have not been doing those things.”

“Well, we knew that.”

“Did we?” I asked plaintively. “I did not. And I do not understand it.”

“What’s to understand? You’re the Big Man, you’re in charge, they want you there for them. They do as they’re told when I run a session for them, don’t get me wrong, they put in the effort. I get a hundred per cent from them. O.K., occasionally we get Ryan and his girlfriend or Mark with a hangover, but generally, I get the full monty. You don’t, though: you get that extra bit, a hundred and ten per cent. The catch is that you get it because you give it, so when you stop, they get twitchy and go off the boil.”

I considered this. “But then, Harry, we will be in trouble, for I will not always be able to keep up with them. Are you saying that it is, what shall we call it, that it is the pack mentality? That the pack will follow me until I am no longer strong enough to fight off the pretender? That I must show my teeth every day and beat my chest and be the Big Man? And that when I really cannot keep up with them on a run, then they will pull me down and the next contender will be the Big Man?”

He shook his head, amused. “Piet, you’ll be the Big Man for them until they carry you off in a box. The catch is that you don’t get to be anything except the Big Man. They don’t care whether you can keep up with them when they run; they care that you go out with them. Send them to run a dozen laps and walk one yourself and they’ll be happy. When you can’t do that any more, we’ll send somebody from the Colts to push you in a bath chair. You’ll still be the Big Man.”

I was able to admit then to him some of what had been troubling me. “I fear that I am losing my ability to deal with the team, my facility with young men. I am getting old, Harry. It is my birthday next month and my referee’s ticket will not be renewed.”

“You’ll still be younger than me,” he said sharply. “And you’ll still be the Big Man. You’ve taken your eye off the ball with the team as a whole while you chased around after Fizzer and his problems, that’s all. We know where we’re going with that now, so you can give your attention to the boys again. You know what they are: they push and push to see how far you’ll let them go, but they don’t like it if you don’t push back. ”

I nodded, after a moment. I knew what he meant. If I accepted being the Big Man, then I had to be the Big Man; I could not pick up and put down the title as I pleased.

“About the Saracens match. . .”

I returned to my usual habits. I ran with my squad; I trained with them, although I found that occasionally I would drop out sooner than before. They did not take advantage of it.

My Phil raised the question of a party again; I refused him again, and he looked so crestfallen that I gathered him to my heart to see what I could do to make things better.

Koekie, I really do not want a party. I cannot see that we could fill the house for it, not on my account. Come, my hart, I will humour you in something else but not in this. Think of something else you would like.”

He looked at me sideways, and said, a little too quickly, “I wanted us to celebrate your birthday, that’s all.”

“But not that way, poppie, please. Come, what would you like instead?”

He can do anything with me: this was my birthday approaching, and I was promising him treats? Sir John was definitely correct: Pieter de Vries had lost his touch. In particular, I did not pick up that it was Tim Creed who was directing this scene. Phil has not the capacity to deceive on this scale; no, this was master Tim, and if I had realised it, he would have smarted for it.

“I’ll tell you what I would like. When are we marking your birthday? Weekend before or weekend after?”

“After would be better. The weekend before is the Wasps match. What do you wish to do?”

“I want to top.”

I was a little surprised. He has asked me this before; I have no objection and I said so.

“No, Piet, I don’t mean that. I mean that I want to be in charge.”

Well, I was not losing my touch quite to that extent. Viper de Vries buys no cats in sacks. No, that is not the English phrase, is it? No pigs in pokes. I told him so, and he grinned at me.

“Well, it was worth a try. I’m serious, though; that’s what I want. No, all right, not an open ended agreement, but. . . Well now. Your birthday’s Thursday this year: let’s say that I get, oh, five calls between ten p.m. Wednesday and Sunday midnight.”

“Calls to do what?” I asked suspiciously.

“Oh no, I’m not telling. Nothing nasty; nothing I really think you would object to, but I want how and when to be my call.” He wriggled round me a little, rubbing his head against my chest like a cat. “Don’t you trust me?”

“Not as far as I could drop kick you, koekie.”

“You would have safe words,” he coaxed, running his fingers up the back of my head. “Same ones as me, that’s easiest. And I promise I don’t mean physical topping, not either sort.”

“Then what do you mean? And how would you make your calls?”

“Code word? I say ‘springbok’ and then I’m in charge for. . . say half an hour.”

I had not failed to notice that he had not answered my first question, but he would not be drawn on what he might want to do, or to have me do. I pressed him but he was not forthcoming, and in the end. . . well, what had I to lose? As he assured me repeatedly, I would have safe words. As he tactfully did not remind me, I demand a lot of him by way of trust; he has the right to ask a little in return. I gave him his own way although I confess I was more than a little uneasy. Five ‘springboks’ I promised him, and tried not to be apprehensive about what a ‘springbok’ involved. In any event, there was time enough, I thought, before my birthday for me to find out what he intended. Somehow, though, the matter was dropped, and I was concentrating on my team – oh, not to neglect Phil, not either at home or at the club. I was careful to set him a fitness programme which would not harm his shoulder, and at home, well, it is Phil’s presence which makes the place my home. When he did not mention his plans again, I thought that perhaps he had abandoned them, that he had wanted only to be assured that I disliked only his plans for a party, not his plans generally.

I do not know what I thought. I thought nothing very clearly. I re-established myself with my boys and felt that things were going better. So they were, with them. Where things were not better were with me, and I missed it.

Continued in Part 2. . .

Idris the Dragon

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