Five Ways to Friday (Part 2)

...continuing the story begun in part 1

“Come in, Fran, hi Nick, we’ve got fifteen minutes, half an hour at most.”

“Did Hansie give you my message?”

“That you couldn’t do both the international squad and his club side in the time, yes. I think we should go for the club – better chance of getting them, I reckon, and I think the club players are the ones he cared about more. Come into the study.”

She lifted the photograph down from the wall and started to remove the frame.

“Look, Phil, this one has the names on the back, that will help. How far on are we?”

I shrugged. “Half way. Hansie's doing it. He rang Danie Pretorius, because we thought if they didn’t know about Piet’s orientation it would be better to keep me out of it, and Hansie could get away with having been one of his trainees, but Hansie said it was fairly obvious that Danie did know – said he was enquiring delicately whether Hansie was Piet’s partner. Danie’s still in touch with about half the team, even if only Christmas cards, he can’t find Paul Retief anywhere and he thinks Fanie du Plessis is dead, but he’s got onto some of them and they’re chasing the rest. Hansie's Aunt Cornelia took the list of the Missing In Action and put her own contacts at Hansie's old rugby club on them – she says it’s a tight knit world and somebody will know somebody who. . . you know the sort of thing. Nick, can you turn the scanner on? It’s that plug behind you. Look, let’s not miss the obvious – with a list of names, let’s check Piet’s address book. It’s in the middle drawer of the desk.”

Nick tried the drawer. “It’s locked, Phil. Have you got a key?”

I swore. “No. There’s only one key and Piet’s got it. Why the hell is it locked? It isn’t usually. Oh, I know, it’s because the cleaner’s coming today. Not that I think he need bother. . .”

Nick shook his head. “Mrs Woollard? Slightly more discreet than the confessional. Not to worry, just. . . you haven’t seen me do this, you don’t know that I can do this, and you never tell anybody that I can do this, right?”

And with that he produced a penknife from his pocket, one of those fancy ones with lots of blades, and knelt down in front of the desk. It took him about two minutes, armed with that and a skewer which I brought him from the kitchen, to spring the lock. Then I booted the computer while he and Fran compared the list of names on the photograph to Piet’s address book.

“Two apart from Danie, and I’m not sure if they’re the same ones, but we’ll pass them on to Hansie. Go on, Phil, scan the photo.”

“It’s too big. I’ll have to do it once from each end. Do you want me to scan the names as well?”

“No, quicker just to write them down. Let’s have a look at the image. . . that’s quite good quality. Email that to me, Phil, and I can work with it, and we just won’t think about copyright issues, O.K.?”

She put the photo and frame back together while Nick recocked the spring and locked the desk, and I sent a copy of Piet’s last team photo to her inbox.

I was engaged with my computer when he came through to my study, leaning over my shoulder to scan the screen.

“What are you doing?”

“Next month’s gym schedules.”

“Next month’s? So they don’t have to be finished tonight?”

“No, any time before Tuesday would do. Why? Do you want me for something?”

“It’s ten o’clock and I’m claiming a ‘springbok’.”

Well, I had promised, had I not? I closed down my computer. “What do you wish to do, koekie?

He held out his hand, and I followed him upstairs, smiling a little. In the bedroom, he kicked off his shoes, and bounced onto the bed, piling the pillows behind his back and easing one under his arm to support his weak shoulder.

“No, don’t lie down. You’ve got too many clothes on, Piet. Get them off.”

I raised an eyebrow at him. “You want me to put on a show?”

“Well now, there’s an idea. No, let’s do this differently. Start with my clothes, Piet. Take them off first.”

Koekie, if you are going to be a Top, you must learn not to change your mind halfway through.”

“I’ll take notes. My clothes, Piet, now.”

It was a reasonable impression of my own tone, and I acknowledged it by starting on his shirt. I would have leaned in to kiss his chest – he likes that – but he put me off, allowing me to do only precisely as I had been told: to undress him. He lay back among the pillows like something from an early Hollywood epic.

“Your clothes now. Not too fast.”

I fixed him with a Look. He might want to top, that did not mean that I had to bottom. I know what I can do to him with a Look. But nonetheless, I removed my clothes, without haste. I had promised, after all. Then I looked at him, as insolently as he looks at me when he teases. He had let his thighs fall open.

“See what you do to me? See how hot you get me, without even touching me? I think maybe you’ve been forgetting that.”

Maybe I had. I came closer. “So shall I touch you now, my hart?”

“No. Now you’ll lie down and I shall touch you, however and wherever I like, and you’ll see how hot that makes me too. You turn me on, Piet, and I don’t want you forgetting it, ever.”

Ah. Now I do not forget that. I do not forget how much I like it when Phil touches me, although I like it better when I am permitted to touch him too, but he would not have it, ordering me to put my hands behind my head, to lie still while his fingers and his mouth explored me.

He was taken aback when I surged upward, grabbing him around the waist and rolling us both until he was pinned beneath me.

“And that is twenty to eleven, koekie, so you have had your thirty minutes, and now I am going to nail you to the bed.”

He squirmed. “Call that foreplay? ‘Brace yourself’?”

“It is all you are getting,” I agreed, hooking open the drawer in the bedside table. “Is that a problem?”

Apparently it was not.

Happy birthday to Piet, happy birthday to Piet, happy birthday to Pieter. . . and. . .

“Hansie! Are you ready to go?”

“I have been ready these ten minutes, my liefie, with my coat on.”

“Get in the car, then. If we aren’t there by seven, Phil will never be able to keep him at home. Are you sure you’re happy going first?”

“Ach, Tim, we have been round this. It does not matter which of us goes first. You can go first if you want.”

Phil was hovering at the kitchen door in sweat pants, waiting to let us in.

“I’ve put him on a ‘springbok’ and sent him to have a shower, with strict instructions not to touch, not even to wash it vigorously. He thinks I’m making breakfast. Come upstairs, quick. Here, give me your coats. Hansie, do you want a glass of water to take with you?”

Ja, please, I will want it afterwards. He does not suspect?”

“He suspects something, but I don’t think he’s cracked what. Come on, and shhhh, keep it quiet. I doubt if he’ll be able to hear anything over the shower, but I want him to be surprised.”

He was surprised, all right. He emerged from the bathroom wrapped in a green towel, and looking. . . well, like Phil said, looking fit, and stopped in the doorway.

“Tim? Hansie? What is this, then?”

Hansie smiled wolfishly at him. “I understand that you have agreed to give Phil half an hour of your time without argument – and you have spent ten minutes of that in the shower. The other twenty minutes are mine.”

The thin eyebrows rose. “And you intend doing what with them, my Hansie?”

“Come over here, Piet, and I will show you.”

We made room for him on the bed, Phil and I, drawing him between us, and carefully confiscating his towel, while Hansie, still with that wolfish look, removed his tie and unfastened his collar, and then wriggled across the bed to join us.

“You see, Piet,” I confided, “we thought that you always like to see people shine at what they do best, and I don’t think there’s any doubt that of the four of us, Hansie does the best blow-job. So I’m going to look after this hand and Phil’s going to look after that hand and you’re just going to lie still and suffer through a Hansie Special. Phil, what will happen if we lick his fingers at the same time?”

“No idea. Shall we try? Do you think he’ll scream?”

“I do not scream.”

“A challenge,” murmured Hansie, lifting his head for a moment. “In twenty minutes, I can make him scream.”

“I don’t know, Hansie, it’s true enough, he doesn’t scream.”

The red head lifted again. “So watch, Phil and learn. And do not interrupt. I cannot do this if I keep having to stop to tell you what I’m doing.”

“I’m watching, I’m watching. Sorry, Tim, can you see?”

“I can see. Piet, can you see?”

He could see. He couldn’t keep his eyes focused, though. “Hansie? He’s humming. I can feel his whole chest vibrate. I think he likes it.”

“Run your tongue between his fingers, Tim, and then nip the base of his thumb. And he’ll. . .”

“That was a scream.”

“It. . . was not. I do. . . not scream.”

“Hansie? Whatever you just did, do it again. I’d call that a scream, wouldn’t you, Phil?”

“Well, maybe a yowl. Now the inside of his wrists. . .”

That was a scream, hey? Phil, pass me the glass of water, please? What shall we do with your other three minutes?”

Well, that was a most surprising start to the day. Most surprising. Very enjoyable too, although my reputation for iron-bound control may not survive it. Very well, I will admit to having made some noise; I still deny screaming although I appear to be outvoted three to one on this.

I had a busy morning at the club. The boys were. . . the boys were in an odd frame of mind again, very foolish and jumpy. They seemed unable to concentrate, any of them, for more than ten minutes at a stretch. I was beginning to worry about them again, to worry that their previous acquiescence had worn off, and for once I was not sure whether to rein them in sharply or to let them run. Rob came up to the office afterwards, sidling in with a most peculiar expression.

“Got something for you.”

I sat down at my desk and waited, and he produced from behind his back a large envelope. “This is from the squad.”

It was a birthday card, large, signed by them all. I was touched, and I said so. “Yeah, well. . . We got you this, as well.”

He offered me an envelope; I opened it to find an official looking bank document, requiring specimen signatures, two of which had been completed by Rob, and by Alicia, with a space for mine. “And this is what, Rob?”

“We, um, well, we had a collection. The squad. And then, well, it was quite a lot of money, I mean there are 38 of us. And we went round the office as well, and the ground staff and the medics and so on. And then Mr Hamilton got to hear about it, and he went to the Board, and a couple of the minor sponsors, and well, one way or another it’s just over £1000. We thought that was enough that we should do something formal with it, so we banked it. The account’s called The Antivenin Fund, that was Alicia’s idea, and you can draw off it, only you need either me or Alicia to countersign; we thought that would be a decent balance, the club captain and the club accountant? And Mrs St George, she used to be a lawyer before she went into the City and she drew up a document, I didn’t understand it all, but she says basically it should be enough to keep you square with the tax people and the rugby authorities, because it isn’t your money exactly.” He ground to a halt.

“I am not sure that I understand.”

“We thought you  might like to have a fund that you could spend at your own discretion on promoting rugby. I mean, Phil was telling us that you’re helping the locals and that you’re coaching one of the girls there? He says she’s really good. And we thought that there are summer schools and away days and so on, and maybe she might benefit from being able to go. Or we know you like doing the school visits, but some of the schools haven’t got any equipment worth mentioning, and it’s not a lot of money in the grand scheme of things, but it would buy shin guards and balls, say. We thought that the swear box in the bar might feed into it too, and we could, I don’t know, raffle a shirt every now and then or something. Mike Tasker said his last club used to have a forfeit for poor punctuality, a fiver a time into the beer fund, and we could probably sell something like that to the squad too. It was just. . . happy birthday, from all of us.”

I had real trouble expressing myself to my squad in their dressing room; it is not usual for me to be either so completely taken aback or so completely embarrassed and unable to find the words to use to them. I think it was a relief to us all when I went away again.

I went home to my Phil at five; I was not expecting to see anybody at home – I had not invited anyone, but Hansie and Tim were there anyway and Phil was cooking something which smelled good and there was a pile of mail on the table. It was much larger than usual, but that was to be expected, fersure. There was a card from James and Mary Hamilton, one from my parents and a parcel, and the same from my sister, containing a letter from her girls, which made me smile, and underneath there was another card with a South African postmark. “This will be Danie Pretorius, I expect,” I said, ripping the envelope absently.

But it was not. “How curious. I have a birthday card from Cornelia van der Merwe. How would she know it was my birthday?”

Ja wel, that would be me,” said Hansie. “I believe I mentioned it in one of my emails.” He and Tim were a little jumpy, inclined to look out the window at every sound.

“That was kind of her. She – was that the doorbell? We are not expecting anybody else, are we?”

It was Fran, armed with a large parcel in elegant green paper.

“Sorry I didn’t get over yesterday, Phil, but I held off in the hope of something from Argentina. It came in this afternoon.”

“You’ve got them all?”

“Every last one.”

She came over and kissed me briskly. “Happy birthday, Piet, and this is from everybody. Hansie and Tim did most of the research; Hansie emailed and rang the people in South Africa; Tim rang the ones in Spain and Italy and France, because he’s the only one of us with the language skills. Hansie's Aunt Cornelia found three of the missing, and Nick found out who we needed to ring abroad to locate foreign nationals, and traced numbers and offices and so on for us. He provided the album and I did the pictures.”

I did not understand a word of that, but I sat down obligingly and began to open the parcel.

Inside was a large album, leather bound, the sort in which you can insert loose pages. On the front page was a reproduction of the photograph of my last club squad, the one I keep in my study. I glanced up in some surprise. Phil came to sit beside Fran, and all four of them watched me hopefully. I turned the page.

“Ach, is that Danie? He has hardly changed at all!”

At the top of the page was Danie, however many years ago. Fran had cut his picture from the squad photo and enlarged it. Beneath was a bright picture of Danie again, a little older, a little heavier, with a pretty woman beside him, and his children, his son in school rugby kit, his daughters relaxed in jeans. On the facing page was a copy of an email, to Hansie's address, but starting ‘My dear Pieter’ and telling me what he had been doing and about his family. I glanced up again; Fran nodded at me to turn the page.

Jan Meintjes: I had not thought of him in years. And here he was, clearly on a ski holiday with a trail of small children behind him, and a letter telling me that he worked for the television network now.

Jean-Pierre de la Porte, on a horse: he was running a riding school. A sad little letter from Mrs du Plessis, wishing me well and telling me of Fanie’s death from cancer, with a photograph of him at some family celebration. Arend van der Grijp, still bulky as a mountain, now a sales representative for a pharmaceuticals company. Pimmie Wohlberg, working in the bank; the du Toit twins, with nine children between them, gone into their father’s business, one running an office in Germany and one in Spain; Herman Pienaar coaching a squad in Nelspruit. Étienne Bernard, working for the rugby authorities in Scotland – Scotland? – and Oliver Vance managing a club outside Paris. All of them,  flankers and locks, wings and props, halves and centres. . . all the way to Paul Retief on the last page, teaching at a university in Argentina and running the college rugby team.

I looked up at them all. “I. . . I am. . . I do not know what to say. How did you do this?”

Hansie smiled uncertainly at me. “It was Fran who had the first idea. She thought we might trace your friends” – my friends! – “and ask them for current photographs to compare with the old one. It was Nick who thought to ask them to email me with a little news of themselves; he dreamed up the notion of the album set out this way. We started with Danie, because he was easy to find; he knew where some of the others were, and each of them traced one or two more for us. Aunt Cornelia found Mrs du Plessis by getting Adam Coetzee to call the authorities and find out the last known address for Fanie. Then she sent me a copy of the page in the Port Elizabeth phone book, and I rang 17 du Plessis households before I found her. One of the others knew that the du Toits had gone into business, and where, and what sort of business it was, but not the name of the company; Nick got some colleague who works in – what do they call it? forensic accounting? – to look them up. Not difficult, apparently, if you have access to the right database.”

“Paul Retief was the last one,” confirmed Fran. “We knew he was a university lecturer and we knew he had started at the University of Cape Town. They knew he had gone to – Rhodes, is it?”

“In Grahamstown,” I nodded.

“Well, and they sent us on to somewhere in Greece where he did a year’s research, and they sent us to some obscure college in the south of France, and then the trail went dead. Hansie's Aunt Cornelia mailed me on Monday with an address in Buenos Aires, but he was out on a field trip until Wednesday; he phoned me this morning to tell me that he had just moved house and his computer and all his photographs were in storage but that one of his students was sending me a photograph off her phone – it’s not a brilliant one, but he said he’d send something better later – and he would mail a note at lunchtime from the campus. So this is hot off the press, Piet. Literally finished half an hour ago.”

I was all but overcome. She and Hansie were making light of it, that it had been amusing to chase down all these people, but it had obviously been a phenomenal amount of work – and explaining it to absolute strangers, and persuading them to co-operate, and keeping it from me! And international phone calls, and apologising to people who were not the ones you were looking for.

“Do – do you like it?” asked Tim, anxiously. I reached across the table to Fran, took both her hands and kissed each one. Then I looked at my boys. “I love it. I really, honestly do not know what to say. That you should have done so much. . .! And. . . I do not know what to say. It is wonderful.”

“Good,” said Fran, cheerfully. “Now I must run. No thanks, Phil, I won’t stop and eat with you, Nick’s on weird shifts still and he’ll just be getting up. Happy birthday from both of us, Piet, and we’ll see you soon.”

It was quiet when she had gone; Phil went back to his cooking and I looked through my book, and Hansie and Tim watched me, glancing at each other now and then and smiling. I was unable to eat much, my heart was too full, but Phil seemed to understand. And afterwards, we took our coffee through to the sitting room, and when we had drunk it, Tim looked across to Phil, and asked, “Well? Have you still got one for me?”

“And two in hand as well. Piet, this is Tim’s ‘springbok’.”

I let my eyes go wide in apparent astonishment. “What? You are selling them on? Disgraceful.”

“Isn’t it?” he agreed cheerfully. “Here, Tim, or upstairs?”

“Upstairs would be more comfortable, I think.”

They stretched me out on the bed again, and I complained mournfully, as Tim started on my belt buckle, “You are trying to kill me. It is a plot to get the house for Phil.”

“It’s a plot all right,” agreed Tim, straddling my thighs and flexing his hands (he has very beautiful hands, long fingered and elegant), “and so far it seems to be going extremely well. Now, Piet, have I got your undivided attention?”

“I always give my undivided attention to anyone who has my balls in his hands,” I assured him, fervently. 

“Good, because I want to be sure you understand this. I have no doubt at all that Phil has told you that when he knew me first, I was, not to gloss it up, promiscuous.”

“Tim, I never said. . .”

“No, you probably worded it more bluntly than that. It’s quite true, Piet. Until not very many years ago, I put it about a good deal. I was careful but I wasn’t very discriminating. And then there was Hansie, and then there was the Family.”

We have all fallen into the way of talking about the Family, as if the word has a capital letter.

“One way or another, though, I don’t do that any more, and I don’t miss it. We’re all different, Piet; we aren’t what we were before the Family. Hansie has something to fall back on. Phil’s grown up, and so have I. I know what the Family has done for me, and I, well, I suppose I think better of myself than I used to. I know, I know, there’s a widely held belief that Tim Creed thinks a damn sight too well of himself – but now I actually value my body as well as my mind. I don’t do this – are you listening to me, Piet?”

I assured him, rather hoarsely, that I was.

“I don’t do this just for the sake of it any more. I don’t do it just because somebody else wants to do it to me. I don’t do this”. . . (I hissed). . . “to you”. . . (I bucked). . . “because I think it would make Hansie happy, or because Phil likes watching me do it to you, or because it keeps the Family balanced. When I do this to you, Piet – you aren’t listening.”

I was, but I hoped there would not be a test at the end. “I am listening: go on.”

“When I do this to you, it’s because I want to for your own sake. Remember that; it’s important. Now close your eyes and relax.”

They were trying to kill me, I knew they were, either with an excess of pleasure, or with the rush of emotion. What with my current squad, and my old squad, and my family and my  Family, I did not think I could bear very much more happiness.

It was only by the extreme exercise of will that I achieved anything useful on Friday morning. I took the backs for specialised training, and then I went into the gym and oversaw what two or three of my squad were doing, and I snatched a hasty lunch and went back to my desk to sort out my administration. It was about half past two when the second phone rang, and Harry lifted it; I was on hold on another call.

 “Piet?” He was waving to get my attention.


“Phil, for you.”

“I will call him back.”

“O.K. Phil? He’s on the phone, says he’ll call you back. What? I don’t know, you can. . . What? Don’t be daft, I can’t. . . No! Well, how should I. . . Oh for heaven’s sake! Wait a minute, then.”

He came over to my desk, and dragged my diary out from beneath my arm, taking it back to his own desk.

“No! Wait a minute, don’t be so impatient. I’m looking, I’m looking. No. No appointments, just a huge list of things-to-do-marked-urgent. No! I’m not reading them out, they’re none of your business. What? Well, no, they all look as if they would wait until. . . hang on. Piet? Who are you actually on hold to?”

I covered the mouthpiece. “Those people about the new team strip. There used to be one woman there who knew what was going on but they have paid her off and I cannot get any sense from. . .”

“Phil wants you to go home.”

“Harry, I am on hold for the fifth time. At this rate we will have no shirts in any size except small by the week after next. Gregor Khojaminasishvili has played in three different shirts over the last three matches, with his name spelled differently each time. I need to speak to. . .”

“He says he’s. . . what was that, Phil? He’s claiming a ‘springbok’. Is that what you said?”

And I felt the jolt in the pit of my stomach: I opened my mouth to say ‘I cannot just walk away from my desk like that’, and then I thought, why can I not? Harry is right, all these things will wait until Monday. The woman I need to speak to does not work there any more and it is obvious from the way they are passing me from one desk to another that nobody has the first idea where our order is. I need to find a new supplier and Friday afternoon is not the time to start that. I work enough unpaid overtime that I can take an afternoon off to spend with my lover.

I put the phone down. “Tell him I am coming home now.”

I could, I think, have done without Harry leaning out of the window as I came face to face with seven or eight of my players coming in from a run, and shouting ‘Make way! Man on a promise coming through!’. I cannot even bench him for it – but the next time it rains, he can do scrum practice.

The house was silent when I came in; I called to Phil, but he did not answer me. He was not in the living room or his kitchen, so I went upstairs to look for him.

It is a cliché, of course, the naked man on the bed, one arm tucked behind his head, his eyelids heavy, one knee bent. It is a cliché, and like most clichés, it speaks in terms we can all understand.

“You are beautiful like that.”

His mouth quirked. “Even with figure eight strapping?”

“Is your shoulder painful?”

“A little, yes. I’ve had one of my tablets, but I thought I should keep the strapping on. I’m sorry: I know I would look better without it.”

I sat down beside him, and put my hand over his. “Koekie, to me, you will never look bad when you are being careful of your body. How could I criticise you for it, when you know quite well that I would have been most displeased to find you in pain and not wearing it? So, you have called me on a ‘springbok’ and here I am; what do you wish of me?”

“I wanted you to come home; that takes up the 30 minutes I’m due. So that makes you Top again.” And he nodded at the dressing table, and when I looked over, I saw that he had laid out for me his belt, and the paddle, and both the canes. I leaned to kiss him, and ran my hand down his body, warm and firm and muscular, and he twisted a little to bring his hip under my hand, and I thought, yes. I rose and went to the dressing table, and lifted the pale, thin cane, the one I use only when I am extremely vexed, and I flexed it, and tried it through the air, and I watched him in the mirror. Any sign of fear and I would have put it down again; we have played so but only once to any real extent, and I will not do it if he is unwilling, but he looked no more than apprehensive; he rolled off the edge of the bed, and pulled the pillows into a pile in the centre, and bent, working his sore arm into the cotton heap. His back flexed once, and he was still, poised, back hollowed, bottom lifted. Willing. I came to touch him, to feel his hip in my hand again, and his skin twitched a little. I can do that to him; I know that I can make him conscious of himself and of me and of nothing else. I let my voice drop a little below its normal register.

“You have been most manipulative this week, Mr Cartwright, and I think it is time that we re-established just which of us is Top in this house.” And I drew the cane softly against his knee and upwards, across the back of his thigh, and tapped it lightly against his bottom. And lightly again. And again, and once hard, hard enough to make him jump, and while he was still off balance, I forced my knee between him and the edge of the bed, sat, pulled him round and landed him across my lap. “Pleasant though it is to have you submissive to my cane, this is what I like. Stripes are attractive, but a reddened and smarting bottom on my Bottom is better.” And I proceeded to bring it about, sharply enough that he was wriggling and squirming before I was finished, giving little squeaks which were half amusement and half dismay.

“Now,” I growled, tipping him onto his back, “you have had what you needed, and now it is time for me to have what I want.”

He was breathless. “What do you want then?”

I would not tell him in words, for to do so would have been to compromise my desires. I am like most men; I want my lover to give me what I want without needing to be told; I want that he should not merely be humouring me. But I had what I wanted from him; I had the purr of his pleasure, the mewling sound he makes when I touch my lips to hot stinging flesh. I had him arched beneath me, panting with the mixed desire to make it last and to have it all now, at once. I had those strong legs tightly around me as he tried to pull me ever more deeply to his body. I had my name from him, my name, the knowledge that it was me, it was Pieter he wanted, that it was Pieter who was pleasuring him, who could make his body sing.

He, in exchange, had all my English vocabulary, tore it from me, lost it, threw it away. My hart, my koekie, poppie, soetlief, myne. Myne. In both languages, mine.

It wasn’t Boys’ Friday, we’d decided to go for Boys’ Saturday instead, starting with lunch at our house. Dry lunch, because there was rugby to be had afterwards: Hansie's girls had a match at half past two and Piet wanted to go. Hansie's girls: basically, as soon as Jim had picked up on the fact that Piet was looking out for Ruth, he had swapped Greg with Hansie, and Hansie and Alison were now looking after the girls’ Under 16s. Piet had been over a couple of time to watch and was of the opinion (shared with Jim and Hansie but not with the teams) that the boys this season were good and any of the junior teams might finish in the top four of their class but that the girls’ cup was all but in their trophy cabinet already. Anyway, Hansie had to go, Ruth was playing so Piet wanted to go, and Phil and I would go to keep them company. So no wine at lunch, only coffee, and I made a big Spanish omelette and a salad.

And dear heaven but it was cold. We were properly prepared, all of us having spent enough time on touchlines to value comfort over style. The local league had provided a referee; the visitors’ coach was acting as one touch judge and Hansie was to be the other. That at least was the plan as laid out; it went pear shaped in the first ten minutes when the visiting coach turned his ankle. Two minutes later Hansie arrived over on our side of the pitch, looking for Piet.

“No, we need another touch judge, hey? I have said I will ask you or Phil and they are amenable to either, well, more than amenable, they are rather overcome.”

Phil stepped forward. “I’ve got spare kit in the car, I’ll do it. Give me five minutes and I’ll be with you; the ground’s too soft and wet to make it safe to run other than in studs.” He set off briskly for the car park, and emerged within the five minutes from the changing rooms.

“Come on, Hansie, these kids will catch their deaths if we don’t keep them moving. Introduce me to the ref and let’s get them going.”

It was too bloody cold to stand and watch. Phil didn’t even take his fleece off for about fifteen minutes, and I noticed that he was running on the spot and stretching – for all he pretends to be a complete playboy, he’s actually very careful of his body. The fleece was eventually removed and flicked into Piet’s hands after a rather exciting driving maul by Hansie's girls; we lasted about another five minutes before we started to pace around the edge of the pitch, coming up against a vaguely familiar looking man in company with a tall woman, doing the same thing in the other direction. No, not a woman, a girl: as we overtook them I realised that although she wasn’t far off my height – or my weight, come to that – she couldn’t be more than 15 or 16, and might well be younger. Her posture was dreadful, round-shouldered and sway-backed, with her head lowered.

“Mr Kincaid, good afternoon. Ruth is very sharp this afternoon: she is making excellent progress. I know Hans van den Broek is extremely pleased with her, as am I. This is Tim Creed; he is related to James Hamilton.” He turned his gaze on the girl, and I realised with some amusement that he was mentally measuring her up for the front row.

“Oh, hello, Mr de Vries, Mr Creed. I’ve seen you here before, I think. This is Naomi, she’s at school with Ruth.” Naomi? Whither thou goest I will go? I opened my mouth to pass some comment along those lines, and the girl met my gaze, and the words died in my throat. Her eyes were dull, and her expression – I had seen that expression before, but I couldn’t place it. I muttered something inane, and we passed on, but I turned to look back after them. Piet did too.

On the next circuit, Kincaid was alone; the girl was standing 25 metres behind him, watching the play. Piet stopped to speak again. “Miss Naomi is not a player, Mr Kincaid?”

He glanced back over his shoulder to make sure she was out of earshot. “I don’t think the poor girl is anything. She was bullied very badly at her last school, largely over her size – you can see she’s trying to make herself look smaller – and her parents moved her; Ruth’s Head of Year asked Ruth to look after her for a week or two, see she didn’t get lost or anything, and they’ve struck up a sort of friendship, but she’s frightened out of her skin. Not excelling at school, I gather, although Ruth says she’s clever enough. She’s – my Ruth – she’s a bossy madam, little mother of all the world, always interfering with other people’s lives. It’s not always a good idea, and I’m afraid she’ll get hurt sooner or later when somebody tells her to mind her own damn business, but she’s decided that Naomi might like rugby and she’s trying to get her interested.”

Right. That was the expression: the blank despairing not-quite-as-much-as-hope of not being hurt any more. I knew it. Look, that tale of Martin Docherty wasn’t entirely true, but like all the best lies, it had elements of truth in it. My school wasn’t rough by any stretch of the imagination, but there had been some bullying. I could remember boys with just that look about them. From Piet’s expression, he knew something of it too. Kincaid turned and walked in the same direction as us, and we came back to the girl who kept her eyes fixed on the pitch.

“Miss Naomi, you are cold, I can see it. Here, will you not put this on? It is Phil Cartwright’s fleece, it will be far too big for you, but at the moment he has no need of it, and you do. I assure you, he will not mind.”

She looked up at him, plainly startled, whether by the courtesy or by the kindness – and Piet held out the fleece like a 1920s butler holding out a particularly good quality mink. Her eyes flickered to Kincaid, who smiled encouragingly at her, and slowly she slipped an arm inside the sleeve and allowed Piet to wrap the garment around her.

“That was an excellent run your friend made just now. Do you follow the game?”

She couldn’t avoid answering him, not without the failure of manners which would make her conspicuous again, and if I knew anything about a victim of bullying, conspicuous was the one thing she would be anxious to avoid being. “No. Only what Ruth’s told me.”

“She knows a good deal, that one, and she is learning more. See, she has an eye all the time for the girl there, the one with the blonde pigtails. What Ruth is trying to do. . .”

And he explained what was going on, and Kincaid looked at me and raised his eyebrows, and I shrugged. I won’t say that Piet got much from the girl, but he didn’t get snubbed either, and God knows, nobody can snub like a disaffected 15 year old. He was careful – he made opportunities where she could have asked a question had she wanted but he didn’t leave gaps into which she might feel that she had to. She wasn’t, on the strength of one conversation with Viper de Vries (of whom she had plainly never heard) going to sign up for rugby, but he had certainly set a hook, and if Ruth introduced her to some of the other rugby girls she might get the notion that her size could be as much a pro as a con. She didn’t talk but she did listen, and I thought that she was taking it in. Ruth, of course, would come off the pitch full of herself because she was having a good match, and I thought it quite likely that Naomi would be able to make intelligent comments which would please them both.

Well, the girls won. Of course they did, it wasn’t far off a rout. Ruth came bounding over at half time and gave that high pitched shriek that the teenage girl manages for some particularly desirable piece of male totty, at the discovery that Naomi was wearing Phil’s fleece – I think Piet is her notion of the Perfect Older Man but she’s old enough to have tagged Phil as buff. Phil and Hansie didn’t appear, it being considered bad form for them to show an obvious bias towards the home team; they were having cups of tea with the ref and trying to get some feeling back into chilled extremities. At full time, Hansie fell back into gracious host mode, and while he was sorting the visitors, the little party walking the lines began to break into a shuffling trot in an attempt to keep warm. It was a good half hour before the players emerged from the block, by which time Piet had explained the concepts of sidestep, swerve and dummy to Naomi, and made her laugh aloud with some tale of a match in which his sidestep had been very fast, very powerful, and completely futile, running him at full speed into a 19 stone Kiwi opponent who had simply gone over the top of him like a tank.

Ruth, still pink in the face and enormously pleased with herself, was looking at Piet all the way down to join her father – pleased with herself she might be but she wanted him to be pleased too, and he was: a smile and a word of praise. Not unqualified praise: he had noticed several flaws in her play and he told her about them, but he was careful to say first that he was pleased, and to end up with a compliment. Hansie said this, ages ago, didn’t he? That Piet could always tell who would break themselves chasing his praise, who would do it for the knowledge that they were learning. He could tell the ones to be led from the ones to be driven. Her kicking was dreadful, shamefully inaccurate, but her running footwork was well in advance of what he would expect from someone her age. The compliment sugared the pill and enabled her to say humbly, “I know it’s not good; what should I do about it?”

“Ask Mr van den Broek to give you a schedule of practice. Start with something where you can see very clearly if you are accurate: kick at goal. Do not try to be clever, we are talking about fifteen minutes – that is long enough for you at this stage – and working across the pitch so that the angle changes but the distance from the line does not. Keep a record of how accurate you are. Five or six attempts from the same spot. We will see how that improves and when we have control of that, then we will look at improving your accuracy at putting the ball where your team mates can catch it. It will not be easy and it will be disheartening at first, because you will miss more than you score. Have you covered good kicking technique with Mr van den Broek or Miss Hazlehurst recently? No? Well, now. . . Mr Kincaid, do you need to leave immediately or can you spare ten minutes for me to show Ruth what I mean?”

What that actually meant was that Hansie, appearing from the block, was sent back for a net of balls, that Phil was called to demonstrate, and that Naomi, scarlet with embarrassment, offered him back his fleece and was given his brightest smile and told that he was warm enough and she should keep it on until she went home. Then he dropped the ball three times over the bar, with good style, and with Piet describing in simple terms what he was doing.

After that Ruth had a go, with varying success, and Hansie and I went down with Kincaid to retrieve skied balls and send them back up the pitch. I didn’t spot the point at which Piet persuaded Naomi to try; I wouldn’t have thought he could have done it first time out.

“As I said, it is not the easiest of skills. I have never managed to make Tim Creed competent at it because he will not put in the practice.”

Sorry, what? Where do I come. . . oh, all right, yes, I do get the point. Timmy is to be the court jester so that Naomi doesn’t feel incompetent, since Ruth, although not good, is better than her friend. I had three goes myself – look, you can’t live all your life among rugby players and not have some of the skills. I played at school, reasonably well; I wasn’t good enough to play at college, but on an empty pitch I could get the ball between the posts. Still, that wasn’t what Piet wanted, so I obligingly had three attempts, and sliced the ball left and right and along the ground, and the girls giggled at me, and Piet squeezed my shoulder approvingly and sent me back on ball boy duties. Kincaid was trotting up and down too, sending the occasional wild mis-kick back to Hansie.

“Does de Vries have children of his own? He’s very good with them.”

“No,” I said carefully, “although I think he regrets it. He has nieces, he’s devoted to them.”

“Is he married?”

“Long term relationship,” said Hansie, equally carefully.

“But no children. That’s a waste, you know, he’s got more from Naomi in an hour than I’ve seen anybody else get in a month. I didn’t know she could laugh.”

He didn’t let them keep it up long enough to become a chore, just brought them back to Kincaid flushed and giggly and pleased with themselves, and Kincaid manfully refrained from comment and shook hands with us all and swept them off, with Naomi running back in confusion to return Phil’s fleece.

“Piet, how do you manage to keep so tidy?”

He turned his gaze on me. “Tidy?”

“Well, look, even just picking up balls, I’m mud to the knees. Hansie went down the bank and he’s filthy. Phil’s spattered the front of his shirt and from the look of things he sat down on the pitch, and apart from your shoes, you’re still as clean as when you set out after lunch.”

“Practice. Also the knowledge that Phil will not let me in his car if I am too muddy. That is why we both have always a complete change of kit in the boot.”

I must have looked horrified – Phil’s car. We had all come in Phil’s car, leather seats, very posh – and Hansie had a bag with a change of clothes since he had expected to be on the pitch, and Phil did because he always does; meanwhile I looked like the ‘before’ picture  from a Persil advertisement. Hansie laughed.

“No, you need not worry, Tim. There will be something in the lost property cupboard that you can wear. You would be amazed by how many 18-year-olds contrive to go home without the trousers they arrived in, hey? And there are plenty of towels, even if we no longer have a band of obliging parents prepared to take them home and wash them. The water is hot still; we will manage a shower and a change, and then (what time is it? It is nearly dark already) we can go for a drink and after that collect our takeaway and go home, ja nee?”

Actually, that didn’t sound like a bad idea, specially the shower bit. My hands and feet were bone-achingly cold. Phil and Hansie had been running up and down so they were warm enough, but perhaps sweatier than was quite desirable (although I do rather like. . . no, never mind). Yes. Shower.

They had a big fundraiser a couple of seasons ago and redid all the club plumbing, ripping out the huge communal baths. They didn’t go altogether; Jim is of the generation which did much of its team bonding singing obscene songs in the bath together and the concept of a club with no communal bath is anathema to him. Still, the notion of being able to remove the worst of the grass and mud before sharing the bathwater with 14 other men was generally well thought of, and there was also a huge open shower area. Phil produced a towel from his bag and started to strip cheerfully; Hansie opened a cupboard and threw a towel and a pair of inoffensive track pants at me and followed suit; Piet sat down on the bench opposite with his legs along the seat and watched us benevolently. The water was gloriously hot and thawed everything in seconds, turning my hands and feet pink with returning blood flow. That wasn’t all which turned pink though, as Hansie noticed.

“A stripe, Phil? Only one? Is the Viper not feeling well?”

“Felt fine to me, Hansie,” smirked Phil, turning his face up to the water. Piet snorted, but he didn’t say anything.

“Have you used all your ‘springboks’, hey?”

“No, I’ve still got one. . . Hmmm. Do we think. . .?”

We did think. Oh yes, most decidedly we thought.

“O.K., springbok, get your kit off and let’s be having you.”

That got us a joint Stare, rather than a Look, but he didn’t argue, just rose to his feet and started to unbutton his shirt. Hansie and I clapped and catcalled, but Piet was watching Phil, and it was to Phil’s arms that he walked, careless of the water spilling down Phil’s face. Until Phil had had his kiss, Hansie and I might not have been there.

Mind you, after that, he knew we were there. Oh yes, he knew. He could hardly have missed it, with, at any point, one of us kissing him and the other two letting our hands rove. He was breathing hard when we backed off to marshal ourselves again; well, so were we all. Hansie was the first to recover himself.

“And is Phil a good Top, Piet?”

Phil laughed. “He can hardly say I’m not when he taught me everything I know, can he?”

Piet snaked an arm round Phil’s waist. “He is light on the reins, are you not, koekie? I do not fear him, although I am not sure that I would have agreed to this had I known that you would all gang up on me this way.”

“No,” I agreed. “That’s why we didn’t tell you. At least, we told Phil not to tell you, although I wasn’t sure he would manage it.”

The thin eyebrows went up. “It was your idea? I should, I suppose, have known that.”

Ja, you should,” concurred Hansie. “Tim’s idea, Piet, not mine, so when later you are allocating blame. . .”

“But I cannot do so, can I? For at the moment, Phil is Alpha Top, not me, and I can do nothing to Tim for such behaviour.” He pondered theatrically, with a wicked look. “Ah! I have it. I shall complain to my Top that the bad boys have been picking on me. Phil? It is not fair. . .”

He mimicked so perfectly the teenage whine which we heard every time Hansie pulled up one of his junior players that we all laughed, and Phil looked thoughtful.

“It’s not fair, is it, Piet? I got mine for being manipulative yesterday, but I wasn’t half as manipulative as Tim. And as you say, I’m Alpha Top. Here, I like this. . .” and he had me by the wrist and bustled me out of the shower and across to the bench, where he sat down and patted his thighs playfully.

“S’not faaaair,” I whined in my turn, lowering myself to his lap. “It was just as much Hansie's fault.”

“Well, I’ll have Hansie afterwards,” he assured me brightly, bringing his hand smartly down on my upturned behind. No, not half as hard as Hansie does even in play, but we were both wet and that stung! I gave a wriggle, and Phil said below his breath, “Go on, squirm, Piet likes that,” and oh yes, I squirmed. About half of it was put on and the rest was. . . well, I was breathless again when he let me up. Think about it – I was buck naked, and wet, and over the lap of an equally naked and wet Phil. Now stop thinking about it, and pay attention.

“Now, go and make up to Piet, I mean with Piet, and send me Hansie,” admonished Phil, trying not to laugh, and Piet pulled me back into the water (still hot, I must tell Jim how good the new heating system was, or on second thought, perhaps not), and Hansie went over Phil’s lap and wriggled just as much as I had.

“You enjoyed that, koekie,” observed Piet in amusement, thereby winning today’s prize for statement of the bleeding obvious.

“I did. I did indeed. This Alpha Topping is good stuff. I like the way Hansie yelps.”

“I did not yelp!”

The crack of palm on bum was much louder: that was Phil putting some effort into it; Hansie yelped and the rest of us laughed.

“Ach, that was – ”

“Not fair!” we all chorused, and fell about laughing, with Phil sliding back into Piet’s arms, and closing his eyes happily. Piet stroked his chest gently, dragging his nails lightly over Phil’s nipples and getting a shudder. I shuddered too when Hansie did the same to me, and shuddered again when Phil gave that little gasp – I knew what Piet was doing to get that sound from him. I felt Hansie move away, and looked round in time to see him flip some small thing from his bag to Piet. Phil gasped again.

“Please tell me that isn’t soap.”

“It is not soap, koekie. It is something from Hansie's first aid kit.”

“Really, really, please tell me it isn’t the Deep Heat?”

“It is aqueous cream, that is all. Do you not like that?”

“Mmmmmmm. . .”

Yes, I thought that too. Mmmmmmm. Do that some more, Hansie. I turned blindly towards the tiled wall and my arm brushed against Phil’s as he did the same. Presently, though, he made a sound of discomfort and Piet reared away.

“Am I hurting you?”

“My shoulder hurts, that’s all. I can’t brace on the wall.”

Hansie encouraged me round to face Phil and I suddenly got what he was after and reached for Phil’s hand, drawing it round my neck. He understood, and leaned to meet me, folding his good arm round my neck and running the other hand down my chest, tipping his head to one side to meet my searching mouth. I felt him gasp hotly and tighten his grip, and then Hansie bit the back of my shoulder and I arched my back for him, and at the same time Phil’s spare hand explored downwards and did something unbelievably pleasurable. It seemed only fair to reciprocate, trying to match in front the rhythm Piet was setting for him behind.

I believe I cried out, but I don’t know if it was Hansie's name or Phil’s, or both. I do know that I ended up on my knees on the rough floor with the water still cascading over me, and my eyes unfocused, and my head against Phil’s chest. Presently I was able to disentangle myself, and engage my brain.

“The water’s getting cold.”

Ja, and my skin is like a prune.”

“I’m hungry.”

Koekie, there is rarely a time when you are not hungry. Come, everybody, out and get dry.”

“Here, Phil, is he allowed to give orders like that?”

“Yes. I’m too tired to be Alpha anything. I resign. You two can challenge for position if you want, but as soon as I’ve got my shoes on, I’m for the Kerala to get the order in, and then the Black Swan until it’s ready.”

Piet was shrugging into his shirt. “We can sit in the Swan, my hart, and make some plans.”

“Plans?” I enquired, reaching for my fleece.

“And you may help, if you will. Phil and I are going to have a party.”

Phil stood up and smiled at his lover.

“What a good idea.”

Idris the Dragon

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© , 2006