It wasn’t entirely his fault. I should have recognised the warning signs and taken evasive action. I just didn’t put two and two together, and realise that all the excuses about why he couldn’t go to the rugby club dinner-dance didn’t start until after I mentioned that he’d get to meet an old acquaintance there.

This wasn’t the local club of course. No, this was the Premiership outfit in the local county town. The firm was a sponsor, and Jim always got a bunch of tickets; this year, as assistant sales director it was made clear my attendance was mandatory. So, of course, was the attendance of the sales director, one Johannes Martinus Christiaan van den Broek. My lover, Hansie.

You’ve no idea how odd that sounds. I didn’t intend to settle down with anyone just yet, and if I had been looking it wouldn’t have been for anyone like Hansie. But it’s been several months now, which is something of a record for me. People have started to invite us to things as a couple.

Of course, the invitation to the dinner dance was most definitely not as a couple. I didn’t think that the club or the rest of the guests were quite ready for the spectacle of Hansie and me doing the foxtrot round the floor. Still, I reckoned I could grin and bear it with him there to laugh with.

Only three days before he announced he couldn’t go because he had to pick someone up from the airport. I scotched that by pointing out that there was a strike of check-in staff planned on that day, and the airport was closed. Then he suggested that I would have more fun if I took Simon instead (the thought of the flamboyant Simon at a formal rugby club do made me feel faint). Then the night before he started looking hangdog and telling me he didn’t feel at all well and was probably coming down with something.

I’m afraid he got no sympathy, and an ultimatum: either he went, or I would. Yes, I know it was wrong. Yes, it was emotional blackmail of the worst kind. I don’t even know why I was getting so worked up about the whole thing, except that I knew Jim wanted us to go, and I felt like Hansie was letting my family down. Letting me down.

So he came in the end, but not in the most willing or happy cast of mind

He called me a bully once, but who was being bullied now, hey?

All right, I admit it, I did bully him into coming. But he seemed OK about it after he’d finally committed himself, fiddled with my bow tie until it was done to his satisfaction, kissed me on the cheek, patted me on the arse, and followed me out of the door to the waiting taxi –organised courtesy of the firm so that we could both drink.

Jim and Mary were both there when we arrived, Jim looming like a monolith of his native Aberdeen granite, and Mary looking fantastic with her hair cropped short, a simple black dress and a silver wrap. I kissed her and returned her hug with interest.

“Aunt M, you look great. I love the haircut.”

“Oh, Timmy, thank you. Jim’s not too keen on me with short hair, I’m afraid, says it looks silly on an old woman like me, but it’s a lot more practical I can tell you.”

“He’s mad,” I said. “It suits you down to the ground.” I shook his hand with a grin as he frowned at me in mock annoyance.

“D’ye hear your subordinate, Hansie, telling the CE that he’s mad? Keep him in check, will you?”

“I’ll have words with him,” said Hansie seriously. “Good evening, Mrs Hamilton.” He kissed her hand, and Mary smiled affectionately at him.

“Hansie, how many times must I tell you to call me Mary? After all, you are practically family.”

Hansie pinked up a little. “Ja, Mary, of course,” he muttered.

“Come and do the meet and greet bit,” said Jim. He ushered us expertly through the crowd, shaking hands here, patting a back there, making introductions with consummate ease. He never forgot a name. And he always repaid a favour, and a bad deed. It didn’t do to forget that the big man hadn’t built up a successful company by accident. I shook hands with various local dignitaries and club officials, several professional rugby players I knew of but had never met, a number that I had met (including two I had met in circumstances that would have had the tabloid press slavering). And Hansie hovered at my elbow, only a certain stiffness betraying his discomfort.

I hadn’t realised that it was going to be such an ordeal for him, to be honest, or I might not have been so insistent about him coming. You don’t expect a big, mouthy, brusque South African ex-pro rugby player to be shy or insecure. But I had come to realise that the mouthiness and the brusqueness were masks a painfully shy and rather insecure man had adopted to make his way through the macho twin worlds of rugby and Afrikanerdom. In fact, I think it was when I first realised that, that I started to use the word ‘love’ about our relationship, if only in the privacy of my own head.

“Now here’s someone I think you know. . .” said Jim, and then, staring over my shoulder, “Ah. Excuse me, gentlemen, while I go and rescue my wife from Councillor Evans. I can see her flagging me with a distress signal.” He vanished abruptly, leaving Hansie and me with the newcomer.

“Hello, Phil,” I said.

“Tim,” he acknowledged.

He was looking good, I have to say. Phil Cartwright and I once had several nights of pretty good sex, and rather more days of nearly continuous bickering together. He’s an arrogant sod, who’s nearly as good as he thinks he is – I hear that he’s likely to be capped in the next international – but not nearly as smart as he thinks he is. However, whatever training regimen he was on was certainly doing his body plenty of favours – he looked hot as hell.

“Phil, this is Hans van den Broek, our sales director,” I said, when the pause threatened to become embarrassing. “Hansie, this is Phil Cartwright, whom you may have heard of.”

Phil looked Hansie up and down with interest and I felt my hackles rise a bit more – hands off, he’s mine! – until I realised that I had probably been doing the same to Phil himself. And let’s face it, Hansie is worth looking at anyday.

“Another Afrikaner? You must meet – oh there he is.”

“Johannes?” asked another voice.

Hansie went green. “Meneer de Vries,” he managed.

I’d never met Pieter de Vries, but my goodness I could appreciate why people remembered him. He had –something. Charisma, I suppose. Jim has a fair measure of that, but it paled beside this man. Standing next to him was like standing next to a contained lightning bolt – it made your hair want to stand on end and your skin prickle.

de Vries launched into something rapid in Afrikaans. I’ve been studying it a bit since Hansie and I got together, but I couldn’t make much of this, only that it didn’t sound very friendly. And Hansie’s replies sounded decidedly defensive. The older man’s nostrils flared a little, and then he said something curt and switched into English, swinging his attention to me. I wasn’t sure I enjoyed the experience.

“We have not been introduced,” he said. “I am Pieter de Vries, the coach here.”

“I’m Tim Creed, Mr van den Broek’s deputy,” I said. I wasn’t quite sure what was going on here, but I wasn’t about to have anyone putting Hansie down. That was my job. “Pleased to meet you.” I offered my hand, received a brief, cool handshake and an appraising look.

“Mr Creed. If you will excuse me, I am afraid I must circulate.”

“I’d better do the same: strict instructions to chat to all the punters, even the boring ones,” admitted Phil. “Nice to see you both.”

“And you,” I said, with rather more warmth than I had intended, which got me a cheeky grin from the blighter before he walked away.

“Hansie, are you all right? What was all that stuff with de Vries about?”

“Nothing. I told you before, he coached me for a while, back in SA.”

“It didn’t sound like nothing.”

“Look, I said it was nothing, hey? Do you call me a liar? Where are the fucking drinks around here anyway?”

“Over there by the door. Look. . .” half forgetting where we were I laid my hand on his arm, but he shook it off impatiently.

Ek het ‘n drink genogen,” he muttered in Afrikaans (those words I understood), and stalked off in the direction of a table laden with glasses of red wine.

“Oh, fucking great start to the evening,” I muttered. I wished I smoked, just so I could pull one out and light up.

Look, I just needed a drink, hey? I wasn’t having such a hot evening, either.

“Was it something you said?” asked a new voice.

“Sorry?” My interrogator was a woman – I don’t really know how old, I’m not very good on women’s ages. Older than me. As old as my mother, possibly. Not as old as Aunt Mary, definitely. Tallish, fit looking, and sporting a camera.

“Let me guess, you’re the photographer.”

“Fran Milton, at your service. And a few moments ago you were surrounded by all the hottest men in this room, and now you’re the only one left. I ask again, was it something you said?”

Now, under better circumstances I would probably have taken that the way it was intended, and said something about remembering to shower before I came to one of these dos. As it was, she managed to rub nerves still raw from the previous 5 minutes in just the wrong way.

“Maybe they didn’t want to be charged a king’s ransom afterwards for some blurry snap they didn’t want taken in the first place?” I snapped. “Do excuse me, Ms Milton, while I try to find some of the guests my firm is paying to be here.”

And I stalked off. And yes, it was very rude, and no doubt she thought me some jumped up little barrow boy.

Spoiled middle class brat in need of a good hiding, would have been closer to it. I don’t take blurry snaps.

And it was a shame, because the collective wattage of that group of gentlemen was something to behold, and I would very much have liked to get a group picture. I’d have liked even more to get them all in the studio, but I figured the chances of that were minimal. I was trying to sell the club on doing a nude or semi-nude calendar, though, of the kind that the French club Stade Français has made so much money on, something tastefully posed and arty, but nonetheless erotic. So I might at least get de Vries and Cartwright. It would be interesting to see if the spark between them came through the camera lens – even if someone hadn’t dropped me a discreet hint, I think I would have known that they were partners. And de Vries had Top stamped through him like seaside rock.

“Ach, I’m sorry miss, did you see where Tim went? The blond guy in the blue shirt?” It was the rather glorious redhead, holding two glasses of red – another South African to judge by the accent.

“I’m afraid he called for a huff and went off in it,” I said. “Is one of those for me?”

He looked surprised, then tilted his head gracefully to one side in acknowledgement. “Ja, by all means, if you’d like it.”

“Thank you. Fran, Fran Milton.”

“Hansie van den Broek.”

“Another Afrikaner. Do you know the electrifying Mr de Vries?”

He took a healthy slug of wine that half drained his glass. “Oh, ja, I know Pieter de Vries. Only too damned well.”

“Ah.” It seems to be your night for saying the wrong thing, Fran. “You don’t get on?”

“There is – old history between us. Nothing important. So you are the official photographer, hey?”

“Yes. Would you like an overpriced blurry snap you never even asked for?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“No, I should ask yours. It was something your friend Tim said – I’m afraid he rather took exception to me.”

“I’ll take exception to him when I get him back,” muttered Hansie. “With a horsewhip.”

I don’t think he was aware at first that the last part had been spoken aloud, but of course my antennae pricked up at that.

“Well, the thought ‘you need a good spanking’ did cross my mind,” I said judiciously. “I take it he works for you?”

Pink really didn’t go very well with his hair colour, I noticed, but I like men who blush easily, they’re such fun to tease.

Ja, my deputy. I didn’t mean. . .”

“Please, Mr van den Broek, don’t spoil my little fantasy. I know it’s hardly likely, but the thought of that young man across your knee has improved my evening no end.”

He made a few strangled efforts to reply to this, going steadily redder and redder, and finally gabbled something about finding Tim to give him his drink, and made his escape.

“Frances Louise Milton, you are a bad, wicked girl, and the angels will weep for you,” said a soft and familiar Edinburgh accent. Silver hair, cropped close to her head, fine aristocratic cheekbones and porcelain skin, and eyes of a remarkably penetrating blue. Features too strong to be conventionally pretty, but there was no doubt that, even in her sixties, Mary Hamilton was both classy and remarkably beautiful.

“Mary!” I gave her a hug. “You look stunning. I wondered if you’d be here.”

She smiled, and tapped my hand with mock displeasure. “Oh yes, three-line whip from Jim. And speaking of whips, it’s unkind of you to tease poor Hansie like that.”

“Ah, he works for Hamilton’s?”

“Yes, he’s my nephew Tim’s partner.” Just a faint warning note there, I fancied. Everybody loves Mary, but I imagine that she could be a tigress defending her own.

“Umm. Sorry, I’m afraid your nephew and I didn’t get off on the right foot.”

“I hope you both get a chance to remedy that. Tim’s a sweet boy, and very bright. I think you’d enjoy each other’s company.”

“I thought you said he was partnered?”

“I did. I wasn’t suggesting that you have an affair, merely that I think you’d make good friends.”

“I’ll bear it in mind.” She gave me a considering look. “Really. We’ll do better next time, I’m sure.”

“Good. How’s business? I gather that cricket calendar you did sold like hot cakes. Every woman I know around here seems to have a copy.”

“I’m trying to get the rugby club to do one, too. I think I’d like to have Mr de Vries and his friend Mr Cartwright pose together.”

She smiled a little. “I see your connections to the local centres of gossip are still excellent. I’m sure they’d both be shocked. Pieter de Vries is a most private man.”

I had that same vague sense of getting a veiled warning. “Oh it’s not like everyone and his wife is discussing it. But yes, someone told me, and obviously you knew.”

“As you say, a few people know, or suspect. But I don’t think it would be good for either of their careers if everyone did.”

“Mary, what do you take me for?”

“A sensible girl, Fran. Oh look, there’s Helen Chadwick. I must go and say hello – will you excuse me?”

“Of course.” She patted me on the shoulder and left me to get on with taking pictures, which was, after all, what I was there for.

A little bit later I came upon the glorious redhead again, with his partner this time.

“Hello Hansie. Hello – Tim, isn’t it? I’ve just been chatting to your aunt.”

He blushes, too, I saw. But to be fair, he did have the grace to offer an apology.

“I’m sorry, Miss Milton. I’m afraid I was rather rude earlier.”

Something about the intonation made me think he had more to say, so I didn’t respond immediately. Then he flushed more, and I realised he thought I was ignoring his apology, which would have made me blush in return if I was the blushing sort.

“No, no, not at all,” I blurted hurriedly, into a silence that threatened to become alarming. “We got off on the wrong foot, didn’t we? I’m sorry too – I didn’t really mean to imply that it was really your fault that Mr de Vries and his young partner had departed in such haste, never mind your own partner.”

The moment the words were out of my mouth I wished I could take them back. Mary had just told me to be careful to whom I said that, and there I went blurting it out for the sake of something to say. But it was her own nephew, to whom I had gathered in the past she was very close. How was I to know that he didn’t know?

“His partner?” he said faintly. And if he looked mildly shellshocked, Hansie looked as if someone had hit him with a rock.

“Oh God, Fran, this is so your night for putting your foot in it,” I said. “Look, I’m sorry, Mary mentioned it to me and I didn’t realise you didn’t know. I’m not normally such a blabbermouth. “

“No, no, that’s all right,” said Tim absentmindedly.

“I’ll, um, leave you to it,” I said, beating a hasty retreat and cursing myself all the while. That was the last time I had a drink at one of these dos – I should have known better.

It hurt. I was surprised by how much it hurt. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so bad if I hadn’t had words with Him first.

That could have been me, that boy – Phil, was it? I was young, I was keen, I was good. He told me I could be great – if I was prepared to be his.

I knew his cane. I’d felt it often enough after training when he thought I wasn’t putting in the effort, and I’d learned to fear it. Some of the others got it too – not everyone. He was good at that, even then, reading people, knowing who needed the carrots and who needed the stick. Some people would break their hearts for his rare praise. Some would go the extra mile for the privilege of sharing his thoughts, his tactical knowledge. Some would do it just to avoid the lash of his tongue. But some of us needed our arses striped.

It wasn’t that rare. Few of us were so old that we’d forgotten our fathers’ belts and canes. That was just how it was there, then. Fathers ruled the household because that was what the Good Book and the Church said they should do. Fathers had Authority, and you crossed it at your peril. That was something I knew by the time I was five. And it was easy to cross my father’s authority. He was a big, stern man, with a big, stern God, and they both thought that Hansie was a boy who needed a firm hand.

So when Pieter de Vries told me the same thing I accepted it as natural. But when he said to me that I should share his life, his bed, too: ach, then I panicked.

I had those thoughts, and I knew I was damned for them. It was wrong, it was evil; much worse, it was unmanly. My father had beaten me many times for taking an interest in unmanly things, and I often wondered if he had sensed that weakness in me.

So when de Vries laid his hand on me that way, gently, as a man touches a woman, and I responded – no, I couldn’t cope with that at all. I knew it had to be another test, and I had failed it. I fled. Ja, I fled de Vries, I fled rugby, I fled my native land.

It was a long time, a long painful time, before I learned that it was not wrong to feel as I did. Longer still before I managed to feel any pride in myself, to believe that the feelings were good. That love was love, wherever you found it. And they say that early lessons stay best in the memory, and seeing de Vries here brought it all back. I had feared it would. So maybe they were right, my father and the others: I was weak. I had tried to avoid this meeting because I was afraid.

Just a few phrases of Afrikaans: Johannes, this is not a good place for you. You chose not to be what you could have been, gave up what could have been yours; you would be better to keep away.

None of it untrue, but it was hard to hear. Harder to hear that that boy had the things that might have been mine: a glittering career, the love – I suppose the love – of a man like Pieter de Vries. I love Tim. I love him as I probably could not have loved de Vries – certainly not then, maybe not now. But what is so bitter as a lost dream, especially when you see it flaunted by another, ja?

Here God, I needed a drink!

I lost track of Hansie after we rose from dinner and the dancing started. Mary asked me to dance with her, which I did without too much damage to her toes, and when I got back he’d left the table. That worried me a little, as did the amount of red he’d been sinking throughout the meal. He’d hardly eaten anything, so it wasn’t as if there was food in his stomach to soak it up, had volunteered no conversation and had replied to direct questions in terse monosyllables.

It was a bit like being with two men in the one skin: one charming, cosmopolitan, and immense fun to be with; one a brooding, unsympathetic Afrikaner monolith – a bit of a Boer, to be frank.

Unfortunately, we seemed to be getting the latter tonight. I started combing the venue for him, when the sound of raised voices from the bar alerted me to his probable location.

When I got there, I saw Hansie and Phil, both evidently well tanked up, flushed, and bristling at one another. Uncle Jim was shouldering his way through the crowd to get to them before things deteriorated irrevocably, and I followed in his wake.

“Listen, bigmouth, if you’re so hot. . .” Phil was saying furiously as I reached them.

“Now, now, lads, lets keep it friendly,” said Jim. I could tell from the strength of his accent that he was seething, though he didn’t give any sign of it. Still, when he put his hand on Hansie’s shoulder and squeezed warningly, Hansie winced.

“Ach, ja, Jim, of course. Why get stirred up about a stupid little boy who still gets his arse caned regularly?” said Hansie, contemptuously, turning away.

Oh shit. It had the inevitability of an avalanche: it was almost like watching it in slow motion. Phil went white, stepped forward, grabbed Hansie’s other shoulder to turn him back, and launched a hefty uppercut all in one smooth continuous motion.

My lover fell to the floor looking astonished. Jim grabbed Phil’s fist and squeezed a good deal harder than he had done to Hansie’s shoulder, to judge by Phil’s anguished reaction, and forced him aside.

“That’s enough!” he said. He didn’t shout, but everyone backed away a pace. You really didn’t want to argue with him when he was in that mood. I hadn’t seen this angry since the time he caught someone fiddling the books.

“Tim, get him out of here,” he hissed at me. “What in God’s name were you thinking of, letting him get like this? I’ll speak to you both in my office, tomorrow, at 8.”

“Yes sir. Sorry.” It came out automatically, without thinking. I helped Hansie up, still looking a bit dazed. His nose was streaming blood – his shirt was going to be ruined – and I gave him my hanky to hold against it.

“Pieter – is this the level of control you demand of your players?” Jim asked. I hadn’t even seen de Vries arrive.

“No James, it is not. I am deeply ashamed of this behaviour. It will be dealt with appropriately,” said the South African. Judging by the scared look on Phil’s face, that wasn’t going to be pleasant.

“Can you walk?” I asked Hansie. He nodded, still seemingly a bit dazed.

“Then lets get the hell out of here before you do any more damage to the firm’s reputation or your own.” As I said it I was hustling him out of the side door.

“What. Wait – I’m the victim here,” he slurred. “Let me go and get that. . .”

“NO!” I tugged on his arm hard – he’s quite a bit bigger than me, but he was too drunk to resist in any co-ordinated fashion – while with my backside I bumped the door open hard.

It was just bad luck that someone happened to be reaching to open it from the other side, and worse luck that that someone happened to be the photographer woman.

There was a solid thud, an oww, and Hansie and I fell through the open door, out into the night air and onto the flower beds by the car park on top of her. Somewhere in the process I heard cloth ripping.

Now she maintains it was the door that did the damage, but I think it might actually have been someone’s elbow in the melee that followed. Whatever the cause, she rose up like a one-eyed Venus from amongst waves of shrubbery, clutching at her face.

“Miss Milton! Oh God, are you all right?” I scrambled to my feet leaving Hansie on the ground. I was in such a state I didn’t realise for a moment my trousers were the things that had made the ripping noise and I was standing there in a DJ, bow tie, and blue cotton boxers.

Look, I’ve been around rugby clubs and rugby players most of my twenty-six years, and even I have never heard some of the expressions she used.

“I’m so, so sorry. Oh God, and you’ve got some of Hansie’s blood on your dress.”

“Are you always like this? A pair of walking disaster areas?” she enquired icily.

“I – we – look, I’m really terribly sorry. Please send me the cleaning bill for your dress.”

“Oh, that’s only the start of what you owe me,” she said grimly. “I’m going to be walking around with a black eye for weeks thanks to you, which is not going to impress my clients one little bit – how am I supposed to get around that?”

“I – er . . .”

“Eyepatch,” said Hansie seriously. “Very fetching. Most Betty Grable.”

There was a pause. “I think you mean Bette Davis,” she said.

Ja, her too.”

She looked at me, half naked from the waist down, then at him, still reclining among the plants, one arm around my leg. Then she smiled back, stepped away, lifted her camera, and took a picture.

I blinked from the flash. “Wait a minute.” The flash went again.

“Miss Milton!”

“Fran. And if you don’t want a print of that on Jim’s desk tomorrow, together with the bill for my dress and my complaint about the incident that resulted in my black eye, then you’d better get in touch.”

“In touch?” I asked stupidly.

“Look, you and your friend make a rather pretty couple. I need models. You can pay me with skin.”

“I – skin?” I was vaguely aware that this was not my most scintillating conversation – but I hadn’t stinted on the wine myself, either.

“Nude models. Oh, nothing tasteless. But – um – let the marks fade first. There are going to be marks after tonight, I imagine?” She could have been talking about the fight itself, but I knew she wasn’t.

I looked at Hansie, then thought of Uncle Jim’s fury. I knew all too well what was going to be waiting for me in Jim’s office tomorrow morning. And what I intended to do to Hansie in return. Then there was de Vries’s parting remark, and the look on Phil’s face. Oh yes, there were going to be marks all round, I had no doubt.

“Yes,” I sighed.

“Thought so,” she said smugly. “My card.”



Idris the Dragon

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