Coach and Four

Now I have seen Phil in trouble. I have seen him upset, distressed, nervous. I have seen him despairing. I have seen him enraged (and felt his fist when it was so). But this was something new. I had not seen this before.

We had gone round to the house on Friday night; we get together, all four of us, once or twice a month.  We will hire a DVD, and order a takeaway, and spend the evening together, sometimes at our house, sometimes at theirs. This one we had agreed would be at their house because there was to be a session for Phil during the day with a visiting coach. We arrived with the takeaway, and from the bottom of the path, we could hear the piano. Here God, we could hear it! They could probably hear it at the rugby club. I do not know what he was playing, but it was very fast, very loud, and very complicated. Piet opened the door to us, and motioned us towards the kitchen.

“Let us put everything in the oven for half an hour, Hansie. Phil is in a bad way tonight, and I am glad you are come, because I fear that I am part of the problem.”

“Why? What has happened?”

He gestured us to the kitchen table. “We had a visiting coach today, a man called Cavenagh. He is very experienced, and well thought of: I have never met him before, but I have known of him for several years, and I was pleased to have him come. But I confess, I do not understand his attitude. He spent the whole day – the whole day – in denigrating Phil. Phil could do nothing right. Nothing. When he spoke to the team, he invited from the beginning, that if the boys did not understand, they should ask. So a couple of times, Phil did ask, and Cavenagh snubbed him. It was a foolish question, or he had already covered that point and Phil should have been listening, or he should stop trying to appear clever as Cavenagh would get to that point presently. And Phil was, I think, rather surprised, but he apologised, and held his tongue. But it was only Phil: with the other boys, Cavenagh was all courtesy, all consideration. He would explain things three or four times until all was clear.”

He went to the fridge for wine, and poured glasses for us all, and went through to place Phil’s glass on the piano. I could see Phil’s profile – he did not even look up. Piet came back and took his own glass.

“Then they went out to the pitch and began to warm up, and Cavenagh was dismissive about Phil’s methods. Now you can imagine, Hansie, that with Phil so recently back from injury, I am extremely careful about his warm-up and his cool-down. And in any event, his methods are no different from those of the others. They are my methods, after all, not his own inventions. There are a few things he does which are the way he was taught by his previous coaches, but there is nothing wrong with them, or I would have changed them. And I opened my mouth to say so, and to ask Cavenagh what his quarrel was with Phil, and then I thought perhaps I should not. There is always now the question: when I wish to protect Phil, am I protecting Phil my player, or Phil my lover? Yes, we will admit it – in taking Phil as my lover, I did not behave in an utterly professional way, but I can try, as does he, to behave like a professional now. I thought: if this had been Rob, or Darren, or Mark, I would have let them defend themselves; I would not have interfered. Not yet. And so I did not.

“But the whole day went on so, Hansie. The whole day. If Phil spoke, he was in the wrong. If he did not speak, he was abused for not participating. Always on the worst interpretation: he thought too well of himself to condescend to join in. When they played, if he did well it was: well, no less should be expected of the Great Mr Cartwright. If he did not: you will not keep your place so, Mr Cartwright. And Phil said or did nothing. Nothing that could possibly be considered a fault. I was so proud of him, you cannot imagine. And at the point at which I thought: no, this is beyond anything, I must speak, I looked first at Phil, and he shook his head at me, and I saw that he wished that I should not, so I held my tongue.

“He could do nothing to please, for the whole day. He was told he was clumsy, he was slow, he was held up to ridicule, he could find no balance between being detached or being a know-all. I am wholly at a loss to know what was behind it, but I fear I must find out. And I am not sure of the best way to go about it, because of the need to protect Phil’s reputation. But that is not all: in the final phase, the summing up, Cavenagh worked round all the boys, made them all speak, made them all give an opinion on something he had done with them. I will admit, I feared that Phil would say something to show his resentment at the way he had been treated all day. Or perhaps that he would say something anodyne simply to avoid being picked on again. But he did not. He was thoughtful, and absolutely courteous, and he made two good, valid points, and he was snubbed again. The man told him to his face that he was arrogant. That he was unjustifiably vain about his talent. And I was going to speak this time, but Rob got in ahead of me. You know Rob, the captain? He is a good player, and he knows his rugby and he knows well enough that Phil surpasses him. He knows that he is captain rather than Phil because Phil so often is not here now, he is away with the national squad,  and the captain needs to be here all the time. I am getting off the point, am I not? Rob intervened. Told the man that he was mistaken, and that there was no vanity in Phil. And Phil said: Rob, leave it; Mr Cavenagh is entitled to his opinion. And Cavenagh sneered again, that Phil thought so much of himself that he did not understand the depths of his own lack of importance.

“And we came away at the end of the day. Not together: I wish we had. But I had administration to do, and usually when I do that, when we have a visitor, Phil will wait and we will come home together. But this time, he put his bags in the car, and he left word for me with Harry, that he would run home. So he did. He came across the park and was maybe five minutes behind me.

“He came in and I said: Phil, we must talk about this. And Phil would not. He did not say anything to which I could have objected. He asked me to excuse him, and he walked through the kitchen and opened the door and went out to the yard. We have a box out there, for all the things which are to go to the recycling centre. The newspapers and the empty tins, and glass. And Phil began to lift the glass things out of the box, and one after another, he smashed them on the ground. He said nothing and his expression never changed, but the bottle would smash and then the jar, and when he had finished, he came back inside, and he went upstairs to the shower. When he came down, he went to his piano and began to play. He has been there for an hour and a half. I think he has not repeated himself. Even that is not usual for him, Tim. He will play sometimes, all evening if he is a little out of sorts, but not like this. Usually, he plays a piece he likes, and then he will play the blues for me, and then something for himself again, but tonight it has been all that sort of modern classical music which sounds like a fight. The neighbours will complain shortly, I think.”

Tim cocked his head to one side. “Sounds as if he might be running down, then, because this is ‘Oh God Our Help’ and that last was ‘Immortal, Invisible’, both played in the style of the ‘Dead March’ from ‘Saul’. Shall we see if he’ll talk?”

He was leaning over the silent piano when we went in, and he did not look up until I put my hand on his shoulder, and Tim raised his eyebrows at him.

“I hear you’ve had the day from hell. This man Cavenagh, is he a big man with black hair, and one white wing on his temple?”

Phil nodded. “I believe,” he said hoarsely, “he got badly kicked in a match and the hair grew in white when the scar formed.”

“I’ve met him. He came to some do of Jim’s once. And you’ve got no idea of what his problem was?”

“None at all. I’d never met the man: of course I knew who he was, he was quite well known as a player, but he arrived with a goalpost stuck up his arse and that was that. Hell, I’ve got to go outside and pick up all that broken glass before next door’s cat walks on it. . .”

“That is all right, koekie, I have done that already. I did it while you were in the shower.”

Phil flinched. “Sorry. I’m sorry, Piet, I shouldn’t have walked away from it. I shouldn’t have done it at all. Do you. . . um. . .”

“No, I do not. It was a reasonable reaction to the day I saw you had, and it has done no harm. Relax, my hart. You have had a bad and distressing day, but it is over, and your friends are here, and if tonight you wish to have too much to eat and too much to drink, I as your coach will look the other way, and I as your lover will aid and abet you. I was very proud of you, Phil. You kept your temper and you behaved better than he did throughout. I cannot fault your self-control.”

He made a face, although I could see that he was beginning to relax. “But what on earth was it about? That’s what I can’t get. And. . .” His mouth twisted. There was something which still distressed him. “And if people still think I’m vain about my rugby, Piet, then you’ve got to do something about it. You’ve got to pull me up when I’m showing off.”

“Phil, you are not vain. Not about your rugby. About your looks, well. . . No! Do not hit me! I am teasing you only. When I met you first, your arrogance about your talent was large enough, certainly, but you have grown up since then, and I have shown you how much you did not know. Cavenagh was trying to strike at you, but you need not allow him to make you unhappy.”

He wasn’t convinced, I could see, and his eyes slid round towards Tim who was sitting frowning. Tim caught it.

“What? I agree with Piet. The man was obviously just trying to ring your bell. Nobody says you’re vain about your rugby.”

I almost didn’t catch the response. “You did.”

“That was years ago! And it was a quarrel, for God’s sake! I would have said anything that I thought might have given you a bad night. I’m sorry, O.K.? I don’t think so now. Piet’s right: you’ve grown up. Apart from anything else, I can’t believe that he hasn’t taught you enough to make a reasoned assessment of your own skills – and I would have expected him to have taught you how to make a proper evaluation of somebody else’s opinion. There’s something else going on here, Phil. Something we haven’t picked up. Will you let me ask Jim?”

“Jim? Why him?”

“Because I met Cavenagh at some do of Jim’s, I told you. And there’s an itch at the back of my mind that I’ve heard or read something about him lately which I ought to remember. I think we ought to find out what was bugging the man, and I don’t think that either you or Piet should go poking into it, because the thing we’re all not saying out loud is that he might have found out about you and be a homophobe. Jim’s got all the contacts, and he likes you both. If I tell him about it, he’ll know where to put a discreet enquiry or two to do the most good, and he’s a sneaky bugger, so he’ll be able to do it without anybody knowing who wants to know. He’d have made a smashing spy, my uncle.”

Phil looked round. “What do you think, Piet?”

“I think that is a good idea, Tim. But you will explain it all to James, and you will make it plain that if he does not wish to do it. . .”

“Come on, Piet, can you imagine anyone ever making Jim do something he didn’t want to do? He’ll turn me down if he minds me asking.”

“You will say so, nonetheless, Tim.”

“Yes, Piet. I’ll ring him now.”

So while he did that, Phil described to me what had happened in the day. His tale agreed with Piet’s except that there was such an edge of hurt in his voice. Our Phil is not accustomed to not being liked for no reason, and of course he sees that whatever reflects badly on him reflects badly on Piet also. He was trying still to disguise it, even from us his friends, but he was very unhappy.

“Ach, koekie, leave it alone now. James may find out something for us, and if he does not, well, perhaps Cavenagh simply did not like your haircut. One does sometimes dislike someone for no good reason. It was discourteous of him to treat you so rudely, but he is not worth worrying about. He did a good training session, and I could see that you were learning from him, however unpleasant it was for you, so you have gained more than you lost.”

“I know, but. . . I don’t care for my own sake; well, I do but I’ll get over it.  He isn’t likely to be back. But if he really thinks I’m over-rated, not that good. . .”

“So why do you care for his opinion when already we have said that his opinion is not worth having?”

Ja, well, every man has his blind spot, hey? Piet knows that Phil loves him, but he still finds it surprising. He loves Phil to distraction, but he has trouble even now understanding that his love is returned and multiplied. I am not good with such emotional things, we all know that, but even I can see this. Phil shook his head and would say no more, but Piet looked so concerned for him that I thought I must – what does Mary call it? – put in my fourpenceworth.

“It is not like you to miss the point so, Piet. Phil sees that everything he does reflects on you, and that if he is viewed professionally and judged wanting, so are you. He wants that there should be glory for the Viper as well as for himself. You have not seen that he wants to shine, not only for his own sake, but for yours also? That he would keep his temper in the face of such provocation from Cavenagh, so that nobody could say either that the Viper’s vice-captain has no manners, or that the Viper’s lover is a brat?”

Truly, he had not seen it. He turned to Phil with such an expression – I cannot describe it, and then he held out his arms and Phil went to him, and Tim and I looked at each other, and we went to the other end of the room and took an interest in the day’s newspaper. Phil had his head on Piet’s shoulder, and Piet was whispering to him, such endearments and all in Afrikaans. I do not know how many of them Phil understood, but they made me blush although I tried not to listen, and Tim understands more that he did a year ago and he had to blow his nose. He really is dreadfully sentimental.

Frankly, if we could have done it, I would have taken Tim away, but the combination of Piet and Phil blocked the doorway quite comprehensively, and all we could do was sit it out. So we did until my stomach announced most audibly that I was hungry, and Phil laughed, and broke away from Piet, and said to me, “Come on, Hansie, I’ve got permission to overeat tonight, so what did you bring?”

So all that emotion dissolved in laughter and we went through to the kitchen, and then later back to the sitting room to watch the DVD we had chosen. Phil went to his usual place at Piet’s feet, and I noticed that Piet had a hand in his hair, and when I sat down beside Piet, Tim came to sit on the floor next to Phil. Presently I noticed that Phil was leaning a little sideways, and his arm was touching Tim’s, and Tim shifted slightly until their fingers met, and I moved my legs until my knee was against the back of Phil’s shoulder, and he could feel that we were all there. Cavenagh was largely forgotten – well, no, not forgotten, but the subject was dropped – until Tim’s mobile rang. It was Jim, and Tim listened to what he had to say, and the rest of us tried to lean over and eavesdrop without any success, but Tim was nodding and smiling so that we knew that Jim had discovered something for us. He thanked Jim, and broke the call, and Phil said, “Well, what?”

“The thing I couldn’t remember was Spider Backhurst.”

Phil stared. “What about him?”

“What’s his proper name?”

“I have no idea. S C Backhurst. Piet, do you know?”

He shook his head. “What of him, Tim?”

“His name is Sebastian, apparently, and I don’t recommend that you use it, Phil, because he hates it. He was born in Bristol, at the hard end, and Jim says that Sebastian is not a name that goes down well in the sort of school that he went to, where it rapidly became known that calling him either Sebastian, or worse still Sebby, collected you a thick lip. Even his mother calls him Spider. But that’s not the interesting bit. He’s Sebastian Cavenagh Backhurst. Cavenagh was his grandmother’s maiden name.”

“Ah,” said Piet.

“Ah indeed. Jim couldn’t track down precisely how close the relationship is, but they are cousins in some degree. And Cavenagh is very proud of his link to the national squad, possibly because he never made it himself. So he has been watching with some interest this season’s to-ing and fro-ing between the pair of you, particularly because Spider is older than you, and the feeling seems to be that if you get the place, Spider’s international career is largely over. He didn’t get the place before because Hannay had it, and then he did get it but you came barrelling up threatening to take it from him. Jim said he didn’t like to push too far for opinions in that direction in case people started to ask why he wanted to know, but his suggestion was that a Phil who was perhaps a little undermined in his confidence might have a bad couple of matches for his own team and a bad couple of training sessions with the big boys, and we all know that picking the national squad is dreadfully prone to ‘what have you done for me lately?’”

“Yes,” said Piet, thoughtfully. “Yes, that would sound likely. I think perhaps a word with Mr Cavenagh just to let him know that we know. . .”

“No.” That was Phil. We all turned to him, in some surprise.

“No?” I asked, but he was looking at Piet.

“I don’t want you to.”

“But koekie, I think. . .”

“Please. I don’t want you to.”

“So tell me why.”

“Because I don’t believe Spider will have known about it. He’s a nice guy and I like him well enough. I would take his place away from him and not regret it, but I like him. He isn’t precisely an intellectual (don’t make faces, Tim! All right, I mean he’s dimmer even than me, how’s that?) and he can’t keep a secret for anything. If he knew that his cousin was going to have a go at me, he wouldn’t have been able to keep quiet about it. He can’t even sell a decent dummy. And he’s good-natured too, and I don’t think he would agree to anything like that on purpose, and he would be mortified if he thought somebody had done some thing nasty to me on his account. And. . .” we could see him working it out as he spoke “we know, and we can disregard it. As it is, Cavenagh’s likely to have to sit tight and wait to see what I’ll do, and there isn’t much of the season left, so by the time he knows it hasn’t worked, it’ll be too late. If we make a fuss there will be a nasty scene, the sort of thing that ends up in the papers and gives us all a bad name. You know, that I’ll end up looking like a wuss who can’t take criticism, and Spider like a bad sport who can’t keep his place without somebody trying to swing it for him, and Cavenagh himself unprofessional.”

Koekie, what he did was unprofessional.”

“I know, but I don’t see how we can hang it on him without damage to Spider and to me, and I don’t want to do that. I don’t want anybody asking why you didn’t blast him in the first place, either.”

Piet considered this carefully. “Well, you may be right. I am not absolutely convinced, but you make a good argument. And since you dealt so well with a difficult situation today, I am inclined to defer to your desire. We will do nothing about it, but you will be very careful not to have bad matches or bad training sessions, and Mr Cavenagh will fall off my list of coaches I ask to help me. And we will talk no more of something so unpleasant, and instead we will have another glass of wine and hear what Hansie and Tim have been doing since we saw them last.”

We did not stay late with them. Piet and Phil needed some time to themselves, and Tim and I called our taxi and went home early. But we both hugged Phil before we left.

I was better after the weekend. Hell, I was better after the evening. After my friends did the ‘being-there-for-you’ stuff. And after what Piet said and did, and you don’t need to know about that. You may want to but you don’t need to. If I thought about Cavenagh I got a bit wobbly but it was the sort of wobbly you get after you’ve had a bad fright, and I thought it would pass. Hansie's right, and it sounds pathetic and wimpy, but I’m not used to people not liking me and Cavenagh had rather put me off my stride.

Anyway, we went back to the normal run of things in the week, and we didn’t tell the rest of the team about what had been behind Cavenagh’s behaviour. We just let it go that he didn’t like me and that was all. But, well, the effort of keeping my temper and maintaining my self-control had cost me something, and I was inclined to be a bit flaky. A bit laddish. Too much mature behaviour, and I could feel an attack of immaturity coming on.

It came on me during training. We had been practising our set pieces. The thing about set pieces is that you all have to do the same one, and at the same time, so standard practice is that you have a prompt. They do the same sort of thing in American football, and probably in lots of other sports too. The captain, or whoever is running the play, gives a coded prompt and everybody rushes about in all directions to end up where they ought to be. Most teams will have two or three set pieces: we have eight. Piet’s method this season was that every set piece had more than one possible prompt. He said, with some justification, that if we always used ‘words beginning with M’ for a break to the left, it would get known – so each piece has three possible prompts, and two have four.

And the trouble began when Piet wasn’t there. Piet had gone off to do something with the second team, and Rob and I were left with instructions to run the firsts ragged over these set pieces, and Rob had a brainstorm. He got us into position, and then he decided on the prompt he wanted, and apparently what happened was that he meant to shout ‘cancer!’, only when he went for a serious illness beginning with C, his brain threw out ‘cirrhosis!’ Wreaked havoc. Half of us went one way and half of us went the other. Unfortunately, I got what had happened, and nobody else did: there was a milling to and fro and Rob shouted at everybody, and we reformed and he nodded at me to give them the off, and I gave them P for pheromone.

Rob got it that time, and he had a terrific fit of the giggles, and we both lost it. Dreadfully unprofessional, and if Piet had been there it would have stopped at that. But it was nearly the end of the season and I had been upset; I don’t know what Rob’s excuse was. We did it over and over – some of the pieces worked and some didn’t. C for chocolate. G for germane. P for Ptolemy. P for phthalate. E for Europe. E for Einstein. D for Dvorak. J for jojoba. L for Llandudno. X for xylophone. Y for ytterbium. P for psychosis. W for writer. A for aegis. A for aisle. O for Oedipus. P for pneumonia. G for gnome. H for honour. K for knickers.

Oh God, very silly and childish, and I had just given them M for mnemonic when I realised that Piet had come back and was watching. We all realised it, and we picked ourselves up and sorted ourselves out, and he waited until everybody was on their feet and said placidly, “Scrum, please, except Rob and Phil. Rob, if I could trouble you to circle the pitch at the double, clockwise. Phil, anti-clockwise. I will tell you when to stop. Now, gentlemen. . .” and Rob and I looked at each other and made faces of mock terror and set off as we had been told. . .

God knows how many circuits we made but I was heaving for breath when he blew the whistle and called us all back in, and Rob was no better. We staggered into the dressing room, and Piet followed us with his clipboard, and said, “Now, I have a few points for you. Are my captain and vice-captain ready to sit down and behave, or do I need to send them to stand facing the wall on either side of the door, like obstreperous toddlers?” And Rob grinned, rather shame-faced, and assured him that we would be good, and he gave us a hard stare and began to go through his notes, and I thought: he never actually has sent me to stand in the corner, but I’m not absolutely convinced that he wouldn’t. . .

He didn’t say anything about it on the way home, not anything at all, but the door was barely shut behind us when he had me by the scruff of the neck and ran me into the study. I think that’s the only time when he hasn’t asked me if I had any defence for what I had done, probably because it was obvious to the meanest intelligence that I couldn’t possibly have. That was plain badness, and we both knew it. So I didn’t argue, and I didn’t struggle, although I did squirm a bit. I couldn’t help it. He has dreadfully hard hands, my Piet, and he is unbelievably strong, and that hurt. My backside was throbbing with my pulse when he let me up, and I slid backwards off his lap and clamped both hands over the hot flesh, and my breath came in little whimpers. Piet pulled me up and turned me and made room, so that I could curl on my side on the sofa – really I’m too big to go on his lap although we both like it, but we manage half-and-half so that I can lean on his legs and rest my head against his chest. He slid one hand to join mine on my smarting rear, and I winced and jumped.

“Do you feel better now?”

I lifted my head in some surprise. “Better? Better than what?”

“Better than you have done for the past few days.”

I was strongly tempted to give him a smart reply – no I bloody didn’t feel better. He hadn’t spanked me that hard in some considerable time, and while I was prepared to admit that I had asked for a spanking, I had been surprised by the severity of the one I had got. It seemed excessive for something which was only a silly joke. But I didn’t think that a snotty remark was going to be a good idea – a couple of times in the early stages of our relationship I let my mouth run after a spanking, and I realised fairly fast that it wasn’t a good idea. I’m supposed to be learning something when he spanks me, but this time I wasn’t very sure quite what. I kept my mouth shut and waited.

“I think, perhaps, koekie, I should have done this more like the fictional Tops on the websites. I should have asked you before I started: what is this spanking for?”

“For messing about in training. I’m not arguing about it.”

He kissed me, but when I would have leaned closer and made something of it, he broke away again. “Not entirely. Yes, that was where we started, but it was more for not knowing when to stop. I heard about it all from the others when you and Rob were running for me. Once or twice was funny, Phil. It is the end of the season and I have enough sense to slacken the rule. But you took it too far.”

“Yes. All right. I know. I’m sorry.”

He kissed me again. “It is simply that you are not a junior player any more, my hart. You are my vice-captain this season, remember? And I do not doubt that if you had not encouraged him, Rob would have remembered much sooner that he was captain.” He reached down and began to rearrange my clothes for me, and I rolled obligingly to allow everything to be settled in its proper place. “That was not wise. Apart from the loss of training time, you have undermined Rob’s authority. And your own. That was not just behaving like ‘one of the boys’; that was wilfully wasting a good half hour. What are you going to do next time if one of the others begins to waste time for a joke, and will not stop?”

I thought about it. Actually thought about it, rather than just waiting for him to stop talking so that I could say ‘sorry’ and have it over. “I. . . didn’t think of it like that. I’ll have to ring Rob tomorrow and apologise. You shouldn’t have had to send your captain to run round the pitch like a twelve-year-old. And you’re right, he wouldn’t have kept it up if I hadn’t encouraged him.”

“No. I took him to one side while you were changing, and I scorched his ears too, so he has not got off free either. He should have stopped you; I do not say that you were the only one to blame. I know what is behind this, beminde. The other day, you behaved in a most mature and intelligent way, and I have been half expecting you to break out into mischief since, purely as a reaction. I could wish that you had done it when there was only me to see.”

My head went down. It was a very mild reproach, but I had failed him again, failed him over something which I could perfectly well have seen if only I had bothered to look. I had to bite my lip hard not to snivel on his chest. He knew that: he always bloody knows.

“Do not distress yourself, koekie. We are done now. An emotional reaction was to be expected and I think you will feel better now that it has happened to you. We will be back to normal. I think your team mates will not try anything, because they saw that both you and Rob submitted without argument to my discipline when I sent you to run. But if you are to go all the way in your career, you must begin to give thought to how your actions affect your team mates.”

I nodded against his chest, but I didn’t lift my head. I still felt bad. Piet was right, he had misjudged this. We should have gone through all his reasoning before I went across his knee – then perhaps I would have felt that I had paid for what I had done. I had thought it was a minor mischief, but it wasn’t. I sat for another minute thinking, and then I rose deliberately off his lap and went to his desk. The canes were inside the drawer. I picked the black one out. (I don’t think I could ever choose the yellow one, no matter how guilty I felt.) Then I held it out to him.

“Unprofessional behaviour warrants more than a spanking. Undermining the captain is serious.”

He saw how I felt. I could see him change his mind – the extent of punishment is his decision, not mine, but he could tell that I was still upset.

“Come here.”

That’s form only: I was close enough already. One step denotes consent.

“Touch your toes.”

I stripped down my trousers, easily done with an elastic waistband, and bent. I’d rather go over something for balance, but I’m an athlete, for pity’s sake, I could do this.

He only gave me two, but he made them both count, low and sharp and stinging. I yelped, both times. Then he threw the cane back into the drawer and held out his arms to me.

“Enough, koekie. We are done. This time we really are done. It is forgotten. And Phil?”

He always knows what I need, and I always get it, although sometimes what I need isn’t what I want. But this time it was.

“I am still impressed that you kept your temper with Cavenagh. I do not think any less of that because you behaved badly today. Today there was nobody but your friends to see. When it mattered, when there was somebody else to judge, you did the right thing.”

I hadn’t realised how much I was afraid of having spoiled that until he told me I hadn’t.

It was that coincidence thing again: you know, that you encounter perhaps a new word, and have to look it up, and then meet it again three times within a week. Having come across Cavenagh, suddenly it seemed that we could not avoid him. He was interviewed in the paper and did not refer at all to Phil, implying that Backhurst was the only possible choice for standoff. He turned up on the radio, being interviewed after a match, and said something about the swing towards using younger players over experienced ones having gone too far.

Jim warned us before we came into actual contact. It was another of his fundraising things, and again it was to be at the rugby club. I think Phil explained that once – good accommodation, easy to get a late licence. And Jim asked for Piet and Phil to go. I will say, though, that once he saw that Cavenagh was on the guest list, he rang Phil and told him that he would not be offended if Phil discovered another engagement.

Bur Phil did not. I do not know if he and Piet talked about it, but they both turned out, and so did Tim and I. Oh, and Fran and her policeman too. Fran was working, and so, I suppose, was Phil: for some phenomenal sum of money, you could have your photograph taken with the famous Phil Cartwright. There was a more or less constant queue of women wanting that, and we watched for a couple of minutes, and then Tim laughed, and said, “He’s doing Piet’s trick of giving his whole attention to the person with him.” And it was so, and some of the younger girls were all but incapable when they came away. Piet, meanwhile, was sitting drinking a glass of wine with Nick, and talking very seriously. I saw at one point Piet look away towards Phil, and Nick put down his glass and run a finger around his throat, the way we all do when our collars are too tight, and I thought, ja, you see it too, he is the Alpha Top. Even to a straight man, he is the Alpha Top. That is interesting, ja nee?

Anyway, we all made the polite to the guests for whatever good cause it was that Jim was supporting, and on my own account, I met someone I knew slightly, who asked me, ‘Well, Hansie, and what are you doing here?’, and I caught myself about to say, ‘I have turned out to please my uncle Jim,’ and had to go and have another drink because I was shocked to discover that I thought of him as such. That I had been thinking of him as such for six months. And it was shortly after that, that someone introduced me to Cavenagh, and I stood and spoke with him for five minutes, and found him to be pleasant and amusing. That was disconcerting too, hey? I was quite prepared to dislike him, for Phil’s sake, but if I had met him cold, I would have thought him perfectly agreeable. He was on my table at dinner, and so was Phil, and I could see at once that all was still not well. He was dismissive when Phil spoke. Not, oddly, about his rugby, although if Phil said anything about that, Cavenagh would make some comment of the ‘well, you are still very inexperienced’ type, implying that Phil’s opinion was callow, and a couple of times that he was showing off. But Phil managed that very well. He agreed, smiling, that he was not particularly expert – and then he added, ‘But my opinions have been widely influenced by my coach, Pieter de Vries. I’m very lucky to have fallen in with somebody with such a degree of international experience.” And he turned the conversation neatly to the Viper’s achievements – nobody could claim that he was showing off about those. No, Cavenagh was having little digs at Phil’s social skills. Any joke he made to anybody would get a nearly-teasing response that he was impertinent rather than amusing, that sort of thing. I think that if we had not known what was behind it, Phil might very well have risen to him. As it was, I noticed (and only because I was watching) that Phil permitted his glass to be filled much less than usual, and I do not believe that he drank much of what disappeared from it. He excused himself twice to go to other tables and speak to acquaintances, and both times he took with him a full glass and brought back an empty one, and I think that both times the contents went into a plant pot.

It is common enough practice at these events that people move from table to table after they have eaten, and I saw that the Viper was keeping an eye on Phil, and that at the first opportunity he came to us, as did Tim. Fran was introducing Nick to Mary on the other side of the room, and Jim came to us with an offer of another bottle of wine. Cavenagh was keen, and Jim tossed the wine list towards me. “Here, Hansie, find us something worth drinking from this. A good red. You’re the expert.”

Ja, fersure, I like that. I like to know that Jim thinks well of me, even for something as simple as my ability to choose a good bottle of wine. I take a childish pleasure in pleasing him. I devoted my entire attention to that wine list, and so it was that I missed whatever Cavenagh said or did to Phil. But I heard the scrape of the two chairs going back, and I looked up in time to see Phil spring to his feet, and lean close into Cavenagh’s face, and Cavenagh flinch backwards and throw up a protective hand. I saw too that Phil’s fist was clenched – we all saw that, and he lifted it, and very slowly unfolded his fingers under Cavenagh’s gaze. Then he leaned closer still, and Cavenagh leaned back even more, and Phil carefully picked something off Cavenagh’s shirt front, and gave it to him, and said, softly, but very clearly, “Your tie pin has come undone. You’re going to lose it.” And he sat down again.

There was a dead silence right across the room, for two big men leaping to their feet draws attention in any gathering, and into that silence fell, very clearly, Tim’s voice. Not at all his normal tone, but that dreadful, supercilious drawl which he uses only when he wishes to be uncompromisingly rude. Unmistakeably rude. He used it to me once and I spanked him very hard for it. It is that voice with the implied assumption of superiority which gets the Englishman hated across the world, you know?

“You needn’t be afraid, Mr Cavenagh. There is no danger of Phil striking you. None at all. Everybody here knows Phil Cartwright to be too big a man to do that.” And from the prickle on my skin, I would say that every single person in the room was looking at Phil when Tim added, contemptuously, “He’s much bigger than you, certainly.”

It was an act of sheer brilliance. Cavenagh did not know who Tim was, nor the connection between Phil and him, and it was absolutely plain to all that Phil had not put him up to it. It could be seen that Phil had done nothing he should not, for by no stretch of the imagination could Phil be blamed for another man being rude. Indeed, Tim could – and had he been asked, no doubt would – claim blandly that he stated only the fact that Phil was both taller and broader than Cavenagh. But we all knew that was not what he meant.

There was another moment’s silence, and then the room erupted in a buzz of fascinated chatter, and I saw Fran emerge from the crowd and take Phil’s arm, and Nick follow her and hold out his hand as if he and Phil had just been introduced, although I know they had spoken earlier. And Cavenagh walked away, very stiffly, catching nobody’s eye, and Jim leaned over and said to me, “Choose again, Hansie. I think it isn’t red we want after all. I think perhaps it’s champagne.”

It must have been a good hour after that that there were only six of us left, and Nick was refusing more to drink and suggesting to Fran that they should go home. And then we were four, and I said, “Really, Tim, you were dreadfully rude to that man. We cannot have such a display of ill manners. I think I should take you home and spank you for it.”

Tim cocked his eyebrow at me brattishly, and Phil put in sharply, “You’ll do nothing of the sort, Hansie.”

I grinned at him. “You tell me that I am not to spank my own partner?”

“You’ll do it over my dead body. If anybody’s going to spank Tim, I am. That was my quarrel, and Tim is certainly due a spanking, but Piet always says I should pay my own debts, so I want to do it. If Tim would like that. We could take the rest of the champagne with us.”

I tipped the bottle to one side. “No, I think it is empty. I thought there was another glass in that one.”

“There was,” said Tim cheerfully. “I drank it.”

“Hah. Then I shall spank you for that. That was my glass, I think. What do you say, Piet, shall we get another bottle, since Tim has finished this one?”

“I shall buy one, and we shall go home, and Phil will spank Tim for rudeness, and you will spank him for drinking your wine, and I will spank him because I am Alpha Top.”

“Oh, goody,” said Tim. “I’ll call a cab.”

Idris the Dragon

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