Cooking with Gas

I got some time off after the World Cup, which was probably just as well. I mean, just as well for me, not just physically, and you had better believe I needed it for that, but just as well for me to have some time to think, some time when I didn’t have people on my case. There was a day when I went into the club and showed off what I was trying not to think of as my Loser’s medal; there was a day of sort of debriefing from the squad; there were a couple of days when I had to touch base with all my various sponsors and have them tell me how pleased (or otherwise) they were with what I had done for their profiles.

There was a day at the Abbots Storley Autumn Craft Fair.

And then Piet was at work and I wasn’t, I was at home with a huge heap of paperwork, and my thoughts, and I won’t say I liked them much. So I was sorted, I supposed, with Tim; that didn’t help me much with my own life. But well, being away so much, being away, specifically, from Piet, had made me reassess what was important, made me realise that I did have the big thing I wanted in my life, which was Piet. So I couldn’t shout about it – that still hurt. That hurts even now. I really want to be able to say, in public, ‘he’s with me’. When it comes down to it, though, my choice is silence and my job, or announcements and no job. But the important thing is that I have him, he’s mine, so it was balancing everything else up, and yes, understanding what Tim had said about other people maybe being jealous of what I’d got, because I’ve got a lot.

Oh, I went round and round it, and the more I tried not to think about it, the less I managed, and then. . .

Then there were the headlines. Piet had kept all the sports pages from the World Cup for me in case there was anything I might find useful, and what I found came a day or so after. There was one big article about this new Youth Rugby position. Piet and I had talked about it; I’d wanted him to try for it when they asked him first, I think he would be really good at it. But we talked through how it might work – and what it came down to was that it wouldn’t, not if he was living with me. Somebody, sooner or later, would notice, and then we would go round all the ‘every gay man lusts after little boys’ arguments again, and the very fact that I’m so much younger than him would count against the fact that he has a committed partner. I couldn’t have the job I loved and marriage? Piet, more fundamentally, couldn’t have a job he would have loved and me, married or unmarried.

And then. . . well, there were a lot of high-powered rugby jobs in a lot of countries changing hands after the World Cup, and some talk about whether there would be big changes in the South African dressing room, and Piet’s name was mentioned by a couple of journalists in connection with that too. And again, that would have meant leaving England and either leaving me, or taking me and me losing my job. . . and he just said, ‘my circumstances are not such that I would wish to be considered.’ I might have felt guilty about that, about holding him back (although he said more than once that the degree of politics involved made the job a great deal less attractive than it would otherwise have been), but he made it plain to me in a very. . . intimate. . . way, that he wanted to be with me, and that it was his choice, and not for me to worry about whether he had made the wrong decision.

It just, maybe, inclined me to get things into a better perspective. No, I couldn’t have everything I wanted; nor could he. Which of us can? But I could waste my time fretting over it, or I could get a grip and move on. Deal with the world the way it was. Deal with. . .

. . .all the mail which had come in for me while I’d been campaigning in France and which I’d shoved to one side to deal with when I got home. Most of it was junk mail or one step up from junk; a couple of official-ish things; one letter was from a TV company. I couldn’t put off dealing with that one any longer.

‘. . .to be filmed at the end of November and shown as part of our Christmas scheduling. . .’

And in terms of ideas of what I was going to cook? I looked blankly at my recipe books and then. . . can’t cook in a messy kitchen and mine didn’t look the way it ought. I cleaned all the surfaces. Then I emptied a cupboard and sorted the contents. Then I cleaned the fridge.

Mrs Woollard came in while I was cleaning the oven.

“I’d have done that if you’d said.”

Caught me out. It’s a running joke between us that I have no problem with her tidying up my underwear drawer (no, she doesn’t really, although occasionally she’ll do a morning’s ironing for us and hang up my shirts) but she’s not to touch my kitchen.

“Mind you, not sure you need to do it, I don’t think Mr de Vries has used it while you’ve been away. Nor the one next door either.”

Yes, she knows. Nick got her for us; her husband is a sergeant and one of her sons died of AIDS. She’d been telling me while we had coffee mid-morning that she had been to the civil partnership ceremony when his partner remarried. . . whatever the names for that are. She said she wished him happy and that his new partner was sweet to her, but it must have been hard. That was another thing which made me feel a bit guilty over the way I’d reacted to not being able to get married myself. I was definitely beginning to think that maybe I should be a bit more grateful for what I could have and a bit less demanding about what I couldn’t.

I ran a damp cloth over the burners. “I’m not really cleaning because it needs it, Mrs W, I’m putting off what I should be doing. I’ve been picked to do another of the cookery programmes and I can’t for the life of me think what to make.”

“Ah. Well, if you want more recipe books, you’re welcome to look at anything I’ve got, and the WI has a sort of library in a box, nobody would mind if you wanted to borrow from it.”

“I might take you up on that,” I said balefully. “I can’t even think of a theme. I was just sort of. . .”

“Free associating?” she asked.

Exactly. Trouble was, I felt as if I never wanted to cook again. No point in wishing that the public had voted on the website to see the opera singer or the impressionist though; they hadn’t. They’d voted for Lady Brockshill and me. A week later, I’d gone back to work, I was no further forward, and Sharon from the programme was beginning to nag, gently but undeniably, to have my ingredient list.

And the guys at work picked it up. I suppose it was hard to miss: my kit bag was half full of dirty socks and half full of old food magazines.

“What’s on the menu, Filthy?” That was Ryan. I scowled at him.

“Reckon he should have to clear it with us first, you know,” put in Tommy. “My wife’s making that lamb thing every second Sunday now, and Clive and Dave both said their girlfriends had cooked it. I don’t think he should be allowed to cook anything on TV unless we’ve approved it, because we’ll all have to eat it for ever after.”

“I don’t know what to bloody make,” I snarled. “I just know I wish I’d never agreed to do the damn show in the first place!”

“Ah,” said T-Bone, sympathetically (sympathetic? T-Bone?), “il a le trac.”


Le trac. Ahhhhh. . . I cannot think of the English. The feeling you get before a match when you convince yourself you cannot play?”

“Stage fright? I don’t think so. I just. . . oh, I can’t be arsed with it. It’s a stupid thing to do anyway, makes me look. . .” Makes Tim think I’m playing at being a celebrity. “It was a mistake to agree to doing it.”

“But why? You are a very good cook.” He paused, considered. “Well, for an Englishman.”

Dave caught him round the neck and punched him in the ribs a couple of times, to raucous applause and laughter. I didn’t join in.

“I’m going to make a fool of myself. I don’t know what I was thinking of to agree to do it. I can’t do this sort of thing! I can’t get up any enthusiasm for it anyway, it’s not as if it matters. I’ve just got to come up with something, to get through the damn event and then I can forget all about it, and please God, never do anything like it again.”

Now there really were some glances being exchanged around the dressing room. The guys do give me grief about poncing about in a kitchen, but not to the point of making me think they’re serious. They generally shut up, too, when there’s any prospect of a free feed.

“It’s not like you to be so down about it. Has somebody been giving you a hard time?” That was Rob.

“Not. . . exactly,” I muttered.

“Who? One of the squad?”

“No, one of my. . . somebody I know. He obviously thought it was a bit precious. You know, a bit ridiculous, prancing around pretending I’m doing something so clever. He thinks it’s not something for a rugby player to do, I suppose.”

“What, thinks you’re a poof?” asked Mark derisively.

“Well, fair enough, he is a poof,” pointed out Dave.

“Yeah, but nobody gets to call him one but us.” This in a tone of great indignation. “And he was the best cook on the series by far. . .” He ground rather uneasily to a halt.

“You’re not telling me you watched it?” I asked, startled halfway between amusement and affection. Mark? Mark watching a cookery programme? And, from what he’d said, not just watching the episode with me in it, either.

“I watched you making eyes at that blonde bird, disgraceful it was,” he recovered. “False pretences. But I thought you did well. Made us all look good, unlike that pillock on the music show.”

Another surprise. Mark had been watching ‘StarMaker’? I’d seen it twice, before the sight of people of the same degree of celebrity as me, pretending they could sing or dance, made my skin creep. I just died of embarrassment for some of them. The rugby player in question was, thank God, not one of my friends, so I could agree with a clear conscience that he was cringe-makingly awful. “What, you think the reputation rubs off? What one rugby player does reflects on us all?”

“Of course it does,” he agreed, suddenly serious. “Look, we don’t have the greatest reputations, do we? Rugby players are big and brawny and thick as shit. And what you’re doing is striking a blow against that.”

“As a general rule,” I said rather wearily, “we are thick as shit.”

“No, we’re fucking not! It’s a cliché, like all blondes are stupid, or all Irishmen are stupid!”

Now of all the people I’d have expected to strike a blow against social stereotyping, Mark is low on the list. He went on. “I mean. . . listen up, people! How many folk here have no O levels or GCSEs or whatever?”


“How many have no A levels? Or whatever the school leaving equivalent was for where you lived,” he qualified, catching Gregor’s eye. “Just me, then. I left at 16. How many people have university degrees?”

All but four, and one of those four was Steve, who’s doing some sort of social sciences course with the Open University in his copious free time, and one was T-Bone who’s doing a diploma (in his second language) at the Tech.

“So we’re not fucking stupid and when you go on TV. . . you know, you scrub up well and you’re fit to be taken out in public without a collar and lead, and maybe people think a bit better of us. That we’re not all brawn and no brain. I mean, how many years did the Terminator play, and you wouldn’t call him stupid to his face, would you?”

“Not unless you expected to spend the rest of the morning running laps, Mr Sawston,” concurred Piet from the doorway. “I am obliged to you for your good opinion.” There was an appalled silence in which his footsteps could be heard to the end of the corridor, before we all, except Mark, collapsed in fits of laughter.

“Christ, how long was he there?”

“I don’t think he got more than that one sentence,” I choked.


“Oh, I’ll explain it to him later. He was amused, Mark, it’s O.K.”

“How can you tell?”

The corner of his mouth had twitched the tiniest amount; I could tell.

But,” insisted Rob, suddenly serious, “Mark’s right, Filthy. You’re a sort of ambassador for pro rugby – yes, I know, sounds high-falutin’ but you are – and you’ve got to take it seriously or we all do look stupid.”

Thanks, Rob. Just what I needed, more responsibility. In the background, Mark was recovering his countenance by beating up Ryan in a not very serious way.

“And you needn’t pay any attention if somebody thinks cookery’s poncy. Is that what he said? Who was it anyway?”

It’s just, quite a lot of the squad have met Tim, either through me or through James Hamilton. They don’t know him well, but they do know him, and I was surprised to find that my instinct was to defend him. “Just somebody I know. I don’t suppose he meant anything by it, he was only teasing me, but you know, sometimes people get you on the raw?”

“Yeah, well, if we can live with you wittering about pan-fried this and sugar-glazed the other, then it can’t be that poncy.”

“I’ve never referred to pan-fried anything,” I retorted, stung again. “Stupid term. What else would you fry it in? And oven-baked is just as dumb – can’t bake it in the washing machine, although somebody on TV said you can cook a salmon in a dishwasher. All right, I have to cook something fabulous for the Christmas special and I’m out of ideas, so all suggestions gratefully received. The rules are that I’m cooking for a large group, between 12 and 20, anything I like using local produce. Doesn’t have to be local recipes, just local ingredients as far as possible.”

“Right,” said Rob, cheerfully. “Give it some thought, guys, and we should have been outside two minutes ago so we had perhaps better move it before the Terminator comes to see where we are?”

God, they were funny. They came back in from fitness training and they told me all their favourite dishes. I wrote down later as many as I could remember: they’re a good bunch of blokes and I’ll make things they like for them. It really was odd: after Tim had said. . . what he said, I’d felt as if I never wanted to cook again. Odd too that somebody like him, who loves to cook, could have made me feel that way, and a selection of knuckle-draggers like the front row, who never stop winding me up about fannying around with saucepans, could convince me that I still enjoyed it and that it was an O.K. thing to do. Some of the things they said they liked were really peculiar – I had to tell Gregor that there was absolutely no chance of me ever cooking khashi for him once I understood that it had tripe in it. My mum used to do it for my dad and I couldn’t even stay in the house while it cooked – just the smell of it turned me up.

It didn’t help, though and by the end of the week I was desperate – and then T-Bone of all people hit the target. Somebody, I forget who, had said sensibly that I should play to my strengths – what did I cook really well? I shook my head. “I can’t possibly do that on TV. What I’m good at is fancy stuff, pastry and so on. The pinwheels I do for your birthdays, or choux pastry and that sort of thing? Not macho, even I have to admit that. And ambassador for the rehabilitation of the locks and props is one thing, but I’m not prepared to spend the rest of my career being called Fairycake Phil by the opposition.”

They seemed to get that, but T-Bone was dismissive. “This is so English! To despise a man who has a skill. . . in France a good pastry chef is worthy of respect!” He frowned. “Phil, what about. . . is there no culture in England of,” he struggled for a word, “cuisine rustique? Cuisine de la campagne?”

“I don’t know, what is it?”

“Country cooking,” said somebody, but T-Bone shook his head. “More than that. It is like. . . you know tarte tatin?”

“Apple upside-down cake,” I nodded.

“Well, in a restaurant, it will be a tiny piece, perfectly square, and the apple with the skin removed and shaped so,” and he fanned his fingers. “And the sugar will be made crunchy with a. . .” he lost a word, exchanged a phrase in French with Gregor, “a hot flame thing? On a little gas tank, you know? But my grandmère used to make it, and it was all uneven, the apple was in big lumps, and I used to pick the hard bits of sugar from the edges because I liked them best. And in France, we would say that both of those were tarte tatin, and not that one was better than the other, because some people like the fancy restaurant style and some people like. . .”

“Just like mother used to make,” I said slowly.

Oui! Can you do your pastry, your cakes, in that style? Is there no tradition in England of that?”

“I – think you’re onto something, yes. Not quite that but. . . Yes, I can. . . Ooooh. Oh yes.”

“Oh God, he’s off,” moaned Mark. “Just make sure we get to taste whatever’s going, to make up for you moping around here this last fortnight.”

I would probably not have noticed it had he not told me. In my early days at the club, I reviewed all the training sheets myself, I saw the reports from the individual skills coaches. Now that I am Director of Rugby, I have not time to deal with the minutiae. So we will count it in his favour that he told me himself, presenting himself at the door of my office at the end of the day, not with his usual open smile (which, even after he had spoken with Tim, still seemed dimmed) but with a guilty expression and a look of unease. I had been waiting for him only that we might go home together: I knew, though, from the way he glanced at me and then lowered his gaze, that all was not well.

“Close the door, then, and tell me what it is.”

“I. . . um. . . missed my session in the weights room today. Sir.”

“Why so?”

“I got distracted, I was thinking about something else, and by the time I realised what time it was, I was 15 minutes late. Um, there were two people scheduled after me, so I dropped out so they wouldn’t be late too. And then Rob stopped behind and spotted for me so that Connor could go on time.”

“And is that satisfactory?”

“No, sir. It puts everybody out, and I’m supposed to train with Connor, not with Rob.”

“You know that much at least. Was there any reason for it other than carelessness?”

“I was. . . No. None.”

“Then we will say that you have had your warning and if you do it again. . .”

“Um, no. Sorry, I thought you knew. I was late for Olivia on Tuesday.”

Olivia is our nutritionist; the boys see her regularly, although few of them enjoy the experience.

“Twice in a week, Mr Cartwright? And had you an excuse for that?”

He shook his head mutely, avoiding my eye.

“Very well. I will think of a penalty to encourage you in better timekeeping.” For Phil has always had a great problem with punctuality; I would say that I have punished him for that more often than for any other fault. “Now come, koekie, let us be away from here before the telephone can ring again, for I have had a most frustrating afternoon.”

He was very quiet in the car; at home I called him to the study, for Phil is always better to know his punishment than to be allowed to fret with apprehension.

“You are allowing yourself to fall into habits of inefficiency and bad manners, missing your appointments and inconveniencing others, is that not so?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And do you deserve to be punished for it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. Then we will have it that you present yourself to me, in my office, at ten to nine, and ten to two, and at half past five, every working day until this time next week. If I am not there, you will draw yourself to the attention of Harry or whoever is present, or leave me a note, so that on my return I may know that you were there. When you have an appointment elsewhere, you will come to me in advance of it. If you cannot manage your own schedule, I will do it for you. Is that plain?”

He was looking up now, in some dismay, rather to my surprise. He must have known when he came to confess to me that I would punish him.

“But. . .”

I raised my eyebrows and waited. He thought better of whatever he was about to say.

“Yes sir.” But he had not the air of waiting to be dismissed, he was tense and awkward.

“What is it? You think I am too severe?”

“I just. . . No, sir.”

But it was a lie, I could see as much.

“Come, talk to me. You know that I will not hold it against you. Tell me why you think I am unfair.” I moved to sit down and encouraged him to sit beside me.

“Three times a day for a whole week?”

“This is not by any means a first offence, Phil, is it?”

“But you probably wouldn’t even have known if I hadn’t told you!”

“That is true, and I have taken it into account.”

He looked away suddenly. “I’m sorry. It’s for you to say, not me, I know that.”

“Come, koekie, we both know that is not so. If it were only between Cartwright and de Vries, then yes, it is for me to say, and I would have told you off for unpunctuality, told you why it was unacceptable – which you already know or you would not have confessed it to me in the first place – and insisted on having you apologise to both Connor and Olivia, which I have no doubt at all that you have already done. So this is between Phil and Piet now, to keep our home life free of our work and to remind you that you may not fall into the habit of taking advantage of our relationship – which again, I know you would not do deliberately, but you might do by thoughtlessness. And between Phil and Piet, you know that I will not give you a punishment which you think is unfair. Plainly you do think this one is unfair – well, maybe not unfair, but excessive?”

“I – yes, all right, I do. I think a week of it, and a spanking, is too much.”

I gaped at him. “But Phil, I never mentioned a spanking. I did not intend to spank you.”

His turn to gape. “But you always. . . Oh. Is that – is that what you said before about not doing it if it didn’t work? Because it’s a repeat offence?”

“No, it is simply,” and I decided suddenly that we had skated around the topic for too long in the hope that matters would settle, and it was plain that they would not, “simply that I have seen lately that you are trying very hard to avoid a spanking, and I will not do it, I have always said I will not do it, if you fear me, or you are unwilling.”

“I’m not unwilling.” That came very quietly, spoken to his hands in his lap. “I’ve had a chance to think and. . . anyway, I’m not. I understand how it works when you do it.” There was a fraction too much emphasis on that ‘you’ for my liking. “Because afterwards, it’s over?” And that should not have been a question.

“Well, then,” I agreed, “you may choose. A week on report, or a spanking now.”

“I want it over, please,” he said, getting up and coming round to my right side, and standing obediently while I stripped his trousers and underwear from him. For all his brave words he was tense as he settled across my lap, but he placed himself, and waited, and I had to fight the temptation simply to caress the fine curve and to say ‘be damned to unpunctuality!’ and sweep him off to bed.

And yet even then, for all my good intentions I failed him, for I was concentrating on reassuring him that I would not be unfair, and I fell too far the other way, reddening him mildly, and releasing him quickly with “that will do.” He pushed back from me, coming up onto his knees and I was surprised to see tears standing in his eyes, for as I say, I had not been severe. “Don’t you dare,” he choked out. “Don’t you dare patronise me too! Don’t you dare assume I’m not serious or I have to be looked after! That’s not half enough for repeated lateness and you bloody know it’s not! Do it properly or don’t fucking do it at all!”

And that was me told, as Fran would say, and I could not deny the charge. It was patronising to let him off lightly because he had been upset, or to assume that he needed reassurance when he had said clearly that it was not so. I pulled him back into place, and gave him the rest of what he did indeed deserve, a sharp spanking, enough to leave him gasping and squirming, and very red. I suspect he regretted his words then, for I had not punished him since he had been strapped by Tim, which was several months ago now, and I think he was finding that the lack of practice made it difficult. Still, he lay at peace when I had finished, and his shoulders relaxed, and I judged there was some ease for him in it. Not that I had actually finished. When he stirred as if to get up, I stopped him with a hand on his back.

“The manner in which you spoke to me just now, Mr Cartwright: do you think it was courteous?”

He froze for a moment and then went limp across my lap. “No, sir.”

“Or respectful?”

“No, sir.” That was very low and resigned.

I smacked him twice only, for the fault was as much mine as his, but I understood what he had been asking me. Two blows only, I say, but I put the full force of my arm into each of them, and he yowled in startled dismay. Then I pulled him to his accustomed place in my arms with his head on my chest. He clung to me tightly, which I think was only relief, and we sat so together for a long time, each taking comfort from the other.

I had such fun with the menu. All the TV people had said was ‘meal for a dozen or so people, not specifically Christmas please except that we’re talking family visits, you’ll have 6 hours to prepare everything from scratch.’ And what T-Bone had said had set me thinking – when I should have been doing my weight training – about Granny Mackenzie.

She wasn’t actually my gran, she was my great-grandmother on my mother’s side. Granny Laura, who’s my mum’s mother, went to Spain with her second husband not long after I was born; Granny Mackenzie’s dead now, but when I was small, she lived near us, and when I first started playing schools rugby, I used to get my tea off her one week in three. There was me and Clip Allerdyce – I can’t remember his real name – and Colin Halfpenny, playing for the local boys’ team as well as for the school side. We were all desperately serious about our rugby – whatever happened to those two?

Anyway, there was rugby on Saturday afternoon, two till five, and the families very quickly struck up a one-bored-parent-only scheme. One parent would ferry all three of us to training and matches each week, culminating in feeding us all at six o’clock and delivering us home at seven. Mrs Allerdyce used to take us to burger bars (this was when we were too young for it to be other than a treat) and Mr and Mrs Halfpenny kept the pub so we got fish fingers and chips and beans in the back room before opening time, but my mum used to take us to Granny Mackenzie’s for tea. And Granny Mackenzie had this conviction that a teenage boy would die of starvation if you didn’t fill him up all the way to the back of the tonsils about every 40 minutes.

So I was going to do Granny Mackenzie’s Post Rugby Tea for the general public on national television. Cooked Tea, she used to call it; Mrs Allerdyce called it High Tea and it’s gone out of favour in this country, I think. I had to try out loads of different recipes, and I was on the phone to my mum twice at least most evenings, asking her if she remembered what went in various dishes; presently there arrived, registered post, a small black notebook full of recipes in Granny’s minute and illegible handwriting, containing unhelpful measurements and instructions like ‘the blue jug full of milk’ or ‘mix to same consistency as Jeanette’s coffee sponge’ or ‘cook in parkin tin’.

Parkin. Now there was an idea. Only parkin needs to be made three or four days ahead of time to go properly sticky on top, and I had one day to cook everything in. I’d need to find a way round that. I might need to make several to see if brushing it with the syrup from a jar of preserved ginger would have the same effect. Oh well, I dared say the guys at work would be willing to eat the failures.

They were. They ate three different recipes of coronation chicken; they ate boiled ham, ham roasted in foil, and ham baked in a flour crust; they ate potted shrimps. They ate potato salad made with Pink Fir Apple potatoes, red onion mayonnaise and parsley, they ate it with Charlotte potatoes, garlic mayonnaise and rocket, they ate it with Juliette potatoes, lemon mayonnaise and spring onions. They ate local bread topped with herb butter, olive butter, herb and olive butter. They ate winter coleslaw with and without celeriac, and a thing which wasn’t Waldorf salad because it had almonds rather than walnuts in. They ate tomatoes stuffed with shallots and pine nuts and couscous, and green salads in varying proportions (not part of the Granny Mackenzie tradition. She used to sneak lettuce into the ham sandwiches, but of course we knew that all vegetables were poisonous, particularly raw ones), and a sort of egg sandwich according to a recipe I found which used cold scrambled rather than boiled egg. It was revolting.

We had long conversations in the dressing room about whether I could cook various things (macho) or not (poncy). Cheese scones were macho. Cinnamon scones were poncy. Sultana scones were poncy until Dave remembered his grandmother cooking them as one enormous round, marked into wedges; then they were macho. Date and treacle scones, for some reason, were always macho, but nobody liked them much, not even me. I made the dadelbrood again, which was deemed poncy until I pointed out that it was Piet’s favourite, at which it morphed hastily into macho. Biscuits, except shortbread, were all poncy. They were also, when I opened the tin again, all gone.

Fruit cake, thank heaven, was macho, specially once I taught them to eat it with a slice of Lancashire cheese on top. I was surprised by how many of them liked that. And then there was the parkin.

“Mr Cartwright!”

“Fuck, what have I done now? Yes, Coach?”

“Mr Cartwright, the club nutritionist tells me that you are responsible for the large quantities of ginger cake consumed by your team mates over the past three days?”

Oh, fuck. Um, yes, Coach.”

“I would recommend, Mr Cartwright, taking a couple of buttered slices up to the nutritionist immediately, so that she may be convinced that it is in fact a basic food group and an essential nutritional building block, and not a highly calorific treat which I as Director of Rugby should automatically forbid.”

“Right away, Coach.”

“And Mr Cartwright? Harry and I will be having our tea break in about 15 minutes.”

“Four more slices. Yes, Coach.”

Eventually, of course, I just had to make decisions about which recipes I would use. “How many of you guys are free Sunday afternoon if I do a test run? Make sure I can do it all in one day? Um, not WAGs, please, it’ll throw the numbers, just you guys. Show of hands? Gregor? What about you, T-Bone?”

And that was for politeness only. I’d asked T-Bone to the house half a dozen times, and he’d always refused, perfectly civilly, claiming prior engagements.

Oui, thank you, Phil, I would like that.”

I must have looked surprised, because he grinned at me, although there were pink spots on his cheekbones, and one or two of the others were exchanging glances. He was a good guest, though; he ate some of everything, commented helpfully on several dishes, and rather to my surprise, took away with him a jar of my mum’s pickled walnuts, which I’d put out in the hope of somebody liking them, and which T-Bone seemed to think a remarkable invention. I had every intention of palming several more jars off on him at the first opportunity.

But my God, the mess! It went on and on, three dishwasher loads, and cups and saucers behind every curtain and chair. I’d ended up catering for 24 and just about every dish in the place was dirty. Mind you, there was nothing by way of leftovers, it looked like we’d had locusts.

“What is that tune, koekie? You have been whistling it all the time you have been clearing up, and I think I do not know it.”

“Nothing new in that; the only way you can identify the National Anthem is when people stand up.”

“Cheeky pup. I shall leave you to empty the dishwasher by yourself if you are rude to me.”

I laughed. “I’ll do that anyway, if you go and lock up. Do you want another cup of coffee?”

“I think I would rather have a glass of wine. A single glass tonight would be pleasant: have we any more of those half bottles you bought?”

By the time he brought me my glass, I’d finished in the kitchen and wandered through to the sitting room.

“You never did tell me the name of the tune.”

“Didn’t I? I must have been free associating or something: it’s called the T-Bone Shuffle.”

“Is that so?” He had stretched out on the sofa with his eyes closed and his glass close by. “Play it for me?”

I hadn’t played my piano just for fun since before the World Cup, and I’d been skimping on my practice for Patricia too, as she hadn’t failed to observe. It showed: I was clumsy in the left hand, and it took me three repeats before I could get the syncopation to come right, but it did come, and the words, or some approximation to them, surfaced from the back of my mind. . . ‘nothing wrong with you baby, that a good T-Bone shuffle can't cure’.

“That is nice,” said Piet, lazily, behind me. “Play some more, koekie. I like it when you sing.”

So I vamped Bourbon Street Parade, and sang the middle eight, and then I played the Stop-Time Rag, and a couple of other things, I forget what, things I know Piet likes. I must spend some time with my music, I get rough too easily when I don’t practise, I’m not good enough at it to cut corners. Then I sat on the floor so that Piet could get one hand in my hair.

“And are you satisfied with your cooking today?”

“I think so. There’s nothing complicated in it, and I wrote notes of what to do in what order to make it come right. It may not be as popular as whatever Lady Brockshill can do, but I don’t think I’ll disgrace myself. And you never know: it might be the right time for solid English cookery to make a comeback.”

“Your team mates have reassured you, then, that you know what you are doing?”

“They really are funny, Piet: even if they think cookery’s a weird thing for a bloke to do, they won’t allow anybody else to say so, just themselves. They’re a good bunch.”

“So indeed they are. I was thinking, Phil, that perhaps they, who share your experiences, understand what Tim did not: that you are thinking ahead towards the end of your rugby career.”

I had to make an effort not to tense under his hand. “I don’t know that I would quite call it that.”

“No? But you have been moving in a new direction. Television work you have done before but not of this type, and I think you would do it well. You could do the job that the woman Hayley does, for the camera loves you, and yet you are not selfish with it, you let others shine too. Have you not thought of it?”

“Not of TV work that way,” I confessed. “Of food as a career? Yes, a bit, after what you said about Jazzer wanting the top field. I wondered about. . . oh, Cartwright Jams and Pickles or something like that.”

“Cartwright Country Foods. Yes, I thought so. We sportsmen live in such an uncertain world, where a career can be ended in ten seconds by an injury, and cannot possibly go on unchanged into middle age, that sometimes other people with more settled career paths do not understand that we have sacrificed security for success. And that perhaps where they envy our achievements, we can envy their skills which are more transferable in the job market. Have you finished your wine? Shall we go up?”

He always knows where to stop.

And when I came back from cleaning my teeth, he looked up from his book to say, “I meant to ask earlier and forgot: you are not going to make your chocolate cake for the programme? I would have thought it an obvious winner.”

I wrinkled my nose. “We had a major debate about it. The final judgement was that chocolate cake was borderline poncy. I think it was ‘poncy but who cares?’, but it didn’t really fit with the rest of the menu. You needn’t worry though, I haven’t given it up.”

“Why should I worry? I like it, I like it very much, but not better than some of the other things you make.”

 “I’ll make you another dadelbrood at the weekend. As long as you promise not to eat it all at once, you’ll get fat. In fact I’m not sure you haven’t put on a bit round the waist. . . let’s have a look. . .”

He rolled over, the book forgotten, and grabbed me, dragging me down among the pillows and pinning me under one arm to land two smart whacks on my backside. “Fat, am I?”

“No, no, not fat at all,” I squeaked, quivering with suppressed laughter.

“What you need,” he growled ominously, smoothing his palm over my bottom – and I felt him hesitate, realising what he was doing. Not that he needed to, and I pushed up to him suggestively.

“What I need. . .?”

“What you need is a good spanking.”

“Well, then, you’d better give me one.”

“After your spanking,” he agreed – the old jokes, the old jokes – and hauled me across his knee.

Love it.


Idris the Dragon

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© , 2007