You know, if you had told me a couple of years ago that Hansie would have such a thing for women’s rugby – and not even women’s rugby, really, but girls’ rugby – I’d have laughed in your face. Hansie? And a batch of giggling teenage girls? But he and Alison Thing worked the under 16s and then when there were enough of them to move up, and enough outside interest to bring in a few more to make a squad, suddenly Hansie had a team which was marked down as ‘inexperienced but great potential’.

They’re nice girls, but they weren’t above boasting a bit, not just about their abilities, but about their contacts. “Phil Cartwright comes to watch us train, and he brought some of his friends from the England squad once. And Pieter de Vries says that he’s going to look after Ruth when she goes pro. . . he comes to half our matches.”

Piet shook his head. “I cannot go this week; Saturday morning is the only chance I will have to meet with the sponsors, and I will not be free of them in time, I will not be back here before mid afternoon. But you will go, will you not, koekie?”

Phil was amenable. “I could collect you, Hansie? No need to take two cars. And then we could pick up Tim on the way back? The nutritionist is on the warpath again so I daren’t risk a takeaway, but I’ve got steak in the freezer, and I can just make a salad to go with it.”

“I’ll do that,” I offered. “I might come too, actually. Jim can’t go either and he wanted somebody from the company to put in an appearance. So I’ll come, and. . . why your house? Why not ours, after?”

Because Piet didn’t know when he would be back. Easier for him to go home. Not a big deal either way, actually; I did interesting things with spring vegetables, and made a huge fruit salad, and stuffed both into a coolbox which went in the boot of Phil’s car.

The match – well. Yes. Phil did the pep talk for the girls with Hansie and Alison Whatsit rolling their eyes a bit (apparently neither of them ever gets that degree of silent attention) and the first bit went fairly well. Where the wheels came off was when the ref gave three consecutive decisions against the girls in the course of as many minutes.

Now the under 19s matches aren’t like the Premiership ones; the teams don’t actually get to go right off at half time. At half the pitches they play on, there’s nowhere to go and they’re sharing the changing room with the Scouts’ football team or the pub five-a-side squad. They gather at opposite sides of the pitch with their water bottles, and try to strike a balance between moving enough to prevent hypothermia (or sunstroke, depending on the progress of the season) and standing still enough to feel the good of the break. There’s nothing to stop various parents, younger siblings and associated hangers on (Phil and me) from going to join them and hearing what the coach has to say.

“No, you must, you must give more attention to your lines,” scolded Hansie. “If you are not in your proper places, if you are not where your team mates expect you to be, how can you expect. . .” and he was off, encouraging, exhorting, with Phil nodding at intervals and putting in a word of his own here and there. I wasn’t paying that much attention, actually; I missed what Hansie said last thing before he chased his team back onto the pitch.

Phil didn’t. Phil’s expression was one of flat disbelief, mutating via contempt into barely controlled fury, fury which he turned on Hansie. I didn’t catch what he said to Hansie either, but I saw Hansie being surprised, and then that shift of countenance and slow blush which tells you that Hansie has been caught bang to rights over something. I mean, I’m a lousy liar; Hansie’s much better than me but he simply can’t go against his principles, can’t say to himself ‘I didn’t do it!’ loudly enough to drown out that voice of his conscience which says ‘yes you did!’ I suppose it’s progress that at least these days it’s mostly his own conscience he hears, and not his father’s voice. I wasn’t sure what he’d done but Phil obviously knew; I started over to find out.

“Creed? Tom? No, Tim? Is it Tim Creed?”

And I turned and looked at the man who was staring at me, his head tipped on one side. It took me a moment to place him. Mr Golightly who had taught Spanish and. . . and something else, it didn’t come to me, at my school.

“Mr Golightly. Yes, it’s Tim. How are you? It’s been a long time, I’m surprised you recognised me. Are you. . . have you got a girl playing?”

He had, it seemed, for the opposition; his oldest girl. “But you, Tim? You’d hardly be old enough to have a daughter playing, and too old for a girlfriend, surely?” Jesus, tact and diplomacy of an air-raid. I hastened to turn off the not-quite-accusation of being a Dirty Old Man.

“I work for Hamiltons, and they fund the club to a fairly large extent. And then Phil Cartwright, the England international? I’ve known him for ever.” I hadn’t liked Mr Golightly much when I’d been at school and I didn’t think I cared about him now, so I felt no shame in making myself into an associate of the rich and famous. “I came with him this afternoon: he and his coach, his manager, Pieter de Vries, they take quite a lot of interest in the club, and they happen to think that the girls at the moment have more potential than the boys. Which one is your daughter?”

The one currently losing the ball to Piet’s second protégée, the girl Naomi, the one Phil was at constantly to hold her head up. (“So you’re tall, for pity’s sake. You won’t look any shorter just because you’ve got bad posture. Just be tall. You’re going to hang around rugby clubs with other tall people; you’re not going to be conspicuous unless you wander about with your head down between your shoulder-blades. Then everybody really will stare at you.”)

But I had to chat politely for ten minutes rather than finding out what the hell was going on and then I had to take him over (he’d been hinting with decreasing subtlety throughout) and introduce him to Phil, and to Hansie. Hansie still looked a little shaken; Phil looked unusually forbidding, although he smiled and made himself agreeable to Mr Golightly. Yes, well, maybe I’m growing up a bit too: I’m beginning to grasp that there are large chunks of Phil’s job which are as tedious to him as the month end reports are to me. Phil did not want to talk to a stranger; he wanted to talk to Hansie, and yet I don’t think anybody who knew him less well than I did would have spotted that he was wishing Mr Golightly miles away. Piet’s drummed his duty into him thoroughly enough, I suppose. We didn’t manage to escape until the final whistle, when Phil excused himself on the grounds that he had ‘promised to talk to the girls about how they had done’. For all I know, it was even true; certainly, Phil and Hansie headed for the ramshackle pavilion, and I fell into step on the grounds that I wouldn’t then have to talk to Mr Golightly any more. Whatever was between Hansie and Phil, though, was obviously still causing some contention.

“You’ll have to talk to them about it. You can’t let them go home thinking that’s acceptable.” That was laid down with absolutely no possibility of argument – and indeed with Phil sounding a lot less like himself and a lot more like. . . I caught myself thinking: like Piet. I think Hansie heard it too.

“No, but Phil. . .”

“No but nothing. You’ve got to tell them. If you don’t, I will, and I don’t want to do that, Hansie. If you do it, you can pass it off as momentary bad temper on your part; if I do it, I’m criticising you and that’s your authority gone. But I will do it if you don’t – and you needn’t think you’ve heard the last of it, either. You are so not going to do that ever again, believe me. You know – you must know! – what Piet thinks about it.”

Written down like that, it looks slightly peevish; all I can say is that at the time, that’s not how it sounded. It sounded like Phil in a thorough-going temper, although somehow not quite the way he had been when he had sounded off at me. Hansie blustered a little.

Ach, Phil, they know I didn’t mean it, I am sure, you do not need. . .”

And Phil turned on him, snarling under his breath. “You fix it, or I do. I’m thoroughly ashamed of you, Hansie, honestly I am – that’s the sort of ridiculous argument I’ll bust the juniors for. And believe me, I do bust them for it, because if I don’t, Piet will, and if he does, that may be the end of their careers. He’ll have them benched and somebody else getting the chance, and there aren’t enough places to go round as it is. It’ll be worse for the girls, there aren’t as many teams. They’ll have to work harder than the boys to get proper serious career prospects out of the sport and they deserve better than to have you teaching them bad habits just because you’re in a snit. So you’ll fix it right now, d’you hear me? And you can take it as read that you’ve got something coming when we get home.”

I hadn’t really any business trotting after them all the way to the tatty pavilion and hanging about in the rear when Hansie knocked on the door, but – well, between indignation that Phil would speak to Hansie like that, and a creeping suspicion from Hansie’s expression that he thought he had deserved it, I thought I’d better keep close. When Alison – Jesus, what is her name? Hazelmere? Hazlehurst? – opened the door, and called back over her shoulder “Is everybody decent? Visitors!” I just slipped in behind them and tried to look inconspicuous.

Hansie started off rather shakily. “Well, that was not a good result for us, fersure, but I think we need not be too downhearted. Those girls have been playing as a team much longer than you and on average they are 10 months older. I did not think we did very much wrong, it was just that they were the better team on the day, hey? Our second half was much better than the first; I was pleased to see you putting into practice what I said at half time. Most of what I said at half time. I have to tell you” (and his voice went a little uncertain) “that, well, I had no business to say what I did say, it was most wrong of me. What I said about the referee, I mean.”

Oh. Yes, that might well be something to rattle Phil’s cage.

“It was quite out of order for me to say that the referee was deliberately favouring the other team. I should not have. . . I was in a temper only, which does not make it right. It is. . . it is a case where I must say to you, ‘do as I say, not as I do’. You must not think it right for you to criticise the match officials so, whatever. . . well.”

Some of the girls were looking at him as if he had completely taken leave of his senses. It was Ruth who jumped in. “Well, he was favouring them. We all thought that! Some of his decisions, no way were they fair!”

“You could see everybody on the pitch, could you?” enquired Phil, mildly, coming forward and gesturing at a solid, muddy girl to move up the bench and make room for him to sit down. Ruth frowned at him.


“You can say that beyond question, the decisions were wrong and were given wrong out of – what, spite? Listen, I was watching. Those three decisions at the end of the first half, I would say one of them was definitely wrong. One I couldn’t see enough to judge – and I’ve got more experience looking than any of you – and one was valid according to the letter of the law. Some refs would have let it pass because you gained no advantage and by blowing for it he broke the flow of play – but that’s his decision to make and as long as he makes it consistently you’ve got no cause to grumble. You get that with refs – some are all for the laws as written, some are for free play provided there’s nothing wilful or dangerous. Makes no real difference because it’s the same for both teams.”

“Yes, all right,” argued Ruth – she’s not a bit daunted by Phil any more – “but once at least he was wrong, you said so yourself.”

Phil looked slowly round the room, gathering their attention. Then he turned back to Ruth. “You didn’t catch a single pass from your left all match. Naomi has forgotten everything I told her a fortnight ago about how to control her weight when she’s changing direction. You – what’s your name? Chelsea is way too prone to the ‘Fred!’ pass, just hurling the ball away from her when the opposition gets close without looking to see where she’s got a team-mate to take it. You – Taylor, you would have a lot more breath for your play if you weren’t squealing instructions to the rest of the team and most of your instructions are rubbish. They know what to do, so just hold your tongue: you’re not captain. Paige is the captain and she’s nearly as bad, because her instructions are way too loud and the opposition know what you’re going to do because she’s just shrieked it up the pitch. Abbie didn’t listen to what Hansie – Mr van den Broek – said about lines.”

They just sat and stared at him; Taylor I think was close to tears and the rest looked stricken. He gave them a moment and then smiled sweetly at them.

“Horrible, isn’t it? When somebody only notices when you make a mistake? Listen up here, guys – girls. You know Mr de Vries, who’s my coach? He used to be a ref too, and he says it’s about the most thankless job he’s ever had. If you’re doing it right, nobody ever notices. If you have a good match, nobody ever remembers; if you have a bad one, nobody forgets. Everybody’s an expert, everybody knows the rules better than you, everybody thinks they had a better line of sight than you, everybody is absolutely convinced that if you’re not corrupt, you’re stupid. If the match goes off smoothly it’s because the players had a good attitude; if it didn’t it’s because the ref didn’t take control. And if you won’t speak properly both to and about the ref out of simple respect, I suggest you do it because there are a lot of refs and as many coaches who won’t stand for dissent – for you getting mouthy, if you like. In here, you say what you like, sure; what’s said in the changing room stays in the changing room. Out there, on the pitch, on the line, in the post match interview, wherever, you keep your mouth shut on the subject. Then you can’t be criticised for it.”

“We’re entitled to our opinions,” muttered Paige sullenly. Phil nodded.

“You are indeed. You’re even entitled to express them – provided you’re willing to accept the consequences. Listen, if you have a go at the ref, what it sounds like is that you’re a bad loser. Maybe he did make a mistake. But more of his decisions were right than were wrong, and if you hold your tongue, you can’t be wrong with him, with the governing body, with your coach, with your crowd. Get into good habits now and they’ll see you well when you move on. A decent coach will bust you for mouthing off about the ref on the pitch, whatever he may allow in the dressing room – and that’s without taking account of the likelihood of you getting sent off. I’m telling you, at the Gryphons, we know exactly what to expect if we try it. Generally, if we do something wrong, Mr de Vries ticks us off for it, but he does it in private. I’ve had my share of that: I had a fight with one of the other players, a quarrel which got a bit out of hand, and I knocked him down.” He was very pink about the cheekbones – Phil’s still desperately ashamed of that, so if he was willing to bring it up in front of the girls, he must have felt incredibly strongly about the whole thing: mind you, I’ve seen him watching the football, and his contempt for the way soccer players go at the referees is nothing ordinary. “Mr de Vries had us both up to his office, and by the time he’d finished with us, I wanted to dig myself a shallow grave and crawl into it, and then he had us running extra laps as well.” And the rest, Phil; and the rest!

“The rest of the team knew we were in trouble, but not what he’d had to say about it. That was just between him and us. Dissent, though, and he’ll chew us out in the dressing room, in the hearing of all the others. The first year he was in charge, one of the seniors got sent off for dissent. So he was for an early bath, we lost the match playing a man short and we all had something to say about that later, and he got a fine as well. And that was before Viper de Vries got hold of him. He got a hell of a ticking off in front of all of us, and then he got busted to the Seconds for a month, and then he got benched from there – so he had to train with the juniors who all knew why he was there, but he knew he had no chance of playing, and that’s a big money motive as well as him being absolutely in disgrace. And I’m telling you, there’s not a man in our dressing room who saw that, who has ever so much as looked cross-eyed at the ref since.”

He stopped for breath and I saw Hansie shift uncomfortably. Phil went on. “But see, that stands to our advantage. It’s known that the Gryphons are clean players – and because we don’t give the ref a hard time, I suspect that if there’s a borderline decision, it maybe goes our way more often than it might, simply because we don’t whinge at the ref that ‘it’s not fair!’ And. . .” he hesitated, and then went on, almost shyly. “It’s never nice to lose a match. It’s not nice at your level, it’s not nice at mine. Losing because the opposition was better than you is no fun. Losing because you think a couple of decisions went against you is no better. But – but I’m not actually convinced that there’s much pleasure to be had from winning when you know it was because somebody bullied the ref into making a decision that you shouldn’t have had.” He grinned engagingly at them. “World Cup final in France? You ask me, that was a perfectly good try we weren’t allowed. But nobody was asking me. They were asking the ref and he said it wasn’t – so it wasn’t. He’s the one who’s paid to know, so let him do his job. You don’t like his decisions? Play better and then he won’t have decisions to make. And if you won’t do it simply because it’s the right thing to do, do it because in all the years I’ve been playing, I have never once known a ref change his mind because of what the players have said to him. Save your breath: you’re not going to get anywhere by arguing.”

He stood up, blushing a little: I think he finds this sort of pep talk embarrassing. Then he looked round again.

“Paige is a good captain. Her instructions are sound – too loud, but sound. Ruth’s not generally bad with her hands and even when she has an off-day like today, she’s fast enough to get away with it. Chelsea’s kicking is excellent, very accurate, good style. Naomi and Abbie both are so much fitter than they were a month ago that there’s no comparison, and they were both better than their opposite numbers. And Taylor didn’t miss the ball once today, not once. It was beautifully done. I agree with Mr van den Broek: you lost to a better team, older than you, most of them bigger than you, and with a lot more experience, but you played well, all of you, and more importantly, you played well together. You did well.”

They muttered a bit, most of them, something which might have been thanks, and Alison got up and made ‘now you go away’ gestures at us, and started chivvying the girls to get changed quickly, their parents would be waiting. We took ourselves off; outside, Hansie looked imploringly at Phil. Whatever Phil read in the glance, he was implacable.

“No. You screwed up, Hansie, screwed up big time, and you damn well know you did. If I hadn’t been there to lay it on for them. . . Oh, I don’t want to talk about it. Have you got more to do or can we go now?”

“We can go,” said Hansie quietly.

“Then for God’s sake let’s get out of here.”

Coming over, I’d gone in the front of the car with Phil and Hansie had sat in the back; going home, I opened the back door without really thinking about it – and Hansie slid in after me rather than going in the front with Phil. Phil didn’t comment, and as soon as he had got the car onto the main road, he turned on the radio, something loud and not conducive to conversation between the back and front seats. I glanced at Hansie, whose lips were pressed tightly together and whose hands were gripped in his lap. He felt me look, I think; he caught my eye and made a face.

“I am so dead,” he said softly enough that Phil wouldn’t hear him. “Piet is going to kill me.”

“You think so?” I asked rather stupidly; I had already reached that conclusion myself. He nodded.

“Phil was quite right; for dissent, Piet punished in the sight of the team. For anything else, he would call us back after the others had gone, but for arguing with the ref. . . I can only recall seeing it once but it is as Phil says, after that we were all very polite for a long time. It was one of the locks and Piet reduced him nearly to tears with his words, and then completed the job with his cane. Twelve, bare, and in the space. . .” He held up his hand and showed me the span of two fingers. His hands are big, and his fingers are broad, but I thought of twelve of Piet’s best laid into a strip that narrow, and winced. Hansie would be sleeping on his face tonight, no doubt about it.

I held his hand all the way back to Phil’s; it was all I could think of by way of comfort. At least, I thought, as we swung into the courtyard, Piet’s car was there: he was already home.

In fact, he was in the big sitting room, armed with a book, which he put aside as we came in, in order to get up and come to kiss us both.

“Well, Hansie, and how did our girls go on?” Then he took a harder look at Hansie, and then at me, and finally at Phil as he came in behind us, and his tone sharpened. “What has happened?”

“Go on, tell him,” Phil ordered tersely, starting to work his sweater off. Hansie looked at the floor and Piet’s eyebrows began to rise.

“I – ach, Phil is angry with me, rightfully so, I do not deny it. There were some decisions which I thought were harsh, and I said so – I said that the referee was against them.” There was a faint quiver in his voice; he was holding his nerve with an effort. He wants so badly for Piet to think well of him, in all things I suppose, but particularly over the rugby. This was hard for him. “I said it where the girls could hear me.”

“I’ve spoken to them about it, and I think they understood what I was saying,” said Phil tightly. “Piet’s study, Hansie, now. I’m going to make damn sure that you understand it too.”

And Hansie said “What?”

Piet was quickest on the uptake: he sat down again placidly, stretching his legs out in front of him, and gesturing at me to do the same; I stared at Phil with my mouth open; Hansie looked completely gob-smacked. Phil plainly didn’t get it, either.

“The study, Hansie. At once. Go!” That was snapped, as Hansie made no sign of moving. Instead, he gazed at Phil, and then threw a glance of bewilderment at me, and another at Piet, and then back at Phil.


“Yes, of course me; who were you expecting, Santa Claus?” And a single beat, and Phil got it, and his face hardened. “Or are you refusing me?” That was silky.

“He has the right, Phil,” put in Piet gently. “And Tim has the right on his own behalf.”

Phil turned his head to me; I hastily sat down on the sofa. “Nothing to do with me, any of this,” I said nervously. “Rugby you sort out among yourselves.”

“Still, Hansie has the right to refuse if he so wishes,” reiterated Piet. Phil looked back at Hansie.

“Hansie can refuse me if he thinks he did nothing wrong,” he said harshly. “Or if he thinks it’s no business of ours.”

That – was very subtle. Very subtle. But I have no doubt that Hansie got it, however bad we say he is at reading subtext. No business of ours, not no business of mine. If you ask me, Phil wouldn’t actually be capable of turning Hansie away from Piet, no matter what it cost him personally. Piet – I think Piet could do it, and if he thought Hansie was hurting Phil, he would do it, although it would pain him enormously. But Phil was simply reminding Hansie that we were four equals – that was what at least some of our row had been about – and Hansie either took that as given, or went without. Phil wouldn’t force him, that was evident, but nor was he willing to let Hansie abuse Phil’s own generosity where Piet was concerned. Hansie didn’t get to cherry-pick the bits of the relationship he liked the look of.

No, Hansie got it; his head went down again and he muttered something I didn’t catch, but he took a step towards the door. I couldn’t help it: despite what I’d said about it being nothing to do with me, there was something I absolutely had to ask. I do wish that my voice didn’t go so high and tight when I’m bothered though.

“Phil. . . are you sure you’re safe? Piet said – we all know we shouldn’t top when we’re angry.”

“Jesus, will you. . .” and he took a breath and mastered himself. “Look, I’ve enough sense for that. I’ve never used a cane and I’m not starting now, I don’t know how to do that sort of stuff.”

I opened my mouth to say ‘Excuse me? When you took the arse off me with a paddle?’, thought better of it, and shut up. Piet intervened.

“Perhaps Tim should go with you if he is concerned. Do you wish so, Tim?”

Put like that – I didn’t know. I honestly didn’t know. Piet turned to Hansie. “Hansie? Do you wish for Tim to go with you?”

And Hansie plainly didn’t know either. Phil – God, this was Phil in his rugby rage, wasn’t it? – Phil snapped.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake!” And he stamped across the room to his piano, yanked the stool out from underneath it and slammed it down in the middle of the floor.

“Come here, Hansie!”

And Hansie went. He had his hands at his waistband, and Phil brushed them aside, not roughly, just – just Phil had had enough and he was taking charge. He had Hansie’s trousers round his knees and his briefs following them in nothing flat, and then he had one hand in the small of Hansie’s back and Hansie was arranging himself submissively across Phil’s lap, and I spared a thought to wonder if the piano stool could take their combined weight. Mind you, it probably knew better than to thwart Phil when he was this cross; Hansie certainly seemed to have no stomach for any more fighting. His hands were on the floor and his gaze, as far as I could tell, was fixed between them.

Now see, I don’t actually spank Hansie in punishment any more. For one thing, he’s got too used to it and I don’t have the size or heft to make him feel it, not really feel it. For another, it’s way too much fun. No, if he’s done something he shouldn’t, it’s the implement cupboard for us, and I rather suspect he’s stopped thinking about a spanking as anything very serious, since the last one which really got his attention was when Piet tanned us both – and that was a spanking, I’m telling you. Was it ever. But I reckon Hansie puts that down as the Alpha being alpha: whatever Piet does is thoroughly done. I complain a bit when Hansie spanks me by hand because he’s very strong and a little inclined to overdo it: it can certainly be a punishment from my point of view. Not from his though.

And that attitude was being speedily readjusted. Phil is in prime, hard condition; he was extremely annoyed. Combine those two, and Hansie’s head came up sharply and he gave a squeak of indignant objection, before remembering himself, and looking down again. But he was surprised, I think.

I, on the other hand, was – conflicted. That’s the word I had learned from Aidan. Conflicted. I was thinking half a dozen different and contradictory things all at once: oh, poor Hansie, that’s hurting – poor Hansie nothing, if Jim had caught him dissing the ref in front of juniors he would never have heard the end of it – it’s harder to watch somebody you love being deservedly punished than it is to be punished yourself – Phil’s not holding back any, I’m glad that’s not me – to think that however long ago it was I suggested that young Phil might like to give me a tap or two on the bum and he had a blue fit, and now just look at him go! And then steadily overcoming all the others, as I watched the ripple of muscles under that T shirt, which appeared to have been applied with a spraycan, was a definitive thought of ‘God, that’s so HOT!’

Hot appeared to be the word from Hansie’s point of view too, although I don’t think he’d have meant the same by it. His rear end was a fine blushing rose fairly quickly, and Phil showed no sign of stopping – or even of tiring. He could work a lot faster than I can do and he wasn’t giving Hansie a chance to process one slap before another arrived so that presently Hansie did something I’d never seen him do before: he threw a hand back to protect his bottom.

“Move it, Hansie,” ordered Phil, transferring his attention to the backs of Hansie’s thighs with sufficient force that the hand was hastily withdrawn, only to reappear a minute later. This time, Phil trapped it against Hansie’s back, which pushed Hansie’s head down and his backside up in an invitation Phil seemed only too willing to accept. Hansie was gasping, and each indrawn breath bore the hint of a whimper by the time Phil stopped, shaking his hand with no hint of self-consciousness.

“Do we badmouth the referee, Hansie?” he enquired severely.

Nee, meneer,” came the choked answer.

“In English, please. Do we badmouth the referee?”

“No, sir.”

He let go of Hansie’s wrist and slipped a hand under his chest to help him up; Hansie rose rather uncertainly to his feet, his hands shot round to clutch his bum, and he looked across at me with an expression of such appalled astonishment that – well, I know it sounds rotten but I laughed, I couldn’t help it. Phil stood up himself, and lifted the stool back to its place while Hansie was rearranging his clothing (not without a wince), and when Hansie swallowed hard and looked up, Phil held out his arms and Hansie threw himself against Phil’s chest.

“Hey, hold up, there,” scolded Phil, laughing. “All right, all right, you don’t need to throttle me, Hansie. Hansie. . . Hansie?”

And Hansie, to Phil’s obvious horror, burst into tears.

Well, Phil cast a glance of frantic incomprehension at me and I just goggled back; then he manoeuvred Hansie to the sofa and pulled him down into his arms. “Here pet, here, all right, sweetheart, don’t cry – don’t cry, Hansie! For fuck’s sake” – this was aimed equally and savagely at Piet and me – “why didn’t one of you warn me it was too much?”

I looked at Piet. “Because it wasn’t. Was it? I mean, he was expecting to be caned, and caned hard. I’ve given him more than that for forgetting to set the house alarm on his way to work. Hansie? Tell us what’s wrong, love?” I was reaching for him as I spoke and Phil slackened his grip, obviously willing to give Hansie up to me, but Hansie’s fingers were locked in his shirt and his head buried in Phil’s chest.

“It must have been too bloody much: just look at him!” God, Timmy was conflicted again – I didn’t know whether to comfort Hansie or Phil!

Koekie, I think Tim is right. You were severe but you were not cruel. Hansie is accustomed to much more than that and had he come to me, it is true that I would have caned him very sharply indeed, and he knows it. Hansie, come now, stop this and tell us what troubles you.” He was reaching in his turn for Hansie, and with no more success.

“Well, then it’s because it was me,” said Phil flatly and with unarguable logic. “Hansie? Is that it? Because it’s me and not Piet?”

Hansie’s head moved; that was it, we could all see it. Phil swallowed, and my God, conflict wasn’t the half of it. Like I said, if it came to turning Hansie away, he simply couldn’t do it, no matter how much it cost him, how much it hurt. And it was hurting him – how could it not? If Hansie couldn’t bear to be punished by Phil, then there was absolutely no denying what Phil had accused us of before Christmas: Hansie and I were using Piet, and Phil wasn’t an equal in our eyes, and all the ground we had recovered was cut from under his feet again. I’ve seen him angry, God knows, but he wasn’t angry now; now he looked so wounded that I was sick with fear and pain, pain for both of them. For all of us. Phil took a deep breath and let it out slowly, as if his pain was physical and he must fight not to cry out, but when he spoke, his voice was steady.

“All right, sweetheart, it’s all right, it doesn’t work for you if it’s me, that’s all right, we can. . .” all in a calm tone belied by his face, but Piet was shaking his head fiercely.

“No, koekie. No! We will not have it that you may not call Hansie to account. We are past that. Hansie!” This was sharp. “Stop that at once, do you hear me? You are frightening Tim, and you are distressing Phil, and I do not permit it. Control yourself and tell us what is the matter.”

He did try, we could see that, struggling to compose himself. I reached for him again, but he clutched at Phil – was this rejection of Phil, then? – and Piet shook his head at me, frowning.

“Now what is this? Is it that it is Phil, your little brother? And now he dares to criticise you and your pride is hurt?”

Hansie said something still mixed with tears into Phil’s shirt and Phil tightened his grip, even as Piet, very much the Alpha again, said severely, “In English, Hansie. You are forgetting your manners: Phil cannot understand what you are distressed about.”

“No, it is not – it is not that. Ach, I did wrongly and I knew it as I did it. Phil told me nothing I did not already know.” That was still a little shaky but it was clear enough. I wasn’t sure about the veracity of it, mind you: Hansie hadn’t at all liked having Phil tick him off.

“Well then. . . Ah. And now that he has corrected you, he will cast you aside, is that it? He will cut you off from his affection – as Tim does? As I do? You believe he will do this, is that it?”

And Hansie turned his head enough that we could hear him, and said, quite simply. “Nee. It is that I know he will not.”

Well, Piet gave us a minute or two before he said with wholly unconvincing severity, “Ach, now that is enough; enough, I say. If you do not all stop crying, I will give the three of you something to cry about, do you hear me?”

I sat back onto my heels and scrubbed my sleeve against my face and did as I was told; Phil dragged his hand across his eyes and smiled rather damply at Piet. “My gran used to say that when I was small.” His mouth twisted and he buried his face in Hansie’s hair; Hansie was still clinging to Phil’s shirt but his face was open and relaxed. Piet touched his cheek gently and then held out a hand to me.

“Come, Tim. I think we could all do with a stimulant, but these foolish boys are in no way ready for alcohol. You and I will make a pot of coffee, and we will leave them to their reconciliation. Phil, what have we in the way of biscuits?”

“There should be some cardamom shortbread left,” said Phil absently, still petting Hansie.

“No, I ate it.”

“All of it? Greedy swine. In that case, there’s only bought. Some chocolate digestives, I think.”

“Come then, Tim.”

He shut the kitchen door behind us, caught me round the waist and waltzed me across the floor, with me half off balance; then he heaved me into the air, sat me on the table and leaned in to kiss me roundly.

“Every time, Tim, every time I think Hansie has gone as far as he can, he manages one more step. That is your doing, boet, and I am so proud of him and so impressed by you.”

“I don’t think I did it,” I said doubtfully.

“Oh, I think you did. You are his foundation, his safe place. You allow him to step out into the world and take chances with love.” He turned away to fill the kettle.

“Fran said something like that,” I said, even more doubtfully, “but she reckoned I wasn’t doing it properly.”

He looked back over his shoulder at me. I answered the question he hadn’t asked. “When we were quarrelling. She. . . um, she told me pretty well where I got off.”

“Ah,” he said sympathetically. “She did to me too. I trust you had more sense than to argue?”

“Well, she wasn’t really. . . she was right, I suppose. No, I wasn’t inclined to argue; she was very toppish.”

“Yes, indeed; it is a long time since anybody has threatened me with a strap.”

My mouth fell open. “She did that?”

He came back to hug me again. “She confessed to the temptation. I felt it prudent to keep my mouth shut.”

“She wouldn’t actually do it.” There was less conviction in my voice than there might have been; Piet nodded.

“No, she would not.” We exchanged glances, and said, in chorus, “Probably.”  

Fortunately, at that point the kettle boiled.

The other two were still entangled when we went back, and they seemed inclined to stay that way for what little remained of the afternoon. It wasn’t until long after the coffee was finished and the biscuits no more than crumbs that Phil, rather unwillingly, heaved himself out of the sofa.

“I’ll go and get the dinner started. Tim, did you bring the coolbox in or is it still in my car?”

“It’s in the kitchen,” I said. “I went out for it while we were making the coffee. Do you want me to come and help?”

“I’ll go,” said Hansie. “You have already taken a share of the work, it’s my turn.”

But he came back ten minutes later, armed with two large glasses of wine, one of which he set down by me. The other, rather to my surprise, he didn’t offer to Piet.

“Yours is on the kitchen table; I – ah, I said I could not manage all three. I think maybe you want to go for it yourself. Phil. . . Phil is not happy.”

Piet got up without comment, and closed the kitchen door gently behind him; Hansie set his glass on the coffee table, sat down beside me, and got up again hastily, gathering cushions.

“Are you O.K., love?”

He eased himself cautiously down again, and reached for his wine. “I am fine. Fine. Sore, is all. I didn’t know Phil could do that.”

I grinned. “I’m not sure Phil knew he could do that.” Then I sobered. “You said he’s not happy?”

He shook his head. “I came away because if I did not, we are none of us going to get any dinner. Phil is a wonder in the kitchen, but he can’t cook with only one hand.”

“If his hand hurts, that’ll teach him to use an implement next time,” I teased, but Hansie shook his head again.

“It was not that; he wished at all times to have an arm round me. I am fine, Tim, that was a shock, is all, but – but I think Phil is more upset than I am, and I’m not very sure why. I think perhaps he needs Piet to sort it out.”

It was ten minutes before Piet reappeared armed with his own glass of wine, and frowning.

“Is Phil O.K.?” I asked tentatively, since plainly the answer was ‘no’.

“I fear we have forgotten again that Phil’s experiences are not the same as ours, Tim. Nobody in Phil’s youth ever lifted a hand against him. Which is not to say that he was spoiled: he has his own tales of being punished in other ways and his grandmother in particular, I think, insisted on proper behaviour. Physical punishment, though, did not come naturally to him as it did to the three of us. Until he met me, he had no experience of paying his dues this way. He had no notion of how it worked; well, that he grasped soon enough. But he also had no notion of how it could feel from the other side. It was quite recently that he realised – and he was surprised by it – that it hurts me to punish him. And now it has hurt him to punish Hansie and he is struggling to come to terms with it. No, sit down, Hansie. Leave him for a little. He is in his kitchen, he is doing what he likes best – you know, sometimes, I think he likes to cook even more than he loves his rugby; certainly, it is his response to stress.” There was a swift glance at me. “Although when he was so unhappy, before Christmas, he bought pre-packed meals.”

It’s as well I had put down my wineglass; we’ve established several times that I can’t drink and breathe at the same time and the thought of Phil and a supermarket freezer meal would have had a full glass of Merlot up my nose. I frowned, though.

“But. . . did he go this way when he punished me? I mean. . .” I thought about it. “He did, didn’t he? He cried. So did I. I thought it was. . . well, just emotional overload, I suppose, making up. The fact that it had been me who. . . it was a betrayal, wasn’t it? But it didn’t last, surely?”

Piet was interested. “He cried? No, it did not last; I think you are right, it was probably more the offence itself than the punishment, for he did feel it a personal offence against himself.”

I made a face. “Which it was.”

“It was a long time ago, Tim, and long since forgiven. But you see, I think he could rationalise his feelings away: you had personally offended against him; he was entitled to be angry; you were penitent; the matter was completed. This time, though, he feels two ways: he feels fully justified in what he did, what he said. He feels that his anger was righteous and his behaviour reasonable. At the same time, he feels that he was making a personal judgement about something in which he had not a personal interest. That his anger was misplaced and Hansie’s punishment was not for him to administer – that even his assessment of the fault was an impertinence against Hansie.”

Not just Tim who was conflicted, then: Phil too, and, I suspected, Hansie, who was looking from Piet to the door and back, obviously wanting to go to Phil. Piet shook his head at him. “Let him alone. He has admitted to me that he feels both ways at once, that he is bewildered. He finds himself wanting to apologise to Hansie and at the same time he is certain that there is no apology due.” He looked at Hansie, who shook his head, dismayed, and perhaps a little shame-faced still.

Ach, no, I – well, I had that coming to me. Which is not to say I liked it, but. . .”

“I have eased that for him, at least; I have specifically forbidden him to apologise and assured him that he was entirely in the right. But he is struggling with the concept of forgiveness, he is. . .”

“Conflicted,” I said softly. Piet shot me a glance again.


“Forgiveness?” asked Hansie uncertainly. Piet was swift to reassure him.

“No, no; you are completely forgiven, Hansie. Phil understands that well enough. And he knows too that you have forgiven him, although that was a little surprising to him at first. When I punish him and then he comes to me, he knows that he is forgiven and he takes comfort in it; I take comfort too, because I know that he forgives me for punishing him. That is something he understood in his heart rather than his head, though; he had never given it much thought, but the fact that he is generous and loving after he has been punished shows that he bears no grudges, that he forgives me. He had never put words to it, and he found himself surprised to know that you had forgiven him as surely as the other way around, but he had no particular difficulty with it once he had formulated the idea. No, the person he finds has not forgiven Phil – is Phil.” He stopped for a mouthful of wine.

“He has had a difficult time while Rob has been away; he had to discipline one of the junior boys who admires him greatly, and it went badly – although he seems to have recovered the situation very capably. And then one of the seniors took some advantage, was over familiar, if you like, treated him as Phil his friend, not Phil the captain, and had to be slapped down – Phil does not know I know that. Again, he managed it very capably, but he is a little. . . yes, Tim, a little conflicted. He is finding that he is occasionally Top, if you like, even if only in his professional life, and that it is not easy. He is taking it very seriously. Perhaps too seriously.”

“Better than not seriously enough,” said Hansie soberly.

“Oh indeed, indeed. But he is thinking about it, and thinking too much. He is so concerned to do everything properly that he is falling into Tim’s habit of over-analysing, and he is not trusting his heart. That is a big mistake, because. . .”

“Because Phil’s an empath and his strength is how he feels, not how he thinks,” I completed for him. “But I thought you wanted him to think more and feel less, just as you wanted me to think less and feel more?”

That sideways flick of the head is so typical of Piet. “I do not wish him to stop feeling entirely, any more than I would wish for you not to apply your intellect. In each case, you will do best when you apply your strengths – but you need to temper them with some of the other characteristic. Phil needs to relax and – well, and top, without worrying about what the consequences will be.”

“No, he has done that,” observed Hansie ruefully. “At least, the consequences are not serious, they are only that I wish to take a cushion with me when we go through to the table. And that if he feels the need to top anybody else tonight, my vote is for it being Tim.”

“Wimp,” I said cheerfully, and dodged his not-very-serious clip at my ear.

Ja, I admit it. If you think you can do better, I should like to see you try. In fact, I think I should like to see you try even if you don’t think you could do better.”

“Of course,” I said, slowly, “it’s obvious whose fault it really is. You’re failing in your responsibilities, Piet. You’re supposed to be mentoring Phil, and you’ve done absolutely nothing about teaching him how to use a cane. Disgraceful.”

Hansie sniggered; Piet raised an eyebrow. “I would need a volunteer recipient, if Phil felt any desire to learn. It is very good of you, Tim, to take such an interest in his wellbeing; you will offer yourself as his subject? Of course,” he added offhandedly, “Phil is very strong.”

I swallowed.

“And he has a remarkably straight eye. He was involved in a golf fundraiser recently – he said the game did not appeal to him at all, but the charity did – and his partner apparently was surprised that he had never played before. He was, I gather, extremely accurate.”

I reached a slightly trembling hand to my wine.

“He is a quick learner too. I think he might be very competent with a cane.”

The wine slopped onto the back of my hand; I licked it off. “You’re teasing me,” I accused.

Piet laughed. “I am indeed. I am quite well aware, Timmy, that you will brat your way into receiving precisely what you wanted all along, and if you wish to allow Phil to learn to be severe with you, then provided he is willing – provided he is willing – I will teach him and you will learn – you will both learn. But not tonight. Tonight he needs something quite different.”

I nodded. “Tonight he needs Hansie.” That was obvious, and Hansie was nodding too, although there was something else. “And to be allowed to be. . . kind? Tender? To be gentle again?” I struggled for quite what I meant, until Piet completed my thought.

“To be Phil.”

Idris the Dragon

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