Hand of the Diligent

I could, I thought, have done without a parental visit, given how catastrophic the last meeting with my dad had been. My first instinct when Mum rang up and asked if they could come down would have been to say no, it wasn’t a good time, but I’d been out when she called and Piet had said yes. I still didn’t feel inclined to argue with him, given the way things had been, although there was no denying they were improving, so I held my tongue and behaved nicely. Actually, it wasn’t as bad as I expected: if I know anything about Dad, he was really, really embarrassed that Piet had heard what he said about us, and seen us quarrel over it, so he was playing nicely too and we were all pretending that the incident hadn’t taken place. We had three or four days of company manners all round, and when a match fell due, Piet arranged (he always offers this for visiting parents – it’s not anything special for me, he does it for the others too) that Mum and Dad should go up to the Directors’ box to watch.

That was not a match in the style in which the Gryphons play best, although we knew ahead of time that it wouldn’t be. Piet wasn’t surprising us when he said as much in the pre-match talk.

“I could have wished, gentlemen, that this match had come later in the season for us, but the draw is as it is. It will be a hard match, and one which the experienced watcher will expect us to lose. They have the advantage of us in height, in weight, and in experience. They do not, gentlemen, have the advantage of us in heart.”

He looked round, sure of our attention. “This is a match, in particular, which our forwards can lose for us, and which our backs can win. If we allow the Lancers to play in their preferred style, they will simply roll over the top of us. They are too big and too strong for us. However,” – and his gaze pinned us in our places – “they are not as fast as we are, and in my opinion, they are not as smart, and I would also suspect that they are not as fit. Make them run, gentlemen. Make them work. Take the ball away from them and keep it away from them, and if you have to work the pitch from end to end and again and again, their lungs will feel it before yours. Make it so.”

From the corner of my eye, I could see T-Bone’s knee jittering as he started to work himself up into his match fury. We still aren’t what you would call friends, but he’s become a good work-mate; I know that on the pitch he’ll be where he ought to be, and I trust him both to take the ball safely and to give it up sensibly, now that Piet’s broken him of that winger’s habit of trying to win every match all on his own. We worked well with Rowan ‘Arrow’ Archer too, but the rest of the line up wasn’t what we wanted. A big strong successful team, and we could call ourselves that now, attracts successful players, good players, and not just English players. It’s both an advantage and a disadvantage; we had four men missing from the squad to various national sides, and if there had been an England match in the offing. . . Well, there wasn’t, so I was here and ready to play. I’d have been happier, though, with a bit more experience on the back row in general.

So we did as Piet advised, and in the first half at least, it worked, more or less. We made the bastards work. We couldn’t win the ball from them, not in scrums or lineouts, so we had to steal it and be gone before they realised what we were doing. By half time, they were leading, but only just – one good push on our part would have that back.

A fair few of us were blowing hard by the time the whistle went. The physio team had been watching and taking notes, though, and the minute we came off, they fell on us and we spent every available minute being rubbed and thumped so that we were feeling more or less as we should when we went out again, heartened by Piet’s approval of how things had been going and how we had followed his instructions. “Be careful, gentlemen, and keep a grip on your tempers. There are several of their players on very short fuses, and known for being rougher and more confrontational than the game requires. Understand that I will come down very hard on any one of you who receives a yellow or red card for verbal abuse, or for violence. Remember, if they try to provoke you, it is because they fear your skills and wish to make you lose your self-control. You have still the techniques and ability to win this match but you will not do it with a player temporarily suspended” (anybody else would have said ‘in the sin-bin’) “or sent off completely.”

The second half started like the first, just one kick-chase after another, and tempers were being lost, yes, but they weren’t ours. We went on making them run, with T-Bone in particular having a snorter of a game. He worked like a dog, and several times sent the ball through the air the full width of the pitch and took it back from Arrow the same way, leaving the man in front of him looking stupid. I picked up on that as a technique, and every time the ball was in our possession we had it left to right until even when they had possession they didn’t know which way to turn. The scores crabbed up slowly in penalties, but nothing more – we couldn’t get to their line because they were too big, they couldn’t get to ours because we were too fast.

Then they got the ball, and damn me, but they set off with it towards our line with half of us tackling and being thrown off, and me and Arrow and T-Bone hammering back so that there would be some defenders in place, and their team, bloody all of them from the look of it, in a line across the pitch so that even if we took possession we would have nowhere to go. Then Mark got that big Frenchman, Gauzier, round the thighs and brought him down, and the ball, a damn sight too close to our try line for comfort, slipped out of Gauzier’s hands and I nipped it out of the air just as their captain reached for it.

I had nowhere to go with it. There was no gap, and all the players coming at me were bigger than me; I would lose that tackle. But well, I don’t know if you know but my reputation is for doing the unexpected – was, even before Piet began to teach me to think outside the box – and this time I surprised even myself. I went straight at Gauzier and Mark, who were still on the ground, and as Mark rose to his knees, I yelled “Duck!” Praise be, he got me, and threw himself flat, and I jumped, clean over him and scraping my ankle clear of Gauzier’s snatching fingers, and sprinted for the half-way line.

It’s been shown a good deal as a clip on sports programmes since, and opinion is divided about the legality of it. If I’d touched either Gauzier or Mark, I’d have been in breach of the rule about falling over players. (Yes, honestly, we have a rule. We have several, actually. It’s illegal to fall over the man with the ball, or the man near the ball.) As things went, there was some muttering about dangerous play, but the ref didn’t blow up for it – I don’t think he knew whether it was a legal move any more than I did. And we got the ball out of our half and breathed a sigh of relief.

God, I was exhausted.

Then they got the possession again and we all fell on them to take it back and somehow in the fray, I got a boot on the hand and another in the face. I’m not complaining about how it happened: I don’t know who did it, I don’t think it was deliberate and to tell the truth I’m not even sure it was one of theirs rather than one of ours, but when we rolled clear, I had my left hand cradled against my chest and blood running down my face, and the ref took one look and yelled “Get that man off, blood replacement!”

Right, well, no argument there. That’s a rule, as Piet rather dryly says, designed to keep people like them safe from people like us. I headed up the tunnel, whimpering a little as something grated horribly in my hand, trying to snort the blood out of my nose, and with a decided feeling that my match was over. The doctor agreed.

“I reckon both those fingers are broken, Phil. Keep still, will you? Your nose isn’t broken but you’re going to have a classic black eye. No, mate, reckon you’re done for the day.”

I reckoned so too, unfortunately; I sat up straight and let him pack cotton wool up my nose before he started to strap my fingers. I still had half an eye for the match – it was being televised live on the local station, and there’s a screen in the dressing room, half a dozen helpers and gofers and admin people and so on watching it, although all the squad were outside – so when we heard the roar and groan, we already knew what was going on. Tim Streatfield’s not as – well, to be honest, not as good as me, and he’d given up possession and we hadn’t been able to get it back. That was a try, although they didn’t convert it.

And 40 seconds after the restart, they had possession again, and their forwards were motoring down the pitch, and our guys weren’t stopping them. And. . . well, they were just going to roll us over, like Piet said, and I was still hopping with adrenaline.

“Tape my fingers up tight and somebody get me a clean shirt, I’ll not be allowed out with this one. And somebody run out and tell them that’s not a full substitution, I’m coming back. Get a move on, Doc, will you, I’ve only got about two more minutes. . .” Like he didn’t know that already. A blood injury substitution isn’t a real one: as long as you’re back on within 15 minutes it doesn’t count.

He was still trying to persuade me that it was a bad idea as I sprinted back up the tunnel, but he’d wrapped my hand up and given me a shot of some painkiller, whatever they’re allowed to give. Piet stopped me on the line; he’d taken me at my word and called Tim Streatfield back.

“Are you fit?”


“Go, then.”

The Gryphons crowd roared when the tannoy guy announced that I was coming back on, and I went back to my place on a wave of testosterone and goodwill. Yes, I do thrive on hearing them yell my name; so sue me. So maybe I do get more of a kick from the fame thing than I tell. . . than I tell other people. But I work for it, I don’t get it for nothing, and even with the shot, the pain in my hand was setting my teeth on edge. Still, I’m a senior player, I’m a big name, I pull down a big salary, and I’ve got responsibilities in exchange – and one of them is to produce on the day, pain or no pain. Bottom line? The Gryphons with Phil Cartwright might beat the Lancers. The Gryphons without Phil were going to lose. You can call it vanity if you like; I call it pragmatism.

All right, Piet called it pragmatism and I picked up the word later.

And I did deliver. With me in place, the back row gelled a bit better, although I was worried about how much T-Bone had left. His chest was heaving and he was beginning to sound hollow as he panted, although he grinned wolfishly at me, and Rob tapped me on the shoulder as he came past.

“Couple of tries about now would be champion, Filthy.”

“I’ll see if I can fit you into my crowded schedule.”

Whistling in the dark, that was, but it worked. Sometimes, as Piet told T-Bone, you don’t have to do it, you have to make it possible for somebody else to do it, and T-Bone and I did. We sent the ball three times back and forth across one side of the pitch, short sprints and dead stops to avoid the forward pass, and the fourth time T-Bone missed me out and the ball went to Arrow who just took off for the line. It wasn’t the classiest try ever, and it was right in the corner, so it was no particular surprise that it didn’t convert – but one more try would do it.

Only we were desperately short of time, and the ball was in Gauzier’s hands, and in our half, and we all piled in to stop him and get it back. Eight or nine players, me included, scrapping and pushing and burrowing for the ball, and just as we got it off him and we were all getting up, the ref blew the whistle for some minor infringement and Gauzier grinned down at me maliciously and put his boot on my bandaged fingers.

For a moment I thought I would throw up and the world slipped in and out of focus with a red mist around the edges, and I heard the crowd roar again as if they were very far away. The ref hadn’t seen it, and nor had the linesman, but the crowd had, and the cameraman had, so it showed on the big screen and the Gryphons crowd took grave exception to it. I’ve lost a minute or two of what happened after that, I don’t remember it, but I’ve seen the replay, and the camera was dead on my face. I went corpse white, and jerked with the pain, and my mouth-guard fell out, and then I looked up at Gauzier – I was still on my knees – and I snarled like an animal. They use that clip now in the title sequence for some of the TV sport: Phil Cartwright with a massive bruise spreading across his cheekbone, looking as if he could tear your throat out without a thought. Gauzier actually fell back a pace (thank God, getting his weight off my hand. There was no proving he’d done it on purpose, but I know, and he knows) and Tommy hooked an arm around Mark’s chest and held him back when he would have smacked Gauzier squarely between the eyes. I got up, right into Gauzier’s face, and he fell back again, and just in time I heard T-Bone’s heavily accented voice.

“Terminator’s watching!”

Then the ref bustled up and sorted us out and I looked, still through the red mist, at the Lancers front row, and thought, right, you bastards, now you’re going to see something, and I came up behind T-Bone and murmured in his ear. He jumped a little and looked shocked, and I saw the extent of his weariness.

“Can you do it?”

He made an attempt at squaring his shoulders. “Bien sűr. But if it goes wrong, they will. . .”

I cut him off. “Don’t let it go wrong. We’ve got two minutes.”

They stretched, those two minutes, stretched and stretched. Long enough for us to take the ball and for them to retrieve it; long enough for Mark to repeat his tackle on Gauzier; long enough for the ball to come to T-Bone, and for T-Bone to put his head down and belt towards the gap, long enough for the gap to close and for T-Bone to go down under four Lancers, squirming and wriggling and cursing in French.

Only he didn’t have the ball; I had the ball, and I was ten yards away and accelerating. That had been a combination of dummy and scissor pass and I was so tired, so tired, and my hand hurt and my head hurt, and my legs were heavy, but the crowd roared and T-Bone had done the hard bit so the least I could do was beat Jerome and Lascano-Perón to the line. The try went down to my name, but it was T-Bone’s work and somebody in the Directors’ box knew what they were seeing (I’d bet on Jim Hamilton myself) and T-Bone got Man of the Match despite not having scored even once. I’d been dead in front of the posts, so the conversion – well, your granny could have converted that, and praise be, the ref blew the whistle and that was enough for the day, with the Lancers losing not only the match but also a fair amount of face.

We milled about to shake hands as usual; somehow Gauzier never came my way, which is probably just as well. Then we wandered round the pitch to acknowledge the crowd, and all I could think was how much I wanted to be lying down. It was a relief to get back to the tunnel and the dressing room, where Piet was waiting.

“Mr Cartwright, well done. Mr Saint-Cyr, that was excellent play, truly excellent. Maintain that standard and I would expect to lose you to your national squad. I notice, though, that you exchanged words in the tunnel with Mr Gauzier: I believe I said at half time that you were all to be careful in your interactions with the opposition, and to say nothing provocative?"

It went terribly quiet. T-Bone swallowed, but he held Piet's eye.

"I played briefly with him in Paris, M de Vries, and his family lives close to mine. I was enquiring about his parents."

Behind me, Gregor, whose French is excellent, made a faint choking noise; he told me later that the 'enquiry' had been as to the mental capacity of Gauzier's father, the precise farmyard species of his mother, and the legal status and running order of their marriage and Gauzier's birth. Piet lifted one eyebrow a tiny fraction; T-Bone swallowed again and the tendons in his neck stood out. Piet averted his gaze.

"I see. Mr Standish, you may be very well pleased, as I am, with your players. The forwards played considerably better than I anticipated and the backs were inspired. Come now, come in and let us count the cost.”

The cost was higher than usual in cuts and bruises, but I was the only one with a genuine injury. I sat on the bench with my eyes closed and presently Marco from the seconds was there with a water bottle and a worried look. “Phil? I’m to get you fit to go to the hospital to have your hand x-rayed. I’ve got sweats for you, and your shoes.”

Oh God, I was too tired.

“Mr Cartwright!”

“Phil? Son?”

I opened my eyes. “Dad? What are you doing here? I thought you were up in the box with the directors?”

“He thought” – I could see him realise that everybody was listening, and whatever Dad thinks personally about Piet, he wouldn’t ever do a man down in his own workplace, in front of his own workforce, without cause – “Mr de Vries thought you might like me to come to the hospital with you. Or your mother, if you want?”

“God, not Mum, she’ll fuss. I’ve broken my fingers, that’s all.”

“And you need to have them set, Mr Cartwright. Come, get up, Marco has clothes for you. And drink your water. Marco will drive you to the hospital in your own car and take you home afterwards, and either he may call a cab from your house and charge it to the club, or he may drive your car back here for you to collect tomorrow.” His voice sharpened, and I saw Dad bristle at the tone. “Now, Mr Cartwright.”

“Yes, sir,” I said automatically and started to heave myself to my feet. Marco helped me pull sweats on over my kit; I couldn’t be arsed for more. My whole hand was throbbing and I could feel my heartbeat all up and down my left arm. When I looked down, Dad was tying the laces on my trainers the way he used to when I was a little boy. I could have wept when he looked up, patted me on the knee and said gently, “Come on, son, sooner we go, sooner we’ll be back home. Have you stuff to bring away?”

“I have it, Mr Cartwright, I’ve cleared his locker and I’ve got his car keys. If you go out that door and along the corridor, I’ll bring the car round. Phil? Coach says you’re to drink your water.”

“’S’not water, it’s that ghastly sugared stuff,” I said mutinously; Dad nodded sharply at Marco. “I’ll get him out, and he’ll drink it. Fetch the car.”

Fortunately, we’ve got private insurance and we don’t have to wait for NHS services; I went straight into X-ray at the hospital. The only wait was for them to do. . .well, what they do, development or whatever it is. It wasn’t that long, I suppose. Marco stayed in the car; Dad and I sat in silence, waiting for the doctor to come back.

Mostly in silence. It wasn’t, for once, uncomfortable. Dad tapped the water bottle a couple of times, reminding me to drink; once he asked quietly, “Why didn’t you stay off when you were injured?”

“We’d have lost,” I said, as if that explained everything. Well, it did, but I couldn’t expect him to understand. I made an effort and roused myself. “It’s my job. It’s what I do, and that means accepting all. . .” I waved the uninjured hand, indicating the hospital. “All this stuff. Taking the risks. Working through the pain. I can’t have just the good bits, just the clean runs to the line. I have to have it all.”

He nodded, rather to my surprise. “All the Cartwrights are tough,” he said, irrelevantly. There was another silence. “Do your team mates know about you and him?”

I was too tired to take offence. “Yes.”

“And they don’t mind?”

“S’not for them to mind or not mind. It’s my concern. I get some grief about sleeping with the boss, but they know I don’t get any favours for it.” I wasn’t going to mention precisely how that worked out.

“They don’t think. . . well, they don’t think less of you for it?”

He really seemed to be working at this; it’s funny, I thought later that if I’d been less tired, I’d have fought with him for asking, but as it was, I just gave him a flat truthful answer, and he absorbed it. Maybe he didn’t agree with it, but he listened to what I was saying.

“For being gay, or for Piet?”

“Either. Both.”

“Some of them are nervous about me. Mostly, though, they cope O.K. I’m part of the team, so that outweighs my weird preferences. It helps that I’m good at what I do, so maybe they see me as Phil the Stand-Off rather than as Phil the. . .”

“Yes,” he cut in sharply, and I smiled a little. “I think maybe if I were living with one of the other directors, say, one of the ones who’s never played, they’d be more critical. But they know how good Piet was when he played, and they think he’s God as far as coaching’s concerned, so they don’t think – I don’t think they think – hell, I don’t know. It isn’t always easy. I don’t think they think that we’re fluffy and pink, that we’re part of the sparkly handbag brigade. Sometimes I do think that I have to be just a bit better than a straight player would.”

“Oh well, that’s to be expected. Susan, you know, the one I pushed to a partnership? She works a damn sight harder than any of the men at the same level. Has to prove herself every day, poor lass, just because Dennison can’t get his head round the idea of a female investment analyst. Anybody a bit different, that always happens. Tough it out, son. Tough it out. And well, the way you looked when that sod hurt you, I don’t think sparkly handbags will be the first thing to come to mind.”

I’d recovered a bit by the time we got home; the doctor had filled me with painkillers which had helped, but I was still very shaken, and – well, to tell the truth I was pretty far past caring about anybody else and what they thought. I went straight across the kitchen to Piet and into his arms, which came up to hold me as automatically as I could have wished.

“So, koekie, what is the damage?”

“What you see. Broken fingers, black eye. No concussion.”

“Are you still in pain, hart?”

I shook my head against his shoulder. “Just tired.” I suddenly took in what I was doing, and started to pull away from him; Dad had an expression like he was chewing a wasp, but he kept his mouth shut, rather to my surprise. Mum, typically, had made herself free of my kitchen and was peeling potatoes. Piet went into a drawer for a freezer bag, and then to my bag for surgical tape, and Dad watched in some bewilderment while my hand was encased in plastic. Piet looked over at him.

“It is the easiest way to keep the bandage dry while he has a bath. You will go with him? I warn all my players to be careful in the bath when they have medication, lest they fall asleep.”

“I’ll just have a shower,” I objected.

“You will not. You may by all means shower first, because you are filthy, hart, but you did not do your post-match stretches and procedures, and tomorrow you will be stiff and sore. You will have a bath, and you will stay in it 20 minutes at least, and then we will put arnica on your cheek for that bruise, and we will sit around this evening and tell you how clever and brave you have been, fersure.”

“Close with that, Phil, I doubt you’ll get a better offer.” That was Mum, making us all laugh. Dad did come to make sure I didn’t pass out; he watched in silence when Piet came up and carefully wrapped my arm in a spare towel to stop me hurting my hand on the edge of the bath, and he passed no comment at all when Piet kissed me – seemed he had decided too that he didn’t care what anybody thought – and assured me that he was proud of me.

I admit, I didn’t understand it, but it was nice not to quarrel.

I am an early riser by nature, but so, it seems, is Ed Cartwright. When I came down the day after the match, he was already sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and reading the sports pages with some attention. He looked up at me rather awkwardly and indicated the coffee maker.

“Hope you don’t mind. . .”

“No, indeed, we told you to make yourselves at home. I will join you. Phil is still asleep.”

“Takes after his mother, she’ll be another hour at least. I didn’t think you’d be able to get a newspaper delivered this far out of town.”

“There are enough of us here in the business units that they will deliver to the end of the drive, and then whoever comes first brings them all up.”

“Pretty lass, rather. . .” and he gestured a curve.

“Miss Jasmine. She keeps the grounds for us.” I looked over his shoulder; there was a photograph of Phil in the rugby report.

“Not very flattering,” observed Mr Cartwright.

“No, but that will perhaps do Phil some good, showing him as a serious competitor. He has been worried about the effect of the cookery programme on his reputation.”

“I’ve heard nothing amiss. . . My colleagues, they know he’s my son.” He squinted at me. “I maybe go on about him a bit. Father’s prerogative. But I’ve heard no criticism of him for it, cooking seems to be fashionable with all sorts. You’re mentioned here too, doesn’t look to have done your reputation any harm either yesterday.”

I sat down opposite him. “What does it say?”

“That you know your work, mainly. That you’ve taught those lads how to win and win clean. Nobody’s actually saying that Frenchman fouled Phil deliberately, but it’s implied clear enough between the lines. And that you’ll be offered something better than a British team place soon.” There was the slightest question in his tone.

“The Youth Rugby post? They are still on that?”

“It’s true, then?”

“True that I was offered it. I will not accept.”

“Why not? Sounds like a big promotion?” He retreated suddenly. “It’s not my business, of course. But it looks to me like a desirable position – big budget, big salary, in the public eye. Powerful. Why on  earth would you not take it?”

He is a powerful man himself, in his own world of finance. Power and money he understands.

"Because the world is the way it is, Mr Cartwright. Because you have seen how such a position attracts interest from the public and the press. Because if I take it, I must at once renounce Phil completely, and even if I do so, I remain a threat to his career and his happiness. I cannot have that position and also have Phil, and I would choose every time to have Phil. Indeed, there is no choice to be made." 

He was silent for a moment. Then, dragged from him, “You really do care about my lad, don’t you?”

It does not come easily to me to speak of such things. I was not brought up to it, particularly to another man, and about another man, and Cartwright is not my friend, but I said  what I could force out. “He is the absolute centre of my world. There is nothing, nothing, I would not do for his happiness.” I hesitated again. “Phil knows of the Youth Rugby position; I have discussed it with him.  In other circumstances, I would have taken it, for I could do it, and do it well, and I would like it, that is true. We talked of it, and he would have pressed me to say yes, but he understands why I have refused. I would prefer. . . I would not wish him to linger on it, thinking that he holds me back from something I desire. I do not desire it that much; the cost is too high to me.”

“I’ll not mention it,” he agreed, with instant comprehension. “Too easy for it to become something he’d worry about, that he was holding you back. But no, there’s none of us can have it all, whatever the fancypants lifestyle types would have us think.”

He reached for his coffee, and pointedly changed the subject to the latest political idiocy. I think he likes talk of emotional matters less even than I do.

But that evening, he lifted the photograph from the piano, the one of Phil with Riana’s girls, and commented on the lack of resemblance to me. I concurred.

“They take, both of them, after their father’s family, which is just as well, I think. My sister is tall and bony like me, like my father.” I indicated another photograph, of my parents in the garden of our last house. “My mother used to ask why she had bred two children with no apparent trace of Wessels in either. The de Vrieses do not tend to good looks; Mamma says Phil improved her holiday photographs no end.”

“They’ve visited you? Oh aye, I remember, couple of years back. Really, Phil, I don’t know why it didn’t occur to you to invite us down. I suppose you never thought that we ought to have a chance to meet your. . .” (there was the faintest hesitation) “. . .in-laws. But you always were a thoughtless lad.”

Phil’s mouth dropped open; I saw his mother kick him sharply on the ankle and hid a smile. It was as Gillian Cartwright said: her husband could assimilate new ideas if you hit him hard enough with them, but he and Phil were as stubborn as each other. He would say nothing to admit that he was changing his mind. I frowned hard at Phil, who closed his mouth with a snap, and swallowed, before saying mollifyingly, “Well, we hadn’t really the room last time they came. But they might come at Christmas, they said.”

“Make sure you let us know in good time, then. It’s not right, us not having a chance to know them.”

I caught Gillian Cartwright’s eye, and hastened to offer more coffee, before she could laugh aloud, or Phil explode, but he simply took a deep breath and smiled sweetly.

“Yes, Dad.”

Idris the Dragon

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