I called them the monsters in the cupboard.
They sat in the darkness on the high shelf at the top of the airing cupboard, gurgling and belching above the towels and the spare sheets. Hansie, who was responsible for this alien invasion, took a proprietorial interest in them, and was to be found at peculiar hours of the day and night, airing cupboard door ajar, inspecting them with a dreamy smile on his face. As now, standing, pyjama-clad on the landing and blocking the way when I wanted to go to bed.
“You’re letting all the warm air out,” I complained.
“My babies,” he said. “I have to check on them, hey?”
“For God’s sake. It’s half past eleven. Come to bed. And remind me that we are never, never to adopt real children. You’re quite bad enough with these.”
“Perhaps we should name them,” he teased. “And get their names down for a good school.”
“I’ll give you what a good school used to give, in a minute, if you don’t shut that door and come to bed. Six of the best it’ll be for you, my lad.”
He shut the door – very slowly, and with a grin that challenged me to do something about it – but he shut it. So that was how the land lay, was it?
“Right, van den Broek minor, that is wilful defiance. Straight down the corridor to my study. I’m going to spank you.”
Those big brown eyes studied me, a hint of a sparkle in them.
“Make me,” he said, at last.
Well, seeing that he’s both taller and more muscular than me, that’s quite a tall order, but this was a declaration of war.
“That is it, boy, you are going to be so sorry when I have finished with you.” I slapped his backside. Hard as I could. Then repeated the exercise.
Laughing, he retreated a few steps down the corridor to the bedroom.
“OK – ow – I’m going, I’m going.”
“You’re going, all right – over my knee,” I promised grimly. He slowed his retreat again, until I began to tickle him. That got him moving.
“No, please, that’s not fair, skatje. My liefie, stop!” he gasped between giggles, vainly trying to fend me off. I may be smaller, but I know exactly where all his most ticklish spots are.
“Ah, it’s not fair now. Now we get all the lovey dovey words. Too late for that, my lad. You are going to be sleeping on your stomach tonight.” He broke and ran for the sanctuary of the bedroom, with me just behind him, slapping his rear as I went. I tackled him down onto the bed – well, there are some advantages to having grown up in a rugby mad household, like knowing how to bring down a man bigger than yourself, although I really think that we are going to have to replace the bed, judging by the noise the springs made – and worked his pyjama trousers down.
Such a beautiful bum. Muscular, taut, the milky skin blushing pink in places from the slaps he had already had.
“Oh yes,” I breathed. I brought my hand down hard, saw my handprint leap to life, outlined in red. He squeaked a little – I hadn’t held back.
“Hah, stung you, did it?”
“I’m going to sting you a lot worse than that, Hansie van den Broek. That was just a little taste before I begin properly. You’re getting far too cheeky, and you need to be brought into line.” I slid his pyjamas off entirely and manhandled his legs around until they were positioned across mine. He was co-operating now, or at least not attempting to resist. As I slid an enquiring hand up the silky, almost hairless skin on the inside of his thighs I registered distinct signs of appreciation down below, felt my own body respond.
It could very easily have become passionate sex there and then – it often does when we play like this. But tonight I was just piqued enough to want to make sure he felt it. Tonight I was indeed going to spank Hans van den Broek as I had promised. As for lying on his stomach – well, I had plans involving that, too, though sleeping wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.
His body was so beautiful across my lap, all subtle curves and hollows. I don’t think he has any idea how beautiful he is – in fact, I know he doesn’t. He has plenty of faults, my Hansie, but vanity isn’t one of them. Anything like that was beaten out of him long, long ago.
He shifted slightly, made a faint noise of protest, and I drew my mind back from woolgathering, realised that he thought I was teasing him by keeping him waiting for the next smack. Right, you want it, do you? I bent to the task in hand. Oh yes, he wanted it. The evidence of that was trapped against my legs. I smacked some more, methodical, making sure that no area went untouched; watched the creamy skin become a deep, uniform red; heard the breathing grow ragged with a combination of discomfort and lust.
“Ach, Timmy. . .”
I spread my thighs under him to gain some space, reached down with my left to grab the hard proof of his arousal. I played with him, watched the muscles of his buttocks contract as he humped in helpless arousal, then began to spank him in time with the movement of my other hand. He squirmed, began to make strange little noises deep in his throat as the level of stimulation increased.
“Timmmmy. Stop, I’m going to. . .” I stopped what my left hand was doing. That was no part of my plan. Not yet. I released my grip. He had been near the edge all right, my hand was sticky with him.
“Lick my hand clean, boy, you’ve made it all wet.” He blinked, then his tongue began to run sensuously across my palm, up each finger in turn, then slowly, slowly, took each finger into the moist warmth of his mouth, sucked on it. . . well, I may have grown a little sticky myself. My right hand was running absently in circles over the warm – distinctly warm – curves of his arse, trailing just the edges of my nails over the sensitive skin in the way I know he loves.
His lips began to flutter across the delicate skin on the inside of my wrist. I groaned a little, felt the tremble of a laugh from deep inside him. His hand took mine to pull the rest of my arm within reach, and somehow, with a roll and a shift, I found him no longer across my lap but on top of me, pinning me down.
“Hansie,” I protested. Not, I admit, very hard. It wasn’t what I had originally intended, but. . .
“Ach, now the shoe is on the other foot, ja nee, my liefie?
“You brute. . .” I grinned up at him.
“Ja, I am a brute Boer. And today I am going to have my revenge on the English for all your historical bad actions, I think. And I think also that you are wearing entirely too many clothes. . .”
And with a lot of giggling on both sides, he proceeded to do something about that.
Later, much later (no, you don’t need any more smutty details. No you don’t) we were lying curled in a messy heap under the bedclothes when we heard it. A sort of deep, coughing rumble.
Hansie grew rigid for a moment.
“What the hell was that?” I said.
“It sounded – for a moment I thought it was a lion. But there are no lions in England.”
“Only for rugby tours. Or in zoos or safari parks. It was. . .” The sound came again. This time there was the distinct tinkle of glass going. . . It sounded as if came from along the corridor.
“Oh fuck, your sodding demijohns,” I said, suddenly realising.
“My wine? My wine, my beautiful wine!”
“Sod the wine, if that has ruined the best sheets. . .”
We sprang out of bed, fought to get out of the door (Hansie easily takes up all of a doorway, standing in it. Phil takes up a doorway and needs headroom cut out), and sprinted for the airing cupboard.
It wasn’t quite as bad as my worst fears. Not quite. None of the big glass demijohns had actually broken, but two had blown out their corks, complete with the airlocks (one of which had smashed, accounting for the sound of glass). A thick red crust – grape flavoured in one case, plum in the other, because he had wanted to try some old recipes for country wine – was splashed liberally over the ceiling of the airing cupboard, the other demijohns, and yes, the bedlinen. One of the good duvet covers was never going to be the same again.
“Hansie. . .”
“No, it is all right. I think I have some more airlocks. We can save them.”
“It goes to the garage. Or better down the drain, but I don’t suppose you’ll agree to that.”
“But the garage is too cold.”
I think the look on my face must have suggested that this was not a subject on which I would welcome debate.
“Garage. Ja, ok, the garage. Maybe a slower fermentation would be no bad thing, now it is started off. They use that at home, cool fermentation, to preserve the flavour of the fruit.” He looked mournfully at the disaster area. “Do you think I could take the spoiled bed clothes to wrap them in? To keep them from getting too cold?”
It’s not often that I’m left speechless.
“Do you know how much that duvet cover cost?” I managed at last. “That was my favourite. Well, bar the one in tissue paper in the loft, that my godmother embroidered for me years ago.”
He shrugged helplessly. Soft furnishings don’t figure high in his scheme of things. “More sheets we can always buy. But wine, wine is a sacred thing, Timmy. It would be sacrilege to waste it.”
I gave him my best Look. It isn’t anything like as good as Piet’s but it made him shift uneasily.
“We’ll discuss the ruination of the best bedclothes tomorrow,” I said grimly. “With the aid of the cane.” He pulled a face. “For tonight, just get those damned monstrosities into the garage, and out of my airing cupboard, while I put the duvet cover and the sheets into the washing machine with some stain remover, and see if I can rescue them.”
As good fortune would have it, I was able to rescue most of the wine from my enraged partner’s expressed desire to throw it down the drain. He has no poetry in his soul, and you must have poetry to be a winemaker. Cane? Ach, only four, and if it made him happy. . . Well, ok, I complained plenty at the time, but afterwards I went out into the garage, where the cooler air was more comfortable on my behind, and heard a tentative ‘gloop’ from one of the demijohns, and all was again right with my world, if not with my sitting down.
It took longer, of course, in such a cool environment, but some months later my tests suggested that fermentation was complete, and that my wine – do you know how good I feel, saying that? My wine. Mine, made by me – was ready for filtering and bottling.
I chose a Saturday when Tim was away, so he would not be fussing and interrupting me at a crucial point. As I say, he has no poetry. Also no sense of when important things just cannot be interrupted to deal with some mundane problem like the shopping, or dinner. I had washed my bottles and my siphons carefully with water in which I had dissolved a sterilising agent, because I didn’t want them spoiled.
It took me a while to get everything done, but when I saw that row of bottles, all neatly labelled with labels that I had printed out from the computer, van den Broek Estate, and the year and the variety, I know it is silly but I was nearly ready to burst with pride, and I wanted to share it with somebody.
And since my beloved was away for the day, who should I turn to but my little brother?
Paperwork – I hate it. Not that I have to do any, you understand. But Piet does, a surprising amount – Premiership rugby is big business, and like any big business it generates a lot of paper, even at the sharp end. So yes, plenty of paperwork comes his way, and very grumpy it makes him. And when Piet is grumpy, sensible boys keep well out of the way. Because the fallout is liable to be liberally distributed, and uncomfortable.
So when Hansie rang, and said: ‘Phil, boet – do you want to come round and help me out?’ I jumped at the chance. And of whom is it said that they rush in where angels etc? Quite. But at the time it seemed like a great way to get out from under Piet’s feet (well, not literally. Not this time. I don’t think he would have welcomed the distraction, given the sulphurous Afrikaner oaths drifting from his study).
No, getting out of that house was just what the doctor ordered. I did stick my head cautiously round the study door and say that Hansie wanted me to go round and help him out with something, and I got some sort of grunted acknowledgement, and that was about it.
“A wine tasting? But Hansie, I don’t know anything about wine. I mean, I know fruity from oaky, and white from red, and that’s about it.”
“Phil, what do you need to know, hey? Only if you like it or not.”
“I like to drink the stuff just fine, and I know that there are some kinds of wine I prefer, but that’s the limit of my expertise.”
“Just what I need, a virgin palate.” He smirked.
“I haven’t been a virgin for. . .”
“I’m not asking, I’m not asking.”
“For about fifteen years, since my father allowed me a glass with the Sunday roast, I was about to say.”
“But honestly, Phil, I am not asking you to say what vineyard the grapes were gathered in, nor what the weather was like that year. Only if you like it, that is all. Come, try a glass of this one.”
“Chateau van den Broek? I like the label.”
“Dankie.” He paused, looked suddenly sad. “That was something I wanted, you know. There was a course in winemaking at the University of Stellenbosch. But my father – ach, well, there is no point in fretting about it, either.”
“Hansie. . .”
“No. Drink, tell me what you think.”
Well, to be honest, I’ve had home made wine. My auntie used to make it, and my dad made it from homebrew kits a couple of times, and beer too. None of it was great.
This was. . . well, it wasn’t great, either. But it was leagues better than Dad’s. It tasted like cheap wine from the off-license. But it tasted like wine, not like battery acid and fruit syrup laced with hairspray.
“What do you think?” He bit his lip, looked at me with expectation.
I took another long swig, swallowed, smiled.
“Pretty professional. I’ve had stuff from the local offy that wasn’t a patch on this.”
He nodded, carefully. His face gave nothing away.
“Good. Try this one now.”
He passed me another glass.
“Oh.” I couldn’t quite keep the surprise out of my voice.
“That one’s really nice.”
“So. And the third. Here, have some water in between to clear your palate.”
“Hansie, I don’t have a palate. I’m a rugby player, I do quantity, not quality.”
“I also am a rugby player, Mr Cartwright,” he said drily, “and I think I wish you to retract that remark.”
“Or?” I grinned at him.
“Or I shall pass it on to Mr de Vries, who is most certainly also a rugby player, and one with a devotion to quality, either.”
“A devotion to quality also, Hansie, not either. OK, point taken. Can we try the wine now?”
The third wine was a little sweeter than the others, complex, fruity.
“That’s nice too, very fruity. I think I liked the second one best, though.”
He beamed. “Good. Excellent.”
“So which is which?”
“The first was the one that exploded. The air got into that one, it has oxidised a bit. Not so good. The second one was the same batch, but remained properly sealed. And the third – that is an old English recipe. Plum wine. Come, have a proper glass now, and we will sit back. There is a match on the sports channel, Munster versus one of the French teams, we can watch it if you like.”
I did like, and in short order we were settled in the armchairs, glasses at our sides, a convenient array of snacks to hand, and the TV on while we shouted at the players and the touchline judges and above all at the referee for their various failings.
And somehow, when the match was over, and the postmatch analysis was over, and our noisy disagreements with the postmatch analysis were over (and despite what he said, it was Hansie who threw the cushion at the TV, not me. I flicked the peanut, and got the presenter spot on the nose too), somehow, as I say, when all that was over, we discovered that five of Hansie’s nice new bottles were magically empty.
Well, yes, that is rather a lot, even for two large and pretty fit men. And two bags of kettle chips, and one each of twiglets and peanuts, is not really enough to soak it all up.
“Ja, my boetie?”
“Why is your ceiling spinning around like that? I wish it wouldn’t.”
He considered the ceiling magisterially from his position on the floor (when had he ended up on the floor? when had I become sprawled on the couch, come to that?).
“Nee,” he announced at last, like some latter-day Galileo in reverse. “It does not so move.”
I considered this. It seemed to take a long time. My brain had gone to sleep, or gone on holiday, or left with no forwarding address. Something like that. It was like thinking through treacle. And the urgent messages from the rest of my body were becoming distracting. They were saying: bathroom, now! but the bits of me that needed to engage to make this happen seemed to be disconnected.
“Oh God, Hansie,” I heard myself say, with the air of someone announcing a great insight, “I feel like shit. I think I’m going to. . .”
Well, I didn’t make it to the bathroom, but I did make it to the flower pot in the hall.
I had been away on a study day for my MBA that Saturday, and I didn’t get back until about 7:30 in the evening.
As I opened the door, I yelled ‘Hi honey, I’m homo,” but got no immediate response. There was a strange, unpleasantly acrid smell in the hall.
“Hansie? Anybody home?”
I bounded upstairs to the bedroom. He was in bed with a pillow over his head.
“Hansie? Honey, what’s wrong?”
“Please, Tim, do not shout,” he whispered. “My head is throbbing. And Phil is asleep in the spare bedroom. At least, I hope he is.”
“Phil? Why? What’s been going on? And what’s that smell in the hall?”
“Phil was sick into the potplant in the hall, the big one. I meant to put it outside. I think none went on the carpet in the living room.”
“The carpet? The good carpet? Jesus, what have the pair of you been doing?”
“We had a wine tasting. Please now, my liefie, go away and let me die in peace.”
I could see from the state of him that I wasn’t going to get many sensible answers right now. But tomorrow, I decided, Hansie and I were going to have another little talk. In the meantime:
“Have you had water?”
“Ja, three big glasses.”
“OK, I’ll bring you up another one, orange juice this time, because the sugar will help. What about Phil?”
“Ja, I made him drink plenty too.”
“I’ll bring you both orange juice and a painkiller.” I slipped downstairs to the kitchen, which looked as if a bomb had hit it, crisp packets on the floor, cupboard doors open, dirty glasses everywhere. There was a big 2-litre bottle of orange in the fridge so I gulped a glass myself, poured two more and took them back upstairs.
Phil groaned and turned over when I knocked on the door and slipped in. He was still half dressed, although either he or Hansie had taken his socks and shirt off.
“Phil, mate, you need to drink this.”
“No sweetheart, sorry, no can do. Just drink it up like a good boy.”
“Orange juice. And two paracetamol.”
He grunted, raised himself up enough to take the two white tablets and wash them down with the glass of orange in a single long swallow. Then he burped and collapsed back into the bedclothes.
Shaking my head I returned to my dearly beloved.
“Here, Hansie, drink this and take the paracetamol.”
“Oh Here God, I want to die.”
“I’d be delighted to arrange it. But sadly for you, sweetie, I think you’re going to live. And does. . .” at that moment the telephone rang.
“Saved by the bell.” I ran downstairs to pick up the handset. It was Piet.
“Tim. Is Phil still with you? He said something about coming over to help Hansie, but it was some time ago and he has not returned yet.”
“Ah, Piet, yes, um, sorry. . .” I could feel myself getting flustered.
“Tim? What has happened?” The tone sharpened a notch. In my head I could see those eyes looking into my soul. No, sorry boys, I’m not lying for you. Not to him. You’re on your own.
“He and Hansie – it seems they had a rather overenthusiastic session tasting Hansie’s homemade wine. It’s about 16% alcohol, and absolutely lethal. They’re both completely out of it, and I think they’re going to feel very sorry for themselves tomorrow.”
“If Phil is not in a fit state to train tomorrow I shall see to it that they are sorrier,” he said sombrely.
“I don’t know about that, but he’s certainly not fit to travel now,” I said. “Hansie says he made sure they had plenty of water before they went upstairs to sleep it off, and I’ve just given them orange juice and paracetamol. And one or other of them has been sick, so that’s a bit less poison in the system. I think it might be best if you left Phil here tonight and he went home in the morning.”
“Very well. I shall come over and pick him up at 8:30am. He is not to attempt to drive himself, please tell him that.”
“Ach, Tim, I am sorry. I should not be angry with you – indeed, I am not, for this is none of your doing, and you are left with the clearing up, I have no doubt.”
“It’s all right, Piet, really. More untidy than anything else. I suspect that this is an offence that will carry its own punishment, if the state of them now is anything to go by. Home made wine always produces worse hangovers than the real thing – too many other chemicals in the brew.”
“You sound like a man who speaks from experience,” he said, sounding a little more amused. “I shall see you in the morning. Good night, Tim.”
“Night, Piet.” I thought I would shower, tidy up, then finish off some coursework and have an early night. And it’s a good job that our couch is comfortable, because all the beds were full of drunken rugby players sleeping it off.
You know, I am really getting too old for this sort of thing. I am sure there was a time when I would have gone to bed drunk, and got up in the morning feeling a little sore and sad, but nothing like this. Not even the time when I was 12 and Connie Duvel and I got so vrot on maize beer that we bought from Elias the kitchen boy, and Elias’ wife Delia, who had been my old nurse, told my father that I was sick with a stomach virus to stop him finding out.
When Tim came in with coffee and more paracetamol first thing in the morning, and drew the curtains, it felt like being stabbed in the eyes.
“Ach, close the damned curtains, that light is killing me.”
“Nonsense. Drink up, and then have a nice long shower, and you’ll feel better for it. Lovely morning.”
I glared at him. He is never so offensively cheerful in the morning.
“You are enjoying this.”
“Of course I am. I’m the one who had to sleep on the couch because the two of you can’t hold your drink, remember.”
I was going to snap back about him not being able to talk, until I remembered how I had teased him about that very thing, the time he accidentally revealed the truth about Phil and Pieter to Simon, the company’s very out and very gossipy IT man. But there was no doubt about it – he was not only enjoying it, he was revelling in it. And just as soon as my stomach stopped sloshing about inside, and whoever was playing rap inside my skull turned the drum machine off, I would speak to him severely about it.
“That whistling. It goes right through my head.”
“Was I whistling? Sorry,” he said insincerely.
“Go. Just – go, please?”
He smiled, and kissed my cheek before departing. I hoped that if he was as horribly bright to Phil, Phil would sit on him, or something.
However, when I finally got downstairs, he was looking quite unsat-on. A pale and unhappy Phil was sitting at the table in the kitchen, nursing a glass of fruit juice in both hands.
I gave him a sympathetic smile.
“I think we were maybe a little. . .”
“Stupid,” he agreed. “I am so dead when Piet gets his hands on me. I was supposed to be training this morning.”
“On a Sunday?”
“Well, there are so many specialist coaches now, all anxious to fit their bit in, and what with other commitments – yes, not often, but sometimes on a Sunday. And Piet is pretty good about allowing us rest, he says the injury rate in the modern game is as much to do with overtraining as the matches, but he won’t stand for missing a training session that’s been booked.”
“Ach, boetie, I am sorry. I never thought. . .”
“Hansie, it isn’t your fault. It’s my mistake, and up to me to pay for it.”
I felt awful. I knew how he would be paying. He was right: Pieter de Vries would not forgive this.
I heard a car draw up in the drive.
“He’s here,” said Tim quietly. “Sit, Hansie, I’ll get it.” I heard him open the door, the murmur of voices, then the approaching footsteps of doom. . .
I swear that the temperature in the kitchen fell ten degrees when he walked in. There is this thing, when he is angry, all the planes in his face seem to sharpen, as if the flesh underneath had melted away leaving only skin stretched over hard, chisel-edges of bone.
Both Phil and I stood, automatically, and hung our heads like naughty schoolboys. I hadn’t thought it possible for Phil to look any paler than he had earlier, but he achieved it.
“So. I believe you had a training session this morning, Mr Cartwright.”
I saw Phil wince at that ‘Mr Cartwright’ and the glacial tone.
“Yes, sir,” he murmured.
“And are you fit to attend it?”
“No, sir. Very well. You will return home with me, and you will remain in your room until you are well. Then I shall cane you for irresponsibility and lack of self control. Is that understood?”
“Yes, sir.” That last was so quiet I could hardly hear it.
“Please, Meneer. The fault was mine.”
The hawk eyes swung on me, glinting with anger.
“Did you hold the bottle to his lips and force him to drink at knifepoint, Hansie?”
“No. No, sir. But. . .”
“Then allow him to take responsibility for his own errors. I am most displeased with you, Hansie, and you bear some guilt over this, but it was Phil who chose to become so drunk that he disgraced himself in front of his friends, and was unable to meet those commitments to which he has pledged himself as a player.”
“But meneer – he didn’t know how strong it was. And neither of us realised how much we had drunk until it was too late.”
“And this is supposed to make me feel more kindly towards you? That you were both so stupid, and so careless, as to fill your bodies with alcohol without even taking note of your intake?”
“No, meneer. But if Phil is to be punished – I should bear some of it. Some of it is my fault.”
“You should, undoubtedly be punished. Tim. . .”
“Hansie and I will deal with the things that relate to us, like the state of the house,” he chipped in. “But rugby is your domain, Piet. If Hansie has messed up Phil’s training program, I’m happy to leave any punishment to you.”
Where is a knight in shining armour when you need one? But I had asked for it, hey?
“Very well. Hansie, you will report to me this evening, in your kit, and we shall discuss this further. Come Phil, it is time you went home.”
At least it was Phil, this time, not Mr Cartwright. Phil managed a sketchy smile to me, turned to Tim.
“Tim, I’m really sorry.”
“It’s all right.”
“Can you repot your plant?”
“I doubt it. It’s silk. Artificial.”
Phil groaned. “Oh God, I’m sorry, I didn’t realise. I just knew that I wasn’t going to make it, and I thought, well at least if I can keep it all in the flower pot. . .”
Tim said nothing.
“It was all in the flower pot, wasn’t it? Oh, no, please don’t tell me. . .”
“Just a few stray splashes. Don’t worry about it.”
Phil buried his head in his hands.
“Phil!” said Piet sharply.
“Tim, I’m really, really sorry. I’ll get you a new plant. And if you want to get someone in to do the cleaning, and send me the bill. . .”
“Honestly, Phil, it wasn’t as bad as that.”
“Phil, go to the car please.” Phil nodded, and slunk out like a puppy that has just had its nose rapped.
“Tim, I think you should also come over this evening.”
“I don’t see any – well, OK,” he agreed, as Piet’s cheekbones leaped into sharp relief.
“Good. You can bring Hansie over. Seven o’clock please, and please do not be late.”
He swept out, like a major tropical storm heading in the general direction of Cape Cartwright.
I looked at Tim, and he looked at me.
“Was there really a mess in the hall?”
“’Fraid so. It was a bit worse than I let on with Piet there. I don’t suppose Phil’s aim was any too good at that point. But it’s done now, all cleared up.”
“No, not yet. Not until this evening.”
“Oh. Yes. You’d better have some porridge. It will help settle your stomach.”
I don’t think that Hansie had a very comfortable day, between the remains of his hangover and worrying about seeing Piet that evening, so heaven knows what sort of state Phil, who hates waiting for punishment, was in. I supposed that that was part of Piet’s lesson. That and pragmatism. If either of them had been bent over that morning, the chances are that we should have had another mess to clear up.
Hansie was in his kit and waiting by just after six o’clock, which given that it only takes fifteen or twenty minutes at most to drive over to Piet’s house was a sign of his nervousness.
“Hansie, we are not leaving before 6:40, so you might as well take your coat off.”
“I’m cold,” he muttered. “This damned country is always cold.”
“Don’t go trying to pick a fight with me, my lad, just to make yourself feel better. You got yourself into this, now it’s time to pay.”
“But I feel so bad for Phil. If I had not asked him over, to drink that bleddy wine, he would be all right now.”
“Hansie, what Piet said was true. You didn’t make Phil drink it, and he needs to learn to judge for himself what he can take. Especially when drinking dubious liquids offered by suspicious foreigners. Well, we’ve been through all that before.”
“That is not fair. That time in the club was. . .”
“I know. Old history. And I’m sure if you’d been drinking beer, he would have said: OK, I’ve had enough now. Homemade wine is dodgy stuff. No quality control.”
“And no strength on the label.”
“Ja, OK, I admit to that.” He began to pace the room like a caged animal, hands behind his back. I did my best to ignore it. Eventually, after about ten minutes of this, punctuated by heavy sighs and glances at his watch, I said:
“All right, I give in. Get into the car. We’ll go the long way around.”
As it happens, despite taking the scenic route, we were still early. So we sat and waited in silence in the car. When Piet says seven, he means seven, not five-to, not five-past. The wait was getting even to me, and I had no immediate prospect of tasting Piet’s cane. At least, I didn’t think I did. He couldn’t blame me, could he? No, he had said he didn’t.
Eventually, though, even the treacle-mired hands of my wristwatch agreed that it was time to go in. Piet opened the door without comment, but with a courteous nod, and indicated that we should go into the living room. A slightly red-eyed Phil was standing there. He managed a wan smile.
“Hansie, I will deal with you in my study. Tim – I believe you have business with Phil in the meantime.”
My head snapped up with surprise.
“No. No, really, there is no need.”
Phil looked – well, to be honest, I couldn’t tell you how he looked. Upset, mainly.
“Tim, I feel really bad about behaving like that. Piet and I have already – he’s already demonstrated to me how stupid I was, getting hammered the day before a training session.” Ah, so that was why he wasn’t sitting. “If it had been a mandatory session for the international squad I could have lost my place. But I owe you. . .”
“Nothing. You owe me nothing. If you and Piet have sorted things out, then that’s it as far as I’m concerned.”
He looked imploringly at Piet.
“Tim,” Piet rumbled. “A word please. In the kitchen. Hansie, go to the study and remain there until I return.”
Why did that make me feel like I was the one in the wrong? I followed obediently. When we got there, he motioned that I should shut the door.
“Tim, why are you unwilling to spank Phil?”
“I’m not unwilling exactly. . .”
“I think you are. And so does Phil. It is unkind, my friend.”
That rather floored me.
“But I don’t – I mean, no, I’m not being unkind, that isn’t what I’m trying to do.”
“But it is so. There is some problem here, and Phil thinks, not without justice, that it is with him. Several times now he has done things for which you would have spanked Hansie without a thought. For which you would have allowed me to spank Hansie, or Hansie or me to spank you, if you were so foolish as to act so. It is only Phil that you will not touch. You will not allow him – what is the word? Absolution. It is becoming a problem between you, and that will affect all of us. This friendship, which I value greatly.”
“But so do I! Piet, what are you saying, we can’t be friends unless I spank Phil?”
He shook his head, firmly. “No. Of course not. We will always be friends, I hope, you and I and Hansie and Phil. But the kind of friendship we have had, the ease, the – intimacies, you understand me? These depend on a great trust between us.”
“I trust you. Implicitly.”
“But do you trust yourself?”
I looked down, unwilling to meet his eyes. He reached out, placed a hand not ungently under my chin, and forced me to look at him. I expected judgement, even anger. What I saw was concern.
I bit my lip.
“Piet – I. . . it feels like. . .” The words that might shatter everything trembled on my tongue.
“Adultery. You know that Phil and I were always attracted to one another. And when I made such a bloody fool of myself, when Phil paddled me – even then, I was turned on by the idea. Even when I should have been ashamed of myself. Was ashamed of myself. Doing it to Phil, being the one handing it out – well, that’s even worse. I would enjoy that more. And it would be like betraying Hansie, and you.”
He looked at me. “And would you? Sleep with Phil behind our backs?”
“Of course not, what do you take me for? Or him, for that matter.” It came out without thinking, pure indignation.
“No. Exactly.” He leaned forward and for a split second I thought he was going to slap me, but instead he ruffled my hair. “Do you think that Phil does not feel attraction to you? That I do not feel attraction to you, to Hansie still? What happened on Hansie’s birthday should have cured such ideas, if nothing else. But we are men, not animals. Adults. We make choices, to act on our feelings or not to act. I trust you not to act in a way that will hurt me. Or Hansie, or Phil, other than their backsides. Phil trusts you to act so, and Hansie also. It is as I said: it is only Tim who does not trust Tim.”
“I – you don’t mind?”
He made an odd sideways motion of his head, neither yes nor no. “I will be honest, I do not always find it easy. I am a jealous man. But I cannot fault you for admiring Phil, for he is beautiful. And when I think of how rich my life has become since I came here, I am disposed to be generous. I wish us all to be easy together.”
He got up. “I have left Hansie waiting long enough. It would be unkind to leave him longer. I cannot force you to do this, if you are not comfortable with it. But remember what I have said. And remember that I will always be your friend, as long as you wish it.” He paused, bent down for a brief, fierce, hug, and went out.”
I took a huge breath. Time to grow up, Tim boy. Adult, yes. And sometimes that meant accepting that your motives were mixed, and yes, maybe you weren’t such a nice person as you liked to imagine, and getting on with it. And I'd just have to spank around the cane marks that I suspected were already there and smarting.
I marched into the living room.
“Right, Phil Cartwright, you and I are going to have a little chat about the state of my hall.”
“Oh. Oh, yes, Tim.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Yes, sir,” breathed Phil, with enormous relief.
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© , 2005