Piet called me from the sitting room when he saw it; I had been putting away the last of the things from the dishwasher. The newsreader had announced a breakthrough and an arrest in Shropshire, and I arrived in the doorway in time to see some rather unfocused and long lens coverage of a police raid on a farmhouse, and a man being removed under the disguise of a blanket. A moment later another man carried a child through the doorway and to an ambulance; the cameraman turned discreetly away, obviously to avoid identifying the child, but I nodded at Piet’s raised eyebrow. The man was Nick. We sat down to watch the rest of the report: there was a police press conference, and announcements about arrests and somebody being charged with three murders and investigations continuing into two more. Nick made a statement directly to camera, and he looked dreadful, white and exhausted. And we heard no more other than what was in the newspapers for a week, until Fran called in on her way home one Friday evening.

“Nick’s coming up tonight, but not until midnight; he’s got four days’ leave, and I’m working until about half four tomorrow. It’s a wedding, I can’t postpone it. You must have seen about his case – yes? – well, he’s rung every night, and he’s shattered, and stressed to death. These cases with children freak him out, Piet. He hates them; well, I think they all do. He said a couple of times to me that Kate wanted children and he was never fussed, but I’m beginning to think that it’s actually that he finds the world too frightening to introduce children of his own.”

Piet nodded soberly. “I would not argue with him, either. I am occasionally relieved to think that I do not need to make any decision about children. I can be content with sending unsuitable gifts to Riana’s children.”

Fran smiled, absently. “I want a favour, Piet.”

His eyebrows went up.

“Are you people busy tomorrow?”

Piet glanced my way. “I do not think so.”

“Could you look in on Nick at some point? I think he’s going to spend the day worrying about what he did and didn’t do on that case, and a distraction would be good for him.”

“He could come for lunch,” I offered. “In fact, we can do better than that. Hansie says Nick runs, and I run most days. We could go out together tomorrow morning and then he could come here afterwards. We’ll call Tim and Hansie too and have a boys’ afternoon, get some beer in.”

Fran looked doubtful. “I don’t know if he would come, Phil. I think it would do him good, but I think he might refuse. If you turn up at the flat to call on him, he’ll let you in and give you coffee and at least be neighbourly. If you phone him, I think he’ll turn you down.”

“So do not tell him,” suggested Piet. “A little deception occasionally does no harm. Phil will go round in the morning to call and ask if he wants to run. He will not refuse when there is someone on his doorstep, and he need know no more than that you said he was coming and would be alone all day. Besides, of all of us, Phil is the least threatening and most obviously friendly. We will do what we can for you; he has had a bad time and has plainly been working very hard, so we will do what we can for him just as he does what he can for everybody else.”

Only Piet could see it as a civic duty to get a policeman blotto.

I went round at about half nine, and rang the bell. Nick looked better than he had done on TV, but not well. He’s too thin, I don’t think he eats properly, and although he was dressed and shaved, he looked grey and tired.

“Hi, Nick. Fran said the other night that you would be here today on your own, and you run, don’t you? I’m going to leave the car in the car park at the Dragon this morning and run the circular bridle-path, and I wondered if you would like to come.”

“I doubt if I could keep up with you, Phil. Not at my age.”

“I’m not racing, and if I want to go faster than you I can always tigger. I’ve done it with Hansie a couple of times. He trots along at his own pace and if I want to go faster I bounce on ahead for a quarter of a mile and come back to meet him. Come on, it’s a lovely morning, too nice to stay home.”

“Well. . .”

“Pack a change of clothes, and afterwards you can come back and have lunch with us. Hansie and Tim are coming and we’ll do nothing all day. Send Fran a text and tell her where you’ll be. Oh, come on, it’ll be fun.”

I’m not sure he wanted to, but I think he was just too tired to think of a convincing argument. It was good for him, though. He took longer than I did to get going comfortably, but Hansie's right, he’s a natural runner, good style and he can clearly keep it up more or less indefinitely. We went round the outside edge of the common – well, he did, and I did my sprints across the middle and came back to him, and the last time, he sprinted too. I beat him, without too much trouble, but not by the margin I would have expected. We leaned against the gate and panted a bit.

“God, I’ve lost it,” he mourned. “I’m supposed to keep in shape, and I’ve been cutting it to fit in extra shifts.”

“It’ll come back, you’re not far off,” I offered. “Why don’t you call me when you’re here? I run most days, no more seriously than this, and Piet comes quite often too. My real work is done at the club or the gym, but I like this and I like having company. Come more often.”

He nodded, thoughtfully, and we turned back to the path and jogged more slowly back through the allotments and towards the car park.

“I want to go to the market, if you don’t mind, before we go home. I promised Piet I’d bring in something for lunch.”

“Are you always the cook, then?”

“Usually. Piet has no talent for it. I’ve managed to make him competent, but he’s not inspired. He doesn’t care for cooking much, to be fair, and I love it, so that’s how we divide the work. He’s the one with the urge to tidy up, so he does that. It’s going to be very hot – well, it’s hot already – so I thought we could just get deli type stuff and some good bread, and take it out into the garden.”

There’s a good market, with a couple of farm stalls, and we hit it hard. Nick began to uncurl a little and cheerfully carried things for me, and gave an opinion here and there. He was the one who insisted on having some of the marinated ginger and garlic salad, and I doubt if I’ll ever get the smell out of my car. We might have overdone it a bit: it took us two trips to unpack everything from the boot when we got home. Piet opened the door.

“Well, koekie? A good run? Nick, come in. How are you?”

“Fine thanks, although Phil has run the legs off me.”

Piet gave him a rather searching look and I think he saw what I did, for he made some anodyne remark and took some of the packages from me. I set everything on the table and went to the sink to fill a couple of glasses.

“Nick, you have first shower and change, and I’ll put this stuff away. Here, Piet shouts if you don’t keep your water intake up when you run. And yes, Piet, I did do my stretches. We both did.”

“You mock me, koekie. You had a water bottle with you, I trust.”

“I always do, you know that. And so did Nick, and we got some more in town. But it’s turning hot, and more won’t hurt us. Go on, show Nick the bathroom and give him a towel. Did you ring Tim?”

“They will be here in about half an hour. You are bossy today; has he been like this all morning, Nick?”

And he swept Nick off upstairs, and came back two minutes later to help me with the shopping. We had most of it put away before he spoke.

“Fran is right, that man is living on his nerves. A day off will do him good. We will see that he eats today and does nothing stressful and he will be better for it.”

“I get the impression he’s always like that, Piet. He said something before about having a delicate stomach and getting stress migraines when cases come to a head.”

“But he is plainly good at his job, and the last few times we have seen him, I thought he was controlling his stress better. Did you not think so? Fran is good for him. And he for her; she too relaxes more than she did. They are a true couple.”

I turned. “You old romantic! Are you looking for happy endings all round?”

His eyebrows went up. “I? I am not at all romantic. I am completely insensitive and cold. I would certainly never think of giving my heart to a pretty rugby player, such that if he left me I do not know what I would do. You are the romantic one.”

“Me? I’m too young and callow to be romantic. I’m looking for a different lover every night, not a bony eagle of a man who never lets me – don’t you dare! That’s the tapenade, and if you put it down my neck I’ll make you lick it all off again and Nick will be shocked.”

“I won’t,” said his voice from the doorway, “but I’ve never tasted tapenade, so can I take my share out first?”

It’s very unusual to see Piet caught on the hop, but he hadn’t heard Nick coming any more than I did. Nick laughed at us both.

“Sorry, did I make you jump?”

“You did indeed. We shall put the tapenade down and behave responsibly. Phil, go and shower before Tim and Hansie get here, and Nick and I will set up the table and chairs in the garden.”

It was a lovely lunch, though I say it myself. A day for beer rather than wine, straight from the fridge, and a simple lunch and good conversation. We made a point of not asking Nick about his work, but presently he did offer stories, not about recent cases but about older affairs. It sounds like work which would drive any of us to stress headaches, frankly. He was still very fidgety and tense looking, and I wasn’t absolutely certain at first that Hansie was helping. They were getting on better, those two, but it wasn’t quite comfortable. Hansie wasn’t as. . . well, I hate to say it, but as unpleasant as he had been a couple of times with Nick, but he was still sharp. Still, they had obviously sorted something out between them, because Nick gave as good as he got, and the last few times I had seen them together he hadn’t defended himself at all. They were just – just! – the right side of snippy with each other. A couple of times Tim turned off one of Hansie's smarter remarks, but I wasn’t sure he needed to. There was still something going on there, and I was beginning to get an idea of what it was.

Piet was watching too; he misses very little, and part way through the afternoon he went into the house and came back with clean glasses and a big jug of water. It was hot enough that I at least thought it a good idea and held out my hand for one, but Nick shook his head. Piet ignored him, and poured a glassful anyway and held it out to him.

“Come, Nick, it is not wise to drink only beer on a day like this.”

Nick’s usually so placid that the edge of his response took me by surprise.

“Are you saying I can’t hold my drink?”

We don’t, any of us, speak to Piet in that tone. We just don’t. Not unless we want a reminder of our manners, delivered by way of a smart slap. Although. . . Well, Nick can’t be far off Piet’s age. But Piet didn’t rise at all. “Of course not. I am saying that it is hot, and you are tired, and it is at times like those that a man finds that alcohol affects him more strongly than usual.”

They exchanged glances, and for a moment I thought Nick would argue, but Piet gave him a Look of some severity, and Nick’s gaze fell away and he took the glass without any further argument. Oddly, it was Hansie who acted to defuse the situation. “I will take one, please, Piet. Phil, what is that plant with the yellow flowers behind your foxgloves?”

Like I would know? Or Piet either, come to that? And, at a guess, like Hansie didn’t know perfectly well? But he and Tim argued amicably about it, and the flush faded from Nick’s cheekbones, and he leaned back in the lounger and closed his eyes. He drank the water, though, I noticed that. Even he submitted to Piet when Piet put on the Look. I also noticed Hansie shift his chair five minutes later. I thought he wanted to move into the shade, but it wasn’t that at all. He was looking past me at Nick, who was asleep, or nearly so, and Hansie's move contrived to throw his shadow over Nick’s face. I didn’t say anything, but I glanced at Piet who had seen it too, and who raised one amused eyebrow at me.

We chatted about nothing, the rest of us, until Hansie said something about the music festival reviews. Not a local thing, well, not strictly. It’s about forty miles away. I’ve been to several interesting concerts in the past but this year there had been nothing that caught my fancy, until Hansie mentioned the choir.

“Tim will not go with me, he says the peculiar intervals of Georgian music make his teeth hurt.”

“Which choir is it?” I asked.

“I do not recall the name, and I doubt if I could pronounce it anyway. A women’s choir from one of the big Georgian churches. They have done two afternoon concerts which have been very well received, and they are to close the festival with an open-air concert in the park next Saturday night.”

“Are there tickets left?”

“I believe so. Would you come?”

“Sure. Piet?”

“Not me, koekie. You know that I cannot follow anything musically complex. If Tim cannot manage it, neither could I.”

I glanced across. “I wonder if Nick would be interested?”

“No, thanks,” he said, without opening his eyes. “I’m on late shifts the whole of next week, and I’m covering the weekend too.”

So it was me and Hansie, and really that was the point at which I should have backed out because we all know that when Hansie and I do something together it always ends in a disaster. Pretty much without exception.

Ach, why do I agree to go to things with just Phil? It is never a good idea. Never. And yet I thought this time: we are going to a concert. It cannot possibly go wrong. Not possibly.

The concert was in the park. We had wondered about taking folding chairs but in the end we decided against it and took merely a rug to sit on. Phil drove us, and I wish to have it fully understood that we did NOT go for a drink. We had a couple of bottles of water and that was all.

The trouble started when Phil was recognised. I think he had not expected that – he is becoming better known and people do look after him in the street, but you can see often that is one of those ‘Who’s that? he’s somebody famous’ recognitions. This time, though, somebody knew who he was and came to ask him for an autograph, and you know how such a piece of information travels in a crowd, from one party to another. He had a series of young girls and young men come to ask him to sign scraps of paper and concert programmes and all sorts and he bore it with extreme good humour. The novelty of it has worn off, hey? But he is a good-natured young man, and Piet has insisted on every cent in the rand by way of politeness to the public. He signed everything until the choir began to file onto the stage they had built backing onto the lake, and then he said quite politely, but quite clearly, “No more, please, I want to hear the choir.”

A couple of people turned away in disappointment, but without any argument, but there was a man who pushed a programme under Phil’s nose, and said, harshly, “For my girlfriend.” No ‘please’, no ‘thank you’, no manners, and Phil put a large hand, quite gently, on the paper, and moved it to one side, and came to sit down beside me. The man followed him, still thrusting the paper at him, and Phil said, firmly, “No. Later,” and turned his attention to the stage.

We thought nothing more of it, for the concert was remarkably interesting. It is a style of music unfamiliar to us, and some of the harmonies are peculiar, but there was no doubt the choir was talented and well trained, and we enjoyed ourselves. Afterwards, we walked back up into the town for we had left the car in the public car park behind the Town Hall. It is not particularly a long walk, but it was nearly eleven o’clock, and there were quite a lot of people coming out of pubs and restaurants. I do not know if Phil recognised the man from the park; I did not. Nor did either of us see the punch coming.

But throwing a punch into Phil’s torso must be a very unrewarding experience: he is a solid young man, and it had no noticeable effect, except on his temper. He turned and swung in one clean movement, and his attacker went over backwards. Unfortunately he was not alone: he had three or four friends with him, and they did not take kindly to one of their number being knocked down in the street.

Ja wel, we did not make good choices, I suppose. Poor judgement about discretion and valour. There was a pub directly behind us, another not forty yards up the road. We could easily have got ourselves out of the street and somewhere a fight would have not followed, or would have been easily broken up. But Phil is so gentle, normally, that one tends to forget: he makes his career in a contact sport which is known to be – well, violent. He would not have the success he does unless he had also the temperament, the strength, the aggression. The testosterone. He will not pick a fight, but you should not offer him one unless you are prepared to follow through, for once he has roused his temper, it requires a great deal of calming. He went into this fight unwillingly, but once he was in it, he gave it his all. Even so, five to one are not good odds in a fist fight, and Phil is my brother, so his battles are mine. Five to two is better, when the two are big men and in hard condition.

But Saturday night in a town, there will always be fights, and people looking to break them up, and such people came upon us. The trouble was that when they did, Phil and I did not realise it; we thought it reinforcements for the opposition, and by then we were well into our stride and ready to take on all comers. And that was how we came to be arrested. Phil had knocked down a policeman; I was engaged hand to hand with another; the third called for backup and suddenly we were all arrested and in a van and heading for a police station.

Ja wel, that is a new experience for me and not one I wish to repeat. Seven of us in a van and unpacked like luggage at the other end, and hurled into a police station where there was a great deal of noise and movement and too much going on. There was a desk sergeant , taking names and addresses, and being roundly shouted at and abused by the other parties to the fight, and behind him, a door opened and a man came through, looking back over his shoulder to speak to someone, and then he turned, looked straight at me, and I saw horrified recognition. It had to be him, didn’t it? Of all the people in front of whom I could appear at my worst, it just had to be him. He looked round the room, and then he took a deep breath and bellowed: “QUIET!

Ja, and we were quiet, all of us, for a moment, and Nick stalked through the room to the desk, and said, sharply, “What is going on here, sergeant?” And we all spoke at once again, the sergeant and Phil and me and all the others, and Nick did not even look round at me, merely saying, “Constable, divide them among the interview rooms, two to a room. I’ll deal with this.”

So I ended up in a room with Phil, who was coming down from his adrenaline high, and beginning to turn green and sick. He gave me a look of such panic that I drew him over to the chair, and pushed him into it. “There, boet, sit. You are all right. You are not hurt?”

“Not yet,” he said, ominously, and I shuddered. I knew precisely what he meant. Tim was not going to be impressed with me, fersure, but the thought of explaining to the Viper that Phil had been arrested for brawling in the street made me very apprehensive too. And if this story made it to the papers, even to the local papers. . . We know, all of us, that Phil does not wish, ever, to have a negative story on general release. Look, his friends, his team mates are very good, very supportive, very discreet – but Phil is gay. Sooner or later someone will say something and we have no idea, any of us, what it will do to his career. Piet’s aim is that Phil may be written up in the sports pages, and ja, his charity work and so on is a good thing in itself and has a good effect on the public perception of him, but we want that there should never be a story on any subject that might cause someone to dig for more and worse. I could not see any way out of this mess, such a mess, and what the Viper was going to say to me, and to Phil. . .

Boet, do you think we should call Piet? I do not know what the rules are in England about phone calls and so forth when you are arrested, but. . .”

“No. Not yet. After all, what could he do? It’s not as if we’re under age or anything, entitled to someone with us. Wait and see what’s going to happen.”

“I suppose,” I agreed, ruefully. And wait we did, and after half an hour, Nick came in, with a constable, and an attitude like nothing on earth.

“What the bloody hell did you two think you were doing? Taking a swing at a police officer? I expected no more of Hansie, we all know his answer to anything is to hit somebody, but I thought you had more sense, Phil!”

Ekskuus tog? I beg your pardon? I do not hit people. Well, ja, I would have hit Phil the first time we met, that is true. And Marshall; I would more than willingly have hit Marshall. And it is true, I did hit Nick. . . but I do not pick fights, that is not true. I opened my mouth to say so, and Nick gave me such a Look that I closed it again, and he turned back to Phil, but I was very indignant.

“Give me your version of what happened tonight. Start at the concert; I know there was some sort of altercation there.”

And Phil, very subdued, gave him our story, and the young lady in uniform took notes, and after, Nick pushed back his chair and stood up again without so much as a glance my way, and they went out together. Phil and I had very little to say to each other, except that after another quarter of an hour or so, Phil pulled out his mobile phone and looked for messages.

“I don’t suppose we’ve got much longer before the shit hits the fan. We ought to be home by now. They’ll give us forty minutes in case we had to park miles out or we went for a drink or anything, but it won’t be long before Piet and Tim start asking where we are.”

But after another ten minutes, Nick came back and this time he was alone. He still looked furious.

“Right. I have fixed this and you two owe me big time. I believe that the fight was none of your making, Phil, and that you were set upon in the street and only defending yourself. I think you could have done it better; in fact, you could hardly have done it worse. You’re bloody lucky in that the man you hit hasn’t any idea who you are – he just heard other people asking for autographs and thought you must be somebody famous. I’ve persuaded him, without telling him any actual lies, that you’re a small scale rock star, and that you’ve agreed not to press charges against him. I think that should be enough to keep your name out of the papers. The officer you hit will let it drop, but I had to call in favours from coppers in three counties to persuade him of it, and I promised him that you would give him an autographed shirt for the next charity auction at his kids’ school. Don’t let me down on that. You can’t go yet, the others are still being processed outside but I’ll send somebody to show you out the back way as soon as it’s quiet.”

He swung round to me, and leaned over the table. “That’s it, Hansie. That’s your one strike. In-laws or not, family or not, that was an abuse of my position to dig you out of this mess, and I won’t do it another time. Swing at another police officer and you’re on your own. Now for God’s sake stay here and keep quiet until I say you can go!”

And he swept off again before I had a chance to say anything. Like this was my fault? And I hadn’t asked him to dig me out of this, I could have managed it myself! Bastard!

But Phil looked at me with his mouth slightly open, and said in awed tones, “Fran tops that?”

I had spent a happy evening at home doing – well, doing the sort of stuff you do when you get a quiet evening at home. I had filed all my MBA stuff, put it away ready for the next year. I had paid three bills. Balanced my bank account. Done half a dozen emails to people I had meant to get in touch with ages ago. Read a chapter of my library book. Watched something on TV. Filled and emptied the washing machine, run the dishwasher. None of it exactly thrilling, but all useful. I was beginning, I admit, to wonder where Hansie was when the phone rang.

“Tim? This is Pieter. I have had a call from Phil.”

And a cold trickle ran down my spine. I swear it did, it’s not just hindsight. I actually said, “Oh God, what mess have they got into this time?”

“I am having trouble believing it myself, Timmy, but apparently they have been arrested.”

“Arr. . . arrested? Arrested? I’ll bloody kill him, I swear I will! He isn’t fit to be let out of my sight!”

“No, they have been let go, there will be no charges brought, you need not excite yourself. Apparently Nick has sorted everything.”

“Nick has? Oh God, Piet, what did they do?”

“They got into a fight. I do not yet know the details. I said to Phil that he was to come home at once, and Hansie too, and I think you should perhaps come over here and we will see if we can make any sense of it.” 

Oh yes, I thought so too. And sense was going to be delivered to Hansie's backside, make no mistake about that. Arrested? With Phil? And the need to keep Phil’s reputation intact and his name out of the papers? Phil, thank God, was not my problem, but Hansie wouldn’t sit comfortably in a week.

Actually, given the speed with which I drove over to Piet’s, I was lucky not to get into trouble with the police myself. Piet looked faintly amused when he let me in, and he took me into the front room, and said calmly, “Now, Timmy, we must not assume that are absolutely in the wrong. Phil told me only that they were on the way home, and that they had been delayed and how, but not much detail. I told him that they should both come here, and that I would call you, so that he was to bring Hansie in. But he did say that Nick had sorted everything for them, and I think we know Nick well enough to say that he would get them out of a small difficulty, but he would not cover up anything very serious.”

“No, that’s true enough, he wouldn’t do anything unprofessional. Anyway, he likes Phil well enough, but I despair of him and Hansie. I thought they had come to some sort of understanding, Piet, but they seem now to have reached a stage of the constant minor niggle rather than the big quarrel and I’m not actually sure it’s better. It must drive Fran absolutely nuts; it does me, anyway.”

“You have not seen then, what is behind that?”

I stared. “Am I missing something?”

He waved me to a seat. “Timmy, when I was twelve, and Riana was ten, we fought all the time. But all the time. I was constantly in trouble at home for bullying her, but even thirty years on I will maintain that she was a provoking little miss. And yet, when I found her weeping because the big boys had been teasing her, I lay in wait for the ringleader on his way home from school and I hit him several times and very hard. But he was fourteen and bigger than me, and I had the worst of it until she came to join in the fight, and then we routed him. What is the phrase in English? Horse and foot? And afterwards we quarrelled again all the way home, until Mama came to ask why we were late and dirty and bloodstained and we failed to come up with a good explanation anything like fast enough.”

I absorbed that for a moment or two. “You think that’s it? That Hansie and Nick are. . . I don’t know, squabbling on top but. . .”

“I do. And so does Phil; he thinks it is very funny. Hansie's Family gets bigger by the day. There is Phil who is his little brother with whom he gets into trouble, and Nick is placing himself as the big brother who claims to hate him, but who rushes to his defence. I think too that if Nick needs help, Hansie will be there for him, pretending that he is not. But yes, they will bicker like children until they are quite comfortable together. Neither of them can see, I do not think, how alike they are. They are both fighting their demons and winning, but although Hansie's demons are in his past and are, we might say, real; Nick’s are entirely in his head and are to do with his duty, his responsibility. Also, of course, Nick is older and Hansie's instinct is to defer to him, except that we know that he bottoms for Fran, so Hansie cannot quite place him in his world. And there is still a little element of jealousy there too. I agree with you, the constant squabble is annoying, but I think you can do nothing about it unless it gets more serious. They will sort themselves out if we give them a safe space in which to do it.”

I tucked this away to think about later. “They had a big talk that day we all went on the search party. Hansie wouldn’t tell me about it and I haven’t asked, but I get the impression that Nick maybe talked about himself. That was when the bickering started.”

Piet nodded. “That would do it, yes. For you told me that Hansie explained about his family to Nick? He made himself vulnerable, and if Nick then did the same, they would achieve a. . . an equality of sorts. They may be trying to sort the detail of it now, having laid a foundation. Do not worry about Hansie and Nick, Tim.”

“I suppose I needn’t really. After all, it’s Hansie's lookout. Nick is obviously staying, so if Hansie wants Fran he’s got to reach an accommodation with Nick or arrange to see Fran when Nick isn’t around. And I. . . is that the car?”

Piet opened the door; the wanderers came in. And I thought it significant that although Piet said nothing, and I was standing in the living room doorway, they both turned quite automatically towards the study. Piet lifted an eyebrow at me and we followed them; they were standing in the centre of the room looking a little second hand, and Piet and I sat down together on the couch.

“So tell us,” invited Piet.

O.K., it wasn’t quite as bad as we had been expecting. Well, as I had been expecting. Bad enough, mind you. Not their fault that they had got into a fight, but their fault that they hadn’t got out of it better. Piet said so, and they both found something very fascinating at floor level.

“You will indeed arrange a signed shirt for Inspector Maitland’s colleague, Phil.” Inspector Maitland, not Nick. Piet is so good at that: at showing you the precise importance of what you did.

“Yes, sir. I thought I could do it on Monday. Ask everybody to sign it, not just me.”

“Good.” He glanced at me. “Monday is another international squad training day for Phil.” His attention went back to the two in front of us. “I believe I spoke to you once before on the subject of throwing a punch in a difficult situation.”

They both went scarlet. It was Phil who did it, but it had been Hansie's fault, and everybody had paid for it including me.

“In this case there was an element of self-defence, I admit, but you handled the affair exceptionally badly. The next time we see Nick, you will apologise fully to him for involving him.”

“I’ll call him tomorrow.”

“No. That would be to make this whole affair more official than it is. When next you meet will do. Indeed, I suggest you take two shirts on Monday and offer one to Nick. He will probably have some favoured charity of his own.”

“Yes, sir.”

I thought it time to put in my own fourpenceworth.

“I shall expect you to apologise to Nick too, Hansie. And to thank him for sorting everything out for you.”

His eyes flickered up to meet mine, but he didn’t say anything. He plainly wasn’t quite sure whether he was currently accountable to me or to Piet. Neither, to tell the truth, was I.

“Very well,” continued Piet. “Phil, can you give me any good reason why you should not be caned over this?”

Phil shook his head, still staring at the carpet. Obviously Hansie was to be left to me.

“We have a problem, then. I am not happy about sending you on your training day marked. Not with the international squad. I know you are upset by waiting: can you wait until Thursday?”

Thursday? Nearly a week? I mean, I’m not the most sympathetic towards Phil’s nerviness over having to wait, but that was excessive, surely. I must have made some sound, for Piet turned towards me and explained seriously, “I go away myself on Monday and I will not be back until late on Thursday.”

Phil was shaking his head. “I can’t. I really can’t, Piet. Please don’t make me. I could manage until Monday but not Thursday, please. I’ll take my chances with the squad: if they see, they see. Please, Piet, do it now.”

Piet considered. “No, we will not do that. We do not know the discretion of the others, and there might well be position to be gained by making you ridiculous.” He didn’t mention Spider Backhurst, or Cavenagh, but we all knew.

“But Piet, I can’t. . . I’ll be fit for nothing by Thursday!” He was beginning to work himself up already; he’s a lot better than he was, but he honestly doesn’t put it on. He would make himself ill with apprehension if he were asked to wait that long. I could feel Hansie's gaze on me, and when I turned, Piet was looking at me too. I nodded.

“Then you will wait until Monday, and on Monday night after your training is complete, you will report to Tim.”

I half expected an objection but it didn’t come. Phil’s shoulders went down and he took a shuddering breath but he nodded.

“I would have given twelve strokes, Tim, but I will leave it to your discretion.” Right. I would take a good look at Phil before I raised a hand. Just because Hansie's twitchy enough for two doesn’t mean that we should ignore Phil’s fears.

“We’ll keep things fair, then. If Phil has to wait until Monday night, so does Hansie. It doesn’t sound as if there was much to choose between them.”

Hansie expelled his breath hard between his teeth, but he said nothing. He had said almost nothing since they had come in.

“Good,” agreed Piet. “Then we need discuss this no further. Come, we will go next door and you will tell us how you enjoyed the concert.”

Not for long, though. Phil needed Piet to himself, he was still rattled, and Hansie had nothing to say and I wanted to take him home. His backside might be safe until Monday, but he was due an earful and he could damn well have that now. He took it, without arguing, and with only the occasional rueful look at me. Something, though, wasn’t right.

“What is it then? Is it because I’m making you wait for Phil?”

He shook his head. “That is only fair, and Phil could not possibly wait any longer, we know that. No, it is. . . I do not know what it is. Ach, it is in part that Phil can do something for Nick, like Piet says, buy him off with a charity contribution, and there is nothing I can do for him. He has done me a favour, however little I wanted it, and I must simply swallow it. I am under an obligation to him now and I can see no way to pay it off. I do not like that.”

“I don’t see why you feel you need to,” I objected. “He’s our friend and he helped you out of a hole. We went on his search party, after all; so maybe he felt he was paying you back for that?”

“Ach but that is different. That was. . . was a public service. And we would have done it anyway for Fran’s sake.”

“Then maybe he sorted you for Fran’s sake?”

He didn’t like that any better, I could see that. He worried at it all evening, chewed and chewed at it, and at every turn he became crosser with Nick. Eventually I decided I had to put a stop to it.

“Hansie, you can’t make this evening into Nick’s fault. Yours, yes. Phil’s, yes. Nick had nothing to do with it other than to put it right at the end. It’s not Nick’s fault you’ve got a caning coming. Why are you so resentful of him having helped you?”

I got no answer, but he did shut up and stop moaning about it. I grinned a bit. Piet was right, obviously – the big brother had thumped the bully for Hansie and now Hansie was going to quarrel with him all the way home.

I was mowing the lawn when Phil arrived on Monday night. I saw the car and I heard the engine stop, but it was a good couple of minutes before the door slammed. Phil nerving himself for the encounter, I expect; he really is jittery about it. But he came through the gate smartly enough and stopped on the path when I turned off the mower. Yes, jittery, but not distressed; don’t waste time, Timmy, but he can stand a dozen. I came to meet him.

“All right, Phil? Come on, we’ll get this done. Hansie? Where are you? You and Phil move the sofa while I wash my hands.”

They were waiting for me when I came down with the cane, sofa pushed forward to make room. O.K., I was prepared to hustle everything along a bit, they had both waited long enough, but I didn’t see why I shouldn’t get something out of it myself. “One of you at each end, please, trousers down, bend over.”

I’ve paid good money for videos with a less impressive view than that. Hansie's arse is just gorgeous (have I mentioned that before? Maybe I have). Just enough by way of muscle, and a curve that my hand would. . . Pay attention, Tim, that’s not what you’re here for. And Phil’s is pretty damn good too. Those explosive sprints up the pitch for which he’s known, they’re powered by the muscles up the backs of his thighs and his bum, and a very nice bum it is too. One of them at each end of the sofa, buy one get one free, and I’ve got the cane. The thought crossed my mind that later, I would describe to Hansie just how they had looked, and. . . Pay attention, Tim.

“Phil first, I think.” I lined up the cane. I could hear his breathing, slightly quicker than usual, and the sudden gasp as the cane came down. With the second, his back arched, and his shoulders flexed, but he made no sound, nor on the third. Enough by way of warm-up, I put a little more swing into the next two and he shifted uneasily against the sofa, but he was still silent and when the sixth got no response I leaned over to look down at his face.

The damn fool boy had the side of his hand rammed into his mouth and his teeth set in it. I grabbed at his shoulder and yanked him upright. “Let me see that! Bloody idiot, you’ve broken the skin! What did you do that for?” He didn’t answer me, not that I needed an answer. I stamped off to the cloakroom for the first aid box; when I came back Hansie was standing up watching. “You are such an idiot, Phil. Hold still. Hold still, I said!” And I ran an antiseptic wipe over the edge of his thumb, which was just beginning to ooze blood, and then slammed a plaster over the top. I wasn’t any too gentle either.

“That’ll do. Dress yourself. Quite plainly you don’t trust me enough to do this so we’ll leave it at that. I’ll tell Piet you had enough.”

He wasn’t happy. “Tim, it isn’t. . .”

I ignored him. “Hansie. Your turn. At once, please.”

I was scrupulously fair. Phil had only had six, so Hansie could only have six, despite having been promised a dozen. And however angry I was, it wasn’t with Hansie, and I wasn’t taking my temper out on him. He got precisely what Phil had had, and he was rather more responsive about it, yelping smartly on the last two. “Right. Up. Phil, you’re done, I told you, you can go. I’ll tell Piet. . .”

Hansie's hand closed on my arm. “No. Phil, wait, please. I need to talk to Tim; do not leave until I come down again.”

I touched about one stair in three as Hansie yanked me up by my wrist, pushed me into the bedroom and shut the door. I was face down over his lap before I had managed to get any grip on what was going on, and the grip, in fact, was on me. Hansie's grip, tightly over the back of my waist, and Hansie leaning down over me to grope under the bed.

“What are you. . . ow! Hansie! What the hell are you doing?”

Well, that’s as stupid a question as I’ve asked anybody in a good long time. What he had been after under the bed was his slipper; what he was doing was applying it to my backside. It’s a fallacy to say that you need your trousers down to get the good of a slippering: a big man with a strong wrist can make you feel it through cotton, certainly. I squirmed to get free but he wasn’t having any of it.

“Hansie! What’s that for?”

He added another three, and paused, for which I was grateful. “For being a snotty drama queen. How dare you be so unpleasant to Phil? He had done nothing wrong.”

“He doesn’t trust me,” I said sulkily. All right, I didn’t sound sensible and adult, but sensible and adult don’t go with doubled over somebody’s lap, specially when that somebody is balancing a slipper on your already smarting behind.

“He trusts you well enough to drop his trousers and bend over for you to cane him. What more do you want from him?”

“You saw what he did to his hand!”

Ja, but what I did not see is how it was your business. It is your concern to punish him, his to decide how to take the punishment. So he bit his hand to be silent. When I strapped him, he bruised his lip. You will not willingly make a sound when I cane you; by what right do you criticise him for acting as you do?”

“Because. . . oh, come on, Hansie, we’ve seen him caned before. He doesn’t do that for Piet!”

“And what has that to do with anything? You are not Piet. You are not his Top, nor are you his partner. Piet will think no less of him for crying out.”

“And nor would I! He keeps still, he does as he’s told, why should it matter to me if he yells a bit?”

Ja? And perhaps he does not know this? Perhaps he does not wish to lose face in front of you, because we all know that you are silent through a punishment in a way that he and I cannot do. But I do not believe this is about him at all, Timmy. This is about you. It is not that he does not trust you; it is that you want him to respond to you the way he does to Piet, and I do not know why that should be.”

I pushed at his calf, and he let me slide back off his lap to kneel on the floor. “Hansie, Piet entrusted Phil to me. I’ve got to do this right! And if Phil doesn’t trust me. . .”

He yanked me forward again and landed another sharp whack. “Will you give up this notion that Phil does not trust you! See, Tim, everything you are saying here is to do with trust. The word is in almost every sentence you speak. Phil does not trust you. Piet has entrusted Phil to you. But your actions do not go the same way. Phil showed you that he trusted you: he agreed to come here. You cannot persuade me that if he had been unwilling, Piet would have forced him. Piet would have thought of something else. Piet showed you that he trusted you when he made the suggestion. And now you are betraying that trust when you will not do what you agreed to do.”

“But I’ve got to do it right!”

He let go again and when I sat up, he frowned. “Why do you think you were not doing it right? I agree, you were not, but I think my reasons are not yours.”

“Phil didn’t. . .” I didn’t get the word out. Hansie pulled and I was forward to his lap again, and he tapped the slipper lightly. “No, Timmy. Not Phil anything. Do not tell me about Phil. Tell me about Tim.”

“But Hansie, he. . . ow!”

“Talk to me about Tim. Not about Phil. About Tim. No, stay where you are! I seem to have your attention this way. What was Tim doing wrong?”

“I don’t know! I wanted to do what Piet asked!”

Ja, and that was what?”

“To act for him in his absence. To punish Phil.”

“I like the first of those better. To act for him, liefie. Not to act as him. You are not Piet. We do not want you to be Piet. Phil agreed to be punished by Tim; had he not been willing, he would have refused.”

“But why does he insist on gagging himself?”

“Ask him. Tell him that you do not require it of him. That you are not impressed by his silence. See, I understand why he does it: it was such silence that was required of me, and I have trouble now too in allowing myself to express pain. But you do not mind when I do it, only when he does. You are being unfair to both of us.”

“Not to you,” I objected. “I gave you what he had. I wouldn’t give you any more.”

“And was it enough? Had Phil not been here, would you have let me off with six only?”

“Damned if I would. Brawling in the street?”

“Well then?”

The slipper was still lurking above me; I felt him tap.

“Well, Tim?” Tap.

I suddenly had a picture of just how stupid this was, and began to giggle. “Hansie, are you seriously threatening to spank me for not spanking you properly?”

He was struggling himself, not wholly successfully, not to laugh. “Ja, just so. And then I shall spank you for not spanking Phil properly. For you were not doing it right, were you?”

“No, sir,” I choked out, helpless with giggles.

“And you deserve to be spanked for it, ja nee?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then so you shall be. A little further forward, ja, like that. Now. . .”

Not a long spanking, but Hansie is dreadfully heavy handed and that’s a big slipper. I knew I’d had it when he let me get up.

“And now, you will go downstairs and finish what you started, ja nee?”

Too bloody right I would. I followed him down. Phil sprang out of the armchair at my approach. Well, I’d put a stop to that, and all. He wouldn’t be so keen to sit down when I’d finished. Mind you, he must have been able to hear us upstairs and he probably thought he was trapped in an absolute madhouse.

“Show me your hand, Phil.”

He held it out, mutely, and I ran my thumb over the plaster and the spreading bruise appearing from underneath. “Don’t do this, please, love. It bothers me. I’d rather you just yelled. We know each other well enough now that you don’t need to go silent on me, all right?”

He made a face. “It’s so stupid, Tim, I want to be quiet and I can’t.”

“Yes, well, I would have liked to play rugby and I can’t so there you are. I know you squeak; I don’t care, O.K.? Right. Let’s get finished. Hansie, we’ll have you first, I think. Back where you were.”

The marks from his first set were developing nicely but the smart in my own rear inclined me to be less than merciful. Hansie couldn’t see my evil grin, but Phil looked decidedly apprehensive. Something a little different for you, Mr van den Broek. Something I’ve never done before with you. Hansie's quite accustomed to getting the last stroke right at the top of his thighs – well, so am I – but this time, it was the first. One. And a loud enough yelp for me to know he had felt it. Three more working upward, rather than down, and three matching squeaks. And I stepped back a little, readjusted my aim, and gave him two, fast, and diagonally. Jim did that a couple of times when I was in my teens and he really wanted to get a message through to me: a last welt crossing all the others and re-igniting the sting. Marking both diagonals hurts like hell, and Hansie said so, loudly. But he got up and sorted his clothes, and rubbed hard at his backside and moved out of the way.


Phil came forward willingly enough, and wriggled out of his trousers and briefs. And then he looked deliberately back over his shoulder at me, and put his hands behind him, gripping his left wrist in his right hand and tucking both into the small of his back, before he doubled over the sofa.


“Yes, sir.”

He didn’t like the first low one and made a grumbling sound between his teeth – and then he just gave in and yelped. And I think it’s fair to say that he didn’t like the diagonals any better than Hansie had done. His face was wet when he stood up and flexed the tension out of his shoulders, and reached for his clothes, and then I held out my arms and he came for a hug. Hansie came up too, wiped Phil’s face, and wrapped his arms round us both.

“I shall remember that trick, Mr Creed, for the next time I have you in that position.”

“What goes around, comes around,” I said, philosophically.

“What the hell was going on between you two?” asked Phil, rather shakily.

“We were establishing that Tim is not Piet and does not have to have us respond to him the way we do to Piet,” said Hansie, helpfully, patting my bottom.

“And that you are not me and don’t have to respond or not respond the way I do,” I confirmed, patting Phil’s. He jumped. Hansie moved hastily out of Phil’s reach, just in case, which brought him within mine. He ought to be patted so I patted him. He jumped as smartly as Phil had done; I stuck my tongue out at him. Phil pulled away.

“I must go home. I suppose I ought to say thank you, Tim, and no doubt later I’ll be grateful. Piet will be.”

Neither of us argued with him. There’s a certain amount of making up which traditionally follows a punishment, and we weren’t asking Phil to stay, however appealing the idea. No Piet, no Phil. Both or neither.

“Will you be O.K.?” asked Hansie.

“Sure. Piet will ring tonight to hear that I’m sorted. He’ll have time to talk.”

Mm. And Phil has suggested before that when Piet talks. . . He would be fine.

And making up was done, and Piet must have phoned, and heard all about it. Piet can put two and two together and make a total in double figures, because in the morning there was a text message on my mobile, and one on Hansie's, both the same. Short messages, from Piet: well done.

Idris the Dragon

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