Not Like This...

“There is a big piece about the rugby,” said Hansie.

“Picture of Phil on the front page – not a particularly flattering one,” I said absently, pushing the main news bit of the paper towards Hansie and accepting the sports pages in exchange. I was interested in what was likely to happen with Phil on the pitch; I wasn’t specially interested in the fact that he had squired Flora Danescroft to a film premiere.

The sports writer had apparently managed to gain access to the England camp, and there was a lengthy column describing the training routines and the atmosphere. Frankly it sounded like Guantanamo, although not as cuddly, and with an inferior appeals procedure. Opinion was divided about whether or not it was working.

I was a bit surprised that we hadn’t heard more about it from Phil, actually. I mean, he knew that anything he said to us wasn’t likely to end up as a titbit on a journalist’s answering service. Physically, of course, he would be well up to it; Piet wouldn’t think of sending him off unless his regime already had him in prime condition and able to maintain it. But the catch, as Piet himself had pointed out more than once, was the same as it had always been; the squad was pulled from lots of different teams, and some of the players had been with club sides abroad, so they were used to lots of different systems. Whoever was running the national squad, he said what Piet or the boss of any club said: this is how I do it, and you fall in with my methods – and of course not all methods work with all players. Several of the squad had said in interviews, or on their blogs or whatever, that they were finding it heavy going.

Phil had said almost nothing. I was a bit surprised, actually. I remembered him last year and the year before, occasionally coming out with the sort of low level grumbling that we all do about our jobs, the sort where you don’t seriously mean that you hate it, just that you want somebody to sympathise and agree with you for a bit until you cheer up again, or until the bit of the job which you hate and have to do anyway is over. Phil seems to feel about ice-baths the way I feel about the annual inter-departmental budget meeting, although at least I only have to go to that once.

 “Oh,” said Hansie. “No, Phil will not like that, will he?”

The front page picture was of Flora Danescroft in a blue velvet dress, looking absolutely stunning – Phil says she’s even prettier in the flesh than she is on TV. She looked cool and polished and all the rest of it and she was smiling at Phil – who had a black eye fit to frighten the horses, and whose normal beaming smile was spoilt by a scabbed lip. The main caption was something anodyne, but the paragraph underneath referred to ‘lovely Flora Danescroft and her less than lovely escort, rugby international Phil Cartwright’.

No, Phil wasn’t going to like that at all.

And that was the truth. He did not like it. I did not realise quite at first how much he disliked it.

The new style of camp was more brutally physical than anything Phil had undergone before. The players were warned early on that it would be so, and Phil was rather apprehensive, but when he phoned me during his first stay away, he was cautiously optimistic. He was keeping up, he said, easily enough. His descriptions reminded me both of Springbok training when it was at its most extreme, and of my army boot camp training.

“Lots of people shouting at us,” Phil informed me. “Some of the guys get really up-tight about it.”

“And you do not?”

“I. . . have some trouble believing in it, I suppose. I’m accustomed to biting Saffa sarcasm, you know, so plain abuse just doesn’t impress.”

“Cheeky boy,” I admonished, although he made me smile. “I trust you have more sense than to say so?”

“Oh, I do as I’m told. There’s some good stuff happening, Piet, but I don’t care for bits of it. Weighted crunches on the gravel, crawling on the concrete, that sort of stuff. They’re trying to make us more aggressive, I suppose, and less inclined to duck something painful.”

Well. . . that would probably do no harm. Phil, for a rugby player, is remarkably gentle off the pitch. I have never had cause to doubt his aggression in play, but I could see that someone who knew less of him might think him insufficiently belligerent. I knew, too, that he had a cold capacity to anticipate pain and accept it anyway, both on and off the pitch.

“You’re remembering I’ll not be home until Sunday, aren’t you?”

“I remember. You have the training match on Friday afternoon and then on Saturday you are taking Miss Danescroft out on the town.”

“I wish you wouldn’t say it like that,” he said uneasily. “I like her, that’s all. And she made it plain that she isn’t looking for a serious relationship, so I needn’t. . .”

He trailed off. That in itself was disconcerting. Phil has been about with a number of women – even since he has been involved with me – several of them the sisters or ex-girlfriends of his team mates. Until Flora Danescroft, he had never shown any qualms about using them as camouflage. He was cautious, he did not ‘lead them on’ as one might say – he was careful to date them only two or three times so that the fact that the encounters did not end up in bed was not worthy of comment, and he appeared only as something of a playboy in his lack of commitment, but one with a good heart who did not take advantage. With Flora Danescroft, however, it seemed that he was being even more cautious –and given her publicly expressed aversion to a serious relationship so soon after the failure of her marriage, with less cause. Miss Danescroft had telephoned him, invited him out several times to high-visibility events, and had teased him that she wanted only a piece of arm candy with which to be seen; Phil had smiled and countered that a rugby career didn’t allow him time for a serious relationship either and that he would be her candy if she would be his. They were photographed together repeatedly, and declared cheerfully, jointly and severally, to reporters from one glossy magazine after another that they were no more than friends; nobody believed them.

I found myself unexpectedly and disturbingly jealous.

None of which seemed to have any significance when he came home on Sunday afternoon. The black eye did indeed draw the attention, as did the cut and bruised lip, and he moved with a greater degree of caution and with less grace than was normal for him. He also seemed unusually tired.

“It’s been a hard week. The training was heavy, you know, even given how much I’d already done, and then Friday night we went out together, a whole bunch of us, and we were a bit late back, and then last night, there was a party afterwards and it was almost four by the time I’d seen Flora home and nearer five when I got to bed.”

“And hungover both times?”

He made a face at me. “No, actually. I drove when we went out Friday, so I didn’t drink.” That was. . . unusual. With a large number of rugby players on a night out, the local taxi services and bars generally do good business. I should perhaps have asked about it. “And last night’s was a fairly formal do, and I didn’t think Flora would care to have a fighting drunk for an escort.” That would not be likely: Phil is an affectionate drunk. Of course, he was quite right: the newspapers would certainly have picked it up had he overindulged at a formal gathering. He did look weary, although otherwise – except for the bruising on his face – he looked good. I had missed him, and I had every intention of showing him how much I had missed him, but I could wait until he felt a little better.

Koekie, why do you not go then and lie down? I will make some tea and you shall rest this afternoon. There is nothing we need to do or nowhere we need to go. You could sleep if you wished, or watch a DVD. I will not disturb you.”

His face did not change but he hesitated for a moment and then he said lightly, “Yes, I think I might do that. What are you going to do?”

I shrugged. “Email my sister. Phone my mother. That music system which we bought for the back sitting room is still in its boxes: I might set it up. There is” and I shuddered theatrically “a pile of ironing which I have been pretending not to see for three days. Go, koekie, rest, and later I will hear all about what you have been doing.”

And that too might have been a mistake. It is unfortunately true that Phil must disguise his feelings much of the time; it is not usual that he manages to disguise them from me. I felt that something was wrong, and I hoped that by letting him relax at home where he felt safe, he would become comfortable enough to confide in me. Perhaps, though, this was a situation where it would have been better to force his confidence.

Perhaps. Perhaps not. I do try to learn from my mistakes but I will not waste my time on might-have-beens. I did spot that something was wrong that night. Phil had taken a book and a cup of tea and settled himself on the sofa for the afternoon, and I had indeed set up the music system; I felt his eyes on me once or twice but when I looked round he merely smiled and did not speak. I noticed later that he was still moving awkwardly, so after we had eaten, I suggested that he have a bath while I cleared away the plates and started the dishwasher. He went, again without demur, taking his coffee with him. When I went upstairs, I could hear him in the bath, but the door was locked when I tried it. That – is neither usual nor unusual for Phil, nor is it unusual that I should do what I did, which was to retreat to the room which is understood to be Hansie and Tim’s and use the bathroom there. Two men involved in a physical sport spend a lot of time washing off the effects. I had my shower, wrapped myself in a towel and returned to our bedroom to find Phil already in bed.

What was unusual was that he was wearing a loose shirt, and, as I discovered when I hung up my towel and slipped into bed beside him, pyjama trousers too.

“Are you cold, koekie? The heating has gone off, I turned the timer down a little but I can reset it if you are cold.”

He shook his head, but he cuddled down among the bedclothes – and a warning siren went off in my head. “Do you not feel well?”

“No, I’m fine.”

Not, as the teenagers say. I reached for him, and he came to me willingly enough, opening his mouth for my kisses and running his hands greedily over my chest, but when I tried to ease the shirt over his head, he tensed, unmistakeably, and I drew back.

“So what is this? Are you in pain, hart? Let me see you.”

He froze, just for a moment, and then said lightly, “Are you sure you want to? I’m not looking good,” and for all the lightness, I heard something I did not like. He reached out to the switch on the bedside lamp, and I caught his hand before he could reduce the room to darkness.

“Phil, what is this? What is it about? What are you not showing me?”

I think he considered for a moment telling me that it was nothing; indeed, he shifted towards me and he might have intended to kiss me again and hope that I would forget the question, but I felt the pull in his wrist. He wanted the light off.

“Phil!” I put all that I knew of the Alpha Top into that one word, and he gave way.

“It’s just. . . I’m a mess, Piet. I look awful. Horrible.”

“Show me.”

The fight, such as it had been, was gone from him. He sat up and wriggled out of the shirt. Indeed, the training camp had plainly not been kind to him: his back was speckled with green and blue bruises, there were obvious stud marks on his ribs, a long graze over one shoulder and what appeared to be friction burns on his forearms. I sat back.

“Stand up. Take those trousers off and let me see.”

His mouth tightened, but he did as he was told.

“Turn around.”

Only his groin was unmarked. His knees were cut, his thighs coloured. There was a blue shadow on the arch of one foot which showed where someone had stamped, and a black stain spread from his hipbone down across one buttock. For a man who cares about his appearance as Phil does, this was indeed a disaster.

“You look wonderful.”

His expression began to change towards anger and hurt that I should patronise him so. “No, hear me out, koekie. So you are bruised and damaged. This is not uncommon  for you. Through the season, you are always bruised, are you not? You have a profession which makes it unavoidable. This is nothing new for either of us, is it? Fersure, this is fairly extreme, but under it, you are fit, you are healthy. You are desirable.” I pushed down the covers and coaxed him back into bed.

“Nobody else thinks so,” he muttered.

“Who is this ‘nobody’?” I demanded with exaggerated offence. “Shall I go and sort them out for you?”

He laughed and relaxed a little. “I saw the papers this morning, at the hotel, you know? There were pictures of me and Flora. Some of the headlines. . .”

“And in a week there will be another picture of you looking golden and all will be forgotten.”

“Flora didn’t like it.”

I felt a spasm of dislike for Flora Danescroft.

“She wouldn’t kiss me.”

That, I think, is the closest I have ever come to wishing to strike any woman – possibly excepting Ellie van den Broek – although if you had asked me whether I objected to her wanting to kiss Phil, or wanting not to, I do not think I could have told you. I swallowed down my rage, but Phil, of course, felt it.

“Not like that! For God’s sake. . . All I meant was, when I picked her up, I leaned in to kiss her cheek, same as I would with. . . well, with any woman I was taking somewhere. With Fran, say. But her eyes went wide, and she air-kissed me. She did it again when I took her home. And she didn’t last time; last time she made contact. I don’t mean she stuck her tongue down my throat, I just mean. . . well, she obviously thought the black eye was. . .”

I mastered my temper and attempted to be fair. “Did she try not to look at you when you were out? I saw one picture in the paper today and she appeared to be hanging on your words.”

He frowned. It is odd that Phil, who is such an empath with other men, or with children (although he would deny that), misses the target so completely in his own dealings with women. He would never have made such a mistake in looking at a woman with another man. “No, she was fine when we were out. But she didn’t want. . .”

Koekie, I do not know the woman, but from what you have said of her, she is good-natured, and she is obviously far from stupid. She must realise that a rugby player will be injured frequently. Possibly she simply had not thought it through, that ‘injury’ does not only mean torn muscles, so that actually to see you so was a shock? It is less so for me, I have seen it before, and I have borne such damage myself so I know what it feels like. You do not think that perhaps she did not wish to touch your cheek because she feared to hurt you further?”

I could see the hope grow in him. “Do you think so? You don’t think she thought it. . .”

Frankly, if Phil’s friendship with Flora Danescroft simply withered away to nothing, I would not break my heart over it – but I hope I am a better man than to try to bring such a thing about.

“I think that you should give her the benefit of the doubt and assume her tender-hearted, rather than imagining that she found your injuries distasteful. After all,” and I tried to stamp down my own distaste, “she let you take her home, did she not?”

“Yes, yes she did, and it wasn’t as if there weren’t other people trying to pick her up.”

“Then I think you worry about nothing.”

He sighed, and leaned over towards me, resting his head on my chest and I gathered him to me, stroking gently down his back, avoiding such of the hurt places as I could. “I still look a mess,” he said into my shoulder, presently.

“To me, you look fine. To me, you always look fine.”

We stayed so for some moments, and then I nudged him. “Do I need to prove to you that you are still attractive? I have evidence. . .”

“I can feel it,” he smirked, reaching below the covers for me, and all was once again very well.

“Is that the rugby report?”

He nodded, shaking the newspaper pages into order. “Doesn’t say much. Just that he was taken off in the first half, and that he wasn’t showing any of the class he’s been showing in the season so far. Oh, and that he’s been shamefully under-used by the England set-up.”

“He won’t like that,” I observed uneasily.

“What, the suggestion that he’s out of form, or the suggestion that the England back room boys don’t trust him?”

“Either. Both. He will not like that.”

I was uneasy about Phil’s attitude. Not, you understand, that he was behaving in any way he should not. No, quite the contrary: he was doing everything he ought, but I suspected that he was trying too hard. He had come home once or twice from the England squad camps in a state of such utter exhaustion that I had been concerned enough to make discreet enquiry through my contacts, and the contacts of my contacts, as to whether he had cause to doubt his place. I was assured that he had not; that his position was as safe as any on the squad, for which you may read, only slightly better than not at all. There had been a lot of changes in the previous twelve months; there were many new faces and it was made plain that the man who did not deliver would be unlikely to have many more chances.

Uncertainty is not good for Phil; he does not handle it well. But we spoke of it, as it related both to his place with his club and to his place with his national side, we discussed where his weaknesses lay and what he should do to address them, and we looked at the young men coming up behind him who wanted his place, and considered what he should do to show himself their superior.

In fact, although the national team results were varied, the dispassionate view – both mine and that of the more measured sports journalists – was that Phil was indeed the best man for the place he filled. The requests that the Gryphons should make him available for his country continued to come, match after match. However, the plain fact was that he had not, in the current run of competition, played a full 80 minutes for his national side. He had never been the choice to start, although he had played at least part of every match, and he felt it as a failure in himself that he did not inspire confidence in his ability to play both halves in full.

I reassured him as best I could; I reviewed every match with him and on every occasion I could point out to him the particular circumstance – the conditions underfoot, the availability of this player or that one on his own team or the opposition’s, the specific plan, which meant that he was best used in the second half but not the first – or not all of the first. Faced with the same situation, I might well have used him the same way. Intellectually, he agreed with me. His heart, I fear, did not. He has never, in all the time I have known him, been lazy about his training. Misguided, foolish, careless; he will admit, I think, to those. He is not perfect – far from it! But his faults have never included laziness, so he tried and tried, he worked hard, and the exceptional talent which I had seen in the man of 22 flowered. And it was not enough for him.

The England camp methods which he described to me – well, I held my tongue. Springbok camp differed only in the fine detail. He was well able to keep up with the others and to please the coaches and experts there. Nonetheless I was glad when he came home to me, because I knew that when the physical weariness passed from him, the comfort he took from our home life would recharge him for the next trial. Physically, the training camps took less from him than from many of his colleagues, I think; emotionally, they took much more. Not more than he could handle, but more than he would have wished to give.

The crisis came with the Newcastle match.

Phil had been away again, and came home a week or so before the match. He came with the dates he was next required, but without any request to ‘rest’ him, and indeed, he was anxious, first of all to train with his club, and then to play for them.

“Show me your book,” I demanded, before I made any such decision. All my players keep their own training records; for every training session there is a report and various members of staff see and act upon them. However, my policy is that the players themselves should also keep a notebook in which they write up what they have done each day, and those of them who go to train elsewhere – for Phil is not the only one, nor is the England camp the only one which drains my squad – are encouraged to write up also what they do when they are away from us.

Phil has learned to keep his paperwork cleanly and up to date. That is an area in which he used to be careless and is so no longer, and he handed over his book with an expression of mock self-righteousness. I glanced back through the previous two weeks’ notes.

“Well, Mr Cartwright, I think. . . I think that we shall combine the methods. I can see what they have been doing with you, and it will be best for you to continue with that schedule here. It is a reasonable alternative to what we do and you will manage best if you keep to one technique. Other than that. . .”

“I can fit that in around normal training,” he said earnestly.

“No. I will not have you over-train and make yourself vulnerable to injury that way. You may do half days of team training only. Half a day at this, and half a day with us, and I will leave it to you to decide how you arrange it. You have enough experience to know what you need. Continue to write it up as you have been doing and do a page for the files here too; it will not fit with our paperwork but we should have a record. And yes, I will play you at Newcastle.”

It was, from Phil’s point of view, another disaster. I took him off  after 20 minutes in which he had been – almost – a liability on the pitch. He was very slightly in the wrong place all the time, very slightly either ahead of his colleagues or behind them at every point. He knew it, too: I could see him identify the problem and try to correct it, but I could not afford to wait for him. When I sent on the substitute, Phil came without argument – and indeed, with a forced smile and a clasp of the hand for his replacement – but his expression was stricken. He turned his head away as he passed me on his way to the benches; I touched his arm and waited until he looked at me.

“What have I told you, many and many a time? Form is temporary; class is permanent. You have class and your form will come back. We will think later about what is wrong and how we may correct it.”

It was all I had time to say to him then, for I had to give my attention to my team. Afterwards came with its own difficulties; it was an away match and a late one so we were booked into a local hotel, and I could not go to Phil as I would have liked. My rules are that when my team is away from home for one or two nights, wives and girlfriends may not come with them. I will have my players’ undivided attention. On longer trips, I do not object to families coming too, but I will not have them staying in the same hotel as the players and there is a strict curfew.

And I must, of course, be seen to practise what I preach, must I not? I do not go to Phil’s room, nor do I allow him to come to mine. We have our post match review either at the club we are visiting, or in a room at the hotel, or occasionally, on our coach. On this occasion there was a conference room available for us and the review passed off reasonably quickly. There were points to be addressed, but only two players with whom I felt I needed to speak personally.

“Mr Schioccola, have you your training book there? If you would fetch it, then, and come back to me here. And Mr Cartwright, the same for you, please, in half an hour.”

Marco Schioccola swallowed and nodded jerkily; Phil continued to look stricken but I followed them out, meaning to visit the cloakroom while Marco collected his file, and I heard Phil on the stairs saying softly, “Don’t panic, Chocolate, you played really well. He’ll just want to tweak some part of your schedule; it’ll be fine.”

Indeed, it was so; when Mr Schioccola left me again, he was glowing from my praise, heartened by my acknowledgement of how hard he had been working, and full of enthusiasm for the changes I had made to his training regime.

Phil – I wished so much to take him in my arms, to pet and reassure him, to convince him that all would yet be well, but even had it not been that we both understood that on Gryphons time, he was Mr Cartwright and I was Coach, the room had a glass door and we were visible from the lobby.

It is perhaps as well. If I could not caress him, nor could I be tempted to lose my temper with him, although to begin with I was merely bewildered. . .

“Let us see, then, what we should change to. . . Is this what you did on Tuesday?” I turned the pages, beginning to frown. “Did you speak with Harry about this?”

He looked a little startled. “Should I have done? You said I could do half days and I should sort it myself.”

“So these are your choices? They are what you thought you should have been doing?”

His confusion was complete. “Um. . . yes?”

I took a grip on myself and pushed the notebook back to him, pointing to one entry. “Why that? Why the run rather than the backs’ coaching session?”

He frowned a little. “Um. . . first thing after a couple of days off. Warm up.”

Well, it was an argument, I supposed, but the various coaches were all careful to ensure that every player had done a proper pre-coaching warm-up. Even after a day off, he would have been fit for a formal coaching session. “That one then, the gym. Again, instead of a backs’ session.”

I could see him try to remember what he had been thinking. “Sharp stuff all morning on the other scheme, so I did stamina work in the afternoon.”

“Why? Did somebody question your stamina while you were away?”

“Oh no, actually, they said I was in good shape that way.”

Well, and he would want to keep it so, I could see that. But. . .

“In fact, you have done no specific training at all since you came back.”


“Your own records show that you have done gym work, stamina work, runs, and no specific ball handling at all since you came home.”

I think he had actually failed to notice it himself. He took the file back from me, and went through it, frowning. Then he looked at me.

“I – I don’t quite know what to say. I don’t know how I missed that.”

I shook my head. Nor did I know how he had missed it. “When I told you to plan your own schedule, what were your considerations?” for it is a standard thing I ask of all my players when we discuss their specific training. What do you need to achieve? What methods are used to achieve it? How specifically will you do it?

“I – well, I knew I was fit enough and I needed to keep that up, not let it slide,” and he cast me a glance. I nodded. So far as it went, that was true enough. “And with what I’d been doing on the technical side of things. . .” his voice trailed away. I was beginning to see what he had done – and I had more than a suspicion about why he had done it. If I were right, I could sympathise with his feelings but I could not excuse his actions.

“Did you think at all about what you needed to do?”


“Did you think at all about what your team needed you to do?”

That came on him like a blow. He opened his mouth but the facile lie would not come. He is honest, I will say that for him. He does not lie. Not to me.

“You did not. You thought about what you wanted to do and you did not think about what I and your team mates needed you to do.” I waited while he thought, painfully, about that.


“What should you have been doing?”

“Getting back into my place. Not doing general stuff but getting back into my own place.”

I nodded once. “Next week, I want you at every specific training session which applies to your particular game. Every single one. If the squad numbers permit two sessions of the same procedure, you are to go to both. On top of that, you have your England regime to follow. Every evening, I expect you to show me your written schedule for the next day, do you understand me?”

He nodded, shame-faced. This was what we did with the Colts, making them draw up their own schedules and have them approved by James Winston, sending them back to revise and present them again. With the seniors, we let them know which sessions were planned for them but they were expected to fill in the everyday work themselves. Phil had not had his timetable checked daily in a long time.

“If you have space in your day and you can fit it in without doing too much, you may manage gym time and runs as well, but the other things are more important and must be scheduled first and you may not add anything which I have not approved in advance.”

He nodded again.

“Tell me, then, tell me why today was not a success for you.”

He looked at the floor. “I’d done the wrong training. I needed to do specific hands-on training with my team mates so that. . . so that each of us knew what to expect from the others. I was expecting them to behave like the people I’ve been working with and of course they didn’t, they’re not the same people. And when they did the things we’ve done together all season, I wasn’t in the right places because. . . because I’ve been training and playing with other people.”

“Indeed. You trained, and then you played, as if there were only Cartwright, and everybody else would fit around him. You will also, I think, go to Rob Standish, and tell him this, and apologise to him. He is your captain and he deserves better of you than that.”

He winced. But he nodded, and then he looked at me and bit his lip, and I knew what he wished to ask, and dared not.

“When we go home. Tomorrow, it will be. And before then, Phil,” and I saw the sigh of relief as I called him by his name, even as his back tensed at the threat of punishment, “by tomorrow afternoon, you will have considered why you made such a basic error. Why you thought it preferable to spend time on runs and in the gym, to out on the pitch.”

“It wasn’t –“ and his voice cracked a little, “it wasn’t that I didn’t want to put in the effort, honestly it wasn’t!”

I smiled at him, as gently as I might. “Koekie, I know that it was not. I think I know why you did it, and I would like to know if you reach the same conclusion, for the problem which you identify yourself is easiest to solve. Now, hart, go, take your notebook. We will say no more for now.”

I refused to think more on it for the rest of the day, although the grapevine, which is very efficient, informed me before I slept that night that Phil had been to offer his apologies not only to Rob, but also to the others who had played that day. On the coach the next morning, some of them saw fit to tease him, which he bore with wincing good humour, until I observed an exchange of glances between Mark and Ryan, and then between Mark and Rob – those who know or suspect most about the way things are between Phil and me – who then started, with great firmness, a discussion on another subject. A little more to my surprise, the one who followed most easily where they led was Thibault de Saint-Cyr, who cast one unreadable glance at Phil, and another at me, and who appeared thereafter to be playing the fool for the entertainment of his team mates. If I were right about the root of the problem, the solution would not be far to seek, I thought.

The journey was tiresome, as always, a good five hours of travel and it was late afternoon before we were free in our own house. Phil, as soon as he had put off the effects of travel, came looking for me.

“Now? Please?”

I ushered him through to the study.

“Well, Mr Cartwright, tell me why you spent time in the gym instead of on the pitch.”

“Because of James and Freddie.”

So he did know.

Well, as soon as I actually gave it any thought, I knew, yes. Nothing new in that, is there? Piet always says it’s not that I can’t use my brains, it’s just that I don’t. I don’t apply myself.

That was a truly horrible night in Newcastle – which isn’t one of my favourite towns anyway. I wanted – well. I wanted the world to be other than the way it was. I wanted not to have played so badly. I wanted Piet not to be disappointed with me. I wanted not to have done the thing which made Piet disappointed with me. I wanted, given that I had done it, to be able to say to him: just deal with it now and get it over. I wanted to be able to curl up in his arms and have him assure me that everything was still going to be O.K., not just between us – I knew that – but with the rest of the world, and by that stage I wouldn’t have cared if I’d got a striped arse while he was saying it.

I wanted to be in my bed with him, and it wasn’t allowed.

I slept incredibly badly. After he’d ticked me off – and he didn’t really even do that, did he? I had let him down, not angered him – I had to go to dinner with the others and sit between Marco, who was over-excited as hell, and Rob, who had been embarrassed when I’d been to see him to apologise. He’d had Mark and a couple of the others with him when I’d found him, and, well, I could have said ‘no, it’ll wait,’ when he asked what I had wanted, but. . . and after I’d said what I had to say in front of some of them, I could see that I had to repeat it in front of the others.

I couldn’t make up my mind after dinner whether to go and have a bath and try to get my head straight, or to go to the bar with the guys, or to go out for a walk or something, but Piet followed me from the dining room and tapped me on the shoulder.

“Go with your friends,” he said softly. “Spend some time with them. Make sure that Mr Schioccola, in particular, does not drink himself into a stupor. He is in that frame of mind in which even a very little alcohol will have a profound effect.” He turned away, and then glanced back. “Talk to Mr Sawston.”

“To Mark?” I was confused. “What about?”

He smiled, no more than a flicker. “About whatever you like. He has been your friend for a long time and you have not seen much of him lately.”

As it happened, Mark was waiting for me, and Nathan and Ryan as well. The old guard. Funny, but when I was called up to the England squad first, I worried about them, about the guys I left behind. I worried that they would move on without me; I suppose they worried the same way about me, actually. That my new friends would replace the old. But I did spend the evening with them, and we did keep Marco – well, sober-ish. He was entitled to a bevy or four, he’d played well, but he wasn’t sick afterwards and in the morning he looked no worse than fragile. I talked to Mark. And Rob and Nathan and Ryan and some of the others. And then when I went to bed and couldn’t get to sleep I thought about why Piet had wanted me to talk to them. He always wants me to work out for myself what I’ve done and why it was wrong and what I should have done, rather than just for him to tell me, but that push in the lobby, when he sent me after Mark, that had been a hefty hint. I’d seen that at once, even if I hadn’t known what he was hinting at.

I got it about half past four.

When I was called up for England first, I was still very raw. I was 23; I know there are players coming in now who are 19 but Piet has always said that I would be later to come to my peak than some, and in any event, I was a fairly immature 23. That’s beside the point; when I went in first, they did the same thing we do with the juniors coming up: they gave me a minder, what Piet calls a sheepdog. Mine was James Atherbridge. James, he said firmly, not Jim, and he cocked his head at my accent and asked where I was from, exactly. Turned out he was a Lancashire man himself – well, I had known that, I’d been following his career for several years. He’d gone to one of the schools that my school played against, although I’d never played against him – I’d still been at primary school, when he had left his secondary. Anyway, he took me under his wing for that season, and even afterwards, when I didn’t need a sheepdog, he kept an eye out for me. And I did for him too, it wasn’t all one way. Middle of the next season, Freddie Waite arrived, replacing Bonnington who had a compound fracture (not on the pitch, he’d crashed his car). And James was Freddie’s sheepdog then, but I’d fallen into the habit of taking the peg next to James in the dressing room, so the three of us hung about together. I was friendly with most of the guys on the squad, but those two were my mates.

Were. That’s the operative word here. James had said at the start of last season that it would be his last, and he’d not changed his mind. End of the year, I turned out for him in a benefit for his chosen charity, and then we went and got unbelievably drunk together, and after that he went off to work for an office supplies company, of all things.

At the start of this year, I’d read the call-up list and Freddie Waite’s name wasn’t on it. I’d phoned him – which wasn’t easy – and he’d told me, a little tersely but without actual complaint, that he wasn’t really in the running any more. I looked at the call-up list, at the people they’d chosen to replace him, and there was no arguing about it. Freddie’s a nice guy and a good mate, but he’d got his place originally through luck and there were too many new people better than he was.

It was just. . . I missed them. I missed them a lot. There were people on the squad still who I liked well enough, but there wasn’t anybody I thought of as a close friend. And actually, what with the way we were being pushed towards greater and greater competitiveness, I didn’t think that close friendships would be formed in that dressing room. Too many changes, too many people wanting other people’s places. I’m not saying relationships were bad: it’s just that I think now they’re based on professional respect, rather than any degree of closeness.

I’d been missing James and Freddie; I’d been missing the feeling of having supportive friends around me, so when I’d come back to my own club, I wanted to spend time with my mates. The trouble was, I’d done that by picking out the bits of training which would allow me to talk to them or interact with them or whatever – not ball-work where I’d have to concentrate, but runs and gym stuff where, although we’re working and working hard, we do talk.

And as Piet had said, I’d done what I wanted to do, not what I needed to do, and certainly not what the team needed me to do. Stupid, and selfish, and thoughtless, and I deserved everything I got for it, from being substituted in the first half, to feeling miserable all night, to whatever Piet thought fit to give me.

He gave that flick of his head. “I will accept my own share of the blame. I know that you are a social animal, and I knew that your friends upon whom you relied were no longer available to you. I might have thought that you would need the support of your team mates here since you were not getting that anywhere else, and perhaps I should have taken more care to ensure that we were agreed on what you had to do.”

I was doubtful. “Because of us? You can’t do that. If it had been one of the others, would you have said the same? ‘You know what you have to do, so do it’? You would and you know it. You wouldn’t have checked Rob’s schedule or Darren’s.”

He acknowledged it. I shivered, wishing he would just get on. He came out from behind the desk and crossed to the couch. “Come then.”

But. . .

“No, Mr Cartwright, not the cane. I understand why you felt the way you did, but the action you took was the sort of elementary mistake which I might expect of one of the Colts, not one of my most experienced players. For such juvenile thoughtlessness, you go over my knee.”

Ow. That bit as sharply as the cane ever did, but I went obediently to his side for him to strip my trousers down and guide me across his lap. His hand settled on my back and I jumped, God knows why. I’d not been punished, not really punished since. . . I couldn’t think. Not for ages. Months. The only times I’d been over his knee were for fun. This was not fun. This was so not fun and he hadn’t even touched me yet.

It went on not being fun for a distressingly long time. By the time he stopped, I’d got a claw grip on his ankle with one hand and I was biting the other hand, I was light-headed and although I’d kept it down to some yelping and whimpering, there were tears in my eyes. Afterwards I didn’t even bother about my clothes, I just sort of swarmed up him to get into his arms. He turned enough to let me get comfortable along the couch – as comfortable as I could get with a bind of clothing round my knees and my arse scorched – and held me close.

“You will not make that mistake again.”

I shook my head; I couldn’t quite trust my voice.

“You know your friends are here, koekie, and you may yet find another companion in the England dressing room.

“I don’t think so,” I said unsteadily. “I – it’s so competitive now, even between the people who wouldn’t normally see themselves as in competition, even between the front row and the backs. . . you know I said that when we went out together, I drove? I just thought: if I have too much to drink and say the wrong thing, if I mention you. . . None of them are nasty, they’re not bad people, but they’ve got their own interests to look after and their interests aren’t the same as mine. I don’t think anybody would out me from spite, but I think they might well because it would advance their own career at the expense of mine. I’ve got to be discreet all the time and that’s hard. I know here I’m careful – I reckon there are actually some guys now in the team here who don’t know – but out there. . .”

“Did your other friends, Mr Atherbridge and Mr Waite, know?”

“I think. . . I think they must have done, although I never said and they never asked. I’d be fairly sure that James guessed. Freddie. . . might have been more inclined just not to think about it at all. To wilfully not know, if you see what I mean. But we looked out for each other: when we went out together, if some situation began to get hairy, one of the three of us would pull the other two out of trouble. I always knew that they wouldn’t let me say or do anything too stupid, even if I’d had a couple of drinks. There isn’t anybody on the squad I would trust for that now, and I’ve got way too much to lose.”

His hand was rubbing comfortingly up and down my back; I took a grip on my emotions. “But as you say, my friends are here. I’m O.K., I just need to get used to it. Things are different. Things change, don’t they? And we all just have change with them. I’ll get used to it.”

Because there was nothing else to do. I’m not going to whine about it: I’d got it out of focus, I’d fucked it up and it had taken a shock on the field and a spanking off it to get me to look at it properly, but it can’t be helped. I can’t do anything about it, I’ve just got to accept it and not go on about it.

I don’t have to like it.

Poor Phil – anybody could see he wasn‘t happy about it. But there really wasn’t anything to be done about it, either. I couldn’t possibly get any decent pictures of him like that – well, not any that Broussard Fournier could use.

They hadn’t been that keen to have me, but Piet had developed a most desirable tendency to say that as Phil’s agent, he would only approve the use of F L Milton (Photography). He didn’t always get away with it, but apparently Rupert Vaughn-Simons, who was the senior man at BF London, flicked through the portfolio of pictures I’ve done of Phil, and announced brusquely that I would do perfectly well. I worked two really good shoots for them, and they’ve called me a couple of times now when another photographer has let them down, so I’m hopeful of getting more work off them later.

Anyway, BF had booked me to work with Phil for their next collection. It’s menswear, but it’s menswear in the widest sense: clothing, shoes, watches, a line of aftershave and whatever, hair products, all astronomically expensive. All earth-shatteringly macho and stylishly European at the same time. Phil was perfect for them and one seasonal campaign had shown them as much. At the second shoot, I’d heard somebody behind the scenes muttering about what the first campaign had done to their UK sales figures, and they were obviously hoping to do the same again.

I could have done without the audience, mind you. I know I have to have a somebody from the client there while I work, but this looked like a cast of thousands, and in my opinion most of them had just come to see the celebrity sportsman. Vaughn-Simons himself, smooth and terrifyingly capable; his American PA whose name I didn’t get; Bernard Fournier who is the last of the Fourniers to be involved with the company, and his wife, another American with a face like a hatchet and a scarlet manicure; a man from purchasing and a woman from sales, neither of them apparently of sufficient importance to be introduced, Stuart somebody from advertising, a wardrobe manager called David who had been there last time and who was, thank God, of a practical turn of mind, and Hester Nelson. She’d been there last time too. She’s a make-up artist and a bloody good one – she’d have made a fine photographer, she’s got a real eye for what different light will do to faces. I’d met her three or four times with various clients; Phil seemed to like her.

I’m not sure he still does. To tell the truth, I’m not sure he likes any of us much now. He didn’t say much, but he didn’t like it.

Not one of my better days. It started off with a horrible trail into London through the traffic for a photo-shoot. I don’t mind doing them, although the novelty’s worn off a bit, but I hate going to London since either I have to get up at sparrowfart to miss rush hour, or spend half the morning in the car, and it’s not usually my choice.

Anyway, I got there mid-morning, and the first suggestion that something was wrong was from the woman smoking a cigarette outside the studio when I arrived. I remembered her – Natalie, from the BF sales team. She was staring at me as if I’d grown an extra head, and when I greeted her, she hurriedly looked away and stammered.

The rest of them didn’t do any better when I went inside. Bernard Fournier snapped out something sharp in French – and I don’t know what exactly he said, but I’ve heard T-Bone use a couple of those words and I don’t think they’re polite; his wife’s breath hissed between her teeth, and Rupert Vaughn-Simons marched up to me and examined me from a distance of about 6 inches. Then he turned to Hester Nelson.

“Can you fix that?”

Oh thanks and good morning to you too, lovely to see you all again. I know, my face is scratched. There was a gritty spot under the posts and I got my cheek ground in it. Yes, it did hurt.

So then I was examined microscopically by Hester, who tipped my head this way and that – and she’s not a tall woman so I had to keep crouching for her; I must have looked a complete muppet. Presently she dragged me over to the window for a better look, and then back to Fran.

“Put the light on him, Fran? Can you. . .” and into some technical conversation which I didn’t follow, while the sales woman, the purchase guy – I think his name actually is Guy – and the wardrobe man put in the occasional comment.

Hello? I’m here? Meanwhile the top bods had gone into a scrum of their own on the other side of the room, sounding less technical and more exasperated.

“No.” That was Hester to Vaughn-Simons. “I can cover it up, sure, but with the amount of swelling on the cheek-bone, I’d have to do so much to make it symmetrical that it would be obvious that I’d done something. And actually, the skin’s broken in so many places that it’s not a good idea to go covering it with colour: its not going to help if he gets an infection in it. See, the skin round the eye socket is delicate and it’s not the same colour as you get lower down so I’d need to mix at least three different shades and work them into each other. . . I’m not saying I couldn’t do it, but I can’t in good conscience tell you that it’s a good idea.”

Vaughn-Simons just grunted, still staring at my cheek, and then he sort of got me into focus as a human being, rather than as something he’d hired for the day.

“Look, Cartwright, this won’t do. Ah, what about the rest of you?”

I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, until Stuart Hetherington said quietly, “Can we have the shirt off, Phil?” and then made an oddly disapproving sound when I revealed the boot marks on my ribs. “Hester?”

“I can cover that, and presumably Fran could colour out the bruised nail – yes, Fran? – but again, the cut knuckles won’t disguise easily. Nor the grazing on his arms. Not for close-ups.”

“No,” said Vaughn-Simons abruptly. “We’ll cut our losses this morning. No point in wasting everybody’s time. I’m sorry, Cartwright, but. . . a couple of small bumps and bruises, that’s one thing; that works well enough. Makes you look a little bit dangerous, and we know that works. The ladies think it’s sexy and the men think they can live up to it, but this degree of damage – well, our customer base doesn’t aspire to that. No, sorry; we can’t use you like this.” He turned back to the others and I snatched my shirt back from Stuart, my fingers trembling as I fastened the buttons. Fran put her hand on my arm and said something but I wasn’t really listening, I just gave her a tight smile, and shook hands with Hester and Stuart – he said something apologetic but I wasn’t listening to him either – and I nodded at the others and bolted for my car.

I hate driving in bloody London.

I had to stop for petrol at Saffron Walden; I took out my phone to call Piet and then. . . then I didn’t. I knew I was going to have to explain it to him, and I’d have to apologise to Fran as well because she needed the work, but I couldn’t do it. Not yet.

I couldn’t go home either. I just couldn’t bring myself to go back to an empty house; I went to the club, although I had no idea what I was going to do there. I had no desire to get Piet pissed off with me by going training on my rest day. As it happened, though, I met him in the foyer, with T-Bone and Tommy and a couple of the others.

“They cancelled,” I said hastily, before he could ask what I was doing there. He nodded.

“I have already had a phone call from Mr Hetherington. I wondered if you would come in. You will come to the hospital with us, then?”

Oh fuck. That, I needed like a hole in the head. That, I really did not want to do – and there was no way out of it. I had forgotten that it was one of Jim bloody Hamilton’s fucking do-good-in-the-community outings. He was so sodding keen on those, and I didn’t want to go, but there was no decent way out of it.

“You have time to change, if you have your blazer here?” prompted Piet, and I nodded jerkily and took myself off to my locker. Local rugby heroes visiting the hospital go in their club uniform, not in a bespoke suit with a handmade shirt and a silk tie. And that was something else, wasn’t it? Pride warred with common sense for a moment. I liked BF’s clothes and I could afford to pay for them but did I want to wear them if they were getting somebody else to front their advertising campaign? I pushed the thought away and went quietly back downstairs to join the merry throng.

Hospital visiting – well, like I say, Jim Hamilton’s keen on it. I don’t usually mind, although some of the others grumble a bit, but I don’t normally have trouble finding things to say to people. It’s hard going, though. The children’s ward – well, half the kids have no idea who we are, and care even less, and some of the guys get upset over sick children anyway, so it’s not the easiest. Unfortunately, I wasn’t quick enough when the woman from physiotherapy came looking for a visitor to cheer on her patients, and. . . well anyway, I ended up following Piet and Tommy into the Sunshine Ward.

I don’t remember whether somebody asked me to go where I did, or if it was just chance, or maybe the universe dealing me a swift slap and telling me not to be so bloody self-obsessed, but the lad in the corner was about 15, and had one side of his face heavily bandaged, and was cursing steadily under his breath at some PlayStation game when I approached him.

“What’s the game?” I asked.

“Some lame cricket thing. The therapist wants me to play it.” He sounded thoroughly disgruntled. “It’s like a hundred years old.”

I picked up the case. Five years, so in gaming terms he was being generous. This was something from before the dinosaurs.

“It’s for my depth perception.”

He turned his bandaged face towards me. “They won’t let me go home until I stop missing the edges of things and the lame-brain therapist came up with this.” The eye I could see narrowed. “I had a tumour. They’ve taken out my other eye.”

I don’t think I flinched. I don’t think so. Not visibly, at least. He was watching to see if I would.

“Right. So how’s the game supposed to help?”

He shrugged. “Improve my co-ordination or something.” A look of unwilling amusement crossed what showed of his face. “Could do with it.”

I leaned over to look at the screen. “I don’t know much about cricket, but if he’s your top-scoring batsman, you’re in trouble. Even I know he’s a bowler.”

“Yeah, well, the score’s mostly wides and no-balls.” The visible eye rolled my way. “There’s another controller under there.” It was as close to an invitation as his pride would allow.

I was marginally worse at it than he was, and if some of the big name cricketers ever see what we did to their averages, I doubt I’ll live. Still, it was quite fun, and I think he thought so too. He looked across the ward at one point and gave a sigh of relief.

“Thank God for that: somebody’s got the rugrat to shut up.”

I turned to see what he was looking at and hastily turned back. “That’s my boss.”


“He’s the scariest man on earth and he’s reading Fireman Sam to a toddler.”

“Don’t gripe, man; that kid came up from Intensive Care last night and I don’t think she’s stopped crying since. Or if she was quiet, her mum was wailing.”

I looked again. The child was pale and both hands were bandaged half way to the elbow; a thin exhausted-looking woman was hovering over Piet, who was sitting on the carpet, leaning back against a pink beanbag and pointing out something in the book. As I watched, the child climbed firmly into his lap and snuggled against his chest, and I saw him look up at her mother and flip a hand reassuringly. Even without being able to hear, it was obvious what he was saying: Go, we are fine, have a cup of coffee and a break. We are reading a book.

“She’s going to lose fingers,” the kid beside me said quietly. I turned back to him, shocked. “Meningitis and then. . . you know that thing where bits of you rot?”

“Gangrene,” I said numbly.

“Yeah, that. They told her mum last night.”

“Is she here all the time?” She had looked like she was fit for a hospital bed herself.

He nodded, and added, “I don’t think there’s a dad.” I didn’t say anything and maybe he heard a criticism I hadn’t thought. “My dad’s at work all day and my mum works mornings and then my sister’s home from school. They’ll be in to see me later. My mum stayed when I was having my op but she just couldn’t be here all the time afterwards.” He glared at me and dared me to sympathise.

“But you’re going home soon?”

“Yeah. And then I’ll come back later and they’re going to fit me with a false eye.” He grinned lopsidedly. “When I’m older I can have several; fancy ones, you know?”

I floundered for a moment and then got it. “What, like a cat’s eye, or a lizard?”

“Lizard would be cool. Or a silver one, like those reflecting sunglasses.”

“Glow in the dark UV type, for when you go clubbing,” I suggested.

He snorted. “Bright red, like it’s bleeding.”

“Green and black like mildew.”

“Gross. Plain black and shiny. Or crosshairs.”

“White and shiny. England flag. Three lions. Football team colours.”

“Yeah, cool.” He hesitated and then said softly, “Still sucks, though.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. 

I came away when his family arrived, stopping in the doorway with Tommy while Piet picked himself off the floor in a acrobatic manoeuvre to avoid disturbing the toddler who was now soundly asleep on his shoulder. Her mother took her back with a faint smile, and Piet strode towards us, rearranging, not altogether successfully, his stone-faced expression.

I hated myself.


Idris the Dragon

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