All right, I’ve already admitted it was a bloody stupid thing to do.
In my defence, though, I had had a bad day. I’d been to see my mother, and that’s always a bit of a strain. So I thought, sod it, Hansie is off training tonight, I’m not sitting on my own with some pot noodles, moping in front of the television. Instead I decided to go down to the Feathers and have a pint or several. Walking, of course. After my recent reminder, there was no way I was going to drink and drive.
I’d sunk one pint and was halfway through another, and was just trying to decide whether I wanted to be a morose drunk or a happy drunk when a hand clapped me delicately on the shoulder and a familiar voice said:
“Darling, didn’t anyone ever tell you it’s death to drink alone? Buy Auntie Simon a port and lemon and confess all. I’ve been starting to think you’re avoiding me.”
“Oh, it’s you.”
“Now darling, is that how we greet our friends? Try again please, using something a little more civilised than the basic caveman grunt. You’re spending entirely too much time with rugby players.”
Despite myself I felt my mouth twist into a grin. Simon was incredibly camp, and could be wearing after a while, but he was fun in small doses. If anyone could cheer me up, he could.
I bought him a gin and tonic and we went and sat at an empty table – it was a slow night, only half a dozen or so in.
“Now why are you looking so miserable and all alone? Have you finally been dumped by the mysterious shagmeister who kidnapped you and kept you in his lair all these months, a helpless victim of his unnatural lusts?”
“Simon you know perfectly well that I’ve been around – you had lunch with me last week.”
“It was two and a half weeks ago to be exact, darling, and while you may have been in work, you most definitely have not been ‘around’. The pubs and the clubs have grown lonely for you. I was beginning to think that you really were shacked up with the gorgeous Hansie.”
And that really wasn’t an area I wanted to get into. It’s not that – I mean, it’s not a problem, me being gay, Hansie being gay. But well – office romances. People imagine things. Might start to think that the sudden promotion of a 27-year-old to deputy sales director from advertising manager was a bit sudden, and achieved more by sleeping with the sales director than on merit. Or vice versa, that the sales director got his position through a knowledge of the CE’s nephew’s erogenous zones rather than our sales areas.
It made me uncomfortable. And I’m no good at lying, so I thought it best to avoid the subject altogether.
“I’m not – it isn’t that. It’s just that I’ve been to see my mother today.”
“Oh sweetie, I’m sorry.” Simon patted my hand. “I remember you saying you don’t have much to do with her. Do you argue?”
“It’s more – it feels like walking on eggshells all the time. We’re so damned careful around each other. It’s exhausting.”
He looked sympathetic. Despite all the flouncing, he was a good listener once he could be persuaded to shut up for a moment.
“She was – ill – for a long time after my dad died. I think I remember us all being happy together, but I’m not sure whether I’m getting muddled up with things that I was told afterwards. But when dad died – well, so did she, effectively. As a mother, anyway. If I have a real mother, in the sense that people think of their mothers, it’s Mary, just as Jim is the person I think of, in my heart of hearts, as dad.”
“Oh God, Tim, that’s awful. How old were you?”
“Six. For a long time, even after she was better, living in the community, holding down a job, I refused point-blank to have anything to do with her.”
“I can see it must have been difficult.”
I swallowed a hefty slug of my pint.
“I suppose it was hard for her, too. She was quite young when she had me. Jim’s baby sister. He adored her. And so I made it hard for him too. She used to send me a birthday card every year, and I used to send it back unopened.”
“I know, I know. The sad thing is that after I – got to know her again, I discovered she still had them all, in a box in her wardrobe. Every card she’d ever sent me.”
Simon squeezed my hand. “What made you change your mind and start seeing her?”
“It was my 19th birthday. I had a hissy fit when I saw the card from her sitting by my plate – I was rather rude about her I’m afraid, and Jim – well, at first I thought I was going to get a hiding for it, but he just gave me this peculiar look and went out. I looked over at Mary, expecting sympathy, and got told a few home truths about selfish, immature adolescents who tore the heart out of decent men like my uncle, and who should just grow up or ship out. Believe me, if you think Jim’s scary, never, never, get on the wrong side of Mary.”
“Exactly. I left that kitchen with my ears burning, convinced that I was about the lowest form of life in existence.”
“A fact which hardly needs confirmation. Another?”
“Thank you.” When he returned with another pint I saluted him with it and took a healthy swig.
“So you got back in touch with her then?” he asked.
“Yes. I see her on and off. Mostly off. We’re strangers, Simon. We don’t really have much in common. But I thought I should tell her . . .”
Well, actually I’d gone to tell her that I had a serious boyfriend. It was my third attempt and my third failure. You see, the thing was I’d never explicitly said I was gay. Oh, I dropped hints. I made it clear that I went out with male friends, and never mentioned female ones. But it was that pussyfooting thing again. Neither of us quite dared be truthful with the other, because if we started that where would it stop? And both of us had been hurt by the other, in different ways, and neither of us wanted to hurt the other any more. Good intentions again.
I mean, I don’t know, she might be fine about it. Jim is, and Mary, of course, never turned a hair. It’s surprising who isn’t bothered, and who is. At least one person I could have sworn was liberal, easy-going and not in the least likely to be upset by homosexuality said to me when I told her: ‘I really wish you hadn’t thought it necessary to tell me that’. So I wanted to tell my mother, but I was very wary of doing it.
“You thought you should tell her about your grand passion with Mr van den Broek.”
I breathed beer in, and rapidly out again in a coughing fit that confirmed I was not cut out for an amphibian life.
Simon looked at me with a wry grin.
“Oh come on, Tim, you know you can’t dissemble for toffee.”
“Simon, I’m not going to talk about that.”
“As you like, darling, but I think I should tell you that that’s one of the things that gives you away.”
“The fact that when his name is mentioned you get an expression of bovine ecstasy and clam up and refuse to say anything. Just the way you did when I mentioned him earlier.”
“Very funny.” I suppose I ought to be used by now to being transparent, but I was a bit put out to tell you the truth. I thought I’d been so careful.
“Oh come on, don’t pout, give me some goss. Is he as hot as he looks? Does the red go all the way down?”
“Simon Langridge,” I announced with immense dignity, “I have no intention of filling you in on the details of my incredibly intense and satisfying love life, nor my boyfriend’s exquisitely muscled and oh-so-responsive body.”
“Swine. Another drink?” Where had the last one gone? Oh well.
“My round. Gin again?”
“Yes, please. . . Thank you. ” I flopped back onto the banquette and started on my next pint.
“So where is the gorgeous Hansie?”
“Ah, rugby. All those wonderfully butch men copping a feel in the scrum, and dropping their trousers in the bar afterwards. So heterosexual – not.”
I laughed. “Well, butch is as butch does. And as far as copping a feel in the scrum goes, I could tell you a tale. . .”
He pricked up his metaphorical ears – I need to watch that metaphor, don’t I?
“Do go on.”
“Sorry, sworn to secrecy.”
“Hmm. Maybe you and the delectable Hansie would like to come for a drink on Saturday? I might have more luck pumping him.”
“No-one pumps Hansie but me.”
“Anyway, we can’t go out on Saturday, we’re having dinner with Phil and Piet.”
There, it just slipped out like that. I realised almost as soon as I’d said it. I don’t blush as often or as badly as Hansie, but I could feel the crimson from my collar to the roots of my hair. If I’d only had time to think I could have recovered from it – I mean, I’d only said we were having dinner, it could have been club business, perfectly innocent. Isn’t hindsight wonderful? But the trouble was it wasn’t perfectly innocent, and I knew that, and my reactions gave it away. I told you I don’t lie well. And because of my reaction, Simon was onto it like a terrier.
“Tim? Phil and – Pete? I thought I knew all the couples who you – oh wait a minute. Not from the rugby club? Not the golden boy – what was it the Telegraph said: ‘The newest bloom in the Red Rose army’. Phil Cartwright? He’s gay?”
“Look, Simon, I never should have said – please.”
“Oh, but you can’t leave me dangling. Who’s his boyfriend? This Pete.”
“Pi-et. Pieter de Vries.” Shut UP, Tim. Stop digging.
He cupped his hand over his mouth, his eyes alight.
“This just gets better and better. Oh my. Phil Cartwright and the coach. It’s like the plot of a porn video.”
I looked at him, my mouth working. There were words there, words like: it isn’t a video, Simon, it’s real life. Phil and Piet’s life, and a word in the wrong place could ruin it for them. I’ve seen what can happen when a dream gets wrecked – I live with a man who’s been mangled in just such a wreck, Simon, and I’ve heard him cry at night. Leave it alone.
Those were the words I wanted to say. But instead I just stood up and walked – well, almost ran, actually, out of the pub, leaving Simon bemused behind me.
And then I walked some more. I’m not sure where I walked, only that it took a long while. I needed the time, you see, to beat myself up properly for being so stupid. But the only problem with beating yourself up is that, being an internal process, however much it hurts it can’t provide resolution. For that you have to get someone else to beat you up.
When I walked in Hansie was back and sitting at the kitchen table in a pair of shorts and his slippers and not much else. Normally I would have taken the time to ogle the result. Today I hardly noticed.
He smiled up at me.
“The wanderer returns. Where have you . . . Tim? What is the matter?”
I sat down. “Hansie,” I said. “I think I’ve done something bad.
Something very bad.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“So, tell me then.”
So I did.
“And now – well, you know what a terrible gossip Simon is. He doesn’t really mean any harm by it, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t do harm. I’ve screwed up. If it ruins Phil’s career I’ll never forgive myself. You’d better go and get your cane, sir.”
He looked at me and frowned. “I am not sure that you have Simon Langridge rightly, rightly - sized up is the expression, isn’t it? It seems to me he talks an awful lot but is careful to say nothing of consequence. I shall speak to him tomorrow.”
“Do you think so?”
“I’m not a damned prophet. But you are right about one thing – you did screw up.”
I hung my head. “Yes sir. How many?”
“I do not think it can be so easy, liefling. It is not me you have harmed, although I would have preferred to be discreet. It is Phil, and perhaps Pieter. It is to Phil you must go to get things straight. It is up to him to punish you.”
“Phil?” No way! I mean, yes I know it was him I might have – but Phil punish me? No way!! “He doesn’t – he isn’t into this.”
“He may not be turned on by it, but he knows about punishment. Pieter de Vries has seen to that. And you must see that it is the only way to make things right between you.”
“I – can’t. Don’t make me, Hansie.”
“Ja, you can. You will.”
I looked at him. He wasn’t angry, but he was absolutely determined. Had his stubborn face on. I wasn’t about to get around him.
“Will you – will you phone Pieter de Vries and explain? I don’t think I could face doing that first.”
He looked mulish, then looked at me again and sighed.
“Very well.” He went out to the hall. Snatches of Afrikaans floated through. I’m pretty sure I heard myself described as a damned fool at one point.
“So,” he said, coming back in. “Tomorrow evening, at their house. 6 pm. I should not be late, if I were you.”
I was there at quarter-to.
And he has the nerve to call me stupid. I goggled at Piet.
“He did what?”
“He has outed us, koekie. And to a friend whom he believes to be a gossip.”
I swore, viciously. Piet listened, sympathetically. “You know, poppie, Afrikaans is a much better language than English for that.”
“How can you – how can you joke about it? Hell and damnation, Piet, you know what that’s going to do.”
“Assume I do not. Tell me.”
“Anyone who doesn’t already know you’re gay is going to have a blue fit and assume you aren’t fit to coach a squad. Then they’ll take on board that I live with you and they’ll put you down as a corrupter of youth. Predatory towards your junior players. Then they’ll probably assume that any position I hold down at the club is because I’m your. . . your. . . I don’t know, toy boy or something.”
“And what about you, Phil? What will it do to you?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know. I hate this pussy-footing about and pretending! I don’t know who will care. I hope, nobody.”
He shook his head. “It will not be like that. Either people will care, or they will not. If they do not, well, so much the better for us, we are out. If they do care, I think it will come harder on you than on me. My playing career is done. My refereeing? There are other gay referees, and I think probably people will not care very much. Coaching? There will be sides which will not look to employ me, players who want to transfer sooner than play under me, but there will always be a squad where I can find something. But you? Two internationals, koekie, and will you be picked for a third? Do” and he named a couple of names, coach and senior players, “do they care? This is a sport in which you bleed, Phil. That is why there are blood rules nowadays. And the blood rules are to keep the players safe from people like us. Will your team mates care?”
I didn’t know. I swore some more. “How could he? How could he? When he knows how important it is? When he” - I choked on the sudden realisation – “when he isn’t fully out himself?”
Piet was surprised. “He is not? But James knows, and Mary Hamilton. I thought he made no particular secret of it.”
“His mother doesn’t know,” I said dully. “He told me he had never managed to tell her.”
“Well, my hart, but that is not relevant. He is very stupid, yes. He has been criminally careless. For my part, I do not think he will do me much damage. But I think he may very well have torpedoed your career, and we must face that possibility.”
I looked up at him. He was speaking lightly, but the look – I’ve described it before, I think. When he’s angry with me, he gazes at me with those pale eyes like a predator, and believe me, I feel like prey. When he’s angry with someone else, it’s as if he has been chiselled, or possibly cast, in something incredibly hard. He has cheekbones like knives at the best of times, but it’s almost as if they sharpen up.
“What else did Hansie say? And I do think Tim might have had the grace to come and tell us himself.”
“Hansie says Tim is very upset. He knows very well what he did. He confessed it to Hansie, he did not wait to be found out. That is something in his favour, I suppose.”
“Well, I hope Hansie cuts him in half, that’s all.” I was beginning to understand what he had done, and the anaesthetic of shock was wearing off. I was starting to feel the injury.
“Hansie is not, he says, going to punish him.”
“He leaves that to us. Tim is coming here tomorrow.”
I goggled again. “What are you going to do to him?”
“What do you think I should do?”
Something involving skinning knives. Boiling oil. Salt. Blood. Pain. The injury was throbbing now. Had this happened a year earlier, so that my international career never got off the ground, I would have suffered it better. But I had felt the shape of my professional life, had begun to close my hands on success. Sure, two internationals in which I had not shone was hardly Boys’ Own Paper stuff, but with Piet on my side, I knew that I was going places. I was going all the way, just as he had done.
And now suddenly, I was not. I didn’t dare hope to get away with it. I faced the ruin of my career and my expectations, ambitions, dreams and day-dreams, and I bit down hard on the pain and opened myself to it, in the hope of feeling it ebb. It did not. I trembled with the intensity of my fury and pain and disappointment, and I turned to Piet and buried my face against his shoulder.
“You know, my hart, it might be recoverable. If we both deny it. You would have to get another coach and agent. Perhaps move to another team. Leave me.”
“No.” I didn’t even need to think about that one. “I will not do that. They can take me as I am, or not. I will not lie about you. I will not give you up. I can go as far as we have been going, just not offering information, just – I don’t know, what do we call it when you go about with Fran and I go about with Michelle? – but if it comes to the direct question, I won’t lie.”
“Beloved, you may have no choice. It may be me, or your career.”
“Then it will be you, and I’ll go and be a – what was you said at the start of all this? A banker.”
His arms closed hard round me and he kissed me until I was breathless, and I was frightened. I could feel his rage building, not against me, but against Tim, and I could spare a tiny corner of my mind to be a little sorry for him. Piet is the best of loyal friends, but he is a deadly enemy. But only a little sorry. Tim had done this, and apart from the stupidity and carelessness of it, there was a painful edge because he and I had once been better than friends. I had thought that although we hadn’t been able to manage being lovers, we had achieved friendship. And it was a betrayal. It would be hard to forgive. There had always been a risk of being outed – but the direction was one I had never expected.
Piet spoke my thought, making me jump. “If he has done me damage, well, he has, and I shall get over it. But if he has hurt you badly, I will not forgive him. I will not.”
I took a deep, shuddery breath. “Did Hansie say anything else?”
Piet sat down, pulled me down beside him. I curled into the couch to get my arms round him and get to my place. My place.
“I think we have faced the worst, Phil. I think that is the worst it can be. But it may not be so. Hansie thinks that Tim may be underestimating his friend. Hansie says the man Simon is - ” he struggled for the English word, and gestured at me.
“Yes. And malicious in his conversation, and a gossip. But Hansie thinks he is neither stupid, nor bad-hearted. Not spiteful. You know the type.”
“A queen, but not vicious.”
“Just so. Hansie will speak to him. He is not stupid, Hansie, and he is learning to deal better with people. He has learned that mostly from Tim, which is. . . which is. . .”
He stopped. He had lost the word, but I knew what he meant. A sick joke, that’s what it was.
“But Hansie will talk to him. He says to me that he thinks Simon is one of those gossips who likes to know, not to tell. He will take pleasure in knowing about us when others do not. Hansie thinks it possible that Simon’s pleasure would actually be diminished by talking. That he will see this piece of information not as a stick to beat us with, but as a. . . a tease to use against Tim. That he will score points against Tim by threatening to tell, but would not actually do it.”
“It’s not really enough, is it?”
“It might be, my hart. Specially if Hansie thinks to engage in a little conspiracy at Tim’s expense. To make it a private joke between himself and this Simon, that Simon would tease Tim, but without damaging us. We can hope so.”
I sucked on that for a while. Then I reverted to my original question.
“What are you going to do to Tim?”
“I think – I think that I am not going to deal with him. I think that you are. It is you who will bear the brunt of this, and it will be you who must achieve some accommodation with him. I see him rarely. If we are not friends, it will not matter. But you and he have history and must rub along with each other.”
I was speechless for a moment. “Me? You want me to. . . to do what?”
“To decide what should be done and to do it. Hansie has told Tim that we will punish him, and Tim will accept punishment. What do you think he deserves?”
My glance went automatically to Piet’s desk. He has a choice of canes. I’ve learned – never mind how! – that some people find the heavier, stiffer cane harder to bear, but I really hate the thin one which bites. He used it once, and I hope most sincerely never to feel it again.
“The cane? You think so?”
“I – yes. I do. But I don’t think I could do it. I would be afraid of hurting him.”
There was a moment’s silence while Piet thought about that, and then he gave a bark of laughter. I heard what I had said, and punched him lightly. “Idiot. I meant that I would be afraid of doing him real harm. Of not being able to stop.”
He sobered. “I think you are right. I know that I will never use a cane in anger. It is too easy – and it can have very severe results.”
“As I know to my cost.”
He hugged me. “So you do. And I think that perhaps if you have never done it before you should not start with something so – so personal. So not the cane, then.”
“No. I’ll have to p-put him over my knee. Piet, he’s older than me!”
“Well, but you are bigger than him. And I think he will not struggle.”
“I’ve never done it. I don’t know how. And I don’t actually know if I could be – well, as severe as I think he deserves.”
“There I can help you. I never spank with more than my hand, but there is no reason why you should not. We will go out and I will find you something suitable. And I will tell you what you need to know.”
By the end of the next morning, I was the less than proud possessor of a stiff leather paddle and a great deal of theoretical information about the best and most effective way to deliver a spanking. By late afternoon I was in an absolute frenzy of nerves.
“I hope to God he isn’t late.”
“He is here now. He has been sitting outside in his car for the past five minutes. Ah, no, he is coming in.”
I went to the study. “You let him in, Piet. Please.”
He looked dreadful. He looked sick with apprehension. Piet came and sat next to me, and Tim stood in the middle of the floor and looked at his feet.
“Can you tell us anything that will make this any better?” Piet. He is always scrupulously just.
Tim looked up. “In terms of what I did? No, sir. Nothing. In terms of the effects, Hansie says he has spoken to Simon, and his opinion is that Simon won’t talk. I’ve. . . I’ve also explained to Simon that I had no business saying anything at all, and asked him not to talk.”
“And do you think he will?”
“I – don’t know, sir. I couldn’t get any sort of sensible answer from him, just jokes.”
Piet raised an eyebrow at me and smiled a little. It sounded as if Hansie might very well have been right. Then the smile faded, and he turned back to Tim, and told him, very quietly, his opinion of Tim’s brains, sense and manners. It took about four minutes. Tim was in tears at the end of two. But he stood and took it, in silence, without trying to defend himself. Then Piet got up.
“It is Phil who will feel the effects of what you have done, so you must make your peace with him. As best you can.” And he went out, carefully closing the door. I heard his tread on the stairs.
I looked at Tim. He was scrubbing his hand across his face, and he plainly didn’t want to catch my eye. I got up, walked across to the desk, removed the paddle from the drawer, and let Tim see it. He flinched, but he said nothing. I sat down again.
It didn’t sound like my voice; Tim came, obediently. He had stopped crying. I wasn’t any too gentle as I unfastened his belt and button, and stripped everything to his knees in one gesture.
He stretched across my lap, turning slightly to get his torso onto the couch. I shifted, to make that possible. I had every intention of keeping him there for some time.
But I looked down at him, and I couldn’t do it. He was submissively placed for me to punish, pale bottom lifted to me, and I liked it. I liked it. And so did he. Positioned like that, I couldn’t miss it.
“I can’t do this! For God’s sake, Tim, go home. Just go.” And I pushed him off my lap. He sprawled on the floor, and I started to get up, but he was quicker. He rose to his knees and caught my hands.
“Please, Phil, you must. I screwed up and I’ve got to pay for it. Hansie won’t take the payment, and Piet won’t, so you must. Please. Phil, you don’t know how bad I feel. I can’t forgive myself and I need you to forgive me.”
“I will. I do.”
“You don’t. I can see that. You’re angry still. I know you – I know you well enough for that. You’re loyal, Phil, and I wasn’t. So you need to do this.”
Slowly, I eased back onto the couch. He caught up the paddle and held it out to me, and when I took it, he went back to his place across my lap. He wasn’t turned on now. He was scared.
With the first crack of the paddle, his head came up off his braced arms, but he made no sound, just dropping his chin back onto his hands. The scarlet mark flared on his skin, and paled again. I laid on another, slightly lower, and then another. The overlap did not pale as fast as the edge. I worked steadily downwards, from the back of his waist, alternating left and right, dropping half an inch each time. He was beginning to gasp, but he didn’t cry or cry out. His tears, it seems, are for emotion, not pain. I worked just to the tops of his thighs. Oh, yes, I know, from bitter experience again, the effect of a smack there.
And then I started again. This time I abandoned alternation and worked steadily down one side and then up the other. There was no longer any pale skin, just variations in reds. Definite gasping, and the occasional whimper.
The third circuit was as the first, and it drew yelps from him. I was well aware that I would have been howling had it been me. He was jumping with every blow and I slowed my pace, and put a little more effort in. And then, I slipped a hand between his legs, and urged him a little further forwards, and put six hard spanks on each thigh, down as far as the backs of his knees. And he yelled.
I dropped the paddle and let him up. He turned his head away from me – my own gesture, I recognised it – and reached for his jeans. He hissed as he fastened them, and then I saw him physically work up the courage to face me. He opened his mouth to say something, I didn’t know what, and I held out my arms, and he flung himself on me, burying his head against me, gripping me, and I hugged him and rocked him, and we cried together.
We were both a bit shaky when we stopped. “I must go home,” he said hoarsely.
“Are you fit to drive?”
He thought about that. “No. I. . . can I ring Hansie? And get him to come for me? I’ll collect my car tomorrow.”
I went to tell Piet, while he phoned. Then I went back and took him in my arms again while we waited for Hansie. Piet let him in, and Hansie gathered Tim up off my lap.
“Have you made your apologies, hey?”
“Yes,” I said hastily, “he has.”
“To you at least,” agreed Tim. “Mr de Vries, I’m very sorry.”
Piet nodded, unsmiling, and showed them out. I saw Tim wince as he got into Hansie's car. Piet saw it too.
“You were effective, then.”
“I think so. I feel better, too. What do we do now?”
“We wait. We wait to see if the genie is out of the bottle. And if it is. . .”
“If it is,” I said firmly, “then I shall be a banker. And what I want to know is, does – this – happen to you when you spank me?”
“You dirty old man!”
“Well, but you have such a desirable rear, koekie. Come upstairs and let me show you how much I admire it.”
There, I knew Tim was good for something.
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