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The ‘fake blood’ story? It didn’t go down well in our part of the world. The Gryphons didn’t make the headlines, thank God, and even when retired players starting popping their heads up and saying ‘well of course we never did it but we knew it was being done,’ no accusations came our way. Their way, I should say. Uncle Jim fulminated on the subject , his accent growing thicker and more impenetrable by the minute, to me, and then to Mary, and then to Hansie in the office, and once on the phone to Piet, and then in the Hamilton’s corridors to anybody not quick enough to get away. Mary sighed that she hardly dared answer the telephone for fear of it being yet another irate ex-international player wanting to compare notes with his erstwhile colleague on how the game had gone to hell in a handcart and how it was all down to whatever precise change in the regulations the caller had originally voted against.

Piet gave a brief interview to the local rag about how the Gryphons were above such improper behaviour; I had lunch one day with a subdued T-Bone who filled me in on the dressing room discussion, following which some of the younger players, who hadn’t previously seen Piet in a rage, virtually had to be coaxed out from under the benches. Piet, apparently, had specifically forbidden things which T-Bone had never heard of, much less thought of doing, had more or less told them that anything not expressly permitted was prohibited, and had given a speech extolling the old-fashioned virtues of decency and right thinking which, according to T-Bone, would have been met with snide amusement had it come from anybody else.

When Piet and Phil arrived on Friday night, Hansie was still poring over the newspaper; he hadn’t heard them arrive, probably because I had been in the garden picking herbs for the salad when they drew up, so they had come in through the kitchen with me rather than ringing the bell. Phil glanced over his shoulder at the headline and made a sound of some disgust at the back of his throat; Piet followed suit, although his expression was more one of disappointment.

“I know them,” he said in answer to my enquiring look. “No, not the ones directly involved, I do not think I have ever met any of them – although I suppose I may have done at some event or another. But I know –” and he flicked a finger at the photographs by the three by-lines, all ex-players now giving their opinions to the world via the media. “I am shocked that he in particular would take the view that ‘well, everybody does it’. I thought better of him.”

“The other two seem to be much more angry and offended,” offered Hansie.

“They’re still saying that everybody does it, and that they’ve known about it for years,” commented Phil bitterly. I looked up from the salad dressing.

“Do you know the man at the bottom of it? The one who. . .”

“By sight,” agreed Phil. “Not well, thank God. I’m telling you, there’s going to be a load of guilt by association.”

“As long as he’s not a friend,” I said absently, and looked up in time to see Phil cock his head enquiringly. “I mean, if it was somebody you knew well, or one of your mates. . . that would be. . .”

“Even more unpleasant,” agreed Phil with a grimace. I wondered though, and eventually, I had to ask.

“Are you, um, are you O.K. about it? I mean, Hansie and I have been shocked enough, and Jim’s spitting tacks, but for you two, these are people you know, even if it’s only at a couple of removes. I’d have thought you’d find it. . . upsetting.”

I saw the exchange of glances between Piet and Phil, and Piet smiled a little to himself, and came up behind me, wrapping his arms around my waist, with due care for the proximity of my fingers to the knife blade.

“And a year or so ago, Timmy, you would not have thought so, or if you did think so, you would not have thought to ask. You are quite correct: it has been upsetting, but it is as Phil says. We know none of them well, so we need feel only the dismay which comes with finding our beloved sport tarnished, without too much by way of personal affront.”

And Phil nodded, and turned to take his glass of wine from Hansie, and, well, I let it go. Until later. After dinner I made some remark about it again, and Phil turned on me, snarling.

“You’ll hold your tongue, Creed, if you know what’s good for you!”

I stared at him, my jaw dropping, and he stormed across the room, catching me by the wrists and pinning me against the wall, his body heavy against mine, one thigh pushing my legs apart.

“I have heard just about enough of this from you,” he growled in my ear. “I’m not having some halfwit pretty boy” – ooooh, right – “asking damfool questions about what I’ve got in my kitbag and getting the technical people all interested. You’re just going to shut up, Creed, and if you can’t see that as the smart option, then maybe I’ll have to show you what happens to a blabbermouth.”

I managed to snatch one wrist free – well, all right, he let go when I struggled.

“I’m not scared of you, Cartwright. Dirty player, are you? In a dirty game? Too much money and not enough integrity?”

The hand pinned my wrist back again. “No sense, and no manners either?” He started to drag me towards the sofa. “Sounds to me as if it’s about time somebody taught you a lesson, and it might as well be me.” He spun me between his legs and flung me – carefully – forward and across one muscled thigh, loosing my hand and reclaiming it so that he could get my wrists into the small of my back without twisting my shoulder. The smack, even through jeans, was hard enough to make me jump.

“Now, are you going to keep your trap shut, or do I have to bare your arse” – another slap, just as hard – “and teach you proper respect for your betters?”

“What betters?” I spat breathlessly, wriggling frantically (and to no obvious purpose) under a flurry of ringing spanks. “You? You’re a bloody cheat, Cartwright, and I’m going to see that – ransom.”

The last slap slid sideways down my thigh – he pulled the blow, I think, but he couldn’t stop it entirely. My wrists were freed at once and Phil caught me as I started to slide forward, caught me and set me gently on my knees on the carpet, in the same movement flinging himself away to the other side of the room. There was a long moment in which the only sound was my harsh breathing, and then Hansie grabbed at me, gathering me into his arms.

“Tim? Liefie? What – what is it?”

I leaned on him for a second with my eyes shut, and behind me Phil said in a deeply uncertain and shaken tone, “Tim? What did I do? I’m sorry, did I hurt you?”

I managed to turn at that. “Sorry, Phil, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, it wasn’t you, it wasn’t you at all, it was. . . I don’t know what it was. I don’t know.”

Hansie pulled me up to my feet and then onto the sofa; Piet leaned over with my wineglass. “Drink, Timmy. A little more.”

I gulped down a mouthful, and dragged my hand across my mouth. “Sorry. Sorry. I’m sorry, Phil, I don’t know. . . It wasn’t you. It wasn’t.”

He was far from convinced, I could see, but I smiled at him a little shakily. “You weren’t hurting me.”

“Scaring you, then,” he said darkly, and I shook my head again.

“I’m not scared of you.”

“Well, it must have been something, for fuck’s sake. You’ve never” – and he choked a little and turned to his own wineglass.

“He has never before used his safe word in play with us,” said Piet, flatly, bringing it all out into the open. “Hansie, has he with you?”

“Once?” answered Hansie, obviously as shaken as me. “Maybe twice?”

Phil looked sick; he plays beautifully, he’ll push further, on his day, than either of the other two because he so loves to give people what they want even if it’s not what he wants himself, but it doesn’t come as easily to him as it does to them and he patently thought he had done something unforgiveable. Of all the people I might have needed a safe word with, he was the least likely, but I doubt you could convince him of it. Still, I had to try.

“It wasn’t you. I swear it wasn’t. It was just. . . what I said.”

I could see him re-run the dialogue and fail to spot the problem. I wasn’t sure I could spot it myself, but I tried. “Calling you. . . what I did.”

Phil looked blankly at Piet and then at Hansie. “Calling me a cheat?” He sounded uncomprehending. “I know you don’t mean it, it’s only play. I thought” – and his voice cracked uneasily – “I thought you would like it.”

“I thought so too,” I agreed. “And I did, to begin with. You make a lovely villain. Only. . .” I hesitated again and the words came to me, rather awkwardly, “only, when it’s kidnapping or whatever, it’s so silly that I can just give myself over to it. Like opera, you know? Bloody ridiculous but you just go with it. But this was too near home, accusing you of ch. . . of cheating at rugby.”

“I wouldn’t. Well, not like that. I suppose you could say that a couple of the times I’ve been sent off for fouls, that it was cheating. But that sort, premeditated organised stuff – well, I just wouldn’t, that’s all.”

“Not unless you wished to have to answer to me,” growled Piet from the armchair, and my temper frayed and snapped.

“Of course he fucking wouldn’t! It’s nothing to do with you, don’t be stupid! He just wouldn’t do it because he’s a better person than that, he always has been! I’ve known since before you ever got here, that whatever faults Phil might have, dishonesty wasn’t one of them. He doesn’t need you to threaten punishments for cheating because he simply wouldn’t do it and you’re his man, you should bloody know that!”

Christ almighty, what is it that makes me challenge Piet about his treatment of Phil? A death wish? But Phil frowned hard at Piet – Piet may be Top but plainly there are times when he just does what Phil tells him – and came to sit down. Not with me, he obviously thought I was still too shaken, but on his own in the armchair.

“All right, so we both know it’s not true. Why did it not work for you as play? I mean, I wouldn’t kidnap you and hold you down while another man fucked you silly, either, but you hadn’t any difficulty with that.”

I smiled despite myself. That remained one of my favourite memories – Hansie and Phil abducting me and handing me over to Piet. The smile went crooked though, when I tried to think about what he was asking.

“I – don’t know. Honestly, Phil, I don’t. I just couldn’t bear to say, even in play, that I thought you. . . would cheat.”

“You said earlier that James was annoyed about it.” That was Piet.

“He was steaming,” I agreed. “The reputation of rugby matters to him.”

“And to you?”

I stared, not making the connection. Piet elaborated.

“Would James be guilty of such a thing?”

“No!” I was offended. “You know he wouldn’t!”

“Would I? Or Hansie?”

Phil shifted. “Oh, I see. And Mr Hamilton’s friends, you said the house was always full of rugby players when you were a child, Tim.”

I still didn’t get it, although Phil plainly did, which annoyed me a little. “What’s your point?”

Piet and Phil exchanged glances. It was Phil who spelled it out. “All your male rôle models are rugby players, Tim. Your uncle Jim. His friends. Piet. Hansie and me, not so much, but a bit, maybe? So you don’t like suggesting that we’re corrupt, not even when we all know that it’s not true and that we don’t seriously think it. And you’re fond of me so you don’t like hearing yourself call me a cheat, even though you know I’m playing.”

I chewed that over. “I – yes, maybe. Maybe. It just seemed so offensive, you know? Even if you weren’t offended, I was offended for you? Because. . . well, yes, because I do know, I do absolutely know that you wouldn’t do such a thing.”

Phil got up and walked back to the wall against which he had pinned me, placing his hands on the wallpaper and spreading his legs. “I fully expect that I’ll be called for a random drugs test some time soon: I haven’t been called in ages. And I expect that there will be other checks imposed now. What do you think, Tim?”

“I – I don’t know.”

“I’ve got my reputation to uphold. I think I demand to be searched now. I’ve got you as a witness that I haven’t left the room, so I can’t have hidden the evidence. I want to be tested now where I’ve got somebody to protect my good name.”

I got up; my knees were still a bit wobbly, but there was no denying that I felt a lot better. “You want me to check you out?”

“I insist on it.”

Ooooh. Well, I’m telling you, I took my time about it and I inspected everywhere he might have hidden a drugs cache or a capsule of fake blood, and quite a lot of places he couldn’t. Not, mind you, that you would call him co-operative for all that he’d been demanding his right to prove his innocence. He put on an expression of bored superiority (which made my palm itch) and was blandly unhelpful, using his weight to stop me pulling him around, and his height to make any physical search difficult, until I decided to fight dirty.

“Tell me, Mr Cartwright, does your Director of Rugby object to these checks being made?”

Phil shrugged. “He thinks they’re a necessary evil.”

“I see. And if I were to go to him and tell him that you were being disobliging about having your checks carried out, do you think he would be happy?”

Phil looked exaggeratedly uneasy.

“Shall I go to him?”

“There’s no need for that, surely?”

My turn to be blackmailing villain. “Well, let’s see if we can reach an accommodation, shall we? You’ve been awkward and stroppy about your checks and I think you need to learn that it’s not acceptable – so we can go and see your boss or you can just take what you’ve got coming from me. And what you’ve got coming, my lad, is a hot backside, but we can go to Mr de Vries instead if you’d rather.”

Well, there was a certain amount of not very convincing argument, followed by even less convincing pleading, culminating in Phil, trying to look properly subdued and unwillingly acquiescent, stripping his trousers down and draping himself, with his usual elegance, across my lap. He managed a nice line in wriggling and begging, mind you, and by the time we established that he was properly chastened, and we had finished off his body search – I found something full of blood, but it wasn’t a capsule – I was feeling more than a little heated myself and both Hansie and Piet seemed highly amused.

I didn’t see why we needed to put up with that.

Phil was rearranging his clothing when I turned back to him.

“You know, we really don’t have the faintest idea of what goes on at grassroots level in rugby, do we? I mean, there’s that man van den Broek, used to be a player, and now he’s running junior level stuff. Is he a good example to the teenagers? Is there any likelihood of him being involved in any of these scandals?”

“I am very careful of the example I set,” objected Hansie, with injured dignity. “I made a mistake once and I paid for it.”

Phil looked at me and wrinkled his nose. “One mistake? We can’t really say he’s got form for one mistake, can we? And I suppose we have to be fair – his reputation is absolutely unblemished when it comes to interacting with the children.”

“That’s all very well,” I said decidedly, “but we can’t afford to show favouritism. And if he’s as reliable as you say, he won’t try to stop us. I mean, we know that with the scandals in the media at the moment, it’s not enough for a player or manager or coach or whatever just to be clean – he has to be seen to be clean. No, I’m sorry, Phil, I know the man is your friend, but he’ll have to undergo investigation.”

Phil’s grin was feral.

Hansie was a bit more co-operative than Phil had been, but unfortunately, he’s also much more ticklish. The body search turned out to be rather more difficult than we expected, and it took a lot longer, and in the end, well, there was nothing we could do – we just had to make it plain that when we said ‘keep still and stop squirming’ we meant it. All these coaches need to understand that they’re not above the law, and that there will be penalties imposed if they don’t do as they’re told. van den Broek ended up doubled over the back of an armchair with his trousers round his ankles, with Phil on one side and me on the other, swinging in tandem. Two spanks at a time is noisy, and the person on the receiving end is noisier, or so we discovered. Still, we didn’t find anything untoward, so we let him go in the end, with nothing more serious than a warning that we would be back to check him out again some time in the future.

Now me, I’d have left it at that – but Phil. . .

Phil looked across the room and said slowly, “Do you think the rot goes all the way to the top?”

And the Top in question looked back at him, and allowed his eyebrows to climb.

Hansie and I exchanged glances of rather horrified fascination, as Phil added, “You said yourself, Tim, we can’t afford to show favouritism.”

No, and we can’t afford to show suicidal insanity either, Phil.

But Piet shifted, and spread his arms along the back of the sofa, and uncrossed his knees, setting his feet wide apart, and said evenly, “I am not afraid; I have nothing to hide. I ask of my players nothing that I am not prepared to undergo myself.”

Oh. My. Merciful. God.

He was a very great deal more accommodating (and less ticklish) than either Phil or Hansie, although when it came to it, only Phil had the courage to insist on the more. . . personal. . . aspects of the checks (and the memory of the sound that Piet made when Phil carried them out is one that I shall tuck away at the back of my mind, in the certain knowledge that I shall never be permitted to elicit it myself, much as I would like to). But he wasn’t lying – he had nothing to hide. Nothing at all.

He shook us off, in the end, leaving us in a giggling heap on the floor, and re-ordered his clothing while we untangled ourselves. Then he looked at us all and enquired, “So? Are we all perfectly clear of conscience?”

He didn’t look at me particularly, and I knew – knew beyond any shadow of doubt – that if I said my conscience was untroubled, he would let it pass. Only, because I knew that he would let it pass, I also knew that I couldn’t. Piet doesn’t want to judge us, you see; I’ve known that for a long time. He wants us to judge ourselves. And my conscience was not perfectly clear.

Hansie and Phil gave him the answer you would expect; I didn’t. I gave him no answer at all, and when he prompted, “And you, Tim?” I think Phil heard something in it which had him scooting back towards the other chair and drawing Hansie with him.

“I’m. . . I’ve. . .”


I got up from the floor. Spit it out, Tim. He had made it plain enough that time in Phil’s kitchen.

“I’m entitled to defend Phil’s reputation to you – but I’m not entitled to be rude when I do it. Or shout at you, or whatever.”

He nodded, once. “Hansie, do you wish to mend his manners?”

Nee,” said Hansie, immediately. “He was not speaking to me. Any” – and he hesitated, looking for a word – “any disagreement is between you and him and so is the resolution of it.”

Oh thanks, Hansie. Just give him permission, why don’t you? Not that I was really complaining, when Piet held out his hand to me and encouraged me to approach. It wasn’t a severe spanking, although it was a thorough one. A couple of dozen, applied quite slowly, hard enough to feel like a punishment, hard enough that I squirmed a couple of times, not so hard that I had any difficulty in staying where I’d been put. When he’d done, I leaned my forehead against his thigh, waiting for my breathing to steady, with his hand gently resting on the back of my neck and his thumb rasping through my hair. I didn’t need to tell him I was sorry; he didn’t need to tell me I was forgiven.

But when I reached for my jeans, his hands closed around my wrists.

“I think not, Mr Creed. You may believe that we do not know what you have been doing, but you are mistaken. Here are my boys, who are clean-living and responsible, and they have been forced to undergo the most demeaning and undignified experiences, simply because some insolent little journalist is looking for a story. Well, Mr Creed, I think we will give you your story. You may write a first-person exposé of what it like to experience the sorts of tests and checks that a professional rugby player must endure. The experience will no doubt do you good.”

Did me the world of good, I’m sure.

Idris the Dragon

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