“Are you coming to bed, koekie?”
“Not yet. I want to read a couple more chapters. I’ll be up later.” When I had recovered my temper a bit. And calmed down.
“It is not like you, Phil, to sulk over a punishment,” observed Piet, disapprovingly. I bit back half a dozen sharp, and deeply hurt, and hurtful, comments. They weren’t going to help. I looked up at him and gathered my thoughts.
“I don’t believe I did anything wrong. Plainly you do, and our deal is that you decide when I’m due a punishment and what it is. I gave in, I took what you thought I had earned. I still don’t understand what it was that annoyed you so much, but I’ve said I’m sorry and I didn’t fight you. I don’t know what more you want from me.” Despite myself, my voice quivered a little on that last. Blind submission doesn’t come that easily to me, and that had been the first time that I felt I had been punished unfairly. I’ve said before, I know I have the means of stopping Piet if I thought he wasn’t listening, but this was something else. It had been like we weren’t talking the same language. He had objected to what I had said, and to the way I had said it, and the place and time I had said it, and I had been well chewed out in front of the team, and then he had been cold and silent and intimidating all the way home, and had ordered me into the study in disgrace. And I couldn’t get a grip on what I had done. It wasn’t like. . . there have been a couple of occasions where Piet has thought I screwed up, and I thought I didn’t, and we argued it through: what I did, why I did it. Once he convinced me, and I got a tanning. Once I convinced him, and I didn’t. This time, I just couldn’t see what the big deal was. I couldn’t get a grip on anything to argue about, and in the end I just gave in. I went over his knee, and he spanked me very thoroughly and comprehensively, and several hours later I still didn’t know why. The problem for me was that I couldn’t let it go. I was saying to myself: you gave in; you took the punishment; it’s over; now move on. And the voice at the back of my head said resentfully: move on from what?
I didn’t think it was fair to call me sulky, either. I had made huge efforts not to be sulky. I didn’t want to talk, but I had taken my book and settled in the sitting room, not gone off on my own, and not said anything about Piet’s choice of television programme, which was dull in the extreme. I didn’t offer anything in the way of conversation, I’ll put my hand up to that, but when he spoke to me, I had answered civilly. Nonetheless, I wasn’t ready to go to his bed. Frankly I wanted to sleep in the spare room, but my mother always used to say: never go to bed angry. Stay up and fight. I couldn’t fight, but I wasn’t going to bed with him as if nothing was wrong. Another couple of chapters and perhaps I would have calmed down enough to go to him. It was my bed too, after all.
Piet. . . well, he said no more. I’m allowed to be angry, I’ll give him that. He never uses the ‘attitude’ argument – you know, ‘I don’t like your attitude’, the way the weaker teachers at school used to do it. Means ‘I can’t quite pin anything on you except that you disagree with me and I can’t come up with an argument sufficiently convincing to make you change your mind’. I know I’m not expected to agree with him on all points. He went upstairs, and I read two more chapters of my book, although I couldn’t have told you afterwards what they were about, and then I thought: oh, grow up a bit, Phil, go to bed and talk to Piet about it in the morning. It didn’t stop me being miserable, though. I was quite prepared to believe that I had done something I shouldn’t but I wanted to know what the hell it was!
He had already turned the light out when I went up, so I undressed in the bathroom. If he were already asleep, so much the better. I didn’t want to talk about this now, and I absolutely didn’t want to. . . you know. Angry sex doesn’t do it for me. I wriggled into bed, and listened to him breathing, and just didn’t understand.
I understood well enough in the morning. However huffy my head was at bedtime, my body simply loves being in bed with Piet and by the morning I was spooned up against him. The surprising thing was that he was still asleep. He’s a light sleeper, and I’m not, and as a general rule he’s awake before me. For once, though, I woke up and he was still turned away from me, and asleep. My arm was over his waist, and I was overheating badly. We must have got the duvet into a right tangle.
Except that we hadn’t. It was half pushed off, and the heat wasn’t emanating from some very expensive goose feather filling, but from Piet himself. The skin under my arm was hot and dry, and when I moved, he shifted uneasily himself, and half turned over, and groaned.
“Piet? What’s the matter?”
“Nothing. I did not sleep well.”
I sat up and peered at him. Then I got up and opened the curtains. He flinched and turned his head away.
“I have a dreadful headache, and a sore throat. I fear I have caught something. I will take some aspirin, and then I will be fine.”
I was dragging a dressing gown on as he spoke. “I don’t think so, Piet. Turn over? Let me look at your back.”
“At my back? Why?”
“To see if you’ve got spots there to match the ones on your chest. You have. Hell and damnation! Can you sit up? I’ll get the thermometer.”
Of course, I couldn’t find the damn thing at first. I’m injured occasionally, but I’m rarely ill, and Piet has excellent health. I found the thermometer right at the back of the cabinet, and over-ruled Piet’s arguments – well, actually, I just stuffed the business end into his mouth, and said, “Now shut up, it won’t tell us anything if you keep talking round it.”
It didn’t tell us anything we wanted to hear when I recovered it. Raised temperature, not that I didn’t already know that. Rash. Sore throat. Headache.
“I’ll ring the doctor later, Piet, but my guess is chickenpox. Have you had it before?”
“I do not know what it is.”
O.K., not unreasonable. The vocabulary of childhood diseases is not something you would learn in a foreign language. I went downstairs to the computer, and searched chickenpox and what to do. Then I found one of those automatic translators. “Waterpokkies, Piet.”
“Oh, fuck.” Not a good sign, Piet swears very little. “No, I think I have not had it. Riana had it when we were small, but I did not get it. Are you sure? Where would I have caught such a thing?”
“Anywhere. No, I’m not sure, I’m not a doctor, but it looks like the picture on the website. Half the guys on the team are married or the equivalent and half of them have kids. Any one of them could be carrying it. More likely, though, would be that school visit a fortnight ago. That would be about right for the incubation. You’re infectious a couple of days before you have symptoms, and then right through until the blisters dry up. So you aren’t going anywhere for the moment. I’ll call the surgery at half eight, and meanwhile you can have your breakfast in bed. How bad are your throat and your head?”
“Right. No aspirin, it said so on the website. I’ll bring you a couple of paracetamol. I think we have some of the soluble ones left.”
The doctor came out; that’s unusual these days, but I explained it to the receptionist, who had a look in the book and found that somebody from the surgery was calling at the nursing home along the road, and could look in on the way back. She said that if I were right about adult chickenpox, they didn’t want it in the waiting room. Doctor Bannerjee called at nine o’clock and confirmed chickenpox, and that basically there was nothing to be done except to wait for it to go away.
“Rest. The fatigue and irritability are normal, and pass quite quickly. Do not scratch the spots. Paracetamol as you need it. Any appropriate cream or ointment to reduce itching, ask the pharmacist. Cool baths will help get your temperature down and ease the itching too. I’ll sign you off work next week, and you can call for an extension after next weekend if you need to. It’s unlikely to last longer than that, given that you’re in good health normally. Unless. . . it can occasionally be dangerous” (she coughed delicately) “in anyone with a compromised immune system.” She glanced from Piet to me. “Steroid use can do that, among. . . other things.”
Piet smiled grimly. “I believe my immune system to be in good order, and I have never taken steroids.”
She smiled back. “In that case, I would expect you to be feeling better in a few days. If you have friends who are pregnant, don’t let them visit. It’s a virus, so antibiotics won’t help, but if any of the spots get infected, keep an eye on them, because that can be nasty. The sore throat is probably spots inside your mouth and throat, so watch what you eat. Nothing will do you any harm, but hot or salty or acidic things will be painful. And I will warn you, as an adult, you are likely to get very uncomfortable spots in very uncomfortable places.”
“I beg your pardon?” asked Piet, bewildered, and then began to blush as Doctor Bannerjee cast a deliberate glance at his mid-section.
“Be very careful not to scratch those. Chickenpox spots have a nasty tendency to scar if you scratch them. You wouldn’t like that. Calamine lotion, and lots of it.”
“What about the risk to Phil? Had he better go away?”
“I’ve had it, Piet. I had it when I was still at primary school. It’s rare to get it a second time, isn’t it, Doctor?”
“Yes. If you are generally in good health, I wouldn’t expect you to be at risk. Do bear in mind, though, that it is dreadfully contagious, so be careful about washing your hands and so on. I wouldn’t expect you to catch it, but you could pass it on.”
“What about shingles?” I asked.
“Irrelevant. If you have had chickenpox, you may – may, only – develop shingles later. Somebody can catch chickenpox from you if you have shingles, but not the other way round. And shingles happens or doesn’t, so there is nothing you can or should do about it. If you’ve had chickenpox before, you can look after your friend without worrying about infection.”
Piet is a truly dreadful patient. Unbelievably awful. Patient is simply not the word. That first day he was O.K., he felt so bad that he slept through most of it, and I gave him paracetamol and cold drinks at intervals. I went to the chemist and brought back a catering pack of aqueous cream with calamine, and spent some time smoothing it over the worst of the rash. Plainly he wasn’t well: I don’t think I’ve ever touched him so thoroughly and not got a response before. Piet doesn’t want to get laid? He’s ill. No doubt about it.
Sunday was much the same, except that his temper was abominable. On Saturday he had been feeling too bad to be cross, but on Sunday he was bored, and I wouldn’t let him get up. I brought him plenty of books, and the TV is in the bedroom, and I spent half an hour rewiring the damn thing to fit the DVD player to that one rather than the one downstairs, and for all the thanks I got I might as well not have bothered. He was snippy and irritable and disinclined to be pleased with anything. Then after one particular attack of the grumps, he came over all apologetic and remorseful, which was worse. Not like Piet at all. At that point I rang Hansie.
“Have you had chickenpox? And Tim? Then for God’s sake come and visit Piet before he and I tear each other’s throats out. He needs somebody other than me to talk to. Apart from anything else, I need to get the dinner on without having to run up and down the stairs every time he squeaks. Come and have something to eat with us – it’s only pasta but. . .”
“Calm down, Phil, we will both come. And Tim has made an apple sponge or something, so we will bring it with us, ja?”
Oh, bliss. And I let Piet get up and come downstairs to eat, although as soon as we had finished, I chased him back upstairs again. “Go on. Hansie is going to make us some coffee, and Tim and I will clear the table and we’ll be up to keep you company in five minutes.”
We all ended up curled on the bed together with our coffee, watching the TV. Piet was itching again, I noticed – he kept reaching to scratch and catching himself doing it and stopping. I sighed. “Piet, for heaven’s sake, if you needed more calamine, why didn’t you say so? Come on, stretch out, I’ll do it. Hansie, can you pass it to me? It’s that white pot. Thanks.”
I did sympathise. A bit. It’s hard for a Top to maintain his toppishness when he’s stark naked, itching, and covered in pink goo. On the other hand, I was still sufficiently miffed about Friday night that I thought I owed him something, even if he weren’t well. I know, that’s snippy and catty and all the rest. It hadn’t been his fault, he’d obviously been running a temperature and not at all himself, but illness hadn’t softened his heart at all, and he had spanked me sufficiently hard that I had been able to feel it for several hours. I wasn’t going to bear a grudge – like I said, he hadn’t been well, it hadn’t been his fault – but it was much easier not to bear a grudge having got my own back in however silly a manner.
“I’ll have to make you up some sandwiches or something for tomorrow. I’m supposed to be in Reading all day on that training thing, and I don’t want you having to get up at lunchtime. I’ll be back about six, I expect. And if you get any worse, call me and I’ll come home.”
“No, you will not. We have been round this before. You must be seen to be separate from me. I can quite well manage a day by myself. . .”
“No need for that either,” put in Tim, with a wicked grin. “We’re on flexi-time and I’ve got about three days banked. I’ll take a long lunch tomorrow and come down and make you something to eat. And see that you eat it too, no cutting it into smaller and smaller pieces and pretending you’ve finished it.”
Piet gave him a Look. It wasn’t up to his usual standard, possibly because he had pink cream on a spot on his nose. Tim wasn’t impressed and let it show.
“This,” said Piet ominously, “is because I would not let you skip meals when you went to Greece, is it not? You wish to be revenged on me.”
“See, Hansie, even when he isn’t well he knows what’s going on. Impressive, isn’t it?”
“I like it,” I said, decisively. “I’m not happy about leaving you on your own all day when you aren’t well. If Tim will come in at lunchtime I can go to Reading without worrying about you.”
Piet subsided. He knows about picking his battles and on this one I intended to have my own way. He wasn’t happy, though. I thought it best to give in again after Hansie and Tim went home, when for the second night he sent me to sleep in the spare room.
“No, koekie, I am not worried about infection. The doctor said we need not. But I am not sleeping well, and if you are to go to a training session, you need to be rested. If you go to the other room, I can read, or watch the television, without worrying about disturbing you.”
“You’ll wake me if you need anything.”
“Koekie, what would I be likely to need? Go to bed.”
“Not until you promise that you’ll wake me if you need anything. It’s no good, Piet. I can tell just by touching you that your temperature’s going up again. You look haggard, and from the way you’re shifting about, you aren’t comfortable. I’m not having you traipsing off downstairs to get things when you’re in this condition. Promise.”
He didn’t want to, but eventually, and with a very bad grace, he gave way. I wasn’t going to compromise on that one. Then I chased him to the shower, set at no more than blood heat, patted him dry, renewed the pink goo, gave him two more paracetamol, and remade his bed.
“Have you still got something to drink? TV clunker? Radio? Book? Anything else you want?”
“I want you to go to bed, Phil. Now.”
O.K., I went, but not particularly fast. I was rather enjoying myself.
Reading was a good training session, and at about two o’clock, Tim rang me.
“Hi, Phil? I’ve fed and watered the patient. He isn’t half cross, is he? I’ve never known him so snippy.”
“It’s hardly surprising, Tim, he’s never ill. Not even colds. He isn’t used to feeling bad and not being able to do anything about it, and he certainly isn’t used to me topping and telling him what he’s got to do, and insisting on him doing it. He’s O.K., though, is he?”
“His temper hurts and he itches. That’s all. I redid the calamine stuff, and he didn’t like that. I don’t blame him, actually, it’s a bit. . . intimate. Personal.”
“I know. It makes him defenceless. I did his back this morning and let him do the rest himself. He is better, actually; on Saturday I had to do it all several times, because he felt too bad to do it himself.”
“Well, I only did his back, and I looked tactfully the other way while he did everything else, and he says he doesn’t need any more painkillers but I’ve left them to hand. He’s still very hot, and the look I got when I insisted on taking his temperature made my hair curl. It’s still up a bit, but not anything you need rush home for. And he was rather rude when I did the ‘have you got everything’ speech.”
“Not really like him at all.”
“No, but he called me back from the bottom of the stairs to apologise. Quite disconcerting in a Top, you know.”
“I’ll take your word for it, you’ve got a lot more experience than me in these things. . .”
Tuesday was easier. I had places to be both morning and afternoon, but they were short and I could be at home in between. There weren’t any new spots and the old ones were going down and drying, and Piet’s temper was much improved. I let him come downstairs in the afternoon, and sit about on the sofa looking like Noel Coward, and in the evening he stretched out and I played the piano, all the things I knew he liked. He still tired quickly.
But on Wednesday, he wanted his paperwork. “Find me my notes from that last session, koekie. I can look over them and sort out what needs to be said when I go back to work.”
“Which will not be tomorrow.”
“Ach, you are a fusspot. No. I hope it will be Monday. I know it will not be this week. My notes, Phil.”
He spent the morning with them, and looked rather pensive when I came home at lunchtime.
“Koekie? Was I very unreasonable on Friday?”
“Ummmmmm. . . yes. You gave everybody a very hard time. Particularly Ryan.”
“Hell. I do not remember much about it. What did I say to Ryan?”
I told him. He nodded. “And who else?”
“It was really only Ryan you got at in particular, but you were certainly letting us all think that we weren’t making any progress and we weren’t trying.”
“Mmm. And you?”
“What about me?”
“Phil, I can recall that I was displeased with you, and that I punished you, but I no longer have the least recollection of why.”
I opened my mouth, and looked at him, still dabbed with pink goo, and trying to remember precisely why he had been horrible to me, when the answer was ‘because he had been ill’ and the last of the resentment trickled away. There was nothing to be gained now by a quarrel over it. I could afford to let it go.
“I was a brat and I got what I’d been asking for. As usual. You punished me for having a smart mouth. Do you want some more tea? And what about renewing the calamine again?”
I’m not good at deception. He shot me a fast and hard glance, but he dropped the subject, and I hoped I had got away with it. God knows why – I always hope I’ve got away with it, and I never have. But he didn’t mention it again, and that night he let me come back to my own bed.
“Piet? What’s with the gloves? I mean, it’s an interesting look, leather gloves and calamine lotion, very kinky, but I’m not sure it will catch on.”
“Oh ha ha. They stop me scratching in my sleep. Not everything is about your desire to see me in leather gloves, you know.”
He improved in leaps and bounds after that, and I let him get up properly on Saturday, and Hansie and Tim came to call again and we watched the club rugby all afternoon and Piet made me do the analysis, and was pleased to approve my opinions. And on Sunday night, I was in the shower and washing my hair when two arms slipped round my waist.
“I see you’re feeling more yourself, then.”
“No, koekie, actually I think I am feeling you.”
“You know, Piet, even by your standards that’s a dreadful joke.”
He started to work the shampoo out of my hair. “My standards are not as high as they should be. I have not been well.”
“And are you feeling better?”
“I am feeling. . .”
“What am I feeling?”
“Would you mind if I got the soap out of my eyes before you felt it again?”
“You will allow me to feel it again?”
“Can we get out of the shower? Then perhaps you can feel it in an atmosphere of less soap and more lubricant.”
“Tim is right, Phil, you have such a lot of common sense. Let us do that very thing.”
And on Monday, he went back to work. That was where I lost it, because he hadn’t forgotten that I hadn’t given him a proper answer when he asked why he had spanked me. He’s very good about that. If he wants to know something, he finds somebody to ask. On Monday, it was Harry and I wasn’t quick enough to spot what he was about. All I knew was that Piet had gone to talk to his deputy while I changed into my kit, and then that Rob was called in to talk to them both. And that they all came out together, and that Harry called us to order in the dressing room, and Piet came to speak to us. He looked very Piet-ish, very angular. All cheekbones and nose, the way he goes when he’s angry, except that there was a distinct flush over his cheekbones.
“Gentlemen? May I have your attention, please? First of all, I wish to say that I have destroyed the notes I made on the last Friday I was here. I found when I came to look at them that they made no sense at all, and there was nothing to be gained by retailing them to you. I believe that I owe every one of you an apology. Apparently I gave you to understand that I thought you were not making any effort at your training, and Harry tells me that was not so. I believe that in particular I accused Ryan of not putting in the time to practise his kicking, and indeed I know that to be untrue for I have seen him myself, and so, Ryan, I apologise.
“And the other person to whom I owe an apology is Phil. Harry tells me that I accused Phil of taking advantage of our relationship, of behaving unprofessionally on the strength of it. That indeed I know to be false, for Phil would not do such a thing, has never done such a thing, and to him also, I apologise.”
The silence throbbed in my ears, and I felt slightly dizzy, slightly sick. I looked at my boots, and they were strange, unreal, unfamiliar. I heard Ryan’s voice.
“I think that once we heard that you were ill, we all knew that. . . well, that you hadn’t been yourself. We were all a bit surprised”, yes, everybody was shifting in their seats on the benches, “but once we knew, we didn’t take it personally.”
Piet dipped his head. “Thank you. That is generous.”
There was another moment’s silence and then Harry said briskly, “Shall we get on, then? Everybody outside, please.” And there was a huge clatter of boots on tiled floor and the room began to empty, and Rob said, “Phil? Are you coming?”
“I’m. . . I’ve knotted this bootlace. Go on, Rob, I’ll be there in a minute.”
He looked down at my feet, neatly shod in velcro-fastened boots, and said, “Right. Annoying when that happens. Come down when you’ve sorted it. Harry, are you coming?” And behind him, I heard the door click and lock as it only does when somebody has dropped the snib.
I looked up. “You didn’t need to do that.”
“I did. I accused you before your colleagues of something you had not done. It is only right that I should make it plain before those same colleagues that I was wrong.”
“I wasn’t going to tell you.”
“I know. But I accused you, wrongly, and I punished you, wrongly. Koekie, you must not do that. You must not give in to me when I am wrong. You said – I remember you saying – that you did not understand what I thought you had done. Promise me that you will never do that again. Never submit to punishment when you do not understand why you are being punished. Or when you do not agree that you are at fault. I have no wish – when I am in my right mind, I have no wish that you should be punished and not understand and accept why.”
I could hardly speak. “But that’s the deal. You decide.”
“No. If that is the deal, it is a bad deal. It is necessary that you should understand and agree. I will not do this without your consent. Promise me, Phil, or the deal is off.”
I went to him, buried my head against his shoulder. “But I trust you.”
“It is not enough. I have to be able to trust you too. To trust you to see that I do you no harm. Promise me.”
He was searching for my mouth, which was quivering. Why not? To know that I could trust him absolutely to teach me, to command me, to control me but not to overrule me? His hand searched up into my hair, held me steady while he kissed the trust back into both of us. He was in no better way than me. I love him so much.
“And I have punished you for something you did not do. I must make it up to you.”
I lifted my head, and grinned rather shakily. “You punished me for unprofessional behaviour.”
“So I’m entitled to one commission of unprofessional behaviour, unpenalised.”
He looked suspicious. I drove him back against the wall, went for his mouth again, tore the shirt clear of his waistband and plunged my hand inside. He gasped, hotly, into my mouth as I groped, stroked, tickled. He made no attempt to stop me, and in fact his hips thrust forward into my hand. He is so beautifully responsive. He’s mine.
“That, Mr de Vries, is unprofessional behaviour. Getting your coach all worked up before a training session, in the knowledge that it will be hours before anything can be done about it? That’s unprofessional. And I’ve been spanked for it already so I can’t be again.”
His knees were going when I relented and let him free. The bright eyes were hooded, the flush mantled the cheekbones again, and his mouth was all but irresistible. I backed off while I still could, and turned to the door. I was half-way down the stairs when I heard his voice above me.
I stopped and looked up. He looked severe and threatening; I wasn’t afraid of him. My hawk. Mine.
“Is there any more where that came from, Mr Cartwright?”
I grinned again. “Lots, Mr de Vries. Lots.”
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