It was the last but one game of the season when it all happened. Well, not all maybe. Some of it was before, obviously, and some of it was... Tim, stop giggling. All right, you tell it. Go on, most of it is your story anyway, and I can't think straight. I think there must have been something in that last bottle of wine.
Yes, 13.5% alcohol. On top of all that champagne.
No, all right, I'll do it, no fair. You know that doing that to me there is... Piet, tell him to stop it. Because you're the Alpha Top, is why. Hey! Hansie, they're ganging up on me again, help!
Ach nee, my liefie, you got yourself into this, you get yourself out. Also, I'd like to hear the story told properly too, hey?
Oh all right then, I'll start it off, but the rest of you will have to help with your own bits.
It didn't, as Phil justly observed, really begin with the penultimate game of the season, it began with all that business in the dressing room, and even before that, with all the politics over Fizzer and the new appointments to the squad. But it started to come to a head when I met T-Bone for a coffee one Saturday afternoon in town. We had gone for a drink about a week after our initial encounter at the party, and I had confirmed to my own satisfaction that I liked him, although he was a bit full of himself. Actually, in a lot of ways he reminded me of Phil at roughly the same age, although rather more sophisticated. Or at any rate, French. So when he rang, and said he wanted to ask my advice about something, and could we meet for a coffee, I had said yes.
He was late, actually, and I was starting to wonder if he'd had a better offer when he burst in through the café door like a small – well, quite a large – hurricane, full of profuse apologies. A number of heads, not all female, turned to eye him appreciatively as he entered.
“Tim, I am so sorry, I had trouble parking...”
“Ah, yes, I should have told you, it's always bad on a Saturday afternoon. Coffee? Something to eat? Pascale does a mean croque-monsieur.”
He wrinkled his nose slightly, and slipped into French. “I never liked it, even as a child. No, just coffee will be fine.”
I caught Pascale's eye and mouthed the order at her, and she nodded, a small, vivacious woman with shrewd kohl-lined eyes as black as olives, who could as easily have been Italian or Lebanese as French.
She brought them over, looked at T-Bone with interest.
“Pascale, may I present Thibault de Saint-Cyr, a friend who is playing rugby with the Gryphons now? Thibault, this is Madame Pascale Etchevarria, the patronne here.”
He has beautiful manners, I'll say that. As good as Piet's and with the same hint of old-fashioned chivalry. Stood, shook her hand gently, murmured all the appropriate courtesies.
“Ah, another rugbyman,” she said, shaking her head at me with a grin. Well, she was an old friend of Mary's and had known me since I was ten, and trying out my schoolboy French on her. “Always the rugby with your family, no? Enjoy your coffee, gentlemen.”
And then we exchanged meaningless chit-chat for a while until T-Bone found something very interesting in his coffee-grounds to look at and mumbled at me:
“Tim, I don't know why but I feel like I can trust you. I really need someone to talk to, in confidence.”
“Of course,” I said, rather flattered. “What about?”
“The problems at the rugby club. My career.”
“Ah. You do know that I'm a friend of Phil and Piet, don't you? So if you were to tell me that you had done something to harm them – no, something that was going to harm them, I couldn't promise not to tell them. Other than that, and provided it's nothing seriously illegal, I'll certainly listen and give you whatever help I reasonably can.”
“That's – fair, I suppose,” he said, sounding a bit disappointed. I think he'd hoped that I would instantly promise to take his side.
“There's perhaps something else I should tell you.” I didn't really want to say this on such short acquaintaince, because I wasn't at all sure whether the sophistication wasn't mostly superficial, but it would be a lot more awkward if it came up later and I'd said nothing. Besides, this is the 21st century. “I'm gay, like Phil. That's partly why we're friends.”
He looked up, but to my surprise his expression was dismissive rather than shocked. “Oh, I guessed that. It isn't important.”
“Of course not. Did you think that was why Phil and I did not... that I was against him because he was gay? Does he think that?” A rising note of surprise and indignation. “But of course not.”
“Oh. Good,” I said rather weakly.
“No, I do not care about all that. But I do not think I can stay at this club, Tim. That is why I need your advice.”
“Can't stay? Thibault, surely this has been a good career move for you? You're playing with the first team, now, aren't you?”
“With it, yes, but I will never be part of it. They have made that quite clear.”
“Who? Not Phil?”
He pursed his mouth for a moment, then shook his head rather reluctantly. “No, not Phil, I must admit. He has tried to make the others include me, but...”
I made encouraging noises.
“They hate me!” he burst out. “They detest me, except for the ones who want to use me.”
“I'm sure that no-one hates you.”
“No? Why is it always my kit that falls on the muddy floor, or in the bath? Why was it my shoes that magically disappeared from the changing room while I was in the shower and were found on the roof of the physio block? How come my tires got let down three times in the club car park? How did my bottle of sports drink come to be filled with someone's piss?”
“No, I didn't, but only because the earlier attempts had made me cautious. I tell you, Tim, it is beyond mere hazing, they hate me.”
“Thibault – you have to speak to Piet about this.”
“Absolutely not! I will not have him think I am weak, to come crying like a little boy because I am being bullied.” Despite the words, he did look as if he might cry, with only very little encouragement.
“Then do you want me to speak to him?”
“No! No, no, no, not at all. Please say nothing. I will manage. I will manage.”
“Well, I can see why you might not want to go on playing there.”
“But no, that is not it at all. It is not because of that that I must leave. At my first club, they called me 'the aristo' when I first arrived, and someone made a guillotine and they guillotined all my clothes into pieces and kicked me out of the club house naked. I had to steal some shorts to get home. But by the time I left they bought me a case of champagne and a hamper from Fauchon, in case I couldn't get any decent food and drink among the heathen English.”
“So why are you leaving?” I asked, bewildered.
“The politics!” he said fiercely. “I do not like all this plotting and underhand business, and I do not want to be used as a pawn in it. That is why I needed to speak to someone away from the club.”
“Ah, politics. Politics I can do. Tell me more..."
All that week, although I did not speak of it to anyone (least of all to Phil, although I think he sensed my unease – he sees far into my heart, if not my thoughts) – all that week, I say, I was a man waiting for the other shoe to drop. I scanned the newspapers anxiously, but saw nothing. A report on Saturday's match, that certainly, and some criticism that I thought not entirely undeserved, although I could well have done without Wendell's smirking conclusion that the team were drifting and had now no hope of any new silver in the trophy cabinets.
But of brawls in the dressing room, nothing. And that in itself was interesting. Given that the situation was what it was, and that we had been forced to promote young Saint-Cyr to the Firsts, where he so fiercely longed to be, it was indeed interesting that such a juicy story had not made it to Martin Wendell's ear. I was not the only one to notice this, for Harry also made some comment to me. He had a few other things to say, too, and I sat for an hour or two afterwards, considering them.
I was interrupted by a knock at my door. I admit I was a little vexed by the disturbance, and I know that I can look forbidding in such circumstances. Certainly the person who came in appeared to shrink several inches when I looked up. I was not sure who I was expecting – Harry having forgotten something, one of the groundsmen with more complaints about the state of the pitch, my secretary with more of the endless paperwork that breeds and multiplies in the cracks and crevices of this building.
Not, certainly, Thibault de Saint-Cyr, looking extraordinarily young and unusually unsure of himself. I had a suspicion – just a suspicion – that he had walked up and down the corridor several times before he could bring himself to knock.
“Mr Saint-Cyr. What can I do for you?”
“Mr de Vries, I need – uh, that is, I was advised – to talk to you.”
“Advised? By whom?”
“Indeed?” And since when has young Master Creed been counsellor to my players, I wonder? “And what did he advise you to talk about?”
He hesitated, looking as if he had swallowed something unpleasant. “La politique,” he mumbled at last. “Sir Maybury, and that reporter.”
“I see. Well, you had better sit down, and tell me all about it, then.”
The next bit is yours, Phil.
Oh, right. You mean the dressing room? Well the training session on the Monday after we'd been forced to run laps was interesting. Thibault was very formal and cool with me, very awkward. And the others... well, I saw Ryan check out my arse – God, he'll kill me if he ever reads this – and raise an eyebrow. But it was Mark, of course, who said what the others were thinking.
“See you got your arse tanned then.”
“Thanks, Mark, I might not have noticed if you hadn't brought it to my attention.”
He grunted, impervious to sarcasm. “So how come Sonny Boy, here” – he jabbed a finger in T-Bone's direction – “got away unscathed?”
“Mark, you know it doesn't work that way. What happens between Piet and me is part of our private agreement.”
“'S been a while though. I thought you'd given up all that nonsense.”
“So did I, mate, so did I.”
He turned away, turned back again almost angrily, a bull lowering its horns. “Look – do you enjoy it?”
An angry and filthy retort died on my lips. After all, I'd always sworn that I would evade a punishment if I could, yet I'd gone and asked for this one. At the time I'd thought it was guilt, but now I was less sure. No, I hadn't enjoyed it. It had hurt like fuck, and I wasn't in the least turned on by it, the way I've learned to be turned on by our play. I suppose you could say I've been corrupted. But the caning hadn't been fun, or exciting. It had just been necessary, necessary to some deep, fundamental balance in our relationship. I wasn't sure that I could put it into words, but I knew that it was about the purity of the agreement between us, and I was afraid, on some primitive level, that without the sacrifice, the pain, the relationship itself might be diminished. Fear of that, that sense of imbalance, would have eaten quietly away at me. And Piet had known that, and so as well as being about justice, it had been, in a curious way, about mercy.
“No,” I said quietly. “It wasn't nice. I didn't enjoy it at all. But it had to be done.”
He shook his head, slowly. “Bent bastard,” he remarked.
“Fat bastard,” I retorted, grinning.
He swung a lazy punch in my direction, one that was in no danger of connecting, and walked away, apparently satisfied. And that, I thought, was that.
Only it wasn't.
On Wednesday I was a bit late in after kicking practice, because Martin, the kicking coach, wanted to go over a few points with me, and so I was last into the showers, and last out, too. And as I was emerging, wreathed in steam and a large towel, I heard raised voices.
“...your fault he got striped, you French wanker.” That was Ryan's voice.
“My fault? He hit me, remember that?”
“Because you asked for it.” And that, deeper by half an octave, was Mark. “He may be a fucking queer, but he's earned his place on this team, worked bloody hard for it. I'm no lover of poofs myself, but he didn't sleep his way into the First team, even if the Terminator was the kind to allow it.”
“Terminator?” Total confusion in Thibault's voice.
“de Vries, idiot.”
“I am not an idiot.” Sullenly. “And I have apologised to Cartwright, and M de Vries.”
“Yeah, well fuck your apologies.” Ryan again. “We don't need them, and we don't need you.”
“If you poke me in the chest one more time,” said Thibault, silken and savage, so softly I could hardly catch the words – “I will...”
But I thought the time had come to intervene before we had any more dressing room scenes, so I stepped around the corner sharpish. Ryan and Mark, and also Darren and Nathan who hadn't spoken yet. All squared up to T-Bone like a playground fight.
“Right,” I said, and it was Phil Cartwright the Vice-Captain speaking, not their mate Phil, and I saw them all react to my tone. “This stops, now.” I was angry – no, I was furious – and I let them all see it. “Is it any wonder we gave such a piss-poor performance last week when you can't even behave civilly to one another in training? You're highly-paid professional sportsmen, for fuck's sake, not saloon bar brawlers or a load of sixth formers.”
They looked at one another guiltily.
“We were just...” began Ryan.
“I heard what you were just. When I want your help to sort out my relations with another member of the team I'll ask for it. I don't appreciate your interference and speculation about a personal matter” - was that going too far? No, sod it, “and I don't expect to hear it again, is that understood?”
I gave him my best imitation of one of Piet's Looks, and he flushed and dropped his gaze.
“Yes,” he mumbled.
“Good. And I'll tell you something else, as well. I'm not blind, I've seen the strokes you've all been pulling on T-Bone – the kit down the loo, the locker ransacked, all that stuff – and that all stops, too.”
“It was just a joke,” protested Mark, feebly.
“No it wasn't. Isn't. Once might have been a joke. This often is bullying, and if there are any more incidents I'll find out who did it and by God that person is going to end up playing in the Seconds. Do I make myself clear?”
A mumbled chorus of assent.
“Good. And T-Bone – bloody well remember that there are 14 other men on the field, and work with them. Otherwise it will be you going back to the Seconds.”
“But they – ah, yes, Cartwright.”
“Good. Now get out of my sight, the lot of you.”
They got, speedily, although not so fast that I didn't hear, drifting down the corridor:
“He's starting to sound more like the Terminator every day, you know. I don't think the club's ready for two of them.”
And T-Bone, of all people, who I hadn't been aware even possessed a sense of humour, said very seriously:
“I don't think the world is ready for two of them.” And there was a moment's silence, and then Ryan laughed, in a rather surprised way, and Mark grunted 'Amen' as they passed out of earshot.
And when I was certain they were out of earshot I laughed too, released tension mostly, but I think I have an idea how Piet feels sometimes, after he's whacked us.
And then came the famous match, the penultimate one of the season. I watched it from Jim's box, and I have to say that right up until the end it was a cracker. Both you and the Scorpions giving it all you've got – there really wasn't any comparison with the lacklustre performance the week before. And it was real edge-of-the-seat stuff, too – no, actually, that's a lie, Jim and I were both up out of our seats more than on the edge of them. Especially that first try of yours – the way James Gerrold and T-Bone set it up, and you finished it off, if that doesn't end up on a compilation of the best tries of the season there's no justice.
You'll make me blush. But I have to admit, it was a good try, and it felt good. Not least because T-Bone was actually showing what he could do when he did play as part of the team. Oh, it was still a bit ragged, but no comparison with the previous week, as you rightly say.
And then, in the dying moments of the second half, with the scores level, we had a penalty in their twenty-two, and we got a good drive going, heading for the goal line. Of course, they ploughed everything they had into trying to hold us up, piling on the men, including Gearóid Mullen, that man-mountain of theirs who plays lock. We were still moving, but sort of crabwise, creeping nearer to the goal line and nearer to the posts. And nearer. And then someone, someone put a foot wrong, and we all went down in a heap, the final whistle sounding just as we did so. There was one of the Scorpions' players under me as we went down, and several people over me, and in one of those moments of clarity I heard something go crack, a sharp brittle sound like dry wood snapping.
Not me. It was – it was Peter Shuttleworth, the Scorpions' number four. His head was jammed against the padding on the right hand post, and he was white as a sheet.
It's funny how your thoughts seem to speed up, or everything seems to slow down. We were still going down, and I had time to think 'oh fuck, he's broken his neck', look to my left and see T-Bone on one knee on the ground, players falling on him, and scream at him:
“Brace, for Christ's sake brace! T-Bone, his neck, his neck is broken. Help me keep them off him. Brace! Son cul, son cul est cassé.” I wouldn't have remembered that much of my school French ordinarily but the words just came.
He gawked at me a moment, then got the other knee under him, pushed up, leaned into me, gripping me for dear life, forcing the mass of bodies above us upwards. We had at least three people on top of us, and the whole time I was yelling: “Roll off, roll off, Pete's hurt himself, for God's sake get off us.” Suddenly the pressure went (as I discovered afterwards, because Gearóid Mullen had heard me and literally picked up and thrown Nathan, who was on top of me, a couple of yards down the pitch, and then done the same for Simon O'Callaghan and Elea Simarese; Mark and Spider managed to roll off of their own accord).
I heard someone screaming 'Medic!' as T-Bone and I stood up unsteadily, and someone went down beside Pete, who had started to convulse, and then the paramedics were there, and there was utter confusion for a while, people milling around, uncertain what to do.
The referee came bustling up, the two captains in tow.
“A try will be awarded for that last drive. The video ref quite clearly saw your man here put the ball to ground just before you all went down.” He indicated T-Bone. “Go in, lads. The game is over.” He blew his whistle to confirm.
“Over for some,” said Rob, softly, as the medics converged on the fallen man. Max Delahaye, the Scorpions' captain, looked as if he was about to break down, or collapse, and Rob put an arm over his shoulder and walked him off the pitch.
A little space cleared around us. I patted T-Bone gently on the back, unpeeled his fingers from my shirt. He looked sick – I don't think he'd seen a serious injury before.
“It's all right, T-Bone, he's in good hands now.”
“C'était affreux, j'ai – I heard it, Phil. That sound...”
“Yeah, I know. I know mate.”
He gave me a look I couldn't read. “It was – I think maybe you saved him.”
“The only people who'll save him are that lot -” I gestured at the medics clustered around Pete Shuttleworth like ants round a lump of sugar, drips and neckboards and strapping in their hands. “Maybe we stopped it getting worse. Both of us.”
He looked at me. “You think?” He turned away, turned back to me.
“By the way, Phil?”
“The word is cou, not cul. Cou is neck. Cul is... a bit more low down,” and he patted himself on the arse, grinning.
Well, languages were never my strong point.
It was chaos in the dressing room as well, naturally enough, with everyone giving their own version of events, and rumours flying about Pete's condition, and then the press and the TV people wanted to talk to T-Bone and me about what had happened in a hastily convened press conference.
I gave a suitably modest account of the business – to be honest, there really wasn't that much to tell – we'd gone down, I'd heard something break, and tried to keep from grinding Shuttleworth in the dirt and making things worse. End of story. But the press had decided they wanted a hero, and that I was going to be it. And T-Bone didn't help, because he made out, in surprisingly fluent if strongly accented English (see, he can do it when he wants to), that it was all down to my quick thinking.
And then that sleazeball Wendell stood up.
“You haven't always thought so highly of Phil Cartwright, have you, Thibault?”
“Isn't it true that you and he had an argument in the dressing room last week, that in fact, you punched him out?”
I froze inside. Then two thoughts came to me simultaneously. The first was: when Mark and the others were having a go at T-Bone the other day, he didn't know that Piet was called the Terminator. And whoever has been talking to Wendell does know that, because Wendell used it in his articles. So it can't be T-Bone after all. And the second, hot on its heels, was: hang on a minute. That's not how it went. I punched him, not the other way round.
I opened my mouth to say something (oh don't worry, I wasn't going to say that I punched T-Bone. I'm not that stupid. No, I was going to say, perfectly truthfully, that there was no substance in that allegation at all). But T-Bone threw me a flashing glance that said as clearly as words: 'shut up', and got in before me.
He gave a perfect, Gallic shrug. “Phil Cartwright is a very handsome man. The girls, they throw themselves at him. What man wouldn't be tempted to take advantage, even if the girl in question was someone else's girl?” Which I noticed wasn't a lie, either.
“You're saying he pinched your girlfriend?” asked Wendell.
T-Bone gave him a look of pure aristocratic disdain.
“A gentleman,” he said coolly, “doesn't discuss these matters. Phil Cartwright is a good player, and I am glad to be in the same team. Is there anything else?”
“Mr Cartwright...” began Wendell, but someone else growled “Shut up, Wendy, you've had your turn. Let someone else ask a question,” and Wendell sat down, looking discomfited. And the next one was easy, and the one after that easier still, because the press still wanted their hero, and they weren't about to have that taken away by Wendell.
And then it was all over, and Piet was suddenly there, saying:
“Mr Saint-Cyr, I will see you in my office, immediately.”
“Piet,” I interrupted, “there's something you absolutely have to know first.” I had to tell him that it couldn't be Thibault, before he said something irrevocable.
“Very well, you come too, Mr Cartwright. Bring Mr Standish, too, and somebody find Harry.”
When we were all assembled, and the door shut, Piet said:
“I now know who is responsible for leaking damaging information about this club to the press.”
“Piet,” I began, then at a quick look that reminded me this was official team business, “Mr de Vries. It can't be Thibault.”
“I am well aware of that. In fact, Mr Saint-Cyr has been instrumental in helping me to find the source of the problem.”
My jaw dropped, and T-Bone looked a bit smug.
“Harry and I made some visits earlier in the week. During the course of those visits we retailed two different and inaccurate versions of last week's disgraceful behaviour in the dressing room to the two people whose approaches to Mr Saint-Cyr suggested that they might be the guilty one. From the version of the story about which Wendell just interrogated you, I now know who spoke to him.” He paused, his features hardening.
“I am sorry to have to tell you that Rhys Morgan is the culprit.”
“Rhys?” said Rob, bewildered. “But he was sick, he wasn't even in the dressing room when the fight happened.”
“Indeed,” said Piet. “That is why there was no mention of it at the time. It was only when Harry visited him just before he came out of hospital, and gossiped a bit about what was happening on the team, including the story that Mr Saint-Cyr had hit Mr Cartwright and knocked him down, that he knew of the story. And as soon as he did, lo and behold, Wendell appears like the wicked genie, to ask us why it was so. Had he asked why Mr Cartwright had been playing cards with Mr Saint-Cyr and come to blows over a disputed hand, then I would have known that the other suspect was guilty.
“Who was the other suspect?” I asked.
“Sir John Maybury.” A faint gleam under the great stone face – I'm sure no-one else would have spotted it, but he had enjoyed leading Sir John on.
“You spun a yarn to Sir John because you suspected him? He is so not going to like that when he finds out.”
“I shall deal with that when the time comes. In the meantime, there is the question of Morgan, and what to do with him.”
“He's a good player,” said Rob, automatically. He says that about everyone. “But he's a bit – predictable – in his play. I don't like losing members of the squad, but if he is really the snitch then of course he must go. It's bringing the team into disrepute. I can't forgive that, and I don't think the other team members will either. We need to be able to trust one another completely, in case of things like – well, what happened today.”
“I think you want to be a bit careful,” said Harry uncertainly. “Yes, he has to go, but if you make a big hoohah about it we could all get hurt. Morgan is – well, he's not fond of gay men, and all I'm saying is if you give him a chance to say there's some sort of gay mafia at the club who have it in for him, then it won't be pretty.”
Piet sighed. “Yes, that has been a concern,” he said. “Also, he is still unwell, and to confront him while recuperating from a serious illness might seem a little harsh. Yet it must be done, I think.”
“Take a witness with you. Someone connected with the club but not biased either way.” Rob again, and a sensible suggestion.
“Harry?” I ventured.
“Not me, boy. I want to throttle the bastard. Besides, I'm Mr de Vries' right hand man, everyone knows that. No, your best bet would be one of the board, one of the neutral members.”
“Perhaps Grandison,” mused Piet thoughtfully. “No, I have it. If she will do it, Margaret St George would be ideal. She is both too wealthy and too shrewd for any conceivable influence to be brought to bear on her by us, and she has a genuine passion for the game which leads her to want the best for the club. Also she has been personnel director for several very large companies, so she knows what can and can not be done in these situations.”
“And Rhys was flirting with her at the Christmas party,” I said, “so I don't think he'll object. He thinks she likes him.”
“She may do,” said Piet. “But she will serve him his own liver if he has been undermining her investment in the club. You do not get to be one of the highest paid women in the City by allowing your judgement to be swayed by a charming manner.”
It was an unpleasant meeting. There had been a formal exchange of letters, and Morgan had asked to have his agent present, a man called McGregor, a request we could hardly deny.
Margaret St George had been a great help, had asked to see the standard contract, into which we had inserted, at James Hamilton's suggestion, clauses about confidentiality, and misconduct liable to lead to dismissal, only 18 months ago. He is a far-sighted man, Hamilton, and I think he had had in mind just such attacks from those who cannot see beyond the act of homosexuality to the people involved. I do not say that everyone must love the act: I have known people whom I would have to call good who would abominate homosexuality, but they would not necessarily deny to individual homosexuals just treatment, even a hand offered in friendship, or at least help. In this case, however, the final straw had clearly been nothing to do with sexuality. No, it had been Thibault de Saint-Cyr. Saint-Cyr is good, or he will be, and Morgan could see that his own place was threatened. A scandal that brought down both me and my protégés would have suited Morgan very well.
Fortunately, Morgan was on a rolling one-year contract, as many of the minor players are, and had signed the new version. As Ms St George said to me: “the bugger hasn't got a leg to stand on”.
That did not stop him, however, from blustering, denying, and when confronted with the inescapable evidence of the false story, from a mixture of threat and self-justification. Even his agent, who struck me as basically a sensible man trying to do the best for his client, looked embarrassed.
In the end Ms St George lost patience. “Look,” she said. “Let me put it this way. We have clear evidence that you behaved in a manner that prejudiced the success of your own club. Regardless of what kind of people were playing there, of what you thought about them, you betrayed your own club. There isn't a club in the world, not even an amateur club, that will have you after that. Your rugby playing days are over as of today. You're finished. On the scrapheap.”
And people think I am the scary one?
It certainly scared Morgan. He was still pale and drawn from the burst appendix, and he went grey when she said it. For a moment I was concerned that he would pass out.
“You can't...” he said at last, but it was the voice of a child seeking reassurance, not that of a victor asserting something of which he was certain.
“We can,” I said coldly, and when McGregor moved to speak, I cut him off.
“No, Mr McGregor, let me finish. Your client has behaved in a foolish and dishonourable way. We could finish his career now, if we chose. However...”
“We may be able to come to a less drastic arrangement. Mr Morgan will leave the club; there can be no compromise on that. If he wishes, however, we will allow it to be known that he has chosen to seek a playing career elsewhere – that he wishes, perhaps, to take part in the resurgence of Welsh rugby, that he is homesick for Wales, something of that sort.”
“I grew up in Reading,” said Morgan, sullenly. I ignored him. It was McGregor I wanted to convince. Offer him the choice between the fees from a client playing in a good club, in the Celtic League, and no fees at all, and he would help us, I thought, to show Morgan where his best interests lay.
“I'm not sure,” said Ms St George, falling into the Bad Cop role with some relish. “I say we crucify the bastard.” Rhys Morgan looked up at her, shocked. I think even up to that point he had convinced himself that there was some lingering affection for him there.
“Let's not be hasty,” said McGregor hurriedly. “Rhys, you and I need to have a little talk. Will you excuse us?”
When they had left the room, Margaret St George leaned towards me and said softly:
“You're good at this.”
“I return the compliment. So are you.”
“Yes. Listen, de Vries, if you ever get tired of rugby, give me a call. I can always find a use for good people.”
I smiled. Even when I am in my wheelchair, I shall never be tired of rugby. But the offer was a generous one, for I do not think that Margaret St George is in the habit of saying things she does not mean.
McGregor and Morgan came back in.
“What's the quid pro quo?” asked McGregor warily.
“Mr Morgan will sign a legal document confessing his actions, and guaranteeing not to speak of anything, anything at all, relating to his time at the club. No rumours, no name-blackening, nothing – if anything of that sort comes out, we will publish the document and explain just why he parted company with the Gryphons.”
There was a bout of furious whispering between the two.
“And after 5 years the document will be destroyed.”
“Ten,” I said.
“Seven.” I thought about it. In 7 years, Phil would be in his early thirties, and either unassailable in his position and thinking about retirement, or else having moved on.
“Very well. Seven year term.”
“Do you have the document?”
We had prepared it, very carefully worded so as not to mention Phil or myself by name, merely that Morgan had released information prejudicial to the club to the press and on the Internet, knowing that it would damage the administration of the club and 'certain of his fellow players'. I handed it over, and they read through it.
“I don't understand this bit,” said Morgan.
“I mean, yes I spoke to Martin Wendell, but what's this Internet stuff? I don't know anything about the Internet. I don't even have email.”
It had the ring of truth. I was puzzled, though. Who could have spoken to that wretched Internet gossip site, if not Morgan? Still, it was not a thing for which I was willing to hold up the agreement. I crossed out the offending words, signed the deletion and had Morgan do the same. Then he signed the bottom of the paper, and McGregor and Margaret St George witnessed it.
“Very well then. You will receive your sick pay, and a severance payment for the premature termination of your contract.” It was more than we were obliged to do, but generosity was a better bet than meanness in this situation. If he got difficult, the offer could always be withdrawn.
“Get out of here, de Vries,” said Morgan, bitterly. “I don't want your charity, but I suppose I need it, now.”
“Your choice,” I said, as coldly as I could. “If it had been mine, we would not have been so generous.”
“No, you're only generous to other poofs,” he sneered.
“If it pleases you to think that, as an excuse for what you have done, think on,” I said, indifferent to his insults. “There are players enough, worthy players, who know differently.” And Ms St George and I took our leave.
The front door closed very softly and carefully. That was how I knew Piet was in a filthy mood – that gently closed door was anyone else's house-rattling slam.
“It didn't go well?” I asked, tentatively.
He shook his head. “It is resolved. But it was not – pleasant. Some hard words were said on both sides.”
“Will he stick to the agreement, do you think?”
“I do not know, koekie. He has good reason to, at least overtly. As to sly hints in the dressing room – there is little we can do to police them. Thibault de Saint-Cyr has at least done you a considerable favour in that regard.”
“I don't know what's come over him. He's been acting almost normally towards me.”
“Perhaps he, like another young player I know, is learning a little maturity and a little less arrogance.” He grinned at me, and pulled me towards him for a kiss, which I responded to enthusiastically, but I could feel the tension in all his muscles, knotted like iron.
At that moment I heard a car draw up, and someone ring frantically on the doorbell.
Piet frowned, clearly displeased. He was not in a mood for company, and since my own thoughts had been working along means to get him into bed and find a mutually enjoyable way of working out those tensions, I wasn't best pleased myself.
I opened the door, to see Tim, grinning like an ape, and a shell-shocked looking Hansie. I don't know why Tim insists on ringing the bell, he has a key, but he has this thing about not just walking in.
“Tim? Hansie? What's the matter?”
“He has just driven all the way from town in about ten minutes flat, and when I get my breath back I am going to kill him,” said Hansie faintly.
“Never mind all that, you haven't seen the evening paper, have you? No, I thought not, you don't normally get one.”
“Perhaps you would like to come in, rather than stand in the doorway retailing stories?” said Piet. It wasn't really a suggestion, despite the phrasing, and Tim jumped.
“I'm sorry,” he said. “Have we come at a bad time, I didn't think... is something wrong?”
“No, no, it's just that Piet has had a rather trying day. We found out who was responsible for the leak in the dressing room, and Piet has just had to give him his marching orders.”
“Who was it?” asked Hansie eagerly.
For a moment I thought that perhaps Piet wouldn't answer. But these were Family, and besides, they were quite capable of working it out. I butted in.
“Rhys Morgan. A combination of jealousy, fear for his position, and homophobia, we think.”
Tim grimaced. “That's a pretty toxic mixture. I don't wonder that Piet is unhappy.”
“I did not find it pleasant, but it is done now,” said Piet dismissively. “One must sometimes do such things when one is in a position of responsibility. You should know this, Tim.”
It was Hansie, surprisingly, who responded.
“Yes,” he said softly. “But you aren't worthy of that position if it doesn't worry you to do it, hey?” Sometimes you forget that Hansie, despite everything, is a manager too.
Piet's head went up. I think he was a little surprised too, but the flare I saw in his eyes wasn't anger. It was pride. He reached out a hand to Hansie's shoulder.
“Yes, my Hansie, you are right. You are quite right,” he said. Then he visibly shook himself. “But what is it that has brought you here so urgently? At such grave risk to the life and limb of other motorists, if Hansie is to be believed?”
Tim's huge grin returned. “Oh, you're going to love this. Tell me, when you confronted Morgan, did he admit to spreading all the rumours?”
Piet frowned. “No. In point of fact, he denied talking to that scurrilous Internet site that you are in the habit of reading.”
Tim's grin widened until I thought his face would split. “That's because he didn't,” he said. “Look at this.”
He handed me a copy of the 'Evening Echo', folded over so that one article dominated the page. A picture of a large man in a lycra shirt and eye-wateringly tight shorts, with his arm around a much slighter man in a track-suit.
RUGBY STAR COMES OUT !'
read the headline. My jaw dropped. 'Top rugby league player Josh Harcourt, star of Bursley Barbarians' trophy-winning side, admitted today that he and his personal trainer, Clive Meridan, have been gay lovers for 5 years and are hoping to seal their civil partnership soon. Harcourt and Meridan, rumours about whose relationship had been spread by the Internet gossip site 'Miss Bitch 2 U', said today that they thought the time was right to...'
“Fuck!” I said. “You mean it was never about me at all?”
“Not at all. You see, that's your problem,” said Tim judiciously, though I could see the mischief bubbling under the pretense at gravity; I don't think I would have been able to, once. “You're so vain that you always assume that you're the centre of attention.”
I saw a way to kill two birds, as it were, with one stone. “Piet, Hansie,” I said as plaintively as I could manage with the floods of relief that were going through me. “Are you going to let him get away with saying things like that to me?”
“Fear not, koekie,” rumbled Piet, amused. “I shall defend your honour.”
“And I shall teach him not to say nasty things about our friends,” said Hansie, entering into the spirit of things. “Not to mention about why there are speed limits, and what happens when you break them.”
Tim sighed a martyr's sigh. “That's typical,” he said. “You go out of your way to bring people good news, and they spank you for it. Spank the messenger. Story of my life.” He sighed again, even more exaggeratedly, and spoiled the effect with a wicked smile. “Where would you like me?”
I looked at Piet, and Piet looked at Hansie, and Hansie made an 'after you' gesture.
“I think, then,” said Piet, with great deliberation, as he picked Tim up in his arms as if he were a small child and carried him towards the stairs, “that I would like you, would like all of you, in my bed.”
“Take those glasses up as you go, Hansie,” I said. “I'll just get some champagne out of the fridge. I think we may want some, later.”
“Ooh, champagne,” said Tim, from somewhere in Piet's midriff.
“No champagne for you, bad boy,” said Hansie. “Not until you've had a smacked bottom first.”
“Ooh, a smacked bottom,” said Tim, in exactly the same tone, as they ascended the stairs, and I heard a rumble of laughter from Piet. Yes. Yes, that was exactly what I wanted to hear. Thank you, Tim. Thank you, Family.
“Don't start without me,” I called, as I opened the fridge door.
They didn't. And here we are.
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