Even in this part of the world, it isn’t a good thing when the police come to your door at four in the morning; I can well believe that thing that nurses say, about that being the time most people die. It was a very civil and apologetic sergeant called Bateman who came to tell me that there had been a break-in at my premises and that I would be well advised to go down there at once.
A break-in? It looked like total devastation. Both the front windows were broken, even through the mesh protector. The door had been forced. The burglar alarm had apparently being expressing itself in hysterics for two hours. My desk was overturned and the contents scattered widely through the office, the computer was on the floor, and every file and folder was snowdrifted over the top. Then the fire system had been triggered, so everything was under half an inch of water. Somebody had tried, unsuccessfully, to jemmy the safe, and then had attempted the back door, with better results. The lorry was down on its axles, with the tyres slashed and the doors swinging. The padlock had been cut, and the drapes and mirrors inside were slashed and broken. Every one of my lights was smashed, and the floor crisped with broken glass as I stepped inside.
“Miss Milton? We’ll need you to tell us if there’s anything gone, actually stolen, or if this is just wilful damage.”
I laughed, harshly. “Just?”
“I know, I’m sorry, but we need to know. Do you keep equipment here?”
“Yes, some. Not much. Most of my cameras live at home, but there should be a couple here. There’s a second safe built into the wall.”
“Can we look?”
They hadn’t found that. It’s behind a sliding panel. The tools of my trade at least were intact.
“Right. I’ll bring in the boys now. We’ll fingerprint, and so on, but I have to tell you. . .”
“Let me guess. Without a witness there’s nothing you can do.”
He grimaced. “I’m sorry, but that’s about the size of it. We’ll need a statement from you, and you’ll get a crime reference number from us for your insurance, but with this sort of thing, there’s very little to go on. We would really have had more chance if something had been stolen, because it would probably turn up, but if it’s pure vandalism, there’s not much we can do. The damage is probably spite, I’m afraid, because they didn’t find anything worth stealing. We’ll make enquiries, and sometimes we get lucky, but it really is luck. Look, we’ll need a couple of hours. Why don’t you call somebody to come and help you?”
I couldn’t think of anybody to call. I sat on the bike for half an hour while they cleared the front office, and then I started, wearily, to pick things up and stack them on my desk.
By the time the police left, the shops around me were opening. Oh God, it was Saturday, so anything that was going to need somebody external would have to be thought of and done today. Glazier. Locksmith. I scrabbled in my desk for a piece of paper and a pen, and found the contents to be wet. So I said a couple of words that my mother probably doesn’t know I know, and went along the road to the stationer. By the time I came back, Tim Creed was standing in the doorway, regarding the wreckage.
“If you say: have you had a break-in? I shall box your ears. What are you doing here?”
“I came out to buy croissants. Hansie was just putting the coffee on. Have the police been?”
“And gone. Now I’ve just got to tidy up.”
He reached into his pocket for his phone, and before I quite grasped his intention, he was saying to Hansie, “Fran’s had a break-in. Can you muster the troops and get down here? I reckon it’s going to take most of the day to put it right. Call Jim and ask for the loan of his tool box.”
Hansie arrived in ten minutes, clutching a vacuum flask. “It seemed stupid to waste the coffee,” he said, apologetically. “I’ve called Piet and Phil. They’re going round by Jim’s for the tool box. Mary says Jim’s out all day and she’s got appointments she can’t break, but she’ll call later and see how we’re going on, and she’ll make dinner for everybody if we call at about four and tell her how many we are, ja? Fran, have you had any breakfast?”
I shook my head, wordlessly.
“Well, it won’t feel like such a big job on a full stomach, hey? Tim, go and get croissants or Danish or something, and milk.”
“I don’t think there’s a mug unsmashed in here,” I said. There was more of a quiver in my voice than I liked.
“I’ll improvise,” Tim assured me, and went. Hansie walked through to the back, and surveyed the mess.
“Ach, well, at least you’re on the ground floor. No danger of the ceilings coming down. But we’ll need to find somewhere dry to start. And we’ll need. . . what will we need?”
“I got a pen and a notebook. I was just about to start making lists when Tim arrived.”
“Ja, good idea. Planning. Saves a lot of trouble later. Is there anywhere dry to sit?”
“Not inside. The lorry’s dry but it’s full of glass.”
“Ach, that’ll do. We’ll sweep a bit of floor, and have something to eat, and make a plan, hey?”
I turned to voices in the doorway, and saw Piet and Phil looming, with Tim coming up behind.
“Breakfast,” he said breathlessly. “I’ve got some rather nasty cheap mugs, and paper plates, and picnic cutlery, and a jar of coffee and oh, I forget what else. And rolls, and butter, and milk. Come on, Fran, where’s safe to sit?”
We went out to the van and cleared a space, and it was at that point that I put my hand on a piece of glass, and looked at the blood oozing across my palm, and burst into tears. It was Piet who wrapped my hand in his handkerchief and gathered me into his arms.
“Now, Fran, we do not do this. We Tops do not cry, do we? How will we manage to maintain any control over our Bottoms if you give way like this? They’ll start thinking we’re human and that we do not know everything, and then where will we be?”
I managed a rather watery giggle, and struggled for control, and Phil came in holding a first aid box, and neatly cleaned my hand and stuck a plaster on it.
“Where did you get the first aid box?”
“Went next door and asked if they had one. The dress shop? She says if we need anything, give her a shout. There, I’ll take this back.”
With large quantities of muscle available, the first part of the job went quite quickly. I rang the insurers, who were coldly sympathetic, and who said they would want evidence of anything I claimed for, so the first thing I did was recover a camera from the safe and take a reel of film. Phil and Hansie went begging up and down the shops for empty cardboard boxes, and we began to clear the floor. The men did all the work, because I had to do all the decision taking: what could be binned, what had to be kept and dried. There was pitifully little of the latter.
We stopped at twelve, because Piet said very firmly that he was hungry, and went to the pub. I wasn’t hungry, so when the others ordered meals, I asked for a sandwich, and was hastily over-ruled.
“No, Fran. A proper meal. You have been in a cold damp room all morning, and you are not a good colour, and you look pulled down. A hot meal.”
Tim leaned over the table. “Just give in. When I was ill a couple of months ago I went through this. When Piet says you’re going to eat properly, you are. It’s less trouble just to give in. Don’t fight him; you’ll lose.”
“Whatever,” I said, wearily. Phil came back from the bar and set a pint of Guinness in front of me. I was sure I had asked for a half, but I was too tired to argue. I ate what I was given – wallpaper paste with a side order of sand, it might have been – and leaned back and shut my eyes for a moment. Tim elbowed me awake again.
“Come on. Back for coffee and a second shift. We’re making good progress.”
Were we? It didn’t look like it to me. It was so depressing. All the paper prints of my work simply had to be boxed to be destroyed – they weren’t recoverable, but I wasn’t prepared to send them to the dump.
“They’ll have to be either shredded or burned. Box them, and I’ll – I’ll think of something later.”
“There’s an incinerator at Hamiltons,” offered Tim. “Put the boxes in the yard for the moment. On Monday they can come to work with me and I’ll see them gone. Oh, Fran, all your work! It’s heart-breaking!”
“Actually, I mind that less than some of the other stuff. I scanned it all a while back, and the disks are still in the safe. I can recover everything except what I’ve done in the last month. I’ve not done this month’s back up yet, and the computer sloshes when you move it.”
“Take it down to the big computer place on the trading estate and ask if they can recover your hard drive,” suggested Hansie. “Go now, and we’ll clear all the broken stuff from the lorry while you’re out.”
I did that. I don’t know why I bothered; they were supremely unhelpful. It didn’t even take twenty minutes before I was back again.
“They say it’s dead. Absolutely.”
Hansie looked at Tim. “I wonder if Simon would be able to help?”
For some reason, this went down with a perceptible chill all round. Piet and Phil both stopped what they were doing and looked at Tim, and Tim looked decidedly uneasy. “Well, you could ask him, Hansie.”
“No, I think you could ask him. He’s your friend.”
“He was my friend – I’m not sure about now.”
Hansie said nothing, just looked steadily at Tim, until he gave in. “All right, all right, I’ll call him, but I don’t think he’ll help. He’ll want me to grovel some more.”
“Then, for Fran’s sake, you will grovel, ja?”
It took him some time on the phone. He went out into the yard and we couldn’t hear what he said, but from his body language, he was indeed grovelling. I wondered why: he’s generally such an inoffensive type that I couldn’t imagine what he’d done to make grovelling necessary. Simon arrived a quarter of an hour later.
“Darling!” to Tim, but with an edge. “How can I help? You said you had a problem with a wet computer?”
Dear heaven, were there no straight men in this part of the world? Well, except in the cricket club?
Tim made the necessary introductions, and Simon picked his delicate way across the wet carpet to my desk and peered into the case of my poor abused computer.
“Oooh, darling, I don’t think so, but I’ll look. Is there anything not actually wet on which one could park one’s rear?”
In point of fact, no, but I improvised. He picked about for several minutes, and Tim went back out to the yard.
“Darling, I’m not sure even auntie Simon could fix this. It would take hours, and I’m not convinced that you would get anything useable at the end of it.”
I glanced up. I could see Tim, just outside the door, listening. Suddenly he ducked back out of sight, and I heard a scuffle and muffled whispering.
“I mean, it’s not that I’m not willing to try, but I can’t think that you – urk!”
A large packing case was appearing through the back door, on its way to the increasing pile of stuff to be taken to the dump. It was being balanced between Hansie and Phil, neither of whom was wearing his shirt.
“Wheep,” said Simon, faintly. I was inclined to agree, and I’d seen it before.
Hansie grinned at me and turned to Simon. “Simon, I don’t think you’ve met Phil Cartwright from the rugby club, have you?”
“Nooooooo,” agreed Simon. The packing case went onto the floor, and Phil held out his hand. “Pleased to meet you. I’m so glad Fran’s got friends to rely on. None of us knows anything about computers, we’re just muscle.”
“Yurp,” agreed Simon, weakly.
“Tim says you’re absolutely the business with computers. He says there isn’t anything you can’t fix.”
“Ummmmm,” demurred Simon, but before he could get any further, Phil turned back towards the door and called, “Piet? Tim’s friend’s here. He’s going to fix Fran’s computer.”
Actually, you know, given a free selection, both as a photographer and as a woman, Piet with his shirt off would be my choice. I do so wish he were straight. Still, I suppose we couldn’t both top. Simon looked like the seven-year-old locked in the sweet shop.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Simon. Do you really think you can fix the computer?”
“Aaaaaaahhhh,” said Simon.
“It would be such a shame if Fran were to lose much of her work. I have never met a photographer like her. You know she did the pictures for the rugby club calendar? And some really good ones of the four of us.”
Simon cast a glance at me which suggested that I was suddenly very much more interesting than before.
“Oh yes,” I confirmed, trying not to laugh. “They spent a whole morning posing for me. I took some good pictures.”
“This isn’t just wedding photos, then?”
Tim had reappeared in the doorway. “Sorry, Simon, I didn’t realise you didn’t know who Fran is. She’s FeLine, you know, from the magazines.”
He took a moment to think about that, and then his eyes widened. “The – magazines? The – our sort of magazines?”
I thought it best to get back to the point. “I’m sorry, Simon, what were you saying about the hard drive? Can you do anything to help?”
“Darling, of course I can. Trust your auntie Simon. It won’t be quick, and I won’t promise that you’ll get everything, but I’ll fix it.”
“You’re a hero,” said Phil, comfortably. “We’ll just get on with the he-man stuff, and you can make like an intellectual. We won’t disturb you as we move in and out, will we?”
“Not in the slightest,” lied Simon, with the expression of a man for whom Phil moving in and out would be his greatest ambition.
Ten minutes later, my computer was in pieces across the desk, and as I came through, Simon said, “Did you really photograph the four of them?”
“Oh, yes. You should ask them to let you see the pictures.”
“Amazing. Tell me, does that red go all the way down Hansie?”
I sacrificed Hansie without a second thought.
“Now he’s unusual. Most men are darker the further down you go, but Hansie isn’t. Auburn on top, and red gold underneath. Stunning.”
“I believe you. . .”
“And of course, the shots I took of them all together are rather. . . well, a bit. . . well, I couldn’t publish them. Definitely not for public consumption. They’re only showing them to their friends. Close friends.”
Another unrecognisable piece of hardware was removed from my computer. Simon peered inside and made a faint noise of satisfaction. I slid a hand behind me for the camera. When he forgot the camp queen persona, there was a sharp expression of competence. Interesting. The multiple faces we all wear. . .
It was quite remarkable how much work was done by the time we all felt we had had enough. Simon went out mid-way through the afternoon and came back with a variety of electronic pieces. “Darling, it’s all stuff from my loft. I never throw away a computer. I’ll make you something that works for the moment, and then when the insurance pays up, I’ll help you get good value in something new.” He was watching me hopefully.
“Simon, that’s wonderful. And you must come and see examples of my work, too. Then you’ll be able to tell me what sort of equipment would be best for me.”
“Nothing I don’t know about equipment, sweetie. Nothing at all.”
Faced with photographic evidence of the damage, the insurers paid out fairly promptly (miracles will never etc. etc.!) and I was working again almost at once. The thing that took longest was getting the floor dry, and the smell lingered longer than was wholly desirable. Sergeant Bateman called once or twice, but it was form visits: he had nothing useful to tell me. I upped all my security measures, chalked one up to experience, and tried to put it all behind me.
Ja, well, it was just luck that I worked out what was going on. I had been to the rugby club. Not Phil’s club, not the big one, no. No, the little club here in town. Jim gets me to run training sessions, you know? I had done an evening session for the under-18s and I was waiting for them to go. I wanted to lock up, you know? I was waiting in the corridor while the last few finished changing, and I don’t think they realised I could hear them. There’s a ventilation grid and I was standing under it. I wasn’t really listening, but I heard the testosterone whoop. Ach, you know – that silly noise that the male teenager makes when somebody says something suggestive, hey? And I heard one of them say, “Where did you get them, then?” and somebody else reply “My brother. He’s got lots of them. I pinched these ones; he’ll never notice.”
Like I said, I wasn’t really paying attention. I only started to pay attention when I had seen them off the premises, and I went back to lock up. I always look round the changing room for lost property – those boys are incapable of going home with the full complement of watches, scarves, shirts, socks. And there was something underneath the bench.
It was a photograph. A girl, blonde, young, pretty, topless. Showing off what she’d got, conspiring with the camera, laughing with the photographer. Look at me, am I not beautiful?
She was beautiful, and beautifully lit, and beautifully posed, and perfectly photographed. It was one of Fran’s pictures, unmistakably. Well, unmistakable to me. Fran took one of Phil, posed just so, and Piet had a big framed print of it from her for his birthday. I didn’t know the girl, but I knew where that picture had come from, and the boy had said there were more.
I didn’t know what to do. There was no point in asking the boys. They wouldn’t tell me, specially not if something illegal had been done to get the pictures, hey? And there would be no proof. If the police came in, what would the boys say, hey? Pictures? Bought them in a pub, Inspector. Never saw the man before. Wouldn’t know him again. And meanwhile Fran was spending money she didn’t have on security systems she shouldn’t need, and she had been so angry, so upset. My sister Fran, who teased me and made me laugh, who knew what I was, and who called me her brother anyway.
O.K., maybe I didn’t make good choices, hey? I kept the picture, I said nothing about it, and I asked Jim. Those boys, who has older brothers? Who would be the fixer, the one who can get you things? And Jim gave me names.
I feel bad about that now, about using Jim that way. You want to hear what Piet thought about that. Actually, you don’t. I never want to hear it again, either.
And then I watched and I listened. I didn’t ask. I didn’t want those boys knowing that Hansie van den Broek was interested. But I pinned it down to two, two boys, young men, whatever you call them, hey? Nineteen, twenty. Never quite in bad trouble, never quite clear of mild trouble. Suspicions of theft, of taking cars. Small time stuff.
Then I told Tim and Tim told me not to get involved. Go to the police, he said. They’ll sort it.
“They won’t. No proof. Moral certainty, but no proof.”
“Well, Hansie, but what can you do?”
“I can put the fear of God into those boys. I can make them understand about retribution.”
“No, Hansie! For God’s sake! What are you thinking of doing?” I told him, and he looked at me like I had been out in the sun too long, you know? “No, Hansie, this is a really, really stupid idea. Really stupid.”
“Well, if you won’t help me, I’ll call Phil.”
Ja, ja, I know. I should have listened. I shouldn’t have involved Phil. And I really should have thought that if I didn’t want Piet to know, it must be wrong. I know.
But Phil was up for it. I showed him the photo and he agreed with me. Fran had taken it. Those two boys had done the deed and they were going to pay for it.
Tim threw up his hands and gave in. “It’s a bloody stupid idea. It’s illegal. If we get caught, we’re toast. Hansie, you can drive the car, and keep your mouth shut. If they hear your accent, we won’t have a hope of getting away with it. Phil, we mustn’t be seen. And just pray that Jim and Piet never get to hear about it, because I for one would like to sit down between now and Christmas.”
So what did we do? We jumped them. Two boys, straight from the pub at closing time, well bevvied up (that is Phil’s word: do I have it right?) and loud. Couple of blankets over their heads, couple of big men to hold them still, get them into the car, and I drove, in silence, out of town. And then Tim, who has the local accent, that Phil and I do not have, explained to them, in no more than a whisper, that breaking and entering was a bad thing, that theft was a very bad thing. And that bad actions have bad consequences. And then we tied their own football scarves around their heads to hold the blankets in place, and we took from them all their clothes except their shoes, and we put them out of the car on the Carisbrook roundabout. We were out of sight before they could get the scarves untied. We left their clothes on the Southgate roundabout. It’s a walk of about two miles, hey? Shouldn’t take very long, unless you’re very anxious not to be seen. Like because you have no clothes on, ja?
And Phil and Tim and I went home and agreed that we would not talk about it.
When did it start to go wrong for me? When Fran came to see Piet. She was in a steaming temper. She wanted to talk to him and he took her into the study while I cleared the table and started the dishwasher, and I was just about to make some coffee when Piet opened the study door and said calmly, “Phil, you will please call Hansie, and get him and Tim up here now. And we will all have a little conversation about kidnapping.”
It’s a good line, don’t you think? Fills the hearer with blind, uncompromising terror. Brings everything down to lowest common denominator: I’ve done something I shouldn’t and Piet knows.
It wasn’t Hansie I got on the phone, it was Tim, and the horrified silence made it plain that he thought much the same way. Then he said, in a choked voice, “We’ll be about fifteen minutes.”
Armageddon minus fifteen. Minus fourteen. Minus thirteen. . . I’d got to about minus two when the doorbell rang and I let them in. I thought that Hansie looked even sicker than me; he can’t bear to have Piet disapprove of him. I mean, I hate it, but I know we’ll get through it, but I think Hansie is always afraid that this time he’s screwed things up so far that we’ll all abandon him. Tim whispered, “How does he know? How much does he know?” I shook my head, and we trooped in line into the study. Very ‘sent to the headmaster’, only we weren’t going to get away with two hundred lines and a week picking up litter. Fran and Piet were sitting on the red couch; Piet gestured invitingly, and we lined up against the opposite wall.
Fran started off the hearing; her voice was tight. “I had a visit from Sergeant Bateman today. He wanted to tell me, officially, that there is now no chance of pinning a vandalism charge on anyone regarding my premises. Apparently the police were following up a good lead relating to photographs changing hands in clubs, and they had got a couple of names and were applying for search warrants, when they got a most peculiar report of an attempted kidnapping. It seems that three big men attacked their suspects, stripped them, and dumped them on the main road out of town, after making threats relating to breaking and entering. By the time the police arrived with a warrant, their suspects had had a bonfire. Said they were burning ‘old school papers’, despite, according to Sergeant Bateman, having spent more days truanting than actually in school. There’s no evidence linking them to my studio now. The sergeant wondered if I knew who the three big men might be.”
She let us sweat for a minute, before adding, “I said I had no idea.”
There was a horrible silence for another minute before she added conversationally, “The sergeant didn’t believe me. I’m not a convincing liar.”
Another ghastly silence, which after a couple of hundred years was broken by Piet, who asked placidly, “Whose idea was it?”
“Mine,” whispered Hansie.
“Why?” asked Piet, reasonably.
We weren’t provided with any very good answers to that. It took Piet about ten minutes to establish that the whole plan had been Hansie's, that Tim had been against it, that I had been in favour, who had done what, and all the rest of it.
“And your motivation? Why not go to the police?”
“They couldn’t do anything,” said Hansie, desperately.
“They certainly can’t now,” agreed Fran, bitterly. Hansie, who had been inspecting his shoes, glanced up.
“Ach, Fran, they had done you harm, ja? I wanted them to pay for that. They tuned you so much grief, and that hurt me.”
Fran was off the couch and across the room into his face, at a speed that would have impressed the Viper even in his playing days.
“How dare you? How dare you? Don’t ever patronise me like that. So they hurt me? And I couldn’t cope with that? I was glad of your help, and your support. You gave me the strength to get through it. And I did get through it. And then you think that it’s up to you to decide what to do about it?”
She had one hand drawn back, and I thought she was going to box his ears; Tim gave a little squeak of dismay, more than I thought it deserved, and reached forward. But Fran controlled herself, stepped away, breathing hard between her teeth. Hansie looked as shocked as if she actually had hit him.
She threw herself back onto the couch, still breathing hard, and Piet put his hand lightly on hers. I thought: you’re braver than I am. I wouldn’t touch her when she looks like that. And then he said the truly scary thing: “Do you want to deal with them, Fran?” And she thought about it! We could see her give it serious consideration! Tim’s breath was coming rather too fast, and I was hot and cold all over. God knows what Hansie thought. But thank God, she said, “No. No, I don’t think so. But Pieter, I want them to be in no doubt about how angry I am.”
There was going to be no danger of that. I had been living with Piet long enough to see that one coming.
She was on her feet, heading for the door, when Hansie managed a strangled “Fran?” She stopped, and looked back at him but he couldn’t manage any more. I think she knew that, because she snorted and came back to him, wrapping her arms round his neck, and kissing him soundly. “Hansie, you’re an idiot. A total idiot. But you’re my baby brother, and I love you, O.K.?”
He had to bend quite a long way to hug her. She’s a big woman; I sometimes wonder if the reason she likes us is that we don’t make her feel too large. She went, without granting Tim or me a second glance; I don’t think I was sorry. Bad enough having Piet’s attention on this without having hers as well.
On the other hand, her departure left us with Piet. Take these words: ‘Viper de Vries’ and ‘tender mercies’ and work them into a single phrase. Can’t do it, can you? And, oh, God, did we know it? Piet went to show Fran out, and the three stooges stood against the wall and waited for the end of the world. How long did we wait? An hour? Ninety seconds? One or the other. Far too long, or not nearly long enough, both at once. Oh, please, let this be over soon.
I heard the front door shut, and Piet came back. He stood in the doorway and looked at us.
“Does any of you have anything to say?”
I certainly hadn’t. Hansie had. “Tim tried to talk me out of it. It wasn’t his fault. And he isn’t yours to. . . to. . .”
“True. I do not have his consent. Tim, you may go.”
He didn’t. He stood between me and Hansie and looked at the floor. Piet smiled, rather grimly. “So you will all answer to me?”
I nodded, despairingly. From the corner of my eye I saw Hansie do the same, and Tim’s voice said, “Yes, sir.”
“Good. Remove your trousers.”
That was almost a relief. Last stretch. Downhill run. Whatever. Three pairs of trousers were dropped in an untidy pile, over abandoned shoes. And then Piet spoke. Coolly, calmly, without raising his voice. We were unbelievably stupid, all three of us. We had no foresight. We had no consideration for others. We might have thought we were helping Fran but in fact we were belittling her, thinking we knew best, offensive. What we had done was idiotic. Illegal.
“Suppose you had been identified? The scandal would have ruined Phil’s career, and the damage it would have done to Hamiltons would be immeasurable. All three of you would have lost your jobs. Once it hit the papers, James would have been damaged by it. So would I. So would Fran. You have broken up a police operation. Heaven knows what it cost, and all now for nothing, on your actions. It was illegal. What is the penalty for kidnapping, for menaces, for such an attack? A fine? A prison sentence? You wanted to be a hero, Hansie. You wanted to impress Fran. Tim, I thought you had more sense. I thought you were a steadying influence on Hansie. And Phil, I thought you were growing up. I thought you had the sense to think things through, not just to run after an adventure. I am most disappointed to find I was wrong. Between you, you have made it necessary for me to lie by omission to protect you, and Fran has had to give the lie direct. To lie, to her own disadvantage, to the police, who know she is lying. You say you were protecting her, but she had to protect you.”
I was biting my lip hard. I didn’t dare glance at the others. Piet moved behind his desk, and I looked up as he opened the drawer. He took out – oh, hell – the fine yellow cane. The one I really feared. Placed it on the desk. Reached back into the desk and removed – oh no, please, not both – the paddle. Placed it beside the cane and let us look at the damnable pairing. I couldn’t breathe; I was too hot; I could hear my own heart beating much too fast. But he didn’t move the couch as he usually did if I had a caning coming. Usually it came into the middle of the room, and I went down over the back of it. He stepped to one side and lifted the cane, flexing it several times. It bent almost double.
“Tim. You first.”
Tim looked up and stepped unwillingly forward.
“Bend over. Forearms on the seat. Head down. Eight for you.”
That implied to me that we weren’t all getting the same. Tim’s briefs were stripped to his knees; I could see him shift his weight and brace himself against the couch. Piet tapped twice for range – I hate it when he does that. And there was a gunshot crack and Hansie squeaked. Not Tim. I could see his muscles jump but he didn’t make a sound. Two. Three. Four. Shit, those were hard. I could hear Tim’s breath whistling, although otherwise he was silent, but every breath Hansie took was perilously close to a whimper. I reached a hand towards him and his fingers gripped mine. Five. Straight welts were appearing on Tim’s skin, the double lines of a cane expertly handled. Six. Seven got a yelp from him, and eight a squeal, hastily swallowed.
“Good. You may get up.”
He straightened slowly, like an old man, and reached stiffly for his briefs, hesitating and throwing a glance at Piet, who nodded permission.
“Back to your place, Tim. Phil now.”
I stripped my own boxers down and bent. It’s harder to keep still when you aren’t bending over something solid.
Oh shitohshitohshit. This was going to hurt so – ooohuh! This did hurt so much. I’m not as brave as Tim. I squeaked at three, yelped at six, yelled on nine and ten. Reached to clamp my hands over the damage and thought better of it. Eased my boxers up, very gingerly, and walked with wobbly knees back to my place. Oh God, and I had to watch Hansie getting his, in the knowledge that however much it hurt now it was only going to get worse. Piet hadn’t left the paddle on his desk for decoration.
Those hurt Hansie. He lasted about as well as I had done, three or four in silence, and then increasing yips and yelps and yells. On the pallor of his skin the bars were almost blue. Those hurt him. But they hurt Tim worse. Tim winced visibly at each one, and was trembling by the time Piet said “Get up, Hansie”, and Hansie, wide-eyed and looking profoundly shocked, staggered back to his place.
Piet left us there, lined up against the wall, for fifteen minutes: I could see the clock. He didn’t speak, he just sat on the red couch with the leather paddle – my leather paddle! – resting on his lap. I didn’t know which of us feared it most – Tim knew what it could do, Hansie and I were guessing. My welts throbbed in time with my pulse, and just as the edge was wearing off, Piet spoke.
“Come here, Tim.”
Tim was trembling as Piet arranged him, bared and defenceless, over his lap. He was quivering, but Hansie had reached for my hand again and he was shaking, long shudders.
“Truly, Tim, I thought better of you. Even if you had not the courage to stop this idiotic plan by telling me, or James, or the police, I would have expected you to keep clear of it yourself. You have surprised me, and not in any good way.”
The paddle snapped down and Tim bucked. A scarlet oval appeared, overlying the stripes already decorating his skin. Still he was silent, but only just: there was the faintest whine and he was breathing very fast. Piet was not gentle and I was so afraid: whatever Tim got, I was getting more, and Tim was twisting, writhing, barely managing to keep himself down. But Piet stopped, rubbed Tim’s back briefly and let him go. Tim had made almost no sound, but there were tears enough, and he looked so ashamed and miserable that I was surprised Piet had let him up uncomforted.
“Phil. You are going to be a follower all your life? You will always run along behind stronger men like Hansie, following orders? Will you never be leader, be captain?”
Ouch. Hard one in my head. Harder one across my bare (and still throbbing) backside. So this was what I had given Tim. Brave Tim; silent Tim. Loud Phil; unhappy Phil; sore and smarting and penitent and chastened Phil. Well-spanked Phil. And no hug at the end of it.
I don’t know what he said to Hansie. It wasn’t in English and my Afrikaans isn’t up to much. Hansie got a proper tongue-lashing, I could tell from the tone, and it involved having to answer Piet’s questions, too. It broke him: reduced him to tears. He was weeping freely before the paddle touched his skin, and he continued to weep through a spanking which would have had me howling even without the preliminary encounter with the cane. Tim couldn’t bear to watch: he was weeping too and flinching at every smack, to such an extent that I caught him into my arms and pulled him round to hide his face against my shoulder, and Piet looked up and saw me and didn’t say me nay. Hansie got something extra, too – the pause to put down the paddle and then a dozen laid on hard by hand to point the lesson.
And at last he had finished with us. He eased Hansie to his knees, and said, “Tim, take him,” and gave Hansie into Tim’s arms, and held out his own arms to me, and took me back to my own place next his heart, punished and forgiven. And first. I didn’t realise how much I still feared not being first with Piet, until I was first.
I was first to recover myself too, first able to spare a thought for the others. I got a hand to the back of Tim’s neck, and Piet kissed me again and turned to comfort Hansie. I don’t know how long we stayed there, working round every permutation to hug, comfort, forgive and be forgiven. I think it was a long time. I know that at some point it was determined that Tim and Hansie were spending the night in our spare room, and a certain amount of restorative brandy was drunk. And at last Piet said, “Show them the spare room and where to find everything and I’ll lock up,” and the three of us went upstairs. It wasn't that easy; stairs require the flexing of the muscles of hip and thigh, and did that hurt! And at the top of the stairs, as I opened the door of the spare room, Hansie glanced the other way into our room and exclaimed in surprise.
“Grief, Phil, where did you get that?”
“The bed? We had it made. Piet said he was tired of hanging off the end of the bed, and I’m a fairly active sleeper, and he reckoned I was going to push him out. So we had it made. It cost a bomb.”
“How big is it?”
“Seven foot square. We had to order the sheets and stuff from America.”
Tim stepped into the room, sat on the edge of the bed, got up again hastily, sat more cautiously.
“Hansie, we have to have one. We’ll have to move, it wouldn’t fit at home, but I want one!”
Hansie sat carefully beside him, wincing, but grinning. I climbed on myself and stretched out. “See? Room to lie flat.”
Piet rounded the head of the stairs and checked at the sight of us. “It is not my birthday, is it?”
We must have looked a little bewildered, for he laughed at us. “Three beautiful men in my bed all at once? For twenty-five years I have dreamed of such a thing.”
I spluttered. “Talk about arrogance! You think you could manage all three of us?”
“Oh, yes. I might need a little help. Some clues. Say I meant to start on. . .” and he prowled round the bed, before pouncing on “Hansie. I would pin him down – like this – and ask Tim: what would render Hansie helpless?”
“Oh, easy,” said Tim, grinning at Hansie. “Just work across his chest and” (Hansie squeaked) “ring the doorbell.”
“Ah, yes? Now Phil likes that too. Phil likes me to run a fingernail over his shirt and just scratch very lightly over a nipple. Does Hansie like that? He does, look, he wriggles, and he flushes, and if we take his shirt off. . .” I’m not sure at what point it shifted from horseplay to something else, but. . . What the hell, take everything off Hansie. And if all three of us kiss him, he doesn’t struggle very hard. Piet spent a little time looking for (and finding!) other sensitive places – Tim and I positioned ourselves one on each side of Hansie's chest and licked and nibbled until nothing he said made any sense at all. And then Tim settled himself between Hansie's knees and flexed his hands like a violinist, and Hansie whimpered. So did I. I knew what he meant to do, specially when he lifted one hand and deliberately licked his palm. He has strong, supple hands, and powerful wrists, and I caught up the tube of gel from the bedside table and flicked it down the bed to him, and Piet and I launched a secondary attack on Hansie's chest, but we knew when Tim touched him because he convulsed upwards. God, but Tim is good at that. I’m sure he could have been a musician had he wanted, because he coaxed one cadenza after another out of Hansie and left him panting and groaning with pleasure.
“Just wait,” croaked Hansie. “I’ll tell Piet on you. I’ll tell him what you like.”
“Do tell,” invited Piet, and Hansie licked his lips suggestively, and I caught Tim as he tried to wriggle off the bed, and flipped him over, and Piet settled across his legs and nuzzled him, and Tim gasped. And we all had a go, but Hansie was easily the best. He made Tim beg, repeatedly, and abjectly, and helplessly and ungrammatically. But ultimately successfully.
And then they turned their attention to me. And if Hansie does that often, it’s no bloody wonder Tim’s so smug. He’s entitled to be smug. But I was rolled onto my face with a pillow under my hips and Piet revealing my secrets. “You see, if I lick, very slowly, along the cane mark, Phil makes a sound like a kitten.”
“I do not! That’s a vile calumny!” Look, it makes me shudder, that’s all. I admit it’s a turn on but I do not make a sound like a kitten. Piet moved very slowly along the top line and I felt myself twitch, and swallowed any sound I might have made. Then I felt Tim’s teeth lightly on my earlobe, and Hansie joined Piet, one of them at the top, left to right, and one at the bottom, right to left. Not so much a kitten, more a catfight.
I was wriggling and squirming, and yes, O.K., making a noise like a kitten, when Tim lifted his head away from me and remarked, conversationally, “And we still don’t know what Piet likes. What does Piet like, Phil?”
Everything. Piet likes everything. Piet likes what you do, and what Hansie does, and what I do. Piet likes to do everything until his partner is helpless and blind with lust. Piet likes to find every sensitive place on a lover’s body, to touch or kiss or lick every erogenous zone, and to make erogenous zones of everywhere else. Piet likes to be in charge, and Phil likes to let him. Piet likes. . .
“Me. Piet likes me.”
And all the hands turned me over, and moved me, and Hansie knelt above us, touching and kissing us both, and the cool, gel-slick hand between us was Tim’s, long fingers wrapped around me, and keeping time with Piet. And Piet moved, and as always I thought, “too slow, too slow” except that it isn’t too slow, it’s steadily perfect, and between the three of them I couldn’t think, couldn’t speak. And Piet’s eyes were huge, all pupil, as he braced himself above me, and I couldn’t look away, didn’t want to, as he said, “Now, Phil. Now.” And the white blaze overtook me, and Piet lay on my chest and called me his hart, his koekie, his own.
It’s a big bed for two, but a small one for four. Big enough if you don’t mind curling up together. Don’t let Tim turn onto his back: he snores.
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© , 2005