Piet was leafing vaguely through the newspaper as I brushed my hair, and I heard him exclaim at something. He gets the paper sent from South Africa – it’s one of these once-a-month summaries of the big stories from the daily edition, and he likes to keep in touch. I was about to ask what he had seen, when he suddenly glanced at his watch, and chased me out of the house with mutterings about being late. We were meeting James Hamilton for a drink at the rugby club to celebrate my first international, and to be truthful, I was so wrapped up in my own concerns that I wasn’t taking a great deal of notice of anyone else’s. Oh, go on, I was entitled to be pleased with myself, and I did try not to be too bumptious about it. Piet doesn’t encourage swelled head, and friends like Tim and Hansie tend to keep me from getting too far above myself.
So in the car, I didn’t ask what he had read, and I just looked round in the bar for Hansie and Tim and Mr Hamilton, and bounced towards them with a cheerful smile. Piet followed behind me, and I heard him speak to Hansie in Afrikaans. I don’t speak it, but I noticed that as usual he addressed Hansie as ‘Johannes’ – I wish he wouldn’t, everybody calls him ‘Hansie’. And I heard Hansie’s reply. That was in English, and he said “What?” And something in his tone made us all turn and look. Piet looked a little taken aback, and he spoke in Afrikaans again. He had coloured slightly, like someone who is afraid that he has dropped a social brick, but Hansie had gone white. Sick white. Oh please, I thought, not more of this waltzing round everybody’s sensitivities; I thought we had finished with this. But Hansie suddenly pulled his mobile phone out of his pocket, and began to shoulder his way to the door, dialling at the same time, ignoring Tim’s “Hansie, what is it?” We saw him standing on the steps, talking, and then suddenly he was running across the car park, hurling himself into the car, and taking off with a screech of tyres.
“Pieter, what was that about?” asked Mr Hamilton, catching Tim’s arm and drawing him towards a quiet table. I wanted to know too, and Tim was obviously bewildered. Piet looked a bit confused himself.
“I only offered him my condolences on the death of his father. I saw it in the newspaper, but Johannes seemed not to understand me. But Matthias van den Broek, that is his father, fersure. Yiss, I am sure it was the same man.”
He was bothered. His accent isn’t very strong, normally, and when it slides back towards Afrikaans, it means he’s disturbed. Tim had gone white too. “His father’s dead?”
“Yiss, fersure. Two weeks ago, according to the paper. He had not told you?”
“I don’t think he knew.”
Well, that caught us all on the hop.
“Where do you think he’s gone, Tim?” asked Mr Hamilton. Tim shook his head, and hauled out his own mobile. A moment later he frowned. “Turned off. And no answer at home. Mr de Vries, are you certain about this?”
Piet made a face. “It was in the paper, just a short obituary. You want me to check?”
“Yes, probably. It will take me a little time on the telephone, because I don’t know who to ask, but I can find out. We could go to the office, perhaps?”
We did that. Piet booted up the computer, and started on the Net. “There will be a website with the information about the newspaper staff. Let’s see if I remember anybody. We’ll try the sports editor… Ah. Yes. I know him, although only slightly. Now, the time difference is only about two hours, so there will be somebody on the desk. O.K.”
It’s not his style at all, but Piet worked damned hard for the information we got. He schmoozed, he gossiped. He started with the sports editor, who remembered Viper de Vries. He gave him an exclusive about what he was doing in English rugby, in exchange for which he got an introduction to the social editor. He politely requested information, rather than demanding in his usual fashion. He flattered, and coaxed, and was eventually provided with some cub reporter who would go and look up what he wanted to know. Then he began to take dictation in Afrikaans, and I watched his face, and was grateful that, for once, his expression was not aimed at me. He grew stonier and stonier, and – it’s as if the flesh pulls back on his face until every plane is just hard bone. He was very, very angry. But at the other end of the phone, the cub wouldn’t have known it. He’ll have gone away to tell his friends that the famous Viper de Vries was not the terrifying monster of sporting legend, but a charming individual. Piet thanked him, courteously, put down the phone, and at once reached for the club compliments slips. He signed three, pushed them into an envelope and sealed it. We watched, bewildered, and he glanced up, flushing slightly.
“I promised him an autograph; I will forget if I do not do it at once. Let me write the address on this and I will tell you what I have found out.” He always pays his debts, Piet de Vries – and makes me pay mine.
“Matthias van den Broek died on the sixth and was buried a week later. It is the same man. He was nearly eighty. Johannes is the son of his second marriage. His first wife, Missy, died young of cancer, and he married again some years later.” He made a face. “Reading between the lines, Ellie van der Merwe was a trophy wife. I remember her. She was very beautiful, and a lot younger than Matthias, and I recall her as very stupid. Matthias and Ellie used to come occasionally to watch Johannes play. She was bored, not interested, not particularly impressed. He was… he gave nothing away. He was an old man, and I think Johannes had to work very hard for his approval. I think… I think perhaps there were things I should have seen and did not.”
Tim nodded. “Hansie doesn’t talk much about his family. He says they disapproved when he wouldn’t go into the army, and blanked his name from the family Bible when he came out, and I think it’s only half a joke.”
Piet frowned again. “Mr Creed, I think perhaps you have not understood. I fear that what he says may be literally true. Thirty years ago, twenty, even ten, South African society was what you would think of as very old-fashioned. And Afrikaner society is old-fashioned even by the standards of South Africa. If Matthias wanted Johannes to go into the army and Johannes would not do so, such filial disobedience would make a scandal. And remember, Matthias would have been nearly seventy when Johannes was of an age to choose a career. Homosexuality is still viewed as a scandal, as a sin. Scandal is to be avoided at all costs. We are talking of a community where a man who is bankrupt, who cannot provide for his wife and children, is likely to take his gun and kill them all, and then himself. Matthias van den Broek was a religious man, according to what that young man Pik just told me, and his wife was not intelligent. Matthias would not have wed a girl, however desirable, who did not fit in with his own upbringing. She will have been biddable, religious herself, and not inclined to argue with him. I think it may be a plain statement of fact that Johannes is no longer listed in the family tree.”
James Hamilton shifted uneasily in his seat. “We can’t know that, Pieter. And surely a family rift won’t stretch past the grave?”
“Will it not?” asked Piet, bitterly. “Let me read you the end of the obituary that appeared in the daily paper. I made Pik repeat it so that I was sure I had it right. It says ‘Matthias van den Broek is survived by his second wife, Ellie. His son, Julius, pre-deceased him.’”
I didn’t get the point, at once, but Mr Hamilton did, and so did Tim. “No mention of Hansie at all?”
“No. The implication is one son, Julius, deceased.”
Mr Hamilton looked at Tim. “Did you know about this?”
“I knew there was a half-brother. He died when Hansie was about seven. Hansie won’t talk about him much either: he says Sonny was the golden boy and that he always felt he had to live up to him. He died in a shooting accident when he was about eighteen. I think… I think Hansie is afraid that it might not have been an accident.”
Piet nodded. “It is a community in which suicide is more common than in other places. That in itself makes a scandal. A hint of such a thing would make the van den Broek family disinclined to face up to any other scandal.”
“So where has he gone?” I asked. The others turned to look; I think they had forgotten I was there. “Look, it sounds to me as if he’s had a big shock. Even if they weren’t speaking, his father dying will be a shock. And if they didn’t even tell him... And didn’t you say that they’d had the funeral? Presumably without telling him about that either. He’s got to be feeling awful, and probably guilty as well, if they were estranged because he couldn’t or wouldn’t do what his father wanted. I mean, Tim will know if he should just be left alone to get over it, but, well, wouldn’t it be better if we at least knew where he was?”
Piet nodded. “I think Phil is right. We must admit, too, that since I arrived here, Johannes has been on edge. He and I have too much history. We have managed to come more or less to terms with each other, but we are not comfortable together. He is not in the best frame of mind to start with. Mr Creed, what do you think?”
Tim looked shaken. “I don’t know what to think. I wish I knew where he was. He isn’t answering the phone, and I can’t think where he’s likely to have gone.”
“Call your friends,” suggested James Hamilton. “We won’t intrude on him if he wants to be left alone, but Phil’s right, we would all be happier if we knew where he was.”
Between us, we called everybody we could think of, likely or not, but we couldn’t find Hansie. We all ended up back at Hansie’s house, to which Tim had a key, wondering what to do next. Tim started opening drawers in a desk, with an expression of blind panic. Then he sighed and relaxed. “His passport’s here. I suddenly thought he might have gone home.”
It didn’t sound to me as if he had a home to go to, but for once I managed to keep my mouth shut. It wasn’t going to help to say so. We waited, with Tim getting more and more uptight. Half the time he was worrying about whether Hansie would have come to harm; the rest he was muttering about what he was going to do to Hansie when he laid hand on him. The phone rang twice, and made us all jump – one wrong number and one double glazing salesman. James Hamilton carefully removed the phone from Tim’s hand and disposed of the salesman in one well chosen phrase. The third time, it wasn’t Hansie’s phone which rang. It was Piet’s.
“Hello, yes? Ach, can I… What? Ah. Thank God. Yes. Keep him with you. (Mr Creed, we have him.) No, he has had a shock. Keep him with you and we will come at once.”
He looked round. “He is at Frances Milton’s. He wants her to take his photograph.”
I had been busy all day, and I was looking forward to going home. I had done one hundred and seventy school photographs (bread-and-butter work), and decided to start the developing at once, so when Hansie banged on the door, I was there. I wouldn’t necessarily have opened up, but he put his finger on the bell and kept it there, and eventually I could stand no more of it, and went to see who wanted a photographer at half ten at night.
As soon as I took the chain off the door he pushed it open, and loomed in the doorway. He actually frightened me a little – he’s a big man, and he seemed in a very odd frame of mind. To tell the truth, I wondered at first if he were drunk.
“Miss Milton, I want my photograph taken.”
“You wanted skin flicks, hey? I’ll do them.”
“I would love to take some nude pictures of you, Hansie, but…”
“Ja. You want pictures of an effeminate freak? O.K. Now.”
“Hansie, what on earth are you talking about?”
“Pictures, Miss Milton. I can’t farm, I’m not fit for the army, I gave up my rugby. I can’t do any of the things I wanted or that other people wanted of me, hey? But you wanted skin, and I can do that. So let’s do it.”
“Perhaps when you’ve calmed down, we could…”
“NO! Now! I want to do it now!”
There was a large party just coming out of the pub. For the sake of everybody’s reputation, I drew Hansie inside, and led him into the office.
“Hansie, you know I don’t have my own studio. Anything I can’t do in the lorry, I hire a studio for. I can’t do that at this time of night. Tomorrow, if you like…”
“Where’s the lorry, hey? Out here? You said before that you used it as a mobile studio, ja? So we can use it. Open it up.”
I was so taken aback that I did open it, flicking on the lights and starting the generator. Hansie wasn’t drunk, but I thought he might have taken something, so I humoured him until I could find out what the hell was going on.
“You’ll take some pictures, ja? I’m fit for that if nothing else.”
“If you want pictures, Hansie, I’ll take pictures. Let me get the camera.”
I opened up the case and started to put together the camera. Artificial lights, so alter the set-up. I glanced up and gasped. Hansie was not joking. While I had been changing the lens, he had stripped. I had been right: he was certainly pretty enough for anything. His skin is like milk, so pale that every vein is pencilled on, and that copper hair is to die for. He’s fortunate in that his eyelashes are darker than his hair; his eyes are his best feature. Probably. But it wasn’t his eyes that he wanted me to notice.
“Will this do to start with?”
I had rarely heard anybody speak with such contempt and self-loathing, and he had fallen into a pose that I had never seen in my studio before. I believe I’ve mentioned that there are photographs I don’t take, poses I won’t use, and this was one of them. If he was trying to make himself look cheap, he was succeeding. I began to be less confused and more annoyed. Under the cover of the lid of the equipment case, I unhooked the camera strap and doubled it, winding the ends round my hand.
“Not to start with, Hansie, that will need lights. Just turn round and kneel down for me. Hands on the floor.”
If he had been less upset, I would never have taken him in so easily. “Head down.”
The strap sang in the air, and cracked across his backside, and he squealed, more, I think, with shock than actual pain. I got in a second one before he twisted away, and a third when he rolled towards the corner. Then I dropped the strap and grabbed his hair, pulling his head up towards me.
“Tell. Me. What. Is. Going. On.”
His gaze met mine, and I flinched. It was as if there was nobody home. “Hansie. Hansie love. What’s this about?”
He tried to pull away, but I kept my grip on his hair. “Come on. What is it?”
His eyes shut, and his mouth twisted, and for a moment I thought he was going to cry. I sat down on the floor beside him, pulled him against me. He resisted me, and then quite suddenly he relaxed, leaned to me, pushed his face against my shoulder. “Sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have come, I’m sorry.” I leaned over, dragged at the end of a big piece of blue velvet which I use as a backdrop, and threw it over his shoulders. Then I drew him back into my embrace. He was shaking, dry-eyed and miserable, and I simply hugged him, rubbing the back of his neck, and whispering the way one does to a child having a nightmare, nonsense and reassurance all rolled into one. “There, pet, it’ll be all right, don’t worry, it’s all right now, tell me about it, love, tell Fran all about it, it’s going to be all right, sweetheart, I’ll make it all right for you. What is it, have you quarrelled with Tim?”
His laugh broke into a sob. “Oh, God, Tim. He probably thinks I’m dead in a ditch. I didn’t tell him where I was going. I – I’ve just been driving about, you know? He doesn’t know where I am.”
“We can fix that. You can ring him.”
“No! Not Tim. Not yet.”
“Help me, then, pet. Tell me what’s upset you enough to send you to me.”
“My father’s dead.”
I rubbed on at his neck. That was plainly not all.
“And nobody told me. Apparently he told my mother that I wasn’t to be told. He knew he was dying. I wasn’t to be told about the funeral or anything, in case I went home.”
The dry sob again. “Home! I haven’t got one. My mother said… she said that my father wouldn’t have me there, so neither would she, that I had chosen my unnatural life and I could live with my choices. She said my father had left her the farm and it was in his will that she wasn’t to give it or sell it or leave it to me. I’m not to have it. He’s tied it up in trust, she said. He didn’t need to do that. If he left it to her, it’s hers. I never thought he would leave it to me.”
I was beginning to rock him gently, making little ‘mm-hm’ noises to show him I was listening. “He said… he actually said that he had no sons, that Julius was dead in fact and that Johannes was dead to him. He spelled it out in his will for the executors. I am disinherited, I am disowned. Well, disinherited I expected. He told me when I wouldn’t go into the army that I couldn’t expect him to support me if I wouldn’t do as I was told. But I never thought he would actually deny me. And my mother agrees with him. And there’s nobody else. I’ve screwed it all up, Fran. I’ve let them all down. I couldn’t do what they wanted, I wasn’t brave enough to give it all up and do it their way. And I wasn’t brave enough to take Piet de Vries and the rugby instead, and now I’ve chosen Tim, and still I can’t live with my choices. These are just the consequences of my choices, and when somebody spells them out I run away again. I bolted from my father and from de Vries and from South Africa and from rugby and now from Tim, and I don’t know where to go now, and I don’t know why I came to you and I’m sorry, I’m sorry…”
This was veering towards hysteria. “Enough, Hansie. Hush. Stop now. Put your clothes on.” All in my most Toppish tones. I had to button his shirt for him, he couldn’t do it himself. “Now, we’ll call Tim.”
“No! Not Tim. I can’t…”
“SIT DOWN THERE! I’m calling Tim, and you will stay there until he comes.”
Only, of course I had no number for Tim, and Hansie wouldn’t tell me, so I rang Pieter. I had my doubts about it, because I hadn’t altogether understood all his narrative – had he had a fling with Pieter? But Pieter came. So did Tim, and Phil, and James Hamilton. What was this, party time? I was still sitting on the floor when the bell went again, and I had to disentangle myself from Hansie to get up. I got half way across the lorry, and came back, pulled Hansie up, and led him by the hand to the door. He flinched at the sight of all those people. I did myself, rather. Mine is a small office, and it was too full, of too many, too big, men. Back outside, I thought. At least in the lorry I could get far enough away to get them all in focus, and it didn’t matter that there was nothing to sit on, because there was nothing to sit on inside either. Really, I would have to get new premises with a proper studio… I pulled myself up. I didn’t need new premises because Hansie was having a crisis. Get it together, Fran.
Hansie backed away from everybody, against the wall. He looked like death. Tim was talking softly, trying to persuade him forward, trying to make him talk, but Hansie wasn’t responding to his coaxing at all. Pieter looked enquiringly at me, and I went to stand closer, so that Hansie couldn’t hear me. Jim Hamilton came too, and Phil.
“Pieter, do you know what all this is about? He arrived here forty minutes ago in a dreadful state, wanting me to do pictures. Not soft-focus stuff, either, he wanted in-your-face poses. It’s something to do with his father.”
“His father is recently dead, Fran.”
“Yes, I know that, and Hansie’s been disowned.”
Jim and Pieter exchanged glances. “Literally?”
“If I’ve understood him, yes. But I don’t see why that would have sent him here. He seemed to be intending to degrade himself, talking about being an effeminate freak, or something. It’s such an odd phrase that I think someone must have used it to him. And forgive me, but I don’t understand where you come into things.”
Jim Hamilton took charge. “You’ve got more from him than anybody else so far. Try again.”
Jim says ‘jump’ and even a Top asks ‘how high?’ I went back to Hansie.
“Hansie? Come here. Come. Sit down again. I can’t talk to you when you tower above me like that. Come on, down on the floor, pet. Now, you’re going to have to tell us what’s going on.”
“Wait a minute,” said Phil, suddenly. “Hansie, do you want me to go? I came because I thought you might need all your friends, but if this is – well, if this is personal stuff and you think it’s not my business, I’ll go and wait in the car.”
I know Tim doesn’t rate Phil’s brains, but his instincts are good. He distracted Hansie from what I was doing, pulling him down, and Hansie was seated on the blue velvet again before he answered. “It’s my family, it’s horrible. You won’t want to hear it.”
“Stuff that,” said Phil, easily. “Come on, mate, do you want me to go? Or can I help? Will you let me help?”
Hansie was looking at Phil, rather than at the rest of us. I eased slightly away, made room for Phil, who folded himself down beside us. “You gave us a dreadful fright,” he said, conversationally. “What’s happened?”
We waited, and rather to my surprise at least, Hansie answered him. “My mother says she wants to be sure that I’m not going back to SA. My father disowned me, and she doesn’t want me, and she says I’m such a freak that I can find somewhere else to live my disgraceful and indecent life. I’ve let the family down and damaged its reputation.”
I looked up at the others. Pieter looked seriously scary: he has an unfair advantage, in that he looks so toppish anyway. He was angry.
“So I can’t go home. And it’s funny, but I didn’t want to until now when she says I can’t. She disowns me too. I have no family any more. My father was an only child, and I will have no children, and that is the end of the van den Broeks. He did not forgive me for that, and she will not because he did not. So I have no family.”
“You have as much family as you are prepared to accept.” That was Jim. “You have me. Mary. Tim.”
I leaned forward. “Family is over-rated. My father deserted my mother when I was a baby. I’ve never met him, and never wanted to. Make your circle of your friends, Hansie. More important. Have a new family. Do you want a big sister? Have me.”
“She said… she said…”
Pieter came down onto the floor, took Hansie’s hand. It was an odd gesture – he isn’t a great one for touching. “Your mother is an idiot, and always has been. She was an idiot when I knew her, she is an idiot still. Her good opinion is not worth having, Johannes.”
“DON’T CALL ME JOHANNES!”
Even Pieter blinked at that.
“HE called me Johannes. Always. Never Hans, or Hansie. Always Johannes, and always in disappointment. Whatever I did, it was never good enough. Julius had always done it earlier, better. He wanted sons, and grandsons, and then Julius died, and he came to wish it had been me.”
That hung in the air, with the truth leaching out of it.
“He said I would never amount to anything. He said…”
“He obviously said a great deal of crap,” I said firmly. “You aren’t a stud stallion, taken to the stand to breed. So you won’t have children. Neither will I. I’ve never met a man I wanted to marry, and I won’t have a baby with a man I can’t commit to, and I’ve really got to admit that it’s too late now. And that was my choice, and sometimes I do regret it, but usually I don’t. You didn’t choose to be what you are, so you don’t have to accept guilt for not being something else. Suppose there had been grandchildren, and they had been girls: would your father have been pleased with that? Doesn’t sound like it. Accept it, Hansie. Your father was a shit. So was mine. I think I was luckier than you in that my mother was dealing from a full deck, but I think you must learn to let them go.”
“He said I was weak. And it’s true. I ran. I run still.”
“Stop running,” said Tim, unsteadily. “Stop with me.”
“I ran away from my father. I couldn’t live with what they wanted of me.”
“Sounds like the first intelligent thing you ever did,” put in Phil. “You couldn’t bend to them, or they couldn’t bend to you? Doesn’t sound as if that was wholly your fault.”
Hansie looked at Pieter. “I ran from you.”
“If I had understood how little you knew, I would have approached you differently. You have regrets? So do I. We move on. Mr Creed is right. So is Phil. Stop running now.”
“And do what?”
“Sell some bloody stuff. You’re a salesman, remember? Accept that not everything is your fault.” That was Jim.
“Ach, I suppose. Salesman is better than freak, hey?”
“What’s with the freak stuff?” asked Phil. “If you mean what I think you do, then freak is you and me and Piet and Tim. And there’s four of us in a group of six here. We’re the majority. No freaks here.”
“I suppose. It’s just… she made me feel so… undesirable.”
“Oh, well, that’s for me to fix,” I said wearily. “Come back tomorrow. I’ll show you how desirable you are.”
“But me no buts. You wanted me to take pictures tonight. I’ll take pictures tomorrow. I’ll show you that you are handsome and desirable and sexy and all the rest of it. I dare say Tim will have something to say on that subject too. You stripped for me tonight, you can bloody do it tomorrow too. And I won’t hit you again.”
That banjaxed everybody. Jim recovered fastest.
“Did you hit him?”
“Yes. He was being a pain. I gave him about a fifth of what he deserved. Tim, if you want to give him the rest, I’d be obliged. Try to leave him unmarked, though.”
It got a laugh, although a rather shaky one. “I’m always a pain, hey? Everybody’s cross with me.”
Jim hauled him up off the floor. “That’s right, son. Tim, take him home and send him to bed in disgrace. Hansie, it’ll look better tomorrow. Sounds to me as if you haven’t actually lost anything today that you hadn’t lost before, and frankly as if little of it was worth having anyway. Fran’s right. Claim a new family and pick a better one.”
“Eleven o’clock tomorrow,” I added firmly. “Photographs. Bring a chaperon. I’ll try to get the studio.”
“Oh, Fran, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done that to you tonight.”
“No. You shouldn’t. This time it really will cost you in skin. You’re going to pose for me, like it or not. You aren’t going to go coy, because you no longer know anybody who would be shocked. And it won’t be that sort of picture anyway.”
“I don’t know what I was thinking about.”
“I saw no evidence that you were thinking at all.”
“But you don’t need to do this. It was a stupid thing for me to want.”
Phil interrupted. “Oh, go on, mate, do it. It’s actually lots of fun.”
Hansie stared at him. “I did it, Hansie, remember? I did the club one. Although Piet wimped out.”
“I did not wimp out. I thought it was not an appropriate thing for me to do at the club. I have no problem with the concept.”
“Great,” I said firmly. “In that case, you can come too. I’ll have you both. Anybody else? Tim?”
Tim and Phil looked at each other. “Dare you,” said Phil, provocatively.
“I’ll go if you do.”
“Oh, bliss,” I said. “All my birthdays and Christmases at once. Jim, what about you?”
“Absolutely not. I can just imagine what Mary would say. I’m going home. We’ve had enough heavy emotion for tonight, and I’m tired.”
They scattered, and I was left to finish my developing, leave a message for Ray that I wanted the studio, and fall into bed, wondering how many men would turn up at eleven o’clock to have their pictures taken.
Four. All four of them. I suspect they had been hovering at the end of the street, working each other up to it, because they were terribly giggly and silly, even the dignified Pieter.
“I’ve just thought, you two should be at work, shouldn’t you?”
“No, it’s all right,” said Tim, “Jim has given us instructions. We are primed to discover for the business whether F L Milton (Photography) is interested in doing photographs for Hamilton brochures. I didn’t know if you only did portraits, or… well, Jim wants pictures of the machinery and so on. So this is a business visit, to see if you’re any good.”
“Well, are you any good?”
“I can do blurry snaps with the best of them.”
He winced. “Am I ever going to be allowed to live that down?”
“Doubt it. Come on, I need a hand with some of this stuff. If you don’t want to lie on a cold lino floor, pick up some of that matting and shift it up those stairs. We’re on the first floor. Which of you is going first?”
They wittered about that until I lost patience. “Right, we’ll start small. Shirts off, all of you. Just shirts, to start with. I’ll take you as a group. Tim, come here. Face this way. Hansie, beside him. Pieter, you come this side. Phil, kneel down at his feet. Don’t look at me, look that way.”
Oh, my. The ‘one for everybody’ group. Pieter the Top, beautiful Phil, Tim who looks a great deal more innocent than I think he can actually be, and Hansie, who still wore an air of haunting vulnerability. Then I tried them individually. I did straightforward portraits, with and without clothes, singly and in their pairs. Then I got them to lie, face down, in a staggered row, and hung a mirror sheet to do interesting things with the light. “Turn your heads away from me. Beautiful. Phil, you’re too far forward. Move back until your head is just level with Pieter’s shoulder. Yes, enough. Lovely. O.K., that’s enough. Unless any of you want to do something a bit more…?”
They all went coy on me, except Phil. His failing, I think, is vanity. Mind you, he’s got something to be vain about, and I think he knows he’s vain, and can laugh at himself, which is a saving grace. “What do you want us to do?”
I had brought some albums, and I passed them over. “Look, the red book is the sort of stuff we’ve been doing so far. The green one is what I’d like to do with you. And the white one is rather livelier. I will if you want to, but I won’t press any of you. So to speak.”
They were more interested than they were letting on, but Pieter, who has a full set of brains, and, unlike most men, uses them, came up with the question I had hoped no-one was going to ask. “Fran, what do you mean to do with these pictures?”
“Give them back to you.”
They all stared at me. “Well, I can hardly use them, can I? There are about a dozen which I would like to keep in my portfolio, because they show what I can do technically, but I can’t use them commercially, can I? Not without your express consent. I can’t imagine any of you wanting your pictures in the sort of publications that would take them, and Pieter and Phil wouldn’t find it in their professional interest anyway. So if you want anything more, I’ll take them, and then they belong to you. You won’t find stuff that I’ve taken turning up in the gutter press.”
Oh, yes, the Viper’s smart enough for anything. “Did you refuse other work to do this today?”
“Do you know, Fran, I believe that’s a lie.”
I stared him down, one Top to another. “So?”
“So who’s paying for this?”
“It isn’t being paid for.”
“Don’t you pay for the use of the studio?”
“That’s my business.”
“N-no. It’s ours, I think. I shall pay for the studio.”
Hansie butted in. “No, meneer. I shall. I started this.”
“Why do you call me meneer, Hansie? You know my name.”
“I - yes. But…”
“If you don’t want to call me Pieter, call me Viper.”
“You are all grown up, Hansie. Take a deep breath and just do it.”
“Pie – Viper.”
Interesting little by-play. Pieter stops calling Hansie ‘Johannes’ and Hansie starts calling Pieter ‘Viper’. But I didn’t quite think that everything was settled between them. They hadn’t quite established the pecking order. I wasn’t going to say so, but it was perfectly obvious to me that they still had unfinished business: I didn’t think they wanted to be lovers, but Hansie wanted something – I wasn’t sure what – from Pieter. And Pieter thought he owed something – again I wasn’t sure what, but something like a duty of care – to Hansie. And Tim was beginning to look seriously left out. And Phil wouldn’t like it if Pieter took off after Hansie. Oh, God, this wasn’t going anywhere except into a ghastly mess.
But I took some more photos. I let them all dress again, and then I paired them up and said, firmly, “Pieter, just kiss him”. And I took a dozen shots and Phil went all glassy-eyed, and stopped making sense. And it did come over in the pictures. And then I took another dozen of a fully dressed Tim undressing Hansie, and they’re something else.
And then I chased them all out, and Hansie put one over on me by stopping downstairs and paying Ray for the studio before I got there, and I went back to do some developing. But what am I going to do with the pictures? And what on earth is going to happen to those relationships?
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© , 2005