People say the country is quiet. I’ve never found it so – there’s a mixture of dairy, sheep, and a bit of arable farming round here, so if it isn’t animal noises, it’s the rumble of a distant tractor or sprayer or something. And there are always the birds – or as Hansie put it one morning at 4:30 am, ‘those bleddy noisy damned birds’. In fact, I’d been washing up some glasses in the sink one Saturday morning, thinking idly about nothing in particular (I rather like washing up, it’s good for that sort of thinking) and listening to our resident blackbird giving an impromptu concert, when I was alerted by a totally different noise. A sharp snap, followed by a thud and a couple of metallic clangs from the side of the garden you can’t see from the kitchen.
I remember frowning, and going to the back door to look out – and then I saw Hansie, stretched out on the ground, immobile.
Well, I may not be a sportsman, but I sprinted down that garden in record time, I can tell you. By the time I got there, he had sat up and was holding his side and groaning. His face – Jesus, his face was covered in blood on one side.
“Christ, Hansie, Hansie, talk to me, are you OK? What happened?”
“Jou ma se poes! Stoephoer of a damn branch!” The tone did not suggest someone dying – more someone looking for someone to kill. “Oh, God, that ground is hard, Timmy.” He started to get up, swayed, and grabbed onto me.
“Don’t try to get up. You might have broken something.”
“Nee, nee, I didn’t fall that far. Only about a metre.” Despite my instructions he struggled onto shaky legs, wincing.
“Even so. And you’ve got blood everywhere – that T-shirt is going to have to go out, I think, I don’t think we’ll get the stains out.” Funny how you fix on those trivial, unimportant things sometimes, to avoid the big ones. I didn’t give a damn about the shirt.
“It’s just a cut on my ear. The pruning saw nicked me as I fell.”
“The saw? Jesus, Hansie, what in the name of Christ were you doing?” I could see the saw, and the big loppers, lying off to one side, their wicked blades open.
“I was – ah, that is. . .” his explanation tailed off sheepishly. I had a sudden feeling I wasn’t going to like this.
“Well, I needed to take those branches off the apple tree, the one that got damaged in the storm last week. The wood is cracked, if we don’t take them off disease will get in.”
“And I couldn’t really get the tools in at the right angle from the ground, so I climbed into the tree to cut it. And the branch I was sitting on broke.”
“I’m not surprised, given the size of you, and the size of that tree. What were you thinking of? God, Hansie, you could have seriously injured yourself.” I had a sudden, sickening vision of him falling, and the lopper blades twisting underneath him to pierce his chest, or the saw catching the soft vulnerabilities of his throat, the tender places I liked to nuzzle and make him whimper. Or of hard metal ruining one of those soft brown eyes that were looking at me with a distinctly worried air.
“Tim? Tim, sit, you look grey, as if you are going to pass out.”
“No, I’m all right. it’s just – Hansie, do you realise how lucky you are? You could have been scarred, blinded, anything. . .”
He bit his lip. “Ja, my liefie, I’m sorry.” And yes, of course I was thinking of the mugging business, and yes, part of me was saying: ‘now you know what it feels like’. But luckily Hansie was too wise to say it to me, because if he had I would have killed him. There’s nothing like a guilty conscience for making you snap.
“Go and sit in the car.”
“I’m taking you to the hospital to get checked out.”
“Ach, Tim, don’t be ridiculous. No way do I need to go to the hospital.”
I looked at him. “Well,” I admitted, half turning away towards the house. “You’re too big for me to manhandle into the car if you really don’t want to go.”
“Ja, right,” he agreed.
“So I guess I’ll have to call Piet and get him to do it.”
“Tim! You wouldn’t?” I stared at him hard. “You would, wouldn’t you?”
“Too right I would. So do you want to be checked out in A&E as you are, or with Piet’s handiwork all over your arse for them to admire?”
“I’ll just wait in the car then, shall I?”
“What a good idea. I’ll be with you in a moment.” Just as soon as I can stop my hands shaking enough to take the wheel. The things we do to ourselves when we give our heart into another’s keeping.
And when I got into the car, he took my hands and rubbed them. “I’m truly sorry I scared you, my skat. I see it was a shock for you.”
“I – and I see what I must have put you through the other day, with the mugging. All too clearly. I’m sorry too, love. Maybe I’m overreacting, but just humour me, hmm? Get yourself checked out, make sure nothing’s broken, get a tetanus jab if you need one.”
“I don’t. I had one from the practice nurse at the surgery in Castle Storley, when we changed doctors. I told her I planned to do a lot of gardening.”
“And a lot of falling out of trees?”
“No, my liefie, somehow I forgot to mention that.” And he smiled at me, and leaned over to kiss me, and we were all right again, for the moment.
But the heart is changeable. By the time I’d waited two and a half hours in A&E (‘we are getting to be regular customers’ said Hansie ruefully) for him to be seen, then to be sent for X-ray, then to be seen again, I was feeling distinctly less charitable. And ideas had begun to creep into my head about making the punishment fit the crime. So once he was released with a clean bill of health, and we had driven all the way home, I put my plan into action.
I handed him a pair of secateurs.
“For what are these? I think I will leave the garden for now.”
“Not quite yet, van den Broek. I want you to go and cut yourself a switch from that apple tree.”
He blinked. “Ach, Tim. . .”
“Ach Tim nothing. I got busted by you for what happened in the car park at Tesco’s. You are most certainly getting busted by me for this.”
“I am sore and sick,” he complained.
“You were just telling me that there was nothing wrong with you, and the doctor agreed. Now are you going to get that switch, or am I going to start adding on extra?”
“Brute,” he said, putting on his most mournful face. “Ja, ja,” as I made a mock threatening gesture towards him, “I am going just now, going to fetch my doom. Grant the prisoner a few moments.”
“Not ‘just now’. At once.”
“English just now.”
“English just now. Now get, you obstreperous. . .” and having decided that he had probably pushed me quite far enough, he got.
To be fair, he brought back a decent enough specimen, although I would have sent him back for another if he hadn’t, and he probably knew that. Flexible, dark, glossy, about the thickness of a senior cane at its base, and elegantly tapered. I swished it experimentally through the air a couple of times and saw him wince in anticipation.
“Come along then, let’s get this over with,” I said. I led him into the living room and indicated the back of the sofa.
“Trousers and pants down please, and over the sofa.” Although all the real emotional business had been got out of the way before we left, and Hansie didn’t seem to be taking this entirely to heart, it was supposed to be punishment, not play; I was keeping it businesslike. He got into position silently, without complaint. There were a couple of pinkish lines on his bottom from the last time we played, but they were almost faded to nothing, I didn’t think they would pose a problem.
I tapped his bottom very gently with the switch, watched him twitch slightly. “Now, Hansie, why are you in this position?”
“Because I fell out of a tree?”
“No, Hansie, you are not here because you fell out of a tree, You are here because you were bloody stupid, and nearly did yourself a serious injury.”
“But. . .”
“No buts. You climbed a tree for fuck’s sake, without any sort of ladder or protective gear, then proceeded to saw off the branch you were sitting on.”
“It wasn’t like that,” came the muffled protest from the sofa cushions.
“No? You were in an unstable position, on a branch that couldn’t, as it proved, take your weight, with sharp and dangerous tools. If you had fallen onto those lopper blades – God, it gives me the willies just thinking about it.”
“What?” He shot up looking flushed faced and not a little disconcerted. I was taken aback myself at his reaction, until I realised the likely cause.
“No, no, you fool. Gives me the willies, it means that it scares me. Not that I got. . . well, you know, not that it excites me.”
“Ach. I see.”
“Good. And get back into position, you, you’re being told off.”
“Yes, sir.” He folded himself gracefully back down.
“I’m serious, Hansie. I felt sick when I thought of what could have happened. Thank God we haven’t got a chainsaw. I want you to promise me that you’ll never do something like that again. Promise?”
A hand struggled to reach back, searching for mine. I came forward, took it.
“I will never willingly do anything to hurt you, my liefie. I promise.”
“Good. Well, you gave me a dozen for my little escapade, so I’m going to give you the same. With this switch.” I let it hiss through the air again, saw his muscles tighten. “I hope it will underline the message.” I stepped back, judged my position, reached out to lay the supple wood across the pale creamy flesh.
Drew back my arm.
Brought it down.
Judging by the gasp, an apple switch makes itself felt. A red line blossomed across his backside. I brought the switch down again. And again. And again, until he had had his dozen, and was yelping freely. His backside looked like someone had driven across it, tracked with sets of parallel deep crimson welts. Rather to my annoyance, however, the skin looked as if it might have broken in one place. I threw the switch to the floor, lifted him up, and took him in my arms. His eyes were red. “Timmy, I truly am sorry, not just because you switched me.”
“Hey, pet, it’s done. We’re quits now.”
“Ja. Dankie, my skat.” He hugged me to him.
“My pleasure. But I need to put some surgical spirit on your bum, I think the skin might be broken in one place.”
He pulled a face. “More punishment.”
“No it isn’t. I know it stings, but it’s for your own good.”
“That’s what you said about the switch, too. Anyway, if you’ve broken the skin, I claim a forfeit.”
“That’s for play, not punishment.”
“Did we say that it didn’t apply to punishment?”
Well, maybe we hadn’t. Still. . .
“Ja. I think before we throw this away, you ought to get to feel it.”
He had picked up the switch and advanced on me with an evil leer, hampered only by the fact that his trousers were around his ankles. He had to chase me, giggling, round the sofa three times, and kick off his nether garments to boot, before he caught me.
Some days just get away from you; some weeks just get away from you; I was so dead. I had been playing with my new toy, and Piet was going to kill me, if I were lucky.
I had said that I would, eventually, want to run the estate myself, and I was quite well aware that I didn’t know how to do it. On the other hand, my degree is in Leisure Management. It isn’t a high-class academic degree like Tim’s but then the main reason I was at college was to play rugby, and I had to do something to justify my place. And yes, it was a redbrick, but it wasn’t a totally ditzy course. I can do a certain amount of business management, I know something about finance, something about sales and advertising, that sort of stuff. Dad found us a manager for the business, a local man who did the paperwork and so on, since for one thing I didn’t know enough and for another I didn’t have time to do it. Nonetheless, as I had said to Piet, I wouldn’t be a rugby player all my life and I had it in mind that I would do some of the work myself. I would get Tony Russell to show me how to do some of the rest and I would keep myself involved.
What I didn’t do was set priorities. I went to see Tony on Monday and tried to fit too much into the meeting with the result that I was late for training. You can probably imagine how that went down with Piet. I apologised as gracefully as I could, and Piet Looked at me, but he let it pass: I don’t normally have a problem with punctuality. But then I was late again on Tuesday: a man turned up at the business units wanting to look around, and instead of referring him to Tony or making an appointment, I thought I could squeeze it in – and I was wrong. Late for my one-to-one session with Harry at the gym. I apologised again, of course, and Harry gave me a right bollocking; he’s not up to Piet’s standards, but he’s pretty good. And when the daily reports go to Piet, there’s a box for punctuality and mine wasn’t ticked.
Piet was generous, more generous than I really had any right to expect. He asked me why I was late, and I told him, rather nervously. I was fully expecting to be spanked, but he let me off with a warning. “I know you are enjoying something new, koekie. I know you wish to be fully involved with the business decisions, but you are not yet a full time businessman. You are a professional sportsman; you must behave like one. Your rugby comes first. So you will get a grip, Phil, and you will decide how you are to divide up your days, and you will not do this again, is that clear? The next time you allow the estate to encroach upon your work – for the rugby is your job, your profession, your livelihood, is it not? – I will punish you for it. No more warnings.”
I hadn't expected to get even that much grace, so I kissed him gratefully and promised not to make the same mistake again. And given how rare it is for Piet to let me get away with anything to do with my rugby, I really should have taken better notice of the yellow card and not pushed my luck. Or Rob’s.
Rob was very interested in what I told him about the units. He and his brother were paying town centre rates for premises which weren’t really large enough – I had thought he might be interested in storage, and so he was, but he also wanted to look at the possibility of moving the whole lot out. There was one big unit I thought might suit him because it had been used to service tractors and things and had an inspection pit, and on Friday he came out first thing to have a look. It took longer than we expected: suddenly Rob glanced at his watch and exclaimed, “Fuck, it’s ten to eleven!”
Well, we looked at each other and then we took off up the track like a couple of rabbits hearing the terriers. I beat Rob into the courtyard, but he had only to hurl himself into his car and take off like a boy racer; I had to go back to the house for my bag.
And then I got caught at the lights at Milsom Street. And again at the lights at Cornwallis Square. By that time I was late, so being trapped at the level crossing didn’t make any difference, and nor did turning out at Bridgend Street only to find that I was in the middle of a funeral cortège. I was a good half hour late by the time I made it to the club, and ten minutes behind Rob.
This, I thought dismally as I changed in an empty and echoing dressing room, would cost me a round dozen with the cane if I knew anything about it. I went out and started my warm-up; no matter what else happens, I am to do my warm up and cool-down properly. Only common sense, really, and even before Piet and his opinions, I took that seriously. Still, when I joined the others I had to cross the pitch alone, and the lines at my feet extended apparently to infinity, particularly as Piet, who had been addressing the guys, stopped as I approached, and left me to walk to my place in a cold and forbidding silence. Once I was there, he resumed his instructions, and I tried to listen and at the same time look inconspicuous. Fat chance. Piet finished his remarks and then added coldly, “After training, I will speak with the captain and the vice captain in my office.”
Shit. Bad enough to be in trouble on my own account; how much worse to have led Rob into trouble too?
Training was… well, I was apprehensive, but I tried to put in a good morning’s work. I really did not want Piet pissed off with me on more than one account. I think I managed it, for there was a word of approval when we all came in, but nonetheless it was followed by, “Rob and Phil to my office now,” and we trudged up the stairs, dirty and sweaty and neither of us looking forward to the encounter. It wasn’t entertaining when we got to it, either. Piet chewed both of us out thoroughly, for unpunctuality. “It is unprofessional, and it is also a failure of good manners. I have better things to do than to wait for you, or to repeat myself because you have missed my instructions. Your team mates who are punctual deserve better than to have their day’s work disrupted because you are not where you should be when you are committed to being there. Mr Standish, you are captain, are you not? Your position carries responsibilities as well as status. I expect more from you than from the others.” There was more: a five minute address which left both Rob and me scarlet and shifting from foot to foot.
When, at last, he stopped, we both muttered apologies, which were accepted with a cool nod. “It is not merely to me that you must apologise. You must both speak to your team mates.” I hate that, and so, if his expression were anything to go by, does Rob. Formal apology in the dressing room. It’s one of Piet’s things – team morale and all that – any screw up which can be pinned on an individual team member must be admitted and apologised for, and the captain and vice-captain are not exempt. Still, that seemed to be Rob’s lot; Piet hadn't finished with me. “Mr Cartwright, you were late on Monday.” Some response was plainly required, so I said, “Yes, sir,” in a low tone. “And again on Tuesday.” Um, didn’t like the feel of this. My response was no more than a whispered, “Sir.”
“Very well. We have a match next Tuesday, a friendly. You will not play, not unless injuries in the team make it impossible for me to manage without you. Since it appears that I cannot count upon you, I will not count upon you. You will attend and make yourself useful as your colleagues require.”
Shit. Benched and on gofer duties. Not just in disgrace but seen to be in disgrace, and there were one or two of the guys who weren’t above making me trot up and down the stairs simply for the entertainment value. Piet gestured that we could go, but he caught and held my gaze long enough for me to know that he hadn't finished with me. Mr Cartwright would be in the doghouse until he had been over the back of the red couch. Then and only then would Phil be entitled to a hug and the whole affair dropped.
He made me wait, too. No, that’s not fair. His diary had been full for the day even before I fucked up, but he kept every last appointment and didn’t hurry any of them. I went to the dressing room with Rob and we made our apologies to a certain amount of barracking. Piet wouldn’t ask if I had done it; he would hear if I didn’t, and I won’t have him think me untrustworthy that way. Then I had my shower and went home to wait. I made us a meal, something cold which could live in the fridge until later, and I did housework and tried not to think about what was coming. When I heard Piet’s car outside, I went through to The Dairy and his office. It’s bigger than the one in the last house, but furnished the same way, and I sat on the leather couch with my heart pounding uncomfortably fast and my palms sticky.
Piet always comes in through his own front door; even when there is no one to see, he is discreet. He checked in the doorway, looking severe; I stood up, uncertainly.
“You will wish to settle this before we eat.” It wasn’t quite a statement; there was a faint question, but I nodded, mutely. “I will be ten minutes.”
He was no more than eight; I could hear him moving between our bedroom and the bathroom. I sat down again. When he came back, the room seemed to shift and ceased to be a pleasant, bright workspace, somehow becoming merely a testosterone-based setting for the man himself. I stood up, without thinking about it, and moved in front of his desk; he sat down.
“So, Mr Cartwright, you are enjoying your new status as a landowner? It is more exciting, is it not, than being a rugby player?”
I didn’t think an answer was called for so I held my tongue.
“And tell me, are you in a position to pay all your creditors? To clear all the liabilities involved in purchasing this estate?”
He knew damn well I wasn’t. The size of our borrowings still gave us both occasional bad nights.
“You have mortgaged a considerable part of your future to pay for it, have you not? And where will you be if your career comes to a standstill, Mr Cartwright? If you gain a reputation for unreliability, such that you lose your place? What will that do to your business plans?”
He still didn’t want an answer, which was just as well, because I didn’t have one.
“You understand me? You have taken on a great responsibility; how will you pay for it if you allow yourself to be distracted from your rugby? You know how ephemeral sporting success can be. If you are seen to be unreliable, Spider Backhurst will have your place fersure.” He stopped to let me absorb that; it gave me an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach, to think of the mortgage and the mortgage interest and no match bonuses.
“You will also need to think: your media work, your newspaper column, the television and radio interviews which you so enjoy, those will cease if you are not seen regularly on the pitch. Your hopes of a secondary media career depend upon sporting results now. The commentator, the analyst: these are the men who have played at the highest level for ten years, not one or two only and those punctuated by accusations of unreliability.”
Then he added calmly, “And it is not merely your own future you are compromising. It is also mine. I too have contracted to pay off the loans, my savings are invested here. If you default, I am personally liable.” He didn’t need to add any more. I wrenched my gaze up from the carpet to meet his and he saw my understanding, for he reached for the desk drawer. Not the big central drawer, across which a cane (or two) will lie. He opened a smaller drawer and removed something which he held out to me. I put out my hand automatically, and he dropped a penknife into my palm.
“You know where the willows are? Bring me a switch the length and thickness of the light cane.”
Oh, I didn’t like that. Oh no, I didn’t like that one little bit. Very traditional, of course, cutting your own switch, but, well…
See, I’m not afraid of pain: you can’t play rugby if you are. I’ve broken my wrist, two ribs, my collarbone and a finger, playing. I broke my pelvis when I was in my teens. It’s rare for me to be unbruised through the season (you should hear Fran on the subject when she has to airbrush out the bootmarks). I’m not afraid of being hurt and I can cope with paying for my failings that way. I don’t look forward to it, and you know how I get if I have to wait, but I’m not scared of a spanking, or a – I was going to say, a normal caning. Well, I am, but not to excess. I am properly respectful of Hansie's strap, based on that one encounter. No, it’s not the underlying pain making me apprehensive. It’s the sting, the bite. That yellow cane is a bitch and I fear it: it’s horribly flexible and sharp and that’s much worse than the thud of the black one. And with that as a given, I was very, very apprehensive about a switch.
It’s what, a quarter of a mile to the willows? No distance. And I ran my hand over the springy shoots and cut one and tried it through the air. It said ‘whick’ and I swallowed anxiously, and went home. Piet shook his head. “No. Longer, please.” It was still a quarter of a mile and I knew damn well that he simply wanted me to associate my punishment with the land. He could quite well have expressed his displeasure with the cane.
That is perfectly true; I could have done precisely that. You think I was unnecessarily severe? There is an element of double jeopardy, I admit. Viper de Vries punished Cartwright for unprofessional behaviour. I would have done the same to any of the others. Within the team I will show no favouritism to Phil.
At home, it is the point that he raised with me before, that his profession now spills over into our private lives. He wants to be great – not merely good but great – in his sport and he has entrusted his ambitions to me. Further, we have, both of us, committed ourselves to this place we wish to live, slightly differently. I have committed my finances, which are not inconsiderable – I have had, remember, the career Phil is having now, although in my day there was less fanfare, less money in it. Nevertheless, it is my money which enabled us to buy the estate, although it will be his which enables us to keep it – always provided he does not lose his head.
So I thought: I will punish this first offence so that he both learns and remembers. He is not a fool, but I think he has never before had to be responsible for another’s well-being in practical rather than emotional terms. He simply had not considered that he could ruin me financially as easily as he ruined himself, and I was well aware that if I showed him so once, it would be most unlikely that I would ever need to do it again. No one can doubt Phil’s financial probity: in business he is most moral. Not for him the absolute minimum done to meet his obligations.
Therefore the Viper had punished Cartwright and Pieter would punish Phil, and no, perhaps it was not necessary to send him out twice for the switch, but it would give him no more than ten minutes unease. He brought me, the second time, three willow rods to choose from, and I suppressed a smile and permitted him the small defiance. I would not, in any event, have sent him a third time.
He went, at my bidding, to stand behind the couch while I closed the blinds. I do not think we are overlooked and I wish to keep things so. When I turned, he had dropped his trousers and his briefs, and he watched nervously as I tested all his switches in the air, and made my choice. I touched his back lightly and he leaned forward over the couch. “Twelve, Phil,” I said firmly, and he quivered, but he did not speak.
He spoke on the second stroke. A light, stinging cut affects him more profoundly than a harsh blow and he had jumped convulsively on the first. With the second he swore, in a shocked tone, and on the third and all following he squealed like a kicked puppy. I saw him reach frantically across the seat of the couch, searching for something to grip, but the leather is deeply cushioned and the edge is greater than a handspan. He made it to the eighth stroke before the smart brought him upright, clutching at his backside, and I stepped back sharply to avoid lashing the backs of his hands. He recovered himself at once and bent again, with some incomprehensible word, and I dealt out the last four swiftly, although I do not suppose he was grateful.
Then I snapped the switch and dropped the pieces into the waste bin, and turned back to him. He did not move until I touched him, saying, “Here, my hart, come here.” As he straightened, he passed one hand lightly over his bottom, twisting to look at his fingertips. I was shocked. “I have not broken the skin, koekie, you need not fear it. I would never do that to you. Come, dress yourself.” He came to me when I held out my arms, but he did not relax against me.
Now I know my Phil. He understands that punishment pays the account – so if he does not come to be reconciled with me, there is something more. “What is it? Do you think you are not forgiven, or is it that you have not forgiven me? You think I was unreasonably harsh?”
He shook his head, shame-faced; he would not meet my eye. “I did try,” he said in a small voice. I was at a loss, and it must have shown, for he elaborated. “I tried not to move. I’m sorry.”
I sat, and brought him to his accustomed place, turned to protect his stripes. His voice was muffled against my shoulder, and deeply miserable. “I was expecting you to start again when I moved.”
I pulled back to look into his face, startled. “Koekie, why would I do that? I promised you twelve and that was what you had. Why would I start…? Ah. I know. That is for stories, for videos, for fantasy, not for us.”
He did not answer me, just reiterated, in total mortification, “I know I’m not to move.”
“Geliefde, you did the best you could; I ask no more of you than that in anything. You moved, yes, and then you returned to your place, and you did not ask me to stop, nor try to escape me. That is good enough for us both. I might tease you in play by threatening to start again but I will not do it for anything serious. That is for – that is for men like Hansie's father, to give you more than you can bear and then to punish you for being unable to bear it. I would hope never to be capable of such cruelty.”
He was not convinced. “I didn’t mean to move. Only the switch…”
“I know, poppie. A whipping affects you more than another, maybe harsher, punishment. That is the first time you have moved in how many occasions? No, my hart, that was difficult and you did well.”
He began then to relax and with the pain in his heart relieved, he became aware again of his body, and he wanted to curl against me to be comforted and called pet names and assured that all was once again well between us. Still, the lingering effects of the switch he did not like, and eventually I had to say to him, “Koekie, if you continue to squirm and wriggle so, I will be unable to resist. I will bend you over the desk and ravish you senseless, and I think you do not want that.”
He laughed a little. “I couldn’t manage it. That switch stings like a mother, still. I want something to eat, but I’m not sure I can sit at the table.”
He could, he found, but barely; he fidgeted, so when we had filled the dishwasher and he had made all tidy in his beloved kitchen, we took our coffee upstairs. Mine cooled untouched, while I kissed all better again, and my Phil made a sound like a kitten. I had to roll away to catch my breath, for I wanted him, but I thought he would wish not, until his welts had gone down.
But he turned to me and said in an injured tone, “I thought you were going to roll me over and ravish me senseless?”
He need not ask me twice.
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