“There’s no way on earth you can get away with this,” I said, striding into the Sales Director’s office waving a piece of paper at him. “It violates . . .” my voice trailed off as I saw, sitting in the swivel chair, not Chris, the acting SD, who is 50ish, balding, and frankly dumpy, but a tall muscular man who couldn’t have been more than early to mid thirties, with dark red hair, warm brown eyes – nice eyes, I liked them – and rather obvious muscles, even under a blue button-down shirt and a crisply pressed pair of trousers.
“Sorry,” I said, rather weakly. “I was expecting Chris. . .”
“Ah, you haven’t heard, hey?” And that was another surprise, because the accent was pure Boer. “You must be Tim, they said your holiday ended today. Chris has moved to a new post running the Birmingham office. I’m Hans van den Broek, the new Sales Director.”
“Oh. Oh. I see. I suppose I should have read all the emails before I came round, but there were rather a lot of them and this was on my desk. I wanted to catch it before anything irrevocable happened.”
“Capable of ending with us at a Sex Discrimination Tribunal.”
He raised an interrogative eyebrow.
“This ad.” I passed it over to him, and he scanned it.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Everything. I mean, that strapline ‘Wanted, rugby playing salesperson, male or female’.”
“Male or female. That seems to cover the options.”
“No it doesn’t. It’s indirect discrimination, because very few women play rugby.”
“Very few people have firsts from Oxford” – he’d obviously been reading my personnel file – “but that doesn’t make it discrimination to ask for one.”
“It might actually – you’d have to ask for a first from anywhere to be absolutely certain – but the case isn’t the same. And more to the point it gives entirely the wrong impression. We want to send out the message that this is a modern company offering equal opportunities to all its employees, not some reactionary outfit where all the best jobs are arranged as part of the old boy network over a few pints at the rugby club.”
He drew a sharp breath, and I suddenly put two and two together. During one of my rare ventures to the local rugby club bar – I don’t go there very often because Uncle Jim, who’s the chief executive here, is usually there with his cronies talking about the good old days when he was capped for Scotland, and I have to put with being ragged by him for being born in England and thus ineligible for that glory even if I were any good at rugby – they had been discussing a South African guy who’d been doing some part-time training work with the first XV, and was apparently rather useful . . . oh, shit.
“Ah. I didn’t mean. . . Shall I stop digging now?”
“Ja, that might be a good idea.” I couldn’t tell if he was amused or annoyed.
“It really does have to be reworded. The ad, I mean.”
“Thank you for your opinion. But I understood you were my Advertising Manager, not the company lawyer?” Slight stress on that ‘my’ that I wasn’t too keen on.
“Yes, but I do know what can and can’t go into adverts. Believe me, it would be unwise to put this out as it is.”
“I see. If you could send me an email detailing your concerns I’ll consider it – that is the company policy I think?”
“Well, Chris generally preferred. . .”
“And I am not Chris. So perhaps we could follow the rules, hey? That way everyone knows where they are.”
Oh no, I thought, a stickler for the rule book. We are going to get on like a house on fire – briefly and inflammably. “Very well, I’ll email you, Mr van den Broek, if that’s what you’d prefer.”
“Please. Call me Hansie. Everyone does.” Very charming smile, when he wanted, I noticed. And rather an intimidating loom, when he stood up to offer his hand. I bet you get your way rather a lot, between the charm and the bullying, Hansie. Well, think again.
“I think company policy is also to maintain friendly but clear lines of authority, Mr van den Broek,” I said sweetly, ignoring the offered hand. “That way everyone knows where they are. My email will be with you shortly.”
As soon as I got back to my desk, leaving, I was pleased to note, a slightly bemused-looking Hansie behind me, I knocked out an email saying what I’d just told him, only with longer words and some references to appropriate bits of case law – not the company lawyer indeed. Bloody cheek. Then I took the time to go through my inbox and read the email announcing his appointment. To do Uncle Jim credit it did sound as if the guy had some kind of experience of sales, rather than being a pure put-up to ensure he was around to benefit the rugby club in his spare time. But honestly, this sort of thing made me so cross. The job can’t even have been advertised publicly.
“So what do you think of our gorgeous Yawpie, then?” purred a familiar voice, as its owner parked a, to my mind, excessively tight-trousered buttock on the edge of my desk.
“Simon, sod off. I’m trying to work.”
“Now is that any way to talk to your best friend, especially when he’s offering to buy you lunch?”
“You mean when he’s offering to foist you off with a limp pub sandwich, being too mean to buy you a beer to go with it, and only then because he hopes to get the gruesome detail of how many guys you shagged during your recent holiday?”
“Exactly, darling. So put down all that tedious paper and come and tell Uncle Simon all about it, and how you got along with the delectable Hansie.”
“I wouldn’t use the words ‘get along’ exactly. Lets just say that Mr van den Broek and I have rather different attitudes to life, shall we, and leave it at that.”
Simon laughed. “Oh, this is good. I’m going to sell tickets to this one. Iron Man’s new rugby protégé versus Iron Man’s favourite nephew.”
I made a sound of exasperation. Simon could be fun in small doses, but he never knew when to let things drop.
“In the first place, I’d suggest that you don’t refer to the company’s founder and CE as Iron Man – at least, not anywhere you might be overheard, or you might end up finding out how he got the nickname. Secondly, I have no intention of indulging in a public brawl with Mr van den Broek, who is, as he has recently reminded me, my line manager. Thirdly, I deeply resent any implication I got my job because of who I am and not what I can do. And finally, as the office IT manager I’m sure you have computers to fix, so I suggest you get your arse off my desk and get on with it.”
“Touchy,” he said. “If you spent less time worrying about nepotism, and more listening to what people say, you’d know that no-one here doubts you got your job on competence. But since I see my wit and brilliance are going to be wasted on you until you get rid of that foul mood you’re in, I shall go where I’m appreciated.”
“That will be a long way,” I retorted cattily, but he just smiled and stuck two fingers up at me without any particular malice as he departed.
“I am not in a foul mood,” I said plaintively to the air, but even I knew that was untrue. And Simon was right, I was touchy on the subject. It isn’t easy being related to the boss, and I suppose I tended to – well, to overcompensate. And having practical examples of my uncle’s lets-be-charitable-and-call-them-eccentric hiring policies like Hansie van den Broek thrust in my face only made me worry about it more.
So I guess that even if we hadn’t started off on the wrong foot, I was predisposed not to like Hansie very much. I did try not to let it show, because that wasn’t going to be good for anyone, and it wasn’t fair to undermine his authority. But the man seemed to go out of his way to be aggravating – he could, and did, make perfectly sensible decisions, but then he’d go and do something unhelpful or downright stupid and undo all the good work. And he was hopeless with most of the staff. I realised that something had to be done when I met Mike Hargreaves, our best salesman, absolutely spitting tacks because he’d done a deal with Carsons, one of our largest customers, that would have got us a really huge order, but in order to get it he’d had to promise a level of discount slightly above what we normally offer. OK, the company rulebook says no discounts above 18%, but for a customer as important as Carsons you sometimes have to bend the rules a bit. And Hansie had hung him out to dry. Refused to confirm the discount, and torn Mike off a strip for not sticking to the company rules.
It took me half an hour, and a lot of careful footwork, to soothe Mike out of handing in his resignation then and there. Then I was left with two choices, both unpalatable. I’d promised Mike I would try to get his order confirmed that day. I could go and tackle Hansie directly, which was the proper thing to do, but I knew he would say it was none of my business. Or I could break all the rules, and the chains of legitimate authority, and go and see Uncle Jim.
“Hallo, Shona, it’s Tim. Look, I hate to do this, but is there any chance of getting half an hour with the CE? I wouldn’t bother him, but it’s really important.”
“Well he hasn’t got anything in his diary for this morning – can you hang on a minute, Tim, while I check with him?”
“Sure.” The line went dead for a few moments, then Shona’s Liverpudlian twang came back on. “Can you pop over now? He says he’s been meaning to have a word with you anyway.”
“OK, on my way.” And committed. I felt a bit like the school sneak, but I consoled myself that I wouldn’t have done it if it hadn’t been important.
Uncle Jim came around his desk to give me a hug. My father died when I was five, and my mother couldn’t really cope on her own – was in and out of psychiatric care for quite a few years – so Jim and Aunt Mary did most of my raising. So as much as I have a father figure in my life, he’s it. Even though he drives me to distraction sometimes, I love the old buzzard. I returned the hug with interest.
“Tim, why haven’t you been over to see us since you got back? Your aunt wants to hear about your holiday.”
Umm. I would have to think of an edited version of my sojourn among the gay fleshpots of Sitges for Mary. Not that I got up to anything that bad, you understand, but the boys were willing, and sometimes the flesh is weak. . .
“Oh, just sunning myself and having a rest mostly. A few trips into Barcelona for cultural highlights.”
“Drinking and chasing other young men I suppose.” Despite the fact that he’s so old-school rugby, Jim has never seemed to have a problem with my orientation. He was the second person I came out to, in fear and trembling. I was pretty sure he wouldn’t kick me out in disgust; no, what I was afraid of was seeing disappointment in his eyes, of failing to live up to his standards. Instead, he just put his arms round me, and said: “Son, I love you just as you are.” I cried in his arms, as I recall. Silly.
“No, it really was mostly resting. A couple of nightclubs. The odd bar.”
“Odder than most, I’ve no doubt,” he laughed. “So what did you want to see me about?”
“Ah. Well it’s a bit awkward. It’s Mr van den Broek.”
He frowned. “Tim, if you have a problem with Hans van den Broek, you really need to take it up with him.”
“It’s not exactly me that has a problem with him.”
He raised a dubious eyebrow, and I flushed.
“Well, OK, we don’t exactly see eye to eye, but that’s not what this is about. I’m a big boy now, I can fight my own battles with Hansie without running to you. No, this is about the other staff. Do you know Mike Hargreaves is about to resign? And we’re about to lose Carsons as a customer?”
“What?” That shook him. Carsons account for nearly 15% of our turnover.
“Look, I can’t go to Mr van den Broek and say he isn’t handling his own staff right – he’ll tell me it’s none of my business, and he’ll be right. But this company means a lot to me, and I don’t want to see it get into trouble because of bad management decisions.”
He grimaced. “Such as mine in appointing him?”
“I – didn’t say that.”
“No, but you thought it, didn’t you? Another of Old Jim’s rescue projects, finding a home for a poor lost rugby player?”
“I – ah. Well, maybe initially. But on paper, he does have the requisite experience, and some of his decisions are good ones. The way he’s re-arranged the workload in the office is very effective. He’s not stupid. But he is pig-headed, and he’s hidebound. If it says something in the rulebook, then that’s what you do, regardless of whether it’s the right thing. And it isn’t, some of the time. The problem is he doesn’t know this market well enough to see that.”
“Yes. Yes I see. What do you want me to do?”
“I don’t know – and to be frank, I’m glad it’s not my decision. But whatever you do, confirm that Carsons can have that 22% discount on the order Mike has got – it’s bigger than the last one, so it will be well worth it. And for God’s sake schmooze Mike a bit – get him seats for the next rugby International or something, otherwise he’ll be off to JDS, and his customer list with him.”
“Hmm. All right. You know, I’m sorry that you and Hansie haven’t become friends. I think he badly needs one. I had hoped you’d take him under your wing.”
“How can I? He’s my boss, as he keeps reminding me. He won’t let me get that close, even if I wanted to.”
“Pity. You have a lot in common.”
“Pig headed was the word you used, I think. And quite fond of quoting the rules when it suits you, and ignoring them when it doesn’t.”
“That’s” – unfair, I was going to say, but it trailed off because I had to acknowledge there was a certain amount of truth in it. I shook my head at the old rogue, and he grinned at me.
“Touché,” I conceded. “But at least I know when to do it.”
“Some of the time. We’ve had a few runs in on that score over the years.” So we had. I never doubted that he loved me, but his version of love could be hard on the backside. What is it with rugby players and canes, anyway? Must be the public school ethos.
Anyway, the next day I had a coolly polite email in my inbox asking me to meet Mr van den Broek at 9:30 in his office. This wasn’t going to be pleasant.
“No, howzit, Tim, come in. Take a seat.”
“Thank you, Mr van den Broek.”
“I understand that you have some reservations about the way that things are going in this department.”
“I – no. I have some reservations about particular decisions, which I think were taken without adequate local knowledge. And about certain aspects of man management.”
“I wish – I wish you had come to me with this instead of running to your uncle.”
“Mr van den Broek, w–”
“Ach, will you for the love of God drop the Mr van den Broek, hey?” he snapped. “I know what I’m called, and the joke is getting stale.”
“Joke? I seem to remember that you were the one who wanted to keep things by the book.”
“Look, I know we got off on the wrong foot. But going over my head like this was really –”
“What would have been the point in coming to you? Would you have taken a damned bit of notice? Or would you have reminded me again that I’m just the Advertising Manager and told me to get back to my copy?”
We glared at each other for a moment, then he shook his head.
“I don’t know,” he conceded. “But the situation can’t go on as it has done. Your uncle agrees. As of today, you are no longer the Advertising Manager.”
“What?” Of all the likely outcomes, getting sacked was not one that had occurred to me. I mean, yes, technically going over Hansie’s head was a disciplinary offence, but not a sackable one, surely? He let me stew for a few moments before adding with a grin:
“I think that’s the first time I’ve seen you without a snappy comeback. It’s an improvement.”
“You – you can’t do that.”
“No, I can. It’s all agreed. You can clear your desk, and move it in here.”
“What?” I was totally confused.
“You’ve said that local knowledge is needed. Your uncle agrees. So you are now Assistant Sales Director, charged with providing me with that knowledge.”
This one had Jim’s fingerprints all over it. It was typical of his ruthless style. Two key staff members won’t work together? Reappoint one of them to a position that gives them no choice. SD needs local knowledge? Supply it, at a high enough level that he can’t ignore it. Source of local knowledge thinks he knows how to run Sales better than the SD? Put him directly under the SD’s thumb and let him get on with it.
“The old bugger,” I said quietly.
“Ja, isn’t he just,” agreed Hansie ruefully. Then he leaned forward and whispered:
“And if you ever pull a stunt like that on me again, you are going to regret it, believe me.”
“I already do,” I said coldly. “One of the bits of local knowledge you ought to learn is that we don’t have a high opinion of bullies here. Keep your threats to yourself.”
“It wasn’t a threat,” he said, looking at me steadily out of those brown eyes, which were distinctly flinty at the moment. Quite inappropriately, I found myself thinking how good looking he was, and wondering what he looked like without that shirt on. Then I pulled myself up short: steady boy! Don’t go getting a crush on the boss.
“No?” I managed.
“No. A promise.” A sharky smile slipped into something much softer and more natural. “Look, I really do want us to start again. I’m floundering here, I freely acknowledge it. I need your help. Please?”
“Look, lets have a dop – a drink, sorry, after work. I asked before, but you blew me out. Peace offering, hey?”
“OK, OK,” I sighed. I supposed I could try.
So that evening found me in the Feathers on the Abbot’s Ness road with Hansie. It’s a bit further than the place we usually go to at lunchtime but the décor and the beer are both better, and the food, if you choose to eat there (which I quite often do), is excellent. Besides, I still hadn’t made up my mind about Hansie, and I didn’t want anyone else on the staff to bump into us and think we were pals.
“Can I get you a pint?” I offered.
“Ah, do they do wine here? I’m not a great beer drinker apart from the odd bottle when it’s hot,” he admitted.
rugby player who doesn’t sink pints? There’s a novelty. Yes, they have a quite
a decent wine list. Even some South African ones, I believe. I’ll get us a bottle.”
“Only a glass for me, I’m driving,” he reminded. “And let me. I suggested this evening.” He walked over to the bar, returned with a broad smile, and two large glasses of red.
“Cape Pinotage, and a good one,” he said. He swirled his glass appreciatively, and raised it to me.
“Here’s to a good working relationship.”
I looked at him over my glass.
“That,” I said, “remains to be seen.” Then I thought I was being a bit ungracious, so I returned his salute. “But thank you. I hope it will be.”
“What do I have to do to convince you I’m on the side of the good guys?” he asked plaintively.
“Remember that you’re running an office, not an army. Or a rugby team.”
He pulled a face.
“Ja, I guess.”
“No guesswork involved. Some people in the office love you, but a lot don’t. The motivational techniques you may have been used to in rugby aren’t appropriate with a fifty-eight year old spinster, or a sensitive kid fresh out of school.” I’d chosen that last with malice aforethought.
“Yes. I don’t know what you said, but you had him in floods of tears in the men's loos. And have you noticed how much sick leave he’s taken since?”
“Yes.” He was looking more and more unhappy. “What can I do? I’m not setting out to copy – what was your word, ‘motivational techniques’ I’m familiar with, though God knows there have been times . . .”
“That I have longed to apply one or two things I learned from Pieter de Vries to you.”
“Viper de Vries? You knew him?” Even I had heard of de Vries.
“Ja, back in SA. He coached me for a while. You didn’t forget his lessons, I can tell you. I sometimes thought the man was a psychopath. But he was damned good at finding out what worked with a particular individual. You’re right, I need to remember that.”
I took a healthy slug of the wine, felt it warm me all the way down.
“So what worked for you?” I asked idly. “What was de Vries’s recipe?”
“A dozen with the cane; six over shorts then another six on the bare backside.”
I tried to breathe wine, and proved to my own satisfaction that I couldn’t. See, like I told you: rugby players and the cane. Mind you, it does motivate, I knew that perfectly well. Motivates like hell.
He grinned wickedly. “I’ve shocked you.”
“No, no, not at all. One hears stories about South African rugby. Well, about rugby full stop. Uncle Jim certainly has a mean way with a cane.”
“Oh yes,” I said feelingly. “His cane and my bottom have had a few conversations in their time.”
“You don’t know how near my hand came to having that kind of conversation with your bottom this morning,” he said matter of factly.
I blushed. “That’s . . .”
“Ja, ja, I know. But you were really tuning me grief.”
“You’re a bully, Hansie. You use your size and your manner to intimidate. But I grew up around big men, the place was always full of Jim’s pals. I don’t intimidate that easily. And you need to stop intimidating others. I mean it. You’re obviously capable of being charming, so use it. Charm your staff. Make them love you, not fear you.”
“It’s hard, changing your habits like that. I don’t set out to bully people.”
“Maybe you need some of that motivation you were talking about.”
He looked at me, licked his lip a bit nervously.
“Ja,” he said very softly. “Maybe I do. How about a deal?”
“W-what sort of deal?” It was my turn to feel nervous, nervous and excited.
“If I get out of line, you tell me. And. . .”
“And?” I prompted, when he seemed to get stuck.
“You cane me,” he said, still in that soft, thrilled tone. “We set a day, once a week, and I get six for each offence. If it’s more than twenty four strokes I can carry the excess over to another day.”
“That’s a lot. Jim never gave me more than a dozen.”
“I need something to fear, Timmy. Otherwise there’s no motivation. OK?”
I took a deep breath, thought of Hans van den Broek bending over in front of me. Wondered if the hair was that fabulous dark copper all the way down. . .
“OK. But it will be on the bare,” I said firmly.
“Ouch,” he said. “OK. But there is another part to this deal.”
“You are a brat. You need to work with me, not against me, and you need to help not hinder me. If you break the rules without a good explanation, or if you undermine my authority, then I will spank you damned hard, and then leather your arse. If you do it more than three times a week I’ll give you six with the cane on top.”
“I – wait a minute, no-one said anything about that.” He just looked at me, challenge in those brown eyes, a wicked grin on his face. Most unfair, he must have known what effect it had.
“Do we have a deal?” he asked.
“I suppose so,” I said. My mind was telling me that this was a stupid idea, but my body had other ideas. In fact, unless it stopped having those other ideas I was going to find it a bit awkward to walk when I got up. I tried to adjust myself discreetly below the table.
“Good.” He held out a hand, and I shook it. Firm but not bonecrushing – good sign. I hate men who think that every handshake is a contest of strength.
“Drink up,” he said, knocking back his glass.
“Why? Where are we going?”
“My place. Best to get started, hey?”
“You mean you want to do it now?”
“Well, don’t I deserve the cane for Damian? And Mike?”
“Y-yes. But we hadn’t made our deal then, I could. . .”
“No. Always best to get unpleasant things over with. And then you are going over my knee for a good klap.”
“Ja, of course. You didn’t think I’d let you get away with it, did you?”
Oh God, I was so hard it felt like someone had stuffed an iron bar down the front of my trousers. Please go away. Think of – of – icebergs. Big, rearing icebergs, rampant mountains of ice dripping in the sun – no! Try the accounts. The end of year firm’s dance. Something boring and cool and not at all exciting. . .
“Ja, you aren’t going to sit down again tonight,” he whispered, leaning close so his breath tickled my neck. Oh God. Oh GOD.
“What?” He followed my gaze to the door, frowned.
“Bloody Simon. It would be him, of all of them.”
“The IT guy? Why, I thought he was a friend of yours?”
“He is. He’s also a screaming queen and a terrible gossip.”
He stiffened, drew away from me a little. “Does that bother you?” he asked cautiously.
“Well, he’ll probably have the whole office convinced we’re having a torrid affair. . .”
“No, I meant that he’s a moffie. Sorry, what did you call him – a queen. Homosexual.” He pronounced the last word with clinical detachment.
I looked at him. I had assumed – but of course, straight men could be into this too, and might be more anxious about the implications. In which case I didn’t think he’d be so keen to drop his knickers in front of me once he knew. And this was shaping up to be such a beautiful friendship.
“Why would it,” I asked, “when I’m gay myself?”
“Oh, God dank,” he breathed. “For a moment I thought you were a homophobe.”
“So you’re gay too?” He nodded. “Ah. Now I begin to see what Jim meant by that crack about having things in common.”
“Darlings, what is this, an intimate soirée?” asked Simon making a beeline for us and sitting down uninvited.
“Simon, can’t two people have a drink together after work without you making something of it?” I asked, exasperated.
“Well, when I see two gorgeous men together like you, naturally it raises my hopes,” said Simon. “Fancy a threesome?”
“Sorry. . .” I began when Hansie interrupted. “Sorry, Simon,” he said. “I’m sweeping him off to spank his backside raw and then make passionate love all night. Finish the wine if you want.” And grabbing my hand he pulled me in his wake out of the Feathers and in the direction of the car park, leaving a totally dumbfounded Simon gaping like a fish behind us.
When we got to his car, I thought at first he was having a heart attack or some sort of fit, as he collapsed over the bonnet, convulsing. It was only when I interpreted the choking sounds as uncontrollable laughter that I passed from alarm, to fleeting anger, to helpless laughter of my own.
“Oh, oh, that was cruel,” I wheezed when I was able to talk again. “He won’t be able to retail that in the office, no-one will possibly believe it.”
“Ja, did you see his face?” and Hansie was off again, hanging on to me for support as tears of laughter ran down his face. I’m not sure exactly at what point support became something else, and the face dipped towards mine. I only remember it was a long time before we came up for air.
“And you know what?” he said.
“Even though Simon will sulk for a week because we didn’t tell him what we were really up to, every word I said in there was true. If you want it to be.”
“Yes. I want it to be. But I’m adding six for Simon to your score,” I added.
“Cruel man,” he said. “I think you should share that one. Six each for Simon.”
“He doesn’t deserve it. And I’m sure I don’t,” I grumbled, getting into the car.
But I got it anyway. And everything else.
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© , 2005