Hot and Cold

What does one give a Woodgnome for his birthday? A story about rugby players, of course. For him to unwrap slowly. No, the story. . . Oh, all right, the rugby players too.

I think I’ll blame Jim for it. Well, I don’t see that it could possibly have been my fault, after all, not since everybody knows that I’m a sensible and responsible adult, and that Hansie is the one who gets himself into trouble for behaving like a twelve-year old. Not me. I don’t do that sort of thing.

Jim pours quite a lot of money back into rugby, one way or another. Hamiltons, of course, is the main sponsor for Phil’s team, the Premiership side. The Gryphons, they’re called. And then there’s the local stuff, the club Hansie coaches for. He funds that too, but that’s personal. That’s just Jim putting something back into the sport he thinks gave him so much. And this time what he gave them was technology.

Slightly out of date technology, but still better than anything they’d had. Hamiltons had a big technical update, and Camp Simon had mild hysterics at being given a budget and allowed to go away and spend it, and one of the things that was upgraded was the electronic whiteboard from the boardroom. You know the sort of thing: you do your presentation on a laptop and plug it all in and it shows on a big screen for your potential customers to see. Well, we all know what electronic equipment is like: the difference between state-of-the-art and obsolete is the time it takes you to get the thing out of the packaging, so when Simon ordered us a new one, the old one was junk. And Jim said Hansie could have it for the club.

It’s not something they would have a great deal of use for, but apart from anything else, it’s almost impossible now for a company to throw anything away because of the waste disposal regulations; and Jim, having had a Presbyterian upbringing, thinks that wilful waste makes woeful want and that junking a piece of equipment which is out of date, but which works perfectly well, is actually sinful.

“I’m sure you can think of a use for it, laddie. In my day all the match plans were done on a flip chart with a marker pen, but you young people. . .”

Actually, Hansie could think of a use for it. There are very few times that rugby can’t be played: rugby players don’t stop for wussy things like bad weather, but occasionally even they decide that the pitch is unplayable. On those days, Hansie tends to have question and answer sessions, or get somebody in to talk about match play, and with the whiteboard to hand, he decided that Planning Ahead would be a good idea, and he started to put together – not as much as lecture notes, that’s too formal, but chat structure notes. Piet came over a couple of times and helped, and Hansie drew some lovely cartoons to support his slides.

That was the first thing. The second was Simon. Hansie went away for three days to Germany, and while he was away I thought to be virtuous and obedient and to keep in with my friends. Piet had – said – some things in the great MBA row about me dropping my friends when I was busy, and I didn’t want him to feel obliged to say any more. So I called up Simon and asked if he wanted to go for lunch, and at five to one I went over to his office and found him half way between exasperation and hilarity.

“Darling, I thought for one horrible moment that we had a virus. One of my friends set me up. It’s not a real virus, but it looks like one. See?”

It looked like. . . remember Pac-Man? The terribly young among us may not, or may not know that that was what it was called. The computer game in which a yellow circle which opened a mouth chased around a maze and ate other coloured blobs. Before my time, but desperately addictive, I’m told. This looked like that, but the blob was rushing up and down some document of Simon’s and eating his text.

“Not real?”

“No, sweetie. It opens a copy of your document, but it doesn’t actually touch the original. Then when it’s eaten all your file, it puts up a rude message to tell you that you’ve been had.”

We watched it for a couple of minutes before we went to lunch and half way through my ciabatta (which tasted like an old shoe – I don’t know why we go to Ciro’s for lunch) the plan sprang fully formed into my head.

“Simon? Your friend’s mock virus thing – how easy would it be to change the graphics?”

Silly question. There is nothing – nothing! – that Simon can’t manage with either hardware or software.

“What do you want it to do, darling?”

“I want the pac-man thing to be a rugby ball. And I want it so that you can’t stop it once it’s started. And what’s the rude message?”

“Anything you like. Or you could put a picture or something underneath to be revealed as the bug eats the page.”

I had a sudden vision of the picture of Hansie I took with the new digital camera. He had come in from a very cold and muddy training session and gone at once to the bath, adding rather too much of that muscle relaxing bath foam. I had taken a picture of him in which he was rendered decent only by the strategic positioning of bubbles. And I nearly gave it to Simon to put in the virus, only I did think: Hansie might manage to keep some authority after having his lecture notes eaten on screen but not after having displayed his shape to the team. And it might be the children and. . . no. Not a good idea.

So I didn’t do the worst I could possibly manage, O.K.? Given how it all worked out in the end, I’m very glad of that now.

I will never get the hang of the climate in this country. Never. We were a long way past Christmas, which had been much warmer than I expected, and the daffodils were up and the crocuses in the pots I had planted for the front of the house. I was looking forward to the rain stopping: it felt as if it had rained all the way from the start of the rugby season, hey? But it was spring now and soon. . . And then it turned cold again, very cold, and Greg who coaches the first team called me up to say that the pitch was frozen. We cannot play on a frozen pitch. Cold, yes, wet, yes. Ask Jim: he played in a match where both teams were sent to change to their second strip at half time, because the ground had made them so muddy that the referee could not tell which was which, and ten minutes from the end, his team was asked to turn their shirts inside out to make them distinguishable. He says he has played a match in the snow, when the ground staff had not time to clear the whole pitch, so they cleared a foot on either side of all the lines. But when the pitch is actually frozen, we do not play.

So I thought that I would talk about match planning and strategy, and I got out the laptop and looked through the notes. Actually, they were not my notes, they were Piet’s – he had let me have them and we had together dumbed them down a little for the amateurs. Ach, to be honest, Phil had done that for us. Piet has the really good ideas, and Phil has little originality that way, but once Phil understands what Piet wants, he can explain it in simple terms. There was one place I found I did not fully remember how it held together, and I called Piet to ask. He made all plain to me, and I told him why I needed to know, and afterwards I went back to the computer on the dining room, where Tim and I had been working on opposite ends of the table.

“Did Piet sort you out?”

Ja, I had merely got my notes in the wrong order. I asked how the pitch was over there, but of course they have the big budget and the ground staff have been covering all up. Piet says they have never been unable to play or train since he came. He says too that Phil is back full time, which is good, liefie, don’t you think?”

“Very. He’s been breaking his heart not to be able to play. Have you finished there? Put the kettle on, then. I’m only going to file this and that’s enough.”

So I left the computer and went to the kitchen, and came back to close everything down and pack it up for the next day, and I did not think to ask why Tim was looking so pleased with himself. My mistake. But I looked out of the window at that point and I realised that it had started to snow.

Saturday morning and Hansie going training. He had been up since all hours, like a child on Christmas Day and we had eventually had words:

“Hansie! Will you shut the bloody door! You’ve let all the warm air out!”

“But Tim, it has been snowing!”

“Thank you, I can see that. According to the radio it’s been snowing all night, all across the country. Honestly, it’s like winter takes us by surprise every year, we can’t cope with four inches of snow. Kent’s shut off, so are Yorkshire and Lancashire, all the motorways in the Midlands are blocked and Scotland seems to have sunk without trace.”

“Ach, how can you be so unromantic? Is it not beautiful? Look at the trees. Perhaps later we could go out together, and enjoy it.”

“I’m looking at the way some of those branches will come off. I’m not going out to play in the snow like an eight-year-old, Hansie. We’re all grown up and I don’t feel the need to get cold and wet. And I’m thinking that you’ve never driven in snow, have you? What about if I drive you up to the club, and then I’ll go to the library and I’ll pick you up again at half eleven?”

And I’ll hear just how Meneer van den Broek’s little talk to his troops went. I bet I’ll hear all about it. And I bet we end up spending the afternoon in bed after I’ve heard about it too, because Piet gave us back our licences last week and if I get away unspanked I’ll be very, very surprised.

I thought it wise to leave it long enough for the team members to have cleared the site before I went back to the club for Hansie. I didn’t think he would actually throttle me – much – but there was no need to allow for an audience. I sat in the car half way down the street, and I could tell from the faces on some of the team coming past me that the talk had been a success. Some of them were laughing so hard that they had to hold each other up. When the car park was nearly empty, I pulled the car in, and went to open the pavilion door.

“Hansie? Are you there?”

“I am here, liefie, in the changing room. And you are just so dead.”

I grinned. “Me? Why?”

“Because, my skat, you set me up. You planned to sabotage my little talk by having an animated rugby ball eat my notes.”

I ventured down the changing room towards him. “Didn’t you like my cartoon?”

“I thought it was very clever, liefling, yes, but I think that perhaps it was a mistake for you to do it.”

“And why, oh Hansie mine, do you think that?”

“Because,” said a deep voice behind me, “it was not Hansie who gave the talk. It was me.”

Major celebration, I was back in training, and my God, was it hard work. It’s sickening how fast you fall out of condition when you aren’t training regularly. I was trying to be sensible about it and balance up my need to get fit again as fast as possible, with the fear of doing harm to my newly mended knee, and there had been just a couple of days when by bedtime I was tired but not flattened, and it was beginning to come right again. Piet had promised me that I could start the next match, and I thought I was fit enough to play at least the first half.

And we had Saturday morning training due, and we were just finishing breakfast and admiring the snow when the phone rang. Piet came back from the hall and picked up his coffee cup.

“That was the groundsman. Some disaster has overcome them and I must go at once. Do you wish to come with me, or will you follow later?”

“I’m ready to come now. No point in taking out two cars if we don’t need to. Just let me get my bag.”

And at the ground it was obvious that whatever else happened, there would be no training of any sort today.

“I’m sorry, Mr de Vries, but it really isn’t our fault. The pipe has burst underneath the stand, and then the pitch has flooded, and frozen, and the heating system has run dry and the emergency cut off kicked in. So there’s no water or heating anywhere inside, the lighting is off too, and the pitch isn’t usable.”

“I see so, indeed. No, it is certainly not anybody’s fault and there is nothing to be done about it. What can be done to put all right, and how long will it take?”

“I’ve called the water board, and. . .” and they went off together, and Piet glanced back at me. “Mr Cartwright, could I trouble you to take the team list and start calling round, and tell everybody that there will be no training today? Tell them I will call as soon as we have a new venue, or when all is fixed.”

Mobile phones made that a lot easier than it used to be: it didn’t take more than half an hour or so to put everybody off, and then Piet came back to collect me.

“What shall we do instead, Piet? I really don’t want to go to the gym, it’s always heaving on Saturdays.”

“What would you say to going over to Hansie's club? He is to give a strategy talk this morning, and we could perhaps help him. And then we could ask him and Tim if they would like to come for lunch.”

Sounded good, so we got in the car and I called Hansie's mobile, and told him how we were placed, and he admitted that he would like to have us over.

And when we got there, he was just setting everything up, and he and Piet began at once to discuss what he was going to say, and sure enough, he asked, “Piet, wouldn’t you do it? They’re more likely to sit and be quiet for you than for me. You’re still a big name.”

“Certainly, Hansie, should you so desire it. I will talk, and you will keep an eye on your team and stop me if you see they do not understand, and you and Phil can act as examples if we do not make ourselves clear. We have the diagrams and the notes, do we not?

“Here. You saw how the system worked, didn’t you?”

And Piet knew, and when he started to talk, he managed as usual to get the undivided attention of his audience. And he kept it for all of ten minutes. I was sitting at the back with Hansie, and it was only when Piet called up the third diagram that it began to go wrong. There was a small rugby ball pictured on the corner, and when Piet began to explain some point, it moved. Randomly, and slowly, at first, it just sort of burbled around the screen, and I at least assumed it was something Hansie had added to keep everyone’s attention. It did that: everybody sat up and watched, and Piet changed the diagram, and ten seconds later the ball appeared again. It bounced slowly around the screen, until it hit the legend on one of the diagrams. Then it opened a cavernous mouth and ate the words.

That got a laugh, rather to Piet’s surprise: he had been looking at his audience, not the screen in front of him or the one behind. He had just changed the diagram, so when he did look, there was nothing to see, but he stepped away and began to explain about his next point, and the damn thing appeared again. This time it was moving faster, and it ate all his headings and started on the team placings, and again it got a laugh, and again, Piet had just called up the next diagram, so that when he looked, there was nothing to see.

I leaned over to Hansie, and whispered, “It’s damn clever, but I don’t know that I would have set it up for Piet,” and he turned to me such an expression of blank horror that I laughed out loud, and Piet gave me the Look. And at that point the ball appeared again, only this time it not only ate all his diagram, but just as everybody broke into giggles and Piet turned and looked, it hiccupped twice and threw up all the letters and punctuation in an untidy heap at the bottom of the screen.

I turned round slowly, to see old stoneface Piet himself standing behind the door, and Phil grinning from the bench beside him.

Ohhhh-kaaaaaaay. I’ve just set up Pieter de Vries, ex-international player, coach and referee, to give a talk assisted by an animated verbivorous cartoon rugby ball. I want lilies and red roses on my coffin, and my choice of hymns is ‘Guide me, Oh Thou Great Redeemer’, preferably in Welsh and sung by a large choir, and “Be Thou My Vision’. Don’t let them sing ‘Jerusalem’, I hate it. Family flowers only, donations to any charity supporting the terminally stupid. Say something to Piet, Tim.

“Um. . . I’m sorry?”

“Yes, I think you will be. Shut that door, please, Phil. Have we lost all our notes, Tim?”

“Oh, no. It doesn’t do any real harm. Nothing’s lost.”

“Well, that is good. Nothing is damaged. Except perhaps my reputation.”

Shit. “No, Piet, I really wouldn’t have. . . I meant it for Hansie.”

Phil shifted. “I think we all got that, Tim. Hansie's face was an absolute picture: he thought that Piet would think it was him. It got a big laugh, I admit: I don’t think any Viper de Vries team talk has ever been received like that before.”

Oh shitfuckbugger. No talking your way out of that one, Tim. I just looked at Piet who raised one eyebrow and looked back.

“So, Tim. No real harm, you say. Except that I look foolish. Well, that has happened before, and no doubt will happen again; I will not die of it. But my dignity is hurt. And you know well that I believe that the punishment should fit the crime, so I think that I shall make you too look ridiculous and hurt your pride. Is that fair?”

Go on, tell Viper de Vries that isn’t fair. Dare you. He held out his hand and I walked back down the changing room to face him. Phil slid past me and went to sit beside Hansie. Hell, but Viper’s big! I mean, I’m about average – I’m a fraction over 5’ 10” and I weigh a bit more than 11 stone. Hansie's bigger than me, he’s 6’ 2”, and broad. Phil’s bigger yet, by a couple of inches, and over the last year or so he’s filled out so that he’s at least as broad as Hansie now. But Piet! 6’ 6” at least, maybe more, and I don’t suppose he can weigh less than 18 or 19 stone, and none of it is excess anything except muscle. I’ve seen him pick Phil off the ground with no apparent effort. And he looked down at me and I thought – I’m going to die.

And then I thought: no, I’m not. Stoneface he might be but that isn’t the Alpha Top look. In fact, I’m not getting the Look at all. And I began to frown and suddenly Piet’s face cracked into a grin and he said, “So Tim the brat has reappeared. Hansie, shall I pass him over into your tender care?”

Nee,” said Hansie, firmly. “He is a bad brat who needs to be spanked. Spank him.”

Thanks Hansie, I don’t think. I’ve been spanked by Piet and it isn’t rewarding. Well, not physically. But there was no time to run, because Piet leaned forward and wrapped his arm around my back so that I was tucked underneath, and then he just lifted me off the ground, and he put one foot up onto the bench and swung me across the massive thigh. I’d seen him do that before, to Hansie on his birthday, but like I said, Hansie's taller than me. Hansie's feet reached the floor; mine didn’t. I just hung over his thigh like a piece of wet washing, and the spare hand stripped my cords and my underwear down to my knees and if he wanted me to feel silly, he succeeded admirably.

And the hand came round, and the impact with my backside was less solid than I expected, but the basic physics of it made me start to slide until Piet gave a grunt, and pulled me closer in against his body, and my flailing arm hooked around his back for balance. I could feel the muscles bunch and slide under his skin, and I braced my other hand down his leg and waited for the next noisy smack.

Hansie could take a lesson from Piet in how to deal out a play spanking. My beloved doesn’t know how to do it other than at full strength, and even in play he can make me buck. Piet wasn’t aiming to leave marks, I don’t think, and that didn’t hurt anything like as much as the last couple of times, but he was building up a considerable sting, and after a minute I was wriggling and squeaking, and Hansie and Phil were catcalling and offering encouragement. And of course I wasn’t touching the floor at any point to get any purchase, so squirming was undignified and ridiculous.

He kept going until I really was beginning to yelp, and until somehow I had kicked enough to twist the leg of my trousers around my ankle and turn the whole lot inside out. Then he asked, conversationally, “Hansie? Is that enough?”

My beloved admitted, still sniggering, that it probably was, and Piet put me down gently, holding me carefully until I got my balance, and not letting go until I had untangled my clothes and rendered myself decent. Then he sent me Hansie-wards with another slap on my tingling behind.

“Apologise for being such a brat.”

I gave Hansie the big eyes. “Please, sir, I’m sorry I was impertinent.”

“Are you?” asked Phil, interestedly.

I thought about it.

“No, not much. I wish I could have seen it, and I still wish it had been Hansie.”

Piet snorted. “You leave me with a screen which says:


and that is all you have to say? We set up a full hour’s discussion and you reduce it to that?”

I considered. “Yes, I think so. Well, there isn’t any more to rugby than that, is there?”

I nearly made it to the door before they caught me, and I got another two dozen, divided three ways, before they would let me go. We staggered outside, laughing, and found that there were half a dozen people on the pitch, and a snowball fight going on. Hansie stopped to look.

Ja, I know them all. They will do no harm up there. They are having fun, hey?”

“Hansie, don’t even think about it. You’re too old for that sort of thing. Snowball fights are for children, and they’ll think you quite mad if you try to join in.”

And at that point, Piet turned to glance at the pitch, and got a snowball squarely on the side of the head. Definitely not a good day for the Viper.

A small individual came hammering down the slope, and skidded to a halt in front of him, babbling: “I’m sorry, that wasn’t meant for you, that was intended for my brother – oh! Oh, Mr de Vries! I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean. . .”

And Piet looked down into the face of the girl Hansie says will make a good rugby player, and said seriously, “Miss. . . Rose. No. Ruth. I remember you. You are the one who will be number eight for the local ladies’ team by the time you are twenty-one, and for the national ladies’ squad when you are twenty-five.”

She blushed with pleasure at being remembered and at the compliment, and Piet looked past her, and said, “What is that?”

And when she turned to look, he struck with the speed of the viper they call him, caught hold of her plait and stuffed a handful of snow down her neck, while we all looked on open-mouthed. We had been forgetting that Piet has nieces – he likes children, and they like him. She squealed and wriggled, and by the time she had shaken the snow away, Piet had made a snowball, which he held out to her solemnly. “Which one is your brother? Can you hit him from here? Excellent. You will be a competent cricketer in the summer, I think, if you could throw down the wicket from that distance. Now, since I got the snowball intended for your brother, it seems only reasonable that he should have one from me.”

And with that, Piet was off into the thick of the fight, with Hansie half a beat behind him, and Phil and me left goggling at each other.

“What was that about?”

“I think they’ve got snow-madness. Hansie's been dying to go out and play since the snow started, but I would never have expected it of Piet. I don’t know what’s got into them.”

“Oh Tim, don’t be such a spoilsport!”

And Phil heaved me off the ground, and carried me over his shoulder up to the battle ground, where he wilfully encouraged a selection of children to gang up on me and fill my eyes and mouth with snow. Half an hour later there were lines drawn and battle strategies being planned, and Ruth captaining an army including Piet and Hansie against her brother David’s side backed up by me and Phil, and with three additional daddies and a ferociously accurate mum who had come out to see who was playing with their children and who stayed to join in.

At one point I saw Hansie fall back and reach for his mobile, and ten minutes later Fran appeared, armed with cameras. She stayed half an hour, and I saw her taking names and speaking to parents, and. . .well, you’ll have seen the pictures. They were on the front pages of all the newspapers the next day: rugby international Phil Cartwright playing in the snow with local children. Good publicity for Phil, good publicity for Phil’s club, good publicity for Hansie's club, and from what Fran said, very good money for her.

Probably just as well, though, that there were no pictures taken an hour or so later, when we ended up at Piet’s. We were all soaked and chilled: well, I had put a double handful of snow down the back of Piet’s trousers, and retribution had been severe and immediate; Phil had caught Hansie off guard and rolled him over the touch line before grinding his face in a snowdrift. Piet chased us all upstairs for hot showers – and Phil made it plain that he shared my enthusiasm for a wet and naked Hansie, and I shared Piet’s enthusiasm for a wet and naked Phil. . . and so on.

But another time I must bring dry clothes of my own. I look really silly in Phil’s. Not that I was wearing them for long.

Idris the Dragon

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