Snap Happy

No, OK, so technically there isn't any actual spanking in this one. As such. But it does get mentioned quite a lot. Will that do?

(Extract from the Minutes of the Board Meeting, Barchester Gryphons RFC, dated [--]

In attendance:
D Astbury (DA)
R Cohen (RC) (Secretary)
C Milligan (CM)
A Driscoll (Finance) (AD)
D Grandison (DG)
J Hamilton (JH)
Sir John Maybury (JM)
M St George (MStG)
P de Vries (Director of Rugby) (PdeV)

Apologies: F Turner

Item 6: Promotional calendars.
Consequent on the discussion in the meeting dated [--], it was agreed that there would be two calendars published for the coming season. PdeV confirmed that several players who had expressed themselves as unwilling to be photographed in the style of previous seasons’ calendars, are willing to appear shirtless etc. for a ‘milder’ version. The Board agreed to market calendars in both styles.

JH confirmed that he had approached F L Milton (Photography) to take responsibility for the photographic content, and had agreed a fee of [Ł--] and [--%] of the profit on calendar sales.

(Action: RC to confirm terms in writing with photographer.)

The Board continued the discussion of potential locations for the photoshoot as minuted from the last meeting; PdeV reiterated his wish for the club premises themselves to be used so that the link with the club would be plain. JH was of the opinion that an attractive location would serve to make the calendar a more commercial proposition. A lively discussion ensued. MStG repeated her suggestion of Blessingdale Hall (property of JM and Lady Maybury) if a suitable fee could be negotiated. JM confirmed that he and his wife would be willing to forego a fee in exchange for attribution, availability and contact details being printed on the back cover.

(Hereafter JM took no part in the discussion due to conflict of interest.)

PdeV objected to the use of Blessingdale Hall, suggesting that publicity photos based on a country house would tend to confirm the view of rugby union as a class-based sport, rather than as the sport-for-all which the club aims to promote. MStG and JH both thought this an over-reaction, and that a calendar or calendars attractive in their own right would be of greater value to the club than one purely representative of the players. The discussion having been continued without agreement over two meetings, it was taken to a vote:

In favour of the use of Blessingdale Hall – 7
Against – 1 (PdeV)
Abstained – 1 (JM)

(Action: RC to liaise with Lady Maybury and Miss Milton over suitable dates, facilities etc.)

(End of extract.)

It is not unusual that after a meeting some or all of us will go to the bar. We divide, of course: Sir John does not like me, and after the battle over Phil Fitzpatrick and his discovery that I had suspected him of involvement with the man Wendell and his stories, he likes me even less. It will be a cold day in hell before that man willingly buys me a drink or accepts one from my hand. He did not do so this time either; he retired to one end of the bar with his crony, Astbury, and with Damien Grandison, with whom I have a relationship of cautious respect, and with James. Margaret St George came to my end of the bar, and I made room for her.

“You will allow me to buy you a drink, Ms St George?”

“I’ll have a Calvados, thank you, with ice. Well, Mr de Vries, how does it feel to have lost such a public battle?”

I looked down my nose at her and she laughed quietly. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like to work in the City?”

“I like my job as it is, battles or no.”

“And you don’t mind being seen to have lost.” It wasn’t a question.

“I can follow instructions,” I said composedly. “You told me that it might be possible to persuade Sir John to allow us the use of Blessingdale Hall, and to surrender his right to a fee if I objected to it strenuously enough. Where is the loss in that?”

She smiled. “Oh, none, none. None to the club. None to Miss Milton – I like her very much, de Vries – perhaps some to Sir John. Perhaps not. He will have balanced the loss of a fee against the free advertising. Loss of face to Pieter de Vries?”

“I will not die of it.”

“No indeed, and Sir John will think that he has won and will perhaps not now vote against you in every matter which comes up on the agenda.”

“Was it difficult to persuade him to offer the house?”

“Not particularly. It’s his wife who runs operations there; she handles a workload which would make a team of six shrink. Have you seen the house?”

I shook my head.

“It’s very beautiful: came to her when her father died. She was a Parker before she married, a cadet branch of the Suffolk Parkers. They kept the house but there’s been no money in that side of the family for 150 years and she’s the first of them to grasp that fact and do something about it. She tried to pass the house to the National Trust but they couldn’t agree a deal; she persuaded Sir John to put a lot of his money into it when they married – a late marriage for both of them, no children – and now they do all the property things. Wedding receptions, corporate entertainment, conferences, shooting, fishing, and the house open to the public. Schools history weeks when everybody dresses up. Murder weekends, bridge weekends, cordon bleu cookery courses (the restaurant is very good), a home farm, farm shop, plants from the nursery, Christmas trees from the plantation. . . There’s a cross country riding course, a livery stable, she keeps a team of Suffolk Punches for the agricultural shows, oh, I can’t think what else. The old-fashioned country house is a hole in the ground into which you pour money, de Vries. Adele Parker Maybury works the sort of hours which would be illegal if she wanted her staff to do it, just to keep that house because her family have had it since God was young and Sir John. . . that sort of thing matters to him much more than to her. It may be Sir John who will be thanked on the back of the calendar, but it will have been Adele who agreed to it and that means she thinks there will be an advantage to her.”

I considered this. “But it was you who made the first suggestion to them; the club will, I think, have cause to be grateful to you. Fran Milton thinks the location will be good and I trust her to know. We are fortunate to have her.”

She smiled impishly at me. “She’s quite a close friend of yours, isn’t she? Jim Hamilton introduced us, you know that? She suggested a National Trust type house as a backdrop and mentioned the Hall; she said she had photographed a wedding there. I told her that I might be able to get it for her but she wouldn’t agree to my price. I had to give way in the end and do it just for the sake of the club.”

I turned back to the bar and signed for the barman. “Why do I fear that I will not like this? What price did Fran refuse to pay?”

28 fit young men they were giving me, all prepared to remove their shirts at least and a goodly number of them prepared to take off lots more, and I get to follow them about all day taking pictures and then afterwards somebody’s going to give me lots of money and I can go home to a man who adores me and who will want me to take a strap to him to demonstrate that I prefer him to any of the aforementioned 28.

Yeah, well, sometimes life’s a bitch. And it’s not perfect. There are more than 28 players in the squad now that they have a main team, a Seconds reserve, a junior squad and associated individuals who float from one to the other, but some of them won’t co-operate, and some are too young (I’d expressed myself as unwilling to work with the under 19s – street-legal they may be but I didn’t want them, and the Board agreed with me) and Piet’s very definite that nobody has to pose if they don’t want to. Thibault de St-Cyr didn’t want to. I could see that in the dressing room.

Sorry, that’s a bit garbled. Preparation is the key to a good day’s work; Piet says that often and so do I. We were going to Blessingdale Hall to take photographs of rugby players so I had spent two days out there choosing locations, planning shots and so on. That was the background. As far as foreground went, Piet had arranged for me to come in and see my material before training, when they were still reasonably clean and tidy.

“Frances, we can give you half an hour. You can do something in that time?”

I produced three clipboards and marker pens and handed them to the nearest three bods. “Write your name on the top sheet, big as you like. Tick if you will strip, cross if you won’t. Against that wall, please, in turn, hold the board in front of you. All I’m going to do is take a single shot of each of you so that I can make some plans. When I’ve done your shot, rip off the sheet with your name on it and give the board to the next guy. Then I’ve got a record  of who you are, which shots I can expect from you and what you look like, O.K.? Who’s first?”

Phil, of course. Big tick in the box, he’ll strip. Try to stop him, Mr Vanity. Or rather, don’t, because I shall smack you hard if you do, pictures of Phil being what will keep me in my old age. Ryan will strip, Mark will strip. Nathan won’t, but he’ll take his shirt off. James Gerrold won’t play at all, he’s sorry but his wife objects. And this is Thibault. Pretty boy. Perhaps a little too pretty – he’s a little. . . ‘delicate’ might be the word. Just rather young. And some of the others were teasing him, maybe a little roughly, when he seemed unsure about whether or not he wanted to strip, about what were the rules. Pieter pulled them up almost at once.

“It is your own decision, Mr Saint-Cyr. As you see, some of the players will not pose at all, some will undress for Miss Milton, some will not. I have said – repeatedly –“ there was a fair amount of bite to this “that no-one need feel the need to pose for Miss Milton if he is made uncomfortable by it. It will not be counted against you if you do not wish to do it at all, or if you do not wish to remove more than your shirt.”

“I am willing enough, M de Vries,” the boy announced, although it was plain that he was lying; Phil opened his mouth to say something and I felt on the back of my neck the glare that Piet gave him; he snapped his mouth shut and sat down. Thibault cast a look of some panic at me, and firmly added a tick to his name, moving against the wall to be snapped. I looked into the camera, and said mildly, “Maybe we should run through the rules again, since some of you have arrived since we did this last year. For those who are prepared to strip, we keep it very respectable. Most of the pictures this year will include more than one of you at a time. For the sake of everybody’s reputation, if I’m working with one of you on his own, there will be a chaperon present in the form of either Mr de Vries or one of the others. In the final photographs, your modesty will always be preserved behind props.”

“The catch is, though,” said Rob ruefully, “that the public may not get to see what we’ve got, but you do.”

“It’s bath time!” barracked somebody in the corner; Rob turned and made a rude gesture. That always is the problem with amateur models; it was patently the problem with Thibault. I thought it best to add, “These snaps today are just for rough planning. Anybody who changes his mind by next week about taking part or about what he’s prepared to take off, just let me know. It’s not a problem. O.K., I’ve got you, thank you, who’s next?”

It was Tommy. I met him at Christmas, at Phil’s; his wife, I remembered, had been hugely pregnant. “You didn’t pose last year, Tommy, did you?”

He shook his head, and moved against the wall; his board had a tick on it. I glanced up again, eyed him up and down – and stopped, staring at his legs. “Tommy, are those tattoos?” Obviously, when I’d seen him at Christmas, he’d been wearing long trousers; now he was in shorts.

He nodded. “How far up do they go?” Both thighs (and he had thighs like a piece of major engineering) were black with geometrical patterns.

“Half way up my back.”

“Does it join up, then? And. . . um. . . in front?”

He nodded, beginning to colour; his turn to be barracked. Mark sniggered. “Fran, you’ve gotta see it. This man has tattoos in places you don’t have places. None of your hearts and anchors rubbish, either, he’s got a boat on his back and a carpet pattern everywhere else.”

“Really?” I said weakly; Mark grinned wickedly at Tommy. “Go on, Tank. Show the nice lady. Get ‘em off.”

Now me, I’d have let it go, but this is a rugby team, more testosterone and fewer brains than is perhaps desirable. The playground-style chant of “Off! Off! Off!” was met by Tommy with a gesture of some obscenity, but he peeled his shirt over his head, and pushed his shorts downward – and it was true. The athletic support was incongruous, and from the look of things, barely sufficient to keep him decent; the tattoos were wonderful. And I don’t even like tattoos.

“Oh yes, I can do something with those. I can’t offhand think quite what, but something will come to me. Thanks, Tommy; who’s next?”

I kept them moving on, and we were done well within Piet’s half hour. “I meant to say to you all before, and I forgot: there’s a lot of water at Blessingdale Hall, and if the weather holds I want to use it. Bring towels, and if you’ve got old trainers or whatever, that you won’t mind getting wet and muddy, it’s probably safer on the feet. And bring your boots too; I’ve got some ideas. Can any of you ride a horse?”

That was received without much enthusiasm. One – I didn’t remember his name – nodded. “I can, but if you think I’m riding a strange horse in the buff. . .”

“No, the horse can wear what it likes. . . sorry, sorry. Apparently they have a big brown bombproof horse which they use for Riding for the Disabled. Absolutely guaranteed not to move without a specific instruction. Anybody an angler? I want a fly fisherman who can cast a line. Yes? Good. And which of you is a good swimmer? Somebody who’s confident in the water?”

Tommy was waiting for me, though, when I came out; most of the others had gone to the pitch with Rob and Phil but he was hovering rather nervously with Piet.

“Frances, a word, please, before you go? Tommy here has some misgivings.”

I smiled at him. “Changed your mind? I told you, it isn’t a problem.”

He shook his head. “It’s not that. I said I’d do it, and I will, only. . . look, it’s my tattoos.”

“Ah. I’m sorry, Tommy, I’m not well-informed about Samoan culture. Is it. . . what’s the current word, is it ‘inappropriate’ for me to make your tattoos central to a picture? I mean, do they have religious implications or anything?”

His mouth twitched. “I was brought up Methodist. Not religious, precisely, but it’s part of who I am, of what I am. Of being Samoan.”

I thought about that. “So what bothers you?”

He glanced imploringly at Piet for help. Piet looked a little less stone-faced than normal; “I have assured him that you will do nothing that is not respectful of his culture, at least not deliberately.”

“Oh, I see. I see. No indeed; I might blunder through ignorance but not. . . not through wilful insensitivity. If you’re not happy with what I ask you for, just say so. You don’t even need to tell me why; just that you aren’t comfortable with it. I’ll try to put together two or three ideas beforehand, and you can choose, if you like? I can email them to Piet here and he can pass them on. No, no problem.”

He trotted off after the others, apparently reassured, and Piet turned back to me. “You think you can do something useful with your material this year?”

“I expect so. And are you going to pose, Piet? Can’t I persuade you to bare all for a good cause?”

I got that twist of the mouth which would be laughter in somebody else. “The good cause being the club, or Margaret St George?”

“Ah. She told you?”

“She told me that you told her that the Director of Rugby would not strip lest it damaged his authority over his players. She also told me that she tried to hold out for a picture as her fee for arranging the location and that you assured her that I would not do it. So I know quite well that you are teasing me in even suggesting it, madam, and you should be ashamed of yourself.” He took my camera case from me and we started to move towards the car park and my bike. It’s funny; Piet, and to some extent Hansie too, manage the old fashioned courtesies towards women of opening doors, carrying things, standing up when we arrive and so on, and they still look wholly natural – and I’ve never seen any woman, whatever her opinion on gender politics, object to them. Possibly because they know which ones not to do?

We started the day at Blessingdale Hall with the group picture. I’ve found it a useful way to let the novices get accustomed to what we’re doing, and I’m always careful to explain what I want to a man with his clothes on, and then to be pointedly facing the other way while he takes them off.

“This is an old fashioned English country house, and you’re going to have an old fashioned English afternoon tea. I want three of you on the sofa, please, and one in each of those chairs. Thibault, can you go behind the table and position yourself behind the cake stand? More to your right. . . far enough. Good. Mark, you can be mother, take the teapot. Somebody go and stand on the hearthrug. One of you sit at the piano and somebody else go and lean on the top of it. You – sorry, I don’t know your name? Gregor, you take that plate as if you’re offering sandwiches round. The rest of you, can you slot yourselves round in the gaps. Yes, sit on the footstool, that’s good. O.K., let’s see how that balances. Right. You and you will need plates or cups and saucers to keep you decent. Ryan, there’s a magazine rack beside you, find something which you can rest on your lap as if you were reading it. And pass a book to that man in front of the fireplace. Good. Now, kit off please, everybody. Leave it in the hall, and back to those positions. I shall go and admire the view from the front door until Mr de Vries calls me.”

First shot takes ages. They blush, they move, they snipe at each other, half of them want to hide from me and there will be one or two who keep deliberately showing me more than I’m actually interested in. I was patient to start with – they usually calm down after a bit – but once I started moving them round so that I could have a selection of shots to choose from, and they didn’t settle, I began to get tetchy.

“Listen up, guys, I’ve got to take at least twice as many pictures as last year and I’ve only got one day to do it in. Last year I could have come back if we didn’t get finished; this year we’ve only got the use of this place today, and I want to do about half the shots outside, which means after eleven and before about four o’clock if nobody’s to get hypothermia. For pity’s sake get yourselves together. Places, NOW!

They scattered, some of them looking a little astonished – that had been a serious Top’s bark. Phil winked at me as he moved from the sofa to behind the table; I averted my eyes conspicuously from Thibault so that he could find a place and a protection for his dignity.

“Better. Right, I want Rob, Mark, Steve and Clive in the kitchen please, which is down that way and on the left. Some of the house staff are here, so please put at least your trousers on before you wander about. I expect to be fifteen minutes in the kitchen; after that I want. . . Thibault on his own in the still room, please, which is at the top of those stairs. And then Ryan in the Great Hall which is the big room we came through on the way in. Don’t just go off even if I’ve done your picture because there will be several group shots. The Great Hall is the centre of the house and that’s probably the best place to congregate. Go on, move!”

The kitchen was fun – we ended up with one shot of Rob being suggestive with carrots and another one (more likely to appeal to the Board) of all four of them having a food fight involving whipped cream. Quite a lot of it ended up on the floor; Piet made them clear it up afterwards while I hoisted the camera up to the still room. I was nearly at the door when I thought that if he were still downstairs, I had no chaperon, and Thibault was scared of me. I leaned over the banister and looked down to see if there was anybody spare.

“Tommy! Can you come up and see fair play while Mr de Vries is occupied?”

Thibault was waiting for me; he looked sick with nerves. I had a moment’s apprehension: “Thibault, are you old enough for this? The Board said nobody under 20.”

He nodded. “I had my birthday last month.”

He really was apprehensive: he said ‘birzday’ and his accent had thickened noticeably.

“Excellent. Then since you do look young, we’ll make the most of it. Come inside. I asked if we might have one of these jars. . . what’s your preference, raspberry, strawberry, blackcurrant, cherry, blackberry? Um, there’s gooseberry. . . marmalade, no, not those. Crab apple jelly, it’s a smashing colour in the jar but I think it might be a bit of a nothing on you. Darker would be better, cherry for preference. Are you O.K. with cherry?”

“Madame Milton, I regret, I do not understand what you are asking me.”

“Call me Fran, everybody does.” Specially once I’ve photographed them in the altogether. “I think you’re going to sit in that chair, eating jam with your fingers straight from the jar and dripping it on your chest, and every woman in four counties is going to dream about licking it off again. If you can balance the chair on two legs, then the corner of the table will keep you decent. Look, come and sit down. Now, lean the chair back. A bit more. Slide forward in the chair and lean your head back. Shift the chair back about six inches. Now, I reckon you’ll be decently disguised. Hang on and I’ll lock the tripod. Now, I shall go and sit on the stairs looking the other way while you undress; get yourself settled, and Tommy, when he is, look through the viewfinder and check the pose, and then call me.”

I gave the jar of jam to Tommy, rather than approaching Thibault myself; he was jumpy enough with his kit off, without a woman old enough to be his mother wanting to smear him with jam. “Dip your fingers in it, and just let it drop on your throat and chest. That’s lovely. No lower than that. Now lick it off your fingers; doesn’t matter if you get it round your mouth, actually, it will be better if you do. Look at me – look at the camera while you do it. Good man, that’s lovely. That’s brilliant. Again. Super. One last one for luck. Excellent. That’s you done, then. Look, there’s a sink, you can get the jam off, and I should think you could take the rest of the jar home with you, I don’t suppose they’ll want it now that you’ve had your fingers in it. Thank you; well done.”

I turned and nearly walked into Piet in the doorway. His eyebrows climbed at his young winger daubed with preserved fruit, but he didn’t comment.

“Ryan is ready for you in the Hall. You said something about the fireplace?”

“I want him to sit in it like he’s come down the chimney. Ideally, I want him sooty. Tell him to stick one arm up the chimney and rub his hand on the wall. I’ll be down in five minutes as soon as I’ve got the tripod folded.”

Ryan’s got one of those cheeky faces, like an overgrown 10 year old; make him smutty with soot and every motherly woman will want to take him home. I have no idea what effect he has on men.

“The library, and can I have you three who are keeping your trousers on, please, and you can look as if you would be far too erudite to take your clothes off.”

That was easy, and I took two more of the trousered ones to the kitchen garden and let them weed the herb bed, and then in the laundry I mixed the groups. I actually had more strippers, so to speak, than non-strippers, so half a dozen went in both groups and were pictured surrounded by steam and soapsuds.

“One more inside, and I think we’ll break for lunch. I’ll have Jeff and Mark, please, upstairs.”

“I’ll go upstairs with you any time, darling,” leered Mark; I rolled my eyes at him and followed him up. I had my revenge: I had them fill a hip bath, and put Mark in it, with Jeff pouring water over him from a huge patterned jug; the water wasn’t any too hot and Mark complained a good deal, to Piet’s thinly disguised amusement. When I’d got what I wanted, we went back down, and Piet called his troops together.

“The Board has arranged with Lady Maybury for a light lunch to be provided for you in the Orangery. We shall assemble back here in 45 minutes, please.”

I admit I enjoyed my lunch; it’s nice sometimes to eat something other than a bolted sandwich. I walked back across the courtyard with Piet, who drew me to one side.

“Frances, I have a favour to ask. You intend to take some pictures at the stables?”

“You know I do.”

“Will you leave them until last? Does it matter to you what order you work in?”

“Not really, I just want to get them dressed and back indoors before it starts to get cold. I want to do the other group picture absolutely last, but I can leave the stables until last but one if you want. Why?”

“I will show you later, O.K.? If you do not mind.”

I might have pressed him further, except that Piet opened the door for me, and we arrived in the Hall just in time to hear Mark announce, “Well, she’s pretty fit, Fran Milton, for a bird her age. I wouldn’t mind giving her one. . .”

“Thank you so much, but I’ll pass,” I said crisply. “If we’re ready to start again, everybody? We’re going to the lake first.”

And as I picked up the camera case, I heard Piet enquiring in that gentle voice which terrifies his team so much, “Tell me, Mr Sawston, are you aware that Miss Milton’s partner is a senior policeman? You had better pray that she does not repeat your comment, unless you wish to find yourself being stopped by every traffic constable within a hundred miles, wishing to check your lights and brakes, and to know if you have been drinking.”

“Fran wouldn’t do that,” objected Phil, clearly. “She’d think that was telling tales. She’ll just make sure that the picture of you in the calendar lets everybody see that you’re half a stone heavier than you ought to be. She fights her own battles, she doesn’t need a detective inspector to look after her. Which is not to say that he wouldn’t do it anyway if he found out; he’s a nice guy, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he could turn jealous over her.”

I smiled a little. I don’t need anybody to look after me, but sometimes I suspect that I don’t have much choice about it: when I took on Hansie, I got the rest of them on a buy-one-get-one-free basis. What Tim calls the Family.

I had the tripod set up by the time they caught up with me, Mark hiding in the middle of the group and the rest rather hysterical and rowdy, having plainly given him a hard time. I was ready for Tommy. I had spent some time looking up the cultural aspects of tattooing, but I had been devoid of ideas for several days until I heard something on one of the Radio 4 current affairs programmes in which somebody was bemoaning the cancellation of a contract for an aircraft carrier, and I half listed to all the related guff about an island nation and the history of the Royal Navy. After that it was just word association: navy, ships, the sea, and I had seen something about the reason Tommy had a boat on his back. As always, of course, I couldn’t find the web page again, but the idea of two nations from opposite ends of the earth who thought of themselves as having an affinity with boats sat up in my head. Boats.

Tommy’s eyebrows went up a bit when I told him the detail of what I wanted, because I’d only been able to email over a very rough idea, but he nodded cheerfully enough. “And I think we’ll have Mike Tasker with you. He’s a very English type.” I put them in a punt on the lake. A plain English chocolate-box-top scene, weeping willow,  man reclining in a punt, another man punting, only neither one had any clothes on and the one with the punt pole (and actually that was difficult – finding some way for him to hold a pole which didn’t look past suggestive and into vulgar) was tattooed from navel to knees. Damn but I’m good.

And once I told the fisherman what I wanted, he basically sorted it all for me. We borrowed waders from the house, he readily stripped off his kit and took himself thigh deep into the water.

“Where do you want me to catch something? You won’t be able to see the line anyway, will you?”

“Not in this light, no, but I need the rod to be bending, and you to be pulling so that there’s strain on the muscles of your back, and I’ll touch the line in by hand later. So we need weight on the end of the line.”

He wound the end of the line, hookless, round a rock, and backed away a little. “Like this? How heavy is what I’m supposed to be catching?”

“Fifteen stone nine,” said Phil cheerfully. “You’re going to catch me, I understand. Well, you’re going to try.”

“I’d throw you back, Filthy. Wouldn’t even bother with the net, I’d break the line sooner than try to land you.”

Phil flipped him the finger and the angler – what was his name?­ – turned back to what he was doing. He seemed quick enough to grasp what I wanted: the effect of a man catching something very large and heavy. I took four or five shots and let him come out of the water.

“O.K., Phil, you next. The gamekeeper told me the water’s about four feet deep over there. What I want you to do is duck into it – right under for choice, you’ll need wet hair, and then to explode upwards as hard and fast as you can, like jumping in a lineout. The higher you can get the better pleased I’ll be. Then I’ll overlay your picture on the other one, so that it looks as if he’s been fishing and caught you, and you’re fighting. You’ll need to do it several times.”

We experimented – what am I saying? Who’s this ‘we’? I took a dozen pictures in the end, of Phil arching out of the water, crashing back into it, and generally making like a big game fish; he was panting heavily when I let him out of the water and back to his towel and pile of clothes.

“Just as well you were facing the other way, Phil,” commented Ryan, derisively. Phil glanced down deprecatingly. “That water’s bloody cold. You go in, and we’ll see how much you’ve got to offer afterwards.”

“Have no fear,” I said cheerfully. “You’re all going in later. Not in the lake, though. Right, guys, the farm next.” Various bucolic scenes, all peopled with large and naked or semi naked men. Not difficult, and we were nearly finished.

“We’ve only the stables left to do. The front row is going to plough, in company with Riley.”

“Who’s Riley?” asked Mark, who was recovering himself and had decided that I hadn’t taken offence.

“Riley is one of the carthorses, and according to Lady Maybury, the one with the best temper. We’re to find Angela who looks after the stables and she’ll sort Riley for us.”

One of the props looked at me sideways. “Um. . . she’s not staying, is she? I mean, it’s one thing stripping off in front of you, and nothing personal but I don’t like it much, but I’m not doing it in front of some strange woman.”

“No,” said Piet, reassuringly. “I have discussed this with Fran and Lady Maybury. Miss Angela will bring us the horse, and she will remain while Fran blocks the picture, with you dressed, so that we may all see that the horse is not disturbed by it and there is no danger. Then she will return to the stable – and if you wish, one of you may go with her, if you think she is not to be trusted to go right away – while Fran takes her photographs, and either we will allow you time to dress before we call her again, or one of us who knows about horses (I do myself) will lead the horse back into the stable for her.”

“Right. And what’s this about ploughing?”

“Angela shows the heavy horses at the County Show,” I explained. “They have ploughing competitions and so on; the horse is used to being in harness. I want to put the front row round the horse, and have the whole lot of you leaning into those big black collars, like you’re ploughing together.”

Easy. That one was easy: I only took two shots. Then while the props put their trousers on, I had the two flankers (I think that’s what Piet called them); one of them had long hair, and I lined them up with him twisting ribbon into the horse’s mane, and his mate twisting ribbon into his hair, and both of them draped discreetly with horse brasses.

“O.K. If you two are decent, can somebody call Angela, and we’ll swap Riley for Richmond. And who was it said he could ride a horse?”

He complained about it a good deal, and he refused to remove his shorts. “Please be quick. A saddle has lots of bits which nip.”

Then I hurried them all back to the formal gardens – and the cascade. It’s not a particularly big one, not a Chatsworth or an Alnwick, but it’s deeper than most in the pool at the bottom.

“Can I have everybody in the water, please? No, take off what you like. Yes, I know it’s cold, you’ve all told me.  Right, splash. More! More! No, doesn’t matter which way you face, I’ll fill in flying water later if I need to. Whoa! Ryan, can you come to the other side, please, I’m losing you over there. And you, swap places with him. . . better. Splash? Lovely. Again!”

Fortunately they were all dressed again by the time Adele Maybury appeared from the walled garden; I suspect she had been watching discreetly from some vantage point. Piet and Rob came to thank her formally for the use of the Hall while I packed the cameras away again. She dismissed their speeches. “I only wish I had been better prepared. From the look of you all, I should have allowed the public in to watch; the popcorn sales alone would have made it worth my while. Look, if anybody wants, I’ll get the Games block opened up. We have a small pool and gym for residents on courses, and there are showers. I don’t know how clean that stream is: at this time of year there are cattle in the pasture higher up.”

That was well received; she went off to arrange for the doors to be unlocked, and Piet called, “40 minutes, gentlemen, and we will assemble at the coach, please.” Then he turned back to me.

“If you will allow me to carry the case, we can go back to the stables.”

“Sure, but what for?”

He smiled at me; he doesn’t smile often enough, and it gives him a look of such sweetness when he does. “So that you may take a picture of me for Margaret St George. I too can ride a horse, and although I will not allow my picture to go in the calendar, I am quite willing to call Ms St George’s bluff.”

“Good grief,” I said weakly. “Is she married? Her husband might not care for her having personal pictures of naked rugby players, you know.”

“She is divorced and has reverted to her maiden name, and it is no more than a joke. I have shorts under these trousers and I will go so far, so that she may show the picture as she will.”

“You’re as vain as Phil, it’s disgraceful. Angela has probably put the horse to bed, or whatever they call it.”

“She will not have done so, for I told her there would be one more picture; she will have left the horse saddled for us.”

She had; she took us into a big indoor arena, and watched while Piet mounted the horse and took it round for five minutes at a brisk trot; then she nodded, apparently satisfied that he knew what he was doing, and disappeared. Piet slid down the glossy shoulder and pushed the reins into my hands. “If you hold him, I will undress.”

And he did, all but shorts and shoes, swinging back up, and circling the horse again. “It is true, the saddle does nip. Now, what do you advise?”

I was desperately changing lenses. “When the horse moves, something fabulous happens to your musculature. It’s more difficult to get an action shot, but let’s try, shall we? I’ll do a couple of stills, too, so you’ll be sure to get something, but. . . go on, go round again.”

He circled two or three times in each direction at the trot, and then did something, I didn’t spot what, and the horse broke into a slow canter. I took half a dozen shots.

“O.K., now, just stop him. Don’t look down, don’t look at me. . . brilliant. Is that enough?”

“I think so.”

“Phil will be disappointed,” I observed; “he’ll want to know why you wouldn’t go all the way. And he’s not going to like you giving fan photos to strange women.”

“I – Frances, would you take one more? One for Phil? One just for Phil?”

“Sure. What would you like?”

“Could you go and ask Angela for the loan of a crop? Assure her it is a prop only.”

My eyebrows climbed, but I did as I was told, and came back to find that he had unsaddled the horse and led it to a mounting block. “I think that I do not want a saddle if I am also going to lose the shorts.”

I turned my back. I don’t want to know how a man naked except for his shoes gets onto a horse. I doubt if it’s elegant, and Piet is always elegant. I don’t want to spoil the image.

“For this, I think we keep still, we do not rush about.”

I turned back, and gave a squawk of amusement. “This is. . . I’m sorry, Piet, this isn’t calendar stuff. This is porn. It isn’t even the whip that does it, it’s the gloves. The gloves somehow make it. . . porn.”

“Do you mind?”

“Not if you don’t. Turn your head a little further to the left; no, not so far. . . Good. Chin a little higher. O.K., and from the other side. . .”

He gave me the horse to take back to Angela while he dressed; we walked to the coach park together and I packed all the gear back into the various carriers on the bike.

“I’ll email those over for you tonight. You must trust me a hell of a lot, Piet.”

He glanced down at me, unsmiling. “I trust you absolutely, as you well know. As does Phil. As does all the Family. Now, I shall take my boys away, and assure Mark some more that he can expect a ten year sentence for parking on a double yellow line.” He leaned down and kissed me on the cheek, to some wolf whistling from his team. Then he quirked an eyebrow at me. “And in exchange for the photographs, I will see that your cheque goes out next week and not the week after.”

Like I say, sometimes life’s a bitch.

I’d enjoyed myself, although I had every intention of speaking to Fran about her obsession with running water – I’m telling you, that cascade froze my rocks off. But we’d thawed in the showers and by the time Piet and I made it home I was thinking of nothing more complicated than a meal and a chance to watch TV.

After we’d eaten, Piet went to the computer.

“Not work, Piet? Can’t you take the evening off?”

“I intend to, koekie. No, I wish only to check my mail. Fran promised to send over a couple of files. . . ah, here we are. Come and see, koekie. Which of these shall I send to Margaret St George?”

“Good grief!”

“I told you – she had been teasing me about wanting a picture as her fee for facilitating the use of the house.”

“I know you said so, but I didn’t think you’d do it!”

He pulled me down onto his lap and leaned round me to look at the screen. “Why not? She should know that it is dangerous to enter into a game of Dares with me. Which one?”

“That one. The horse is moving in that one, and you’re too far away in. . . what am I saying? I don’t think I want her having pictures of you only half dressed!”

“Well, then, you may have a picture of your own, to make up for it. Which one would you like, Phil? One of those ones? Or one of. . . these?”

“Bloody hell!”

“Or shall I send one of those to Ms St. . . ow! Do not nip me!”

“I’ll do a damn sight more than nip you if you send her one of those,” I scolded, laughing. “They aren’t decent.”

“No, that is what Fran said, too. I had her take these ones just for you. You may print one off and keep it on the bedside table if you wish, but I think I would prefer it if you did not use it on the computer as your desktop.”

“I could make them into a slideshow and use them as a screensaver,” I said, dazedly. “Simon showed me how. I think I want to be a horse.”

“You want me to ride you?”

“Now there’s an idea. Set those to print and come upstairs, Piet. Please?”

“I shall just send Ms St George an email. . .”

No! It can wait until the morning. I want you now.”

He smirked at me, and I glowered at him.

“Do you think of nothing but sex, koekie? If I send my mail now, there will still be time for me to give you what you want before bedtime.”

“And if you come upstairs now, you’ll have time to do it twice.”

He considered. “Well, that is true. You think that would be the better idea? Perhaps you are right. No, you do not need to pull at my arm, I am just setting print. . . Now I am all yours.”

“And don’t forget it,” I grumbled. “I’m not giving you up to Margaret St George.”

He regretted it in the morning, though, poor pet. He threw back the covers when the alarm went off, rolled out of bed and hit the floor with a yelp. I sat up.


“My legs do not work. Oh, that hurts! Fran accused me of vanity yesterday and I fear she was right, I thought only that the horse would make a good prop, and forgot that I have not ridden since I left the army. Stop laughing and help me up. You are not kind to me; here I am old and decrepit and incapable and you are laughing at me.”

I heaved him off the floor. “Excuse me, but I don’t think you can use the word incapable. Allow me to point out that in 24 hours last weekend you were capable enough to manage Hansie once, Tim once and me twice, so stop fishing for compliments and sit down there. What about a bath? I’ll go and shower in the other bathroom and you can soak for fifteen minutes and see if that helps. And I’ll do you with Deep Heat if you like.”

“Phil, if you bring Deep Heat anywhere near the bits of me that hurt, I will, when I have stopped screaming, spank you so hard that you will never sit down again. But you could bring me a cup of coffee to drink in my bath, if you would and then I might, I might be able to put my clothes on and face the day.”

He insisted on being the one to drive, and we parted in the car park, to our normal activities. Mine took me into the gym with an extremely dull schedule of low level reps designed to build up stamina; I intended to combine it with my homework. My present from Piet last Christmas had been music lessons: not piano lessons, although I did play for Patricia, but more the musical awareness that I might have learned at school if I hadn’t had to choose between music and sport. Musical appreciation. I’d shot myself in the foot, much to Piet’s amusement, in the second lesson: Patricia had asked me to play something – anything – that I knew. Naturally, my mind went blank, and all that came to me were the National Anthem and Swing Low. No, she said, those wouldn’t do, too well known. So the only other thing which came to me was Hansie’s damn song about the springbok and the sheep, which I passed off as a Lancashire folk tune, known it all my life, no, sorry, I didn’t know the words, I didn’t think there were any. And once a month ever since, I’ve taken that damn tune, which personally I never want to hear again, and arranged it in the style of. . . See, she thought I didn’t listen to enough composers, I didn’t know enough about the various styles of music. I’ve arranged that tune in the style of Bach, as a madrigal, as a Lerner and Loewe style show-stopper, as something by one of the brass band composers, as. . . well you get the idea. Classical music downloads are a bit hit and miss, so I had my CD player, and lots and lots of Saint-Saens to see me through the morning, and maybe give me some ideas about slotting springboks into the Carnival of the Animals.

So I was plugged into that and pushing and pulling on various pieces of equipment, with only three or four other guys in there with me, when Nathan came in, looking a bit green. I had a notion that he’d been out with Piet, who likes to take us about four at a time for field work. Actual contact training takes up much less of our time than most people expect, because of the risks of injury, but Piet likes to see who’s fast, who’s strong, and keep us all with our skills the way they should be. Anyway, Nathan looked most decidedly shaken and when I spoke to him, he wasn’t wholly coherent in answering me.

Still, Nathan has his moments with Piet – he can’t resist the smart remark, which is not always a good idea where Piet is concerned, so I didn’t make much of it, just went on with what I was doing. If I thought about him at all, I suppose I thought that he’d got mouthy and Piet had Spoken to him. Once Piet Speaks to you, you stay Spoken to for some time. After a while, though, I realised that Nathan was shooting me odd little glances, as if he wanted to ask me something but didn’t quite know where to start.

Eventually, he ended up on the treadmill next to mine, still giving me those odd looks. It took him another ten minutes to decide that he did want to ask me something.

“Phil? Can I. . . did you. . . never mind.”

He wasn’t usually that incoherent. “What, Nathan?”

“Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter.”

He jogged on for a bit, and I gave my attention again to the piano trio on my CD. A couple of minutes later he tried again.

“I was just wondering if the Terminator. . . he seemed a bit. . . is he all right?”

“Well, I don’t think he’s terrifically comfortable, “ I said, mystified, “but it’s his own fault. It’s rare for him not to think of the consequences of what he does, but they catch up with him same as they do with the rest of us.”

“Oh,” he said in a choked voice. “Oh, right.”

“Why, was he out of temper with you?”

“Oh no, no, not at all,” he assured me hastily. “No, he was fine. We just noticed that he seemed more inclined to talk us through everything than show us, you know? I mean, he doesn’t do as much as he did, but generally he’ll do everything with us at half speed and just drop out when we start to pick up the pace. No, it was just that he was a bit disinclined to. . . no, like you say, maybe not comfortable.”

“Well, it’s hardly surprising or unexpected,” I agreed. “It’ll pass soon enough. He’d probably prefer it, though, if you pretended not to notice.”

“Of course, yes, I’m sure,” he agreed in the same strangled voice, and then rather pointedly fitted his own earphones and started his MP3 player.

O.K., so you’ve got it; I didn’t. I was dim. I noticed that presently James Gerrold came in, and Nathan got off the treadmill and went to talk to him; I heard him say, “Are you sure?” but I didn’t take any more notice than that. But James looked nearly as odd as Nathan, and ten minutes later Mick appeared and James went to speak to him and, and Mick’s “WHAT?” was audible right across the gym. They were all giving me odd looks too, but to tell the truth I assumed, inasmuch as I thought about it at all, that there was some gossip going on from which I was being excluded either because I was vice-captain or because of Piet. There’s a catch with being the partner of the Director of Rugby, and that’s part of it: I’m automatically excluded from some of the team bonding. I can live with it.

It came to a head latish in the afternoon, when we all went to the pitch; the gossip was still going round the players. As each one arrived, one of the others would drag him to one side and tell him whatever it was. It got a blast of profanity from big Dave, and T-Bone said, “Quoi? Quoi?” in a tone of such bewildered incomprehension that Gregor put an arm round his shoulders and explained it in a rattle of colloquial French, which left T-Bone with his mouth open and a stunned expression. I just pretended not to notice.

Piet had said that our passing had gone ragged over the summer, which was true; T-Bone was now settled in his place on the wing, but there had been a couple of other changes, and we weren’t all arriving exactly where we ought to be just as we needed to be there. There’s no substitute for practice on that, until you can catch and turn and throw in one easy movement and know that somebody will be there to take the ball. Most of us have a preferred direction, too: I catch and throw more easily on my left, and I have to work at ensuring that when it matters I can go one way as effectively as the other. We were working our way up and down the pitch with the ball going left to right and back again, changing direction every time Piet blew his whistle – and it was a shambles. A complete pig’s breakfast. I seemed to be the only one who could either throw or catch with any degree of accuracy. The others – all the others – were all over the shop. They missed the ball coming towards them; if they caught it they couldn’t unload it in the right direction or fast enough to be of any use, or hard enough to reach the next guy. Piet bollocked us comprehensively, me included, told us to take five minutes to get our heads straight and then “you will do it again, gentlemen. And again and again and again, and if necessary tomorrow and the next day. The girls from the amateur club are better than you at this; at the moment I would say that they would take the ball from you, and score with it, eight times in ten, and there is not one of them older than 17. Your display is disgraceful. Pity help us when we have to try anything complicated like scissor passes.”

He turned away from us, and we sort of milled about a bit, trying to catch our breath without standing still long enough to stiffen, and I found myself next to Ryan, who was gazing at me with a look of positive anguish.

“Phil, you didn’t. . . say you didn’t. Please. Not the Boss. Not the Terminator. You didn’t, did you?”

I must have been giving him a look of absolute blankness, and Mark cuffed him, quite sharply, round the head, and said in desperate tones, “Will you in the name of God shut up, Ryan, please will you just shut up. Nobody wants to know. Nobody. It’s not our business, it’s not anybody’s business, nobody wants to know.” And just then Piet turned round and started to walk back to us, and as he did, he sort of flexed his back and winced, and I heard a sharp intake of breath from both Mark and Darren, and I got it.

To this day, I don’t know how I managed to get through the next hour without lying on the ground, screaming and biting the grass. I won’t say I behaved well, because I didn’t: I said brightly, “Well, boys, shall we get back to work?” and I picked up the ball and slapped it lightly, and Tommy made a peculiar sound in his throat, and Darren actually leapt backwards as if he’d seen a snake.

Piet was spitting feathers when he let us go. The practice had gone from bad to worse; T-Bone couldn’t keep the ball in his hands and every time I turned towards him with a pass, he quite plainly panicked. The only thing that stopped Piet ripping into him was the fact that everybody else was worse. Any time anybody seemed to be getting himself together, I would pat him on the bum and say cheerily, “That was a bit better, wasn’t it?” and it would all go to cock again. By the time we went to the showers, nobody was in any doubt that we were the worst collection of has-beens, wannabes and never-weres this side of London, and that Piet was at a loss to know why he had committed himself to training us for another season. 

And I felt that I’d paid off some considerable arrears of those remarks that are meant to be jokes but aren’t quite as funny when you’re on the receiving end of them as they are when you’re dishing them out.

I went upstairs for Piet at knocking off time; he was just locking up his office, and he turned, eyed me slowly up and down, and asked curiously, “Do I wish to know what you have been doing to get so wet?”

“I’ll tell you later. Can I borrow some trousers?”

“I thought you had spare ones in your bag, or your locker?”

“They’re wet too. I don’t, just at the moment, have anything that isn’t wet, not even underpants, and unless you want me to make your car all wet, you’ll have to lend me something else.”

He unlocked the door again, shaking his head, and ushered me in. “Stand there. Try not to drip on the carpet. I can give you the trousers in which I coached today; they are a little muddy but not too bad. You may have my shirt too, but I cannot give you underthings. Or you have a complete change in the boot of the car if you wish to bring it in.”

“No, that’ll do,” I said hastily, peeling off my clammy shirt. “These’ll have to go in the wash anyway, no need to dirty another set. Thanks. No, never mind about socks, my shoes are soaked too. O.K., shall we go?”

“Come then.”

We got out of town and about a mile from home, before he gave in to curiosity. “So why were you so wet? Was it something to do with that last session?”

“How did you know?”

“Because you knew what was going on there, Phil. I came close more than once to asking you to share the joke. I really hope” there was a distinct warning in his tone “that it was not you who was disrupting things so badly.”

I made a face: I knew what he meant. I’d been thoroughly spanked once before for disturbing training with a misplaced joke and I thought there was a fair chance I would be again.

“It wasn’t exactly me. It was you.”

Me? How was it me?”

“You didn’t tell anybody about the horse, did you?”

“Of course not.”

“Well, see, you’ve been. . . it’s the way you’ve been walking today.”

He cast me a glance of exasperated incomprehension. I sighed.

“Look, when somebody comes in walking like that, like everything hurts a bit and they’re trying not to let it show, usually it’s me and it’s because you’ve – mind the lorry! Keep your eyes on the road!”

“They thought. . .!”

“They thought you’d done something you shouldn’t and I’d spanked you for it, yes. I thought Ryan was going to have a complete fit; T-Bone was all but hysterical, Mark and Darren wanted not to think about it at all and couldn’t help themselves.” I risked a glance at the stone face. “I didn’t say anything to make them think it might be true. I didn’t actually get it myself until part way through that last session, I was as much in the dark as you were to start with. And after all, what could I say while we were on the pitch?”

I could see him consider this. He tipped his head a little, not necessarily agreeing with me, but acknowledging what I’d said.

“I didn’t let it go on, either. I did think about what it would do to your authority: I knew I couldn’t just leave it lie. But I didn’t tell them until after we were all dressed. They” I was beginning to giggle again. I’d laughed myself nearly sick at the way they’d all been avoiding me – except for the brave few who had spoken to me extremely politely. “They took it rather badly. That’s how I ended up back in the shower with the water on full and all my spare kit thrown in after me.”

Piet was negotiating our lane; we’re going to have to think about having it tarmacked, it doesn’t do the car suspension any good at all. He pulled the car under cover – it used to be a tractor shed – and looked at me. “I want to hear this in the right order, inside, please.”

Even my bag was dripping; I left everything in the utility room, took a couple of deep breaths and went to meet my doom in the study. Piet, of course, had entered ‘his’ house through ‘his’ front door, and was waiting for me.

“So explain to me what you knew and when you knew it.”

I told him about the gym and my failure to grasp what Nathan had been talking about, and about the Chinese Whispers of the rest of the day and how I had suddenly twigged it. I thought about keeping schtumm about the small amount of ‘helping’ I had done, thought better of it and confessed. That would be, I reckoned, what would get me spanked. Not caned; I was certain of that. Piet never gives me a punishment disproportionate to my share of the blame; it wouldn’t, I guessed, even be a particularly severe spanking. When I finished, Piet was shaking his head helplessly.

“This is what comes of trying to apply the techniques which worked in South Africa to an English team. In the days of Hansie’s team, it was not thought at all unusual that the coach should warm the backside of a lazy player. And here. . .”

I sat still and said nothing.

“Well, koekie,” (koekie, not Mr Cartwright; that was promising) “I am not sure that I agree with you that there was nothing you could do. You could either have spoken to me about the horse, so that the others could hear, or you could have told any one of them in the knowledge that the tale would have followed the same route round them all.” Oh all right, yes, I could. Maybe not so promising. I shifted uneasily; he saw it and raised one eyebrow. “But no, I am not going to punish you for it. I can quite see that the temptation to have a little of your own back would be well-nigh irresistible, and since you did not let it go on past the end of the day – and since your team mates have punished you themselves. . .” He held out his arms and I went happily to him.

“How,” he enquired gently, into my hair, “did you contrive not to laugh?”

“Self control,” I said smugly. “I’ve got quite a lot. I was taught it by a master.”

 After dinner, though, he was still shifting uncomfortably, and in the end I coaxed him upstairs so that I could massage the worst of the aches away. He smiled lazily at me from the pillows. “So this much vaunted self control of yours, would you care to demonstrate it to me?”

I looked suspicious. “What have you in mind? We’ve done self control exercises before and they usually end up with me screaming.”

“Well, since your colleagues are so fascinated by the concept of Phil the Top, you had perhaps better keep in practice.” He pulled one of the pillows from behind his head and worked it under his hips. “I do not do this often, Phil. You will need to go slowly.”

I ran my fingers slowly up the inside of his thigh, watched his legs part and his hips tilt. “Are you sure?”

He smiled. “I believe the phrase is ‘be gentle with me,’ is it not? Slowly, Phil. Think of it as another exercise in self control.”

I do enjoy my training.

Idris the Dragon

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