Town and Country

“Why, what does happen if you don’t behave in church?” I enquired. Mirrie lifted her eyes to mine, a look of such limpid innocence that I instantly suspected the worst, and rejoiced to see it. I don’t have that much to do with children – mind you, she’s not really a child, she’s 14 going on 45 – but some of my mates have kids, and with Piet involving himself with Hansie’s teenagers, I’m involved too. I don’t mind. I liked Mirrie, and she had been so reserved to start with, so buttoned up and shy that any sign of mischief was welcome. Joe, who was vice-captain before me – he retired two seasons ago – he always said that if his children weren’t misbehaving, it meant that they were sickening for something.

Ouma Martje told me that when they were young, Mamma and Oom Pieter got into dreadful trouble with Oupa Hendrik at church because…”

“Stop right there!” That was Riana, and Piet was nodding fervently, although I could see that he was amused. “You tell Meneer Phil that story, miss, and you will die a lingering and painful death, and I’ll just take my chances explaining to Immigration why I left Jo’burg with two children and I’m coming home with only one.”

Mirrie widened her eyes at me mournfully. “I’m not to tell you, Meneer Phil.”

“Is it sufficiently embarrassing that I should worm the story out of your uncle Pieter later?” I enquired seriously.

“We are done for, Riana,” observed Piet. “He will have this story and then he will tell all my friends, and I will count myself lucky if my team does not come to hear about it. The best we can hope for is to buy off your children until you have gone home and I can tell him myself, for then I will put a good spin on it. So what is the price, Mirrie? Another of those chocolate creations, or the banana split?”

Mirrie and Flikker exchanged glances. “The chocolate one,” they agreed.

“Then you must share with Meneer Phil so that he forgets to ask me for this story later.”

Yes, likely, Piet; embarrassing stories? I was going to have this one from him, not a shadow of a doubt. Not that that would stop me sharing the Chocolate Explosion thing with the girls.

Well, I like chocolate.

“We must furnish a bedroom for me in the Dairy,” said Piet. I nodded.

“And we’ll have to keep the connecting doors locked.”

It wasn’t for Riana’s benefit, or her husband’s; Gideon Meyer was apparently aware of Piet’s orientation. No, it was Piet’s nieces. Miriam was 14 and Florisje 12, and when the family first mooted the notion of coming to visit, I had asked what they knew.

“I would be surprised if Mirrie does not have her suspicions,” said Piet thoughtfully, “but she is of an age at which it has become unthinkable to ask or even to speculate; members of ones own family simply do not have sex, the very idea is repellent. She, I think, will be wilfully blind and she will talk only of her uncle and his friend. Florisje, on the other hand, Flikker (call her by her given name and she will tear your throat out, she hates it), her tongue runs ahead of her wits occasionally and she would gossip in all artlessness. So I think they may stay with their Uncle Pieter’s friend Phil who has room and to spare, and Uncle Pieter will live next door and be seen to go home at night, although how I am to manage two whole weeks without my own koekie in my own bed, I do not know.”

“We’ll have assignations in the outhouses,” I promised, “and I’ll meet you in the hayloft at midnight.”

“There has been no hay in that hayloft since well before we bought the farm,” he observed pensively. “I think you might look rather good, disposed in the hay. A debauched golden faun. Where can I buy hay? Will they deliver?”

“Stop wittering about hay and come and help me build the bed.”

“And what is in this for me, little bossy one?”

“Well, for one thing, you’ll have a bed when your family comes, rather than having to sleep in the car, and for another, once we’ve built it, I’ll help you test it for stability to make sure it doesn’t collapse on you later.”

The Meyers were coming for a fortnight, all four of them, and the first sign I had that it might not be quite the relaxed visit I was anticipating was when Piet was looking at his email. “Koekie? Riana wants to know what you wish the girls to call you.”

I must have looked a bit blank: “What about ‘Phil’, that being my name?”

He shook his head. “She will not like that. She does not care for the habit of children addressing their elders by their first names.”

“But everybody calls me ‘Phil’; people I’ve never met call me ‘Phil’.”

He was still shaking his head. “Riana will not permit it. You may be ‘Mr Cartwright’, or ‘Oom Phil’ – ‘Uncle Phil’.”

I looked at him, dismayed. “’Mr Cartwright’ in this house is in disgrace, and ‘Oom Phil’ sounds like a tone poem. Saint-Saëns, I think, I’ve got it on CD somewhere. I don’t really like ‘Uncle Phil’ either, because apart from anything else, it implies a relationship which can only be through you.”

He frowned but he nodded. “Well, then, ‘Meneer Phil’?”

I made a face. “If they must.”

It seemed they must, and more to the point, the girls didn’t seem to find it in any way odd. They were shy; they had almost nothing to say for themselves, although if I addressed them directly they answered me promptly enough. Anyway, I left the family largely to itself for the first few days – it wasn’t me they had come to see, after all. It was only fair that I should let them have Piet to themselves; I have him most of the time and they don’t. They went sightseeing and Piet took some time off to go with them and I put in the hours in the gym. I didn’t really get involved until the question of London came up.

I had to go down for a benefit lunch on the Friday; I’m not sure what put it into my head that we should all go, but it seemed sound. We booked one of those rather faceless hotels which would be well placed for sightseeing, and then we let Riana and Gideon loose on the internet to work out what sights they actually wanted to see. “I would really like to go to the Globe,” said Riana wistfully, “and the National Portrait Gallery.”

Ja,” agreed Gideon, “and the Tate Gallery.” He looked across at his daughters. “And we will find also something that will amuse you. I confess that if we have time I should like to go to Kew Gardens.”

I almost wished I hadn’t made the suggestion in the first place. The Tate and Kew? Not my idea of a good time, but never mind. I didn’t break into out-and-out rebellion until the next day and even then it was due to – well, to an accident.

It was my rest day: training doesn’t happen every day for every player. We had cleared up after breakfast and I had gone over to the barn. I’d done another photoshoot with Fran for the leather trouser people and what with that and a couple of match bonuses we reckoned we could have our swimming pool. In the normal way of all builders, the contractors had delivered the materials and then disappeared off the face of the earth, leaving one man, who claimed to know nothing on any subject, to carry out arcane rituals with plastic membrane. I went to see what was happening (nothing, apparently; even our solitary contractor had vanished, presumably back to his day job as a village idiot) and it was when I went to the far end to see if they had made any progress with the piping that I heard voices.

It wasn’t deliberate eavesdropping on my part, and what I heard was in Afrikaans anyway, which I don’t speak, but… well, I didn’t need to speak it. It was Mirrie’s voice and from the sound of it she was directly under what would be the new ventilation system. I didn’t pay much attention until the bit that was mixed Afrikaans and English.

Vervloek gardens,” she said, and I think she kicked the wall. And “vervloek Tate.” (I don’t swear I’ve spelled those right.) And the word she applied to the National Portrait Gallery wasn’t one I had heard before, not even from Hansie, but I got the gist. It’s like Tim says about understanding a foreign language: when you stop listening in English you can pick up a lot from context.

I was thoughtful when we went back inside, and more thoughtful when I heard Gideon and Riana discussing the weekend to come. When we got to coffee time, I asked Mirrie to come and help and pushed the kitchen door shut behind her.

“Listen,” I said in an undertone, piling cups on a tray. “We are not going to the Tate. We aren’t going to the National Portrait Gallery either. If I can possibly avoid it, we aren’t going to the Globe. I may have to give in about Kew but I’ll do my best. Tell your sister and then just trust me, O.K.? I’ll sort it. Now take the tray – is it too heavy? No? Good.”

It was just that I could smell engine oil and hot metal. See, my dad’s an anorak. Hood, fur lining, multiple zips anorak. When he works, he really works: long hours, weekends, the lot; when he stops working, he wants to play with a traction engine. What is it about steam engines? I mean, my dad isn’t old enough to remember the great days of steam, but to hear him talk… Anyway, when I was a child, every bloody holiday involved at least one steam railway and at least one steam museum. You couldn’t get me into Norfolk with a cattle prod nowadays – they have a steam museum every hundred yards and I think I’ve been to all of them. And every one looked like all the others and every one was staffed by overweight men in anoraks who talked about greased bearings, and damn it, the girls were not spending a weekend in London at the metropolitan equivalent of a bank holiday steam rally.

It wasn’t too hard to sort the first bit. Riana and Gideon couldn’t get tickets for anything they fancied at such short notice; I let them try and fail before I took a hand.

“Let me have a go. There’s a man I know who might be able to get me something. Only – look, why don’t we split up? We’ve a better chance of three tickets for anything than six, so tell me what you want to see and then I’ll take the girls to something suitable for them. Give me a couple of suggestions and we’ll see what Raymond can get for me.”

I don’t do this very often. Piet and I don’t care for it: it involves the swapping of favours. I didn’t doubt that Raymond would be able to acquire tickets for anything I wanted, but the cost, over and above the face value, would be an evening for me spent at some mind-bogglingly dull social event, squiring about some C-list celebrity who might look better if she ate more, and whose idea of fascinating conversation was to tell me what her therapist thought of her relationship with her ex-husband. I pushed that idea away and set Riana and Gideon to reading the online reviews and choosing a play. Then I took Mirrie and Flikker to another room and gave them the laptop and the same instructions. “I’m making no promises – it’ll depend on what Raymond can get me, but tell me what you would like. ‘Stomp’? ‘Mary Poppins’? ‘Lion King’?”

And Raymond did the deed. Three tickets for ‘Phaedra’. Three for ‘Guys and Dolls’, and I just held my tongue that all he had been able to get was the box, and that it had cost a bomb. I don’t mean to be vulgar about it or rub it in, but basically I’ve got the money, and, well, it’s not as if Piet and I will have kids of our own to spoil, not unless social attitudes change a lot further and faster than I’m expecting. Anyway, Gideon and Riana were supposed to be on holiday too; why shouldn’t they get to see what they wanted without a couple of bored and stroppy teenagers in tow? No, that was so far, so good, and I was, if you must know, rather pleased at the way I had arranged it all. Then Piet came home, so my chances of pushing through Plan B went by the board. Piet just knows stuff. Like when I’ve got a Plan B. He didn’t say anything untoward as Gideon filled him in on the revised weekend schedule, but I got a Look; he knows I don’t like dealing with Raymond. I abandoned Plan B incomplete, and went for broke. The girls were surfing for mentions of Adam Cooper, who was, apparently, a babe (well, actually, I thought so too); I shut the door on them and opened negotiations with their family.

“Why don’t we just split up on Saturday and Sunday? You do art galleries or whatever, I’ll do the Science Museum or the Natural History Museum with the girls. I’m sure they’d like dinosaurs better than portraits, and to tell the truth, so would I. Or I can do the tourist route with them, that might be better.”

Gideon looked at me over the top of his spectacles. “Let me get this straight. You are offering to amuse and entertain my daughters for two days? Two days? And how much parenting and childcare experience have you got?”

“None at all,” I admitted cheerfully. “I’ve done the observation and the theory with my mates’ kids. I know that a father is basically one part taxi driver, one part security man and one part Cashpoint. I can do that.”

“Be careful, Riana,” observed Piet, slyly. “He sells you a dummy with this talk of the Science Museum. He has a gold credit card, and he is offering to take your daughters into London. You may safely let them go – he is quite to be trusted – but you may expect to pay excess baggage charges on your way home.”

Both Riana and Gideon Looked at me; it made my hair curl.

“O.K., look, I’ll keep them out of tattoo studios, I won’t let them get anything pierced, I won’t allow them to have their hair coloured, I won’t let them buy anything illegal or stolen or dangerous or potentially embarrassing. I’ll keep them sober. I’ll keep sober myself. No obscene ringtones for their mobiles. No X-rated DVDs or dodgy electronic games.” I hesitated. What I really wanted permission for was harder to word. After all, they weren’t related to me; Gideon in particular might think I had no business buying them anything at all. “I won’t buy them anything which I think you wouldn’t allow Piet to buy them.” Then I held my breath.

Riana laughed. “Ja? And you think I do not know that their Uncle Pieter would spoil them shamelessly? Pieter, you say he can be trusted?”

Piet nodded, smiling. “It is quite true, I would spoil them, but I see them so rarely. You will let Phil act for me, then? And we will forbid him to spend more than the gross national product of a small country. I fear that is the best we can do.”

“Well, it’s only two days,” I pointed out, virtuously. Riana Looked at me again.

“I shall insist on a review on Saturday night before I consent to you having them on Sunday as well.”

“I think he should have a full medical on Saturday night,” put in Gideon, frankly. “I doubt if he’ll have the stamina for two days.”

Actually, that one was nearly true. They all went off together on Friday – I believe they did go to Kew – and I went to the benefit lunch. We got together for dinner, which I didn’t want, and a drink which I did, and when Riana chased the girls off to bed, I put in my fourpenceworth.

“Comfortable shoes tomorrow, we’re going to cover a lot of ground. Cameras – have you both got cameras? Mobile phones, charged. We’re starting off in Waterloo at a quarter to ten so we want to be out of here in good time, O.K.?”

They were ready to go on the dot, with Gideon handing them over and delivering last minute instructions. “You will obey Meneer Phil as you would me, ja? If he tells you to do something, you do it at once, without argument and with a good grace, O.K.? And you are to use your common sense, both of you: if Mamma or I would forbid something, then you are not to do it simply because Meneer Phil does not know that it is forbidden. Phil, are there any rules I have forgotten?”

“Yes,” I said. “If either of you gets lost, you stand still and ring my mobile and I’ll find you. And there is to be no mention of rugby today, none at all. Dead subject. Any talk of rugby induces forfeits, which we’ll make up as we go along. Right, Gideon, we’re gone. See you later.”

Actually, our first stop was the Tube; we were ensconced on a train before Mirrie mustered her courage to ask where we were going.

“I thought we could start with something really touristy: there’s a tour bus which will give us a glimpse of lots of the sights and then we can decide what we really want to see. And it’s an amphibious bus.”

That got them from polite interest to real interest. “Amphibious?” asked Mirrie doubtfully.

“Yes. We get a look at the Houses of Parliament and Nelson’s Column and Buckingham Palace and so on, and then it goes in the river. Literally, in the water. I looked at the river cruises and I looked at the coach trips and I thought this would be most fun.”

It was. It was huge fun. Suddenly, instead of two polite and tense young ladies, I had two girls who squeaked with delight at every new vista. It was catching: when they said, repeatedly, “Meneer Phil, what’s that?” and pointed at another building, none of which I knew, some other tourist with a guidebook, or host with a visiting friend, would lean over and say helpfully, “That’s Wellington Barracks, it’s the Guards’ Museum.” By the time we were back at Waterloo, I knew this was going to work.

“Coffee time. We’ll need to pace ourselves, frequent breaks. In here will do, look. O.K., what would you like? Coke? Hungry yet? Well, let’s have some cake as well. I thought we might go to Tower Bridge next, if that would interest you. You aren’t scared of heights?”

Apparently not. I was the one who was less than enthusiastic about the high-rise walkways. I’d thought they would enjoy those, and they did, but they seemed to be impressed by the Engine Room as well. The catch was the discovery that there was a joint entry ticket to the Monument.

“You want to climb 300 or so stairs? Are you mad?”

“Well, meneer, but you get a certificate if you do…”

We all got our certificates, but they were flagging a bit when we came down again. So was I.

“Definitely lunch next, and decision time. I think we should be careful not to try to do too much, or too many things the same. We can try for one of the museums this afternoon, or if you think Victorian engineering has improved our minds enough to be going on with, we could hit Oxford Street instead.”

Flikker looked puzzled. “What’s at Oxford Street?”

Her sister was better informed. “Shops. Lots of them.”

No-brainer, apparently.

I kept them clear of the smaller and more exotic shops which I prefer myself; I was reasonably certain that Riana would not be impressed if I took them home festooned with designer labels. Not that it mattered from their point of view – there was plenty to interest them in the bigger department stores, starting with: “Look, Meneer Phil, that’s you!” It was, too, a life-size cardboard cut-out of one of Fran’s pictures, with me in the new summer range (and though I say it myself, I looked hot). Yes, well, that shriek attracted a fair amount of attention, and by the time I had signed the thing and we had escaped Menswear for the greener fields of Teen beyond, there were several members of staff hovering and anxious to help. It was my first serious attempt at the rôle of male hanger-on, and I was relieved to see that the store provided chairs outside the fitting rooms. I sat, except when a hand emerged clutching a discarded garment, with a request to “see if this comes in pink, Meneer Phil?” much to the amusement of the staff.

Flikker was the first to appear. “What do you think, Meneer Phil?”

I thought Riana would have a blue fit, that’s what I thought. She looked like a cross between Barbie and an underage tart, not that saying so was an option. Think of something discouraging, Phil, quick. “It makes you look very young,” I remarked, with exaggerated doubt. She retreated hastily and I gave my attention to Mirrie.

“Not with that top. Fran says – you haven’t met Fran, she does my promotional photos, and all my fashion shoots too – she says bare midriff or bare shoulders, not both. Those three-quarter length trousers are good, though. Is there a skirt in the same line? And are there any more tops that colour? The colour’s good, it’s just the style I don’t like.”

An assistant materialised at my shoulder with an armful of garments, one of which she dropped when I smiled at her. Mirrie reappeared.

“Look, meneer, this is the skirt, but I don’t know if it’s any good.”

“Wrong shoes. It isn’t going to look like anything with trainers; take them off. See, that’s better already. Yes, take that as well as the trousers. And I’ll tell you what, we passed some denim jackets on the way over, and if you put the chocolate coloured one over the top…”

The nervy assistant took off like a gundog and came back with jackets. She knew her work – she had the blue one as well, and held it out wordlessly as Flikker, who had abandoned Barbie pink for blue and lilac, came to be inspected.

“No, don’t button them. That’s brilliant. Perfect. Let’s go with that, shall we? You get back into your own things, I’ll sort this, and then we’ll look for shoes.”

“Upstairs,” said the assistant helpfully, expertly packing bags and turning the card reader round for my PIN. “If you go up in that lift, you’ll be there.”

I reckon she phoned upstairs, because they were looking out for us. I indicated the girls. “We want the absolute pinnacle of cool, to match… um… these colours.” The girls were swept off by a minion to be measured and I lowered my voice. “The pinnacle of teenage cool with no suggestion of cheap tart or Essex girl. Price doesn’t matter, nor does brand name, good fit does and so does respectability.”

“You’re in luck,” observed the assistant, dryly. “Pinnacle of cool this season is ballet pumps, not white stilettos. I’ll see what we’ve got.”

She came back laden with boxes. “Metallic? Definitely cool, and not at all Sharon-and-Tracy. Silver for the blue outfit, bronze for the brown one. Cool enough?”

Apparently cool enough, and well fitting; she threw us a little with another style. “I’ve only got these in navy, but they’re rather pretty, with the silver chain strap.”

They were pretty; Flikker began to have the agonised expression of someone unable to choose.

“Mirrie, do you wear blue normally?”

She shrugged. “Fersure. But I like the bronze better.”

“Oh, the navy won’t go with that skirt at all, but if you wear blues, navy shoes will always be good for something. Right, we’ll take both styles, both sizes.” Oh, go on, why not? One afternoon of spoiling them? And you can never have too many shoes. Then we went another hundred yards to look for CDs.

Now that surprised me, although there’s no reason why it should. Flikker was straight in among the boy bands; Mirrie went to classical, and early classical at that: Byrd and Gibbons. She looked defensively at me when I joined her. “I sing in the school choir and the church choir too.” Obviously this was not cool.

“So did I,” I said equably, picking up a CD. “Well, school choir at least. I sang the solo in the Allegri Miserere when I was Flikker’s age.”

Her eyes widened. “The very high one?”

“Top C. Your uncle Pieter won’t let me play it in the car, he says it makes his ears bleed. Are you going to take those two? No, have them both, and we’ll pick up Flikker and think about heading back.”

At the hotel I delivered them back to Riana. Piet and Gideon were there in her room; they both raised eyebrows at the quantity of carrier bags I was unloading. Gideon was half way between horror and amusement: “You have emptied all the London shops? Good grief, how much have you spent?”

Piet shook his head cheerfully. “No, this is quite good. He can actually carry everything; I have known him come in staggering under the volume of his packages. Come, then, Phil: show us what you have bought. And is any of it for you?”

“Um – one CD.”

“Gideon, you must come and stay more often. One CD?”

“Look, fascinating though your analysis of my spending habits is, we need to get on. I reckon we’ve only got 40 minutes before we need to be out again. I want a shave and a shower and a clean shirt, and Mirrie and Flicker will want to change…”

“Whoa,” said Riana firmly. “40 minutes? We were thinking of having dinner here before we all went out again. And it is not necessary to dress up, surely, not just to go to a play.”

I don’t do a good Look, but I did the best I could. “Excuse me? You may just be going to a play. We are going out on the town, and if we’re going to find somewhere to have dinner without a reservation, we need to get a wiggle on. 40 minutes, tops.”

“But the girls look very well as they are; they do not need to change, do they?” objected Gideon, with a glint in his eye. From the anguished shrieks, I think both the girls knew that he was teasing; I thought it best to take myself off. Nevertheless, 40 minutes later, Riana delivered into my care two fashion plates quite ready to take on the capital on a Saturday night. We ate Lebanese; I confess I offered it without conviction as we passed a restaurant, thinking that the girls might want something more familiar, but they were quite willing to try. I suspect that by that stage, if I had suggested deep-fried cockroaches, they would have been willing to try. It was a good meal, though I could have murdered a glass of wine or a pint, and I made a note to come back with Piet.

I could have murdered an interval drink too, but I had coffee and the girls had Coke – and the show was worth what it cost, both directly and indirectly. I was well paid by the total absorption of my companions; they were starry-eyed by the end, although both of them looked sufficiently tired that I abandoned any idea of public transport and stopped at the first taxi rank. I hadn’t foreseen the consequence of that, though: we arrived back at the hotel ahead of the others. I hesitated over quite what to do: no way was I taking the girls to my room, because scandalous gossip about that would be worse than scandalous gossip about my orientation, but I wasn’t happy either about leaving them unsupervised in their own. The bar was a non-starter too, and the dining room, even this late, was heaving. I must have looked a bit blank, because the receptionist, who had called Riana’s room for me, looked past me at the girls and suggested the lounge. “They do coffee and bar meals, but it shouldn’t be too busy.” So we did that: more coffee for me, more Coke for them, and “What’s that?” breathed Flikker, as a thing the size of a tureen, full of chocolate and ice-cream and brandysnaps was carried past. The waiter turned to look. “That’s a Chocolate Explosion. Dessert for sharing, enough for two or even three.”

Well, I don’t think I got a third share of it, particularly since Riana seemed to think herself entitled to take my seat and therefore my access to the plate, when she arrived.

“So, Phil, you have spoiled my children shamelessly, filled them with junk food and pop and brought them back to me grossly overexcited, ja?”

“I think that’s a very fair description.”

“It is not at all,” objected Flikker. “We had pizza for lunch, Mamma, not really junk food, and Meneer Phil insisted that we order salad as well.” Yes, and then she had picked out all the cucumber and her sister had eaten the cherry tomatoes, and I had eaten all the rest, but we needn’t go there. “And I don’t think that was junk food tonight either.”

Definitely not. Chicken with lots of lemon, and stuffed peppers, and a thing with cracked wheat and minced lamb which was extraordinarily good, and a salad heavily weighted towards mint and flatleaf parsley. We had all started with dishes of our own and almost at once had negotiated exchanges in case somebody else had something not to be missed. But I didn’t think we were on good ground while they were scraping the last of the crystallised ginger and chocolate flake from a pudding basin the size of a bath. “Well, they’re your children, and I’m handing them back. I’m going off duty now. If they’re sick in the night, I don’t want to know. Listen, you two, we want to be out of here at nine tomorrow, is that O.K.?”

“You are fit for this?” enquired Gideon. “If you find it too exhausting, we can all go somewhere together. It was very good of you to take them today, but if you have had enough…”

From the corner of my eye I could see that Mirrie was holding her breath.

“I’ve got plans for tomorrow. Come to that, I’ve got tickets for tomorrow, and I need to talk to the receptionist, get her to find out something for me. If Flikker and Mirrie would like to come out again, I’m good to go.”

They were nodding; Riana scooped them up. “In that case, you two should be in bed or you will be fit for nothing. Say goodnight and come along.”

They have pretty manners; they thanked me, unprompted, for a lovely day, and went off obediently with their mother. Flikker at least was yawning; so was I. Gideon saw me. “Phil, they have exhausted you. Truly, if you have had enough…”

“Not a bit of it. I’ve enjoyed it as much as they have.”

“Then let me buy you a drink at least.”

“That would be nice. I’ll have a pint of whatever the bitter is, please, and then you can tell me how you got on at your play, and where you went today.”

I don’t believe they’d had half as much fun as we did.

We were out again, bright eyed and bushy tailed, straight after breakfast. “Where are we going today, Meneer Phil?”

“The Tower of London: I thought you might like to see the Crown Jewels. There’s plenty to do there, I think; in fact I rather think there might be too much, so we’ll see what there is and make sure we do all the really good bits. We can have lunch there too.”

They packed in a hell of a lot before lunch. They packed in a hell of a big lunch too. They packed in some more sightseeing, and then they looked at me to see what came next.

I did have a plan – I’d asked the receptionist to check times for me – but it was more for Mirrie’s benefit than Flicker’s and I said so. “I thought we could go to Westminster Abbey. With it being Sunday, we can’t make like tourists, but I thought if Mirrie sings in the choir, you might like to go to Evensong.” Well, Mirrie was keen enough. Flikker made a face, but she admitted cheerfully enough, if a little shame-faced, that she wouldn’t mind sitting down for half an hour. “Only, Meneer Phil, is it all right for us to go to church in trousers? We wouldn’t at home.”

“No, you’re fine. Put your jacket on to cover up your shoulders and nobody will bat an eyelid, you’re quite decent, and I’ve got a tie in my pocket, not that I think they’d notice if I didn’t. Come on, then, let’s go.”

It was only when we were sitting quietly inside that it occurred to me that I might be making a dreadful mistake. I leaned carefully over. “Mirrie? I’ve just thought, you must be, what, United Reform or Lutheran or something? Are your parents going to be O.K. with me taking you to an Anglican service?” She let her gaze slip round to me, did the teenage eye-roll and nodded. I persisted. “Are you sure?”

She sighed theatrically. “I went on the school trip to Italy last year and they signed the permission form so that I could go to Mass in the Basilica in Assisi. They will not mind.”

I won’t say that I was reassured, precisely – I ought not to have done it without asking first – but it was good enough that I didn’t think I needed to take them out again. The service was strange to them, obviously, but I was brought up Anglican although I don’t go any more, and we weren’t the only ones a little slow in our responses. Afterwards, I glanced at my watch. “Your dad has booked a table for us all at the hotel, but dinner will be quite late. I won’t last that long and I don’t suppose you will either. Let’s go and have tea.”

Teenage girls seem to be much like rugby players – always willing to fit in an extra meal. I’d have taken them for tea at the Ritz, but I think you have to book about a hundred years in advance; as it was, the place we ended up was quite posh enough for ‘afternoon tea in London’ to be both memorable and exceedingly grown-up. Once I’d paid the bill (and you honestly don’t want to know how much that was. No, trust me, you don’t) I looked at my watch again. “We’ve got time for just one last thing.”

I took them on the London Eye. I’d never been up there either, but I’d like to go again. It was when we came back down that the young man – five or six years younger than me - in the England shirt approached me. “Phil? You are Phil Cartwright? Would you sign my shirt for me?”

I’ve learned to carry a marker pen for this, and I uncapped it, intending to have him turn round so that I could sign down his shoulder blade, but he just whipped the shirt over his head. Nice looking boy, good abs, I thought, so I signed with an extra flourish. He had a camera too and Mirrie caught him looking hopefully at her.

“I will take a picture of you and Meneer Phil, if you will take one for my sister and me?”

That was a deal, apparently. Cameras were exchanged, photographs taken, and we all parted on good terms. Mirrie looked after him. “What a babe.”

There’s nothing quite like a teenager to stop you getting swelled head. I know my vice is vanity, but not even I can maintain vanity in the face of that. The de Vries genes are strong, though, even diluted by Meyer: Mirrie read my mind. “Oh no, Meneer Phil, you’re a babe too.”

I don’t know if that made it better or worse, actually.

“I think that signing shirts is rugby talk,” said Flikker, consideringly. “Forfeit!”

I bought her off with an ice cream; given the size of the tea she had just eaten, I don’t know how she could

Back at the hotel I lay down for an hour with a book – it felt like I’d played a hard match and I was exhausted. Gideon insisted on treating us to dinner, and a couple of bottles of wine, and the girls were anxious to tell their parents what they had seen and done all day. When they got as far as Evensong, I looked over at Riana. “I’m sorry, that was thoughtless of me. It didn’t occur to me until afterwards that you might prefer me not to take them there.”

Mirrie did the teenage eye-roll and sigh again. “Mamma, tell him. He’s been worrying about it all afternoon; I said you wouldn’t mind. Anyway, Papa said yesterday that we weren’t to do anything you wouldn’t like just because Meneer Phil wouldn’t know, so I would have said if you wouldn’t have liked it.”

Gideon nodded. “That is quite true, Phil, I did say so. Anyway, we are not concerned over such things. We have been to many different churches; we ask the girls only to behave respectfully.”

“Well, they did that,” I said, relieved. “I couldn’t fault either of them.”

“We know quite well how to behave in church,” put in Flikker, affronted, and Mirrie agreed. “Yes, Oom Pieter, we know what happens when you misbehave at church, don’t we?”

And Piet’s look of shock was enough to have me asking, “Why, what does happen if you don’t behave in church?”

He didn’t go straight to his own room later, although we had all separated with the stated intention of packing up for an early departure. He came to my room, to my bed. When we reached the relaxed and panting stage, I squirmed round to get my head on his chest. “Piet, I’m absolutely knackered. I don’t know how parents do it. You have to watch all the time to make sure you know where they are and what they’re doing.”

He laughed. “And do I want to know what the weekend has cost?”

“Probably not. It’s only money, though.”

“It is not only money, koekie. It is kindness, and it is your time, and your attention, and we are not unaware of it, nor unappreciative, any of us. You have given those girls a weekend they will remember for years, and you have given me a chance to talk with my sister without having to curb our tongues, and also a chance for me to get to know Gideon better. I had long since left home when Riana married him and we have met very little other than flying visits. It is by your act that Riana and Gideon have had adult time together, which is good for any couple. And yes, I heard you tonight, promising the girls that they could go home tomorrow in your car rather than mine, and that you would take the roof down. We must hope for fine weather, if you are not to disappoint them. I am not in the least surprised that you are weary; I will have to think of something to make it up to you.”

I came up onto one elbow. “Well, you could tell me the story about what you and Riana did in church, and why you got into so much trouble with your dad.”

He slid a hand down my back and pinched my bum, quite hard. “If I could be sure that the walls were soundproof, I would spank you just for asking. You must remind me to do it when we get home. You could not even wait until they had gone back to South Africa?” He told me the story, though; I’m not in the least surprised they got into trouble. You want to know about it? Ask him yourself. I dare you.

Middle of the next week, it was; the Meyers had gone home. I’d said my goodbyes at the house, and gone to training; Piet had driven them to the airport, leaving Harry to run the squad for the day. He was in the kitchen when I came home, peering suspiciously into a saucepan. I came across for a kiss, and peered in too.

“Looks all right.”

“It does not look like that when you make it, koekie.”

“No, it does. Keep stirring until it thickens and then shoot all the pasta in. I’m starving. Did they get off all right?”

“Yes, in very good order. The girls have left a gift for you.”

“For me? What?”

It was a flat parcel; when I opened it, a decorative photo frame slid out, containing the picture of the three of us in London. I took it to show Piet.

“Ah, your groupies. Flikker has asked if she may have a Gryphons shirt for her birthday.”

“We can order her one with her name on the back.”

He shook his head. “She does not want her name on the back, she wants yours. I am inclined to be jealous – she never wanted a Springbok shirt saying ‘de Vries’.” I looked sideways at him, but there was no real edge to it: he was smiling. We were both caught out by the hiss and spit as the pasta boiled over.

Later, though, Piet was thoughtful. We had cleared away the dishes when he said, “Oh, I have something I wish you to see.”


“Come and look. The building contractors were here today.”

We crossed the yard together; the barn looked no different to me, with piles of piping, unattached to anything, and pallets covered with green and white tiles wrapped in plastic.

“Not here. There, go up the stairs.” Not the barn, then: the hayloft. It was dim inside and what could I smell?

Hay. I could smell hay. The top floor was full of it; half a dozen bales still bound up and the rest loose across the floor. I started to turn, half laughing, to ask what it was about, but Piet’s arms went hard round me; he ran me across the floor to the bales stacked waist height, and with an almost physical shock I saw the riding crop lying on the top.

“It seems to me, Mr Cartwright, that you have been neglecting your duties. You have been disgracefully extravagant; you have appropriated my nieces into your personal fan club; you have spent your time amusing and entertaining them, when you should amuse and entertain me. You have treated me with shameful disregard, and I think you must be punished for it. You need to be reminded who is the Top around here.”

I wriggled suggestively, and heard the intake of breath which told me that it was successful. Then I let my voice quiver a little.

“What are you going to do?”

“First of all, I am going to warm this beautiful bottom,” his hand wandered, and I jumped, “and then I am going to re-establish my rights as Alpha Top. I am feeling proprietorial tonight and you know that I am a jealous man. You belong to me and I will have you know it.”

I wriggled again, and turned my head a little, which only served to give him access to the sensitive places on my neck; his hands continued to wander provocatively. When he bit my ear, I gasped.

“And the hay?”

“Very traditional. Have you not read the books? The wicked landowner is always deflowering somebody in the hay.”

I squirmed round to face him and let my lashes drop as virginally as I could for trying not to laugh.

“I shall scream.”

“I shall look forward to it,” he assured me. “Also whimper, moan and beg. Particularly beg. I have every intention of making you beg.”

Note to self: put a blanket up there. Hay is a lot less comfortable than you would think, also a lot dustier. And a great deal more expensive.

How much?”

“It was worth every penny, koekie.”

“And you called me extravagant?”

“No, it is an investment. It is quite dry here, the hay will come to no harm, and it will last us for years.”

I rolled onto my back, still panting. Begging that much takes it out of you, although even when I lose, I win. I might have been begging, but the wicked landowner’s English had deserted him at the end. “You know, Tim would like this.”

“You think so?”

“Tim likes being overpowered. I think Tim might find Wicked Landowner Pieter a turn on, specially with Evil Henchmen Hansie and Phil holding him down.”

“There, I told you so. We will get a great deal of use from the hay. You should not have doubted me, and as soon as I can catch my breath, I will punish you for having done so. And also for asking for the tale about Riana and the church. And also for not reminding me to spank you for asking for the story. It is hard work being a conscientious landowner, but I am a responsible man. Just give me ten more minutes to recover myself and I will fulfil all my duties.”

Definitely a blanket. I’ve got grass seeds in the oddest places.

Idris the Dragon

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