To the Woodgnome, from Cobweb, with love. Merry Christmas.
I was looking forward to Christmas, actually, and the more so when my mother, on one of my duty visits to her, announced rather tentatively that she was going to Barbados for the holiday. We were on better terms than we had been a year ago, there was no doubt about that, but we’re never going to be really close. I’m vaguely fond of her, but no more; she is still embarrassed by me although she tries not to show it. I think each of us would like to love the other but the breach has been so deep and has lasted for so long, that we haven’t quite managed a bridge over it. Still, at least now we wave at each other from opposite sides. She doesn’t know what to make of Hansie, either, although she does try. I’ll give her that, she does try. She did eventually stop calling him ‘Mr van den Broek’; she went as far as ‘Hans’, if not ‘Hansie’. But he still calls her ‘mevrou’ and she doesn’t stop him.
Ja wel no fine, as Hansie says. It’s better than it was. Not good, but better. But Christmas without her would be less stressful all round, no denying it.
We dithered a bit about what to do. We had the standard invitation to Jim and Mary, but we wondered about staying at home and doing it ourselves – and then of course there was the rest of the Family. In the end Phil was ahead of me. He asked, on one of our Friday night get-togethers.
“Have you guys got Christmas planned? Are you going away?”
I shrugged. “We haven’t decided yet. I’d quite like to do it in the new house, you know? What have you planned?”
“My parents are coming down and I’m doing a Waifs and Strays Christmas.”
“A. . .?”
He laughed. “Well, Mr de Vries, our esteemed coach, isn’t going to South Africa for Christmas, so I thought he might like to spend the day with me.” Mr de Vries looked down at the head resting against his thigh, and tugged at the curl wrapped round his finger, but he said nothing. “And Tommy – have you seen Tommy? He’s one of our overseas players, he’s from Samoa. Built like a brick whatsit, but he’s a lovely guy. He can’t go home, his wife’s pregnant and can’t fly, and the baby’s due on New Year’s Eve, so I don’t suppose she’ll want to cook, and from things Tommy has said, it wouldn’t be either safe or charitable to leave him to cook for her. Takeaway pizza is about his limit. And then Gregor, he’s the other overseas player, he’s from Georgia. He isn’t going home either, so I’ve invited him and his girlfriend. Nick is apparently working Christmas Eve, Christmas morning, Boxing Day and the 27th, so that somebody with kids can have the time off, so he and Fran are coming and then they’re going to his parents for New Year’s Eve. I’m inviting everybody for drinks at four and we’ll eat about six. What about you two? Would you like to come?”
I thought about it. “I’d been wondering about doing it myself and inviting you guys and Jim and Mary too, but if you’ve got plans. . . What about this? We’ll go to Jim and Mary on Christmas Day, or maybe have them to us. You’ve got enough people as it is. Then – what about Boxing Day?”
Piet took a turn. “On Boxing Day we are having open house from noon to midnight. Phil and his mother are planning some amazing cookfest – it is the first time I have had a comfortable conversation with Mr Cartwright, we think they are mad. There are about 30 people invited, to come when they please and stay as long as they like. So you might come too?”
Hansie was nodding. “That would be good. And then you will come to us on New Year’s Eve? Phil, will your parents still be here? No? There will be something going on down at the rugby club, we could look in there.”
“Sounds good. Do come on Boxing Day though, and the Hamiltons too if you like, and Simon. . . fuck! I’d forgotten Simon. I’ll invite him for Christmas too. Or you can, if you’re going to do it. Make sure he comes to one of us, though, Tim.”
“I have a feeling he was intending to go abroad. I’ll ask him, though: you’re right, he mustn’t be left unaccounted for. Are you going to have to cater for weird dietary requirements and religious whatsits?”
“Gregor is Georgian Autocephalic Orthodox, whatever that is, but he doesn’t practise. He says he eats everything. His girlfriend does practise but she’s from Cheam and goes to the United Reform. Tommy worried me, but apparently he was brought up Methodist, and his wife’s from Barnsley, he says, so I think I’m excused.”
“You are well organised,” said Hansie, and sighed mournfully. I knew what that was about. Jim had asked Hansie to come up with some notion for the junior players’ Christmas party – and both Hansie and I were totally, and I mean totally devoid of ideas.
“Hansie? Run it by Phil and Piet. Maybe they’ll be able to dream up something.”
Piet tipped his head to one side and reached for the wine bottle. “What is this?”
It was Hansie's kids, the junior teams, the ones under 18. Jim always threw a party for them at Christmas, and last year it had been held at Phil’s club. They divided it into three: there was an afternoon bash for the under 12s, and then a late one for the 16 to 18 year olds, with a DJ and so on. The early evening turn, for the 13 to 16 year olds, was Hansie's lookout this year. That had a DJ too, and the attendant staff didn’t have to spend quite so much of their time as they did with the older ones trying to stop the front row getting their respective girlfriends pregnant, but traditionally, there was also The Ruck.
The Ruck was held halfway through the evening, and it was some wild and physical game designed to take about 40 kids and burn the edge off their energy in the hope of them being able to sit down and eat something. One year, Aunt Mary had devised a team treasure hunt; one year the parties had been held at the TA base and the kids were let loose on an assault course. Another time, there had been Outward Bound style problem solving at the racecourse followed by a barbecue in the empty stableyard. What there had to be was the opportunity to rush about and scream, and it had become a matter of pride at the club that nothing was to be repeated before all the individuals who had taken part had passed on to the next age group. This year, though, bright ideas were in horrendously short supply.
We chewed it over for an hour or so, and nothing came to any of us, and Hansie sighed again. “I will have to go back to Jim and tell him I have failed him,” he said, morosely. “I can think of nothing. I am devoid of Christmas spirit.”
“Christmas spirit is mostly alcohol,” pointed out Phil, leaning over to refill Hansie's glass. “Have some more. Charles Dickens. Mr Scrooge. Piet and Fran to teach them to dance the whatever-it-was that Scrooge remembered dancing with the woman he didn’t marry.”
We all stared at him; he flushed a little. “I know I’m not literary, but I have read ‘A Christmas Carol’, he said defensively. “Isn’t there anything in that we could use? Knit your own Jacob Marley? Prizes for the best Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come? Dream up new traditions and demonstrate them?”
We thought about it, and Piet said slowly, “No, koekie, not that precisely, but you put me in mind. . . When I was young, my grandmother used to tell me. . . What was it now? It was. . . Phil, you are the youngest, you will remember. When you were young and Father Christmas came to visit you – ”
“Excuse me? When I was young? I am fully expecting Father Christmas to call on me this year. Nobody will hear the end of it if I don’t get a Christmas stocking.”
Hansie was amused. “Does Father Christmas visit a man in his twenties?”
“He does in this house,” said Phil firmly. “Oh, not big stuff, but my mum and dad and I always did it, right up to when I left home, and last year Piet and I had small parcels to open in bed, didn’t we, Piet?”
“We did indeed, koekie,” confirmed Piet affectionately. “I must have been very good last year, for that was the first time in many years that Father Christmas had brought me anything.”
“What sort of things?” I asked, fascinated. Oh sure, Santa called when I was little but by the time I went to senior school, the tradition had lapsed, like, I suppose, it does for most kids.
Piet frowned. “What was there, Phil? Nothing of any great value. A packet of some fancy coffee, I think, and a book. . .”
“I had a detective novel,” agreed Phil, “and a cookery book, and some unusual spices. Chocolate.”
“That is right. Chocolate money. Phil said that was traditional. And an orange, and a miniature of brandy which went straight into our coffee (drinking before breakfast, disgraceful). I had a new whistle, and a CD, and Phil had something for his car, I forget what, a jar of chutney, a photo frame. . . small things, hardly more grown up than when we were children. I had quite forgotten the pleasure of small silly gifts to start the day.”
“It was magical, wasn’t it?” I agreed. “Maybe we should do that, Hansie.”
“I am not sure I would know how,” admitted Hansie, shamefaced. “I do not remember this. Ach, we probably did it, but after – after Julius died. . .”
After Julius died, I’m not sure that anything was ever done in his childhood simply to give Hansie pleasure. Phil heard that too; his glance crossed with mine. “Come out with me tomorrow, Hansie. We’ll go to the craft market at Porton; that’s good for small stuff. We’ll get silly things for our nearest and dearest. Come on, though, that’s by the by. What did you want me to remember, Piet?”
“Father Christmas called if you were good, koekie, did he not? But was there a threat of what would happen if you were not good?”
Phil shrugged. “Sure. If you weren’t good, he wouldn’t come. I never heard of it happening to anybody, though.”
“And was that all? There was no – no anti-figure to punish the bad child the way Father Christmas rewards the good one?”
Phil frowned. “I don’t remember one. Why? What have you in mind?”
Piet leaned back and smiled at us. “Hansie, these children, they are not all boys. How many girls in your teams?”
Hansie shrugged. “25 or 30 boys and 10 or 12 girls.”
“Then you will need maybe three men who can run, and a couple of women, all with the necessary police certification. You have any women on your coaching team?”
“Alison Hazlehurst. She works at the Upper School, she is Sports Mistress there. She brought a friend with her once, a woman who was training for the same career, and who helped with a session. Why?”
“We would need to look it up, for I do not remember the details, but I am sure that there are similar traditions all across Europe. Your children are too old for Father Christmas, fersure, but they are not too old for Father Consequence.”
We spent a good hour beforehand, going round with the club steward and the keys, making sure that rooms which needed to be out-of-bounds were locked, but that there were escape routes from just about every corner. Then I went into the main clubroom, the one they use for dances and dinners. Jim had arranged decorations and it certainly looked very festive. I hopped up onto the dais, where the DJ was finishing his preparations.
“You won’t touch any of this, mate, will you?”
“No, don’t worry. I need to get at the lighting controls, that’s all. Once you’ve finished your session, I need you to put all the lights back to this board for the Ruck so that I can set the spots and dim the main lights, that’s all.”
It had taken me most of an afternoon to work out how to set the lights, but I was confident now that it would work. The first of the little ones was arriving; I hastened to get out before Mary could spot me and demand that I help with amusing and entertaining ten year olds. Little Timothy is not good with children. I was back by halfway through the second session, watching the second group strut and display to their peers, the younger ones to their own friends, the older ones to the opposite sex. Down in one corner, I could see Hansie, busily catching certain of the children, explaining to them what he wanted, letting them in on what was to happen, what he needed them to do. The DJ kept the rest occupied for a further half hour, before handing them back to Jim who sheep-dogged them into the centre of the room, hushing them vigorously. I dimmed the lights and set a spot onto the dais. A minute later, Hansie stepped into it, tapped the microphone and waited for some quiet. It’s a measure of how well he’s thought of at the club that he got it.
“Ja, Geseënde Kersfees to you all, Happy Christmas, and tonight we want to consider some Christmas traditions. Now in many parts of the world, children expect a visit from Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, or Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas. Sometimes this is Christmas Eve, and sometimes Christmas Day, and sometimes it will be the saint’s day at the beginning of December. But the rules are more or less the same, the good child is rewarded with toys or sweets and the like.”
He paused for a moment; there was an uneasy fidget in his audience, which was plainly thinking ‘Santa Claus? Does he think we’re babies?’
“Ach, but you people are way too old for such stories, ja nee? Still, it might be worth asking, have you all been good? What happens at Christmas in this country to the child who isn’t good? Mr Hamilton, can you tell me?”
Jim leaned to the microphone. “When I was a small boy, my grandmother told me that if I wasn’t good, Father Christmas would leave my stocking full of coal.”
“Is that so?” asked Hansie, rhetorically. “Now my grandmother told the tale differently.” It hadn't been Hansie's grandmother, it had been Piet’s and we’d had to email his mother for the details, but he was holding his audience now.
“My grandmother told me the tale the way it had been told to her, that Saint Nicholas had helpers who ‘took care’” (there was a considerable amount of menace in that phrase), “of naughty children. In the north of Austria, for example, there was Krampus.”
I flicked a second spotlight onto the door to the right of the dais, in which, suddenly, Phil was lounging. He was dressed in red, with red streaks through his hair, and somehow he looked wild and a little dangerous.
“In the south of the country, there was the Budelfrau.”
I lit the door to the kitchen. Hannah Vinnie was there, dressed in white, even her hair dusted through with flour.
“In Switzerland, there was Schmutzli.”
That was Greg, dressed in grey, his eye sockets darkened to make him look corpselike, and heavy silver jewellery, skulls and snakes, decorating his chest. Fran had provided those, collecting them from her biker friends. Greg used to be a prop, which for those of you who don’t follow the game, means that he’s 18 stone, he has no neck, and his knuckles trail on the floor when he walks. He doesn’t run fast, but when he does get up to speed, it would take heavy industrial gear to stop him. He filled, fairly completely, the space where the double doors open to the carpark.
“In Germany, there was Knecht Ruprecht, Farmhand Rupert.” Alison Hazlehurst is whip thin, boyish in build, and she was dressed in green and brown, with straw in her hair. She was at the bottom of the stairs which lead up to the offices.
“But my grandmother told me,” continued Hansie, conversationally, “that if I did not behave myself, I would be punished and carried off to Spain by Zwarte Pieter, Black Peter.” I flicked a light onto the door to the bar, and quite slowly, Piet stepped through it. He was dressed in black, his own trousers, but a crewneck shirt borrowed from Phil. Phil likes his shirts tight; on Piet this one was stretched taut across a torso still heavily muscled. He was wearing his gloves (out in the carpark Phil had whimpered theatrically at the sight of him); he had also marked his face with something black, commando style, sharpening his cheekbones and throwing into relief the line of his jaw. I would not have wanted to meet him up a dark alley.
Some of the children were beginning to get a notion of what was to come, for they were trying to watch all of Saint Nicholas’s Helpers at once; the five who had been allowed into the plot were eyeing up their escape routes.
“So I ask again, my friends: have you been good? I do not think that you all have, you know. Ruth, I am told, is careless about leaving her dirty kit until the day before training before she thinks to empty the bag, is that not so?” Against the wall, Alison nodded theatrically. “Carmel is not good with punctuality.” Hannah stretched out an arm towards the girl, who shrank back among her friends, trying to look scared, and threatening to laugh. “David talks too much and listens too little.” David looked back at Greg who was rolling his shoulders and stretching. “Otone is selfish with the ball.” Phil leaned into the room, as if trying to spot his target. “And Michael will not put in the time to practise.” Piet’s head turned very slowly, like some large predator weighing up the likelihood of a kill; on the other side of the room, Michael was bouncing on his toes, ready for the signal.
“What of the rest of you? Do you all have clear consciences?” Hansie let that one hang for a moment, before he went on, “Do you know how these Helpers punish the wrongdoer?”
Each of the five produced, from behind their backs, a riding crop. It had been my job to go into town and find a saddler, and I’m sure the woman behind the counter had thought I was mad, buying so many. “If your conscience is quite clear, then stand fast and the Helpers will not touch you. But if you have not been absolutely good all year, then I suggest that you. . . RUN!”
And with that, the five victims bolted for the doors, the girls (and one of the boys) screaming to add verisimilitude, and with the Helpers close on their heels. Careful forward planning ensured that all five fled towards exits directly opposite those occupied by their pursuers, so that there was the maximum pandemonium in the hall before the whole boiling of them set off at a sprint through the different doors, with the five adults hard on their heels. I stopped only long enough to reset all the lights to normal before looking out through the nearest door to see what was happening. A couple of kids came tearing past, with Phil chasing, all of them laughing like idiots, and a moment later one of the girls, skittering down the stairs, was caught by Alison, who flicked her lightly with the crop and dodged past her to nip through the door to the kitchen.
They kept it up for well over half an hour. All the children were caught at least once, I think, given a tap (it was no more than a touch) with a crop and let go. Greg and Phil carried out a pincer attack round the back of the dais, chasing a dozen screaming teenagers straight into Piet’s arms. I’m not sure that the children noted the careful demarcation by which the girls were touched only by the women and the boys only by the men – well, some of the older girls did, because they were desperate to be caught by Phil, who was wide awake to the dangers of that. The game grew even wilder when I took a hand myself, randomly turning lights on and off as I passed switches. I had just reached the bottom of the stairs and was peering round the corner, when a scarlet-sleeved arm wrapped round my waist and I was dragged backwards into. . . well, into a broom cupboard. Phil’s foot wedged the door shut and his hand knotted in my hair, dragging my head back – this is the catch with someone who used to be (and occasionally still is!) a lover: he knows all the things that get one going – to allow him to take a kiss (not that I would have denied him one had he asked!) before he ducked back outside, and I heard him take the stairs three at a time.
Five minutes later I was caught in an ungainly scrimmage when two of the girls came hammering down a corridor pursued by Piet who was carefully not touching them. They sidestepped me with style and vim, as taught by Hansie, and disappeared as Piet turned his attention to new prey. I was backed against a wall, kept there by a huge hand on either side of my body, with the crop in clear view, as the deep voice rumbled, “Well, Timothy, have you been good all year?”
I gave it some thought. “Can’t say I have, no.”
“And what have you done that you should not?”
“Well, Phil, at least once,” I giggled, and tried ducking under the arm, only for the crop to land smartly across my backside, sending me briskly on my way. A minute later I met Hansie, who was rubbing his rump theatrically, to the great amusement of some of his players.
“The Krampus caught me,” he announced ruefully. “Plainly I have not been as good as I thought I had. And there is James’ whistle. Come, everyone, that is the signal for supper. Go back to the hall; Timmy, can you sheep-dog along the ground floor, and send everybody in? I will clear them from upstairs.”
Piet emerged from the kitchen as the last of the children appeared; I saw him break back into a sprint up the corridor as a grossly overexcited girl vaulted the banister, and catch her before she hit the floor.
“No! Stupid! Ruth, you know better – that is an action where the risk outweighs the reward. Think before you act. There, go on, go.” She threw him a look of dismay, and scurried off after her friends. Piet looked up at me and grinned. “Well, Timmy, that went off well, I think. Come, James tells me that we are expected to take our places at supper.”
“Sausage rolls and pizza, Piet, and fizzy drinks. I would pass, if I were you, and come home with Hansie and me afterwards. I’ve got a casserole in the oven for the four of us.”
He laughed at me a little, and we came into the hall where the other chasers were congregating with Jim and Mary, and the tables had been set for supper. The older boys were claiming Phil, banging their table to attract his attention, and with a smile and a wave at me, he went. He knew that I had supper planned, so the fact that the boys were already swamping him with questions, and that he wouldn’t be allowed to eat much, didn’t matter. My gaze went past them to the next table, where the girls had gathered, and I saw Ruth turn to look wistfully after Piet. He saw it too.
“I think I had better go and mend fences with Miss Ruth. That was a foolish and dangerous thing she did, but I have no wish to spoil her party.”
Mary overheard him. “Pieter, be careful. She’s what, fourteen? The girls at fourteen are much nearer adult than the boys are, and she admires you hugely. A little unrequited love at fourteen will do her no harm, and I’m sure you’ll do or say nothing anyone could take exception to, but have a care.”
He nodded. “I will be mindful of my reputation, Mary, and also of hers, and indeed, the broken hearts of teenagers we have all seen before. Still, I think you are right. I do take an interest in her, and I think I must ensure that it is seen to be respectable.” He moved across the room, and I saw him duck his head to the girls, obviously asking permission to join them, permission which was enthusiastically given.
All in all, the party went off very well. Jim called for a round of applause for Saint Nicholas’ Helpers, which turned to cheering, and when I saw the next batch of adults start to arrive, to police the senior party, I thought I could muster Hansie and Phil and Piet and we could go. Piet emerged from the cloakroom just as the first parents arrived to collect their offspring, and I saw that he had washed the commando marks from his face, although it did little to make him look more approachable.
“Miss Ruth? I would like, if you please, a word with your parents.”
Her eyes went wide with consternation for a moment, and Piet, of course, Piet who sees all, saw that.
“No, do not concern yourself, I tell no tales. Black Pieter does not remember offences past their time. Come, you will introduce me?”
I admit it, I was nosy, and I made no particular effort to be out of earshot. Ruth did introduce Piet to her parents, in a rather shaken voice, and it was obvious that Mr Kincaid at least knew who he was.
“I wished to speak with you about Ruth’s career. She has real talent in her rugby, and although women’s rugby has not the profile that the men’s game does, it becomes every year more popular. I believe that if she so wished, Ruth could go a long way in it. I would like, if it is acceptable to both you and her, to be involved with that. If she desires, when she is old enough, to be a professional player, I would wish to be her agent; for the time being, I would like your permission, both yours and hers, to help a little with her coaching. With James Hamilton and Hans van den Broek here she will learn no bad habits, but I can help her further than that.”
I didn’t catch what Mrs Kincaid said, but Piet was nodding. “I will do nothing without your express permission: that is only right.”
Her father looked down at Ruth. “Would you like that?”
I don’t think she could speak; her face was glowing as she nodded. Piet smiled at her, warmly. “This is not the time or place to discuss such things in detail, that will wait until after Christmas and you will wish to talk it through. I have not my card with me, I came to help with the party, but you can reach me through the club here, or through James Hamilton.” He stepped back. “I will wish you all the compliments of the season.”
I waited for him at the top of the steps. “You old fraud!”
His eyebrows went up but he didn’t answer me; Phil and Hansie came to join us, though, in time to hear me.
“What’s he doing, liefie?”
“He pretends he’s so cold and heartless, and he’s just given that girl an early Christmas present of a rugby career. That would perfectly well have waited until January.”
Phil nodded. “Ruth? What did her parents say?”
Piet gave that sideways shake of the head which is so typical of him. “They did not commit, but they did not refuse me either. I will have the training of her, I think.”
Hansie looked surprised. “She has talent, fersure, but she is very young to be thinking of a career, is she not? She is only fourteen.”
Phil shook his head. “Hansie, when I was fourteen, I was playing for the school firsts with the seventeen year olds, and when I was sixteen I was playing for the firsts in a club like yours. I had my first contract before I left college. She’ll be having careers talks at school already: I don’t suppose they’ll offer her much advice about sport, but she’s got the talent, so why not?”
“Ach, I suppose, but it feels too early to me.” He pondered for a moment. “That is maybe prejudice on my part? If she were training for tennis or gymnastics I would not think it odd, but I had seen no women’s rugby until I came here. I do not think of my girls going on with it, and there is no reason why not. Ja, she will not get advanced rugby training at her school, that has no girls’ team, so if she has talent, it is up to you, Piet.”
“And to you, Hansie, and Greg and Alison and James. I do not wish to interfere, merely to add. But I could not do that without her parents’ knowledge and consent: there have been scandals enough about coaches and young players in all sports. Come, we are going home?”
I started down the steps and glanced back at Phil. “Your nose will be out of joint, if Piet’s taking on a new cub.” I was making a joke of it, but there was an element of truth too. Phil’s smart enough to see that I really wanted to know how he felt about it.
“We’ve talked about it. Piet’s looking to be agent for more people, and coach to some of them. We’re looking ahead. There will be more, I expect.” He winked at me. “I’ll have to watch my step or I’ll be out on my ear.”
Yes, likely, Phil, I don’t think. I relaxed. If Phil was happy about it. . . “And do they all get the deal you get? Bed and breakfast and sundry extras?”
“If they do, I call the newspapers, and. . . Piet’s giving us the Look, Tim. It’s a really good Look: do you think we should shut up?”
Back at our house, I set about cooking rice to go with the casserole, while the others lounged about the kitchen with glasses of wine. Hansie heaved a huge sigh.
“I am so glad that party is over. I was worried about the Ruck, I confess, that the children would think it silly or undignified, and refuse to participate, but I think they enjoyed it.”
I reached for the salt. “You’re going to struggle to think of something better for next year, you know.” His look of horror was priceless. “And I’m not sure that you haven’t put entirely the wrong sorts of ideas into the heads of those two older girls. They’ll dream for weeks of being chased by Phil.”
Hansie leered at him. “Well, it was me he caught, not them.”
“You weren’t exactly making much of an effort to get away, you know.”
“Disgraceful,” said Piet, trying not to laugh. “And Tim tells me he has not been good this year. What about you, koekie? Will Zwarte Pieter be after you?”
“Yes,” I said firmly. “For kissing me in the broom cupboard, if nothing else. I suspect it’s only Piet who’s blameless.”
“Not even that, I fear. I am guilty of theft.”
Of all the things Piet might have confessed to, that must have been about the last we would have expected. We all turned to stare at him, and he smiled gently back at us, enjoying our surprise. Still, we found out. Boy, did we find out. No doubt whatever that we’re all good now, all our sins having found us out and been accounted for, amid a great deal of laughter and squirming. We’re all entitled to look for a visit from Father Christmas.
Black Pieter had – shall we say ‘appropriated’? – the riding crop
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