The delay at least gave me plenty of time to reconsider my decision but I knew I was taking the only course of action open to me. That knowledge did nothing to relieve the despair I felt at the thought of my bleak future. I’d once spent several months unemployed until my friends pointed out the advertisement for this job which seemed to have my name written all over it. Once appointed, I’d thrown my heart and soul into making a success of the role and the hard work had helped me forget, helped me move on. The last thing I wanted was to be stuck at home on my own again but, with no alternative employment in prospect, I feared that would be my fate.
I’d taken such care to avoid the slightest concern being raised about my suitability to serve as coach. I would hazard a guess that none of the team members were even aware of my sexual orientation. These days everyone has to be so careful when they’re involved with sporting activities and I am scrupulous about behaving professionally. Certainly, I’m in and out of the changing rooms but, like all coaches, I use that private space to talk to my team, give them encouragement, discuss strategy, celebrate success and commiserate over failure. I’m just careful not to linger when the guys are showering.
Of course, it’s a pleasure and a privilege to be surrounded at work by so many young men at the peak of their physical powers although I can say, hand on heart, that most of the time I’m so focussed on performance I don’t even notice all that Lycra clad muscle. But I’m only human and as subject to the power of sexual attraction as the next man. On occasion I do glance appreciatively at a nicely rounded bottom or a pair of pumping thighs. So what if I am a gay man coaching a team of elite male cyclists? They are no more at risk from me than a ladies’ netball team is at risk from a male coach. In fact, there seem to be rather a lot of men coaching women’s netball these days. Don’t tell me they’re all immune to those bare legs and the occasional flash of knickers!
I had never once betrayed myself by an incautious word or an inappropriate action so I was at a loss to understand how I had got myself into such a mess. Perhaps I’d just been on my own for too long and had come to believe I would never find another soul mate. I certainly wasn’t looking to get involved with anyone again so I can’t tell you when I began to succumb to the charms of Alfie Hayden. I can’t tell you because most of the time his charm was effectively masked by his behaviour which irritated, exasperated and exhausted me by turns. He was certainly the greatest talent it has ever been my privilege to coach but my hope of seeing him make the national team within a couple of seasons was rapidly diminishing as he neglected his training regime and caused chaos in a number of road races.
I should say straightaway that Alfie never set out to cause trouble. As the newest recruit he rapidly became the darling of the team and his lively sense of humour made him welcome everywhere — except, maybe, in the rival camp. He never seemed at a loss for an amusing anecdote or a crushing put down and he could deliver a good line in invective even when riding flat out on the bike. In fact, this whole disaster originated with an allegation that Alfie had caused an accident by doing just that. Apparently his commentary, delivered at close quarters and at high speed, on James McSteen’s inability to maintain an even pace and steer in a straight line had resulted in the man coming off his bike. I’d just been on the receiving end of an official complaint about unsporting behaviour on the part of my protégé when Alfie breezed in, fresh from the post race celebrations, brimming with laughter at his rival’s tumble.
To be fair to Alfie yet again, I know it never crossed his mind that his taunts may have caused James to run off the road. Crashes are one of the hazards of the sport and independent witnesses later attested to the fact that Alfie had pulled back before the bend where the accident occurred. Nor did Alfie know then that a strained shoulder would keep his rival out of the next race which would be vital for their respective rankings. Nonetheless, Alfie’s laughter struck a discordant note when I was trying to exercise all my tact and diplomacy to prevent the latest complaint being brought to the attention of the sport’s governing body.
I didn’t lose my temper but all my frustration at his thoughtlessness and carelessness welled up. There was a very real prospect that his career would never progress to the highest level if he continued to behave in this way. Without thinking I grabbed him by the arm and propelled him along the corridor into the privacy of the small room I'd been allocated as a team headquarters. My fingers were locked around his upper arm and despite his wrenching and squirming, he was unable to break from my grasp. Once the door was closed I treated him to a blistering reprimand without so much as loosening my grip on his arm.
When Alfie realised he was not going to get free he stopped pulling away and settled into a slouch, his head angled to the side and his face set in an expression of boredom. I did get a slight reaction when I mentioned the shoulder injury; he clearly hadn’t known that James would be out of the next race. But I still had the feeling that my words were failing to get through to him so, acting on impulse and without stopping to think, I twisted him sideways and delivered a dozen or so powerful slaps to the back of his thighs.
Alfie was still wearing his cycling shorts which are padded on the bottom. It was just my automatic response not to waste any effort where he wouldn’t feel the full effect. I aimed my blows at the top of his thighs which were clad only in a thin Lycra covering and I soon saw the red marks of my handprint appear in clear outline below the hem of his shorts. I heard him gasp, initially with shock and then, I think, with pain. He was still unable to pull himself free of my grasp but he arched his body forward in a fruitless attempt to get his legs beyond the reach of my hand. He didn’t cry out or demand that I stop. The whole thing was over in a matter of seconds. I spanked fast as well as hard and I stopped as soon as I realised that my behaviour was inexcusable. I let go of Alfie and he turned at once towards the door, ducking his head to avoid eye contact but not before I saw how flushed his face was, with tears or with shame I wasn’t sure. I let him go without moving and it took all my self control not to pull him back into my arms to offer comfort.
Back in my hotel bedroom the full horror of my unrestrained behaviour hit home. It was a case of assault, pure and simple and Alfie would be within his rights to report me to the police and insist they press charges. I hoped for the sake of the sport that I could dissuade him from that course of action. Honesty forced me to acknowledge that I was motivated, at least in part, by the desire to avoid a criminal prosecution but I knew that if it came to the crunch I would plead guilty and spare Alfie the need to give evidence against me. The most important consideration, however, was to protect the team and the sport from a nasty scandal and that meant I would have to tender my resignation as soon as we got home.
Thinking it through, I decided to wait until Alfie had calmed down and then offer him my deepest apologies. I hoped that he could be persuaded not to go public with what had happened, once I assured him that I would report my lapse to the team manager and offer my letter of resignation. Shamefully, I found myself banking on the likelihood that Alfie might want to keep quiet about what had happened just as much as I did. He would hardly want the gutter press to print salacious details about his spanking and the team manager would not want to risk bad publicity which might make our sponsors withdraw their support.
I continued to sit at the small desk in the hotel bedroom gazing with unfocussed eyes at the screen of my laptop. Once the letter was delivered I would need to start applying for jobs. If the circumstances of my resignation did not become public, and if I could persuade my employers to give me a supportive reference, I thought I would eventually be able to find employment in a similar, if less prestigious, post. That thought should have cheered me but I was conscious only of a deep sense of loss.
I didn’t have much of a life outside of work and my colleagues had become my friends. It was hard to imagine not seeing them daily. There were all my plans for the future to think about too: the training schedules I had so carefully put in place to bring my team to the peak of fitness in time for the major races of the season and the travel plans to take the leading riders to the international competitions. All that would have to be handed over to someone else. But as I contemplated the full implications of resignation I found I was thinking less of the administrative aspects and more of the human impact of leaving the job. My anguish gradually began to assume a human face and it was the face of Alfie Hayden.
When had he crept into my heart so that it now ached at the thought of not seeing him again? I closed my eyes and could picture his flashing brown eyes and wicked grin when laughing at a joke or planning some escapade. I could see his dark hair curling at the nape of his neck as he bent his helmeted head to reach down for the racing handlebars. I could feel the warmth and strength of his lean, muscular body leaning slightly into mine as I supported his stationary bike before a racing start. The pleasure I had always felt in his presence was so strong I could conjure it up at will just by the power of my own imagination. I felt some of the tension drain from my body and a small smile rise to my lips merely at the thought of dear Alfie. I would never have lost control so disgracefully with any other rider. I could no longer deny to myself how I felt about him: he had broken through all my barriers.
I felt such a foolish concern about how he would cope without me to keep an eye on him and sort out his mistakes. I’d been telling myself that I was exasperated by his antics but the truth was that he brought out a powerful protective instinct in me. I had been the first to recognise his talent but he needed someone to channel and discipline his raw ability. I was heartbroken to think that I would not be the one to undertake that task. I can honestly say that only part of my grief at leaving the team was about being parted from Alfie. Mostly I was worried about how Alfie would face the future without me.
I was contemplating that grim prospect when I heard a very gentle tapping on my door. It was so quiet I wasn’t sure whether I actually had a caller but I got up and went to open the door. Alfie was standing in the corridor looking rather flushed in the face. It seemed to require some effort but he raised his eyes to mine and whispered, “May I come in?”
Shit, shit, SHIT! That fucking hurt! I couldn’t get out of that office fast enough and I scooted down the corridor like I had the finishing line in my sights. Actually, running seemed to ease the sting a bit but the truth was I didn’t want to bump into any of my team mates until I’d had a chance to examine the damage. I didn’t want anyone to start asking awkward questions about red marks on my thighs… to say nothing about a suspiciously red face and rather watery eyes.
The bastard! He’s not allowed to hit me. I hadn’t done anything wrong. It wasn’t my fault if that stupid idiot can’t corner. I’ve had to get out of Jimbo’s way more often than I can remember. This time I was nowhere near him and yet I got blamed when he ran off the road. It just wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair!
When I got back to my hotel bedroom I locked the door and peeled off my cycling shorts, taking care to ease the tight fabric over my blazing thighs. When I twisted to look at the damage in the mirror I could see the reason for the burning sensation. The backs of my legs, from mid thigh up to the curve of my bottom, were a uniform crimson with the clear imprint of finger marks at the edges of both patches of colour. I ran my fingers cautiously over the sore spots and felt the heat radiating from my abused flesh. Sadistic bastard! I bet he enjoyed giving me what for!
I went into the bathroom, grabbed one of the handtowels and held it under the cold tap before wringing out the surplus water and applying the chilled fabric to the back of my legs. When I was certain that the towel had stopped dripping I took it back with me into the bedroom where I threw myself face down on the bed, spreading the thick, damp cloth across my painful lower limbs. I concentrated on repeating in my head the complaints which had fuelled my anger so far: it wasn’t fair; the man was a bastard; shit, shit, shit; it just wasn’t fair! I kept that up for as long as I could to drown out the rising sense of shame and embarrassment which was threatening to burn itself into my consciousness much more deeply than those slaps had burnt themselves into my thighs. In fact, I soon became aware that the wet towel was taking all the heat out of my sore flesh and I shivered as I got up to go and take a shower. I washed myself thoroughly all over and was forced to admit that the after effects of the spanking were wearing off; I didn’t so much as wince as I soaped the back of my thighs.
Dressed in a tee shirt and a loose pair of jogging bottoms I paced the room as I towel dried my hair. My anger had died away and my sense of grievance was fading. Instead I felt overwhelmed by embarrassment at having been spanked like a naughty schoolboy. I cringed at the thought of anyone else ever knowing what had happened and I didn’t see how I could look Brandon in the face ever again.
Brandon Gates, the team coach, is a man I’ve always looked up to and respected. He first saw me ride as a junior and it was Brandon who selected me for the team. He’s just ten years older than me but when I first met him the age gap between us seemed greater than it does now.
My training schedule was entirely in his hands and my races were all carefully scheduled to fit in with his master plan to get me to the very top of my sport, although it’s fair to say that I didn’t always co-operate fully with that master plan. Hey, I’m young, I’ve never taken life too seriously and I like a bit of fun. That’s not to say I’m not ambitious; I wanted to make the national team and I dreamed about winning the really big races. I think I just trusted Brandon to make that happen for me even if I messed around, occasionally cut corners with my training and behaved in a less than sportsmanlike way when rivals got on my nerves.
When the chips were down, I could deliver. I knew it, Brandon knew it and so did the team management. I was the golden boy and it gave me a bit of leeway when it came to my behaviour on and off the road. But maybe I’d finally pushed things too far. Brandon must have been furious to have resorted to a spanking. Spanking! Just naming the punishment made me shudder with embarrassment. I’d obviously stepped over the line as far as Brandon was concerned and I didn’t know how to restore our usual amicable and professional relationship.
It wasn’t my fault that the damn stupid guy had crashed his bike. I hadn’t even seen him come off the road! Brandon said I’d contributed to the accident but that was just a load of bollocks. How could I have contributed when I had nothing to do with Jimbo’s inability to corner at speed? Okay, I had been pointing out his general ineptitude shortly before the accident and I know that taunting a fellow competitor is frowned upon in the sport but, God, it’s not a hanging offence. What had I done to make Brandon react like that? He had no business laying into me and I knew I could report him to management and that would be the end of it. He’d be out of a job. It gave me a momentary sense of satisfaction to think that I could get my own back but it was followed at once by the realisation that I would never do anything to harm or damage Brandon. The more I thought about it the more I became convinced that I would have to sort things out with him myself and no one else must ever be involved.
I thought of the many previous occasions when Brandon had helped me out, supported me, covered for me and reprimanded me. He was always so calm and understanding even when I was in trouble, although I could never get him to shift an inch once he’d made up his mind to discipline me. It was uncanny how he always seemed to know when I’d stinted on my training. I invariably had to catch up with the missed fitness and road work under his close supervision, plus extra training for failing to keep to my routine in the first place. He could reduce me to an exhausted wreck but I tried to give him my best second time round. His quietly worded ‘well done’ made all the effort worthwhile. He had always treated me fairly and gone the extra mile to get the best out of me. I told myself just to forget about the spanking and try instead to give a bit of thought to the behaviour that had got me into trouble in the first place.
I winced as I thought of the injury sustained by my rival. I wouldn’t have wished that on anyone, and especially not in a minor competition which was really just a warm up for the big race. I was forced to concede that my behaviour towards Jimbo didn’t match up to Brandon’s expectations on sporting conduct and I couldn’t come up with any sort of excuse other than my dislike of the man. I ran my mind back over the events of the afternoon and recalled that I was laughing about his tumble as I walked into the hotel. Brandon had been standing in the foyer and, to judge from what I remembered of the reprimand he later delivered, he had just been on the receiving end of some strongly worded criticism about my behaviour. His exact words, as I recall, were ‘yet another complaint’, delivered with heavy emphasis on the word ‘another’. It was possible, I conceded, that Brandon’s reaction could be better understood in the light of my previous escapades. It was just possible that this latest incident had been the final straw for him.
That was a sobering thought, and a distressing one. I hadn’t really thought about it before but that was the point when I realised how much Brandon’s good opinion mattered to me. I knew that my antics occasionally amused him and often exasperated him but I’d taken his tolerance for granted. I couldn’t bear to think that I’d exhausted his patience or fallen in his estimation. I’d come to depend on him but I had also been taking him for granted. I’d got a terrible shock that afternoon when his hand connected so forcefully with my legs but nothing that Brandon had said or done made me want to sever our connection.
I wasn’t stupid. I knew what would happen to the coach if I made a complaint and I didn’t want to contemplate my future in the sport without Brandon by my side. Hell, I didn’t want to contemplate any sort of future without Brandon in it. His smile of welcome when I reported for training, the quiet word of praise after a good performance, his unfailing care and concern for my welfare, along with his personal charm and emotional strength, all made his presence in my life indispensible.
I was going to have to work out a way to get over what had happened without involving anyone else. There was no way I was going to report Brandon for hitting me. I’d had worse hurts falling off my bike, although not such embarrassing ones. I had to work out how to get our working relationship back to normal, or if I couldn’t manage that, I could at least make the first move and face Brandon.
By now I was sitting on the bed. I’d turned on the television out of habit but I’d muted the sound as I contemplated the way forward. I was beginning to face up to the fact that I’d behaved badly and placed Brandon in a difficult position. I knew I could offer no excuse for taunting a fellow competitor and honesty compelled me to admit that I’d not responded well when Brandon addressed the issue. Maybe I’d got my just deserts. I suspected I’d pushed Brandon past his limits to make him take such extreme action.
However humiliating it had been to endure a brisk spanking, the unorthodox punishment had certainly got me thinking straight and I hadn’t died of it. I wriggled experimentally on the bed; I couldn’t even pretend that I felt sore any more. There was only one thing for it. I was going to have to go and apologise to Brandon and offer to do what was necessary to mend matters with the rival team manager. I would have to face Brandon sometime and I preferred to do so in private. If I didn’t act at once I risked losing my nerve and then I would lie awake all night worrying. I pulled on my trainers, pulled my hoodie over my tee shirt and walked resolutely out into the corridor.
By the time I got to Brandon’s room my resolution was beginning to fade but I forced myself to tap on the door. As I heard his footsteps crossing the room I realised I was holding my breath. I’d given no thought to what I was going to say and all I could think about was how embarrassing it was going to be to face him. But face him I would. As I heard the door open, I lifted my head to make eye contact although my blush probably revealed my discomfiture.
“May I come in?”
He stepped back wordlessly and ushered me into his room. It was bigger than mine and had two arm chairs placed opposite one another in the bay window. He gestured towards one and took a seat in the other. We sat looking at one another in awkward silence for a few moments. Despite my embarrassment, I sensed that Brandon was also feeling ill at ease, a sense which was confirmed when he opened the conversation.
“I’m so sorry about what happened earlier, Alfie. I should never have… done what I did. It was inexcusable. I don’t know what came over me but I want you to know that I deeply regret my inappropriate and unprofessional behaviour.”
It was such a surprise hearing Brandon apologise to me I didn’t know how to respond. When I said nothing Brandon continued.
“I will, of course, report the matter to the team manager when we get home and give him my letter of resignation. I’m hoping that, in view of the close working relationship we’ve had in the past, you will consider that sufficient reparation for this breach of trust and..”
“No, no!” I finally found my voice and my response was unnaturally loud. Brandon looked both surprised and distressed.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I had been hoping that we could prevent this becoming public, for both our sakes. But I do understand if you want to take the matter further. You have that right, of course. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have suggested… I don’t want to put any pressure on you..”
I hadn’t grasped any of that. I didn’t understand what Brandon was trying to say. Only a single word had registered in my befuddled brain: resignation. Whatever the outcome of this whole sorry business the one thing I feared was that Brandon would leave. This time I think I managed to make my meaning clear.
“No, no,” I shouted, “you mustn’t resign. I can’t do this without you. I’m so sorry if I pushed you too far today. Please don’t leave me. Please don’t go.”
“You don’t want me to resign?” he asked hesitantly.
“Of course not. You’re the best coach I’ve ever worked with. Who else would put up with my stupid antics? I’m sorry you had to sort out my latest mess and… and… I’m so sorry that I made you so cross… I didn’t… I didn’t mean…”
It was all too much. I was too upset and too confused. I started to choke in an effort not to cry and when the tears fell anyway I hid my head in my hands in an attempt to conceal my weakness and stupidity from Brandon. I didn’t hear him get out of his chair so it came as a surprise to feel his arms close gently around me. When I lifted my tear streaked face I saw he was kneeling in front of me and his eyes, so close to my own, showed only compassion and understanding.
My heart went out to Alfie when I saw him break down. All at once I divined the probable cause. He was just overwhelmed with too many emotions. I had shocked and frightened him when I spanked him. I was certain that I hadn’t caused him excessive pain; I'd just meant to give him a wake-up call. But I had no mandate to treat him in that way and he must have been feeling mishandled and betrayed. As soon as I came to my senses I knew that I would have to regain his trust if we were ever to work together again. What I hadn’t expected was that Alfie would be as distressed as I was at the prospect of our association coming to an end.
I had no way of knowing just how he felt about me or in what light he viewed our relationship. Maybe it was for him just a comfortable working association between coach and athlete but clearly he placed great value on our relationship and wished to maintain it. As I absorbed the full implication of that insight, I was conscious of an enormous sense of relief. I began to feel that this disastrous situation was retrievable and that we could continue working together in an atmosphere of relaxed friendship.
“Did I hurt you?” I asked quietly as his tear filled eyes lifted to mine.
“Of course not,” came the positive response and his hands moved toward his waist. I thought he was going to pull down his jogging bottoms to check on the damage but instead he pulled his hoodie over his head and twisted to pull up the sleeve of his tee shirt. I gasped as I saw the imprint of my fingers in the bruising round his upper arm.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, Alfie. I didn’t realise I was holding you tight enough to cause injury.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said quietly. “That was me pulling and twisting. It didn’t get me anywhere; I just got myself a bruised arm.”
I stood up and went into the bathroom for my first aid kit. Bumps and bruises are a constant for bike riders so I always carry a variety of remedies and topical pain relievers. When I’d finished gently rubbing a soothing gel into his bruised arm I gestured towards his lower body.
“What about your bottom? How sore is that?”
“I wish you had aimed for my bottom. I was wearing padded shorts.” My boy was beginning to recover his customary sense of humour even if he still appeared somewhat shaken. “My thighs took the brunt of it and they were pretty painful for a while. It’s more or less worn off now, though.”
“Would you like me to put some gel on your legs?”
“No need. Anyway, that would defeat the purpose rather, wouldn’t it?”
The latter was said with a degree of self consciousness indicated by averted eyes and a returning blush. Alfie understood how this worked all right, even if he had been shocked and embarrassed by my precipitate behaviour. I decided the time had come to try and deal with what had taken place between us but I needed to get Alfie settled and relaxed first, so I got up to make us both a mug of hot chocolate using the sachets provided for guests. When I rejoined Alfie, carrying two steaming mugs, I began by talking a bit about the next race before returning to the subject which was uppermost in both our minds.
“Look Alfie, I don’t want you to make any hasty decisions. You’d be quite within your rights to report me…” I held up my hand as Alfie tried to interrupt. “No, hear me out. I had no business laying hands on you. I’m really sorry about that. I don’t know what came over me. You have every right to report me to the team manager or to the police. I’ll quite understand if that’s what you decide to do and I’ll plead guilty to the charges that will be brought against me. You won’t have to stand up and accuse me in court.”
This time I couldn’t prevent Alfie from delivering an impassioned rejoinder.
“There’s no way you’re going to court! I don’t want to fucking report you. Can’t you get that into your thick head?”
I just looked at him in the way I knew would always calm and settle him. There was a moment’s uncomfortable silence and then he said, with just a hint of petulance, “I’m sorry. But I really don’t want to make a complaint. I just wish you’d stop going on about it.”
I ignored the tone and responded with sincerity, “Thank you for that, Alfie. I won’t deny it’s a great relief and it’s very, very kind of you.”
I tried to make eye contact but his head was bowed. I think he was a trifle ashamed of his rudeness in the face of my courtesy but I understood that he wasn’t finding this conversation easy. I discounted his bad manners which I knew were just a cover for embarrassment and distress.
“I very much appreciate your generosity,” I continued, “and I promise I will never do anything like it again.”
Alfie’s head came up at that but I couldn’t read his expression. At a guess I would say he was uncomfortable or confused about me apologising to him. Maybe he was finding it hard to come to terms with this reversal of the expected order of things.
“I must have really pissed you off,” he said. “I didn’t know you’d got so sick of me.”
I had to strain to hear that last bit, it was spoken so quietly.
“I’m not sick of you, Alfie. You mustn’t think that. I’m not sick of you at all. I was just exasperated this afternoon. You know, just frustrated that you’d got yourself into trouble again, let yourself and the team down.”
“I’m sorry I let you down,” came the whispered response.
Alfie looked so ashamed and guilty that I just wanted to put my arms around him and tell him that I’d spanked him and that was the end of the matter but our professional relationship didn’t work like that. Instead I tried to reassure him.
“It’s not a question of letting me down. I just want the best for you and I get upset on your behalf when others complain about you. Hey, don’t look so worried. I’m not angry.”
“I shouldn’t have taunted Jimbo, though,” he admitted miserably. He took a moment to contemplate his misconduct but then added with returning petulance, “but he’s such a prat!”
“No, you shouldn’t,” I said firmly, “and there’s no need to add insult to injury!”
“I wasn’t responsible for his injury,” he shouted, taking my comment literally. “I was nowhere near him when he went off the road. He’s a fucking liar if he says that’s my fault. I didn’t even know he’d hurt his shoulder until you told me. It’s not fair. It’s not…”
“Calm down, calm down! No one’s saying you were responsible for his injury. I just don’t like to hear you calling him a rude name when you’re at fault for taunting him before his accident. You are at fault for that, aren’t you?”
“I suppose so,” he said a trifle sullenly. Then, after a prolonged silence, he added, “I suppose you want me to apologise to him.”
That came as a bit of a surprise, I’d been wondering how I was going to introduce the idea of an apology.
“I’d like you to, yes, if you feel you can,” I said warmly.
“As long as I don’t have to do it on my own.”
“You know I wouldn’t ask that of you. I’ll come along and I won’t let James McSteen or his coach have a go at you. I’d just like you to tell James you’re sorry for the things you said to him when you were riding beside him and I’d like you to show a decent concern about his injury. That’s just common courtesy and doesn’t imply that you were in any way responsible… Do you think you could do that?”
“I suppose so.”
“Right, I’ll ring Mr McSteen’s coach first thing in the morning and we’ll set up a meeting as soon as possible. Once you’ve apologised then the matter is closed. Do you understand, Alfie? There’s no need for you to be worried or upset about this. It’s not a serious matter. I just want you to remember that you can’t afford to antagonise the people you compete against. I don’t want you to get a bad reputation in the sport. I just want the best for you; I want you to fulfil your potential and make it to the top.”
“So do I… and Brandon, thank you for all you do to help me.”
“Well, I didn’t do a very good job today and I’m so sorry I betrayed your trust. I promise I’ll never behave like that again and I hope we can put this behind us and continue to work together amicably.”
I went over to Alfie and held out my hand. Alfie stood up and shook it, accepting my apology and bringing our conversation to a rather formal close. He wished me goodnight and departed for his own room. I closed down my computer and began getting ready for bed myself although I didn’t think sleep would come easily. I’d found it hard to part from Alfie like that. I wasn’t sure why but I felt we’d left a lot unsaid. It seemed like we’d discussed the facts of the brief spanking I’d administered without addressing any of the emotions it had evoked. I wondered if Alfie had as many confused thoughts churning around inside his head as I did.
When we met the next morning it was in company with the rest of the team and, once I had given instructions about our departure time from the hotel, I was able to draw Alfie to one side and inform him that we would be taking a taxi over to meet James McSteen and his coach in half an hour. He blushed slightly and dropped his eyes but went without prompting back to his room and changed into a suit and tie. When we left the hotel the rest of the team members were busy packing and Alfie was spared the embarrassment of spectators.
I hoped that James McSteen would be reasonable. To be honest, he is a bit of a prat but I wasn’t about to say that to Alfie. I trusted James’s coach, though, and I’d asked for his assurance that he would keep his injured rider under control. In the event all went well. Alfie was subdued but polite. I heard him express his deepest regrets for taunting his rival, apologise for his unprofessional conduct and promise that it would never happen again. There was something about his dignified manner and courteous expression of regret which struck a chord in my memory. Then it dawned on me. He was drawing on the words and manner I had used to him the night before. I’m certain it was done unconsciously. He wasn’t trying to mimic me but he had watched and listened more carefully than I’d realised when I apologised to him. There was a sincerity about his expression of regret which was unmistakable and even the surly James McSteen recognised it and responded appropriately.
I was so proud of Alfie. There are hidden depths to that boy and some admirable qualities which were going to waste. He clearly learns from his mistakes and when the right course of action is pointed out to him, he is more than capable of following it through. He’s been indulged too often in the past and has used his charm to wriggle out of tight corners. From an early age his sport frequently took him away from home and he’s got used to following his own inclinations. It was good to see him finally facing up to the consequences of his own thoughtless actions and behaving in such a mature and responsible way. As soon as we were alone together in the back of the taxi I quietly told him how pleased and proud I was of the way he had conducted himself. His expressive brown eyes lifted to mine and the smile he gave me conveyed such pleasure and pride in the simple compliment that I was momentarily lost for words.
For the next few of weeks we both trod with care in one another’s company. The team was back home and I was back in my office at the sports complex which the guys attended for fitness training. I tried to ensure that all my dealings with Alfie took place in the presence of others and I made no further allusion to the impromptu spanking. I suspected he was still embarrassed at having felt the force of my hand and he seemed to be on his best behaviour at all times. I was saddened to think that he might be living in fear of similar chastisement in future. I had promised never again to lay a hand on him and I hoped he believed in the sincerity of my pledge. However, I saw no way to convince him of it other than by the utter professionalism of my conduct towards him. In return I got a respectful, obedient and hard working team member, everything a coach could wish for… except it wasn’t my Alfie.
It was almost a relief when one of my most experienced team members came to tell me that Alfie was up to his old tricks. Ben Fanshawe had been deputed by the others to speak to me about Alfie’s behaviour in the peloton. The word ‘peloton’ is used by all nationalities for the tightly packed group of riders who lead the race. Jostling is commonplace in the peloton; there are clashes of knees, elbows and handlebars. There are also negotiations and alliances between competing riders. A cycle race covers hundreds of miles; it is as much about tactics as sheer endurance and power. Most importantly, it is the support each man lends to the members of his own team that gives the strongest rider the best chance of victory. The team is everything; a rider is not going to be successful on his own.
On a windy day, team mates can save a cyclist up to fifty per cent of the effort he would otherwise have to expend just by riding in front and shielding him. A rider can be pulled along on a steep hill climb by cycling behind a colleague, sitting on his wheel. The experienced members of my team expected Alfie to support them in this way but too often he was pressing ahead, concentrating on his own position and failing to contribute to the team effort. It was a fault I had been seeking to correct. It did Alfie no good in the long run because, without support himself, he was unable to sustain his bursts of speed and his final rankings were not as good as I had hoped for at this stage of his career.
This issue gave me the excuse I needed to sit down for a heart to heart with Alfie and try and get our working relationship back to normal. I hoped that in the process, I could get him to understand the importance of being a team player. I didn’t want him to think he was in trouble so I decided not to send for him. Instead I found an opportune moment after training one day when I was able to casually invite him back to the office for a chat. I did this whenever I wanted to discuss things like performance times, diet, race entries or fitness levels with any member of my team but I took care that no one saw Alfie lock his valuable racing bike into storage before following me into the administration block. Given that the rest of the team had, albeit very reluctantly, drawn his thoughtless and unsupportive behaviour to my attention, I didn’t want anyone even suspecting that he was about to be reprimanded.
Judging, however, from Alfie’s apprehensive expression it looked as though he was expecting to be told off. I was suddenly very conscious that this was the first time in many weeks that we had been alone together so I tried to keep things light and concentrate on putting Alfie at ease. Normally I would say I am very good at working with young people, they relax in my company and I’m able to get the best performance out of them in their sport. That skill seemed to desert me in Alfie’s company. Something about his vulnerability, his desperate desire to please, even the aggression which he uses to cover his uncertainties and failings all brought out such a powerful protective instinct in me that it was difficult to remain casual. After some rather stilted conversation about Alfie’s training schedule I turned my attention to the issue uppermost in my mind.
“Your team mates are a bit concerned, Alfie, about the way you’ve been behaving in the peloton.” I saw no reason to beat about the bush and I had to let him know how this matter had been brought to my attention.
“Someone been telling tales then?” he asked rather sullenly.
I couldn’t help but notice the blush which spread from his cheeks right up to his hairline.
“It’s not a matter of telling tales, Alfie. The guys are all concerned about you racing off alone and so am I. I’ve told you before, this is a team sport. We’ll never be successful unless every man contributes to the team effort.”
“So you expect me to go at the pace of the slowest member of the team! You should be pensioning some of those guys off, not expecting me to nursemaid them.”
“That’s rude, Alfie, and uncalled for. It can’t have escaped your attention that this isn’t a young man’s sport. Experience always wins out over youthful exuberance and arrogance.”
“Are you calling me arrogant?” Alfie’s jaw jutted with belligerence.
“No, Alfie, I’m not,” I replied calmly, “but you have to admit that your tactics haven’t paid off, have they? You might have the strength to pull away from the main bunch in the early stages of a race but you haven’t been able to maintain that position through to the finish line. You need the rest of the team just as much as they need you.”
It was so easy to defuse his aggression. He lowered his gaze and his shoulders fell. He looked defeated and my heart went out to him as I saw his fingers intertwining with anxiety where they rested in his lap. I was conscious of a powerful urge to embrace him, to restore his self confidence with endearments and praise. It was an urge I fought down as I searched for the professionalism and the objectivity to give this lovable young man the tactical lecture which I was paid to deliver.