“I am not unwilling, not unwilling at all,” Hansie assured me. “I am quite prepared to come over and help you with anything you like, but if you ask around, anybody will tell you that building a shed is not a job they would happily entrust to me.”
“Come on, why not?” I pressed. “I’ve already read through the leaflet. The whole thing might as well be Lego. I asked most particularly about it at the garden centre; they had one made up and the man showed me how it went together. The instructions are rather better than you usually get for any sort of self build: they’ve been written in English, for a start, not transliterated from some language usually written right to left, and the pictures are recognisably the bits in the kit, not parts from some completely different shed. It’s designed to be bought as a kit and put up by any reasonably competent handyman.”
“Which I am not, Nick. Ask my friends and they will all tell you the same thing. ‘If you want your hanging baskets to be the envy of the street, or your vegetable plot to feed a family of five all year round, Hansie is your man. Anything involving an exploded diagram, get somebody else.’ Remember, I am the man who blew himself backwards across his kitchen prodding an electrical circuit with a screwdriver.”
“Nothing electrical in the shed. I’m not putting power to it; these days you have to get a qualified electrician for that. We might do it later but for the moment I just want to get the thing up and lagged and shelved so that the piles of stuff currently in the garage can be put in it and we can think about getting the builder in for the conversion. It’s a kit, Hansie. Slot the bits together, nothing harder than that.”
He looked sheepish. “Nick, you have seen that grey chair that Tim and I keep in the hall, next to the telephone table, hey?”
“What about it?”
“Have you ever noticed that the wood of the armrests isn’t the same colour left and right?”
“Well, yes. I presumed you bought it as a second.”
“No. I bought it as a kit. Then I couldn’t understand the instructions, so it sat in the back bedroom of the house I lived in before I met Tim, for 18 months. I’d half made it up, so one half was exposed to the light and the other half was still in the box. When I moved in with Tim, he finished building it in ten minutes.”
“Yes, O.K., but. . .”
“And that wrought iron bench we have against the hedge? That too came as a kit; I bought it in Argos. It’s only got eight pieces, Nick. Fran is too kind to me to have told you, I expect, but she watched me failing to put it together for an hour. In the end she built it for me herself; all she let me do was tighten the bolts.”
“Well, but there’s nothing technical in the shed to go wrong, Hansie. I could probably do it myself, only it’ll go a lot faster with two. I could build it with Fran in half a day, but if she’s going to be in the office doing her VAT return Saturday and Tim’s not going to be back from his college friend’s stag night until mid afternoon, and you’re at a loose end, we could have the thing up in no time. I’ll sort the planning; I just need somebody with a bit of muscle and you won’t deny that you’ve got that and I haven’t. If you would rather not, I’ll ask somebody at work, I don’t want you to do anything you really don’t fancy.”
He gave me a most decided Look. “I will come, but do not say I didn’t warn you. I think you would be better to ask Piet, or one of the guys from the cricket club, or from your work. Just don’t blame me when the whole thing ends up like an Escher drawing.”
“For heaven’s sake, you do exaggerate. It’s a shed; it’s not building the Eiffel Tower from matchsticks. You don’t need to be the great DIY expert; I’m reasonably competent with a toolbox myself, so it’s my problem if we can’t make it go together.”
Actually, I’m a bit better than competent, I’m quite good with my hands. I’d built our toy-box, for a start, mine and Fran’s. We had known what we wanted: a sort of soft topped ottoman, big enough to carry an increasing collection of. . . of this and that, tall enough to take me mid-thigh, solid enough to carry my weight. We’d gone looking for something suitable on the internet and been rendered speechless by the prices. It had taken me four weekends to build one, and I’d taken the top to the man on the market to have it covered with upholstery sponge and mock leather. I’d told him it was a window seat. I didn’t offer any information about what the countersunk ringbolts were for, and he didn’t ask.
All right, I’ll admit it, I had an ulterior motive. I hadn’t seen as much of Hansie as I wanted over the last month or so, not since that boozy barbecue at Phil’s. When I did see him it tended to be with a collection of other people. I just wanted to spend some time with him. He – talks – to me sometimes; well, of course he does. I don’t know if he tells me things he doesn’t tell Tim or Phil or Piet, although I suspect he does, but occasionally he tells me bits of his history and I think it helps him get them into some sort of perspective. It goes both ways, of course. I tell him things about work and so on, not anything I’m not supposed to, but grumbles about the office and the paperwork and that sort of thing. Yes, I do talk to Fran about them, but you know, a woman’s perspective isn’t always the same as a man’s, is it? And Hansie's sense of humour runs along the same lines as mine; I find myself occasionally thinking ‘I must tell Hansie that, he’ll love it.’ I need a male friend who isn’t in the police to keep me balanced, too. There’s an awful tendency for us to go all clubby – go to work, drink in a chosen pub with the people from work, play football at the weekend with the people from work, share a holiday villa in Portugal with some colleague from work. . . A long time ago, a senior officer on a course I went on warned us about the dangers of that. It’s when you get that sort of closed culture that you get scandals in any police force, because somebody loses their sense of proportion and somebody else covers it up ‘because he’s one of us’. It’s good for us to talk to ‘some of them’ as well as ‘us’.
So a bit of bonding over the toolbox would be as good a way to spend Saturday as any, wouldn’t it?
Let’s establish right from the start that nobody is going to say ‘I told you so’. Not anybody. The shed had been delivered on Thursday, all in boxes, and I had got the men to stack it up on the side of the yard nearest the house. (Tim said that once I had lifted all the grass I couldn’t call it a garden any more, even if we did leave the borders; mind you when I was growing up in the city, every house had a back yard, concrete underfoot, so I don’t find it as disconcerting as he seems to. We’ve left the grass at the front; we’re agreed that’s still a garden.) Hansie came bouncing in at about ten on Saturday morning, full of the joys of something, and I put a cup of coffee into his hands and spread the instruction leaflet out on the kitchen table.
“The first thing we have to do is the base. I’m reasonably certain that my flagstones are flat: I went over them with a spirit level when I put them down, and I checked them again last week and fixed a couple which had settled. Anyway, when we make up the base, we can build in a degree of flex depending on how tightly we screw up the corners, according to the instructions, so a small error in the flags won’t matter. I reckon we build the base where we want it to go and check it with the spirit level again before we look at the structure.”
I didn’t think there were any hard words there, and Hansie threw back his coffee and said brightly, “So let us make a start, then.”
Actually, that bit went off quite well. None of the pieces was uncomfortably big; my flagstones were indeed flat; the only thing causing us any trouble was when I asked Hansie to pass me this tool or that one from the box. Even then, I put it down to the language barrier. I mean, I’m reasonably fluent in French; I’ve liaised a couple of times with my opposite number from one French police station or another, and although my accent isn’t brilliant and my sentences are less than elegant, I manage to make myself understood. But what you don’t learn in a foreign language are technical terms: Marcel Laurent and I spent a happy evening in a bar exchanging the vocabulary for handcuffs, riot police, suspended sentence, squad car, beat bobby, desk sergeant and so on. I had taken on board that Hansie didn’t do much in the way of DIY, so why would he talk about it? And if he didn’t talk about it, why would he know the English terms for a mole wrench or a ratchet brace?
Because he didn’t know what they were, that’s why. He didn’t know what they were in either language. This was a man who used a screwdriver or a pair of narrow-nosed pliers for everything. Educationally, I reckon he got what I did. There was no metalwork or woodwork on my school curriculum, those were Secondary Modern and Technical College subjects and we Grammar School boys looked down on them, usually right up to the point at which we bought our first second-hand cars and needed to weld something. But my dad – have I mentioned him before? My dad was a cop too, although he never rose higher than sergeant. He was a sergeant of the same type as Bateman, a career sergeant. Not a detective, a straightforward street cop. A straightforward man, and his hobby was making things. I watched him, when I was small; when I was bigger, I helped. Then I hit the teen years of ‘my dad is so uncool’ and stopped helping, but I came back to it. Woodwork holds no fears for me, and nor does metalwork; I’m O.K. with water and of course I can’t do electrical work any more, but over the years I’ve put together a comprehensive tool box and I know how to use the things in it. Hansie contrived to cut himself on my tape measure; I discovered later that nobody was surprised by this except me.
Why should he know, after all? He knows about gardens; I refer to all plants in the vernacular: ‘that big leafy thing with the yellow flowers’, or ‘that small creeping thing which gets everywhere’. No reason why Hansie should know much about the technical aspects of DIY. I didn’t ask why he didn’t, I just took it that DIY didn’t interest him so he’d never bothered to learn, just as gardening doesn’t interest me so I’ve never bothered to learn. Like I had said, my job to plan and organise; he was muscle.
“Hansie, that corner post isn’t the right way round. The attachments have to go on the outside. Yes, like that. And the other one is upside down, look.”
The first long side was easier than I had expected. It came as three lengthwise sections; we simply had to slot them into position and then screw them to the uprights. Hansie only stripped the thread once; easy enough to fix. I went back to the instructions. “Short end next, then the second long side and then the tricky bit.”
“I think lunch before that. The difficult bit is that we have to get the roof half on, and then put up the fourth side so that it all slots in together. If we put up the last side before we do the roof, then the clamps, whatever they’re called, round the edges won’t fit. Short end. Three panels again.”
He tried to put one of the panels upside down; they were tongue-and-groove so it did matter, but it’s an easy enough mistake to make, and you can’t actually put the wall together that way so it didn’t take long to correct. That was the end of the shed done. Second long wall, the one with the window in: we were getting into our stride now. See, I knew he had been making a fuss about nothing. So he wasn’t a DIY enthusiast; so what? He was perfectly capable.
“Lunch? Come on, let’s go to the pub, we deserve it.”
Well, I thought we did, and I thought Hansie was owed a decent lunch for coming to help. It was a little after two when we came back and I had another look at the instructions.
“O.K. This end, there are three panels again, but they’re only half size, and then the other half is the door. There’s a slanted piece to go on the top and then the door itself attaches to the post on that side. The roof. . . easy, look, panels like the long sides and that triangular thing holds them together. Right, if we build them and then get the roof partway on, and then. . . Hmmm. Then, do you think you could manoeuvre the end wall in by yourself? If you could, I can go up the ladder and work the roof over the top and do the clamps while you screw the frame to the post.”
He nodded. “Ja, no trouble, it is not heavy. It is not even as heavy as the other end because the door is not attached. But the roof will be heavy, ja nee? Can you manage that by yourself?”
“If you help me get it up and nearly into position, I’ll be able to lift the end and slot it down.”
No trouble. Roof slotted together and manhandled almost into place. End wall put together and propped against garden wall while I filled my pockets with clamps and climbed the ladder. Three minutes heaving and mild profanity to lock the bits together and fifteen minutes of attaching the roof at all points before I came down the ladder, walked round to the end of the shed and did a double-take like something out of a cartoon, at Hansie putting the last screw into the post.
“There, that is a job well done, Nick, hey? Nick?”
I could actually feel myself changing colour; I put the electric screwdriver down very carefully. I know something about the easy availability of weapons. Then I went back round the end and leaned on the wall.
“Nick? What are you doing?”
“Um. . . why?”
“Because if I wrap both hands round your sodding neck and throttle you, they’ll take away my promotion, even if I bury your body under the flagstones. 102 fucking roof clamps I’ve just put in and every single bloody one will have to come out again!”
I could see Hansie looking at the roof: “Um. . . why?” he asked again, uncertainly. He was beginning to change colour himself.
“Because, you gormless nit, that end is on inside out!”
He looked at it; the colour ran up to his hairline. “Sorry,” he said in a small voice. “But I thought I had it the same way round as the diagram.”
“Hansie, the diagram shows the thing going up with the door at the other end!”
I walked up the grass to the kitchen window, took a couple of deep breaths and came back. “All right. Never mind. Let’s get it off again. All those screws will need to come out. I’ll get the clamps off.”
I’d more or less recovered myself by the time I’d done that, enough at least to have retrieved my sense of humour; Hansie was just taking the last screw out as I came back down. His mouth was tight and I felt a nip of guilt.
“Look, I’m sorry I snapped, O.K.? It was my fault, I should have checked it was all the way it should be before I let you fasten anything.”
“No, it was not your fault, Nick, it was mine. I told you, I am not good with these things. I – it would have been better for you to have got somebody else.” That was rather bitter, and I punched him lightly on the arm.
“Come on, it’s one mistake and it’s not irrecoverable. O.K., I’ll lift the end of the roof, you work the wall free, and then I’ll help you turn it.”
It was quicker the second time; at least, I was. Hansie was about two thirds of the way down the post when I came down the ladder. I watched him putting in a screw; he dropped it twice (was I making him nervous?) and I thought he winced as he tightened it.
He looked up at me with a rather anxious smile. “No thank you, I already have one.”
“Let me finish that then, I’ve got the battery screwdriver. Then all we have to do is hang the door and we’re done.”
It took another fifteen minutes, and I was very grateful for Hansie’s muscle when it came to the door. Hanging a door is a bugger of a job to do on your own.
“Coffee. Come on.”
“I don’t know, Nick, I think I had better get home. Tim will be. . .”
“Oh, come on, Hansie. Tim knows where you are. Come and have coffee with me so that I know you aren’t huffy with me for barking at you.”
“Ach, you had every right. It was a stupid thing to do, stupid. You had every right to be angry.”
“Oh well, if I had a quid for every time I’ve done something stupid when I’ve been making something. . . Go on, kitchen. Coffee.”
“I really am sorry about it, though.”
I could see this going on and on, and really, I had been exasperated, but after all, there was nobody dead. I gave him a push towards the door, and when he turned, I cracked my palm hard across his backside. He jumped like a fish and turned a look of shocked amazement on me; I laughed at him.
“Just because I’m a Sub doesn’t mean I can’t lay it on when I need to. Go on, get inside before I decide to show you something about police brutality.”
His worried look shifted to his more usual grin. “I love it when you talk dirty. . .”
I saw him wince again when he washed his hands, and I caught his wrist. “Let me see that – hell, Hansie, why didn’t you say? That must hurt like buggery! Sorry, not the best analogy.” He had an enormous blister in his palm, from the screwdriver.
“It is nothing, it does not matter.”
“If you’d said, you could have had the battery screwdriver and I’d have used the ordinary one. Is the skin broken? Do you want a plaster on it?”
“Nee, there is no need, do not fuss. It will be gone in a day or two. Tim will be pleased though: I will not be able to spank him for whatever adolescent thing he will have done at his friend’s stag party.”
I almost said, almost, ‘Well, you can get him to spank you for putting the wall up inside out’, and bit it back. I’d come round to thinking it was funny and I was prepared to bet that Tim would too; Hansie plainly didn’t.
By the time Fran came home I’d tidied up and was lying down with the Saturday supplement from the newspaper.
“Well, the shed’s up, then?”
“As you see,” I said smugly. “And we, or rather I, went up the ladder and cleaned out the guttering too. Much safer with somebody on the foot of the ladder.” No, I didn’t know why I didn’t tell her about Hansie and the fourth wall. I just didn’t. “How did you get on with your paperwork?”
“All done. VAT done, cheque written and posted, quarter end completed, bills paid, computer backed up. I have got to get a new chair, though, that one’s O.K. for half an hour but half a day sitting in it and my back goes. I wonder if that office place on the trading estate is open on Sundays?”
She was stretching out beside me as she spoke, tucking her hands under the small of her back and flexing her shoulders.
“Turn over,” I suggested, and sat up, twisting round to get my own hands where hers had been, at the back of her waist. I rubbed slowly up her back, over her shirt, to her neck and tickled lightly under her hairline. Then I let my hands run up over her scalp, with her hair curling softly round my fingers. She purred slightly, and stretched: she loves having anybody stroke her hair. I started down her neck again, over her shirt and steadily down her spine, circling a finger lightly on each bump and working my hands flat outwards across her ribs. At her waist I started up again, only this time I pulled the shirt free of her belt and eased it up; she lifted slightly to help me and I worked it gently over her head, just in time for her to flop back down, face half turned into the bedcovers.
She has a beautiful back. I can’t remember ever thinking before that a woman had a beautiful back. There’s just something about the flex of her spine, the width of her shoulders and the way her torso narrows to her waist – not too much, I don’t care for thin women. I like women who look like women, like adult women, not like skinny teenage boys. No, it’s not the most important thing, how somebody looks, but to me an attractive woman has hips, not a pelvis you could cut yourself on. There ought to be a curve. . . I massaged her back some more, spanning her waist with my hands, pressing hard to feel her push back like a cat, easing my hands up in tiny increments, past the bar of her bra strap, offering my attentions to her nape, again and again. I could do that for hours. She would let me do it for hours. She sighed, eventually.
“’S nice, Nick. You’re good with your hands.”
“Mm-hmm. Turn over?”
Well, I like the front view, too. Woman, not skinny girl, although lying flat on her back isn’t the most flattering posture for any woman who has more than a couple of poached eggs by way of breasts. Gravity kicks in. Ah well, it’s not as if male anatomy doesn’t have its shortcomings. Only when she lay flat, it looked as if the pretty cream bra was a size or so too big – room inside it for two fingers at least. She jumped and I felt her ribs flutter with amusement.
“What’s so funny?”
“You going to be a handyman all weekend?”
“Certainly,” I said, with immense dignity. “You said yourself, I’m good with my hands.” I worked one round underneath her. “I can undo your bra with one hand when you’re lying on the clasp, see?”
“Very clever. What do you do for an encore?”
I leaned over to distract her with a kiss before tickling her, getting a squeak and wriggle.
I stopped and went back to kissing her; at least I stopped tickling. Encore time: I can undo a belt with one hand too, and the button underneath it. And the zip. And I can get one hand into the warm space thus revealed, inside the fine lace waistband, and exploring the curve beneath.
More kisses, down the line of her throat, along her collarbone, and I nudged the loose bra strap off her shoulder, with her shrugging to help. My left hand had slid under her neck so I freed a couple of fingers on the other side and pulled ineffectively at the strap there. She reached across and tugged it loose, flicking it out of the way, and making me free of the expanse of skin.
I have more sense than to grab at a breast uninvited: I nuzzled across her abdomen, kissed her collarbones and her mouth some more, waited for the shift of her shoulders which offered a breast for my attention. Then I nibbled up the curve and at the same time flexed my fingers. Her hips flexed back at me and I burrowed a little further, very gently. I found that out when I was still at college – she’ll tell you if she wants to be touched more firmly and you’ll get a chance to do it. She’ll tell you if you’re being too rough too, but usually from a location near the door on her way out. And if you want to know how she likes to be touched, try asking. Or better still, watching. I know the slow circle that pleases Fran, steady pressure in the slick warmth. I know how to watch for the tilt of her hips which tells me I’m not – quite – where I should be, and the relaxation of the inner thigh that says ‘yes, there’. Not too fast. She was letting her hips rock with me; that was good. No need to go further. No need to strain to get a finger inside, she doesn’t like that. No need to hurry, it isn’t any better for being done faster. Just listen to her breathing roughen and catch, and on that long exhale take off nearly all the pressure, slow the movement almost to nothing. It hurts, she says, if I don’t do that. And I pride myself on being good with my hands.
Mind you, Fran is pretty good with her hands too.
I’d had time for another couple of painkillers and most of the orange juice in the fridge before Hansie came in; it had been a good party the night before, but I was glad I had decided to go on the train and get a taxi back from the station. I wouldn’t have liked to swear that I was safe to drive even now.
“How did you get on, sweetheart? Shed all finished?”
He came to kiss me, and seemed to enjoy the experience, so we repeated it several times between the hall and the sitting room, ending up entangled on the sofa.
“Ja, the shed is finished. Well, the outside is finished. Nick wants to do something to the inside, but I did not quite understand what. What about you? Did you enjoy your night out?”
I had, I’d had a great time, and I told him about it. I didn’t really notice that he didn’t tell me much about what he and Nick had done, just that they had achieved what they set out to do. I did notice, though, that Hansie got quieter and quieter over the course of the evening: we ended up watching some film we had both seen before, me curled on the sofa and Hansie stretched out with his head in my lap, but I could tell he wasn’t giving his whole attention to it. I started to run my fingers through his hair – always a good way to get him to talk about what’s bothering him. Presently he sighed wistfully.
“Going to tell me what it is?”
“I just. . . I was just thinking about Nick. He has all sorts of plans for that house, and half of them are the things we thought of doing and never got round to, but he will. They are making enquiries about builders, he told me.”
I considered this, with a faint spark of amusement at my own first reaction of mild disapproval. What, our house wasn’t good enough for Fran and Nick? They were going to change things?
He went on. “He speaks so easily of doing things I would not know even how to start. He is annoyed because the law has been changed recently so that he cannot rewire the fuse box himself, he must get an electrician in to do it. Timmy, he can do plumbing.”
“Can he, by God!” I said, startled. Round here, a reliable plumber is about as common as rocking horse dung. A friend who can change a washer without the use of a whole tube of Plumber’s Mait can count on never again having to buy his own beer.
“Ja, he talks of fitting an outside tap, and building a wall to hide the dustbin, and making a bookcase to fit the alcove.”
“Good grief. Phone Fran and tell her to marry him so that we don’t let him escape.”
He smiled faintly. We sat a little longer while I enjoyed the tickle of his hair round my fingers, before he said in a low voice, “I wish I were half as competent.”
“As who? Nick? At what?”
“With my hands.”
“Ah well,” I said, philosophically, “we can’t all be good at everything. Nick’s a rotten cook. You’re much better than him at that. And actually, now that you mention it, I quite like the things you do with your hands, and I would much rather have you doing them than Nick.”
It was a perfectly good suggestive line; I was a bit miffed at having it completely ignored. “It is shameful, really, that at my age I cannot do such things. A grown man and I am not competent with a tool-kit.”
“Join the club. I’m not exactly Mr Home Improvements either. I’d rather pay somebody else to do it.”
He frowned. “But you made the picture frame for Piet. You can do woodwork.”
I snorted. “I can do, capably, a very small selection of things. Picture frames. Shelves. I could probably make a cupboard provided it had no curves.”
“Well, I cannot even do so much.” There was a silence, quite a long one, and then he added, so low that I barely heard it, “My father was right about some things.”
I jumped and Hansie flinched as I pulled his hair. “Your father? What has he to do with the price of fish?”
“He always said I was useless around the farm for anything not requiring brute force. I could not even put a fence up to anyone’s satisfaction. Really, Nick said the same.”
I stared. “I don’t believe you. Nick has very nice manners, he would never have said anything so hurtful.”
“Well, he said he only needed me for muscle.”
“Given that you’ve just told me that he’s God in a tool-box, and that I heard you telling him yourself that you don’t know one end of a screwdriver from the other, that actually seems perfectly reasonable. He asked you to help with the thing he couldn’t do himself. Come on, Hansie, Piet has spent two years teaching us that it’s no bad thing to ask for help; we can hardly get snotty with Nick because he knows that already without having to have it beaten into him the way we did.”
He smiled faintly at me. “No, O.K., you are right. But to have me. . .” For some reason he thought better of what he was about to say. “I was not able to help him other than as muscle. He had to do all the complex work.”
“Who taught you to use tools?” I pushed him up out of my lap.
“What do you mean?”
“Hansie, the ability to use a, a, a blow torch isn’t race memory, or coded into your DNA. Who showed you how? I can remember helping Jim replace a broken door panel – well, I’d put my foot through it being some sort of superhero, and after he had explained to me rather painfully why he had told me three times not to do that, he made me help fix it. When I wanted to do the picture framing, I went on a course, and even then the first frame I made had one of the mitred corners inside out, and I wasn’t the only one in the class to do that, either. So who taught you? Your father?”
He thought about it. “I do not remember him doing it, no.”
“So why did he say that you couldn’t do things? How did he know?”
He shook his head, wordlessly.
“Well, then, how do you know you can’t do it? Go and bloody learn, Hansie. Look up the Adult Education leaflet and see if there are any courses left. Go to the library and get a book. Ring up Nick and ask him to teach you.”
He shrugged, and smiled at me, relaxing a little. “You could teach me, my liefie.”
I shuddered. “I think that would be on a par with teaching your wife to drive: well known to be a bad idea. Besides, I don’t know much more than you do; the only difference is that I don’t think that a Real Man has to be able to use a Mig welder.” I was only half serious, but something told me I had touched a nerve: Hansie actually did think that, or something like it. “Hansie, I’m quite serious. Go and learn. This isn’t going to go away now that you’ve thought about it; find somebody who will teach you. Even if all you can do at the end of it is put up a shelf, then put up a bloody shelf. Sort yourself a shelf which will take a row of books without falling down or having them slide off one end. Then if you want, you can do what I do, which is say: I know how to do that but I don’t like doing it; I’ll get a man in while I do something more interesting.”
“Well, I will think about it,” he conceded, reaching for the wine bottle. “Do you want any more of this, or are you still so overcome by the amount you drank last night that I may finish it?”
I made an effort to change the subject, but I did not stop thinking about it. It was as Tim said: once I had actually considered it, it would not go away. I was conscious too that I had not told Tim about what I had done to Nick’s shed; it was not like me to keep things from him, but I felt. . . I felt that I had made a fool of myself, and the place was too sensitive to be touched. I thought about it for days. And nights. I could make no decision; I had, as Tim suggested, looked at the local evening classes but there was nothing there; I had looked at some of the books in the library, but it was like reading in a foreign language (more foreign than English is to me) and I could feel the panic rise in me as I turned the pages. It was when I had the nightmare that I knew that I had to do something about it.
Generally, you understand, I sleep very well, but this night I had some trouble dropping off, and I woke at three, with the bedclothes knotted around me, my heart pounding, and my body slick with perspiration. It was not even a sensible nightmare: I dreamed that I had something in pieces in a box, and I had to put it together. That is not uncommon, is it? Most of us have had some dream of that type, where everything you put together comes apart again and the pieces will not fit; my dream differed only in that behind me, I could hear my father sneering at me because I could not do it.
Well, as I say, I woke in a sweat, and I lay awake for some time afterwards before I dropped off to sleep again. In the morning, though, I had remembered what it was that lay at the back of my complaint and I knew that Tim was right and I had to do something about it. I went that night to see Nick.
He was only just home from work, he had been working late again, and I sat at the kitchen table with him, while Fran made coffee for us both and he ate a meal which to my eyes was less than appealing, having plainly been in the oven for some time.
“What can we do for you, Hansie, or is this just a social call?”
“No, it is not,” I said soberly. “I have been thinking about the other day when we built the shed, and I. . .”
He glanced up at me sharply and shook his head, a tiny movement, with a glance at Fran, who had her back turned. He had not told her.
“I talked afterwards to Tim, and I have been remembering things, Nick, I have been remembering things from 25 or 30 years ago, and I think I need your help. No, do not go, Fran, this is not secrets, and it will – if Nick agrees to it, it will affect you too.”
I hesitated for a moment, and then I thought: this is my big brother and my sister, they do not judge me. “When I was young, you know that my father did not wholeheartedly approve of me drawing or anything of that type. That was not a hobby for a boy. He thought to bring me to something more suitable, and he used to buy for me model kits. Boats and planes and so on. Plastic pieces to be painted and glued together to make aircraft.”
“Airfix kits,” nodded Nick.
“I do not remember that name; it may be that ours was something else, but you know the sort of thing I mean. Every birthday and Christmas there would be something of that kind.” I looked at my hands on the table. “I could never get them to go together. I could not understand the instructions. I cannot remember ever, ever finishing one, and my father would become exasperated with me when he came across another, another plane with no fuselage, another box of untouched pieces. He tried too with that other thing, the engineering toy, Meccano. I had boxes of the stuff, and booklets telling me how to build suspension bridges and fairground rides and I cannot remember what else. I could not do that either.” It was an effort of will to keep my hands still and not to pick at the skin on my thumb. “Always there would be some diagram where I could not make sense of it. My father would become very exasperated with that too. He said – he said once or twice that he could not understand how he could have bred a boy with so little understanding of anything technical. It was so, though. I did not, I do not understand the diagrams and I cannot – Nick, you saw how it was with me and making anything!” My voice rose a little on that, not quite well controlled, and I saw an exchange of glances between Nick and Fran. Nick was quite calm when he answered me.
“When you used to get stuck, was it with the bit where they showed you one side of something but not the other?”
I stared. “I think so, yes.”
He nodded. “Lack of 3D visualisation. You can’t work out what must happen round the back to make the two bits at the front join up, is that it?”
I nodded, ashamed. He smiled at me. “Quite common, I believe. I had a mate at school just the same. It was great for me: he wanted to collect all the Airfix World War 2 planes, but he couldn’t get them to go together either, and his family had money. I couldn’t buy half the kits I fancied (they weren’t that expensive but the paints were) so he used to buy them and I would make them up for him.”
“Odd, though, to find it in somebody who can draw and understands perspective,” observed Fran. Nick shrugged. “Maybe. What about it, Hansie? I don’t suppose you want me to build you a small scale traction engine from Meccano.”
I took a deep breath. “No. But you see, I think that my father became convinced that I could not do anything practical. And then I think. . . I wonder if perhaps he convinced me. See, Tim says that Jim taught him to make things, showed him how to use tools and so on, and I can’t ever remember my father or anybody else teaching me. I can only remember it being understood that Hansie could not do anything constructive.”
There is something which happens to Fran’s mouth when I talk of my childhood; I do not know what it is, quite, but Fran looks very forbidding. I went on, regardless; it was easier to go on than to stop.
“And. . . Nick, would you teach me? Not anything terribly complicated? It may be that it is true and Hansie cannot do this, but I think, I think I need to know.”
“Sure,” he said, without hesitation. “If you like, we can start in the shed. I’m going to line the walls, so that’s just cutting panels to fit and screwing them in place over tank lagging. Basic carpentry. And I want shelves in there. I’ve been looking at the ones where you buy brackets and a racking system, but they’ll need to be fastened to the walls if they’re to be strong enough. Hansie, I’ve got a huge list of stuff to get me through the winter, and you’re welcome to come and help with any of it. The kitchen splashback needs re-tiling; I want to move the washing machine; how are you on decorating?”
I shook my head. “Not brilliant. I think my technique is not good, and Tim wants us to decorate too, but I have been putting it off.”
“Well, you help me with the hall, because the drop over the stairs gives me the willies,” (see, I know that phrase now!) “and I’ll come over and help you and Tim. It’s no skin off my nose to tell you every time I’m starting something new: if you want to come and try, you can, and if you don’t fancy that one, you needn’t bother. No trouble.”
It is a trouble, though, because if I am to be there every time he is to do anything, he will not be able to fit in just the half hour before dinner here and there – but again, it is as Tim says, Piet has taught us to ask for what we need and to accept it graciously when it is offered. I will simply remember that I owe Fran and Nick something.
“We can start on Sunday, if you like. We could get a wall done in the shed, given a couple of hours.” I nodded, rather nervously, and he gave me a sharp look. “And listen, Hansie, I’m happy to show you. If Tim wants to come and keep you company and give you moral support or talk to Fran, that’s fine too, but don’t bring your dad and his baggage. I get the impression he lives in your head a lot, and I don’t want to see him. This is between you and me, and I don’t want to have to contradict him every time you try something new.”
I must have looked a bit startled, because Fran laughed aloud and pulled my hair as she went past. “That’s good advice, Hansie. Your dad spends far too much time in your head; charge him rent or tell him to go, there isn’t room for both of you in there.”
It is good advice. Difficult to follow, but I am trying. (Tim says I am very trying. . .) Nick is a good teacher and he does not, as I feared a little that he would, make too many allowances for me. It was not enough for him that my shelf was flat according to the spirit level: if a marble placed on top ran one way or another, it was not flat. The first shelf I put up to his satisfaction, he made me sign with a thick marker pen as proof that Hansie could do it. Then he decided that shelves from a packet were not good enough.
“I think you need to make something from scratch, from instructions. I’ve got a book and I’ve marked a couple of things I think you could do. Let’s go and look.”
I lifted my head from the second page and stared at him. He sniggered. “Don’t look so shocked, Hansie. I just thought that if you had never taken up DIY as a hobby, it might be because you had never had your interest properly engaged.”
I looked back down at the diagrams. “That I could do. It is simple enough – but this? The diagrams. . .”
“Do we need to go outside and look at your shelf? Read the instructions, Hansie, and don’t panic.”
I did as I was told. “It does not sound difficult. You think I could do this?”
“I’m sure of it.”
“Then no doubt I can. It will be a big surprise for Tim.” I thought about that, and felt an evil grin arrive on my face. “A big, big surprise. Surprises are good for him.”
He came home with a selection of borrowed tools (I suspect that Christmas and birthdays are about to become easy: he’s beginning to want his own toolbox) and a bag full of supplies, and then took up residence in our shed, with the old kitchen table which had gone out to the garage when we bought the new one. I asked what he was doing, and was chased firmly away.
“I am not yet sufficiently confident that I can do this with you watching. Besides, I wish it to be a surprise for you.”
Right. It would be the dreaded spice rack, as made by every woodwork student since the first caveman discovered that rubbing the mammoth steak with some of those seeds improved the taste, and used uncomplainingly by said student’s mother until student leaves home and she can buy a proper one. I wondered if I would be able to palm it off on Phil; unlikely, I feared: Phil would be getting his own as a present.
The sawing only lasted one evening; then there was the varnish on his cuffs, and then a week in which he muttered a lot and I caught him making plaits in the fringing on the edge of the rug in the sitting room. Then he packed everything up again and went back to see Nick.
The phone rang about half an hour later.
“Tim? It’s Nick. Hansie's just set off to go home. He’s got a couple of things to show you; when he does, he’ll want to experiment with them, I expect. It seemed a bit unfair to leave you unprepared, so, um, I just thought. . . Well, you might need some ammunition. You might be able to do something with the fact that he put the end on my shed inside out.”
I sorted through this, finding myself low on comprehension. “What’s he got to show me?”
I could hear both Nick and Fran laughing at the other end of the phone. “Something very traditional.”
Obviously he wasn’t going to tell me. “Why will I want ammunition? And what did he do to your shed?”
Ach, that was – well, no, I will not say mean, it was not cruel, but it was sneaky. Nick had been extremely patient with me and he was generous with praise when I took my homework to show him.
“I don’t think I could have done better myself. How did you find the braids?”
I made a face. “Difficult. I had to unpick them five or six times until I simply did it from the instructions without looking at the diagram at all. And I think another time I would use heavier dowel.”
“That’s personal preference for you. I’m having a weekend off this week, and then if the weather holds I’m going to think about walling off that corner for Fran’s bike and the bin. Want to do bricklaying?”
“Ja, I am up for bricklaying. But now I shall leave you in peace and go home and show my partner what I can do with my new skills. I am so grateful, Nick, you know that? Although Tim may not be.” I hugged him hard, until he put his elbow in my ribs.
“You needn’t be. I’ve got a brilliant excuse now for anything that goes wrong round the house. ‘Well, Hansie did that bit.’ Go on, go home and show off to Tim. Poor Tim.”
Poor Tim nothing; poor Hansie. I went home and I did not appreciate that Tim looked a little pleased with himself.
“Tim? Look. Look what I can do. Look what I have made.”
They were simple: a wooden paddle, with smooth rounded corners (I was proud of those corners!) and a flogger with a braided leather handle. I know Tim likes floggers; I am faintly surprised that we have not obtained one before. He picked it up admiringly.
“I’m impressed. No, I really am impressed! Did Nick help much?”
“With these? Not at all. Well, he talked me through the instructions, that was all. But you know, Tim, I think it would be a mistake to assume that I know what I am doing without actually trying out what I have made. We will not know that I have done it right until these things have been used.” I was easing Tim up the stairs as I spoke, with one hand proprietorially on that tight little bottom. “And I made them for you, my liefie, only for you.”
“How kind of you,” he said dryly, turning ahead of me into our bedroom. “But really, Hansie, I don’t think you’ve understood how this works. Traditionally, the one who goes out to the shed to make a paddle is the one who’s going to have it applied to his own bottom. And I haven’t done anything I should be punished for.”
“Like I have?” I enquired, grinning.
“Well, there was the little matter of putting Nick’s shed together back to front, or inside out, or whatever.” And while I was still speechless at the discovery that Tim knew about that – and equally at the discovery that I no longer cared that Tim knew about that, that now it was merely a funny story at my expense and one that I could tell against myself – he slipped round behind me, squeezed my bottom hard, and purred in my ear, “So get those jeans off, Master Carpenter, and let’s see how sound the paddle is.”
“But that is not the idea at all!”
“It’s my idea. If you like we could get out the leather paddle too and try them one after the other? See what the difference is?”
“I do not at all think that would be a good plan,” I complained, while Tim’s fingers unfastened my jeans and he urged me to the edge of the bed.
“No? You may be right, perhaps that would only confuse the issue, contaminate the purity of the test. Could I trouble you to drop your pants? Thank you so much. Now, bend over, Hansie. Shall we say a dozen just to try it out? And perhaps the same again for Nick’s shed?”
He paused after the first six. “Did you say something?”
“Nee,” I denied into the bedspread.
“Well, it seems sound enough. A little noisy in use, perhaps, do you think? I must say, Hansie, it’s a beautiful piece of work. Not a smudge in the varnish or anything. And it brings you up startlingly red.” He drew his fingernails lightly over my arse and I jumped; that is something I like very much for him to do afterwards; it is remarkably sensitising and I have told him before that doing it in the middle is not fair.
“Where were we? Oh yes.”
“Timmy? (Ow!) Promise me you will not tell Piet that I know how to make a paddle? I do not think that is something I wish him (ow!) to know.”
“You think deceiving Piet is a good idea? Although actually I agree with you; there isn’t any reason for the words ‘Piet’ and ‘wooden paddle’ to go together and it would be far better for them not to. I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“I did not say anything,” I denied unconvincingly.
“Oh, you did, you did. You know I don’t speak Afrikaans, Hansie. It’s rude to talk in a language I don’t understand, and it sounded as if what you said wasn’t polite either. Did you say something rude, Hansie?
“Ow! No! No, I did not.”
“Are you sure?”
“Ow! Quite sure, my liefie, quite (ow!) sure.”
“And you were fidgeting dreadfully. I’m not at all sure that I shouldn’t give you some extra for fidgeting.”
“I am sure, I am quite sure,” I said fervently.
“Stand up. Come and see.” I looked over my shoulder at the mirror; I was certainly very red. He did the fingernails thing again, and made me jump again, and I reached for him, grinning.
“I think it is my turn now, hey?”
“Oh no it’s not. The shed, Hansie. The shed. Another dozen, I believe we said.”
“I did not agree to this. . .”
“I’m sure if you think of poor Nick and his shed, you’ll reconsider. Is it a good paddle to use over the knee?”
Ja, it is, thank you. But the flogger makes Tim wriggle and make most peculiar noises, and actually, he seemed remarkably enthusiastic about my new hobby. My father, on the other hand, had shut up entirely in my head, presumably even more horrified that I could do DIY than he had been when I could not.
“You,” said Fran, after he had gone, “have been remarkably patient with Hansie. How often did you resist the temptation to disembowel him with a power tool?”
“Over the last month? Not more than half a dozen times. Well, maybe eight. Ten at the outside.”
She came to kiss me. “And how incompetent is he?”
“Not at all,” I said, firmly. “I’m not sure he’ll ever be a great enthusiast, but he’s quite capable. He just needed a little push in the right direction and a reward when he got to the end. I expect Tim’s providing that now: fortunately that’s not my problem.”
“And what about you?”
“What about me?” I cocked my head at her, confused.
“Don’t you think you might be entitled to a reward too?”
I pretended to a lack of interest which I didn’t feel. “Well, it’s hardly important, but I suppose if there happened to be a reward going. . . What did you have in mind?”
“I thought that perhaps I could have a look in the toy-box and see if anything took my fancy. Maybe that nice three tailed strap? Or the flogger just like Hansie's which I notice you didn’t tell him you had made? And there are some rings on the toy-box, into which the clips from your wrist cuffs might link.”
I looked shocked. “So you’re telling me that I spend weeks teaching Hansie to use a brace and bit, and all I can expect by way of payment is to be tied down and beaten?”
She uncurled herself from my arms, somehow appearing to grow taller and more threatening.
“Yes. I think you deserve to be strapped until you yelp, until you squirm, until you beg me to stop. Until when I take you to bed, you can’t lie on your back without wriggling. Until you know that tomorrow, you’ll remember every time you sit down that you spent this evening with me, that you belong to Miss Frances. Until you know that you’ve got marks, marks which I put on you. And that I’ll mark you again for what you did to Hansie, I’ll mark you again tomorrow, and the next time Hansie comes to learn from you, and the time after that.”
If she talked like that much longer I wasn’t going to be able to manage the stairs.
“Well,” I said rather unsteadily, “as rewards go. . .”
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