Although Fran’s stories are largely self-contained, they’ll make more sense if you read enough of Team Trials to know who everybody is. This all happened some time after the events of Coming Together
I wanted – how I wanted! – to see Fran. She and I – no. That’s not the right place to start.
I don’t know where the right place to start is. I was still coming to terms with what I had done. If I thought about it too much, the very idea that I had given myself so completely into someone else’s hands caused two things to happen: my intellect whimpered slightly and complained that it was a Bad Idea, and my libido whimpered slightly and asked when we were going to do it again. There had been the night of the great drugs raid, which was absolutely the first time I had EVER done anything like that, and half a dozen subsequent occasions on which I had gone a little further and a little further, until. . .well. Funny – the closest I had come to an argument with Fran was over her flat refusal to play a second time until I had chosen two safe words. I mean, yes, she’s tall for a woman, and obviously strong, but I’m bigger and stronger than she is and I take leave to doubt that she could have made me do anything I wasn’t willing to do, since we weren’t doing anything in the bondage line, but she was deadly serious. A ‘wait’ word and a ‘stop’ word or she wasn’t going to do so much as tap my leg. And of course the mind goes completely blank when asked to choose anything memorable, so that I picked Wimsey and Wexford and then couldn’t remember which one was which. In the end I had Poison for ‘stop’ and Saintfield for ‘steady’. I’m not sure I’m going to remember that either. Perhaps ‘Milton’ and ‘Milton Keynes’?
And I wanted to see her again. I wanted to see her often. I wanted this to be real, to be long term. To be important. I had already allowed one relationship to fail because in the end I hadn’t cared enough to shore it up. It hadn’t been altogether my fault: police marriages are notoriously wobbly, and neither Kate nor I had understood at the beginning what we needed to do about it, but I didn’t want to make the same mistake again. My job is hugely important to me, but there was a way – there had to be a way – to manage both the job and a relationship.
So I phoned her, and arranged to see her at the weekend. Naturally, the wheels came off almost at once. I was off undercover work by then, and back in my own manor, with my own people again. That was Tuesday night and on Wednesday I was called to a house as part of the drugs investigation. Two dead, both shy of their twentieth birthdays. Overdosed, and. . . look, I don’t need to go into detail here, do I? They had been dead a fortnight in a centrally heated house. It wasn’t a good day. I did the liaison with the squad who were investigating and we thought it was actually leading somewhere, and I had to call Fran and cancel the weekend. She didn’t seem too troubled, and I rearranged everything for the next weekend and then all of us worked all the hours God sent through that one.
Then on Monday I cleared a couple of things and some paperwork by putting in a fourteen hour shift and on Tuesday I felt I was actually getting somewhere when Rosie Collier came in.
“Nick? The verdict’s out. Not guilty.”
“What? Fucking hell, Rosie, not guilty?”
“Not guilty. They’ve let him go. He did it, Nick. That bastard raped her and cut her, and he’s raped before and he’ll rape again and they let him off. Hell, you saw him. He’s bloody plausible and he came over well on the stand, and she was scared and she’s only seventeen and she didn’t sound convincing. And they believed him and didn’t believe her. But the bastard did it.”
She sat down opposite me, and put her elbows on the table, pushing the heels of her hands into her eye sockets. “Nick? What did I miss? I thought I had her fit to go to court. I thought we had enough, I thought she would be O.K., well, as O.K. as a rape victim ever is on the stand, I thought we’d get him. I was sure we’d get him. He did that rape in March too, I just know he did, even if we never managed to tie him to it. So what did I miss? Why couldn’t we make it stick?”
“Oh, hell, Rosie, you know better than that. If I thought you’d missed something I wouldn’t have let you go with it. If the Super had thought you had missed something he wouldn’t have let you run with it. If the DPP had thought. . . You said it yourself. He’s plausible, which is why he takes these women in, and she’s young and scared. Yes, he did it. And no, we can’t make it stick. But it’s not your fault. We’d better go and see the family.”
That was. . . stressful. You can imagine. By the time we came back I could feel the needle pain above my eye, but I always hope that this time it won’t come to anything more than a bad headache – it doesn’t always. Well, it doesn’t often, only about twice a year, but this was one of those times. I tanked myself up on painkillers and got on as best I could, and at half six Rosie Collier went in to see the DCI and said that she had spoken to me three times and I wasn’t giving her coherent answers, and then she came back out into the main office and said that Dennison wanted me, and I got up from my desk and walked straight into the door which by then I couldn’t see.
“Bloody fool,” said Dennison, not unsympathetically. “What is it, migraine? Thought so. Rosie, take his keys off him and take him home. Get one of the uniformed constables to follow you and bring you back.”
I have a horrible feeling that Rosie Collier put me to bed. I can’t remember getting there, but she hasn’t said anything and I’m damned if I’ll ask. I do remember opening my eyes and crying out at the stab of the landing light outside, and falling out of bed in my frantic attempt to turn it off. Then I staggered to the bathroom and threw up, and fell asleep just before dawn and slept twelve hours straight, and got up, and ate a piece of toast and wondered if I were going to throw it up again, and went back to bed and slept some more. So Wednesday passed me by, and I went in on Thursday looking like something dug up in a cemetery, and went and did twelve entirely pointless interviews with members of the public, and every time I ate anything I threw up again, and then I rang Fran and cancelled again, and at three o’clock on Friday Dennison came out of his office holding the roster sheets.
“You’re off now. You’re going home. I don’t want to see you again until Wednesday.”
“Which of the words don’t you understand, Nick? I know we’ve been understaffed since Sharon Maplestone went, and we can’t have a replacement for another six weeks, but you’re no bloody use to me the way you are now. I know when you last took your full leave entitlement, and that stops right now. You’ve been doing two people’s work for three months, and doing it damn well, but that’s enough. I’ve been onto that man Harris at Manchester, and I’ve told him you’re going on leave now and he can liaise with me until next week, and with a bit of luck by then I’ll have found somebody else to cover either that side of things or your desk work. That turn you had on Tuesday was your warning that you’ve done enough. Long weekend, Nick. Turn the mobile off and go and detox a bit. You’re losing your sense of perspective, you’re beginning to take it all personally, and that’s not good in a copper. You are not solely responsible for managing the crime figures in this part of the world. It isn’t your fault that we haven’t made a collar for the drugs deaths; it wasn’t your fault that the rape charge didn’t stick.”
Well, no, but it felt like it. Like I had personally let down that poor girl. Intellectually I knew he was right: I’ve seen it before in colleagues. We get too involved, too close, and then we tend to think that we have to make it all come right for everybody and of course we can’t. Policing has pretty much always been finger in the dike stuff, and each of us at some point panics over the feeling that we’re putting a sticking plaster on a mortal wound. What a horrible selection of clichés! But Dennison was right: I needed some space to get my head round the idea that I wasn’t a bad policeman just because I didn’t always win, nor a bad detective because sometimes I couldn’t work out what had happened.
Disconcerting abruptly to have ones freedom. I went home, and looked around, and suddenly thought how shabby the house was. Well, it’s very small and nothing special – thank God I didn’t have to come up with a payment for Kate on the divorce, but she had the big civil service salary, so we agreed a walk-away deal and split the proceeds of the house fifty-fifty, which gave me a deposit. But the way police salaries go, I get a good pension and good health benefits rather than cash, so the house I could afford on my own wasn’t anything wonderful. Anyway, I wondered about just getting in the car and driving over to see Fran, but we weren’t yet at the stage at which I could simply turn up unannounced. Actually, I’m not sure that Fran is the sort of person to whom one would ever do that. She’s very. . . what would you call it? Self-contained, perhaps. I don’t think she’s needy for the company of others the way Kate was. But the last ten days had been so foul and I was out of temper, and I didn’t want any more of my own house and my own company and my own thoughts about what parts of my job I might have been able to do differently.
I called her mobile.
“Fran? It’s Nick. Again. And I’ve had my schedule changed. Again. I’m sorry, I’m messing you about dreadfully, but I’m off from now until Wednesday, so can I. . . I would like to see you.”
“I’m working just now, and I’ve arranged to meet the guys tonight, so. . .”
“Oh. Oh well. Never mind. Another time, perhaps.”
“Nick, why don’t you come too? I’m not going to be back until gone seven, so why don’t you come and meet us? We’re just going for a drink in the Saracen. Do you know where that is? Well, look, pick me up from the flat, then, and come and meet some of my friends.”
O.K., I’ll confess I had something in the way of second thoughts afterwards, and events proved me right. Nick struck me as a keeper, and I was fairly sure he felt the same way about me, but what it came down to was that I didn’t yet know him well enough to take in over a crackly mobile phone connection just how badly stressed he was. I should have kept him clear of everybody for at least one night, given him what he needed to disengage from his job, and introduced him to the boys later. I admit it, it was a mistake. But at the time I didn’t pick up what Nick needed, just that he was keen to come over, and I thought it was time to introduce him to the gang. I was thinking less of what he would make of them, than of what they would make of him. Piet would be fine, but I couldn’t help wondering what Nick would see in him. He had coped with the club, and from things he had said, I didn’t think that he had any problem with gay men, but I wasn’t sure what such a new Bottom would make of somebody who is such an obvious Top, even in a different orientation. Phil? Phil is willing to be friends with everybody, although he’s much less puppyish than he was. He’s growing up. Tim is social and sociable enough, and actually he and I are getting on much better since that awful bust-up he had with Hansie.
No, the one who worried me was Hansie himself. Hansie couldn’t do enough for me and what he was going to think of me introducing another man into the set-up, I didn’t know. But it did occur to me that it might be a good idea to give him a little warning.
“Ach, Tim, it is only me. Is this an inconvenient time?”
“No, Hansie, I’m surrounded by the ISO paperwork and the quality control manuals and I’m desperate to be interrupted before the boredom makes my brains implode. What is it?”
“Fran just rang up. She wants to bring somebody tonight.”
There was something faintly – off – in his tone.
“Oh?” I said carefully. “Who?”
“His name is Nick. She has been – I think, I deduce that they have been seeing each other and it is getting serious. She rang me up to warn me and asked me to warn you and also Phil.”
Warn us? An odd way to put it. But Fran’s like Piet – if she tells you something it’s because she wants you to know. So what did she want us to know?
“He is a policeman. She says he has worked with Sergeant what’s-his-name who investigated her break-in.”
“Ja, I said so too. Now, apparently he – Nick – does not work here. She says that her break-in is nothing to do with him, and he would have no cause to take any interest in it. She also says that the sergeant knows perfectly well that the – aftermath – of that break-in was something to do with Fran’s friends. And she says we should assume that whatever the sergeant knows, this Nick knows.”
“Ja. But she says that because it is old history and not his case, she thinks he will claim to know nothing about it unless we force his hand, unless we. . . the phrase she used was: unless we rub his face in it. So I am warning you, ja nee? We do not refer to that. And I think we should call Phil also.”
“I think you’re right. Shall I do that? I want to speak to Phil anyway, about something else. I’ll call him now.”
Actually I didn’t want to speak to Phil about anything else. I wanted to speak to Phil about this. Hansie had sounded – odd.
“Hi, Phil? Tim. Phil, is Piet there? Can you get him to pick up the extension? I think you both want to hear this.”
I told them what Hansie had told me, and Phil, being Phil, got straight to the heart of it at once.
“Is Hansie O.K. with this?”
“I don’t think so. I think Fran called about this police thing so that Hansie would have an hour or so to get used to the notion. Let’s face it, if she introduced him as: this is Nick, he’s in the police; we would all shut up about the break-in. She didn’t need to warn us.”
I heard Piet’s rumble of amusement. “You are quite right, Tim, I think. That is Fran giving Hansie time to grow accustomed to the idea. But you think he is not happy?”
“Hell, Piet, I don’t know. I wasn’t there when she rang so I couldn’t see his reactions, and he said what I told you, but he didn’t sound quite right. And you know how he feels about Fran: he’s quite likely to ask this Nick his intentions like a Victorian father.”
“And then Fran will slay him,” observed Phil, dispassionately.
“Hmm,” said Piet. “Fran has not previously introduced any of her companions to us. I think we must assume that she is serious about this one. And that she is also aware of what Hansie may say or do. She would not willingly do anything to hurt him.”
“No,” I said miserably, “but it’s so easy to hurt Hansie. And – oh hell, maybe I’m making it up. Seeing problems where there aren’t any. Just. . . just be aware of it, that’s all. Just in case.”
“Yes,” agreed Piet. “You are quite right. It may be nothing. But we will all be alert.”
“There’s a first,” said Phil, cheerfully. I frowned.
“What is, Phil?”
“Tim Creed admitting that he doesn’t know what to do and looking for help before the disaster overcomes him.”
I heard the slap and laugh down the phone, and I was smiling as I replaced the receiver. Asking for help. It wasn’t actually as difficult as I had always believed.
I had set out pretty well straight away, which was stupid. I arrived at Fran’s at about six and of course she wasn’t there. Of course she wasn’t there. She had told me as much. So I went and found somewhere to get something to eat, and went back at five past seven and waited until she arrived. I wish she would move out of that flat. I don’t like the area: since the night club opened at the back of the Golden Lion, that isn’t somewhere I would want to live myself and it makes me nervous that she does. She hasn’t any neighbours – she’s over the bookshop and the two either side are used for storage by the shops below, so it’s quiet, but no bad neighbours in her case means no good neighbours either. And the flat itself is small and I think it’s damp, and. . . well. Not really my business. She came in at twenty past seven and settled me in front of the TV while she went to shower and change. Given the slightest encouragement I would have gone with her. I was spinning out of control. Dennison had been right, I had got myself into a state of thinking it was my job to make the world safe for the public at large. Normally? Normally when one of us gets that way the others take him (less often her – the women seem to cope differently, I don’t know what they do) out and ply him with drink until he is belligerent or morose or whatever type of drunk he is. It’s a very boys’ club sort of thing, and I was missing it. My promotion to inspector had taken me out of my group and I hadn’t got a new one yet.
But Fran appeared again in jeans and I cheered up and we had a brief argument about whether we were going out on her bike and I could drink or out in my car and she could. And I won, so she gave me directions and we went to the pub.
Hansie was in a very odd frame of mind when we went to the pub. Very odd indeed: I had never seen him quite like this. Piet and Phil were half a drink ahead of us, and we had just settled when the door swung again and Fran came in with this copper behind her. She spotted us straight off, and came to make introductions. As usual, we all got up – very old fashioned, standing up to greet a lady, but Hansie and Piet do it as a matter of course, and Phil and I have sort of caught it from them. And as usual, Fran stretched up to kiss Hansie's cheek – he’s the only one of us who always gets a kiss when they meet, although Piet often kisses her goodbye. And he didn’t return it. Didn’t lean down to make it easy for her. She shot him a fast glance, and turned to introduce her companion without comment.
“This is Nick Maitland. Nick, the mountain over there is the famous Pieter de Vries, ex-international rugby player, coach at the Premiership club, and general capable guy. Next to him is Phil Cartwright, current international rugby player, pictures of whom are going to keep me in my old age. This is Tim Creed, whose aunt Mary knows my mother from way back so I have to be careful, and this is Hansie van den Broek, and since he and I have no family locally, he’s got brevet rank as my baby brother.”
And Fran’s Nick shook everybody’s hand and murmured politely, and Hansie didn’t smile, just sat down again and picked up his glass. I caught Phil’s eye and he made a quick face, and reached for his wallet. “My round, guys. What would you like?”
God, I hope never to spend another evening like that one. Nick seemed to have nothing to say for himself at all to begin with, and I couldn’t imagine why Fran had taken up with someone so dull. Hansie was – well, to be blunt about it, Hansie was sulking. Wouldn’t talk, wouldn’t catch anybody’s eye. No responses when Fran tried to bring him into the conversation, no responses when I kicked him under the table. No response when Piet spoke to him, with just the faintest hint of threat. I fought off the temptation to rush screaming from the bar.
Phil rescued us. He’s back in training, not full time yet, but half days, and he told us about some disaster which had overcome the team, making a shaggy dog story of it against himself, having us hear about him coming further and further unstuck because he couldn’t keep up with his team mates. He’s good with stories, Phil. In fact, he’s very good with words. I know he’s not the sharpest: we’ve already had that conversation, but he’s really making something of those rugby columns he writes for the Gazette, and I think that when he retires from play, the TV channels are going to fight over him as a commentator or an analyst. He got us started, and I backed him up, and Piet and Fran joined in, and after a while I could actually see Nick force himself to participate. He seemed to be, I don’t know, not nervous exactly but he was shredding the beer mat into smaller and smaller pieces, separating the cardboard into paper layers, rolling and unrolling them. And then he began to make little digs at Fran and suddenly I got it.
Presently even Phil ran out of steam – Hansie hadn’t said a word all evening, but I could feel him beside me coiling more and more tightly with every snippy comment Nick made to Fran – and I cast about for another topic before we had one of those horrible silences.
“Phil, have you seen that new shop in the Glaston Square Arcade? The kitchen supplier? There’s some wonderful stuff inside. The deli seems to be very good and they’ve got pieces of equipment I can’t even put a name to, never mind think of a use for.”
“I know,” agreed Phil mournfully. “I went in last week looking for smoked sea salt and came out having spent a hundred and forty pounds. I sent my mum a copy of their opening flier and next thing I knew I was back inside with my credit card and her shopping list and spent the same again. But I got a proper crêpe pan: I’ve been looking for one of those for ages. When I was at college there was a French girl in the room opposite mine who taught me to make crêpes and galettes, proper ones with farine de blé noir, and when I saw they had that as well, I was done for.”
“You can make crêpes? Why did you never mention this before? I can’t do it, mine go like the skin on old wallpaper paste every time. More to the point, why did you never make them for us?”
“My esteemed coach here won’t allow me. Too many calories, too much saturated fat. I’ve got some very tedious and depressing paperwork from the dietician forbidding almost everything interesting.”
“Do you cook, Nick?” asked Piet. “Me, I can barely make a sandwich and when these two start talking about ingredients, I am lost at once.”
“I don’t. . . well, when I’m working, I admit I eat very badly. I’m no better than competent in the kitchen. I’m better than Fran, but that’s not saying much.”
Hansie's head came up at that and he cast Nick a look of extreme dislike, although Fran plainly hadn’t taken offence. She wouldn’t claim to be any sort of cook.
“What do you put in your crêpes, Phil?” I pushed on.
“Anything you like, but the ones we always liked best were soft cheese, brie or camembert, chopped very small so that it would melt, with cranberry sauce. Or the unsophisticated and unbelievably calorific mixture of chocolate spread and double cream. Put a dash of orange bitters in it if you want to go up-market.”
I moaned, and Phil laughed at me. “Sounds wonderful,” agreed Fran.
“All right, all right, I see where this is going. Yes, I’ll make crêpes for everybody. It’ll be a change from going for a curry at closing time. But somebody will have to go to Tesco, because I haven’t any brie or cream.”
“Have you got chocolate spread?” Fran asked, and I saw a flash of amusement between Phil and Piet.
“Oddly enough, I do. Left over from something else.”
“Then if Nick and I go to Tesco, we can call in at home – I’ve just got a quick thing I must do – and we’ll get a taxi up to yours. Then Nick can have a drink too.”
Nick began to argue about that, he was happy to drive, and Fran gave him the Look. She’s good at it too – it was well up to Piet’s standards – and when he persisted, she simply said “Dominic,” in a warning tone. And he cast her a glance, and suddenly his shoulders went down and he relaxed, and I thought: so that’s the way it is and I bet I know what Fran’s quick thing to do is.
I’d spent better evenings, I admit. I didn’t want to be there, I wanted Fran to myself but I was trying not to be so selfish and possessive. I felt – well, a bit threatened, too. She’d known them longer than she had me, and obviously they were all comfortable together. That big man, de Vries, I was inclined to dislike, largely because of the thing I had read about him and Fran at the sports awards. If it came to rivalry, what had I got to offer that might make me preferable to him? And he had an odd effect on me too; talking to him was like having an interview with the Chief Constable. I kept wondering if my tie was straight, or my shirt creased. The young one, Phil, was pleasant enough. I half expected him to be full of himself – sure I knew who he was, I read the papers and anyway Fran had mentioned him before. Even I can see that he is startlingly good-looking, and he’s in the sports headlines regularly. But there seems to be no side to him, and after ten minutes of looking first at him and then at de Vries, I could see that I had been worrying about entirely the wrong thing. Those two are together, I couldn’t miss it.
The other thing I couldn’t miss were the vibes of dislike I was getting from Hansie van den Broek, and I was damned if I could see why. It was plain that he was with Tim Creed, so it wasn’t that he wanted Fran. They were more obvious than de Vries and Phil, who presumably have a certain amount of discretion to show and a certain amount of prejudice to overcome. Tim Creed I thought I could get to like: he’s sharp, and he was holding his own as the unsporty one in that group. But Hansie? He would have happily pushed me under a train and I had no idea why.
Still, a detective learns quickly that the easiest way to find something out is to ask, so on the way back from Tesco, I asked.
“Fran? What’s with Hansie? Is he always like that, or was it just for my benefit?”
She was silent long enough for me to realise that she was choosing very carefully what to say.
“Hansie's family is engaged in an experiment to extend dysfunctionality to previously unrecognised limits. He has difficulty in forming relationships: he tends to assume that people won’t like him and then to behave in such a way as to ensure that they don’t. Cut him a bit of slack, Nick, and see if he comes round. I don’t really want to go into why he’s like that, it’s his own business, but I think I’m the only woman with whom he has any sort of normal relationship – well, except perhaps Tim’s Aunt Mary – and I think he’s got an attack of the way you go when you suddenly discover that your parents have sex. You know, when you realise that they have a relationship that doesn’t include you.”
“Ah. I see.”
“No, you don’t, but I can’t really tell you any more without breaking confidences. And if he was unsociable, you weren’t behaving very well yourself, and I intend to take ten minutes to go into that before we go out again.”
And I felt the thrill of that right through me, and abandoned Hansie van den Broek as irrelevant.
We didn’t talk much on the way to Piet’s. Hansie and I had walked to the pub, but Phil had driven, and we all went back in the car, with Hansie's temper and pain and confusion like a fifth passenger. In the house, Piet looked at me and I nodded. Something had to be said.
“Hansie? Why are you so unhappy that Fran seeks a companion?”
“Ach, Piet, I am not. Just that he is a little nothing of a man, and she could do better. And he was abominably rude to her, and if he keeps speaking so, I will. . .”
I interrupted. “You will do nothing, Hansie, and say nothing. It isn’t our business, and Fran is more than capable of managing her own affairs. And if he was rude, what about you? Turning away when she came to kiss you?”
Piet nodded. “She was hurt by that, Hansie. That you should have denied your sister.”
“Well, not my sister now, is she? She moves on. I do not begrudge it to her.” Between his teeth: a flat lie.
Phil, of course, wouldn’t let that one pass. “Hansie? Do you love me?”
He was surprised, we could all see that. “Ach, Phil, you know I do.”
Phil smiled and held out his arms, and Piet and I eased back to let him come to Hansie. For all that Phil teases me about always being in Piet’s arms, both Phil and Hansie like to cuddle much more than Piet or I do. Hansie, probably because of having gone short of hugs early on, is greedy for them now, and Phil’s just a snugglebunny. Problems of the heart? Always for Phil to cure. He dragged Hansie in against the massive chest – I swear he’s bigger every time I see him. He must have stopped growing, surely? He’ll never be as tall as Piet but he makes me feel positively undersized.
“How can you possibly love me, Hansie? Do I love you?”
Hansie wouldn’t answer that.
“You say you love me but you live with Tim. Do you love Piet, Hansie?”
He was getting the point. He had his head down against Phil’s shoulder, and I think he was close to tears.
“I love you. Piet loves you. But you live with Tim. That’s how it works. That’s how love is. There’s enough to go round. You don’t love Tim less because you love us too, or us less because you love Tim more. Why don’t you trust Fran?”
Because his female role model didn’t love him enough to protect him from the man who should have been his male role model, who may have loved him – I’m trying to be generous here – but who had a bloody funny way of showing it.
“Hansie, Fran won’t abandon you. Use your brains. Fran, for heaven’s sake! Fran isn’t giving him anything that’s yours. Nick isn’t taking anything away from you. She can manage to love you and him both. Hell, even I can do that, and she’s a woman, she can multitask.”
That got a rather shaky laugh. “Ja, I suppose. But he was being so rude to her!”
I suddenly realised that he hadn’t seen what was so obvious to me. “Hansie, she’s a Top.”
“Ach, Tim, you think I don’t know that? She topped me, remember?”
Well, that went down like the discovery of a frog in the garden party punch. Hansie went a shade of crimson found nowhere in nature at the realisation of what he had said, Phil squeaked with shock, and even Piet blinked a bit. There was a desperate moment’s silence and then we all spoke at once, and I think it redounds to Phil’s credit that although he must have been – must have been – dying to say “when? how? what for?”, he simply said, “I think you’re missing the point. If Tim spent the evening in the pub talking to you that way, what would you think?”
“I would think: as soon as we get home he will be going over. . . Oh.”
“Oh,” Phil and I agreed, solemnly.
“You think. . .?”
“Yes, Hansie,” confirmed Piet. “I think there is no doubt about it. Fran is a Top. Nick is a Bottom. I think he is not very experienced and he does not yet know how to get what he wants with little display.”
“Oh, God,” whispered Hansie, turning away.
We gave him a few moments to think about that, while Phil cleared himself a space in the kitchen and began to collect ingredients.
“I am making a fool of myself, ja nee?”
I smiled and held out my arms to him. “Ja wel no fine, as you say yourself, sweetheart. Just recognise it as jealousy and get a grip on it. Fran’s not stupid. She won’t expect you to be best buddies with Nick, she’s got more sense than to assume that all her friends will automatically like all her other friends. But she’s got the right to ask you to be civil.”
“I suppose. I suppose. And if she is serious about him, I have to accept him or lose her, ja? So I must make an effort, even if. . . I must make an effort.”
Piet came to hug Hansie. “You will make an effort for Fran’s sake. And you know, Hansie, I do not suppose that he liked us any more than you liked him. But I do not think it likely that Fran would choose the sort of man with whom we could none of us get on.”
“I wonder what she has told him about us?”
I shook my head. “Fran won’t have told him anything that isn’t common knowledge.”
“He will not then know about Piet and Phil.”
Phil threw a glance over his shoulder. “He knows that. I saw him work it out. Don’t underestimate him, Hansie. For one thing, Fran wouldn’t choose a man who wasn’t smart, because she’s smart herself, and if he’s an inspector, and a detective inspector at that, I think we should assume that he’s got all his marbles, even if he wasn’t showing to his best advantage tonight.”
Piet nodded. “I too saw him make the connection. I think he is a man who knows how to read people, and his job probably gives him much experience in doing so.”
“You will ask him then for his promise that he will not speak to your disadvantage? We all know” with a glance at me “that you could be damaged by a careless word.” I stuck my tongue out at him, and Piet swatted me gently.
“I will not. If he were the man to need to be asked for his word, his word would not be worth having. Phil is correct, Hansie; Nick Maitland is no fool. What is more, his own position cannot be easy. Fran is known locally to be a Top, and we all know what sort of photographs she takes as her second line of business. Do you think a detective inspector would wish it to be widely known that he is involved in a relationship with her? She does nothing illegal, and we think her morals and ethics acceptable but others would not. Nick Maitland will not need to be told anything about discretion.”
The doorbell made us all jump; Hansie gave us an unrecognisable look and went to answer it. Nick came hesitatingly through to the kitchen holding a Tesco bag, and I saw, out in the hall, Hansie put his hand on Fran’s arm to delay her. He said something, I didn’t catch what, and she answered him seriously, and he looked at her for a moment and then gave her a rather twisted smile, but when she frowned, he leaned over and kissed her solemnly. They rested their foreheads against each other for a second, and then Fran gave him a light slap and followed him into the kitchen.
“Nick, you are welcome here,” said Piet, who had seen it too. “A glass of wine? All South African, I fear. The red is a Stellenbosch Merlot, which is very good, and the white is a Viognier, which Phil thought would stand up to the cheese. I confess, I think neither one will be very good with the chocolate.”
“White, please. Phil, we got you some ordinary brie, and some brie with black pepper and garlic, but if you don’t like that I’ll take it away with me.”
“Give it here before Tim eats it straight from the packet, and somebody give Fran a glass of wine. Piet, am I going to be allowed to eat anything myself?”
“You are a big boy, Phil, and you take responsibility for your own life, which includes your diet. You know what you are supposed to eat and not eat, and how far you may bend the rules. Just remember that I, as your coach, will be very annoyed if you put on too much weight. And I think that if there is garlic in that cheese we discover first if it is acceptable to all. For either we must all eat it or we must all leave it alone. Nick, come, sit down here, and Fran too, and we will be out of Phil’s way. He is in charge in the kitchen.”
Hansie was definitely watching as Nick sat down, and there was a flinch sufficient to confirm what we had all thought. I don’t think he saw that we knew, though, but I at least could see that he looked different, less irritable, but very tired. Actually, I recognised the look: I had looked much the same while I was making such a complete dogs’ dinner of my MBA. I saw Hansie take a breath.
“Tell us, Nick, how does one get to be a detective?”
On a par with remarks about the weather, or ‘do you come here often’, but Piet nodded approval, and I smiled too. Hansie making an effort. And Nick had plainly been put on his best behaviour too, because he answered politely, and after a moment we could see that Phil was right. This was not by any means a stupid man.
Piet tipped his head on one side. “Is it not a very stressful job?”
“It can be, yes, largely because it never ends. There’s always another case chasing the one you’re on, and when one goes badly there’s always the feeling of: if I had interviewed one more person or asked one more question or gone myself instead of sending the sergeant. . . It’s hard to stop. The burn-out rate is very high. A lot of early retirements on health grounds. Oh, thank you.” (As Phil put a plate in front of him.)
Phil was right. Crêpes with cranberry sauce and brie are one of the world’s greater inventions. Crêpes with chocolate spread and cream are a good combination of sophistication and nursery food. And Piet was right: the chocolate spread didn’t go with either Merlot or Viognier.
It was nearly midnight when Fran tugged at Nick’s arm. “Come on, you, time to go home. No thanks, Piet, don’t call a cab here. It’ll be just as quick for us to walk up to Parry Street and get one from the rank. Phil, when you’re ready to be a full time toy boy, come and cook for me.”
He grinned at her. “You couldn’t afford me.”
Hansie went to fetch Fran’s coat, holding it out formally for her, and turning to shake hands with Nick, who seemed a little surprised. Fran pushed past him. “Give me a hug, Hansie. I’ll see you some time in the week. Come on, Nick, your eyes have been closing this last half hour.”
Hansie came back in to help Phil clear the table; he didn’t say anything until Phil had refilled the kettle and started another pot of coffee. Then he caught us all looking at him.
“O.K., O.K., I give in, ja? He is all right. Fran is happy, I am wrong, I will play nicely with the other boys. I admit it, I am jealous but that is my problem and I will get over it.”
“Of course you will,” approved Piet. “You are a big enough man to admit when you are wrong, and you see that Fran cares. She will not care any less for you just because she is happy.”
Hansie made a face. “Still, if he makes her unhappy. . .”
I leaned over to kiss him. “Sweetheart, if he makes her unhappy, then you may tear out his throat with your teeth and I’ll help. Piet and Phil can dig the grave and we’ll all alibi each other.”
“Perhaps we should pick his brains early on?” suggested Phil. “Get him to tell us how to catch a criminal so that we don’t make any obvious mistakes if we have to kill him?”
“You may feed him to death, koekie. Or I will hit him with your new pan.”
“Piet, if you so much as touch that pan, you’re dead. And don’t even think of putting it in the dishwasher, either. I haven’t forgotten what you did to my omelette pan.”
“Excuse me? Who is Top here?”
“In this kitchen?”
“Oh, all right, koekie, it is you. But see, Hansie worries still. What can we do to make him happy again, Tim?”
“I liked Phil’s explanation that we all love Hansie. But honestly, Piet, he’s awfully slow on the uptake. Perhaps a practical demonstration rather than just a lecture?”
So we did that
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© , 2005