It was a complication which I simply did not see coming – like I had seen any of the other ones coming? But this one, no, not even I can think that this was my fault. It was the committee meeting for the Autumn Craft Show. This is a thing they do in our village each year, to raise funds for the church, which is very large, very old, very beautiful, and very very expensive to maintain. And by the standards of committee meetings all was going very well. Ach, such annual events do not change much from year to year and they have been running this event since Noah was learning to build boats; the children’s flower arrangement competition has a different theme, the types of biscuit and cake vary, but the main plan is as it was probably 50 years ago. The people are the same, too – all village committees, I have discovered, are made up of 5 or 6 people from a pool of about 10.
“Somebody to open the show and make the third judge for the home-made produce, then.”
There was a silence, and then George Vane sighed. “Can’t we just have the vicar?”
Sarah Broughton shook her head. “It’s better if we can get somebody from outside, you know it is. Helps draw people in. We mustn’t forget that it’s supposed to be a fundraiser.”
“Well, yes, but who?”
We sat a moment in silence, and eventually Jenny Jones said wearily, “Then it’s James Smart again,” and everybody groaned.
“Who is James Smart?” I asked cautiously. Joan Pollock snorted.
“Pop star. Owns Starr House, bought it when Lucy Starr died. Bought it for the name, in my opinion.”
“And not much of a star any more, hasn’t made a record in 10 years,” put in George.
Sarah made a face. “Can we really not think of anybody else? We have to pay an appearance fee for James Smart, remember, and last year that just about wiped out our profit.”
“No, I’ve got a better idea,” said Joan sharply. “That friend of yours, Hansie. The rugby player, the one who was on TV a couple of weeks back. Ask him, and don’t mention a fee. In fact, George, you write, you’re chairman of the committee, and ask, and Hansie can speak to him as well.”
I made some faint objection about ‘the World Cup’ and ‘many commitments’ but for once George failed to back me up; he has been running rugby nights at the pub, with the matches on the big screens. “Face facts, England aren’t going all the way this year. And if they do, so much the better – a World Cup hero to open proceedings? They'll be hanging out the door. And he’ll pull the younger people in, and the ladies.”
“Why the ladies?” asked Jenny, who is known for her lack of interest in all things sporting. “A rugby player?”
“Oh, Jenny, really,” scolded Joan, who must be near 70. “The boy’s what in my day we would have called a dreamboat. And he’s supposed to be charming; he certainly came over well on that cooking programme.”
It was pure fortune – good on my part, not so good on his – that I happened to bump into Tim on Saturday morning in the market. I do my shopping in the supermarket – in and out as quickly as possible, all in the one go – but the town council wanted some atmospheric shots of the town for their website, and someone had had enough sense to realise that it would be worth paying a professional to take them, rather than one of the councillors popping out in his lunchbreak with a disposable camera from a Christmas cracker, and it turned out the mayor’s wife had bought ten copies of the Gryphons calendar and strongly recommended the photographer. So there I was in the market ('A market has been held on this site since a charter was granted by King Edward IV in 1482') trying to capture the weekend bustle when I spotted a familiar shock of ash-blond hair at the deli stall.
My fingers closed firmly on his shoulder just as he was putting a pot of black olives with harissa and orange peel into his bag.
“I want a word with you,” I said.
He jerked, gave me a look rather like a rabbit in the headlights. “Um, hello Fran.” His eyes slid to side from side as if contemplating a bolt for freedom, and then he sighed. “Cup of coffee?”
“I'd rather have tea. Let's walk down the river path to the Waterside Cafe while you explain to me how much you love Hansie and how you're making a new family for him, a stable environment where he can feel secure and see how relationships are supposed to work.”
The refreshing thing about Tim is that he has no more ability to hide what he's thinking than a 5-year-old child. If there's an opposite to a poker face, he has it. And I study faces out of habit – that's my job – and I saw a whole set of complex emotions cross his. Who the fuck does she think she is came first, followed rapidly by but she's right, I fucked up big time, and then but what can I do about it?
“It wasn't...” he began, then tried again. “I didn't set out to ruin things. It was Phil that had a go at me, not the other way round.”
“For no reason at all.”
He didn't respond immediately, which surprised me. I'd rather expected him to snap straight back with some self-justifying argument which more or less boiled down to 'no, for no reason at all other than that he's a bastard'.
“I don't know,” he admitted finally. “He might have thought he had reasons. I think – I think I rather took him for granted.”
And rather took the wind out of my sails, too. I had been expecting defiance, and a chance to give him the tongue lashing that he richly deserved – at least if no other kind of lashing was in prospect. Resignation, and even the acceptance of the possibility he bore some responsibility for the whole sorry mess, weren't what I'd prepared for, and all the sizzling remarks I had ready to skewer him suddenly seemed a bit over the top.
On the other hand, I didn't see why he should get away scot free.
“So why didn't you see that and head the whole thing off? I thought you were supposed to be the smart one of the bunch.”
He flushed. “I don't know, all right? Why is everyone having a go at me when I'm a victim here too?”
And that was interesting, too. Everyone? I wondered who else had been pointing things out to Mr Creed. But I wasn't going to let that 'victim' remark pass either, because that kind of thinking wasn't going to help anyone, and I remembered something Nick had told me from his conversation with Phil.
“Frankly, I don't give a damn about you, Tim, it's Hansie I'm concerned about.”
He gasped as if I'd punched him. I don't think he'd expected anything quite that brutal.
“Hurts, does it? But you said something like that to Phil once.”
He blinked. “How did you...? Who told you that?”
“Never mind. But you did say it, didn't you?”
“I didn't mean – that was before – I... oh God, does Phil still think I...? Oh God. It was just a flip remark, I didn't really mean it. Not like it sounds.”
I shook my head in exasperation. “Honestly, put you and Phil together and you still wouldn't make a half-wit.”
He looked a little taken aback, and more than a little offended, but I could see some thinking going on. And given the sorry lack of thinking in all quarters in this affair so far, that could only be a good thing.
“Fran,” he said pleadingly, “I don't know what you want from me. You don't know the half of it, really you don't.”
“Want to tell me?” I said, but he shook his head, unwilling to meet my eye. “No, all right then. Well, I understand that you and Phil have a lot of old business, some of it going back to an unpleasant incident in Oxford.” He looked up, horrified, and I held up a hand. “No, I don't know the details, but I know that much. Hansie told me. Hansie came to Nick and me, very distressed, because two of the people he depends on most, people who told him that they'd be there for him, just ripped his world apart without even thinking of him.”
Tim grimaced as if he'd been made to swallow castor oil. “He isn't a toddler,” he said sullenly. “You talk about him as if he was a little kid caught up in his parents' divorce.”
“Yes he's a grown man, and he suffers like one when he's let down by people he loves and trusts.” Tim flushed at that little dig. “But you know as well as I do, emotionally, Hansie never had the chance to grow up properly. Part of him is a little kid, one whose only model of family is one of violence and threat. You and Phil have just confirmed that for him very nicely between you, haven't you? I can't say I like either of you for it.”
“I can't...” he struggled to articulate something, couldn't. “He has me,” he said at last. “He has me for as long and as far as he wants me, and he can have my family, what there is of it. He has you and Nick. That will just have to be enough.”
“He needs Phil and Piet too.” I didn't voice my full thought, which was that Tim needed them nearly as badly.
“He can't have them!” It was almost a wail. “I can't give him them, Fran. They've made that choice. Phil made that choice. I can't control who he chooses to lo- to be friends with.”
“Would you go to Phil? Would you beg? If you thought it would make a difference?”
To his credit, he at least thought about it before he answered. Then slowly, shamefacedly, he shook his head. “I don't – I don't know that I could,” he said. “Not and really mean it. And I don't think he'd listen anyway. I don't know how to fix this one, Fran, really I don't.”
It was my turn to sigh, exasperation and
sadness mixed. I wanted to wallop both the stubborn little buggers – well, all
right, Phil's a big bugger – into the middle of next week, but I could see that
wasn't the answer. “Let's get that tea, then,” I said. Because damned if I knew
how to solve it, either.
I hate that, you know. The way she treats me as if I were about 10. It's bad enough when she's telling me off, but half the time I get the sense that she's laughing at me. Only the fact that she was concerned about Hansie, and that she was right, I hadn't thought about him, not for a moment, when Phil and I launched at each other, kept me from telling her where she got off. Well, that and the fact that when she's annoyed she's more than a bit scary. Perhaps I'd done the right thing by keeping my mouth mostly shut after all.
And she'd given me something else to think about. It was true that I'd once told Phil I didn't care about him, but I hadn't meant it, not exactly. What I'd really meant was that I didn't feel responsible for his well being in the way I felt for Hansie's. He had Piet for that, after all. But we'd grown a lot closer since then, and I couldn't believe that he could think I...
Oh, it was hopeless. Anyway, why was I even bothering my head about him? It was over, as I'd told Fran. He'd made his decision, and we just all had to move on.
Needless to say I was late, and not in the best of moods, when I got back home. Hansie was in the kitchen.
“Hi, babe. Tell me you have coffee on, lots of it?”
“There is a full pot, my liefie. Why, was town very busy?”
“No worse than usual on a Saturday morning. No, I bumped into Fran.”
He grunted, but he flashed me a distinctly shifty look. “Here, your coffee.”
“Thank you.” I took a gulp and scalded my mouth. “Drop of cold water in there, hunh?” As he took the cup to the sink I added, casually as you like: “You didn't mention that you went to see Fran and Nick, when we had – after Phil and I had that argument.”
He didn't turn around. “Nee. I am sorry, Tim, but I had to talk to someone, and you... you did not want to talk.”
“Oh Hansie – I'm sorry. It's just – it hurt too much. But I forgot you were hurt too, and that's my fault.”
He swung around at that, looking concerned. “Ach nee, Tim, you must not say so. What for else could you do?” His English was getting a bit ropy, a sure sign he was upset. “I do not blame you, but I must – I had to talk. To someone outside, you understand?”
“Yes. Yes, I understand. It's all a bit claustrophobic sometimes, the four of us being so close. Perhaps it's just as well we've broken up. And of course you must talk to Fran and Nick whenever you want. And Hansie – I've said it before, and I mean it: if you want to talk to Phil and Piet, go talk. They don't have a problem with you. As long as I don't have to have anything to do with them. I know they both mean a lot to you.”
I admit, I was rather hoping for a declaration along the lines of 'but you mean a lot more, and they shall be cast into outer darkness' but it wasn't forthcoming. Hansie looked, instead, rather uncomfortable, and shiftier than ever.
“I have been meaning – you know the Autumn Craft Fair?”
“The thing for the church? Yes, I thought I might enter some of my damson jam in the preserves section – it's come out really well, if I do say so myself. And I'll treat you to tickets for the concert on the Friday night in the church – Sandra told me they've got that choral group you liked so much last year, and possibly a surprise guest or two.”
“Yes, we have a few surprises this year, all right,” he agreed.
“Well, what about it?” I raised an interrogative eyebrow.
“I – that is – nothing. Nothing at all. Your jam, ja, good. I was just going to say how well our organisation was going, and to ask you if you were going to put something in the competitions, that is all.”
“Well seeing that you wiped the floor with all comers in half a dozen flower and vegetable categories in the Summer Fete, I must at least try to uphold the family honour, mustn't I? By the way, I forgot to ask you, did you get someone to open it in the end?”
“It is not certain yet,” he said quickly. “James Smart has been suggested. But not everyone agrees, and – well as I say, it is not certain.”
“You'd better get a move on, or any celebrity worthy of the name will be booked up.”
I know.” Strangely, he didn't sound too worried about that. Indeed, if I hadn't
known better, he sounded almost relieved at the idea.
That last week in France, it was almost like a dream. The exaltation of beating France in the semi-final – I felt as if we could do anything. And so did the others. No, it wasn’t a pretty game. But it wasn’t half as ugly as losing 36-nil to the Springboks in the pool stages. I’d been out of that one, thank God, with a sore hamstring that the docs didn’t want to risk, but the gloom was felt even on the bench. And yet, thanks to the sheer grit and determination of the players, and the leadership shown from more than one quarter (guys, you know who you are) we picked ourselves up, and we shoved the Australians all over the park. And then we beat France. In Paris. And booked ourselves a rematch with the Boks. Oh, and did it feel good.
It felt good to give one in the eye to all the critics, particularly in the newspapers, who’d written us off as no-hopers. It felt good to demonstrate to certain people in the Southern Hemisphere, who’d been making noises about showing the North how to play rugby, that actually we did remember enough about it to win games. And it felt good to be playing for my country. In fact, though I’ve always felt the National Anthem is a dreary dirge, when they played it as we stood on the pitch for the final, I thought I might burst for patriotic pride.
As for the final – well, you’ve probably seen it. Millions did, all round the world (the rugby-playing part of the world, at least). All I was concerned about was not to disgrace myself, or the others. Because ultimately, that was who we were playing for most of all. Each other.
But afterwards, that was a bit of a strain, and it showed on our faces, I think. We lost to the better team on the night, though I still think that try was in – but you have to go with the calls, and there it is. A lot of the guys had their wives or girlfriends there, and of course they wanted to be together. So did I but I only met Piet among a big mob of other notables, to shake hands politely and formally and have an oddly stilted conversation – he confessed when I got home, poor man, that it was the hardest match he’d ever had to watch. ‘The supporters have a saying in South Africa, our blood is green. But now – ah, I think mine is at least half as red as the rose of England. Truly, koekie, I found I did not wish either side to lose’.
It was so hard, not being able to run to his arms. It made me think how much my world revolves around him. He’s there, at the centre of my life – him, not rugby, not anything else, him. We’d lost the World Cup, but there would be other World Cups, for the younger members of the squad, at least. Losing hurts, but I had another life, a life with Piet, in which I hadn’t lost but won something unimaginably good. Even if it has to be hidden from the world, I have that. Not everyone does.
But unable to do what
I really wanted, which was to snuggle up to Piet, I found myself briefly alone
in my room in the team’s hotel, thinking: I must phone Tim and Hansie, and tell
them all about it. And then I remembered I couldn’t. And it was just post-match
let down, I suppose, but I felt as if part of me had been amputated. Funny, isn’t
it, the way your mind can play tricks in moments like that?
George was cock-a-hoop. “We’ve got ‘im,” he said, waving a letter at me.
“Your mate Cartwright. Couldn’t be better, timing wise, on the back of all the World Cup hoopla. Just a pity they didn't win. Still, we can probably get the TV people here on the strength of it. Local, at any rate, maybe even national.”
I managed a weak smile. “Yes, that is very good. I suppose you will be putting it on all the posters?”
“Ah, well, a little problem there. We had to have them printed before we actually knew whether he could come or not, so it isn’t on the main poster. But we’ve got these stickers that go across it, see, saying ‘To be opened by Phil Cartwright, from England’s Rugby World Cup Squad’. I’m getting the Cubs to stick ‘em over the posters, Sandra is Akela so she’s drafted them all in.”
“Good, good,” I said distractedly, wondering how I could detach any such stickers on the posters in the vicinity of our house. “Of course, mostly you will need this for the posters outside the village – everyone here will know within five minutes anyway.”
“True enough. Good point, actually, I’ll get them to do the ones for town and the other villages first, in case we run out.”
Oh please, Here God, let them run out.
“I thought we might try to get a few publicity posters of him as well, put them about. Big ones.”
“Nee, no, George that is a terrible idea. I mean, this is about the village, about the church, ja, not a, a, a sporting event. We must not let the tail wag the dog, hey?”
“You think?” he said doubtfully.
“Ach, sure. The celebrity culture thing, it is not good, it will upset the more, ah, conservative ones in the village. And not everyone is keen on rugby, or rugby players.” Not certain rugby players, anyway.
“Well, maybe you’re right. I might put one in the pub though, in case he comes in – I’d like to get a picture of him having a pint at my bar, that would do wonders for trade.”
“Why not put up a poster of the whole England squad? In case he is embarrassed by just pictures of himself?”
“He didn’t look as if he was the type who embarrasses easy on the TV. Eyeing up the bird who presents that show like she was fresh meat, he was. Mind you, she’s tasty enough if you like ‘em skinny, I suppose. Oh all right, Hansie, you know him better than I do, I won’t do it. But look, tell him to pop in for a pint if he can, will you? I can’t really do it myself, wouldn’t be right.”
Leaving aside questions of why
it would be right for me to do so at his request then, I made non-committal noises
and escaped gratefully. Somehow I seemed to have got myself into the situation
of hiding from Tim the fact that Phil would be opening the show and judging –
ach God, judging Tim’s jam, among other things. How did I end up so? How was I
going to keep it up without having a nervous breakdown? And how in the Lord’s
name was I going to keep them apart on the day?
8am. T-390minutes and counting. . .
“Tea, Hansie. Come on, you need to be down at the village green by 9 to get the competition entries booked in for the produce tent.”
“Ag bliksem! Wat – what time is it?”
“8 o’clock. I told you you should have come to bed earlier.”
“I had to get those entry forms sorted.” I took a gulp of tea, and scalded my mouth. “Ow, that’s hot. I’ll go have my shower while it cools down.”
“I still think it’s a shame you didn’t manage to get someone well known to open proceedings. I mean, the vicar’s nice enough, but he’s hardly a household name.”
promptly had a coughing fit. “No, no, my liefie, I am fine, I will have
my shower now.” It had been every bit as hard as I thought, keeping the news that
Phil was going to be here from Tim, and there had been more than one very close
shave, including bloody George starting to boast about his coup when we were in
the pub one night, so that I had to hustle Tim away from the bar, and another
near miss with Joan when we met her in the street. I don’t think Tim suspected,
though. Now let God only get me through today, I thought, as hot water pounded
the last of the sleep from my brain.
10:20am. T-250 minutes and counting. . .
“Well, I can’t understand how the hall clock suddenly started running slow. I’m sure it was right the other day. Still, I don’t suppose we missed much, not seeing the official opening – and we’d have made it even then, if you hadn’t dawdled so much.”
“I did not think you so eager to hear the vicar’s speech,” I said, and he pulled a face.
“No, Brandon Hopgood is a nice enough guy but he’s a bit too right-on for my taste.”
“So then, no harm done. But I had better go and make sure the produce judges have everything they need, and you cannot come in with me. Strictly no admission to competitors until the judging is all complete. Are you going to get your face painted?” I added, looking at a small queue of youngsters queuing to be turned into tigers, or dragons, or such like.
“Very funny. No, I thought I’d go down and see the falconry in Church Field, and then have a wander round the crafts stalls.”
“Good, good, I will catch up with you later.” I slipped into the produce tent. Phil was there with the other two judges, Miriam Stallings, the local WI chairwoman, and George’s wife Sandra, and towering over both of them, in an immaculately tailored pale grey suit. Damn, but he looked good in it, too! I hesitated, unsure of my reception, until he spotted me, and came walking straight over to me, hand out.
“Hansie! How nice to see you.” All very formal and English, but there was a warmth to his voice and a lingering firmness to his handshake that brought a little prickle to my eyes.
“You too, Phil. It has been a while.”
“Yes. Yes, it has.” He lowered his voice. “When you weren’t here when I arrived I thought maybe you didn’t want to see me.”
“Ach nee, nothing like that. It was only. . . I was late. The clock in the hall, it is slow.”
“Right.” He hesitated for a moment as if he was going to say something else, then looked round. “Sorry, I’d better get back to the judging.” And the thing he had not said, the natural question: where's Tim? burned in silence between us for a moment. I cleared my throat, realising that not only must I keep Tim from seeing Phil, I must also keep Phil from seeing Tim. Having the guest of honour storm out in a huff would not enhance proceedings.
“Of course. I only came to see you had everything you need.”
“Oh sure, George and Sandra have already seen to that.” He smiled, then turned back to the ladies. “What’s next, Miriam? Ah, the curd and fruit cheese section. This should be interesting.” He had the charm turned up full, and both his fellow judges were basking in it. The vicar’s highly pregnant wife had apparently already gone all girlish and giggly at the opening ceremony, and more than one male dignitary had blossomed under his attentions.
I walked away, thoughtfully.
11:10am. T-200 minutes and counting...
“Ah, there you are. Can we go and see?”
“Ja, my liefie, I think the judging is over. I saw Jenny taking the barrier away.”
“Good. Not that I'm expecting anything, but I want to be put out of my misery.”
We followed a general movement of visitors into the produce tent.
“Busy, isn't it? I'm sure this is a lot more people than last year. And did you know the television people are here? I saw them filming the man with the hawks.”
“George said he was hoping for that. Well, and that is good, hey? The vicar will be pleased.”
“Yes. Oh, look, Hansie, I've got something!” He pushed forward to the table. There, beside his pot of jam, was a certificate. 'Awarded to exhibit 395, Category 24: One jar of fruit jam or preserve. Silver-Gilt.'
“Hey, not so dusty!”
“Ach, my liefie I am proud of you.”
“Yeah, well, it's only a country show, but still...” He was glowing with delight, and trying desperately to pretend it was no big deal. I was tempted to grab him and swing him round for sheer pleasure, but it was crowded, hey, and maybe not quite the place for it?
And then – oh shit, oh shit! – I saw a tall and familiar figure, accompanied by George and Joan, blocking the light by the entrance.
“Come, we must go celebrate.”
“But I was going to look at the rest of the exhibits.”
“Ach, boring old stuff, no, we must go and get a drink. Immediately. Come, let us go out the other side, and we will be by the bar tent.”
“But – well, yes, ok. But it was only a pot of jam.”
“A silver-gilt pot of jam. Come!” And I grabbed his arm and dragged him, yes, dragged him, out of the produce tent.
“Hey, curb your enthusiasm, mate, you're hurting my arm.”
“Sorry, sorry.” I released him as we stood blinking in the late autumn sunshine.
“Hansie, I think you're wrong. The bar tent is the other side. Shall we go back through...?”
“NO! I mean, no, it is such a lovely day, we will walk around the outside and enjoy the fresh air.”
“Whatever. But you're going to owe me a beer, at least.”
“Oh at least. Two, if you wish them. Or maybe we should have champagne.”
“Hansie, it was jam. And not even the top prize.”
“And your point is? Did you not once tell me that any excuse was good enough for champagne?”
He looked at me sharply, then sighed. “Actually, I think that was Phil,” he said.
I could have kicked myself, and it must have showed, because he smiled and took my hand, careless of the crowds around us.
“Hey, don't fret
about it. We had good times, too, lots of them. We mustn't forget those.” He squeezed
my hand tight and let it drop again. “But beer will do, Hansie. Beer will do.”
1:08pm. T-82 minutes and counting...
“Do you want a doughnut?”
“No, thanks Hansie, I'm full. Those sausages from the rare breed place were really good, very garlicky, I think we'll have to pop over to their farm shop one of these days and stock up.”
“It wasn't a proper braai, though, they don't know how to cook over charcoal in this country.”
“Give them a break, Hansie, I thought they were doing quite well, considering how busy it was.”
“I have to go, my liefie. I must make sure they have the children organised for the fancy dress parade.”
“Fair enough. I think I might go and get a coffee, and then I'm going to take another look at the stall of that guy selling handmade leather jackets.”
“You do not need another leather jacket, particularly not that grey one.”
“But Hansie, that leather was like butter.”
“And it was nearly £300. Damned expensive butter.”
“I have to go.”
“Bye, hon. Thanks for lunch.”
“Hansie, where the hell have you been?” hissed George. “You keep slipping off. You should be here with us, keeping the guest of honour happy and making sure that everything is running to timetable.”
“Sorry, sorry. I had to – I have been having lunch with Tim.”
“Hold hands with your boyfriend another time,” he said crossly. “Right now we've work to do.”
“The fancy dress parade is ready to go, I have just come to get your say-so,” I said soothingly. “Batman and Victoria Beckham had a little fight, but nothing that could not be sorted, and Jenny and I have requisitioned two of the mothers as marshals.”
“Hah, pinned the big silver star on them, has she? Good, good.” It doesn't take much to bring George round, once you know how. “Well, that sounds a bit more like it. Phil's just gone to the loo,” I smiled to myself – first name terms was it, now? - “and as soon as he's back we'll have the parade. He's going to judge that, too, you know?”
I hadn't, but I was sure he would do it well. I just hoped that Tim – no, no, there was nothing he would like less than a mob of children. He would surely prefer to browse the craft stalls on the village green. Still, it preyed on my mind.
“You all right?”
“I have – just forgotten something. Excuse me a moment, George.” I dashed as quickly as I could through the crowd – Tim was right, it was much busier this year – trying to spot that bright head. Preferably without him spotting me, unless he seemed to be heading... there he was! And no, he was going in the other direction, not towards the main marquee. Relieved, I headed back to where Jenny was waiting to start. Peeking into the tent, I saw Phil take his place. George, beside him, saw me and nodded, then bent to the microphone to announce the start of the parade.
“Right,” said Jenny. “No pushing please. Are you all ready to go?” She cast a look at the line of children, each accompanied by a parent or other supposedly responsible adult. One of those was hissing at her daughter: “No, Melissa, you can't. You know we decided you'd be better as Victoria than Obi-Wan. Well, all right, but only if you... no, don't cry. Oh well, if you really want to, I suppose...” She threw me a look half desperate and half exasperated.
I bent down to Victoria Beckham. “Hey, Spicey Girl.” She pouted at me. “Why don't you let me look after your ray gun until afterwards, hey? Then you can swing your handbag and really look cool, and when you've been all the way round you can get it and kill all the aliens.”
Ms Beckham threw me a look of cool contempt through her sunglasses. “It's not a ray gun, it's a light sabre,” she said.
“Ja, of course it is. So, what do you say? Every Jedi has to learn disguise, and that means hiding his – ah, her – light sabre somewhere safe while they do it.”
“Will you be the Emperor so I can I kill you with it?”
“Melissa!” said her mother. Emily Sands. I knew her, though not particularly well.
“Sure. Later.” If the stress doesn't kill me first.
She handed over the weapon, and twirled her miniature handbag experimentally. Her mother gave me a distracted smile, and mouthed a thank you.
“Well done, Hansie,” said Jenny gratefully. “Oh, that's our cue. Everyone ready? Right, in you go, one at a time...
3:15pm. T-15 minutes, and counting...
“Well, I can only say it's been a rip-roaring success,” said George Vane. “We've had more people this year than I can ever remember, and the TV people too, and that's all down to you. Can't thank you enough, Phil.”
“It's been a pleasure,” I said, and it was rather more than just conventional good manners. I hadn't expected to enjoy it, to tell you the truth, and I hadn't been best pleased when Piet asked me to do it, but as these things go it was pretty well organised. I'd enjoyed the judging, even if I didn't want to see another fruit pie for a long long time, and I'd found some of the craft stalls fascinating – Piet was going to raise an eyebrow when he saw the quantity of shopping I was bringing back. And the church is beautiful – the vicar explained that it was the sole remnant of the old and wealthy Cistercian foundation of Storley Abbey to survive, a former chantry chapel that was later rebuilt and expanded on the back of the wealth that came from local wool; a high, pale stone building, with a soaring hammerbeam roof – does that sound right? I think that’s what he said – and two rows of long narrow windows, mostly clear glass apart from the rose window at the east end, that flood it with light. I could understand both his burning desire to preserve it and how expensive it must be to do so.
And it had been good to see Hansie again. I had been nervous about that, to be honest – it was one of the reasons I hadn't been too keen on agreeing to this – but he had seemed so pleased to see me that I was really glad I came. It had been on the tip of my tongue to ask about Tim but I couldn't quite bring myself to do it. Better to let sleeping dogs lie, perhaps. Knowing I was going to be here, he had probably decided not to come. I couldn't really blame him.
Talking of Hansie...
“Sanctuary,” he moaned.
“A small and ferocious Jedi Knight disguised as Victoria Beckham. I am her new best friend, which involves being roundly beaten up with a light sabre. I have already been ambushed and killed three times, and I have grass stains on my trousers from much dying. One cannot die satisfactorily standing up, it seems.”
I grinned. “Serves you right for going over to the Dark Side, Hansie.”
“We're just going in to the refreshments tent for some tea, Hansie,” said George. “Come with us, sounds like you deserve some.”
We strolled in that direction, enjoying the last of the sunshine. It had been one of those crisp, bright, golden days one sometimes gets in late autumn – they couldn't really have had better weather if they'd planned it. Just as we got to the refreshment tent, George's wife came up.
“George, can I drag you away for a minute? Martin wants to see you about whether they can start counting up.”
“Damn, you'd think they could sort something out for themselves. All right, I'm coming, I'm coming. You two go on in, I'll join you later.”
“What will you have, Phil?”
“Tea, Hansie, and as long as you don't rat on me to my nutritionist, one of those chelsea buns. But let me get them, it won't break the bank, and it is for a good cause. What will you have? Hansie? Hansie?”
But he was staring over my shoulder, mouth half open in horror, like a man watching an accident unfold before his eyes.
3:30pm. T=0. Impact.
“Hello, Phil,” he said. “I think perhaps we should talk. Go somewhere and talk.” He looked – well, I didn't work it out till afterwards, because it wasn't an expression I was used to seeing. He looked terrified, but determined, like a man getting ready to open an unexploded bomb.
I looked at him, and more things went through my mind in a small space of time than you would think possible.
“Yes,” I said. “I think we should.”
3:40pm. T+10 minutes. Aftershocks.
“Nice suit,” I said.
“Thank you. I was just admiring your leather jacket – is it new?”
“Bought it today from one of the stalls. While Hansie was trying to keep me out of your way, the sneaky whatsit. I didn't know you were going to be here until I saw the posters when I was walking around.”
“Ah. I thought you might not have come because of me.”
“I might not have, but that would have been... well, anyway. Actually, I think the jacket's from the guy you got those leather trousers from, remember?”
“How could I forget?” He paused, neither of us quite certain how to begin.
“Look, I'm sorry...” “I wanted to apologise...” We spoke simultaneously, broke off.
“You go,” he said.
“I was vile to you Phil, and I realise it, and I'm sorry. I know there isn't anything we can do now about that, but I wanted you to know that much.”
“No, I'm sorry, I was inexcusably cruel to you that night.”
“Yes, but my offence went on a lot longer, didn't it?” When he said nothing, I plunged onwards.
“I always thought, you see – well, yes, I was jealous. I was. You had the thing I always wanted, the rugby, the success on the field. And the house, and Piet and everything. I thought you had it all, and I never stopped to think that there were things you couldn't have either. And I – I took you for granted, like I always do. You were kind, and you made a space for Hansie, and then for me, and I kept throwing it in your face. And I know I've made a terrible mess, and we can't ever go back to the way things were...” he stirred, and I held up a hand. “Please, Phil, let me finish or I don't know if I'll be able to say this. I know that we can't ever be friends that way again, but I'd like us to be able to be acquaintances, to be able to be polite, and, and, and to be civil. Because there's Hansie, and I know your friendship means a lot to him, and Piet's of course, and I'd like him still to have that, and he won't do it unless he thinks we're all right, so do you think we can? Of course, we won't come round like we used to, do the things we used to, but we could keep in touch, do you think?”
He was silent for such a long time after I gabbled myself into silence that I thought he was going to blank me, to just walk out. Then, at last, he said, in an odd voice:
“Yes. Yes of course, if that's what you want. You're right, I did miss Hansie. And Piet will want to see him, to see both of you, I'm sure. I – was angry before, about a lot of things that don't really seem so important now, and I spoke out of anger. If you want to be civil, of course we can do that. We can.”
I wondered if he was trying to convince himself. But then he managed a ghost of a smile, and put out his hand, and I took it gratefully.
“It's for the best,” he said. “I'm sure.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “It will be.”
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