It was the waiting that got to me.
No, I tell a lie (for which I shall no doubt be punished, soon or late). It was not the waiting. It was the pacing, like a caged tiger, and the fidgeting.
“Tim, my skat,” I said at last, grabbing his hand as he paced by.
“Hmm?” He gave me the sort of distracted smile that I have learned means he isn’t really seeing or hearing me at all.
“Come for a walk.”
“Oh, but I just want to check my email. . .”
“You checked the email 3 minutes ago. You have been up and down to check the email practically every 5 minutes since you got up at 6.”
He had the grace to look abashed.
“Sorry, Hansie. It’s just. . .”
“Ja, I know. You are nervous. When I was a boy we had to wait for the post, and that was easier because we knew what time the postman came. But your result will not come any sooner because you are sitting here. We took the day off because you said you wouldn’t get any useful work done, and you wanted company to distract you, and all we are doing is sitting around here on a lovely spring day while you fret and tear the newspaper (which I by-the-way have not yet read) into ever smaller pieces.”
“Sorry,” he said.
“Hey, I understand, it is a scary thing waiting for exam results, especially when you have to pass these exams to carry on with the course.”
“It isn’t just that. The marks from this exam are a hefty chunk of the total marks from the first year course as well. I mean, I’ve got two more assignments to be marked, but this will be 30% of the total mark from the year. It’s really important that I do well, and I’m sure I fucked up the question on change management and organisational renewal.”
I shook my head at him. “Come, we are going out for a drive, before you drive me to distraction. We could go over to Little Hanningbury and walk around the reservoir, maybe find a pub somewhere for lunch, hey?”
He cast a glance over at the computer, then put a brave face on it.
“OK, then. Let me get my jacket. Oh, and we’d better take my car, because it’s in front of yours on the driveway.”
“Very well. But I drive,” I said. “You are too het-up.” He looked at me, pulled a face, and tossed me the car keys.
It was a beautiful day. The trees were all coming into leaf, lifting into the sunlight like slow fountains. The gardens were all full of cherry blossom and magnolia and forget-me-nots, and the birds were singing their hearts out. It was a day that would have had anyone glad to be alive and out in the sunshine.
Anyone but me, that is. I was trying, (Hansie would say very trying), but it really was difficult for me to relax. Paul, our course tutor, had promised to have the results of the first year exam out by today, and I was like a cat on a hot tin roof. Still, Hansie was right, logging on every five minutes wasn’t going to make the results come any quicker.
I looked at my watch as we passed the Southgate roundabout, and without taking his eyes from the road, he leaned across me and opened the glove compartment.
“In there,” he said.
“I am confiscating your watch. Also your mobile, if you have it with you.”
“I don’t, it’s on the charger. But why?”
“Because I want you to forget about the time, and what may or may not be happening, and I didn’t want you using your mobile to access your email while we’re out, either. Now, are you going to put your watch in there, or am I going to stop the car at the nearest layby and bend you over the bonnet for a spanking?”
Well, when you put it like that. . . I don’t think he would dare, but I was just uncertain enough that I complied, not without some muttering.
“Good.” We drove in silence for a while. Presently the rhythm of the car, the sun through the new leaves, and the breeze from the wound-down window, combined to lull me into a less tightly wound state. We made our way through narrow country lanes, and pretty, if rather twee, villages, once or twice pulling in to allow something coming the other way to pass. There wasn’t a great deal of traffic about for such a nice day. By the time we got to the reservoir and got out of the car I was feeling much more relaxed. I leaned over and kissed him, hard.
“What was that for?”
“Because you deserve it. Because this was a good idea.”
He grinned at me. “Ja wel, remember, I am the brains of this outfit.”
He got most of the way out of the carpark before I caught him, and administered a sound slap to his backside. And giggling and play fighting (which earned us a startled and definitely disapproving look from a pair of elderly birdwatchers that we met half-way) we strolled around the reservoir in the spring sunshine. There were goldeneye and grebes and a flock of teal on the water, as well as mallards and gulls and three rather haughty swans who came swimming over to see if we had anything to feed them, and sailed off in a particularly elegant huff when they saw we didn’t. Some kind of waders –small and dumpy and long-billed – were trotting manically along the edge of the water like a gaggle of power-walkers marshalled by a particularly demented personal trainer. And the blackthorn was in full blossom, like late snow.
After a bit I slipped my hand into his. The birders had disappeared, and frankly I didn’t care anyway. I wanted to hold his hand, to be able to hold his hand, and be damned to anyone who didn’t like it. With only the slightest hesitation, surprise perhaps, he held it tight and squeezed.
“It’s a beautiful day.”
“It is always a beautiful day when I am with you, my liefie.”
“Hansie van den Broek, you are the most shocking liar. That isn’t what you say when I do something you disapprove of.”
“It is always a beautiful day when I am with you,” he repeated gravely. “Of course, sometimes it is made more beautiful by the sight of your pretty little backside growing scarlet under my hand, and the sound of your yelps.”
“I do not yelp.”
“Yelps, definitely. Howls, even.”
“I’ve never howled in my life.”
“No? It could be arranged.” The inability to keep a grin off his face robbed this statement of the menace it might otherwise have held.
I stuck my tongue out at him. “Just remember that what goes around comes around, my darling.”
He looked around hastily to see if anyone was in view, then grabbed me and kissed me fiercely. “Let that come around, then,” he growled.
I relaxed into him, kissed back with the same fervour.
“I don’t know about coming around, but something is definitely coming up,” I murmured.
“Down boy,” he grinned. “Later. Time for food now.”
I looked him up and down as sultrily as I could manage.
“Pick something – sustaining,” I suggested.
We seemed to have got into one of those silly, frivolous moods, where everything we said became a joke or a double entendre. That lasted all through lunch at the Crown and Cushion, down the road in Maple Steadbury. The Crown’s a handsome old pub with a handsome young chef and a short but excellent menu that changes weekly according to what’s in season. This week there was duck, which I love, and Hansie had trout with capers and spring vegetables, and since he was driving I had most of a half bottle of Tavel to myself, full of Provençal sunlight. Afterwards, to crown it all, there was a huge plate with 6 different chocolate desserts for us to share, and, it being a slow lunchtime, a few words with the chef, who came out to see how his customers were enjoying the meal, and his charming wife who runs the front of house (hey, I said that he was handsome, not that he was available).
So it was in a replete and happy mood that we got back into the car. I kissed him again.
“Thank you. It’s been wonderful. And that meal was the best bit.”
“Ach, you will not say so when you are sweating it off in the gym. But you are welcome. Shall we drive back through Castle Storley?” It was a longer way round, but it would take us through some of the prettiest countryside in the area.
“What a good idea.”
The lanes wound through woods and fields, bounded by hedgerows. Occasional villages or cottages drowsed in the warm spring afternoon like sleepy animals.
“England is so pretty,” mused Hansie. “So – green, and so ordered.”
“Very different from your – from where you grew up?”
“Ach ja. Africa is beautiful, wild, stunning – but not pretty. There it is still wild nature, here it is nature and man. That sense that everything you see has been shaped by man, by history. It is amazing for me sometimes to remember that there were people farming this land for centuries while South Africa was empty of anyone except sometimes a few Khoisan.”
“I – suppose. I don’t think we think about it much, history. Like anything you have a lot of, English people tend to take it for granted, mostly. But I sort of know what you mean. When I went to the States, I couldn’t get used to cities where a Victorian building was a historic monument.”
He smiled and opened his mouth to say something, and at that moment the engine coughed asthmatically a few times and promptly died, leaving us to coast to a stop in the green shade of the trees that overhung the road. And suddenly the whole sunny, beautiful day became a howling icy blizzard that wrapped itself up into a chill, leaden knot and located itself somewhere in the vicinity of that excellent meal I had eaten earlier. I was glad my last meal had been hearty, though. Because I was so dead.
Hansie frowned. “Strange,” he said. He turned the key in the ignition, let the starter motor turn over a couple of times. Nothing.
“Perhaps it is the electrics, although I cannot think why. . .”
“Or perhaps the. . .”
“We’re – um – out of petrol.”
“What? But the gauge was showing – ach, Tim! You swore you were getting that fixed.”
“I was, I was, I had it down to do, I was going to call the garage, only. . . I forgot.”
“Forgot?” That dry tone that says I am really in trouble.
“Forgot that the petrol gauge was sticking on half full? Forgot to mention, when asked, that you hadn’t actually done anything about it? Forgot to fill the tank before allowing me to drive us into the middle of nowhere? Forgot.”
“Yes. Er, sorry?”
He snorted. “That hardly begins to cover it. I suppose you do not have anything so sensible as a small emergency can of petrol in the boot?”
“Nee, I thought not. Ach, we will have to ring the AA. The man will think we are bleddy idiots.”
“I am. We are. I haven’t got my mobile, and I know for a fact you left yours in the office because you were complaining about it last night.”
One of the interesting things about Afrikaans is that the shorter and more pungent swearwords are really quite easy for an English speaker to work out. Hansie refuses to teach me to swear, but I recognised all of these.
“Where’s the map? Look, there’s a public telephone marked in Abbot’s Storley, that’s what, about 2 miles up this road. I’ll walk down and call from there.”
He gave a big sigh, and pushed the driver’s seat right back, reclined, and closed his eyes. After a moment he opened them again.
“Are you still here?”
“Hansie, I really am sorry.”
“Ja, ja, we will talk about that. Later.”
Oh. Oh, damn.
“You had better get going,” he added. “I will sit here and think about what I am going to do to you when we get back home.”
“Don’t be mean.” Yes, I know I sounded about 6 years old. I can’t help it, it just came out that way.
“Mean? The only reason you are not going to be walking down that road with a sore backside is that I have had a good lunch and I do not feel so much like the effort of giving you a klap. When we get home I have a cane that will do the job with much less work on my part.”
“Hansie – I said I didn’t mean to do it. You – you’re gloating!”
“Ja. Like I said, it is a beautiful day, and now I have the prospect of that little red bottom to improve it. Now go, before I change my mind and bend you over that bonnet after all.”
I got. He was in a funny mood – I couldn’t tell if he were really annoyed, or saying it for form, though I suspected that I was likely to suffer for it either way. I just didn’t want to start suffering for it yet.
After a while I got warm sitting in the car, even with the window open, and I got out to stretch my legs. Pity I don’t smoke – it would have given me something to do. Still the sunshine was pleasant, as it filtered down through the leaves, and the air was sweet and the birds were singing. Tim would have known what kind they were, no doubt, but to me they were just birds.
Something with a high-pitched squeaking call was singing from the direction we had come in, and after a moment I realised that it was not a bird at all, but a rather poorly oiled (from the sound of it) bicycle, that had just rounded the corner and was wheezing its way towards me.
The cyclist drew to a halt by the car. She was a woman of perhaps 70, with rather straggly grey hair, a weatherbeaten face like a farmer’s wife, and shrewd grey eyes in a nest of laughter lines.
“Hallo,” she said. “Car trouble?”
I smiled. “I am afraid so. It seems that despite a petrol gauge that swears we are half full, we are not so, in fact. My friend has gone into the village in search of a public call box to call out the AA man.”
“You’ll be lucky. It got vandalised last month, and they still haven’t got round to repairing it, I’m afraid. Rural call boxes don’t seem to be high on the telephone people’s agenda, now that most people have mobiles.”
“Ach, damn! That will not make him happy.” We looked at each other. “I’m sorry, you don’t, I suppose, have a mobile I could borrow myself for a moment? I left mine behind today.”
“I’m awfully sorry, I can’t abide the things, so I don’t keep one. But I tell you what, I only live round the corner. Come with me and you can use the telephone there.”
“That is really very kind of you, Mrs. . .”
“Chowne. Helen Chowne.”
“Thank you, Mrs Chowne. I appreciate it very much.”
“Not at all. You’re South African, aren’t you?”
“Ja. Hansie van den Broek, at your service.”
“Wonderful. My husband and I lived in Rhodesia for years, when it was Rhodesia of course. Zimbabwe, I should say now. Come along, it’s just the next turn off the lane.”
By the time we had gone the 500 yard or so along the lane to her driveway I had been politely but skilfully interrogated as to exactly where I came from, how long I had been here, what I did for a living, my marital status (I skipped around that one), general outlook, hobbies, and opinions.
We turned into the driveway of her house.
“Oh, what a beautiful place,” I said. A solid, brick-built cottage, with wisteria and clematis around the door and making a bid for the roof, although someone had pruned the former away from the eaves. The front garden was lovely in that dense, slightly careless way that takes a great deal of attention to achieve. Big windows, glittering in the sunlight.
She smiled. “Do you like it?”
“Like it? I love it.”
“Thank you. Come in – oh, don’t worry about your shoes. I’ve never been that fussed about a bit of mud, and most of our floors are wood anyway, not carpet, though we do have the rugs Reggie brought back from Aden. Look, telephone is there. When you’ve called, I’ll ring Sandra, the landlady of the Abbot’s Arms in the village, and tell her to look out for your friend and warn him you’re here.”
“Ach, this really is very kind. . .”
“Don’t be ridiculous, it requires minimal effort on my part, and I get someone new to quiz for an hour or so, until the man comes to fix your car, or you get bored with the nosy old woman, whichever comes first.” She grinned at me. “Tea?”
“Ah – tea, yes tea would be lovely, thank you.” Bemused, I called the AA man and arranged for someone to come out to us. When I had put the phone down I hovered, uncertain where to go without an invitation. The house, although a little untidy, was as warm and light-filled as its exterior promised, although its very English looks gave no hint of the collection of assegais, shields, masks, and paintings of Africa that filled its walls. It gave me a twinge of nostalgic sadness. It had been a long time since I had felt the African sun.
“Ah, there you are,” said my saviour, re-appearing with a tray that contained, in addition to a teapot, mugs, and a jug of milk, a large fruitcake and a packet of chocolate biscuits. “Don’t stand there, come through and sit down. I’ll just pour you a cup and I’ll ring Sandra for you. What was your friend’s name?”
“Tim,” I said. “His name is Tim.”
“Fuck,” I said, bitterly. The smashed remnants of the phone receiver dangled idly in the breeze that blew through the gaps where the windows of the call box ought to be.
“Ah,” said a voice behind me. “You must be Tim.”
I spun around, amazed. A largish blonde 40-something woman, with very pale blue eyes, was standing behind me smiling.
“Sorry, I’m Sandra Vane, I run the pub here. Your friend has fallen in with one of our local characters, who rang through and asked me to keep an eye out for you. They’ve called the AA to come out to your car, apparently.”
“Oh. Oh. I see. Thank you. So I had the walk for nothing, then.”
“Looks like it, unless you think a country walk on a nice day is a good thing in its own right.” I blushed slightly, and she added: “But don’t worry, I’ll run you back out there.”
“Oh, I couldn’t possibly. . .”
“It’s no bother, I’ve got to go out and take some stuff back to Helen anyway. Car’s over here – hop in.”
She pulled away and slipped off down the lane. After a minute or two she said:
“You’re very quiet.”
“Sorry. Have you ever had the feeling that the world is carrying on to some strange logic that everyone understands except you? Like in a dream, and you can’t quite get the hang of it?”
She laughed. “The village can do that to you. It’s quite simple really – Helen, Helen Chowne that is, met your friend as she was cycling along the lane, and told him that the phone was out, he asked if he could borrow hers, and she phoned me to keep an eye out for you. These little country places can be a bit like that, I’m afraid. The bush telegraph is very good. OK, here we are.”
She turned into a gravelled driveway with a really very pretty double-fronted cottage in spacious gardens. We got out and rang the bell, and a woman with a faint air of the absent-minded professor about her came around the side of the house.
“Come round,” she said cheerfully. “It was so nice that we decided to have tea in the garden.” We followed her round the side of the house to where my dearly beloved reclined in luxury under a parasol, with a large mug of tea and a healthy slab of fruit cake beside him.
“Well,” I said, “I see you made yourself at home.”
“Tim!” he said, around a mouthful of cake. “Isn’t this a beautiful garden?”
“Thank you,” said the absent-minded professor, who I took to be the owner. “I’m Helen Chowne, by the way. Would you like a cup of tea? Sandra, I know you’ll have one.”
So I was settled next to Hansie, given strong tea and a hefty wedge of cake, and, in a very English fashion, the third degree. I suddenly realised that Miss Marple was alive and well and living in Abbot’s Storley.
“And you work for Hamilton’s I understand?”
“Yes. James Hamilton, and his wife Mary, are my aunt and uncle.”
“Oh!” An expression of surprise crossed her face. “My dear, I suddenly realise that I’ve seen you before.”
My own surprise must have shown because she laughed and put out a hand to me.
“No, you wouldn’t remember. You were in your pram at the time. I know Mary Hamilton slightly, and I met her years and years ago in town pushing a baby in a pram. She said she was babysitting her nephew – so unless you have brothers. . .”
“No, no brothers or sisters, so that must have been me, you’re right. So you know Mary?” And that didn’t surprise me a bit, they would have been two of a kind.
“Well we only meet occasionally at the regional WI conferences now.” Hansie must have looked a bit blank, because she added: “That’s the Women’s Institute, you know,” in his direction. “But yes, we know one another. A remarkable woman, your aunt. She was very helpful to us both when we came back from Africa.”
“Yes, she is quite a lady. I’ll tell her I met you. Maybe if you’re in town some time the two of you can get together.”
“Well, I shall be in town more, shortly. I’m selling up, you see.”
“Well, since Reggie died I’m a bit isolated out here, not having a car. The village has a shop, of course, which so many don’t these days, but the range is rather limited, and a bit pricey. And the bus is only Tuesdays and Fridays now, and only 2 into town and 2 back, so it gets a bit awkward, and I can’t keep relying on people like Sandra here to ferry me about.”
“We’ve had this argument before,” said the other woman, with a kind of amused exasperation. “I’m quite happy to give you a lift any time you want one. Besides, if you carry on being so picky about who you sell to, you won’t be moving anytime soon.”
“Oh but it has to be someone who will love the house as much as we did, don’t you see?” said Helen. “I mean, that last man was quite unsuitable. He was going to uproot the walnut tree and the morello cherries to put in a swimming pool.”
“There’s something wrong with all of them,” Sandra added to us drily. “She doesn’t really want to go at all. It’s just that she has this idea about being a burden.”
“But it would be a crime to uproot a beautiful old tree like that,” said Hansie, sitting upright with indignation. “Walnut trees take lifetimes to reach that size.”
“Exactly my point,” agreed Helen triumphantly. “Man was a philistine. Hansie, have some more cake. Tim?”
“Well. . .” it was rather good cake. “I think I should go back to the car, in case the AA man comes. No, Hansie, you stay here, I’ll come and collect you when he’s done.”
“Take some cake with you,” suggested Sandra, and armed with what looked like a quarter wedge of the thing I strolled back to the car, just in time to greet the AA man as his van rolled up. And yes, he did look at me as if I was an idiot, though he was cheery enough as he filled her up, and suggested what was probably wrong with the gauge and how it could be fixed.
“Bit of an isolated place to break down,” he added, looking around at the fields and hedgerows.
“Not as isolated as you might think,” I said, thinking of the tea-party nearby. “And the natives are friendly.”
It was as we were driving back that Tim noticed the papers I had stuffed in the glove compartment. I was hoping that he wouldn’t.
“Hansie, what are these?”
“Those – oh, just some old – no, you needn’t look at. . .”
“Hansie! These are estate agent’s particulars for that house. Oh, you didn’t. . .”
“I said only that we were thinking of moving. Helen said that obviously she could not dictate our choice, but if we were interested, she would regard us as suitable buyers, and gave me a copy of the details.”
“Oh, Hansie! Yes, we need more space, and we agreed that we should have a house that was ours jointly, but . . . it’s much too far out. It would take an hour to get into work.”
“Forty minutes if you take the back lanes cutting through Littlewater and White Easter. You come out onto the Barchester road just beyond the factory. I asked. It takes us half an hour now, when the traffic is heavy at the Southgate roundabout.”
“Which is occasionally, not every day. Anyway, it’s out of the question. I don’t imagine that we’d get more than £150 000 for the house, and this place is £350 000. We can’t afford a £200 000 mortgage.”
“Ja, my liefie, but you forget, this would be a joint purchase. I have my savings, in my building society accounts. All those years before we met I had nothing much to spend my money on, you know. And you will not let me pay rent now, so the money I was spending on renting I have been putting away.”
“But a couple of thousand aren’t going to make any difference. All right, I know you said you had more in the long-term account, but. . .”
“Seventy-eight thousand. Altogether, between the accounts.”
There was a silence. Then, feebly: “Well, it’s still £120 000 of a difference, and we’d have to pay the old mortgage off.”
“Ja, but you say yourself the existing mortgage started small, because Jim and Mary helped you to buy the old house, and you have paid some of it off since. And between us, we could certainly afford a mortgage of that size.”
“What about that garden? It’s lovely, but think of the upkeep.”
“Helen has a gardener to help her. We could keep her on.”
“And then there’s that paddock behind.”
“Ja. We could have a horse. You could have a donkey, you always said you wanted a donkey, and it would keep the horse company.”
“We are not having animals. They’re too much of a responsibility. And think of the vet’s bills. No, Hansie, it’s out of the question.”
There was a long pause. I bided my time, then added:
“Did you know Helen’s late husband painted? The old garage was converted into an artist’s studio. Skylights in the roof, a beautiful space, full of light. It would tempt anyone to paint.” I couldn’t keep the wistfulness out of my voice – well, of course, I didn’t try to. Yes, I was fighting dirty. I wanted that house. It spoke to me. From the moment I crossed the threshold. It had said: welcome home. And I never had a home before, and I found I wanted one.
“Oh, Hansie. . .” Another long pause. “Look, we’ll discuss it rationally, ok. Look at the pros and cons. And we’d have to look at the house properly, like prospective buyers, not guests.”
I smiled to myself. “Ach, ja, of course. It would be a big step. But I think we are ready for it. Our house. And it is a beautiful house, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is. But Hansie you have to be prepared for the fact that even if we decided to go for it we might not be able to sell ours, or someone else might buy that house. But I agree, we’re ready to move. Somewhere.”
And that would do for now. He was obviously thinking about it, though, because I did not get much conversation on the rest of the journey home. When we got in, I said:
“I will put the kettle on, ja?”
“No, I don’t think so. It’s nearly six, I think something stronger is called for. How about a glass of wine?”
“Now my liefie, you know I will never refuse a glass of wine. However, isn’t there something you need to do first?”
He sighed theatrically. “Where do you want me – over the back of the sofa?”
I was taken aback for a moment, and then I remembered that I had threatened to cane him for not getting the petrol gauge fixed on his car.
“Ach, Tim. That wasn’t what I meant. But since you mention it, drop your trousers and bend over.” He complied. He really does have a very pretty little bottom, high and taut. I came up behind him and allowed my hands to roam proprietorily. He wriggled.
I drew back my hand. “Under the circumstances, since you walked into the village on a – what is that expression – wild goose hunt?”
“Chase. Wild goose chase,” said a muffled voice from among the cushions.
“Wild goose chase, just so. Since you have had some exercise, I will excuse you the cane. However,” SMACK! “just to warn you not to do it again, and because I enjoy it, I am going to spank you.” And I proceeded to make good that threat, until his backside was a goodly shade of red, and I let him up for a fairly passionate kiss.
“You really are a rotter, you know,” he said in mock complaint as we broke off, breathless. “Letting me think that you were going to cane me.”
“If it troubles you, my liefie, by all means go and get the cane.”
“I’ll pass on that, thanks,” he said hurriedly. “By the way, what did you mean about it not being what you meant, the punishment?”
“Well, obviously I succeeded in my aim today, which was to distract you. Had you forgotten you were waiting for an e-mail?”
His eyes rounded. “The exam results! Fuck, I completely forgot.” Grabbing his trousers with one hand he ran for the stairs and up to his computer.
It took a couple of minutes. He came down the stairs a lot more slowly, and properly dressed.
“Well?” I asked.
He bit his lip, then shrugged and grinned. “Eighty-five percent. I came top of the year.”
I smiled. “In the fridge you will find a bottle of champagne, for just such an eventuality.”
“Oh, Hansie. What would you have done if I failed?”
“Said I had champagne to cheer you up. But there was never any doubt in my mind, my skat. Never any doubt.”
I opened my arms, and he came to me.
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