“Now, dear, you and Tim go through and sit down and Hansie will help me with the coffee, won’t you, darling?”
I nodded. We had gone to Jim and Mary’s for dinner – not for a formal meal but just as we like to do once in a while, for a chance to talk. I found it odd at first, but Tim said it was just what families did, and I followed his lead until I too became comfortable. Mary cooks something, not fancy as I have seen her do for a big dinner party – that is where Tim learned to cook, I think – but lasagne, or a casserole, the sort of things we would make ourselves at home. The point of the evening is not the food, it is the company.
And the company was out of sorts. Tim made a marked attempt to stay in the kitchen with us, until Mary shooed him out, and shut the door firmly behind him.
“All right, Hansie, what’s happened?”
I shook my head. I would not pretend not to know what she meant. Jim and Tim were – not cold with each other, not that, but reserved. It was plain that Jim was being extremely careful in what he said; he was not teasing Tim as he would normally do, he was a little more polite than was usual within the family. Tim also was just a fraction too stiff with Jim, and both of them spoke to me with a little too much warmth. It was all very slightly unbalanced.
“I fear it is me, Mary, it is something I have done but I confess I do not know what. And it is something to do with the company, but again I do not know what. I asked Tim; he was upset about something, but he would not tell me, and I did not like to press him.”
She opened the door and listened. “They’re not speaking to each other. Get the cups and saucers down, Hansie dear, while I fill the dishwasher. Neither of them seems to be annoyed with you, it looks more like something between the pair of them. What makes you think that it’s to do with the company?”
I considered. Mary, I know, is a shareholder, but she is not on the Board, and I do not know how much Jim tells her about the business, or even how much it would be proper for me to say. But there was nothing which could be confidential in what had happened, was there?
“We have just started the autumn production runs, you know? And they have involved a lot of changes to the shift patterns and so on. It was all arranged without too much difficulty, the staff are accustomed to seasonal changes, it is in their contracts and we do what we can to allow people to change with others, so that most people get the shifts they want. But there were some big changes this year, bigger than usual, so Jim arranged a meeting this morning to hear how it had gone and to deal with any difficulties: the Production Manager because that is his responsibility, me, because we in Sales need to know about lead times and so on, somebody from Maintenance, Jim himself, the woman from HR who actually allocates staff to shifts, and a woman called Tracey something, who is the union representative.”
Mary frowned. “Tracey Gosling? Big woman, grey hair, 50-ish? Looks like a farmer’s wife?”
“Ja, that is the one. I believe she has been with the company a long time.”
“Must be nearly 30 years by now. I hope you haven’t been upsetting her, Hansie, because Jim will kill you if you do. The company has a very good relationship with the union and they want to keep it that way.”
“I did nothing!” I assured her hastily. “At least... at least I did, I must have done, but I do not know what and Mrs Gosling was not upset with me. She was highly amused about something.”
I gathered my thoughts. The meeting had gone off very well; the production schedules were being met, there was sufficient flexibility for maintenance down-time not to put us behind, there had been a few requests for shift changes but apparently they could be easily accommodated. Nothing disturbing in that. And then I had thought to speak.
“This is perhaps not the right time, but. . . there is something which I have noticed and I think we need to take an action but I don’t know what it is. So maybe if I tell you, unofficially, what I think the management needs from the workforce, and then you can tell me how we are to achieve it without loss of goodwill?”
Tracey, who had been gathering herself to leave, sat down again and gazed at me. I am not sure that she rates me very highly.
Mary, who was washing the last of the saucepans, glanced back over her shoulder at me. “She probably thinks of you as an incomer, Hansie. Almost nobody has been there longer than her, and you want to step very carefully before implementing changes over her head.”
Ja, I had already grasped that, which is why I went the way I did, in speaking to Tracey.
I had last week a visitor from Germany, a new sales contact. He was very interested in what we do and had hinted at very large contracts indeed; I was anxious to impress him. He came over specially to see us; he flew in and I collected him from the airport myself rather than sending one of my department. And when we arrived at the gate, we had to stop and wait, because there was a delivery lorry, not one of ours, but for the car show room opposite – one of those big three level carriers with cars at all angles? And the driver was across the road and trying to back it into the entrance. So we waited, as I say, and I chanced to look to the side, and I noticed the security hut.
The security hut is empty during the day, or should be; there is a man there at night to open the gates and to watch the security screens. But this day, as I watched, the door opened and four people came out, turning their collars up against the rain, and scampering for the factory entrance. I had wondered what they were doing, and later on I had been sufficiently curious to go down to the hut and look.
“I can guess,” Tracey Gosling had said grimly. “Fag break out of the rain. That shelter thing out the back is dry enough but it’s perishing cold.” For when the law was changed to forbid smoking at work, we had built a sort of porch affair with a roof but no solid walls, in which the workforce might lawfully smoke during their breaks.
I had nodded. “I think they must not. It is not legal; and besides, the ground all around the main gate and the big stone thing with the company name on it is littered with cigarette butts. It is not a good advertisement for the company if anybody at the gate should notice it.”
Mary was beginning to get a funny expression as she listened to this, although I still could not see why. I looked at her.
“And that was all, Mary, I swear it was! I told Tracey only that I thought it was a problem; she agreed with me and said she would speak to the shift leaders; I suggested to Jim that he should maybe remind the security man to lock the hut when he left it in the mornings. But Jim looked” – I hesitated. “He looked odd, and it seemed he wished not to speak with me about this. And then Tracey laughed, and she said ‘Well, Mr Hamilton, it’s not a problem we’ve never seen before, is it, and as I recall you had a short way of dealing with it.’ And Jim – Jim changed the subject very fast indeed, wound up the meeting and was out of the room without giving me a chance to ask what she had meant.”
Mary, by this time, was leaning against the kitchen worktop, with her face covered by her hands.
“Oh, Hansie,” she said in a muffled voice. “Let me guess. You went home to Tim, told him about it, and said, ‘So whatever was that about?’, and Tim went all peculiar on you.”
I stared. That had been precisely how it had gone. She dropped her hands, and came over, kissing me gently.
“Hansie darling, your ability to dig a pit and then fall in it is absolutely unequalled.”
I felt the colour rise to my face – well, stupid Hansie is used enough to being told that he is stupid, hey? But I did not think to hear it from that quarter.
She saw what I was thinking, because her own face changed and she patted my arm in reassurance. “It’s not your fault,” she said, gently. “I didn’t mean that any of this was your fault. You’ve just . . .”
“Blundered into the middle in my usual way,” I said bitterly.
“No. Got caught up in an old quarrel. You weren’t to know any better. The pair in there, on the other hand, definitely should. I had quite enough of this the last time.” Her eyes narrowed. “If we’re going to rehash that one, I’m going to have a few things of my own to say.”
“What is going on? What is this quarrel?”
“It’s really not my story to tell, darling. But you shall have an explanation – believe me, you shall have an explanation.” Looking at her in that moment , I was not inclined to doubt it. “Take the cups and the milk through for me, Hansie, and I’ll bring the coffee.”
I stood and held the door for her: she was right, there was an echoing silence in the room.
“Just there, Hansie, on the coffee table if you would,” said Mary brightly. “Coffee, everyone?”
There was a chorus of ‘please’. “Tim, will you take a liqueur or a brandy or something? I know Hansie won’t have one if he’s driving.”
“No thanks, Mary. Had enough sugar and alcohol for the night, I think.”
“Well at least you’ve never taken sugar in your tea or coffee.”
“Only because you and Jim never did, and I was too lazy to go hunt the sugar out specially when I made the drinks,” admitted Tim.
“It’s bound to stand well for your health. And of course you’ve never smoked.”
Both Tim and Jim choked simultaneously on their drinks.
“What did she mean, tell him the whole gory truth, or I will?” I asked plaintively, as we drove through the darkened lanes. “What is all this business, Tim? I am tired of being the outsider in this, of everyone knowing what I do not. If I upset you, if I have dragged up bad old family troubles from the past, I am sorry, but at least tell me what I must avoid saying.”
“It isn’t – it isn’t like that. Not the sort of family trouble I think you’re imagining.” A rather twitchy smile, just caught in the light from the dashboard. “Our family skeletons are a fairly modest set compared with the gothic extravaganza you lug around.”
“That much I can believe. So what is it then, this trouble between you and Jim? I think – I assume it is something to do with smoking, from the way you both reacted to Mary’s comment.”
“Oh Hansie, you don’t know the half of it. I can’t. . . wait till we get home, at least.”
“Very well. But then I think you had best tell me, at least the highlights, because I think Mary will ask if you have, and I do not wish to be the one to tell her no, not in her present mood.”
“God, no. Once Mary really puts her foot down. . .”
“Ja, and how.”
We drove the rest of the way in silence.
“Is that what I think it is?” My eyes rounded, and I backed away in horror from the thing in Don Cunningham’s hand.
“Oh for fuck’s sake, it’s just a joint,” said Don. His air of worldly sophistication was slightly undermined by the furtive way in which he had pulled it out, and the fact that his hand shook a little as it held the overfilled and not terribly skilfully made spliff.
“And more where that came from,” agreed Jason Sweet, holding up a box of Rizla cigarette papers and a plastic bag with a small quantity of brownish fibres in it.
“You’re mad. Bringing it to school? If anyone catches you they’ll. . .”
“Keep your voice down!” hissed Don.
“They’ll expel you straight away. Remember that guy in the Sixth? He never even got to take his exams.”
“That was E’s,” said Jase. “This is just a bit of harmless weed.”
“Waccy baccy,” agreed Don. “C’mon, you want to try it, don’t you?”
“Oh don’t be such a big girl. What harm could it do? Even that drug squad bloke they brought in to lecture us said it wasn’t so harmful.”
“At first. He said it wasn’t so harmful at first. What about all that stuff about motivation, about becoming a loser?”
“Oh that shit’s just to scare you. Come on, you’re in, aren’t you?”
“No, Don, I’m not interested.”
“Ah, come on, Tim,” said Jase.
“Why? Why are the pair of you so interested in sharing it with me?”
“Because you’re my best mate, you nit,” said Don.
“And because we need somewhere safe to smoke it,” agreed Jase. Don shot him a murderous glance, and turned back to me.
“It’s just – we can’t smoke it at home, our mums would smell it, and we can’t risk doing it out in the open, but we thought – well, what about that hut the security guy uses at the factory?”
“Absolutely no fucking way! You are nuts.”
“Don’t be such a. . . you 'n me used it when we had that bottle of vodka.”
“That was different.”
“How? Alcohol’s a drug too.”
“A legal drug.”
“Not at our age. And you nicked it.”
“Don!” That was supposed to be a secret. There had been cases of the stuff, just lying around in the warehouse, waiting for the Christmas hampers to favoured customers to be made up, and one was open, with several bottles already gone, and I’d just happened to walk in and see one of the warehousemen, thinking himself unobserved, slip a bottle under his overalls. And I’d thought – fuck, it belongs to my family, why shouldn’t I do the same? I’ve got more right than he has.
Yes, of course I knew it was wrong. I also knew that my arse would pay for it when I got caught. Only that time I didn’t. And while Jim and Mary were away in London for the day, Don and I had bunked school and surreptitiously downed three-quarters of it, and paid for it in other ways. I’m still not very keen on vodka, it makes me feel distinctly queasy. Luckily, the next morning Jim and Mary had accepted my explanation of a stomach bug going round. I even got another day off school out of it – well, there’s a god who protects fools, especially teenage fools.
But for Don to be making capital out of it – and letting Jase in on the secret – it was out of order. I wondered if he would dare go far enough to threaten me with exposure, and realised that he didn’t need to. Not explicitly, not once the idea had come up.
“Well you did.” He flushed and dropped his gaze; he knew he shouldn’t have said it, too. But being in the wrong had never stopped Don when he got the bit between his teeth.
“No, Don. Just – no.”
“No. I don’t do drugs, and neither should you.” It was supposed to sound high-minded. Instead it just sounded priggish.
Don looked at me with scorn. “Some best mate you turned out to be,” he said witheringly. “You’re. . .” the riches of schoolboy invective failed him for a moment “embarrassing. Just embarrassing. I don’t even want to be seen with you.”
“Fuck off, Tim. Come on Jase, let’s go and find someone with balls.” He put his arm round Jason’s shoulders and stalked off. Jase threw a half-apologetic, half-smug gaze back at me over his shoulder as they went.
“Wait.” It couldn’t hurt just to try, could it? Just once? To see what it was like?
“No, I mean, maybe. Maybe just once.” Even as I said it I hated myself for being so weak. A real man wouldn’t change his mind. But then I wasn’t a real man, was I? I’d already settled that for myself, down among the furtive figures who cruised the shadows by the railway bridge, even if I was mostly trying hard not to think about it. I was becoming something, was something, a thing that I hardly understood but whose shape and borders were defined for me by nasty jokes and words that meant a fight in the playground. And I wondered if the others sensed it, if it was somehow written on my forehead, invisible to me but clear to everyone else: Tim Creed is a Poof.
Everything seemed to be changing. The future was looming up on us, big and inescapable. The Sixth Form. University. The World. It terrified me, at the same time as it promised some sort of escape. I didn’t want to let go of what I had. Of being the me that everyone thought I was, being normal. Not yet.
“Who’s he?” I indicated the lad standing next to Jase. He looked about eighteen.
“Tommy. Jase’s brother. It’s his gear.”
“Grass. You know,” said Don irritably, as I gawked at him. “The cannabis. He’s the one who gets it.”
“You never said anything about others,” I muttered sullenly, when what I really wanted to say was: are you fucking mad, Cunningham? Do you never learn, like that time with the porn video?
“Look, where do you think we got the stuff from, eh? We can’t exactly go down to the Prince and hang around to do deals.” Even nice middle-class boys like us knew that the Black Prince, a rather seedy pub at the edge of the Camelot Estate, was the place to go to score drugs. “Look Tim, you’ve gone this far, what difference does it make if Tommy comes? He’s a decent bloke, and they are his drugs.”
“Hey, Tim, isn’t it?” Tommy realised we were discussing him and came over. “Good to meet you.” He patted me on the arm. “So where’s this little hideaway of yours?”
“It’s, um, just round here. We, uh, there’s a gap in the fence here, and then you can just sort of walk along behind the bushes and around the back of the hut.” I felt my cheeks getting warm, and my voice descending into the sort of moronic mumble I despised.
“Cool. And we can get in OK and no-one will disturb us?”
“Er, no, it’s, um, empty during the day. They only use it at night. And it’s, sort of, they lock it but I’ve got a key. So no-one will think, I mean, they wouldn’t, they won’t even look.”
“Smart guy.” Tommy grinned at me and I looked down at my feet and blushed some more and wished I were a million miles away and nothing to do with this whole stupid venture.
“Well, I guess we’d better, um. . .” more stunning repartee from Tim. I indicated the gap in the fence, and slid under. The others followed. As we came up behind the hut, I heard the sound of keys jangling.
“There’s someone there!” hissed Don frantically.
“I can hear that,” I whispered. “Stay here the lot of you and let me see who it is.”
I edged forward until I could see round towards the main gates, with their well mowed strip of grass sward sweeping in around them and the big stone sign, about two metres long and a metre or so high, engraved with the word ‘Hamiltons’ in a blocky, rather Star Trek kind of lettering that some designer obviously thought was cutting edge and modern at the time. Someone was standing there, with a strimmer in their hand.
“Who’s that? Oh, it’s you, young Tim. Playing Cowboys and Indians?”
“Um, hi George.” Old George the groundskeeper seemed not to have registered the fact that I was nearly old enough to drive now, although I supposed since he had known me since I was young enough to have played Cowboys and Indians for real he might be excused. Old people did have trouble with new ideas, I’d noticed. “No, just, er, just a bit of birdwatching.”
“Birdwatching?” He frowned. “Not much there at this time of year, I’d say.”
“I thought I saw a, a, chaffinch. Feeding. On the pine cones.” Shut up, Tim, and stop embroidering. I could feel my face going pink.
“I doubt it, lad.” He laughed, gently.
“So, um, how are you, then?”
“I’m fine, lad. And how are you?” He sounded slightly concerned, as if he actually wanted to know.
“Great, great, everything’s great, no problems at all, great.”
“Good lad. Well, I must be getting on. Got a tree to trim over by Packing, they reckon it’s keeping the light out of their windows.”
“Yes, yes, don’t want to keep you, bye. Good to see you,” I added politely to his retreating figure. He raised a hand.
“Thank God for that,” said a voice from the shrubbery. “Unlock the hut, Tim, before anyone comes along the road or out of the factory.”
“Shouldn’t think anyone will. Not until shift change in an hour or so.” But I was as anxious as the others to get under cover, so I hurriedly unlocked the door and let the others in.
“This is cosy,” said Tommy. “God I need some puff now, to relax me. Bet you do too, Tim.”
“I need some too,” said Don.
“Me too,” added Jase.
“Don’t be greedy, lads, I reckon Tim should get first puff. Here.” He proffered me a fat roll-up, rather more expertly put together than Don’s, and lit it.
“Just suck it in gently and hold it,” he advised. I took a deep drag. . .
. . . and burst into convulsive coughing.
“Easy, easy, mate,” advised Tommy. “Take it easy. Smaller puffs. All the time in the world.” I tried again, held the lungful of acrid, sweet smoke as long as I could before exhaling.
“That’s it. Then you pass the benny round.” He took the cigarette from me, drew on it expertly, and exhaled a long stream of blue smoke from his nostrils. I couldn’t help admiring his expertise, even at something I didn’t approve of. Don and Jase took drags in turn before it came back to me. This time I managed a lungful without choking. When I opened my mouth to let it out again I managed, quite by accident, a smoke ring.
“Hey, cool,” approved Jase. I felt a warm glow – was that from his approval, or was the joint starting to have an effect? I grinned, and the others grinned back. Maybe this wasn’t so bad – it was just a sort of social event, really, like one of Jim and Mary’s dull drinks parties for important clients, only more fun. The thought made me giggle.
“Sorry, I was just thinking my uncle’s parties would be more fun if they did this rather than necking gin.”
Tommy laughed, and so did the others. I remember thinking that maybe we should keep it down, when suddenly the door burst open and the world fell in.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing in there!” Well it was more like‘Fitthehe’daeyethunkye’rdivinunther’ so strong was the accent, but I understood it all right. I also understood that I was so, so dead.
Jim seemed to have grown so that he completely blocked the light from the doorway, and his face was white with rage, more furious than I can ever remember seeing him. He strode into the hut, tore the joint from my fingers and stamped it underfoot as if it was a poisonous insect.
“Be cool, man,” said Tommy, rather ineffectually. “It’s just a little grass.” My uncle turned a gaze on him that was anything but.
“Get out, the lot of you, before I call the police and have you all arrested,” he snapped. Don, Jase, and a white-faced Tommy broke and scurried for the door. I made to run too, and a hand grabbed my shoulder painfully hard.
“Ye needn’t think ye’re getting’ away that easily,” he hissed at me. “How dare ye? How dare ye touch that filth? Do you realise what could have. . . and how dare ye betray me, bringing people into my factory and turning it into a filthy drug den? Ye ungrateful, evil, stupid wee fucker.” I felt my own face go white with shock. I’d never been spoken to that way by my own – my own uncle.
“I’m not. . .” I began desperately, and his hand tightened still further on my shoulder and shook me until my teeth rattled. “Out!” he hissed. “Get outside, the stink of that stuff in here!” He pushed me out of the door. Don was standing, irresolute, by the gate.
“It wasn’t really Tim’s fault, Mr Hamilton. . .” he quavered.
It wasn’t the right thing to say. Jim’s face set. “Get off my land, boy,” he growled. Still with that painful grip on my shoulder he dragged me with him towards the gate, and Don scuttled out of the gate and into the roadway.
“Get out of here, now. You aren’t welcome here, or in my house. And Tim’s no to go to yours.”
“You can’t do that,” I burst out. “He’s my friend. You can’t run my life.”
In retrospect, it probably wasn’t sensible. The Americans have a saying about your mouth not writing cheques your arse can’t cash. I was seriously overdrawn.
“You. . .” Jim’s voice quivered in a way I’d never heard. Then he almost threw me, bruisingly, over the stone of the Hamilton’s sign so I was jack-knifed over it.
“No!” I tried to get up and was pushed roughly back into position. “Move, and I swear I’ll give it ye every night for a week.” I swallowed.
“Tim!” It was Don. “Oh man, are you going to beat him?”
“Go away!” My voice rang out in concert with Jim’s. I felt two huge tears gather in my eyes. How could he, in front of Don, in the open where anyone might see. . .
And then the belt came down. I don’t remember how many I got. It was more than a dozen, certainly. And it hurt, though curiously, not as much as other punishments I’d had. Maybe it was the cannabis, or maybe it was adrenaline. But I couldn’t seem to stop myself from yelping and sobbing, almost hysterical with the shame. All I could think about was the shame.
And when I was finally, finally, allowed to get up, with tears and snot still streaming down my face, and I saw the crowd of hangers on that had gathered at a safe distance around the factory doors, and the grinning faces at the windows, and I realised the full scale of my humiliation – well then I knew that my life was over. Over. I could never recover from this.
I looked into Jim’s angry face with a matching fury of my own.
“I hate you,” I hissed. “I hate you. I hope your stupid fucking factory burns down to the ground.”
“Tim!” But ignoring Jim’s outstretched hand – a gesture of reconciliation? Apology? I didn’t want either – I ran. Ran and ran all the way across the fields to home.
“Tim?” But I brushed past Mary in her turn, pounded up the stairs, and into my bedroom, and pulled a chair up to block the door. I was never coming out again. Never. I was going to stay in here until I starved. Then they’d be sorry, all right. I pulled my trousers down and examined my backside as best I could in the wardrobe mirror. A couple of red marks but no more, to my slight surprise. I flung myself on the bed and sobbed to myself at the horror and unfairness of it all, and the terrible loss to the world that my tragically early death would represent.
By the third day, something had to give, and it did. Mary’s patience.
That first night I had refused to leave my room or to eat dinner, and Mary, faced with the prospect of further hysterics, had taken the pragmatic course and left a plate of tempting sandwiches and a bottle of orange outside my room until I conceded that starving myself to death would take too long and not leave a particularly beautiful corpse, and surreptitiously opened my door and wolfed them.
Jim had come in late, and stomped around the house banging doors. Mary and he had had a long conversation, but her voice was too low for me to hear what was said from upstairs; judging by the carefully placating tone of Jim’s replies she had not been particularly pleased with him. Any idea I had that I had found an ally was quickly dashed, however, when she made it clear in no uncertain terms that I was going to school the next day whether I wanted to or not; fortunately, Don’s mother was more lenient, or more gullible and he was absent (I discovered later that he had claimed a convenient bout of ‘flu’ until he was sure there was going to be no further consequences). However, the story began to get around – ours was a small town, and several of the pupils in the school had relatives who worked at Hamiltons. I caught, or thought to catch, smirks and whispered asides that brought the blood to my face and new bursts of fury and shame to my heart. As a result I returned each evening determined never to forgive Jim for what he had done to me.
The second evening she had insisted.
“I have cooked dinner for you and you are coming down, and you are going to sit at the table and eat it, young man.”
“I don’t want. . .”
“And is what you want the only thing that determines what happens in this house? What about what I want?” I noticed that she didn’t mention what Jim wanted.
“I’m not hungry.”
“Then you can sit at the table and keep us company, like an adult.”
Unkindly, she had cooked lasagne, which was my favourite as she well knew. I sat there glowering at Jim, who frowned silently back, while Mary tried valiantly to make conversation. Absent mindedly I put my fork down and realised with astonishment that I had cleaned my plate. I didn’t remember a single mouthful.
Jim scowled. “Speak more politely to your aunt.”
“No thank you ever so much, Aunt Mary, delicious as it was I couldn’t manage another scintillating mouthful.”
Jim’s hand twitched. I glared at him, daring him to make a move.
I turned to Mary. “May I leave the table, please?”
“No, thank you.”
“Very well then.” I got up, turned automatically towards the living room.
“And go to your room,” added Jim. “You’re still in disgrace. No television this week.”
If looks could have killed, he would have been a dead man. Then I stomped noisily up the stairs, slamming my bedroom door as hard as I dared. Behind me I just caught Mary’s murmured: ‘was that really necessary? Wouldn’t it be better to. . .’
The third evening, I had listlessly pushed a piece of smoked haddock (never my favourite) around my plate for half an hour, in between monosyllabic replies to Mary and total silence towards Jim, who in turn seemed to be doing his best to emulate one of the more stony and brooding Easter Island statues. Eventually, it took its toll.
“Right,” snapped Mary, “that is just enough. I have had it to here with sulking teenagers and sulking grown men who ought to know better.”
Jim and I turned on her the same shocked gaze.
“The pair of you are bloody well going to talk, if I have to make you sit here all the night.”
The shock deepened. Mary never swore.
“But love, I have been talking. . .” began Jim.
“Not to me, to him! Tell him what you feel, and why, you awful great fool.” I smirked and she turned on me.
“And don’t you go smiling or I’ll wipe the smile off your face myself, my lad. If he’s a fool, you’re three times the idiot, and you’re supposed to be the smart one. How could you, Tim? Your uncle was right – what you did wasn’t only a risk to you, it was a betrayal of us, smoking dope on the factory premises. Do you never think of anyone but yourself?”
It was like a sliver of ice through the heart. To know that Mary, kind, practical, clever Mary, thought that of me. And I suddenly heard what Jim had been saying: that they had offered me a home, love, unstinting help and support, and I had encouraged an illegal act on their property, in a way that would have, if the law became involved, possibly compromised them. I felt my chin wobble a little, the comforting certainty of my own hard-done-by status suddenly evaporating.
er. . .” said Jim. “Ye see – when I was first playing internationals
there was this lad, Lachlan MacLeod. He and his brother Struan were great players,
really blazing players, especially Lachlan. And he was my pal, do ye see? We’d
go out round the pubs together. And – well, I found out he was taking pills. And
I told him he was mad, but Lachlan – well, he was mad, but a good sort
of mad, and he’d just laugh and say ‘ach Jimmy, a few wee happy pills never hurt
anyone’.” He cleared his throat and stared into the depths of his water glass
for a moment. “So I did nothing, said nothing. And one day in training he just
keeled over in front of me and died. Heart attack. At twenty-two.”
His eyes were bleak and unseeing, focussed on something far away and invisible to me. I was taken aback. He was talking to me the way he would talk to – well, another adult. A confidant.
“He died, Tim. He died. An’ it wisnae my fault, but I knew what he was doing, an’ I did nothing to stop him. And then he died. And Struan, it might as well have killed him too, the shock of it. I don’t think he ever got over it. I don’t know that I ever shall, either.”
“So when George came to me and said he hoped he wasn’t telling tales out of school but he knew a teenager up to no good when he saw one, and then I saw you with that stuff – well I just. . . I know I mebbe didn’t handle it quite right, Tim. But if anything were to happen to ye, if ye were to come to harm that way, well, I dinna think I could bear it.” His voice hoarsened, and he had to clear his throat again. I felt a lump in my own, and my eyes filled. I knew that he loved me, of course I did, but he wasn’t the sort of man to say so, quite.
“I – I’m sorry. I did know it was wrong. I told the others, but I – I was afraid they wouldn’t be my friends any more. Don – Don said I had no balls.”
“Oh Tim.” That was Mary. “I’m sorry to say it, but to tell the truth I’ve never known why you’re such friends with Don Cunningham. I don’t think he’s a particularly good friend to you.”
I shrugged. “He’s my friend.” I had no other explanation. Didn’t know how to say that I used Don as much as he used me, his normality a mask for the lack I felt.
“Laddie. Sometimes – sometimes you have to tell your friends that they’re wrong. Sometimes you have to be prepared not to go along with the crowd. Not to be persuaded. You have to lead them, not be led by them.”
“Well there’s no danger of that now. No-one will want to be seen with the boy who still gets his arse whipped in public.” It came out sounding a bit more bitter than I had intended.
Jim winced. “I – as I said, maybe I didn’t handle that too well.” Mary – there’s no other word for it – she Looked at him. He lowered his eyes. “I – shouldn’t have lost control. I apologise.”
I blinked. I didn’t ever recall Jim apologising for punishing me before, either. But then somehow, before, it had been what I did that had been punished. This time, it had been personal, it had been Tim who had been punished. Mary cocked her head on one side and raised an eyebrow at me.
“I, um, it’s – that’s OK,” I said, embarrassed. Jim apologising to me? To me? It was just plain Wrong, like chocolate on crisps. “I know I was wrong too. I shouldn’t have done it, not any of it.”
“Well, then.” Gruff. “How about shaking on it?” He held out his hand. I shook it solemnly. All very gentlemanly and grown up, only. . . I wished I knew how to surrender my teenage dignity and ask for a hug, a big enveloping hug, like I used to get when I was a child.
Tim’s voice trailed away.
“But I do not understand this,” I said plaintively. “If it was all made right between you, why are you out of sorts now?”
He gestured, irritably. “We aren’t. It’s just – Tracey bringing that up. It made me realise that there must still be people all over town who remember seeing me get my arse belted. It’s embarrassing, Hansie. How can I be expected to manage people at Hamilton’s when they’ve seen me bent over and yelping?”
I could well understand why that would plague him. He will play the fool, or make a joke on himself readily enough, but he does not like to be the unwilling butt of someone else’s wit, or to be seen at less than advantage.
“Well – there will not be so many that remember now, I think. There are few staff who have been there as long as Mrs Gosling. Most of those who – who witnessed this incident will be retired.”
“I suppose,” he acknowledged grudgingly.
“But I do not understand why Jim is upset.”
“Ah, that I think I do know. He lost it, Hansie. I freely admit he was provoked. Richly provoked, I was a little horror at that age. But he did lose control. Before that – and after it, come to that – when I got punishment it was always measured and deliberate. But not that day. That day he just let rip. Although if I’m honest, Hansie, I suppose it wasn’t that severe. At the time I couldn’t have been so reasonable about it, I’d have told you that he’d half killed me, but really, through my jeans it wasn’t that big a deal. Not physically. I think. . . well, looking back on it, I suspect my hysterics must have surprised and upset Jim as much or more as they did me. It wasn’t my typical reaction even then, and well, I simply don’t think it’s in him, no matter how furious he was, to beat a screaming child as much as I probably deserved. But he did lose control, and he knew he shouldn’t have. It’s Jim he’s upset with. I don’t think he’s ever quite forgiven himself.”
“So what are you going to do about it?”
“Me? What do you expect me to do?”
“You claim to be the smart one, as Mary said.” I saw him grimace – ach, I was well aware that that comment would have hurt far longer than any belting, public or not, and I was not above making use of it. “You figure it out. But do you not think it is time Jim stopped feeling guilt? That you made a little joke of it between you, and took away the sting of that belt, at last? Is this not what loving families do for each other?”
His eyes rounded. He does not expect to get such advice from me. But I can learn, and sometimes it is nice to remind him that I am not just a pretty face, ja nee?
“I think I love you,” he said.
“Ja?” I pretended to be unimpressed. “So prove it.”
“That was a blast from the past, wasn’t it?” I said to Jim on Monday morning, as I walked into his office.
“Tracey Gosling. Fancy her remembering that tanning you gave me, after all those years.”
“Aye, well. . .” he shot me a look from under his brows and shifted a little uncomfortably.
“You clearly made an impression. Made an impression on me, too, and entirely well deserved.”
“Tim. . .”
“I was quite horrible as a teenager, wasn’t I? How did you both stand it without throttling me?”
“You had your moments, I’ll admit. Still do.”
I grinned at him. “Not nearly as often. Thanks to you and Mary I’m pretty house-trained these days.”
“Aye well. I’d say you have a little credit for that yourself.” His eyes glinted with amusement.
“Thanks. For everything. I couldn’t have wanted for more.”
He nodded, acknowledgement.
“You know, I was telling Hansie about it, and I realised I just had one regret about the whole episode.”
“And what would that be?” he asked rather cautiously.
“You apologised to me. You didn’t have to do that. I was mightily impressed at the time, and I still am. It takes a big man to do that, especially after such provocation.” Was that the hint of a blush? “But you remember, we shook on it?”
“And I wished then that I’d been less precious and asked you for a hug.”
He looked thoughtful. “I see. And why would ye be telling me this now?”
“Well, I was just wondering. . .”
“If it was too late to ask for it now.”
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