The Chains that Bind

If your friends tell you that they are thinking of moving house (in the UK, this is, I don’t know how it goes elsewhere), do them a favour. Knock them down, tie them to a rack, and torture them for several months, in between roasting them over a bonfire of all their money. It will hurt a lot less than the alternative, and cost less too.

And the worst part of it all, of all the smart-alec, apparently twelve-year-old estate agents, and supercilious potential buyers, and endless, endless tidying up and buying of flowers and brewing of fresh coffee (well, ok, the process had one small compensation), the worst part of it was that nearly eight weeks after we first put the house on the market we appeared to be no further forward in selling it. Oh we’d had a few people to look round, sure, though not nearly as many as I had expected; one or two had even made encouraging noises, but apart from one offer so derisory that it clearly wasn’t intended to be taken seriously, no-one had offered to buy.

I took it a bit personally to be honest. It’s not a bad house. OK, it’s only two bedrooms, and a bit bland, but it’s in good condition, handy for the centre of town, has a small garden for sitting out in the summer but not one that takes much looking after, and it has its own garage. I’d done all right in it, and I didn’t see why everyone else was apparently turning their nose up at it.

And the other thing was that Helen, from whom we were supposed to be buying, wouldn’t be able to wait for ever. She had been very good about not putting any pressure on us – she really wanted us to have her old house, said it had taken a fancy to us, when I think the truth was she had taken a fancy to Hansie – but she had a property of her own to buy, a new-build apartment, and sooner or later, if we didn’t sell she would have to take another offer just to keep her chance of buying it. I hadn’t said it to Hansie, because I knew how disappointed he would be if the chain broke and we lost it, but I was starting to worry that it was increasingly likely.

So one Friday evening when we were both thoroughly fed up with it and not in the least in the mood for cooking and then obsessively cleaning the kitchen again in case the estate agent rang and wanted to bring someone round for a viewing, we decided to go and have a meal at the better of the two Thai restaurants in town. Phil and Piet were both away, so we were left to our own devices.

It was a warmish evening, a lot of people were standing outside the pub with their drinks, enjoying the good weather in that opportunistic way you have to if you’re British, and the restaurants starting to fill up with the usual Friday night crowds. Luckily I’d thought to ring up before we left and secure the last table in the Krungthep, otherwise we wouldn’t have got in.

We were just settling down with a beer and the menus, and arguing amiably about what we would have, when two more customers came in. I looked up and saw them at about the same moment they saw us.

“Fran! Nick! This is a surprise.”

She smiled. She’s doing that a lot more lately. Nick is good for her, though I’m not sure she’d admit it. Maybe she would at that – she’s undoubtedly become a bit more – perhaps mellow isn’t quite the word, but you know what I mean. She’s certainly good for him – he looked a whole lot better than he did the last time I saw him, just after that big case of his got cracked.

“Tim, Hansie.” Hansie stood to kiss her cheek, and shook hands with Nick with no noticeable hesitation. I let out a breath I wasn’t aware of having held, and stood myself to do the same. “I won’t ask you what you’re doing here, because it’s obvious.”

“Are you together?” asked the waiter.

“No,” said Fran at exactly the same moment as Hansie said:

“But yes, please join us if you wish.” Sometimes those old-fashioned South African manners can be just a bit of a trial. They were at the stage of a relationship where they probably still preferred a quiet meal together and a chance to talk, private, couple stuff; and while I was quite happy to have dinner with them, I wasn’t sure whether it was really what Hansie wanted or if he just felt he had to make the offer.

“No really, we won’t disturb you. . .”

“You’d be more than welcome, and you wouldn’t be disturbing us in the least,” I said, “but we’ll quite understand if you were looking forward to a quiet dinner for two and want to keep it that way.”

They glanced at each other, and obviously a silent question passed between them, because then Nick shrugged. “Why not?” he said. “Thank you.”

As it turned out, it was quite a nice evening. Hansie and Nick managed to keep the comments on the light-hearted side of snippy – at least, there seemed no real animosity in the sniping, and Fran seemed relaxed about it, so I tried to be the same. And Nick is interesting to talk to, and also turned out to know what best to order from the menu: ‘hey, coppers spend as much time in curry houses as in the nick,’ he explained, ‘basics of Asian cookery is practically on the curriculum at the police training college’.

“So how is the moving going?” Fran asked at one point.

Hansie groaned, and I shook my head. “It isn’t. Better not to ask. We just don’t seem to be able to find a buyer for our place.”

“Really? I’m surprised – you’re in such a handy location there, and it’s a very light, airy house. So many of those new houses have really tiny windows, it makes them very dark.” But the conversation moved on, and I thought no more about the topic.

Eventually the bill came, and we split it 4 ways (that’s another thing I like about Nick, no nonsense about ‘oh, well I only had this, and you had that’) and Fran asked us if we’d like to walk back to her flat for a coffee, to which we were pleased to agree (the coffee in the Krungthep was a bit stewed, to be honest, although everything else had been superb).

It was a warm night. The bars and clubs were still busy here in the centre, although some of the pubs had started chucking out. There were a lot of rather inebriated young men (and women) around, but nothing too out of order, at least until we came to East Street, around the corner from Fran’s flat, and heard the sirens.

At the same moment as a police van shot past us and round the corner with a squeal of brakes. Nick stiffened.

“Fran, Tim, stay here. Hansie, come with me.”


“I just want to make sure we aren’t going to walk into anything nasty around the corner. Wait here until we’ve gone up and had a look, and we’ll signal if it’s ok.”

“No, Nick. We’ll all go. I’m not going to faint if there is a bit of trouble going on in the street.”

He looked as if he was going to argue with her, then shrugged. A man who knows better than to fight useless battles. “Come on then, but be prepared to make a strategic retreat if we need to. And Hansie – we don’t want any more unfortunate misunderstandings with the local constabulary, all right?”

There was what looked like a full scale riot going on outside the Crown and Anchor, a lot of young men, some rather battered, being manhandled towards the police vans. Nick waved us to stay back, cautiously approached one of the officers standing by the nearest van, and spoke to him briefly.

“This might take a while,” he said, shaking his head as he returned to us. “I don’t think you’re going to be able to get to the flat for half an hour, at least, Fran, and they can’t really spare the manpower to escort us through this lot at the moment.”

“Look, why don’t we all get in a taxi and have coffee at our place,” I said. We could have walked it in not much longer, but I couldn’t see any reason to, and the sooner we were out of here the better. “Hopefully by the time we’re done, the problem will have been sorted out and you can go home in peace.”

Fran looked quickly back down the street towards her front door – so near and yet so far – then swallowed hard and turned back to us.

“Thank you,” she said quietly. She sounded a bit shaken – silly, I know, but she’s such a strong character that you don’t think of her worrying about stuff, any more than you do Piet. Yet they’re only human. Well, she is. The jury is still out on Piet (and please don’t tell him I said that!). And Hansie and Nick both nearly trampled each other to give her a hug, although Hansie conceded, grudgingly, Nick’s right to go first.

So we all ended up safely at ours, partaking of coffee fairly liberally laced with brandy – it had been a trying end to the evening, and I made damn sure that Fran’s got the heftiest slug. And at one point, Fran excused herself to go the lavatory, and as soon as she was safely out of the room, Nick and Hansie both turned to each other and said in perfect chorus:

“She has to get out of that place.” Then Hansie grinned wryly, and added:

“No, but how? More to the point, where, hey?”

And Nick looked at Hansie soberly (which was quite an achievement at that stage of the evening, given that the brandy bottle was now only half full) and the idea slowly surfaced, complete, in all of our minds together, like a bubble rising out of the depths, as he said:

“What about here?”

“No,” I said.

“Why not?” asked Nick, reasonably. “Come on, you agreed you had to leave the flat. Why not Hansie’s house?”

“Because I can’t afford it, Nick. You heard what they wanted for it. And you know that they want that other house Hansie has set his heart on. I’ve heard all about it from Hansie, more than once. They can’t possibly afford it if they get less than £140000. They can’t really afford it if they get less than £150000. There are things that have to be done to the bathroom and kitchen, and they’ll cost. And there is no way I can lay hand on that sort of money.”

“I think you’re wrong. Have you been round the building societies? What sort of deposit have you got?”

I thought for a moment of saying: mind your own business. Then I sighed. It was his business, I supposed. He was concerned (unnecessarily, in my opinion) for my safety. “I’ve still got the award money, untouched, which I want for my Gold Wing, by the way, not for a house. And about another £5000 which I can put together from various places. I would need a mortgage of £125000 at least. And I won’t get it.”

“How do you know? You’ve got the income to take that, surely?”

“I haven’t got the history. I’ve never had a mortgage. I got my first credit card about three years ago. The only borrowings I’ve ever had were business loans, and I’ve paid them off but I’ve got no credit history to stand by. And I’m self-employed, Nick. Unreliable income. No payslips.”

“Other people manage it. Five years’ accounts will usually do instead of payslips.”

“And of my last five years’ accounts, only two show a profit which makes it look as if I can afford to eat regularly. Look, Nick, if banking were still done on old-fashioned principles with a bank manager who actually managed, and a local one who knew something about local conditions, I’d be laughing. I’ve got a rolling twelve month contract with Hamiltons, I’ve got the contract at the rugby club for the calendar and the one for the programme. I’ve got Phil, and I regularly give thanks on my knees for that. But you know as well as I do that all the financial decisions now are made in Bradford or Glasgow or Bangalore, by people who know nothing about anything except computer programming.”

“But Fran, it’s perfect for you. The main bedroom is bigger than you’ve got now. The spare would make a perfectly good study if you wanted it, and the way they have it now you can see that it’s still usable as a bedroom even with a desk and a computer in it. The bathroom is big enough to turn round in. The kitchen is light enough that you aren’t in permanent danger of cutting your wrists, and you would have a dining room and a sitting room. That garage would give you loads of storage space since you’ve only got the bike to put in it.”

I noticed he didn’t mention the garden as a plus. He’s grasped that I don’t garden; he doesn’t either.

“Nick, I’m not denying the desirability of it; I would like to live there, yes. I’m denying the practicality. I don’t believe I can put together that sort of money. And I won’t put Hansie and Tim in the position of having to explain why they can’t accept the best offer I can do. That’s not fair on any of us; it’s too much of a strain on our friendship.”

“Will you at least go to the building societies and see what they’ll lend you?” He was becoming exasperated.

“Yes. I’m not arguing that it’s time to leave the flat. I’ll make some appointments next week and see what I can get, and then I’ll go to some estate agents. But I’m not going to raise false hopes in Hansie and Tim.”

He snuggled closer, and buried his face in my hair. “I suppose that will have to do.”

I smiled a little. “Yes, it will. Don’t push.”

“You’re a bloody stubborn woman, did you know that?”

“Yes, I did. And you’re a bloody insolent man. Are you looking for a spanking?”

He thought about it for a moment. “Yes?” he said, hopefully.

“Hey, mister, when I did this I got into all sorts of trouble for it. I don’t know what makes you think you can be allowed to do it.” It was half past three in the morning and Hansie was sitting at the dining table, armed with a pencil and a calculator and surrounded by sheets of paper. “What are you doing?”

“Ach, I could not sleep. I did not wish to wake you.”

“Well, I’m not allowed to work in the middle of the night, so your explanation had better be good. What are you doing?”

“I was trying to work out how we could take £20000 off the value of the house.”

I gaped at him. “Hansie, we can’t. If we drop that far, we can’t buy yours. Can’t. Can not. Not possible. And anyway, this one is worth more than that, all the valuers said so.”

“If nobody wants to buy at that price, then the price is too high, Timmy,” he said reasonably. “I am a salesman, I know these things.”

I winced. He had a point. “You heard what the woman from Marks Christie said. It’s not the pricing, it’s the time. All the estate agents said the same thing: they could get us the price but it might take a little longer.”

“Timmy, we have not got a little longer. Helen cannot wait much longer. She needs us to commit. It is Fran, or it is admitting to Helen that we cannot have her house.”

“And it’s not Fran. I’m not best pleased with you about that, Hansie. Fran told you two weeks ago that she wasn’t going to offer on the house, and she told you why. I know that none of it is coming out the way you want. We can’t have Helen’s house, Fran can’t have this one. You know she’s looking at flats on Elmore Avenue now. And I told you to leave it alone. Fran didn’t like being pressed about it, I could see that. She wants this house and she can’t afford it and it wasn’t kind of you to give her the third degree about what she could afford. She came damn close to telling you to mind your own business, and she’d have been within her rights.

“Ach but Tim, she will have to pay £125000 for one of those flats, and it is half the size of this!”

“And is that the point? She’s got £125000, Hansie, or she can get it. So she can have a flat in Elmore Avenue. She hasn’t got £145000.”

“Timmy, look. Fran did not come to us through the estate agent, so we do not need to allow for the fee. That is £1900. We take the house off the market, we sell privately. And then there is what we have allowed for the removal company. We are going what? Ten miles? Fran has the lorry and a licence to drive it. So what we need then is muscle to pack things and unpack them. Phil will help, and Piet, and I can get the boys from the club. They will do it for beer money. They will move Fran too, so she will not need. . .”

I interrupted him. “Hansie! £20000. Listen to the words, Hansie. Listen to the numbers. You can deduct a couple of hundred here and there. You can’t make it into £20000.”

His shoulders slumped and he dropped his head into his hands. “No. No, I cannot. I am chasing butterflies, ja nee? Houses in Spain.” (“Castles,” I said absently.) “We cannot do it. We must” he swallowed convulsively, “we must call Helen and tell her we cannot do it. It is not fair, not courteous, to keep her waiting any longer. And hey, there will be other houses, ja nee? We can keep this one on the market, and when we sell, we can go into rented for a few months until we see what we would like.”

I opened my mouth to tell him why that was a bad idea – the mortgage people get all agitated if you want to clear a mortgage completely and then take out a new one three months later – and hadn’t the heart. He wanted Helen’s house, wanted it with a single-mindedness which I couldn’t remember seeing in him before. I ached to be able to give it to him. I had been prepared to go to Jim and ask him if he could help us with a bridging loan, until he had mentioned while we were discussing the development plans for the business over the lunch table one Sunday that all his cash was going to be tied up in one for months. I had even – this will tell you how desperate I was – I had even wondered about asking Phil to lend us the money.

He had it, I knew; he had had a season of mixed fortune but his profile was higher than it had been and he was doing a lot of advertising work, and I knew perfectly well that if we asked him for a loan he would be there with a suitcase full of used fivers within the hour. And I couldn’t do it. I spent an hour in the bath one night thinking about it and trying to establish in my own mind whether it was just that I didn’t want to be beholden to Phil, but I don’t think it was. It would have changed our relationship, and I didn’t need to discuss that with Hansie to know that the two big things in his life were his relationship with me, and his relationship with Phil and Piet. I wasn’t going to do anything to shake that. No house was worth that.

“Sweetheart, we’ll leave it until Monday. The weather forecast is good for the weekend, and you know all the estate agents say they sell more on a sunny day than a wet one. So we’ll give it one more weekend, and if there’s no interest, we’ll call Helen on Monday.”

Ja, O.K. Monday. Come, I will come back to bed. And you will not tell Piet that I have been up in the middle of the night doing my sums; I have no wish to be spanked by him, and you are right, you are not permitted to do it, so no more am I.” He smiled at me, but it didn’t reach his eyes, and I longed to comfort him, except that I thought that if I made any more of his disappointment, he wouldn’t be able to bear it.

I don’t believe in coincidences, except when I do. Copper stuff. When we break a case through sheer luck, you’ll never hear us admit it. Good coppering, that’s what does it, and hard work. Never expecting anything just to happen because it happens. My first sergeant was a good Catholic and he told me that the patron saint of policemen was Michael the Archangel (I looked it up later, and it’s true) who was a protector of innocents and a soldier, and that like all military men he liked to see you put in the hours and work for what you wanted, and that he helped the copper who did the blood, sweat and tears thing. Mind you, six months later they busted him because most of the blood belonged to the young man who had ‘fallen down the stairs on the way to the cells’ and damn near busted me by association. I’m occasionally more inclined to go with the Chicago police who chose Saint Jude for their patron, he being commonly known as the patron saint of lost causes and hopeless cases.

Coincidences, though. I’ll take them when they come but I don’t read anything out of the ordinary in them, and I don’t ever expect to come across anything useful on account of one. Still, maybe the question of everybody moving had come up on a celestial list of hopeless cases, because it sure as hell wasn’t happening, and maybe the fact that Hansie and I had both bust a gut trying to find a way of getting Fran out of that flat and into Hansie's house counted for something in our favour. I will say in Hansie's defence that although he wanted that house sold so that he could have the other one he had set his heart on, he wanted Fran out of the flat for her own sake, and not just for his own selfish reasons.

So what did we have? We had me picking up my post before I went out to work, stuffing it in my pocket and taking it with me. And then first cup of coffee (Tim won’t drink my coffee – I make copper coffee, which is like drinking diesel but keeps me going all day. It’s probably not surprising I have a delicate stomach), pile of today’s paperwork, start the day. I started with my own stuff: it’s all junk mail these day, or nearly so. Offer of a credit card I didn’t need. Offer of car insurance I didn’t need. Begging letter from charity I had never heard of. Letter starting ‘dear householder’ which I almost didn’t read, assuming it to be more junk.

Well, it was junk, of a sort.

‘Dear householder,


Following the successful development of Andersen Way and the Yarmouth estate, Raven Collingwood is looking for similar properties in the area of Grandisson Close, Grandisson Avenue and Melliwood Road. The company is prepared to offer a competitive market price for any property in this area, contingent on completion within no more than three months of the date of this letter. Furthermore, Raven Collingwood is prepared to pay all reasonable legal and survey fees relating to the transfer of ownership of such properties.

Further details may be obtained from Pamela de Niro on the above number, or by writing to our registered address.’

Not a lot of use to me. I wouldn’t be averse to selling that nasty little house I was living in but this was an expensive part of the world and I couldn’t afford anything else if I did sell it, so I crumpled up the letter and flicked it towards the bin. It bounced off the wall and missed – all my shots at the bin do, I have no eye for ball games, never have had. At the end of the day I have to pick up a small ton of paper and move it from the carpet into the bin. So I swigged a bit more of the coffee (Rosie Collier was always trying to get me to drink herbal tea and telling me it would be better for my health, which it probably would, but I’ve never found one which didn’t taste of hot hay), and picked up the first of the less-than-thrilling papers which had materialised on my desk overnight.

It was about an hour and a half before I got to the important one: the ‘what’s going on locally’ internal newsletter. I glanced through the who’s in, who’s out column, as usual. Sergeant Trevor retiring, I’d have to contribute to a present, he’s a good copper. Detective Constable Murray going on maternity leave, ditto. Chief Inspector Meekin taking a promotion and going to Kent, they were welcome to him, he’s a bastard. Capable officer, but a bastard. Detective Inspector Greaves moving to Yorkshire, don’t think I know her, she worked in. . . Oh. Now that was interesting. She was Bateman’s boss. I’d never met her, she’d been on a training course when I was up there. Who was coming to replace her? Nobody listed.

I let that stew at the back of my mind for the rest of the morning, and then I reached for the phone. Superintendent Graham was willing to take my call.

“No, we haven’t got a replacement for Sarah. It will be advertised internally, same as usual. Why? Are you interested?”

“I. . . might be. I’m not sure. I’d have to think about it.”

“Do. Obviously we’d have to go through all the usual procedures, but I think you would have a good chance of getting it if you wanted. It’ll be on the board next week.”

So then I thought about that too.

We didn’t have a flicker of interest in the house over the weekend. None. And on Sunday night, I finished clearing up in the kitchen and said, “Hansie. . .”

Ja, I know. I will ring Helen in the morning.”

“Sweetheart. . .”

“Ach, Tim, it is not so important. It was a house, is all. There are others. We will leave this one on the market and I will call Helen and tell her not to wait for us. You never know, we may yet have an offer here before she sells, but we cannot ask her to wait any more.”

“No. I’m so sorry, love, I know you want that house.”

Ja, well, we do not always get what we want.”

He went into the living room and threw himself into the armchair, and I swore under my breath. The trouble was that so much of Hansie's life had involved not being allowed what he wanted, and I wanted to make so much up to him, and I hated it when I couldn’t. I went after him and leaned over the back of the chair to kiss the nape of his neck. I can’t do that when he’s standing up, I’m not tall enough, and it always make him shiver. I leaned over his shoulder to rest my cheek against his, and draped my arms down his chest, and he turned his head to find my mouth.

“You are going to take my mind off it?”

“Well, I could do.”


I drew my fingernails very lightly over his shirt and his shoulders flexed slightly when I reached a nipple, so I circled on it.

“How about like this?”

Ja, I like it so far. What do you do for an encore?” So I went on doing that, and presently I unfastened a couple of buttons to be able to do it more easily, and then I unfastened some more things, and then the phone rang. Well, I wasn’t answering it: when I was growing up, Mary had some very strong opinions on the undesirability of talking with your mouth full. And Hansie wasn’t answering it because Hansie was past coherent speech. But the answer-phone wasn’t turned on, because I can never get to it within the four rings allowed, so I turn it off as soon as I come in, and it rang for ages. Still, we had better things to do and. . . and that was Hansie's bloody mobile ringing. And he wasn’t answering that either. After ten rings, that went over to the message service, and fifteen seconds after that, mine started.

And Hansie pulled free of me, his ardour much diminished, and said, “Here God, just answer the damn thing. Somebody is not going away.”

I scrabbled in my pocket for the thing and peered at the screen. “It’s Fran. I hope nothing’s wrong. . . Fran? What is it?”

“Tim. I was wondering where you were on a Sunday night. . . Listen, have you had anything on the house?”

She interrupted. . . um, that. . . to talk about houses? Humour her. Get rid of her. “Not a sausage. We’re going to ring Helen tomorrow and withdraw.”

“Don’t do that yet. Can you wait until tomorrow night?”

“Suppose so. Why?”

“Nick hasn’t seen upstairs.”

All right, I was very slow. Look, most of the blood flow hadn’t yet returned to my brain.”

“Nick hasn’t? Has he thought of a way for you to afford it?”

“Yes. Only. . . Hansie may not like it, Tim. He can have his house and I can have yours - if Nick has a half share.”


Idris the Dragon

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