Officer Down

They wouldn't shut up until we wrote this, and they all insisted on having their say, even Bateman who has kept his mouth shut and his wits about him until now, and really you have no idea what it's like when your characters get out of control and start Topping you. So there's a lot of this story, and as a result you'll probably find it less confusing if you start here, then go on to Officer Resurgat and then An Officer and some Gentlemen

We don’t like it when an officer gets hurt.

Well, I don’t suppose that would surprise you too much. But we don’t like it, and this was a bad one. Undercover op in a factory on one of those scuzzy little trading estates which spring up on the outside of any large town and which are all white and uPVC for two years and then they’re corrugated iron and boarded windows. This one was handling stolen goods; look, we’re not in court now, O.K.? So skip the ‘you can’t prove that’ stuff. We can. We’re going to. People are going down for long stretches based on this op, but if you want to know the story you’ll take it as it is without the ‘innocent until proved guilty’ chat. Yes, in law they are, and I’ve been busting a gut for a month to make sure that we’d got enough to do the ‘proved guilty’ bit, and we’re going to get on a lot faster if you just take my word for it. Guilty as sin, the whole damned lot of them. Proceeds of several armed robberies to be accounted for.

Anyway, we needed somebody on the inside, and somebody was Inspector Maitland. He’s good at undercover; he can manage to be completely insignificant and unthreatening, and for Chrissakes, people tell him things. He just stands there, looking a bit stupid and a bit friendly, and it’s like the villains in James Bond films – they explain all the details of their fiendish plot and he murmurs ‘wow, how clever,’ and then they carry out the fiendish plot and suddenly they’re nicked and they haven’t usually got the first idea how the trick was done.

He’d been two months working in that factory. This wasn’t at home, we were on secondment to Malpersham, 50 miles from our home station so that he wouldn’t be likely to be known; I was along to do the paperwork and liaison. I’ve done worse: at least we got weekends off and to go home nights. He was working on a packing line, sending out cheap toiletries – bubble bath which was mostly washing up liquid, bars of soap where the wrapper cost more than the contents, that sort of stuff. Cheapskate stuff but nothing illegal about it, mind. He complained that he went home every night smelling like a whore’s handbag. He hated that, although he made a joke of it, but he’s fastidious as my wife’s cat, Nick Maitland. You won’t see him squeeze a second day from a white shirt, and if we’re working late and everybody takes fifteen minutes to clear their heads, he doesn’t go outside for a fag and a coffee, he wants to shave and wash his face. Anyway, he’d got what we wanted: we already knew that every so often one of those boxes labelled Mango Shampoo actually contained stolen jewellery; what we wanted to know was where it was going, and he got that for us.

So we went after hours to bust them, and the whole fucking thing went tits up. It was plain bad luck; we were putting officers all round the building, we were about two minutes off blowing the whistle and going in, and a couple of brain-dead chavs in stolen cars suddenly came belting into the car park. Street racing. Like I said, plain bad luck; the boys and girls in Traffic had been working on street racing for a month and had broken up a gang of youths over on the other side of town, and it seemed they were looking for somewhere else to go. They did a couple of handbrake turns in the loading bay and went screeching off again, some bloke in the factory threw the door open to see what all the noise was about, and there were three uniformed plods bang in the lighted patch, not a damn thing we could do about it.

Well, the Superintendent running the show did what she could, blew the whistle and set us off early, and one of the plods had the wit to fall on the guy in the doorway before he could yell more than once, but we’d lost the advantage and we knew it. Instead of a nice quiet wander through the factory, arresting folk one at a time and seeing what the hell was going on, we had a chase like something from a cartoon, lights on and off, coppers running into each other, somebody getting an iron bar across his wrist, and generalised bloody mayhem. I saw Nick Maitland running and set off after him but he’s a deal younger than me, and I was never a runner, even in my youth. I saw him barrel out through the fire door, and he made his collar, handcuffed some nasty little villain, and turned with his hand on the man’s shoulder to push him back in through the door.

And that’s the last bit I’m sure of. I’m going to have to sort it out in my head, because I’ll be asked to make a statement about it. If you ask me, it was a whole-hearted murder attempt; if you ask me again, they’ll never make that stick. What actually happened is that one of the gang got out through the front door with Hayes and Whitcomb following him, hopped into his car and gunned it for the exit, and bang in the way was Nick Maitland and one collared victim. He didn’t even slow, the bastard, didn’t turn the wheel or anything. No lights, but somebody had had the wit to turn on all the squad car headlights, and they could be seen well enough. Nick got what was happening and thrust his villain between the shoulders, throwing him out of the way and bolting for the steps, but the bastard in the car revved it and then it all went slow motion.

I have not the least doubt that the little fucker recognised him and meant to kill him, and if he didn’t it’s because somewhere there’s a God who knows that we need men like Maitland. He’s fast, which is what saved him, but the car was one of those big Chelsea tractors with sodding bull bars on, so when it hit him, it caught him in the back, and he spun off it like a rag doll, squarely into the wall, and rebounded just in time for the car to hit him again and throw him back onto the steps.

Well, if it had been mayhem before it was worse after because about six of our people had seen it. The toe-rag in the car was yanked out and charged (I’m not sure what with, and frankly I didn’t care); Whitcomb took charge of getting rid of the rest of the gang, and I was on the radio for an ambulance. Yes, we do actually say the thing about ‘officer down’. And I don’t know if it makes any difference to the 999 call, but there was an ambulance there shit fast, and they had Nick Maitland on a backboard and heading for Casualty, and I went with him. Oh yes, and the constable with the broken wrist, I’d forgotten him. Everybody forgot the poor sod, he had to look after himself and go home afterwards in a taxi.

It was a horrible ride in the ambulance; Nick was conscious on and off, but there was blood absolutely everywhere from a wallop on his head, and he was hellish confused. The paramedics plainly didn’t like the look of him: we went the whole way with the siren on and one of the medics on the radio calling out some sort of SWAT team or whatever medics have. When Nick came round for the second time, he said rather vaguely “Fran? Oh God, I’m going to have such a migraine. Fran?”

The medic looked over at me and raised his eyebrows, and I leaned over to get myself in Nick’s line of sight, but his eyes were shut. “Nick? Can you hear me?”

“Who’s that?”

“John. Sergeant Bateman. Nick? When we get to the hospital, I’ll call Fran Milton for you.”

He grunted, but I don’t know that he took it in, and I didn’t get a chance to do it straight away. We went through Casualty like a dose of salts, with some terrifyingly efficient woman taking the statement at top speed of what I thought I had seen – I couldn’t have done it better myself. By the time I’d done, they’d got Nick on all sorts of wires and monitors and tubes and what all, half his clothes cut off him and the rest sodden with blood. The terrifying woman came back.

“We’re going to take him for X rays and a scan. Will you wait?”

“I’ll call his partner first, I’ve got his mobile. Can I wait here?”

She nodded. “You know you can’t use a mobile in here, but if you go through that way, there’s a fire door. There’ll be one of the porters having a fag, there always is, who can let you out and in.”

There was, and I flipped open Nick’s phone. It’s the same as mine, so it wasn’t hard to find Fran Milton’s number, but her mobile was turned off, and when I tried both their home number and something marked ‘Fran studio’ I got machines both times. I went on trying every five minutes and then wandering back in to see if Nick was back from X ray, for what felt like bloody hours, until the doctor came back in.

“Sergeant? They’ve taken him to Intensive Care. Third floor, turn left from the lifts.”

“What did you find?”

“Hard to tell. They’ve stopped the bleeding, but they’re going to keep him on the spinal board until they can get the plates developed. I reckon they’ll knock him out overnight to stop him trying to move. Did you get his partner?”

“No. I got the station, they’ll send somebody to the house for her. Ought I… Should I call his parents?”

She hesitated. “I… It might be wise.”

Fuck. I had been hoping for an answer of ‘no, no need, we’ll let him go in the morning, he’s going to have a headache like nothing on earth.’ I went off to Intensive Care with a decided sick feeling.

They let me in to see him. He looked like shit: he was awake but in pain and confused as all hell still.

“Nick? I can’t reach Fran Milton. Diana’s gone to the house, but do you know where she’s likely to be?”

He muttered something which I didn’t get; I asked him to say it again, but he was drifting, I think, he’d lost it. I tried again. “Nick? Do you want me to call your parents?”

That got a reaction. “No! Absolutely not. Anyway, thurrr…”

“They’re not there? Who should I call, Nick? Or who might know where to find Fran Milton?”

He roused again, but it was obviously an effort and the nurse with her eye on the monitor was beginning to look disapproving.


“Who, Nick?”

“My brother. Get my brother.”

Shit. He hasn’t got a brother, I was fuck-sure of that. I opened my mouth and the nurse, who looked about 17, glared at me. I had a better idea and opened his phone again.

“You can’t use that in here!”

Fuck! I slammed it shut and sprinted for the lifts. Outside in the car park I called up his address book and went looking for ICE.

Do you know ICE? East Anglian ambulance service started it, I think. You put contacts in your mobile address book marked ICE for ‘in case of emergency’. They recommend that you have more than one: I’ve got my wife, my son and the station. Nick had Fran Milton, his father, the station and somebody called ICE Hansie.

See, I’m not a detective for nothing.

Whoever this Hansie was, he at least was answering his phone, and apart from one exclamation which I didn’t quite catch (when I met him I worked out that it probably wasn’t English), he didn’t waste time with too many questions, other than the ones which made sense. Which hospital? No, he didn’t know the town. North or south side of the river? He would come at once. No, he didn’t know where Fran Milton was likely to be, but he would send somebody who knew her well to wait with the officer at the house and to bring her here.

And then I went back upstairs and I sat with Nick Maitland and I waited. They’d got him in a side room on his own, and he looked like shit. He was still covered in blood, and they’d basically cut the rest of his clothes off him and covered him with a sheet; the room was far too hot for my liking, presumably to stop him chilling, and there were monitors everywhere and a nurse taking his vital signs every ten minutes. I know enough not to ask damnfool questions, but I didn’t at all like the look on her face.

This Hansie arrived an hour later. He’s a big man; I’m not asking any questions about big men known to Fran Milton and Nick Maitland. As the Milton woman said, she knows rugby players and cricket players and policemen; she knows big men. Any way, he came in more quietly than you would expect for somebody that size, and he didn’t even glance at me to start with, he was straight over to Nick. And then he gagged audibly – funny, he didn’t look the type to be squeamish about blood, but you can never tell. I’ve known a tiny WPC who collected china teddy bears save a man’s life by getting a tourniquet on his thigh and hanging onto it despite ending up drenched in his blood; I’ve known a 15 stone copper faint because he stuck a staple in his thumb. He gagged, and I glanced round for a basin or something, and then he sobbed, just once. Very odd, but unmistakeable. Then I saw him get a grip on himself, and he muttered something under his breath, and stepped back and looked round and saw me.

“No, I am Hans van den Broek, and you are Sergeant Bateman, hey? What do they say?”

They’d said bugger all actually. We had a go at getting something from the nurse when she came again, but she wasn’t having any, so this Hansie sat down on the other side of the bed from me and we waited together. Then the doctor came and we got booted out for a bit, and I sat in the corridor and Hansie paced up and down, looking pretty much like shit himself.

And then the swing doors opened and the Milton woman shot through them with another man behind her, and Hansie reached out and caught her and said firmly, “You must wait, Fran, the doctor is in with him. It will not be long,” although how he would have known whether it would be long or not, I don’t know. It felt like fucking hours. The doctor came out again, and eyed us all up and down, and Fran Milton said faintly, “Can I see him now?”

She’d got a grip on Hansie’s hand and I could see his skin going white, so she must have been hurting him, but he didn’t flinch. The doctor frowned, and asked, “Are you his partner?” and she nodded.

“You can go and sit with him, if you like. No more than two of you. We’re waiting for results from X ray; they’ll only be preliminaries, we won’t get a full report until tomorrow. Then we’ll decide what we’re going to do tonight.”

We absorbed that for a moment, and then Fran Milton made for the door, and the rest of us looked at each other. The other man got in first.

“Hansie, if she’s staying (and I doubt you’ll get her out), I think you should stay too. And look, should somebody call Nick’s parents?”

“I asked him when he was still conscious,” I said, “and he said no.”

They both looked at me, and then Hansie said, with dawning awareness, “They are not here. Do you remember, Tim? He said his parents had gone on a cruise to celebrate some anniversary. Ach, Glories of the Ancient World, or some such name, with that man who does the history programmes for the BBC. They were going to be away a month, I think.”

“What about his sister?” asked the other man. Tim, was it? “She’s not a Maitland, at least I presume she’s not, she’s married. Do we know where she lives? And her surname?”

Hansie shook his head. “I am sure I have heard it but I do not recall. She lives in Essex somewhere, though, I think, and her husband is a teacher and she is a physiotherapist, is that right?”

Tim nodded. “Grays, that’s where she lives, and Fran must know her surname, surely. I think she ought to be called, Hansie.”

I put my oar in. “I’ve got his mobile; she’ll be on that, probably. What’s her first name? Do you know?”

“Karen, I think.”

“Do you want to ask Miss Milton if she thinks we should call? I’ll do it if she wants.”

Hansie went in to ask; Fran Milton came out and held out her hand to me. “I’ll do it. Give me the phone.”

I moved a bit down the corridor while she did it, ignoring the rules about no phones inside; she’s got guts enough, I suppose, and I had to feel sorry for her, although I don’t like her much. It didn’t take long; she folded up the phone and said shortly, “She’s coming.” Then she vanished back inside and Tim put a hand out to stop Hansie, who was about to follow.

“Listen, Hansie, the doctor said only two. You and Fran stay, and when Karen comes you can decide amongst yourselves what’s best to do. She’ll have her car, I suppose, and you’ve got yours; Sergeant, how did you get here?”

“In the ambulance.”

“Then can I take you back to Barchester? Unless you want to stay on your own account, that is. Have you to go back and report, or anything, or can you go home?”

“I phoned in; if you would drop me in Lambwell Green, that’s where I live.”

“Shall we do that then? We’re not going to do any good all of us hanging about, as long as there’s somebody to support Fran.”

Hansie agreed mutedly. “I wish Pete were here. He would be better for Fran than either of us.”

“Well, they’re… he’s in Italy for the next fortnight; we can call him tomorrow when… when we know what’s happening. Listen, if anything changes, call me, O.K.?”

I’m nosy, I admit it. All detectives are. I spent the trip home trying to establish how those two knew Fran Milton. I know a bender when I see one, and Tim was obviously that way inclined, although he wasn’t at all effeminate, and nor was Hansie, despite them plainly being a couple. I’m not stupid, either; I’m not dumb enough to decide just because the Milton woman is weird and Nick Maitland seems to like it that way, that it ties them up with a couple of gay boys. Tim turned out to be part of the Hamilton’s set up and he claimed that the link was through him and the Milton woman taking publicity photographs for the company; he’s a lousy and unconvincing liar. Still, no reason for me to know other than my own curiosity, and he couldn’t disguise a real concern for both Nick and Fran Milton.

I’d like to know, though.

I was stupefied with worry and weariness when I went home; it made me clumsy. I tiptoed up the stairs in the hope of not waking Tim, and then somehow misjudged the entrance to the bedroom and fell into the wardrobe. He sat up and put the light on: he sleeps always much more lightly than I do.

“What time is it?”

I glanced at my watch. “Just past four.”

“What’s happening?”

“They have sedated him and they threw us out.”

“For God’s sake, you didn’t just take Fran home and leave her, Hansie? Why on earth did you not bring her here?”

“Of course I did not! I am not a complete fucking idiot!” I snapped back, a little louder than I needed. “Sorry. Sorry. Karen came; she is going to stay with Fran. I asked if they would rather come here, but they would not. The doctor said they could go back at ten, after the consultant had done his visit.”

“Consultant? Which – what sort of consultant? Spinal injuries?”

I shook my head, although that too had been my first idea. I suppose for anyone who has had much to do with rugby, spinal injuries are what we fear.

“Neuro… I forget. Neuro something. They are worried by the first views of the scan and the X ray.” I sat down heavily on the bed. “Tim, you did not see him. When I went in, his head was taped up, but you could see that it was badly cut, and his face is all bruised and swollen, and there was blood everywhere, so much blood…” and suddenly I could not bear it, suddenly all the blood and the fear rose in me, and I choked and ran for the bathroom and flung myself down to vomit. I heard Tim scramble out of bed and a moment later he came after me, fastening his dressing gown, and kneeling down beside me to rub my back and to murmur to me gently as I retched again and again. “Oh God, Tim, my broer Nick all covered in blood…” and I knew that Tim understood, he knew that I had seen another man I loved with his head covered in blood and worse, and how much I feared that I would lose my brother a second time. He rubbed at me, and presently he brought me a glass of water.

“Come on, Hansie, brush your teeth and get ready for bed. And…” but I interrupted him harshly.

“Tim? I have not yet told you the worst bit.”

He sat back on his heels and stared at me, his eyes round with fear, and I let myself slip sideways until I was leaning on the wall. I could not hold off any longer from telling him the rest; I could not pretend that it was not true simply by refusing to say it out loud. “Nick came round, briefly, while we were there, before they sedated him again. They do not want him to be able to move.” I was putting off telling him still, and he knew it; he reached for my hand and squeezed it. “They tried to tell us it was not necessarily significant, but I could see the doctor was worried. Tim, he could not see.”

He shuddered, and I heard a long intake of breath as he absorbed it. “Did they say anything about it? About how serious it is?”

“The doctor said it happens occasionally with head trauma. He tried to say that we should not worry about it, that most likely it would sort itself within a day or two, but he could not deny that sometimes it does not. I am not sure if I understood it but I think they said swelling inside the skull putting pressure on the optic nerve? Does that sound right?”

Tim had a puzzled look of extreme concentration. “I’ve heard of it before, I think. It happened to a footballer a year or so back; I remember reading about it. But they don’t know how serious it is?”

I shook my head.

“Then we won’t despair yet, Hansie. Think about it; until they get all his scans and x-rays and things, they can’t possibly know how much damage there is, and it must surely be a good thing that he was coming round, however briefly.” I was far from sure that this was true, but I nodded. There was nothing to be gained by going over and over every possible dreadful outcome. No, Tim was right, we should not despair quite yet. I got up, wearily, and reached for my toothbrush; my mouth tasted horrible.

“Listen, pet, what about a cup of tea?” asked Tim.  “Or could you drink hot milk? You’re shivering, and it’s damn cold up here.”

“It is just me, I think, not actually cold, but yes, I would like a cup of tea. Not milk, I think it would make me sick again.”

“You get to bed then and I’ll bring you one.”

Later, in the dark, he said quietly, “We’ll call Jim first thing and tell him you won’t be in tomorrow. If you set off for the hospital at nine, you’ll miss the worst of the traffic and you’ll be there when Fran hears what they think, or just after. Just after would be better; she’ll have Karen there and too many people is maybe a bad idea. It won’t hurt for you to miss the inter-departmental meeting for once. I’ll tell Mike to go. What else is in your diary tomorrow?”

“Paperwork. That is a good thought; Mike would know what was to be done and he could get it all in a folder for me, and you could bring it home. I would be no slower doing it here. Although if Fran needs me…”

“If Fran needs you, somebody else will cope with the paperwork. Let’s face it, I could probably do half of it. In fact, that’s not a bad idea. There’s nothing on my desk which won’t wait until next week, so I’ll go over and cover for you; I bet between us Mike and I can do most of your work and we’ll get Jim to O.K. it and just put off anything we can’t manage.” I worked an arm under him and pulled him close; I am aware that Tim will ask on his own account no favours at work from Jim, not ever: he is afraid still of being accused of taking advantage of the relationship. I was not very sure whether this was for me, or for Fran and Nick, but I was very grateful nonetheless that he would be prepared to swallow his pride and ask Jim let us bend the rules.

It took me over an hour to get to the hospital in the morning; St Philip Benizi Hospital in Malpersham has, I think, the worst parking problem within three counties. I allowed myself to be irritated by that as I went upstairs, because it kept my mind occupied. They had moved Nick since the middle of the night; he was no longer in the room alone, but on the main part of the ward and I hoped that was a good sign. Fran and Karen were sitting on either side of his bed and I thought Nick was asleep. He still looked dreadful: one side of his face was desperately bruised, and he was lying on his side, wedged round with pillows.

“Fran?” I spoke softly, and she got up, murmuring something to Karen, who nodded.

“Come down this way, Hansie, there’s a sort of sitting room and we can talk.”

It was a tiny room with three or four armchairs and a table littered with elderly magazines. Fran dropped wearily into one of the chairs and I sat down opposite her and took her hands.

“So tell me?”

“We’ve been here since eight; neither of us could sleep. They put us out when the doctors came round but they were very good about telling us what was happening. They’ve taken him off the backboard – no spinal damage.” I let out a breath I had not realised I was holding. “At least, nothing they can do anything about. He’s in a lot of pain, but it’s just wrenched muscles, horrendous bruising, cuts and so on: the spine itself is sound. And his skull isn’t fractured. They’ve stitched the gash in his head. As far as all that goes, they just want to keep him under observation. There’s always a risk of internal injury but they seem to think he’s got away with it.” She swallowed, and her voice quivered. “The bit nobody likes… His vision hasn’t come back. I think they were hoping that when he woke up this morning…” Her voice failed her. I had to try twice myself before any sound would come out of my mouth.

“He is conscious, then?”

“Yes. He was awake when the consultant came, apparently; he knows what they said. And he was able to talk to us for a bit. Then he fell asleep. The nurse says that’s to be expected, he’s likely just to drop off without warning for the next couple of days and we shouldn’t worry about it: she says it’s actually the best thing for him, just to sleep off the damage and let his body repair itself.”

“And how are you, Fran?”

“Me? I’m O.K., I suppose. I didn’t sleep much, and I don’t think Karen did either. She wanted to call her parents but Nick actually got quite agitated and in the end she had to promise not to. I think his mum’s been looking forward to this cruise for years: they promised it to themselves ages ago. And I suppose… it’s not as if they could do anything, they might as well have their holiday and enjoy it.” She looked white and tired. “Come and see him, Hansie.”

I stood at the end of the bed and looked at my brother. Somebody had clipped his hair to put stitches in his head, and it was all uneven over his temple; he was grey with bruises. His sister stirred a little in the chair beside him. She looked in no way better than Fran, and she rubbed her face the way I have seen Nick do when he is weary; suddenly she looked very like him and my breath caught. I recovered myself quickly.

“Listen, you were here early, hey? Why do you not go downstairs to the cafe and have something to eat and I will sit here with Nick? He will not be alone if he wakes and if anything – ” that was not going quite right. “If he wants you I will come and fetch you.”

Karen stared at me for a moment – here God, but she is like her brother, that is just how he looks when he makes a decision very fast! – and got up from the chair. “That’s a good idea, Fran. I need the loo, and we could both do with some coffee. You don’t mind staying?”

“I am quite willing to stay as long as you like. Ach, go, Fran, go on. I will come for you if you are needed.”

I think she might have argued, but Karen took her arm and led her off, and I took Karen’s seat and watched over Nick. He was still wired to all sorts of machines and tubes, and presently he began to shift uncomfortably. It may have set off an alarm somewhere, because a nurse appeared almost at once to take readings from the monitor and to pencil results on a clipboard. She came up beside me and spoke to me in an undertone.

“Have the other two gone home?”

I shook my head. “Only for coffee and a break. I said I would go for them if… if it became necessary.”

“Do you know him?”

Ja, very well.”

“Good. He’s likely to wake up disoriented.” She stood and looked at him for a moment and then she leaned over and said, softly, “Are you awake, Mr Maitland?”

He moaned, a horrible sound, and she glanced at me, and mouthed, “Speak to him.”

“Nick? Are you awake, boet? It is Hansie.”

His eyes opened, but there was no recognition in them. “Hansie? Oh fuck.”

The nurse smiled at me. “Now that’s no way to greet your friend, Mr Maitland. Do you remember me? Margot? How do you feel?”


“Worse than earlier?”


Ach, it was breaking my heart, but the nurse seemed unconcerned. “What’s hurting?”

“Back. Hip. Head. Same as before.”

“Not worse?”

“Don’t think so.”

“That’s good. Now I’m just going to get someone to help me and I’ll give you something for the pain, and we’ll turn you over and make you easier.”

He grunted and his eyelashes dropped, and she nodded at me and sped off in that odd hasty walk nurses learn.


I put my hand down on his, just so that he should know I was there. “Yes, boet. Fran and Karen have just gone to get something to eat, and here is your nurse again.” She had another woman with her, and they put their heads together over his chart and a tray with a syringe on it, obviously to check that it was the correct thing. Then they pulled the curtains round the bed, and the second nurse (“Mr Maitland? I’m Donna”) lifted the bedcovers gently away. “I will get out of the way, boet, I will come back when they are done here.”

“No!” His hand twisted under mine and he grabbed weakly at my fingers. The nurse shook her head at me sharply.

“It’s all right, no need, you stay where you are if he wants you. Now, Mr Maitland, I’ll just do your injection and we’ll… that’s it.”

I had felt him start, my Nick who had fought me by the river, and taken without flinching the worst punches I could throw at him, the man who played in clubs into which I would never dare go, wincing at a hypodermic.

“Now, let go a moment, Mr Maitland and we’ll turn you.” She turned a fierce face on me and mouthed “Talk!” and I stepped out of her way and babbled something inane about how he should just let them sort him out and he would feel better, and that I would stay until Karen and Fran came back. The second nurse straightened the bedclothes and smiled at me approvingly, and trotted away, and Margot picked up a cup, like an infant’s beaker with a plastic straw in it, and brought it round the bed.

“Would you like a little water now? Come on, just a sip or two?”

He tried but his head dropped back wearily and she let it go. “Now, the buzzer is here,” it was a button on a wire and she put it under his pillow and guided his hand to it, “that’ll call me if you need anything. Comfortable?”

His mouth moved, I think in an attempt at a smile. “Better.”

“Good. That jab will kick in shortly, and you’ll be easier then.” She slipped away around the curtain, not bothering to draw it back.


Ja, I am still here.”

“Reputation shot this time.”

I turned that over. “Whose reputation?”

“Mine. Fran’s. Played Saturday in the club. Marks. Bloody doctors and nurses. Never live it down.”

“Ah, I see. Well, I do not suppose they have never heard of it. Has anybody said anything?”

“No. Can’t ask Fran how obvious it is, Karen’s always there.” He sounded more worried than I cared to hear.

“I doubt it would bother the doctors,” I said, as comfortingly as I could, although I knew what he meant. I know that Piet is always careful to consider what matches Phil has in the next few days before he allows them to play. And this was unlike Nick: his colleagues must at the least suspect (and some of them indeed know) what he does, so why he should care what strangers in a hospital knew I did not see.

“Bothers me.” That was only a whisper.

“Well, but…” There was nothing to be done about it – except possibly to lie. “You wish that I should look? You would be more comfortable to know one way or the other?”


So I eased the covers away from his back, listening all the time for the nurse coming back, and pulled his pyjamas clear of his hip – and gasped.

“Wha’? Obvious?”

I tucked him tidily in again. “Nick, you need have no fears. You are so comprehensively bruised from whatever you hit that no one would suspect anything else. There is one straight line which might be from a strap, but equally might be from the edge of the step or the bumper. I know what I am looking for and I could not tell. No one else will be able to tell either.” And that, thank God, was the truth. He was so damaged, so injured all down his back and side that there would be no telling how he had done it, and if maybe some of the bruises were yellower than you would expect for their age, well, bruises last as they last, ja nee?

He sighed, and I saw him relax a little. “Water?”

I held the cup for him; he took only a very little. “Now, boet, do you wish to go to sleep again?”

“No. Talk to me?” His hand quested an inch or so on the blanket, and he opened those sightless eyes again. His voice quivered a little. “Boring being in bed.”

Ja, boet, and frightening too, no doubt, to be in the dark and not to know when or even if the light would return. Without thinking, I took his hand in mine. “Well, then, you know that the Gryphons are in Italy? Phil is to play…”

It was on the Friday evening, and a wet, raw, miserable end to a day that had never got properly light, that I met Sergeant Bateman again, coming out of the hospital as I was going in. He worries me a bit: he’s a very shrewd cookie, and the journey home had been awkward, with him asking some very pointed questions and me trying to avoid the Lie Direct about just what the relationship was between all of us. But he looked a lot more cheerful this time. I won’t go so far as to say he was actually smiling, because I suspect he’s one of those men who’ve forgotten how, but definitely an air of cheer.

“Hello, Sergeant.”

“Mr Creed. Are you here to visit Nick Maitland?”


“You’ll find him sitting up. The doctors are pleased enough with his progress to be making plans to move him nearer to home.”

“Oh, that’s fantastic news. To the Lufton?”

“Yes. Make visiting easier, at any rate. And your friend,” he put a slight stress on the word, “will be able to come home more easily in between.”

Come home, notice, not go home. Oh, Bateman knew what the score was all right, and he was letting me know it. I had a feeling that Sergeant Bateman was less bothered by men who took it up the bum than men who tried to lie to him.

“I hope so,” I said as coolly as I could. “But Nick has been a good friend to him in the past, and I’m sure Hansie would want to be there to help even if the distance was twice as great.” There, make what you can of that, Sergeant. “Nice to see you.” Which was another lie, but a social one.

Something quirked at the corner of Bateman’s mouth – careful, that was almost a smile. But all he said was “Good night, sir,” and vanished into the mouth of the drizzling dark.

In the ward Hansie and Fran were sitting by Nick’s bed, talking quietly. You couldn’t miss Nick’s bed. It was the one where every surrounding surface was covered with flowers. You smelled them half way down the ward. Freesias from us. Carnations and pinks from Jim and Mary. A big bunch of the most beautiful lilies from an expensive florist with a discreet card from ‘P & P’. A huge bouquet from Malpersham police and another from Nick’s own station at Barchester.  A windowsill and two lockers had had to be pressed into service to hold them all. An unexpectedly sober looking arrangement from Fran had pride of place by his bed. Its dullness had surprised me when I first saw it, until I brushed against it as I sat down. Scented leaves. Lavender, lemon verbena, eucalyptus, something else that looked vaguely like rosemary but smelled wonderfully of aniseed and liquorice. Your hand kept straying to it as you sat there.

Nick was asleep. He looked awful, the bright unforgiving lights on the ward highlighting the bruises on his face, a mass of yellow through to violet – though I gathered from what Hansie had said that the rest of him looked worse. Hansie, who had taken the afternoon off and come over on the train, looked up and smiled. Fran – well a sort of spasm passed across her lips. I think it was intended as a smile; I took it as one, anyway. She seemed shrunken, somehow, as if the stress of it all had sucked some of the flesh off her bones, leaving the skin tight against them. She looked – she looked probably the way I’d look if something dreadful had happened to Hansie.

“Hi Hansie, hi Fran.” I kissed Fran, a peck on the cheek. I didn’t kiss Hansie, but only because he’s a bit uncomfortable about such things in public. “I gather the news is good. When will they move him?”

“Tomorrow, apparently,” said Fran. “The ambulance is booked for 2 pm.”

“Do you need any help? What about his stuff?”

“No. Thank you Tim, but no. They’ve said I can go in the ambulance with him, and really it’s just a few odd things here. I can pack them all in a single carrier bag. The flowers, I’m afraid, will just have to stay.”

“Where’s Karen?”

“Gone home. I persuaded her there's really nothing more she can do here, she’s been quietly worrying about leaving her husband and the kids and then feeling guilty about it, and I think it’s hard for her to get leave from her job for any length of time. I’ve promised to phone her if there’s any change in his condition. When.”

“Of course.” I thought it was a betraying slip, myself, and if she hadn’t have been so obviously tired I doubt she would have made it. But she must have thought about the possibility that Nick’s sight wouldn’t come back. So must he. They wouldn’t have been human if that question hadn’t been up there at the front of their minds.

It was Hansie who raised the topic, on the way home. I hadn’t stayed that long – just long enough to chat to Nick when he woke briefly from sleep. He sounded just the same as ever, despite the way he looked, and I’d said as much to Hansie as we negotiated the roundabouts on the outskirts of Malpersham, windscreen wipers making a methodical ‘slub-slub’ like a counterpoint to the conversation.

“Sounds the same, maybe. But he isn’t.”

“What do you mean? Is it left here?”

“Second left. I think he is – I don’t know. There is the hint of something beaten in him. I do not say he is giving up, I do not believe that. I will not believe that. But he is starting to think about how it will be if he can no longer do this thing that is his life.”

“Has anyone said anything to make him think that’s likely?”

“Of course not. But the doctors cannot hide the fact that each day that goes by without any improvement is a bad sign. I looked this up on the internet…”

“So did I. People have recovered their sight after longer periods than this.”

Ja, sure. But most have the sight come back within a day. And in most cases it is only one eye, or only a, a, a, what is the damned word, a reduction in vision, not a full loss of sight. Ach, Tim, I do not know how he will cope, if he is blind. I do not know how I will bear it, let alone him. And poor Fran.”

“Whoah, Mister. Don’t go borrowing trouble. Even if he doesn’t, well, get his full sight back,” yes, OK, I was fighting shy of the word, “I don’t think Nick is the type to be dependent. He’d make a new life. If anything the trouble would be to get him to accept any help at all. But there’s no reason to think he won’t make a full recovery.”

Ja, of course. Of course he will.”

He didn’t sound as if he believed it any more than I did.


Idris the Dragon

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