Well, we had finally done it.
The contracts had been exchanged, the last things crammed in, the favours called in from all and sundry to help us with the actual transport of our goods and gear – repaid with a truly gargantuan blowout for all concerned on trestle tables in the garden, under the burgeoning branches of the apple and cherry trees (and Phil, bless him, as well as turning up to lend some muscle, brought with him enough ham sandwiches, pasta salad, and home made chocolate cake to feed an army; I added samosas, coleslaw, potato salad, cheese and cucumber rolls, and cold chicken. It all went). The sun shone all day, and somewhere inside me it went on shining long after the light had gone, and our friends with it, as we sat, exhausted, amongst a wilderness of boxes, opened the French doors to the garden, and drank champagne for the first time in our new house.
Our house. It was something Phil had said to me when explaining why they were moving too, and for the first time I understood emotionally as well as intellectually what he had meant. There was nothing here that belonged to the past of either of us as an individual, to one of us alone. There was only whatever we would bring to it together, as a couple.
“I must go and unpack some more boxes. Hansie, when I moved into the old house everything I had went into an estate car. How did we get so many things?”
“Ja, scary, isn’t it? But leave the rest of the unpacking – there is nothing urgent now, that we cannot leave for a day or two. It will be a while, I think, before we are sorted out.”
“A while? Months, I should think. But I need to unpack some clean bed linen, at least, and make our bed, if you want to sleep tonight.”
He grinned at me, and my heart suddenly did something indescribable – a sort of waltz of happiness. He looked so – unshadowed. Uncomplicatedly, unworriedly happy. For once in his life something he wanted, craved even, had been granted to him.
“Sleep?” he said, placing a hand on my thigh. “Ja, my liefie, make the bed. It will be a lot more comfortable. But do not expect to sleep much tonight. I have other plans for you.”
I felt myself colour slightly under the sheer intensity of the look he gave me.
“van den Broek, do you think of nothing else?” I teased.
“No,” he said simply. “Only of you and what I want to do to you.”
“I’m going to make the bed before things degenerate any further and I get raped on the floor.”
I proved to be half right in my assessment. Most of the boxes did get unpacked fairly quickly, but it was ages before we grew accustomed to where we had put things. And there were a couple of rooms that rather needed redecorating, and the stuff that was to go in them was mostly left in its boxes, along with anything else we didn’t have an immediate and obvious home for, until that was done. At some point, too, I really wanted to refit the kitchen, but that had to be left until we had the cash to spare, which would take a while, particularly as I wanted to knock the back wall of the kitchen out and put a conservatory dining room on the end.
Hansie, of course, was in his element in the garden. The cottage was just under 150 years old, which counted as pretty recent in comparison with a lot of the stuff around here, and like a lot of country properties its garden had been expected to be productive as well as pretty. So we had more fruit than you could shake a stick at, as well as a vegetable patch that Helen had rather let grow wild but for which Hansie, with the delighted assistance of Jeanine (who had gardened for Helen and whom we had kept on) had big plans.
In fact it was the garden that indirectly led to me getting into such trouble.
We had a plum tree, and it was laden with plums. Don’t ask me what variety they were but they might have been some kind of damson, small and dark and tartly sweet. I vetoed the idea of making any more home-made wine, although I could see from the look on Hansie’s face that as far as he was concerned the plan was merely postponed, not abandoned. However, we needed to do something to use them up and I thought it might be nice to make a big batch of spiced plum chutney. We needed pickling vinegar and one or two other things, so I planned to go into town on Saturday and get supplies. We also needed plenty of jars, and we hadn’t nearly enough.
“Ask Phil to keep some for you,” suggested Hansie. “We could meet them in town and have lunch if they are free.”
As it turned out, they weren’t – Phil had a training session that day – but he promised that if we came in before 10 am he’d meet us in the car park of the big Tesco on the outskirts of town, and hand over any suitable jars he had in the cupboard. “Provided,” he added, “that I get one back full.”
“Koekie,” I said warningly. “Look at the time. If we are to meet Tim and still have time for me to drop you off at training, we must leave now.”
“Sorry, Piet, I’m nearly done. I just need to run a cloth over this last batch of jars.”
“Now, Phil! A few more jars are not important. Being on time to your training session is.”
He sighed. “OK, I guess they’ll have to do. Tim will probably run them all through the dishwasher again anyway before he uses them.”
“Exactly. It is nice to help out a friend, koekie, but priorities, please!”
He grinned at me. “All right, all right, we’re out the door. Can you carry the other box of jars for me?” Ach, my golden boy, he knows I can refuse him nothing when he looks like that.
“I hope this pickle of Tim’s is worth it,” I complained, not terribly seriously, as we drove. “I still do not see why we had to throw out the ends of two or three perfectly good jars of old pickle just so that someone can fill them with new.”
“Oh Piet, some of those had been there since I first met you. And the pickled onions were soft, I can’t be doing with soft pickled onions.”
“Yes, koekie, I have noticed that you take a certain pleasure in hard things.”
“If you weren’t driving. . .” he threatened. Or maybe promised.
“You disagree? We will investigate your liking for hardness, then, after your training tonight. With a hard spanking, perhaps,” I teased.
“No? Then perhaps we may be able to find something else hard that you like better.”
“You are incorrigible. And I have to go and change into kit in a minute, and unless you stop teasing me that’s going to be embarrassing all round.”
I pretended to be shocked. “Phil, what have I told you about professionalism and being able to put aside such distractions when you are working?”
Fortunately for him he was saved from having to reply by the fact that we reached the supermarket.
“I can’t see. . . oh, there they are, parked over near the trolley stand. Looks like they’ve met someone else, too. They’re talking to that old lady.”
“Where? Ah, I see. I shall pull in over here then, there are no more spaces that side.”
I drew into a convenient space and parked. As we were getting out, Hansie saw us and said something to Tim, who turned and waved, then obviously said goodbye to the older woman with whom they were talking. I saw Hansie kiss her on the cheek, then turn and start walking towards us, Tim a little behind.
I had just turned to say to Phil: “Let us get the damned pickle jars out, then,” when I heard a shout, and a sort of muffled cry, and turned back to see the old woman thrown to the ground and a youth in a hooded sweatshirt grab at her bag and run off.
There was perhaps a split second while everyone took in what had happened. You do not expect bag snatchers at 9:25 in the supermarket car park. Not here, at any rate. It is true that there are sometimes alcohol fuelled fights in the town centre, late at night, and there is the same problem with drugs you get everywhere these days, but this is not a deprived nor a particularly crime-ridden area.
Then everyone was moving. Phil was off like a greyhound, with me in hot pursuit. I heard Hansie shout ‘Tim, see that Helen is all right’ and then he was off after the boy too.
The youth in the sweatshirt had started off in our direction, but took one look at the pair of us heading for him, did a body swerve that would have done any rugby player proud, and headed between the lines of cars for the side exit into Manningham Drive. Hansie, of course, was nearer than either of us, and I saw him vault the bonnet of the estate car on the corner in order to cut the boy off. Sadly for him, just as he was closing on his prey the boy jinked around him, evading Hansie’s grasp, and reversed back in the direction he had come.
Phil and I were still closing in, but then Tim stepped away from the old woman and blocked his path. I saw the boy cast a frightened glance towards us, one brief glimpse of a pale, terrified face under the hood, and then back towards Hansie, and then forwards again to Tim. He reached into the kangaroo pocket at the front of his sweatshirt and pulled out a knife.
“Christ, Tim, watch it, he’s got a knife!” shouted Phil, just at the same moment as I heard a wordless exclamation of horror from Hansie.
“Tim,” I called. “Let him go. It isn’t worth it.” The boy brandished the knife at Tim. I saw something pass across Tim’s face for a second – not fear, I think, but a sort of grim determination – and then he had launched himself and was scrabbling with the boy on the floor. We were upon them in a moment, and I had the boy’s arm in a lock he could not break – at least, not without breaking his arm, which he seemed disinclined to do, and we were pulling them apart.
“Tim, are you all right?” asked a shaken Phil, offering Tim a hand up.
“I’m fine,” said Tim, “really, don’t. . .”
And then just as Hansie caught up, we saw the blood spreading on Tim’s shirt front. I hope never again to see such an expression on a human face as I saw on Hansie’s in that moment. He went grey with horror and fear. Something of the same icy chill ran through me.
“Oh God, Tim, he’s stabbed you!” exclaimed Phil.
“No, no, look, it’s all right.” Tim hastily pulled his shirt up. A long but obviously shallow scratch ran diagonally across his ribs. It was bleeding, but not in the way a serious wound bleeds.
“Oh, my dear,” said a faint voice. In the excitement I had almost forgotten the woman. She had a bruise on the side of her face, and was clearly shaken, but seemed otherwise unharmed. “This is all my fault.”
“Nee, nee, Helen,” breathed Hansie, relief warring with shock in his voice. “Not you. This” – he swung on the unfortunate boy in my grasp, who cringed away from him – “and this fool here.” He turned back to Tim.
“Well, thanks!” said a rather put-out sounding Tim. “Next time I see a friend being mugged I’ll stand aside.” But any further discussion was interrupted by the arrival of security staff from the store, and in short order the police, and an ambulance for Helen and Tim. He was stark-eyed, blazing as I have seen young men blaze in rugby and in war (and sometimes the difference is not easy to tell), shaking not with fear or shock but with sheer adrenaline, and inclined to suggest that he need not go to the hospital until Hansie and I and Phil – yes, even Phil – all turned and Looked at him, and Phil added grimly that he could get into the damned ambulance or be thrown in, and he subsided, and when it drove off I took the time to have a word with Hansie before he followed, for he was still looking sick with shock and anger.
There were many explanations that needed to be made, and by the time we had gone down to the police station and given witness statements Phil had missed so much of his training session that it was hardly worth going, so I agreed that I would go and pick up some paperwork and we would go home. We both pretended that it was that that put us into a foul mood. And concerned as I was for Tim, I could not keep from thinking: what if it had been my Phil who caught him?
As I drew up in the club car park, he suddenly turned to me.
“You know what? We never even gave them the sodding pickle jars.”
All right, I’ll admit it, I was sulking. I was annoyed, upset, disgruntled (my gruntle had never been so thoroughly dissed). On top of that my chest stung, despite the whatever it was they gave me in A&E, and I felt – odd, as if I’d been drinking too much coffee – and I wanted sympathy. No, hell, I wanted praise.
I mean, I didn’t expect a medal or anything, but I did think that I had done – well, not too badly under the circumstances. A certain amount of modest admiration would have been quite acceptable.
Instead of which, everyone was treating me as if I had walked in something unpleasant and brought it into the house. There was a distinct aura of persona non grata in the air. First of all they all practically chucked me in the ambulance. Then Phil and Piet went off without so much as a ‘well done, mate’, and Hansie ignored me completely, contenting himself with telling the paramedics that he would follow behind in the car and wait for me.
After we got to the hospital, and I’d been bandaged up – it really wasn’t anything much, just a glancing blow with no force that had skidded off my ribs, I emerged to find my dearly beloved waiting for me with a look of granite implacability, was informed that we were going to the police station to make statements, and then got the silent treatment all the way there, despite my attempts to lighten the atmosphere.
Then instead of going home, I got driven out to Phil’s pleasure palace – Hansie had presumably been on the phone while I was in the cubicle. We have keys, and the alarm combination, as Phil and Piet do to ours, but as it happened it didn’t look as if we would need them – Piet’s car was back in the drive as we pulled up. He and Phil must have decided to cut their losses and come back early.
“Hansie, I want to go home,” I fumed. “I want to be in my own home, not Phil’s, fancy as it is.”
He grunted at me.
“For God’s sake, what is the fucking matter with you? All right, it was a bit hairy, but. . .”
He stared at me.
“What is the matter? What is the matter? You never see, do you?” he burst out.
“No, Hansie, I think he does not,” growled Piet, materialising like a bad dream. “Come, Mr Creed, I think we all want a word with you.”
Things went rapidly downhill from there. I was more or less frogmarched into the house, where I proceeded to get lectured by all three of them; so anxious were Phil and Hansie to express their general low opinion of my brains, sense, antecedents, and dress sense for all I could tell, that they even pre-empted Piet. I was, it appeared, an idiot, a moron, a reckless hothead; I was responsible for global warming, the state of the economy, and the fact that by the time you get halfway through a box of chocolates there are only the sickly soft centres left. Then when they paused for breath, Piet said, at his most chilly:
“Tim, did you not hear me say that he had a knife, and to let him pass?”
OK, I was both annoyed and deeply upset by that time, all right? Otherwise I wouldn’t have been flip. Not with Piet. As it was, I snapped:
“Sorry, must have forgotten my hearing aid this morning.”
And Piet sprang forward, put his hands on my upper arms, and shook me, like a terrier shaking a rat.
“Idiot boy,” he hissed. “Do you not realise that you could have been killed? That we, that people who love you, thought you were dying in front of us?”
And I suddenly did realise. I felt the earth fall away beneath my feet as I saw why they were all so angry with me. I saw what Hansie must have felt – oh God, Hansie! – who had seen his brother lying dead, too, and all that flowed from it. And Piet saw me see it, and released my arms (I would have bruises there tomorrow, depend on it) and placed a hand more gently on my shoulder instead.
“Hansie. . .”
“And another thing, Tim Creed. . .”
“Hansie. Hansie, I’m so sorry. I love you, I love you, I’m sorry if you thought that I. . .I’m sorry,” I babbled. Tears began to stream down my face.
His face softened, and I slipped from under Piet’s hand into my lover’s arms.
“Oh God, I’m sorry if I scared you.”
“Scared me? I thought my world was ending, Tim. Promise me you’ll never do anything like that again.” He hugged me painfully tight. Piet and Phil moved to embrace the two of us in their turn. For a moment I was the centre axis of a small, warm, world composed of rugby player.
“I really am sorry, all right? All of you. I just. . .” Well, I suppose I just wanted to show that Tim was a big strong boy too. I mean they’re all faster than me, stronger than me, fitter than me. All the things that the world says men are about, they’re better at. Maybe I did want to be the hero for once. Oh God, it sounds so horrible and petty put like that. I’m really not a nice person, am I?
No of course I didn’t say it. I’m not a complete idiot. But I had an unpleasant suspicion that Piet, who I swear reads my mind, might have known what I was thinking, for I caught a strange look from him. Luckily, dear old Phil didn’t. He’s not nasty enough.
“Tim, love, like Hansie says, just never do something like that again,” he agreed. “Or I’ll kill you myself.”
I managed a watery grin. “You may not have the chance,” I said.
He looked puzzled.
“When Mary hears about this, I may not survive the encounter.”
“Tim, you have not told them? I think you should do so quickly,” said Piet with a frown. “Before they hear it in exaggerated form from someone else.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t have a chance. Hansie brought me straight here from the hospital. As soon as he takes me home, I’ll phone.”
“Stay for dinner,” suggested Phil. “I’ll make some of that pasta you like, and there’s loads of salad in the fridge.”
I shook my head wearily. “No, I’d rather go home if it’s all the same to you.” At that moment the phone rang, and Phil went out to answer it. Piet said nothing, just put one hand on my shoulder again and squeezed gently. Next door I heard Phil say ‘yes, yes he is. Oh. OK. Five minutes then.’
He came back into the room shaking his head.
“You can’t go just yet. It appears that Fran wants a word with you too.”
I saw Hansie wince.
“Can’t we just go?” I suggested.
He shook his head. “No, my liefie,” he said. “You owe her at least the courtesy of listening to her. I expect that Nick has heard of the incident and told her. Besides, Phil has told her you are here, so if you go she will know that you deliberately left to avoid her.”
The doorbell went. Fran swept in like a major weather front, closely followed by Nick. They both looked annoyed. She strode up to me, looked me up and down carefully, and said:
“Are you all right?”
“Yes, yes, I’m fine.”
“Good.” Then she astonished me with a brief, fierce hug. I never thought she liked me that much, to be honest. “Don’t ever do anything like that again,” she whispered in my ear as she released me.
“Don’t worry,” I said ruefully. “I’ve had my folly explained to me at great length.”
“And,” chipped in Hansie, “he and I will be discussing it further when we get home. But he has promised faithfully that he will never do such a thing again.”
“That was stupid,” said Nick.
“I know,” I agreed. “Like I said I’ve had it explained to me.” And am going to have it explained to my arse, from the sound of it. Suddenly, getting home didn’t seem so urgent.
“No, I mean it was stupid to make that promise,” said Nick, to general consternation.
I gawped at him. So did everyone else – even Piet.
“Yes, it was silly to tackle an armed man. You aren’t trained in disarming someone. A police officer is, although I can think of some who wouldn’t make as good a fist of it as you did. You were lucky – the boy didn’t really want to use the knife, but he was scared, and scared people do desperate things. If his grip had been tighter, or the angle of the blow different, I might be having this conversation over your body in the mortuary.” I swallowed. Having it put that clinically somehow made it seem much more unpleasantly real. “And another thing. The boy was an addict. Had you thought about that? About what might have happened if the knife had cut him too, and you’d got his blood in your wound?”
I’m pretty sure that Hansie went as pale as me. No, neither of us had thought of that. Hepatitis. HIV.
Nick looked at me, saw me make the connection, and abruptly added: “But I’ve been in those situations, and I can tell you, no matter what you say now, you can’t tell how you’ll react until you’re actually there. If it were to happen again you might still make the decision the way you did. Sometimes we make wrong decisions in those situations, sometimes we get it right. Sometimes we’re just plain lucky, the way you were. But no-one, no-one who wasn’t actually in the situation themselves,” he swung around to glare at the others, “has the right to second guess you. Hindsight’s wonderful, but we don’t have that luxury at the time.”
There was a stunned silence. Piet and Fran looked at one another.
“Well,” said Fran at last. “I guess that told us.” And Nick promptly looked embarrassed, the hard-bitten professional copper suddenly replaced by a guest who realises that he has just informed his host in no uncertain terms that he doesn’t know what he is talking about.
Fortunately, Piet thought it was funny.
“Well,” he said. “This has been a day of high drama, and perhaps now it is time to be a little calmer. Koekie, will our resources stretch to dinner for everyone?”
“I’m sure we could manage,” said Phil brightly.
But suddenly I felt unutterably weary.
“Guys, would you mind if Hansie took me home? Right now I feel as if I’m going to pass out from exhaustion.”
Nick eyed me shrewdly. “Delayed reaction,” he said. “Hansie, get him home, give him warm fluids – tea or something – and get him to bed.”
Hansie blinked. “Ja, Nick.”
“To sleep mind you, not – anything else. That can wait.”
“Ja, Nick.” I could see him making the effort to bite back some other retort.
Nick nodded. “And you, Fran, can take me home. Thanks very much for the offer, Piet, but maybe another time. You’ll probably find that you two would like some quiet time to recover from today’s events too.”
Piet nodded in turn. “Yes, perhaps that is wise. We will take your advice. But dinner is only deferred – you will certainly dine with us soon.”
“Thank you. I’m sure we’d love to, wouldn’t we Fran?”
“Bloody insolent man,” murmured Fran affectionately. “Who put you in charge?”
“Ha, there’s nothing to this topping lark, really,” said Nick, with a gleam in his eye.
From the answering gleam in Fran’s, I suspected that he would be paying for that remark, slowly and deliciously, for quite some time.
So we went home. And two days later, when it was decided that I was recovered enough to bend over the back of the sofa comfortably, I got a dozen with the senior cane that left long linear bruises as dark as the plums in the garden, and a distinct disinclination to sit down for a while.
But we never did get those pickle jars
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