Tuesday, February 16, 2010

In the Company of Strangers Part 12

Warnings: Still no actual discipline although Hugh is gradually getting the idea.


The main roads were still closed on Monday morning and all over town the pavements were gradually being cleared of debris. We drove to Finiston park where the grass was under water in places but the carriageways were now dry and clear. Hugh bounded away like a collie let off its lead. We did this route on most Saturday mornings. The entire circuit was a little over three miles and with the sun finally taking over from the rain, it was a pleasure to do. I kept pace with Hugh's steady jog, enjoying the speed and the rhythm of push and glide, which you can never really do amongst pedestrians on pavements. I barely saw the woman with the dog until she was directly in my way. Early middle-aged, with permed hair and an overbright smile. "Are you spastic?"

Hugh's pace faltered beside me.

"Are you spastic?" the woman enquired more clearly. "I've fundraised for the spastics society."

This sort of thing happens more often than you'd think.

"No," I said fairly patiently, "No I'm not."

"You don't have Cerebral palsy?" she dug her hands in her pockets and surveyed me critically.

"Excuse me, I'm with a friend-"

She gave me that look of disbelief you always get from passers-by who are, in their own opinion, taking an exemplary interest in the less fortunate of society.

"I was looking at the distortions in your legs. Are you an athetoid?"

No, I'm a teapot.

"I have a spinal injury. Excuse me-"

"Cerebral palsy is a bleed in the brain, it's the confused electrical signals to your legs that cause the distortions." She looked pleased with herself. I tried to edge past her.

"It's paralysis. Goodbye-"

"If you were paralysed surely there wouldn't be any distortion."

There are two ways to handle this sort of situation, and this woman, like most people who ask stupid questions, meant well. I took a deep breath and tried to sound pleasant. "These are rather personal questions-"

"Oh that's allright, I work in your field. I've seen lots of spastic children."

Hugh was standing with his hands on his hips, slowing his breathing and looking steadily more austere. I tried again to move past her. She actually put a hand on the handles of my chair.

"Is this your friend? I have ten minutes free, I could wait with you while he finishes his run- I could push you back to his car-"

"It's my car, and thanks but I'm going round the course with him, we do this all the time."

"But I wanted to ask, what's your prognosis? Spastics are vulnerable to chest infections and-"

"Jesus Christ!" Hugh exploded. "What sort of a ghoul are you?"

I don't know which of us was more shocked: her or me. We both stared at him. Hugh levelled a finger at the woman who was scarlet with outrage.

"If he's too polite to tell you what a rude, nosy old bitch-"

"Shut up." I gripped his wrist and pulled him past the woman. "Move. Howell move. Now."

It took most of my strength to handle Hugh who clearly had a lot more to say. We were well over fifty feet away before he stopped fighting, swore and pulled away to run at full speed ahead of me down the carriageway. I didn't try to catch him. I spooled slowly along until he came back, face like thunder. I glided not very gently into his shins.

"Allright, what the hell was that about?"

Hugh looked over my head to the far gate. The woman was out of sight. There was a family passing: a couple and two small children, the couple determinedly not staring and the elder child saying in a penetratingly clear voice, "Daddy what's the matter with that man's legs?"

Hugh glowered at them. I tried to keep my voice steady, wavering between amusement and exasperation. "You've heard enough stupid comments by now, you've never let it get to you before."

"Stupid cow!"

"She meant well."

Hugh hissed between his teeth. "I get sick to the back teeth of listening to that sort of thing."

He walked across to the nearest bench and flopped down on it. I transferred across and sat beside him, watching the family stroll out of sight.

"This isn't like you."

"I don't like people interrogating you. As if you're some sort of traveling medical dictionary-"

"Will you calm down?"

"Well." He leaned forward, elbows on his knees. I ran a hand down between his shoulders and rubbed his back.

"What are you going to do about St Giles?" he said to me eventually.

I'd spent most of the last few nights thinking about it.

"I'd like to resign." I said at last. "I don't know how intelligent that is. At least it's work. It pays the bills, and you're between jobs-"

"Don't think about that."

"One of us has to." I teased him. "I thought I was supposed to be the immature one."

"You're not immature."

Silence. He sat staring at the ground through his linked hands. I put an arm around his waist and tried to judge from his face.

"What are you thinking about?"

He shrugged. "This and that."

"Come on, give me a clue." I pleaded. He smiled, but didn't sit back or look at me.

"There are jobs round here I can take." He said at last. "Nothing I'd want to stay with long-term, but enough to keep us going."

Oh no.

I'd asked for this. I'd pushed too far, even for his sweet nature and I knew it, but it still came as a terrible shock. I swallowed and made my voice sound calm.

"But you want to go back to your parents?"

He risked a glance at me. I squeezed the arm I had around him, a brief hug to reassure him that I wasn't about to go mad.

"You'd be happy living with them?"

"It wouldn't be hard to find a couple of workshops needing a mechanic on part time hours in that area. In the long term I'd think about setting up something of my own. There's plenty of work around there, farm equipment, the local towns- I could make a good living without being tied down to office hours, so I'd be there for mum and dad when I was needed. They're getting a lot more frail, this is a long way away from them."

That was only part of it. I'd seen how much he loved his family: not just the living it gave them but the land it lay on. The quiet, the freedom, the space. I sat, with the heavy chill of anticipation and waited for the goodbye speech. He sounded tentative.

"I know the cottage itself isn't practical but there are the towns only a couple of miles out. We could go up for a weekend and look at houses around there-"

"You want me to go with you?" I demanded. He finally looked at me.

"Could you manage there? I mean day in, day out. It'd be harder on you."

"I'm twenty bloody three, I can fend for myself!" I snapped back, angry with relief, "Do you think I want to live in a ghetto of grab- bars and automatic doorways? I'm not going to spend the next sixty years sticking to three or four big cities with disabled friendly lifts, don't tell me what I can do."

"If you hate the idea say so. There are plenty of other places we can go."

I waited. He pushed to his feet and linked his hands behind his neck, pacing a little.

"I know you need more people than just me on the end of a phone if you get into difficulties… but you've said yourself, your parents were all worked up and ready for you to leave home when you went to university-"

"And I ended up in hospital."

"So they lost their nerve. And so did you." he added bluntly. "Joss - maybe the answer is to be right away from them for a year or two. Prove it to them."

"They'd go berserk."

"Your father's main problem is that he's jealous of me." Hugh said wryly. "You two are so close he doesn't like the competition."

I swallowed on that. It was rather a shock to see my father in that light: we'd been fighting like cat and dog most of my life. Hugh gave me a faint smile and stood back until I transferred back into my chair and followed him. He walked, rather than ran, not on round the park but back towards the car.

I spun a little behind him, gathering the courage until we reached the car and I asked him, straight out, more or less fearlessly, "Is this about Adair?"

He looked at me over the car roof, freezing with his hand on the door. "No."

I waited. He walked around the car to me and sat on the bonnet, face to face with me. "No. I wish to God you'd tell him about Ryan-"

"You said you wouldn't badger me."

"And I don't like him."

"I'd noticed." I said dryly. He smiled a little, but looked at his hands.

"I'll admit, I didn't mind about him in theory. I didn't think I was the jealous type. But I can cope with him if I have to."

"So you're not talking about leaving?"

Now he looked at me, and his eyes were surprised, soft and reassuringly warm. He got off the bonnet, put his hands around my face and kissed me. "No I'm not. No. Whatever gave you that idea?"

His hands didn't move, his forehead pressed mine and I held his wrists. "Adair. All this with St Giles. You saying I didn't trust you-"

"Oh Joss. Baby. I didn't say that to hurt you - I was angry with Adair, and hardly thinking. Not your fault."

"That's debatable."

"And I might be angry with you about this Ryan business- I don't agree with what you're doing and I don't approve- but that doesn't mean I don't love you. The things I said-" He crouched in front of me in his usual place, his elbows familiar on my knees. "It's little things."

"Like what?" I asked uncomfortably. He hesitated.

"Your father asked me if I'd know what to do if your shunt blocked. I didn't know you had one, never mind what it is or what it does."

I'd tried not to get onto these grounds since the day we met.

"It's probably inactive by now-" I said awkwardly.

"It's not the details." Hugh interrupted. "I don't need to know these things, you're quite right. If I end up in casualty with you, I can always explain I know sod all about my own boyfriend and call your father. Can't I?"


"Your father's cared for you all your life, you two are welded together. I couldn't break into that if I was stupid enough to try. I just wish you'd try to trust me half as much."

"I do."

"You don't." Hugh said gently. "Not here anyway. When we were with my parents you were a lot more relaxed you know? Remember the first time we went up to the village? You turned around and demanded to know if I was going to watch you struggle or push you up that road. You've never let me push you anywhere no matter how hard it was. I thought finally you were ready to let me in. And then like an idiot, I opened my big mouth-" Hugh ran a hand down my cheek. "I know how hard it was for you to move out of that house where you were safe, and your father was in shouting distance- and I know how much you wanted to get out. Kerry told me once; you used to spend the weekends trying to put together enough energy to get through the next week. You must have been scared stiff. But you're not struggling now. You weren't when I met you. You make it look so easy and you're so bloody secretive it took me months to realize how much effort it takes you to look after yourself. Or what a good job you do."

"So it's just a bad habit." I said lightly. "You said yourself, Dad and I have a thoroughly weird relationship-"

"Rubbish." Hugh interrupted. "If I didn't know before, I saw when you got caught in that flood: you can go from total autonomy to a blue light job in minutes. You have to have the safety net, I understand that. I just wish you didn't hate the thought of it being me."

That hurt. And it clearly hurt him. I looked down at his hands and tried to think of something coherent to say.

However much I didn't like the thought, or however much I learned to do, I couldn't get away from the fact that, on hopefully rare occasions, I would be totally physically dependent. On someone. I even knew the details. Without my parents ready to step in, my options were very limited- nursing homes, care homes or hospital admissions. A kidney infection, a pressure sore in the wrong place, a broken finger or a sprained wrist so I couldn't transfer- that was all it took to put me in that position, and they were horribly easy to acquire.

It wasn't that I didn't trust Hugh if I reached that point. The risks were more complex than that and I couldn't explain them.

"You've been brought up to believe you wouldn't settle into a relationship," Hugh told me when he knew I wouldn't answer. "I've heard your mother doing it. Don't expect to be happy, don't expect it to last, don't expect him to put up with all the complications - Joss. Listen to me." He put a hand under my chin and pulled ruthlessly until I looked at him. "It's all bullshit. Your parents don't know if we'll last together, and neither do we. Maybe they're so frightened of seeing you get hurt, they've tried to stop you getting into danger in the first place- maybe it's to do with your mother, I don't know. "

"What does that mean?"

"That immaculate, sterilized house. The way she has to come over and disinfect our house too."

He said it in an offhand way that told me he wasn't going to say any more. I'd been aware for a long time, that while he had a lot of time for my father, he was very wary of my mother. Now I wondered if what I'd seen as nervousness was actually dislike.


"Why ask me?" Mark demanded. He looked very un-Mark like in jeans, I'd caught him slouched across his sofa, reading something that looked mildly obscene and eating spaghetti out of a can. Maybe I was attracted to men with horrendous eating habits.

"Because I need another opinion."

"You're withholding information from me, why should I co operate with you?"

"I'm withholding nothing." I objected. "Do you mind if I make myself a coffee in this dump?"

"Be my guest. Do you want to tell me about Sam and what he's been saying to you that he won't say to me?"


"Did you know another body turned up? Hit and run."


I nearly went through the roof. Mark lay back on the sofa and watched me with interest.

"Night of the flood. A boy, late teens, Jenny Karall identified him as being a Ben Garner?"

"Why didn't anyone tell me!"

"What were you going to do? Anyway, I was told you were on sick leave from St Giles."

Oh God.

"There was nothing in the papers." I said blankly, "Nothing on the news-"

"People are incredibly careless with cars in this town don't you think? Even for joyriders."

"It was Ryan." I blurted out in shock. "Sam told me he saw Ryan abandon the car – he and Lucy saw Ryan run Craig down- literally run him down in the street. He must have waited hours to get Craig alone. Mel, Craig and Lucy, all three of them-"

"The St Giles no-hopers." Mark finished for me, giving me a smile of satisfaction. "We picked up the links in the files. Ritter put the pieces together for us. He knew how obsessed Bennett was with the project. Steven Price's death was a genuine accident; he probably gave Bennett the idea. All the cars were stolen, expert jobs, not much forensic evidence except for the outside impact marks."

"Ryan knew some of the most professional young criminals in the area." I said numbly. "He could have learnt anything he needed to know. He could have talked some of them into doing the job for him."

Except he was doing a responsible job. Almost a caring job. Not one of the victims was left before death, each attack was quick and clean. Ben was another one of Ryan's cases. I knew him only by name; another headache on our books.

"There were only two deaths reported in the flood." I said. "Ryan's and the man who drowned up on the flood gate."

"Ben Garner survived. Ryan was disturbed." Mark eyed me. "By young Sam."

"Sam thought Ryan was after him."

"All Ryan was thinking of was to get out of Sam's sight. He took the road across the square, and he must have doubled back. The flooding was at it's worst, the water was rising by two foot an hour. Currents in the square must have been too strong for him. He was picked up in the square at the same time we collected you. That lunatic of yours from the religious commune found him. Drowned."

"How's Ben?"

"Broken arm and concussion." Mark surveyed me, watching me shake. "Rumor has it you're resigning from St Giles."

"Yes." I folded my arms, needing the warmth. "How did you know where I was? I never told anyone which road I was taking."

"The boats were sweeping the flooded streets anyway, looking for anyone stranded."
Mark grinned. "Your large boyfriend found me in the market, slammed me up against a wall and threatened to castrate me if I didn't start looking for you. The air search picked up your car."

I found it hard to think of Hugh threatening anyone, but then I did have a strong image of his face in that sports hall, blurred and fierce around his cats eyes, and his voice saying something over and over again until I should have understood it.

"Don't be so pathetic." Kerry told me astringently. "You're young, you're fit and you're stronger than I am. You keep yourself at a good weight, you can transfer, you can stand if necessary, you have no trouble at all in handling the chair. I can't see you're going to find much that you really can't manage." he sat cross-legged on the carpet and surveyed me. "The only thing I'd worry about is if you took a job that's physically demanding as well. If you're going to work all hours and all over the place like you do with St Giles, you will need an easy home life."

"I've resigned from St Giles." I told him. He lifted his eyebrows.

"So this is serious? Have you broken it to your parents yet?"

"We're breaking them in gradually."

"You are planning on telling them? The best thing I can suggest is that you that when you decide where you want to live, you find a local physio who'll come out to the house and work out the transfers with you. So long as you're fairly sensible, I can't see you getting into difficulties. And if you can remember there are two of you. What you can do with a partner is different to what you can do if you're living alone."

"We've had that one out." I said dryly. "It's being negotiated."

"You know Hugh thought long and hard before he moved in with you." Kerry said severely. I looked up at him, startled. "How do you know?"

"Because I caught him once, hanging around on your drive, looking worried. He thought you were too young and he had no right to go pushing you into making a commitment before you really knew what you were doing."

"I have a mind of my own." I said, annoyed. Kerry folded his arms.

"He's in his early thirties, and you're in the middle of a delayed adolescence. He's been waiting for you to grow into this relationship, and at one time I thought you would. Now I think he's still going to be puppy walking you when you're in your early sixties."

A week ago, I'd been at the top of a bank, freezing rapidly to death and thinking repeatedly that I would not see Hugh again. My last words to him would have been a few sentences snapped down a mobile phone from another man's bed. It was the first time I'd seriously thought about the possibility of Hugh and me staying together. For a long time. Being old together.

Guilt washed through me, taking my breath and coherent thought. He was right, I'd had no time for him recently, save for the stropping and temper he was used to from me. I thought of him again in the car park, the softness of his dark green eyes as he came to me.

"I'm not leaving. No."

He had his MG in pieces on the drive, a tyre off, propped on a block. He was oilstained, cold, and he straightened up to me with his usual sweet smile. Uncomplicated, undemanding, just pleased to see me.

Being Hugh, he was totally unfazed by me going to pieces on the drive.


The bar was, brown, dusty and deserted. Hugh quietly ordered two halves and took them across to the pool table. We played in silence for some time.

"I told Adair." I said at last.

Hugh glanced up at me across the table where he was trying to work out a difficult angle. "Good."

"He knew. Its daft isn't it. You never believe the police know what they're doing."

"Too much TV." He made the shot, missed and swore mildly. "It's neatly tied up for them. No arrests, no worries."

One worry. I took the shot and made it. "I never thought of Ryan. Not until I actually drove into the square and saw Hamish face to face."

"I wondered about him once or twice."

"I could see how he might go for the boys." I said, moving for the follow up shot. "Everyone Lucy got too close to, everyone who tainted her. And I could see he might justify hurting her to himself- he'd have thought he was protecting her."

"You really thought he'd go that far?"

"I saw his face when he went for me." I said thoughtlessly. I missed the shot. "Your go."

He hadn't moved. I turned to look for him, and felt the cue being taken out of my hand. He took the handles of my chair and I took my hands away from the wheels, fast before my fingers got broken. He took me in silence, fast and efficiently, into the carpark where he let the door slam, steered me across to the wall and I felt him let go. He let rip as soon as I turned.

"You seriously thought Hamish was the killer, didn't you? Without a word to anyone."


"Even after he went for you in the car park. You knew what he was capable of and you said nothing?"

"I didn't really think about it until the night of the flood." I protested, annoyed by his tone. "It was my kids, my job-"

"I am sick to the back teeth of that answer!" Hugh's voice abruptly raised several decibels above mine, effectively drowning me out. "You're letting a possible murderer drift about the town with other innocent people at risk, and sitting on that information out of personal pride- because you can't bear to do anything that suggests you aren't fully capable of handling anything from narcotics to homicide!"

"I only suspected-"

Hugh looked at me. I trailed off.

"I am not bloody stupid Joshua. Of course you haven't told Adair?"

"Told him what?" I muttered, aware I sounded about twelve and a half. Hugh's roar made me jump.

"That Ryan's death was no accident! That your sense of poetic justice overcomes any other concerns you have for the safety of the general public! That you're playing with this situation like a child with a bloody train set! Who else is that maniac going to decide needs knocking off? You can't just report the murders that don't meet with your personal seal of approval! I've had it up to here with you and Adair and this whole bloody situation, get in the car. Joss, get in the car. You're going to tell the police and give them a full description of this maniac. You're not safe to be let out."

"Go to hell!"

He didn't budge an inch and his retort was loud enough and angry enough to drown mine right out and make me forget any idea of arguing out of sheer self-preservation.

"I said move!"

He stood over me while I told the sergeant on duty of my suspicions. He took notes, thanked us both politely and sent us on our way. I trailed Hugh, too nervous to give a damn what Adair or anyone else was doing. Hugh unlocked the car, opened the door and stood, waiting for me to get in, with his mouth hard and his eyes still blazing. I kept my mouth shut, not keen to invite any further dissection of my character.

He turned over the engine and headed the car towards home.

"You are definitely coming to Gloucestershire with me." He said as we turned off at the ring road. "Your father may not be able to do a damned thing with you but I can. I've seen what you do if I respect your privacy, this is where I start interfering. A lot. And I warn you now, if there's any more CID officers or anyone else on the end of your phone when I call you, I am going to make your life hell. You don't hang around with slimy bastards like Adair, you don't go conniving with half the bloody underworld and you don't lie to me. Now what are you muttering about?"

"There are laws against this sort of repression." I said with muted defiance.

He glowered at me. "Who ever wrote those laws wasn't married to a disaster area like you."

I said nothing, just stared out of the window, eyes stinging. Hugh looked at me, swore under his breath and pulled the car into a layby. There, he screeched around and headed back into the town centre.

"Now where are you going?" I said icily. He wouldn't answer.

We ended up in the town shopping centre. Hugh waited, ignoring my glares until I got out of the car. I rolled angrily through the Saturday crowds, struggling with the kerbs where weekend shoppers interfered with my space and maneuvering. Hugh took the handles of my chair as we reached the main street.


"Where the hell are you going?"

He steered through the busiest section of the main street, turned my chair and bumped me up over the kerb of a small jeweler on the corner. I took one look around me, shut my mouth and looked up at Hugh in doubtful bewilderment. Hugh put his hands firmly around my neck from behind, somewhere between a caress and a threat to strangle.

"Pick a ring."

"I don't-"

"Choose, Milliner. Now."

The assistant watched us, eyes wide. He put his hand firmly over mine and forced it towards the rings on the counter. "Which? If this is what it takes to convince you, so be it."

"So be what?"

"Choose. You hate those heavy things, think what you're doing."

Really annoyed now, I concentrated and stabbed at an onyx. The assistant took it out of the cabinet giving us a wide berth. Hugh followed me out of the shop, past sandbags and traffic warnings and into the waterlogged park on the corner, where he pulled my left hand off the wheel and put the ring on my third finger. He knew me well enough to hang onto my hand so I couldn't rip it off and throw it at him.

"Point one. Believe me, I intend on being around for years. I'm not going anywhere. Point two, no matter how angry you get with me, I'm still not going anywhere. Point three, no matter how angry I get with you, I can love you at the same time. You can't scare me off, you can't freeze me off, I'm not going to leave you."

"You don't know what you're getting into." I burst out, trying to shake his hands off.

He held on. "Yes I do. It isn't me that`s got the problem here."


"I want to live as you and me. Not you, me and It. You make it that way. You're the one who insists that I'll hate living with a paraplegic, you don't want my opinion. You're the one who thinks I can't love you if I know too much about it. Oh don't cry, sweetheart. You're telling me what you'd feel in my position. You're the one who hates living with it, not me."

"I don't hate it. That's the most stupid thing I've ever heard, it'd be like hating myself."

"Hate's the wrong word." Hugh admitted. "You can't tell me you don't resent it. The time you have to spend on the physio, having to be careful, not locking doors in case you fall, thinking twice about everything, carrying the mobile everywhere- and it scares you. I saw your face when Kerry told you how badly your hip was tightening up. And you've lived with people who haven't bothered to protect you from their guilt and grief and stress and all the rest of it. I know you love them and they love you, but half the time you're having to be grateful to them for putting up with you and the rest of the time you're furious with them for making you feel like hell. I'm not putting it well, I probably shouldn't be saying any of this. Until you get away from them, right away, you're never going to be clear on what you feel and what they feel. You've lived with it for so long you don't know the difference."

Silence. I stared at the ground, eyes burning. Hugh sounded tired.

"Maybe the ring was a bad idea. I just thought it might help if you had some proof I'm not just going to walk away. I've got the time, Joss. I don't expect everything to suddenly be perfect overnight, but I know if I could just get you away from this constant pressure and niggling and guilt- you might have a clearer idea of what you want. I've always thought if I gave you time, you'd find your own way out, but now I don't think you can do it on your own. I want us to get out of here and stop all this wariness and secrecy and all the rest of it. I know that's asking a damn sight more than I've got any right to."

Silence again. Hugh sighed, straightening up stiffly with cold. "And you probably hate me right now."

I was having a hard time breathing without crying, but I kept hold of his hand before he could move away. "Hate's the wrong word."

His fingers turned over and gripped in mine, then he stooped and put his arms around me. I was too angry to talk to him, but he was right about one thing. No matter how angry I was, it made no difference to the way I loved him.


We left the day before Ryan was buried. That was a little more than I could bear. I'd admired – and liked – Ryan a lot. Which I felt bad about now.

"Why would he dump Lucy on my doorstep?" I said stupidly while we were packing up. Box after box after box, Lucifer apparently in all of them.

"I don't know. I didn't know him well enough." Hugh said gently.

I knew. Because I'd brought the police into St Giles- not too near him, he didn't care, but too near his worthwhile clients. I'd unintentionally risked St Giles and he'd been genuinely angry with me. Lucy wasn't an attempt to frighten me; she was proof that officialism led to our clients dying. I'd cared a lot about Ryan and about the kids he'd murdered and it made me sick to think about what he'd done. And worse still that I could understand what he'd done. How many of those deaths were my fault? None. And yet in some ways, all of them.

Hugh left the boxes and knelt to hold me, reassuring me yet again until the guilt receded. I clung to him and tried not to think of Ryan and Hamish struggling in the city square, in the dark and waist deep in cold, rushing water. Hamish had loved Lucy, he had been ready and able to hurt me simply for making her cry.

Hugh drove down ahead of me with Lucifer swearing in a box on the passenger seat, both of them ignoring my jibes that the MG would need the best part of a week to cover the distance. I followed him an hour later, after a mildly unpleasant interview with my parents. They'd run out of hysterics by now, faced with Hugh and me presenting an equally determined and united front. It made me realize how much Hugh had wanted to say and do for months, and had held himself back on. I would have been quickly bogged down in the familiar rows, but Hugh parried every concern of my father's by demanding of him and me the signs and symptoms he was supposed to be aware of, what they meant and what he and I were supposed to do about them. At home, we had several lively arguments between ourselves until I gave in and taught him how to do the few procedures I'd lived with all my life. I dreaded both the rows and the after-effects, but there was no acrimony at all between us. No years of baggage I suppose. Our altercations were always somewhere in between exasperation and humour, and in the end became an open joke, ending in wrestling matches rather than slammed doors and icy silences. I was amazed at how committed he was. It took him several days, but he even learned how to catheterize me without shaking.

Eventually my father admitted defeat. They didn't argue when I left: their air was more of resigned concern. They were probably now living in hourly apprehension of a panicky phone call from me or Hugh, begging for help. The subdued mood followed me across Oxfordshire and into the Cotswolds, but there, as the hills became the steep and dramatic, scenic sweeps across forestland, I started to feel the beginnings of freedom. The land grew steadily more beautiful as I drove; all the more beautiful now for being familiar. We were going to his parents. Until Hugh and I had work, at least we could earn bed and board like real family. They had been genuinely delighted when Hugh phoned and told them our plans. His mother had demanded to speak to me and promptly dispelled any last doubts I had: they couldn't have been more welcoming if Hugh and I had a marriage license.

I reached the cottage in the rain, shortly before dark that evening. The lights were on in the house and Hugh slid down off the gate to open it for me. He was drenched; blue jawed as he smiled at me. I parked next to his MG and took the small box out of my breast pocket where it was digging into me, held it for a second while I thought, then put it in the glove compartment. I'd thought about an onyx, a twin to mine- the ring I'd chosen at random and initially resented was rapidly becoming something I loved the look and feel of and couldn't stop myself touching constantly for it's comfort, it's solidity of representing HIM. But he needed silver, not gold against his skin, and something more delicate. I'd found a Celt band two hours ago in the silversmiths I'd gone to: a design with the artistry I wanted for him. But this wasn't the moment.

For now, I just crossed the yard to where he was draped like a cat on the wall, waiting for me.

~The End~

Copyright Ranger 2010


Anonymous said...

Lovely story-- thanks so much for sharing

Ranger said...

wow, no one EVER READS this story!! Thank you! That made my day!

Anonymous said...

Hi, this was rec'd on The Slash Pile and I enjoyed it a lot! I really liked your characterisation of Joss and Hugh. Joss might have been immature at times but his feelings and fears were understandable....

Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

I, too, found this via the Slash Pile. I very much enjoyed it, especially as I live near Cirencester! Your characterisation is excellent, and I felt you really captured the problems the kids were facing, as well as Joss's. I read the Falls Chance Ranch stories a few months ago and liked them very much too. It's interesting to compare the moods of England and Wyoming!

Ranger said...

Hi Anonymous and Anonymous - again wow, I'm delighted you both enjoyed this! I love Cirencester and that part of England. I also like writing stories with unreliable narrators - Joss is immature and far from perfect, but was a very interesting character to research and write.

Anonymous said...

Just finished this story definitely one of my favourites!

Anonymous said...

"He's been waiting for you to grow into this relationship, and at one time I thought you would. Now I think he's still going to be puppy walking you when you're in your early sixties"
Love this line. Great story - drama, intrigue, love, a happy ending and not afraid to tackle difficult topics such as our hero's disability.
I'm working my way through your back catalogue after reading the Falls Chance Books twice this year. I cannot praise too highly this incredible body of work. Would love to see Blood on the Mountain finished but will wait quietly in a corner until said time.

Alder said...

What a wonderful story! By chapter 9 I was really worried about how it would end but I needn't have, the ending was perfect. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I'm just starting on this story - Chapter six says it isn't there anymore? http://rolfandranger.blogspot.com/2010/02/in-company-of-strangers-part-6.html

Anonymous said...

That was me commenting on Aug 5 last year. Just had another read through the story and still love this tale. Seems it's turning into an annual comfort read. Glad it's still here to find. See you next August!!

Cathy S

Anonymous said...

thankyou - this was lovely. I found your work through the slash pile: what a delight.

Tail-Tail said...

Great story, love the characters :). Found it on The Slash Pile

EDR said...

This was incredible! I was totally hooked from start to finish. I loved how Joss's disability was a significant part of the story, but not the entire story, and not everything about him. Hugh was so darling. I was terrified they were going to break up and he would end up with Mark - a relief to see it ended the way I wanted it too!

Most of the artwork on the blog is by Canadian artist Steve Walker.

Rolf and Ranger’s Next Book will be called The Mary Ellen Carter. The Mary Ellen Carter and other works in progress can be read at either the Falls Chance Ranch Discussion Group or the Falls Chance Forum before they are posted here at the blog. So come and talk to the authors and be a part of a work in progress.

Do you want to read the FCR Books
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