Settling In 

by KT

AU: Little Britches ATF – Little Ambassadors Series

Disclaimer: Not mine, never were, never will be

Note: Betaed, edited and added to by Sue M, with additional assistance from Nancy.


After a couple of days at an airport hotel to help them get over their jet lag; the family were ready to take on England. Armed with UK bank accounts, insurance and accompanied by their very efficient re-location liaison Shelley, they headed out into a sunny Wednesday morning. Their first stop was the hotel car park to collect the first of two cars they had leased for their year away.

“So where is it?” Chris asked as Shelley came to a halt.

“Right there.” She gestured toward the closest row of cars.

“Sweet!” Buck commented.

“I don't understand, where is the car we leased?” Chris asked again.

“It's right in front of you Stud,” Buck pointed out cheerfully.

“No, can't be, it's… it's… it's….!”

“Yeah, an' ain't she just a picture?” Buck exclaimed with glee.

“It's real pretty,” JD added.

Vin looked up at his father, not sure how he was meant to react.

“We ordered a black one!” Chris exclaimed.

Shelley looked from one man to the other. The middle aged, blonde built – as Buck put it – for comfort not speed, was very good at her job. She was also married, which disappointed Buck a little.

“Have they made a mistake?” she asked. “Do you want me to call them?”

“No darlin' don't you worry,” Buck assured her. “Now Chris, if you remember, they told us they couldn't guarantee colour choice, only that they would do their best.”

Given a budget by the ATF, the men had decided to make the most of it by not going for the best car they could afford, but down-sizing a little on the main car and spending the rest on a small car for local trips. Recalling the hectic nature of their family life back in Denver and the price of fuel in the UK it seemed like a wise plan. To this end instead of a going for a top of the range 4x4, they had picked a Land Rover Freelander, which now stood before them, in all its metallic orange glory!

Still fuming, Chris got behind the wheel and, having set the GPS system, just to be on the safe side, they set out to follow Shelley to their new home.

<><><><><><><>

On their first morning during their interim stay at the hotel, and while the boys, their body clocks still on US time, had slept soundly, Chris and Buck met up with Shelley. She had some bad news for them.

“There is a problem with the house,” she began.

They were given three houses to choose from. The one they settled on wasn't much to look at, built in the 1970s it looked unremarkable, but in its favour it was situated on the rural edge of a small town close to the boys' new school, had just been modernised and incorporated a huge dog proof garden. When they first got the documents through there had been some confusion. All the descriptions mentioned a garden but no yard, however looking at the photographs it became clear that in the UK all the open space around a house was a garden, no matter what did or did not grow there.

“The old man who owned the house you first chose died. He was in a nursing home, that was why the house was being let, but now his daughter has inherited it, and she wants to sell up as soon as possible. Technically you can live there this month, but we didn't think you'd want to move again after only four weeks, so….” She pulled out a picture. “This came on the market just two weeks ago and it was so perfect we snapped it up for you, take a read through the details. I think you'll approve, but if you don't we'll look for something else as soon as possible.”

<><><><><><><>

When told of the news, the boys were disappointed they weren't going to be living in the house with the big yard.

“What does the new house look like?” JD asked his father on the way to the new place.

“Wait and see,” came the enigmatic response.

“But what about the yard? Is it big enough? Is it safe?” Vin wanted to know.

“It's going to be fine, just wait and see,” Chris assured him.

After just forty minutes their little convoy of two cars slowed as Shelley indicated right and then turned off the road into a grand looking entryway with tall, imposing gates that swung open as she approached. A driveway wound its way though landscaped parkland until a huge palatial house with a pillared portico came into sight.

“Wow!” Vin exclaimed from the back seat.

“Are we gonna live there Da?” JD asked excitedly, his voice emerging as a squeak.

“Not exactly,” Chris told them.

Waltham Park was built in the 18th century and added to in the 19th and early 20th centuries. After the last owner died in the 1960's it became a nursing home, then in the late 1990's was converted into apartments.

They drove on past the house and around a small stand of trees. In front of them was the old stable block, which was nearly as grand as the house, except it was covered in greyish brown stucco; and where there should have been a front door there was a huge archway. To the side of this block and attached to it at right angles was a cottage, covered in the same grey stucco. There was a fair sized garden in front surrounded by a solid stone wall about three feet high with a gate set into the middle of it. A path lead across a well kept lawn to the front door. All around the edge of the garden were pretty flowerbeds. Shelley's car rolled to a stop and she got out, to walk back to the Freelander.

“That's the cottage,” she explained, “but there is no vehicle access from this side, so we need to go though the stable block and around to the back.”

The old stable block now served as garaging and mews apartments. On the far side of the cobbled courtyard where the driveway was laid to gravel, they turned left and looped around the stables to the back of the cottage.

Buck opened the car door and helped JD undo the buckles on the unfamiliar car seat. As he lifted his son out, he could feel him trembling.

“What's up?” he asked softly.

JD just shrugged and clamped his legs around his father, a sure sign he didn't want to be put down.

Vin was about to climb down from the car, but then turned back. Fishing in his bag, he pulled out Cat, and holding his beloved toy tightly in one hand he reached for his father with the other. Chris took the small hand in his and gave it a reassuring squeeze.

The four of them followed Shelley into the house via the back door and walked directly into the kitchen. A pleasant mixture of old and new, it was dominated by a huge fireplace containing an Aga stove. In the centre of the room was a solid wooden table, on which was a thick folder.

“These are instructions, local information and your utility accounts,” Shelley explained. “I should probably go though it with you.”

Buck looked at Chris then set a reluctant JD down on the flagstone floor. “Why don't you boys go and take a look around while we talk with Miz Shelley?”

JD was clearly hesitant, but Chris gave Vin a little nudge and a wink. Vin looked up at his Dad and winked back.

“Come on JD, let's explore.”

<><><><><><><>

The boys crossed the kitchen to a door on the far side and out into the hallway. There was another door to their right which, since it had a letter box in it, was presumably the front door. To the left was a staircase, made of dark polished wood and which turned though 180 degrees with a window on the half landing.

“Shall we go up there?” JD asked.

“Not yet.” Vin took JD's hand and led him down the corridor in front of them. The first door they came to opened into a medium sized room. The flagstone floor disappeared under a thick red carpet, in front of them, and under the window was a modern desk, with a printer, phone and Wi-Fi router. To the left of the desk, a pair of comfortable looking sofas flanked a small fireplace.

Vin looked at JD “I reckon this is the den.”

JD looked around then turned and trotted across the corridor to the door opposite. “I's found the dinner room,” he announced.

Vin poked his head around the door, taking in the light, airy room, with a big bleached pine table surrounded by six chairs sitting in the middle of it. “Yup, reckon so.”

The two boys continued on toward the open door at the end of the corridor.

“Wow!” JD exclaimed as they entered the main room. It ran the width of the house, with big French doors opening onto the garden. Two cream leather sofas and two matching armchairs were arranged around a large fireplace and to the side of this was a flat screen TV. The wall behind the fireplace was painted a rich, dark red, while the other walls were cream. The flagstones were again hidden by wall to wall soft beige carpet.

“Come on, let's look upstairs!” Vin tugged his brother's hand.

<><><><><><><>

“Boys!” Chris called up the stairs.

This was answered by the thunder of small feet.

“Hi Dad!” Vin greeted as he practically flew down the stairs, launching himself off the third step and into his father's arms.

“You are getting too big to do that,” Chris teased as he put his son down.

JD was happy to just bounce loudly on the wooden treads as he made it to the bottom.

“Well, what have you found?” Chris asked.

“It's a real nice house Dad, we like it.” Vin announced.

“Did you choose a room yet?” Buck asked.

JD shook his head, his fringe flying from side to side. “We's can't choose, ‘cause they are all nice. But guess what?”

“What?”

“All our stuff is here, it's upstairs! Can we open it, please? Huh Da, please? I want Scooby.”

Buck shook his head in amusement. Thousands of miles from home, a new house and all JD wanted was his favourite toy. JD's Scooby-Doo was almost as big as him and thus too big to be taken on the plane; it would have half filled JD's case. So Scooby was sent off with the rest of their advanced packing, and as a result it had been a week since he had seen his favourite toy.

The house had four bedrooms, all about the same size. There were three rooms with double beds; the master bedroom, with an en suite bathroom, plus two more of similar size. The fourth room with two single beds was slightly smaller. Deciding it would be better for the boys to have their own bathroom and plenty of space to play; their fathers allocated them the master bedroom. This meant swapping the bed with the two singles, but they considered it worth it.

“It's better this way Dad,” Vin told his father seriously. “Uncle Ezra will like to sleep in a big bed when he comes to stay.”

“I'm hungry,” JD announced, standing on his new bed, and clutching Scooby by the tail.

“You know what Little Bit, so am I,” Buck answered.

Chris glanced at his watch, horrified to discover it was almost one. “I reckon we all are.”

<><><><><><><>

Shelley left them an extensive information pack about the local area, along with ‘sat nav' friendly addresses for all kinds of places, including the school, the station, local shops, doctor's office and the local pub. When the men were looking into leasing a car in the UK, it took them some time to work out that sat nav meant satellite navigation and that this was another name for a GPS system. Yet another name to add to their growing list of alternative words and phrases between their regular home, and their new temporary residence.

“I've checked out the pub, and it's a good place for lunch,” she had told them.

“Now hang on, I'm not taking JD to a bar,” Buck replied.

“Don't worry; it's very family friendly, especially in the daytime.”

Deciding to take her word for it, their car pulled up in the half-full car park and they all piled out. Vin stood and looked up at the sign, then he turned to look at his father just as Chris looked down at him, both of them grinning.

“I think this is gonna be a good place,” Chris told Buck.

Buck looked at the sign and shook his head. “It's like they knew you two were coming.”

With that the four of them walked into ‘The Black Horse'.

Since it was a fine, sunny day, they walked though the pub's restaurant and into the garden, where they found picnic benches and a modest adventure play area which the boys made a beeline for.

“Hold up boys, we need to order the food,” Chris called.

The boys hastily trotted back. Buck handed the menu card to JD and pointed out the children's section. Then, as he always did JD read it to Vin. It wasn't that Vin couldn't read a menu for himself, his reading was coming on in leaps and bounds these days, but they had always done it this way and it had never occurred to the two of them to change.

“What's a jacket potato?” Vin asked.

Both boys looked over at their dads.

“Uh.” Buck began, looking at his own menu. “Ah, I reckon it's a baked potato.”

“So why don't they call it that?” JD asked.

“I don't know, do you want one?”

“Don't know yet.” With that JD continued to read to Vin.

Perhaps not surprisingly the boys both chose something they were familiar with. JD wanted chicken nuggets and Vin, a cheeseburger.

“Da?” JD began.

“Yes?”

“I want fries but I can't see them on the menus.”

Before Buck could respond, Vin pointed to the menu. “Yeah they have them, right there see?”

JD wasn't convinced and pouted. “That says chips, I don't want chips.”

“Chips is fries here, ‘member when Uncle Josiah took us to Captain Sam's Fish and Chips at the Mall?” Vin reminded.

JD frowned and checked the menu again. “Okay.”

“So you want nuggets and chips?” Buck clarified.

“Yeah.”

<><><><><><><>

Back at home, and with full bellies the boys were happily playing while their fathers made plans for the next few days. Shelley had stocked the house with the basics – toilet paper, soap, shower gel and enough food to last for a couple of days; even so they were going to need to find the local supermarket fairly soon. According to their list it was called Sainsbury's and was located about ten miles from their house. Before that expedition they had to unpack as so far all they had out was the toys. Only then would they have a full list of things they might need. Shelley had also left them both physical and web addresses for stores selling anything she thought they could possibly require.

The boys were keen to help. Chris put a sheet of paper on the kitchen table with a pen.

“Anything we find we need but don't have, we write it on the list, whatever it is. If you boys need help, you say so, okay?”

“Sure Dad,” Vin told him happily.

By the end of a productive afternoon they had a long list of items to get, but with their clothes and shoes in the wardrobes, toys on the shelves, DVDs under the TV and even a few books on the shelves, it was beginning to feel more like home. They pinned up as many pictures as they could on the cork board in the kitchen, the others were piled beside the fridge – needless to say, fridge magnets were near the top of their ‘to buy' list, just above multi region DVD player.

After a long day, and full up on the pizzas they found in the freezer, though it took the men a fair while to figure out how to use the Aga, it was clear the boys weren't going to last much longer, but before bed, they had to send some e-mails.

From:littlebit@hotmail.com

To:ezrastandish@atf-den.gov.org

Hi Uncle Ezra we are in England it is sunny we live in a nice house I think it used to be a stable, but it got no horses in it now, just lots of nice things and us. Me and Vin get to sleep in the big room but we put the big bed in your room so you can come and stay soon. Did you know they call fries chips here?

Love JD

PS Da says our house didn't used to be a stable he says a gardener used to live here. He musta been real rich to have all these nice things.

From:cowboyvin@hotmail.com

To:josiahsanchez@atf-den.gov.org

Hello Uncle Josiah. We have moved into the new house, it's not the one we showed you a picture of, but it is real nice and there is lots of space. We went to a pub called The Black Horse, that's a kind of bar, but kids can go there, they have a playground and nice food. Do you know when you can come and see us?

Love Vin

From:christopherAlarabee@hotmail.com

To:nathanjackson@atf-den.gov.org

Hi Nathan

See the attachment for all our news. Say Hi and give Rain a hug from all of us. Get Ezra and Josiah to forward their e-mails from the boys to you.

Chris and Buck

<><><><><><><>

The next day Chris and Buck decided to divide and conquer. Buck would take the Land Rover and head out to find the supermarket and Chris would stay home and order things online. The boys would have to play and amuse themselves for most of the day, but they didn't seem to mind.

“Dad?” Vin's voice interrupted Chris as he was trying to work out which multi region DVD player they needed and where to get one at the best price.

They had always known their DVDs wouldn't work on a UK player, but the idea of having to buy all new DVDs or worse not having any at all, was too grim to contemplate, so the men decided this was a priority.

“Mmm?” Chris responded.

“Can me and JD explore out back?”

The boys had been told they had to stay in and around the house or enclosed front garden.

“What was that?” Finally Chris looked up, and turned to find his son standing in the door of the den.

“We's bored, can we go explore behind the house?”

Chris thought about it; they were on a private estate, enclosed by a wall, there was no road behind the house, only an old, very overgrown gravel track that led into the woods. How much trouble could they get into?

“Okay, but you keep the house in sight at all times – okay?”

“Sure Dad!”

With that the boys took off at a run.

<><><><><><><>

Buck was returning home feeling triumphant, he had after all driven in a strange car, on the wrong side of the road, while following a GPS voiced by James Bond. Of course he knew it wasn't really Sean Connery, but he loved the idea of 007 instructing him to ‘turn left now' and announcing he had arrived at his destination ‘shaken but not stirred.' Chris hadn't bothered with the voice on their way down, he just followed Shelley. They never lost sight of her, so there had been no need to turn it on. His next triumph was to understand the parking pay meter system. He got two tickets, one to leave on the car, the other he took to the checkout. If a customer spent more than fifteen pounds, they got the car park fee back. He guessed since the car park was in the town anyone could use it, so this system allowed the supermarket to offer free parking to their customers, but not to other users.

Then he successfully found his way around the shop and located all the things on his list plus a few that weren't on it. The discovery of double stuff Oreo cookies had been a particular highlight. He'd also found Lucky Charms, but knowing how hyper they made JD, he'd picked up Cheerios instead.

Finally he'd got to use his new UK bank card. Shelley had taken them to the bank while they were staying at the airport hotel, and the pair was issued with debit cards and new credit cards.

“I already have a Visa card,” Chris had pointed out.

“I know, but it's not chipped.” Shelley pointed to the gold microchip in the card she was holding. “You'll have all kinds of problems if you can't use the chip and PIN machines.”

At the time Buck hadn't appreciated what she meant, but now he did. No one in the line in front of him had their card swiped and no one signed for anything. While they were at the bank they had reset their numbers to something they could remember – so it was another small personal triumph when he slipped his card in to the chip reader and tapped in his number to complete his transaction.

From Sainsbury's – with 007's help – he'd navigated his way to a store called Argos, where he was able to purchase everything he couldn't get from the supermarket; some workout weights for himself and Chris, and a coffee machine.

Loading up the car he smiled and patted the box containing the coffee machine. They had searched the kitchen looking for such a vital component to their everyday lives; even had JD crawl into the back of the corner cupboard, but to no avail. As a near constant supply of coffee was something they couldn't live without, purchasing one became a priority.

Both men knew there would be other things they needed and it looked like most of it could be bought at Argos. As he was leaving town Buck spotted a store called Homebase. Assuming, this might be similar to Home Depot, he pulled in for a look around. While it wasn't quite Home Depot, he did spot some cushions on sale and congratulated himself on thinking to get some. There were none in the living room, and while he'd never been much for cushions himself, he knew that Vin was more comfortable with a cushion behind his back. His mild scoliosis had not got worse and the doctor was hopeful it would self correct as he got older, but for now it did occasionally give him backache.

JD loved to watch TV lying on the floor, clutching a large cushion under his chest, so Buck picked up some red and cream cushions for the sofas and two extra large cushions for the floor. Just as he was leaving he spotted some seat pads, designed to be tied to a dining chair. He picked up three, one for Vin, and two for JD.

With the car full of all kinds of goodies, he headed for home. As he exited the last store, he couldn't fail to notice the gathering storm clouds and the heavy, oppressive atmosphere.

“'Bout time,” he muttered to himself, knowing a storm would clear and cool the air.

<><><><><><><>

Behind the house the boys quickly found two small buildings set against the high wall. Both were locked but the second one had a small window in the door. Standing on tiptoe, and cupping his hands around his face, Vin could just see inside.

“What is it?” JD asked from beside him.

“Not sure, it's too dark but I think I can see a lawnmower, so I guess it's a tool shed.”

With that they moved on to the edge of the wood. It was an enticing scene; the strong sunshine dappled in to illuminate the undergrowth, butterflies flitted, and insects darted about, not to mention the numerous birds and even a couple of squirrels. As much as they wanted to do otherwise, the boys kept to the rules and didn't venture too far in, always keeping the house in sight.

“What's that?” JD asked squatting down and pointing at something on the ground.

Vin turned back and looked at whatever his brother was pointing at.

“I reckon it's a snake.”

“It's too little,” JD protested.

“Nah, Dad told me snakes can be real small, or it could be a baby snake, but it won't hurt you. ‘Member, Buck told us there's only one snake in England that can hurt you and it's got a big black squiggly pattern on its back, not all smooth and shiny like that.”

JD wiggled his fingers over the object of his interest. “Can I pick it up?”

“No, never pick up an animal ‘less you know its safe, that's what Dad says. Anyways it's going now.”

The two boys watched as the strange creature slithered way into the undergrowth. JD waved his little hand. “Bye bye Mister Snake.”

Just then the peace of the wood was broken by the unmistakable sound of something big crashing though the undergrowth. As they had been taught, both boys stood still and waited to see what was making its way to them. There was a path a little ways off ahead of them, which ran out onto the gravel track. Between them and the path, the undergrowth was moving, as whatever it was approaching them was moving with some speed. Suddenly a big chocolate coloured Labrador, panting heavily, and its tail wagging madly, burst forth from the brambles and bracken.

“Hello doggy!” JD greeted happily as the dog bound up to them and started to lick their outstretched hands.

“Hey there.” Vin began to rub the dog's tummy.

Immediately he did this, it dropped to the ground and rolled onto its back, offering its belly for a good rub.

Vin could now see it was a male dog. “Okay, I guess we can do that boy.”

Both boys happily rubbed the dog's belly. “What does it say on the tag?” Vin asked.

JD looked at the brass disc hanging off the dog's collar and read it.

“My name is Bear. I am chipped,” he read aloud. “On the back it's got a phone number.” He gestured toward his brother. “Hello Bear, I'm JD and that's Vin, we just moved here. When our dogs get here you can come and play with them. Would you like that?”

They stroked, rubbed and tickled the very friendly Bear for at least ten minutes until their fun was interrupted by a piercing whistle coming from somewhere deep in the woods. Bear suddenly spun onto his feet and stood up; his tail momentarily paused from its seemingly perpetual wagging. The whistle came again. He took a few tentative steps forward, then he looked back at the boys.

“You better go,” Vin advised their new friend, waving his hand in command just as he'd seen Chris do.

At the third whistle the dog took off into the copse.

JD sighed. “I hope we meet him again, he's a nice doggy.”

Vin nodded, a wistful look on his face. “Yeah.”

<><><><><><>

Having said goodbye to Bear, and tired of the small amount of woodland they could explore without losing sight of the house, the boys returned to the small outbuildings they found earlier. Vin reasoned that the big wall was attached to the house and so it was therefore part of the house, so, as long as they could see the wall, they could see the house. Simple.

“Let's see where the wall goes?” he suggested. Grinning, he took the vigorous nodding from JD as a yes.

Past the workshop they found the wall was once more hidden behind overgrown bushes, but they could just see the top of it, and a narrow gravel path running between the wall and the wood. They hadn't gone but ten yards down this path, when JD, a few yards behind Vin, stopped dead.

“There you are!” he squealed excitedly.

Vin spun around, expecting so see Bear again, but all he could see was JD squatting down looking at the ground.

“What?” he asked slightly exasperated, if JD stopped for every creepy crawly he found they'd never get any exploring done.

“It's the little silver snake.”

“Cool!” Snakes were different, definitely worth stopping for.

By the time Vin had jogged back to him, the snake was slithering under a bush and headed toward the wall. JD, fascinated by it, lifted the bush, with its shiny green leaves. Under the leaves there was a surprising amount of space, easily enough room for two curious boys to follow a small slithering creature.

“Wow, look!” Vin exclaimed.

JD was just about to agree that the creature was great, when he realised that Vin was not looking at the snake, but standing up and staring straight ahead. JD followed his gaze and there, in the big wall was a door. It wasn't special or fancy; it was just an ordinary wooden door, painted black and with a dull metal doorknob and a keyhole. Hesitantly Vin approached the door; he clasped the knob and turned. It was stiff, but to his amazement, because he had convinced himself it would be locked, it moved. By now JD was standing beside him. Vin pushed the door; he felt it move just a fraction then stick. He pushed harder, leaning his shoulder into it. It moved a little more. JD came up beside him and pushed as well. For a second or two it looked like it wasn't going to open then all of a sudden the door swung open, taking two small boys flying after it.

<><><><><><><>

Once they had picked themselves up and dusted off their hands and knees they looked around. The high wall enclosed what had once been a garden, now it was overgrown, but they could pick out a gravel path between beds edged with terracotta, and possibly forming a cross through the centre of the garden, which gently sloped away from them.

“What is it?” JD asked.

“Don't know, let's explore?”

Vin might have asked a question, but he didn't wait for an answer, he just set out, picking his way through and past overgrown plants as he made his way down the path to their right. JD, with his ever unshakable faith in Vin, followed. They hadn't gone too far when they made a wonderful discovery, strawberries, growing wild all over the place. The plants were fighting for space between thistles, dandelions and bindweed, but they were heavy with juicy, plump fruit. Vin pulled one off, gave it a close inspection for bugs and holes, then, when he found it to be perfect, bit into it.

“Is it nice?” JD asked.

Vin just nodded, discarding the stalk and pulling off another one. JD didn't hesitate; he just grabbed one and stuffed it in his mouth. As the boys gorged themselves on strawberries they didn't notice the clouds beginning to gather overhead. Everyone had told them England was cold, dull and rainy, but in the few days they had been here it had been hot and sunny, all day, everyday; there had not been a cloud in the sky or a breath of wind and it was increasingly humid.

Finally replete on the sweet fruit, they moved on, finding several apple trees growing against a wall. Some of their branches grew in neat, parallel rows flat against the wall, while others shot out at random angles. They were heavy with the promise of fruit later in the season. In the centre of this walled garden they found the remains of bamboo poles with a tangle of bean vines growing up and around them.

“I think this used to be the vegetable patch,” Vin began.

“Like Uncle ‘Siah has in his garden and behind the youth centre?” JD asked.

“Yup.”

“It sure is bigger,” JD commented looking around.

They explored further. By the time they reached the very bottom of the walled garden they found what must have been the main entrance. There was a pair of once proud, brick pillars from which hung two matching ornate iron gates. They were secured with a heavy chain and padlock both of which looked old and very rusty. The gates were mostly hidden on the garden side by a thick shrub with wicked thorns on its stems. On the far side, beyond this shrub, was an overgrown avenue of evergreen trees which Vin didn't recognise. This entrance was as hidden as the small door they had found earlier.

“I'm thirsty,” JD announced.

“Me too.” Vin agreed.

While they stood there a strong gust of warm, damp wind swirled around them. Above the light clouds were rapidly turning to a dark, threatening, blue-grey.

“I wanna go home now,” JD declared, just as a heavy raindrop landed on his shoulder.

Vin held out his hand palm up gauging the rain. “Yeah. C'mon, the door is this way.”

As they walked the rain became very heavy, very fast. “Hurry!” Vin shouted and began to run.

<><><><><><><>

Chris looked up from the computer monitor and stretched. Fairly sure he had settled on the DVD they needed, he decided it was time for a coffee. As he walked from the den to the kitchen, it occurred to him it wasn't as bright as earlier. Filling the kettle at the sink, he glanced out at the window and up at the blackening sky. ‘Damn'.

Replacing the kettle onto its connector and pushing the on switch – the sooner Buck brought a coffee machine the better – Chris wandered toward the back door and stood there listening out for the boys' voices. When the first heavy raindrop hit his folded arms, the blond figured calling them back would be wise. Lord knows what had their attention right now.

“Guys! Vin – JD! Time to come in, boys!”

He frowned at no reply. The boys were dressed for the hot summer weather, shorts, tee shirts, sandals and sunscreen. JD hated having sunscreen put on, it was sticky and it held him up when he wanted to be outside. Vin wasn't fond of it himself but he never objected. He didn't need as much as JD or for it to be as strong, since – thanks to his Native American heritage – he tanned readily, but he wore it anyway. Buck, like Vin also tanned effortlessly and as a child had never needed any sun protection other than a cap, despite living in Las Vegas, but he too wore it now. Chris smiled as he recalled the ‘sunscreen talk' he'd overheard.

“The thing is buddy, Chris is like JD, one little whiff of the sun and he's gonna burn and that's real bad for you.” Buck had told Vin in confidence.

“They told us at school you can get cancer.” Vin told him.

“I know, your Uncle Nathan is always telling us to wear the special cream. It makes it much easier to make your dad and Little Bit put the stuff on, if we do as well, so will you help me and set JD a good example and I'll do the same for your dad?”

Vin nodded.

“It'll be our secret.” The two of them then shook on it.

Chris moved inside and tried to recall where he'd put his rain jacket. It seemed likely he was going to have to go look for them. Just then thunder exploded overhead. His coat forgotten he ran out into the storm.

<><><><><><><>

Right now, sunscreen was definitely not needed, both boys were already soaked to the skin, but there was nowhere to shelter, so they just kept running. Vin had little difficulty dodging and hurdling the various plants and branches that had encroached onto the path. JD however, being younger, less coordinated and with much shorter legs wasn't so swift and began to fall behind. In an effort to keep up, and on a relatively clear stretch of path, he put on a burst of speed. The trouble was in the now torrential rain, he didn't spot the bindweed growing across the path. The strong tendrils wrapped around his little ankles and sent him flying.

He lay there on the path for a second or two, before he called out to Vin and began to try and sit up. Vin skidded to a halt and then turned. By the time he got him on his feet JD was crying. Blood seeped from both knees and mixed with mud and gravel. Not that JD seemed to care; he was more concerned about the grazes to his hands.

“I want Da!” he sobbed as Vin took hold of his hands and held them out, palms up, for the rain to clean.

“I know, but you have to be brave until we get home, come on.” There was no time now for comfort and hugs, they had to get back to the house.

Taking his brother by the wrist, so as not to hurt his damaged hand further, they set out more slowly for the door. The rain was coming down so hard and fast it actually stung their heads as it hit them but there was nothing for it, but to press on.

“Oh no!” JD cried out.

Vin peered though the rain to find they had reached the door, but it was closed.

Vin released JD's wrist and ran to the door. “It must have blown shut,” he shouted, as he took told of the knob and began to turn it.

To his great relief the knob turned easily, very easily, too easily, but he pulled on it anyway. The door didn't move. He tugged harder, leaning back so his whole weight was pulling on the door. Still the door didn't open. He tried the door knob again, but it just went around and around; there was no resistance.

“I think it's broken,” he confessed to JD, who was staring at him in horror. “I think the knob on the other side fell off. I remember it happened at a place where me and Mom stayed once.”

Just then the biggest clap of thunder they had ever heard crashed overhead.

<><><><><><><>

Part 2

Buck was ready to leave the town, when he remembered to check the gas gauge. There wasn't much left of the quarter tank the car had come with. He began to look out for a gas station – petrol station – Buck corrected himself. Finding a place on the edge of town he pulled in to a pump. Getting out of the car he stared at the price displayed in the window.

“1.35? Shoot, that ain't so bad,” he muttered to himself.

Noticing a pretty brunette filling up on the other side to him, Buck grinned. “Ma'am.”

The woman smiled back. “Hello. Nice accent. Are you on holiday here?”

“No ma'am, we...my family and me, are here for a year. It's job related.”

“I see,” she nodded. “Your wife didn't mind the move?”

“Wife? Uh, no...it's just me and my son...and my buddy and his boy...” Buck paused. “Long story.” He pointed to the cost of the fuel. “I figured this would be a whole lot more expensive. Even converting it, it's only around two dollars or so.”

Replacing the hose, the woman tapped the screen. “The price is in litres, not gallons. You're looking at around 5 a gallon, which, I think is...”

“Eight dollars a gallon...shoot.” His eyebrow rose. “I guess we won't be taking this baby out too much while we're here, huh?”

Taking her card from the automatic pay pump, the brunette smiled. “Nice meeting you.”

Buck nodded. “Likewise, ma'am.” He watched her go, then stared at the pump. “Ah well. I guess staring at it won't fill my tank, will it?”

It took him a few minutes to work out he actually had to hold the pump handle the whole time to keep the fuel flowing. While he was figuring this out the first rain drops began to fall.

“Typical, trust Chris to get the nice, cosy inside job.”

Despite the reasonably short journey back, by the time Buck was pulling up outside the house the storm was overhead. He sprinted into the kitchen, drenched even in those few feet.

“Damn that is some storm,” he exclaimed.

No one answered him.

<><><><><><><>

The boys were huddled behind the stuck door; JD had forgotten his scraped hands as he clamped them over his ears.

“Maybe there's another door?” Vin speculated. “We never looked along that wall.” He pointed over to the wall that backed onto their own garden.

“But we ‘splored the garden,” JD pointed out. “And there's no door in that wall.”

“Well I'm gonna go look, you stay here.”

“No, I don't wanna be on my own,” JD protested.

“You gotta stay, in case someone comes, and if they do you start shoutin'.”

“No one will hear me, the rain's too…” Just then another thunderclap drowned him out and once more he clamped his hands over his ears – screwing up his eyes too, just in case.

Vin looked around. Spotting something he told JD to wait. It only took him a few moments to pull out one of the terracotta edging tiles. He handed it to JD.

“Here, bang on the door with this,” he instructed.

“Shall I do SOS, like Da taught us, quick, quick, quick, long, long, long, quick, quick, quick?”

“Good idea, do that, I'm gonna look for another door.”

Reluctantly leaving his little brother, Vin set out into the storm to search for a way out of their prison. On the far wall, just as JD predicted he found no door, but there were more fruit trees with their branches trained to grow horizontally along the wall. To him it looked a lot like a ladder. If he could get up on top of the wall, especially the wall overlooking the garden, he might attract some help. He had to clamber over some sweet smelling bush to reach the tree. It should have been easy, he was good at climbing trees, but the driving rain made it far from easy. The branches were wet and slippery, and so were his hands. He couldn't see properly and try as he might to be brave, he began trembling with fear. He was only six feet up when another massive thunderclap made him jump. That was all it took for him to lose his grip.

He landed in the bush he'd clambered over and to some degree it cushioned his landing. He lay there taking deep breaths, while trying to figure out what had happened and if he was hurt. He ached, but everything seemed to be working as he slowly tried to push himself to his feet. Suddenly there was the sound of breaking glass and the bush under his hand unexpectedly dropped. Luckily he managed to pull his hand up before it followed the bush through into an old cold frame below him. With care he managed to stand and pick his way back to the path.

<><><><><><><>

JD was diligently banging out SOS and calling for his father with considerable lung power. Overhead the storm continued to rage on. At first there was almost no lag between the lightning and the thunder, indicating it was right overhead. The rain was so heavy that the path in front of him, which ran straight down the garden toward the gates, was now a small stream. Since he didn't have a watch, the five year old had no way to gauge how long he'd been there, other than knowing the storm seemed to be moving away, there was now a gap between the thunder and the lightning. Buck had taught him how to count in seconds.

He watched the lightning split the sky. “One elephant, two elephant, three ele…” He clamped his hands over his ears when the thunder exploded overhead.

A rhythmic pattern between the wild weather, calls for help, and counting, emerged. “Da!” Tap out SOS. “Da!” Tap out SOS. “Da I'm in here!” Tap out SOS. “One elephant, two elephant, three elephant, four…” Thunder. “Please Da,” he whimpered as the latest thunderclap rumbled way and still the rain came down.

He continued this routine until the thunder was seven ‘elephants' away from the lightning. Just as he was about to start tapping again, he caught sight of a figure limping toward him. The rain was too heavy to clearly see who it was but he knew it had to be Vin. JD was so relieved he leapt to his feet and ran to meet him. He had just reached him when he pulled up short.

“Oh, oh…oh no!” he stammered in horror, before a wail to turn blood cold emerged. “DA!”

<><><><><><><>

Buck had been surprised that no one came when he called, but after a quick check to make sure there really was no one home, and using the big golf umbrella conveniently propped up by the back door, he began to unload the car. He wasn't worried to find the place deserted, maybe Chris and the boys had gone for a walk and were sheltering from the storm – but Chris would have seen that a storm was imminent, why would he go so far from home that they couldn't get back? Maybe they had met some of the neighbours and were with them – but why would he not lock the door? Come to think of it, why was the computer still on?

Okay scrub the whole not worried thing; he was worried and confused and maybe even a little angry. After shoving all the food that needed to be kept cool into the fridge or the freezer he pulled out his cell phone and called Chris. Larabee answered almost instantly.

“Where the hell are you?!” Buck demanded.

“Looking for the boys. Where are you?”

Buck went rigid. “What do you mean looking for the boys?”

“Where are you?” Chris asked again.

“In the kitchen. What did you mean, ‘looking for the boys'?”

“Hang on, I'm almost back.”

It was probably only seconds but to Wilmington it felt like hours as he stood in the kitchen doorway. Suddenly there was Chris, soaked to the skin, sprinting toward him.

“Where are the boys?!” Buck demanded again.

“I don't know,” Chris admitted. “I was working on the computer, and it started to rain, so I assumed they'd come in, but they didn't. I called them, but there was no sign of them.”

“No sign of them? It's not that big a yard,” Buck pointed out incredulously.

“Damnit, I know!” Chris composed himself. “They were out back, they were bored and Vin asked if they could explore the woods.”

“And you let them?! We don't know anything about these woods!”

“He promised they would stay within sight of the house, I thought it would be okay. I just don't understand why they didn't come home when it started to rain.”

Buck pulled a hand though his own wet hair and took a breath to clear his head. “Did you check the house?”

“Yes, twice.”

“Everywhere?”

“Under the beds, in the closets, under the tables, in the bathrooms, I checked everywhere.”

“Okay, what about those outbuildings?”

“A wood store and a workshop, they were locked, but I found the keys on that bunch hanging over the door.”

“The old stables?”

“Checked, twice.”

“Shit!” Buck was unaware he'd begun to pace. “Have you been to the big house yet?”

“No, I tried to call the number we have for the Residents' Association but it says there is a fault on the line - must be the storm. I say we both check outside one more time, then I'll go to the house; while you stay here in case they come back.”

“And if we don't find them?”

“We call the police.”

<><><><><><><>

Vin didn't understand why JD was looking at him with such horror on his face. He guessed he must have some grazes, both his legs hurt some and he had a big scratch on his arm. JD was looking at his legs so he took a look. There was a gash on his right shin, a huge, diagonal gash, at least four inches long. Blood was streaming from it, running freely down his shin, soaking into his sandals and being washed away by the rain into the ground.

For a while he stared at it, it didn't hurt much, no more than the scratch on his arm. Looking up he could see how scared JD was.

“Don't worry, it's the rain, it makes it bleed more,” he told him, trying to sound confident.

The two of them walked back to the door and continued to tap and shout for help. Suddenly, as the latest clap of thunder faded away, JD heard something.

He jumped up and down banging on the door madly. “Da! Da! Da!”

Vin, mostly standing on one leg, also banged on the door, calling for his father.

“You do it back!” JD urged. “Like Chris was teaching you.”

“I can't always do it,” Vin confessed.

“Try.”

<><><><><><><>

It was a last minute thought. They were about to move to plan B when Buck put his fingers to his mouth and whistled, just as he would to call the dogs in at night. Maybe it was just dumb luck, maybe it was the higher pitch, but whatever it was they both heard a response. It wasn't easy to hear over the rain, but there it was, an answering whistle.

It took a while to locate the boys and the door, but finally there was only the old door between them.

“I think the knob fell off!” Vin shouted.

“Yeah, it did, just hang on, Chris is fixing it,” Buck assured.

Seconds later the door was open and the boys and fathers were reunited. Scooping their sons up into their arms, there was then a mad dash as the boys were carried back to the house. They all but burst into the kitchen. Chris put Vin down on the table, while Buck deposited JD on the draining board.

“My leg's bleeding,” Vin supplied, somewhat superfluously.

“I can see that Son, don't worry, it's not too bad,” Chris lied smoothly as he grabbed the clean linen cloth hanging from the rail of the Aga. Folding the cloth into a pad he held it against the gaping cut.

“Ouch!” Vin exclaimed as pressure was applied.

“Sorry Cowboy, but I need to stop the bleeding.” He turned his head to Buck. “We're going to have to go to the hospital.”

“No!” Vin protested.

Chris turned back to Vin. “I'm sorry Son, it has to be done.” He gave his son a reassuring hug, and then turned back to Buck. “We better both go, come on.” He went to lift Vin down from the table.

“Stop,” Buck commanded.

“Stop? He's bleeding…”

“And very wet, we all need put dry clothes on.” Chris was about to protest, but Buck cut him off. “Think about it.”

“Owch, owch, owch!” Buck was still in the process of cleaning JD's knees and wasn't paying proper attention.

“Sorry Buddy,” he apologised as he lifted JD down and led him to the little room off the kitchen that housed the washing machine and tumble dryer. “Strip off, and leave your clothes in there,” he told him. “Then run upstairs and put on some dry shorts and a shirt.”

JD, with his total inhibition and complete faith in his father, immediately stripped to his birthday suit, leaving all his clothes in a sodden, muddy heap on the laundry room floor. Buck wasn't far behind him, although he stopped short of shedding his underwear.

“Once we get back you go and change,” Buck told Chris as he followed JD upstairs.

They were back in no time; JD was carrying a bundle of clothes for Vin. While they had been away Chris found the first aid box, but considering how much blood had seeped into the cloth, he decided rather than put on a thin dressing, he'd just tape the cloth in place.

“Go change,” Buck told him on his return. “I'll get Vin into something dry.”

Chris, nowhere near as uninhibited as the other half of the family, was still fully clothed as he ran upstairs to change. Buck had picked up Vin's baggy swimming shorts, his logic being that if they got blood on them, they'd be easier to wash and being baggy they would fit over any dressing. By the time Chris was back, Vin was dressed in his swimmers and a tee shirt and strapped into the back of the car with JD beside him.

“I'll drive,” Buck told Chris firmly, as they pulled the door closed and headed for the car.

Chris didn't say anything; he just headed for the passenger seat.

<><><><><><><>

The sat nav, complete with 007 voice kicked in at the gate.

“Really?” Chris asked as James Bond told them to turn left.

“Would you rather it was Homer Simpson?” Buck asked. Chris just gave him a look. “See he'll grow on you – or we could have Darth Vader?”

“Just drive.”

Finding the hospital didn't prove to be too difficult, but there was more traffic than they would have liked, since it was the beginning of the rush hour and still raining. Nonetheless they made it without getting lost. Finding the hospital was one thing, parking was something else entirely. To Buck, it seemed that the car park was apparently designed specifically to make it difficult to get a car in or out of any space and had only about half the spaces allocated that was actually needed.

“Look there, it says Accident and Emergency, that must be the place.” Chris pointed to the large red sign.

“I see it, can't see where to park though. I'll drop you and Vin at the door, then park up and bring Little Bit in with me.”

<><><><><><><>

Chris piggy-backed Vin in to the A&E reception, his bloodied improvised bandage visible for all to see. There were about twenty people sitting on the hard plastic chairs and another three lining up to book in. Summoning up as much patience as he could muster, Chris joined the queue. After about ten minutes, which felt like an eternity with a trembling child on his back, it was their turn.

“Hello, how can we help?” the lady asked.

“My son has had an accident, he's cut his leg very badly,” Chris told her.

“Okay, let me get some details.” She asked him how it happened and when; how old Vin was, their address and then their doctor's name.

“Well I don't know if we have one in the UK yet,” Chris explained. “We only got here four days ago, and only moved in yesterday.”

The lady looked up at Vin, her face full of sympathy. “Oh no, not a good start to your stay Sweetie?”

Vin shook his head.

“Never mind, we'll get you all fixed up in no time.”

“Do you need my insurance details?” Chris asked.

“It depends, how long will you be in Britain?”

“About eleven months.”

“Once you register with a GP that means you are classed as a resident, at least by the NHS, but even if you weren't, emergency treatment is free for everyone.” She typed some more then looked up to find Chris staring at her incredulously.

“Free?” he asked. “Just how free?”

“Free, as in it costs you nothing.”

“Nothing now and pay later?”

“Nothing as in nothing at all, ever.” She smiled “Honestly, now I have your son on my system; it says he does have a doctor.” Chris frowned at her. “Vincent Michael Tanner, aged seven, living at The Gardener's Cottage, Waltham Park?”

“Yes?”

“Says here he's registered with Doctor Collier at Woodlands Park Surgery.”

On hearing the name Chris remembered filling out some form Shelley had sent to them, she told them it was for their National Health Service registration.

“Okay, great, what now?”

“Well you are all set here, so go to the doors on the left; someone will buzz you in, then follow the yellow line to the paediatric A&E area.” She smiled at Vin. “It's nicer in there, and you'll get seen quicker than the grownups do.”

Chris just remembered to tell the lady to expect Buck and JD, before the door buzzer went and they were though the doors to the treatment area.

<><><><><><><>

Following the yellow line, they walked past the minor injuries treatment area and around into the children's area. It had its own reception desk, two curtained areas, a separate treatment room for teens and an enclosed waiting area, with books, toys, Lego and even computer games.

“We are a bit busy, lots of people slipping over in the rain,” the nurse on the desk explained. “But someone will triage your son in a few minutes and then you'll have to wait.”

“How long?”

“It depends on the severity of his injury and how busy we are.”

<><><><><><><>

As far as Buck was concerned, come the revolution, whoever designed the hospital car park would be one of the first up against what was in his mind becoming a very long firing wall, currently populated by child molesters, rapists, drug dealers, the little shits who thought up computer viruses and anyone who thought sprouts were edible. His hunt for a parking space also gave him an insight as to why most Brits drove small cars! The quicker they collected their second car, the better.

By the time he arrived with JD on his hip, Vin had hobbled over to the Lego table and was beginning to build a replica of the ambulance he'd seen outside.

“I wanna play with Vin,” JD demanded, wiggling to be let down.

“Hold on Little Bit.” Buck turned his attention to the nurse. “I'm here with them.” He pointed to Chris. “But we left in a bit of a hurry. I didn't get through cleaning his scrapes.” He lifted up one of JD's legs – not that the five year old noticed, all he cared about now was Lego. “Is there a bathroom I can use?”

The nurse looked at him, apparently puzzling something out. “Well,” she began, “the bathroom really isn't for public use, but the loo is just there, you could use the basin in there or…”

“Or?”

“I've got a student nurse around here who could use the practice, if you want …?”

“Sounds good to me, ma'am.”

Buck dropped down onto the hard plastic chair one seat over from Chris, as JD joined Vin at the Lego. “How long do we wait?” he asked.

“Depends on how busy they are, yada, yada, yada…”

“Okay. Some student nurse is gonna patch up JD for me.” Buck told him with a grin. “It's a win win situation.”

“She's gonna be at least 15 years your junior, if not more,” Chris pointed out.

“I know.”

“We have been in the country less than a week.”

“I know.”

“It's not natural.”

“Nothing more natural bro.”

“You know, anyone would think we weren't related.”

“Amazing isn't it?”

Their increasingly bizarre conversation was interrupted by a deep voice. “I'm looking for a little boy with grazes?”

Both men looked up to see a young man in blue scrubs standing in front of them.

“And you are?” Buck asked.

“Student nurse, Patel.”

Buck threw Chris a sideways glance. “Of course you are.”

Now it was Chris who was grinning. “Have fun!”

JD was less than happy to leave his new construction, but followed his father and Nurse Patel out to the treatment area. Only minutes later someone called for ‘Vincent Tanner'.

“Come on Buddy, that's you,” Chris reminded.

<><><><><><><>

Vin's cut had been glued together. He'd sat still and hadn't cried as it was cleaned, glued and steri-strips placed across the wound to keep it together. The nurse practitioner had then asked about Vin's tetanus status.

“When did he last have a tetanus shot?” she asked.

“I think it was last year, when he was in the hospital,” Chris told her.

“Hospital? What for?”

“I got shot,” Vin supplied, lifting up his shirt to show her his scar. “Dad rescued me,” he explained with pride.

The nurse gave Chris a look that said, ‘you'd better explain that one'.

“I'm a federal agent Ma'am. Vin was hit by a stray bullet fired by some gunrunners.”

She looked at Chris for a long time, perhaps deciding whether or not to accept this or pursue it further. Then she smiled. “And you're sure he had a tetanus shot at that time?” she asked.

“Sure, he had every shot going.”

She turned to Vin. “Is that right?”

Vin nodded. “Sure is, me and JD had lots and lots of shots.”

“Ah, JD's the wee lad with the dark hair?”

“Yes Ma'am.”

“Well you young man are very brave, and we are all done.” She looked up at Chris. “He'll need to keep it covered and dry for at least four days. Change the dressing the day after tomorrow, I'll give you some spare dressings to take home. I suggest you make an appointment with your surgery to see the Practice nurse after four days.”

Chris had quickly worked out that ‘surgery' meant doctor's office, and the term ‘Practice Nurse' was another name for the surgery's resident treatment nurse. They met Buck and JD in the waiting area. JD's various grazes had been cleaned up and he was now sporting a number of dressings. He didn't really need them, all his injuries were superficial, but when told this he gave poor young Patel the ‘big eyes' not to mention the never fails ‘quivering bottom lip', from that moment on, the dressing were a foregone conclusion.

<><><><><><><>

As they drove way from the hospital, and since neither man could face the prospect of cooking once they got home, they stopped at a restaurant chain recommended by the nurse. The Harvester turned out to have a very familiar feel to it, and after everything that had happened, it was somehow comforting. By the time they got home with their full bellies, it was late and they were all tired, so it was not surprising then that they didn't notice the crisp white envelope lying on the doormat behind the front door; the door that they never used. Nor did they notice it in the morning as they tucked into breakfast, started on the pile of wet laundry, and then finally began to unpack and put away everything Buck had purchased the day before.

The boys were elated with the Oreos.

“But there's more,” Buck announced, pulling two jars from the shopping bag.

“Peanut butter!” the boys chorused.

“Smooth, crunchy and…” he pulled out another jar. “Choc chip.”

“What is this?” Chris asked holding up a large box.

“It's a box of cookies,” Buck explained in a patronising voice.

“We already have Oreos.”

“I know but I thought we could try some British ones, which are called biscuits by the way, and see which ones we like. Plus these.” Buck held up a pack of something called Penguins. “Apparently they are chocolate cookies, with chocolate filling covered in chocolate.”

Chris just shook his head in exasperation, sometimes he really did feel he was living with three boys!

“And this.” Buck showed a tin to Chris, who's eyes widened in horror even as his mouth twitched into a grin.

“What is it Dad? Vin asked.

Chris rapidly grabbed the tin of ‘Spotted Dick' from Buck and tried to shove it into his pocket. Buck leaned in and whispered in his ear.

“Just be grateful I didn't buy Mr Brain's Faggots.”

“You're kidding!” Chris hissed.

“Swear to God.”

Just then while the boys were discovering the delights of jars of Nutella and raspberry jam, there was a polite knock at the open kitchen door.

<><><><><><><>

Part 3

“Hello, anyone home?”

All four spun around to find an older lady standing in the doorway; she was dressed in a simple floral skirt, a white blouse and carrying an old fashioned basket over her arm.

“Um, hello?” Buck responded.

“Did you get my note?” she asked.

“Don't think so.”

“Oh, right well, let me introduce myself.”

Her name was Jane Green, tall and thin with angular features and thick, wiry, grey hair. She explained that she lived in an apartment in the big house. Her husband Eric, was the chairman of the Residents Association and she was there to welcome them to Waltham Park.

“Eric is in town today, or he'd have come himself. We are a small community but we like to think a friendly one. Marcus told us he was putting the house up to let, but we weren't expecting tenants quite so soon,” she explained.

“Who's Marcus?” Chris asked.

“Your landlord, Marcus Little, he works for the Foreign Office, a real high flyer I believe. He had to go overseas,” she leaned in conspiratorially. “Very hush, hush. So…” She looked around the men to the two small boys standing in the kitchen. “And who might these handsome young gentlemen be?”

Chris made the introductions and the explanations. The one thing he didn't mention was yesterday's adventure.

“Well you are all very welcome.” She put her basket down. “I made this, to say hello.” She lifted out a cake tin. “One never knows these days, people have so many allergies, so I hope it is all right, it's just a lemon sponge cake.”

Buck snapped into action, stepping forward to accept the gift.

“Thank you Ma'am, that is real kind of you. Boys?” he prompted.

JD trotted forward. “Thank you.”

“Now let me see if I can get his right, you are JD?” she asked, trying to remember what Chris had told her.

“Yup and that's Vin,” JD volunteered.

Vin limped forward. “Thank you for the cake Ma'am.”

“My, what polite boys you have,” she complimented, then she turned back to the two men. “Do you have plans for this evening?”

Chris looked at Buck, who shook his head. “No, I don't think so,” he responded.

“Well Eric and I would love for you to come to dinner, let us welcome you properly.”

<><><><><><><>

“Da!” JD yelled from the boy's bedroom.

“What?” Buck yelled back.

“Do I looks okay?”

Buck, himself still shirtless, looked down the corridor toward his son, who was now standing in the doorway of his room.

“I'll come and comb your hair in a minute, but other than that you look okay.”

Jane had made it clear that this was just a casual dinner, nothing fancy, nonetheless they wanted to make a good impression. Vin, already dressed in his best long trousers and a short sleeve check shirt, was sitting on Chris' bed, watching his father dress.

“You look fine too,” Chris assured. “Why don't you go and comb JD's hair?”

“He won't let me, he wants Buck to do it.”

“Ah, okay.” Chris flattened down his own hair and then turned to his son. “Do I pass muster?”

“You look real sharp Dad, not as sharp as you look in your court suit, but good.”

“Right, well good to know.” Chris paused to look at Vin again. “Are you okay?”

Vin shrugged.

“Leg hurting?”

“It's okay, it just kinda aches a bit.”

“So what's up?” Vin chewed his lip, not sure how to explain. “They are just people, like us,” Chris reminded.

“I know.”

“Mrs Green must be good cook, that cake was delicious, wasn't it?” Vin nodded. “Just be yourself, anything else, I got your back – right?”

Finally Vin seemed to relax a little. “Thanks Dad.”

“Anytime, Cowboy.”

JD sat patiently on his bed for Buck to arrive. As his legs swung back and forth, he stared at the dressings on his knees, then around at the room that was to be his and Vin's special place for a whole year.

One-long-year.

JD sighed, and Buck just caught it as he entered the room. “Y'alright there, Li'l Bit?”

“Uh huh.”

“JD?” The brunet tilted his head and made a face at his son, causing the boy to grin.

“You think our bedroom's missin' us, Da?”

Smiling, Buck sat down next to his boy. “Sure it is. For one, it's tidy for the first time in a year.”

JD giggled and sighed happily when his father scooped him up. Snatching up the comb, Buck attempted to put some order to the dark, glossy, wayward tendrils. He smiled.

“All done.”

JD giggled again. “That's me.”

“You?”

“Uh huh. All Dunne.”

Delighted at his son's semi-decent joke, Buck tickled him before setting him down and making him do a twirl before giving him the thumbs up. “Okay, we ready to make new friends?”

“Yeah!”

“Let's do this,” Buck grinned, hoping he sounded more positive than he felt.

<><><><><><><>

The Greens lived in a large apartment on the ground floor of the big house, their living room looked out over the formal gardens at the back of the house. The dinning table was set in a huge bay window to the side of this room. It had long French doors, which were open, and had views our over more cultivated garden, with a long hedged avenue stretching down to a statue. The apartment was furnished in an eclectic mix of what looked like genuine antiques, more modern but still old furniture and what must have been fairly recent acquisitions.

More importantly to the boys, they had a West Highland dog called Hamish. The terrier greeted them all enthusiastically.

“I'm sorry, I didn't ask; are you okay with dogs?” Jane asked.

“Don't worry,” Buck assured, “If you'd have mentioned a dog this morning, the boys would have probably followed you home then and there.”

“We chose this place, when we were down-sizing, because they permit pets, most places like these don't,” Eric explained, once they were all introduced. “Here.” He handed Vin a small, empty, plastic bottle. “Throw that for him down the corridor, he'll be your friend for life.”

While the boys played throw and chase in the corridor with Hamish, the adults enjoyed a drink and a chat before dinner. Physically Eric was the opposite of his wife, shorter, with round features and very little hair, his voice had a deep gravelly quality and his manner was one of quiet authority. During their conversation he confirmed what both men had suspected, that he was ex-military, a retired colonel no less.

“I was mostly in transport and logistics, not as glamorous as some regiments, but where would the army be without us?” he asked with a smile.

“Still in barracks with no toilet tissue,” Buck supplied.

Eric laughed. “True! Were you ever in the military Mr Wilmington?”

“Army, and please, call me Buck.” Buck nodded to Chris. “Chris is ex-Navy, but I don't hold that against him.”

“No one's perfect,” Eric added.

Chris scowled at both of them.

<><><><><><><>

Jane stood in the doorway of the kitchen, her two smallest visitors had quickly worked out that Hamish liked them to spin the bottle along the tiled hallway.

“Boys,” she announced. “It's time to wash up for dinner.”

“Yes Ma'am,” Vin responded limping toward her.

JD pulled himself away from the little dog and trotted up to her. “I like Hamish,” he told her with a grin.

“Well I think he likes you too.” Hamish was now standing between both boys, bottle in his mouth, tail wagging furiously. “Hamish, dead,” she commanded.

The small dog immediately dropped the bottle, which she retrieved and took into the kitchen, two boys and one dog following her. The bottle disappeared into a bin marked ‘recycle'. She pointed to where a small step had been placed in front of the kitchen sink.

“Wash your hands boys,” she instructed.

As they worked on this task she asked them if they liked roast chicken. “I want you to enjoy the meal, so don't say yes just to be polite,” she told them.

“Yes Ma'am we both like chicken,” JD told her.

“What about smoked salmon?”

Both boys hesitated. “I don't know what it is,” JD admitted.

“Sure you do,” Vin told him, “It's that fish Uncle Josiah puts in his bagel with cream cheese.”

JD made a face.

“I like it but JD don't,” Vin explained.

“Not a problem, what about ham? Do you like ham?” Jane asked JD.

A dark mop of hair bobbed up and down.

“Good. Now for dessert we're having trifle.” Vin and JD looked blankly at her. “Do you know what trifle is?”

Both boys shook their heads.

“Do you like cake?” she asked. They nodded. “Raspberries?” More affirmative nods. “Milk?” They both liked milk. “Vanilla flavour?”

Puzzled expressions, then Vin remembered something. “Like ice cream?”

“Well it's not ice cream but it's the same flavour,” Mrs Green explained.

With that settled JD was sent to call the men to the table and Vin helped to carry in the plates of smoked salmon and one of ham. Food-wise the only hiccup came when the boys were faced with roast potatoes. Vin needed to be assured by his father that he would like them and then JD, more prepared to try new foods, almost burnt his tongue on the piping hot delicacy.

“Oh no son, you want to let them cool off for a while,” Colonel Green warned him as he lifted half a roast potato to his lips, and blew on it.

The trifle was big hit, though Chris and Buck were quietly surprised to taste a small quantity of alcohol in it, given that it was served to children. The boys however loved it and whatever the alcohol was there wasn't much of it, so it wasn't going to do them any harm.

During the meal JD asked Mr Green about the small silver snake he'd seen. Eric explained that it wasn't a snake but a kind of legless lizard called a Slow Worm.

“They're harmless, you can pick them up if you want, but be carful, they will try to nip you if they feel threatened,” he explained.

This conversation eventually moved on and the boys' mishap in the old kitchen garden finally came up. Assured that Vin's injury was minor and would heal, Eric was concerned that the boys were able to get in at all.

“I am so sorry,” he began. “I know about the garden, but was sure it was all locked up. Of course there are no children living here, or rather there weren't until you arrived, but there are dogs, so I have asked the property's Management Company to make sure it's secure.”

“Don't worry about it,” Chris assured. “I took a look at the door this morning, it looks like the lock bolt sheered off when Vin pushed on the door. Some kind of metal fatigue probably.”

“Possibly the winter we just had, coldest for years.”

“Yeah that might have done it. The screws holding the door handle in place looked okay, but the wood has shrunk, there's nothing for them to grip anymore.”

“Well don't worry, I'll see to it that a new lock and a new handle are fitted as soon as possible.”

“Appreciate it,” Chris told him.

They all had a wonderful evening and well fed and tired, the four headed home just after ten. Chris piggybacked Vin, as his leg was aching. Buck picked JD up when he began to drop behind, he was asleep by the time they made it home. Before he'd been able to pick his son up, he'd had to pry the book Mrs Green had lent them from JD's little hand.

“Have you read it?” she had asked Buck, on learning he was the family bedtime storyteller.

“No Ma'am,” he admitted.

“Well it was a favourite of mine, and I think the boys will enjoy it.” She looked down at JD, standing beside his father, and gazing up at her. “My mother gave me this book and I read it to my children and one day, when they are older, I will read it to my grandchildren. Can I trust you to look after it?”

“Yes Ma'am, I promise to looked after it real well,” JD assured, he knew how important a gift from your mother was.

With the boys in bed, Chris and Buck grabbed a beer and both dropped down into a recliner. Buck looked at the book. It was a big, old hardback, with a plain blue cloth cover.

“So what's it called?” Chris asked.

“The Secret Garden.” Buck looked over at Chris, book still in hand. “You know, I have a feeling this little adventure of ours is going to be okay.” He leaned over and the two men clinked bottles.

“You know, I think you're right,” Chris agreed.

The End
Continues in Friendly Neighbours and Four for Sunday Lunch

Feedback to: katyhmason@hotmail.com


Glossary:

NHS – National Heath Service

Trifle – A popular dessert made with sponge cake (my family use Swiss roll), fruit, custard, whipped cream and sherry. Please note there is NO jelly/jello in trifle, there just isn't! Sue begs to differ.

Loo – Toilet.

Copse – Small area of woodland

Mews Apartment – Apartments over garages or, less commonly, stables.

Slow Worm

Roast Potatoes – this is a good recipe, although his comments about British food are wrong and Brits do have a concept of comfort food.

Penguins

Sainsbury's

Mr. Brain's Faggots

Spotted Dick

Aga – popular (if large, heavy and expensive) brand of stored heat cooker that can that be fuelled by oil, gas, electricity (rarely) or solid fuel – wood or coal. As well as cooking, an Aga can heat your hot water and central heating.