Chapter Three
An Agreement

 
On his way home, Niklas once more tried ringing the doorbell of Mr. Donner's house. Again, there was no answer. He thought briefly about leaving a note but in the end decided that it would be better to break this news in person. There was still nobody home as he entered his house so he went up to his room and started drawing spaceships. He had intended to check periodically for Mr. Donner's return but he was soon lost in a fantasy world, his mind wandering the galaxy in spaceships of his own imagination. He did not notice when his mother came home, nor when Mr. Donner rang the doorbell. 
Niklas was diving through the stars in a sleek streamlined silver spaceship, the roar of the engine merging with the song of the stars. The sounds echoed through his dreams and seemed to call his name. 
"Niklas." 
Niklas turned his ship towards the sound and dived into the light of a star-becoming-a-sun. 
"Niklas." 
Niklas woke with a start. He had been dreaming but the sound had woken him, the sound of his mother calling. 
"Niklas, can you come down here a moment." 
Niklas yawned and blinked his bleary eyes, working his mouth to rid it of the bitter after taste of sleep. 
"Niklas?" 
"Coming mother." 
Downstairs, Niklas heard the murmur of voices from the living room, his mothers and an unfamiliar one. He walked in and looked. 
There was Mr. Donner, sitting opposite his mother in his father's favorite armchair. All of a sudden the events of the day came back to Niklas and he was suddenly wide awake and blushing towards his feet. After a brief pause, Niklas' mother spoke. 
"Well Niklas, have you something you want to say to Mr. Donner?"
Niklas blushed even deeper. 
"We… I mean…" then suddenly, all in a rush, "it was an accident, we didn't mean to, we did try to replace it." 
"And you found out you couldn't." Mr. Donners' voice was kind and gentle. "It's alright, I know you didn't do it deliberately."
Mr. Donner chewed his lip for a moment." 
"The thing is, that Gnome was a present from my sister and quite irreplaceable."
Niklas shoulders slumped and his head sank even further. He looked so pitiful that for a moment Mr. Donner was tempted to relent, but Niklas' mother spoke first. 

Niklas looked so pitiful.
"We know that you can't replace the Gnome but we think you should do something to make up for your carelessness." 
"Anything," said Niklas looking at his mother with open eyed sincerity. "We really want to make it all ok." 
Niklas mother looked up at Mr. Donner but, getting no help from him, she continued. 
"We think that you and your friends should help Mr. Donner with his garden for a week or so. That would repay him for what you did. There are some things that Mr. Donner just can't do anymore so we think that you should do them for him." 
Niklas slowly nodded. "Ok, we'll all help because we were all there. But Keith can't start until Monday because he is at his mother's for the weekend." 
Mr. Donner nodded. "That's alright. I need to get some things ready anyway, I can do that tomorrow and you can all start on Monday." 
Niklas smiled a smile that lit up the room. He nodded. Mr. Donner felt like a heel. 
"Ok." 
There was a moments awkward silence, then Mrs. Edlund spoke. 
"Ok, that's sorted. Would you like another cup of tea Mr. Donner? And perhaps some biscuits?" 
"Oh thank you no, Mrs. Edlund but I have to make some phone calls, get some things organized for tomorrow. Mr. Donner stood up and offered his hand to Mrs. Edlund. "Thank you for the tea Mrs. Edlund. And thank you, young man." 
Niklas looked at the man's proffered hand in surprise and pleasure, then took it with a shy smile. Mr. Donner shook his hand and smiled back at him. 
Niklas stood by while his mother showed Mr. Donner to the door, looking after them with a quizzical expression on his face. Mr. Donner was not so bad after all, in fact he was quite nice. Niklas wondered why he was not supposed to have talked to the old man. 
Mrs. Edlund walked back into the living room and sat down with a sigh, picking up her magazine. Niklas looked at her for a few moments, twisting back and forth on the ball of one foot, judging her mood. 
"Mom." 
"Yes, Niklas?" 
"I wouldn't say no to a biscuit." 
His mother looked up at him and after a moment, laughed indulgently. 
"I'm sure you wouldn't. Ok, but just the one, dinner won't be long."
Niklas grinned, "thanks mum." 
 
 

Niklas woke up early the next morning, half past nine, and dressed for church. Church was not so bad, reflected Niklas, but why did you have to wear such itchy scratchy clothes for it. Would god not listen to anybody who was not trying to repress the urge to scratch? Niklas was certain that Jesus had never had to wear sandpaper shirts and strangulating ties. Niklas looked at his reflection in the mirror and sighed. Carefully he unpicked the lopsided, hard-as-metal tie knot and started over. Eventually he headed for the kitchen, looking neat and uncomfortable. 
Niklas father was sitting at the table behind the yellow section of the Sunday papers, showing brief glimpses every now and then as he sipped his coffee. Niklas mother was at the work surface, making up bowls of muesli, their regular Sunday (and only Sunday) breakfast. Gruel, thought Niklas, remembering 'Oliver', the film they had been shown at school as a last day treat. Tina was bouncing up and down on her chair, rumpling her frilly Sunday church dress. She looked up as Niklas entered. 
"Niklas is in trou-ble, Niklas is in trou-ble" she swayed from side to side, in time with the rhythm of her words. 
Niklas scowled at her but she continued in exactly the same rhythm. 
"Niklas is in trou-ble, Niklas is in trou-ble." 
"Shut up Tina, or I'll pull your pigtails soo hard…" 
Niklas balled up his fist and moved on his sister, threatening. Tina wailed.
"Daaad!" 
Mr. Edlund looked up from his paper. 
"That's enough, you two. Niklas, sit down. And Tina, be quiet."
Niklas sat, sulking, as far from Tina as he could manage. His mother placed a bowl of muesli and a glass of milk in front of him. 
"Mum," said Niklas, toying with his breakfast, "can I go see Fabian after church?" 
His father put down his paper. "I think, perhaps, you should have a quiet day indoors today." 
"But Dad.." 
"No buts, Niklas, stay indoors today." He looked a little kindly at his son, "It's not as if you're going to miss much, there's never anybody out on a Sunday anyway. Especially not the first Sunday of the holidays, and it will keep you out of trouble." 
Niklas shrank into himself and stared down into his breakfast bowl. Tina made a smug face and stuck out her tongue at him, then put on a virtuous, holier than thou expression, and started to eat. 
Church was as boring as ever and Niklas spent his time in a doze, waking only to wince as the congregation caterwauled their way through another hymn. Niklas wished as always that he had the courage to drown out their cacophony with his own sweet, pure voice, to show the adults how it should be done. Instead, he whispered his way through the words and tried to close his ears to the noise around him. 
After the service, Niklas played tag around the gravestones with some boys he vaguely knew while his parents talked to the vicar and his sister sat in the dust with her friends, playing dollies and dirtying her Sunday dress.
Jason and Fabian were waiting outside the little house as the family returned home, standing by their bikes, dressed for play. Niklas jumped out of the car almost before it had stopped and ran to greet them. 
"Hi Jason, Hi Fabian." 
"Hi Niklas." 
"Hi Niklas." 
"We're going to the adventure playground, wanna come?" 
Niklas looked sad, "I can't, I gotta stay in." 
"Because of yesterday?" 
"Yes" 
"Ok, we'll stay with you." 
"What about the others?" 
"Sniv and Jonathon have gone somewhere with Randy, and Martin has gone to visit his grandma, there's no one else." 
"Ok, I'll ask my mum." 
Despite her husbands hesitation, Mrs. Edlund said ok, so the three boys raced up to Niklas room. After a brief discussion, they decided to play 'battleships'. Niklas and Fabian started while Jason watched. Then Niklas, winner of the first game, played Jason while Fabian watched. Niklas won the second game also and started to set up for the third but by this time Jason had had enough of just watching. As Niklas and Fabian set their little plastic ships in the board, Jason sneaked behind Niklas and quickly tickled him. Then, as Niklas brushed him off impatiently, he went behind Fabian and did the same. 
"Hey, leave off," scowled Fabian. 
"Make me," challenged Jason, grinning. 
Niklas and Fabian exchanged quick glances then Fabian stood up in front of Jason while Niklas quickly sneaked up behind him. As Fabian lunged, Niklas grabbed Jasons arms from behind, holding him helpless against Fabian's attack. Fabian's fingers attacked every available and ticklish part of Jason while Niklas held his wriggling, struggling body firm. Jason gasped and giggled and tried to gain enough breath to yell while using most of his energy kicking and fighting to break free. None of the boys heard the door open. Jason managed to lodge his foot against the corner of Niklas' desk and pushed, sending the desk banging into the wall and Niklas falling backwards onto the bed with Jason on top of him. Jason rolled of Niklas and tried to escape, only to be pinned by the leaping Fabian. Niklas quickly rolled and grabbed an arm, Fabian concentrated on the other. Each boy kept on of Jason's legs trapped between his own. Jason struggled ineffectually for a few moments and then gave up, laying back, panting and red faced between his two friends. 
"Now we've got you," gloated Fabian. 
"Yeah," panted Jason, "but what you gonna do about it?"
Fabian pulled back and considered his friend for a second. "This" he said, leaning forward and planting a kiss on Jason's cheek. 

Fabian planted a kiss on Jason's cheek.


"Ugh!" came a voice from the doorway, "dirty!" 
The three boys jerked at the sound, startled, and looked back towards its source. 
"Tina!" yelled Niklas, furious, "What are you doing in my room." 
Tina just stared at them, one hand on the doorknob, dolly hanging from the other. 
"Is Martin coming today?" 
Fabian snickered. 
Niklas glowered. 
Jason answered, hiding his laughter.  "No, he's visiting his grandma today." 
"Oh," said Tina, still staring at the boys. 
"Well," said Niklas, still glowering, "what are you doing in my room." 
"Mom, sent me. She said to tell you to made sure you changed before you messed up your church clothes." 
Niklas looked down at his crumpled, tail hanging shirt and blushed. 
"Well, now you've told me, you can go." 
Tina didn't move. "What were you doing to Jason?" 
"None of your business." 
Tina glared back at her brother. "You better leave Martin alone, or else." 
"Go." 
Tina stuck out her tongue, Niklas grabbed a pillow but let it drop as Tina ran out of the room, slamming the door shut behind her. Niklas glared at the closed door. 
Fabian and Jason exchanged grins. 
"Martin has a girlfriend", laughed Fabian. Niklas gave a sour look. 
"If my sister's after him, I pity him. I better change." And with that he left the other two boys and headed for the wardrobe, stripping off his Sunday suit as he went. Fabian lay back and watched. Jason got up and went to the window. 
"Hey, isn't that the guy from the garden center?" 
"What? Where?" 
"Outside, talking to Mr. Donner." 
Fabian rushed up beside Jason, Niklas hopped over in half on jeans and squeezed in between them. Together they all stared out the window. 

Together they stared out the window.
Outside, in the garden next door, Mr. Donner leaned on his stick while the man from the garden center talked and made wide sweeping gestures with his hands, occasionally pausing to write something down on the clipboard he held. Mr. Donner would mostly just nod, but occasionally he would say something to the man which the man would listen too attentively and then look down to write furiously on his clipboard. The two of them toured almost the whole garden but spent most of their time looking at one particular corner, at the back, near the little shed. After a while the man took out a tape measure and started measuring the ground around that corner. 
"What is he doing there do you think?" asked Jason. 
"Oh!" said Niklas, "I forgot to tell you. Mr. Donner came to see me last night, he knew it was us that broke his gnome. He said we should work in his garden for him to make up for it." 
The three boys pulled away from the window and looked at each other. 
"Well, I suppose that's fair enough," said Fabian," did he say what we were supposed to do?" 
"No, but he did say he had to get some things ready for us, that must be what the man is doing there." 
"Ok, when are we supposed to start?" 
"Tomorrow." 
"Oh." 
The boys turned back to the window and continued to watch as the man made his measurements until he went inside with Mr. Donner. Then they found places to sit, on the bed and on the floor. 
"I suppose it won't be too bad, a little weeding and planting some flowers. It might even be fun." 
"Yeah, we can plant you and grow lots of little Jasons!" 
There was a moments grinning pause, then the other two jumped Jason once more and started tickling. 
The boys alternated playing games with rough housing for most of the rest of the afternoon, stopping only to watch when a pair of burly men arrived to unload what seemed an incredible amount of bags and stone slabs into Mr. Donner's back garden. The sheer amount of stuff worried them slightly, each boy beginning to feel that perhaps they were not going to get of quite so lightly as they had first thought, but the mood of the afternoon soon dispelled their worries and they returned to their play. Before Jason and Fabian left that afternoon, they promised to see the other boys and arrange to meet at Niklas house early the next morning, ready for their work. Niklas waved goodbye sadly. 

Jonathon was the first to arrive the next morning, at a time that Niklas thought only existed on schooldays, and well ahead of the others. This pleased Niklas mother since it gave her a chance to feed Jonathon several breakfasts. Niklas mother was of the opinion that Jonothan did not eat nearly enough. Jonathon of course, wolfed the whole lot down as he did with everything edible, the voracity of his feeding only reinforcing Mrs. Edlunds false impression. Niklas was staring in awe at yet another empty plate, evidence of his mothers desire to 'put some flesh' on Jonathon's bones, when the doorbell rang for Jason, Sniv and Fabian. Mrs. Edlund opened the door for the boys and ushered them into the kitchen . While they were saying their helloes, she made up plates of breakfast for them. 
"Jonathon," said Mrs. Edlund, "would you like a little more."
Jonathon looked up with a smile and licked his lips. 
"Yes please, Mrs. Edlund, just a little." 
"Jonathon," cried Niklas in a shocked tone, " you've already had three plates, if you eat any more you will burst!" 
"Nonsense, Niklas," said Mrs. Edlund, "a little breakfast never hurt anybody." And she rushed to the cooker with a smile on her face. 
Jason and Sniv laughed at the anticipation on Jonathon's face while Niklas threw up his arms in disgust. 
"So," he said when the other boys had received their food, "it's just Keith and Martin to come." 
"Keith won't be here today," said Jason, "he has to stay an extra day at his mother's. He said he would join us tomorrow though."
"Ok," said Niklas, "we just wait for Martin." 
"He should be here soon, we stopped in at his house on the way here and he was just getting up. Another sleepyhead." 
Niklas stuck out his tongue. 
The boys had almost finished their food by the time Martin arrived, still sleepy eyed. Mrs. Edlund immediately offered him breakfast. 
"But mum," cried Niklas, "we had better go and start, otherwise Mr. Donner will think we have forgotten." 
"Nonsense, Niklas dear, it's only half past nine and Mr. Donner will not want to start that early. He needs to sleep you know." 
"But mum!" 
"No arguments, dear, just wait. Now Martin dear, did you want some breakfast?" 
Martin politely declined, nevertheless, Mrs. Edlund made the boys wait until nearly ten o'clock until she would allow them to go to Mr. Donner's. The boys spent the time trying to guess what Mr. Donner had in mind for them. Niklas, Jason, and Fabian described the bags and bundles that had been delivered the previous day. Jonathons face fell melodramatically as he listened to the amount of materials that had arrived. 
"He's going to get us to rebuild his entire house!" he wailed.
"Not quite that," laughed Mrs. Edlund, "I'm sure it won't be too much for you." 
Niklas frowned at his mother. 
"You mean you know? Why didn't you tell me?" 
"You never asked, dear." 
Suddenly Mrs. Edlund was surrounded by eager boys. 
"Please, tell us!" 
"Yes Please do!" 
Mrs. Edlund laughed and shooed the boys away. "Now then boys, you'll find out soon enough, I wouldn't want to spoil the surprise." 
Despite the protests of the boys, she would say no more. Eventually the boys decided that the only way they would find out would be by going to see. Mrs. Edlund looked at the clock and allowed that Mr. Donner was probably up by now, so the boys could go. They rushed out, yelling good-byes and thank-you's behind them. 

Standing outside Mr. Donner's front door the boys became nervous again. Excited, but nervous. Niklas rang the bell and the boys waited, shuffling and jumping. There was no answer. Niklas rang again. Again, there was no answer. The boys looked at each other uncertainly. Niklas was about to ring the bell once more when there was a noise from within the house. While Niklas hesitated the door open to reveal Mr. Donner peering from behind it, in his dressing robe. 
Mr. Donner was sweating and shaking and ghostly white. One hand clutched his dressing robe closed while the other gripped his stick so hard the knuckles seemed about to pop. He was leaning so heavily upon his stick that the boys fancied they could hear the wood creak. The boys stared at him, frightened, while Mr. Donner stared back blindly, as if trying to make out their forms through thick fog. The only sound was the sound of his breathing, hard and coarse and grating. 

Mr Donner opened the door.
 

"Um, Mr. Donner?" said Niklas, "We…" Niklas looked back to his silent friends for support, "We're here. Like we said."
Mr. Donner blinked a couple of times and screwed up his eyes, looking at Niklas. Then he groaned. 
"Oh, yes, I'm sorry boys. I didn't sleep well. I forgot you were coming." Mr. Donner took a deep breath, a little of the life returning to his face. "I'm sorry boys, but could you just give me a little time, half an hour, an hour, just to get dressed and get something to eat? I'm sure you can find something to do for that long?" 
"Ok," said Niklas and turned to go. Then he hesitated and turned back. 
"Are you alright; Mr. Donner?" 
Mr. Donner frowned at him and banged his stick weakly against the floor, his face flushed angrily. "Of course I'm alright. Just go. And come back in one hour. One hour do you hear? Not one minute later." And with that he slammed the door leaving Niklas staring at the peeling woodwork. After a few moments, Niklas turned his shocked face to his equally shocked friends. For a few moments, the boys exchanged looks, then turned as one and walked, dispirited, towards Niklas' house next door. 

The boys sat in silence around the kitchen table, even Jonathon only sipping his lemonade in between pulling pensively at his bottom lip with his teeth. Mrs. Edlund had been concerned to hear of their reception at Mr. Donner's house but her concern seemed mostly directed at Mr. Donner, not the boys, a state of affairs that had Niklas sulking slightly and feeling left out. There had been silent, meaningful glances traded between the boys since they had left the old man's house but no one yet had spoken. Niklas, as host , felt duty bound to try and explain away the old man's behavior but did not do so until his mother was out of the house, hanging up washing in the garden. He used the time to try and think up excuses for the old man. 
"He wasn't like that yesterday. He was quite pleasant then. Maybe it's just a morning thing." 
"I know what you mean," chirped Martin, making patterns in the dew frosting his glass, " my dad's like that until he has his first cup of coffee in the morning. He's unbearable." 
"Not unbearable," giggled Jonathon, "in fact, just like a bear. With a sore head." And with that he jumped up and started to prowl round the table, acting the part. 
Sniv rolled his eyes in exasperation. "We know what a bear looks like, thank you very much Mr. Jonathon." And Jonathon started to prowl round Sniv, growling and making swipes with his clawed hands. Sniv tried to bat the paws away but Jonathon kept coming and soon Sniv could no longer hold out against his friend's reemerging infectious good humor. 
"Right bear!" shouted Sniv, "the only thing to do with a bear, especially one with a sore head, is to hunt it!" 
Sniv grabbed the mop from where it leant against the kitchen wall and, holding it to his cheek like a shotgun, started stalking the bearish Jonathon. Jonathon shrieked and ran to hide behind Jason. 

Jonathon hid behind Jason.


"Hey," yelled Jason, moving smartly to one side "don't hide behind me, I don't want to get shot!" 
Sniv chuckled evilly and raised his pretend gun for a shot. Jonothan shrieked loudly and dodged, almost hitting the piled breakfast dishes on the sink.
"Pretty poor excuse for a bear, if you ask me" said Fabian, "running away from one little hunter." 
Jonathon pulled himself together and then reared, in perfect imitation of an angry bear about to strike, chest swelled, hands raised, claws ready. At that moment the back door opened and Mrs. Edlund walked in, carrying an empty laundry basket. Jonathon and Sniv froze, in mid pounce and mid shot, faces turning slowly red. 
"Having fun boys?" 
Jonathon and Sniv slowly lowered their respective weapons, mop and hands, and moved sheepishly back to their chairs, Sniv carefully replacing the mop back against the wall of the kitchen. 
"I have to clean the kitchen now, why don't you boys go and play in Niklas bedroom until Mr. Donner is ready for you." Mrs. Edlund raised a quizzical eyebrow, " unless you'd all like to help me here, that is?" 
"Come on," said Niklas, "I'll show you the picture I drew yesterday, it's a really cool spaceship, it can do hundreds of time the speed of light." 
Fabian hesitated a moment then shrugged and smiled at Mrs. Edlund before rushing of to catch up with the others. 

Niklas' small room was crowded with the six of them in it. Niklas, Fabian and Martin, huddled around his small desk while the other three lounged back on his bed. Niklas showed the two boys beside him his drawings and they made the appropriate noises before passing them on to the others. Only Martin could really muster up any enthusiasm for the drawings, always being interested in the work of other artists. The rest, including Niklas himself were once more remembering their reception earlier in the day at Mr. Donner's front door. Except of course for Jonathon, who had already forgotten the whole incident and was merely enjoying relaxing, leaning into the side of his best friend, Jason. It was Jason who was the first to speak what was on all their minds. 
"I wonder if Mr. Donner is going to be crabby all day." 
"Like I said," answered Niklas, "he was alright yesterday. Maybe he just didn't sleep well." 
The boys thought in silence for a while. 
"I wonder if he's alright?" said Sniv. 
"How do you mean?" 
"Well, your mother did say he came here for a rest, didn't she? And he looked really ill this morning. And he is old." 
"You mean he could be sick, like my grandmother got before she…"Jonathon bit his lip and was silent. 
The boys were all silent for a long time, thoughts turned inwards, each boy examining the details of his memory of Mr. Donner, looking for telltale signs of illness. Niklas, who had seen Mr. Donner looking bright and cheerful just the day before, was the least willing to attribute his manner to illness but even he had to admit the old man had looked pale and weak, trembling visibly and sweating. Restless, Sniv got up and walked to the window, followed slowly by the other boys. They stared out of the window at Mr. Donner's garden looking for the old man but seeing only the piles and piles of materials delivered the day before. All but Fabian, who merely leaned against the edge of Niklas' desk and looked down at his shoes. 
The boys stared out of the window for a long time, wide eyed and open mouthed, tension growing in the room. Then. 
"Boys, it's nearly time to go." 
Mrs. Edlunds voice jerked them all out of their reveries and they looked at each other, smiling uncertainly before climbing down the stairs. 

Mrs. Edlund was fussing over the boys before they left, straightening hairs and brushing off imaginary particles of dust. "Now you remember to be good for Mr. Donner, no running about and being rowdy and no cheek, do you hear?" and here she wagged a finger at Niklas with a mock stern expression. "You listen to what he tells you and do what he says."
Niklas glared at his mother with shocked indignation while the other just nodded and tried to avoid the worst of Mrs. Edlund's mothering. 
"Mum," said Niklas into a lull in the constant stream of worrying, "is Mr. Donner alright?" 
Mrs. Edlund paused, taken aback. "How do you mean 'alright'?"
"Well, I mean, he looked really sick this morning, I mean, he isn't, you know, ill is he? 
Mrs. Edlund pursed her lips. "There's nothing wrong with Mr. Donner that a little peace and quiet won't cure, so you be sure you don't do anything to upset him." She stood back for a moment and looked at her son before resuming, almost to herself, "Hmmm, I'm beginning to wonder if this is such a good idea after all. Well, it's decided now, so you'd better all be off before I change my mind." 
And with that she shooed them all out of the house and pointed them towards Mr. Donner's house next door. 

Once more the six boys stood on the path in front of Mr. Donner's front door, nervous and uncertain. Niklas shot a glance at his companions before screwing up his courage and taking a step forward. He licked his lips and then reached out uncertainly to ring the bell. As soon as the sound of the doorbell filtered out through the thick wood of the door, Niklas stepped quickly back to rejoin his friends. There was a pause while the boys listened first to the silence and then to the sound of approaching footsteps and finally to the unlocking of the door. Mr. Donner opened the door and looked out at the boys. 
The boys watched Mr. Donner closely, almost suspiciously. The old man was dressed now in his old and old-fashioned clothing. He was smiling and steady, showing no sign of the pale weakness that they had seen in him earlier that morning. The boys stared silently as Mr. Donner pulled the watch from his waistcoat with a flourish and flicked it open with a practiced gesture.
"Ah, good. Spot on time. Well done boys, come on in and I'll make some drinks while I explain what you're going to be doing." Mr. Donner thrust the watch back into his pocket and turned to stride back into the house. 
Niklas and his friends eyed each other uncertainly. Had they merely imagined his appearance that morning? Could this powerful figure really have seemed so frail? Nervously, the boys followed the retreating figure. 
 

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