Mr. Donner led the boys through the hallway of his little house to
the kitchen at the rear. Niklas knew that Mr. Donner's house must be
almost exactly the same as his own but the hallway seemed somehow narrower,
Perhaps, he thought, it was all the pictures that made it seem so small.
The walls of the hall were covered with old paintings and framed photographs.
They covered the walls from end to end and even up the stairwell onto
the next floor, spread out almost randomly. Niklas paused before one
painting, a little boy looking uncomfortable in a blue sailor suit.
It was very good.
When Niklas finally looked away from the painting, he was alone in the
hallway apart from Martin, who was also looking at a painting, head
to one side as he studied it. Niklas hurried up to Martin and gave him
a nudge. Martin looked quickly around and then up at Niklas. The two
boys exchanged embarrassed grins and ran to join the others.
In the kitchen the boys had spread themselves out, leaning against
walls and work surfaces while Mr. Donner sat himself at a little table
which contained nothing but a cup of very strong looking, very black
coffee and two tightly rolled, large sheets of paper.
"Would you boys like anything to drink?" offered Mr. Donner,
"I've plenty of milk in."
The boys politely demurred.
"Okay then." Mr. Donner took a sip of his coffee, "You
all know basically what you are going to be doing?" He looked around
expectantly at the boys who glanced quickly at each other.
"No Sir," replied Jason, "Nobody's explained it to us
at all, all we know is that we are supposed to be helping you in your
"They haven't? Not at all? Well in that case, I'd better explain."
Then maddeningly, he took another sip of his coffee before motioning
the curious boys to gather around the little kitchen table.
The boys quickly squeezed themselves around the table, Jason giving
Jonathon a little nudge to bring his attention back to the present.
Mr. Donner carefully moved his cup to one side and unrolled one of the
two sheets of paper in front of him, laying it flat on the table before
the boys, who craned their necks to see.
"This," said Mr. Donner, "is the garden as it is now,
and this," here he unrolled the other sheet of paper and laid it
out next to the first, "is the garden as it eventually will be."
The boys compared the two drawings with increasing despair. Apart from
the general shape there seemed to be very little that the two drawings
had in common.
"Now obviously," said Mr. Donner once the boys had been given
time to compare the two drawings, "I don't expect you to do all
of this, certainly not in just one week." The boys breathed an
audible sigh of relief. "But I think you should be able to manage
knocking down the old shed in the corner and putting the pond in its
place." Mr. Donner looked questioningly at the boys who flicked
their eyes between the two drawings spread out between them.
"A pool," whispered Jonathon, "can we swim in it?"
Mr. Donner chuckled, "I don't think it'll be quite big enough for
"Will there be fish?" asked Martin.
"Maybe," replied Mr. Donner, "but not quite yet. Now,
are you all here?"
"All except Keith," said Martin, "his stepfather..."
and he was silenced by Sniv's elbow in his ribs.
"He couldn't make it today," continued Sniv, ignoring Martin's
glare, "but he'll be here tomorrow."
"Hmm." said Mr. Donner narrowing his eyes at the two boys.
He almost seemed about to say something but then grimaced and shrugged.
He rolled up the two sheets of paper and stood up.
"Okay. First job is to clear out the old shed. Now I don't know
what's in there and some of it may be useful, so as you clear it out,
bring everything to me and I'll decide whether I want to keep it or
throw it away. Okay?" The boys nodded.
Silently the boys gathered around the old wooden shed in the corner
of the garden. It was ancient and rotten, the wood stained green with
mould where water ran down the sides. The ends of the planks that covered
it were crumbling and jagged. Jason reached out a finger and pushed
gently on one corner. The whole structure swayed away from his push
and then swayed back to its original position as he removed his finger.
Jonathon reached out and grasped the end of one piece of wood, crushing
it to dust with hardly any pressure of his fingers, "Hey look,
I'm a strongman!" and then he sneezed as the dust from the crushed
plank drifted up into his nostrils.
Niklas screwed up his face in disgust. "Maybe if we ask nicely,
he'll let us off with just digging and planting."
"Oh come on," said Jason, "it won't be that bad."
and with that he took hold of the edge of the warped and rotten doorway
to the shed and pulled. The door was wedged into its frame and the entire
shed shook and swayed as Jason pulled and pushed and lifted and jerked.
Eventually the door came free with a rasp and a shower of dust and splinters,
and a wave of fetid air rushed out from the interior to engulf the boys.
Jason coughed, Niklas sneezed, Sniv stepped quickly back, his face
wrinkled up in disgust.
"Yeuch," said Jonathon.
"That stinks," complained Martin.
Fabian, safe at the back of the pack of boys and well out of the way
of the smell, chuckled. "No wonder Mr. Donner decided to stay back,
out of the way."
Niklas looked back towards the house where Mr. Donner was sitting in
a garden chair, drinking his coffee and reading a paper, seemingly oblivious
to the boys.
The boys all pulled back to let the air clear. Jonathon, melodramatically
holding his nose, crept up to the doorway and peered cautiously around
the frame. He stayed there for a few minutes before quickly grabbing
a shapeless something from within the shed and then stepping back to
let out his breath with a loud 'whoosh'. The other boys crowded round
"So what's in there?"
Jonathon hid his hands behind his back and tried to tease the others
with an innocent look. It lasted all of three seconds before he cracked
and shook out the dirty grey cloth thing that he had retrieved from
the shed. It turned out to be an old and shapeless, dirty cloth cap
of the kind normally worn by fishermen to keep their flies in, or gardeners
to keep the sun off them. Jonathon jammed the hat on his head with a
"Hats!" said Jonathon, "and coats and cloths and pots
"Jonathon," yelled Jason, "that thing's FILTHY! Take
it off, you don't know where it's been." and he reached to try
and take the old cloth hat from Jonathon's head.
"Hey, leave off," said Jonathon, skipping back, "it's
mine, I found it."
Jason stepped towards him, reaching again for the filthy old hat, Jonathon
dodged him, Jason reached once more and soon, with the magic that always
seemed to happen between them, it was a game, Jonathon dodging and teasing
his older friend while Jason chased with the usual strange half smile
on his face. Normally the game would play itself out all over the garden
until Jonathon let himself get caught and the two boys collapsed into
a giggling, hugging bundle on the ground. This time, however, the game
was cut short.
As Jonathon was dodging, he glanced down at where his feet would be
going and saw something already there, one of Mr.. Donner's many gnomes.
Jonathon tried to change direction in mid dodge, almost made it, overbalanced
and fell, folding himself over the gnome but somehow not quite touching
it. Jason stopped shocked as his friend rolled over onto the ground.
Sniv strolled over to his fallen friend before his brother could react.
He leant down and took the hat off Jonathon's head.
"It's Mr. Donner's, if he wants it, but Jason's right: it's filthy,
and," here he sniffed daintily at the cloth, "it stinks. So
even if Mr. Donner says you can have it, it'll have to be washed before
you can wear it."
Suddenly apprehensive, the boys looked over to the house where Mr. Donner
sat. To all appearances, he was immersed in his newspaper and taking
no notice whatsoever of the boys and their antics. Niklas however was
almost certain that he caught the brief flicker of Mr. Donner's eyes
as if the old man had been watching them all along and had only looked
back to his newspaper when the boys had looked at him. Niklas thought
about that for a moment. But if Mr. Donner had been looking at them
all along, why had he said nothing about Jonathon nearly running into
another of his gnomes? Niklas shook his head. He must have been mistaken,
a trick of the light perhaps that had seemed to glint off the old man's
eye. He turned back to his friends.
The boys had gathered once more around the door to the old shed. By
now, the air had had time to circulate within it and had cleared away
most of the musty rotten odour. Jonathon and Sniv were peering into
the gloom of the shed from each side of the doorway, Jason leaning over
Jonathon's back to see inside. Martin was hanging back, his face showing
his disgust at the lingering smell of mould and decay. Niklas crept
up to the shed and leaned in, one arm each around the waists of Sniv
and Jonathon. Disappointingly neither boy jumped at his contact.
Within the shed the dim light showed piles and heaps of old sacks and
boxes, as well as more recognisable gardening supplies, pots and canes,
and spades and forks and so on. To one side of the door there was a
series of nails barely hanging into the rotting wood on which hung more
hats like the one Sniv still held in his hand. The shed was jammed with
stuff, every available space taken and boxes piles on top of sacks in
a great mound. The boys stared breathlessly at the unstable seeming
"Oh, well," said Sniv, "better get started," and
he reached out to grab a box from the very top of the heap. The others
held their breathes as the pile swayed but did not fall, and Sniv backed
away with his prize. He stared at the other boys, staring at him. "Well,
go on. It'll never get cleared if we don't start working."
The day was already starting to live up to its promise of burning summer
heat when the boys started to work and the combination of the heat of
the sun and the exertions of the work soon persuaded first Jonathon,
then Jason, then the rest of the boys to take off their tops. Unfortunately
this meant that the boys' bodies were exposed to the long trapped dirt
and dust that puffed out from the stacked piles of rubbish every time
they were disturbed so that by the time Mr. Donner called a midday halt
for refreshments, the boys' bodies were covered with a thin grey film,
streaked where the sweat had cut runnels through the dirt. Being boys,
they neither noticed, nor minded.
It was not until the boys stopped working that they realised how hot
and dry they had become, enthusiasm masking the sheer effort of their
labour so that they did not realise how much effort they were expending,
nor how much liquid they were losing as sweat. Even the small glasses
of iced milk that Mr. Donner laid out for them were welcome. Indeed,
ice cold, they were surprisingly refreshing. Nevertheless, Mr. Donner
watched with amused concern as the boys inhaled the cold white liquid.
"Hmm, well. I guess I didn't realise it would be such hot work.
I think I'd better get some more drinks in. Or if any of you have your
bikes with you and fancy a quick trip down to the shops?"
Immediately six hands went up, even Jonathon who had come on his skateboard
rather than his bike. It was decided that Niklas would go for the drinks,
because he could get his backpack from home to carry them in. Fabian
decided to go with him. Mr. Donner walked the two boys to the front
door while digging an old and well worn leather wallet from the depths
of his waistcoat.
While the two were about their errand, Mr. Donner went back to the
kitchen where the others waited and sat down at the table. There was
an awkward silence for a while as the boys stood around the kitchen
watching while Mr. Donner tried to finish his crossword. It was a strange
moment, with all the boys with their eyes riveted on Mr. Donner and
Mr. Donner with his attention seemingly riveted to his crossword yet
totally aware of the boys every expression. Perhaps even every thought
that crossed their minds. A pack of young cubs facing the grizzled old
bear, each sizing up the other. Eventually Mr. Donner spoke.
"'The bishops put their heads together, touch wood', five letters."
The boys looked at each other in confusion, all except Sniv who frowned
"No?" said Mr. Donner. "Ah, well it'll come," and
with a sigh he put his crossword down laying his pencil carefully across
"You boys will be hungry if I remember right. How about some sandwiches
to go with those drinks?"
This was more like it, all the boys nodded eagerly.
"OK, if you," and here Mr. Donner pointed to Jason, "will
reach up into that cupboard there, you will find some bread and some
butter, and you," Sniv, "will find some plates in there. The
knives are in that drawer there. And you and me," Jonathon and
Martin, "will have a look in the fridge and see what there is to
put in them."
While Mr. Donner examined the contents of his fridge, Jonathon cheekily
poked his head under the old man's arm. He stayed there while Mr. Donner
carried his selection (mostly cooked meats) to the work surface where
Jason was unloading almost half a loaf of bread.
"Ugh," said Jonathon, holding his nose, "this cheese
is mouldy!" The others looked toward where Jonathon was standing
holding a wooden cheese board with a large chunk of blue-veined cheese
on it. After a breathless moment, Mr. Donner, Jason, and Sniv burst
out laughing while Jonathon and Martin looked on in confusion.
Eventually, after the laughter had died down, "No silly,"
said Sniv, "it's supposed to be like that."
"What, mouldy?" said Jonathon, "Disgusting!"
"Actually, it's quite nice," said Jason, "sort of."
Jonathon made a face.
"What," crowed Sniv, teasing, "have we finally found
something that Mr. Jonathon won't eat?" and the other boys all
giggled while Jonathon's face clouded.
Mr. Donner took the cheese board from Jonathon's hands and cut a thin
slice off the end of the cheese. "Here you go lad. Got to save
your reputation, I guess."
Gingerly, Jonathon took the cheese from Mr. Donner's fingers and sniffed
at it. He made another face and then sniffed again.
"I promise you, lad, it tastes better than it smells," smiled
Jonathon shot him a disbelieving look and then, screwing up his courage
and his face, took a little nibble. Jonathon's face turned thoughtful
as he tested the tiny morsel of cheese in his mouth, then turned into
one of grudging approval. He swallowed.
"Not too bad, I suppose," he said and then ate the rest of
the thin slice in his hand.
Mr. Donner chuckled, "that's the spirit, we'll turn you into a
gourmand yet." He smiled and then turned to include the rest of
the boys in his gaze. "I hope you boys will do me a little favour
by not mentioning to anybody that I had that cheese, I'm not supposed
to eat things like that anymore: it's suppose to be bad for me."
The boys looked at each other and shrugged. "Okay, no problem."
The incident with the cheese broke the ice a little and all the boys
seemed more relaxed in Mr. Donner's company. By the time Niklas and
Fabian returned with the drinks, they were all laughing and joking,
unworried by the presence of the man and seeming to forget their doubts
of that morning. Mr. Donner also seemed more relaxed, even joking with
the boys, showing a dry and outrageous humour that would have the boys
standing gasping, wondering if he could really have meant what they
thought they heard. Niklas and Fabian also brought with them a great
pile of sandwiches which Niklas' mum had made for them. With those made
in Mr. Donner's small kitchen, it made a quite respectable meal which
the boys took out in the garden with them, sitting on the sun baked
flagstones around Mr. Donner's chair and table to eat in the hot noon
sun. Jonathon was enough at ease with the old man to take his usual
place between Jason's knees, leaning back into the body of his friend.
Mr. Donner had just finished a deadpan rendition of a ludicrous story
about a time travelling criminal called 'stein', ending in an outrageous
pun that left all the boys groaning, when Sniv suddenly asked a question
that had been on his mind for a while.
"Mr. Donner? Why can't you eat cheese?"
"Oh, I can, and I do. It's just that some people think I shouldn't.
Let me tell you boys, being old and being young have a lot in common,
both times nobody thinks you can do anything for yourself." The
boys grinned in emphatic agreement.
"At least you get to go to bed whenever you want," said Martin.
"And at least you get to do what you want in your own house,"
"Ah, yes," said Mr. Donner, "talking of which, we should
get back to work. Time to bring the house down, or at least that little
part of it at the end of the garden." He smiled.
The boys got up and slowly followed Mr. Donner down the path to the
old shed at the bottom of the garden.
They all gathered at the end of the garden in front of the old shed.
It seemed somehow older and more forlorn than it had been now that it
"How are we going to knock it down?"
Mr. Donner reached out slowly with the end of his cane and gently pushed
on the rotten wood of the shed's side. It swayed even more precariously
now that it was empty, as if it had only been the rubbish packed into
it that had given it any stability at all. "I don't think that's
going to be any problem," said Mr. Donner. He reached out with
his cane once more and pushed again, harder this time. The shed swayed
and groaned but stayed upright and whole. Mr. Donner let it sway back
and then pushed it again, catching it on the rhythm. The shed groaned
and creaked, even louder than before but still did not fall. Mr. Donner
repeated his trick, letting the shed sway back and then catching it
as it tried to return to the vertical, pushing with it and forcing it
to go further than it wanted. This time it paused at the end of its
travel and a crackling could be heard beneath the groaning of the old
wood but still it tried to return to its proper upright position. Once
more, and this time there was no return for the old shed. With a loud
crack, the rotten and abused wood gave in and the shed fell, seeming
to pause momentarily before collapsing into a heap of dead wood and
dust. There was a silence as the boys stared in something like sorrow
at the remains of the old shed.
"Somebody must have loved it once," murmured Niklas, "perhaps
some boys played in it."
"Perhaps," said Mr. Donner, "but that was long ago and
there comes a time for everything to go."
There was silence for another moment, broken at last by a brisk clap
of Mr. Donner's hands. "Right, that's it ready. Put all the wood
to one side and we'll have a bonfire of it sometime. No sense paying
for it to be taken away when it can be burned."
The boys snapped into life and into good humor at the mention of the
"Brilliant! When can we have it?"
"Can we have fireworks too?"
"And baked potatoes?"
Mr. Donner laughed. "Not tonight anyway. Perhaps at the weekend
if the weather holds out. I could invite your parents and make it a
sort of housewarming."
"Oh, no. Not our parents, they wouldn't let us do anything!"
"Oh? And I would?"
The boys gasped and stared at the old man, then grinned as they realised
he was teasing them.
"Nah, you're all right. You're cool."
"Cool hey? Well fine. But first pile all the wood up in the corner
there," Mr. Donner pointed to one overgrown corner of the garden,
"and then we can get started on the digging."
Soon the garden was full of the laughing sound of happy boys and the
popping of snapping wood as the messy pile on the site of the old shed
was slowly transferred to a slightly more compact pile in the corner
of the garden. Jonathon in particular made a great game of pulling the
still attached planks from the walls and roof of the shed, falling backward
onto the grass more often than not as the wood gave way.
Mr. Donner sat back on his garden chair and relaxed, no longer pretending
to read his paper but just watching the boys. The young blond haired
lad reminded Mr. Donner of his own youngest at the same age, now mostly
grown up and working abroad for some charity. Mr. Donner always enjoyed
his brief visits home and his tales of the invariably dangerous places
he worked. Mr. Donner would never admit it but for all the grief the
boy had caused him, he was a favorite. There was none among the boys
to resemble his others sons stolid good sense. The boy they called 'Sniv'
seemed sensible enough, but he showed a flighty intelligence completely
at odds with his older boys calm contemplation and delicious irony.
Mr. Donner wondered for a moment if any of the boys were like him as
a child. He snorted dismissivly. Mr. Donner was, he reflected, born
stubborn. And likely to die that way too, he thought, remembering the
totally unallowed, but delicious, blue cheese. He turned his attention
back to the boys.
As he looked, one of the boys, the one who seemed to be growing visibly,
was absently sucking at a finger.
There would be splinters aplenty from this little job, Mr. Donner reflected.
It had gone out of fashion to allow children splinters. Or any of the
thousands of other minor injuries that had made childhood such a bittersweet
time for him and his friends. Mr. Donner held no store by such fashions.
Mr. Donner remembered his own boys, especially his youngest, and the
scrapes they had gotten themselves into. Neither boy seemed to feel
they had been neglected during their youth. In fact both were on good
terms with their parents. Mark had even made the journey back for the...
Mr. Donner's train of thought stopped dead, like a railway engine whose
tracks had unaccountably and suddenly led straight into the side of
a cliff. A hand seemed to be clutching at his heart and his eyes prickled
as the tears fought to escape. He would not give in. Mr. Donner forced
himself to complete the thought, teeth clenched and blood pounding in
Mark had even made the journey back, all the way from some god forsaken
drought land, had fought and ran and called in every favour he had ever
earned, and had made it back in time. He had stood with his father and
his brother. Mr. Donner could feel his teeth cracking under the pressure.
Mark had made it back for the funeral. The thought echoed around Mr.
Donner's mind, bouncing back and forth, picking up speed on each oscillation,
picking up power, taking up more and more of his mind.
"Mr. Donner, Mr. Donner?"
Sniv watched as Mr. Donner came back from wherever he had been. It
did not seem to have been a nice place.
"Mr. Donner, we've finished moving the wood, what next?"
Mr. Donner drew himself together with an effort of will and climbed
to his feet, leaning heavily on his cane. Sniv watched carefully as
he walked up the garden to where the other boys were waiting. Mr. Donner
seemed to straighten and lean less heavily on his stick with each step
until by the time he reached the end of the garden and the rest of the
boys, he was striding along deliberately and his face betrayed non of
the pain that had marked it when Sniv had disturbed him. Sniv filed
the image away in his mind but decided not to mention it to any one
else just yet.
Mr. Donner surveyed the cleared space calculatingly. The stumps of
the four corner posts of the shed still protruded from the bared earth
of its floor but everything else had been removed. Only the dryness
of the packed and empty dirt showed that the shed had been there at
all. Mr. Donner eyed the four post remnants, then dug into his waistcoat
pocket and flipped open his pocket watch.
"Hmm, first thing to do is to get those posts out, then we can
probably get a start on digging the hole for the pond. There are a couple
of spades in the garage, if someone would like to get them?" Jonathon
immediately ran off, closely followed by Jason. "And if somebody
would like to get the plans from the kitchen table?" Sniv immediately
ran off to get them.
Mr. Donner, followed by the remaining boys, walked around the site of
the former shed, examining the ground and poking here and there with
his stick. The shed had been in a corner of the garden, but with a space
of nearly a foot between it and the fence on each side. Where the thin
strips of land had been sheltered between the shed and a fence, a sort
of damp growth had occurred, damp loving weeds growing in the accumulated
litter of windblown leaves. When Mr. Donner poked the mass with his
stick it gave off a smell of decay and clung to his stick with thorns
and wet stems as if clinging to the hope of light and air. There was
a clear and straight line marking the boundary of the fence, a rectangle
of bare, dry and compacted earth looking like the primeval dust of some
holy desert. In towards the garden, there was also a sharp demarcation
between the dry earth from beneath the shed and the rest of the garden,
unkempt remnants of once cared for flower beds and lawns, slowly growing
wild like the pupils in a playground once the teacher has been called
away, making the most of their brief freedom before his return.
Sniv returned at a gallop, bearing the two rolls of paper like a hero
of marathon. Mr. Donner took them and unrolled them solemnly, turning
them to match the now shedless corner and looking back and forth between
the drawings and the land they represented. Sniv looked around for Jason
"Now this," he said, pointing to the middle of the three ovals
he had drawn, "is the outside of the pond. This," pointing
to the outer oval, "is where the liner will come up to."
"Liner?" asked Martin, looking puzzled.
"Well, yes," said Mr. Donner, "we have to put a waterproof
liner on the bottom of the pond otherwise all the water would just drain
away as fast as we put it in. The liner will come up to this outer line
and we'll weigh it down with paving stones. The outer line only needs
to go down a couple of inches, then at the middle line, we go down another
six inches and that will make a shelf to put the plants on. At the inner
line, we go down another foot and give some deep water. But first we
have to dig out those posts, now where are those boys with the spades?"
Mr. Donner and the boys all looked around, towards the house.
Jason and Jonathon were walking slowly up the garden carrying three
spades between them, Jonathon on the handles, Jason on the blades. Both
boys were paying more attention to each other's eyes than the ground.
Their expressions were an indescribable mixture of challenge, affection,
and suppressed laughter. Sniv sighed and went to guide his big brother
and his best friend, to make sure they didn't trip over their own feet
in their mutual blindness. Mr. Donner looked nonplussed at the other
boys, who just shrugged. Mr. Donner looked back at the two boys, now
more or less following Sniv who carried the three spades cradled in
his arms. Mr. Donner smiled ruefully and shook his head.
"Right," said Mr. Donner, "three spades, first three
boys take a post each." Mr. Donner's eyes picked out Fabian, Niklas
and Martin as the three to start the digging. Fabian was the first to
take a spade from Sniv, followed closely by Niklas. Martin took the
last spade but did not start immediately, instead he watched Niklas
and Fabian, who had already chosen their corners.
Fabian pushed the spade in a little way and rocked it back and forth
to try and get it deeper. He seemed to be having some trouble with it.
Niklas looked at him for a moment and then turned to his own corner.
He lifted the spade up a little and took a firm hold. Then he threw
the blade downward into the soil, putting his whole weight behind the
thrust. The spade went into the soil about two inches and then stopped
short with a muffled 'CLANG'.
Niklas let go of the spade with a yelp and stuck his stinging hands
into his armpits with a pout. Mr. Donner was already half way back to
his chair so Niklas flexed his fingers a little to work the shock out
of them and then picked up the spade again. A little more carefully
this time, he started jabbing the spade into the earth around the post.
Always it got no further than a couple of inches before stopping short
with the muffled sound of metal striking rock.
Fabian was also gingerly exploring the soil around his chosen post,
digging slowly further away from the rotting wood, a few inches at a
time. Neither boy could manage to penetrate more than a couple of inches
into the dirt.
Martin, watching from the sidelines decided to try approaching the problem
from the other side. He stuck his spade carefully into the earth at
the centre of the bare patch that marked the site of the old shed. It
went in no further than those of the other two boys.
Sniv turned to call to Mr. Donner and found him already half way back.
Martin pushed his spade in once more but this time angled the handle
slightly toward his body and leaned his weight on the end of it. The
spade slid along a seemingly solid, flat surface just below the level
of the earth, making a muffled scraping sound as it went and leaving
a shallow furrow in the dirt. The boys huddled around the short distance
of cleared earth. Mr. Donner joined them.
At the bottom of the shallow trench was what at first seemed like a
layer of small dirty stones, level and almost flat. Mr. Donner levered
himself down on his stick and reached out a hand to lay his palm flat
on this surface. He rubbed it with his fingers and grunted. He then
levered himself back up, with a little help from Sniv and Jason, on
either side of him, and stood frowning down at the shallow trench.
"Hmf. Well. I never expected that. Concrete. Looks like it probably
covers the whole base of the shed." He frowned more deeply and
rubbed his chin. "OK, well, nothing we can do about it now."
Mr. Donner turned to the three boys still clutching their spades.
"Let's clear it all off and then we can see where we are. Put all
the dirt off to one side there and clear the whole thing." With
that he stood back, motioning Sniv, Jonathon and Jason to join him and
leave the diggers with space to work in.
The three boys had soon removed the shallow layer of earth from the
surface of the concrete and it did indeed cover the entire area of the
base of the shed. At Mr. Donner's suggestion, Fabian dug down a little
way at the side of the concrete platform, revealing its depth. Mr. Donner
tapped it with his stick and measured its thickness against the tip.
Then he scowled in annoyance and stood looking down at the offending
concrete, tapping his finger against the head of his stick.
"Hmmm, solid. And quite thick. Might get it with a hammer, might
even need a drill." He scowled again in thought. "Well, whichever
it needs, I don't have it. I guess it'll have to wait until tomorrow."
Mr. Donner pulled out his pocket watch and flipped it open.
"It's a little bit early but I don't suppose you'll mind that.
And by the time we've finished clearing up, it won't be too bad. Then
again, there's all those weeds to clear up. And you could sort out some
more burnable stuff since we're going to have a bonfire." The boys
looked at each other. Mr. Donner was quickly finding lots of things
to do, a habit of grownups right after they tell you there's nothing
left to do. Sniv quickly spoke up.
"That's no problem, me and Jonathon will help sort out the burnable
stuff while the others clear the weeds. We'll have it done in no time."
Sniv gave Mr. Donner his best cute smile.
Mr. Donner stopped short and then burst out laughing. "OK, OK.
I guess that means you don't mind an early finish at all. Well, fine.
I'll have to arrange for some tools for tomorrow anyway, so we'll just
clear up a bit and then you can finish for the day while I go see Richard.
Happy?" He smiled.
The boys smiled back at him.
It took the boys only seconds to clear away the few tools they had
used that day and to kick the remaining rubbish vaguely toward the pile
of wood in the corner. They were standing around looking to see if there
was anything else that Mr. Donner would put under the heading of 'clearing
up' when Mr. Donner himself emerged from the rear of the house pulling
on a thick black coat. The sun was still burning hot enough to evaporate
the sweat from their bodies as fast as it appeared, and yet Mr. Donner
carefully buttoned up the front of his coat, as if he might catch a
chill. The boys looked at each other and shrugged. Adults! They caught
up their T-shirts and walked down the garden to where the old man waited.
"Everybody ready? Nothing left behind? Good. Lets get going! We'll
go out through the garage, that way we won't be trampling dust and dirt
through the house."
The boys looked at each other and seemed to realise for the first time
just how dirty they had gotten that day. Not only were their hands and
shoes smeared with the soil that they had been digging, but the dust
from the inside of the shed had half dissolved in their sweat and then
turned their bodies to a sort of dirty streaky grey as the sweat evaporated.
"Euw," said Martin, "I need a bath."
The rest just wrinkled their noses in agreement.
"My mother said she was going to make dinner for us all,"
said Niklas, "maybe she'll let us use the shower before we eat."
Jonathon licked his finger and used the wet digit to draw a stripe of
clean skin down his arm. He looked at the result for a minute ant then
used the damp finger to draw marks across his cheeks, red Indian markings
in reverse. The white skin seemed to glow in contrast with the dark
grey of the dirt that covered his body.
"Yep," said Niklas, "we definitely need to clean up."
boys followed Mr. Donner through the little passage beside the garage
and onto the driveway of the house. Mr. Donner turned to the boys.
"OK, there should be no problem getting the tools we need, so let
us assume that we can start tomorrow at 10 o'clock. If there's any problem,
then I'll let you know, Niklas, and you can tell the others. Okay?"
boys all nodded. Mr. Donner was about to turn away when Martin caught
his attention. The youngest of the boys seemed almost to say something
and almost to lose his nerve. Then he pulled himself together and asked.
"Mr. Donner, would it be okay if I brought my dog with me tomorrow?
He won't be any bother, he'll just sit quietly and not annoy you. He
could even help dig if you like?"
Mr. Donner started to smile and then suppressed it. He kept his face
as serious as the young boy before him. "I'm sure he'd be a great
help. Yes, of course you can bring him. Now, I really must be off. I'll
see you all tomorrow."
Martin looked defiantly triumphant to himself as he nodded emphatically
towards Mr. Donner's retreating back. "See. I knew it would be
The other boys laughed and Niklas grabbed his arm as he led the way
into his house next door.
There was no problem getting Mrs. Edlund to let the boys use the bathroom
before dinner. In fact she insisted on it, almost pushing the boys upstairs
with cries of, "Good Grief, you're filthy!" Niklas pouted.
What did she expect, they'd been working all day. Did she think they
could spend the day digging and cleaning and not get a little bit dirty?
It was decided that Martin should be the first to use the Edlunds' shower,
mostly because he was the one out of all of them who most minded being
dirty. Niklas quickly showed him how to use the shower controls and
then retreated to his own room with the rest of the boys to decide who
was next and to wait for Martin to finish.
In Niklas room, Jonathon was trying to erase red Indian marks into
Jason's face to match those he had done on himself, while Jason laughingly
tried to fend him off. Fabian was craning his neck, trying to see the
back of his own shoulders where he was convinced he had a touch of sunburn.
Sniv seemed to be lost in his own thoughts. Sniv did that sometimes,
fading away into his own little world, but he would always come back
when he was needed.
"That wasn't too bad," said Niklas, "he was alright really,
Mr. Donner." Sniv made a noncommittal grunt.
"Niklas, is my back red, just here?" asked Fabian. Niklas
moved over behind his friend to examine his back.
"It's hard to tell under all this dirt, I could probably tell better
after you've been cleaned up. Does it feel sore?"
"It feels a bit tight, like it does sometimes when you're just
starting a sunburn."
"You're probably just a bit stiff from all the lifting and carrying.
I'll give you a back rub," and Niklas started to gently rub at
Jason had Jonathon on the ground now and was kneeling over him, drawing
pictures in the dirt of his chest. Jonathon was laying back, almost
purring, enjoying the attention. Sniv was looking at the two but his
eyes were seeing something of his own. In the background came the sound
of Martin pottering about in the bathroom, the clunk of the toilet seat,
the pattering of his footsteps, and finally the gentle hiss of the shower.
The boys were enjoying the gentle lassitude that comes from being physically
just tired enough. Fabian was melting under Niklas' gentle massage and
Jason was slowly becoming glassy eyed as he drew more and more complex
designs in the dirt on Jonathon's chest.
Niklas was about to speak when the silence was interrupted by a loud
shriek followed by the sound of something crashing to the ground. Both
sounds coming from the bathroom.
The boys looked at each other and then, all together, rushed for the
door. There was a lot of confusion as all five boys tried to get from
Niklas room to the bathroom all at the same time but eventually five
heads poked cautiously through the door to see Martin, still wet from
the shower, sitting on the floor amid the fallen bottles and jars and
pressing himself into the wall as he stared in horror at the shower
The boys first thought was to look and see what it was that had so frightened
Martin, but at first, none of them could see anything unusual in the
shower tray. It was Jonathon who first realised what it was, he had
kept on looking while the others went to help Martin.
"Oh, cool. That's the hairiest I ever saw!" The other boys
looked at Jonathon in puzzlement, all except Martin, whose face still
showed his horror. But also now, dawning disgust.
"Oh, no," wailed Martin, "he's going to try and catch
In response, Martin merely pointed towards the shower tray and Jonathon,
now approaching it with a hunter's face.
It was little wonder that Jonathon had been first to see what had scared
martin so, he had such an affinity for all such things. There, wedging
itself into the corner of the shower cubicle, trying to escape the pounding
spray, was the biggest, hairiest, blackest spider any of the boys had
"Yuck," said Sniv, looking disgusted. Niklas just blushed.
Jonathon pounced, but the spider was too fast for him. It ducked out
from beneath his hands and ran across the side of the shower tray.
"Hey," yelled Fabian, "don't hurt it!"
"Don't worry," said Jonathon with an evil grin, "I want
it alive, I got plans for it," and with that, he made another lunge
at the spider, which again evaded him, this time straight up the corner
of the shower cubicle and onto the ceiling where it clung, looking down
and waving its two front legs at the helpless Jonathon who was far too
small to reach it.
"So, Mr. Jonathon," said Sniv to the frustrated Jonathon,
now bouncing up and down just below the place where the spider was resting,
"exactly what 'plans' did you have for it?"
Jonathon put on a look of injured innocence as he turned to his friend
but before he could say anything, Jason's grinning head appeared from
between his knees and he let out a squeal as he started to rise unsteadily
into the air on the older boy's shoulders.
It was at this point that Mrs. Edlund entered the room. Niklas had managed
to help Martin to his feet and the two were standing watching, with
the others while Jason slowly pushed himself from hands and knees to
fully standing with Jonathon sitting unsteadily on his shoulders and
grabbing at his hair for balance. Jason and Jonathon froze as Niklas'
mother cocked her head and raised one eyebrow at them.
"And what, exactly, is going on here?"
Wordlessly, Jason pointed up to the ceiling where the spider was still
watching, clinging to a corner. "It frightened Martin."
"I wasn't frightened," said Martin, defensively, "just
surprised is all. It ran over my foot."
"Huh," said Mrs. Edlund, "all this fuss and bother over
one little spider. And what were you going to do with it once you caught
"We were just going to put it out into the garden or something,"
said Fabian. Jonathon said nothing and tried to keep his face innocent.
"Well, that's fine," said Mrs. Edlund, "you can clear
up the mess in here while I go and get something to catch it in."
and she turned and left the bathroom.
While she was gone, Niklas and Martin carefully picked up the bottles
and cans that had fallen when Martin had knocked them of the shelf in
his fright. Jason carefully let Jonathon down to the ground.
Jonathon barely had time to cast more than a few mournful glances at
the spider before Mrs. Edlund returned with a piece of paper and an
empty glass jar. Reaching up, she placed the jar over the spider and
then slid the paper underneath so that the spider had no choice but
to fall into the jar.
"Right," said Mrs. Edlund, "I'll let this go in the garden,
then finish with dinner. You have about half an hour to get cleaned
up, and I don't want to see any dirt anywhere. Including under finger
nails and behind ears." And she glared at the boys before leaving
them once more.
The boys looked at one another and then shrugged. No boy can ever understand
how adults can find dirt on even the cleanest boy, nor can they ever
understand why they should want to.
Niklas turned to Martin, "did you manage to finish your shower?"
Martin shook his head. "Okay, you finish your shower and then let
us know. We'll have to be quick if we're all to get cleaned by the time
dinner is ready."
Martin still looked unsure, casting nervous glances towards the shower
cubicle. Sniv spoke up.
"Why don't we share our showers, we can wash each other's backs
and get cleaned in half the time." He turned to Martin, "I'll
share with you if you like."
The others took one look at the expression of intense relief on Martin's
face and agreed that perhaps it would be quicker to share their showers.
Sniv did not wait for a reply, he immediately removed his shorts and
socks (he had already taken off his shoes in Niklas' room) and dragged
Martin into the still running shower.
For some reason nobody seemed to want to leave the bathroom, even though
it was not their turn yet. Fabian was leaning against the radiator,
which fortunately was turned off at this time of year, Jonathon was
leaning out of the bathroom window trying to see where Mrs. Edlund was
releasing the spider into the garden of the house. Jason was watching
"He was alright, Mr. Donner, wasn't he," said Niklas.
"I liked him," said Fabian.
"He was cool," came Jonathon's voice from where he was leaning
the whole front half of his body out of the bathroom window. Jason had
grabbed hold of his legs.
"No," said Niklas, "I mean he looked all right. He must
have just been tired this morning."
"Oh, that, yeah."
"Probably just needed some coffee to wake up properly."
Sniv listened from inside the shower cubicle where he was being covered
in soap by Martin. He thought about the place where Mr. Donner seemed
to have been that time, the place that hadn't seemed very nice at all.
He thought about the pain on Mr. Donner's face and how quickly and thoroughly
it had been covered up. He thought for a long time about mentioning
it, but by then the conversation had moved on so he said nothing.
He would wait and see what happened tomorrow.