All Sorts and Surprises By David Burt

Lucy Dewson placed the tray with its load of four mugs of tea, two with, two without sugar, and a plate generously overfilled with chocolate digestive biscuits, on the table before enquiring, “Now, gentlemen, which of you were with sugar?” She dealt the mugs according to the hand signals before adding, “And please help yourself to the biscuits.”

 All Sorts and Surprises

All Sorts and Surprises

Lucy retreated to her desk at the front of the reception area where she could survey the front door and, if she chose, keep an eye on the four customers visiting the car hire company. There was a gap she could adjust in the heavy curtains behind her seat so she could hear their discussions as they relaxed with the tea and biscuits, falsely feeling secure in their comfortable surrounds before their meeting with the Company Manager to negotiate their white van hire agreements.

As usual, Lucy took note of several of their comments until her internal phone buzzed and the Sales Director asked her if she would mind escorting the Lockwood Delivery people up to his office.

Lucy confirmed her hair was to her liking and her lipstick in place in her mirror, before asking the visiting business group to accompany her to the first floor office door, emblazoned with a brass nameplate, ‘Walter B. Bourne F.Inst.M’.

Tapping on the door and hearing a loud ‘Enter’, she did so and introduced the business men before she took her leave as they settled themselves in front of Walter B. Bourne’s considerable desk, enlivened by a framed photograph of a youthful W.B.B. in leathers sitting, somewhat uncomfortably, on a Matchless Twin motorcycle that he claimed showed his ‘grassroots’ interest in the motor trade.

Lucy walked down the corridor to the end door which was unmarked and walked in without knocking.

William McDonnell was sitting at an over cluttered desk, half the size of W.B.B.s.

Lucy went across the office to the water dispenser and enquired if William wanted a refill. Receiving a negative response from the CEO, who was sucking on his biro anxiously whilst he continued to stare into his computer screen, she filled a glass for herself and sat down in the chair at the end of his table.

“Well,” said William, “what do you think?”

Lucy reflected, staring at the picture of William with his wife and four children on the beach at Morecambe Bay on the wall.

“They have a quote in from Minehead Motors. They mentioned Frank Blake who you know is the CEO and they are being led in their thinking by the accountant, Terry Armstrong, who doesn’t say a lot but when he does, they all listen.”

Lucy thought quietly for a moment. “The CEO, Hardcastle, is not strong. He is unsure and worried. I sense the company has to get the lease arrangements for the five delivery vans right or they are going to struggle this year to fulfil their contracts but their profit margins are minimal I gathered from the accountant’s comments.”

Lucy continued, “My feeling is if we don’t make a concession and drop the price below the existing contract, we are going to lose this one and that will be the third contract we have lost this quarter and we know what Ford will think about that. I don’t trust W.W.B. to bombast the accountant into agreement. You know what a buffoon he can be when he’s rattled.”

W.McD rocked his head back and forth sadly. “I know, I know, but he knows as well as everybody we are going to be crossed off Ford’s list as main distributor if we cannot improve our figures. What do you suggest I might do with these guys while we still have a chance?”

Lucy was immediately positive. “I strongly suggest you separate the CEO from the rest. Get him in here, give him an assurance he will get a special discount because of his importance. You will have to cut back our percentage from Fords, perhaps three percent, but it has to be worth that to hold the agency. Then offer him your tickets to Ascot for him and his wife, you’ve been lots of times. I think he will like to get one over his accountant. Help him show he can get a result when he negotiates.”

“Thanks, Lucy. Thank goodness we have someone on the front desk who can work out some practical options for the company. Right, I will go down and break up W.W.B’s little party and get Mr Hardcastle in for a private cup of tea and a chat and see what I can do.”

A week later the CEO called a senior managers’ meeting with Lucy sitting by his side as the little group of managers trooped in to the boardroom.

“Well, everybody, good news. Advance Van Hire have been able to hold the Lockwood Delivery account for their vans for another year. We have had to drop our commission by 3% to do so but the important thing was to retain our agency with Ford, and as you all know they are threatening us with a sub-agency status if we cannot increase our take of hire vans, and we simply have to bring in every opportunity.”

W.McD continued as he looked around at the managers. “I should add we would not have been in this position if we had not had Lucy’s smart help in preparing the way to convince Lockwood Delivery to stay with us.”

Everyone looked at Lucy, who looked down at her shoes.

The CEO continued. “Lucy is going to continue to work closely with me as we try every way we can to bring in some new customers for the Ford vans. I don’t care if it’s only one or two, they will all add up. So let’s go to work. Sales, sales, sales. W.B.B. could you stay a minute, I would like to get an idea of your marketing focus and Lucy I would like you to hear what Walter has to say.”

Within the hour the Sales Office was filled with anxiety and the sounds of wheeling and dealing as the Sales Director and his team focused on every enquiry they could for leasing of vans.

Lucy now was more and more seen as the ‘eyes and ears’ of the sales effort, listening and watching when she had a potential customer in the reception room feeding off her tea and biscuits. She had even extended this service to sandwiches and light ale for the over-lunch negotiations, when she arranged them in the company’s ‘comfortable private room’ in the most advantageous way to allow her to hear as the customers chatted over the negotiation offers being made.

It was in this way that Lucy’s instinct for what was going on below the surface was most tested.

Some few days after the CEO’s meeting, W.B.B. came down to inform Lucy, “Our Receptionist,” as he rather disparagingly liked to introduce her, that he had three business men coming in that morning. She should not sign them in as the deal had to be ‘hush, hush’. They were coming in to see him to conclude a deal he had ‘as good as done’ for six top rate Ford rental white vans for twelve months.

“Most unusually,” as he explained to Lucy, “a cash deal if we can get the vans for next week and a year’s rental paid up front. I am working on the delivery now so give them your best tea and biscuit smile when they get here at ten o’clock.”

Sure enough precisely at ten, three men in dark overcoats entered reception and came up to Lucy’s desk. The leader, a tanned Italian looking man with beautiful teeth, enquired in perfect English if they could see Mr Walter Bourne with a smile that did not engage his eyes. “We are expected,” he said.

Lucy asked if they would care to sit while she contacted Mr Bourne and invited them to take tea. All, as it turned out, without sugar!

Lucy fixed the tea and complementary biscuits, calling W.W.B. advising him that his customers had arrived.

W.W.B. asked Lucy to hold them in reception as Ford’s Distribution Manager was trying to adjust schedules to get the vehicles for the following Friday.

Half an hour later W.W.B. bounced into the reception ante-room beaming at his customers, as he informed them that the six transit vans would be delivered on Thursday and ready for them on Friday morning at eight as they had required.

Lucy, hovering in the background, observed the knowing exchange between the three before an envelope, thick with fifty pound notes, was passed to W.W.B. and the senior man gave a private address in South Croydon, rather than the address of a company, although that did not seem to bother W.W.B. who was enthusiastically gathering the hire form, having counted the bank banded bundles of fifty pound notes, beaming as he did so.

W.W.B. positively bowed his way out of the reception ante-room as he craved the three overcoats’ indulgence for, “just a few more moments,” whilst he went to authorise the rental agreements.

Lucy retreated to her seat in reception and had scarcely seated herself before she heard a mobile phone ring.

From her seat of observation she slid the folds of the heavy curtain a fraction and saw the over coated back of the customer, with the beautiful smile, holding a mobile phone clamped to his ear.

“Yes, yes,” he was saying impatiently. “Nothing has changed, the vans are sorted. No, we will pick them up. Just make doubly sure your people are in place at each site as we arranged. Of course, we will dump them when we do the change over to the other wheels. Look, I can’t talk anymore.”

Lucy sat and thought for some time after the three, with their signed agreements, had left the office and W.W.B. has rushed up to the CEO’s office to give him the good news.

Finally, she called Pauline, a member of her badminton club who managed the canteen in the local Police Station.

“Pauline, this is a funny one. I feel there’s something wrong with a six-white van hire for next Friday and I just wondered if you could chat to one of the CID girls,” as she went on to explain her concerns.

In no time at all a plain clothes CID officer was in reception asking for Lucy and with a cup of tea and her confirmation that their conversation would be shared in complete confidence, he explained there was ‘chatter’ about a possible job next week involving six villains, known more for their muscles than their minds.

In view of the six-van upfront payment and specific timing demands, which as the CID officer explained, “Might be to avoid having to steal suitable vehicles to move heavy equipment, or the result of a burglary of some sort, would the company co-operate by having tracker devices fitted in the vans the night before they were to leave the company?”

Lucy explained the request and the background to the horrified CEO.

“If Ford hear about this we will be off their agents’ list in a second. Oh goodness what can I tell the bank, our overdraft’s touching the ceiling now. Where will we pick up vans… our name will be mud in the trade.”

Lucy stopped him short.

“William, stop prattling, we are to co-operate with the CID. Leave that to me. Tell no one, least of all W.W.B, he will just have a heart attack.”

At eight o’clock the following Thursday evening, Lucy with the key and CID operatives, were fitting a tiny magnetic tracking device into the engine bay of each of the white vans.

On Friday morning as close to ten o’clock as makes no difference, six Post Office weekly security delivery vehicles throughout the county were stopping at Post Offices behind inconveniently parked white Ford transit vans whilst trying to make their delivery of cash containers.

Each white van driver and his burly assistant found themselves surrounded by a squad of policemen the moment they left their white van.

Back in the company just after Lucy had been phoned to be told of the successful outcome by the CID officer, without passing the news to anyone, she phoned her long standing friend in the Ford Distribution department and explained to the Distribution Manager’s Secretary how the company had saved Ford from the serious embarrassment of being associated with a series of Post Office burglaries by Advance Hire company working with the CID and Lucy hoped this would count in their favour.

A week later in William’s office, the CEO brandished a letter about his head excitedly as he told the company team.

“It’s confirmed the continuation of the company’s agency agreement with Ford, with the promise of an area launch of the new transit model in the spring, financed by Ford, here on our premises.”

The CEO steadied up to say, “All this is down to Lucy’s special skills and I offered her the job of Marketing Manager, but she turned me down saying she likes doing what she has always done for us. Needless to say I have given her a substantial rise anyway!”

Everyone cheered and clapped as Lucy sat looking down at her shoes.

Sleepless Nights

“Why me, what have I done to deserve all this pressure?”

“Just a minute dear, let me get the kids off to get the school bus.”

Duncan sat at the breakfast table staring morosely at the remnants in his cereal bowl, his hand around his mug of tea.

Margaret bustled back into the kitchen, having had a few moments to ensure the children had their homework books and sports gear as they clattered off to the bus stop giving her time to consider the anxious, even depressed, state of her husband in the kitchen.

“Now then Duncan it really is not all bad, you know your dad’s going to get the best treatment and he is a tough old stick. You’ve said so dozens of times and he is well able to look after himself now your Mum’s gone. And the new responsibilities with the job, you know you can get on top of that. That Mr Hetherington told you how much the company value your knowledge, and let’s face it we can do with the money with Terry growing up so quickly.”

“I know, I know, but I just don’t know if I can deal with all the pressure of work. I’ve got months of work to sort out that team as well as look after my own lot. Now I will have to go in regular to see my dad’s doing the right things and I don’t know anything about the prostate cancer treatment, or the effect of the treatment, whatever that is, and you know I haven’t really got over Mum going that quickly. It would help if I could sleep a bit better.”

Duncan held his head in his hands with his arms on the kitchen table.

“Oh come on now, you are the family rock and you’ve got to tidy up and go to work. I will look on the iPad to find out more about this prostate cancer treatment and so when you’ve popped in to see your dad on the way home tonight I will be able to give you a better picture of things.”

Later tidying Terry’s bedroom, which gave the impression that a tornado had passed through, Margaret had the opportunity to worry more about her husband’s state of mind. She thought again he had been something of a ‘mother’s boy’. An only child in a very caring family, excessively proud of their son’s degree in Engineering and his determined focus upon a ‘good’ career.

Margaret smiled as she remembered her mother-in-law’s not very subtle interview with her, when Duncan had finally announced he was going to invite her to be his wife. She realised, as she moved about the house tidying up, that perhaps unwittingly her role had moved into a version of her mother-in-law’s relationship with her son.

Supporting, encouraging, guiding and, Margaret thought, perhaps I have shielded him a bit too much from the realities of life, playing to his tidy organised mind even when events, as now, require a bit of a reaction out of the ordinary.

In his office Duncan was trying to focus on the two men and a woman engineering group he had just inherited as they sat tensely opposite him. Social chitchat at the best of times was not Duncan’s strong card and this morning he was wishing he was elsewhere.

“Er, I expect you wonder why the CEO has transferred you to my section. Well I’m not sure either.”

If he had expected some sign of amusement Duncan certainly did not get it and so after a pause he continued.

“Well your work on Applied Process is close to my team and I expect the CEO thought we could speed projects up a bit.”

Without any reaction from the three in front of him, Duncan was forced into a new tack to engage some sort of response.

“Now, Graham,” he said, looking at his note from the HR Manager. “You seem to have been in the company the longest. Perhaps you could give us your views on the change.”

Graham shifted in his overalls and adjusted the spectacles on his nose, finally saying awkwardly.

“Blow if I know what the point is we were alright working with Mr March. He let us get on with it.”

This last comment was matched by head nodding from the other two.

“Now we dunno what to fink…”

Following a few more less than informative comments Duncan disbanded the meeting with the comment.

“As soon as I get time I will come down and see what each of you is doing but in the meantime just carry on as before.”

Pressed as he was Duncan realised this had not been a successful first meeting and this was on his mind as he took his customary detour that evening to arrive at his father’s house.

Putting his key into the front door, Duncan stopped for a moment to reflect that their normal cup of tea and discussion on the situation in the county cricket match was unlikely to suit the discussion today, with the arrival of the news his father had telephoned him about yesterday of the GP’s confirmation that his father had prostate cancer and the need for immediate treatment.

“Hi, dad,” Duncan called as he went towards the kitchen where he was pleased to see his father at the kitchen table as usual reading the evening paper, the teapot on the Aga.

“Hallo, son, had a good day with your new people?”

“Well not really but you know they need to get used to the change and to me. Anyway, how are you feeling, that’s much more important.”

“Same as usual, Doc says I will feel tired when they start the radiation but not to worry. What do you think happens when I do start this treatment?”

Duncan floundered through tea and confusion, admitting that he had very little idea about the treatment to kill off the cancer cells. Leaving his father with the encouragement that when he came over tomorrow he hoped he would have a bit more information.

A few weeks later with the treatment beginning to take its toll on his father and the new unit deliberately trying to maintain their independence, avoiding Duncan’s attempts to combine their activities with his original group, his nerves not being helped at home by his son’s lack of attention to his schoolwork which Margaret patiently explained as the natural arrival of a hormone change that she insisted was influencing all forms of attitude to ‘discipline’. However, his son’s disruptive behaviour was causing Duncan more stress, whatever the reasons.

All these events were bearing down on Duncan to the point that his wife made an appointment for him to visit his doctor to get some help for his sleepless nights and daily stress.

Duncan was by no means a regular visitor to Dr Clark’s surgery and despite the doctor’s notes prepared by his medical assistant, following the discussion she had on the phone with Margaret, he found Duncan’s reticence difficult to deal with in the short period scheduled for the patient’s visit.

Finally, Dr Clark said.

“Look, Mr Holmes I am giving you the address of a Stress and Cancer Information Centre here in the town, quite close to your office. The people that run it are all volunteers. Nobody gets paid but everyone has been through difficult times and they have been trained to offer support and help. The comfortable and relaxed house they have is organised so that you can drop in as often as you like, have a cup of tea and chat with someone who has been through stressful times and understands. I think it would help you get back in balance and then we can make an appointment for a month’s time when I think it will be easier for us to decide if we can help by having a little clearer picture. In the meantime I am giving you a prescription for some sleeping pills.”

A week later in his lunch break, Duncan took the short walk to a cul-de-sac with its row of Victorian town houses until he came to the steps of No. 7.

Duncan saw the discreet sign, Hemsley Drop-in Centre in the window, the only thing differentiating the three-storey house from the others in the road.

Duncan hesitated, hand on the three step iron handrail, about to turn away when the front door opened and a middle-aged lady with a cheery smile, neat in a twin-set outfit and with an identification badge said.

“Do come in, you really are most welcome.”

And she came down the steps proffering her hand.

“I am Mary,” leading Duncan into the hallway where she got him to sign in. “Health & Safety you know,” she said turning to smile at him, before leading him into what Duncan saw must have been the front room, comfortably furnished with sofas and chairs, with a small tea bar and table loaded with biscuits and cakes.

As Duncan looked around the room where several people were sitting talking quietly together, Mary enquired.

“Would you like a cup of tea before I introduce you to Gwen, she knows everything about the place and likes to talk to everyone who pops in for the first time.”

Duncan found himself with a cup of tea and sitting with Gwen who immediately set Duncan at his ease. She explained how the drop-in centre worked and at the same time, without seeming to do so, got Duncan to explain all his concerns and misgivings, all without him feeling awkward or embarrassed to be talking to a complete stranger about such personal matters.

Telling Margaret about the visit that evening and explaining he had an appointment for a second lunch time visit in a few days, Duncan was further encouraged to find his wife was very supportive of the project and for the first time since Dr Clark had given him the sleeping pills, he did not take one that night and managed to sleep through the night without dreams of his struggles at work or finding himself standing in front of the school with the headmaster admonishing him.

Over the next three weeks, Duncan visited the drop-in centre counsellor several times. She helped him by preparing a detail of the effects on the daily life of an older man undergoing the kind of treatment his father was receiving. She also listened carefully to Duncan as he gradually opened up giving background detail about his struggles and stress.

At his next visit she said, “Duncan, I really do feel I have the picture of the way you see things and I can understand your concerns and I think I have a plan which I am going to suggest to you that I think might help.”

This said she laid out in some detail her suggested programme.

As a result, on the very next Saturday morning Duncan took his son to meet his grandfather, a procedure he had avoided since his father had started his treatment, partially he now realised to penalise his son for his somewhat irritating behaviour at home and partially as he thought his father would not want to be bothered by his grandson when he was not feeling well.

The reunion meeting was joyful from both parties and Duncan was surprised to hear his father going through the detail of the treatment with his grandson and how he was feeling. The lad responded to this confidence by telling his grandfather he had been ‘got at’ by an older boy who ‘fancied’ a girl, Sue, a pupil in the sister girls’ school who he had had a first tentative one-to-one meeting with in the Costa coffee shop and who he hoped would become a more regular date. This was to the irritation of the older boy who had been trying to date Sue for some time.

All information that Duncan had no inclination of until he sat silently listening at the kitchen table as the two shared their experiences.

With a promise to be back the following Saturday, Duncan drove his new cheerful and chatty son home and when he introduced the potential next step in ‘The Plan’ without indicating it was anything of the sort, his son simply said. “Yep right, OK sure.”

A week later in the half term, Duncan introduced his son as, “visiting to get a little experience,” in his weekly rather stilted technical update meeting with the three members of his new team.

The meeting began with Duncan having to probe carefully for any detail of their programmes in the week. Constantly trying to find some way of linking their equipment development with the system work in which his own team were involved.

Matters drifted on with his son listening intently, until one of the team mentioned they were considering linking two of their experimental units by fibre optic cable than copper cable.

At this point Duncan’s son abruptly joined in the conversation.

“I’m working on a fibre optic cable project at school. We have a visiting student at Imperial College doing his Ph.D., with this as his research paper. He’s a great guy and has chosen me as the group liaison.”

Duncan sat back in his chair amazed at the news.

His son continued. “We are seeing how lower the signal attention is with fibre optic cable. You know, higher band with more data.”

At this point the new team were all focused upon Duncan’s son.

“No, go on, how interesting. We are just looking into the fibre optic cable options,” said the three all talking at once.

“We were shown last week just how effective the fibre optic cable is in avoiding stray interference,” replied Duncan’s son.

Later in the day after Duncan’s son had disappeared with the new team, the meeting reconvened when Duncan was told that.

“If we do use a fibre optic link we should be able to interface the two unit’s projects into the one programme.”

An atmosphere so different from the past, that Duncan found it difficult to explain to the drop-in centre counsellor the dramatic improvement. She just smiled and said.

“I hope you will drop in and have a cup of tea regularly. I would love to know how things progress for you and your father and of course you ‘new’ group at work, and most of all now you have established a whole new relationship with your son.”

On his follow up visit to the surgery, Dr Clark simply said.

“Well, it sounds to me as if you have dealt with your stress problems very well and you certainly don’t need any more help from me. I only wish I could get such a good result with all my patients!”

The Retiring Man

It was not so much that Harold Painter underestimated his abilities but rather more that he never thought about them without his wife’s guidance and direction, although shaving that morning he looked at himself and knew that even without her, he would have to decide what he would do next.

If only Hilda had not passed away, thought Harold, she would have given me a clear plan of action from the day after I retire from the bank.

Looking bleakly at himself in the mirror, Harold wiped soap off his face and finally addressed the thought that his pedestrian days travelling from junior clerk to senior clerk in the bank were coming to an end.

Harold sighed deeply. Without Hilda’s direction how could he find some activity to compensate for the daily discipline and comfort of the No. 31 bus and the bank’s all-consuming rules and procedures before he returned to No. 26 Acacia Avenue and his carefully organised life overseen in every way by Hilda? He had tried when he received the formal notice of his retirement date from the Personnel Department to consider his options, but the future seemed terrifying to Harold, causing him to have recurring nightmares.

Harold had purchased a book from the ‘self-help’ section of Waterstones bookshop entitled A Guide for the smooth transition into Retirement and despite assiduously ploughing through the chapters one after another, only putting down the book on his bedside table at 9.45 p.m. to turn off the light, if anything the ‘Self-help book’ increased his anxiety, with such chapters with charts for ‘self-measurement to prepare yourself for the retirement phase of your life’!

Testing everything from the nutritious intake of his daily food to levels of alcohol and other stimuli, Harold baulked at the section requiring box ticking on his response to sexual stimulation of partners of either gender. He also found the chapter requiring his values on the relationships he experienced at a wide range of clubs from golf to political and cultural groups, where the reader might increase his or her involvement, of no value at all as he held no membership cards.

An issue that bothered Harold and came up in one form of disturbing dream segment or another, was the thought that without the casual interface he had daily with members of the bank staff, many over several years, he would become even more lonely and isolated than he was since Hilda had departed.

Returning each evening to an unlit and unprepared house had forcibly brought loneliness like a blanket of misery into his life, a situation which was about to get worse, forcing Harold to decide he had to act to prepare himself for his impending retirement date.

Therefore, like it or not, he had had to make a decision over the path he had to take and this, for the first time in his life, it had to be done all on his own.

Previous paths had been selected by his dominant mother, including his choice, not that he had one, of his job in the bank and his wife, Hilda, who his mother met in the library and decided she would make a suitable wife.

The bank had directed every step of his modest career and his wife had directed every other aspect of his life until her quite unexpected demise on a Friday morning when the grocery delivery driver had come to the house with the weekly delivery. His procedure was to tap, as quickly as it was possible on the back door, open it and call softly, “Are you there, Mrs Painter?” in the hope he could slip in and have the grocery order on the table and slip out without having to face Mrs Painter, who would if she caught him, as she usually did, go through each item on the bill, frequently weighing loose items to ensure the accuracy of the delivery before he could escape to continue his round.

On this morning he found Mrs Painter sitting bolt upright in her wheel back kitchen chair, staring at him with unseeing eyes, an unnerving experience for the young man who had the presence of mind to call an ambulance, when matters were taken out of his hands.

Now, only a few weeks later in the bank, to Harold’s considerable surprise the bank’s security guard came over as Harold took his morning tea break in the canteen and unceremoniously dumped himself down with his sandwich pack and the Daily Star newspaper on the table next to him.

It was well known that Harold liked to sit quietly on his own with his tea, no sugar, and the Daily Mail paper. One of his few indulgencies which he could get away with without Hilda being aware of his pleasure for reading a paper that Hilda regarded as a ‘common little rag with left wing tendencies and encouraged people to gamble excessively on racehorses.’

Harold shifted himself slightly sideways as William Dormitt, known generally as ‘Bill Doorstop’ as a result of his security role at the banks’ front door, leaned his considerable girth over the table towards him.

“Well now, Mr Painter, what are you going to do with yourself when you leave us?” enquired Bill Doorstop with a smile on his face.

This question was totally surprising to Harold on two counts. In the several years they had known each other, the only discussion had been of the ‘good morning, ‘good evening you will need your umbrella tonight, Mr Painter’ exchange without a hint of interest by either party to explore any wider conversational issues.

“I expect when you have more time on your hands you will be spending it with old friends?”

The nature of Bill Doorstop’s interest forced a response from Harold who replied.

“Well, I haven’t decided yet but I expect I will give one or two old school friends a call.”

He replied rather defensively, surprising himself as he did so as he had given no thought to this possible line of action.

“Good idea, good idea,” said Bill Doorstop, adding gloomily, “I wish my retirement was coming up, no such luck. I have years to do at the bank before I get a pension.”

The idea of calling up one or two old school contacts kept to the forefront of Harold’s mind as he wended his way home on the No. 31 bus, stopping only to pick up a ‘take-away’ meal from the corner shop, under the watchful gaze of Gladys Fulsome, the proprietor, who had once been heard telling a lady customer as he reached into the freezer display for a single portion of veal and ham pie, ‘such a shame he has no one to look after him now, poor little soul.’

The following day at the bank, Harold had a shortlist of three pupils who he remembered as being of ‘like spirit’ at avoiding games and much school work as possible. Firmly gripping the lip balm tube in his pocket, his way of steeling himself, Harold called his old junior public school in the depth of Dorset, using the ‘Hatchlands Annual Report’ that he and every other ex-student received each year, a copy of which he kept out of a sense of loyalty and with a slight hope that someone would ask him what school he had been to. No one ever did!

Harold phoned the school number whilst looking at the photograph of the school secretary on the inside page before asking to speak to Miss Patricia Pembury, explaining he was an old boy and to encourage the transfer he said, “I am calling from the A.M.P. Bank, Head Office.” A trick he had picked up years before to elevate the importance of his call in the hope, generally resulting, that he would get informed attention rather than his enquiry being dealt with by some disinterested operator.

Harold was however somewhat surprised when he was put through instantly.

“How nice of you to call back, this is Patricia Pembury, we so want a senior bank official like yourself, one of our respected old boys, to talk to the school at the end of term and the Headmaster and the school directors would be really delighted if you could talk for a few minutes at our end of term day so that the boys could be inspired by hearing someone who had been at the school and had achieved great success in the banking world. We will, of course, send a car to bring you down and have booked a suite at the Grand Hotel in Barchester.”

By now despite the torrent of information Harold had worked out this was a case of mistaken identity.

Miss Pembury continued unabated.

“We were so worried that we would not be able to get a banker to come down. We had tried several of you old boys; several could not make the fifteenth of next month. Indeed, your call represents our last chance. Thank you, thank you so much for helping the school out.”

Harold had prepared himself several times to explain his reason for calling but there was no space in the flow of words from Miss Pembury for him to inject the purpose in calling.

Miss Pembury carried on speaking.

“Mr Painter… may I call you Harold? My assistant has just passed me your school record and I see you were an exemplary student quietly pursuing your studies with us, without causing the kind of disruption as so many of our students give the staff today. An ideal background so that now you have achieved such success in the banking world at the end of your career you can inspire a new generation of our pupils to follow your lead.”

Faced with this accolade of success, false as it was, Harold found himself basking in the warmth of the words unique to his ears and when Miss Pembury finally stopped to draw breath, Harold was able to mumble, “Delighted to help.”

Personal telephone numbers exchanged with the promise of a detail for the travel and five star accommodations to follow, Harold sank back in his chair in a state of anxiety and suppressed excitement, never before having received an accolade let alone a compliment declaring his success in any field of his uneventful life.

The retirement dinner hosted by a very recently appointed junior regional director, who managed to refer to Harold as Harry, sitting with a dozen colleagues from the office dragooned into the dinner, all of whom would rather be watching TV or up the pub, than listening to the young director droning on about service and credit to the bank when he clearly had no more personal recollection of Harold’s time than three paragraphs on a paper from the Personnel Department.

Harold had at least made some attempt to prepare a response bringing in the names of several of the bank’s luminaries who he had met at one time or another. He was motivated by the thought that the notes might help in a name dropping way when he was addressing his old school pupils.

The bank’s retirement evening was somewhat stilted, stuffy and hurried but Harold managed to be courteous and grateful when he accepted his leaving gift of a figurative side table lamp, a gilded plaster cast of two entwined figures gaudily decorated who in the rather dim lighting of the function room gave the impression they were performing a complex sex act. The lamp had been donated by the Personnel Department at the last minute when it was realised no staff collection for Harold had been arranged and had been found in a store cupboard that had been gifted some years before but considered as a totally unsuitable wedding gift for one of the secretaries, even though she had been known to be adventurous!

Harold found it quite easy preparing himself for the school event to claim he had a liking for the generous gift, claiming it would have a special place in his ‘new’ life and remain as a reminder of his ‘close’ colleagues in the bank.

The effusiveness of his thanks surprised several of his colleagues. One or two detected a subtle irony in his comments which caused considerable surprise in the after dinner discussions.

“Didn’t know he had it in him, sneaky old bugger laughing at us there in his booth.”

Harold found the limousine trip down to Dorset most satisfying. The driver’s courteous attention and the pre-arranged stop for lunch did much to dispel his queasy feeling about delivering his fifty times written speech to the boys, their parents and teachers the next day.

The arrival at the prestigious hotel in Barchester was again very gratifying to Harold who was totally unused to polite subservience and attention to his every whim.

In his spacious hotel suite he found an envelope with a message suggesting he might like to take the short walk through the park to the school to remind him of the direction for the following day, together with a list of the senior staff and directors he would be meeting at the event.

Soon after changing into comfortable attire, Harold made his way through the hotel foyer and bowed down the entrance steps by the doorman who could easily have been a sergeant in the Grenadier Guards.

The walk across the open park and through a screen of neatly cut privet hedges was as he remembered things fifty years before, but entering the rest of the school grounds the view before him had changed dramatically. Now new buildings existed where the tennis courts had once been, an area to avoid at all costs.

Turning first left and then right, he still saw no way to the front entrance and in some desperation he approached a small boy wandering with his face to the ground, hands in pockets, who might offer Harold some information.

“Young man, could you direct me to the school entrance please.”

The young pupil visibly jerked himself back from where his mind was leading him, looking thoroughly surprised by being challenged in this way.

“Yes, sir, if you wouldn’t mind following me,” he finally said, withdrawing his hands from his trouser pockets.

Harold realised an explanation was necessary to steady the boy.

“I am here for the finals day event tomorrow as I am an old boy of the school. What’s your name?”

“Gillesby, sir, 3B.”

“Oh 3B, that’s the very class I started in when I came to the school.” Harold nearly said forty-two years ago but caught himself and added, “A few years ago.”

“Now this is the end of your first year, I expect you have just had your end of year report and how did you do?”

Gillesby scuffed the ground with the toe of his shoe and said.

“Not very well, sir.”

Looking to cheer the boy up, Harold said, “I know how you are feeling. I had a poor report at the end of my first year and my mother was not very pleased.” An understatement Harold thought.

“Why have you come back then?” Gillesby asked in some surprise.

This was a question that Harold was quite unable to answer as Gillesby had stopped walking and was now staring up at his face in surprise.

“Did you become one of our Star pupils later?”

“Well no, no not at all but your school secretary, Miss Pembury, has asked me to come down and talk to all you boys, because I work in a big bank.”

“Golly, but I suppose you are really only going to be talking to all the bright boys here and I’m not very bright and I don’t know how to tell my mother and father about my report tomorrow when they come to collect me.”

Tears ran down Gillesby’s cheeks and Harold, without thinking, handed Gillesby his handkerchief instinctively knowing that the boy would not have one, a situation he would have been in all those years ago.

They walked on in silence until they rounded the science block and saw the entrance steps and doors. Harold stopped, suddenly clear for the first time what had to be done tomorrow.

“Listen young Gillesby, I had a miserable time here too and I am going to talk about that to boys like you, not just the bright ones and I will see if I can make it easier for your parents to accept your end of year report tomorrow.”

Back in the hotel suite later, Harold discarded his speech notes and spent some time preparing for his talk to the boys and their parents the next day.

The school hall was packed with boys, their parents and the teaching staff and school trustees, all sitting in tiered ranks beneath the frowning faces of the luminaries whose paintings adorned the walls into the high vaulted ceilings.

The headmaster had beamed benignly to the left and right as he informed his audience of the great successes the school had achieved in every department of academic endeavour during the year, highlighting with arms upraised, the classic scholars whose entry into Oxford had been achieved on the back of winning bursaries.

He droned on to achievements in the field, on the river and courts where school athletes had ‘once again’ achieved ringing successes in their various areas.

Before sitting down to the comforting applause of the pupils and parents relieved that their investment, despite the increase in fees, had at least been spent with some hope of return, the Headmaster swept his hand to the right towards Harold, who was perched uncomfortably in the middle of the row of Governors on the stage.

“And today,” said the Headmaster, “we are privileged to have with us a distinguished old boy, Mr Harold Painter, senior executive at the A.M.P. Bank who will address us all…, Mr Painter.”

Harold had discarded any thought of reading a speech in his hotel room the night before and in doing so he was pleased to feel the weight of Hilda’s presence slip from his shoulders.

He strode purposely to the lectern, almost bouncing in his enthusiasm to deliver his message to the expectant throng.

Harold paused, looking across the sea of faces feeling for the first time at ease with himself.

“I would like to explain before I begin,” he said, “today I am going to address those boys, and their parents, who are not high academic achievers, who do not excel in sport or in cultural matters, who worry day by day what new challenges will have to be faced.”

The look of stony surprise on Miss Pembury’s face during Harry’s rousing address was markedly softened by the end when the audience’s warm and continuous applause swept the hall.

Harold, standing at the lectern with the applause sweeping around him, spotted little Gillesby who had stood tall from his seat and having caught Harold’s eye, raised a thumbs up to his own family success.

Harold knew then he had found his own new path.

Later still after a luncheon with the distinguished guests, the Chairman of Governors drew Harold to one side to enquire if he would have time to become a governor and attend the regular meetings and events ‘to use’ as the Chairman explained ‘his special skills and experience to help the school?’

Harold accepted without a moment’s thought.

Breaking the Habit

Harry left his elderly grey mini car close to the railings in the van yard, exactly at 6.00 a.m. by the same rail section as he had the day before. Indeed, the year before or had he given the process any thought, the same rail section he had left his well-polished little car each working day for the last twenty years.

Harry did not think about his working day routine as he walked to his company van in slot number One, precisely where he had left it at one o’clock the previous day after his delivery shift. In fact, he was not thinking about anything except the van keys in his right trouser pocket, the same company uniform trousers he wore every day for work.

Harry unlocked his company van and walked to the side door of the long factory building where, had he considered it, the sweet smell of cooking bakeries was filling the air. He tugged open the door and entered the depot, busy with white coated, white hatted and hair netted workers, collecting an array of bakeries from ovens and placing them with their paper cups on to wooden slatted trays.

Harry, walked to Station One, clearly identified with a numbered card and his name, ten trays awaited his six o’clock arrival. As always Harry gave no thought to the process and he began to transport each tray with its range of cakes, buns, tarts and rolls of every filling and description at a steady pace into his van. Fitting each tray on to its slide in the order he would be delivering them to the cake shops on his round.

Never once did Harry glance at his watch or the clock on the bakery wall. He knew by habit exactly where he was in the order of the day’s events. He did give a courtesy nod to the Supervisor, who nodded back, neither spoke. He also nodded to one of the assembly girls, who smiled back at him but that was the only form of communication he had in the company as had been the case for many years because all the employees knew the longest serving deliveryman did not engage in casual chatting, indeed did not engage in any discussions.

At six-twenty-seven, possibly three minutes later than usual, Harry started his loaded van. The unusual delay had been caused by the bakery’s large black cat walking casually across the front of Harry’s van.

Harry had watched the cat, impressed with its calm control and smooth action, delaying to start the motor until the cat had cleared his view.

On the road making his way to his first café shop/bakery drop off, he fell easily into his habit mode of simply operating the van without the slightest thought, his sub conscious reacting to junctions, traffic lights, crossroads, cyclists, cars on the way early to work, until he drew the van to a stop exactly outside the front door of the ‘Cosy Tea Cake and Teashop’, as he had been doing for nineteen unbroken years.

As a committed loner, Harry had no interest in holidays, accepting the inconvenience of National and Christmas holidays but perfectly happy to return every day to his rather isolated single bed roomed cottage to spend any free time on his small but perfect garden or with his stamp collection, happy to avoid all but the minimum social interaction with people, as he had managed to do since he was a young boy.

* * *


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