I catch Doug first thing and he enthusiastically agrees with my proposal about paying his share of the expenses instead of a formal rent. Working out at less than a third of what Colin is paying, I didn’t expect him to refuse. He thanks me and tells me that everybody has to be out of the hostel by Monday, so my offer has come just in time. We agree that he can move in whenever he wants, but he may have to help me sort out the room.
Before I let him leave, there is something else I want to say to him.
“This afternoon the Financial Director and myself are running through a presentation we are preparing for tomorrow. I would like you to be there.”
“I thought you might be interested, but from my point of view, you can tell us if we are not making things clear enough for a layman to understand.”
“OK, what time?” Doug asks.
“About two o’clock. We will be in the conference room. There’s more room in there.”
After Doug goes back to the main office, I dig out the papers I printed off last night.
The minority shareholder’s address is on top of the pile. I have just realised why it seemed familiar. I get the document I was looking at earlier in the week out of the file for comparison. Yes, it is a match. I decide not to say anything about it just yet. It’s something I feel should be kept in reserve.
I turn to the company that I think might have the same address as Maggie’s brother’s business. I find the papers I had downloaded from Companies House on Monday. Once again the address is a match. I have another look at the company under the same ownership as our customer. It was incorporated six months before Maggie’s brother’s business went bust and operates in the same market segment. If it had been set up in response to the failure of Maggie’s brother’s company you might expect it to be incorporated after that had happened or only very shortly before.
I think I need to speak to Maggie so I ring Mother for her number.
“Oh hello, dear,” she says after I have told her who is calling. “Are you at home?”
“No, Mother. I’m at work.”
“I can’t meet you for lunch, you know,” she scolds. “You said you didn’t want to do lunch this week so I have made other arrangements. I am meeting a young man this afternoon.” I don’t mention that I already know about it.
“I am not ringing you about lunch. I am after Maggie’s phone number,” I say in the forlorn hope that it will short circuit the conversation.
“There is no need to be short with me, dear. Why do you want Maggie’s number? Is it something I can help you with?” I should have known I would get the Inquisition.
“I need to ask her about her brother’s business. We were talking about it on Sunday.”
“Very well,” she sounds disappointed that it is something she doesn’t know about.
Mother gives me the number then continues. “Brenda says I have to play a slightly confused little old lady this afternoon. I hope I’ll be all right. I was never any good at acting.”
So says a passed master of the art of dissembling.
“Mother, don’t worry about trying to act,” I say, “just be your normal self. I’m sure you will be fine.”
“If you say so, dear.”
I manage to reassure her enough for us to end the call, but not until after I have been volunteered to cook lunch on Sunday and told to bring Mike along again.
Maggie is surprised to hear from me when I call.
“I thought you would be working,” she says after the usual opening pleasantries.
“I am,” I reply. “I want to ask you about what happened to your brother’s business in the end. Was it sold? If so, to whom?”
“Let me think.” There is a pause before she tells me what I had been beginning to suspect. “It was sold to the people that are there now. They made an offer to the receivers almost as soon as the company was put into administration. Dennis said it was almost as if they knew it was going to happen.
“The receivers didn’t bother to ask for any other offers in case they lost the sale. Dennis took it very badly. He told me it went for even less than the receivers had initially estimated. It broke poor Dennis, he was never the same again. It was as if his life had no meaning. He only lasted a couple of years.” I can hear the grief in her voice.
I offer Maggie words of sympathy until she recovers her composure.
Maggie’s story makes this personal. I am determined that we should get rid of this customer, before they break us, but I need more evidence.
I recall Mike saying he had come across them before so I ring him next. Unfortunately, he cannot give me much detail as it was some time ago, and he wasn’t directly involved. I tell him about Dennis’s company and he agrees it sounds like a similar story.
After lunch, I set out my papers in the conference room. Doug comes in as I finish putting everything in the order I want. Showing initiative, he has brought a note pad and pen with him, so I suggest that he write down anything he thinks of as we go along, no matter how apparently trivial. It might have some relevance to our review.
While we wait for the Financial Director to arrive, Doug looks around. He walks across the room to where there is an organisation chart on the wall showing how everyone from supervisor level upwards fits into our company. There are photographs of each person. Although it was done for aesthetic reasons to make the chart look balanced on the sheet, the photos of the most senior staff are much larger. Large enough to be distinguishable across the room.
“Who is this guy?” Doug asks as he points at the picture of Scott, the Sales Director.
I walk across to stand next to Doug and explain who the various people are in more detail than the chart can express.
Bert, the FD, comes in and I introduce Doug and explain why I have asked him to be in the meeting. As I do so, I can see Doug comparing the photo on the wall with the man himself. It is a good likeness. They all are.
We arrange ourselves around the table. The FD and I are at one end and Doug is about halfway down the side nearest me, opposite the wall chart.
Bert and I work through our presentation trying to make sure that our respective pieces fit together. Occasionally, Doug asks us to explain some term or concept, but I am impressed with the way he seems to be following what we are talking about. However, after we present a complex numerical piece about the size of margins, reduced activity and profits, Bert sees he looks lost.
“Young man,” Bert says to regain Doug’s attention. “You seem to be having difficulty with that last bit. What would you like us to explain?”
The FD’s avuncular tone suggests that he too is impressed with Doug’s contributions so far and wants to keep him engaged.
“It’s the numbers,” Doug explains. “They are so large they mean nothing to me. I have nothing to relate them to. I can’t visualise what they mean. Yes, you have put in percentages comparing to sales and things like that but they are not numbers I can relate to either.”
“I think I can understand that,” I say. “What do you think would be a good measure for comparison?”
“I don’t know. Total wages maybe?”
“The wages number is there,” Bert says. “It is easy enough to do the comparison.”
“For an accountant,” Doug replies. “Anyone else will probably just switch off.”
“So are you suggesting we rework this column in terms of wages?” The FD is pointing to a ratio column on the spreadsheet we have been discussing. His tone is one of challenge.
“Er…” Bert’s tone has got Doug flustered.
“Do you think it would work better,” I say to Doug, “if we leave the spreadsheet as it is, but work your comparisons into our talk?” He nods and I continue. “Maybe change the comparator to suit the point we are trying to make?”
Doug blushes as he sees the FD looking at him, waiting for an answer.
“Er, yes. I think so.”
Bert pounces. “Good. When we have finished here I want you to work with Patrick on those.”
We finish our run through and Bert and I start to discuss some of the points we think we have missed or might come up in questions.
“One thing puzzles me,” I say. “Why didn’t Sales ask for a price increase when our supply costs increased?”
“They did, apparently,” the FD replies, “Scott came back with some rubbish about offsetting our cost increase against what we get for our by-products from the production for their contract.”
“Bullshit. Whichever way you look at it, it’s still eating into our profits.” I am getting annoyed.
“I know,” Bert sounds resigned. “George still fell for it though.”
“Never!” I am close to shouting. “Why the hell are Sales rolling over for this customer?”
It is not a question, it is a statement. A statement delivered calmly from half way down the room; not to us, but as if to some virtual listener known only to the speaker.
We look along the table at Doug. In our discussions we had forgotten he was still with us. He is staring at the organisation chart and at one face in particular.
I can tell the FD is about to say something but I gesture that he should stay quiet. There is silence in the room for a few moments before Doug shakes his head.
“Sorry. I was miles away,” he blushes, embarrassed that he was not paying attention. “Did you say something?”
I think it is we that should be asking that question.
“No,” I say as I turn towards the FD, “I think we are finished here, aren’t we?”
Bert knows I know he is the one who should be closing the meeting. I hope he understands I have my reasons.
“Yes, I think so,” he says. “If we can just work up those few remaining points, we can quickly go through them tomorrow and be ready for the boss at eleven.”
We gather up our bits and pieces and as we leave the room, the FD asks if I can spare him a few minutes in his office. I tell Doug to go on to my office and I will follow.
“What was that about?” Bert asks.
“I don’t know for sure, but I have a hunch.”
“Go on. Don’t be mysterious.”
“Do you have access to Scott’s CV?” I ask.
“It’s in George’s office. Why do you want it?”
“I want to know where Scott worked before he came here. Last three or four places, with dates.”
“George is out. Will tomorrow do?”
“No. I think we need to know as soon as possible so we can check our facts before tomorrow’s meeting.” I know Bert has a key to the MD’s office.
“Leave it with me. I’ll get the file out and bring you the details.”
Doug and I work hard for the remainder of the day and everything for that bit of the presentation is as ready as possible by the time we have finished.
I tell Doug that he had better work in the main office tomorrow as Edith will be wondering where her replacement for the leavers has disappeared to. If we need him, we will come and get him.
After he has gone, Bert comes in with the information I want from Scott’s CV.
“I thought it best to wait until Doug had gone,” he says as he hands me the list. “Isn’t his penultimate employer that company you were talking about on Monday, the one your friend’s brother owned?”
I look down the list.
“Yes.” I grunt. I am already thinking about what I will find out about the other companies on the list.
“I’ll leave it with you. Have a good evening,” Bert says as he leaves my office.
A good evening? Another evening spent rooting around on the Companies House website.
My morning starts in Mike’s office. I was expecting Mother to ring last night, but she didn’t, so I want to know if he has heard anything from her or Brenda. He hasn’t. I remind him he is due for lunch with Mother again on Sunday. We should hear something then.
While I am there, I show him the list of companies that the Financial Director had taken from Scott’s CV. He recognises Dennis’s company, of course, and he thinks the one before that might be the company he had heard about. I show him another list of companies that I have prepared. I point to one.
“Is that the company that took over the business from the receivers?” I ask.
“Yes. That’s them.” he replies, giving me the confirmation for my conclusions from last night’s efforts.
At eleven o’clock, the FD and I are waiting in the conference room, as ready to present our case as we can be. We hear voices in the corridor.
“George. You have got Patrick here haven’t you?” It is Diana.
I am not surprised she is here. I spent some of my time last night revising: looking at our own company. Diana holds twenty five percent of the shares, and George holds the rest. For some reason best known to themselves, she is not a director.
Aunt and nephew walk into the room.
“Hello, Bert,” Diana says as she marches past him and up to me. “Nice to see you again Patrick. How’s your mother?”
“Fine.” I struggle to hold my own in a very hearty handshake.
We get down to business.
The FD and I once more demonstrate the losses arising from the customer’s contract and go on with our outline plan for the restructuring of the business to accommodate both the loss of sales and the potential bad debt that we expect to arise when the customer moves elsewhere. Diana and the Managing Director are appreciative of the comparisons we introduced at Doug’s suggestion.
The MD mentions the offset of the sales from by-product against the contract. I have to say something. I remember the motto from the egg Doug gave me.
“The by-product should be the icing on the cake,” I say. “It’s what pays the dividend.”
Diana glares at the MD. “What’s a dividend?” she asks sarcastically.
Funny she should say that. It’s what they asked Yerkes all those years ago.
We press on and have just about finished when Diana asks George how he expects to sell the surplus product once the customer pulls out.
George shrugs. “We may need to increase stocks until Scott can find alternative buyers or we can renegotiate supplier contracts.”
This gives me the opening I want. “You might have to find those alternative buyers yourself once you’ve seen this,” I say.
I hand round copies of a table that is the fruits of my labours last night. It shows the last four companies Scott has worked for, the dates he worked for them, the dates they went into administration or receivership, which company appears to have bought the residual assets and when that company was incorporated.
I explain the table and say that all the successor companies are linked by the same shareholders and directors to the ultimate holding company of our customer. I point out another associated company that was incorporated six months ago, is listed as being in the same line of business as ourselves, but is currently dormant.
Diana is first to draw the expected conclusion.
“To work for one company that goes bust is unfortunate,” she says. ”To work for four in succession looks like more than carelessness.”
Bert and I both wince at the mangled Wilde quote.
“Obviously it is not conclusive proof,” I say, “but it does look suspicious. You need some other evidence. For example: if he is spending more than you know he is earning here then he could be taking bribes or being blackmailed into breaking the target companies.”
If the FD makes the connection with Doug’s comment he doesn’t say anything. I suspect that he too will be only too pleased to see the back of Scott.
The MD makes his decision.
“Diana, I want you to do some snooping round. See if you can turn up anything to back up the possibility of bribery or anything else. Check whether he gambles or uses drugs; either could be why he needs money.”
“I’ll get Brenda and Maggie to help,” she says looking at me.
“I want you to do it yourself,” George says, “No subcontracting. You couldn’t use Maggie anyway, Scott has probably met her.”
He presses on.
“Bert. Minutes of an Extraordinary General Meeting of the company. Held today, date, time and place. Usual stuff about all shareholders present so no need for notice. Item one, to receive a report on the previous employers of Scott. Item two, it was resolved that Scott be removed as a director of the company, memo: resolution passed nem con. I assume you agree, Diana?”
“There being no other business meeting adjourned. Do not file the ‘director resigned’ form with Companies House just yet. Got that Bert?”
It is Bert’s turn to nod.
“Right. On Monday we will say nothing about this to Scott. I will ask him to set up a meeting with the director of the customer... what did you say his name was?” George looks at me.
“I didn’t,” I say, “According to their Annual Return it is Warren Buchanan.”
“Scott is to set up a meeting with Warren, ostensibly to discuss a price increase. By the time that meeting is due to take place hopefully we will have evidence enough to force Scott to resign of his own accord. We then resign the business with the customer, preferably after we have got him to agree there are no invoices in dispute and all the outstanding debt will be paid. Diana, see if you can dig anything up on Warren as well, please.
“Anybody got anything else to add?” George looks around at us all.
“What about the restructuring?” I ask.
“Use what you have done as the strategic template and start on the logistical detail. Don’t involve anyone else just yet and bear in mind that we may have to alter it depending on the results of the meetings with Warren and Scott.”
At going-home time, Doug taps on my door.
“Would it be all right if I move in tomorrow morning?” he asks. “Colin says he will give me a lift over with my stuff. He has offered to stay and help sort out the room, too.”
“Sure. Roughly what time?”
“Probably around ten.”
“That will be fine,” I say.
He is about to leave when I remember I have something to tell him.
“Thank you for your help on the presentation. The comments you suggested were much appreciated. I think we would have lost our audience without them.”
He is embarrassed by the praise. Still, it makes him look cute.
I had better do some shopping to make sure there is enough food in the house now that there will be two of us.
Mike rings as I am indulging in an extra piece of breakfast toast and marmalade. He wants to know if I have heard anything from Mother or Brenda as they haven’t spoken to him. I tell him not to worry, they might not have been able talk to Sam yet and therefore have nothing to report. I don’t tell him that Mother could equally well be amusing herself, keeping him in suspense, waiting until they are face to face to give him her big reveal.
Since Mike seems so edgy, I suggest he comes round to my house. He can make himself useful helping Doug and Colin get Doug’s room ready. It should take his mind off Sam for a while.
I eat the remains of my toast and, as I warm my hands on the cup and sip the last of my tea, I reflect on the last week and a half. Quite a ride it has been, and it is not over yet. One thing I have noticed: Mike’s gay taunts have stopped.
It is not long before Mike arrives and I let him in. After I shut the door I pull him into a hug. Not something I would normally do, but I think he needs it. I can feel him start to shake.
“Relax,” I say. “What’s up?” Keeping the hug, I start to gently rub his back.
“You,” he replies. “I’ve not done this before: been like this in the arms of another man.”
“Don’t be nervous.” My voice is soft, as I continue moving my hands on his back.
Then I feel myself starting to laugh. I suppress it into a chuckle. To laugh aloud would upset Mike and spoil the moment. I still have to say what set me off.
“You weren’t nervous the other night when you had your tongue down my throat.”
I pull away from him enough that he can see my smile. And I can watch him blush.
“Well, I was pissed.”
“I know,” I say pulling him back in. I am rather enjoying the sensation of holding him. It’s something else I haven’t done for some time.
“Maybe there is some truth in it,” I add.
“The old saying ‘in vino veritas’.” I nuzzle his ear with my nose a little. I can feel the last of his shakes die away.
“I have been watching you, wondering if I might have a chance.” It is Mike’s turn to pull away from the hug to study my reaction.
“Hm,” I grunt, stalling for time to think. “So that was what was behind all your gay taunts?”
It seems appropriate for us to fully break our embrace and we start to walk towards the back of the house.
“Is there a chance?” Mike asks.
“Could be,” I echo as I rest my hand on his bum to steer him into the kitchen.
Mike and I chat about nothing particular until shortly after ten, when we hear a car draw up. It will be Colin with Doug and his stuff. I get up to go to the door, but I hear it open and the sound of feet in the hallway. From hearing Brenda arrive the other night, Doug must have guessed I leave it on the latch when I am expecting visitors.
“Hi, it’s us.” It’s Colin’s voice.
I resist the temptation to ask ‘who’s us’ and shout back. “We’re in the kitchen.”
“I thought that was your car outside,” Colin says to Mike after the usual round of greetings. “Been here long?”
The grins on the faces of the two boys suggest they think he has been here overnight.
“About twenty minutes,” I say and give them an old fashioned look. “I suggested he come round and give us a hand.”
“I haven’t got that much stuff!” Doug says with indignation.
“I didn’t think you would have,” I say, “but I haven’t been up there for a while. The rooms could probably do with a spring clean.”
The whole house could actually, but I am not going to admit to it. I am afraid I have been slobbing out a tad, living on my own.
“Rooms?” says Colin emphasising the plural, obviously intrigued.
I ignore the question.
“Shall we go for a look round?” I ask. “That way you can see what is up there and what other furniture you might want to move from any of the other rooms, and what needs to be done to get it set up the way Doug wants it. If you can’t find what you want, look in the cellar. There are one or two things down there.”
We go upstairs and work our way through the two bedrooms I don’t use on the first floor. I have given Mike the job of writing an inventory of the things in each room. I show Doug and Colin where the bathroom is and then we move up to the top floor. It is really a converted attic space and I explain that when the house was built this would have been the servants’ quarters.
Colin giggles and Doug looks nervously at me.
“Don’t worry, I am not expecting you to do all the skivvying,” I say, “but I do expect you to do your share and to keep your rooms in a hygienic state.” I carefully avoid the word tidy, as Doug is a teenager.
“You’re going to have to do some skivvying to start with,” Mike says after he has run his finger through the dust on the top of the nightstand in one of the rooms.
I smile and tell him to go back to writing the inventory.
After Doug has had a look around, I suggest that we clean the attic rooms. With four of us doing it, it shouldn’t take long. We can then stop for a lunchtime snack and that will give us an opportunity to review Mike’s inventory and for Doug to tell us which bits of furniture he wants to move upstairs.
“Would you mind if we redecorate up there,” Doug asks as we stop for lunch.
I raise an eyebrow at the plural pronoun but do not say anything.
“If you want,” I reply. “However I would suggest you wait a few weeks until you have had a chance to see if you want to change the rooms around to get them how you want them.”
I also want him to be sure that he wants to stay before he does the work.
After lunch it doesn’t take long to move the furniture for Doug. I seem to have got the cleaning bug as I suggest to Mike that we start on the first floor bedrooms while the boys finish off upstairs and get Doug’s stuff out of the car.
“You never know when I might need them,” I say, “for people that can’t go home.” He uses two fingers to salute me.
We are in the room that Mike slept in when Doug comes in.
“Did he need that?” He points to the bucket that I had forgotten to taken back downstairs after Mike’s sleepover.
“Careful, or you will be wearing it," I say as I nod to acknowledge the annoyed look on Mike’s face. I look back at Doug. “What did you want?”
“Have you any sheets for the bed, please, and a couple of coat hangers. I want to hang up my suit.”
I tell him I will bring them up.
We have been able to hear chattering and laughter coming from upstairs as the boys have worked together, but as I climb the stairs with the sheets and hangers, I realise it has gone quiet. When I reach the landing I can see why. They are sitting on the bed next to each other with their backs to me. Each has an arm around the other. Doug’s head is leaning on Colin’s shoulder.
“You’re so lucky, having all this,” I hear Colin say. “I wish I could be here with you.”
“So do I. Why don’t you ask him?” Doug replies.
“Do you think he’d agree?”
“You won’t know if you don’t ask.” I hear a little giggle before Doug continues. “You could ask him if we can have the double bed from downstairs as well.”
I try to make as much noise as possible as I drop the coat hangers and then fake an old man’s stiff backed groan as I pick them up.
“Here are your sheets and hangers. When you are done here, do you think you could please come and help Mike and me finish of the rooms downstairs?” I ask.
It is not long before the boys appear to lend us a hand.
“We’ve checked that the water is running and the loo flushes okay,” Colin says, “but have you a spare bulb, please? One of the lights isn’t working.”
I could have sworn they were all working when I looked in the rooms last night. Colin follows me down to the kitchen. I find him a bulb.
“Patrick,” he says, “I know this is cheeky of me but do you think I could come and live here with you, please? Where I am is a bit expensive and the people are all right but I wouldn’t feel comfortable if I had to tell them I’m gay. They are already asking about girlfriends.”
Even before I overheard the conversation upstairs, Mike and I had guessed the question might arise. When I had asked him for his opinion, Mike had said it was my house but couldn’t see a problem with it, as long as they didn’t take things too fast. Judging by the way they were holding each other, I think I need to slow things down a little.
“I’m flattered that you want to come and live with me,” I say, “but I suspect you really want to live with Doug. Eh?”
I must stop making him blush. It clashes with his copper-russet hair.
“Colin, I don’t wish to sound a prude or interfere, but I think I should point out that you two only met at the beginning of the week. You told me yourself you have no sexual experience with other guys and I imagine Doug has his own emotional difficulties from the events that led to him being in the hostel. I like you both but I don’t want either of you to be hurt.”
I rest my bum against the kitchen table in order to relax and motion that Colin stand next to me and do the same.
“I’m not the best one to talk about relationships, but I think you need to go a little slower. As the elder of the two of you, you need to be the one to keep things from going too fast.”
I turn my head to look at him.
“A week isn’t all that long to get to know someone. Is it?”
“S’pose so,” Colin mumbles, “S’pose that means the answer is no.”
I offer him a ray of hope.
“Did I say that?” I can feel the table move as he changes his posture. “How much notice do you have to give at your digs?”
“A month,” he says brightly when the first penny drops. Then a second falls and so does his tone. “I had to pay two months in advance when I started there. I still have six weeks to run. I can’t see them giving me a refund.”
“Never mind,” I say, “This is what I suggest. You give notice and stay where you are until the six weeks are up. That should be long enough for you two to get to know each other a bit better. Then, if you still want to, you can move here on the same expenses share as Doug. Can I assume you want to be on the top floor with him?”
“Oh, Patrick. Yes, please!”
He jumps up and looks as though he is about to kiss me. I put my hands up, shoulder high.
“I haven’t finished yet. There will be no sleepovers before you move in, and I would like you to promise that you won’t do more than some kissing, cuddling and perhaps a bit of groping before then as well. Do you think you can do that?”
“No, but I promise I will try.”
“Fair enough,” I say, laughing. “We had better go and join the others. They will be wondering where we have got to.”
As we leave the kitchen to go back upstairs, I can’t resist one more comment. “When you move in you can move the double bed upstairs if you want.”
I must stop making him blush.