On Monday morning, Doug and I are in the office twenty minutes early. I want to be sure that I am there before Scott as he usually arrives on time.
I am surprised to see the Managing Director’s car in the car park. He does not normally arrive until about half an hour after everyone else — ‘so I don’t get annoyed about anyone sneaking in a couple of minutes late’ is his excuse. Scott will also be surprised to see it and come straight to me or Bert to ask why the MD is in early. At least it will stop him bragging to all and sundry about his skiing trip.
As I walk to my office I can hear the MD talking to somebody. I carry on down the passage to his office. Vince, one of our longest serving drivers and George’s ‘go to’ man for odd jobs is with him. I tap on the door. The MD looks up.
“Can’t you see I’m busy?” he snaps. I ignore his tone.
“I thought you should know I can hear you down the passage,” I reply.
“Ah.” He sounds almost contrite as he understands what I am implying. “Can you watch for Scott from your window and call me when you see him arrive?”
I nod and walk back to my own office. I can still hear the MD talking. “I expect him to leave the office in half an hour or so. I want you to follow him and tell me where he goes. Use your own car; he knows all the pool cars. Here is some money to cover fuel. If you can find out who he is speaking to without being spotted that would be better still.”
As I watch out of the window, I hear Vince leave.
Scott’s car draws into the car park shortly after. I ring the MD and have just enough time to look interested in a spreadsheet when Scott bustles into my office.
“What’s he doing here so early?” he hisses, pointing his thumb in the vague direction of the MD’s office.
“Don’t know, I was wondering that myself,” I try hard to appear nonchalant. “Good holiday?”
“Yeah, thanks,” Scott says, “I suppose I had better go and ask him.”
‘You do that,’ I think to myself as I watch him wander off down the passage. No broken bones, worst luck.
I hear him tap on the MD’s door.
“Ah! Scott. Good holiday? Nothing broken? Come in.” There is a slight pause. “Don’t bother with the door, you won’t be stopping.”
Who said it’s only gay guys who are bitchy? I have a bet with myself that George will be along to ask if I heard as soon as Scott has gone.
“We have a problem with debtors,” I hear the MD say, “they are getting too high. Too many days overdue. There is one of your customers in particular who is out of terms. I need you to get out there and get some money in.”
“I got the customer on board and made the sale, it’s up to accounts to get the debt in.” Scott is on dangerous ground with a comment like that.
“A sale is not complete until the goods are paid for!” I can tell the MD is only just holding his temper. “I’m escalating it. You get out there and get the account back in terms. Don’t let them fob you off saying they have invoices missing. We sent them copies of everything by ‘recorded delivery’ last week. Go see them. Don’t come back until you have a payment.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” That won’t be positive enough to calm the MD. From the shadows in the passage, I can tell Scott has turned to leave George’s office.
“And another thing. Why didn’t they get a price increase when our purchase costs went up? We’re losing money on them now. You had better get them in to talk about a price increase. It needs to be around twenty percent.”
“They’ll walk,” Scott says.
“If they do, you’ll walk too. Get some money, and then get them in to talk about an increase.”
Scott does leave the office this time. He goes into his own office and rings me.
“Patrick,” he says, “can you run me off some statements please? I have to go out debt collecting.” He gives me a list. The biggest one is already chuntering away on my printer. I expected he would want it.
“I don’t see why I should have to do credit control’s job,” he says when I hand him the prints.
“Maybe it’s because you overrule them every time they ask to stop supply,” I say as calmly as I can. “Did I ask you if you had a good holiday?”
I won’t repeat his reply. He is on the road less than twenty minutes after he arrived.
There are footsteps in the passage. I look up: the MD is standing in my doorway.
“Did you enjoy that?” he asks, “because I did!”
“I couldn’t possibly comment,” I reply, a broad grin on my face.
George asks if I can access the company’s mobile phone account on line and see if I can find out who he calls. I say I will keep an eye on it, then I change the subject.
“Did Bert tell you that two of the girls in the main office have left?” I ask.
“He did say something, why?”
“We have a young lad in to replace them. He helped Bert and me with some of the presentation we went through on Friday. I think you should meet him.”
“You had better fetch him. My office in five.”
Doug must have worked his charm on the MD because he is with him for some time. I have to take Vince’s reports and with the mobile information I get a good idea of where Scott is, which customers he has been to and who else he has rung or been to see. I am also on the Companies House website chasing down some legal charges information — mortgages and other secured loans, that sort of thing.
The MD rings Scott after lunch, wanting a report. I can hear one side of the conversation as his door is open again.
“Have you got a payment?”
“They can have post-dated supply then. You’d better go back in and tell them they will get nothing until it clears. You want more than that anyway.”
“What about a meeting?”
“When you go back in, tell them Thursday at ten, here. With their Managing Director, what’s his name?”
“That’s it. Warren Buchanan. I’m looking forward to meeting him.”
I overhear George ring the main office and tell them no more orders are to be put through or deliveries made to Buchanan’s company until the account is back in terms, irrespective of whatever Scott says. I suspect we will do no more business with them.
There are footsteps in the passage. The MD drums his fingers on the door as he walks into my office.
“Quite a resourceful young man,” he says. I assume he is talking about Doug. “I have asked Mike to get him a computer and get him set up in one of those cubby holes in the corridor leading to his office. I don’t want anyone to know he is here, especially Scott.”
Cubby hole is about right. There are two offices there, neither more than an oversized broom cupboard. I doubt Scott has even realised they are offices, never mind that they might be occupied.
“We’ll go down there in a bit and the three of us have a chat about how we are going to sort out Mr. Buchanan.”
“What about Bert,” I ask. George grunts out a laugh.
“You’re not much good at dissembling,” he says. “But Bert you can read like a book. I don’t want him knowing the full picture. Only stuff about resigning the Buchanan business and getting him to pay his debts. I don’t think he needs to know about Doug being in his own office either. Can you square it with Edith that she won’t have him working for her for at least this week, please?”
I agree and then go on to give the MD a summary of Vince’s reports and the records from Scott’s mobile.
“Does that fit with what he was telling you?” I ask. George nods and I continue with a supplementary. “Has Scott got Buchanan to agree to meet on Thursday?”
“Not yet. Why?”
“I’ve been thinking…”
“Dangerous. You thinking!”
I give my best sardonic smile before continuing.
“I think we have a lot of ground to cover and get everything lined up for Thursday. Friday might be better.”
“Don’t worry. He’ll not agree to my suggestion just to be awkward. I can steer it so we compromise on Friday.”
We work through the mortgage information I have extracted. The MD suggests that I should also see if I can find anything on the Land Registry against Buchanan’s private properties as well as those held by his companies. Before we get too deep into discussion, George calls a halt.
“Normally, this sort of dispute I would sort out privately with the customer,” he says. “But I think this is bigger than we can handle on our own and I am not sure I would trust Buchanan enough to come to a deal. I’m going to have a word with our auditors and lawyers and put them on stand-by. We need our facts checked before we tackle Buchanan. Do you want to see Edith and then go on to Doug’s office and I will meet you there in about half an hour?”
I do as I am told and go and talk to Edith. She grumbles that she will be short staffed but goes along with Doug being out of sight and hopefully out of mind. Afterwards, I drop in on Mike and Colin and tell them that it would be best if they did not talk about Doug to anyone but me and the MD. A gentle hint that the roof over our collective heads might depend on it confirms their agreement. Mike then changes the subject and says he has managed to get a good deal on two machines for Doug, one for the office and one for home. It sounds as though it was that good a deal that Mike would invoice it to the company as one computer. I am not sure I want to know. Bert can sign that one off. Colin says both machines are set up so we nip out of the side entrance to Mike’s offices and put one computer in my car.
I just have time for a quick chat with Doug before the MD joins us. I explain that Doug and I will be in early enough and leave late enough for Doug not to be seen by Scott or anyone else in the offices and he will also use the side entrance to further reduce his chances of being recognised. If anyone, including Bert, the Financial Director, asks, Edith has agreed that she will say Doug didn’t like it and has left.
“Of course, she moaned that she would be short-handed,” I say looking at the MD. “If you were to say that to Scott and then tell him he has to help her with debt collecting, it would keep him occupied and might stop him realising what is going on and tipping off Buchanan.”
“Good idea. I’ll speak to Scott.”
We spend the rest of the afternoon discussing the outcomes we want from the meeting with Buchanan and the strategy to be used. We draft what we need to put in the discussion papers and dossiers. They can be refined when they have been seen by the lawyers and accountants. The MD tells us that they will be in for a first review tomorrow afternoon. It looks as though Doug and I will be busy this evening.
Despite a late night working on our dossiers, the alarm gets us to work on Tuesday early enough for Doug not to be spotted as he heads for his broom cupboard. I have managed to find a few more interesting snippets from the Land Registry site and have incorporated them in my calculations and supporting information. I am impressed with the amount of work Doug managed to do. Barring interruptions, we should both be finished with our drafts in time to give the MD a brief run through before the audit and legal teams arrive. At least we don’t have to print everything off and bind it up. The presentations will be done from computer and the teams can have copies of our files.
We are not the only ones in early. The MD is only five minutes later, to the great consternation of Scott who finds himself being grilled about why he never got back to George to set up the meeting with Warren Buchanan. He is soon back on the road with instructions to get it sorted and then get on with debt collecting for Edith.
I am in the conference room making sure everything is set up for the presentation when I hear the MD on the phone in his office. He must have the door open again.
“Hi, Scott. What has he got to say for himself?”
“One o’clock on Friday. I suppose that will do. I will have to rearrange my golf though.”
I smile at the gamesmanship. George doesn’t play golf.
“Eleven then. That’s fine. I’ll get something organised for lunch. Tell him I will be wanting to see a payment so he should bring his accountant and on-line banking details!”
“He says he’s got a new contract for us to sign? I had better get a lawyer in just in case then.”
After a few scarcely pleasant pleasantries George ends the call.
“Did you hear that, Patrick?” he shouts through from his room. I walk to his door.
“He’s given me the excuse I need to have the lawyers there! Saves me having to think up some bullshit to explain why I have invited them.”
I smuggle Doug upstairs to the conference room and, as we hoped, we have time for a quick run through with the MD. Leaving Doug hidden upstairs I nip out for some sandwiches before the legal and audit people arrive.
We make our presentations and the teams ask some basic questions before dismissing us while they take a closer look at what we have prepared for them. Then the serious stuff starts. I get summoned to the conference room to face the auditors. The lawyers set up in George’s office and interrogate poor Doug. I wish I could have been there, but at least the MD stayed to support him.
We are swapped over for the last half an hour or so. The sessions end shortly before home time with the promise of things to add or change in our presentations on the morrow. That and more interrogation.
Mother rings on my office line just as I return to my office. Mike and I are summoned to the presence. She wants to update us about Sam. Colin agrees to take Doug home and wait with him until I get back from Mother’s. I think Doug could do with the company.
Mother greets Mike like a long lost son.
For the brief period until I recognise it, I feel a strange emotion.
I have to laugh at myself. For years I have wished that someone would take from me some of the burden of being the sole object of Mother’s maternal instincts. Now that it has happened, I am actually jealous. However, I am pleased to think that whatever she believes the relationship is between Mike and myself, it appears to meet with her approval.
“Now, dear,” Mother says, addressing Mike, “I am sure you want to know what I have been up to on my dates with your son.
“Yesterday he was waiting for me after school and started talking to me. I think he wanted another ice cream, which, of course, he got. He said his mother and her boyfriend had been fighting again and he had been hit as well, this time on the back. Did I want a photograph? I could not think of anywhere to take him where he could take his clothes off in private but he wasn’t bothered. He pretended he was too warm and took his jumper off making sure his shirt and vest rode up at the same time. I got a good shot, but does that boy have no modesty? I suppose at that age children don’t. You didn’t, did you, Patrick? Running around the garden with nothing on. I don’t know what the neighbours thought.”
Mike’s grin makes my embarrassment even more painful.
“Today, he seemed not so cheerful,” Mother says, getting back into her flow, “so over another ice cream I found out why. Some of the other children at school had seen me with him and had been teasing him, asking him if I was his fairy godmother. Children can be so cruel to each other.
“I told him I couldn’t be his fairy godmother because he doesn’t believe in fairies. I must be his godmother. I had to explain that godparents are a bit like grandparents who agree to look after a child if anything happens to his parents. I left out the religious side of it. I don’t think his mother is the sort to take him to church.
“Sam is going to call me his ‘gammy’. He said he can’t call me his granny as I am not a real grandmother. Which is perfectly true, I’m not a grandmother am I, Patrick?”
I can see Mike wince in sympathy.
“Sam proudly held up his mobile when I asked if he had one, so now he has his gammy’s phone number if he needs it. I did suggest as I walked home with him that it might not be a good idea to mention me too often in front of his mother and her boyfriend. She was there when I dropped Sam off. She had some rather nasty new bruises.
“ ‘Hello, dear,’ I said to her. Well, I had to say something. ‘Your young man has been very kind, chaperoning me again.’ I paused to make a point of looking at her bruises, then said, ‘Next time I come, I will bring you an address and telephone number you might find helpful.’ I meant the one for the battered wives refuge. It was quite rude the way she told me to mind my own business. Anyway, I am minding my own business: my godson.”
Mother looks quite indignant at the memory.
“Are you going to see him tomorrow?” Mike asks.
“Of course, dear. I will see him every day,” Mother replies, “I have to give his mother that address as well. She might be a bit common but she doesn’t have to live with a man like that.”
“Have you met him?” I ask.
“I haven’t been introduced, if that is what you mean, but he came to the door when I was talking to Sam’s mother. Not a very nice man, told me to go away. ‘Fuck off, you old bitch.’ were the words he used. So uncouth.”
I am shocked that Mother could bring herself to repeat his words verbatim.
“You need to move into the house, dear,” Mother says to Mike. “You had better do it tomorrow so that you are ready so Sam can join you. Social Services will want to see you have somewhere suitable for him to live. You don’t want to risk them taking him into care. That would never do.”
Mother stands and moves towards the door, dismissing us.
“I think things will happen on Friday,” Mother says to bring the conversation to a close.
‘How can she know?’ I ask myself. Then I remember: Mother is very good at starting an argument, then leaving the two sides to fight it out.
“I think you are stirring it,” I whisper to her as I give her a goodbye peck on the cheek.
Her sickly-sweet, little old lady smile is all the answer I need.
When I get home and let myself into the house, I can hear the TV prattling away in the front room. I walk in and see Colin is watching the screen but Doug is cuddled up to him, head resting on his chest and fast asleep. There are the remains of a Chinese take-away on the table in front of them. I smile at the sight. Colin looks up at me as I move further into the room.
“I don’t think this counts as a sleep over,” I say. Colin laughs. It is enough to wake Doug.
The boys tidy up the debris from their meal. Before Colin goes, I tell them that Mike will probably be moving in tomorrow as he thinks he will get custody of Sam in the very near future. The boys don’t say anything but I can see a pout forming on Doug’s face.
“Before you say anything about that being unfair,” I say, “Mike and Sam will have their own rooms. Mike will be subject to the same rule as you two. No moving into my room for six weeks — that is if anything does develop between us.”
That gets a smile.