Back to Bristol Ch. 01byGaryAPB©
Having unpacked and inspected the flat, I went out to look around. On the way I stopped in the lobby to introduce myself to the porter. I was rather pleased, I hadn't ever lived in an apartment block with a hall porter before, even if they were only there for the daytime and not evenings and nights, like this one. There were a lot of rather nice coffee shops and bars close by. I stopped and read the menus and prices, and of course, this close to the University, they were all reasonably priced, students are always poor the world over. I found a little supermarket and bought myself some essentials, like some beer and bottles of wine. I also bought some frozen pizzas and lasagnes, but really my plan was to eat out by trying out some of the local eateries. Of course I also bought some good quality breakfast foods, well you never know when you might have a guest for breakfast! I staggered back to the flat with too many heavy bags, and stocked up the little kitchen.
I'd bought myself a sandwich, so I made a cup of coffee and sat and watched one of the news channels while I ate.
Well, as I was back in my home town, I should really announce my residency. And there's no time like the present. I could phone Molly and talk about the boys and getting to see them. I dreaded making that phone call. But anyway, weekends are precious family time, or they were when I was there, I guess it would be a tradition that's continued in my absence. I won't disturb them. However much I want to be back in the boys' lives, I don't want to interfere with their living in a stable and loving home. They deserve and need that. They lost their Dad once, they don't need him making waves now that he's back.
Beyond the exchange of Christmas cards, I haven't been in contact with anyone in Bristol since I moved away. And because of the divorce I lost contact with a lot of them well before I actually went to London. I decided to give Keith Walters a call.
Keith was probably my closest friend at one time. We both worked for Cheals International Management Consultants before I went off to join ITI at ITI-Jamesons. After that I tried to avoid any Cheals' employees, they thought that an ex-colleague now being the MD of a major local firm would mean lots of juicy consultancy projects for them. It all got a bit embarrassing, and avoiding them seemed easier. Then came the break-up of my marriage, and I certainly didn't need a bunch of old colleagues telling me how I got it wrong.
So I didn't see Keith or his wife Anne for some time. We had been good friends, they lived quite near us until we moved to the new bigger house. They had one son called Daniel, he was eight years old at the time. When he was born there had been some complication and Anne didn't dare risk ever having another pregnancy, so Keith had a vasectomy, with a lot of ribald comment in the office. But, in the same week as my decree nisi was declared tragedy struck: Daniel was killed in a road accident. A neighbour had collected both Daniel and her own son from school one afternoon. A lorry on the opposite carriageway had a tyre blow, and it jack-knifed. The mother walked away with just some bruises from her airbag. Her son was badly injured, and there was a lot of talk about him having to lose a leg, but it was Daniel who died four days later in hospital.
Well, with the state I was in from my own problems I couldn't comfort Keith as I should. Of course I went to the funeral, so did Molly. That was the last time I saw her as Mrs Molly Bennett. A few weeks later the Decree Absolute was declared, and five weeks after that she was Mrs Molly Davies. We did talk at the funeral, just a few words about the tragedy of Daniel's death. She did leave me thinking she wanted to say something more, but she never did. A 'sorry' would have been nice.
Anyway, I gave Keith a call which he answered immediately: "Keith and Anne Walters."
"And this is a voice from the past. It's Chris Bennett here."
"Chris! How good to hear from you. Where are you?"
"Back in Bristol."
"Great. Are you here long enough for us to get together?"
"Well I'm here for the foreseeable, so I would guess Yes to that. Any chance for tonight? Anne can join us, it would be good to see you both."
"Sorry, not a chance. We're a bit busy here and big things are going on. But I could make it tomorrow night. Anne's going off for a week to stay with her parents. I'm putting her on the 6:18 train tomorrow evening. So, how about six thirty-ish somewhere?"
"Great. Tomorrow night it is then. You suggest where, I'm out of touch with the best places around here, I've been gone too long."
"OK. Do you want to eat?"
"Might do, it depends how the day goes."
"Well I suggest there is a nice little Italian bar and restaurant about forty yards down from the Theatre Royal and on the opposite side of the road. It's called Il something or other, but you can't miss it, it's painted in the most revolting fluorescent lime green colour. But it's pleasant and the food's OK."
"See you there then. Oh, you better have my mobile number" So I gave him my number and rang off.
I then went out for a drive, checking out my route to Franks and just to look where I was to go. I pulled up outside and sat and watched. There were a sprinkling of cars in the car park, but the place looked fairly quiet. It was a grand Victorian factory or warehouse, but it had obviously been revamped to be rather swish modern office and factory. There was one big sign: 'W R Franks & Sons Ltd. - a member of the TDF Group serving the world'. Well that will be going pretty soon.
There was a maintenance guy working on the wall just to the left of the main office entrance, I couldn't really see what he was doing. But then he stood up and stepped back to admire his work, a paintbrush in one hand and a pot of paint in the other. He was admiring the writing on the wall 'RESERVED' and then my car registration number, for this Jag! That surprised me, someone had been co-ordinating things between London and Bristol. Mind you, I'm not sure I liked it, it was a bit too elitist for my style, but at least I knew I was expected.
I sat in my car thinking about all I knew of Franks, which wasn't much, and how the first few days of my reign were so important to define my style and build the team to create our future. It was going to be hard work. It would be good idea to make sure that I was as well briefed as I could be, so I went home and spent the whole evening re-reading all my briefing papers..
I woke early on the Sunday, showered and went out and bought a paper and found somewhere to eat breakfast whilst I read it. Eventually I retuned to the flat, made myself a cup of coffee and continued to read the paper for a while. Then I set about reading the Book of Genesis, it seemed appropriate, it was Sunday after all. One glance at Chapter 1 told me that I probably knew most of it by heart, I just didn't know I did, it's a bunch of memorable quotes strung together. So I started at Chapter 2, I was looking for an appropriate quote that the Old Man might have used. I got as far as Chapter 7 before I thought I might give up, I was sure it was an early chapter. I started again, reading each verse out loud so that I could consider it. I spotted it at Chapter 3, verse 23 and realised my mistake.
It was mid-afternoon, and I needed to get out of the flat. So I took a nice long walk that would get me to this Italian bar and Keith for six thirty. I walked around to Brandon Park and climbed the hill to Cabot's Tower, built to commemorate John Cabot's voyage from Bristol to America in 1497. The views were fading with the light, but the fresh air did me good.
As I approached The Old Vic, or Theatre Royal as some people call it, from the west, I saw Keith walking up the street. He spotted me and waited outside what truly was a horrid coloured bar frontage. We both shook hands and slapped each other on the back in a sort of hug at the same time. We were both firing questions at each other, pleased to be reunited. Eventually, we went in to be greeted by a waiter. Were we eating or drinking? I looked at Keith and suggested we might eat later. He sensibly suggested that we might eat with the second bottle if drinking wine was OK with me. That sounded like a plan.
Having told him that I was back in town as the MD of Franks, now proudly owned by ITI, I got onto his life and what was happening there. Much to my surprise, he told me he was leaving Cheals on the coming Friday.
"I thought you were going to be there for good. What's changed?" I asked.
"Well, after Daniel's death, life was pretty miserable for a long time. We expected that. Someone wise said to me 'You never get over the death of a child, you just get used to living with it.' And they were right. About a year ago it was the third anniversary..."
I thought that was about right, I knew I was just coming up to the fourth anniversary of my actual divorce, of course the bust up was some months before that.
".. and Anne and myself had a long chat. We couldn't have more children, and actually we didn't want anymore. It would have seemed like we were trying to replace Daniel, and that would have been a betrayal of his memory. But although we were over the shock and the grief, life had lost its sparkle. We got up in the morning because the alarm went off, not with enthusiasm for the new day. So we decided that we should make a big change."
"To what?" I asked, as I was obviously meant to.
"Well, Anne had gone back to work after Daniel, she's a fully qualified nurse and she went into the Paxton Clinic, they almost let her dictate her own hours, which was a good way back in. And I was still at Cheals. So we did wonder about a change in lifestyle sort of thing. You know, three goats and growing organic vegetables type thing. But that isn't us. We both want careers and the good life, we always did. So we started looking around the world for somewhere warm and sunny, where we fancied living, and where we could both get jobs."
"And you've found it?"
"Yes. We really wanted Cairns in Australia, somewhere really hot and sunny. But we could never get two jobs organised. Anne got offers, but there wasn't much for me. But, just over a month ago we got matching offers for San Diego in California."
"Great. It's certainly warm and sunny there. And it will be getting warmer with global warming. So, assuming the San Andreas Fault holds together, and San Diego isn't last seen sailing off into the Pacific, what are you going to do?"
He smiled, "I guess that's one way we might see Hawaii." Then he paused and looked serious, "Anne's got herself a job in a small hospital, actually on the admin side, organising the nurses which suits what she wants. And I'm to be the new Executive V-P of the San Diego office of Winfler Electronics. Seventy eight geeky computer guys to look after."
"Great. That'll be a hell of a shock for you. From consultancy to being boss man. It was for me when I went to Jamesons. When does it all happen?"
"Well, Anne's given up work already and is off to her parents for this week. I guess that'll be fairly tearful, so I'm glad I'm not there. I'm quitting Cheals on Friday. You must come to my piss up. It'll be at the Lord Raglan as usual, and a lot of people will be pleased to see you. Anyway we have one more week after that in the house, and then it's sold. On the Friday night we go into a hotel for a night. Then on Saturday the vicar is saying a few prayers with us at the grave as we say goodbye to Daniel. We both hate that bit, leaving him behind. But then we go straight to the airport and California here we come."
"Well, I can only wish you well. Of course I'll miss you, both of you, Anne as well. With me coming back I had hopes of some good evenings, but I can understand that the sunshine of San Diego beats Bristol anytime."
"Well, what have you been doing since we lost touch? I assume that was because I was being fairly anti-social, Daniel and all that."
"Partly, I wasn't exactly a party animal myself for quite a while after Molly gave me the big heave ho. So it was as much my fault as yours."
"You'll have to tell me what happened, if you want to that is. If you don't want to talk about it, then that's OK to." He looked into my eyes, questioning but sympathetic.
"We'll see, when we're on the second bottle. Although actually, I'm not going to drink too much of that. I'm starting a new job tomorrow remember. I'll see you again before you go, and I'll happily get pissed with you then, but not tonight."
He poured two more large glasses of wine, and held the bottle up to the light. This one hasn't got a lot more in it. I'll order another one and how about some bottled water to go with it?"
"Yeah, and when they bring that, I'm going to order some food. But there's no hurry. How about you?"
"I'll choose something light, but I'll have something. Now tell me, what have you been doing?"
So I told him a little about working at Jamesons for about another fifteen months after the divorce.
"I found it really tough going in the early months. You'll find this, Keith, when you get to San Diego. When we're consultants we swan around looking at systems, listening to ideas, checking numbers, and we have grand ideas about strategic issues. And we make recommendations and walk away. When you're the top man, every little shitty issue lands on your desk. And everyone wants you to take all the bloody decisions, then it's your fault not theirs if it goes wrong."
He smiled, "Now you tell me, when the house is sold and the plane tickets are booked."
"Well one good effect of Molly deciding the grass was greener was that it turned me into one of the biggest bastards, most short tempered bosses ever. Don't fucking bring me silly little worries that some girl on the 4th floor hasn't come in because her boyfriend dumped her last night, just sort it. Don't ask me to take decisions that you're paid to take, assuming that you don't want me to actually do your job and declare you redundant. If you can't meet the target, well maybe I'll find someone who is capable of doing the job properly." I paused and then smiled evilly, "And of course, if some people have to me made redundant, well I'd be delighted. They aren't good hardworking souls trying to do their best for their partners and kids. They're all probably screwing around on each other, not giving a damn about anyone, so why should I care about them?"
Peter looked up, "You weren't a bit bitter by any chance?"
"Bitter; hurt; angry; you name it." I smiled. "It's OK, I'm over it now."
"But it did mean that in the second year I hit every target, we met every success criterion that HQ had set. I was not only the youngest, but I was the best performing MD in the Group, and the blue-eyed boy of ITI. My success is based on Molly fucking up my life." I concluded wryly.
"So what happened next?"
"Well, as the blue-eyed boy, I was summoned to London to join the International Consultancy division. I doubt whether there was anyone in Jamesons sorry to see me go, I feel a bit guilty about what a bastard I was to them all. I don't work like that anymore, I achieve results in kinder ways. Anyway, for a year and half after that I lived out of a suitcase. It was always easy to send the bachelor, he didn't have family to worry about. I saw a lot of the world, met all sorts of interesting ladies, but it was no way of life. So I created hell at HQ, and they found me the job in Holland.
"Tell, me, what's ITI like?"
"It's huge. But our structure is lots and lots of medium sized companies, each run fairly autonomously, and all controlled within one of four divisions: Food, which is where Jamesons and NDF sat; Property Development; Energy and Financial Services. And now the start of the fifth division, Health. And, if I'm lucky, that'll need a Divisional Director sometime in the next few years." I smiled.
"Oh Chris! Haven't you run out of ambition yet?"
"Sorry, Keith. But no way, not yet. I'll let you know when I do." I answered with a smile and took a swig of wine. "Let's order some food."
Once the waiter had left with our order, Keith asked "What does ITI stand for anyway?"
"Well it used to be International Technical Industries, but these days its just ITI. Do you know, some people make out other meanings, like Is That It or Institute of Total Ignorance. I've even heard that some people have come up with suggestions that are rather rude."
Keith smiled, "Good Heavens, what naughty people! I am shocked"
We laughed, and then he asked, "Who's the chief honcho?"
"Stephen J Parkinson. He's hell of a nice guy, tough as old boots and has taught me a hell of a lot. And you need a Bible to work for him."
"Not particularly, or not that I've seen. But equally, I haven't seen him do anything particularly immoral either. No it's just that he has this ability to quote Bible references to suit every occasion. He'll go into a meeting, and none of us, including him, would know how that meeting was going to turn out. Yet, right at the end, he'll quote a Bible reference, Corinthians Chapter 22 Verse 43, assuming there is one, and we'll all go running to our desks and look it up. And you can bet your bottom dollar it will be appropriate. When he sent me down here, he finished the conversation saying Genesis Chapter 2 Verse 23. Do you know what it was?"
"You Heathen! I'll tell you, because I wrote it down,...." And I fished a bit of paper out of my pocket, "....'Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the Garden of Eden to till the ground from whence he was taken.' I suppose it was fair in the world of ITI for Stephen to consider himself the Lord God, but with no stretch of imagination can ITI HQ be thought of as the Garden of Eden"
Keith laughed, "I know John, 11.35"
"Yes, that gets used a lot at ITI. Jesus Wept. It's the shortest verse in the Bible."
After that the food arrived, he asked what my love life was like now. "Non-existent, but if you meant my sex life...." And I told him a couple of anecdotes of my wild period. I twisted them to present them as macho stories, and Keith laughed, but I'm pretty sure he saw the sad little episodes for what they were. I did tell him a little about Helene, just to show him that I'd calmed down and was on the straight and narrow.
Once I'd finished eating I went for a pee. When I got back to our table, the dirty plates had been cleared and there was a new bottle of water waiting. Keith was happily sticking to the wine.
After a period of silence between us, he asked: "Going to tell me about it?".
"Why?" was my only reply.
"Because it's more interesting than me fretting about the fact that in almost exactly two weeks I'll be in a country that I've only ever visited for about six weeks in my life, starting a new job, in a new company, in a function that I've never done before, and my whole life depends on it all being a success."
I conceded, "OK, I'll try. It's all a long time ago now."
"I guess that you would have noticed that something was going wrong. But you and Molly certainly gave the impression that you were well matched and happy."
"Well, I thought we were, and some. I've reconsidered some of the days that led up to the break, but it really all came out of the blue one weekend as a complete and total surprise."
"So, what did you notice and when?"
I paused and chose my words, "I've already told you I was really quite stressed and felt myself under pressure at work. Well Molly was great, the girl that had stood beside me when I took my accountancy exams, and then went on to put up with me when I did my MBA, must just have got tired of the support role."
"Just tell me what happened, not your conclusions."