Back to Bristol Ch. 21byGaryAPB©
I left Frances and the Royal Crescent Hotel as a fairly depressed man. I had thought, now that the divorce was over, we would get a fairly straight run to a romantic proposal somewhere. But not yet it seems. I wanted a few more weeks yet, to settle my final doubts and fears, but I was getting there. And one idle conversation with Molly about her view of her future, and I'd blown my plans and dreams sky high.
Driving home from Bath, I began to think that maybe it was time to start working towards some lifelong friendship with Molly, and letting her down gently from hopes of marriage. That was a sad thought, and even at home, two glasses of Balvenie didn't hide its sadness.
The next morning, I was in a more optimistic mood. I decided not to say anything to Molly until I had thought it all through. But for that I wanted a friend to talk to. I couldn't talk to anyone at Franks or ITI; it was about whether the Managing Director should resign or not. I couldn't talk to Ralph, it wouldn't be fair on him, and anyway he would be biased. I cursed that Keith Walters was now in San Diego, I even wondered about flying out to see him for a long weekend. Mum was no good, Len might be a possibility, but they were down in Australia and I needed to talk, face to face. But then I suddenly had a brainwave, it was time to turn to my big brother. Now that I knew who I could talk to, I was in a fairly happy mood by the time I got to the office.
Happy enough to have a little fun with Carole, who greeted me with "How was your dinner?"
"Fine." I said with a straight face, "Frances is a nice person. I've always enjoyed talking to her."
Carole looked a little nonplussed, "What did you talk about?"
"Oh, you know. This and that. Quite a lot about how she lives, being married to The Old Man."
Carole looked peeved, "Oh." Was all she said.
I paused for a moment, then I said, "Carole, I want to talk some family things through with my brother. Any idea how I could end up in Newcastle for a weekend?"
"Not off hand. But I'll think about it."
And we left it like that until just after lunch, when Carole came to my desk "I did have one idea for getting you to Newcastle. John Wheeler wanted you to go to Edinburgh last week to meet some new client up there. I told him you couldn't take a whole day out to fly up to Scotland just for one client. But I've just phoned him, and the moment has passed apparently. I think you're on your own on this one."
"OK. I'll give Brian a call, and maybe I'll just fly up there for a day at the weekend."
"This family thing? It didn't come out of your dinner with Mrs Parkinson, did it? I expect she talked a little about family." Carole smiled, looked hopeful and waited.
"No, it comes out of something I want to talk to Brian about, future plans and all that." I reassured her, deadpan.
That lasted her until going home time, when she came and sat at my desk, "OK. You win. I know you know. And I didn't tell you yesterday."
"What? That you and Frances Parkinson are cousins? I thought you didn't want that talked about in the office." I looked at her.
Suddenly she laughed, "I deserve that. If I drunk whisky I'd call you a fucking bastard." And I laughed.
When she'd left my office, I phoned Brian. Morag answered and called him to the phone.
"I see you're home already. I'm still in the office." Was my opener.
"So you should be. You earn more than me, so it's right that you work for it." Was his quick reply.
I paused, and was just about to ask if I could come and see him, when he simply asked, "How's it going? You and Molly? I get second-hand reports from Mum, so I guess you're still talking. Has she divorced the bastard yet?"
"Yes, a couple of weeks ago. But that's why I phoned. I think I need some brotherly advice. I was wondering if I could come and see you this weekend?"
"You're more than welcome, Wiss. What do you want, some stiffening of the backbone to pop the question?"
"No, it's a bit deeper than that. You don't have any idea of an excuse, do you? Something I could tell Molly to let me come up."
There was silence at the other end of the line for a couple of minutes. Then "Could you get here at a reasonable time on Friday night?"
"Probably by about seven-ish. I could leave a bit early, and catch a late afternoon flight."
"Then I can invite you as a guest for a dinner. Tell Molly that you're rescuing me because my original invitee has let me down, and I want someone who's got international business experience to talk to some students. How's that? And it's almost true, inasmuch as you'll get a dinner at a hall of residence and have to talk to loads of students. But can't you tell her the truth, it's normally a better plan in the long-term?"
"I'll try. But thanks for the back-up excuse. Where shall I find you?"
"Standing in Arrivals at the airport."
When I got home, Molly was waiting for me. She looked a bit suspicious when I said "Let's go out to eat." But she didn't say anything. Well not until we had some wine in front of us, "So, what is it that you're going to tell me or ask me?"
"I spoke to Brian today. He's invited me up there for Friday night. I thought I'd come back late Saturday. So that rather kills us doing anything at the weekend."
"OK. Do you want me to run you to the airport?"
"No. I'll have my own car." I looked at her, "I'll try to make it up to you on Sunday. Let's do something together with the boys."
"OK. Just going for a bike ride would be nice, if the weather's OK."
"You don't seem too worried."
She looked at me, "Chris, something's worrying you. If talking it through with Brian helps, then great. It's obviously something that you can't share with me, and that's OK. It's probably something that I'd be pretty biased about."
"It is." I said, and squeezed her hand, "Thank you." And suddenly I felt overwhelmed by her understanding and tolerance and had to say, "I do love you."
She just smiled.
On Wednesday Carole booked my tickets for Newcastle and I emailed Brian the times. He quickly replied telling me to bring my walking boots. His suggestion was that we could do some walking of Hadrian's Wall while we talked on Saturday. And that's what we did.
It was a typically cold and very wet Saturday morning in late November. The rain was fairly light in quantity, but it was driving in a strong westerly wind. The sort of rain that doesn't seem so bad at first, but gets through everything but the most waterproof of clothing, and leaves you shivering and dripping wet.
"OK, Brian. I'm not sure what you're trying to prove, except that there are some pretty good glimpses of Hell on this planet, and this is one of them."
"Sorry Wiss, I couldn't plan the weather. I just thought some fresh air and exercise in the shadow of the Wall would help you clear your mind."
I looked at the Wall, through the grey misty weather. There was something awe inspiring about this mini Great Wall of China that rolled out, over the bleak moors and hills as far as the eye could see. It did have an effect on the emotions, in the shadow of something that has stood here since the Romans built it nearly two thousand years ago, it's difficult to be too upset about the problems of day to day life now.
As we tramped along, Brian summed up what I'd told him of my problems last night. And asked, "Don't you think Molly has a right to say whether she'd be happy following you wherever your company sends you?"
"No. Because I know exactly what she'd say. She'd say that we would manage. That she'd be happier with me than apart. And I don't believe that a family is happy with a mother at the heart of it who is basically unhappy. And, on top of that, I love her, I want her to be happy."
Brian didn't answer for some time, he just trudged on slightly ahead of me, "OK. So it seems that you have accepted that you have to change your job if you want a future with Molly. Is that so terrible?"
"In itself? No. ITI pays me fantastically well. I'm on a six figure salary and the first number isn't a one. And do you have any idea what my corporate bonus was last year? Just under half a million. I like that, it is a very factual way of saying that I'm good at my job, and that I'm a member of a great team."
"Fucking Hell, Wiss!" Brian paused and stood up straight just looking at me, "Do you have any idea how much I earn? It's not one a tenth of that." But then he smiled, "Good for you. But you can definitely pay for the beer at lunch time."
Brian started trudging again, "So, it's all about money. How much are you willing to lose so that you can have Molly?"
"That's a shitty thing to say, Brian. You know me better than that. I'm not saying I don't like the money, and it would be nice to use it to buy Molly and the boys a good future, but no, it isn't all about money."
"What is it about then? You tell me, Wiss. What is so special about this job?"
And I did. On how I like the challenges that ITI have always given me. On how I like working for The Old Man. On how I like thinking of the world as a village, where location and residency didn't matter. Even on how I liked moving on to something new every few years.
Brian listened, but didn't say a lot. And as the rain came down harder we both just trudged along. Every now and then, Brian would ask me another question about working for ITI, but he was just feeding his brain with all of the facts.
Eventually we got to lunch, we had come down from the high line of the wall to the road, and a pub, and it was warm and dry inside. Yes, there was comfort and warmth in the world, I'd just given up any hope of ever finding it again.
It was when we'd finished eating and I'd bought the second pints, Brian looked at me, "I don't see what the real problem is. You want to link up with Molly again. You know that that is the only thing that will really make you happy, or you should do after the miserable years you had without her. You know she'll be happy for as long as you have your present job, and you reckon that that will last for another three or four years at least."
I smiled, "Now that you put it like that, you're right, it isn't an emergency. Nothing terrible is going to happen tomorrow."
"What would you do if you had to leave ITI?" He asked.
I considered that for quite some time, at least for half of my pint. "I'm not sure. I quite like the idea of doing a start-up, forming my own company and doing my own thing. But, I'm not sure I'd want to sink all my money into something as risky as a start-up, even if I'm in charge; not while I've got responsibilities towards the boys.. And more important, I can't think what it would do. Except for consultancy, I can't think what a company that I could set up could do."
"Well, you reckon you've got at least three years before the problem occurs, and if you're lucky, it never will. Three years to decide what you would want to do." Brian drank some of his pint, but never took his eyes off me, "I don't understand. It isn't that big a problem, and you are more than capable of sorting it out for yourself. You didn't have to fly up to here to talk to me about just that."
"Oh, I don't know, Brian. I just so want to get it right this time. I don't think I could take it all falling apart on me again, and I'm pretty damn sure Molly couldn't. Nerves, I guess."
Again, Brian's inquisitor eyes just looked through me, "Nerves? Yes. And?"
"And what?" I asked, suddenly lost in this conversation.
"And there's something else. I don't think you even know what it is. But something else is holding you back. And so you made a mountain out of a molehill as an explanation to yourself. But there's something else."
"No nothing. I just want to be sure, that's all."
"Wiss, I've known you all your life, and nearly all of mine. I was your best man when you married Molly first time. You are the most strong, self assured man I know. There wasn't a glimmer of doubt in you that first time. Now you're scared and hesitant. I think that's why you flew up here to see me, but you don't even know what the question is, so you can't actually ask it."
"And you talk the most convoluted bollocks ever. That's what comes of reading too much poetry." I smiled.
Brian smiled, a smile of victory, "So, now that you've cleared up your career problem, you're going back to propose. I can look forward to an announcement by tomorrow evening?"
There he had me, "Well, I don't know about that. And anyway, Molly should be the first to know, don't you think?"
He smiled and gave way diplomatically, "Of course. Sorry. Come on, let's walk back. We'll have the wind on our backs this time."
Damn fucking clever brothers! I pride myself that I'm self-assured, quick on my feet, and that I understand myself and other people. I don't actually know whether any of that is true, but I like to think it is. But now I felt like Sherlock Holmes must have felt about his older brother Mycroft. However good he thought himself, he knew that Mycroft was better.
As I sat on my plane heading back to Bristol that Saturday night, Brian's observation that there was something else plagued me. There was, if only I knew what.
On the Sunday, I didn't feel like going cycling, walking a short part of Hadrian's Wall had been enough exercise for one weekend. Instead I took Molly and the boys out to lunch, and then on to a film for the afternoon. I'll admit that the film was my idea, it stopped Molly looking at me with searching eyes, as she had all through lunch.
We were back to Ralph's house before her polite silence on the matter was broken. "Brian didn't help then?"
"Actually, he did. I had a big worry that I couldn't offer you the future you deserve, that I would only make you unhappy. And I couldn't bear that."
"That's rubbish. You are the only one who can offer me the future that will make me happy. That's just you worrying too much or something."
"No, it wasn't..." and I told her my worries about the demands of ITI. And, as expected, she promised that she would be happy anywhere in the world, that we would cope. But then I painted the same picture that Frances Parkinson had painted for me, of the loyal wife saying goodbye to her children at an airport, and how she returned to an empty apartment. Molly wavered at that point, and less convincingly said we'd manage to get through it. And I knew that I'd been right.
That feeling that I was right cheered me, and I could put on a show of being very positive. But, in the back of my mind was that feeling of doubt; that Brian's concern that I had deeper doubts just got one size bigger.
Our schedule of seeing each other every Tuesday and Thursday evenings had relaxed a lot. Now we saw each other often, but on a much more flexible basis. And she didn't seem to upset when I told her that I wasn't going to be around on Thursday evening, that I had to be in London overnight. But I promised to make it up to her by promising to take her out on the Friday instead, in fact, I asked her to book up something, whatever she fancied, and I'd do it.
On the Monday, Carole asked me how things were, and when I told her that some unknown force was holding me back, her diagnosis was simple, it was nerves. Simple fear of stepping into the unknown. And her solution was a little Dutch courage, and a candle lit dinner in a lovely restaurant, and just to be brave enough to pop the question. And for once, I knew that Carole's wise advice was absolute crap!
On the Thursday my main priority was to get Piers confirmed as the Director of Research. It had been over two months since I'd first suggested it to Piers, and every bureaucratic hurdle that could have been put in the way, had been. I'd got The Old Man's approval within a couple of weeks, but it was company practice that board appointments were only made after the candidate had met all members of the Group Board, and that had been impossible to organise. Today we had appointments in the morning to see the last two Group Directors. After that I had a lunch planned with an old client, before moving on to playing my part in a big presentation to an important potential client, and that included taking them to dinner afterwards.
My day went well, and I was back to my hotel by ten o'clock, and went into the bar. I was sitting on a barstool, sipping my second whisky and trying to psycho-analyses myself as to what stopped me from proposing to the girl who I knew was the great love of my life, when I felt someone standing next to me.
"I hope that's not blended grain." Said a familiar voice with a Scottish accent, and Piers sat on the next stool.
I ignored his comment, and asked a question, "What are you doing here?"
"I went to a seminar this afternoon, and I'm back there tomorrow. But I've just got back from having dinner with Fraser. Another one? What was it?"
I nodded, "It was Balvenie, as I drink one of their better ones at home, I thought I'd try their standard stuff."
"I'll not argue." He said, and asked the barman for two more Balvenies.
We sat in silence until the drinks were served, when after his first sip, Piers looked round at me, "You are the picture of a man who is deep in thought and not particularly happy."
I smiled weakly, "I was pondering one of the imponderables of my life. Why can't I propose marriage to the great love of my life?"
Piers didn't answer, he just sipped his drink. After some time he asked, "You once said to me that you found that things that were important last week aren't important this week and vice versa. Is there some aspect of the story that has passed you by completely?"
I glanced round at him, "No. I don't think so. I think I've asked every question, thought about every answer and I don't have any unknowns in the story."
"But have you forgiven her?"
I smiled again, "You tell me what it means and I'll tell you if I've done it. I'm sorry, but I can never forgive her for cheating on me, and then letting me bear all that pain whilst she went off and married Peter. But, do I understand it? Yes. Do I think it would ever happen again? No. Can I live with it? Can I put it in the past? I guess so. It happened, there's no point in beating myself up over it, or her for that matter." I shrugged.
"Maybe it's just a matter of time."
"It's been six months since the confessional. And everyone, including me, expects an answer. And I don't think there's any reason why I shouldn't be able to give one. But something inside of me ......."
Piers looked at me thoughtfully, and then tentatively said, "Is it that somehow you feel that she's had a fairly easy run, and you begrudge that? Within the last few months, she's admitted that she screwed up big time. I mean really screwed up, wrecking her life and doing a lot of damage to everyone around her. And I include Peter in that, he should have been told to bugger off and to go and ply his trade on someone who might actually accept his morals and attitude. And now she is divorced, living comfortably with the family grandfather, and with the man she really loves on the point of asking her to marry him. I'm sure it hasn't been easy for her, you two must have had some rough times, but all in all, she's almost got away with it. Do you feel she hasn't earned her redemption?"
"That's a rather cynical way of looking at it. She's suffered, she's suffered like Hell." I turned to look at him, considering his question. I didn't know the answer. Then I smiled, "But if you get me another Balvenie then I'll forgive you."
Piers smiled, "If you won't give me a clue as to what is wrong, I can't give you any advice as to how to solve the problem." And he indicated two more to the barman.
He looked at me and asked, "Is it that deep down you're scared that she might do it again? She slipped once, what's to stop her doing it again?"