Back to Bristol Ch. 22byGaryAPB©
It was ten o'clock on the Sunday morning after the Company dance that I was in my living room, just collecting my suit jacket from the night before, which I'd left draped over a dining chair, and my phone rang.
I opened it and saw that Piers was calling me.
"Chris." And the hairs on the back of my neck went up, there was something in his voice. "Is Molly with you?"
"She's in the kitchen. Why?"
"Peter's dead. I've just had a call from the Welsh Police, he crashed his car on a country road in the Black Mountains some time last night. A farmer found him at about six o'clock this morning."
I sat down, "He must have been pissed out of his mind. What the fuck was he doing driving? And driving on country roads in Wales for God's sake!"
"Because he was pissed. I guess he got it into his head to go and stay in his cottage. That's up there somewhere."
There was silence between us for a minute, then I asked, "What do you know?"
"Not a lot. It looks as if he came off the road on a bad bend. There was a fall down a hundred foot hillside. The farmer found him upside down in his car this morning and very dead. I was Number One in his phone, so they tried me first."
"Good God. You don't think it was...?"
I heard Piers take an inward breath. "It went through my mind. But we'll never know. And, for Molly's sake, it's better not even to think that it was a possibility. Let's leave it that he got drunk, and decided to go to the cottage and misjudged the bend."
"But he would have known that road well."
"Yes, he would. But that doesn't mean that he didn't make a mistake. Think about it Chris."
"Yes. Sorry. You're right. What happens now?"
"I'm going to go up to Abergavenny to sort out the formalities. I can't see they'll be any problem. I guess there'll have to be an inquest, but his blood alcohol should make it an open and shut case."
Just then Molly came into the room, took one look at me and just sat down on the sofa, looking at me and waiting.
"Piers, I've got to go. Molly's just come in. I'll talk to you again, later. Probably this afternoon."
I closed my phone and looked at Molly.
She looked back, "What is it? What did Piers want?"
"It's Peter." I leant forward and took hold of her hand, "He's dead."
Molly just sat there for a second or two, then her eyes were searching mine, I suddenly thought that I must drive any bad thoughts away with the facts, "He was found in a car wreck at the bottom of the hillside, having come off the road on a bad bend on the way to his cottage in Wales. He must have been very drunk, I told you he was in the bar last night."
"Oh! I know where. There's a horrible bend, totally unmarked or fenced, with a hundred foot drop to a stream at the bottom."
I smiled, I hoped reassuringly, "I think I know it too. It frightened the life out of me when I almost went over the edge. The silly thing is, I was driving too fast because Peter had upset me. Life does turn full circle somehow."
"You don't think he could have decided to do it on purpose, do you? You know, after we announced our engagement."
I moved to sit next to her, "No, I don't. You said yourself that Peter wasn't that type, and I certainly never saw any traits in him that he was weak and backed away from life. No, I don't." I paused to make sure she heard my words, "I guess we upset him last night. He saw that he had finally lost. He should have known that long ago, so it shouldn't have been that much of a surprise. But, anyway, he obviously drank too much last night. It is just one of life's unnecessary tragedies."
I hugged her, and she was very quiet. And that worried me.
After a couple of minutes of silence, I tried again. "And anyway, if he wanted to do away with himself, why drive halfway to his cottage to do it? No, that was where he went when he was upset. And he was upset last night, so he was going to his cottage, and he misjudged that bend."
After about another five minutes of silence, I got a "Yes. You're right. It was an accident when he was drunk. But we made him get drunk."
"No, Molly. He chose to get drunk. He could have danced the night away. He could have gone home and sulked. He could have driven to the cottage while he was still sober. He chose to go to the bar and knock back several brandies. This is not our fault. It's sad, but not our fault."
She turned and looked at me. "You're right. Peter chose every step he took. It just never turned out as he expected." Then she smiled, "I'm glad it wasn't you that came off the road there. When was that?"
And I told her about Peter's first visit to my office, and how frustrated and powerless he made me feel.
It wasn't long after that that we went over to Ralph's, and we told him. I let Molly tell him, I thought talking about it might help. But afterwards she was very quiet all day.
After the boys were in bed, Ralph caught me alone in the kitchen. "Give her time, Chris. It was a shock."
"I know. And she must have a lot of memories. I guess you can't be married to someone for four years without feeling something, even if it all ended in tears."
"Stay the night. I think she needs you here."
I looked at him, "I'll have to get up even earlier. I have to get to the office early, there are some things to sort out. When I spoke to Piers this afternoon, I said I'd give him to ten o'clock to tell the Abbey staff first. Then I'd send round an email to all staff, including Exeter. So, I'm going to need a little time to compose that, and to get someone to write a little bio to attach."
Ralph listened, but then just said, "She doesn't seem to think it was her fault. You did well there."
"It wasn't. I just don't believe that he was the suicide type. Do you?"
Ralph considered that, "No. But when drunk and depressed?"
I shrugged my shoulders, "Who knows? It was either an accident, or when drunk he decided to end it all. But either way, it wasn't really intentional."
Ralph smiled, "You're right. Neither of you bear any responsibility, whatever he was thinking or doing."
Suddenly a thought went through my head, "Will you let Susan know?"
"If I have a chance. But we aren't talking, and I'm not going to make a special effort to tell her about her co-conspirator."
And then I had another thought, "Will you be alright here, by yourself over Christmas?"
He smiled, "Yes. Don't worry about me. I'll miss you all, but you mustn't lead your lives worrying about the old people."
"I'm sure there's plenty of life in you yet." And we left it there.
The next morning in the office, Carole bounced into my room with a big, beaming smile. But she took one look at my face, and totally deflated. I was in the middle of writing my little note on Peter's death, trying to find the honest words that would be acceptable.
"What's happened?" was all she asked.
And I told her, and her reaction was almost predictable, "Poor Molly."
But then it was back to business and I asked her to get me Neil Davidson. In the absence of any close relatives, I decided to volunteer the Personnel Depart to arrange the funeral. When I saw Neil, he was shocked, but business like on the arrangements. Of course he needed to talk to Piers to find out what was going on from the Police and the bureaucrats. But he would need some personal details about Peter's known relatives, who his solicitor was, and as much information as would give him help in winding things up. I couldn't avoid volunteering Molly, but only after I'd spoken to her on the phone, and got her agreement. Neil suggested that he'd send Sheila Armstrong around to see her. As he said, Sheila's kindly but efficient.
At ten o'clock I sent out my email to all staff that a senior colleague had died suddenly. I included the phrase 'although we had our differences in our private lives, Peter was nothing but courteous and professional at work' I thought that would acknowledge things without being unkind or hypocritical.
The day went well in all other respects. I did remember to ask Carole to get an extra flight to Australia for Molly. I also noticed that Peter's death was hardly mentioned to me. I wondered if that was because the death of a man in his mid-thirties was just unmentionable, or whether it was fear of what I might say or do. People don't like thoughts of death, and they don't like embarrassment.
Just after lunch, Carole came to me with some news, "I've just had Pamela on the phone. Stephen Parkinson wants to see you at three o'clock tomorrow, in his office."
I shrugged, "OK. I can't think what about. But I'll take the opportunity to get his approval of selling off Exeter, if I can. In fact, you'd better give me the files on all the major issues. Oh, and you'd better give my apologies to whoever I was meant to be seeing tomorrow afternoon."
She smiled, "That bit's been done already."
So at three o'clock on Tuesday December 11th, I was making small talk to Pamela when I heard The Old Man call me in.
"Chris. I want to apologise. I know I haven't been the best of bosses, not always available when you wanted me, and all the rest. But I promise you, I've been reading every report you've sent in. Now, tell me, where are we in selling Marston Abbey?"
And of course, The Old Man was totally on top of his brief. We agreed that the Abbey plans could now go for outline planning permission, and that I'd liase with the Head Office departments, to make sure that everything was handled well, and that there would be no bad publicity. And then we moved on to Franks Engineering in Exeter.
The Old Man turned to those pages on his briefing notes, and looked at the figures and the organisation chart of a couple of minutes. Then he looked up at me, "I guess you want to sell it off. That was your thinking last time we talked about it. Am I right?"
"Good. It's the right thing to do. On the open market, or do you have a likely buyer?"
"I think we could encourage a MBO. It's the right thing to do, I think, It's not a complete company as it stands, it's just an engineering shop. No accounting, no sales, and no central services of its own."
"OK. Have a private word, and see what you can do. It'd be good PR to sell it off to the staff anyway." He paused and studied me, "Now some months ago I suggested that you get yourself a good Number Two, someone with a bit of get up and go. Where are you on that?"
I remembered the conversation in Hawaii, but to be honest I hadn't done a lot about it, "I've seen how I can do it." I answered, thinking quickly, "Bill Elswood resigned, and I've been thinking of reorganising the whole of the production and client service side of the operation, possibly throwing in IT as well. It'd give me a chance to promote a couple of likely lads, and maybe get some better efficiency as well. I thought a Head of Operations, director level of course. What do you think?"
"I like the bit about improved efficiency. Try getting somebody good, someone with a bit of get up and go. You could do with some help at the top. Try finding someone that could do your job in a couple of years say. In the whole of ITI we're short of good guys coming up to the very top."
"OK. I'll get it organised."
Pamela came in with a tray of tea at that point. "Well done, Pam. Your timing is perfect. I wanted a change of pace." Stephen smiled at his ever loyal PA.
Stephen looked at me, "Is there anything else to report? I don't need the actual figures, I've got them all here, and they're looking good."
"Just one thing, a favour really, Stephen." I paused and he waited, "I was wondering if I could talk you into coming down one day next month and chairing a Board Meeting? Officially you are the Chairman of our Board. And if we're going to have to confirm what we're doing about both Marston Abbey and Franks Engineering, it might be nice if your there. And, if we can manage it, we might be able to get some short listed candidates for the Operations position in, or even our preferred choice. And it will be Dr Piers McBaine's first Board Meeting, it'd be nice if your there for that as well."
The Old Man smiled, "Of course. Have a word with Pamela, and get it in my diary. Three hours enough?"
"Thank you. Everyone will appreciate it."
He poured the tea, and passed me a cup, "Now one more thing. You know we have those consultants, Hedgerton and Partners, looking at the Health Market strategy in North America for us?"
"Well, they've just about completed all their preliminary work. The next stage is for them to really start work in earnest to find us a series of health market service suppliers right across the States, that we can buy up and convert into a big and efficient chain."
"OK" I said, and nodded.
"Well, we should have a man working alongside of them. I'd like you to do it."
I was surprised to say the least, "Thank you. I'm pleased you thought of me. I was expecting to just be running Franks for the next year or two."
"Oh, you can go on doing that. That's why I want you to get a good number two in, so that you can leave all the day to day stuff with him. Or her, I suppose. You'll have to spend a lot of time in the States. Set up a new office, wherever you fancy. Personally I think I'd choose between Boston or San Francisco, they're very different, but they've both got their attractions." He paused to look at me, "It doesn't really matter, you'll be on the road a lot of the time for a year or two, as we find companies that interest us, so the base office will just be somewhere to get back to for the occasional desk day really."
My heart sank, I suddenly realised what he was proposing. Up to two years overseeing the takeover of several companies in the US, whilst remaining the MD of Franks in Bristol. Exactly the life I didn't want.
I hesitated, "Can I think about it, please? I'm just about to get married again, I was thinking that some time building that relationship would be important for the next few months."
"Oh, there's plenty of time. You don't need to decide for a couple of weeks. In fact, give me your answer when I come down to Bristol for that Board Meeting. The project won't start until about April. I could give it to the Consultancy boys here, it should really be their sort of thing anyway. But I remembered that you were a bit peeved that you weren't involved in the Franks takeover before it landed on your desk. You know, get in on the ground floor, Chris, in building the company's Health Division, and who knows where you'll end up."
There it is, I thought, the carrot. Do this and you're a shoo-in for being the Divisional Director for the Health Market, and a position on Main Board.
The Old Man was watching me, and he tried one more little bit of persuasion, "I'm sure the passion of newly weds can survive a bit of separation for a few months. It's corporate life, I'm afraid. Time and tide and all that. Take your girl to the States, let her have a say in where you live."
I looked at him, he was pushing me hard on this one, I wondered why. "I'm sorry, this is very unexpected. I promise I'll talk to her."
"Good. Judges 9:11"
And the meeting was over. I was just leaving his office, when he said, "Don't ask Pamela for a Bible. Go home and work it out for yourself." I smiled, and left.
I came out of The Old Man's office and stood there looking at Pamela. I knew she would know what he had offered me, nothing happens without Pamela knowing.
"Well that was a surprise." I said.
"He has great faith in you, Chris. Maybe he's decided it's time to accelerate things."
I smiled, wondering why she was wondering, she knows what's going on in his mind. "Well, he's certainly doing that." And I left.
There really wasn't much for me to do, except go home. As I sat on the train I phoned Carole, who had the usual list of messages, some I could sort out by phone calls then and there, and she added comment that she was having trouble sorting out Molly's ticket for Australia, but she'd see me about that in the morning.
By the time I got to Bristol, there was no point in going into the office, it was too late, and I just went home. Molly hadn't turned up yet, so I made myself a cup of tea and went and found a copy of my employment contract. Much to my surprise I found I was on one year's notice. I'm not sure whether that was to my benefit or not. If they wanted to get rid of me, then it would cost them quite a bit, but if I resigned and they felt like being bastards, they could still have me flying around the United States for a year.
By the time I'd got to the end of those thoughts Molly turned up. I kissed her in welcome, "Good, I'm glad you're here. It's an excuse to have a very large G&T, I need one."
She looked concerned, and held her hand against my face, "What's wrong."
So I told her about my conversation with Stephen Parkinson. At the end, she looked ashen, but said, "We'll get through it, and it's only for a year or two. We could have a home in some good area where the boys could go to American schools. The variety might be good for them in the long run."
I shook my head, "No. It's what working for ITI can all be about. That we are meant to do whatever the Company needs, wherever the Company needs us. And I don't want to live like that. It means I'll have to resign."
Just then a thought struck me, what was Judges 9:11? I went and found a my Bible and looked it up, "The bastard. The fucking bastard. He's testing me." I looked up at Molly, and read out, "Should I forsake my sweetness, and my good fruit, and go to be promoted over the trees?"
Molly looked at bit puzzled for a moment, then I added, "He knows exactly what he was doing. Frances must have told him that I was having real trouble about my job versus my family. So he wants to know: Am I for him or against him? Or more accurately for the Company or not? He's chosen to bring it to a head. I bet this assignment was well on the way to the International Consultancy guys before he decided to use it to test me."
"So what are you going to do?"
I must have looked fearful or nervous as I said, "Resign."
Molly sat down on the sofa and I sat next to her. She turned to me, "OK. We'll get through that as well. We're not broke, you know. The divorce settlement was over £300,000. And the boy's trust fund is nearly a quarter of a million, and that can be used for anything vaguely associated with their education."
I looked at her and smiled, "Well, now I know you didn't marry me for my money. We've never talked about money, have we? Do you know how much I've got tucked away in shares and on deposit?"
"No. Knowing you, you'd have put a bit away for a rainy day. But I guess you spent a lot as a bachelor enjoying yourself. I don't know,...... £50,000?" She looked hesitant.
"I'm worth just over one point three million." I said as matter-of-factly as I could, although I was really rather proud of myself.
She went very quiet. And then in a small voice said, "I'm glad I didn't know. I wanted you for you, not your money."
We spent the rest of the evening talking about money, on and off. But we did do some other things as well!
On the Tuesday, Carole met me with a problem, "I can't get four of you on one flight to Melbourne. I can do two and two. Or I've got a special deal on four business class. You've left it too late."
"Bugger. How much is the special deal?"
And she told me. "Ouch. But OK then. It is much nicer over that distance. Go on, what's money for if it's not to spend."
"OK. How was Stephen Parkinson yesterday, by the way?"
I smiled, "At his evil best." I chose not to tell Carole that my resignation was inevitable, but instead I said that I was having to think about my future.
All I could think about that Wednesday morning was my own future. And slowly some ideas of what that might be began to occur to me. At about noon I called in to Carole, "I don't think I've got a lunch today, have I?"