The bench was inscribed ‘In memory of Alderman Joshua Truphitt’. The boy liked this bench, not for the posthumous pomposity it gave to some long dead worthy of the town, but because it overlooked the market square and was in the best position to observe people going about their business.
If the weather was amenable, Stephen, for that was the boy’s name, often sat there for a while on a Saturday afternoon, after the town library closed for the weekend. It was more entertaining than spending the afternoon alone in the meagre flat he shared with his mother. She would be out working, as many hours as possible, trying to earn enough as a care worker looking after the old and bewildered, in order to look after Stephen and herself. Somehow that seemed to be more of a struggle every month.
Stephen felt the flat fit that term beloved of poets and librettists: a garret. It always felt cold and miserable when he was there alone. It had not taken much imagination for him to realise that by spending his time at the library he could both keep warm and save his mother money by not running the heating at home.
It was not only Saturday mornings. If the library was open Stephen would find his way there if he was not required in school for lessons or other activities. He had soon realised that there were other regular frequenters of the place, whose motivation, like his own, owed as much to the warmth of the place as to their need for enlightenment. From their appearance and accompanying odour, Stephen suspected that, for some, their circumstances were worse than that of his mother and himself. He never had any trouble from these other denizens, presumably not wishing to add a metaphorical meaning to their existing literal description as dirty old men. Indeed they had developed a silent camaraderie that had led on to occasional conversations putting the world to rights or on life in general.
Stephen used his time in the library constructively, doing his homework and reading about topics that interested him or that he felt he should know about.
The librarian knew and liked both Stephen and his mother. Her father was one of Stephen’s mother’s care clients. The librarian had arranged for Stephen to have internet access at the library so he was able to use his ageing laptop for on-line work there instead of having to take the thing with him to do the work at school. Nobody had teased him about the laptop, but he knew it might happen, so why give them the opportunity if it could be avoided?
In fact, Stephen knew he was lucky in the school he attended. Not wearing the latest fashions or having the newest technologies, skinny and a bit shy, he knew he could so easily have been a target for bullying. He did get some good natured teasing about being a closet emo, only how they expected him to get the deathly emo pallor with his café-au-lait skin tone he had no idea. He might not be invited to any event that would require him to pay or buy a present but he knew that was more because he was known to be skint, than him being unpopular. He was resigned to being left out of things although being short of money had one small benefit. It meant that nobody questioned why he did not have a girlfriend. No girls would be interested in a penniless boyfriend which suited him as he wasn’t interested in girls anyway.
It was unseasonably warm for the end of the first full week of the New Year. Stephen sat on his bench and, until he caught himself at it, was unconsciously thinking life was unfair – how he and his mother never had any money and others seemed to have plenty.
As the inmates of the library had told him, life is unfair but you have to make the best of what you have got. That had spurred him on to make the decision to get a job; the money would help make things better. A few weeks ago he had done some research and discovered he could not have a job until he was thirteen and then could only work limited hours. He would also need to register with the local council. He had even looked up minimum wage regulations and found they would not apply until he was school-leaving age. He wouldn’t be earning as much as he had hoped but, as the slogan goes, ‘Every Little Helps’.
Now he was thirteen but had not found a job. He had overcome some of his shyness - his talks with the inmates had helped with that - and had canvassed the local newsagents for a paper round in the week before his birthday, but most had no vacancies. The one that had had a round available had a policy of only employing fourteen-year-olds due to the weight of the papers with their weekend supplements. He would have to keep looking. He did wonder if he could do a shopping service for some of his mother’s old folks, but decided that might not be a good idea if they really were bewildered.
From his vantage point on the bench, Stephen looked around the buildings on the market square and thought of how he liked the town he lived in. Large enough to allow a certain anonymity, small enough not to suffer from some to the social problems of bigger towns and cities. Large enough to have a choice of shops for most things but small enough not to attract the attention of the big, national store chains , although one of the discounters had recently opened a supermarket just out of the town centre. His mother was pleased about that: it made their money stretch just that bit further. Of course there was the usual crop of charity shops where Stephen knew most of his clothes came from, including the new-to-him coat he had got on Christmas Day.
Stephen noticed something was missing. There had been a large sign above the shop on the corner of one of the lanes leading off the market square. Attached to the wall between the windows it had been branded with the logo of an estate agent and had read ‘Fantastic Investment Opportunity. For Sale or Lease’. When he had first seen the sign Stephen had been curious. He had discovered the agent was based in the city fifty miles away and specialised in commercial property. Stephen had thought it could not be much of an investment opportunity: the sign had been there for at least a year. The sign must have been taken down during the week since school restarted.
Although it was a pleasant day, Stephen knew that it would get colder as soon as the sun started to go down. He spent a last few minutes on his bench watching the people walking around. Something struck him about the body language of those in the lane past the property that had been for sale. There was a new wall of sheet timber boards in front of the shop beyond the one on the corner. It was a hoarding to protect and screen the site from passers-by while builders worked on the shop inside. It was this hoarding that was attracting attention. The men seemed to study it closely, eyes lingering on it as they walked past. The women took a quick glance and then seemed to be deliberately looking elsewhere.
Intrigued, Stephen stood up, intent on detouring past the shop on his way to the flat. He was not surprised to see the hoarding. The shop that had been there before was what he thought was known as a pop-up shop, that is, one let on a very short lease. It had been selling tacky Christmas decorations and cheap presents and had closed immediately after Christmas. He had not bought anything from it; there was nothing there he thought worth the money no matter how cheap.
He had half expected the shop to be replaced by one selling similar rubbish for the next commercial event of the year: Valentine’s Day. Being perennially short of money, Stephen was acutely conscious of the events through the year that have been turned into marketing opportunities: Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Halloween. Stephen considered this to be a commercial calendar of consumption usurping the original religious feast days.
When he reached the hoarding he could see what had caught the eyes of the men and was being studiously ignored by the women. Pasted on the boards was a poster of a dancer in a frilly, flamenco-style dress, the hem hitched up to expose a leg almost to the top and, drawing attention to her thigh, a red and black garter. Stephen thought it somewhat risqué for the normally sedate town, but he knew of the old marketing saw; ‘Sex sells.’ Beside and underneath the drawing were the words ‘La Malaguena, Opening Soon.’. It was odd that there was no indication of what the shop would be selling. Maybe the idea was to get people guessing and talking. Perhaps it would be a case not of sex sells but selling sex. The poster was certainly racy enough to advertise a sex shop and the name ‘La Malaguena’ – the woman from Malaga - might have been chosen to hint at the carnal pleasures that could be found in most port cities. Stephen amused himself with this idea for a while but eventually dismissed it. A sex shop would never get planning permission in this town, never mind in such a prominent position near the market square. He guessed it would be a women’s clothing store. He wondered if there was enough business for another frock shop. Whatever it was going to be he doubted it would be a place that would have a job for him.
Although he would not admit to it if asked, Stephen was glad to get back to school the following Monday morning. He was able to get warm after a weekend in his miserable flat and, in spite of being something of an outsider due to his strained financial circumstances, he missed the company of his peers. He also liked the feeling of accomplishment he got when he understood the concepts being taught in his lessons.
This term there was an added attraction. A new boy had joined Stephen’s class and Stephen had frequently caught himself looking in his direction. The boy was not particularly good looking but Stephen liked what he saw. He could not deny the attraction, not after a weekend that found the boy being the subject of his daydreams. He would have to be careful. He could get away with looking in the first few days of term while everyone got used to each other again, but after that he might accidentally out himself. He wasn’t ready to do that.
The new boy wasn’t giving much away about himself. Pretty much all that was known about him was his family name: Naylor, and that he liked to be called by his initials: VAN. He wouldn’t even give his address, saying it was temporary. Of course the ‘in’ crowd was round him trying to get information. Stephen decided they would either find out what they wanted to know or get bored trying, and then he might get a chance to get to know Van better. Until then all he could do was admire the view.
Admiring the view in his first period Spanish class one day was nearly his undoing but instead allowed him to glean a little information about Van. The teacher, Mr Martin, or ‘Señor Marteen’ as he liked to be known in class, had spotted Stephen’s lack of attention and had called him to the front of the room. However it was not unusual for Stephen’s attention to wander in the class as he already knew as much conversational Spanish as his teacher, and as for his vocabulary, he knew words he wouldn’t use in polite company or even in the school corridors.
Stephen’s command of the language had come at the behest of his father who came from Columbia. He had insisted Stephen should learn what was the second most frequently spoken native tongue. So that had been spoken at home until his father suddenly disappeared from his and his mother’s life two years earlier.
Having a good ear for accent, Stephen had quickly picked up that ‘Señor Martin’ was trying to instil what was supposed to be a high Castilian accent in his charges. Stephen tried to comply; after all his grades depended on it, but occasionally he couldn’t resist lapsing back into his Columbian accent and usages, especially if the teacher was being pedantic about something or used a word that had a different, sometimes rude, meaning in Columbia. One of his classmates had once asked Mr Martin why Stephen’s accent seemed to be clearer and easier to understand than the teacher’s. Without any sense of the irony, Mr Martin’s reply, delivered in his thick Liverpudlian accent, was some vague comparison with lazy students finding US English easier than proper English.
Standing in front of the desk, being admonished for not paying attention, Stephen was still only half listening, his further inattention earning a detention. No matter. He could as easily do his homework in detention as in the library, and the prize was worth it. He had noticed Mr Martin had left the register open on his desk after recording attendance at the start of the day. Reading upside down, a skill one of the library regulars had advised was well worth perfecting, he learnt both Van’s full name and his date of birth - information Stephen knew was best kept to himself.
During his detention, Stephen contemplated how parents could be unintentionally cruel when choosing names for their children. With the knowledge he had gained that morning he understood why Van would want to be known by his initials. He thought his own name was bad enough: Stephen Jesus (pronounced in the Castilian way: ‘heysoos’) Benjamin. Although his birthday was officially recorded as 25th December, there had been a hiatus at the hospital at the time of his birth. It was known that his head had appeared towards midnight on the 25th, and the afterbirth had followed just after midnight on the 26th, but nobody was watching the exact time when he completed journey into the world. As a consequence he was named after both saints’ days. At least his mother had insisted his first name should be Stephen. He could imagine the teasing he would have had at school had he been called Jesus or even Jesus. He had never had a satisfactory explanation as to why his father’s family name, De Silva, was not this own, and had lost interest in the answer after his father’s disappearance.
It was a fortnight before the protective hoarding around the shop came down. It was a fortnight in which Stephen continued to enjoy the sight of Van in his classes and around the school. He tried hard not to make his interest obvious, but the attraction just seemed to grow with each passing day. He was worried that Van had seen him looking, as Van often seemed to be looking in his direction. Nothing was said, but they did exchange the occasional self-conscious smile.
When the boards came down, the old shop had been transformed with a new, elegant, Victorian double fronted window. Inside could be seen new serving counters in matching period style. It was the contents of the window displays that surprised Stephen. It was not frilly dresses and skirts and definitely not frilly knickers and vibrators, but on the one side there were mouth-wateringly gooey cakes and pastries, and on the other trays of beautifully crafted chocolates.
Life had been good to Stephen when his father was part of his life. He had not been extravagant but he had been able to teach Stephen to appreciate some of the finer things in life. The boy certainly knew the difference between cheap, good value and quality. Good value was what his mother bought at the discount supermarket, but it was not necessarily good quality. The shop selling Christmas tat wasn’t even good value.
As he admired the displays, Stephen knew he was looking at quality. He stood as close to the window as possible. Any closer and he would have left nose marks on the glass. Silently salivating, he studied the display tickets with a description and price of each item. He knew the patisserie was beyond his meagre pocket, but he might stretch to a sample of the chocolates He would sooner have one of those than a whole bag of fruit gums or marshmallows that his school colleagues seemed to graze on. He checked the change in his pocket – all the money he had with him – straightened his back and walked into the shop.
While he waited to be served, Stephen noticed a door on one side of the shop with a hand written sign marked ‘Staff Only’. He wondered where this door went. He guessed it would lead into the passage he assumed was behind the large doorway between the chocolate shop and the shop on the corner of the market place. Why a temporary sign? Everything else seemed to be properly finished for the opening of the shop.
Stephen’s contemplation of the door was interrupted by the smartly attired woman behind the counter.
“May I help you, young man?”
She was about the same age as his mother, and gave him a nice smile as he looked at her. She had seen him studying the windows and was amused that the boy in front of her seemed overawed by the selection of good things around him.
“I would like some chocolates please. One of the ginger ones and one of the cherry ones please.” Stephen had had time to make his choice before entering the shop.
“Certainly, sir. I do like a young man that knows what he wants.” There was a friendly note in her voice, but for some reason her comment made him wonder if he did know what he wanted and for a moment he wasn’t thinking of the chocolates.
The woman weighed his chocolates and told him the price. It was about the price that he was expecting, but it still made him wince.
“Is it a problem?” Her question was one of concern, not sarcasm.
“No, er... no.” he said as he counted out and handed over the exact change. “Just that it is nearly half my allowance for the week.” He blushed and was thankful he was the only customer in the shop at the time.
“Oh.” She said, somewhat taken aback that that boy’s allowance was as small as he had implied. “I hope you will find the chocolates worth the sacrifice of whatever else you might have bought.”
Stephen took his chocolates and after he left, the woman tried to decide if she would ever see him in the shop again.
Stephen shared the chocolates with his mother. They each had half of each. Of course she berated him for his extravagance, but they did agree they were worth the price. He told her about the cakes in the other window, but she was horrified when he mentioned the cost.
“Don’t you go buying any of those!” she had said “That’s nearly an hour’s work for me to earn that.”
It was the first time Stephen could remember her ever hinting about her wages to him. He waited until he was alone before he tried to do the sums. He knew she would see it in his face if he tried while she was watching him. Making allowance for a bit of parental hyperbole gave him a number below what he thought from his own researches was the minimum wage. He would check that next time he was on line. Multiplying up by the number of hours he thought she worked each week gave him a number that he could compare to the national average weekly earnings. Something else to look up. Her comment set him wanting to know more about why their finances were such that it was a struggle to make ends meet.
The following Wednesday was the last one in the month and Stephen’s mother, unusually, had the evening off, so he had gone straight home after school. He was glad that he had. His mother was sitting at the table clutching a letter in one hand. He could see from her face that she had been crying. He put the kettle on then went to sit next to his mother and put his arm round her.
“What’s up, Mum?”
She looked up at him, started to say something but burst into another round of sobs.
“Is it that letter?” he asked. She nodded.
The kettle had boiled so he got up, made a pot of tea and brought it and two cups back to the table then fetched the milk from the fridge.
“Can I look at it, Mum?” He held out his hand as he sat down, opposite her this time.
She handed the letter to him and he spread it out in front of him. Before he read it he poured the tea into the cups and passed one to his mother.
“I just don’t know how we will manage.” She sniffled, before continuing “I can’t manage any more hours.”
Stephen read the letter. It was notice from the landlord of an increase in rent for the flat, from the first of March. This time he did do the maths in front of his mother: she already knew the contents of the letter. The increase was a swingeing ten percent. He knew that was way above inflation. The landlord tried to justify this increase with some words about increased costs. Stephen grunted at that: he had never known the landlord to spend a penny on repairs in the two years they had been there. What concerned him almost as much as the increase was the level of rent his mother was already paying. Although he hadn’t much idea of rents he couldn’t see how their miserable little attic flat was worth what they were paying.
“I suppose there is no chance of a pay increase?” Stephen asked, although he was pretty sure what the answer would be.
“No. I’ve heard there will be no increases this year.”
From his earlier conversation with his mother, Stephen suspected her hourly rate was close to the minimum wage. He would have expected her to get the statutory increase. Maybe her employer was planning to pay below the minimum.
To add insult to injury, that night there was heavy rain that found out several leaks in the roof.
The next day, Stephen was distracted by the problem of the rent. He did manage to pay attention in class, probably more than usual, because his eyes weren’t wandering in Van’s direction.
Van noticed, so he looked for Stephen at lunch. He found him at a table on his own so he sat opposite.
“What’s up with you today? You don’t seem your usual cheery self.” Van asked.
Stephen looked across the table and studied Van for a moment. Could he trust him? Then he realised if he got to know Van as well as his daydreams said he wanted to, he would be trusting Van with something more important than where he lived.
“Yeah. Sorry, I’m a bit distracted today.” Stephen replied, “But Mum and I might have to move.”
“She’s been given notice of a rent increase and, to put it bluntly she can’t afford it.”
The conversation died. To take his mind off his problem Stephen looked at Van’s lunch tray. There was a slice of the cake of the day: coffee and walnut. Not Stephen’s favourite, so he had forgone the pleasure, and had virtuously chosen a piece of fruit instead. However the cake would do as a conversation opener.
“Do you like that cake?” Stephen asked.
“Coffee cake? Oo! Yes!” said Van “I’m not bothered about the walnuts, but coffee cake – my favourite. Anything coffee flavoured.
“Anything coffee coloured, too,” Van continued, waggling his eyebrows at Stephen as he spoke. “My old room before we moved was two-tone coffee: con leche and a darker cortado colour.”
Stephen was still looking at the tray on the table so he missed Van’s eyebrow gymnastics. He did get the Spanish coffee references but in his distracted state, thought nothing of it.
After school Stephen dragged himself to the library. The regulars spotted his demeanour as soon as he walked in and were soon whispering amongst themselves. They let him get settled, before one went over and sat next to Stephen. Gordon was the appointed spokesman.
Gordon was known to have had his own business, until, so he said, at his wife’s insistence that they spend more time together, he had sold it a couple of years ago. Now that he had retired, his wife was forever complaining he was under her feet, so he became a regular at the library to get out of the house and have some peace and quiet.
“What‘s up, lad?” Gordon asked. “You look as though you have found sixpence but lost a fiver.”
“You’re just about on the mark there.” Stephen replied. He had wanted to give Gordon a wry smile, but started to tear up instead. Gordon spotted that an outburst was imminent and nodded in the direction of the other regulars. One of the scruffier members of the group, known as Lefty, stood up and went across to talk to the librarian. He then turned to face Gordon and Stephen, put his thumb up and pointed to the staff room door.
“Right lad,” said Gordon. “The librarian has said we can use the staff room for a chat so that we don’t disturb the other readers. Bring your stuff.”
By the time Stephen had gathered up his books and he and Gordon had walked over to the staff room Lefty had made tea and found the cups.
“Okay, what’s got you in this state?” asked Gordon, appointing himself chair of the meeting.
Stephen knew any of the regulars could be trusted to keep a secret. With the possible exception of Gordon, they were all loners; they wouldn’t have anyone to tell.
He poured he heart out and told about the rent demand, his suspicions about his mother’s wages, and the disappearance of his father. Even how much allowance his mother gave him. It was a relief to tell some else about it all.
When he had stalled, not knowing what else to say, Lefty asked if his mother was claiming any benefits she might be entitled to.
“I think she gets Child Benefit for me, but I don’t know about anything else,” Stephen replied. “I think she is either too proud or too frightened of the forms to claim anything else.”
“Pride is all very well. But the benefits are there for a purpose: to support the workers who are cruelly exploited and underpaid by their capitalist bosses,” Lefty said, as he grinned at Gordon.
Gordon took the jibe in good part.
“Thank you, Karl Marx,” he said before continuing; “I’m sure between us we have enough experience of the benefit system to help you complete the forms for anything your mother might be entitled to. Here is what I suggest you do.
“First, you need pluck up courage to sit down with your mother and have a talk about what she is earning, what other money is coming in and where it is going. Make a rough analysis to find out why things are such a struggle. We can always refine it when we have some idea of what is going on.
“Second, please would you try to get her payslips, employment contract, rent demand, time sheet and calls log, bank statements, and when she last had an increase. In fact anything you can lay hands on that remotely relates to her employment and financial situation generally. If possible, please would you bring it with you on Saturday. There is a photocopier here and she can have the originals back straight away.
“If she is not happy to let you bring the information, we can arrange to meet with her to put her mind at rest. Have you got anything else to add, Lefty?”
The man nodded and spoke to Stephen. “Would you ask your mother if she has ever discussed pay and conditions with other employees?” he asked “Also, I don’t suppose there is a union where she works, but it might be useful to know if there is.
“Finally, if she has to ask the company for anything, for example a copy of her contract, and they ask her to sign anything, tell her not to until we’ve had a chance to look at it. They wouldn’t be the first company to try and put something in place retrospectively.”
The meeting broke up with a promise to reconvene on Saturday morning. The cups were washed and put away and the room tidied just as the librarian came to tell them it was closing time.
By the time Stephen got to bed, he was exhausted. The day had been stressful, but he felt that he had made a start on improving his and his mother’s situation.
The conversation with his mother had been easier than expected.
Stephen had had to explain how the guys at the library had spotted how unhappy he looked and how, after he had told them about the rent increase and everything, they had offered to help look at his mother’s financial affairs and see what could be done to improve things.
His mother had been defensive at first, until Stephen had reminded her that they would be unable to pay the new rent. In spite of her working all hours she didn’t earn enough. Something must be wrong, and they needed to find out what it was before they were evicted. She had realised she had no helpful ideas of her own.
They put together most of the information Gordon had requested. When they looked at spending, they were both surprised to find that, after the rent, the most expensive thing, if you added up the various costs, was the car. The car was essential for his mother to get to her clients. There was no way she could do her rounds by public transport. She was only allowed a limited time to get between calls, making the car an absolute necessity.
Stephen had the feeling he was missing something. He pulled out one of his mother’s payslips they had been looking at earlier. It was as he thought: no mileage payment showed.
“Don’t they pay you anything for using your car to travel between clients?” he asked his mother. From the way she shook her head in response, he wondered if she had ever discussed it with her employer. He was going to say that was another thing she should discuss with her colleagues, when he remembered she had said she never saw any of them when it had been mentioned earlier. He would have to think of some other way to find out. In the meantime, he suggested that she work out the distances between calls. He would put together a spreadsheet from her call logs, and then add the mileages. They could do that together the next night.
There was one other surprise for Stephen. His mother was making regular payments for what she said was a loan taken out by his father before he disappeared. He asked her to get more details of the loan, in particular why she had to pay it and how much was outstanding. He also took the opportunity to ask his mother if she knew any more about his father’s disappearance. He got the same vague response as he had had in the past. It left him with the same feeling that she knew more than she was prepared to say.
Stephen was still in a positive mood when he went to school the next day, Friday. He used every spare minute to catch up and get ahead on his homework. He had a call he wanted to make on the way home and he would be busy finishing off the papers for his meeting in the library the next day. He did manage to get some moments admiring Van. He knew he had been busted the time Van smiled back and semaphored an acknowledgement with an eyebrow.
After school finished he hurried off. He thought his mother needed something to cheer her up so he headed for the chocolate shop. He knew he had just enough money with him for two more of the delicious chocolates.
When he arrived at the shop, there was a queue. While he was waiting in the line, he had an idea. For him to put it into practice he wanted there to be nobody after him in the queue, so he let the old lady who had followed him in go first. He wasn’t intending to attract attention but she did it for him, thanking him and telling everyone in the shop what a polite young man he was. He hoped nobody else came in. He couldn’t face a repeat performance.
Eventually it was his turn and there was no one else there.
“Hello again, young man, what can I do for you today?” It was the same woman behind the counter as before and, as before, she was smiling. This time it was because she had seen his little dance of politeness with the old lady.
“Mum is feeling a bit down, so I thought I would cheer her up with another of your ginger chocolates, please, and a cherry one again for me as well, please.” Stephen had decided to be more expansive in his request in the hope it would help his plan.
The woman weighed out the chocolates then asked what Stephen was hoping she would ask.
“Is there anything else I can help you with?”
Now was his chance.
“Well, there is actually. I saw that you were busy when I came in and I wondered if you might want some part-time help. I am looking for a job. I am at school but I can do evenings and Saturdays.”
She looked him up and down. He thought it a good sign he hadn’t been dismissed out of hand.
“At the moment, I think I want someone during the day through the week.”
Stephens’s face fell.
“But” she continued “I am hoping to open a café or tearoom upstairs in about a fortnight, hopefully in time for Valentine’s Day. I expect to need some part time staff then. Someone polite enough to be able to charm old ladies into buying whole cakes from the shop as they leave to go home. Do you think you could do that?”
Stephen blushed at the reference to his actions in the queue, but realised she was gently pulling his leg. Two can do that, he thought.
“Si, Señorita.” He had learnt from his father that a little bit of flattery can work wonders.
“Señorita! I’m a bit old to be called that” she said, “but you’ve obviously got the idea. Come on. I’ll just shut the door and then I can show you round upstairs. We can talk about hours and terms as we go round.”
She went to the shop door, locked it and put up a sign - ‘Back in ten minutes’ - then ushered Stephen through the other door that he had seen on his first visit.
As he had guessed it opened into a wide lobby with the door into the lane at the end of a short passage. There was a staircase, much grander than he expected. On the way up she introduced herself.
“I’m Betty Morgan. We Morgans have been in the business for three generations, based in the York area. My brothers do the patisserie supplying high end hotels, restaurants and bistros, and my sister runs the chocolate side with a similar client base. I married out of the family business and moved down South, but when my husband was transferred up here, they asked if I was interested in helping them expand in this area.
“So, for the last couple of years, I have been on the road building up business for them, but I always wanted to run my own show, and I found this place on the agent’s website; it seemed to fit some of the ideas I had.”
“I hope you got it cheap. It’s been on the market ages.” The words were out of his mouth before Stephen realised what his comment implied. “Oops – not my place to ask!”
“Well recovered!” Betty said, laughing. She hoped the café idea would work out. This boy could be just what she wanted, quick and polite. She had seen his demur, shy side the first time he was in, and now he was being just a little more forward as he got used to her.
They had reached the top of the stairs, and Stephen was thinking there was no way the old biddies of the town would make the climb no matter how good the cakes and coffee. That was before she steered him into a large panelled room with a stucco ceiling and large oriel windows. He could see the windows gave a good view of the market square below. The room must be above the corner shop, with more rooms above the chocolate shop. The biddies would climb the stairs for this. A gossip over coffee and cake in this magnificent room while able to see all the goings on below – it was the perfect setting for the makings of more gossip!
They talked about terms and conditions and what hours Stephen would be able to work. He was thankful he had done his research on what he was allowed to do during term and during the school holidays. He was also able to tell her about registering school age workers with the local council. Best of all Betty said she expected to pay him the minimum wage for 16 year old school leavers even though he was only thirteen.
“Unfortunately, this will only go ahead if we get planning permission for a lift. If we get that we will make a start fitting out the room and doing the other work needed to separate the public areas from the private. We don’t think it is viable in the long term without lift access.”
As they went back down the stairs, Betty pointed out where the lift would be and how some of the other alterations would fit. Stephen thought it unlikely they would open in time for Valentine’s Day if they were waiting for planning permission and then still had to do the work.
Back in the shop, Stephen paid for his chocolates and Betty unlocked the door and let him out into the lane.
By the time she realised she had forgotten to ask him is name he was too far away to call back. It could wait.
Van, on his way home from some after-school activity, turned into the lane from the market square. He thought he saw Stephen at the other end of the lane. It reminded him he needed to ask his parents something. He used his key to open the door between two shops and climbed the stairs to the flat on the top floor.
Stephen and his mother spent their evening sorting out the last of the papers for Stephen to take to the library in the morning. He also completed the spreadsheets with the rough budget and his mother’s calls log and mileages. She had managed to get some of the details of the loan. When it was all finished he made some coffee for them both and fetched the chocolates. His mother burst into tears.
“Aw, Mum. I thought they would cheer you up.”
“They do dear,” she said after she had wiped her eyes. “You’re so thoughtful, and I am so hopeless leaving you to sort out all the money. I have just been muddling along since your father disappeared. He used to deal with all this sort of thing.”
They gave each other a hug, and then they shared out the chocolates.
There was some good news to share at the Naylor family dinner table that night.
“I‘ve heard that the vendors have now signed and so the solicitors have exchanged contracts today.” Van’s father reported “We expect to complete in a couple of weeks and can move in anytime after that.”
“That’s great,” said Van’s mother. “This flat is alright but it is a bit small after what we have been used to. Especially with you not going in to the office so often and doing more of your work from home.”
Van thought it a good time to ask the question he had meant to ask the previous night.
“Mom, what are you planning to do with this flat when we move out into the new house?” he asked.
“Probably just use it for extra storage, although I doubt I will need it. Why do you ask?”
“There is this kid at school whose landlord is putting up the rent. He lives with his mom, and he says they can’t afford the increase.”
“So would we consider letting it to them. Eh?” Van’s father asked. “Pal of yours?”
Van could feel his ears burning and he shifted in his seat. His parents looked at each other as if to say they would talk later.
“Sort of,” said Van
Intent showing on his face, his father had been about to turn that into a question, but the impact of his wife’s foot on his shin made him change his mind.
“It’s worth thinking about,” she said. “It would mean a bit of income coming in to help defray the property costs and it might help keep the insurance company happy to have someone on the premises at night. They won’t be having riotous parties will they?”
“I doubt it,” replied Van. “Word at school has it that he never has any spare money.”
“See if you can find out how much they are currently paying. You did say it was the increase that was going to put them under?” asked his mother. “Oh, and make sure they are non-smokers. I don’t want tobacco fumes making everything stink.”
Gordon, Lefty and Stephen convened at the library at opening time on Saturday morning. The librarian let them use the staff room again. Stephen let the others go ahead. He wanted to ask the librarian a big favour.
“You know your dad is one of my mum’s clients but the rota means he often gets other care assistants visiting?” he asked.
“Mm. yes. What about it?” the librarian asked in turn.
“I think my mum is being underpaid by the agency. Do you think you could ask him to find out from the others what their hourly rate is and if they get paid any mileage allowance please? Mum doesn’t really know any of the other care assistants and if she starts asking too many questions it might cause trouble for her.”
The librarian thought it the sort of request she would normally refuse, but she did have a soft spot for the cute kid in front of her.
“A bit of cloak and dagger? He’ll like that. He might be doddery but he still has all his marbles. I’m sure he’ll do it. I’ll give him a bell when I get a chance.”
“If you find anything out and I am not around, would you tell Gordon, please?”
The librarian waved an acknowledgement to Stephen as she turned to deal with a borrower wanting to check out some books. Stephen joined the others in the staff room.
He quickly listed the information he had brought and said he had feelers out for the earnings of the other care staff. Lefty had been busy, too, and had brought claim forms for just about any benefit and grant Stephen and his mother might be eligible for. Gordon had investigated rents in the area and had made a list of available properties. Not that there were many.
Gordon asked Lefty to photocopy all the documents so that Stephen could take the originals home with him at the end of the session. While that was happening he sat with Stephen and they went through his mother’s earnings and time sheets. It soon became apparent that here was something amiss. Although the payslips agreed with what was going into the bank, something to be thankful for, the hourly rate seemed to be less than the minimum wage. It also looked as though she was only being paid for the time spent at the calls and not the travelling time between. She definitely was not getting any mileage allowance to cover the cost of using her car.
After all the papers had been copied, Gordon called a halt. Someone took that as a hint to make tea.
“I think we have enough here to work on,” Gordon said. “We’ll divide up the jobs: filling forms and so on. We‘ll see if we can get a more favourable settlement on the loan. We might have to send someone to visit the offices concerned, but I will organise and pay for whoever goes. I’ll square up with the librarian for the copying as well.”
Gordon turned to face Stephen “There is someone I know who can help with your mother’s earnings, but before I get him involved I need you to get her confirmation that there is nothing else going on, no cash in hand, nothing dodgy. Because if there is, he will find it, and the shit will hit the fan and there is no telling where or how it will land. He works for HMRC.” Gordon noticed the blank look on Stephen’s face. “Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs - the tax man. Your mother could easily end up worse off if they come to her for back Income Tax and National Insurance on undeclared earnings.”
Stephen wondered if Gordon had been through the experience.
They agreed that Gordon and Lefty would continue work on the papers and forms trying to identify what else could be done, and Gordon would set up a meeting with his contact from HMRC.
Stephen was back to his normal self. In fact, he was feeling optimistic that things were going to improve for his mother and himself.
He was also back to taking a discreet look at Van whenever the opportunity arose. Of course there were times that Van caught him looking. What intrigued Stephen was that he caught Van looking at him at least as often. He was beginning to understand that he was attracted to Van as more than just a potential friend. Had it been just friendship he sought, he would have tried harder to meet up with Van and get to know him. As it was, he recognised his bedtime fantasies and his urge to keep looking at Van meant he needed to be more careful in his approach. However, with the information he had gleaned from the register, he was beginning to formulate a plan.
When he had received the assurance he had requested from Stephen’s mother, Gordon had set up a meeting for Stephen with his contact from HMRC on the next Thursday. The man had agreed for it to be held after school and at the library. Gordon introduced him.
“This is Mr David Naylor from the HMRC. He deals with low pay. I feel like the poacher turned gamekeeper here. I crossed swords with him when I had my business. It was a fair cop. We had missed rate changes for some employees when they had birthdays. We sorted that out amicably.” Gordon smiled at the man from the tax office. “But it meant I had a yellow card on my record. So the VATman came to call. He found something he didn’t like, so that was interest and penalties. And a red card. That led to the income tax boys opening an enquiry into the business’s tax returns. Not a pleasant experience. I felt I was treated as guilty until I could prove innocence. Eventually we reached settlement. I won’t say it was amicable. I had to sell the business to pay for it.
“So you could say I was nailed by Naylor.”
Neither Stephen nor the man from HMRC smiled at Gordon’s lame joke.
Mr Naylor took over.
“Hello, Stephen,” he said as he put his hand out for Stephen to shake “If it makes you more comfortable please call me David.”
He indicated that everyone should sit down. Before continuing he produced a notepad from his briefcase. Stephen noticed that the somewhat battered briefcase had the outline of a portcullis embossed in gold on it.
“Before we start, let me just update you and Gordon on his story.” David said. “I’ve heard that the people that bought his business have gone into liquidation. So I’m afraid that ultimately I have failed in my objective to make sure the employees got the pay due to them. They are all unemployed now.
“As Gordon said, I am from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and I inspect businesses to ensure compliance with Pay As You Earn and National Minimum Wage rules. We chose our cases for investigation a number of ways. For example, it could be from our random selection process, an employee complaint, or a tip-off. As you mother is not here, I will treat this as a tip-off.
“Before we go any further, I need to ask you a couple of things. Firstly, do you want this to be private – between just you and me – or would you like Gordon to stay?”
Stephen decided he needed Gordon’s experience of dealing with authority to help him through this.
“I would like him to stay, please,” he said.
“Very well.” David made a note on his pad, “The second thing I have to ask is what is it you are hoping to achieve? For example we may be able to get a quick amicable settlement as in Gordon’s case or we could look for a criminal conviction that will take longer and be harder to achieve.”
Stephen had to think a bit longer before he realised what he wanted.
“I want fair treatment for Mum and all her entitlements backdated to when she started with them paid in full. But I don’t want it to mean she will be out of a job. I don’t want the company closed down,” he said.
“Please be careful that his mother isn’t identified as a troublemaker,” Gordon added “They would find some pretext to dismiss her. She can’t afford to make an unfair dismissal claim. With the reductions in Legal Aid, none of the solicitors around here are taking any pro-bono cases.”
David finished the note he was writing and looked up.
“I don’t think that will be a problem,” he said. “I will tell them it is one of our random inspections and just make sure his mother is one of the samples I select. It is probably best she does not know anything about HMRC’s interest in her case, so don’t say anything to her.”
David talked some more about the process and how long it was likely to take. The first thing he had to do was look through the papers Stephen had provided then make an appointment for the inspection.
They were on the point of finishing when there was a knock on the door. It was the librarian.
“Sorry to interrupt, but I thought you might need this. It’s the pay and expenses rates my dad got from the other care assistants,” she said as she handed a piece of paper to Stephen.
Stephen thanked her and asked her to thank her father.
They looked at the paper. The other staff were getting a mileage allowance and the pay rates seemed to be the minimum wage.
After scanning the paper, David said, “I can investigate the differing pay rate but the expenses are a bit harder. I will ask about it but I don’t think I can enforce anything. Hopefully they will make some offer, if I suggest it to them. It will depend on what I find and how they answer my questions.”
Stephen thanked Mr Naylor for the meeting and for his help. After the man had left, Stephen was amused that he shared the same surname as Van. He put it down to coincidence. It was not an unusual name and Stephen assumed he would live near the tax office which he thought was in the city fifty miles away.
Things settled back into the old routine for the next week, although Gordon was following up on the loan. Lefty had now taken on the job of looking for new flats for Stephen but was having difficulty finding something in their price range. The agents were telling him there were plenty, just none available at the moment.
Van made the effort to engage Stephen in conversation at school. Stephen was a bit coy at first, which Van found endearing. Stephen did open up enough for Van to find out what rent his mother was paying.
On the other hand, Van gave nothing more away about himself or his family. Nothing about where he lived or what his parents did.
It was on the Thursday that things started to happen. The first was an announcement by Mr Martin.
“Next week, it is Saint Valentine’s Day on the day I have you for first period. To avoid having you furtively passing notes and gifts, disrupting my class and in the spirit of maintaining the anonymity of donors, items can be left in my classroom and I will distribute them for you in the morning. Please make sure the recipient’s name is clearly marked, otherwise I shall assume they are for me!”
There were a few giggles at that. Mr Martin paused for them to die down before continuing. “I shall be in my classroom from three thirty until five pm the day before and from eight am on the morning of Valentine’s Day.”
Stephen thought that would fit nicely with his plan. He could drop off his intended gift without others seeing him. If they did, he could claim he was having an argument with Señor Martin about some Spanish expression. Nobody would be expecting him to buy anyone a Valentine’s Day gift.
The second was when Betty Morgan opened her post. The planning permission for the lift had been approved at the Council Planning Committee meeting earlier in the week.
Finally, when Stephen arrived at the library, Gordon was there waiting for him.
“Good news, lad,” he told Stephen. “David Naylor has been in touch and said he thought you might want to know he is doing his inspection on Monday. Tuesday as well if necessary. So we may hear something later in the week. Best you don’t tell your mother just yet though.”
The following day, after school, Stephen went to the shop to see Betty Morgan. He was hoping she had heard about the planning and that the café was going to go ahead. Optimistically he had downloaded the forms he needed to register with the local authority so that he could give them to her if he was going to have a job. He also wanted to buy some more chocolates.
As he wanted to speak with Betty alone, he had to do his politeness dance again with another old lady.
“Hello again,” Betty said when it was Stephen’s turn. “I’ve got some good news for you. The planning permission for the lift has come through at last. It has taken longer than we thought. Anyway we will be going ahead with the café. The lift people and the builders are here on Monday to measure up and do their estimates. If you come around on Tuesday, Valentine’s Day, I should be able to give you an idea of when you will be able to start work.”
“Oh good,” said Stephen. “I’ve brought the registration papers with me just in case! I’ve filled in my details.”
He handed them to Betty.
“My! You are efficient. Thank you. I’ll look them through and complete the bits I have to do,” she said.
That part of his business completed, Stephen asked to buy some more chocolates.
“Please may I have two of the coffee cream ones? And can I be cheeky and ask you to put them in one of the little boxes, please?”
Stephen had noticed that Betty had some small gold foil covered boxes with the shop’s logo on it which she folded up from flat and used if customers wanted more than half a dozen chocolates.
“It’s not your usual order. Are they for your valentine? I am afraid we don’t have any special boxes with hearts on,” Betty explained.
“The plain box will be just fine,” Stephen replied, his blush confirming Betty’s guess was correct.
She smiled, made up a box, put the chocolates in it and handed it to Stephen.
As he handed over his money, he asked about something that had been bothering him ever since he had first seen the hoarding outside the shop while it was being refurbished.
“Why did you call the shop ‘La Malaguena’ – the woman from Malaga?” he asked “You’re not from Malaga are you?”
“It’s quite simple really. We like going to Madrid and we have found one of our favourite places is a combined cake shop, sweetshop and café called ‘La Mallorquina’ on Sol. You can have a coffee and cake ‘en barra’ – that means standing at the bar- or there is seating upstairs in the salon. It has a wonderful atmosphere and is always busy. It gave us the idea for this place. We didn’t want to use the same name, and thought the locals here would associate with ‘Malaguena’ more easily. Malaga is the gateway to the holiday beaches of the Coast del Sol in Andalucía. Andalucia gave us the flamenco connection for our bare-legged logo.”
“Okay, thanks for the explanation. I must be off,” said Stephen as he turned to leave.
“Don’t forget to call in on Tuesday. I should know by then when we think the café will be able to open. I can see the customers are going to enjoy being served by my two cute waiters.”
“Two?” asked Stephen blushing again at being called cute.
“The other will be my son. He will be old enough to work by then,” she replied.
Stephen left the shop, thinking he should have asked for the son’s name, not that he could think of any Morgans in the school.
At the same time, Betty Morgan realised she had once again forgotten to ask the boy’s name. Never mind it would be on the papers he said he had filled in.
Van, crossing the market place on his way home from his regular Friday after school activity, saw Stephen leaving the shop, but too far away to call out a greeting.
Instead of going straight home, Van went into the chocolate shop.
“Hi, Mum,” he called out “What was Stephen doing in here?”
“Stephen?” Betty queried.
“Yeah. The cu – uh – coffee coloured kid that just left.” Van thought he had covered in time. He was wrong.
“He is cute, isn’t he?” asked his mother, her eyes twinkling. Van’s ears went red, and he shuffled his feet.
“Whatever,” Van mumbled before asking, “what did he want? Did he buy anything?”
The way Van had bounced into the shop and the eagerness in his voice made Betty cautious in her reply.
“He has been in a couple of times. Buys a ginger for his mother and a cherry for himself.”
“Just one of each?”
“Figures. I don’t think he has much money.”
“I think I would agree. He seems a nice boy, though. Is he the one you said might lose his flat?”
“Yeah,” said Van, who then left through the ‘staff only’ door and went upstairs to his family’s flat.
Valentine’s Day, and there was a buzz in the school corridors. Who would get cards or gifts and from whom?
Stephen had spent some of his weekend carefully dissecting the box he had got from the chocolate shop and rebuilding it into two smaller ones, each big enough for a single chocolate. He wrote a different message in the lid of each box, and stuck both boxes on a piece of plain card so that they would not get separated. Duly marked with the recipient’s name, he had dropped the gift into Mr Martin’s office. Nobody saw him but he would have had no need to lie about an argument. They had one anyway. Mr Martin and Stephen always seemed to find something to argue about, although by now each had got the measure of the other and the verbal sparring had become good natured. Usually they both learnt from the exchanges, but Stephen held the trumps: his knowledge of words that were perfectly respectable in mainland usage but which meant something risqué or even obscene in Columbia.
Van had not been so organised.
“Mum,” he shouted as he was getting ready for school. “Can I take some chocolates to school, please?”
“Yes, dear. They are in the left-hand fridge in the stock room. Not more than four.”
Betty had put two and two together and, if her guess was right, she didn’t want her son to embarrass anyone by accidentally belittling their gift to him.
The bell rang and Señor Martin took the register; then he started to distribute the cards and presents. He had sorted them into alphabetical order. He was struck that in amongst the cards in red envelopes, heart-shaped boxes and other items specifically produced for the Valentine’s Day market, there were two presents in gold coloured boxes bearing the logo of the new pasteleria that had opened in town. Obviously donors, and probably recipients, of discernment. He would amuse himself trying to identify who the donors were as he handed the gifts round.
Benjamin came before Naylor, so Stephen received his gift first. Not only was Stephen surprised that he received a gift, so were those around him. Nobody had ever paid him that sort of attention before as far as anyone could remember so they started watching him to see who he would look at to try to identify the donor. However, Stephen decided to inspect the present to see if it contained a clue as to the identity of his unknown admirer. He opened the box.
There were three chocolates; Stephen was able to identify them as two cherry ones flanking a coffee one. Also in the box was a note: ‘Do you know who?’ He wondered if the chocolates themselves were a clue. If the cherry ones, his favourite, were to represent himself, who did the coffee one represent? The only person he knew would like coffee chocolates was Van, but how would he know Stephen liked the cherry? He had never told anyone other than Betty in the shop.
By the time Stephen had reached his conclusion, Van had received his two small boxes attached to the card. Mr Martin noted that it was the only item he received.
Van opened one of the boxes. He recognised the shape: a coffee chocolate. Carefully written in the lid was the message: ‘For your Saints Day’. Curious. He thought about it and concluded someone must know or have guessed his first name. He didn’t like his second name, but he hated his first name, which is why he liked to be known by his initials.
He opened the second box. Again it was a coffee chocolate. This time the message said ‘Happy Birthday.’ Who would know his birthday? He had never told anyone. The only clue Van had was that he had seen Stephen come out of his mother’s shop. Maybe that would explain why his mother had said not more than four. So as not to embarrass Stephen with largesse. She must have realised that Stephen had only been able to afford to buy two chocolates.
The two boys had been so absorbed in their deliberations that there were no tell-tale looks around the room to hint at who were the donors of the gold boxed gifts. Señor Martin had to guess and his best guess was that they were a mutual exchange.
At lunch Van and Stephen managed to get a table on their own.
“I guess it was you. Why did you give me two presents?” Van asked.
“My birthday is the twenty fifth of December. I don’t like getting only one combined present for Christmas and my birthday, so I thought you would prefer to have two.”
“How did you know the date and my name? Have you been talking to my mother?”
“No,” replied Stephen, wondering when he had ever spoken to Van’s mother. “I saw it in the register one day.”
Before Stephen could ask it if was Van that had sent him his chocolates, two others from their class sat at their table, so they changed the subject to something mundane.
At the end of the day, Van asked Stephen if he wanted to come to his place for a snack and to hang out for a while. His mother had made him a birthday cake they could attack.
“Sorry, I can’t. “ Stephen replied. ”I’ve applied for a Saturday job and I have to call in there to find out when I can start. Please, can we make it some other time?”
Van’s face showed his disappointment. “OK,” he said as he turned and started to walk home.
Stephen headed to the library. He wanted to drop in there for a few minutes before met Betty Morgan at the chocolate shop. He was hoping Gordon would have heard something from his contact at HMRC.
“No, sorry lad,” said Gordon when Stephen asked him. “Maybe your mother will have heard something and be able to tell you when she gets home.
“While you’re here, I have a figure to settle that loan of your fathers. Here it is.” He handed a piece of paper to Stephen. It wasn’t as much as he was expecting from what his mother had said. “I got them to rework the interest they have been charging.”
“Thanks,” said Stephen, and then asked, “how did you do that?”
“Probably best you don’t know, lad!”
Stephen made his excuses and left. He walked round to the shop. It was later than he intended and close to closing time.
“Hi, Mrs Morgan,” he said “I am sorry I am a bit later than I intended.”
“Hello, Stephen, thanks for coming,” she replied. “There’s nobody in. I might as well close up and we can go upstairs to talk. You had better meet my son as well since you will be working together.”
Betty closed up the shop and led Stephen up the stairs to the floor where the café was going to be, then up another flight to the flat where she lived with her family.
“Van, there’s someone here to meet you," she shouted in the direction of the bedrooms as she showed Stephen into the lounge area.
“Van? From school?” Stephen was confused. “But his name is Naylor, and yours is Morgan.”
“Ah! I see. You would be confused. Morgan is my maiden name. I use it for my business. My married name is Naylor.”
“VAN!” Betty shouted again, louder this time. The bedroom door opened and Van appeared.
His face lit up when he saw who his visitor was.
“Stephen! I thought you said you couldn’t come.”
“I’ve come to see your mother about a job in the cafe downstairs. I didn’t know you were her son until just now,” Stephen said. ”I gather we will be working together.”
“Me, working? That’s the first I’ve heard of it.” Van used the most indignant tone he could for the benefit of his mother, but he was secretly pleased as it would mean he would be spending time with Stephen.
“Yes, you, working,” said Betty. “You’re old enough now. Ask Stephen he knows all about it. I don’t have to pay you though; you’re family.”
“What!” exclaimed Van. “That’s not fair. I will have to ask Dad about that when he gets home.”
“He should be home soon. He said he was working locally today and would be home early.”
Stephen knew from his research that Betty would have to pay Van even if he was family. He didn’t say anything. Not his place to interfere with his employer teasing her son, at least not until he knew what his own relationship with the son might be.
“Why don’t you show Stephen around the flat and your room? That is if he can get in the door for all the junk in there. Then when Dad gets home we can sit down and talk about the café.”
Stephen was appreciative of the flat. It was so much better than the garret he and his mother lived in.
The boys had been in Van’s room for about twenty minutes when they heard Van’s father arrive and go into his bedroom. The boys went into the lounge area to wait for him to change out of his work clothes. Betty had brought in a large coffee cake she had made for Van’s birthday. It had thirteen candles. She put it on the table and went back into the kitchen to make some tea.
Stephen noticed that a briefcase had also been left on the low table. With a sense of déjà vu he saw the portcullis logo on the flap. He guessed that Van’s father was David Naylor, the tax man who was looking into his mother’s earnings. Now he understood Van’s reticence to discuss his father’s job at school. Who would want to be known as the tax man’s kid?
Stephen schooled himself to maintain his composure when David came into the room. He thought it would be interesting to watch for David’s reaction on their meeting.
Stephen was disappointed that Mr Naylor gave no hint of recognition. His face was totally dispassionate as if they were meeting for the first time, and yet he had seemed friendly enough when they had met at the library.
“Van, would you introduce me please?” Mr Naylor’s tone was formal as if he was annoyed that Van had not already made the introductions.
Van seemed confused by his father’s tone. Stephen assumed it was not the way he usually spoke to his son.
“Er, Dad. This is Stephen Benjamin from school.” Van waved his hand between them in introduction.
“Why is he here?” Stephen thought he saw just the beginnings of a smile on Mr Naylor’s face. Van became even more flustered.
“He has come to see Mum about a job in the café.” he replied and looked over at Betty who had brought in the tea.
“And is he your friend or just an acquaintance?” Stephen noticed an emphasis on the word ‘friend’. It was very subtle but what did it imply?
“Friend.” Van replied, as his ears reddened. If something had been implied Van had obviously picked up on it.
David Naylor could no longer keep a straight face. With a broad grin he turned to Stephen and put out his hand to shake.
“Good to see you again, Stephen,” he said.
“Again!” Van and Betty exclaimed in unison. Stephen and David both laughed at their reaction.
“Yes. Your dad has been helping Mum with her wages,” said Stephen.
“I wouldn’t put it quite like that, but near enough,” David said before continuing. “Your mother has had some good news today. Do you want to wait to hear it from her or, since you’re here, do you want me to tell you the technical details? Van and Betty can leave the room if to want it to be private.”
Stephen knew that his mother would only be able to tell him the broadest outline, and he was interested in the details.
“Would you tell me, please? I don’t mind if they stay.”
“Good” said Van. “You can tell us as we have tea. I’m dying to get into that cake. Mum, pour, please and Dad, would you light the candles?”
Van successfully completed the ritual by blowing out the candles with one breath. His parents got an idea about his birthday wish as they had seen in whose direction he was looking when he blew.
Everyone sat down and tea and cake were handed round.
All the Naylors had something to discuss with Stephen. David went first.
“I have been at your mother’s employers for the last couple of days going through their payroll. It was a good thing I knew to look at her records. It was the only one with any serious problem. If I had relied on our usual sampling techniques I would probably have missed it.
“They had twisted the figures when entering your mother’s date of birth into their system. It looked as though she is eighteen years younger than she is and that had put her in a lower age bracket for the minimum wage, so she has been underpaid on her pay rate. Unfortunately, nobody had spotted it.
“I asked about mileage expenses and they said they do pay, but that your mother had never put in a claim. I manage to get an interview with her and she confirmed that, saying she hadn’t realised she could claim. The company will work with her to agree on a backdated settlement. That is not something with which I can have any input. Following me so far?”
Stephen nodded. Van helped himself to another slice of cake, hoping the others would be too busy talking to notice.
“Finally, it appears your mother misunderstood what she was being asked when she first started work. She was asked if she would return home between calls and she had said yes. Again, she confirmed it to me. The time travelling between calls is part of her hours to be paid at minimum wage. Time travelling to and from home is not. By saying she would go home between calls, she was only being paid for the time spent at the calls themselves.
“Because she was not claiming for mileage, nobody joined the dots to spot that she couldn’t possibly do all the calls she does and go home between-times. Again the company will work with her to agree on a settlement. In this case I can ask to see the figure. They said they will use the spreadsheet you prepared as a basis for estimating the missing hours and her mileage expenses. We did a rough calculation and came up with an estimate of how much your mother was due in all.”
The amount David mentioned was more than enough to clear the loan now that Gordon had negotiated a reduced settlement figure. Stephen also realised that the increased income his mother would be getting should be enough to cover the rent increase.
The relief Stephen felt at the news was enough for him to burst into tears. Tears of joy.
Betty was going to give him a hug to console him, but Van was there first.
When, with Van’s help, Stephen had recovered enough David continued.
“When I go into the office I will review the case to see if we will apply civil penalties. I don’t think a criminal prosecution will achieve anything useful. Happy?”
“Beyond happy! I don’t know how to thank you,” said Stephen, then remembering the fate of Gordon’s company he asked, “are they going to have a VAT visit now?”
“I asked them when they had last had a visit as part of my initial conversation with them. The VAT inspector was there last month.”
Betty poured everybody another cup of tea. Van was not allowed a third piece of cake, birthday or no birthday.
“My turn,” she said before going on to explain how long the work of putting in the lift and getting the café ready would take, detailing what needed to be done.
She finished by saying, “So we expect to be opening the café in time for Easter; it is at the beginning of April this year. I think you two will be starting work the week before. Is that alright?” She looked at Stephen and Van. They nodded.
“Dad, is it true that mum doesn’t have to pay me?” asked Van
“Yes, family exemption.” David couldn’t resist teasing his son.
Stephen thought there might be a family argument brewing so changed the subject by asking to use the bathroom. All those cups of tea had worked through.
When he returned, Betty asked Van a question.
“Do you want to ask him or shall I?”
“Can I do it please?” he said then turned to face Stephen sitting next to him.
“Would you like to live here?” he asked.
Stephen was confused again. “But you live here.”
Van explained that they had bought another house and why. They would soon be moving out and the flat would be left empty. Did Stephen and his mother want to rent it and at the same rent as they were paying now. Betty chipped in to say that Stephen and his mother would be helping them by living on the premises.
Stephen was overcome again and Van had the opportunity to console him again.
“You’re all so kind. I don’t know how to thank you,” Stephen said. “I will have to ask Mum, but I am sure she will agree. This flat is so much nicer than ours.”
They chatted for a while and then Stephen said that he had better go so that he was at home to greet his mother when she got in after her last call of the day. She would be thrilled at all the news.
Van accompanied Stephen down the stairs in order to let him out of the door between the shops. When they were in the lobby, Stephen pulled Van into a hug.
“Thank you all,” he whispered in Van’s ear “I feel all my birthdays have come at once, even though it’s actually your birthday, Mister Valentine Aaron Naylor.”
“Don’t you ever call me that again,” Van growled.
Stephen did what he thought was the most appropriate response to that remark. He stuck his tongue out.
He let go his hug of Van and fled through the door - his tongue had gone straight into Van’s ear!
With thanks to Cole Parker for applying his editing skills, thereby greatly improving your reading experience and to Awesomedude for hosting the finished product.
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