My alarm had not gone off when I woke, which somewhat surprised me. Then I heard sounds from the kitchen. A quick look at the alarm clock advised me that it was only just after seven. I thought it was unlikely that Johnny was up this early. Then I remembered; Anne had moved in last night. I had found myself in a very inelegant way proposing to her, but she had said that she would think about it. About sixty seconds later, she had said, "OK, then. Johnny, you can come and help me get some of my things."
"You're moving in now?"
"Might as well. Everything else is getting changed around here. We might as well get all the big changes dealt with at once. Anyway, this place is warmer than my cottage, and I can't afford the fuel bills now."
So, I had acquired, in the space of two days, a live-in son and a live-in girlfriend, soon to be wife. At least, I hoped it would be soon. Well, once you make your mind up about something like that, there is no point in hanging around. It was undoubtedly a time for changes, and we all needed to decide on what those changes were going to be, starting with where to live. This place was far too small.
Once I had thrown on some clothes, I went through to the kitchen and found Anne making the basis of breakfast. She looked as I entered. "You need to run to the supermarket today; I've knocked up a list." With that, she placed a steaming mug of coffee in front of me.
"Anne, you know I drink tea."
"Get used to it. You need to be awake in the morning now; get a hit of caffeine." I took a sip and made a face. "Sorry, Mike, I'm so used to making coffee, and I know Johnny is into coffee. I just made a big pot. Give me ten and I'll make you some tea."
"Don't bother. You look after the stove; I'll make my own." Actually, making tea was something of a ritual for me, and it is something I enjoy doing. The whole thing of warming the pot and measuring the loose tea — yes, loose tea for me — into the pot, judging the boil of the water and pouring it just as it comes to the second boil. That's when the water gets to its hottest but still has dissolved oxygen in it. Leave it on the heat longer, and you drive out the oxygen, leaving the tea tasting flat. Pour too early, before the water has hit the maximum temperature, and the tea will taste insipid.
Johnny wandered into the kitchen in a state of semi-dress while I was making the tea. I almost made some comment about the fact that he appeared to be wearing nothing under his dressing gown, which itself was relatively short, but decided against it. Something told me that it would probably be best to raise the issue some other time when there was not an audience.
Anne served up a breakfast of bacon, beans, fried bread, mushrooms and black pudding. I commented on the fact that I usually make do with toast and marmalade. "I know, Luv, that's why we brought this lot over from my kitchen yesterday. You've got a busy day on today."
"For a start, you need to take Johnny to see my Uncle Steve. He's got a yard the other side of Long Creek." I looked at Anne questioningly. "Yes," she continued, "you'll have to take the chain ferry, that is, unless you want to drive all the way round then walk across from Dunford; it's only a couple-of-miles walk."
"I think the ferry sounds better." I looked at Johnny. "He looks fit enough."
"Now, Johnny," Anne said, "give your father a hand with the ferry but don't let him put all the work on you. Both of you can work the winch." It appeared the law had been laid down.
"Just why do we have to see your uncle?" I asked.
"He runs the Hamden Yard. If Johnny wants to get into yacht building, he's the best person I can think of to talk to about where he should start." That made sense, but I thought the Hamden Yard belonged to George Hamden; I put the point to Anne.
"Yes, old George owns the yard, but Steve took over the running of it — must have been four, five years ago — just after George had his stroke. The old boy's fully recovered now but has no interest any longer in the yard, not since his sons have made it clear they did not want it.
"Steve's buying it off him a bit at a time, just praying for the old boy to keep going long enough to allow him to buy the whole thing. Or at least get a big enough stake that the family can't mess it up when George pops his clogs. I'll call him as soon as we've had breakfast and tell him you're going to be there at about ten."
I vaguely remembered meeting George Hamden's boys about six or seven years ago. They were both off working in the City — high-flying jobs in investment banking with, no doubt, high-flying wages. I could very well understand why they would not be interested in their father's yard, a point of view which I expressed to Anne. She agreed, which made me suspect she did not like the boys that much. I must say I had not been particularly taken with them when I met them. It was at a local wedding, and they made it quite clear that they felt the event was somewhat beneath them and that they would rather have been back in London. Unfortunately for them, it was their cousin who was getting hitched, so their attendance as part of the family was required. It was quite important to their mother's sister that there were plenty of witnesses to seeing her daughter Matilda married off at last. Nice girl, but she would definitely have come second to a donkey in the looks department. What can you expect if you name your daughter after a battle-axe of a Queen who took the country into civil war?
"After you've seen Steve, I suggest you continue on to Dunford and have a look at the old Laughton place. I'll call the agents after I've spoken to Steve and arrange for you to have a viewing, say around two. That will give you a chance to get some lunch at the Lion in Dunford, then see the house. Low tide is at one-twelve, so the causeway should be passable from about eleven-thirty." It was clear that she had got everything worked out.
Whilst I did the washing up and Johnny went to use the shower and get dressed, Anne was busy on the phone. She was still on the phone after I had finished the washing up and put the dishes in the drainer to dry. I have always hated tea towels — they are the quickest way to pass germs around — so I prefer to leave my pots and pans to drain and air-dry.
By the time I had got a quick shower and a change of clothes, Anne had finished her phone calls. "OK, Mike, Steve is expecting you about ten. I've told him the gist of the situation, and he is more than happy to help. I spoke to the agent about the Laughton place; it is still on the market, and I've made an appointment for us to see it at three."
"Yes, dear, I'm not letting you decide on our future home alone. I told Jack that you had proposed and I've moved in. Said I needed some time off, so I'm finishing at one. I'll drive up to Dunford and meet you at the Lion; should be there about one-thirty to two." Jack was the local publican, so I knew the news about my engagement would be all round the area before we got to Dunford. There was a snort of laughter from the kitchen door.
"Seems like you've been organised, Dad. Mam always said that with a bit of organisation you could be someone." That was about all I needed: my son telling me that I could be someone. I was quite happy being being the someone I already was. It hit me then that I was no longer who I was, a moderately successful technical author living a bachelor life out in the sticks. Now I had an almost-wife and family.
It took a bit under half an hour to drive up to Long Creek. It was not that far, but the roads were rather narrow and definitely not straight. On the way, Johnny chatted about his plans for his future. While I might not be thrilled with the idea of him not going to university, I was pleased to note that he had worked out a sensible way forward. He had not disregarded the need for getting some qualifications. In fact, I was somewhat impressed by just how much he had worked out about his future.
Long Creek is an inlet off the Blackwater Estuary, though inlet might be a bit too dignified a name for it. In fact, it is a low ooze of mostly still water seeping out of the surrounding marsh. The topography, though, has the advantage of giving it very gently-sloping banks that have for centuries been an asset to those who wish to build boats on its banks. For reasons probably lost in the depths of time, the cluster of small boatyards that had developed along the edge of Long Creek had done so not on the mainland side of the creek but on an area of high ground, High Marsh, a swathe of land that bordered the creek and the bulk of the marsh that lay between High Marsh and Dunford.
High Marsh was, to all intents and purposes, an island, cut off from the mainland by the tidal salt marsh on the one side and Long Creek on the other. Except for a couple of hours at each low tide, there was no vehicle access to the area other than by the chain ferry, which now stood in front of us. However, I somewhat questioned the designation of 'ferry' for this particular contraption. All it consisted of was a low punt-like platform onto which a vehicle could be driven. A chain was connected to one end, looped around pulley arrangements on each bank and then connected back to the other end. By pulling on the chain, using a winch like contraption on the boat, it was possible for the traveller to propel the craft across the ten or so yards of water that separated the two loading jetties on each side of the Long Creek. It was a strenuous and at times, when the winch jammed, messy method of getting across with a vehicle; in addition, I had doubts about the stability of the ferry's deck. That being the case, I decided to leave the car parked on the east side of Long Creek and cross without it, then walk the five-hundred yards down the creek to the Hamden yard.
The fact that it was a warm sunny morning with a light breeze blowing in from the North Sea made it a pleasant walk. We passed a couple of small boatyards, both of which Johnny looked at with interest, then came to the Hamden yard. As we approached, a young man came out of the workshop and walked over to meet up. "Hi, I expect you must be Mark Carlton, and you must be Johnny. I'm Steve."
"You're Anne's uncle?"
"Yea, I'm an uncle with a niece who's eighteen years my senior. I'll explain it sometime — or Anne will. Anyway, Johnny, Anne told me you wanted to train as a boatbuilder."
"I really want to build yachts," Johnny replied.
"Well, there is nothing wrong with ambition, but before you can build yachts, you need to be able to build other types of boats. Come and have a look round the yard."
For the next hour, we went around the workshops and yard, with Steve explaining to Johnny what was being done. Johnny firing a hundred-and-one questions at Steve, all of which he seemed happy to answer. I was totally lost. It seemed my son had done quite a bit of research on boatbuilding and was delighted to discuss the merits or otherwise of a wooden versus fibreglass hull. We ended up in Steve's office with mugs of hot tea, which was appreciated.
"So, lad, you still want to become a boatbuilder?"
"Yes," my son replied, "though I'm not sure how to go about it."
"There are basically three ways you can go. The first and probably the best. if you can do it, is to find a traditional apprenticeship with one of the yards. There are still a few going, but to be honest, most yards now can't afford to run a traditional apprenticeship scheme.
"The alternatives are a modern apprenticeship or a specialist course. The difference between a traditional apprenticeship and a modern apprenticeship is that the modern apprenticeship is organised by a training body and run through a college. You might do a couple of days a week in college and three in a yard, or you might do it in blocks — so many weeks in the college and then so many in the yard. The thing is, you might find that you will be working at three or four different yards throughout your apprenticeship.
"The big problem is that all the colleges which are doing the Marine Engineering Apprenticeship programme are on the south coast, from Southampton across to Plymouth. If you want to do something around here, you will have to look at one of the specialist courses that, though, carries a cost. Around here you are looking at the International Boatbuilding Training College, which will mean somewhere between fifteen and twenty thousand for a one-year course. However, at the end of it, you have a bloody good chance of getting a place in one of the traditional yards." Johnny nodded.
Twenty thousand. I thought I could manage that, then realised what I had been thinking. Three days ago, the idea of spending twenty thousand would have seemed totally mad; now it made sense. I had a good income stream, and when my royalties came in, I could more than afford it — and not having to pay Child Maintenance would help. In fact, I realised I could probably afford to buy a new house without having to sell the bungalow. That would make life easier as property, in general, is not moving very well around here.
"Would there be any chance of Johnny getting some practical experience while he is doing a course at the training college?" I asked.
"Well, he will get a lot of hands-on experience at the college, but if he wanted some more experience, he could always come up here at weekends and such."
"Could I?" Johnny asked, looking from Steve to me and back.
"Yes, once the season is going," Steve responded. "This time of year, it is relatively quiet. However, once the season really gets going, which is about three weeks away, there are always urgent repair jobs coming in, and we are working seven days a week. It is surprising how many of the fair-weather, weekend sailors can stove in the side of a boat on sand and mud.
"It would, though, be just work experience. There is no way I could afford to pay you or offer you a job when you finished at college. You understand that?"
"Yeah, when can I start?"
"If it's not costing me anything, any time you like. We're not pushed with work at the moment, so if you came in, I could spend time showing you where things are and explaining how we work."
"Good, could I come tomorrow, Dad?" I looked over at Steve, who nodded.
"Ok, I'll drive you up to the ferry in the morning, but we will have to get you a bike, I'm not running a taxi service for you."
"I've got a bike at mother's, the one you got me for my thirteenth birthday. I've hardly ridden it."
"From what I remember, Johnny, that was a rather nice racer, not the sort of thing for the tracks and roads around here. What you need is something more like a BMX, but for the flat! Besides, I think you have grown a bit over the last couple of years." Johnny nodded.
"If you're looking for a bike," Steve commented, "you should look at that charity shop next to Nat West in Dunford. They had a couple in there at the weekend." I thanked Steve for the information, asked him what Johnny should wear for work, then made our departure, having pointed out to Johnny that we had to meet Anne for lunch at one-thirty. I am sure he would have preferred to have stayed behind at the yard.
If we had ferried the car across, we could have used the causeway to get to Dunford; that way is only about two-and-a-half miles. Going by roads from the chain-ferry parking, we had to go inland past the end of Long Creek — and doing that you find out why it is called Long Creek — then cut back and drive almost the same distance down to Dunford.
It was just after one when we got to the town. Alright, it is the nearest thing we have to a town around here, it's got a post office and a bank. Once upon a time, it even had a railway station.
One thing that can be said for Dunford is that, except for market days, it is reasonably easy to find a place to park. Today was not a market day, so I was able to grab a spot just outside the Nat West bank, which was my first port of call. Fortunately, Johnny had done as I had requested and brought his passport with him. That being the case, I was able to get him an account opened at the bank and a debit card ordered. I also set up a standing order to put twenty quid a week into his account. Johnny was somewhat amazed at the amount, telling me his mother only gave him a fiver a week. He was a bit less impressed when I told him he would be responsible for buying his own clothes and paying his mobile-phone bill.
"My phone's on mother's account; she's got it as a family package."
"How long do you think that is going to last?"
"She wouldn't, would she?" I nodded and told him to check his phone. As expected, it was showing no network — emergency calls only. "The bitch!"
"Now, Johnny, you really should not compare your mother to a female dog; it's insulting to the dog." My son looked at me for a moment and then burst out laughing. I found myself joining in.
Once we had got control of ourselves, we made our way into the charity shop that Steve had mentioned. There were four or five bikes at the back of the store, and Johnny quickly found one he liked, I asked if it would be possible for him to have a test ride on it. I gave a deposit equal to the price of the bike. This enabled Johnny to set off to have a ride about town.
In addition to my technical writing, I have also indulged myself from time to time in short romantic fiction, for which I used a nom de plume. Well, I did not want my technical writing clients to know that their author also wrote romantic stories for women's magazines. One thing I have found when needing inspiration for stories is that little old ladies in country towns are a mine of information. Before Johnny got back from his test ride and confirmed he wanted the bike, I had found out the name and location of the local whiz kid who would undoubtedly be able to solve the phone problem.
Let me make it quite clear, that whilst Dunford might merit a bank, its population certainly does not justify a phone shop. So, it was in Dunford. Once we loaded the now-paid-for bike into the back of my Hyundai Santa Fe, we made our way down a small side street to J. Lee & Son's, a modest electrical store which seemed to specialise in washing machines and dryers that looked like they went out of fashion with Mrs Thatcher. Once inside, I asked the lady at the counter for Arthur.
"ARTHUR!" she yelled, aiming her Wagnerian voice at a half-opened door towards the rear of the store.
"Yes, Mam," a somewhat fainter voice responded from the rear.
"YOU'RE WANTED." A moment later a somewhat lanky and not too clean, sullen-looking, seventeen or eighteen-year-old boy emerged from the rear of the building. He looked at me, then past me at Johnny. Instantly he seemed to change; his whole appearance seemed to brighten, and the sullenness vanished in a moment. I glanced at Johnny, who also seemed to have changed and was now eye-locked with the boy, whom I assume was Arthur. Maybe my fears about Johnny finding someone were not as well-founded as I thought.
After clearing my throat to get the attention of the two boys, I explained to Arthur the situation with Johnny's phone. He assured me it was not a problem and guided us into the back room, which was surprisingly well-equipped with computer and electronic equipment. My comment on it received the response that, although the main internet spur had reached Dunford, there was no provision for wired internet out to the various businesses around the Marsh. It seemed Arthur had built up a small business providing a beamed wireless connection and now had over a hundred users at ten pounds a month. I commented that it seemed quite a novel idea. Arthur informed me that he had pinched if from Africa. He had seen it being used to provide internet services to remote locations when he was out there doing voluntary work during his school holidays.
It was becoming clear that Arthur was quite a resourceful young man, something he confirmed in the way that he managed to sort Johnny's phone out. Some fifteen minutes later we left, some twenty quid out of pocket. Johnny's phone not only was working with a new pay-as-you-go SIM but also an upgrade to its operating system. There was also an arrangement for Johnny to meet with Arthur on Friday for the local youth club, which apparently met in the Methodist Church Hall on Tuesdays and Fridays.
I had never realised that Dunford had a youth club or even had a youth population sufficiently large to warrant one. But then, if you consider all the hamlets and fishing villages around, there must be quite a youth population. It was just a case that you never saw them. I had told Arthur that I would bring Johnny into town on Friday and pick him up at ten when the club closed.
"Dad," Johnny whined as we walked back to the car, "you don't need to come to bring me in and then pick me up. I can bike it, it's not that far by the ferry."
"Johnny, what time did Anne say that low tide was today?"
"Twelve past one, why?"
"Well, the gap between tides is roughly twelve and a half hours – can't remember the exact time."
"Twelve hours twenty-five minutes," Johnny informed me. I looked at him. "It was in one of the books on yachting I read."
"Right," I did some arithmetic in my head, "That means that on Friday night the low tide will be sometime around three-fifteen on Saturday Morning. There is no way I'm letting you stay out till four in the morning, especially if you are going to be working at Steve's.
"Also, the roads around here are not that good, and we get some lunatic drivers. I'm not having you out on the bike in the dark." Johnny's face dropped. "Don't worry, if you want to go out somewhere, discuss it with me and we will arrange transport or something."
"What do you mean, something?"
"Well, maybe you could arrange to stay somewhere overnight, then ride back in daylight." He smiled. I had not missed the unspoken communication between him and Arthur. Look, you might think I am failing in my parental responsibilities; well I have only had less than a day's experience in the role. Also, I am a realist. It was quite clear to me that Johnny is sexually active and has been for some time. I am also aware that Johnny and Arthur have connected. However, whether it is merely a physical attraction or something more, I don't know. What I do know is that I intend to be practical about it. That meant a visit to the chemist's and a couple of boxes of condoms.
In the thirty minutes that were left before we were due at the Lion, I managed to find some overalls for Johnny and a decent pair of work boots, which I insisted he put on to break in before he needed them. I also got him a rucksack in which he could carry his work stuff to and from the yard. It may be some time since I was fifteen, but I can still remember what it was like to be seen out in anomalous clothing.
We had only just sat down at a table and opened the menus when Anne walked in. I guessed she had used the ferry and causeway. That was the only way to make it from Lynnhaven to Dunford in just over half an hour. Her Suzuki Wagon R would hardly make an impression on the ferry, my four by four was another matter.
Once we had sorted out what everybody wanted to eat — it turned out we all plonked for the Steak and Ale pie with chips and peas — we got to discussing how the day went. Anne promptly told Johnny that he could get work experience, but her uncle was going to pay him, even if only to cover his expenses. Before we could get any further, she had her phone out and was giving her uncle a tongue-lashing, the type which only barmaids seem to be able to master. After about four minutes she put her phone down. "Right, Johnny, you're on at £2.50 per hour, but he can only cover you for 10 hours a week, anything over that is unpaid. Ok?"
"That's fucking brilliant, I would have worked for nothing just to get the experience."
Anne looked at him hard. "Johnny, never sell yourself cheap; if you are worth it, get the money — and watch you bloody language. Steve's got some very important customers, and they will not take kindly to your swearing."
"Sorry, Anne." Johnny paused for a moment, then, looking a bit sheepish asked, "How come Steve's your uncle but he is a lot younger than you?"
"It's not the sort of question you ask people from around here, but as we're going to be family, I'll fill you in on the story; plenty of people know it. Grandma was only fourteen when she had Ma, and my mother was only sixteen when I popped out. Grandma had four kids in four years, my mother, my two aunts and my uncle Jack. After that, she decided enough was enough and took precautions.
"Don't know what happened — if she missed a tablet or if she just decided she was past it — but she found out she wasn't when she was forty-eight. Came as quite a surprise to her, even a bigger one to Grandpa; he'd had the snip!"
"We don't talk about that, but what was sauce for the goose was sauce for the gander, and Grandma liked her sauce, and who can blame her. Granddad Bill was always out chasing a bit of skirt."
I managed to get the conversation back to less complicated subjects. Alright, I can be embarrassed, especially when my girlfriend starts to prattle on about the sexual history of her family. She might begin to enquire into the history of mine, a subject I would prefer to avoid. Anyway, it was about then that the food arrived, which was a welcome interruption to the conversation.
After lunch, Anne set about correcting all the mistakes I had made shopping for Johnny in the morning. For a start, I had only purchased one set of overalls. Anne informed me, in the manner you would tell a five-year-old, that he needed two sets. Then one could be in the laundry while the other was being worn. At least, I had managed to get the right type of boots, but it turned out he would also need deck shoes for when he was working on interiors and decking. This took us a good half-hour plus, so we were running it fine when we set off for the old Laughton place.
Set on one of the few hills around — by hill, I mean something that rose more than twenty feet above sea level at high tide — the old Laughton place was, to be polite, a rambling Victorian pile which had been added to over the years, usually in the worse possible taste. Try imaging Edwardian mock Tudor with 1920s Art Nouveau additions. It did not work; it could never work; it was an impossible mix, except for one small thing: it did. It was built overlooking the Marsh and the Blackwater. As a result, it had a presence. That presence permitted the mix of architectural styles to work together somehow as they rose from the dark surrounds.
Although it could be seen clearly just after we left Dunford, it took forty minutes to get to it. The convoluted pattern of creeks and inlets forced us to drive inland quite a distance before turning back to approach the house. When I commented on its distance from the town, Anne informed me that if you took the coast road, it was closer, but we had been on the wrong side of town to come that way.
The agent was just unlocking the gate leading to the drive up to the house. I noticed on the stone pillars supporting the gate that the name, The Priory, was carved. Once we got up to the house, I asked the agent about it.
"Yes, it is the site of a Dominican priory. Local legend says it was dissolved by Henry the Eighth. The documentation shows it was abandoned before the time of Richard the Third. There has been a house on this site of one sort or another since the time of Henry Tudor. Some of the outbuildings are probably part of the original house." Once he had imparted this information, he unlocked the door and led us into the building.
I was shocked by the state of the place. Knowing that old man Laughton had died over a year ago and had spent the last five years of his life in a nursing home closer to his daughter, I had expected the place to be in a bit of a state. What I was faced with was an immaculately clean and tidy place, totally different from what I was prepared for.
"Mr Laughton insisted his cleaner continue to clean the place while he was in the nursing home," the agent informed me, no doubt sensing my confusion over the state of the place. "He also made provision for the cleaning to be maintained after his death until the property is sold." He looked around for a moment and then lowered his voice. "That is one of the reasons the family would like a quick sale; the proceeds from the sale go to various charities, while the funds that are currently financing its upkeep will revert to the family. They have quite an incentive to minimise the extent of the outgoings from that fund on the property." I nodded, making a mental note that the family did not seem that nice.
Although dark and foreboding on the outside, inside the place was quite light and seemed welcoming, if a house can be welcoming. The only problem, though, was that it was massive. From the plan the agent had given me, I could see that the house consisted of two wings, each of three stories. Beyond the house itself was a large stable yard surrounded by buildings; past that was another set of buildings, a walled garden and some more buildings, plus a barn. The agent proceeded to show us around the property. To be more exact, he showed me; Anne and Johnny quickly made it clear they wanted to go and look around by themselves. The house being unoccupied, the agent had no objection. Before they had got back, I had made up my mind, I was captured the moment the agent led me into the third reception room. This, quite clearly from the shelving surrounding the room, had been a library. It had a massive bay window that looked out over the Blackwater and was a perfect place for my desk to sit. This was a room I could work in.
Anne, as I could probably have predicted, was in the kitchen when we arrived there. "Well," she asked, "what do you think?" I informed her that I thought the place had potential. "Potential you, dumbcock, this place is ideal."
"It is, Dad." I turned to see Johnny standing in the kitchen door. Even if I did not think so, I was clearly outnumbered. As it was, I was in agreement with them. It was far more extensive than we needed and not in a convenient location, but there was something about the house that felt right. The only problem was that I could not see how we could afford it. It must be worth getting on for a couple of million with all these buildings and land. The development potential was immense.
After we had finished viewing the Priory, including a tour around the extensive outbuildings and stables — I preferred to think of it as the Priory rather than the old Laughton house — Anne took Johnny off in her Wagon R, informing me she needed to get some groceries and wanted to sort things out with Uncle Steve. I was not sure what needed to be sorted out, but I was sure Anne would do it. I also pointed out to Anne that she had given me a list of supplies to get from the supermarket, only to be informed that I still needed to get those.
I proceeded to drive to the supermarket, some ten miles away. Then I drove back to my bungalow, where I set about sorting out precisely what I could and more importantly, what I could not afford to do. My first task was to phone Bob, my agent, and find out exactly what sort of royalties I could expect and when. More importantly, when could I get my hands on them?
"Mike, dear, what's up?" he asked once I put my question to him. "You've never chased royalties in the ten years I've acted for you. Why now, darling? " I told him to drop the flaming-queen act for a bit and to listen, then informed him that I had acquired not only a fifteen-year-old son but also a wife-to-be in just under forty-eight hours.
"That, must have taken some doing."
"Not particularly," I responded, "once the son arrived, everything else just fell into place. Now I need a house big enough to contain myself, my wife-to-be and my son. He's fifteen, which means loud music and late nights, so a place with a couple of wings is ideal, and that's what I found. Now, can I afford it?"
"How much do you need?"
"They're open to offers around seven-fifty, but I think they would take a figure in the upper six hundreds."
"Well, you've sold over ninety-two thousand copies of the maths book so far this year. At two-pounds-seventy-five royalty per copy, we are well over a quarter-million there, even after my cut. However, your royalties are not due till the end of June. Considering settlement times, you will not get them till the end of September. If I had known your book would take off like this, I would have insisted on quarterly royalties.
"I think I can get an advance from the overseas publishers who are interested. Probably a hundred K from the Americans and fifty K each from the Australians and Canadians."
"Well," I responded to Bob's information, "it looks as if I can raise four-hundred grand on this place, so I can probably fund things. The problem is going to be the time scale. I'll have to talk to the bank about a bridging loan."
"Fuck! Mike, avoid those things," Bob exclaimed. "They are cripplingly expensive and can really be a pain if thing don't work out as expected. Let me talk to Zach and see if I can sort something out."
"Zach? Who's Zach?"
"Zachary Mayer. He used to be a derivatives trader at Swiss Bank Corporation but left just before the 91 crash to set up as a wealth-management consultant. Works out of Hatton Garden and has some very wealthy clients. He's put a couple of deals together before to fund authors. I'll see what he can do on this. Can you sit on things till tomorrow?" I acknowledged that I could and agreed to phone Bob just after ten.
My next call was to the estate agents to express interest in the Priory, as I now thought of it. I told them that I wanted a structural survey undertaken before I would be making a bid. I did indicate that I would be making a bid once I have an encouraging feedback on the survey. It would not be close to the asking price. The agent I spoke to did not seem at all surprised and said he would contact the family and inform them that they had an interest and see where they stood on price.
Fortunately, one of my drinking companions at the Anchor, Matt Price, was an architect and Charted Surveyor. I called him and arranged to have a full structural survey done on the property. This elucidated some surprising information. First, Matt had done a structural survey on the property the previous September. He assured me that it was structurally sound, though he would have to go back in and check that there had been no deterioration in the six months since then. More interesting was the fact that his client had made an offer of six hundred and fifty thousand, and this had been accepted. The offer though had been subject to a change of use, which had turned out to be impossible. There was a covenant on the house itself that it could only be used for a single-family dwelling. Apparently, old man Laughton had put it on to stop his sons chopping it up into flats, a suggestion they had made to him a couple of times. Worse still, there was a covenant on the whole estate that it could not be split up and sold off and that no new building could be erected on it. Basically, redevelopment of the site was impossible, which radically reduced the value.
"You could probably go to court and get the covenants quashed if you wanted to," Matt informed me. "The thing is, the cost of doing so would probably be a lot more than you would end up making."
I could appreciate that point. It was not an issue for me. A house in some ten or more acres of land had a certain appeal.
The next question I had to deal with was a school for Johnny. I was no expert on law, but I had a feeling that under the provisions of the Education Act, I was responsible if Johnny was not in school. I needed to find him another school. A call to the local authority's education department turned out to be quite informative. I explained that my son had been expelled from his rather expensive minor public school, but that he was being allowed back to do his exams.
"Are you sure they are allowing him back for his exams?" the lady in education asked.
"Yes, it's in the letter that the head sent to my ex-wife."
"Do you have it with you?" I confirmed I did; it was something Johnny had brought with him. I suspected my ex-wife had not, in fact, seen it. To be honest, I had only glanced at it when Johnny gave it to me. "Oh, good. Could you read out the relevant passages regarding his expulsion?" I did so.
"Given the behaviour and activities of your son as described above, I regret to inform you that he can no longer remain in school. We are prepared to allow him to return during exams to undertake those examinations that he has been registered for. However, at no time can he be resident in school or take part in school activities other than participation in the examinations."
"Ah, yes," the lady commented. "I half expected this. Your son had not been expelled; he had been suspended from participation in the school."
"Is there a difference?"
"Oh, yes. Technically he is still in education at the school, though he is suspended from taking part in that education for disciplinary reasons. If he had been expelled, he would not be in education, and we would have to sort something out, which, to be honest, would be difficult this late in the academic year.
"The fact that they are prepared to allow him back to take his exams means that they are reasonably confident he will do well in them. Even if he is not attending classes, no private school would take the risk of having an underachiever take an exam that would affect their league-table listing.
"If you really want him in school, I could place him in Letterman High, but that is quite a distance from you, and there would be no travel assistance. Also, to be honest, he would probably be better off not attending it." I nodded in response to that. Not having been a parent before now, I had not taken a keen interest in the area's educational establishments. Still, even I had not been able to avoid the almost weekly articles in the local pressabout the activities of students from Letterman High.
"No, I think we should give Letterman High a miss."
"Do you think he needs any help with revision for his exams?" she asked.
"I don't know. It's been arranged for his class notes to be sent to him, so I hope he will get down to working on them, but until they arrive, I don't know if he will need help."
"If they are sending him class notes, it is clear they have not expelled him — only suspended him."
"Why would they have done that?" I asked.
"Fees. If they expelled him, you would probably have been entitled to a fee refund. As he is technically only suspended, he could, in theory, return. In fact, he is returning for his exams; he is still technically in education there, so no fee refund." I swore mildly at this point; she laughed. "Oh, we see it all the time. Look, in case he needs help with revision, I'll give you the numbers of some local tutors." I noted down the details she gave me — names, contact numbers and specialities — then thanked her for her assistance.
It was now just gone five, and there was no sign of Anne and Johnny, so I set about making some dinner for us. As I had no idea when they would be back, I got some stew out of the freezer and put it in the slow cooker to defrost and warm up and shoved some spuds into the oven to bake.
I went through to my study to check my emails — nothing important. While I was there, it occurred to me that I had not let my brother and his partner know about the change in circumstances, so I composed an email:
Hope all is well for you and Phil. Tell that partner of yours that his sister has dropped me in it again. To be more precise, she has dropped it on me. Turned up the night before last (two in the morning) with Johnny in tow. Informed me he was now my problems and left him on the doorstep.
Johnny did not know he had two uncles, let alone two gay ones. Johnny is gay.
p.s. Asked Anne to marry me; she said yes.
About two minutes later, my email pinged, and the pop-up indicated an email from Ben.
Hold dinner, see you about 8. Do I need to bring psychiatrist for Anne?
I returned to the kitchen and pulled some more stew out of the freezer, adding it to the mass already in the slow cooker, then I put some more spuds in the oven. Back in my study, I wondered how Johnny was going to react to meeting Ben and Phil. If he had not been told about his uncles, it was going to come as quite a shock to him.
Anne and Johnny arrived back just after six. They seemed to have filled the back of the Wagon R with shopping. Still, it does not take much to fill a Wagon R. While we were unloading it, I told Anne that Ben and Phil were on the way and that I had put the stew on with some potatoes being baked to go with it. She looked at me as if I had suggested the sacrifice of the Christ child on the altar of Baal.
"If you think your brother and his partner are going to have a dinner of stew and baked potatoes in our house, forget it." I was pushed out of the way as she swept into the kitchen. "Mike," she called back over her shoulder, "go and find a couple of decent reds, and Johnny, shower, get changed into something decent and then set the table." Johnny looked at me a bit dumbfounded; I just nodded, indicating we both better do as we were told.
I arrived back in the kitchen with a couple of bottles of fairly decent Australian red. Anne was busy rolling out some pastry to make a pie lid. The stew was now bubbling away on top of the stove, apparently with the addition of some mushrooms and tomatoes. "Throw a glass of that into the stew, Luv," Anne directed. I did as I was told. "Does he know?"
"That his uncles are gay, yes; told him when he arrived."
"No, you idiot. I mean, who they are."
"No, can we leave it like that? I would like to surprise him."
"OK, now get out of my way while I sort dinner out. Take a couple of bags of crisps through for Johnny; he'll not last to eight without some food." I did as directed.
By seven, the bungalow was full of delicious smells that emanated from the kitchen. Johnny had changed into an outfit which seemed designed to impress, though I was not sure who he wanted to impress. Dark-blue cords and a dark-blue, long-sleeved shirt over a white polo neck. The shirt was half open, revealing a hint of muscle outline through the tight polo neck beneath. His hair, normally wild and somewhat lanky, was tied back into a ponytail.
"Shit!" exclaimed Anne from the kitchen.
"What?" I called.
"They'll be driving down, so one of them will have to drive back, that means they won't be drinking. Johnny, can you pop down to the Anchor and get half a dozen non-alcoholic beers."
"Yes," my son replied, "but where is it?"
"I'll go with you — might as well introduce you to the village." I grabbed coats for Johnny and myself and took him down to the Anchor. It made sense to introduce him to Jack, and therefore to the village, as my son. That way, Jack was not likely to mistake him for one of the tourists we get around here. Once we had obtained the beverages, we started to walk back. As we got to the driveway of my bungalow, a pair of powerful headlight beams cut through the sky above us. The sound of a high-performance car sounded across the surrounding marshland.
"That, I expect, is your uncles," I glanced at my watch, "a bit earlier than expected." Just then, the car crested a low rise that formed the approach to the village. By the time we were at the bungalow door, it was just turning into the drive and stopping. Phil jumped out over the car door.
"I hope you've got the heat on in there. Your bloody brother insisted we had the top down all the way here; I'm fucking freezing." He grasped me in an embrace, giving me a quick hug, then turned to Johnny. "You must be my sister's brat." Johnny just nodded, a look of awe on this face. "Come here, lad." Johnny stepped forward to be swept into an embrace and hug. "Well you look OK. Can we get inside? I need to thaw out." My brother by then had brought the top up on the car, locked and secured it and walked over to us. He pulled me into a hug, then gave one to Johnny. Phil led the way into the bungalow, Johnny following with his mouth half-open.
"You clearly hadn't told him," my brother stated.
"No. Well, I wasn't expecting you to be here quite so soon."
"Besides, you like astounding people. I remember you did the same with Anne when you brought her up to meet us." I just nodded. Phil Smith, my brother's partner, was better known to the public as Matthew Lewis. Twenty years ago, having just left the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, he had got a small supporting role in a somewhat-gritty, police series on TV. The part had required a fair amount of fighting, so he had decided he'd better learn to do it properly. Phil had joined a martial-arts club near the studios. A number of the actors from the studios actually trained there. My brother had been one of the instructors — only part-time in the evenings. His main job had been for youth services as a counsellor during the day.
The series had remarkably run for over twelve years, and by the third year, Phil had gone from a minor supporting role to one of the three leads. Ben had initially trained Phil in aikido and ju-jitsu. Then, he had started teaching the other leads. That resulted in his appointment as fight director for the series. It was the end of him working in youth services, which was probably just as well as budget cuts closed the department down over the next couple of years.
Being fight director had led him to play a couple of small parts in the series, which resulted in him being offered a supporting role in an episode of Dr. Who. Although not quite as big a star as Phil, Ben was now a highly successful character actor with several film and TV roles under his belt. Phil had gone on to make his name in cinema with a couple of big blockbusters. One of which had included Ben as his co-star. He was now intent on establishing a reputation as a director.
Phil was also something of a poster boy for the gay press in England. He had been open about his sexuality from the start and had never tried to hide his relationship with Ben. As a result, the press had never made a fuss about their relationship. There is not much of a story in something everybody knows about. That was probably a good thing as there had, as I knew, been a couple of sticky patches over the years. Still, they had managed to get through them, with one or the other crying on either my or Anne's shoulder. To be honest, it was more often Anne's.
"Anne, what's this about you marrying Mike?" Phil called as he entered the kitchen. Anne turned to be picked up in an embrace and kissed. "I can recommend a good psychiatrist." Anne clouted him one with the dishtowel. "I suppose that means that it is serious. In that case, you'd better get married at Manston and honeymoon on Necker — on us. How about the late-May bank holiday?"
"Are you taking over arranging our wedding?" I asked, entering the kitchen behind him.
"Well, Mike, somebody has to. Otherwise, it would never get done, it's taken you ten years to propose. Anyway, you say Johnny's gay, so what other chance am I going to get?" Phil asked.
"Your sister might re-marry."
"No, darling. I'm too tied up with organising her funeral. I'm burying her under the Blackpool Tower. The ballroom there is big enough so we can all dance on her grave, though I will probably have to sell tickets to limit the attendance."
"That," Johnny commented once he had stopped laughing, "is not a nice thing to say about your sister."
"How old are you?" Phil asked.
"Fifteen, sixteen in May."
"When did the bitch send you to boarding school?"
"When I was eight."
"Right, so you've probably had ten years in total of living with her. Bet she shipped you off to things during the summer vacation." Johnny nodded. "Well I had twenty years of living with her, day in day out. I can assure you when it comes to being a bitch, she can make Joan Collins look like an amateur."
"Oh, I was just saying it was not a nice thing to say about your sister; I did not say I disagreed."
"Right! Come on, let's go through to the lounge, and you can fill me in on all the gossip about my sister and how you came to be here." Phil started to shepherd Johnny out of the kitchen. As he passed through the door, he turned back. "Anne, darling, could we crash at your place tonight? Ben drove down, so it's my turn to drive back, but I want to celebrate." Anne confirmed it would be OK. "Mike, there's a case of champers and some goodies in the boot; could you get them, please?" I looked at Ben.
"I didn't know?" he stated as he handed me the keys.
When I got back, Phil and Johnny were in the lounge having a serious conversation. From the bit I overheard, Johnny was telling Phil that he wanted to build yachts. Phil was listening and nodding from time to time. I joined Ben and Anne in the kitchen, placing the case of bubbly and a bag of I-do-not-know-what down on the table. Anne told me to put a couple of bottles in the fridge and started to sort out the bag of goodies that Phil had brought.
"Look," Ben said just when Anne had finished rummaging through the bag, "Phil may not have the best way of announcing things, but we would really like you to have the wedding at Manston. Plus, we've got Necker Island booked for two weeks in June. We're using Branson's Caribbean retreat for a series of planning meetings about Phil's next film, so you might as well join us for your honeymoon. We have been waiting for you and Anne to decide to get married for the last six years and have been planning on giving you the wedding as our present."
"Necker, that's a bit extravagant, isn't it?"
"Not really, Mike. Virgin is one of the backers for the next film, so Richard Branson has a lot of involvement with it and will be at a lot of the meetings. There are some big names involved, and at the moment it is very hush-hush. So, we needed somewhere they could get together with the absolute assurance there would be no press and no gossip. Necker provides that." I knew better than to ask more, but I did wonder what was happening. There had been a rumour a few months before linking Phil with the new James Bond film. I could not see him taking on the role of Bond — that would tie him into a character for too long — but I was sure he would jump at the chance at directing it.
Manston was an Elizabethan manor house and estate in Northamptonshire that the pair had bought on the proceeds of Phil's first significant film role. Buying it had been one thing; they could afford that. What they could not afford was running it. It had been built at a time when it was expected that you would have a bevy of inside and outside servants. Even with modern domestic appliances, it still needed a hefty staff to run the place, especially to maintain the grounds and gardens. As a result, they had turned it into a venue for conferences and weddings when they were not in residence.
Both Anne and I had stayed there a few times, such as last Christmas, when Ben and Phil had held it in reserve for their personal entertaining, and we both loved it. The idea of being married there really appealed to me, and I knew it would to Anne. I was just about to ask her what she thought about it when she ushered us out of the kitchen, telling us that dinner would be ready in ten and that I should open the other bottle of red.
Over dinner, Phil and Johnny chatted about Johnny's plans and his ambitions. I knew Phil had learnt to sail for a film he was in a few years ago that was set in the South Pacific. Phil had played a peace activist who kept sailing his yacht into the French nuclear-test area and disrupting their tests. It had been based on a true story, and he got a couple of Oscar nominations for it. What I had not realised was that Phil had become genuinely interested in sailing and was discussing yachts with his nephew with some knowledge.
Ben, Anne and I were mostly discussing our immediate plans, and I mentioned we were looking at the Priory. "Phil," he asked, "what time do we have to be in Town tomorrow?"
"Not till four, why?"
"These pair are looking at buying some wreck of a house near Dunford; thought we should give it a onceover — see if it is suitable for our favourite nephew."
"I'm your only nephew!" Johnny interjected.
"That's true," Ben turned to me, "I suppose it's too late to swap him."
"Sorry, you should have thought of that fifteen years ago."
"Oh, well," Ben sighed. "I suppose we are stuck with him." He turned back to Phil. "Would you mind if we hung around a bit in the morning and went and looked at this place?"
"Not really. I wanted to have a read-through of the latest version of the script, but that can wait till Saturday if you don't mind going to the Aunt Jane's lunch on your own?" Ben affirmed he was quite happy to face Aunt Jane alone. Aunt Jane was not really an aunt; she had been my mother's boss and was both Ben's and my Godmother — a role which she had taken very seriously as an excuse to spoil both of us rotten. I realised she was somebody else I had to inform about the change in circumstances.
"If you are seeing Aunt Jane, can you tell her about the change in circumstances? She won't get a letter from me till next week, and it's impossible telling her anything over the phone." At ninety-five, her hearing was a thing of the past.
"Right, better still if you knock up a letter tonight or in the morning. I'll take it up with me."
During lunch, I was pleased to see that Johnny was mixing water with his wine. At least, he appeared to be a sensible drinker.
After lunch, we broke open a bottle of bubbly and celebrated the arrival of my son and the engagement of Anne and myself. We were all cheerfully merry by eleven, when Johnny announced that he was going to retire. That indicated the breakup of the party, with Phil and Ben going off to Anne's place.
Just before they left, I asked them if they were serious about us using Manston for the wedding.
"Of course, we are. We've been planning it for years. Where else would you have it?" Phil asked.
"But surely, the late-May bank holiday must be one of your busiest times?"
"Actually, it's not," Ben replied. "We always reserve the place for the last two weeks in May for our own use. Bit stupid really having to reserve your own house, but running it this way is the only way we can make it pay its way. Anyway, the late-May bank holiday is the last weekend of our reserved time, so no problem. We know nothing is booked for then."
Having confirmed that it was not a problem, Anne and I confirmed that we would use Manston for the wedding. Phil commented to Ben as they were leaving that they would have to call Mrs. M and give her the go-ahead. It was then I realised that what they had said about planning this for some time was true.