Loneliness - Moving On

by Andrew Foote

Chapter 22

The day of the funeral dawned bright and warm.

We had given the staff at the Mill the day off as a mark of respect for Lady Eleanor and come the time both Jus and I were really surprised and pleased to see just how many of them attended the service.

Me? I was dreading it!

It was the first time I could ever recall having to wear a formal suit, collar and tie, the latter Jus had to help me with. I was also very worried that I'd break down in floods of tears…… not that I'm ashamed of crying but in front of a church full of people was something I really didn't need.

We had a bit of a discussion as to where everyone would sit. Mum, Dad and I thought it best we sat back from the immediate family but Sir George, backed up by Mr and Mrs Armstrong were having none of it.

"You are all as close to me as any member of my family so I want all of you to sit in the family pews so please don't argue with me."

Dad put up a feeble protest but the expression on his face told a different story, secretly very proud to have been asked…… or was that told!

For my part, I was elated as I wanted to be with Jus so I could support him in his time of need.

As it happened, apart from teary eyes, there was no open crying from anyone but I still held his hand throughout the service.

Julia Armstrong managed to hold herself together well enough to read one of the lessons but then the surprise…… my Mum, being spiritual rather than religious, read the second.

The eulogy was simple but very touching, beautifully delivered by the Vicar and then with the service over, came the family only committal and our return to the house for the wake.

Here a marquee had been erected on the lawn and private caterers providing the food and drink.

Jus and I did a tour of the garden thanking all those from the mill who had attended, met up with faces we knew from the village then spotted Gerald talking to his brother, Commander Armstrong so we made our way over to where they were standing and reintroduced ourselves to him.

Rolly and Nell from the Castle Inn were also there and after a chat with them, we snuck back to Spook for a little quiet time.

"How are you feeling?"

"Oh okay I suppose Alex…… better now it's over. Thanks for being there with me? I honestly thought Tim was going to put his foot down and insist that you sat apart from us. I know I wouldn't have been able to cope if that had happened."

"You know what he's like. After all those years of being shunned, treated like something you pick up on the bottom of your shoe, he finds it difficult to reconcile himself to the fact that he's been accepted into polite society and so far as everyone just assuming we'd sit with you? Oh c'mon? I doubt it ever entered his head!"

"Do you wanna know something?

There was definite bond between Granddad and your Dad even after the first couple of days, I sort of noticed their interaction. They both share that stupid sense of humour, they both like a drink not that that's important but you see most of the people he knows, Uncle Rolly being the exception that proves the rule, are mostly tee-total or at best the glass of sherry types…… well they weren't exactly the most fun people to be around.

When I was back at the house, you know, before my folks went back to Tripoli, I used to hear them talking. I wasn't like eavesdropping cos my room was directly above Granddad's study but ohmygod you should've heard the conversations! They'd drink themselves stupid, the jokes weren't even funny but it didn't stop them from howling with laughter…… so good Alex, so very good! If that wasn't enough, Gran and Kaz were thick as thieves too and I reckon she'll really miss my Gran…… best we keep a weather eye on her now she's the only one without a friend."

"I know. Mum's pretty sorted though and yeah, I know she's devastated but she'll pull through…… you're right though, best to make sure she doesn't feel left out."

I was right on both counts. My Mum had really taken a knock but after a few days following the funeral, Jus and I ambled into the kitchen to find Mrs Morris and her in animated conversation.

"Ah. I'm pleased you're here because I've a question for you.

What time does your café close?"

Jus answered her.

"It opens at nine in the morning and closes at ten-thirty in the evening, well that is unless the weather turns crappy and there are no customers which is hardly likely to be the case today.

Why do you ask Kaz?"

"Well Mrs Morris and I plan to walk up there just as soon as we've finished here. Your father, Sir George, Gerald and his brother have been up there half the day so we thought we'd join them.

Hang on a minute? Aren't you outside of licencing hours this time of day?"

My turn!

"Yeah…… technically but we know the local fuzz well enough…… hells teeth, he brings his kids up to play in the play area and happily sits there and downs a few pints this time of day? So long as you eat something along with your drink there isn't a problem Mum."

"Okay so what is termed as eating then?"

"A small bag of salted peanuts or a bag of crisps does it for us!"

"Fine! We'll see you later! Just tell Julia where we are once she gets back from Reading will you? Ask her to join us if she likes, okay?"

We waited until Julia got back then saddled up the dogs and walked with her up to the mill.

It was busy up there but eventually found the others sitting at a table quaffing beer and finding an unoccupied bench, sat down with them.

Gerald turned to Jus and me.

"So all this is something you boys created is it?"

"Well…… not really Dad. We had a lot of help along the way from Granddad and Tim plus we run this ideas scheme whereby the guys in the factory can have a say. No one person can think of everything so an exchange of ideas, input from everyone concerned has got us to this point."

"An unusual concept. I have always believed that you are led from the top. One person or a small group of people make the decisions and others follow instructions."

"We make the final decision but what if our thinking is flawed?

We've had ideas in the past which both of us thought were very doable but then we walk it past the workforce, get their take on it and found that because they're maybe seeing it from a completely different perspective, they come up with reasons why it isn't as practical as we initially believed. Under those circumstances we either have to have a rethink or shelve the idea."

"Isn't that a bit dangerous having your staff dictate to you?"

"Is it though. They're not really dictating are they? We have the option of both dismissing their observations and running with our plans or take on board valid arguments. It's in no one's interest to scupper good ideas as it serves everyone's interests to allow the business to grow and become more profitable. Job security and higher earnings is what they're looking for, not stagnation."

"Very interesting. So how many people do you employ?"

"Alex is the better one to answer that. Alex?"

"Umm…… okay at the last count we had fifty-five on the shop floor plus Gillian our General Manager, three other girls in the office, Jo who's our works Manager plus two other lads on his maintenance team, Matt our Transport Manager plus another driver, five working in the crèche and seven in the café, bar and shop so excluding us, a total of seventy-six."

"Oh so the crèche and café aren't franchised out then?"

"No. They're both part of the business."

"Impressive. Any chance of being shown around?"

"Sure. Who else wants to come along?"

We took Gerald, Julia and Commander Armstrong on a guided tour starting off with the café, bar and shop.

"We have ideas to extend the shop and maybe build two more as the villagers have suggested having a sort of general store as the nearest one to the village is in Caversham. The other thing is that we've been approached by local farmers with the idea of opening a farm shop which would sell meat, vegetables and so on and that we would franchise out."

Next we visited the crèche then pausing at reception so they could sign the visitors book, we took them out onto the shop floor.

As we wandered around we were greeted by loads of folk asking about our holiday or just wanting to say hi eventually making it through to the office where we introduced them to our admin team, through to the new extension and the injection moulding shop then finally up onto the first floor where the light bench work was carried out.

Once back in the sunshine, Gerald was very complimentary.

"I don't know what I expected to see but it most certainly wasn't that! Everyone seemed to be pulling their weight but also the atmosphere was very relaxed and informal somehow."

"That's the sort of environment we wanted to achieve Dad. There are set meal and tea breaks but also, everyone is free to go and grab a coffee or whatever else anytime they like, more especially this time of year as it can get really warm in there. We were a bit bothered about this to begin with, worrying that people might take advantage of the situation and be away from their workstation for longer than necessary but it's odd, people never seem to do that. Mind you, we tend to get our staff through word of mouth, you know the sort of thing, recommendations from other employee's.

To begin with it was just the two of us plus Tim. Then Jo came on the scene shortly followed by Gill and it just grew from there so because everyone knows everyone else helps I think."

"Have you ever had to fire anyone?"

"No, never. A few people have left us, house moves out of the area and the like but that's where the crèche idea came from. One of our girls fell pregnant and rather than lose a good and valued member of staff, we started to think. Seventy-two percent of the workforce are female and young so the chances are that there would be more situations like that in the future. We allow for six weeks maternity leave then they can bring baby into work where they're looked after by qualified staff. Mums get special dispensation to feed their kids and we get to keep good staff. Everyone's a winner!"

"You obviously have plans for the future?"

"Business or personal Dad?"

"I was more thinking personal Justin."

"We're both going to be sitting our 'A's come next summer and depending on our results, look for a University place I guess. Alex is hell bent on Oxford because that's where Tim went so if he tries for that then so will I."

"But what if one of you gets a placement and the other doesn't? What then?"

"We've talked about that. If that were the case we'd try for somewhere else."

"So you'd both let either one of your education's suffer just so you could be together. Is that what you're saying?"

"Absolutely…… no not absolutely! Most Universities offer a high level of education, not just Oxbridge? London, here at Reading, Manchester and Liverpool? Yeah sure, Oxbridge carries more kudos, maybe even access to better future employment but that's where it ends."

"Let me tell you something son. You act as if I disapprove whereas you couldn't be more wrong.

At first I honestly thought you and Alexis…… sorry, Alex was some sort of a flash in the pan but you two have been through so much together, suffered hardship that no one, no matter their age should ever be subjected to and rather than driving you apart, you are obviously closer to each other than ever.

Your business. I mean it's wonderful! Yes of course you had help, everyone needs help but you two created it, run it by your own ethos and standards and so you should both be very proud of it and by the way. I'm very proud of both of you.

We'd better get back to the others or they'll be wondering where we are and besides, I could use another beer."

"Well that rather took me by surprise!"

"What did?"

"My father telling us he was proud of us. I mean he's never, ever said that before about me let alone you.

Tell you something else as well. My home tutoring was only ever supposed to be an experiment and he was going to review it come last Christmas. Do you think he forgot what with not coming back to England?"

"Your Dad? Forget? Oh please Jus! He remembered alright! Our results swung it, I thought I'd told you but never mind. He phoned and spoke to my Dad then Sir George and Lady Eleanor and finally my Mum with whom he had a row!"

"What?? My Dad and your Mum had an argument?"

"Big time but not about home tutoring, I mean he was really impressed with your results but it was more regarding the stipend he wanted to pay. Mum said it really wasn't necessary but your Dad thought otherwise. Mum told him that we took a small bonus out of the company from time to time and well, we were pretty much self-sufficient but he was having none of it.

For fuck's sake Jus? He was going to pay my parents exactly the same amount as he was paying Down House! No wonder my Mum was pissed off!"

"Fucking hell! But at least he thought it would be money well spent though?"

"Maybe but that's not the point.

Look at it this way.

Dad does his lecturing, is on the board who set exam papers, writes papers and is on the committee of three University faculties. He isn't exactly poor Jus? He just doesn't need the trappings of middle class.

Could you ever see him living in a nice, neat detached house in one of the nice areas in Caversham?

I bet not!

It'd kill him and what's more, Mum would storm out never to be seen again! They love their simple uncomplicated life, they love people, not money?"

"Yeah well, that's pretty obvious now I come to think about it. Grandfather's much the same which is probably why they're as thick as thieves! I think he only hung on to the house cos of Grandma. I don't mean he wanted to move from Mapledurham, just downsize to something smaller.

Anyhow. What was the outcome of the argument?"

"I don't know. I was banished from the study at that point!"

"Shame. Oh to be a fly on the wall!"

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