Living with Johnny

by Nigel Gordon

Chapter 59

On Monday morning I was a bit surprised to see a French-plated camper van in the yard pulled up by the Stable House. I was drinking my tea, looking out of the window when Neal came into the kitchen.

"Simone and Antoinette have arrived," he commented. "Maddie and I can get off to her parents."

"You don't sound too enthused."

"They're not bad," he stated. "It's just they did not want an East End kid for a son-in-law."

"Even though that East End kid could probably buy up the whole of the town they live in." Neal looked at me, surprised. "I used to help Dad out in the accounting office when I was your age. Part of my job was reconciling your grandfather's rent accounts. I know what he owned."

Neal laughed. "Don't tell anyone; I would not like to spoil my image."

"How long are you staying around here?" I asked.

"We'll brief Simone and Antoinette; then we'll be off to Cromford."

"Don't suppose you've got anything to tell me?" I asked.

"Not much to tell anyone, except they are a bunch of amateurs. They watch the house till they see the lights go out and then sod off. Don't come back till five-thirty in the morning," he informed me.

"Any idea where they sod off to?"

"Yes, they're staying in a B&B just outside Maldon, though not for much longer, I think."

"Why not?"

"I think they are going to find that spying on Auntie's friends is a costly activity. Hopefully, now the girls are here, we will have things sorted out in a couple of days."

I thought it not wise to ask what the girls could do that he could not.

I finished my tea, then called Lee and asked him to meet me at the car. The night before, I had briefed Ben and Phil about Lee having been in prison. Also told him about his background and what he wanted to do.

"Right. What time does your recording finish?" Ben asked.

"Well, I have one studio session booked ten-thirty till twelve; the second one is one-thirty till three. Why?"

"I should be finished at the dubbing studio by twelve-thirty. How about you bring him down to the Wardour Street offices and leave him with me. I promise we will have him back here tomorrow night. Tell him to bring his gi with him."

I had passed the message on. Also told Lee to make sure he had something to take notes in. When I got to the car, Lee was there with a backpack. He assured me he had his gi, a couple of notepads and some pens. We set off for Southminster to get the train into London. On the way into London, I briefed him on how the recording sessions would work and what I wanted him to deal with. Arriving at Broadcasting House, we hit a problem. There was a pass waiting for me, but I had not warned Chris that I was bringing Lee with me. As a result, we had to wait around for Chris to get a pass arranged for Lee. Fortunately, it did not take too long to sort out, and we were still in plenty of time for the start of the recording session.

I explained to Chris that from January, Lee would be keeping control of my diary, so if he wanted to book me for anything, he needed to speak to Lee, at least in the first instance. That reminded me that I needed to speak to Arthur about some calendar/scheduling software that would allow both of us to put in information. I told Lee to make a note about it; he informed me he already had.

The recording went well, and we were finished by eleven-fifteen. Chris would have gone on to do the second session then, but the expert involved was not available till the afternoon. As a result, it was just gone eleven-thirty when we got out of Broadcasting House. There was a touch of drizzle in the air, and it was quite chilly, so I grabbed a cab to take us to Wardour Street.

Being somewhat early for meeting Ben, we went to a coffee shop and got some refreshment. Seated by the window, I asked Lee how come he had already made a note about the calendar software?

"Well, when we discussed things yesterday, you said I would need to keep track of your appointments and when you were working. Having some calendar software was the obvious answer, so I emailed Arthur to ask what was available. Haven't checked for a reply today."

We chatted about what I had been doing this morning and about how he could contribute to things. One thing was clear. When there was a discussion on a specific topic, it would help a lot if Lee could do some background research for me.

About quarter past twelve, we made our way to Ben's production office. As it turned out, we were there just at the right time, meeting Ben as he came up Wardour Street. I handed Lee over to his tender mercies. I had trained with my brother when we were younger and still had the bruises to prove it.

The afternoon recording session did not go so well. One problem with experts is that sometimes they are not as expert as you think they are. That is probably being a bit unfair; the real problem is that they are too expert. I do not doubt that the professor who had joined us for the afternoon session really did know about her specialist field. The problem was her specialist field was a very narrow aspect of lunar exploration. Once we got off the subject of lunar regolith, she was totally lost. As a result, I found myself having to make a much more significant contribution to the recording than I expected. The recording session also overran quite a bit. In the end, it was well past six when I got back to the Priory.

"Dad, can we ask Steve to Christmas dinner?" Johnny asked me as soon as I got through the door.

"I thought he was going to be with Jim's family for Christmas," I stated, vaguely recalling some mention of that fact.

"Not that Steven," Johnny pronounced. "Great Uncle Steve."

It took me a moment to work out who he was referring to. "Great Uncle Steve? How did that come about?"

"It's logical, Dad," Johnny informed me. "He's Mum's uncle, so he must be my great uncle."

I heard laughing break out behind me. "Oh, I'm going to enjoy pulling his leg over that," Anne stated. "Though thinking about it, my brother Paul's got two youngsters. So, he is a great uncle."

"I didn't know you had a brother," Johnny stated.

"I do; he's the same age as Uncle Steve," she informed Johnny. "Paul emigrated to Canada twenty years ago. Don't hear much from him, though I expect we will get a Christmas card."

"Why's that?" Johnny asked.

"I don't think things have worked out quite a well as he thought they would. He's a bit ashamed of how things turned out. When he first went out there, he was writing nearly every month to say how good things were and how well he was doing. However, over the years it became clear that things were not going quite so well, and as things got worse, the letters and phone calls got fewer and fewer. Now, I only get a card at Christmas."

"You didn't invite him to the wedding?" Johnny asked.

"Oh, I invited him alright but never got a reply," Anne stated. There was a hint of bitterness in her answer.

"Coming back to your question, young man, why do you want to invite Uncle Steve?" I asked. "You do know that means the children and Peter, also."

"Well, it's for the children. I want to invite him so that they can have a real Christmas," Johnny replied. "Peter is working all day Christmas day. He's on an eight-to-eight shift. So, they can't have a Christmas dinner that day. I thought we could invite Steve and the children to join us, and Peter can come over when he gets off duty."

I looked at Anne. "Well, what's your opinion?"

"I don't see why not, it's not as if we don't have the room, though tablespace might be a bit cramped. I don't expect you sorted anything out about a table, did you?"

"No," I admitted.

"Well, you'd better sort something out. You have two days," Anne informed me. "I'll phone Uncle Steve and ask him to join us."

"I'd better go online and search for a large dining table that can be delivered before Christmas," I said. "I'll do it immediately after dinner."

"Promise?" Anne asked.

"Promise," I replied.

I did not have much success. While I was searching, Johnny came into the study.

"No luck?" I shook my head. "How about going to the auction rooms?"

"What auction rooms?" I asked.

"The ones in Southmead," he replied. "They normally have their auctions on a Thursday, but I'm sure I saw that they were having it on Tuesday this week. Steve sometimes sells stuff through it."

I searched online and found that they did indeed have an auction on Tuesday afternoon, starting at four. Viewing was from ten onwards in the morning. Unfortunately, the online catalogue was nothing more than a list of lots. However, Lot 109 attracted my attention.

'Late Georgian/Early Victorian dining table, with eighteen chairs.'

It could be what we needed. I was discussing it with Johnny when Jack put his head around the door and asked what we were up to? Johnny told him we were thinking of bidding for a table at the auction tomorrow.

"Well, make sure you measure the dining room to check it will fit in," Jack instructed. "I learnt that the hard way."

"How come?" I asked.

"Bought the Missus a seven-seater corner sofa; could not get it in the room," he replied.

I got Johnny, and with his help made some careful measurements of the dining room. We were in the kitchen going over our measurements when Ben and Lee came in. Anne told Lee there was some stew from dinner in the fridge which she could microwave if he wanted anything.

"No thanks, Anne, we stopped on the way back and grabbed a bite," he informed her. He then told me he had only come in to ask if I needed him in the morning. I did point out that he did not start work until the second of January. Lee said he might as well find out what was involved, and anyway, he needed something to keep him occupied. I told him to come over in the morning, and he could sit in with me while I did my administration work, which he would be taking over in the New Year.

Once Lee had left, Ben asked if we could talk, so we went into the study.

"Mike, would you let Lee set up a dojo here?" he asked.

"As long as it doesn't interfere with his work for me, I don't see why not," I replied. "Is he good enough to run one?"

"He's a bit rusty on the physical side of things," Ben admitted. "That's not surprising given the circumstances. On the theory and technical side of things, he is spot on. He knows all his katas, not just the ones for Black Belt but also the others that are not required for that grade. He also understands why things are done as they are. That is rare for most martial artists of his age. With a few weeks of training, he could get his second Dan.

"I was thinking, with the Uxbridge club closing, I don't have a training base. If Lee opened a dojo here, I could use that. When I needed to train fight sequences for productions, I could bring them out here and run it as a course. You said that Jan was working on the idea of letting the apartments to people attending courses; well I would be able to run a course and use the apartments for accommodation."

We discussed the ins and outs of it for the next half hour. I was not particularly happy with the idea. After all, I did need a production assistant and wondered what would happen if I had a shoot on at the same time Ben needed to teach some actors to fight.

In the end, we did not come to a decision but agreed to look into things after the new year when we had a better feel to how much time Lee would actually be working for me.

Tuesday morning, Lee came over to the house just after nine. He apologised for being late but informed me that Arthur had been sorting his internet connectivity. He now had an ethernet socket in his studio apartment that was linked to the office network.

We spent the next couple of hours sorting out the access rights Lee needed to get to the various accounts that I used and would need him to either manage for me or keep a general eye on. Arthur had given Lee a link to some calendar/scheduling software which he thought would meet my requirements. Looking at it, I thought it was something of overkill, but Lee did point out that if my production activities took off as I expected, there would be a lot more staff to coordinate, and the package could handle it. In the end, I decided to go with Arthur's recommendation and signed up for it.

Lee then found himself stuck with the job of setting it up. He had only just finished when Anne called us for lunch. Jack and Flora were in the kitchen when we got there. There was no sign of James. I asked Anne if she had seen him, as I had not all morning.

"He went over to Jenny's; he's taking her and JayDee out for the day," Anne informed me.

"And not Tariq?" I asked.

"No, Marcia is insistent that Tariq goes to her parents today. It's their wedding anniversary."

I asked Jack and Flora if they wanted to come to the auction rooms with us, but they both declined. Johnny definitely wanted to come, so he joined Lee and me on the trip to the auction house.

We arrived there shortly after two. The place was not that far from the college, a couple-hundred yards up the road from Maggie's Café. That solved one problem, we could pop in there once the viewing was done until it was time for the auction.

It took us a bit of time to find the dining table. There were so many tables in the auction. In the end, we found it tucked away in one corner of the viewing room. Once found, we spent the next half hour giving it a proper inspection; then I went and registered to bid at the auction. That done, the three of us repaired to Maggie's to get some refreshment and discuss what we had found.

I ordered tea and cake. Johnny and Lee went for a bacon sandwich and cola.

"It's only a foot longer than what we have in the dining room now," Johnny informed me.

That information surprised me. "How come? This is supposed to be an eighteen-seater; ours is a twelve."

"Dad, ours is only a twelve because that's how many chairs we've got. If we had the extra chairs, we could fit another place in on each side. That would give us six on each side and one at each end. We could seat fourteen if we had the chairs."

"So, how do the sizes work out?" I asked, expecting Johnny to answer.

It was Lee who did. He opened up his notepad and proceeded to inform me. "Your present table is twelve-feet long; this one is thirteen feet, according to the dimensions given. Lengthwise there is not much difference. It is on the width that there is a big difference. Your present table is three-feet, nine-inches wide; this one is seven-feet, two-inches in width. Allowing the standard two feet per place setting, you can sit six people down each side of this table and three along each end, giving a maximum seating of eighteen."

"How many do we have for Christmas?" I asked.

"There Joseph, Micah, Bethany, Aunt Debora, Uncle Bernard, Uncles Phil and Ben, Aunt Jenny, James, JayDee, Tyler, Trevor, Arthur, Lee, Grandad and Grandma, Steve, the two children, Peter, Mum, you and me," Johnny reeled off, counting on his fingers. "Shit, that's twenty-three."

"How do we solve that?" I asked. Lee was busy sketching something in on his notepad.

"Like this," he said, pushing the notepad for me to look at. "Your current table has a four-foot centre extension board in it. Remove that, and it will be eight-foot long. You can turn it sideways and put it along the end of the table. That will give three extra place settings. You can probably squeeze in a couple more, but it will be tight."

"It will also put us up tight against the sideboard," I pointed out.

"Did you look at the dresser in the next lot?" Lee asked. "I think it came with the table. It is a lot slimmer than your sideboard but with the extra height will give you just as much storage."

I admitted that I had not looked at it but promised I would when we got back to the auction.

"So, the table's OK; I am, though, worried about the chairs," I commented. "Some of them seemed to be hardly holding together."

"You're right there," Lee stated. He then consulted his pad. "The two carvers are sound, and there are six others which are sound. The other ten need to be re-glued. A couple of them might be past it altogether."

"So, not that good a situation," I stated.

"Not a problem, Dad," Johnny informed me. "They are a similar style to what we already have in the dining room. We've got twelve chairs there; I am sure that I can get a couple more fixed up with Granddad's help. We will be alright on the chairs."

"That only leaves the problem of getting them home if we get them," I stated. "I spoke with the auction office when I registered to bid about a delivery, but they can't do a delivery till the new year."

"Give me a mo'," Johnny said. He stood up and went outside. I chatted to Lee about the dresser. When Johnny came back, he was smiling.

"Phoned Jim," he informed me. "I thought he had said that he sometimes drives a Luton. They've got a seven-and-a-half-ton Luton van. He can come over this evening and pick anything we buy up and take it to the Priory. They don't need the van tomorrow, so if you can give him a lift home, he'll leave the van in the yard, and we can unload in the morning.

"I also spoke to Granddad. "Explained about the chairs. He says we will probably only need to glue and strap them; he'll give me a hand with them once we've got them back."

I got another pot of tea, this time without cake. Johnny and Lee opted for another cola, this time without the bacon sandwich; they both went for an oatmeal-and-ginger cookie. By the time we had finished our drinks, it was time to return to the auction room. As we were leaving, I asked Maggie what time she was closing, given it was not term time.

"Auction days I stay open late; plenty of business," she stated.

"But they've got their own café there," I pointed out.

"Which closes when the auction begins," Maggie replied. "I catch the business that comes during the clear-out after the sales."

As we walked back to the auction rooms, Lee drew my attention to a car parked a bit further down the road. It was the BMW that had been following us on Friday.

Once back in the auction room, we looked at the dresser that Lee had mentioned. I had to agree that it matched the table and chairs, it was also quite slim but with the extra height would still offer us the storage that the sideboard provided.

I found some seats in the auction room a few rows back from the auctioneer, but on the aisle, where I could easily be seen by the auctioneer. Johnny was seated next to me, but Lee had to take a seat on the opposite side of the aisle. I thought we would have to wait quite a while before we got to Lot 109, in which we were interested. It turned out not to be the case. The auctioneer announced at the start of the auction that Lots 1 to 87 had been withdrawn.

"That's strange," Johnny said.

"Not really, sonny," the elderly lady sitting next to him said. "Happens all the time when it's a sheriff's seizure. If the owner can come up with the money owed before the auction starts, the goods are withdrawn."

Johnny thanked her for the information.

The first ten lots went down very quickly. There only seemed to be one bid on each lot. Lot 89, however, proved different. Bidding on it started at fifty pounds, but was soon over a hundred, and the bidding continued.

The lady next to Johnny mentioned it was clearly a sleeper.

"What's a sleeper?" Johnny asked.

"It's special, but the auctioneers have not realised it. The pair bidding are both South Coast antique dealers; they clearly know what it is and what its value is."

Well, I hoped she was right, for the bidding stopped at one thousand two hundred.

The next two lots went quickly; then the lady next to Johnny started to bid on a lot which went up to fifty pounds; she dropped out at forty.

"In a shop, it will sell for a hundred, but I sell on a market stall, seventy would be the most I would get for it," she explained to Johnny. A few more lots sold, then it came to the table.

The auctioneer asked an opening bid of one hundred. There were no takers.

"All right then, I'll take fifty; that's under three pounds a chair," he said.

"Why is he saying that about the chairs?" Johnny asked the lady who was clearly an auction expert.

"The table is far too big for most people, not worth anything. However, fixed up, the chairs can be sold on their own in small sets."

"I'll take twenty then," the auctioneer said. I raised my paddle.

"I have twenty down here at the front, looking for twenty-five," the auctioneer announced. "Twenty-five at the back."

I raised my paddle.

"Thirty at the front," he announced.

The lady leaned over past Johnny and suggested next time to raise my paddle and one finger, to bid one pound more.

"Thirty-five at the back," the auctioneer announced.

I raised my paddle and one finger. The auctioneer looked at me a bit disgusted.

"All right I will take thirty-six in the front. Thirty-seven from the back."

I raised my paddle and one finger again.

"Thirty-eight at the front," the auctioneer announced. He looked towards the back of the room. There was a pause. The auctioneer then looked around the room. "Going at thirty-eight for the first time, going for the second time, fair warning, going for the third and final time." The hammer came down. "To the gentleman at the front."

The dresser came up next. This was a longer battle; there seemed to be quite a few parties interested in it. Eventually, I got it for one hundred and twelve pounds.

Having secured the two lots, we were interested in; we left the auction room. I went to the office to settle up while Johnny called Jim to say that we needed the van. The auction office told me they would be open till ten tonight, but we could not start removing stuff from the auction rooms until the auction was finished. I paid the clerk and got the required paperwork from the office for us to remove the items once the auction finished, which I was informed would be about seven.

Going out of the office, I found Johnny and Lee.

"Jim's got the van," Johnny informed me. "What time do we want it here?"

"Tell him seven," I advised Johnny. "The office says that the auction should be over about then. We can't remove anything till the auction is over."

"What are we going to do till then?" Lee asked.

"Well, we could go back to Dunford and then come back over when it is time," I stated.

"Nah," Johnny stated. "By the time we get home, it will be time to come back. Let's go to Maggie's and have a fry-up."

Lee was in agreement, so we went down to Maggie's. Lee and Johnny ordered fry-ups; I settled for chicken-and-mushroom pie, peas and chips. We had not long finished eating when the lady who had been sitting next to Johnny came in. By now, Maggie's was fairly full, and she was looking around for a space. Johnny saw her and waved to indicate there was a space at our table; she came over.

Thanking us for the seat, she introduced herself. "Margaret Stapleford, a dealer in second-hand chattels."

We introduced ourselves.

"So, you got the table, then?" Margaret said.

"Yes, good job; otherwise, my wife would have killed me," I stated.

"I gather you wanted the table, not the chairs," she commented.

"Yes, we have twenty-three for dinner on Christmas Day, and our table only seats twelve."

"You must have a big place to accommodate that thing," she stated. Just then one of the servers came over to take her order. She ordered tea and a bacon sandwich.

"That's one thing we seem to have plenty of: space," I commented.

"Well, a piece like that needs space," she replied. "It should come up nice if you spend a bit of time on it."

"What do we have to do?" Johnny asked.

"First, rub it down with some damp cloth, to get the surface dirt off. Then use a soft cloth dampened with methylated spirits. That will take off the dirty furniture polish that has built up. Be careful, though; you do not want to cut it back too deep and take off the shellac polish that was the original. Once you've got it nice and clean, give it a good polish with a beeswax furniture polish. Don't use one of these spray polishes."

I noticed Lee had been writing it all down as Margaret was giving the instructions.

"I hope you have transport to get the thing home?" Margaret asked.

"Yes," I replied. "We've got a friend with a Luton."

Shortly after Johnny's phone pinged to tell him that Jim had arrived. We said goodbye to Margaret, paid up and went back down to the auction rooms. When we went in the information screen said they were offering Lot 297. There were only three-hundred-and-two lots in the catalogue, so I knew things would be over fairly soon. I took Jim through to the viewing room and showed him what we had bought.

"Well, the dresser is no problem," Jim stated. "That, though, I don't know how we are going to get it through the door." He indicated the double doors we had come through to get into the room. It was then I realised that the table was wider than the doors. Even turned on its side, it would be higher than the doors. How could we get it out?

I looked around the room, there were two more doors, but they were both standard, single-width doors. There was no way that the table was going to fit through either of them. Johnny just stood there, shaking his head.

"You know, it must come apart somehow," Lee stated. "It's the only way they could have got it in."

"You're right, but how does it come apart?" I asked.

"I'll get down and have a look," Johnny stated, getting down on his hands and knees and crawling under the table.

The auction porter who had been standing by the door came over and asked if there was a problem.

"We were just wondering how to get this out," I informed him.

"It comes apart," he informed us. As that piece of information was imparted to us, Johnny crawled out from underneath.

"It's in two halves," he informed me. "Each half has its own set of legs, which I think can be detached. We will need a socket set to separate the halves."

"Actually, you need an imperial set," the porter informed me. "This was made long before the metric system was adopted over here. By the way, you do know there is a third section to it, don't you?"

"Third section!" I exclaimed.

"Yes, it's there in the corner." He pointed across to a set of legs which what looked like a large board behind them leaning against the wall. As I went over to look at them, a bell rang.

"That's it, sir," the porter stated. "The auction has finished. If you have your paperwork, you can remove your goods."

I dug into my pocket and got the paperwork out to show the porter. He checked it and smiled. "OK, it's all yours. We've got an imperial socket set in the office; I'll grab it for you so you can start disassembling."

Jim stated that it would be a good idea for him and Lee to start loading up the dresser and chairs. I agreed with him, so they got started, first taking the dresser out to the van.

I was a bit concerned about leaving stuff on the van while we were in here sorting things out, but when they came back, Lee informed me that Steven was out with the van. He had not come in with Jim because the auction house was run by one of his father's relatives, and he did not want to cause any problems.

With a bit of advice from the auction porter and the use of their socket set, we soon got the table disassembled. It broke down into three top sections, two six-foot-six by eight-foot and one six-foot by eight-foot. There were three heavy leg bases which had massive blocks on the top to which the tabletops were attached by some eighteen-inch-long bolts. Those bolts went through fittings on the underside of each tabletop, then through holes in blocks at the top of the legs.

In all, it took us a better part of an hour to get everything disassembled and onto the van. We were just putting the final pieces on when the auctioneer walked out of the building.

"Steven?" he called. Steven turned towards the door of the auction rooms. "Is it you?"

"Yes, Uncle George."

"It is you. Your aunt and I have been worried all week," the auctioneer said. "Your father phoned and told us what had happened and why. He said you were no longer his son. Grace told him what she thought of him, then tried to phone you but could not get through. We went to the college to find you, but the term had finished."

"You were looking for me?" Steven asked.

"Yes, we were worried. We had no idea where you were, if you had anywhere to stay and if you were safe. Your Aunty Grace has hardly eaten for the last week, she's been so worried."

"Dad cancelled my phone account," Steven said. "I stayed with my boyfriend, Jim, till the weekend, then moved into a studio at Mr. Clayton's place on Friday."

"Look, I know you're busy, but have you got time to come in and see your aunt, at least to set her mind at rest?"

Steven nodded. He then introduced us to his uncle and apologised for delaying us.

"Steven, why don't you spend some time with your aunt and uncle," I suggested. "I'll give you the money to get a taxi back to Dunford."

"Don't bother," George said. "I'll run him over myself later. It will be about ten when we pack up here. Grace went over to her brother's last week the moment she heard; got most of the stuff from Steve's room. We've been holding it in storage for when we found him."

George and Steve walked back into the auction rooms. Lee said he would go back with Jim in the van. Johnny got into the Santa Fe with me. I followed the van out of the car park. We had not gone very far when there was a loud bang and a flash from behind us. I looked in the rear-view mirror and saw the BMW had pulled out behind us. It appeared as if its bonnet had been blown open and smoke and flames were coming from the engine.

Johnny was twisted in his seat, looking out of the back window. "I think somebody has sent a message," he stated.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"The BMW that was following us; it's got an engine fire."


"Well, I doubt it is coincidental," Johnny stated.

That got me thinking.

Once we got back to the Priory, Johnny and Lee decided that it would be best if we unloaded the van there and then, putting the items in one of the carriage-house areas under the apartments. In a way, I could see some logic to this but would much have preferred to go in and get a nice cup of tea. However, they got me working. Jack came out to have a look at what we had got.

"Nice piece of furniture there," he stated. "You got any isopropyl alcohol?"

"Not that I know of, why?" I said.

"You need some to get that old furniture polish off it."

"Margaret said we could use methylated spirits," Johnny told his grandfather.

"You could, and it would work," Jack stated. "Ninety percent isopropyl would do a better job. You also need some white beeswax."

"Why white beeswax?" I asked.

"To make your own wax furniture polish," Jack replied. "It won't colour furniture like ordinary beeswax. Over time, applying ordinary beeswax polish tends to yellow the surface; using white beeswax won't."

"But why do we need to make our own?" Johnny asked.

"Because then you not only know what is in it; you can make it to the right consistency for the job in hand. Once we get this back to the shellac polish, we need a very soft beeswax polish to bring it up to a good finish. Most commercial beeswax polishes are too hard for what you want; besides, they use cheaper, yellow beeswax."

"That's fine, Jack," I said. "The problem is we have to get this cleaned up for Christmas, that means getting it done tomorrow."

"Oh, it will be done tomorrow, Mike, don't worry," Jack stated. "I just need to speak to that boatbuilder chap that my grandson works for, and I might need Lee to drive me around."

"You want to speak to Steve! Why?" I asked.

"Because if he is building quality boats, he probably uses quality polishes and probably makes some of his own for the very special work."

"He's right, Dad," Johnny stated. "Steve's got a cupboard full of special finishes he uses on boats. He told me that next season he would show me how to make them. He does it at the start of each season. I just missed it this year."

"I suggest you'd better call Steve and let your grandfather speak to him, then," I said.

An hour and a half later we had everything unloaded. Jack had inspected every piece and made comments on what we needed to do with each. Lee had made ample notes, and I felt totally useless. Jim was worried about his Steven. I kept telling him I thought everything would be all right. However, Jim said he was going to hang around till Steven got back.

He did not have to wait long. About ten minutes after we had finished and while we were still talking in the yard, a car pulled in. Steven got out, followed by his uncle and the woman whom I had dealt with in the auctioneer's office and presumed was his aunt. This was confirmed when Steven introduced us.

"Is it alright if I show them the studio?" Steven asked. "They want to see where I am living, to make sure it's OK."

"That's fine and perfectly understandable."

Steven then went off, taking his aunt in the direction of the studio apartment.

"Actually, it's Grace who wants to see it," George said. It was then that I realised he had not followed Steven and his aunt to the apartment. "I was quite happy with Steven's assurances."

"I can understand your wife's concern," I stated.

"We lost our child a week after she was born; Grace could not have any more," George stated. I did not know why he felt he had to explain. "She has always felt that Steven was another chance for her to be a mother. To be honest, she has been more of a mother to the boy than Rhoda — that's Steven's mother — has been. Whenever Steven's been ill, it has been Grace who has ended up looking after him. Rhoda was always too busy with the nursery. So, when Steven vanished, Grace took it hard. It was especially hard for her to realise he had not turned to her for help."

"He turned to his boyfriend," I said.

"I know, and from what Steven told us tonight, it appears a couple of his relatives were not very considerate about things."

"I did not know that," I stated.

"He also told us what you are doing for him and Jim with the nursery," George stated. "I've told him that when any horticultural stuff comes into the auction rooms, we will get it for him."

"Can you do that?" I asked. I always thought auctioneers had to offer goods on the open market.

"Yes, I can, so long as I openly bid for it in the auction," George replied. "To be honest, I may be paying more than it would go for if I was not bidding. Usually, there are only one or two bidders for that type of stuff, and they tend not to go high.

"We also want to help Steven and Jim with the cost of getting the cottage fixed up. I am going to speak to Jim's father and ask him to put a crew together to get it done if you have no objection."

"That will be expensive," I pointed out. "You're better off putting down the deposit for Steven to buy a place; I'll still let them have the kitchen garden whether or not they use the cottage."

"Would you sell them the cottage?" George asked.

"I can't," I responded, then went on to explain about the restrictive covenants on the property which stop it being split up.

"I see," George replied. "Look, can we talk about this in the new year? Grace and I really want to help the boys. We're comfortably off, and it is not going to be a burden to us to help them. It is only bringing forward when Steven gets the money; he gets all our property when we die."

"Does he know that?" I asked.

"No," George replied. "If you don't mind, I would prefer to keep it that way."

We talked for a few more minutes about the cottage and what needs to be done, then Grace walked back across the yard to us.

"Told Steven there was no point in coming out and getting cold," Grace stated. "He and Jim are nicely set up in there. Thank you for letting Steven have it. Now we'd better get off. I smell rain in the air and don't want to get soaked when it arrives."

"We have quite a walk from our garage to the house," George informed me.

"Which is why we mostly park the car by the back door," Grace commented.

Once they had left, I went into the house.

"How big is this table you've got?" Anne asked as I entered.

"Massive," I replied.

"I hope it will fit in the dining room."

"It will Anne, though we will have to take the sideboard out."

"What am I going to do with the stuff in the sideboard?" she asked.

"We've got a dresser to go with the table. It is about half the width of the sideboard but over twice the height, so it should hold everything. You will be able to display your best china on it," I informed her.

"You'd better get an early night," she commented. "There is a lot for you to do tomorrow."

"What do I have to do?" I asked.

"I've made a list," she answered, pointing to a sheet of paper on the kitchen table.

I took the hint, got a nightcap and got to bed early. It was still gone eight when I woke in the morning to find that Anne was up already. When I got down to the kitchen, I found Anne writing out what appeared to be three separate lists.

"What are those?" I asked.

"Well, one is for you to sort out, one is for Johnny to sort out and the final one is for me to sort out. Here's your list." She pushed a list of about twenty items across to me. I read the first: get Christmas Tree. Then scanned the rest of the list, which included: get Christmas Tree decorations.

"Looks like I am going to be busy," I said. "Any sign of Johnny?"

"Yes, he and his grandfather are out in carriage house, sorting out the furniture you got yesterday. Steve dropped some stuff off to them about half an hour ago. Jack says they should have the stuff ready to move about lunchtime."

"I presume by Steve, you mean your uncle," I said.

"Yes," Anne replied. "We need to do something about that; having two Steve's around could become confusing. Though I notice everybody calls Jim's one Steven."

"I'll mention it when I see gardening Steve," I stated, pouring myself a mug of tea. "Best he sticks with Steven."

"When are you seeing him?" Anne asked.

"As soon as I have had breakfast. There is no way I can get everything done on that list, but I think I can ask Steven and Jim to sort out the Christmas tree and greenery for us. They've got the contacts in the trade," I pointed out.

"I suppose they do," Anne replied. "Never thought of that."

I finished my breakfast, then set out across the yard. On the way, I glanced into the carriage house. Johnny and Jack were busy doing something with some power tools. I decided it was probably best not to know what was going on. I got to the studio apartment that Steven was using and knocked, but there was no answer. I noticed that Jim's van was parked by the side of the apartment, so guessed they were probably in the kitchen garden. When I went through to the garden, I found I was right. Both of the youths were there, cutting back brambles and piling stuff up in what looked like it was going to be a bonfire at some time.

"Hi, Mr. Carlton," Jim said when he saw me.

"You look busy," I commented.

"Not particularly," Jim replied. "Dad doesn't need me today, so we thought we would try to clear this area of brambles. If we can get it cleared before the new year, we can rotavate it and let the winter frosts do their work. Will make life a lot simpler come spring."

"Well, I need your help," I stated. "If I give you some money, could you go out and get us a Christmas tree to put in the hallway? We need something about twelve to eighteen feet I would think."

"Why don't you use one from the estate?" Steven asked.

"We have some?"

"Yes, there are some self-sown spruces along the side of the road from the Sidings Lane entrance. They are going to have to be cut back at some point to make that entryway safe. At the moment, they block the view as you are turning in. I was planning to talk to you in the new year about cutting them down. There is bound to be one amongst them that will fit what you need. If not, there are some on the path to the Tithe Barn," Steven informed me.

"Fine, if I can get it without layout, I am all for it," I said. "Anne also wants some greenery for the decorations."

"What type?" Steven asked. I told him. "No problem, they are all available in the grounds; just have to hunt around for a bit. We'll finish up here in a couple of hours, but once we're done, I'll see that you are sorted. Should have the stuff up at the house about four. Is that OK?"

"Fine," I replied. After a brief chat, I left them to get on with doing what they were doing and walked back to the yard to get my car.

My first port of call was to the Farm Shop. Anne had placed our order a couple of weeks ago; all I had to do was pay for it and collect it. All ten boxes of it. By the time I had it all loaded in the Santa Fe, with the back seats down, I had the feeling that Anne was preparing to feed five thousand, a feeling that was intensified when I stopped at the local bakery to pick up the order that Anne had placed. Did we need ten large pork pies?

Rather than go to our local Tesco store, I decided to drive out to the large Tesco Extra at Maldon. It was not far out of my way and did mean I could call in at the office-supply store and get some supplies. I was glad I did. Tesco Extra had all the grocery items that Anne had asked me to get, but they also had a whole pile of Christmas decorations, which saved me driving around to find some.

Two trolley loads later, I had a pretty full car and decided it was probably best to get back home and drop this load off before I attempted to sort out the rest of Anne's list. I got home shortly after twelve. Flora was in the kitchen with Anne when I arrived. The pair of them seemed busy baking.

"Did you get everything?" Anne asked as I came in.

"No, I'm doing the drinks run this afternoon; did not have any more space in the car," I responded.

"But you got the sausage meat?" she asked.

"Yes, it's in one of the Tesco bags," I replied.

"Good, we're just about ready to make the sausage rolls."

"I could have bought some," I observed.

"Yes, but it would not be the same," Anne stated. With that observation, I could not argue. Anne did something with the sausage meat which totally changed the taste of her sausage rolls."

"Do you need any help getting the rooms ready?" I asked.

"All done," Anne informed me. "I phoned Jan a couple of weeks ago and booked for two of her cleaning girls to come in and do the place this morning; they've just finished. They cleaned the whole place and made the beds in all the rooms. I even got them to do Tyler's apartment." I had to admit I had forgotten all about Tyler's apartment. The furniture and stuff was supposed to have been delivered yesterday.

"Is Tyler all set up, then?" I asked.

"Yes, I got his stuff moved over this morning, so he is in the apartment from now on. It's all ready for him when he gets back this afternoon. What have you left to do?"

I told her. In fact, I did not have that much left: a trip to the off-licence to pick up some drinks and then on to the local Tesco to pick up more drinks. On the way back, I would call in at the florists and pick up the flowers that Anne had ordered.

While we had been talking, Flora had put the kettle on and made a pot of tea. I thanked her for it and sat down to enjoy a mug. I was just about halfway through my tea when Anne announced, "By the way, there is a message from Miss Jenkins on the answerphone." I spluttered tea over the table.

Going through to the study, I played the message. It was just asking me to call her, giving a number to reach her. So, I called her.

"Mr. Carlton, so good of you to return my call," she announced. "Just to let you know that you won't have any problems with people following you in the near future."

"Who were they?" I asked.

"A small investigation company based in Romford — mostly ex-service," Miss Jenkins informed me. "They were told to back off but took no notice, so they were sent a message."

"Like a car fire; that was a bit risky, wasn't it?"

Miss Jenkins laughed. "I can assure you I don't know what you are talking about. All I can say is that they will not be providing surveillance on you for anyone."

"Who were they doing it for?" I asked.

"I'm not certain at the moment," Miss Jenkins replied. "I can assure you, though, we will know by the new year."

With that, we finished our call, and I set out on a booze run. First, I went to a specialist wine merchant and bought a couple of dozen bottles of wine. Then to an off-licence that specialised in spirits and liqueurs. Once I had got everything on Anne's list, I made my way to Tesco's to do the bulk-drinks shopping — getting beers, ciders and a couple of interesting gins. I also got a dozen bottles of Freixenet Cordon Negro Cava.

With the car fully loaded again, I made my way back to the Priory. As I pulled into the yard, I observed Johnny and Lee carrying one of the table sections into the house. I followed them in via the kitchen door. The lads continued into the dining room. I stopped in the kitchen, Anne and Flora were busy baking. It appeared they were being assisted by Jenny and James. Jenny was rolling our thin sheets of pastry, then directing James into cutting the required shapes for the various petit- four baking trays.

"Busy," I commented to nobody in particular. I don't think they had registered my arrival.

"Yes," Anne replied. "We're about an hour behind schedule. Did you get everything?"

"Yes," I answered. "As soon as I have taken care of the necessary, I'll get it all unloaded. Have Steven and Jim come up with a tree?"

"They've found one and cut it. Told them not to bring the stuff up till, after six; we should be clear in here by then. Going to have to be a takeaway tonight; no time to cook dinner, not for the numbers who will be here."

"OK." I went to our suite and used the facilities and freshened up, then got the last lot of supplies unloaded and stored away. As I was doing that, Johnny and Lee kept going through the kitchen with parts of the table. I went and sat opposite James.

"No JayDee?" I asked.

"He's in Chelmsford seeing some film with Tariq," James replied. "Marcia took them in; she's doing some late Christmas shopping. Thought I'd give JayDee the day with Tariq today. Marcia and the kids are going to her parents for Christmas, so JayDee is moving in with me tonight. Marcia and the kids will be back on Saturday."

We chatted for a bit about the preparations for Christmas; then things started to get busy. Bernard and Debora arrived in two cars. Joseph was with Bernard, Micah and Bethany were with Debora. I got busy helping them unload and showing them to their rooms; Joseph, of course, knew where he was going, sharing with Johnny. I had just finished with that and was about to make some tea when Jack came through to the kitchen and told us to come and look.

All of us in the kitchen made our way into the dining room. There the table stood. What had been a dull, dark top now glowed a golden yellow.

"Well, what to do you think?" Jack asked.

"It's magnificent," I responded, noticing that it had been set up with all three sections, making it nineteen feet long. It fitted the room perfectly. "It's almost as if it was made for this room."

"I think it was," Anne stated.


"When I was a kid, we used to come up here carol-singing," she replied. "Old Mrs Laughton would invite us into this room for mince pies and hot drinks. This table was here then."

"You know, she's probably right," Jack stated. "The table and dresser were clearly made to go with each other. The chances of them exactly fitting a room that they were not made for would be very low."

"Well, it seems they are home," I stated. "What are we doing with the old ones?"

"I am sure Jan will be able to find a use for them over in the Arts Centre," Anne stated.

That done, I returned to the kitchen and chaos. My brother and his partner had arrived with boxes full of decorations. To make matters worse, Trevor and Tyler followed them in with more boxes of decorations. I looked at Ben.

"They asked why you had no decorations up when they left on Monday, so I told them we always did the Christmas decoration on Christmas Eve after dinner. So, once we get some food sorted and eaten, we can start to spruce this place up.

"We'll have to get some take-out," I stated. "No way are Anne and Flora doing more cooking."

"Fine," Ben said. "I'll call down to the Crooked Man and get some fish and chips."

It made sense, though I do not know what Mary would think about a request for that many fish and chips to go. I don't know if she even did fish and chips to go. In that, though, I had forgotten just who my brother is.

"Hi, Mary," he said once he got through on the phone. "It's Ben Carlton here… Matthew and I are spending Christmas at the Priory… Could you do us a favour?...It's just we have a number of guests here and can't really bring them all down. I wonder if you could do twenty fish-and-chip dinners, and I'll send the boys down to collect them?...I realise this will be extra work for you but would an extra fifty cover costs?...Can I pay you over the phone?" He proceeded to give her his card details.

Turning to me, he continued. "If Lee can take Johnny and Joseph down in the Santa Fe, they can collect the dinners in half an hour. "

Just over half an hour later, the boys were carefully carrying stacks of fish-and-chip dinners into the kitchen. Lee also brought in a pile of the Crooked Man's placemats. These disposable paper mats had their standard menu printed on them.

"Mary said we might find these useful," he informed me.

They were. We had our first meal at the great table.

Food dealt with, Debora, Flora and Jenny were taking charge of the clear up. Ben announced he was in charge of the decoration. I was despatched to tell Steven and Jim to bring the tree over, which they did.

It was not an easy job moving an eighteen-foot spruce in the dark from the kitchen garden to the front door of the Priory. We had to take it to the front, Anne would have screamed blue murder if we had tried to take it in through the kitchen. Anyway, that route would have required us to get it through the yard gates, which I suspected might have been a bit of a problem, even though the lads had got it mounted on a trolley and had tied in its lower branches.

As we pushed it along slowly, I asked Steven how things had worked out with his aunt and uncle.

"Great," he replied. "We're going over there tonight and staying the night. Having a Christmas lunch with them tomorrow, then we will join Jim's parents in the afternoon for the Queen and Christmas Dinner."

"So, it's all good there?" I asked.

"Yes, but I really upset Aunt Grace by not going directly to them," Steven said.

Once at the front of the house, we had to throw the front doors wide open to get the tree in. Fortunately, Jim had found a tree stand in the pile of hardware in the kitchen-garden shed. This he attached to the cut stump of the tree, and we levered it into an upright position in the hallway. At that point, Ben and his gang took over.

I asked Steven and Jim to stay for drinks, but Jim said they'd better not. For a start, the police would be checking drivers tonight, and they had to get to Southmead. More importantly, they did not want to upset Aunt Grace by being late. They were expected for supper.

I thanked them for their help as we unloaded the last of the greenery that had been in the trolley beneath the tree.

The next hour or so were fairly hectic, with my brother giving directions as to what should be done. At one point, I made a comment to Phil that I did not know he could be such a dictator.

"You should see him on set," Phil stated. "He's just playing here."

Somehow or other, things seemed to come together. Decorations were hung, mantles were swathed, and a magic twinkle appeared in the air from thousands of small lights that were present everywhere.

Fires were lit, including the fireplace in the hall, and the scent of wood smoke started to fill the air. This mingled with the scent of mulled wine that emanated from the kitchen. Anne called for us to assemble in the hallway and brought through trays of warm gluhwein and mulled cider. We all stood around the tree, glasses of warm alcohol in our hands. Ben switched on the lights; there was an indrawing of breath amongst the crowd. The tree was beautiful, like some fantasy creation.

Just then, a sound came from outside the front door.

God rest ye merry gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
Remember Christ our Saviour
Was born on Christmas Day
To save us all from Satan's pow'r
When we were gone astray
Oh tidings of comfort and joy
Comfort and joy
Oh tidings of comfort and joy

In Bethlehem, in Israel
This blessed Babe was born
And laid within a manger
Upon this blessed morn
The which His Mother Mary
Did nothing take in scorn
Oh tidings of comfort and joy
Comfort and joy
Oh tidings of comfort and joy

Fear not then, said the Angel
Let nothing you affright
This day is born a Saviour
Of a pure Virgin bright
To free all those who trust in Him
From Satan's pow'r and might
Oh tidings of comfort and joy
Comfort and joyOh tidings of comfort and joy

God rest ye merry gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
Remember Christ our Saviour
Was born on Christmas Day
To save us all from Satan's pow'r
When we were gone astray
Oh tidings of comfort and joy
Comfort and joy
Oh tidings of comfort and joy

The doors were thrown open and the singers invited in. On the dining-room table, trays of mince pies and cups of mulled wine awaited them. They obliged us with two more carols before they departed with a healthy contribution to the charity they were collecting for. Christmas had come to the Priory.

Talk about this story on our forum

Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]

* Some browsers may require a right click instead