October was glorious, warm and sunny. The cricket season came to a close. The Minnis fell into autumn, deserted most days except for solitary dog walkers, parties hunting for late blackberries among tangles of brambles, and the cognoscenti who knew where to track down the sloes and obscure wild edible fungi. Alison took to solitary strolls in the wilder parts of the common, relishing the way the bracing wind blew straight off the Channel and made her feel alive.
The finger bone, or whatever it was (the longer she did nothing about it, the more her doubts grew), was secreted in cotton wool inside a matchbox stored very carefully in a tiny cupboard above the gas-fired Aga. A decision was required, and a careful one too. Her outburst at the bonfire was too erratic, too emotional to give her much credibility. She was reluctant to start shouting murder without some forethought or further evidence. Then, while these thoughts were settling in her head, the earth began to shake.
On the first weekend of the month Miles had been lying in bed at eleven in the morning reading the business section of the Sunday Times. Suddenly, he jumped up with a frightened yelp. Alison had rarely seen such an expression of terror on his face. It was as if someone had died. The paper had an exclusive. The bank’s great rival, a Frankfurt house, was rumoured to be launching a take-over bid. If it went through, it meant that the three-hundred-year-old traditional bank of Mersons would be no more.
Over a late breakfast of French toast and maple syrup, the ginger cat twining between their legs, Miles poring over every one of the broadsheets, fielding calls from colleagues, rivals and the media, she asked, “What’s going to happen?”
He slapped a big dollop of syrup onto the bright yellow bread. “If this goes through one of two things. The Germans will either fire me or ask me to run the whole show.”
“Will they win then?”
“In all probability,” he admitted. “Frankly, we need global partners. This has been coming for some time, although I rather hoped your fellow countrymen would get in first. A nice, distant American owner would be wonderful.”
She picked at her food, wishing she understood more of the place where he spent most of the waking day. Even in New York his job at the Wall Street branch of Mersons had been a mystery. “But if they’re going to win, why don’t you save yourself all this money and effort and negotiate the best deal you can?”
Miles gave her his best condescending smile. “I wish it were that simple. If we roll over and ask them to tickle our tummies they’ll think we’re all wimps and fire the lot of us. Quite right too. We have to put up a decent defence just to show them what we’re made of. The trouble is…”
He scratched his chin with a forefinger and fed Thomas a morsel of sweet toast. “The trouble is judging it correctly. If we throw ourselves into the whole thing too enthusiastically we look like bolshie little Englanders. And so we’re out that way as well. All a question of judgement.”
“Could you get another job?”
“Dunno,” he replied immediately. “Norman would probably let me pull pints at the Green Man for a while.”
“Miles! This is serious.”
“So am I. Haven’t a clue. I’ve worked at Mersons all my adult life. I get head-hunted from time to time. But head-hunting rather depends on your status. They get brownie points for pinching someone in a high profile job. It doesn’t count for quite the same thing when you’re out of work.”
She was oblivious to the state of their finances. “What do we have in the bank?”
“Oh,” he made a show of mentally calculating the figure. “About five grand… New York was expensive if you recall. Cost an arm and a leg moving back here. And I shelled out close to a hundred on a loan to get the house in order. Dear Emily may have given us the place for free but it needed a lot of work before I could let you see it. ”
She felt guilty. “I never asked, did I? Just left it to you as usual.”
“No complaints. I could reschedule the loan if it comes to the worst.”
“All the same it’s not enough, is it? Not if you’re out of work for a long time.”
He reached over and took her hand. “Alison, my love. I’m not bright at many things but I do understand money.”
“So what does it mean?”
“On the one hand, I could come out as the new chief executive of a German-owned subsidiary office. That would put me on, say, half a mill basic, plus bonuses and options that ought to take me will over the mill mark. Which, in case you don’t recall, is more than double the pittance I earn at the moment.”
She stroked the cat and smiled. “I like the sound of that, Miles. Do you?”
“Absolutely. And once I get my feet under the table you can bet the modus operandi will be adjusted to suit our lifestyle. No way would the buggers get me back living in London.”
“Alternatively I’ll be out on my ear with a pay-off, I guess, of 600k or so. Take the effing tax out of that and, theoretically, we end up with enough to live on for two years, two and a half perhaps, without earning a cent. After that it’s the milk round or the bar of the Green Man. And, at some stage, bye, bye Priory House. We couldn’t afford the upkeep on a place like this.”
Thomas yowled for attention. She got up and opened a tin of cat food. “We could economise.”
He shook his head gently and laughed. It was at times like these that Alison remembered why she took to Miles in the first place. He cared so much and it was all so selfless, never asking a price.
“We could except want to live too. No. If I lose the job, I need to get another, on equal or better pay, within six months. If not, we sell the house, downsize to something with a more sensible mortgage, and try to work out what happens next. Leave it any later than that and we could see our equity disappear entirely before long, and that’s not something either of us would relish.”
“Do we stop trying?”
“Trying what?” He was genuinely baffled.
“A child, Miles! Can we really afford one if you might be out of a job?”
He seemed amazed. “Good God, Alison. Either of us could walk under a bus tomorrow. Why should we let a stupid thing like this stand in the way of a baby? You’re not having second thoughts, are you?”
“No!” She was happy here. She was making friends, starting to meet people on those long walks across the Minnis.
“Good. Then let’s carry on as we intended. As soon as the phone stops ringing, if you like.”
“That might be next year.”
“Not so long. Have you seen John Tyler again?”
She was starting to hate doctors. They all said the same thing. “I’ll make an appointment if you like.”
“It’s your decision. But think of it this way. We know I’m firing live bullets. We know your pipework’s all connected right too. If he can’t solve that particular riddle we’ll find someone who can.”
“Tomorrow,” she replied with a smile. “I’ll see him tomorrow.”
Then Andy Moorside, the Mersons chief executive was on the phone and talk of babies disappeared altogether. Battle was about to be joined. A war committee of Mersons’ senior personnel was being assembled. There was not the slightest possibility of an agreed bid. A brutal hostile take-over was in the making, one that could run on well into the New Year. It would entail tactics and strategy, dirty tricks and millions spent on PR. Miles was to be in command of black propaganda, spreading rumours about the Farber group’s liquidity, its record on the environment and minority hiring, anything and everything that could darken the name of the Germans. He was to have access to private investigators and tame politicians. No expense could be spared.
And this would take time. So much. It was soon obvious that the daily trek from Beulah to the City was not one he could make reliably. A £300 a night suite had been booked for him at the Tower Hotel. Until the battle was won or lost there was no clue when he might make it home in the evenings, or even at weekends.
Alison listened to the calls and, at the end of the afternoon, Miles’ gloomy analysis of the mountain of work ahead. The papers painted the Merson-Farber battle as one of the great conflicts of the international financial world. Even the Saturday afternoon ritual, in the soft, broad bed overlooking the Minnis, seemed in doubt.
Miles understood her sadness, she knew. It was not a situation of his choosing. “Pecker up, old girl,” he said, kissing her on the nose. “It only needs one little soldier to hit the mark. We’ll get there. And this time next year we’ll be wondering how to spend all that lovely moolah too.”
In the meantime, she thought, only half bitterly, there would be Beulah for company. And the cat.
(c) David Hewson 2012