Ed Cramer says so you think twenty million sounds about right?
The man on the other end of the phone says should be, yeah.
Ed whistles through his teeth. Nice, he says.
Put it this way, the other man says. They’ve already come up with sixteen point five.
Ed doesn’t want to say that will do. Even though it would. It would more than do. Instead he says bloody cheapskates.
The other man laughs. Says that’s what I told them. E&F Tate’s isn’t some Hicksville outfit you can take the piss out of, I said.
Good man, Ed says. Good man.
It’s got tradition, the man says. Founded in 1925. Family run. Some of its clients have been with it since before the war.
He continues to tell Ed things that Ed already knows. Ed shoots his cuff like he’s punching someone in the stomach, looks at his watch. His study bathes in the late summer sun like a Mallorcan square. He loosens his tie, undoes the top button of his shirt.
He hears a shout from downstairs. Ed, are you coming? The taxi’s here. His wife, Briony.
He covers the mouthpiece of the phone. One minute, he calls out in response.
You got to go? the man asks.
Yeah, yeah, Ed says. In a minute. Family wedding.
Well don’t let me keep you, the man says. Just thought you should know.
It’s ok, Ed says. I’m grateful for the update. So what’s next?
Just got to get sign off on the environmental stuff, the man says.
Any problem I should look out for? Ed asks. He hears a car horn on the drive outside.
Don’t think so. I’ve already had Caroline write up some stuff in the prospectus, the man says. Forward planning, cutting down on emissions, blah blah blah. Just so long as there’s something in there. No one understands all that bollocks anyway.
Bollocks is right, Ed says. This is all because of that Earth Summit three years ago, right? Ever since then it’s been greenhouse gasses this, greenhouse gasses that. Tell them it’s a printers, not a fucking garden centre.
The door to Ed’s study opens.
Daddy, Mummy says we’ve got to leave now and you’re still on the phone.
It’s Astrid, his daughter. She stands scowling at him. Ten years old and she’s already got the old Cramer no nonsense attitude, he thinks.
He holds a finger up at her, mouths one minute. She pushes a lock of blonde hair that’s escaped from her tiara back behind her ear, stands glaring at him. He blows her a kiss.
Listen, Tommo, he says, I really have to shoot. Thanks again for the update, eh?
No problem. The man says. Enjoy the wedding.
Should be interesting, Ed says. I gather we’ve got a lady vicar.
Very modern, Tommo says. Speak Monday.
Yeah, Ed says. Speak Monday. And thanks again. I appreciate it. He places the phone onto its cradle, bustles around his desk to his daughter. Right then, Princess, he says. Shall we go to a wedding?
He steps forward and scoops her up.
We need to hurry up, Daddy, she says.The taxi man’s tooted his horn. Mummy’s told him we’re on our way.
And so we are, he says. And so we are.
He bounces her in his arms as they walk downstairs and she laughs.
Briony and their two sons, Baxter and Dylan, are standing on the circular Turkish rug in the spacious hallway. Briony’s resplendent in fuchsia, her face in shadow under the wide brim of a purple silk hat. Baxter’s fifteen, already a taller version of his father. His chin tucked in, his eyes practicing a look that awaits bridesmaids later. Dylan, Baxter’s junior by eighteen months, squirms uncomfortably in his grey suit, his limbs not yet accustomed to teenage transitions.
Sorry, sorry, Ed says. That was Tommo, about the sale.
On a Saturday? Briony says.
Yeah, I know, timing could have been better. Still, all good, all good. You look lovely, by the way.
Briony smiles, all opprobrium gone in an instant.
Right, Ed says, have we got everything? Present? Invitation?
Briony holds up a gold gift bag.
It’s you we’ve been waiting for, she says. We’ve been ready to go for the last ten minutes.
Well let’s go then, Ed says.
They step out of the front door. Ed gives a thumbs up to the taxi driver who’s smoking a cigarette out of the window of a silver Mercedes people carrier. Ed ducks back inside the door, punches the four digit code into the alarm unit. It beeps in return and he steps outside, puts his key in the door, locks up the house.
Daddy? Astrid says. What’s not a fucking garden centre?
It’s a shame your mother isn’t going to be there, Louise Tate says to her husband. She loved a good wedding.
I know, Lou, James says. But she just doesn’t know who anyone is anymore. They were planning to invite her, I think, but after that last episode…
His voice trails off, thinking of an event earlier in the year. A christening, the vicar wetting the baby’s head, his mother shouting no, no, no! and attacking the vicar with her handbag.
His mother Iris is seventy-three now. She’s had Alzheimer’s disease since her mid-sixties. Four years ago the family decided she’d be better off in a care home. The fees began to stretch them all, financially. A decision was made between James and his three sisters to put the family home on the market to pay for her care. Only then did they uncover their late father’s debts, the remortgage, the money raised to invest in the family business that never made the returns he’d predicted it would. No wonder his father had drunk himself to death.
His brother-in-law Ed had approached them with a plan a year ago. They’d held a family lunch to discuss what to do. It was a difficult conversation but in the end everyone thought it made sense. Ed worked as a management consultant, for Deloitte. He reckoned the business could be worth a couple of million. Give or take, he said. It had potential to be worth more, but it needed some help.
Ed said he knew enough about the business to make a plan. Briony had worked there before the children were born and she was still on the board. He’d outlined his idea through mouthfuls of beef. He knew some people, he said. Through work. Vee Cees, he called them. He thought he could raise some cash.
To do what with? Trish had asked.
Let’s assume, what with powers of attorney over Iris’s shares, that you each own twenty-five percent, he said, addressing Trish, James and their sister Penny. At a two million valuation that’s half a million each.
Good to see maths is such a strong point, Penny said.
I can raise one and a half up front, Ed said, ignoring the jibe. Let me buy you out. James and Trish carry on working there, of course, but let me buy your shares. I can then put some people in place from work, give the business a proper once over. I reckon we can make it worth between three and three and a half within a year. Then we sell. There’s a million quid clear to go into trust to look after Iris for the rest of her days. The firm’s fees get paid. And Briony and I take what’s left as our share. Probably about seven hundred thousand.
He sat back in his seat, speech over. The only sound was the tinkling of cutlery on china. Trish’s husband Lester, still at one with the beef.
Penny was first to speak.
Sowe get half a million each, and you and Briony get seven hundred thousand.
She reached for the bottle of Merlot, topped up her glass.
Ed would be doing all the work, Briony said. Raising the capital, running the consulting team. It’s only fair.
Besides, Ed said. We’re taking the risk. You get half a million quid now. Anything could happen in the course of a year. What if we can’t sell?
Then what happens to Mum? Trish said.
Well, then you’d have a problem, Ed said. We’d all have a problem. But we wouldn’t be worse off than we are now, that’s the thing. It’s win-win. There’s already a problem. I’m trying to solve it.
Why do you need to buy us out? Penny said. Why now? Why not put a team in place anyway and we all take the risk with you?
Because it’s the quickest way, Ed said. The Vee Cees, they know me. They trust me. If I’m going to do this I’ll need to assure them I’ve got complete control. If not, we’ll spend another six months pissing about writing reports just so I can get the initial funding. This way it’s quick and easy.
What about the workers? Trish said. Will they be looked after?
As much as they can be, Ed said. As much as they can be. But it’s your mother I’m concerned about. Making sure she’s looked after.
What do you think, James? Louise said.
James looked down the table at Ed. As if weighing it all up. He swallowed his last mouthful.
I think it sounds like a plan, he said.
Lester put his cutlery down, dabbed at his mouth with a napkin. Half a million quid, he said. I say go for it. Not that it’s my decision.
Are you ready, Lackie?
Louise puts her head around her son Lachlan’s bedroom door. He’s sitting on his bed. Casper the friendly ghost looks down on him out of a poster on his wall. He raises his gaze from his sketch book.
I’m drawing a house, he says.
Jolly good, Louise replies. But you can finish that later. We need to leave, for the wedding. Have you got your shoes?
Lachlan slips off the bed and crouches on the floor. He pulls his shoes out from under the bed.
Do you need a hand with the laces? Louise asks.
Mum, I am eight, Lachlan says. I can manage.
Well, ok, she says, smiling. Just get a move on, eh? Your Dad and I are ready to go.
Downstairs James says how’s he doing?
On his way, Louise says. How we off timewise?
Train’s in twenty-five minutes, James says, looking at his watch. Should be fine.
And you’re sure you don’t mind driving to the station?
Honestly, Lou, it’s fine.
Because we can always get a cab.
Louise, stop fussing, please.
She takes his hands in hers. Says I’m just worried about you, that’s all.
I know you are, he says. He leans forward, kisses her cheek. But I’m fine, really I am. It was just a bit of heatstroke, that’s all. Too much Greek sunshine.
Too much ouzo, more like, she says and gives him a hug.
Shall I go back to my room?
Lachlan’s on the stairs. He’s looking at them through the banisters.
James laughs, says hello Lackie, mate. As he and Louise break apart he feels her give his hand a gentle squeeze.
Earlier in the summer they’d had ten days in Greece, the three of them. Lachlan had loved a restaurant in which dancers smashed plates on the floor at the end of the night. Towards the end of the holiday James had started to suffer from dizzy spells. He’d been to their GP when they got home. Had some tests. Nothing conclusive but they’d asked him to come back in six months. Ever since Louise had been protective, mentioning it if ever he felt anything less than wonderful. That morning she’d caught him rubbing his chest in the kitchen. Bit of heartburn he’d said. Nothing to worry about.
Who’s getting married again? Lachlan asks.
It’s my cousin Samantha, James says. He slips his suit jacket on, hunts through a bowl on a table in the hallway for his car keys. Says your second cousin.
Have I met her before? Lachlan says.
You have, Louise tells him. But not for a while, you probably won’t remember. Do you remember your Great Uncle Ronnie, Great Aunt Pamela?
Lachlan shakes his head. Don’t think so, he says.
Well, Samantha’s their daughter, Louise says, as if that explains everything. She checks her face in the mirror, touches up her lipstick. Will I do? she asks James.
Do? he says. I’ll say you’ll do. You’ll upstage the bride, Lou. She laughs and James turns to his son. All set, mate?
Well what are we waiting for then? Let’s go, James says.
As they leave the house Lachlan says will I know anyone else there?
Some cousins, I expect, Louise says. Astrid and her brothers. You like Astrid.
Which is true, he does. She’s a bit older than him, and a girl, but she’s special. Always makes him feel a warm glow somewhere deep inside that he can’t explain.
James unlocks the BMW that sits on the driveway. He slides a gift-wrapped box onto the back sit and Lachlan slips in beside it.
Would you hold on to my hat, Lackie? Louise says, and passes her son a large hat made of straw and ribbons.
Hold on to your hats! James cries. Hold on to your hats! He starts the engine and they drive away, laughter ringing down the avenue.
In the Mercedes people carrier Briony says so what was so important that Tommo had to call you on a Saturday?
The taxi seems to be crawling and Ed hopes they’ve left enough time. The boys are playing a game that involves them hitting each other across the knuckles. Astrid’s staring out of the window counting yellow cars. She’s up to seventeen.
He had dinner last night with the finance guy from Quagg, he says.
Who? Briony asks.
Quagg, Ed says. Sorry, IQ:Aggregate. The Vee Cee guys buying Tate’s.
Oh. And what did he say?
He told Tommo they’d be prepared to go to eighteen million, he says. Which Tommo reckons means they’ll have done their sums based on twenty.
Twenty million pounds? Briony’s voice an octave higher.
Ssh, Ed says, laughing. Keep it down, Bri. Yes, twenty million.
But I thought we were talking about four, five at the outside, she says.
We were, he says. Initially. But that was before I commissioned that study into the future of publishing on the world wide web, he says. Because Tate’s has held that local newspaper group print contract since God was a boy, Tommo and I have been whispering to them about putting newspapers on the web. Suddenly they’ve seen the light and joined the dots. Tate’s is now the biggest prize there is.
Briony squeezes his knee. You clever old thing, she says.
Not a word, though, he says. Not a word. Not today.
Of course not. So what’s next?
Tommo says he’s just tying up some odds and ends with the prospectus. Putting in some environmental stuff, fighting global warming, all that nonsense. Should be ready to present the whole thing later this week.
It’s not nonsense, Astrid says.
What isn’t, darling? Briony says.
Global warming, Astrid says. Mrs Gerelli says it’s the most important thing facing the world today.
It’s Ed’s turn to ask who?
Mrs Gerelli, Briony says. Astrid’s teacher, at school.
She says that every time we leave a light on we’re helping to kill polar bears, Astrid says. So it isn’t nonsense.
Well we don’t want that, do we, Ed says. He puts on a funny voice. Turn that light off! Turn that light off!
It’s not funny, Astrid says. She turns and resumes her counting. Eighteen, she says, as a yellow MX-5 passes them travelling in the opposite direction.
On the train Lachlan’s engrossed in a book. James looks at him then turns to Louise.
I had a call from Ed yesterday, he says.
You didn’t say, she says.
No, I’ve been thinking about it before I said anything, he says. Wasn’t sure how I felt to be honest.
What did he say? Louise asks.
Looks like this sale’s going through, he says. Tate’s.
Well that’s good, isn’t it? she says.
Yeah, I guess, he says. Means the plan’s worked. Means mum will be looked after.
He turns to face her directly. He also said they’re going to let me and Trish go, he says. Want to put their own team in.
I’ve sort of been expecting it, he says. If I’m honest.
You’ll find something else, she says.
James laughs, quietly. Will I? he says. I doubt it. I’m over forty. I’ve only ever worked at Tate’s.
But you know people, she says. You know lots of people.
True, he says. But they’re all connected. Plus I just can’t imagine staying in printing if it’s not at Tate’s. Not sure I could stomach it. Besides, I’m not going to be allowed to work for another printers for a while. It’s in the contract. They’ll put a package together, he says. About a year’s salary, tax free. The car would go, of course.
Louise holds his hand. We’ll manage, she says. We’re hardly broke. We’ll get another car. Something smaller. And we’ve barely touched that windfall. We’ve got money. We’ll be ok. Just have to draw our horns in a bit, that’s all.
Don’t mention it today, he says. Not today. I wasn’t going to say anything until after the wedding but it’s been weighing on my mind.
No, of course not, she says.
I wouldn’t want there to be an atmosphere, he says. It’s Samantha’s day. And Ed’s doing the right thing. It just feels a bit strange.
The wedding’s in a church in a part of town where the countryside has encircled the community, like wagons in a cowboy film. It’s got an urban postcode but feels like it’s all ploughman’s lunches and forest walks. Everyone agrees that the female vicar does a splendid job. The church smells like a rose garden, such are the numbers of glorious displays, and the stained glass windows paint age-worn stone angels in psychedelic patterns. The I Dos ring out, as do the hymns.
The reception’s in a marquee. Champagne flows and the speeches are clear and respectable. There’s a lunch of chicken followed by raspberry flan, with a buffet planned for later, all delivered effortlessly by outside caterers. White-shirted waiting staff move among the congregation, bottles under their arms, like an army of gulls feeding their young.
As evening approaches a band carry their instruments and amplifiers onto a makeshift stage where the top table had been and start to set up. Lachlan stands at the edge of the stage and watches a man assemble a drum kit.
He hears a voice say hello, Lackie, I’m bored, shall we go outside?
He turns to see Astrid standing next to him. He hadn’t heard her approach. She’s a little taller than him and is wearing a white dress. Her long blonde hair is tied back in a yellow ribbon.
Where’s your crown? he asks.
You had a crown, he says. Earlier, I saw it on your head.
Astrid laughs. My tiara! she says. It hurt my head. I hated it. So I took it off.
They walk out of the marquee and into the garden. It’s a warm evening despite being mid-September, the sun low, throwing lazy long shadows across the lawn. Some guests are in deckchairs, sleeping off the Champagne. Others recline on blankets. Laughter rides up the garden on a cool breeze from out near a crop of leylandii.
Where are you two off to? It’s James.
Hi, Dad, Lachlan says. Nowhere in particular.
Mummy says everyone’s getting a second wind, Astrid says.
Well that sounds about right, James replies. There’s going to be dancing soon. You going to have a dance with me later, Astrid?
She laughs, says maybe.
Something makes Lachlan feel awkward. He doesn’t know what it is, but he’s glad when his Dad says be good, you two, see you later, and he carries on back into the marquee.
Lachlan suddenly feels an energy surge inside him that needs releasing. He says bet you can’t catch me, and he’s off, tearing across the lawn.
He stops by a huge beech tree and looks back. Astrid’s running too, and she’s close, her ribbon flying behind her like a comet’s tail. A laugh escapes from his throat and he ducks behind the tree. She’s almost beside him and he dashes around the giant trunk, the bark soft and yielding yet still rough on his hands. They stand bobbing like two puppets, moving left, then right, the tree between them. And then she feints left, he dives to the right and she’s tricked him. She’s upon him and they fall to the floor, laughing among the leaves and the bark chippings and their hiccupping, hot breath.
Astrid says you have to kiss me now.
What? he says.
I caught you, Astrid says, so you have to give me a kiss. It’s the rules. She closes her eyes and raises her head, her chin pointing back at the marquee.
Lachlan leans across and kisses her cheek. She opens her eyes and grins. Says have you done global warming at school?
A bit, he says. He’s both glad and disappointed in a way he doesn’t understand that the moment has moved on. There’s gas that’s making everything hotter, he says.
Yes! She says. Greenhouse gasses. I heard my Dad talking about them today and he swore.
What did he say? Lachlan asks.
He said something wasn’t a fucking garden centre, she says, in a whisper. He was talking about work, I think, and they both laugh.
Daddy says it’s nonsense, she says. Global warming. But I think he’s wrong.
Lachlan hears himself say so do I.
It’s harming animals and it’s bad for the planet, Astrid says. I think it’s the most important thing in the world.
Me too, says Lachlan.
Promise me you’ll always think that?
I promise, he says. He feels as if he’s entered into a contract and he grins at Astrid and is glad.
I think we’re going to be rich, Astrid says, brushing grass from her dress.
Daddy said something in the car on the way here. Something about Tate’s and twenty million pounds.
That’s a lot, Lachlan says.
Above them a string of coloured lightbulbs are turned on. They’re suspended from high in the tree and stretch to the marquee, pink, blue, yellow, green, pink, blue, yellow, green.
Lachlan says they’re pretty. It’s the sort of thing you’re supposed to say to girls.
Yes, Astrid says, but they’re a waste of electricity, aren’t they?
I mean, why couldn’t they use candles? It would be just as pretty, she says.
People might catch their dresses on them, Lachlan says. It could be dangerous.
Not if they’re careful, she says.
They sit gazing up at the lights. After what feels like ages Lachlan says I’m hungry. Shall we go and get something to eat?
Astrid says ok.
They stand and wander back to the marquee. Tiny pieces of bark and blades of grass stick to their legs, clinging to Lachlan’s trousers, Astrid’s skin.
Inside people are starting to queue at the buffet. The band are tuning their instruments. Somebody says one two into a microphone. Astrid sees her brother Baxter talking to a girl who looks about sixteen. The girl keeps looking over Baxter’s shoulder, like she’s seeking the cavalry.
Down here, she says to Lachlan, indicating a space underneath a table draped with pink and white linen. They crouch between feet and creep into the void, sit knees against chins. They peer out between curtains made of folded strawberries and cream.
This can be our camp, she says.
Lachlan grins. I’ll get us some food, he says.
Astrid says ok and he crawls back out from beneath the table. He squirms around adult legs and stands up, makes his way to the buffet table. He finds a stack of paper plates and takes one, loads it with sandwiches and things on sticks, handfuls of crisps, his hand darting between elbows and Sunday best suits. At the end of the table is a great pile of sliced wedding cake, wrapped in pink serviettes. He takes two pieces and manages to fit them onto his plate by pushing some crisps into a taller mound. He walks slowly back to where they were sitting, balancing the towers of food. The plate tries to fold itself precariously. A crisp falls to the floor, like a moth that got too close to the light.
For a second he loses track of which table they were under. And then he sees her, her face peering out from under the cloth, her smile lighting up the marquee.
He bends down and hands her his haul, says won’t be a minute, I’m going back for drinks.
Astrid takes the plate from him and shuffles back into the shadows. When Lachlan returns with a bottle of Fanta and two plastic cups a man has taken to the stage and is tapping the microphone. Lachlan settles in beside his cousin.
The man introduces the band and says they’re going to play one song and then the bride and groom will be back for the first dance. He calls them the happy couple and Astrid whispers I hope they’re happy, it’s their party.
Lachlan laughs quietly. The band play a rendition of Stand By Me. Afterwards the singer asks the guests to give it up for Samantha and Robert, who he also calls Mr and Mrs Forbes. The newlyweds arrive to applause and the band begin to play Love Is All Around. Astrid puts her finger in her mouth and makes a puking motion, causing Lachlan to nearly choke on a ham sandwich. After a minute or so more people join the couple on the dancefloor. Slowly the view from beneath the table fills with legs slowly moving, stiff limbed like zombies.
Astrid and Lachlan sit beside each other, not speaking. The band plays for a further half an hour before handing over to a DJ, saying they’ll be back with another set later in the evening. The DJ puts on DancingQueen.
Astrid says I like this one and they watch disembodied shoes dancing to Abba like a Punch and Judy show.
When the song ends she says close your eyes.
Lachlan does. He feels her breath close to him and then she kisses him on the lips. Her mouth is slightly wet and tastes of Fanta orange. When he opens his eyes she’s smiling.
I like you, Lackie, she says.
I like you, too.
I mean, I know you’re my cousin, she says. But I’d like you even if you weren’t.
Me too. I mean, I’d like you, too, he says. If we weren’t cousins.
There you are. Louise pulls back the linen curtain, says I’ve been looking for you.
Lachlan wonders whether she saw anything. Whether she heard. She’s smiling and says hello, Astrid, so he doesn’t think so. We need to get going soon, she says. Your Dad’s getting tired and we’ve got to get the train. Come and say goodbye to your aunts and uncles?
Lachlan rests his head against his Dad’s shoulder as the train rocks rhythmically homewards. He pretends to be asleep and his parents speak softly about how nice it was to see everyone, how it had been a good do. Louise says she’d thought Briony a bit off, but she’d spoken to Trish and it seemed she’d been a bit distant all day. James says that he’d felt it too, and yet Ed had been the absolute life and soul.
Lachlan’s thoughts circle on a lazy carousel, alternating between a moment underneath the giant beech tree and a cave created by table linen. He can feel the soft warmth of the earth beneath the tree, feel the texture of bark, the woody, green scent in his nostrils. Coloured lightsswim and separate behind his eyes and he’s back in a place where people dance to Abba and where the taste of orange Fanta has awakened something new and exciting that he can’t explain.
He hears his Mum say Lackie, love, we’re getting off soon.
He half opens his eyes.
Dad, he says, where you work. It’s called Tate’s, isn’t it?
That’s right, mate, it is, James says. He chuckles. What made you think of that?
Louise looks at her husband. Wondering what’s coming next.
Something that Astrid said.
What did she say? James says.
Lachlan says she told him her Dad mentioned Tate’s and said something about twenty million pounds. He asks if that means they’re going to be rich, too.
He notices the colour drain from his father’s face. Sees him clutch his chest, watches him fall as his legs buckle beneath him.
Andrew Leach is a London-based writer of novels, short stories and the occasional poem. He has had work published in a number of literary magazines including STORGY, Magma Poetry, Reflex Fiction, Ellipsis Zine and in two volumes of anthology, Stories for Homes Volumes One and Two, for charity Shelter. His first novel, Blow Your Kiss Hello, was published in 2012 and a second is very much underway.
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