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WINDING UP

Submitted by on April 23, 2012 – 5:45 pmOne Comment

By

Eric Northey

The train from the south pulled up at the dead hour of a winter afternoon, under a louring sky. The few passengers who alighted dispersed down the concourse and he was left standing near the taxi rank. He thought about taking a cab, but that might give his father the idea that he had money, so he turned and walked along the street towards the town centre. He passed a couple of pubs, tinned up with aluminium sheets. One was The George. He’d drunk there occasionally with his father, after work, when as a teenager, he’d spent the summers in the showroom or in the dingy warehouse at the back, where the packing crates and boxes were delivered. He’d longed then to get out of the town and never come back. But this was his father’s last day. He felt obliged.

In the shopping centre, people milled about without much purpose. They moved between Cash Converters, Payday Loans and the Chinese pound shops, stacked high with plastic bins, bowls and brushes, all tipped up, so that their red bristles seemed to be the only colour in the landscape. Small cliques of young men rode round on tiny bikes; older men stood huddled outside the betting shops, smoking. Women were the survivors in this territory. They struggled still with Tesco bags and fingered the cheap dresses on racks outside the Indian clothes shops. But they weren’t buying much. He passed one or two beggars, squatting with blankets round their knees, holding used McDonalds cups in their outstretched hands. He didn’t give. He had troubles of his own to think about. Some of the bigger shops were still there, Marks and Spencer, Primark, Debenhams. But the Co-op had gone and Burtons. Woolworths was still tinned up.

His father’s showroom was at the far end of the town centre, in a row of what had once been terraced houses, long ago knocked into shops. Bright day-glo posters were plastered across the tops of the windows. SALE! SALE! SALE! – they’d always been there. But the EVERYTHING MUST GO! aslant across the window front was new. And everything had gone. He peered in and saw the acres of empty floor space, the litter of sales leaflets on the floor, the unopened junk mail behind the door. There was still a cheap plaque fixed to the wall: Boardman’s Ltd. Registered Office, just below the intercom. He pressed the bell twice. It seemed a long time before he heard his father rasp,

- Who is it?

- It’s me, dad. Ernest.

- Oh. That’s a surprise. Nice of you. I’ll be right down.

Even from outside, you could hear the military clip of his polished shoes on the floor as he approached. He looked all right. Upright, smiling, every inch a salesman. He drew back the bolts and opened the door, stepping back to let his son through, before locking up behind him. He was clearly pleased. Ernest thought for a moment he was going to be hugged. But no, just a firm handshake and a light pat on the shoulder.

- It’s good of you to come. Hadn’t expected it. Wouldn’t have recognised you.

- Mam phoned. Said it was your last day.

-Yes. Still keeps me on my toes. Gets involved a bit. Still part-owner. How is she?

- I’ve not seen her. But she sounds fine. Learning a bit of Spanish. They seem to go swimming every day.

- Have you seen the new flat?

- No. We’ve not had chance to get out there yet. Maybe in the spring, when the kids are a bit bigger.

- Of course. Of course. Are they well?

- Yeh. They’re fine. Emma’s teething, so we don’t get a lot of sleep. But we’re OK.

- And Andrea? She back at work?

- Just part-time. But it helps. And I can usually squeeze the child-care in between lectures. Students aren’t that keen any more.

- No. I’m sure. We had a few on work experience towards the end. But, to be honest, you wouldn’t give them a job. No energy. No get up and go. Whole town’s like that.

The two walked back through the empty showroom towards the office. There were dust-lines along the walls where the shelves had been. Light and shadowed areas patterned the floor in the shape of the beds and sofas, that had stood unsold for some time. Sunlight caught the dust motes kicked up by their feet. It was in this room, as a sixteen year old, that he’d first seen his father as a completely different man from the one he knew at home. Here, his hair was sleeked back, moustache clipped, blazer with a little hankie tucked into the top pocket. Even in the boom of the ‘Eighties, he was a man just out of his time. He would come down from the office, greet customers personally, relaxed and easy in himself, fluent with genuine knowledge of sprung mattresses, fire-proofed foam and the lasting qualities of cupboards. For a while, he prospered, building the business up from nothing with aggressive pressure on his many suppliers and tight control of his costs. But after the divorce, he began to lose his grip. His temper flared more often, so good staff left. Those who replaced them took whatever they could get away with, in compensation for poor wages and as insurance against the sack. No doubt similar fiddles were worked by those on Job Seeker’s Allowance, who were his main source of staff over the last year. When even they finally stopped coming, there were just the two of them, he and Mrs Makinson, the part-time woman who did his accounts. There simply wasn’t the manpower to re-arrange the displays, re-dress the stock, and customers were left to wander round unguided by his genial but calculating hand. The banks quickly called in the administrators.

They reached the office up the uncarpeted stairs.

- Come in. Come in. I was just tidying up the last bits of paperwork. They’ve only left us one chair and a table. Apparently that’s the law. Or they couldn’t sell them. Go on. Sit down. No, you have it.

He wheeled the office chair round to the customer’s side and ushered his son into it.

- I’ve brought some tea bags and a kettle. And there’s a bit of sugar. No milk, I’m afraid.

Ernest sat uncomfortably in the chair, watching his father fill the kettle and plug it in.

- Do you take sugar?

- Just a spoonful please. Andrea says I have to watch my weight.

- You seem a bit thin to me. Are you looking after yourself?

- I’m OK, really.

Ernest saw he used just one tea bag to brew the two cups. He brought them over, placed them on the desk and perched on the corner.

- Didn’t think it would come to this. Did you?

- No. You seemed to be doing all right last time I came up.

- It’s the recession. Been going on four years now. I’m not the only one. Even the big boys have been hit.

- Yes. I saw.

- Deserted isn’t it? Nobody comes into town. Just charity shops and pawnbrokers. Dreadful. Like a Third World country. I stayed open longer than most.

- Chinese and Asians seem to be doing OK.

- Keep it in the family. Lowers your costs. We couldn’t do that.

- Mam says you still owe her quite a lot. A bit bitter about it.

- She’ll get something, don’t worry. I don’t need much myself. I’ll do my best for her. There were good years as well as bad. That’s business. How’s the kids? Are you going a bit bald?

- Honestly I’m fine. Just not got your genes, either for hair or for business.

- Nah, it’s not genes, man. You need ideas! Big ideas! Find what’s the next new thing. Get in on it early. Like computer games. The trainees I had spent all their time on it, on the phones, on their ipods. All the time. That’s what I need to get in on.

- Dad, you don’t know the first thing about computers!

- But I can learn! That’s where we’re different you and me. There’s classes for older people. I’ll have time now. I’m going down tomorrow, to the college, see what they can offer.

- It’s not like that any more. They’re just interested in the younger end, the neets. Keep them off the streets.

- But you’re a teacher, lecturer. You could advise me what to study. What’s the next big wave. I could sell up, come and live somewhere near you. There’s bound to be colleges down there. It’s booming in the south. Booming.

Ernest’s heart froze.

- Honestly dad, it’s not like that. You’d be better off trying to find something here. You’ve got contacts.

- But it’s dead. Gone. I went to Rotary last month. Just six of us. Hopeless. How can you beat a recession with that? No. It’s time to move on. Your mam’s done the right thing.

- Spain’s even worse dad. Only the expats and the crooks have money.

- Well, there you are! There’s got to be an opening somewhere. English language paper. Advertising agency. Just for the Brits. Laundry service, in English. All those flats, they need furniture, bedding. Got to be possibilities. If your mam’s up for it, put some money into a new store.

- I don’t think her husband would want that. He seems pretty tight to me.

- Well, something. Got to do something. Bags of experience. I’m only fifty-nine. Best years still to come, eh?

Ernest took a sip of the sweet tea and saw the hopelessness of the situation. His father was from another age, a child of the Sixties, of hope and energy. These meaner times needed meaner men. He wasn’t one of them. His time had passed.

- Have you put anything aside?

- Well, I have a bit. But the liquidators take everything they can get their hands on. Luckily the house is still in our joint names, so they’ve got to get her consent. I’ve told them, truthfully, I don’t have her address. Not even a phone number.

A few strains of sunlight filtered in through the frosted glass at the window, the shadows of the burglar bars etched across it. They framed his father, silhouetted him. He wasn’t a crook, but his book-keeping was partial and without Mrs Makinson, he’d have gone under long ago.

- Are you going to sign on?

- No. Can’t do that. Never done it. Never in my life. Don’t believe in it.

He got up and began to pace about the room, head down, thinking.

- No. I’ll be all right. Bit of savings. Some premium bonds. Everyone’s been very nice. Very professional.

- But you’ve got no income?

- Don’t need it. That’s where I made the mistake. Thought money was everything. But you can live very frugally. I have done these last few months. It’s not hard. Mortgage is paid off. Your mam saw to that. You know, I spend less than £100 a week now. Total. Sometimes much less. And I eat OK. Look after myself. Don’t go out much. Don’t run a car. No, I fancy a little house by the sea. North Wales, somewhere like Llandudno. See if there’s not some summer work. I’ve got experience and I’m still presentable. Sell up altogether. Give half to your mam and look for a little housing association. Something like that.

- But that still costs dad. Mam’ll want her fair share, maybe more. And if you’ve got any funds, those charity things will want paying. There’s no Housing Benefit if you’ve got savings.

- That right? Well, I’ll think of something. Five or six years and I’ll have my state pension. It’ll be all right.

Ernest dreaded this moment. He’d thought of it all the way up. And now it was come.

- Look, we’re not rich, but you know, if you’ve got nothing, like if it’s a question of necessity say, I could raise a bit perhaps. Ask Andrea. Sound her out.

- Wouldn’t hear of it, lad. Wouldn’t hear of it. We’ll get by. Just a bit of re-adjustment.

- OK. But, let me know if things get tight. I say, things are a bit tight for us at the moment, but I wouldn’t want to think of you, you know…

- No. Don’t worry about it at all. Not at all. Come on. Let’s get going. Have a drink somewhere. I’ll just put these papers in my case, finish them off at home. Why don’t you wash the cups and empty the kettle. We’ll take them with us. You can come and drop the keys off with me. It’s near the station.

Whilst his father stuffed the paperwork into his briefcase, Ernest went to the little kitchen. He drained the kettle and swilled the cups under the tap. There wasn’t a towel, so he shook them and wiped them clean on a tissue. He put the cups, the kettle with its flex, and the crumpled sugar bag into a bin liner. It didn’t look good, but it would have to do.

- Ready? said his father, brisk and jaunty as ever.

- OK.

They strode off down the stairs and across the echoing showroom. His father set the alarm and the peeps sounded round the empty walls. Outside, without sentiment, the old man rolled down the shutters and slipped the padlock through the hasp and clicked it shut.

- There. That’s it.

They set off towards the solicitors, the keys jangling in his father’s hands. The streetlights were just coming on.

- Do you think Andrea might be up for a loan? he asked.

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