I was away at boarding school when the trouble happened.
In a boardroom coup my Dad lost his business and, as a consequence, our house in a leafy West London suburb.
I'd spent the last few weeks of term planning the Christmas vacation, so, when he picked me up from school and peremptorily informed me we were moving to the south coast, I was more than a tad miffed.
"What!?" I said as we manoeuvred my trunk and tuck box into the boot. Then I realised he wasn't looking very happy either, and calmed down.
I said goodbye to my friends, slipped into the passenger seat and did up my seat belt. "I didn't mean to snap Dad, but it was a bit of a shock."
"It was for me, too, Neil. I'll tell you about it on the way home."
I undid my seat belt and leant over to give him a hug. He seemed smaller. Somehow diminished, so I kissed him on the cheek for good luck. A wan smile was the result as he started the car and we set off home.
"Bastards!" I said, as he explained what had happened.
"Yes. It was well planned. They made their move while I was in America, so it was a fait accompli. John and Ken were there too, which, I have to say, rankled."
"Rankled? They're your closest friends, Dad."
"No. They are... were, my closest colleagues."
"How could they?"
"They didn't have shares, Neil. They weren't on the board. Honestly, I don't blame them. They'd have been fired if they'd stuck by me."
We fought the traffic, and finally pulled into our road. It was almost as if I were seeing it for the first time. My friends all lived in the houses that surrounded ours. We'd grown up together and knew each others strengths, weaknesses, and foibles. We were, de facto, a gang, but a gang without a leader, making decisions by consensus. I really didn't know what I'd do without them.
Dad backed the car down the lane and stopped outside the garage.
"Go and tell everyone you're back," he said, "but please don't say anything until we've had a family confab tonight. Okay?"
"Okay Dad," I said, and mimed zipping my lips. "Can't I tell...."
"Not even Simon, Neil." He said. "Tomorrow is another day."
"Yes it is," I said, getting out. "See you in an hour or two.""Dinner's at eight. Do not switch off your phone."
"Great! 'course I won't," I said, putting on cheery. Both my Mother and Sister were liable to tantrums, and the idea of dinner wasn't as appealing as it usually was. Trust my Father to realise the easiest way out was a duff phone.
I set an alarm and went to Simon's. He grinned as he opened the door, formally shaking my hand. His mother welcomed me back with a smile, a hug and a cup of tea. Ten minutes later, after she'd got bored of the intentionally boring boarding school stories I told her, she waved us off.
"You two go off and play," she said.
"Mother, we are sixteen, you know," Simon said.
"Are you, dears?" She said with an impish grin. "You really wouldn't know it."
A short while later, at the bottom of the garden, Simon unlocked his shed and we tumbled inside, pushing and shoving one another until we collapsed on the day bed in a fit of giggles.
"So," Simon said, waggling an eyebrow, "any interesting stories to tell?"
I snickered. "Sorry, but otherwise we'd still be having tea with your mum. And..." I said, laying my hand on his crotch, "I have to be back for dinner soon."
He lay back on the bed, groaned, and toed off his sneakers.
"Fuck me!" I said, leaping to my feet and opening the window and door. Taking a deep breath of garden air I turned back to him.
"Yeah, sorry about that. I caught athletes foot."
"Athletes foot!? Are you sure you're not a zombie? Jesus Christ, Simon!"
He pouted. "I haven't got the clap, Neil."
"Yeah, and I have a fairly good idea why. Honestly... it's a bit of a mood killer, mate."
We glowered at each other, then started laughing.
Moving the mattress near the door enabled Simon to put his feet outside, which made the next hour tolerable.
"And there I was thinking we'd try toe sucking," Simon said, as I got dressed.
"Yeah, well, dream on." I said. "Gotta jet, or I'll be late for dinner. See you tomorrow?"
"You better believe it!"
I leant down and gave him a quick kiss, which ended up taking so long I was almost late.
"I don't want to, Daddy! I don't want to move," my sister said, in a snit, complete with quivering lower lip. Then she helped herself to the last chop which I'd had my eye on. She was four years younger than me and a brat. At least that was my view, and I think Dad agreed, though he'd never say it.
"Neither do I, Raymond," my mother added. "You'll have to find some way of...."
"Darlings!" My father said, exasperated. "There isn't an option, there really isn't. We have to move. We have to downsize.
"Luckily, we have the house in Sussex to move to. Keeping us in the style to which we've all – and I include myself here – become accustomed was difficult enough. Now, without...."
"Fight them, Raymond!" My mother thumped the table. "It's your company. Not theirs. Are you a man or a mouse?"
"Sweetheart...." He petered off, and the rest of the meal was concluded in an increasingly stony silence.
It was later that night as I was lying in bed and ruminating about the state of my nation that I had a rather brilliant idea.
It was a week later, and we were lying on the mattress with out feet in the garden having just concluded a rather pleasant soixante-neuf; although the pleasure had been slightly marred by a change of wind direction which filled the shed with the smell of feet.
"Simon," I said. He looked at me suspiciously and I realised I'd used a rather wheeling tone.
"If you mounted the shed on a turntable we could always be upwind. Whadda ya think?"
"I think that's not what you were going to say, though speaking of, my mother got me a new foot-powder, which will deal with... well, you know."
"I do. And honestly, I could kiss her for it. But now is not the time."
"Is it not? And why would that be, Neil? And don't tell me you've decided toe sucking my foul hooves is a good idea, because then I'd have to dust off the straight jacket."
"Mon brave, I have a plan, and the plan involves your feet as they are, and not your feet once they've been cured by your mother's powdery unctions.
"What I want you to do is this," I said, handing him a large box that had come by Amazon Prime. He sat up and grinned.
"Aww, bless. You've got me prothetic feet. Too kind!" He ripped the box open, then raised an eyebrow. "I already have socks, dude."
"But not like these will be when we're finished."
"I prefer tissues, if you don't mind."
I whacked him on the head and wrestling resulted, which lead to other things that only stopped when Pye's voice hollered at us from the house end of the garden.
"I'm not coming down there as I can see bare feet waggling. Your mother wants you in for lunch, now."
"Coming," Simon shrieked. He's always been ticklish.
"I don't doubt it," Pye said. "I'll see you both indoors."
"Neil, a word please," Dad said, and waggled a finger that beckoned me to follow. I walked after him to his lab, mentally sorting through what I might have done. He sat in his desk chair and pointed to the couch. "Sit." I sat.
"A week or so ago Simon's mother asked me if I could recommend something to get rid of athletes foot, so I was wondering, considering how much time you spend together, how Simon's feet were doing. Did the foot-powder help?"
"Jaw shut, Neil. It's a simple question."
"Oh, right... umm, not sure really. Do you want me to ask?" I said.
"Please...." I leapt to my feet. "But not right now. Sit." I sat.
"A strange thing happened this morning," he said, swinging his chair and contemplatively chewing on his lower lip.
"Mmm. I got calls from both John and Ken... and Adam Card."
"The hedge fund manager I met in New York.
"It seems I've been re-instated as CEO."
"That's... good then?" I said, trying my hardest not to leap in the air and yell with delight."
"Mmm. It is. It means we keep the house.
"They're all coming to dinner, tomorrow. To talk business, and for some reason they'd like you to be there. Simon and Pye, too."
Mouth shut, Neil," Dad said, "You're not a fish."
"Dad knows! He knows and I don't know how he knows. What am I going to do?"
"Nothing," Pye said, smiling. "Except stop panicking. American corporate sharks have always been far more effective than British minnows, especially once they're told the truth."
"Huh?" Simon and I said in unison.
"Boys!" Pye said, rolling her eyes, flicking her hair, and walking out of the shed.
"There's something she's not telling us."
Simon nodded as he slid his arm around my waist. "Definitely," he said, and pulled me in for a kiss.
Heartened at the news, my mother and sister had swanned off for a week in a health spar, which had left my father to deal with organising the dinner party. He booked French caterers, who arrived in a white van, complete with chef, sous chef, and Jules, the maitre 'd who Simon said kept looking at my bottom.
While they were prepping, Pye, Simon and I kept well out of the way. We'd dressed to the nines, and I still had no idea why we'd been invited, though the logical conclusion was that we'd been rumbled.
Bang on seven thirty the doorbell rang. My father opened it and warmly welcomed John and Ken. Then we all stood back as Adam Card walked in and grabbed my father's hand.
"Good to see you again, Raymond," he grinned. It's a nice house you have here and I'm glad we could help you keep it."
"Huh?" Dad said.
"Mouth shut, Dad," I whispered in his ear, as Adam smoothly handed his overcoat and scarf to Jules.
"So, Raymond. Please introduce me." He stopped in front of us. "No! On second thoughts, let me guess."
"You..." he held out his hand, "must be the redoubtable Miss. Wacket."
Pye giggled and shook hands. "Please call me Pye, everyone does."
"Pye it is then," he said, turning to Simon and me.
"Simon, the security guard?"
"Ah?" Dad sputtered, as Simon nodded and took the proffered hand.
"Which leaves Neil, the instigator," Adam said, straight faced with no hint of emotion.
"Apparently it does," I said, shaking a cool hand with a firm grip. Adam's face broke into a huge grin.
"You, sir, will be legendary! I can't wait to tell the partners what happened! Okay, so where do we eat?"
Pye led us through to the dinning room and acted as hostess, seating everyone, and making sure Jules served the aperitif. Both she and Adam kept grinning at each other, which was honestly weird, considering Simon, Dad and I were as confused as we'd ever been.
Finishing the entree, a Beef Wellington with the crispest and lightest pastry I'd ever tasted, I kept trying to catch Pye's eye, but every time I managed it she looked away. Dad, who was seated opposite Adam, kept trying to ask John and Ken what was going on, but they were equally unforthcoming.
Simon slid his hand onto my leg and squeezed. "You're starting to panic," he said, quietly.
"Really?" I squeaked. "Ya think?"
"I have a feeling it's going to be okay...."
"A feeling in your water, I suppose. Divination by pee. Typical! I'm freaking out here, Si. What's Pye gone and done?"
Apparently, I'd been getting louder and louder, as Adam Tapped coughed and his glass with his knife, calling for quiet."
"Firstly," he said, looking at my father and raising his glass, "I'd like to welcome Raymond back to his company." There was a round of 'here heres" and we all took a drink.
"When we met in New York, Raymond, I agreed to invest." Adam said. And although we performed due diligence, I had no idea what devious bastards your board members were. "Frankly, Raymond, I don't think you did either."
"I'm sad to say, you're right." Dad said.
"Thing is, I wasn't going to come to the U.K. At all," Adam said, looking around the table. "Until, that is, I received an intriguing email in my private inbox. An inbox, I hasten to add, that only a handful of my most trusted friends and advisors have the address for.
"It was because of that email, that I'm here now. And as a direct result of that email that I have bought out the board and re-instated Raymond as CEO."
"I still don't entirely understand, Adam." Dad said. "Wha...."
"Neither do the boys!" Adam said, laughing at us good naturedly. "Let's hand over to Pye, shall we."
All eyes settled on Pye as she nervously ran her fingers through her hair, then took a gulp of wine and cleared her throat.
"Neil was very angry at the way his father was treated. He was also devastated that the family were going to have to move away. He told us, and then there was a lull...
"About a week later he came up with a rather neat idea for revenge. Simon had a bad case of athletes foot, so Neil extrapolated. He knew there was a yearly shareholders meeting and decided to stink it out!" Pye giggled, Simon's fingers became claws, and I went beet red.
"What Neil didn't have," Pye said, "was a way of getting the plans for the board room heating system, or a way of getting there. He's still sixteen and doesn't drive. Nor could he play the security guard as, and forgive me love, he looks younger than his years."
"Forgiven," I muttered, as Pye grinned at me.
"Simon, same age, who looks older, agreed to be the security guard and infiltrator."
"That I did!" Simon said. "Bring on the handcuffs."
"Silly boy," Pye said, taking another sip of wine. "which leaves me. I do computers. Love them and all their trickery and foibles. Being a year older, I also drive."
"I'm still confused," Dad said.
"Neil meant to stink out the meeting, so he persuaded Simon to go on a long run with him every day."
"Yes he did." Simon smiled at me, and I almost leant forward to kiss him.
"Every day Simon would wear a fresh pair of socks," Pye continued, "And at the end of three weeks we had our ammunition!"
"Ah," Dad said. "Which left getting there and getting in."
"Yes!" Pye said. "Umm... don't take this the wrong way, Mr. Kent, but your computer security leaves a lot to be desired. I got the architect's plans for the factory, but then I... umm...."
"What Pye was going to say," Adam interrupted, "is that she wanted to find out about any boardroom maleficence. Which ultimately led her to me. Though I still have no idea how she obtained my personal email address."
Both Simon and I were now gawping at Pye. She seemed so... innocent. She grinned back at us.
"Boys!" She said. "Or should that be fish?
"Anyway, I ordered a security guards uniform in Simon's size to be delivered here. Simon managed a quite decent five 'o' clock shadow, and with him in uniform, along with a sealed plastic box of unbelievably foul socks, we drove to the factory the night before the board meeting.
"And they let you in?" Ken said, his eyebrows raised.
"Yes," Simon said. "Pye printed a security card, laminated it, and put my details and prints on the system."
"It... it shouldn't have been possible," Ken blustered.
"Isn't security one of your remits, Ken?" Adam said, with a twinkle in his eye.
"Yes." Ken said, flatly.
"Go on, Pye," Dad said. "What happened next?"
"Neil and I sat in the car, and Simon went in and, umm, did the business."
"My bit!" Simon said. "The gate guard was almost asleep and waved me through."
Wh... what?" Ken sputtered.
"So I followed the green dot on the map Pye had put on my phone. Finally, I got into the ducting that feeds heat into the boardroom and distributed the socks. Holy hell, did they stink! There are times I amaze myself!"
"Yes, quite,' Pye said, picking up the story. "There wasn't a problem. No one asked Simon who he was, or why he was there. He came back to the car and we drove home."
"We call it an 'intrusion simulation' in America, Adam said, nodding at Jules who poured more wine. "They cost tens of thousands of dollars, and we got one for free. Lucky us!"
By the end of the meal, which concluded with a stonking Baked Alaska and Brandies, I was definitely tipsy, if not completely sozzled. Probably the latter. I'd slumped over and had my head on Simon's shoulder. He'd tried to remain aloof and business like, bless him, but he was as drunk as I was. Which is not to say I'd shut my ears.
"They're a cute couple, Raymond," Adam said quietly. "You must be very proud of them."
"Mmm," Dad said. "I am. They've tried to keep it a secret, but it's so obvious they're in love I'm surprised the whole world doesn't know....
"I want to thank you for what you did, Adam."
"I made an investment, Raymond. A good investment in good people. It's what I do. Besides, it's Pye you should be thanking. If it wasn't for her...."
This story is part of the 2020 story challenge "Inspired by a Picture: Socks". The other stories may be found at the challenge home page. Please read them, too. The voting period of 31 January to 21 February is when the voting is open. This story may be rated, below, against a set of criteria, and may be rated against other stories on the challenge home page.
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