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Being Johnny

by Nigel Gordon

Chapter 5

There was a distinct chill in the easterly wind that blew across the marsh as I made my way on my moped to the yard on Friday morning. Being on the moped meant that I could use footpaths and bridges across the marsh. I probably was not supposed to use my moped on them, but I cycled along them, so why not?

Steve had dropped the spare set of keys off with me just after eight thirty.

I had spent last night with my dad discussing the deal for the yard that Bernard had put forward. It was the first time I had really had him on his own to talk about things. Uncles Phil and Ben had whisked Trevor off to a dinner somewhere. Tyler vanished immediately after dinner, as he had a Skype call arranged with his girlfriend, wherever she was. From what Tyler had said about her I gathered she moved around a lot. Granddad had been invited down to the pub by Jim and Steven and had vanished as soon as dinner had been eaten. Mum, Grandma and Jenny were in the sitting room watching a soap opera. James of course was with Jenny. That left Dad and me in the study, so I took the opportunity to discuss things with him.

On the whole, Dad was in agreement with Bernard's idea about the yard. The only thing he had a question over was Steve ending up with fifty-five percent of the yard. Dad expressed an opinion that Steve should only have fifty-one percent. That would give him overall control but give me far more rights. He said he would have a word with Bernard about it when we got down there tonight.

I also told him about my chat with Trevor and that Trevor was scared that Arthur was going to drop him.

"That's bloody strange," Dad stated.


"I had almost the same conversation the other day with Arthur. He's scared that Trevor is going to drop him."

"Bit of a mess, isn't it?"

"Could be. Hopefully it won't be. With a bit of luck somebody will talk sense into both of them."

"Yes, but who?" I asked.

"Well, it looks as if you've got Trevor and I've got Arthur. To be honest, son, I think I have the easier part of the job."

I had been thinking about that conversation as I rode over the marsh, and it was still in my mind as I unlocked the yard. I was not to stay there long. It had not been more than ten minutes after I had unlocked the yard gates that a rather overweight man in a suit, that had no place being out on the marsh, barged into the chandlery demanding to see Steve. He was distinctly unhappy when I had to inform him that Steve was not in and I did not expect him in this morning. Despite my protestation to that effect, he proceeded to wave a piece of paper in my face and demanded to see Steve. I advised him to come back after two, by which time I hoped Steve would be here. After about ten minutes of me assuring him that Steve was not here, he left, leaving his piece of paper on the counter.

I was about to run after him with the paper when I took a look at it. It was an emailed notice informing George Hamden's family that Steve intended to exercise his right to purchase twenty shares in the yard for five-thousand pounds a share. What did surprise me was that there was a final section at the bottom of the email which stated that Steve was prepared to sell his shares in the yard and his rights under the agreement, back to the family for one point five million pounds.

There is no mobile signal out on the marsh, so I had to use the landline to phone Steve's mobile. Either he was out of the service area or it was switched off as it went straight to voicemail. So, I phoned Martin as I knew Steve was meeting with him this morning. Once through to Martin, I explained what had happened, and he handed me over to Steve. He asked me to describe the man, which I did. Steve informed me it sounded like George Hamden, Jr.

That dealt with, I thought I'd better check the yard. It was something of a formality as the actual yard itself was closed. Only the chandlery was open. A check should be done each day, though, just in case any problems had cropped up overnight due to weather or, worse still, vandalism. As I got to the far end of the yard from the chandlery, I saw Mr. Peters doing the same task for his yard. I was surprised to see him as most of the yards on the creek were now closed for the season. The only reason Steve opened up was because of the chandlery and the boat-survey work. We were one of the few places around with a boat lift that could handle the larger boats. We also had plenty of space at the rear of the yard where we could store boats out of the water. That is something not many of the other yards had.

"Saw you had George Junior by your place earlier," Mr. Peters said over the fence that divided the two yards.

"Yes, he was not in a very good mood," I replied.

"That one's never in a good mood. Always been too much of himself and in too much of a rush. Been the same since he was born. Came round my place Boxing Day wanting an option to buy my yard."

"What did you do?"

"Why, I sold him the place. Bloody idiot agreed to pay me a quarter of a million for it. Had it valued beginning of December, nay worth a hundred grand, but George Junior is in a rush and prepared to pay a quarter of a million. Anyway, I know a fool when I see one, so I told him to contact my solicitor. Signed the papers on Wednesday. He's a paid me a hundred-grand deposit and got three months to settle the balance, then the yard is his. Don't know what he wants it for; he's never been interested in the business. Only Freddy was into it."

"Freddy?" I asked.

"Old George's youngest. Bright lad went to university and all. Always interested in boats and the yard. Was out sailing with his mates when they were washed by a speedboat. Capsized the yacht, the other two in the boat righted it, but by then it was too late for Freddy; they reckon he was caught up in the rigging and held under by the weight of the sail.

"It was after that that old George got Steve to come and work here as yard manager, then George had his stroke and Steve took over running things."

We chatted a bit more about things, then went on our ways to complete our inspections and, in my case, to wonder what was going on. The Peters' yard was definitely not worth anywhere near a quarter of a million. For a start, it was only about a third of the size of Steve's yard. It had the same frontage, but High Marsh started to narrow at the end of the Hamden yard and narrowed rapidly through the length of the Peters' yard. I decided I needed to let Steve and Dad know about the conversation. Something just was not right.

Steve got back to the yard quite a bit earlier than expected, just after ten thirty. When I asked him how come he was back so early, he informed me that Martin was very efficient. Apparently, he had everything printed out ready for Steve to sign along with a short summary attached to each document explaining what it was and what Steve was signing.

I told Steve what Mr. Peters had said. He asked me if I could hang on for a bit, which I assured him I could. Then he went next door to talk to Mr. Peters. It was about an hour later that he got back. He explained that Mr. Peters had basically told him the same that he had told me, though he had added a lot more detail, none of which was more informative.

Steve suggested I should tell Bernard about what I had learnt when I got down there this afternoon. In the meantime, he was going to draft an email to let Martin know what was going on.

I went to give Steve the spare set of keys before I left, but Steve said I'd better hang on to them. He pointed out that given the papers he had signed this morning, I was virtually a partner in the business. I attached the keys to my key chain before I started off back over the marsh.

It was just before one when I got back to the Priory. Grandma, as usual, was in position by the stove cooking something.

"Good timing, luv," she said as I entered the kitchen. "I'll have a good lunch ready for you in half an hour, then you can get off for this wedding."

It occurred to me then that we would be away for most of the weekend. I was fairly certain that the uncles were going to the wedding, as well. They were going back to Town today but would be driving down to Kent in the morning. I mentioned that to Grandma.

"Nay, you worry lad. Your granddad and I will keep the place going and look after young Trevor. We're here for another week."

That surprised me as I thought they would be going back to Stoke this weekend. I was sure that was what the original plan had been. When I commented on that, Grandma advised me that Granddad wanted to stay to help the lads sort out the kitchen-garden greenhouses, and he reckoned there was still a week's work to be done. Apparently, Uncle Ben was going to pick them up a week on Sunday and take them up to Manston; then Barnes would take them home.

I went up to my room, had a quick shower and got changed. My bag for the weekend had been packed last night, so I was in no rush to finish. When I was ready, I carried my bag down and put it in the hall outside the kitchen, saving me from having to run up and pick it up after lunch.

I was just putting the bag down when Dad came out of his study. I thought it might be an idea to tell him about this morning's events, so I did.

"That doesn't make sense," Dad observed. "Why would they force Steve to buy the yard from them if they are buying the yard next to it?"

"Unless they did not think that Steve could afford to buy it," I commented.

"Now, that does make sense. I wonder who owns the other yards along there."

We did not get a chance to discuss it any further as Grandma called us in for lunch. Dad had taken Jenny home this morning. James had gone over to Southmead. Arthur and Trevor had gone out together; Grandma had no idea where.

"They're down at the new place," Mum informed us. "Somebody pulled strings, and the upgraded power supply was being connected this morning. Arthur wants to oversee the switching on of the servers."

Lunch was fantastic: a thick pea and ham stew with big junks of ham in it, served with thick slices of homemade bread. I got through three helpings. Would have got a fourth, but Dad said we had to get a move on. It was already gone two and he wanted to be at Bernard's before four. I pointed out to Dad that four o'clock was going to take some doing given that it was a Friday afternoon.

I was right. It was getting on for quarter past five when we finally pulled up in front of the house. Dad apologised profusely to Aunt Debora for being late.

"Don't worry, Mike, that husband of mine is even later. Said he had to go into the office this morning. It was his last chance before he goes into hospital. He promised he would be back by three. He was still in his office when I phoned at four."

Both Mum and Dad laughed at that piece of information. Joseph took me aside and told me that his mother was really upset as she had planned a special Shabbat meal for this evening and now all her timings were out.

Uncle Bernard did make it home just after six and got an earful from Aunt Debora. As a result, the mood around the dinner table was not the best it could have been and not helped by the fact that Joseph kept making remarks to Micah about his wedding tomorrow.

When dinner was finished, Uncle Bernard let it be known that he needed to speak with Dad and me. We went through to his study.

"All right, Bernard, what's up?" Dad asked. "It's not like you to be late for a Shabbat meal. Not turn up, yes, but to be late?"

"I got a call from Martin just before I was due to leave the office. It seems my moves regarding Steve's yard have opened up a wasps' nest."

"What's happened?" I asked.

"First, George Hamden died early this morning. That was something we did not know when we sent the notice of intention to purchase the shares. Anyway, the eldest son has reacted by starting legal proceedings to try and overturn the agreement for Steve to buy the shares. He is claiming that his father could not have been in his right mind when he made it. At the same time, he has offered to pay Steve three-hundred thousand to buy back his shares in the yard and cancel the contract."

"Can he do that?" I asked.

"Oh, yes, there is nothing to stop him making the offer. The only thing I have to ask is why he is doing it. It makes no sense."

"What's Steve going to do?" Dad asked.

"That depends on you, Mike."

"What do you mean?"

"You see, Mike, Steve would be well out of pocket accepting the offer. There is nowhere he can move the chandlery and the capital equipment like the boat lift too, so he would lose them. The problem is, he can't afford to fight the action. If it goes to the High Court, he would be looking at tens of thousands in costs plus the risk of their costs if he lost.

"To put it mildly, Steve is between the Devil and the deep blue sea. If he accepts the offer, he loses, but he can't afford to fight them in the courts, a fact that I am pretty sure the eldest Hamden boy knows."

"Steve can't, but I can," I stated. Dad looked at me, surprised. "Look, Dad, if Steve loses the yard, then I lose out. If Steve gets to keep the yard, then I am in pocket as I will get a share in the yard. So, why don't I fund Steve's legal costs? It's in my interest."

"That, Johnny, is what I was going to suggest," Uncle Bernard said. "We would need to access your trust fund, so your grandparents will have to agree to it, but I am fairly sure that if your father agrees, then they will."

I looked at Dad and was about to ask him if I could use the trust to fund Steve's legal action. However, he got in before I could ask my question.

"Bernard, I've got no problem with Johnny funding Steve, but is there any risk in him doing so?"

"Well, there is a chance that Steve could lose. In that case, the money put up to fight the case would be lost. In the worst case, the judge could find that Johnny was a party to the litigation; then, in theory, costs could be awarded against him."

"What are the chances of that?" Dad asked.

"If Martin does his job right, very low. In fact, I would say negligible. We should know well in advance of any hearing if there is any weakness in Steve's position. Having seen the documentation, I very much doubt there is. However, we have not seen what their people are going to be putting forward. We should see that pretty soon."

"I find it puzzling why they are doing this," Dad stated. "From what Steve said, I got the impression that the Hamden boys had no interest in the yard. So, why do they want to keep it?"

"Probably because George Hamden, Jr., has bought the Peters yard next door," I said.

"What!" Uncle Bernard exclaimed. I proceeded to tell him and Dad about the conversation I had in the earlier in the day with Mr. Peters. I told them that according to Mr. Peters, the only one of the boys who had been interested in the yard was Freddy, and he had died in a boating accident.

"This is getting more puzzling," Uncle Bernard stated. "We know they are not interested in the business, so why are they buying up the Peters yard."

"Is it the business or the land they are after?" Dad asked.

"I think we'd better find out," Uncle Bernard stated. "We also need to know who owns the rest of the land."

We talked about things for about another twenty minutes until Bernard stated that not much could be done until Monday, but he needed to get an email off to Martin to update him. By this time, it was getting on for ten.

Joseph was a bit annoyed that I had been tied up with his father for so long. It took a bit of explaining to tell him what was going on. It took more explaining to let him know how important Steve having the yard was for me. I am not sure he fully understood. That night, though, I made Joseph understand how important the yard was for me — also how important he was to me. Both of us were still half asleep at ten on the Saturday morning when we had to get up to get ready for the wedding.

I was quite surprised at how few people there were at the wedding. It was held at a country-house hotel a few miles from Uncle Bernard's place. A couple of Joseph's uncles where there; also, one of his aunts. There was no sign of either of Joseph's and Micah's grandfathers. I would have expected them to be there. However, Joseph explained to me that both his grandfathers were pretty observant, and neither would travel on the Shabbat. Anyway, his Granddad Isaac was not well; at least, his Grandma Sarah was present. He also said that the grandfather from Manchester, whom I had met, would not attend as Micah was marrying out of the faith. Apparently, Micah's grandfather had lined up a nice Jewish girl for Micah and was upset that Micah had rejected the suggestion.

That night when we were lying in bed, Joseph asked me if I thought we could ever get married.

"I don't think your grandfather would approve," I stated.

"Why not?"

"Because I am not a nice Jewish boy," I commented.

He took hold of my cock and played with it for a moment, then looked at me. "I don't know a little snip here and a little snip there and you could soon be a nice Jewish boy.

I grabbed hold of him and pulled him into a kiss.

"Look, Joseph, I don't know how this is going to work out. I've not been that good at relationships, but if we are still together when you are eighteen, we'll have a civil partnership. With a bit of luck, we may be able to marry by then. They are talking about it, and it is bound to happen eventually."

I was rather surprised and somewhat annoyed when Dad was pushing us to get packed and ready to go home on Sunday morning. Nothing had been said on Saturday, and I had quite expected to be able to spend most of Sunday with Joseph. It seemed that was not to be. Something had come up which required Dad's attendance back at the house as soon as possible. Unfortunately, he was not very communicative as to what was up nor open to discussing alternative arrangements. Joseph was going up to the London house this evening with the family. I could have gone up with them and then got the train back home. That, though, was not an option. To say the least, I was a bit miffed.

It was just before one when we got back to the Priory. Our arrival at that time came as a bit of a surprise to people.

"Goodness, 'ou weren't due back till seven." Grandma announced as we walked in through the back door. "I ain't got nowt for dinner."

"Then we will go down to the Crooked Man," Mum announced. She also was not happy with us coming back so early. I think she had a day's shopping planned with Aunt Debora.

The moment we got in, Dad dashed straight upstairs.

"He's in a rush," I commented.

"He's got to get packed," Mum replied.


"Yes, packed. Didn't he tell you what all the rush is about?"

"No, he just said we had to get back to the Priory."

"He's on the late afternoon flight to Dublin. There's a big awards dinner on there tonight. The chap who was supposed to present the book awards has been taken ill. They've asked your father to present them. It's all a bit of a dash.

"Now I'd better go up and get myself unpacked and make sure your father has everything he is going to need for the trip."

"How's he getting to the airport?" I asked.

"Lee's driving him."

I dropped my weekend case off in my room, then texted Joseph to say we had arrived OK and to give a bit of an explanation as to why we rushed off so early this morning. Then I went back down to the kitchen. I timed it well; Grandma had just made a fresh pot of coffee.

Lee came over as I was sitting at the table sipping coffee. We chatted for a bit, then Dad came in.

"Sorry, Johnny," he said. "I did not realise I had not told you why we were in a rush."

"It would have helped if you had. It would have helped if you had listened," I responded.

"I know; I'm still not used to having a family. I should have explained things. The reasons I did not agree to you going up to Town with Joseph and getting the train back were twofold. First, I was worried about you getting back from the station to here when you got off the train. It would have meant either Lee or Anne coming out to pick you up. That, though, was manageable.

"The second factor, and by far the most important, is that Bernard had asked me to give him some time with his family this afternoon. He wanted time to be with Debora and Joseph, just in case."

"Just in case of what?" I asked.

"Him not making it through the operation."

Shit, I had forgotten totally about the fact that Uncle Bernard was going into hospital on Monday. I suppose he would want some time with his wife and son. Suddenly I felt rather bad about things.

About half an hour later, Dad was on his way, Lee driving him to the airport.

I did not have any college work to sort out, having done it all before Christmas, so I decided to walk down to the walled garden to see how they were getting on. When I got there, I was quite surprised. A number of the beds had been cultivated, and a couple looked as if something had been sown in them. Jim and Granddad were busy in one glasshouse, apparently replacing the glazing bars, from what I could make out. Steven was in the other glasshouse sowing trays. I went in to have a chat with him.

It was considerably warmer in the glasshouse than outside. I noticed a couple of tubular heaters running along the wall just under the bench. I commented on the fact that they seemed to be heating the place.

"Oh, those; they're not heating the place," Steven informed me. "They just about keep the frost off. Jim's uncle fitted them for us on Saturday. All the heat you can feel is from the greenhouse effect on captured heat from the sun."

"What sun?" I commented.

"Well, there is not much now but this morning it was quite strong for the time of year. The glasshouse captured it, and a lot of the heat was absorbed by the back wall. Now it is radiating out; have a feel of it."

I did. The back wall was surprisingly warm.

"It a bloody big heat sink," Steven informed me. "The wall's a good three-foot thick at the base."

We chatted a bit longer. I remembered to mention the path along the back of the property and its need for a string trimmer.

"We know," Steven informed me. "Jim's made up this massive list of things we have to get done. That's one of them. It's fairly near the top of the list."

"What's at the top?"

"Taking the trees down by the back gate so you can see traffic coming." I knew what he was on about. It was a bit of a blind turning going out of that gate, not that there was very much risk of any traffic. At least, not at the moment. However, when the arts centre and the nursery opened it would be a different matter.

When I asked Steven about when that would be done, he said that they were using this week to do as much as they could that relied upon my grandfather's knowledge — like how to replace the glazing bars. Also, they wanted to get a pile of seeds sown so they would have some stock to sell come Easter. It seems that Easter is the start of the sales season for nurseries.

"Basically, seventy-five percent of our sales will be between Easter and the end of June," Steven stated. "So, we will need some stock in place for us to sell come Easter. Not that we can make much this year. Will only have bedding plants available, and we can't grow that many of them, and there is not much in them. Though any money is better than nothing."

"How bad are things — financially, that is?" I asked.

"Not as bad as they could be. Jim's father is using him when he can, though he is insisting that Jim finish college. My Uncle George has given me a job at the auction house on auction days. Fortunately, they are on Thursdays, when I don't have any classes in the afternoon, so I can start when the viewing opens at two, and he pays me till ten. He's paying ten quid an hour, so that's eighty a week. More than covers us for food. Though, when we go over to Uncle George's, Aunt Grace usually loads us up with food supplies, plus some prepared meals. What Jim is picking up covers the van and odds and ends."

"What about the cost of doing the cottage up?"

"Jim's dad and Uncle George are taking care of that. Don't know what they have agreed, but they say they have it sorted out. I know Uncle George wants to talk with your father about something. I presume it is the cottage. Jim's dad seems to think we can have it habitable by Easter."

I expressed surprise at that. From what I had seen, I thought the cottage would require a fairly complete rebuild. Steven assured me that when they had taken a good look at it, it had not been as bad as they had first thought. All the damp was coming from above and was caused by blocked downpipes and the gutters overflowing. Apparently, Jim had spent a day up a set of ladders clearing out the gutters and unblocking the downpipes. That done, the place was starting to dry out, even with the weather we had been having.

By now it was getting pretty dark outside. There was not much light in the glasshouse. Steven informed me that the lighting they had in there was temporary. As soon as they had any spare cash, they would be installing grow lights. Granddad and Jim came through from the other glasshouse. For a few minutes, we discussed the progress they had made in getting the glazing bars sorted out. Jim informed us that at the present rate they would be finished on Monday. I commented that they could then begin glazing.

"Not much chance of doing that at the moment. We will need about a thousand panes of glass, and there is no way we can afford that at the moment. Probably not for few years, realistically," Jim stated.

"How much are you looking at?" I asked.

"Well, each pane is one-and-a-half square foot in size, so a thousand is fifteen-hundred square feet. Buying in that quantity, you could probably get it at about two pounds to two-fifty a square foot. So, you are looking at anywhere between three- to four-thousand pounds," Jim informed me.

I could see that might be a problem. I was about to comment on it, when Grandpa nudged me in the side and said we better get back to the house. With that, he told the lads that he would see them in the morning, turned and started towards the glasshouse door, tugging on my arm to follow him.

It was not till we were halfway across the walled garden that Granddad spoke.

"Them there lads can nay afford three grand, can they?"

"No, Granddad."

"Dan't think so." There was a long pause whilst we made our way out of the garden. He had pulled his pipe from his pocket, placing it in his mouth. He did not light it. He never lit it. "S'pose the pair of them are a might too proud to take a gift of what they need."

"I think you're right there."

There was another pause. We were just coming into the yard when he spoke again.

"What think 'ou of me and the missus investing in a nursery, say taking a one-third share?"

"Why would you do that?"

"Well, lad, it's like this, you see," he paused and came to a standstill in the middle of the yard. "Your Grandma has banned me from going up to the 'lotment. She get all mysie that I am up there on my own. Worried that something might happen and there be no one to 'elp. So now I don't go up the 'lotment, and our place really dan't have a garden, and I miss having me hands in the soil. If we were to put some money into the nursery, there would be some soil for me to get me hands in."

"But Granddad, you live in Stoke, that's two-hundred miles away."

"Aye, lad, that it be, but it needn't be, need it? I 'ear Anne fretting your father about them being in London whilst 'ou are 'ere. Now if we moved down 'ere, my Flora could make sure 'ou got your meals and so, and I could 'elp the lads in the nursery. There would be somebody around if I was taken ill or anything, wouldn't there?"

I felt tempted to point out that Jim and Steve were in college most days. I was about to say something when Granddad decided to continue.

"Now don't you afret that we will be moving in on you. I heard our Phil speaking with your uncle. He's looking at buying them sheds at the back end of the estate." I nodded, though I was not sure that Granddad needed my confirmation. "Well, he were saying that he could put a few apartments in one of them. Thought I'd ask if they could put one in for us. The place we have now is too much for my Flora."

"But what about your friends up there?"

"There naat be that many left; they've all moved out, gone to live with their children or moved to bungalows up Keele way or gone off to Spain. You can live out there on your pension and no big bills for heating in the winter. My best mate, Bill Rogers, and his missus moved out there four y'ar ago. They 'rite a couple of time a y'ar, telling us how good it is and that we should go out there."

"Maybe you should," I commented.

"Nah. Went out for a holiday two y'ar ago. Nice place for a holiday, but I would naat like to live there. Can't speak the lingo for a start."

"Most of the people where the expats live speak English."

"But it naat be polite to move to another country and naat learn the lingo. If they come and live here, we expect them to learn English, so we should learn their lingo if we go there."

I was about to comment on this observation when the back door opened and Grandma put her head out.

"Are 'ou two going to stand there pratting all day? Yur tea's on the table."

We went in. As we entered, Grandma was pouring two mugs of tea out. On the table was a plate full of scones for us to partake of.

"We're eating at the Crooked Man tonight. Be there for seven, Jack, an' don't be late." Grandma said, putting her coat on.

"And w'ere be 'ou going woman?" Granddad asked.

"Down to the Crooked Man. Going to have a natter with Mary before 'ou lot come down for dinner."

Granddad glanced at the clock. It was getting on for five. "A two-hour natter?"

"Well, there's a lot to talk about, and I better be off so we have time to talk about it." With that she left.

"It's good for her to have someone to have a natter with. She ain't had a good natter since Doreen Foster was taken."

"Who was Doreen Foster and when did she die?" I asked.

"Doreen Foster was Doreen Biles back when we were at school, though she was some years ahead of us. Followed her old lady and became the local whore till she trapped Reg Foster, he that became mayor, and he married her."

"When did she die?" I asked.

"Oh, she ain't dead, Johnny; she got taken. Got caught with her fingers in the funds of some of those charities she sat on the board of. They say she stole fifty grand, though those in the know say it was a lot more. Anyway, she's doing a seven stretch in HMP Drake Hall."

Granddad then informed me that he needed to get cleaned up and changed if we were going out for dinner. Then he went off to his room. I went and looked for Mum. She was in the lounge.

"Thought you preferred the sitting room," I stated.

"I do, luv, at least when I'm watching the box or want a good natter. Find it better to read in here. The chairs are more comfortable for reading." She had a point there. There were four leather Chesterfields in the lounge, all very comfortable for reading in. Not that good for lounging about in, though.

I told Mum about the chat I had with Granddad and what he said about moving down.

"Well, he's right about one thing. I am worried about how you will be when we are in London most of the week."

"Don't you think I could cope?" I asked, a bit indignantly.

"I have no doubt you could cope, provided nothing went wrong, but what if you were ill or something? Rattling around in this place like a spare bean in the pod is not good for no one. It can be a very lonely house at times."

It took me a few moments to realise what Mum was saying, but when I did, it made sense. There must have been times before she started at college when I had been out at the yard and Dad had been away on business. She would have been alone in the house, and there was not anything really nearby except for the Crooked Man.

"Actually, Johnny, Flora's mentioned something along the same lines. Not so much about moving down here but about not being happy where they are. Seems that a lot of their friends have moved to Spain. Flora says they looked at going out there but that her Jack's not keen on it."

"He says he doesn't speak the lingo."

"More like he didn't want to leave his allotment," Mum commented.

"Probably not, which is why he is thinking of moving down here. Wants to get involved with the lads and the walled garden. Was talking about putting some money into it."

"Well, he probably could afford to." I looked at Mum, surprised. "Now don't let the way that pair act give you the wrong impression, young man. I know that Jack says he was a miner, and yes, he did work in the pits, and I am sure he probably started at the coalface. However, by time he retired when the pit closed, he was a manager and a damned well-paid one at that. He was also quite canny with money, it seems. Then Phil has made sure they are not badly off, either.

"From what Flora was saying, it seems they have a number of properties which they let to students. Brings them quite a comfortable income, I gather. So, if Jack wanted to put some money into the nursery, I am sure he could without any problem. I am also sure he has probably spotted a good business opportunity. He may play the country bumpkin, but he is a pretty savvy businessman, by all accounts.

"The thing is, Johnny, I am not sure how I would feel if they were living here. Flora does have a tendency to take over. There are times when I feel that this is not my house even though they are only here for a holiday. If they were living here permanently? Well, I am not sure I could cope with that."

"I don't think you need to worry about that. From what Granddad said, I think he is looking at trying to get Uncle Ben to let them have an apartment in the place he is looking at buying."

"What's Ben looking at buying?"

I explained to Mum about the railway sheds that backed onto the property and what Uncle Ben had said about them.

"Well, that makes sense. With the Uxbridge place closing down, he'll need somewhere else for his fight-direction work. He earns quite a lot doing that, so I don't see him giving it up. Though, would have thought that we are a bit far out in the woods for him here. Uxbridge is not too far from either Pinewood or Shepperton Studios. We're what? It must be at least eighty miles to either."

Mum paused for a while, as if thinking about something. Then she continued. "Unless…no, they wouldn't?"

"Wouldn't what?" I asked.

"The year before last your uncles were down here looking around for locations for some film Phil had in mind. Nothing happened on it so far, but they looked at that old airfield outside of Southmead."

"Didn't know there was an airfield at Southmead."

"There is, or at least there was. Old RAF fighter base from the war. Was run as a private airfield till about ten years ago, then it had to close. It's a bit out of the way and unless you know about it, you are not likely to find it. I had to take your uncles to see it as they had not been able to find it when they went to look for it. Anyway, there are some massive hangers there. The people who run it let them out for storage.

"While they were looking around, your Uncle Phil said it would make a nice studio set up. Ben agreed with him. I think they looked at buying the place, but nothing came of it. However, with George Hamden's death, who knows what might happen?"

"What has George Hamden got to do with it?" I asked.

"Well, Johnny, the airfield is on land owned by the Elmchurch family. Old George got it through his wife. Though that was not intended."

"What was intended?"

"It's a bit convoluted. George Hamden married Julia Elmchurch. The Elmchurchs are the family that originally owned this place before old man Laughton bought it. Her father, Bill Elmchurch did not approve of George. Did not like the Hamdens at all. His uncle David had married George's great aunt, which had led to a family row. That resulted in Bill Elmchurch's moving out of Elmchurch Hall and into this place. Bill could not stand George, thought he was after Julia's money, so he had forbidden Julia to marry George, but marry they did. The moment she was of age they ran off to London and married in a registry office. According to Gran, it was a big scandal back then. Of course, George did not have the yard then; it was his uncle's.

"Anyway, old Bill Elmchurch had a right fit over it. Told them there would be nothing coming from him and disinherited Julia and told her never to set foot in the house again. That being this house back then. Left everything to his son, William. Ten months later the son crashes his car with his father in it as a passenger. Both were killed. As William was only seventeen, there was no will, so, as the nearest blood relation, Julia got the lot.

"Believe me back then there was a lot. The Elmchurchs owned most of the land between here and Southmead, including the marsh. In actual fact, the only part they did not own was the Nase and Elmchurch Hall, the other half of the family owned that. Julia had to sell a lot of the estate off to pay the double death duties. The first thing she sold was this place; she said her father had told her not to set foot in it, and she had no intention of doing so."

Something clicked in my brain. I had to ask the question. "Did they own High Marsh?"

"Of course, they did. That's how George's uncle got the chance to buy the land that the yard was on. He was only leasing it. Julia needed money for the death duties, so she sold off the converted leases. From what Gran said, she sold John Hamden — that's George's uncle — the land his yard was on. She also sold the land to the yard next to it to Mike Peters. I believe his son is running the place still."

"I'd better phone Martin in the morning."


"Mum, I suspect that Julia Hamden still owned the rest of High Marsh, and if she did, it could explain a number of things. I've no doubt that when she died, the property went to the sons."

"Of course, it did. It was split between George Junior, William and Freddy."

"So, who got Freddy's share when he drowned?" I asked.

In the end, I decided against phoning Martin as I guessed he would be busy with Uncle Bernard going into hospital. I emailed him what I had learned from Mum and my suspicion that the Hamden family might well own the rest of the High Marsh.

Monday morning, I went into the yard. I was not due in but thought it would be a good idea to let Steve know what I had learnt. I got into the yard just after he had opened it. He was somewhat surprised to see me.

"How come you're here?"

"Got some news for you," I informed him, then spent the next half hour or so telling him what I had learnt from Mum.

"Well, I know the Lee brothers are renting. Paul Lee told me this morning that they have received a notice of lease termination. They have six months to move out," Steve informed me. "The question is, how many more are renting? Though, I think there is only one. That's the Cooper's yard. The old Elmchurch yard has been derelict for years."

"You'll have to find a way to ask them," I advised Steve. He did not look very happy at that idea.

"I'd better let Martin know about this," was Steve's response.

"I already have, emailed him last night."

We discussed things a bit more but decided we just did not have enough information to come to any conclusion. I decided that as I was there, I might as well get something done, so set about tidying up the paint store, a task which took me longer than I expected. It was getting on for twelve when I finished. I was just putting on my gear to ride home when the phone rang. It was Martin wanting to speak with Steve, who was in the yard talking to a customer. I told Martin that I would get Steve to call him back.

As soon as Steve came back in, I gave him the message. I was about to leave, but Steve suggested I stay until he had spoken to Martin. He then called Martin. The upshot of the call was that Martin needed to speak with both of us and with Dad. We agreed that we could meet with Martin the next day at the Priory. It was agreed that, unless Dad had other arrangements, we would meet at four thirty in the afternoon. Apparently, Martin was working from his home office on Tuesday.

Dad was home when I got in. He had just arrived after being picked up from the airport by Lee. Mum was asking him what took so long as his flight was due to land at nine thirty.

"We hadn't even left Dublin by then," Dad informed us. He then went on to give us a blow-by-blow account of his trip back, which sounded like chaos. When he had finished, I told him about Martin wanting to meet tomorrow. Dad said there was no problem and asked me to confirm with Martin.

That done, I went looking for Trevor, then remembered he had a session with the physio this afternoon. Not having anything else to do, I went to the walled garden to see if I could give the lads a hand. I ended up helping Steven pot up a whole pile of ivy cuttings. I commented that I was not sure if I had green fingers; everything I had tried to grow in the past had died.

"With ivy that might be an advantage. It has the habit of running away on you. We want these to be nice small plants by Easter, not massive vines covering half a wall."

There were a number of lengths of ivy vine lying on the bench in the green house. Steven had a whole stack of small pots. He had me filling pots, then cutting off a small length from the ivy vine, cutting it just below a leaf pair. Then I had to strip off the lower leaves and dip the end of the stalk in rooting compound before planting it in a hole poked with a pencil around the edge of the pot. Four pieces had to be put in each pot.

Whilst I was doing this at one end of the bench, Steven was doing the same at the other end. He told me that by putting four cuttings in a pot, we should get at least two to take, though he thought most would.

"Isn't it the wrong time of year to take cuttings?" I asked.

"Technically, yes, but it's been fairly mild up to now, and there were still signs of growth on the plant. We're pushing our luck, but it's worth a try. Not cost us nowt. Found the pots in the boiler-yard shed. Stacks of them in there. We should get at least three maybe four hundred pots of ivy by Easter if we are lucky. Can get £2.99 for a nice pot. Could generate us nearly a grand if we sell out."

"Is that likely?"

"Probably not at Easter, but we could easily do it by the end of June. Jan asked us if we could put on some talks about houseplants and things. Jim agreed; he's into houseplants." It took me a moment or two to recall who Jan was. Then I remembered, she was the woman who was taking over the management of the outbuildings. Was going to turn them into an arts-and-events centre.

"And you're not?"

"Nah, I'm more your fruit-and-veg man. Anyway, ivy is one of the easiest houseplants to grow, so he'll be recommending it."

"So, when does that start?"

"The first talk is the Saturday before Easter; then it will be once every six weeks till the end of August. That's why Jim wants us to get some houseplants started so we will be able to sell them on the back of the talks. The big problem is finding the starting stock."

"Where did you get the ivy?" I asked.

"It was growing over the back of the boiler-yard shed. Had to come down as the walls need repointing. Thought it was just normal ivy, but your grandfather told us it was hedera hibernica, the Irish ivy."

" How could he tell?"

"Leaf shape, though Jim had to check it out and make sure. So, this has cost us nuffink. The starting stock for the other houseplants is going to need money, and I can't see how we will be able to do that."

I was about to mention Granddad's idea of investing in them but thought I'd better leave that for Granddad to raise. However, I did think that maybe I could help them. I'd been getting a monthly allowance from the trust fund and rarely used more than half of it. Actually, it was rare I even spent half of it in a month — not much to spend it on in this part of Essex. I was sure I could pull together a couple of thousand to help the lads. The question was on what terms should I offer it?

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