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Living with Johnny

by Nigel Gordon

Chapter 3

I was up before my alarm in the morning and before Anne, so it was my turn to cook breakfast and make the drinks — tea for me and coffee for the rest. Once Anne arrived to take over, I retreated to my study to sort out what I needed to do today. As soon as it was nine, I called the agents for the Priory and made an appointment to have a second viewing. It turned out that Matt, my surveyor, had already been in touch with them and had arranged for somebody to be at the Priory at eleven so he could do his survey. It made sense to book our viewing for then.

After that, I phoned Bob about the finances. He told me that he had spoken to Zachary Mayer and explained the situation. Although it would take some time to put a deal together, Zachary had said it sounded good for a million. Bob had provisionally arranged a meeting for me in town with Zachary on Monday. He could offer me either eleven or four. I went for eleven; that would then give me time to call in on a couple of clients in the afternoon and sniff around for work. As a writer, if you are out of sight for too long, you can be forgotten, and I had done a bit too much ghost-writing in the last few months and would like some more work in my own name.

I remembered that I had promised to take Johnny into Dunford for the youth club that evening and would have to bring him back. The idea of sitting around in Dunford for four or five hours did not really appeal to me, so I suggested to Anne that we go into Chelmsford for a meal and probably to see a film. Anne agreed, so I booked an early table for us at a restaurant we had used a couple of times before.

My next call was to Sheila Lane, my accountant, I thought it might be useful if she could be with me on Monday when I met Zachary. It turned out that she was already booked for Monday with one of her significant clients. Still, she suggested that it was more the type of thing one of her partners specialised in and suggested that her colleague might be a better person to accompany me if she was available. I told her that I had no objection, just thought it was a good idea to have somebody with me who knew something about finance. When Bob had mentioned the sum of one million, I had started to get a bit nervous and really felt I needed some support. Sheila told me that she would check with her partner and phone me back in five minutes.

Actually, it was more like fifteen minutes before Sheila phoned back. When she did, she informed me that Jane Talbot, a junior partner in the firm, was available to go along with me, and she would be more than happy to meet Zachary Mayer. Turned out that this guy was quite well-known in some circles for setting up finance deals for the rich and famous. I told her that I did not consider myself rich or famous. She laughed and pointed out she knew what I earned and who my brother was; we shared the same accountant. She used to work for our father but had set up her own practice when he retired.

With all that sorted, I went back to the kitchen, where Phil and Ben were ensconced with Johnny, discussing yachts again. I told them about the arrangements for viewing the Priory. Johnny cried off another viewing, saying he needed to start doing some revising and asking if he could use my computer to get online. He was a bit puzzled when I set up an account for him on my system. None of the programs he was familiar with was available on it. As I do technical writing, I have always used TeX-based word processing so I can accurately set formulas and mathematics. Initially, this meant using Unix, then Linux, and I have stuck with Linux ever since. It turned out Johnny's total IT experience was with Windows and Microsoft. He had a laptop of his own, but that was with his things at school and would no doubt be sent to his mother's. It seemed I would need to get him a new laptop.

Anne also cried off a second viewing, saying she couldn't really leave Jack in the lurch on a Friday lunchtime, the busiest of the week, so she would go in at eleven. Also, she wanted to sort some of her stuff out. She informed Johnny that he could give her a hand. Strangely, Johnny seemed quite happy about this; I would have thought a fifteen-year-old would have wanted to avoid such a chore. Apparently not.

Given that Phil and my brother were going to go directly to Town once they had viewed the Priory, we drove in convoy, with the Maserati convertible following my Hyundai along the twisting roads to Dunford, then out to the Priory. It was probably a good job that there was a light drizzle so Phil had a good excuse to have the top up. A classic sports car like that drew quite a bit of attention around here. What would have happened if the onlookers could have seen who was driving; I dread to think. As it was, I thought the girl from the agents was about to faint when the two of them got out of the car.

Matt had arrived a few minutes before us and was happy to discuss issues with us as we walked around the building. It seemed that old man Laughton had kept the place in good repair whilst he was alive. Part of the reason was, it turned out, that Matt had been called in a couple of times by the old man to advise on issues. One thing that Matt did raise with me was the fact the building was Grade 2 listed, which meant that any alterations or repairs had to be carried out sympathetically — which apparently meant using original materials wherever possible. There was one place where some brickwork needed to be replaced, and Matt pointed out that if it was done using modern mass-produced brick, it would cost a couple of hundred pounds. As it was, it would have to be done using handmade bricks — Tudor-style bricks and lime mortar — that would push the cost up to over a thousand.

As we left, Phil turned to me. "I hope you buy it."

"You like it?"

"I like it, but it would also be a perfect location for one of the scenes in the film we are working on."

Ben turned and looked back at the house. "Christ, yes. The façade and porch could pass for the college; we could matt out the new part. But Mike, you'd better be sure what you are taking on. Take it from us, a listed building can eat money; we know. Everything costs three times as much as a normal job."

"Do you think I should buy it?" I asked my brother.

"Yes, it would make an ideal place for you, Anne and Johnny. Look, if you need anything, let us know. We owe you quite a bit, you know."

"Actually, I should be OK; I've been doing somewhat better the last couple of years than I thought. Talking to a chap on Monday about it.

"By the way, Phil, could you let your parents know what has happened? I would like to take Johnny up to meet them, but it won't be for a few weeks — sometime after Easter."

"Of course, but why don't you all come up to Manston the Wednesday after Easter. It's fully booked over Easter, a popular time for weddings, but we're back there the Wednesday after, and it would be easier on Mam and Dad if they came down there to meet you rather than you going up to Stoke." I nodded and told Phil that I would have to discuss it with Anne and Johnny, but it sounded like a good idea. Despite Phil's many attempts to get them to move to somewhere more extensive and more modern, his parents had insisted on staying in their three-bedroom semi-detached, which was not far from the one they had bought when they were married in 1960. If Anne, Johnny and myself all went up to them, it would be a bit cramped.

By the time I got back to Lynnhaven, I had made up my mind; I was going to buy the Priory. Matt had given me an oral report while I was there and had promised me a written statement by the middle of next week. As it was, there were no major structural problems, but there was a need for quite a number of minor repairs to be done; the family had not kept up anything but essential maintenance since the old man died.

It was just before one when I got to Lynnhaven, so I parked outside the Anchor and went in for a pint and to chat with Anne. Jack, the landlord, grabbed me as I walked through the door and pumped my hand like mad, congratulating me on getting Anne to agree to go down the aisle again and insisting that my first pint was on the house.

Once that was settled, I sat by the bar and chatted with Anne between her serving customers. Fortunately, the Friday rush tends to die off between one and half-past as the assembled gathering of knockers and dealers move off to the village hall. There is a weekly antique auction there every Friday, and lots can be booked in from one o'clock on; the auction starts at five. A lot of the knockers — those dealers who go from door to door knocking and asking if people have anything they want to sell — from the Essex area used this auction to get rid of the junk they had picked up. It can also be a useful place to buy that bit that you are wanting. I had been along a few times and been amazed at the price some things would fetch.

I asked Anne what she thought about the Priory; could it work for us? It was not just a question of whether we could live in it but how we would live in it. Did Anne want to continue working? It was quite a trek from the Priory to the Anchor if the tides were wrong. Anne surprised me by saying that she would like to give up work and go back to college in Chelmsford or Southmead. That was a lot easier a trip from Dunford than from here in Lynnhaven. She also pointed out that there was enough space there to give Johnny a set of rooms of his own, which no doubt we would all appreciate once he started to get some local friends, especially if he got a boyfriend. This was not somewhere I particularly wanted to go at the moment, but I could appreciate the point.

I finished my pint and left, driving back to the bungalow. When I entered, I was surprised to hear a voice I recognised coming from my study. It was the voice of Richard Dimbleby. I knew it from watching the replays of the Queen's coronation during the Diamond Jubilee, but what he was describing here sent a shiver down my spine. I went into the study. Johnny was sitting, watching the display of images that appeared on the screen. They were images of Bergen-Belsen, and he was listening to Dimbleby's report of the liberation of the camp. I knew of the report — it has been described as one of the compelling pieces of radio reporting ever made — but I had never heard it. I stood listening, marvelling at the power of the language and revolted at the scenes that were being described. The report finished, Johnny turned and looked at me.

"Hi, Dad, why didn't we stop it?"

"I don't know, maybe we did not know about it."

"Do you believe that?"

"I can't say. Why were you listening to it?"

"It's part of the historical period we have to cover: the reasons and consequences of the Second World War." He showed me a worksheet he had: 'What was the response of the Allies to the revelations of the concentration camps?'. I looked at the instructions with the worksheet and realised that Johnny had gone way beyond what was required. I mentioned this to him. "It's no use just studying what they want you to know, you have to find out as much as you can about things, make up your own mind about things." A sentiment I completely agreed with.

I discussed the Priory with Johnny, and he said he thought it would make a good home. It surprised me somewhat that he seemed to be settling in so easily and quickly after what must have been a significant disruption in his life, being dropped by his mother on the doorstep of somebody he didn't know. Putting this to him, I got a surprise.

"Dad, this is the first time I have felt anything like stability. Since I can remember I have been shipped off to nursery, childcare, then preparatory school, boarding schools, summer camps, weekend activities. Do you know, except for Christmas in France, I realized I have never spent more than three days in one go with mother? I know we have to move, but at least I have some say in it. Mother never gave me any, just instructions to go there and do that.

"The only time she wanted me around was at Christmas, when she could show me off to her friends, most of whom had lost their kids to their husbands. Lucky kids is all I can say." I suddenly felt somewhat guilty at not forcing myself more into his life a long time ago.

"Christ!" he exclaimed, looking at the clock. "Is that the time?" I nodded. "Sorry, but I promised Anne I would meet her at two." The clock showed five past two. He dashed into the hall and grabbed his coat, and then I heard the door shut. I could have told him there was no rush, Anne's shift might finish at two, but it was rare she got out before quarter- or even half-past.

I went to my desk, closed down YouTube, which Johnny had left open, and made a mental note to have a word with him about computer security and not logging off sites. I also closed down his session, reminding myself he was used to a single-user system so probably had never had to bother with doing it before. I logged into my own user account and pulled up a spreadsheet I had been working on earlier. It gave me a good overview of my finances and what I could and could not afford. Now it was time to start spending. I picked up the phone and called the estate agents, then asked for the partner who was handling the property. Once I was connected, I put in an offer of six hundred and twenty-five thousand pounds.

"You realise that is well below the asking price?" was the response from the agent.

"Yes, but I think it is above its actual value, especially with the restrictive covenants on it." There was an audible intake of breath from the other end. Clearly, the agent was not happy that I knew about them.

"I will have to get in touch with my principals regarding the offer. It may take some time."

"My offer is on the table at six hundred and twenty-five thousand pounds until nine a.m. on Monday morning. I am due to meet my accountant to make the arrangements for the funding at eleven in Town so if I don't hear by nine that it has been accepted, I will cancel my meeting, and the offer will be withdrawn."

"I'm sorry, sir, but we can't accept such time constraints."

"You have no choice; either you get me an answer by nine on Monday or there is no offer. Thank you." I put the phone down. One thing that agents do not like is being put under pressure by the buyer; they prefer to put the buyer under pressure to make a higher offer. One of my first jobs as a technical writer had been to produce a training manual for a large London-based firm of estate agents. I had learnt a trick or two putting the manual together that a small provincial agent had probably never heard of.

I had just put the phone down when it rang. It was Bob with the offer of a nice piece of writing for a leading American publication. Just the sort of thing that I would really like to get my teeth into. Unfortunately, this was not the right time to have to lock myself away for two or three weeks doing research for the article. Once I had explained the situation to Bob, he understood and said he would get back to the publisher and see if there could be any movement on the deadline. Knowing Bob, he would explain that I was loaded up with work so could not start in the next three weeks, also I wanted a holiday, and if they wanted me to give that up, they would have to up the fee.

I was right; half an hour later, he came back with a deadline for the middle of July and a fifty-per-cent-higher fee. There are some things you just can't turn down. I accepted, then kicked myself for being so stupid. I really did have too much on my hands at the moment, and I could do with a holiday — Phil and Ben's offer of two weeks on Necker had attractions.

Shutting down the spreadsheet, I opened my work-management application and checked where I was with the different commissions I had on hand. Luckily this time of year is usually a bit on the quiet side. About fifty per cent of my work comes from government or quasi-governmental bodies, most of whose budgets run from April to March. So, by the middle of March, there is virtually no budget left and no new work being commissioned. The rest of my technical writing is made up of ghost-writing nonfiction for public personalities and writing promotional scientific articles for companies. There was also some freelance magazine work writing popular-science articles. I had just finished one on the history of the solar system, which I had ghosted for the presenter of a weekly science show on TV.

I had regular columns in six popular-science publications; fortunately, four of them were in different countries, so I could basically use the same article four times with just minor changes in wording to suit the house style. The other two, whilst having world-wide distribution, were quarterlies, so I only had to produce eight articles a year to cover all their requirements. My final earned-income source was knocking up the couple of pieces a month of romantic fiction for women's magazines under my nom de plume.

By the time I had worked my way through all my commitments and checked deadlines, it was half-past four. I knew Johnny would be back shortly as he wanted to leave for the youth club by six, though it did not open till six-thirty. He would also need to be fed, so I went through to the kitchen and made up some fresh tagliatelle and crisped off some smoked bacon. That way, I could knock up a quick pasta carbonara when he came in.

Anne and Johnny got back just after five. Anne had clearly changed for the evening; Johnny, though, was covered in dust. I suggested he might like to shower and change while I sorted him something to eat. Once I heard the shower start, I put the water for the pasta on to boil and prepared a simple salad for him. He came back into the kitchen about ten minutes later, his hair once more pulled back into the ponytail and wearing a white tee shirt over which he had a black, short-sleeved shirt open to the waist and black jeans. I must say the look suited him, though I admit I thought he might get a bit cold; however, it allowed him to show off his muscles. As I dropped the pasta into the boiling water, I commented on the fact that, for a fifteen-year-old, he had good muscular development.

"Gymnastics, about the only sport I was any good at; totally crap with any type of ball game — no hand-eye coordination." My knowledge of gymnastics is just a bit more than my understanding of football, a game I have never understood, but I did ask him what his favourite equipment was. "The vault. I'm bloody good at it, but this is probably going to be my last year for it …" He stopped, suddenly realising that there were probably no gymnastics facilities out in this part of the sticks.

"Why's that?" I asked.

"I was getting too tall, the taller you are, the more time you need to get your body to somersault in the air. That's why most of the top gymnast and divers tend to be on the short side. It's not an absolute rule, and there are some good, tall gymnasts and divers, but they tend to be the exception rather than the rule. Anyway, it does not matter now; I don't suppose there is a gymnastic club around here." That was something I did not know, but I intended to check out.

I finished the pasta carbonara, and while he was eating, I got some cash out of my wallet and put it down on the table. He looked up at me. "What's that?"

"It is your twenty-pound allowance for the week. You don't have your debit card yet, so you will not be able to get at the money in your account till it comes. There is also a fiver for tonight." Johnny thanked me and got on with his meal.

It was just gone five past six when I pulled up outside the coffee shop where Johnny had arranged to meet Arthur. Arthur was waiting outside for him, and when I dropped Johnny off, he came over to the car to speak to me. Arthur wanted to know what time Johnny had to be home and said he could run Johnny back. I enquired about his licence status, but Arthur told me that he passed his test the week after his seventeenth birthday and had been driving for nine months. Johnny looked at me from outside the car with a begging expression. I said OK but made sure Johnny had my and Anne's mobile numbers in his phone and told him to make sure he phoned if there were any problems.

Anne and I went on into Chelmsford for our meal, after which we went to the cinema and sat through a film which even Anne admitted was second rate, at best. Her precise description was that it was something you find on an obscure movie channel at three in the morning. I would not have been so complimentary. We got back to Lynnhaven just before eleven. There was a van I did not recognise pulled up on our driveway and parked by the carport. The lights were on in the caravan, and the sound of music emanated from it. When I got out of my car and walked towards the door, the security lights triggered, and I could make out the lettering J. Lee & Sons. My assumption that the vehicle was Arthur's was confirmed.

Anne went immediately to the kitchen to make some hot chocolate for the pair of us. She asked if she should make some for the boys? I advised her against it; if the boys wanted anything, I was sure they could come and get it themselves. Johnny had done as I had asked and got home by eleven. That was all I needed to know. Discretion dictated that one should not embark on a course of action which might result in one acquiring knowledge one would prefer not to know.

As it was, it turned out I had no need to exercise such discretion, for a couple of minutes later, Johnny and Arthur came into the kitchen. Anne asked them if they would like some hot chocolate, Johnny accepted, but Arthur declined, saying he had to get back to Dunford. I must admit that Arthur looked a lot smarter this evening than he had when I first saw him; it looked as if he had taken an effort to clean up. Johnny showed Arthur out, then came back to the kitchen for his chocolate. "Good night? Was the youth club interesting?" I asked.

"Nah, a bit dull. I played pool with a couple of younger lads who were there, but except for two girls who help run it, Arthur and myself were the only ones over thirteen. There was a dance on at the high school, and all the older kids had gone to that. The only reason Arthur was there was because he handles the disco."

"So you won't be going again?" I was fairly sure what the answer would be but just wanted to see.

"No, I'm going on Tuesday. I can cycle over in the afternoon and meet Arthur when he finishes work. We'll have a meal and then go to the club. He'll bring me and the bike back in the van when it finishes."

"So, what's the score with Arthur? I presume he is gay?"

Anne announced she was going to turn in for the night, commenting that she had a book to read. It was a diplomatic excuse to absent herself. There are some talks best left to father and son.

"Oh, yeah, but he is not out. His family are Brethren, and all hell would break loose if they found out. That's why he is not at school; they pulled him out as soon as he could legally leave. Apparently, they are not happy about him doing the disco at the youth club as they regard the music as ungodly."

I could see there might be problems there. "What about you and Arthur? You seem to like him?"

"Oh, yes, he's a great chap — knows loads about computers and electronics. He really should go to university, but his parents won't allow it. He's eighteen in July, and then he plans to get a job in computing and leave home. Then he can do Open University to get a degree."

"Does he like you?"

"He says he does, and he wants to see more of me but … I'm not sure, I thought he really liked me, and we got away from the club early to get back here. He seemed so into me, but he would not do anything. All he would do was give me a cuddle, and he kissed me, but he would not do anything else or let me do anything. Said I was too young and it was too soon."

My estimation of Arthur had gone up; not only was he clearly intelligent, he also seemed sensible. "Technically he's right; you're not sixteen till May, and until then you are underage."

"Dad, I've been having sex for ages; actually, I got and gave my first blowjob when I was ten and a half." I looked at him questioningly. "One of the prefects at St Jude's." That was a relief; at least, it had not been one of the teachers. From what I had learnt from my son in the last three days, I would not have put that past him.

"Johnny, there is a difference between having sex and being in a relationship, and I think Arthur is looking for a relationship. If he is prepared to hold back on the sex, that probably means he is thinking about you in terms of a relationship. Don't spoil it by pushing him to go somewhere he does not want to go yet."

"But isn't sex about having a relationship?"

"No, sex is about dealing with a physical need, which can be good. Sex in a relationship is about expressing love through the satisfaction of physical needs, which is great. Take my word for it; it is well worth waiting for."

"So, I've been wasting my time for the last three years. I thought if I had sex with them, they would love me." I realised that in that statement Johnny had just told me something more than I probably wanted to know, and that, at this precise moment in time, I probably did not want to know who 'them' was. What I did realise was that I had a confused and lonely boy on my hands.

I reached out and pulled him into a hug. For a moment he resisted, then melted into my embrace and hugged me back. "Johnny, you can never get love through sex, but you can give love through sex when you meet the right person."

"Did you love my mother?"

"I thought I did, but looking back at it, I guess I was just infatuated with her. She was one of the best-looking women around and had a compelling sexual attraction. When she started paying attention to me, it really boosted my ego. It was quite clear then that she was going somewhere. Christ, she had only been at the bar for two years, and already they were talking about her as a potential QC.

"Powerful women have an allure and attraction all of their own, and I fell for it. Thinking about it, I am not sure I was ever really in love with her. I definitely did not feel for her what I feel for Anne. I was infatuated with her, and she used me, as she uses most people. She needed a husband, and I was available."

"So, it was a mistake."

"Not sure it was a mistake; more like one of those inevitable crashes. Everybody can see it coming when you look with hindsight, but at the time nobody saw the obvious, though I must say both your Uncle Phil and your granddad did try to warn me off."

"You regret it now, though, don't you?"

"No, I regret having to go through all the pain of the breakup and finding out the truth about your mother. That was bloody rough, but I don't regret marrying her."

"Why not?"

"Because if I had not married your mother, you would not be here, and you make everything worthwhile.

"Now I have a lot to do in the morning, and you, my lad, have to go to work, so I suggest we better get along to bed."

Johnny smiled, then gave me a hug. "Thanks, Dad."

I never set my alarm on a Friday night; Saturday for me is my day of rest. I suppose that is what comes of growing up in a Jewish neighbourhood. I'm not Jewish, but most of my school friends were, as were most of the local businesses. The result: in our part of Town, Saturday was more like Sunday anywhere else in London. So, it was my day of rest, and as a result, I was still in bed when Anne put her head around the bedroom door to tell me she was off and that Johnny had left an hour earlier.

With that, I got up, showered and dressed, grabbed a light breakfast and then went and sat in my study to look over papers before Bernard arrived. He had sent me an email the day before saying he would be here sometime before twelve. He had also attached a pile of PDFs that he wanted me to read before our meeting. Although Bernard is not a very observant Jew, I knew he would go to shul first — he always went on Saturday when he was in Town — so he was not likely to arrive before eleven. Bernard is one of my oldest friends; indeed, I can't remember a time when we were not friends. He had lived in the apartment over the tailor's, which was next door to the shop that housed my father's accountancy business, which we lived above. Dad must have been the only non-Jewish accountant in the area. In an area which was mostly Jewish, that might have seemed a disadvantage, but there was always business that people did not want the rabbi to know about. An accountant who was not attending shul was seen by some as an advantage.

From the time I could walk, I would spend time in the small garden that extended behind the property, and Bernard, who was a month older than I was, would be out in his family's garden. By the time I started at primary school — yes, it was the local Jewish school, being the nearest — I was as comfortable speaking in Yiddish or Hebrew as I was in English. In fact, if the truth was known, I was probably better at speaking Yiddish than English as I probably spent more of my waking hours with Aunt Sarah, Bernard's mother, than at home with my mother. Mam was a doctor, and although she only worked part-time, she was out for quite a bit of the day. During those times, Aunt Sarah babysat me, which usually meant putting Bernard and me in the garden and keeping an eye on us from the kitchen window. When I was seven, just after Ben was born, we moved up the road to Hampstead. It was just over a mile away, so I stayed at the same primary school and saw Bernard every day. To be honest, I don't think there was a day from the time I could walk until I was eleven that I did not see Bernard; the families even took holidays together. Aunt Sarah and Bernard were so involved with my life that, to me, they were part of the family. I did not even realise that we weren't Jewish until I asked mother why Bernard's weenie was different from mine. I think I was about six then.

Once we got to eleven, things changed. I went to the new comprehensive secondary school while Bernard went to a Jewish secondary school. However, we still stayed friends and would meet up most weekends, even if I was not staying with Aunt Sarah. I did that quite often as mother worked as a locum, which was mostly weekend work. It was university that really separated us; I went to Manchester to read science and engineering, and Bernard went to Birmingham to read law. We had kept in touch, though, and still counted each other as close bosom friends. The couple of times I had really needed a lawyer, Bernard had been there for me, and I'm sure he had put in far more work than had been charged for. Unfortunately, he had not been around at the time of my divorce.

Bernard arrived just gone twenty to twelve. I went to open the door when I heard the crunch of the car tyres on the gravel drive. He eased himself out of the driver's seat — he was quite a big man — then leaned back in to grab his briefcase. A moment later, I was enveloped in a bear hug and was taken back forty-odd years and jabbering away in Yiddish. Then he pushed me back and held me at arm's length. "Hold it, please, Mike, your Yiddish was always better than mine, never mind your Hebrew; can we stick to English?" I agreed and guided him through to the study, offering him tea or coffee, which he refused, but getting him a beer which he requested.

"I was saying, how come you are driving up on a Saturday?" I said as I put the bottle in front of him.

"Debra is away for the weekend. Anyway, the rabbi says it's OK for me to go if it is an emergency; I am counting this as an emergency," Bernard informed me. I nodded, understanding. Bernard was not very observant. In fact, any observance of the rules of Shabbos was almost certainly at Debra's prompting.

He looked around my study, his eye catching on a pile of Hebrew technical journals, a source few in the scientific press could access; they often gave me a clear advantage on technical articles. "You know, Mike, I sometimes think our mothers must have got us mixed up; you're more Jewish than I am. So, where's the tyke?"

"He's at work."

"What? You have my godson working. What sort of father are you, sending your son out to work at such a tender age?"

I explained that it was work experience and that my son wanted to be a yacht builder, and this is how he could get some training.

Bernard laughed, almost spilling his beer. "I bet that really pleased Beryl Smith." Bernard was the only person I know who called my ex-wife Beryl Smith. She always styled herself Janet Carlton-Smith, even after our divorce, when technically she was no longer a Carlton. Then, Bernard had known her longer than I had; they had been at Birmingham together reading law.

"No, I gather she was not too happy, which is why she dumped him on my doorstep."

"Oh, I think there was a bit more to it than that," Bernard commented.


"Haven't you read today's Times?"

"No, I don't get the Times down here."

"You really should if only to keep track of who's died." He pulled a copy of the Times out of his briefcase. It had been folded over at one of the announcement pages. An announcement had been ringed in red ink. Bernard passed it to me. I read:

The engagement is announced between the Honourable Malcolm Davenport and Ms. Janet Carlton-Smith …

"Who the hell is the Honourable Malcolm Davenport?" I asked.

"Dunlevin's nephew and, if gossip is correct, the next Duke of Dunlevin."

"But he must be, what, ten years her junior?"

Bernard smiled. "More like fifteen, but then they both have what the other wants. He's got or will get the title, and she's got the money. Now it is clear she is not in the running for QC, she's got to get something else to boost her status."

"What do you mean not in the running for QC? Always thought that was clearly on the cards."

"Probably was when you were with her — actually was until the last government. Let's just say she got a bit too friendly with the wrong people and too involved in some somewhat-questionable legal manoeuvres, and that's blotted her copybook. Seems a couple of senior judges made it very clear to the powers-that-be that she should not be considered QC material.

Anyway, let's get down to business. We spent the next three-quarters of an hour going through a whole pile of papers that Bernard had brought with him. Apparently changing my will was not going to be as easy as I had thought; things were complicated by the fact that I was going to marry Anne. Apparently, any will in existence at the time of a marriage, unless it explicitly made reference to the marriage, would become invalid upon marriage.

Bernard advised making a codicil to my current will — it left everything to Johnny — to make provision for Anne; he would then draft a new will stating my intent to marry and making provision for my wife-to-be. Fortunately, he had arrived with a suitable codicil already prepared; all we had to do was get Bernard and a second party to witness me signing it. We agreed that once we had sorted out the rest of the paperwork, we would go down to the Anchor. Jack or one of the locals would act as a witness, no doubt for a pint and chaser.

It turned out that the question of my custody of Johnny was a lot easier than I had thought it would be. The court had awarded us joint custody at the time of my divorce. Still, my ex had made it quite clear that she did not intend to share custody, and if I wanted to interfere, she would go back to court and bring up some of my youthful exploits to show I was an unsuitable person to have custody of Johnny. As I had not pushed the issue — for one thing, I was not in the financial position to do so then — the original ruling still applied. I had joint custody, so there was no need to return to court to get it. Better yet, my ex had agreed via her solicitors to surrender custody to me on condition that she did not have to contribute to Child Maintenance. "But that's eight hundred a month!" I exclaimed.

"Mike, if you need eight hundred a month to maintain my godson, I'll pay it," Bernard responded. "It would be worth it to get Beryl out of his life." That set me off laughing. Bernard has the reputation of being one of the hardest-nosed solicitors in the publishing and entertainment world, and he needs a hard nose with some of the clients he has, but deep down he is one big softy.

I asked Bernard what was required for my ex to surrender custody. He said he would get all the signed forms from Beryl on Monday, and he would take them into the Family Court and get the custody orders amended. Actually, it seemed that Johnny taking on the work experience with Steve made life easier as it gave an explanation for the change in custody should the court ask for one, which he doubted it would. Bernard said he'd better make a note of the name of the boatyard Johnny was working at just in case the question came up. I told him it was the Hamden yard.

"He'd better be bloody good with boats, then!" Bernard exclaimed.


"That's where my yacht is; it's in for a refit. Hamden is one of the few yards that have the old skills. Most of the newer yards are lost if the yacht needs anything more than a sheet of fibreglass and some resin."

"I did not realise you were into sailing, Bernard."

"I'm not, but the lads love it. Joseph, Debora's brother, used to take them out quite a bit." Debora was Bernard's wife, and they had two boys who must be seventeen and fourteen, if my memory served me correctly. "Joseph was ex-Navy, got invalided out a few years ago, and bought a place on the other side of the Blackwater. He died last February, left everything to Debora, including the yacht. We sold the house, but the boys were insistent that we kept the yacht, so I got it put in a marina near Dunford. With one thing and another, it wasn't used last year, so there was no maintenance done. Brought the boys down last November, and it was clear it needed a lot of work, so asked Hamden's to sort it out. I'm on my way up there after I finish here."

"Well, you will probably find Johnny sweeping the floor; he only started with Steve today."

"As long as he does it because he wants to, that is all that is important. If a lad wants to do a job, let him do it. Now, Micah is off to your old university; he wants to get into space engineering. For Joseph, I think I will have to arrange an apprenticeship for him with old Saul."

"Is he still going?" Old Saul was Saul Robertson, who had cut my hair when I was four; he must be over seventy now.

"He's still going. None of his boys had any interest in barbering; two are doctors, one's a solicitor — he actually works for me — and the youngest is a photographer. My youngest wants to be a barber. He goes down there and sweeps the floor on a Sunday if we're in Town. Well, if that's what he wants to be when he leaves school, so be it, so long as he is a bloody good barber.

"Anyway, that is enough about my family. Tell me about this property you are buying and how you're financing it." I outlined the details of Priory and the offer I had made. Bernard listened and took a few notes. He asked how I was going to finance it, and I told him that Bob was setting up a meeting on Monday for me with Zachary Mayer.

"Yes, that's the sort of deal Zach would get into," Bernard stated.

"You know him?"

"He's my second cousin once-removed. You remember Aunt Ruth?" I nodded. She was a small woman who always looked as if she was thinking of something far away, which she probably was. She was a Flemish Jew and had ended up in Bergen-Belsen. "Well, Zach is her nephew by marriage. Made quite a name for himself in Canary Wharf, was with Goldman's and USB for a time, then Swiss Bank Corporation. Got out in 1991 just before the crash, said there was too much funny paper floating around."

"Well, he was right on that."

"If Zach is sorting out the finances, you should be OK. He is a straight dealer and will put together a totally legit deal. None of these elaborate, tax-avoidance schemes for Zach." I told Bernard I was glad to hear that. Then we started to discuss the question of the bungalow and what to do with the money from its sale. I really wanted to do something constructive with it for Johnny.

Bernard pointed out that as this was my primary residence, in fact, my only residence, there would be no capital-gains tax on the sale. That being the case, I should set up an offshore property company, loan the money to the property company and let them invest it in student housing around the new universities. It sounded good, so I asked him to sort some details out for me. Just then the phone rang; it was the estate agents. I told them I had my solicitor with me and would put them on the speakerphone.

"That's fine, Mr Carlton, I have spoken to my principals and told them of your offer of six twenty-five, but they have indicated they are not prepared to drop below six forty." Bernard wrote six thirty-five on a piece of paper and passed it to me. I nodded.

"This is Bernard Lebrun, Mr Carlton's solicitor. Six-forty is too high, considering the lack of outside maintenance over the last couple of years and the amount of work needed. It is Grade 2 listed, and that means the work will be expensive. Mr Carlton will offer six thirty-five, and that is a full and final offer and subject to an agreement to complete within four weeks."

"What! We can't get completion in four weeks; it just can't be done."

"It can be if your side gets your solicitors to actually do some work instead of leaving it to clerks to sort out. That's the offer; it is on the table till nine a.m. on Monday morning." With that, the call was brought to a close. The agent promising to get back to us as soon as possible.

"Can you do a conveyance in four weeks?" I asked.

"Oh, yes, if both sides want it done in that time. Thought you might like to get it ready to move into before your wedding."

We finished off doing a general review of the publishing contracts I had. Really this was Bob's field, and Bernard confirmed he had a meeting lined up with Bob for the week after next. He just wanted to get my feelings on a couple of things before he met with Bob. It was funny both Bernard and Bob complained about each other. Bernard insisted that Bob was the most bloody-minded agent in London, while Bob stated that Bernard was the most unbendable solicitor in London and would not give way on any point in a contract. Given that they both acted for some of the leading writers in the country, they had to deal with each other quite frequently. I got the feeling that both looked forward to these run-ins, especially as most of them took place in some of the better eating establishments in the capital.

We were just about to go down to the Anchor for a drink and a bite to eat when the phone rang. It was the agent. The sellers would agree to six thirty-five, but they wanted five weeks for completion. I passed the phone to Bernard who, after getting the nod from me, stated he would fax a written offer through to them first thing Monday morning.

Over a couple of pints of beer and two chicken-and-mushroom pies and chips, we finished catching up on family gossip. Mostly it was Bernard telling me of the latest status of his eldest sister's marriages, divorces and re-marriages. It seems she was now on husband number six, though two had died on her. I had come very close to marrying one of Bernard's cousins before I met Beryl. I had often wondered if it would have worked out.

Jack, the landlord, obliged by witnessing my signature, along with Bernard, on the codicil to my will and a couple of other documents. He told me that Anne was upstairs in the function room with his wife, looking after the wedding reception arrangements , the wedding party were due to arrive at three.

Bernard left shortly after two to go to the Hamden yard. I wondered if he would take his Bentley over on the rope ferry. Somehow, I doubted that.

Back in my study, I settled down to do some serious writing. There were a couple of articles I had to get done on Rosetta — the probe that had been sent to rendezvous with a comet. I was getting on quite well when just after three my phone pinged telling me I had a text, which was unusual; most of my friends don't know how to text. I took the phone out and looked at it; it was from Johnny.

Dad, theres a fat chap here who says hes my godfather. Do you know him?

I replied:

That's Bernard, he's your godfather. Be nice to him, he's rich.

My phone pinged again:

Good, says hell bring me home, so be back about five.

My response was:

What about the bike?

To which he replied:

Itll go in the boot.

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