Rob wearily clipped the typewritten letter and his handwritten reply together and dropped them in his ‘Out’ tray. He looked at the pile which still filled the ‘In’ one. It didn’t seem to be getting any smaller, even though he had spent most of the day answering them. He had been through the pile once to take out those that didn’t need answering. Some he had dropped directly into the bin under his desk having read only the first few lines, circulars and mail shots that didn’t need his attention and didn’t grab his interest. Others he had scrawled a short note on the top of, usually the single word ‘file’, before moving them to the ‘Out’ tray for his secretary to deal with. There still remained a depressingly large stack which required a personal answer. He picked them up and leafed through them again, trying to find one that would be quick and easy to answer.

They were mainly addressed to ‘R. Bishop & Son’. One or two, from his longer-standing customers were simply addressed to ‘R. Bishop’. He had proudly added the ‘& Son’ many years ago when his wife had presented him with a male child. It was their third one. He loved his two daughters very much, and wouldn’t have changed them for the world, but he had been pleased to finally have a son to pass his business on to.

Now, ironically, it looked as if it was the middle daughter who would take on the lion’s share of the work once he handed over the reins. His eldest daughter Jennifer had got married soon after leaving college and now lived the life of a typical housewife making sure that the grandchildren she had given him were well fed and groomed before packing them off to school each day then spending her time on the never-ending chores that keeping her modest house in good order required. The boy had shown no interest in the business whatsoever. He had become keen on drama at school and had followed that path on to acting. He now lived with a friend in the outskirts of London and took parts when offered. These were usually in plays performing in the city or at one of the provincial theatres but he had been in several commercials and had landed small roles in a film and in a TV soap opera. He supported his career choice with other work when he wasn’t acting, normally at various bars, while he waited ever hopeful that one day he would get his big break.

His middle daughter Kim had shown an interest in the business since an early age, accompanying him eagerly to the factory when allowed to do so. When she had got old enough, she had spent most of her holidays there, either helping in the office or filling a space at the production line if one were free. Throughout her time she had worked in most of the processes, and consequently knew at least as much about how the plant operated as many of the older employees did. She was now in her final year of a Business Studies degree at university and it had been agreed between them that she would join her father at the factory as soon as she graduated.

He stopped flipping through the letters when he reached the one from Lord Allenby’s solicitors. The new agreement which was printed on plain white paper and attached behind a light blue letter was well thumbed. By rights it shouldn’t be in his ‘In’ tray but he wasn’t ready to file it yet and he didn’t have a ‘What The F…’ tray to put it in. He turned over its pages until he came to the clause that had caused him so much consternation when he had first seen it. He did not need the yellow highlight he had marked it with to find the word ‘and’ which completely changed the clause’s meaning. ‘… and 5% when James Allenby retires’.

It meant that he would have to pay James an additional 5% royalty on top of the 5% he already paid if James were to retire. He was sure that ‘and’ had not been there when he had signed the agreement but there it was, with his initials on the bottom of the page just as he had written them. It was a copy rather than the original, which the solicitor had retained for safekeeping, but it was there in black and white so it was impossible to argue.

Margins were tight enough as it was without having to give another 5% of the factory’s revenue to James. The market wasn’t strong enough to just pass on the additional costs to his customers — they would simply stopped buying the product if it sat around too long on their display shelves and replace it with something that moved more quickly.

He had originally started manufacturing a variety of products but when James had first come along with his invention Rob had been able to sell as many as he could make, even keeping the production line going into overtime. He had quickly acquiesced to James’s plea to be allowed to buy a 20% stake in the business as part of a 30 year agreement to licence the product and had dropped his other lines as soon as he was able to, concentrating on just this one. There had been a slight downturn in sales when James had given licences to other manufacturers in the USA and in Asia but it had not been enough to be concerned about. Generally their territories didn’t overlap so they weren’t really competing for business.

The money that selling James the 20% stake brought in had been handy, allowing him to afford the house that he now still lived in with his wife, and with Kim when she was home, and didn’t relinquish any say in how the business was run so he had not been concerned at letting it go. Indeed, having him as a junior partner meant it was in James’s interest for the firm to be successful, as it had been throughout their relationship. When machinery had become worn out and needed to be replaced this had eaten into the profits of course without affecting the royalties that James received but he had still lost his 20% of their costs along with Rob’s own contribution.

James had made a big thing about ‘retiring’ when he was 60, and that was why he had wanted the clause in. At the time, and as Rob had read it, it simply meant that James would continue to get a 5% royalty even if he retired not as it now read an extra 5%.

He could afford to pay the extra money if he had to but it would mean that things would become very tight. Rob would no doubt be expected to pay for Kim’s wedding, but luckily there was no sign of that being an imminent expense, and after that he would have to find some cash for Robert Jr. Hopefully he wouldn’t be expected to pay for, or towards, any wedding plans but he would probably have to find a similar figure as a gift, probably the deposit on a house for RJ to set up home in. It wouldn’t be fair otherwise, to spend so much money on his daughters without giving the lad a similar sum.

His musings were interrupted by a knock at the door which was opened, when he had invited whoever was there to come in, by one of the girls from the factory floor.

“Mr Brown says to tell you that the alarm is going on the plastic mixer, Mr Bishop,” she informed him. Then added, to further explain her errand when Rob looked somewhat puzzled by her news, “the one that tells you when the chemicals are running low.”

Robber relaxed slightly, now understanding the reason she had been sent.

“Only you’re the only one with a key to the store cupboard, what with Mr Gill being off sick and Mr Balfour being on holiday.”

“I’ll be down directly,” said Rob, turning the pages of the agreement again so that the light blue covering letter was uppermost, and dropping it back in the ‘In’ tray.

He followed her through the outer office and down the metal staircase that led to the factory floor, zigzagging through the machines once he was there and smiling and nodding to his employees as he passed. As he approached the store’s mesh door, it was a cage rather than an actual room though everyone called it ‘the store room’, he unclipped a bunch of keys from his belt to find the one that would fit the padlock which secured the door. It was a pain having to keep the cage locked. Mostly it contained various oils and greases to maintain different parts of the plant that the process used, but there were one or two more dangerous items in there, the chemical he was now fetching being one of them. Keeping everything under lock and key in one place satisfied the H&S rules though, so that if they got an unexpected visit from the authorities they would get a clean bill of health.

He swung the cage door open and stepped inside, soon finding the orange bottles he was looking for. He grabbed the first one and, carefully locking the cage behind him again, set off to find Trevor Brown to pass it on to him. Trevor was quite capable of using it to refill the machine’s small tank alone without needing to be supervised.

He had only just returned to his desk and sat down again, and was reaching for the pile of letters in his ‘In’ tray when was another knock at the door. This time the door barely paused in time for his ‘come in ‘ before being opened by the same girl.

“Mr Brown says you need to come down straight away, Mr Bishop.” Her speech was breathless, as if she had been running or at least walking very fast up the stairs to his office. He looked out of the internal window that oversaw much of the factory below. All the machines were unattended, their operators forming a small crowd around one section, so that he couldn’t see through them to ascertain for himself what the problem might be. The girl had not left this time, but waited for him to pass her before following behind. He lifted his speed from the slow thoughtful steps he normally took so that his descent down the staircase was almost a run. It clanged with each footfall, a sound echoed as the girl hurried along to keep pace behind him. When the small crowd parted to let him through he saw immediately what had happened and did not need Trevor’s explanation, though he got it anyway.

“It just broke, Mr Bishop,” Trevor said, “a bit of a tearing sound, then it just broke.” Trevor was pointing towards the now lifeless conveyor belt and to the section now devoid of the rubber belt that usually covered the metal wheels and chains which fed it on its course. “It was lucky it didn’t take Gail’s eye out, it went with such force,” he added. At the next machine along sat Gail. Next to her, partly on and partly slipped to the painted concrete floor was what remained of the rubber belt. The strip that hung from its metal carrier was still swinging, blown by one of the many drafts the years of trying had not been able to eliminate.

Service engineers had warned for many visits that the conveyor belts which carried each piece to the next process was just about worn out. They had kept it running long after it should have been replaced by a combination of frequent maintenance visits and good fortune. The equipment was so old now that spare parts for it were impossible to obtain. When a driveshaft that needed to be replaced the previous year Rob had had to have it specially made at an engineering shop just down the road from them on the same industrial complex. From the tangled metal workings that he now faced even this source would be unlikely to be able to help.

“Thing is, it isn’t just this section that’s stopped … they’re all interlinked, you see,” explained Trevor.

Robert didn’t need this explanation either. He knew each piece of equipment better than Trevor did. He tried very hard to make light of the problem, though he couldn’t keep his concern completely from his voice.

“Oh well, better move the parts from process to process by hand for now, while I think what’s to be done to solve the problem.”

He left Trevor to make the necessary arrangements and returned, slowly this time, to his office. Closing the door behind him and out of sight of the workers below he slumped into his chair, thoughts of answering the letters now driven from his mind. For now, he would call the engineers in and see if the damaged section could be isolated so that at least the other sections of the belt could resume their work. Moving things by hand would greatly slow down the plant’s output. It was okay as a temporary measure but not one that could be maintained for long, or at least not doing so and still showing a profit. Not with the extra 5% he would have to pay James if he went ahead with his retirement and insisted on keeping that clause in. This latest failure was a blow the business might not recover from. Rob had already had quotes to replace the conveyor belt, which had come back at many tens of thousands of pounds.

He looked at the family group photo on his desk, taken quite recently to include the latest grandchild that Jennifer was holding in her arms. It was taken at his christening, the last time they had all been together. It even included RJ’s friend Nigel, who had come down for the day too, and who RJ had insisted be included.

He grabbed a blank sheet of paper to write down the maths he was already doing in his head. The bank would help out — let him run on an overdraft for a time. He had been a good customer over the years, usually keeping his personal and business accounts in credit, except when he had to make his VAT payments each quarter. They would probably want his house to be put up for collateral against the loan, but he should be able to service it if James wasn’t so greedy. Even delaying the clause for a couple of years would probably be enough.

He looked dismally at the numbers the sheet of paper now held. He reached for the phone on his desk. No harm in at least asking, he thought as he dialled James’s number. He would need to tell James about the breakdown anyway. He would prefer to do both things at the same time and face-to-face. The line rang at the other end a few times before being answered. He waited while Jeeves connected him to James’s study, where he believed his Lordship to be at present. When he was at last put through he told James that he needed to see him as a matter of some urgency, though he was careful not to explain, or even hint at, why this might be.

“Well I’ll be leaving home tomorrow afternoon to meet with my brother,” James replied to his request, “and leaving straight from there to do a bit of business overseas. Won’t be back home for a few days, I’m afraid.”

Robert repeated that it was important and urgent that he meet with him, and that the matter really couldn’t wait until James’s return.

“In that case, why don’t you join me for breakfast tomorrow morning,” suggested James. “Let’s say at 7:45, then you’ll have plenty of time to get into the factory afterwards. Shouldn’t be that late in.”

Robert agreed that this would suit him perfectly. After he had hung up on James, he looked up the number for the bank and dialled that. He would make an appointment to see the bank manager the following day. No matter how James responded to his request, he would need to talk to them to explain what had happened and to ask for their help.

* * *

There had been a good selection to choose from at the breakfast the following morning, though Rob ensured that he only served himself small portions of each dish. He wasn’t used to having a cooked breakfast in the morning, usually just grabbing toast and juice before heading off to the factory. Even so, the plate in front of him was still full, and he had felt a little like the proverbial condemned man eating a large meal before being executed.

He had not expected James’s accountant, Mark, to be there. He wasn’t sure whether Mark’s presence was a good thing or bad. At least Mark could confirm that the numbers he would use were correct. He liked Mark, and had dealt with him often over the years. Indeed, he would have given his own business to him, if doing so wouldn’t have put the man in a conflict of interest. The conversation with James which sounded more like a plea that a request, however he phrased it, wasn’t going well. James had said that he already had similar agreements with his American and Asian operations, and that either or both companies could increase their output to satisfy the European market if necessary. Indeed, the Cebu company at least could produce his device cheaply enough to more than cover the cost of transportation to the European clients and distributors. Mark agreed that this was the case, but pointed out that the exchange rate with the Filipino currency varied much more than that between the pound and the Euro, and that was also something which would need to be factored in. James also pointed out that the revenue he would lose by not taking the additional percentage when he retired would be far greater than his share of the company’s profits would be after paying for the new machinery that was needed. Again, Mark agreed this would be the case.

Their conversation was interrupted by James’s wife Hazel, from the other end of the table at which they sat.

“What do you think, James?” she asked.

James had been deeply engrossed in the conversation he had been having with Rob and Mark, and not listening to the conversation at the end of the table.

“What?” he replied to his wife. “Sorry Hazel, wasn’t really listening.”

Robert waited while Hazel explained that an idea for the party they were planning to celebrate James’s 60th birthday, at which he also planned to announce his imminent retirement.

“Oh … yes … sounds like a good idea,” said James, though from the way in which he said it, it was obvious that he had other things on his mind.

With the financial arguments failing, Rob tried to appeal to James’s better nature, pointing out that without the requested assistance the business would hardly be making any profit and that this would leave him with hardly any income.

“There’s the employees too,” continued Rob. “Some of them have been with the firm since they first started working. I don’t know what they’d do if we had to let them go.”

The problem was that James didn’t really have a better nature to appeal to. This had served them both well over the years, with Rob often bringing James in to meet with the larger clients and the distributors if they were grumbling about price increases or, worse still, were asking for their purchase price to be lowered. James’s manner had left them in little doubt that there were other distributors to take up any slack, and other clients who would soon fill any gap in the market.

“Well,” said James after pausing to reflect on what Rob had said, “I could buy out your share of the factory, I suppose.”

This wasn’t an option that Rob had considered, or liked the idea of.

“I’d keep you on to manage it of course, and at a suitable salary,” continued James. “Problem is that I’m rather looking to be doing less work, not more, and it’s not as if I’ve anyone to pass it on to.” He looked at Mark as he spoke, who nodded his agreement that James could indeed buy out Rob’s share if he wished.

It wasn’t a suggestion that Robert liked the sound of it all. In its current predicament his share in the factory would not amount to very much, and he has no doubt that what James considered to be a ‘suitable salary’ would be far less than what he was used to taking from the firm.

“Well, let me think it over for a few days,” said James, rising from the table as he spoke to indicate that their meeting was over. “I’ll telephone you with my decision when I get back to the UK.” He turned to address his next comment to mark.

“Mark, I need a word before you head off. Why don’t we adjourn to my study?”

There was no doubting that the meeting hadn’t gone well. At best he would have to wait several days to hear James’s decision, but it sounded like Rob could expect no help from that direction. He would have to try very hard to think of any other solution before he met with the bank’s manager that afternoon.

His meeting with the bank’s manager went no better than his meeting that morning with James.

The manager listened while Rob outlined the reason for his visit. He carefully followed the financial plan Rob had prepared and given him a copy of, tracing each line with a bony finger as Rob explained it in more detail. He nodded sympathetically as Rob told him of the hardship that would be caused if he had to lay off some or all of his workforce. He did everything that he was supposed to except give Rob the money he was asking for. He was sorry, he explained, but his hands were tied. It would be a head office decision that he was sure they would reject. There wasn’t even enough equity in the house for that to stand as collateral against the loan by the time you factored in setup costs and the fact that the housing market was very poor at present. Rob came away from his meeting even more dejected than he had gone in.

He wasn’t sure which would be worse. Seeing the firm he had built from nothing closed or staying on to act only as the manager of a company he had once owned. The latter for him personally probably, though this would be a better outcome for the firm’s employees rather than be laid off and forced to find employment elsewhere. Many of them had become almost friends, they’d been there that long, and several would find it hard to find another position at their time of life. They’d end up drawing an unemployment benefit until they could collect their pensions. Perhaps he should stay on for their sakes, at least until the company was back on an even keel. If he didn’t like the position this left him in he could always find another post elsewhere, or even retire himself. They could move to a smaller house once the market improved, which would free up some capital. After all, they didn’t need all of the room their current one offered, now that Jennifer and RJ had left home. It all depended on how much James offered to buy out his share of the business. By the time he had arrived back at the factory he had more or less convinced himself this was his only solution.

He spent the following week keeping production going as best he could. The engineers came out on the Monday and managed to arrange things so that the conveyor belt worked in most places but agreed, as he had feared, that the damaged section was beyond repair. They also warned him to expect similar occurrences in other parts of the line, sooner rather than later. Replacing just the damaged section was an option, but only a very short term solution, and replacing the whole line piece by piece in this manner would end up costing far more than putting in one complete line. Getting the line working again in most sections resulted in some improvement in productivity but not a great deal. There was still a bottleneck at Gail’s machine. He lessened the problem to some degree by hiring in extra help to move the product across manually. They had little buffer stock, so it wouldn’t be long before the breakdown started to affect supply to customers.

At the end of that week James telephoned from his car on the way home from the airport. He had decided not to invest any more money in the factory he informed Rob, for the reasons he had already explained at their face-to-face meeting.

“If we can’t find another solution, the factory will just have to stop production and I’ll lose my 20% stake,” he told Rob. “I’ve already spoken to Cebu, and they’ve confirmed they’d be able to supply things over here.”

James made no mention of relinquishing or delaying his additional 5% and left Rob with the feeling that this was a solution which hadn’t even been considered.

Rob would have one last try at the party that evening. If necessary, and for the sake of the employees, he would even offer to give rather than sell James a controlling interest in the company. After all, without the device to produce, the machinery was only so much junk metal, and the lease one among many of empty properties in the area, so of little value.

He was a little late arriving, delayed when his wife Sheila had changed her mind about what shoes to wear, running back upstairs to choose again despite his protestations. Cars were already lining the drive, with several facing back towards the road, showing that all of the parking spaces nearer the Manor were now full and that their drivers had already driven up to the house to check. There wasn’t enough room in the drive to park so that cars could pass and still leave enough room for Sheila to get out of her side without risking her dress getting snagged on the barbed wire fence that ran down that side, so he let her alight before pulling in behind the last car that had parked there. He locked the car with the remote key fob when he had climbed out. It probably didn’t need to be secured as the house was quite a long way from the nearest town, but it was habit.

He took his wife’s arm and they walked together up the driveway to the Manor’s front door. It was open but unattended. Jeeves had obviously had his fill of running to open it every time the bell announced that someone wanted to be let in. They didn’t need the gay sounds coming from it to lead them to the ballroom. They have both visited often enough on similar occasions to know their way.

Rob took a deep breath then, pulling his shoulders back, entered the room with his wife.