End games

It is well nigh impossible to put into words the true life and soul - the spirit - of the industrial sales unit which I had, over fifteen years built up at Sweetheart International plc. By 1986 I still had Ted Pool and Alex Mattewson, my original field salesmen recruited in 1972 and now managers, together with the fifteen others who had been selected, (indoctrinated!) and trained by the three of us. I cannot think of any member of that sales and marketing unit ever leaving us of their own accord, presumably because we were that phenomenon called a team where the sum is far greater than all of its parts. Certainly none of the succession of Wall Street and City of London owners of the company ever understood it / us! All they understood was our sales results and our sales results were almost always outstanding as a platform on which to grow the company's profits. I had a sign on my desk - that quotation from Henry Shapiro on first meeting me: 'The only thing that happens inside a company is cost. All profit comes from the outside as part of a client's order and payment.' Should sales have fallen down no doubt I would long since have been made to walk the plank like so many of my managing, technical and financial Boardroom colleagues. I was very proud of that sales team and always did my best to shield them from the harsh winds that from time to time inevitably blew around the company. As if in return, whether or not they knew it, my team and the company itself protected me from the harsh winds that had been blowing around my domestic life.

Yet I felt quite sure that the latest owners of the company, certainly Roberto Gasparini, the youngish, hawkish Italo-American they had put in charge, would seek and eventually find a way to, as it were, break up the happy business home. Reluctantly I had to prepare myself for the softest possible landing! And of course for my subsequent take-off, for what on earth could possibly happen to me in the afterlife? I talked over the situation with my friend and leading customer Mike Jacobs of Raines Dairies, who introduced me to his friend, one of the brightest guys I have had the pleasure of meeting. Funny, I can see his face and hear his voice but cannot for the life of me recall his name. He was a young City lawyer, Jewish, well versed in employment and dis-employment law and practice. This man listened in silence to my story and my suspicions. Then, this is how this sort of thing goes, he said; the Gasparini fellow will call you into his office one Friday afternoon and tell you to clear your desk forthwith because you're fired. But when you're invited in, DO NOT GO. Go home at once, call me, and do not re-enter those offices without me in attendance!  One of the biggest mistakes I have made happened when, one Friday afternoon almost a year later Gasparini sent for me; cocksure of myself as always, I went in without calling my lawyer friend! Game, set and match, Gasparini. But more later on that.

In the last episode I told of my involuntary visit to the QE Hospital in Portsmouth after my eldest son Robert had turned up in a lot more than his now customary disarray.  Remember, this was a strong, good looking young man, six foot three inches tall and extremely strong. I don't know how much of his ravings that day were the result of the psychosis and how much of it was down to his cannabis addiction, but I do know he had his mother in huge distress and Delia in mortal terror and myself in great physical pain with several broken ribs! I called the doctor, both to me and to Robert. Visibly shaken after attempting to talk to my son, the doctor took me to one side and told me he would be sectioning him, A vehicle would be arriving momentarily to take him to St James' mental hospital in nearby Southsea. I told him the vehicle would not be necessary. I would take him myself. Doctor shook his head, said, well Bryan, on your own head be it. But if you do get him to go with you, after St James you must go directly on to have your chest x-rayed at the QE hospital. I was in great pain for many days, unable to lie down in bed, only driving my car with difficulty. 

Surprisingly Robert agreed to go with me without fuss and bade a relatively calm farewell to Joan and Dee. On the way to the mental hospital he entered into one of his quieter, more rational interludes. We were almost there when he said something so shattering that I have never forgotten it: I will never be able to have a family of my own, Dad, will I? I had to stop the car, filled with released emotion. I cannot write more about this moment, nor about Bob's commital, nor about the great pit of depression into which I fell whilst driving away, having left my beautiful young man in St James' mental hospital. But I will say this; having that day had the first of many subsequent opportunities to talk with psychiatrists about the condition called schizophrenia, and knowing how much cannabis Robert had been smoking, whenever I hear somebody telling me that cannabis is harmless and should be legalised the old red mist really does come down. I long to invite them into one of the secure mental wards where I have spent so much time with my son, stinking wards filled with drug induced zombies, repressed violence crackling in the air. And I will say this; my first wife had multipleschlerosis and my second wife lymphomatic cancer and my son schizophrenia, and if I myself had to choose between the three of them which one not to have it would definitely be schizophrenia.

That incident was the final nail in the coffin of any kind of 'normal' lifestyle for me, at that juncture in my life. All change. Although as I have said Dee got on well with Joan, and all the boys got on well with each other, the tensions I have just described were too much for Dee. She wanted out and I totally understood. Eventually I found her a rented place in the little village of Titchfield. But that meant I had the same old dilemma. On the one hand I could give up my job and become a nurse / housekeeper, living off the State, on the other hand I would need to sell the Hayling house, find Joan the best possible nursing home to help pay for it and rejoin Dee in Titchfield. Rudi was the only boy still living at home and of course I still had the two dogs. They would all continue to live with us in that rented house, a family much reduced in so many ways.

This, without doubt, was the darkest hour of my life since my parents split and I found my ten year old self motherless in a strange boarding school. Having said that, Hayling had not been without its lighter side. We all had had a good life there and there were always the laughs. I recall once driving home to Hayling and seeing Rudi roadside trying to hitch a lift. Of course I stopped to let him in, which he managed to do with some difficulty by laying back the passenger seat so that his shiny Mohican haircut would not be bent over on the Ford Granada's roof! I asked him, why, oh why do you have your hair like that? His answer so astonished me as to preclude all further questions. Because I can't dance, he said. He might at that time have been telling the truth, 'though we hadn't been long living in our new Titchfield rental when the young fellow started earning part of his living dancing topless in a Portsmouth nightclub!

The next of what would become a series of increasingly attractive rentals took us all to Osbourn View Road in Hillhead, not far along the Solent shore from Lee on Solent. This was a spacious, rather lovely house and garden. By then our lives - human and canine - had begun to take on a new and happier shape, for Joan was being very well cared for in her Hayling nursing home, Dee had found a lovely walk with the dogs down the river to the sea and my sales team were producing the usual good numbers. I went over to see Joan at least once a week at weekends. She seemed relaxed and happy apart from her inevitable enquiries after Bob. I would take her in her wheelchair down to the bottom of the nursing home garden and park ourselves close by the sea, comparing notes about the rest of our family - and times recent as well as our good times long past. Then, on the way back to my new home I would call on Robert in St James' hospital. He seemed slower, duller but was still pleased to see me whilst still talking oftentimes without total rationality. The psychiatrist in charge said he was taking his medication and soon could be released from hospital. But, the leading doctor warned, he would be best off living apart from the family and only then if he continued voluntarily to take his medication. If he didn't, said the psychiatrist, Robert would be in and out of institutions for the rest of his life. When he did come out I found him a flat in downtown Southsea. At first he seemed quite settled. That was just as well, for Delia continued to be very frightened whenever my son hove into sight.Sometimes I would take him to see his mother in Hayling Island but these meetings were quite frankly disturbing for all of us. Joan was and would always be convinced he just had a different form of her own illness.

As I said, one Friday in May 1986 I was called in to my boss and the axe fell. In all truth, although I have written harsh words about the company ownership and Roberto Gasparini, the eccentric Newyorker they had put in charge - and I will stick by those words here - I cannot really blame the powers that were for getting rid of a long serving, successful sales director but now probably seen as a bit of a lame duck, domestically much dislocated.

I spent the ensuing weekend fielding well meaning phone calls from customers and almost, but not quite all of my colleagues. Virtually all of my team would be following me out of the door over the next months, some voluntarily and some not. End of an era. As I say I had many messages of support but the one I remember the most came from Dee, who never flinched by act or by sign; You can do more with your life than sell plastic cups, Bryan, she said. But could I really?

When Monday arrived I woke up to find myself in a strange kind of limbo. I didn't need to go to work! I could barely get my head around being, for the second time in my life, out from under the comfortable safety of the umberella that employment provides. I took a long solo walk along the beach, stopped, looked over the water to the Isle of Wight, breathing in the salt air. The sea was calm and the early day sun was shining. All of a sudden I came to realise the true meaning of that word we all use, so often so recklessly; freedom. Wonderful, but freedom, I mean real personal freedom is also frightening when first it is encountered. I was fifty four years old, jobless and all but moneyless (most of what I had was needed by Joan's nursing home fees). On the other hand I had good health and my Delia. I bent down to pick up an oyster shell, thinking ruefully of Bob's long gone dredger Kerry Kane.

All right, the world was still my oyster, was it not?

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