On our own

1987 had begun for us with New Year's Eve  in a Gosport jazz club. We were with our friends, all of us smokers. (Dee had been a non-smoker until we met, after which she said she got tired of being offered a smoke, so opted for the quiet life!) As midnight counted down our ashtrays overflowed with a veritable Vesuvius of fag ends, the air was thick with smoke and the taste of old tobacco was on the lips of everyone you kissed.  I announced that I would never smoke another cigarette, a pretty bold claim after thirty years of up to fifty a day. Dee at once said she would give up, too. All the others laughed heartily. For a week of intense virtual silence not to say murderous intent we began to relax. Neither of us wanted to be the one to break down. The urge to light up a cigarette and inhale its smoke took a long time to die but die it did, and has never come back to life.

Back to the  May of that year ...  In the immediate aftermath of my sacking Dee and I embarked on a long planned holiday with our friends Ray and Audrey Gaskell. Fortunately I had the use of my company Granada until the month end. We sailed from Portsmouth to Le Havre and drove down past Limoges to the house we had rented in the Dordogne valley. Apart from the clash of interests and disinterests between us and out friends which became more obvious as the fortnight progressed it was heavenly. Long walks through lush woodlands (Dee and I) local sightseeing trips (all four of us), tiny restaurants in tiny villages, balmy weather ... wonderful. But Dee and I were early risers, Ray and Audrey much more stay abed. One of our early morning walks resulted in this poem ...


JUST SOME CHERRIES

Waking early we looked on that Dordogne day.
then dressed, quietly let ourselves out.
taking the narrow road that curved downhill
through bursting early summer woods. 
dense green branches often meeting over our heads.
It is quiet; we talk quietly as we go.
When you talk to each other not at each other
there’s no need for other than quietness.

This seems a bigger place than Hampshire.
As you walk, the hill lasts longer.
Distance across to the next hillside is greater.
Trees are crowded together more closely.
Light is lighter; shadows darker hiding more.
The rainstorm when it overtakes is bigger, too,
but we walk on, not bothered by the size
Nor by the drum-intensity of its warm drops.

I can feel the penetration of that place and time
Into senses obfuscated by thirty years of 
fifty noxious cigarettes each passing day,
by loud noises in small rooms only some of it music,
by seldom being challenged naturally by things natural
(other than the slight panic of the passing of the years;)
by the senseless cycle of earning and paying.
By unnaturalness between all the caught-up people.

Finally at the bottom of this valley
on the outskirts of a village still sleeping
walking by an ivy covered wall of stone
overhung by the branches of a cherry tree.
Swollen fruit hangs tempting in front of our eyes.
Bunches of cherries droop, still rain-globulated,
butter into high-lit blue-red into magenta, cerise,
framed by shining leaves of that life-green,
tight-smooth the cherries are to my fingers.
I taste the free rain, bite to the stone
and the eye-closing sweetness of this valley
spurts Into every corner of my mouth,
floods over all of me and all my memory.

I remember looking and drinking in the beauty
and the comfort of her happy, rained-on face,
In her straight eyes, reflection of this shared awakening.
In her hand, too, were just some cherries.


That holiday took the sting out of the forced dislocation from my employer of seventeen turbulent years, the company I had been instrumental in conceiving and growing from nothing to a dominant and profitable something. But on our return of course I had to wake up to reality. One summer evening I drove 'my' large car back to the company, left the keys with a less than interested security man, returned home in the little Honda we'd bought from Dee's mother. At age 53 I was for the second time without the use of a high end company car since the age of 24. .

I called the City lawyer to whom I'd been introduced a year since, apologised for ignoring the man's original advice, outlined my situation. He said I had two choices; either sue the company in Civil Court for wrongful dismissal or take the company to an Industrial Tribunal. The former would take much longer, cost much more and would be a big gamble - win and the sky's the limit, lose and all you have is the cost! The Tribunal would happen much more quickly. If I won, which I almost certainly would, he averred, I would get a maximum of £10,000, of which between a third and a half would belong to him, my lawyer, even if he stayed locally with us to avoid hotel costs. This would be a very much reduced fee, he added, and I believed him. He also said something of such importance I can remember it now, even if I've forgotten the man's name! The biggest issue in front of you, he told me, is to forget about some kind of revenge on your ex-employer, much as you might want to. You have to put behind you the past and get into your future without carrying negative baggage. Sweetheart International will shrug its shoulders and move on, just a mark on your c.v., and this guy Gasparini ceases for you to exist. Easier advice said than done of course, but it didn't take long for me to see the sense of it after the Tribunal was all done and dusted, having duly awarded me the maximum compensation. Industrial  Tribunals consist of a lawyer, a businessman and a union man. Surely even Gasparini would have been shamed by their written verdict after three full days. This success I owed to my lawyer and many of my colleagues who gave evidence on my behalf - the ones who had by then left the company of course!

After buying the little Honda the next thing I bought was an Amstrad personal computer. I just had a gut feel that, when I had re-learned to type and worked hard to polish up my grasp of basic computer technology  this machine would become the window to my next world of gainful work. And so it would prove. I had learned to type thirty three years ago when I was in the R.A.F. and had learned basic computing on a course at IBM's Hursley HQ. Brush up time.

Without real conviction I applied for several director level jobs as advertised in The Telegraph and was short listed for two of them, one on the Isle of Wight and the other in Essex. I suited neither and neither suited me. I then embarked on the usual networking, offering my consultancy services far and wide. This was the point at which I discovered where my potential money earning value might really be. Managing directors and sales directors were ten a penny - and you had better be around your mid-thirties, whereas I was fifty three - but my interest in and talent for packaging design linked with production technology and foods marketing was something saleable in the right industrial markets. Over the years I had developed many packaging product ideas and would go on to register several patents in my own name. I secured my first independent consultancy brief from United Biscuits and enjoyed designing a pack for 'biscuit finger choc dips'. Quickly, another brief hove into view, this time from Geest Industries for a special kind of salad pack. Both briefs required me to produce concept samples ... fortunately I knew a man in Bristol. I was on my way, but my progress was interrupted by a call from one Harry Evans, owner of Dolphin Packaging in Poole. I had previously neither met nor heard of Harry or Dolphin but over a very liquid dinner I was asked if I would like to join their key account sales team, headed up by his brother. The salary was fair, the expenses reasonable including a company car (!) and the work interesting. The lure of a renewed steady income proved to be too much. After discussion with Dee I said yes. Mistake! It's much easier and happier to move up the ladder than down it.

As I drove home to Hillhead late that night I could feel the car moving around under the force of one of the most violent storms imaginable. In the morning it was chaos. Fallen trees everywhere, the nearby yacht haven like a boat breaker's yard, serious damage to many houses though not to the one we rented. Dee and I took the dogs out on a long walk, discussing everything as we went. Dolphin Packaging was forty miles away. Why not move closer? One of the several advantages of renting is your relative freedom of movement. Chloe and Seth looked up at us, tails wagging as if in total agreement. With all six of our children off on their own we only had the dogs and ourselves to consider - plus of course the weekend trips for me to visit with Joan. Her Hayling Island nursing home had by then closed down and I had found her a really good place between Portsmouth and Southampton. Dee and I found ourselves a beautiful rental - one that accepted dogs - in the little village of Sopley right in the heart of the New Forest. Yet another chapter begun ...

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